What our lives add up to in the end

The best film I’ve seen this year lasts just 30 seconds; it’s been screened in one place only, on a friend’s iPhone. I asked him, ‘How does your daughter-in-law-to-be get on with your young twins?’ He opened his What’s App and showed me them throwing themselves into her arms with delight.

That needs no explanation, – but here’s a long-winded effort. God’s first words to Abraham are ‘Lech Lecha, Set forth! Be gone!’ With them, the journey of the Jewish People, and of every individual ever born, begins.

They sound at life’s beginning, when, according to the kabbalists, the soul parts reluctantly from God and descends into the body. They sing in the wind which carries us ineluctably over life’s ocean: ‘Onward, the sailors cry.’ They’re the words those who love us will say quietly after we die, ‘He’s gone.’ They’re the unspoken hope that somehow life’s journey continues, in realms unknowable from earth.

That’s why Lech Lecha resonates inside me, so that I tremble when we read those words in the Torah, as we shall tomorrow.

I used to be drawn to the mystics who, with typical licence, read lecha not simply as an emphatic particle, ‘Get thee gone’, but as ‘to you’: Go to yourself; make life a journey of ever deeper self-discovery until you reach the very wellspring of your spirit:

Go to yourself! Travel until you reach the roots of your soul. (Rebbe David of Lilov)

Go … to the land which I will show you: Go to the place where I’ll reveal to you your own true self. (Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi)

Life is, undeniably, thankfully, a voyage of self-discovery, though it goes in no straight line.

However, nowadays I’m compelled by a more basic explanation. It too is a play on words, though not one I’ve encountered in the classic commentaries. ‘Go to you’: make life a journey toward ‘you’, towards not yourself but other people. For who we are is what we mean to them, – and they to us.

I’ll never forget someone that I greatly respect said at the stone-setting for her husband: ‘Your place was in my arms; now it’s in my heart.’ Our ultimate place, the lands we reach on our journey, lie in each other’s hearts.

I’ve been to cemeteries too often in these last years. I look across the field of graves and the questions rise from the very earth: ‘What does it add up to? What does it all mean?’

‘Go to you’, is the best answer I know. We devote our lives to one another. We do so consciously, as parent, child, partner, friend, colleague, neighbour. We need to give; we want to make life kinder, better, gentler, for the other person.

We go beyond that circle, as we must. Yesterday I was asked: ‘Will your write a commentary about this picture from your community?’ I opened the file with the photo and saw an elderly doctor from our congregation gently examining a refugee. ‘Go – to the you of others who need you’ is God’s most urgent command. How many voices are there right now in the world, crying ‘Is anyone out there for me? Will you go – to me?’

Our places in each other’s hearts are not always good. We lack the power to select only those which show us best. They also include the wrongs and hurts we leave behind, which is why apology and healing are so important.

In the end I believe the journey to find ourselves and our journey toward others are the same. Ultimately, we are what others garner of us; that’s what continues to live of us after we’re gone.

That’s why those 30 seconds are my favourite film, that beautiful innocent image of throwing oneself so completely into such welcoming arms.

World of beauty, world of horrors?

I’ve never understood this; I’ve always been troubled. The Torah opens with a magnificent poem, a paean to the glory of creation. That first chapter of Genesis is utterly beautiful; the dawn light shining through the division of the waters, the first green stalks above the soil, the fruit-bearing trees, the fish in the rivers, the birds of the air, and on land the animals and humankind, in harmony all together.

Yet within scarcely three columns Cain has murdered his brother and his great- great- grandson Lemech is busily boasting to his wives that he’s killed a child. By the end of column five even God acknowledges, shockingly, that it’s all been a terrible mistake and it would have been better if humans had never existed in the first place: ‘I’m sorry I made them.’

How can something so wonderful descend so quickly into disaster?

Then I realised: this is the world we live in every day.

