The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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Praying with the sea and the wild deer

I have always loved Psalm 27, the special Elul and High Holyday meditation. But yesterday I got no further than the first three words: ‘To David: God, you are my light…’

The light was indeed wonderful across the far north west of Scotland. With glorious disregard for the dismal weather forecast, the sun shone bright across the mountains and the sea. So I set out for an early run and soon found myself alone on the half-mile curve of orange sand where the ocean yields to the hills and glens at Gairloch, There weren’t even any footprints, save the paw marks of a lucky dog who’d been out at dawn to race the white-crested waves.

It hadn’t been my plan when I set out, but I stopped to say shacharit. True, there weren’t the requisite ten people for the quorum. But how often in a life does one have for one’s prayers the company of the sand and the sea, the mountains, the forests, the clear air, the wind and the brightness of sunlight over the bay?

And God was here amidst this simple beauty, and it felt as if in response to my Shema, ‘God, you are one’, God was answering, ‘Yes, I am here; this is my home amidst this wonder. Recognise me; remember me wherever you are, and don’t let all your other thoughts block me out of your heart and mind.’

Later that day, at a roundabout where two major routes through the Highlands meet, we saw two young stags, calmly chewing the grasses and sedge by the road verge, unperturbed, contemptuous almost of all these high-velocity human interlopers; knowing with the same instinct with which they skipped nonchalantly over the tall fences, who is at home in these wild and wet lands and who is not; beautiful.

Had there been time I would have made them my companions in prayer for the afternoon minchah meditation. Instead, I simply looked. I didn’t look with my frequent worried eyes of ‘what’s expected of me and what am I supposed to do?’ I didn’t look with the selfish eyes of ‘what’s in it for me and mine?’ I just looked.

For those moments God was my light.

Now, back home in this Elul month of preparation before Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, a simple prayer flows through me; I’d like it to sing inside me like a clear mountain stream as it tumbles over rocks and through pebbles: Tahareni; purify me.

Help me to see to the quick of life, its wonder, its beauty. Give me eyes of openness and appreciation. Then may my attitude, my words and deeds, reflect back gratitude and kindness. May my response be care and consideration, and courageous compassion for this precious world and this brief time in which to know and cherish it.

God, be my light, to see all life in your light. For, though that light seems brighter and your song clearer where the small birds swoop over the shallow river as it flows from the loch to the sea, you are the heart of everything, all human life, all life.

Where we find comfort

Today is Tu B’Av, the 15th of the month of Av, the Jewish version of Valentine’s Day, when according to the Mishnah the daughters of Israel would dance in the vineyards and the young men would choose their life’s partners (not entirely egalitarian, but romantic nonetheless).

According to tradition, 15 Av marks the beginning of the grape harvest which continues until the eve of Yom Kippur, the other ‘dating date’ on which girls would go out to the vineyards and dance.

In Israel the day has been given a new name, Chag Ha’Ahavah, the Festival of Love. It is a special privilege to celebrate a wedding today.

Tomorrow is Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people’, declared the prophet Isaiah in words the timeless power of which inspired Martin Luther King’s famous speech on Capitol Hill:

Every valley shall be raised up and every mountain made low.
The glory of God will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

In Judaism there are two great sources of consolation: life itself, and values. War and persecution have never eroded the tenacious commitment to both. I often hear stories like these:

She met my father at a railway station in Poland in August 1945. They were both looking for surviving members of their families. They didn’t discover any, but they did find each other. She was just 18, he was 20.

 My father came here a refugee, alone. None of his achievements mattered to him a fraction as much as creating a new family. His loved to sit at the head of the Friday night table, his children and grandchildren around him.

Two weeks ago, I found myself overwhelmed by my own experience of consolation. It was Libbi’s graduation. As I watched her, with love and pride, it suddenly struck me that Lore, my mother, would have marked her graduation as a doctoral candidate in the very same location seventy years earlier. We’d named Libbi after her, giving her the same second name, Shulamit, and the same initials, L. S. When I got home, I looked out the photographs: the gown, the mortar board, – little had changed. Lore came to Britain as a refugee. She passed away young; she didn’t see her children grow up or marry, she never knew her grandchildren. Two generations had now passed, yet here we were: ‘Mir zaynen do’.

