How our prayers may be answered this New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah

Elul and the shofar’s call to love and truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking beyond destruction to healing and rebuilding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not just then but now – from where God is speaking

As we approach Shabbat and the festival of Shavuot, we simultaneously honour our Sovereign Queen Elizabeth II, and the Sovereign of the sovereign of sovereigns, our God.

Her Majesty the Queen has, through her unstinting devotion to duty and service, represented stability and dedication over seventy years in which the world has changed at an unprecedented rate. During her long reign, the Jewish community, alongside other faiths, has been able to flourish in an environment of peace and respect. It has often been acknowledged for its contribution to this country in the arts, sciences, education and business, and above all for its focus on charity and care.

We have only to look back through our history, or round about us to many other lands, to know how lucky we are to be living in this country. We wish Her Majesty strength on her remarkable Platinum Jubilee; we hope she finds joy and satisfaction in her many achievements.

The queen has modelled that very sense of service which lies at the core of Judaism, – the service of God. Those words ‘the service of God’ may sound leaden with piety. So how do we translate them into our lives?

Over three thousand years of Jewish life, the most significant truth has not been that long ago God once spoke at Mount Sinai and gave us the Torah. Rather, the essential inner reality is that God speaks all the time and that life is a continuous revelation, as the rabbis taught, ‘Every day a voice calls out from Horeb.’ Our task is to hear it.

Brooding over this, the central challenge of all spiritual life, two teachings come into my mind, both from the bleakest period of Jewish history. The first is from Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto:

When you listen intently, you can hear the voice of Torah, the oneness of God, in the chirping of the birds, the lowing of cows and the interactions of people.

He wrote these courageous and defiant words in 1941, very far from the birds and cows to which he refers. He subsequently buried his writings in the grounds of the ghetto; he did not survive to see them rediscovered.

The second teaching comes from Rabbi Hugo Gryn, of beloved memory. I want you to know, he wrote afterwards, that God was present in Auschwitz. But not, he added, the God of my childhood imaginings. God was there, abused and blasphemed.

These two teachings together form the heart, the two pumping valves of my Torah, and guide me through life. They remind me of what the mystics have always understood as the oneness of all things, garbed and concealed within our different material and mental forms. Where there is beauty, peace and joy this oneness sings out in wonder and glory. That is why all life must be cherished, why in William Blake’s words,

A robin redbreast in a cage / Puts all heaven in a rage.

It is the secret of the great togetherness of humankind and all creation.

But it does not follow that where there is suffering, misery, violence and cruelty God must be absent. Rather, the heart and conscience, the holy within life, screams out in pain and outrage. ‘Help me!’ it cries, ‘Bring me justice, decency, kindness, healing!’ To the best of our limited capacities, we have to respond. That is the meaning of being commanded.

These two teachings circumscribe every moment and situation of human life. They are, I believe, God speaking to us, not from afar, not from the remote distance of history and the heights of a mountain top, but from right here, from what’s next to us and within us.

The verse preceding the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus reads: ‘God spoke all these words, saying.’ ‘Spoke’ refers to the historical-mythical revelation at Sinai. ‘Saying’ is here, now, at all times and to us all.

Music from over the fence: the joy of Lag Be’Omer

The sound of singing came over the fence with such compelling harmony that I simply had to get up from my desk and follow the music. It came from the home of my colleague, friend and neighbour, Rabbi Zahavit Shalev. Seated around the fire-pit in her garden were at least ten people playing the guitar and fifty more singing along. There were parents and children, and grandparents too. There was L. who still keeps the yellow star his family had to wear in the Budapest ghetto in his Passover Haggadah. There was M. who’d never been to a Jewish occasion before. There were lots of teens and young people.

It was the night of Lag Be’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, so-named after the measure of grain offered in the temple on its first night. The counting of the Omer marks the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. It’s traditionally a period of mourning, but Lag Be’Omer is a day of respite, a date for music and joy. ‘Despite the fact that Jewish history has more than its share of bleak and depressing chapters, the tradition sees itself as a joyous one,’ writes Arthur Green on the opening page of his delightful short book, Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas. Seeking God should fill the heart with joy: ‘Love, the wonders of nature, music, dance, and the close companionship of friends are all there to keep you on the path of joy.’ (We each have our strengths: ask me to join the dance and I’ve got two left feet; suggest a fifteen mile-hike in the wild countryside and the boots are on my feet.)

