Why I wept listening to President Biden

I cried when I listened to President Joe Biden’s inaugural address; I was far from the only one. I didn’t cry because it was a rhetorically eloquent speech, but because it was so eloquently simple, because it came from a human being, a person with a heart.

Biden’s words reminded me of a phrase from Vaclav Havel: what the world needs is a politics of responsibility, a politics of the heart:

“The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.”

Whether President Biden will prove able to provide enduring leadership of this quality, faced with all the challenges, tribulations and inevitable compromises of office, only the coming years will tell.

But the task is not his alone; it calls to us all.

The Torah has a great deal to say about hearts. Pharaoh has a hard heart. It would be fairer to say that his allotted role is to exemplify what hard-heartedness is: he doesn’t listen and doesn’t care, not just about the Children of Israel but even about his own Egypt.

It’s tempting to point at others, especially leaders, who’re hard hearted. The founder of Hasidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov, knew better: everyone, he said, has not just a Moses but also a Pharaoh inside.

I often end my day wondering if I’ve behaved with heart. The simple prayer says it all: ‘Open my heart through your Torah,’ which I take to mean ‘through all life,’ because all experience can be understood as God’s teaching.

I worry: have I said or done something harsh or hurtful? There is endless pain in the world, most of it unspoken. If life is a bird alighted next to us, it’s so easy carelessly to break its wing, so easy not even to notice it’s there.

This week is devoted to mental health. (Please see the events we’re hosting or recommending, and what my colleagues have written.) I only want to say that the Torah speaks of an open heart, a wise heart and a strong heart.

An open heart says, most often not through words: I’m here and I hear. It doesn’t say, or convey, ‘I don’t want to know;’ it doesn’t change the subject; it doesn’t have the answers. It simply communicates, ‘I care.’ I read of a refugee who told a woman who’d listened to his story: ‘I feel heard for the first time since I fled. I’m less in exile now.’

I’m not sure what a wise heart says. But I’ve met people who have one. I can’t remember anything specific they told me, but the feeling I had in their company remains. They listened. They gave out something which couldn’t exactly be called ‘advice.’ I don’t know how to describe it, and it was something more than words which conveyed it. It was an understanding that life has depth, is difficult; that pain is; that life is also robust; that the next step must be dared; that if I fell they’d be there for me still.

A strong heart is not the same as a hard heart. It is resolute not because it’s closed but because it’s open. Its defences exist only to protect and maintain its tenderness. They represent the strength not of coldness but of love.

At this time of intense individual stress and collective challenge, which affects each one of us, though in different ways, impacting every nation and the planet itself, I wish us openness, wisdom and strength of heart, for ourselves, each other and the leaders and presidents of the world.

 

 

 

Hang on in there

‘Hang on is there’ is what God says when Moses despairs of persuading his own people, let alone Pharaoh, that freedom will some day come. ‘Attah tireh,’ God tells him; ‘You’ll soon see.’

‘Hang on in there’ is what we must tell ourselves and each other over these difficult weeks. These winter lockdown days, long, lonely and anxious, are hard for us all and harsher for some than for others. We need all the morale, good humour, solidarity and stamina we can muster. Though we may be isolated and therefore dependent on our own internal resources first and foremost, we are not entirely alone, and must not leave each other feeling forgotten and apart. We have to muster all our strength, spiritually and collectively.

Immo anochi, ‘I am with you,’ is the simple message at the heart of the Psalms:

‘I said: the darkness will crush me,’
but I found even there that ‘Your hand guides me,
and Your right hand takes hold of me.’ (Psalms 91 & 139)

These beautiful words may sound like someone else’s faith from some faraway time. But they can be our words too, and often, even without our recognising it, they are.

‘I didn’t know what to do with the anxiety and pain,’ a colleague, Rabbi Lazar, said. ‘So I began to sing. In the hospital bed. The nurse thought I’d gone mad. I sang for two whole hours. It took me to a different place, a different level.’

