Rights, Responsibilities and Refugees

As I write there are two images before my eyes.

One is of the desperation of children and young people amidst the burning remains of the camp in Calais. That children should suffer mistreatment, especially after the horrors so many of them have passed through, is an indictment of our humanity.

The other picture is of the beautiful letters of the opening words of the Torah, the shining black ink of In the beginning God created, emerging from the blank spaces of the parchment.

Judaism does not have an overt charter of Human Rights. Instead, it speaks of our responsibilities, of doing right, rather than asserting rights.

What Judaism does have, indeed what to many people Judaism primarily is, is a charter of ethics, grounded in the sanctity and dignity with which life is endowed.

This is evident from the very beginning of the Torah. The world is God’s creation. The relevant issue here is not if and how God made the world. The point is rather that the earth itself and all life on it, land, sea, trees, birds, fishes and animals, are integral parts of a sacred whole. They are not ours to destroy but to respect; they are not for us to own, but to nurture and protect.

Most significantly, every human being is imbued with God’s image. It is partly irrelevant how this is interpreted; whether, as different scholars have explained it, the reference is to the capacity for reason, imagination, creativity or speech. In whatever way we understand the words ‘the image of God’, the essential point is that this image resides in every person; it is the sacred trust with which each human being is endowed. Hence, no life is worthless; no one may be treated with cruelty or contempt.

Therefore, a corresponding obligation to care extends across the entire network of humanity and creation. It is our responsibility to safeguard God’s image both in ourselves, through how we conduct our lives; and in each other, through how we treat our fellow human beings and nature itself.

It is an impossibly high demand. History could be summarised as the record of our failures. Yet it is also testament to constant and outstanding examples of justice, compassion, courage, generosity, selflessness, tenderness and devoted love.

The meaning of our moment in time lies partly within our own power. Is it a time of tenderness, or cruelty? Are we, or are we not, faithful to the endowment with which we have been created?

There is no such thing as neutrality.

People call me every day to ask how they can help refugees, especially children. I’ve been listening to discussion among the leaders of several key organisations and hope to put forward more detailed suggestions as to how, individually and collectively, we can try to assist.


In the meantime, here are a number of organisations we should support:

The NNLS Asylum Seekers Drop in

World Jewish Relief

Help Refugees

 JCORE (The Jewish Council for Racial Equality)

Why Truth Matters

If I ever win the privilege of travelling back in time to a date and location of my choice, I want to spend a day observing the original editors of the Hebrew Bible at their remarkable task. Whoever they were and whenever they met, (I’d have difficulty giving the time-cab pilot clear instructions) they were people of extraordinary courage.

They could have said ‘No way!’ and left out the Book of Job which challenges God’s justice, offering no clear answers. They could have said ‘Impolitic, the Assyrians and Babylonians and Greeks are too busy attacking us already!’ and omitted the piercingly self-critical prophecies of Amos and Jeremiah. They could have said ‘Definitely not!’ and consigned Kohelet’s relentless questioning to the undiscovered dustbin of history’s lost masterpieces.

They did no such thing. Instead, they put the most difficult issues right in the heart of the sacred canon, making it everyone’s contemporary for all time, whatever the issues he, she, the entire community, or humanity itself has to face.

It’s customary to read Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on the Sabbath in the middle of Succot, – that is, tomorrow. Who he was, when he was, and the bottom line of what he actually meant, – these questions remain open to perennial debate.

But one thing is certain. The author was ardent in the relentless pursuit of truth:

I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom (1:13)

Unlike so many protected by privilege, he did not hide behind the walls of the castles and gardens he built with such profligacy:

Behold the tears of the oppressed; they have no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors is power (4:10)

Most radically of all, he refused all easy answers, questioning whether life has any enduring meaning whatsoever:

Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. (1:2)

This is, in effect, the strap-line of the book; it’s tantamount to testing every insight by multiplying it by zero and puzzling over the results. He refuses to be fooled.

These courageous qualities of Kohelet struck me forcibly this week for their sharply contemporary message, on two counts.

The first is the decision, taken by vote by UNESCO’s 58-member executive, that there is no ancient and integral relationship between Judaism and the Temple Mount. A fact doesn’t cease to be a fact because a wilfully ignorant group prefers it to be a fiction. The vote is by no means a unique occurrence; it is symptomatic of a civilizational drift away from empiricism towards mythology. It is a sign of the frightening reality that what matters today is all too often not what is, but in whose story it gets wrapped up.

The second is the 50th commemoration of the Aberfan disaster. I remember vividly the day when the huge coal-tip buried alive 116 children and 28 adults. Horror, grief and pity gripped the nation. What I didn’t know then was the slow and laborious manner in which the truth had to be dragged out of the National Coal Board that such a disaster could, and should, have been foreseen. Nor was I aware that the funds to remove the remaining pile of slag, and others like it, which terrified the surviving children were partly taken from the very moneys raised to support the victims, and that it was decades before they were repaid.

Should truth and responsibility cease to matter, lies and injustice will rule. When anyone with sufficient courage tries to call them to account, they will hide behind the virtually impenetrable barriers of fiction and unaccountability.

