The voice of fine silence

Pesach is the festival of our freedom, zeman cherutenu, not only because thousands of years ago we were liberated from slavery in Egypt, but so that we should dedicate ourselves to freedom ever after. This has always been a characteristic of Jewish ethics at their strongest, from the day Moses confronted Pharaoh to the date when Abraham Joshua Heschel marched next to Martin Luther King, and in numerous situations inbetween and since, in Israel and throughout the world.
There are two dimensions in which we are required to fight for freedom. They are quite distinct, yet ultimately connected.
The first is more obvious and concerns the world around us. The fact that most of us enjoy what may be the greatest measure of freedom of any generation of Jews in history, due both to the development of open democracies, and to the creation of the State of Israel as such a country, does not exempt us from the struggle to obtain those freedoms for others and to protect them for us all. Slavery, the trade in women, torture, violent abuse, the inability to be free of hunger, thirst and illnesses readily cured in other parts of the world, the maiming of innocent lives in the debris of war, the ravages of militias, the savagery of tyrannous governments, the repression of free speech, the crushing of creativity, the prevention of the right to practise one’s religion and follow one’s culture peacefully and with equal respect for others, – if our Seder has not touched on any of these concerns then what was the point?
To some, the requirement to be morally engaged is rooted in the Torah, in the dignity with which God invested every human being at creation through bestowing upon each and every one of us God’s own image, and in the commandments to pursue justice and practise compassion. To others the imperative calls out from Jewish history; the experience of having suffered persecution so much and so often engendering a sensibility and a responsibility which require us to cry out. Indifference is unthinkable, commitment an obligation.
At the same time, there is a different kind of freedom which the human experience summons us to seek. It is a profound inner freedom, and we are liable to need its resources at unpredicted moments. ‘At the still point of the turning world’, wrote T. S Eliot. Is there such a space within us? How do we find it? Is there a proven path by which to discover it? These questions come home to us most sharply precisely when our world is set turning by anguish or illness, when what we thought was safe and permanent proves as fragile as the certainty that we and those we love will be healthy and there for us for ever.
It is at such times in particular that we need an inner space, a place of quiet and calm, a place in the stillness of which we can listen like Elijah to the voice of fine silence and hear or feel the unspoken presence of God within all things and with us. It is a place of beauty and grace, a place of comfort and strength, a place of wisdom, in which we know that our consciousness belongs to something deeper than all the accidents which afflict mortality. Most of us merely and occasionally touch the edges of that space. But it is worth pursuing those paths which we sense can guide us there, paths of quietness, music, contemplation, prayer; paths which follow whatever ways bring us inner calm and spiritual composure, for when we need it we will want to be able to find that sacred place.
I sometimes wonder whether it is the knowledge of the existence of this space which gives to those who have campaigned most fearlessly for justice the courage and the dignity to do so.

