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.

Israel’s new government and the Judaism we must struggle for

I’m never sure if it’s the Jewish thing to say ‘Happy New Year’ on January the first, or whether this greeting should be reserved strictly for Rosh Hashanah. But there’s certainly nothing wrong with the words and I’ve spoken them dozens of times already this 2023.

Only, I’ve been struggling with what ‘happy’ means in the context of today’s world. The definition I’ve come up with for myself is that this should be a year of striving to live faithfully by my deepest values as a Jew, a human being, and as privileged, albeit briefly, to belong to this breathing, vital, interconnected world of nature.

The challenges are overwhelming. In this time of shortages, one thing we aren’t short of is causes for which to fight. Whether it’s supporting our beleaguered health services, creating innovative social projects to alleviate hunger and loneliness, finding homes and work for refugees and displaced persons, or protecting nature in that slow, patient work of planting hedgerows and monitoring the numbers of newts and frogs, I’m constantly moved by the good so many people do. Across the world there are countless individuals and groups whose hearts and conscience are astutely awake, and who find the courage, creativity and commitment to act accordingly. They are my goad, my hope, and my unfailing source of inspiration.

But this week colleague after colleague and article after article has focussed on Israel’s new government. The Rabbinical Assembly, to which I and most Masorti rabbis across Europe belong, issued a powerful statement in response to Justice Minister Yariv Levin proposed changes to limit severely the powers of Israel’s High Court and make the judiciary a political appointment:

It is excruciating to see this government directly undermine the core values of democracy and religious freedom that we value so deeply…The integrity of the State of Israel and the well-being of the entire Jewish people hang in the balance.

Thinking also of the racism, homophobia, xenophobia and potential violence incited my key ministers in the government, my friend and teacher Rabbi Arthur Green, a true lover of Israel, sent an open letter. After acknowledging that the causes lie deep and include the long Jewish experience of being hated and persecuted, he wrote of certain racist members of the Knesset:

The damage these people threaten is not only to the State of Israel and its democratic institutions, but to Judaism itself and its place as one of the world’s great spiritual traditions. We are engaged today in a great struggle for the soul of Judaism. Those who read it in an exclusivist and xenophobic way have taken center stage… But this is about a legacy that we all share, one in which we take great pride. Do we really want to give it away to the racists among us?

This is no time, he stresses, for retreat.

What, then, is the Judaism for which I believe we should struggle? Any proper answer is inevitably complex, and that’s part of the point: it is a Judaism whose core is the Torah, the Prophets of Israel and the Hebrew Bible; whose teachings have been pondered, prayed, and argued over word by word through the extraordinary works of the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Responsa and the entire two-and-a-part millennia of rabbinic culture; whose values have been forged in the crucibles of exile, persecution, marginalisation and martyrdom, but also challenged and enriched by other faiths, and by the arts, science, and political cultures of enlightened humanism and universalism. It is Judaism which has, throughout and despite these trials of history, preserved and deepened the search for God and for the sacred in every human being and every living thing. It is a Judaism which fights for justice against tyranny, compassion against cruelty, and human dignity against all forms of bigotry and contempt. It is a Judaism which, while contributing to and learning from the rest of the world, has maintained its spiritual, legal-halakhic, ethical and communal disciplines, cultures and integrity.

The happiness in ‘happy new year’ to which I aspire lies in trying to live by and struggle for these values.

Make the world better step by step; don’t be overwhelmed

In a couple of hours I hope I’m going to ask him, ‘How do you keep up hope?’ I’m referring to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whom I have the privilege of interviewing over Zoom later this morning about his remarkable book Seven Ways To Change The World.

I asked his office to arrange this opportunity before the High Holydays as we badly need messages of positivity and empowerment. Our key Rosh Hashanah theme this year is making the world better. The world desperately needs it, and we need it too. We have to feel that there is something we can do, something we must do, so that we maintain our sense of direction and purpose, our tikvah, our hope and our determination. That is the essence of practical teshuvah.

I will ask Gordon Brown what specific contributions faith communities can make. Should he say, ‘Aren’t you a faith leader, what do you think?’ I’ll reply with some of the actions, big and small, taken by so many in our congregation and beyond, since that’s what keeps me determined and inspired.

