What unites us: Jewish thoughts on Christmas day

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.

 

Seeking light, sharing light: where the candles need to burn

The eighth day of Chanukah is known as Zot Chanukkat, ‘this is the dedication,’ following the words with which the Torah sums up the offerings brought for the inauguration of the altar. This leads to the beautiful verse describing how, as he enters the holy space of the Tent of Meeting, Moses overhears God’s voice.

Perhaps that’s how poets and composers feel in the moment of inspiration: that something sacred, infinite and indefinable is articulated in the universe which they try to capture or hint at in music and words.

Where is our tent of meeting, our sacred space in this Covid-troubled world?

I had taught the well-known passage from Shulchan Aruch many times before I realised that this was exactly the question it intended to answer:

You place the Chanukah candles at the threshold of your home, facing the public highway. [If you can’t do that] you put them in the window overlooking the main road. In times of danger, you set them on your table and that’s sufficient.

This instruction can be taken as referring not just to Chanukah but to religious life as a whole.

‘Times of danger’ are periods of religious persecution. But we too are living amidst danger, albeit of a different kind. Public highways carry risks, as do even our places of worship for those who need to shelter for themselves or their nearest and dearest.

As a result, spiritual life has [partly] moved from synagogue to home, from public to private, from what others lead for us to what we do for ourselves. Our kitchen table, back window, favourite plant has become our Tent of Meeting:

-          I said the memorial prayers at home for the first time. Behind me were pictures of my beloved parents; it all made more sense.

-          I pray in my garden, with the trees.

-          I lit my Chanukiah and felt its light had been burning in my heart all these months.

We’ve overheard life’s sacred speech in new ways, if only for rare moments. But that can suffice, as travellers navigating by the stars need to recognise only a few to find direction in the darkness. In these difficult times we need light on our home table.

But the high road matters too. Across the world our societies urgently require light in the public domain. Yesterday I took the boxes collected in our neighbourhood to the food bank in Colindale. I’ve been several times; the difference now is that the queue was three times longer. Jonathan Freedland wrote about the priest who wept as he related how children in the places where he took food parcels were so hungry they tore them open before he could properly hand them over. Those children and those tears, are also God speaking, crying to be heard.

When asked about Chanukah, I often say it’s the Jewish festival of light. But what the word actually means is ‘dedication,’ rededication to listening to God’s voice and to seeking and sharing whatever light we can, both in our hearts and in the public spaces of our society.

 

Chanukah lights: the rabbis’ alternative reality

The rabbis of the Talmud created an alternative reality about Chanukkah. Such words sound bad these days, like false-facts and post-truth. But that’s not what they intended, or achieved.

The politics of the Maccabean era was complex and messy. What is clear is that when Palestine passed from Ptolemaic rule in Egypt to Seleucid domination from Damascus, life become more complex and Jewish autonomy compromised. It wasn’t only that Antiochus Epiphanes was power crazy as well, many believe, as simply mad. Hellenist culture spread subtly into education, recreation, governance and law. It divided Jewish loyalties, all the way up to the rank of High Priest. Competing factions fought and blood was shed to purchase this ‘religious’ office from the Seleucid powers. It is not surprising that revolt and bitter conflict followed, in which the Maccabees fought for the independence of the Jewish commonwealth against vast and well-equipped armies. Only, it seems the Hasmonaean kingdom which they founded morphed into a dynasty not entirely unlike the powers it displaced.

The rabbis of the Talmud scarcely refer to all this bloodshed and turmoil. Instead, they tell the story of the single unsullied vial the victors searched for and found when they re-conquered the temple precincts in Jerusalem, the oil which should have burnt for just one day but illumined the Menorah for eight.

This is the ‘alternative reality’ they fashioned. Throughout our subsequent exiles and returns, through all the political confusion of history, it is this simple story which has endured. It is neither false nor merely fable. It doesn’t deny anything which may actually have happened. Rather, it expresses a deeper reality, a vital and eternal truth, to which life bears witness all the time.