We may find our inner strength through music, poems, films, cooking, meditation, prayer, walking, Pilates, bird-watching through the window, Torah study, photographing winter trees, wit, and the courage which lies within humour. These may not all be conventional ways of experiencing God’s hand guiding us. But where there’s wonder or reprieve, where, instead of feeling our spirit sink, we sense even a momentary surge of inner life and something within us sings, – there, I believe, is God’s presence.

‘Hang on in there,’ begins with ourselves. But it’s also what we must say to each other. Right now there’s probably no more important message we can give. We convey it by phoning, writing, perhaps even thinking. We say it by sending small gifts. Few things strengthen our own morale as much as knowing there’s something we can do for each other. I admire those who bake every week, for Great Ormond Street or The Royal Free, for their neighbourhood or a friend who’s unwell.

We say ‘hang on in there’ by creating whatever community we can, albeit for now online only. Prayer is a form of solidarity, but solidarity is also a form of prayer: we think together, we feel for each other.

‘Hang on in there,’ can’t be only for our family, friends and neighbours, though that’s where we start. I had the opportunity of a conversation with former prime minister Gordon Brown this week: ‘Up to four million children hungry in this country,’ he said. I’ve asked Leon Aarts to speak at our pre-Shabbat service tonight. He’s the chef who helped institute the mass cooking of nutritious meals at the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais. Now he and his volunteers cook every day for London’s children. If we’ve the privilege of plenty, we’ve the responsibility to share.

I respect everyone who’s caring for those who’re ill or injured, in body or spirit. I admire everyone who’s supporting homeless people and refugees. I feel solidarity with everyone who’s tending life in any of its needs, nursing abandoned animals, planting trees. Thank you for keeping us ‘in there’.

When we say to life ‘I’m with you’ then, I believe, life says ‘I’m with you’ back to us, even amidst pain and loss.

I’m aware that some of us carry far more hurt and anxiety than others. So, however we express it, our ‘hang on in there’ mustn’t be glib. It must come from the attentiveness of the heart.

 

Words of incitement; words of healing

Our world needs healing. Perhaps never since the Second World War, the hatred, incitement and viciousness which led to it, and the decimated lands and homeless populations it left in its wake, has this been so obvious.

My heart goes out to everyone on the front line of care, whether in ambulances and hospitals, or listening to people’s anguish and mental stress, or trying to heal the injustices and angers which divide our societies, or mend our relationship with the rest of creation, the very air, water and plants and animals on which the wellbeing of all life depends.

We all have the capacity to heal; and we all, too, have the power to make matters worse. In these pressured and anxious times, we must help one another be healers. Refa’einu veneirapei, runs the daily prayer, ‘Heal us, God, and we shall be healed.’ I like to think the words might also mean, ‘Heal us, God, and make us healers.’

At the broadest, geopolitical level, we have been horrified by the violence at the United States Capitol. The Rabbinical Assembly immediately called on ‘all American political and religious leaders to condemn in unequivocal terms this attack on democracy and its institutions,’ to confirm the results of the elections and ensure the peaceful transfer of authority.

I felt shocked, but not entirely surprised, at what happened on Wednesday night. It is a consequence of years of incitement to contempt. I was reminded of the Torah’s account of Pharaoh’s address to his people almost three millennia ago: ‘Come, let us deal wisely:’ that seductive appeal to fear and hatred as a justification for tyranny, which led to enslavement, misery and murder.

It was galling to hear leaders of far less democratic countries than America ‘cash in’ on America’s hour of shame. I pray that world leaders will have the wisdom to speak words of healing, and that Joe Biden, who knows the depths of personal tragedy, will find the inspiration, courage and support from those around him to be ‘the healer president.’

What is said from the top travels far further and carries greater power. But all our words matter. In these times of great stress, blame and anger tempt us all. The challenge is whether we can call injustice and wrong by their names, yet listen to what hurts and troubles others, and speak calmly and with integrity, keeping the values of justice, truthfulness and compassion before us always. The adage that ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,’ is simply not true. It’s often the words which lead people to pick up the stones, and the guns. But it’s also often words which bring the beginning of healing.

