Never Give Up

Picking up the newspaper, following election days and Brexit dates, I find Milton’s lines echoing in my head: ‘On evil times though fallen, and evil days’. How, in the UK, Israel, so much of the world, have we allowed ourselves to get into such a mess?

Pesach, the festival of freedom, Spring and hope is scarcely a week away. I was studying a Hasidic commentary on its core text, the Haggadah, when I came across the Rebbe of Slonim’s interpretation of the second-century teacher ben Zoma’s analysis of the commandment to recall the Exodus from Egypt ‘All the days of your life’. Ben Zoma says:

‘The days of your life’ refers to the days.
All the days of your life’ includes the nights.

The Rebbe explains:

There are those who take strength only when it is day; that is, when they see light. But there are also those who take strength even in the hour of darkness, when all is as night, so that the nights, too, may become like ‘the days of your life’.

I went to bed connecting in my mind this spirit of courage and determination with the scores of people I know on either side of the Atlantic and Mediterranean who fight cruelty, devote their lives to healing pain, talk to homeless people, ensure hungry children have breakfast, lunch and dinner, speak out on behalf of the wordless world of nature, feed the birds, plant trees, give beds to those fleeing persecution, challenge racism, inspire the soul with words and music, and refuse to give up.

I woke up to the following email, a translation by my colleague Gil Nativ of a letter by David Grossman:

In the footsteps of this election day…I promise to examine myself every day to make sure none of this evil spirit sticks to me: not the racism, exploitation, nastiness, belligerence, stupidity, or short-sightedness. I shall continue, like a child, to believe that there can be justice and equality here, tranquillity and peace between individuals and peoples. Even if my elected representatives do not believe in this and my government is not doing it, I will strive to achieve this here, in the small four cubits of my personal space.

Given the course of the last five years across the globe, the Israeli elections are hardly the only ones about which he could be writing, and there, at least, there are elections.

Grossman’s concluding phrase may require explanation. The Talmud observes that, since the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70CE, all God has left in this world is ‘the four cubits of halakhah (Jewish law)’. Notably, four cubits is also the rabbinic definition of any individual’s personal space.

Can we, then, make our personal space into God’s sacred space by what we do and how we act? The story of the Exodus carries clear directions on how to achieve this: never exploit another human being; respect and uphold the dignity of every person; shun any nationalism and popularism which entails the degradation of other peoples; do nothing which brings environmental disaster upon your country; refuse to be compliant to cruelty and injustice; locate yourself, like Moses, in places where the sufferings of others are not invisible to you, because those who suffer from them are our brothers and sisters; dedicate your life to these values.

I watched a wren in the garden this morning. It’s Britain’s second smallest bird; it weighs little more than a 20p coin. But it’s doughty and determined. You can’t always see from where it sings, but it has, for such a tiny bird, the loudest, brightest, most sustained and heartening song.


Don’t carry on the same as before

From time to time I think back to the old joke about the man who went to the doctor to sort out his aches and pains. Aware that initial appointments cost $100 while subsequent visits were only $50, he said with a smile as he entered the consulting room: ‘Here I am again doctor’. ‘Well’, said the latter, looking him over with a smile: ‘As for the treatment, just carry on the same as before’.

I’m lucky: I like most of my ‘same as before’. If I could have the time back when the children were small, the dog just a puppy, the light rain drying off the rowan trees and the sun shining back from the puddles on the path – I’d have it, please, right away.

But the world is not in a state where we can carry on just as before. The earth is too beautiful, life too precious, and the future of its children too great a responsibility. ‘Do something; change your ways’, they’re demanding as in their hundreds of thousands they strike about climate-change across the globe. Perhaps, in an oblique, disturbed and disturbing way, the gangs who do knife-crime are saying something similar: ‘We want a future: meaning, value, hope’.

Shabbat Hachodesh, ‘the Sabbath of the New Moon’, falls this year precisely on the new moon of Nissan. It opens the month of spring, the month of Passover, when we tell our ancient story: ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt’….

‘Why?’ a teenager asked me: ‘Haven’t we got better experiences to talk about?’

My immediate answer was that one can’t be a healer unless one feels how the world hurts. Those hurts are urgent.

