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.

AJEX Shabbat and Mitzvah Day

This week is AJEX Shabbat, followed on Sunday by the Jewish Military Association’s solemn commemoration. Whitehall is closed, service and ex-service men and women march by, as do their children wearing their parent’s medals in their honour. Over 120,000 Jews have served in the country’s armed forces.

But Sunday is also Mitzvah Day, a wonderful, creative and constructive response to the memory, and reality, of war.

Over the last years I’ve had the privilege of reciting the memorial prayer at the Cenotaph. I’ve found this humbling and intensely moving. Like so many of us, my grandfather and my father served, though in different armed forces. My wife’s uncle Sonny was killed supplying arms with the RAF to the French resistance. Jews, alongside other faith groups and minorities, have made immense contributions to this country, in war as well as in peace.

For those of us who’ve grown up since WW2, war in Europe had seemed a long way off. Not so now. Like others hosting families from Ukraine, Nicky and I wonder: do we leave the daily paper open, with the latest grim, or somewhat better, news? What immediate fears will the pictures bring when they come down for breakfast? It’s probably an idle question, as they speak to the men back in Kharkiv every day.

Here in the UK we are not faced with the constant threat of sudden death from bombs deliberately targeted at civilian infrastructures, something all too familiar to the generation who remember the V1s and V2s. We aren’t about to find on the outskirts of our towns and villages the half-concealed evidence of atrocities.

But war’s effects are all too clear. It wrecks the all-important works of peace. Farmlands are destroyed (We had eleven apricot trees, three produced really large fruits, all bombed, all bombed, ‘our’ grandmother said.) Grain from Ukraine’s rich black earth doesn’t reach the world’s poorest. Even in wealthy countries, rising prices push millions over the edge into destitution. Teachers in Birmingham say one child in three now lives in poverty. Richer nations are saying they can’t or won’t make the payments essential to help the planet’s most vulnerable nations minimise and adapt to climate change.

I’m sorry to write such horrible things but they weigh on the heart.

But they made me notice what I hadn’t properly taken in before: how, in the small siddurim, the grey-covered prayerbooks issues to His Majesty’s Armed Forces, the memorial prayers are followed immediately by verses full of longing for ‘the works of peace.’ They remind me that every Amidah, every single one of Judaism’s thrice-daily petitions, concludes with a prayer for peace. We must never take it for granted; it’s the most immeasurable blessing.

Late last night, unable to sleep, I went downstairs to fetch Isaac Rosenberg’s collected works. In a poem of 1917 he wrote how, returning from action, he and his men suddenly hear

But hark! Joy – joy – strange joy,

Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.

Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.

Death could drop from the dark / As easily as song –

But song only dropped

Our hearts go out to those like him who longed for peace but never lived to see it.

On their behalf, we must rededicate ourselves to the works of peace, to everything which Mitzvah Day upholds, caring across the boundaries of our communities, cooking, planting, giving, doing everything we can to make that peace as real, as lasting and as deep as we possibly can.

Cop 27 and EcoShabbat

In an intense and complex week, one theme runs through everything, the preciousness of life. That’s what I’m focussing on this EcoShabbat.

But first I want to acknowledge that today brings the memorial to that fateful eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when in 1918 the Armistice was signed which finally ended The First World War. Since then, this date has been marked as Armistice Day in Europe and Veteran’s Day in The States. (AJEX, the Jewish Military Association, holds its ceremony at The Cenotaph one week later).

It’s terrible to know that, in the words of Wilfred Owen, there’s another old man in Europe today who, unlike Abraham when the angel told him to spare his child,

Would not so, but slew his son

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Tonight, therefore, I will miss the beautiful synagogue service which marks the beginning of Shabbat, so as to attend a concert at the Ukrainian Cathedral, ‘The Cry, a Requiem for the Lost Child,’ in memory of the thousand children killed in Ukraine. Kenneth Nowakowski, the Eparchial Bishop, wept when I asked him to speak in our synagogue. It’s basic solidarity to stand with him in return.

Children were the subject at the service led by the Association of Jewish Refugees last Wednesday to mark Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, the Night of Broken Glass. That was when my grandfather, rabbi in Frankfurt, went into hiding, only to give himself up because he learnt that the Gestapo were waiting in his home. He feared he might be putting his wife and daughters at even greater risk.

In the terror which followed, the cry went out across Britain ‘Get the children out!’ the title of Mike Levy’s remarkable book subtitled The Unsung Heroes of the Kindertransport. A note on the cover reminds us that these issues aren’t over: ‘In support of Safe Passage, legal routes to sanctuary.’ There are few, if any, such routes for children of war and terror today.

Meanwhile COP 27 struggles to find a safe passage forward for our entire planet, one-and-a-fifth hands tied behind its back by the world’s economic and fuel crises and the paucity of courageous political leadership.

Nevertheless, I’m buoyed up by a resilient hopefulness based on what so many people are doing, locally, persistently. I was privileged to hear Charlie Burrell, who established Knepp, describe the swift return of species unseen for decades. (See his wife Isabella Tree’s wonderful book Wilding) The glimpse of a butterfly once thought extinct is joy!

