We Need to be Healers and Fighters

I wish everyone, our families, our friends, and our congregation Shanah Tovah. I pray for a good year for the whole Jewish community, all humanity, and all life in our beautiful, beleaguered world sheculo chal mipanecha, which both trembles and rejoices before God.

This year may we be healers. The world is full of wounds and the dangers that lie ahead, for Israel, for many countries and for nature are obvious. One’s heart weeps.

Healing is an art which often requires sophisticated skills. But in essence it’s simple; it’s based on just two words: ‘I care.’ But where do we start, when from all around there are ceaseless appeals and the very earth can feel like one great cry? In the ancient words of Rabbi Tarfon, the one choice we are not at liberty to make is to do nothing.

I believe we should focus on whoever it is in our nature to care about naturally. If we love children, do what you can for them. If we feel a special tenderness for older people, listen to them. If we love birds and animals, plant gardens, woods and meadows. The other day I saw a chair tied firmly to a lamppost outside a café. On it was a sign: ‘If you’re no longer so young, or walking is difficult, please take a rest. We care about you.’ What kindness! Caring is often expressed in seemingly small things, but the difference it makes is inestimable.

In these tough times, to be healers we must also be fighters. There is unavoidable suffering on earth. But there is also wanton cruelty: the brutality of aggressive war; the contemptuousness of race and gender hate; the despotic arrogance which seeks to crush justice and freedom; the despoliation of the earth which may benefit some but devastates others and destroys the viability of our planet. We must fight these wrongs, skilfully, determinedly, forcefully but peacefully, acknowledging that in some we too may be implicated.

At stake are Judaism’s core principles: that this is God’s earth for which we must care with respect, justice and compassion. The very essence and reputation of Israel, and of Judaism itself, are currently at stake.

From where do we draw our strength?

We do so from solidarity, hope, love and faith.

Solidarity and community are the basis of Jewish life, and of all society. Whether looking after the sick, combatting poverty, cleaning up local rivers or defending minorities, belonging to like-minded communities renews our resolve and restores our morale.

Hope, tikvah, is not airy optimism, but the elixir of vision, aspiration and action combined.

Love is our deepest motivation, God’s presence in our hearts, as we pray each day: ahavat olam, inspire us with eternal, inexhaustible love.

Faith is not pious dogma, but the awareness of the deep resilience of the human spirit, of Judaism, of life itself.

May we have the faith, love, hope and solidarity to be healers in the years ahead.

The True Guardians of our Humanity

As the moon wanes to a sliver and the old year ends, I want to thank those who guide us in all walks of life.

The rabbis read Elul, the current Hebrew month, as an acronym for two biblical verses. (Sadly, this doesn’t work in English.)

The first is ‘Ani ledodi vedodi li – I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.’ They took this as the love between God and the soul.

God is infinite. But in practice God comes to us in many shapes and sizes. None of us knows how the spirit touches the hearts of others. Therefore, I want to thank everyone who helps us perceive the holy in anything and everything.

Thank you to the teachers and youth leaders who understand how to draw out of every child what is special and sacred and enable that uniqueness to become a light for others.

Thank you to Eleanor O’Hanlon for her book, Eyes of the Wild, about how in the ‘spaciousness of nature, we find our own expansiveness again… And that space is not separate from Eternal Presence, holding all life as one and allowing it to be – growing, blossoming, dying and reemerging in all its manifold diversity and grace.’

Thank you to the team in that tiny bird reserve between the Supreme Court and the Knesset in Jerusalem, who measure the length of small birds’ wings before releasing them from their carefully cupped hands. You show that these lives too are holy.

Thank you to those of all faiths who see beyond the dogmas of their creed and know that God is in all life everywhere.

You bring God into our hearts. You curb our cruelty and deepen our compassion.

The second of the Elul verses comes from Esther: ‘Ish lere’ehu, umattanot la’evyonim, – Each for their fellow, and gifts to the needy.’

I’m grateful to everyone who shows us how to be present for our fellow human beings, family, friends, community, people we encounter by chance.

