Pride Shabbat

This is Pride Shabbat. The date was fixed to commemorate Stonewall in 1969.

I want to write about revelation. Though we inherit collectively the majestic legacy of Sinai, revelation comes to most of us in modest, private moments. When they happen, like the clouds which covered the desert mountain the mists of our ignorance, genuine or wilful, part. Beyond them is the living God.

I’m not suggesting we encounter God directly. We meet God through recognising God’s image in other people whose stories, hurts, joys and sensibilities we hadn’t listened to before. These moments open our minds and change us; at least they should.

I didn’t grow up knowing gay people and I wasn’t raised, in this regard, with a welcoming attitude. I don’t belong to the generations for whom LGBTQ+ is a self-evident part of the vocabulary.

What’s changed me is people, friends. One conversation will stay with me all my life. It was with a gay man who hadn’t yet come out:

It’s taken me years of anguish, but finally I can say the blessing for ‘making me according to God’s will,’ and know that God accepts me, and that I can accept myself.

I can’t count the mornings when, saying my own blessings, I think of those words with shame. I don’t mean shame on him, but about me and the rest of us, that this man had to suffer such self-negation for decades.

I’ve used the word ‘revelation’ advisedly. My appreciation of the sanctity of life was deepened; doors closed in my heart and imagination were pushed open. I know I have others which are still shut. Most of us do.

Shema Koleinu; Hear our voices,’ reads an important leaflet prepared by a member of our own congregation:

All over the world, Jews of colour, LGBTQ Jews of colour, from many different backgrounds, are committed to Jewish life, learning and living. Some of us are culturally Jewish – while we don’t go to a synagogue every week, we might love hosting big meals for our friends on Shabbat. Some of us are religiously observant or find our homes in Orthodox synagogues. Some of us are ethnically Jewish but aren’t religious at all.

‘It’s really about diversity,’ another gay member of our synagogue told me yesterday. Pondering her words, I realised that the same Mishnah which teaches that saving a single life is like saving the entire world goes on to say:

When a person stamps coins in the same mould they come out identical. But God stamps every person in the mould of the first human being, yet not one of them is like any other. (Sanhedrin 4:5)

Difference, like equality, is sacred. How urgent this teaching is, in a world of resurgent racism and supremacism.

It’s not enough to ‘tolerate’ people who are gay, though, tragically, it needs to be reaffirmed that this is an essential starting point. It’s only five years ago that Shira Banki was murdered in Jerusalem’s Pride parade.

Inclusion in a cloud of silence is not enough either. Do we as Jews appreciate being ‘included’ so long as we stick to the unspoken bargain and say nothing to betray who we are?

A full voice, being heard, celebrating and being celebrated with, leading, imagining, following together: this is a description of a community in which the image of God is recognised in every person. As the same Mishnah goes on to teach: each and every one of us, being unique, must [be able to] say, ‘For my sake the world was created.’

So I ask myself as a person, ‘Who am I hearing?’ and as a rabbi, ‘Where’s our community on this journey?’

Community that welcomes and supports.
It’s what you do – or are you just shooting the breeze? Alfie Ferguson



Abraham Joshua Heschel: Religion and racism are irreconcilable

In these urgent times we have a role model for how the Jewish community can stand with the community of black people and stand against all racial and environmental injustice and contempt. Once again, I turn to Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Last night I wrote to his daughter Susannah: My father, she told me last year, would be pacing his room, incredulous, horrified at the hate and supremacism from the highest office in the land. ‘My father,’ she wrote now, ‘would have been marching in today’s demonstrations and pleased that we are together, black and white.’

Heschel was raised in tight-knit Hasidic Warsaw, a world full of spiritual passion. Jewish Vilna, where his thirst for wider learning took him next, had poetry and vision. In Berlin he devoted himself to studying for his PhD the moral outrage and compassionate commitment of the prophets of Israel. He was rescued from Nazi Europe in the 12th hour, ‘A brand plucked from the fire’.

