The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

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Listening – beyond what we hear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On AJEX Shabbat 5781

I remember seeing a programme about a British soldier, a highlander, from near Glen Coe, who’d served in Afghanistan. He spoke about returning home from his tour of duty, overwhelmed and bewildered by what he’d witnessed. He climbed high into the mountains above the Gen, and simply sat there in silence.

This is AJEX Shabbat; on Sunday, the Remembrance Service of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women will happen virtually at 2.30pm. Normally it takes place before the Cenotaph in Whitehall. I was deeply moved last year by the many hundreds present, by the large numbers from our own community honouring parents by wearing the medals they’d earned at the risk of their lives, and by the enormity of the events and the sacrifice to which we were gathered in tribute.

This year I stood with Nicky in our garden for the two-minute silence. Then we listened together to the last post; the notes, traversing that silence, penetrating the heart.

It’s 75 years since VE and VJ day, 80 since the Battle of Britain. It’s the plain, simple truth that hundreds of thousands in this country and millions worldwide gave their lives, suffered sudden or slow death, or enduring injuries, to allow my generation to grow up in freedom and peace. There is nothing adequate one can say.

At the yard where we chose our dog from a litter of puppies, there was a year-old collie who kept jumping up. ‘They just brought him back,’ the farmer said, ‘His owner was killed in Iraq.’ Suddenly that awful war sprung nearer. The dog was not naughty or badly trained; he was looking, looking, looking. What then do human hearts do with the irreparable, everlasting absence?

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall…

And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen: Anthem for Doomed Youth

I want to return to that soldier, alone above Glen Coe. For reasons hard to explain I connect those silent valleys with a space in the Torah named by Hagar. It’s where she’s found by an angel, pregnant, desolate, weeping after Abraham and Sarah have driven her out. She calls it be’er lachai ro’i, ‘the well of the living one who sees.’ ‘You are God who sees,’ she explains. Rashi adds in his commentary, ‘You, God, see the sorrow of the long-suffering.’

I sometimes think about that well. It’s one of several locations in the Torah one can’t find on Waze. One can only travel there in the soul. It’s somewhere in life’s wilderness, deep enough beneath the desert for the living waters to drip down into it and replenish the inner well which the spirit needs in order not to die of thirst. It’s far below the aggression and abrasions, the conflicts and the shouting, of life’s battlegrounds. No beaten path exists to take us to it but we know it when we’re there: ‘the well of the living one who sees.’

I don’t think God regards us like someone who catches us in the lens, takes a photograph, prints it out and puts our name and the date on the back. But something, some living presence in that place, comforts us, unbinds our knotted-up spirit, puts ointment on the heart’s wounds and lets us weep.

I wonder if this is where that highlander went, above Glen Coe. I hope he found stillness there, as I wish everyone traumatised by war: soldiers, civilians, refugees, may.

It’s the place I unconsciously mean when I say the traditional words of consolation to mourners: Hamakom Yenachem. ‘Makom’ means place, but the rabbis understood it as a name for God. Hence the frequent translation, ‘May the Omnipresent comfort you.’

But perhaps the words have another meaning also: may you reach the place within you where the living waters flow. May the God within all life find you there and bring you stillness and restoration.

What gives us strength in uncertain times

There’s been something lovely, this unlovely week. I keep picking up my phone to look; not just in addictive anxiety at the latest on the US election, but at the newest postings of pictures from nature, – swans, trees, autumn leaves – in our new WhatsApp group MasorTeva, Masorti Nature, our local Jewish version of Nature Watch.

These are some of the things which keep me going during these complex, strange and difficult days, aside from my family, guinea pigs, dogs and all, whom I’m so lucky to have.

Ordinary beauty: the deep red of the crab apples, the orange and brown of the fallen leaves, the moon, the red-patched faces and yellow-tinged wings of goldfinches.

Kindness: I don’t know why, but what happened when my grandfather died came back into my mind. I’d finished 6th form and was helping at a primary school in Brent. ‘Go home,’ this lovely, warm-hearted lunch lady said, ‘that’s where you’re needed.’ This was 45 years ago, but those few seconds of her smile, her look of deep understanding, still bless me.

Kindness: K. who found asylum in our house for some months, and is now one of the family, calls to say he’s come across another refugee who has no food. ‘Please help him,’ he says, ‘Let’s help him together.’ A message comes through from D. ‘Do you have a buggy in the baby-equipment pool for a local Syrian family?’ One lives to learn to be kind.

