Antisemitism: the CST’s report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much pain, so much need for healing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, and the geese by Loch Lomond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between life and death, future and past

Here we are, caught between creation and destruction. Yesterday was Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees; tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day.

Tu Bishevat is a day of planting and celebration, when we’re partners with the God of creation who set the tree of life in the midst of the Garden of Eden.

Many of us were out there yesterday in the bright afternoon, placing rich mulch round the young crab apples and field maples we’d just planted. Trees mean future, long-term thinking, life, hope and joy. ‘We’ve a two-hundred-year management plan,’ explained Craig Harrison, head of Forestry England south.

Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day. I read compulsively about the Shoah and listen to the testament of survivors. I love their company. I admire how they have established new lives, brought up children and go into schools to speak against antisemitism and every form of prejudice. I find it remarkable how little bitterness so many of them bear, how much compassion they embody, how widely they spread warmth and hope.

But the most terrible testimony has no voice: that of the innumerable dead, across Europe, Rwanda, Cambodia, robbed of their homes, loved ones and lives; robbed of their voices which would tell us, if they could, of the sophisticated deceitfulness and cruel cunning of the murderers alongside their drunken brutality.

In the words of the searing Yom Kippur meditation, ‘Eleh Ezkerah – these things I bring to memory before God, who’s supposed to conduct the world in mercy, venaphshi alai eshpecha, and I pour out my soul, I don’t know what to do with myself.’

The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is the fragility of freedom. It could not be more apposite in this time of war in Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, the Middle East. Whatever ‘side’ we’re on, whatever political views we hold, we must not harden our hearts to the horror faced by the hostages and their families after 115 days of cruel captivity, the fear of parents for the lives of their children on the front lines, the desperate suffering of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians caught amidst the fighting.

To what pain will all this give birth, to what new fears and hatreds, to what hopes, longings and dreams? Beyond whatever particular loyalties we hold, say the Israeli and Palestinian parents of the Bereaved Families Forum, we need to remember that we should all ultimately be on the side of humanity.

So what do we do?

‘Choose life,’ teaches the Torah, be on the side of life!

These, then, are some of the questions which should preoccupy us: How can I find the courage to be truly human? What kindness can I do? Whose life can I make a bit better and not worse? What can I plant for our children’s children’s futures?

This sounds frail; it feels very small scale. But I put my hopes in a minor, often overlooked scene from the Torah. The Children of Israel are thirsty in the desert, but the waters before them are too bitter to drink. Therefore, God instructs Moses to throw into them the branches of a tree and when he does so the waters become sweet.

So let’s plant our trees, figurative trees of compassion, decency, humanity and hope, as well as real trees, maples, rowans, birch and oak. May they sweeten our own lives with a deep sense of purpose and bring a little sweetness to the future of the world.

For the love of trees – in honour of Tu Bishevat

‘No. You’re not buying another tree!’ the family protests as I eye up an apple, plum or rowan which, though discounted at the garden centre, looks good enough to me.

How many trees can you fit in the back of car – alongside two or three (grown up) children, at least one dog, walking boots, etcetera, etcetera? You’d be amazed! Though for the children, I admit, it’s not always a pleasant surprise.

But I love trees – as well as my family.

Thirty-three years ago, Nicky and I planned to marry on Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, (which begins this Wednesday evening.) But the synagogue had already been booked so we settled for a week later. ‘What shall I say about the two of you?’ our friend Ronnie enquired, whom we’d asked to speak on the Shabbat before our wedding. ‘That we both love plants and animals,’ we replied, and all these years later it’s even more true.

Trees make excellent gifts, so long as the recipient has a garden, or space for a large tub. Years later one looks back and reflects: ‘We got that tree when our baby was born’, ‘when our daughter was Bat Mitzvah’, or ‘in memory of our father’.

We measure time in the passing of years; trees measure time by the passing of generations. Trees humble us. The Psalmist is right: trees clap their hands, dance with their leaves and sing with the winds. But most of all they stand steadfast and, with their stillness, call us into quiet. Listen, they say. Listen first with your ears, and you’ll hear a leaf fall, a crow cry, maybe an owl call. Listen next with your spirit, and maybe you’ll hear the slow, steady flow of life itself. Then rest against the bark and know, even if only for a moment, that you’re safe despite all the world’s cruelty, for God is in this place.