He met Martin Luther King in 1963 at a meeting in Chicago on race and religion. He took his audience straight to the core of the Bible:

At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. . . . The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate.

That same year, as King was preparing the march in Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the two men were called to the White House by JFK. Heschel replied with a telegram:

Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes…The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.

Weary of insipid American synagogues, Heschel enjoined and cajoled Jews to expose ourselves to the vital presence of God, translating the impassioned inner life of Hasidism into the English language and the largely unreceptive world of 50’s and 60’s America.

For Heschel as for King, spirituality and activism were as inseparable as river and water. They were both not just students but disciples of the prophets, orators of God’s fierce opposition to indifference and injustice. Religion was not dogma but the living awareness of the urgency of God, an awareness which did not, must not and could not stop in the consciousness alone.

It demanded action. I once desired a quiet life, Heschel wrote. That was not possible: silence before wrong was a betrayal of God. His famous answer to what he was doing next to Reverend King in Selma Alabama, ‘I was praying with my legs,’ was only logical: the realisation of what God wants from us must flow from the heart to the hands and the feet. What impelled him to march was not deviance from Judaism, but its fulfilment.

All that, as Ben Okri said when we spoke last week, was two generations ago. Every hour has its own urgency; God ‘korei ladorot, calls to each and every generation’ and every generation must answer.

We live today not only with unresolved, but with resurgent racism, amidst rhetorics of xenophobia renewed by forgetfulness of the past and reinvigorated by disdain and fear. We live too amidst the uprising of the sea and the revolt of the very atmosphere against contempt and abuse. There never was a more urgent now.

Every one of Judaism’s thrice daily prayers condemns indifference: why ask God to heal the sick, bless the earth and bring justice, if we do little? It’s idle, if we are idle.

A Jewish life, a religious life of any kind, must be a dedicated life, now.


‘I can’t breathe’

I was very moved by how Ben Okri accepted the invitation to join our Friday night service. We are both communities which have known persecution, he told me in an earlier conversation: we need to stand together. I was stirred by his call on our humanity and for our action, as well as by the warmth of heart with which he, joined by his young daughter, stayed with us in prayer.

Yesterday The Guardian published his powerful article I Can’t Breathe’: Why George Floyd’s Words Reverberate Across the World. Those basic words say everything about the heartless, prolonged and vicious cruelty of George Floyd’s killing. They also capture our fears about Covid 19 and our deep anxiety that unless we heed the warnings, our entire world will be unable to breathe because of the destruction of our biosphere.

There is nothing more basic to life than breathing. Ben Okri’s words made me reflect on breath in Judaism. Neshamah means both breath and spirit. The Torah describes it as God’s earliest and greatest gift: ‘God breathed nishmat chaim, the breath of life’ into the first man and woman. The intake of their youngest breaths is the sound every parent longs to hear. Each morning we thank God, saying ‘neshamah shenattatah bi, the breath and spirit you gave me is pure’. The final verse of the entire Book of Psalms reads ‘Kol haneshamah tehallel: praise God with our entire spirit.’ The rabbis reread it as kol hanesheemah, with every breath let us praise God who gave us the privilege of life.

There is no concept, no jot or dust-sized shadow of a notion that there can exist people whose breath matters more, or less, than that of others. Breathing is, should be, must be, equal. It is a truth we as Jews know only too well from our own history: how, after all, did Zyklon B work?

Therefore, we must stand up for everyone’s right to breathe. This includes not just physical breath but also breathing as a metaphor, as in the sentence ‘I can’t breathe in this place’ which means: ‘I’m not comfortable, not at home, don’t feel safe, am rejected, made to feel unwanted, worthless here.’

There are demonstrations round the country and the globe, with their own health and safety challenges. The public, political, legal and educational will to be honest about history and just and equitable in the way every part of our society functions is paramount. These are issues over which we as Jews have fought for recognition time and again, and in which we and black and BAME communities are natural partners.

