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.

The joy of Torah

A thing I love is that one never completes reading the Torah. Within minutes of chanting its final verses, we’re back again at the beginning and the year-long journey commences all over again.

At the time I didn’t understand. I’d been instructed to go and see my great-uncle Ernst on one of his stop-offs in London between his home in New York and his family in Jerusalem. I duly stood, a dubious teenager, before the venerable man. He looked up at me from the book he was studying and said with a smile, in his accented voice: ‘I try to learn a different commentary on the Torah every year.’

Ernst had been conscripted to the Austro-Hungarian Army for the duration of World War 1; had trained as a doctor and worked in Frankfurt, been imprisoned by the Nazis in Buchenwald, escaped to Britain where, as an ‘enemy alien’, he was shipped to the isle of Mann; had sailed to America in convoy in 1940 and started a new life in New York, where his neighbours in the impoverished block where the family, dispossessed but safe, now settled, found in him ‘the best doctor we ever had.’

Maybe it was the Torah which gave him the strength, not just ahavat Torah, love of Torah, which he inherited from his rabbinic parents, but the fact that Torah remained fresh to him, an undiscovered country through which each year’s new commentary would guide him to different peaks and depths. His life remained an adventure until his hundredth birthday.

It’s Simchat Torah, this Tuesday night and Wednesday: – the ‘Rejoicing of the Law’ as the ghastly formal translation has it. Hopelessly three-legged myself, I still love the singing and dancing. But the deepest magic is the moment when we start all over again from that first ‘In the beginning’ when God says ‘Let there be light.’ Moses’s eyes have scarcely been closed in death after beholding the promised land which he sees but may not enter, before we commence once more with that beautiful poem to the as-yet uninhabited earth, the unspoiled wonder of creation. What’ll happen this time? Not, of course, in the columns of the Torah: they’re always the same. But what’ll they mean to you, me and humanity, in this tempestuous world?

One might think it dull to reread the identical stories every year, those same laws, those boring lists of names. The Torah isn’t about perfect people either, so we get them all over again, those familiar mistakes, those old misunderstandings. Isn’t there anything new to be had?

I don’t think that way anymore. On the contrary, how lucky we are that these same narratives accompany us year by year, generation after generation, our Shabbat-fellows, thought-fellows, the core and substance of that constant conversation across centuries and continents. What does that word mean? What did Rashi say? How come it sounds so different to me now from how it seemed last year? It’s not just that we measure out our lives in Torah portions, but that they are the measure of us. What’s the ladder made of this year which connects my heaven and my earth? Who’s going up? And coming down? Will I find liberation? Will I hear God this time round?

I’ve taken to storing in my prayer books and Torah editions those small cards with the names of those who perished, which come with the yellow candles for Holocaust Memorial Day. There I find them year by year. But not just them; my family are here too. My father loved this phrase; he used to sing it at the end of his life. And didn’t that girl who had her Bat-Mitzvah six years ago say something gripping about that verse?

It’s not just that we dance with the Torah; we dance in it; and it sings and dances in us. That’s the simchah, the joy, of Torah.

 

The joy of the Succah

The distribution of Jewish festivals around the year is scarcely an example of equality and balance. Rosh Hashanah falls on the first of Tishrei, the fast of Yom Kippur follows on the tenth, and the eight days of Succot begin on the fifteenth. There’s hardly time to breath, let alone cook.

The tradition is to start building the succah, a small booth or hut, straight after the fast. I love this! We take our contemplations in our heart, a hammer and scissors in our hands, and turn our inner resolutions into practical actions.

For a succah is special; it can be as small as ten handbreadths high, or as tall as twenty cubits, so small just one person can sit in it, or big enough for a hundred. The roof must be of leaves and branches and the walls can be constructed out of virtually anything. But whatever the case, a succah must be built with affectionate respect because it’s a holy space, and these are some of the reasons why.

A succah is a place of humility. As the Mishnah says, a house is keva, permanent, but a succah is ara’i, temporary, like life itself, reminding us of the passing of our days, a thought set deeply in our hearts in these chastening times.

A succah is a space of grace. The earliest sources speak of noi succah, the beauty of the succah. They tell of decorating it with corn and fruits, flasks of wine, sacks of flour and jars of oil. For Succot is a harvest celebration and the succah is a place of thankfulness for the produce of the year. (Like many Jewish gardeners, we grow for the Succah as much as for the pot.)