I’m grateful for everyone like the friend who simply said, ‘I’m on my way,’ when I called in a panic, ‘I need a lift with my dog to the vet, this moment, now.’ I’m grateful to those with the gift for thoughtful words, kind, insightful, with a lightness of touch. I’m grateful for those who listen, enabling the quietness that calms the heart.

I’m grateful to all who fight for the rights of others, who won’t yield to indifference, carelessness or rudeness, who call out bigotry and bullying. I’m grateful to everyone who helps create encompassing, compassionate community. Thank you for showing us what ‘Each for their fellow’ truly means. You deepen our humanity.

‘Gifts for the needy’ may sound patronising. But who knows which of us will be needy over time? This isn’t about reaching down but reaching out, to those whose lot has fallen more cruelly than ours on earth.

I’m grateful to all who refuse to walk pass hunger, who ensure foodbanks remain stocked. I’m grateful to that postman in whose van we caught a lift years ago, who stopped at every house in the long, remote road saying ‘If I don’t check on these elderly folk, who will?’

I’m grateful to Sally Hayden who records in My Fourth Time We Drowned, how she took that first unanticipated call from tormented refugees, subject to blackmail and rape, and became their lifeline, their sole electronic pathway towards liberty. I’m grateful to the lawyers, journalists, takers of video clips, who risk their lives exposing inhumane policies and brutal regimes. You live the meaning of integrity and truth.

How urgently we need you all, teachers and guides, because, as we pray on Rosh Hashanah, the fate of the world is in the balance.

Be for life!

I dressed in haste this morning, trying not to lose track of an elusive voice. The Zohar teaches that when the darkness of night begins to wane, the spirit of hesed, lovingkindness, hovers over the world and whispers into our dreaming minds. On blessed mornings we wake up not with the shock of ‘Oh my God, another day!’ but touched by something gentle but compelling, urgent yet benign, some spirit or instruction from worlds beyond.  

This voice had been strong in the half-dream from which the early light woke me. But it receded swiftly. It hovered at the corner of my consciousness before vanishing, taking with it something essential it wanted to tell me from some other realm.

All I could retain was that this was about caring for life. The half-dream was specific. But all I could retain was this generality, and the sensation that something had touched my heart which I didn’t know how to retrieve.

‘Be for life.’ It sounds so banal. But on a single-track road in Scotland we stopped the car because a toad was squatting on the tarmac. Nicky got out, took a photo, then gently moved the creature into the safety of the grass verge. The remarkable thing was that the driver in the car behind didn’t hoot. She waited, understood.

This reminded me of a scene from when I was seven or eight, next to my father in the car. He braked because a duck was leading her ducklings in slow procession across the busy Finchley Road up to the ponds in Golders Hill Park. ‘What if someone else won’t stop?’ I asked him. ‘Who would be so cruel?’ he replied.

I know I’m sentimental, but I don’t care for animals at the cost of caring for people. We’re all part of life together.

Maybe that voice, reduced to this generality ‘Be for life!’ came to me because of a conversation yesterday with our family from Ukraine. ‘I want to go home,’ said the grandmother, ‘but they’ve bombed the railway station.’ The mother gestured the outlines of a pincer movement: maybe the Russian Army will cut Kharkiv off. What is there left to say?

I sometimes fear we’re in a vehicle with some uncontrollable, manic driver who doesn’t know how, or maybe, I think in my worst moments, doesn’t really even try, to find the brakes.

But I know something else at least as well; that an immeasurable tenderness interpenetrates with life, despite its manifest cruelties and endless injustices; that this spirit of lovingkindness calls out constantly to the heart in the community of people and the ceaseless intercommunications of non-human life, and through the wordless communion of the spirit which hovers over the earth.

‘Be for life’ is the voice of our Rosh Hashanah prayers: ‘Remember us for life; Our father and mother, our sovereign, inscribe us for life.’

More importantly, it’s there in our prayers every day. The morning service opens with two short reflections I love. The first is a reminder: gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness are of limitless value. The second is a recall: ‘My God, the soul you have given me is pure.’

