Symbol of resilience and hope

‘Do you often take trees for a walk?’

‘Yes,’ replied the man who was wheeling our community’s recently acquired ancient olive tree on a fork-lift trolley from the lorry. ‘Very popular, olive trees.’

Olive TreeThe tree, between 100 and 150 years old and raised as a semi-bonsai so that it grows gnarled and small, now sits in our synagogue gardens. It will be our testament, our living memorial to this plague year, these lockdown months. No wording has been agreed, but I think we’ll commission a plaque with an inscription something like:

For our losses and our sorrows,
our resilience and new growth.

For, according to rabbinic legend, when the olive tree was challenged as to why it wasn’t weeping over the destruction of Jerusalem long ago, it replied: ‘Can’t you see? I’m silently eating my heart out.’ Indeed, ‘our’ tree has such a gnarled and wizened trunk, with just such a hole in it.

Yet olives are extraordinarily resilient. ‘Cut down a tree and it can regrow,’ says Job in his distress, wishing human life was as capable of restoration. Maybe he was thinking of olive trees; they have extraordinary powers of regeneration.

Furthermore, when the thunder clouds come and the olive’s grey-green leaves are blasted by the wind, their undersides are revealed, shining like silver in the storm light.

It wasn’t by design that the tree arrived this week, which finds us now between commemoration of the Holocaust on Yom Hashoah and the struggle for and attainment of Israel’s independence on Yom Hazikaron and Yom ha’Atzma’ut. But the timing is apposite.

In these months in 1947 and 1948, tens of thousands out of the quarter of a million Jews who had somehow managed to survive across Europe, were quietly smuggled out of Displaced Persons’ Camps by the agents of Berichah and Aliyah Bet, escape and secret immigration. They were guided along harrowing routes across the Alps into Italy, where, from ports like Trieste, they were embarked on refitted ships to run the British blockade into Mandate Palestine and help establish the embryo state.

My father, whose Yahrzeit falls on Israel’s Independence Day, remembered how his youngest sister’s passport was taken every weekend to give to some such immigration as she struggled ashore in secret to provide a camouflage identity in case she was intercepted by the British authorities. A couple of days later it would mysteriously come back.

There can be few greater examples of resilience than this. The birth rate among Jewish survivors in the DP camps was among the highest in the world. The longing for life and future among those who had spent long years not in the valley of the shadow of death, but amidst the sight and smell of it every day, proved irrepressible.

Despite all sorrows, the ancient roots of the Jewish People fostered new growth. We mourn, and determine not just to continue, but to flourish.

Even more than an emblem of resilience, the olive tree has been a symbol of hope and peace for humankind ever since the dove laid a twig in Noah’s outstretched hand as he waited to leave the ark. God and the earth were reconciled

 

 

Beauty – a human need?

‘A well of living waters,’ ‘A fountain [feeding] gardens:’ these are just two of the images from the Song of Songs, which we read tomorrow. The Songs draw us into worlds of wonder, sensual and spiritual at once: ‘I am dark and beautiful;’ ‘Rise up, my beloved, for the winter has ended, the rains have passed and gone;’ ‘Come out into the fields.’

We need beauty in our lives.

Or is that a wrong thing to say?

We need food, shelter and health care. I’ve only to think of yesterday. My phone went mid-afternoon: ‘I got your number from the synagogue. Help me with food vouchers.’ I went out late to buy vegetables; near the shop is another refugee I know who’s sleeping in a tent and the cold days have returned. On the way back I listened to a report from Kenya: Vaccines aren’t yet part of our solution; we’ve only just got them and our roll out has scarcely begun.

When the world is like that, is beauty really a need?

Yes, I believe so. It’s not just the body which must live, but also the soul. Perhaps that’s why, of all the alluring images in the Song of Songs, – the fleeting deer, the small foxes eating the unripe grapes, the wild lilies, the bodies of lover and beloved, – it is those of flowing water which haunt me most: ‘A locked garden is my sister, my bride; a wave enclosed; a fountain sealed.’

It is as if we are taken to the very edge of life’s source, the secret elixir which flows through all things, pure, holy, beautiful, alluring, longed for, unpossessable, yet known in wonder.

