Why Yom Kippur and Succot are so close

I used to think it was plain bad planning. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement with its 25 hour fast, ends, leaving everyone thoughtful, repentant, exhilarated and exhausted. Then, with just four days in between, Succot, the festival of Tabernacles, begins, with its requirement to build a Succah, cover it with greenery as Jewish law demands, decorate it, and, of course, cook, bake and welcome guests. How is anyone supposed to find the time and energy?

But I’ve changed my mind; I’ve come to see a wonderful continuity between Yom Kippur and Succot.

On leaving the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the High Priest prays for:

‘A year of grain, wine and oil…a year of dew, rain and warmth…a year in which God will bless our food and drink, a year of joy and tranquillity…’

The Talmud describes how in ancient times people decorated their Succah with just such produce: flasks of wine and oil, sacks of flour and fruits from the fields. It’s as if to say, ‘Thank you, God, for these gifts. Now, please, bless the earth with peace and plenty in the year ahead.’ Succot is ‘Chag Assif, the festival of gathering’ of the produce of the year; it’s thanksgiving made manifest. Blessed with a large garden, Nicky and I plan our vegetable patch with the Succah in mind. This year the entwined roots of our first home-grown celeriac will be our way of saying ‘thank you for the goodness of this earth,’ – an earth which desperately needs our prayers and care.

In another poignant parallel, we repeatedly remind ourselves of our frailty on Yom Kippur:

‘What are we? What is our life? Our capacity? Our strength? To what does our kindness or righteousness amount? Our days are just a breath breathed out…’

This mood, too, is embodied in the Succah. ‘Leave your permanent home for somewhere temporary,’ the Mishnah insists: ‘Live in a Succah; eat there,’ even sleep there if you can! The Succah, like life, is impermanent, vulnerable. When Babushka, the grandmother from Ukraine who’s staying with us, came rushing out to help me with the first swaying pieces of our Succah, I thought: what if we don’t currently have a ‘permanent’ home? What about people who’ve never had such a luxury? Succot is the festival of impermanence, of uncertainty, of refugees, as the Torah makes clear: ‘Remember how I made you live in Succahs for forty wilderness years.’

That’s why a Succah has to be a place of hospitality. We welcome the Ushpizin, our special guests, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, our refugee ancestors from the tyranny of Nimrod. But their spirits refuse to enter unless we invite contemporary visitors to our Succah too. The Zohar, the core text of the Jewish mystics, quotes Jeremiah: ‘I remember the hesed, the loving-kindness, of your youth.’ It explains this as referring to the spirit of Aaron who was known for his hesed, his warm and conciliatory manner. A Succah is a place of welcome and friendship.

Finally, a Succah should have beauty, just as Yom Kippur with its poetry and music is beautiful. Succot comes at ‘tekufat hashanah, the turn of the year’. It embodies the glory of the autumn, the red and yellow of changing leaves, the bronze and amber of the gardens and woodlands before winter. Our life may be frail, but it’s graced with wonder. In truth, life’s beauty is more intense precisely because we’re frail. This, too, we acknowledge on Yom Kippur:

‘Yet from us, mere passing shadows, mere flesh and blood, You, Eternal God, desire praise.’

We are mortal, yet privileged to know the immortality of wonder.

What We Pray For

U’Teshuvah, u’Tefilah, u’Tsedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezerah: Repentance, Prayer and Charity remove the evil of the decree.’ These words come at the centre of our Yom Kippur prayers. Repentance, prayer and charity have the power to transform the meaning of our days, save lives, impact entire communities, and potentially even change the world. This is not because they call down miraculous interventions from heaven but because they appeal to our heart. They re-awaken the sacred spark of God within us all.

I’ve tried to write about Teshuvah during the course of this week. The opportunities for Tsedakah are all around us; the synagogue has communicated its priorities and numerous organisations contact us regularly. It is essential to understand Tsedakah not solely as ‘charity’, but as derived from the word’s root meaning: justice. Tsedakah is single-word shorthand for our obligation to work, through our money, time and values, for a less cruel, less unjust, more compassionate world.

