Countdown to Pesach: A Journey Round the Seder Plate

A Journey Round the Seder Plate

The whole of life is on the Seder Plate, from the greens of spring to the bone of the sacrificial lamb and the egg for the full circle of birth and death. As we begin to prepare the symbols which occupy it, we take you on a journey round the Seder plate – not forgetting the most important symbolic food, the Matzah.

The Matzah – By Oliver Joseph

The preparation of the Mazah begins before our freedom comes. Before even the last plague had arrived, the Israelites prepared the dough for the Matzah in Egypt, ‘טֶרֶם יֶחְמָץ’, before it had a chance to rise. Before we lay our tables before Seder night, we too have already bought or baked our Matzah.

This is the bread of our enslavement and our freedom; this bread is a bridge between these two worlds. Perhaps that is why Yeshiah di Trani, a 13th Century Italian Talmudist, understands the words ‘Lechem Oni’, bread of poverty, as bread upon which we answer questions (‘Oni’, poverty also holds the word ‘Oneh’, to answer). Matzah is both the bread of our poverty and the bread of our rejoicing; it holds both energies.

When we sit at the Passover table, we are instructed to begin the Passover Seder ‘as if we too were slaves in Egypt’. We experience pain and suffering; we ask questions about slavery past and present. Later, as the evening continues, we will offer songs of celebrations and we will feast. It is not simple both to celebrate our freedom and simultaneously live our enslavement. But on this feast of Matzot we take all of the symbols of Seder, the Matzah included, and ask questions bridging worlds, enabling movement from enslavement to freedom, from sadness to rejoicing, for us and for the world.              

The Karpas, Maror and Charoset – by Jonathan Wittenberg

Karpas can be parsley, celery, potatoes, watercress, any vegetable over which we bless God for ‘creating the fruit of the earth’. When I asked my teacher, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, ‘Why Karpas?’ he answered, ‘So that people should ask, “Why Karpas?” It’s there to provoke questions.’ For me this year Karpas represents hope from the earth. The Torah calls Pesach Chag Ha’Aviv, the Festival of Spring. Karpas speak of tiny green leaves as they first pierce the soil, fair weather, a healthy climate round the globe, planting, rewilding, love of the land.

Maror, in contrast, is bitter. The very word is a generic term for bitterness. The Mishnah discusses what herbs are sufficiently unpleasant that they may be eaten as maror. Meanwhile, Jewish geography has determined that we use what’s local, usually horseradish in northern countries. Maror represents the misery of enslavement. This year it will express for me how we’ve enslaved the earth, made ourselves relentless masters of the land, degraded the soil – perhaps unwittingly -, dispossessed many people who for generations eked a subsistence living out of dry lands, and decimated wildlife.

Charoset is the Jewish food of love. Apples, figs, dates, grapes, nuts, wine, cinnamon – according to the Talmud and its commentators any fruit or spice may be used which is mentioned in the Bible’s wonderful love poem, the Song of Songs (read at the end of Pesach). This year my Charoset will taste of love of the earth: almond-blossom, apple-blossom, dawn sun across orchards, the scent of fields after rain. It will remind me to join with those who love this earth and strive to protect it for our children’s children, so that we will be able to answer with integrity when they ask ‘Mah Zot! What have you done to our world?’

The Egg and Bone – by Zahavit Shalev

Halachist Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem describes the long history of the egg and the shankbone on the seder plate. Originally, in Mishnaic times, a festive meal meant at least two cooked dishes. These were stand-ins for the original Paschal feast – a barbecued lamb. In the course of Talmudic discussions, these dishes came to be seen as symbolically representing the Pesach and Chagigah sacrifices brought on Pesach in Temple times.

In Talmudic times the two cooked foods became standardised as the shank-bone and the egg, in part because they seemed to make sense: the shank-bone clearly stands for the paschal lamb of the original Passover, while the egg is an easily accessible food, and also has great symbolism for a spring time festival!

