Visiting Israel March 2019 – A Diary

While in Israel this week, ahead of running the Jerusalem Marathon, Rabbi Wittenberg has visited a number of projects and written a little about them and other areas of interest:

A New Tallit

I’ve loved my weekday tallit. It’s not one he gave me, but it reminds me of my father. I don’t want to part from it. But it’s faded and has holes; sadly, its time has come. Jerusalem is no bad place for tallit hunting.

It’s ten at night, but a small store on King George Street is still open. I’ve often noted the bric-a-brac outside, tourist items, and walked by. This time I go in. The owner, a gentle old man, shows me a Tallit, light, not showy, modest like my father. I bought it at once.

But the tzitziot, the fringes to remind us of heaven and our responsibilities on earth, were torn. ‘I must replace those’, the man said, ‘Can you wait’? He separated four long threads for each corner, folding each set double to make eight. He sat down, said ‘For the sake of the mitzvah of tzitzit’ and began to tie the complex knots. ‘Were you born in Jerusalem?’ I asked. He pointed to his lips: he would not speak, not break concentration until the knots were done. I too sat silent. He finished a corner: ‘In Persia’. I watched him, a man of yirat shamayim, humility before God, of chochmah, fingers skilled in the subtle winding of the threads.

‘I want to sell my stock and close’, he said later pointing at the remaining Judaica, touristica. ‘Won’t you miss this?’ ‘No; my wife died. I can’t do this alone.’ ‘Recently?’ ‘A year. She was kind, wise, good.’ He looked down.

We said warm goodbyes. ‘I’ll think of you when I wear this Tallit’, his presence, and memories of my father, woven into the threads.

The Library

‘Can you look over my grandfather’s books,’ Rivana asked me. Since he’d passed away his library was housed in her mother’s flat, next door to where she and Simon Lichtman had kindly enabled me to stay.
There were the Talmuds, Babylonian and Jerusalem, a heavy set of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, two-hundred-year-old volumes of the Chummash and Tenach, books in Yiddish on history, politics, science, poetry. There were four volumes on the history of the Jews of Lithuania, – from after the terrors. Yiddish must have been for him where Judaism and the rest of the world met.

‘Tell me about your grandfather.’ On the wall was his semichah, attesting to his ordination. It was from the great Lithuanian Yeshivah of Slobodka, dated 1927.

‘Soon after, my grandparents came to New York. My grandfather was interested in everything; he was widely learned. When anyone came to see him about conversion, he would say “Let’s see how we can make this work”. In 1943 he joined a march of rabbis to Washington to protest America’s treatment of refugees.’ I want to know more about this.

There was a second certificate on the wall, in honour of Rivana’s grandmother. The Rabbinical Seminary of America thanked her for her support of the congregation and the rabbinate. It was as far as an orthodox body could go in recognising the contribution of a remarkable woman.

Open their covers and books yield the soul the person who loved them. We sat quietly with the spirit of Rivana’s grandparents.

Birds
After plentiful rain in the last weeks the small meadows between the suburbs of Jerusalem are verdant, brilliant in the sunshine. The grass is full of small flowers: anemones, iris and, among the stones, cyclamen. The Jerusalem Botanical Gardens are blue with swathes of lupins.Can anyone name for me this tiny bird, drinking sap from a cactus flower?

I only managed to photograph one of a pair of hoopoes, the duchifat, Israel’s national bird.

I met with Yonatan Neril, who founded the The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

I’m meeting later today with EcoPeace Middle East, who work with Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians for the good of the whole region.

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Kuchinate – קוצ’ינטה – African Refugee Women’s Collective:

“I walked through South Tel Aviv, past the Central Bus Station, where refugees from Eritrea and Dafur gather, sleep in street corners and try to find work, down to the unprepossessing building where Kuchinate has its premises.

I climbed the stairs into a different world. Here were baskets in the most brilliant colours, vibrant blue, glowing red, baskets in bright bands of white and black. Here was life and creativity. Kuchin-at-ei means ‘crochet’ in Tirgrinia.
A group of women were sewing while talking quietly together. Their smiles in greeting communicated a warmth and gentleness which could only derive from a profound resilience, considering what they had been forced to pass through. It’s not the way among Eritrean women, I was told, to speak of what happened in the past.

