Shimon Peres

We are deeply saddened by the passing of Shimon Peres and share in the mourning experienced across Israel, the Jewish community and the world.

In the words of President Obama

Shimon Peres was a soldier for Israel, for the Jewish people, for justice, for peace, and for the belief that we can be true to our best selves… A light has gone out, but the hope he gave us will burn forever.

Shimon Peres was as a member of the Knesset for 47 years, holding all the most senior positions including that of Prime Minister. He went on to serve as President of the State of Israel from 2007 to 2014. In 1994 he received the Nobel Prize for Peace, a blessing which tragically still eludes his beloved country.

Tributes have been sent from all around the world. A more personal appreciation, not shared in the international media, comes from Shuki Levinger in the village of Kishorit in the Galilee,‘a caring community of adults with special needs’, a beautiful place where a number of relatives of families in our congregations live:

It is with broken hearts that we mourn the passing of former President of Israel, and exceptional friend of Kishorit, Mr. Shimon Peres. [He] guided Kishorit from its earliest days, always taking a personal interest in our work and smoothing political potholes that we encountered along the way.  Despite his intense international schedule and myriad commitments, he and his staff were always accessible to us, eager to help with whatever was needed.

This speaks not just of a great statesman in the national and international arenas, but of a profound, sensitive, caring and outstanding human being.

May his soul be bound up in the bond of life.

For whom the shofar calls

Blowing the shofar in Gan Alon pre-school is a very special experience. No two years are quite the same. Sometimes the children cry; Sometimes they scream. This year they giggled – and screamed. So it was with particular interest that I awaited their responses to my question: ‘What did you hear in the sound of the shofar?’

‘A banana’, said one. I guess the comparison was based more on shape than sound. ‘Pasta’, said another, since food was obviously ‘in’. ‘Sounds like my mother,’ said a third.

So what do we hear in the shofar’s call?

Before offering my own answer, I have to say that through the years Rosh Hashanah is to me less and less about a God up there whom we ask to care for the world, and more and more about what the world asks of us. I often think of the entry Etti Hilesum made in her diary in July 1942 when she was forced to leave her beloved Amsterdam:

[O]ne thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well.

The shofar is addressed to that ‘little piece of God’ in me and you, and in the billions of other people, those tiny portions of seemingly independent consciousness and independent will bound together by the sacred vitality which unites and transcends all life.

‘Hear the call of the shofar’, says the blessing which precedes its sounding. Hear what? Words limit. But the shofar speaks no words, so the meanings of its cries are not limited by language.

‘Listen’, it says. Listen to the voices you haven’t heard, or have tried not to hear. Indifference, said Elie Wiesel, whose passing we mourn this year, is living as if someone else’s pain does not exist. We can place suffering people in institutions; we can put refugees behind walls. But if we hear none of their voices we incarcerate our own humanity as well. ‘But the calls on us are overwhelming; we can’t take it all in’, we feel. ‘Just listen to something, someone,’ the shofar begs.

‘Listen to the earth’, it cries. For the shofar is not a fabricated artefact but part of a once living animal. I imagine its call in the hills of the Galilee and the Scottish Highlands. ‘Listen’, it cries, ‘I am the life which dwells in the rivers and forests, the wild goats and deer, the insects as well as the eagles. Destroy me and you destroy yourself. So hear!’

These cries are born on waves of wonder and contrition, at the joy and majesty, sorrow and destitution, of life.

To whom are they addressed? I hope God hears them. I hope those in power hear them; it is our responsibility to strive our utmost that they do. But these matters lie beyond our ultimate control.

What we can ensure is that the ‘little piece of You, God’ within each of us hears, and responds. It is that awareness, that consciousness and conscience in us all, ‘for whom the shofar calls’.

Leshanah Tovah, may this be a good, peaceful, worthwhile year for us, our families, our communities, all Israel and all the world.

What meaning memory?

Leshanah Tovah, may this be a good and worthwhile year.