We’re in the Torah week of ‘tsedek tsedek tirdof, justice, justice shall you pursue.’ (Deuteronomy 16:20) The rabbis had a principle of zero unemployment; God, they assumed, would surely never allow one single word in the holy Torah to be redundant. So why this repetition of tzedek, justice? It comes once to teach you to resolve potential conflicts calmly and fairly, like who should go first in a one-way shipping lane, and once for when you really need to resort to the courts,’ suggests the Talmud. (Sanhedrin 32b) ‘Once for legal justice, once for social justice,’ I’ve heard it said, or ‘Once for educational, once for ecological justice.’

A wonderful aspects of Torah interpretation is that the words strike us differently every year. So here’s what they’re saying to me today: The first tzedek teaches us the centrality of justice. The immense injustices in our world and the sufferings they cause millions of people, especially children, make the need for justice overwhelming. Hence the second tsedek: don’t let the big picture make you feel there’s nothing you can do. Contribute what you can; make one situation, one person’s life, fairer and better.

Yesterday I heard Clare Balding’s appeal for the people of Pakistan on behalf of the DEC. Over thirty million people affected, she said, outlining the scale of the flooding. Then she continued: if you can give ten pounds, that’s blankets, fifty pounds, that’s food for a family for a month. She left her listeners feeling that we can make a difference. World Jewish Relief has also appealed.

Tsedek, justice, and chesed, loving kindness, are Judaism’s supreme and universal values. They light the path forward for all humankind. They stand at the forefront of our values; they must guide our minds, hearts and deeds. That’s the first tzedek.

Then we need to break them down into what we can do, each according to our gifts and opportunities, every day. I’ve never forgotten what Sandra, the late and much missed Leslie Lyndon’s wonderful sister, said to me one day: ‘When I feel low, I go and give blood. I won’t have a day contributing nothing.’

In the meantime, I’ve had that Zoom interview. Hope, said Gordon Brown, is having the dream, like Martin Luther King, then step by step making the impossible possible. It’s large numbers of people doing what they can, day in, day out, with commitment and determination, and it begins with faith communities.

Where the Messiah is

I know so many people whose lives are driven by the question ‘How can I make the world better?’ They do such different things, they’re teachers, healers, musicians, listeners, bread-bakers; basically they’re truly human beings. They’re driven by the supreme value, chesed, loving-kindness. I only wish they were the ones making the big decisions about the world’s future.

Maybe that’s why I’m drawn over and again to the Talmud’s mysterious vignette about the coming of the Messiah:

‘When will the Messiah come?’ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asks Elijah in one of their many fleeting encounters.

‘Ask him yourself!’ replies the prophet unhelpfully.

‘But where will I find him?’ the rabbi persists.

‘Among the poor and sick at the gates of the great city (Rome, the capital of empire).’

‘And how am I to know which one of those it is?’

‘All the others will be busy taking off their bandages and putting them back on. The one you’re after will take off just one bandage and put it back on quickly thinking “maybe I am needed.”’

I admire people who don’t just bemoan the world’s ills but look at the wounds and say maybe I’m needed to help make things better.

Today is the new moon of the month of Av, the first half of which culminates in Tisha B’Av, the bleak fast of the Ninth, commemorating the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem. But the day is also in a small way a festival because, according to tradition, it’s when the Messiah is born. Out of destruction comes hope, out of anguish the commitment to heal.

The nine days before Tisha B’Av are characterised by a lot of don’t do’s: one conducts less business transactions; one doesn’t build for cheerful reasons like making a wedding canopy for one’s children or creating anything beautiful or grand; one doesn’t plant pleasure gardens with shaded walks for royals to relax…(Orach Chaim 551:2, Joseph Caro’s 16th century code of law).

But, the rule continues, ‘if your wall looks like falling you’re allowed to rebuild it.’ In other words, we stop trying to make fun new things and concentrate on repairing what’s broken in the world.

Everyday I read reports about people who do just that, who reach remote villages unserved by roads and bring vaccines; who teach healthcare to local women who become regional nurses for hundreds of square miles; who advise on animal welfare to families dependent on the labour of their donkey. I learn about children born in virtual destitution who become impassioned visionaries transforming the lives of their communities and role-models for the wealthier world, showing them what can and should be done. It’s humbling and greatly motivating.

Returning to the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi travels magically back from the great city to resume his dialogue with Elijah:

‘Did you find him?’

‘Yes.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He promised to come this very day, but he’s failed to show up!’

‘You’ve misunderstood,’ Elijah explains. ‘What he actually said was: “This very day if you listen to God’s voice.”’