Poetry and song: one verse can nourish the spirit periodically for a lifetime. Autumn poems have been following me around, especially Yeats’s Wild Swans at Coole:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans…

Torah: the verses, arguments, lore, law, and music of Judaism. A word is not just one word but seventy voices: Do you understand it this way or that? The fierce pursuit of meanings, precise, exacting, combative, across the cross-referenced interpretations of generations, mutates into something timeless: is that your voice, God, in the spaces between and the silence beyond the letters?

Prayer: I love our Jewish prayers, (as those of other faiths no doubt love theirs). There are so many kinds of connection, not just with our community of today but zooming across time: the prayerbook is a receptacle of the spirits of generations, those who wrote them and repeated them, putting their souls and struggles out there into the infinite. In them are my father, his grandmother and all the teachers and wanderers who knew the words by heart and, turning toward Jerusalem from many lands, spoke them into the ether.

Among, or beyond, or hidden within all is God, or, at least, what I think of as God. I only know these moments of interconnection, when the echo-chamber of my head is quiet, except for the flow of the one and same consciousness which gives life to the trees, the birds and the winds which move them all.

I’m far from unaware that these current days bring many difficult matters: 25 years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the commemoration of Kristallnacht, Remembrance Sunday, the AJEX parade (online only) and, no doubt, politics of every kind.

But through and beyond the anguish, it is these simpler, purer, gentler things we live for. Quietly, insistently, they form our knowledge of right and wrong and create the person we aspire to be. They bring us strength of spirit and resilience; from them community and faithfulness are built.

They are what countless young people longed for when they died on battlefields. They are what I hope the world’s children will live for and grow up to cherish.


After the EHRC report

I keep thinking this morning of that image of an old man in a boat. One sees it on the front of reprints of old Haggadot: there’s a big river, in the middle of which is a fragile skiff with an old man holding the oars, rowing towards the unknown bank, away from everyone else.

It’s a depiction of Abraham, Avram Ha’Ivri, ‘Abram the Hebrew,’ whose story we begin to read at this difficult time for our country and the world. Avar means ‘cross’, ever is a bank; so Abram is the one who crosses to the far side. He’s the ‘other’, different, alone, following the voice which tells him to ‘leave his land, his motherland.’

Yesterday was a painful day for many. I tried to write down Ruth Smeeth’s words as she responded to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on antisemitism and the Labour Party. It vindicated Jewish Labour Party members, she said. But what came across was the pain: how for years she’s been unable to go anywhere, including the party conference, without security; how this has affected her family; that she’s had to move home; that she received constant abuse, including death threats. She emphasised the viciousness to which Jewish women have been exposed: abuse on social media is almost invariably even more vile for women. I think of Louise Elman, Luciana Berger and Margaret Hodge: I admire the courage of these women, – and also the men – who spoke up persistently in the face of deafness, indifference and, not rarely, malice. ‘It’s also about those who kept silent and failed to speak out when they knew what was going on,’ Luciana Berger told me. As Jews we know all too well the price of not speaking out, strongly and early, against injustice.

A young man in our community listed the names of contemporaries who left the party because of intimidation and bullying at local meetings, each of them someone I’ve watched grow up, at whose Bar or Bat Mitzvah I’ve spoken. Of course, there are many who are equally passionately engaged with other parties and social and national causes – and rightly so: that’s how it should be in an open, democratic society.

Deeper than the politics, I feel for the aloneness these MPs and young people have experienced. There’s a rabbinic saying that ‘ma’aseh avot siman labanim, the deeds of the ancestors are signs for their children.’ There are times when we are, once again, Abram on that river. I wonder if that’s how my grandfather felt in the autumn of 1916, when, a chaplain in the German Army on the Western Front at Verdun, he witnessed the very country for which he’d enlisted because the Kaiser proclaimed that citizens of all faiths were equal, turn against its Jews.

But this isn’t just about Jews. It concerns society as a whole and the sanctity of faith. Did Vincent Loques, the verger murdered yesterday in Notre Dame in Nice, feel suddenly and utterly alone when the terrorist came towards him with a long knife, in the church where he’d faithfully lit the candles and welcomed visitors for a decade? My heart goes out to his family and the families of the two women murdered alongside him.

Our faiths and faith communities with their sacred precincts, both physical and spiritual, should be places where we re-encounter the God of all flesh and re-affirm our commitments to compassion, justice and service. From there we should be able to go out in freedom to contribute to our societies, which should be enriched and strengthened both by the unifying commonalities of our faith-rooted values and the diversity and wealth of our different cultures.

The first word of the EHRC report is ‘trust’. I hope that processes will be strengthened at this critical time in the UK, in the US with its elections, and across the world, to heal our wounded trust.


