A special day in the life of a rabbi

My Tuesday touched on almost everything I care about most deeply. I wouldn’t normally write up my dairy, but these are values I hope we can all work together to make real.

10.00am, Mill Hill: a meeting of councillor, community and faith leaders, two days before the anniversary of the Grenfell fire, ten days before the Great Get Together in memory of Jo Cox, to learn to work together. Emily, now studying to be a C of E minister, describes how she became the landlady of a pub in Colindale and transforming it from a place known for violence into a beloved local hub. ‘Find the dormant talent’, she says: they’ll come forward, musicians, magicians, gardeners…. She’s the opposite of what the Mayor of London called ‘A culture of institutional indifference’.

12.30, Victoria Station: coffee with broadcaster, naturalist Mary Colwell. She walked 500 miles for curlews, the emblematic bird whose haunting song cries out the decline of once rich meadowlands. Her book Curlew Moon shows her knowledge, faith and passion for this beautiful world. Intensive farming is robbery of the land: we can’t just take and take again, as if the earth has no inner life and its creatures don’t matter. I think of the Torah: ‘The land is Mine’ says God. The mystics teaching that one life runs through all existence; what we destroy is always also part of our own spirit. A pragmatist, Mary campaigns for the best compromise for farmers, wildlife, food production: creation must live together.

2.00, Charing Cross: more coffee with Marie van der Zyl, new President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Her life has given her a special and profound commitment to the diversity of the community. We too discuss togetherness: can we create a Street Festival of Judaism? Can we advance Eco-Synagogue, supported by all denominations from Liberal to the Chief Rabbi? How do we work with friends, and antagonists, of other faiths and none? In a crisis, God forbid, could all British Jewish clergy say psalms together: ‘From the depths I call to you, God’?

(Another chance to get running practice; hate being late.)

3.30, St Pauls: (refusing coffee) meeting Graham, advisor to the Islamic Finance Council and the Church of Scotland, who’re working on a declaration of values. It speaks of ‘Stewardship’, ‘Love of the Neighbour’, ‘Justice and Equity’. ‘Could there be a Jewish voice?’ he asks. ‘It’s already there,’ I say, the unnamed source of these very principles. He smiles and nods: that’s why he’s invited me. My first request is to change ‘Old Testament’ to ‘Hebrew Bible’. No-interest loans to the poorest, micro-finance, supporting the earth which supports us: how can faiths together make these ideals real?

4.30, tea in a quiet corner. I try to study the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto’s sermon on chukkah, God’s laws beyond the grasp of human rationale. There are times, he writes, when reason cannot help us. The mind must immerse itself in the purifying waters of the sacred. Only faith can strengthen and console us…But my phone goes; a question about wedding plans; another about conversion; a call from Refugees at Home.

6.30, meeting Nicky in the Strand to celebrate Tim Robertson’s appointment as Chief Executive of the Anne Frank Trust. His speech is outstanding: this would have been Anne’s 89th birthday, he notes, reading from the diary about her hope in life…He explains the experiences which motivate him to lead the Trust in teaching against racism across the UK: his years of work in child protection, love of literature and nature (Wordsworth first), commitment to education, religious practice as a Quaker (keen to visit our synagogue).

Nicky and I travel home together. Then it’s back to the desk. I haven’t prepared tomorrow’s teaching. I need to make a personal list of people who are ill. But I’ve a full heart, the gift of so many courageous, innovative people, who live the values I passionately care for too.

Bedtime: ‘Not yet!’ says Mitzpah the dog, waiting eagerly for his night-walk.

 

 

The goodness in bread

Food is wonderful; but it takes a lot to beat a really good loaf of bread. Nothing quite equals a hunk of challah on Shabbat or a good thick slice of granary on a weekday. Even the dog always wants to share.

The Torah had much to say about dough, long before Masterchef made cooking cool, or The Great British Bake-Off turned the kitchen into a theatre for brilliance and bravado:

When you eat the bread of the land, raise a gift up to God (Numbers 15:19)

That gift is the original challah, which in the Biblical context means the portion of dough given to the priests. Like the first wool from the sheep, it was a tax for the civil service, as the priests effectively were while the Temple still stood.

I fondly remember studying the relevant tractate of the Mishnah with Libbi for her Bat mitzvah. Appropriately titled ‘Challah’, it discusses what grains are used for bread, what percentage of dough is taken, and, our favourite passage, how, if shepherds bake specially and solely for their dogs, no challah is given; whereas if they share the bread with their much-deserving hounds the gift for the priests must be taken.

Nowadays, only a residual of the rite remains: a blessing for ‘separating challah from the dough’ before a small portion is put aside in the oven to burn.

But bread remains essential, and we should still ‘raise up a gift’ when we eat it.

