How our prayers may be answered this New Year

‘You stand, all of you, before the Sovereign your God,’ thus opens the Torah portion which we always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.

For what shall we pray as we stand before God on these Holy Days, the New Year, the Ten Days of Return and Yom Kippur? The world is faced by grave dangers: President Putin’s evil war, floods, droughts, a changing climate, turbulent politics and uncertain leadership. I don’t need to spell out the threats, it’s hard to bear even thinking about them.

We will surely ask God for peace and mercy, healing and plenty. Will God make it happen? Can God make it happen? For myself, I believe rather in the sacred presence of God within each of us and all creation than in some all-powerful being residing in heaven.

But these matters are mysteries, so we send forth our prayers in hope. May they ascend to the place of God’s mercy. May they descend to those spaces in our heart and conscience where the presence of God abides.

We can’t know what happens on high, but there are ways we can make certain that our prayers are answered below.

‘Prayer boomerangs,’ wrote the much-missed Rabbi Lionel Blue. We start by asking God to send us healing, then ask ourselves: what am I doing to bring more healing into the world? We pray for justice, and are motivated to campaign against injustice. We ask, in the words of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, for a year of beneficial rains and dew. Then we consider: what can I change and influence so that the earth remains fertile and people don’t suffer famine?

We misdirect our prayers if we only send them up to heaven and not down into our conscience and out into our actions every day.

There’s a spiritual as well as a moral dimension in which we can know that our prayers are worthwhile. ‘How can we be sure our prayers are effective on high?’ asked Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, subsequently know as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, before answering, ‘If they awaken in us the fear of God.’ ‘Fear’ has negative connotations, but that’s not what he intends. He’s referring to what he defines as ‘the fear, or awe, within love.’

What we love, we do not want to hurt. On the contrary, we do everything we possibly can to avoid causing those we love pain. The deeper the love, the more powerful the determination to inflict no harm and to prevent others from doing so. When we do cause hurt, we feel instinctively sorry: What have I done? How could I have spoken, how could I have behaved, that way?’

This ‘fear, or awe, within love’ comes from our core. We can experience it not just towards other people, but towards life itself. In the depths of our heart, do we really want to hurt any living creature? Would we not do everything we could to prevent their suffering? ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,’ declared Isaiah in some of the most beautiful words in the Hebrew Bible.

One of the first prayers we say is for the efficacy of prayer itself. Therefore, on this Rosh Hashanah and throughout the coming year, may the words we speak and the music and silence we share come before the presence of God which dwells in our heart and conscience, awakening us to deeper love and awe and motivating us to do what is just, good and kind ‘with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might.’

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah

The Queue to see the Queen

Yesterday I joined the chaplaincy to the miles-long queue of people waiting to pay tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll. It was a moving and humbling privilege.

Have you been queueing long?

‘Yes, but it’s worth it, isn’t it? I have to show my respect.

And you?

‘Not really. If she can serve her country for seventy years, I can stand for seven hours to say thank you.’

The Torah portion for this Shabbat begins with gratitude. While the temple still stood, the entire people was commanded to bring the first fruits of their land and present them in Jerusalem in acknowledgement of God’s blessings. (Deuteronomy 26: 1-11) The ritual was known as viddu’i bikkurim, the confession over the first fruits. It was entirely different from what’s happening in Westminster now. But there’s one thing in common: gratitude.

Can I ask you what’s brought you here?

‘I just want to say thank you.’

Did you meet the Queen?

‘Never. But I saw how she dedicated herself to this country.’

‘Yes, many times. I worked in the palace; we had artisans with every kind of skill to build a new section.’

I learnt nothing which everyone hasn’t heard many times. I answered more questions about whether you could take hand-sanitiser through security (lots) than about faith and God (none). One man asked me in distress whether he’d be allowed to change from his trainers into the shoes he’d brought specially for when he entered Her Majesty’s presence. It was somehow truly touching.

I gleaned no different explanations for why people were here than what we’ve all heard many times. (Except for the gentleman down on one knee with Parliament in the background who claimed he wasn’t taking a picture of his partner but was about to propose. No one around believed him.)

What was moving was not anything exceptional which was said, but the opposite: the plain respect for a life of dignity, humanity and service:

‘She was the mother of the nation.’

