From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur: 1

‘Help us know what we can do?’ I’ve been asked repeatedly to stress the environment in my High Holyday letters. Each day until Yom Kippur I will try to focus on a different Jewish value, a specific sentence from the prayers, and practical actions we can take.

The place to begin is the beginning: ‘This day is the birthday of the world’. Rosh Hashanah celebrates creation and creator, all matter, every living being and the presence of the living God within all life.

Most of us realise we are in the midst of a climate emergency, the central issue in global justice, and survival itself.

Just as there is a debate among the legalists as to which is the first commandment, the fear or the love of God, so there are different views among climate activists as to whether we are motivated more by love or fear.

‘You shall love the Lord your God’, is the essence of the Shema, Judaism’s central, daily meditation. To love God is to care, deeply, for God’s works: people, animals, nature the very elements of earth and air.

I’ve met no one who hates trees, despises birdsong, or is immune to the intricacy of nature. To those who love it, the wonder of the natural world, even in a single leaf or bud, lifts the heart and replenishes the spirit. To anyone who reads any of the research, nature is also us: we are interdependent with it, dependent even on the smallest insects and worms.

Love, taught Maimonides, deepens with knowledge:

When one contemplates God’s works, perceiving in them a fraction of the infinite and endless divine wisdom, at once one is filled with love… (Foundations of Torah 2:2)

One does not have to believe in God to be moved in this way.

To love therefore means to learn. We can choose a tree, bird or animal (oak, ash, bumblebee, starling, elephant, red squirrel, cow), look out for it, study its fate, reflect on the challenges it faces today. We can join the Woodland Trust, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Plantlife, The Wildlife Trust, the Worldwide Fund for Nature or any similar organisation in the UK, Israel or across the globe.

Ignorance, when we have the opportunity to learn, is a form of indifference. But love leads to knowledge; knowledge to awareness, and awareness to action.

On its birthday the world calls to us in the shofar’s cry to be more deeply aware:

Let everything You made know that You made it; all creation understand that You are its creator. (The Rosh Hashanah Amidah)

If all life is so precious, how can we bear to destroy it? What can we do to protect it? How, in traditional terminology, can we be co-creators with God?

Pretending we didn’t notice

I was out for a practice run for next Sunday’s marathon when I saw behind an archway a homeless man sitting next to his sleeping bag, a cardboard cup in his hand. I had no money on me; I didn’t stop. But I saw him see me and felt I could I hear him think, ‘Another person who pretends I don’t exist.’

Tomorrow we encounter one of the most important words in the Hebrew Bible. It appears twice in the same section and nowhere else in the entire Torah: lehitaleim, to hide oneself away, to pretend one hasn’t noticed. ‘You may not do that’, the Torah insists: you are not at liberty to turn a blind eye.

The context is animals: You mustn’t see your brother’s ox or sheep astray and carry on as if you hadn’t noticed; you mustn’t find his lost donkey and act as if you never saw.

Perhaps we are tempted to think ‘it’s only animals’, an unpardonable excuse given the wanton cruelty our civilisation habitually inflicts on them, with meagre pity and remorse. If so, Isaiah puts us right, in a passage given prime time on Yom Kippur morning:

If you see the hungry, feed them; the naked, clothe them; the oppressed, free them. Do not hide from your own flesh.

If we’re inclined to say to ourselves, ‘But it’s their flesh, not mine. I’m OK’, we should bear in mind Shylock’s masterful summary of what common humanity means: ‘If they prick us, do we not bleed?’

Lehitaleim is a gripping term, a reflexive verb formed from the root a.l.m, hidden, which also gives us the noun olam, the rabbinic Hebrew for ‘world’. We live in a universe of concealment, the mystics insisted, and the art is to learn to see.

Some things, it must be said, are obvious; they ‘stare you in the face’: a lost animal, lost child, refugee, the lost mobility of someone who can’t get into the building, or bathroom, because there’s no proper access. In such cases the Torah insists that we may not pretend we didn’t notice.

