Between horror and wonder, silence and song

I love this pre-dawn, pre-rush quiet. I think it’s what Isabel Allende called her ‘witching hour.’ Spirits talk to us from worlds beyond, or maybe they’re really worlds within, our subconscious and soul. Perhaps they always speak, but in this calm it’s easier to hear. Then the roads and emails wake up, and the spirits retreat to hiding places down inside the heart.

This morning I wake with conflicting voices. Until midnight Nicky and I watched America and the Holocaust. It’s outstanding, horrifying, honest, brutal, clear. Superimposed on the pleading letters ‘Let my children in,’ I saw my own family’s handwriting: Trude, deported to Ostrow-Lubelski, setting down desperately ‘Tell them we’re still alive.’ Cruelties unthinkable; wrongs unhealable! I feel cold to the depths of my soul.

Yet something inside me still sings and won’t stop, sings from a very different world. For yesterday, too, I interviewed nature-lover, author and passionate campaigner George Monbiot. ‘I’ve felt more alive ever since,’ he wrote of his experiences in the Amazon. ‘What trees do you like most?’ I asked him. ‘Dead ones,’ he replied, enjoying my surprise. ‘Because they’re not really dead but sustain countless creatures, beetles, birds, small mammals, the seeds of innumerable new lives.’

Here we are, two thirds of the way across the calendar from Holocaust Memorial Day to Tu Bishevat, the New Year of the Trees, which begins this Sunday night. Half my heart is numb; half of it sings.

I sing because I love this world, people, animals, trees, the wren that sat on my windowsill, tiniest of birds, before recommencing its amazingly loud round of songs; the mini-flock of long-tailed tits that chattered around the feeder like congregants at Kiddush; the snowdrops, though I’m no expert on the two hundred varieties as Nicky is; the winter jasmine, wintersweet, mahonia, which reserve their fragrances and flowers for February. How wondrous this world is!

‘What do you need to replenish your spirit?’ I asked a person in mourning earlier this week. ‘I walk for an hour in the woods every day. The trees restore my soul.’

‘The fundamental reason all beings are created,’ wrote Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira

‘is so that they should sing, for in this way they reveal the greatness of God. Every single created being sings… Each and every being reveals a spark of the glory of the God of blessings.’

With a courage, devotion and discipline which are utterly beyond my capacity to imagine, he did not allow even the Nazis and the Warsaw Ghetto to silence his spirit’s song.

The songs of which he wrote are not just melodies of prayer, in heart language; they are no less songs of action, of chesed, deeds of kindness, justice, humanity and defiance. We must not fail to turn our love of the world into action, George Monbiot said to me. We need to sing and help the world sing, in word and deed.

Tomorrow is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. ‘So that my soul shall sing of you and not be silent,’ wrote the Psalmist. Only a person who understands the power of silence could write such words, its deep gravitational draw: How can I speak at all, when cruelty and horror destroy our world? Only a person who loves life could have composed them: How can I be silent when such beauty, tenderness and hope call out to my spirit to sing? ‘Oh God, I give thanks to you!’ (Psalm 30:13)

For Holocaust Memorial Day: being ‘ordinary people’

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, established to correspond with the date when the first units of the Red Army reached Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945. The horrors are unspeakable; many, including the second generation, feel more shocked, bewildered and bereft year by year. We live as Jews in solidarity with our own people and with victims everywhere.

This year’s theme is ‘Ordinary People.’ As the home page of the HMD website says:

Ordinary people turn a blind eye, believe propaganda, join murderous regimes. And those who are persecuted, oppressed and murdered in genocide aren’t persecuted because of crimes they’ve committed – they are persecuted simply because they are ordinary people who belong to a particular group (eg, Roma, Jewish community, Tutsi).

I don’t think the Bible has such concept as ‘ordinary people’. A ben adam, a human being, is, without exception, made in God’s image. The Mishnah (c. 200CE) elaborates: every person is yechidi, createdunique. I’ve stood by the broken concrete at Birkenau and wondered: who did each of these people love, for whom did they long, as they were forced toward those chambers?

Yet the words ‘ordinary people’ ring true. We are all other people’s ‘ordinary people’. In an excellent talk, Dr John Launer noted how so many ‘ordinary’ individuals allowed the Nazis to come to power. Then, speaking of bystanders in general, he said with brave frankness that the older he gets the less he feels like the judge, and the more he feels among the judged.

