The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

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A prayer of healing for the new year

I wish everyone a Shanah Tovah, a good, safe and worthwhile year.

A prayer for the new year

May this be a year of healing for us, our societies, and our beautiful, beleaguered, wonderful world.

These months have brought mortality nearer us all, and grief to many homes. Some deaths have been lonely; some untimely; some the results of self-sacrifice to care for others. Sorrow doesn’t go away; it is gradually transformed. May life, which tears the heart apart, show its tenderness too, drawing together the torn edges of our wounds.

God of life, breathe love and purpose back into our spirits.

Many people have struggled with illness and its after-effects; the fear of it troubles us all. Moses prayed in just five words for his sister who became sick: ‘God, please, heal her, please.’ ‘Please!’ when we plead for someone we love is a big enough word on its own to absorb our whole heart.

God of healing, give us the dedication, science, finance, wise leadership and loving kindness to enable us to be cured.

Society has come together to care in creative and inspiring ways: neighbourhood groups; clapping, and cooking, for carers; mask-making, gown-sewing, medicines brought to the door. All age-groups and faiths have participated. But we’ve also seen the crevasses of inequality: hunger; children with screens for home study and children with none; families with gardens and families with no space for beds; people whose work is hectic, people whose income has gone.

God of justice, who deplores the attitude that ‘I’m alright and that’s your problem,’ make us redress the wrongs.

We’ve shared words of appreciation and kindness. We’ve said to people whom we never told before how much we value them. ‘They say “thank you”’ explained a man filling supermarket shelves. ‘My patients ask, “And doctor, how are you?”’ But there’s also a language of contempt at large: unbridled racism, mockery, contempt, especially towards women, unashamed lying.

God of truth and purity, make us cleanse how we speak and deepen how we listen.

The world has seen courageous and compassionate leadership. But we also witness the lack of integrity in high office, wilful deceit, absence of vision, refusal to submit to accountability and the failure to act swiftly on issues on which the planet depends.

God of integrity, guide us to do, influence others to do, and seek leaders who do what is right and just.

We’ve been attentive to beauty we missed before: What bird is that singing in these quietened skies? We’ve watched the colour of the leaves unfurling, now yellowing and curling. Walks and parks have been our solace. Yet we make nature sick and our habits destroy life in near and far away places.

God of creation, put wonder in our hearts and urgency in our conduct.

God of healing, you’ve entrusted us with life and power. Teach us, cajole us, shame us, but above all inspire us through love to be healers in your beautiful world whose birthday we celebrate now.

 

 

9/11, the Battle of Britain and the God of life

‘I set before you life and good, death and evil:’ What words to read in our Torah on the date of 9/11, and before the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain, marked this coming week.

Everyone of us alive then remembers where we were when we heard of the attack on the twin towers, when we switched on our televisions and saw. Our hearts not go out even now, nineteen years later, to every person trapped on those high floors, who phoned their husband, wife, children, parents, to say in whatever words they could muster: I’m going to die in minutes; I love you, love you, farewell.

Incomprehensible, that madness must have seemed; we cannot possibly imagine the bewilderment and terror. The world shook then, not just in Manhattan; and it has never felt steady since.

On 22 May 1940, soon after the Nazi invasion of Holland, Belgium and France, Guy Mayfield, chaplain to RAF Duxford near Cambridge, wrote in his diary:

Peter has been talking today…about not wanting to die yet…The heartache is to see these young men waiting to have their lives cut short….They talk to me.’

‘One hopes to keep them cheerful,’ he wrote two days later, referring to the many pilots and airbase personnel who drank and talked with him through the early hours. They knew what was coming; they didn’t assume that fate or flak would spare them. ‘Drowned it in rye and dry,’ he noted another night. ‘Prayed,’ he noted too, for the German widows too.

Peter was last seen only weeks later, bailing out of his Spitfire by the French Coast near Dunkirk, into the guns and waves.

Eighty years afterwards, we too are part of the many who owe so much to so few.

My Talmud class struggled over the words of the famous prayer:

On The New Year it is written and on The Day Of Atonement sealed…who shall live and who shall die…

I couldn’t encourage anyone to believe literally in an ‘inscriber God’ dictating the destiny of each and every person down to the very day and date to the penmanship of fate.

