What matters in the end

How small, how trivial the acts of love and kindness seem, with which we strive to counter the vast cruelties of the world. Yet the difference they make.

How selfless so many of the staff in hospital and hospice are, where our family have spent much time over these last days.

‘I’ll choose you the best bunch; they’re the sweetest,’ says the man at the fruit stall, holding up a large cluster of black grapes. ‘The nurses appreciate a bit of fruit. They get more chocolates than are good for them and more biscuits than they know what to do with.’

And those nurses and carers! ‘We’re just going to straighten you up and make you more comfortable, my darling.’ The sheets are folded back with scrupulous care, the injection inserted, the pillows made straight.

How civilised, how compassionate, how privileged this is, compared with the brutal, violent horrors of Ukraine, Yemen, the south of Israel, Gaza, ‘the monstrous anger of the guns,’ terrors which leave us all in profound and multiple distress.  

Yet here too mortality, though it comes not in bomb blasts and shattered buildings but between clean sheets, remains implacable. What do we have, what’s left, when it all ends?

Or maybe they’re not the right questions. Instead, we should ask ‘What have we given? What is the love that abides?’ What remains when, in the biblical phrase, ‘the dust returns to the earth as it was’?

We cannot help but live as if the essence of our being is our own consciousness, what we feel and desire, our moods and sensations. But perhaps it is not so. Maybe the most important part of who we are exists not in ourselves but in the minds and hearts of others, in the memories and after-echoes of the care we showed them or the hurts we gave. Thus, the surviving core of me is not in me, at least not in me alone, but in every person, even every animal or tree, affected by my passing. In them our love, and hate, endures.

A beautiful phrase from this week’s Torah portion says it all: venafsho keshurah benafsho, ‘his soul is bound to his soul.’ It is these words, spoken by his half-brother Judah, which render Joseph unable to hide his tears or conceal his identity any longer. They refer neither to him nor even to Judah himself, but to the bond between Benjamin and their father Jacob. Jacob cannot live without his youngest, beloved child. The selfless understanding that this love is the most important thing, that it overcomes, that it simply must overcome, absolutely everything, finally breaks the barrier between the long-estranged brothers.

This is what we have in life to set against the hatreds, enmities, misunderstandings and misjudgements: the simple bonds of love, the appreciation that, even if they do not involve us directly, they are sacred and their sanctity commands us.

So I think, as the night advances and the corridor of the hospice grows quiet, not of the angers, (what family doesn’t have them?) but of how Isca, our second mother, sat with me decades ago during similar night hours when I couldn’t sleep after being taught Macbeth, because I was certain Banquo’s body with its ‘twenty trenched gashes on his head’ lay underneath my bed. Or of how, when we brought Mossy, our first child, home from hospital, Safi the dog, his rather large nose put slightly out of joint, sprung into her car to be spoiled by Isca for two whole days before she brought him back, reconciled to his new reality with its altered canine privilege.

These are the foolish things by which love endures, eluding death, to be passed on in the inscrutable future, in ways incapable of being fully known. These are the fragments we have to shore against our ruin.

Hope in the darkness

Something I love about Chanukkah is reflections.

When I was small, we often used to light the candles in my grandparents’ house. They had a ‘through room’ with bay windows looking onto the road in front and out into their large, half-wild garden at the back.

I used to stare not just at the candles but at their reflections, and the reflections of their reflections as the lights were mirrored back and forth from window to window. I would watch them receding, over the street and out into the city on the one side, and through the dark garden on the other, until they were caught in the branches of a huge oak tree, the venerable marker of some ancient boundary.

I saw those lights then, and still see them now, as fragile illuminations, flickering markers of hope and warmth, small fingers of humanity reaching out into the night. How desperately we need them now at the close of this year of hatred and war!

Those lights are to me the true miracle of Chanukkah. As Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger wrote, ‘For this the human being was created, to give light in the darkness.’

