The fate of the earth: God and our children will hold us to account

Birthdays aren’t always simple experiences.

I remember as a child looking forward with impatient excitement to my birthday, then agreeing with my older brother that the day after was a low point, ‘because it’s now ‘364 days until your next birthday’. Those were the times!

As we get older we don’t necessarily want our friends to clock the passing of our life. I’ll never forget how we made a card for a relative’s ninetieth and were asked in no uncertain terms to alter the ‘9’. Few of us truly believe we’re getting older at the rate we actually are.

From time to time I’m asked questions trickier than such foibles: Do I send greetings to X? I hurt her, but want to make up, – is it OK to get in touch?

I feel like that about Rosh Hashanah, the ‘birthday of the world’. I love the world, yet know I mistreat it. What greeting should I send?

No-one attends a friend’s birthday, then stays behind to trash his home. But that’s what we do with the earth. It’s not ours. It belongs to God, to all the lives it sustains, and to our children’s children.

Yesterday I met with Michael, Gove, Secretary of State for the Environment. I spoke to many activists beforehand and read their papers: the net-zero carbon emissions target must urgently be brought forward to 2050; air pollution costs lives; intensive farming hurts wildlife and poisons the soil; eating little or, better, no meat would have a huge impact on global warming.

I had a pre-meeting with the editor of the government report: A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. I asked what legal teeth the good intentions in the paper would have in the forthcoming Environment Act and how urgent the timelines would be. ‘The Secretary of State and the Treasury need to hear these concerns from people like you’, he replied. (I’d been clear to the point of shameless about how many environmental groups I was in touch with.)

I believe the conversation with Michael Gove went well. ‘We need your pressure; hold us to account’, he stressed. ‘The timing is good, as we draft the Act’. ‘Will it comply with the net-zero emissions by 2050 target?’ I asked.

There was one email I received from a Christian activist which had no briefing papers attached. She simply wrote: ‘He’s meeting you because you’re a spiritual leader: you should say something about that’.

I did. Michael Gove was aware that Rosh Hashanah was near. At New Year we all stand before God. We can think of this also as standing before the world’s yet unborn generations. ‘Today is the birthday of the world’, we will say. Then what? What are we intending to do if we don’t want to continue trashing the celebrant’s home? God and our children’s children will hold us all to account, ministers of religion and state alike.

A beautiful, challenging Mishnah (2nd century) insists that every person must say, ‘For me the world was created’, because we each have a unique contribution to make.

‘For me’: what am I going to do about it?

 

The sound of the shofar and the breath of creation

It is the custom to blow the shofar every day (except Shabbat) during the month of Elul at the close of the morning prayers. So I picked up my shofar early this morning, then remembered the tacit agreement in our household, tacit being the word, that none was to blow the shofar before 9.00 am.

Instead, I simply breathed into the shofar, with no pressure, as I would breathe an ordinary breath. To my surprise, the shofar wasn’t silent, though I’m sure it wasn’t so loud that anybody else could hear it. It made a sound like a gentle breeze across fields or through a grove of trees on a still, calm day. Very quietly, the shofar sang.

It reminded me of a passage by the Hasidic teacher Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piazetsner Rebbe:

The fundamental reason all beings are created is so that they should sing, for in this way they reveal the greatness of God. Every single created being sings, as we know from The Chapter of Song. Thus, each and every being reveals a spark of the glory of the God of blessings.                      (Derech Hamelech to Rosh Hashanah)

The Chapter to which he refers ascribes words from the Bible to all existence, from the seas and rivers to the eagle and the swallow, whose lyrics are: ‘So that my soul may sing to you and not be silent’.

I always think of the shofar as coming from the depths of creation. Formed from the horn of a ram or mountain goat, its rough, un-honed cry calls of the bond which unites all nature, animal and human. It speaks without words of our bare and basic togetherness in this world of cold and warmth, food and hunger, life and death. The breath which flows through the shofar resonates with the ruach, the breath or spirit which breathes through all life, the spirit of God which hovered over the face of the deep in the beginning and which creates and sustains all living being. It calls us home to the sacred within ourselves, and in all life.

More than in any other section, the Torah speaks this week of our responsibility towards animals: not to ignore a lost ox or sheep; not to turn a blind eye toward a donkey collapsing beneath its burden; not to take a mother bird from the nest with its young and so hasten the extinction of its species; not to harness an ox and ass together, making a mockery of their unequal strength. The Torah and Talmud understood well what Jeremy Bentham later expressed: that the issue is not whether animals are intelligent or able to talk, but that, like us, they are susceptible to suffering.