Countdown to Pesach – Day 4

Something practical
This may well seem severe to us, but the Torah reserves the penalty of ‘being cut off from one’s people’ for those who do not observe the festival of Pesach. I’d given this no thought until someone told me that, prevented by sheer distance from joining any Jewish community, cut off from his people was precisely how he had felt.
Preparations for Pesach naturally draw our attention to our own kitchens and homes, to our own family and dinner table. Yet it is no less important to be mindful of others, near and far, in the communities around us. We begin the Seder by saying ‘Let all who are hungry come and eat’; this inclusive invitation goes back to the Talmud, to Rav Huna, whose custom it was to open his door and say these words before every meal.
What live in different circles of connection. They begin with family, neighbours and close friends. Is anyone not able to hold a Seder this year? Can we invite, help out, send a ‘Seder box’ – at least with some charoset – to the hospital where they are (and maybe some matzah, as the Jewish mystics do call it ‘the bread of health’!)?
Beyond are many Jewish people who do not have the wherewithal to celebrate the feast of freedom. It has always been the custom for Jews to contribute to kimcha depischa, a ‘matzah flour’ fund, as it is a slight upon the dignity of us all, if any of us lack the means to share in the festival.
Then come other circles. I was just contacted by a journalist from Ha’aretz to comment on the Refugees Seder being held in downtown Tel Aviv, and in which Nic Schlagman, Oliver Joseph and others from our community have long taken a leading role. Such events are a profound expression of the meaning of Jewish experience, using our own experience of being the victims of persecution and exclusion to change the world.
Something about the Seder
It sometimes seems to be that the way the Haggadah tells the story of the Exodus is also like a series of concentric circles. At their heart is the narrative from the Torah itself. The Haggadah quotes in full the brief potted history of the Jewish People from Deuteronomy ((26:1-9) which, while the temple still stood, was recited by grateful citizens of the Land of Israel when they brought their first fruits as offerings to Jerusalem. This core text is succinct, and would once have been known by virtually everyone.
Around each phrase the Haggadah weaves rabbinic interpretations. This is the second layer of the narrative. It presents what scholarship now calls ‘intersecting texts’; other verses which help to develop the meaning of the first, central passage. Thus, to explain the words ‘The Egyptians treated us badly’ it brings Pharaoh’s first words in the Book of Exodus, ‘Come let us deal wisely with them (the Hebrews) lest they grow many, and should there be a war, join with our enemies…’ Persecution, it seems, begins with fear. Or is it rather that there are ‘too many of these foreigners’ and that they’re ‘over here (taking over our country and our jobs)’. I sometimes think of Pharaoh’s speech is the earliest example of a Party Political Broadcast, in this case on behalf of the National Front of the time.
By now we’re already engaged in the third layer, when the text leaves the page and speaks directly into our own reality and we find ourselves commenting on it with stories of our own.
The Seder become most real when we’re on the page of the Haggadah and off it in the issues it provokes us to think about in our own realities at the same time.
Something to ponder
What about God in the story of the Exodus? It is often noted that Moses isn’t even mentioned once in the entire Haggadah. On the contrary, it is repeatedly stressed that God and God alone brought us out from Egypt: ‘Not by means of an angel, and not by means of a messenger’, but God brought us directly in God’s power and glory.
What then happened to this interventionist, reach-down-from-heaven, I get involved in history, deity? Was God like that once, before resolving to leave us to ourselves to get on with it here on earth, with all our wars and genocides. How, after all, does one answer the question: ‘If you intervened back then in Egypt, why did you fail to do so again in Germany in 1933?’
There are other questions too: did the Egyptians all deserve those ten plagues? Is it ‘collateral damage’, or collective punishment for the fact that not only Pharaoh but the whole of society benefited from the decades of efforts of the Hebrew slave-worker class? But is this fair? Couldn’t God have just killed Pharaoh? After all, he was chiefly responsible.
This drives some to the radical conclusion that God’s role is simply a fiction invented by those who set down the story. For myself, I prefer to think about the matter in the following terms. The ‘myth’, the collective narrative of the Jewish People, begins in the experience of injustice and slavery, in our liberation from which we affirm the fundamental values of the Jewish faith: dignity, justice, compassion, hope and faith. These are sacred values; in seeking them we seek the presence of God in this world, in all humanity and in all creation.
Did the Exodus happen just the way we tell it, with God doing everything we are told God did? This is not the most important question for me; the answer, I believe, is bound up with the way we tell our stories. Was God present back then in Egypt, and in the struggle for liberation? Is God on the side of the oppressed, of those who seek justice and practise compassion and find the courage to defy tyranny? These are to me the most important questions and the answers, affirmed repeatedly through the strength and endurance of the spirit, are ‘Yes’. However, they are answers we have not simply to declare, but to live.