In Biblical times, the corners of the fields, fallen ears and forgotten sheaves were all left for the poor, refugees and the indigent old. The Mishnah tells how they would wait patiently for the harvest, so that they could glean.

I wish we too left corners in our fields, not because the hungry in today’s world are going to go there and wait, but for the meadow birds, for the animals vanishing for want of long grass, wild flowers and grain. The world would be desolate without bees or birdsong, in substance and in soul.

I wish every supermarket, bakery, restaurant and coffee shop, where most of us regularly buy more than plenty, had a clear sign on every counter which said: ‘It’s an ancient and just practice to give a small percentage of what you spend on yourself for those who have no food’. Most of us would give, at least some of the time.

I wish I said the blessing ‘hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz – who brings forth bread from the earth’ more sincerely more often. Blessing is recognition. When we bless one another, we notice and encourage the good within us; when we bless God for bread, we acknowledge that it’s not ours solely by right, but as a gift. ‘The earth is God’s’, teaches the Talmud; blessing is the expression of gratitude which makes us fit to enjoy it.

I’m glad so many in our communities cook for destitute asylum seekers, for friends, and strangers, who are ill, grieving, or under stress; and that we have our ‘challah project’ in which whole teams bake challot every week and take them to people’s homes before Shabbat, to say ‘we’re thinking of you’, in special moments of sadness or joy.

I’ll never forget how years ago, when I walked north along the Rhine carrying the flame from my grandfather’s former synagogue in Frankfurt with which to light the Eternal Lamp in our new building, my blood sugar ran low. Being diabetic, I urgently had to find the nearest source of food. The only place within miles was a castle with an exclusive restaurant. Seeing me, mud-covered, with a backpack and a dog, the waiter simply turned and disappeared. I couldn’t blame him and was about to leave, when he came back with a basket filled with many kinds of bread and fruit. ‘No’, he said as I made to pay, ‘It’s for your pilgrimage’.

 

My lamp is in your hands

Beha’alotecha – the opening word of this week’s Torah reading – matters to me, troubles me and moves me.

‘When you kindle the lamps’ doesn’t quite capture the subtlety of the Hebrew. A precise translation is ‘When you cause the lamps to ascend’. The reference is to the daily task of replenishing and lighting of the seven branched Menorah in the holy precincts of the Tabernacle.

But a pithy Midrash extends the meaning to the entire expanse of life: ‘Neri beyadecha, venerecha beyadi: My lamp is in your hands; your lamp is in mine’. The speaker is God and the lamp referred to here is every soul and spirit, the Temple of each life. It burns with the sacred vitality of everything which breaths; it illumines to our heart and conscience the path we are to walk.

‘My lamp is in your hands’ speaks of the responsibility we have, first and foremost, to what is most precious in our own self. Etti Hilesum understood this intuitively. After receiving the dreaded deportation order which forced her to leave her beloved Amsterdam, she wrote in her diary:

[T]hat 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. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. (July 1942)

But the lamp in our hands is also God’s sacred presence in the life of others. That light often, maybe all too often, rests in the cusp of our trust, – in our partner, children, friends, the animals, even the breathing trees. The destiny of this entire living, breathing world has fallen within our power and become our constant responsibility. It lies within our capability to kill, maim, belittle, degrade, uproot, destroy; to love, nurture, respect, inspire and plant. If God is present in all that lives, then, too, a part of God lies within the circumference of our capacity to hurt.

That is why beha’alotecha, causing the flame on the lamp to ascend is so critically important. Our task is not to extinguish or diminish its light, but to enable the flame of life to burn more purely and more truly. Every deed of kindness, the most ordinary, in-the-street, any-time-of-day-or-night goodness, is a curling of the hands around the light of a friend, child, frightened animal, bird with a wounded wing. Every act of wanton cruelty spits on the flame of another being’s soul.

It is the challenge of living by this knowledge, this reality, which is captured in the Hebrew word for faith, emunah. It does not refer to a set of mental convictions, but to a way of life, an approach to every interaction deriving from a heartfelt respect for the vulnerability of all beings, from a daily humility before the simple task of honouring all life, its tenderness, wounds and dreams.

From where does the inspiration come even to try to live in this manner? ‘Your lamp is in my hands’, says God. One feels this – in quiet moments among the trees, in the silence of listening, the quiet of meditative prayer, in noticing a kindness. In the music of such moments our own inner flame is restored:

For the quiet joy of breathing and of living,
Tell me, to whom have I to give my thanks?
(Osip Mandestam: Stone, 8, trans. R. H. Morrison)

 That’s what existence is for: to cause the flame of the lamp, in ourselves, those we love, life itself, to ascend.

 

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