Therefore on the far smaller, local scale, words matter too, in our homes, phone calls, zooms, emails, and in our two-metres-apart greetings in the half-empty streets. It’s not just what we say, but what we don’t say. Frustration has grated the skin away and exposed our nerves. It’s easy to be angry. Loneliness has settled on many like a low-grade, immovable ache.

Please, and I include myself, think of friends we may not have spoken to, acquaintances after whom we have not enquired. Be in touch; say hello. Risk calling the number. Share a memory, something gracious, something which lifts the spirit. Listen. It takes all of us to make ‘we are not alone’ real.

Ordinary words of kindness, small acts of consideration, lead to a spirit of generosity which has the power to draw in others, to find quiet routes across the fissures of society, and bring that light ‘with healing on its wings’ which the prophet Malachi speaks of.

We can all incite to anger, or guide to understanding.

 

Don’t chase happiness; seek to be giving…

May 2021 be a year of healing for everyone who is ill. May it be a year of healing in body and spirit, across society and nations, and between humanity and nature. May it be a year of chesed ve’emet, honesty, integrity, kindness and generosity.

I want to give thanks to everyone who has helped preserve our physical and mental health and sustain our spirit:

Thank you to everyone who has kept in touch with neighbours, turned acquaintances into friends and shared their cares;

Thank you to everyone who has preserved and strengthened community, who, undaunted by tiers and lockdowns, has created ways for us to connect;

Thank you to everyone who has found beauty and wonder in nature and opened our eyes to see it as well;

Thank you to everyone who has brought music and poetry to cheer our spirit;

Thank you to everybody who has found wells of emotional and spiritual strength and helped us find them too;

Thank you to everyone who has kept our conscience alert and our moral horizon wide;

Thank you to everyone who has helped us through their example to live by the values of justice and compassion we profess;

Thank you to everybody who, at personal risk, has served long and challenging shifts in care homes, surgeries, hospitals, ambulances and in public health;

Thank you to everyone who has worked inventively and undauntedly to engage and educate children and young people

Thank you to everyone who has made sure the shops and foodbanks aren’t empty, the recycling and waste is still collected, and letters and parcels are delivered;

Thank you to everyone who has shown chesed, kindness, and chesed shebechesed, kindness within kindness, that special sensitivity which touches the heart;

Thank you to everyone who has, in spite of everything, found ways of keeping positive through bleak days and who has helped us by acknowledging how hard that can be;

Thank you to everyone who has kept a sense of humour.

Yesterday I heard a remarkable address by a grandfather to his granddaughter on her Bat Mitzvah. Don’t chase happiness, he said; like a butterfly, it will always drift away just as you think you are about to grasp it. What happiness you do find will be along the way, in little things and small moments. Rather, seek to be giving. Thank you, then, to everyone who has been and continues to be giving.

In special reflections last night – we haven’t usually marked the secular new year as a community – we drew on the ancient night-time prayers known as Tikkun Rachel and Tikkun Le’ah. They focus on seeking an end to exile and finding new hope. Therefore they speak to us in our mini-exile from our family, friends and familiar places and in our longing to come back together.

They include the beautiful 42nd Psalm

Like a deer longs for pools of water, so my soul longs for you, God…Don’t be downcast, my soul: hope in God…For by day God commands lovingkindness and by night God’s song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

May lovingkindness guide us and God’s song sustain us in the year ahead.

 

What unites us: Jewish thoughts on Christmas day

There are two beautiful sentences in tomorrow’s Torah which move me today on this complex date, a fast in Judaism commemorating the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army, and a day of celebration and good tidings throughout the Christian world.

Both sentences are spoken by Judah as he pleads before the viceroy of Egypt, whom he does not yet know to be his long-lost brother Joseph, to let Benjamin come back home to their father. Judah explains to the viceroy that ‘nafsho keshurah benafsho, – his soul is bound up with his soul,’ the elderly Jacob cannot bear to live without his youngest child.

There is a deep generosity in Judah’s words. He has come to appreciate that Benjamin is special, presumed to be the only surviving son of their father’s adored but long dead wife Rachel.

