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.

Between Yom Ha’Shoah and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut

These days between Yom HaShaoh, the Hebrew date for Holocaust Memorial Day and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, are caught between anguish and hope.

I lit my yellow candle in memory of a child murdered by the Nazis. I thought, as I had promised my father, of all the members of the family who were killed, saying their names, one by one.

There went through my mind once again the unforgettable lines with which Primo Levi described the four Russian horsemen, the advance party of the Red Army, who freed him from the universe of Auschwitz. They did not greet those they liberated, nor did they smile, oppressed by a ‘confused restraint’:

It was that shame we knew so well…[the shame] that the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.

Such shame should penetrate the heart of humanity at the gassing of civilians, of children, in Syria. Once again, the will for good seems to have proved too weak. Once again, powerful amoral leaders and their armies behave with cynical contempt for life. Again, the West faces the difficult decision of if and how to intervene militarily so that the situation for those who have already suffered so much may be made better, not worse. In Israel, so a friend told me, the word on the horrified street was, ‘We must help the children, we must help the children’. (I hope one of the UK’s responses will be to take in more children, families, refugees from horror.)

Meanwhile Israel, our country, where I love to be, which has so many achievements, and so much idealism still today, approaches its 70th birthday with plenty of challenges and problems of its own.

In November 1943 my father’s uncle, Alfred Freimann, who fled Germany in 1933, wrote to his brother Ernst in New York, who escaped Europe in 1939:

We saw another part of our beautiful countryside; the whole strip of land along the coast is like one flowering garden. If they let us work in peace and quiet, and didn’t prevent immigration, we’d soon have one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

Alfred did not live to see either the flourishing of his hopes or the refusal of Israel’s enemies to allow the country to live in peace and quiet. He was killed in the infamous attack on a convoy of academics to Mount Scopus on this very day, April 13, 1948, exactly 70 years ago. My father, who was in the Hagganah at the time, spoke of this with horror and anger. His own Yahrzeit, fittingly, is on Yom Ha’Atazma’ut.

Each year at this season I phone my friend Aaron Barnea, whose son fell in Lebanon on the eve of Yom HaShoah. He’s a founding member of the Parents’ Circle, sharing grief, hope, and the determination to achieve a better future for both peoples with Palestinian bereaved. I have learnt, through Aaron and others like him, how deeply it matters to try to listen to and look at the world with a conscience for their grief and hopes as well.

I want to stand in solidarity with those who, in spite of everything, dream, aspire, care, teach, work, and dedicate their lives to creating the Israel described in the Declaration of Independence, a state Jewish not only in its demography but in its core values. I want to stand with those who live and teach the Torah of loving kindness and justice; who care for the hungry, the sick and the suffering; who build bridges between communities, faiths, and peoples; who strive to make Israel a land which welcomes, and does not deport, refugees from persecution; who share Israel’s skills and technological expertise with impoverished regions around the world; who live with faith, courage, creativity and hope amidst all the difficulties, dangers, threats, mistakes and bigotry which challenge the country from without and within; who want to get on with ordinary, decent, hardworking lives, raising their family, loving their children, and praying for a safe and peaceful future.

The world is once again in a frightening and dangerous place. The record of the Jewish past teaches us that if history challenges our dreams and ideals, we need to learn from that history and work for our dreams and ideals even harder.

 

Let My People Stay

Wearing a kippah and knowing Hebrew didn’t seem the most relevant asset when I visited the so-called ‘Jungle’ in Calais 15 months ago with leaders of different faiths. Suddenly a young man touched me on the shoulder and addressed me in Ivrit. He’d been an asylum-seeker in Israel, he explained. People had been decent to him but there was no future there. So he’d returned to the Sudan, been shot at, and then made his perilous way across the sea and through Europe – to here. He showed me his tiny, flimsy tent.

Now Israel is proposing to deport its asylum-seekers, or detain them indefinitely. In defiance, Rabbis for Human Rights has started the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary movement to give refugees shelter and protection:

“Who here would be willing to house people?” asked Rabbi Susan Silverman at a gathering of rabbis and educators in Jerusalem. All 130 or so people in the room immediately raised their hands.  (Haaretz)

As that gathering clearly understood, ‘Jewish’ in the description ‘a Jewish state’ needs a moral, not just a national, meaning.

Meanwhile a hundred rabbis protested in Washington this Wednesday, urging the passage of a clean DREAM Act. DREAMers are undocumented children who’ve fled to the USA from Mexico and other South American countries.

