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.

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.

 

Song of Songs: We must not fail to notice and to bless

I rose up early, to see the moon shining yellow through the branches of the pine tree.

I had awoken thinking of that wonderful moment when my son called out to me as I came into the final straight of the Jerusalem Marathon ‘Abba, Abba, run with me’ and had taken my hand and we’d completed the last two hundred metres together’. And at the same time, I was thinking of two close friends who have lost a child; my heart going out to them. And at the same time, thinking of this unknown, this beauty, anguish and heart-sorrow of life.

‘Run with me’: how short, how precious is the time we have, to stand together, to run, see, witness the glory of this world, to have the companionship of life.

On Chag Ha’Aviv, Pesach, the festival of spring, we read The Song of Songs. On Chag Assif, Succot, the festival of autumn and ingathering, we read Ecclesiastes.

Hevel Havalim, vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity.’ The autumn wind, leaf fall, life fall, may carry all before it.

But Ecclesistaes is wrong; surely all is not vanity. There is the glory of the in-between time, the span we are granted of life. ‘Draw me after you; we shall run and follow you’: the author, or authors, of The Song of Songs knew that life must be relished, pursued.

The Hebrew Bible is always a text which notices, from the first unfurling of the young leaves of creation, the planting of the first garden in Eden with its four rivers to water its growth.

But nowhere is this awareness more acute, more simple, more wondrous than in The Song of Songs. The young buds of the pomegranate; the fleeting deer standing still for a single moment by the lattice-work of the fence, before running hastily, gracefully away to the distant hills; the apple tree alone in the midst of the forest; the hour and season of the songbirds: these details, easily missed, easily regarded as irrelevant in a world of kings, prophets and wars, are observed, noted, cherished, loved. They are the garden, the universe, of the life and love we are granted, briefly, to share.

At the heart of this landscape is a mystery, gan na’ul, ‘a locked garden’, ma’ayan chatum, ‘a fountain sealed’. For we do not know and never will fathom the source and wellspring of the wonder of life, its small, everyday miracles, the primrose by the side of the stone, the violets in the grass beside the woodland path. Maybe one day it will be possible to offer a scientific, materialist analysis of everything, even consciousness itself. But in the moment of awareness, in the joy and engagement of seeing, in the companionship of love, such explanations will fall away, irrelevant, not contiguous, unable to touch the exhilaration of being alive.

Of course, Ecclesiastes is correct in the end. The day will come when the cord at the fountain is broken and the pitcher tumbles out of sight to the bottom of the well. We know what awaits.

But that does not, should not, must not negate the now, ‘The interim is mine’, ours, yours; the interim belongs to life. Admittedly only the interim, and that is the sorrow which seizes the heart.

But that interstice is now; therefore, as the lover says to his beloved in The Song, ‘Rise up, let us go’ for the garden is full of flower, the orchards and vineyards are in blossom. We must not fail to notice, and to bless.

 

Pesach Seder Reflections 5778

13 Nisan 5778/29th March 2018

It’s cleaning day, and if I write at too much length everyone will think I’m shirking. But I want to set down some thoughts about the Haggadah, which simply means ‘telling’, the telling of the story.

Whose story is it we tell?

First of all, it’s the story of our own people. Avadim hayinnu – ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt’: the narrative of our ancestors’ redemption from generations of slavery lies at the core not just of our history but of the entire Jewish ethical tradition. From hopelessness to hope, from indignity to dignity, from injustice to justice, from cruelty to compassion, from servitude to freedom – this is the journey we think of when we refer to the Exodus from Egypt not only at Passover, but every Shabbat when we make Kiddush, and every day, morning and evening in our prayers. It is for this journey that we thank God and strive to do God’s will. For the memory of the redemption from Egypt is not intended merely as the recollection of our collective past, but as the constant impetus towards a tomorrow when the dream of freedom and justice for us and for all nations will be realised.

