The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

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Humankind and Nature Together

There are hours when I’m troubled with mourning, not for the past but the future. It isn’t just fear for humanity, for a world from which, in Matthew Arnold’s warning words, faith has withdrawn like an ebbing tide and ‘ignorant armies clash by night’. It’s fear for the future of nature itself, of beauty and awe, of birdsong and the sound of the wind in the woods and the mountain crags.

The Hebrew Bible opens with an ode to the wonder of creation. Humankind is not made alone, but fashioned to the rhythm of dawn and twilight, surrounded by the abundance of trees and grasses, set amidst the companionship of the birds and animals. I worry, often: will we destroy all this? Will not just Noah’s dove, but all the birds in existence ‘find no resting for the soles of their feet’ in our concrete agglomerations? What will happen then to the human soul, malnourished without the wildlands and the animals?

That’s why I linger on our last nights on Scottish holidays, staring out at the blackening sea, listening to the seabirds and waders who cry out like a piercing prayer in the thickening light:

Music, as desolate, as beautiful

as your loved places,

mountainy marshes and glistening mudflats

by the stealthy sea

                   Norman MacCaig, ‘Curlew’ in Mary Colwell, ‘Curlew Moon’

God worries that ‘It’s not good for man to be alone’. I imagine God had not just to human partnership, but this strange kinship with all that lives which those who love nature know.

That is why I appreciate the Torah’s description of the sabbatical cycle. In the seventh year, when the land is left fallow and all have equal rights to whatever it naturally brings forth, the border fences come down. The rich are forbidden to exclude the poor. ‘My’ dissolves into ‘our’. For one year in seven, it’s not ‘my land’ but ‘our land’. Stranger and citizen have equal access. They cannot be banned from anyone’s ‘territory’ because the sole proprietor is God, and my fellow human being is as much God’s creation as I am.

Nor does community comprise only humans: wild and domestic animals are entitled to roam the land, and eat. It is a return, temporary for sure, symbolic perhaps, but a return nevertheless to the full community of creation.

Sunday is Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. I’ll never forget how my father woke me, a boy of nine, in the middle of the night, to tell me Israel had recaptured the Old City. He bitterly remembered its loss in 1948; he was there. Some regard the date as solely about territory. Kehillat Zion, the remarkable open and inclusive community led by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum is celebrating more profoundly, by listening to voices from the different peoples of the city, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, Bucharan, Yemenite. I imagine that’s what the Psalmist meant in describing Jerusalem as ‘shechubrah lah yachdav, – united all together’, in one fellowship before God.

Alongside the earthy city, Judaism speaks of a ‘heavenly Jerusalem’, a dream, an ideal. It’s that Jerusalem which William Blake sung of creating (with only metaphorical bows and spears) ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’. In that Jerusalem there will be space for all. There will be wild places too, forests, mountains, wet lands, meadows. No one will be persecuted; no species will become extinct; birdsong will not cease. Until we have created it, in Israel, England, anywhere, there will be no completer resting for our soul.

Between cruelty and wonder: how we treat life

I’ve woken up with a divided spirit these last few days.

I go out into the garden we are privileged to care for, in this most beautiful of seasons, and feel wonder. Already this morning I’ve seen sparrows, great tits, blue tits, parakeets and a jay. I know the blackbirds are eating the raisins I spread on the lawn. Maybe I’ll get another glimpse of the wren I spotted earlier. Yesterday a woodpecker came to the feeder opposite the window of my study; I stopped all else and watched.

There are bluebells, and the rhododendrons, my favourite, are stunning. When I was a small boy in Scotland, our neighbours had a huge rhododendron. I would put the fallen pink white flowers like little bells over my fingers and feel the drops of dew inside them run down my hands. I think of this now as a blessing from life itself, which is exactly what it was.

Kadosh, ‘holy’, is the dominant word in the sections of the Torah we are currently reading: Be holy, because I, your God, am holy’. The sacred spirit of life flows through all existence, life’s secret essence from God, Chei ha’olamim, life of all worlds. It is not directly perceptible. Since we never hear or see it, we may conclude that it doesn’t exist. Today we can describe in accurate materialist terms the cause of virtually all phenomena. We don’t need mystery, or holiness, to explain the inexplicable away. But if we choose to live without sensitivity to life’s spirit we have less space for reverence, wonder, humility and joy. Our life and our world are diminished.

The other part of me wakes up reflecting on yesterday’s interactions. In one single day this week I spoke to three people, each of whom had been tortured, each in a different country. One of them, in response to a question about whether she now had sufficient support, simply put her head in her hands and wept.

Nicky and I have been watching late at night the BBC’s serialisation of Wilkie Collins’s gripping novel, The Woman in White. The subtle and brilliant portrayal of cruelty disturbs me greatly. I’ve witnessed several times the aftermath of pain when men have calculatedly, unashamedly, instrumentalised, humiliated, and treated with cunning physical and emotional contempt women, sometimes children, with little power to evade their control.