The shofar calls us back to the bond of life. For too long a utilitarian attitude to nature has prevailed: How much land can I make mine? How much milk can I squeeze from each cow? Farmers do have to make a living in extremely hard times. But if a solely exploitative attitude prevails, humankind will suffer and perhaps perish alongside the world we abuse.

The Mishnah considers whether the shofar blown on the New Year should be pashut – ‘simple’, or kafuf’- ‘curved round’. Tradition decided in favour of the latter, seeing in the shape of such a shofar the image of a person bowed in prayer: ‘The more one humbles oneself the better.’

We need that humility. It’s not the humility of passivity or resigned subservience. It’s the humility of understanding, of realising that the breath which flows through us is part of the same gift, the same song which sings in all creation.

 

Praying with the sea and the wild deer

I have always loved Psalm 27, the special Elul and High Holyday meditation. But yesterday I got no further than the first three words: ‘To David: God, you are my light…’

The light was indeed wonderful across the far north west of Scotland. With glorious disregard for the dismal weather forecast, the sun shone bright across the mountains and the sea. So I set out for an early run and soon found myself alone on the half-mile curve of orange sand where the ocean yields to the hills and glens at Gairloch, There weren’t even any footprints, save the paw marks of a lucky dog who’d been out at dawn to race the white-crested waves.

It hadn’t been my plan when I set out, but I stopped to say shacharit. True, there weren’t the requisite ten people for the quorum. But how often in a life does one have for one’s prayers the company of the sand and the sea, the mountains, the forests, the clear air, the wind and the brightness of sunlight over the bay?

And God was here amidst this simple beauty, and it felt as if in response to my Shema, ‘God, you are one’, God was answering, ‘Yes, I am here; this is my home amidst this wonder. Recognise me; remember me wherever you are, and don’t let all your other thoughts block me out of your heart and mind.’

Later that day, at a roundabout where two major routes through the Highlands meet, we saw two young stags, calmly chewing the grasses and sedge by the road verge, unperturbed, contemptuous almost of all these high-velocity human interlopers; knowing with the same instinct with which they skipped nonchalantly over the tall fences, who is at home in these wild and wet lands and who is not; beautiful.

Had there been time I would have made them my companions in prayer for the afternoon minchah meditation. Instead, I simply looked. I didn’t look with my frequent worried eyes of ‘what’s expected of me and what am I supposed to do?’ I didn’t look with the selfish eyes of ‘what’s in it for me and mine?’ I just looked.

For those moments God was my light.

Now, back home in this Elul month of preparation before Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, a simple prayer flows through me; I’d like it to sing inside me like a clear mountain stream as it tumbles over rocks and through pebbles: Tahareni; purify me.

Help me to see to the quick of life, its wonder, its beauty. Give me eyes of openness and appreciation. Then may my attitude, my words and deeds, reflect back gratitude and kindness. May my response be care and consideration, and courageous compassion for this precious world and this brief time in which to know and cherish it.

God, be my light, to see all life in your light. For, though that light seems brighter and your song clearer where the small birds swoop over the shallow river as it flows from the loch to the sea, you are the heart of everything, all human life, all life.

Where we find comfort

Today is Tu B’Av, the 15th of the month of Av, the Jewish version of Valentine’s Day, when according to the Mishnah the daughters of Israel would dance in the vineyards and the young men would choose their life’s partners (not entirely egalitarian, but romantic nonetheless).

According to tradition, 15 Av marks the beginning of the grape harvest which continues until the eve of Yom Kippur, the other ‘dating date’ on which girls would go out to the vineyards and dance.

In Israel the day has been given a new name, Chag Ha’Ahavah, the Festival of Love. It is a special privilege to celebrate a wedding today.

Tomorrow is Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people’, declared the prophet Isaiah in words the timeless power of which inspired Martin Luther King’s famous speech on Capitol Hill:

Every valley shall be raised up and every mountain made low.
The glory of God will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

In Judaism there are two great sources of consolation: life itself, and values. War and persecution have never eroded the tenacious commitment to both. I often hear stories like these:

She met my father at a railway station in Poland in August 1945. They were both looking for surviving members of their families. They didn’t discover any, but they did find each other. She was just 18, he was 20.

 My father came here a refugee, alone. None of his achievements mattered to him a fraction as much as creating a new family. His loved to sit at the head of the Friday night table, his children and grandchildren around him.