But if we’re safe among the trees, are the trees safe among us? In Jewish law it’s a crime wilfully to cut down a fruit tree. How much more important a wider prohibition would be now, when we know that trees sustain us not just with food but through the very air we breathe.

We need to live, to eat, travel and build, in ways which don’t destroy the great forests of the Amazon, Congo and Indonesia. Here at home, we must replant. We must let the remnants of our rainforests spread, which cling to the west of England, Wales and Scotland, and leave the bright-coloured jays, those acorn-burying birds, to plant their oaks. (See Guy Shrubsole’s amazing The Lost Rainforests of Britain.)

Earth science is challenging us with new phrases, like ‘Climate change velocity,’ and ‘Adapt, move or die.’ But, asks Ben Lawrence in his brilliant, disturbing The Treeline, ‘What if you are a tree?’  

Yet trees, too, are on the move, not individual specimens, but species. Larch, birch, poplar and rowan are on the march north. What, then, do you plant to future-proof your woodlands? It’s a question with which foresters struggle. For we must do our utmost to bequeath to our children breathable air, a life-sustaining natural world and the wonder and spirit of the trees.

So let’s go plant!

If this seems fatuous in times of war, we should remember the Midrash of the old man and the emperor:

‘What are you doing?’ the latter asked.
‘Planting saplings.’
The emperor was scornful.

But what were his thoughts when, years later, on his return from many battles, the old man offered him fruits from those same trees?

We need strength

In these difficult days we all need strength, to stand firm against the wrongs and brutalities of the world; to speak out for justice, even where that is unpopular; to cauterise with healing the endless hurts suffered by so many.  

It’s not a choice. Take Moses for example. He has a whole list of reasons why he can’t face Pharaoh as God requires: Who am I to do that; I can’t speak; Pharaoh won’t listen; my own people call me a troublemaker; if they won’t listen, the Egyptians never will.

But God doesn’t ask; God demands: ‘God spoke to Moses and Aaron, and commanded them against Pharaoh, king of Egypt.’ (Ex. 6:13)

I hear these words echoed in Timothy Snyder’s short diatribe: On Tyranny, Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century. It’s necessary reading in today’s distorted world:

Take responsibility…Believe in truth…Stand out. Someone has to…

It takes guts to confront evil when it surrounds us. My grandmother went to the Gestapo buildings while my grandfather was in Dachau in November 1938. She passed through doors with no handle inside. She demanded: ‘Where’s my husband?’ Asked the same question back, she retorted, ‘You’ve got him; you should know.’ That’s courage.

We need such strength to stand up to Putin, Iran, Hamas, Hizbollah, the worldwide web of lies they spin with threads of hatred, and the violence and defamation they direct against Israel, Ukraine, Jews and numerous others.

We require such strength too, to challenge the hatemongering corruption of Trump, should he stand for president again, let alone if he succeeds.

We need it, dare I say it, too, to confront prime minister Netanyahu, to call out the blatant racism and contempt of certain ministers and policies, even amidst this terrible, grief-bringing war.

But what is strength, beyond anger and frustration?

We stand between the Yahrzeit of Abraham Joshua Heschel, last December 31st, and Martin Luther King Day, next Monday 15th January. They drew their strength from the spirit. Their activism came from listening intently to the voice of God in the soul. They were followers of Zachariah, whose words we read on Chanukkah:

‘“Not by might and not by power, ki im by my spirit,” says God.’ (4:6)

Ki im is often read as ‘but’. It really means ‘except’ or ‘unless’. No true strength, Zachariah teaches, except with God’s spirit.

It’s a dangerous description. Few promulgate hatred more fiercely than zealots who claim to know God’s mind.

But true strength of spirit is rooted not in violence but in solidarity with life and the God of life. It knows not hatred or the urge to destroy, but the indignation of injustice which will not be ignored. It is driven not by contempt for suffering, but by the determination to heal.

