Between horror and wonder, silence and song

I love this pre-dawn, pre-rush quiet. I think it’s what Isabel Allende called her ‘witching hour.’ Spirits talk to us from worlds beyond, or maybe they’re really worlds within, our subconscious and soul. Perhaps they always speak, but in this calm it’s easier to hear. Then the roads and emails wake up, and the spirits retreat to hiding places down inside the heart.

This morning I wake with conflicting voices. Until midnight Nicky and I watched America and the Holocaust. It’s outstanding, horrifying, honest, brutal, clear. Superimposed on the pleading letters ‘Let my children in,’ I saw my own family’s handwriting: Trude, deported to Ostrow-Lubelski, setting down desperately ‘Tell them we’re still alive.’ Cruelties unthinkable; wrongs unhealable! I feel cold to the depths of my soul.

Yet something inside me still sings and won’t stop, sings from a very different world. For yesterday, too, I interviewed nature-lover, author and passionate campaigner George Monbiot. ‘I’ve felt more alive ever since,’ he wrote of his experiences in the Amazon. ‘What trees do you like most?’ I asked him. ‘Dead ones,’ he replied, enjoying my surprise. ‘Because they’re not really dead but sustain countless creatures, beetles, birds, small mammals, the seeds of innumerable new lives.’

Here we are, two thirds of the way across the calendar from Holocaust Memorial Day to Tu Bishevat, the New Year of the Trees, which begins this Sunday night. Half my heart is numb; half of it sings.

I sing because I love this world, people, animals, trees, the wren that sat on my windowsill, tiniest of birds, before recommencing its amazingly loud round of songs; the mini-flock of long-tailed tits that chattered around the feeder like congregants at Kiddush; the snowdrops, though I’m no expert on the two hundred varieties as Nicky is; the winter jasmine, wintersweet, mahonia, which reserve their fragrances and flowers for February. How wondrous this world is!

‘What do you need to replenish your spirit?’ I asked a person in mourning earlier this week. ‘I walk for an hour in the woods every day. The trees restore my soul.’

‘The fundamental reason all beings are created,’ wrote Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira

‘is so that they should sing, for in this way they reveal the greatness of God. Every single created being sings… Each and every being reveals a spark of the glory of the God of blessings.’

With a courage, devotion and discipline which are utterly beyond my capacity to imagine, he did not allow even the Nazis and the Warsaw Ghetto to silence his spirit’s song.

The songs of which he wrote are not just melodies of prayer, in heart language; they are no less songs of action, of chesed, deeds of kindness, justice, humanity and defiance. We must not fail to turn our love of the world into action, George Monbiot said to me. We need to sing and help the world sing, in word and deed.

Tomorrow is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. ‘So that my soul shall sing of you and not be silent,’ wrote the Psalmist. Only a person who understands the power of silence could write such words, its deep gravitational draw: How can I speak at all, when cruelty and horror destroy our world? Only a person who loves life could have composed them: How can I be silent when such beauty, tenderness and hope call out to my spirit to sing? ‘Oh God, I give thanks to you!’ (Psalm 30:13)

About hope and courage: why Chanukkah is truly a big festival

‘It’s the biggest Jewish festival,’ said the twins I was teaching for their Bar Mitzvah. ‘A big festival,’ said our Ukrainian guests, who’d evidently been reading up about Chanukkah just as we had about how Christmas is celebrated in Ukraine.

The truth is that, no, Chanukkah is fairly minor in the scale of Jewish festivals. But it felt mean to say this, so I replied that it had ‘become big.’ ‘Why?’ the boys, who recognise a half-hearted answer when they hear one, promptly asked. ‘Because of competing with Christmas, and because the Maccabees were important role models,’ I responded.

But there’s a better reason why Chanukkah is, and should be, big today: Chanukkah is about hope and courage and we need large doses of both. Our hearts go out to so many people in so many directions in these difficult times that we need reinforcements in our core.

Chanukkah begins on Sunday night with just one light, except for the servant-candle shammes. These days, everybody follows the School of Hillel whose principle is that ‘in matters of holiness we go up, not down,’ adding one further candle every night, culminating with eight. Eight is the Jewish number of the natural cycle of seven, plus one: plus wonder, faith and hope.