Other matters are less apparent. I’ve often had the privilege of being in the company of people who truly see, – and deeply:

‘Did you notice how exhausted she looked? She always makes light of what she has on her shoulders. But…’

‘He was smiling. But he looked so pale…’

People like that see not just with their eyes but with their heart. They teach and humble us all.

In the long confession on Yom Kippur we ask atonement ‘for the sin of haughty eyes.’ The opposite is to have eyes of loving kindness and compassion, to see and not turn away, notice and not ignore. It’s the only antidote to the world’s hard-heartedness.

When the mystics describe our world as a domain of concealment, they don’t just mean that there is much suffering of which we fail to take note. They understand the presence of God to be hidden throughout creation, covered over by the material form which all being takes, driven down into the recesses of our consciousness because of our preoccupation with practical concerns.

But da’at, deeper, reflective awareness, can reveal to us the preciousness of everything, the inestimable value of all life, that there is not a living being which does not matter. In the rare, gifted moments when we see like that, we look with the heart and see to the heart. Then we realise; then we do not turn aside.

In the bewildering rush of the ceaseless encounters which urban life entails, we are bound to be overwhelmed. Inevitably, we will sometimes turn aside, turn a blind eye, hide ourselves away, pretend we hadn’t noticed. We couldn’t survive otherwise.

But sometimes, as much as we can, we must look and see, see and act, act from the heart. Otherwise we won’t know we have a heart anymore, and the purpose of life is to deepen the heart’s compassion.

 

The Jewish New Year For Animals

The new moon of Elul is approaching, the month of wakefulness. Every morning the shofar calls, ‘Awake, you slumberers; rouse yourselves, all you who are asleep’ (Maimonides). For soon all life will pass before God, in judgment tempered by love.

But the new moon of Elul is not merely the herald of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year par excellence. According to the majority view in the Mishnah, it is also a distinct new year in its own right:

The first of Elul is the new year for tithing cattle. (Mishnah: Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

Something of the kind must have been going on at the farm next to where we stayed last week for five wonderful days on the Isle of Mull (maybe it’s because the farmer almost certainly wasn’t Jewish that he got the date slightly wrong). Most mornings only a few highland cattle were in the yard. But on this particular day there were tens of them, cows and calves, with shovings and mooings, while the farmers with their crooks looked about as successful in trying to direct them as secondary-school teachers on a challenging day. No, it wasn’t an entirely bucolic scene; in the loud and frequent lowings were the indisputable tones of fear. The abattoir was just a dozen miles down the road.

The truth is that this is all too close to what the first of Elul originally was, the date on which all calves born in that year were counted and every tenth delivered to the Temple to await its turn to be sacrificed.

That was two thousand years ago. In recent times the first of Elul has been re-invented as The New Year for Animals, in exactly the same way as Tu Bishevat was re-created as The New Year for Trees. (See Hazon.org)

It is far from insignificant that this is the very date when the shofar first calls to us to account for our lives before God, ourselves, each other, and nature itself. The shofar is fashioned from the horn of an animal. It has always sounded in my spirit as the cry of all life, of the animals, forest, mountains, rivers, rain and mists; as a plea for life from the depths of the heart of all living being.

It’s not just because I love animals, because I find companionship and consolation in the presence of those animals who have been humankind’s partners for hundreds of generations. It’s also because I cannot bear the thought of the cruelty with which we habitually treat them, the disregard, the wilful ignorance, the contempt for their suffering. It’s also because I am terrified that we have spread so many poisons in the very elements of air, soil and water, and so trivially and thoughtlessly scattered the detritus of our carelessness and self-regard, that we will kill the birds, fish and bees, the invisible insects and the great wild animals. It’s because I fear, too, that only in the eleven-and-a-halfth hour will we truly understand how deeply interconnected we are, that our physical, moral and spiritual wellbeing is interdependent with all life. It is for all these reasons that I believe that a day demarcated in the calendar for honouring and respecting animal life is so important.