Two weeks ago, I found myself overwhelmed by my own experience of consolation. It was Libbi’s graduation. As I watched her, with love and pride, it suddenly struck me that Lore, my mother, would have marked her graduation as a doctoral candidate in the very same location seventy years earlier. We’d named Libbi after her, giving her the same second name, Shulamit, and the same initials, L. S. When I got home, I looked out the photographs: the gown, the mortar board, – little had changed. Lore came to Britain as a refugee. She passed away young; she didn’t see her children grow up or marry, she never knew her grandchildren. Two generations had now passed, yet here we were: ‘Mir zaynen do’.

In his brief, warm welcome the Pro-Vice-Chancellor spoke of the 800-year-old ideals of the pursuit of truth and knowledge.

To Jews, these values are more ancient still, coupled with the commitment to carry out God’s will through justice and compassion. I saw them put into practice at Noam, our youth movement’s, pre-camp this week. There I witnessed four kinds of passion: a deep engagement in Jewish learning; an adventurous commitment to Tikkun Olam, making the world better for the outcast and neglected; an acute awareness that we must do far more for the wellbeing of our planet; a passion for shared, collaborative leadership.

In the love of life and the commitment to these ideals lies our consolation.

 

 

What we must learn from destruction

Tishah Be’Av, the bleak 25 hour fast of mourning on which we recall the disasters of Jewish history, poses a central question: What must we learn from destruction?

I grew up in a world which remembered war. One of my teachers had been decorated for bravery in the Royal Navy; another suffered continued mental torment from his years as a prisoner of the Japanese. My parents spoke about hunger, bombings, flight for their lives.

The generations who lived through the wars remembered; they strove for no more war.

In 1919 The League of Nations was created “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security.”

On 26 June, 1945, the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco:

We, The Peoples Of The United Nations, Determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind..

On 10 December 1948, in Paris, the United Nations adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming that

recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Too many leaders of our generation seem to have forgotten. National politics and international relations are increasingly characterized by self-interest, aggression, cunning, bigotry, folly and contempt for the lives of the weakest. Last night I heard Philip Pullman speak of an age of ‘mendacity, hypocrisy and stupidity’.

The rabbis of the Mishnah lived during the Roman persecutions, between the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135, both commemorated on Tishah Be’Av. They saw the war against Rome as leading only to self-destruction. The Talmud records that

There were sufficient supplies in Jerusalem to outlast a siege for 21 years. There were lawless gangsters there. The rabbis said to them: ‘Let’s go out and make peace’, but the former would not let them. They, in turn, said, ‘Let’s go and make war’. ‘It’s futile’, the rabbis responded’. The gangsters burnt down all the food stores and famine forced the people to fight.        Talmud, Gitin 56a

The Talmud’s overall verdict: ‘Needless hatred destroyed Jerusalem’.

Similar needless hatred could destroy the entire world today. That is why it is essential to learn from destruction.

What does it teach? Sadly, probably not that war is always wrong. There is a point when tyranny must be resisted, lest it swallow us all up. War remains a last resort.

We learn that we must try our utmost to live by the creative arts of peace and understanding. We learn that wanton aggression, boastfulness, vulgarity, cruelty, exploitation, injustice and contempt for life are evil, and exact a terrible price not just from their victims but, through the slow yet inevitable processes of time, on their perpetrators as well.

Above all, we learn to cherish life, all life, and the gifts of understanding, healing and creativity which lie within us all.

 

The Teaching of Life: tears and solidarity

There is one quality associated incomparably more than any other with Torah, the teachings, law and lore at the heart of Jewish existence: life. The Torah is Torat Chaim, the Torah of life. For its inspiration flows from the same invisible springs and currents which nourish all life, feeding the roots of the trees of forests and orchards, inspiring the heart, flowing through all living beings.

Consequently, the Torah is equally Torah Hesed, the Torah of faithful kindness, of a compassion which includes an urgent sense of justice. For how can the Torah of life require anything other than that we should respect, nurture and cherish all life? This is the ideal of which the prophet Isaiah dreamt in an ancient version of ‘Imagine’ when he saw a world in which ‘None shall hurt or destroy in all [God’s] holy mountain’.

Throughout the millennia, as Jewish teachers and communities have studied the Torah, understood as God’s word and the expression of God’s will, they have interpreted, re-interpreted and sometimes deliberately mis-interpreted its apparent meanings in the light of these overriding values: life, compassion, justice.

Yet this very week, as we approach Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah of Life, there has been bitter hatred and terrible killing. Whatever our politics, religion or identity, we must mourn these terrible wounds in the body and heart of our collective humanity.

The Talmud speaks of God weeping. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto, wrote in March 1942 of God withdrawing to the inner chambers to weep. He counsels those who feel terrified and alone to seek God there, in those interior spaces of the spirit.