‘Help’, says my colleague Levi Lauer from Israel: There are 900 single asylum-seeker mothers here. Their problems are multiple: ‘PTSD; separation from friends and churches; extreme language and cultural estrangement; a propensity to resort to corporal discipline of their kids; long undertreated medical issues…’ I’m not going to not answer on behalf of our community.

‘Put a hot red pepper on your Passover plate’, say Jews supporting Extinction Rebellion: think what to do about the world heating up. (The first site which came up when I googled the group was ‘Synagogue of Satan – Jewish Supremacy’, with a Swastika in the middle. What vile abuse!)

Look through a turtle’s or an albatross’s eyes at the plastic you dump in the sea, says David Attenborough of Blue Planet. In the queue at the bakery I chatted with the woman behind me about how both of us had brought our own bags. ‘Anyone who says we need less plastic’, the lady behind her chimed in, ‘Is an anti-Semite. We need more plastic, not less’. (What folly. How foolish, too, to misapply and trivialize anti-Semitism.)

‘Begin again’, teaches Rabbi Haim Haika of Amdur, in a penetrating re-reading of Hachodesh, ‘this month’, as ‘Heichadesh: Renew yourself’. Habits, he continues, have a way of imprinting themselves on your insides. (‘Habit’, teva, and ‘print’, matbia, are also from the same root in Hebrew). Don’t let that happen.

I don’t want to cheat life. I don’t want not to care. I don’t want the God who resides in all life to turn me away with a cheap answer because I wanted a cheap getaway. I need to say to God, to all life, to the spirit which lives within us all, to the ultimate healer, ‘I am here. Help me not to carry on the same as before.


Prickly Subjects

11pm last night was a highlight of my week. ‘Come’, my daughter Libbi called from the garden, ‘Quickly. I’ve seen it.’

‘It’ was the baby hedgehog I’d brought home one damp November night. I’d been out late with the dog on the Heath when I noticed a tiny ball of prickles curled up in the wet grass. Sometimes hedgehogs are born too late in the year to make it through the winter; they have to reach a minimum weight to survive hibernation. Was this baby animal too small? If I took it home to feed it up, would I be removing it from its family, doing more harm than good? But then, we had a large garden with other hedgehogs present and, following professional advice, we’d taken the essential measures to make our garden hedgehog friendly.

The animal fitted snugly in my glove. I ran home, dog leash in one hand, baby hedgehog in the other. I called the hedgehog help-line (yes, Britain has such a thing), took advice from congregants (there’s expertise on everything), bought the right food, fed the animal nightly and invested in a deluxe hibernation home. (‘A fool and his money are easily parted’, says my wife – who would have done exactly the same for an animal, or human, in need).

So, when Libbi called out, and we saw the hedgehog, thin but definitely alive, emerge from its winter sleep, we were thrilled.

I’m writing about this not just because it brought our family joy, and not only because over and again I reli­­­­ve a horrid scene where at a crossroads I watched a gang of teenagers stone a hedgehog to death.

I’m writing because, in a world which leaves so many of us feeling so powerless so much of the time, I am passionate about ‘can do’. ‘You are not at liberty to desist from the work’, insisted Rabbi Tarfon 1900 years ago, words we put on the certificates of achievement awarded by Eco-Synagogue.

We don’t have to watch, like helpless bystanders, the decline of wildlife, or race and inter-faith relations, or teenager safety and wellbeing, or social justice, or compassion itself.

I’ve had a learning week. I met Leket Israel, Israel’s National Food Bank, which last year gleaned 30 million tons of produce from the fields and saved 2 million hot dinners from waste. I saw City Harvest, which has provided 5 million rescued meals in London (they bring food to our asylum seekers drop-in). They estimate that 9.2 million meals are missed each month by Londoners who can’t afford food, while 13.3 million meals are thrown away.

I met with parliamentarians, religious leaders and the heads of The Wildlife Trust to discuss their input into the forthcoming environment act, based on their amazing report Towards a Wilder Britain. Britain is among the most environmentally degraded countries in the world.

Our hedgehog, our garden, our synagogue and Eco-Synagogue will all play a part.

