The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

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The joy of the Succah

The distribution of Jewish festivals around the year is scarcely an example of equality and balance. Rosh Hashanah falls on the first of Tishrei, the fast of Yom Kippur follows on the tenth, and the eight days of Succot begin on the fifteenth. There’s hardly time to breath, let alone cook.

The tradition is to start building the succah, a small booth or hut, straight after the fast. I love this! We take our contemplations in our heart, a hammer and scissors in our hands, and turn our inner resolutions into practical actions.

For a succah is special; it can be as small as ten handbreadths high, or as tall as twenty cubits, so small just one person can sit in it, or big enough for a hundred. The roof must be of leaves and branches and the walls can be constructed out of virtually anything. But whatever the case, a succah must be built with affectionate respect because it’s a holy space, and these are some of the reasons why.

A succah is a place of humility. As the Mishnah says, a house is keva, permanent, but a succah is ara’i, temporary, like life itself, reminding us of the passing of our days, a thought set deeply in our hearts in these chastening times.

A succah is a space of grace. The earliest sources speak of noi succah, the beauty of the succah. They tell of decorating it with corn and fruits, flasks of wine, sacks of flour and jars of oil. For Succot is a harvest celebration and the succah is a place of thankfulness for the produce of the year. (Like many Jewish gardeners, we grow for the Succah as much as for the pot.)

A succah is a place of joy, built to mark the happiest of the festivals, the chag par excellence, as the Mishnah tells: Jerusalem was lit with lamps all night; the rabbis and the people danced all night. Making the succah is itself a joy too; it’s the paramount example of simchah shel mitzvah, the happiness to be found in following God’s commandments.

A succah is a space of connection between humankind and nature. We recognise our indebtedness and dependence, our need for the gifts of the soil. It teaches us the most urgent of contemporary lessons, to respect and reverence God’s earth.

A succah is a place of welcome. One brings guests to eat there, spiritual and temporal, summoning one’s ancestors, starting with Sarah and Abraham. But they refuse to come unless one invites friends and neighbours as well. For the succah reminds us to offer shelter, especially to refugees, as the Torah says, ‘For I [God] made the Children of Israel dwell in Succahs when I brought them out of the land of Egypt,’ and as it says also, ‘For you know the soul of the stranger.’

A succah is a space of refuge, as it says in the Psalms, ‘You hide me in Your Succah on the day of evil.’ Impermanent, easily blown away by a strong wind, it’s scarcely a castle or fortress. But it offers a deeper protection, foretelling a world in which everyone will be able to dwell safely ‘under their vine and fig tree.’

For a succah represents a tranquillity, succat shalom, the canopy of God’s peace, towards which the whole world should aspire. The mystics call the succah Tsila Di’Mehemanuta, the shade of the Faithful One, for it represents God’s protection, so badly needed by so many until the dawn of that better, future era of universal harmony.

So build with joy. If you have the opportunity, do make, or share in making, your own succah. If not, please help creating that most important of all succahs, a world where humanity, nature and God are all at peace with each other, – a task which needs the co-operation of us all

 

As Yom Kippur Approaches

I write with that trepidation in the heart which I always feel as Yom Kippur approaches, this year maybe more than ever. We stand before God, the world, our community, the people we love and our own soul.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, later known as the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, asked the question: Since all through the year we pray for forgiveness three times a day in every service, what’s different about this season? He answered that in the midst of the ceaseless daily grind we can just about manage to apologise for particular wrongs we’ve done, harsh words, thoughtless actions. But during the Days of Awe we take time to reflect on the whole of our life, the arc of our days and their purpose, who we are, through to our core being, down to our hidden-most heart and conscience where we encounter the living God.

What sustenance do we have for that inner journey?

What can we take? I’ve been to the cemetery too often during the past months. I walk between the rows and realise I’m among friends. I talk to some of them, tell them I still love them. I believe they say back to me, ‘Keep living. Try to do what’s right. Be kind. Until you join us.’ No other festival than Yom Kippur says so clearly ‘your days pass like a shadow.’ But it also says: life is magnificent, precious and tender, an immeasurable privilege. Cherish it. So we take with us before God the love of both the living and the dead.