Nature, too, is full of cruelty. I was driving to a memorial service for a young woman murdered by her husband when right in front of me a bird of prey flew down and snatched from the verges a helpless rabbit which it carried away, writhing in its claws. The image abides with me, an evil emblem.

The opposite of honouring life’s sanctity is desecration, hillul. The Torah enjoins us not to desecrate God’s holy name. This isn’t about ritual piety. It’s an appeal to recognise and respect God’s presence in all life, human life first and foremost, but also throughout creation.

Any act, however small, which enhances the awareness of life’s value is a sanctification of God’s name, Kiddush Hashem. Any act which shows contempt for life’s sacred value is a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

When any of us behaves with the intention to harm, with deliberate cruelty, or negligent callousness, we strip life of its beauty and void it of its preciousness. When any of us tries to nurture, cherish, honour, heal and love life in any of its forms, we deepen the presence of reverence and wonder. We honour the sacred spirit which flows through all life.

There is little, if any, space for neutrality.

It is clear what we are here on earth to do.

 

A specifically rabbinic response to racism and antisemitism

I have a full heart after speaking at the synagogue of my friend, companion and colleague Marc Soloway, about my book My Dear Ones: One Family and The Final Solution. I think of the love my great-grandmother had for her children, the love and faith she carried in her heart through all the terrible years. She began even her last postcard, from Theresienstadt, with the words ‘My Dear Ones’. Life is precious and the bonds of love are ‘powerful as death’.

That is why hatred is such a sin against humanity, both that of the person who is hated, and of the person who harbours hate. ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart’, the Torah commands. The word ‘brother’ must be understood as comprehensive and inclusive. It is not okay to hate people because they are white, because they are black, because they are Jewish or Muslim. When we hate others because of the bare fact of their religion, nationality or identity, we destroy each other; we denigrate them and defile ourselves. That is why the rhetoric of racism, antisemitism and nationalist and religious abuse is so dangerous and must be countered, in whatever form or forum it is expressed.

This week the Board of Deputies of British Jews met with Jeremy Corbyn. This followed a powerful Parliamentary debate in which John Mann spoke movingly about the threats to his family while chairing the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, – online attacks, a dead bird in the post.  Meanwhile communal action by Jews and those in solidarity with us has once again been branded a ‘Corbyn smear’. In fact, many of those who dare to raise these challenging issues are, or wish to be, Labour supporters, and several Jewish Labour MPs and local party activists have received appalling abuse.

The Board and the Jewish Leadership Council welcomed Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘personal involvement in the discussion’ and his further comments recognising and apologising for antisemitism in the Labour Party. But they found the meeting ‘a missed opportunity’; none of the six action points they had set out in order to establish a rigorous, unambiguous and transparent policy were agreed.

Antisemitism is not, of course, solely a province of the left. Across parts of Europe, and the globe, it is once again a weapon of the far right. For yet others it is simply a politically expedient tool, to be exploited as a cynical instrument of self-interest. Nor are Jews alone in facing a rise of racist attack in an increasingly aggressive and dangerous world.

Saying we have no place for antisemitism and racism is not enough. Professing ideological opposition (‘I don’t believe in racism, so how can I be a racist’) may be little more than self-deceit. It is our actions, far more than our words, which show who we are.

So what must we do to stand up both for ourselves and other vulnerable groups? It is not my role to determine what must be done politically and legally. Rather, as a rabbi, I want to stress a specific Jewish response. It derives from an incident in the Talmud on which I often reflect. During the Roman persecutions in the early second century Rabbi Pappos comes upon Rabbi Akiva, who is teaching Torah in public, an activity strictly forbidden by the Roman rulers. ‘Desist’, Pappos insists. Rabbi Akiva refuses. He is promptly caught and imprisoned. Shortly afterwards Pappos is also incarcerated. (Tyrants will always find reasons for persecuting their ‘others’) ‘Happy are you Akiva’, Pappos tells him when he meets him in prison, ‘At least you were caught for something’.

In standing up against antisemitism and racism we should know who we are. I do not mean this in an arrogant manner. Rather we should seek strength in knowing and living what it means to be Jewish; by making ourselves more deeply literate in our history and faith, studying our texts, knowing the language of our traditions, exploring and expanding our spirituality, participating in our communities and living our values. In this way we stand up for our Judaism and for humanity in general, because to know our Judaism is to know that we and every other human being created in God’s image, of unique and special value, never to be hated, but protected and cherished in his or her particular dignity.

 

After Yom Ha’Atzmaut: Humanity and Hope

Many of us reach this Shabbat with full and thin-skinned hearts after ten days of remembrance and celebration: Yom HaShaoh, Yom HaZikaron, on which Israel remembers over 23,000 dead, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s 70th Day of Independence.

Many searing words have been said. In our own community, two hundred of us listened in gripping silence as six courageous teenagers from Shlomi in the North of Israel, invited by the UJIA, spoke in fluent, eloquent English, each sentence learnt by heart, of the losses the country recalls, and of their own fears and aspirations, as they approach the age of army service. Our hearts go out to them in all their hopes for a life of peace and safety.

