A small article opposite Aluf Benn’s column in yesterday’s Haaretz reminded the reader that it was Thanksgiving. All my American friends tell me it’s a wonderful festival, and we should only have the likes of it over here: ‘We all celebrate together, it’s for everybody; it’s not religious.’ On the latter point only, I disagree. It seems to be the entire prophetic message is based on a great thanksgiving in which all creatures will share on that great day when ‘they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain’.

There is certainly something to be grateful for now. ‘Thank God for the truce, please heaven it lasts’: that’s what I feel and what I’ve been hearing people say. Israel achieved its two main aims, wrote Aluf Benn in that column, stopping the rockets and destroying vast numbers in stockpiles, as well as stabilising its relationship with Egypt since the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. The Iron Dome had a huge degree of success; 400 rockets aimed at Israel’s cities were intercepted. There’s been much courage; there’s been significant restraint.

But there’s been great suffering too. Forgive me for dwelling on it, before returning to thanksgiving. Our thoughts are with the victims of the outrageous bomb on the bus in Tel Aviv; and with all who are now trying to heal wounds to body and soul. Most especially, they are with the bereaved. The Israel Trauma Centre has responded to countless calls, ‘My children are afraid, what do I do?’ The Centre has worked before with Palestinian colleagues: don’t Palestinian families suffer the same fears? Our feelings are also with the father of the little boy killed inGaza when a missile hit the flat next door. Today’s Times carries his picture. ‘We thought this place was safe. But this is our destiny’, said his father, head of dermatology in Gaza Hospital. I wonder immediately if he’s a colleague of Dr Abuelaish, who lost three children in 2008, and who wrote the remarkable book I Shall Not Hate. Our thoughts are with all those, especially our family and friends, whose lives have been shaken, who’ve been called up into the reserves, who’ve taken refugee in shelters. And we shouldn’t fail to consider those who had no shelters. Ultimately the realities faced by parents who just want to raise their children safely in Israel, and the realities faced by parents who simply want to raise their children safely in Gaza, are inter-related and bound to one another.

There’s been much sorrow in our own community too. Over the last few days I’ve been hearing Paul Robeson’s voice in my head with that sad song, ‘There’s a man going round taking names’ and its chorus ‘and left my heart in pain’. Our hearts go out to parents who weep, to young people who weep for their friend, who reach for each other around an emptiness which can never be filled as it was before. May God bring comfort.

I may be thought a fool for this, but I also saw another kind of suffering when I watched the film A Sacred Duty. From Hasidic rabbis to outstanding Israeli academics, Jewish leaders voice their passion for healing God’s world and, in particular, stopping the suffering caused to billions of animals by parts of the food industry. I watched animals kicked, beaten, thrown, broken, trapped, treated with utter contempt and slaughtered. Pinned against iron railings, one calf simply wept.

‘A calf weeping? So what!’ But those tears give silent voice to the great unseeing cruelty of our civilisation. Sometimes it’s animals, sometimes it’s one another we hurt; sometimes it’s the destiny we are born to and no one could have done anything about it. But I want no part in wilful cruelty; I don’t want to be counted in.

That’s why in my imaginary Thanksgiving I’m seating at my top table all those whose lives are devoted to ending cruelty and healing its wounds. There’ll be people of all kinds there. There’ll be the politicians with the courage to cross boundaries and work to stop wars; there’ll be those who play music to frightened children; there’ll be those who aren’t afraid of listening to peoples’ sorrows; there’ll be those who know that you don’t judge tears by the colour of the cheeks down which they run; there’ll be those who, perceiving the beauty with which the world is imbued, create songs which people who thought they would never sing again, will one day sing. Perhaps it’s really a part of all of us who’s there.

Meanwhile, if there’s hope afoot in the world that there will be less hurt, that’s truly something to be thankful for. And if there’s something we can contribute to such healing, anything, anywhere, surely that’s not just our duty, but our life’s very purpose and our deepest desire.

