The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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Shabbat – even more welcome under lockdown!

 Thank you to the National Health Service,
to everyone looking after people who are ill,
keeping essential services going, providing food and medicines,
caring for others and supporting our collective morale.
Thank you! Every strength and blessing to you,
in the UK, Israel and across the world!

 I can’t be the only person who’s losing track of time. One day simply runs into another. That’s why I’m finding the traditional Jewish way of structuring the week so helpful: Sunday is rishon leShabbat, the 1st day towards Shabbat; Monday is sheni leShabbat, the 2nd day towards Shabbat, and the week culminates in Shabbat itself.

It would be easy to undervalue or even forget the Sabbath in these strange times. After all, we’re mostly at home anyway, can’t travel and can’t invite anyone round for Friday night dinner. Our house, often so full of people, feels like a ghost town and the dog stares disconsolately at the empty rooms. (Or perhaps he’s thinking ‘my space at last!’)

It’s easy to let go. That’s why I’m writing in praise of Shabbat. I imagine for any non-Jewish reader that Sunday, Friday or another festive date could be similar.

The Shulchan Aruch, the key 16th century code of Jewish law written by Rabbi Joseph Caro, insists that everyone ‘has to make a special effort to honour Shabbat.’ Therefore ‘One should get up early on Friday to prepare for Shabbat.’ No one should leave the work to others – even if, in these strange times, we could.

It would be easy to say, ‘Why lay the table beautifully under lockdown?’ ‘Why make sure there’s at least something, one thing, special, for the meal when things are hard to come by?’ Keeping up our care and discipline is especially important, now we’re stuck inside and often alone. Shabbat gives the opportunity both to love and honour its traditions and to care and be kind to ourselves and those closest to us. In fact, we may have greater opportunity now than ever to keep the day sacred from sundown to sunset.

Unlike candles, wine and challah, there is no requirement to have flowers on the Shabbat table. For many there is little or no, access to the outside. So maybe, if you have one, put a picture of a flower or tree on your Shabbat table. Make it beautiful.

The Talmud tells how Rabbi Yannai would put on his finest clothing on Erev Shabbat and turn to greet the sacred day with the words which have become so familiar: ‘Come, Shabbat bride’. No one has ever accused me of being a smart dresser. But right now, I’m thinking that I’m going make a point of wearing my best clothing for the Sabbath. Commenting on the Shulchan Aruch, the Mishnah Berurah specifically discusses the case of the person who is entirely alone for the whole day, as many of us will be in the current circumstances, asking whether he or she needs to change. Yes, the author answers, we dress in our best clothes not to show off to each other but to honour the presence of God.

Electronic means of communication are not permitted on Shabbat, – and it’s a wonderful and welcome chance to get away from the computer! So we should try to be in touch with as many of our family and close friends as we can during Friday, wishing Shabbat Shalom. Many of us feel painfully alone and a call, a conversation, singing at least Shalom Aleichem before the Sabbath comes in is a blessing.

Speaking of blessings, Friday night before Kiddush is a time for family blessing; parents, especially, bless their children. I am very aware that many grandparents are in prolonged isolation and unable to see their beloved grandchildren. The blessing can, and should, therefore be done by Zoom or phone, prior to the onset of Shabbat.

But in these stressful weeks, and I plan to say this later at our pre-Shabbat Kabbalat Shabbat service on Facebook Live, I want to suggest something further. We all need our spiritual strength; Judaism has a three-thousand-year-long history of resilience. Please think of parents, grandparents, family, friends, ancestors, teachers, Jewish and also not-Jewish, who have brought us blessing. I am hoping that their presence (virtual, like everything else at the moment) will be like hands above our head, and that their spirit and the humanity, wisdom, discipline and courage of our people will embrace us, willing us blessing, wishing us Shabbat Shalom.

 

Anxiety and Inspiration

Venishmartem me’od lenafshoteichem’ The Torah teaches us to take the utmost care of our own – and other people’s-  lives.
The Talmud teaches that in matters of civil law ‘The law of the land is the law’
Please be sure to follow guidelines carefully and strictly to protect yourself, your family and our entire society.


A special Shabbat Shalom to everyone in this unnerving and perplexing changed reality. Below my greeting you will find details about this Shabbat what we are offering.