I don’t believe in one single personal messiah who’ll save the whole world. But I do firmly believe that there’s a portion of the messiah within each of us, challenging us with the question ‘Maybe you’re needed?’ There’s only one answer, ‘Yes, this very day!’

Every one of us is needed. Across the world lots of walls look like falling and we’re all required to help rebuild them.

Remembering destruction in order to love creation more

The other morning Babushka – we all call her that though her actual name is Galina – came down crying. I didn’t need Russian to know she was telling me her home town of Kharkiv had been bombed that night.

Tomorrow is the 17th of Tammuz, the fast which begins the three weeks of beyn hametsarim, ‘between the troubles,’ culminating in the 25-hour fast of Tishah B’Av, the Ninth of Av. (Because it’s Shabbat, the fast is deferred to Sunday).

The 17th Tammuz commemorates the breech in the walls of Jerusalem; Tishah B’Av marks the sacking of the city and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and again by the Romans in 70 CE. Into this bleak period are added memorials to the crusades, blood libels, expulsions, persecutions and executions from which Jewish communities have suffered through two millennia.

Sometimes I struggle to comprehend why, when there’s so much destructiveness in today’s world, we need a special period of time to think about it. It feels enough just to listen to the news.

Part of the answer is that we must remember our history, the wars and struggles faced by our ancestors. This reminds us that, despite all our concerns, we live in fortunate times and privileged parts of the world. Probably never in history have so many of us had so much freedom.

But behind this lies a deeper reason. Recalling the horrors people have suffered makes us value the most basic things, life, safety, shelter, food, what it means to be able to walk in the street without fear for our lives. It teaches us to protect these freedoms, to oppose destructiveness in any and all of its manifestations and to place ourselves on the side of creation, proactively, determinedly and always.

Before I write one word more, I have to admit that sometimes during prayers what I really want to do is cover my face and weep before God. What’s being done to this beautiful world in which life is such a blessing is sometimes so wicked, often so careless, and more often still the undesired but nevertheless clear consequence of the way we live, that my heart aches, my head hurts and I have to swallow down despair.

But that is not the way.

Tomorrow’s Torah tells how Balaam, the hapless seer whose ass could out-see him, nevertheless managed, with some assistance from heaven, to turn his curses into blessings. That’s the challenge: whether the stresses and dangers which threaten our world can draw out of us the creativity and determination to find new ways of blessing.

Ma’alin bakodesh, teaches the Talmud: in matters of holiness we go not down, but up. I take this to mean that we must always be on the side of life to cherish it and appreciate its holiness. I see people doing just that all around me, and that’s what keeps me going.

Here’s an unexpected example: owls. ‘Small bird, large impact’ runs the headline in the Jerusalem Post. Instead of spreading toxic poisons to kill off crop-destroying rodents, across Israel farmers are now placing nesting boxes. The barn owls arrive and feast off the rats and voles, restoring nature’s balance chemical free. But it’s not just about animals; the scheme has brought co-operation between Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and beyond.

Here’s a different, humans-only example. I wish I could speak to those people in Birmingham I mentioned weeks back, who created the ‘pay as you feel’ cafes from food rescued from being wasted, supplemented from community allotments, cooked by chefs who think menus on their feet and catering for many who’d otherwise have little to eat.

In Rebbe Nachman’s great tale The Seven Beggars, my favourite is the figure who goes around daily collecting deeds of kindness to give to the world’s heart so that it can sing to the spring which gives life to the world for one further day.

Choosing a new leader – what Moses might say to the 1922 committee

In these days of crisis, surprisingly enough I find myself asking what Judaism has to say about the characteristics needed for national leadership. Admittedly there’s a difference between being appointed by God and being elected by whatever procedures the 1922 committee may determine. Nevertheless, it’s instructive to see what qualities the rabbis understood God to be looking for.

The founding leader of the Jewish people is Abraham. Why him, asks Nachmanides, before answering: because he will leave a legacy of tzedakah umishpat, of social and moral justice.

But the leader par excellence is Moses. What a terrible loss that the Torah tells us so little about the women who must also have led the Jewish People.

It’s interesting to consider both the start and the end of Moses’ career. It apparently begins when ‘God sees that he turned aside to see’ the marvel of the burning bush, where God tasks him with the mission impossible of freeing his people from slavery and, in a way which only God can, refuses to take no for an answer.

But this is not how a poignant midrash understand the matter; it’s something else, something earlier, which God has observed Moses ‘turning aside to see.’

