When we reach the words Lech Lecha in the Torah and God firsts speaks to Abram and Sarai with that command to ‘Get thee gone’, I’m always moved in ways which year by year I can never manage to understand.

I don’t know if it’s some sense of life’s inner, personal journey, almost as if I had heard those words myself in some subliminal memory as early as before I was born, – ‘Get thee gone’ from your mother’s womb, – only to hear them again with each of life’s new challenges, as if they carried within them the mystery of both life’s past and future.  They open out before me a vision of a path not unlike the bridle track I followed yesterday with the dog, with fallen leaves and footprints in the mud and corners past which I cannot see or know. What discoveries does life yet hold? What am I leaving behind me on this unremitting quest, driven by the mercilessness of time? Before I can even look back and ponder the next moment, day, week, year has already arrived and pulls me forward.

I don’t know if the power of the words is connected with the grip which my family’s journey still has over me a generation later. I find myself reaching once again for my grandfather’s memoirs and his account of arriving as a refugee in England in 1939, of the welcome the German Jewish émigrés received from Rabbi Israel Mattuck at the Liberal Synagogue in St John’s Wood, where they held their first service in the Muttersprache – German – with the familiar Lewondowski melodies, and so many who had escaped with nothing but their lives and, if they were lucky, some of those they loved, wept.

Or perhaps the words speak most of the long, tenacious and ceaselessly creative journey of the Jewish People, a ‘Get thee gone’ which has led down to Egypt and back up to the Promised Land, to Babylon – ‘How can we sing the song of the Lord on strange earth?’ – to Rome and across the whole of Europe, and finally back home; a ‘Get thee gone’ which has hugged to its heart despite afflictions of all kinds the search for God and that world of truth, justice and goodness which God has always promised us we shall finally be shown.

Or maybe it’s because it’s hard not to hear in today’s realities a very different kind of ‘Get thee gone’, in a far harsher tone from that of God’s encouraging words to Abram, – the cruel, snarling, well-armed ‘Get thee gone’ which drives so many millions from their homes and their father’s houses and sets them on the hungry, restless, heartsick road of the refugee who so rarely encounters any more than fleeting refuge and passing acts of mercy. It’s for this reason that we, who have often known that road, will welcome members of the Congolese community this Sunday, who know it all too well today.

Or perhaps it’s all of this together: the realisation that this ‘Get thee gone!’ is no less than every life’s reality, harried along from birth to death, trying to understanding, find meaning, purpose, goodness, God. ‘Go’, says God, ‘and turn it into blessing’.

Comment: Women at the Wall Arrest

It is deeply disgraceful that Anat Hoffman was arrested for praying at the Western Wall. It is equally appalling that she seems to have been subject to gross humiliations while in custody.

Even while the Temple stood there were areas within its precincts to which women had access. We must not allow Judaism, with its sacred regard for justice and compassion, to be turned into an excuse for bullying and degradation.

Anat Hoffman is a brave campaigner for the core Jewish values of human dignity and social justice, which Masorti communities worldwide are proud to work for alongside Jews of all denominations who share the same – Jewish – ideals.

Caring for the carers

I have to admit that this verse, which we read in the Torah tomorrow, is not one I have thought about in depth: ‘Arpachshad lived for four hundred and three years after fathering Shelach’. But imagine one transposed it into today’s context of a society worrying about the fact that people live longer and how we lack the resources to care properly for our elderly.

We held a moving discussion on that subject yesterday. The focus was what different faiths had to teach about the relationship between young and old. This led into a presentation of the most creative ways in which different care groups and communities are responding. The evening was organised, with our input, by North London Citizens, and hosted by us. I know there are some who have considered reservations about aspects of this organisation’s work, but, to me, and many others, yesterday expressed why we made the personal decision to be involved. To listen to a teenage Muslim girl say, ‘This is the first time I’m helping chair an event and I never thought it would happen in a synagogue’; to hear a pupil from the al-Khoei school describe teachings from the Koran about honouring old age; to sit at a table with Christian women comparing what they saw in Africa about the bonds within families to what they see here; then to learn about best practice from both Jewish Care and the Beth Johnson Foundation, -  this in itself felt like a form of Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name. As someone said at the end, ‘Something holy happened here tonight’.

For me, the evening contained three especially humbling moments. The first was hearing a woman say, ‘Actually, I’m a lawyer by profession. But I’ve worked in care for twelve years. I didn’t choose this path at first. ‘God, what am I doing here?’ I asked myself. But then I just knew the answer, and I’m passionate about my work.’ The second was to listen to the extraordinary vision behind Jewish Care and ask myself whether we support their work enough, or leave responsibilities to others. The third was to hear two ladies who work in home-help and who love the people they care for describe a day’s work: long hours; long journeys from one person they look after to another; how they often can’t accept a cup of tea because they have to be off to catch more buses; how they are neither paid their fares nor travel time, so that they take home in a week less than many earn in a day… And yet we desperately need these big-hearted people.

Outcomes? More than people want to be cared for, people of all ages want to give, to be a contributing part of inter-generational society and to find intellectual and emotional stimulation through being involved in community. There’s more we can all do here.