The burning question we are left with then is this: are these foods symbols to be looked at or ritual foods to be ingested? It’s a great conundrum to ponder and absolutely encapsulates the dynamic of the seder. On the one hand we want a symbol – something to look at that is exactly the same as it was last year and for generations past. On the other, we want to participate in a dynamic and performative ritual – one regularly recreated – in which we reinvent and internalise (by eating!) the Exodus anew every year.

Of course, these items (and their vegan or vegetarian substitutes) do both. As Rabbi Golinkin concludes: whether we eat or gaze at the two cooked dishes on the seder plate, may they help us re-enact the Exodus from Egypt and fulfil the mitzvah of v’higgadeta l’vinkha, “You shall tell your child on that day, saying: It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).

We all wish everyone a Chag Sameach

Countdown to Pesach: On Freedom

On Freedom

In the Torah

Pesach is widely referred to as the Festival of Freedom. It’s not the Torah but the rabbis who gave it this name, calling it zeman cherutenu, ‘the season of our freedom’.

The Torah speaks not of freedom but of service and purpose. God repeatedly instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh not simply to ‘Let my people go’, but to let them go ‘to serve Me’. Freedom is not an ultimate goal, but a necessary precondition for being able to do what is just and right: affirm the dignity of all humanity, create a fair society and live in respectful equilibrium with nature.

Hence, when Moses receives the Ten Commandments at Sinai, with its writing charut, ‘engraved’, on the two tablets of stone, the rabbis play on the word: ‘Don’t read it as charut, ‘engraved’; read it as cherut, ‘freedom’. It is only through service to a higher vision that we become truly free. Yehudah Halevi encapsulate this in a famous couplet:

Avdei zeman avdei avadim heim:
Servants of fortune are servants of servants;
The servant of God alone is free.

Without explicitly using the word ‘freedom’, the laws of the Torah and their rabbinic interpretations enshrine the key principles of ‘freedoms from’. Tsedakah, the command to further social justice, is intended to free people from destitution: hunger, nakedness, homelessness and unemployment. Tsedek and mishpat, justice and law, protect society as a whole and especially the most vulnerable, the parentless and stateless, from exploitation and rejection. Chesed, faithful kindness, calls us to make compassion our underlying value in all our conduct. The requirement to speak and listen to truth, ‘Keep far from falsehood’ is intended to liberate us from the mesh of fake news and false ‘facts’ by which power has entrenched itself since time immemorial.

None of these freedoms can be taken for granted in today’s world.

Today

Freedom from Hunger

From the first rabbinical codes onwards, Jewish law insists that we may not sit down to our own Seder and mark the festival of national liberation while leaving others behind because they can’t afford to keep the festival. The celebration of freedom must be beyond no one’s means. Among dozens of appeals, myisrael sent out the following:

The Family Nest is one of our charities preparing food packages for families in need over the holiday period. Most of the Nest’s families are single mothers facing extraordinary hardships having experienced a partner bereavement or been victims of abuse. All have severe financial struggles and worry about putting food on the table.

We may prefer to respond to something else, but we are not at liberty to do nothing. Our own community is asking support for Mavar, Resource and Guy’s Trust. Click here to donate.

Freedom of speech

In his pithy, powerful book On Tyranny Timothy Snyder warns urgently against imprisonment in lies:

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticise power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
Timothy Snyder: On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century, p. 65

The novelist Ahmed Altan, imprisoned in Turkey as a punishment for being a novelist, wrote with great courage in an essay smuggled out of jail:

Yes, I am being held in a high-security prison in the middle of a wilderness. Yes, I am in a cell where the door is opened and closed with the rattle and clatter of iron…
All of this is true, but it is not the whole truth.
On summer mornings, when the first rays of the sun come through the naked bars and pierce my pillow like shining spears, I hear the playful songs of the birds of passage that have nested under the courtyard eaves…When I wake up with the autumn rain hitting the window bars, bearing the fury of northern winds, I start the day on the shores of the Danube…
I am writing this in a prison cell. But I am not in prison. I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not. You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here.
Ahmet Altan: I Will Never See The World Again

