Earth Day and the songs of the earth

I received a beautiful greeting from my colleague in Jerusalem, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum: ‘May the songs of the sea, the earth, the animals and humankind be with you’.

On the seventh day of Pesach we sing the Song at the Sea. On the last day of the festival we recite the Song of Songs and read Isaiah’s wonderful prophecy of the time when humanity and nature live together in harmony and all the earth is called God’s place of prayer. Some communities hold a Se’udat Mashiach, a feast for the Messiah, on this day, to nourish our hopes of redemption.

Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, wrote that holiness conceived in opposition to nature is not true holiness:

The highest essence of holiness is the very holiness of Nature herself; it is the foundation of repairing the world in its entirety, tikkun olam kullo.
(Orot 77; Orot Hatechiyah 25)

When the holiness inherent in all things is truly appreciated ‘War will cease entirely…and all things will incline towards loving-kindness’.

He was referring to the mystical understanding, a felt and experienced reality to many lovers of wild places, that God’s sacred energy sings in different modes and rhythms throughout all creation.

We are tragically far from that time envisaged by prophets and seers. But this is no reason to desist from the responsibility of working towards it.

On the contrary, the hour could not be more critically urgent. All life urges us to act for its protection. The songs of nature are beautiful (our garden is so full of birdsong that a friend just asked me over the phone if I was calling from an aviary). But those very cries and are often calls of warning; for a small bird, life is always at risk.

We now know now that all life is on the line, certainly the lives of the poorest in drought-riven lands and flatlands swept by the rising sea.

Judaism speaks of two overwhelming spiritual feelings, love and fear (or awe). Both drive me in my concern for this wonderful earth. Since childhood I have loved woodlands, gardens and wild places: the green hills near our home just north of Glasgow, the pine-forests of Mount Carmel, owl calls, bats’ flights. Like all gardeners, I live by the smell of rain and the feel of the soil in my hands.

But now I’m also deeply afraid. Often dread sits in the pit of my stomach, alleviated only by moments of wonder at the sheer beauty of the world.

That’s why I attended the Jewish section of Extinction Rebellion’s Pesach picnic for Earth Day at the assigned area at Marble Arch on Monday, became a life member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and joined the London Wildlife Trust. It’s why I’m passionate to co-lead Eco Synagogue to change not just what we do in our religious buildings but in our homes, in how we eat, shop, travel, care for the world.

Only a sadist would intentionally harm someone they love. Only a very careless person would persistently hurt a loved one through neglect. If we love the world, love life itself, how can we go on behaving in ways which wound them?

So may the songs of the birds, trees, rivers and seas, as well as the songs of our own soul, guide us to protect and preserve the music of all creation.

 

Countdown to Pesach: A Journey Round the Seder Plate

A Journey Round the Seder Plate

The whole of life is on the Seder Plate, from the greens of spring to the bone of the sacrificial lamb and the egg for the full circle of birth and death. As we begin to prepare the symbols which occupy it, we take you on a journey round the Seder plate – not forgetting the most important symbolic food, the Matzah.

The Matzah – By Oliver Joseph

The preparation of the Mazah begins before our freedom comes. Before even the last plague had arrived, the Israelites prepared the dough for the Matzah in Egypt, ‘טֶרֶם יֶחְמָץ’, before it had a chance to rise. Before we lay our tables before Seder night, we too have already bought or baked our Matzah.

This is the bread of our enslavement and our freedom; this bread is a bridge between these two worlds. Perhaps that is why Yeshiah di Trani, a 13th Century Italian Talmudist, understands the words ‘Lechem Oni’, bread of poverty, as bread upon which we answer questions (‘Oni’, poverty also holds the word ‘Oneh’, to answer). Matzah is both the bread of our poverty and the bread of our rejoicing; it holds both energies.

When we sit at the Passover table, we are instructed to begin the Passover Seder ‘as if we too were slaves in Egypt’. We experience pain and suffering; we ask questions about slavery past and present. Later, as the evening continues, we will offer songs of celebrations and we will feast. It is not simple both to celebrate our freedom and simultaneously live our enslavement. But on this feast of Matzot we take all of the symbols of Seder, the Matzah included, and ask questions bridging worlds, enabling movement from enslavement to freedom, from sadness to rejoicing, for us and for the world.              