Valeria Luiselli, a novelist translates for such children at immigration courts, writes about their experiences in Tell Me How It Ends: an Essay in Forty Questions. – (Those are the forty questions the children have to answer at the hearings)

The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

She describes the huge risks of violence, rape and ‘disappearance’ which the children run on La Bestia, the nickname for the train through Mexico on the roofs or between the carriages of which most of those children reach the border, before trying to give themselves up to US patrols before vigilantes find them.

The DREAM Act (The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) offered a pathway through education for such children to become citizens. Meanwhile, they were protected under the DACA programme (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), instituted during the Obama presidency. Last September President Trump determined to end this protection.

Alongside rabbis, protesters in Washington included leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, and HIAS (which assisted Jewish refugees to the States). Taking their cue from Moses, they sang ‘Let my people stay’, and ‘God is my strength’ as they waited to be arrested. Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the ADL said:

As the Jewish community intimately understands, at its best, the United States has been a beacon of hope for refugees and immigrants facing persecution… A clean Dream Act is a moral imperative for the heart and soul of our nation.

I grew up hearing from both my parents what it was like to flee persecution and start again with nothing. The Yishuv, the embryo Jewish State in Palestine, helped my father and his family; the British Consulate and many kind individuals, most not Jewish, assisted my mother. The message they passed on to me was clear: what others did for us, we must do for others.

Meanwhile here in the UK, people, including many children, sleep rough on nightmares of the violence they have fled, waking to a cold, lonely and uncertain future.

We can’t help everyone. But we are not at liberty to do nothing and help no one. Where the physical lives of the persecuted and destitute are on the line, our moral lives are on the line too.

 

‘We can’t leave it to others’: Thoughts for the 35th Martin Luther King Day

Late last night we celebrated with Kioumars, a refugee from Iran who has been staying with us and has just received leave to remain in the UK. He spoke to us about a church he attends in central London, saying:

You pray inside a building. You take a few steps outside and see two homeless people. You can’t separate these matters. It makes no sense to pray inside and not care what’s outside, on the doorstep. Where’s my responsibility?

Kioumars’s comment reminded me of the message Susannah Heschel sent last week on the Yahrzeit of her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He defined a religious person as

A person who is maladjusted, attuned to the agony of others, aware of God’s presence and God’s needs…always refusing to accept inequalities, the status quo, the cruelty and suffering of others.

In a touching reminiscence, Susannah asks from where her father drew his strength to march next to Martin Luther King, stand up against the Vietnam war and protest racism, narrow-mindedness and soullessness wherever he encountered them. ‘From prayer’, she answers, describing how she loved to sit quietly in the room while he enveloped himself in tallit and tefillin, in prayer-shawl and phylacteries, in liturgy and love.

But he did more: ‘I was praying with my feet’, Heschel answered a critic who challenged him about what he’d been doing down in Selma, Alabama, on that march to Montgomery in the spring of 1965.

Our rabbis define prayer as avodah shebalev, ‘service of the heart’, the devotion of the consciousness to God. They understood this as an integral part, the core and inspiration, of a life of avodah, a life devoted to service with all our being: feet and hands, body and soul.

This Monday, 15 January, marks Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It was a date hard fought for. It took fifteen years after his assassination, six million signatures, a hit song Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder and a gathering by veterans of the civil rights campaign on the 20th anniversary of King’s I Have a Dream, to establish the day in the American calendar.

It is a commemoration most urgently needed at the present hour. ‘My father’, Susannah Heschel wrote further, would have been devastated to witness ‘the KKK marching in the streets, neo-Nazis celebrating’ and racism emanating from the highest places: ‘He would be pacing the floor, unable to sleep…’

In this week’s Torah portion Moses and Aaron ‘go in to Pharaoh’ time after time. They are not frightened to confront tyranny, cruelty and moral blindness. Neither are they afraid of their own people’s preference for the status quo, their understandable concern that protest is only making matters even worse. Moses, who describes himself as ‘burdened in speech and heavy of tongue’, has a greater weight to consider which puts his own reticence into second place: the burdens of suffering born by his brothers and sisters.

We live in a time of danger, from East and West. Values of dignity, justice and compassion cannot be taken for granted. We cannot leave it to others to protect the humanity of the most vulnerable, or our own. ‘Stand up’, insists Timothy Snyder in his sharp-edged book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century: ‘Take responsibility for the face of the world’.

 

‘I never saw him again’ – can we help bring missing loved ones together?

‘I never saw him again’: it’s only this week that I heard those searing words from a refugee.

‘If only I could hear your voice’; ‘If only I could hold you in my arms once again’: few lives are never pierced by such thoughts.

