The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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Will life harden, or soften, our hearts?

I often think of King Lear’s question. As he shelters in a hovel from the storm which rages not only among the elements but in his mind, he contemplates how cruel humanity can be and asks:

Is there any cause in nature makes these hard hearts?

It’s not really a question but a cry from the soul. No one around him attempts to respond.

I’m struck at least as frequently by the opposite thought: What makes so many hearts soft? That’s why I find the verse from this week’s Torah portion especially moving:

God will open your heart and the hearts of your children to love your God with all your heart and all your soul, for the sake of your life. (Deuteronomy 30:6)

Harder, softer; kinder, crueller – what happens to the heart as we progress through life? What about my own heart as I get older? Which way is it going?

I meet many people whose hearts have been opened by experience. For example:

-   ‘Those children I met in Greece have suffered so much. And they’re so lovely to each other. The older ones look out for the younger; when one of them is sad, the others comfort him. I can’t just leave them.’

-    ‘I wanted to have a meal with their family. I promised to pay, because they were very poor. Then I saw their meagre food, their water from a cistern of mud, where the children mess…. I’d rather go back to Africa to help my people and risk prison, than be a free here in London.’

I see kindness in little things too, all the time: ‘I’ll help’; ‘I can do that’. It’s just the shopping, or giving a friend’s child a lift. It’s just listening as someone shares the sorrow which has engulfed her. Except there’s no ‘just’; these are not responses to take for granted.

I sometimes think the answer to Lear’s question isn’t difficult. Life is often cruel and unjust. There are plenty of reason why, involuntarily perhaps, people protect their heart against the pain with which life pierces it. It’s far from incomprehensible that we should want to build a wall of self-protection and turn our heart into a fortress. Its foundations are made of evasions: ‘I can’t bear to see; I don’t want to feel’. Its fortifications are protected by dogmas: ‘Why should I care? Those aren’t my kind of people. They’re……’.

But in truth those walls are also often made of pain: It’ll hurt too much if I let down the drawbridge to my soul.

None of us knows in advance whether experience will make our heart softer as we grow older, or harder and more defended. That’s why the verse from the Torah is more of a prayer than a description: God, open my heart; awaken me to deeper solidarity and compassion; make me more human.

Unlike many prayers, the answer is all around us. It comes not as a voice from heaven, but in the innumerable voices of life, crying out from a child, from a person in grief, or lonely. God speak in them all, and in all of us. The answer to the prayer lies waiting in our own heart, in our response.

Eva Ehrenberg fled from Nazi Europe to Britain. She wrote poetry in both German and English. In a witty rhyme, she notes that when you boil eggs in their shells they get hard, but if you bake potatoes in their jackets and they go soft. She concludes:

In pain as all of us are oft, we too become in our skin or shell
Some of us hard and others soft. (with thanks to Professor Timms)

It takes courage and trust, as well as compassion, to let the heart grow soft; maybe that’s why we need God’s help to open it.

Saying thank you: the art of gratitude

‘Modeh ani lefanecha – I’m thankful before you’: these are the opening words of the day, the first prayer one’s supposed to say in those dim, semi-conscious moments when one’s not sure if it’s 4.00am or 7.00am, whether one’s woken too late and missed the alarm, or too early because the dog barked at a fox.

Modeh ani lefanecha – I’m grateful to you’: there’s an art to thankfulness. ‘You’ve forgotten the magic word’, people say to their children, probably thinking of ‘Please’. But ‘Thank you’ works at least as many wonders. And children aren’t the greatest culprits at failing to say it. Few of us are as generous at gratitude as we might, and ought, to be.

This week’s Torah portion describes the rite of Viddui Bikkurim, thanksgiving for the first fruits. In Temple times, villagers from across the Promised Land brought their best, first figs, dates, grapes and pomegranates to Jerusalem in decorated baskets and offered them before God with joy.

But being grateful isn’t a once-a-year affair. It’s an art, a grace, a wisdom at the heart of daily living.

Gratitude turns the ordinary into the special. It’s a way of appreciating every person, valuing the simplest object or experience. It’s the opposite of taking for granted, entitlement, greed and exploitation; of treating life as if it persistently fell below one’s expectations.

