The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

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Countdown to Pesach 5781 – Monday

I wish everyone good preparations for Pesach and the Seder nights. Once again, it’s a strange and complex time. But I hope that this year the Festival of freedom truly heralds coming out of lockdown and returning to the fullness of life for everyone. Each day until Shabbat I hope to send a letter with something reflective, something halakhic and something practical for the Seder, with contributions from the team at NNLS. Please join our services and activities, in person and virtual. Pesach is the season of solidarity; we all need to draw strength from our Judaism and from each other.

Something reflective – Who am I with this Seder night?

Every other night we’ve held Seders in our home for 50 or 60 people; last year there were just two of us. This year, I’ve spoken to people who’ll be with closest family only, and people who’ve told me they’ll be entirely alone. (I know, of course, that many will find modern ways to connect.)

Togetherness at the Seder goes back to its beginnings. The Torah teaches that the original paschal lamb in Egypt was eaten bemichsat nefashot, ‘according to the number of souls’. The Talmud explains this to mean that people must be ‘counted in’ before the animal is slaughtered. So ‘With whom will you be for Seder?’ is as ancient a question as it is perennial.

Last night I learnt a beautiful new way of creating togetherness even in lockdown. It’s undoubtedly both halakhically and Covid compliant. Reb Mimi Fagelson told me how last year she was entirely by herself, but not at all alone. It’s permitted to light candles on Yom Tov (so long as you do so from a flame already lit before the festival or shabbat begins.) So, she said, every few minutes I lit a candle for someone else I loved and imagined they were with me: friends, teachers, Hasidic leaders. I didn’t feel lonely for a moment.

On the one hand it’s a ruse. But it also goes to the heart of what the Seder means. I don’t think I’ll light candles for them. But I’m going to hear my father at the Seder, in the way he used to sing and the comments he always made (the same every year). I’m going to invite my father’s uncle, by reading from the letters he sent his wife every single day when he was interned on the Isle of Man in 1940.

In this manner, we summon the companionship of past generations, and current friends, and those who’ve striven for freedom through the ages, and become part of a great solidarity in defiance of space and time.

Something halakhic – How does one manage Saturday night Seder?

This year Pesach begins on Saturday night and the questions have been coming in: By when do we have to be rid of our chametz? What does one do about challah on Shabbat? Is anything different at the Seder? When is the Fast of the Firstborn (It’s Thursday, not Friday!)

For guidance, please follow this link. Don’t despair; it’s not complicated, and the great advantage of Saturday night Seder is that it’s not allowed to clean and cook on Shabbat. So one can have a rest and not get to the Seder exhausted.

Something for the Seder – family history

It’s easy to feel so pressured by shopping, cleaning and cooking that they pre-occupy us entirely. Make sure there’s some time and energy to prepare for the contents of the Seder.

Over the years, many of the most moving contributions to our Seders have been family stories and memorabilia: a letter from a grandparent in the war, a matzah cover handed like a blessing down the generations. I’m sometimes struck by how children don’t know their family history. Go back two or three generations; in very few families was everyone born in the UK.

Seder is the night of the story. Haggadah means ‘Telling’. So tell something of the family’s journey. There’s nothing more touching, for children and adults alike.

Here’s to the tree of life!

Today is the day before the day before the first day of spring. Two of the bird-feeders were entirely empty this morning. Was it that pair of bluetits, or the jays I’ve seen looking out from the crab-apple branch to peck at their moment? And look at those branches, their buds emerging, tiny grey-green hands unfolding into the sunlight and the rain. The spring: how we’ve longed for it, how we need it this year!

Preparations for Pesach, festival of freedom, have never felt so timely. Last year they marked our going into lockdown. Pressing practicalities pre-occupied us; perhaps they distracted us from deeper fears: would we be able to get any matzah? And the bitter herbs? And all those places around the table, on all other nights laid for twelve or twenty-three, unruly with songs and stories, but that night almost silent, set for just one, or two, or maybe four.

This year, the festival marks the beginning of our liberation. We will still be only few together. It will once again be a very different night. It won’t be like it says in the Torah; there will be no chipazon, no sudden hurry, no setting forth in multitudes at dawn. But before us lies the journey out of lockdown and there can be hope in our hearts. We’re on the road and that is cause for joy.

