The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

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Happy Purim!

Happy Purim! Last year Purim came just before lockdown; this year it comes just before lockdown – slowly, cautiously, eases and children can go back to school. Let’s hope it heralds a better year ahead.

There’s much not to like about the story of Purim. Without going into details, the scroll of Esther, read last night and this morning, poses as a fairy tale in which, by the grace of God, and heroine vanquish vizier and emperor.

But underneath the service, it’s a shrewd, hard-bitten account of insecurity, suppression and manipulation. There are plenty of places still like that in the world. The meme for survival is ‘How do I use people more deftly than they use me.’ There is no more astutely political text in the Bible.

But that’s not what we take away from the festival. On the thin ice of perilous existence, we dance, feast, give gifts and care for the poor. We mock tyranny, take the mickey out of pomp and laugh at life’s absurdity. We create joy.

That’s why tradition connects Purim with Yom KiPurim. On the latter we recognise how transient we are; we fast, repent and take stock of our soul. On the former we recognise how fragile we are; so we eat, drink and make the most of our moment. Carpe diem – seize the day. Mir seinen da! We’re here; let’s make the best of it. Lechaim, Lechaim! To life!

I admire this attitude; there’s courage as well as joy in laughter. It’s one of the great forms of resilience. It’s the underdog’s greatest weapons. It undercuts pride and pretence. It strengthens the spirit. I love the wit and grit of good humour, and appreciate those who have it and share it.

I love, too, the way joy connects us. Sometimes it’s thought that only sad events truly unite us. That’s simply untrue. Even though it was all on Zoom this year, watching a community in fancy dress, with floating hats and virtual moustaches, laughing together, then taking small gifts of foods to their friends (yes, wearing masks, leaving them on doorsteps and stepping away two metres) and knowing that we’ll all support the work of Feast and Leket (see below) making meals for anyone in hungry in these hard times – I feel like weeping with gratitude for being a part of it all.

That’s the lesson which emerges from the old story of intrigue and power (which still plagues the world in its versatile forms): when you get the chance, take life with a laugh, care for your friends and be there for those who need. For the long-standing tasks will soon call us back, to remove oppression and transform the world – and to do that we need all the joy and spirit we can muster.

Let me set down in couplets the key laws of Purim
Just as you’ll find them in the old Arba Turim.

You must read the Megillah when the sun’s gone away,
Then listen to it all over, early next day.

You must boo when it’s Haman, but as we’re on zoom
Please mute your computer before you go boom.

You may stuff your face full and it’s not seen as greedy,
So long as you offer two gifts to two needy

And regale with delicacies one friend at least,
Before you sit down to an unhealthy feast.

You mustn’t stay sombre or too circumspect,
Politically, now’s the moment to be incorrect.

You’re encouraged to dress as king, queen or clown,
To show that you know that the world’s upside down.



Sanctuary – in laughter and in tears

When I was little, I was known for hiding under the table. I felt safe among the shoes, hidden by the overhanging tablecloth, comforted by conversations drifting down without my needing to follow.

‘Make me a sanctuary,’ says the Torah this week. Sanctuary comes in many kinds and we all need our own, especially when days are difficult.

‘Tell me a lie and I’ll give you a dollar,’ said the rich man to Herschel Ostropolier, the wit of Yiddish tales. ‘What d’you mean one? You just said two!’ he answered instantly. I think laughter is a kind of sanctuary, so long as it’s not cruel. Humour can be a form of courage, giving the mind some breathing space from the world. We laugh at Haman on Purim; we’ve always laughed at our enemies. It’s very Jewish, – and very British too. (Next Friday is Purim, when I can talk rubbish with licence.)

‘Animal sanctuary,’ says the sign in the park. There are sanctuaries provided for animals, and animals who provide sanctuary. ‘My daughter tells the dog everything,’ is a not infrequent parental observation. For many of us grown-ups too, our canines are our confidants.

‘When can we come to your garden?’ I’m asked, ‘the children need your guinea pigs.’ Watching them watch them, I think that though it’s not what the holy book meant by ‘Make me a sanctuary,’ something is happening which I would call sacred.

Music is sanctuary. It’s no accident Beethoven chose Schiller’s Ode to Joy for the choral movement of his Ninth:

Joy, beautiful flame divine,
Daughter of Elysium!