Those words ‘his soul is bound up with his soul’ transcend their context. They speak simply and briefly of the love which can exist between people. Judah isn’t talking about himself; this is not his bond with his father, but Benjamin’s. Yet he treats it with the deepest respect; he honours love itself.

This is what I witness when families with a relative in intensive care tell me, ‘A nurse or doctor rang every day. They were so thoughtful. And they must be under such pressure.’

This cruel year is teaching us to know and respect the deepest needs and connections of the human heart, of life itself.

Judah now explains why he of all the brothers has stepped forward to plead for Benjamin, in whose sack Joseph had his special goblet surreptitiously planted and who now stands accused of theft. ‘Ki avedacha arav et han’ar, I, your servant, stood surety for the lad before my father:’ Judah has promised to take responsibility.

Arav means ‘mix’: to stand surety is to appreciate that one’s destiny and integrity is mixed with that of others. To be truly human is to be engaged, concerned, answerable. Hence the Talmudic saying: ‘Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – All Israel are responsible for one another.’ We are connected by a heart-felt duty of care, to our own community and people, but also in the most universal sense to other communities too, as prescribed by our common humanity. In the deepest sense of all, we are responsible for all life, entrusted by God with care for creation itself.

I feel this more deeply than ever this year. That’s why I wrote a letter to The Church Times, which they published online:

My heart goes out to Christian colleagues and communities as Christmas approaches and it becomes clear how limited gatherings and family celebrations will be.

We struggled over the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement when families could not come together as accustomed, and long and beautiful services had to be curtailed and numbers limited. Yet we were upheld by that profound sense of spiritual solidarity which sustains all faith communities.

In these difficult times solidarity of spirit across our different faiths and philosophies matters more than ever. These frightening and bewildering months have shown us how interdependent we all are and how deeply we need one another across the whole of our society.

Our liturgies may differ, but we stand together in praying for a safer, more peaceful, sustainable and compassionate world.

There’s much in the past year which we don’t want repeated, but I hope a deeper awareness of the bonds which connect us and the responsibilities which unite us will not be lost.

 

Seeking light, sharing light: where the candles need to burn

The eighth day of Chanukah is known as Zot Chanukkat, ‘this is the dedication,’ following the words with which the Torah sums up the offerings brought for the inauguration of the altar. This leads to the beautiful verse describing how, as he enters the holy space of the Tent of Meeting, Moses overhears God’s voice.

Perhaps that’s how poets and composers feel in the moment of inspiration: that something sacred, infinite and indefinable is articulated in the universe which they try to capture or hint at in music and words.

Where is our tent of meeting, our sacred space in this Covid-troubled world?

I had taught the well-known passage from Shulchan Aruch many times before I realised that this was exactly the question it intended to answer:

You place the Chanukah candles at the threshold of your home, facing the public highway. [If you can’t do that] you put them in the window overlooking the main road. In times of danger, you set them on your table and that’s sufficient.

This instruction can be taken as referring not just to Chanukah but to religious life as a whole.

‘Times of danger’ are periods of religious persecution. But we too are living amidst danger, albeit of a different kind. Public highways carry risks, as do even our places of worship for those who need to shelter for themselves or their nearest and dearest.

As a result, spiritual life has [partly] moved from synagogue to home, from public to private, from what others lead for us to what we do for ourselves. Our kitchen table, back window, favourite plant has become our Tent of Meeting:

-          I said the memorial prayers at home for the first time. Behind me were pictures of my beloved parents; it all made more sense.

-          I pray in my garden, with the trees.

-          I lit my Chanukiah and felt its light had been burning in my heart all these months.

We’ve overheard life’s sacred speech in new ways, if only for rare moments. But that can suffice, as travellers navigating by the stars need to recognise only a few to find direction in the darkness. In these difficult times we need light on our home table.

But the high road matters too. Across the world our societies urgently require light in the public domain. Yesterday I took the boxes collected in our neighbourhood to the food bank in Colindale. I’ve been several times; the difference now is that the queue was three times longer. Jonathan Freedland wrote about the priest who wept as he related how children in the places where he took food parcels were so hungry they tore them open before he could properly hand them over. Those children and those tears, are also God speaking, crying to be heard.