What can we do?

Judaism teaches that every action is important. Maimonides asks us to imagine that not only our whole life but the entire world is always balanced on the sharp fulcrum between worthy and unworthy, kind and cruel, good and bad. Our next deed will determine which way we and our destiny tip. Everything matters. Therefore we must keep faith that we can make a difference, enable one family to be less hungry, give one person a roof, heal or comfort one person in body or spirit. ‘Never despair, never give up,’ taught Rebbe Nachman of Breslav (who himself battled with despair). We take with us on our journey our unremitting determination to do good.
Before whom are we accountable?

The obvious answer is ‘God’. But where do I find that God? I overheard a good-humoured exchange on zoom yesterday. ‘Move back a little,’ one participant said to another, ‘You’re too near your screen for me to see you.’ I’d sometimes thought the Torah taught that God was invisible because God was so far away. But perhaps it’s because God is so near that we don’t see.

God is present in our conscience whenever we hear truth, and in our heart whenever we feel moved and touched. God is in every person; God’s breath is the life-force within us all. God’s vitality is in the birds, and in the trees which sway to God’s song, most audibly so at night when the noisier world is silent.

What reply might we receive when we bring our life and soul before God? Without words God tells us: know my presence; listen to me; hurt no one and nothing. Love, cherish and nurture my world.

What do we say in response? The Torah suggests just one word: ‘Hinneni, I am here,’ which Rashi explains as an expression of readiness and humility.

For the fate of the world is in the balance and we have agency. The purpose of our life is to serve, care, heal, and endeavour with whatever capacities and time we’ve been gifted, to do right and good.

20 years since 9/11

I knew that tomorrow would be 9/11, twenty years since the terror attack against America and the horrendous destruction of the twin towers. I knew it in my head. But seeing footage; listening to the voices of people who were there at the time, men, women, wives who took that last call from their husbands; watching the firemen; listening to them speak both then and now two decades later, – that brings 9/11 home at a very different depth. I remember the shock at the time; even three thousand miles away it felt as if the pavement was shaking. The shock remains even now.

Two years ago, in that age when one still travelled easily, Nicky and I visited the memorial at ground zero. What can one say? It’s heart-rending.

For some there has been healing. For others, like the woman filmed as she stared out to sea and said she was still mourning the man she loved most in all the world, the sorrow is scarcely diminished.

Suffering begets compassion. But it often also leads to more suffering, as so many desperate to escape Afghanistan know only too well.

I am sure I can say on behalf of my community that our hearts go out to everyone to whom 9/11 has brought, and still brings, grief and pain.

Tomorrow is also significant in the Jewish year. It’s Shabbat Shuvah, which mediates between the New Year and the Day of Atonement. Teshuvah is usually translated as ‘repentance’. Though accurate, this has, for me at least, a limited resonance, as if teshuvah were always about sin. Teshuvah is more comprehensive than that: it’s a rethinking of how we are in the world; it’s a questioning, a re-evaluation, of what matters.

During the shivah for my father – I can’t believe it’s fourteen years since he died – my teacher Rabbi Magonet came up to me after the prayers as I sat on the traditional low chair and said very quietly, ‘This is about teshuvah.’

At first I was puzzled: was he suggesting I’d done wrong? Then I understood that what he meant was something deeper: This is about what truly matters, why we’re here, what it’s all for.

The questions aren’t complicated. On the contrary, it’s the simplicity which makes them so searching: What am I doing with my life? How am I using the limited time I have here on this earth?

The answers aren’t complex either. The heart doesn’t always need sophisticated terminology: It has love at its core, and sorrow for all the hurt that has so wrongly come to exist in the world. It wants to heal, as a mother longs to protect her child. As the rabbis said: Lev mevin – the heart understands.

