The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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What gives us strength in uncertain times

There’s been something lovely, this unlovely week. I keep picking up my phone to look; not just in addictive anxiety at the latest on the US election, but at the newest postings of pictures from nature, – swans, trees, autumn leaves – in our new WhatsApp group MasorTeva, Masorti Nature, our local Jewish version of Nature Watch.

These are some of the things which keep me going during these complex, strange and difficult days, aside from my family, guinea pigs, dogs and all, whom I’m so lucky to have.

Ordinary beauty: the deep red of the crab apples, the orange and brown of the fallen leaves, the moon, the red-patched faces and yellow-tinged wings of goldfinches.

Kindness: I don’t know why, but what happened when my grandfather died came back into my mind. I’d finished 6th form and was helping at a primary school in Brent. ‘Go home,’ this lovely, warm-hearted lunch lady said, ‘that’s where you’re needed.’ This was 45 years ago, but those few seconds of her smile, her look of deep understanding, still bless me.

Kindness: K. who found asylum in our house for some months, and is now one of the family, calls to say he’s come across another refugee who has no food. ‘Please help him,’ he says, ‘Let’s help him together.’ A message comes through from D. ‘Do you have a buggy in the baby-equipment pool for a local Syrian family?’ One lives to learn to be kind.

Poetry and song: one verse can nourish the spirit periodically for a lifetime. Autumn poems have been following me around, especially Yeats’s Wild Swans at Coole:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans…

Torah: the verses, arguments, lore, law, and music of Judaism. A word is not just one word but seventy voices: Do you understand it this way or that? The fierce pursuit of meanings, precise, exacting, combative, across the cross-referenced interpretations of generations, mutates into something timeless: is that your voice, God, in the spaces between and the silence beyond the letters?

Prayer: I love our Jewish prayers, (as those of other faiths no doubt love theirs). There are so many kinds of connection, not just with our community of today but zooming across time: the prayerbook is a receptacle of the spirits of generations, those who wrote them and repeated them, putting their souls and struggles out there into the infinite. In them are my father, his grandmother and all the teachers and wanderers who knew the words by heart and, turning toward Jerusalem from many lands, spoke them into the ether.

Among, or beyond, or hidden within all is God, or, at least, what I think of as God. I only know these moments of interconnection, when the echo-chamber of my head is quiet, except for the flow of the one and same consciousness which gives life to the trees, the birds and the winds which move them all.

I’m far from unaware that these current days bring many difficult matters: 25 years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the commemoration of Kristallnacht, Remembrance Sunday, the AJEX parade (online only) and, no doubt, politics of every kind.

But through and beyond the anguish, it is these simpler, purer, gentler things we live for. Quietly, insistently, they form our knowledge of right and wrong and create the person we aspire to be. They bring us strength of spirit and resilience; from them community and faithfulness are built.

They are what countless young people longed for when they died on battlefields. They are what I hope the world’s children will live for and grow up to cherish.

 

After the EHRC report

I keep thinking this morning of that image of an old man in a boat. One sees it on the front of reprints of old Haggadot: there’s a big river, in the middle of which is a fragile skiff with an old man holding the oars, rowing towards the unknown bank, away from everyone else.

It’s a depiction of Abraham, Avram Ha’Ivri, ‘Abram the Hebrew,’ whose story we begin to read at this difficult time for our country and the world. Avar means ‘cross’, ever is a bank; so Abram is the one who crosses to the far side. He’s the ‘other’, different, alone, following the voice which tells him to ‘leave his land, his motherland.’

Yesterday was a painful day for many. I tried to write down Ruth Smeeth’s words as she responded to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on antisemitism and the Labour Party. It vindicated Jewish Labour Party members, she said. But what came across was the pain: how for years she’s been unable to go anywhere, including the party conference, without security; how this has affected her family; that she’s had to move home; that she received constant abuse, including death threats. She emphasised the viciousness to which Jewish women have been exposed: abuse on social media is almost invariably even more vile for women. I think of Louise Elman, Luciana Berger and Margaret Hodge: I admire the courage of these women, – and also the men – who spoke up persistently in the face of deafness, indifference and, not rarely, malice. ‘It’s also about those who kept silent and failed to speak out when they knew what was going on,’ Luciana Berger told me. As Jews we know all too well the price of not speaking out, strongly and early, against injustice.