It’s full of beauty. The magic may be greatest when one’s young, the first fallen leaves to stomp through, the first excitement of snow. But one doesn’t get over it. On the contrary, the older one gets the more precious it often all becomes: that view crossed by the sun’s low rays of the autumn woodlands, yellow and orange, down to the fields with the ponies above the lake:

So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise. (Dylan Thomas: Fern Hill)

It’s true, at least it seems so in our moments of wonder: God renews the work of creation every day.

But the cruelty, misery and injustice are no less real.

Late last night I casually picked up The Guardian’s Long Read but paid careful attention when I saw that it was written by Zarlasht Halaimzai, whom I know. Her family were refugees from Afghanistan; now she devotes her life to helping others forced by violence and war to flee their homes:

Don’t leave the people in darkness, I pleaded. (The Long Read)

Most of her letters to officials across the globe received no reply at all.

Jewish leaders, she wrote, responded with heartfelt solidarity:

Many recognised their own family’s experiences in the images of parents handing their children over…

Several members of our community are desperately trying to get people out of the reaches of the Taliban. ‘And it’s only one family out of tens of thousands,’ a friend said as we sat last week in our Succah. ‘Whoever saves one life is as if they saved the world,’ we all replied.

Just that is our predicament: we stand at the interface between life’s wonders and its horrors. There, too, lies our responsibility. What can we do to help or save one person, one child, one living thing, one tiny corner of the earth?

The Torah does not state that God regrets making the world; God is sorry only because of the way human beings behave. But God, tradition tells us, longs to rejoice in creation once again. What can we do to make that happen in one more child, one more parent’s heart, even in the free flight of the birds? That’s the everlasting challenge those first five columns of the Torah bequeath to us.


Virtual London Marathon

I’m planning to run (slowly) the virtual London Marathon on Sunday 3rd October 2021 to support World Jewish Relief and Israel Guide Dogs.

Please help them (and my stamina) by donating via these links:

Donate to World Jewish Relief
Donate to Israel Guide Dogs

Thank you!

Virtual London Marathon route plan (excluding various loops and pit-stop details)

I hope to start from home before 7.00, taking East End Road to East Finchley, then round the block and back via Long Lane, Squires Lane, Summers Lane, Ashurst Road, and on to the main road up to Whetstone; then via Friern Barnet Lane, Russel Lane and Gallants Park Road up Cat Hill and down Bramley Road to take a left opposite Oakwood Station into Trent Park; then out through the main entrance onto Cockfosters Road, across via Hadley Wood to High Barnet, along Wood Street, left at The Gate pub, across to Totteridge Lane, all the way along to Longland Drive, up to Nether Street, then, with any extra loop and circuits of Avenue Park, back to shul for Minchah. I hope to manage to run at least two thirds, and walk or crawl the rest!

Thank you for your support.

RJW with puppy

20 years since 9/11

I knew that tomorrow would be 9/11, twenty years since the terror attack against America and the horrendous destruction of the twin towers. I knew it in my head. But seeing footage; listening to the voices of people who were there at the time, men, women, wives who took that last call from their husbands; watching the firemen; listening to them speak both then and now two decades later, – that brings 9/11 home at a very different depth. I remember the shock at the time; even three thousand miles away it felt as if the pavement was shaking. The shock remains even now.

Two years ago, in that age when one still travelled easily, Nicky and I visited the memorial at ground zero. What can one say? It’s heart-rending.

For some there has been healing. For others, like the woman filmed as she stared out to sea and said she was still mourning the man she loved most in all the world, the sorrow is scarcely diminished.

Suffering begets compassion. But it often also leads to more suffering, as so many desperate to escape Afghanistan know only too well.

I am sure I can say on behalf of my community that our hearts go out to everyone to whom 9/11 has brought, and still brings, grief and pain.

Tomorrow is also significant in the Jewish year. It’s Shabbat Shuvah, which mediates between the New Year and the Day of Atonement. Teshuvah is usually translated as ‘repentance’. Though accurate, this has, for me at least, a limited resonance, as if teshuvah were always about sin. Teshuvah is more comprehensive than that: it’s a rethinking of how we are in the world; it’s a questioning, a re-evaluation, of what matters.

