The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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A cukoo and a foal

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Psalm contains one of my favourite verses:

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

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

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


Lag Be’Omer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symbol of resilience and hope

‘Do you often take trees for a walk?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Beauty – a human need?

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

We need beauty in our lives.

Or is that a wrong thing to say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Countdown to Pesach 5781 – Thursday

Something Reflective – Seder as Resilience

I gave a talk last week on Haggadah illustrations during World War ll. We looked at editions from the concentration camp in Gurs (1941), from the Jewish Brigade fighting in the British Army in North Africa (1942), from the Jewish community of Morocco (1943, defiantly called ‘Haggadat Hitler’), from Kibbutz Naan (1942) and from the Displaced Person’s camp near Munich (1948). ‘What resilience!’ someone observed, and I saw the whole group nod in agreement.

Jewish history is filled with examples of resilience. One doesn’t have to think far back: my great-grandmother spent the years of Nazi occupation doing her utmost to keep in touch with her dispersed family; it’s all she cared about. Her last recorded words were, ‘Nothing will destroy my faith.’ Innumerable people showed the same spirit. That’s how Judaism, and how the best human values, have survived all the persecutions and degradations of history.

Halfway through the Haggadah we raise up our cup of wine and say ‘Vehi She’amdah – That which stood firm for our ancestors and us…’ It’s not clear what this ‘that’ refers to, which leaves plentiful scope for interpretation. For example: ‘That’ is dedication to Jewish learning; ‘That’ is never feeling secure on earth, so that our homeland is always our faith; ‘That’ is the Jewish women who’ve maintained the strength of family and community; ‘That’ is commitment to each other; ‘That’ is dedication to universal justice and compassion; ‘That’ is Hatikvah, hope itself.

We’ve had much need of resilience over the past year. Let’s draw from Seder night and the Haggadah on our long journey to redemption, renewed courage, hope, determination and faith.

 Something Halakhic – The Obligation to Ask Questions

The Mishnah insists that the Seder include questions. This is based on the Torah’s repeated instruction: when your children ask you – vehiggadeta, you shall tell them. (Hence the name of the Seder text, Haggadah.)

The Talmud explains that if there are no children present, one’s partner asks the questions; if one’s alone, one asks them to oneself and even if everyone present is a scholar, they must interrogate each other. The questions shouldn’t just be formulaic; they should be genuine.

This tenacious curiosity, this urge to learn, to understand more deeply, balanced against the awareness that all our knowledge is invariably tentative and that we must always explore further, – is a key part of resilience.

Rabbi Cardozo recalled how a non-Jewish friend asked to be taken to visit a yeshivah. When they left, the gentleman expressed horror at the arguing, raised voices and seeming chaos within: was this some kind of rebellion against the British Government? he asked. No, Rabbi Cardozo replied, they’re discussing the meaning of God and life. The man was shocked: I thought you’d have solved that long ago, he exclaimed. That, responded Rabbi Cardozo, referring to the questioning and debating, is why we’ve survived all our enemies!

Something Practical

Seder night is both then and now. It’s about history, and about the present. It’s what the ancient, never-ending journey towards freedom means to us today.

So maybe find, and also invite everyone who’ll be at the (inevitably small) Seder to find, a poem, picture or object which expresses for them some aspect of what that road from slavery to equality and injustice to justice means to them. At the Seder, ask them to explain how they see the connection.

Countdown to Pesach 5781 – Wednesday

Something reflective – Seder as Solidarity

‘In spite of it all, I choose love:’ these words were spoken by a colleague of our close friend Rabbi Marc Soloway at a huge online solidarity gathering for Boulder last night. The rabbi told of how she knew personally the baggers and workers at the King Soopers grocery store where ten people were murdered by a gunman. She had made them her friends, her community, people for whom she cared and who cared about her. Beneath her outrage, she said, the shootings made her feel vulnerable ‘for ourselves and for our children’. But vulnerability is the price for love, and ‘in spite of it all I choose love.’

The Seder is about comradeship, the fellowship of the story. It is at once uniquely Jewish, the history of our people on the long, unfinished road from persecution to freedom, and at the same time the story of all humanity, the unending struggle for justice and dignity. It opens with a call to comradeship: ‘Who ever is hungry come and eat; whoever needs, come share the Pesach.’ It culminates with an appeal to imaginative identification: ‘In every generation, everyone must see themselves as if they went out from Egypt.’

This solidarity is the core of moral being. The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote that

The traumatic experience of the slavery in Egypt constitutes my very humanity, a fact that immediately allies me to the workers, the wretched, and the persecuted peoples of the world. (Difficult Freedom)

I believe we must try to live this solidarity is concentric, outward-moving circles: towards our family, our community, the Jewish People, the society we live in, and any group suffering persecution. That, more than anything, is what the Seder means to me. This year Jewish communities across the world are particularly marking our connection with the Uyghur People. [add link to Uyghur Seder Reader ]

Levinas continued: ‘My uniqueness lies in the responsibility I display for the other.’ That responsibility, or, in the words of the rabbi from Boulder, that love, is the purpose for which we are here.