It does not lie within our power to avoid the terrible separations of death.

Our heart is never only our own; those we have loved inhabit its chambers too. When they die, we may attempt to close the internal doors. But unlike the cupboards in the lounge, the contents of which we may take with sorrow to the second-hand shop, we never can empty the heart’s rooms of the looks, or smells, or the sound of the voices of those we love. We are never immune from memory, welcome guest, or sudden intruder when an unanticipated sight summons us unprepared to the when and the where of what once was.

Our lives are simultaneously defined by the irrevocable passage of time and the irremovable presence of all we ever have been. Our hearts are fashioned by everyone to whom we are ever bound by love.

That is why unnecessary separations are so cruel, partings forced upon us by war, persecution, violence, cruelty and crime.

Since I had to flee, I’ve heard from two of my children. I’ve no idea where the other two are. Pray for them. Pray for me.

It’s several years since a mother from Africa spoke those words to me. There are millions like her, searching among the living, among the records of the dead, searching the lacerated terrain of memory; needing to move on, not wanting to let go.

Perhaps that was what those twenty-two years were like for Jacob, our Biblical ancestor, when he was shown that blood-soaked, multi-coloured coat and concluded that his beloved son Joseph was dead:

I will go down to my son mourning to the grave. (Genesis 37:35)

In this week’s Torah portion he is informed that Joseph is alive after all. ‘It is enough’, he says, ‘My son Joseph yet lives. Let me go and see him before I die’.

Their meeting is among the most moving moments in the Bible:

He appeared to him, and he fell upon his neck, and he wept upon his neck, more and more. (Genesis 46:29)

Who wept on whose neck? ‘It was Joseph who was weeping’, says the commentator Rashi. His father, Jacob, was engrossed in the recital of the morning Shema meditation. The moment had such power over him that he transposed his overwhelming feelings into prayer.

‘No’, explains Nachmanides; it was Jacob who wept:

It is well known in whom the tears are found, in the elderly father who finds his son alive following grief and despair, or in the regal young son…

Nachmanides knows all too well: he himself was forced to flee his native Spain, leaving all his family behind. In 1267 he added this postscript to his letter home:

I am banished from my table, far removed from friend and kinsman, and too long is the distance to meet again…I left my family, I forsook my house. There with the sweet and beloved children, whom I brought up on my knees, I left also my soul. With them, my heart and my eyes will dwell forever. (Letters of Jews through the Ages ed. F Kobler)

My heart goes out to all those who long to see a beloved face, hear a beloved voice, whom war, violence and cruelty keep apart. May the coming secular New Year herald a time of ‘Yet my loved one lives. Let me go and see him…’ May we, too, help bring refugee families together.

 

Human Rights Shabbat and Chanukah

This weekend is Human Rights Shabbat; 2018 will bring the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Leo Baeck was the leader of German Jewry during the Nazi years. Imprisoned five times for refusing to bow to Nazi demands, he was deported to Theresienstadt in 1943. He survived. Afterwards, in one of the earliest collections of testaments, he wrote:

The principle of justice is one the whole world over. Justice is like a dike against inhumanity. If a small part breaks, the whole is threatened…An injustice to one is an injustice to all.

His words recall those of an earlier German-Jewish leader, Samson Raphael Hirsch, who warns in his commentary on the commandment not to oppress the stranger:

Beware… lest in your state you make the rights of anyone dependent on anything other than the simple fact of their humanity, which every human being possesses by virtue of being human. With any diminution of this human right, the door is thrown wide open to the whole horror of the experience in Egypt, the wilful mistreatment of other people.

Through listening to refugees, I’ve learnt how close at hand that ‘whole horror’ is. People have their homes bombed to pieces in wars pursued by leaders with utter contempt for human life. They are persecuted by regimes with brutal laws administered at the whim of tyrants. To escape with their lives, they may be forced to sell themselves to people merchants, traffickers who promise, in exchange for whatever money their hapless victims could save from the wreckage of their lives, to deliver them to a free country. Bundled into the backs of lorries, onto planes bound they may not know where, they find themselves in a strange country, bereft of family, friends, money, language, everything they had ever known.

‘Do you have family in Ethiopia?’ I eventually asked a refugee who was staying with us, not knowing what wounds I might be re-opening.

My mother and brother were murdered. I haven’t heard from my father for 12 years. He’s in prison, or killed. I don’t know.

Perhaps, like our ancestor Jacob who believed for 20 years that his beloved Joseph was dead, her heart has an inconsolable corner which she visits in tears when no one is looking.