It could be that this is the spirit which brings the composer the first apprehension of melody, the poet the magic sound of the opening words. Then, transported to a different realm of apprehension, they transpose this ‘airy nothing’ into music and rhythm and give it ‘a local habitation and a name.’ The Jewish mystics called this meeting space binah, intuition, deep wellspring, fountain on high; the zone of encounter where the unknowable holy spirit and human consciousness meet.

What would life be if we had no music, no poetry, no awe; if we could never watch the dawn, listen to a running stream, or note how a bird twitches this way and that before alighting on the grass? These are sacred matters; God is in these things.

I had always thought the link between Pesach, the festival of our freedom, and the Song of Songs was seasonal because both rejoice in the spring. The textual connections are tenuous.

But now I sense a deeper kinship. Humanity certainly needs physical freedom; freedom from tyranny, slavery, hunger, abuse and degradation. But we need the spirit’s liberty too, the transformation of tired, earthbound, task-bound, daily-round-bound body into the exaltation of wonder and joy, the excitement of beauty; beauty which is in this world and beyond this world at once.

Yes, I believe beauty is a human need. I doubt if it’s inscribed in the Universal Charter of Human Rights. But perhaps it should be, because cruelty and misery can still strive to deny it to us. Access to it should not be expensive: park, poem, sunlight, wild space, music, dew.

For the quest for beauty is not just a human right or need; it’s intrinsic to what makes us human.

 

Seder: a night of defiance, hope, solidarity and faith

Who would have thought that we would dip twice, a second year running, into a lockdown Seder? So what I want to say to everybody in our community and beyond, whether we are alone, or with closest family only; whether we have kept our health during the last year, or whether there has been illness; or whether, sadly, there is one more empty chair at the Seder: Chazak ve’ematz, may God give us strength and courage.

Seder is a night of defiance. Tyranny cannot ultimately destroy the human spirit. Slavery cannot conquer the quest for freedom. Injustice cannot crush the longing for justice. Cruelty cannot eradicate the urge to compassion. Misery cannot silence the impulse to sing. This is not to ignore the horrors perpetrated by wicked leaders and evil regimes throughout history, or to underestimate the impact of callousness and indifference. But the history of our own people, and of other faiths and nations, teaches that spirit is, in the long run and despite everything, mightier than power: ‘Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord.’

Seder is a night of hope. The Talmud insists that its story must be told mei’avdut lecheirut, from slavery to freedom. We know from the Torah that the way is long. In fact, the Torah closes with Moses looking down from the mountaintop onto the land into which he will not cross. This symbolises the unfinished journey of humankind. Slavery persists, all over the world; children are still sold and women trafficked. But we don’t give up working for the liberty of our own, and of all, people. Every single action which demands and protects, every kind word which restores and upholds, human dignity is a step on that road to redemption.

Seder is a night of solidarity. This may not take the ache out of being unable to sit together with our loved ones. But we are not alone. The Jewish People is with us, who, through over a hundred and twenty generations, have celebrated this night with the same longing and in virtually the same words. Our ancestors are with us; we feel our mothers’ and fathers’ presence in the commentaries and songs, the recipes and memories. Everyone across the world who longs for freedom and redemption is with us in spirit, just as we must be with them.

Seder is a night of faith. This faith is our trust in God’s guidance, in whichever way we understand it. This faith is also God’s trust in us, that we will honour and be true to the sacred spirit with which we, all humanity and all life, have been endowed.

Countdown to Pesach 5781 – Thursday

Something Reflective – Seder as Resilience

I gave a talk last week on Haggadah illustrations during World War ll. We looked at editions from the concentration camp in Gurs (1941), from the Jewish Brigade fighting in the British Army in North Africa (1942), from the Jewish community of Morocco (1943, defiantly called ‘Haggadat Hitler’), from Kibbutz Naan (1942) and from the Displaced Person’s camp near Munich (1948). ‘What resilience!’ someone observed, and I saw the whole group nod in agreement.

Jewish history is filled with examples of resilience. One doesn’t have to think far back: my great-grandmother spent the years of Nazi occupation doing her utmost to keep in touch with her dispersed family; it’s all she cared about. Her last recorded words were, ‘Nothing will destroy my faith.’ Innumerable people showed the same spirit. That’s how Judaism, and how the best human values, have survived all the persecutions and degradations of history.

