We can’t afford to be silent

I wish Purim was not becoming more relevant every year.

Its story unfolds in an amoral world. On the surface, that may not seem ugly; there are halls with bright tapestries, gold drinking vessels, parties unending and beautiful women.

But not far beneath lies the lust for power and domination, the appeal to racism, hatred, and the subjugation of women. The king and his ministers aren’t interested in justice, and fair, transparent government. Advancement is gained not by merit and goodness but by cunning and manipulation.

Underneath that lies a profound insecurity: there are plots all around. Not even the king can be sure of his power. That’s why the vain, self-obsessed and unscrupulous Haman can persuade him so easily:

There is a certain people. They’re everywhere in your kingdom. They have their own rules; they don’t follow yours. It’s a grave mistake to tolerate them. And, by the way, they’re rich. (based on Esther 3:8-9)

We were that people, then, and often in history since. But it’s not just the Jews; wherever justice and equality are absent, wherever fear and racism rule, there are many victims.

That is why we are required to remember the world of the Megillah; and never to forget the power of evil. Indeed, the Shabbat before Purim is specifically called Shabbat Zachor ‘The Shabbat of “Memory”.

There are two levels to this ‘memory’.

The first is historical. We are not to forget the evil Amalek wrought on us by attacking us from behind when we left Egypt and killing the old and the weak, nor what Amalek’s descendant, Haman, tried to do in Persia by persuading the king to kill all the Jews.

It is essential to understand that Amalek no longer refers to any specific nation. Almost two thousand years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud already affirmed that the people Amalek had ceased to exist. Amalek represents the principle of hatred. Wherever one group of human beings is maltreated by another, wherever there is inequality and injustice, wherever xenophobia infects a people unchecked, there Amalek is too.

We forget this at our peril.

The second level of ‘memory’ is more personal. It concerns not the past, but the present. In this sense, to remember is to recall our deepest selves, created with a conscience aware of justice and a heart aware of love. It is about behaving as a true human being.

‘Sorry, I forgot myself’ is a familiar excuse. Many things can make us lose our better selves: anger, envy, petulance, fear. Some such emotions rise up from inside us. Others are incited from without, when we go along with the crowd. When we come back to ourselves, we feel shame.

I read about a young woman, caught after the North London riots. She’d never smashed a shop window or looted before. She’d always been good. Now she had a custodial sentence. ‘How did I allow myself to do that?’ she wondered. I felt for her; it’s easy to lose ourselves, hard to stay true to whom we truly are.

Yet precisely in today’s world, which feels more insecure, more unjust, more about displays of power, we must remember both our history and our deepest nature.

We are not here on earth to manipulate others, promulgate prejudice and succumb to hatred and greed. We are here, in God’s image, to seek justice and mercy for all.

Perhaps the most important words in the entire Purim story are those Mordechai conveys to Esther, his niece: You can’t be silent now. We can’t afford to be silent, ever.

We can’t abandon refugee children

Tomorrow brings two of my favourite things: Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, and Shabbat Shirah the Shabbat of Song. I had thought to write about both. I’ve been reading Peter Wohlleben’s wonderful book The Hidden Life of Trees. A forester initially employed to maximise the yield from the woods over which he was appointed, he comes to understand the mystery of the secret life of his trees, how they communicate with one another, support each other, develop resilience and form a rich and wondrous community.

I wanted to write about how God’s presence sings in the trees, how that song can embrace and chasten us and make us more deeply aware of the wonder and privilege of life.

But I won’t. Having hosted Lord Dubs in our synagogue and heard him speak of what motivated him, a child of the Kindertransport, to petition Parliament to allow 3,000 lone children into this country, I cannot be silent when that agreement seems now to have been overturned by the government.

I was in The House of Commons last week for the rededication of the plaque in honour of the Kindertransport. After the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who both spoke with moving eloquence, a boy of 15 from Syria told us, through an interpreter, about his long journey to these shores. When asked what was most in his thoughts, he said: ‘The unknown fate of his parents and family’ as he tried to restrain his tears.