In his brief, warm welcome the Pro-Vice-Chancellor spoke of the 800-year-old ideals of the pursuit of truth and knowledge.

To Jews, these values are more ancient still, coupled with the commitment to carry out God’s will through justice and compassion. I saw them put into practice at Noam, our youth movement’s, pre-camp this week. There I witnessed four kinds of passion: a deep engagement in Jewish learning; an adventurous commitment to Tikkun Olam, making the world better for the outcast and neglected; an acute awareness that we must do far more for the wellbeing of our planet; a passion for shared, collaborative leadership.

In the love of life and the commitment to these ideals lies our consolation.

 

 

What we must learn from destruction

Tishah Be’Av, the bleak 25 hour fast of mourning on which we recall the disasters of Jewish history, poses a central question: What must we learn from destruction?

I grew up in a world which remembered war. One of my teachers had been decorated for bravery in the Royal Navy; another suffered continued mental torment from his years as a prisoner of the Japanese. My parents spoke about hunger, bombings, flight for their lives.

The generations who lived through the wars remembered; they strove for no more war.

In 1919 The League of Nations was created “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security.”

On 26 June, 1945, the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco:

We, The Peoples Of The United Nations, Determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind..

On 10 December 1948, in Paris, the United Nations adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming that

recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Too many leaders of our generation seem to have forgotten. National politics and international relations are increasingly characterized by self-interest, aggression, cunning, bigotry, folly and contempt for the lives of the weakest. Last night I heard Philip Pullman speak of an age of ‘mendacity, hypocrisy and stupidity’.

The rabbis of the Mishnah lived during the Roman persecutions, between the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135, both commemorated on Tishah Be’Av. They saw the war against Rome as leading only to self-destruction. The Talmud records that

There were sufficient supplies in Jerusalem to outlast a siege for 21 years. There were lawless gangsters there. The rabbis said to them: ‘Let’s go out and make peace’, but the former would not let them. They, in turn, said, ‘Let’s go and make war’. ‘It’s futile’, the rabbis responded’. The gangsters burnt down all the food stores and famine forced the people to fight.        Talmud, Gitin 56a

The Talmud’s overall verdict: ‘Needless hatred destroyed Jerusalem’.

Similar needless hatred could destroy the entire world today. That is why it is essential to learn from destruction.

What does it teach? Sadly, probably not that war is always wrong. There is a point when tyranny must be resisted, lest it swallow us all up. War remains a last resort.

We learn that we must try our utmost to live by the creative arts of peace and understanding. We learn that wanton aggression, boastfulness, vulgarity, cruelty, exploitation, injustice and contempt for life are evil, and exact a terrible price not just from their victims but, through the slow yet inevitable processes of time, on their perpetrators as well.

Above all, we learn to cherish life, all life, and the gifts of understanding, healing and creativity which lie within us all.

 

What defines our humanity?

I haven’t gone to the demonstrations in London today. It’s partly because of other commitments and partly because I don’t love demonstrations. But it’s chiefly because I want my whole life to be a protest against certain policies and attitudes advocated by President Trump, and not just by him alone, or Republicans only, or the US only, or solely by politicians. We must be activists against heartlessness not just somewhere, but everywhere.

The first chapter of Bereshit is my creed, the magnificent, misunderstood poem which opens the Hebrew Bible. It’s not a discredited attempt at the history of the universe, but a beautiful declaration of values:

light and dark, land and water, God sees that they are good;
grasses, flowers and trees, God sees that they are good
stars and planets, fishes, birds and animals, God sees that they are good;
human beings created equal in God’s image,
endowed with freedom, imagination and conscience, God sees that they are good.

This remarkable creation, vital, interconnected, interdependent, is henceforth entrusted to our hands. Our humanity is defined by how we honour that trust. Truly to be human is to respect nature, honour all life and stand up for the humanity of others.