Maybe all art doesn’t just ‘hold as t’were, the mirror up to nature,’ as Hamlet said. It’s also a magic mirror, an entrance to a domain of beauty which secretly co-exists within our daily world of challenge and self-doubt. Music, literature, art: they are soul-balm, reprieve, relief and restoration. What’s sanctuary, if not that?

(As for those people who, ears in headphones and eyes on phones, walk straight at you on the pavement, perhaps the charitable thing is to appreciate that they’re not in the street at all but in their private heaven. After all, plenty of those who think they own heaven like to push others away.)

Gardens are sacred. ‘Do you think of your garden as a sanctuary, with its hedges all around?’ I was asked on what remains a highlight of my career, when we hosted Gardener’s Question Time. I hadn’t, until then. But it’s true. Love and care are what till a garden, alongside schlepping manure. Perhaps the many kinds of snowdrop, beloved by Nicky, are our garden’s Menorah, illumining the long January / Tevet nights, and the tiny blue irises I stared at yesterday are the reflection of heaven.

Mountains, forests, small grass islands by a stream: these are sanctuary too and every tree is the tree of life.

Sanctuary isn’t just for joy; you don’t have to be happy to find it. Sorrow may be when we need it most. Isabel Allende describes the long nights watching over her sick daughter, wandering the house ‘adrift on a sea of pain,’

My daughter has given me the opportunity to look inside myself and discover interior spaces – empty, dark, strangely peaceful – I had never explored before. These are holy places… (Paula, p. 272)

Prayer may be sanctuary. Prayer isn’t really about knocking at heaven’s gates but pushing at the door of our heart. To my mind, whether prayer ‘works’ is less a question of ‘Did God say yes?’ than of whether we found our way to our spirit, God’s breath in us all.

What is there within sanctuary when we find it? ‘The ark of testimony,’ says the Torah. But testimony to what? To God, to life, to a quiet knowledge of unassailable belonging to which one doesn’t put words.


On healing; caring for our carers

I’ve spent most of my week thinking about just two words from the Torah, verapo verapei, ‘be sure to heal.’ They’re accompanied in my mind by sentences from Rachel Clarke’s Breathtaking – Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic:

‘There is almost no situation that cannot be made better by someone reaching out, with love and tenderness…’

That’s what she’s seen among nurses, volunteers, doctors, drivers, despite the unrelenting daily pressures they face month upon month:

‘I fear…the public is unaware of how exhausted, stunned – shell-shocked even – many NHS staff and care workers remain.’

One has only to read the papers, pretty much any day, to understand how true both these sentences are. I therefore write with admiration, concern, respect, and also shame at recognising from the side-lines what is being done for us by so many whom we can never adequately appreciate or repay.

The Torah’s words call out in three distinct ways:

First, ‘be sure to heal’ requires anyone who’s injured others to pay for their care. Rabbinic tradition takes this to include medical costs, time off work, loss of future earnings, pain and humiliation. In all but the nastiest of cases no one has deliberately made someone else get Covid. So one could say that no one in particular has the duty to heal.

It’s just this which makes the NHS so profoundly moral, so right. Society, we, collectively take responsibility for our injured and our ill. We aren’t, and can’t all be, nurses or doctors. But we can, and must, enable them to care. Underfunding, (by more than one political party), shortages of personnel, lack of beds, especially in ITU: this is not what the Torah teaches when it says, ‘be sure to heal’. Nor does it mean that so many on whom we are so dependent should remain so badly paid.

Second, verapo verapei is a double verb, ‘heal, heal;’ it’s the most emphatic form Hebrew has. Rabbinic tradition often ascribes to each word of such doublings its own specific meaning. This leads me to almost everything I’m reading and hearing about those on the front line now. They’re striving to heal and heal.

They’re trying to use the best knowledge, subtlest skill, most careful monitoring and the latest almost up-to-the-minute research to save lives, care and, if possible, cure. Yet many are giving something else too: intuition, imagination, love.

