The Lights of Chanukah

I don’t know whether I was half awake or asleep, but during the night of this new moon of Kislev I felt the lights of Chanukkah reaching out to me like a warm guiding hand.

It was two years ago, when the long winter lockdown was beginning and we’d been obliged to close the synagogue for a second time. I spoke over Zoom of how as a boy I used to see in my grandparent’s house the Chanukkah candles reflected in the windowpanes, and the reflection of the reflection in the bay windows opposite. The lights seemed like sentinels, like welcomers to wayfarers half-lost as they traversed the night, reaching out to them in the darkness with their hope and warmth.

Last night I saw those candles again and felt them draw me towards them. ‘Join us’, they seemed to say, ‘be part of our light.’ That’s what Chanukkah does: it warms the darkness of the spirit; it brings light to the community.

‘What do you do?’ I asked Cormac Hollingsworth, our guest at our forthcoming event Such a Thing as Society? ‘By profession I’m a banker,’ he said, ‘But for ten years I was chair of Hope Not Hate; now I’m on the steering group of Warm Welcome.’ ‘What’s that?’ I enquired. ‘It’s creating thousands of spaces across the country which will be kept warm and open for children, and for people in general, who can’t afford the bills.’

‘It’ll be a hard winter’: the words ring ominously, like the ‘hard rain’s a-gonna fall’ in Bob Dylan’s famous song.

So how we can make it lighter and warmer for someone, for anyone?

I’ve been having many conversations about hope, mostly with other people, though some, if I’m honest, in the depths of my own heart. One of the best lines I’ve heard is: ‘Never think, or let anyone else think, that simple good deeds are too small to matter.’ To paraphrase the famous Mishnah: Whoever makes life warmer for one single person is as if they do so for the entire world. (Sanhedrin 4:5, 2nd century)

That’s why I’ll be out planting trees this Sunday with clergy of all faiths on a hillside by Abergavenny. Who knows what may grow from our actions? We have to keep our sense of purpose alive and strong.

This week our study group reaches Pslam 40. Two antithetical phrases have stayed with me from the text: the grim libbi azavani, ‘my heart deserted me,’ and the all-important ‘God, I hope and hope again.’ Appreciating those latter words, I researched them in the world of Midrash, rabbinic homily, where I found the following:

Should you say [with Jeremiah] ‘Harvest-time’s over, the summer’s gone and we’ve still not been saved,’ then remember [with the Psalmist] to ‘hope in God, be strong and fill your heart with courage.’ If you say, ‘I’ve already done that!’ go and do it again. If you ask, ‘How long should I stay hopeful?’ the answer is ‘always and forever.’

I never met my Tante Rosel, great-aunt Rose; I think she died before I was born. To my grandparents she was a legend. Through all times, thick and thin, she’d be up before dawn, down in the kitchen singing as she baked the morning’s bread. ‘That’s the way to be!’ my grandparents would say.

So I was happy when last night I saw those same candles which I’d spoken about two years ago and felt them reach out to me as if they were saying, ‘Come join us, you and your community. Be part of our light!’

Choose life!

Here we are back at the start of the Torah’s journey. Last week we read the magnificent poem with which the Torah opens, its hymn to creation, ‘In the beginning, God said “Let there be…”’ This week comes the sweeping flood, the terrible annihilation which life perilously survives, afloat in a tiny gene-pool, a wave-tossed ark of gopher wood.

Before us are creation and destruction, life and death, and we exist in the fragile interstice between them. Therefore, we must always be on the side of life, in our prayers, thought and deeds.

Prayer is not primarily the attempt to change God’s hidden mind through our petitions. It’s the art of connecting life with life. True prayer, wrote Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, happens only when the presence of God within us and the presence of God beyond us meet. This isn’t magic; it’s not too far from, or too hard for any of us. It occurs whenever life touches us in moments of humility, wonder, love, or inner silence and our heart is opened and our awareness expands, filled by that all-present energy or spirit which flows through all things.

Such prayer can happen in communion with the words of the prayer book, in a conversation in a hospital corridor, in the glimpse of a wren or the solitude of a walk. It’s a moment of hearing with the heart, of connection with the sanctity of life. Even in the presence of death it’s almost always a timeless act of intuitive homage. It deepens our compassion, it nourishes our joy, it makes of us servants of life.