The mystics understood that what the Maccabees rekindled was no ordinary flame but Or Haganuz, the hidden light, that first radiance with which God drew dawn out of darkness at the beginning of creation. Then God hid it, leaving the practical tasks of measuring day and night to the sun, moon and stars.

Those mystics debate where God concealed that primal light: In the Torah? In the souls of the righteous? In the world to come? I prefer their simplest answer: everywhere, in each and every human being and in all life. We have only to recognise it, to see, and see by, it.

It is the eagerness in the face of a child, the radiance in the eyes of wisdom coupled with kindness. It is the creative fire in which music and poetry are fashioned. It is the wonder of wild places, and the soul of a garden. It is the tenderness of a carer guiding with dignity arthritic fingers to hold a flexi-straw.

It’s inevitable that we only occasionally perceive this light. It’s in the nature of our fraught minds and hectic lives that we only rarely glimpse it in others or feel it illumine our spirit. But it is there always, though often suppressed and downtrodden.

It is a flame deeper than political division. It burns equally in our interlocutors and opponents. It may be forced to resort to bunkers and sealed rooms in wartime. Excess and exploitation hide it. But it never goes out. The mystics hold that those eight days for which it burnt in the Temple add up to more than one week plus twenty-four hours: they signify eternity.

This is the flame we light on Chanukah, in our windows and in our soul.

 

 

Until we wrest blessing from the darkness

‘I will not let you go until you bless me:’ these words, which Jacob says to the unnamed adversary who assails him in the night as he stands alone by the Jabok river, have become my motto.

They express the same attitude as the Maccabees, who, after re-conquering the desolate Temple precincts in Jerusalem, would not abandon the search among the ruins until they found the source of light and kindled the flame which has since illumined with courage and hope the entire history of the Jewish People.

Inevitably, we face challenges, personal and collective. Often, with courage, the help of others and maybe some luck, we somehow manage to struggle through them until break of day. Yesterday I heard for the first time the phrase ‘post traumatic growth,’ with the following definition:

‘Post-traumatic growth doesn’t deny deep distress, but rather posits that adversity can unintentionally yield changes in understanding oneself, others, and the world.’

I hadn’t known the name, but I’ve witnessed the reality many times:

‘Rabbi, I’ve been through…
It’s been lonely, hard.
But now I’m there for other people.
I wanted you to know in case you hear of someone else going through …’

Illness, sorrow: such pain and mental suffering must not be romanticised or ennobled. But if, in the inner spaces where we struggle, we can somehow extract blessing from our fearful encounters with them, they can become lamps in our hand to negotiate the winding steps to chambers in our heart we may not previously have explored. These are not easy places to inhabit, but they can become the source of our deepest compassion and most enduring commitments.

As individuals, though, we cannot vanquish everything. Years ago, I visited an elderly lady who had motor neurone disease. She was still able to speak, just; still able to hold a pencil, just. ‘Have I got it right?’ she asked, indicating her drawing of a baby elephant. She died a few weeks later.

She could not overcome the physical impact of that horrible illness; no one could. But this baby elephant was her ‘yes’ to life nonetheless, her stamina, her hope, her seizing of blessing from the last of her days. I still see that drawing before me. It’s a small thing; it’s a magnificent thing, tender, wonderful and great.

It is this very courage and faith in life, – with its baby elephants, children, adults, animals, everything – which together we muster in the short, dark days of the pandemic through which we are now living.

We have many assailants in this long night: the illness itself, fear, insecurity about the future, social injustice and cruelty. But, together, we shall not let go until we have grasped blessings nevertheless: deeper solidarity; less entitlement and greater appreciation; humbler recognition of our interdependence as humanity and part of nature; the determination to be healers in whatever way we can.

It is this very tenacity which led Rene Cassin to co-draft in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which we honour next week on 10 December, International Human Rights Day, in recognition

‘of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [as] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’

On Thursday evening, the first night of Chanukah we will not just take a match to a candle in our window. We will rekindle in our spirit the determination to seek out the source of light whatever the circumstances. We will find it and make it burn in our soul; we will acknowledge it and bless it in others; we will not give up until, together, we wrest blessing from this darkness.

 

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