I am quietly getting on with something in my room on the first day of the pre-semester Induction weeks and one of our senior students says to me, ‘Would you do the De-var Torah this Thursday’, adding, just in case I needed the extra goad, that the Principal had agreed to read Torah. I assented, rather than stuttering something about a mountain of other things to do and only having three days to prepare.
And then I thought – don’t complain, just get on with it! After all, having written and delivered sermons for the last thirty seven years it shouldn’t be too hard.
But then a still small voice said in my head, Ahh, that’s all very well, but have you got a clue what you want to speak about? Aye, to coin a phrase, there’s the rub.
It’s not as if there is a shortage of subjects with which to engage: the desperate civil war in Syria is a potent reminder of the depths of violence and depravity to which human beings may sink, the Paralympics in London are a potent reminder of the heights to which human beings may climb, in spite of, and sometimes because of, perceived disabilities. It is Elul, the month before the High Holy days, the quintessential time for emotional and spiritual soul searching. This Shabbat we read from Ki Tavo, that scintillating part of Deuteronomy containing the Berakhot u-kelalot, the Blessings and Curses, which should really be listed the other way round.
Then again, the situation in Syria is so irredeemably ghastly and the concomitant pusillanimity of the world community, coupled with the cynical heartlessness of the Russians and Chinese, is so disgusting and shameful that it would be impossible to find in it something uplifting and positive for a day like today, in a month like this one, and in a place like this.
The Paralympics however are a different story altogether, a wonderful story, an uplifting story, and for me they perfectly juxtapose with an important but all too easily forgotten series of verses in Ki Tavo, 26.5-9, from which the key phrase is Arami oved avi, a wandering Aramean was my father. It is a tiny section of Torah that expresses what the poet Ibn Zabbara summed up in the adage, meshanneh makom, meshanneh mazal, which we might paraphrase as ‘change your circumstances, change your luck’.
If the ‘wandering Aramean’ of the text is indeed to be identified with the Patriarch Jacob, to no small extent the adage rings true: Jacob took his family from Canaan to Egypt, from famine to plenty, from ‘meagre numbers’ to ‘a great and populous nation’. If it had all ended there everything would have been fine, so far so fair, but as we know it didn’t end up like that, for there was persecution, deprivation, and enslavement to come.
The Paralympic athletes come from a huge range of ailments and disabilities; but a growing and increasingly notable class of Paralympian is composed of grievously wounded ex-servicemen and women, for whom the rabbinic adage works in reverse, conflict changes their luck, terribly, and their circumstance goes from able-bodied and able-minded to brain and/or physically damaged.
Modern battlefield medicine has improved to such an extent, as has the training levels of battlefield medics, that many of those who might previously have died of their wounds are saved and gradually, sometimes over a long period, nursed back to full health, relatively speaking. But then what? What sort of life can a triple amputee aged 25, often with PTSD, have? What sort of purpose can a deeply scarred individual find to make them feel that life is still worth living.
There are several answers, but the one of this moment is sport, bringing us in this country full circle to the visionary Sir Ludwig Guttmann who created the Paralympics in Stoke Mandeville in 1948 for ex-servicemen wounded in the Second World War. It was a vision the brilliance of which has been more graphically demonstrated in 2012 in London than Guttman might ever have dreamed.
Sport offers these brave young men and women a salve for the horrors that they have endured, a purpose, and a goal towards which their considerable energies and natural focus can be directed. It may not be normality as we who are able of body and mind understand it, but it is for them a way of being defined by what one has achieved rather than what one has lost or doesn’t have.
It is not, however, merely the ex-services athletes who are worthy of admiration, there has been a gamut of disabilities overcome on display at Stratford and elsewhere in London. For me the most moving yet was the Dressage win by the 25 year old cerebral palsy sufferer Sophie Christiansen, already a multi-medal equestrian from previous Paralympics and now our first triple gold medallist of these games. In spite of her inability to control her own movement she was so in harmony with her horse Janeiro that they won the gold medal in their event: the joy on her face when she had finished, and recognised how well she had done was so pure, and so powerful, that it made me cry, and when she was interviewed later she made me cry again. It was another example of meshanneh makom meshanneh mazal; in her case the new place was a pony’s back when she was six years old and had survived premature birth, cerebral palsy, jaundice, blood poisoning, a heart attack AND a collapsed lung. Her riding gave her purpose and focus, it made the difference between decline and an active, happy and fulfilling life.
The Paralympians may well be an even greater source of inspiration to the young than their able bodied counterparts, because their brilliance all too easily makes the viewer forget the disability and just watch the sport, and that is no mean achievement.
A matter of days separates us from the Days of Awe, and specifically from Rosh Hashanah and the start of a new year. Elul offers each and every one of us the chance to change our circumstances and, perhaps our fortunes; by stages, day by day, we build up to the challenging exercise of teshuvah, of transformation through self-recognition and a determination to change. The path to wholeness may be tortuous and full of pain, but if the opportunities of Elul are utilised it may result in freedom from the shackles of past habits, and a range of fresh vistas may open up before us which can, potentially, be life changing.
So am I glad that Benji Stanley asked me to do this De-var Torah at short notice? You bet!!
Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh
Delivered at Leo Baeck College, 6th September 2012
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.