Because all life is sacred, because, in theological terms, God is present in all that exists, it is God’s commandment at the root of all commandments that we should harm life as little as possible and cause as little pain as we can even in our most mundane actions, in how we eat, dress, travel, interact with people, animals and nature. ‘Choose life,’ the Torah insists.

Therefore, whatever our tasks are amidst the complexity and sometimes misery of everyday life, they must always be rooted in respect, justice and compassion, even when life confounds us or makes us angry with good reason. Those tasks can be anything, baking a birthday cake, working out how to teach an obstreperous class, fighting the soullessness of some obstinate system, administering a life-saving vaccine. The question is: am I doing this as well as I can for the sake of life?

I’m not writing these words out of naivety, and certainly not because I find any of this easy. I attended the meeting in the Houses of Parliament on ending indefinite detention for asylum seekers. I’m preparing a declaration by faith leaders on climate justice for Cop 27. I read the headlines about climate change. I feel frustrated and powerless time and again. I worry that the waters are once again rising around Noah’s precious ark.

But I know that the source of life is infinite and everywhere, and that the commandment to care for life is expressed in numberless ways, in kind words, in the beauty of the autumn’s red and yellow leaves, in the song of a blackbird, through reaching out for help in difficult times, in the loneliness of sorrow, and in the joy which can flow into the silence of solitude. It is the voice of the God who says, “Let there be life,” and who calls on us to answer.

A time to keep silence and a time to speak

Standing as close to her as he could, my grandfather surreptitiously pushed his elbow into my grandmother’s ribs: ‘Say nothing; don’t react.’ He involuntarily imitated the action as he recounted the incident to me decades later. He’d seen the Gestapo officer watching them as they passed the poster with its typical Der Stuermer caricature of Jews.

That was Frankfurt in 1938. ‘There’s a time to keep silent,’ wrote Ecclesiastes. If ever there was such a time, that was it.

There are many kinds of silence and many different reasons for maintaining them. Mercifully, many have more to do with compassion than repression. Through life one tries to learn to discern when words are an impediment to communication, when it’s important not to interrupt, how to let listening deepen, how to avoid obscuring with words the heart’s intuitive alertness to the unspoken, when not to break the communicative silence.

But, as Ecclesiastes also says, there is also a time to speak out.

I’m mindful of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet, because we will read it in synagogue tomorrow, on the Shabbat of the festival of Succot. It has no obvious connection with the season, except perhaps for its ‘autumnal tone’ with its chorus line ‘vanity of vanities’, as if it were translating the leaf-fall of the forests into the world of human society: What’s left when all the paraphernalia of life is stripped away? What’s life’s heartwood?

But I’m also thinking of Ecclesiastes because of that line ‘There’s a time to speak.’ Of course, one has to be cautious, because words, once spoken, can never be dissolved back down into the expressionless ether.

But there’s a time when truths must be spoken and across the world it appears that this time is now.

I therefore respect Jonathan Freedland, the staff of the Royal Court Theatre and those who spoke out, in particular the members of my own community Luciana Berger and Dr Tammy Rothenberg, to create his play Jews In Their Own Words, naming and calling out often denied forms and foci of antisemitic hatred and abuse.

Across the world, it is impossible for those of us who have lived in freedom to come anywhere near to appreciating the defiant courage of hundreds of thousands of young people in Iran, especially women, who, despite knowing they may be beaten, shot, seized, and made to disappear, cry out against unbearable repression, impoverishment and degradation.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize marks an essential moment in the moral history of humanity. It was a wise decision to award it to two organisations, Memorial and the Ukranian Centre for Civil Liberties, and one individual, Ales Bialiatski, who, despite imprisonment and all the armamentarium of totalitarian states, persist in telling truth to power. It expresses on behalf of us all our solidarity with those who refuse to succumb to the politics of lies and fabrications. It gives recognition, in a world in danger of becoming inured to fake news with its narratives of falsification and suppression, to the supreme importance of truth.