There’s another, more profound, difference from our departure from slavery long ago. When Pharaoh demanded to know who was going to leave Egypt, Moses answered firmly: ‘With our young and our old, with our sons and our daughters, will we go.’ For us, after over a year of pandemic, not everyone is coming out of it with us, especially not among our old.

March 23rd, this Tuesday, marks a year since the first lockdown across Britain. Marie Curie, that wonderful organisation which has supported hundreds of thousands of families as they face the death of a loved one, has called for a National Day of Reflection,

to reflect on our collective loss, support those who’ve been bereaved, and hope for a brighter future. [It] will give us all time to pause and think about this unprecedented loss we’re facing, and support each other through grief in the years to come.

In our community, we will come together for the Yizkor memorial service we’ll hold online towards the close of Passover, on the evening of April 1st. We will contemplate the year which has passed, acknowledge our losses, and plant a tree for every bereavement in our congregation, so that we remember, yet the sake of life.

For some of us, there will be one more empty place at the Seder. And it wasn’t even possible to say a true good-bye. ‘I love you’ isn’t the same by iPad. There is grief openly wept, and grief held deep within, because we couldn’t mourn as we would normally have done, hugging those we love, sitting together to cry, and laugh, and recollect. There is anger, too, and blame: did this have to happen thus?

So feelings are complex as we celebrate freedom and emerge, cautiously, out of lockdown.

I recall talking to someone whose lower leg had to be amputated after a motorbike accident. He spoke of having to learn to walk all over again. That’s not something we will literally have to do.

But the Torah speaks of walking together. We will have to relearn how to walk in true togetherness, as we meet again, first in parks and gardens, then, we hope, in our homes, at work and in our places of prayer.

I wonder if the Children of Israel listened to each other as they emerged into unfamiliar freedom: What were those days of darkness like for you? Were you afraid? Are you exhausted? From where did you find the resilience? What are you looking forward to most? Are you excited about the journey ahead?

We’ve needed lovingkindness to care for each other in our enforced apartness; we still need it now, but in different ways, as we come back into togetherness.

In all of this, we must not forget the spring. The Talmud tells us to find a blossoming fruit tree in this month of Nissan, so that we can bless it and bless life. The Tree of Life, which, deep within its branches has remained vital all through the long winter, is coming back into leaf and flower. It’s a joy to be appreciated, a wonder to behold.

Here’s to the tree of life!

Shabbat Shalom and good preparations for Pesach

Viva, viva la musica!

Many years ago, Nicky and I participated in a conference in a beautiful monastery in Lower Austria. It was an interdisciplinary gathering, including faith leaders, scientists and writers, who shared deeply thoughtful discussions.

On the programme was also a short reflection: ‘Brother David leads us all in singing.’ What was he going to do with two hundred people of various persuasions? Would this be awkward, I wondered nervously? He got up on the stage, a smiling, wizen man of almost eighty, and with irresistible charm led the entire auditorium in singing ‘Viva, viva la musica.’ It was as moving as it was simple. That music still lives inside me.

One memory brings another. I was digging in the synagogue garden one Thursday some years back, when members of the community started to walk by in twos and threes with a degree of enthusiasm which suggested that they were probably not about to attend a religious service.

Cars began to arrive. Slowly, doors opened, and passengers were helped to get out. Some had Zimmer frames, others needed wheelchairs. There was my friend David Jackson, poet, scholar, lover of the Psalms, very frail now, whom it had been impossible to persuade to leave his rooms for many months. Then came a whole year group of six- or seven- year-olds from Akiva School round the corner.

They were all attending Intermezzo’s lunchtime concerts, the brainwave and joyous hard work of a team of five whose aim was to bring together gifted musicians, many young and still studying, with an audience of everyone and anyone, people from local care homes, and lots of children. The first concert took place in October 2013; the 70th will be next week. Lockdown didn’t stop the music; it merely put it online, where I expect, it was more appreciated than ever, a joy which will be superseded only when we can come together in person once again. Thank you, Intermezzo team!

There is wonder in the creation of music. My cousin’s husband is a maker and repairer of violins; he studied the art in Italy and now has his workshop in Jerusalem. I’ve visited several times: everywhere are instruments carefully stood up or rested on their sides. There are many kinds of wood, boxes of tools, all carefully labelled, vices and glues. It’s a world of spirits; I can imagine the violas and cellos rising at night like King David in the legend, to make music until dawn.