But I do believe in the God who writes the book of life, – although believe is not the best word. I feel you near. You are all around me; I hear you in the bird song, see you through the window in the leaves of the olive tree, the vine, the medlar fruit. When I said at dawn Modei ani lefanecha, ‘I acknowledge before you,’ it was you who woke me up, gave me, gives me life.

‘Live!’ that’s what that prayer means to me. Be on the side of life!

We don’t know if the days before us will be tens of thousands or just tens. But we can make them days of life, days of the love of life. That, too, may not always be easy, since often there are troubles are fears and depressions to fight. But it does not lie entirely beyond our power.

So that is what we must do this difficult year: strive to live and help others to live too. We shall not be on the side of death. We will be on the side of healing, in society and nature. We will take food to food banks; we will not say ‘none of my concern’ when children get to school hungry, or refugees have nothing to eat. We will look out for and look after one another. We will write, phone, email, whatsapp friends and neighbours, and risk greeting people we don’t yet know to say Shanah Tovah, here’s to a good year, in spite of the worries, despite lockdown and its limitations. We will plant trees, let meadows grow and fill the bird feeders. We will stop consuming the planet to the brink of destruction. We will serve the God of life through the service of all life.

There’s nothing better we can do to honour those who so much longed to live.

 

Have hatred and racism driven God from our world?

The Torah and the newspaper are open next to me on my desk. I am not sure if they’re screaming at each other or rising together in protest.

This is the headline: ‘I still feel the pain of his loss’: these are the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s daughter Bernice and his son Martin Luther King III. They were small children when their father was assassinated. Today they are sharing in the recreation of his 1963 ‘I have a dream’ march to Washington. There has probably been no time since then when his words and spirit are more urgently needed. He looked forward to the day when his children would be ‘judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character’. Yet after the murder of George Floyd, Martin’s 11-year-old daughter Yolanda told her father she was too frightened to go outside and play…

This is the verse from the Torah:

The Lord your God walks with you in your encampment…
So let your camp be holy, lest God see ugliness in you and turn away. (Deut. 23:15)

There are several critical words:

Encampment refers to where the community lives, specifically where we pray; these places should be physically and morally clean. To the Hasidim ‘camp’ also means the human mind and body; we should be pure in thought and deed. To the universalist our encampment is the whole world, the inner cities, towns and countryside entrusted to our care for the duration of our lives.

Holy means free of oppression. In the very next verse, the Torah commands us not to send refugee slaves back to their oppressors. On the next page in the newspaper is the account of a trafficked women who evaded the trade-ring of pimps exploiting her and strove to bring them to justice. She’s one of very, very few who gets away. Holy isn’t just about sacred states of spirit; it’s about grounded realities, the sanctuaries of justice and compassion.

Walks’ is a weak translation. The Hebrew word is reflexive, meaning not ‘walk past,’ but ‘walk about’, stay, abide, feel at home. It’s the exact opposite of ‘turn away’.

So we’re told we must maintain a world where God feels at home, or else God will walk away. Do we?

‘No,’ answered Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King’s close companion in campaigning: God is not at home in the world and our task is so to transform it that God will once again feel comfortable among us.

I therefore believe in a God who hovers, who knocks at our heart, mind and imagination. I believe in a God who can take us by surprise, as when Jacob awoke from his dream of a ladder from heaven to earth and said ‘There’s God in this place and I didn’t realise’. I believe in a God who can be present in such a way as I witnessed in moments of lovingkindness at the North London Hospice this week, and as I saw when watching the wings of a golden eagle from high in the Scottish mountains.

I don’t believe in a God who simply walks away, but in a God who shrinks smaller and smaller when we do wrong, until there’s only a small tight knot of the divine left in our hearts crying ‘let me in’, but we hardly hear.

I believe in a God who weeps for the race hate, injustice and cruelty we humans show each other and nature, but who hugs and sings and rejoices in the joy of beauty, kindness, justice, courage, humility, understanding, graciousness and love.

I believe in the struggle to make our encampment holy.

 

The Jewish New Year for Animals – why this is so important

When I was small, favourite things were the dried flower my parents bought me as a treat from Hoyes, the sweet shop. You put the flower in a jar of water and it would unfurl, a growing, gripping thing.

