The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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A Light Footprint?

There’s a blessing, ‘Tread lightly on the face of the earth’. It translates into Jewish as: Go gently through God’s garden, because the Shechinah dwells among you.

The pictures I’ve been sent over these last weeks of flowers, sunsets and birds, the sound files of birdsong, and even the short film of members of our community isolating in Barbados trying to follow Kabbalat Shabbat while a troupe of monkeys determinedly distracts them, tell me that we do feel that the world is God’s garden. We may not use the word ‘God’, but we sense this is, could, and should be a beautiful, wondrous, holy place.

It’s five years since Pope Francis’ remarkable encyclical Laudato Si. It was published prior to the Paris climate conference; its fifth anniversary is being marked in time for COP 26, planned for this autumn but now postponed.

The Pope draws overwhelmingly on the Hebrew Bible to describe the relationship between humankind and the rest of the creation and, in particular, to make the connection between environmental and social justice which lies at the heart of his letter. Nowhere is this more evident in the Torah than in the closing chapters of Vayikra we read last Shabbat, which describe how we must treat the earth, our fellow human beings and all creatures.

The summary of Laudato Si outlines the tasks which are even more urgent now than at the time of writing:

I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human mean­ing of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle.

We personally, our synagogue building for certain, and perhaps this country, have rarely had so modest an environmental footprint as over the last two months. Now that we and the economy are beginning to be on the move again, the challenge is to keep it low. We cannot let this primary concern fall off our communal, national or international agenda. Talk of a ‘green recovery’ needs to be made real, starting with ourselves. What values have mattered to us in lockdown by which we are now determined to live? What didn’t we miss not having or doing? What did we appreciate, more than before?

I believe we’ve relearnt how much we love the world. We need to translate that into caring.

Good Things to Learn from Lockdown

I’ve rarely experienced such closeness as in these weeks of distance. I’m not alone; so many have said the same.

It’s not that there’s no loneliness; the stress of isolation is felt by us all, though more cruelly for some than others.

But it’s made us appreciate our connections.

I’ve always loved nature, and now more than ever. The first sight of a hedgehog in the garden this year: what joy! And the great tits are flitting to and from the nest box in the almond tree. Emma Mitchell puts it so beautifully in The Wild Remedy:

It is the same giddy, soaring feeling I experienced as a child if I found a miniscule froglet next to my grandfather’s pond…It is a new discovery, a small living treasure…

I feel close to my family, although we’ve been isolating in four different places. The sound of your voices over the phone; the sight of you all on zoom before Shabbat; the ‘how are you?’ without not listening to your answer; the ‘I love you,’ deeply meant.

Friends, colleagues round the world: I appreciate you! Phone, what’s app, zoom: we’re lucky to have them, and it’s a deprivation we must remedy for those who don’t. They’re great negaters of distance (though not time zones). Cape Town or Toronto: we’re as near as next door. I never thought a screen could be personal. It can’t allow hands, but can enable hearts, to touch. Words of kindness, Torah, prayer from your hearts have entered mine.

I feel close to my society. I’m as ignorant as ever of much of it. But I wave and applaud bus drivers, thank the milkman and the girl who delivers the paper, and don’t take the people who collect our rubbish and recycling for granted. I’m not going to sit silent if we continue to expect the NHS to heal us, without our healing the deficiencies in its finances and equipment. I see so much dedicated, creative loving kindness around me of which I want to be part.

I feel closer, too, to myself. That may sound foolish, but I’m not the only one. Not travelling outside has made time to travel inside. Unfathomable is the heart, says the Bible. Many of us have explored it further in our aloneness than before and found it to contain not only fears but also chambers we hadn’t known were so deep: endurance, empathy, tears and love.

I understand better, too, that I’m not actually only me. Just as my body is made of many elements, so is my spirit too. My soul is composted from God’s words to Abram ‘Lech lecha, Go, discover’; from the sight of the sea in the north west of Scotland, blue-black at twilight with the curlew’s cry; from my father asking ‘do you say the Shema each night?’ and from the good counsel of so many of you, words spoken thirty years ago, and yesterday. ‘My’ life is, in truth, a multitude of gifts.

