Where to begin?

The Israeli elections on Tuesday; tomorrow Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, and Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees; National Holocaust Memorial Day on Sunday: – where does one begin?

The Mechilta, which contains discussions from the 2ndcentury and may be the oldest known stratum of rabbinic commentary, puzzles over one single word in the Song at the Sea: ve’anvehu. Is it related to noi, meaning beauty? If so, how does a mere human being render God beautiful? Or is it connected to the nounnaveh , meaning place? If so, how do we make a place for God in our world? Or perhaps the two meanings are connected, if not semantically, then at least morally: the world will only be beautiful if there is space within it for God, if there is place within it to respect the sacred within human, and all, life.

When Primo Levi wrote about the liberation of Auschwitz, 27 January 1945, from which the date for Holocaust Memorial Day was taken, he was as ever scrupulously unsentimental:
The four Russian soldiers who appeared on horseback through the mist did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint…It was that shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage…the shame..that the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist…(The Truce)

The world, and that must be the essential point in having a Holocaust Memorial Day, will only be God’s place when such crimes are no longer committed, against anyone anywhere.

The State of Israel was created as a homeland for the Jewish People, a democratic state proclaiming equality for all its citizens, in the immediate wake of the Shoah. Many who survived the death camps with nothing but their bare bones and scarcely a single survivor of all their loved ones, went to fight for its existence and build new lives there in freedom and dignity. This week’s elections are in and of themselves a proclamation of that democratic freedom, and , with a far more finely balanced Knesset than most had thought likely, and with many new MKs, among them more women than ever before in an Israeli Parliament, may lead to a fresh social inclusiveness, new hope and better opportunities for peace. ‘I will accompany God to God’s holy place’, say the sages, commenting on that elusive wordve’anvehu: maybe we can support that journey going a step further.

Meanwhile, ‘If you are planting a tree and you hear the Messiah approaching, don’t stop’, taught the rabbis, – but firm its roots properly in the soil. How can anyone talk about beauty or ‘God’s world’ without the trees? They’ve cut down Binsey Poplars, mourned Gerald Manley Hopkins over a century ago:

…Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river, and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

Therefore let us plant them back again along the valleys and wind-wandering paths, so that we can find wonder amongst them, with the birds and the pure air. ‘God’s world, those woodlands’, I think whenever I’m in the forests, in the Galilee, or Scotland, or the Jerusalem hills.


It’s cold outside and starting to snow. It’s not quite the customary direction, but this year the snow seems to be travelling from Jerusalem to London, perhaps following our delightful Israeli guests, whom we are happy to welcome to our community.

I do love it when the world turns white and even London grows clean and semi-silent. Families who live only three doors apart but scarcely see one another on the average day meet with their scarves and gloves and make-shift toboggans. I have childhood memories of the Swiss mountains, and a more recent picture of how, when on the night after our wedding Nicky and I took the train to Scotland, we were greeted at dawn by a newly white world and an intrepid deer seeking food in the snow.

But right now it’s cold outside and may well be slippery. For many people it’s difficult, or plain unsafe, to go out at all. It’s a truism, but it isn’t easy to grow old, when aches and illness challenge the ready mobility which most of us take for granted and an action which would have taken thoughtless seconds requires mental planning and absorbs several minutes: How do I put on my socks? Will I be safe if I go to the garden gate?

Yesterday I was at the National Portrait Gallery with Nicky. We saw the most remarkable self-portrait: the photographer had sought to take a picture of himself in which he neither hid, nor minimised, nor emphasised the war wounds he had received in Iraq. The picture showed him perched on a kind of stool. He had no legs and had lost one arm, yet he looked calm, reflective, modest, indeed handsome, at ease with himself. How does such a person manage? How do so many people cope with so much?

On the way back home we passed a man with his sleeping bag in a corner by one of the stairways down to Leicester Square Station. I’m inconsistent, but I often give something, -though they say it’s better to donate directly to Shelter and its like, – because I don’t want a person to feel that others walk straight past as if he or she were simply invisible or somehow deemed unworthy of existence.

Outside, too, in this city now beginning to receive its blanket of snow, are all the birds and animals. From just after dawn I see the blackbirds hopping across the frozen lawn; they are ground-feeders and can’t cling to the peanut and sunflower-seed distributors which the finches, tits, and nowadays parakeets besiege. I put out a handful of raisins and hope that they will have enough calories to manage. Why should the small birds freeze to death?

Tomorrow we read about the plague of darkness. The deepest darkness, noted the Hasidic teachers, is not simply when you can’t see. It’s when you don’t see because you don’t care. The most important thing in the whole world is to care and, in some way, turn that into action.

A Jewish welcome for victims of an African holocaust

Does suffering always have to engender more suffering, or can the legacy of trauma lead to the capacity to bring healing?