Two passages of Torah have been on my mind; one joyous, one sad. I want to end with the latter, so I’ll begin with what’s harder.

Badad yesheiv – alone shall s/he sit:’ these words describe the fate of those who have the infection; in the Torah it’s nega-tzaraat, often translated as leprosy by which everyone was afraid of being contaminated. The phrase is echoed later in the Hebrew Bible at the beginning of the Scroll of Lamentations, where it refers to Jerusalem, the beautiful city under siege, lonely and locked out of the human community.

Many people around us are in self-isolation, in quarantine, and some in hospital. Those ancient words ‘alone shall s/he dwell’ have a deeply resonant afterlife today. It is essential to acknowledge the fear and uncertainty which grips us all. However calm we may appear, I can’t imagine that any of us doesn’t have his or her lonely ‘what if?’ moments. I certainly do.

But – and I never knew I would be so grateful to online technology – today’s ‘alone’ is not alone. I have witnessed a surge of heart, a tide of spirit, expressed by email and what’s app, on skype and zoom, by phone and by text. It’s not just ‘remote’ technology, it’s palpable in the mind, heart and soul.

There’s a great deal of care and love not just ‘out there’, but around us and close to us. Perhaps because it’s happening worldwide, in our isolation we are in fact in profound solidarity. I pray that this will bear us up in our most trying hours. I pray for strength and health for us all and for each and every one of us as we try to help others. I pray for imagination, for good – and joyful – ideas of how to connect.

That leads me to the second text: ‘Ozzi vezimrah Yah – God is my strength and my music.’ Perhaps a better translation is ‘God’s music is my strength.’ This transport me in my thoughts to Israel, Italy and elsewhere, to the balcony choirs, each person not alone but united in the togetherness of music.

I often ask people about their music, not their Desert-Island-Disc favourite pieces, but their inner music. ‘How can I find strength?’ I’m frequently asked by friends and congregants in their hour of stress. In typical rabbinic fashion, I usually respond with a question: ‘What nourishes your spirit?’

Some people answer straight away: my family; nature; walking the dog; poetry; meditation; Beethoven’s Ninth. Others say they want to think about it. I always say: ‘Whatever it is which restores your inner strength, however great the pressure on your day, be absolutely sure you make time for it.’

What would your answer be? What’s mine? I believe that everyone has something special known to their soul which makes their spirit sing. We can’t always access it; we may need encouragement and help in restoring the inner quiet which guides us back to that chamber of our heart. But there within exists a melody and its music has the power to sustain and restore our resilience, even in the face of fear and pain.

In these challenging days, which are likely to continue for some while, we want our inner music and we need each other to help us find it.


Kabbalat Shabbat: Friday at 5.00pm at this link

Havdalah: Motzei Shabbat at 7.15pm at this link

 

 

Caring for each other at a difficult time

It’s hard to live in uncertain times. Almost everyone I speak with is worried about how to keep their loved ones and themselves as safe as possible and how to support others. None of us has perfect answers. I’m reminded of Keats’s concept of ‘negative capability’, the capacity to live amidst uncertainties and doubts.

Even Moses, whom the Torah describes as having a hotline to God, wants certainty. Four times in just two verses (which we read in the Torah tomorrow) he uses the word ‘know’. ‘Make known to me your ways,’ he begs God. Tell me what to do; be clear. The Talmud explains that he wants to understand why bad things happen. As so often, the question is more powerful than any putative answer.

But not everything in this new ‘coronavirus reality’ is uncertain.

On a practical level, there are strong guidelines from Public Health England. The synagogue leadership is taking expert advice every day; we ask everyone to act on it. Please see our website for updates.  The Torah insists ‘venishmartem me’od lenafshoteichem: you must take great care of your lives.’ Our health and the health of those around us takes priority over virtually everything. Rabbis are not in the habit of asking people not to come to shul. But in this situation, we are telling anyone who is vulnerable or a potential risk to others please not to attend.