The Karpas, Maror and Charoset – by Jonathan Wittenberg

Karpas can be parsley, celery, potatoes, watercress, any vegetable over which we bless God for ‘creating the fruit of the earth’. When I asked my teacher, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, ‘Why Karpas?’ he answered, ‘So that people should ask, “Why Karpas?” It’s there to provoke questions.’ For me this year Karpas represents hope from the earth. The Torah calls Pesach Chag Ha’Aviv, the Festival of Spring. Karpas speak of tiny green leaves as they first pierce the soil, fair weather, a healthy climate round the globe, planting, rewilding, love of the land.

Maror, in contrast, is bitter. The very word is a generic term for bitterness. The Mishnah discusses what herbs are sufficiently unpleasant that they may be eaten as maror. Meanwhile, Jewish geography has determined that we use what’s local, usually horseradish in northern countries. Maror represents the misery of enslavement. This year it will express for me how we’ve enslaved the earth, made ourselves relentless masters of the land, degraded the soil – perhaps unwittingly -, dispossessed many people who for generations eked a subsistence living out of dry lands, and decimated wildlife.

Charoset is the Jewish food of love. Apples, figs, dates, grapes, nuts, wine, cinnamon – according to the Talmud and its commentators any fruit or spice may be used which is mentioned in the Bible’s wonderful love poem, the Song of Songs (read at the end of Pesach). This year my Charoset will taste of love of the earth: almond-blossom, apple-blossom, dawn sun across orchards, the scent of fields after rain. It will remind me to join with those who love this earth and strive to protect it for our children’s children, so that we will be able to answer with integrity when they ask ‘Mah Zot! What have you done to our world?’

The Egg and Bone – by Zahavit Shalev

Halachist Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem describes the long history of the egg and the shankbone on the seder plate. Originally, in Mishnaic times, a festive meal meant at least two cooked dishes. These were stand-ins for the original Paschal feast – a barbecued lamb. In the course of Talmudic discussions, these dishes came to be seen as symbolically representing the Pesach and Chagigah sacrifices brought on Pesach in Temple times.

In Talmudic times the two cooked foods became standardised as the shank-bone and the egg, in part because they seemed to make sense: the shank-bone clearly stands for the paschal lamb of the original Passover, while the egg is an easily accessible food, and also has great symbolism for a spring time festival!

The burning question we are left with then is this: are these foods symbols to be looked at or ritual foods to be ingested? It’s a great conundrum to ponder and absolutely encapsulates the dynamic of the seder. On the one hand we want a symbol – something to look at that is exactly the same as it was last year and for generations past. On the other, we want to participate in a dynamic and performative ritual – one regularly recreated – in which we reinvent and internalise (by eating!) the Exodus anew every year.

Of course, these items (and their vegan or vegetarian substitutes) do both. As Rabbi Golinkin concludes: whether we eat or gaze at the two cooked dishes on the seder plate, may they help us re-enact the Exodus from Egypt and fulfil the mitzvah of v’higgadeta l’vinkha, “You shall tell your child on that day, saying: It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).

We all wish everyone a Chag Sameach

Countdown to Pesach: On Freedom

On Freedom

In the Torah

Pesach is widely referred to as the Festival of Freedom. It’s not the Torah but the rabbis who gave it this name, calling it zeman cherutenu, ‘the season of our freedom’.

The Torah speaks not of freedom but of service and purpose. God repeatedly instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh not simply to ‘Let my people go’, but to let them go ‘to serve Me’. Freedom is not an ultimate goal, but a necessary precondition for being able to do what is just and right: affirm the dignity of all humanity, create a fair society and live in respectful equilibrium with nature.

Hence, when Moses receives the Ten Commandments at Sinai, with its writing charut, ‘engraved’, on the two tablets of stone, the rabbis play on the word: ‘Don’t read it as charut, ‘engraved’; read it as cherut, ‘freedom’. It is only through service to a higher vision that we become truly free. Yehudah Halevi encapsulate this in a famous couplet:

Avdei zeman avdei avadim heim:
Servants of fortune are servants of servants;
The servant of God alone is free.

Without explicitly using the word ‘freedom’, the laws of the Torah and their rabbinic interpretations enshrine the key principles of ‘freedoms from’. Tsedakah, the command to further social justice, is intended to free people from destitution: hunger, nakedness, homelessness and unemployment. Tsedek and mishpat, justice and law, protect society as a whole and especially the most vulnerable, the parentless and stateless, from exploitation and rejection. Chesed, faithful kindness, calls us to make compassion our underlying value in all our conduct. The requirement to speak and listen to truth, ‘Keep far from falsehood’ is intended to liberate us from the mesh of fake news and false ‘facts’ by which power has entrenched itself since time immemorial.