Over the last five years it has become clear that we live at a time of a renewed and aggressive politics of identity. It is manifest in different, but inter-related ways, across much of the globe. It incites in us a visceral reaction to stand only with our own; to draw up lines of defence, internally as well as externally; to recall our universalist hopes or fantasies and batten down our moral imagination. It is hard to resist these reactions.

Yet we are also drawn to an inner space in which we hear life’s tears, the sorrows of those whose children have been killed; or whose sons have to go to the dangerous front lines of the army; or who have no homeland, or home; who face the brutal police of violent regimes, who are on the wrong side of the guns of vicious, racist militias. With us in that same space are those who devote their very souls to care for the ill, get food to hungry families, imagine how to give shelter to the destitute. There too are the people, from across the globe, who strive to protect the very earth which nourishes us, its animals, fishes, trees and meadowlands, and who mourn in the barren spaces where birdsong used to be.

I believe we can, and must, try to find each other there, not just because we each have cause to weep, but because, even more deeply, we are united by the love of life, the desire for life to thrive. The teaching of life and compassion, as Torah, Gospel, Koran, or as an agnostic sense of wonder and awe, calls us into fellowship to serve humanity, the earth and the life it sustains, and, if we so believe, the God of this rich and unfathomably intricate and inter-connected creation. We can only do so together; we can only maintain hope together, and, because we stand together, we can affirm to each other that no good, compassionate, creative action we undertake is too small to matter.

That, I believe, is what the giving and receiving of Torah truly means, on this festival of Shavuot.

Between Yom Ha’Shoah and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut

These days between Yom HaShaoh, the Hebrew date for Holocaust Memorial Day and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, are caught between anguish and hope.

I lit my yellow candle in memory of a child murdered by the Nazis. I thought, as I had promised my father, of all the members of the family who were killed, saying their names, one by one.

There went through my mind once again the unforgettable lines with which Primo Levi described the four Russian horsemen, the advance party of the Red Army, who freed him from the universe of Auschwitz. They did not greet those they liberated, nor did they smile, oppressed by a ‘confused restraint’:

It was that shame we knew so well…[the shame] that the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.

Such shame should penetrate the heart of humanity at the gassing of civilians, of children, in Syria. Once again, the will for good seems to have proved too weak. Once again, powerful amoral leaders and their armies behave with cynical contempt for life. Again, the West faces the difficult decision of if and how to intervene militarily so that the situation for those who have already suffered so much may be made better, not worse. In Israel, so a friend told me, the word on the horrified street was, ‘We must help the children, we must help the children’. (I hope one of the UK’s responses will be to take in more children, families, refugees from horror.)

Meanwhile Israel, our country, where I love to be, which has so many achievements, and so much idealism still today, approaches its 70th birthday with plenty of challenges and problems of its own.

In November 1943 my father’s uncle, Alfred Freimann, who fled Germany in 1933, wrote to his brother Ernst in New York, who escaped Europe in 1939:

We saw another part of our beautiful countryside; the whole strip of land along the coast is like one flowering garden. If they let us work in peace and quiet, and didn’t prevent immigration, we’d soon have one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

Alfred did not live to see either the flourishing of his hopes or the refusal of Israel’s enemies to allow the country to live in peace and quiet. He was killed in the infamous attack on a convoy of academics to Mount Scopus on this very day, April 13, 1948, exactly 70 years ago. My father, who was in the Hagganah at the time, spoke of this with horror and anger. His own Yahrzeit, fittingly, is on Yom Ha’Atazma’ut.

Each year at this season I phone my friend Aaron Barnea, whose son fell in Lebanon on the eve of Yom HaShoah. He’s a founding member of the Parents’ Circle, sharing grief, hope, and the determination to achieve a better future for both peoples with Palestinian bereaved. I have learnt, through Aaron and others like him, how deeply it matters to try to listen to and look at the world with a conscience for their grief and hopes as well.

I want to stand in solidarity with those who, in spite of everything, dream, aspire, care, teach, work, and dedicate their lives to creating the Israel described in the Declaration of Independence, a state Jewish not only in its demography but in its core values. I want to stand with those who live and teach the Torah of loving kindness and justice; who care for the hungry, the sick and the suffering; who build bridges between communities, faiths, and peoples; who strive to make Israel a land which welcomes, and does not deport, refugees from persecution; who share Israel’s skills and technological expertise with impoverished regions around the world; who live with faith, courage, creativity and hope amidst all the difficulties, dangers, threats, mistakes and bigotry which challenge the country from without and within; who want to get on with ordinary, decent, hardworking lives, raising their family, loving their children, and praying for a safe and peaceful future.

