We all enjoy it in our family: when you get home after Yom Kippur you sit down for a few minutes to eat, then you start building the Succah. We all relish the moment.
You can begin making the Succah days or even weeks earlier. In fact, according to Jewish law all the entire Succah can be ready-made and exactly the same as last year. Only the sechach, the roofing materials of branches, reeds, or prunings, anything which grows from the ground and is not susceptible to contracting ritual impurity according to the complex rules of the rabbis, must be prepared and placed specially and solely for the sake of this year’s festival. It is this sechach which transforms the structure from a mere shed into a proper Succah. It is by placing them there that one fulfils the requirement of ‘ta’aseh velo min he’ussu’i’, - of ‘making’ the Succah, rather than using something entirely ready-made.
I love Succah-building; it’s a joy I inherited from my father. I still recall rubbing the condensation off the windows in my room to look down into the garden on the morning after Yom Kippur and see him out there with beams and frames and tools. None of these ‘Succah-kits’ for him; ‘Do-it-yourself’ meant what it said. Why should I be untrue to the traditions of my father? (By the way, that is only a form of pride and prejudice; the kits one can obtain from Succah-mart are perfectly fine.)
As I write, my Succah is half made. The frame is up, but none of the branches are cut which will form the roof, and none of the flowers or fruits are harvested or hung with which to celebrate the goodness of the year and give thanks to God for its produce. For Succot is a harvest festival, a thank-you festival, a time for rejoicing in the gifts of the year and for sharing them with guests, just as the fruits of the earth should be shared.
I have to admit that last night I wasn’t enjoying building the Succah as much as I usually do. It wasn’t that the work was going awry; I wasn’t missing the nails and landing the hammer on my fingers. I just kept being bothered by the issue of ‘Why am I doing this?’
There is of course a traditional answer: ‘So that your generations shall know that I made the Children of Israel dwell in huts when I brought them out of Egypt’ (Leviticus 23:43). Ever since, the Succah has been the symbol of the temporary home, of the fate of the refugee.
Therefore it seemed strange to me last night, even morally wrong, to be constructing a hut in memory in my back garden, when hundreds of thousands of people are at this very moment on the road, on the water, unprotected from the elements by even a leaky shelter of leaves.
So what should one do? Not to make a Succah at all would be a pointless and utterly un-Jewish response. Rather, for every Succah we build we should give sufficient money for at least one shelter for a family of refugees. We should consider how when some of those (too few) who are destitute and fleeing persecution do eventually reach these shores we can help them find shelter, food, safety, healing and a future. I intend to place accounts from refugees on the walls of my Succah and the Succah in the synagogue, so that all who come into them can read and decide what to do.
Then we should enjoy the festival, mindful that the simple blessings of shelter, food and peace are God’s greatest gifts.


May this be a worthwhile and reflective Yom Kippur and may the coming year bring blessing for us all, for our families, for the family of the Jewish People, and for all peoples and all life.
Here is a short personal wish-list for Yom Kippur and the coming year.
May this day help me to become the best person I am capable of being.
May I have an open conscience and heart to recognise where I have done wrong.
May I have the integrity and humility to apologise.
May I find the understanding and inner freedom to let go of old grudges, angers and hurts, and to be forgiving.
May my love for my family, friends and community deepen and grow.
May I be inspired and challenged to care more thoughtfully for other people.
May I be encouraged and reminded to be as aware of others and as generous as I can.
May I live justly so that I don’t oppress others or wantonly harm any life.
May I have the insight, wisdom and courage to honour and do what is right.
May I have a wakeful and grateful spirit to appreciate the privilege and wonder of existence.
May the beauty and tenderness in life inspire me with a deeper respect towards all living beings.
May I be given the strength to respond to whatever happens with acceptance, courage and grace.
May the wisdom and discipline of Judaism guide and purify me.
May this be a year of peace for the Jewish People, for all peoples, and between humanity and all life.