Freedom from the Fear of Freedom

In Darkness over Germany, a remarkable testament recently republished, Amy Buller described her conversations with Germans of all shades of opinion in the late 1930’s. Here she records the words of Dr Webber, a Nazi supporter, whom she describes as ‘a traitor to himself’:

‘I am not going to enter into the various aspects such as freedom from foreign domination, freedom from economic slavery, freedom from poverty or unemployment. You know of these and many others, but I want to suggest to you that the younger generation in Germany needed above all the freedom that comes from security, and the kind of security I mean is that which comes to those who give complete obedience to an authority they know they can trust. For youth in Germany the terrible time of uncertainty is over. In National Socialism they find the reason for their existence, the chance of living fully and with a purpose…’
Amy Buller: Darkness Over Germany, p. 186

It is a disturbing train of thought to consider what freedoms and truths are being betrayed in the world today in the interests of what is popularly thought of as ‘security’ and to consider what fears lie behind such reactions.

Countdown to Pesach: Kosher for Pesach?

I wish everyone a Happy Pesach.

Kosher for Pesach?

‘Three weeks before Pesach’, a guest recently told us, ‘My grandfather put a rug in the hall with a table on which he placed all the remaining chametz (leaven) while, room by room he cleaned the house of the smallest crumb. “If anyone wants to eat chametz”, he’d say, “it’s in the hall”. Whenever people entered the house, they’d have to shake themselves out over the rug, which he’d duly removed the night before the Seder.’

We probably won’t go to quite these lengths, but halakhah, Jewish law, requires us to be strict concerning the removal of chametz from our homes. Chametz is anything consisting of or containing the leaven of the five staple grains, wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt. This includes products in which it may be even a minor ingredient. Since the substance, and taste, of it becomes absorbed through the year in pots, plates and cutlery (just as our hearts and  minds become imbued with our habits, good and bad) it is the practice to ‘change over’, to either kasher or put away our kitchenware and bring out special Pesach dishes.

I honour, respect and try to observe this deeply Jewish, halakhic path, which links the most ordinary practical tasks and disciplines of life to the deepest values and spiritual and moral ideals.

So what is ‘Kosher lePesach’?
Below are three short sections, with further links:

  1. What do I do? Practical guides to Pesach cleaning, shopping and cooking.
  2. What about being a ‘kosher’ person?
  3. What about the environment?

1. What do I do?

There are many guides on-line. I would refer our community to the Rabbinical Assembly Pesach 5799 guide. It advises families how to maintain a kosher-for-Pesach home in accordance with the principles of Conservative / Masorti Judaism and its understanding of Jewish Law. It can be downloaded here.

The Torah instructs us not only that we must not eat, but that we may not own, leaven over Pesach. The custom is therefore to give closed packets and tins to the homeless. Items will be collected (for the Finchley FoodBank) from the synagogue on Thursday morning 14th April. Things of value are stored in a specific cupboard, sealed over Passover, and formally sold. If you intend to do this through the synagogue please complete this ‘Sale of Chametz’ form by 9am on Thursday.

Since we may not own chametz, we also need to feed our animals non-chametz products. People may enjoy this YouTube video made by Rolo, the dog of my friend and colleague Rabbi Lawrence at Kinloss. (Mitzpah’s refections will appear in our Pesach magazine).

We have a new issue this year: what do we feed the hedgehog in the garden, or ‘when kosher becomes a prickly business’?