The Mishnah, edited in the Galilee around 200CE, often seems to me like that: a text which unfolds, growing in one’s mind, complex, vital. One of my favourite mishnayot concerns Rosh Hashanah (rapidly approaching).

It begins unexpectedly: ‘There are four new years…’ The first is the 1st of Nisan, new year for kings (important for dating documents). The second is today, the 1st of Elul, new year for tithing cattle. The third is the 1st of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah par excellence, when every living being passes before God. The four is the 15th of Shevat, new year for trees.

As this Mishnah opens out I feel it encompass every aspect of life: our practical and financial affairs; our connection with God and conscience; our response to trees and nature and our relationship with animals.

This is, admittedly, a liberal interpretation. In fact, the new year for trees was a date for taxing crops. The new year for cattle was when farmers had to give every tenth lamb and calf to the Temple. But today, just as the Rosh Hashanah has become a time of profound reflection on what it means to be human, so Tu Bishevat calls on us to examine our attitude to nature, and the 1st Elul has been rebranded as the Jewish New Year for Animals.

I’ve always liked animals; my parents assumed I’d be a vet. I include an extra word in my prayers every day: when we ask God to bless the years, I add ‘vehabriyot - and the animals’.

In Biblical and early rabbinic times, Jews had close relationships with nature. ‘The righteous person feels for the life of his domestic animals,’ teaches Proverbs. Oxen and asses must not be burdened on Shabbat. But donkeys often feel cold, so it’s permitted to put a blanket over them on Shabbes. Tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, the prohibition against making animals suffer, is regarded as Torah law, legislation of the highest authority.

Maimonides noted that mother animals feel pain similar to humans when separated from their young. Nachmanides observed how animals can make choices and some show love, implying that they have souls.

I admit I’m sentimental, but I believe this New Year for Animals is highly important. I’m horrified by how we as a species treat them, excepting only our beloved household pets. In Curlew Moon, Mary Colwell records how many people hadn’t even noticed that they hadn’t noticed how the haunting calls of these remarkable birds, once so familiar, had become absent. The spring, and all the seasons, had simply fallen silent around them; they hadn’t even realised. I fear we’re the same.

Judaism teaches that we’re part of creation, dependent on it, interdependent with it and answerable to God for our relationship towards it.

If animals could write, there would be trillions of signatures on their ‘J’accuse’. How we treat food animals is unthinkable; that is, virtually all of us fail to, choose not to, or can’t bear to think about it. Where’s the humility; where’s the compassion? Unless we sharpen our agrichemical laws, the small mammals and songbirds will be gone from our fields. And we call ourselves human, humane!

Yet we almost all say we love nature. In Jewish teaching love is never just sentiment but always also commandment, as the Torah demands: ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ – and all God’s works.

Like the Rosh Hashanah, today’s New Year for Animals calls us to teshuvah, repentance, rethinking, realignment of who we are.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov, a good and thoughtful month of Elul

The Shabbat of Consolation

For much of last night Isaiah kept going round in my head: ‘Nachamu, nachamu ammi: Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people; speak to the heart of Jerusalem.’ The Sabbath after Tishah Be’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, ‘The Shabbat of Consolation,’ after these words.

I can’t be the only person who doesn’t sleep well after a fast day. Driving down to Kent late last night to celebrate my daughter Kadya’s birthday at my mother-in-law’s, where the family almost always gathers on special occasions, I’ve had the privilege of praying in the orchards while the mist is low among the apple trees, the first birds are singing, the last star is still visible in the sky and the horizon to the east is red with expectation. That in itself is balm and consolation.

What brings comfort? How can we offer it to one another? These questions drifted in and out of my half sleep as they’ve flowed through my thoughts all my working life. What can one do about the pain in so many lives, the sorrow in so many hearts?

Sometimes it’s about action. Have you anything to eat? Are you being bullied? Who hurt you like that? These questions may need to be asked. I’ve seen the queue at the local food bank, the children waiting. When someone’s hungry, comfort starts with food. Where there’s race hatred, consolation begins with calling the perpetrators speedily and unhesitatingly to account, – and stopping them misusing twitter. Comfort begins with the commitment to compassion and justice. That’s why Martin Luther King quoted Isaiah’s next verse in his great speech “I have a dream”: ‘Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low.’

‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem:’ sometimes comfort demands words. Social media has advanced the art of the cleverly cruel put-down. Incomparably more important is the opposite skill: knowing how to offer the right words of support, especially to children, so that those around us feel valued, encouraged and empowered. ‘So many people have made me feel worthless. You helped me see I was somebody, that I had something to give.’ This is one of the greatest compliments I ever heard a pupil pay a teacher. ‘You changed my life.’

Yet there are also sorrows which neither actions nor words can reach. What can heal the grief in another person’s heart? What can we do or say? We have nothing to offer but our own heart’s attentiveness, nothing else but companionship to give. ‘Speak,’ says Isaiah, but maybe it’s more important to listen, simply to be present and hear, without platitude and fear, but with kindness and calm, and maybe, if appropriate, a gentle touch of humour.

And at times it is we ourselves who seek comfort. What human being is never in need of consolation? We may turn to others for guidance, but in the end only we can know how to find healing for our spirit.

Perhaps it is among the trees, with the birdsong, by the rockpools on the shore, where, like the sea tide, a greater life flows into our heart’s wounds and withdraws again, flows in and withdraws, and quietly we know: I accept life in its mystery, even with its flaws and hurts. I am at one, amidst this endlessness, with my smallness and mortality. I hear you, God of life.

 

Groundless hatred, causeless love and the fate of a young hedgehog

‘But think of the kindness to which it led.’ I’m holding on to Nicky’s words.

She’d been on her way home when the road was blocked by a police car. The policemen were not at their usual tasks; instead, they were trying to pick up a young hedgehog stranded in the road. Experienced in such matters, she wrapped the poor animal in a towel and brought it home for rehab.

Sadly, it wasn’t well. On the advice of the RSPCA we took it to the Royal Veterinary College. It cried all the way, piteously, like a kitten. The vet soon returned with the news that the little creature was too sick to save. We got home after midnight, upset.

‘But think of the kindness,’ Nicky said: ‘The police, all those drivers who stopped, David and Linda who care about hedgehogs, the woman on the helpline, the vet. We also did our best; it didn’t die abandoned. Even wild animals know.’

This may all sound trivial. But I’m not so sure.

The Talmud explains that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, gratuitous hatred. In response, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook famously wrote:

If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to causeless hatred, then we would rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with causeless love — ahavatchinam.

‘Causeless love’ is made up of small interactions. It’s Wordsworth who wrote that the best portion of a good person’s life consists of

little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.

Nothing is too small for love, even a young hedgehog.

These days before the bleak fast of Tishah Be’Av are understood as a time when anger is on the loose in the world. This fits well with our current predicament: lockdown has eased but Covid is still around and there are worrying warnings about autumn and winter. Frustration and anxiety are in the air, like the virus itself.

Short temper, blaming and hitting out are understandable. Who has never done it? But, as the cornerstone of our synagogue building reminds us, the world, so easily destroyed by groundless hate, is rebuilt through love: olam hesed yibaneh.

Transforming vexation into kindness is also a prickly matter to handle. We need to listen, but not react, holding back our own irritations, even if warranted. We don’t simply want to mirror anger back with anger. We need to respond with understanding.

Bernard Kops described how he was walking with his father in the East End when a man up a ladder reviled them with antisemitic abuse. ‘What’s hurting you?’ his father had asked. Somehow, he got the tone just right. The man ended up coming home with them for tea.

Perhaps that’s what Rabbi Yochanan (third century) meant when he explained that the temple was destroyed because ‘the judges ruled by the strict letter of the law’ and not with the generosity of compassion. ‘You’ve asked for it; you deserve to be hit back’ may be true. But it won’t draw the angry puss out of the wound; it won’t transform our world.

The mystics speak of the need to outweigh gevurah, judgement and harshness, with hesed, lovingkindness. This applies to our own emotional state, to the world at large, and even in the heart of God. ‘Noteh klappei hesed – God inclines toward mercy,’ teaches the Talmud, inviting us to do the same.

I’ll hear the whimpering of that hedgehog for a very long time. It is the minute articulation of cries of great suffering across our world.

 

Jeremiah and inconvenient truth

It’s among the most painful challenges: to find the words for the gravestone of someone you love.

