Yom Chamishi, 13 AdarI 5781
Ta anith Esther Thursday, 25 February 2021
Parashat Yitro 2015

Parashat Yitro
6th Feburary 2015 - Rabbi Richard Jacobi

The day after Holocaust Memorial Day, I joined around 60 rabbinic and cantorial colleagues at the Speaker’s House in Westminster for the launch of Tzelem – “the rabbinic call for social and economic justice in the UK”. The name of our new campaigning and activist group is taken from Genesis 1:28, where God is pictured creating human beings, male and female “in the image of God” (b’tzelem Elohim).

This week, our Torah reading pictures all the people gathering in the middle of a desert to receive the Torah from God. They are to learn the rules by which a good and healthy society can be constructed and sustained. Our rabbinic tradition is filled with many stories that make much of the Torah being given in a desert – so that it is no particular group’s property, so that it is available to all, so that the place should not be venerated more than the teachings themselves, and so on.

The humble beginnings of the great influence and force for good that our Torah continues to be – inspiring around half the world’s population still – are in stark contrast to the opulent setting in which we gathered last week. This serves to teach me that where you begin from does, or should, not matter as much as what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. In Judaism, the quality of a person’s life is not measured in terms of their wealth, but in terms of their deeds. This is one reason why every Jew must be buried in the same standard way – if a coffin is used, then it must be a basic one, whoever you are. We are all of us, b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God and, therefore, each person has the same inherent value. It’s also a reason why we have a duty to ensure that social mobility is a reality, that people from disadvantaged backgrounds genuinely can get where their skills and attributes merit.

Student Rabbi Robyn Ashworth Steen, the inspiration behind Tzelem (together with Edie Friedman of JCORE), reminded us: "We see increasing child poverty, food poverty and malnutrition; greater disparity between the wealthy and the poor; the creation of an underclass denied access to support because of cuts in legal aid; and the withdrawal of funds from charities. This is not acceptable. It’s time we woke up to this injustice.”

Here are some of the points well made by my colleagues who spoke at the launch:

Rabbi Jeffrey Newman focused on mental health:
- yet all the indications are that the incidence of mental ill-health is rising:
• 12.5 million more tablets were prescribed for depression in 2012 than in 2007;
• 1 in 4 people will encounter a mental health issue during the course of a year.
• However, while mental health is 28% of the country’s disease burden it only receives 13% of the funding.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain focused on homelessness:
At my synagogue in Maidenhead we do meals for the homeless every week. Not long ago, a chap called Iscar came on a particularly cold day - at first we thought he was drunk.
It was only 20 minutes later, when we had been hand-feeding him with soup, and he was back to his normal state, we realised he was not drunk, just freezing.
By the way, I asked one of the other helpers how old Iscar was – and he replied “hard to tell – he’s so weather-beaten he could be anywhere between 40 and 65”, and it’s really not good when a 40 year old can look 65.

Rabbi Alexandra Wright focused on child poverty:
Through my own community’s connection with a project for homeless families, I met Iona, in her mid-thirties and from Northern Ireland. An intelligent and educated woman, who went to university, she worked in the City before her two children were born. She is one of those who live in one room in the hostel to which the project is attached. Her eight year old son, a lovely, caring boy, is two years behind in his educational attainments. Iona cannot see what the future will look like. She does not have enough points to be eligible for social housing (because as she said wryly to me, ‘I’m not the victim of domestic abuse’), and it seems as though the journey to release this vital and intelligent woman and her two children from poverty, is going to be a long and almost impossible one.

All these are examples of what is happening in the United Kingdom, one of the richest countries in the world, but one in which inequality has been growing over the past thirty-five years.

One of the delightful ironies within Judaism is that the Torah portion in which divine revelation to the Jewish people dramatically happens is named after a non-Jew, Moses’ father-in-law and a Midianite, Jethro (Yitro). This teaches us to appreciate ‘them’ as well as ‘us’, and that the interaction between groups can be the source of so much creativity and good. This is why Judaism mandates us, as Tzelem will do, to bring about social and economic justice and defend the weakest members of society. This is why progressive Judaism encourages us to engage with the wider world, to act for the good of the whole community in which we live, to treat all as our siblings and neighbours. The words of the Psalmist – Hiney mah tov umanayim shevet achim gam yachad, ‘how good it is when people dwell together in unity’ (Psalm 133:1) – guide us to this aspiration. We have the responsibility to sustain cohesive societies, where diverse people live together in unity.

Tzelem is the rabbinic call to action. We all need to heed that call, take action ourselves, and demand that our politicians, in this general election year, commit to changes that will create a more just and caring society. The story of revelation at Sinai gave us the rules by which such a society can exist. Now, more than ever, we need to make it so.