I feel closer to God, because I notice and appreciate more, because, notwithstanding the distinct value of each person, action, tree or bird, I experience within them all, and within me too, the breathing of a great togetherness: Shema Yisrael: God is one and oneness.

All these matters I want to glean and gather, before the winds of ‘back to normal’ blow them away. I want to plant their seeds for the future, for a kinder, closer, more connected and compassionate world.

 

75 years since VE Day

I find myself crying as I read the words of veterans in the papers this morning:

‘They were just dots below us on the beaches – some moving and some not,’

recalls Andre Hissink, aged 100. He’d been a pilot and navigator in the RAF’s 320 (Netherlands) squadron, after escaping the Nazi invasion of Holland in 1940.

‘My heroes are the guys that hit the beaches, so many of whom never came back.’ Says Gregory Melikian, now aged 97, who was chosen by General Eisenhower to transmit to London the coded message of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Now, because of Covid 19, he’ll have to spend VE Day at home, but hopefully not alone. I wish there were a way we could send cards or greetings to our veterans.

Our community will of course observe the national 2-minute silence at 11.00 am, before our own special programme about our parents who served in the Allied Forces (at 11.30am). I wish my father was still here, so that I could ask him; I only recall brief mentions about repairing tanks for the Royal Engineers, in Egypt, behind El Alamein.

‘This is your hour,’ Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill told the huge cheering crowds in Parliament Square. ‘We were alone for a whole year’, he continued.
There we stood, alone. Did anyone want to give in?

‘No,’ shouted the crowd.
‘Were we downhearted?’
‘No!’
The lights went out and the bombs came down. But every man, woman and child in the country had no thought of quitting the struggle.
(Martin Gilbert: Road to Victory, p. 1348)

For us Jews the bells of liberation rang, in Primo Levi’s words, ‘grave and muffled.’ There was another kind of aloneness as survivors of the Shoah absorbed the devastating reality that no one else, none of their family, comrades or often even of their community remained alive to meet them back home. Home? Home existed no more.

After liberation, I suffered probably more from the loneliness and the isolation…Feeling of yes, I’m alive, but that’s it. For what? For who?
(Dan Stone: The Liberation of the Camps)

Now the struggle to reach and build a new homeland in Palestine began in earnest, from the DP camps, through the networks of the secret Aliyah Bet, in running the British blockade, in forming the Haganah.

But Jews had been in uniform too in the British, American and Soviet armies in all the forces and had contributed bravely and greatly to the Allied victory.

We therefore share today’s celebrations as Jews, as citizens of our countries and above all as human beings who know through our bleakest experiences that freedom and justice must sometimes be fought for and always protected and preserved.

The courage, grit and humanity of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations stand as an example to us in our far lesser, but nevertheless real and current, tribulations.

Churchill also addressed the House on victory day:

…the strength of the Parliamentary institution has been shown to enable it at the same moment to preserve all the title-deeds of democracy while waging war in the most stern and protracted form. I wish to give my hearty thanks… to everyone in every part of the House wherever they sit, for the way in which the liveliness of Parliamentary institutions has been maintained under the fire of the enemy…
(Martin Gilbert: ibid p. 1346)

It was indeed during the bitterest war years that the Education Act was passed, heralding free secondary schooling for all, and the groundwork prepared for creating the Welfare State and the National Health Service.

As we honour this moving day in silence, memory and song, we might think of how from the midst of our own difficulties we too must envisage a more just, peaceful and harmonious future for all humankind and for our planet.

 

Hope under lockdown

‘Speak to the whole community of Israel:’ thus opens the second half of this week’s Torah portion. ‘That section was said at the great gathering,’ noted the eleventh century commentator, Rashi, referring to how the entire community would gather at Tabernacles to hear Torah. What would Rashi have said about our isolation today?

Yet, despite lockdown, I experience a profound sense of community. I feel it in my head, heart and hands. There is a coming together such as I have not known in my lifetime, not only of Jewish, or of British society, but of so many millions across the world. It expresses itself online, from balconies, over What’s App, in thought waves and currents of feeling. It’s an energy, a will, a commitment to a re-prioritisation of values which must herald what’s being called the ‘new normal’.