The least we can do is to help such fellow human beings as best we can. At a session on behalf of Refugees at Home my co-speaker and I were persistently heckled: ‘Those people want to kill our children. They want to live in Kensington and Mayfair’. I’m sure that among the millions of refugees there are a very small number of terrorists. (Others are here already, developing their hideous plans) Vicious people always find ways of abusing the misery of others. We must support and pray for the success of our intelligence and security forces.

But that is no reason to pass collective judgment over all refugees. It is indescribably hard for them to create a new life. Many wait for years, a decade, for permission to remain. Meanwhile they’re not allowed to work. How should they live? This country also permits indefinite detention, in defiance of Magna Carta. The threat hangs heavy in hearts which harbour wounds most of us cannot imagine, torture, hunger, catastrophic loss.

This week brings the wonderful festival of Chanukah. The miracle it proclaims concerns not just the eight days for which a single day’s supply of oil burnt in the ruined Temple in Jerusalem 2,150 years ago. The miracle begins when, amidst the desolation, someone finds that tiny vial of pure olive oil and the decision is made to light it. Despite everything, in defiance of all violence and destruction, the light of hope and courage starts to shine.

To this day it has not been extinguished. It never shall be, if we nourish it not just through our rituals but our deeds.

Will life harden, or soften, our hearts?

I often think of King Lear’s question. As he shelters in a hovel from the storm which rages not only among the elements but in his mind, he contemplates how cruel humanity can be and asks:

Is there any cause in nature makes these hard hearts?

It’s not really a question but a cry from the soul. No one around him attempts to respond.

I’m struck at least as frequently by the opposite thought: What makes so many hearts soft? That’s why I find the verse from this week’s Torah portion especially moving:

God will open your heart and the hearts of your children to love your God with all your heart and all your soul, for the sake of your life. (Deuteronomy 30:6)

Harder, softer; kinder, crueller – what happens to the heart as we progress through life? What about my own heart as I get older? Which way is it going?

I meet many people whose hearts have been opened by experience. For example:

-   ‘Those children I met in Greece have suffered so much. And they’re so lovely to each other. The older ones look out for the younger; when one of them is sad, the others comfort him. I can’t just leave them.’

-    ‘I wanted to have a meal with their family. I promised to pay, because they were very poor. Then I saw their meagre food, their water from a cistern of mud, where the children mess…. I’d rather go back to Africa to help my people and risk prison, than be a free here in London.’

I see kindness in little things too, all the time: ‘I’ll help’; ‘I can do that’. It’s just the shopping, or giving a friend’s child a lift. It’s just listening as someone shares the sorrow which has engulfed her. Except there’s no ‘just’; these are not responses to take for granted.

I sometimes think the answer to Lear’s question isn’t difficult. Life is often cruel and unjust. There are plenty of reason why, involuntarily perhaps, people protect their heart against the pain with which life pierces it. It’s far from incomprehensible that we should want to build a wall of self-protection and turn our heart into a fortress. Its foundations are made of evasions: ‘I can’t bear to see; I don’t want to feel’. Its fortifications are protected by dogmas: ‘Why should I care? Those aren’t my kind of people. They’re……’.

But in truth those walls are also often made of pain: It’ll hurt too much if I let down the drawbridge to my soul.

None of us knows in advance whether experience will make our heart softer as we grow older, or harder and more defended. That’s why the verse from the Torah is more of a prayer than a description: God, open my heart; awaken me to deeper solidarity and compassion; make me more human.

Unlike many prayers, the answer is all around us. It comes not as a voice from heaven, but in the innumerable voices of life, crying out from a child, from a person in grief, or lonely. God speak in them all, and in all of us. The answer to the prayer lies waiting in our own heart, in our response.

Eva Ehrenberg fled from Nazi Europe to Britain. She wrote poetry in both German and English. In a witty rhyme, she notes that when you boil eggs in their shells they get hard, but if you bake potatoes in their jackets and they go soft. She concludes:

In pain as all of us are oft, we too become in our skin or shell
Some of us hard and others soft. (with thanks to Professor Timms)

It takes courage and trust, as well as compassion, to let the heart grow soft; maybe that’s why we need God’s help to open it.

Paddington Comes to Synagogue (we miss you, Michael Bond)

The much-loved children’s author Michael Bond died this week. His memory is truly for a blessing, as the flowers and jars of fine-cut marmalade which currently adorn the statue of his most famous creation, A Bear Called Paddington, testify.

