The Power of Words

This isn’t what I’d intended to write on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, but –

Yesterday, as I was discussing the news with his parent, a child came on the line: ‘I don’t want deaths…after Jo Cox…No more deaths, will there?’ He was crying. I’ve heard nothing like this before. I hear the fear.

I am shocked and frightened at the abuse to which MPs and public servants, especially women, are subject, and at the derision directed worldwide at the guarantors of liberty, our independent judiciary and free press.

Verbal violence doesn’t only provoke physical violence. It turns threat, hatred and contempt into a form of culture; it uses them as tools for identity creation. Neither the UK, the US nor Israel or anywhere else must go that way. Life and the world are too precious.

Judaism has long appreciated the power of words: ‘Tell it here and it kills in Rome,’ warns the Talmud about lashon hara, which could be translated today as ‘verbal incitement’. What would the Talmud say in the social media age?

So my prayer is for words of goodness, kindness and healing.

Words are energy. ‘God spoke and the world came into being’: words are the divine instruments of creation. We humans can’t make physical worlds with words. But ask a poet, a novelist: words are sacred, wonderful, beautiful, malleable. They form worlds within worlds which transform the way we see and feel this world.

Words are greeting, recognition: Shalom Aleichem: I notice you; how are you? They are companionship, friendship and solidarity. They push at the doors of loneliness; they ‘speak to the heart.’

Words are questions, attempts at understanding: What does this mean for you? How does your life feel, in your thoughts, inside your skin?

Words are the pursuit of truth. Words may be discursive, debating, incisive, inventive, argumentative, impassioned, outraged – so long as they are ‘for the sake of heaven’.

Words are exhortation: do what is right and just! Words are warning to depart from evil.

Words are gratitude and blessing: thank you for this fruit, this water. Thank you for this dawn, this dusk, this life.


Is this the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Which of us has never shouted, never spoken in anger, never intended to be hurtful, never told a lie, never put someone down, never let a racist, sexist, derisive, contemptuous word pass our lips?

Therefore, words are also apology: I said wrong. I misunderstood you. I hurt you. Will you accept my apology? Will you help me to find a better way to live together, – in our family, our community, our country, our world?

My prayer is that words like these should be our discourse, in public as in private.

But my prayer is also for what lies deeper than words: the listening on which they must be founded.

Help us listen, with our hearts as well as our heads, to what lies beyond the words and silence of those we love, and of those who turn to us, or to whom we should be turning.

Help us hear our ‘them’, our ‘that lot’, whoever they may be, with whom we may disagree viscerally but to whose realities we may have paid little if any attention.

Above all, help us listen to life itself, this living world, this wonder of rivers and mountains this terror of storms and droughts, so that we hear the urgent need for protection and restoration.

Then, out of that listening, may be find the words and commit ourselves to the actions of healing.

That is my prayer, which I address to myself, and you, and everyone, and God.


Why truth matters

Just as the liturgy of the High Holydays emphasises life and love, so it focuses on integrity and truth. We are called to speak truth before the God of truth.

I’m experiencing the side-stepping of truth in certain fields of public discourse as deeply frightening. ‘To abandon facts is to abandon freedom’ wrote Timothy Snyder in On Tyranny; ‘’if nothing is true, then no one can criticize power.’ (p. 65)

Judaism holds as self-evident not only certain specific truths, – the importance of life, liberty and responsibility, – but, most significantly, the basic proposition that there is such a thing as truth. There are different kinds of truth, including many shades of subjective ‘truth’ relative to the perspective of the beholder. But this does not contradict the central importance of truthfulness, or that there exist such things as falsehood, lying and denial. Hence the Torah commands us to keep far from false matters, search truth out, acquire truth and speak truth in the heart.

Underlying this commitment to truthfulness is the belief that we are ultimately accountable. That is how Rashi explains the Torah’s injunction to ‘fear your God’: know that even where there are no human witnesses there is One who knows.

I am not sure where this ‘One’ is. Sometimes the ‘One’ is my own conscience, when I realise that I’ve been telling that most subtle and intimate of half-truths, or half deceits, – to myself about myself. At other times, the ‘One’ is in the mind of my friend or interlocuter, expecting, adjuring me to, speak honestly. Often my sense is vaguer, that somehow life reads me, has the measure of my heart and deeds, summons me to integrity.