The world is once again in a frightening and dangerous place. The record of the Jewish past teaches us that if history challenges our dreams and ideals, we need to learn from that history and work for our dreams and ideals even harder.

 

Song of Songs: We must not fail to notice and to bless

I rose up early, to see the moon shining yellow through the branches of the pine tree.

I had awoken thinking of that wonderful moment when my son called out to me as I came into the final straight of the Jerusalem Marathon ‘Abba, Abba, run with me’ and had taken my hand and we’d completed the last two hundred metres together’. And at the same time, I was thinking of two close friends who have lost a child; my heart going out to them. And at the same time, thinking of this unknown, this beauty, anguish and heart-sorrow of life.

‘Run with me’: how short, how precious is the time we have, to stand together, to run, see, witness the glory of this world, to have the companionship of life.

On Chag Ha’Aviv, Pesach, the festival of spring, we read The Song of Songs. On Chag Assif, Succot, the festival of autumn and ingathering, we read Ecclesiastes.

Hevel Havalim, vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity.’ The autumn wind, leaf fall, life fall, may carry all before it.

But Ecclesistaes is wrong; surely all is not vanity. There is the glory of the in-between time, the span we are granted of life. ‘Draw me after you; we shall run and follow you’: the author, or authors, of The Song of Songs knew that life must be relished, pursued.

The Hebrew Bible is always a text which notices, from the first unfurling of the young leaves of creation, the planting of the first garden in Eden with its four rivers to water its growth.

But nowhere is this awareness more acute, more simple, more wondrous than in The Song of Songs. The young buds of the pomegranate; the fleeting deer standing still for a single moment by the lattice-work of the fence, before running hastily, gracefully away to the distant hills; the apple tree alone in the midst of the forest; the hour and season of the songbirds: these details, easily missed, easily regarded as irrelevant in a world of kings, prophets and wars, are observed, noted, cherished, loved. They are the garden, the universe, of the life and love we are granted, briefly, to share.

At the heart of this landscape is a mystery, gan na’ul, ‘a locked garden’, ma’ayan chatum, ‘a fountain sealed’. For we do not know and never will fathom the source and wellspring of the wonder of life, its small, everyday miracles, the primrose by the side of the stone, the violets in the grass beside the woodland path. Maybe one day it will be possible to offer a scientific, materialist analysis of everything, even consciousness itself. But in the moment of awareness, in the joy and engagement of seeing, in the companionship of love, such explanations will fall away, irrelevant, not contiguous, unable to touch the exhilaration of being alive.

Of course, Ecclesiastes is correct in the end. The day will come when the cord at the fountain is broken and the pitcher tumbles out of sight to the bottom of the well. We know what awaits.

But that does not, should not, must not negate the now, ‘The interim is mine’, ours, yours; the interim belongs to life. Admittedly only the interim, and that is the sorrow which seizes the heart.

But that interstice is now; therefore, as the lover says to his beloved in The Song, ‘Rise up, let us go’ for the garden is full of flower, the orchards and vineyards are in blossom. We must not fail to notice, and to bless.

 

Pesach Seder Reflections 5778

13 Nisan 5778/29th March 2018

It’s cleaning day, and if I write at too much length everyone will think I’m shirking. But I want to set down some thoughts about the Haggadah, which simply means ‘telling’, the telling of the story.

Whose story is it we tell?

First of all, it’s the story of our own people. Avadim hayinnu – ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt’: the narrative of our ancestors’ redemption from generations of slavery lies at the core not just of our history but of the entire Jewish ethical tradition. From hopelessness to hope, from indignity to dignity, from injustice to justice, from cruelty to compassion, from servitude to freedom – this is the journey we think of when we refer to the Exodus from Egypt not only at Passover, but every Shabbat when we make Kiddush, and every day, morning and evening in our prayers. It is for this journey that we thank God and strive to do God’s will. For the memory of the redemption from Egypt is not intended merely as the recollection of our collective past, but as the constant impetus towards a tomorrow when the dream of freedom and justice for us and for all nations will be realised.

The Haggadah is our particular, personal family story. I was asked only yesterday whether writing my book My Dear Ones: One Family and the Final Solution had ‘brought me closure’ regarding my father’s past. ‘The opposite’, I said. (I’m anyway suspicious of the word ‘closure’. Life does not hold closure, but only what we make of our past, how we travel onward with our experiences, both sweet and bitter). ‘Writing the book has brought openings, to people whose names I had scarcely heard, about whose lives I once knew nothing but now understand more. It has opened the door too to greater understanding of the plight of today’s refugees, desperate to gain the precious documents which will allow them to cross the borders between persecution and freedom, death and life; desperate to save their families, their children.’ I think of my great-aunt Sophie’s recipes, my great-grandmother sending food parcels from Nazi controlled Czechoslovakia to those even worse of – as long as she was allowed – and I see those who need such gifts around us today.

