For Holocaust Memorial Day: being ‘ordinary people’

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, established to correspond with the date when the first units of the Red Army reached Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945. The horrors are unspeakable; many, including the second generation, feel more shocked, bewildered and bereft year by year. We live as Jews in solidarity with our own people and with victims everywhere.

This year’s theme is ‘Ordinary People.’ As the home page of the HMD website says:

Ordinary people turn a blind eye, believe propaganda, join murderous regimes. And those who are persecuted, oppressed and murdered in genocide aren’t persecuted because of crimes they’ve committed – they are persecuted simply because they are ordinary people who belong to a particular group (eg, Roma, Jewish community, Tutsi).

I don’t think the Bible has such concept as ‘ordinary people’. A ben adam, a human being, is, without exception, made in God’s image. The Mishnah (c. 200CE) elaborates: every person is yechidi, createdunique. I’ve stood by the broken concrete at Birkenau and wondered: who did each of these people love, for whom did they long, as they were forced toward those chambers?

Yet the words ‘ordinary people’ ring true. We are all other people’s ‘ordinary people’. In an excellent talk, Dr John Launer noted how so many ‘ordinary’ individuals allowed the Nazis to come to power. Then, speaking of bystanders in general, he said with brave frankness that the older he gets the less he feels like the judge, and the more he feels among the judged.

The Torah forbids us to be bystanders: ‘Don’t stand idly by your fellow human’s blood.’ (Vayikra 19:16) ‘If you know that someone intends to threaten another person’s life, you have to speak out,’ explained Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1816 – 1893), head of the Volozhyn Yeshivah destroyed half a century later by the Nazis.

This is incomparably easier said than done. It leaves the discomforting question: whose bystander, whose ‘ordinary person’, am I?

Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, was famed as a Torah educator. Who am I? he asked, before answering: I am those aspects of my potential self which my experiences have drawn out of me. That’s why it’s essential to live in environments which bring out the best and deepest within us.

He reminds me of when I was a guest of the church in Germany the 1990s. ‘Had the visit left me angry?’ I was asked on my return. In truth, something quite different had gripped me: relief that I lived in a country whose laws prevented me from doing the worst of which I might prove capable. How would I have behaved had I been an ‘ordinary’ Aryan under Nazi rule? How could I be sure? The consciences of so many people were so deeply infiltrated by the vicious yet alluring discourse around them that they failed to perceive they were doing evil.

But today? I’m less confident our society and world is helping prevent the worst in us.

I stress one hundredfold that there is no comparison with Nazi or other such evil regimes. But I fear the atrophy of conscience. Are we supposed to accept homelessness in our streets, the drowning of refugees in the Channel, the indefinite detention of asylum seekers, or mass food insecurity? What’s being done in the name of my own good country? What racism do some utter, profaning the name and true values of my beloved Judaism?

The Torah speaks not of ‘ordinary’ but of ‘holy people’, anshei kodesh. They aren’t priests or anyone special, but you and me. Anshei, from anoosh, indicates open-heartedness, empathy, humility. Holiness means being truly deeply human.

We can’t help sometimes being bystanders. There’s simply too much wrong. But we must never become inured to it, let alone make it worse. We must seek the courage to be, at least sometimes, not just ‘ordinary’ but ordinary holy people.

A passion for God and social justice: on the 50th Yahrzeit of AJ Heschel

It’s strangely fitting that we should be marking the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Abraham Joshua Heschel just as we begin the Book of Exodus. He died in the night of 23 December 1972, the Hebrew calendar equivalent of which, 18 Tevet, fell this last Wednesday.

Heschel, like his namesake Abraham, like Moses, understood the spiritual call to fight against slavery, degradation and human misery. To him, as to them, relationship with God meant, simultaneously and ineluctably, an impassioned relationship to social justice. That was the essence of the ‘mutual allegiance’ between God and humanity.

People said of Heschel, as if in surprise, that he had intense kavvanah, inwardness, yet a burning engagement against the wrongs of his time. That’s incorrect, wrote his student Rabbi Arthur Waskow: don’t say yet, say therefore. To Heschel the light of the spirit and the flame of conscience came from one and the same fire, just as the burning bush was at once a spiritual and a moral summons to Moses.

In lines I find intensely moving, Heschel wrote in an essay on his involvement with the peace movement that what compelled him to engage was ‘the discovery that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself:’

There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.