Countdown to Pesach – Day 3

(I’ve stopped putting ‘Just x days to Pesach’: it makes people nervous, including me)

Something practical
Of all the items to prepare for the Seder charoset is the most fun. There’s a limited choice with regard to maror, the bitter herbs; matzah has generally to be bought ready-made; karpas, or greens, are usually eaten raw, though some people include small boiled potatoes – so that leaves the charoset.
For many years now we’ve invited our children to search the web for recipes. There are certain agreed conditions: they can choose up to three kinds; they must be substantially different from each other; they need to make them and be prepared to say a few words about each of them when the right time arrives, just before the meal, at the Seder. None of this, of course, necessarily excludes also making the traditional family version, especially if its absence at the table would virtually start a war.
The result has been more than just delicious charoset selection; it has involved everyone and been both fun and educative. Only one charoset which ever survived the Seder nights in any significant quantity, and that was because a key ingredient was grated brick dust. On that note, be warned: find the recipes before Monday morning. Most of them contain at least one or two recherché items and one doesn’t want to be racing round the shops at the very last minute.
See ‘something to ponder’ below for meanings connected to the charoset.
For recipes recommended by members of the community, including ‘nut-free options’, click here.
Something about the Seder
Yesterday I tried to describe a short Seder, if because of young children, or health concerns one can count on little more than half an hour between sitting down and starting the meal. But most of us do have at least some more time than that. How, then, can one develop interesting themes if one has an hour to an hour and a half (or more!)?
First of all, none of us should underestimate the power of the Haggadah itself. There are good reasons why it is Judaism’s most printed book. Nothing, for me, has ever diminished the power of its basic story, which, like so many others, I always hear in the rhythm and with the intonations my father used to give it. But here are some ways to explore its themes in depth.
Buy, beg, borrow or get a guest to bring a different Haggadah each year. But you do need to pre-read a key part of it and decide what to draw out at the Seder. Or use the internet to search through a massive range of creative Haggadot of every possible opinion, from the Bundist / Socialist texts of the Yiddish world of the Lower East Side, to the vegetarians Haggadah of the Liberated Lamb. There’s lots of material which is both fun, and profound.
Use Haggadah illustrations to develop discussions and debates. (It’s worth choosing two or three in advance and making some copies for everyone to see.)
Asks guests to pre-prepare. I’ve attended a wonderful Seder where everyone was asked to bring something which represented freedom to them. The most important and powerful contributions are those which draw on personal or family experiences. What journeys have brought people to this country? (Note: it’s easier to tell people in advance how long you’d like them to speak, (probably from two up to five minutes) than try to interrupt them after an hour and a half.)
If you can, open up the ethical issues with which the Haggadah is so deeply imbued. What is slavery in today’s world? What constitutes resistance? What is the role of human courage? Does God help, and if so how? In what ways has Israel brought us freedom? For what freedoms must we continue to strive?
Something to ponder 
Most of us love charoset, but what is it actually doing at the Seder? On this point even the Talmud is divided; according to Rabbi Levi it is in memory of the apple while according to Rabbi Yochanan it reminds us of the mortar or mud. The sage Abbayei, who clearly favours compromise, explains that we must therefore make it tart, like apples, and sticky, like cement. As a supplement to Rabbi Yochanan’s view the Talmud adds that it should also contain sticks of spices to recall the straw. (Talmud: Pesachim 116a)
The references to mortar and straw are fairly obvious; the charoset reminds us that our ancestors were free labour in Pharaoh’s building industry, as so many slaves of so many nations have been ever since. There is an interesting rider in the Leket Yosher, which puzzles over the custom of including pears. They are not, he notes, one of the fruits mentioned in the Song of Songs (see below), yet the practice of using them is not to be changed. Perhaps, he concludes, the reason is that grated or crushed pears make food grey – just like mortar.
More obscure is Rabbi Levi’s reference to ‘the apple’. What apple? Almost certainly he has in mind the legend that during the long years of slavery the Israelite women would bring their menfolk food and encourage them to rediscover their dignity and self-worth by seducing them into making love, nine months after which their wives would give birth, free from pain, underneath the apple trees. Hence, also, the reference to including in thecharoset fruits and spices mentioned in the romantic Song of Songs. These include dates, figs, cinnamon, honey, nuts and pomegranates.
The actual function of the charoset at the Seder, according to the Talmud, is to act as a dip for the maror to counteract its taste, lest its unmitigated bitterness prove fatal. Hence the instruction to dip the maror in the charoset but then shake off the sweet substance, prior to eating the savage-tasting herbs, which, by the way, we are obliged to chew fully before we swallow them down. (This is the second dipping, about which the Mah Nishtanah asks.)
As a metaphor I find this both moving and real. What heals bitterness and the pain of suffering? Surely only love. Life will sometimes taste like bitter herbs; since anguish is not equally and fairly distributed among people, some will have more on their plate than others. What can we do, except offer that love which, if it cannot prevent them in the first place, may at least bring a measure of healing to the sharpness of the wounds?

