Angels of healing

I’ve never been a believer in angels, at least not of the winged variety. But I’ve come to love the bedtime prayer about the four archangels:

At my right hand is Micha’el (whose name means ‘Who is like God’)

At my left hand is Gavri’el (God is my strength)

Before me is Uriel, (God is my light)

Behind me is Repha’el, (God will bring healing)

And over my head is Shechinat El, the presence of God

I feel safer when I say those words.

Healing is on all our minds. Yesterday at 8.00pm I was about to lead Shiva prayers for a family in mourning when we heard the cheering begin for the NHS. We agreed a pause and went to our doors or windows to join in. I include in my deep appreciation all those in the front lines of health and social work; the staff of every care home; everyone ensuring there’s food for all of us, especially the homeless, the most isolated and refugees; those making protective gowns and visors; also Anthony, the kind and thoughtful sexton at our cemetery, and his staff, for they too take risks to bury our dead with dignity and help our struggling hearts begin to heal. I include the musicians, storytellers, teachers and entertainers who lift our spirits, and, in thankfulness to nature, the birds in the garden who sing to us at dawn. They too are part of Repha’el’s entourage, God’s healing team.

The Torah this week treats of the disease translated as ‘leprosy’; whatever its precise nature, it was contagious and greatly feared. The priests had the critical role: they had to decide who had the symptoms, whether they were progressive or in remission, who needed to be quarantined, who put into isolation outside the camp and who could safely be allowed back home. I used to feel negative about those priests. They were the ones who sent people off into the loneliness beyond. I don’t think that way anymore. 

The priest’s primary role was to officiate in the sanctuary, offering the korbanot, the sacrifices to God. I don’t believe in animal sacrifice and I’m a passionate vegetarian. But that’s not the relevant point. The key term here is korban, from the root meaning ‘near’: the priests are those who bring near. Their aim is to bring the people close to God and the sick back to their families. They represent ministry in its most profound sense of care for the whole person. I’ve met lots of their contemporary incarnations, on hospital wards, in shops, at the front door picking up bags for foodbanks. 

Healing in the Bible isn’t just about bodily wellness, essential as that is, (and the Torah insists that ‘we pay great heed to our health’ and that of those around us.) It’s about relationships. Meaning no. 2, says the classic Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon of Biblical Hebrew, is healing the hurts of the nation. Meaning no. 3 is healing individual distress. ‘Often involving forgiveness,’ the editors note. 

Despite, or rather as an oblique result of, the corona virus, society has begun to travel a path of healing. It’s expressed in a deeper awareness of each other and our neighbours, in the understanding that we are in this together and therefore need to stand together, and that we are all profoundly indebted to the contributions of people we may previously have ignored or taken for granted.

Our world, too, has glimpsed a further road of healing we must travel: the healing of the bond between humankind and nature. Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Through Hazon, ‘the Jewish Lab for Sustainability,’ I participated with hundreds of leaders and activists, musicians, children and even dancing baby goats in a great worldwide call to heed and heal the earth. There’s a new humility, a deeper appreciation that the trees, fields, even insects are our healers and that we can’t live without their ministrations.

Malachi prophesied that one future day the dawn will be lit by the sun of righteousness with healing on its wings. We all have power to bring that day a little bit nearer. May we use it, and may God’s healing surround us and protect us.

75 years since the liberation of Bergen-Belsen

In the mystical understanding of the counting of the Omer, the fifty days which connect Pesach, the festival of freedom, to Shavuot, the giving of the Torah, the eighth day focuses on the quality of Hesed shebiGevurah, lovingkindness within strength. There is little we have greater need of now than precisely that courage of resilience coupled with a warm and open heart towards each other. I am deeply grateful to everyone who exemplifies this in our society, from our nurses and doctors and medical researchers to those who stack our shelves, deliver the post and call their neighbours to check if everyone’s alright. Thank you!

Through much of yesterday, the closing day of Passover, I had two books in front of me. The first was The Survivors, the account by Reverend Leslie Hardman of how, on precisely these days seventy-five years ago, he entered Bergen-Belsen as a chaplain with the British Army. This is what confronted me on 17 April, he writes: starvation, typhus, the dead and the living dead.

His testament, like that of Rabbi Isaac Levi, his Senior Chaplain who joined him at Belsen, is searing and shocking. But it does not solely engender despair. We are ‘the instruments of the first repudiation’ of the evil done to these people, he tells a fellow British officer, as he, like Rabbi Levi, spares no hour, no atom of energy, and sometimes no subterfuge to bypass the slow protocols of the military administration, to get water, food and medicine to the thousands on the border between life and death.