At the same time, I’m at least as concerned about what happens closest to home. Experiences of being black, or black and Jewish, and treated with suspicion, challenged, ignored, not listened to or considered invisible in our communities, are frequent. Our reflections and actions have to start with ourselves. We want to be able to sing ‘kol haneshamah tehallel – Let every breathing, living soul praise God,’ where every really means every. We want to be able to sing those words with integrity.

Black Lives Matter: What is needed from us

Monotheism means the indivisibility of God. This is not just the basis of Jewish theology, but of universal humanity.

When the Torah, in chapter one, teaches that every human being is created in God’s image, it leaves no place for the notion of ‘children of a lesser God’. There exists no one who doesn’t matter, whose life is less important than anyone else’s. Black lives matter; God is the ‘life of all life’, ‘God of all flesh’.

The shocking and cruel death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman, and the racism, contempt and injustice it has highlighted, shock our societies and souls. The violence which has followed is frightening. But the vast majority of protesters and protests have been peaceful and courageous, and how and by whom the destruction has been manipulated remains complex, sinister and opaque. The record of disdain from the highest office has inflamed the land and disgraces the history of often brave American leadership.

Reverend Anthony Jackson, whose grandfather founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference together with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, addressed the Jewish community in the columns of The Forward. What we need from you, he wrote, is

to help us put an end the murder of innocent Blacks with the exact same fervor, dedication and commitment that you show towards preserving and defending your own families, that you show for Israel…. We need you to understand that Blacks and Jews are in this together; white racists view you as the N-word, too. We need you to embrace Blacks as absolute equals. Jews have used their influence to make a difference in society… We need you to use it again. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said, “The Black church is the salvation of Judaism.” We need each other.

Rev Jackson’s words remind me of the line I’ve italicised line in Dan Pagis’s searing Holocaust poem

No. no, they were created in the image
Uniforms, jackboots…
As for me, I had a different creator…

Judaism knows of no such entity as a ‘different creator’ and no such human being as someone with lesser rights. There are no geographical, racial, religious or gender limits to our equality before God as understood, and as should be practised, in Judaism.

But that is not the reality we witness in our societies. We are not at liberty to do nothing about it. We cannot limit ourselves to idle outrage. Examining prejudice in our own minds, communities and conduct is not comfortable, but, as was said in our synagogue just before lockdown, acknowledging and entering the zone of our discomfort is an essential first step.

Just as God’s oneness underlies the equality of all human beings, so it informs the interconnection of all of nature. If God is within all life, if Ruach Elokim, God’s spirit, breathes in all creation, then no species, forest or river is merely dispensable.

Here again, whatever this may say to us theologically, it means everything practically. The very future of life on our planet depends on the realisation that we and all of nature are interconnected. Today is World Environment Day, instituted by the United Nations in 1974. Interestingly, the date has a second name, ‘People’s Day’, because our own future, our children’s lives, depend on how we now act.

Indifference is no option: we must waste less, plant more, cherish this earth. For me, this concern, this passion, migrated long ago from my head to my soul; it’s a terror, a hope, a split vision: the world as arid and bleak, the world as wonder and beauty.

Though seemingly separate issues, how we behave to each other and how we treat nature are united within the prophetic call for justice and humility. We have no right to conduct ourselves as superior, neither to one another whatever our colour, nor towards nature, nor towards God, who weeps in our soul at every outrage and abuse.


Netivot Shalom Beha’alotecha

I came across a beautiful teaching by the Rebbe of Slonim, which we studied yesterday in my class on Hasidism. He refers to the hidden light, which, according to the mystics, God concealed close to the beginning of creation. In contrast to physical light, manifest in the rhythm of day and night, this secret illumination is the presence of the sacred in all things. He calls this Or Ha’elokut, the light of divinity, God’s light. It used to burn on the lamps of the Menorah in the Temple. But when the Temple was destroyed that Menorah was buried and concealed, a hidden vessel for hidden light.