None of these freedoms can be taken for granted in today’s world.

Today

Freedom from Hunger

From the first rabbinical codes onwards, Jewish law insists that we may not sit down to our own Seder and mark the festival of national liberation while leaving others behind because they can’t afford to keep the festival. The celebration of freedom must be beyond no one’s means. Among dozens of appeals, myisrael sent out the following:

The Family Nest is one of our charities preparing food packages for families in need over the holiday period. Most of the Nest’s families are single mothers facing extraordinary hardships having experienced a partner bereavement or been victims of abuse. All have severe financial struggles and worry about putting food on the table.

We may prefer to respond to something else, but we are not at liberty to do nothing. Our own community is asking support for Mavar, Resource and Guy’s Trust. Click here to donate.

Freedom of speech

In his pithy, powerful book On Tyranny Timothy Snyder warns urgently against imprisonment in lies:

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticise power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
Timothy Snyder: On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century, p. 65

The novelist Ahmed Altan, imprisoned in Turkey as a punishment for being a novelist, wrote with great courage in an essay smuggled out of jail:

Yes, I am being held in a high-security prison in the middle of a wilderness. Yes, I am in a cell where the door is opened and closed with the rattle and clatter of iron…
All of this is true, but it is not the whole truth.
On summer mornings, when the first rays of the sun come through the naked bars and pierce my pillow like shining spears, I hear the playful songs of the birds of passage that have nested under the courtyard eaves…When I wake up with the autumn rain hitting the window bars, bearing the fury of northern winds, I start the day on the shores of the Danube…
I am writing this in a prison cell. But I am not in prison. I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not. You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here.
Ahmet Altan: I Will Never See The World Again

Freedom from the Fear of Freedom

In Darkness over Germany, a remarkable testament recently republished, Amy Buller described her conversations with Germans of all shades of opinion in the late 1930’s. Here she records the words of Dr Webber, a Nazi supporter, whom she describes as ‘a traitor to himself’:

‘I am not going to enter into the various aspects such as freedom from foreign domination, freedom from economic slavery, freedom from poverty or unemployment. You know of these and many others, but I want to suggest to you that the younger generation in Germany needed above all the freedom that comes from security, and the kind of security I mean is that which comes to those who give complete obedience to an authority they know they can trust. For youth in Germany the terrible time of uncertainty is over. In National Socialism they find the reason for their existence, the chance of living fully and with a purpose…’
Amy Buller: Darkness Over Germany, p. 186

It is a disturbing train of thought to consider what freedoms and truths are being betrayed in the world today in the interests of what is popularly thought of as ‘security’ and to consider what fears lie behind such reactions.

Countdown to Pesach: Kosher for Pesach?

I wish everyone a Happy Pesach.

Kosher for Pesach?

‘Three weeks before Pesach’, a guest recently told us, ‘My grandfather put a rug in the hall with a table on which he placed all the remaining chametz (leaven) while, room by room he cleaned the house of the smallest crumb. “If anyone wants to eat chametz”, he’d say, “it’s in the hall”. Whenever people entered the house, they’d have to shake themselves out over the rug, which he’d duly removed the night before the Seder.’

We probably won’t go to quite these lengths, but halakhah, Jewish law, requires us to be strict concerning the removal of chametz from our homes. Chametz is anything consisting of or containing the leaven of the five staple grains, wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt. This includes products in which it may be even a minor ingredient. Since the substance, and taste, of it becomes absorbed through the year in pots, plates and cutlery (just as our hearts and  minds become imbued with our habits, good and bad) it is the practice to ‘change over’, to either kasher or put away our kitchenware and bring out special Pesach dishes.

I honour, respect and try to observe this deeply Jewish, halakhic path, which links the most ordinary practical tasks and disciplines of life to the deepest values and spiritual and moral ideals.

So what is ‘Kosher lePesach’?
Below are three short sections, with further links:

  1. What do I do? Practical guides to Pesach cleaning, shopping and cooking.
  2. What about being a ‘kosher’ person?
  3. What about the environment?

1. What do I do?

There are many guides on-line. I would refer our community to the Rabbinical Assembly Pesach 5799 guide. It advises families how to maintain a kosher-for-Pesach home in accordance with the principles of Conservative / Masorti Judaism and its understanding of Jewish Law. It can be downloaded here.