Memorial was established by Andrei Sakharov in 1987 to document the horrors of Stalin’s regime. In the recently published volume My Father’s Letters, Correspondence from the Soviet Gulag, Irina Scherbakova, a founding member of Memorial, concludes her preface by quoting from Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate:

Neither fate, nor history, nor the anger of the State…has any power to affect those who call themselves human beings… In this alone lies man’s eternal victory over all the grandiose and inhuman forces that ever have been or will be.

‘The world stands upon three things, truth, justice and peace,’ Rabbi Shimeon ben Gamliel observed nineteen hundred years ago. Without truth, there can never be justice and without justice never ultimate peace.

Therefore, in Ecclesiastes’ words, we need, no less that the wisdom to understand when to keep silent, the courage to know when to speak out.

The book of life

The great metaphor of these Days of Awe, in the middle of which we now stand between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is the book of life. ‘Write us in the book of life,’ we pray. The traditional greeting, Gmar Chatimah Tovah, ‘a good closing seal,’ expresses the hope that God will seal us in that vital book.

No less than eight times we add the word ‘life’ to our daily prayers, speaking of God ‘who loves life’ and ‘sustains life with lovingkindness.’ If, in the classic rabbinic phrase, we are ‘partners with God in creation’ then we too must be participants in that love and nurture of life. There is nothing more important at this juncture in the world’s development, with its economic and ecological crises. Both these words derive from the Greek oikos, home: the question, then, is what we can do to make our communal, national, and earthly home kinder, more sustaining and sustainable, and more full of loving kindness.

These urgent tasks draw on our time and money, mind, imagination and heart. This year above all we need to dedicate ourselves in whatever ways we best can to supporting the most destitute and endangered among our people and across our societies. We need to share in making this a life-giving earth and put a break on whatever in our own habits is contributing to the earth’s destruction.

‘All life shall acknowledge you,’ we say every day. All existence, human, animal and the life of all nature, is precious; it is all part of a fragile, interdependent whole. Our final service on Yom Kippur concludes with a prayer, addressed more to ourselves than to God: ‘May we cease from exploitation,’ ‘May I never sin again.’

This week we’ve lost someone who was a great campaigner for the most vulnerable lives, Barbara Winton, daughter of Sir Nicholas Winton who saved hundreds of children from Nazi Europe. Inheriting her father’s passion, modesty and determination to do whatever lay in his power to help, she too fought for refugees, particularly children, especially those who dared their terrible journeys of escape from persecution all on their own. May Barbara find rest in the presence of God and may we all be heirs to her values.

It’s all very well to speak in praise of life, but life is often far from easy. It frequently hurts and most of us bear sore wounds. The very focus on life draws us to think of those who are no longer with us. There they are, their picture on the shelf, their shadow still next to us, but their wit, laughter, affection and irritating habits all gone. May their love still sustain us, their foibles still amuse us and their voice still speak in our hearts.

Every day in our prayers and many times during Yom Kippur we say Mah anu? Meh chayeinu? What are we? To what does our life amount? But the answer is never ‘nothing; don’t bother.’ Life is our opportunity to make the most of the gifts with which we are endowed: the capacity for wonder, joy, creativity, empathy, compassion, dedication and endurance. An anonymous poet imagines what death would tell us if it could speak: it does not speak about itself but rather says

Think of life;

Think of the privilege of life;

Think of how great a thing life may be made.

May this be a year in which we do our utmost to work alongside each other, all faiths and all nations, as partners with God in appreciating and sustaining life with loving kindness.

How our prayers may be answered this New Year

‘You stand, all of you, before the Sovereign your God,’ thus opens the Torah portion which we always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.

For what shall we pray as we stand before God on these Holy Days, the New Year, the Ten Days of Return and Yom Kippur? The world is faced by grave dangers: President Putin’s evil war, floods, droughts, a changing climate, turbulent politics and uncertain leadership. I don’t need to spell out the threats, it’s hard to bear even thinking about them.

We will surely ask God for peace and mercy, healing and plenty. Will God make it happen? Can God make it happen? For myself, I believe rather in the sacred presence of God within each of us and all creation than in some all-powerful being residing in heaven.

But these matters are mysteries, so we send forth our prayers in hope. May they ascend to the place of God’s mercy. May they descend to those spaces in our heart and conscience where the presence of God abides.