The Haggadah is our particular, personal family story. I was asked only yesterday whether writing my book My Dear Ones: One Family and the Final Solution had ‘brought me closure’ regarding my father’s past. ‘The opposite’, I said. (I’m anyway suspicious of the word ‘closure’. Life does not hold closure, but only what we make of our past, how we travel onward with our experiences, both sweet and bitter). ‘Writing the book has brought openings, to people whose names I had scarcely heard, about whose lives I once knew nothing but now understand more. It has opened the door too to greater understanding of the plight of today’s refugees, desperate to gain the precious documents which will allow them to cross the borders between persecution and freedom, death and life; desperate to save their families, their children.’ I think of my great-aunt Sophie’s recipes, my great-grandmother sending food parcels from Nazi controlled Czechoslovakia to those even worse of – as long as she was allowed – and I see those who need such gifts around us today.

The Haggadah is thus also the story of all humankind. Some years ago, the leader of the local Bravanese community, whose centre was burnt down in a racially motivated arson attack, came to our Seder. ‘Your story is my story too. We said: “Our persecutors will kill us. We have to leave our home country at once!” My aged grandfather said, “I’m too old to leave”. We took him with us, and we fled…’

Avadim hayyinu, ve’attah bnei chorin – ‘we once were slaves but now are free’: how many people across the world are longing to share that song. In Britain, Europe, America, Israel, refugees wait in hope of leave to remain, in terror of deportation. These are the better countries; in many others they would not even have been allowed to enter, on pain of death. The Haggadah is the story of our vision of redemption for all humankind, for the day, as Isaiah puts it in the Prophetic vision we read on the final morning of the festival, ‘when none shall hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain’.

Precisely for this reason, the story of the Haggadah is also deeply personal: ‘we must see ourselves as if we ourselves are each going out of Egypt’. Where are we, in our conscience and spirit, on our own inner journey towards justice, compassion and freedom? What inner traits, what internal Pharaohs, detain us from being the person we could be and dream of becoming? For, according as we travel our own inner journey, so we are able to help others on humanity’s journey, and offer others the kindness, the companionship, the advocacy, the compassion, the music, the hope, which sings in our own soul. And, as we reach out to them, so others hopefully reach inward to us.

May our Haggadah, the telling of our story on Seder night, be fruitful and worthwhile.

12 Nisan 5778/28th March 2018

The central symbol of the Seder is the Matzah. Following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the formal cessation of sacrificial offerings, matzah replaced the Paschal lamb as the key food of the Passover celebration.

Matzah features repeatedly in the Seder. Close to the opening, it is described as Halachma Anya, ‘the bread of poverty’ our ancestors ate in Egypt. It was probably originally at this point that the door would be opened, to welcome in the hungry and the poor. In No Time For Tears, the touching account of his East End childhood in the 1930’s, Sidney Bloch recalls how his parents never locked the front door and always laid an extra place at the table.

Shmuel Hanagid (993 – 1056) has a simple culinary explanation:

Some say bread of poverty means, literally, the bread of the poor – because poor people, in the severity of their destitution, will take some floor, knead it and bake it into unleavened bread which they eat immediately…

The middle matzah is now broken, to represent how, as the Talmud, explains a poor person never has a complete loaf, only a torn half. Eli Wiesel provides a frighteningly poignant insight: the person in terror of starvation, who never knows from where the next miniscule, inadequate meal will come, doesn’t dare to eat a whole piece of bread, but hides half fearfully away.

The broken half is held up repeatedly during as we recount the story of slavery, remembering the suffering of our forebears in Egypt, and others who once were, and all who still today are, the slaves of hunger and exploitation.

Close to the end of the narrative, the very same matzah becomes the bread our ancestors take with them on their journey of freedom. It turns into the bread of hope, or, as the Zohar names it, the food of faith, mechla de’meheimanuta, and lachma de’asuta, the bread of healing. This health is moral rather than physical: it is the healing-power present in the society where those who are replete do not forget those who are hungry and use their freedom to set others free.

Matzah thus makes the journey from slavery to freedom alongside us.

There are still two further features which connect matzah with liberty. In a creative word play, the Talmud (Pesachim 115b – 116a) links lechem oni, the bread of poverty, with the verb oneh, ‘answer’. Matzah is the bread ‘over which matters are answered’. It is the food of discourse, of questions and discussions. Freedom of speech is an essential, primary freedom. In a totalitarian regime, in a country where people know that their every word may be overheard and reported, even in a household dominated by domestic tyranny, no one dares to speak out openly. ‘Bread over which matters are answered’, over which significant issues are challenged, debated and considered from a multitude of angles, is the bread of freedom indeed.