‘Grandmother.’

‘She was the gran I never had.’

In this often throw-away age of public posturing, an age deeply wounded by fear and insecurity, these virtues are still the rock and at heart we all know it: service, humanity, discipline, dignity, faith.

‘Have you come far?’

‘From Glasgow, overnight. I’ll be back on the bus tonight, but I’m here now.’

‘From New York.’ New York! You came specially? ‘Yes. I just had to.’

The respect with which everyone waited reminded me of the reverence with which our family watched the footage of the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill (Levi Eshkol, Israel’s Prime Minister, walked all the miles of the procession because it was Shabbat). My parents weren’t uncritical of British policy, as many are today of the Royal Family and the concept of monarchy. But they knew that without Churchill the war might not have been won and the country which had offered them liberty as they fled Nazi Germany might not have withstood invasion. Part of what took me to Westminster yesterday (and I’m heading back in a few minutes) is gratitude for a country where my family, and we as Jews, can live in safety. I noticed how many people of different cultures smiled at me as I stood in my ‘faith team’ high-vis with my kippah on my head.

People spoke warmly with one another as they advanced along the line. ‘So you’re family?’ I asked several times:

‘No. We just met in the queue. But we know everything about each other now. We’re going to remain in touch.

According to the Mishnah (2nd century) when people arrived in Jerusalem with their first fruits everyone went out to great them, saying ‘Peace be upon you, my brothers and sisters.’

A queue of tens of thousands of people of all faiths, ethnicities and ages united by respect and reverence is not a daily sight. This, too, is the Queen’s achievement, her legacy. If only it could spread across the world, and long endure.

A tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll

These are days not just of national mourning for Queen Elizabeth ll, but of a sorrow which touches us communally and personally.

The Queen has always been there. In an age of instability, she symbolised stability; in an age of insecurity, she represented safety. In an age which promotes me, my and self, she embodied public service. In an age marked by the weaknesses of leaders, she personified discipline and dignity. In an age which dissects and debunks public figures, the respect she commanded, despite many trials, remained undiminished.

Perhaps we hadn’t realised how precious such qualities are. There’s less in the world now of that decency and order which we had hoped we could take for granted. We feel, many of us, a heartache and anxiety which takes us by surprise.

The rabbis composed a special prayer to be said on seeing a king or queen: ‘Blessed be God who has given of the divine glory to flesh and blood.’ What is that ‘divine glory’ they asked. Observing the juxtaposition in Deuteronomy of ‘God is great and mighty’ and ‘God loves the stranger and refugee,’ they noted that where we find God’s greatness there too we find God’s humility. They taught that, in this regard especially, earthy sovereignty should mirror heavenly sovereignty.

Queen Elizabeth achieved just that, combining the dignity of the throne with humility of person. Based on her Christian faith and her understanding of the best traditions of British royalty, she saw the prerogatives of office as the means to service. That was her promise when she came to the throne, and she lived by it unstintingly throughout the seventy years of her reign.

She combined regal bearing with the ability to touch the heart. She visited Aberfan in the days following the disaster in 1966 when a sliding mountain of coal slag submerged the local school, killing over a hundred children and many teachers. She returned to the town several times, as Elaine Richards, a bereaved parent, remembered:

She promised me 44 years ago that she would open the school when it is built and she is here today. It is a very emotional day, I had to be coaxed to come here to remember the little ones who died.

The words of her broadcast in the lockdown Christmas of 2020, when she alluded to the wartime song which kept hope alive in the nation’s soul, were illumined on placards which normally carry only commercial adverts:

We will be with our friends again.
We will be with our families again.
We will meet again.

She cared. She was patron of over six hundred charities and personally involved in many of them. They reflected her commitment to humanity and nature, her concern for people everywhere, for rural life, for animals, especially horses and dogs, and for the earth.

She was a human being, a wife, mother, even great-grandmother. The picture of her alone in her black coat, black hat and black facemask, observing the rules of isolation at the funeral of her beloved Prince Philip, is the very image of personal grief.

Neither she, nor her life, nor certainly her family, was always easy or perfect. Maybe that too is what draws her to the heart. She was ‘the nation’s grandmother,’ and grandmothers, as everyone knows, are figures as much of affection as of authority.