What then about Tefilah, prayer? The machzor, the festival prayer book for Yom Kippur, contains thousands of words. Why so many? Why pray at all? I can only offer a personal response, for whatever it’s worth. But it’s an answer deeply rooted in the writings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889 – 1943), subsequently known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw, Ghetto, for whom my utter respect deepens with everything I read.

Of course, we pray for many things on Yom Kippur, forgiveness, healing, a better world; we pray for hope itself. But at heart, the Rabbi writes, we pray simply for ‘tosefet yirah me’ahavah, – more awe from love.’

Simple words are often the most evocative – and bewildering. I’ve puzzled over that phrase ‘more awe from love’ many times. I’ve asked others what they mean to them.

Ahavat, love, is the Rabbi’s most encompassing understanding of life’s purpose. It’s ‘love your God’, ‘love your neighbour’, ‘love the stranger’, ‘love Torah’ and ‘love the world’ all combined into one. It’s the heart’s response to God’s presence in the world; a presence often hidden, hard to disclose, difficult to discover, yet there within everything: in the preciousness, fragility, beauty and sanctity of life, in every person and all living beings.

Yirah can mean fear. But in this context, it should definitely be translated as awe, what Abraham Joshua Heschel called ‘radical amazement’. Awe is our response when we become aware of the wonder and holiness of life. Day by day, worn down by struggles and chores, far tougher in the Warsaw of the 30’s than for most of us today, we forget God’s presence in life. But the High Holydays, with their solemnity, rituals, music and liturgy stir the soul and re-awaken us to wonder.

That’s ‘love’ and ‘awe’. But what about ‘awe from love’? I understand it like this: those whom we love we experience as most special and most precious. We are also most acutely aware of their vulnerability. The very last thing we want to do is to hurt them in any way. This is awe from love, the determination to protect and cherish, honour and appreciate.

The Rabbi’s prayer is that we should experience an increase in such awe from love towards life itself. It’s a prayer that we be filled with wonder and respect before this beloved world, that such wonder doesn’t desert us but grows stronger within us, that it opens our hearts and guides our actions, that it motivates us to honour and love life more deeply. That, writes Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, is the essence of all prayer.

And how do we know if this prayer has been answered? He writes: the sign that our prayers have been listened to in heaven is if they’ve been heard by us in our hearts, if they’ve awoken our spirit to awe.


I’m troubled by how to translate those Hebrew words lephayeis et chavero, which the Shulchan Aruch, Joseph Caro’s sixteenth century code of Jewish law, tells us to do on the eve of Yom Kippur. ‘Appease our fellow beings’, ‘propitiate’: the words have a ring of insincerity, as if the important thing were to stop others from being upset with us rather than to address the hurt. That’s why I prefer ‘apologise’ or ‘seek reconciliation’.

The Torah states that Yom Kippur, with its rites and prayers, atones for ‘all our sins before God.’ But no amount of beseeching heaven can short-circuit the need to make reparation and apologise to each other. The notion that Yom Kippur amounts to God offering us a free pardon is false. We have to face our fellow beings whom we’ve hurt.

That means facing difficult truths in ourselves. Even saying a superficial sorry can be hard. ‘They’re incapable of admitting they’re wrong,’ is a not infrequent criticism when someone’s stubborn refusal to concede gets on our nerves, whether in family or political life.

But true apology goes deeper. It’s motivated by the awareness of what we’ve said and done may feel like to the other person. At the time we did it, we were impelled by our own emotions. Now, maybe soon or maybe long afterwards, maybe slowly or maybe suddenly, maybe because a third party tells us, we hear our words from a different perspective. We realise and take to heart the pain we’ve caused. We long to apologise, not because we’ve been told we ought to, or even because we want to clear our conscience, though that may remain a – legitimate – part of our motivation, but primarily because we are truly sorry that we’ve given hurt.

