The Hidden Lights of Chaunukah

Sunday brings the first night of Chanukkah.

Chanukkah takes my thoughts back to my grandmother’s house, when I would go to light the candles in the lonely years after my grandfather’s death. As we quietly watched them burn I would look in the window at their reflection, little lamps burning out there in the dark.

Chanukkah is the celebration of the light hidden within the darkness. The mystics explain that olam, ‘world’, derives from the same word-family as he’elem, concealment. We live in a world where the light of God’s spirit is concealed. But it burns secretly in every human being and all living things. It is the flame on the invisible Menorah which illumines the threshold of God’s temple.

Sometimes, though, its light shines out brightly. Chanukkah is the celebration of such moments.

The Talmud tells how the Maccabees searched the ruined temple precincts in Jerusalem for a single vial of unsullied oil to light the Menorah. This may not be historically true. But it’s a truth which illumines all history. There are always those who, with love and courage, seek out and nurture whatever sparks of light can be rescued from the wars and persecutions which mar the human record.

This Sunday marks eighty years since the arrival of the first Kindertransport in Britain. ‘It was a rough crossing’, Leslie Brent told me, recalling the overnight ferry journey from Hoek van Holland to Harwich. Those who created the plan, found, registered, accompanied and gave homes to those children, rescued precious lights which would otherwise have been extinguished and destroyed.

Eric Lucas recalled the final parting from his parents at the station:

First my father and then my mother had laid their hands gently on my bowed head to bless me…My father’s eyes were filled with tears of loneliness and fear.

One hopes his parents could carry the knowledge that their child was safe like a tiny lantern inside their hearts, even as they walked towards the darkness.

But it’s not only in war that hidden lights can guide us. It happens every day in the inspiration we give each other. I experience this often.

I recently received an award in New York. There’s no such thing as leadership without partnership and companionship, so it was really an award for our whole congregation. My first contract with our synagogue, as a youth worker, is dated January 1981, so it’ll soon be forty years my life has been guided by the inspiration of our community. I wrote next day:

I’m deeply touched by the love and generosity of my family, community and colleagues. It isn’t only yesterday. It’s the knowledge that not just my thoughts and, hopefully, many of my actions, but my heart has been, and still is, formed by the kindness, forbearance, wisdom, example, love and sometimes chastisement of so many people. ‘Formed’ is not an adequate word; I mean deepened and extended; people have pushed against inner doors I had not known existed and opened for me spaces of reverence, sorrow, gratitude, mourning and awe. That process has enriched me with the guidance, courage and love of many people, and, through them and the wonder of nature, with moments I think of as sparks from the radiance of God’s light.

There are always people near us who have the gift of nurturing the light hidden within the world’s darkness, through how they care for children, practise healing, fight for the vulnerable, protect the beauty of nature, and stalwartly prove how untrue it is that nothing can be done.

Such people’s lights illumine our only path to victory over brute power, cruelty, lies and destruction.

On Chanukkah we’re commanded to place those lights bireshut harabbim, overlooking the highway, in the public square. We take the sacred hidden light we receive from God, the world and each other, honour it, celebrate it and make it define the direction of our lives.

 

Were you there when I needed you? How much of our lives do we miss?

I’ve just come home from the synagogue where my friend and colleague Rabbi Amanda Golby spoke beautifully on her father’s tenth Yahrzeit about the word Hinneni, ‘Here am I’. She talked of our responsibility towards those who’ve loved us to live with as much presence and sensitivity to those around us as we can.

As it happens, I spent a couple of sleepless midnight hours pondering that hinneni. It’s a concatenation of two simple words, ani, ‘I’, and hinneh, usually translated as ‘behold’. But the combination doesn’t mean ‘Look, this is me’, a Biblical version of ‘I’m doing it my way and I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks’.

On the contrary, as Rashi explains, hinneni is an expression of humility, of readiness to listen. It means ‘I’m there for you’, whether that ‘you’ is God, one’s partner, child, or life itself. The ani, the ‘I’, has become a suffix, transposed into the ‘ni’ at the end of hinneh to produce that hinne-ni. It symbolises how the ‘I’ of the ego has become the ‘I’ of awareness. I am not just present, but presence, listening to life’s ‘Hinneh’, to life’s ‘Behold’, life’s ‘Open your heart and be still’. It’s the hinneni of the bird-watcher: quiet, attentive, not wanting to frighten away the singer of that music.

