What we must learn from destruction

Tishah Be’Av, the bleak 25 hour fast of mourning on which we recall the disasters of Jewish history, poses a central question: What must we learn from destruction?

I grew up in a world which remembered war. One of my teachers had been decorated for bravery in the Royal Navy; another suffered continued mental torment from his years as a prisoner of the Japanese. My parents spoke about hunger, bombings, flight for their lives.

The generations who lived through the wars remembered; they strove for no more war.

In 1919 The League of Nations was created “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security.”

On 26 June, 1945, the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco:

We, The Peoples Of The United Nations, Determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind..

On 10 December 1948, in Paris, the United Nations adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming that

recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Too many leaders of our generation seem to have forgotten. National politics and international relations are increasingly characterized by self-interest, aggression, cunning, bigotry, folly and contempt for the lives of the weakest. Last night I heard Philip Pullman speak of an age of ‘mendacity, hypocrisy and stupidity’.

The rabbis of the Mishnah lived during the Roman persecutions, between the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135, both commemorated on Tishah Be’Av. They saw the war against Rome as leading only to self-destruction. The Talmud records that

There were sufficient supplies in Jerusalem to outlast a siege for 21 years. There were lawless gangsters there. The rabbis said to them: ‘Let’s go out and make peace’, but the former would not let them. They, in turn, said, ‘Let’s go and make war’. ‘It’s futile’, the rabbis responded’. The gangsters burnt down all the food stores and famine forced the people to fight.        Talmud, Gitin 56a

The Talmud’s overall verdict: ‘Needless hatred destroyed Jerusalem’.

Similar needless hatred could destroy the entire world today. That is why it is essential to learn from destruction.

What does it teach? Sadly, probably not that war is always wrong. There is a point when tyranny must be resisted, lest it swallow us all up. War remains a last resort.

We learn that we must try our utmost to live by the creative arts of peace and understanding. We learn that wanton aggression, boastfulness, vulgarity, cruelty, exploitation, injustice and contempt for life are evil, and exact a terrible price not just from their victims but, through the slow yet inevitable processes of time, on their perpetrators as well.

Above all, we learn to cherish life, all life, and the gifts of understanding, healing and creativity which lie within us all.

 

What defines our humanity?

I haven’t gone to the demonstrations in London today. It’s partly because of other commitments and partly because I don’t love demonstrations. But it’s chiefly because I want my whole life to be a protest against certain policies and attitudes advocated by President Trump, and not just by him alone, or Republicans only, or the US only, or solely by politicians. We must be activists against heartlessness not just somewhere, but everywhere.

The first chapter of Bereshit is my creed, the magnificent, misunderstood poem which opens the Hebrew Bible. It’s not a discredited attempt at the history of the universe, but a beautiful declaration of values:

light and dark, land and water, God sees that they are good;
grasses, flowers and trees, God sees that they are good
stars and planets, fishes, birds and animals, God sees that they are good;
human beings created equal in God’s image,
endowed with freedom, imagination and conscience, God sees that they are good.

This remarkable creation, vital, interconnected, interdependent, is henceforth entrusted to our hands. Our humanity is defined by how we honour that trust. Truly to be human is to respect nature, honour all life and stand up for the humanity of others.

Yesterday I attended a ceremony at Hoop Lane Cemetery, where many refugees from Nazi Germany lie buried, to dedicate plaques in honour of courageous rescuers. Among them were: Irena Sendler, the young Polish social worker who smuggled countless people out of the Warsaw Ghetto; Sir Nicholas Winton, who, with Trevor Chadwick, brought more than six hundred children to Britain; Ho Feng Shan, the Chinese consul general in Vienna who enabled thousands to flee to Shanghai.

The night before, I was with Refugee Tales. Through walking together, telling their stories and the power of music, they campaign against the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. I was asked to write one of their Tales this year; it’s about S, who fled for his life from country X. Although as ‘a highly skilled migrant’ he had permission to work here, he was peremptorily detained and sent to Harmondsworth (‘At first it looks beautiful – from the outside; inside it’s really a prison’).