During the shivah for my father – I can’t believe it’s fourteen years since he died – my teacher Rabbi Magonet came up to me after the prayers as I sat on the traditional low chair and said very quietly, ‘This is about teshuvah.’

At first I was puzzled: was he suggesting I’d done wrong? Then I understood that what he meant was something deeper: This is about what truly matters, why we’re here, what it’s all for.

The questions aren’t complicated. On the contrary, it’s the simplicity which makes them so searching: What am I doing with my life? How am I using the limited time I have here on this earth?

The answers aren’t complex either. The heart doesn’t always need sophisticated terminology: It has love at its core, and sorrow for all the hurt that has so wrongly come to exist in the world. It wants to heal, as a mother longs to protect her child. As the rabbis said: Lev mevin – the heart understands.

The heart is such a small and vulnerable organ to set against all the violence, injustice and pain in the world, planes flown with incomprehensible brutality into towers full of people, bombs, the injuries which cruelty and illness inflict every ordinary day.

Or is it? It has remarkable resilience. It often responds to the worst life can do with the best that it can offer in return. It has depth upon depth of strength. When, all but exhausted, it feels it has no resources left, it finds replenishment through the companionship of friends, in the kindness of others, in wonder, even within the smallest of things, and through that spirit which flows subliminally and invisibly and which communicates without words: I am with you; I am life.

If we can return to those depths, we will know what we have to do with our days and our years.


Elul thoughts from the Scottish Highlands

I’m lucky enough to be writing from the Highlands of Scotland, a land our family loves. All around is wonderful beauty. I climbed until I was surrounded by hills, beneath me a small loch, before me to the west the sun setting over the Inner Hebrides and the Atlantic beyond. The only sounds were the small streams, half hidden beneath grass and bracken, and the baaing of sheep, – a living, gentle shofar-call for Elul.

There are road signs one doesn’t find in London: ‘Slow, red squirrels’ and ‘Otters crossing’ (we’ve seen neither). Over the years we’ve watched reforested moors grow into woodlands of birch and rowan. From the water’s edge we’ve heard the curlew’s soft song, and, above, the mew of buzzards and eagles.

On a human level, there’s kindness almost everywhere. I got lost on a run across the hills; an elderly lady was hanging out washing on an isolated farm, so I asked her where I was. ‘Follow that track,’ she said, pointing somewhere into the mountains, ‘it might take you roughly where you’re going.’ I apologised for troubling her: ‘Och, no; I like talking to people.’ Then I ran back the way I’d come.

Covid has hit hard here. People are trying to make modest livelihoods with small enterprises, a vegan café, yoga classes, artworks from driftwood. We attended a talk about the Shant Islands by Adam Nicholson: from the questions, it was clear that almost everyone there was knowledgeable in some area of marine ecology, local fauna, or rewilding.

But is this, with its kindness and beauty, the real world?

In my inbox are urgent requests: Please write in support of our emergency appeal for Haiti; there are two thousand dead from the earthquake and storms on the way (World Jewish Relief). You can’t be silent about Afghanistan; we need a statement. What about the women? And those refugees who do reach the UK, who’ll help them? From all around are reports of injustice, cruelty and environmental degradation, and appeals for action at COP.

I’m reading David Olusoga’s brilliant Black and British; A Forgotten History. Some sentences about the slave trade require little transposition into now. He quotes the abolitionist William Fox, who wrote in 1791:

If we purchase the commodity we participate in the crime. The slave-dealer, the slave-holder, and the slave-driver, are virtually the agents of the consumer…In every pound of sugar used…we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh. (p. 208)

The slave-trade is long abolished (though trafficking and slavery persist). But the trade in commodities continues, often bringing little benefit to local people and leaving their environment decimated. The increasing destitution of some funds the tenuous wealth of others.

So is this really a world of kindness and beauty?