The heart is such a small and vulnerable organ to set against all the violence, injustice and pain in the world, planes flown with incomprehensible brutality into towers full of people, bombs, the injuries which cruelty and illness inflict every ordinary day.

Or is it? It has remarkable resilience. It often responds to the worst life can do with the best that it can offer in return. It has depth upon depth of strength. When, all but exhausted, it feels it has no resources left, it finds replenishment through the companionship of friends, in the kindness of others, in wonder, even within the smallest of things, and through that spirit which flows subliminally and invisibly and which communicates without words: I am with you; I am life.

If we can return to those depths, we will know what we have to do with our days and our years.

 

A Prayer for the World on the Jewish New Year

God,
The world has so much beauty, such wonder in a moment,
Yet so much suffering – body pain, heartache, mind ache,
And fear – as if the future might collapse like a rotten floor.

We call on you in these bewildering years
Not as a remote God, not as distant other,
For you inhabit everything; the life of all creation is your breath,
The songs of wrens and owls, and humans also, is, all of it, your music.

We need to know your presence, feel you here in consciousness and conscience,
God, closer to us ‘than our own body and our soul.’ (Yehudah HaLevi)
We have to be attentive to each other.
Speak to us from inside our mind and heart
So that our actions become the articulation of your will.

You are near to us in all with whom we ever shared the bonds of care.
What is a heart but chambers full of people,
From whom our very thought is inextricable, even after death?
Speak to us through them.

God, who taught us always to listen to the stranger,
You, who have become their brother and sister refugee
In search of shelter and compassion here on earth,
Make us hear you in their weary hope, and hopelessness.

God, who calls out from all existence,
In the brave compulsion which makes the small birds overfly the oceans,
In the soil itself, where mineral become energy in the life-force of
and turns back again to matter in the falling of the leaves,
God for whom

There / is nothing too ample
for you to overflow, nothing
So small that your workmanship
is not revealed (RS Thomas: Alive)

Make us know you in the rivers and the trees.

Waken our heart, summon our mind, alarm our conscience
With all the powers of wonder, tenderness, compassion, even tears,
So that love for you and your creation
Ignites our fervour and guides our plans
To serve you here on earth in all we do.

Against despair: everything matters!

In our house, the BBC’s general knowledge quiz University Challenge is a family must-do. We’ve an unwritten rule that if not everyone can make it when it’s actually shown, we wait until we can watch it together on i-Player. I wouldn’t deny that there’s a bit of a competitive edge.

This week, one of the questions was: ‘What words complete this line from a 20th century poem: O what made fatuous sunbeams toil…

It’s from Wilfred Owen’s ‘Futility’ and the answer is

To break earth’s sleep at all.

I quoted this bleak World War One poem on Rosh Hashanah many years ago, the day Judaism celebrates the birthday of the world, because it puts the issue bluntly: since humanity is so destructive and life so cruel, is there any point in it at all?

The question can scarcely be considered new. The Talmud wryly records that for three-and-a-half years the rabbis debated whether or not it was better that humans were created. I’ll return to their conclusion later.

Although I have bleak days and know frightening hours of sinking down and down into inner spaces of no hope, I’m lucky to have been endowed with a tenacious, re-assertive love of life. But yesterday I listened to a transatlantic colleague relating some of the feelings of despair which she’s received: climate crisis, racism, Afghanistan, refugees, global terror, food insecurity, pandemic, floods, fires. People are in bleak places, she said; it’s a litany of fear and anguish and we’re not entitled to put our hands over our ears.

I believe the Jewish – and the universally human – response, the reaction which life itself impels, is to live all the more deeply and determinedly for the good. We shall fight back. But not, hopefully, with the materiel of war. Rather we respond with an armamentarium more vulnerable, yet, over the long course of time, more enduring than the accoutrements of mere power: we answer back against life’s cruelties with passion for justice and compassion for suffering; with insight, with courage and with the wisdom of endurance taught by faith and principle; with excitement about the world, with a heart open to beauty, with a spirit which, though often close to exhaustion, is replenished once again by wonder; with care for even the littlest things of life and, when we can, with gratitude and appreciation.