Next week’s Torah portion (Shabbat week) opens with the injunction to Aaron beha’alotecha et hanerot, ‘when you make the flames ascend’ on the Menorah. He, the high priest, and his descendants after him had the responsibility of keeping the flame of spirit burning in the Jewish People and the world, of helping us find and be guided by the light of God’s presence.

Nowadays we all share the role delegated to Aaron; we are entrusted with nurturing each other’s spirit and helping one another find what is sacred in Torah and the world. The Rebbe of Slonim notes that this isn’t easy: only the person who labours in Torah merits discovering its hidden illumination.

If I can say so, I think the task is at once simple and extremely hard. It is not difficult to find the wonder in Torah and existence. There is a beauty which, in the worlds of Gerald Manley Hopkins, ‘Will shine out, like lightning from shook foil.’

But to nurture that sacred spirit in our ourselves, each other and the world is supremely challenging, especially at this time. It involves a deep and enduring commitment to the value of every human being and all of nature, to the sanctity at the core of life itself. We have only to witness what’s happening in America to realise how far we are from living, and from guiding our societies to live, by the hidden light of which the Rebbe of Slonim speaks. I am also deeply concerned about how we will stand as a society here as we move to face the next phase of the pandemic, and by how urgently we need, but may fail, to prioritise our environment.

We need to see and be guided by the hidden sacred light which burns concealed in all and every life.



Spiritual Leadership under Lockdown

Four challenges pursue me by day and sometimes keep me awake at night.

The first is how to find the language, rituals, virtual meeting places to connect us in our isolation, on the new(ish) map of Facebook, zoom, teams, and what’s app and many others. I think of how the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto re-interpreted Joseph’s dream through the insight that ilem, ‘sheaf’ can also mean ‘mute’. He read not ‘My sheaf stood up and your sheaves rose around,’ but ‘I stood up in my muteness and you gathered round.’ In this way, despite incomparably greater anxieties than ours today, he sought to re-establish communication and community. I honour how people in our congregation are reaching out to one another in friendship, solidarity, learning and prayer and respect the different, creative and open-hearted ways in which this is being done.

The second is how is to be present with the many of us who are worrying, unwell, grieving and bereaved when ‘present’ is precisely what we can’t be. ‘I am with you in your trouble,’ says God in the Psalms (91). But Judaism has never simply left that task to God. It’s up to us to be with one another in our hours of struggle and pain. Can we communicate that closeness across the ether? Zoom is remarkable, the phone is sometimes even better, but neither are a hug.

The third challenge is how to highlight, support and participate in the outpouring of neighbourliness, kindness, generosity and dedication which is currently characterising our society in ways I’ve never witnessed in my lifetime. ‘Love your neighbour’ is happening all around us, from food distribution at JW3, to the anonymous donor who kept the local pub in business by sponsoring fish and chips for every household in the village, to the congregant I called just as she was busy making her first ever protective gown for the NHS. If we don’t give these efforts our heart, what kind of human beings are we?

The fourth is how we influence what will soon have become our ‘new normal.’ The planet can’t afford a rush back to what was before, appealing as it sometimes feels. Can we take our deepened awareness of social justice, the importance of community and connection, and a deeper and humbler appreciation of nature and put them at the core of our society? If we say and do nothing, we will have made ourselves bystanders in one of the greatest opportunities in decades, perhaps in our last, best chance.

These are the challenges. With faith, energy, generosity, courage, inventiveness and compassion, we can at least give them all our best.

On Jerusalem and what being a leader means

My heroes are people to whom other people – yes, and sometimes animals too – matter. More than that: they’re people who make other people understand and feel that they matter, whether those are young children, men and women in the bewildering landscape of Alzheimer’s, Jews, non-Jews, or people of any faith, station or status.

