This land is shrunk (an accidental sermon)

I foolishly forgot that I’m not supposed to be leading a service tonight, so wrote a sermon for it anyway. Unfortunately it’s a topical one so can’t be recycled next year, so enjoy it while it’s fresh:

I’m fed up with all my local parks. And local walks. And local streets. For eight months now I’ve been taking my daily exercise on the same routes and I’m bored of them. And I’m lucky enough to have the Hampstead Heath Extension on my doorstep. But I’ve done it now.

So it was extremely exciting to read earlier this month that the Ramblers’ Association has discovered more than 49,000 miles of rights of way and public footpaths that have been lost from the maps.[i] If these lost routes are all restored to the official listings, the network of paths in England and Wales would grow by around a third.

How can a footpath just get forgotten? They might not be busy thoroughfares, but surely enough people used them that they couldn’t just drop out of our nation’s collective memory? How can the total amount of footpaths in the country just shrink by a third?

But it turns out the rabbis foresaw this possibility.[ii] In a discussion about which hillocks should be presumed impure, because they might contain graves, we read: “Mounds which are near to a city are impure [because this is exactly the sort of place where people would bury their dead]. Mounds which are not near to a city: recent ones are pure, but old ones are impure. What counts as old: Rabbi Judah says, ‘Old enough that nobody remembers [when it was made].’” The concern was that there might once have been a city nearby, a city which buried its dead in the now-unmarked mound in the middle of nowhere. And people might have forgotten that this city ever existed!

The fact is, land use is incredibly transitory. More transitory than any of us would care to think about. There are ghost towns all over the world which were once thriving centres of human life, and – due to war, famine, natural disaster or just changing economic circumstances – are now empty and falling to pieces. And how many of us have had one of those, “Remember when that building used to be Woolworth’s/ a cinema/ a pub before they turned it into a block of flats?” type conversations?

When we fail to use and enjoy the land, we forget it. When we forget it, our country shrinks. When our country shrinks, we don’t notice immediately; it happens bit-by-bit. But it just takes a short lockdown – and eight months is relatively short in the grand scheme of things – to run out of interesting roots, and then our freedom shrinks too. Out of our own indolence. Use it or lose it!

The land of Israel shrunk too, apparently. In this Shabbat’s parashah, we read God’s great promise to Jacob: “I am the Eternal One, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring.”[iii] The Talmud explains that this gift included the whole of the country: “The Holy One rolled up the entire land of Israel, and placed it under Jacob.”[iv] This is lovely symbolism, but frankly it’s also necessary in order to make the verse meaningful. If Jacob had literally been given only the actual ground on which he actually lay, we would be forgiven for wondering – as did the commentator Rashbam – “This is a little sparse!”

Then again, it may be self-defeating symbolism. By coming up with the fiction of the rolling-up of Israel, the rabbis didn’t make Jacob as big and great as the land. It made the land as small and meagre as Jacob.

We set the boundaries of our land and we determine the size of our land. Maps showing who owns what are, ultimately, irrelevant. Promises and bequests and sales and shares too. Ultimately, when we go for a stroll somewhere new, when we roam where we have never roamed before, we broaden our horizons. We enlarge our lives.

This month, we learned that England shrunk. But we can enlarge it once again. Kein y’hi ratzon: may this be God’s will.


[i] Patrick Barkham. “More than 49,000 miles of paths lost from maps in England and Wales”, The Guardian (2 November 2020):

[ii] m.Ohalot 16:2

[iii] Genesis 28:13

[iv] b.Chullin 91b

All the Pfizer to heal you with: a vaccine special

As soon as I heard Boris Johnson say, “The United Kingdom has ordered enough doses of the vaccine to vaccinate a third of the population,” I started wondering exactly how he could mess this up despite the wonderful news.

Could he have accidentally had the order sent to his old address? Did he mistakenly order the vaccine that was only compatible with the socket in his old ’phone? Will they all arrive safely stored at -80°C and then he’ll leave them next to the radiator? (Although at least we finally have a use for those 5,000 Brexit fridges5,000 Brexit fridges!)

And then it came to me. This is what will happen with this most significant of orders:

Vax evasion

I was wondering whether the covid sceptics’ brigade would – now that an end to the crisis is in sight – suddenly switch sides and insist that the lockdown continue throughout 2021 just to be as pointlessly contrary as they have been up to this point.

But no, instead we’ve been treated to the usual range of sensible arguments against vaccination such as:

  • “The virus doesn’t exist, and also I’m not having a vaccine because that involves you injecting me with a virus.”
  • “Covid has a 99.9% survival rate – and if it’s so safe then why’s it worth the risk involved in you putting a deadly disease into my body?”
  • “Until this vaccine has been researched for a good 5-10 years, we can’t be sure it doesn’t cause dangerous after-effects that far down the line. So I’d rather get covid instead because we know that’s mild.”
  • “It’s not all about data! My life is more important than data!”

I was very fortunate to be able to interview one of the leaders of the anti-vax movement, over Zoom from his bunker in Arizona, and here’s what he said (well, sang):


In which Bernard Woolley turns in his grave

The government’s chief scientific advisor, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam (pictured), has the rare distinction of a surname that sounds like a drug: ‘Get me 200mg of van-tam in an IV, stat!’

He also gave a press conference on Monday from a breaker’s yard in Ipswich. At that press conference, he was very clear on what the transition from now until a vaccine is ready will be. It will be:

Like getting to the end of the play-off final, it’s gone to penalties, the first player goes up and scores goal. You haven’t won the cup yet, but what it does is it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.

He was also quick to warn, however, that:

We’ve seen the swallow but this is very much not the summer.

And, because this was a slightly obscure comment, he followed it up with the helpful clarification that:

This, to me, is like a train journey where you’re standing on the station – it’s wet, windy, it’s horrible – and two miles down the tracks, two lights appear and it’s the train. And it’s a long way off. We’re at that point at the moment. That’s the efficacy result. Then we hope the train slows down safely to get in to the station. That’s the safety data. And then the train stops. And at that point the doors don’t open. The guard has to make sure it’s safe to open the doors. That’s the regulator. And, when the doors open, I hope there’s not an unholy scramble for the seats.

And then the whole ship goes off the rails…

That helpful list of vaccine analogies in full:

  • A millipede on a skateboard (because it will take a lot of leg-work for it to be rolled out)
  • The Radio Times (because there’s a schedule and it doesn’t happen all at once)
  • A hypothetical haystack (because it entails a lot of needles)
  • Trying for a baby (because it takes multiple doses in order to be effective)
  • Erm…
  • That’s it.


I’ve been very remiss in blogging but you can still find my growing collection of sermons and other Jewishy bits and bobs on the Jewish resources page.

Research credits

So, as the RNA sequence of time is forcibly injected into the resistant sceptic destiny, and as the cold ch ain of fate is breached by the accidental car heater of eternity, it appears to be the end of the blog post.
In this week’s episode, the music was written by Murray Gold and arranged by Stephen Willis. The parcel was mis-delivered by Royal Mail and the vaccine was analogised by Jonathan Van-Tam-200mg. This was an Gabrielquotes production.