But a sole and single day is insufficient. The most urgent issue for humanity in our time is the rebalancing of our relationship with all life, the reconsideration of how we consume, travel and waste. For certain, there are sacrifices to be made. But the gains are greater: a deeper awakening to wonder, respect, awe and kinship; a renewed integrity and wholeness to our moral and spiritual being; the knowledge that what we bequeath to our children’s generation will not be a wasteland but somewhere beautiful, nourishing and inspiring.

I am horrified by the behaviour of my own species. I cannot say I am not guilty. But I want and intend to do all I can to make atonement with nature, and in so doing, with God.

 

Building the Temple in a riding centre in Toxteth and a crocheting commune in Tel Aviv

There is no such thing as neutrality, wrote the Hasidic teacher Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger, known after his work as the Sefat Emet. He was quoting the ancient rabbinic saying that ‘any generation in which the Temple is not built is a generation in which it is destroyed’. On Tisha Be’Av, the bleak fast which begins this Saturday towards the close of Shabbat and continues until dark on Sunday, we remember the destruction and commit ourselves to rebuilding.

In referring to the Temple, the Sefat Emet didn’t only have in mind a physical construction on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. His was the temple of the spirit, a fourth dimension in which we live according to what God asks for us. If we did so, this physical earth too would be transformed into a world of loving-kindness, justice and peace. It would finally become the sacred space God dreamed of at creation.

I have watched the Temple being built – and destroyed – in many places; so, I’m sure, have you.

I’ve seen its foundation stone set in the Drop-in for Destitute Asylum-Seekers. Bearing the wounds of trauma, yet all too often unwanted, unheard, un-helped and rejected, here people find an island of humanity. If someone were to ask: ‘What’s that got to do with Tisha Be’Av?’ I would answer: on this date our people were made homeless by the sacking of our sacred city and our land; this is the day our people became refugees:

Judah was exiled through poverty and hard labour;
her pursuers trapped her in the narrow passes…(Lamentations 1:3)

I’ve seen another keystone at Kuchinate in south Tel Aviv. Here Eritrean women, who’ve undergone horrors of which they do not speak, can earn enough money to avoid having to live on the streets and resort to prostitution to save their young children from hunger. They weave beautiful baskets to the sound of Eritrean music; they cook familiar dishes and find solidarity in working together.

The Temple is not just a structure of stone; it is also made of trees and meadows, of harmony between nature and humankind. I’ve seen it destroyed in sweeping measure, but also, on a scale as yet too small, recreated. I’ve walked with the family amidst bare mountains in Scotland and, revisiting them years later, seen flourishing woodlands. I’ve planted trees myself to restore the forests of the Jerusalem Hills.

God’s Temple is being built in numerous and unimagined ways. Esther Sills, new on the staff of The Council of Christians and Jews, told me how she connected Park Palace Ponies, a riding centre in an abandoned cinema in Toxteth, with asylum-seeker children. They aren’t allowed to go to school, she told me; they’re stuck inside their accommodation, isolated and frightened. But when they met the ponies they relaxed, smiled for the first time, gained confidence.

This reminds me of a moment of holiness in a central London hospital, where, my friend Jane told me, they brought a horse up 14 stories in the lift because a dying girl wanted to say goodbye. A few weeks later, Jane married her long-time partner there, in the visitor’s room of the neighbouring ward. The nurses allowed flowers; they decorated the whole area; they helped bring Jane to her marriage in a wheelchair. Less than a week later, she died, wise, accepting and at peace.

As we fast on Tisha Be’Av we think of our people’s pain through history, of the suffering of many peoples, of the devastation of nature, – and we therefore resolve to be builders of the Temple and not its destroyers. According to tradition the Messiah is born on Tisha Be’Av afternoon; let the Messiah of hope and commitment be born inside each of us then.