We can’t know what happens on high, but there are ways we can make certain that our prayers are answered below.

‘Prayer boomerangs,’ wrote the much-missed Rabbi Lionel Blue. We start by asking God to send us healing, then ask ourselves: what am I doing to bring more healing into the world? We pray for justice, and are motivated to campaign against injustice. We ask, in the words of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, for a year of beneficial rains and dew. Then we consider: what can I change and influence so that the earth remains fertile and people don’t suffer famine?

We misdirect our prayers if we only send them up to heaven and not down into our conscience and out into our actions every day.

There’s a spiritual as well as a moral dimension in which we can know that our prayers are worthwhile. ‘How can we be sure our prayers are effective on high?’ asked Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, subsequently know as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, before answering, ‘If they awaken in us the fear of God.’ ‘Fear’ has negative connotations, but that’s not what he intends. He’s referring to what he defines as ‘the fear, or awe, within love.’

What we love, we do not want to hurt. On the contrary, we do everything we possibly can to avoid causing those we love pain. The deeper the love, the more powerful the determination to inflict no harm and to prevent others from doing so. When we do cause hurt, we feel instinctively sorry: What have I done? How could I have spoken, how could I have behaved, that way?’

This ‘fear, or awe, within love’ comes from our core. We can experience it not just towards other people, but towards life itself. In the depths of our heart, do we really want to hurt any living creature? Would we not do everything we could to prevent their suffering? ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,’ declared Isaiah in some of the most beautiful words in the Hebrew Bible.

One of the first prayers we say is for the efficacy of prayer itself. Therefore, on this Rosh Hashanah and throughout the coming year, may the words we speak and the music and silence we share come before the presence of God which dwells in our heart and conscience, awakening us to deeper love and awe and motivating us to do what is just, good and kind ‘with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might.’

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah

A tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll

These are days not just of national mourning for Queen Elizabeth ll, but of a sorrow which touches us communally and personally.

The Queen has always been there. In an age of instability, she symbolised stability; in an age of insecurity, she represented safety. In an age which promotes me, my and self, she embodied public service. In an age marked by the weaknesses of leaders, she personified discipline and dignity. In an age which dissects and debunks public figures, the respect she commanded, despite many trials, remained undiminished.

Perhaps we hadn’t realised how precious such qualities are. There’s less in the world now of that decency and order which we had hoped we could take for granted. We feel, many of us, a heartache and anxiety which takes us by surprise.

The rabbis composed a special prayer to be said on seeing a king or queen: ‘Blessed be God who has given of the divine glory to flesh and blood.’ What is that ‘divine glory’ they asked. Observing the juxtaposition in Deuteronomy of ‘God is great and mighty’ and ‘God loves the stranger and refugee,’ they noted that where we find God’s greatness there too we find God’s humility. They taught that, in this regard especially, earthy sovereignty should mirror heavenly sovereignty.

Queen Elizabeth achieved just that, combining the dignity of the throne with humility of person. Based on her Christian faith and her understanding of the best traditions of British royalty, she saw the prerogatives of office as the means to service. That was her promise when she came to the throne, and she lived by it unstintingly throughout the seventy years of her reign.

She combined regal bearing with the ability to touch the heart. She visited Aberfan in the days following the disaster in 1966 when a sliding mountain of coal slag submerged the local school, killing over a hundred children and many teachers. She returned to the town several times, as Elaine Richards, a bereaved parent, remembered:

She promised me 44 years ago that she would open the school when it is built and she is here today. It is a very emotional day, I had to be coaxed to come here to remember the little ones who died.

The words of her broadcast in the lockdown Christmas of 2020, when she alluded to the wartime song which kept hope alive in the nation’s soul, were illumined on placards which normally carry only commercial adverts:

We will be with our friends again.
We will be with our families again.
We will meet again.

She cared. She was patron of over six hundred charities and personally involved in many of them. They reflected her commitment to humanity and nature, her concern for people everywhere, for rural life, for animals, especially horses and dogs, and for the earth.

She was a human being, a wife, mother, even great-grandmother. The picture of her alone in her black coat, black hat and black facemask, observing the rules of isolation at the funeral of her beloved Prince Philip, is the very image of personal grief.