The Torah forbids us to be bystanders: ‘Don’t stand idly by your fellow human’s blood.’ (Vayikra 19:16) ‘If you know that someone intends to threaten another person’s life, you have to speak out,’ explained Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1816 – 1893), head of the Volozhyn Yeshivah destroyed half a century later by the Nazis.

This is incomparably easier said than done. It leaves the discomforting question: whose bystander, whose ‘ordinary person’, am I?

Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, was famed as a Torah educator. Who am I? he asked, before answering: I am those aspects of my potential self which my experiences have drawn out of me. That’s why it’s essential to live in environments which bring out the best and deepest within us.

He reminds me of when I was a guest of the church in Germany the 1990s. ‘Had the visit left me angry?’ I was asked on my return. In truth, something quite different had gripped me: relief that I lived in a country whose laws prevented me from doing the worst of which I might prove capable. How would I have behaved had I been an ‘ordinary’ Aryan under Nazi rule? How could I be sure? The consciences of so many people were so deeply infiltrated by the vicious yet alluring discourse around them that they failed to perceive they were doing evil.

But today? I’m less confident our society and world is helping prevent the worst in us.

I stress one hundredfold that there is no comparison with Nazi or other such evil regimes. But I fear the atrophy of conscience. Are we supposed to accept homelessness in our streets, the drowning of refugees in the Channel, the indefinite detention of asylum seekers, or mass food insecurity? What’s being done in the name of my own good country? What racism do some utter, profaning the name and true values of my beloved Judaism?

The Torah speaks not of ‘ordinary’ but of ‘holy people’, anshei kodesh. They aren’t priests or anyone special, but you and me. Anshei, from anoosh, indicates open-heartedness, empathy, humility. Holiness means being truly deeply human.

We can’t help sometimes being bystanders. There’s simply too much wrong. But we must never become inured to it, let alone make it worse. We must seek the courage to be, at least sometimes, not just ‘ordinary’ but ordinary holy people.

A very precious prayer book

I’m sad about the fact that my little Siddur, my small prayerbook, is beginning to fall apart. When I say small, I really mean it: it’s about four inches high, three inches wide and one inch thick, with eight hundred and ninety extremely thin pages. More than once I’ve had to tape the covers back on, but the book is precious to me and I shall continue to do my best to repair it.

It’s not my first miniature Siddur. I had one decades back, but left it behind one day after a service and never found again. I don’t know if it was passed down to me by my grandfather or my father, but I lost something of the spirit of my ancestors that day and still blame myself for being so careless.

When I went into a pious bookshop in Jerusalem and saw an equally tiny daily Siddur I bought it on impulse, never thinking I’d love it as much as its precursor. I was wrong. Especially since lockdown it has been my faithful companion. It’s not, of course, my God, that would be blasphemous. But it’s one of my pathways, if not to God, at least to my own spirit, which belongs to God. Its pages are my refuge and in the shelter of their words I find my restoration.

This is mental health Shabbat, and I need that Siddur for my mind’s health. One’s own consciousness can be a lonely, wretched, cruel and persecuting place. Years ago when I was teaching at an infant school, I had a cold and was dithering between going in and returning to bed. A guest of my mother, like her a psychotherapist, took one look at me and said, ‘You’re wondering if you can face a day with yourself at home.’ It was such an astute observation that I can still see her saying those words, forty years later.

Like most of us, I’m not mentally or spiritually sufficient unto myself. I need my prayer life, with my community, at home by the family photographs, or out among the trees at night, or with the dog, or in that atmosphere of collective compassion I experience among the care staff of hospices and hospitals. Perhaps prayer makes it sound too formal; it’s spiritual companionship, a silent, deep and generous companionship.

Something I especially love about my siddur are the pious instructions and mystical extras, many of which to this day I’ve not yet read. For example, I found in the small print preceding the morning service, ‘It is my intention for the sake of God from now until this time tomorrow to direct all my actions, words and thoughts, towards doing what is good for my own, my people’s and the whole world’s sake.’ This was closely followed by the declaration, ‘I take upon myself the positive commandment ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

After the main prayers, the Siddur reverts to the same miniscule font to record the personal supplications of Talmudic rabbis, such as Rabbi Elazar’s petition, ‘God, make our town a place of love, fellowship, peace and solidarity,’ or Rabbi Alexandri’s meditation, ‘May our hearts not become depressed or our eyes darkened.’