A succah is a place of joy, built to mark the happiest of the festivals, the chag par excellence, as the Mishnah tells: Jerusalem was lit with lamps all night; the rabbis and the people danced all night. Making the succah is itself a joy too; it’s the paramount example of simchah shel mitzvah, the happiness to be found in following God’s commandments.

A succah is a space of connection between humankind and nature. We recognise our indebtedness and dependence, our need for the gifts of the soil. It teaches us the most urgent of contemporary lessons, to respect and reverence God’s earth.

A succah is a place of welcome. One brings guests to eat there, spiritual and temporal, summoning one’s ancestors, starting with Sarah and Abraham. But they refuse to come unless one invites friends and neighbours as well. For the succah reminds us to offer shelter, especially to refugees, as the Torah says, ‘For I [God] made the Children of Israel dwell in Succahs when I brought them out of the land of Egypt,’ and as it says also, ‘For you know the soul of the stranger.’

A succah is a space of refuge, as it says in the Psalms, ‘You hide me in Your Succah on the day of evil.’ Impermanent, easily blown away by a strong wind, it’s scarcely a castle or fortress. But it offers a deeper protection, foretelling a world in which everyone will be able to dwell safely ‘under their vine and fig tree.’

For a succah represents a tranquillity, succat shalom, the canopy of God’s peace, towards which the whole world should aspire. The mystics call the succah Tsila Di’Mehemanuta, the shade of the Faithful One, for it represents God’s protection, so badly needed by so many until the dawn of that better, future era of universal harmony.

So build with joy. If you have the opportunity, do make, or share in making, your own succah. If not, please help creating that most important of all succahs, a world where humanity, nature and God are all at peace with each other, – a task which needs the co-operation of us all

 

As Yom Kippur Approaches

I write with that trepidation in the heart which I always feel as Yom Kippur approaches, this year maybe more than ever. We stand before God, the world, our community, the people we love and our own soul.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, later known as the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, asked the question: Since all through the year we pray for forgiveness three times a day in every service, what’s different about this season? He answered that in the midst of the ceaseless daily grind we can just about manage to apologise for particular wrongs we’ve done, harsh words, thoughtless actions. But during the Days of Awe we take time to reflect on the whole of our life, the arc of our days and their purpose, who we are, through to our core being, down to our hidden-most heart and conscience where we encounter the living God.

What sustenance do we have for that inner journey?

What can we take? I’ve been to the cemetery too often during the past months. I walk between the rows and realise I’m among friends. I talk to some of them, tell them I still love them. I believe they say back to me, ‘Keep living. Try to do what’s right. Be kind. Until you join us.’ No other festival than Yom Kippur says so clearly ‘your days pass like a shadow.’ But it also says: life is magnificent, precious and tender, an immeasurable privilege. Cherish it. So we take with us before God the love of both the living and the dead.

What can we do?

Judaism teaches that every action is important. Maimonides asks us to imagine that not only our whole life but the entire world is always balanced on the sharp fulcrum between worthy and unworthy, kind and cruel, good and bad. Our next deed will determine which way we and our destiny tip. Everything matters. Therefore we must keep faith that we can make a difference, enable one family to be less hungry, give one person a roof, heal or comfort one person in body or spirit. ‘Never despair, never give up,’ taught Rebbe Nachman of Breslav (who himself battled with despair). We take with us on our journey our unremitting determination to do good.
Before whom are we accountable?

The obvious answer is ‘God’. But where do I find that God? I overheard a good-humoured exchange on zoom yesterday. ‘Move back a little,’ one participant said to another, ‘You’re too near your screen for me to see you.’ I’d sometimes thought the Torah taught that God was invisible because God was so far away. But perhaps it’s because God is so near that we don’t see.

God is present in our conscience whenever we hear truth, and in our heart whenever we feel moved and touched. God is in every person; God’s breath is the life-force within us all. God’s vitality is in the birds, and in the trees which sway to God’s song, most audibly so at night when the noisier world is silent.

What reply might we receive when we bring our life and soul before God? Without words God tells us: know my presence; listen to me; hurt no one and nothing. Love, cherish and nurture my world.