Halfway through the Haggadah we raise up our cup of wine and say ‘Vehi She’amdah – That which stood firm for our ancestors and us…’ It’s not clear what this ‘that’ refers to, which leaves plentiful scope for interpretation. For example: ‘That’ is dedication to Jewish learning; ‘That’ is never feeling secure on earth, so that our homeland is always our faith; ‘That’ is the Jewish women who’ve maintained the strength of family and community; ‘That’ is commitment to each other; ‘That’ is dedication to universal justice and compassion; ‘That’ is Hatikvah, hope itself.

We’ve had much need of resilience over the past year. Let’s draw from Seder night and the Haggadah on our long journey to redemption, renewed courage, hope, determination and faith.

 Something Halakhic – The Obligation to Ask Questions

The Mishnah insists that the Seder include questions. This is based on the Torah’s repeated instruction: when your children ask you – vehiggadeta, you shall tell them. (Hence the name of the Seder text, Haggadah.)

The Talmud explains that if there are no children present, one’s partner asks the questions; if one’s alone, one asks them to oneself and even if everyone present is a scholar, they must interrogate each other. The questions shouldn’t just be formulaic; they should be genuine.

This tenacious curiosity, this urge to learn, to understand more deeply, balanced against the awareness that all our knowledge is invariably tentative and that we must always explore further, – is a key part of resilience.

Rabbi Cardozo recalled how a non-Jewish friend asked to be taken to visit a yeshivah. When they left, the gentleman expressed horror at the arguing, raised voices and seeming chaos within: was this some kind of rebellion against the British Government? he asked. No, Rabbi Cardozo replied, they’re discussing the meaning of God and life. The man was shocked: I thought you’d have solved that long ago, he exclaimed. That, responded Rabbi Cardozo, referring to the questioning and debating, is why we’ve survived all our enemies!

Something Practical

Seder night is both then and now. It’s about history, and about the present. It’s what the ancient, never-ending journey towards freedom means to us today.

So maybe find, and also invite everyone who’ll be at the (inevitably small) Seder to find, a poem, picture or object which expresses for them some aspect of what that road from slavery to equality and injustice to justice means to them. At the Seder, ask them to explain how they see the connection.

Countdown to Pesach 5781 – Wednesday

Something reflective – Seder as Solidarity

‘In spite of it all, I choose love:’ these words were spoken by a colleague of our close friend Rabbi Marc Soloway at a huge online solidarity gathering for Boulder last night. The rabbi told of how she knew personally the baggers and workers at the King Soopers grocery store where ten people were murdered by a gunman. She had made them her friends, her community, people for whom she cared and who cared about her. Beneath her outrage, she said, the shootings made her feel vulnerable ‘for ourselves and for our children’. But vulnerability is the price for love, and ‘in spite of it all I choose love.’

The Seder is about comradeship, the fellowship of the story. It is at once uniquely Jewish, the history of our people on the long, unfinished road from persecution to freedom, and at the same time the story of all humanity, the unending struggle for justice and dignity. It opens with a call to comradeship: ‘Who ever is hungry come and eat; whoever needs, come share the Pesach.’ It culminates with an appeal to imaginative identification: ‘In every generation, everyone must see themselves as if they went out from Egypt.’

This solidarity is the core of moral being. The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote that

The traumatic experience of the slavery in Egypt constitutes my very humanity, a fact that immediately allies me to the workers, the wretched, and the persecuted peoples of the world. (Difficult Freedom)

I believe we must try to live this solidarity is concentric, outward-moving circles: towards our family, our community, the Jewish People, the society we live in, and any group suffering persecution. That, more than anything, is what the Seder means to me. This year Jewish communities across the world are particularly marking our connection with the Uyghur People. [add link to Uyghur Seder Reader ]

Levinas continued: ‘My uniqueness lies in the responsibility I display for the other.’ That responsibility, or, in the words of the rabbi from Boulder, that love, is the purpose for which we are here.

Something Halakhic – ‘This night we dip twice.’