I participated in the conversations of the Elijah Interfaith Institute yesterday. (Please join us this Sunday). I carry with me the words of Hindu and Buddhist colleagues: All is oneness. God’s presence fills all creation; let it fill your consciousness too. Let it descend to the heart. Let its light guide your conscience and actions. Then you will seek not to hurt or harm any creature.

As we move into EcoShabbat, I take from this week the gritty hope which feeds determination. I tell myself (and others!) Notice; be aware! Be there to care! One life flows through all things: if we nourish it, it will nourish us.

We must work for life in whatever ways we can.

Our EcoShabbat focusWhat’s Local To See:

Look out for the display in shul this Shabbat of our local wildlife.

Complete this survey to tell us which of these local animals, birds and trees you see over the next three weeks. Post your photos, stories, anecdotes in our Facebook group. Prizes will be awarded for the best responses.

Hear my Thought for the Day from this Thursday – ‘On Hope’

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.

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?

Two teachers who’ve shaped my life…

Two moments have marked my week.

I didn’t expect to find myself emotional while waiting at Luton airport. I was simply standing at arrivals holding a sign.

The flight from Warsaw had landed half an hour ago; the bags were now in the hall. I held up the board with the names higher and stepped into the middle of the walkway so that the Ukrainian family wouldn’t miss me, and felt suddenly moved.

I soon realised why. Who was the person who’d held up such a sign eighty-four years ago, when my mother landed with her parents that 9 April 1938 at Croydon Airport, they too arriving in a country in which they had never imagined they’d be forced to seek refuge?

Of everything my mother has ever said to me it may be this which has stayed most firmly in my mind. When she left the family who hosted her in Boxmoor during the war, she asked the lady of the house, ‘How can we ever thank you?’ ‘Don’t thank us,’ she replied. ‘One day you’ll do for others what we tried to do for you.’ I’m sure that’s what led me, with my wife Nicky’s encouragement, to be standing here at Luton with this sign. Look, that must be them…

The other moment which shaped my week in fact occurred earlier, when I learnt of the death in Jerusalem of my teacher in Torah Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky.

For five years after I graduated as a rabbi from Leo Baeck College, I went to Israel regularly to learn Torah daily from him and his Hasidic friend Reb Dovid. Despite the good rabbinic education I’d received I felt (and still feel) wanting in Talmud and classic Jewish texts.

Rabbi Strikovsky taught me Bameh Madlikin,the chapter of Talmud which treats of the lights for Shabbat and Chanukkah, and which contains that beautiful passage about the awe of God: whatever one’s learnt, if one hasn’t got a spirit of reverence and wonder, it’s likely to turn to dust.

I never knew the story of Rabbi Strikovsky’s life. But whenever he taught me a Hasidic text, and he introduced me to the writings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav and the teachings of Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto who was murdered at Trawniki in 1943, – whenever he expounded these teachings, he would weep, his words coming slowly through his tears from his heart.

He belonged in spirit to that pre-Holocaust culture of complete immersion in learning and piety. He lived in the spiritual universe of Jewish knowledge and devotion, in that other-worldly, timeless discourse with the sages of all lands and eras about the service of God.

Yet tradition did not prevent him from courageously doing what he knew was just and right. It was at his initiative that to’anot rabbiniyot were introduced into the rabbinical divorce courts, women lawyers and para-rabbis to put the cases of wives and mothers before this daunting all-male enclave. He did not stop there: despite the entrenched establishment position, he gave semichah and ordained at least two women as rabbis, subsequently supporting them in their careers.

One day, too, after requesting to meet Nicky and our young son Mossy to bless him, he gave me his smichah too. I have it here, near me, with the signature Aryeh son of Baruch Strikovsky. May the memory of his righteousness be for a blessing.

A verse from Proverbs connects these two moments in my week: ‘Listen, my son, to the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the teachings of your mother.’ (1:8) (One’s Torah teacher is also understood, metaphorically, as one’s father.)

I hear that verse sung beautifully in our synagogue by a small family choir at the bnei mitzvah of their children. Right now, the words leave me feeling chastened by the loving trust and deep responsibility they bestow.

Passover and Earth Day – Our Hopes and Dreams

Hebrew has at least two words for freedom. Right now I’m mindful of them both, since tomorrow will be both the 7th day of Pesach and the 52nd celebration of Earth Day. Let me explain.

The older Hebrew term for freedom is dror. It derives from the root d.r.r. which, according to Brown, Driver and Briggs, my favourite Biblical dictionary, means to stream, flow abundantly, be luxuriant, even give light. The word dror occurs just once in this sense of freedom in the Torah, in reference to the Jubilee year when ‘you shall proclaim dror,freedom, to all the inhabitants of the earth.’ Dror can also mean a swallow, a bird whose swooping, delightful flight looks like the very embodiment of joyous liberty.

The later, rabbinic, term is herut. It is derived from the root h.u.r. meaning to be free, as opposed to being a slave. It may be linked to chorin, white garments worn by free persons. On Passover we trace our journey from servitude to becoming bnei chorin, people who wear the robes of liberty.

Today, I hope and dream of both kinds of freedom.