But when my grandmother died, I knew: the quotation had to be from Jeremiah: ‘Zacharti lach: I remember the tender kindness of your youth, the love of your bridal days, how you followed me through an unsown land.’

She and my grandfather cherished those words, with their beautiful Rosh Hashanah melody. They captured their love for God and Judaism, but above all their deep affection for each other, his adoration of his beautiful bride Natalie Charlotte, with whom he was married for almost sixty years. They encapsulated, too, their shared destiny, flee Nazism in late mid-life to an unknown, if not unsown, land.

To me those words express tenderness, loyalty, moral courage and the great resilience of Judaism and the human spirit. To explain, I must go down into the depths with their author.

Every year at this season of bein hametsarim, ‘between the troubles’, in the three bleak weeks from the fast of 17 Tammuz when the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem, to Tishah be’ Av, when both Temples were destroyed, I am drawn to Jeremiah.

Jeremiah is the father of everyone killed for telling the truth. God appointed him the ill-fated bearer of warnings ignored. His contemporaries disregarded or despised him, burnt his writings, threw him into the dungeon and eventually stoned him to death.

But the Bible gave us his voice: implacable, tender, angry, lonely, wounded, ‘broken in the brokenness of my people.’ He sits alone, contemplating the troubles to come, then sits with Jerusalem in her aloneness when the Babylonians sack the city. He screams at his people in warning, weeps with them in sorrow, then chastises them once more. He cannot and will not be silent. God’s truth is obligation, compulsion, ‘fire in my bones.’ All around him others are mouthing convenient untruths; his is the burden of the inconvenient truth.

There are ‘truth-tellers’ who despise humankind seemingly proud of saying what’s painful to hear. But the truly great tellers of truths are lovers for humanity. They are our best allies not just in integrity and justice but in survival itself.

Among them are poets, scientists, journalists, lawyers, politicians, ‘ordinary’ people who refuse to see their neighbours wronged. They are united by the indelible conviction that they have to speak out. Some tell truth to power; often futile, sometimes fatal. Others seek people like you and me.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported over 550 killed in the last decade, many more dead under circumstances not yet clarified, famous among them Jamal Khashoggi of the Washington Post.

There’s nothing new about silencing of truth. I often think of Osip Mandelstam, dead in transit into Stalinist exile.

You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it.
Where did it get you? Nowhere.
You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.

     (trans. Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin)

It’s the ancient creed of prophets and poets.

There are plenty of warning voices now: about racism, proto-fascism, the climate emergency. We must not join the pallbearers and bury them in silence. God, teaches the Talmud, is amiti, truthful; God demands the resilient courage of truth.

My grandparents lie in Hoop Lane cemetery where their gravestone stands as part of Judaism’s undying testament against tyranny. I visit them each Tishah be’Av and read those words about faithfulness, our bond with truth and God.

 

Lockdown Learnings – heartfelt

‘What have you learnt in lockdown?’ That’s what I was asked to address on zoom before the team of a large law firm yesterday. (They were very kind.)

Lockdown learnings bubble in my heart, sometimes like the melody of a mountain stream, sometimes like the hiss and burn of boiling oil.

For most of us, this is a time which hurts. Sleeping isn’t always easy. I keep lists in my head of whom I’m worrying about. I get zoom-dizzy, with headaches. I never complete my day’s tasks. I fear for the world I love; fear for all our future.

But I’m also aware that hurt is not equal: my heart goes out to all who grieve, who couldn’t even kiss a hand, have one last hug and say goodbye.

Thank God for my family, our dog, our garden; for blackbirds, blue tits and goldfinches, privileges all. Thank God for everything which grows, the tiny blue of gentians, the Bigwood oaks. Thank God for the study of Torah, the yearning for God in Hasidic teaching. Thank God for the health to go running.

Thank God for every single member of the amazing team at our synagogue.

This is what’s most important in these uncertain months: to connect: to connect the heart with God in the damp cool of early morning; to connect with the breathing leaves, ‘You’re here, I’m here, we have another day together’; to connect with our neighbours, delivery people, food store team, friends, community, everyone we once, wrongly, took for granted; to connect in quiet heart space with those we love, for whom we often leave the least time over; to connect our society, across all faiths, ethnicities and colour. For our world may either break apart now, or come closer in vision, intention and spirit.