As everyone knows, we light the candles in honour of the pure olive oil the Maccabees found in the ruined precincts of the recaptured temple, which, sufficient for just one day, burnt on the menorah for eight.

But there’s a kashe, a logical problem. Why do we bless God for a miracle on the first night? One day’s oil ought to last for one day! A practical answer could be that the Maccabees saw immediately that something unusual was happening because the oil was burning very, very slowly. But they surely wouldn’t have noticed this phenomenon until at least part way through the day.

Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger (1847 – 1905) offers a better explanation: The miracle began because on that first night because the Maccabees lit the menorah with a whole heart despite having so little oil. In other words, miracles don’t begin in heaven, but here on earth, with what we do.

The Maccabees could have said: What when the oil runs out? Wouldn’t it be wiser to wait for more supplies? But they found the courage, took the risk and the flame they lit burnt not for one, nor even for eight days, but for generations, illumining innumerable dark and difficult years in countless lands and lives. Its light burns yet.

I’ve met many people who do like those Maccabees. They say: I don’t know where this’ll lead, but I’m starting a food bank. I’ll create a warm space. I’ll start Cook for Good, to bring whole communities together.

Perhaps almost everyone who has an idea is like that first contingent, who, looking round the war-ravaged temple precincts, asked themselves: What can we do? Where can we find some light?

They search, not in the rubble but in their hearts, and find their symbolic jar of oil, the fuel for a plan: Maybe this could work. Maybe this will bring some hope. Then they ask themselves: But will it take on? What about resources? Will it all go nowhere? Will the flame go out? But they find the courage; they make something happen.

Then, as so often when something good is initiated, others join in, bringing their own energy and inspiration. Further and further circles are drawn to the light. People ask how to help, what to contribute. They too feed the flame until its light lasts longer and spreads far wider than those who first lit it thought possible.

That’s what hope and courage can achieve.

Is the story of the Maccabees and the oil historically true? Probably not. But does it express and eternal truth? Yes definitely! That’s why Chanukkah is, and should be, truly a big festival.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach, Happy Chanukkah

 

What our lives are for

Cutting the beautiful liturgy of Yom Kippur down to seventy-five minutes has left me feeling like a criminal perpetrating an assault.

There have been several appeals against the knife:

‘You know the prayer “Ve’avitah tehilah, Yet You seek praise”? Put it back!’

In this case I agree and duly attempt to translate the short passage which contains just thirty-five words and the meaning of our lives:

Yet you seek praise from flesh and blood…from a passing shadow, a mere mortal, whose time is finite, whose life expires, whose consciousness departs, whose unique soul flies away.

The whole of life, its wonder, tasks and brevity, are in this meditation. I still hear Leslie Lyndon singing it in my head. The memory transports me to the cemetery where so many of our community now lie. I wander among them in my mind, recalling the inscriptions and the love to which they point. One can’t write one’s heart out on a stone.

We too will lie in the ground

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
With rocks and stones and trees.          (Wordsworth: The Lucy Poems)

So what can it mean that God, Chai Olamim, ‘who lives for ever, life of all worlds,’ desires praises from us? To praise, one must appreciate what it is one’s praising. How can we even know that such transcendent, trans-mortal life is?

I can only say that sometimes, rarely, precisely in the moment when I sense my smallness, I feel myself awoken to immensity. Caught, held still between fear and wonder, I am silenced by this awareness: it’s not mine, this consciousness. It, and I, belong to something other, something beyond dimensions, the cutting edges of space and time. The life which is forever flows through my mind, is my very breath.

Mortal, yet privileged to know the immortal: it is this which makes us sing.

This is the song of the heart. But there is also the song of deeds. Eternity has entrusted us with now, just one moment, but critical, decisive, in its unfolding. What must we do with these brief gifts of capacity and time, the years when we have power in the world? For this privilege is also commandment.