Another certainty is that we can and shall support each other. ‘Ish lerei’eihu – each for their neighbour,’ we just read in the Megillah. We need to be there for one another, if not physically, then by phone, facetime or online. It matters deeply to us in the synagogue to know who may be isolated, alone. Tell us, so that we can be in contact, not once but regularly over these difficult weeks. We need to think ‘community’ in its best sense, not just for members of our synagogue, but including those near us, dear to us, and for whom we have, or should have, concern in our hearts.

We are also mindful of the economic impact on many people and are considering what (modest) support we can offer.

None of us has entirely waterproof morale. There are already a number of people in self-isolation. There will be more. We may all face similar measures to those taken in Italy. We will therefore send a daily message, with links to good online programmes.

On a more homely basis, we will be holding a short daily dial-in Maariv service every evening at 8.00pm which will always include some English, some personal words and the opportunity to say Kaddish.

We are planning our own ‘broadcasts’ (could Kol NNLS be a good name?) As well as traditional Torah learning, we intend to include 10 -15 minute slots by members on such subjects as: a favourite Jewish story; a recipe with simple ingredients; favourite poems; and ‘what you can see out of your window’ about birds, plants, even clouds and insects which we might scarcely have noticed before. It’ll be good to hear many familiar voices from our community on these close to home topics.

We plan to trial these programmes at the end of next week and will send out details of how to download or access simple technologies which will enable as many people as possible to participate.

I’d be lying if I did not acknowledge that I’m worried about how I myself might manage two weeks or more in isolation, despite all the technical aids available. I’m full of admiration for the people I know about who are coping well.

I hope I could make this a time of Teshuvah, not in the sense of repentance for sins, but in the deeper meaning of ‘return’. Return, that is, to what most matters: to valuing others, especially those I take for granted; to appreciating life’s simple gifts so that I mean ‘Baruch’ when I say the blessing over good bread; to being in touch with the soul, which even in someone as unmusical as me, knows how to sing with life before God.

 

Seeking spiritual strength in these anxious times

Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

I’d never thought I’d find William Blake’s famous lines so sustaining. But with the marathon in the holy city cancelled, I plan to run my 42.2 kilometres here and think myself in Jerusalem. (After all, Israel Guide Dogs and Peace of Mind still need the funds I hope to raise in order to offer the amazing help they provide.)

Lots of us have had to cancel travel plans. It’s a minor inconvenience compared to what those who are really struggling with Coronavirus are going through, especially those whose lives or livelihoods are threatened. We pray for healing for those who have the illness. We wish strength, courage, good judgement and inspiration to everyone working in health care, public health planning, and on the basic infrastructures of food, water and medical supplies in countries across the globe.

Please follow the advice we have issued to our community. We are trying to find the right balance of sound guidance based on the best medical advice, so that we avoid negligence on the one hand and panic on the other.

On a spiritual level, the virus is forcing many of us to rethink. It’s taking us back to the limitations of earlier ages when one could not assume freedom of movement, ease of travel or (relative) safety from infection. A few injections, we’ve assumed, and we can go almost anywhere in the world.

This week is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of ‘Remember.’ Before Purim, we recall the evils which Haman’s ancestors, the Amalekites, perpetrated against the Children of Israel.

But Zachor, ‘remember’, ‘be mindful’, has a far wider resonance in Judaism and I’m wondering if this can help us in our present situation.

Every day we are called upon to be mindful of creation, zecher lema’aseh bereshit. With my plans of going here, there and to lots of places, I often fail to notice where I am. ‘Did you see that amazing tree?’ my wife may ask me. ‘What tree?’ I am liable to answer.

Few of us will find it easy if we should be restricted in our movements or even quarantined, voluntarily or otherwise. But perhaps for at least some of the time, we can make this an inner opportunity to revisit in our thoughts, or online, places we have seen, a view we cherish, a leaf or flower we enjoy. It’s never too late to value the experience with which life has privileged us. I’m drawn to people who speak with grace about even the so-called little things, a poem, a view, a conversation with a friend.

The author of Psalm 8 asks ‘What is a human being, that you [God] should be mindful of him or her?’ It’s a question to put to ourselves. I rush past so many people and, though I try, am attentive to so few. Now, when we are more vulnerable, we can perhaps think of our neighbours, anyone who might appreciate a call, a small kindness in a time of anxiety. We might value it for ourselves, reconsider how deeply such ordinary words and actions matter.