Rachel Clarke describes a lady who knits tiny hearts and gives them to the hospital. Mandi, a nurse, knows exactly what to do with them. She puts them in pairs: one she conveys to an anxious family, the other she puts by their loved one’s bed. Since the family can’t visit, she shows them that heart via video:

In this new hospital world of absence and barriers, the hearts speak of love, of kindness and compassion…

This is a double devotion: skill and soul at once.

Third, since they’re written without vowels, the Torah’s words can be pronounced in different ways. Verapo verapei can be (mis-) read as verofei verapei. It’s a sleight of hand Hasidic teachers often practise. Taken this way, the words mean ‘the healer shall be healed.’

A picture in today’s Guardian shows a doctor who’s volunteered to work in ITU. She’s watching the birds, a tiny moment of relief. What will bring restoration to those who’ve struggled so hard to save lives, yet attended on much dying? Who heals the healers?

Some healing is beyond human capacity. The Torah says, ‘I am God, your healer.’ To many, healing may only come slowly, perhaps through nature and music, both sacred and soothing – if only they get time to breathe them in.

But healing must also come from us, at the very least through acknowledgement and appreciation. Rachel Remen, whose life is devoted to caring for carers, writes that ‘medicine is as close to love as it is to science.’ Some of that love needs to come from each of us.


Being true?

Our older dog, Mitzpah, has aged greatly during lockdown. The puppy, who does her best to provoke him, succeeds in infusing him with a few minutes of daily zest. But often he follows me round, even more than he used to, staring up with that baleful look which one can’t help thinking dogs secretly perfect in the mirror. But he’s saying something different from ‘Give me another biscuit,’ or at least that’s what I hear. He’s asking, ‘Will you still look after me, will you still love me, now I can’t make the long walks, now I’m ninety-four?’

The question of truth is, rightly, at the forefront of public debate: is everything only ‘my truth’ or ‘your truth’? Are so-called ‘facts’ merely subjective, the way we choose, and try to make others choose, to see them? Or is there such a thing as empirically verifiable data which demands our respect?

But there’s another aspect of ‘truth’ which troubles me no less deeply: being true. ‘True’ in this sense translates into Hebrew not as emet, but as ne’eman, ‘faithful’; or, as my grandfather would say in German, not as wahr, but as treu. It’s how Matthew Arnold uses the word in Dover Beach:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain…

Being true to one another, he felt as he listened to the retreating tide symbolising faith’s ‘long, withdrawing roar’, is all we have on this earth.

As I write, a conversation returns to my mind, still filling me ten years later with a residue of the shame I felt at the time. It was only a two-minute exchange in the street about a mutual friend: ‘He thinks you’ve forgotten him now he’s not well.’

Since then, those words have been an ear-worm in my conscience. They’re my measure of what ne’eman means: faithful, trustworthy, present through thick and thin. I meet people who’re like that; I’m aware of more of them since lockdown has brought to the fore the importance of this kind of ‘truth’: people who keep in touch with everyone they know, who try to forget no one, who treat nobody, ever, as second class.

This is what it means to be human. I recently attended a conference about friendship in different faiths. Much of it left me unmoved because in the end all the theology comes down to this: we hold each other’s humanity in trust.

It’s a responsibility and privilege which goes beyond those we know already. I’ve heard the following often this year, and I’m struck every time:

‘I think it’s a medical student, or it might be a nursing assistant, or the intensive care nurse herself: she holds her mobile phone next to my father in the ICU and lets us talk to him. Sometimes we even sing.’

It’s a truism that ‘a patient is a person, not just someone who’s sick.’ But to live that truth when you’re long past exhausted, when your personal safety may be at risk, when your heart is worn bare by witnessing suffering, and yet still to have the love – what words do justice to this?

We hold each other’s humanity in our hearts, and sometimes in our very hands. How we do so defines us. I believe God asks us all the time ‘Are you being faithful?’ These words don’t come from above. They’re not in heaven but in our family, friends, fellow beings, even in the eyes of the dog.

We had a small family dinner on the Friday night of my Bar Mitzvah (as so many families would love to be able to do now!) I remember vividly something my grandfather said about me: ‘Er ist treu’ – he never got used to speaking in English – ‘he’s true.’ What he was really telling me was: ‘Be true, because that’s what matters.’

I still hear him say those words. I paid little attention at the time, but now they fill me with an inseparable mixture of shame, inspiration and love.