In Israel, David Grossman addressed a Remembrance ceremony intended for all, Israeli and Palestinian bereaved as well as those in solidarity with them, at a gathering attended by thousands. He spoke from personal grief, ‘from the fragile place that vividly remembers the existential fear, as well as the strong hope that now, finally, we have come home’. He spoke as a person proud of Israel’s achievements, ambitious and determined for the country’s true values, and as a consummate artist of the Hebrew language.

He spoke as a man ‘who resists rage and hate’ because it takes away ‘living contact with my son’, his Uri, killed in Lebanon in 2006. He spoke as one ‘doomed to touch reality through an open wound’. From out of those wounds, he spoke with frank and forthright humanity of his hopes for an end to injustice and violence on both sides, when Israelis and Palestinians could stand side by side without fear and share in their respective anthems the line “To be a free nation in our land”.

His painful, challenging, hopeful words reminded me of Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish who visited our garden after speaking in our Synagogue about his book I Shall Not Hate. He photographed the apple tree my wife and I planted in memory of his daughters, Bessan, Aya and Mayar, killed in Gaza. He wrote to us afterwards that he could see his three girls there in the garden, standing beside that tree.

These anniversaries occur at a time when cruelty and brutality are reasserting themselves across the world. The guiding values of liberal democracy are themselves in danger: tolerance, decency, forbearance, the aspiration toward social justice, and fair-minded, independent institutions to safeguard them.

Until recently, many of us took almost for granted the illusion that these values would assure humanity a journey onward and upward, hopeful, towards the ever better. Now they are under threat, from brutal attacks by nihilist fundamentalists like ISIS, from the amoral calculations of cunning leaders with blatant contempt for life, and from heartlessness within our own societies.

Here in Britain we should be ashamed of the treatment of the Windrush generation, as the implications of creating a ‘hostile environment’ become apparent in the impact on octogenarians, the sick, those who want to spend their lives with their families in the land where they’ve lived for decades. In Israel, we as Jews should stand alongside those who refuse to be silent at the gap between the love of the stranger emphasised in the Torah and the threatened deportation of thousands of asylum seekers. These concerns are symptoms, perhaps only small symptoms, in countries which essentially committed to justice and fairness, of a far crueller world liable to close in about us.

Therefore, humanity matters. Every person matters. Every kindness matters, every act of justice, every word, gesture and demonstration of solidarity which affirms the dignity and worth of life. In this endeavour, which is the ultimate purpose and meaning of our lives, we are committed first to those closest to us, our community, our people, Israel, the UK, but also to all humanity, every specific, individual before us. What denigrates one person, demeans us all. What enhances the life of one person, affirms the value of us all.

We pray for the wellbeing of Israel, of this country and of the world.

Between Yom Ha’Shoah and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut

These days between Yom HaShaoh, the Hebrew date for Holocaust Memorial Day and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, are caught between anguish and hope.

I lit my yellow candle in memory of a child murdered by the Nazis. I thought, as I had promised my father, of all the members of the family who were killed, saying their names, one by one.

There went through my mind once again the unforgettable lines with which Primo Levi described the four Russian horsemen, the advance party of the Red Army, who freed him from the universe of Auschwitz. They did not greet those they liberated, nor did they smile, oppressed by a ‘confused restraint’:

It was that shame we knew so well…[the shame] that the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.

Such shame should penetrate the heart of humanity at the gassing of civilians, of children, in Syria. Once again, the will for good seems to have proved too weak. Once again, powerful amoral leaders and their armies behave with cynical contempt for life. Again, the West faces the difficult decision of if and how to intervene militarily so that the situation for those who have already suffered so much may be made better, not worse. In Israel, so a friend told me, the word on the horrified street was, ‘We must help the children, we must help the children’. (I hope one of the UK’s responses will be to take in more children, families, refugees from horror.)

Meanwhile Israel, our country, where I love to be, which has so many achievements, and so much idealism still today, approaches its 70th birthday with plenty of challenges and problems of its own.

In November 1943 my father’s uncle, Alfred Freimann, who fled Germany in 1933, wrote to his brother Ernst in New York, who escaped Europe in 1939:

We saw another part of our beautiful countryside; the whole strip of land along the coast is like one flowering garden. If they let us work in peace and quiet, and didn’t prevent immigration, we’d soon have one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

Alfred did not live to see either the flourishing of his hopes or the refusal of Israel’s enemies to allow the country to live in peace and quiet. He was killed in the infamous attack on a convoy of academics to Mount Scopus on this very day, April 13, 1948, exactly 70 years ago. My father, who was in the Hagganah at the time, spoke of this with horror and anger. His own Yahrzeit, fittingly, is on Yom Ha’Atazma’ut.

Each year at this season I phone my friend Aaron Barnea, whose son fell in Lebanon on the eve of Yom HaShoah. He’s a founding member of the Parents’ Circle, sharing grief, hope, and the determination to achieve a better future for both peoples with Palestinian bereaved. I have learnt, through Aaron and others like him, how deeply it matters to try to listen to and look at the world with a conscience for their grief and hopes as well.