‘What have you learnt from your seventy-five years?’ an elderly lady was asked at a conference on spirituality in Edinburgh. ‘To be thankful’, she replied.

My teacher, Art Green, recently told me that if he had to reduce the entire morning service to just three minutes, he would still include Psalm 100, ‘a song of thanksgiving’. I’m thinking of him now, today, saying these words. His wife, whom he cared for with adoring dedication during all the years of her Parkinson’s, just passed away. Saying thank you isn’t always felicitously easy; it demands of us the good grace to let go, the capacity to be satisfied with life, to acknowledge that we’ve had our turn, and that we ourselves and those we love must leave the world for others, with generosity and forbearance.

Life doesn’t only rejoice the heart; it pierces it. Can I see the good, can I find blessing even then? Puzzling over the meaning of the word meodecha, generally translated as the injunction to love God ‘with all your might,’ the Mishnah (2nd century) plays alliteratively with the original Hebrew and demands: ‘With whatever measure of fortune God metes out to you, acknowledge and thank God most profoundly.’ It’s easier said than done.

I recall a senior consultant in palliative care saying: I’ve seen a child of nine approach death cheerfully content with what life had given him, and a man of ninety angry at what he felt he’d been denied.

I took a cup of tea with that lady at the seminar in Scotland. She said: ‘There’s a spiritual practice of never going to sleep before reflecting on five things for which you’re grateful’. I haven’t been consistent, but it’s a habit I’m trying to adopt.

Intriguingly, the Hebrew words modeh, ‘thanks’, and vidui, ‘confession’, derive from the same root. As we approach the New Year and Day of Atonement we’re called upon to improve our lives through repentance, confession and remorse. Viddui, confession, is the watchword of the season.

But it also means thankfulness, and there’s wisdom and humility in gratitude too. It’s at least as important to show those we love how much we appreciate them as it is to apologise for our faults.

There’s a beauty to people who know how to be thankful, even amidst distress. Their hearts are like a magnifying glass over life’s most ordinary details, a cup of tea, the sight of the moon, a moment of kindness. They teach us to notice, to appreciate; they turn life into grace.

On destruction and creation

I had a nightmare last night which concluded with a vision of our home smashed to pieces, debris all over the ruined garden, the animals dead, the family scattered and broken. I woke up not only frightened but with that sense of inner unease and dismay which dreams sometimes leave.

A few moments’ thought made me realise where this vision had come from: the terrible flooding in Texas; the appalling devastation caused by the monsoon in Nepal, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; the burnt-out homes and lives destroyed at Grenfell; the hurt and pain I often witness close at hand. I am sure everyone knows the details, but

My colleague Julie Schonfeld, the Executive Director of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly, wrote:

Our hearts are breaking over the circumstances of those affected by Hurricane Harvey. Congregation Beth Yeshurun of Houston, one of the flagship Conservative synagogues in North America, took on very heavy flooding throughout the building. The homes of at least 500 congregant households were flooded.

Houses, schools, churches, mosques, factories are ruined, leaving hundreds of thousands exposed to the health dangers which threaten to follow: “From the bacteria, viruses, and fungi harbored in floodwaters to a potentially staggering mental health toll inflicted on those hardest hit by Harvey, the risks are expected to be great.” (The Houston Chronicle)

Shocking as this is, the flooding in South east Asia is on a different scale. A third of Bangladesh is under water; Nepal, significant swathes of India and now of Pakistan are devastated. Children are particularly affected. As schools close, so pupils lose key periods of their education. “The longer children are out of school following a disaster the less likely it is that they’ll ever return. That’s why it’s so important that education is properly funded in this response.” (Rafay Hussain, Save the Children)

I remember at the close of my nightmare trying to find the family to talk about rebuilding. Soon after I woke up I found myself thinking about the words of Rebbe Shalom Noach of Slonim, which we put near the front of our Shivah book of prayers in times of mourning:

A broken heart
must always belong to the world of building
not to the world of destruction

I thought then of how rich the language of creativity is in the liturgy: borei – create; yotzer – fashion; bonei – build; oseh – make. From the intimate domain of the heart to the vast creation of the universe, – with homes, communities and the city of Jerusalem, symbolically representing all human habitation, in between – God’s creativity, with our own creative capacities in partnership, pervades our prayers and hopes.