‘My strength and my song:’ poetry, music and resilience

As Holocaust Memorial Day closed, with its commemoration of destruction, Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, with its celebration of creation, began. As the week including both of them ends, we arrive at Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song.

Song has accompanied humanity throughout. Judaism is a religion of song; the opening chapter of the Torah is a paean of praise to the emergence of the world of wonder, and the first weekly portion refers to the origin of music. Rabbi Avraham Isaac Hacohen Kook understood the very name Israel as the conjoining of two words shir and El, song and God: Israel means God’s song, singing before God.

Poets and musicians have written with passion about their art; philosophers of aesthetics have speculated about its essence and power. The Torah does not analyse its nature and origins, but declares, simply and frankly, the impetus towards it:

I shall sing, I must sing, to God…
God’s song is my strength.
This is my God, whose beauty I proclaim. ’ (Exodus 15:1,2)

Poetry is the language of the heart and soul; music is what they articulate beneath and beyond the limitations of words. Poetry, in its rhythm and alliteration, is music too. Both poetry and music have accompanied us and been created in even the bleakest and most terrible of times. Hence Carolyn Forche chose as motto for her anthology, Against Forgetting, Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, the lines by Bertold Brecht:

In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.

But how can there be song even in exile, even in transit, concentration and death camps? The question is ancient:

By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept:
How shall we sing God’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137)

 Yet even, and precisely, amidst brutality, words and music affirm dignity, constitute witness and even bring a strange beauty to places of suffering and longing where the heart and the unbearable are compelled to meet. ‘Can you put words to this?’ asked a woman in the starving queue of relatives outside a prison in Stalinist Russia, recognising that the person standing freezing next to her was Anna Akhmatova. ‘Yes, I can,’ she said; and did.

Song is resilience, resistance, and, like the song of the Children of Israel at the sea, its testimony remains long after tyrants and their empires have collapsed.

And song is also joy, music the surge of the spirit’s wonder. Poets and prophets have always understood that all creation sings: ‘The mountains and the hills will break forth before you in song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.’ (Isaiah 55:12) Tu Bishevat doesn’t just mark the importance of trees, with their essential contribution to our physical, mental and spiritual health. It reminds us to listen to how they, too, sing.

It isn’t only mystics with their obfuscating tendencies who hear music in the very nature of the universe. ‘We astronomers,’ wrote the poet and scientist Rebecca Elson, in an extraordinary, epigrammatic line, ‘Honour our responsibility to awe.’

The Torah portion which includes the Song at the Sea which gives this Shabbat its name, Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, concludes with the words, ‘For I am the God who heals you.’ In these difficult times, with their uncertainty, anxiety and grief, may music and poetry heal, restore and strengthen our heart and spirit.


Why I wept listening to President Biden

I cried when I listened to President Joe Biden’s inaugural address; I was far from the only one. I didn’t cry because it was a rhetorically eloquent speech, but because it was so eloquently simple, because it came from a human being, a person with a heart.

Biden’s words reminded me of a phrase from Vaclav Havel: what the world needs is a politics of responsibility, a politics of the heart:

“The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.”

Whether President Biden will prove able to provide enduring leadership of this quality, faced with all the challenges, tribulations and inevitable compromises of office, only the coming years will tell.

But the task is not his alone; it calls to us all.

The Torah has a great deal to say about hearts. Pharaoh has a hard heart. It would be fairer to say that his allotted role is to exemplify what hard-heartedness is: he doesn’t listen and doesn’t care, not just about the Children of Israel but even about his own Egypt.

It’s tempting to point at others, especially leaders, who’re hard hearted. The founder of Hasidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov, knew better: everyone, he said, has not just a Moses but also a Pharaoh inside.

I often end my day wondering if I’ve behaved with heart. The simple prayer says it all: ‘Open my heart through your Torah,’ which I take to mean ‘through all life,’ because all experience can be understood as God’s teaching.

I worry: have I said or done something harsh or hurtful? There is endless pain in the world, most of it unspoken. If life is a bird alighted next to us, it’s so easy carelessly to break its wing, so easy not even to notice it’s there.

This week is devoted to mental health. (Please see the events we’re hosting or recommending, and what my colleagues have written.) I only want to say that the Torah speaks of an open heart, a wise heart and a strong heart.