In the wake of the Holocaust we asked in grief and anger how it was possible for so many people to remain indifferent, unmoved by the fate of others. I fear the answer is that it’s easy: ‘If it doesn’t affect me, I can just get on with my life as usual. It’s simpler not to know.’

Every verse of Jewish teaching and every chapter of Jewish experience tells us that that is not good enough. ‘Don’t hide yourself from your own flesh’, proclaims Isaiah: don’t be deaf and blind to those who suffer just as you are suffering. ‘Lo titallam - Don’t hide away; don’t pretend you didn’t know’.

Barbara Winton, who spoke in our synagogue and with whom I’m closely in touch, wrote to the Prime Minister today (Theresa May was her father Nicholas Winton’s MP): ‘Every single child’s life is worth every single thing we can give.’

None of us has done enough to help save those lives. I repeat at this link the initiatives I’m encouraging us to support. I admire the remarkable work of our Drop-In. I respect greatly the huge efforts of Help Refugees and Safe Passage. I am pleased we are beginning to find ways to support and befriend the refugee families in our midst, in Barnet. But we need more initiatives, more engagement and more moral courage.

I want to stress that this is not an alternative to strengthening our own community. My heart sinks and I feel personal upset when I learn that someone has failed to come forward to support our minyan, our quorum, on their due date on the rota, preventing others from reciting the Kaddish. We must not let each other, our Judaism, or our common humanity down.

Peter Wohlleben describes in his beautiful book how, through the hidden connections between their roots, trees nourish the weak amongst them and uphold the strong. The roots of our shared humanity also mingle in the common earth of our mortal existence. We too can, and must, uphold one another.

Chanukkah, festival of courage and hope

Chanukkah is the festival of courage.

It teaches us that however thick the surrounding darkness it cannot quench the inner light which burns in the human soul.

It teaches us that even amidst the ruins of temples and cities, at least one vial of pure oil, one flame of inspiration and illumination, can always be found.

It teaches us that when we kindle the lamp of hope, however little fuel we may have to nourish it, it always burns far longer and far brighter than we had imagined.

It teaches us that one light can be the source of many flames, one person’s courage and commitment can and will inspire that of others, one person’s goodness can guide a whole society.

It teaches us that cruelty will never triumph utterly over kindness and compassion.

Chanukkah exemplifies how throughout history we have never allowed violence, hatred and terror to put out our faith or extinguish our commitment to our values.

In a cruel year, giving rise to many fears, let us kindle our Channukah lights and, together with the light of other faiths and the inner light which is the soul of all humanity, set them against the darkness.

The darkness and the light

On a clear night now the growing crescent of the moon of Kislev, the month of Chanukkah, Festival of Lights, illumines the sky. Light is especially precious at this dark time of the year. Maybe that’s why each day the parting sun embraces the west in such a vivid band of burning orange, before it disappears.

Last week I was asked at short notice to stand in as Jewish chaplain for the North London Hospice’s annual Light up a Life. The streets around the building, for so many a place both of sorrow and intense loving-kindness, were closed. Hundreds of people stood quietly in the dark, each with a candle, each with memories of love and his or her intimate knowledge of the journey of grief.

I chose two short Hasidic teachings. The first is from Rebbe Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin (1823 – 1900) one of whose favourite sayings was ‘Bereisha chashocha ve’hadar nehora – First the darkness, then the light’.

Just as behind the light sometimes darkness is concealed;
so, behind the darkness is concealed the light.

 Darkness is no illusion; even the brightest light cannot always reach the shadowed and enclosed places where pain and fear, helplessness and despair lie crouching. ‘Even darkness is not too dark for you’, says the Psalmist, addressing God (Psalm 139). But for us humans, sometimes even love, courage and understanding cannot despite all their skill and tenacious tenderness penetrate the walls behind which suffering and loneliness inhabit the thick shadows.

Yet even here lies hidden light. I believe in the great endowment with which the human being is created: the capacities for love, compassion, selflessness, companionship, laughter, patience, endurance, wisdom, forbearance, reverence, wonder and creativity itself. Harsh experience may atrophy these attributes, encase them in cold hardness or even cruelty. But I do not believe that they cease to be there in potential. Thus, the human endeavour remains to help us find them despite life’s darkness, and, although we know too well that it is not always within our power, to alleviate that dark in so far as we can, for ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbours, and for the strangers and the refugees within our gates and beyond.