The Torah instructs us not only that we must not eat, but that we may not own, leaven over Pesach. The custom is therefore to give closed packets and tins to the homeless. Items will be collected (for the Finchley FoodBank) from the synagogue on Thursday morning 14th April. Things of value are stored in a specific cupboard, sealed over Passover, and formally sold. If you intend to do this through the synagogue please complete this ‘Sale of Chametz’ form by 9am on Thursday.

Since we may not own chametz, we also need to feed our animals non-chametz products. People may enjoy this YouTube video made by Rolo, the dog of my friend and colleague Rabbi Lawrence at Kinloss. (Mitzpah’s refections will appear in our Pesach magazine).

We have a new issue this year: what do we feed the hedgehog in the garden, or ‘when kosher becomes a prickly business’?

2. What about being a ‘Kosher person’?

To describe a person as ‘kasher’ is to say that that they have integrity and values. To be a ben adam kasher is a reputation worth striving for. Moses Isserles underlines the most important attribute in a gloss to the very first law of Pesach in Joseph Caro’s classic code of law, the Shulchan Aruch:

It is the custom to buy kosher le-Pesach flour and distribute it to the poor…

Based on the Mishnah’s insistence that nobody should sit down to the Seder without ensuring that the poorest person has all the necessaries to celebrate too, this basic practice of generosity, or rather social justice, is universal across all Jewish communities.

We each have the causes to which we are devoted. See here for our Community Pesach Appeal. These are small charities where our contributions make a significant difference in enabling people to experience freedom through the dignity of employment, through educational opportunities often absent in the developing world, and through the liberty of choosing to live in more open communities. These causes express our collective values; it is therefore important that we all contribute. Even a very modest sum is an expression of solidarity.

I am also deeply concerned about the fate of refugees here, in Israel and across the globe and will write further under the subjects of slavery and freedom, the subjects of Tuesday and Wednesday’s e-letters.

There is always the danger that we forget, in our focus on the details of Pesach cleaning, the ethical and spiritual dimensions of Zecher leyetziat Mitzrayim, being mindful of the Exodus from Egypt, the foundation story of the Jewish People. We remember persecution in order to strive for dignity for ourselves and all people. We recall injustice to teach us to fight for justice, and cruelty in order to devote ourselves to its opposite, loving-kindness and the creation of compassionate societies.

3. What about ‘environmentally kosher’?

‘Eco-kosher’ is a new, but extremely important, term. Yesterday evening, Nicky and I did our Pesach shopping at a large kosher supermarket. Everyone was very friendly; the staff were kind and helpful. Nevertheless, I felt a degree of shame.

Who paid with their labour for the products we were all trying to buy as cheaply as possible? Would Pesach be a ‘Festival of Freedom’ for them? Consider, for example the Haggadah of T’ruah the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and its focus on slavery in agriculture.

I tried, often in vain, to choose products with cardboard rather than plastic packaging. The Ten Plagues were God and nature’s response to Pharaoh’s arrogant claim that he owned nature: ‘The Nile is mine! I made it!’ (Ezekiel 29:10)

Post-industrial humanity is often guilty of the same mistake. The plagues this is likely to bring are unthinkable. One of my ‘wise children’ at this year’s Seder will be Greta Thunberg, for standing up, alone at first, but now with hundreds of thousands to protest our abuse of the earth, while there may still be time.

I wish everyone thoughtful and inspiring preparations

Countdown to Pesach: Slavery

On Slavery

The journey of the Seder takes us me’avdut lecherut, ‘from slavery to freedom’. ‘I want people to leave my Seder praying with their feet’, said Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Stein on radio 4’s Beyond Belief yesterday, referring to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous comment that in marching with Rev Martin Luther Kind at Selma, Alabama, he was ‘praying with his legs’. Just as thousands of years ago in the Exodus from Egypt, so today we remain travellers on the journey towards freedom, for ourselves and everyone.

The destination is redemption, the realisation of a vision of justice and harmony in which each person, every people, even the land, plants and animals, have their fair and necessary place. That is why the Haggadah narrative closes with the blessing Ga’al Yisrael, thanking God, ‘the redeemer of Israel’ – and the world.

But the story begins at the opposite pole, with slavery. I hope the following materials, beginning with the Bible and ending with poignant contemporary testimony, will be helpful in preparing for the Seder.

In the Torah

The Hebrew for ‘slave’ is eved. Hence avadim hayinu lePharaoh beMitzrayim, ‘we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt’.