I realise as I write that it’s not just the prayerbook but this kind of Judaism which I love. Rooted in the depths of the soul, which is God’s place within us, it reaches out into community and the public square to bring God’s presence there too, an encompassing, just, caring and healing presence in which each person and all life is made welcome.

A passion for God and social justice: on the 50th Yahrzeit of AJ Heschel

It’s strangely fitting that we should be marking the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Abraham Joshua Heschel just as we begin the Book of Exodus. He died in the night of 23 December 1972, the Hebrew calendar equivalent of which, 18 Tevet, fell this last Wednesday.

Heschel, like his namesake Abraham, like Moses, understood the spiritual call to fight against slavery, degradation and human misery. To him, as to them, relationship with God meant, simultaneously and ineluctably, an impassioned relationship to social justice. That was the essence of the ‘mutual allegiance’ between God and humanity.

People said of Heschel, as if in surprise, that he had intense kavvanah, inwardness, yet a burning engagement against the wrongs of his time. That’s incorrect, wrote his student Rabbi Arthur Waskow: don’t say yet, say therefore. To Heschel the light of the spirit and the flame of conscience came from one and the same fire, just as the burning bush was at once a spiritual and a moral summons to Moses.

In lines I find intensely moving, Heschel wrote in an essay on his involvement with the peace movement that what compelled him to engage was ‘the discovery that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself:’

There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.

The wrongs Heschel protested included the annihilation of European Jewry, the persecution of Soviet Jews, racial injustice in America and the Vietnam War. All too often he was left to feel a lonely voice, unheard by those religious and political leaders he sought to stir to action. In the end, wrote another of his disciples, Byron Sherwin, ‘His conscience remained resolute, his integrity remained intact, but his heart could not survive the onslaught.’

Heschel’s activism was founded on a knowledge of Judaism as inward and integrated as the blood in his arteries. His spirituality was rooted in the intense Hasidic world of piety and learning in which, from well before his teens, he was studying Talmud and rabbinic writings, sometimes eighteen or twenty hours a day. His ‘spiritually-rooted politics’ (Arthur Waskow) were shaped by Hasidic piety and commitment to community, and by the fervent passion for justice of the prophets of Israel, to which he devoted many years of study.

It was this knowledge and passion which made him, a not very successful and little appreciated lecturer, a national moral figure in America recognised first by Christian and subsequently by Jewish leaders:

Rabbi Heschel was a person with whom we could pray. His prayer moved him to action, action for a better world…His commitment to social justice was our commitment to social justice. (Gary Michael Banks: Rabbi Heschel Through Christian Eyes)

Banks is correct about Heschel’s radical, yet deeply traditional, understanding of prayer:

Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement.’ (On Prayer)

This was what famously led Heschel to say on returning from marching alongside Reverend Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, ‘I felt as if my legs were praying.’

Abraham Joshua Heschel is a religious leader of inestimable importance for our time, whether we live in the UK, Israel, or elsewhere. We urgently need a spirituality which summons us to fight for justice and human dignity for everyone, and a passion for justice and human dignity inspired and emboldened by our spirituality.

Israel’s new government and the Judaism we must struggle for

I’m never sure if it’s the Jewish thing to say ‘Happy New Year’ on January the first, or whether this greeting should be reserved strictly for Rosh Hashanah. But there’s certainly nothing wrong with the words and I’ve spoken them dozens of times already this 2023.

Only, I’ve been struggling with what ‘happy’ means in the context of today’s world. The definition I’ve come up with for myself is that this should be a year of striving to live faithfully by my deepest values as a Jew, a human being, and as privileged, albeit briefly, to belong to this breathing, vital, interconnected world of nature.

The challenges are overwhelming. In this time of shortages, one thing we aren’t short of is causes for which to fight. Whether it’s supporting our beleaguered health services, creating innovative social projects to alleviate hunger and loneliness, finding homes and work for refugees and displaced persons, or protecting nature in that slow, patient work of planting hedgerows and monitoring the numbers of newts and frogs, I’m constantly moved by the good so many people do. Across the world there are countless individuals and groups whose hearts and conscience are astutely awake, and who find the courage, creativity and commitment to act accordingly. They are my goad, my hope, and my unfailing source of inspiration.

But this week colleague after colleague and article after article has focussed on Israel’s new government. The Rabbinical Assembly, to which I and most Masorti rabbis across Europe belong, issued a powerful statement in response to Justice Minister Yariv Levin proposed changes to limit severely the powers of Israel’s High Court and make the judiciary a political appointment:

It is excruciating to see this government directly undermine the core values of democracy and religious freedom that we value so deeply…The integrity of the State of Israel and the well-being of the entire Jewish people hang in the balance.