But the greatest repudiation comes from the survivors themselves: the resurgence of spirit as people slowly return to health, the tenacious hold onto life, the determination to find loved ones, heal the sick, care for children, build a new country in Palestine and create a new world of hope and faith.

My second book was the Machzor, the festival prayer book. I didn’t open my usual machzor; I needed to take out and hold in my hands the old family volume, printed in Breslau in 1830. With trepidation, anxious not to damage the venerable binding, I opened it to the page of the haftarah, the reading from Isaiah, chapter 11:

[God’s servant] will judge with justice for the poor and demand fair treatment for the humble of the earth. The wolf shall lie down with the lamb…They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.

I do not know how this book survived the First World War, from which my father’s uncle returned a hero, twice wounded, followed less than twenty years later by the flight of the family from the very country it had served. I don’t know in the depth of what boxes it lay, on what shelves it gathered dust.

But its words preserved their power, garnered their strength. They survived war and mass murder, contradicting their horrors even as Isaiah himself had defied the might of Assyria twenty-seven hundred years earlier, to express from their still strong pages a different ideal: that one day such a deep awareness of the presence of God, of the need for justice, of the wonder of life, of the preciousness of each moment, will take hold not only of the hearts of individuals, but of the spirit of nations, and we will hurt and destroy no longer.

Like many of us, I sense that such a spirit is abroad in our world today, despite the pain of so many deaths, despite the injustices, the flaws and faults in our systems. An ancient vision, God-inspired, garnered in prayer books, nurtured in the human soul across faiths and over millennia, is touching our hearts and calling us, when lockdown ends, to work for a different world.


A Different Night

This is written in haste on the eve of an exceptionally different night, at a bewildering and frightening time.

First and foremost, I wish everyone a good and safe festival.

Pesach means gratitude for deliverance. Words are insufficient to express our thankfulness to the NHS, to everyone caring, filling shop shelves, delivering food and medicines, helping the nation keep fit, supporting our morale and giving us strength in adversity. In the words of the Psalm, ‘May the work of your hands be blessed.’ Thank you, and thank you again!

When we sit at the table for the Seder tonight, when we open the Haggadah, however few we may be, even it is just me, or you, we must not think that we are alone. With us is Moses, leading the Children of Israel to freedom. Nearer us on our table sits Rabbi Akiva with his colleagues, debating liberty, dignity and justice until break of day. Yet nearer are our grand- or great-grandparents, who fled Nazism, escaped tyranny and fought for freedom across the earth. Surrounding us are women and men of all peoples who have found in this great story of liberty their hope, inspiration and courage. All of you, invisible as you are, are close by and with us, holding our hands, strong inside our hearts.

Your strength is our strength; your resilience and faith is our faith and resilience. Together we partake of, and dedicate ourselves to, the unfailing spirit of humanity in our struggle against illness, in our fight against injustice, in our respect for God’s world, and in the inexhaustible capacity to turn to each other in times of need with generosity, understanding, kindness, healing and love.

Therefore, let this Seder be a night of affirmation and celebration.

We affirm and celebrate life itself, the precious gift of breathing, the ability to stand, stretch out, take steps, may God protect it in every one of us.

We celebrate, even as we treasure it more deeply in its absence, the freedom to move, to walk in whichever direction, to seek liberty and to work for that same liberty for those who suffer under persecution, until, in Isaiah’s words, we ‘Give food to the hungry, clothe the naked and break the bonds of oppression.’

We celebrate love and friendship, even as in their absence we are more intensely aware than ever of those we love, those for whose companionship we long, and those whose listening heart we need, as the beloved says in the Song of Songs: O my companions, listen to me; let me hear your voice.’

We celebrate the value and dignity of life, all life together, in this wondrous, interdependent, fragile, precious world. We honour the life and dignity of every human being, and the lives, may God protect them, of those we love.

Do not imagine you are utterly alone. Thought, with its secret powers, knows how to navigate heart-space. Our words and songs join with the voices of our ancestors of three thousand years, and with those of many peoples. Together we shall speak and we shall sing, we shall pray and we shall learn, until the birdsong heralds the new dawn – of life and hope and joy


For those who dedicate themselves to others

I wish you health and strength of spirit. I speak for of us all in expressing my utter gratitude to everyone from ambulance teams, nurses and doctors to shop and delivery personnel who are working selflessly and unstintingly through cruel and weary hours to keep us safe. Thank you!

