Between Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut

When I was compiling the synagogue’s shivah book for prayers in the house of mourning, I came across this short teaching by the Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noach Barzovsky (1911 – 2000)

A broken heart…

must always belong to the world of building

not to the world of destruction.

Moved by these words, I included them in the short section on Hasidic teachings at the back of the book. By mistake they were moved by the printers to the front page. I left them there, where they stand as an introduction and a motto.

This Shabbat finds us between Yom HaShoah, commemorating the Nazi Holocaust, and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, marking the creation of the State of Israel. That in the wake of so much horror people could find the courage, energy, initiative and vision to establish a new country is remarkable.

I have only to think of my father. It’s his Yahrzeit on Yom Ha’Atzma’ut. How I wish I had asked him more questions, listened to him more and thought more carefully about his life while he was with us! The family fled from Germany to Jerusalem in 1937, where he became a main breadwinner for his parents and three sisters in the difficult years of the war and the even harder, uneasy and impoverished times between 1945 and 48.

Family letters explore the empty spaces after the Holocaust: Is there any news of Mama, the family matriarch, my great-grandmother, last heard of in Theresienstadt? A handful of Jews have returned to Holesov in Moravia, from where she was deported: is it worth travelling there to ask? What about my father’s aunt Trude, and her husband and son? Or Sophie, always elegant, who hoped she could live the evil times out in Czechoslovakia? There is no news. The gaps cannot be closed; the silences remain. None of them will be coming back.

Yet at the same time the surviving family participated in an extraordinary intellectual life and the building of the country. My father’s uncle Alfred was offered the directorship of the National Library and considered as a candidate for the Supreme Court. He travelled length of the land, teaching:

We saw another part of our beautiful countryside, the whole strip along the coast is like one flowering, fertile garden…We’re working hard at the preparations for the Jewish State. I’m responsible for the department of religious, family and inheritance law.

Tragically, he was killed in the convoy to Mount Scopus in the War of Independence on April 13, 1948.

I hear from so many other families too about this determination to build a new future after the Shoah: ‘My parents met in the DP camps in ’46; all they wanted to do was start a fresh life.’ ‘My mother lost everyone; nothing mattered to her so much as creating a new family.’

This capacity to ‘belong to the world of building’ despite so much loss, heartache and trauma is brave, visionary and extraordinary.

Faced today with the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and so much stress, trouble and stalemate across the world, that courage, hopefulness, creativity, imagination, determination, and zest for life is exactly what we all now need.

It’s the actions of ‘ordinary’ people which prepare the way for redemption

If I could time-travel, I’d love to meet Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (1505-1580) who wrote the Shabbat hymn ‘Lecha Dodi, Come my Beloved’ and tell him how much his wonderful song means to me – and thousands of others in each generation. Every line is my favourite, but today it’s the words ‘Mah tishtochachi umah tehemi: Why be confounded and why be downcast, for in you, God, the poor of my people trust.’

I have felt downcast. I’ve just watched footage of the terror attack in Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv, which left at least two dead. My heart goes out to the bereaved families and all those injured. I join everyone praying and working for an end to the conflict, the killing and wounding from which Israelis, and Palestinians, have so long suffered.

I’m worried also because I’ve heard nothing substantive from the Home Office about the visa applications we submitted to host the Ukrainian family of good friends. I feel useless in the face of the outrages perpetrated across that blood-soaked land.

I receive pleas too: Don’t forget the refugees from Afghanistan; they’re still without homes in which to rebuild their lives.

Then there are the troubles and heartache in our own community, always leaving me wishing I could do something more, something, in the Talmud’s phrase, to take at least a sixtieth part of the hurt away.

This adds up to why those words ‘don’t be downcast’ speaking to me so persistently today. They’re nudging my spirit, like my dog who prods me with her paw when she wants attention.

Therefore, I’m determinedly counting everything good which has touched my heart this week. Here’s a small selection, all just from yesterday:

-        In the first wave of the pandemic, I couldn’t practise medicine like usual. There were literally no treatments we could give. So all day I talked to patients and their families. Often I spoke with the same daughter every day. It felt deeply real. Many people wrote thank-you letters afterwards.

-        I’m checking out homes on behalf of London boroughs, because so many people have offered to host refugees. It feels so worthwhile.

-        May this picture of the dawn light through the blossom bring you joy.

-        I tried to capture in a photo a hundred swifts across the sky.

-        There’s thirty-two families in the synagogue baking challah and having fun. D’you know anyone who’d like some? It’s the last chance before Pesach!