Slavery is avodah, as in the verse, vayei’anchu Bnie Yisrael min ha’avodah, ‘the Children of Israel groaned beneath the burden of slavery’.

The verb for enslaving another person derives from the same root, as in vaya’avidu Mitzrayim et Benei Yisrael bepharech, ‘The Egyptians enslaved the Children of Israel with hard labour’.

All these references are included in the Haggadah. But they aren’t the only meanings derived from the root ‘avad’.

Human beings are avadai, ‘My servants,’ says God, and therefore no one else’s. The verb avad means ‘to work’, and also to serve, especially God and God’s sacred ideals. We are instructed le’ovdo bechol levavchem, ‘to serve God with all our hearts’, which the rabbis interpret to mean the heart’s service of prayer.

To reduce another person to abject slavery is therefore to crush his or her inherent dignity as a being created in God’s image and for God’s service and to misuse their capacity for dignified work and service for exploitative and abusive ends. It is a crime against the very nature of humanity, God and creation.

What is slavery today?

Inner slavery

In every sphere of existence, including our own inner life, we may become, be turned into, or turn ourselves into, slaves. As the Ba’al Shem Tov taught:

Every person is a world in miniature. In it are Moses, Aaron and Egypt.

Abraham Twerski opens his edition of the Haggadah with testimony from a lifetime’s work in striving to help people with addictions. He quotes a former patient:

I was a slave to drugs, and there has never been so demanding and inconsiderate a taskmaster, so absolute an enslavement, as addiction to chemicals. I had no choice whether to use them or not. I did things in my addiction that I swore I would never do, because a slave must do as he is told…I know what it means to be a slave, and I know what it means to be free.’ From Bondage to Freedom: Rabbi Abraham Twerski, p. 10

A challenging question at the Seder is ‘To what are we ourselves enslaved?’ Are we, individually or collectively, slaves to social media, iphones and email, success, the image we want others to have of us, the concept that ‘progress’ is measured overwhelmingly in economic ‘growth’? Our inner journey to freedom, including the two steps back we all often take, probably remains untold, even to ourselves…

Domestic Tyranny

Tyranny and cruelty survive and persist within the supposedly harmonious sphere of the home. Here is an unusual example, from Wag, ‘The Mag for Dog Lovers’:

The Freedom Project initiative helps dog-owners fleeing domestic abuse by providing a safe, temporary home for their dogs. (Abusers often abuse pets as well.) Gemma, who’d lived in a physically and mentally abusive relationship for three years, testified: ‘I would never have left home without my dogs. I managed to get them out of there, but I couldn’t take them into the refuge with me….’

Most painfully, love itself, more often of course for children than animals, can prevent victims of violence from escaping into freedom…

Slavery at Work

The slave-trade may long have been abolished across most of the world. Yet slavery, like many evil spirits, takes different forms. It is often far less distant than we may like to think. We may even be – unwittingly – funding it:

A tomato purchased in the United States between November and May was most likely picked by a worker in Florida. On this night, we recall the numerous cases of modern slavery and other worker exploitation that occurred in the Florida tomato industry, which centers on the town of Immokalee, as recently as 2010. Together with students, secular human rights activists, and religious groups like T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Immokalee workers have convinced 14 major corporations, such as McDonald’s and Walmart, to join the Fair Food Program, a historic partnership between workers, growers, and corporations. truah.org

HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – for supporting which the synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, suffered a vile and murderous attack last October) includes the following account in its Haggadah, downloadable on line.

Sam (Yamin) Yingichay grew up in Myanmar as one of an estimated 168 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 engaged in child labour around the world. Forced into constructing roads and living with an abusive stepfather, at 14 Yamin escaped and began to search for her birth father. Eventually she met a man claiming to know her father and followed him to Thailand, where she was once again sold into hard labour…
See hias.org  for the hopeful end to her story.

The Mishnah teaches that we matchil bignai umesayyem beshevach, ‘begin with shame and conclude with praise’. The very existence of slavery was and is a shame and disgrace to the humanity of each and every one of us. Let us work for a world in which we can travel together to a place where we can all in our own way praise and appreciate the wonder of life.

For tomorrow: the subject of Freedom….

Never Give Up

Picking up the newspaper, following election days and Brexit dates, I find Milton’s lines echoing in my head: ‘On evil times though fallen, and evil days’. How, in the UK, Israel, so much of the world, have we allowed ourselves to get into such a mess?