The relationship between Rosh Hashanah and memory goes to the heart of the festival. Following the Torah, the rabbis called New Year ‘Yom Hazikaron’. The words are hard to translate; Rosh Hashanah is not a memorial date like Armistice Day or the day preceding Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Rather it is a day about the nature and purpose of memory itself.

Memory is fragile and often contested. We feel sure that events happened in this way; everyone else insists that they transpired in a different order. We adorn memories, rewrite them unconsciously to suit our conscience, and imbue on the fabric of memory experiences which occurred far later. Our very identity is profoundly connected to memory; (and we know that illness can erase it entirely and that the meaning of our life is transient and frail).

Therefore, what we do with our memory is of profound importance to the quality of our lives. Even the most charmed life is full or irritations. Is it these that we allow our memories to feed on, so that our mind is full of vexation and the desire for revenge, rehearsing old quarrels and recalling entrenched enmities? Bad days can be like that. Or is there some inner enzyme, some sweetness of the brain, which allows negative experience to fade into relative oblivion, while we remember the holidays and happy days, the love and blessings life has given us?

On a transpersonal scale, how do we use memory as nations and faiths? The question is hardly academic. There’s little more dangerous for humanity than the propagation of national and religious identities of resentment and exclusion. It’s easy to find reasons to perpetuate ancient prejudices and hatreds. It is hard to overcome them through acts of human solidarity and compassion. Yet, if humanity is to survive, we must.

Deeper and more enduring than even the oldest national memories is God’s memory. Before God, we are told, ‘there is no forgetting’; ‘the mark and memory of every deed comes before God’. I cannot believe in God as reading an eternal ledger. Rather, I do connect the sense that God is presence in all life with the truth that everything matters. There is nothing which has no repercussions; no word or deed which does not bring pain or healing in its wake. Nothing goes utterly unnoticed by the people, even the animals and trees, which surround us. There is accountability in the very nature of things.

Yet the most central blessing of the Rosh Hashanah service does not refer to a God of justice. Instead, it speaks of God as Zocher Habrit, ‘‘remembering the covenant’.

What covenant? I think of this as simultaneously the covenant with the Jewish People, the covenant with all humankind, and the most ancient covenant of all, with life itself. It is as if God, that sacred vitality which resides within all living things, was calling out to us: ‘I want you to survive. I want memory itself to be a force not for punishment, or vengeance, or hate, but for life, goodness and generous compassion.

Whose world this is

Leshanah Tovah, may this be a good and worthwhile year.

However late it comes in the secular year, Rosh Hashanah always arrives in a rush and it’s hard to feel ready. Also, its themes can feel hard to grasp, – unlike Yom Kippur with its focus on apology and forgiveness. So for the next three days I’m writing a short reflection on the central subjects of the Rosh Hashanah prayers to help us reflect and prepare.

Hayom harat olam – Today is the birthday of the world.
Rosh Hashanah celebrates creation and God as its ruler: God is Melech, King, and Sovereign over all the earth.

Though I did cry watching the royal wedding several years ago, I’m not moved by images of palaces and power in the way our ancestors maybe were. Nor do I believe in a God who owns and directs the proceedings of the world in any obvious manner. I am not sure either that the earth has a birthday.

Yet these ideas speak to me powerfully. They go to the heart of what matters in life, of why life matters at all.

For the world is full of joy, as well as cruelty. Few people tire of the sight of a robin alighting close to one’s hand, or of a glimpse of the new moon, or the sound of a stream, or the call of a lamb, because there’s beauty in such things. In a civilisation constantly focussed on ownership, on what is ‘mine’ and ‘yours’, these things don’t belong to us. We neither possess them nor control the moments when we are blessed to witness them.

They speak to me of God; not of a God who is a giant ‘He’ or ‘She’, but of the infinite life which unveils itself in these small mysteries of being, a bird, a river or a poem. The vitality which flows through them and all things is sacred. To it alone everything belongs.

This is what the words ‘God is Sovereign of all the earth’ mean to me. No doubt they mean something different to you, and to each of us, because life unfolds its mysteries around us all in variant ways.

