Whom we carry in our hearts

Whose names do we carry on our shoulders and bear in our hearts?

My sartorial interests have always been minimal. Aware of their environmental cost, I shop for new clothes as rarely as possible. If I do have to visit a shopping centre like Brent Cross, the less time I have there, the more likely I am to buy what I need.

But the High Priest’s garments, described in this week’s Torah reading, fascinate me. The very names of the precious stones sewn onto them seem to glow in the text: sappir veyahalom, sapphire and diamond, shevo ve’achlamah, agate and amethyst.

Mystics see them as metaphors for the radiance of the soul. But in our sore times, I’m interested in something more down to earth. Two stones are carved with the names of the tribes of Israel, six names on each, and attached to the high priest’s ephod so that ‘he wears them on his shoulders as a memorial before God.’

Today there is no temple, no sacrificial service and no high priest. Instead, we each come before God carrying the names, hopes, anguish and aspirations of everyone we care about, before God.

My first meeting here in Israel was with my colleague Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, responsible for supporting the Jewish communities of Ukraine. This Shabbat, 24 February, brings the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion. She writes:

‘Two years have passed but the war still remains. These days, every Shabbat service in Ukraine begins with the prayer for peace in Israel and ends with the prayer for Ukraine.’

Last year, I joined Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski at the Ukrainian Cathedral in London. He carries on his shoulders the anguish of hundreds of thousands of his people, exiled to Britain or fighting and struggling at home. There’s no end in sight to the war. I send him a big hug of solidarity from Jerusalem.

As well as the stones on his shoulders, the high priest wore over his heart four rows of jewels, three in each row, carved with the individual name of one of Israel’s twelve tribes. We, being no formal high priests, carry them not on, but in, our hearts.

I don’t know whom you carry in your heart: someone you love who’s in danger, a hostage, a friend whose hand you want to hold but they’re on the other side of some border, at the other end of the world. What I do know is that we all carry names in our hearts ‘as a memorial before God’: people we love, for whom we hope and pray. I think of Pasternak’s poem:

‘In me are people without names…
I am conquered by them all, and this is my only victory.’

May the God of life embrace them all.

The high priest wears one more piece of clothing bearing a name, God’s name carved on a gold band worn round his head. It was his special tefillin, the small leather boxes with scrolls bearing the commandment to love God, which we place daily next to our heart and on our forehead.

The other morning, I tentatively mentioned to a friend that his tefillin were askew; instead of at the centre they were way off to one side of his forehead. ‘No,’ he wittily replied, ‘My tefillin are in the right place. It’s my head which is facing the wrong way.’ Since then, I keep asking myself which way my thoughts are facing.

The Torah explains that the high priest wears his special garments ‘to make him holy to serve me.’

So may we, each our own high priest, be granted to stand with our head and thoughts facing the God of all life, our hearts filled with love to carry the names of the people who need our embrace, and our shoulders strong to share their burdens, in these cruel, challenging times.

Antisemitism: the CST’s report

It is our tree of life. We are fed by its deep roots and rising sap. I refer to Torah, the source and font of resilience of the Jewish People. Today is both the birthday and the Yahrzeit of Moses our teacher ‘who commanded us Torah.’

By Torah, I mean everything from challah on Friday night to deep study and devotion. I mean being Jewish, belonging in Jewish history, sharing in Jewish community because that’s who we are.  

I stress this now, in these cruel days, when antisemitism is at its worst for forty years and we often feel bullied, maligned, threatened, intimidated and alone.

The Community Security Trust’s Annual Report indicates a massive rise in antisemitism, especially since October 7, an explosion of hatred which expresses ‘a celebration’ of Hamas and its unspeakably vile massacres. (Antisemitic Incidents Report 2023 and accompanying blog)

Antisemitic attacks target schools, campuses, communities and individuals. I came out of the local tube station to hear a drunk man calling out ‘Kill the Jews.’ Ignore it; he’s just drunk, I thought. Then I realised: it shows how the phrase is acceptable, OK.

It’s beyond appalling that university chaplain Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch, his wife and young children have had to go into hiding because of repeated blood-curdling death threats. As Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has said, these are attacks on our entire society. It is shocking that Mike Freer MP has decided not to stand for re-election because of threats against his life.