I’m writing just like everybody else, as a person who’s both succeeded and failed. Sometimes I’ve really ‘been there’ for others; sometimes I’ve not. For certain I’ve merited the painful rebukes: ‘You weren’t there when I needed you’, and ‘Your ears were there, but where was your heart?’

Abraham says ‘Hinneni’ three times. Rabbinic tradition sees perfection in each of those responses. I’m not sure. There’s no doubt about his initial reply when God calls; he takes his son Isaac as instructed and walks three silent days until he ‘sees the place’ for the sacrifice. There’s no unclarity either about the third time, when the angel cries out ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ urgently commanding him to withhold the knife.

But what about Abraham’s response, when, as they climb Mount Moriah together, Isaac turns to him and says, ‘My father’, and he answers ‘Hinneni beni – Here am I, my son’? Is he really there for his child?

Maybe that’s the real truth of ‘the sacrifice of Isaac’. No, Abraham definitely doesn’t kill his son. But he does sacrifices him in other ways: by putting his relationship with God first, and not just on this occasion.

Abraham walks before God; he’s a wonderful partner to the Almighty. But it’s hard to say the same about his relationship with his wife Sarah, or with Isaac, or Hagar, the surrogate mother to his other son Ishmael. After the episode on Mount Moriah, he and Isaac never meet again. When Sarah dies, Abraham isn’t there.

I’m not trying to fault Abraham, only to note that we all struggle with multiple and conflicting calls on our consciousness. I think of my friend whose son was killed in the Lebanon. He’s a true Zionist, of the left, a peace-maker. But he wishes deeply he’d said less of an hinneni to his country, and more to his beloved child. How could he feel otherwise?

Mercifully most of our struggles are not matters of life and death. But they do go to the core of life’s quality, both for ourselves and for our family, friends, colleagues, and even the world of nature around us.

How much hinneni do I say to my desk? How much to my wife? Did I notice that person in the corner, crying? Did I actually see those trees? How much of my own life, and other peoples’ lives, have I missed?

In the end, it’s a question of trying to perceive life’s often silent, unstated Hineh! Behold! with an attentive and compassionate heart.

 

Would Abraham have protested fracking?

I’ve been following the case of the anti-fracking activists, Simon Roscoe Blevins, Richard Roberts and Richard Loizou. Imprisoned for the offence of public nuisance, they were freed yesterday by the high court, which called their sentence ‘manifestly excessive’. Their crime was to ensconce themselves for days on top of trucks bringing drilling equipment.

Had Abraham our Ancestor been alive today, would there have been four men sent to prison?

There’s a good chance.

Abraham wasn’t a person easily deterred by power. He challenged Pharaoh (albeit after making his wife pretend she was his sister). ‘I thought there was no fear of God in this place’, he declared; which amounts to ‘Do you have any moral boundaries here?’

He went to war to rescue his nephew from pirating armies. He ensured the protection of the well supplying his water, defending his most important environmental asset.

‘Yes, but he did it all from self-interest’, it could be claimed. There’s little such motive in his horrified response when God threatens to destroy in entirety the perverse city of Sodom: ‘How can you annihilate the good alongside the evil? Should the judge of all the earth not do justice?’

Among the legends with which the rabbis embellish the biblical account, three stand out. Abraham defies the tyranny of the ‘mighty hunter’ Nimrod, walking with steady defiance through the ‘fiery furnace’ of all the weaponry unrestrained power has at its disposal.

Impressed with Abraham’s leadership qualities, God calls him not just servant, but officer, ambassador, secretary of state: ‘Walk ahead of me’, God instructs him. Shine a light on the dark pathways God’s presence has to penetrate in this world.

Most famous of all these rabbinic parables is the account of how Abraham found God:

He came upon a palace on fire. ‘How come it’s got no owner?’ he wondered. The owner looked at him and called out: ‘This palace belongs to me’.