On the 7th day of Pesach we sing the song of the sea, reliving the relief and joy of the Children of Israel when, trapped between the sea and the rapidly approaching Egyptian army, the waters part and they cross in safety between the waves in which Pharaoh and his charioteers drown. The song celebrates what every refugee must feel when life-threatening danger lies behind them, when enemy bombs can no longer reach them, when the flimsy boats in which they’ve had to set sail reach the far-off shore. This is cherut, freedom, always provisional, always looking anxiously over its shoulder, from the long reach of oppression.

It is a freedom attained at a terrible price. The Talmud imagines God forbidding the angels to join in as the Children of Israel rejoice: ‘My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are busy singing!’ It is the freedom obtained by the defeat of tyranny, which always comes at the cost of innumerable lives. It is the victory of freedom we will commemorate on VE day on the 8th of May. It is the liberty my father felt when the siege of Jerusalem was finally lifted in 1948, cruel and bloody weeks after Israel’s Declaration of Independence. It is the freedom battled for today in Ukraine. As we are tragically realising yet again, that freedom must be fought for and defended. Therefore, though we know it is not yet at hand, we hope and pray for the day when every nation will be free and weapons put away forever.

In my mind that hope is dror, complete, joyous liberty: the liberty of the flowing stream, the radiant light, the flight of the swift and swallow. It is of this that Earth Day makes me dream. It is a day of commitment to practical actions: – ‘This is the moment to change it all — the business climate, the political climate. Now is the time for the unstoppable courage to preserve and protect our health, our families, and our livelihoods.’ (https://www.earthday.org/history/) But I see through it the vision of pristine forests and mountain streams, an agriculture which feeds populations yet respects the insects, birds and animals of the fields, a humanity at one in its interdependence with all living beings, all together part of God’s creation.

For these two freedoms, cherut and dror, we must hope and pray, and, in whatever way and to whatever extent we can, dedicate our lives.

Passover, and the eternal and urgent fight for freedom

I wish everyone in our community, our family and friends and all who celebrate the festival across the world, Chag Sameach for Pesach, zeman cheirouteinu, the festival of our freedom.

Throughout the long experience of the Jewish People, and in the history of peoples across the world, freedom has never been a condition to be taken for granted. Rather, it has been fought for, with God’s help, but with human vision, courage and determination. As we read in the Haggadah, and as we witness today, in every generation there are those who rise up against the basic principles of liberty, justice and human dignity and threaten the world with their totalitarian ambitions and ruthless brutality.

Earlier this week I joined a visit of solidarity to Ukraine at the request of local leaders, arranged by the Elijah Interfaith Institute. We were asked to speak of comradeship, hope and faith. But what mattered to us most was to listen, to be within the close distance of the heart’s hearing.

At an orphanage on the edge of Chernivtsi, where the staff had received a hundred mothers and children fleeing the war-ravaged east, one woman spoke to us on behalf of many:

This is the second time I’ve had to flee. This war’s not been six weeks, but eight years. I have a four-month-old baby. My mother is with me. I worry for my husband, all the time, and about the situation. The world needs to know.

In her, and in the kind, calm women who ran this remarkable place I met today’s incarnation of the biblical midwives who risked their lives in the defiance of tyranny: ‘No, Pharaoh, these babies shall live!’

In a powerful statement sent to accompany our interfaith visit and read out in the Chernivtsi theatre in Ukrainian, Pope Francis referenced an even earlier killer:

All this troubles our consciences and obliges us not to keep silent, not to remain indifferent before the violence of Cain and the cry of Abel, but instead to speak out forcefully in order to demand, in the name of God, the end of these abominable actions.

In the history of the Jewish People, and all humanity, freedom has only been won by struggle and maintained through vigilance. This struggle has not always been military. It encompasses the poet who composes from the conscience, that invincible force which tunnels beneath tyranny. It includes lawyers and journalists who defend the victims of state and gang violence in the face of judicial corruption and political convenience. It involves teachers who daily plan lessons to enable all their pupils to learn towards their dreams. It embraces those striving for the just, compassionate treatment of refugees.

Heroes of freedom include those who composed and ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and The United Nations Convention on refugees, and who put genocide and crimes against humanity on the international statute book, as documented in Philippe Sands’ East West Street. In all these achievements, the experiences and efforts of Jewish people, alongside others, have been key motivators.

Therefore, while Pesach celebrates freedom from, fromthe tyranny of Pharaoh and his like in all ages, it marks no less the importance of freedom to. From that freedom, that task of redemption, we are never free on earth – unless we take freedom for granted or hold it in little regard. For freedom is easily squandered.

Therefore, this Pesach we rededicate ourselves to the work of freedom in whatever ways we are able to pursue it.

Sometimes the battle for freedom must be fought in the front lines against the perpetrators of war crimes. But freedom is also won, and its preservation is only ensured, in the daily tasks of peacetime: combatting hatred and racism, working for social justice, caring for children, and in any activity or action in which the dignity of each person is recognised and validated.

We put our trust in the God of life, in the knowledge that God’s presence is working with us for the good and blessing of all living beings.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach

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.

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.

 

 

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