Pesach, the festival of freedom, Spring and hope is scarcely a week away. I was studying a Hasidic commentary on its core text, the Haggadah, when I came across the Rebbe of Slonim’s interpretation of the second-century teacher ben Zoma’s analysis of the commandment to recall the Exodus from Egypt ‘All the days of your life’. Ben Zoma says:

‘The days of your life’ refers to the days.
All the days of your life’ includes the nights.

The Rebbe explains:

There are those who take strength only when it is day; that is, when they see light. But there are also those who take strength even in the hour of darkness, when all is as night, so that the nights, too, may become like ‘the days of your life’.

I went to bed connecting in my mind this spirit of courage and determination with the scores of people I know on either side of the Atlantic and Mediterranean who fight cruelty, devote their lives to healing pain, talk to homeless people, ensure hungry children have breakfast, lunch and dinner, speak out on behalf of the wordless world of nature, feed the birds, plant trees, give beds to those fleeing persecution, challenge racism, inspire the soul with words and music, and refuse to give up.

I woke up to the following email, a translation by my colleague Gil Nativ of a letter by David Grossman:

In the footsteps of this election day…I promise to examine myself every day to make sure none of this evil spirit sticks to me: not the racism, exploitation, nastiness, belligerence, stupidity, or short-sightedness. I shall continue, like a child, to believe that there can be justice and equality here, tranquillity and peace between individuals and peoples. Even if my elected representatives do not believe in this and my government is not doing it, I will strive to achieve this here, in the small four cubits of my personal space.

Given the course of the last five years across the globe, the Israeli elections are hardly the only ones about which he could be writing, and there, at least, there are elections.

Grossman’s concluding phrase may require explanation. The Talmud observes that, since the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70CE, all God has left in this world is ‘the four cubits of halakhah (Jewish law)’. Notably, four cubits is also the rabbinic definition of any individual’s personal space.

Can we, then, make our personal space into God’s sacred space by what we do and how we act? The story of the Exodus carries clear directions on how to achieve this: never exploit another human being; respect and uphold the dignity of every person; shun any nationalism and popularism which entails the degradation of other peoples; do nothing which brings environmental disaster upon your country; refuse to be compliant to cruelty and injustice; locate yourself, like Moses, in places where the sufferings of others are not invisible to you, because those who suffer from them are our brothers and sisters; dedicate your life to these values.

I watched a wren in the garden this morning. It’s Britain’s second smallest bird; it weighs little more than a 20p coin. But it’s doughty and determined. You can’t always see from where it sings, but it has, for such a tiny bird, the loudest, brightest, most sustained and heartening song.

 

Don’t carry on the same as before

From time to time I think back to the old joke about the man who went to the doctor to sort out his aches and pains. Aware that initial appointments cost $100 while subsequent visits were only $50, he said with a smile as he entered the consulting room: ‘Here I am again doctor’. ‘Well’, said the latter, looking him over with a smile: ‘As for the treatment, just carry on the same as before’.

I’m lucky: I like most of my ‘same as before’. If I could have the time back when the children were small, the dog just a puppy, the light rain drying off the rowan trees and the sun shining back from the puddles on the path – I’d have it, please, right away.

But the world is not in a state where we can carry on just as before. The earth is too beautiful, life too precious, and the future of its children too great a responsibility. ‘Do something; change your ways’, they’re demanding as in their hundreds of thousands they strike about climate-change across the globe. Perhaps, in an oblique, disturbed and disturbing way, the gangs who do knife-crime are saying something similar: ‘We want a future: meaning, value, hope’.

Shabbat Hachodesh, ‘the Sabbath of the New Moon’, falls this year precisely on the new moon of Nissan. It opens the month of spring, the month of Passover, when we tell our ancient story: ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt’….

‘Why?’ a teenager asked me: ‘Haven’t we got better experiences to talk about?’

My immediate answer was that one can’t be a healer unless one feels how the world hurts. Those hurts are urgent.

‘Help’, says my colleague Levi Lauer from Israel: There are 900 single asylum-seeker mothers here. Their problems are multiple: ‘PTSD; separation from friends and churches; extreme language and cultural estrangement; a propensity to resort to corporal discipline of their kids; long undertreated medical issues…’ I’m not going to not answer on behalf of our community.

‘Put a hot red pepper on your Passover plate’, say Jews supporting Extinction Rebellion: think what to do about the world heating up. (The first site which came up when I googled the group was ‘Synagogue of Satan – Jewish Supremacy’, with a Swastika in the middle. What vile abuse!)