I’ve puzzled over this picture for years: what’s the owner doing inside a burning building? ‘Get out, God!’ one wants to say, ‘After all, you’re supposed to be able to do anything.’

Maybe that’s the point. Abraham sees a world on fire with violence and brutality. The God he experiences needs humanity to put it out. God’s message to him is: ‘You and your fellow humans are responsible for the world.’

I worry repeatedly about what that responsibility entails. What does moral and spiritual leadership mean?

When Abraham challenges God about Sodom, the point they agree on is that to save the city requires a minimum number of good people. They argue over the figures: fifty, twenty, ten? But, whatever the case, these decent citizens have to be betoch, ‘in the midst of’, involved in their city. They must be ‘out there’, active, pro-active. If all they do is sit at home with their good ideas, they’re useless.

So I imagine Abraham might have climbed onto the cab of one of those lorries and protested, peacefully, with unshaking commitment.

After all, the world is in flames (and in floods). God is inside it, crying out from all nature and all humanity, ‘Put the fires out!’

 

Ode to Wonder; set this on your heart

The Hebrew Bible opens with delight in life. The first chapter of the Torah is a great celebration. Were it a scientific account of the process of creation we would have to find it wanting, absurd. But it’s not; it’s an ode to wonder:

Let there be light, let the partnership of day and night bring dawn and twilight to the gathering waters in seas and rivers and streams. Let sunlight cause the seeds to germinate and rainfall make them grow. Let the sun guide the seasons, the moon rule the tides, and the stars illumine the night.

May there be birds to feed on the fruit-bearing trees and fish in the cold depths of the oceans. May there be deer, secretive and swift; and horses and wolves:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings… (Gerald Manley Hopkins, Pied Beauty)

Created amidst this abundance, human beings are celebrated too. We have the unique responsibility of being formed in God’s image, perceptive, articulate, intelligent, capable of moral discernment, creation and destruction, generosity and love – there is no consensus about what ‘In God’s likeness’ means. Except that, like God, human beings possess inherent kavod, dignity, which we are expected to uphold towards ourselves in all own conduct and honour and respect in all others.

Life is good, not just the first, but every day. The flow of time, evening and morning; the sharing between humans and animals of the fruit of the land and trees; the inter-dependence and overall balance of nature: God looks at it all, blesses it and sees that it is ‘very good’.

God appoints human beings to rule; to do so by means of avodah, – work, respect and reverence, and shemirah, – observation, awareness and nurturing care.

These opening verses are worth laying on our hearts in a world of violence and vulgarity. They are worth remembering in a week when no less a figure than the President of The United States of America mocks, – not just questions, legitimately and fairly, but mocks and derides – the testament of a woman who has come forward with serious allegations against a man who could hold decisive powers for decades, while around him everyone jeers. We should lay them on our hearts when the President of Russia lies and lies again, and the essential tasks of caring for our world are relegated before the vanities of power and ignored.

The mystics teach that God’s speech in creation is not a once-off ‘God said’ pitched in the past tense. It is present and continuous: we can hear it the flow of a stream, the cry of a bird, the whinnying of horses, the intake of our own breath. God’s sacred speech is the vitality which animates all existence, the energy latent in all matter, the potential in all life.

More and more these days, I intuit that voice not just as a statement but a plea: Hear me! Listen to me! Heed me in all nature; honour me in every human life!

We have choices, constantly. We can destroy, or protect and create.

The beginning of Bereshit, the ode to wonder which opens the Hebrew Bible, summons us to stand, with vigilance, urgency, determination, curiosity and joy, on the side of creation.

 

 

 

Our relationship with God

‘God, where can I find you?’ asked the great Jewish poet from Spain, Yehudah Halevi, in the opening of one of his most famous poems, before continuing, ‘And God, where can I find you not?’

Over the millennia Jews have called out to, hoped in, searched for, found, lost and felt abandoned by God in countless ways. Of all generations, perhaps ours have it hardest. This is not because we live in the most testing times; we don’t. Rather, scientific knowledge offers causal explanations for almost everything, while the history of collective suffering makes it hard to believe that a beneficent deity can possibly exist. I recall hearing Claude Landsman’s reply to a questioner who suggested, following a showing of his remarkable film Shoah, that the Holocaust was a punishment for the Jewish People: he simply said ‘You are being obscene’. I agree.