2. What about being a ‘Kosher person’?

To describe a person as ‘kasher’ is to say that that they have integrity and values. To be a ben adam kasher is a reputation worth striving for. Moses Isserles underlines the most important attribute in a gloss to the very first law of Pesach in Joseph Caro’s classic code of law, the Shulchan Aruch:

It is the custom to buy kosher le-Pesach flour and distribute it to the poor…

Based on the Mishnah’s insistence that nobody should sit down to the Seder without ensuring that the poorest person has all the necessaries to celebrate too, this basic practice of generosity, or rather social justice, is universal across all Jewish communities.

We each have the causes to which we are devoted. See here for our Community Pesach Appeal. These are small charities where our contributions make a significant difference in enabling people to experience freedom through the dignity of employment, through educational opportunities often absent in the developing world, and through the liberty of choosing to live in more open communities. These causes express our collective values; it is therefore important that we all contribute. Even a very modest sum is an expression of solidarity.

I am also deeply concerned about the fate of refugees here, in Israel and across the globe and will write further under the subjects of slavery and freedom, the subjects of Tuesday and Wednesday’s e-letters.

There is always the danger that we forget, in our focus on the details of Pesach cleaning, the ethical and spiritual dimensions of Zecher leyetziat Mitzrayim, being mindful of the Exodus from Egypt, the foundation story of the Jewish People. We remember persecution in order to strive for dignity for ourselves and all people. We recall injustice to teach us to fight for justice, and cruelty in order to devote ourselves to its opposite, loving-kindness and the creation of compassionate societies.

3. What about ‘environmentally kosher’?

‘Eco-kosher’ is a new, but extremely important, term. Yesterday evening, Nicky and I did our Pesach shopping at a large kosher supermarket. Everyone was very friendly; the staff were kind and helpful. Nevertheless, I felt a degree of shame.

Who paid with their labour for the products we were all trying to buy as cheaply as possible? Would Pesach be a ‘Festival of Freedom’ for them? Consider, for example the Haggadah of T’ruah the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and its focus on slavery in agriculture.

I tried, often in vain, to choose products with cardboard rather than plastic packaging. The Ten Plagues were God and nature’s response to Pharaoh’s arrogant claim that he owned nature: ‘The Nile is mine! I made it!’ (Ezekiel 29:10)

Post-industrial humanity is often guilty of the same mistake. The plagues this is likely to bring are unthinkable. One of my ‘wise children’ at this year’s Seder will be Greta Thunberg, for standing up, alone at first, but now with hundreds of thousands to protest our abuse of the earth, while there may still be time.

I wish everyone thoughtful and inspiring preparations

Countdown to Pesach: Slavery

On Slavery

The journey of the Seder takes us me’avdut lecherut, ‘from slavery to freedom’. ‘I want people to leave my Seder praying with their feet’, said Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Stein on radio 4’s Beyond Belief yesterday, referring to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous comment that in marching with Rev Martin Luther Kind at Selma, Alabama, he was ‘praying with his legs’. Just as thousands of years ago in the Exodus from Egypt, so today we remain travellers on the journey towards freedom, for ourselves and everyone.

The destination is redemption, the realisation of a vision of justice and harmony in which each person, every people, even the land, plants and animals, have their fair and necessary place. That is why the Haggadah narrative closes with the blessing Ga’al Yisrael, thanking God, ‘the redeemer of Israel’ – and the world.

But the story begins at the opposite pole, with slavery. I hope the following materials, beginning with the Bible and ending with poignant contemporary testimony, will be helpful in preparing for the Seder.

In the Torah

The Hebrew for ‘slave’ is eved. Hence avadim hayinu lePharaoh beMitzrayim, ‘we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt’.

Slavery is avodah, as in the verse, vayei’anchu Bnie Yisrael min ha’avodah, ‘the Children of Israel groaned beneath the burden of slavery’.

The verb for enslaving another person derives from the same root, as in vaya’avidu Mitzrayim et Benei Yisrael bepharech, ‘The Egyptians enslaved the Children of Israel with hard labour’.

All these references are included in the Haggadah. But they aren’t the only meanings derived from the root ‘avad’.