Yesterday I attended a ceremony at Hoop Lane Cemetery, where many refugees from Nazi Germany lie buried, to dedicate plaques in honour of courageous rescuers. Among them were: Irena Sendler, the young Polish social worker who smuggled countless people out of the Warsaw Ghetto; Sir Nicholas Winton, who, with Trevor Chadwick, brought more than six hundred children to Britain; Ho Feng Shan, the Chinese consul general in Vienna who enabled thousands to flee to Shanghai.

The night before, I was with Refugee Tales. Through walking together, telling their stories and the power of music, they campaign against the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. I was asked to write one of their Tales this year; it’s about S, who fled for his life from country X. Although as ‘a highly skilled migrant’ he had permission to work here, he was peremptorily detained and sent to Harmondsworth (‘At first it looks beautiful – from the outside; inside it’s really a prison’).

I saw a man sobbing. He’d been in detention for six months: “When I was brought here my girlfriend was pregnant. Meanwhile she’s given birth. I haven’t ever seen our baby”. Another man tried to kill himself, – out of despair. He’d been inside for over a year. He didn’t understand what it was that the authorities were waiting for.

Tomorrow is Sebrenica Shabbat, in memory and in outrage over the fate of the thousands of Muslim men and boys massacred in July 1995, and all the innocent people slaughtered, mutilated and made to ‘disappear’, in the brutal Bosnian war. Women often still do not know the fate of husbands and sons.

God of mercy… we remember with sorrow…
The young dreams that never came to fruition,
The old age that was not spent with family and friends. (Prayer by Mehri Niknam)

Today is the first of Av, the beginning of the nine days of mourning leading to the bitter fast of the Ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem and Jewish communities across Europe throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

It is held that the Messiah is born on that day of fasting and sorrow. We should take this personally: what is there redemptive within us, our societies and our collective humanity, which we must learn from so much suffering and cruelty and put into practice in our lives.

The issues which define our humanity are not all over the oceans. They are here in Europe too, in our cities, at our doorstep, in our hearts.

 

Happy 70th Birthday, NHS

I’m glad to live in country which has a National Health Service. It’s an institution of which Britain is justly proud, and I wish it (one day late) a happy seventieth birthday.

I visit many hospitals and listen to people describing their experiences. There are certainly complaints: long waits, inefficiency, poor communication, late diagnoses. But most of the feedback is deeply appreciative. I’ll never forget the mother who said at the funeral of her seven-year-old daughter who died, tragically, from cancer: ‘If anyone has a go at the National Health Service I shall personally attack them. They’ve been amazing.’

I have certainly seen staff who’ve been brash or unforthcoming. But I have encountered far, far more kindness, often in circumstances where nurses and doctors are under great pressure. I’ve sometimes wondered who looks after them, who listens when they’re worried whether they responded best in a critical situation, or when they’re worn-out from long hours and too little back-up. I try not to leave a hospital without stopping to thank at least one nurse, doctor, physio, cleaner or volunteer. It’s essential to appreciate people who put such heart into what they do.

The NHS represents values close to the soul of Judaism. Care for the sick is understood as Imitation Dei, imitating God, who visited Abraham in his affliction. Hesed, loving-kindness, is the most sacred human quality. Indeed, I’ve often heard patients say ‘The nurses here are angels’.

The Talmud teaches us not to settle in a town which lacks any of ten essential amenities. Four concern health: bath-house, toilet, doctor and blood-letter. (Allowances must be made for context: the latter was a well-regarded healer two millennia ago.) Public hygiene and medical care, preventative and curative, emerge as the key requirements. They, alongside a system of justice, charity and education, define what ‘civilisation’ means.

No decent Jewish community has ever lacked a Kuppat Cholim, a fund to cover medical costs for those who can’t afford them. It’s been argued that it is from institutions like these, originating in Jewish, Christian and Muslim practice, that the core values of the NHS, free at the point of delivery and available to all, have emerged. Kuppat Cholim is naturally at the heart of health care in Israel.