It is a vision deeply rooted in the teachings of the Torah, in the wisdom of all true faith and in the heart of humanity.

‘Be holy, for I your God am holy’ (Leviticus 19:1): The secret of holiness, wrote the Hasidic teacher Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, is wonder, the awareness that in each and every life there dwells the presence of God. ‘Be holy’ is a call to reverence for all living things. It’s a plea to travel through life with an open soul, to recognise the preciousness of all persons, all creatures and all things. If we have such reverence in our heart, it must follow that we will not desire to hurt or destroy, but, on the contrary, to cherish, nurture and care for all life.

‘Love your neighbour as yourself, I am the Lord’, the chapter continues (verse 18). Samson Raphael Hirsch, who campaigned for civil rights for Jews in Moravia before becoming the rabbi of the orthodox community in Frankfurt, understood the words to mean that we must fight for those same rights and opportunities for others as we seek for ourselves. ‘Love your neighbour’ is thus the essence of society.

More intimate is the explanation by Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin: when people truly care for their fellow human beings God says, ‘among friends like these I want to be there too.’ That’s why I believe God is present among the people running food banks and those who collect and deliver to them; with the chefs who turn their restaurants into kitchens for the NHS; among shop staff who make a point of being kind to their customers and making sure that they give what they can to those who’re struggling. I think God is there with the gifted 9 year-old violinist who put out a note online asking anyone feeling lonely to let him know and he’d serenade them beneath their window. God’s there in our wish to give more and care more; God’s even there even in our frustration that there seems to be so little we can do to help those really on the front line in our hospitals.

‘When you plant trees for food,’ the passage continues (verse 23). These trees are both real and metaphorical. I’ve been planting trees as a prayer for people who are ill, because trees represent life, vigour, strength and hope. But there’s also a figurative planting, a sowing for the future, towards the cultivation of a way of life, an economy and ecology, which understands that all existence is mutually interdependent, that we are not simply masters of nature and that the only path for humanity is to be a respectful part of the interwoven bio-diversity of creation. (I have several young trees acquired from the Woodland Trust and am tempted to sneak out one midnight with a spade to find a wild spot and plant them.)

I believe that even under lockdown these principles are finding affirmation in the insight and good will of hundreds of millions of people and that they therefore have the power to transform us globally into a community wiser, humbler and kinder than before.

Despite everything, this gives me hope and inspiration.

 

Angels of healing

I’ve never been a believer in angels, at least not of the winged variety. But I’ve come to love the bedtime prayer about the four archangels:

At my right hand is Micha’el (whose name means ‘Who is like God’)

At my left hand is Gavri’el (God is my strength)

Before me is Uriel, (God is my light)

Behind me is Repha’el, (God will bring healing)

And over my head is Shechinat El, the presence of God

I feel safer when I say those words.

Healing is on all our minds. Yesterday at 8.00pm I was about to lead Shiva prayers for a family in mourning when we heard the cheering begin for the NHS. We agreed a pause and went to our doors or windows to join in. I include in my deep appreciation all those in the front lines of health and social work; the staff of every care home; everyone ensuring there’s food for all of us, especially the homeless, the most isolated and refugees; those making protective gowns and visors; also Anthony, the kind and thoughtful sexton at our cemetery, and his staff, for they too take risks to bury our dead with dignity and help our struggling hearts begin to heal. I include the musicians, storytellers, teachers and entertainers who lift our spirits, and, in thankfulness to nature, the birds in the garden who sing to us at dawn. They too are part of Repha’el’s entourage, God’s healing team.

The Torah this week treats of the disease translated as ‘leprosy’; whatever its precise nature, it was contagious and greatly feared. The priests had the critical role: they had to decide who had the symptoms, whether they were progressive or in remission, who needed to be quarantined, who put into isolation outside the camp and who could safely be allowed back home. I used to feel negative about those priests. They were the ones who sent people off into the loneliness beyond. I don’t think that way anymore. 