The Talmud takes this one step further. Baking matzah requires team-work. This is depicted clearly in numerous Haggadah illustrations: one person is measuring the flour, others are mixing the dough and yet others rolling it out, while further figures make the holes, put the pastry in the oven, take it out and place the finished matzah in baskets.

The right to collaboration is a form of liberty. The freedom to meet in open fellowship and association has been banned or controlled by every totalitarian regime. Nazi plans for the annexation of western Poland after their swift victory in 1939 included making it illegal for Poles to gather together, even in sports clubs or cafes. (Jews were simply deported).

Matzah, in contrast, celebrates and embodies the freedom of friendship and co-operation.

In Temple times, the last taste of the Pesach meal was the lamb of the Paschal offering. In place of that today, the final food we are supposed to eat is the Afikoman, the other half of the matzah broken close to the outset of the Seder, so that we end the night with freedom on our tongue, and in our songs.

11 Nisan 5778/27th March 2018

The greatest challenge to leading a Seder is how to include everyone, from the person determined to ‘do it my way’ to the child, or adult, for whom the key question isn’t Mah Nishtanah, but ‘How long to the food?’ How can a Seder be a discussion, not a row? How can everyone have a voice?

The Haggadah presents this issue through the Four Children. Each takes his or her question straight from the Torah, which mentions four times how to reply ‘when your child asks you tomorrow’.

I prefer to think of the four not as ‘personality types’, but as complementary voices in the great Haggadah debate.

Easiest to respond to are the encouraging enquiries of the ‘wise child’. Such persons refuse to take their own culture for granted. They are seekers; they want to understand Jewish practise, down to the detail. We need them in our communities; we must encourage them to study, in depth. The sound-byte, tweet-length, instant answer culture is dangerous, warns Timothy Snyder in his challenging On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (an excellent supplement for a Seder). Read, study, examine in depth.

Hard as it may seem, we need the ‘wicked child’s’ challenging ‘What’s this to you?’ Contempt is hard to include at the table: why should we? But anger may be a different matter. I’ve an orthodox colleague in Israel who’s angry: ‘How can I sit at the Seder while we deport asylum seekers?’ If that Seder amounts only to food plates and platitudes, there’s good reason to provoke us with anger. It’s hypocrisy to talk freedom but do nothing about the slavery of hunger, or the actual trade in slaves today, or any of those countless ways in which life is degraded and robbed of liberty and joy. Anger, justly warranted, must be turned into motivation.

The so-called ‘simple’ child also has an essential contribution. The Hebrew tam equally means ‘whole-hearted’. Such ‘children’ refuse to be deviated by details. Every group needs the voice which ask bluntly, ‘What’s this?’ It’s a counter-force to the dangerous tendency of religions to get lost in rituals and dogmas. ‘What’s this?’ calls us back to the purpose of the story. ‘Tell that child about the Exodus’ – and keep it simple, the Haggadah insists. Don’t let the cleaning, koshering, shopping and cooking (all important, all of which I love) make us forget the essential values of freedom, justice and dignity, or the travails our families passed through to attain them. We are accountable before God, history, our own People and all humanity for their defence.

Surely, though, the child who doesn’t know how to ask has no part in the discussion? However, the real meaning of she’eno yode’a lishe’ol is not ‘can’t ask’ but ‘lacks the confidence to ask’. Whether it’s because they’re young, or shy, or quiet with reflection, it’s up to us to bring such participants in. Perhaps it’s precisely the silent guest on whom the narrative is having the most impact. How many scenes do we harbour in our hearts where we spoke nothing, because they spoke unforgettably to us?

We all need all our voices, the longing for knowledge, the indignation, the desire to grasp – clearly and simply – the overall purpose, and the absorption of the listener reluctant to interrupt.

10 Nisan 5778/26th March 2018

Getting There

I heard two (slightly conflicting) views last weekend: first, that the week before Pesach has the lowest mortality rate in the Jewish year because everyone wants to make it to another Seder; second, that the nervous breakdown rate is the highest. So here are some thoughts on how to reach Seder night in good mental, physical and spiritual health.