I grew up with Paddington. The young bear gentleman with his entourage of the Brown family, Mrs Bird and Mr Gruber, was more frequently at my bedside table even than Winnie the Pooh, or Jennings, or Professor Branestawm. Like millions of children, I loved those stories, and still do.

As a rabbi, I maintained the fantasy that one day I would invite Michael Bond to bring Paddington to the synagogue, out of which a slim new volume might emerge: Paddington Goes to Shul.

I even half thought that the author could be Jewish, in which case, a fortiori, his creation might be too. But this is unlikely, since the very first breakfast the bear enjoys in his new home in London consists of bacon, which he likes so much that he puts the leftovers in his suitcase, leaving the perplexed Mrs Brown wondering why six dogs should have followed them into the Underground later that morning.

But what might have happened had the intrepid bear ventured into the service one Shabbat morning? I never got very far in my musings:

‘Would you like an Aliyah, an honour?’ asked the shammes, or synagogue orderly, kindly, bending down to speak to the young bear who had just entered the service. ‘We could call you up for Shishi?’

Paddington looked upwards. All he could see was the ceiling; there didn’t seem to be anywhere to be called up to. And who, and where, was Shishi? All around him were only men. Then, because he didn’t want to seem rude, he said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and lifted his hat politely.

‘No, no; you keep that on in synagogue,’ said the kind shammes, taking the bear by the hand. ‘In fact, you’ll need one of these’ he added, fetching a tallit prayer-shawl and putting it round the bear’s shoulders where it clung instantly thanks to little lumps of marmalade left over from his breakfast.

A moment later, Paddington found himself perched on a small stand on top of the podium, in front of a hushed congregation. ‘You have had your Bar Mitzvah, haven’t you?’ said another gentleman, in somewhat urgent tones. ‘You do know your blessings?’

Who were they talking about now? Paddington began to feel a little anxious. He’d seen a bar once, on the boat from darkest Peru, but he was sure it hadn’t also been called Mitzvah. ‘Bar-who?’ he said. To his surprise this seemed to go down remarkably well.

Or perhaps there could be an incident over the kashrut of Paddington’s marmalade. Whatever the case, the strange and perplexing rules and rituals of the synagogue are rife with the potential for good-natured incomprehension.

In one sense Paddington really could be Jewish. The little, forlorn bear on the platform at Paddington with his note ‘Please look after this bear’ is like the hundreds of children from across Nazi Europe who found themselves at the end of the platforms of Liverpool Street Station with a number attached to them like a luggage tag, and bewilderment in their hearts. Or, more likely, Paddington represents all the children evacuated from London at the start of the war, in which his creator went off to fight.

I’ve written many painful emails and sent many tweets about terrible events in the last months. I thought I would choose a different tone this week. It’s not because the world has suddenly become free of evil, but because all of us, whoever we are and wherever we live, want our children to be able to be children.

We want every child to enjoy a proper childhood, surrounded by affection, with curiosity, adventure and wonder. We want them to breath in the joy of innocent mornings, with life safe, plentiful and unending; before danger and mortality creep like shadows behind the half-open windows and stare out across the landscape of the future.

And even when they do, we still want Paddington to take his jar of marmalade with him under his hat, and sit down with Mr Gruber to a large cup of cocoa and his elevenses bun, and intrepid and eager, look the world straight in the heart.

Thank you, Michael Bond, for what you have given us: Paddington Marches On.

Humanity’s Heart

Yesterday evening I was at Humanity’s Heart (www.humanitysheart.com).

Yesterday and today that heart bleeds, looking at pictures of missing children, – children like our own children who just wanted to enjoy the excitement and beauty of music – thinking of their parents and loved ones searching for them, ever more desperate, not wanting to give up, preserving hope. May God be with them. May God ‘bring back the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents’. May they find one another alive; may they have healing.

But we know that not all will receive the news they long to hear. There is no comfort which can remove that pain. Maybe our solidarity can make their grief hurt a little bit less. May they find ways for their pain to be a source less of anger and more of love. May God bring comfort.

Humanity’s Heart is a film about refugees; it’s about people who devote themselves to caring for the homeless and sometimes hopeless. It’s about people who give of themselves just because they care, because they know that to help those who’ve lost almost everything is what it means to be human, to have a heart. They do it from love, from the determination to bring hope, joy, future, music, safety, education, opportunity back to broken lives, because every child and every person deserves no less.

We can’t undo the shocking, vile, evil crime committed in Manchester Arena on Monday night, or stop the tears it has and will bring. But we can determine to be a part of humanity’s heart, more deeply than before.

Get in touch...