What do we say in response? The Torah suggests just one word: ‘Hinneni, I am here,’ which Rashi explains as an expression of readiness and humility.

For the fate of the world is in the balance and we have agency. The purpose of our life is to serve, care, heal, and endeavour with whatever capacities and time we’ve been gifted, to do right and good.

A Prayer for the World on the Jewish New Year

God,
The world has so much beauty, such wonder in a moment,
Yet so much suffering – body pain, heartache, mind ache,
And fear – as if the future might collapse like a rotten floor.

We call on you in these bewildering years
Not as a remote God, not as distant other,
For you inhabit everything; the life of all creation is your breath,
The songs of wrens and owls, and humans also, is, all of it, your music.

We need to know your presence, feel you here in consciousness and conscience,
God, closer to us ‘than our own body and our soul.’ (Yehudah HaLevi)
We have to be attentive to each other.
Speak to us from inside our mind and heart
So that our actions become the articulation of your will.

You are near to us in all with whom we ever shared the bonds of care.
What is a heart but chambers full of people,
From whom our very thought is inextricable, even after death?
Speak to us through them.

God, who taught us always to listen to the stranger,
You, who have become their brother and sister refugee
In search of shelter and compassion here on earth,
Make us hear you in their weary hope, and hopelessness.

God, who calls out from all existence,
In the brave compulsion which makes the small birds overfly the oceans,
In the soil itself, where mineral become energy in the life-force of
and turns back again to matter in the falling of the leaves,
God for whom

There / is nothing too ample
for you to overflow, nothing
So small that your workmanship
is not revealed (RS Thomas: Alive)

Make us know you in the rivers and the trees.

Waken our heart, summon our mind, alarm our conscience
With all the powers of wonder, tenderness, compassion, even tears,
So that love for you and your creation
Ignites our fervour and guides our plans
To serve you here on earth in all we do.

Against despair: everything matters!

In our house, the BBC’s general knowledge quiz University Challenge is a family must-do. We’ve an unwritten rule that if not everyone can make it when it’s actually shown, we wait until we can watch it together on i-Player. I wouldn’t deny that there’s a bit of a competitive edge.

This week, one of the questions was: ‘What words complete this line from a 20th century poem: O what made fatuous sunbeams toil…

It’s from Wilfred Owen’s ‘Futility’ and the answer is

To break earth’s sleep at all.

I quoted this bleak World War One poem on Rosh Hashanah many years ago, the day Judaism celebrates the birthday of the world, because it puts the issue bluntly: since humanity is so destructive and life so cruel, is there any point in it at all?

The question can scarcely be considered new. The Talmud wryly records that for three-and-a-half years the rabbis debated whether or not it was better that humans were created. I’ll return to their conclusion later.

Although I have bleak days and know frightening hours of sinking down and down into inner spaces of no hope, I’m lucky to have been endowed with a tenacious, re-assertive love of life. But yesterday I listened to a transatlantic colleague relating some of the feelings of despair which she’s received: climate crisis, racism, Afghanistan, refugees, global terror, food insecurity, pandemic, floods, fires. People are in bleak places, she said; it’s a litany of fear and anguish and we’re not entitled to put our hands over our ears.

I believe the Jewish – and the universally human – response, the reaction which life itself impels, is to live all the more deeply and determinedly for the good. We shall fight back. But not, hopefully, with the materiel of war. Rather we respond with an armamentarium more vulnerable, yet, over the long course of time, more enduring than the accoutrements of mere power: we answer back against life’s cruelties with passion for justice and compassion for suffering; with insight, with courage and with the wisdom of endurance taught by faith and principle; with excitement about the world, with a heart open to beauty, with a spirit which, though often close to exhaustion, is replenished once again by wonder; with care for even the littlest things of life and, when we can, with gratitude and appreciation.

This is all summed up for me, in ways I can’t fully explain, through the memory of a brief scene in a hut in the Hula Valley years ago. A tall, strong man took into his hands with consummate skill a tiny bird weighing scarcely an ounce and carefully put a ring round its leg ‘So that we can understand it better and protect the environment it needs.’ He then gave it to my daughter to release.

To ‘What can we do?’ and ‘What difference can we make?’ the answer can only be: ‘Everything, every kindness, matters.’ This is the strength bestowed on us with which to combat the errors, destructiveness, folly and anger of our own species, and the random, unjust cruelties of life itself.