I shall never forget knocking on the door of John and Mavis Hyman after learning that their daughter Miriam was among the victims of the London bombings of 7 July 2005. Unsure what to say, I muttered, ‘I wish you strength.’

I still see John standing on the path in front of me, a tall man then, nodding, saying, more to himself than me, ‘Yes. That’s the one. We’ve had many greetings. But that’s the one.’  

And strong he was, and strong Mavis is still, in her constant efforts to bring healing in her daughter’s name, to meet sorrow with love and counter racism with the teachings of understanding.

True strength has many forms. It may be steady presence amidst grief, diligence in under-appreciated caring, defying bigotry to stand with the mistreated and maligned, challenging injustice and cruelty in the face of brute power on the political stage.

We need such strength, in our hearts, communities and the public square.

They still speak to us, the dead we have loved

Sometimes a verse jumps out from the weekly Torah portion, chimes with what we’re living through, meets a spark in our own spirit. That’s how those words from the start of Exodus speak to me now: ‘And Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation.’

They’re all gone now, my parent’s generation, all the relatives amidst whose conversations, half German, half English, half refugee, half British, but always deeply Jewish, I grew up. They lie at peace in Hoop Lane cemetery, or rest, like my father’s sisters, on the Mount of Olives.

But they’re not silent, at least not in this world. They speak to us, our dead, they talk inside us. ‘Live!’ they say, ‘Live!’ They put resilience in our bones; they set their playlist in our soul. There’s nothing morbid or spooky about it; the dead who were close to us in life stay near and dear when they’re gone. The loss of them hurts deeply. But they urge us on. ‘Have courage,’ they say, ‘We’re with you all the way. Love life; live it well.’

Two moments come to my mind whenever I say the prayer carved in stone in every Jewish cemetery, ‘Umekayyem emounato lisheinei afar – Keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust.’ Twice my father, deeply asleep in his last hours, raised himself from his pillows, spoke those words into the ether and collapsed back into the semi-consciousness of his final journey.

It never occurred to me otherwise than that he was speaking to God: ‘Be with me in this boundaryless time-space where you’re taking me.’ They were words of trust and fear in equal measure.

But now it strikes me that I was partly wrong; my father was also talking to me: ‘Keep faith,’ he was saying, ‘keep faith through everything.’

So here, at the beginning of 2024, I walk among them in my mind, the departed, who lived through the Holocaust and the war. I try to listen, to draw courage for this current time of troubles, when Israel, Judaism and so much else seem on the line.

Here by the pathway is Jacqueline du Pre. I played a recording of her Kol Nidrei to Isca, my second mother, in her last hour. Isca adored the cello. The melody descends into the soul, says without words like the Psalmist, ‘From the depths I have called unto you,’ then rises, declaring ‘Seek beauty, aspire; always aspire.’ That’s why Isca loved such music.

Here, in the same row as my mother and father, lies Leo Baeck, leader of German Jewry in the terrible years, teacher of Theresienstadt. Nothing crushed his spirit, his faith not just in God but in humanity. Not rarely, he recalled, even in Berlin under the Nazis in ’40 or ’41, there would be an egg or apple secretly left by his door. He taught that God is mystery become commandment: what we know from life’s depths must teach us how to act.

And, Adi, my father, who by the age of forty-one had lost his own father, oldest sister, first wife, and three of his favourite aunts and uncles? He still comes into my room late at night, unexpectedly, as he did when I was in my teens, saying ‘Remember: only what’s in your mind can never be taken from you.’ And, since he was a practical person, I hear him say when a chair creaks or a shelf breaks, ‘Repair it, don’t throw it away.’ And, seeing he lived through the cruel years of Israel’s struggle for independence, ‘Be loyal; always stand by your friends.’

These are the secret ingredients of their strength, which, like the unique recipes for cheesecakes and strudels that they refuse to disclose while they’re alive, our forebears bequeath to us after they’re gone.

With them, we turn with gritty faith, resilient hope, and love of life, to face the year ahead.

What matters in the end

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope in the darkness

Something I love about Chanukkah is reflections.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chanukah 5784: trying to find light in this darkness

Please, do you have a light?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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