Why we should all love rainbows

I was crossing the Heath last week when, unexpectedly, I saw a double rainbow. I didn’t just recall Wordsworth’s poem; I experienced it:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man…

I looked around and saw that everyone seemed to feel the same: a moment of wonder embraced us. Even the dogs were lolloping more lightly.

I remembered the brachah too:

Blessed are You, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who remembers and keeps faith with his covenant and is true to his word.

It was a marvellous way to begin the week of Noah, about whom we read in the Torah tomorrow. After the mass devastation of the flood, God promises never again to destroy life, making the rainbow the symbol of this, the first and most comprehensive pact in the Bible.

The rainbow is one of humanity’s most enduring and versatile symbols. Look online and you can see what it means in virtually every culture.

I’m moved by what it signifies today. I hear in my mind Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking with courageous pride about South Africa, ‘the rainbow nation’. Of course, the rainbow is the symbol of Pride itself. A YouTube video explains how each colour expresses a different quality: life, nature, serenity and healing. Keshet, ‘rainbow’ in Hebrew, is the name of UK Jewish organisation working for LGBT+ inclusion.

During lockdown, the rainbow has become an international symbol of solidarity and hope. I’m cheered whenever I see on windows, placards and even in the middle of roundabouts: the colours embracing NHS, or words of gratitude to those who dedicate themselves to our society.

Last, and definitely least, there’s a ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ page on a site about household pets, where you can record the name and endearing qualities of your late lamented guinea pigs.

The rainbow has a profound and complex history in Judaism. On Rosh Hashanah, Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance and judgement over all life, the rainbow is the first covenant we mention: ‘God remembered Noah and all the animals with him in the ark’. Nachmanides notes that keshet is an archer’s bow, but as a rainbow it is inverted to indicate that God will not shoot arrows of anger, but instead send healing to the earth.

More puzzling is the Talmud’s warning not to gaze at rainbows because this shows a lack of respect for God’s glory. This derives from Ezekiel’s description comparing ‘the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds’ to ‘the appearance of the brightness round about the likeness of God’s glory.’ (Ezekiel 1:28). Rabbi Isaac de Trani offers a moving explanation: every person experiences the sacred in different ways and the divine in different shades. We should not attempt to fathom the depth and richness of the spirit.

I’m struck as we begin One World Week by what these interpretations have in common: the rainbow represents the ability to see beyond the self and value existence in all its wealth of forms and colours. Only the capacity to value and care for life in this comprehensive manner can save us from destruction.

Or perhaps it’s all much simpler: rainbows are just beautiful and that makes us feel happy.

Creators or Destroyers: that is our critical choice

‘Up there on the hillside are trees we planted six years ago. We put up a nesting box and a pair of barn owls took up residence within the month. If it wasn’t raining so hard the skylarks would be out in a chorus.’

I’m with James from The Woodland Trust, exploring the square mile of Surrey they’re re-foresting, one acre of which we’ve helped to plant through*. (A square mile has 640 acres; Surrey is 190,000 square miles; one acre equals about 750 young saplings) A soggy Mitzpah dog looks up at me, ‘Can we go home now please?’ (At least he’s had half a day away from that upstart puppy who’s cheekily intruded into his household.)

There are oaks, rowans and beeches, the most recently planted scarcely peeping out above the tubing which protects them from the marauding deer. There are fallow fields: ‘We’re letting these re-wild. There are a few sheep grazing to take the excess nutrients out of the soil so that the chalklands can one again produce their native orchids.’

Next to a community orchard of apples, plums, pears and cherries are rows of life-sized wooden soldiers, a memorial for the centenary of World War I: it was here on Epsom Downs that Lord Kitchener marshalled troops before they crossed to France.

Creation or destruction: that’s where we stand now as we recommence reading the Torah. ‘In the beginning God created:’ to the rabbis, especially the mystics, that process is never complete. Day by day, sacred energy flows through the world, re-animating and filling anew with wonder the light and dark, the rivers, trees, animals and humankind.

But only five columns later in the Torah God, frustrated by the wilful selfishness of humans, wants to destroy everything. Life only escapes by a pinhead, the entirety of biodiversity adrift in a tiny ark, afloat on an endless ocean.

But it’s not just God who stands at the centre of the drama; it’s us. Which are we, destroyers or creators? The rabbis termed humankind ‘partners with God in creation,’ applying this to when we practise justice and keep Shabbat, pausing from gain-seeking to honour and appreciate our world. But they were also well aware that we are wreckers and ruiners, applying the commandment ‘Do not destroy’ to an ever-widening circle of wanton destructiveness.

So who are we, and who should we be?