Neither she, nor her life, nor certainly her family, was always easy or perfect. Maybe that too is what draws her to the heart. She was ‘the nation’s grandmother,’ and grandmothers, as everyone knows, are figures as much of affection as of authority.

In Judaism, the queen is the symbol of the Sabbath, shabbat hamalkah, representing the vision of a world at peace. Queen Elizabeth lived through many wars, serving when princess as an auto mechanic in the ATS. Yet she represented something higher, a country, commonwealth and globe drawn together, a harmony to which we yet aspire.

In these difficult days at the start of his reign, we wish King Charles lll and all the royal family comfort and strength.

Like his mother, he has shown deep respect not just for the church but for all faiths. As Jews, we are fortunate to live in a country whose sovereign has visited our synagogues and shared in our prayers.

We hope his reign will be marked by the achievement across the country and the world of those values he has so often articulated: harmony with nature and across humanity.

We join with people of all faiths and none across the nation and the world in sorrow at the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth ll, and in gratitude for her life.

Make the world better step by step; don’t be overwhelmed

In a couple of hours I hope I’m going to ask him, ‘How do you keep up hope?’ I’m referring to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whom I have the privilege of interviewing over Zoom later this morning about his remarkable book Seven Ways To Change The World.

I asked his office to arrange this opportunity before the High Holydays as we badly need messages of positivity and empowerment. Our key Rosh Hashanah theme this year is making the world better. The world desperately needs it, and we need it too. We have to feel that there is something we can do, something we must do, so that we maintain our sense of direction and purpose, our tikvah, our hope and our determination. That is the essence of practical teshuvah.

I will ask Gordon Brown what specific contributions faith communities can make. Should he say, ‘Aren’t you a faith leader, what do you think?’ I’ll reply with some of the actions, big and small, taken by so many in our congregation and beyond, since that’s what keeps me determined and inspired.

We’re in the Torah week of ‘tsedek tsedek tirdof, justice, justice shall you pursue.’ (Deuteronomy 16:20) The rabbis had a principle of zero unemployment; God, they assumed, would surely never allow one single word in the holy Torah to be redundant. So why this repetition of tzedek, justice? It comes once to teach you to resolve potential conflicts calmly and fairly, like who should go first in a one-way shipping lane, and once for when you really need to resort to the courts,’ suggests the Talmud. (Sanhedrin 32b) ‘Once for legal justice, once for social justice,’ I’ve heard it said, or ‘Once for educational, once for ecological justice.’

A wonderful aspects of Torah interpretation is that the words strike us differently every year. So here’s what they’re saying to me today: The first tzedek teaches us the centrality of justice. The immense injustices in our world and the sufferings they cause millions of people, especially children, make the need for justice overwhelming. Hence the second tsedek: don’t let the big picture make you feel there’s nothing you can do. Contribute what you can; make one situation, one person’s life, fairer and better.

Yesterday I heard Clare Balding’s appeal for the people of Pakistan on behalf of the DEC. Over thirty million people affected, she said, outlining the scale of the flooding. Then she continued: if you can give ten pounds, that’s blankets, fifty pounds, that’s food for a family for a month. She left her listeners feeling that we can make a difference. World Jewish Relief has also appealed.

Tsedek, justice, and chesed, loving kindness, are Judaism’s supreme and universal values. They light the path forward for all humankind. They stand at the forefront of our values; they must guide our minds, hearts and deeds. That’s the first tzedek.

Then we need to break them down into what we can do, each according to our gifts and opportunities, every day. I’ve never forgotten what Sandra, the late and much missed Leslie Lyndon’s wonderful sister, said to me one day: ‘When I feel low, I go and give blood. I won’t have a day contributing nothing.’

In the meantime, I’ve had that Zoom interview. Hope, said Gordon Brown, is having the dream, like Martin Luther King, then step by step making the impossible possible. It’s large numbers of people doing what they can, day in, day out, with commitment and determination, and it begins with faith communities.

Elul and the shofar’s call to love and truth

Sunday will bring the new moon of Elul, the month of preparation before the New Year. Playing with the Hebrew letters, as the rabbis often liked to do, they saw in the name Elul an acronym for Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li, ‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.’