On Rosh Hashanah, just two weeks distant, we pray to the God of both creation and justice. I believe that as we do so, God calls back to us: honour my creation; make my world more just. Of course, there’s no direct voice from heaven; there’s no need. We hear the call from everywhere, from mountains and moor, from misery and wrong. We know it in our conscience and soul.

It challenges and inspires us: what can you do to make this beautiful world less cruel? How are you honouring its wonder?

What else is our life for?


Why saying thank you matters

‘There are two reasons,’ my father used to explain, why the cat can’t say the Grace after Meals. Firstly, she can’t read; secondly she never thinks she’s had enough.’ He was referring specifically to the verse which, as it happens, we read in the Torah tomorrow: ‘You shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God.’ Our dogs have since acquired a similar trait to Fluffy, the cat of my childhood.

Judaism is a culture of blessing. I didn’t know the phrase hakarat hatov until a friend from Glasgow days drew it to my attention. It means recognising and appreciating the good which has been done to us. She phoned unexpectedly from Israel to thank me for publicly acknowledging how much her family had helped my father, my brother and I after our mother died. ‘Thank you for the hakarat hatov,’ she said.

There was a lot to be grateful to them for. They, the Gaba family, took us into their home almost every Friday night for many months, taught us the Shabbat songs, made wonderful meals of which my favourite part was always the jelly with tiny air bubbles in it, then saw us safely home. The two daughters took me to play with zoo animals while the boys challenged my brother at chess. Sadly, neither of the girls is living anymore; Phyllis was knocked down by a car and Judith, who’d phoned me scarcely twelve months ago, died just weeks ago of cancer.

Whenever I think of hachnasat orchim, hospitality and welcome, I think of that family; they are my role model for what chesed, true kindness, means.

The textual basis of hakarat hatov is the Mishnah’s insistence that we bless life for the good we receive. The formula is simple: ‘Blessed are you God…who is good and does good.’ Strangely, I’ve only heard this blessing recited twice in my life – and once it was by me. The parallel blessing Baruch Dayan Ha’emet , the Job-like ‘what can we do but accept this’ acknowledgement of bad tidings which is said at funerals, I’ve heard a hundred times. These proportion are surely wrong.

The emotional and spiritual reasons for acknowledging the good are that this creates an environment of generosity and appreciation. It’s an antidote to our culture of entitlement, in which we don’t even notice privileges because we simply take them as given. The last eighteen months have made many of us more aware of many basic aspects of our lives to which we may have given little thought before: what it means to have flour to bake good bread; the importance of faithful friends and helpful neighbours; the loveliness of what we may previously have seen as just a park or only a tree.

A young woman training for the priesthood offered a beautiful Thought for the Day on Radio 4 in the middle of the first lockdown. ‘Behold the lilies of the field,’ she quoted, ‘They toil not neither do they spin.’ I can’t recall her exact words, but they amounted to this: I’d always thought about the theology, about trusting God and not worrying. But walking in the park with my immune-compromised husband, I said to myself: ‘No; just look at the flowers. Behold them; just look.’

This week has reminded me once again of hakarat hatov because I’ve had the privilege of officiating at three weddings. I always ask the couple to tell me about the values with which they’ve been brought up that they want to take with them into the home they hope to build together. In each case this week, the bride and groom wrote about their parents and grandparents with tender appreciation. Yesterday, as I repeated some of her words under the wedding canopy, I watched the bride’s parents reach for and tightly hold each other’s hands.

In our too-fast-moving, grab-and-eat consume culture, if we noticed and acknowledged life’s gifts and appreciated one another more, we would be a less hurting and less hurtful society and cherish the world with more care.

Why I was at the mural of Marcus Rashford at 2 in the morning

Sometimes one does crazy things.

I’m not a follower of football, but I had to watch the Euro Final. My excuse: ‘People will talk about it, so I need to know what happened.’