An open heart says, most often not through words: I’m here and I hear. It doesn’t say, or convey, ‘I don’t want to know;’ it doesn’t change the subject; it doesn’t have the answers. It simply communicates, ‘I care.’ I read of a refugee who told a woman who’d listened to his story: ‘I feel heard for the first time since I fled. I’m less in exile now.’

I’m not sure what a wise heart says. But I’ve met people who have one. I can’t remember anything specific they told me, but the feeling I had in their company remains. They listened. They gave out something which couldn’t exactly be called ‘advice.’ I don’t know how to describe it, and it was something more than words which conveyed it. It was an understanding that life has depth, is difficult; that pain is; that life is also robust; that the next step must be dared; that if I fell they’d be there for me still.

A strong heart is not the same as a hard heart. It is resolute not because it’s closed but because it’s open. Its defences exist only to protect and maintain its tenderness. They represent the strength not of coldness but of love.

At this time of intense individual stress and collective challenge, which affects each one of us, though in different ways, impacting every nation and the planet itself, I wish us openness, wisdom and strength of heart, for ourselves, each other and the leaders and presidents of the world.




Hang on in there

‘Hang on is there’ is what God says when Moses despairs of persuading his own people, let alone Pharaoh, that freedom will some day come. ‘Attah tireh,’ God tells him; ‘You’ll soon see.’

‘Hang on in there’ is what we must tell ourselves and each other over these difficult weeks. These winter lockdown days, long, lonely and anxious, are hard for us all and harsher for some than for others. We need all the morale, good humour, solidarity and stamina we can muster. Though we may be isolated and therefore dependent on our own internal resources first and foremost, we are not entirely alone, and must not leave each other feeling forgotten and apart. We have to muster all our strength, spiritually and collectively.

Immo anochi, ‘I am with you,’ is the simple message at the heart of the Psalms:

‘I said: the darkness will crush me,’
but I found even there that ‘Your hand guides me,
and Your right hand takes hold of me.’ (Psalms 91 & 139)

These beautiful words may sound like someone else’s faith from some faraway time. But they can be our words too, and often, even without our recognising it, they are.

‘I didn’t know what to do with the anxiety and pain,’ a colleague, Rabbi Lazar, said. ‘So I began to sing. In the hospital bed. The nurse thought I’d gone mad. I sang for two whole hours. It took me to a different place, a different level.’

We may find our inner strength through music, poems, films, cooking, meditation, prayer, walking, Pilates, bird-watching through the window, Torah study, photographing winter trees, wit, and the courage which lies within humour. These may not all be conventional ways of experiencing God’s hand guiding us. But where there’s wonder or reprieve, where, instead of feeling our spirit sink, we sense even a momentary surge of inner life and something within us sings, – there, I believe, is God’s presence.

‘Hang on in there,’ begins with ourselves. But it’s also what we must say to each other. Right now there’s probably no more important message we can give. We convey it by phoning, writing, perhaps even thinking. We say it by sending small gifts. Few things strengthen our own morale as much as knowing there’s something we can do for each other. I admire those who bake every week, for Great Ormond Street or The Royal Free, for their neighbourhood or a friend who’s unwell.

We say ‘hang on in there’ by creating whatever community we can, albeit for now online only. Prayer is a form of solidarity, but solidarity is also a form of prayer: we think together, we feel for each other.

‘Hang on in there,’ can’t be only for our family, friends and neighbours, though that’s where we start. I had the opportunity of a conversation with former prime minister Gordon Brown this week: ‘Up to four million children hungry in this country,’ he said. I’ve asked Leon Aarts to speak at our pre-Shabbat service tonight. He’s the chef who helped institute the mass cooking of nutritious meals at the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais. Now he and his volunteers cook every day for London’s children. If we’ve the privilege of plenty, we’ve the responsibility to share.

I respect everyone who’s caring for those who’re ill or injured, in body or spirit. I admire everyone who’s supporting homeless people and refugees. I feel solidarity with everyone who’s tending life in any of its needs, nursing abandoned animals, planting trees. Thank you for keeping us ‘in there’.

When we say to life ‘I’m with you’ then, I believe, life says ‘I’m with you’ back to us, even amidst pain and loss.