We belong to a spirit whose ethos is profoundly other than ‘me and mine’, than ‘I don’t care who this hurts.’ Life flows into us from somewhere, some reservoir, some being or consciousness, which fills the heart with pity and love.

Watching in sheer wonder

My words come from the northwest of Scotland where our family are on holiday. I wasn’t going to write, but I changed my mind, moved by the beauty, care, diligence and creativity of so much we’ve witnessed. We’ve visited projects of regeneration, replanting, reintroduction; we’ve seen what the impact not just on woodlands, insects, birds, and animals, but for people: the mental and spiritual restoration, the rehabilitation into the world of sacred wonder.

I’m writing, too, because today is the new moon of Elul, the month of Teshiuvah, repentance, return andreflection. It’s the date when we first hear the shofar calling us, in Maimonides’ words, ‘to wake from our sleep’ and return to God.

The first of Elul is also the ancient date for the tithing of cattle, when every tenth calf, lamb or kid born in the last year was taken to the temple. Turning this round, many contemporary rabbis honour this day as the New Year for Animals. This parallels how Tu Bishevat, originally a date for the taxation of their fruits, became the New Year for Trees, a time to celebrate orchards and forests.

These matters go together; there’s little more urgent to which we must wake up than how we treat the rest of creation. Over the last few days our family has been privileged to witness wonderful examples of such awakening and Teshuvah, return, to the physical and spiritual roots of our lives.

 At Dundreggan, home to Trees For Life, we met Nick Barnes, a psychiatrist who works between the NHS, University College London and Scottish rewilding projects. We engage with schools and across Scotland, he explained. The connection with nature, trees and soil de-stresses and re-centres us, restoring mental health.

We walk round with a guide: his knowledge, not just of every insect, bird and tree, but also of centuries of local history, of Gaelic names and what can be learnt from what used to be, is amazing, and carried with good-humoured humility.

Days later we’re in Knappdale Forest, meeting a ranger in a tiny chalet full of books. ‘Wait at the hide at the far end of the loch; listen, watch.’ For once, we resolve to leave the dog in the car, safe in the evening cold. But she cries so loudly that we take pity on her, realising also that our chances of seeing any wildlife within a mile of such a pitiful racket are zero. Nessie comes with, behaving impeccably thereafter.

We walk round the loch, uncomfortably conscious of our family’s talent for failing to spot the animals we’ve come to observe. Finding the hide, we watch the light change over the small waves, glowing red as the sun sinks low. Three ducks, a fourth lagging behind, swim slowly across the water. I can recall no other time when I’ve listened like this, motionless, just listening to the wind and the bird cries for an entire hour.

Then we see the beaver, swimming across the loch, then towards us, nearer, nearer, diving down, resurfacing just feet from where we watch. These are moments of pure wonder.

But behind them are decades of dedication: consultations, negotiations with farmers, bureaucracy. Finally the first permits for reintroduction are granted, since beavers improve wetlands, prevent flooding and help water conservation in drought-prone regions, including London.

Judaism knows two kinds of motivation: fear and love. We need fear to motivate international leadership to mitigate and reverse the disintegration of our biosphere.

But, as our family have witnessed, it’s love, patient, knowledgeable, determined love, which is needed to repair nature for the sake of humanity and all life. Mercifully, the work we saw is being replicated all across the world. It’s very far from enough. But it represents true Teshuvah, repentance and restoration.

Can Anger be Consoling?

Yesterday was the fast of The Ninth of Av, the bleak commemoration of disaster. Tonight begins Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. I wish there was a little more space between these days, because I’m still struggling with the tell-tale signs of a hangover from the fast, backache and tiredness, and need a little longer to shift my thoughts. According to tradition, the morning after, the first half of the tenth of Av, retains a lingering subdued mood because the fires in Jerusalem still raged – as do the fires today across Europe’s forests.

Yet the immediate proximity of these two dates, not rare in the Jewish calendar, has challenged my understanding of what consolation means. We can find solace in wonder. Can we also find it in anger?

Wonder is the theme of this coming Shabbat. Its readings are filled with beauty. Isaiah’s call to consolation is among the most stirring passages in the entire Hebrew Bible. He begins, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people…Speak to the heart of Jerusalem…’ and ends, ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see who created all these, who brought them forth in all their hosts.’