The priest’s primary role was to officiate in the sanctuary, offering the korbanot, the sacrifices to God. I don’t believe in animal sacrifice and I’m a passionate vegetarian. But that’s not the relevant point. The key term here is korban, from the root meaning ‘near’: the priests are those who bring near. Their aim is to bring the people close to God and the sick back to their families. They represent ministry in its most profound sense of care for the whole person. I’ve met lots of their contemporary incarnations, on hospital wards, in shops, at the front door picking up bags for foodbanks. 

Healing in the Bible isn’t just about bodily wellness, essential as that is, (and the Torah insists that ‘we pay great heed to our health’ and that of those around us.) It’s about relationships. Meaning no. 2, says the classic Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon of Biblical Hebrew, is healing the hurts of the nation. Meaning no. 3 is healing individual distress. ‘Often involving forgiveness,’ the editors note. 

Despite, or rather as an oblique result of, the corona virus, society has begun to travel a path of healing. It’s expressed in a deeper awareness of each other and our neighbours, in the understanding that we are in this together and therefore need to stand together, and that we are all profoundly indebted to the contributions of people we may previously have ignored or taken for granted.

Our world, too, has glimpsed a further road of healing we must travel: the healing of the bond between humankind and nature. Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Through Hazon, ‘the Jewish Lab for Sustainability,’ I participated with hundreds of leaders and activists, musicians, children and even dancing baby goats in a great worldwide call to heed and heal the earth. There’s a new humility, a deeper appreciation that the trees, fields, even insects are our healers and that we can’t live without their ministrations.

Malachi prophesied that one future day the dawn will be lit by the sun of righteousness with healing on its wings. We all have power to bring that day a little bit nearer. May we use it, and may God’s healing surround us and protect us.

75 years since the liberation of Bergen-Belsen

In the mystical understanding of the counting of the Omer, the fifty days which connect Pesach, the festival of freedom, to Shavuot, the giving of the Torah, the eighth day focuses on the quality of Hesed shebiGevurah, lovingkindness within strength. There is little we have greater need of now than precisely that courage of resilience coupled with a warm and open heart towards each other. I am deeply grateful to everyone who exemplifies this in our society, from our nurses and doctors and medical researchers to those who stack our shelves, deliver the post and call their neighbours to check if everyone’s alright. Thank you!

Through much of yesterday, the closing day of Passover, I had two books in front of me. The first was The Survivors, the account by Reverend Leslie Hardman of how, on precisely these days seventy-five years ago, he entered Bergen-Belsen as a chaplain with the British Army. This is what confronted me on 17 April, he writes: starvation, typhus, the dead and the living dead.

His testament, like that of Rabbi Isaac Levi, his Senior Chaplain who joined him at Belsen, is searing and shocking. But it does not solely engender despair. We are ‘the instruments of the first repudiation’ of the evil done to these people, he tells a fellow British officer, as he, like Rabbi Levi, spares no hour, no atom of energy, and sometimes no subterfuge to bypass the slow protocols of the military administration, to get water, food and medicine to the thousands on the border between life and death.

But the greatest repudiation comes from the survivors themselves: the resurgence of spirit as people slowly return to health, the tenacious hold onto life, the determination to find loved ones, heal the sick, care for children, build a new country in Palestine and create a new world of hope and faith.

My second book was the Machzor, the festival prayer book. I didn’t open my usual machzor; I needed to take out and hold in my hands the old family volume, printed in Breslau in 1830. With trepidation, anxious not to damage the venerable binding, I opened it to the page of the haftarah, the reading from Isaiah, chapter 11:

[God’s servant] will judge with justice for the poor and demand fair treatment for the humble of the earth. The wolf shall lie down with the lamb…They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.

I do not know how this book survived the First World War, from which my father’s uncle returned a hero, twice wounded, followed less than twenty years later by the flight of the family from the very country it had served. I don’t know in the depth of what boxes it lay, on what shelves it gathered dust.