But there were other outcomes too: the sense of shared values between Christian, Muslim and Jew, the stirring insights into the worlds of others, the consciousness that God’s house embraces us all, the determination to work together so that our shared society cares better for those who care.


It is beautiful. The account of the creation, simple, majestic and glorious, occupies no more than one and a half columns in the scroll of the Torah, perhaps two pages at most in printed books. Yet it describes the unfolding of all things.

The story grips me year by year. I can see it all unfold before me, as if I had got up before dawn and was watching the first light emerge to dissipate the darkness, clarifying in lines and patches of black and grey the vague distinction between land and sea, revealing the sharp edges of rocks above the water. The branches of nearby trees solidify in the waning dark, moist with the cold night’s condensation from the last day’s humid air. Among the twigs the birds begin to call, crying out to each across the vibrant waters into which the tide has begun to flows in waves which throw back the sun’s first strident, horizontal light. The last stars have long faded and now the moon too disappears. In what had seemed before like black, empty space stand sheep on the muddy grass and a horse looks up from its grazing in the field below. For a few minutes this green and grey calm of birdsong and sheep cries feels like the entire universe. Then a door opens, a child emerges with scarf and satchel and a voice calls out ‘Have a good day and don’t leave your lunchbox at school’.

Could every day be the wonder of creation? Could that same God who, according to the Bible, spoke and the world came into being, and who said of each day ‘that it was good’ still be speaking within that same creation and remain insistent that it is both beautiful and good?

Of course, the modern mind, used to assessing materials for their accuracy, their correspondence to empirical verifiable reality, has question. ‘Is it true? Did it actually happen that way?’ Immediately the battle of the interpretations begins: the Bible doesn’t really mean six days, but six periods of time. Hasn’t if, after all, got the order broadly correct, beginning with light and moving on through the increasing sophistication of organic matter to the emergence of the human being as the final stage of evolution so far?

These issues are by not unimportant. But compared with the simplicity, beauty and wonder of the Biblical narrative they feel as if they have missed the point, rather like when someone asks their partner ‘Do you love me?’ and he or she answers by enquiring ‘What’s the time?’

I was recently given a book called Missing Lives. It describes people, of all faiths and all sides, who were murdered in the Balkan wars and who simply ‘disappeared’. The book contains many photographs of the locations where these killings are understood to have taken place, mountains, pretty villages, riversides, waterfalls. I wonder whether, had they heard the voice of God within the glory of these landscapes, in the flowing waters and the living trees, and in the hearts of their victims, the perpetrators could ever have brought themselves to commit such acts of desecration.

Life’s great gift

I sometimes fantasise about what I would do if I was offered the opportunity to travel back in time and spend a day in any place and period of history I chose. A strong candidate would be the editorial offices of the Bible some time in the late first century. It’s not so much that I imagine them with their pot of glue cutting and pasting: – ‘Do you think we should include that piece about Abraham almost sacrificing his son?’ – ‘Why not? It’s quite exciting really!’

More seriously, it’s that I find the breadth of vision and imagination which must have prevailed among those who put together the anthology which we call the Tenach or Hebrew Bible utterly remarkable and quite extraordinary.

There definitely were debates. ‘They sought to hide the book of Ecclesiastes’, notes the Talmud. The Song of Songs and even parts of the work of Ezekiel were other borderline candidates. But in the end a profound spirit of inclusion prevailed. As a result the person who spends a lifetime with these texts at the core of their daily, weekly and yearly meditations, as Jews throughout the ages always have done, finds so many of the most challenging questions not outside, but within, the sacred canon. Is there anyone listening up there? Is God, if there is a God, just?  Does life mean anything in the end? These questions are all in there, without easy answers. Those editorial decisions, whether made by individuals or by default through the assent or attrition of generations, represent deep courage, faith and wisdom.

Tomorrow, as always on the Shabbat in the middle or at the close of Succot, we read Kohelet, Ecclesiastes. It is arguably the most ‘modern’ text in the entire Bible. One of its key words is hevel, which the King James Bible translates as ‘vanity’, but which literally means empty breath. Time and again the writer describes thoughts and experiences as hevel, empty and pointless, as if trying to multiply life and its experiences by zero and see what then remains.

Another key word is mikreh, ‘happening’ or, perhaps, ‘fate’. What’s revolutionary about this simple term is the assumption which comes with it, that events don’t necessarily have a purpose, that things can just ‘happen’, that there may not be a destiny which directs our ends. The very word invites the follow-up question, ‘Well, then, does it matter what we do?’

To this the author responds with a definite, though unusual, ‘yes’. It’s a ‘yes’ which focuses on the little, ordinary things of life, – eating, drinking, enjoying the fruits of one’s labour,- rather than on the deep, meaningful experiences one would expect to find lauded in the Bible. But beyond these seemingly ‘little’ things one touches a deeper insight. We cannot know what comes after us; all we have is limited time and even more limited understanding. Therefore be wise, says Kohelet, be humble; respect God and enjoy life’s daily blessings because they are life’s great gift.

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