Creators or destroyers

The pictures of the ruined houses of Homs, where the Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin died, have made me think of a story from the Talmud.

It’s somewhere around the year 100CE and Rabbi Yossei goes into one of the many ruins around the desolate city of Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans, to pray. When he emerges, the prophet Elijah is waiting to chide him. You shouldn’t have done that, he tells him: ruins are dangerous, haunted by demons and persons of ill repute. But then curiosity gets the better of the prophet and he asks the rabbi, ‘What did you hear in there?’

I said to him: ‘A heard the sound of a voice moaning like a dove and saying: ‘Alas for the children on account of whose sins I’ve destroyed my house, burnt my temple, and sent them as exiles among the nations’   (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 3a)

I remember once stopping at a street corner in Jerusalem where a gang of teenagers were stoning a hedgehog to death. I begged them to stop, but it was too late.

Animals, people, houses, cities: all over the world there is destruction and, when we allow this to penetrate our hearts, which much of the time we do not because otherwise we could not continue with our lives, I imagine that we hear the same voice of God, weeping and saying ‘Alas for my children and what they have done to my world’.

This week we read in the Torah about the building of the Tabernacle, a sacred place for God. On the one hand this is somewhere unique and special, set apart, holy, served by the priests at sacred times and appointed seasons.

On the other hand it is everywhere, wherever life is honoured and respected, loved and cherished. ‘You shall make me a sacred place and I shall dwell among you’, says God. People do it all the time. Sacred space for a mother is the heart of her child, which she devotes her life to filling with the instinct for goodness and kindness. To a lover, sacred space is the presence of the beloved. To a shepherd it is the pasture for the flocks; to a gardener the flowers and the trees; to a surgeon the palpitating miracle of the human body; to an ornithologist that nest which must be protected from marauders because a rare bird has chosen to raise its brood there for the first time in thirty years. There is nowhere in the world which cannot become God’s sacred place. It all depends on what we do there and on what our intentions are. Holiness is present wherever life is held in reverence; wherever it is desecrated, God weeps.

Synagogues, churches, temples and mosques are potentially holy. Their purpose is to remind us that we constantly have the option of being either creators or destroyers in God’s world, so that we choose what is good and kind, what nurtures and venerates life, all of which ultimately belongs to Gods. When we do that, we make our houses of prayer truly holy places.

In the last year our community has been privileged to create a new synagogue, which we are gradually turning into a real home with crumbs in the carpet and finger marks on the doors. The challenge is how we can best use it to inspire us help make the world a place where God’s voice is heard, not in weeping, but in song.

Hope and glory

I hadn’t  expected to find myself sitting opposite the British Ambassador to Israel in the small town of Givat Olga (just off the highway to Haifa, near Hadera) listening to a choir composed of Holocaust survivors and their children singing ‘My bonnie is over the ocean’.

‘Some of my duties’, explained the Ambassador, Matthew Gould, ‘are joyous; others are unutterably stressful. But this is personal’. He and his wife Celia took the initiative in raising the funds to create six centres for Holocaust survivors across Israel. Their direct approach to British Jewry had so far yielded half of the two million pounds required. (I received an email directly from him: ‘Dear Jonathan, Can your community please help’. We did. It’s part of what became of the two per cent of our building costs which we determined to give to others while constructing our own new congregational home. There’s still a little money over, and I’m going to suggest we give more.)

‘My grandmother came from Lodz,’ the Ambassador continued. ‘Ah, Lodz’, I heard a lady sigh, in a tone which left me unable to tell whether she was recalling the times before the war or the protracted horrors of the ghetto.  His grandparents, he said, would have been proud.

‘Too little, too late’, someone commented wryly when I told them about the opening of the day centre, which will have a special café club for survivors two or three afternoons a week and provide transport to bring them there and take them back home afterwards. ‘Typical!’

I can’t judge. But the Minister for Welfare, Moshe Kahlon, was present, together with members of his department who held specific responsibilities for the wellbeing of survivors. The lady next to me was one of the leaders of this team. Survivors need closeness to each other, she reflected. She explained that these café gatherings had begun in 1946 when groups of men and women who had somehow come through the ghettos, camps, and death marches realised that they were only able to find any palpable measure of happiness in the company of one another. Those who came here toIsrael, she added, then sacrificed themselves once again to build the state. Some had lost children.

Ida spoke on behalf of the survivors. She’d been born in Grodno, before the Holocaust a city with 35.000 Jews and a rich Jewish life. When Polandwas divided, the Russians sent her with her mother and sisters to Siberia. After the war she came back and was married in Lodz in 1949. A year later she and her husband made Aliyah and, after passing through the ma’abarot, settled in Givat Olga, where they raised their children and developed the town.