The practice of medicine has never been viewed in Judaism as ‘interfering with God’, the ultimate healer, but as participation in the sacred art of caring for the human body and the spirit, as expressed in the Physicians Prayer attributed to Maimonides (1135 – 1204):

I am about to apply myself to the duties of my profession. Support me, Almighty God, in these great labors so that they benefit humankind, because without your help even the smallest thing cannot succeed. Inspire me with love for my art and for your creatures…

The Talmud teaches that God’s presence rests above the pillow of the sick. Visitors should not therefore stand looming over, but sit on a level with, the person who’s ill. To place oneself above the patient is like making oneself higher than God. It’s profound advice about bedside manner. We are on a level; it’s our shared vulnerability, as well as compassion, which teaches us to care. No amount of injections or tablets can immunize us to mortality.

So, thank you, everyone who works for the National Health Service, all who devote their lives to caring and curing, healing and making whole.

Happy 70th birthday NHS. May you be adequately funded, fully staffed, properly equipped, and appreciated as you deserve.

 

What the donkey saw

Before we moved home, the way back from the synagogue lead through the local park which was open all the time. Our previous dog Safi loved this part of the walk. But one pitch dark night he lay down at the entrance and flatly refused to move. ‘You sense something wrong,’ I thought and, although for myself I could see nothing amiss, I took his advice and chose a different route.

In tomorrow’s Torah reading, Balaam’s donkey sees what he, the famous seer who commands a high fee to foresee the future, cannot. Three times the donkey ‘sees’ and three times Balaam punishes her, for what proves to be his own blindness.

What in life do we notice; what do we fail to perceive?

In A Passage to India two of E M Forster’s very British characters ask themselves, bewildered by a culture they cannot fathom:

Were there worlds beyond which they could never touch, or did all that is possible enter their consciousness?

Not everything possible enters our awareness and, like Balaam, we often punish those who inconvenience us with their deeper, or more challenging, perceptions.

God eventually makes Balaam’s donkey speak, a miracle, say the rabbis (who were generally suspicious of such supernatural interventions) prepared since the six days of creation. Balaam seems not the least surprised and enters unperturbed into a domestic quarrel with his ass.

One wonders what else the poor animal in her long experience of humility and humiliation might have known but never expressed. Perhaps, in an analogous manner, those wiser around us refrain from telling us what they understand all too well, realising that we will only react in defensive anger to the futile attempt to make us understand. Why should they suffer the snub of our insensitivity?

In the end God performs a second opening, this time of Balaam’s eyes. The seer finally sees. For most of us, the challenge of deepening our faculties of perception not just in our eyes but in our hearts, takes far longer. It belongs to the essence of our life’s journey.

Interestingly, neither of Hebrew’s two words for ‘open’ is used here, neither petach, often employed to describe the opening of the heart, nor pekach, the unveiling of the eyes in deeper discernment.

Rather, God ‘revealed’ to Balaam his own eyes. He finally notices what stands right before him, the angel blocking his path which his donkey had long noted – and taken those evasive steps to avoid which had so irritated her owner.

‘Reveal’ is a powerful term to use for so basic a perception. But revelation often lies in the simplest things. ‘I saw it, but didn’t really see; I looked, but never noticed’: we could all apply such sentences to ourselves, many times over.

There’s wonder in such moments of perception, like the friend who was told by the previous gardener: ‘After three months working here you’ll see kingfishers’, and, literally on the day he completed his third month, he saw them, and not because there’d been no kingfishers there before.

There’s compassion in such deeper comprehension, as when we begin to see into life in a manner we hadn’t before, like Moses, whose existence was turned inside out when he ‘saw into’ the sufferings of the slaves who’d been labouring next to the palace all the time. Or like the man who told me that when he was supporting his wife through her illness whole worlds opened up before them, offers of help, addresses to turn to, commiseration, encouragement. Then, he said, he saw into the lives of others with a gentler and kinder perception which, he confessed, he hadn’t found in himself before.

Open my heart, reveal my eyes, to see and feel the world with wonder and compassion

 

‘If this is a man?’ Primo Levi, the Torah, refugees…

If This Is A Man, the searing question which forms the title of Primo Levi’s first and most powerful testimony, has never gone away.