Lag Be’Omer has its hero, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in 2nd century Palestine. Betrayed to the Roman authorities for speaking ill of them, he flees to a cave where he hides with his son for twelve years. A well of water miraculously appears at the entrance, where a carob tree provides all the nutrition they need. Each day, every day, father and son study Torah together from memory.

Eventually Elijah announces that the Caesar who wanted them killed, has himself bitten the dust. Emerging from their cave, Rabbi Shimon and his son are dismayed at the sheer ordinariness of the world: ‘What,’ they exclaim, ‘People mundanely plough and sow, forgetting higher matters!’ A voice from heaven rebukes them: ‘Have you come out to destroy my world? Get back to your cave!’

When they re-emerge a year later (a period, perhaps, to process their post-traumatic stress) Rabbi Shimon has changed. Wherever he looks, he heals. Don’t remember me in sorrow, he says on his deathbed; let the anniversary of my death be a Hillula, a date for praising God with joy. That’s why Lag Be’Omer is also known as Hillula deRashbi (short for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai).

This story could be a parable for the whole history of the Jewish People, and other peoples, and individuals too, who’ve faced marginalisation and persecution. Don’t be daunted or diverted; deepen your own identity, seek the nourished of your spirit. Then, if and when the blessings of freedom come, don’t be disdainful of the world, don’t be bitter. Try to be a healer; bring understanding, foster conciliation. Behave in such a way that people will remember you with joy.

Judaism expresses this as the principle of simchah shel mitzvah, the joy which comes with practising God’s commandments, with doing what’s just, kind and good. ‘A mitzvah is a place where you can meet God,’ continues Arthur Green, ‘of course it makes you happy’ [his italics]. I would add that it’s also, or even more so, a place where we meet other people, our friends and companions in trying to bring happiness and healing in this challenging world.

Passover, and the eternal and urgent fight for freedom

I wish everyone in our community, our family and friends and all who celebrate the festival across the world, Chag Sameach for Pesach, zeman cheirouteinu, the festival of our freedom.

Throughout the long experience of the Jewish People, and in the history of peoples across the world, freedom has never been a condition to be taken for granted. Rather, it has been fought for, with God’s help, but with human vision, courage and determination. As we read in the Haggadah, and as we witness today, in every generation there are those who rise up against the basic principles of liberty, justice and human dignity and threaten the world with their totalitarian ambitions and ruthless brutality.

Earlier this week I joined a visit of solidarity to Ukraine at the request of local leaders, arranged by the Elijah Interfaith Institute. We were asked to speak of comradeship, hope and faith. But what mattered to us most was to listen, to be within the close distance of the heart’s hearing.

At an orphanage on the edge of Chernivtsi, where the staff had received a hundred mothers and children fleeing the war-ravaged east, one woman spoke to us on behalf of many:

This is the second time I’ve had to flee. This war’s not been six weeks, but eight years. I have a four-month-old baby. My mother is with me. I worry for my husband, all the time, and about the situation. The world needs to know.

In her, and in the kind, calm women who ran this remarkable place I met today’s incarnation of the biblical midwives who risked their lives in the defiance of tyranny: ‘No, Pharaoh, these babies shall live!’

In a powerful statement sent to accompany our interfaith visit and read out in the Chernivtsi theatre in Ukrainian, Pope Francis referenced an even earlier killer:

All this troubles our consciences and obliges us not to keep silent, not to remain indifferent before the violence of Cain and the cry of Abel, but instead to speak out forcefully in order to demand, in the name of God, the end of these abominable actions.

In the history of the Jewish People, and all humanity, freedom has only been won by struggle and maintained through vigilance. This struggle has not always been military. It encompasses the poet who composes from the conscience, that invincible force which tunnels beneath tyranny. It includes lawyers and journalists who defend the victims of state and gang violence in the face of judicial corruption and political convenience. It involves teachers who daily plan lessons to enable all their pupils to learn towards their dreams. It embraces those striving for the just, compassionate treatment of refugees.