This is all summed up for me, in ways I can’t fully explain, through the memory of a brief scene in a hut in the Hula Valley years ago. A tall, strong man took into his hands with consummate skill a tiny bird weighing scarcely an ounce and carefully put a ring round its leg ‘So that we can understand it better and protect the environment it needs.’ He then gave it to my daughter to release.

To ‘What can we do?’ and ‘What difference can we make?’ the answer can only be: ‘Everything, every kindness, matters.’ This is the strength bestowed on us with which to combat the errors, destructiveness, folly and anger of our own species, and the random, unjust cruelties of life itself.

So, to what conclusion did the rabbis arrive after all their lengthy discussions?

Since humans have already been created, let them search their deeds.

In other words, ‘Should God have made us in the first place?’ is not the right question. Since we’re already here, what matters is what we do with our lives.

Therefore on Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of creation, the issue is: How can I cherish life? What can I contribute? In the classic rabbinic phrase, ‘How can I be a partner with God in protecting and honouring creation?’

I called T, a refugee from Afghanistan: ‘Any news from your family?’

When I was working on My Dear Ones: One Family and The Final Solution, among the most painful documents I found were letters between my father’s uncles after the war.

Ernst had fled to New York with his family; Uncle Alfred was in Jerusalem. He would be killed in the attack on the convoy to the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University in 1948.

Their letters circle the question: where are the others? What happened to their eldest sister, Sophie Redlich, who’d felt safe in Czechoslovakia? And their other sister, Trude, in Poland? Most important, was there any news of their mother, Regina, for whom, despite all their efforts, the vital emigration papers had arrived too late?

They explore the contours of the gaps. Twenty Jews have returned to Holleschau, from where Regina was deported: she’s not among them. A Redlich family is listed among the survivors: it’s not the same Redlich. How Alfred must have been shaken when, one day in 1946, a letter arrives, addressed in his sister’s handwriting. But she’s not alive. It’s her last communication before she’s transported, a final testament given in secret to a non-Jewish neighbour and posted after the war.

All this is in my mind as I call T, a refugee from Afghanistan who stayed with us before the pandemic through Refugees at Home. His sister is in London too, married with young children. But their parents? The wider family?

Have you heard anything?
Do you know where they are?
They moved to Kabul to be safer. I’m very worried.
And now, these terrible, shocking, appalling bombings at the airport.

 Rachel Ellison, who worked training women in Afghanistan some years back, wrote:

Last night an Afghan bus driver in London rang me to ask me to help evacuate his brother-in-law. He is in hiding in Kabul, with his wife and five daughters. Like many, he cannot reach the airport. His emails to the British authorities have gone
unanswered…

 During Elul and the Holydays we read Psalm 27 morning and night. It’s a Psalm of longing to be close to the home of our soul. But it’s different verses which call to me now:

God will hide me in God’s shelter in the day of evil…

Will God?

Do not give me over to the will of my enemies…

 ‘Stress how close the Afghan and Jewish experiences are,’ Zarlasht Halaimzai, herself a refugee from Afghanistan, and Gabriella Brent of the Refugee Trauma Initiative tell me: generations of anguish, high aspirations, the longing to give to society. The determination to survive and live.

Zarlasht tells her mother about her ‘hopelessness and despair at what keeps happening to people like us.’ She replies:

‘No matter what they face, people have to survive. We have no other choice.’

Psalm 27 concludes:

Be strong; may God put strength in your heart. Reach out in hope to God…

But it’s never been the Jewish way just to leave matters to heaven. What can we do to help and give hope to those who need it, to strengthen the determination in all our hearts?

 


For practical ways to help click here.

 

 

 

Elul thoughts from the Scottish Highlands

I’m lucky enough to be writing from the Highlands of Scotland, a land our family loves. All around is wonderful beauty. I climbed until I was surrounded by hills, beneath me a small loch, before me to the west the sun setting over the Inner Hebrides and the Atlantic beyond. The only sounds were the small streams, half hidden beneath grass and bracken, and the baaing of sheep, – a living, gentle shofar-call for Elul.