I feel for our students. I feel for the leaders and members of Jewish societies at schools and campuses. I wish I could reach out to them all!

I can’t count the number of people across the professions who tell me they’ve been surrounded by a wall of silence, or outright hostility, who’ve felt let down or betrayed by colleagues and former friends.

Israel is cruelly and horribly demonised. Again and again, groups condemn the country, debasing and weaponising the ‘g’ word, often without even referring to the indescribable evils perpetrated by Hamas. (We know what ‘g’ truly means, as Judge Aharon Barak courageously made clear at The Hague). It’s appalling.

I received an environmental journal referring to ‘x’ days of atrocities by Israel. I counted and found they included 7 October itself. I wish that was incredible, but it’s not. ‘We know who Hamas and Hezbollah are,’ an Iranian refugee told me. ‘They’re the people the regime employed to crush the uprisings against the Ayatollahs and kill and put down Iranian women.’ Many here in the UK evidently don’t know, or choose not to.

There’s all the difference in the world between upholding the dignity of Palestinian men, women and children and praying for their safety and an ultimate peaceful solution, which I and countless like-minded Jews do, and supporting Hamas’s fighters, who are the enemies of the entire free world and must be defeated.

‘British Jews are strong and resilient,’ commented Mark Gardner, chief executive of the CST.

That strength is being tested. “When will they leave us alone” is the constant cry I hear from the community,’ commented Lord Mann, the government’s advisor on antisemitism. But our resilience will not be found wanting.

I was deeply touched watching Stephen Fry’s Alternative Christmas Message, strong, clear, and calmly spoken. ‘I’m a Jew,’ he said: ‘I’ll be damned if I let antisemites define me… I’ll take ownership.’

All my life as a Jew, a rabbi, I’ve wanted us to take deeper ownership of that Judaism. I see before me Chagall’s marvellous painting, Solitude. In the background the village burns. In the foreground, a man cradles the Torah, his consolation, music, strength and hope.

But Torah isn’t just for our aloneness; it’s about our solidarity. Through Torah we create community, celebrate life and strive to ennoble our every interaction.

Torah is three thousand years of cultures. It draws us together round the Shabbat table. It guides us inward to the depth of the soul. It leads us outward to make the world better for all humanity, all people whatever their background, and for all life.

In this spirit I want to reach out everyone, of all faiths, and say in the words of tomorrow’s Torah reading: instead of hatred, let’s make the world a dwelling place for us all and for our God.

So much pain, so much need for healing

I set my hope on two words in this week’s Torah reading: verapoh verapeh, ‘heal, surely heal.’ In fact, they’re just one word, doubled for emphasis: ‘Heal.’ I pray to the God of healing, and for the capacity in each of us to be healers.

Waves of worry and sorrow wash over us with a remorselessness most of us have not experienced in our lifetimes. It’s hard to hold still and strong in our hearts as we listen to the voices which cry out.

Sharone Lifschitz told our synagogue about her parents from Kibbutz Nir Oz, her mother Yocheved freed after two weeks, her father, aged 83 and with complex medical needs, still held hostage by Hamas after over 125 days. She spoke of the village they created, their love of nature, their friendships with Palestinians in Gaza, their lifelong commitment to peace-making. Her voice was calm, collected and humane throughout, even when she described the studied brutality inflicted on her community. The trauma is immeasurable, she stressed: do what you can to bring healing.

If we have space in our hearts to include it, and I believe we must, the pain on the other side of the border is also immense. Trapped in the whirlpool of a merciless politics in which many parties across the Middle East are to blame, caught now between Hamas and Israel, what are the thousands of Palestinian civilians to do, where are they to go, what future awaits them with any light of hope on its horizon?

None of this is helped by the tides of brash, one-sided, frequently ignorant and malicious accusations, which leave us Jews, and many Muslims also, feeling branded, lonely, and negated.

I cannot forget, too, a different pain: the suffering of nature itself. It is the greatest and most wonderful resource for our physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. Yet it is relentlessly depleted by our refusal to take sufficient cognisance and a politics of disregard. I love this world of trees and birds, yet there are days when I am full of sorrow for it all.