The power of destruction is fierce in nature and, tragically, in humanity. But let the courage, determination, generosity and imagination of those who strive to build and create be greater!


Julie Schonfeld referred me to the relief fund established by The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston to which local colleagues have asked people to donate.I will send a contribution on behalf of the synagogue.

The DEC (the 10 leading UK charities) will have appeals for South East Asia. See https://www.dec.org.uk/

Looking for God with the eagles and otters

I’m writing on the night train home from Scotland, trying to garner in my mind’s eye and in my heart the wonderful sights of mountains and eagles, mist and rain, waterfalls and sea shores, and the sunset quenched in the flaming red water; and to preserve in the soles of my feet the sensations of scrambling on grass, rock and heather; of walking, running and climbing through the thick highland mud.

I had no shofar with me to blow on the first day of Elul, but instead stood and prayed next to the hill-wise sheep with their impressive curled horns. It is of them and their glens that I will think on Rosh Hashanah when I say the blessing and endeavour to listen as deeply as I can to the sound of the shofar. Their hills are my personal Sinai, my place of revelation, where the wordless utterance of God says simply and constantly, ‘I am’.

I haven’t forgotten during this fortnight in the Highlands that the world is complex, full of violence, pain, alienation, unresolved conflicts and millions of innocent people who suffer for what they have not done. I spend most of my life inside the circumference of such concerns.

But all of us need to charge our heart and soul, to fill them with beauty, grace and inspiration so that we have the strength of spirit and the resilience to negotiate with courage and loving kindness the struggles of our own life and those of others. I often ask people when they turn to me in times of distress: ‘What nourishes your spirit?’ Perhaps it is music, prayer, poetry, nature, walking the dog, the companionship of those friends to whom you don’t have to tell everything because they know and understand. Then I say to them, ‘Whatever happens, take the time to restore your soul’.

Elul and Tishrei are the months of the beautiful 27th Psalm, ‘On your part does my heart say: “Seek my Face.”’ The heart, teaches the Zohar, is God’s temple within each person, God’s sacred abode in each and every life. It longs for its home with God, and, like a satnav to a different dimension, tries to help us locate it here on earth.

Libbi, our elder daughter has always loved otters. The Isle of Mull has at least one otter family for every mile of its 360 miles of coastline, so at dusk we went down to the shore to see if we could find one of their havens. We sat in silence as the twilight deepened in to darkness. We listened to the washing of the waves against the rocks, the constant variations in the movement of the ripples of the water, the seaweed, the boats moored a small distance from the shore. We found not a single otter.

Instead a deeper presence found us, calmed and silenced us, and without words reminded us that the world is full of the presence of God. For a moment, we were privileged to enter malchut shamayim, the sovereign domain of heaven.

 

Where comfort lies?

I am always glad when Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation, arrives. The bleak fast of the Ninth of Av has passed and we move from contemplating destruction to hope and comfort.

Comfort, O comfort my people; speak to the heart of Jerusalem   Isaiah 40:1

But where does comfort come from? Experience as a community rabbi has made me wary of trite comments like ‘time is a healer’. Time pushes us by the shoulder into the bewildering future. But it rarely fills in the holes in the heart through which, mercifully, painfully, those we have lost make unpredictable reappearances in our consciousness. No one lives only in the present.

In the wider frame of history, what is destroyed is rarely speedily rebuilt. The impact of persecutions, wars, disasters, marks those affected forever, and often defines the lives of their children, even their children’s children. Violence hasn’t vanished from the world, or racism, anti-Semitism and hatred gone away.

So where is comfort?

I saw a sign stuck on a lamppost ‘Ich liebe mein Leben’, ‘I love my life,’ with a small red heart underneath. Thank God, the love of life has tenacious powers. Like the pale leaves emerging in April from the thick, sticky buds of a chestnut tree after a winter of dormancy, the will to live reawakens in the human heart.

Like the wild flowers that grew in the bomb craters of London after the war, life has extraordinary resilience. It finds a foothold once again, not the same as it once was, but life nonetheless.

Destruction is powerful. But creation and creativity have – so far – found the subtle, visceral, tenacious resources to fight back:

However many rings of pain the night welds around me,
The opposing pull is stronger, the passion to break away.   Boris Pasternak

Yet, as life rushes on, what about the wounds left behind?