In Judaism, the queen is the symbol of the Sabbath, shabbat hamalkah, representing the vision of a world at peace. Queen Elizabeth lived through many wars, serving when princess as an auto mechanic in the ATS. Yet she represented something higher, a country, commonwealth and globe drawn together, a harmony to which we yet aspire.

In these difficult days at the start of his reign, we wish King Charles lll and all the royal family comfort and strength.

Like his mother, he has shown deep respect not just for the church but for all faiths. As Jews, we are fortunate to live in a country whose sovereign has visited our synagogues and shared in our prayers.

We hope his reign will be marked by the achievement across the country and the world of those values he has so often articulated: harmony with nature and across humanity.

We join with people of all faiths and none across the nation and the world in sorrow at the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth ll, and in gratitude for her life.

Make the world better step by step; don’t be overwhelmed

In a couple of hours I hope I’m going to ask him, ‘How do you keep up hope?’ I’m referring to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whom I have the privilege of interviewing over Zoom later this morning about his remarkable book Seven Ways To Change The World.

I asked his office to arrange this opportunity before the High Holydays as we badly need messages of positivity and empowerment. Our key Rosh Hashanah theme this year is making the world better. The world desperately needs it, and we need it too. We have to feel that there is something we can do, something we must do, so that we maintain our sense of direction and purpose, our tikvah, our hope and our determination. That is the essence of practical teshuvah.

I will ask Gordon Brown what specific contributions faith communities can make. Should he say, ‘Aren’t you a faith leader, what do you think?’ I’ll reply with some of the actions, big and small, taken by so many in our congregation and beyond, since that’s what keeps me determined and inspired.

We’re in the Torah week of ‘tsedek tsedek tirdof, justice, justice shall you pursue.’ (Deuteronomy 16:20) The rabbis had a principle of zero unemployment; God, they assumed, would surely never allow one single word in the holy Torah to be redundant. So why this repetition of tzedek, justice? It comes once to teach you to resolve potential conflicts calmly and fairly, like who should go first in a one-way shipping lane, and once for when you really need to resort to the courts,’ suggests the Talmud. (Sanhedrin 32b) ‘Once for legal justice, once for social justice,’ I’ve heard it said, or ‘Once for educational, once for ecological justice.’

A wonderful aspects of Torah interpretation is that the words strike us differently every year. So here’s what they’re saying to me today: The first tzedek teaches us the centrality of justice. The immense injustices in our world and the sufferings they cause millions of people, especially children, make the need for justice overwhelming. Hence the second tsedek: don’t let the big picture make you feel there’s nothing you can do. Contribute what you can; make one situation, one person’s life, fairer and better.

Yesterday I heard Clare Balding’s appeal for the people of Pakistan on behalf of the DEC. Over thirty million people affected, she said, outlining the scale of the flooding. Then she continued: if you can give ten pounds, that’s blankets, fifty pounds, that’s food for a family for a month. She left her listeners feeling that we can make a difference. World Jewish Relief has also appealed.

Tsedek, justice, and chesed, loving kindness, are Judaism’s supreme and universal values. They light the path forward for all humankind. They stand at the forefront of our values; they must guide our minds, hearts and deeds. That’s the first tzedek.

Then we need to break them down into what we can do, each according to our gifts and opportunities, every day. I’ve never forgotten what Sandra, the late and much missed Leslie Lyndon’s wonderful sister, said to me one day: ‘When I feel low, I go and give blood. I won’t have a day contributing nothing.’

In the meantime, I’ve had that Zoom interview. Hope, said Gordon Brown, is having the dream, like Martin Luther King, then step by step making the impossible possible. It’s large numbers of people doing what they can, day in, day out, with commitment and determination, and it begins with faith communities.

Elul and the shofar’s call to love and truth

Sunday will bring the new moon of Elul, the month of preparation before the New Year. Playing with the Hebrew letters, as the rabbis often liked to do, they saw in the name Elul an acronym for Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li, ‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.’

Elul is the month of relationships, of drawing close to our inner self, each other, the world and God. It is the month of teshuvah, return.

This is both a simple and a complex, an easy and a difficult, journey. The simplicity is that it’s motivated by love: I want to be the person I most deeply am, to feel near to the people I care about, to be true to my essential values, to be considerate, compassionate, generous and attentive to the world. I don’t want to live from the weary, distracted periphery of myself, but from the centre of my being.