That’s why the word which characterises the opening chapters of the Book of Numbers, which we begin today, speaks to me: ‘se’u – lift up.’ In context it means ‘count’; in spirit it means ‘make count’. ‘Lift up the heads of the whole community of Israel,’ says the Torah. The role of leaders, commented the Hasidic teacher Avraham of Trisk, is to raise the spirits, morale and self-esteem of everyone.

The opposite of ‘lift up’ is ‘put down’, as in ‘he delivered a put down.’ It’s rarely warranted. Once, over twenty years ago, I asked a child to stop doing something which was distracting me while I was giving a sermon. Afterwards, my much-missed friend David Cesarani said to me, ‘A rabbi telling off a congregant; I’m not sure I like that.’ His words periodically ring in my head to this day and I still feel shame. I hope the person – I don’t know who it is – has forgiven me.

Putting down is easy; lifting up is harder. It may take vision, thoughtfulness, sustained attentiveness and compassionate imagination. But at its root is just one quality – kindness.

The reason I’m writing about this now is because I witness such ‘lifting up’ all around me, here in London, and, if I imagine myself there for this special day, in Jerusalem.

I’ve had a multi-faith week, with a session on refugees, an inter-faith Iftar and two debates on ‘green recovery’ in light of the 5th anniversary of Pope Francis encyclical Laudato Si. The aim has always been the same: how can we recognise and lift up those so often marginalised and forgotten. At the Iftar a local woman, Farida, was asked ‘How many meals did you deliver today?’ ‘172,’ she answered, smiling, and looking exhausted. There are many like her. In the Jewish community we have only to see what JW3 is doing.

If I travel, virtually, to Jerusalem, I recall the soldier next to whom I was once sitting on an Egged bus, who said to me kindly and quite unexpectedly, ‘You’re not looking well; can I help you in any way?’ And I think of the great scholar Paul Mendes-Flohr who took me to a falafel shop and, instead of ordering food, asked the young Arab man how his wife was, whether she had recovered from her illness and how he could assist their children. I haven’t forgotten. I’m deeply worried about annexation.

The role of leaders is to lift up. In fact, it’s the desire and capacity to lift people’s morale, economic position, skills, self-esteem and spirits which make people leaders.

This week on Shavuot we’ll read the Ten Commandments, including ‘Lo tissa – Don’t lift up God’s name in vain.’ It’s the same word as se’u, only preceded by a ‘don’t’. But that ‘don’t’ implies a ‘do’: do lift up God’s name in truth and with integrity. God’s name, I believe, is not in heaven, but in the heart of every person, at the heart of life.

Isaiah has a wonderful vision of Jerusalem: ‘At the end of days, the mountain of the House of God will be established above all mountains and uplifted – venissa – above all hills, and every nation will flow to it.’ (2:2)

With every person for whom we care, with every spirit we raise, we help build that Jerusalem.

Shabbat Shalom, be safe and be well




Good Things to Learn from Lockdown

I’ve rarely experienced such closeness as in these weeks of distance. I’m not alone; so many have said the same.

It’s not that there’s no loneliness; the stress of isolation is felt by us all, though more cruelly for some than others.

But it’s made us appreciate our connections.

I’ve always loved nature, and now more than ever. The first sight of a hedgehog in the garden this year: what joy! And the great tits are flitting to and from the nest box in the almond tree. Emma Mitchell puts it so beautifully in The Wild Remedy:

It is the same giddy, soaring feeling I experienced as a child if I found a miniscule froglet next to my grandfather’s pond…It is a new discovery, a small living treasure…

I feel close to my family, although we’ve been isolating in four different places. The sound of your voices over the phone; the sight of you all on zoom before Shabbat; the ‘how are you?’ without not listening to your answer; the ‘I love you,’ deeply meant.

Friends, colleagues round the world: I appreciate you! Phone, what’s app, zoom: we’re lucky to have them, and it’s a deprivation we must remedy for those who don’t. They’re great negaters of distance (though not time zones). Cape Town or Toronto: we’re as near as next door. I never thought a screen could be personal. It can’t allow hands, but can enable hearts, to touch. Words of kindness, Torah, prayer from your hearts have entered mine.