So, to what conclusion did the rabbis arrive after all their lengthy discussions?

Since humans have already been created, let them search their deeds.

In other words, ‘Should God have made us in the first place?’ is not the right question. Since we’re already here, what matters is what we do with our lives.

Therefore on Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of creation, the issue is: How can I cherish life? What can I contribute? In the classic rabbinic phrase, ‘How can I be a partner with God in protecting and honouring creation?’

Elul thoughts from the Scottish Highlands

I’m lucky enough to be writing from the Highlands of Scotland, a land our family loves. All around is wonderful beauty. I climbed until I was surrounded by hills, beneath me a small loch, before me to the west the sun setting over the Inner Hebrides and the Atlantic beyond. The only sounds were the small streams, half hidden beneath grass and bracken, and the baaing of sheep, – a living, gentle shofar-call for Elul.

There are road signs one doesn’t find in London: ‘Slow, red squirrels’ and ‘Otters crossing’ (we’ve seen neither). Over the years we’ve watched reforested moors grow into woodlands of birch and rowan. From the water’s edge we’ve heard the curlew’s soft song, and, above, the mew of buzzards and eagles.

On a human level, there’s kindness almost everywhere. I got lost on a run across the hills; an elderly lady was hanging out washing on an isolated farm, so I asked her where I was. ‘Follow that track,’ she said, pointing somewhere into the mountains, ‘it might take you roughly where you’re going.’ I apologised for troubling her: ‘Och, no; I like talking to people.’ Then I ran back the way I’d come.

Covid has hit hard here. People are trying to make modest livelihoods with small enterprises, a vegan café, yoga classes, artworks from driftwood. We attended a talk about the Shant Islands by Adam Nicholson: from the questions, it was clear that almost everyone there was knowledgeable in some area of marine ecology, local fauna, or rewilding.

But is this, with its kindness and beauty, the real world?

In my inbox are urgent requests: Please write in support of our emergency appeal for Haiti; there are two thousand dead from the earthquake and storms on the way (World Jewish Relief). You can’t be silent about Afghanistan; we need a statement. What about the women? And those refugees who do reach the UK, who’ll help them? From all around are reports of injustice, cruelty and environmental degradation, and appeals for action at COP.

I’m reading David Olusoga’s brilliant Black and British; A Forgotten History. Some sentences about the slave trade require little transposition into now. He quotes the abolitionist William Fox, who wrote in 1791:

If we purchase the commodity we participate in the crime. The slave-dealer, the slave-holder, and the slave-driver, are virtually the agents of the consumer…In every pound of sugar used…we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh. (p. 208)

The slave-trade is long abolished (though trafficking and slavery persist). But the trade in commodities continues, often bringing little benefit to local people and leaving their environment decimated. The increasing destitution of some funds the tenuous wealth of others.

So is this really a world of kindness and beauty?

On Rosh Hashanah, just two weeks distant, we pray to the God of both creation and justice. I believe that as we do so, God calls back to us: honour my creation; make my world more just. Of course, there’s no direct voice from heaven; there’s no need. We hear the call from everywhere, from mountains and moor, from misery and wrong. We know it in our conscience and soul.

It challenges and inspires us: what can you do to make this beautiful world less cruel? How are you honouring its wonder?

What else is our life for?

 

The original Jewish Valentine’s Day

Judaism is a ‘love life’ religion; it says a big ‘yes’ to life.

In my head, these words sing in German: ‘Ja zum Leben.’ This is because, during a time when I found every day a struggle and almost everything frightening, my aunt Etti, three times removed but close as close, would buy me an Israeli yoghurt called Leben and instruct me before I ate it to say the name in German: Leben, life, yes to life.

Moon-watchers out with their dogs, or simply enjoying the cool after over-hot days, will have noted how beautifully it has shone these last evenings and know that tonight is the full moon. It heralds Tu Be’Av, the festival of the fifteenth of the month of Menachem Av, Av the Consoler. It’s the ancient Jewish forerunner of Valentine’s Day:

There were no days so good in Israel as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, when the girls went out to dance in the vineyards in borrowed white dresses (so as not to put to shame those who didn’t have). Whoever wasn’t married would go there. ‘Look,’ the girls would say… (Talmud, Ta’anit 30b-31a)

What follows is not egalitarian, definitely sexist, and certainly not PC. But it’s decisively an affirmation of life, future and fun. Significantly, the date is just six days after Tishah Be’Av, the bleak fast commemorating exile and destruction. The message is ‘Never give up’. More than that, it’s ‘Life is important, life can be good.’