Though the government takes substantial taxes, the women are able to earn a basic if meagre living through their work. However, it’s not just the money which sustains them but the sense of community and solidarity which the staff and volunteers help the women to provide for each other.

I’m bringing home to our community as many baskets as I can carry; they’re ideal containers for Mishoach Manot, Purim gifts of food and drinks. You can also shop on line.
I hope we’ll make links with this remarkable project of healing and creativity. Top in Maimonides’ hierarchy of tzedakah is affirming people’s dignity by enabling them to earn a safe living.

Please look on https://www.kuchinate.com/ and https://www.instagram.com/kuchinate_arts

Why I’m running for the guide dogs

I can’t fully explain why I’m crazy enough to start running marathons when I’m sixty. It’s partly to control my diabetes (a shorter distance would do!) it’s partly to make up for how useless I was at sport at school; it’s largely the pleasure of sharing, whenever possible, an activity with my son Mossy. And running in Jerusalem is a tribute to my father, who was here from 1937 – 55, in charge of keeping the blood banks cool during the siege in the War of Independence in 1948. It’s a tribute, too, to the history of our people, the Jewish People whose dreams and destiny have been intertwined with the fate and spirit of this extraordinary city for three thousand years.

Most importantly, I think of this as a marathon of hope, an HaTikvah marathon, that this remarkable civilisation of temple, synagogues, spires and minarets will one day be fully and completely Yeru-shalem, the abode of shalom, peace, the town shechubrah la yachdav, the city whose faiths and peoples are united all together. However grim the politics, I can neither count nor adequately appreciate the people I know whose lives are courageously and tenaciously devoted to just this vision.

However, I can explain why I’m running for Israel’s guide dogs. Yes, I am stupidly sentimental about animals. Yes, I love dogs. But it’s more than soppiness; it’s the feeling of oneness in their company, how the spirit of the God of life flows quietly through us all. It can’t be by chance that our black-and-white border collie came with his own tallit. We humans have to put it on as an extra garment; on occasion I’m foolish enough to feel – selectively of course – that animals and trees wear their spirituality naturally.

As for the ‘guide’ aspect, I’ve seen how these remarkable dogs, beautifully trained, can restore not only sight but independence, confidence and joy to their human partners. Today dogs guide blind people, assist those who have physical disabilities and become companions in trust, affection and resilience to civilians and soldiers with PTSD. It’s not just primary schools who have a resident hound to calm childrens’ – and teachers’ – nerves. In exam term certain universities have puppy corners too.

‘It’s not so much what he (Napal, a black Labrador) does for me physically – the assisting, the service,’ writes Jason Morgan in A Dog Called Hope, ‘so much as what he does for me socially and psychologically…he was my bridge to the outside world.’ Jason was severely wounded in an accident while on a mission with an elite US military unit. He would wake up at night screaming with physical pain and mental terror. But now ‘with Napal among us we feel like a family again.’ The children are once again ‘blessed with a dad who smiles.’

If I can contribute to at least one such canine-human partnership of faithfulness and love, I’ll be happy. Last year people privileged me to raise enough funds to sponsor half a dog, from the tip of the tail to the centre of the heart. This year I’m hoping to manage the other half; from the heart to the tip of the nose.

As for guide dogs in Israel (I support guide dogs in the UK as well, and wildlife projects in many places) I can do no better than echo what the young man said on the promotion film when asked why he didn’t import a ready-trained animal from America: ‘If my dog hadn’t been educated in Israel, how would he have known to go straight to the front of every queue?’

‘Be my eyes’ is not in fact the recommended greeting when owner and guide dog first meet. It’s a quote from the Torah. For there are many kinds of eyes and many ways of seeing. Animals, perhaps dogs especially, have often helped humans to see with the heart. I can’t count the number of people, animals, gardens, wild places and wild flowers which have enriched my sight and deepened my insight.