I want to stand in solidarity with those who, in spite of everything, dream, aspire, care, teach, work, and dedicate their lives to creating the Israel described in the Declaration of Independence, a state Jewish not only in its demography but in its core values. I want to stand with those who live and teach the Torah of loving kindness and justice; who care for the hungry, the sick and the suffering; who build bridges between communities, faiths, and peoples; who strive to make Israel a land which welcomes, and does not deport, refugees from persecution; who share Israel’s skills and technological expertise with impoverished regions around the world; who live with faith, courage, creativity and hope amidst all the difficulties, dangers, threats, mistakes and bigotry which challenge the country from without and within; who want to get on with ordinary, decent, hardworking lives, raising their family, loving their children, and praying for a safe and peaceful future.

The world is once again in a frightening and dangerous place. The record of the Jewish past teaches us that if history challenges our dreams and ideals, we need to learn from that history and work for our dreams and ideals even harder.

 

Song of Songs: We must not fail to notice and to bless

I rose up early, to see the moon shining yellow through the branches of the pine tree.

I had awoken thinking of that wonderful moment when my son called out to me as I came into the final straight of the Jerusalem Marathon ‘Abba, Abba, run with me’ and had taken my hand and we’d completed the last two hundred metres together’. And at the same time, I was thinking of two close friends who have lost a child; my heart going out to them. And at the same time, thinking of this unknown, this beauty, anguish and heart-sorrow of life.

‘Run with me’: how short, how precious is the time we have, to stand together, to run, see, witness the glory of this world, to have the companionship of life.

On Chag Ha’Aviv, Pesach, the festival of spring, we read The Song of Songs. On Chag Assif, Succot, the festival of autumn and ingathering, we read Ecclesiastes.

Hevel Havalim, vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity.’ The autumn wind, leaf fall, life fall, may carry all before it.

But Ecclesistaes is wrong; surely all is not vanity. There is the glory of the in-between time, the span we are granted of life. ‘Draw me after you; we shall run and follow you’: the author, or authors, of The Song of Songs knew that life must be relished, pursued.

The Hebrew Bible is always a text which notices, from the first unfurling of the young leaves of creation, the planting of the first garden in Eden with its four rivers to water its growth.

But nowhere is this awareness more acute, more simple, more wondrous than in The Song of Songs. The young buds of the pomegranate; the fleeting deer standing still for a single moment by the lattice-work of the fence, before running hastily, gracefully away to the distant hills; the apple tree alone in the midst of the forest; the hour and season of the songbirds: these details, easily missed, easily regarded as irrelevant in a world of kings, prophets and wars, are observed, noted, cherished, loved. They are the garden, the universe, of the life and love we are granted, briefly, to share.

At the heart of this landscape is a mystery, gan na’ul, ‘a locked garden’, ma’ayan chatum, ‘a fountain sealed’. For we do not know and never will fathom the source and wellspring of the wonder of life, its small, everyday miracles, the primrose by the side of the stone, the violets in the grass beside the woodland path. Maybe one day it will be possible to offer a scientific, materialist analysis of everything, even consciousness itself. But in the moment of awareness, in the joy and engagement of seeing, in the companionship of love, such explanations will fall away, irrelevant, not contiguous, unable to touch the exhilaration of being alive.

Of course, Ecclesiastes is correct in the end. The day will come when the cord at the fountain is broken and the pitcher tumbles out of sight to the bottom of the well. We know what awaits.

But that does not, should not, must not negate the now, ‘The interim is mine’, ours, yours; the interim belongs to life. Admittedly only the interim, and that is the sorrow which seizes the heart.

But that interstice is now; therefore, as the lover says to his beloved in The Song, ‘Rise up, let us go’ for the garden is full of flower, the orchards and vineyards are in blossom. We must not fail to notice, and to bless.

 

Pesach Seder Reflections 5778

13 Nisan 5778/29th March 2018

It’s cleaning day, and if I write at too much length everyone will think I’m shirking. But I want to set down some thoughts about the Haggadah, which simply means ‘telling’, the telling of the story.

Whose story is it we tell?

First of all, it’s the story of our own people. Avadim hayinnu – ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt’: the narrative of our ancestors’ redemption from generations of slavery lies at the core not just of our history but of the entire Jewish ethical tradition. From hopelessness to hope, from indignity to dignity, from injustice to justice, from cruelty to compassion, from servitude to freedom – this is the journey we think of when we refer to the Exodus from Egypt not only at Passover, but every Shabbat when we make Kiddush, and every day, morning and evening in our prayers. It is for this journey that we thank God and strive to do God’s will. For the memory of the redemption from Egypt is not intended merely as the recollection of our collective past, but as the constant impetus towards a tomorrow when the dream of freedom and justice for us and for all nations will be realised.