I fear that without such a sense of answerability we are adrift in a sea of chaos and violence, that, again in Snyder’s words, ‘Post-truth is pre-fascism’. That is why this season when we are called to account is so profoundly important, not just to Jews, but to civilisation itself, even if we do not believe in God in any way at all, but that the locus of truth lies is the human heart and conscience.

For it is in the name of truth that we must challenge lies, evasion and the suppression of evidence out of self-interest; acknowledging, of course, that we too may be mistaken and that truth does not belong to us, but that we must belong with truth. Only thus can we face the challenges before us with integrity and hope: how to live with ourselves and each other in a world able to sustain the rich and beautiful diversity of life. We have no time to waste on disingenuity and denial.

Truth is not the only quality we need. ‘Truth and peace have fallen in love,’ reads the leader’s meditation, ‘Righteousness, justice and compassion as well as truth accompany you’. I find it easier to write about kindness, peace, healing and beauty. But they have no basis, are rooted in no sustaining ground, without truth. That’s what frightens me, and what makes our thoughts, prayers and resolve so important at this season.


Apples are for life

I went into the garden to pray; I feel among my betters there too. The plants breathe into the words, then the birds carry them on their wings and with their songs.

Apple-Tree-RJWI was struck by the sight of this apple tree, its fruit in perfect time for the New Year’s blessing. People may remember; I bought that tree in memory of the three daughters of Dr Abuelaish, killed in their home in the Gaza war. I planted it not to take political sides, but out of sorrow; I planted it because amidst the deaths it felt essential to side with life.

Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish spoke last year in my community. Afterwards, though it was already dark, he asked me to show him that tree, which he photographed for his other children. It felt as if we prayed together there, calling on the God of life.


‘Life’: if there is one word stressed above all others in the long liturgy of the New Year it’s the single syllable, ‘life’. ‘Choose life’, the Torah demands. God is ‘the living God’ who ‘loves life,’ ‘remembers us for life,’ and whom we ask to ‘write us in the book of life’.

Yesterday I wrote about hesed, loving-kindness; it’s the natural expression of the longing to cherish life, to nurture, tend, listen, care and heal. In these acerbic and divisive times, life can be assured and enhanced only by healing, not by more anger and hate. It was surely this generous and instinctive insight which led Dr Abuelaish to title the book he wrote in the wake of his tragedy I Shall Not Hate:

We need to reach each other by embracing one another’s realities, sending messages of tolerance rather than intolerance and healing instead of hate.

Healing is what the vast majority of people want, even in the midst of conflict. Rushing his other wounded to children to hospital – in Israel – Dr Abuelaish reached the Sheba hospital

to an enormous show of support from the staff I’d worked with, as well as passionate blessings from Arab, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian people…

‘Hatred’, he concluded, ‘is an illness. It prevents healing and peace.’

We need healing in every dimension of our lives. It’s impossible to live, have a heart, be a rabbi, for even a day without being aware of life’s cruel injustices. I often wish that there existed some power or means to take the wounds out of each other’s hearts. But I know we can offer only companionship, understanding and prayers that life will breathe a wind of healing over the sores in our souls.

Amidst the acrimony of Brexit and similar divisions afflicting other societies, we need to try to comprehend and not just condemn. What does life feel like for ‘them’, whoever our ‘them’ might be?

Most of all, we must act and pray for the world’s healing, so that apple trees can grow in gardens and songbirds peck at the fruit.

We must be on the side of life.


About love

There is a particular service which, year by year, opens my heart to the High Holydays. It’s a small gathering, and maybe its best that way because it takes place at the cemetery. We remember together our family, community and friends, once part of our everyday life and whose love still hold us in our hearts.*

I’m privileged to witness to many loving words. Love at the close of life is especially moving; it touches the transcendent, it’s the only quality able to transcend:

(In the hospital) I’m here. I’m holding your hand, my darling. You can go now; be free, if that’s what has to be. I love you and I’m with you.

(In the chapel) I couldn’t keep you by my side, but I hold you in my heart forever.

(On the stones) ‘Forever loved and deeply missed…’ ‘You are my love, my life, my hope’… (Those words, always inadequate, always merely pointers to what cannot be expressed.)

Many matters touch the heart, but love is at the centre.

We are mortal. Embodied, in our parents, partner, closest friend, children (God forbid), love cannot conquer time. But in the soul, it does: the love which reached us from the past and nurtured our spirit, lives in us and becomes our gift. Perhaps life’s greatest achievement before we return to the dust is to pass that love safely into the trust of the future.