Dostoevsky described humility as the root of all good and humiliation as the cause of much evil. Is apologising humbling or humiliating? I believe it is, or at least should be, the former. It cuts into our pride and self-righteousness, but in so doing it opens and deepens our capacity to listen, our empathy, our moral imagination, our heart. Something is wrong if as a society we perpetuate a moral climate in which saying sorry is always seen as a climb-down, a failure, a form of self-abasement. It’s cruel when people who sincerely say sorry are mocked on social media. There’s dignity in honest apology.

But that doesn’t necessarily make it easier. It’s not enough to mutter a general ‘Sorry if I upset you.’ We have to name what we did and apologise specifically and clearly, unless that would cause additional pain to the other person. We’re not entitled to open old wounds, or cause fresh injuries, in order to relieve ourselves of a bad conscience.

If our apology isn’t accepted the first time, the Shulchan Aruch tells us to go as many as three more times, finding a different way to offer our apology on each occasion and taking three people with us as witnesses. Presumably this is to testify to the sincerity of our endeavour, and, if it’s a public falling out, to make it clear that we’ve done our best to put matters right.

If, after all these attempts, our apology is still not accepted, then, says the Shulchan Aruch, eyno zakuk lo, we don’t need…’ It’s unclear whether the lo means ‘it’, that is, acceptance of our contrition, or ‘him’, the person from whom we’re seeking that acceptance. Regarding the latter, Jewish teaching is clear: we shouldn’t be hard-hearted and refuse to forgive, because ‘measure for measure, God is forgiving to those who forgive others.’

It’s hard when our apology is rebuffed. We want to have a clear conscience, but this leaves us troubled. Where do we stand? It’s not dissimilar when we can’t apologise, although we really want to, because the relevant person is no longer accessible to us, or is unaware of what we did and to tell them would inflict new wounds. Sometimes the best we can do is be honest with ourselves, share our remorse with a trusted friend, or speak to God.

There’s a ritual for apologising to those no longer alive; one goes to the grave taking witnesses and says ‘I’ve done wrong before God and you…’ This is an act of truth, an act of love.

But what about all those we can never know we’ve hurt, people who suffer because of our way of life, because we damage the world, because we ignore, or had no time for, their needs. What about the animals? They are sentient too. What about nature?

In the end our apologies need to be like boomerangs, returning to our heart and conscience, telling us to try to do better. They must motivate us to be less blind, less cruel, more generous, more embracing in our empathy, kinder, better people.

Selichah uMechilah – On Forgiveness and Letting Go

On Yom Kippur we say over and again, ‘Selcah lanu, mechal lanu, forgive us and pardon us.’ But are we ourselves forgiving and pardoning? Like they say about charity, forgiveness begins at home. It’s easy to be sentimental – and superficial – about it; but genuine, deep-reaching forgiveness for real hurts is hard.

Of course, many of life’s incidents are trivial, and the sooner we see them as such the better, letting go of our irritation with a ‘these things happen’ smile.

But when it comes to real wounds, forgiveness entails emotional generosity and courage. Moreover, since old sores tend to re-open in our memory, forgiveness is often something we have to struggle with many times over.

Forgiveness includes forgiving each other, life itself for its cruelties and injustice, and, sometimes hardest of all, ourselves. It does not include condoning wrongdoing and undermining responsibility and accountability.

To feel hurt and resentment is only human. In our worst moments we’re liable to turn Hillel’s famous line on his head, ‘Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you,’ and think instead, ‘I want to do back to those so-and-sos exactly the same hateful things they did to me!’

Hebrew has two terms for forgiveness. The first is selichah, which my teacher Rabbi Magonet explains as almost always referring in the Bible to God. The second is mechilah, pardon, a word found more often in rabbinic literature, which indicates the willingness to let go of our dignity and rights, including the ‘right’ to hold over others the threat of hurting them back for what they’ve done to us.

I find this idea of ‘letting go’ helpful. Forgiving another person doesn’t mean forgetting, let alone condoning, what happened. Rather, it entails letting go of our justified feelings of hurt and anger in favour of repairing our relationship. The motivation for such mechilah is the value we attach to that relationship. Recognising that our collegiality, companionship, or, in our closest relationships, the love we have for each other matters more than the hurt which has come between us, allows us to stop holding the incident over the other person’s head.