Therefore, Elul is the month of wakefulness. ‘Come awake,’ it calls to us. Life is full of opportunity: there is good in the world that needs to be done; there is beauty in the world which we have to nurture and cherish.

Elul is like the knocking on the door in the middle of the night in The Song of Songs. When she hears it, the beloved says, ‘I am asleep but my heart is awake.’ Somewhere inside us our heart, too, is awake, waiting for us to shake off our weariness and follow what is loving and kind. That knocking on the door, the rabbis say, is God calling out to us.

But the journey is also difficult. In returning to our relationships with ourselves, each other and the world, we also have to confront what we, and others, have done wrong. Therefore, Teshuvah, though ultimately motivated by love, is also about rigorous integrity and truth.

The awareness that the world is full of injury is, today, inescapable. Some hurts are personal; there are very few close relationships in which we don’t on occasion misunderstand each other, lose patience, get angry and behave selfishly. These are matters for our private conscience; apology and the determination to do better are an essential part of teshuvah.

But other sores are public and concern us all as part of society and the human community: the searing inequalities which leave many with daily decision about which meal to forgo in order to feed the children; the damage we’ve done and continue to do to nature and the hurts we inflict on the fellow creatures with whom we share our planet; the obscene cruelties of war; the unthinkable injustices of suffering. Facing these realities, social, economic and environmental, must also be part of our collective teshuvah.

Therefore, we need to summon the powers of not only of love but also of truth to guide us on our journey. To many these are both expressed in the cry of the shofar, which we blow every morning during Elul. Though, as he acknowledges, its resonance penetrates deeper than language, Maimonides puts words to the shofar’s call:

Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep and you slumberers from your slumber. Remember your creator, you who forget the truth in the vanities of time.

I believe the shofar expresses joy, the wonder of the natural world, the appeal to its mysteries and depths, the awe with which it humbles us. But at the same time it is also the raw, un-honed, unvarnished demand for truth: Who are you? What are you? What are you doing with your life and with the world?

To these realities and opportunities the month of Elul summons us.

Looking beyond destruction to healing and rebuilding

My mood is summed up in a scene from fifteen years ago, when we were in the far north of Israel at the Hullah nature reserve. Before or since, I’ve never seen so many amazing birds. A tall, strong man was holding in his hands the tiniest of feathered creatures and putting a ring round its leg with deft gentleness. This would help ornithologists understand the bird’s flightpath and do more to protect the dangerous route of its annual migration.

So many people in today’s world hold onto power so hard that the harshness travels down their veins and ends up hardening their heart. If only we could treat life with that gentle dexterity yet firmness of purpose, with that dedication to healing and nurture, which that tall man epitomised all those years ago.

That’s why my heart is set on next Sunday afternoon and the weeks and Sabbaths which follow. I realise this shouldn’t be so. First comes this next Shabbat tomorrow, Shabbat Chazon, with Isaiah’s dire vision of the decadence and moral decay of Jerusalem. Then follows the night of the bleak fast of Tisha B’Av, recalling the destruction of the city. Sunday morning brings the liturgy of banishment, from England, France and Spain, and the bitter elegies after the destruction of the Jewish communities of the Rhineland by the Crusaders.

But my spirit is focussed on what comes after devastation, on what lies deeper than destruction: the longing to comfort, protect and recreate. For on Sunday afternoon, even in the middle of the fast day, the mood changes: the hour of consolation begins. ‘Nacheim, Comfort Jerusalem,’ we will pray. ‘Nachamau, nachamu ammi, Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,’ we will chant on Shabbat week.

The story is well known of how, when Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues secretly visited the Temple Mount, a desolate zone declared out of bounds by the Romans, they all tore their garments in sorrow. Seeing a fox emerge from the ruins, his companions wept, but Rabbi Akiva laughed. Jeremiah foretold that foxes would wander the ruins of Jerusalem, he explained to his companions, bewildered by his inappropriate reaction. If his prophecy of destruction has been fulfilled, then surely the many prophecies of rebuilding must one day prove equally true. (Talmud Makkot 24b)

‘Comfort ye, comfort ye’ we’ll sing, but it’s not just words of comfort which the world urgently needs. We need actions which bring consolation, which make the healing real.