The Haggadah is thus also the story of all humankind. Some years ago, the leader of the local Bravanese community, whose centre was burnt down in a racially motivated arson attack, came to our Seder. ‘Your story is my story too. We said: “Our persecutors will kill us. We have to leave our home country at once!” My aged grandfather said, “I’m too old to leave”. We took him with us, and we fled…’

Avadim hayyinu, ve’attah bnei chorin – ‘we once were slaves but now are free’: how many people across the world are longing to share that song. In Britain, Europe, America, Israel, refugees wait in hope of leave to remain, in terror of deportation. These are the better countries; in many others they would not even have been allowed to enter, on pain of death. The Haggadah is the story of our vision of redemption for all humankind, for the day, as Isaiah puts it in the Prophetic vision we read on the final morning of the festival, ‘when none shall hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain’.

Precisely for this reason, the story of the Haggadah is also deeply personal: ‘we must see ourselves as if we ourselves are each going out of Egypt’. Where are we, in our conscience and spirit, on our own inner journey towards justice, compassion and freedom? What inner traits, what internal Pharaohs, detain us from being the person we could be and dream of becoming? For, according as we travel our own inner journey, so we are able to help others on humanity’s journey, and offer others the kindness, the companionship, the advocacy, the compassion, the music, the hope, which sings in our own soul. And, as we reach out to them, so others hopefully reach inward to us.

May our Haggadah, the telling of our story on Seder night, be fruitful and worthwhile.

12 Nisan 5778/28th March 2018

The central symbol of the Seder is the Matzah. Following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the formal cessation of sacrificial offerings, matzah replaced the Paschal lamb as the key food of the Passover celebration.

Matzah features repeatedly in the Seder. Close to the opening, it is described as Halachma Anya, ‘the bread of poverty’ our ancestors ate in Egypt. It was probably originally at this point that the door would be opened, to welcome in the hungry and the poor. In No Time For Tears, the touching account of his East End childhood in the 1930’s, Sidney Bloch recalls how his parents never locked the front door and always laid an extra place at the table.

Shmuel Hanagid (993 – 1056) has a simple culinary explanation:

Some say bread of poverty means, literally, the bread of the poor – because poor people, in the severity of their destitution, will take some floor, knead it and bake it into unleavened bread which they eat immediately…

The middle matzah is now broken, to represent how, as the Talmud, explains a poor person never has a complete loaf, only a torn half. Eli Wiesel provides a frighteningly poignant insight: the person in terror of starvation, who never knows from where the next miniscule, inadequate meal will come, doesn’t dare to eat a whole piece of bread, but hides half fearfully away.

The broken half is held up repeatedly during as we recount the story of slavery, remembering the suffering of our forebears in Egypt, and others who once were, and all who still today are, the slaves of hunger and exploitation.

Close to the end of the narrative, the very same matzah becomes the bread our ancestors take with them on their journey of freedom. It turns into the bread of hope, or, as the Zohar names it, the food of faith, mechla de’meheimanuta, and lachma de’asuta, the bread of healing. This health is moral rather than physical: it is the healing-power present in the society where those who are replete do not forget those who are hungry and use their freedom to set others free.

Matzah thus makes the journey from slavery to freedom alongside us.

There are still two further features which connect matzah with liberty. In a creative word play, the Talmud (Pesachim 115b – 116a) links lechem oni, the bread of poverty, with the verb oneh, ‘answer’. Matzah is the bread ‘over which matters are answered’. It is the food of discourse, of questions and discussions. Freedom of speech is an essential, primary freedom. In a totalitarian regime, in a country where people know that their every word may be overheard and reported, even in a household dominated by domestic tyranny, no one dares to speak out openly. ‘Bread over which matters are answered’, over which significant issues are challenged, debated and considered from a multitude of angles, is the bread of freedom indeed.

The Talmud takes this one step further. Baking matzah requires team-work. This is depicted clearly in numerous Haggadah illustrations: one person is measuring the flour, others are mixing the dough and yet others rolling it out, while further figures make the holes, put the pastry in the oven, take it out and place the finished matzah in baskets.

The right to collaboration is a form of liberty. The freedom to meet in open fellowship and association has been banned or controlled by every totalitarian regime. Nazi plans for the annexation of western Poland after their swift victory in 1939 included making it illegal for Poles to gather together, even in sports clubs or cafes. (Jews were simply deported).