It points in two directions. It focuses on the victims. Can wretchedness grind the humanity out of a human being?

Consider whether this is a man…
Who labours in mud / Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread / Who dies at a yes or no. (Primo Levi: Shema)

An American colleague, Menachem Creditor, outraged at the separation of families, wrote a personal prayer for last Wednesday’s International Refugee Day:

God, we know there is little chance these poor children, newly huddled tender masses, will be reunited with their parents, little chance these terrorized parents will hold their children again…

I remember standing some years ago at the Hoek of Holland with ‘children’ who travelled that way on the Kindertransport, at the unveiling of a memorial. ‘It was an act of mercy’ one of them said. ‘And it was an act of cruelty: think of the parents…’

Levi’s question focuses equally on the perpetrators. Are we still human if we mock, beat, and kill? Is it human to allow other human beings to drown, starve, weep in lonely desperation?

The three simple words ‘this’, ‘Torah’, and ‘Adam’ – occur twice in immediate sequence in the Hebrew Bible. Together they form the statement: ‘This is the teaching of what it means to be human’. What is that teaching?

The first time the words appear together is in the description of ritual impurity occasioned by death: ‘This is the Torah, when a man dies in the tent’ (Numbers 19:14). But their meaning is incomparably broader that that context: ‘This is the teaching for humans who are mortal’.

The inference could be that we needn’t bother. We all die in the end, so why make an effort? Neither the Bible, Jewish wisdom, any other faith, nor our plain humanity has ever understood matters that way.

We are physical, vulnerable, mortal beings. We get hungry, lonely and frightened. We want comfort, company, community. If these are our needs, they must be those of everyone else also. So what are we going to do about it? Just as we hate others doing nothing when we suffer, so we must not do nothing when others are in trouble:

Never say: “What am I and what difference can my actions make?” Everyone needs to understand, know, and fix firmly in their heart that all their thoughts, words and actions are never lost…Every one of them makes an impact… (Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin)

He was thinking of the second sequence of the three words, ‘this’, ‘Torah’ and ‘man’. This time the context is a basic existential question posed by King David: ‘Who am I?’ he asks God. How come I’m the recipient of so much privilege? Is ‘this the Torah of the human being, Lord God…’? (2 Samuel 7:18-19)

His words point to the other facet of mortal existence: to be human is to partake of God. To live is to embody a fragment of divine life; to feel life’s boundlessness flows through our consciousness; to apprehend wonder, know love and experience the fathomlessness of pity. We are mortals yet traversed and transformed by what is immortal.

If so, how can we let the lives of others be stymied by misery and their children be prevented from reaching out in joy and wonder towards the world?

 

A special day in the life of a rabbi

My Tuesday touched on almost everything I care about most deeply. I wouldn’t normally write up my dairy, but these are values I hope we can all work together to make real.

10.00am, Mill Hill: a meeting of councillor, community and faith leaders, two days before the anniversary of the Grenfell fire, ten days before the Great Get Together in memory of Jo Cox, to learn to work together. Emily, now studying to be a C of E minister, describes how she became the landlady of a pub in Colindale and transforming it from a place known for violence into a beloved local hub. ‘Find the dormant talent’, she says: they’ll come forward, musicians, magicians, gardeners…. She’s the opposite of what the Mayor of London called ‘A culture of institutional indifference’.

12.30, Victoria Station: coffee with broadcaster, naturalist Mary Colwell. She walked 500 miles for curlews, the emblematic bird whose haunting song cries out the decline of once rich meadowlands. Her book Curlew Moon shows her knowledge, faith and passion for this beautiful world. Intensive farming is robbery of the land: we can’t just take and take again, as if the earth has no inner life and its creatures don’t matter. I think of the Torah: ‘The land is Mine’ says God. The mystics teaching that one life runs through all existence; what we destroy is always also part of our own spirit. A pragmatist, Mary campaigns for the best compromise for farmers, wildlife, food production: creation must live together.