The wrongs Heschel protested included the annihilation of European Jewry, the persecution of Soviet Jews, racial injustice in America and the Vietnam War. All too often he was left to feel a lonely voice, unheard by those religious and political leaders he sought to stir to action. In the end, wrote another of his disciples, Byron Sherwin, ‘His conscience remained resolute, his integrity remained intact, but his heart could not survive the onslaught.’

Heschel’s activism was founded on a knowledge of Judaism as inward and integrated as the blood in his arteries. His spirituality was rooted in the intense Hasidic world of piety and learning in which, from well before his teens, he was studying Talmud and rabbinic writings, sometimes eighteen or twenty hours a day. His ‘spiritually-rooted politics’ (Arthur Waskow) were shaped by Hasidic piety and commitment to community, and by the fervent passion for justice of the prophets of Israel, to which he devoted many years of study.

It was this knowledge and passion which made him, a not very successful and little appreciated lecturer, a national moral figure in America recognised first by Christian and subsequently by Jewish leaders:

Rabbi Heschel was a person with whom we could pray. His prayer moved him to action, action for a better world…His commitment to social justice was our commitment to social justice. (Gary Michael Banks: Rabbi Heschel Through Christian Eyes)

Banks is correct about Heschel’s radical, yet deeply traditional, understanding of prayer:

Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement.’ (On Prayer)

This was what famously led Heschel to say on returning from marching alongside Reverend Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, ‘I felt as if my legs were praying.’

Abraham Joshua Heschel is a religious leader of inestimable importance for our time, whether we live in the UK, Israel, or elsewhere. We urgently need a spirituality which summons us to fight for justice and human dignity for everyone, and a passion for justice and human dignity inspired and emboldened by our spirituality.

Where God’s light shines

This Chanukkah I feel I’ve witnessed two moving examples of God’s presence in the world, and two more, by inference, which I’d rather not have seen.

Why ‘God’s presence in the world’? Because of a question the Talmud asks about the Menorah: ‘Does God really need its light?’ Isn’t it rather the other way round, that we need God’s light, not God ours?

The Talmud answers that the Menorah isn’t there to provide God with a torch, but to symbolise how God’s light illumines the world. The lamps of the Menorah ‘are testament that God’s presence dwells in Israel’ and throughout creation.

The first example of God’s light was very public, when the Mayor of London, Sadiq Kahn, celebrated Chanukkah in Trafalgar Square. London is the greatest city in the world, he declared, as he always loves to say. That’s because it’s a place where a Muslim mayor can light the Chanukkah candles with a rabbi next to a huge Christmas tree in its most famous square.

How often in human history, I wonder, has such togetherness been possible? To me, it exemplifies what the Torah means when it teaches that every person, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, gender, or any of the many features which so often divide us, is created equal in God’s image.

The second example was very private. I was welcomed into a residential care home to say the Chanukkah blessings. But it was a different light from that of the candles which caught my attention. I watched the staff; I witnessed their kindness, sensitivity and patience. It’s not easy to provide constant, intimate care to vulnerable people who’ve often lost so much of their stature and independence in the closing phases of their lives. The staff’s conduct made me think of the Kabbalistic quality of gevurah shebachesed, strength within loving kindness, that challenging balance of resilient compassion which requires so much attentiveness, gentleness and restraint. If God’s presence is anywhere in this world, it’s with people like these carers.

Sadly, there are two further examples I’d rather not have witnessed. Were they of God’s presence, or God’s absence? I’m not sure.

The first was the long queue at a nearby food bank. Yes, the bank shows that there exists deep compassion within our society, a determined protest against want, and against the harshness and injustice which causes it, and which leaves so many people unable to provide food and warmth for their families. But it would be incomparably better if such testament were not so desperately needed by so many.

The second was the news that girls have been denied access to serious education in Afghanistan. I know people this will affect, through the knowledge that the suffering their families and friends are enduring is now even greater. To me, this gross cruelty testifies precisely through what it negates: it highlights the truth that God’s presence shines equally in the minds and hearts of men and women, and that it’s deeply wrong, a devastating desecration, to attempt to limit that light.

So the Talmud’s answer makes every sense to me: Yes, God’s light shines across the world.

But how often it is obscured!