The choir had resumed their singing but there was something different about this version of Hineh mah tov mah naim. Unmusical as I am, I recognised the melody as ‘Land of hope and glory’, a tribute to the British which would no doubt have been less popular in 1947. But if Jerusalemcan be built in England’s green and pleasant dales, surely there is hope, and glory, in the lives of those who have passed through horror to create the bonds of affection in which I was allowed to share that evening.

A great oneness

How does one measure the distance between a dream and its realisation?

Judaism expresses its dream in the words of the Torah read tomorrow, in the words attributed to God at Sinai and which, claim the mystics, reverberate throughout creation continually so that there is not a single moment in which they are not being spoken: ‘I am the Lord your God’. It’s not simply a declaration of superiority, of spiritual imperialism, that our God is the best God, that our God is Lord and Master. It’s not a theological argument, an attempt to prove that God exists, and that this God is not three, or two, but one. Rather, it is an appeal to our experience: ‘Listen and hear. God calls out through all existence, in my own heart and in yours, in the sap of the tree and the flight of the bird. The same life-force unites us all. Beyond all difference, a great oneness embraces us all. It addresses us out of the very essence of existence, ‘I am the Lord your God’. It commands us to do what is right and good.

What notion could seem further from the palpable realities of daily experience? This world seems to be all about difference. Many of these distinctions are blindly obvious; a person isn’t a horse or a dog, and what does a cat share with a tree? Surely therefore the mystics must be deluded when they speak of that great oneness uniting all life!

Other differences may be less generic, yet their injustice divides up our world none the less: the difference between a terrified child desperately trying to find shelter together with his parents in a basement in the Syrian town of Homs, and you or I enjoying the snow in Finchley; the difference between a baby coming into consciousness in an orphanage in China or the Ukraine, and a baby surrounded by joy and love and plenty; the difference between a free person and a slave forced to live in a basement for a decade.

Yet further kinds of difference may prove the most intractable of all, the tragic hatred we sometimes witness between gentile and Jew, Muslim and unbeliever, the person who finds salvation in Jesus and the person who fails to do so. In this way we turn religion into its opposite, a form of idolatry with which to create a another kind of racism and divide up the world into supposedly conflicting beliefs, – when the heart and essence of faith is a great call to the oneness of life, the unity of God, of which every single one of us without exception is a vital part.

Thus tragically, injustice, hatred, insensitivity and lack of vision can lead us far from the world in which God is one.

Do we give up? Do we abandon our dream and say, ‘Thus is life; every person for him- or herself, every nation for itself, every faith for itself’?

Surely not; surely never! Maybe that is what the prophet Zecharaiah meant when he said, ‘In that day shall God be one’. It isn’t the apparent reality now, it may be far off in the future, but we shall not abandon the hope that one day not only will God be one, as God always is, but we will recognise and live that truth out on this earth.

With that hope we determine to work for social justice, and for an end to racism and hatred, and for the courage to live by that truth which our spirit hears and knows, that all life belongs together and that all life is the gift of God, a sacred part of God’s very essence and being.

Dawn blessings

The full moon, the freezing ground part covered by snow, the dark branches against the sky, – it’s been a beautiful night for the beginning of Tu Bishevat, the New Year of the Trees. Though it feels this season as if the festival belongs more to the winter than the spring, the snowdrops are out, humble and beautiful in gardens and hedgerows, and there are even some primroses and early daffodils too.

I was in the New Forest on Sunday, out early on the moors with the dog, saying Birkot Hashachar, the dawn blessings, the first part of the morning prayers. I had just reached the sentence, ‘and grant us favour, kindness and mercy in the eyes of all who see us’ when a large pony began to walk slowly towards me. It didn’t pause at a safe distance; rather it came right up to me and, far from afraid, pointed its ears forward and snuffled at my face. Sorry to be caught empty-handed, I remembered that I had an apple in the car and quickly went to fetch it. I felt happy to have been granted favour in the eyes of this horse, who evidently understood Hebrew perfectly. Far too often we instil fear and suspicion, to the extent that most birds and animals rightly flee at our approach.

The Jewish attitude to nature cannot be summed up in a single sentence. But there are certain general propositions. ‘The earth is God’s and all that is in it’ (Psalm 24:1): the world belongs not to us, but to God. The Talmud construes the blessings we say before eating as a form of asking permission: ‘God we acknowledge that this food is yours; please allow us to enjoy it’. In so far as the earth, with its mineral resources, agricultural potential and wealth of species is given over to us, this is understood as an act of trust, inviting a response not of exploitative greed, but of concerned stewardship. The challenge for humankind is how to enjoy and share the benefits of nature, while protecting its fragility, beauty and diversity. We are strictly forbidden to destroy. On the contrary, protecting species and planting trees are commandments and a famous rabbinic saying teaches that we shouldn’t stop even if the Messiah arrives and finds us in our garden, or planting trees in Israel, or with the Woodland Trust, or writing out our donation to Tree Aid.