Heroes of freedom include those who composed and ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and The United Nations Convention on refugees, and who put genocide and crimes against humanity on the international statute book, as documented in Philippe Sands’ East West Street. In all these achievements, the experiences and efforts of Jewish people, alongside others, have been key motivators.

Therefore, while Pesach celebrates freedom from, fromthe tyranny of Pharaoh and his like in all ages, it marks no less the importance of freedom to. From that freedom, that task of redemption, we are never free on earth – unless we take freedom for granted or hold it in little regard. For freedom is easily squandered.

Therefore, this Pesach we rededicate ourselves to the work of freedom in whatever ways we are able to pursue it.

Sometimes the battle for freedom must be fought in the front lines against the perpetrators of war crimes. But freedom is also won, and its preservation is only ensured, in the daily tasks of peacetime: combatting hatred and racism, working for social justice, caring for children, and in any activity or action in which the dignity of each person is recognised and validated.

We put our trust in the God of life, in the knowledge that God’s presence is working with us for the good and blessing of all living beings.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach

Tu Bishevat, responsibilities and trees

‘This is why we’re working here,’ said Nic, looking round at the thousands of young trees, or whips, already planted. The January sun was slowly melting the frost off the grass in the valley. ‘It’s partly for park land, partly for flood protection, so that heavy rains don’t drain too swiftly into the Lee River, causing havoc downstream.’

We were in Enfield, just past Trent Park, a few hundred yards below a road I know well. But I’d never seen the landscape from this perspective before. Normally I drive this way to our community cemetery, heavy-hearted, thinking of people I care about. But today I was here to plant trees for the future, for new life.

It will be Tu Bishevat, The New Year For Trees this Sunday night and Monday. A fresh consciousness, a re-awoken awareness of our dependence on soil and insect, trees and rainfall, clean air and water, is traversing the world, including all faiths and all sectors of the Jewish community. We can’t teach our children Torah if we don’t bequeath them, and all the world’s children, a liveable, sustainable, bio-rich planet.

As so often, Tu Bishevat comes in the same week as Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. ‘They sang this song of triumph o’er,’ runs the line from the much-loved spiritual Go Down Moses. Overcoming contemporary Pharaohs and tyrants is always a struggle and always important.

But it’s a different singing humanity most needs now, the kind heralded by the Psalmist when they ‘heard melodies from the corners of the land,’ when ‘the hills and valleys burst into song and the trees of the fields clapped their hands.’ We must attend to the music, including the laments and elegies, as well as the arias and ballads of the earth.

Old prayers can be like old friends; one takes them for granted without thinking how much they mean to us. Every day I’ve said the Amidah blessing thanking God who ‘makes the shoots of salvation grow – matzmiach keren yeshua.’ It’s always seemed to me an odd combination of words: what’s salvation got to do with shoots and sprouts?

But that morning planting trees has helped me understand better. According to the Talmud, we will all be asked in the world to come if we have ‘looked forward to salvation.’ Judaism understands salvation not as some state which will suddenly descend miraculously from heaven, but as a task, at which – with God’s help – we have to work. It’s our commitment to the future, our contribution to making it better. What nicer way of doing so can there be than planting shrubs and trees, and flowers for the birds and the bees? It’s our part in ‘making salvation flourish.’

So I’ll be back in Enfield planting again in the weeks ahead, hopefully with a bevvy of young people from our community. We’ll be part of those cohorts across the globe planting, and helping others to plant, sustainably, locally, for the good of humans, animals and the world.

‘Those tall protectors,’ said Nic, pointing to the four-foot-high shields, are against deer, ‘so that they can’t bite off the tops of the young trees. The smaller ones,’ – he indicated a pile just half the height, – ‘Are for the shrubs, to keep the rabbits off them.’ It’s one of the great challenges of re-foresting, stopping eager herbivores from feasting on the freshly planted saplings.