Everyone is familiar with the first dipping at the Seder: we dunk our karpas (parsley, celery, watercress, whatever vegetable we use) in salt water. This is understood to represent our ancestors’ tears because of the cruelty, family separation and slave labour to which they were subjected. The green hope of life is ruined by cruelty.

The second dipping is less familiar: the maror is momentarily immersed in the charoset. According to the Talmud, the reason is to neutralise the venom of its potentially life-threatening sap. The Tosafot quote the geonic tradition that the charoset must be made from fruits and spices mentioned in the Song of Songs, such as figs, dates, apples, wine and cinnamon. (Talmud, Pesachim 116a) Charoset is thus the Jewish version of ‘the food of love’. What mitigates the bitterness and unfairness of life is the love we show one another, the companionship and solidarity we share.

Something Practical – Charoset recipes

There are charoset recipes from all over the world, Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Yemenite; there are versions from Curacao and India. For years, we’ve had the family tradition of making two or three different kinds. It’s a culinary form of inclusivity, acknowledging the rich diversity of the Jewish People and the range of Jewish geography. Go online and you’ll find tens of charoset options. If you can, adventure beyond your familiar recipe. It’s fun.

 

Countdown to Pesach 5781 – Tuesday

Something reflective – Freedom and Coming out of Lockdown

Every generation has its own special and unique Exodus from Egypt, wrote the popular Rebbe, Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger, known as the Sefat Emet. In Hebrew, Egypt is Mitzrayim, related to tzar, narrow, and metzarim, narrow and confining places. To Hasidic teachers like the Sefat Emet, Egypt is not a geographical but a mental and spiritual location and the exodus is our personal journey to freedom year by year.

It doesn’t need saying that our special exodus this year is our release from lockdown and the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic. It may be slow, but hopefully it will be steady and enduring.

This contemporary personal exodus poses at least two major questions.

The first is so obvious there’s a risk we scarcely think about it. In the Torah, freedom is never just ‘freedom from’ but always also ‘freedom for.’ So what is our re-found freedom for? Some answers are obvious: ‘I want to hug my family, meet my friends, get back to making a living, see the sea.’

Lockdown has forced us to reconsider our true priorities. Which of those freedoms did we take for granted? How will we cherish them more? Of whom and what were we not sufficiently mindful before? Freedom is bound up with social justice and compassionate community: what values have we learnt to stand up for?

The second question is less obvious, but I’ve heard people talk about it. What freedoms, if any, has lockdown actually brought us?

It’s a question some will justly dismiss as insulting, – if one’s been shut in with maddening neighbours, had no digital access, been left at the mercy of an abusive partner, forced to isolate from everyone one loves, or lost one’s job, one’s health, or a beloved relative.

But I believe it still has a place. Before lockdown were we too dependent on material things? Or on distractions? Do we really need everything we thought we needed? Must we get back to all that rush? Has being forced to turn inwards opened doors to inner strengths we were less aware of before? Are there relationships which have deepened and become more important? Are there spiritual spaces, places of listening, we’ve learnt to cherish?

These questions are integral to the special and immediate exodus we are beginning to undergo, into the midst of which Pesach falls this year.

Something halakhic – How do I kosher my kitchen?

What about the oven? The fridge and the sink? How does one kasher a microwave? Last night Rabbi Chaim Weiner took us round his kitchen with a brilliant demonstration of how to make everything Pesach-ready. Follow him through this link. Don’t be shy about sending him, me or any of the rabbinic team questions. And get good, heat-resistant gloves. Burning oneself, as I’ve learnt to my cost, isn’t part of the mitzvah.

PS Don’t overdo it. And don’t leave the hard work to others. (Some of you may appreciate the poem below!)

Something for the Seder – Activities for children

Niki Jackson, our Director of Education, sends these suggested 10 Pesach Challenges, from making charoset through to preparing table decorations and ideas for the Seder.

Vehi She’Amdah

by Talya Glezer, trans. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

She who stood, cleaned, rinsed, polished, kashered, boiled and heated white-hot
Whose skin got burnt by caustic soda
And whose clothes ruined by Economica
Who cooked and roasted and baked
And prepared six Seder plates
And laid the table for thirty
And washed and ironed festival clothes

She who stood
And served the food
And cleared away after the meal

She who stood for ‘Pour out Your wrath’ didn’t manage to sing Hallel and Chad Gadya
But rested her head for one moment on the table
And fell asleep.