A young man in our community listed the names of contemporaries who left the party because of intimidation and bullying at local meetings, each of them someone I’ve watched grow up, at whose Bar or Bat Mitzvah I’ve spoken. Of course, there are many who are equally passionately engaged with other parties and social and national causes – and rightly so: that’s how it should be in an open, democratic society.

Deeper than the politics, I feel for the aloneness these MPs and young people have experienced. There’s a rabbinic saying that ‘ma’aseh avot siman labanim, the deeds of the ancestors are signs for their children.’ There are times when we are, once again, Abram on that river. I wonder if that’s how my grandfather felt in the autumn of 1916, when, a chaplain in the German Army on the Western Front at Verdun, he witnessed the very country for which he’d enlisted because the Kaiser proclaimed that citizens of all faiths were equal, turn against its Jews.

But this isn’t just about Jews. It concerns society as a whole and the sanctity of faith. Did Vincent Loques, the verger murdered yesterday in Notre Dame in Nice, feel suddenly and utterly alone when the terrorist came towards him with a long knife, in the church where he’d faithfully lit the candles and welcomed visitors for a decade? My heart goes out to his family and the families of the two women murdered alongside him.

Our faiths and faith communities with their sacred precincts, both physical and spiritual, should be places where we re-encounter the God of all flesh and re-affirm our commitments to compassion, justice and service. From there we should be able to go out in freedom to contribute to our societies, which should be enriched and strengthened both by the unifying commonalities of our faith-rooted values and the diversity and wealth of our different cultures.

The first word of the EHRC report is ‘trust’. I hope that processes will be strengthened at this critical time in the UK, in the US with its elections, and across the world, to heal our wounded trust.

 

Why we should all love rainbows

I was crossing the Heath last week when, unexpectedly, I saw a double rainbow. I didn’t just recall Wordsworth’s poem; I experienced it:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man…

I looked around and saw that everyone seemed to feel the same: a moment of wonder embraced us. Even the dogs were lolloping more lightly.

I remembered the brachah too:

Blessed are You, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who remembers and keeps faith with his covenant and is true to his word.

It was a marvellous way to begin the week of Noah, about whom we read in the Torah tomorrow. After the mass devastation of the flood, God promises never again to destroy life, making the rainbow the symbol of this, the first and most comprehensive pact in the Bible.

The rainbow is one of humanity’s most enduring and versatile symbols. Look online and you can see what it means in virtually every culture.

I’m moved by what it signifies today. I hear in my mind Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking with courageous pride about South Africa, ‘the rainbow nation’. Of course, the rainbow is the symbol of Pride itself. A YouTube video explains how each colour expresses a different quality: life, nature, serenity and healing. Keshet, ‘rainbow’ in Hebrew, is the name of UK Jewish organisation working for LGBT+ inclusion.

During lockdown, the rainbow has become an international symbol of solidarity and hope. I’m cheered whenever I see on windows, placards and even in the middle of roundabouts: the colours embracing NHS, or words of gratitude to those who dedicate themselves to our society.

Last, and definitely least, there’s a ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ page on a site about household pets, where you can record the name and endearing qualities of your late lamented guinea pigs.

The rainbow has a profound and complex history in Judaism. On Rosh Hashanah, Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance and judgement over all life, the rainbow is the first covenant we mention: ‘God remembered Noah and all the animals with him in the ark’. Nachmanides notes that keshet is an archer’s bow, but as a rainbow it is inverted to indicate that God will not shoot arrows of anger, but instead send healing to the earth.