But who’s protecting the worlds trees and forests against the depredations of humans? We live at a critical moment; we’re at the start of a complex rebalancing of the relationship between human need and nature, as urgent as it is profound. It’s all-encompassing. It’s theological: this is God’s world, not ours to possess but to preserve. It’s economic: we must sustain nature, so that it can sustain us. It’s moral: the earth’s resources need to be distributed justly. It’s spiritual and emotional: without the restoration of our minds and souls in woodlands and wild places, we’re weary and bewildered.

Most important: it’s on our doorstep, it’s here and now, and it’s our responsibility to do our best to get it right.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Tu Bishevat

Chanukah and the light we give each other

I wish everybody Chag Urim Sameach, a Happy Festival of Lights, on this fifth day of Chanukah, the eve of the Shabbat which marks the 47th birthday of our congregation.

Last night we were privileged to host members of different faith communities; it was a warm-hearted gathering. Reverend Philip, from the local church of St Mary’s, spoke of ‘a contagion of light.’ I’ve heard the word ‘contagion’ many times during these Covid months, but never before in a positive sense.

The Talmud asks a technical question: ‘Is it permitted to light one Chanukah candle from another?’ On a practical level, it’s not really an issue: every Chanukiah has, as well as its eight holders for each of the lights of the eight-day festival, a special place for the shammash or servant candle. It’s traditionally set higher than the rest, just as Abraham and Sarah remained standing so that they could serve their seated guests. If any of the Chanukah candles goes out, one takes the shammash to re-ignite them.

But on a symbolic level the issue is real. We need our own light, and we need each other’s too. Sometimes, the fire in us burns strong: we’re excited with life, full of the love of it, with plans and hopes, and dreams as well as deadlines to fulfil. But in harder weeks our inner light fades; fears, griefs and thick mental shadows cloud it out. Why be here? What’s the point?

That’s when we need one another’s light and inspiration. Maybe that’s why Jewish law rules that, yes, one may indeed kindle one Chanukah candle from another. Emotionally and spiritually, we do so all the time. That’s what Reverend Philip must have meant by the ‘contagion of light.’

I’ve remained a rabbi of the same community all my career, not because it’s always been easy but because of the light I’m constantly given. There are the little, not-so-little, things: ‘We’ve made a food rota while their mother’s in hospital;’ ‘We’ve created a new game so every child can engage;’ ‘We’re offering those saying Kaddish the opportunity to tell us in a sentence about the person they’re remembering.’ There’s little so humbling as everyday thoughtfulness. It takes us down into ourselves, touches the heart and replenishes our own inner flame.

Just as the Chanukah lamps are sacred, so is that of each person. Though death takes their warmth from us, it cannot entirely extinguish the light of those we love. When I visit the cemetery where many of our community now lie, I think of them as much with affection as sorrow. They inspire me still.

There’s David Jackson, who had a stroke at the age of forty. When he came from Liverpool to London, he knew little Hebrew. He made himself into a scholar; he attended everything. He could muster a wicked smile, had a self-deprecating sense of humour and obstinately refused to stop feeding KitKats to my dog. He loved the Psalms, and even after a further stroke kept him to his room, wrote music and a personal commentary for each of the hundred-and-fifty in the Psalter. David, I sense you here, sitting where you always sat, just behind where I’m writing now in this same room.

Most of my job as rabbi consists in enabling candles to be replenished from the candles which burn; those which give light all the way back from the ancient Jewish past, through the travails of millennia, to our lives today; those we proffer each other, and those we share across our faiths and out into lonely and dark places in our societies and occluded depths in our souls.

On this lighting of one light from another the flame of our collective resilience, courage and hope depends.

For Chanukah: Setting the light of the human spirit against all cruelty

I wish everyone a Good Chanukah, a Chag Urim Sameach, a happy Festival of Light. The lamps we kindle bring much needed hope and warmth in cruel and challenging times.

I also want to say Happy Thanksgiving. These celebrations go well together, calling on us to appreciate the blessings we have and, above all, to celebrate the resilience, imagination and courage of the human spirit.

