Kindness is the world’s heart

Two weeks ago, I went shopping at Tesco’s late on Thursday night, my usual hour for the pre-Shabbat round-up of the items on the family list (except that I invariably stupidly forget one or two of the things the others urgently need). I managed to fill the trolley, but had a painful back and was forced to squat down on the floor for a moment next to the cash desk. Within seconds two members of the checkout team were at my side:

Are you alright?

Yes, I’m OK thank you. Only I’ve got a bad back.

Don’t worry. We’ll put your items through the check-out, pack them for you and take them to your car.

They didn’t just say it; they did it. It made all the difference, not just to my back but to my spirits.

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which means ‘laws’. The older I get, the more I am grateful for Halakhah, Judaism’s unending debate, rooted in the Torah, of how it is right, fair and compassionate to act in every situation. I’m thankful, too, to live in a society where by and large the laws are just. Like many others, I am increasingly aware that justice and compassion can never be taken for granted and that we must stand up and speak out against every breech and infraction of the equal dignity of all people. The last thing we should do is take justice for granted.

But justice alone is never enough, as a detail in tomorrow’s Torah portion makes clear. The Torah insists that a lender who takes his neighbour’s garment as pledge must return it before dark. Perhaps it’s the man’s only nightshirt: ‘What then shall he sleep in? If he cries out to Me, I will hear him [says God] because I am merciful’. (Exodus 22:26)

The ancient rabbinical text Mechilta comments: ‘Why is “I am merciful” stressed? Because, says God, it was through mercy that I created the world’.

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein of Pinsk (1860 – 1941) notes in his Torah Temimah that the lender could say in all fairness: ‘The man hasn’t repaid my loan; I’m entitled to keep his pledge’. To such an attitude God responds: ‘But I made the world through mercy’. Rabbi Epstein then records the famous account of how God saw that a world based on justice alone could never survive and therefore counterbalanced it with mercy.

We live in increasingly harsh times. I fear what laws may be passed, or enforced, which will end up disadvantaging and punishing the weakest in society: the poorest, the outsider, the stranger, those who have no one to fight for them, exactly those groups the Torah constantly reminds us to treat with particular concern.

I worry that kindness, compassion, the imagination to think what life might feel like for the other person, will be a victim of this hardening of the social arteries as we enter an age of greater insecurity, fear and anger.

My back is, thank God, far better and I’m running again (with the doctor’s blessing). I hope I’ll soon forget the pain. But I hope I’ll never forget those moments of kindness in the supermarket.

The world depends on justice. But it’s the kind deed, the gracious word, the compassionate act, which ensures that the world still has a heart. We’re all part of that heart and we’re all responsible for it.

And you? Where are you?

In these troubling weeks, I feel myself nagged and bothered by the first commandment, those simple words ‘I am the Lord your God’. They stalk me, stare out at me, echo back at me from everything I encounter.

I saw that commandment when I passed a young man sleeping rough on the street. I heard it when I spoke with my friend Okito, the leader of the Congolese community in London. I even see it when I look out at the goldfinches on the bird feeder. I know I’m going hear it again, loudly, when I visit at the local hospital. And these days I feel I overhear the words weeping almost every time I look at the newspaper.

What stalks me is the sense of my personal, and our collective, failure; what haunts me is a sense of shame.

How can one be stalked by ‘I am the Lord your God’? After all, it’s only a sentence. It isn’t even really a commandment (and some theologians don’t count it among the ten in the Decalogue). ‘I am the Lord your God’ doesn’t even ask us to do anything. The words are merely the preamble. Specific instructions follow: ‘Don’t murder’, ‘Don’t steal’, ‘Don’t be faithless in relationships’. But ‘I am your God’ is not itself a command.

Or is it?

There are two ways (at least) to read it. One can take it as saying ‘Tick this box’. Agree to this about how the world is’. An alternative box is ‘I’m an atheist’, or ‘I don’t care’. Of course, which box we tick in our heads is important. Though I’m nervous of people whose boxes are ticked only in their heads; there’s always the danger they’ll go to war with people whose boxes are different.