-        I’m bringing together Jewish and Muslim leaders working for reconciliation.

Speaking of Pesach, here’s a short comment on our much-loved Haggadah. The text attributes the defeat of the tyrant Pharaoh to God alone: ‘Not through an angel, not via a messenger, but God, directly and in person’ saved the people.

But I wish the Haggadah could also have mentioned all those whose small, and not so small, courageous actions prepared the path to liberation. What about the midwives, the first to defy Pharaoh and refuse to murder babies? Or Moses’ mother, who hides her little boy in a reed basket? Or Pharaoh’s own daughter, who rescues a forbidden Hebrew child from the water? Or Moses’s sister Miriam, who, just a young girl, bravely runs up to her asking ‘Shall I find you a wet-nurse?’

Redemption is created from such brave, determined actions of ‘ordinary’ women, men and children. That’s why I value every positive deed and word I hear. They’re what make me ‘not confounded and not downcast.’ In them I put my trust, as our people always has. They bring God into our world.

Building God’s sanctuary

It’s not the gold, silver or the fine cloths; the word which occurs most frequently in the detailed description of the Sanctuary which occupies the next several weeks of readings from the Torah, is the simple verb ‘make’.

‘Make me a sanctuary and I shall dwell among them,’ God tells Moses. God intends to live not in it, but among them; the holiness lies in the making and with those who make. Though the Torah records the completion of the sanctuary, in truth the work is anything but finished.

We live in a world full of cruelty, some inflicted deliberately, some through neglect. Too often life itself, people, nature, the very earth is measured almost exclusively in terms of utility. In this desacralized age, every act of kindness, generosity, respect, neighbourliness, connection and creative imagination is part of the making of the sanctuary.

During the week I thought about person after person I know in those terms:

-  You’re a healer; you try to ease pain and help people live at peace with their bodies.

-  You teach in your spare time. I remember when you took that noisy group of teens outside at twilight and said ‘Just look,’ and they fell silent watching the first stars.

-  You sent me pictures of you and friends planting trees in a neighbourhood project in Uganda.

To my mind, every one of them is helping make this world holy, in very ordinary, very special ways.

There is also the extraordinary. I watched the wonderful programme on the seven portraits of Holocaust survivors commissioned by Prince Charles, who spoke movingly about the project. One of those whose picture was painted was Anita Wallfisch, who went to the same school in Breslau as my father. The programme told something of the horrors through which each of the seven had passed. But what it revealed most deeply was their remarkable attitude to life: the inner resilience, the determination to create a new family, to do good: ‘Hate? No; I don’t hate. I try to be kind to everybody…’

This project will contribute its profound and unique dignity to the marking of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s seventy years of reign and service on the throne.

There is also the painful and wretched. I skimmed many hurt or angry reactions to the report by Amnesty branding Israel as Apartheid, a term I don’t agree with. It brought instantly to mind all the bigotry, wrongs, rights, pain, fear, injustice, misery and seemingly hopeless intractability of the situation and the accounts of suffering I have personally listened to from many sides. ‘Use your energy,’ I was advised, ‘supporting those, like The Bereaved Parent’s Circle, or The Centre for Creativity in Education and Cultural Heritage (CCECH), who’re making connections, trying to bring healing, teaching and living the Torah of understanding, creating the basis in civil society for when a just resolution will finally come.’

We must try not to lose faith. The tasks of making the world whole and holy lie before us. They call to us from every part of the globe and every sphere of life with unmistakeable urgency. There’s nothing especially pious about them. What they need is our goodwill and commitment. What they don’t need is our indifference.

Who may contribute to building God’s sanctuary? ‘Whoever’s heart prompts them to give,’ says the Torah. Which means, explained Rebbe Avraham of Slonim, ‘Whoever is prompted to give from their heart.’

Standing in solidarity with the bridge-builders and healers

‘And give you peace:’ these words, which we read in the Torah tomorrow, could not sound with greater urgency. They command us to be on the side of the healers, wherever and through whatever we live. Sometimes this is obvious and easy. Sometimes it demands the greatest vison and courage.

Just hours ago, a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas began. We must pray not only that it endures, but that it brings negotiations which lead to more than a temporary cessation in killing, to something which brings not just brief respite but well-founded hope to all, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs.

The rockets and bombs have left terrible new wounds and torn old injuries open. ‘When the siren went, my first thought was “I am a mother”,’ said an Israeli colleague with a six-month-old baby. What can one possibly say to parents in Gaza, or Israel, who have seen their child torn apart?