That leads me to challenge the rhetorical nature of the Talmud’s original question about God needing the Menorah’s light. The anticipated answers is, of course, ‘No!’.

But down here, in this complex world where the sacred is so often obfuscated by conflict, cruelty and self-interest, God does need us. It’s not our light which God needs, and that deep flame which illumines the heart and mind and shines through all creation doesn’t belongs to us anyway.

What God needs from us is to notice the light, in each other, every person and all life. God needs us to protect and nurture it wherever we perceive it. God needs the light of the Menorah to shine not just in our windows but in our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukkah

About hope and courage: why Chanukkah is truly a big festival

‘It’s the biggest Jewish festival,’ said the twins I was teaching for their Bar Mitzvah. ‘A big festival,’ said our Ukrainian guests, who’d evidently been reading up about Chanukkah just as we had about how Christmas is celebrated in Ukraine.

The truth is that, no, Chanukkah is fairly minor in the scale of Jewish festivals. But it felt mean to say this, so I replied that it had ‘become big.’ ‘Why?’ the boys, who recognise a half-hearted answer when they hear one, promptly asked. ‘Because of competing with Christmas, and because the Maccabees were important role models,’ I responded.

But there’s a better reason why Chanukkah is, and should be, big today: Chanukkah is about hope and courage and we need large doses of both. Our hearts go out to so many people in so many directions in these difficult times that we need reinforcements in our core.

Chanukkah begins on Sunday night with just one light, except for the servant-candle shammes. These days, everybody follows the School of Hillel whose principle is that ‘in matters of holiness we go up, not down,’ adding one further candle every night, culminating with eight. Eight is the Jewish number of the natural cycle of seven, plus one: plus wonder, faith and hope.

As everyone knows, we light the candles in honour of the pure olive oil the Maccabees found in the ruined precincts of the recaptured temple, which, sufficient for just one day, burnt on the menorah for eight.

But there’s a kashe, a logical problem. Why do we bless God for a miracle on the first night? One day’s oil ought to last for one day! A practical answer could be that the Maccabees saw immediately that something unusual was happening because the oil was burning very, very slowly. But they surely wouldn’t have noticed this phenomenon until at least part way through the day.

Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger (1847 – 1905) offers a better explanation: The miracle began because on that first night because the Maccabees lit the menorah with a whole heart despite having so little oil. In other words, miracles don’t begin in heaven, but here on earth, with what we do.

The Maccabees could have said: What when the oil runs out? Wouldn’t it be wiser to wait for more supplies? But they found the courage, took the risk and the flame they lit burnt not for one, nor even for eight days, but for generations, illumining innumerable dark and difficult years in countless lands and lives. Its light burns yet.

I’ve met many people who do like those Maccabees. They say: I don’t know where this’ll lead, but I’m starting a food bank. I’ll create a warm space. I’ll start Cook for Good, to bring whole communities together.

Perhaps almost everyone who has an idea is like that first contingent, who, looking round the war-ravaged temple precincts, asked themselves: What can we do? Where can we find some light?

They search, not in the rubble but in their hearts, and find their symbolic jar of oil, the fuel for a plan: Maybe this could work. Maybe this will bring some hope. Then they ask themselves: But will it take on? What about resources? Will it all go nowhere? Will the flame go out? But they find the courage; they make something happen.

Then, as so often when something good is initiated, others join in, bringing their own energy and inspiration. Further and further circles are drawn to the light. People ask how to help, what to contribute. They too feed the flame until its light lasts longer and spreads far wider than those who first lit it thought possible.

That’s what hope and courage can achieve.

Is the story of the Maccabees and the oil historically true? Probably not. But does it express and eternal truth? Yes definitely! That’s why Chanukkah is, and should be, truly a big festival.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach, Happy Chanukkah

 

The Lights of Chanukah

I don’t know whether I was half awake or asleep, but during the night of this new moon of Kislev I felt the lights of Chanukkah reaching out to me like a warm guiding hand.

It was two years ago, when the long winter lockdown was beginning and we’d been obliged to close the synagogue for a second time. I spoke over Zoom of how as a boy I used to see in my grandparent’s house the Chanukkah candles reflected in the windowpanes, and the reflection of the reflection in the bay windows opposite. The lights seemed like sentinels, like welcomers to wayfarers half-lost as they traversed the night, reaching out to them in the darkness with their hope and warmth.

