The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

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One Year Later

Today marks one year since the murder of George Floyd. His simple words ‘I can’t breathe’, as he struggled for life, fill us with horror and shame.

In the US, the UK and across the world many have tried to live more deeply and sincerely the truth that Black Lives Matter. There is, hopefully, a greater awareness of what needs to be done in education, policing and across every layer of society and its organisations. This country has been forced to think more closely about the ongoing impacts of the colonial past.

In Judaism, the defining statement about the value of human life is that every person is created in God’s image and that every human being is both equal and unique. The far-reaching and incisive report commissioned by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and written by Stephen Bush sets out in detail the work we must do to live by those truths in our synagogues, schools, youth movements and homes.

 

 

Standing in solidarity with the bridge-builders and healers

‘And give you peace:’ these words, which we read in the Torah tomorrow, could not sound with greater urgency. They command us to be on the side of the healers, wherever and through whatever we live. Sometimes this is obvious and easy. Sometimes it demands the greatest vison and courage.

Just hours ago, a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas began. We must pray not only that it endures, but that it brings negotiations which lead to more than a temporary cessation in killing, to something which brings not just brief respite but well-founded hope to all, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs.

The rockets and bombs have left terrible new wounds and torn old injuries open. ‘When the siren went, my first thought was “I am a mother”,’ said an Israeli colleague with a six-month-old baby. What can one possibly say to parents in Gaza, or Israel, who have seen their child torn apart?

Frightful, too, are the wounds which cannot be captured in searing pictures: from the impact of fear, from the knowledge that there are those who want you dead, from the long-term effects of terror and trauma on the heart and psyche. ‘No one wanted to kill me in the place where I grew up,’ said an Israeli friend.

All around are the wound-harvesters, collecting the pain, anger, dread and frustration as ammunition for the next round of hate. They find no shortage of evidence to back their cases.

That is why it is so important to stand alongside the healers. It would be easy to underestimate the courage of those many groups of Jews and Arabs who have stood together, despite the destruction and threats, in Jerusalem at the Jaffa Gate, in Zichron, in Haifa and elsewhere. This is an act of inner as well as outer, courage under fire, in defiance of the voices which say, ‘Can’t you see, they all hate us?’

Here are the words of some of the leaders:

Living in Sderot, just a short distance from Gaza, I feel the explosions twice. I feel them at home and I feel them as they happen among our neighbours, the Palestinians in Gaza. Today we must and will continue to put the divine demand to “love your neighbour – your fellow human being – as you would love yourself” to the test. Avi Dabush, Executive Director, Rabbis for Human Rights

Today we are facing a test…on how we communicate to these young people that to be a hero means taking responsibility and to change reality, not through violence, hatred and incitement. Being a hero demands courage to talk, to meet reality head on. It demands strength and resilience. This is what we, as adults, must give to our kids. Parents, religious leaders, political leaders must take this mission up and go out and be with our young people, to meet them and speak with them and think with them about what we need to do to restore trust and faith. Ghadir Hani, Palestinian Israeli and activist.

Like everyone, I have read reports and opinions of all kinds, and failed or avoided reading many more. In the end, I don’t know where better to stand, albeit from a distance, than in support of the healers and bridge-builders. For the wounds of fear, grief, trauma and injustice cut to the heart on both sides.

My prayers are with these words, written together by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum and Sheikh Ibtisam Mahameed in Jerusalem:

God of Life!
You who heal the broken hearted, binding up our wounds…
Hear our voice that we not despair…
That we have mercy on one another…
That we hope together, one for another…*

* The full text can be found here.

Standing together at a very painful time

We stand just three days before Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah. This Torah is always understood as Torat chaim, the teaching of life. In these terrible times across Israel and Gaza, we pray for the teaching of life.

We pray for the safety of everyone, an end to the violence, a restoration of calm and coexistence across shared cities and neighbourhoods, and leadership which can bring hope for the future to both Israelis and Palestinians. Our hearts go out to everyone bereaved, wounded, and living in anxiety and fear. Our thoughts are for our family and friends, – and everyone.

The first of the Ten Commandments spoken at Sinai is ‘I am the Lord your God.’ Since the human being is created in God’s image, the echo of that commandment can be heard in every person. God calls out in the unique sanctity of each life. There is therefore no place in true faith for race hate, vigilante groups, be they Jewish, Muslim or any other, or for cruelty, injustice and humiliation.