Frightful, too, are the wounds which cannot be captured in searing pictures: from the impact of fear, from the knowledge that there are those who want you dead, from the long-term effects of terror and trauma on the heart and psyche. ‘No one wanted to kill me in the place where I grew up,’ said an Israeli friend.

All around are the wound-harvesters, collecting the pain, anger, dread and frustration as ammunition for the next round of hate. They find no shortage of evidence to back their cases.

That is why it is so important to stand alongside the healers. It would be easy to underestimate the courage of those many groups of Jews and Arabs who have stood together, despite the destruction and threats, in Jerusalem at the Jaffa Gate, in Zichron, in Haifa and elsewhere. This is an act of inner as well as outer, courage under fire, in defiance of the voices which say, ‘Can’t you see, they all hate us?’

Here are the words of some of the leaders:

Living in Sderot, just a short distance from Gaza, I feel the explosions twice. I feel them at home and I feel them as they happen among our neighbours, the Palestinians in Gaza. Today we must and will continue to put the divine demand to “love your neighbour – your fellow human being – as you would love yourself” to the test. Avi Dabush, Executive Director, Rabbis for Human Rights

Today we are facing a test…on how we communicate to these young people that to be a hero means taking responsibility and to change reality, not through violence, hatred and incitement. Being a hero demands courage to talk, to meet reality head on. It demands strength and resilience. This is what we, as adults, must give to our kids. Parents, religious leaders, political leaders must take this mission up and go out and be with our young people, to meet them and speak with them and think with them about what we need to do to restore trust and faith. Ghadir Hani, Palestinian Israeli and activist.

Like everyone, I have read reports and opinions of all kinds, and failed or avoided reading many more. In the end, I don’t know where better to stand, albeit from a distance, than in support of the healers and bridge-builders. For the wounds of fear, grief, trauma and injustice cut to the heart on both sides.

My prayers are with these words, written together by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum and Sheikh Ibtisam Mahameed in Jerusalem:

God of Life!
You who heal the broken hearted, binding up our wounds…
Hear our voice that we not despair…
That we have mercy on one another…
That we hope together, one for another…*

* The full text can be found here.

Standing together at a very painful time

We stand just three days before Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah. This Torah is always understood as Torat chaim, the teaching of life. In these terrible times across Israel and Gaza, we pray for the teaching of life.

We pray for the safety of everyone, an end to the violence, a restoration of calm and coexistence across shared cities and neighbourhoods, and leadership which can bring hope for the future to both Israelis and Palestinians. Our hearts go out to everyone bereaved, wounded, and living in anxiety and fear. Our thoughts are for our family and friends, – and everyone.

The first of the Ten Commandments spoken at Sinai is ‘I am the Lord your God.’ Since the human being is created in God’s image, the echo of that commandment can be heard in every person. God calls out in the unique sanctity of each life. There is therefore no place in true faith for race hate, vigilante groups, be they Jewish, Muslim or any other, or for cruelty, injustice and humiliation.

I will never forget my short visit to Israel towards the end of the fighting in Gaza in 2014. I visited Tel Hashomer hospital and listened to wounded soldiers. A family whose son was killed showed me his Siddur, his prayer book. Handwritten on the opening pages were his hopes for a life of goodness and generosity. He’d been due to get married in just a few weeks.

I was taken to a hospital in East Jerusalem which was receiving wounded children from Gaza. I’ll never forget this searing experience. I asked an older man sitting by the bed of a child whether this was his son. ‘No,’ he said; the parents were dead, killed together with eighteen members of the family.

There is only more hurt in all this violence, another ring of pain and anger which will someday have to be overcome. Only respect for all human life, fairness and something to hope for can bring a truly safe future.

So I turn with respect and deep admiration to some of the messages sent in these last days. Here is a letter from The Abraham Initiatives:

We are planning a national campaign entitled: “Only Together.” The campaign, in Hebrew and Arabic, will feature images of Jews and Arabs in everyday life: shopping together; studying together at university; working together in hospitals fighting Covid-19. Our campaign will feature on the main TV channels…

Here is a joint statement sent by Rabbi Ofek Meir from headteachers of Jewish and Arab schools in Haifa:

Our role as educators is to raise the younger generation to be independent, critical thinkers, with values; and to be a generation who will create knowledge, opinions, narratives and culture; and who respect the other’s opinion, and who believe in the values ​​of equality and human rights. This is true anytime, anywhere, but especially now and in Haifa in particular.