Yet we and God have never given up on one another.

I don’t find my God as the Keeper of Justice of history, though I wish that were so. I often can’t find God either in the fates which overtake individuals: accidents, strokes, dementia. God is not a tool to iron life’s injustices into a smooth fabric of fairness and goodness. I don’t believe in a God who needs children to die, young people to have cancer or millions to go hungry each day.

Yet, I believe God is in those places. Wherever there is suffering, we can hear not one voice, but two. There is this special person, her life, her family, her struggle. And there is the presence of God in her, the unique way the consciousness which fills all life fills hers; how it seeks to help her find strength, understanding, healing. That voice, God’s voice, calls out from every person, every creature which suffers, asking:

Where are the human beings, in whose hearts I say constantly: “Be compassionate! Be Just!” Where are they? Where are my partners, my agents in this world?

Too often that voice goes unheard.

Those who say, ‘God is at home in the world’ are wrong, wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel, the twentieth century mystic and social activist, who hated complacency: ‘God is not at home in this world’.

I half agree. I think God is always at home, yet always not at home.

If you walk among trees at night you can hear God’s presence in the sap and the branches. That cry is not just an owl; it’s the call of wonder in creation. God is in everything which inspires awe; God is in the human spirit. It’s all God’s home.

God is also here in all suffering; God suffers alongside. God is in the pleading face, the bowed over beggar, the shaking hand which holds the cardboard cup for a ten pence piece, a pound. God was there too in the sad history which led this person to drink or destitution, to flee home and be a refugee ever after.

That is the God who is not at home in this world, the God who says in the universal language of everything which evokes pity: ‘I don’t want it to be like this. Heal this wrong. End this hurt. Change the world!’

We are all trustees of God’s will. God may not reach down into history, but God does reach into our hearts. We must meet and hear God there. That is a key purpose of prayer. Prayer is silencing the noise to listen to God in our hearts.

Harold Kushner wrote that the essential issue for the spiritual person is not ‘the existence of God but the importance of God, the difference that God makes in the way we live’. I hope we hear God this Yom Kippur and that it changes how we live.

 

 

The sound of the shofar and the breath of creation

It is the custom to blow the shofar every day (except Shabbat) during the month of Elul at the close of the morning prayers. So I picked up my shofar early this morning, then remembered the tacit agreement in our household, tacit being the word, that none was to blow the shofar before 9.00 am.

Instead, I simply breathed into the shofar, with no pressure, as I would breathe an ordinary breath. To my surprise, the shofar wasn’t silent, though I’m sure it wasn’t so loud that anybody else could hear it. It made a sound like a gentle breeze across fields or through a grove of trees on a still, calm day. Very quietly, the shofar sang.

It reminded me of a passage by the Hasidic teacher Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piazetsner Rebbe:

The fundamental reason all beings are created is so that they should sing, for in this way they reveal the greatness of God. Every single created being sings, as we know from The Chapter of Song. Thus, each and every being reveals a spark of the glory of the God of blessings.                      (Derech Hamelech to Rosh Hashanah)

The Chapter to which he refers ascribes words from the Bible to all existence, from the seas and rivers to the eagle and the swallow, whose lyrics are: ‘So that my soul may sing to you and not be silent’.

I always think of the shofar as coming from the depths of creation. Formed from the horn of a ram or mountain goat, its rough, un-honed cry calls of the bond which unites all nature, animal and human. It speaks without words of our bare and basic togetherness in this world of cold and warmth, food and hunger, life and death. The breath which flows through the shofar resonates with the ruach, the breath or spirit which breathes through all life, the spirit of God which hovered over the face of the deep in the beginning and which creates and sustains all living being. It calls us home to the sacred within ourselves, and in all life.