Elul is the month of relationships, of drawing close to our inner self, each other, the world and God. It is the month of teshuvah, return.

This is both a simple and a complex, an easy and a difficult, journey. The simplicity is that it’s motivated by love: I want to be the person I most deeply am, to feel near to the people I care about, to be true to my essential values, to be considerate, compassionate, generous and attentive to the world. I don’t want to live from the weary, distracted periphery of myself, but from the centre of my being.

Therefore, Elul is the month of wakefulness. ‘Come awake,’ it calls to us. Life is full of opportunity: there is good in the world that needs to be done; there is beauty in the world which we have to nurture and cherish.

Elul is like the knocking on the door in the middle of the night in The Song of Songs. When she hears it, the beloved says, ‘I am asleep but my heart is awake.’ Somewhere inside us our heart, too, is awake, waiting for us to shake off our weariness and follow what is loving and kind. That knocking on the door, the rabbis say, is God calling out to us.

But the journey is also difficult. In returning to our relationships with ourselves, each other and the world, we also have to confront what we, and others, have done wrong. Therefore, Teshuvah, though ultimately motivated by love, is also about rigorous integrity and truth.

The awareness that the world is full of injury is, today, inescapable. Some hurts are personal; there are very few close relationships in which we don’t on occasion misunderstand each other, lose patience, get angry and behave selfishly. These are matters for our private conscience; apology and the determination to do better are an essential part of teshuvah.

But other sores are public and concern us all as part of society and the human community: the searing inequalities which leave many with daily decision about which meal to forgo in order to feed the children; the damage we’ve done and continue to do to nature and the hurts we inflict on the fellow creatures with whom we share our planet; the obscene cruelties of war; the unthinkable injustices of suffering. Facing these realities, social, economic and environmental, must also be part of our collective teshuvah.

Therefore, we need to summon the powers of not only of love but also of truth to guide us on our journey. To many these are both expressed in the cry of the shofar, which we blow every morning during Elul. Though, as he acknowledges, its resonance penetrates deeper than language, Maimonides puts words to the shofar’s call:

Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep and you slumberers from your slumber. Remember your creator, you who forget the truth in the vanities of time.

I believe the shofar expresses joy, the wonder of the natural world, the appeal to its mysteries and depths, the awe with which it humbles us. But at the same time it is also the raw, un-honed, unvarnished demand for truth: Who are you? What are you? What are you doing with your life and with the world?

To these realities and opportunities the month of Elul summons us.

Looking beyond destruction to healing and rebuilding

My mood is summed up in a scene from fifteen years ago, when we were in the far north of Israel at the Hullah nature reserve. Before or since, I’ve never seen so many amazing birds. A tall, strong man was holding in his hands the tiniest of feathered creatures and putting a ring round its leg with deft gentleness. This would help ornithologists understand the bird’s flightpath and do more to protect the dangerous route of its annual migration.

So many people in today’s world hold onto power so hard that the harshness travels down their veins and ends up hardening their heart. If only we could treat life with that gentle dexterity yet firmness of purpose, with that dedication to healing and nurture, which that tall man epitomised all those years ago.

That’s why my heart is set on next Sunday afternoon and the weeks and Sabbaths which follow. I realise this shouldn’t be so. First comes this next Shabbat tomorrow, Shabbat Chazon, with Isaiah’s dire vision of the decadence and moral decay of Jerusalem. Then follows the night of the bleak fast of Tisha B’Av, recalling the destruction of the city. Sunday morning brings the liturgy of banishment, from England, France and Spain, and the bitter elegies after the destruction of the Jewish communities of the Rhineland by the Crusaders.

But my spirit is focussed on what comes after devastation, on what lies deeper than destruction: the longing to comfort, protect and recreate. For on Sunday afternoon, even in the middle of the fast day, the mood changes: the hour of consolation begins. ‘Nacheim, Comfort Jerusalem,’ we will pray. ‘Nachamau, nachamu ammi, Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,’ we will chant on Shabbat week.