The rabbis want to know why the 15th Av is so special. They come up with some remarkably odd reasons: it’s the date by when the last of the generation doomed to wander in the desert without reaching the Promised Land had died. Alternatively, it’s when the Romans allowed the dead of Betar, the last Jewish stronghold of the Bar Kochba revolt, to be buried.

Admittedly, they also offer somewhat less unromantic explanations. But what are they trying to say? I believe it is this: whatever tribulations we have been through, we have to carry on with life. We mustn’t forget the past, but we must also embrace the future. Maybe that’s why, almost two millennia later, the birth rate among Jewish survivors in the Displaced Persons camps in Germany was extraordinarily high.

It strikes me how deeply Tu be’Av speaks to our reality today. Covid is not over in the UK, certainly not in other parts of the world. But life is calling us to step forward, carefully, with due concern for others and ourselves. Life beckons, with all its joys and challenges. Life is precious, all the more so because we’ve learnt to take its opportunities less for granted.

Etti’s youngest brother Gabi, may he live to the legendary age of 120, used to remind me that ‘life is made up of the little things.’ How can we appreciate everyday blessings? How can we share small acts of kindness and generosity, which maybe aren’t so small after all?

I’ve been bottling red- and blackcurrants these last days. By my side have been my father, much missed, who taught me the skill, and his aunt Sophie who wrote to her mother in the summer of 1938 that she’d been preserving blueberries, – and blackcurrants too. She perished in Auschwitz. Nevertheless she was in my kitchen, because love from the past feeds the present and travels on into the future.

I listened last night to a webinar by Rewilding Scotland. No, said one of the presenters, I don’t just want “sustainable”. I’m working for a re-forested, re-meadowed, re-invigorated, beautiful land for my children.

I hope we can embrace the future like that.

Tu Be’Av marks the turn-around, from destruction to creation.

For the Month of Av: from Destruction to Restoration

We are on the eve of the new moon of Menachem Av.

The month begins in sorrow: ‘When Av comes in, joy is diminished.’ The ninth day is the fast of Tisha B’Av, when we remember the destruction of the Temples. But afterwards comes consolation, as we read from Isaiah ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.’ The full moon, Tu B’Av, is all celebration, Judaism’s ancient equivalent of Valentine’s Day.

I was privileged last week to share three experiences which expressed just this movement from sadness to restoration.

The first was in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, bombed out by the Luftwaffe in the night of 14 November 1940. We gathered, scarcely a dozen of us of different faiths and philosophies, surrounded by the remains of the walls and spires, made safe but not rebuilt. It’s not an obvious location for marking Britain’s first ever Thank You Day. But it’s a humbling space and that’s what drew us together. It opened our hearts. We were Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Bahai, Humanist. We all spoke, but the atmosphere of the place said more, reaching into us without words. We belonged to different generations and persuasions but it filled us with the same determination: not to hurt, not to denigrate, but to nurture and appreciate life.

The second was the Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral on the 73rd anniversary of the National Health Service. I sat next to Dr Perpetual Uke, a consultant at Birmingham City Hospital, who told me how she’d been caring for patients when she herself got Covid and became desperately ill. Now, thank God, she was almost entirely recovered. She was here both as giver and receiver of care. Nearby was a man representing the Ambulance Service. I told him how many times I’d had cause as a community minister to witness the kindness and skill of their teams.

Dr Uke lead the prayer:

For the vision of those who pioneered our National Health Service…
For the dedication of those who serve all in need of healthcare…
For the courage of those whose lives are marred by illness and bereavement…
For those who work for a healthier and fairer world.

What does one do when one hears such words? One feels saddened, humbled, touched, consoled and inspired all at once. One subconsciously resolves to do one’s best, to make one’s own contribution.