Instead, we can acknowledge it and try to learn from it so that the connection between us, including its mistakes and wounds, grows deeper. This is forgiveness at its best.

I believe something related can apply to forgiving ourselves. Because we’re only human, we’re unlikely to avoid carrying deep, in-the-flesh-and-bone feelings of shame and regret. Others may, or may not, have forgotten or forgiven; but either way we struggle to do so. Perhaps we can think of God, or life itself, as saying to us: ‘We matter deeply to each other. You’re only mortal, and it’s impossible to get everything right. Accept this humbling truth. Then, for the sake of the future, let your self-doubts and mistakes become your teachers, deepening your understanding and compassion for yourself and others, inspiring you to bring healing to life.

What, though of true wickedness and evil, which one should be extremely sceptical about associating with a word like forgiveness lest it be thought that they could ever be forgotten or condoned? These are wounds to humanity itself, and to the victims in particular, from which we have to hope, vainly it often seems, that humankind will learn for the future.

What, too, of life itself, with all its inequality and unfairness, the illness it often randomly inflicts, the untimely griefs it can bring, the way it puts hapless people in the wrong place at the wrong time, and makes millions, children included, carry pain in the heart for the rest of their lives? How can one forgive?

It’s understandable if people end up bitter.

But it’s a bad outcome. Sometimes we have to try to let go, simply because not to do so hurts more. We embrace, and asked to be embraced by, the spirit of compassion, the God of mercy, so that we can live not a bitter or hard-hearted but a generous and loving life.

Like so much else connected with forgiveness, it’s easily said, but a life-long task to do.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

I’m familiar with that ‘butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth’ look from my dog when she’s knows perfectly well that she’s done something wicked, like tipping the food compost bin all over the floor and fressing.

It’s less comfortable when we do likewise, denying accountability. Two and a half thousand years ago Jeremiah wrote that God will judge us less for our actual sins than if we say “I’ve done nothing wrong.”’

Whether it’s in our closest relationships, across our society, or even globally, healing and reparation begin with the acknowledgement of responsibility. That’s why viddui, confession, forms the core of all our Yom Kippur services. The liturgy is long, but its essence is simple: ‘There are things I’ve said and done which are wrong and hurtful. There are things I’ve failed to do which would have been just and kind.’

The first person to whom we have to acknowledge our faults is our own self. Maimonides insists that we’re specific; we have to name and say the sin to ourselves. Telling ourselves home truths is hard, but it’s also a chance to learn and change. If we aren’t honest and clear with ourselves, that opportunity slips through our fingers. Confession in generalities is like the slippery response one sometimes receives from people who can’t bring themselves to apologise: ‘I’m so sorry if you were upset by something I might have said,’ as if it was our fault for feeling hurt. It’s a failure to take responsibility.

In public we don’t name our sins. Rather, we confess in the plural, acknowledging our collective responsibility for the wrongs of our society. We may not be directly responsible, but injustice, cruelty, bigotry and hatred exist in our midst. Do we try to ignore them, keeping ourselves to ourselves? Are we quietly complicit? Do we speak out against them? Or are we ‘afraid to stand out in the crowd, to be moral when those around us are not…and so go along with what we know inside is just not right’. (Jack Riemer in A High Holiday Companion).

At the close of the viddui we say: ‘God, we’ve told you about the sins we know. Those we’re not aware of are known before you.’ It’s inevitable, it’s only human that we do things the consequences of which we don’t realise, for good as well as for bad. We have to trust in the power of forgiveness.

But I’m increasingly worried about another kind of ‘unknown’ sin: behaviours which everybody does and in which we too are inextricably complicit. People see nothing wrong in them and they involve breaking no laws. We buy products made under conditions we would consider intolerable if we saw them, but we don’t. We consume foodstuffs not rarely grown in ways which are unsustainable for the lands, rivers, forests and peoples where they’re raised. These are sins against the future viability of life itself, wrongs against God’s earth. Yet we consider them acceptable. We’re all implicated. The path to change, atonement and reparation will be long and hard. But we must choose it.