When asked about Chanukah, I often say it’s the Jewish festival of light. But what the word actually means is ‘dedication,’ rededication to listening to God’s voice and to seeking and sharing whatever light we can, both in our hearts and in the public spaces of our society.

 

Chanukah lights: the rabbis’ alternative reality

The rabbis of the Talmud created an alternative reality about Chanukkah. Such words sound bad these days, like false-facts and post-truth. But that’s not what they intended, or achieved.

The politics of the Maccabean era was complex and messy. What is clear is that when Palestine passed from Ptolemaic rule in Egypt to Seleucid domination from Damascus, life become more complex and Jewish autonomy compromised. It wasn’t only that Antiochus Epiphanes was power crazy as well, many believe, as simply mad. Hellenist culture spread subtly into education, recreation, governance and law. It divided Jewish loyalties, all the way up to the rank of High Priest. Competing factions fought and blood was shed to purchase this ‘religious’ office from the Seleucid powers. It is not surprising that revolt and bitter conflict followed, in which the Maccabees fought for the independence of the Jewish commonwealth against vast and well-equipped armies. Only, it seems the Hasmonaean kingdom which they founded morphed into a dynasty not entirely unlike the powers it displaced.

The rabbis of the Talmud scarcely refer to all this bloodshed and turmoil. Instead, they tell the story of the single unsullied vial the victors searched for and found when they re-conquered the temple precincts in Jerusalem, the oil which should have burnt for just one day but illumined the Menorah for eight.

This is the ‘alternative reality’ they fashioned. Throughout our subsequent exiles and returns, through all the political confusion of history, it is this simple story which has endured. It is neither false nor merely fable. It doesn’t deny anything which may actually have happened. Rather, it expresses a deeper reality, a vital and eternal truth, to which life bears witness all the time.

The mystics understood that what the Maccabees rekindled was no ordinary flame but Or Haganuz, the hidden light, that first radiance with which God drew dawn out of darkness at the beginning of creation. Then God hid it, leaving the practical tasks of measuring day and night to the sun, moon and stars.

Those mystics debate where God concealed that primal light: In the Torah? In the souls of the righteous? In the world to come? I prefer their simplest answer: everywhere, in each and every human being and in all life. We have only to recognise it, to see, and see by, it.

It is the eagerness in the face of a child, the radiance in the eyes of wisdom coupled with kindness. It is the creative fire in which music and poetry are fashioned. It is the wonder of wild places, and the soul of a garden. It is the tenderness of a carer guiding with dignity arthritic fingers to hold a flexi-straw.

It’s inevitable that we only occasionally perceive this light. It’s in the nature of our fraught minds and hectic lives that we only rarely glimpse it in others or feel it illumine our spirit. But it is there always, though often suppressed and downtrodden.

It is a flame deeper than political division. It burns equally in our interlocutors and opponents. It may be forced to resort to bunkers and sealed rooms in wartime. Excess and exploitation hide it. But it never goes out. The mystics hold that those eight days for which it burnt in the Temple add up to more than one week plus twenty-four hours: they signify eternity.

This is the flame we light on Chanukah, in our windows and in our soul.

 

 

Until we wrest blessing from the darkness

‘I will not let you go until you bless me:’ these words, which Jacob says to the unnamed adversary who assails him in the night as he stands alone by the Jabok river, have become my motto.

They express the same attitude as the Maccabees, who, after re-conquering the desolate Temple precincts in Jerusalem, would not abandon the search among the ruins until they found the source of light and kindled the flame which has since illumined with courage and hope the entire history of the Jewish People.

Inevitably, we face challenges, personal and collective. Often, with courage, the help of others and maybe some luck, we somehow manage to struggle through them until break of day. Yesterday I heard for the first time the phrase ‘post traumatic growth,’ with the following definition:

‘Post-traumatic growth doesn’t deny deep distress, but rather posits that adversity can unintentionally yield changes in understanding oneself, others, and the world.’