A privileged young man brought up in the Oxbridge bastion of Pharaoh’s palace, Moses ‘goes out to his brothers and sees their burdens.’ More exactly translated, ‘he sees with their burdens.’ He feels for the people. As Rashi comments, he witnesses the heaviest burdens placed with deliberate cruelty on the weakest. The experience changes his life. It’s that which God ‘sees Moses see.’ It’s this empathy which makes God decide that Moses is a leader.

When the end of his career approaches, Moses cries out to heaven: ‘God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the community…’ Why, Rashi asks, does Moses address God in this manner, with words used virtually nowhere else in the Torah:

Master of the world, Moses says, you know the temperaments of each and every person, how different they are from one another. Appoint a leader who will bear with each of them according to their views.

One senses the bitter experience which underlies those words. Moses asks God to find a successor capable of showing compassionate understanding for the troubles and feelings of each unique individual. I’m reminded of Archbishop Rowan Williams’ words that his successor will need ‘the hide of a rhinoceros and the strength of an ox.’

As if that’s not challenge enough, Moses continues to describe the attributes of this putative figure ‘who will go out before the [people], and come in before them; who will take them out and who will bring them in.’ His ideal person must be able to guide both from the front and the middle, have sufficient courage to be out there ahead yet enough empathy to stand in solidarity and listen.

It’s not just a tall order; it’s impossible. It’s scarcely surprising the Bible is full of leaders who don’t make the grade.

Moses himself isn’t perfect; he can be rash, gets frustrated, loses his temper, and, arguably, makes strategic leadership errors. But he’s humble, he listens, he has no tolerance for injustice, he’s prepared to put himself on the line and he’s devoted to service.

While hoping against hope for national and international leaders who possess these qualities, it’s important not to forget a question closer to home: with what values and commitments am I leading my own life?

Why it matters to stand with Pride

Tomorrow is Pride Shabbat, a celebration of LGBTQ Jews, friends, families, and allies of all ages. It comes at a critical moment in history.

I’ve been increasingly worried over the last years that in the time ahead we may find ourselves looking back and saying, ‘This was when those liberties we took almost for granted began to be rolled back.’ In some parts of the world such words won’t be said too loudly, because you can never be sure who might be listening.

I’m thinking of Russia, with its vicious war against Ukraine, and of the surveillance, threats and punishments faced by anyone who dares to dissent. There’s the proto-fascist politics of Hungary, and the growing strength in parts of Europe of the populist far right, so say nothing of the Middle East. The repressive role of certain religious groups in these trends is additionally disturbing.

We need to look west as well as east. Last week’s overturning of Roe v Wade by America’s Supreme Court opens the way for states to enact laws likely to target women, and families, in deeply invasive ways. It also bodes the possible curtailment of other freedoms. (I’m horrified too at the Court’s destructive, irresponsible and retrograde decision relating to the climate crisis.)

The Court’s verdict turned on what rights not specifically stated in the Constitution it considered to be implied under the 14th Amendment, particularly the right to privacy in personal matters including contraception, abortion, marriage and sexual orientation.

The issue, wrote Justice Alito in delivering the Court’s opinion, was whether the right to abortion could be considered ‘deeply rooted in [our] history and tradition’ and ‘essential to our Nation’s “scheme of ordered liberty.”’ But that ‘history and tradition’ was established at a time when women had little public, and no legal, voice.

If the Court deemed abortion not to qualify, what will come next?

This is Pride Shabbat. The struggle against repression and violent hatred has been long and cruel. It isn’t over, as last week’s murderous attack on a gay venue in Olso tragically showed. Support and allyship have rarely been more important than now, as Sadiq Kahn states so well:

As mayor, and as an ally to our incredible LGBTQ+ community, I’ve always been a passionate supporter of LGBTQ+ rights because I feel strongly that no one should ever face prejudice, discrimination or violence because of who they are or who they love.

As a rabbi, I’m well aware that there are hurtful texts to be faced in the heartland of our faith, in the Torah. I do so through what two thousand years ago ben Azzai considered the most foundational text of all, that every human being without exception is created in God’s image. To exclude someone from equal rights and privileges on grounds of sexual orientation is to disregard not only their humanity, but the presence of God in them, which is entrusted uniquely and specially to each and every person.

I believe God asks us not why our body chemistry is a certain way, but whether we are compassionate, just, trustworthy, respectful, generous, and committed to caring for each other and God’s world.

As Jews, we have often been in the front line of those whose rights to equality, if granted in the first place, have been threatened or withdrawn.