Countdown to Pesach – Day 2

Something practical
The world seems to divide into those who love matzah and those who hate it. I belong unashamedly to the former category; the dog seems to identify with the latter, since I put some pieces of last year’s matzah (not kosher for use this year) in front of him and he didn’t immediately recognise it as food.
Matzah is made from exactly the same ingredients as those which define the making of bread according to halakhah: flour and water. The flour must come from one of the five species of grain, wheat, barley, oat, spelt or rye. The difference is that in the making of matzah the mixture is strictly prevented from rising by the speed with which the dough is mixed (traditionally 18 minutes from the moment water touches the flour until the tray with the rolled and holed matzah is inside the super-hot oven.)
On every other Shabbat and festival we take two loaves for the blessing; at the Seder we use three. Like so many Jewish decisions this is a compromise or combination of ideas. Matzah is ‘the bread if the poor’; just as it is the way of the poor to eat not from a whole but from a ‘broken’ loaf, so we use a broken piece of matzah out of identification with the slaves and the dispossessed. Yet why should Pesach be less cheerful than any other sacred day when we have two whole loaves? We therefore take three matzot and, close to the start of the Seder break the middle one, hiding half as the Afikoman, while the other half is the broken loaf which becomes a central symbol of the Seder.
When we finally reach the meal and say the blessings over the matzah, some people have the tradition of keeping in mind the whole pieces when thanking God for ‘bringing forth bread from the earth’ and the broken piece while saying the special blessing, exclusive to Seder night, acknowledging that God has ‘commanded us concerning eating matzah’.
What I can never understand is how some Haggadot say that one should break the matzah in the shape of letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Over some things one really has no control!
Something about the Seder
I’m sometimes asked what one really must include if the Seder has to be kept short to suit small children, or a family member who isn’t well enough for a lengthy and late evening. Here is a suggested outline.
One can’t skimp at the beginning. Kiddush, the greens, breaking the middle matzah, asking the four questions, –  these must be included. (Someone told me yesterday they saw a T-shirt which read: Mah Nishtanah – Dayyenu – Let’s eat)
But most of the middle of the Seder is what the Haggadah calls maggid – telling the story. Here one really can adjust according to opportunity, anything from ten minutes to two hours (or more, but please not at my house). The key requirement is simply to tell the story.
If I had 10 minutes and small children I might: sing a couple of appropriate songs (see our website) and use puppets to demonstrate being slaves and then being free. I probably wouldn’t miss out the 10 plagues,- gory, vivid and totally un-politically correct they are just what many children love.
I would then go back into the Haggadah just before the second cup of wine, to note the three matters, actually four, which Rabban Gamliel taught around the year 100CE that everyone must mention: Pesach (the paschal lamb), matzah and maror, and that we must see this journey not as something which happened to others long ago, but as our journey from slavery to freedom. If there is a family member or close friend at the table who’s experienced such a journey I’d probably ask him or her to tell us about it in a few words; such personal stories make a deep impact on everyone.
Then come the second cup of wine, the matzah, the maror, the charoset, and food. After the food and Grace after Meals, I’d do over the next two cups exactly as many songs, and only so many, as the company enjoy.
Something to ponder
The Seder, like the matzah, is about both wholeness and brokenness.
It is about wholeness, the completeness a person finds only in freedom and dignity protected by justice; in the liberty which allows one to livid fully and deeply according to one’s faith and culture, with similar respect for the safety, wellbeing and integrity of others. That is why Pesach, which we begin by thinking about slavery, is known nevertheless as Zeman Cherutenu, the Season of our Freedom,  and why we end the evening by rejoicing in our liberty, thanking God, singing and opening the door which heralds the coming of Elijah, harbinger of redemption and the Messiah. Pesach is the festival of hope.
A Seder isn’t a Seder unless it’s full of fun and joy.
But at the Seder night we also reflect on and identify ourselves with what is far from whole. To remember that we were slaves in Egypt has no moral impact if aren’t mindful that there are also many kinds of slavery today, to tyranny, poverty, curable illness, and numerous forms of cruelty and bullying, – and determine to do something about it.
Early this morning I found these lines by Robert Klein Engler from his poem ‘Passover’: ‘Broken matzoth has a new name. / So does a broken man.’ They remind me of the saying attributed to the Rebbe of Kotsk: ‘There’s nothing more whole than a broken heart’, which in turn recalls the verse from Psalms that ‘God is close to the broken-hearted’.
Misery for misery’s sake is pointless. Perhaps the issue here is that the real problem in the world is hard-heartedness. The open heart, the broken heart, the heart which feels an instinctive closeness and empathy with the cares of others, is in fact the source of hope. It is precisely this which Pesach celebrates, the hope that we can and will travel from cruelty to kindness, from injustice to dignity, from slavery to freedom, from a broken to a healing heart.
We experience broken-heartedness so that we can sing with a full and truly whole heart.