Nic Schlagman, whose grandmother came with the Kindertransport, and who grew up in our community, said when we discussed Isaiah’s plea to ‘feed the hungry and bring the oppressed poor home’ that he heard an inner call to make his life service.

It comes to us all, in different voices. We may hear it from children, or refugees; from people who’re ill, or in pain; in the silence of songbirds; from the threatened desolation of the earth. But the call is always the same. It’s God’s words to Adam: ‘Where are you?’ There is only one good answer: I am here.

Not just our songs but our actions are the praises God wants from us who, in this mortal hour, hold power over the destiny of so much hope and beauty.

The words are in our sadly shortened liturgy for all of us to put into our consciousness and deeds.

May we be granted a Chatimah Tovah, to be sealed, and to help to seal our beleaguered world, in the book of life.

 

Visiting Israel March 2019 – A Diary

While in Israel this week, ahead of running the Jerusalem Marathon, Rabbi Wittenberg has visited a number of projects and written a little about them and other areas of interest:

A New Tallit

I’ve loved my weekday tallit. It’s not one he gave me, but it reminds me of my father. I don’t want to part from it. But it’s faded and has holes; sadly, its time has come. Jerusalem is no bad place for tallit hunting.

It’s ten at night, but a small store on King George Street is still open. I’ve often noted the bric-a-brac outside, tourist items, and walked by. This time I go in. The owner, a gentle old man, shows me a Tallit, light, not showy, modest like my father. I bought it at once.

But the tzitziot, the fringes to remind us of heaven and our responsibilities on earth, were torn. ‘I must replace those’, the man said, ‘Can you wait’? He separated four long threads for each corner, folding each set double to make eight. He sat down, said ‘For the sake of the mitzvah of tzitzit’ and began to tie the complex knots. ‘Were you born in Jerusalem?’ I asked. He pointed to his lips: he would not speak, not break concentration until the knots were done. I too sat silent. He finished a corner: ‘In Persia’. I watched him, a man of yirat shamayim, humility before God, of chochmah, fingers skilled in the subtle winding of the threads.

‘I want to sell my stock and close’, he said later pointing at the remaining Judaica, touristica. ‘Won’t you miss this?’ ‘No; my wife died. I can’t do this alone.’ ‘Recently?’ ‘A year. She was kind, wise, good.’ He looked down.

We said warm goodbyes. ‘I’ll think of you when I wear this Tallit’, his presence, and memories of my father, woven into the threads.

The Library

‘Can you look over my grandfather’s books,’ Rivana asked me. Since he’d passed away his library was housed in her mother’s flat, next door to where she and Simon Lichtman had kindly enabled me to stay.
There were the Talmuds, Babylonian and Jerusalem, a heavy set of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, two-hundred-year-old volumes of the Chummash and Tenach, books in Yiddish on history, politics, science, poetry. There were four volumes on the history of the Jews of Lithuania, – from after the terrors. Yiddish must have been for him where Judaism and the rest of the world met.

‘Tell me about your grandfather.’ On the wall was his semichah, attesting to his ordination. It was from the great Lithuanian Yeshivah of Slobodka, dated 1927.

‘Soon after, my grandparents came to New York. My grandfather was interested in everything; he was widely learned. When anyone came to see him about conversion, he would say “Let’s see how we can make this work”. In 1943 he joined a march of rabbis to Washington to protest America’s treatment of refugees.’ I want to know more about this.

There was a second certificate on the wall, in honour of Rivana’s grandmother. The Rabbinical Seminary of America thanked her for her support of the congregation and the rabbinate. It was as far as an orthodox body could go in recognising the contribution of a remarkable woman.

Open their covers and books yield the soul the person who loved them. We sat quietly with the spirit of Rivana’s grandparents.

Birds
After plentiful rain in the last weeks the small meadows between the suburbs of Jerusalem are verdant, brilliant in the sunshine. The grass is full of small flowers: anemones, iris and, among the stones, cyclamen. The Jerusalem Botanical Gardens are blue with swathes of lupins.Can anyone name for me this tiny bird, drinking sap from a cactus flower?

I only managed to photograph one of a pair of hoopoes, the duchifat, Israel’s national bird.