Today I’m stocking up on vitamin C to get rid of a cold and food for energy. Above all I’m storing in my thoughts the love and support so many people have given me. Thank you for your encouragement! When my stamina runs low (somewhere or everywhere between 18 and 35k – after when I hope I’ll feel that even if I have to crawl I’ll make the finish) I know that my friends and community are behind me, saying: ‘Treat as a sermon; just keep on going for four and a half hours.’

God, an old Kentish orchard and a prayer for people of all faiths

It’s the simplest Hasidic interpretation, but it’s beautiful. It’s how Yehudah Aryeh Leib, the Rebbe of Ger, reads the opening words of the 2nd paragraph of the Shema:Im shamoa tishme’u’. Any grammarian will tell you that the repetition of the root shema, ‘hear’ is for emphasis only.But the rebbe understands it differently: ‘If you listen’, he explains, ‘You will surely hear’.

But where should we listen? And to what?

‘Anywhere’, he would answer, ‘And to anything’; because the presence of God is in all things, and all life speaks God’s secret speech. We only have to listen.

That awareness overcame me this morning, looking at the willow catkins, the almond blossom, the daffodils beneath the yew. The voice of God is in all creation.

I felt the same when I attended the morning service for Ash Wednesday in St Margaret’s Church next to Westminster Abbey as a guest of Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkins, chaplain to Parliament and the Queen. There were a dozen Christian worshippers, silent, immersed in prayer, and there was Nicky and me. We didn’t join the prayers, but we did join prayer, because the quiet concentration which is prayer’s heart comes over one ineluctably in such silence, such attentiveness.

Sometimes the language and imagery of other faiths troubles me; I hear a note which is difficult for Jews. But more often I feel moved, especially in ancient churches hallowed by generations of worship. I’m carried down to the depths of echad, the oneness of God, the oneness of all life which embraces and humbles us all.

Aida Edemariam wrote a wonderful piece in yesterday’s Guardian about the lost art of listening. The essence, she said, is ‘to find the humility to set aside the needs of self and listen’. The Rebbe of Ger would have agreed. There is only one condition, he explained in a letter to his children: to set aside self. Then the holiness which abides in all things becomes apparent. Listen, and you will surely hear.

I’m not very good at attaining such inner silencing. But sometimes it attains, overcomes me. I had such a moment a week ago in Nicky’s beloved native Kent, in the orchards next door to the house where she grew up. Immediately afterwards I was asked to compose a prayer for an interfaith service:

I write as the February sun shines through the branches of old apple trees in a venerable Kentish orchard, disbursing the mist above the frost-hardened grass. In my soul is thanksgiving for the privilege of life, this gift of awareness in a world full of wonder.

Trees, birds, animals, people, all creation alive at this moment, we are entrusted to each other at this critical hour on the journey of our planet.

May neither fear, greed, ignorance, heedlessness, heartlessness nor lack of imagination misguide us into hurting, fighting and destroying each other. May our different ways to God educate and enrich our spirit so that, even as we follow our own path, we find companionship and inspiration from others who follow theirs.

May our humanity not make us arrogant, as if we owned creation. Rather, may the sensitivities and vulnerability of our hearts deepen our consciousness, so that we recognise with humility our fellowship and interdependence with all existence.

Together, may we be moved to love life more deeply. May we be inspired to serve the God of life by working, each with our unique gifts, insight and energy, for the good of all living beings.

 

 

On anti-Semitism and racism

I was having a coffee at Charing X Station when a man approached me and asked with bemusement, ‘What’s this anti-Jewish thing?’

I muttered something about hate, racism, age-old, when he asked again, ‘What’s that ‘s’ word?’ ‘Anti-Semitism?’ ‘Ah, yes, that’s it’, and he wandered off.

I was left asking myself why I didn’t have a proper pre-prepared one-liner. The answer is partly because books are being written on the subject, currently by Deborah Lipstadt in the States, and another, I believe, by Rabbi Dame Julia Neuberger here. But it’s also because I’m not willing to say anything which might invite the response: ‘Well, if you weren’t successful…; if you didn’t keep yourselves to yourselves…; if you didn’t have Israel… people would like you more.’

It’s no doubt true that different groups can always do more to open the door, build bridges, make themselves better understood. I believe in such activity.