It’s the other way of hearing the first commandment which haunts me. If there is one God, one vitality, one community of life which connects us all and to which we all belong, vast and varied as that community is, then the words ‘I am the Lord your God’ cry out at us from every living thing.

They call to us from the person sleeping rough. They cry to us from the woman deported back to a country where she fears for her life. They appeal to us from the Jew afraid because of hate threats to go outside with a kippah. They weep from every wound, every injury and every wrong inflicted on our fellow human beings and nature itself.

They say to us ‘I, God, am here too, in this hurt and this injustice’. They say at the same time, ‘I, God, am here in this beauty, in this creativity, in this potential goodness of all life’. They say, ‘You there, walking past, do you hear me? I am the sacred in all life. I speak in everything around you, and in your heart. Are you listening? Are you there?’

That’s how the Rabbi of Slonim, the Netivot Shalom, understood that First Commandment: ‘God spoke and created all things, so that they say: “I am the Lord your God”’.

How then can I, how can we, how can leaders and governments across the world, be callous, unjust, cruel, careless, heedless, selfish?

The First Commandment is really the first half of a question: I am the Lord your God, God of all life – And you, where are you?

We can’t abandon refugee children

Tomorrow brings two of my favourite things: Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, and Shabbat Shirah the Shabbat of Song. I had thought to write about both. I’ve been reading Peter Wohlleben’s wonderful book The Hidden Life of Trees. A forester initially employed to maximise the yield from the woods over which he was appointed, he comes to understand the mystery of the secret life of his trees, how they communicate with one another, support each other, develop resilience and form a rich and wondrous community.

I wanted to write about how God’s presence sings in the trees, how that song can embrace and chasten us and make us more deeply aware of the wonder and privilege of life.

But I won’t. Having hosted Lord Dubs in our synagogue and heard him speak of what motivated him, a child of the Kindertransport, to petition Parliament to allow 3,000 lone children into this country, I cannot be silent when that agreement seems now to have been overturned by the government.

I was in The House of Commons last week for the rededication of the plaque in honour of the Kindertransport. After the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who both spoke with moving eloquence, a boy of 15 from Syria told us, through an interpreter, about his long journey to these shores. When asked what was most in his thoughts, he said: ‘The unknown fate of his parents and family’ as he tried to restrain his tears.

In the wake of the Holocaust we asked in grief and anger how it was possible for so many people to remain indifferent, unmoved by the fate of others. I fear the answer is that it’s easy: ‘If it doesn’t affect me, I can just get on with my life as usual. It’s simpler not to know.’

Every verse of Jewish teaching and every chapter of Jewish experience tells us that that is not good enough. ‘Don’t hide yourself from your own flesh’, proclaims Isaiah: don’t be deaf and blind to those who suffer just as you are suffering. ‘Lo titallam – Don’t hide away; don’t pretend you didn’t know’.

Barbara Winton, who spoke in our synagogue and with whom I’m closely in touch, wrote to the Prime Minister today (Theresa May was her father Nicholas Winton’s MP): ‘Every single child’s life is worth every single thing we can give.’

None of us has done enough to help save those lives. I repeat at this link the initiatives I’m encouraging us to support. I admire the remarkable work of our Drop-In. I respect greatly the huge efforts of Help Refugees and Safe Passage. I am pleased we are beginning to find ways to support and befriend the refugee families in our midst, in Barnet. But we need more initiatives, more engagement and more moral courage.

I want to stress that this is not an alternative to strengthening our own community. My heart sinks and I feel personal upset when I learn that someone has failed to come forward to support our minyan, our quorum, on their due date on the rota, preventing others from reciting the Kaddish. We must not let each other, our Judaism, or our common humanity down.