Talya Glezer. Vehi She’Amdah (הלילה הזה כולו שירה – עורך מרדכי דוד כהן)

 

Countdown to Pesach 5781 – Monday

I wish everyone good preparations for Pesach and the Seder nights. Once again, it’s a strange and complex time. But I hope that this year the Festival of freedom truly heralds coming out of lockdown and returning to the fullness of life for everyone. Each day until Shabbat I hope to send a letter with something reflective, something halakhic and something practical for the Seder, with contributions from the team at NNLS. Please join our services and activities, in person and virtual. Pesach is the season of solidarity; we all need to draw strength from our Judaism and from each other.

Something reflective – Who am I with this Seder night?

Every other night we’ve held Seders in our home for 50 or 60 people; last year there were just two of us. This year, I’ve spoken to people who’ll be with closest family only, and people who’ve told me they’ll be entirely alone. (I know, of course, that many will find modern ways to connect.)

Togetherness at the Seder goes back to its beginnings. The Torah teaches that the original paschal lamb in Egypt was eaten bemichsat nefashot, ‘according to the number of souls’. The Talmud explains this to mean that people must be ‘counted in’ before the animal is slaughtered. So ‘With whom will you be for Seder?’ is as ancient a question as it is perennial.

Last night I learnt a beautiful new way of creating togetherness even in lockdown. It’s undoubtedly both halakhically and Covid compliant. Reb Mimi Fagelson told me how last year she was entirely by herself, but not at all alone. It’s permitted to light candles on Yom Tov (so long as you do so from a flame already lit before the festival or shabbat begins.) So, she said, every few minutes I lit a candle for someone else I loved and imagined they were with me: friends, teachers, Hasidic leaders. I didn’t feel lonely for a moment.

On the one hand it’s a ruse. But it also goes to the heart of what the Seder means. I don’t think I’ll light candles for them. But I’m going to hear my father at the Seder, in the way he used to sing and the comments he always made (the same every year). I’m going to invite my father’s uncle, by reading from the letters he sent his wife every single day when he was interned on the Isle of Man in 1940.

In this manner, we summon the companionship of past generations, and current friends, and those who’ve striven for freedom through the ages, and become part of a great solidarity in defiance of space and time.

Something halakhic – How does one manage Saturday night Seder?

This year Pesach begins on Saturday night and the questions have been coming in: By when do we have to be rid of our chametz? What does one do about challah on Shabbat? Is anything different at the Seder? When is the Fast of the Firstborn (It’s Thursday, not Friday!)

For guidance, please follow this link. Don’t despair; it’s not complicated, and the great advantage of Saturday night Seder is that it’s not allowed to clean and cook on Shabbat. So one can have a rest and not get to the Seder exhausted.

Something for the Seder – family history

It’s easy to feel so pressured by shopping, cleaning and cooking that they pre-occupy us entirely. Make sure there’s some time and energy to prepare for the contents of the Seder.

Over the years, many of the most moving contributions to our Seders have been family stories and memorabilia: a letter from a grandparent in the war, a matzah cover handed like a blessing down the generations. I’m sometimes struck by how children don’t know their family history. Go back two or three generations; in very few families was everyone born in the UK.

Seder is the night of the story. Haggadah means ‘Telling’. So tell something of the family’s journey. There’s nothing more touching, for children and adults alike.

Here’s to the tree of life!

Today is the day before the day before the first day of spring. Two of the bird-feeders were entirely empty this morning. Was it that pair of bluetits, or the jays I’ve seen looking out from the crab-apple branch to peck at their moment? And look at those branches, their buds emerging, tiny grey-green hands unfolding into the sunlight and the rain. The spring: how we’ve longed for it, how we need it this year!

Preparations for Pesach, festival of freedom, have never felt so timely. Last year they marked our going into lockdown. Pressing practicalities pre-occupied us; perhaps they distracted us from deeper fears: would we be able to get any matzah? And the bitter herbs? And all those places around the table, on all other nights laid for twelve or twenty-three, unruly with songs and stories, but that night almost silent, set for just one, or two, or maybe four.

