Dog days

Some days one goes to bed tired, and wakes up the same. But on others something gentle seems to touch us in one’s sleep or in our dreams. The dawn, suggests the Zohar, belongs to Abraham, whose quality is loving-kindness, for then the angel Raphael goes forth ‘who possesses all kinds of healing’, and the birds ‘thank and praise the Holy One’. Maybe that’s why this morning when I woke up these small scenes were in my mind.
 
Last week Mitzpah, my dog, ended up with an embarrassing circle of red lipstick on his head. I blame it all on Margaret, and her ninetieth birthday. I first met Margaret when she came to our home for the Kol Nidrei service which we conduct together with the Holocaust Survivors Centre. I’m always on my way out to synagogue as the small congregation arrives, and I’m never sure if it’s appreciated that I leave the dog behind. So I was relieved when Margaret said to me one year with her customary charm, ‘He’s such a mensch, your dog, and welcomes us so nicely’. And Margaret, who survived the Holocaust, including Auschwitz, insisted, although I don’t think she’s a traditionally observant person, that what she would most of all like to do to mark her ninetieth birthday was to come to the morning service, at 7.00am on a Tuesday, and of course the dog had to be there. Deborah brought a cake, and Margaret, and the dog came too (though we didn’t count him in the minyan) and received a kiss.
 
And still of dogs, Noach Braun, whose personal vision and determination created the Israel Guide Dog Centre for the Blind, was at my home yesterday. ‘Let’s do a walk together in aid of guide dog training,’ I suggested. ‘Let’s see if we could start at the Israeli Embassy and meet David Blunkett and then Clare Balding on the way’, I continued without, of course, having consulted any of the people concerned. ‘Great idea’, Noach replied, ‘Let’s do the walk on Israel Independence Day’. Seeing me look puzzled at this choice of such an eminent date, he added ‘After all, guide dogs bring people back their independence and that’s what it’s all about.’ At once images of canines faded from my mind and instead came pictures of freedom, – freedom to live, to move unhindered and unafraid; and the whole concept of independence, and the whole importance of Israel, and liberty, rethought themselves in my mind.
 
These little moments move me, for in them I feel, in small but in close up, the spirit and the courage which propel Jewish history itself.
 
One more incident. Some weeks ago as I was walking on Shabbat, I saw a young woman sitting on a park bench, her head in her hands, and realised that she was weeping. One cannot just go past. ‘Can I help you?’ I asked. She looked up. ‘Has something bad happened?’ She nodded. ‘Can I sit with you for a moment?’ One worries as a man if one’s unintentionally being threatening, but mercifully a kind lady from our community came walking up. ‘Let me sit with you for a little’, she said, and did so, and afterwards I learned that she had sat and listened and they had spoken for a good hour.
 
The Talmud says that when we meet God on the other side we’ll be asked if we’ve dealt with our fellow human beings in good faith. I think we’ll also be asked ‘Have you been kind?’ In fact, I think we’re asked that question all the time. I hate to think how often I’ve failed to notice.
 
Kindness alone can mitigate, at least partially, the injustices of fate and unwind the coiled springs of cruelty.

Touched and blessed

I’ve never forgotten the moment, over ten years ago now, when I entered the ward and they stopped me at the desk. ‘They’re waiting for you, rabbi. The young man is dying and wants you to say a prayer.’ I’d never even met him before: what prayer should I be saying? In the event, I didn’t have to decide. The man was weak, but smiled warmly first at me then at his wife: ‘Say a prayer about life’s beauty because we’ve loved it together’.
 
Tomorrow we read how Moses prays for his sister’s health. It’s the shortest recorded prayer in Judaism, ‘God, please, heal her, please’. In a week of violence, when in America a hurricane has crushed the lives of young children, when here murderous hands still covered in a young man’s blood have been held up with no shame, that prayer marks the opposite intention, the desire to make whole again, to bring goodness and restoration to the world.
 
How many have spoken or lived this prayer since! Who is the ‘her’ of our prayers? It is someone we love, our parent, partner, child; it is our friend, neighbour, colleague. To the mystics it is also our own troubled heart, longing for peace and God. It is our society, the very world itself, in its need for wholeness and repair, and the prayer becomes the expression of an inner longing that needless hurt and cruelty should not exist, but only respect and compassion for all our fellow creatures on our journey across this earth, and for the earth itself. That is the heart of religion, and acting accordingly is the body of the faithful life.
 