That too is why we should stand with Pride this Shabbat and celebrate the rich creativity of our community.

Taking a ‘can do’ approach

I’m a Radio 4 fan, though usually just a casual listener catching parts of programmes while I’m driving along. (Except when Nicola Solomon [my wife] was on Money Box Live) That’s how last Sunday I heard the tail-end of a transmission about food in Birmingham.

Surplus food which would otherwise be wasted is brought to three recently created cafes; the chefs ‘menu on their feet,’ working out instantly what to cook with whatever arrives. There are plans to supplement supplies with grow-your-own vegetables and fruit on raised beds and allotments.

Meals are offered on a pay-as-you-feel basis. ‘I couldn’t afford lunch if it wasn’t for here,’ one frequenter said. ‘It’s company,’ said an older customer, ‘Without here, I’d speak to no-one all day.’

The project is social, environmental, communal; it’s creative, kind and not too complicated; it fights poverty, food-waste, climate change and loneliness. It’s graciously run, but with vision and determination. What more can one ask?

It left me thinking about just one word from the Torah, vehitchazaktem. It translates literally as ‘you [plural] strengthen yourselves’ and loosely as ‘build up each other’s morale’. It’s what Moses tells the spies to do when they pace out the Promised Land. It’s also precisely what they fail at. In fact, they do the exact opposite, dragging each other down.

I also recently learnt from Radio 4 that roughly 12% less people listen to the news these days; it’s too miserable. They don’t want to know. I can’t blame them; I admit, I can only take it in small doses. We need to know what’s happening in the world, especially in our own society. We have a responsibility to be aware. But that doesn’t make it a mitzvah to destroy our morale.

That’s where vehitchazaktem, ‘strengthen yourselves’,comes in. When I began to research the word, I was sure I’d find a creative Hasidic commentary. But I’ve drawn a blank, so I’m on my own.

The meanings of chazak, strong, are not always positive. Pharaoh strengthens and hardens his heart. The Children of Israel, too, have been known to take an obstinate stand against God. Strong can also mean stubborn, which isn’t always a good thing. Openness, flexibility and the readiness to be mistaken are important virtues.

But here vehitchazaktem is definitely positive: ‘strengthen each other’, ‘take a collective can-do approach.’ That’s the attitude we so badly need just now. It’s what I loved about that radio programme: it didn’t only talk about economic crisis, food poverty and climate emergency. It showcased what can be done, and how enjoyable it can be too.

Moses’ spies go in the other direction. They convince each other that they’re useless. ‘We were like insects in our own eyes,’ they say. It’s easy to blame them. But in these difficult times, we also can easily succumb to the feeling that nothing we do will make any difference and that quickly becomes a self-fulfilling truth.

It’s for precisely that reason that it’s so important to draw inspiration from the remarkable initiatives so many people are engaging in, and to go and do likewise.

But is it worth it? Will whatever project we create or join save the world? That’s when we need Rabbi Tarfon’s advice: ‘it’s not your responsibility to complete the work, but that doesn’t leave you free to opt out.’

‘Will it be enough?’ is also not the most helpful question. The real issue is: what good can you and I encourage each other to do together, to the best of our combined abilities? It won’t change the whole world on its own, but who knows who else it might inspire?

Seeing our own reflection: a Jewish version of Narcissus

I’ve been struck all week by a story from the Talmud. It’s told by Simon the Just. No one knows exactly when he lived, but folklore has him welcoming Alexander the Great to Jerusalem in the 4th century BCE.

One day there came to him ‘a man from the south, with beautiful eyes, good-looking, his hair finely arranged in curls.’ But he wanted to cut it all off and renew his vows as a Nazirite:

I asked him, ‘Why do you want to destroy this beautiful hair?’ He said, ‘I was shepherding my father’s flocks and went to draw water. When I saw my reflection in the stream, desire almost got the better of me…But I said to it: ‘Empty-head! Why be so proud in a world which isn’t yours, where your end will be worms?’ (Talmud, Nazir 4b)

The story initially reminded me of Hamlet’s advice to the actors who visit Elsinore on the purpose of art:

to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. (Act 3, Scene 2)

I can’t be the only one who can think of a lot of people in positions of power who could do with looking carefully at their own features.