The story is told of a hasid who said to his rabbi: ‘I’ve read thirty-six interpretations of that verse, but it was only when I looked up and saw, really saw, the magnificence of the stars that I understood.’ ‘You must write your explanation down,’ the rabbi insisted. ‘No,’ the hasid replied; ‘that would merely turn it into explanation thirty-seven.’

The world is full of wonder, in skyscapes, landscapes, music and poetry and in the grace of so many human interactions. We need that beauty to restore our soul and enable us to go on living.

But maybe we also need our anger. ‘I’m so furious,’ a friend said to me at the close of yesterday’s prayers. He was referring to the all too frequently heartless treatment of refugees. ‘Indignant’ might be a better term, but it feels too weak to describe the fire in the bones that refuses to let us be passive in the face of cruelty.

Yesterday I came across astonishing lines by the German-speaking poet of the Holocaust, Gershon ben David. He sees himself standing in silent fields, ‘pregnant’ with ashes of the slaughtered:

And I asked myself: am I
The keeper
Of my brother Cain

It’s a startling inversion. In Genesis, God challenges Cain to explain the whereabouts of his brother Abel whom he’s just murdered. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Cain notoriously retorts. But in the poem, it’s not the guilty party who’s challenged about his responsibility toward the innocent, but the innocent brother who’s questioned about his responsibility toward the guilty.

Are we, too, all keepers of those potential Cains who inhabit our world? I’m not thinking of murderers, but of those who exhibit the cruelty, or heedlessness, which seems to come so frequently to the fore across our societies these days? What, too, about the small part of Cain which may be present in ourselves, waiting for us to loosen our guard? Are we responsible towards these ‘brother’ Cains? What might that entail? Can we awaken in them a better self, someone, beneath all appearances, potentially merciful? If not, how can we best challenge and overcome them?

I fear we are indeed the keepers of our brothers Cain, external and internal. To fight them we need the energy of anger; we might call this ‘the anger of compassion’. How otherwise can we confront the destructive forces in our world? The art is not just to challenge them but, if and when possible, to turn them about so that they too become part of the work of nurturing life.

We need the solace of wonder to nourish our heart and spirit, and the energy of indignation to give courage to our conscience so that we join the struggle for what is just and right. In so doing, we gain the consolation of contributing whatever we can towards life and hope.

Why Tisha B’Av Matters

Some people call it Shabbat Katan, the ‘little’ or ‘diminished Shabbat’, but it’s more often known as Shabbat Chazon, ‘the Shabbat of the vision’. It’s not exactly a happy vision, though: Isaiah spells out what a society looks like when it ignores God’s demand for justice. The contemporary relevance of his warning is painfully explored in Noah Yuval Harari’s reflection from last week’s Haaretz (please note, this article is behind a paywall).

Isaiah’s prophecies make a challenging start to the week which includes Tishah B’Av, the 25 hour fast when we read Lamentations and recall the sacking of both temples in Jerusalem, the Crusades, expulsions and pogroms which have marked our fate.

What’s the point of remembering destruction? I don’t think the reason is to create a culture of victimhood, despite the fact that the Jewish People has, over millennia, so often been a victim of hatred, contempt and persecution. Despite this, Judaism has through thick and thin courageously maintained an ethos of responsibility and positive commitment. Therefore I believe the purpose is to look destruction and its horrors in the face and determine to do our utmost not to allow the world to be that way anymore.

I can’t help seeing Lamentations in double-vision. We read: starving children cry out to starving mothers, ‘Where are corn and wine?’ I think of the desolate alleys of a burnt-out Jerusalem where no one has the power to hold back the Babylonian soldiers any longer. Then I see pictures of Yemen, Somalia, and more. We read of the ruin of cities, and I see Mariupol, Bucha, and more.

Where is God amidst all this tragedy and evil? the rabbis asked, and continue to ask, over and again. Why does God let such things happen?