There are many fascinating interpretations of the verse ‘God said, “Na’aseh adam – Let us make humankind”.’ The key question is: to whom is God speaking? Here are some classic suggestions:

-        God consults the angels who say, too late, ‘Don’t do it.’

-        God asks every person, ‘Let’s work together to make you into a truly human being.’

-        The animals ask God to create a creature who can speak on their behalf.

But it’s a different insight which has caught my conscience this year: Don’t read ‘God said, “Let us make humankind”,’ but rather ‘God said to humankind, “Let us make”.

God wants us to be creators, creative, custodians of creation. God wants us to care for and cherish this world. More than that, God needs us to do so. Wonder, beauty, a sense of the sacred – these come from the divine. But the daily work of living faithfully by this instruction – that task belongs to us.

That is why I committed our community to planting a tree for every word in the seven days of creation. Never before in human history has it mattered so much to be co-creators and not co-destroyers.

That is the critical, urgent choice we all must make, individually, communally, nationally and across humankind.


* is a project of Eco Synagogue, which is supported across all the denominations and has had strong backing from our community.

The ultimate ‘thank you’ and ‘please’

It’s before dawn on this half-moon morning of Hoshana Rabba, the great Hoshana, with its closing prayers of the High Holydays before the Torah year starts again from the beginning with Bereshit, the wonder of creation.

It’s a day of two simple phrases: modeh, thank you, and ana, please.

This year I feel more than just an ordinary thank you for enabling us to celebrate this season together. I’m aware how that ‘together’ has been diminished over these months of anxiety for all and loss for many. Although it’s over a decade ago, I think of my father. Each year we would meet early on Hoshana Raba and go to pray together. I miss him and appreciate how much more intensely so many miss those who, scarcely moments back, stood by their side.

I have many thank you’s.

Thank you to my community; to the leaders who spent hours every day thinking through in detail how to stand safely together as a community before God; thank you to everyone who phoned, wrote and took gifts so that we could try to forget no one as we wished each other a good new year; thank you to all who wrote, edited, and produced special editions of our prayers; thank you to each person who learnt new melodies and lead us in synagogue; thank you to everyone who helped stream these unique services by sharing the skills learnt from zoom Shabbat which, though not quite within the remit of the rabbis, enable so many people to feel comforted and strengthened in spirit through these lonely months.

Thank you to God for first light and the birds now singing like the psalmist ‘I awake the dawn’. Thank you for life itself, which, since the pandemic has brought mortality closer, feels more precious than ever.

And the ‘please’. It’s the please said over and again in today’s prayers. It’s a ‘please’ to God: ‘Ana hoshi’a naPlease save us.’ It’s an impassioned ‘please’ to each other and ourselves, because the fate of the earth is not simply in God’s hands. We have agency and power to do what is just, compassionate and urgent. Please ‘save humankind and the animals; save body, soul and spirit; save this beauty as transient as breath.’ Make us to do everything possible for our beleaguered world.

Please teach us and our leaders across the globe that we have obligations to justice. Don’t make us inured to the cruelty and inequality which afflict our societies, to the worry of millions who face losing their jobs, who struggle to have food for the family, whose children go to school hungry if classes are open, and have no access to study if they are not.

Please save this tevel hamesuyamah, this beautiful world. Make us and the decision-makers across society respect the land and water, plants and animals, fields, forests and the very air which keep us alive. Don’t let us destroy this wonderful world or any of the species with which we share the intricate bonds of life which alone enable us to survive. Command us from inside our conscience to be faithful to the future, so that we practise no more hurt.

Please place us on the side of life. Please, God, seal us, and help us seal each other and our world in the book of life.



Succah and Solidarity

The rain descends noisily; throughout the dry summer I longed for that sound. But there’s still so much to be done to finish the Succah!

Yet we can never complete the most important part of the Succah, even in the best of weathers: uphros aleinu succat shelomecha, that God should spread over everyone the canopy of peace. For this we can only pray, and make what contribution we can.

I understood that canopy of peace from a different angle yesterday, when I was taken (virtually) to visit the Little Squares of Hope Succah at JW3.

The sides of that Succah are lined with quilts composed of small squares of fabric, each of which contains a drawing or embroidery by a refugee. Together they provide vivid testimony of what it means today to be a homeless wanderer, to ‘dwell in booths’, cross hostile deserts, traverse waters in which you know you may drown, and to have no decent shelter over one’s head. One square shows two children standing before the sea, staring at a tiny boat. In another there is a young girl; over her head is a single word, ‘Bye’.

How urgently these tempest-tossed lonely young lives need shelter, safe physical space, warm heart space and space for hope for a better future. Covid has made everything many times harder still for refugees. We must do what we can for so many people whose desert is not only the literal wilderness they have crossed, as our ancestors traversed Sinai and the Negev, but the loneliness and hopelessness of our cities.