My synagogue recently hosted members of the refugee community from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We had met individually, through work with asylum seekers. I’d also signed an open letter by Rabbi David Mitchell calling on the government to mobilise world opinion to halt the violence devastating the DRC. I realised that a communal invitation would express a deeply needed welcome in their difficult exile in London. I recalled what it had meant to my grandfather, a refugee rabbi from Nazi Germany, when he and hundreds of German Jews were made welcome in the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in 1939, where they held services with familiar melodies and a sermon in their mother tongue.

We decided to commemorate National Holocaust Memorial Day together. With the aid of photos, I outlined the history of the Nazi genocide of the Jews. They brought a troupe of young actors who portrayed in vivid vignettes the killings, rape and seizure of young children by militia which make life so violent and terrifying in Congo. Up to seven million are estimated killed. It was a grim evening.

The positive outcome was the warmth which developed between our communities. We resolved to meet again, this time to celebrate, with food, music and stories.

“Hundreds will come,” we were told. “You don’t know how much this means to us.” We worried about accommodating such numbers, yet it was essential the party take place in the synagogue. It meant that a different faith community cared, and was opening its doors. Our kitchen was busy from dawn to dusk. Perhaps never before has Congolese food been prepared according to the strict laws of kosher, or served with falafel. One lady who had volunteered in Israel regaled us with Shalom Aleichem, “Peace be upon you”. Both communities attended in large numbers.

One feature, though, was not as we’d envisaged. The main Congolese song was “Genocide in Congo”. The story-telling emerged as a plea to heed the sufferings of the country known as “the world capital of rape”. I asked one guest about his family back home; he turned his face to the wall. I put my hand on the elbow of another; it was no elbow beneath the jacket but an artificial limb. Only the dancing to Congolese music was truly joyous.

The impact of the Nazi Holocaust is ongoing for survivors, their families, and the Jewish People. However, the events themselves are over. For the people of the DRC they are not. Even now there is fierce fighting between M23 rebels and government soldiers. This newspaper recently pictured a long line of refugees trudging towards Goma, their few possessions wrapped in bundles. Human Rights Watch reports rape, killing and trafficking in slave labour among government forces as well. There’s no clear international process likely to bring these terrible sufferings to an end.

Jews have long experience of being marginalised, lampooned, exiled, and worse. We’ve lived with the legacy of trauma and the struggle to create new lives, communities and, recently, our own country. There is always the understandable danger that such experiences make us insular and protective of our own vulnerability. Yet many use the sensitivities so painfully derived to stand at the forefront of advocacy for refugees, campaigns against racism, protests against genocide, and action for the homeless.

The Talmud recounts how the 3rd century rabbi Joshua son of Levi wants to meet the Messiah. He asks Elijah where to look. “Among the poor at the gates of Rome,” the prophet replies. “There are lots of them,” the rabbi objects. “You’ll find him,” Elijah assures him. He travels to the entrance of the great city and sees numerous destitute people taking off and putting on their many bandages. One man, however, removes only a single bandage at a time before replacing it, saying, “Maybe I’ll be needed.” That’s the Messiah.

I’ve witnessed many people make of their pain a profound capacity to support others suffering likewise. People often say to me, “If you know someone going through what I’ve been through and feel I can help, put him in touch.” I doubt if this takes the pain away, but it can transform its meaning and make it a source of new, perhaps even redemptive, purpose.

We’re all needed. One of the deepest manifestations of our humanity is how we use the wounds we’ve experienced, personally or collectively, to care for the sufferings of others.

This first appeared as an article in The Times


I was recently asked what my ideal Friday looked like and I thought I would try to write down an answer because I like Fridays, in a nervous kind of way. Fridays move towards a point, the moment when the flame begins to burn on the Shabbat candles. Until then the refrain is ‘get me to the candles on time’. Today that time 3.59, – which makes it all more urgent. Personally, I blame January, for making its days so short.

If I were asked ‘Why stress? Does it really matter to reach Shabbat on time?’ I would answer ‘Definitely’. To me all those ‘Don’ts’ in the Shabbat laws are a thick line or square drawn in the diary, to protect the time inside it and give it away to nobody (something I’m generally bad at doing). That time is not for emails, phone calls, shopping, or writing to a deadline. No! It’s time for God, and time for God in Jewish tradition mercifully includes, the best food of the week, the chance to talk with family, guests, community, reading, prayer, walking (with the dog), looking round the garden, and the study of Torah.

In fact, that’s how my dream Friday starts, with preparing the weekly Torah portion. I’ve never believed that you shouldn’t start thinking of what to say until you can see the whites of the congregation’s eyes. I love that ancient Jewish interplay of text and understanding. What does that word mean? What did it mean in the Talmud? What could it mean to us? Yearly as the stories in the Torah become more familiar, so too does the feeling ‘I never noticed that; I never understood that, before’. And next year, please God, it’ll be the same, only worse.