Can those lights, stretched out like hands of greeting, be us, become humanity, seeking each other, calling to one another in a world grown dark with cruelty and fury?

Beha’alotecha et hanerot, says the Torah. Don’t read those words, insist the mystics, as if all they mean is ‘When you light the menorah.’ Take them according to their literal meaning: ‘When you raise yourself up with the lights.’ For God’s light burns within us all, though it’s often hidden even from ourselves.

Can we find that light in our own hearts? Can others help us? Can we, even if only occasionally, rekindle that light in each other, through kindness, attentiveness, listening to one another’s stories, aspirations and griefs? Might we, then, by means of this heart-light, look beyond the frustrations and festering resentments, the ignorance and wilful disinformation, that so often set us apart? Can we hope?

As Jews we have often hoped in vain. But we have never submitted to the notion that hope itself is in vain. ‘Od lo avdah tikvateinu, our hope has never ceased’: that is the true anthem of the Jewish People.

But yesterday, watching the reflections of all eight candles on the final night of Chanukkah, and the reflections of their reflections now stretching out from my own home, I felt a sense of loss. ‘Farewell, light and hope of Chanukkah!’ I felt I was saying. ‘Farewell! Don’t get lost in the darkness!’

It was then that it struck me for the first time that those flames might be travelling in the opposite direction. Maybe they weren’t going out into the darkness but seeking to come in from it. Maybe they were saying to me: ‘Let me in!’

There passed through my mind the beautiful lines from Yehudah Halevi’s sea poem, when the waters, finally calm after a terrifying storm, once again peacefully mirror the night sky

‘And the stars are astray in the heart of the sea
Like exiles driven from their homes.

So I ask myself now, ‘Whom can I let in to my heart-space, to my home? What light might they bring with them, and what might I see differently, or entirely anew, by its flames?’

That is my hope for this year ahead, that, whoever we are, we may see further, more widely and more deeply, that we have seen before.

Chanukah 5784: trying to find light in this darkness

Please, do you have a light?

I haven’t become a smoker. But I keep asking this question, not in words but in spirit.

I’m only trying to copy what the Maccabees did twenty-two centuries ago. How bleak it must have been when they re-entered the ruined Temple, the shattered masonry, the broken sanctity, the war against the Seleucid powers far from over. Yet, so the Talmud teaches, they didn’t despair. Instead, they looked for oil to light the Menorah:

They searched and discovered just one vial, intact with the High Priest’s seal.

That they found it, lit it, and that its flame still burns today: this is the miracle of Chanukah.

We, too, need light in these cruel months of war. The unbearable details of 7 October continue to emerge. Israel’s military casualties mount, this family’s child, that family’s son. The hapless civilian population of Gaza suffers unimaginably; the huge death toll rises. Hamas fights on, merciless; hostages remain in its bleak tunnels. Grief spreads. Hatred thrives.

Near home someone chants ‘Kill the Jews’. ‘Why say that?’ I challenge, ‘They did in Sobibor and Auschwitz. God’s abandoned me. God’s abandoned the Jews. God’s…’ Realising the man’s drunk, I move on. But his words show how the refrain is out there.

‘How are you celebrating Chanukah this year?’ I’m asked by the BBC. With muted joy, but with great depth, I answer. For I’ve never felt closer to the Maccabees, searching for something to light in the darkness.

What can I find in the ruins? I’m not looking for a physical vial of oil. Instead, I’m mentally saying to everyone I meet: have you got some oil, some goodness, just a drop, to put in my jar?

I visit Isca, my and my brother’s second mother, at the Royal Free Hospital. Her days seem near their close. A nurse brings a small brush to moisten her lips. It’s not just the action, it’s the kindness and the smile. Where does the staff find the patience and gentleness? They put oil in the jar.

In the supermarket a woman stops every shopper, ‘Buy two cans of soup for the foodbank.’ How many of us, without her reminder, would have walked straight past that box labelled ‘Help Your Community’? That’s more oil in the jar.