This view of life is more than just a pleasant thought. It commands. For, though we cannot claim ownership of life’s mysteries, we do have the capacity, almost infinite capacity, to destroy them. As a species we are adept at hurtfulness, exploitation and killing, both wantonly and by negligence.

In celebrating creation, in naming a date on which to honour it, we commit ourselves to abjuring cruelty and destruction. Instead we promise to honour life, all life, to the best of our ability in all our deeds.

That is the heart of what Rosh Hashanah is about, and every other day as well.

What we do with God’s dreams…

I often watch the moon when I take the dog for a night walk, and listen for the owls. When the full moon of the month of Elul begins to wane, Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, is truly at hand.

Rosh Hashanah is called ‘the birthday of the earth’, the day when ‘all who enter the world pass before God’, the ‘memorial to the first day creation’.

These descriptions are deeply resonant, and baffling. I experience them as full of meanings, without ever imagining that I can fathom what they actually mean, or even that such an ultimate meaning exists.

So I let my imagination and my conscience loose among them. Often this takes me to the haunting lines which conclude Yeats’s poem Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

I think of Rosh Hashanah as the day when we ponder God’s dreams, and what we have done with them.

I don’t know if it makes sense to speak of God as a dreamer. But sometimes I think this world itself is God’s dream, how it could have been and how it yet might be, with trees, birds, animals and people, a place where you can look out and say as God did in that first week of creation, ‘Behold, it is truly good’.

I think the dreams of children are God’s dreams: the dream of playing with the sand, safe in mother’s shadow; the dream of when that donkey touched its damp nose against your fingers; the dream of a time when there was no fear; the dream of the days when all the family were still together; the dream of not being hungry any more, or cold, or frightened, or alone.

I think the dreams of parents are God’s dreams: the dream that their children will always be healthy; the dream that their children will be loved and loving, cheerful and carefree; the dream that they will always be able to protect their children, and that, if and when they can no longer do so, there will be others to love them in their place; the dream that the dreams of their children will never become nightmares, wakeful hours of lonely anguish and fear.

I have watched my dog dream, seen his paws twitch and his legs move back and forth as if he was chasing an imaginary stick. I think the dreams of all life are part of God’s dream: the dream of space to run unrestrained in sheer delight; the dream of clean air and pure water, of sunshine and rain which bless the land, and do not drown it or burn it.

I wonder if God weeps or smiles amidst these multitudes of dreams. For we, humankind, have rarely trodden softly on God’s dreams. And God, who is considered infinitely rich, is also poor, because God’s dreams have been delivered into our power: ‘But I, being poor, have only my dreams’…

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur exist to fill us with wonder at the utter beauty of this earth, God’s dream. They exist to fill us with shame at what we have damaged; with sorrow on account of the lives we have wronged; with resolve to be more aware and more courageous; and with contrition so that we become healers and, in so doing, become healed.

They exist to fill us with love for all this tender life, exposed to so much hurt.

What Love Is?

I’m not sure what the opposite of love is.

I don’t think it’s hate; hate seems to me more like love gone wrong, love’s failure. Perhaps the opposite of love is indifference, lack of care at all. It is against this, this seeming incapacity to be moved, this evident lack of will to be bothered, that Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, the great testifiers of the Holocaust, inveigh. Yet even indifference is a form of love’s failing.

For human life is defined by the fortunes of love. Love’s hopes and conquests, its frustrations and grief, form the secret history of every person, which we garner in our heart and bequeath, knowingly and unknowingly and in all its complexities, to the next generations.

As a rabbi I often stand as witness to love’s beginnings and love’s endings.

Except that the beginnings, under the wedding canopy, aren’t really beginnings any more. We don’t live in a context where parents arrange the marriages of their offspring, or when a man, smitten at the mere sight of the picture of a young woman sent him by some fussing, well-meaning aunt, commits his heart and fortunes all at once. (I know couples who ‘met’ that way and fifty years of happiness followed).

Perhaps love begins in some serendipitous encounter in line at the bus stop or airport, or simply on-line, full stop. As George Elliot wrote, somewhat wryly for my taste: ‘Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand”.