The second saying is from Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger (1847 – 1905), universally known as the Sefat Emet, ‘The Language of Truth’ after the title of his collected teachings.

One can blow out a candle, but light itself can never be extinguished.

I have witnessed time and again the light and loving-kindness which innumerable people carry in their hearts and seek to share wherever there is loneliness, grief and pain. I’ve been chastened on countless occasions by the ways generous and thoughtful people try to bring light wherever it is needed: gently, not in your face; selflessly, without show; sharing what they have and what their hearts know, not by what they say but by how they listen, not by what they tell but through what they do.

I know that so long as life on earth exists light itself can never be extinguished. I’m grateful to all our teachers, to all who carry that light.

Why Truth Matters

If I ever win the privilege of travelling back in time to a date and location of my choice, I want to spend a day observing the original editors of the Hebrew Bible at their remarkable task. Whoever they were and whenever they met, (I’d have difficulty giving the time-cab pilot clear instructions) they were people of extraordinary courage.

They could have said ‘No way!’ and left out the Book of Job which challenges God’s justice, offering no clear answers. They could have said ‘Impolitic, the Assyrians and Babylonians and Greeks are too busy attacking us already!’ and omitted the piercingly self-critical prophecies of Amos and Jeremiah. They could have said ‘Definitely not!’ and consigned Kohelet’s relentless questioning to the undiscovered dustbin of history’s lost masterpieces.

They did no such thing. Instead, they put the most difficult issues right in the heart of the sacred canon, making it everyone’s contemporary for all time, whatever the issues he, she, the entire community, or humanity itself has to face.

It’s customary to read Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on the Sabbath in the middle of Succot, – that is, tomorrow. Who he was, when he was, and the bottom line of what he actually meant, – these questions remain open to perennial debate.

But one thing is certain. The author was ardent in the relentless pursuit of truth:

I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom (1:13)

Unlike so many protected by privilege, he did not hide behind the walls of the castles and gardens he built with such profligacy:

Behold the tears of the oppressed; they have no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors is power (4:10)

Most radically of all, he refused all easy answers, questioning whether life has any enduring meaning whatsoever:

Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. (1:2)

This is, in effect, the strap-line of the book; it’s tantamount to testing every insight by multiplying it by zero and puzzling over the results. He refuses to be fooled.

These courageous qualities of Kohelet struck me forcibly this week for their sharply contemporary message, on two counts.

The first is the decision, taken by vote by UNESCO’s 58-member executive, that there is no ancient and integral relationship between Judaism and the Temple Mount. A fact doesn’t cease to be a fact because a wilfully ignorant group prefers it to be a fiction. The vote is by no means a unique occurrence; it is symptomatic of a civilizational drift away from empiricism towards mythology. It is a sign of the frightening reality that what matters today is all too often not what is, but in whose story it gets wrapped up.

The second is the 50th commemoration of the Aberfan disaster. I remember vividly the day when the huge coal-tip buried alive 116 children and 28 adults. Horror, grief and pity gripped the nation. What I didn’t know then was the slow and laborious manner in which the truth had to be dragged out of the National Coal Board that such a disaster could, and should, have been foreseen. Nor was I aware that the funds to remove the remaining pile of slag, and others like it, which terrified the surviving children were partly taken from the very moneys raised to support the victims, and that it was decades before they were repaid.

Should truth and responsibility cease to matter, lies and injustice will rule. When anyone with sufficient courage tries to call them to account, they will hide behind the virtually impenetrable barriers of fiction and unaccountability.

Therefore, let the voice of Kohelet speak out, probing, questioning, challenging and fearless for the truth.

What’s a Succah for?

Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sameach for the forthcoming festival of Succot.

And it’s a mitzvah (best practice) to fix up the succah immediately after Yom Kippur, since when you have the opportunity to perform a mitzvah (commandment) don’t waste it.