More than in any other section, the Torah speaks this week of our responsibility towards animals: not to ignore a lost ox or sheep; not to turn a blind eye toward a donkey collapsing beneath its burden; not to take a mother bird from the nest with its young and so hasten the extinction of its species; not to harness an ox and ass together, making a mockery of their unequal strength. The Torah and Talmud understood well what Jeremy Bentham later expressed: that the issue is not whether animals are intelligent or able to talk, but that, like us, they are susceptible to suffering.

The shofar calls us back to the bond of life. For too long a utilitarian attitude to nature has prevailed: How much land can I make mine? How much milk can I squeeze from each cow? Farmers do have to make a living in extremely hard times. But if a solely exploitative attitude prevails, humankind will suffer and perhaps perish alongside the world we abuse.

The Mishnah considers whether the shofar blown on the New Year should be pashut – ‘simple’, or kafuf’- ‘curved round’. Tradition decided in favour of the latter, seeing in the shape of such a shofar the image of a person bowed in prayer: ‘The more one humbles oneself the better.’

We need that humility. It’s not the humility of passivity or resigned subservience. It’s the humility of understanding, of realising that the breath which flows through us is part of the same gift, the same song which sings in all creation.

 

Praying with the sea and the wild deer

I have always loved Psalm 27, the special Elul and High Holyday meditation. But yesterday I got no further than the first three words: ‘To David: God, you are my light…’

The light was indeed wonderful across the far north west of Scotland. With glorious disregard for the dismal weather forecast, the sun shone bright across the mountains and the sea. So I set out for an early run and soon found myself alone on the half-mile curve of orange sand where the ocean yields to the hills and glens at Gairloch, There weren’t even any footprints, save the paw marks of a lucky dog who’d been out at dawn to race the white-crested waves.

It hadn’t been my plan when I set out, but I stopped to say shacharit. True, there weren’t the requisite ten people for the quorum. But how often in a life does one have for one’s prayers the company of the sand and the sea, the mountains, the forests, the clear air, the wind and the brightness of sunlight over the bay?

And God was here amidst this simple beauty, and it felt as if in response to my Shema, ‘God, you are one’, God was answering, ‘Yes, I am here; this is my home amidst this wonder. Recognise me; remember me wherever you are, and don’t let all your other thoughts block me out of your heart and mind.’

Later that day, at a roundabout where two major routes through the Highlands meet, we saw two young stags, calmly chewing the grasses and sedge by the road verge, unperturbed, contemptuous almost of all these high-velocity human interlopers; knowing with the same instinct with which they skipped nonchalantly over the tall fences, who is at home in these wild and wet lands and who is not; beautiful.

Had there been time I would have made them my companions in prayer for the afternoon minchah meditation. Instead, I simply looked. I didn’t look with my frequent worried eyes of ‘what’s expected of me and what am I supposed to do?’ I didn’t look with the selfish eyes of ‘what’s in it for me and mine?’ I just looked.

For those moments God was my light.

Now, back home in this Elul month of preparation before Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, a simple prayer flows through me; I’d like it to sing inside me like a clear mountain stream as it tumbles over rocks and through pebbles: Tahareni; purify me.

Help me to see to the quick of life, its wonder, its beauty. Give me eyes of openness and appreciation. Then may my attitude, my words and deeds, reflect back gratitude and kindness. May my response be care and consideration, and courageous compassion for this precious world and this brief time in which to know and cherish it.

God, be my light, to see all life in your light. For, though that light seems brighter and your song clearer where the small birds swoop over the shallow river as it flows from the loch to the sea, you are the heart of everything, all human life, all life.

What the donkey saw

Before we moved home, the way back from the synagogue lead through the local park which was open all the time. Our previous dog Safi loved this part of the walk. But one pitch dark night he lay down at the entrance and flatly refused to move. ‘You sense something wrong,’ I thought and, although for myself I could see nothing amiss, I took his advice and chose a different route.

In tomorrow’s Torah reading, Balaam’s donkey sees what he, the famous seer who commands a high fee to foresee the future, cannot. Three times the donkey ‘sees’ and three times Balaam punishes her, for what proves to be his own blindness.

What in life do we notice; what do we fail to perceive?

In A Passage to India two of E M Forster’s very British characters ask themselves, bewildered by a culture they cannot fathom:

Were there worlds beyond which they could never touch, or did all that is possible enter their consciousness?