Sometimes I feel at peace in the midst of all this strangeness, often overwhelming helplessness, failure.

I’m grateful for all who help us find each other, find direction, purpose, God. I’m grateful for our lockdown adoptions, ‘grandparents’ who’ve read stories over the internet to small children, teenagers who’ve been shopping-and-prescription-pals to people who have to isolate, volunteers who call people every day or week, ‘How are you? Just keeping in touch.’

I appreciate everyone who’s strengthened our spirit. In impassioned discussions my colleagues have articulated that love of Shabbat, which, disciplined, rigorous, spirited and unshakeable, has held the Jewish People to our vision of redemption. Holding fast to halakhah, Jewish law, we work six days and on the seventh, free of labour, money and interactive electronics, enter a world of wonder, spirit and grace, the world as God intended.

I’m grateful to everyone who’s made the community vibrant online with quizzes and classes, music, prayer, photographs of ducks and deer, and humbling insights into their practical and their heart work.

I appreciate, too, those who, because of the unprecedented nature of these times with their grief, uncertainty and anguish, have created Shabbat connections with prayer and healing on zoom, which so many have valued. What I cannot condone halakhically, I can well understand and value. I hear what these services have meant to many people. My heart is torn between my halakhic and spiritual, and my communal and pastoral selves, and because, rightly but painfully, I am not there in these virtual gatherings with people alongside whom I’ve lived as rabbi for up to forty years.

I long for better days, when we shall all be together again, when God’s name will be one and we will say it as one in one community.

I’ve learnt in lockdown that nothing matters more than healing, not just for the body and the soul, as we pray for everyone who is ill, refu’at hanefesh verefu’at haguf, but healing for our relationships, for the injustices in our society, the cruelties, violence, repression and hatred in the world, and for the broken bonds between humanity and nature.

I shall go on worrying, caring, hoping, praying, emailing, phoning, writing, studying Torah and making sure that trees get planted.

 

Green Shabbat

It’s Green Shabbat tonight, part of London Climate Action Week.

A close friend just had a double cataract operation. When I called last Friday he said, ‘I’m OK. But almost blind. I don’t know how this is going to be.’ Mercifully, an operation was scheduled the following Monday. When I phoned that night, he said: ‘It’s wondrous; I came out and there was this brilliant, marvellous light.’

Every morning we give thanks for the gift of seeing the world: ‘Baruch pokeach ivrim – Bless, you, God, for opening the eyes of the blind.’

There are millions of people for whom this miracle never happens. The Talmud tells how two rabbis on a journey turn aside to visit a blind scholar. When they leave, he blesses them: ‘May the One who sees but can’t be seen, bless you who saw me but whom I can’t see.’ So sight is indeed a blessing and a privilege.

That morning prayer is not just about seeing, but about how we see. I’ve become a fan of David Godfrey, congregant, wildlife photographer 24/6, whose mantra is ‘the three l’s: look, listen, learn’, and who’s called his recent work ‘Chasing the light in London’s lockdown.’ ‘It’s about wonder,’ he said.

Love of nature isn’t a distraction from my spiritual life; it’s the heart and soul of it. When I hear the dawn birds I’m listening to God’s songs. When I see pictures of elephants mysteriously dying in Botswana in hundreds, I think of the words the Talmud puts in God’s mouth: ‘My head hurts,’ alas for what’s wrong in my world. When I witness the needless destruction of nature, the Talmud’s words make my heart ache: ‘We’re shoving God’s presence away.’

My family is privileged to have a huge garden; it’s made lockdown a hundred times easier. ‘We need to spread access to nature far wider,’ said Tamara Finkelstein, Permanent Secretary at Defra, on an Eco Synagogue event followed by hundreds last night. We need all of us to love and care for it more.

Deena Kestenbaum brings the healing of nature to young adults in the Grenfell area: ‘What are you seeing outside your window? Adopt a tree or plant,’ she teaches. She creates virtual vistas onto open spaces, and they watch together, ten minutes every day. ‘I find a stillness in it;’ she says, and brings that stillness to others.

The blessing for ‘seeing’ isn’t just about the eyes. In the Bible, seeing is with the heart and has to lead to action. Otherwise, we count with those who ‘look but fail to see.’