The issue takes me to the story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and his desire to question the Messiah. But where should he find him? ‘Among the poor at the gates of the great city’, Elijah informs him, referring to Rome, recently responsible for the sacking of Jerusalem. The rabbi promptly travels to the great metropolis, where he sees a host of destitute people taking off their bandages and gazing at their injuries. The Messiah, however, removes only one bandage at a time before hastily replacing it, saying ‘Maybe I am needed’.

I’ve met a lot of people like that. Sometimes they come up to me and say, ‘Remember me when you hear about someone else going through what I’ve been through’. It may be grief, depression, illness, the sudden loss of their job. They have turned their wounds into ‘Maybe I am needed’.

Nervous before the start of the Royal Parks half marathon last year, I asked the runners waiting next to me why they were doing the race:

‘For the Alzheimer’s Society, in memory of my mum’
‘For Cancer Research, because of what happened to my brother’

They too have turned their sorrow into ‘Maybe I am needed’.

Such people are my heroes, healers, redeemers, the rebuilders of Jerusalem.

Much as I sometimes wish to, I don’t think I believe in a single personal magical Messiah who’ll descend from heaven on a long rope into the maelstrom of history and solve all its ills.

But I believe in the redemptive spirit in humanity, within each of us, and in our capacity, with each other’s help, to try to turn pain into healing, destruction into rebuilding, grief into consolation, mourning into hope.

Causeless hatred – and its causes

The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans:

‘because there was gratuitous hatred during that period’. Talmud, Yoma 9b

As the Fast of the 9th of Av approaches, the day in the Jewish year in which we are asked to reflect on destruction and destructiveness in our world, I find myself puzzling over what that ‘hatred’ is, and how we can stop hating.

‘Gratuitous hatred’, sinat chinam in Hebrew, may be defined as the opposite of righteous indignation. If the latter is anger directed at removing a wrong or injustice in the world, the former is pointless rage and recrimination, justified by no cause.

Sinat chinam has both a personal and a political dimension.

On the personal level, I don’t think gratuitous hatred means hatred which has come from nowhere and has no source. Anger almost always has its pretexts; the mind is liable to hover over them until they become an ingrained bitterness of the soul: ‘I was neglected’ ‘I was treated unfairly’ ‘Life never gave me what I deserved’. Ground can always be found, or invented, for such thoughts.

‘Gratuitous hatred’ draws attention to their futility. Where do they take us, if not back to our own mental prisons of grudges and resentments? As Nelson Mandela famously said:

As I walked out the door towards the gate that would lead to my freedom I knew that if I didn’t leave bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

None of us wants to go through life with part of our heart in an internal solitary cell of our own making. Once one has taken two or three turns in the labyrinth of resentment, it is extremely hard to find one’s way out. We need kindness, from ourselves as much as from others, inner understanding and self-discipline to help us.

On the political level, gratuitous hatred means wantonly or ignorantly engaging in disputes which could and should have been avoided.

This is probably what the Talmud means by the phrase. The wars against Rome were driven by extremists. The zealots who eventually burnt the food supplies in the besieged city of Jerusalem and forced its citizens to fight to the hopeless end, refused to listen to moderating voices.

The heirs of sinat chinam today are all who practise a politics of extremism and rejection and all of us who demonise others. The healers are those who practise the difficult, dangerous, often seemingly futile art of building bridges with the fragile armoury of words and relationships; with tentative sensitivity to how the world may feel like to others…all who reach out to care for others with humility, courage and faith.

I believe causeless hatred also describes pain and anger we end up provoking without even thinking about it. In a news report from the civil war in Yemen, Orla Guerin interviewed a family whose son had lost both legs in a bomb, then spoke to a local journalist, who asked: ‘Why does the west arm Saudi Arabia? You are people who believe in humanistic values, so why do you leave us to suffer?’ Sixty per cent of the population of Yemen don’t know where their next food is coming from.

No doubt the politics are complex. But it is a fact that, indirectly and without wishing to do so, we are all implicated in vast suffering in many parts of the world.

It is not pleasant to face a date established in the Jewish calendar to ponder the terrible exiles and persecutions we as a people have been forced to undergo, and to think about why there is so much hatred across the globe. But the day is important. If we refuse to visit the angriest, most hurt places in our hearts, our history and in the world, we will not be able to bring healing.