We say of God in the Days of Awe: ‘Your throne will be established in love and you will reign on it in truth.’ A Hasidic leader commented: ‘Only where there is love can God truly reign’.

I’m not entirely sentimental. Love isn’t always easy. People are complicated: they don’t only inspire us; they annoy us, bore us, frustrate and frighten us. Opportunities for anger are always present: there’s not just road-rage, but supermarket rage, office quarrel rage and my-family-are-driving-me-crazy rage. For many, rage at life itself is amply justified: life can take away loved ones, expose one to cruelty and abuse, leave one with no work, no home, no freedom, no sense whatsoever of hope.

Love is not a given; it’s inner work, for which we often need help. Mercifully, life not rarely proffers it, in the form of kindness, loving people, beauty, quiet, prayer. Life offers it often, but not always.

And yet (or maybe I should say ‘And therefore’) I believe love is a subterranean river, flowing hidden beneath the heart, invisible across the generations; sometimes, suddenly emerging fast-flowing into green, refreshing joy, then plunging down and away, but almost never utterly, very rarely totally, beyond the reach of the deep well of the heart.

So may God’s throne be established in truth in each of our hearts so that we can face life’s challenges with love.

*(I am leaving the theme of environment, not because I don’t think it’s important, but because there are so many important matters close to the heart. I will revert to it just once before Yom Kippur. For those who want more practical guidance on what we can do, please go to on the NNLS website, or to Eco Synagogue)



From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur: 1

‘Help us know what we can do?’ I’ve been asked repeatedly to stress the environment in my High Holyday letters. Each day until Yom Kippur I will try to focus on a different Jewish value, a specific sentence from the prayers, and practical actions we can take.

The place to begin is the beginning: ‘This day is the birthday of the world’. Rosh Hashanah celebrates creation and creator, all matter, every living being and the presence of the living God within all life.

Most of us realise we are in the midst of a climate emergency, the central issue in global justice, and survival itself.

Just as there is a debate among the legalists as to which is the first commandment, the fear or the love of God, so there are different views among climate activists as to whether we are motivated more by love or fear.

‘You shall love the Lord your God’, is the essence of the Shema, Judaism’s central, daily meditation. To love God is to care, deeply, for God’s works: people, animals, nature the very elements of earth and air.

I’ve met no one who hates trees, despises birdsong, or is immune to the intricacy of nature. To those who love it, the wonder of the natural world, even in a single leaf or bud, lifts the heart and replenishes the spirit. To anyone who reads any of the research, nature is also us: we are interdependent with it, dependent even on the smallest insects and worms.

Love, taught Maimonides, deepens with knowledge:

When one contemplates God’s works, perceiving in them a fraction of the infinite and endless divine wisdom, at once one is filled with love… (Foundations of Torah 2:2)

One does not have to believe in God to be moved in this way.

To love therefore means to learn. We can choose a tree, bird or animal (oak, ash, bumblebee, starling, elephant, red squirrel, cow), look out for it, study its fate, reflect on the challenges it faces today. We can join the Woodland Trust, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Plantlife, The Wildlife Trust, the Worldwide Fund for Nature or any similar organisation in the UK, Israel or across the globe.

Ignorance, when we have the opportunity to learn, is a form of indifference. But love leads to knowledge; knowledge to awareness, and awareness to action.

On its birthday the world calls to us in the shofar’s cry to be more deeply aware:

Let everything You made know that You made it; all creation understand that You are its creator. (The Rosh Hashanah Amidah)

If all life is so precious, how can we bear to destroy it? What can we do to protect it? How, in traditional terminology, can we be co-creators with God?

On Judaism, government and civil disobedience

Last week something happened in the synagogue which I had never heard before. People laughed during the prayer for the government of the country.

Someone asked me ‘How long does one go on saying that prayer?’ I’m sure he wasn’t thinking about the Queen, whose devotion to public service is justly admired, but of certain members of Her Majesty’s Parliament whose wisdom and statesmanship are equally justly doubted.

There have been worse periods in history. One has only to think of the lines from Fiddler on the Roof: God bless the Czar and keep him – far from us.’ Nor, as we know, was the Czar the worst of tyrants.

Still, these are anxious times. Leonard Cohen famously sung that it’s through the cracks of imperfection that the light gets in. But it’s also true that through the cracks in democracy populism, corruption, deceit and tyranny get in.