Look through a turtle’s or an albatross’s eyes at the plastic you dump in the sea, says David Attenborough of Blue Planet. In the queue at the bakery I chatted with the woman behind me about how both of us had brought our own bags. ‘Anyone who says we need less plastic’, the lady behind her chimed in, ‘Is an anti-Semite. We need more plastic, not less’. (What folly. How foolish, too, to misapply and trivialize anti-Semitism.)

‘Begin again’, teaches Rabbi Haim Haika of Amdur, in a penetrating re-reading of Hachodesh, ‘this month’, as ‘Heichadesh: Renew yourself’. Habits, he continues, have a way of imprinting themselves on your insides. (‘Habit’, teva, and ‘print’, matbia, are also from the same root in Hebrew). Don’t let that happen.

I don’t want to cheat life. I don’t want not to care. I don’t want the God who resides in all life to turn me away with a cheap answer because I wanted a cheap getaway. I need to say to God, to all life, to the spirit which lives within us all, to the ultimate healer, ‘I am here. Help me not to carry on the same as before.

 

Prickly Subjects

11pm last night was a highlight of my week. ‘Come’, my daughter Libbi called from the garden, ‘Quickly. I’ve seen it.’

‘It’ was the baby hedgehog I’d brought home one damp November night. I’d been out late with the dog on the Heath when I noticed a tiny ball of prickles curled up in the wet grass. Sometimes hedgehogs are born too late in the year to make it through the winter; they have to reach a minimum weight to survive hibernation. Was this baby animal too small? If I took it home to feed it up, would I be removing it from its family, doing more harm than good? But then, we had a large garden with other hedgehogs present and, following professional advice, we’d taken the essential measures to make our garden hedgehog friendly.

The animal fitted snugly in my glove. I ran home, dog leash in one hand, baby hedgehog in the other. I called the hedgehog help-line (yes, Britain has such a thing), took advice from congregants (there’s expertise on everything), bought the right food, fed the animal nightly and invested in a deluxe hibernation home. (‘A fool and his money are easily parted’, says my wife – who would have done exactly the same for an animal, or human, in need).

So, when Libbi called out, and we saw the hedgehog, thin but definitely alive, emerge from its winter sleep, we were thrilled.

I’m writing about this not just because it brought our family joy, and not only because over and again I reli­­­­ve a horrid scene where at a crossroads I watched a gang of teenagers stone a hedgehog to death.

I’m writing because, in a world which leaves so many of us feeling so powerless so much of the time, I am passionate about ‘can do’. ‘You are not at liberty to desist from the work’, insisted Rabbi Tarfon 1900 years ago, words we put on the certificates of achievement awarded by Eco-Synagogue.

We don’t have to watch, like helpless bystanders, the decline of wildlife, or race and inter-faith relations, or teenager safety and wellbeing, or social justice, or compassion itself.

I’ve had a learning week. I met Leket Israel, Israel’s National Food Bank, which last year gleaned 30 million tons of produce from the fields and saved 2 million hot dinners from waste. I saw City Harvest, which has provided 5 million rescued meals in London (they bring food to our asylum seekers drop-in). They estimate that 9.2 million meals are missed each month by Londoners who can’t afford food, while 13.3 million meals are thrown away.

I met with parliamentarians, religious leaders and the heads of The Wildlife Trust to discuss their input into the forthcoming environment act, based on their amazing report Towards a Wilder Britain. Britain is among the most environmentally degraded countries in the world.

Our hedgehog, our garden, our synagogue and Eco-Synagogue will all play a part.

I went to Barnet House to express solidarity against racism and anti-Semitism with members of the Muslim community. I listened to how teenage boys and girls experience our local streets. Last Friday a group of us took gifts to the North London Mosque following the atrocities in Christchurch. In this populism age, with xenophobia on the rise, we need to stand, and be seen to stand, together.

In his excellent book To Do The Right And The Good, Elliot Dorff describes compellingly how Judaism understands the creation of a compassionate, just and sustainable world as the inescapable responsibility of every individual, household and community, – our part in our partnership with God.

When that young hedgehog emerged last night from its long sleep, I felt that it was shaking me awake too, and all of us, to do more for the sake of life.

 

Please find out more from:

https://www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk

https://www.leket.org/en

www.cityharvest.org.uk

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wilder-future

https://jps.org/books/to-do-the-right-and-the-good/

People who bring heaven down to earth

‘How beautiful the world still is, how stunning life is’, Simon Lichman wrote to me this morning: nature ‘is not just beauty, it is the finely tuned essence of that which makes it all possible.’