This is from Rabbi Arik Ascherman, so often attacked for his defence of basic human justice:

One of the few positive developments has been the religious and other civil leaders who have begun to stand together and call for an end to the hate and violence that has led to Israeli Jews and Arabs lynching each other. Tonight around the country average Jewish and Arab citizens stood together to say no to the violence.

Here is from Rabbi Yoav Ende of the Masorti community of Hannaton:

Tonight, activists from Hannaton will join together with others from nearby communities and Arab villages for a joint demonstration of peace and hope;spreading a message of change, a message of a better Israel that can and must be here – showing that living together without conflict, without violence, is not only imperative, it is immediately achievable.

I see in my garden Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, three of whose daughters were killed in Gaza, standing by the apple tree I planted in their memory, taking a photograph of it to send to his other children. I often reread sections of his book I Shall Not Hate.

Dr Abuelaish, Rabbi Yoav Ende, may our prayers ascend together.

Israel: the love, the fear, the frustration, the hope

Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, was brought forward to yesterday. But the official date is tomorrow, 5th Iyar, and seeing today is still only the 4th, I’m sticking with the subject. For, despite the wrongs committed against it, and sometimes by it, despite the ugly politics, with four inconclusive elections, Israel holds a place in my soul which even beautiful Scotland, nursing among its lochs my earliest childhood memories, cannot parallel.

Like many Jewish people, I’ve no single answer to why. It’s about ancient history; here Isaiah foresaw the day when nations would unite in righteousness. Here Rabbi Akiva taught that nothing matters more than concern for one’s neighbour. Here the rabbis dreamed and argued through every word of Torah. It’s about humility before the country’s achievements. It’s about frustration over the angers, the unhealed wounds of rejection and injustice, which hurt every sector of the population, each in different ways. It’s about fear; it’s about hope.

Scenes, beautiful, frightening, painful, pursue me. I’m focussing on the former.

It’s an unprepossessing entrance in South Tel Aviv. So the colour upstairs is like an embrace: baskets, small as nut-bowls, big enough to hide in, red and orange, blue and brilliant green. Here, Eritrean women weave and work, talk, cook, listen to music and earn just enough to feed their children. Refugees, robbed, raped in the deserts they fled across, find sanctuary here at Kuchinate.

I recall a not always edifying film about attitudes to refugees in Tel Aviv: a middle-aged man stands before an enormous vat of soup. He holds up his ladle: ‘This is Judaism,’ he says, ‘my parents fled too,’ then fills another bowl and hands it out.

It’s Jerusalem Marathon day, the year I hurt my back and couldn’t run. So Nicky and I watch a different race: the 100 metres for young people with mobility challenges. The children progress slowly, sometimes just one step a minute. A bevvy surrounds each one: family, nurses, maybe a physio. All faiths are here, all focussed on one matter: tender, practical love. This stamina is far deeper than out there on the 42k course.

It’s a path in the Jezreel valley. Yitzhak, over eighty, has silver hair and the wizened face of a truly kind man. Trained as a rabbi in Germany, he came here in the 1930’s. ‘Of course it gives satisfaction when the trees you planted in the bare hills give shade and the wild flowers grow.’

It’s East Jerusalem, and I’m looking at a street I know well, but until now from a very different angle. I’d rarely been in a Palestinian home before. This house was demolished, then rebuilt, and rebuilt again, by a joint Israeli – Palestinian team. It can be done. I’m reminded of sitting with the Imam in a village off the Jerusalem highway, with my close friend whom all the children run to greet: ‘Hey, Simon; Simon.’ I’ve been with the Imam many times; he died this Corona year. I don’t recall exactly, so I’m paraphrasing: ‘I’m often left feeling less than equal in this country. But the thirst for righteousness is here.’

It’s kilometre 34 in a year when I am marathon fit. Noach, who established Israel’s guide dog training school, shouts ‘Take the lead in your left,’ and, passing me golden retriever Harry, we run a hundred metres together.

If only the whole country, the entire region, had a faithful guide dog to see a safe way ahead!

Both times when I crossed that marathon finishing line I wept. I can’t explain why.

My Heart is in the East

‘My heart is in the East, and I – in the far distant West’, wrote Yehudah Halevi, in one of his best loved poems. That’s how I have felt much of this week.