Underlying all these dimensions of wrongs and confession is Judaism’s firm belief in accountability. God is a God of truth who knows and cares. I do not think of this God as up there in heaven with telescopic vision, but down here among us on earth, in every living being, in each person and in the conscience of us all.

But this God is equally a God of mercy, who demands honesty not in order to punish us but to enable us to learn, repair and heal.
Therefore may the God of healing give us the courage to acknowledge our wrongdoings and the inspiration to heal and restore.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Over the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, these Ten Days of Return which begin on Rosh Hashanah and culminate on Yom Kippur, I plan to share reflections on different meanings of key concepts, including confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and prayer.

I’m beginning with Teshuvah itself. It’s usually translated as ‘repentance’, which is accurate.  But to me the Latinate term carries too much of a whiff of piety, like the dank basement of an old religious building. I prefer ‘return’, or, less literally, ‘reconnection’, because Teshuvah includes more than regret for our past mistakes. It also expresses the longing to come home to the best self we can be, to rediscover our full humanity and connection with each other, life and God.

Nevertheless, Teshuvah most often begins with acknowledgement of the mistakes we have committed and the determination not to repeat them. Nowhere is this process more clearly set out than in Maimonides’ Laws of Teshuvah (add link).

What constitutes Teshuvah? That sinners abandon their sins and remove them from their thoughts, resolving in their heart never to commit them again, as Isaiah states “May the wicked abandon his ways….” (55:7) Similarly, they must regret the past, as Jeremiah says: “After I returned, I regretted.” (31:18)

Sometimes we feel instant remorse. Years ago, I said something sharp to my father when he instructed me how to use a woodworking tool properly. In response, he just looked at me. I understood instantly. I apologised. The feeling from that incident still returns to me like a kick in the stomach, warning me not to say hurtful things. Admittedly, it sometimes comes too late.

At other times, we are blind to the wrongs we’ve done until someone has the courage to point them out. Some people do so viscerally, which is fair enough. Others do so harshly. But some understand the difficult art of guiding us to important realisations, with the gentle but firm frankness of friendship. It’s painful to be made aware of hurts we’ve caused. Our first reaction may be defensive. Then we probably feel guilty and ask ourselves what we can do to make matters right. But over time, if we’re open to it, our very mistakes and the remorse we feel can become our most important teachers. They can help us understand ourselves and life more deeply. This can’t change what we’ve done, but it can transform its significance for our future.

This leads to the deeper meaning of Teshuvah, return, rediscovery of the person we aspire to be. This is at once a journey in many dimensions. It takes us inwards to our heart and soul, which, as we declare every morning, are the presence of God within us. It leads us upwards in the aspiration that we can be our best selves and help to shape a better world. It brings our consciousness into kinship with all life. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The most unnoticed of all miracles is the miracle of repentance… In the dimension of time there is no going back. But the power of repentance causes time to be created backward and allows re-creation of the past to take place. Through the forgiving hand of God, harm and blemish which we have committed against the world and against ourselves will be extinguished, transformed into salvation. (Berlin, Erev Yom Kippur, 16 September 1936)

We Need to be Healers and Fighters

I wish everyone, our families, our friends, and our congregation Shanah Tovah. I pray for a good year for the whole Jewish community, all humanity, and all life in our beautiful, beleaguered world sheculo chal mipanecha, which both trembles and rejoices before God.

This year may we be healers. The world is full of wounds and the dangers that lie ahead, for Israel, for many countries and for nature are obvious. One’s heart weeps.

Healing is an art which often requires sophisticated skills. But in essence it’s simple; it’s based on just two words: ‘I care.’ But where do we start, when from all around there are ceaseless appeals and the very earth can feel like one great cry? In the ancient words of Rabbi Tarfon, the one choice we are not at liberty to make is to do nothing.

I believe we should focus on whoever it is in our nature to care about naturally. If we love children, do what you can for them. If we feel a special tenderness for older people, listen to them. If we love birds and animals, plant gardens, woods and meadows. The other day I saw a chair tied firmly to a lamppost outside a café. On it was a sign: ‘If you’re no longer so young, or walking is difficult, please take a rest. We care about you.’ What kindness! Caring is often expressed in seemingly small things, but the difference it makes is inestimable.