Peter Wohlleben describes in his beautiful book how, through the hidden connections between their roots, trees nourish the weak amongst them and uphold the strong. The roots of our shared humanity also mingle in the common earth of our mortal existence. We too can, and must, uphold one another.

The Dubs Amendment

‘The Dubs Amendment’ was agreed by Parliament last year as a gesture of humanity and hospitality in the face of an immense crisis in which child refugees are the most vulnerable of all. It was supported by public opinion, the widespread feeling that, with its tradition of compassion and hospitality, this country should and could do more.

To close the doors now, when only a fraction of the three thousand children due to come here have been enabled to do so, is cruel. Barbara Winton, daughter of Nicholas Winton whose actions saved the lives of over 600 children in 1938/9 told me: ‘It’s tragedy if the hopes of these young people are dashed. Even 3,000 is just a drop in the ocean, but each drop is a life…’

We need to work together to hold the government to its commitments. We must also play our part as communities and individuals in receiving and welcoming the children who do arrive here, and in helping them to establish new lives.

True to our values in difficult times

I listen to the news of the attack at the Louvre, icon of France’s love of beauty, and feel profound dismay. Poor Paris, city which has suffered so much in the last two years.

A brave soldier was swift enough to shoot the attacker. But the event still increases fear and suspicion. It cannot be doubted that we live in a world where constant vigilance and good intelligence are a sad but basic necessity for our security.

Yet we do not want to inhabit a society divided on religious, racial or ethnic grounds by barricades of suspicion, prejudice and anger. A world, state or city separated into ‘them and us’, with mass collective exclusions, is not the answer. It represents a victory for fear and hate; it is already a kind of failure. For division is the hallmark of hatred and fear.

Judaism has always had at its heart the belief in one God. Oneness is perhaps Judaism’s most unique and characteristic idea. What does it mean?

The oneness of God comes first. As Maimonides wrote in The Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, and as the mystical tradition persistently emphasises, to declare that ‘God is one’ is not simply to say that God is not two, or four, or eight. It is a profound affirmation that a sacred oneness, the divine spirit and presence, permeates all things and transcends them; that all life belongs to God and God belongs in all life; that there is therefore nothing and no one devoid of sanctity and value.

It follows that humanity is ultimately one. The description in the first chapter of Genesis that God made the human being in the divine image, is not a scientific account of what actually happened, but an assertion of the ultimate equality of all life. In the words of the Mishnah; ‘No one can say “My parents were better than yours”’. There is therefore no such thing, to use the ugly Nazi phrase, as ‘a life unworthy of life’. People may behave disgracefully, treacherously and wickedly and therefore merit punishment. But ab initio, they are not children of a lesser God, or of less intrinsic worth because they are Jews, Muslims, or Zoroastrians, for we are all not just children, but agents, of the one living God.

It follows further that all life is part of one inter-connected web of sacred vitality, as the prayers on the New Year declare, ‘let us all be part of one bond, to do God’s will with a perfect heart’. We are mandated to participate in a profound sharing of the resources of the earth and the gift of life itself. This is a truth affirmed at one end by a deep faith in the sanctity of all things, and at the other by the empirical evidence of ecological examination.

What then are we supposed to do in a time when fear and hatred threaten to pull us apart, yet togetherness, mutuality and understanding are at the heart of our vision?

We should be neither naïve, nor passive. Individually and collectively we need to do our utmost to remain true to our faith and ideals. We must deepen our roots within our own community, reach out to those who feel isolated, build relationships with those of different faiths and groups, and engage with those who are strangers, outsiders and refugees.

We need to be vigilant against violence, whether in words or actions, and whoever the victim. At the same time, we also need to be vigilant in our own hearts and minds, in what we say and hear said, against the proliferation of hatreds and prejudices of our own.

We need to work even harder to be true to our ideals. At this time of greater difficulty, the rewards are also great: new friendships, new connections, deeper bonds of shared humanity and commitment to justice and compassion.

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