But it must not lead to blaming the victim. The responsibility for hating lies with the hater. We are neither able nor entitled to take away other people’s answerability for their conduct. The responsibility for racism lies with the racist.

It must be faced, individually and institutionally. It won’t do to think, as it seems some in high places do: ‘I’m ideologically anti-racist. I always have been. Therefore, nothing I do can be anti-Semitic’ or anti-Muslim or anti- any other group.

Like love, hope, fear and anger, hate is a human response. None of us is immune. I’m uneasy when anyone says, ‘I’m not prejudiced’. Prejudice springs eternal in the human breast. Uncertainty, frustration, envy, even too many people in the waiting-room: we fix on someone to blame. The someone easily becomes them; they become a conspiracy. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was exposed as a vicious forgery in The Times in 1921. But tragically, like fake news, it’s not the facts which have the impact but the supply of a seductive story which suits, promotes and magnifies peoples’ prejudice.

Vigilance against racism, anti-Semitism, any form of bigotry which fixes on a collective target, must begin at home, in the mind and conscience. Self-deceit is easy. So is blaming the victim for being upset at the perpetrator. It’s a truism that not everything a ‘victim’ says is necessarily fair: everyone carries their history, sensitivities, prejudices of their own. But the refusal to meet, listen to and engage with the coherent responses of victim groups is a further and clear sign of bigotry.

Vigilance must extend to public discourse, the media and social media, the pulpit, local and national politics and the law. Lives are at stake: the safety in the street of people like you and me, sometimes Jews, sometimes Muslims, sometimes people who are black, sometimes refugees. The reputation of the country is at stake.

In the growing environment of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia I’m especially concerned as a rabbi with how we develop individual and communal spiritual resilience, show solidarity with other vulnerable groups, and understand identity.

A cynic once called anti-Semitism ‘the rabbi’s friend’; it makes more Jews feel Jewish than the longest of sermons.

I don’t love what I’d call such ‘negative identity’; it’s not the Judaism I want to promote. Professor Arnold Eisen writes about the difference between a covenant of fate and a covenant of destiny. One doesn’t choose the former. It happens by birth; it’s reinforced the moment someone says, ‘You Jew!’

The covenant of destiny is what we make of our given identity. It’s how we live, love, cherish, and study it; how we interact with its ancient wisdom and contemporary communities so that they deepen our conscience, open our hearts and guide our values and actions. That’s my focus on this Shabbat UK.

Humanity hasn’t got the time to waste on hatred. There’s too much, too important, to be getting on with.

 

Don’t blame others – be a leader

I have just come inside from saying shacharit, the morning prayers, in the garden. The last of the snowdrops, the crocuses, the early daffodils; that faint late February smell of pre-spring buds and promise: my heart gives thanks for you.

There’s nothing I want more than to pass to my children, to all children, a world of such wonder and multifarious beauty. The longing to do so has become my passion and, increasingly often, my frustration.

Perhaps it seems odd to focus on pastoral trivia in a week of political drama. I haven’t had my head in the sand. On Monday I had to facilitate what became an angry and aggressive evening on the impact of anti-Semitism. On Tuesday I worried for my French colleagues as there took place in France hate and counter-hate demonstrations. Last night I spent with the Community Security Trust.

I worry for Jewish, and not just for Jewish, MPs. I worry for anyone who, in this rising tide of populism, puts their head above the parapet in the name of humanity, truth and compassion. And I’m sure we have to be out there with them.

Meanwhile the government and opposition in this country are caught in the blinding intricacies of Brexit, bringing most other business to a virtual halt. Elsewhere, Presidents Putin, Trump and Bolsonaro are not currently leading their countries, or the world, in inspiring directions.

Yet all the while the earth itself is suffering, as report after report, on soil impoverishment, insect depletion, falling biodiversity and habitat loss makes so clear that it’s hard to bear reading them. If this continues, with land and food loss, we will see refugees from environmental disaster, from whole territories become uninhabitable, in numbers we had not imagined before.