I will never forget my short visit to Israel towards the end of the fighting in Gaza in 2014. I visited Tel Hashomer hospital and listened to wounded soldiers. A family whose son was killed showed me his Siddur, his prayer book. Handwritten on the opening pages were his hopes for a life of goodness and generosity. He’d been due to get married in just a few weeks.

I was taken to a hospital in East Jerusalem which was receiving wounded children from Gaza. I’ll never forget this searing experience. I asked an older man sitting by the bed of a child whether this was his son. ‘No,’ he said; the parents were dead, killed together with eighteen members of the family.

There is only more hurt in all this violence, another ring of pain and anger which will someday have to be overcome. Only respect for all human life, fairness and something to hope for can bring a truly safe future.

So I turn with respect and deep admiration to some of the messages sent in these last days. Here is a letter from The Abraham Initiatives:

We are planning a national campaign entitled: “Only Together.” The campaign, in Hebrew and Arabic, will feature images of Jews and Arabs in everyday life: shopping together; studying together at university; working together in hospitals fighting Covid-19. Our campaign will feature on the main TV channels…

Here is a joint statement sent by Rabbi Ofek Meir from headteachers of Jewish and Arab schools in Haifa:

Our role as educators is to raise the younger generation to be independent, critical thinkers, with values; and to be a generation who will create knowledge, opinions, narratives and culture; and who respect the other’s opinion, and who believe in the values ​​of equality and human rights. This is true anytime, anywhere, but especially now and in Haifa in particular.

This is from Rabbi Arik Ascherman, so often attacked for his defence of basic human justice:

One of the few positive developments has been the religious and other civil leaders who have begun to stand together and call for an end to the hate and violence that has led to Israeli Jews and Arabs lynching each other. Tonight around the country average Jewish and Arab citizens stood together to say no to the violence.

Here is from Rabbi Yoav Ende of the Masorti community of Hannaton:

Tonight, activists from Hannaton will join together with others from nearby communities and Arab villages for a joint demonstration of peace and hope;spreading a message of change, a message of a better Israel that can and must be here – showing that living together without conflict, without violence, is not only imperative, it is immediately achievable.

I see in my garden Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, three of whose daughters were killed in Gaza, standing by the apple tree I planted in their memory, taking a photograph of it to send to his other children. I often reread sections of his book I Shall Not Hate.

Dr Abuelaish, Rabbi Yoav Ende, may our prayers ascend together.

A cukoo and a foal

FoalIt happened almost at the same moment: we heard the call of the cuckoo and, as if that wasn’t joy enough, turned a corner on the hill path and saw the tiny foal lying in the heather. Holding tightly on to our dog, we watched the days-old animal muster control of its long thin legs and trot to its mother’s side.

I am grateful for this week in the Herefordshire hills, with the birdsong as my shacharit chorus, the blackbirds, pied wagtails, chaffinches and goldfinches, and with the dawn sun on the young leaves of oak and alder. The bluebells are out, the wild garlic too, primroses, cowslips and wood anemones. In almost every field (you’re back on the lead dogs, I’m afraid) are lambs.

There have been so many losses in our community, so much illness and worry. And beyond, across the world, all the cries for urgent help, and all the loneliness of grief. It sits in one’s heart, fills one’s thoughts and calls out in one’s prayers. And one can’t take people’s troubles away; at best all one can do is maybe for a brief time make wounds a little less painful to bear.

Therefore I am grateful for these days, not to get away, but rather to take strength, to experience the flow of something deeper, the resilience and renewal of life in the simplicity of its wonder, and feel it fill the soul with quiet restoration.

Shavuot, the celebration of God’s word at Sinai, is just over a week away. But that revelation is also every day, in the very current and essence of life. ‘Zeh Eli: This is my God,’ goes the song in the Torah: right here is your presence, in the dawn light shining in the river as it runs over the stones, in the green glow of young leaves and in the maple’s red.

I was privileged to listen to a dialogue between two great teachers of Bible, Professor Michael Fishbane and Professor Ellen Davis (a Christian scholar from whose book Scripture and Agriculture I often quote). They spoke on Psalm 19, which we read every shabbat morning. It opens with the sunrise and nature, turns to Torah and the wisdom of its teachings, and concludes with the soul’s desire to be pure of wrongdoing so that it can hear God’s voice.

That Psalm contains one of my favourite verses:

Day utters speech to day and night whispers knowledge to night;
There is no speech, there are no words, in which their voice is not heard.