Countdown to Pesach – Day 1

Enjoy the week left to prepare!

Something practical
There’s no real way around it; Pesach is the festival of the great clean-out. Removingchametz, leaven, from one’s home, especially from the kitchen, does involve a serious engagement with brushes, scourers, and the backs of otherwise rarely visited food cupboards.
But there’s a redeeming feature, which I’ve often over-looked in the past. I used to think that first one cleaned one’s home, then one told stories at the Seder. Now I realise that’s only half the truth. In fact, the stories begin with the cleaning out and the putting away:

‘You can’t throw that away!’
‘Why not? It’s hideous!’
‘But my great aunt gave it to me before she died in 1997. Her family had it in Czechoslovakia.’

Before one knows it the story has already begun: who are we; where do we come from; what makes us who we are? Pesach is not only the festival of freedom; it’s also the festival of identity. Talking to ourselves as we sort through our kitchen, talking to one another, we’re deep into the story long before we sit down for the Seder meal. Experiencing this may make the cleaning easier, or at least give it another kind of purpose.
Something about the Seder
With all the shopping and cooking, it’s easy to find oneself with no time left to prepare for the Seder itself. But if you’re leading, or co-leading your Seder, then a couple of hours with the Haggadah a little beforehand is time well spent. It’s even worth sitting and imaging the Seder table. Who will be there? Who will not be there? Whose needs must be taken into consideration? For what age-groups and gangs of children must it be kept interesting and fun? Who may be unwell, so that the whole evening shouldn’t be too long? Who will be there who knows from personal experience what it means to flee from persecution to freedom?
Looking through the Haggadah with these realities and sensitivities in mind, it’s worth thinking: what should be stressed? What should be left out? At what point is it time for a song, game or puppet show for the children? Where can we leave the Haggadah to one side and have a contemporary debate about freedom (if David Cameron is coming, maybe the freedom of the press would be a good angle)?
Over the next days, I’ll describe what one might put in a short, and what might be the possibilities for a full and discursive, Seder. But if you’re running it, don’t let the duster or the cooking pot rob you of the time to prepare.
An issue to ponder
The Seder is the night of the story; the time when we tell who we are. The account of the Exodus from Egypt, how we were slaves and how God brought us out into freedom, is not just story, but the story, the core, essential narrative of what Judaism is about. We refer to it on every festival, every Friday night Kiddush, every evening and every morning. From it the defining values of our Judaism, of our humanity, flow. What are they?
On one level, they can be described very simply: from injustice, inequality, and the lack of any kind of dignity we learn for once and for all time the essential importance of justice, equality, and dignity for all. We understand that the journey towards a world where these values are respected involves both human courage, – witness the role of the midwives who refused to follow Pharaoh’s command and kill the Hebrew baby boys; witness the defiance of Moses and Aaron – and God’s help and guidance.
On another level, there is nothing more challenging than the commitment which these issues entail. It’s all very well telling the story of ‘from slavery to freedom’, but how are we living it, for ourselves, our fellow Jews and our fellow human beings? What does it mean to be ‘the People of the Seder’?