The Haggadah is our particular, personal family story. I was asked only yesterday whether writing my book My Dear Ones: One Family and the Final Solution had ‘brought me closure’ regarding my father’s past. ‘The opposite’, I said. (I’m anyway suspicious of the word ‘closure’. Life does not hold closure, but only what we make of our past, how we travel onward with our experiences, both sweet and bitter). ‘Writing the book has brought openings, to people whose names I had scarcely heard, about whose lives I once knew nothing but now understand more. It has opened the door too to greater understanding of the plight of today’s refugees, desperate to gain the precious documents which will allow them to cross the borders between persecution and freedom, death and life; desperate to save their families, their children.’ I think of my great-aunt Sophie’s recipes, my great-grandmother sending food parcels from Nazi controlled Czechoslovakia to those even worse of – as long as she was allowed – and I see those who need such gifts around us today.

The Haggadah is thus also the story of all humankind. Some years ago, the leader of the local Bravanese community, whose centre was burnt down in a racially motivated arson attack, came to our Seder. ‘Your story is my story too. We said: “Our persecutors will kill us. We have to leave our home country at once!” My aged grandfather said, “I’m too old to leave”. We took him with us, and we fled…’

Avadim hayyinu, ve’attah bnei chorin – ‘we once were slaves but now are free’: how many people across the world are longing to share that song. In Britain, Europe, America, Israel, refugees wait in hope of leave to remain, in terror of deportation. These are the better countries; in many others they would not even have been allowed to enter, on pain of death. The Haggadah is the story of our vision of redemption for all humankind, for the day, as Isaiah puts it in the Prophetic vision we read on the final morning of the festival, ‘when none shall hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain’.

Precisely for this reason, the story of the Haggadah is also deeply personal: ‘we must see ourselves as if we ourselves are each going out of Egypt’. Where are we, in our conscience and spirit, on our own inner journey towards justice, compassion and freedom? What inner traits, what internal Pharaohs, detain us from being the person we could be and dream of becoming? For, according as we travel our own inner journey, so we are able to help others on humanity’s journey, and offer others the kindness, the companionship, the advocacy, the compassion, the music, the hope, which sings in our own soul. And, as we reach out to them, so others hopefully reach inward to us.

May our Haggadah, the telling of our story on Seder night, be fruitful and worthwhile.

12 Nisan 5778/28th March 2018

The central symbol of the Seder is the Matzah. Following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the formal cessation of sacrificial offerings, matzah replaced the Paschal lamb as the key food of the Passover celebration.

Matzah features repeatedly in the Seder. Close to the opening, it is described as Halachma Anya, ‘the bread of poverty’ our ancestors ate in Egypt. It was probably originally at this point that the door would be opened, to welcome in the hungry and the poor. In No Time For Tears, the touching account of his East End childhood in the 1930’s, Sidney Bloch recalls how his parents never locked the front door and always laid an extra place at the table.

Shmuel Hanagid (993 – 1056) has a simple culinary explanation:

Some say bread of poverty means, literally, the bread of the poor – because poor people, in the severity of their destitution, will take some floor, knead it and bake it into unleavened bread which they eat immediately…

The middle matzah is now broken, to represent how, as the Talmud, explains a poor person never has a complete loaf, only a torn half. Eli Wiesel provides a frighteningly poignant insight: the person in terror of starvation, who never knows from where the next miniscule, inadequate meal will come, doesn’t dare to eat a whole piece of bread, but hides half fearfully away.

The broken half is held up repeatedly during as we recount the story of slavery, remembering the suffering of our forebears in Egypt, and others who once were, and all who still today are, the slaves of hunger and exploitation.

Close to the end of the narrative, the very same matzah becomes the bread our ancestors take with them on their journey of freedom. It turns into the bread of hope, or, as the Zohar names it, the food of faith, mechla de’meheimanuta, and lachma de’asuta, the bread of healing. This health is moral rather than physical: it is the healing-power present in the society where those who are replete do not forget those who are hungry and use their freedom to set others free.

Matzah thus makes the journey from slavery to freedom alongside us.

There are still two further features which connect matzah with liberty. In a creative word play, the Talmud (Pesachim 115b – 116a) links lechem oni, the bread of poverty, with the verb oneh, ‘answer’. Matzah is the bread ‘over which matters are answered’. It is the food of discourse, of questions and discussions. Freedom of speech is an essential, primary freedom. In a totalitarian regime, in a country where people know that their every word may be overheard and reported, even in a household dominated by domestic tyranny, no one dares to speak out openly. ‘Bread over which matters are answered’, over which significant issues are challenged, debated and considered from a multitude of angles, is the bread of freedom indeed.

The Talmud takes this one step further. Baking matzah requires team-work. This is depicted clearly in numerous Haggadah illustrations: one person is measuring the flour, others are mixing the dough and yet others rolling it out, while further figures make the holes, put the pastry in the oven, take it out and place the finished matzah in baskets.

The right to collaboration is a form of liberty. The freedom to meet in open fellowship and association has been banned or controlled by every totalitarian regime. Nazi plans for the annexation of western Poland after their swift victory in 1939 included making it illegal for Poles to gather together, even in sports clubs or cafes. (Jews were simply deported).