I feel close to my society. I’m as ignorant as ever of much of it. But I wave and applaud bus drivers, thank the milkman and the girl who delivers the paper, and don’t take the people who collect our rubbish and recycling for granted. I’m not going to sit silent if we continue to expect the NHS to heal us, without our healing the deficiencies in its finances and equipment. I see so much dedicated, creative loving kindness around me of which I want to be part.

I feel closer, too, to myself. That may sound foolish, but I’m not the only one. Not travelling outside has made time to travel inside. Unfathomable is the heart, says the Bible. Many of us have explored it further in our aloneness than before and found it to contain not only fears but also chambers we hadn’t known were so deep: endurance, empathy, tears and love.

I understand better, too, that I’m not actually only me. Just as my body is made of many elements, so is my spirit too. My soul is composted from God’s words to Abram ‘Lech lecha, Go, discover’; from the sight of the sea in the north west of Scotland, blue-black at twilight with the curlew’s cry; from my father asking ‘do you say the Shema each night?’ and from the good counsel of so many of you, words spoken thirty years ago, and yesterday. ‘My’ life is, in truth, a multitude of gifts.

I feel closer to God, because I notice and appreciate more, because, notwithstanding the distinct value of each person, action, tree or bird, I experience within them all, and within me too, the breathing of a great togetherness: Shema Yisrael: God is one and oneness.

All these matters I want to glean and gather, before the winds of ‘back to normal’ blow them away. I want to plant their seeds for the future, for a kinder, closer, more connected and compassionate world.


75 years since VE Day

I find myself crying as I read the words of veterans in the papers this morning:

‘They were just dots below us on the beaches – some moving and some not,’

recalls Andre Hissink, aged 100. He’d been a pilot and navigator in the RAF’s 320 (Netherlands) squadron, after escaping the Nazi invasion of Holland in 1940.

‘My heroes are the guys that hit the beaches, so many of whom never came back.’ Says Gregory Melikian, now aged 97, who was chosen by General Eisenhower to transmit to London the coded message of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Now, because of Covid 19, he’ll have to spend VE Day at home, but hopefully not alone. I wish there were a way we could send cards or greetings to our veterans.

Our community will of course observe the national 2-minute silence at 11.00 am, before our own special programme about our parents who served in the Allied Forces (at 11.30am). I wish my father was still here, so that I could ask him; I only recall brief mentions about repairing tanks for the Royal Engineers, in Egypt, behind El Alamein.

‘This is your hour,’ Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill told the huge cheering crowds in Parliament Square. ‘We were alone for a whole year’, he continued.
There we stood, alone. Did anyone want to give in?

‘No,’ shouted the crowd.
‘Were we downhearted?’
The lights went out and the bombs came down. But every man, woman and child in the country had no thought of quitting the struggle.
(Martin Gilbert: Road to Victory, p. 1348)

For us Jews the bells of liberation rang, in Primo Levi’s words, ‘grave and muffled.’ There was another kind of aloneness as survivors of the Shoah absorbed the devastating reality that no one else, none of their family, comrades or often even of their community remained alive to meet them back home. Home? Home existed no more.

After liberation, I suffered probably more from the loneliness and the isolation…Feeling of yes, I’m alive, but that’s it. For what? For who?
(Dan Stone: The Liberation of the Camps)

Now the struggle to reach and build a new homeland in Palestine began in earnest, from the DP camps, through the networks of the secret Aliyah Bet, in running the British blockade, in forming the Haganah.

But Jews had been in uniform too in the British, American and Soviet armies in all the forces and had contributed bravely and greatly to the Allied victory.

We therefore share today’s celebrations as Jews, as citizens of our countries and above all as human beings who know through our bleakest experiences that freedom and justice must sometimes be fought for and always protected and preserved.