Human beings are avadai, ‘My servants,’ says God, and therefore no one else’s. The verb avad means ‘to work’, and also to serve, especially God and God’s sacred ideals. We are instructed le’ovdo bechol levavchem, ‘to serve God with all our hearts’, which the rabbis interpret to mean the heart’s service of prayer.

To reduce another person to abject slavery is therefore to crush his or her inherent dignity as a being created in God’s image and for God’s service and to misuse their capacity for dignified work and service for exploitative and abusive ends. It is a crime against the very nature of humanity, God and creation.

What is slavery today?

Inner slavery

In every sphere of existence, including our own inner life, we may become, be turned into, or turn ourselves into, slaves. As the Ba’al Shem Tov taught:

Every person is a world in miniature. In it are Moses, Aaron and Egypt.

Abraham Twerski opens his edition of the Haggadah with testimony from a lifetime’s work in striving to help people with addictions. He quotes a former patient:

I was a slave to drugs, and there has never been so demanding and inconsiderate a taskmaster, so absolute an enslavement, as addiction to chemicals. I had no choice whether to use them or not. I did things in my addiction that I swore I would never do, because a slave must do as he is told…I know what it means to be a slave, and I know what it means to be free.’ From Bondage to Freedom: Rabbi Abraham Twerski, p. 10

A challenging question at the Seder is ‘To what are we ourselves enslaved?’ Are we, individually or collectively, slaves to social media, iphones and email, success, the image we want others to have of us, the concept that ‘progress’ is measured overwhelmingly in economic ‘growth’? Our inner journey to freedom, including the two steps back we all often take, probably remains untold, even to ourselves…

Domestic Tyranny

Tyranny and cruelty survive and persist within the supposedly harmonious sphere of the home. Here is an unusual example, from Wag, ‘The Mag for Dog Lovers’:

The Freedom Project initiative helps dog-owners fleeing domestic abuse by providing a safe, temporary home for their dogs. (Abusers often abuse pets as well.) Gemma, who’d lived in a physically and mentally abusive relationship for three years, testified: ‘I would never have left home without my dogs. I managed to get them out of there, but I couldn’t take them into the refuge with me….’

Most painfully, love itself, more often of course for children than animals, can prevent victims of violence from escaping into freedom…

Slavery at Work

The slave-trade may long have been abolished across most of the world. Yet slavery, like many evil spirits, takes different forms. It is often far less distant than we may like to think. We may even be – unwittingly – funding it:

A tomato purchased in the United States between November and May was most likely picked by a worker in Florida. On this night, we recall the numerous cases of modern slavery and other worker exploitation that occurred in the Florida tomato industry, which centers on the town of Immokalee, as recently as 2010. Together with students, secular human rights activists, and religious groups like T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Immokalee workers have convinced 14 major corporations, such as McDonald’s and Walmart, to join the Fair Food Program, a historic partnership between workers, growers, and corporations. truah.org

HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – for supporting which the synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, suffered a vile and murderous attack last October) includes the following account in its Haggadah, downloadable on line.

Sam (Yamin) Yingichay grew up in Myanmar as one of an estimated 168 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 engaged in child labour around the world. Forced into constructing roads and living with an abusive stepfather, at 14 Yamin escaped and began to search for her birth father. Eventually she met a man claiming to know her father and followed him to Thailand, where she was once again sold into hard labour…
See hias.org  for the hopeful end to her story.

The Mishnah teaches that we matchil bignai umesayyem beshevach, ‘begin with shame and conclude with praise’. The very existence of slavery was and is a shame and disgrace to the humanity of each and every one of us. Let us work for a world in which we can travel together to a place where we can all in our own way praise and appreciate the wonder of life.

For tomorrow: the subject of Freedom….

Never Give Up

Picking up the newspaper, following election days and Brexit dates, I find Milton’s lines echoing in my head: ‘On evil times though fallen, and evil days’. How, in the UK, Israel, so much of the world, have we allowed ourselves to get into such a mess?