I met with Yonatan Neril, who founded the The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

I’m meeting later today with EcoPeace Middle East, who work with Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians for the good of the whole region.

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Kuchinate – קוצ’ינטה – African Refugee Women’s Collective:

“I walked through South Tel Aviv, past the Central Bus Station, where refugees from Eritrea and Dafur gather, sleep in street corners and try to find work, down to the unprepossessing building where Kuchinate has its premises.

I climbed the stairs into a different world. Here were baskets in the most brilliant colours, vibrant blue, glowing red, baskets in bright bands of white and black. Here was life and creativity. Kuchin-at-ei means ‘crochet’ in Tirgrinia.
A group of women were sewing while talking quietly together. Their smiles in greeting communicated a warmth and gentleness which could only derive from a profound resilience, considering what they had been forced to pass through. It’s not the way among Eritrean women, I was told, to speak of what happened in the past.

Though the government takes substantial taxes, the women are able to earn a basic if meagre living through their work. However, it’s not just the money which sustains them but the sense of community and solidarity which the staff and volunteers help the women to provide for each other.

I’m bringing home to our community as many baskets as I can carry; they’re ideal containers for Mishoach Manot, Purim gifts of food and drinks. You can also shop on line.
I hope we’ll make links with this remarkable project of healing and creativity. Top in Maimonides’ hierarchy of tzedakah is affirming people’s dignity by enabling them to earn a safe living.

Please look on https://www.kuchinate.com/ and https://www.instagram.com/kuchinate_arts

Holocaust Memorial Day: 74 spells witness

On Sunday it will be 74 years since the first outriders of the Red Army reached the infernal universe of Auschwitz-Birkenau. 27 January is not a date in the Hebrew calendar, – that is 27 Nissan, Yom Hashoah. But it has become a critical and essential date in the moral history of humanity.

Every year I reread Primo Levi, whose accounts in If This Is A Man and The Truce will always remain among the most discomfortingly perceptive testimony to the vast, unfathomable multitude of crimes which is the Holocaust:

for us even the hour of liberty rang out grave and muffled, and filled our souls with joy and yet with a painful sense of pudency, so that we should have liked to wash our consciences and our memories clean from the foulness that lay upon them; and also with anguish, because we felt that this should never happen, that now nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out the past…

It is poignant to note that 74 is signified in Hebrew by the letters ayin and dalet, which together form the word ed, witness. This is precisely at a point when we are acutely aware that the last survivors of the Shoah are in their eighties and nineties and will not be with us forever. Who will testify then?

In a moving ceremony at the Foreign office earlier this week, Lord Eric Pickles, special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, noted that the website of the Holocaust Museum in Washington is the second most visited site on the subject. One might have thought that above it would come Yad Vashem or the museum and memorial at Auschwitz itself. But this is not the case; first place on the subject is taken by a Holocaust denial site.

There is no guarantee that what history records over the long elapse of time is actually the truth.

Therefore, the commemoration of the hour of liberty must still ring out grave and muffled for humankind, because we cannot and must not wash the wrongs of the past out of our memory and conscience.

The reason is not to preserve a sense of victimhood, or to make a moral claim against other nations, or agents, though the latter may sometimes remain important for the sake of the vindication of truth. Nor is it solely or primarily for the sake of the Jewish People. The matter goes far wider. There have been genocides since the Shoah, notable 40 years ago in Cambodia and 25 years ago in Rwanda. Each unique in its particular context and the nature of the cruelties practised upon its powerless victims, crimes of indescribably brutality and scale continue in the world today.

At stake is not the past but the present and future of humanity, in fact the very meaning of what being human is. Perhaps never since 1945 has this been so acutely the case. If we don’t want to succumb to the rallying cries of resurgent racism and xenophobia across the world, if we don’t want our conscience to be sucked in and dissolved in the acid stomach of hatred, we need to listen, learn and act.

Action begins with little things, noticing our own prejudices, not ignoring the person who seems lonely, bullied or left out; not being oblivious to the daily realities of being destitute, homeless, a refugee; not being seduced by the comfort of thinking we belong to the safe ‘us’, the comfortable majority at liberty to denigrate whoever the current ‘them’ might be.