2.00, Charing Cross: more coffee with Marie van der Zyl, new President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Her life has given her a special and profound commitment to the diversity of the community. We too discuss togetherness: can we create a Street Festival of Judaism? Can we advance Eco-Synagogue, supported by all denominations from Liberal to the Chief Rabbi? How do we work with friends, and antagonists, of other faiths and none? In a crisis, God forbid, could all British Jewish clergy say psalms together: ‘From the depths I call to you, God’?

(Another chance to get running practice; hate being late.)

3.30, St Pauls: (refusing coffee) meeting Graham, advisor to the Islamic Finance Council and the Church of Scotland, who’re working on a declaration of values. It speaks of ‘Stewardship’, ‘Love of the Neighbour’, ‘Justice and Equity’. ‘Could there be a Jewish voice?’ he asks. ‘It’s already there,’ I say, the unnamed source of these very principles. He smiles and nods: that’s why he’s invited me. My first request is to change ‘Old Testament’ to ‘Hebrew Bible’. No-interest loans to the poorest, micro-finance, supporting the earth which supports us: how can faiths together make these ideals real?

4.30, tea in a quiet corner. I try to study the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto’s sermon on chukkah, God’s laws beyond the grasp of human rationale. There are times, he writes, when reason cannot help us. The mind must immerse itself in the purifying waters of the sacred. Only faith can strengthen and console us…But my phone goes; a question about wedding plans; another about conversion; a call from Refugees at Home.

6.30, meeting Nicky in the Strand to celebrate Tim Robertson’s appointment as Chief Executive of the Anne Frank Trust. His speech is outstanding: this would have been Anne’s 89th birthday, he notes, reading from the diary about her hope in life…He explains the experiences which motivate him to lead the Trust in teaching against racism across the UK: his years of work in child protection, love of literature and nature (Wordsworth first), commitment to education, religious practice as a Quaker (keen to visit our synagogue).

Nicky and I travel home together. Then it’s back to the desk. I haven’t prepared tomorrow’s teaching. I need to make a personal list of people who are ill. But I’ve a full heart, the gift of so many courageous, innovative people, who live the values I passionately care for too.

Bedtime: ‘Not yet!’ says Mitzpah the dog, waiting eagerly for his night-walk.

 

 

The goodness in bread

Food is wonderful; but it takes a lot to beat a really good loaf of bread. Nothing quite equals a hunk of challah on Shabbat or a good thick slice of granary on a weekday. Even the dog always wants to share.

The Torah had much to say about dough, long before Masterchef made cooking cool, or The Great British Bake-Off turned the kitchen into a theatre for brilliance and bravado:

When you eat the bread of the land, raise a gift up to God (Numbers 15:19)

That gift is the original challah, which in the Biblical context means the portion of dough given to the priests. Like the first wool from the sheep, it was a tax for the civil service, as the priests effectively were while the Temple still stood.

I fondly remember studying the relevant tractate of the Mishnah with Libbi for her Bat mitzvah. Appropriately titled ‘Challah’, it discusses what grains are used for bread, what percentage of dough is taken, and, our favourite passage, how, if shepherds bake specially and solely for their dogs, no challah is given; whereas if they share the bread with their much-deserving hounds the gift for the priests must be taken.

Nowadays, only a residual of the rite remains: a blessing for ‘separating challah from the dough’ before a small portion is put aside in the oven to burn.

But bread remains essential, and we should still ‘raise up a gift’ when we eat it.

In Biblical times, the corners of the fields, fallen ears and forgotten sheaves were all left for the poor, refugees and the indigent old. The Mishnah tells how they would wait patiently for the harvest, so that they could glean.

I wish we too left corners in our fields, not because the hungry in today’s world are going to go there and wait, but for the meadow birds, for the animals vanishing for want of long grass, wild flowers and grain. The world would be desolate without bees or birdsong, in substance and in soul.

I wish every supermarket, bakery, restaurant and coffee shop, where most of us regularly buy more than plenty, had a clear sign on every counter which said: ‘It’s an ancient and just practice to give a small percentage of what you spend on yourself for those who have no food’. Most of us would give, at least some of the time.

