A different kind of time and space

It’s a strange expression we use in the memorial prayer when we say of the dead that they have gone l’olamam. I don’t know how to translate that last word. In the Bible olam is always an expression of time, as for example in the phrase l’olam va’ed, ‘for ever’. Only in rabbinic Hebrew does olam also come to signify as a noun meaning ‘world’, such as olam haba, ‘the world to come’. In some cases it can be impossible to know the true meaning; thus, does Adon olam mean ‘Lord of the world’ or ‘Eternal Lord’, or maybe both?

Maybe both is the way to understand the term in that memorial prayer. The dead have gone l’olamam, somewhere different in both time and place. Where are they? I am not going to address here the metaphysical question of where they may be in God’s greater universe, the ‘undiscovered country / From whose bourn no traveller returns’. I’m simply puzzling, as tonight is the fifth Yahrzeit for my father, over where he is in my life, over where our beloved dead are in our hearts and thoughts.

They have gone ‘le’olamam’, into a different kind of time. They no longer age with the years, the chivvying hours no longer chase them and they are not subject to the tyranny of the clock. Here is my father, pulling me home on my tricycle from Hoyes, the sweetshop, on the busy Milngavie Road. Here is my father on Mossy’s bar Mitzvah, almost exactly a year before he died, and I can hear Ronnie Cohen, who was leading the service, say to me quietly, ‘Jonathan, your father is here’, and I was still in the middle of the silent Amidah, fortunately standing already. And the two memories nourish me side by side, alongside that absence because my father will never now sit at our table so that our family can see him again.

Thus the dead have gone too into a different kind of space, le’loamam, to a world which is everywhere they ever were. My father is growing up in Breslau, part of a strong rabbinic family. I imagine him there: ‘At midnight on Shavuot we would have a feast’. Then I think of him in Palestine with his ever-unlucky friend Baruch, who took in a well-fed dog off the streets in the hope of a reward, because who but the very rich had an animal like that when people had so little to eat? However, the dog ate his friend Baruch’s wife’s only dress during the night, and no reward was ever forthcoming. Then I see him in Glasgow telling me quietly to put my favourite toys in a pile; yes, I was allowed to take as many as I wanted and we would travel down to London that very night. He didn’t tell me then, but his wife, my mother, had died that day and was on the train with us. But, and I think maybe it was during that same evening before we left, I felt a presence rushing towards me and rushing again swiftly away, and in my mind I say it was her, saying goodbye. Then I see him, with Isca, smiling down at Mossy, who, ten months old, beams back as if bound by a magic ray. And Nicky says to me quietly, ‘Look!’ And none of these things is yesterday only, none of them far away.

For what does one light a candle, say Kaddish, give charity and learn Torah on the Yahrzeit? The ancient answers is ‘for the soul’s journey’, but in what worlds? The spirit ascends and travels within God, and maybe we can still touch it there, for blessing.

But we say the words too for the dead who are within us. They will not hold our hand, or place theirs on our head to bless us. But they have the freedom of our heart’s space and there they talk to us as if fifty years were just a moment gone, as if we could grasp it, now. We say the words for the love which bound us together, and because of the sorrow, and because the inseparable mixture of them both humbles us and makes us atone.

Longing for life

I was translating one of the letters my great-grandmother sent to her son in New York from Holleschau, in what was then Czechoslovakia, shortly before Passover in 1941:

In the year of ’35 we arrived in Palestine during these very days; the joy of our dear departed Papa when he saw the land from the ship was indescribable.

‘Our dear departed papa’ was her husband, then head of the Bet Din of Berlin. Unfortunately, they did not remain in the Yishuv, the growing Jewish settlement in the country, but returned to Europe, where he died in 1937 and where she was to perish in 1943 or ‘44. Meanwhile she continued her train of thought:

What has happened since that time!

In all her letters I have read, this is one of her very few expressions of anguish or regret.