I join Together for Humanity opposite Downing Street. Two men, one Palestinian, one Israeli, recount their losses, not to wound each other but to embrace the hope that a better way is possible, that we can live side by side. The crowd’s candles shine through the rainy dark.

In the same London drizzle, I speak at a gathering outside Liverpool Street Station to commemorate the arrival of the first Kindertransport train exactly eighty-five years ago. The girls and boys it carried were the light and hope of their parents, before the darkness asphyxiated them. What selfless love, to send your beloved child to an unknown land. What courage, to begin again alone in an unknown language.

Gradually the jar fills up. My vial of oil has no High Priest’s seal. But what it contains is holy nevertheless, because every drop derives from kindness and there’s nothing more sacred than compassion.

I shall take that oil and try to light it, not just on my Chanukiah but in my life. Through its flames I see innumerable other lights. They don’t extinguish the darkness, but they illumine a path through it. We may not get to the other side; there may even be no other side. But by our lights we shall remain human, caretakers of God’s holy light.

For Eco Shabbat: between shame and compassion

This is Eco Shabbat, timed to coincide with COP 28.

I don’t love the name ‘Eco’, apt as it is. I’d rather describe the day in spiritual terms: the Shabbat dedicated to reverence before the beauty of creation, the subtle and wondrous interconnectedness of all life; the Shabbat in which we determine to honour and protect it.    

Yet I’m struggling with a feeling I hesitate to name, a deep sense of shame.

This is due, partly, to the war between Israel and Hamas. But the causes lie wider.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. This is in no way, heaven forbid, shame at being Jewish. I joined the rally against antisemitism last Sunday, profoundly moved by the historic companionship of tens of thousands proud of our identity. No, I reverence our millennial tradition of devotion to God and Torah which demands of us everything. I know myself an unworthy heir to its depth and wisdom.

It’s not shame for my strong connection to Israel, my bonds with precious friends and colleagues there, my prayers for those confronting Hamas, my joy at the release of tens of hostages and my hopes, and fears, for those still left in the tunnels of Hamas.

Nor is it shame that I listen with sorrow to the distress and desperation, anger and tears, of families of Palestinian civilians caught in the horrors of Gaza, or pursued by settlers on the West Bank who profane the name of God and Judaism.

No; it’s more than that. Sometimes I’m simply ashamed of being a human.

It’s the shame described by Dante when, overcome in the presence of his beloved Beatrice, he lowers his gaze and, seeing his own reflection in the waters of a stream, looks instantly away ‘filled with shame unspeakable.’

It’s akin, despite the utterly different circumstances, to the shame Primo Levi perceives in the faces of the first Russian horsemen when they come into sight of Auschwitz-Buna in January 1945, the shame ‘a just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.’ (The Truce, p. 188)

I keep thinking of the unanswerable Biblical question, Eichah? How? Why? How has humanity descended into such destruction? Where are those evil ideologies conceived that long to hurt and kill? How have we reached the state where, across the globe, homes, cities and landscapes are laid waste? Why are we ruining our sweet air and beneficent earth? Why do we continue to do so, when we know the price our grandchildren will pay for our actions?

All this, which daily confronts us, fills me with shame. How can humanity look itself in the face? If God were a person, God would be tearing out so much hair that the Godhead had none left.

Yet maybe something else, something better, can emerge from the pain.

I joined a vigil for the children of Israel and Gaza in St James’ Church, Piccadilly. Every quarter of an hour, a participant from a different faith spoke for just two minutes. The rest was silence.

In that rich quiet, I felt once more the compelling power of pity. In that heart-space of grief, wordlessly there grew a resolute, implacable commitment to compassion, to caring for life more fiercely than before, for this vulnerable world, its tenderness, beauty and wonder, its undressed wounds and inconsolable sorrows. We must lay it upon our hearts that, despite everything, humanity is commanded, ceaselessly and irrevocably, by compassion

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