On the night of Yom Hazikaron, the day of memorial to those fallen in Israel’s wars, I spent the midnight hour translating from the army’s tribute to Nadav Elad, the brother of a friend and colleague, who was killed before he was even twenty. His comrades, who were with us in our community on the Peace of Mind programme, wrote:

Nadav, you were the heart of the team, the spokesman, – now everything’s gone silent. Nadav, we’ll remember, remember and never forget, how you were a brother to us, a comrade and a role model….We’ll always be there for your family, and for you, Nadav, full of memories, longing for you….Your unit

I thought about my father’s uncle Alfred, who fled Germany in 1933 when he was dismissed from his post as a judge, who settled in Jerusalem and was set to be a leading expert on jurisprudence and Jewish law in the about-to-be-declared new state. He was killed in the convoy attacked and left to burn, with all its passengers trapped inside, on its way to the enclave of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus.

My heart was with the memorial gathering, organised despite many obstacles by the Parents Circle, and including several friends, Israelis and Palestinians, who for the last several years have come together to mourn their children, brothers, sisters, not in a spirit of anger but in the solidarity of grief acknowledged and shared, and in the commitment to work together until the longed-for day when fear, hatred and war are over and gone.

I thought of the beauty of the land. I remembered my father’s uncle Alfred’s letter in which he wrote after a lecture tour of kibbutzim in the north in 1946 or ’47 of the wild-flowers and the wonder of the spring. In idle moments before the Jerusalem marathon I took pictures of cyclamen, anemones, a pair of hoopoes feeding in a meadow.

Most of all, I reflected on the prayer which asks God to

Grant those entrusted with guiding Israel’s destiny the courage, wisdom and strength to do Your will. Guide them in the paths of peace and give them the insight to see Your image in every human being. Be with those entrusted with Israel’s safety and keep them from all harm. Spread your blessings over the land. May justice and human rights abound for all her inhabitants. Guide them ‘to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God’ (Micah 6:8)…May the vision of Your prophet soon be fulfilled: ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore’ (Isaiah 2:4)

Who would not want such a prayer to be read before the governments in Jerusalem, Tehran, Ankara, Gaza City, and perhaps every capital city in the world every single day?

I think with profound respect of all those who build bridges, in Israel, Jordan, Palestine, anywhere in the world, between different faiths and peoples, between community and community, school and school, refugees and people fortunate to be refugees no longer, between individuals and their own heart and soul, humanity and nature, the animals, the trees and the very earth. They are the fellowship to which I aspire to belong.

I would like to mark Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, as my colleague Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum does there at her Kehillat Zion, by praying together with rabbis, priests and imams for the peace and wellbeing of the city shechubrah lah yachdav, which is united all together (Psalm 122)

 

Never Give Up

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

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

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

The Rebbe explains:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Teaching of Life: tears and solidarity

There is one quality associated incomparably more than any other with Torah, the teachings, law and lore at the heart of Jewish existence: life. The Torah is Torat Chaim, the Torah of life. For its inspiration flows from the same invisible springs and currents which nourish all life, feeding the roots of the trees of forests and orchards, inspiring the heart, flowing through all living beings.

Consequently, the Torah is equally Torah Hesed, the Torah of faithful kindness, of a compassion which includes an urgent sense of justice. For how can the Torah of life require anything other than that we should respect, nurture and cherish all life? This is the ideal of which the prophet Isaiah dreamt in an ancient version of ‘Imagine’ when he saw a world in which ‘None shall hurt or destroy in all [God’s] holy mountain’.

Throughout the millennia, as Jewish teachers and communities have studied the Torah, understood as God’s word and the expression of God’s will, they have interpreted, re-interpreted and sometimes deliberately mis-interpreted its apparent meanings in the light of these overriding values: life, compassion, justice.

Yet this very week, as we approach Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah of Life, there has been bitter hatred and terrible killing. Whatever our politics, religion or identity, we must mourn these terrible wounds in the body and heart of our collective humanity.

The Talmud speaks of God weeping. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto, wrote in March 1942 of God withdrawing to the inner chambers to weep. He counsels those who feel terrified and alone to seek God there, in those interior spaces of the spirit.

Over the last five years it has become clear that we live at a time of a renewed and aggressive politics of identity. It is manifest in different, but inter-related ways, across much of the globe. It incites in us a visceral reaction to stand only with our own; to draw up lines of defence, internally as well as externally; to recall our universalist hopes or fantasies and batten down our moral imagination. It is hard to resist these reactions.