Thinking also of the racism, homophobia, xenophobia and potential violence incited my key ministers in the government, my friend and teacher Rabbi Arthur Green, a true lover of Israel, sent an open letter. After acknowledging that the causes lie deep and include the long Jewish experience of being hated and persecuted, he wrote of certain racist members of the Knesset:

The damage these people threaten is not only to the State of Israel and its democratic institutions, but to Judaism itself and its place as one of the world’s great spiritual traditions. We are engaged today in a great struggle for the soul of Judaism. Those who read it in an exclusivist and xenophobic way have taken center stage… But this is about a legacy that we all share, one in which we take great pride. Do we really want to give it away to the racists among us?

This is no time, he stresses, for retreat.

What, then, is the Judaism for which I believe we should struggle? Any proper answer is inevitably complex, and that’s part of the point: it is a Judaism whose core is the Torah, the Prophets of Israel and the Hebrew Bible; whose teachings have been pondered, prayed, and argued over word by word through the extraordinary works of the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Responsa and the entire two-and-a-part millennia of rabbinic culture; whose values have been forged in the crucibles of exile, persecution, marginalisation and martyrdom, but also challenged and enriched by other faiths, and by the arts, science, and political cultures of enlightened humanism and universalism. It is Judaism which has, throughout and despite these trials of history, preserved and deepened the search for God and for the sacred in every human being and every living thing. It is a Judaism which fights for justice against tyranny, compassion against cruelty, and human dignity against all forms of bigotry and contempt. It is a Judaism which, while contributing to and learning from the rest of the world, has maintained its spiritual, legal-halakhic, ethical and communal disciplines, cultures and integrity.

The happiness in ‘happy new year’ to which I aspire lies in trying to live by and struggle for these values.

Where God’s light shines

This Chanukkah I feel I’ve witnessed two moving examples of God’s presence in the world, and two more, by inference, which I’d rather not have seen.

Why ‘God’s presence in the world’? Because of a question the Talmud asks about the Menorah: ‘Does God really need its light?’ Isn’t it rather the other way round, that we need God’s light, not God ours?

The Talmud answers that the Menorah isn’t there to provide God with a torch, but to symbolise how God’s light illumines the world. The lamps of the Menorah ‘are testament that God’s presence dwells in Israel’ and throughout creation.

The first example of God’s light was very public, when the Mayor of London, Sadiq Kahn, celebrated Chanukkah in Trafalgar Square. London is the greatest city in the world, he declared, as he always loves to say. That’s because it’s a place where a Muslim mayor can light the Chanukkah candles with a rabbi next to a huge Christmas tree in its most famous square.

How often in human history, I wonder, has such togetherness been possible? To me, it exemplifies what the Torah means when it teaches that every person, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, gender, or any of the many features which so often divide us, is created equal in God’s image.

The second example was very private. I was welcomed into a residential care home to say the Chanukkah blessings. But it was a different light from that of the candles which caught my attention. I watched the staff; I witnessed their kindness, sensitivity and patience. It’s not easy to provide constant, intimate care to vulnerable people who’ve often lost so much of their stature and independence in the closing phases of their lives. The staff’s conduct made me think of the Kabbalistic quality of gevurah shebachesed, strength within loving kindness, that challenging balance of resilient compassion which requires so much attentiveness, gentleness and restraint. If God’s presence is anywhere in this world, it’s with people like these carers.

Sadly, there are two further examples I’d rather not have witnessed. Were they of God’s presence, or God’s absence? I’m not sure.

The first was the long queue at a nearby food bank. Yes, the bank shows that there exists deep compassion within our society, a determined protest against want, and against the harshness and injustice which causes it, and which leaves so many people unable to provide food and warmth for their families. But it would be incomparably better if such testament were not so desperately needed by so many.

The second was the news that girls have been denied access to serious education in Afghanistan. I know people this will affect, through the knowledge that the suffering their families and friends are enduring is now even greater. To me, this gross cruelty testifies precisely through what it negates: it highlights the truth that God’s presence shines equally in the minds and hearts of men and women, and that it’s deeply wrong, a devastating desecration, to attempt to limit that light.

So the Talmud’s answer makes every sense to me: Yes, God’s light shines across the world.