For all these reasons ‘Heal!’ cries out. In context, it expresses our obligation to cure any injuries we’ve inflicted on others, including their pain and humiliation. The Shulchan Aruch takes it as the basis for the physician’s obligation to practice. But in the widest sense, healing belongs to us all. We all long for the day when, in Malachi’s beautiful words, ‘the sun of righteousness will rise with healing on its wings.’

So what healing can we bring? There are countless good ways to donate and volunteer, and we should. But I’m thinking of the inner challenges. Can we listen to pain and worry in quiet companionship? Can we keep our heart free, not from just indignation, but from the floods of fury? Can we hold in our consciousness that she or he, too, is human? If there’s an opportunity to say something kind, can we make sure to take it? If there’s something difficult to express, can we do so honestly, but without inflaming more hurt? Can we try not to wound the lives of non-human creatures?

To meet these challenges, we have to nourish our reverence for life. Respect, wonder, kindness, appreciation, companionship, love and joy: these are our great resources for facing the wrongs of the world. These are our ways to bring healing.

Is what we can do together for our world ever enough? I don’t know. What I do know is that we must hold fast to the value of small things, to the confidence that the little differences we make will add up to making a true difference. Beyond that, we must pray that God, ‘the Creator of Healing’ who abides in all life, will bring healing to us all.

God, and the geese by Loch Lomond

We need to nurture our sense of wonder. Otherwise, we take the world for granted, forget the privilege of being alive and allow our souls to become eclipsed.

My own sense of wonder has worn cobweb thin over these cruel, bitter times: the hostages still captive after 120 terrible days for them and their families, the dreadful war with its appalling cost in Israeli and Palestinian grief, the lack of well-founded hope.

So I did something crazy, because I understood that to keep going and caring I had to renew my spirit. Wonder nourishes the love of life, love of life makes us more aware, awareness makes us more compassionate, and without compassion, what are we?

I found myself with an entire day unexpectedly free. Open before me was the winter magazine of The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds:

Join us at Loch Lomond; watch thousands of geese rise over the water at first light.

I couldn’t make the dates for their guided walks, but what was to stop me going on my own? ‘Head torch, boots, warm clothing, that’s all you need,’ the charming staff at the RSPB lodge told me.

I booked my train tickets; I’d be in Scotland for less than twenty-four hours, but what’s long or short when you nourish the soul? I arrived at night and set out at once to savour the darkness, breathing with the stately trees, watching the moon between the bare branches of the beeches.

Six next morning found me on the well-laid paths by Loch Lomond. The woodlands were a realm of wordless prayer, each tree a sentinel at the border of an invisible world. What’s a year, ten years, or a century to an oak? They humble us, these trees; they liberate us from the siege of endless thought, the battering of depression and frustration. They embrace us in their silent meditations and windswept songs; they simplify us inside.

The waters, when I reach them, are, like the cloud above them, still depths of grey. But the first birds are waking, and the cold air carries their brief songs over the water. Then the geese begin to call, at first just individual birds. The early shift has awoken and alerts the others: dawn is rising, dawn is rising, prepare for flight. The night slowly pales.

The honking and crying grow louder. I turn to face the direction from where the swelling chorus seems to come and suddenly I see them, skeins of ten, thirty, fifty birds, too many to count. They fly like a great arrowhead, each goose in the slipstream of those in front, only the leader alone at the sharp point, its neck stretched into the wind. One bird, fallen behind, strives to resume its place upon the wing. Their cries mellow and soften as they grow smaller over the water; I cannot see where they land. The loch resumes its silence, and the small birds’ songs become audible once again.

Soon I’m back by the A road, roaring with rush-hour lorries. I promise myself not to let them, or all angers of this cruel world, crush this glimpse of wonder out of my soul.  

Tomorrow, we will read the Ten Commandments, the account of God’s great revelation.

I’ve been privileged to have my own small moment at my personal Mount Sinai and, in my own way, I believe I’ve overheard God speaking.

Now the challenge is to keep listening, to stay faithful to that voice, in a world where people do murder, steal, dispossess, lie and commit subtle cruelties.

So I pray, for myself and for everyone: God, may the wonder and beauty of your world protect us, sustain us and guide us through these cruel and brutal times.

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