On Israel – A Prayer in These Difficult Times

Thank God, tonight there seems to be more talk about a cease fire. Let’s pray that it may be the beginning of a process which removes the rocket attacks on Israel’s cities and lands not just in the short but in the long term. Let’s pray too that the people truly suffering in Gaza will find safety and hope for their future. 

Being a community rabbi over many years has taught me nothing about military strategy but quite a lot about the human heart. I’ve listened to many words of suffering and anguish, and to the silence in between, when pain can find no other speech. 

I’ve been with many people as they explore the huge wounds, the torn and jagged edges of the soul, left by the deaths of their children, their spouses, their parents. If I’m asked where God is, I certainly believe that the presence of God is here, weeping in the broken heart. That heart may be Jewish or Christian, Israeli or Palestinian. That is all the same. God is near to those in pain; God seeks healing, and is with all those who strive to heal.

I’ve been with doctors, nurses, ambulance personnel and police. But I’ve always, an unusual privilege, been with them in peacetime, never amidst the cry of sirens or the smash of explosions. I have no real conception of what terror, rage and a sense of utter helplessness before violence may do to make wounds worse, but I can only imagine that their impact is immense. The very thought of the fear and hate such experiences are likely to engender is itself extremely frightening, and unbearably troubling when one thinks about the future.

Therefore I pray that the politics of the Middle East and the world may not lead us into ever more violent confrontation, but enable us to be healers rather than the receivers or givers of hurts, and that the presence of God may be with us all.


We pray for the peace and safety of Israel and stand together with all its citizens as it once again faces rocket attacks from Gaza.

Our thoughts are especially with the families of Aaron Smadja, Itzik Emsalem and Mira Sharf in their grief, and with the wounded.

We think too of the many traumatized people, especially all the children on both sides.

Israel cannot simply allow its cities and citizens to be attacked. At the same time we pray that this conflict should not escalate any further and that there should be no further loss of innocent life.

With Eyes Like Isaac

Genesis 25:19-28:9

My article first published on the Odyssey Networks

Everybody knows that Isaac was blind. Why else, in this famous story, would he have allowed Jacob to deceive him and steal the blessings (Genesis 27:19-29) he seemingly intended for Esau, the first-born twin? (If some degree of rivalry is inevitable among siblings, it must be even harder for twins. I recently heard an elder twin say, “Mummy, I had your undivided attention for three minutes!”)

But the Torah doesn’t actually say that Isaac was blind, and the rabbis of the Midrash, who were as unwilling as the sharpest of contemporary political interviewers to let subtleties and ambiguities slip past, carefully noted this fact (Tanhuma, Toldot 8). What the verse actually states is that Isaac’s eyes “were dim from seeing” (Genesis 25:28). This begs the question, “From seeing or having seen what?” The rabbis were not afraid to offer challenging answers.

Don’t take a bribe, enjoins the Torah, “for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous” (Deuteronomy 16:19). Could Isaac’s impaired vision in fact be a form of punishment? It’s a convenient, but often cruel, path to justify suffering by attributing it to some purported moral cause. It saves one from having to feel too sorry; it answers the question “why?” But if we are to ascribe Isaac’s affliction to such lack of integrity in judgement, are we being fair?

What’s he supposed to have done to merit such punishment? The rabbis point to the very beginning of the father-son relationship: “Isaac loved Esau because the taste of hunting was in his mouth (Genesis 25:28).” They point to his failure to love his children equally because of his strange partiality for roasted meat, and thus for the elder of his two boys, as earning him his affliction. As a result, when it really mattered to be able to perceive matters fairly, he found himself unable to see. He blessed the wrong child.

It would be easy to heap together examples of how immediate vested interests prevent us from assessing matters clearly when the moment of destiny arrives for crucial decisions with long term implications. Perhaps no policy suffers from this so much as the attitudes of governments to the environment, though it turns out that so-called “dumb” nature is far from inarticulate, as we are increasingly realizing.

