Whose faces do we see?

I received a remarkable WhatsApp from Raba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, rabbi of the Tsion community in Jerusalem. The colleague who introduced us said to me ‘Meet your soul-sister’. It’s an honour I don’t deserve, though now that her family has a puppy maybe it’s a little less untrue.

Rabbi Tamar had just concluded a ten-day hunger strike out of deep anguish for Israel. Two weeks ago, she told me at the demonstrations in Jerusalem, ‘Don’t compromise your principles. But listen to everyone.’ The struggle for democracy and justice must be won. But behind it lie further dangerous rifts, angers, insecurities, wrongs and fears.

Tamar reflected deeply on the words of the Hatikvah, “The Hope”, Israel’s national anthem, especially on the line kol od baleivav penimah, ‘For so long, deep within the heart…’ Penimah means ‘within’, but panim are also ‘faces’. She wrote:

 ‘So long as I have within my heart the faces of my brothers and sisters, so long as I acknowledge them, carry them, seek their peace as I seek my own…’

Her words reminded me of Pasternak’s poem ‘Daybreak

In me are people without names,

Children, stay-at-homes, trees,

I am conquered by them all

And this is my only victory.

So who are these people we must carry in our heart?

Some are our nearest-and-dearest because we feel and care in similar ways. But Tamar’s point is that’s not enough. What about others?

Pharaoh asked Moses this very question three thousand years ago: Who’s going with you on your journey to freedom? ‘Our old and our young,’ he replied, ‘our sons and our daughters.’ Moses was leaving no one behind.

Now, approaching Pesach, ‘The Festival of Our Freedom’ who must we carry with us in these troubled times? To whom as we open the door to Elijah, prophet of peace, can we open our hearts and minds?

Some things are easily said, just hard to do. We must take the poor with us in our increasingly unequal societies, refugees, children, all children, those who cope readily in our fierce-elbowed world and those who find it tough.

Some things are hard even to say. Can we carry in understanding, without agreeing or conceding, those whose views, and often actions, we oppose, including, perhaps, communities we call ‘ultra-orthodox’ who fear modernity? Are there values with which we can empathise?

Is there a place in our thinking for those whose hurts are also, alongside the oppression and hatreds of so much Iranian and Middle Eastern politics, partly our responsibility after fifty-five years, Palestinian people on the wrong side of those concreate walls, without rights we mostly take for granted? If not, to what shared pain are we jointly condemned?

Is there even space in my imagination for those whose actions I utterly deplore and in no way seek to justify, supremacists and racists who profane the name of Judaism? Should I see their actions, without in any way exculpating them, as in part the product of hurts and wrongs, pogroms and attempted genocides, absorbed by Jews for centuries and now poured forth in vindictive anger, and fear?

To what wrongs – I write this with trepidation – here in the UK, across this unjust world, and among my own people, am I too party? We read the famous verse v’ahavta le’re’acha kamocha, as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, which numerous rabbis, being pragmatists, understand as ‘respect and acknowledge others as you want to be respected.’ But the words, vowel-less in the Torah, can be misread as ve’ahavta lera’achah. It’s a harsh misreading, but not beyond the scope of what one sometimes finds in Hasidic discourse. It means something like ‘acknowledge the bad which is like you,’ the wrongs in which I also have a share.

If we wish to advance our journey towards freedom and redemption this Pesach, these are some of the questions we may have to face.

I love the festival and shall write affectionately and uncritically about its details on Monday.

Why I went to the demonstrations

Sometimes people do things they shouldn’t, but years or even generations later one’s grateful. My cassette machine, if people remember what that is, stands gathering dust on my study windowsill; I guess I’ve left it there just in case its very antiquity should somehow prove it useful. It was an instrument like that which someone smuggled unlawfully into the synagogue in Berlin’s Pestalozzistrasse one Rosh Hashanah. That’s how we have a series of recordings of my grandfather Rabbi Dr Georg Salzberger’s sermons, audible despite the static, in that strong, clear voice which, even in his nineties, he never lost.

So this morning, as I think of the fighting in Ukraine, where I was six weeks ago, or the battle for true democracy and the impartiality of justice in Israel, I hear my grandfather’s voice as he opens a sermon with the words of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, the leader of the Jewish People through their struggles under Roman tyranny in the mid second century:

The world is established upon three things: truth, justice and peace. (Chapters of the Fathers 1:18)

Then I hear my grandfather ask: ‘Ist es denn so, wirklich so, meine Freunde? – Is that so, really so, my friends?’ He had, after all, lived through two world wars, persecution, flight, and the Cold War after that.