Mindfulness applies to our own lives too. With more stillness, can I hear myself breathe, listen to my own spirit, ponder and re-evaluate the meaning of this gift of life? Can reading, poetry, Jewish teaching, ancient wisdom, music, a true conversation, help me?

Every day, too, we are told in our prayers to remember the Exodus from Egypt. It’s a call to respect human dignity, – in every human being. Don’t degrade; don’t misuse; don’t make anyone feel like a slave. Don’t garner every stalk of grain, don’t go over your fruit trees for a second picking, we are told in Deuteronomy. Leave enough for the poor. It’s a constant recall to the understanding that, whatever our status, we belong to one humanity, one natural world.

The swift and frightening travel of the Coronavirus is an uncomfortable, but hopefully passing, reminder of this interdependence. However, the question of what we do to our world and how we leave it for each other and the future is far deeper and more ancient. How can we be faithful trustees of human life? Of all life? It’s the issue at the top of the international, trans-cultural agenda: a call, not to despair, but to consider how we can change our habits and what we can give.

I hope that, through these anxious times, we can support each other and perhaps even help make them, in part at least, an opportunity to deepen our own lives, our commitment to others and our care for the world.

 

God in the Garden

Because the rabbis said ‘Be happy when the Hebrew month of Adar begins’; because last week (and often) I’ve written on painful subjects; because people are – rightly- thinking about coronavirus and how to take sensible precautions; for all these reasons I’m going to focus on what brings many of us more joy than virtually anything else: the young flowers of the coming spring. Hopefully there’s a park, a garden, a city square, a row of trees, even a window box nearby for us to see the crocuses and daffodils.

The Hasidic teacher Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl notes that we read in the Torah about the making of the Tabernacle at the beginning of Adar. ‘Make me a holy place and I will dwell among you,’ says God. ‘A-dar,’ the rebbe explains, is composed of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, which symbolises God; and dar, which means dwell. It’s the month when God says, as it were, ‘I want to live with you. I’m near you, next to you; move over and give me some space.’

And where is God to be found more than in a garden, a park or among the hills and forests?

So please follow, along the path into the ordinary glory, so ordinary I literally don’t notice it many mornings. Here are the last of the snowdrops, their bells pure white, soon to retreat into their tiny bulbs and await underground until the January darkness calls them up to harbinger a new season.Daffodils-RJW-cropped

Here are crocuses, purple sentinels. Here are the daffodils with their bright yellow grace, and narcissi with their scented, many-headed flowers. There are early-bird December daffodils and late-comer May daffodils and there are ‘midwinter-spring’ February daffodils. But, most of all, there are ‘we love March and April’ daffodils, bringing joy when the mornings are once again light and the air smells of sweet rich grass and growth.

Pink-Catkins-RJW-croppedIt’s near to the close of the catkin season. ‘Touch them,’ I was tBeige-Catkins-RJW-croppedold as a child and I still remember my fingers being guided onto the soft silver of the willow-buds. Only silver? There are black willow catkins and pink willow catkins. The hazels and the alders have their catkins too, like tassels, yellow with dust-fine pollen.

More secretive are the primroses, Primroses-RJW-croppedhiding in the hedgerows in the countryside, thriving in semi-dark corners in the gardens. The wild kind are my favourite, not gaudy orange, but cream; simple in their single flowers, modest like the snowdrops, their wake-up-early neighbours.

I’m glad when I see the birds among the branches: blackbirds, ground-feeders, hopping down from a twig onto the grass; a wren on a stone; the air thick with the to-and-fro traffic of the blue-tits by the seed feeder, defying an upside-down squirrel; the sparrows making a modest comeback, bringing hope that other species too may one day return if we care for and protect them as we should.

These are all just small things. But they’ve changed my attitude. I used to think that the world was for me, for us, we human beings. Now I feel that I belong to the world, that I’m part of its far wider and deeper, incomparably richer and more nuanced communion of which I only understand a very tiny portion.

In the depth of it, in its music, and in the silence beyond the music is, A-dar, the presence of the God who dwells here, the life-giver of all things, wonder and the source of wonder.

The problem is not always God’s absence; the problem is our awareness.