But how often it is obscured!

That leads me to challenge the rhetorical nature of the Talmud’s original question about God needing the Menorah’s light. The anticipated answers is, of course, ‘No!’.

But down here, in this complex world where the sacred is so often obfuscated by conflict, cruelty and self-interest, God does need us. It’s not our light which God needs, and that deep flame which illumines the heart and mind and shines through all creation doesn’t belongs to us anyway.

What God needs from us is to notice the light, in each other, every person and all life. God needs us to protect and nurture it wherever we perceive it. God needs the light of the Menorah to shine not just in our windows but in our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukkah

About hope and courage: why Chanukkah is truly a big festival

‘It’s the biggest Jewish festival,’ said the twins I was teaching for their Bar Mitzvah. ‘A big festival,’ said our Ukrainian guests, who’d evidently been reading up about Chanukkah just as we had about how Christmas is celebrated in Ukraine.

The truth is that, no, Chanukkah is fairly minor in the scale of Jewish festivals. But it felt mean to say this, so I replied that it had ‘become big.’ ‘Why?’ the boys, who recognise a half-hearted answer when they hear one, promptly asked. ‘Because of competing with Christmas, and because the Maccabees were important role models,’ I responded.

But there’s a better reason why Chanukkah is, and should be, big today: Chanukkah is about hope and courage and we need large doses of both. Our hearts go out to so many people in so many directions in these difficult times that we need reinforcements in our core.

Chanukkah begins on Sunday night with just one light, except for the servant-candle shammes. These days, everybody follows the School of Hillel whose principle is that ‘in matters of holiness we go up, not down,’ adding one further candle every night, culminating with eight. Eight is the Jewish number of the natural cycle of seven, plus one: plus wonder, faith and hope.

As everyone knows, we light the candles in honour of the pure olive oil the Maccabees found in the ruined precincts of the recaptured temple, which, sufficient for just one day, burnt on the menorah for eight.

But there’s a kashe, a logical problem. Why do we bless God for a miracle on the first night? One day’s oil ought to last for one day! A practical answer could be that the Maccabees saw immediately that something unusual was happening because the oil was burning very, very slowly. But they surely wouldn’t have noticed this phenomenon until at least part way through the day.

Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger (1847 – 1905) offers a better explanation: The miracle began because on that first night because the Maccabees lit the menorah with a whole heart despite having so little oil. In other words, miracles don’t begin in heaven, but here on earth, with what we do.

The Maccabees could have said: What when the oil runs out? Wouldn’t it be wiser to wait for more supplies? But they found the courage, took the risk and the flame they lit burnt not for one, nor even for eight days, but for generations, illumining innumerable dark and difficult years in countless lands and lives. Its light burns yet.

I’ve met many people who do like those Maccabees. They say: I don’t know where this’ll lead, but I’m starting a food bank. I’ll create a warm space. I’ll start Cook for Good, to bring whole communities together.

Perhaps almost everyone who has an idea is like that first contingent, who, looking round the war-ravaged temple precincts, asked themselves: What can we do? Where can we find some light?

They search, not in the rubble but in their hearts, and find their symbolic jar of oil, the fuel for a plan: Maybe this could work. Maybe this will bring some hope. Then they ask themselves: But will it take on? What about resources? Will it all go nowhere? Will the flame go out? But they find the courage; they make something happen.

Then, as so often when something good is initiated, others join in, bringing their own energy and inspiration. Further and further circles are drawn to the light. People ask how to help, what to contribute. They too feed the flame until its light lasts longer and spreads far wider than those who first lit it thought possible.

That’s what hope and courage can achieve.

Is the story of the Maccabees and the oil historically true? Probably not. But does it express and eternal truth? Yes definitely! That’s why Chanukkah is, and should be, truly a big festival.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach, Happy Chanukkah

 

COP 15 and the jasmine in the porch

A tendril of jasmine has made its way through the tiny gap between the windowpanes and its small white blooms have brought their perfume into the porch where our guinea pigs live. Tiny, star-shaped, the flowers glow at night like nature’s own Chanukkah candles.

I write from love of this world of plants and animals. ‘You shall love your God with all your heart,’ teaches the Torah in Judaism’s best-known meditation. Part of that love is to love what God has created. I’m far from being a creationist; I embrace the science of evolution. But I’m with the mystics when they feel the divine presence both in people and nature, something holy that should not be hurt or harmed.