A famous Midrash imagines God summoning the ministering angels. God asks them: ‘What do human sovereigns do when a child of theirs has died?’ The angels answer: ‘They draw down the blinds, tear their garments and sit on the ground and weep.’ ‘Then I’ll shut up the heavens in darkness and do the same,’ says God.

Admittedly, this Midrash doesn’t answer the question of why God allows evil to happen. Instead, it speaks of a God who cries with us in every sorrow and whose tears fall with ours at every act of wanton destruction. It tells of a God who says, ‘It pains me terribly that my world should be like this.’ It depicts a God who suffers alongside humanity, and who therefore hopes and aspires alongside us too. It speaks of a God who says, ‘Let’s change the world, you and I.’

That, to my mind, is the point of remembering destruction: so that we determine to do our utmost for life in whatever field or manner lies within our power; so that we take into our hearts the presence of a God who weeps when life is squandered because God, too, loves life; so that we know and remember that this is what God wants of us most of all.

That’s why we hold that the Messiah is born on Tisha B’Av, and why it is the Sephardi custom to sweep our homes from midday on to make ready for the Messiah’s coming: Tisha B’Av is, strangely and paradoxically, the birthday of hope and determination.

That’s why, despite the fact that feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness often haunt me, I’m going to try to brush out of my spirit those thoughts of ‘can’t!’, ‘why bother?’, and ‘what’s the point?’

It’s why I’m determined to say, including to myself: If you can help one person, do it! If you can plant one tree, do so! If you can make one refugee, whom no one seems to want, feel wanted, do it! If you can let the wild flowers bloom that feed the insects that feed the birds, go and rejoice in them! ‘Kumah! Get up!’ we tell God whenever in our services we return the Torah scroll to the holy ark. I imagine God replying: ‘Yes, but you get up too. Get up, and I’ll get up with you. Care for my world, and I’ll care with you. Nurture one child, just one living thing, and I’ll be there right with you, in your heart and in your hands.’

Click here to listen to Rabbi Jonathan on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on Thursday 20 July.

The voice of hope and courage

‘Go tell Jerusalem, “I remember the devotion of your youth, the faithful love of your bridal days, following me through an unsown land…” (Jeremiah 2:2) These are some of my favourite words.

In the Bible, they’re what God instructs Jeremiah to tell an imperilled Jerusalem. In my family, they’re the inscription on my grandmother’s grave. My grandfather fell in love with her at a Purim party. They had to wait through most of the First World War before they could marry. They fled Nazi Germany together to a – to them – unknown and unsown land, this England.

Romantic as they sound, the truth behind God’s words to Jeremiah is hard. God is frustrated. Jerusalem is on the brink of destruction, yet the people won’t listen. They put their trust in the wrong things; they refuse to change their ways. It’s scarcely the best time to speak of love.

Yet to God nothing is more important. So why does God do it? How do we? In a world full of reasons for anguish, how do we turn to healing and love?

These are questions which weigh on the soul at this challenging season of the Jewish year, the three weeks beyn hameytsarim, ‘in the straits’, between the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem and the sacking of the city by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Romans in 70 CE. How do we turn destructiveness into creativity and frustration into hope?

I struggle with these issues constantly. Things distress me: how will what’s happening in Israel ever lead to less hatred and more understanding? Things sadden me: tomorrow will be the 500th day of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Things madden me: why is there such heartless injustice? Why does so much money go into things which destroy nature, and so little into restoring it?

But there’s no point, no strength of morale, no leadership in venting such feelings. What, then, is the spiritual formula, the inner alchemy, which turns anguish into action and trepidation into inspiration?

It’s definitely doable. The NHS, seventy-five this week, was established in the wake of the Second World War. It’s our best loved public institution, and deserves to be, for all it’s done and continues to do for tens of millions. Choose Love, which supports thousands of homeless refugees, was created out of the ‘Jungle’ at Calais. The Psalmist’s hope has been vindicated time and again: ‘I lie down at night in tears, but the morning brings joy.’