So here’s one useless member of the family hiding in his study: what about all the shopping and cooking?  Well, even the Talmud doesn’t allow such behaviour. Rav Hisda diced the vegetables, it says, and Rav Nachman tidied the house. Male tokenism, one might think, and perhaps it was. But to me it’s the best part of the day, if Nicky and I can synchronise our hours in the kitchen. Peeling-the-apples-and-onions conversation is among the best conversation of all: ‘Don’t throw that away, the guinea pigs’ll eat it.’ (We have 40.) ‘Just hold the lid while I drain the potatoes.’ It’s even nicer if the children are there: ‘Would you help grate the cheese?’ (Our kitchen is a chicken-free zone. ‘Un-Jewish’, some say. Better for chickens’, I’d reply.)

We’ve open house tonight. ‘How many guests?’ Nicky asks. ‘Between ten and forty,’ I reply with precision. Once when driving, we heard a panicked woman call a cookery programme: ‘I’ve so many for Christmas dinner I can’t cope!’ ‘How many,’ the presenter coolly asked. ‘Eight!’ gasped the lady.  Mossy fell off his seat in the car, from laughter.

Shabbat is community too. I don’t like Fridays where all I do is think of myself and my own. In the days when the Jewish community was truly close, food would be taken wherever there was illness. Someone’s door would always have been open for every meal. All that is still my dream (and partly our shul’s reality too, thanks to lots of people). I’d love to have a rota of challah-bakers every Thursday, so that we could take them as an ‘I’m thinking of you’ maybe with a pot of soup on Fridays. Shabbat isn’t something one does alone. There should be no Shabbat without giving Tseddakah either.

By now it’s probably 3.52. ‘How long have I still got?’ asks Nicky, who’s also had to resolve a dozen matters at work, between the saucepans. ‘About 7 minutes’, I answer. But we’re going to make it, just. And I think as she lights the candles of Rabbi Levi Lauer’s comment: ‘Imagine those flames looking at you, as you look at them, and asking you, “What deeds and values have happened in this place that it should deserve the blessing of peace?”’


‘And they didn’t do as the King of Egypt told them’: what great courage lies within these few words, which describe how the midwives Shifrah and Puah refused to obey the royal decree. Ordered quietly to strangle at birth all the male babies born to the Children of Israel in Egypt and thus to become the instruments for Pharaoh’s policy of covert murder, they plainly and unhesitatingly refuse. Since their time how many people throughout history have acted as those midwives did, most of them perishing unknown. How many more people have understood that here is the greatest of all possible moral examples!

From where do the midwives’ draw their courage? The Torah tells us that ‘they feared God’. In the Biblical context these spare words indicate inner obedience to a simple and universal morality. One doesn’t kill, steal, or harm the defenceless; one conducts oneself thus irrespective of the powers at stake and whether or not there are human witnesses through whom one’s deeds may come to light, because there is One who knows, before whom the conscience is determined to do what is right.

Yet, great as this is, perhaps there is still a further element or motive. For it can be no accident that moral resistance, and hence redemption, begins with two women, two midwives, whose occupation is to assist in the process of birth, the wonder of the emergence into this world of new and helpless life. Nothing stands so deeply in opposition to cruelty and murder as such witness to the drama and tenderness of birth.

I remember as clearly as if they happened only minutes ago the first moments of each of our children’s lives in this world,- the midwife saying ‘Hold the baby while I attend to your wife’, those tiny hands and feet, the big eyes looking. I remember thinking, ‘How loud, glaring and bewildering this all must be’, and recalling the Talmud’s legend that there are whole worlds the unborn baby knows and, at the hour of birth, must relinquish and forget.

I don’t see much television, but Nicky said to me, ‘You’ll like this’, and we watched Call the Midwife together, the recent Christmas episode. (The series is based on Jennifer Worth’s writing about her actual experiences in the profession.) To observe such kindness, grounded in the poverty of the East End, the workhouse not so long closed, the streets frozen, the basements often grimy; to realise that there are such people who have the gritty humour to know how to gain the trust of even the most lonely and defended of people; to see such goodness touch the long grief of a bereaved old mother whose children were buried in the common grave without her even having been told where, – Nicky was not wrong.

And, as this was the Christmas episode, it lead me to reflect on the relationship between birth and the divine. To Christians this is the miracle of God become human, of the holy family. I’m sure this invites no lesser a latitude of interpretation than do the doctrines of all faiths to their faithful.

But watching made me think of the wonder, of the sacred, which lies in each and every human life, and of how kindness is really next to, or perhaps a form of, godliness. It reminded me of how our redemption as a people began with the work of the midwives, and made me think that perhaps all redemption always begins which such devotion, courageous and immovable, to life.

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