It is only out of understanding that redemption is born. Hence the teaching that it is on the Fast of the 9th of Av that the Messiah is born. This may be understood metaphorically as the desire and determination in each of us to rebuild and restore creation through justice, compassion and love.

Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it. Martin Luther King

 

God in the fire

‘He saw a palace in flames’. It’s the opening of the midrashic story about how Abraham found God. It came to my mind during a conversation about Grenfell Tower.

A man was walking from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered: Was it possible the building had no one in charge? The owner looked out at him and said, ‘I am the master of the palace.’

It’s supposed to describe how Abraham finds his faith. He sees the world burning with violence and injustice and thinks: perhaps it has no guide. God looks out at him and says: ‘I am the Master of the World’.

But why is God, the ‘owner’ in the parable, inside the building, letting it burn? Why isn’t he or she putting out the flames, rescuing others, at least getting out of the way of the fire?

Instead God, the so-called owner, is trapped inside among the victims, crying out to the bewildered passers-by.

That, it strikes me, is the point. If we’re looking for a God who won’t ever allow tragedies to happen, who intervenes in our world to prevent every disaster, who takes the responsibility for the safety of buildings, or countries, or children, out of our hands, we’ll probably search in vain.

It’ll be different if we look for God among those who’re struggling in the midst of the fire. I’m not thinking only of Grenfell Tower, but of everywhere people need to be rescued, helped, heard, or saved from the internal flames and demons which at times beset us.

God in the voice of the person at the window; in the longing of the firemen, ‘Can we reach that storey still?’? God in the angry accusations that too little was listened to, too late? What kind of a God is that? What can such a God possibly mean?

Because that is the God I believe in, those questions pursue me. They’re the questions against which I have to square my conscience, justify my life.

They entail principles which are challenging, difficult, even frightening; but essential, honest and true:

Every human life is part of Life, God’s life, because God is not some remote entity, some super-galactic being, but inhabits every single life here on earth. Every heart is God’s sanctuary, every song God’s music, and every cry God’s calling out.

If God is ‘the owner of the palace’ then everyone is the owner of that palace too. We all have the right, and carry the responsibility, to insist that it is safe and that there is space within it for the most indigent, as well as the most wealthy.

If God is ‘the owner of the palace’ the failure to listen to any voice raised fairly and justly against any wrong on earth is a failure to hear God.

Such a God is difficult. The trouble is that we may find ourselves hearing that God’s call anywhere, any time. We are all Abraham, and none of us will escape witnessing flames, metaphorical if not real. The constant challenge is, ‘to hear, or not to hear’, and the best we can manage is sometimes.

But there is wonder, too, with such a God. For God inhabits our heart also and speaks within our thoughts and feelings, awakening us to the glory of life, arousing in us a keen alertness to grace, beauty and tenderness.

And that very sensitivity, that love, makes us want to listen to the voice which is always calling out: ‘You there, don’t just walk away’.

 

‘If I am only for myself, what am I?’

‘It’s me’, my friend says, when I pick up the phone. If I were to answer, ‘Yes, but what do you mean by ‘me’, I imagine he might think I was having a nervous breakdown.

But it’s a question which preoccupies me, not as an egocentric fetish but as a moral concern.

Autonomy has become a modern God. ‘I am’; ‘I need’; ‘I want’. But who is this ‘I’? Maybe it isn’t one simple entity, me. Maybe, rather, it’s composed of many layers, and loves. Maybe it could become not just the driver of my wants and demands, but the source of intuition and compassion.

I’ve developed a new lesson for my course for teens on The Values That Matter. I put a Russian doll on the table, take out all the little dolls from inside each other, and ask: ‘If this doll is you, and these are the layers of your identity, what are they and how do they fit together?’ The discussion is vigorous:

The outermost doll is my name.
No, the innermost is my name.
No. What’s innermost is my heart.

‘What about being human?’ I ask. And ‘Where’s being Jewish?’ and ‘What about British?’

Jewish is on the outside. Then British.
No; on the inside.
No; Jewish is everywhere, through all the layers of me.
No; it’s being human which runs through all of me. Actually animal. Actually alive.