What nourishes this resilience? The inspiration is all around us. We have only to see what so many people are doing. I get requests all the time: Join our campaign to protect Europe’s wild spaces. Write about free school meals for children whose cupboards at home are bare. Meet Ukrainian environmentalists planning how to rebuild greener. Support our work to bring together women leaders from across Israel’s society, orthodox, secular, Druse, Christian, Muslim. How can one not be moved by what so many good people do, sometimes in private, often in small local groups, but also nationally and internationally against the current, courageously?

As well as looking outwards, it’s also important to travel inwards. We need to go down, not, as can happen, to grey inner spaces, but deeper still, to the well of living waters, the inexhaustible flow of God’s spirit within us. Here at this hidden well, life cleanses the mind, heals the heart and renews the spirit.

Here we encounter the voice which says, ‘Leave anger and frustration. Don’t feel down and don’t give up. Remember that faithful love which has led so many generations through unsown lands. It will surely guide you too.’

It’s a voice we need to hear.

I wish everyone Chag Sameach

I wish everyone Chag Sameach.

In these difficult times we draw strength from the depth of our faith and tradition.

The Haggadah tells the story of me’avdut lecherut, the journey from slavery to freedom. Into its ancient account we weave our narratives of now and find solidarity across tens of generations.

The struggle to maintain freedom is taking place today in Ukraine, in very different ways on the streets of Israel, and wherever in the world people strive to act with justice, behave with decency, and honour God’s image in every human being.

The values we affirm are simple: life matters, every person matters, justice matters, equality matters, kindness matters. We believe these to be the values God cares about because God is not the yes-man of tyrants, but weeps with all who suffer, whoever they are, and longs for redemption.

These are difficult times, but it is not difficult to know against what we must stand and be counted: tyranny, falsehood, injustice, cruelty, and the degradation of any human being anywhere.

These are difficult times, but it is not difficult to know for what we must stand: truth and integrity, Torat Tsedek – the rule of justice, Torat Chesed – the law of compassion, and the dignity of every person.

This Seder night we take courage from the generations who have gone before us and upheld these same values through other troubled years. We draw courage from the millions of fellow Jews and people of all faiths and nations who, at this very time, stand together with us in striving to live by these ancient, timeless and essential values.

May God give us strength and bless all the world with peace.

 

Chag Sameach

What the matzah says

‘Come in and mill it yourselves:’ Nicky and I were in Jerusalem’s Me’ah She’arim, in a courtyard so well hidden we had to ask three times before we found it. Everything was covered in white dust, except that this wasn’t dust but kosher-for-Passover matzah flour. ‘It’s a mitzvah to grind the wheat yourselves,’ said the Hasid in charge. Sadly, on this occasion we couldn’t stay, but, as the saying goes, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’

I love it when I bake my own matzah; everyone else loves it when I refrain. This year, when I can neither bake nor mill, I can at least mull, and there’s much to consider about what the matzah at the Seder means.

Firstly, there’s the question of whether it’s the bread of slavery or freedom. At the start of the Seder we say, ‘This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in Egypt,’ yet later we describe it as the flatbread baked hastily in liberty’s first flush. Which is it? Both, explains Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger, because only by remembering the cruelties of slavery can we appreciate the significance of freedom. Otherwise we’re liable to take it for granted, forget the sufferings of others and squander our own privileges, – until we realise once again how precious freedom is and demonstrate in the streets in its defence.

Then there’s the Torah’s description of matzah as lechem oni, which intrigued the Talmudic rabbis. Oni sounds like oneh, ‘respond’, making matzah the bread of question-and-answer, the food of curiosity. ‘Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Take responsibility for what you communicate,’ wrote Timothy Snyder in his 2017 masterpiece On Tyranny. Don’t rely on social media. Shun the dominion of fake news, the totalitarianism of lies. This too is essential in the defence of liberty.

But oni might equally derive from ani, poor. The Talmud explains: society must work as a team to support the poor just as matzah needs teamwork to make it kosher. Matzah, then, is the bread of society. Therefore I need to know who provided me with it, alongside Rakusens, and God ‘who brings forth bread from the earth.’ Remember where the wealth of nations comes from, wrote David Olusoga in Cotton Capital. Consumer culture tends to forget those whose lives and homelands are consumed in its making. Let matzah, then, be our bread of tzedakah, social and environmental justice.