 

After the terror attacks in Hanau

Like all of us, I feel disgusted and disheartened by the racist murders in Hanau. Our hearts go out to the grief-stricken, the wounded, their families and all who’ve been traumatised by this outrage. My thoughts are especially with everyone who was in Halle on Yom Kippur, and all people, wherever in the world they are, whose haunting memories of witnessing or being near victims of terror are reawakened by this latest outrage.

The terrorist killings in Hanau are an attack not only on those who lost their lives, and not only on the groups against which they were aimed: the Turkish community in Germany, as well as refugees, Muslims, Jews, all minorities.

They are an assault on the soul of society, against its heart, against the principle of togetherness itself, against the fact that we are all humans on this earth, that we need each other, that we should and must support each other, and that without such solidarity and cooperation we cannot survive, cannot thrive materially or spiritually and cannot pursue lives of happiness, dignity and value.

European history, and the history of the Jews of Europe above all, testifies to the brutal, shameful, bloody calamity of race hate. But history alone, without vigilance, is a singularly unsuccessful instructor.

Society is most vulnerable to attack at its periphery. That is why the Torah commands us over and again to respect and protect the ger, the newcomer, the outsider, the person who is different. Samson Raphael Hirsch, who fought for equal rights for Jews across the German speaking world, described the ger as liable to being accorded

no rights to land, home, or existence, and towards whom everything was consequently regarded as permitted…

Therefore, beware, he warns,

lest in your state you make the rights of anyone dependent on anything other than the simple fact of their humanity, which every human being possesses by virtue of being human.

Yet every society throughout the ages has struggled to embrace such a universalist vision.

There are indeed limits to how many people a country can welcome, and it is reasonable for any state to regard its primary responsibility as caring for its citizens. Any society, community and individual needs a sense of identity and belonging.

The danger begins to grow when we begin to define our Us by a Them; when we project onto that Them our fears and prejudices; when we use that Them as a tool in an ideology of supremacism and exclusion; when we legitimise contempt.

Regarding perpetrators like the murderer in Hanau, it is probably impossible to know whether racism incubates their hatred, or whether their hatred finds a nurturing home in Neo-Nazi racism.

Whatever the case societies, including our own, need to be vigilant not only in intelligence, policing and the protection of vulnerable community, but also in challenging racism and hatred in public policy and discourse, in every domain of civic life, in communities and in schools.

Whatever the opposite of race-hate is, it needs to be fostered everywhere, not excluding with us, in our actions, words and thoughts. That’s why so many of us believe in and are committed to working with people of other faiths and in other communities, meeting, learning, even planting trees, together.

Hanau is very close to Frankfurt, where my grandfather served as rabbi for thirty years. When, after fleeing the Nazis in 1939, he returned to the city in 1950 to rededicate the Westend Synagogue, he prayed for a different future. I echo his prayers today.

 

 

Valentine’s Day and Hesed

I realised yesterday as I bought my bunch of early daffodils at a stall in Camden Town, that I’d interrupted the saleswoman from her task of tying up single red roses in pretty paper.

February 14 is not a fixture in the traditional Jewish calendar. But Valentine’s Day does have its ancient equivalent, Tu B’Av, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, when girls would dress in white and dance in the vineyards where the watching boys would choose partners. It was hardly an egalitarian set-up.

Judaism believes in love. As the wedding blessings show, Hebrew has an extensive vocabulary for romance, affection and fellowship: ahavah, love; achavah, closeness; shalom, peaceful togetherness; re’ut, comradeship. The Bible affirms the magic of passion, as when in The Song of Songs, the whole world is glorious, alluring and full of wonder.

But the greatest love word of all is hesed. No translation feels adequate: ‘loving-kindness’ is too ponderous; ‘faithful kindness,’ while more accurate, sounds pious; just ‘kindness’ seems too commonplace.

But kindness is what the word means, or tenderness, or faithfulness, the enduring, life-long, heart-felt commitment to treating others with warmth, compassion and proactive concern.

Hesed applies most closely towards those with whom we are most close. In intimate relationships it doesn’t exactly refer to passion, but it does express the thoughtfulness, affection and appreciation which differentiate love from lust.