But to the mystic this is not enough. Our relationship with the natural world is not about ‘them and us’, however friendly we try to make the ‘and’. We belong to one life. The same vitality which gives breath to me also gives breath to that horse; we are different manifestations of the same divine consciousness. The nature of our awareness, the manner in which we participate in the life of all things, and the way in which we will be gathered back into God at the end of our days, – there processes may be different. But God, or whatever name we give to this endless unfolding of being throughout the universe, has animated us both, together with all people, all the animals and even all the trees.

Therefore the gentle approach of this horse makes me happy. I have been allowed to find favour in its eyes and together we participate for a rare moment in an act of worship: we belong to you God, together with all this world of grasses and shrubs, birds and trees, people, deer and horses.

Stained glass

Roman Halter died this week. I saw him so many times recently, working on the stained glass windows for our synagogue, fixing plaques, hanging pictures. He was tall and strong; I can’t, don’t want to, believe he’s gone.

I often heard him talk about his home town of Chodecz, with its eight hundred Jews and its beautiful Jewish life – until the Shoah. He spoke of how the women made lovely fabrics for the new synagogue. ‘The wisdom, the laughter, the love, the knowledge that was lost’, he said as we looked at a map of eastern Europe. He was coming back to Chodecz on an errand in the spring of 1940 when a sixth sense told him to hide. The SS were murdering his friends.

It was to Chodecz that he returned after it was over, after the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz, Stutthof, slave labourer in Dresden. His grandfather had spoken to him in a dream: ‘Go back to Chodecz’, that grandfather who’d instructed him that when he survived (‘when’, not ‘if’ Roman would say, recalling those words) he should tell clearly, openly, what had happened.

He waited in Chodecz for his family, his mother, his brothers. He knew his father was dead; he’d buried him himself on a freezing day in Lodz. No one came back. Years later when on the Maccabiah team in Israel, he heard that his grandmother was alive and visited her in Haifa in an old age home. Blind, she stroked Roman’s face and asked, was her daughter, his mother, still alive?

‘No…She was murdered’.

‘And your sister Zeesa, Zosia, alive?’      ‘No’, I replied. ‘Murdered.’

‘What about Sabina, Ignac and little Meshulam, Misio?’

‘They were shot, shot at Babi-Yar.’

‘Peccio? ‘No.’        ‘Iccio?’ ‘No’        ‘Sala?’ ‘No’.

Her head dropped and tears fell onto the black lap of her dressing gown.

Yet I think of Roman as a warm, loving, vigorous, inspiring, open man, full of life, humour and affection. ‘I was passing by the RAF barracks’, he said, describing the beginning of his new life in England, ‘and I overhead this officer saying, “When I lead the squadron over Dresden”. I couldn’t help but go in and tell him in my terrible English, ‘I was there that day, on the ground!’ “So how the hell did I miss you?” the man reposted. But when he heard my story he took a personal interest and supported my education.’

Architect, artist, creator of stained glass windows, writer, Roman had the gifts to transform his thoughts and feelings into the enduring testament of works of art. He also had the compelling personality to draw others into partnership with him, at Yad Vashem, Kibbutz Lochamei Hagettaot, the Imperial War Museum, the Tate Britain, and among the ‘Boys’ the young survivors who made their way together and stuck together here in England.

As I write, I hear Roman’s gentle, accented voice speaking quietly to me, ‘You know, Jonathan…’ Once he asked me for the source of a verse:

‘Tell me the words’.

Beyadecha afkid ruchi…Into your hand I commend my spirit’.

Roman explained, ‘There was a man walking next to me, very calm, in Auschwitz. He was reciting some words, so I asked him, “What are you saying?” Those are the words he told me.’ They continue, ‘Redeem me, God of truth’. (Psalm 31)

Roman was a man of truth; he wrote, spoke out, painted. He was also a man of love and goodness. He didn’t hate. I remember him talking about the German couple who hid him when he escaped from the death marches. Local Nazis shot the husband days after the war; he remained close to the lady until her death. He never judged without tempering his views with fairness and with faith in human life.

The stained glass windows in our synagogue may be Roman’s last creation. I see those tiny birds in the tree of life, right at the top of the work, delicate, gentle, beautiful. Then I think of the suffering through which the artist who designed them passed. What a testament to life!

Our thoughts are with Roman’s wife Susie, their children Arden, Aloma and Aviva, the grandchildren, family and countless friends.

I fear Roman’s passing represents a change in the nature of the epoch. The survivors are no longer young. The responsibility for remembering, the life-work of upholding values, are now ours.

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