More puzzling is the Talmud’s warning not to gaze at rainbows because this shows a lack of respect for God’s glory. This derives from Ezekiel’s description comparing ‘the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds’ to ‘the appearance of the brightness round about the likeness of God’s glory.’ (Ezekiel 1:28). Rabbi Isaac de Trani offers a moving explanation: every person experiences the sacred in different ways and the divine in different shades. We should not attempt to fathom the depth and richness of the spirit.

I’m struck as we begin One World Week by what these interpretations have in common: the rainbow represents the ability to see beyond the self and value existence in all its wealth of forms and colours. Only the capacity to value and care for life in this comprehensive manner can save us from destruction.

Or perhaps it’s all much simpler: rainbows are just beautiful and that makes us feel happy.

Creators or Destroyers: that is our critical choice

‘Up there on the hillside are trees we planted six years ago. We put up a nesting box and a pair of barn owls took up residence within the month. If it wasn’t raining so hard the skylarks would be out in a chorus.’

I’m with James from The Woodland Trust, exploring the square mile of Surrey they’re re-foresting, one acre of which we’ve helped to plant through JTree.global*. (A square mile has 640 acres; Surrey is 190,000 square miles; one acre equals about 750 young saplings) A soggy Mitzpah dog looks up at me, ‘Can we go home now please?’ (At least he’s had half a day away from that upstart puppy who’s cheekily intruded into his household.)

There are oaks, rowans and beeches, the most recently planted scarcely peeping out above the tubing which protects them from the marauding deer. There are fallow fields: ‘We’re letting these re-wild. There are a few sheep grazing to take the excess nutrients out of the soil so that the chalklands can one again produce their native orchids.’

Next to a community orchard of apples, plums, pears and cherries are rows of life-sized wooden soldiers, a memorial for the centenary of World War I: it was here on Epsom Downs that Lord Kitchener marshalled troops before they crossed to France.

Creation or destruction: that’s where we stand now as we recommence reading the Torah. ‘In the beginning God created:’ to the rabbis, especially the mystics, that process is never complete. Day by day, sacred energy flows through the world, re-animating and filling anew with wonder the light and dark, the rivers, trees, animals and humankind.

But only five columns later in the Torah God, frustrated by the wilful selfishness of humans, wants to destroy everything. Life only escapes by a pinhead, the entirety of biodiversity adrift in a tiny ark, afloat on an endless ocean.

But it’s not just God who stands at the centre of the drama; it’s us. Which are we, destroyers or creators? The rabbis termed humankind ‘partners with God in creation,’ applying this to when we practise justice and keep Shabbat, pausing from gain-seeking to honour and appreciate our world. But they were also well aware that we are wreckers and ruiners, applying the commandment ‘Do not destroy’ to an ever-widening circle of wanton destructiveness.

So who are we, and who should we be?

There are many fascinating interpretations of the verse ‘God said, “Na’aseh adam – Let us make humankind”.’ The key question is: to whom is God speaking? Here are some classic suggestions:

-        God consults the angels who say, too late, ‘Don’t do it.’

-        God asks every person, ‘Let’s work together to make you into a truly human being.’

-        The animals ask God to create a creature who can speak on their behalf.

But it’s a different insight which has caught my conscience this year: Don’t read ‘God said, “Let us make humankind”,’ but rather ‘God said to humankind, “Let us make”.

God wants us to be creators, creative, custodians of creation. God wants us to care for and cherish this world. More than that, God needs us to do so. Wonder, beauty, a sense of the sacred – these come from the divine. But the daily work of living faithfully by this instruction – that task belongs to us.

That is why I committed our community to planting a tree for every word in the seven days of creation. Never before in human history has it mattered so much to be co-creators and not co-destroyers.

That is the critical, urgent choice we all must make, individually, communally, nationally and across humankind.

 

*JTree.global is a project of Eco Synagogue, which is supported across all the denominations and has had strong backing from our community.

The ultimate ‘thank you’ and ‘please’

It’s before dawn on this half-moon morning of Hoshana Rabba, the great Hoshana, with its closing prayers of the High Holydays before the Torah year starts again from the beginning with Bereshit, the wonder of creation.

It’s a day of two simple phrases: modeh, thank you, and ana, please.