I wept when England won the Women’s Euro 2022, not because I wanted Germany to lose (I felt for their players) but because it was an amazing achievement, because it was women who made it happen, but above all because it lifted everyone’s spirits, mine included, and the country desperately needed that cheer.

But it’s not just what makes the big screen; it’s the millions of deeds which, if they get recorded at all, appear on the small screens of local what’s app groups. It’s people taking provisions to their local food banks; I saw the queues there yesterday, all ages from children to old men needing crutches. I’ll be out there when the rain finally comes and we can replant the trees which didn’t make it through this burning summer drought. When a leader comes who truly promotes greater social justice, I’ll be listening.

It’s not good enough today to say ‘Comfort ye.’ We need to turn the words inside out, as the rabbis always have, and say: ‘Ye – that is you and me – have to make that comfort happen.’ God’s part is to inspire us, guide us and give us the imagination, determination and courage to bring healing to the world.

Where the Messiah is

I know so many people whose lives are driven by the question ‘How can I make the world better?’ They do such different things, they’re teachers, healers, musicians, listeners, bread-bakers; basically they’re truly human beings. They’re driven by the supreme value, chesed, loving-kindness. I only wish they were the ones making the big decisions about the world’s future.

Maybe that’s why I’m drawn over and again to the Talmud’s mysterious vignette about the coming of the Messiah:

‘When will the Messiah come?’ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asks Elijah in one of their many fleeting encounters.

‘Ask him yourself!’ replies the prophet unhelpfully.

‘But where will I find him?’ the rabbi persists.

‘Among the poor and sick at the gates of the great city (Rome, the capital of empire).’

‘And how am I to know which one of those it is?’

‘All the others will be busy taking off their bandages and putting them back on. The one you’re after will take off just one bandage and put it back on quickly thinking “maybe I am needed.”’

I admire people who don’t just bemoan the world’s ills but look at the wounds and say maybe I’m needed to help make things better.

Today is the new moon of the month of Av, the first half of which culminates in Tisha B’Av, the bleak fast of the Ninth, commemorating the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem. But the day is also in a small way a festival because, according to tradition, it’s when the Messiah is born. Out of destruction comes hope, out of anguish the commitment to heal.

The nine days before Tisha B’Av are characterised by a lot of don’t do’s: one conducts less business transactions; one doesn’t build for cheerful reasons like making a wedding canopy for one’s children or creating anything beautiful or grand; one doesn’t plant pleasure gardens with shaded walks for royals to relax…(Orach Chaim 551:2, Joseph Caro’s 16th century code of law).

But, the rule continues, ‘if your wall looks like falling you’re allowed to rebuild it.’ In other words, we stop trying to make fun new things and concentrate on repairing what’s broken in the world.

Everyday I read reports about people who do just that, who reach remote villages unserved by roads and bring vaccines; who teach healthcare to local women who become regional nurses for hundreds of square miles; who advise on animal welfare to families dependent on the labour of their donkey. I learn about children born in virtual destitution who become impassioned visionaries transforming the lives of their communities and role-models for the wealthier world, showing them what can and should be done. It’s humbling and greatly motivating.

Returning to the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi travels magically back from the great city to resume his dialogue with Elijah:

‘Did you find him?’

‘Yes.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He promised to come this very day, but he’s failed to show up!’

‘You’ve misunderstood,’ Elijah explains. ‘What he actually said was: “This very day if you listen to God’s voice.”’

I don’t believe in one single personal messiah who’ll save the whole world. But I do firmly believe that there’s a portion of the messiah within each of us, challenging us with the question ‘Maybe you’re needed?’ There’s only one answer, ‘Yes, this very day!’

Every one of us is needed. Across the world lots of walls look like falling and we’re all required to help rebuild them.

Longing for the sound of raindrops!

A thing I love is the sound of running water, not always or everywhere, not like our first night in our new house twenty years ago when our daughter woke us calling ‘Mummy, mummy, it’s raining in my bed,’ and we found a torrent from a leaked pipe streaming down the walls. But I love the sound of rainfall at the close of a summer day and the songs of small streams that calm the mind as if they flowed through the soul.