There are road signs one doesn’t find in London: ‘Slow, red squirrels’ and ‘Otters crossing’ (we’ve seen neither). Over the years we’ve watched reforested moors grow into woodlands of birch and rowan. From the water’s edge we’ve heard the curlew’s soft song, and, above, the mew of buzzards and eagles.

On a human level, there’s kindness almost everywhere. I got lost on a run across the hills; an elderly lady was hanging out washing on an isolated farm, so I asked her where I was. ‘Follow that track,’ she said, pointing somewhere into the mountains, ‘it might take you roughly where you’re going.’ I apologised for troubling her: ‘Och, no; I like talking to people.’ Then I ran back the way I’d come.

Covid has hit hard here. People are trying to make modest livelihoods with small enterprises, a vegan café, yoga classes, artworks from driftwood. We attended a talk about the Shant Islands by Adam Nicholson: from the questions, it was clear that almost everyone there was knowledgeable in some area of marine ecology, local fauna, or rewilding.

But is this, with its kindness and beauty, the real world?

In my inbox are urgent requests: Please write in support of our emergency appeal for Haiti; there are two thousand dead from the earthquake and storms on the way (World Jewish Relief). You can’t be silent about Afghanistan; we need a statement. What about the women? And those refugees who do reach the UK, who’ll help them? From all around are reports of injustice, cruelty and environmental degradation, and appeals for action at COP.

I’m reading David Olusoga’s brilliant Black and British; A Forgotten History. Some sentences about the slave trade require little transposition into now. He quotes the abolitionist William Fox, who wrote in 1791:

If we purchase the commodity we participate in the crime. The slave-dealer, the slave-holder, and the slave-driver, are virtually the agents of the consumer…In every pound of sugar used…we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh. (p. 208)

The slave-trade is long abolished (though trafficking and slavery persist). But the trade in commodities continues, often bringing little benefit to local people and leaving their environment decimated. The increasing destitution of some funds the tenuous wealth of others.

So is this really a world of kindness and beauty?

On Rosh Hashanah, just two weeks distant, we pray to the God of both creation and justice. I believe that as we do so, God calls back to us: honour my creation; make my world more just. Of course, there’s no direct voice from heaven; there’s no need. We hear the call from everywhere, from mountains and moor, from misery and wrong. We know it in our conscience and soul.

It challenges and inspires us: what can you do to make this beautiful world less cruel? How are you honouring its wonder?

What else is our life for?

 

Why saying thank you matters

‘There are two reasons,’ my father used to explain, why the cat can’t say the Grace after Meals. Firstly, she can’t read; secondly she never thinks she’s had enough.’ He was referring specifically to the verse which, as it happens, we read in the Torah tomorrow: ‘You shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God.’ Our dogs have since acquired a similar trait to Fluffy, the cat of my childhood.

Judaism is a culture of blessing. I didn’t know the phrase hakarat hatov until a friend from Glasgow days drew it to my attention. It means recognising and appreciating the good which has been done to us. She phoned unexpectedly from Israel to thank me for publicly acknowledging how much her family had helped my father, my brother and I after our mother died. ‘Thank you for the hakarat hatov,’ she said.

There was a lot to be grateful to them for. They, the Gaba family, took us into their home almost every Friday night for many months, taught us the Shabbat songs, made wonderful meals of which my favourite part was always the jelly with tiny air bubbles in it, then saw us safely home. The two daughters took me to play with zoo animals while the boys challenged my brother at chess. Sadly, neither of the girls is living anymore; Phyllis was knocked down by a car and Judith, who’d phoned me scarcely twelve months ago, died just weeks ago of cancer.

Whenever I think of hachnasat orchim, hospitality and welcome, I think of that family; they are my role model for what chesed, true kindness, means.