We are one another’s guarantors; the safety and human dignity of others lies in our hands, words, hearts and deeds. Only by standing up for each other’s humanity can we truly assure our own. There is nothing else between degradation, humiliation and persecution, whether we become victims or perpetrators.

‘This isn’t about the past’, Lord Pickles said, ‘It’s about now’.

Service at Westminster Abbey on the 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht

It was profoundly stirring to participate yesterday in the commemoration service at Westminster Abbey on the 80th year since Kristallnacht. Walking through the precincts, past the memorial of 60,000 poppies for those who died in the First World War was already deeply humbling.

Most moving was the testament of three ‘Kinder’ who recalled the terror of the Night of Broken Glass. They were no longer young; the silence as they slowly negotiated the steep wooden steps to the Abbey lectern drew their words even more deeply into the heart.

I had the privilege of giving the address (Part will be familiar to my own community):

On the 10th November, the morning after Kristallnacht, my grandfather was summoned by the Gestapo to the Hauptsynagoge in Frankfurt. Flames pierced the building, no one did or dared do anything to extinguish them. Yet, as he walked through the crowd of onlookers, he overheard them say that in his own Westendsynagoge, though the interior had been destroyed by rioting Nazis, the Eternal Light was still burning. They took this as a sign from God.

It struck me that my grandfather found himself between two kinds of flame, the fires of destruction, and the Ner Tammid, the calm, inextinguishable inner light which denotes the presence of God.

Through the 30s and 40s both those flames burnt fiercely.

The fire of devastation destroyed synagogues throughout Germany. It crossed the Channel in the Blitzkrieg burning whole districts of London and many British cities. It soared obscenely in the indescribable crematoria by the gas-chambers. Eventually it came back full circle to ravage the towns of Germany. When, after 11 years absence, my grandfather returned to his beloved Frankfurt, he wondered through ‘the unrecognisable streets and squares, while from the broken, hollow windows horror stared’.

Yet the light of God’s presence burnt also. Is glowed in the heart of the British Consul General, Robert Smallbones, through whose offices tens of thousands, my family included, received transit visas to Britain, and who wrote later of his shame for every hour when, overcome by sleep, he was not writing affidavits. It shone in Frank Foley in Berlin, who refused to let the powers that be prevent him from issuing visas for China, because Jews had the right to choose their own fate and ‘would rather die as free men in Shanghai, than as slaves in Dachau’.

It illumined the debate in Parliament, when Britain granted entry to an unlimited number of children. It illumined the words of the MP for Gower, David Rhys Grenfell, who testified to the queues of despairing people outside the passport offices of Germany and Austria, waiting as if before the tribunal which would decide between life and death. It burned in the actions of those British officials who endeavoured to process with courtesy their desperate applications. Indeed, my grandparents described the British consulate in Frankfurt as an island of humanity in a sea of violence and contempt.

It burnt in the hearts of Jewish leaders, Quakers, Christadelphians, churchmen and women, good people, who rescued children, taking them into their homes. It illumined the heart and home of the Bishop of Durham, who took in the ‘Kind’ John Rayner, subsequently Rabbi Dr John Rayner, my teacher, and in his Bishop’s residence ensured he received a Jewish education and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah.

Those same two fires burn today.

The searing flames of incitement rage in those who preach hatred of Jews for being Jews and Muslims for being Muslim, who fan the populist fires of resurgent racism and xenophobia. They burn in the murderous assault on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in every attack on congregations at prayer, or children at school, or people at Thousand Oaks outside LA, enjoying the simple pleasure of dancing.

But God’s Eternal Light also burns, in the actions of those who create foodbanks, shelter the homeless, share their homes with refugees, run drop-ins and havens for asylum-seekers, reach out a hand to those of different faiths, hoping that it will be taken in trust and fellowship. In shines in the work of Lord Alf Dubs, himself one of the Kinder, tireless in striving to bring lonely, helpless children to safety and the hope of a future in Britain.