Something Halakhic – ‘This night we dip twice.’

Everyone is familiar with the first dipping at the Seder: we dunk our karpas (parsley, celery, watercress, whatever vegetable we use) in salt water. This is understood to represent our ancestors’ tears because of the cruelty, family separation and slave labour to which they were subjected. The green hope of life is ruined by cruelty.

The second dipping is less familiar: the maror is momentarily immersed in the charoset. According to the Talmud, the reason is to neutralise the venom of its potentially life-threatening sap. The Tosafot quote the geonic tradition that the charoset must be made from fruits and spices mentioned in the Song of Songs, such as figs, dates, apples, wine and cinnamon. (Talmud, Pesachim 116a) Charoset is thus the Jewish version of ‘the food of love’. What mitigates the bitterness and unfairness of life is the love we show one another, the companionship and solidarity we share.

Something Practical – Charoset recipes

There are charoset recipes from all over the world, Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Yemenite; there are versions from Curacao and India. For years, we’ve had the family tradition of making two or three different kinds. It’s a culinary form of inclusivity, acknowledging the rich diversity of the Jewish People and the range of Jewish geography. Go online and you’ll find tens of charoset options. If you can, adventure beyond your familiar recipe. It’s fun.


Countdown to Pesach 5781 – Tuesday

Something reflective – Freedom and Coming out of Lockdown

Every generation has its own special and unique Exodus from Egypt, wrote the popular Rebbe, Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger, known as the Sefat Emet. In Hebrew, Egypt is Mitzrayim, related to tzar, narrow, and metzarim, narrow and confining places. To Hasidic teachers like the Sefat Emet, Egypt is not a geographical but a mental and spiritual location and the exodus is our personal journey to freedom year by year.

It doesn’t need saying that our special exodus this year is our release from lockdown and the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic. It may be slow, but hopefully it will be steady and enduring.

This contemporary personal exodus poses at least two major questions.

The first is so obvious there’s a risk we scarcely think about it. In the Torah, freedom is never just ‘freedom from’ but always also ‘freedom for.’ So what is our re-found freedom for? Some answers are obvious: ‘I want to hug my family, meet my friends, get back to making a living, see the sea.’

Lockdown has forced us to reconsider our true priorities. Which of those freedoms did we take for granted? How will we cherish them more? Of whom and what were we not sufficiently mindful before? Freedom is bound up with social justice and compassionate community: what values have we learnt to stand up for?

The second question is less obvious, but I’ve heard people talk about it. What freedoms, if any, has lockdown actually brought us?

It’s a question some will justly dismiss as insulting, – if one’s been shut in with maddening neighbours, had no digital access, been left at the mercy of an abusive partner, forced to isolate from everyone one loves, or lost one’s job, one’s health, or a beloved relative.

But I believe it still has a place. Before lockdown were we too dependent on material things? Or on distractions? Do we really need everything we thought we needed? Must we get back to all that rush? Has being forced to turn inwards opened doors to inner strengths we were less aware of before? Are there relationships which have deepened and become more important? Are there spiritual spaces, places of listening, we’ve learnt to cherish?

These questions are integral to the special and immediate exodus we are beginning to undergo, into the midst of which Pesach falls this year.

Something halakhic – How do I kosher my kitchen?

What about the oven? The fridge and the sink? How does one kasher a microwave? Last night Rabbi Chaim Weiner took us round his kitchen with a brilliant demonstration of how to make everything Pesach-ready. Follow him through this link. Don’t be shy about sending him, me or any of the rabbinic team questions. And get good, heat-resistant gloves. Burning oneself, as I’ve learnt to my cost, isn’t part of the mitzvah.

PS Don’t overdo it. And don’t leave the hard work to others. (Some of you may appreciate the poem below!)

Something for the Seder – Activities for children

Niki Jackson, our Director of Education, sends these suggested 10 Pesach Challenges, from making charoset through to preparing table decorations and ideas for the Seder.

Vehi She’Amdah

by Talya Glezer, trans. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

She who stood, cleaned, rinsed, polished, kashered, boiled and heated white-hot
Whose skin got burnt by caustic soda
And whose clothes ruined by Economica
Who cooked and roasted and baked
And prepared six Seder plates
And laid the table for thirty
And washed and ironed festival clothes

She who stood
And served the food
And cleared away after the meal

She who stood for ‘Pour out Your wrath’ didn’t manage to sing Hallel and Chad Gadya
But rested her head for one moment on the table
And fell asleep.

Talya Glezer. Vehi She’Amdah (הלילה הזה כולו שירה – עורך מרדכי דוד כהן)


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