It is essential, wrote Rebbe Shalom Noach of Slonim, that ‘a broken heart belong always to the world of building, not to the world of destruction’.

 

75 years since the Porajmos, the murder of the Roma in Auschwitz

Today is the first of Av, month of sorrow. As the rabbis taught, when the moon of Av waxes, joy and celebration wane. The sad mood of the three weeks bein hametsarim, ‘between the troubles’, which began on 17 Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached, now intensifies. It will culminate in the fast of 9 Av, when we reflect on the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem.

Yet this month is also called Menachem Av, ‘Av the Consoler’. Perhaps this is because of the tradition that the Messiah will be born on its ninth day. Or maybe this very belief is an expression of faith and determination: we can and shall move from destruction to creation, from mourning to the celebration of the world’s birthday on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year.

Consolation comes, in part, from companionship and solidarity. ‘My friends have betrayed me, passers-by laugh at me, nobody cares’, writes the author of the Scroll of Lamentations, which we read on the eve of the fast. Only when we care and notice, only when we uphold and protect each other’s humanity, will the world truly change.

Later today I will attend the memorial for the Roma and Sinti peoples in Hyde Park.

In 2015 the European Parliament declared 2 August European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day to commemorate the Porajmos, ‘The Devouring’, the murder of 500,000 Sinti and Roma in Nazi-occupied Europe. It was on this date that the prisoners in the so-called ‘gypsy family camp’ in Auschwitz-Birkenau were gassed.

I have a huge Holocaust library, hundreds of books. But I’m ashamed to acknowledge how little I knew about the history of the Roma under Nazism. Yet the fate that overtook them is close to that of my own family.

The Nuremberg laws, which deprived my father of citizenship, also applied to the Roma. In 1938 Himmler designated as ‘asocials’ ‘gypsies and persons travelling in gypsy fashion who have shown no desire for regular work or have violated the law.’ He also included ‘all male Jews with previous criminal records’; on Kristallnacht this expanded to include simply ‘all male Jews’.

On his visit to the site in July 1942, Himmler ordered the swift expansion of Auschwitz II: ‘See to it that you move ahead with the completion of Birkenau. The gypsies are to be exterminated. With the same relentlessness you will exterminate those Jews who are unable to work’ (Auschwitz: D. Dwork and R. Jan van Pelt, p. 320)

The ‘gypsy’ camp was situated near what later became the ‘family camp’ for Jews from Theresienstadt. Thus my great-grandmother Regina, imprisoned there until she was murdered a month before them, must have witnessed the fellow-suffering of the Roma from close by.

In fact, August 2 was not the date initially designated for the destruction of the Roma. This was scheduled for May 16, but the camp guards met with such resistance that they withdrew, – to devise a more deceitful plan. Hence May 16 is commemorated as Sinti, Romani and Roma resistance day. Similarly, to honour the courage of those Jews who resisted physically and spiritually, in establishing 27 Nissan as the appropriate date, the Knesset named it not Yom Hashoah, but Yom Hashoah veHagevurah, the day of devastation and courage.

I’ll go to Hyde Park on the 75th anniversary of the Porajmos, out of solidarity and to learn. I’ll go not just because of the past, but for the future, to join the call from today’s commemoration at Birkenau to end ‘racism, antigypsyism and antisemitism in Europe and worldwide and work consistently for the rule of law and democracy’.

Only if humanity stands together can we travel safely from loneliness and sorrow to creativity and hope.

 

 

‘No racist bone in my body’?

Are we the people we like to think we are?

The Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, this Sunday, marks the beginning of the Three Weeks culminating in Tishah be’Av, the Fast of the Ninth of Av, during which our rabbis ask us to reflect on sinat chinnam, gratuitous hatred, and the destruction it leads to across the world.

President Trump provided a shocking example of such conduct when he told four congresswomen to ‘go home’. His comment exceeded the level of disdain to which there is a risk that we may have grown dangerously accustomed. It showed, in addition to its racism and sexism, precisely that contempt for democracy, that readiness to attack and try to undermine the very processes and institutions which brought him to power, which Yascha Mounk so disturbingly describes in his book subtitled ‘Why Our Freedom Is In Danger’.