Pesach, the festival of freedom, Spring and hope is scarcely a week away. I was studying a Hasidic commentary on its core text, the Haggadah, when I came across the Rebbe of Slonim’s interpretation of the second-century teacher ben Zoma’s analysis of the commandment to recall the Exodus from Egypt ‘All the days of your life’. Ben Zoma says:

‘The days of your life’ refers to the days.
All the days of your life’ includes the nights.

The Rebbe explains:

There are those who take strength only when it is day; that is, when they see light. But there are also those who take strength even in the hour of darkness, when all is as night, so that the nights, too, may become like ‘the days of your life’.

I went to bed connecting in my mind this spirit of courage and determination with the scores of people I know on either side of the Atlantic and Mediterranean who fight cruelty, devote their lives to healing pain, talk to homeless people, ensure hungry children have breakfast, lunch and dinner, speak out on behalf of the wordless world of nature, feed the birds, plant trees, give beds to those fleeing persecution, challenge racism, inspire the soul with words and music, and refuse to give up.

I woke up to the following email, a translation by my colleague Gil Nativ of a letter by David Grossman:

In the footsteps of this election day…I promise to examine myself every day to make sure none of this evil spirit sticks to me: not the racism, exploitation, nastiness, belligerence, stupidity, or short-sightedness. I shall continue, like a child, to believe that there can be justice and equality here, tranquillity and peace between individuals and peoples. Even if my elected representatives do not believe in this and my government is not doing it, I will strive to achieve this here, in the small four cubits of my personal space.

Given the course of the last five years across the globe, the Israeli elections are hardly the only ones about which he could be writing, and there, at least, there are elections.

Grossman’s concluding phrase may require explanation. The Talmud observes that, since the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70CE, all God has left in this world is ‘the four cubits of halakhah (Jewish law)’. Notably, four cubits is also the rabbinic definition of any individual’s personal space.

Can we, then, make our personal space into God’s sacred space by what we do and how we act? The story of the Exodus carries clear directions on how to achieve this: never exploit another human being; respect and uphold the dignity of every person; shun any nationalism and popularism which entails the degradation of other peoples; do nothing which brings environmental disaster upon your country; refuse to be compliant to cruelty and injustice; locate yourself, like Moses, in places where the sufferings of others are not invisible to you, because those who suffer from them are our brothers and sisters; dedicate your life to these values.

I watched a wren in the garden this morning. It’s Britain’s second smallest bird; it weighs little more than a 20p coin. But it’s doughty and determined. You can’t always see from where it sings, but it has, for such a tiny bird, the loudest, brightest, most sustained and heartening song.

 

For Tu Bishevat – the New Year for Trees

Matthew Biggs, of Gardener’s Question Time fame, refers to himself on Twitter as @plantmadman. I wouldn’t dream of comparing myself, but I’ve become in some small way a tree-mad-man.

I love trees, from the apple orchards of Kent to the Scots Pines of the old Caledonian forest; from the scented cypresses of Jerusalem to the scrub-oak woodlands of the Galilee. From the uncurling of their leaves in the springtime to the foliage fall in October, trees lead me through the seasons more gracefully than any diary. I like to look at them by day and listen to them by night.

Trees are good for us physically, emotionally, morally and spiritually. As the Torah says, ‘the tree of life is in the midst of the garden’, feeding all the worlds.

Physically, we need trees. ‘Rewilding’ is one of my favourite words. We must urgently replant the great forests, trees in billions, which store carbon, exhale oxygen and enable all living things to breathe. From Indonesia to Africa and the Amazon, from Scotland to the east and south of Europe, we must replant. Without the trees, the breath of life will choke.