In relationships between children, parents, grandparents and close family, hesed is all those little things –favourite foods, whats-apps about ‘how’s your day’, hugs, notes with the right message at the right time, allowances for our moods – which make us feel safe, loved and cared for, which make the difference between loneliness and home.

But hesed is not just a pretty term for those lucky enough to live inside cosy bubbles.

‘The world is built on hesed’, wrote the author of Proverbs, presumably intending this as a prayer rather than a statement about reality. Those are the words on the foundation stone of our synagogue. They are the base-line of our values: they express an attitude, a determination, a will to make the world different, especially in an environment which feels more cruel, hard-hearted and brash towards so many.

Hesed is present when, like Barbara Stern, you semi-retire and devote yourself to Home Start because so many local children don’t get breakfast before school and have no one to help with their homework and give them a decent chance in a competitive world. Hesed is when the man filling shelves in the store doesn’t just answer her question, but accompanies the lady with the white stick to where the rice is and asks her which kind she wants. Hesed is when any government, anywhere, doesn’t just say it cares but allocates budgets and acts because it really does care, and believes that the country is a safer, better and stronger place because of it.

Hesed is the essence of creation. It’s a basic rabbinic view that God made the world from and for the sake of hesed. The trouble is that this simply doesn’t appear true. In a cruel, self-devouring world the evidence just isn’t there.

That’s why the words of Arthur Green speak to me so sharply:

The flow of life as we experience it is morally blind… But as humans we are here to direct that flow of life, to lead the divine energy in the world in the direction of compassion… The divine energy flows outward from the Source, through the complex and multi-pronged evolutionary process, and into us… We, by adding to it the insight and act of compassion, send it streaming back to the One, our gift in gratitude for the gift of existence itself. (A Jewish Mystical Theology)

Hesed is the latent possibility in every relationship, every encounter. Through love of life and love for life, even in the smallest acts and simplest words, we make it real.

 

Let’s Plant

For two millennia Judaism has had its own Arbor Day, Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees.

I don’t know when the love of trees begins, when you first kick the piled autumn leaves and watch in delight as they scatter, when you collect your first conkers, put acorn cups on your fingers, climb for the biggest, most elusive apple, dare the dark forest and find it full of wonder, or listen like Keats to the birds which sing amidst the ‘beechen green and shadows numberless’. I believe everyone has a favourite tree.

We need trees and trees need us. We need them for our spirit, for our very life.

01_Front_JTree_Business_Card_05022010

The Hebrew root siach means both ‘shrub’ and ‘meditation’. Forests, gardens, indeed solitary trees, are wonderful companions in prayer. I love to listen to them. They silence the arguments in my head and speak to my soul. Trees, like all life, are a dwelling place of God.

The rabbis taught that when a tree is cut down, a cry goes out from one end of the world to the other, yet nobody hears.

That’s not entirely true. Our friend Heather, who had cancer, would walk daily to the corner of her street to be with her beloved tree. ‘They cut it down,’ she told us sadly one day. Soon afterwards, she died.

We’re learning to listen to the loss of our trees. We need them, physically, economically, ecologically, emotionally and spiritually. The authors of the Bible, the early rabbis living close to the land and the kabbalists understood this at every level.

I used to think that the first trees mentioned in the Torah, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, were two separate entities. But to the mystics this was not so; they were one and the same. Knowledge of good meant awareness of the vital, sustaining spirit which flows through all creation in the great rhythm of life, death and new life. Evil meant the weaponization of knowledge to exploit and destroy the leaves and roots of life’s tree.

Judaism encourages us to enjoy the fruits of that tree of life, but only with respect and humility. To consume without appreciation or blessing, is, in the Talmud’s words, the wrongful misappropriation of God’s gifts.

We need trees and trees now urgently need us. Across the faiths, on the internet and media, are numerous projects for planting and rewilding, such as the search-engine Ecosia whose users have planted 83 million trees. The figure goes up as you watch.

Judaism has an ancient tradition of nurturing trees. Two thousand years ago, challenged for planting carobs, which would never bear fruit in his lifetime, Honi the Circle-Drawer explained that he’d found the world with trees and intended to leave it so for his children.