But the first person who needs to consider their reflection is always our own self. It’s not just water which can show us our image. Being with refugees has made me see myself in different ways. (Next week is refugee week) I was going to hold my wife’s hand during bensching, the grace after meals, as I often do. Then I wondered: but the Ukrainian women at the table are worrying all day long about their husbands stuck in the fighting. Might I be breaking the rabbinic rule of lo’eg larash, mocking the poor, understood metaphorically as insensitively doing something in the presence of another person who’s prevented by circumstances or disability from doing the same?

Then a young man from Somalia said, when I offered him more food, ‘Crossing the desert I got used to eating once in two days.’ I saw in that moment how much I take my plenty for granted. I wondered what I must look like in his eyes, and felt ashamed.

What do we do when we see our own reflection in such ways?

That’s when I realised that the Talmudic story is in fact a Jewish version of the myth of Narcissus.

Narcissus fails to requite the love of the broken-hearted mountain nymph Echo. Taking Echo’s part, the goddess Nemesis punishes Narcissus for his callousness by making him fall in love with his own reflection in the water which, in some versions, he leans forward to kiss and is drowned.

It’s a powerful metaphor for humanity today. Here we are, looking at our own image: are we so in love with ourselves in our anthropocentric universe that all we can see are our own power, skills, achievements and desires? If so, we are liable to fall beneath the spell of Nemesis.

Or do we say like the young man who comes before Simon the Just: what am I doing on this earth which isn’t mine, where I’m a temporary resident, a passer-through and pilgrim? What can I contribute? How can I serve? What good can I achieve for the children and the future of this world?

So much injustice: we’re not at liberty to do nothing

One WhatsApp, two emails, and three rabbinic sayings. (Is it only me, or is the attempt to catch up with all those texts an experience of constant failure for others too?)

Here’s the WhatsApp: it’s from X, who stayed with us some years ago for a few months before he got long term leave to remain in the UK. I’ve stopped filing his messages under ‘refugee’ and put them in the ‘family’ folder instead. He wrote:

‘Lost 4 kilos. Lost my momentum. I’m in hospital tonight. Covid negative.’ Then came ‘Sending me home in a taxi. I can’t speak properly.’

That had Nicky and I searching for his flat number in West London late last Saturday night with a bag of food and jars of soup and, specially requested, flowers from our garden. Bless him, he’s a lot better now. There are some requests to which it’s easy to respond.

Next the first email, which came on Wednesday. Others receive dozens like it:

This family haven’t had a hot meal or anything cooked since Sunday. No cooker, no house ware. There are 4 children aged 6 – 13. Address in previous email. Delivery ideally today/tmw. If I can update them with something definite, that will reassure emotionally as well as practically. Neither parent has the right to work. I just don’t know how they’re supposed to survive.

By the time I got this alert several people had already helped. The family are refugees. But as we know on this icy first day of T S Eliot’s ‘April, the cruellest month’, you don’t have to be a refugee to be unable to afford both food and heating, or either, or sometimes neither. We’re a country of massive social inequality.

Now the second email:

I’ve heard from my family at last. They’ve managed to get out of Ukraine. We’re the only relatives who can help. They need to be near us. Do you know hosts who’ll sponsor them?

Fortunately, we do. The reason I’ve never left my community is because of the number of people who’re committed to living actively and consistently by the laws of justice and kindness.

Here, then, are the three teachings of the rabbis (freely translated). The first is the most famous:

Hillel used to say, ‘If I don’t stand up for myself, who am I? But if I exist only for myself, what am I?

In other words, who I am isn’t just about me but how I interact with and contribute to others.

The second is the most radical:

There are four attitudes to money: 1. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours. But there are those who say that this is the way of Sodom.

‘What’s mine is mine’ sounds fair at first hearing. But what kind of society are we if I don’t care where that leaves you? ‘You haven’t enough food for your children? Your problem!’ How can such an attitude conceivably be just?

The third saying is the most chastening for those of us fortunate to have plenty today:

Poverty is a turning wheel.

I often find myself thinking about my father. He fled aged sixteen from a middle-class home to virtually nothing. I remember him speaking about ‘that gnawing feeling of constant hunger…’ He was in the siege of Jerusalem: ‘People were eating grass,’ he said.

When X kept saying thank you after he’d stayed with us for a while, I told him: ‘Who can know? Maybe one day your descendants will be looking after mine.’ Obviously, I hope not. I hope there’ll be a better world for everyone.

What’s happening right now is overwhelming. We can’t do everything, but we must do something. There are thousands of ways to care, from bringing people joy through music, to helping children learn to read, or cooking for a shelter. We are not at liberty to do nothing.

 

 

Get in touch...