There are two beautiful sentences in tomorrow’s Torah which move me today on this complex date, a fast in Judaism commemorating the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army, and a day of celebration and good tidings throughout the Christian world.
Both sentences are spoken by Judah as he pleads before the viceroy of Egypt, whom he does not yet know to be his long-lost brother Joseph, to let Benjamin come back home to their father. Judah explains to the viceroy that ‘nafsho keshurah benafsho, – his soul is bound up with his soul,’ the elderly Jacob cannot bear to live without his youngest child.
There is a deep generosity in Judah’s words. He has come to appreciate that Benjamin is special, presumed to be the only surviving son of their father’s adored but long dead wife Rachel.
Those words ‘his soul is bound up with his soul’ transcend their context. They speak simply and briefly of the love which can exist between people. Judah isn’t talking about himself; this is not his bond with his father, but Benjamin’s. Yet he treats it with the deepest respect; he honours love itself.
This is what I witness when families with a relative in intensive care tell me, ‘A nurse or doctor rang every day. They were so thoughtful. And they must be under such pressure.’
This cruel year is teaching us to know and respect the deepest needs and connections of the human heart, of life itself.
Judah now explains why he of all the brothers has stepped forward to plead for Benjamin, in whose sack Joseph had his special goblet surreptitiously planted and who now stands accused of theft. ‘Ki avedacha arav et han’ar, I, your servant, stood surety for the lad before my father:’ Judah has promised to take responsibility.
Arav means ‘mix’: to stand surety is to appreciate that one’s destiny and integrity is mixed with that of others. To be truly human is to be engaged, concerned, answerable. Hence the Talmudic saying: ‘Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – All Israel are responsible for one another.’ We are connected by a heart-felt duty of care, to our own community and people, but also in the most universal sense to other communities too, as prescribed by our common humanity. In the deepest sense of all, we are responsible for all life, entrusted by God with care for creation itself.
I feel this more deeply than ever this year. That’s why I wrote a letter to The Church Times, which they published online:
My heart goes out to Christian colleagues and communities as Christmas approaches and it becomes clear how limited gatherings and family celebrations will be.
We struggled over the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement when families could not come together as accustomed, and long and beautiful services had to be curtailed and numbers limited. Yet we were upheld by that profound sense of spiritual solidarity which sustains all faith communities.
In these difficult times solidarity of spirit across our different faiths and philosophies matters more than ever. These frightening and bewildering months have shown us how interdependent we all are and how deeply we need one another across the whole of our society.
Our liturgies may differ, but we stand together in praying for a safer, more peaceful, sustainable and compassionate world.
There’s much in the past year which we don’t want repeated, but I hope a deeper awareness of the bonds which connect us and the responsibilities which unite us will not be lost.