I went to Barnet House to express solidarity against racism and anti-Semitism with members of the Muslim community. I listened to how teenage boys and girls experience our local streets. Last Friday a group of us took gifts to the North London Mosque following the atrocities in Christchurch. In this populism age, with xenophobia on the rise, we need to stand, and be seen to stand, together.

In his excellent book To Do The Right And The Good, Elliot Dorff describes compellingly how Judaism understands the creation of a compassionate, just and sustainable world as the inescapable responsibility of every individual, household and community, – our part in our partnership with God.

When that young hedgehog emerged last night from its long sleep, I felt that it was shaking me awake too, and all of us, to do more for the sake of life.


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People who bring heaven down to earth

‘How beautiful the world still is, how stunning life is’, Simon Lichman wrote to me this morning: nature ‘is not just beauty, it is the finely tuned essence of that which makes it all possible.’

That ‘essence’ is what I mean by God; the better part of me tries to listen for it, everywhere.

I’ve been asked: ‘So what did you do in Israel besides run a marathon?’ The answer is: I heard that voice, many times – as I hear it also here, in London.

I heard it because I met so many people, different, the focus of their lives diverse, who yet had in common the determination to connect. I could list all their names and what they do, but I’m afraid I may leave someone out. So here are only a few:

There’s Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, who created the community Tsion, and who, on Yom Yerushalayim, the date the city was united physically in the Six Day War, unites it spiritually by praying with imams, priests and rabbis together to ‘Seek the peace of Jerusalem’.

There’s Levy Lauer, who knows every detail of what it means to give a decent meal, a place to sleep, a safe roof, to a destitute refugee who would otherwise be homeless and hungry with nowhere for her children on the streets.

There’s Shaiya Rothberg, who teaches mysticism at the Conservative Yeshivah, but isn’t such a mystic as to be afraid to put himself on the line for poor families, Arab and Jewish, in East Jerusalem, so that they shouldn’t be forced from their homes.

There are the Eritrean women at Kuchinate (‘crochet’ in Tirgrinia) creating red and sky-blue baskets, weaving from a past of flight, beatings and rape a future of comradeship, hope and dignity.

There are Art Green and Mimi Faigelson, scholars of Hasidism, who through this language of spirit and feelings help their students discover the pathway between intellect and soul.

There’s Yonatan Neril, off to Kenya where Israeli and British initiatives produce non-polluting solar energy for developing African economies. He picked up a roll the café owners were throwing away: ‘May I give this to the beggar on the corner’. Waste is intolerable, he said.

There’s Simon himself, devoted to bringing schools together, Arab and Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian. It takes him an age to walk up the lane in Ein Rafa because every child greets him, everyone calls ‘Hey! Simon!’

And, and,…What these people and so many others across the world have in common is the commitment to deeper connections: between Jews, Christians and Muslims mind and heart; home and homelessness; humankind and nature. In affirming these links, they help us hear, despite the surrounding racket, the quiet pulse of the hidden life which flows through everything, ‘that finely tuned essence of what makes all possible’.

I respect such people. I honour their fellowship. We must strengthen each other in the bleak times at hand, as fear grows and across the world populism sharpens its weapons.

Such people live by a Torah which, like the fire on the altar in the Temple long ago, burns through the night until morning, ‘lighting the darkness until it is transformed into light.’ (Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Tschernobil)

Late one night in Jerusalem I spotted a light still burning in a ramshackle store. The old man owner turned and saw me: ‘Yes, I have a Tallit, a prayer shawl for you’. There and then he retied the eight-threaded fringes on each corner, humble, devoted, speaking no words of distraction until the skilful work was complete. Traditionally one thread in each fringe is blue, recalling the brilliance of the sky. Thus I bore silent witness to the binding of the knots, the tying together of heaven and earth.

There are many whose lives are devoted to the weaving of such bonds, who make noble the endeavour to be human.


After the murderous attacks on worshippers at Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand

We stand with you in solidarity and sorrow.

Wherever we are in the world, whatever our faith and beliefs, we stand together with you as pilgrims on this earth, as fellow human beings striving to do what is compassionate and just, hoping to share with our loved ones, friends and fellow citizens the privileges and responsibilities of life.

We have no place for racism, hatred and supremacism.

We are appalled and disgusted at the premeditated racist murder of Muslim people, made even more brutal, blasphemous, hurtful and despicable because it was carried out in the sacred precincts of prayer, during the peaceful hour of worship.