An unsown land

Yesterday we held our memorial service at the cemetery. It’s a tribute to all the dead of our community. It is rooted in the tradition that before Rosh Hashanah or in the days preceding Yom Kippur, one visits the graves to remember those we love, to entreat them to entreat for us, and to open and humble our own hearts as we reconsider our life’s purpose in the shadow of our mortality. It’s a simple practice and it’s moving.
After our prayers we each went to visit those we love then wandered among the gravestones of those who were once part of our congregation. They remain so too, the roots of our community, from whose devotion we still draw for our spiritual growth.
As one gets older one hopefully has more and more friends among the living; one certainly has among the dead. ‘There are so many here now,’ someone said to me as we passed each other between the rows. There are so very many whom I recall with much affection, and for whose parents, partners, brothers, sisters, children my heart aches when I read the brief words on the stones which point to an encompassable and unfathomable love: beloved grandfather, my darling child, beloved spouse.
Of all the many words in the voluminous liturgy it is those of Jeremiah which stir me most in this regard:  ‘Zacharti lach hesed ne’urayich – I remember unto you the faithfulness of your youth, the love of your bridal days, how you followed me through the desert, an unsown land’. Zacharti lach – we remember and cherish you; and there still burns in our heart the love which was given us by those whose bodies are now covered by the earth and the grass and the sky.
People sometimes ask me after they have lost a loved one: ‘Where is she now?’ Part of that question – ‘Is there life after death?’ ‘What happens to the soul?’ – can only be responded to with the conjectures of the theologians. But there is another part concerning which the truth is revealed to us and we do know the answer. The love does not end; love is not in its totality susceptible to death.
Of course, we miss the presence, the phone-calls, the texts, the voice, the touch, the embrace. There are many wounds to which there is no healing. Human life demands much endurance. Neither the shivah nor the year of mourning obliterate the pain. But the love does not undergo annihilation. Not always, but somehow and some of the time, it finds a voice with which to speak from beyond death, guiding us, supporting us, saying: ‘Don’t close your heart; my love is with you still inside your spirit. It is there in your very breath, and in your life’.
On Yom Kippur we stand before God as a community of the living and the dead. As the latter composed the words and melodies which we sing for our inspiration and study for their wisdom, so may their love sustain us, comfort us, humbles us and direct us towards living before God, each other and all life with great mercy and compassion.

A soft feather

My post from yesterday drew some heart-rending responses.
What about the wounds you can’t forgive, or be forgiven for, because there isn’t anyone to talk to? You look at the other person across a ravine of hurts, but can’t begin a conversation because they simply don’t see the same landscape. ‘It’s your problem’, is all they’ll say. Do you bend to their perception? Do you try to bury your unhappiness by shovelling over it the banalities of every day, or do you walk away? But why, if you do so, does the ache still afflict you, like puss around an irremovable splinter? 
What about the wounds inflicted when just a child? Of course, one isn’t an infant any longer, but the child we once were remains at the heart of us, like the peg-sized figure at the centre of a Russian doll. One grows layers on top, but deep beneath the inside remains as intractably the same as it always was. How are the wounds of what happened back then to be pardoned? A whole life can be injured by the failure to give love to a child, or worse, by implying in words, or acts, or the lack of them, that he or she deserves no love, is just unlovable.
      I was the wrong music / The wrong guest for you
      Summon’d tho’ unwanted, / Hated though true
      I was the wrong music / the wrong guest for you.   Olive Fraser
What of the hurts for which nobody is guilty, except life itself, sod’s law, bad luck, the evil chance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or does it make it easier to think of such accidents as God’s doing, Heaven’s will? If so, how do we begin to talk to God about forgiveness? Can I get past the theological cruelty that it’s all some kind of punishment, and find a soft feather from the wings of a God who loves me anyway, even perhaps in and through this suffering? Is God forgivable? Is god really a God of love?
If we don’t try to forgive, or at least let go of some of the pain, what are we then to do about the resentment which is liable to accrue? Nobody wants the small pool inside the heart which should be filled each morning with sweet dew to be turned bitter by drops of bile secreted by angers from which we can find no release.
So, as the Day of Atonement approaches, what does one do?
All I can say is that I have two quotations next to me by which I’d like to be able to live. The first is only three and a half words in Hebrew; it’s in tomorrow’s reading from Hosea: ‘Through You the orphan is comforted’. Only God, only some compassionate invisible presence can reach inside and touch with healing the red sores of the heart. But we can align our lives with that spirit; we can put our words and actions at its disposal. We may not have the magic to smooth away the inner pain which so many lives carry, in such unequal measure. But we can give and care; we can make it known that people are respected and valued, and that what awaits them is not cruelty but kindness and concern, beginning with our family, extending to our community, and not excluding the stranger, the homeless and the refugee.
The second quotation is from Martin Luther King: ‘I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear’.