We stand at this moment of the Jewish year between Yom Hashaoh in commemoration of the Holocaust, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the celebration of the anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. They are the two most significant markers of Jewish history in the last thousand years, if not more. To say that these dates signify death on the one hand and new life on the other is too simple. I have often felt that it is a sin against those murdered in the Shoah to think of them only as dying. What of the loves which filled their lives, their hopes, struggles, longings, piety, intelligence, music, and their profound engagement with every facet and philosophy of Judaism? Each time I have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau I’ve felt commanded to listen to what the spirits of so many people must be saying and to hear not just so much dying but the tenderness of so many lives. Nor is it right simply to wrap up the Holocaust in a narrative of the total failure of the Diaspora and the triumph of independence.

Undoubtedly, though, the creation of the State of Israel during those same fraught and terrible years is a vast triumph of life, hope, persistence, tenacity, courage and vision. A detail I came across in reading about the displaced persons camps, from which many survivors went to Palestine between 1945 and ‘48, has stuck in my mind. The American commander of one such institution near Munich was puzzled because non-Jewish personnel in the camp often requested supplies of contraceptives, whereas Jews apparently never did. Upon enquiring he was told that the reason was the immense longing for life among those who had survived.

That longing epitomises Israel, for all its complexity and the many problems it faces. The country literally feels young, witness the generally pram-friendly streets, the presence and energy of so many young people. But in a wider sense, it has been driven by an immense creative energy, expressed in the institutions of learning, in science and technology, in architectural construction, in music and art, in an impassioned love of words, free words, angry words, creative and brilliant words, in innovative engagement with Jewish learning and often also in remarkable ways of caring for the vulnerable.

That’s why it feels like a double tragedy when I phoned a friend yesterday to say that I was thinking of him and sending my love on the 13th commemoration of the death of his son in Lebanon, when eager life is destroyed by violence or thwarted by the rhetoric of hate. It is a tragedy whether these are Jewish lives or Palestinian lives. It is as if some great force has taken hold of the fabric of a dream and seeks to soak it in the red dye of nightmares.

That’s why we must pray, and personally commit ourselves to doing whatever lies within our power, so that the vast longing for life, hope, peace and joy which underlies the ongoing creation of Israel can become more and more of a reality for all its citizens.

A strange and compelling companionship

I know I should be writing about Pesach, or Matzah fatigue, or the beautiful Song of Songs which we will read this Shabbat, the final day of the festival. But instead I want to focus on a matter which has been in my thoughts for many weeks now.

For two years exactly every Wednesday night at 10.30pm we have held a short service over the phone. We initially called it a service of healing and it always contains at its heart a prayer for all those who are ill and those who are caring for and looking after them. Around it are short passages from the liturgy, mostly asking for God’s protection and for the restoration and deepening of our spirit. We always conclude with the Shema. Later we broadened the description to say that these are prayers for all of us at the end of a wearing, wearying day. Usually they are led by Leslie Lyndon and I, who sit together in my study with the phone on loudspeaker in front of us. But many people, including Rabbis Lee Wax and Amanda Golby have also taken them, and on those occasions when I’ve been on my own, I’ve had the help of each of my children, who sing incomparably better than I do. We’ve even phoned in together from mountains and riversides in the far north of Scotland.

On the whole it might be said that this service has, thank goodness, been a failure. Certainly any assessment of ratings would classify it in that manner. Mercifully perhaps, people have not felt the need to avail themselves of it. Occasionally that has been no one else on the line, almost always one or two persons, a few times more, – though people do not give their names and it isn’t possible to tell who’s there.

Sometimes I’ve thought of giving up, but just then someone says to me how much they valued phoning in to share those prayers at a time when they were stressed, or very worried about a member of their family. The short service had revived their spirits. At such moments one feels that it’s all deeply worthwhile. One wants simply to be there too, to be there just in case; just in case someone should come home exhausted from sitting in the hospital all day to a house which is too empty, and might value the company of a fellow voice in prayer.

Thus in a strange way this brief service, never more than ten minutes long, has become very important to me, and, I’m sure, to Leslie. There’s a strange and compelling kind of companionship in reaching out over the phone into the darkness beyond the window.

But more than that, this has become a special time for us to think about people who are ill, or carers, or struggling, both in our community and beyond. We always leave a silence after asking God to send healing, and I always fill it with names, sometimes just one or two to focus on, sometimes several. These feel like moments of compassion, moments of love, moments which belong to the heart.