We mourn the victims alongside you, children, teenagers, healers and teachers, heroes who tried to save others, people from different parts of the world, contributing to the civic life of Christchurch and New Zealand.

Our hearts are with the bereaved. Our prayers are with the wounded and traumatised, and with all those striving to heal and support them. Our anguished thoughts are with all whose family members are still missing.

We feel for Muslim communities across the world.

The oneness of God and the fellowship of our common humanity unite us. We must stand as surety for each other in times of threat and danger. We must act collectively against all forms of hatred and bigotry. We must foster friendship and understanding between us and all people. We must work together for the safety and good of all life everywhere.

Written in sorrow

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
Senior Rabbi, Masorti Judaism

Why I’m running for the guide dogs

I can’t fully explain why I’m crazy enough to start running marathons when I’m sixty. It’s partly to control my diabetes (a shorter distance would do!) it’s partly to make up for how useless I was at sport at school; it’s largely the pleasure of sharing, whenever possible, an activity with my son Mossy. And running in Jerusalem is a tribute to my father, who was here from 1937 – 55, in charge of keeping the blood banks cool during the siege in the War of Independence in 1948. It’s a tribute, too, to the history of our people, the Jewish People whose dreams and destiny have been intertwined with the fate and spirit of this extraordinary city for three thousand years.

Most importantly, I think of this as a marathon of hope, an HaTikvah marathon, that this remarkable civilisation of temple, synagogues, spires and minarets will one day be fully and completely Yeru-shalem, the abode of shalom, peace, the town shechubrah la yachdav, the city whose faiths and peoples are united all together. However grim the politics, I can neither count nor adequately appreciate the people I know whose lives are courageously and tenaciously devoted to just this vision.

However, I can explain why I’m running for Israel’s guide dogs. Yes, I am stupidly sentimental about animals. Yes, I love dogs. But it’s more than soppiness; it’s the feeling of oneness in their company, how the spirit of the God of life flows quietly through us all. It can’t be by chance that our black-and-white border collie came with his own tallit. We humans have to put it on as an extra garment; on occasion I’m foolish enough to feel – selectively of course – that animals and trees wear their spirituality naturally.

As for the ‘guide’ aspect, I’ve seen how these remarkable dogs, beautifully trained, can restore not only sight but independence, confidence and joy to their human partners. Today dogs guide blind people, assist those who have physical disabilities and become companions in trust, affection and resilience to civilians and soldiers with PTSD. It’s not just primary schools who have a resident hound to calm childrens’ – and teachers’ – nerves. In exam term certain universities have puppy corners too.

‘It’s not so much what he (Napal, a black Labrador) does for me physically – the assisting, the service,’ writes Jason Morgan in A Dog Called Hope, ‘so much as what he does for me socially and psychologically…he was my bridge to the outside world.’ Jason was severely wounded in an accident while on a mission with an elite US military unit. He would wake up at night screaming with physical pain and mental terror. But now ‘with Napal among us we feel like a family again.’ The children are once again ‘blessed with a dad who smiles.’

If I can contribute to at least one such canine-human partnership of faithfulness and love, I’ll be happy. Last year people privileged me to raise enough funds to sponsor half a dog, from the tip of the tail to the centre of the heart. This year I’m hoping to manage the other half; from the heart to the tip of the nose.

As for guide dogs in Israel (I support guide dogs in the UK as well, and wildlife projects in many places) I can do no better than echo what the young man said on the promotion film when asked why he didn’t import a ready-trained animal from America: ‘If my dog hadn’t been educated in Israel, how would he have known to go straight to the front of every queue?’

‘Be my eyes’ is not in fact the recommended greeting when owner and guide dog first meet. It’s a quote from the Torah. For there are many kinds of eyes and many ways of seeing. Animals, perhaps dogs especially, have often helped humans to see with the heart. I can’t count the number of people, animals, gardens, wild places and wild flowers which have enriched my sight and deepened my insight.

Today I’m stocking up on vitamin C to get rid of a cold and food for energy. Above all I’m storing in my thoughts the love and support so many people have given me. Thank you for your encouragement! When my stamina runs low (somewhere or everywhere between 18 and 35k – after when I hope I’ll feel that even if I have to crawl I’ll make the finish) I know that my friends and community are behind me, saying: ‘Treat as a sermon; just keep on going for four and a half hours.’