I’m aware that some of us carry far more hurt and anxiety than others. So, however we express it, our ‘hang on in there’ mustn’t be glib. It must come from the attentiveness of the heart.


Words of incitement; words of healing

Our world needs healing. Perhaps never since the Second World War, the hatred, incitement and viciousness which led to it, and the decimated lands and homeless populations it left in its wake, has this been so obvious.

My heart goes out to everyone on the front line of care, whether in ambulances and hospitals, or listening to people’s anguish and mental stress, or trying to heal the injustices and angers which divide our societies, or mend our relationship with the rest of creation, the very air, water and plants and animals on which the wellbeing of all life depends.

We all have the capacity to heal; and we all, too, have the power to make matters worse. In these pressured and anxious times, we must help one another be healers. Refa’einu veneirapei, runs the daily prayer, ‘Heal us, God, and we shall be healed.’ I like to think the words might also mean, ‘Heal us, God, and make us healers.’

At the broadest, geopolitical level, we have been horrified by the violence at the United States Capitol. The Rabbinical Assembly immediately called on ‘all American political and religious leaders to condemn in unequivocal terms this attack on democracy and its institutions,’ to confirm the results of the elections and ensure the peaceful transfer of authority.

I felt shocked, but not entirely surprised, at what happened on Wednesday night. It is a consequence of years of incitement to contempt. I was reminded of the Torah’s account of Pharaoh’s address to his people almost three millennia ago: ‘Come, let us deal wisely:’ that seductive appeal to fear and hatred as a justification for tyranny, which led to enslavement, misery and murder.

It was galling to hear leaders of far less democratic countries than America ‘cash in’ on America’s hour of shame. I pray that world leaders will have the wisdom to speak words of healing, and that Joe Biden, who knows the depths of personal tragedy, will find the inspiration, courage and support from those around him to be ‘the healer president.’

What is said from the top travels far further and carries greater power. But all our words matter. In these times of great stress, blame and anger tempt us all. The challenge is whether we can call injustice and wrong by their names, yet listen to what hurts and troubles others, and speak calmly and with integrity, keeping the values of justice, truthfulness and compassion before us always. The adage that ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,’ is simply not true. It’s often the words which lead people to pick up the stones, and the guns. But it’s also often words which bring the beginning of healing.

Therefore on the far smaller, local scale, words matter too, in our homes, phone calls, zooms, emails, and in our two-metres-apart greetings in the half-empty streets. It’s not just what we say, but what we don’t say. Frustration has grated the skin away and exposed our nerves. It’s easy to be angry. Loneliness has settled on many like a low-grade, immovable ache.

Please, and I include myself, think of friends we may not have spoken to, acquaintances after whom we have not enquired. Be in touch; say hello. Risk calling the number. Share a memory, something gracious, something which lifts the spirit. Listen. It takes all of us to make ‘we are not alone’ real.

Ordinary words of kindness, small acts of consideration, lead to a spirit of generosity which has the power to draw in others, to find quiet routes across the fissures of society, and bring that light ‘with healing on its wings’ which the prophet Malachi speaks of.

We can all incite to anger, or guide to understanding.


Don’t chase happiness; seek to be giving…

May 2021 be a year of healing for everyone who is ill. May it be a year of healing in body and spirit, across society and nations, and between humanity and nature. May it be a year of chesed ve’emet, honesty, integrity, kindness and generosity.

I want to give thanks to everyone who has helped preserve our physical and mental health and sustain our spirit:

Thank you to everyone who has kept in touch with neighbours, turned acquaintances into friends and shared their cares;

Thank you to everyone who has preserved and strengthened community, who, undaunted by tiers and lockdowns, has created ways for us to connect;

Thank you to everyone who has found beauty and wonder in nature and opened our eyes to see it as well;

Thank you to everyone who has brought music and poetry to cheer our spirit;

Thank you to everybody who has found wells of emotional and spiritual strength and helped us find them too;

Thank you to everyone who has kept our conscience alert and our moral horizon wide;

Thank you to everyone who has helped us through their example to live by the values of justice and compassion we profess;

Thank you to everybody who, at personal risk, has served long and challenging shifts in care homes, surgeries, hospitals, ambulances and in public health;

Thank you to everyone who has worked inventively and undauntedly to engage and educate children and young people

Thank you to everyone who has made sure the shops and foodbanks aren’t empty, the recycling and waste is still collected, and letters and parcels are delivered;

Thank you to everyone who has shown chesed, kindness, and chesed shebechesed, kindness within kindness, that special sensitivity which touches the heart;

Thank you to everyone who has, in spite of everything, found ways of keeping positive through bleak days and who has helped us by acknowledging how hard that can be;

Thank you to everyone who has kept a sense of humour.