Yet we are also drawn to an inner space in which we hear life’s tears, the sorrows of those whose children have been killed; or whose sons have to go to the dangerous front lines of the army; or who have no homeland, or home; who face the brutal police of violent regimes, who are on the wrong side of the guns of vicious, racist militias. With us in that same space are those who devote their very souls to care for the ill, get food to hungry families, imagine how to give shelter to the destitute. There too are the people, from across the globe, who strive to protect the very earth which nourishes us, its animals, fishes, trees and meadowlands, and who mourn in the barren spaces where birdsong used to be.

I believe we can, and must, try to find each other there, not just because we each have cause to weep, but because, even more deeply, we are united by the love of life, the desire for life to thrive. The teaching of life and compassion, as Torah, Gospel, Koran, or as an agnostic sense of wonder and awe, calls us into fellowship to serve humanity, the earth and the life it sustains, and, if we so believe, the God of this rich and unfathomably intricate and inter-connected creation. We can only do so together; we can only maintain hope together, and, because we stand together, we can affirm to each other that no good, compassionate, creative action we undertake is too small to matter.

That, I believe, is what the giving and receiving of Torah truly means, on this festival of Shavuot.

After Yom Ha’Atzmaut: Humanity and Hope

Many of us reach this Shabbat with full and thin-skinned hearts after ten days of remembrance and celebration: Yom HaShaoh, Yom HaZikaron, on which Israel remembers over 23,000 dead, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s 70th Day of Independence.

Many searing words have been said. In our own community, two hundred of us listened in gripping silence as six courageous teenagers from Shlomi in the North of Israel, invited by the UJIA, spoke in fluent, eloquent English, each sentence learnt by heart, of the losses the country recalls, and of their own fears and aspirations, as they approach the age of army service. Our hearts go out to them in all their hopes for a life of peace and safety.

In Israel, David Grossman addressed a Remembrance ceremony intended for all, Israeli and Palestinian bereaved as well as those in solidarity with them, at a gathering attended by thousands. He spoke from personal grief, ‘from the fragile place that vividly remembers the existential fear, as well as the strong hope that now, finally, we have come home’. He spoke as a person proud of Israel’s achievements, ambitious and determined for the country’s true values, and as a consummate artist of the Hebrew language.

He spoke as a man ‘who resists rage and hate’ because it takes away ‘living contact with my son’, his Uri, killed in Lebanon in 2006. He spoke as one ‘doomed to touch reality through an open wound’. From out of those wounds, he spoke with frank and forthright humanity of his hopes for an end to injustice and violence on both sides, when Israelis and Palestinians could stand side by side without fear and share in their respective anthems the line “To be a free nation in our land”.

His painful, challenging, hopeful words reminded me of Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish who visited our garden after speaking in our Synagogue about his book I Shall Not Hate. He photographed the apple tree my wife and I planted in memory of his daughters, Bessan, Aya and Mayar, killed in Gaza. He wrote to us afterwards that he could see his three girls there in the garden, standing beside that tree.

These anniversaries occur at a time when cruelty and brutality are reasserting themselves across the world. The guiding values of liberal democracy are themselves in danger: tolerance, decency, forbearance, the aspiration toward social justice, and fair-minded, independent institutions to safeguard them.

Until recently, many of us took almost for granted the illusion that these values would assure humanity a journey onward and upward, hopeful, towards the ever better. Now they are under threat, from brutal attacks by nihilist fundamentalists like ISIS, from the amoral calculations of cunning leaders with blatant contempt for life, and from heartlessness within our own societies.

Here in Britain we should be ashamed of the treatment of the Windrush generation, as the implications of creating a ‘hostile environment’ become apparent in the impact on octogenarians, the sick, those who want to spend their lives with their families in the land where they’ve lived for decades. In Israel, we as Jews should stand alongside those who refuse to be silent at the gap between the love of the stranger emphasised in the Torah and the threatened deportation of thousands of asylum seekers. These concerns are symptoms, perhaps only small symptoms, in countries which essentially committed to justice and fairness, of a far crueller world liable to close in about us.

Therefore, humanity matters. Every person matters. Every kindness matters, every act of justice, every word, gesture and demonstration of solidarity which affirms the dignity and worth of life. In this endeavour, which is the ultimate purpose and meaning of our lives, we are committed first to those closest to us, our community, our people, Israel, the UK, but also to all humanity, every specific, individual before us. What denigrates one person, demeans us all. What enhances the life of one person, affirms the value of us all.

We pray for the wellbeing of Israel, of this country and of the world.

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