‘Not a bone in its body shall you break’, says the Torah, describing how the Passover lamb is to be eaten. The Jewish People has always understood these words metaphorically as well as literally. At Pesach the community should be whole, entire; not one single person should be forgotten or abandoned. After all, what meaning can the Festival of Freedom have if it means only freedom for some? That’s why Moses, asked by Pharaoh whom he was intending to take with him out of Egypt, answers that everyone is included, ‘With our young and our old shall be go, with our sons and with our daughters’ (Exodus 10:9). (Interestingly, rabbinic Hebrew has an ancient word for what we now call a Zimmer-frame, pisachon, from the same route as Pesach: disability was not to mean exclusion from the great journey of the Jewish People towards freedom and dignity.)
People were not to be left out of the Passover celebrations because they couldn’t afford them: ‘Even the poorest person should not…be given less than four cups of wine’, demands the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:1) To this day Jewish communities have funds, known as kimcha de’Pischa, ‘Pesach flour’, or ma’ot hittin, ‘wheat money’, to ensure that nobody should lack the means for the festival. ‘We have not seen or heard of a Jewish community which does not have a charity fund,’ wrote Maimonides approvingly over eight hundred years ago (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 9:3).
There are many other reasons why people are left out or sometimes simply quietly forgotten: shyness, illness, loneliness, disability, or just because nobody thought or troubled to say, ‘join us, please’. To be mindful of one another, without exception, is a privilege and responsibility all of us share. We are all the poorer, emotionally and spiritually, for those dimensions of human experience we fail to heed.
I love the preparations for Pesach. I find myself thinking of the clump of horseradish breaking new leaf at the back of the garden. I have a mental image of steam rising from the pot in which we’ll be koshering cutlery and resolve not to tip the boiling water over my arm as I did two years ago (I have a small scar to prove my love of freedom). I think, less happily, about the oven racks and what’ll be entailed in removing from them every trace of the burnt remains of the drips and spills of fifty-two weeks of Shabbat meals.
But through all of these delightful details what should shine through is not just the cleanliness of the kitchen, but of the essential Jewish vision: from slavery to freedom; from the experience of injustice to dignity and equality; from marginalisation to inclusion – be it at the Passover table, or in the community, or in society, or in the family of nations. Should this not be the ideal of all humanity, in a world where hunger, slavery, trafficking, torture, racism, religious bigotry and turning a blind eye to the pain of others are constant realities?
The Jewish vision requires us first to sit down together at the Seder table and remember our story, then to get up and act.


I think most people have holy places. These are probably not temples, cathedrals or famous synagogues, locations which possess the public attributes we associate with sanctity and rites. But they are holy nevertheless, set aside, special.
‘I would go’, said a friend of mine who is sadly no longer alive, ‘and talk to my tree and that made me feel better’. I wonder if she actually spoke. Perhaps she really did, or maybe it was rather that the tree offered a kind of safety in which she could listen to her own heart and feel it strengthened by that same sustaining flow of sap which year after year has the power to summon spring out of winter. Then one day they cut the tree down.
Is it history which makes a place holy? Is what makes our private sacred spaces special, – the hilltop, the small bridge by the river, those rocks overlooking the sea, – that they hold for us in confidence the story of our life, because we stood there twelve years ago, and five, and last year, and certainly intend to go back again next year, if we’re still here, after the next challenge, or joy, or troubles, and listen once again, and watch the shore give way to the sea?
Sometimes I think our most special places begin in our childhood, before time became so pressured and oppressive, before the knowledge of mortality began to invade us with its fears, and life could be unbounded wonder and fun. Then, slowly, comes the ineluctable awareness which gradually grows through the rest of all our days: ‘I witness all this beauty and I love it. What is my life? What for?’
Do we get answers? No. The mysteries remain the same, intractable as they always were. Sometimes they taste of joy: does one not go to such places to say that one’s in love, with one’s partner, with these very trees and the sky, with this great life itself? Sometimes they taste bitter as the irreversibility of aging or death. But the question ‘why?’ will not be removed, for once and for always, from the heart.
Do we get answers? Yes. For we go to such places because they somehow help us to bear, and bear up before, the unknowable and the irreconcilable: the vastness, the cruelty, the beauty and the tenderness of existence, which are all inseparably bound together. We listen to the great presence of this incomprehensible life and depart with greater stillness, and wonder, and love, in the heart.