This is a price the world cannot afford. When, as the New Year prayers aptly and frighteningly say ‘the earth hangs over the void’ and climate change places destiny of life itself in the balance, we need leadership.

Therefore, our prayers, which are addressed not to the wellbeing of specific public figures but to the very principle and practice of just and compassionate government, are all the more important.

The Jewish tradition of praying for our rulers is ancient. It begins with the pacts Abraham and Isaac make with local leaders. In the 6th century BCE, in a missive which must have shocked his contemporaries in beleaguered Judaea, Jeremiah instructs the exiles in Babylon to pray for the wellbeing of the cities to which they have been deported and where they must now rebuild their lives. Though well aware of the brutal side to Roman rule, in the 2nd century CE Rabbi Hanina directed his colleagues to ‘pray for the wellbeing of the government, because, were it not for the fear of its authority, people would swallow each other alive.’ (Mishnah, Avot 3:2) He comes close to Thomas Hobbes’s warning at the close of Leviathan that without a social contract life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

As for us, privileged above virtually all other generations in history to live in an open democracy, we have a responsibility not only to pray for good governance, but also to hold our government to account.

Therefore it is important to know that there is an equally ancient tradition in Judaism of civil disobedience. It begins among women: the midwives in Egypt refused to obey Pharaoh’s command to kill all the male Hebrew babies. Moses conducted what may be regarded as the most successful strikes in history. He did so in the name of dignity and equality, sacred values which, then and ever since, God has commanded us to uphold towards every person, everywhere. Rabbi Akiva refused to stop teaching Torah during the Roman persecutions of the second century, paying for his dedication with his life. I imagine the spirits of these women and men walking invisibly alongside Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel in Selma, Alabama.

However, it should not be concluded that Judaism advocates defiance, let alone anarchy; time and again it emphasises the importance of justice and – compassionate – law.

But there is something higher than fear of the powers-that-be: Yirat Shamayim, Fear of Heaven, awe before the presence of God, and the consequent commandment not to comply in silence with what is unjust, cruel and destructive.

Asked about the legitimacy of civil disobedience, Martin Buber wrote in 1963:

I know no other answer than that disobedience of this nature is legitimate when it is in fact obedience, obedience to a law superior to that which is being disobeyed here and now – in a word, when it is obedience to the supreme law.

As to when such disobedience is justified in specific situations, there are, he said, no general rules.

Climate Action Week begins today. I plan to participate in an interfaith service later today.

The climate emergency may lead to situations which warrant peaceful civil disobedience for the sake of specific, well thought-through goals. There can be no higher cause calling for disinterested commitment than the future of God’s world and the lives of the world’s children.

What is certainly not merely warranted, but commanded, is that we hold our leaders in government, industry, finance, religion, law and the media to account unless we do our utmost for the collective future of life.



Pretending we didn’t notice

I was out for a practice run for next Sunday’s marathon when I saw behind an archway a homeless man sitting next to his sleeping bag, a cardboard cup in his hand. I had no money on me; I didn’t stop. But I saw him see me and felt I could I hear him think, ‘Another person who pretends I don’t exist.’

Tomorrow we encounter one of the most important words in the Hebrew Bible. It appears twice in the same section and nowhere else in the entire Torah: lehitaleim, to hide oneself away, to pretend one hasn’t noticed. ‘You may not do that’, the Torah insists: you are not at liberty to turn a blind eye.

The context is animals: You mustn’t see your brother’s ox or sheep astray and carry on as if you hadn’t noticed; you mustn’t find his lost donkey and act as if you never saw.

Perhaps we are tempted to think ‘it’s only animals’, an unpardonable excuse given the wanton cruelty our civilisation habitually inflicts on them, with meagre pity and remorse. If so, Isaiah puts us right, in a passage given prime time on Yom Kippur morning:

If you see the hungry, feed them; the naked, clothe them; the oppressed, free them. Do not hide from your own flesh.

If we’re inclined to say to ourselves, ‘But it’s their flesh, not mine. I’m OK’, we should bear in mind Shylock’s masterful summary of what common humanity means: ‘If they prick us, do we not bleed?’

Lehitaleim is a gripping term, a reflexive verb formed from the root a.l.m, hidden, which also gives us the noun olam, the rabbinic Hebrew for ‘world’. We live in a universe of concealment, the mystics insisted, and the art is to learn to see.

Some things, it must be said, are obvious; they ‘stare you in the face’: a lost animal, lost child, refugee, the lost mobility of someone who can’t get into the building, or bathroom, because there’s no proper access. In such cases the Torah insists that we may not pretend we didn’t notice.