God, an old Kentish orchard and a prayer for people of all faiths

It’s the simplest Hasidic interpretation, but it’s beautiful. It’s how Yehudah Aryeh Leib, the Rebbe of Ger, reads the opening words of the 2nd paragraph of the Shema:Im shamoa tishme’u’. Any grammarian will tell you that the repetition of the root shema, ‘hear’ is for emphasis only.But the rebbe understands it differently: ‘If you listen’, he explains, ‘You will surely hear’.

But where should we listen? And to what?

‘Anywhere’, he would answer, ‘And to anything’; because the presence of God is in all things, and all life speaks God’s secret speech. We only have to listen.

That awareness overcame me this morning, looking at the willow catkins, the almond blossom, the daffodils beneath the yew. The voice of God is in all creation.

I felt the same when I attended the morning service for Ash Wednesday in St Margaret’s Church next to Westminster Abbey as a guest of Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkins, chaplain to Parliament and the Queen. There were a dozen Christian worshippers, silent, immersed in prayer, and there was Nicky and me. We didn’t join the prayers, but we did join prayer, because the quiet concentration which is prayer’s heart comes over one ineluctably in such silence, such attentiveness.

Sometimes the language and imagery of other faiths troubles me; I hear a note which is difficult for Jews. But more often I feel moved, especially in ancient churches hallowed by generations of worship. I’m carried down to the depths of echad, the oneness of God, the oneness of all life which embraces and humbles us all.

Aida Edemariam wrote a wonderful piece in yesterday’s Guardian about the lost art of listening. The essence, she said, is ‘to find the humility to set aside the needs of self and listen’. The Rebbe of Ger would have agreed. There is only one condition, he explained in a letter to his children: to set aside self. Then the holiness which abides in all things becomes apparent. Listen, and you will surely hear.

I’m not very good at attaining such inner silencing. But sometimes it attains, overcomes me. I had such a moment a week ago in Nicky’s beloved native Kent, in the orchards next door to the house where she grew up. Immediately afterwards I was asked to compose a prayer for an interfaith service:

I write as the February sun shines through the branches of old apple trees in a venerable Kentish orchard, disbursing the mist above the frost-hardened grass. In my soul is thanksgiving for the privilege of life, this gift of awareness in a world full of wonder.

Trees, birds, animals, people, all creation alive at this moment, we are entrusted to each other at this critical hour on the journey of our planet.

May neither fear, greed, ignorance, heedlessness, heartlessness nor lack of imagination misguide us into hurting, fighting and destroying each other. May our different ways to God educate and enrich our spirit so that, even as we follow our own path, we find companionship and inspiration from others who follow theirs.

May our humanity not make us arrogant, as if we owned creation. Rather, may the sensitivities and vulnerability of our hearts deepen our consciousness, so that we recognise with humility our fellowship and interdependence with all existence.

Together, may we be moved to love life more deeply. May we be inspired to serve the God of life by working, each with our unique gifts, insight and energy, for the good of all living beings.



On anti-Semitism and racism

I was having a coffee at Charing X Station when a man approached me and asked with bemusement, ‘What’s this anti-Jewish thing?’

I muttered something about hate, racism, age-old, when he asked again, ‘What’s that ‘s’ word?’ ‘Anti-Semitism?’ ‘Ah, yes, that’s it’, and he wandered off.

I was left asking myself why I didn’t have a proper pre-prepared one-liner. The answer is partly because books are being written on the subject, currently by Deborah Lipstadt in the States, and another, I believe, by Rabbi Dame Julia Neuberger here. But it’s also because I’m not willing to say anything which might invite the response: ‘Well, if you weren’t successful…; if you didn’t keep yourselves to yourselves…; if you didn’t have Israel… people would like you more.’

It’s no doubt true that different groups can always do more to open the door, build bridges, make themselves better understood. I believe in such activity.

But it must not lead to blaming the victim. The responsibility for hating lies with the hater. We are neither able nor entitled to take away other people’s answerability for their conduct. The responsibility for racism lies with the racist.