Is God in those places? It depends what we mean by ‘God’. When Moses finally enters the Holy of Holies in the Tent of Meeting, passing through the curtain to stand in the innermost space, he hears the voice of God speaking to him. Or rather a more exact translation, because the key verb “speak” is in fact in the reflexive form, would be that he overhears God speaking to God’s self.
Maybe that’s what we listen to, walking at night to our favourite tree, or down to the small running stream. It’s not a voice from above, but from within, one receptacle of our heart talking quietly to the other, and the consciousness which fills them both is God’s.


There’s an image on the front of the Prague Haggadah, printed in 1526, of an old man being rowed across the sea in a skiff. In later Haggadot the view is wider; there are empty lands to this side and to that, but the figure in the frail boat is alone. He is Abraham, the Ivri, the man ‘on the other side’, the one set apart. It is a loneliness not only Jews, but many others also have often experienced.
As I sat praying this morning I absorbed the sensations around me: warmth from the radiator, the impatience of the kettle nearing boiling, laughter as Nicky told the girls a story, the sound of rummaging, no doubt for one of the many paraphernalia of school. I’ve heard such supposedly unremarkable sounds thousands of times, and paid them little attention. But this morning I thought: Happy the person whose day begins in such a manner; and lucky, if he or she can take all this for granted. And there came to my mind that lonely image of Abraham.
I thought then for a moment of how many people wake up cold, with no place to get warm; without a home, so that there is nowhere to make a cup of tea without thinking because the cupboard, the kettle and the tea have always been and will always be where they should be.
What does a refugee lose? (I belong to the first generation of my family who doesn’t know by immediate experience). A refugee loses home; proximity and comfort of family; friends; mother tongue; money; safety; the capacity to work; the feeling of belonging and being of value; faith in the future; those unquantifiable small skills which constitute security, – knowing how to go to the doctor, get on a bus, send a letter – and which prevent us from feeling constantly unsafe, alone and afraid.
What does a refugee gain? Relief, perhaps, at escaping with one’s life. Images of concealment, danger, maybe torture. Nightmares. Bewilderment, the constant companionship of anguish for those left behind: ‘Mother, when will I see you again? Daughter, will I ever see you again?’
Pesach is called zeman cherutenu, the ‘season of our freedom’. Tradition has taught us to celebrate it by telling stories about journeys, epitomised by the great journey out of Egypt which serves as a metaphor for all our flights and travels ever since. It is the festival of backpacks and borders, of memories, fears and hopes. At its centre is the great meal of solidarity over the bitter herbs of banishment and the bread of exile. At its heart are the great faith and dreams of Judaism and humanity, of human dignity, deliverance, solidarity, justice and peace. Ge’ulah, the ultimate goal, means more even than freedom; it is redemption, where every person and people has their land, their home, their security, and peace.
Pesach is thus also ‘the season of our dreams’. It is the source and living well of all Judaism’s values and hopes.
When Purim passes and Pesach is less than thirty days away, it’s time to begin to prepare. Sho’alim vedorshin, teaches the Talmud, ‘One asks and one searches’: What should I do in my kitchen? What should do I do in our world? What should I do with my life?

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