Preparing for the Seder is as much about community as the Seder itself. If someone else in the family or among our friends is doing all the work, (cleaning, shopping, cooking, inviting, setting the table) we should ask ourselves why, and go and help. Wherever possible, no one should be left to prepare for the Seder alone.

Looking Outward

The Lovell Haggadah (a beautiful new edition, warmly recommended) has a wonderful double page. On one side is the title Turning Outward; on the other Turning Inward. The outward page focusses on Me’ot Hittin, ‘coins for wheat’, also known as Kimcha dePischa or ‘Pesach flour’. They exemplify the ancient rule that even the poorest person must be given the necessaries to celebrate Passover. We may not sit down to celebrate our freedom while other families can’t afford to do so. Freedom for some is not true freedom. We are all responsible towards the entire community of Israel. We should respond to at least some of the appeals for help which we no doubt all receive.

Similarly, we should do our utmost to ensure that no one is left to celebrate on their own. The Mishnah explains that a person alone on Seder night ‘asks him- or her-self the four questions’. It’s a lonely image; we shouldn’t allow it to happen.

By extension, we can’t drink to our own redemption while doing nothing at all for others, whoever they are, who are enslaved by hunger, homelessness or persecution. Turning a blind eye to the humiliation and misery of others, risks leading us into partnership with tyranny.

Looking Inward

The opposite page in the Lovell Haggadah describes the inner process of preparation. Mystics have long made a parallel between the domestic procedure of going through our drawers to remove the chametz and leaven and the spiritual process of cleansing our conscience.

Cupboards are memories: ‘Who gave me this mug?’ ‘My mother loved that plate.’ Recipes are testaments: ‘My grandmother made her charoset this way.’ My father cooked the soup.’ Thus we revisit the journeys of our generations and our own life talks back at us from pots and pans.

The Seder does not come alive just by reading the printed text. We must weave our own family stories into the Haggadah and include the stories of others. In this way we make the narrative ours, immediate, vital. Freedom, dignity, justice, journeys: the subjects are always contemporary. I began one Seder by reading the postcard my great-grandmother sent from Theresienstadt. It was written by order of the Nazis to ‘reassure’ the family that ‘everything was alright’:

My Dears! I’m often together with dear Recha; we talk a lot about you and all our dear ones. I’m most anxious about our dear children. I’ve been in the old age home for a while and I feel fine there. Heartfelt greetings from your faithful Regina Freimann.

‘Dear’ occurs four times in scarcely forty words. Love and tyranny – the eternal polarities of human existence.

Never despair! Thoughts on a difficult spring’

Tomorrow is the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan; in Jewish terms it’s the first day of spring.

Nisan is a month of celebration. Sad, penitential prayers are left out of the liturgy. Instead, in the domain of history we focus on Passover; we follow our ancestors on their journey from slavery to freedom and try to create a world which celebrates, life, liberty and justice.

In the domain of nature, we go out into the fields and gardens and say a unique, once-a-year-only blessing to God

in whose world nothing is lacking, who created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for the enjoyment of humankind.

I’ve just been outdoors to check: the almond tree is pink with bloom; the apricot, usually first to blossom, is wisely still sleeping out an especially long winter; the pears have a good month to go before May, their season of white glory.

Yet, despite all this, I’m struggling to feel joyous.

Instead, I feel anxious, afraid for our beautiful world. We live in increasingly dangerous times. Much of humanity, or at least its leadership, seems intent on a journey from liberty to tyranny, from peace to war and from injustice to greater injustice. Meanwhile, the poorest and weakest, who have always suffered, suffer even more.

In the world of nature, I read with despair of the huge decline in animal life, of species hunted to extinction, of the pollution of land and ocean by plastic particles. You may think me crazy, but these matters drive me close to tears.

I could take to retail therapy, decide not to think, or close my eyes, and heart, and sit back to enjoy my corner of privileged living, among the world’s wealthiest.

But that’s not the human, certainly not the Jewish way. ‘You are not free to cease from the work’, said Rabbi Tarfon almost two thousand years back. ‘Assur lihitya’esh; it’s forbidden to give up and despair,’ insisted Rebbe Nachman of Breslav two hundred years ago, despite, or because of, his own susceptibility to depression. And, on the back of today’s Guardian, Gareth Southgate adds his own gloss to his rabbinic antecedents: ‘You can live in fear or you can get on with it’.

