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Longing for the Promised Land

Here's a copy of the sermonette delivered at Manchester Reform Synagogue on 22nd October 2022.

As some of you may know, I am a bibliophile – a lover of books. (And apologies to our office movers who this week, when moving my office, will have borne the brunt of my addiction to books as they shlepped an office full of books to the chaplaincy centre!)

One beautiful book which I’m reading at the moment is called ‘Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole’ by Susan Cain. It’s a powerful, transformative read. In one chapter she draws us, the readers, to a you tube video of a young boy which I then looked up and watched. The two-year-old boy is sitting in the audience of a piano recital with his family. The pianist is playing Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. This, the video title tells us, is the first time the boy had heard this sorrowful piece of music. And the camera, held by his mum, captures this young boy with tears down his face. He is trying not to cry, knowing everyone else is sitting quietly, but he lets loose a whimper and then the tears silently stream down his cheeks. It’s a moving video and Susan Cain, the author, continues to talk about the power of sad music which helps us tap into our deepest emotions and, paradoxically, through such sad music we find profound beauty, deep connection, transcendence and common humanity. ‘It’s sad music,’ Cain writes, ‘that makes us want to touch the sky’.

Susan Cain’s premise builds on this finding about melancholy music as she says that ‘we like art forms that express our longing for union, and for a more perfect and beautiful world.’

As we come together for parashat Bereshit – the re-beginning of our Torah scroll and set of stories - how true this statement is. We have read our banishment from the Garden of Eden, the Promised Land. A place where all of our needs were met, shame and guilt didn’t exist, instead we co-existed with the earth, animals and each other. Then banished we face pain and hardship and the first murder takes place in only the first generation of humanity. Most of our liturgy, our Torah, our stories and our souls crave a return to this Promised Land. To a time without violence and poverty. A time of plenty not scarcity. We long for a better time and place – perhaps this week more than ever.

The Ancient Greeks, so Cain tells us, ‘called this longing pothos, which Plato defined as a yearning desire for something wonderful that we can’t have. Pothos was our thirst for everything good and beautiful.’ Perhaps you know what this longing for union, for peace, feels like. Maybe you’ve experienced it when you long to go back to a place where you felt true contentment, the perfect holiday, or the feeling when you’ve been away from a loved one for too long.

We know that longing for material things can end in disaster and is ultimately destructive and futile but a longing for paradise, a better world, can be motivating. Yet if the longing shifts into nostalgia we have a problem.

Nostalgia is when we look back and get stuck in the past. Just like Lot’s wife when she turns back to her home of Sodom and Gomorrah and cannot move forward – she turns to a pillar of salt – a pillar of bitterness and sadness, ever locked into looking backwards.

As the historian Stephanie Coontz wrote:

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the good things in our past. But memories, like witnesses, do not always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We need to cross-examine them, recognising and accepting the inconsistencies and gaps in those that make us proud and happy as well as those that cause us pain.*

When our longing turns to nostalgia and we can only see the good of the past – through our rose-tinted glasses we run the risk of getting stuck there and pedalling truths and visions that do not serve us. Interestingly, according to the scholar Brené Brown, nostalgia, up until the early nineteenth century was considered a medical disease and psychiatric disorder.* The term was coined in 1688 by a swiss medical student, Johannes Hofer, who noticed a pattern in his patients who were living far from home. ‘Those who were obsessed with returning to their estranged locations became physically, sometimes fatally sick.’ Brené Brown’s studies show that nostalgia becomes destructive when we ruminate, rather than reflect and she defines nostalgia as, ‘a yearning for the way things used to be in our often idealized and self-protective version of the past.’

So if we turn to longing, rather than nostalgia, and longing for a better time and a place, rather than a new gadget, for example – where does that leave us? Why does so much of our liturgy and stories demand that we move towards the Promised Land, the spiritual space of Zion, a better time and world? Because, as Jews, we are audaciously and relentlessly hopeful. And we demand a lot of ourselves.

Our teachers taught that our role is our responsibility here on earth is to make it a better place for all. Most of our teachings, and the Torah, provide a guidebook of how to care for each other – an ethical society. We are constantly told, and we are constantly telling each other, things can be better, things must be better. Whilst we live in the world as it is we strive for a world as it should be. There is a world that we can imagine when rulers act justly and act in the interests of their citizens and not themselves. There is a world we can imagine where we have systems that care for the most vulnerable in our society. A world where our care for the earth is primary. A world where ethics and values dictate our decisions, rather than greed and profit.

This longing is not self-serving or idealistic, it is necessary and demanded of us as our sacred duty. We hold the possibility – the prophetic imagination of what the world can and should be – for ourselves and the generations after us. For we have seen Sodom and Gomorrah. We have seen the pain when Cain killed his brother. We’ve sat with Rizpah as she wept for her dead sons. We’ve lsy under Abraham’s knife with Isaac before the fatal blow was averted. We’ve drunk the poisonous waters of the accused sotah – the woman accused of adultery. We’ve sat with the words of Anne Frank as she poured out her soul into her diary. We understand the depths that the world can sink too and for that reason we demand more.

Our longing for this world, this time, this space is vital for we then believe and act for a world where all of this is possible - our expectations are high as we demand no less from ourselves, our leaders and each other. May we continue to work towards and long for this world.

Ken Yehi Ratzon – May this be God’s Will and let us say, amen.

* As quoted in Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown.

* Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown.

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Thaddeus Simmons
Thaddeus Simmons

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