Trees bring livelihoods to peoples across the globe. Tree Aid calls the Shea Tree ‘the little nut that makes a big difference’:

this humble native species provides local people with a cornucopia of essentials: food, fuel, fodder for livestock, medicinal products and building materials, as well as precious saleable commodities. Like all trees, it also aids soil fertility, water conservation and biodiversity. (www.treeaid.org)

We need trees for our emotional health too. We’re less alone when we’re out among the beeches and the oaks. A charming Midrash explains how it used to be:

All the trees, plants and spirits that dwell in nature conversed with one another. The spirit that lives in the trees and nature conversed with humankind for all of nature was created for mutual companionship with people. (Bereshit Rabbah 13:2)

I disagree only with the past tense: the trees still speak. At least, they’re trying; they’re waiting for us to switch off our social media and retune our souls to the wavelength of their spirit.

Nachmanides (1174 – 1270) explains that God didn’t just show Moses which tree to throw into the bitter waters of Mara to make them sweet. The Torah says not vayareihu, but vayoreichu – ‘he taught’. God taught Moses that the Tree of Life has the capacity to sweeten our inner bitterness. I can’t count how many people tell me: ‘Nature is the solace for my heartache’.

Trees are important morally. Rabbi Ari Killip explains how deeply the rabbis of the Talmud (c. 500CE) understood tree roots. They intermingle underground; they’re interdependent with innumerable micro-organisms: it’s a kind of subterranean mixed dancing. They operate in circles, not squares; they drink from the field of the farmer next door. They teach us that we’re not autonomous individuals but part of, and responsible to, the inseparable, impossible to disentangle community of life.

Trees nourish our spirit. Like the mystical texts of other faiths, the Zohar understands life as an upside-down tree. Its roots are in heaven; its branches are creation:

The world to come cares for this tree all the time, watering it…never at any time withholding its streams. Faith depends on this tree. (Zohar III 239a-b)

That’s what inspired Chaim Nachman Bialik in his magisterial poem Haberechah, the Pool:

There, between God’s trees which had not heard the axe’s echo,
On a path known only to the wolf and the mighty hunter,
I used to wander whole hours by myself…
Uniting with my heart and with my God
Until I came…To the Holy of Holies in the forest, the pupil of its eye…
A tranquil holy sanctuary, hidden between the shade of the trees.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Tu Bishevat – and may this be a year of planting.

Chanukah and Brexit

Happy Chanukah, on this fifth day of the festival.

There is a challenging connection between watching the Chanukah candles and looking at the news, as Parliament struggles miserably with the evident difficulties of Brexit.

Light, at least according to the mystics, represents the innermost of qualities. Yet on Chanukah we are commanded to place it in the reshut harabbim, the public square.

Or haganuz, the hidden light, is that first light with which God interrupted the reign of darkness over the face of the earth. While day after day and season by season the world now functions by means of the natural light from the sun and its reflection from the moon, that earlier inner light has not entirely disappeared.

It remains present but concealed. It is not just somewhere but everywhere, in each person and every life. It is the source of hope despite cynicism; of solidarity despite hatred; of kinship despite fragmentation, of faith despite despair. Its light is inalienable; it resides irremovably inside each and every one of us and no one can take it away. It is unquenchable; nothing, even long years in which we no longer believe it exists, can extinguish it entirely. It burns in secret, at the heart of life.

I conducted an experiment with my (large and lively) class of teenagers. I put out all the lights in the room, except for a single candle. I asked them: how many people can this one light inspire? They began to tell me who their inspiration was: Emeline Pankhurst, Nelson Mandela, their grandmother, the guitar playing of Jimmy Hendrix, their teacher, a friend who never gave up in spite of having an incurable illness. We talked about courage, determination, persistence, kindness. They were still telling me when the lesson ended.

These are the qualities of the lights we are commanded to place in the public square on Chanukah. They are most urgently needed there.

This autumn has brought several eightieth commemorations of events in Germany in the 1930’s. Weimar was a far younger and weaker democracy than Britain. Its constitution was adopted on 11 August 1919. It was almost strangled in its opening years by threats of revolution from the left and paramilitaries on the right. It survived for less than 14 years.

