Yom Sheini, 18 Av 5779
Monday, 19 August 2019
Parashat Va-etchannan 2012

Va-etchannan by Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
3rd August 2012

After seven years of planning, a jubilant 70 day journey for the Olympic torch and a spectacularly unique opening ceremony, the much awaited London Olympics finally got underway on July 28th.

Whatever position you take on the organisation of the Olympics and how the games have become a commercial industry, or concerning the numerous issues that have arisen in the course of the past seven years, including the escalating costs of staging the world’s most prestigious sporting extravaganza, and the challenges to London’s already overused transport system, in the end it all comes down to one simple, and yet wondrously complex phenomenon: human physical prowess, coupled with passion and the will to excel. The word ‘awesome’ has lost its meaning with overuse, but it seems to come into its own in the context of the Olympics. Which person watching the games – whether on television screens, or for the lucky ones, at the venues themselves – does not, at different moments, experience deep awe? And if the Olympians do not succeed in thrilling us, surely witnessing the feats of the Paralympians at the Paralympic games to follow will fill us with wonder.

A lot of words have been said and written – and will be said and written, before the Olympic flame is extinguished. But the Olympics and Paralympics are not about words. These games are all about action, about the human body in motion, about what can be achieved by the powerful combination of physical effort and skill with mental discipline and concentration – and long and arduous hours, days, weeks, months and years of training.

Last week’s parashah began, ‘Eileh ha-d’varim …’ – ‘These are the words …’ – and so the portion is called, ‘D’varim’. In fact, the parashah also gives its name to the whole book, the fifth and final book of the Torah, which is known best as Deuteronomy, a word derived from the Greek, meaning, ‘Second Law’. It’s an obvious fact, but the entire Jewish heritage is ‘words’, d’varim – millions of them – from the first word, B’reishit with which the Torah opens, through the rest of the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic literature, the subsequent codes of Jewish law and the hundreds of thousands of books written on every aspect of Jewish life and thought. Jews have an awful lot to say.

But the Jewish preoccupation with words is a little misleading. In this week’s parashah, Va-etchannan, we find in Deuteronomy chapter 5, the second version of what is known in English as the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew name is Asseret Ha-dibbrot – ‘The Ten Utterances’ – because, according to the Exodus version, ‘Va-y’dabbeirElohim eit kol-ha-d’varim ha-eileh, leimor – ‘God spoke all of these words, saying, …’ (20:1). However, the English name is telling: Throughout the Torah, the Divine utterances are for the most part in the form of mitzvot – commandments – and the mitzvot do not just designate the m’tzavveh – the One doing the commanding, they also signal action. The words we hear and the words we speak mean nothing if they are not translated into deeds. And so, the first paragraph of the Sh’ma, also included in Va-ethchannan, at Deuteronomy chapter 6, is a call to speakand to act. We read (6:6-9):

These words that I am commanding you today shall be upon your hearts. / Impress them upon your children; speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the way, when you lie down and when you rise up. / Bind them as a sign upon your hand and let them serve as bands between your eyes. / Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

According to Jewish tradition, the actions mentioned in the text are understood very literally – and so, from ‘words’ to t’fillin, the black leather straps and boxes bound on the hand, arm and forehead, and to the m’zuzah, the rectangular box fixed to the door-post. But the point of these ‘translations’ of words into objects is that they are really about the embodiment of the words, about making the words tangible in our lives as we act upon them. Thet’fillin and the m’zuzah are not simply ritual containers for the words. The process of binding the t’fillin onto the weaker arm, for example, causing the blood to pump, can be seen as the individual strengthening themselves for the challenge of acting on the words.· I’m not suggesting that that’s the way that those who ‘lay t’fillin’ consciously think about it – but there is no doubt that anyone who puts on t’fillin, feels the blood pumping in their veins in a way that is not so very different from a workout in the gym. And let’s not forget, t’fillin are worn for the duration of the daily morning service.