This year I feel more than just an ordinary thank you for enabling us to celebrate this season together. I’m aware how that ‘together’ has been diminished over these months of anxiety for all and loss for many. Although it’s over a decade ago, I think of my father. Each year we would meet early on Hoshana Raba and go to pray together. I miss him and appreciate how much more intensely so many miss those who, scarcely moments back, stood by their side.

I have many thank you’s.

Thank you to my community; to the leaders who spent hours every day thinking through in detail how to stand safely together as a community before God; thank you to everyone who phoned, wrote and took gifts so that we could try to forget no one as we wished each other a good new year; thank you to all who wrote, edited, and produced special editions of our prayers; thank you to each person who learnt new melodies and lead us in synagogue; thank you to everyone who helped stream these unique services by sharing the skills learnt from zoom Shabbat which, though not quite within the remit of the rabbis, enable so many people to feel comforted and strengthened in spirit through these lonely months.

Thank you to God for first light and the birds now singing like the psalmist ‘I awake the dawn’. Thank you for life itself, which, since the pandemic has brought mortality closer, feels more precious than ever.

And the ‘please’. It’s the please said over and again in today’s prayers. It’s a ‘please’ to God: ‘Ana hoshi’a naPlease save us.’ It’s an impassioned ‘please’ to each other and ourselves, because the fate of the earth is not simply in God’s hands. We have agency and power to do what is just, compassionate and urgent. Please ‘save humankind and the animals; save body, soul and spirit; save this beauty as transient as breath.’ Make us to do everything possible for our beleaguered world.

Please teach us and our leaders across the globe that we have obligations to justice. Don’t make us inured to the cruelty and inequality which afflict our societies, to the worry of millions who face losing their jobs, who struggle to have food for the family, whose children go to school hungry if classes are open, and have no access to study if they are not.

Please save this tevel hamesuyamah, this beautiful world. Make us and the decision-makers across society respect the land and water, plants and animals, fields, forests and the very air which keep us alive. Don’t let us destroy this wonderful world or any of the species with which we share the intricate bonds of life which alone enable us to survive. Command us from inside our conscience to be faithful to the future, so that we practise no more hurt.

Please place us on the side of life. Please, God, seal us, and help us seal each other and our world in the book of life.

 

 

Succah and Solidarity

The rain descends noisily; throughout the dry summer I longed for that sound. But there’s still so much to be done to finish the Succah!

Yet we can never complete the most important part of the Succah, even in the best of weathers: uphros aleinu succat shelomecha, that God should spread over everyone the canopy of peace. For this we can only pray, and make what contribution we can.

I understood that canopy of peace from a different angle yesterday, when I was taken (virtually) to visit the Little Squares of Hope Succah at JW3.

The sides of that Succah are lined with quilts composed of small squares of fabric, each of which contains a drawing or embroidery by a refugee. Together they provide vivid testimony of what it means today to be a homeless wanderer, to ‘dwell in booths’, cross hostile deserts, traverse waters in which you know you may drown, and to have no decent shelter over one’s head. One square shows two children standing before the sea, staring at a tiny boat. In another there is a young girl; over her head is a single word, ‘Bye’.

How urgently these tempest-tossed lonely young lives need shelter, safe physical space, warm heart space and space for hope for a better future. Covid has made everything many times harder still for refugees. We must do what we can for so many people whose desert is not only the literal wilderness they have crossed, as our ancestors traversed Sinai and the Negev, but the loneliness and hopelessness of our cities.

The fate of so many refugees, and the cause which forced them to leave their homelands in the first place, is bound together with an even greater question of destiny to which the succah directs our attention. With its leaky, wind-shaken roof of branches, it represents not just the vulnerability of human life, but the fragility of our bond with nature.

The succah calls us out of our keva, our supposedly fixed and permanent home, into the ara’i, the temporary space of a mere shelter. In post-biblical times, succahs were made from the prunings of the vineyards and the stalks of the corn fields, then decorated with fruits, flasks of wine and sacks of flour. Many of us today hang the produce of our gardens and allotments, – apples, gourds, the last of the runner beans. The purpose is to reminds us of beauty and humility, the gifts of nature and our utter dependence on them.