Ellen Davis cited lines from a poem, a commentary, or perhaps in truth a contemporary Psalm in itself, by Malcolm Guite. He listens ‘In that still place where earth and heaven meet’ and understands that ‘these are all God’s words.’ (David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms, Psalm 19)

It’s one of the deepest joys of human life, overhearing as God speaks in the birdsong and the trees, sensing the oneness of all things, feeling that same spirit flow also through me as it flows through every life.

 

Lag Be’Omer

We are all deeply shocked by the news from Israel this morning. Over forty people have been crushed to death through crowd pressure during Lag Be’Omer celebrations in Miron in the Galilee. We do not yet know either the full extent or the causes of this appalling and heart-rending disaster. But a day which should mark healing and joy has become a tragedy.

Our hearts go out to the families of the bereaved and injured, to everyone traumatised, to all the responders and medics who did and are doing their utmost to help.

The Jewish response, the human response, and probably the only thing we can do from afar, is to give tzedakah. This is probably the only channel we currently have to express our sorrow and solidarity. It is not yet clear if there is a specific appeal for the victims. So please consider supporting any medical charity in Israel and / or contributing to any cause of healing.

We have also been asked by members of our community currently living in India to contribute to the British Asian Trust Emergency Appeal. It is providing desperately needed oxygen and life-saving equipment. You can donate here.

All we can do is be on the side of chaim vechesed, life and compassion.


Today is the morning of Lag Be’Omer, the day of healing which comes two thirds of the way between Pesach and Shavuot, Passover and Pentecost. It’s beautiful in the gardens today; the pear trees and apple trees are in blossom and the scented lilac, held back by April frosts, will soon be open.

The date has a particular resonance this year. According to tradition, it marked the end of a plague which killed thousands of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva in the second century. Though the pandemic afflicting us is not over, we hope this day may come to mark an irrevocable turning point back to life, community and hope. Wherever in the world Covid continues to spread, bringing sickness and grief, we must all do our utmost to help.

Strangely, the date has its own ancient lockdown story too. Its hero is Rabbi Shimeon bar Yohai, who died on Lag Be’Omer and who whose life is celebrated annually with bonfires and songs. He was forced to hide in a cave for twelve years together with his son Elazar, to escape the Roman authorities who had condemned him to death for criticising their works. It’s a long time to be shielding, in secret, from the entire world.

But it’s what transpires when he emerges from lockdown which is so strangely moving. He and his son are unable to come to terms with the ordinariness of the world. They see people ploughing and sowing. Little could be more innocent or necessary and yet the sight angers them:

‘They forsake the life of the world to come (the study of Torah), and busy themselves with the things of this world!’ (they exclaimed.) Wherever they looked, they destroyed. (Talmud, Shabbat 33b)

A voice comes down from heaven, or perhaps it expresses the misgivings in their own conscience, and says: ‘Have you come out to destroy my world? Go back to your cave!’

The world is beautiful. It is God’s world, sacred and wonderful. Nothing in nature is too simple to be cherished. Life, ordinary, everyday life, is a privilege. Nothing should be taken for granted.

Perhaps it’s the shock of the transition which was too much for Rabbi Shimeon and his son. They return to their cave to absorb these lockdown lessons, which we too have been taking to heart for these last fifteen months. After a year, the same voice which ordered them to go back calls them to come out of their cave. They see an old man running to honour the Sabbath with bunches of myrtle; the sight restores their spirits. His son remains troubled, but wherever Rabbi Shimeon now looks, he heals.

I am moved by what might today be termed this post traumatic stress growth. Lockdown leaves many wounds. In the legend Rabbi Shimeon is met by his father-in-law Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, who takes him to the bathhouse to treat his emaciated body. When he sees the cracks and chaps in his son-in-law’s skin from hiding for so long in a dry cave, he weeps and his falling tears sting the very sores he is trying to heal. It’s a tender scene of sorrow, hope and learning shared.

But what is decisive is that voice which Rabbi Shimeon hears when he first emerges back into life. It’s ‘my world,’ God’s world: life is to be loved and honoured; the ordinary is wondrous too; people’s foibles are to be tolerated and their devotion respected and admired….

What Earth Day, Stephen Lawrence, & the BoD’s Commission on Inclusivity have in common

‘Awareness was in exile.’ These words stuck in my mind through yesterday’s double date.

It was Earth Day, founded 51 years ago out of love of our planet.

It was Stephen Lawrence Day, established in 2018, ‘about the part we all play in creating a society in which everyone can flourish.’