The Bible relates how Elisha was summoned to prophesy. He called for musicians and ‘when the player played, the spirit of God came upon him.’ The mystics read the words slightly differently: when ‘the player becomes the music,’ when we become lost in the melody, that’s when God is with us.

We don’t live in one reality only, intractable as the daily grind of society with its inequality, injustice and frequent cruelties is. We live, too, perpetually on the edge of wonder, a fourth (or is it fifth?) dimension, a plenitude of beauty, to which the entrance may be a line from a poem, a garden, the night sky, music, a friend’s words, or simply silent stillness. When we enter, we are embraced by something no lockdown can close off, no evil can destroy. We are inside holy space and it knows no barriers.

We read tomorrow in the Torah that ‘Moses gathered the whole community together to make the mishkan, a dwelling place for God’s presence. It’s also the other way round; when a dwelling place is made for the spirit, through music, through anything of deep beauty, it gathers us all together.

What sustains us during lockdown

Two things have sustained me through these lockdowns, the kindness of people and the wonder of nature. Both are sacred, and humbling.

Those of us lucky enough to have gardens or live near open spaces know we’ve been privileged this year. So let me take you into our garden the only way I currently can, with words (and perhaps a picture).Picture of Yew tree and daffodils

Underneath the low branches of the yew, perfect for a child to climb, the daffodils glow yellow and orange against the deep green of the needles. Brush against the higher branches and a dust of fine pollen rises like mist, as if the tree were secretly on fire.

Down across the grass the catkins on the twisting hazel are caught in the dawn sun; through them the witch-hazel glimmers, its flowers tiny scented tendrils curled along the thin branches.

Everywhere are buds, furry grey-green on the magnolias, black on a miniature willow, red-brown on that small tree whose name I never remember. They’re all verve and readiness to unfurl their leaves and show their flowers.

Two long-tailed tits fly down to feed on a fat-ball; chattering quietly as it they were at some religious service they didn’t want to interrupt by being loud.

There’s liberation in the air. Pesach, chag ha’aviv, just three weeks away, is not just the festival at, but the festival of the spring.

I know I’m lucky; a garden is luxury. But I believe access to the natural world, park and woodland, pond and stream, is a basic human need. It restores the spirit; it nourishes the heart. It draws human life into the rhythms of day and season. It’s part of our moral growth, our humbling, our rootedness on God’s earth. So often refugees long for their childhood homes in spite of everything, not because they miss the politics, but because they yearn for that apple tree, the smell of that field at dawn.

Human kindness sustains me no less. It’s the little things, the greetings with neighbours whom we scarcely acknowledged before, rushing to the tube. Now we collect groceries for the foodbank, asking how we’re all doing.

It’s the big things which grow out of those little things. ‘My whole street has been amazing,’ said a man whose father is now, thank goodness, out of intensive care.

My mother turned 98 yesterday. As I left the porch after bringing a cake, I saw that half the street was there to serenade her with a huge ‘Happy Birthday’ banner There were children and parents, all socially distanced, all together. When her carer brought her to the door, they all cheered. I’ve never seen anything like it.

I still give a wave to bus drivers if I see them in the small streets when I’m running. They often wave back.

These are not little nothings;

A year ago I might have thought all this ordinary. I know better now. This is the triumph of smiling over cursing, resilience over frustration, goodness over adversity. This is the foundation of humanity, and, to me, of faith. I hope I never forget.

The mystics see in beauty, any and all, from the smell of the grass to a primrose in a ditch, the manifestation of Tiferet, that sacred wonder which comes from God. They find in kindness, any and all, the warm word, the quiet acknowledgement, the expression of Hesed, the divine lovingkindness which flows through every heart.

God is in the detail, and it’s humbling and transforming when we feel it.

 

Happy Purim!

Happy Purim! Last year Purim came just before lockdown; this year it comes just before lockdown – slowly, cautiously, eases and children can go back to school. Let’s hope it heralds a better year ahead.

There’s much not to like about the story of Purim. Without going into details, the scroll of Esther, read last night and this morning, poses as a fairy tale in which, by the grace of God, and heroine vanquish vizier and emperor.

But underneath the service, it’s a shrewd, hard-bitten account of insecurity, suppression and manipulation. There are plenty of places still like that in the world. The meme for survival is ‘How do I use people more deftly than they use me.’ There is no more astutely political text in the Bible.