Thus the words of the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century, and still current, code of Jewish law composed by Joseph Caro. The commentary of the Mishnah Berurah is a little more generous towards those who may feel slightly fatigued by the 25 hour fast:

This refers to those who are exacting in their deeds; everyone else, and they too, should complete the job the following day.

I’ve a bad reputation as a succah-building fan. Over the years I’ve loved how the children have given me a meagre five minutes to down some food after the fast, before pressing me to start on the succah. I miss them, all mostly away from home, this year.

Not everyone has the space or opportunity to make a succah. That’s why we have a communal succah in the synagogue courtyard, for all to enjoy. Also, people who do have a succah are generally delighted to share, so ‘If you can’t build one, join one.’

Here are some of the things which matter about a Succah:

A succah is a succah because of the sechach, the greenery used for the roof. The walls may be constructed out of anything, from brick walls to resident elephants. But the roof must be made of branches, or materials grown from the earth. These must be cut specially for the succah and placed there for the current, forthcoming festival. In England, the best branches are laurel and bay; one can also buy woven willow or reeds made solely for this purpose.

Succot is a harvest festival, chag ha’assif, the celebration of the gathering of the produce from the orchards and fields. It’s a way of saying ‘thank you’ for the season’s blessings, with grace and beauty. As a keen gardener, I like to choose what to grow with the succah in mind. If you have succeeded in growing something special, please bring a sample to hang in the synagogue succah!

A succah is essentially a temporary structure. It reminds us that life is beautiful but also fragile, full of wonder, but not to be taken for granted.

A succah is open to the elements. If the rain can’t penetrate the roof, then it isn’t truly a succah. This is an important reminder to those of us accustomed to warm houses that for many shelter is insecure, imperfect and uncertain and that we should not forget those who regularly endure wet and cold, by day and night.

The succah reminds us that we, too, were once refugees, with no other shelter than such frail huts. Europe, and the world, is full of millions of refugees*. For very many of them, a succah would be a great improvement on the cold, the wet, the homelessness and the hopelessness they have to endure all the time.

A succah is a place of hospitality; it’s a place not only of the gathering of the harvest, but of the gathering together of friends, strangers and community. It reminds us that strength lies in solidarity, a solidarity we should be ready to extend to those who have been forced to flee the places where they, like us, once felt at home.

The succah represents trust and peace; the mystics call it tsila dimeheimanuta ‘the canopy of faith’. It expresses our hope for a world in which such frail shelter will be sufficient because everyone can feel trust not only in God but in the goodwill of their neighbours and the neighbouring nations, so that there is no need for fortresses and border barriers because humankind is at peace with itself, with nature and with God.

And, back down to earth, a succah is fun to build!

 *Two organizations helping Refugees:

Help Refugees is a grassroots humanitarian organisation providing emergency relief in more refugee camps in Europe than any other organisation.

Refugees at Home is a small UK based group aiming to connect those with a spare room in their home with asylum seekers and refugees in need of accommodation.

‘This is about repentance’

Tomorrow is Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance and Return.

It’s over nine years now since we sat Shivah as a family for my father. Among the visitors was my teacher, Principal of Leo Baeck Rabbinical College during the time I studied there, Professor Rabbi Jonathan Magonet. He made his way carefully across the room, leant towards me and said quietly, ‘This is about Teshuvah (repentance)’.

Those were just four words, but they’ve stayed with me. I recall being puzzled at the time: Why was he telling me this? What did it have to do with my father? But his short sentence has grown for me into the most helpful of comments, both about Teshuvah and remembering my father.

What he wasn’t saying is ‘You’re a great sinner’ (at least, I don’t think so.) What he was saying is: ‘This is a time to rethink what matters in life’.

I hear that call in certain sayings of my father. I’m lucky; I can think of words from my mother, father, brother, wife and, more poignantly, children, all of which I would do well to ponder. But the words of the dead have a particular resonance in the heart, perhaps because we no longer have that opportunity, so easily taken for granted, to exchange with them the sometimes affectionate, sometimes irritating banalities of every day.