I hadn’t known the name, but I’ve witnessed the reality many times:

‘Rabbi, I’ve been through…
It’s been lonely, hard.
But now I’m there for other people.
I wanted you to know in case you hear of someone else going through …’

Illness, sorrow: such pain and mental suffering must not be romanticised or ennobled. But if, in the inner spaces where we struggle, we can somehow extract blessing from our fearful encounters with them, they can become lamps in our hand to negotiate the winding steps to chambers in our heart we may not previously have explored. These are not easy places to inhabit, but they can become the source of our deepest compassion and most enduring commitments.

As individuals, though, we cannot vanquish everything. Years ago, I visited an elderly lady who had motor neurone disease. She was still able to speak, just; still able to hold a pencil, just. ‘Have I got it right?’ she asked, indicating her drawing of a baby elephant. She died a few weeks later.

She could not overcome the physical impact of that horrible illness; no one could. But this baby elephant was her ‘yes’ to life nonetheless, her stamina, her hope, her seizing of blessing from the last of her days. I still see that drawing before me. It’s a small thing; it’s a magnificent thing, tender, wonderful and great.

It is this very courage and faith in life, – with its baby elephants, children, adults, animals, everything – which together we muster in the short, dark days of the pandemic through which we are now living.

We have many assailants in this long night: the illness itself, fear, insecurity about the future, social injustice and cruelty. But, together, we shall not let go until we have grasped blessings nevertheless: deeper solidarity; less entitlement and greater appreciation; humbler recognition of our interdependence as humanity and part of nature; the determination to be healers in whatever way we can.

It is this very tenacity which led Rene Cassin to co-draft in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which we honour next week on 10 December, International Human Rights Day, in recognition

‘of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [as] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’

On Thursday evening, the first night of Chanukah we will not just take a match to a candle in our window. We will rekindle in our spirit the determination to seek out the source of light whatever the circumstances. We will find it and make it burn in our soul; we will acknowledge it and bless it in others; we will not give up until, together, we wrest blessing from this darkness.

 

Listening – beyond what we hear

I’m often troubled by the thought of what we should have heard but missed.

There’s a cruel scene in tomorrow’s Torah. Rachel, who’s childless, turns in pain to her husband Jacob: ‘Give me children or else I die.’ He answers sharply: Do you think I’m God, who’s withheld from you the fruit of the womb?

The rabbis blame him doubly: Is that how you answer someone in pain? And why, just because you’ve got offspring through Leah, rub it in by stressing ‘from you’?

Rachel hurts. Sometimes people who hurt say things we fail to hear. Sometimes we react to the edge in their tone but miss the sorrow underneath. Sometimes people who’re suffering don’t say anything to us at all, and we don’t stop to listen. Sometimes we keep ourselves at too great distance for their voices to carry that far.

The Talmud describes a town which built a surrounding wall with thick gates. The prophet Elijah, who used to visit Rabbi Joshua ben Levi there, stopped coming. When he eventually returned, the rabbi asked why he’d been gone so long. He replied: I don’t go to places which insulate themselves from the cry of the poor.

The infinitive absolute has no grammatical equivalent in English: in Hebrew it’s the doubling of a verb for emphasis. The Torah has one verse in which this construction is used three times: God says ‘If you oppress, oppress them, and they cry out, cry out to me, I will hear, surely hear their outcry.’ Perhaps ‘hear’ is doubled because we humans too have to listen beyond what first strikes our ears, to the meaning, the spoken, the half spoken and the unspoken, beyond.

This is more than any of us can manage. Some kinds of listening can’t be delegated. Who should be hearing Rachel’s pain, if not Jacob? Sometimes listening needs to be shared: in a community we need to hear each other, but no one of us has the sensitivity, or capacity, to hear everyone. Sometimes it’s the responsibility of society as a whole to hear za’akat dalim, the cry of the poor.

These matters concern me at every level. Rabbis, like doctors, are not immune to the feedback: ‘You make time for lots of others, but where are you for your own family?’