But a second rabbinic interpretation is perhaps even sharper, and certainly more compassionate toward Isaac. This may be why Rashi, the great medieval exegete, offers it in his Torah commentary: “When [Isaac] was bound on the altar and his father intended to slaughter him, at that moment the gates of heaven opened and the ministering angels saw and wept and their tears descended and fell into his eyes.”

This is a graphic description of what we might simply call post-traumatic stress disorder. There are certain events after passing through which we can never see the world in the same way again. I once shared Rashi’s comment with a Christian exegete who had spent time in the Far East. “We met several Vietnamese women who saw their children killed in front of their very eyes. Afterwards some of them literally went blind. They couldn’t bear to see.”

It is a painful and complicated question to what degree, if at all, suffering should exonerate us from the consequences of our subsequent decisions—both on an individual and a collective level. Nations suffer traumas, too. Indeed, it may be considerably harder to bring healing to the collective impact of a painful shared history among an entire people than to that of a specific event upon one particular person. What can be said when much of a population or ethnic group, including many of its leaders and opinion-makers, are affected by the same trauma?

In the case of Isaac, being reminded of what he went through when he saw his father raise the knife as he lay there on the altar (Genesis 22:9-10) inclines us to view his subsequent conduct with pity rather than condemnation. Or maybe the two threads are connected: has his partiality for meat anything to do with the smell of the roasted ram’s flesh he must have inhaled when, released from the altar, he watched with relief as it was offered in his place? The line between our sufferings and our moral weaknesses is often too thin to trace.

But what about governments and nations? It was said during the Balkan Wars that the pain was still alive from defeats and injustices which went back to the Middle Ages. Does that mean that old wounds can never be considered healed? In the case of the Jewish people, both in Israel and elsewhere, fear, well-founded not just on the Holocaust but on tens of generations of marginalization and persecution, leaves many people sceptical about their personal and collective security. “But the world is so different now,” some say. “But how different and for how long?” others retort? Whichever the case, must our own history of suffering makes us blind to that of others, or could it not serve, as indeed it so often has, to open our eyes more widely?

Returning to Isaac, Rashi offers a further possible reason for his weak sight; it’s the simplest explanation of all: “So that Jacob would take the blessings.” Thomas Mann adds his own twist in his famous novelJoseph and His Brothers: Is it not possible that Isaac “feels better in a darkness where certain things can happen which must happen” (p. 130-1). God, we infer, can cause destiny to be fulfilled precisely through human weaknesses.

But one has to doubt if the same can be applied to us. Whether it’s the debilitating effects of past trauma, or simple human weakness, or a combination of both, which makes our eyes dim so that at the crucial moment of decision we are unable to see clearly, it is doubtful whether what happens as a result can be described as God’s intended plan.

Where then are we left? We bear responsibility at all times for doing our best to see clearly, and must to try to heal those wounds, both our own and one another’s, which are liable to cause our eyes to grow dim.   

To see

What does one see in front of one’s eyes? I have in mind not the physiological question of how sharp our sight is, but the emotional, or perhaps moral, issue of what we perceive in the situation which lies before us. Or maybe these different facets of seeing are all interlinked.

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the ‘night of the broken glass’ of 9th November 1938, on which synagogues across Germany were set on fire, properties smashed, thirty thousand Jewish men arrested and many tens murdered. My grandfather was taken to Dachau, my father’s uncle to Sachsenhausen; both eventually managed to flee to Britain.

After being made to perform humiliating exercises in one of Frankfurt’s halls, my grandfather was taken with other Jewish prisoners toDachau. He remembered that as they left the premises where they had been brutally bullied, a man handed each of them a bottle of milk. Who it was, or how that man found the courage and the practical means to perform this act of kindness my grandfather did not nor could ever know.