In these tough times, to be healers we must also be fighters. There is unavoidable suffering on earth. But there is also wanton cruelty: the brutality of aggressive war; the contemptuousness of race and gender hate; the despotic arrogance which seeks to crush justice and freedom; the despoliation of the earth which may benefit some but devastates others and destroys the viability of our planet. We must fight these wrongs, skilfully, determinedly, forcefully but peacefully, acknowledging that in some we too may be implicated.

At stake are Judaism’s core principles: that this is God’s earth for which we must care with respect, justice and compassion. The very essence and reputation of Israel, and of Judaism itself, are currently at stake.

From where do we draw our strength?

We do so from solidarity, hope, love and faith.

Solidarity and community are the basis of Jewish life, and of all society. Whether looking after the sick, combatting poverty, cleaning up local rivers or defending minorities, belonging to like-minded communities renews our resolve and restores our morale.

Hope, tikvah, is not airy optimism, but the elixir of vision, aspiration and action combined.

Love is our deepest motivation, God’s presence in our hearts, as we pray each day: ahavat olam, inspire us with eternal, inexhaustible love.

Faith is not pious dogma, but the awareness of the deep resilience of the human spirit, of Judaism, of life itself.

May we have the faith, love, hope and solidarity to be healers in the years ahead.

The True Guardians of our Humanity

As the moon wanes to a sliver and the old year ends, I want to thank those who guide us in all walks of life.

The rabbis read Elul, the current Hebrew month, as an acronym for two biblical verses. (Sadly, this doesn’t work in English.)

The first is ‘Ani ledodi vedodi li – I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.’ They took this as the love between God and the soul.

God is infinite. But in practice God comes to us in many shapes and sizes. None of us knows how the spirit touches the hearts of others. Therefore, I want to thank everyone who helps us perceive the holy in anything and everything.

Thank you to the teachers and youth leaders who understand how to draw out of every child what is special and sacred and enable that uniqueness to become a light for others.

Thank you to Eleanor O’Hanlon for her book, Eyes of the Wild, about how in the ‘spaciousness of nature, we find our own expansiveness again… And that space is not separate from Eternal Presence, holding all life as one and allowing it to be – growing, blossoming, dying and reemerging in all its manifold diversity and grace.’

Thank you to the team in that tiny bird reserve between the Supreme Court and the Knesset in Jerusalem, who measure the length of small birds’ wings before releasing them from their carefully cupped hands. You show that these lives too are holy.

Thank you to those of all faiths who see beyond the dogmas of their creed and know that God is in all life everywhere.

You bring God into our hearts. You curb our cruelty and deepen our compassion.

The second of the Elul verses comes from Esther: ‘Ish lere’ehu, umattanot la’evyonim, – Each for their fellow, and gifts to the needy.’

I’m grateful to everyone who shows us how to be present for our fellow human beings, family, friends, community, people we encounter by chance.

I’m grateful for everyone like the friend who simply said, ‘I’m on my way,’ when I called in a panic, ‘I need a lift with my dog to the vet, this moment, now.’ I’m grateful to those with the gift for thoughtful words, kind, insightful, with a lightness of touch. I’m grateful for those who listen, enabling the quietness that calms the heart.

I’m grateful to all who fight for the rights of others, who won’t yield to indifference, carelessness or rudeness, who call out bigotry and bullying. I’m grateful to everyone who helps create encompassing, compassionate community. Thank you for showing us what ‘Each for their fellow’ truly means. You deepen our humanity.

‘Gifts for the needy’ may sound patronising. But who knows which of us will be needy over time? This isn’t about reaching down but reaching out, to those whose lot has fallen more cruelly than ours on earth.

I’m grateful to all who refuse to walk pass hunger, who ensure foodbanks remain stocked. I’m grateful to that postman in whose van we caught a lift years ago, who stopped at every house in the long, remote road saying ‘If I don’t check on these elderly folk, who will?’