The textual basis of hakarat hatov is the Mishnah’s insistence that we bless life for the good we receive. The formula is simple: ‘Blessed are you God…who is good and does good.’ Strangely, I’ve only heard this blessing recited twice in my life – and once it was by me. The parallel blessing Baruch Dayan Ha’emet , the Job-like ‘what can we do but accept this’ acknowledgement of bad tidings which is said at funerals, I’ve heard a hundred times. These proportion are surely wrong.

The emotional and spiritual reasons for acknowledging the good are that this creates an environment of generosity and appreciation. It’s an antidote to our culture of entitlement, in which we don’t even notice privileges because we simply take them as given. The last eighteen months have made many of us more aware of many basic aspects of our lives to which we may have given little thought before: what it means to have flour to bake good bread; the importance of faithful friends and helpful neighbours; the loveliness of what we may previously have seen as just a park or only a tree.

A young woman training for the priesthood offered a beautiful Thought for the Day on Radio 4 in the middle of the first lockdown. ‘Behold the lilies of the field,’ she quoted, ‘They toil not neither do they spin.’ I can’t recall her exact words, but they amounted to this: I’d always thought about the theology, about trusting God and not worrying. But walking in the park with my immune-compromised husband, I said to myself: ‘No; just look at the flowers. Behold them; just look.’

This week has reminded me once again of hakarat hatov because I’ve had the privilege of officiating at three weddings. I always ask the couple to tell me about the values with which they’ve been brought up that they want to take with them into the home they hope to build together. In each case this week, the bride and groom wrote about their parents and grandparents with tender appreciation. Yesterday, as I repeated some of her words under the wedding canopy, I watched the bride’s parents reach for and tightly hold each other’s hands.

In our too-fast-moving, grab-and-eat consume culture, if we noticed and acknowledged life’s gifts and appreciated one another more, we would be a less hurting and less hurtful society and cherish the world with more care.

The original Jewish Valentine’s Day

Judaism is a ‘love life’ religion; it says a big ‘yes’ to life.

In my head, these words sing in German: ‘Ja zum Leben.’ This is because, during a time when I found every day a struggle and almost everything frightening, my aunt Etti, three times removed but close as close, would buy me an Israeli yoghurt called Leben and instruct me before I ate it to say the name in German: Leben, life, yes to life.

Moon-watchers out with their dogs, or simply enjoying the cool after over-hot days, will have noted how beautifully it has shone these last evenings and know that tonight is the full moon. It heralds Tu Be’Av, the festival of the fifteenth of the month of Menachem Av, Av the Consoler. It’s the ancient Jewish forerunner of Valentine’s Day:

There were no days so good in Israel as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, when the girls went out to dance in the vineyards in borrowed white dresses (so as not to put to shame those who didn’t have). Whoever wasn’t married would go there. ‘Look,’ the girls would say… (Talmud, Ta’anit 30b-31a)

What follows is not egalitarian, definitely sexist, and certainly not PC. But it’s decisively an affirmation of life, future and fun. Significantly, the date is just six days after Tishah Be’Av, the bleak fast commemorating exile and destruction. The message is ‘Never give up’. More than that, it’s ‘Life is important, life can be good.’

The rabbis want to know why the 15th Av is so special. They come up with some remarkably odd reasons: it’s the date by when the last of the generation doomed to wander in the desert without reaching the Promised Land had died. Alternatively, it’s when the Romans allowed the dead of Betar, the last Jewish stronghold of the Bar Kochba revolt, to be buried.

Admittedly, they also offer somewhat less unromantic explanations. But what are they trying to say? I believe it is this: whatever tribulations we have been through, we have to carry on with life. We mustn’t forget the past, but we must also embrace the future. Maybe that’s why, almost two millennia later, the birth rate among Jewish survivors in the Displaced Persons camps in Germany was extraordinarily high.

It strikes me how deeply Tu be’Av speaks to our reality today. Covid is not over in the UK, certainly not in other parts of the world. But life is calling us to step forward, carefully, with due concern for others and ourselves. Life beckons, with all its joys and challenges. Life is precious, all the more so because we’ve learnt to take its opportunities less for granted.