It’s because of these same principles that I will shortly set out to join the demonstrations in London, because they constitute the foundations of Torah and the soul and strength of Judaism throughout its long history of moral courage and survival.

I will go in sorrow, because the very fact that it should be necessary to demonstrate against the Prime Minister of Israel Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to London troubles me. But I will go willingly, because I will be standing in public support of Israel, in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands on the streets of its cities every week. They want their, and our, beloved country, for whom they are ready to give their lives, to be precisely a place of truth, integrity, justice and peace, because these are the qualities upon which a free, honest and equal society depends.

Truth, and the unflinching readiness to tell it to power, is the very heart of the prophetic literature, which forms a full third of the Hebrew Bible. Time and again, kings and ministers turned on the prophets; many knew they might die for their cause and several were indeed murdered. Yet still they spoke out, because God’s words ‘burned like fire in the bones’; because they could not witness wrong and keep silent.

This fire was inflamed by every form of injustice, the wrongful accrual of wealth, the arrogance and dishonesty of high office, the heartless dispossession of the poor, the failure to honour the supreme value of chesed, loving kindness, which must always be the partner of justice.

This same cruelty and wrongdoing, the similar endeavour to corrupt and pervert justice, is manifest today before our eyes in many lands today, sadly now not excluding Israel.

The prophets had probably never heard of democracy; their chant was not de-mo-krat-iah but tsedek, justice. For them, theocracy was the ideal form of governance and God the supreme Judge.

But the underlying values were the same. They understood that God is the God of truth ‘who sees to the heart.’ They knew that justice had to be placed in the hands of those who ‘respected God, loved truth and hated corruption.’ (Exodus 18:21) They understood that a peaceful society depends not just on the rule of the majority, but on how it upholds the dignity, voices and rights of minorities because every human being is created in God’s image.

They knew, and we know, that it is on these principles that the good name of Israel and the reputation of Judaism rests.

A frank and heartfelt report from Israel

My body is back from Israel, but not my head and heart. ‘Don’t turn away at this critical hour. Stay by us. Know that there are many Israels; decide with which you stand.’ That’s the key message I was given in this time of danger, when both Israel and the meaning of Judaism are at stake.

I’ll describe elsewhere the amazing UK-bound rabbinical students gathered at the Conservative Yeshivah to share their learning, spirit, values and devotion to each other.

I’ll say little of my half marathon, the guide dogs I met, and how in the last metres I looked the wrong way and carelessly, idiotically, ran into a road, was missed by a bus by 3 inches, am lucky to be alive and must say the blessing ‘for the unworthy to whom God does good.’

No: I’ll focus on what’s seared in my mind from meeting after meeting. Forgive me; I must write more than usual.

De-mo-crat-ya; the chant from the demonstrations doesn’t leave me. No one gave Israel’s present government the right to tread down those principles, which, beyond the word’s literal meaning of ‘power of the people,’ are the essence of democracy: the supremacy of justice and law, equality, freedom of conscience and expression, respect for minorities. ‘I’m terrified,’ a gay activist tells me. These values are at risk not just in Israel but in many lands.

Everyone I know is there, right, left and friends who don’t go to demonstrations. The speakers are well-chosen: leading women, an Arab Israeli, a senior academic, an ultra-orthodox rabbi. As they name the wrongs of the proposed legislation, the chant turns to ‘bushah, bushah, bushah, shame, shame, shame.’

There’s power and hope in these demonstrations, which keep going, growing, can’t be ignored.

I pick up the sticker ‘Democracy and Occupation cannot Coexist.’ ‘You can’t dissociate this from the occupation,’ says orthodox rabbi Alon Goschen-Gottstein, who created the Elijah Interfaith Institute, as we walk through the lanes of beautiful Yemin Moshe. Injustice knows no green lines and crosses back over separation walls.

I sit with scholar Dror Bondi, raised among settlers with the belief that ‘God is Jewish,’ until, spiritually troubled, he encountered Abraham Joshua Heschel’s ‘any God who’s my God and not your God isn’t God.’ Is it conceivable, he writes, that in a Jewish state the high court of justice should not be above and independent of the government, just as in times of monarchy the king was subject to the Torah’s law ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue?’

Israel’s crisis is political, but it’s also about the nature of Judaism. Now more than ever is the time to uphold the spiritually, morally, culturally, rich and courageous Judaism whose God is the God of all, against a nationalist, literalist narrowing down. For Judaism’s reputation is on the line.

