Holocaust Memorial Day

I woke up this morning with a line from the Israeli poet Rachel on my mind:

Will you hear my silence, you, who did not hear my words?

Her appeal, poignant in the knowledge that her death from tuberculosis is approaching, is deeply personal. Someone she has loved has failed to hear her cry. Soon she will have no more words…

But the feeling is also apt for Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the date when the first troops of the Red Army came upon Auschwitz and Birkenau. Primo Levi’s description of his first sight of them is unforgettable, four horsemen, silent, a look of shame on their young faces that such a place could even exist, that such deeds could be part of the annals of what is.

Might Rachel’s line not express what the dead are asking of us:

Will you hear my silence, you who did not hear my words?

Will we hear the stifled voices of those forced down forever into the world of death? What might they say? Each time I visit the site of a former death camp, I try to walk in silence and to listen. For these are places which command attentiveness:

Don’t kill me. I love life.
I wish we were together. I’m afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
My child, where is my child? If only I could have spared you this!
Take my hand.

Beneath and beyond is all silence; what do we really know of what people thought and felt in their final moments?

Across the world, in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, mothers, children, spouses, neighbours confront the silence of those they had loved. Often, they don’t even know how they met their death or where their bones now lie.

But all is not silence. We still have survivors among us, witnesses, refugees. In my experience, they testify to horror and pain, to the importance of memory and truth, but rarely in bitterness and hardly ever with hatred. On the contrary, the voices of survivors are overwhelmingly a call to a profound and embracing humanity, to the awareness of the transcendent value of life, beyond the differences and barriers of race, ethnicity, faith and nationality. Though they speak of the past, what they really address is the present and the future: where today is that humanity, the courage to confront prejudice and hate, the determination to protect the innocent victims of violence, which was so much lacking then?

Within their words lie the lives and loves of all those whose cries were not heeded, whose voices were silenced with a bullet, a boot, or gas, disease or starvation.

Will we hear? Will we act?

Memory is never morally neutral; it is always a question addressed to the future. It is always responsibility.

A True Leader

I was in the United States on the day of Barak Obama’s inauguration as President. I watched the remarkable proceedings on screen, deeply moved, together with the students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. I remember weeping when President Obama said that before him in Washington stretched a street where only decades earlier his father might, or might not, have been served in a café. I thought, ‘It was to witness a moment like this that my grandfather survived Dachau and devoted his life to better understanding between peoples’.

The world has developed in threatening, often evil, ways since that date eight years ago. About Obama’s legacy there are differing opinions. But I have not heard it doubted that he is a moral man with good intentions.

Now America is on the brink of a new era. I know no colleagues in the States who feel confident about what President Trump’s leadership may offer. For this, many factors are to blame for which he is not responsible: Islamist terror; Russian militancy; resurgent racist nationalism, including anti-Semitism; inadequate attention to climate change; callousness towards the poor; the perils of a capitalism unguided and unlimited by intelligent compassion for our fellow human beings and for the earth itself.

Professor Vernon Bogdanor spoke yesterday about the shift from a politics of ideology to a politics of identity. Across the globe, people are anxious about who they are, who cares about them, and what the uncertain future holds. They seek assertive leaders who offer not just security of hearth and home, but something more intangible as well: identity security.

It is partly on this current that Donald Trump has come to power. On the journey, he has not eschewed the language of racism, sexism and contempt, or distanced himself from supporters who embrace it. But leadership, though it may corrupt, also holds the power to chasten and transform those interrogated by its responsibilities.

My prayer therefore on this day of his inauguration is that he should have an open mind and heart; that he should experience many hours by day and by night which challenge him to his very essence about what it means to be human, to be hungry or homeless, hated or forgotten; many hours which haunt him about the very state of this beautiful earth. I prayer that these hours, which we should all experience, for we are all leaders in the domain of our own lives and influence, lead to inspiration and action.

Near the start of the Book of Exodus, which we begin tomorrow, Moses ‘goes out to his brothers’. Since he was brought up in Pharaoh’s royal palace, it is fair to presume that these may have been his fellow Egyptians, the taskmasters and slave drivers. But when he sees the burdens of those who are being made to suffer, he realises that it is the latter who are most deeply his kin. Henceforth he knows it is they who are also his true brothers.

It is in that moment that he becomes a leader. That is Moses’ inauguration.

Why we are here on earth

It has been for me a week of heartfelt conversations. In such reflection, in such endeavour to find words which are gentle, honest, encouraging, and which do not infringe upon the shared attentiveness of listening, it becomes clear how much of life is about recognition. Sometimes this recognition concerns acknowledgement of sorrow, sometimes the wondrousness of beauty, but always it deepens our awareness both of each other’s humanity and of our own.

Biblical Hebrew has a profound vocabulary for such realisation. The verb yada is generally translated simply as ‘know’. Though it is used casually in modern conversation – ‘I don’t know’; ‘Who knows?’ – it often expresses in its biblical context the deepest possible dimension of knowing: ‘And you shall know this day and lay it to your heart that God is God’.