Last night I saw those candles again and felt them draw me towards them. ‘Join us’, they seemed to say, ‘be part of our light.’ That’s what Chanukkah does: it warms the darkness of the spirit; it brings light to the community.

‘What do you do?’ I asked Cormac Hollingsworth, our guest at our forthcoming event Such a Thing as Society? ‘By profession I’m a banker,’ he said, ‘But for ten years I was chair of Hope Not Hate; now I’m on the steering group of Warm Welcome.’ ‘What’s that?’ I enquired. ‘It’s creating thousands of spaces across the country which will be kept warm and open for children, and for people in general, who can’t afford the bills.’

‘It’ll be a hard winter’: the words ring ominously, like the ‘hard rain’s a-gonna fall’ in Bob Dylan’s famous song.

So how we can make it lighter and warmer for someone, for anyone?

I’ve been having many conversations about hope, mostly with other people, though some, if I’m honest, in the depths of my own heart. One of the best lines I’ve heard is: ‘Never think, or let anyone else think, that simple good deeds are too small to matter.’ To paraphrase the famous Mishnah: Whoever makes life warmer for one single person is as if they do so for the entire world. (Sanhedrin 4:5, 2nd century)

That’s why I’ll be out planting trees this Sunday with clergy of all faiths on a hillside by Abergavenny. Who knows what may grow from our actions? We have to keep our sense of purpose alive and strong.

This week our study group reaches Pslam 40. Two antithetical phrases have stayed with me from the text: the grim libbi azavani, ‘my heart deserted me,’ and the all-important ‘God, I hope and hope again.’ Appreciating those latter words, I researched them in the world of Midrash, rabbinic homily, where I found the following:

Should you say [with Jeremiah] ‘Harvest-time’s over, the summer’s gone and we’ve still not been saved,’ then remember [with the Psalmist] to ‘hope in God, be strong and fill your heart with courage.’ If you say, ‘I’ve already done that!’ go and do it again. If you ask, ‘How long should I stay hopeful?’ the answer is ‘always and forever.’

I never met my Tante Rosel, great-aunt Rose; I think she died before I was born. To my grandparents she was a legend. Through all times, thick and thin, she’d be up before dawn, down in the kitchen singing as she baked the morning’s bread. ‘That’s the way to be!’ my grandparents would say.

So I was happy when last night I saw those same candles which I’d spoken about two years ago and felt them reach out to me as if they were saying, ‘Come join us, you and your community. Be part of our light!’

AJEX Shabbat and Mitzvah Day

This week is AJEX Shabbat, followed on Sunday by the Jewish Military Association’s solemn commemoration. Whitehall is closed, service and ex-service men and women march by, as do their children wearing their parent’s medals in their honour. Over 120,000 Jews have served in the country’s armed forces.

But Sunday is also Mitzvah Day, a wonderful, creative and constructive response to the memory, and reality, of war.

Over the last years I’ve had the privilege of reciting the memorial prayer at the Cenotaph. I’ve found this humbling and intensely moving. Like so many of us, my grandfather and my father served, though in different armed forces. My wife’s uncle Sonny was killed supplying arms with the RAF to the French resistance. Jews, alongside other faith groups and minorities, have made immense contributions to this country, in war as well as in peace.

For those of us who’ve grown up since WW2, war in Europe had seemed a long way off. Not so now. Like others hosting families from Ukraine, Nicky and I wonder: do we leave the daily paper open, with the latest grim, or somewhat better, news? What immediate fears will the pictures bring when they come down for breakfast? It’s probably an idle question, as they speak to the men back in Kharkiv every day.

Here in the UK we are not faced with the constant threat of sudden death from bombs deliberately targeted at civilian infrastructures, something all too familiar to the generation who remember the V1s and V2s. We aren’t about to find on the outskirts of our towns and villages the half-concealed evidence of atrocities.

But war’s effects are all too clear. It wrecks the all-important works of peace. Farmlands are destroyed (We had eleven apricot trees, three produced really large fruits, all bombed, all bombed, ‘our’ grandmother said.) Grain from Ukraine’s rich black earth doesn’t reach the world’s poorest. Even in wealthy countries, rising prices push millions over the edge into destitution. Teachers in Birmingham say one child in three now lives in poverty. Richer nations are saying they can’t or won’t make the payments essential to help the planet’s most vulnerable nations minimise and adapt to climate change.