But that’s not what we take away from the festival. On the thin ice of perilous existence, we dance, feast, give gifts and care for the poor. We mock tyranny, take the mickey out of pomp and laugh at life’s absurdity. We create joy.

That’s why tradition connects Purim with Yom KiPurim. On the latter we recognise how transient we are; we fast, repent and take stock of our soul. On the former we recognise how fragile we are; so we eat, drink and make the most of our moment. Carpe diem – seize the day. Mir seinen da! We’re here; let’s make the best of it. Lechaim, Lechaim! To life!

I admire this attitude; there’s courage as well as joy in laughter. It’s one of the great forms of resilience. It’s the underdog’s greatest weapons. It undercuts pride and pretence. It strengthens the spirit. I love the wit and grit of good humour, and appreciate those who have it and share it.

I love, too, the way joy connects us. Sometimes it’s thought that only sad events truly unite us. That’s simply untrue. Even though it was all on Zoom this year, watching a community in fancy dress, with floating hats and virtual moustaches, laughing together, then taking small gifts of foods to their friends (yes, wearing masks, leaving them on doorsteps and stepping away two metres) and knowing that we’ll all support the work of Feast and Leket (see below) making meals for anyone in hungry in these hard times – I feel like weeping with gratitude for being a part of it all.

That’s the lesson which emerges from the old story of intrigue and power (which still plagues the world in its versatile forms): when you get the chance, take life with a laugh, care for your friends and be there for those who need. For the long-standing tasks will soon call us back, to remove oppression and transform the world – and to do that we need all the joy and spirit we can muster.

Let me set down in couplets the key laws of Purim
Just as you’ll find them in the old Arba Turim.

You must read the Megillah when the sun’s gone away,
Then listen to it all over, early next day.

You must boo when it’s Haman, but as we’re on zoom
Please mute your computer before you go boom.

You may stuff your face full and it’s not seen as greedy,
So long as you offer two gifts to two needy

And regale with delicacies one friend at least,
Before you sit down to an unhealthy feast.

You mustn’t stay sombre or too circumspect,
Politically, now’s the moment to be incorrect.

You’re encouraged to dress as king, queen or clown,
To show that you know that the world’s upside down.

 

 

Sanctuary – in laughter and in tears

When I was little, I was known for hiding under the table. I felt safe among the shoes, hidden by the overhanging tablecloth, comforted by conversations drifting down without my needing to follow.

‘Make me a sanctuary,’ says the Torah this week. Sanctuary comes in many kinds and we all need our own, especially when days are difficult.

‘Tell me a lie and I’ll give you a dollar,’ said the rich man to Herschel Ostropolier, the wit of Yiddish tales. ‘What d’you mean one? You just said two!’ he answered instantly. I think laughter is a kind of sanctuary, so long as it’s not cruel. Humour can be a form of courage, giving the mind some breathing space from the world. We laugh at Haman on Purim; we’ve always laughed at our enemies. It’s very Jewish, – and very British too. (Next Friday is Purim, when I can talk rubbish with licence.)

‘Animal sanctuary,’ says the sign in the park. There are sanctuaries provided for animals, and animals who provide sanctuary. ‘My daughter tells the dog everything,’ is a not infrequent parental observation. For many of us grown-ups too, our canines are our confidants.

‘When can we come to your garden?’ I’m asked, ‘the children need your guinea pigs.’ Watching them watch them, I think that though it’s not what the holy book meant by ‘Make me a sanctuary,’ something is happening which I would call sacred.

Music is sanctuary. It’s no accident Beethoven chose Schiller’s Ode to Joy for the choral movement of his Ninth:

Joy, beautiful flame divine,
Daughter of Elysium!

Maybe all art doesn’t just ‘hold as t’were, the mirror up to nature,’ as Hamlet said. It’s also a magic mirror, an entrance to a domain of beauty which secretly co-exists within our daily world of challenge and self-doubt. Music, literature, art: they are soul-balm, reprieve, relief and restoration. What’s sanctuary, if not that?

(As for those people who, ears in headphones and eyes on phones, walk straight at you on the pavement, perhaps the charitable thing is to appreciate that they’re not in the street at all but in their private heaven. After all, plenty of those who think they own heaven like to push others away.)