Such words, let loose from the very top of the social hierarchy, have an incalculably injurious after-life. At a rally in North Carolina, the crowds chanted to their hero President, ‘Send her back; send her back’. One does not have to agree with everything the congresswoman may have said to appreciate the outrageous injustice and terrible consequences of fanning such populist hatred.

Yet we learnt this week from the President himself that he has not a racist bone in his body. So, at least, he appears to have claimed. He is far from being the only political leader on the current world stage to maintain that he cannot possibly be a bigot, xenophobe, misogynist, Islamophobe or anti-Semite. Some may simply not care; others may be under intractable illusions about themselves: ‘What? This can’t be me! I’m not sexist. I’m not a racist’.

It’s easy to see such self-delusions in others, harder to acknowledge them in ourselves. Most of us want to be the people we wished we were. We are all susceptible to the dangers of configuring the stories of ourselves accordingly: ‘I didn’t really mean…That wasn’t the real me…’ Who else was it then?

But we are not judged solely by the claims we make about ourselves. Nor are we judged only by those who love and may therefore flatter us. We are also judged by those we hurt. Therefore, if we have a conscience we will want to listen to what they have to tell us, not because it’s pleasant or convenient, but because it may be precisely from them that we have the most to learn.

Of course, the accusations may not be justified. But if we have integrity and self-respect we will at least listen, then filter them in our heart and conscience.

If, however, we maintain our denials, we become responsible for all the further wrongs which are likely to ensue. If we occupy positions of power, be it as parents, teachers, religious leaders, politicians or presidents, we are answerable for the cultures of dishonesty, disingenuousness, bullying, repression and intimidation which may well follow. Far from being an acceptable excuse, dis-acknowledgement constitutes an abdication of responsibility which adds insult to injury.

Few verses from the Prophets are as widely quoted as Micah’s rhetorical question: ‘What does the Lord require of you? Only to love kindness, act justly and walk humbly with your God’. It has never struck me before how significant it is that these should be the words we read on the Shabbat which every year exactly precedes the commencement of the Three Weeks.

If we want to avoid causeless hatred, we need to ask ourselves regularly and often if we are treating other people, whoever they are, with fairness and compassion. We need to consider whether we are listening to God’s voice as it expresses itself through them and if we are allowing it to humble and to teach us.

 

D-Day and a Torah of Life

Torat Chaim, – a Torah of life’: these words keep going through my mind as I think of yesterday’s commemorations of D-Day, and of the world and its needs today.

BBC Radio 4 news was absolutely right to conclude its broadcast with the words of veterans: ‘My friends who were hit lay in the water, face down. We could do nothing to help them. I’ll never forget them’.

It’s simply true: they died so that we could live. They risked their lives, poured out the irreplaceable ‘sweet red wine of youth’ and lost their lives in the cause of life itself, fighting a culture at the core of the ideology of which was death: the mass murder of millions deemed ‘unworthy of existence’. One thinks of how Ann Frank marked the advance of the western allies, for so many critical weeks so painfully slow, on the family’s map in the secret annexe. Would life or death reach them first?

Last Sunday was Yom Yerushalayim. I remember as a boy of nine my father phoning his sisters in Jerusalem, overhearing him repeat ‘They’ve sent the children home from school’. I’m still in touch with the two boys of my age whose parents sent them to stay in London, because they feared the worst. Many, only a few years older, gave their lives in that city, may the day come soon when it is surrounded by true, enduring peace.

For years, I took groups from Noam camp in France to see the Normandy beaches. We would go to a small cemetery, hard to find in the narrow lanes connecting the villages and farms behind Sword beach. I’ve always been moved by the words on the graves of soldiers whose names could no longer be identified: ‘Known unto God’. This simple phrase expresses the refusal to consider any life ever as without value.