I’ve wondered, too, and maybe people will send me their responses, whether it would be right to offer the opportunity for people to send the names of those in their thoughts, for whom they are worried and for whom they are caring, and if possible phone in for those few minutes, so that we might in this manner strengthen together the compassion which is the heart of community.

For such connections make a difference; they form a deep and vibrant bond with life itself, through which God’s spirit flows to sustain and strengthen us and purify and heal us.

Countdown to Pesach (4)

Enjoy the 2 days left to prepare!


Something Practical:

It’s so often that someone says to me, ‘I grew with a Seder where an elderly relative raced through it all in what seemed like a combination of Hebrew and Yiddish and none of us could follow a single word. How do I make a Seder which is different, where, people, including the children, are actually involved?’

Here are some ideas which we’ve gleaned from all over the place and which have worked for us, or which others have told us they have tried. (This is no guarantee that they’ll work again! – Next year we’ll create a space on our web-site for a “Seder ideas” exchange.)

Ask people to pre-prepare, by: bringing an object which speaks to them of freedom; telling a family story about struggle, flight and freedom, inner or outer; saying how they feel the themes of the Seder (slavery, human dignity, justice, liberty, equality, religious minorities…) relate to today’s world; preparing a comment on a specific part of the Seder (the matzah, the maror, the charoseth, the four children, the ten plagues). [Advice: give people an indication of how long you’d like them to talk for.]

Use prompts to invite discussion; comparing Haggadah illustrations, bringing a relevant news story, using puppets for children (talking frogs and locusts etc…)

I once asked people at the start of the Seder to take on roles and be interviewed: we had Moses’ wife (‘He always has to go and get himself involved! No time for the family!’); Pharaoh’s wife, (‘He never could say “Yes”; he’s not a “liberation man”); and Elijah. It worked – once; I never quite dared try again.

A Seder can be both serious and great fun.


Something Textual:

The role of Pharaoh

There are difficult moments in the Exodus story. I’m often asked how a good God could first harden Pharaoh’s heart and then proceed to punish him for his obstinacy. Maimonides addresses this issue in his discussion of free will in the Laws of Repentance, noting that once a person has done evil three times out of their own free choice they effectively forfeit the capacity to choose differently thereafter. We become the slaves of our own bad habits.

I would also want to use this question to raise the issue of how literally we should take the way in which God’s involvement is described in the story. Perhaps the key point is that our ancestors, who created the narrative, understood that the commitment to freedom, justice and human dignity are deeply connected to our understanding that we ultimately belong to God. Perhaps we need not then take God’s hands-on, interventionist role totally literally.

But it’s to another aspect of Pharaoh’s conduct that I want to draw attention. The Haggadah quotes his first ‘speech to the nation’, the ancient equivalent of a political broadcast. ‘Behold the Children of Israel are a nation, many and more powerful than us. Come let us deal wisely with them…’ It is this incitement to racial hatred which I find so appalling, – and so similar to what happens in our day: There are too many of them; they’re here, in our country; they’re a threat; they are not just my problem but yours; I’m going to make you equally complicit in what we do to ‘protect ourselves’ from them. After this there follow with great speed a series of discriminatory measures: taxation, exploitation, covert, and then overt, murder.

God can’t be blamed for that.


Something to Question:

Freedom, – but for what?
It’s often noted that the Torah nowhere says ‘Let my people go’; the compete sentence is always: ‘Let my people go in order that they may serve Me’.

Similarly, although the rabbis gave Pesach the name zeman cherutenu, ‘the season of our liberation’, the key blessing we say after telling the story of the Exodus does not use the word ‘freedom’ but refers rather to ‘redemption’; God ‘ga’al Yisrael’, God has ‘redeemed Israel’. Freedom is not an end in itself; freedom is itself in service to the greater purpose of redemption.

What then is redemption? It’s a question we might ask when we open the door for Elijah: What do we mean by the ‘Messianic Age? What would we like the world to look like? Equally importantly, what part can we play in transforming our tiny corner of it so that it is more like it should be, like we dream that it might become?