Or perhaps love begins when a mother receives her baby from the hands of the midwife. Then commences the joy and anguish of parenthood, the unfulfillable longing to protect from all harm and mischance, from every cold wind, cold teacher, cruelty, illness, accident and torment this swiftly growing and changing person, while striving to let go and not be hurt when he or she pushes you away and tells you firmly: ‘It’s absolutely none of your business’.

Inevitably, whether as parents, partners or children, we find ourselves asking, in those moments when we have the restraint to stand back from our misapprehensions and conflicts:  Why didn’t I? Why couldn’t I? Why did it take me so long to understand? Then, if we are not too proud, and true care has softened our stubbornness, we seek to make apology and forgiveness a part of our love too. No one escapes such mistakes.

And I witness love’s ending, the ineluctable moment when death says ‘Let go’, when a person must part from the body whose hand they held, whose love they craved, and turn with a broken heart to what looks like the endless bleakness of the future. Except that it is never the end because love is never over. It travels with us wherever we go, inextinguishable in our heart, and all our future love is always the branch and leaf of the love that has been.

And we are all witness to love’s longing, to the eyes of bewildered children which look at you from the street, or the screen, or the tent-flap: ‘Do not hurt me; do not forsake me’, they say. Thousands upon thousands of children, and adults too, look at us like that, refugees, or homeless, or with a house but not a home because there’s no companionship, no love. ‘Who are you?’ they ask us, ‘What are you?’ ‘Are you human?’ There are eyes, too, which have no more strength or hope to look up and meet us in the eye.

We say that God is love, surely not because empirical evidence points consistently in that direction, but perhaps in the trust that the infinite movement of life itself somehow retains whatever molecules of love we have contributed to love’s totality and brings them to fulfilment somewhere, some time, in its unbounded becoming.

No time for hate

When I came home I found four handwritten cards in the post. That’s unusual these days, when the latter consists largely of requests from charities, leaving the sad task of choosing one or two out of tens of heart-rending causes.

In my mind as I opened the cards were two lines from Mahmoud Darwish I’d just picked up in translation:

I have no time for hating those who hate me,
I am too busy loving those who love me.

I heard them recited (on YouTube) by Arab Aramin at a memorial service where he spoke together with Igal Elhanan: both lost sisters in the violence of the Middle East conflict; both their fathers, Bassam and Rami, are leaders of The Parents Circle; both are friends, and both have been to our community. The service, held last Yom Hazikkaron, strove to encompass the pain of everyone’s losses, embracing them in profound and courageous hope for the future.

The lines kept going round in my mind. After all, it’s so easy to do the opposite, and so understandable: you can be so busy hating those who hate you that you forget to love those who love you.

The first card was from a Polish barista to whom I’d written because a congregant told me he’d been badly hurt in a racist attack in London. I said how sorry I was about what had happened, and that this was not the country or society I believed we truly were. I took the liberty of writing in the name of the synagogue. He replied:
I am happy that I feel a lot better – most of the credit to my wife. If you are ever in the area it will be my joy to meet you…’
I’m hoping to be in the area.

The second card was from a non-Jewish woman who had contacted me out of the blue a while ago, writing the most generous letter about how she tried to reach out to those of different faiths and appreciated others who did the same. An amateur artist, she described in this card how when Nadiya Hussain, winner of the Great British Bake-Off, came to the Food Festival of Bolton, she presented her with ‘a life size colour portrait’ and ‘was rewarded by a big hug!’

The third was from Hana, the second daughter of the Christian lady who, as I mentioned in my recent book, sent food-parcels during the Holocaust years to my great-grandmother Regina and my great-aunt Sophie after they were deported to Theresienstadt. I met the first daughter last year in Holesov in the Czech Republic. I remember, Hana wrote, how my mother would tell me about your family; I am so glad she has found a place in your book, ‘which is witness to the cruel and unjust years for your people, and for all the world’.