I’m sorry to write such horrible things but they weigh on the heart.

But they made me notice what I hadn’t properly taken in before: how, in the small siddurim, the grey-covered prayerbooks issues to His Majesty’s Armed Forces, the memorial prayers are followed immediately by verses full of longing for ‘the works of peace.’ They remind me that every Amidah, every single one of Judaism’s thrice-daily petitions, concludes with a prayer for peace. We must never take it for granted; it’s the most immeasurable blessing.

Late last night, unable to sleep, I went downstairs to fetch Isaac Rosenberg’s collected works. In a poem of 1917 he wrote how, returning from action, he and his men suddenly hear

But hark! Joy – joy – strange joy,

Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.

Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.

Death could drop from the dark / As easily as song –

But song only dropped

Our hearts go out to those like him who longed for peace but never lived to see it.

On their behalf, we must rededicate ourselves to the works of peace, to everything which Mitzvah Day upholds, caring across the boundaries of our communities, cooking, planting, giving, doing everything we can to make that peace as real, as lasting and as deep as we possibly can.

Hope, and how to find it

The first I heard about the results of Israel’s elections was an email from the Freddie Krivine Initiative which brings children together from every background: We shall not give up on our work! That was enough to tell me all the rest.

That vote, and other world events besides, made me turn urgently to Emily Dickenson’s poem

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul –

We need hope; we need it to land like a familiar robin on our outstretched hand and hop down into our heart.

The stirring Psalm recited through the Hebrew month of Elul and the High Holydays concludes with the repeated instruction

Hope in God; be brave, make your heart strong, and hope in God (Ps. 27)

The rabbis taught that every repetition in the Bible has a purpose. The point here is that to have true hope we need to work at strengthening our heart with everything which inspires us.

So these are some of the things which motivate me. The first is people. Three secondary school boys came to my home for lessons yesterday. The first two said ‘COP 27 is going to be a disappointment, like COP 26.’ ‘Only partly,’ I replied, wishing I disagreed more. But the third said something different: ‘I’m in a local group which plants trees, clears weeds and improves paths. I go once a month with my father. The sustainability committee at my school has got rid of plastic bottles.’

So the first message I tell myself when I feel low is ‘Stick with people who’re doing good. Find them, follow them, keep them in sight.’ That’s how I felt at Parliament for a launch of the Walking Inquiry into Immigration Detention. Here were people, some who’d been detained themselves, who listen to asylum seekers, walk together, act together, and who’re determined to keep going until they right the wrongs of the system.

That’s why, regarding Israel, we must speak out for the dignity of all people, condemn racism clearly and specifically from wherever it originates and support everyone working for a respectful, pluralist society.

Fortunately, across the world there’s no shortage of people from every faith and walk of life whose purpose is to do what’s good, and who’re passionate about it. I try to go where I can learn from them. They strengthen my heart.

My second source of hope is the world’s beauty. This isn’t about aesthetics; it’s about love. My wife and I saw a deer trapped in a fence. She’d misjudged the height of the top wires and caught her hoof between the strands. She hung upside down, her head on the turf. I tried to speak gently as I wedged the wires apart and watched her limp off, her leg sprained but not broken. ‘She’ll rest in the woods. There’s food there, and water,’ Nicky said.

How can one not love our fellow creatures, our companions on this earth, especially when they don’t harm us? That’s my second source of hope: the sheer preciousness, the vulnerability and wonder of human life and all life, inspiring us to work for people, also animals, trees, nature itself which needs our urgent engagement.

‘Od lo avdah tikavetnu, Our hope has never ceased…’ runs Israel’s national anthem, expressing the secret of Jewish, of all human, resilience.

Our hope may never have ceased, but few of us can honestly say that it’s never even faltered. That’s when we need to nourish that hope and, fortunately, as Emily Dickenson concludes in her final verse

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

The festivals are over, but we mustn’t leave them behind

The High Holydays have passed and the Jewish year has reverted to its weekly round of ‘six days shall you labour and, on the seventh, rest.’ The holidays may be over but, as we go out into this world with its numerous challenges, I don’t want to leave them behind. For they bring to our lives beauty and wonder, community and communion, responsibility and respect. Without these qualities I don’t know how we can face whatever time may bring.