This knowledge may be experienced in little things, in the small winter flowers which perfume even the coldest day, in the red fruit of the crab-apple tree, offering January nourishment to the hungry birds. It may be felt in life’s great moments, of birth, love or death, when we perceive even in the mundane, a candle, a tree, a sense of mystery and wonder. It is discovered in moments of awe, in that reverence for life which motivated Isaiah to proclaim his great ideal as if it were the simplest, most obvious truth: ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain’. Isn’t it our failure to feel it as holy which leads us to wound and damage so much of life? That is why it’s so important to pray, since the essence of prayer is to listen, to be cleansed, quietened, simplified, re-centred from all our distractions, so that we know.

The verb Hikir means ‘to recognise’. It means perceiving and understanding what is in front of our eyes. This is not always as easy as it may sound. Jacob, for example, did recognise the multi-coloured coat of his son Joseph when the brothers brought it to him dipped in goat’s blood. But he failed to perceive those betrayals of which the manner of its appearance might have made him aware. In its deepest sense, hikir involves sensing the unseen; the needs, sensitivities and vulnerabilities, the unspoken stories held in the heart.

Most beautifully, Ruth, the foreign girl from Moab, turns in deep appreciation to Boaz who has just welcomed her as a gleaner in his fields and says: ‘How come I’ve found favour in your eyes that you should recognise me, a stranger’. Such recognition is what so many refugees await from us: an appreciation of their humanity, losses, hopes. It expresses the understanding we need in order to breech the barriers of prejudice, between faiths, nationalities, ethnic groups. It’s what we need from each other in ordinary, everyday life, and even more so in times of stress and pain: to feel heard, included, valued, encouraged. What needs hearing is never only that which we succeed in putting into words but what eludes them in the silence of the heart.

Such knowledge and recognition leads us, simply and clearly, towards life’s purpose, a purpose we may express through our family, friendships, work, community, volunteering, activism, religion, faith, or simply through the way we interact with one another: We are here in this world to bring our humanity together in loving kindness, so that we can act to mitigate the cruelty of things, and we are here to appreciate and celebrate life’s blessings.

That’s what our lives, families, friendships, communities and faith are for.

These causes helping child refugees need our support urgently

World Jewish Relief

Mobile School Programme
For more information and to donate, click here

Child refugee support co-ordinator
For more information and to donate, click here

JUMP (matches young asylum seekers and refugees who arrive alone in the UK with trained, adult befrienders)
To donate, click here

God and Farming

It’s not often one has the privilege of taking part in a conference which is as high in the sky as spirituality and transcendence, yet as rooted in the ground as a row of wheat or the hoofprint of a cow in the frozen grass. But yesterday I was on a panel about metaphysics at the Oxford Real Farming Conference together with the founder of the Campaign for Real Farming, Colin Tudge, and a Christian theologian and a Sufi.

This is not the beginning of a ‘the rabbi, the priest and the imam’ style joke. The session was one of the most moving and inspiring experiences of my life. The room was packed; there were farmers, foresters, and men and women of all walks of life for whom growing, gardening, the tending of animals and the nurture of the earth were a profoundly spiritual as well as an eminently practical pursuit.

Professor Tim Gorrange was a Christian, Dr Justine Huxley, the Director of St Ethelburgas Centre for Reconciliation a Sufi, and I a Jew, but we spoke the same language.

We shared an understanding of God as present in all being, of all life as sacred, silently articulate with the vital presence of the divine.

We shared an appreciation of creation as an integrated whole, and a view of humankind not as chosen by divine right to dominate, but rather as entrusted to respect, care, nurture and stand in humble accountability as part of the great web of life to which we and all things belong.

We spoke of listening, of trying to learn through the different disciplines of our faiths the art of becoming attentive to the silent voice which speaks from within all life, a voice which our civilisation all too often ignores, or imagines not to exist. We talked of the importance of the experience of reverence, and of how the cultivation of plants and crops can help us too to grow in wonder and respect.

But there wasn’t a ‘we’ and a ‘them’; the room was full of practitioners who have plenty to teach our world. ‘I work from a monastery’, one man said, ‘we create spiritual communities through gardening and the sharing of food. The homeless come; the wealthy come; both those  at the top and at the bottom of the conventional social hierarchy. We come together because we are all somehow broken, seeking healing as part of a greater wholeness.’

Another contributor spoke of the family smallholding where refugees and asylum seekers are made welcome; they tend the vegetables, cook, sing together and learn from one another. His brother is a member of our synagogue.

A pastor told me about his work in creating gardeners with former prisoners, finding healing in engagement with the earth itself. He asked me about the meanings of the Hebrew words for ‘earth’ and ‘serve’: ‘Does avad mean both to work the land, and to be a servant of God?’

We spoke of the urgency of placing responsibility, care, compassion and indeed love back at the heart of our culture. There was wide agreement when I mentioned Hans Jonas’ final lecture, delivered days before he died, in which he spoke of the next revelation as coming not from Sinai or Gethsemane but from ‘the outcry of mute things’.

Yesterday I met some of those who are devoting their lives to listening to that silent outcry, to becoming more deeply attuned to what it tells us about God, humanity, creation and the earth, and who are daily endeavouring to answer the call of its commandments.

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