I’m grateful to Sally Hayden who records in My Fourth Time We Drowned, how she took that first unanticipated call from tormented refugees, subject to blackmail and rape, and became their lifeline, their sole electronic pathway towards liberty. I’m grateful to the lawyers, journalists, takers of video clips, who risk their lives exposing inhumane policies and brutal regimes. You live the meaning of integrity and truth.

How urgently we need you all, teachers and guides, because, as we pray on Rosh Hashanah, the fate of the world is in the balance.

Why Democracy and Equality Matter

I had two small encounters yesterday on my way to a conference in Cambridge.

I took a cab from the station to a used-car garage which had a possible replacement for our electric vehicle which was stolen last month. Noting my ‘small hat’ the driver told me he used to work in Brent Cross. ‘All Jews are rich,’ he added.

‘That’s not true,’ I said, taken by surprise by this gratuitous comment. ‘There are many poor in the Jewish community.’

‘All the big companies are owned and run by Jews.’  

‘That’s not true.’

Ugly thoughts invaded my mind: if I’m ‘a Jew’ he’s ‘an Asian.’ Shall I ask where he’s from? Of course, I didn’t. I didn’t even want to have such a thought in my mind. But now neither of us were simply you and me.

Perhaps stupidly, I had another unpleasant thought: ‘Is he at all right? Are we, am I, too entitled? Here’s me, trying to buy a car…’

‘Let me out here,’ I said, preferring to walk the last stretch, ‘have a good day.’

Before I even entered the garage showroom, the salesman approached me, ‘I know who you are. I’ve looked you up. We’re both Glaswegians. And another thing we have in common – border collies. Mine died a week ago; we’re heartbroken. The dog waited until my son came back specially from the States. He stood up from his basket, licked his hands, lay down and died…’

The man’s humanity touched me exactly when I needed such kindness.

These two small incidents connected me with the great issue which preoccupies so many of us regarding Israel, and many other countries across the world. How do we defend democracy? Why does it matter so profoundly? Why is equality essential?

Demos means ‘people’: democracy is the endeavour to do the best for society in a spirit of collective responsibility, while protecting the freedoms, rights and opportunities of each individual, whatever their faith, ethnicity or gender.

With heart-rending concern, David Grossman wrote this week:

Now a process of destabilization and disintegration is taking place (in Israel), a shattering of the social contract… [R]egression is intensifying: to reactionary attitudes of discrimination and racism; to the exclusion of women and LGBTQ people and Arabs; to ignorance and boorishness as a positive value. (Haaretz, August 27)

At stake is what the Torah calls anshei kodesh, being ‘holy people,’ that is, people who respect the holy in every life, including ourselves and everyone else.

Grossman continued:       

The protest movement is the hope…the creative act, the mutual responsibility, the ideological courage. It is the lifeblood of democracy. It is our and our children’s chance to live a life of liberty here. 

These collective public actions, in Israel, London and across the world, are hugely important. At the same time, underlying them must be a more basic, constant, all-pervasive protest, manifest through who we are. It should permeate all our actions, and, as much as humanly possible, our very thoughts and feelings.

It’s an unceasing protest against bigotry and dehumanisation, proven in the way we treat everyone and anyone. For I am not ‘the Jew’ and that other person is not ‘the Asian’, ‘the Palestinian’ or ‘the Charedi’. Rather, we all carry an aspect of God’s image and our purpose on earth is to uphold and develop that sanctity in ourselves and each other.

What that car salesman really said to me was, ‘I know who you are. You’re a human being, like me.’

For more information about Israel Democracy Week, click here. Highlights include:

Time to take a stand: Judicial reform or regime coup?, Monday 4 September, 4pm  
Speakers: Yossi Klein Halevi, Daniel Gordis, Matti Friedman 

Democracy Rally, Sunday 10 September, 3-5pm
Speakers: Yuval Noah Harari, Mika Almog

Time to take a stand: what can the Jewish diaspora do?, Monday 11 September, 7pm
Speakers: Yossi Klein Halevi

Get in touch...