My father used to quote the Yiddish proverb
              Ueberlegt sich der Chochem, ueberlegt sich der Narr.
It’s hard to translate, but goes something like ‘While the person who thinks he’s so clever is busy thinking about the issue, so is the person he thinks is very stupid.’ What this means to me is: ‘Never imagine you’ve got it all right. Always ask yourself how matters look from the other person’s point of view’. It’s simple, but chastening. So much of what we do wrong is because we haven’t considered, felt or imagined how things feel to others. My father’s voice reminds me of this often, calling me to Teshuvah, to think again.

Probably, though, what Rabbi Magonet had in mind was the meaning of death itself, the impact of the brute truth that ‘The dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns to God who gave it’.

Time is limited. My father no longer walks in front of me, offering at least an imagined protection from the fact that I am next in line for the inevitable fate of every generation.

What, then, do I want to do with the rest of my life, before ‘the dust returns’? How do I want to give my spirit back to God, or life, or the infinite void, from which somehow, mysteriously, incomprehensibly, all spirit comes?

Afforded this privilege of life and the gifts of love, time and opportunity, wouldn’t we want to live our days in a manner which says ‘thank you’, in a way which indicates that we honour and appreciate all this wonder? Would we not want to be pure in heart, honest and truthful in our conduct, and generous, compassionate and kind in all our interactions? Isn’t that the direction in which life, and death, teach us to turn?

‘This is about Teshuvah’: I remember those four words.

Inspiration from Above

Teshuvah, ‘return’ or ‘repentance’, isn’t just about remorse for the wrongs we have done and the resolve to try to do differently from now on. It is also about looking forwards and upwards. It’s about ‘returning’ to our hopes and ideals. It is about trying to be the best person it is within our capacity to become; the person we might, and yet still can, be.

Indeed, the whole of life’s journey can be thought of as a return to a place of innocence, kindness and love, from which, either in some transcendental reality or in phantasy, the spirit feels that it has come:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

        Hath had elsewhere its setting,

          And cometh from afar…From God who is our home.

                           (Wordsworth: Intimations of Immortality

It may be a phantasy, but it is a useful one. All our life we aspire to ‘return’ and rediscover the goodness and purity which once were ours. We seek what is beautiful, good and just, and hope to be and do likewise. We are drawn towards it like latecomers down from a mountain walk as darkness threatens and the lights of distant houses beckon.

There’s a mysterious passage about repentance in the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism, which has long gripped my imagination:

Rabbi Abba said: “From the depths I cry to you, O God.” There is a hidden place above; it is the depth of the well. And from it streams and fountains flow on all sides, and this profoundest of depths is called ‘Repentance’. (Zohar III 69b – 70a)

I’m struck by this surreal picture: are we being asked to look up, or down? I’m drawn first of all to the depths of the well. Pools are strangely fascinating; it’s not just children who find themselves staring down with silent intensity at the stillness and the currents. It’s as if those waters were a reflection of one’s inner being, one’s very soul.

Yet this well is on high, in ‘a hidden place above’. We therefore need first to look up. For the depths of our being are not down below, but call to us from high above. We are not to be dragged down by our errors and mistakes, by the inevitable fact that as mere humans we inevitably commit wrongs. We must not be bewildered by guilt.

Instead we should look up and be inspired, as by the stars which draw our gaze upwards at night, or by music which lifts our spirit and makes it too sing. Then we think: How can I raise my life? How can I be the best person I’m capable of becoming? How can I use what life has given me, in order to give back to life with gratitude and love? How can I serve?

This is the call to Teshuvah, return, from above.

What Teshuvah really means

Rosh Hashanah is over for another year. I shall miss the shofar and the beautiful prayer that we, all living breathing creatures, should recognise our bonds with one another and with God.

The focus now in these important days which culminate in Yom Kippur is Teshuvah, repentance and return.

Teshuvah has both a backward- and a forward-facing aspect. The first concerns the deeds we have done and what we learn from the past history of our own lives. The second (which I hope to write about tomorrow) is about whom we aspire to be, our ‘return’ to the dreams and ideals of the person we would like to become.