Yesterday I heard a remarkable address by a grandfather to his granddaughter on her Bat Mitzvah. Don’t chase happiness, he said; like a butterfly, it will always drift away just as you think you are about to grasp it. What happiness you do find will be along the way, in little things and small moments. Rather, seek to be giving. Thank you, then, to everyone who has been and continues to be giving.

In special reflections last night – we haven’t usually marked the secular new year as a community – we drew on the ancient night-time prayers known as Tikkun Rachel and Tikkun Le’ah. They focus on seeking an end to exile and finding new hope. Therefore they speak to us in our mini-exile from our family, friends and familiar places and in our longing to come back together.

They include the beautiful 42nd Psalm

Like a deer longs for pools of water, so my soul longs for you, God…Don’t be downcast, my soul: hope in God…For by day God commands lovingkindness and by night God’s song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

May lovingkindness guide us and God’s song sustain us in the year ahead.


What unites us: Jewish thoughts on Christmas day

There are two beautiful sentences in tomorrow’s Torah which move me today on this complex date, a fast in Judaism commemorating the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army, and a day of celebration and good tidings throughout the Christian world.

Both sentences are spoken by Judah as he pleads before the viceroy of Egypt, whom he does not yet know to be his long-lost brother Joseph, to let Benjamin come back home to their father. Judah explains to the viceroy that ‘nafsho keshurah benafsho, – his soul is bound up with his soul,’ the elderly Jacob cannot bear to live without his youngest child.

There is a deep generosity in Judah’s words. He has come to appreciate that Benjamin is special, presumed to be the only surviving son of their father’s adored but long dead wife Rachel.

Those words ‘his soul is bound up with his soul’ transcend their context. They speak simply and briefly of the love which can exist between people. Judah isn’t talking about himself; this is not his bond with his father, but Benjamin’s. Yet he treats it with the deepest respect; he honours love itself.

This is what I witness when families with a relative in intensive care tell me, ‘A nurse or doctor rang every day. They were so thoughtful. And they must be under such pressure.’

This cruel year is teaching us to know and respect the deepest needs and connections of the human heart, of life itself.

Judah now explains why he of all the brothers has stepped forward to plead for Benjamin, in whose sack Joseph had his special goblet surreptitiously planted and who now stands accused of theft. ‘Ki avedacha arav et han’ar, I, your servant, stood surety for the lad before my father:’ Judah has promised to take responsibility.

Arav means ‘mix’: to stand surety is to appreciate that one’s destiny and integrity is mixed with that of others. To be truly human is to be engaged, concerned, answerable. Hence the Talmudic saying: ‘Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – All Israel are responsible for one another.’ We are connected by a heart-felt duty of care, to our own community and people, but also in the most universal sense to other communities too, as prescribed by our common humanity. In the deepest sense of all, we are responsible for all life, entrusted by God with care for creation itself.

I feel this more deeply than ever this year. That’s why I wrote a letter to The Church Times, which they published online:

My heart goes out to Christian colleagues and communities as Christmas approaches and it becomes clear how limited gatherings and family celebrations will be.

We struggled over the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement when families could not come together as accustomed, and long and beautiful services had to be curtailed and numbers limited. Yet we were upheld by that profound sense of spiritual solidarity which sustains all faith communities.

In these difficult times solidarity of spirit across our different faiths and philosophies matters more than ever. These frightening and bewildering months have shown us how interdependent we all are and how deeply we need one another across the whole of our society.

Our liturgies may differ, but we stand together in praying for a safer, more peaceful, sustainable and compassionate world.

There’s much in the past year which we don’t want repeated, but I hope a deeper awareness of the bonds which connect us and the responsibilities which unite us will not be lost.


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