I go with the New Israel Fund and Ir Amim to the valley flowing from the Old City to the Arab village of Silouan. Below, donkeys graze sweetly in a model biblical farmyard. But it’s part of a land grab led by El Ad who’re also behind the cable-car project and a bridge across the valley to dominate the neighbourhood. I’m reminded of a conversation years ago with the CEO of a nearby Palestinian hospital: ‘You’re an intelligent people,’ he said, ‘And I’ve been a peace activist for years. So what are you doing trying to force us out? What consequences will this have?’

I hadn’t thought of as animals as political. But next day I’m in the West Bank with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Torat Tsedek (Torah of Justice). His car stuck in mud in the rainswept hills, he documents settlers calculatedly grazing their sheep on undisputedly Palestinian land. He phones the police and army; when we leave, they haven’t yet arrived: ‘By the time anything happens the sheep may have eaten all the produce…’

Arik, who has extraordinary physical and moral courage, has been attacked many times. At the trial of the seventeen-year-old who held a knife to his throat, he pleaded that the young man not go to prison, saying “We must honour God’s image in every human being.” About those words Professor David Shulman, author of Dark Hope, Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine, wrote: ‘Out of the 613 mitzvot the Jews are meant to perform, this one stands out. Its existential priority, in the awareness of a person like Arik, speaks to the old tradition of Jewish humanism that I knew from my grandfather and my parents.’

We love our country and look after it for everyone, say the leaders of The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel when we meet to discuss partnership with Jtree over planting shrubs and trees round wetlands project. But the proposed legislation will remove all safeguards over nature, allowing virtually unlimited ‘development’.

‘Stand by your principles, but meet everyone,’ says my dear friend Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum. Day and night, she works to get people together: ‘Our society’s torn apart. We must hear each other if we’re to heal. She’s bringing women leaders, Jewish, Hasidic, Druse, Muslim, Palestinian, Christian, right-wing, left-wing, west bank, to listen to each other at Bet Hanasi, the President’s House. ‘I don’t compromise on principles,’ she says, ‘But we must hear one another; it changes hearts.’

‘I’m hopeful,’ says a friend who’s senior in Israel’s bank: all the financial institutions, at home and abroad, all the high tech, is telling this government to stop. So are high officers in the army and air force, whose lives are constantly on the line for our country.

The current government stands on three dangerous pillars: militant settlers, who don’t want to be held to justice by the courts; ultra-orthodox who don’t want equality for women or different branches of Judaism, or to serve in the army; and corrupt leadership at the highest level. It’s also supported by many who, often with reason, have long felt hurt and unheard.

Facing it are millions deeply devoted to Israel who seek to uphold the true meanings of democracy, groups from right and left, countless NGOs, people practising chesed, tzedek, ve’emet, lovingkindness, justice and truth, people who risk their own and their children’s lives for a country so often wrongly attacked, hated and defamed. Alongside them are millions of Jews and non-Jews abroad.

Time and again I’m told: Say to your community ‘Stand with us. Tell them there are many Israels; tell them to choose carefully which ones to support. Use your influence. We need you all.’

The demonstration in Jerusalem falls silent, then everyone sings Hatikvah together: ‘Our hope has not ceased, to be a free people,’ free for everyone. It is deeply moving.

From a troubled Israel

I spent yesterday morning at the Israel Bird Observatory seeing tiny migrating birds being expertly ringed.

The Observatory is situated exactly between Israel’s Knesset and the Supreme Court; politicians go past frequently. An extraordinary green haven in the middle of the city, its location is critically symbolic.

I watched closely as birds as light as just five grams were measured and ringed. It was a privilege to witness the loving skill with which they were handled. There’s a careful technique to holding them, either by their legs, or by cupping them in the hand with fingers placed round their neck. A careless movement and the creature would be strangled.

In that location and at this hour I couldn’t escape the thought that this was symbolic: that Israel’s current government has its rough fingers round the neck of Israel’s judiciary, Israel’s democracy, its ethical standing, its reputation as the Jewish State and the good name of Judaism across the world.

In the words of Yuval Noah Harari, (The Times of Israel) the legal reforms it proposes would give it ‘unlimited power to pass any law it wants…without checks on its power and without protection for minority rights,’ those very rights on which we Jews have depended, and in the absence of which we’ve often been betrayed, in numerous lands for many generations. Without judicial protection, society, and especially the most vulnerable groups in it, would be left at the mercy of the very ministers who ‘have often expressed racist, misogynist and homophobic views,’ a prospect viciously evidenced in Minister Ben Gvir’s despicable response to the appalling pogrom in Hawara last week. (There’s a deeply disturbing relationship between the occupation and the attack on justice and freedom within Israel itself.)

‘It seems that the current Israeli government has simply forgotten what it means to be Jewish,’ Harari concludes.