The courage, grit and humanity of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations stand as an example to us in our far lesser, but nevertheless real and current, tribulations.

Churchill also addressed the House on victory day:

…the strength of the Parliamentary institution has been shown to enable it at the same moment to preserve all the title-deeds of democracy while waging war in the most stern and protracted form. I wish to give my hearty thanks… to everyone in every part of the House wherever they sit, for the way in which the liveliness of Parliamentary institutions has been maintained under the fire of the enemy…
(Martin Gilbert: ibid p. 1346)

It was indeed during the bitterest war years that the Education Act was passed, heralding free secondary schooling for all, and the groundwork prepared for creating the Welfare State and the National Health Service.

As we honour this moving day in silence, memory and song, we might think of how from the midst of our own difficulties we too must envisage a more just, peaceful and harmonious future for all humankind and for our planet.


Hope under lockdown

‘Speak to the whole community of Israel:’ thus opens the second half of this week’s Torah portion. ‘That section was said at the great gathering,’ noted the eleventh century commentator, Rashi, referring to how the entire community would gather at Tabernacles to hear Torah. What would Rashi have said about our isolation today?

Yet, despite lockdown, I experience a profound sense of community. I feel it in my head, heart and hands. There is a coming together such as I have not known in my lifetime, not only of Jewish, or of British society, but of so many millions across the world. It expresses itself online, from balconies, over What’s App, in thought waves and currents of feeling. It’s an energy, a will, a commitment to a re-prioritisation of values which must herald what’s being called the ‘new normal’.

It is a vision deeply rooted in the teachings of the Torah, in the wisdom of all true faith and in the heart of humanity.

‘Be holy, for I your God am holy’ (Leviticus 19:1): The secret of holiness, wrote the Hasidic teacher Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, is wonder, the awareness that in each and every life there dwells the presence of God. ‘Be holy’ is a call to reverence for all living things. It’s a plea to travel through life with an open soul, to recognise the preciousness of all persons, all creatures and all things. If we have such reverence in our heart, it must follow that we will not desire to hurt or destroy, but, on the contrary, to cherish, nurture and care for all life.

‘Love your neighbour as yourself, I am the Lord’, the chapter continues (verse 18). Samson Raphael Hirsch, who campaigned for civil rights for Jews in Moravia before becoming the rabbi of the orthodox community in Frankfurt, understood the words to mean that we must fight for those same rights and opportunities for others as we seek for ourselves. ‘Love your neighbour’ is thus the essence of society.

More intimate is the explanation by Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin: when people truly care for their fellow human beings God says, ‘among friends like these I want to be there too.’ That’s why I believe God is present among the people running food banks and those who collect and deliver to them; with the chefs who turn their restaurants into kitchens for the NHS; among shop staff who make a point of being kind to their customers and making sure that they give what they can to those who’re struggling. I think God is there with the gifted 9 year-old violinist who put out a note online asking anyone feeling lonely to let him know and he’d serenade them beneath their window. God’s there in our wish to give more and care more; God’s even there even in our frustration that there seems to be so little we can do to help those really on the front line in our hospitals.

‘When you plant trees for food,’ the passage continues (verse 23). These trees are both real and metaphorical. I’ve been planting trees as a prayer for people who are ill, because trees represent life, vigour, strength and hope. But there’s also a figurative planting, a sowing for the future, towards the cultivation of a way of life, an economy and ecology, which understands that all existence is mutually interdependent, that we are not simply masters of nature and that the only path for humanity is to be a respectful part of the interwoven bio-diversity of creation. (I have several young trees acquired from the Woodland Trust and am tempted to sneak out one midnight with a spade to find a wild spot and plant them.)

I believe that even under lockdown these principles are finding affirmation in the insight and good will of hundreds of millions of people and that they therefore have the power to transform us globally into a community wiser, humbler and kinder than before.

Despite everything, this gives me hope and inspiration.


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