But its words preserved their power, garnered their strength. They survived war and mass murder, contradicting their horrors even as Isaiah himself had defied the might of Assyria twenty-seven hundred years earlier, to express from their still strong pages a different ideal: that one day such a deep awareness of the presence of God, of the need for justice, of the wonder of life, of the preciousness of each moment, will take hold not only of the hearts of individuals, but of the spirit of nations, and we will hurt and destroy no longer.

Like many of us, I sense that such a spirit is abroad in our world today, despite the pain of so many deaths, despite the injustices, the flaws and faults in our systems. An ancient vision, God-inspired, garnered in prayer books, nurtured in the human soul across faiths and over millennia, is touching our hearts and calling us, when lockdown ends, to work for a different world.

 

A Different Night

This is written in haste on the eve of an exceptionally different night, at a bewildering and frightening time.

First and foremost, I wish everyone a good and safe festival.

Pesach means gratitude for deliverance. Words are insufficient to express our thankfulness to the NHS, to everyone caring, filling shop shelves, delivering food and medicines, helping the nation keep fit, supporting our morale and giving us strength in adversity. In the words of the Psalm, ‘May the work of your hands be blessed.’ Thank you, and thank you again!

When we sit at the table for the Seder tonight, when we open the Haggadah, however few we may be, even it is just me, or you, we must not think that we are alone. With us is Moses, leading the Children of Israel to freedom. Nearer us on our table sits Rabbi Akiva with his colleagues, debating liberty, dignity and justice until break of day. Yet nearer are our grand- or great-grandparents, who fled Nazism, escaped tyranny and fought for freedom across the earth. Surrounding us are women and men of all peoples who have found in this great story of liberty their hope, inspiration and courage. All of you, invisible as you are, are close by and with us, holding our hands, strong inside our hearts.

Your strength is our strength; your resilience and faith is our faith and resilience. Together we partake of, and dedicate ourselves to, the unfailing spirit of humanity in our struggle against illness, in our fight against injustice, in our respect for God’s world, and in the inexhaustible capacity to turn to each other in times of need with generosity, understanding, kindness, healing and love.

Therefore, let this Seder be a night of affirmation and celebration.

We affirm and celebrate life itself, the precious gift of breathing, the ability to stand, stretch out, take steps, may God protect it in every one of us.

We celebrate, even as we treasure it more deeply in its absence, the freedom to move, to walk in whichever direction, to seek liberty and to work for that same liberty for those who suffer under persecution, until, in Isaiah’s words, we ‘Give food to the hungry, clothe the naked and break the bonds of oppression.’

We celebrate love and friendship, even as in their absence we are more intensely aware than ever of those we love, those for whose companionship we long, and those whose listening heart we need, as the beloved says in the Song of Songs: O my companions, listen to me; let me hear your voice.’

We celebrate the value and dignity of life, all life together, in this wondrous, interdependent, fragile, precious world. We honour the life and dignity of every human being, and the lives, may God protect them, of those we love.

Do not imagine you are utterly alone. Thought, with its secret powers, knows how to navigate heart-space. Our words and songs join with the voices of our ancestors of three thousand years, and with those of many peoples. Together we shall speak and we shall sing, we shall pray and we shall learn, until the birdsong heralds the new dawn – of life and hope and joy

 

For those who dedicate themselves to others

I wish you health and strength of spirit. I speak for of us all in expressing my utter gratitude to everyone from ambulance teams, nurses and doctors to shop and delivery personnel who are working selflessly and unstintingly through cruel and weary hours to keep us safe. Thank you!

In novel times, old words have new meanings, strike the heart in different ways. In the Bible, a Korban Tzibbur is the sacrifice bought from communal funds and offered on behalf of the entire community. Sheep, oxen, flour, wine, oil: we read all about it in the Torah this week.

But that’s not what the words mean to me now. Next to me are pictures of two doctors who died from Covid 19 as they carried out their duties. One of them, Dr Ala Saadu, voluntarily returned from retirement to help. There are sacrifices in our communities. I’m speaking with people who’ve lost someone they’ve loved all their lives – ‘Our family can’t even hug each other as we grieve’. When the grip of this virus wanes, every community, every tzibbur, will have its korban and there will be sorrow as well as relief in the hearts of all who survive.