In an emergency address to the nation last night, President Herzog put himself on the line, telling his government, history would judge if it did not act immediately to calm the national emergency and rethink its proposed legislation which would destroy ‘the supreme values’ of democracy and justice, and imperil Israel.

Moments afterwards there was an appalling terrorist attack on the streets of Tel Aviv, horribly highlighting the all-too-real dangers Israelis regularly face.

I was asked last night about the connection between Purim and Pesach. This year it’s bluntly clear. ‘If you are silent now,’ Mordechai tells Esther, demanding her, despite the risk, to intervene on behalf of her people. Pesach is the festival of liberty and human dignity. If we are silent now, we will watch those very values corroded and corrupted by a leadership which is not only betraying its own courageous and creative country, but Judaism itself.

Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Freedman quoted three Israeli thinkers, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, Yossi Klein Halevi and Matti Friedman who, though representing different political perspectives, deliberately came together to tell American Jewry to stand up and defend Israel ‘from a political leadership that is undermining our society’s cohesion and its democratic ethos, the foundations of the Israeli success story.’

On Wednesday I was with leaders of local protests (half a million people are expected on the streets this Saturday night). One, a senior doctor, had coordinated a letter signed by three hundred medics in the reserves, stating that they would not serve if the government destroyed those very freedoms for which they had time and again put their lives on the line.

The massive, strong and peaceful protests across the country are a deep indication of the country’s health, symbolised by the reclaiming of the national flag as representing the core values for which the state of Israel was founded: democracy, justice and equality for all its citizens.

We, who live abroad, must stand up too. It is not just for Israel but for Judaism itself that those same values must be claimed. Otherwise, others will represent Judaism for us, as proved by the religious far right in the current government. We mustn’t let ‘Jewish’ be merely an adjective we apply to ourselves when it suits. We must study, know, love and live by its creed of justice, compassion, and the service of God through the creation of just, compassionate, knowledgeable and dedicated communities and societies.

Israel, Judaism and Justice

In many parts of the world justice is in danger.

One sometimes hears Judaism referred to as ‘a religion of justice’ in derogatory tones, as if justice were inferior to love and could be summed up in the supposedly vindictive formula ‘an eye for an eye.’ But it’s a false comparison. Justice is the basis for love even in the closest of personal relationships. It is the foundation of equality and mutual respect across societies and between nations. Without justice, love and companionship cannot thrive. Justice is something to be proud of and defend, as the Torah teaches, ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ (Deuteronomy 16:20)

But in many parts of the world, including, sadly, Israel under its current government, the integrity of the judicial process is in peril.

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which means ‘Laws.’ It opens with the words ‘And these are the laws…’ (Exodus 21:1) Being careful readers, the rabbis paid close attention to that ‘and’. They understood it as connecting all the Torah’s detailed rules with the revelation at Sinai described in the previous chapter. Just as the Ten Commandments were given by God, so the laws needed to govern a just and compassionate society are equally sacred.

A striking Midrash goes further. God is supremely powerful, yet God loves justice, as we affirm in every weekday prayer when we bless ‘God who loves righteousness and justice.’ Only tyrants seek to bypass the judicial system. Justice, administered with impartiality and humility, is how God’s will is made manifest in the world. (Yalkut Shimoni to Mishpatim)

The Torah insists that judges must be God-fearing, honest and incorruptible. They must ‘hate bribes’ which presumably includes not only financial but also political inducements. (Exodus 18:21)

An ancient rabbinic principle prefigures the separation of powers between government and governance: ‘There are three crowns: the crown of sovereignty, the crown of priesthood and the crown of Torah.’ (Sayings of the Fathers 2:10) No two crowns were ever to be worn by the same person. The role of Torah scholars, the rabbis and judiciary, was to ensure that society was ruled according to the principles of justice and compassion. Their responsibility was, and remains, to tell truth to power and hold it frankly and bravely to account.

These are the very issues about which hundreds of thousands are demonstrating across Israel today. One can criticise some of its decisions, but Israel has rightly been proud of the independence, integrity and courage of its supreme court. That independence is now under threat of politicisation and marginalisation by a government which wants to control its composition and undermine its authority. It’s a government which has little desire for true equality among all Israel’s citizens, which has racist minsters in its ranks, and which fails to recognise that democracy means not just the rule of the majority but respect for minorities and their views. In the frank words of Israel’s Attorney General:

Giving unlimited powers to the government is a sure recipe for infringing both human rights and proper governance. The principle of the separation of powers requires an autonomous, nonpartisan and independent judicial system… The results of [suggested changes to the Judicial Selection Committee] would damage the independence, the professionalism and the non-partisan autonomy of the Judiciary. (Issued 2nd February)