Gardens are sacred. ‘Do you think of your garden as a sanctuary, with its hedges all around?’ I was asked on what remains a highlight of my career, when we hosted Gardener’s Question Time. I hadn’t, until then. But it’s true. Love and care are what till a garden, alongside schlepping manure. Perhaps the many kinds of snowdrop, beloved by Nicky, are our garden’s Menorah, illumining the long January / Tevet nights, and the tiny blue irises I stared at yesterday are the reflection of heaven.

Mountains, forests, small grass islands by a stream: these are sanctuary too and every tree is the tree of life.

Sanctuary isn’t just for joy; you don’t have to be happy to find it. Sorrow may be when we need it most. Isabel Allende describes the long nights watching over her sick daughter, wandering the house ‘adrift on a sea of pain,’

My daughter has given me the opportunity to look inside myself and discover interior spaces – empty, dark, strangely peaceful – I had never explored before. These are holy places… (Paula, p. 272)

Prayer may be sanctuary. Prayer isn’t really about knocking at heaven’s gates but pushing at the door of our heart. To my mind, whether prayer ‘works’ is less a question of ‘Did God say yes?’ than of whether we found our way to our spirit, God’s breath in us all.

What is there within sanctuary when we find it? ‘The ark of testimony,’ says the Torah. But testimony to what? To God, to life, to a quiet knowledge of unassailable belonging to which one doesn’t put words.

 

On healing; caring for our carers

I’ve spent most of my week thinking about just two words from the Torah, verapo verapei, ‘be sure to heal.’ They’re accompanied in my mind by sentences from Rachel Clarke’s Breathtaking – Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic:

‘There is almost no situation that cannot be made better by someone reaching out, with love and tenderness…’

That’s what she’s seen among nurses, volunteers, doctors, drivers, despite the unrelenting daily pressures they face month upon month:

‘I fear…the public is unaware of how exhausted, stunned – shell-shocked even – many NHS staff and care workers remain.’

One has only to read the papers, pretty much any day, to understand how true both these sentences are. I therefore write with admiration, concern, respect, and also shame at recognising from the side-lines what is being done for us by so many whom we can never adequately appreciate or repay.

The Torah’s words call out in three distinct ways:

First, ‘be sure to heal’ requires anyone who’s injured others to pay for their care. Rabbinic tradition takes this to include medical costs, time off work, loss of future earnings, pain and humiliation. In all but the nastiest of cases no one has deliberately made someone else get Covid. So one could say that no one in particular has the duty to heal.

It’s just this which makes the NHS so profoundly moral, so right. Society, we, collectively take responsibility for our injured and our ill. We aren’t, and can’t all be, nurses or doctors. But we can, and must, enable them to care. Underfunding, (by more than one political party), shortages of personnel, lack of beds, especially in ITU: this is not what the Torah teaches when it says, ‘be sure to heal’. Nor does it mean that so many on whom we are so dependent should remain so badly paid.

Second, verapo verapei is a double verb, ‘heal, heal;’ it’s the most emphatic form Hebrew has. Rabbinic tradition often ascribes to each word of such doublings its own specific meaning. This leads me to almost everything I’m reading and hearing about those on the front line now. They’re striving to heal and heal.

They’re trying to use the best knowledge, subtlest skill, most careful monitoring and the latest almost up-to-the-minute research to save lives, care and, if possible, cure. Yet many are giving something else too: intuition, imagination, love.

Rachel Clarke describes a lady who knits tiny hearts and gives them to the hospital. Mandi, a nurse, knows exactly what to do with them. She puts them in pairs: one she conveys to an anxious family, the other she puts by their loved one’s bed. Since the family can’t visit, she shows them that heart via video:

In this new hospital world of absence and barriers, the hearts speak of love, of kindness and compassion…

This is a double devotion: skill and soul at once.

Third, since they’re written without vowels, the Torah’s words can be pronounced in different ways. Verapo verapei can be (mis-) read as verofei verapei. It’s a sleight of hand Hasidic teachers often practise. Taken this way, the words mean ‘the healer shall be healed.’

A picture in today’s Guardian shows a doctor who’s volunteered to work in ITU. She’s watching the birds, a tiny moment of relief. What will bring restoration to those who’ve struggled so hard to save lives, yet attended on much dying? Who heals the healers?

Some healing is beyond human capacity. The Torah says, ‘I am God, your healer.’ To many, healing may only come slowly, perhaps through nature and music, both sacred and soothing – if only they get time to breathe them in.