It must be faced, individually and institutionally. It won’t do to think, as it seems some in high places do: ‘I’m ideologically anti-racist. I always have been. Therefore, nothing I do can be anti-Semitic’ or anti-Muslim or anti- any other group.

Like love, hope, fear and anger, hate is a human response. None of us is immune. I’m uneasy when anyone says, ‘I’m not prejudiced’. Prejudice springs eternal in the human breast. Uncertainty, frustration, envy, even too many people in the waiting-room: we fix on someone to blame. The someone easily becomes them; they become a conspiracy. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was exposed as a vicious forgery in The Times in 1921. But tragically, like fake news, it’s not the facts which have the impact but the supply of a seductive story which suits, promotes and magnifies peoples’ prejudice.

Vigilance against racism, anti-Semitism, any form of bigotry which fixes on a collective target, must begin at home, in the mind and conscience. Self-deceit is easy. So is blaming the victim for being upset at the perpetrator. It’s a truism that not everything a ‘victim’ says is necessarily fair: everyone carries their history, sensitivities, prejudices of their own. But the refusal to meet, listen to and engage with the coherent responses of victim groups is a further and clear sign of bigotry.

Vigilance must extend to public discourse, the media and social media, the pulpit, local and national politics and the law. Lives are at stake: the safety in the street of people like you and me, sometimes Jews, sometimes Muslims, sometimes people who are black, sometimes refugees. The reputation of the country is at stake.

In the growing environment of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia I’m especially concerned as a rabbi with how we develop individual and communal spiritual resilience, show solidarity with other vulnerable groups, and understand identity.

A cynic once called anti-Semitism ‘the rabbi’s friend’; it makes more Jews feel Jewish than the longest of sermons.

I don’t love what I’d call such ‘negative identity’; it’s not the Judaism I want to promote. Professor Arnold Eisen writes about the difference between a covenant of fate and a covenant of destiny. One doesn’t choose the former. It happens by birth; it’s reinforced the moment someone says, ‘You Jew!’

The covenant of destiny is what we make of our given identity. It’s how we live, love, cherish, and study it; how we interact with its ancient wisdom and contemporary communities so that they deepen our conscience, open our hearts and guide our values and actions. That’s my focus on this Shabbat UK.

Humanity hasn’t got the time to waste on hatred. There’s too much, too important, to be getting on with.


Don’t blame others – be a leader

I have just come inside from saying shacharit, the morning prayers, in the garden. The last of the snowdrops, the crocuses, the early daffodils; that faint late February smell of pre-spring buds and promise: my heart gives thanks for you.

There’s nothing I want more than to pass to my children, to all children, a world of such wonder and multifarious beauty. The longing to do so has become my passion and, increasingly often, my frustration.

Perhaps it seems odd to focus on pastoral trivia in a week of political drama. I haven’t had my head in the sand. On Monday I had to facilitate what became an angry and aggressive evening on the impact of anti-Semitism. On Tuesday I worried for my French colleagues as there took place in France hate and counter-hate demonstrations. Last night I spent with the Community Security Trust.

I worry for Jewish, and not just for Jewish, MPs. I worry for anyone who, in this rising tide of populism, puts their head above the parapet in the name of humanity, truth and compassion. And I’m sure we have to be out there with them.

Meanwhile the government and opposition in this country are caught in the blinding intricacies of Brexit, bringing most other business to a virtual halt. Elsewhere, Presidents Putin, Trump and Bolsonaro are not currently leading their countries, or the world, in inspiring directions.

Yet all the while the earth itself is suffering, as report after report, on soil impoverishment, insect depletion, falling biodiversity and habitat loss makes so clear that it’s hard to bear reading them. If this continues, with land and food loss, we will see refugees from environmental disaster, from whole territories become uninhabitable, in numbers we had not imagined before.

In these frightening times, when the future of humanity is at stake, we need leadership which faces the real issues in energy, agriculture and transport policy, and in economic and social justice. We need a leadership with integrity, honesty, humility and imagination. We need leaders who can help us turn fear of the future, and the anger and frustration it engenders, into a vision for the future which inspires and enables us to work together, British, European, Jewish, Muslim, whoever we are. I expect this is what many current leaders aspire to be and do. Perhaps they need not just our support and encouragement, but also our indignation.