But even this, frightening and humbling, is not the most powerful, magnetic meaning the words korban tzibbur hold for me now. They speak to me first and foremost of everyone who mekarev, brings themselves forward, and makriv atsmo, offers their service on behalf of the community. We witness such korban tzibbur, such public service, everywhere: it’s like that here, in Israel, Italy, Spain, in every country across the world silenced by the coronavirus.

Except that we are not silenced. We hear an appeal for drivers to help with deliveries by a woman who’s turned over her commercial kitchens to supplying meals to workers for the National Health Service. Here we learn of people collecting food in every neighbourhood, for foodbanks, for refugees, for people who’ve become almost invisible on our streets but not forgotten from the hearts of these volunteers. Here are teenagers, students, on bike, on foot, collecting prescriptions, delivering medicines, leaving shopping on doorsteps. Here are people, vulnerable themselves, with a list of others to call: ‘Are you OK? What do you need?’

Around us, travelling to work in those almost empty busses, are hundreds of thousands of medical and frontline staff, working double-shifts, exhausted, determined.

That’s what Korban Tzibbur, sacrifice on behalf of the community, is these days.

The Torah calls such offerings olah, a ‘going up’. Those who make them not only raise themselves up to being the best people they possibly can, but lift up the hopes and hearts of us all with the spirit of a different society and a better humanity, devoted, dedicated, appreciative, aware of how deeply we need each other.

The Torah tells us that these sacrifices lasted kol halaylah, ‘all night until morning’. It’s not only that they sustain us and keep us strong through the slow and lonely hours of darkness. It’s more than that, Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl explains: they themselves are the morning, they turn our darkness into light.

The Torah explains that kol hayiga bahem yikdash ‘whoever touches them becomes holy;’ that is, whoever gives, helps, supports and connects themselves in any way with such generosity and service becomes holy. Something sacred touches their lives, and ours through them, transforming us, our values and our perspective. We come close to God; we become participants in that tenderness, respect and loving kindness which alone has the power to draw all life together.

Shabbat Shalom and Refuah Shelemah – a Shabbat of peace and healing

 

Together in heart across the ether

I’m holding a guinea pig because it all goes back to ‘The Day the Guinea Pig Talked.’ In that story, a boy and his guinea pig love each other so dearly that they’re granted permission to talk, but merely for a few seconds while the clock strikes midnight. They only have time to say: ‘I love you.’

We’re acutely aware of how alone we are, cut off from many we love. If a relative or friend is in hospital, we’re not allowed to visit. Often one has to wait for a hugely pressured doctor to make a once -a-day call to update us. If it were me or you in hospital, – some of us are more vulnerable than others – we would be deeply alone with our thoughts.

But I believe thought and prayer somehow travel through the ether, and that, as the Talmud says, ‘What comes from the heart reaches the heart’, even if we can only say our words at a distance. There’s Hasidic story that a father and son, knowing they would be separated for a long time, agreed that at certain hours they would both look at the moon and, in that manner, feel connected.

We all know the words from the beautiful 23rd Psalm: The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want. If, at certain hours, we think of that line and others think of it too, then we can know that we are connected in heart-space with those we love. Or we can say the full Psalm with its remarkable verse: ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me,’

Rabbi Chaim reminded me that the Talmud notes special moments, the changing of the guard in ancient times, when prayer is especially effective: 6.00am, 10.00am, 2.00 in the afternoon, 6.00pm, 10.00pm, and if we are awake and anxious in the night, 2.00 in the morning.

For any of us who wishes, we can say the words at those hours, whenever we can. Then, if I or you should be ill and alone, we will know that in our thoughts we’re sharing those words at the same moment, that those we love are with us and that God is with us too. Then, maybe, we’ll feel a little less alone. Here’s a link to a beautiful version of the Psalm. Print it out if you wish; have it near.

Like the boy and the guinea pig, it’s the most important thing we can say to each other: ‘I care about you, I love you, I’m with you in my heart.’

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.

 

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