In novel times, old words have new meanings, strike the heart in different ways. In the Bible, a Korban Tzibbur is the sacrifice bought from communal funds and offered on behalf of the entire community. Sheep, oxen, flour, wine, oil: we read all about it in the Torah this week.

But that’s not what the words mean to me now. Next to me are pictures of two doctors who died from Covid 19 as they carried out their duties. One of them, Dr Ala Saadu, voluntarily returned from retirement to help. There are sacrifices in our communities. I’m speaking with people who’ve lost someone they’ve loved all their lives – ‘Our family can’t even hug each other as we grieve’. When the grip of this virus wanes, every community, every tzibbur, will have its korban and there will be sorrow as well as relief in the hearts of all who survive.

But even this, frightening and humbling, is not the most powerful, magnetic meaning the words korban tzibbur hold for me now. They speak to me first and foremost of everyone who mekarev, brings themselves forward, and makriv atsmo, offers their service on behalf of the community. We witness such korban tzibbur, such public service, everywhere: it’s like that here, in Israel, Italy, Spain, in every country across the world silenced by the coronavirus.

Except that we are not silenced. We hear an appeal for drivers to help with deliveries by a woman who’s turned over her commercial kitchens to supplying meals to workers for the National Health Service. Here we learn of people collecting food in every neighbourhood, for foodbanks, for refugees, for people who’ve become almost invisible on our streets but not forgotten from the hearts of these volunteers. Here are teenagers, students, on bike, on foot, collecting prescriptions, delivering medicines, leaving shopping on doorsteps. Here are people, vulnerable themselves, with a list of others to call: ‘Are you OK? What do you need?’

Around us, travelling to work in those almost empty busses, are hundreds of thousands of medical and frontline staff, working double-shifts, exhausted, determined.

That’s what Korban Tzibbur, sacrifice on behalf of the community, is these days.

The Torah calls such offerings olah, a ‘going up’. Those who make them not only raise themselves up to being the best people they possibly can, but lift up the hopes and hearts of us all with the spirit of a different society and a better humanity, devoted, dedicated, appreciative, aware of how deeply we need each other.

The Torah tells us that these sacrifices lasted kol halaylah, ‘all night until morning’. It’s not only that they sustain us and keep us strong through the slow and lonely hours of darkness. It’s more than that, Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl explains: they themselves are the morning, they turn our darkness into light.

The Torah explains that kol hayiga bahem yikdash ‘whoever touches them becomes holy;’ that is, whoever gives, helps, supports and connects themselves in any way with such generosity and service becomes holy. Something sacred touches their lives, and ours through them, transforming us, our values and our perspective. We come close to God; we become participants in that tenderness, respect and loving kindness which alone has the power to draw all life together.

Shabbat Shalom and Refuah Shelemah – a Shabbat of peace and healing


Together in heart across the ether

I’m holding a guinea pig because it all goes back to ‘The Day the Guinea Pig Talked.’ In that story, a boy and his guinea pig love each other so dearly that they’re granted permission to talk, but merely for a few seconds while the clock strikes midnight. They only have time to say: ‘I love you.’

We’re acutely aware of how alone we are, cut off from many we love. If a relative or friend is in hospital, we’re not allowed to visit. Often one has to wait for a hugely pressured doctor to make a once -a-day call to update us. If it were me or you in hospital, – some of us are more vulnerable than others – we would be deeply alone with our thoughts.

But I believe thought and prayer somehow travel through the ether, and that, as the Talmud says, ‘What comes from the heart reaches the heart’, even if we can only say our words at a distance. There’s Hasidic story that a father and son, knowing they would be separated for a long time, agreed that at certain hours they would both look at the moon and, in that manner, feel connected.

We all know the words from the beautiful 23rd Psalm: The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want. If, at certain hours, we think of that line and others think of it too, then we can know that we are connected in heart-space with those we love. Or we can say the full Psalm with its remarkable verse: ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me,’

Rabbi Chaim reminded me that the Talmud notes special moments, the changing of the guard in ancient times, when prayer is especially effective: 6.00am, 10.00am, 2.00 in the afternoon, 6.00pm, 10.00pm, and if we are awake and anxious in the night, 2.00 in the morning.

For any of us who wishes, we can say the words at those hours, whenever we can. Then, if I or you should be ill and alone, we will know that in our thoughts we’re sharing those words at the same moment, that those we love are with us and that God is with us too. Then, maybe, we’ll feel a little less alone. Here’s a link to a beautiful version of the Psalm. Print it out if you wish; have it near.

Like the boy and the guinea pig, it’s the most important thing we can say to each other: ‘I care about you, I love you, I’m with you in my heart.’

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