Therefore, let the voice of Kohelet speak out, probing, questioning, challenging and fearless for the truth.

What’s a Succah for?

Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sameach for the forthcoming festival of Succot.

And it’s a mitzvah (best practice) to fix up the succah immediately after Yom Kippur, since when you have the opportunity to perform a mitzvah (commandment) don’t waste it.

Thus the words of the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century, and still current, code of Jewish law composed by Joseph Caro. The commentary of the Mishnah Berurah is a little more generous towards those who may feel slightly fatigued by the 25 hour fast:

This refers to those who are exacting in their deeds; everyone else, and they too, should complete the job the following day.

I’ve a bad reputation as a succah-building fan. Over the years I’ve loved how the children have given me a meagre five minutes to down some food after the fast, before pressing me to start on the succah. I miss them, all mostly away from home, this year.

Not everyone has the space or opportunity to make a succah. That’s why we have a communal succah in the synagogue courtyard, for all to enjoy. Also, people who do have a succah are generally delighted to share, so ‘If you can’t build one, join one.’

Here are some of the things which matter about a Succah:

A succah is a succah because of the sechach, the greenery used for the roof. The walls may be constructed out of anything, from brick walls to resident elephants. But the roof must be made of branches, or materials grown from the earth. These must be cut specially for the succah and placed there for the current, forthcoming festival. In England, the best branches are laurel and bay; one can also buy woven willow or reeds made solely for this purpose.

Succot is a harvest festival, chag ha’assif, the celebration of the gathering of the produce from the orchards and fields. It’s a way of saying ‘thank you’ for the season’s blessings, with grace and beauty. As a keen gardener, I like to choose what to grow with the succah in mind. If you have succeeded in growing something special, please bring a sample to hang in the synagogue succah!

A succah is essentially a temporary structure. It reminds us that life is beautiful but also fragile, full of wonder, but not to be taken for granted.

A succah is open to the elements. If the rain can’t penetrate the roof, then it isn’t truly a succah. This is an important reminder to those of us accustomed to warm houses that for many shelter is insecure, imperfect and uncertain and that we should not forget those who regularly endure wet and cold, by day and night.

The succah reminds us that we, too, were once refugees, with no other shelter than such frail huts. Europe, and the world, is full of millions of refugees*. For very many of them, a succah would be a great improvement on the cold, the wet, the homelessness and the hopelessness they have to endure all the time.

A succah is a place of hospitality; it’s a place not only of the gathering of the harvest, but of the gathering together of friends, strangers and community. It reminds us that strength lies in solidarity, a solidarity we should be ready to extend to those who have been forced to flee the places where they, like us, once felt at home.

The succah represents trust and peace; the mystics call it tsila dimeheimanuta ‘the canopy of faith’. It expresses our hope for a world in which such frail shelter will be sufficient because everyone can feel trust not only in God but in the goodwill of their neighbours and the neighbouring nations, so that there is no need for fortresses and border barriers because humankind is at peace with itself, with nature and with God.

And, back down to earth, a succah is fun to build!

 *Two organizations helping Refugees:

Help Refugees is a grassroots humanitarian organisation providing emergency relief in more refugee camps in Europe than any other organisation.

Refugees at Home is a small UK based group aiming to connect those with a spare room in their home with asylum seekers and refugees in need of accommodation.

‘This is about repentance’

Tomorrow is Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance and Return.

It’s over nine years now since we sat Shivah as a family for my father. Among the visitors was my teacher, Principal of Leo Baeck Rabbinical College during the time I studied there, Professor Rabbi Jonathan Magonet. He made his way carefully across the room, leant towards me and said quietly, ‘This is about Teshuvah (repentance)’.

Those were just four words, but they’ve stayed with me. I recall being puzzled at the time: Why was he telling me this? What did it have to do with my father? But his short sentence has grown for me into the most helpful of comments, both about Teshuvah and remembering my father.

What he wasn’t saying is ‘You’re a great sinner’ (at least, I don’t think so.) What he was saying is: ‘This is a time to rethink what matters in life’.

I hear that call in certain sayings of my father. I’m lucky; I can think of words from my mother, father, brother, wife and, more poignantly, children, all of which I would do well to ponder. But the words of the dead have a particular resonance in the heart, perhaps because we no longer have that opportunity, so easily taken for granted, to exchange with them the sometimes affectionate, sometimes irritating banalities of every day.

My father used to quote the Yiddish proverb
              Ueberlegt sich der Chochem, ueberlegt sich der Narr.
It’s hard to translate, but goes something like ‘While the person who thinks he’s so clever is busy thinking about the issue, so is the person he thinks is very stupid.’ What this means to me is: ‘Never imagine you’ve got it all right. Always ask yourself how matters look from the other person’s point of view’. It’s simple, but chastening. So much of what we do wrong is because we haven’t considered, felt or imagined how things feel to others. My father’s voice reminds me of this often, calling me to Teshuvah, to think again.

Probably, though, what Rabbi Magonet had in mind was the meaning of death itself, the impact of the brute truth that ‘The dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns to God who gave it’.