Remorse is a painful sensation; no one relishes experiencing it. But it is a sign of moral health. To feel remorse means to be sincerely and painfully aware of the hurt we have caused another person. More truly than regret, it indicates that we wish for more than that the whole matter should be forgotten, that it should just go away. It shows we feel something deeper than ‘I’m sorry if you were upset’. Remorse is the stinging awareness that we said or did something, intentionally or inadvertently, which brought another person pain.

What do we do with this feeling? First of all, it should guide us to apologise if this is at all possible, not because we have to, or because it’s the ‘PC’ thing, but because we want to. The question inside us, next to ‘what have I done?’ is ‘how can I bring healing?’

If we in turn should be the person who’s been hurt and someone approaches us with a genuine apology, we shouldn’t be hard hearted and hold ourselves aloof. That in itself is hurtful. Furthermore, who are we to be merciless? Don’t we all know what it’s like to feel terrible over something we said or did?

Secondly, there is an important internal dimension to reflecting on our mistakes. They offer us an especially powerful, if painful, opportunity to grow as human beings. I imagine this is what the third century Talmudic sage, Rabbi Shimeon ben Lakish, meant by his saying:

Great is repentance because, through it, even our deliberate sins can become merits.

Our very errors, when we realise their consequences and how they have affected others, can become our most compelling teachers. They provide ‘the lessons we truly never forget’. We may well wish we’d never had to receive them in the first place. But, if they extend our sensitivity and capacity for compassion, they ultimately become part not of our shame and guilt, but,far more significantly, of our growth.

I believe this is the true meaning of the words baal teshuvah: they describe the person whose humanity has been deepened, whose heart has been opened and softened, by learning not just from life’s blessings, but from the wrongs we, being human, inevitably commit and who resolves to try never to give hurt or cause suffering any more.

For whom the shofar calls

Blowing the shofar in Gan Alon pre-school is a very special experience. No two years are quite the same. Sometimes the children cry; Sometimes they scream. This year they giggled – and screamed. So it was with particular interest that I awaited their responses to my question: ‘What did you hear in the sound of the shofar?’

‘A banana’, said one. I guess the comparison was based more on shape than sound. ‘Pasta’, said another, since food was obviously ‘in’. ‘Sounds like my mother,’ said a third.

So what do we hear in the shofar’s call?

Before offering my own answer, I have to say that through the years Rosh Hashanah is to me less and less about a God up there whom we ask to care for the world, and more and more about what the world asks of us. I often think of the entry Etti Hilesum made in her diary in July 1942 when she was forced to leave her beloved Amsterdam:

[O]ne thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well.

The shofar is addressed to that ‘little piece of God’ in me and you, and in the billions of other people, those tiny portions of seemingly independent consciousness and independent will bound together by the sacred vitality which unites and transcends all life.

‘Hear the call of the shofar’, says the blessing which precedes its sounding. Hear what? Words limit. But the shofar speaks no words, so the meanings of its cries are not limited by language.

‘Listen’, it says. Listen to the voices you haven’t heard, or have tried not to hear. Indifference, said Elie Wiesel, whose passing we mourn this year, is living as if someone else’s pain does not exist. We can place suffering people in institutions; we can put refugees behind walls. But if we hear none of their voices we incarcerate our own humanity as well. ‘But the calls on us are overwhelming; we can’t take it all in’, we feel. ‘Just listen to something, someone,’ the shofar begs.

‘Listen to the earth’, it cries. For the shofar is not a fabricated artefact but part of a once living animal. I imagine its call in the hills of the Galilee and the Scottish Highlands. ‘Listen’, it cries, ‘I am the life which dwells in the rivers and forests, the wild goats and deer, the insects as well as the eagles. Destroy me and you destroy yourself. So hear!’

These cries are born on waves of wonder and contrition, at the joy and majesty, sorrow and destitution, of life.

To whom are they addressed? I hope God hears them. I hope those in power hear them; it is our responsibility to strive our utmost that they do. But these matters lie beyond our ultimate control.

What we can ensure is that the ‘little piece of You, God’ within each of us hears, and responds. It is that awareness, that consciousness and conscience in us all, ‘for whom the shofar calls’.

Leshanah Tovah, may this be a good, peaceful, worthwhile year for us, our families, our communities, all Israel and all the world.

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