But which of those kinds of fire is more powerful?

I imagine a conversation: ‘My grandfather, my Opa, as you stood then between those two flames, which did you think was the stronger?’

I picture him answering with the ancient rabbinic sentence, just four words in Hebrew: neiri beyadecha, veneirecha beyadi: “My light is your hands”, says God, “Your light is in mine”. ‘It’s up to you’, he would say, ‘Which of those flames is stronger lies in your grasp.

The fire of destruction or the flame of sacred light? The choice lies in our hands. Therefore, God, protect our light in Your hands, so that we can protect and nurture Your light entrusted into ours.

The Sukkah and ‘not the Sukkah’

There is nothing I enjoy so much after Yom Kippur as going outdoors to build the Sukkah. If the Day of Atonement takes us to the depths and challenges of the inner world, Sukkot leads back out among the leaves and branches to an appreciation of the world of nature and agriculture around us.

Making a Sukkah, (a shelter with at least three walls, a roof of cut branches and leaves, and decorations from the year’s harvest) is the most tangible manifestation of simchah shel mitzvah, joy in the commandments. It’s fun to build and lovely to sit in; it’s a pleasure to share food there with guests.

Thinking about the festival begins early, with the seed catalogues in winter. What can we try to grow for our Succah? This year we have pumpkins, corn, even a small water melon (small really means tiny – it’s slightly larger than a tennis ball).

The Sukkah spans a paradox. It recalls our wanderings, our history of exile and flight, of being ‘of no fixed abode’. More than once refugees have asked me: ‘Can I give your address; I’m hoping for a letter’. Yet the Sukkah also embodies the privilege of having land to grow the fruits ‘of the vine and the fig tree’, wheat, barley and olives (and pumpkins and corn). Perhaps that’s the point: our blessings remind us of what not to take for granted.

The Sukkah also expresses another equally poignant tension. The Mishnah describes living for seven days in the Sukkah as going from our enduring home into a temporary shelter. The physical move probably amounts only to a few metres. But the emotional transition is far greater: from a safe and solid building to a fragile structure, subject to wind, rain and cold; from the assumption of security to the awareness of vulnerability, brevity and dependence.

This takes me to a frightening place. The earth with its fields, farms and forests signifies permanence. After the Flood, God promises that summer and winter, seed-time and harvest-time will never again cease. Generations come and go but ‘the earth remains forever’, says Ecclesiastes. But what if that’s no longer true? What if the very earth itself is vulnerable, perishable, together with all life on it? It’s a thought too unbearable to entertain, and too dangerous to fail to entertain.

The idea goes through my mind of building Not a Sukkah, the walls made entirely of waste plastic bottles collected off the street, the roof from the broken-up roots of decimated forests. To it I’ll invite not the traditional visitors, but a guest-list of extinct species. Instead of seven days of rejoicing, they’ll be turned, as God threatens in the Bible, into seven days of mourning for the loss of the sustaining beauty and fertility of this world.

I won’t do it. I don’t need it. That Sukkah is already under construction, – in innumerable throw away actions.

Instead, tomorrow I hope to join the first ever Peoples Walk for Wildlife, to which Everyone is invited – foresters, reserve wardens, teachers, students, children, scientists, artists, bloggers, activists, volunteers, gardeners. We are going to sing songs, play birdsong from the missing birds and share our love of all species. (Chris Packham).

Instead, my Sukkah will be a reminder to cherish the world, to waste and pollute less, and instead to know, love and respect more fully the natural world which is so wondrous and on which we and all life depend.

Humankind and Nature Together

There are hours when I’m troubled with mourning, not for the past but the future. It isn’t just fear for humanity, for a world from which, in Matthew Arnold’s warning words, faith has withdrawn like an ebbing tide and ‘ignorant armies clash by night’. It’s fear for the future of nature itself, of beauty and awe, of birdsong and the sound of the wind in the woods and the mountain crags.

