Separated child Gulwali Passarlay, who fled Afghanistan aged 12, was chosen to carry Olympic Torch in Bolton, now aged 17.


Angela Gluck

Sermon at New London Synagogue
Sukkot II, 18 October 2016

[At the time of the festival of Sukkot, New London Synagogue encouraged its members to support separated children and young people by donating items for Arrival Packs and Sleep Packs or the funds to buy them. In this connection, the congregation's rabbi, Jeremy Gordon, invited Angela Gluck - a Trustee of The Separated Child Foundation - to give a sermon during Sukkot. She spoke about refugees and other people's attutudes to them, though not specifically about separated children. This is what she said.

Michelle Obama is extremely well-connected and I wonder if she ever met Rashi. After all, the rabbis do speak back and forth to each other across the centuries.
Last week the ‘Let Girls Learn’ event was her final formal function as America’s First Lady. It happened to come on the heels of the second Presidential Debate, which itself followed the broadcast of that video—you know, the one that objectified women and boasted of abusing them. So she had plenty to talk about and she could hardly contain her emotion. “The measure of any society,” she declared, “is how it treats its women and girls.” And she went on, “Strong men who are truly role models don’t need to put down women to make themselves feel powerful.”  
That’s why it would be interesting if Michelle Obama and Rashi met. He has a thing or two to say about the nature of strength—and it’s somewhat related to Sukkot. We take the origins of this festival as during our forty-year wandering in the wilderness—the time for our development between slavery and settlement. And it was in this period—recounted in Parshat Shelach-L’chah—that Moshe sent a representative of each tribe on a reconnaissance mission to the land of promise and dreams. Moshe was very specific about the intelligence that the scouts needed to gather.
"See what the land is; and the people that live in it, whether they are strong or weak, whether they are few or many; and what the land is that they live in, whether it is good or bad; and what towns there are that they live in, whether in camps, or in fortresses." (Numbers 13: 18--19)
On the surface, it’s straightforward enough. They needed to prepare, to know what they were getting themselves into and what they were up against.
We need to be strong. Right now, members of our congregation are standing guard outside, wearing bullet-proof vests, but they’re also smiling and welcoming. It’s a filter. And we all need social boundaries and our personal shells. Even a sukkah must have walls: its arms are wide, as it were, but it’s not an entirely open space.
About the time that my sukkah started to take shape, it was announced that Bob Dylan was to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. When I was even younger than I am now, I listened to him endlessly, but now it was my sukkah that was “blowing in the wind”. As the walls and the s’chach went up, thoughts of openness and closedness—of strength and fragility-- filled my mind, listening to Michelle Obama’s speech, “People who are truly strong lift others up. They bring others together.”   

There are extraordinary echoes with the Shelach-L’chah passage. The scouts are not given a random bunch of criteria but a carefully arranged series of polar opposites: good—bad, few—many and so on. But if we line them up, we can spot an anomaly: strong—weak/camps—fortresses. If they’re matched, sequentially why are the strong ones those who live in tent camps and the weak ones are those who live in fortresses? It’s counterintuitive. Tents are vulnerable and fortresses impregnable, right?    
Taking as a given that every letter in the Torah is there for a reason and ever attentive to the minutiae and the intricacies of the text, Rashi responds like this:
"The land—what is it? There can be a land which produces mighty people, and there can be a land which produces weak people; there can be a land which increases population and there can be a land that decreases population. Is it strong or weak? He (Moshe) gave them (the scouts) a sign by which they could determine if the inhabitants were strong or weak. If they live in unwalled cities, they are strong for they rely upon their strength. But if they dwell in fortified cities, they are weak."
Rashi prompts me to ponder my own sense of vulnerability and impregnability, and I think he can speak to us all as individuals, as a community and as a society. The mature realism of Rashi’s concept of strength is incredibly relevant to our world. It’s most poignant in relation to the experiences of today’s refugees, who are so widely presented as a threat by those who dislike the unlike, those who would construct social and political fortresses because they do not—in Rashi’s words—rely on their own strength.    
But how could the weak—those who have lost everything and almost lost their lives, who are throwing themselves on the mercy of other human beings—threaten the strong? If they can, there’s something seriously amiss with that kind of strength.

And “How does it feel?” sang Bob Dylan,
“How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?”

I could bore for England on the contributions that refugees make to their local communities and to national society. Refugees—and other immigrants—pay more into the public purse than their UK born counterparts. Refugee children are highly motivated to succeed educationally. Supporting a refugee doctor in practising medicine costs about a tenth of training a new doctor.
High-achieving and high-contributing refugees include Daniel Marot, architect of Hampton Court Palace; Henri de Porta, whose paper firm held for 270 years the only licence to print British money; the designer of the Mini; the founder of Tilda rice; singer Rita Ora; three-quarters of the Amadeus Quartet; supermodel Alek Wek; comedian and actor Omid Djalili; Sigmund Freud; umpteen manufacturers, retailers and sportspeople… and a handful of rabbis.
Much can be made of the strengths that refugees bring with them and the enormous assets that they add to our life: to grant them asylum is indeed enlightened self-interest. But what if a refugee is not a nuclear physicist, brain surgeon, world class ballet dancer or other kind of genius? What if their accomplishments are only as average as yours or mine? And what if their traumas and tragedies are so overwhelming that their needs for survival and recovery temporarily outweigh anything useful they can bring. Do our empathy and altruism then make us weak—or strong?    
I want to go further than Michelle Obama. I’d say that the measure of any society is not so much the way that it treats women and girls—as significant as that is—but the way it treats the people it doesn’t need, those that apparently can’t contribute anything. And it seems that the wisdom of our tradition supports this.
The sukkah doesn’t help here—but arba minim to the rescue!
Our rabbis have offered many interpretations of the four species. One focuses on the elements of fruit and flowers. The lulav provides nourishing fruit but its flowers are poor. The myrtle has beautiful flowers but bears no edible fruit. The willow—ah!—provides neither flowers nor fruit. The etrog yields both. Flowers, which are beautiful, symbolise the study of Torah for its own sake; while fruit, which are useful, symbolise the performance of good deeds.
So the four species represent different kinds of people. There are those who, like the lulav, do not study the Torah but who do much to make people happy and to make the world better; they are useful. There are those who, like the myrtle, think and study, though it never has practical effect; they are beautiful. There are the willows amongst us who are neither beautiful nor useful. And then there is the etrog! But they are always held together, just as a community needs all its members, whatever they actually or potentially offer. It is a convention that (in the right hand) the myrtle is on the right of the lulav and the willow is on the left. I like to think that this is to bring the willow into closest contact with the etrog because it needs its presence and influence most!
It’s the responsibility of the strong to support the weak—and to raise them up: the willow and the etrog show us how.