If we want to be protected in our succah, we need to protect the earth which offers us that protection. In the words of Albert Einstein, we need to free ourselves from the delusion that we are separate from nature and ‘widen our circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of Nature in its beauty.’ The succah invites us into the physical and spiritual space which represents that change. It is at once frightening, humbling, beautiful and inspiring.

One might have thought that the succah, unsafe in strong winds and unable to keep out the rain, would be the last place to asks guests. Yet it is the ancient tradition to summon our ancestors with the Aramaic invitation ‘Ullu, Ullu – come, come,’ before welcoming contemporary visitors.

For, paradoxically, in its very frailty the succah calls for the greatest solidarity, with humankind, and with all living things with whom we hope to share God’s protection.

 

 

Kol Nidrei 5781

We stand tonight, apart in person, but close in spirit.

We stand in reflection and prayer, with wounds from loss, scars of illness, and anguish about the future.

We stand before the God of atonement, healing and forgiveness.

But healing begins with truth. Therefore, accountability is at the heart of Yom Kippur.

In a post-fact world, when lies are promulgated from high places, and the loudest shouting on social media often wins, when a spreading culture of shamelessness has as its motto ‘If you can get away with it it’s OK,’ Yom Kippur summons us before the God of truth.

Eyn nistar minegged einecha – Nothing is hidden from Your eyes

I don’t believe in an x-ray God who keeps a record of our every sin. I do believe that, somehow, I am known by the God of life, whose presence is in all living being. I am answerable to life.

Accountability begins at home. In my heart of hearts I want to be known. In the editing room of memory, when I hear myself say ‘It wasn’t me. So-and-So made me do it. I was only…’ a deeper voice calls, ‘And the truth?’ Honesty and remorse sting, but I must welcome them, so that my past can help me grow.

We are accountable not just in private, but to society. Seeing others go to foodbanks, make masks, bake for hospitals, hearing Marcus Rashford use his iconic status for so much good, puts the question: ‘And you? What are you contributing?’ The God of justice cries out.

We are accountable before nature. One sacred spirit flows through all living being. The plundered forests and poisoned earth accuse us. Mary Colwell wrote in Curlew Moon that sometimes it was only when she pointed it out that people realised they hadn’t heard the haunting cries of these birds for decades. They hadn’t noticed the silence, so were silent. If we too are mute, inactive bystanders before its devastation, we share the guilt for the ruination of our planet.

Above all, we are accountable to our children. We were born into a complex but wonderful world, leant us by the future. Isn’t it our duty to keep it safe for our children’s children?

We are answerable for failing to protest wrong. As we mourn Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we recognise that we must fight for integrity and accountability not just in our conscience but in the public square.

Otherwise Lady Macbeth’s repost that no one will dare call her murderer because ‘none can call our power to account,’ the by-word of tyranny through the ages will, become the strapline of our time. The world can’t afford this.

Accountability, in contrast, is the foundation of integrity. Integrity is the basis of responsibility. Responsibility is the grounds of healing and hope.

The challenges ahead are many.

Therefore may our Torah of justice, compassion and dignity bring us strength.
May the dedication of our ancestors and teachers strengthen us, who strove to be faithful to these principles, and stand with us now in worlds beyond time.
May the beauty of our prayers fill our hearts with strength.
May we find strength in each other, and solidarity in our neighbourhoods and communities.
May we take strength from our very responsibilities which give us purpose and dignity.
May our children, our commitment for the future strengthen our resolve.

So may this be a year of healing;
a year of integrity and truth in our conscience, communities and public squares;
a year of lovingkindness and care, awareness and social justice;
a year of moral and spiritual imagination;
a year for reshaping our societies, rewilding our lands and restoring the earth for all life.

May God’s inspiration and guidance help us turn the spirit of humanity from anguish and fear into determination and hope.

Leshanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah.