Not everything possible enters our awareness and, like Balaam, we often punish those who inconvenience us with their deeper, or more challenging, perceptions.

God eventually makes Balaam’s donkey speak, a miracle, say the rabbis (who were generally suspicious of such supernatural interventions) prepared since the six days of creation. Balaam seems not the least surprised and enters unperturbed into a domestic quarrel with his ass.

One wonders what else the poor animal in her long experience of humility and humiliation might have known but never expressed. Perhaps, in an analogous manner, those wiser around us refrain from telling us what they understand all too well, realising that we will only react in defensive anger to the futile attempt to make us understand. Why should they suffer the snub of our insensitivity?

In the end God performs a second opening, this time of Balaam’s eyes. The seer finally sees. For most of us, the challenge of deepening our faculties of perception not just in our eyes but in our hearts, takes far longer. It belongs to the essence of our life’s journey.

Interestingly, neither of Hebrew’s two words for ‘open’ is used here, neither petach, often employed to describe the opening of the heart, nor pekach, the unveiling of the eyes in deeper discernment.

Rather, God ‘revealed’ to Balaam his own eyes. He finally notices what stands right before him, the angel blocking his path which his donkey had long noted – and taken those evasive steps to avoid which had so irritated her owner.

‘Reveal’ is a powerful term to use for so basic a perception. But revelation often lies in the simplest things. ‘I saw it, but didn’t really see; I looked, but never noticed’: we could all apply such sentences to ourselves, many times over.

There’s wonder in such moments of perception, like the friend who was told by the previous gardener: ‘After three months working here you’ll see kingfishers’, and, literally on the day he completed his third month, he saw them, and not because there’d been no kingfishers there before.

There’s compassion in such deeper comprehension, as when we begin to see into life in a manner we hadn’t before, like Moses, whose existence was turned inside out when he ‘saw into’ the sufferings of the slaves who’d been labouring next to the palace all the time. Or like the man who told me that when he was supporting his wife through her illness whole worlds opened up before them, offers of help, addresses to turn to, commiseration, encouragement. Then, he said, he saw into the lives of others with a gentler and kinder perception which, he confessed, he hadn’t found in himself before.

Open my heart, reveal my eyes, to see and feel the world with wonder and compassion

 

‘If this is a man?’ Primo Levi, the Torah, refugees…

If This Is A Man, the searing question which forms the title of Primo Levi’s first and most powerful testimony, has never gone away.

It points in two directions. It focuses on the victims. Can wretchedness grind the humanity out of a human being?

Consider whether this is a man…
Who labours in mud / Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread / Who dies at a yes or no. (Primo Levi: Shema)

An American colleague, Menachem Creditor, outraged at the separation of families, wrote a personal prayer for last Wednesday’s International Refugee Day:

God, we know there is little chance these poor children, newly huddled tender masses, will be reunited with their parents, little chance these terrorized parents will hold their children again…

I remember standing some years ago at the Hoek of Holland with ‘children’ who travelled that way on the Kindertransport, at the unveiling of a memorial. ‘It was an act of mercy’ one of them said. ‘And it was an act of cruelty: think of the parents…’

Levi’s question focuses equally on the perpetrators. Are we still human if we mock, beat, and kill? Is it human to allow other human beings to drown, starve, weep in lonely desperation?

The three simple words ‘this’, ‘Torah’, and ‘Adam’ – occur twice in immediate sequence in the Hebrew Bible. Together they form the statement: ‘This is the teaching of what it means to be human’. What is that teaching?

The first time the words appear together is in the description of ritual impurity occasioned by death: ‘This is the Torah, when a man dies in the tent’ (Numbers 19:14). But their meaning is incomparably broader that that context: ‘This is the teaching for humans who are mortal’.

The inference could be that we needn’t bother. We all die in the end, so why make an effort? Neither the Bible, Jewish wisdom, any other faith, nor our plain humanity has ever understood matters that way.