This year, the festival marks the beginning of our liberation. We will still be only few together. It will once again be a very different night. It won’t be like it says in the Torah; there will be no chipazon, no sudden hurry, no setting forth in multitudes at dawn. But before us lies the journey out of lockdown and there can be hope in our hearts. We’re on the road and that is cause for joy.

There’s another, more profound, difference from our departure from slavery long ago. When Pharaoh demanded to know who was going to leave Egypt, Moses answered firmly: ‘With our young and our old, with our sons and our daughters, will we go.’ For us, after over a year of pandemic, not everyone is coming out of it with us, especially not among our old.

March 23rd, this Tuesday, marks a year since the first lockdown across Britain. Marie Curie, that wonderful organisation which has supported hundreds of thousands of families as they face the death of a loved one, has called for a National Day of Reflection,

to reflect on our collective loss, support those who’ve been bereaved, and hope for a brighter future. [It] will give us all time to pause and think about this unprecedented loss we’re facing, and support each other through grief in the years to come.

In our community, we will come together for the Yizkor memorial service we’ll hold online towards the close of Passover, on the evening of April 1st. We will contemplate the year which has passed, acknowledge our losses, and plant a tree for every bereavement in our congregation, so that we remember, yet the sake of life.

For some of us, there will be one more empty place at the Seder. And it wasn’t even possible to say a true good-bye. ‘I love you’ isn’t the same by iPad. There is grief openly wept, and grief held deep within, because we couldn’t mourn as we would normally have done, hugging those we love, sitting together to cry, and laugh, and recollect. There is anger, too, and blame: did this have to happen thus?

So feelings are complex as we celebrate freedom and emerge, cautiously, out of lockdown.

I recall talking to someone whose lower leg had to be amputated after a motorbike accident. He spoke of having to learn to walk all over again. That’s not something we will literally have to do.

But the Torah speaks of walking together. We will have to relearn how to walk in true togetherness, as we meet again, first in parks and gardens, then, we hope, in our homes, at work and in our places of prayer.

I wonder if the Children of Israel listened to each other as they emerged into unfamiliar freedom: What were those days of darkness like for you? Were you afraid? Are you exhausted? From where did you find the resilience? What are you looking forward to most? Are you excited about the journey ahead?

We’ve needed lovingkindness to care for each other in our enforced apartness; we still need it now, but in different ways, as we come back into togetherness.

In all of this, we must not forget the spring. The Talmud tells us to find a blossoming fruit tree in this month of Nissan, so that we can bless it and bless life. The Tree of Life, which, deep within its branches has remained vital all through the long winter, is coming back into leaf and flower. It’s a joy to be appreciated, a wonder to behold.

Here’s to the tree of life!

Shabbat Shalom and good preparations for Pesach

Happy Purim!

Happy Purim! Last year Purim came just before lockdown; this year it comes just before lockdown – slowly, cautiously, eases and children can go back to school. Let’s hope it heralds a better year ahead.

There’s much not to like about the story of Purim. Without going into details, the scroll of Esther, read last night and this morning, poses as a fairy tale in which, by the grace of God, and heroine vanquish vizier and emperor.

But underneath the service, it’s a shrewd, hard-bitten account of insecurity, suppression and manipulation. There are plenty of places still like that in the world. The meme for survival is ‘How do I use people more deftly than they use me.’ There is no more astutely political text in the Bible.

But that’s not what we take away from the festival. On the thin ice of perilous existence, we dance, feast, give gifts and care for the poor. We mock tyranny, take the mickey out of pomp and laugh at life’s absurdity. We create joy.

That’s why tradition connects Purim with Yom KiPurim. On the latter we recognise how transient we are; we fast, repent and take stock of our soul. On the former we recognise how fragile we are; so we eat, drink and make the most of our moment. Carpe diem – seize the day. Mir seinen da! We’re here; let’s make the best of it. Lechaim, Lechaim! To life!

I admire this attitude; there’s courage as well as joy in laughter. It’s one of the great forms of resilience. It’s the underdog’s greatest weapons. It undercuts pride and pretence. It strengthens the spirit. I love the wit and grit of good humour, and appreciate those who have it and share it.