Therefore, I’m frightened by these droughts. As we say in the great annual prayer for rain, ‘Our life-spirit longs for water.’ The authors of the Bible knew the seasons and the soil; they understood the need for rain- and dew-fall in their proper times. They saw them as God’s reward, and the withholding of them as God’s punishment for our sins. The rabbis of the Mishnah (1st and 2nd centuries) instituted a series of up to thirteen fasts to petition God to pardon us and send us rain. That theology, too blunt, even unjust, in its raw form, nevertheless calls out to be revisited. What have we done to this earth, and what atonement, what reparation can we effect?

I woke in the middle of the night hoping to hear the beautiful sound of raindrops. Not one. I went down to my study to pray for rain. There’s a special blessing for the fertility of the land in every daily prayer, to which one adds the words ‘grant dew and rain’ from late autumn to early spring, stopping at Passover after which rainfall can be damaging to the crops. These prayers reflect the seasonal needs of Israel and Babylon, where most Jews lived after the wars with Rome.

But what about other parts of the world, Sefarad and Ashkenaz, Spain and Central Europe? What if rain is desperately needed there in the summer? Ask for it in shome’a tefilah when we bless for listening to our prayers, rules the Shulchan Aruch. Our custom, comments Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838 – 1933) is to recite verses about rainfall, and, on Sabbaths and Festivals, to chant the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy and relevant Psalms. Eastern Europe where he lived evidently suffered all too often the ravages of drought.

The Psalms are full of the love of water, for God ‘whose voice is upon the waters,’ who fashions ‘springs and deep pools,’ who ‘leads me the quiet waters by,’ and for whom we yearn ‘as the deer longs for streams of water.’

I received an emergency message before the burning heat of last Monday and Tuesday: ‘Humans can turn on taps, but what about the animals? Do what you can for them!’ So I duly went out at night with an easy-to-drink-from bowl and left it full of water beneath a tree on the Heath Extension with a sign: ‘For the animals, wild and pets: please leave – and refill if you can.’ Who knows what passers-by may have thought?

But it’s not true that people everywhere can simply turn on taps. Thirst is a cruel way to suffer. Access to clean water is the most basic of all necessities, so thank goodness for organisations like Water Aid.

Even in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ it’s not a given fact that we can always turn on the shower. We can do so only if there’s water in the pipes, if our reservoirs, lakes and rivers don’t run dry, and for that we’re dependent on the heavens.

That’s why the rabbis of the Talmud understood rainfall as one of three hidden treasures to which only God has the key: the mystery of birth, the secret of what happens after death, and ‘the mighty act of sending rain.’

May God bless this earth for all who live on it.

Remembering destruction in order to love creation more

The other morning Babushka – we all call her that though her actual name is Galina – came down crying. I didn’t need Russian to know she was telling me her home town of Kharkiv had been bombed that night.

Tomorrow is the 17th of Tammuz, the fast which begins the three weeks of beyn hametsarim, ‘between the troubles,’ culminating in the 25-hour fast of Tishah B’Av, the Ninth of Av. (Because it’s Shabbat, the fast is deferred to Sunday).

The 17th Tammuz commemorates the breech in the walls of Jerusalem; Tishah B’Av marks the sacking of the city and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and again by the Romans in 70 CE. Into this bleak period are added memorials to the crusades, blood libels, expulsions, persecutions and executions from which Jewish communities have suffered through two millennia.

Sometimes I struggle to comprehend why, when there’s so much destructiveness in today’s world, we need a special period of time to think about it. It feels enough just to listen to the news.

Part of the answer is that we must remember our history, the wars and struggles faced by our ancestors. This reminds us that, despite all our concerns, we live in fortunate times and privileged parts of the world. Probably never in history have so many of us had so much freedom.

But behind this lies a deeper reason. Recalling the horrors people have suffered makes us value the most basic things, life, safety, shelter, food, what it means to be able to walk in the street without fear for our lives. It teaches us to protect these freedoms, to oppose destructiveness in any and all of its manifestations and to place ourselves on the side of creation, proactively, determinedly and always.

Before I write one word more, I have to admit that sometimes during prayers what I really want to do is cover my face and weep before God. What’s being done to this beautiful world in which life is such a blessing is sometimes so wicked, often so careless, and more often still the undesired but nevertheless clear consequence of the way we live, that my heart aches, my head hurts and I have to swallow down despair.