Yesterday, too, the Board of Deputies of British Jews published the report by Stephen Bush of its Commission on Racial Inclusivity in the Jewish Community. Based on the testimony of numerous witnesses, its insights are heartfelt and incisive and its recommendations clear, specific and detailed. Every community and organisation should study it and make plans to implement its findings.

The day before yesterday, the killer of George Floyd was found guilty of murder.

‘Awareness is in exile’ is a catchphrase from the Jewish mystics. The Hebrew is ‘hada’at begalut’. Da’at is usually translated as knowledge but here it means more: perception, realisation, awareness. When we have da’at,our mind and conscience are alert. We recognise what we do to each other and the world. When da’at is in exile, we’re oblivious.

These mystics weren’t cocooned in a spiritual reverie of practical and social irrelevance. ‘Awareness is in exile’ was how they explained that archetypal landscape of injustice in the Torah: slavery in Egypt, the cruel, racist dehumanising of others.

Different as they are, Earth Day and Stephen Lawrence Day have a disturbing amount in common. Both have roots in a history of exploitation. In A Decolonial Ecology, Michael Ferdinand makes a disturbing link between colonising other peoples and colonising nature. He refers to

a certain way of inhabiting the earth, some believing themselves entitled to appropriate the earth for the benefit of a few… This is what I call “colonial habitation” – a violent way of inhabiting the earth, subjugating lands, humans, and non-humans to the desires of the coloniser.

I want to rebel against these harsh and discomfiting words. But are they untrue? I can hear Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (1730 -1787) in whose work I first encountered the words ‘awareness is in exile,’ saying to me: ‘Are you respectful towards the earth? Do you honour God for its gifts? Are you respectful towards all human beings, created in God’s image?’

There is a deep connection between the recommendations of the Board of Deputies’ report and President Biden’s call yesterday for the US to cut emissions by 2030 to under 50% of what they were in 2005. In the classical language of Judaism, these are calls to Teshuvah, recognition, rethinking and restoration. They require us to take responsibility and make reparation.

The report of the Commission on Racial Inclusivity is based on the statements of witnesses. At the core of this testimony is the failure to notice: what it feels like to be stopped time and again by security; to have one’s specific culture, from the historical and spiritual to the culinary, ignored; to hear hurtful remarks, usually unintentional but no less culpable for that, passed from pulpit and pew.

We hurt the earth, too, because we so often don’t notice, sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes because we feel we can’t help it, most often because we don’t realise, and sometimes wantonly.

The essential question now is what we can do to put things right. We need to bring a deeper awareness out of exile, back to the centre of our mind, heart and conscience.

Israel: the love, the fear, the frustration, the hope

Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, was brought forward to yesterday. But the official date is tomorrow, 5th Iyar, and seeing today is still only the 4th, I’m sticking with the subject. For, despite the wrongs committed against it, and sometimes by it, despite the ugly politics, with four inconclusive elections, Israel holds a place in my soul which even beautiful Scotland, nursing among its lochs my earliest childhood memories, cannot parallel.

Like many Jewish people, I’ve no single answer to why. It’s about ancient history; here Isaiah foresaw the day when nations would unite in righteousness. Here Rabbi Akiva taught that nothing matters more than concern for one’s neighbour. Here the rabbis dreamed and argued through every word of Torah. It’s about humility before the country’s achievements. It’s about frustration over the angers, the unhealed wounds of rejection and injustice, which hurt every sector of the population, each in different ways. It’s about fear; it’s about hope.

Scenes, beautiful, frightening, painful, pursue me. I’m focussing on the former.

It’s an unprepossessing entrance in South Tel Aviv. So the colour upstairs is like an embrace: baskets, small as nut-bowls, big enough to hide in, red and orange, blue and brilliant green. Here, Eritrean women weave and work, talk, cook, listen to music and earn just enough to feed their children. Refugees, robbed, raped in the deserts they fled across, find sanctuary here at Kuchinate.

I recall a not always edifying film about attitudes to refugees in Tel Aviv: a middle-aged man stands before an enormous vat of soup. He holds up his ladle: ‘This is Judaism,’ he says, ‘my parents fled too,’ then fills another bowl and hands it out.

It’s Jerusalem Marathon day, the year I hurt my back and couldn’t run. So Nicky and I watch a different race: the 100 metres for young people with mobility challenges. The children progress slowly, sometimes just one step a minute. A bevvy surrounds each one: family, nurses, maybe a physio. All faiths are here, all focussed on one matter: tender, practical love. This stamina is far deeper than out there on the 42k course.