I saw a man sobbing. He’d been in detention for six months: “When I was brought here my girlfriend was pregnant. Meanwhile she’s given birth. I haven’t ever seen our baby”. Another man tried to kill himself, – out of despair. He’d been inside for over a year. He didn’t understand what it was that the authorities were waiting for.

Tomorrow is Sebrenica Shabbat, in memory and in outrage over the fate of the thousands of Muslim men and boys massacred in July 1995, and all the innocent people slaughtered, mutilated and made to ‘disappear’, in the brutal Bosnian war. Women often still do not know the fate of husbands and sons.

God of mercy… we remember with sorrow…
The young dreams that never came to fruition,
The old age that was not spent with family and friends. (Prayer by Mehri Niknam)

Today is the first of Av, the beginning of the nine days of mourning leading to the bitter fast of the Ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem and Jewish communities across Europe throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

It is held that the Messiah is born on that day of fasting and sorrow. We should take this personally: what is there redemptive within us, our societies and our collective humanity, which we must learn from so much suffering and cruelty and put into practice in our lives.

The issues which define our humanity are not all over the oceans. They are here in Europe too, in our cities, at our doorstep, in our hearts.

 

Happy 70th Birthday, NHS

I’m glad to live in country which has a National Health Service. It’s an institution of which Britain is justly proud, and I wish it (one day late) a happy seventieth birthday.

I visit many hospitals and listen to people describing their experiences. There are certainly complaints: long waits, inefficiency, poor communication, late diagnoses. But most of the feedback is deeply appreciative. I’ll never forget the mother who said at the funeral of her seven-year-old daughter who died, tragically, from cancer: ‘If anyone has a go at the National Health Service I shall personally attack them. They’ve been amazing.’

I have certainly seen staff who’ve been brash or unforthcoming. But I have encountered far, far more kindness, often in circumstances where nurses and doctors are under great pressure. I’ve sometimes wondered who looks after them, who listens when they’re worried whether they responded best in a critical situation, or when they’re worn-out from long hours and too little back-up. I try not to leave a hospital without stopping to thank at least one nurse, doctor, physio, cleaner or volunteer. It’s essential to appreciate people who put such heart into what they do.

The NHS represents values close to the soul of Judaism. Care for the sick is understood as Imitation Dei, imitating God, who visited Abraham in his affliction. Hesed, loving-kindness, is the most sacred human quality. Indeed, I’ve often heard patients say ‘The nurses here are angels’.

The Talmud teaches us not to settle in a town which lacks any of ten essential amenities. Four concern health: bath-house, toilet, doctor and blood-letter. (Allowances must be made for context: the latter was a well-regarded healer two millennia ago.) Public hygiene and medical care, preventative and curative, emerge as the key requirements. They, alongside a system of justice, charity and education, define what ‘civilisation’ means.

No decent Jewish community has ever lacked a Kuppat Cholim, a fund to cover medical costs for those who can’t afford them. It’s been argued that it is from institutions like these, originating in Jewish, Christian and Muslim practice, that the core values of the NHS, free at the point of delivery and available to all, have emerged. Kuppat Cholim is naturally at the heart of health care in Israel.

The practice of medicine has never been viewed in Judaism as ‘interfering with God’, the ultimate healer, but as participation in the sacred art of caring for the human body and the spirit, as expressed in the Physicians Prayer attributed to Maimonides (1135 – 1204):

I am about to apply myself to the duties of my profession. Support me, Almighty God, in these great labors so that they benefit humankind, because without your help even the smallest thing cannot succeed. Inspire me with love for my art and for your creatures…

The Talmud teaches that God’s presence rests above the pillow of the sick. Visitors should not therefore stand looming over, but sit on a level with, the person who’s ill. To place oneself above the patient is like making oneself higher than God. It’s profound advice about bedside manner. We are on a level; it’s our shared vulnerability, as well as compassion, which teaches us to care. No amount of injections or tablets can immunize us to mortality.

So, thank you, everyone who works for the National Health Service, all who devote their lives to caring and curing, healing and making whole.

Happy 70th birthday NHS. May you be adequately funded, fully staffed, properly equipped, and appreciated as you deserve.

 

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