But the reasons for its collapse are nevertheless apposite. It failed because of weaknesses in the democratic system and flaws in its key leaders. The other parties failed to come together to keep Hitler’s exciting nationalist populism at bay. Aging and ailing, President Hindenburg made the weak-minded decision to accede to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. Vice Chancellor Von Papen was too weak to offer counter-balance and resistance. What followed we all sadly know.

There are plenty of differences. But…But it’s not good when Parliament is experienced as weak, irrelevant, or lacking in capacity. It’s not good for the state whose politicians, most of whom are honest public servants, are held in contempt as a class. It’s worse when some or many of them deserve it. It’s bad when in-fighting and self-interest prevent the coming together of minds to arrive at the best decisions possible for the country as a whole.

I therefore pray at this critical time that the lights of Chanukah will illumine our democracy and its institutions, the lights of faith, courage, creativity, intelligence and wisdom. May they enlighten and inspire us and the leaders and members of the institutions which have created and protected this remarkable country, Israel, the United States, and all other democracies throughout the world.

 

The Hidden Lights of Chaunukah

Sunday brings the first night of Chanukkah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ode to Wonder; set this on your heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

What the succah and the Walk for Wildlife have in common

I have the privilege of writing in our lovely Succah, the harvester’s hut constructed of beams and poles recovered yearly from their dusty storage to build the frame for our booth of branches and flowers. Above my head, among the bay twigs which compose the Shach, the leafy roofing material which defines a Succah as truly a Succah, hang gourds, peppers, black- and-red-grained sweet corn, pumpkins and even the one and only melon we succeeded in growing this year.

A Succah is a place of joy, beauty and, above all Hallel, praise and thanksgiving:

Thank you for shelter
Thank you for land on which to grow grain, vegetables and fruits
Thank you for the rain and dew fall
Thank you for life.

 In the Succah we ask for a blessing upon the seasons, vistas and scents which form the subliminal rhythm of our existence, those smells of field and mountain, twilight and rainfall, for which every refugee from a once safe homeland longs:

‘There’s nowhere on earth so beautiful as my northern Iran’, says K, who fled for his life from his native country, nevertheless insists.
‘The allotments are full of people from all over the world, growing what they miss from home’, a fellow gardener tells me.

The Succah smells of the beauty and preciousness of the earth. Yet, like the slight bitterness the autumn brings to the misty smells of dawn, the tang of brevity hangs about the Succah and its end-of-season fruits: the unavoidable knowledge that time and destiny leave us uncertain, vulnerable, ignorant of our destiny in our pilgrimage on earth.

Maybe that’s why the prayers on this festival are formed round a key word more powerful even than thanksgiving, more urgent and more poignant: Hoshana, Save!

Save your city, save your people;
Save humankind and the animals;
Save men and women, formed in your image and likeness;
Save the vineyards and sycamore groves;
Save the trees planted in the desolate earth.

I realise now that when last Shabbat I joined the first People’s March for Wildlife, enjoying four and a half hours of cheerful rainfall to catch up with the thousands of demonstrators whose placards filled the mile to Whitehall with calls to save the bees, badgers, bats, trees, owls, nightingales and meadows, I was in fact part of an urgent contemporary Hoshana: Save this beautiful earth.

‘There is a time to plant,’ says Ecclesiastes, (which we read in Synagogue tomorrow) before adding that there is also ‘a time to uproot that which has been planted’. Our world knows too much uprooting, of refugees from their lands and persecuted people from homes where they once felt safe, of sustaining rainforests and rich ancient woodlands, and of the trees which prevent hot lands from turning into uninhabitable deserts.

This is a time to plant, a time to save and protect the lands and trees whose shade and whose fruits sustain us. The Succah reminds me how much I love this world, its landscapes, its fruits, the bronze and red beauty of an apple in the autumn. ‘Save this earth!’ There is no prayer more urgent.

 

 

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