That’s what saying the blessing over ‘beautiful creatures and beautiful trees’ means right now. Never give up! Never stop appreciating how wonderful the world can and should be! For the sake of the beauty of children, help the besieged, the hungry, the persecuted. For the sake of the beauty of animals and trees, plant and protect, so that they, and humankind together, may live and flourish to breathe a better future.

Last Friday, as I approached the old Jerusalem railway station, some 28 kilometres into running the marathon, I passed a group of people pushing their friend in a wheelchair, or rather in something more like a full hospital bed. According to my running app, the Jerusalem marathon route has a total climb of well over 2,000 feet, with challenging hills and sharp descents. These good people must have taken turns to push their friend up the hardest inclines, then hold on tightly to ensure a smooth run down the steepest slopes. When they reached the finishing line, the entire crowd cheered.

That’s love; that’s courage; that’s doing the best one can to share the basic freedoms of breathing the open air, enjoying the wide panorama, waving to friends, relishing the crazy happiness of those mad enough to run.

On Seder night I don’t just want to read the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus. I want it to shout back at me: Never give up on freedom. When I go outside, I don’t just want to see the world. I want it to sing back at me: Look at all this beauty! Use your life to love it and protect it!

 

Laws and Customs of Purim

Chag Purim Sameach! Happy Purim!

Here are some of the commandments and traditions connected with the festival, which begins fully tonight.

First of all, we are instructed to listen to the reading of the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther, tonight and tomorrow morning. It is a gripping and contemporary tale. Behind the colourful facades and drinking parties, the protagonists conduct a politics which, though it may look casual, is cunning and ruthless. In two short sentences Haman puts before King Achashverosh every trope of Antisemitism: the Jews are everywhere; they’re rich; they have secret communications networks; they care only about themselves. Esther defeats Haman’s plans not by wiles but through astute political judgment. The Megillah is the classic tale about what minorities have to do to survive caught in the lethal interplay of the interests of more powerful others.

As if to create a different and more compassionate reality, we are instructed to give mattanot la’evyonim gifts to the poor, on Purim. Because both words are plural in Hebrew, we are required to give at least two gifts to two different people or groups of people suffering hardship. The Mishnah Berurah (late c19 commentary to the classic 16th century code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch) comments movingly that ‘it is better to give much to the poor than it is to spend greatly on one’s Purim feast or in giving gifts to one’s friends, because there is no greater happiness than causing the hearts of the poor to rejoice’. It is evident from the Shulchan Aruch that in many places it was also customary to give to the local poor, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, and to bring gifts to the neighbours among whom one was living ‘for the sake of the ways of peace’. (See below concerning two groups for whom we are collecting as a community this year.)

Equally, it is the custom to take portions of food and drink to friends and acquaintances, following the instruction in the megillah that people sent mishloach manot ish lere’ehu, ‘parcels of food to one another’. It is an enjoyable custom to prepare cheerful baskets of basic food and treats both for friends and people one doesn’t know. Within the community, it is a way of including members who may be unwell or frail, so that they too can find happiness on Purim. Some communities also do this collectively, using the money they raise for charity.

One of the central themes of the megillah is the interplay between appearance and identity. There is probably no other Biblical story in which clothing features with such prominence. Hence it is the tradition to dress up on Purim. An ‘upside-down world’ is created, in which one no longer knows who’s who. Add to this a carnival spirit and you enter the world of Purimspiels, cabaret acts, disguises, and fun. The date has long been a holiday for children, who wear fancy dress and give and receive presents of food. It’s in the spirit of Purim, for adults to dress up too.

In the afternoon of Purim day, one gathers for the Purim Se’udah or special meal. Traditional foods include pulses (less widely eaten on Purim today) because Daniel ate vegetarian when he was an exile in the court of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. More popular are Purim challah made with raisins inside and hundreds-and-thousands all over, and Hamantaschen, filled with anything from poppy-seed to chocolate.

Hope – despite everything

At the Holocaust Survivor’s Centre yesterday a lady drew me aside and explained:

We have a picture from 1933. Down one side of the street are houses covered in swastikas, draped with Nazi flags. On the other side is a window with a Chanukkiah. You see, they lit their candles, in spite of everything.