Several times during lockdown an email arrived in my inbox: ‘Please put your guinea pigs out on the lawn and leave your side gate open. My children have asked to see them; they need this for their mental health.’

For my own mental – and physical and spiritual – health, I had to get out early in the morning or late at night and join the trees in prayer. I’d go where they surrounded me with their meditations, their patient sense of time. Among them, I sensed the steady decontamination of my thoughts, the restoration of the mind’s clarity, the renewal of that bond with the sacred beauty which exists within this world. In such moments we touch a deeper consciousness with the power to guide us even through our complex dealings in this confusing world.

I’m reading Guy Shrubsole’s wonderful book The Lost Rainforests of Britain (If you need a seasonal present, I give it five stars). Someone directs him to the notebooks left by Oliver Rackman, ecologist and ‘wise man’ of the forests:

Written in pencil and faded ink, their well-thumbed pages read like prayer books to the woods in which [he] worshipped.

I hadn’t actually known that Britain had rainforests, but it turns out I’ve walked in them, lush, full of oaks, birches, rowans, ferns, lichens and other epiphytes. (Nearby was a conifer plantation, the ground beneath the serried trees almost lifeless, dark.)

I’m writing about these matters because I love those woods, and because I don’t want my or anyone else’s children or grandchildren to have ‘loved and lost.’

We’re several days into COP 15, the UN’s biodiversity summit. I hesitate to quote Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s opening words: ‘We are treating nature like a toilet. This conference is our chance to stop this orgy of destruction. To move from discord to harmony.’

At the close of his life Moses tells the people: Don’t say this teaching is far away. It’s not in heaven or over the seas: it’s ‘in your mouth and heart, for you to do it.’

The same applies to caring for nature, and each other. There’s so much near to home we can do. ‘I work with everyone, farmers, landowners, crofters,’ a forester told me as I tried to keep the midges out of my eyes and look out across the hillsides they were restoring. ‘This’ll be two hundred thousand trees, with ponds and pathways,’ Nick told us, as our community team took up their spades and started planting less than ten miles from home. (See JTree’s website for planting opportunities this winter).

People probably think I’m crazy because I sometimes say hello to the jays and blackbirds when I walk to the synagogue. But they’re part of my prayer life.

It’s not a question of either nature or people. To my mind, it’s always ‘both and.’ If you love the world, you care about everything.

Never think there’s nothing we can do

‘Queen Zelenska, Queen Zelenska:’ the boys were bursting with excitement after we got home. We’d been invited by Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski, who a few days earlier had been our guest in the synagogue, to the formal opening of the welcome centre for refugees from the war in Ukraine. ‘I never dreamt I’d be a refugee in London,’ said Halina who, with her daughter and grandsons, is living with us, ‘Nor that I’d meet the king.’ But King Charles meant little to her grandchildren; what impressed them was that their babushka had met Queen Zelenska.

The First Lady radiated presence and warmth. But what must have been on her mind! Over the previous days she’d addressed Parliament, then, with the Queen Consort, spoken to hundreds of women about the particular horrors, war-crimes, violence, abuse and misery to which the fighting left girls and women especially exposed. With all this on her heart, and with an agenda of summoning the maximum possible help, not least in prosecuting war-crimes, Mrs Zelenska nevertheless left an impression of dignity, courage and grace. What came across from King Charles was a quiet humanity; he cared. ‘After his first visit to us in the opening days of the war,’ Bishop Kenneth told me, ‘His office called every few days to ask what we needed.’

I believe all of us who were there left with similar thoughts: How can we help? What can we do, in whatever contexts or situations we can, to mitigate suffering in the world?

Wrongs and hurts assail us from every side. Some are caused by life itself with its illnesses and ill-fortunes: I’m mindful that yesterday was World AIDS Day. Other wounds are the result of human cruelty: this Shabbat is devoted to publicising the essential work of Jewish Women’s Aid, JWA. It’s shocking to realise the huge numbers of women, and sometimes, though more rarely, men, who suffer verbal, financial and physical abuse, very often in enforced or lonely secrecy, for years and even decades.

There are further home truths we also need to face. I’m troubled by the betrayal of what I consider Judaism’s core Torah-based values and of what history has taught us as a people, by the rise to positions in Israel’s government of Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who incite race-hate and homophobia. Not just they but those who appointed them must be challenged and held to account. We can, and should, support Israel by supporting those who truly uphold the just and democratic principles on which it was founded.