I hadn’t the nerves to sit calmly through the whole game, but I did see the penalties. My heart went out to the players who didn’t score. I don’t know how these young men have the guts to come up for their kick, or how they cope afterwards if pressure gets the better of them and the ball doesn’t go where it went every single time on a hundred practice runs.

Friends told me later how they realised the moment they saw by whom England’s last three penalties were taken that there’d be trouble if the ball didn’t hit the back of the net. ‘I knew instantly,’ wrote Bukayo Saka.

I left it too late to write in the press how passionately our community is opposed to racism and how deeply we feel solidarity with these courageous players. But I had to do something. On Tuesday evening the feeling grabbed me that I had to show my respect by going to the mural of Marcus Rashford, disgracefully defaced the previous night. Minutes later I was on the road.

I got to South Manchester around 2.00am. I chatted with the one other person there. ‘I needed to be here,’ he said. We added our messages to the outpouring of love which the wall had by now become.

Before I’d set off, I’d phoned Rabbi Weiner for advice: ‘Is this crazy?’ His answer was great: ‘Yes. But sometimes we need to do crazy things.’

I’m glad I went. My reasons are obvious, but here they are:

If we let racism pass without showing our face, we’re the silent majority who’re assumed to condone it.

That’s true, whoever the victims. But these footballers are true moral heroes. Through these bleak lockdowns, it’s Marcus Rashford who lifted our spirits by insisting children who needed them got free school meals, including during the holidays. He made the government think again; he showed how one person can make all the difference. He’s our nation’s conscience, and he’s not the only one in that England team.

Kate note to Marcus RashfordThere’s something personal as well. My parents were thrown out of Germany by Nazi racism. Out of loyalty to my family, I had an absolute duty to protest the abuse to which these footballers were so vilely subjected.

I went in the name of my community and everything Judaism stands for. In my head was the phrase sinat chinam, ‘causeless hate’. This Sunday is Tishah Be’Av, the fast when we remember the misery destructiveness brings. The rabbis blame the burning of the Temple on just such causeless hate, which brings only misery as hate always does.

Causeless hate is only overcome by ahavat chinam, causeless love. That’s why, of all the messages pinned on that Manchester wall, one stood out, signed simply by Kate:

There will always be hate in this world unfortunately but there is much, much, much more love.

Where do we go now? For sure we must stand alongside the victims and potential victims of racism and bullying. Race hate must be challenged. Social media platforms have work to do.

But is there something more?

Sinat chinam is usually translated as ‘causeless hate’ but ‘pointless hate’ explains it better. Hate gets us nowhere, but does it always come from nowhere? It’s certainly not the fault of those it targets. But are there cruelties and injustices in our world which pour their poisonous fertilisers on the soils which make hurts grows into hates? Ahavat chinam, causeless love, needs to consider this too.

Meanwhile I wish I could give Marcus Rashford a hug and tell him he and his colleagues are heroes of our heart and conscience.

Britain’s first Thank You Day – a Jewish appreciation

I hadn’t even heard of it, until I received an email from interfaith activist Julie Siddiqi to participate in a service in the grounds of what was once Coventry Cathedral, and an invitation to attend a thanksgiving service for the NHS at St Paul’s.

July 4 is Britain’s first ever Thank You Day and sixteen million Brits are preparing to take part. It’s the culmination of a month of community, including Volunteer Week, Loneliness Awareness Week, Refugee Week, Small Charity Week and many other ways of making and celebrating connections across our society. The day is supported by as diverse a group of organisations as the NHS, the Football Association (who’ll be even more thankful if England gets through to the Euro semi-finals) and the Church of England.

Each of the thirteen founders of Thank You Day is devoted to community. It’s moving to read their stories here. May Parsons, matron at University Hospital Coventry, gave one of the first Covid vaccination in the world (outside of clinical trials). Sonny Purba and his son Sameer have been calling people isolated during Covid; they say volunteering ‘has brought them closer together as father and son.’