That, I believe, is the meaning of Chanukkah, – not just the defiance, but the hope, the courage and the tenacity of spirit.

I thought the same when I read Sarah Cooper’s words yesterday, before the service at St Pauls marking six months since the appalling Grenfell Tower fire. She is head teacher of Oxford Gardens primary school, which lost a pupil and a former pupil, and where over a hundred and twenty children have been severely affected:

We decided to have a day in where we aren’t saying: ‘It’s six months since the fire’. We are saying: ‘It’s six months in which together we’ve built strength’.

Anyone who lives locally, has been part of the emergency services teams involved, or even who drives or walks in the district, knows that the charred, burnt out tower stands as a terrifying, searing and accusing landmark over the entire area.

Thus, too, the ruins of the interior of the Temple in Jerusalem and the casualties and debris of numerous battles, must have haunted the thoughts of the Maccabees whose rekindling of the menorah over two thousand years ago the festival of Chanukkah commemorates.

But such brutal realities are scarcely mentioned in the Talmud’s brief narrative on which the eight days of Chanukkah is traditionally understood to be based. The account is so short it could almost be a tweet:

When the Hasmonean powers grew strong and defeated the Seleucid armies, they searched and found only one vial of oil with the seal of the High Priest intact. It contained sufficient to burn for only one day, but a miracle occurred and they lit from it for eight.

There is no mention, except by inference, of violence and war. But I don’t think this represents avoidance, the attempt to deny history or create alternative facts.

Instead, the story expresses something deeper, – the discovery of light in spite of everything. That, to my mind, is the real miracle. The search for the oil in the ruined precincts of the Temple is a symbolic expression of the quest to find the inner strength and the tenacity of spirit to sustain us despite everything, all the cruelties, injustice and hardship which life can bring. It is a quest we all must make, though some in incomparably more difficult circumstances.

The one vial of pure, unsullied oil is the unquenchable, inexhaustible flame of hope. It is the fuel on which creativity, inner strength and inspiration draw. If we have the courage to light it, the flame almost invariably lasts far longer than reason would have us calculate.

One person’s spirit kindles others, and they in turn impart strength to the person from whom they drew their first inspiration. Such light, sometimes in remote individual flames, sometimes in glowing solidarity, has illumined humanity in defiance of war and disaster, hatred and persecution, throughout the ages. It will not be extinguished.

Jewish law directs us to place our Chanukkah candles in the most visible place, ideally outside the front door to the left as we enter our home, or in a window overlooking the street. For we need strength of spirit in every domain; in our inner life to restore and maintain our own individual sense of purpose; in art, poetry and music; and in the public square to face with hope and courage the collective challenges with which history presents us.

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.

Hoshana Rabba

I always think of my father on Hoshana Rabba. For so many years we would go together to the New London Synagogue for this beautiful service which carries in its complex liturgy the melodies of all the High Holyday prayers and completes the season. Hoshana Rabba is the sealing of the books, the Ne’ilah of the Ne’ilah, the closing of the closing.

This is not destiny turning the page on our life, rendering immutable whatever has been inscribed there by God’s inscrutable hand. Rather, it is our chance to reflect on what we want to write in the unfolding scroll of our coming year; to set in our heart our best intentions about the good we desire to achieve. Afterwards, we venture out and encounter as well as we can the unknown blessings and adversities of the months ahead.

There are three books in which we all want to be sealed (at least, I can’t imagine otherwise). The first is Sefer haChayyim, the book of life. I see it more like a garden than a volume on a shelf. I imagine the book of life as forests and farmlands, cities and gardens, rivers and seas all nourished by the sap of God’s invisible Etz HaChayyim, tree of life, by which, according to the mystics, all vital being is nourished. I want to be a planter, not an uprooter, a person who nurtures life, rather than a destroyer of living things; I want to be a fellow gardener in this sacred world. I would like to have a green-fingered soul, – and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

The second volume is Sefer Toldot Adam, the book of humankind. The phrase comes from, and, strictly speaking refers specifically to, the Torah. But it can also be understood more comprehensively as the index of all humanity, comprising in its pages the fortunes, joys, sufferings, mercies and injustices which visit each and every person. My aspiration is to try to be faithful to the trust reposed in Abraham when God said to him, ‘heyeh berachah, be a blessing’. Judaism has always understood that, if this is to amount to anything more than vague intentions, it must entail standing up with courage and persistence for human dignity. It means confronting cruelty, hatred and wrong in a spirit of justice, and seeking to heal suffering and pain in a spirit of kindness and compassion.