Today, we need to leave it with trillions more than we find it. This applies from Britain, among the least forested countries in Europe, to the global south; from the diminished Caledonian forests to Madagascar and the Pacific Islands, whose very future depends on how we rewild and mitigate climate change. The destiny, too, of countless wild plants, insects, birds and animals is in our hands.

Communities of all faiths are responding. Ruth Valerio, who consulted me about Jewish sources when she wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2020, Saying Yes to Life, describes the moving relationships between UK churches and rural communities in Peru who are personally planting thousands of saplings to preserve both nature and their livelihoods.

We must do no less. That’s why JTree.global has been rooted, here in the UK, in the US, with further young branches in Israel and Canada. It facilitates planting through environmental NGOs who work with local communities, sustainably and ethically. Our New North London target is 50,000 trees. Please join us!

As Kohelet said, ‘There’s a time to plant’. It was never so urgent as now.

 

On listening to the Kaddish

Today’s the day to say Kaddish for Britain’s membership of the EU. For all its faults, the European Union and its precedents have helped maintain a relative peace across a bloody continent. I hope the seventy years which follow are as free of war and as committed to cooperation.

Kaddish is always a letting go, an acknowledgement that life and love, even the strongest bonds of parenthood and partnership, do not remain forever. Born to European family on both sides, attached in ways I cannot rationally fathom to the frequently tragic history and culture of continental Jewry, at home in cities, old synagogues and graveyards I have never visited before, I experience this day as a severance, a cutting-off of roots. But, as ever with an ancient faith and peoplehood which has always transcended the boundaries of geography and time, other roots will go down deeper into the sustaining soil of faith where life is always interconnected.

Like most other Jews, I have listened to countless people saying Kaddish and recited the ancient, resonant words many times myself. I’ve heard them spoken loudly and fast, whispered and slowly, stumblingly, fluently, in – and out of – time with others. I try not to judge. Perhaps the person rushing the words is fleeing as much pain as the mourner formulating the letters of each word, as if every slow syllable were a single stair in the long climb of a hundred thousand steps out of sorrow.

I’ve listened, too, to how the community reacts. For Kaddish is a communal affirmation; it requires a minyan, a quorum of ten, and is, if nothing else, a reinstatement, a reaffirmation of the bonds of solidarity: ‘I am with you, next to you, saying alongside you “Yehei Shemei Rabba, God’s great name”.’ The Shulchan Aruch, the sixteenth century code of Jewish law, teaches us to respond neither faster nor louder than the mourner. Our pace and volume should be in harmony with him or her.

This week I’ve listened to the Kaddish of a woman who, although she began with confident self-possession, suddenly wept although it was years since her mother died. I heard the first Kaddish of a family who lost a beloved daughter and sister. I tried too, to hear the unsayable Kaddish of a man in his nineties, bed-bound, who told me on Holocaust Memorial Day, ‘I never thought anything could bring it all back like that, Auschwitz, Birkenau,’ and who, when I asked if it was at those terrible places that he was ‘liberated’, replied, ‘No, at Dachau.’ One knows what that signifies, those hundreds of frozen miles, on foot…

I’m still thinking the Kaddish about all this; I shall be for the rest of my life. Yitgaddal, just that first, opening word, what does it mean? It’s a reflexive verb; how should it be translated: ‘May God show God’s self as great’? ‘May God, whose name is great, reveal that greatness?’

As I was wondering what such greatness might look like, a stupid, ridiculous thought entered my head: a snowdrop. A snowdrop? I picture them in my mind, singly in their delicate beauty, not just white but with fine green lines around the tiny bells, then in drifts of thousands in woodlands, by the path-sides. Snowdrops, the grace of bleak midwinter.

When we listen to someone saying Kaddish it is as if we are holding their hand, even if it trembles with sobbing, and, without denying their pain, helping them point it towards the world, perhaps to say, ‘There is beauty although I struggle to see it; there’s life although it hurts to try to embrace it. But help me, stand by me, and one day, despite everything, I shall; or at least, I shall try.’

It is with this solidarity, this loving courage, that we guide each other to behold the present and look towards the future.