The fate of so many refugees, and the cause which forced them to leave their homelands in the first place, is bound together with an even greater question of destiny to which the succah directs our attention. With its leaky, wind-shaken roof of branches, it represents not just the vulnerability of human life, but the fragility of our bond with nature.

The succah calls us out of our keva, our supposedly fixed and permanent home, into the ara’i, the temporary space of a mere shelter. In post-biblical times, succahs were made from the prunings of the vineyards and the stalks of the corn fields, then decorated with fruits, flasks of wine and sacks of flour. Many of us today hang the produce of our gardens and allotments, – apples, gourds, the last of the runner beans. The purpose is to reminds us of beauty and humility, the gifts of nature and our utter dependence on them.

If we want to be protected in our succah, we need to protect the earth which offers us that protection. In the words of Albert Einstein, we need to free ourselves from the delusion that we are separate from nature and ‘widen our circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of Nature in its beauty.’ The succah invites us into the physical and spiritual space which represents that change. It is at once frightening, humbling, beautiful and inspiring.

One might have thought that the succah, unsafe in strong winds and unable to keep out the rain, would be the last place to asks guests. Yet it is the ancient tradition to summon our ancestors with the Aramaic invitation ‘Ullu, Ullu – come, come,’ before welcoming contemporary visitors.

For, paradoxically, in its very frailty the succah calls for the greatest solidarity, with humankind, and with all living things with whom we hope to share God’s protection.



Kol Nidrei 5781

We stand tonight, apart in person, but close in spirit.

We stand in reflection and prayer, with wounds from loss, scars of illness, and anguish about the future.

We stand before the God of atonement, healing and forgiveness.

But healing begins with truth. Therefore, accountability is at the heart of Yom Kippur.

In a post-fact world, when lies are promulgated from high places, and the loudest shouting on social media often wins, when a spreading culture of shamelessness has as its motto ‘If you can get away with it it’s OK,’ Yom Kippur summons us before the God of truth.

Eyn nistar minegged einecha – Nothing is hidden from Your eyes

I don’t believe in an x-ray God who keeps a record of our every sin. I do believe that, somehow, I am known by the God of life, whose presence is in all living being. I am answerable to life.

Accountability begins at home. In my heart of hearts I want to be known. In the editing room of memory, when I hear myself say ‘It wasn’t me. So-and-So made me do it. I was only…’ a deeper voice calls, ‘And the truth?’ Honesty and remorse sting, but I must welcome them, so that my past can help me grow.

We are accountable not just in private, but to society. Seeing others go to foodbanks, make masks, bake for hospitals, hearing Marcus Rashford use his iconic status for so much good, puts the question: ‘And you? What are you contributing?’ The God of justice cries out.

We are accountable before nature. One sacred spirit flows through all living being. The plundered forests and poisoned earth accuse us. Mary Colwell wrote in Curlew Moon that sometimes it was only when she pointed it out that people realised they hadn’t heard the haunting cries of these birds for decades. They hadn’t noticed the silence, so were silent. If we too are mute, inactive bystanders before its devastation, we share the guilt for the ruination of our planet.

Above all, we are accountable to our children. We were born into a complex but wonderful world, leant us by the future. Isn’t it our duty to keep it safe for our children’s children?

We are answerable for failing to protest wrong. As we mourn Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we recognise that we must fight for integrity and accountability not just in our conscience but in the public square.

Otherwise Lady Macbeth’s repost that no one will dare call her murderer because ‘none can call our power to account,’ the by-word of tyranny through the ages will, become the strapline of our time. The world can’t afford this.

Accountability, in contrast, is the foundation of integrity. Integrity is the basis of responsibility. Responsibility is the grounds of healing and hope.

The challenges ahead are many.

Therefore may our Torah of justice, compassion and dignity bring us strength.
May the dedication of our ancestors and teachers strengthen us, who strove to be faithful to these principles, and stand with us now in worlds beyond time.
May the beauty of our prayers fill our hearts with strength.
May we find strength in each other, and solidarity in our neighbourhoods and communities.
May we take strength from our very responsibilities which give us purpose and dignity.
May our children, our commitment for the future strengthen our resolve.

So may this be a year of healing;
a year of integrity and truth in our conscience, communities and public squares;
a year of lovingkindness and care, awareness and social justice;
a year of moral and spiritual imagination;
a year for reshaping our societies, rewilding our lands and restoring the earth for all life.

May God’s inspiration and guidance help us turn the spirit of humanity from anguish and fear into determination and hope.

Leshanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah.


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