So here are some of the experiences I want to stow away in my heart and carry with me through the year.

From Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, I want to take the sound of the shofar, that call of the ram’s horn which cries out on behalf of all life. For in its notes, the teki’a, shevarim and teru’a, are the tears, brokenness and yearning for freedom and joy of all existence. In them are the soul’s aspirations, the birdsong, the vastness of moors and the unheard voices of wrongly imprisoned victims of tyrannous suppression.

Before it is blown, we declare that we are commanded ‘to hear the call of the shofar.’ The assumption is that we comply by paying attention in those moments when it’s sounded. But maybe what’s required is that we retain the call in our soul and hear it over and again throughout the year, so that it re-awakens in us solicitude for suffering and solidarity with joy.

From Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I want to take the opening prayer, Kol Nidrei, All Vows. More than the words, its deep, uplifting music tells us that though, despite our best intentions, we fell short; our failures must in no way prevent us from endeavouring all over again to be the best person we possibly can ‘from this time forth until next Yom Kippur.’ Yet even as we say those words we acknowledge that we’ll fall short once more, but continue undaunted to strive, hope and aspire.

And from Yom Kippur I want to take too those painful reminders, ‘We’ve betrayed; we’ve done wrong.’ This is not in order to indulge in feeling guilty, but rather so as never blithely to forget the world’s sore hurts and our responsibility to heal. For our hope as humanity lies in truth, accountability and the commitment to make reparation.

From Succot, Tabernacles, the harvest festival, I want to take the gratitude and the beauty. It’s time now to take down the fruits we hung in thanksgiving, and the flowers and leaves have begun to wither. But it’s never the time to forget our dependence on the land and the rainfall, on the flow of the seasons which, in the Torah, God promises Noah never again to disturb, but which in many land we have profoundly disrupted.

I want to take too the friendship and fellowship of the Succah and the promise that its shade means God’s protection, as expressed in this prayer on leaving it at the festival’s end:

May the angels of your presence accompany us from the Succah back into our homes, for life and peace. Guard us from doing wrong; protect us from all harm and from the evil times which afflict the world. Give us the energy and inspiration to serve you in truth, with love and respect. Help us repair whatever we have hurt. May we find safety and peace.

As we go out into a difficult world, may what we take with us in our hearts from these festivals guide us, console us, cajole us when we feel helpless, and give us courage and hope.

A time to keep silence and a time to speak

Standing as close to her as he could, my grandfather surreptitiously pushed his elbow into my grandmother’s ribs: ‘Say nothing; don’t react.’ He involuntarily imitated the action as he recounted the incident to me decades later. He’d seen the Gestapo officer watching them as they passed the poster with its typical Der Stuermer caricature of Jews.

That was Frankfurt in 1938. ‘There’s a time to keep silent,’ wrote Ecclesiastes. If ever there was such a time, that was it.

There are many kinds of silence and many different reasons for maintaining them. Mercifully, many have more to do with compassion than repression. Through life one tries to learn to discern when words are an impediment to communication, when it’s important not to interrupt, how to let listening deepen, how to avoid obscuring with words the heart’s intuitive alertness to the unspoken, when not to break the communicative silence.

But, as Ecclesiastes also says, there is also a time to speak out.

I’m mindful of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet, because we will read it in synagogue tomorrow, on the Shabbat of the festival of Succot. It has no obvious connection with the season, except perhaps for its ‘autumnal tone’ with its chorus line ‘vanity of vanities’, as if it were translating the leaf-fall of the forests into the world of human society: What’s left when all the paraphernalia of life is stripped away? What’s life’s heartwood?

But I’m also thinking of Ecclesiastes because of that line ‘There’s a time to speak.’ Of course, one has to be cautious, because words, once spoken, can never be dissolved back down into the expressionless ether.

But there’s a time when truths must be spoken and across the world it appears that this time is now.

I therefore respect Jonathan Freedland, the staff of the Royal Court Theatre and those who spoke out, in particular the members of my own community Luciana Berger and Dr Tammy Rothenberg, to create his play Jews In Their Own Words, naming and calling out often denied forms and foci of antisemitic hatred and abuse.