I wish I said the blessing ‘hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz – who brings forth bread from the earth’ more sincerely more often. Blessing is recognition. When we bless one another, we notice and encourage the good within us; when we bless God for bread, we acknowledge that it’s not ours solely by right, but as a gift. ‘The earth is God’s’, teaches the Talmud; blessing is the expression of gratitude which makes us fit to enjoy it.

I’m glad so many in our communities cook for destitute asylum seekers, for friends, and strangers, who are ill, grieving, or under stress; and that we have our ‘challah project’ in which whole teams bake challot every week and take them to people’s homes before Shabbat, to say ‘we’re thinking of you’, in special moments of sadness or joy.

I’ll never forget how years ago, when I walked north along the Rhine carrying the flame from my grandfather’s former synagogue in Frankfurt with which to light the Eternal Lamp in our new building, my blood sugar ran low. Being diabetic, I urgently had to find the nearest source of food. The only place within miles was a castle with an exclusive restaurant. Seeing me, mud-covered, with a backpack and a dog, the waiter simply turned and disappeared. I couldn’t blame him and was about to leave, when he came back with a basket filled with many kinds of bread and fruit. ‘No’, he said as I made to pay, ‘It’s for your pilgrimage’.

 

My lamp is in your hands

Beha’alotecha – the opening word of this week’s Torah reading – matters to me, troubles me and moves me.

‘When you kindle the lamps’ doesn’t quite capture the subtlety of the Hebrew. A precise translation is ‘When you cause the lamps to ascend’. The reference is to the daily task of replenishing and lighting of the seven branched Menorah in the holy precincts of the Tabernacle.

But a pithy Midrash extends the meaning to the entire expanse of life: ‘Neri beyadecha, venerecha beyadi: My lamp is in your hands; your lamp is in mine’. The speaker is God and the lamp referred to here is every soul and spirit, the Temple of each life. It burns with the sacred vitality of everything which breaths; it illumines to our heart and conscience the path we are to walk.

‘My lamp is in your hands’ speaks of the responsibility we have, first and foremost, to what is most precious in our own self. Etti Hilesum understood this intuitively. After receiving the dreaded deportation order which forced her to leave her beloved Amsterdam, she wrote in her diary:

[T]hat is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. (July 1942)

But the lamp in our hands is also God’s sacred presence in the life of others. That light often, maybe all too often, rests in the cusp of our trust, – in our partner, children, friends, the animals, even the breathing trees. The destiny of this entire living, breathing world has fallen within our power and become our constant responsibility. It lies within our capability to kill, maim, belittle, degrade, uproot, destroy; to love, nurture, respect, inspire and plant. If God is present in all that lives, then, too, a part of God lies within the circumference of our capacity to hurt.

That is why beha’alotecha, causing the flame on the lamp to ascend is so critically important. Our task is not to extinguish or diminish its light, but to enable the flame of life to burn more purely and more truly. Every deed of kindness, the most ordinary, in-the-street, any-time-of-day-or-night goodness, is a curling of the hands around the light of a friend, child, frightened animal, bird with a wounded wing. Every act of wanton cruelty spits on the flame of another being’s soul.

It is the challenge of living by this knowledge, this reality, which is captured in the Hebrew word for faith, emunah. It does not refer to a set of mental convictions, but to a way of life, an approach to every interaction deriving from a heartfelt respect for the vulnerability of all beings, from a daily humility before the simple task of honouring all life, its tenderness, wounds and dreams.

From where does the inspiration come even to try to live in this manner? ‘Your lamp is in my hands’, says God. One feels this – in quiet moments among the trees, in the silence of listening, the quiet of meditative prayer, in noticing a kindness. In the music of such moments our own inner flame is restored:

For the quiet joy of breathing and of living,
Tell me, to whom have I to give my thanks?
(Osip Mandestam: Stone, 8, trans. R. H. Morrison)

 That’s what existence is for: to cause the flame of the lamp, in ourselves, those we love, life itself, to ascend.

 

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