This all fits well with Judaism, which is a thank you religion. The day begins with the prayer ‘Modeh Ani, I give thanks before you, living God, for restoring my soul in mercy.’ What this really means is ‘Thank you for another day of life.’ I don’t always succeed, but I try to start each morning with those lines, not by looking at my phone.

Saying blessings is a discipline of gratitude. ‘Baruch Attah, blessed are you, God,’ should also be translated as ‘Thank you…’ The words can easily degenerate into a pious formula, what the rabbis called mitzvat anashim melummadah, a mitzvah done by rote. But sometimes they jump out. It’s happened to me a few times, that I’ve lain down on the ground, wanting to put my heart as close to the earth as possible and say with all my being ‘Thank you! It’s a wonderful world!’

It may seem odd to write of ‘discipline’ in this context. But there’s much to be said for cultivating a spirit of gratitude. I know people who won’t go to sleep before recalling five things they’ve appreciated each day.

The ideal is to have a grateful and gracious consciousness. No one can accomplish this all the time. There’s much in the world to be less than grateful for. Why should someone mistreated, or injured by cruel fortune, feel grateful while they absorb the blow?

What we really want to avoid, though, is a bitter and resentful mind. Most of us have tasted those feelings and the flavour isn’t pleasant. While we may not always be able to escape them, we don’t want them to take up residence in our consciousness. For many of us this may sometimes be a struggle in which the help of others and the quiet and beauty of nature are indispensable allies.

The rabbis of the 1st century were deeply aware of this challenge. They puzzled over the familiar phrase in the Shema commanding us to love God ‘bechol me’odecha – with all your might.’ The words translate literally as ‘with all your very-ness.’ But what does that mean? Working carefully with the Hebrew, they explained:

Whatever measure of fortune God metes out to you, acknowledge God most profoundly.

In Hebrew ‘acknowledge’ and ‘thank’ are the same word.

I think of this instruction when I meet people who take their tough fate with good grace, like the man with Parkinson’s, of whom his wife said after he died, ‘He never ever complained. He would look out into the garden and see the good in every day.’

Contemporary life often incites us into a culture of entitlement, of ‘I need’ and ‘I want.’ Thank You Day encourages us to replace, or at least supplement, these demands with two questions: ‘What can I contribute?’ and ‘How can I say thank you?’

For Pride shabbat

‘Walk humbly with your God:’ we chose these beautiful words from the prophet Micah for my father’s tombstone. He well deserved them.

Micah’s words, which we read in the synagogue tomorrow, are among the most frequent of tributes to the dead. But what of living by them?

On the one hand it sounds simple, because Micah asks us to live with fairness and loving kindness, an open heart and no pretence.

On the other hand, it’s not simple at all. For how do I know where God is, in order for us to walk together? Maybe I passed God in the street? Maybe I absent-mindedly missed God, just as, absorbed in some distraction, I might fail to notice a friend or overshoot the turning I need?

When Jacob wakes up from his wonderful dream of the ladder reaching to heaven, he says to himself out loud: ‘God is in this place, and I didn’t realise.’

God is often in places, and people, and I haven’t realised.

I’m particularly mindful of such non-recognition, because this Shabbat we are celebrating Pride. Though it took place over thirty years ago, a conversation with a gay friend remains unforgettable. He spoke of his long struggle to accept himself as he truly was, (a struggle which some gay people, subject to crushing overt and covert pressures, have not survived), before concluding:

At last I was able to say, “Blessed are you, God, who made me in your image.”
‘I say it every day,’ he told me; ‘I say it joyfully.’

I believe in a God who enjoys that joy; in a God ‘shehasimchah bime’ono, in whose abode is joy;in a God who is present in each person, who needs us to recognise that presence in every person and who wants us to share their joy.

In trying to walk with God, I fear that most of us often go straight past. Perhaps we need to stop each other more often and say, quietly but firmly, ‘God is in this place.’

To walk humbly is to have a heart receptive both to sorrow and to joy. I often come across the story about the man who drinks a bit too much, then calls out loudly to the person opposite:

‘Hey, you, I’m your friend.’