This brings me back to the garden. Nicky – my wife – has become a galanthophile, a lover of rare and unusual varieties of snowdrop. When, as we stared at two virtually indistinguishable flowers, I asked her why she cared so much about the minute differences in petal and pattern, she said, ‘Because they make me notice’. I’ve been thinking about that answer ever since.

The garden, the park, the birds, make me notice. The refugees we’ve hosted, the homeless I’ve met and the people I’ve encountered who look after the homeless, make me notice. Noticing makes me care and caring makes me passionate. This helps me find others, individuals, organisations, leaders in thought and action, who know more. They are my teachers and my inspiration, in Britain, Israel, wherever they are.

What matters most is not blaming other leaders but supporting and becoming leaders in the issue about which we care.

Judaism teaches me to love this earth, cherish this creation, care about people, seek understanding, support those who are weak, live by my values.

The sight of the snowdrops reminded me of that this morning.


‘As the deer longs for streams of water’: On the Book of Psalms

It was my grandfather who gave me my first copy of Tehilim, theBook of Psalms: ‘All of life is in it,’ he told me. I knew that he knew: a happy childhood in a rabbinic family, then student years in Berlin at its cultural prime had been followed by the Western Front, the great depression and inflation, the rise of Nazism, Dachau, exile, and a new life in Britain, haunted by losses. The book with his signature in it was my treasure, – until I lent it, I don’t recall to whom, and never got it back. When he died, we knew what to write on his gravestone: ‘I shall sing to God with my life, make music to my God with all my being’.

Now a group in our synagogue, our very own Chevrat Tehilim, Psalms Group, has completed a study of all 150 songs. It’s true, we haven’t done so quickly. The Psalms are traditionally divided into seven books, one for each day of the week. You can see pious Jews, women especially, on the buses in Israel reading the daily sections with deep devotion.

Admittedly, our group took a decade and a half, meeting roughly ten times a year to study each Psalm carefully and in order. But this too has been a deeply devoted and loving undertaking.

This Sunday we celebrate completing the Book followed, in traditional Jewish fashion, by starting immediately at the beginning. ‘May we not be forgotten by you, nor you be forgotten by us’, runs the customary invocation on completing a sacred text. We have no intention of forgetting.

No other book from the Hebrew Bible forms so great a part of the Siddur, the daily prayer book, as Psalms. No other text in world literature has become so intimate a part of the prayer life of tens of generations of both Jews and Christians. As my grandfather taught me, the entire life of faith and doubt, despair and hope, wonder and dismay, alienation and closeness, fear and trust – all of it is here.

There is the yearning of loving faith: ‘As the deer longs for the streams of water, so my soul longs for you, God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God.’ (Psalm 42)

There is the bewilderment of feeling utterly lost: ‘I said, “Darkness will surely cover me, light be night around me,”’ followed by the realisation, perhaps no less disturbing, that we are nevertheless not utterly alone, “Even darkness is not dark for You.” (Psalm 139)

There is the hopelessness of abandonment: ‘You have distanced from me my friends and those who love me; all who know me, darkness.’ (Psalm 88)

And there is wonder at creation: ‘[God] makes the streams run through the valleys, flowing between the mountains…The birds of the skies alight on them, and sing among the branches.’ (Psalm 104)

In all the years of prison and solitary confinement there was one item Anatole Shcharansky refused to let the KGB take from him: his book of Psalms. From it, he wrote later, he learnt the awe of God:

What is significant for me is that I feel a closeness to God in a most tangible manner. I sense its essence and domination over me. (Letter to his mother, 6 May 1984)

We can wrap our lives around the Psalms. And other people’s lives are wrapped in them too. I think of those who began the fifteen-year journey with us, but who didn’t complete in down here on earth: Olga Deaner, who adored Jane Austen but also developed her sense and sensibility among the songs of King David; Professor Bryan Reuben, who loved his Bible as much as his science; David Jackson who, despite two strokes which robbed him of his mobility, wrote music and a commentary for every single Psalm, continuing to do so when he could scarcely leave his room:

Though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death I shall fear no evil for You are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me…(Psalm 23)

…and Your music, Your Psalms, the wonder of Your world, and the companionship of those who care for such things – they comfort me too.


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