In these frightening times, when the future of humanity is at stake, we need leadership which faces the real issues in energy, agriculture and transport policy, and in economic and social justice. We need a leadership with integrity, honesty, humility and imagination. We need leaders who can help us turn fear of the future, and the anger and frustration it engenders, into a vision for the future which inspires and enables us to work together, British, European, Jewish, Muslim, whoever we are. I expect this is what many current leaders aspire to be and do. Perhaps they need not just our support and encouragement, but also our indignation.

This brings me back to the garden. Nicky – my wife – has become a galanthophile, a lover of rare and unusual varieties of snowdrop. When, as we stared at two virtually indistinguishable flowers, I asked her why she cared so much about the minute differences in petal and pattern, she said, ‘Because they make me notice’. I’ve been thinking about that answer ever since.

The garden, the park, the birds, make me notice. The refugees we’ve hosted, the homeless I’ve met and the people I’ve encountered who look after the homeless, make me notice. Noticing makes me care and caring makes me passionate. This helps me find others, individuals, organisations, leaders in thought and action, who know more. They are my teachers and my inspiration, in Britain, Israel, wherever they are.

What matters most is not blaming other leaders but supporting and becoming leaders in the issue about which we care.

Judaism teaches me to love this earth, cherish this creation, care about people, seek understanding, support those who are weak, live by my values.

The sight of the snowdrops reminded me of that this morning.

 

Youth Strike 4Climate

If I’d known the date, I would have arranged to be with them. Next time, I want to be there. I’m proud that a year-ten group from our youth movement Noam is going.

I’m referring to the rally in Parliament Square today, the first British rally of Youth Strike 4Climate.

It shouldn’t be labelled ‘a strike by school children’. It’s an education event by tens, now hundreds, of thousands of pupils across the globe, many joined by parents and teachers. Next time, whole schools will participate, staff included. A key aim is – education itself: to make the climate crisis part of the national curriculum. So it’s not a strike but a critically important teaching day.

The age-group it’s targeted at is government, – the governments, business, political and communal (including religious) leaders across the world. The syllabus is the future of humanity.

The target group is also us, how we behave. The environmental crisis isn’t happening somewhere else. Others may suffer first and suffer more. But the future of every single living being is at stake, and it’s our children who have the most to lose. As one pupil said: What’s the point of my GCSE choices if there’s no future anyway? I’ve heard similar in my own home.

The movement is inspired by the vision and determination of Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old girl from Sweden who addressed the environment conference in Poland last autumn:

I beg the world’s leaders to care for our future….Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago…I want you to panic…

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres was entirely correct when he said: ‘We need to harness their energy, invention and political power…’

Greta began alone. When she first suggested they ‘strike’, her own classmates rejected the idea. Now she has allies across the globe; in the UK they span the country from Ullapool to Exeter.

It’s not the first great change to begin with the actions of just one person.

Abraham, according to rabbinic legend, broke the bickering idol-gods in his father’s shop, teaching that we are all children of the one God. (What are our idols today? – Growth as the ultimate measure of the good, our own unlimited capabilities, the control of all creation, the worship of absolute autonomy and unfettered choice?)

Moses began probably the most inspiring movement for freedom and dignity in human history when he, alone, left the safe enclave of the palace and determined to take action on behalf of suffering slaves.

Rosa Parks was alone when she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1st 1955. Later she became known as ‘the mother of the freedom movement’.

What begins with the conviction and courage of just one person must end with the participation of us all.

Every government across the world has to respond. Energy, transport, agricultural and waste recycling policies must alter. We too must be part of that change in our homes, work places, travel and consumption. This isn’t someone else’s problem.

Our attitude to nature has to return to what the authors of the Hebrew Bible understood so well because, unlike most of us, they were not alienated from the earth and they understood the meaning of reverence. Humanity exists in partnership with all life and even ‘the king is subject to the soil’.

 

 

 

 

‘As the deer longs for streams of water’: On the Book of Psalms

It was my grandfather who gave me my first copy of Tehilim, theBook of Psalms: ‘All of life is in it,’ he told me. I knew that he knew: a happy childhood in a rabbinic family, then student years in Berlin at its cultural prime had been followed by the Western Front, the great depression and inflation, the rise of Nazism, Dachau, exile, and a new life in Britain, haunted by losses. The book with his signature in it was my treasure, – until I lent it, I don’t recall to whom, and never got it back. When he died, we knew what to write on his gravestone: ‘I shall sing to God with my life, make music to my God with all my being’.