In the shadow of the drowning yesterday of so many refugees attempting to cross the English Channel, the light of that spirit and the lamps of Chanukah must be set against all the misery, indifference, injustice, hard-heartedness and exploitative cruelty, by whoever and in whichever country it is inflicted, which culminate in such horrors. We have hosted in our home young people who have made similar crossings in equally unseaworthy dinghies; we’ve heard them speak from their hearts, and our hearts go out to them.

The story of the Maccabees as recorded in the Talmud may never have happened. Who knows if, when they reconquered the Temple in Jerusalem, they really searched among the ruins and found that one sealed vial of pure oil, or whether it actually burnt miraculously for eight cold winter days?

Yet that is precisely what happens all the time. The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger describes the matter with succinct grace. There is in every person an infinitesimal but irreducible amount of inextinguishable spirit. Just as the jar of oil found by the Maccabees was closed with the High Priest’s insignia, so this spirit is marked by the seal of God. It is the sacred core of every soul; no one can take it from us and nothing can corrupt its essence. Our challenge is to find it, deep within ourselves, and, when we have done so, not only to kindle it but also to let its flame light us.

Such a flame, when it burns in the dark days of the world, possesses a compelling magnetism. It draws others into its circle of brightness and warmth. It inspires us, illumining the pathway to our own inner light. Soon we witness how not just one sole candle, but many flames burn in the night. They are not easily extinguished; once lit, their fires cling tenaciously to the wick, casting back the darkness of harsh days, weeks, and sometimes years and even decades.

Halakhah, Jewish law, requires the Chanukah lights to be set outside, or at least in the window which overlooks the public domain. Except in times of danger, they are not a private secret which has to be concealed.

Across the world our public squares need such illumination. The spirit’s light, the heart’s warmth, the fire in the conscience, must be set at the centre of human activity, in the board room and the body politic, in council and senate chambers, in parliaments, and in the souls of all who work there and the minds of us all. With its illumination we must follow the pathway to recognise, connect with and protect what is sacred in every human life and holy in all creation.

We are not at liberty in these complex and difficult times to neglect the search for our own inner light, or to refuse to kindle it and bring it as our contribution to the square. The light of all humanity is needed, urgently.

 

 

Hoshana Rabba

I’m taking the last opportunity in these High Holydays to wish everyone Shanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah, a good and worthwhile year.

I’ve just come home from the beautiful Hoshana Rabba – the Great Hoshana – service, in which we circle the synagogue seven times just as the pilgrims in Jerusalem circled the altar when the Temple till stood. We chant the ancient litany composed by a community which was deeply connected to nature:

God, save humankind and animals; body, soul and spirit; bone, ligament, and skin.
Renew the face of the earth, with the planting of breath-giving trees.
Send rain to make the earth fragrant, to restore abandoned lands.
Save the olive crop from falling, the wheat from locusts, the vines from worms, humankind from terror…

If once we thought such prayers quaint, far removed from our high street realities, we realise now that we’ve been mistaken. They could have been written today, as we experience a renewed appreciation of our dependence on the earth, the rainfall, the green life of nature, and even the wellbeing of bees, invisible insects and fungi.

To me and many others this year, Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world and the celebration of creation, is closely linked to COP 26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which follows a month from now. The ancient liturgy therefore speaks straight to the heart, with its deep attachment to the earth, its humility, and its beseeching chorus ‘Hoshana - Save’. This is expanded at the end of each section to ‘God and I, please save,’ referencing that long-standing partnership between humanity, God and nature which we so urgently need to restore, spiritually as well as ecologically, and in which we need to take a more conscious and constructive role.

The High Priest himself, after completing the complex atonement rituals on Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the year, concluded with a prayer for

a year of grain, wine and oil; a year of dew, rain and warmth, a year of blessing over bread and water, a year of plenty, a year of peace and tranquillity.

May this be God’s will for all humankind and all life on earth, and may we do our utmost to contribute to its fulfilment in the time ahead.


PS Please wish me luck for the virtual London Marathon this Sunday. If all goes well, I hope to finish at shul around (ideally a little before!) 11.45 or 12.00. If it doesn’t go so well, I hope to finish by Chanukah latest. You can see my route and the causes I’m running for here.

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