On the train they were accompanied by two German soldiers, SS men. One of them, my grandfather recorded, made gestures for the whole duration of the several hour long journey indicating hanging and having one’s throat slit. The other got out at every station and brought water for each of the prisoners. The question of what made him able to perceive what his fellow soldier could not see is among the most enduring moral concerns of humankind.

Such situations do not only arise in extremis. A friend told me how he was stuck irritatingly in the queue at the supermarket behind a person who seemed unable to get the small change out of his purse to pay for a loaf of bread, a carton of milk and a couple of tomatoes. All of a sudden his annoyance gave way as he saw. The man’s clothes showed that he was poor. It wasn’t slowness or clumsiness; he simply didn’t have the extra thirty or forty pence for those tomatoes and didn’t know what to do. ‘I wish I could have been quicker’, my friend told me later, ‘I would have put the coin on the cash desk’. But he saw.

The Torah enjoins us to do ‘what is good and right in the eyes of God’. But we aren’t God, and we see the world with human eyes. Between us and what lies before us many filters intervene: our ignorance, tensions, lack of time, selfishness, want of compassion and so forth. Perhaps more disturbingly, and like that soldier on the train, it may be the very ideology impressed upon us that makes us unable simply to see the suffering person, but instead the monstrous, despised other whom we are called on to hate.

But when we do really see, it is possible that we may have a certain advantage even over God. For can the immortal, powerful God really understand what it’s like to be frightened, weak, alone, hungry and full of heart-ache?

What would we not do, when we have the eyes, and heart, to see?


Forgive me for writing on the following subject; it’s been on my mind a lot over the last week and I think it’s important. As so often happens, it came to my attention from two unconnected sources, as if some higher power had synchronised them.

First I received a phone call: ‘He came as a refugee. Life was always difficult. He’s been ill for a long time and the end is near. There’s no family, no one. What does one do?’

(I was reminded how, at the statue in their honour outside Liverpool Street Station, a man who came on the Kindertransport told us that Margaret Thatcher sent a message to the first reunion of such ‘Kinder’ thanking them for the contribution they had made to Britain. ‘It’s remarkable how many went on to do great things’, he said, ‘But we mustn’t forget the others, even if few, who lived out lonely existences in bed-sits, who never found the resources to create a new life, who simply suffered until the end’.)

Then the following passage came up in my Talmud class (One of the wonderful features of the Talmud is that, no matter what subject one is formally studying, one never knows what topics will arise a propos.) ‘If someone dies who has no mourners ten people go and sit in his / her place. A certain man died in the neighbourhood of Rav Yehudah. He had no mourners. Rav Yehudah took ten people each day and sat in the man’s place (ie. sat shivah in the home of the deceased.) After seven days the departed appeared to Rav Yehudah in a dream and said, ‘Let your spirit be at rest, for you have set my soul at rest’. (Shabbat 152a-b)

One of the many challenging aspects of reaching old age is that a person sometimes outlives all his or her friends. What is life if there’s no one left who’s ‘been through it with us’, with whom to share memories? (One’s reminded of Honi’s prayer when he wakes up after sleeping for seventy years, ‘Give me friends, or let me die!’) Other people are robbed by war and persecution not only of their past, with home, family and mother country, but of the hope, heart’s strength and opportunities which would have enabled them to have a fulfilled life, had they not been afflicted by destiny.

But whoever we are, our life substantially adds up in the end to the good and loving memories we leave in others’ hearts. Therefore it’s a wrong if someone makes their final journey down into the earth unknown, unremembered and uncherished.

I’ve listened to a lot of eulogies in funeral halls and shivas. In this way many people I didn’t directly know have become part of my moral, spiritual and emotional frame of reference. I think of what I’ve learnt about them and find myself guided by voices I never actually heard.

Within them is not only much wisdom, love and humour, but so much history. ‘My father never came to the station, he blessed me and wept’; ‘We crossed the Urals in the snow’; ‘My grandmother sung to me in Yiddish and I understood it all, without understanding a word’.

Get in touch...