 

75 years since the Red Army reached Auschwitz

My father’s grandmother did not survive long enough in Birkenau to see the four young Russian soldiers on horseback whom Primo Levi describes with that astute, understated eloquence which characterises his testimony:

they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint…It was that shame…the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist. (The Truce)

‘Liberation’ is an inadequate word to describe the arrival of the Red Army at Auschwitz on 27 January seventy-five years ago. For most who survived, freedom brought the unbearable confirmation that the world they had known, the community, teachers, family, loved ones had ceased to exist: they were all murdered.

My tears fell…they did not soak into the dust, but remained like round clear crystals, and that was all I could think of in that great hour (Gerda Weissman-Klein: All But My Life)

Today we remember not as rote or ritual, not as homage to the past and not because we are unable to forgive and forget. The wounds are still with us. They are there in the sorrow and trauma of survivors and their children. They are present as absence in the immense loss of wisdom, vitality, music, humour, poetry, love of life. They manifest in the injuries to spirit and psyche of all the peoples affected, the Jewish People, the Sinti Roma, every group which was ever a collective target, the terrible legacy of genocide which impacts not only on the victims but also on the descendants of the perpetrators and upon all humankind.

These wounds to the very body and soul of humanity, joined by the cries from Cambodia, Rwanda and elsewhere, call out to us today. They demand our vigilance. What Prince Charles said yesterday at Yad Vashem is only too true: ‘Hatred and intolerance still lurk in the human heart, still tell new lies, adopt new disguises, seek new victims.’

That is why we must challenge any act of wanton degradation, any law, bureaucratic obfuscation and collective action or inaction which causes gratuitous suffering to any individual or group, especially if targeted at their race, nationality, gender or religion. That’s why Lord Dubs, himself a Kindertransport ‘child’, is right in insisting that we must not abandon child asylum-seekers. [1] Many of our parents were once children like them, hoping some country somewhere, anywhere, would let them in and allow them to live.

Those wounds also weep. They seek our healing and our heart. They show us how precious life is, how vulnerable and tender; they weep for our compassion, gentleness, thoughtfulness and love.

It may seem strange, but each time I have been to Auschwitz-Birkenau I have had a similar experience: a call to silence before this unfathomable enormity, an unspoken instruction to say nothing, to listen not just to their deaths but to the living voices of those killed there, their hopes and loves.

To remember the Holocaust is to heed the unceasing appeal to our deepest, most comprehensive, most courageous and most compassionate humanity.

At the request of the Council of Christians and Jews I wrote the following prayer:

Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

There inhabit over Birkenau seventy-five years afterwards, over the remains of electrified fences, over the wooden huts, shacks which testify to cold, disease, starvation and dying, over the cracked concrete floors and broken-down ceilings of the gas chambers;

There inhabit not just the enduring, ineradicable hauntings of the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, Jewish people, Russian prisoners of war, Sinti Roma people, courageous enemies of Nazi ruthlessness and hate;

There inhabit in that space full of spirits the thoughts, longings, dreams of teenagers, grandmothers, human beings, who had families, neighbours, friends, made music, prayed, worked, loved and blessed each other, like Gerda whose Papa put his hands on her head in benediction when they were forced to part:

‘My child,’ he managed. It was a question and a promise. I understood. I gave him my most sacred vow: ‘Yes, Papa.’

In the quiet, which extends into the flat fields and birch trees past where relatives of survivors, pilgrims, visitors wander bewildered; in the silence which spreads over the marshes where the ashes were poured, there inhabit the disembodied voices of the murdered, calling without words, in languages only the heart can interpret, calling to God, calling to the presence of God within us:

Are you there? Do kindness, love, humanity exist?

Where are you now, in a world once again hate-filled, full of refugees, replete with disregard?

Is God there?

E’l De’ot, God who knows,

God who says Immo anochi betzarah, ‘I am with you in your troubles’,

Be with us, instruct us, guide us.

Give us eyes to see, ears to hear, a heart to care.

Discomfort our conscience, dispel indifference.

Demand of us the determination to name and call out hatred, in ourselves, our society, the world, anywhere, everywhere.

Prevent us from despairing of the power of goodness, compassion, courage and faith.

Imbue us with loving kindness to cure the wounds with can be healed and tend with gentle understanding those beyond our repair.

Open our hearts to the intricate, destructible wonder and fragile privilege of life.

[1] It is not too late to write to our MP in support. Please see this link and what I’ve written on Facebook

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