The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

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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.

 

Have hatred and racism driven God from our world?

The Torah and the newspaper are open next to me on my desk. I am not sure if they’re screaming at each other or rising together in protest.

This is the headline: ‘I still feel the pain of his loss’: these are the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s daughter Bernice and his son Martin Luther King III. They were small children when their father was assassinated. Today they are sharing in the recreation of his 1963 ‘I have a dream’ march to Washington. There has probably been no time since then when his words and spirit are more urgently needed. He looked forward to the day when his children would be ‘judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character’. Yet after the murder of George Floyd, Martin’s 11-year-old daughter Yolanda told her father she was too frightened to go outside and play…

This is the verse from the Torah:

The Lord your God walks with you in your encampment…
So let your camp be holy, lest God see ugliness in you and turn away. (Deut. 23:15)

There are several critical words:

Encampment refers to where the community lives, specifically where we pray; these places should be physically and morally clean. To the Hasidim ‘camp’ also means the human mind and body; we should be pure in thought and deed. To the universalist our encampment is the whole world, the inner cities, towns and countryside entrusted to our care for the duration of our lives.

Holy means free of oppression. In the very next verse, the Torah commands us not to send refugee slaves back to their oppressors. On the next page in the newspaper is the account of a trafficked women who evaded the trade-ring of pimps exploiting her and strove to bring them to justice. She’s one of very, very few who gets away. Holy isn’t just about sacred states of spirit; it’s about grounded realities, the sanctuaries of justice and compassion.

Walks’ is a weak translation. The Hebrew word is reflexive, meaning not ‘walk past,’ but ‘walk about’, stay, abide, feel at home. It’s the exact opposite of ‘turn away’.

So we’re told we must maintain a world where God feels at home, or else God will walk away. Do we?

‘No,’ answered Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King’s close companion in campaigning: God is not at home in the world and our task is so to transform it that God will once again feel comfortable among us.

I therefore believe in a God who hovers, who knocks at our heart, mind and imagination. I believe in a God who can take us by surprise, as when Jacob awoke from his dream of a ladder from heaven to earth and said ‘There’s God in this place and I didn’t realise’. I believe in a God who can be present in such a way as I witnessed in moments of lovingkindness at the North London Hospice this week, and as I saw when watching the wings of a golden eagle from high in the Scottish mountains.

I don’t believe in a God who simply walks away, but in a God who shrinks smaller and smaller when we do wrong, until there’s only a small tight knot of the divine left in our hearts crying ‘let me in’, but we hardly hear.

I believe in a God who weeps for the race hate, injustice and cruelty we humans show each other and nature, but who hugs and sings and rejoices in the joy of beauty, kindness, justice, courage, humility, understanding, graciousness and love.

I believe in the struggle to make our encampment holy.

 

The Jewish New Year for Animals – why this is so important

When I was small, favourite things were the dried flower my parents bought me as a treat from Hoyes, the sweet shop. You put the flower in a jar of water and it would unfurl, a growing, gripping thing.

The Mishnah, edited in the Galilee around 200CE, often seems to me like that: a text which unfolds, growing in one’s mind, complex, vital. One of my favourite mishnayot concerns Rosh Hashanah (rapidly approaching).

It begins unexpectedly: ‘There are four new years…’ The first is the 1st of Nisan, new year for kings (important for dating documents). The second is today, the 1st of Elul, new year for tithing cattle. The third is the 1st of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah par excellence, when every living being passes before God. The four is the 15th of Shevat, new year for trees.

As this Mishnah opens out I feel it encompass every aspect of life: our practical and financial affairs; our connection with God and conscience; our response to trees and nature and our relationship with animals.

This is, admittedly, a liberal interpretation. In fact, the new year for trees was a date for taxing crops. The new year for cattle was when farmers had to give every tenth lamb and calf to the Temple. But today, just as the Rosh Hashanah has become a time of profound reflection on what it means to be human, so Tu Bishevat calls on us to examine our attitude to nature, and the 1st Elul has been rebranded as the Jewish New Year for Animals.

I’ve always liked animals; my parents assumed I’d be a vet. I include an extra word in my prayers every day: when we ask God to bless the years, I add ‘vehabriyot - and the animals’.

In Biblical and early rabbinic times, Jews had close relationships with nature. ‘The righteous person feels for the life of his domestic animals,’ teaches Proverbs. Oxen and asses must not be burdened on Shabbat. But donkeys often feel cold, so it’s permitted to put a blanket over them on Shabbes. Tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, the prohibition against making animals suffer, is regarded as Torah law, legislation of the highest authority.

Maimonides noted that mother animals feel pain similar to humans when separated from their young. Nachmanides observed how animals can make choices and some show love, implying that they have souls.

I admit I’m sentimental, but I believe this New Year for Animals is highly important. I’m horrified by how we as a species treat them, excepting only our beloved household pets. In Curlew Moon, Mary Colwell records how many people hadn’t even noticed that they hadn’t noticed how the haunting calls of these remarkable birds, once so familiar, had become absent. The spring, and all the seasons, had simply fallen silent around them; they hadn’t even realised. I fear we’re the same.

Judaism teaches that we’re part of creation, dependent on it, interdependent with it and answerable to God for our relationship towards it.

If animals could write, there would be trillions of signatures on their ‘J’accuse’. How we treat food animals is unthinkable; that is, virtually all of us fail to, choose not to, or can’t bear to think about it. Where’s the humility; where’s the compassion? Unless we sharpen our agrichemical laws, the small mammals and songbirds will be gone from our fields. And we call ourselves human, humane!

Yet we almost all say we love nature. In Jewish teaching love is never just sentiment but always also commandment, as the Torah demands: ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ – and all God’s works.