At the second Seder we begin to count the Omer, which measures the days between leaving Egypt and arriving at Mount Sinai. Freedom leads to service. What can freedom achieve without a vision, without responsibility, without the commitment to create better people of ourselves and a better world for others, except squander itself?

Countdown to Pesach (3)

Enjoy the 3 days left to prepare!

Something Practical:

How long is a Seder?

Every one knows the account of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues in Bnei Berak who spent the whole night discussing the Exodus from Egypt until their pupils came and told them that the dawn had risen and that the hour had arrived for the morning Shema meditation. ‘The more you talk about the Exodus the better’, teaches the Haggadah.

But what if it’s not so simple, if there are small children to think about, or elderly relatives for whom it all becomes too exhausting, or someone in ill health who’s been looking forward to the Seder but can’t manage to sit for too long? How short can a Seder be and still constitute a real Seder? What must be included and what can one cut?

Here is a brief answer (but look at the Leader’s Guide to the Family Participation Haggadah by Noam Zion and David Dishon, p. 20) Don’t exclude a welcome activity which draws everyone in. You need to include the Kiddush, the greens dipped in salt water, the breaking of the middle Matzah. Then go to the Mah Nishtanah, the four questions, but you can create your own answers by telling the story of the Exodus in your own words. Here is the chance both to cut the text substantially, but also to be creative to suit and engage whoever is there and to raise, even briefly, key questions: ‘What’s freedom?’, ‘What does this story mean to us this year?’ Rejoin the Haggadah with Rabban Gamliel’s injunction that we must talk about the Paschal lamb, matzah and maror at the Seder and that we should each see ourselves as if we personally had gone out of Egypt. Then say the blessings for the second cup of wine, and eat the matzah, maror and Hillel sandwich. Next come the meal, Grace after Meals, and the third cup of wine.  Welcome Elijah, and, though one should really say all of Hallel, choose your favourite songs for the fourth cup.

A Seder can be brilliant and long, but it can also be excellent, appropriate, and short.


Something Textual:

Jewish lives in Egypt

The Haggadah tells the story of the Children of Israel in Egypt by quoting as its core text the brief account from Deuteronomy (ch. 26), and then elaborating on virtually every word. ‘There we became a nation’ says that core text. In fact it is Pharaoh who first calls us an am, a people; it’s interesting how often groups are defined by how they are perceived in the eyes of others, especially hostile others. The Haggadah’s elaboration notes that this sentence (‘There we became a nation’) teaches that the Children of Israel were mezuyyanim – they ‘stood out’ – in Egypt. What might this mean, and is it good or bad to ‘stand out’?

It might of course be overwhelmingly positive. One traditional interpretation is that we managed to preserve our distinctive identity, even in exile and even when we were degraded and turned into slaves. We kept our language, our names and our faith, and we married only among ourselves. We didn’t assimilate, and we didn’t dissemble to evade our fate. We were proud to be ourselves.

But to ‘stand out’ can also mean to be made to do so; one thinks of the Jews’ hat in the Middle Ages, of the yellow star, and the various distinctive marks which have been used throughout history to humiliate minorities and facilitate their oppression. One doesn’t always want to ‘stand out’ and it takes courage to wear those imposed badges with pride.

Or perhaps it’s more complicated. Jhumpa Lahiri wrote about her dual identity growing up as an American child of traditional Indian parents in theUSA; how was she supposed to combine the different customs and languages of home and school? ‘In spite of the first lessons of arithmetic, one plus one did not equal two but zero, my conflicting selves always cancelling each other out’. (Stories of Identity, pub. By Facing History and Ourselves, p. 38)

How can we create societies where one plus one does not equal zero, or humiliation, or assimilation, but two?


Something to Question:

The Exodus and Core Values

The Exodus from Egypt, irrespective of whether it happened in the way the Torah describes it or not, is the foundation story, the meta-narrative, of the Jewish People. All our other stories of exile and survival, of flight from persecution to freedom and sovereignty, are included and told within it or as further commentary to it.