The story is well known of how, when Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues secretly visited the Temple Mount, a desolate zone declared out of bounds by the Romans, they all tore their garments in sorrow. Seeing a fox emerge from the ruins, his companions wept, but Rabbi Akiva laughed. Jeremiah foretold that foxes would wander the ruins of Jerusalem, he explained to his companions, bewildered by his inappropriate reaction. If his prophecy of destruction has been fulfilled, then surely the many prophecies of rebuilding must one day prove equally true. (Talmud Makkot 24b)

‘Comfort ye, comfort ye’ we’ll sing, but it’s not just words of comfort which the world urgently needs. We need actions which bring consolation, which make the healing real.

I wept when England won the Women’s Euro 2022, not because I wanted Germany to lose (I felt for their players) but because it was an amazing achievement, because it was women who made it happen, but above all because it lifted everyone’s spirits, mine included, and the country desperately needed that cheer.

But it’s not just what makes the big screen; it’s the millions of deeds which, if they get recorded at all, appear on the small screens of local what’s app groups. It’s people taking provisions to their local food banks; I saw the queues there yesterday, all ages from children to old men needing crutches. I’ll be out there when the rain finally comes and we can replant the trees which didn’t make it through this burning summer drought. When a leader comes who truly promotes greater social justice, I’ll be listening.

It’s not good enough today to say ‘Comfort ye.’ We need to turn the words inside out, as the rabbis always have, and say: ‘Ye – that is you and me – have to make that comfort happen.’ God’s part is to inspire us, guide us and give us the imagination, determination and courage to bring healing to the world.

Where the Messiah is

I know so many people whose lives are driven by the question ‘How can I make the world better?’ They do such different things, they’re teachers, healers, musicians, listeners, bread-bakers; basically they’re truly human beings. They’re driven by the supreme value, chesed, loving-kindness. I only wish they were the ones making the big decisions about the world’s future.

Maybe that’s why I’m drawn over and again to the Talmud’s mysterious vignette about the coming of the Messiah:

‘When will the Messiah come?’ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asks Elijah in one of their many fleeting encounters.

‘Ask him yourself!’ replies the prophet unhelpfully.

‘But where will I find him?’ the rabbi persists.

‘Among the poor and sick at the gates of the great city (Rome, the capital of empire).’

‘And how am I to know which one of those it is?’

‘All the others will be busy taking off their bandages and putting them back on. The one you’re after will take off just one bandage and put it back on quickly thinking “maybe I am needed.”’

I admire people who don’t just bemoan the world’s ills but look at the wounds and say maybe I’m needed to help make things better.

Today is the new moon of the month of Av, the first half of which culminates in Tisha B’Av, the bleak fast of the Ninth, commemorating the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem. But the day is also in a small way a festival because, according to tradition, it’s when the Messiah is born. Out of destruction comes hope, out of anguish the commitment to heal.

The nine days before Tisha B’Av are characterised by a lot of don’t do’s: one conducts less business transactions; one doesn’t build for cheerful reasons like making a wedding canopy for one’s children or creating anything beautiful or grand; one doesn’t plant pleasure gardens with shaded walks for royals to relax…(Orach Chaim 551:2, Joseph Caro’s 16th century code of law).

But, the rule continues, ‘if your wall looks like falling you’re allowed to rebuild it.’ In other words, we stop trying to make fun new things and concentrate on repairing what’s broken in the world.

Everyday I read reports about people who do just that, who reach remote villages unserved by roads and bring vaccines; who teach healthcare to local women who become regional nurses for hundreds of square miles; who advise on animal welfare to families dependent on the labour of their donkey. I learn about children born in virtual destitution who become impassioned visionaries transforming the lives of their communities and role-models for the wealthier world, showing them what can and should be done. It’s humbling and greatly motivating.

Returning to the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi travels magically back from the great city to resume his dialogue with Elijah:

‘Did you find him?’

‘Yes.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He promised to come this very day, but he’s failed to show up!’

‘You’ve misunderstood,’ Elijah explains. ‘What he actually said was: “This very day if you listen to God’s voice.”’

I don’t believe in one single personal messiah who’ll save the whole world. But I do firmly believe that there’s a portion of the messiah within each of us, challenging us with the question ‘Maybe you’re needed?’ There’s only one answer, ‘Yes, this very day!’

Every one of us is needed. Across the world lots of walls look like falling and we’re all required to help rebuild them.

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