Matzah, in contrast, celebrates and embodies the freedom of friendship and co-operation.

In Temple times, the last taste of the Pesach meal was the lamb of the Paschal offering. In place of that today, the final food we are supposed to eat is the Afikoman, the other half of the matzah broken close to the outset of the Seder, so that we end the night with freedom on our tongue, and in our songs.

11 Nisan 5778/27th March 2018

The greatest challenge to leading a Seder is how to include everyone, from the person determined to ‘do it my way’ to the child, or adult, for whom the key question isn’t Mah Nishtanah, but ‘How long to the food?’ How can a Seder be a discussion, not a row? How can everyone have a voice?

The Haggadah presents this issue through the Four Children. Each takes his or her question straight from the Torah, which mentions four times how to reply ‘when your child asks you tomorrow’.

I prefer to think of the four not as ‘personality types’, but as complementary voices in the great Haggadah debate.

Easiest to respond to are the encouraging enquiries of the ‘wise child’. Such persons refuse to take their own culture for granted. They are seekers; they want to understand Jewish practise, down to the detail. We need them in our communities; we must encourage them to study, in depth. The sound-byte, tweet-length, instant answer culture is dangerous, warns Timothy Snyder in his challenging On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (an excellent supplement for a Seder). Read, study, examine in depth.

Hard as it may seem, we need the ‘wicked child’s’ challenging ‘What’s this to you?’ Contempt is hard to include at the table: why should we? But anger may be a different matter. I’ve an orthodox colleague in Israel who’s angry: ‘How can I sit at the Seder while we deport asylum seekers?’ If that Seder amounts only to food plates and platitudes, there’s good reason to provoke us with anger. It’s hypocrisy to talk freedom but do nothing about the slavery of hunger, or the actual trade in slaves today, or any of those countless ways in which life is degraded and robbed of liberty and joy. Anger, justly warranted, must be turned into motivation.

The so-called ‘simple’ child also has an essential contribution. The Hebrew tam equally means ‘whole-hearted’. Such ‘children’ refuse to be deviated by details. Every group needs the voice which ask bluntly, ‘What’s this?’ It’s a counter-force to the dangerous tendency of religions to get lost in rituals and dogmas. ‘What’s this?’ calls us back to the purpose of the story. ‘Tell that child about the Exodus’ – and keep it simple, the Haggadah insists. Don’t let the cleaning, koshering, shopping and cooking (all important, all of which I love) make us forget the essential values of freedom, justice and dignity, or the travails our families passed through to attain them. We are accountable before God, history, our own People and all humanity for their defence.

Surely, though, the child who doesn’t know how to ask has no part in the discussion? However, the real meaning of she’eno yode’a lishe’ol is not ‘can’t ask’ but ‘lacks the confidence to ask’. Whether it’s because they’re young, or shy, or quiet with reflection, it’s up to us to bring such participants in. Perhaps it’s precisely the silent guest on whom the narrative is having the most impact. How many scenes do we harbour in our hearts where we spoke nothing, because they spoke unforgettably to us?

We all need all our voices, the longing for knowledge, the indignation, the desire to grasp – clearly and simply – the overall purpose, and the absorption of the listener reluctant to interrupt.

10 Nisan 5778/26th March 2018

Getting There

I heard two (slightly conflicting) views last weekend: first, that the week before Pesach has the lowest mortality rate in the Jewish year because everyone wants to make it to another Seder; second, that the nervous breakdown rate is the highest. So here are some thoughts on how to reach Seder night in good mental, physical and spiritual health.

Preparing for the Seder is as much about community as the Seder itself. If someone else in the family or among our friends is doing all the work, (cleaning, shopping, cooking, inviting, setting the table) we should ask ourselves why, and go and help. Wherever possible, no one should be left to prepare for the Seder alone.

Looking Outward

The Lovell Haggadah (a beautiful new edition, warmly recommended) has a wonderful double page. On one side is the title Turning Outward; on the other Turning Inward. The outward page focusses on Me’ot Hittin, ‘coins for wheat’, also known as Kimcha dePischa or ‘Pesach flour’. They exemplify the ancient rule that even the poorest person must be given the necessaries to celebrate Passover. We may not sit down to celebrate our freedom while other families can’t afford to do so. Freedom for some is not true freedom. We are all responsible towards the entire community of Israel. We should respond to at least some of the appeals for help which we no doubt all receive.

Similarly, we should do our utmost to ensure that no one is left to celebrate on their own. The Mishnah explains that a person alone on Seder night ‘asks him- or her-self the four questions’. It’s a lonely image; we shouldn’t allow it to happen.