In essence it’s a very simple story: we were slaves, we struggled for our rights and freedoms, with God’s help we stood up against tyranny and overcame it, we learnt through our own experience the universal importance of human dignity and justice. Time and again the Torah teaches us to do what is right and good because of what happened to us in Egypt: ‘remember’, it enjoins us, you yourselves were once slaves.

I am moved that this is the foundation story of our people. We begin not with power and victories in the field, but with the discovery of the universal need for dignity and justice, through the experience, on our own bodies, of injustice and indignity.

These are the core values of the Seder, and of Judaism. The challenge is to apply them and live by them, wherever we are in the world, in Israeland in the Diaspora.

Countdown to Pesach (2)

Enjoy the 4 days left to prepare!


Practical Matters: 

The days go by so quickly and busily with all the practical things to do, – shopping, cleaning, koshering, polishing, cooking, setting the table – that one can forget to prepare for the Seder itself. Or one has it at the back of one’s mind: ‘I need to think about how to lead the Seder and how to keep everyone involved and interested’, but the time passes with so much pressure and rush that before you know it it’s Friday afternoon.

Here are two small thoughts. Read through the early chapters of the Book of Exodus, or the story-line section of the Haggadah (maybe it’s a rabbinic privilege but I always like to beg, borrow or buy a new Haggadah every year). In reading, ask the question ‘How does this story, of slavery, resistance, moral courage, repression, and eventual liberation through the intervention of God, speak to me, to our world, to the issues which confront us, this year, this day?’

If guests are coming, you might ask them to bring a picture, an object, a letter or a story which speaks to them of slavery and freedom. For within the greater narrative of our people and our history, we tell the smaller stories of our own lives. It is when the individual and the collective stories rub together that the Seder comes alight.


Something Textual:

The Maror and the Charoseth

Almost everyone has their own favourite recipe for Charoseth. If you want to see what the options might be, just google ‘charoseth’ and choose the part of the world the traditions of which you want to copy this year. A couple of Seders ago Mossy made a delicious version according to the customs of Curacao. But I want to focus on an ancient tradition, going back at least to the time of the Geonim (8th – 11th centuries). It is described in the commentaries of the Tosaphot to the Talmud (Pesachim 116a): ‘The charoseth should be made out of fruits to which the community of Israel is likened in the Song of Songs: ‘Beneath the apple tree I roused you’; ‘As a slice of pomegranate [are your temples]’; ‘The fig tree has put forth its young fruit’; ‘I said I shall climb up the date palm’. Nuts [are included] because it says ‘I went down to the nut garden’; almonds (shekedim) because the Holy Blessed One was watchful (shakad) to bring the redemption.’ In other words, if the Song of Songs is about love then charoseth is its food.

By contrast there aren’t really any recipes for the maror; it just has to be bitter. It must also be chewed thoroughly; swallowing it neat doesn’t count as eating it.

According to the Talmud, we dip the maror in the charoseth to mitigate its sharpness. We then shake off the sweet paste and eat the now slightly less bitter herbs. There is something profoundly true about this. What makes bitterness, suffering and struggle of whatever kind bearable – if not the caring and tender attentiveness of love?


Something to Question:

Whither history?

‘People never learn from history’: is it true? Is history linear, progressing, albeit slowly and by the most indirect of roots, towards a better world with less war, misery and injustice, towards what Judaism has always dreamt of as the days of the Messiah? Or is history basically cyclical, repeating the same conflicts, blindness and bigotry century after century. 

This tension is implied in the Haggadah itself. In one of the most powerful, emotive, and also troubling, passages we reflect on the experiences of the Jewish People over by now three thousand years: ‘For not just once alone have they risen up against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, and the Holy Blessed One saves us from their grasp’. It is not difficult to point to the many realities behind this perception. I’ve never attended a Seder without refugees from Nazism being present. History is composed of vicious cycles.