The punchline is in the reply:

‘If you’re really my friend, tell me where I hurt!’

The story is intended to show the meaning of friendship. It does so, but inadequately. What’s missing is the other side of companionship:

‘And if you’re really, truly my friend, tell me also what makes me happy.’

In any community, a precondition for any person to feel comfortable, let alone happy, is to be included, appreciated, celebrated and offered a voice as who they are, both in sorrow and in happiness. According to a famous Mishnah, everyone needs to be able to say ‘For my sake the world was created.’ (Sanhedrin 4:5) If that is God’s will, how can it not be ours too?

I was going to write that I’m proud to celebrate Pride. But ‘proud’ is not the right word. I’d rather be humble in celebrating Pride. For the more we recognise the presence of God in each other and walk together, the better the world will be for us all and only by so doing can we follow Micah’s teaching

To do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)

The Hand of Humanity

In the Epilogue to his remarkable personal testament When they Came For Me, The Hidden Diary of an Apartheid Prisoner, John Schlapobersky writes

I have learnt to harvest the gifts of adversity from my own experience…

The sentence went straight to my heart.

It reminded me of Edgar’s words in Shakespeare’s King Lear when, disguised as a bedlam beggar, he leads his own father to Dover. Blinded, and ignorant that the peasant guiding him is in fact his own son, the old man asks, ‘Now, good sir, what are you?’ Edgar’s answer is unforgettable:

A most poor man, made tame to Fortune’s blows,
Who, by the art of known and feeling sorrows,
Am pregnant to good pity.  (Act IV, Scene VI)

Edgar’s next words are ‘Give me your hand.’

After suffering torture in prison followed by expulsion from South Africa, John Schlapobersky trained as a therapist in Britain. Together with Helen Bamber he was instrumental in establishing The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture(renamed Freedom from Torture). One of the many profoundly traumatized refugees he helped during decades of work there said to him at the close of a year of treatment:

Yours is the hand of humanity that has reached out to save me from drowning in my own sorrow.

We do not face equal difficulties during our lifetimes. The world is unjust and full of cruelty. As a family friend who’d served as a medic in the British Army in India used to tell me when I was small: ‘I saw terrible things, Johnny-boy. Suffering is not distributed equally in this world.’

But none of us are untouched by any troubles; at some point we all must struggle with challenges from without and mental turmoil from within. Can we too turn our learning into ‘good pity’ and hold out ‘the hand of humanity’? Can we, when we need it, find the help and friendship which will one day enable us to befriend and help others? Perhaps that’s what being human truly means.

This is Refugee Week. Lord Dubs sent the following tweet; my mother, ten years older when she came here, would say the same:

I am a refugee. When I was six, the UK saved my life and gave me a home and hope. My plea is for the UK to live up to its proud humanitarian tradition by giving hope to the refugee children of today.

The hand reached out to us may become the hand we reach out to others. Further, one day theirs may become the hand which reaches back to us.

Yesterday, I overheard two people discussing the words (from Proverbs) on our synagogue’s foundation stone: olam chesed yibaneh, which we translated as ‘the world is build on loving kindness.’ They were questioning whether this was an accurate rendition. It struck me that what we had written was correct, but incomplete. The verse is a declaration of hope: ‘The world should and shall be built upon loving kindness.’

A much-quoted passage from the Mishnah teaches that every life is equivalent to an entire world, therefore every person should be able to say: ‘For my sake the world was created.’ (Sanhedrin 4:5)

Loving kindness is more than presence in adversity. It means enabling one another to feel that the world has a place for each of us, so that we can look out at life with wonder and look forward with joy.

Another refugee helped by John Schlapobersky spoke afterwards about the group therapy which had formed such a critical part of his journey towards healing. He compared it to being put in a washing machine into which the therapists climb too:

We come out each week cleaned by talking and listening so we can go home safely, love our families and give thanks to God.








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