On one grave in the British military cemetery at Bayeux, where yesterday’s main commemorations were held, I saw just the one word ‘Mitzpah’. Considering the Biblical context, I think it meant ‘I, your wife, will treasure your memory forever; and you, look after me from heaven’. Our dog of that name was in the car. ‘Maybe that soldier loved dogs’, Nicky said, and we stood there thinking not just of the violent death that young man had encountered but of the life, the fun and joy of life, which had been stolen from him.

So today, we who have inherited life, freedom and the trusteeship of a world for which so many died: what do we owe? How can we duly, truly honour life?

The close of Shabbat will usher in Shavuot, celebrating the giving of the Torah of life. This Torah opens with a poem, a paean, a celebration of creation, from the first unfolding of light, to the trees, birds, animals and human. Each and every element, from land and water upwards, has its natural integrity; each and every human being carries the innate dignity of bearing the image of God, creator and lover of life.

Our generation too must fight for life, in every sphere of existence. We need to challenge hatred, racism, anti-Semitism and the denigration of others wherever and in whatever sphere we encounter them. We need to value and care about one another’s lives, from refugees from terror to whoever lives in our street. We need to care for the homeless and destitute and those who feel no hope. We must cherish and rewild our landscapes and our world, so that we stop killing off the millions of plants and animals with whose future’s our own continued existence is inextricably intertwined. We need to consider and change our habits of unreflective consumption which are poisoning the very elements, of creation, water, air and earth.

It is such a beautiful world. So many who died so young would have given so much just to stare at a hillside, to see their children bathe their feet in a stream. All the Torah of life asks us to do is to love life and respect it, in faithfulness and service.

 

On revelation: God in the supermarket

Shavuot, just nine days away, is the festival of revelation, of God’s giving the Torah.

I’ve experienced revelation; I suspect we all have. Of course, it’s not the grand kind, with God’s voice emerging amidst thunder and lightning. It’s the little kind, easily overlooked or discounted.

There’s the moment when I turned into our driveway and saw a little boy with his grandmother staring at our garden. They seemed nervous, as if they oughtn’t to have stopped so long and were about to be told to go away.

But they’d reminded me of how, when I was a small boy, my father took me for a walk soon after my mother had died. As we passed a plant nursery the owner came out; he and my father exchanged quiet words, then the man gave me a pot with a yellow primrose.

I lowered the car window and asked the child to choose the flower he liked best. He spent a long time deciding, before settling for a tall daffodil which I cut and gave to him.

It was that man at that nursery who helped me do what was right, fifty-five years later. He revealed to me a glimpse of that reservoir of kindness from which a constant river flows just beneath the surface of ordinary things, passing through the human heart. He showed me a path to its banks.

Or there’s the night before our teacher, Rabbi Jacobs, passed away, may his memory be for righteousness and blessing. He was in hospital in town. The family were all gathered there; it was a Friday night and I didn’t know what they had to eat. ‘Fruit’, I thought, ‘People do eat fruit at such anxious, loving vigils.’ Veronica Kennard helped me locate three nearby greengrocers.

I called the first number and explained. ‘I can do you a basket’, the man said. ‘And deliver it?’ ‘Yes’. I got out my credit card. ‘It’s £xx for the fruit’, he said. ‘And delivery?’ I asked. ‘I understand why you are doing this. It’s important. I wouldn’t dream of charging.’

The fruit arrived promptly. To my great sorrow, when I wanted to write and thank the man, I realised I’d lost the contact details. If by the remotest chance this reaches someone who recognises ‘that was me’ I thank you truly, and for more than the free delivery. You showed something deeper than the material fabric and materialist transactions which dominate this world.

Or there’s the rush-hour moment at the supermarket when the frail elderly lady in front of me reached the head of the queue. Despite impatient customers, the woman at the till greeted her with ‘How are you today, my darling?’ helped her put three small items in a much-used bag, and, when she handed over her purse saying ‘I can’t manage’, carefully counted out the exact amount, so that everything was open and fair.