It’s a path in the Jezreel valley. Yitzhak, over eighty, has silver hair and the wizened face of a truly kind man. Trained as a rabbi in Germany, he came here in the 1930’s. ‘Of course it gives satisfaction when the trees you planted in the bare hills give shade and the wild flowers grow.’

It’s East Jerusalem, and I’m looking at a street I know well, but until now from a very different angle. I’d rarely been in a Palestinian home before. This house was demolished, then rebuilt, and rebuilt again, by a joint Israeli – Palestinian team. It can be done. I’m reminded of sitting with the Imam in a village off the Jerusalem highway, with my close friend whom all the children run to greet: ‘Hey, Simon; Simon.’ I’ve been with the Imam many times; he died this Corona year. I don’t recall exactly, so I’m paraphrasing: ‘I’m often left feeling less than equal in this country. But the thirst for righteousness is here.’

It’s kilometre 34 in a year when I am marathon fit. Noach, who established Israel’s guide dog training school, shouts ‘Take the lead in your left,’ and, passing me golden retriever Harry, we run a hundred metres together.

If only the whole country, the entire region, had a faithful guide dog to see a safe way ahead!

Both times when I crossed that marathon finishing line I wept. I can’t explain why.

Symbol of resilience and hope

‘Do you often take trees for a walk?’

‘Yes,’ replied the man who was wheeling our community’s recently acquired ancient olive tree on a fork-lift trolley from the lorry. ‘Very popular, olive trees.’

Olive TreeThe tree, between 100 and 150 years old and raised as a semi-bonsai so that it grows gnarled and small, now sits in our synagogue gardens. It will be our testament, our living memorial to this plague year, these lockdown months. No wording has been agreed, but I think we’ll commission a plaque with an inscription something like:

For our losses and our sorrows,
our resilience and new growth.

For, according to rabbinic legend, when the olive tree was challenged as to why it wasn’t weeping over the destruction of Jerusalem long ago, it replied: ‘Can’t you see? I’m silently eating my heart out.’ Indeed, ‘our’ tree has such a gnarled and wizened trunk, with just such a hole in it.

Yet olives are extraordinarily resilient. ‘Cut down a tree and it can regrow,’ says Job in his distress, wishing human life was as capable of restoration. Maybe he was thinking of olive trees; they have extraordinary powers of regeneration.

Furthermore, when the thunder clouds come and the olive’s grey-green leaves are blasted by the wind, their undersides are revealed, shining like silver in the storm light.

It wasn’t by design that the tree arrived this week, which finds us now between commemoration of the Holocaust on Yom Hashoah and the struggle for and attainment of Israel’s independence on Yom Hazikaron and Yom ha’Atzma’ut. But the timing is apposite.

In these months in 1947 and 1948, tens of thousands out of the quarter of a million Jews who had somehow managed to survive across Europe, were quietly smuggled out of Displaced Persons’ Camps by the agents of Berichah and Aliyah Bet, escape and secret immigration. They were guided along harrowing routes across the Alps into Italy, where, from ports like Trieste, they were embarked on refitted ships to run the British blockade into Mandate Palestine and help establish the embryo state.

My father, whose Yahrzeit falls on Israel’s Independence Day, remembered how his youngest sister’s passport was taken every weekend to give to some such immigration as she struggled ashore in secret to provide a camouflage identity in case she was intercepted by the British authorities. A couple of days later it would mysteriously come back.

There can be few greater examples of resilience than this. The birth rate among Jewish survivors in the DP camps was among the highest in the world. The longing for life and future among those who had spent long years not in the valley of the shadow of death, but amidst the sight and smell of it every day, proved irrepressible.

Despite all sorrows, the ancient roots of the Jewish People fostered new growth. We mourn, and determine not just to continue, but to flourish.

Even more than an emblem of resilience, the olive tree has been a symbol of hope and peace for humankind ever since the dove laid a twig in Noah’s outstretched hand as he waited to leave the ark. God and the earth were reconciled

 

 

Beauty – a human need?

‘A well of living waters,’ ‘A fountain [feeding] gardens:’ these are just two of the images from the Song of Songs, which we read tomorrow. The Songs draw us into worlds of wonder, sensual and spiritual at once: ‘I am dark and beautiful;’ ‘Rise up, my beloved, for the winter has ended, the rains have passed and gone;’ ‘Come out into the fields.’

We need beauty in our lives.