What does it mean to pray for a person who is ill? In the first instance it is to be mindful, to not forget. That sounds like a small matter: who, after all, would forget? Yet we do. There’s much which generally escapes our sensitivity when we take our health for granted. Time itself is different when the phases of the day are marked not by meetings and meals, but by when one has to take one’s next medication. Prayer makes us pause; it restores our awareness of the wholeness of life and invites us into a deeper bond of solidarity. Conscious then of each other’s journeys and travails, in illness or in health, we think of one another with greater fellowship, humility and compassion.
 
Perhaps this is what Rabbi Lionel Blue meant when he wrote that ‘prayer boomerangs’. The supplication to God as healer returns to us as a question: ‘What am I doing to be faithful to life?’ and we sense more acutely not only our responsibilities towards one another, but our opportunities to share, in kindness and thoughtfulness, the privileges and challenges of being.
 
We may pray for one another, thinking of the other person, asking for windows of blessing to open both for them and within them. Perhaps it isn’t so different, but we may also pray with one another, allowing our consciousnesses to be companions, and inviting the presence of all living being into this fellowship, this bond with God and loving-kindness, which leaves us, if only for a moment, touched and blessed.

Blessings

I’ve always enjoyed saying hello to the station master at Finchley Central. At least I think he’s the station master; he’s the gentleman who does the garden alongside the platform for the south-bound trains. I wouldn’t have known him, were it not for those months, now sadly over, when I used to go up to Manchester for the day to see my aunt and get the very first tube at 5.30am to catch the train from Euston. We’d exchange a word about this plant or that and I’d say that I hoped he’d win this year, because he’d come second so many times in the competition for the best tube station gardens in the city. The short encounter always felt like an early morning blessing.

Tomorrow we read in the Torah about the most famous blessing of all: ‘May God bless you and keep you; may God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you…’ But what actually is a blessing?

There’s a huge mystical literature on the subject, but I just want to reflect on the saying in the Talmud that the ordinary everyday blessings of ordinary everyday people like us should not be taken lightly.

To give another example, one of the things I like about going to Tesco’s is the huge smile I generally get from the supervisor who stands near the front entrance. I think he knows me by now because of my habit of doing the shopping somewhere between half-past-ten and midnight on Wednesdays or Thursdays (I’m far from the only one in our community). That smile lifts the whole experience, makes it human, gives it warmth, when so often we pass each other in blank indifference, each plugged into his or her earphones, other people reduced to inconvenient objects to be avoided on the over-crowded pavement.

A blessing doesn’t actually need the words ‘Bless you!’ to have its effect. It’s the kindness in the way an ordinary interaction is conducted, the way one asks for a challah at the bakers and how it’s given, how one waves to a person one knows on the opposite side of the street. It restores the human image in us, which according to the Bible is also God’s image, the part of us which notices, cares and wants life to be gracious and rich.

A blessing is a pointer, guiding us more deeply into the world. It’s amazing how much one doesn’t see. When one sees a beautiful tree, one’s supposed to say, or maybe even just to think, ‘Baruch shecacha lo be’olamo, - Blessings be to God whose world is like this’. ‘This’ means beautiful and precious. A few more days and the wind will have blown the last of the petals from the crab-apple trees; another fortnight and the season of the apple blossom will have passed. How many such times does one have, that one can afford not to notice?

Sometimes the pointer guides us outwards into the world about us, but sometimes it directs us deeper within. That lady who gave that cheerful ‘good morning’, – do I greet people like that? That person who just did something so simple but so kind, – am I a human like that? Other peoples’ blessings guide us towards the person we could become.

62 Guillottstrasse

I’m sitting in the Palmengarten in Frankfurt-am-Main. Usually I go to gardens to see the plants, but today I came here mainly today to sit and think.

This must have been where my grandparents went for walks when they were dating in the 1910s. It’s where they took their three little girls for promenades in the best of the Weimar years. It’s also where my grandfather met with the well-known Protestant theologian Rudolph Otto, who came specially to meet him during the Nazi years to tell him that Goebbels was a terrible liar, that faith and truth would survive, and to support him so that and his community could find courage. My grandfather brought him here so that they could talk in some green corner unobserved. ‘Was it here?’ I found myself wondering, ‘Or was it there that they held their whispered conversation?’

This morning a plaque was unveiled opposite the former site of the British Consulate in Frankfurt to honour Robert Smallbones, Arthur Dowden and all their staff who in 1938-9 worked ceaselessly to enable thousands of Jews flee Nazi Germany. After an eighteen hour day, Smallbones wrote, he felt guilty getting some sleep while there were Jews in camps whom he might be able to help.