Apology and forgiveness

The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time for apology and forgiveness, through deeds, words and the spirit of understanding and generosity which should embrace us all. This is never easy and I’m sometimes asked questions which touch on the complex and often painful realities of human relationships.
Jewish tradition is clear: we can’t use God as a way of avoiding our neighbour. Maimonides states: ‘Repentance and Yom Kippur atone only for sins between a person and God. With regard to sins between person and person, such as causing injury to, cursing or robbing others, one is not pardoned until one has made good what one owes and sought their favour. Even if one has returned the money due, one has to seek their favour and ask for their pardon. Even if one only upset them with words, one has to make one’s peace and entreat them until they forgive’.  
The truth is that the great majority of the hurts we give and receive are because of words. The bravado rhyme that ‘sticks and stones break my bones but words can never hurt me’ is just not true.
Jewish tradition has a procedure for apologising. One first goes and asks. If the other person rejects the approach, one takes three friends and goes a second, a third and even one more final time. If one’s efforts to apologise have still not been accepted, then, says Maimonides, one has done enough; the fault lies with the person who is too hard-hearted to forgive. There are of course exceptions: what if one has irretrievably damaged someone’s reputation, or injured their child, or even worse, God forbid?
Apology and forgiveness are about humility, understanding and kindness. It’s an important part of our humanity to be able to acknowledge to ourselves and others that we have faults, are capable of being mistaken, sometimes act wrongly and can’t always manage to live up to being the kind of person we’d love to be. Life is often tender and raw, and it matters to have sufficient compassion to be aware of and sorry about the hurts we sometimes inflict. It’s important, too, to have the understanding and generosity not to hold onto every wrong done to us. Other people have their struggles, pressures and weaknesses too.
When we forgive, we don’t erase the past; we neither have the capacity to do so, nor would it necessarily be a good thing. Rather, we put the importance of the relationship as a whole ahead of the particular hurtful event. While it remains something to learn from, we commit to no longer consciously holding the incident against the other person. Often we do this instinctively because our companionship matters more than its failings. Or we work our way towards understanding to help free us from the pain and potential bitterness of a difficult past.
Sometimes the other person is beyond our reach and we are left with the burdens of anger and guilt. Perhaps those are the times when we need to talk to a trusted friend, or to God, or simply to ourselves, and ask, for our own good as much as for any others involved, that resentment and remorse be melted or at least mitigated by compassion and understanding.

Being honest with ourselves

This period, from the beginning of Rosh Hashanah until the close of Yom Kippur is known as the Asseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Penitence. I therefore plan to base each of my reflections on Judaism’s most famous text on this theme, Maimonides Hilchot Teshuvah, his Laws of Repentance. 
(I much prefer the Hebrew ‘Teshuvah’ to the English ‘Penitence’. The latter primarily suggests regret and remorse, a critical ‘if only I hadn’t’ self-scrutiny. While this is an inevitable part of the process of inner change, Teshuvah with its clear indication of ‘return’ carries an immediate sense of hope: ‘I can become the person I want to be; I can fulfil my true humanity.’)
Maimonides writes: it belongs to the ways of Teshuvah that one ‘changes one’s name, as if to say, “I’m someone different; I’m not the same person who did those [bad] deeds”’.
Three short observations:
To reach the point of being able to say with honesty ‘I’m not the same person who…’ one first must pass through the place of acknowledging and saying to oneself ‘I am indeed that person who’ did or said whatever it was which gave hurt. It’s a frequent phenomenon to find ourselves retelling our version of events, trying as we go over them in our mind yet again to excuse ourselves from responsibility, while an awkward feeling in our conscience persists in contradicting our attempts at exculpation, until we finally stop and say to ourselves: ‘I did’. The starting place for Teshuvah is always honesty (which also means that we shouldn’t blame ourselves for what we truly did not do.)
To acknowledge our mistakes and weaknesses demands courage. To remain mindful and learn from them for the future so that we actually change our responses to life is a deep achievement. This is true even if, as is almost inevitable, we are only partially successful and only for much, but not all, of the time. It tends to go unrecognised in the annals of human attainment, but those who face themselves honestly and whose subsequent conduct truly says ‘I’m no longer that kind of person who used to…’ have done something many of us don’t even attempt, or at which we often fail. Real Teshuvah deserves deep respect.
Sometimes people change but we don’t want to concede that they have done so. Even if we don’t directly remind them of what they once said, or how they used to behave, we hold them to their previous reputation. Perhaps this is only an internal reality; we go on thinking ‘that’s the person who hurt me’ and don’t allow them to be who they are now. Often, though, it’s also a social reality in which a person is not permitted to escape a former role, or deed, or image. There is an element of self-protection in not rushing to trust those who’ve hurt us. But, unless they were extremely serious, it is cruel to hold a repentant person to the faults of their past.
Just as apologising and trying to learn from our mistakes is a great virtue, so is allowing others to change and grow, by being ready to let go and forgive.