Now a group in our synagogue, our very own Chevrat Tehilim, Psalms Group, has completed a study of all 150 songs. It’s true, we haven’t done so quickly. The Psalms are traditionally divided into seven books, one for each day of the week. You can see pious Jews, women especially, on the buses in Israel reading the daily sections with deep devotion.

Admittedly, our group took a decade and a half, meeting roughly ten times a year to study each Psalm carefully and in order. But this too has been a deeply devoted and loving undertaking.

This Sunday we celebrate completing the Book followed, in traditional Jewish fashion, by starting immediately at the beginning. ‘May we not be forgotten by you, nor you be forgotten by us’, runs the customary invocation on completing a sacred text. We have no intention of forgetting.

No other book from the Hebrew Bible forms so great a part of the Siddur, the daily prayer book, as Psalms. No other text in world literature has become so intimate a part of the prayer life of tens of generations of both Jews and Christians. As my grandfather taught me, the entire life of faith and doubt, despair and hope, wonder and dismay, alienation and closeness, fear and trust – all of it is here.

There is the yearning of loving faith: ‘As the deer longs for the streams of water, so my soul longs for you, God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God.’ (Psalm 42)

There is the bewilderment of feeling utterly lost: ‘I said, “Darkness will surely cover me, light be night around me,”’ followed by the realisation, perhaps no less disturbing, that we are nevertheless not utterly alone, “Even darkness is not dark for You.” (Psalm 139)

There is the hopelessness of abandonment: ‘You have distanced from me my friends and those who love me; all who know me, darkness.’ (Psalm 88)

And there is wonder at creation: ‘[God] makes the streams run through the valleys, flowing between the mountains…The birds of the skies alight on them, and sing among the branches.’ (Psalm 104)

In all the years of prison and solitary confinement there was one item Anatole Shcharansky refused to let the KGB take from him: his book of Psalms. From it, he wrote later, he learnt the awe of God:

What is significant for me is that I feel a closeness to God in a most tangible manner. I sense its essence and domination over me. (Letter to his mother, 6 May 1984)

We can wrap our lives around the Psalms. And other people’s lives are wrapped in them too. I think of those who began the fifteen-year journey with us, but who didn’t complete in down here on earth: Olga Deaner, who adored Jane Austen but also developed her sense and sensibility among the songs of King David; Professor Bryan Reuben, who loved his Bible as much as his science; David Jackson who, despite two strokes which robbed him of his mobility, wrote music and a commentary for every single Psalm, continuing to do so when he could scarcely leave his room:

Though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death I shall fear no evil for You are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me…(Psalm 23)

…and Your music, Your Psalms, the wonder of Your world, and the companionship of those who care for such things – they comfort me too.

 

On Grief

Over the years I’ve witnessed many painful happenings: slow illnesses; sudden deaths, timely and untimely; people parted cruelty from those they love; young children losing parents; worst of all, parents losing their child. I never pass unthinking the words in the memorial service: ‘Our children, in whom are garnered all our love and hope’.

And this in peacetime in Britain, without the horror of war which so many earlier generations endured with courage, fear, and the gritty determination to live.

Mercifully, I’ve seen many causes for joy, tenderness, thoughtfulness, generosity, courage, and sheer beauty, – beauty in simple things: the winter sun in the branches of orange witch-hazel; a stock-still squirrel, watching the child watching it.

I often think how those whose hearts are broken might find enough love, purpose, meaning and healing to live with wounds which no one can take away. I know that life, which visits us with blessings, will inevitably bring us all, unpredictably, unequally, sorrow. We will all come to know what we don’t and cannot know, until…

So I hope… These are things I hope when pain visits those I care for. I hope love will be present, from family, a closest friend, to take her hand, to hug her, when the man she loved so long passes through the strange, bewildering gateway of death, where the living may not follow and they cannot turn back.

I hope that at the halvayah, the final accompanying journey… “I don’t know what to say,” people tell me often…I hope the hand with which we touch the mourner’s shoulder, take his hand, is a hand of faithful kindness, our presence at the prayers the promise of enduring solidarity.