By extension, we can’t drink to our own redemption while doing nothing at all for others, whoever they are, who are enslaved by hunger, homelessness or persecution. Turning a blind eye to the humiliation and misery of others, risks leading us into partnership with tyranny.

Looking Inward

The opposite page in the Lovell Haggadah describes the inner process of preparation. Mystics have long made a parallel between the domestic procedure of going through our drawers to remove the chametz and leaven and the spiritual process of cleansing our conscience.

Cupboards are memories: ‘Who gave me this mug?’ ‘My mother loved that plate.’ Recipes are testaments: ‘My grandmother made her charoset this way.’ My father cooked the soup.’ Thus we revisit the journeys of our generations and our own life talks back at us from pots and pans.

The Seder does not come alive just by reading the printed text. We must weave our own family stories into the Haggadah and include the stories of others. In this way we make the narrative ours, immediate, vital. Freedom, dignity, justice, journeys: the subjects are always contemporary. I began one Seder by reading the postcard my great-grandmother sent from Theresienstadt. It was written by order of the Nazis to ‘reassure’ the family that ‘everything was alright’:

My Dears! I’m often together with dear Recha; we talk a lot about you and all our dear ones. I’m most anxious about our dear children. I’ve been in the old age home for a while and I feel fine there. Heartfelt greetings from your faithful Regina Freimann.

‘Dear’ occurs four times in scarcely forty words. Love and tyranny – the eternal polarities of human existence.

Never despair! Thoughts on a difficult spring’

Tomorrow is the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan; in Jewish terms it’s the first day of spring.

Nisan is a month of celebration. Sad, penitential prayers are left out of the liturgy. Instead, in the domain of history we focus on Passover; we follow our ancestors on their journey from slavery to freedom and try to create a world which celebrates, life, liberty and justice.

In the domain of nature, we go out into the fields and gardens and say a unique, once-a-year-only blessing to God

in whose world nothing is lacking, who created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for the enjoyment of humankind.

I’ve just been outdoors to check: the almond tree is pink with bloom; the apricot, usually first to blossom, is wisely still sleeping out an especially long winter; the pears have a good month to go before May, their season of white glory.

Yet, despite all this, I’m struggling to feel joyous.

Instead, I feel anxious, afraid for our beautiful world. We live in increasingly dangerous times. Much of humanity, or at least its leadership, seems intent on a journey from liberty to tyranny, from peace to war and from injustice to greater injustice. Meanwhile, the poorest and weakest, who have always suffered, suffer even more.

In the world of nature, I read with despair of the huge decline in animal life, of species hunted to extinction, of the pollution of land and ocean by plastic particles. You may think me crazy, but these matters drive me close to tears.

I could take to retail therapy, decide not to think, or close my eyes, and heart, and sit back to enjoy my corner of privileged living, among the world’s wealthiest.

But that’s not the human, certainly not the Jewish way. ‘You are not free to cease from the work’, said Rabbi Tarfon almost two thousand years back. ‘Assur lihitya’esh; it’s forbidden to give up and despair,’ insisted Rebbe Nachman of Breslav two hundred years ago, despite, or because of, his own susceptibility to depression. And, on the back of today’s Guardian, Gareth Southgate adds his own gloss to his rabbinic antecedents: ‘You can live in fear or you can get on with it’.

That’s what saying the blessing over ‘beautiful creatures and beautiful trees’ means right now. Never give up! Never stop appreciating how wonderful the world can and should be! For the sake of the beauty of children, help the besieged, the hungry, the persecuted. For the sake of the beauty of animals and trees, plant and protect, so that they, and humankind together, may live and flourish to breathe a better future.

Last Friday, as I approached the old Jerusalem railway station, some 28 kilometres into running the marathon, I passed a group of people pushing their friend in a wheelchair, or rather in something more like a full hospital bed. According to my running app, the Jerusalem marathon route has a total climb of well over 2,000 feet, with challenging hills and sharp descents. These good people must have taken turns to push their friend up the hardest inclines, then hold on tightly to ensure a smooth run down the steepest slopes. When they reached the finishing line, the entire crowd cheered.

That’s love; that’s courage; that’s doing the best one can to share the basic freedoms of breathing the open air, enjoying the wide panorama, waving to friends, relishing the crazy happiness of those mad enough to run.

On Seder night I don’t just want to read the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus. I want it to shout back at me: Never give up on freedom. When I go outside, I don’t just want to see the world. I want it to sing back at me: Look at all this beauty! Use your life to love it and protect it!

 

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