Other matters are less apparent. I’ve often had the privilege of being in the company of people who truly see, – and deeply:

‘Did you notice how exhausted she looked? She always makes light of what she has on her shoulders. But…’

‘He was smiling. But he looked so pale…’

People like that see not just with their eyes but with their heart. They teach and humble us all.

In the long confession on Yom Kippur we ask atonement ‘for the sin of haughty eyes.’ The opposite is to have eyes of loving kindness and compassion, to see and not turn away, notice and not ignore. It’s the only antidote to the world’s hard-heartedness.

When the mystics describe our world as a domain of concealment, they don’t just mean that there is much suffering of which we fail to take note. They understand the presence of God to be hidden throughout creation, covered over by the material form which all being takes, driven down into the recesses of our consciousness because of our preoccupation with practical concerns.

But da’at, deeper, reflective awareness, can reveal to us the preciousness of everything, the inestimable value of all life, that there is not a living being which does not matter. In the rare, gifted moments when we see like that, we look with the heart and see to the heart. Then we realise; then we do not turn aside.

In the bewildering rush of the ceaseless encounters which urban life entails, we are bound to be overwhelmed. Inevitably, we will sometimes turn aside, turn a blind eye, hide ourselves away, pretend we hadn’t noticed. We couldn’t survive otherwise.

But sometimes, as much as we can, we must look and see, see and act, act from the heart. Otherwise we won’t know we have a heart anymore, and the purpose of life is to deepen the heart’s compassion.


Bribery, blindness and politics

Three words encapsulate Jewish values: tzedek, ‘righteousness’, the practice of justice in all our dealings (which implies honesty and integrity); tzedakah, a virtually untranslatable noun which expresses the vision, commitment and generosity to work proactively for a more just world; and hesed, ‘faithful lovingkindness’, which should permeate all our actions.

This week’s Torah portion focuses on the first of these terms, tzedek, with the famous verse ‘Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue,’ preceded by this sharp warning:

Do not take a bribe, because bribes blind the eyes of the wise and pervert the words of the just.’ (Deuteronomy 16:19)

I always thought bribes meant serious criminality; that bribery was corruption writ large. I realise now that it can also be something more refined, subtle enough that we may not even notice we’re part of it.

The issue came up in a conversation about climate change with an Australian colleague: ‘Democracy’s part of the problem’, he said. ‘Democracy invites short-termism,’ I agreed.

Neither of us had the remotest intention of preferencing a different form of government. But we were concerned that leaders who depend on frequent re-election want to please their voters who naturally and usually rightly want what’s in their own best interests. The result can be that essential long-term goals, which require the courage to make short-term changes and sacrifices, are pushed into the background.

Foremost among these is the protection and regeneration of the earth. But the money to be made on the immediate exploitation of irreplaceable resources blinds the eyes of those who should be wiser. Their children, too, will pay the price. But I don’t see why my children, or the children and children’s children of billions of others, should have to pay it too.

It’s easy to incriminate others. I realise, though, that it’s not just ministers of state who’re blinded. I know from experience that it’s not always easy for ministers of religion to say what people may not want to hear. The so-called ‘fine line’ between leadership, courage, tact and empathy, not to mention the awareness that we may be mistaken, is more like a net beneath a trapeze artist than a line at all.

Few of us face truth with the integrity we should.

The Talmud observes that ‘a judge who judges truly [refusing to take bribes] is like a partner to God in the work of creation.’ An unnamed commentary offers this explanation:

Shochad, (the Hebrew for ‘bribe’) derives from chad, meaning ‘one’. A judge who takes a bribe becomes at one with the litigant who gives it…But the judge who refuses to take bribes, is at one with neither litigant. To such a judge God says, ‘Since you rejected partnership with them, I shall consider you a partner with me.’

The etymology is almost certainly wrong. But the idea is profound. The path of integrity can be lonely and hard. There is a price to following inconvenient truths and eschewing convenient untruths. But if we want to be ‘partners with God in sustaining creation’ we must refuse the alluring bribes of short-term gain and listen to enduring wisdom.

I’m frightened by the populism which has taken hold of politics and nations, and the bullies of any party or persuasion whose paths it paves.

Judaism, like all faiths rooted in a just and sustaining vision, requires us to be faithful to deeper and enduring values: justice, faithful kindness and partnership with God in caring for creation.


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