Or when Heather, much missed, told me that her best therapy in her cancer was to walk around the corner and talk to her loved tree…Or when…Or when…

These in many ways ordinary experiences scarcely amount to God speaking from the mountain top. But to me they are far from unimportant. They show how the smallest interactions can be manifestations of love, kindness, faith and trust. So trivial they can easily be missed or dismissed, they testify to something gentle but tenacious, simple yet sacred, which unites us.

Maybe that’s why the Torah doesn’t just say ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, but ‘Love your neighbour as yourself, I am God’. For in such moments, something of God is revealed.

Yom Hashoah: memory and what we do with it

We carry them with us, those who loved us and whom we have loved. We don’t know what unexpected sound, smell, touch will suddenly bring their memory to consciousness. In such matters the passage of time is irrelevant. A month, twenty years: the dead speak in our hearts as if eternity were a single everlasting yesterday:

And pricking himself on a needle
Still stuck in a piece of sewing,
Suddenly he sees her
And cries quietly. (Boris Pasternak: The Zhivago Poems)

Yesterday was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day according to the Jewish date. My yellow candle has now burnt out. I lit it, as did tens of thousands of others, for a child, family unknown. Aleksandr Derevicher was 5 when he was murdered at Mariupol in 1941. I shall put the little card with his name in one of my prayer books; there I shall find it again, amidst the songs and prayers.

Zochrenu lechayyim, remember us for life: it’s the simplest, most poignant phrase from the High Holyday liturgy. We take those who loved us with us into the life they gave us, the life they enriched for us with their faith and wisdom, and no doubt also complicated with their foibles, their meshugaas. We also carry with us those they loved, and who loved them, and even the communities who nurtured them. Somehow, little Aleksandr Derevicher walks with us too, his own life, his childhood eagerness, so utterly and cruelly destroyed.

On the day before Pesach I was putting jars of the charoset my son had just made into parcels of food and wine for the Seder night to send as small ‘thinking-of-you’ tokens to families where there was illness or grief, when I recalled the letter my great-aunt Sophie sent to her brother in New York from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on April 8, 1941:

We finished our preparations for Easter. The house is in order. Dear Mama did a lot of work on the Easter gifts; we sent eight parcels…

Presumably she wrote ‘Easter’ instead of ‘Passover’ to bypass the censor.

Tomorrow I shall take down one of the sealed jars of fruit which I bottled in memory of Sophie because that’s what she used to do with her garden produce, and because my father taught me how to do it too. Nicky and I will serve it to our guests for Shabbat lunch.

I never knew Sophie. Yet she’s in my life, her memory for a blessing.

In his powerful book Who Will Write Our History, Samuel Kassow records the words of David Graber, a member of the Oyneg Shabbes group who hid documents, diaries, testaments in milk cans beneath houses in the Warsaw Ghetto:

What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground…We would be the fathers, the teachers and educators of the future. But no, we shall certainly not live to see it…May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened…

The truth, the facts, must be known; every piece of testament is significant. Deceit and denial will only arm other hatreds. They already do.

But there is also something else, something no less important: zochrenu lechayyim, remembering for life, in the small, ordinary things we do, the foods we cook, the melodies we sing, the long and ancient tradition of compassion and community, mitzvot and learning, which is in reality a mosaic of the loves, fears and values of millions of lives, some lived into venerable age, some cut short by terrors.

To be faithful to those who perished, we must try to turn memory not only into warning, but also into wisdom.

 

Countdown to Pesach: A Journey Round the Seder Plate

A Journey Round the Seder Plate

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

The Matzah – By Oliver Joseph

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

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

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

The Karpas, Maror and Charoset – by Jonathan Wittenberg

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

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

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

The Egg and Bone – by Zahavit Shalev

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

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

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

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

We all wish everyone a Chag Sameach

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