On the other hand, the Haggadah is in its entirety a journey towards redemption. God brought us out from Egypt and will lead us not only to our promised land, but ultimately towards a world where everything in its fitting place, each person, family, tribe, and nation. Even the earth itself will rejoice. This is the meaning of the blessing we say over the second cup of wine with which we conclude the long narrative portion of the Haggadah just before the meal: ‘Blessed are you God, who has redeemed Israel’, and there can be no such thing as redemption for one part of humanity without the redemption of the whole. It’s a question of faith: surely the world is progressing towards peace? Surely it’s our task to help shape history in that way?


But does that history bear out our hope? Does it justify such faith?

Countdown to Pesach (1)

Enjoy the 5 days left to prepare!

Practical Matters: 

‘Give it away – Don’t throw it away’

Now is the season of cleaning. But, according to Jewish law, it is only chametz we have to remove from our homes over Pesach, not dust, mud or the dog’s paw prints. It’s true, – that’s not such a small ‘only’: technically chametz, or leaven, is any product made from the five key kinds of grain, wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt, which has, or may have, leavened, most obviously bread, biscuits, pasta, cakes and cereals. But the ban over Pesach also includes any unsupervised products which may contain within them any mixture of amount of any of these grains. One also puts away or koshers any vessels in which they were cooked, prepared or eaten. Hence the havoc in the kitchen.

 But please don’t throw things away; give them away. Today and tomorrow the synagogue is collecting unopened packets and tins for the homeless. So bring the unopened pasta to us and we’ll take it to people who will cook with it for people who can’t take a safe home and regular meals for granted.



If there is anyone you know who you think may be alone for the Seder, invite him or her now, or tell us at the shul and we will include them. Is there anyone you know not well enough to be able to prepare; please help them, or tell us and we’ll arrange help from the shul.


Something Textual:

‘This is the poor person’s bread’

I always hear my father’s voice chanting the words ‘Ha lachma anya’; that’s part of the magic of the Seder, the voices we hear within it. This short passage comes near the beginning of the evening, after we have made Kiddush and eaten the parsley or greens dipped in salt water. Before reciting it we take the middle of the three pieces of matzah placed in a special cloth for the Seder, and break in into two. The larger section is hidden as the Afikoman; the smaller if held up during the recital of most of the narrative which follows. It is to this broken piece that we refer when we say ‘this is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt’. It is with this broken piece in mind, too, that we invite ‘all who are hungry to come and eat’.

Why a broken piece? Because, explains the Talmud among its various answers, no poor person can ever afford a whole loaf, or because, just as the poor work as a team, one baking and one lighting the stove, matzah can never be baked alone but only through teamwork. Thus this simple action of breaking a piece of matzah links us with all who are hungry, who rarely know what plenty, and never know what food security feels like. It also reminds us that we are all only part; part of the process of producing bread from the earth, alongside farmers we don’t know, and the wonder of the growth of the wheat itself; part of the generations of our family, which are part of our people, who are one among the many peoples on earth all of whom need food. That is why matzah is also thought of as the bread of humility.


Something to Question

One of the names for Pesach is zeman cherutenu ‘the season of our liberation’ and it is popularly known as the festival of freedom. The Seder tells the story of our release from slavery in order to seek and serve God; this is also the over-arching story of the struggles of Jewish People across all time.

But where does freedom begin? Anatole Shcharansky showed an extraordinarily courageous inner freedom during his years in Soviet prisons. In a letter to his mother in May 1984, he wrote the meaning of the words ‘fear of the Lord’ as indicating ‘a feeling of submission and respect for God’s essence’. He continued: ‘It is possible that this feeling is the critical prerequisite for man’s achieving inner peace and thus also the prerequisite for man’s acquiring spiritual endurance’. (Shcharansky, Hero of our Time, by Martin Gilbert, p. 402)

Aung San Suu Kyi, to whom today surely belongs, said in an interview in 1989: ‘the people want freedom. The only thing is that they have become used to being frightened. On 19 June [1989] a foreign photographer was taking pictures of me and he was harassed. Some of the people with me were astonished that he spoke back. I said: ‘But that’s normal for people who’ve come from a free society.’ Fear, like so many things, is a habit.’ (Aung San Suu Kyi: Freedom from Fear, p. 226)

What is the relationship between freedom and fear? What else constricts our inner freedom?

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