These proposed measures, which threaten Israel’s democratic foundations, have met with massive resistance across Israel and the Jewish World. Ron Kronish, who has worked long and tirelessly for understanding between the different faiths in Israel, reported:

I attended the massive demonstration against the current insane government in Jerusalem on Monday, February 13th, along with over 100,000 Israeli citizens from all over the country. It was an amazing experience…. The sane, rational, caring majority of Israeli citizens have woken up from their apathy! …Many groups in Israeli society are involved: high-tech workers, lawyers and jurists, professors and their students, teachers and their students, retired people, reservists from the army and many more… It was inspiring. A moment of hope. (The Times of Israel)

I’m writing about these matters, not eagerly, but because this is not a time to keep silent. Millions of Israelis, and others, Jews and non-Jews, have devoted their lives, and tens of thousands of Israelis have given those lives, for a country which has striven, and continues despite its difficulties to strive, to be ‘based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as taught by the Hebrew prophets.’ (Israel’s Declaration of Independence) These principles lie at the heart not just of Israel but of the Jewish religion through the ages.

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.

Never think there’s nothing we can do

‘Queen Zelenska, Queen Zelenska:’ the boys were bursting with excitement after we got home. We’d been invited by Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski, who a few days earlier had been our guest in the synagogue, to the formal opening of the welcome centre for refugees from the war in Ukraine. ‘I never dreamt I’d be a refugee in London,’ said Halina who, with her daughter and grandsons, is living with us, ‘Nor that I’d meet the king.’ But King Charles meant little to her grandchildren; what impressed them was that their babushka had met Queen Zelenska.

The First Lady radiated presence and warmth. But what must have been on her mind! Over the previous days she’d addressed Parliament, then, with the Queen Consort, spoken to hundreds of women about the particular horrors, war-crimes, violence, abuse and misery to which the fighting left girls and women especially exposed. With all this on her heart, and with an agenda of summoning the maximum possible help, not least in prosecuting war-crimes, Mrs Zelenska nevertheless left an impression of dignity, courage and grace. What came across from King Charles was a quiet humanity; he cared. ‘After his first visit to us in the opening days of the war,’ Bishop Kenneth told me, ‘His office called every few days to ask what we needed.’

I believe all of us who were there left with similar thoughts: How can we help? What can we do, in whatever contexts or situations we can, to mitigate suffering in the world?

Wrongs and hurts assail us from every side. Some are caused by life itself with its illnesses and ill-fortunes: I’m mindful that yesterday was World AIDS Day. Other wounds are the result of human cruelty: this Shabbat is devoted to publicising the essential work of Jewish Women’s Aid, JWA. It’s shocking to realise the huge numbers of women, and sometimes, though more rarely, men, who suffer verbal, financial and physical abuse, very often in enforced or lonely secrecy, for years and even decades.

There are further home truths we also need to face. I’m troubled by the betrayal of what I consider Judaism’s core Torah-based values and of what history has taught us as a people, by the rise to positions in Israel’s government of Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who incite race-hate and homophobia. Not just they but those who appointed them must be challenged and held to account. We can, and should, support Israel by supporting those who truly uphold the just and democratic principles on which it was founded.

Trapped in Europe in the 1930s, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that we humans have two faces: the image of God and the visage of Cain. Later, a refugee in America saved at the last moment, he wrote in The Meaning of This War

The mark of Cain in the face of man has come to overshadow the likeness of God.

But, he continued, we have a choice:

There can be no neutrality. Either we are ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil… God is waiting for us to redeem the world. We should not spend our life hunting for trivial satisfactions while God is waiting….

I’m moved that the motto for this year’s World AIDS Day is ‘To Our World With Love.’ What, can we do to foster that love and bring healing, safety, joy and hope to our world?

I feel greatly challenged virtually every day, yet deeply inspired almost every day. So I want to include with another beautiful moment I, with Nicky, was privileged to share this week, and which I determine to carry in my heart through thick and thin.

We stood near the top of Skirrid, a sacred mountain in South Wales, a small group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders, and prayed together:

Eternal Spirit, Earth-Maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver…

We hold brothers and sisters who suffer from storms and droughts…We hold all species that suffer…

We pray that love and wisdom might inspire our actions…so that we may, with integrity, look into the eyes of brothers and sisters and all beings and truthfully say, we are doing our part to care for them and the future of the children.

May love transform us and our world with new steps toward life.

Then we joined local farmers and volunteers, and, as the sun set, planted trees to form windbreaks to protect the land.

We must try never to think that there’s nothing we can do.

Hope, and how to find it

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

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

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

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.

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