But healing must also come from us, at the very least through acknowledgement and appreciation. Rachel Remen, whose life is devoted to caring for carers, writes that ‘medicine is as close to love as it is to science.’ Some of that love needs to come from each of us.

 

Being true?

Our older dog, Mitzpah, has aged greatly during lockdown. The puppy, who does her best to provoke him, succeeds in infusing him with a few minutes of daily zest. But often he follows me round, even more than he used to, staring up with that baleful look which one can’t help thinking dogs secretly perfect in the mirror. But he’s saying something different from ‘Give me another biscuit,’ or at least that’s what I hear. He’s asking, ‘Will you still look after me, will you still love me, now I can’t make the long walks, now I’m ninety-four?’

The question of truth is, rightly, at the forefront of public debate: is everything only ‘my truth’ or ‘your truth’? Are so-called ‘facts’ merely subjective, the way we choose, and try to make others choose, to see them? Or is there such a thing as empirically verifiable data which demands our respect?

But there’s another aspect of ‘truth’ which troubles me no less deeply: being true. ‘True’ in this sense translates into Hebrew not as emet, but as ne’eman, ‘faithful’; or, as my grandfather would say in German, not as wahr, but as treu. It’s how Matthew Arnold uses the word in Dover Beach:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain…

Being true to one another, he felt as he listened to the retreating tide symbolising faith’s ‘long, withdrawing roar’, is all we have on this earth.

As I write, a conversation returns to my mind, still filling me ten years later with a residue of the shame I felt at the time. It was only a two-minute exchange in the street about a mutual friend: ‘He thinks you’ve forgotten him now he’s not well.’

Since then, those words have been an ear-worm in my conscience. They’re my measure of what ne’eman means: faithful, trustworthy, present through thick and thin. I meet people who’re like that; I’m aware of more of them since lockdown has brought to the fore the importance of this kind of ‘truth’: people who keep in touch with everyone they know, who try to forget no one, who treat nobody, ever, as second class.

This is what it means to be human. I recently attended a conference about friendship in different faiths. Much of it left me unmoved because in the end all the theology comes down to this: we hold each other’s humanity in trust.

It’s a responsibility and privilege which goes beyond those we know already. I’ve heard the following often this year, and I’m struck every time:

‘I think it’s a medical student, or it might be a nursing assistant, or the intensive care nurse herself: she holds her mobile phone next to my father in the ICU and lets us talk to him. Sometimes we even sing.’

It’s a truism that ‘a patient is a person, not just someone who’s sick.’ But to live that truth when you’re long past exhausted, when your personal safety may be at risk, when your heart is worn bare by witnessing suffering, and yet still to have the love – what words do justice to this?

We hold each other’s humanity in our hearts, and sometimes in our very hands. How we do so defines us. I believe God asks us all the time ‘Are you being faithful?’ These words don’t come from above. They’re not in heaven but in our family, friends, fellow beings, even in the eyes of the dog.

We had a small family dinner on the Friday night of my Bar Mitzvah (as so many families would love to be able to do now!) I remember vividly something my grandfather said about me: ‘Er ist treu’ – he never got used to speaking in English – ‘he’s true.’ What he was really telling me was: ‘Be true, because that’s what matters.’

I still hear him say those words. I paid little attention at the time, but now they fill me with an inseparable mixture of shame, inspiration and love.

 

‘My strength and my song:’ poetry, music and resilience

As Holocaust Memorial Day closed, with its commemoration of destruction, Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, with its celebration of creation, began. As the week including both of them ends, we arrive at Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song.

Song has accompanied humanity throughout. Judaism is a religion of song; the opening chapter of the Torah is a paean of praise to the emergence of the world of wonder, and the first weekly portion refers to the origin of music. Rabbi Avraham Isaac Hacohen Kook understood the very name Israel as the conjoining of two words shir and El, song and God: Israel means God’s song, singing before God.

Poets and musicians have written with passion about their art; philosophers of aesthetics have speculated about its essence and power. The Torah does not analyse its nature and origins, but declares, simply and frankly, the impetus towards it:

I shall sing, I must sing, to God…
God’s song is my strength.
This is my God, whose beauty I proclaim. ’ (Exodus 15:1,2)

Poetry is the language of the heart and soul; music is what they articulate beneath and beyond the limitations of words. Poetry, in its rhythm and alliteration, is music too. Both poetry and music have accompanied us and been created in even the bleakest and most terrible of times. Hence Carolyn Forche chose as motto for her anthology, Against Forgetting, Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, the lines by Bertold Brecht:

In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.