We are physical, vulnerable, mortal beings. We get hungry, lonely and frightened. We want comfort, company, community. If these are our needs, they must be those of everyone else also. So what are we going to do about it? Just as we hate others doing nothing when we suffer, so we must not do nothing when others are in trouble:

Never say: “What am I and what difference can my actions make?” Everyone needs to understand, know, and fix firmly in their heart that all their thoughts, words and actions are never lost…Every one of them makes an impact… (Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin)

He was thinking of the second sequence of the three words, ‘this’, ‘Torah’ and ‘man’. This time the context is a basic existential question posed by King David: ‘Who am I?’ he asks God. How come I’m the recipient of so much privilege? Is ‘this the Torah of the human being, Lord God…’? (2 Samuel 7:18-19)

His words point to the other facet of mortal existence: to be human is to partake of God. To live is to embody a fragment of divine life; to feel life’s boundlessness flows through our consciousness; to apprehend wonder, know love and experience the fathomlessness of pity. We are mortals yet traversed and transformed by what is immortal.

If so, how can we let the lives of others be stymied by misery and their children be prevented from reaching out in joy and wonder towards the world?

 

The goodness in bread

Food is wonderful; but it takes a lot to beat a really good loaf of bread. Nothing quite equals a hunk of challah on Shabbat or a good thick slice of granary on a weekday. Even the dog always wants to share.

The Torah had much to say about dough, long before Masterchef made cooking cool, or The Great British Bake-Off turned the kitchen into a theatre for brilliance and bravado:

When you eat the bread of the land, raise a gift up to God (Numbers 15:19)

That gift is the original challah, which in the Biblical context means the portion of dough given to the priests. Like the first wool from the sheep, it was a tax for the civil service, as the priests effectively were while the Temple still stood.

I fondly remember studying the relevant tractate of the Mishnah with Libbi for her Bat mitzvah. Appropriately titled ‘Challah’, it discusses what grains are used for bread, what percentage of dough is taken, and, our favourite passage, how, if shepherds bake specially and solely for their dogs, no challah is given; whereas if they share the bread with their much-deserving hounds the gift for the priests must be taken.

Nowadays, only a residual of the rite remains: a blessing for ‘separating challah from the dough’ before a small portion is put aside in the oven to burn.

But bread remains essential, and we should still ‘raise up a gift’ when we eat it.

In Biblical times, the corners of the fields, fallen ears and forgotten sheaves were all left for the poor, refugees and the indigent old. The Mishnah tells how they would wait patiently for the harvest, so that they could glean.

I wish we too left corners in our fields, not because the hungry in today’s world are going to go there and wait, but for the meadow birds, for the animals vanishing for want of long grass, wild flowers and grain. The world would be desolate without bees or birdsong, in substance and in soul.

I wish every supermarket, bakery, restaurant and coffee shop, where most of us regularly buy more than plenty, had a clear sign on every counter which said: ‘It’s an ancient and just practice to give a small percentage of what you spend on yourself for those who have no food’. Most of us would give, at least some of the time.

I wish I said the blessing ‘hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz – who brings forth bread from the earth’ more sincerely more often. Blessing is recognition. When we bless one another, we notice and encourage the good within us; when we bless God for bread, we acknowledge that it’s not ours solely by right, but as a gift. ‘The earth is God’s’, teaches the Talmud; blessing is the expression of gratitude which makes us fit to enjoy it.

I’m glad so many in our communities cook for destitute asylum seekers, for friends, and strangers, who are ill, grieving, or under stress; and that we have our ‘challah project’ in which whole teams bake challot every week and take them to people’s homes before Shabbat, to say ‘we’re thinking of you’, in special moments of sadness or joy.

I’ll never forget how years ago, when I walked north along the Rhine carrying the flame from my grandfather’s former synagogue in Frankfurt with which to light the Eternal Lamp in our new building, my blood sugar ran low. Being diabetic, I urgently had to find the nearest source of food. The only place within miles was a castle with an exclusive restaurant. Seeing me, mud-covered, with a backpack and a dog, the waiter simply turned and disappeared. I couldn’t blame him and was about to leave, when he came back with a basket filled with many kinds of bread and fruit. ‘No’, he said as I made to pay, ‘It’s for your pilgrimage’.

 

Get in touch...