In another life – prior to embarking on my rabbinic journey – I spent three years devoted to the study of feminist history, including researching into the life and work of Christabel Pankhurst. Christabel Pankhurst, together with her mother Emmeline and sister, Sylvia, transformed the polite Suffragist movement, which was, both, politely and impolitely ignored, into a campaign of militant direct action when their organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union, adopted the motto, ‘Deeds not words’ in 1903.[1] The ‘deeds’ of the women dubbed the ‘suffragettes’ in 1906 by the media of the day, included chaining themselves to railings in front of parliament and going on hunger strike when arrested. It is arguable whether or not these actions won the vote for women. In the end, it was probably women’s service during the First World War that achieved the goal. However, there is no doubt that the deeds of the suffragettes succeeded in getting the cause of votes for women on the political agenda.

Emmeline Pankhurst was born on July 15th 1858, but she always celebrated her birthday on July 14th, Bastille Day, drawing inspiration from that famous French rebellion of the chained and persecuted, so July became an important month in the Suffragette calendar. Indeed 100 years ago, in July 1912, Christabel Pankhurst began organising a campaign of arson, which included suffragettes attempting to burn down the houses of two members of the government who opposed women having the vote. They were not successful, but not long afterwards, a house being built for David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was badly damaged by suffragettes. In 1913 the arson campaign escalated. Cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses were set on fire and slogans in favour of women's suffrage were cut and burned into the turf. Suffragettes also set fire to railway stations, cut telephone wires and poured chemicals into post-boxes.

We all know the cliché, ‘actions speak louder than words’. They certainly do – but as soon as we move into the territory of violence, we can see that deeds can sometimes be dangerous. Perhaps the example of the suffragettes demonstrates how fierce anger and resentment may get translated into violence – and of course, needless to say, a century ago, the spectacle of women attacking the symbols of male prerogative – significantly, at that time, including sports venues – was particularly distressing. But there is an even more disturbing side to the preference for deeds over words. Churchill, famously quipped, ‘better jaw, jaw, than war, war’.[2] Around the globe, there are numerous disturbing examples of conflicts, in which the warring parties stopped speaking to one another long, long ago – not least, the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. It is perhaps a tragic irony that 40 years ago, on September 5th 1972, the Olympics, the symbol of all that is most honourable in human physical endeavour, witnessed at the Munich games, the horrific murder of eleven members of the Israeli Olympic delegation – including five athletes – by a group of eight Palestinian terrorists belonging to the Black September group, who had managed to get into the Olympic Village.[3]

Actions may speak louder than words – but do the actions that hurt, maim and destroy speak louder than the actions that generate creativity, healing and joy? Only if we allow this to happen. Think of the London bombings of July 7th2005 – just one day after London won its bid to stage the 2012 Olympics.[4] The terrorists destroyed 56 lives, but did they succeed in destroying the spirit of Londoners and the determination to act for good? On that terrible day, so many people, including the injured, who were able, committed numerous acts of courage and compassion. When we remember massacres and atrocities, it is so important that we also remember the acts of righteousness and goodness – and that violence need not trigger revenge and further violence. Think of Tariq Jahan, whose 21-year-old son, Haroon, was one of three young men, who were run down by a car and killed in Birmingham during the summer riots, which began on August 6th last year. In the midst of his overwhelming grief and loss he could have cried for vengeance, but he called, instead, for calm. As it happens less than two weeks ago, on July 19th the eight men on trial for the murder of those three lads were acquitted.[5] Sadly, Tariq Jahan, found himself in the spotlight again in April this year when he was found guilty of grievous bodily harm in a rage-road attack.[6] What are we to make of this? A father, still in grief, hitting out? I don’t think we should try to explain it. What it illustrates for me is that it is not possible to be absolute about ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ and that we are all capable of acting in, both, creative and destructive ways, depending on the circumstances and the provocations, but also depending on how we choose to respond in those circumstances and to those provocations.

As we commemorate the murder of the 11 Olympians at the Munich games in 1972, let us also find inspiration in the London Olympics and Paralympics as these games bring the nations and peoples of the world together in a wonderful and peaceful celebration of cultural diversity and human sporting prowess – lishmah – for its own glorious sake.

[1] See: my chapter, ‘Christabel Pankhurst: Reclaiming her Power’ in Feminist Theorists edited by Dale Spender (The Women’s Press, 1983). See also: www.historylearningsite.co.uk/womens_social_political_union.htm

[4] See: Report of the Official Account of the Bombings of July 7, 2005:www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/hc0506/hc10/.../1087.pdf