The third was the joy of two days in Scotland. Getting off the night train in the Highlands, the scents of woodland, heather, wild thyme and bilberry, the green of silver birch and pine, the sound of running streams – these are all God’s agents, they restore my soul. We experienced, too, a more practical kind of restoration in the regenerated woodlands, the young self-seeded trees carefully protected against deer and rabbits, the warnings not to disturb the rare capercaillie which nest on the ground, the feeding stations for red squirrels, the sight of an osprey. This too is part of health care, the health of the earth and our mental and spiritual health at the same time.

On Tisha B’Av we dwell only temporarily on destruction, long enough to rediscover the dedication to restore, rebuild, heal and replant in all God’s Temple, in Jerusalem itself, and throughout that universal Jerusalem which is God’s earth.

Lag Be’Omer

We are all deeply shocked by the news from Israel this morning. Over forty people have been crushed to death through crowd pressure during Lag Be’Omer celebrations in Miron in the Galilee. We do not yet know either the full extent or the causes of this appalling and heart-rending disaster. But a day which should mark healing and joy has become a tragedy.

Our hearts go out to the families of the bereaved and injured, to everyone traumatised, to all the responders and medics who did and are doing their utmost to help.

The Jewish response, the human response, and probably the only thing we can do from afar, is to give tzedakah. This is probably the only channel we currently have to express our sorrow and solidarity. It is not yet clear if there is a specific appeal for the victims. So please consider supporting any medical charity in Israel and / or contributing to any cause of healing.

We have also been asked by members of our community currently living in India to contribute to the British Asian Trust Emergency Appeal. It is providing desperately needed oxygen and life-saving equipment. You can donate here.

All we can do is be on the side of chaim vechesed, life and compassion.


Today is the morning of Lag Be’Omer, the day of healing which comes two thirds of the way between Pesach and Shavuot, Passover and Pentecost. It’s beautiful in the gardens today; the pear trees and apple trees are in blossom and the scented lilac, held back by April frosts, will soon be open.

The date has a particular resonance this year. According to tradition, it marked the end of a plague which killed thousands of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva in the second century. Though the pandemic afflicting us is not over, we hope this day may come to mark an irrevocable turning point back to life, community and hope. Wherever in the world Covid continues to spread, bringing sickness and grief, we must all do our utmost to help.

Strangely, the date has its own ancient lockdown story too. Its hero is Rabbi Shimeon bar Yohai, who died on Lag Be’Omer and who whose life is celebrated annually with bonfires and songs. He was forced to hide in a cave for twelve years together with his son Elazar, to escape the Roman authorities who had condemned him to death for criticising their works. It’s a long time to be shielding, in secret, from the entire world.

But it’s what transpires when he emerges from lockdown which is so strangely moving. He and his son are unable to come to terms with the ordinariness of the world. They see people ploughing and sowing. Little could be more innocent or necessary and yet the sight angers them:

‘They forsake the life of the world to come (the study of Torah), and busy themselves with the things of this world!’ (they exclaimed.) Wherever they looked, they destroyed. (Talmud, Shabbat 33b)

A voice comes down from heaven, or perhaps it expresses the misgivings in their own conscience, and says: ‘Have you come out to destroy my world? Go back to your cave!’

The world is beautiful. It is God’s world, sacred and wonderful. Nothing in nature is too simple to be cherished. Life, ordinary, everyday life, is a privilege. Nothing should be taken for granted.

Perhaps it’s the shock of the transition which was too much for Rabbi Shimeon and his son. They return to their cave to absorb these lockdown lessons, which we too have been taking to heart for these last fifteen months. After a year, the same voice which ordered them to go back calls them to come out of their cave. They see an old man running to honour the Sabbath with bunches of myrtle; the sight restores their spirits. His son remains troubled, but wherever Rabbi Shimeon now looks, he heals.

I am moved by what might today be termed this post traumatic stress growth. Lockdown leaves many wounds. In the legend Rabbi Shimeon is met by his father-in-law Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, who takes him to the bathhouse to treat his emaciated body. When he sees the cracks and chaps in his son-in-law’s skin from hiding for so long in a dry cave, he weeps and his falling tears sting the very sores he is trying to heal. It’s a tender scene of sorrow, hope and learning shared.

But what is decisive is that voice which Rabbi Shimeon hears when he first emerges back into life. It’s ‘my world,’ God’s world: life is to be loved and honoured; the ordinary is wondrous too; people’s foibles are to be tolerated and their devotion respected and admired….

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