Sometimes there are members of our community we don’t hear. During lockdown, the familiar channels through which we learn what’s happening to each other, at Kiddush, parties, shivas and in the shops, are mostly closed off. I worry about what we’re not attuned to in these semi-enclosed, shutdown months. Please help us understand! And I apologise for what we’ve missed.

Sometimes there are wider collective issues, markers, memorials which we haven’t registered. I’m conscious that 1st December is World Aids Day; I’m grateful to Laurence Jacobs, congregant and trustee of The Jewish Aids Trust, for informing me. ‘As always, the Jewish community, the first faith community to step up to the mark, makes me very proud,’ he said: everyone who dies of AIDS was someone’s child, sibling, partner; it’s not just across the world (where it’s killed 35 million people), it’s in North West London too. World Aids Day matters ‘to increase awareness, fight prejudice and improve education.’

I appreciate that head and heart are often full. One wants to put one’s hands over one’s ears: ‘Leave me alone, I can’t take any more.’ We need silence too, to retreat in our spirits to the tranquil waters for which the Psalmist longs. We need the quiet, or maybe it’s truly music, which calms the throbbing voices in the mind. That’s why I often walk or run at night, to be stilled by the gentle voices of the trees.

Quiet and prayer deepen the heart. We need them so that we can be more heedful listeners to life and show as little indifference, and give as few cruel answers, as possible.

 

For International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

As a community rabbi I see joy and beauty almost every day. But I also witness much suffering. Some of it cannot be avoided: as Virgil wrote, ‘sunt lacrimae rerum, there are tears in the nature of things.’

But cruelty is different. It has perpetrators. The legal dictionary defines it as ‘The deliberate and malicious infliction of mental or physical pain upon persons or animals.’ It continues: ‘As applied to people, cruelty encompasses abusive, outrageous, and inhumane treatment that results in the wanton and unnecessary infliction of suffering upon the body or mind.’

I would rather write about prettier matters. If I look up, the early light on the autumn trees summons me to shacharit, to praise the wonder of creation. But what of the those who can’t look out, because they are literally locked in, handcuffed, shackled, tied to bannisters? Or who are mentally and emotionally trapped with a man who threatens, bullies, undermines, and derides them and cunningly and calculatedly inflicts pain?

25 November is the date of The United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the beginning of sixteen days leading to International Human Rights Day on December 10. This Shabbat is dedicated to JWA, the work of Jewish Women’s Aid.

I looked up ‘cruel’ in Hebrew אכזרי – The first definition is ‘failing to show any mercy’. Job complains that even God has turned cruel, ‘oppressing me with all the power of his hand.’

But it’s cruelty by humans, by us, on which these days require us to focus. It’s not something which happens far away, done by the kind of people we never meet to others we never encounter.

I know this directly from personal testament, what women have told me about men and sometimes, too, what men have told me about other men – and, occasionally, women. It must take a lot to make a person tell their rabbi, – which says to me that what I know is only a tiny fraction of what, tragically and horribly, there is to know.

Abuse can be the loneliest of suffering, because a person feels too ashamed or afraid to tell, or because she is so brutally and ceaselessly policed that there’s no one accessible and no opportunity to tell. Lockdown has made all this far worse. It’s one thing to be at home with one’s beloved family, quite another to be shut in with one’s tormentor. Organisations like JWA can offer the only hope, therefore we must support them.

Seeing I’m writing bluntly, here are a number of frank questions – in which I include myself: have I never ever done anything cruel, not a hidden action, not a word, not a subtle aside, just to cause hurt? Have I never justified or been complicit with cruelty? Have I never, in those albeit limited circumstances when I could do something about it, ignored cruelty and simply carried on? Have I done my best to direct my words and actions to the opposite of cruelty, mercy and kindness?

There are two verses in the Torah which together define what it is to be a truly human being: ‘created in the image of God’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Jewish teaching names three outstanding characteristics by which these criteria are fulfilled: tsedek, fairness, rachamim, mercy, and chesed, kindness. The last is arguably greatest because it includes the others.

These are the qualities which make us truly human and our societies genuinely humane.

 

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