A mirror before our hearts

I wish you, your family and your friends a Shanah Tovah. May this be a good year in which we care better for each other, for our community, for our people and all people, especially the homeless, hungry, suffering and sick, and for all life.
Rosh Hashanah celebrates creation. The issue is not whether we believe God made the world in six or in six million years. Rather it is this: Do we see everything around us, including nature and other people, as ‘stuff’ to use when it suits us, exploit to the limit and throw away when we’re finished? Or do we understand life as sacred and precious; as appealing not just to our need but to our respect and reverence? This is a question answered not just by how we think but through how we act.
I can’t be alone in feeling caught between shame and wonder.
I experience collective shame when I witness how we allow people to suffer and the desperation and degradation in which they feel abandoned. I wonder what it means morally to cross in ease the borders of Europe protected by a valid passport, when others carry their children for miles and miles along railway lines and plead for food and water, for life and a future. Our people suffered such a fate once, and worse. It’s not by virtue of any personal merit that it isn’t us today. I feel shame too at my portion in an economy which often buys from the poorest at the cheapest rates, and feeds us through the desecration of the soil. I have a personal, private shame when I consider what I have said or done to hurt, when I might have acted otherwise.
Yom Kippur will set a mirror before our hearts in which the reflections of all our deeds become visible, though only to ourselves, and only if we choose to see. We can turn away; or look close and try to learn.
But mercifully life also offers wonder and joy to lift, inspire and guide us. The world is full of beauty. Practising my running, I often listen to the owls as I pass the heath, or see the bats flying through the dark above the water. In the morning, the goldfinches peck at the feeder while a blackbird eats the middle out of an overripe fruit. There’s beauty within the human heart too. One constantly witnesses kindness, little acts of ‘can I help you’ which add up to a collective good will far deeper than any distinction of age, or health, or colour or religion.
Such goodness and beauty call us towards them and guide us to live with reverence and compassion.
There’s a special prayer said only on Rosh Hashanah: ‘May all created beings know they are God’s creation’. I treasure these words because they remind us who we are and could be, who everyone else is, and how we should treat one another and the world.

What I want to do better – 2

On virtually every Jewish festival we say the shehecheyanu blessing, thanking God for bringing us safely to this moment in time. Rosh Hashanah is no exception; we say the shehecheyanu at Kiddush in the evening, over the shofar next morning and, traditionally, over a new item of food or clothing, or both, as well. We thank God, and life, for bringing us safely to this time.
We have little freedom to decide the number of our days, but much to determine their quality. This is not to say that it’s easy. In a startling interpretation of the phrase in the Shema ‘love the Lord your God with all your might’ the rabbis explain: ‘Whatever measure of fortune God metes out to you, acknowledge and thank God profoundly’. This can be expressed similarly in secular terms: ‘Whatever happens to us, we should to try to react as generously and gracefully as possible’. There are moments in life when nothing is harder. That’s why we feel an instinctive respect and warmth towards those who face adversity with minimal bitterness, and remain kind and grateful in spirit. The capacity to behave in that manner may be the essence of wisdom. Counting our own blessings also lies at the heart of how we bring blessings to one another.
In this regard, there is a simple matter in which I’m keen to improve. At a conference on spirituality I met an elderly lady with a wonderful smile who said she’d been taught never to go to bed without thinking of five things from the past day for which she was thankful. Amidst life’s inevitable frictions and frustrations it’s easy to forget to count one’s blessing. They then cease to be real blessings, at least at the deepest level. They remain privileges, like nice food or fine music; but if we don’t open our hearts to them they can’t access and sweeten our spirit. They are like consumables which we swallow down but by which we aren’t nourished. Maybe that, at least in part, is why we consume so much.
One of my resolves for the coming year is to try to count life’s blessings more carefully. It’s remarkable how easy it is to squander them, like the goldfinch at the birdfeeder which I might not have noticed had I never looked up. It’s striking what they turn out to be at the end of a busy day. They are often so-called ‘little things’, easily taken undervalued. Most of them are about companionship, with people, trees, songs, lines of poems. Many are unanticipated moments of simple kindness, which, if we let them, will continue to smile in us long after the gesture, word or encounter has passed.
Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birthday of creation. It’s not an easy notion to define, but one thing is unarguable: birthdays are about appreciation. New Year is therefore a time to reconsider how we value, notice and give thanks for the world, for the people around us, for the privilege of life itself.
On Rosh Hashanah we have an opportunity to consider not just how we saybut how we live the shehechayanu, our gratitude for being alive this day, this month, this year.
LeShanah Tovah

What I want to do better

May this be a good year, in which we care better for each other, for our community, for our people and all people, especially for the homeless, the hungry, the suffering and the sick, and for all life.