I love, too, the way joy connects us. Sometimes it’s thought that only sad events truly unite us. That’s simply untrue. Even though it was all on Zoom this year, watching a community in fancy dress, with floating hats and virtual moustaches, laughing together, then taking small gifts of foods to their friends (yes, wearing masks, leaving them on doorsteps and stepping away two metres) and knowing that we’ll all support the work of Feast and Leket (see below) making meals for anyone in hungry in these hard times – I feel like weeping with gratitude for being a part of it all.

That’s the lesson which emerges from the old story of intrigue and power (which still plagues the world in its versatile forms): when you get the chance, take life with a laugh, care for your friends and be there for those who need. For the long-standing tasks will soon call us back, to remove oppression and transform the world – and to do that we need all the joy and spirit we can muster.

Let me set down in couplets the key laws of Purim
Just as you’ll find them in the old Arba Turim.

You must read the Megillah when the sun’s gone away,
Then listen to it all over, early next day.

You must boo when it’s Haman, but as we’re on zoom
Please mute your computer before you go boom.

You may stuff your face full and it’s not seen as greedy,
So long as you offer two gifts to two needy

And regale with delicacies one friend at least,
Before you sit down to an unhealthy feast.

You mustn’t stay sombre or too circumspect,
Politically, now’s the moment to be incorrect.

You’re encouraged to dress as king, queen or clown,
To show that you know that the world’s upside down.

 

 

‘My strength and my song:’ poetry, music and resilience

As Holocaust Memorial Day closed, with its commemoration of destruction, Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, with its celebration of creation, began. As the week including both of them ends, we arrive at Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song.

Song has accompanied humanity throughout. Judaism is a religion of song; the opening chapter of the Torah is a paean of praise to the emergence of the world of wonder, and the first weekly portion refers to the origin of music. Rabbi Avraham Isaac Hacohen Kook understood the very name Israel as the conjoining of two words shir and El, song and God: Israel means God’s song, singing before God.

Poets and musicians have written with passion about their art; philosophers of aesthetics have speculated about its essence and power. The Torah does not analyse its nature and origins, but declares, simply and frankly, the impetus towards it:

I shall sing, I must sing, to God…
God’s song is my strength.
This is my God, whose beauty I proclaim. ’ (Exodus 15:1,2)

Poetry is the language of the heart and soul; music is what they articulate beneath and beyond the limitations of words. Poetry, in its rhythm and alliteration, is music too. Both poetry and music have accompanied us and been created in even the bleakest and most terrible of times. Hence Carolyn Forche chose as motto for her anthology, Against Forgetting, Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, the lines by Bertold Brecht:

In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.

But how can there be song even in exile, even in transit, concentration and death camps? The question is ancient:

By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept:
How shall we sing God’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137)

 Yet even, and precisely, amidst brutality, words and music affirm dignity, constitute witness and even bring a strange beauty to places of suffering and longing where the heart and the unbearable are compelled to meet. ‘Can you put words to this?’ asked a woman in the starving queue of relatives outside a prison in Stalinist Russia, recognising that the person standing freezing next to her was Anna Akhmatova. ‘Yes, I can,’ she said; and did.

Song is resilience, resistance, and, like the song of the Children of Israel at the sea, its testimony remains long after tyrants and their empires have collapsed.

And song is also joy, music the surge of the spirit’s wonder. Poets and prophets have always understood that all creation sings: ‘The mountains and the hills will break forth before you in song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.’ (Isaiah 55:12) Tu Bishevat doesn’t just mark the importance of trees, with their essential contribution to our physical, mental and spiritual health. It reminds us to listen to how they, too, sing.

It isn’t only mystics with their obfuscating tendencies who hear music in the very nature of the universe. ‘We astronomers,’ wrote the poet and scientist Rebecca Elson, in an extraordinary, epigrammatic line, ‘Honour our responsibility to awe.’

The Torah portion which includes the Song at the Sea which gives this Shabbat its name, Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, concludes with the words, ‘For I am the God who heals you.’ In these difficult times, with their uncertainty, anxiety and grief, may music and poetry heal, restore and strengthen our heart and spirit.

 

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