Or is that a wrong thing to say?

We need food, shelter and health care. I’ve only to think of yesterday. My phone went mid-afternoon: ‘I got your number from the synagogue. Help me with food vouchers.’ I went out late to buy vegetables; near the shop is another refugee I know who’s sleeping in a tent and the cold days have returned. On the way back I listened to a report from Kenya: Vaccines aren’t yet part of our solution; we’ve only just got them and our roll out has scarcely begun.

When the world is like that, is beauty really a need?

Yes, I believe so. It’s not just the body which must live, but also the soul. Perhaps that’s why, of all the alluring images in the Song of Songs, – the fleeting deer, the small foxes eating the unripe grapes, the wild lilies, the bodies of lover and beloved, – it is those of flowing water which haunt me most: ‘A locked garden is my sister, my bride; a wave enclosed; a fountain sealed.’

It is as if we are taken to the very edge of life’s source, the secret elixir which flows through all things, pure, holy, beautiful, alluring, longed for, unpossessable, yet known in wonder.

It could be that this is the spirit which brings the composer the first apprehension of melody, the poet the magic sound of the opening words. Then, transported to a different realm of apprehension, they transpose this ‘airy nothing’ into music and rhythm and give it ‘a local habitation and a name.’ The Jewish mystics called this meeting space binah, intuition, deep wellspring, fountain on high; the zone of encounter where the unknowable holy spirit and human consciousness meet.

What would life be if we had no music, no poetry, no awe; if we could never watch the dawn, listen to a running stream, or note how a bird twitches this way and that before alighting on the grass? These are sacred matters; God is in these things.

I had always thought the link between Pesach, the festival of our freedom, and the Song of Songs was seasonal because both rejoice in the spring. The textual connections are tenuous.

But now I sense a deeper kinship. Humanity certainly needs physical freedom; freedom from tyranny, slavery, hunger, abuse and degradation. But we need the spirit’s liberty too, the transformation of tired, earthbound, task-bound, daily-round-bound body into the exaltation of wonder and joy, the excitement of beauty; beauty which is in this world and beyond this world at once.

Yes, I believe beauty is a human need. I doubt if it’s inscribed in the Universal Charter of Human Rights. But perhaps it should be, because cruelty and misery can still strive to deny it to us. Access to it should not be expensive: park, poem, sunlight, wild space, music, dew.

For the quest for beauty is not just a human right or need; it’s intrinsic to what makes us human.

 

Seder: a night of defiance, hope, solidarity and faith

Who would have thought that we would dip twice, a second year running, into a lockdown Seder? So what I want to say to everybody in our community and beyond, whether we are alone, or with closest family only; whether we have kept our health during the last year, or whether there has been illness; or whether, sadly, there is one more empty chair at the Seder: Chazak ve’ematz, may God give us strength and courage.

Seder is a night of defiance. Tyranny cannot ultimately destroy the human spirit. Slavery cannot conquer the quest for freedom. Injustice cannot crush the longing for justice. Cruelty cannot eradicate the urge to compassion. Misery cannot silence the impulse to sing. This is not to ignore the horrors perpetrated by wicked leaders and evil regimes throughout history, or to underestimate the impact of callousness and indifference. But the history of our own people, and of other faiths and nations, teaches that spirit is, in the long run and despite everything, mightier than power: ‘Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord.’

Seder is a night of hope. The Talmud insists that its story must be told mei’avdut lecheirut, from slavery to freedom. We know from the Torah that the way is long. In fact, the Torah closes with Moses looking down from the mountaintop onto the land into which he will not cross. This symbolises the unfinished journey of humankind. Slavery persists, all over the world; children are still sold and women trafficked. But we don’t give up working for the liberty of our own, and of all, people. Every single action which demands and protects, every kind word which restores and upholds, human dignity is a step on that road to redemption.

Seder is a night of solidarity. This may not take the ache out of being unable to sit together with our loved ones. But we are not alone. The Jewish People is with us, who, through over a hundred and twenty generations, have celebrated this night with the same longing and in virtually the same words. Our ancestors are with us; we feel our mothers’ and fathers’ presence in the commentaries and songs, the recipes and memories. Everyone across the world who longs for freedom and redemption is with us in spirit, just as we must be with them.

Seder is a night of faith. This faith is our trust in God’s guidance, in whichever way we understand it. This faith is also God’s trust in us, that we will honour and be true to the sacred spirit with which we, all humanity and all life, have been endowed.

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