But that is not the way.

Tomorrow’s Torah tells how Balaam, the hapless seer whose ass could out-see him, nevertheless managed, with some assistance from heaven, to turn his curses into blessings. That’s the challenge: whether the stresses and dangers which threaten our world can draw out of us the creativity and determination to find new ways of blessing.

Ma’alin bakodesh, teaches the Talmud: in matters of holiness we go not down, but up. I take this to mean that we must always be on the side of life to cherish it and appreciate its holiness. I see people doing just that all around me, and that’s what keeps me going.

Here’s an unexpected example: owls. ‘Small bird, large impact’ runs the headline in the Jerusalem Post. Instead of spreading toxic poisons to kill off crop-destroying rodents, across Israel farmers are now placing nesting boxes. The barn owls arrive and feast off the rats and voles, restoring nature’s balance chemical free. But it’s not just about animals; the scheme has brought co-operation between Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and beyond.

Here’s a different, humans-only example. I wish I could speak to those people in Birmingham I mentioned weeks back, who created the ‘pay as you feel’ cafes from food rescued from being wasted, supplemented from community allotments, cooked by chefs who think menus on their feet and catering for many who’d otherwise have little to eat.

In Rebbe Nachman’s great tale The Seven Beggars, my favourite is the figure who goes around daily collecting deeds of kindness to give to the world’s heart so that it can sing to the spring which gives life to the world for one further day.

Choosing a new leader – what Moses might say to the 1922 committee

In these days of crisis, surprisingly enough I find myself asking what Judaism has to say about the characteristics needed for national leadership. Admittedly there’s a difference between being appointed by God and being elected by whatever procedures the 1922 committee may determine. Nevertheless, it’s instructive to see what qualities the rabbis understood God to be looking for.

The founding leader of the Jewish people is Abraham. Why him, asks Nachmanides, before answering: because he will leave a legacy of tzedakah umishpat, of social and moral justice.

But the leader par excellence is Moses. What a terrible loss that the Torah tells us so little about the women who must also have led the Jewish People.

It’s interesting to consider both the start and the end of Moses’ career. It apparently begins when ‘God sees that he turned aside to see’ the marvel of the burning bush, where God tasks him with the mission impossible of freeing his people from slavery and, in a way which only God can, refuses to take no for an answer.

But this is not how a poignant midrash understand the matter; it’s something else, something earlier, which God has observed Moses ‘turning aside to see.’

A privileged young man brought up in the Oxbridge bastion of Pharaoh’s palace, Moses ‘goes out to his brothers and sees their burdens.’ More exactly translated, ‘he sees with their burdens.’ He feels for the people. As Rashi comments, he witnesses the heaviest burdens placed with deliberate cruelty on the weakest. The experience changes his life. It’s that which God ‘sees Moses see.’ It’s this empathy which makes God decide that Moses is a leader.

When the end of his career approaches, Moses cries out to heaven: ‘God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the community…’ Why, Rashi asks, does Moses address God in this manner, with words used virtually nowhere else in the Torah:

Master of the world, Moses says, you know the temperaments of each and every person, how different they are from one another. Appoint a leader who will bear with each of them according to their views.

One senses the bitter experience which underlies those words. Moses asks God to find a successor capable of showing compassionate understanding for the troubles and feelings of each unique individual. I’m reminded of Archbishop Rowan Williams’ words that his successor will need ‘the hide of a rhinoceros and the strength of an ox.’

As if that’s not challenge enough, Moses continues to describe the attributes of this putative figure ‘who will go out before the [people], and come in before them; who will take them out and who will bring them in.’ His ideal person must be able to guide both from the front and the middle, have sufficient courage to be out there ahead yet enough empathy to stand in solidarity and listen.

It’s not just a tall order; it’s impossible. It’s scarcely surprising the Bible is full of leaders who don’t make the grade.

Moses himself isn’t perfect; he can be rash, gets frustrated, loses his temper, and, arguably, makes strategic leadership errors. But he’s humble, he listens, he has no tolerance for injustice, he’s prepared to put himself on the line and he’s devoted to service.

While hoping against hope for national and international leaders who possess these qualities, it’s important not to forget a question closer to home: with what values and commitments am I leading my own life?

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