Across the world, it is impossible for those of us who have lived in freedom to come anywhere near to appreciating the defiant courage of hundreds of thousands of young people in Iran, especially women, who, despite knowing they may be beaten, shot, seized, and made to disappear, cry out against unbearable repression, impoverishment and degradation.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize marks an essential moment in the moral history of humanity. It was a wise decision to award it to two organisations, Memorial and the Ukranian Centre for Civil Liberties, and one individual, Ales Bialiatski, who, despite imprisonment and all the armamentarium of totalitarian states, persist in telling truth to power. It expresses on behalf of us all our solidarity with those who refuse to succumb to the politics of lies and fabrications. It gives recognition, in a world in danger of becoming inured to fake news with its narratives of falsification and suppression, to the supreme importance of truth.

Memorial was established by Andrei Sakharov in 1987 to document the horrors of Stalin’s regime. In the recently published volume My Father’s Letters, Correspondence from the Soviet Gulag, Irina Scherbakova, a founding member of Memorial, concludes her preface by quoting from Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate:

Neither fate, nor history, nor the anger of the State…has any power to affect those who call themselves human beings… In this alone lies man’s eternal victory over all the grandiose and inhuman forces that ever have been or will be.

‘The world stands upon three things, truth, justice and peace,’ Rabbi Shimeon ben Gamliel observed nineteen hundred years ago. Without truth, there can never be justice and without justice never ultimate peace.

Therefore, in Ecclesiastes’ words, we need, no less that the wisdom to understand when to keep silent, the courage to know when to speak out.

Succot – the festival of welcome

From inside to outside, that’s the scramble when Yom Kippur ends and the joyful festival of Succot, Tabernacles, is merely five days minus seventy-five minutes away, with so much to do to prepare.

The two festivals have a complementary but collaborative relationship. Yom Kippur is a day indoors, within community; Succot is a time to sit outdoors, beneath the succah’s canopy of leaves supported on temporary, sometimes shaky, walls.

Yom Kippur is primarily a voyage inwards. In the days of the High Priests, when the Temple in Jerusalem still stood, it was a journey to the heart of the sacred compound, to its Holy of Holies, where the Cohen Gadol sought communal atonement from God. Today, when we have neither High Priest nor Temple, we each travel inwards to our heart to encounter life’s basic questions: Why am I here? What’s my life for? How do I use it for the best?

Succot is our first response, our immediate answer. In building our succah (or sharing a communal succah) and taking our meals in its shade, we live out three qualities: appreciation, hospitality and humility.

Before it became a symbol of the refugee status of our ancestors during their forty years in the desert, the succah was part of the world of farming. Jacob builds a succah to protect his cattle from the sun. Isaiah mentions the ‘succah in the vineyard,’ where the person paid to act as human scarecrow and protect the grapes from marauding foxes might gain a few moments’ rest.

In earlier times a succah was built from the stalks of the grain crops and pruned vine branches. It was decorated with the best of the harvest including flasks of wine and oil, bags of fine flour, peaches and grapes. To this day a succah should be a place of beauty, hung with the fruits of the year. Many a Jewish gardener decides what to sow based on whether it will yield produce to hang in the succah.

Succot is the antidote to entitlement. It says in the most basic, physical terms: thank you for shelter; thank you for food. The rabbis who created its liturgy were farmers, or from farming families. That’s why they prayed for God’s help in the most mite-sized of doses: protect us from blackfly and locusts, mildew and scorching, flooding and drought.

Hence the humility. In spending these days in the succah, we recognise that we are dependent in multiple ways: on the earth and rainfall, on agriculture and trade, on peace and the rule of just laws, all summed up, in traditional terms, in reverence for life and the God of all life.

The succot prayers have the simplest of chorus lines, consisting of just one Hebrew word: Hoshana! Save us! Look after us! We know we need your help, God, and support from one another.

Hence the importance of hospitality. Before we ourselves enter, we invite the ushpizin into our succah, the spirits of our ancestors, beginning with Abraham and Sarah. But they refuse to come if we have not first opened our succah to guests, or if we’ve forgotten those around us who have no food or shelter. Succah is a ‘please come in,’ not a ‘please go away’ festival.

Whereas the succah itself couldn’t be more down-to-earth, the space beneath its canopy is considered holy. It represents harmony, succat shalom, the Tabernacle of Peace. It expresses in the most basic terms the kind of balance we hope and strive for between nature, humanity and God: a relationship of harmonious growth together, of inclusion and compassion, justice and welcome, recognition and gratitude.

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