I might ask about family. ‘That layer is my parents: they made me’. Someone asks, ‘But who made them?’ ‘That tiny doll in the middle is Adam and Eve’, someone else says, only half facetiously, reminding me of the line, ‘We are atoms in the consciousness of God’.

I think of Hillel, the 1st century BCE sage, who begins his exploration of identity with the much-quoted assertion, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ People rarely cite the continuation, ‘But if I am just for myself, what am I?’ My connectedness with others is integral to who I am. Without it, I am just a ‘what’, a nothing.

In his next saying, Hillel develops this thought further: ‘Never separate from the community, or trust solely in yourself until your dying day’. I imagine he means both horizontal and vertical community: our dependence on and responsibility for our contemporaries, as well as our connection with the cultures of our ancestors. We belong to, and must learn from, both our past and our present.

I fantasize that none of this is lost on the class of teens. It certainly touches me, – and I’d thought I was the one asking the questions. Instead, those questions grow inside me.

Literature contains some wonderful responses to them. John Donne’s is among the most famous:

No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (Meditation XVII)

But my favourite is by Boris Pasternak, from his Zhivago poems:

In me are people without names,
Children, stay-at-homes, trees.
I am conquered by them all
And this is my only victory.

‘I am involved in mankind’, ‘In me are people without names’: that’s what I want my class to understand. It’s how I want to live.

If our ‘I’ was less full of me, if we had more space inside us for the lives and loves, the identities and cares, which compose us, – then both we and the world around us would be very different. Pasternak is right: that is our only victory.

 

We miss them: But their love still speaks in our hearts

We go into my study, stopping outside in the dark to look at the moon. We dial the number: will anyone else join us tonight? We’ve led this short service over the phone for two years now, late on Wednesday nights, on a party line so that anyone can call in, carer, sufferer, seeker of consolation. Leslie sings the song of the four angels: ‘Before me is Uriel, angel of light; behind me is Raphael, angel of healing; over my head is God’s presence.’

Leslie was there with his smile when I first came to our community, 36 years ago. That smile never left him, warm, embracing, simplifying life’s adversities into welcome, ushering everybody, old friend, new acquaintance into a sunshine of welcome. It never left him, except perhaps in the cruellest phase of his illness.

I see Leslie leading the services in the Synagogue: Kol Nidrei: All our vows and dreams, may we never give up hope of fulfilling them; Shuvi Nafshi; may my soul find her rest; Ve’avitah tehillah: you, eternal God, love the songs of mortals, made of flesh, blood and confusion, fleeting as shadows through a turbulent world.

Leslie was a wonderful teacher: ‘Half the battle is helping the boys relax, taking the pressure off them’. He’d talk to the parents: ‘Don’t worry, she’ll be great on her Bat-Mitzvah’.

Leslie loved animals. I see him, gently calling to the horses at the farm on Regents Park Road. He adored dogs, and they him. If I let my dog off the lead in a room full of forty people, it was Leslie to whom he ran.

Leslie had a moral passion too, refugees, people in pain. He helped fight for the Race Relations Act.

But it’s his from-the-heart smile we all remember most. He could almost disarm destiny with that smile, and nearly did, running with the Olympic Torch in honour of the generous, accepting spirit in which he took his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. But in the end, it wasn’t Leslie any more, but the faithful love of his family, close friends and carers which formed the counterforce of love against the cruelty of the disease.

We gardened together during the first stages of that illness, when his kindness shone out even more and he wouldn’t hear a single bad word about anyone, not his synagogue and certainly not his rabbi. I think of us together, planting hundreds of daffodils.

The wonderful poet Helen Dunmore understood, in her own dying:

My life’s stem was cut…
I know I am dying
But why not keep flowering
As long as I can
From my cut stem?

Forgive me for writing about Leslie, but he is the closest of my colleagues to have gone to his eternal rest. There are so many others whom we remember. Today is July 7, twelve years since the London bombings (before those this year). I think of Miriam Hyman, Susan Levy, and others whom I only know by name. Tomorrow is the Pride March in London; I think of Shira Banki stabbed to death in Jerusalem’s 2015 parade.

There are so many with whom our daily lives are inextricably, instinctively bound: parents, partners, children. Living without them was unthinkable until…

A friend who lost his wife spoke to me of his dislike of the term ‘closure’. I agree. Love, and loss, do not know closure. They continue to grow in us. What we have is not closure, but becoming, what the voices of the dead say inside us.