Like the Rosh Hashanah, today’s New Year for Animals calls us to teshuvah, repentance, rethinking, realignment of who we are.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov, a good and thoughtful month of Elul

The Shabbat of Consolation

For much of last night Isaiah kept going round in my head: ‘Nachamu, nachamu ammi: Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people; speak to the heart of Jerusalem.’ The Sabbath after Tishah Be’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, ‘The Shabbat of Consolation,’ after these words.

I can’t be the only person who doesn’t sleep well after a fast day. Driving down to Kent late last night to celebrate my daughter Kadya’s birthday at my mother-in-law’s, where the family almost always gathers on special occasions, I’ve had the privilege of praying in the orchards while the mist is low among the apple trees, the first birds are singing, the last star is still visible in the sky and the horizon to the east is red with expectation. That in itself is balm and consolation.

What brings comfort? How can we offer it to one another? These questions drifted in and out of my half sleep as they’ve flowed through my thoughts all my working life. What can one do about the pain in so many lives, the sorrow in so many hearts?

Sometimes it’s about action. Have you anything to eat? Are you being bullied? Who hurt you like that? These questions may need to be asked. I’ve seen the queue at the local food bank, the children waiting. When someone’s hungry, comfort starts with food. Where there’s race hatred, consolation begins with calling the perpetrators speedily and unhesitatingly to account, – and stopping them misusing twitter. Comfort begins with the commitment to compassion and justice. That’s why Martin Luther King quoted Isaiah’s next verse in his great speech “I have a dream”: ‘Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low.’

‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem:’ sometimes comfort demands words. Social media has advanced the art of the cleverly cruel put-down. Incomparably more important is the opposite skill: knowing how to offer the right words of support, especially to children, so that those around us feel valued, encouraged and empowered. ‘So many people have made me feel worthless. You helped me see I was somebody, that I had something to give.’ This is one of the greatest compliments I ever heard a pupil pay a teacher. ‘You changed my life.’

Yet there are also sorrows which neither actions nor words can reach. What can heal the grief in another person’s heart? What can we do or say? We have nothing to offer but our own heart’s attentiveness, nothing else but companionship to give. ‘Speak,’ says Isaiah, but maybe it’s more important to listen, simply to be present and hear, without platitude and fear, but with kindness and calm, and maybe, if appropriate, a gentle touch of humour.

And at times it is we ourselves who seek comfort. What human being is never in need of consolation? We may turn to others for guidance, but in the end only we can know how to find healing for our spirit.

Perhaps it is among the trees, with the birdsong, by the rockpools on the shore, where, like the sea tide, a greater life flows into our heart’s wounds and withdraws again, flows in and withdraws, and quietly we know: I accept life in its mystery, even with its flaws and hurts. I am at one, amidst this endlessness, with my smallness and mortality. I hear you, God of life.

 

Groundless hatred, causeless love and the fate of a young hedgehog

‘But think of the kindness to which it led.’ I’m holding on to Nicky’s words.

She’d been on her way home when the road was blocked by a police car. The policemen were not at their usual tasks; instead, they were trying to pick up a young hedgehog stranded in the road. Experienced in such matters, she wrapped the poor animal in a towel and brought it home for rehab.

Sadly, it wasn’t well. On the advice of the RSPCA we took it to the Royal Veterinary College. It cried all the way, piteously, like a kitten. The vet soon returned with the news that the little creature was too sick to save. We got home after midnight, upset.

‘But think of the kindness,’ Nicky said: ‘The police, all those drivers who stopped, David and Linda who care about hedgehogs, the woman on the helpline, the vet. We also did our best; it didn’t die abandoned. Even wild animals know.’

This may all sound trivial. But I’m not so sure.

The Talmud explains that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, gratuitous hatred. In response, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook famously wrote:

If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to causeless hatred, then we would rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with causeless love — ahavatchinam.

‘Causeless love’ is made up of small interactions. It’s Wordsworth who wrote that the best portion of a good person’s life consists of

little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.

Nothing is too small for love, even a young hedgehog.

These days before the bleak fast of Tishah Be’Av are understood as a time when anger is on the loose in the world. This fits well with our current predicament: lockdown has eased but Covid is still around and there are worrying warnings about autumn and winter. Frustration and anxiety are in the air, like the virus itself.

Short temper, blaming and hitting out are understandable. Who has never done it? But, as the cornerstone of our synagogue building reminds us, the world, so easily destroyed by groundless hate, is rebuilt through love: olam hesed yibaneh.

Transforming vexation into kindness is also a prickly matter to handle. We need to listen, but not react, holding back our own irritations, even if warranted. We don’t simply want to mirror anger back with anger. We need to respond with understanding.

Bernard Kops described how he was walking with his father in the East End when a man up a ladder reviled them with antisemitic abuse. ‘What’s hurting you?’ his father had asked. Somehow, he got the tone just right. The man ended up coming home with them for tea.

Perhaps that’s what Rabbi Yochanan (third century) meant when he explained that the temple was destroyed because ‘the judges ruled by the strict letter of the law’ and not with the generosity of compassion. ‘You’ve asked for it; you deserve to be hit back’ may be true. But it won’t draw the angry puss out of the wound; it won’t transform our world.

The mystics speak of the need to outweigh gevurah, judgement and harshness, with hesed, lovingkindness. This applies to our own emotional state, to the world at large, and even in the heart of God. ‘Noteh klappei hesed – God inclines toward mercy,’ teaches the Talmud, inviting us to do the same.

I’ll hear the whimpering of that hedgehog for a very long time. It is the minute articulation of cries of great suffering across our world.

 

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