Time is limited. My father no longer walks in front of me, offering at least an imagined protection from the fact that I am next in line for the inevitable fate of every generation.

What, then, do I want to do with the rest of my life, before ‘the dust returns’? How do I want to give my spirit back to God, or life, or the infinite void, from which somehow, mysteriously, incomprehensibly, all spirit comes?

Afforded this privilege of life and the gifts of love, time and opportunity, wouldn’t we want to live our days in a manner which says ‘thank you’, in a way which indicates that we honour and appreciate all this wonder? Would we not want to be pure in heart, honest and truthful in our conduct, and generous, compassionate and kind in all our interactions? Isn’t that the direction in which life, and death, teach us to turn?

‘This is about Teshuvah’: I remember those four words.

Inspiration from Above

Teshuvah, ‘return’ or ‘repentance’, isn’t just about remorse for the wrongs we have done and the resolve to try to do differently from now on. It is also about looking forwards and upwards. It’s about ‘returning’ to our hopes and ideals. It is about trying to be the best person it is within our capacity to become; the person we might, and yet still can, be.

Indeed, the whole of life’s journey can be thought of as a return to a place of innocence, kindness and love, from which, either in some transcendental reality or in phantasy, the spirit feels that it has come:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

        Hath had elsewhere its setting,

          And cometh from afar…From God who is our home.

                           (Wordsworth: Intimations of Immortality

It may be a phantasy, but it is a useful one. All our life we aspire to ‘return’ and rediscover the goodness and purity which once were ours. We seek what is beautiful, good and just, and hope to be and do likewise. We are drawn towards it like latecomers down from a mountain walk as darkness threatens and the lights of distant houses beckon.

There’s a mysterious passage about repentance in the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism, which has long gripped my imagination:

Rabbi Abba said: “From the depths I cry to you, O God.” There is a hidden place above; it is the depth of the well. And from it streams and fountains flow on all sides, and this profoundest of depths is called ‘Repentance’. (Zohar III 69b – 70a)

I’m struck by this surreal picture: are we being asked to look up, or down? I’m drawn first of all to the depths of the well. Pools are strangely fascinating; it’s not just children who find themselves staring down with silent intensity at the stillness and the currents. It’s as if those waters were a reflection of one’s inner being, one’s very soul.

Yet this well is on high, in ‘a hidden place above’. We therefore need first to look up. For the depths of our being are not down below, but call to us from high above. We are not to be dragged down by our errors and mistakes, by the inevitable fact that as mere humans we inevitably commit wrongs. We must not be bewildered by guilt.

Instead we should look up and be inspired, as by the stars which draw our gaze upwards at night, or by music which lifts our spirit and makes it too sing. Then we think: How can I raise my life? How can I be the best person I’m capable of becoming? How can I use what life has given me, in order to give back to life with gratitude and love? How can I serve?

This is the call to Teshuvah, return, from above.

What Teshuvah really means

Rosh Hashanah is over for another year. I shall miss the shofar and the beautiful prayer that we, all living breathing creatures, should recognise our bonds with one another and with God.

The focus now in these important days which culminate in Yom Kippur is Teshuvah, repentance and return.

Teshuvah has both a backward- and a forward-facing aspect. The first concerns the deeds we have done and what we learn from the past history of our own lives. The second (which I hope to write about tomorrow) is about whom we aspire to be, our ‘return’ to the dreams and ideals of the person we would like to become.

Remorse is a painful sensation; no one relishes experiencing it. But it is a sign of moral health. To feel remorse means to be sincerely and painfully aware of the hurt we have caused another person. More truly than regret, it indicates that we wish for more than that the whole matter should be forgotten, that it should just go away. It shows we feel something deeper than ‘I’m sorry if you were upset’. Remorse is the stinging awareness that we said or did something, intentionally or inadvertently, which brought another person pain.

What do we do with this feeling? First of all, it should guide us to apologise if this is at all possible, not because we have to, or because it’s the ‘PC’ thing, but because we want to. The question inside us, next to ‘what have I done?’ is ‘how can I bring healing?’

If we in turn should be the person who’s been hurt and someone approaches us with a genuine apology, we shouldn’t be hard hearted and hold ourselves aloof. That in itself is hurtful. Furthermore, who are we to be merciless? Don’t we all know what it’s like to feel terrible over something we said or did?

Secondly, there is an important internal dimension to reflecting on our mistakes. They offer us an especially powerful, if painful, opportunity to grow as human beings. I imagine this is what the third century Talmudic sage, Rabbi Shimeon ben Lakish, meant by his saying:

Great is repentance because, through it, even our deliberate sins can become merits.

Our very errors, when we realise their consequences and how they have affected others, can become our most compelling teachers. They provide ‘the lessons we truly never forget’. We may well wish we’d never had to receive them in the first place. But, if they extend our sensitivity and capacity for compassion, they ultimately become part not of our shame and guilt, but,far more significantly, of our growth.

I believe this is the true meaning of the words baal teshuvah: they describe the person whose humanity has been deepened, whose heart has been opened and softened, by learning not just from life’s blessings, but from the wrongs we, being human, inevitably commit and who resolves to try never to give hurt or cause suffering any more.

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