I don’t find that heart part hard: when I think of the forests, rivers and savannas (I belong to The Woodland Trust, RSPB, WWF, Plantlife, etc. etc…) though wonder lifts my soul, anguish eats me alive.

The Torah commands us not to sit there doing nothing while our neighbour’s lifeblood drains away. Nature is everyone’s neighbour; furthermore it’s a neighbour we depend on. Its life is our children’s lives. So we’re forbidden to do nothing.

We know what we have to do: it’s not an issue of knowledge but of will and urgency.

Plant gardens, bee friendly, restore forests; eat healthily for ourselves, animals and the earth; use green energy, insulate our homes, travel with greater care; invest savings in a green future. Advocate for change, in business, economics, energy, transport, farming, law. In democracies, if enough voices are raised, leaders have to listen. We need to span the distance far more quickly between what we know and what we do.

This is what Jodi Coffman, a young member of our community who’s passionate for nature recommends. I’m glad to have her generation as my teachers.

The rabbis teach that there are two motives for doing what’s right: love, or fear. Let’s act out of love. I love our beautiful world.

 

Pride Shabbat

This is Pride Shabbat. The date was fixed to commemorate Stonewall in 1969.

I want to write about revelation. Though we inherit collectively the majestic legacy of Sinai, revelation comes to most of us in modest, private moments. When they happen, like the clouds which covered the desert mountain the mists of our ignorance, genuine or wilful, part. Beyond them is the living God.

I’m not suggesting we encounter God directly. We meet God through recognising God’s image in other people whose stories, hurts, joys and sensibilities we hadn’t listened to before. These moments open our minds and change us; at least they should.

I didn’t grow up knowing gay people and I wasn’t raised, in this regard, with a welcoming attitude. I don’t belong to the generations for whom LGBTQ+ is a self-evident part of the vocabulary.

What’s changed me is people, friends. One conversation will stay with me all my life. It was with a gay man who hadn’t yet come out:

It’s taken me years of anguish, but finally I can say the blessing for ‘making me according to God’s will,’ and know that God accepts me, and that I can accept myself.

I can’t count the mornings when, saying my own blessings, I think of those words with shame. I don’t mean shame on him, but about me and the rest of us, that this man had to suffer such self-negation for decades.

I’ve used the word ‘revelation’ advisedly. My appreciation of the sanctity of life was deepened; doors closed in my heart and imagination were pushed open. I know I have others which are still shut. Most of us do.

Shema Koleinu; Hear our voices,’ reads an important leaflet prepared by a member of our own congregation:

All over the world, Jews of colour, LGBTQ Jews of colour, from many different backgrounds, are committed to Jewish life, learning and living. Some of us are culturally Jewish – while we don’t go to a synagogue every week, we might love hosting big meals for our friends on Shabbat. Some of us are religiously observant or find our homes in Orthodox synagogues. Some of us are ethnically Jewish but aren’t religious at all.

‘It’s really about diversity,’ another gay member of our synagogue told me yesterday. Pondering her words, I realised that the same Mishnah which teaches that saving a single life is like saving the entire world goes on to say:

When a person stamps coins in the same mould they come out identical. But God stamps every person in the mould of the first human being, yet not one of them is like any other. (Sanhedrin 4:5)

Difference, like equality, is sacred. How urgent this teaching is, in a world of resurgent racism and supremacism.

It’s not enough to ‘tolerate’ people who are gay, though, tragically, it needs to be reaffirmed that this is an essential starting point. It’s only five years ago that Shira Banki was murdered in Jerusalem’s Pride parade.

Inclusion in a cloud of silence is not enough either. Do we as Jews appreciate being ‘included’ so long as we stick to the unspoken bargain and say nothing to betray who we are?

A full voice, being heard, celebrating and being celebrated with, leading, imagining, following together: this is a description of a community in which the image of God is recognised in every person. As the same Mishnah goes on to teach: each and every one of us, being unique, must [be able to] say, ‘For my sake the world was created.’

So I ask myself as a person, ‘Who am I hearing?’ and as a rabbi, ‘Where’s our community on this journey?’

Community that welcomes and supports.
It’s what you do – or are you just shooting the breeze? Alfie Ferguson

 

 

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