Matzah, in contrast, celebrates and embodies the freedom of friendship and co-operation.

In Temple times, the last taste of the Pesach meal was the lamb of the Paschal offering. In place of that today, the final food we are supposed to eat is the Afikoman, the other half of the matzah broken close to the outset of the Seder, so that we end the night with freedom on our tongue, and in our songs.

11 Nisan 5778/27th March 2018

The greatest challenge to leading a Seder is how to include everyone, from the person determined to ‘do it my way’ to the child, or adult, for whom the key question isn’t Mah Nishtanah, but ‘How long to the food?’ How can a Seder be a discussion, not a row? How can everyone have a voice?

The Haggadah presents this issue through the Four Children. Each takes his or her question straight from the Torah, which mentions four times how to reply ‘when your child asks you tomorrow’.

I prefer to think of the four not as ‘personality types’, but as complementary voices in the great Haggadah debate.

Easiest to respond to are the encouraging enquiries of the ‘wise child’. Such persons refuse to take their own culture for granted. They are seekers; they want to understand Jewish practise, down to the detail. We need them in our communities; we must encourage them to study, in depth. The sound-byte, tweet-length, instant answer culture is dangerous, warns Timothy Snyder in his challenging On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (an excellent supplement for a Seder). Read, study, examine in depth.

Hard as it may seem, we need the ‘wicked child’s’ challenging ‘What’s this to you?’ Contempt is hard to include at the table: why should we? But anger may be a different matter. I’ve an orthodox colleague in Israel who’s angry: ‘How can I sit at the Seder while we deport asylum seekers?’ If that Seder amounts only to food plates and platitudes, there’s good reason to provoke us with anger. It’s hypocrisy to talk freedom but do nothing about the slavery of hunger, or the actual trade in slaves today, or any of those countless ways in which life is degraded and robbed of liberty and joy. Anger, justly warranted, must be turned into motivation.

The so-called ‘simple’ child also has an essential contribution. The Hebrew tam equally means ‘whole-hearted’. Such ‘children’ refuse to be deviated by details. Every group needs the voice which ask bluntly, ‘What’s this?’ It’s a counter-force to the dangerous tendency of religions to get lost in rituals and dogmas. ‘What’s this?’ calls us back to the purpose of the story. ‘Tell that child about the Exodus’ – and keep it simple, the Haggadah insists. Don’t let the cleaning, koshering, shopping and cooking (all important, all of which I love) make us forget the essential values of freedom, justice and dignity, or the travails our families passed through to attain them. We are accountable before God, history, our own People and all humanity for their defence.

Surely, though, the child who doesn’t know how to ask has no part in the discussion? However, the real meaning of she’eno yode’a lishe’ol is not ‘can’t ask’ but ‘lacks the confidence to ask’. Whether it’s because they’re young, or shy, or quiet with reflection, it’s up to us to bring such participants in. Perhaps it’s precisely the silent guest on whom the narrative is having the most impact. How many scenes do we harbour in our hearts where we spoke nothing, because they spoke unforgettably to us?

We all need all our voices, the longing for knowledge, the indignation, the desire to grasp – clearly and simply – the overall purpose, and the absorption of the listener reluctant to interrupt.

10 Nisan 5778/26th March 2018

Getting There

I heard two (slightly conflicting) views last weekend: first, that the week before Pesach has the lowest mortality rate in the Jewish year because everyone wants to make it to another Seder; second, that the nervous breakdown rate is the highest. So here are some thoughts on how to reach Seder night in good mental, physical and spiritual health.

Preparing for the Seder is as much about community as the Seder itself. If someone else in the family or among our friends is doing all the work, (cleaning, shopping, cooking, inviting, setting the table) we should ask ourselves why, and go and help. Wherever possible, no one should be left to prepare for the Seder alone.

Looking Outward

The Lovell Haggadah (a beautiful new edition, warmly recommended) has a wonderful double page. On one side is the title Turning Outward; on the other Turning Inward. The outward page focusses on Me’ot Hittin, ‘coins for wheat’, also known as Kimcha dePischa or ‘Pesach flour’. They exemplify the ancient rule that even the poorest person must be given the necessaries to celebrate Passover. We may not sit down to celebrate our freedom while other families can’t afford to do so. Freedom for some is not true freedom. We are all responsible towards the entire community of Israel. We should respond to at least some of the appeals for help which we no doubt all receive.

Similarly, we should do our utmost to ensure that no one is left to celebrate on their own. The Mishnah explains that a person alone on Seder night ‘asks him- or her-self the four questions’. It’s a lonely image; we shouldn’t allow it to happen.

By extension, we can’t drink to our own redemption while doing nothing at all for others, whoever they are, who are enslaved by hunger, homelessness or persecution. Turning a blind eye to the humiliation and misery of others, risks leading us into partnership with tyranny.

Looking Inward

The opposite page in the Lovell Haggadah describes the inner process of preparation. Mystics have long made a parallel between the domestic procedure of going through our drawers to remove the chametz and leaven and the spiritual process of cleansing our conscience.