Etti’s youngest brother Gabi, may he live to the legendary age of 120, used to remind me that ‘life is made up of the little things.’ How can we appreciate everyday blessings? How can we share small acts of kindness and generosity, which maybe aren’t so small after all?

I’ve been bottling red- and blackcurrants these last days. By my side have been my father, much missed, who taught me the skill, and his aunt Sophie who wrote to her mother in the summer of 1938 that she’d been preserving blueberries, – and blackcurrants too. She perished in Auschwitz. Nevertheless she was in my kitchen, because love from the past feeds the present and travels on into the future.

I listened last night to a webinar by Rewilding Scotland. No, said one of the presenters, I don’t just want “sustainable”. I’m working for a re-forested, re-meadowed, re-invigorated, beautiful land for my children.

I hope we can embrace the future like that.

Tu Be’Av marks the turn-around, from destruction to creation.

Why I was at the mural of Marcus Rashford at 2 in the morning

Sometimes one does crazy things.

I’m not a follower of football, but I had to watch the Euro Final. My excuse: ‘People will talk about it, so I need to know what happened.’

I hadn’t the nerves to sit calmly through the whole game, but I did see the penalties. My heart went out to the players who didn’t score. I don’t know how these young men have the guts to come up for their kick, or how they cope afterwards if pressure gets the better of them and the ball doesn’t go where it went every single time on a hundred practice runs.

Friends told me later how they realised the moment they saw by whom England’s last three penalties were taken that there’d be trouble if the ball didn’t hit the back of the net. ‘I knew instantly,’ wrote Bukayo Saka.

I left it too late to write in the press how passionately our community is opposed to racism and how deeply we feel solidarity with these courageous players. But I had to do something. On Tuesday evening the feeling grabbed me that I had to show my respect by going to the mural of Marcus Rashford, disgracefully defaced the previous night. Minutes later I was on the road.

I got to South Manchester around 2.00am. I chatted with the one other person there. ‘I needed to be here,’ he said. We added our messages to the outpouring of love which the wall had by now become.

Before I’d set off, I’d phoned Rabbi Weiner for advice: ‘Is this crazy?’ His answer was great: ‘Yes. But sometimes we need to do crazy things.’

I’m glad I went. My reasons are obvious, but here they are:

If we let racism pass without showing our face, we’re the silent majority who’re assumed to condone it.

That’s true, whoever the victims. But these footballers are true moral heroes. Through these bleak lockdowns, it’s Marcus Rashford who lifted our spirits by insisting children who needed them got free school meals, including during the holidays. He made the government think again; he showed how one person can make all the difference. He’s our nation’s conscience, and he’s not the only one in that England team.

Kate note to Marcus RashfordThere’s something personal as well. My parents were thrown out of Germany by Nazi racism. Out of loyalty to my family, I had an absolute duty to protest the abuse to which these footballers were so vilely subjected.

I went in the name of my community and everything Judaism stands for. In my head was the phrase sinat chinam, ‘causeless hate’. This Sunday is Tishah Be’Av, the fast when we remember the misery destructiveness brings. The rabbis blame the burning of the Temple on just such causeless hate, which brings only misery as hate always does.

Causeless hate is only overcome by ahavat chinam, causeless love. That’s why, of all the messages pinned on that Manchester wall, one stood out, signed simply by Kate:

There will always be hate in this world unfortunately but there is much, much, much more love.

Where do we go now? For sure we must stand alongside the victims and potential victims of racism and bullying. Race hate must be challenged. Social media platforms have work to do.

But is there something more?

Sinat chinam is usually translated as ‘causeless hate’ but ‘pointless hate’ explains it better. Hate gets us nowhere, but does it always come from nowhere? It’s certainly not the fault of those it targets. But are there cruelties and injustices in our world which pour their poisonous fertilisers on the soils which make hurts grows into hates? Ahavat chinam, causeless love, needs to consider this too.

Meanwhile I wish I could give Marcus Rashford a hug and tell him he and his colleagues are heroes of our heart and conscience.

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