But how can there be song even in exile, even in transit, concentration and death camps? The question is ancient:

By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept:
How shall we sing God’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137)

 Yet even, and precisely, amidst brutality, words and music affirm dignity, constitute witness and even bring a strange beauty to places of suffering and longing where the heart and the unbearable are compelled to meet. ‘Can you put words to this?’ asked a woman in the starving queue of relatives outside a prison in Stalinist Russia, recognising that the person standing freezing next to her was Anna Akhmatova. ‘Yes, I can,’ she said; and did.

Song is resilience, resistance, and, like the song of the Children of Israel at the sea, its testimony remains long after tyrants and their empires have collapsed.

And song is also joy, music the surge of the spirit’s wonder. Poets and prophets have always understood that all creation sings: ‘The mountains and the hills will break forth before you in song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.’ (Isaiah 55:12) Tu Bishevat doesn’t just mark the importance of trees, with their essential contribution to our physical, mental and spiritual health. It reminds us to listen to how they, too, sing.

It isn’t only mystics with their obfuscating tendencies who hear music in the very nature of the universe. ‘We astronomers,’ wrote the poet and scientist Rebecca Elson, in an extraordinary, epigrammatic line, ‘Honour our responsibility to awe.’

The Torah portion which includes the Song at the Sea which gives this Shabbat its name, Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, concludes with the words, ‘For I am the God who heals you.’ In these difficult times, with their uncertainty, anxiety and grief, may music and poetry heal, restore and strengthen our heart and spirit.

 

Why I wept listening to President Biden

I cried when I listened to President Joe Biden’s inaugural address; I was far from the only one. I didn’t cry because it was a rhetorically eloquent speech, but because it was so eloquently simple, because it came from a human being, a person with a heart.

Biden’s words reminded me of a phrase from Vaclav Havel: what the world needs is a politics of responsibility, a politics of the heart:

“The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.”

Whether President Biden will prove able to provide enduring leadership of this quality, faced with all the challenges, tribulations and inevitable compromises of office, only the coming years will tell.

But the task is not his alone; it calls to us all.

The Torah has a great deal to say about hearts. Pharaoh has a hard heart. It would be fairer to say that his allotted role is to exemplify what hard-heartedness is: he doesn’t listen and doesn’t care, not just about the Children of Israel but even about his own Egypt.

It’s tempting to point at others, especially leaders, who’re hard hearted. The founder of Hasidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov, knew better: everyone, he said, has not just a Moses but also a Pharaoh inside.

I often end my day wondering if I’ve behaved with heart. The simple prayer says it all: ‘Open my heart through your Torah,’ which I take to mean ‘through all life,’ because all experience can be understood as God’s teaching.

I worry: have I said or done something harsh or hurtful? There is endless pain in the world, most of it unspoken. If life is a bird alighted next to us, it’s so easy carelessly to break its wing, so easy not even to notice it’s there.

This week is devoted to mental health. (Please see the events we’re hosting or recommending, and what my colleagues have written.) I only want to say that the Torah speaks of an open heart, a wise heart and a strong heart.

An open heart says, most often not through words: I’m here and I hear. It doesn’t say, or convey, ‘I don’t want to know;’ it doesn’t change the subject; it doesn’t have the answers. It simply communicates, ‘I care.’ I read of a refugee who told a woman who’d listened to his story: ‘I feel heard for the first time since I fled. I’m less in exile now.’

I’m not sure what a wise heart says. But I’ve met people who have one. I can’t remember anything specific they told me, but the feeling I had in their company remains. They listened. They gave out something which couldn’t exactly be called ‘advice.’ I don’t know how to describe it, and it was something more than words which conveyed it. It was an understanding that life has depth, is difficult; that pain is; that life is also robust; that the next step must be dared; that if I fell they’d be there for me still.

A strong heart is not the same as a hard heart. It is resolute not because it’s closed but because it’s open. Its defences exist only to protect and maintain its tenderness. They represent the strength not of coldness but of love.

At this time of intense individual stress and collective challenge, which affects each one of us, though in different ways, impacting every nation and the planet itself, I wish us openness, wisdom and strength of heart, for ourselves, each other and the leaders and presidents of the world.

 

 

 

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