I hope that in the numb days when it’s hard to believe it really happened, – “It feels unreal”, I’m so often told – there will be people, community, who’re attentive, listen, don’t ask, “How are you?”, know when to offer memories, when to take out the photograph and say “I knew your father”, when to laugh and when to keep silence.

I hope that when the daily rush has reabsorbed everyone in their customary preoccupations and the community has moved on to the next wedding, the next bereavement, steadfast friends won’t just leave a message “Don’t forget to ask me if there’s anything you need?” but say “Can I ask you, if you’re up to it, tomorrow at 3.00… If not, may I ask you in a couple of days again?”

I hope that over the searing months, when it’s impossible to know round what corner or inside what envelope memory waits in ambush with new pain, it may somehow be possible to begin to find purpose: “She cared about that; I’ll devote myself to that in faithfulness to her”; even, “My child loved music; I’m going to do something for children and music… I can’t have him back, but I can do a little of what he would have done.”

I hope that God will speak, not the God of “this happened because”, not the rationaliser or the blamer’s God, but the God of life, who talks in snowdrops, in the wren in the hedge, the God whose unspoken words translate simply as “I am here”.

I hope the Kaddish doesn’t feel like gestures, lies, homage to a past when others really did believe; I hope there’ll be moments when shirata are nechmata, when songs are truly comforts and praise, for a moment, makes sense.

I hope that slowly, over years, those we love, who once held our hand, traverse into our heart and speak to us from there, retelling us their wisdom, their bad jokes, listening when we need them, so that we say “She would have said…”.

I know there’s no gainsaying the empty room, the unoccupied space beside you which follows wherever you go, the dread of reaching for the key to unlock the empty house. I know that grief works to no time-table, conforms with no calendar.

Yet I hope that, somehow, there’ll be sufficient love, enough purpose to go on and live.

 

Holocaust Memorial Day: 74 spells witness

On Sunday it will be 74 years since the first outriders of the Red Army reached the infernal universe of Auschwitz-Birkenau. 27 January is not a date in the Hebrew calendar, – that is 27 Nissan, Yom Hashoah. But it has become a critical and essential date in the moral history of humanity.

Every year I reread Primo Levi, whose accounts in If This Is A Man and The Truce will always remain among the most discomfortingly perceptive testimony to the vast, unfathomable multitude of crimes which is the Holocaust:

for us even the hour of liberty rang out grave and muffled, and filled our souls with joy and yet with a painful sense of pudency, so that we should have liked to wash our consciences and our memories clean from the foulness that lay upon them; and also with anguish, because we felt that this should never happen, that now nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out the past…

It is poignant to note that 74 is signified in Hebrew by the letters ayin and dalet, which together form the word ed, witness. This is precisely at a point when we are acutely aware that the last survivors of the Shoah are in their eighties and nineties and will not be with us forever. Who will testify then?

In a moving ceremony at the Foreign office earlier this week, Lord Eric Pickles, special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, noted that the website of the Holocaust Museum in Washington is the second most visited site on the subject. One might have thought that above it would come Yad Vashem or the museum and memorial at Auschwitz itself. But this is not the case; first place on the subject is taken by a Holocaust denial site.

There is no guarantee that what history records over the long elapse of time is actually the truth.

Therefore, the commemoration of the hour of liberty must still ring out grave and muffled for humankind, because we cannot and must not wash the wrongs of the past out of our memory and conscience.

The reason is not to preserve a sense of victimhood, or to make a moral claim against other nations, or agents, though the latter may sometimes remain important for the sake of the vindication of truth. Nor is it solely or primarily for the sake of the Jewish People. The matter goes far wider. There have been genocides since the Shoah, notable 40 years ago in Cambodia and 25 years ago in Rwanda. Each unique in its particular context and the nature of the cruelties practised upon its powerless victims, crimes of indescribably brutality and scale continue in the world today.

At stake is not the past but the present and future of humanity, in fact the very meaning of what being human is. Perhaps never since 1945 has this been so acutely the case. If we don’t want to succumb to the rallying cries of resurgent racism and xenophobia across the world, if we don’t want our conscience to be sucked in and dissolved in the acid stomach of hatred, we need to listen, learn and act.