This is true of sorrow, as David Grossman wrote in Falling Out Of Time, reflecting on the death of his son Uri: ‘the boy / is dead…But his death, / his death / is not / dead.’

This is no less true of love. We carry within us the ongoing becoming of those we have loved. Sometimes, in some seasons, on days with a special light, we notice that they are still flowering. We all have gardens in our hearts, into which time painfully transplants more and more of the lives we have loved around us, until it takes us too, and leaves us, also, vital memories in the hearts of others.

Paddington Comes to Synagogue (we miss you, Michael Bond)

The much-loved children’s author Michael Bond died this week. His memory is truly for a blessing, as the flowers and jars of fine-cut marmalade which currently adorn the statue of his most famous creation, A Bear Called Paddington, testify.

I grew up with Paddington. The young bear gentleman with his entourage of the Brown family, Mrs Bird and Mr Gruber, was more frequently at my bedside table even than Winnie the Pooh, or Jennings, or Professor Branestawm. Like millions of children, I loved those stories, and still do.

As a rabbi, I maintained the fantasy that one day I would invite Michael Bond to bring Paddington to the synagogue, out of which a slim new volume might emerge: Paddington Goes to Shul.

I even half thought that the author could be Jewish, in which case, a fortiori, his creation might be too. But this is unlikely, since the very first breakfast the bear enjoys in his new home in London consists of bacon, which he likes so much that he puts the leftovers in his suitcase, leaving the perplexed Mrs Brown wondering why six dogs should have followed them into the Underground later that morning.

But what might have happened had the intrepid bear ventured into the service one Shabbat morning? I never got very far in my musings:

‘Would you like an Aliyah, an honour?’ asked the shammes, or synagogue orderly, kindly, bending down to speak to the young bear who had just entered the service. ‘We could call you up for Shishi?’

Paddington looked upwards. All he could see was the ceiling; there didn’t seem to be anywhere to be called up to. And who, and where, was Shishi? All around him were only men. Then, because he didn’t want to seem rude, he said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and lifted his hat politely.

‘No, no; you keep that on in synagogue,’ said the kind shammes, taking the bear by the hand. ‘In fact, you’ll need one of these’ he added, fetching a tallit prayer-shawl and putting it round the bear’s shoulders where it clung instantly thanks to little lumps of marmalade left over from his breakfast.

A moment later, Paddington found himself perched on a small stand on top of the podium, in front of a hushed congregation. ‘You have had your Bar Mitzvah, haven’t you?’ said another gentleman, in somewhat urgent tones. ‘You do know your blessings?’

Who were they talking about now? Paddington began to feel a little anxious. He’d seen a bar once, on the boat from darkest Peru, but he was sure it hadn’t also been called Mitzvah. ‘Bar-who?’ he said. To his surprise this seemed to go down remarkably well.

Or perhaps there could be an incident over the kashrut of Paddington’s marmalade. Whatever the case, the strange and perplexing rules and rituals of the synagogue are rife with the potential for good-natured incomprehension.

In one sense Paddington really could be Jewish. The little, forlorn bear on the platform at Paddington with his note ‘Please look after this bear’ is like the hundreds of children from across Nazi Europe who found themselves at the end of the platforms of Liverpool Street Station with a number attached to them like a luggage tag, and bewilderment in their hearts. Or, more likely, Paddington represents all the children evacuated from London at the start of the war, in which his creator went off to fight.

I’ve written many painful emails and sent many tweets about terrible events in the last months. I thought I would choose a different tone this week. It’s not because the world has suddenly become free of evil, but because all of us, whoever we are and wherever we live, want our children to be able to be children.

We want every child to enjoy a proper childhood, surrounded by affection, with curiosity, adventure and wonder. We want them to breath in the joy of innocent mornings, with life safe, plentiful and unending; before danger and mortality creep like shadows behind the half-open windows and stare out across the landscape of the future.

And even when they do, we still want Paddington to take his jar of marmalade with him under his hat, and sit down with Mr Gruber to a large cup of cocoa and his elevenses bun, and intrepid and eager, look the world straight in the heart.

Thank you, Michael Bond, for what you have given us: Paddington Marches On.

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