Cupboards are memories: ‘Who gave me this mug?’ ‘My mother loved that plate.’ Recipes are testaments: ‘My grandmother made her charoset this way.’ My father cooked the soup.’ Thus we revisit the journeys of our generations and our own life talks back at us from pots and pans.

The Seder does not come alive just by reading the printed text. We must weave our own family stories into the Haggadah and include the stories of others. In this way we make the narrative ours, immediate, vital. Freedom, dignity, justice, journeys: the subjects are always contemporary. I began one Seder by reading the postcard my great-grandmother sent from Theresienstadt. It was written by order of the Nazis to ‘reassure’ the family that ‘everything was alright’:

My Dears! I’m often together with dear Recha; we talk a lot about you and all our dear ones. I’m most anxious about our dear children. I’ve been in the old age home for a while and I feel fine there. Heartfelt greetings from your faithful Regina Freimann.

‘Dear’ occurs four times in scarcely forty words. Love and tyranny – the eternal polarities of human existence.

My heart is my compass: Dr Abuelaish and ‘I Shall Not Hate’

Late last night I took a torch and, shining the beam across his path down the garden, lead our guest to the apple tree. The damp buds, latent with leaf and life, glistened in the darkness. My friend held up his phone and took photographs.

He was Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, author of I Shall Not Hate, about his life as a Gazan doctor with close friends and colleagues in Israel, who lost three daughters, Bessan, Aya and Mayar, when their home was shelled twice in swift, fatal succession in the Gaza war.

Soon afterwards, I came to know him and planted that tree in his daughters’ memory.

‘I’d like to see it’, Dr Abuelaish told me.

Earlier, we’d been in conversation at my synagogue, sitting together beneath the verse ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ inscribed above the holy ark. A hundred people were held silent by his heart-felt words.

From the time I was a very small boy I have been able to find the good chapter in a very bad story…

From where did he draw the strength?

God knows what has to be, he said. Therefore, we must take what happens for the best.

Maybe his beloved wife Nadia had died four months before the tragedy so that she wouldn’t have to witness the deaths of three of her daughters. Mothers are the life-givers, the life-cherishers: let women walk in this world not behind us men, but by our side, out in front…

Do not see the other; he said. Do not look at the world out of one eye only, one perspective; see the humanity in all. (I still have that vista before me, the day I first saw a familiar Jerusalem scene from a Palestinian home in a refugee camp. Yes, I knew this valley; I recognised that road. But I’d never seen it from this angle. It was a mere 500 metres away, and a universe apart. I love Israel no less, but with more complexity, more simplicity, more humanity, since.)

Do not blame, Dr Abuelaish added. Don’t say ‘them!’. God judges us for what we do. We must take responsibility, each for our actions, our errors and our future.

Life is a short journey. He pointed at the doors on either side of the synagogue: ‘We enter here and exit there’. In the space between, we can do good. We can leave behind kindness, love. That is all that matters.

Afterwards, at my home, he said ‘My heart is my compass’.

On Passover night we dip our maror, the bitter herbs of history and memory, into the sweet paste of charoset, made, the Talmud teaches, ‘in memory of the apple’.

What apple? ‘It’s the apple tree in the Song of Songs’, the commentators explain. Beneath it during their slavery and degradation in Egypt, the Children of Israel showed each other solidarity and love.

Thus, the sweet charoset mitigates, overcomes, the venom of the bitter maror. So may love disarm hate; the steady heart of compassion withdraw the fuse from fury and from fear.

Will it work?

I asked Dr Abuelaish how the next ‘good chapter’ in a harsh story could be written. He made no comment about the plot, but pointed at the authors.

We are all responsible. We are all the writers of the future. No action is too small to matter and every one of us can choose to be a healer.

 

Never despair! Thoughts on a difficult spring’

Tomorrow is the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan; in Jewish terms it’s the first day of spring.

Nisan is a month of celebration. Sad, penitential prayers are left out of the liturgy. Instead, in the domain of history we focus on Passover; we follow our ancestors on their journey from slavery to freedom and try to create a world which celebrates, life, liberty and justice.

In the domain of nature, we go out into the fields and gardens and say a unique, once-a-year-only blessing to God

in whose world nothing is lacking, who created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for the enjoyment of humankind.

I’ve just been outdoors to check: the almond tree is pink with bloom; the apricot, usually first to blossom, is wisely still sleeping out an especially long winter; the pears have a good month to go before May, their season of white glory.

Yet, despite all this, I’m struggling to feel joyous.

Instead, I feel anxious, afraid for our beautiful world. We live in increasingly dangerous times. Much of humanity, or at least its leadership, seems intent on a journey from liberty to tyranny, from peace to war and from injustice to greater injustice. Meanwhile, the poorest and weakest, who have always suffered, suffer even more.

In the world of nature, I read with despair of the huge decline in animal life, of species hunted to extinction, of the pollution of land and ocean by plastic particles. You may think me crazy, but these matters drive me close to tears.

I could take to retail therapy, decide not to think, or close my eyes, and heart, and sit back to enjoy my corner of privileged living, among the world’s wealthiest.