Action begins with little things, noticing our own prejudices, not ignoring the person who seems lonely, bullied or left out; not being oblivious to the daily realities of being destitute, homeless, a refugee; not being seduced by the comfort of thinking we belong to the safe ‘us’, the comfortable majority at liberty to denigrate whoever the current ‘them’ might be.

We are one another’s guarantors; the safety and human dignity of others lies in our hands, words, hearts and deeds. Only by standing up for each other’s humanity can we truly assure our own. There is nothing else between degradation, humiliation and persecution, whether we become victims or perpetrators.

‘This isn’t about the past’, Lord Pickles said, ‘It’s about now’.

For Tu Bishevat – the New Year for Trees

Matthew Biggs, of Gardener’s Question Time fame, refers to himself on Twitter as @plantmadman. I wouldn’t dream of comparing myself, but I’ve become in some small way a tree-mad-man.

I love trees, from the apple orchards of Kent to the Scots Pines of the old Caledonian forest; from the scented cypresses of Jerusalem to the scrub-oak woodlands of the Galilee. From the uncurling of their leaves in the springtime to the foliage fall in October, trees lead me through the seasons more gracefully than any diary. I like to look at them by day and listen to them by night.

Trees are good for us physically, emotionally, morally and spiritually. As the Torah says, ‘the tree of life is in the midst of the garden’, feeding all the worlds.

Physically, we need trees. ‘Rewilding’ is one of my favourite words. We must urgently replant the great forests, trees in billions, which store carbon, exhale oxygen and enable all living things to breathe. From Indonesia to Africa and the Amazon, from Scotland to the east and south of Europe, we must replant. Without the trees, the breath of life will choke.

Trees bring livelihoods to peoples across the globe. Tree Aid calls the Shea Tree ‘the little nut that makes a big difference’:

this humble native species provides local people with a cornucopia of essentials: food, fuel, fodder for livestock, medicinal products and building materials, as well as precious saleable commodities. Like all trees, it also aids soil fertility, water conservation and biodiversity. (www.treeaid.org)

We need trees for our emotional health too. We’re less alone when we’re out among the beeches and the oaks. A charming Midrash explains how it used to be:

All the trees, plants and spirits that dwell in nature conversed with one another. The spirit that lives in the trees and nature conversed with humankind for all of nature was created for mutual companionship with people. (Bereshit Rabbah 13:2)

I disagree only with the past tense: the trees still speak. At least, they’re trying; they’re waiting for us to switch off our social media and retune our souls to the wavelength of their spirit.

Nachmanides (1174 – 1270) explains that God didn’t just show Moses which tree to throw into the bitter waters of Mara to make them sweet. The Torah says not vayareihu, but vayoreichu – ‘he taught’. God taught Moses that the Tree of Life has the capacity to sweeten our inner bitterness. I can’t count how many people tell me: ‘Nature is the solace for my heartache’.

Trees are important morally. Rabbi Ari Killip explains how deeply the rabbis of the Talmud (c. 500CE) understood tree roots. They intermingle underground; they’re interdependent with innumerable micro-organisms: it’s a kind of subterranean mixed dancing. They operate in circles, not squares; they drink from the field of the farmer next door. They teach us that we’re not autonomous individuals but part of, and responsible to, the inseparable, impossible to disentangle community of life.

Trees nourish our spirit. Like the mystical texts of other faiths, the Zohar understands life as an upside-down tree. Its roots are in heaven; its branches are creation:

The world to come cares for this tree all the time, watering it…never at any time withholding its streams. Faith depends on this tree. (Zohar III 239a-b)

That’s what inspired Chaim Nachman Bialik in his magisterial poem Haberechah, the Pool:

There, between God’s trees which had not heard the axe’s echo,
On a path known only to the wolf and the mighty hunter,
I used to wander whole hours by myself…
Uniting with my heart and with my God
Until I came…To the Holy of Holies in the forest, the pupil of its eye…
A tranquil holy sanctuary, hidden between the shade of the trees.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Tu Bishevat – and may this be a year of planting.

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