It was Smallbones who persuaded the British Government to allow Jewish refugees into Britain on temporary visas and who wrung from the Gestapo the agreement that the promise of such a visa should be sufficient to obtain freedom from the concentration camps. I have a copy of the letter sent from the Consulate to my father’s uncle, a Frankfurt doctor, on the strength of which he was released from Sachsenhausen. The signature clearly reads R Smallbones.

Smallbones’s grandchildren and Arthur Dowden’s nephew and niece were at the ceremony. They want to create a book about those whose stories were woven together around that building at 62 Guillottstrasse. The plaque describes what happened here: crowds of deeply anxious Jewish people filled every inch of the waiting room and queued out into the street. Bewildered and frightened, scorned and reviled in the land which had been home, here they were treated like human beings once again. Here they were given back dignity and hope. They were offered kind words, tea and the promise of decisive intervention. Smallbones’s young daughter would greet them as they stood anxiously in the queue: ‘Tell me your story and I’ll tell Daddy; maybe he can help’. Arthur Dowden regularly drove round the streets, seeking out terrified people who dared not go back to their homes for fear of arrest and bringing them food.

Beneath the description is a quotation from my grandfather:

 
Day by day during a period of several months, these men provided comfort, advice and help to the unfortunate people filling the waiting room. This is surely a shining example of true humanity.


It was moving to meet the families of helpers and helped together, and a privilege to be allowed to address the gathering. It was no less moving when I came back later after everyone had gone and watched passers-by stop and read the sign. It’s large, almost a metre square, and so placed on the street corner that it cannot easily be missed. Afterwards I wandered through the streets to these gardens, gripped by a sudden and bleak inner emptiness.

I know I should have written about Shavuot, which begins next Tuesday night. After all, it’s Zeman Mattan Toratenu, the time of the giving of the Torah, when we bring God’s laws down to earth.

If we really and truly want to bring them to earth and make them real, we must strive to behave as these good, brave, kind, imaginative and indefatigable people did.

Cyclamen

‘It’s the cyclamen; it won by a narrow margin over the anemone’, Ori told us. ‘Before the Beijing Olympics the Chinese asked every country to submit the names of their national flower and their national bird. We didn’t have either. There was lots of discussion and a huge ballot over email.’ It’s amazing it didn’t end in a coalition, with some pious herb like the horseradish holding the balance of power.
 
Ori Fragman-Sapir is the head botanist at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens; he was speaking at a remarkable event at the home of the Israeli Ambassador, where his talk was partnered by an equally excellent presentation about Kew’s Seed Bank. 
 
I’ve always loved cyclamen, or rakefet in Hebrew. It flourishes in Britain too, growing in clumps underneath the pine trees in our garden. But it invariably reminds me of the Galilee, where, half-hidden in the clefts of the rocks, with its broad leaves of dark and milky green and its pink and purple, flowers it brings life and joy to the whole hillside.
 
We saw pictures of the bright Sternbergia too, (of special interest to those of us who inhabit the Sternberg Centre for Judaism, and which I’ve tried, but failed, to grow here in London.) It’s rare now in Jerusalem, but safe within the gardens where its yellow trumpet flowers spread in ever-widening circles beneath the trees.
 
But you can never get away from security. That’s how the prophets of Israel saw gardens. Some of them, like Amos who was a sycamore-dresser, were in fact horticulturalists, but the growth of Israel’s plants and trees was always also an image of something greater, of how justice, goodness and peace were to flourish in the land. Then, and only then, would it be God’s garden indeed, meriting the early and the latter rains in plenty, and the dew in the months of drought. Would that this could be so, and all the citizens of Israel, and of its neighbouring countries, could inhabit their lands in peace!
 
Plants have their security needs too: habitat, climate range, the insects often unknown to us which enable them to grow. Twenty percent of the world’s species are under threat. A rare campanula was recently saved from extinction in Israel by the Gardens, after a flash flood washed it away from the only site where it’s known to grow. Fortunately, seeds were gathered and the plants were propagated at the gardens. Kew’s seed bank aims to collect and preserve for generations thousands of samples of every kind of seed on earth. It’s the largest such project in the world, – a horticulturalists Noah’s Ark in which our future is treasured up – just in case.
 
We tend to think of the land as ours; it’s we who decide what to plant and what to uproot. But that’s not the ultimate truth. ‘For mine is the land’, says God, as we read in the Torah tomorrow, ‘and you are strangers and sojourners with me’. Poor God, I sometimes think, who has had to entrust all this beauty to us, who often pay it far too little heed.  
 
Yesterday was a wonderful reminder, both of the beauty of this world, and of our dependence on its plants and trees for our very lives, the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the joy which makes life worthwhile.

Get in touch...