Puns and word-plays can be trivial and annoying. But this is not how the rabbis who created our prayers saw them. They understood the different possibilities implicit in a word or phrase as often intrinsically connected with its deeper meaning. Rosh Hashanah is epitomised by the call of the shofar. The rabbis and poets of the liturgy found in the term not just a reference to the animal horn or instrument (is it a musical instrument?) which we blow on the festival, but to the root shaper, ‘improve’. One prayer takes as its core refrain shipru ma’aseichem, ‘improve your deeds’, following on with a further sound-play, uverit al tupar, ‘so that the covenant is not broken’.

A deep feeling and essential principle lie behind the word games. We are part of a bond, and inter-connectedness with all life. Any bond, or brit, in the Hebrew Bible, has hesed, faithful loving-kindness as its ideal mode. But it’s up to us; we can live our relationships with life as we choose, with compassion, indifference, anger, attentive concern, or calculated cruelty. Who we are, emotionally, morally and spiritually is the sum of these choices.

After noting that the Torah provides no reason whatsoever for blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, (it simply prescribes it as what we have to do) Maimonides notes that it contains a ‘hint’. There’s nothing subtle about the hint; the word is an understatement: ‘Wake, sleepers, from your sleep, slumberers from your slumber!’ To what should we wake up? It is the realisation that we have an opportunity, whose time is now and always, to change our lives and do better. We are not condemned to carrying on just the same as before. We are not the hapless victims, but the leaders of our own lives and all our choices matter.

How am I living my relationships, my brit, with my family, my friends, the people in my street, with my community, with refugees, with the hungry, with Israel, with the earth itself? These are the questions we need to inspire each other to answer with a fuller heart a deeper humanity. This is the real text, within the words and music, of the High Holydays.

LeShanah Tovah

Watching children drown

The picture of Ayman Kurdi is changing the hearts of Europe. At least, it should. It’s a disgrace and shame, a wretched tragedy, that this is not the picture of a child holding a toy and smiling, but of a tiny, feeble body carried from the vast waters of the ocean in which he drowned.

If you look at the Turkish gendarme who has just picked this limp boy up from the gravelly shore, it appears that he is not looking directly at the child. He seems kind, and the way he holds the boy is careful, but his face is averted from the gentle, miserable burden he carries.

That picture reminded me at once of how Primo Levi describes the four Russian soldiers on horseback, the outriders of his liberation, as they see the fences of Auschwitz:
They seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint…It was that shame we knew so well…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)

Things have been allowed to exist which should never ever have come into being.

The price of war, especially civil war, is almost always paid mainly by what is most innocent: children, women, schools, hospitals, homes of ordinary people. I heard a fellow interviewee on Radio 5 Live yesterday say that Syrians should stay in Syria because civil wars generally last no more than ten years and they and their talents should be there to rebuild the country when it’s all over. Of course, peace is the ultimate answer, and a fair, just, open country. But when?

How many people would be shot, bombed, gassed, starved or dead from disease by then? If you or I were there with our children, wouldn’t we too seek a different future? And if the only escape, as it so often was for Jews from 1938 onwards, lay in trusting some inscrutable figure to whom we were directed by someone else we scarcely knew to ‘get you over the border’ for an extortionate fee, mightn’t we, too, succumb to the last, only chance?

We have become witnesses to terrible suffering. We didn’t cause it, but are not free to disregard it. The Hebrew Bible contains the powerful verb lehitalem: to see, but pretend one has not noticed. That’s a moral crime. We have seen; now we have to notice.

This country, a haven to so many of our parents, will now be on the wrong side of history if it becomes known as the land which locked its doors. We cannot let that happen. I believe the great majority of the British, and Europeans, do not want that to be their country’s final word. Those I speak with recognise that collectively we have money, talents, time, perhaps even space and homes, to give and share. Many of our families were taken in and offered safety once; should we not help do likewise?

Who are we, if we can continue to watch children drown, and do nothing?

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