The Hebrew Bible opens with an ode to the wonder of creation. Humankind is not made alone, but fashioned to the rhythm of dawn and twilight, surrounded by the abundance of trees and grasses, set amidst the companionship of the birds and animals. I worry, often: will we destroy all this? Will not just Noah’s dove, but all the birds in existence ‘find no resting for the soles of their feet’ in our concrete agglomerations? What will happen then to the human soul, malnourished without the wildlands and the animals?

That’s why I linger on our last nights on Scottish holidays, staring out at the blackening sea, listening to the seabirds and waders who cry out like a piercing prayer in the thickening light:

Music, as desolate, as beautiful

as your loved places,

mountainy marshes and glistening mudflats

by the stealthy sea

                   Norman MacCaig, ‘Curlew’ in Mary Colwell, ‘Curlew Moon’

God worries that ‘It’s not good for man to be alone’. I imagine God had not just to human partnership, but this strange kinship with all that lives which those who love nature know.

That is why I appreciate the Torah’s description of the sabbatical cycle. In the seventh year, when the land is left fallow and all have equal rights to whatever it naturally brings forth, the border fences come down. The rich are forbidden to exclude the poor. ‘My’ dissolves into ‘our’. For one year in seven, it’s not ‘my land’ but ‘our land’. Stranger and citizen have equal access. They cannot be banned from anyone’s ‘territory’ because the sole proprietor is God, and my fellow human being is as much God’s creation as I am.

Nor does community comprise only humans: wild and domestic animals are entitled to roam the land, and eat. It is a return, temporary for sure, symbolic perhaps, but a return nevertheless to the full community of creation.

Sunday is Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. I’ll never forget how my father woke me, a boy of nine, in the middle of the night, to tell me Israel had recaptured the Old City. He bitterly remembered its loss in 1948; he was there. Some regard the date as solely about territory. Kehillat Zion, the remarkable open and inclusive community led by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum is celebrating more profoundly, by listening to voices from the different peoples of the city, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, Bucharan, Yemenite. I imagine that’s what the Psalmist meant in describing Jerusalem as ‘shechubrah lah yachdav, – united all together’, in one fellowship before God.

Alongside the earthy city, Judaism speaks of a ‘heavenly Jerusalem’, a dream, an ideal. It’s that Jerusalem which William Blake sung of creating (with only metaphorical bows and spears) ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’. In that Jerusalem there will be space for all. There will be wild places too, forests, mountains, wet lands, meadows. No one will be persecuted; no species will become extinct; birdsong will not cease. Until we have created it, in Israel, England, anywhere, there will be no completer resting for our soul.

Signing off on your heart

‘Set your signature on my heart’, says the lover in The Song of Songs.

We carry each other’s signatures in our hearts. Every day we write ourselves into each other’s lives and spirits.

Sometimes it happens with sudden drama, as when people fall madly in love. More often it occurs slowly, imperceptibly almost. Teacher, neighbour, colleague, friend, man at the gate, – months pass, years pass, turn unnoticed into decades. We share a hundred ordinary things, take each other for granted, like the trees along the side of the road.

When a person we know in such a way dies, we lose them, their idiosyncrasies, humour, how they liked their coffee, said ‘good morning’.

And we lose a part of our own self also. For our lives are interwound and a part of us dies with each other’s death. That is why John Donne’s words leave few untouched:

No man is an island entire of itself…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.   Meditation XVII

Bernard Schneider died last week. If you didn’t know him, imagine a person who was always there, faithful, quiet-spoken, kind; a man with a sense of humour so dry or droll that I sometimes gave people who’d never before met him a quiet health-warning in advance; a person loyal to family, community and the Jewish religion, with an immovable commitment which not rarely suggested the words ‘stubborn’ or ‘obstinate’; a man on whom the congregation could utterly rely; a man who never lost touch with the child-part of his own soul, so that he was, until almost the end, a wonderful reader of stories, player of games, pusher of swings with his children and grand-children.

He used to approach me at the end of the synagogue service and make a gesture of turning a door knob. I would hand him my bunch of keys to the office and he would go upstairs and place some essential document in the community wedding files.