But that’s not the human, certainly not the Jewish way. ‘You are not free to cease from the work’, said Rabbi Tarfon almost two thousand years back. ‘Assur lihitya’esh; it’s forbidden to give up and despair,’ insisted Rebbe Nachman of Breslav two hundred years ago, despite, or because of, his own susceptibility to depression. And, on the back of today’s Guardian, Gareth Southgate adds his own gloss to his rabbinic antecedents: ‘You can live in fear or you can get on with it’.

That’s what saying the blessing over ‘beautiful creatures and beautiful trees’ means right now. Never give up! Never stop appreciating how wonderful the world can and should be! For the sake of the beauty of children, help the besieged, the hungry, the persecuted. For the sake of the beauty of animals and trees, plant and protect, so that they, and humankind together, may live and flourish to breathe a better future.

Last Friday, as I approached the old Jerusalem railway station, some 28 kilometres into running the marathon, I passed a group of people pushing their friend in a wheelchair, or rather in something more like a full hospital bed. According to my running app, the Jerusalem marathon route has a total climb of well over 2,000 feet, with challenging hills and sharp descents. These good people must have taken turns to push their friend up the hardest inclines, then hold on tightly to ensure a smooth run down the steepest slopes. When they reached the finishing line, the entire crowd cheered.

That’s love; that’s courage; that’s doing the best one can to share the basic freedoms of breathing the open air, enjoying the wide panorama, waving to friends, relishing the crazy happiness of those mad enough to run.

On Seder night I don’t just want to read the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus. I want it to shout back at me: Never give up on freedom. When I go outside, I don’t just want to see the world. I want it to sing back at me: Look at all this beauty! Use your life to love it and protect it!

 

Seeing the world feelingly

I’m not a person who believes in beschert, pre-destined, but – there may be exceptions, and, as my teacher Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs said, quoting Solomon Schechter ‘the best theology is inconsistent’.

I walked out of the Conservative Yeshivah into the Jerusalem street and there he was in front of me, a beautiful young black Labrador. He wore that jacket which tells people like me, who’re too much inclined to strike up conversations with every dog they meet, that he was in training and strictly not to be distracted.

I asked the young woman who was walking him: ‘He’s going to be a guide dog’, she explained. He’s just eight months old and I’m his carer for the year.’

I couldn’t believe it. This is the day before I’m due to run the Jerusalem Marathon in aid of Toby’s very organisation, the Israel Guide Dog Centre. I apologised for thus accosting her puppy out of the blue and told the girl what I was doing. ‘His name’s Toby’, she then said. I don’t think she wanted me to get too familiar with her hound. ‘And you’re welcome to take pictures.’

Then, as we went our separate ways at the corner, she added: ‘When my father’s friend went blind we saw how important dogs are. We’ve been deeply involved ever since.’

The encounter felt like a blessing, a token of good luck from heaven.

As I walked away I found myself thinking about the girl’s words: ‘We saw how important…’

They are so many ways of seeing, and not seeing.

The world is full of beauty. ‘Lift up your eyes and see who created these’, says Isaiah; I’d always thought he was referring to the stars, but it could be trees, or clouds, or flowers, or human faces, all the wonder of which, in our rushed lives, we so often fail to take note. To lose one’s sight is, in Milton’s famous lines, to have beauty at ‘one entrance quite shut out’. It must be an extremely painful loss.

Yet there are different ways of seeing and being enabled to see. In rabbinic Hebrew a blind person is referred to as Sagi Na’or, a person of great light. The verb for seeing, ro’eh, is often used in the Bible to refer to other and deeper kinds of awareness and emotional sensitivity. God ‘sees’ the sufferings of human beings; God ‘knows’. People, too, often ‘see’ the pain of others, and their own.

Such usage is by no means unique to Hebrew. Shakespeare gives searing expression to this relationship between sight and insight when the maddened King Lear meets the blinded Earl of Gloucester on the cliffs above Dover. ‘No eyes in your head nor no money in your purse, yet you see how this world goes?’ the crazed King challenges. ‘I see it feelingly’, the former Earl replies. He did not of course see it with any such feeling when he had his eyes, his title and his power.

That is not to glorify or romanticise the painful, frightening loss of sight. But it does show that they are many depths to how we see the world. Responding to an unknown critic who condemned Picasso for painting the sky green, E M Forster wrote that he was grateful to see the world through Picasso’s eyes, if only for a few moments.

Countless people enable us to see. We see the world not just through one another’s eyes, including the beautiful eyes of guide dogs, but through each other’s hearts. Maybe that’s why I love Amazing Grace, because I not rarely fear I may have been blind to important sensitivities, and hope that ‘now I see’.

When I run tomorrow – (‘What time do you hope to finish by?’ I was just asked in an email. ‘Pesach’, I answered) – I shall think of the many people who have helped me to see, and hope that I too can occasionally help bring sight to others, – a gift which the wonderful dogs for whom I’m running have in affectionate abundance,

Toby guide dog

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