That ‘essence’ is what I mean by God; the better part of me tries to listen for it, everywhere.

I’ve been asked: ‘So what did you do in Israel besides run a marathon?’ The answer is: I heard that voice, many times – as I hear it also here, in London.

I heard it because I met so many people, different, the focus of their lives diverse, who yet had in common the determination to connect. I could list all their names and what they do, but I’m afraid I may leave someone out. So here are only a few:

There’s Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, who created the community Tsion, and who, on Yom Yerushalayim, the date the city was united physically in the Six Day War, unites it spiritually by praying with imams, priests and rabbis together to ‘Seek the peace of Jerusalem’.

There’s Levy Lauer, who knows every detail of what it means to give a decent meal, a place to sleep, a safe roof, to a destitute refugee who would otherwise be homeless and hungry with nowhere for her children on the streets.

There’s Shaiya Rothberg, who teaches mysticism at the Conservative Yeshivah, but isn’t such a mystic as to be afraid to put himself on the line for poor families, Arab and Jewish, in East Jerusalem, so that they shouldn’t be forced from their homes.

There are the Eritrean women at Kuchinate (‘crochet’ in Tirgrinia) creating red and sky-blue baskets, weaving from a past of flight, beatings and rape a future of comradeship, hope and dignity.

There are Art Green and Mimi Faigelson, scholars of Hasidism, who through this language of spirit and feelings help their students discover the pathway between intellect and soul.

There’s Yonatan Neril, off to Kenya where Israeli and British initiatives produce non-polluting solar energy for developing African economies. He picked up a roll the café owners were throwing away: ‘May I give this to the beggar on the corner’. Waste is intolerable, he said.

There’s Simon himself, devoted to bringing schools together, Arab and Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian. It takes him an age to walk up the lane in Ein Rafa because every child greets him, everyone calls ‘Hey! Simon!’

And, and,…What these people and so many others across the world have in common is the commitment to deeper connections: between Jews, Christians and Muslims mind and heart; home and homelessness; humankind and nature. In affirming these links, they help us hear, despite the surrounding racket, the quiet pulse of the hidden life which flows through everything, ‘that finely tuned essence of what makes all possible’.

I respect such people. I honour their fellowship. We must strengthen each other in the bleak times at hand, as fear grows and across the world populism sharpens its weapons.

Such people live by a Torah which, like the fire on the altar in the Temple long ago, burns through the night until morning, ‘lighting the darkness until it is transformed into light.’ (Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Tschernobil)

Late one night in Jerusalem I spotted a light still burning in a ramshackle store. The old man owner turned and saw me: ‘Yes, I have a Tallit, a prayer shawl for you’. There and then he retied the eight-threaded fringes on each corner, humble, devoted, speaking no words of distraction until the skilful work was complete. Traditionally one thread in each fringe is blue, recalling the brilliance of the sky. Thus I bore silent witness to the binding of the knots, the tying together of heaven and earth.

There are many whose lives are devoted to the weaving of such bonds, who make noble the endeavour to be human.

 

After the murderous attacks on worshippers at Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand

We stand with you in solidarity and sorrow.

Wherever we are in the world, whatever our faith and beliefs, we stand together with you as pilgrims on this earth, as fellow human beings striving to do what is compassionate and just, hoping to share with our loved ones, friends and fellow citizens the privileges and responsibilities of life.

We have no place for racism, hatred and supremacism.

We are appalled and disgusted at the premeditated racist murder of Muslim people, made even more brutal, blasphemous, hurtful and despicable because it was carried out in the sacred precincts of prayer, during the peaceful hour of worship.

We mourn the victims alongside you, children, teenagers, healers and teachers, heroes who tried to save others, people from different parts of the world, contributing to the civic life of Christchurch and New Zealand.

Our hearts are with the bereaved. Our prayers are with the wounded and traumatised, and with all those striving to heal and support them. Our anguished thoughts are with all whose family members are still missing.

We feel for Muslim communities across the world.

The oneness of God and the fellowship of our common humanity unite us. We must stand as surety for each other in times of threat and danger. We must act collectively against all forms of hatred and bigotry. We must foster friendship and understanding between us and all people. We must work together for the safety and good of all life everywhere.

Written in sorrow

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
Senior Rabbi, Masorti Judaism

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