 

What our lives are for

Cutting the beautiful liturgy of Yom Kippur down to seventy-five minutes has left me feeling like a criminal perpetrating an assault.

There have been several appeals against the knife:

‘You know the prayer “Ve’avitah tehilah, Yet You seek praise”? Put it back!’

In this case I agree and duly attempt to translate the short passage which contains just thirty-five words and the meaning of our lives:

Yet you seek praise from flesh and blood…from a passing shadow, a mere mortal, whose time is finite, whose life expires, whose consciousness departs, whose unique soul flies away.

The whole of life, its wonder, tasks and brevity, are in this meditation. I still hear Leslie Lyndon singing it in my head. The memory transports me to the cemetery where so many of our community now lie. I wander among them in my mind, recalling the inscriptions and the love to which they point. One can’t write one’s heart out on a stone.

We too will lie in the ground

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
With rocks and stones and trees.          (Wordsworth: The Lucy Poems)

So what can it mean that God, Chai Olamim, ‘who lives for ever, life of all worlds,’ desires praises from us? To praise, one must appreciate what it is one’s praising. How can we even know that such transcendent, trans-mortal life is?

I can only say that sometimes, rarely, precisely in the moment when I sense my smallness, I feel myself awoken to immensity. Caught, held still between fear and wonder, I am silenced by this awareness: it’s not mine, this consciousness. It, and I, belong to something other, something beyond dimensions, the cutting edges of space and time. The life which is forever flows through my mind, is my very breath.

Mortal, yet privileged to know the immortal: it is this which makes us sing.

This is the song of the heart. But there is also the song of deeds. Eternity has entrusted us with now, just one moment, but critical, decisive, in its unfolding. What must we do with these brief gifts of capacity and time, the years when we have power in the world? For this privilege is also commandment.

Nic Schlagman, whose grandmother came with the Kindertransport, and who grew up in our community, said when we discussed Isaiah’s plea to ‘feed the hungry and bring the oppressed poor home’ that he heard an inner call to make his life service.

It comes to us all, in different voices. We may hear it from children, or refugees; from people who’re ill, or in pain; in the silence of songbirds; from the threatened desolation of the earth. But the call is always the same. It’s God’s words to Adam: ‘Where are you?’ There is only one good answer: I am here.

Not just our songs but our actions are the praises God wants from us who, in this mortal hour, hold power over the destiny of so much hope and beauty.

The words are in our sadly shortened liturgy for all of us to put into our consciousness and deeds.

May we be granted a Chatimah Tovah, to be sealed, and to help to seal our beleaguered world, in the book of life.

 

A prayer of healing for the new year

I wish everyone a Shanah Tovah, a good, safe and worthwhile year.

A prayer for the new year

May this be a year of healing for us, our societies, and our beautiful, beleaguered, wonderful world.

These months have brought mortality nearer us all, and grief to many homes. Some deaths have been lonely; some untimely; some the results of self-sacrifice to care for others. Sorrow doesn’t go away; it is gradually transformed. May life, which tears the heart apart, show its tenderness too, drawing together the torn edges of our wounds.

God of life, breathe love and purpose back into our spirits.

Many people have struggled with illness and its after-effects; the fear of it troubles us all. Moses prayed in just five words for his sister who became sick: ‘God, please, heal her, please.’ ‘Please!’ when we plead for someone we love is a big enough word on its own to absorb our whole heart.

God of healing, give us the dedication, science, finance, wise leadership and loving kindness to enable us to be cured.

Society has come together to care in creative and inspiring ways: neighbourhood groups; clapping, and cooking, for carers; mask-making, gown-sewing, medicines brought to the door. All age-groups and faiths have participated. But we’ve also seen the crevasses of inequality: hunger; children with screens for home study and children with none; families with gardens and families with no space for beds; people whose work is hectic, people whose income has gone.

God of justice, who deplores the attitude that ‘I’m alright and that’s your problem,’ make us redress the wrongs.