For Bernard really did write signatures of the heart. During thirty-five years he was our registrar, our senior secretary for marriages, who filled in the forms in indelible ink in the official books; held out the pen to bride, groom and witnesses; sat on the other side of the table while the photographers captured that iconic moment in which the newly-weds signed away the rest of their lives; and finally confirmed with a signature of his own that this was indeed a marriage faithfuly performed ‘according to the usages of the Jews’.

I’ve been told that Bernard officiated at three hundred weddings (including Nicky’s and mine), almost all of them after the death of his first wife, which made me realise what courage lay concealed within his humour and unflappable self-possession.

Bernard’s passing is to me and his friends not at all like his loss for his wife, children and grandchildren. My heart goes out to them.

Losses are never comparable. I cannot but think today of the shocking murder of seventeen young people and staff at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. (It’s inconceivable to me why America does not change its gun laws.) I think of all of them, their parents and families, and of the ties friends and colleagues may have with the five Jewish victims.

Sometimes our writing on each other’s hearts feels like the calm presence of a steady hand, sometimes like the reassurance of a calming caress, and sometimes like the cutting and tearing of an adze.

Our heart is full of other people. We should acknowledge them, appreciate them, thank them, share their greetings, quip back at their crazy humour, stand by them in loyalty, while they and we still can.

For Holocaust Memorial Day: the Power of Words

Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the date when the first units of the Red Army encountered the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau. This year, the theme for the day is the power of words.

I think immediately of the lines of the Russian-Jewish poet, Osip Mandelstam, twice exiled, who perished somewhere in the vast labyrinth of Stalin’s Siberian camps:

You gave me my shoe-size in earth, with bars around it.

But you left me my lips and they shape words, even in silence.

I’ve often wondered what words were shaped in the lonely silences, amidst the roar of the surrounding violence and hatred: in the trains which parted people forever from those they loved, on forced marches, in cold and filthy bunks, in the desperation of the devastated spirit. Those words rarely found a compassionate ear, a heart ready and able to help. The silence swallowed them up, with their love, their despair, their longing, all the complex eloquence of a human life.

From time to time, scraps of paper, even photographs, are still found in the restless earth and ashes of what were once those terrible camps. Or the living discover envelopes, and the murdered, a grandfather, a great-aunt, suddenly have a voice. People ask: ‘What do we do with those letters, hard to decipher, in a language we don’t understand?’ I recall the Biblical injunction: ‘dovev siftei yesheinim – give speech to those who sleep in the dust’.

But it is not just to the dead that we must listen; the silence of the living is more urgent.

‘They have no voice,’ a friend said to me. He’d stood together with those who were shot in river X for no reason; fled with cousins and companions who found no hospitable quarter; witnessed the deported depart; been detained with those for whom there was no one to speak out. ‘They have no voice’, he said; ‘they’re lost in the silence’.

But my friend is not right. It’s not that such people have no voice; it’s that too few are willing to listen. That’s always been the fate of the persecuted, the rejected, the neglected.

How do I find your heart? How do I access your compassion? Surely that was the outcry of millions who perished in the Nazi Holocaust, and in numerous genocides and mass murders since, and still ongoing. It’s the half-heard outcry of hundreds of thousands now, powerless victims of licenced violence, lawless militias, and calculated hatred.

It’s less troublesome to think only of the silence of the dead. But, more than anyone, those very dead would want us to listen, urgently, this very moment, now, to the unheeded among the living. What words are the persecuted, the hopeless, those who find little or no help, shaping in the silence now?

Meanwhile the world is full of noise. Angry, self-righteous, cruel words fly at us, sometimes from the highest places. Timothy Snyder’s short book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is essential contemporary reading. Be heedful with words, he warns. Speak truth, read carefully, listen out for honesty. Eschew the slogans of power and deceit. Beware of fake news, post truth and manipulative sound-bites. ‘Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant’ – He was thinking of Goebbels and Hitler, but mindful also of now.

There are few more generous encapsulations of what language is for than the short phrase from Proverbs, in praise of women: ‘Torah chesed al leshonah – the teaching of lovingkindness is on her tongue’.

A heart which listens truly, will speak the truth of lovingkindness.

 

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