Trapped in Europe in the 1930s, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that we humans have two faces: the image of God and the visage of Cain. Later, a refugee in America saved at the last moment, he wrote in The Meaning of This War

The mark of Cain in the face of man has come to overshadow the likeness of God.

But, he continued, we have a choice:

There can be no neutrality. Either we are ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil… God is waiting for us to redeem the world. We should not spend our life hunting for trivial satisfactions while God is waiting….

I’m moved that the motto for this year’s World AIDS Day is ‘To Our World With Love.’ What, can we do to foster that love and bring healing, safety, joy and hope to our world?

I feel greatly challenged virtually every day, yet deeply inspired almost every day. So I want to include with another beautiful moment I, with Nicky, was privileged to share this week, and which I determine to carry in my heart through thick and thin.

We stood near the top of Skirrid, a sacred mountain in South Wales, a small group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders, and prayed together:

Eternal Spirit, Earth-Maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver…

We hold brothers and sisters who suffer from storms and droughts…We hold all species that suffer…

We pray that love and wisdom might inspire our actions…so that we may, with integrity, look into the eyes of brothers and sisters and all beings and truthfully say, we are doing our part to care for them and the future of the children.

May love transform us and our world with new steps toward life.

Then we joined local farmers and volunteers, and, as the sun set, planted trees to form windbreaks to protect the land.

We must try never to think that there’s nothing we can do.

The Lights of Chanukah

I don’t know whether I was half awake or asleep, but during the night of this new moon of Kislev I felt the lights of Chanukkah reaching out to me like a warm guiding hand.

It was two years ago, when the long winter lockdown was beginning and we’d been obliged to close the synagogue for a second time. I spoke over Zoom of how as a boy I used to see in my grandparent’s house the Chanukkah candles reflected in the windowpanes, and the reflection of the reflection in the bay windows opposite. The lights seemed like sentinels, like welcomers to wayfarers half-lost as they traversed the night, reaching out to them in the darkness with their hope and warmth.

Last night I saw those candles again and felt them draw me towards them. ‘Join us’, they seemed to say, ‘be part of our light.’ That’s what Chanukkah does: it warms the darkness of the spirit; it brings light to the community.

‘What do you do?’ I asked Cormac Hollingsworth, our guest at our forthcoming event Such a Thing as Society? ‘By profession I’m a banker,’ he said, ‘But for ten years I was chair of Hope Not Hate; now I’m on the steering group of Warm Welcome.’ ‘What’s that?’ I enquired. ‘It’s creating thousands of spaces across the country which will be kept warm and open for children, and for people in general, who can’t afford the bills.’

‘It’ll be a hard winter’: the words ring ominously, like the ‘hard rain’s a-gonna fall’ in Bob Dylan’s famous song.

So how we can make it lighter and warmer for someone, for anyone?

I’ve been having many conversations about hope, mostly with other people, though some, if I’m honest, in the depths of my own heart. One of the best lines I’ve heard is: ‘Never think, or let anyone else think, that simple good deeds are too small to matter.’ To paraphrase the famous Mishnah: Whoever makes life warmer for one single person is as if they do so for the entire world. (Sanhedrin 4:5, 2nd century)

That’s why I’ll be out planting trees this Sunday with clergy of all faiths on a hillside by Abergavenny. Who knows what may grow from our actions? We have to keep our sense of purpose alive and strong.

This week our study group reaches Pslam 40. Two antithetical phrases have stayed with me from the text: the grim libbi azavani, ‘my heart deserted me,’ and the all-important ‘God, I hope and hope again.’ Appreciating those latter words, I researched them in the world of Midrash, rabbinic homily, where I found the following:

Should you say [with Jeremiah] ‘Harvest-time’s over, the summer’s gone and we’ve still not been saved,’ then remember [with the Psalmist] to ‘hope in God, be strong and fill your heart with courage.’ If you say, ‘I’ve already done that!’ go and do it again. If you ask, ‘How long should I stay hopeful?’ the answer is ‘always and forever.’

I never met my Tante Rosel, great-aunt Rose; I think she died before I was born. To my grandparents she was a legend. Through all times, thick and thin, she’d be up before dawn, down in the kitchen singing as she baked the morning’s bread. ‘That’s the way to be!’ my grandparents would say.

So I was happy when last night I saw those same candles which I’d spoken about two years ago and felt them reach out to me as if they were saying, ‘Come join us, you and your community. Be part of our light!’

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