The last card was from my wife’s aunt Rosalind. Recalling the war years (she’s over 90) she wrote: ‘I thank God that, but for 22 miles of water and the Battle of Britain, neither we nor future generations would be here’. It was a poignant reminder, after the other messages, of what racism and hatred can do when they have power, and the immense courage required to defeat them.

I went to bed humbled and rose today filled with the same chastening feeling.

There are countless causes for anger and hatred. Perhaps they will prove too powerful, and divide us, fatally, in the end. I do not want to think so.

As for us, whether or not history will bear us out, let’s take courage and place our hearts and efforts together with those who reach out beyond the divisions of races and nations, to heal the wounds of our shared humanity.

I’m running for Tree Aid in the London half-marathon on 9th October. Tree Aid replants desolated regions, to give people back a livelihood so they don’t have to become refugees. Please click here to sponsor me.

Elul – month of preparation

Next week the crescent moon of the Hebrew month of Elul will first appear in the sky. When that moon wanes it will be Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Elul is therefore the month of preparation, of self-questioning, dreams and commitments to action.

There are two great motivators towards inner change, two great causes of Teshuvah, or return: longing, and shame.

To the mystics, longing is intrinsic to our deepest nature. It flows from the well of binah, the instinctive understanding, the intuition of oneness, which binds together all being in a profound and hidden connection. It is felt in the joy so many experience in the presence of nature, in the kinship of animals, in the awareness of beauty and mystery as the sun sets over the ocean, as the water glows orange, then red, then deep liquid black. For a brief but timeless interval, our thoughts are silenced, simplified into wonder.

In such moments of awareness, we appreciate that it is not our ultimate desire to be masters or controllers of creation, or oppressors of other people, or of other creatures, or of the earth itself. Rather, life is our common and great, but brief, privilege; an unearned and incomprehensible gift which we share with all existent being. We are life’s guests and life’s servants, and our companions are all living things. At such junctures we realise most deeply that we do not want to hurt them or cause injury, but only to be faithful to the greater life to which we all belong. We are here to be healers.

Yet, almost always without willing it, we do cause pain, individually and collectively. Countless people cry out to us in their suffering; the hungry, refugees, people in physical and mental torment. Many more have lost the opportunity, or the strength, or even the will, to cry out: enslaved children, the hopeless destitute. Many have no audible voice in the first place, the animals we hurt and kill, the earth itself and the wounds of nature.

Sometimes the voices we do not heed are very close at hand, among our friends, in our own family, our partner, our children. We may be hurtful without even noticing it, like the driver who, unaware of having caused a terrible accident, travelled twelve miles before the police caught up with him and told him, ‘Do you realise what you’ve done?’

Shame is not an emotion we often want to experience, but it has the power to be a great teacher, especially when feel it not as a result of the rebuke of others but instinctively, from within ourselves. It scours us with its questions: Why have I been thoughtless? Hurtful? Heedless?

Then a profound desire to be different grows inside us; it needs no outer prompting. We want to become the kind of person we know we truly are and can be. We want to live a life of generosity, purity, kindness and concern.

Such longing and such shame are the essence of true Teshuvah, repentance and return.

Every day in Elul (except on Shabbat) the shofar is blown. Maimonides explains its purpose: ‘Wake up’, it cries out; ‘Wake up, you sleepers’.

Elul is the month of preparation, the month of awakening.

P.S. I have just come back from listening to faith and civic leaders, and Juliette Stevenson and Vanessa Redgrave speaking outside the Home Office on our responsibility towards refugee children, especially those who have the legal right to be reunited with family in the UK but are stuck amidst the dangers of Calais. It was heart-rending, and deeply important. A delegation of faith leaders handed in a letter urging the Home Office to show moral leadership. The rally, organised by London citizens, emphasised the Jewish experience of the Kindertransport and the 1930’s. My mother, who came here aged 16 as a refugee from Nazi Germany, said to me this week: ‘I’m constantly aware that, were it not for the generosity of others who stood guarantor for us, neither I nor my family would be alive’.
We are not at liberty to be indifferent.
Some useful links: Jewish Community Campaign to fund bringing 150 child refugees to the UKHelp Refugees; Safe Passage

Get in touch...