The third book is the book of the heart, as the beloved says in the Song of Songs ‘set me as a seal upon your heart’. It is in the hearts of those who have known us that our life has its greatest impact. Sadly, almost none of us can avoid sometimes causing each other pain. We say and do hurtful things, usually inadvertently. But we aspire to the opposite. So long as we live, we hope to be generous, loyal, wise and loving enough to leave marks of affection and respect in the hearts of those we care for, and who care for us. The end of a good life is that we continue to speak in memories of blessing, encouragement and love in the lives of those we have touched.

May we all be guided to write ourselves deeply in these three books of life during the coming year.

The Succah and protection against evil

First and foremost, I want to express my shock and sorrow at the appalling killings in Las Vegas. Like everyone else, I felt shaken just at the news. Heaven only knows how utterly terrifying it must have been to be there. Our thoughts and prayers are with the bereaved, the wounded, the traumatised and their families.

President Trump rightly called the appalling massacre ‘an act of pure evil’. It leaves one with disturbing questions about the nature of evil, similar perhaps to those which troubled Hannah Arendt in the 1940’s. Is evil rooted in boiling, premeditated hatred, or in cold, untroubled indifference to human life, or in both? I don’t know what is more frightening.

The horror was perpetrated at a Harvest Festival concert. Now, 2 days later, we are about to celebrate Succot, our harvest festival.

For six weeks we’ve been reading Psalm 27 morning and evening. Its author tells us that ‘God will hide me in God’s Succah on the evil day’. But what good would a mere Succah have been to protect the people at Las Vegas, or in Manchester, or at the Bataclan? I’ve often thought: ‘God, can’t you do better than a flimsy, made-of-anything, covered-in-leaves, blown-away-by-a-strong-wind, harvester’s booth Succah? God, couldn’t you at least manage a castle? Or a shelter, far underground?’

But that’s the point. Ultimately, our protection doesn’t lie in the strength of the walls which surround us, necessary as they often are in times of war and terror. (Though, even then, castles didn’t save the Jews of the Rhineland from the brigands of the First Crusade.) I agree with President Trump when he called upon ‘the bonds that unite us: our faith, our family and our shared values’, our citizenship and common humanity (and I hope he calls for urgent gun control).

Succot is about faith. Indeed, the mystics call the Succah tsila de’Meheimanuta, ‘the shadow of faith’. To live for seven days in the Succah is to live out our faith, to put our trust in God’s protection. The Talmud explains that the Succah represents Ananei haKavod, the ‘Clouds of Glory’ with which God protected the Children of Israel against scorching winds and burning heat as well as the enmity of those whose lands they passed by on their forty years’ journey through the wilderness.

Clouds don’t stop missiles. Ultimately, our safety, even the very survival of humankind, does not depend on military defences alone. There are weapons enough across the world capable of destroying anything and everything. There are invisible, or semi-visible dangers to our planet, which, unless we limit them, can obliterate life on earth.

In the end, our protection does lie in faith. This is not a blind faith that God will defend us, whatever we do. Rather, it is the faith that we are God’s creatures, or at least that life is precious and wondrous. It is a faith which requires our active and pro-active participation in developing and maintaining relationships of sufficient trust with one another to enable us to survive. It is a faith rooted in the acute awareness of shared responsibilities, towards humanity, towards life itself.

The very openness of the Succah and our vulnerability as we dwell in it point to the sources from which our collective strength must come. These are: fellowship and communication with one another, since the Succah epitomises hospitality; respect and humility before the natural world, from which the defining feature of the Succah, its roof, must be composed; and faith in God, or – to put this in a manner more acceptable to an atheist or agnostic-, faith in the spirit and value of life itself, which unites us all.

Succot is a festival of joy. It is these simple, universal truths which we must honour and celebrate.

 

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