We’ve shared words of appreciation and kindness. We’ve said to people whom we never told before how much we value them. ‘They say “thank you”’ explained a man filling supermarket shelves. ‘My patients ask, “And doctor, how are you?”’ But there’s also a language of contempt at large: unbridled racism, mockery, contempt, especially towards women, unashamed lying.

God of truth and purity, make us cleanse how we speak and deepen how we listen.

The world has seen courageous and compassionate leadership. But we also witness the lack of integrity in high office, wilful deceit, absence of vision, refusal to submit to accountability and the failure to act swiftly on issues on which the planet depends.

God of integrity, guide us to do, influence others to do, and seek leaders who do what is right and just.

We’ve been attentive to beauty we missed before: What bird is that singing in these quietened skies? We’ve watched the colour of the leaves unfurling, now yellowing and curling. Walks and parks have been our solace. Yet we make nature sick and our habits destroy life in near and far away places.

God of creation, put wonder in our hearts and urgency in our conduct.

God of healing, you’ve entrusted us with life and power. Teach us, cajole us, shame us, but above all inspire us through love to be healers in your beautiful world whose birthday we celebrate now.

 

 

9/11, the Battle of Britain and the God of life

‘I set before you life and good, death and evil:’ What words to read in our Torah on the date of 9/11, and before the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain, marked this coming week.

Everyone of us alive then remembers where we were when we heard of the attack on the twin towers, when we switched on our televisions and saw. Our hearts not go out even now, nineteen years later, to every person trapped on those high floors, who phoned their husband, wife, children, parents, to say in whatever words they could muster: I’m going to die in minutes; I love you, love you, farewell.

Incomprehensible, that madness must have seemed; we cannot possibly imagine the bewilderment and terror. The world shook then, not just in Manhattan; and it has never felt steady since.

On 22 May 1940, soon after the Nazi invasion of Holland, Belgium and France, Guy Mayfield, chaplain to RAF Duxford near Cambridge, wrote in his diary:

Peter has been talking today…about not wanting to die yet…The heartache is to see these young men waiting to have their lives cut short….They talk to me.’

‘One hopes to keep them cheerful,’ he wrote two days later, referring to the many pilots and airbase personnel who drank and talked with him through the early hours. They knew what was coming; they didn’t assume that fate or flak would spare them. ‘Drowned it in rye and dry,’ he noted another night. ‘Prayed,’ he noted too, for the German widows too.

Peter was last seen only weeks later, bailing out of his Spitfire by the French Coast near Dunkirk, into the guns and waves.

Eighty years afterwards, we too are part of the many who owe so much to so few.

My Talmud class struggled over the words of the famous prayer:

On The New Year it is written and on The Day Of Atonement sealed…who shall live and who shall die…

I couldn’t encourage anyone to believe literally in an ‘inscriber God’ dictating the destiny of each and every person down to the very day and date to the penmanship of fate.

But I do believe in the God who writes the book of life, – although believe is not the best word. I feel you near. You are all around me; I hear you in the bird song, see you through the window in the leaves of the olive tree, the vine, the medlar fruit. When I said at dawn Modei ani lefanecha, ‘I acknowledge before you,’ it was you who woke me up, gave me, gives me life.

‘Live!’ that’s what that prayer means to me. Be on the side of life!

We don’t know if the days before us will be tens of thousands or just tens. But we can make them days of life, days of the love of life. That, too, may not always be easy, since often there are troubles are fears and depressions to fight. But it does not lie entirely beyond our power.

So that is what we must do this difficult year: strive to live and help others to live too. We shall not be on the side of death. We will be on the side of healing, in society and nature. We will take food to food banks; we will not say ‘none of my concern’ when children get to school hungry, or refugees have nothing to eat. We will look out for and look after one another. We will write, phone, email, whatsapp friends and neighbours, and risk greeting people we don’t yet know to say Shanah Tovah, here’s to a good year, in spite of the worries, despite lockdown and its limitations. We will plant trees, let meadows grow and fill the bird feeders. We will stop consuming the planet to the brink of destruction. We will serve the God of life through the service of all life.

There’s nothing better we can do to honour those who so much longed to live.

 

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