But no name for matzah is as unlikely as that of the Jewish mystics: lachma de’asvatah, the bread of health. Many stomachs strongly disagree. Maybe, though, this is what the mystics meant: matzah’s made of flour and water, nothing else. There’s no yeast, oil, egg or sugar, not even any salt. Matzah’s simple; simplicity brings clarity and clarity leads to healing. Perhaps there’s an answer to why we’re here on earth which cuts through the complication and confusion: to serve not tyranny but freedom, not tyrants but the presence of God in all persons and all life.

Finally, a thought about process. Matzah can only be made out of the same five kinds of flour from which bread is baked: wheat, barley, oats, spelt or rye. What’s different about matzah isn’t the ‘what’ but the ‘how’. It’s as if the matzah says ‘We can do this a different way.’ That’s a message desperately needed across our world today.

I wish us all a happy and worthwhile Pesach and a year in which we truly value freedom.

Where God’s light shines

This Chanukkah I feel I’ve witnessed two moving examples of God’s presence in the world, and two more, by inference, which I’d rather not have seen.

Why ‘God’s presence in the world’? Because of a question the Talmud asks about the Menorah: ‘Does God really need its light?’ Isn’t it rather the other way round, that we need God’s light, not God ours?

The Talmud answers that the Menorah isn’t there to provide God with a torch, but to symbolise how God’s light illumines the world. The lamps of the Menorah ‘are testament that God’s presence dwells in Israel’ and throughout creation.

The first example of God’s light was very public, when the Mayor of London, Sadiq Kahn, celebrated Chanukkah in Trafalgar Square. London is the greatest city in the world, he declared, as he always loves to say. That’s because it’s a place where a Muslim mayor can light the Chanukkah candles with a rabbi next to a huge Christmas tree in its most famous square.

How often in human history, I wonder, has such togetherness been possible? To me, it exemplifies what the Torah means when it teaches that every person, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, gender, or any of the many features which so often divide us, is created equal in God’s image.

The second example was very private. I was welcomed into a residential care home to say the Chanukkah blessings. But it was a different light from that of the candles which caught my attention. I watched the staff; I witnessed their kindness, sensitivity and patience. It’s not easy to provide constant, intimate care to vulnerable people who’ve often lost so much of their stature and independence in the closing phases of their lives. The staff’s conduct made me think of the Kabbalistic quality of gevurah shebachesed, strength within loving kindness, that challenging balance of resilient compassion which requires so much attentiveness, gentleness and restraint. If God’s presence is anywhere in this world, it’s with people like these carers.

Sadly, there are two further examples I’d rather not have witnessed. Were they of God’s presence, or God’s absence? I’m not sure.

The first was the long queue at a nearby food bank. Yes, the bank shows that there exists deep compassion within our society, a determined protest against want, and against the harshness and injustice which causes it, and which leaves so many people unable to provide food and warmth for their families. But it would be incomparably better if such testament were not so desperately needed by so many.

The second was the news that girls have been denied access to serious education in Afghanistan. I know people this will affect, through the knowledge that the suffering their families and friends are enduring is now even greater. To me, this gross cruelty testifies precisely through what it negates: it highlights the truth that God’s presence shines equally in the minds and hearts of men and women, and that it’s deeply wrong, a devastating desecration, to attempt to limit that light.

So the Talmud’s answer makes every sense to me: Yes, God’s light shines across the world.

But how often it is obscured!

That leads me to challenge the rhetorical nature of the Talmud’s original question about God needing the Menorah’s light. The anticipated answers is, of course, ‘No!’.

But down here, in this complex world where the sacred is so often obfuscated by conflict, cruelty and self-interest, God does need us. It’s not our light which God needs, and that deep flame which illumines the heart and mind and shines through all creation doesn’t belongs to us anyway.

What God needs from us is to notice the light, in each other, every person and all life. God needs us to protect and nurture it wherever we perceive it. God needs the light of the Menorah to shine not just in our windows but in our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukkah

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