My heroes are people to whom other people – yes, and sometimes animals too – matter. More than that: they’re people who make other people understand and feel that they matter, whether those are young children, men and women in the bewildering landscape of Alzheimer’s, Jews, non-Jews, or people of any faith, station or status.
That’s why the word which characterises the opening chapters of the Book of Numbers, which we begin today, speaks to me: ‘se’u – lift up.’ In context it means ‘count’; in spirit it means ‘make count’. ‘Lift up the heads of the whole community of Israel,’ says the Torah. The role of leaders, commented the Hasidic teacher Avraham of Trisk, is to raise the spirits, morale and self-esteem of everyone.
The opposite of ‘lift up’ is ‘put down’, as in ‘he delivered a put down.’ It’s rarely warranted. Once, over twenty years ago, I asked a child to stop doing something which was distracting me while I was giving a sermon. Afterwards, my much-missed friend David Cesarani said to me, ‘A rabbi telling off a congregant; I’m not sure I like that.’ His words periodically ring in my head to this day and I still feel shame. I hope the person – I don’t know who it is – has forgiven me.
Putting down is easy; lifting up is harder. It may take vision, thoughtfulness, sustained attentiveness and compassionate imagination. But at its root is just one quality – kindness.
The reason I’m writing about this now is because I witness such ‘lifting up’ all around me, here in London, and, if I imagine myself there for this special day, in Jerusalem.
I’ve had a multi-faith week, with a session on refugees, an inter-faith Iftar and two debates on ‘green recovery’ in light of the 5th anniversary of Pope Francis encyclical Laudato Si. The aim has always been the same: how can we recognise and lift up those so often marginalised and forgotten. At the Iftar a local woman, Farida, was asked ‘How many meals did you deliver today?’ ‘172,’ she answered, smiling, and looking exhausted. There are many like her. In the Jewish community we have only to see what JW3 is doing.
If I travel, virtually, to Jerusalem, I recall the soldier next to whom I was once sitting on an Egged bus, who said to me kindly and quite unexpectedly, ‘You’re not looking well; can I help you in any way?’ And I think of the great scholar Paul Mendes-Flohr who took me to a falafel shop and, instead of ordering food, asked the young Arab man how his wife was, whether she had recovered from her illness and how he could assist their children. I haven’t forgotten. I’m deeply worried about annexation.
The role of leaders is to lift up. In fact, it’s the desire and capacity to lift people’s morale, economic position, skills, self-esteem and spirits which make people leaders.
This week on Shavuot we’ll read the Ten Commandments, including ‘Lo tissa – Don’t lift up God’s name in vain.’ It’s the same word as se’u, only preceded by a ‘don’t’. But that ‘don’t’ implies a ‘do’: do lift up God’s name in truth and with integrity. God’s name, I believe, is not in heaven, but in the heart of every person, at the heart of life.
Isaiah has a wonderful vision of Jerusalem: ‘At the end of days, the mountain of the House of God will be established above all mountains and uplifted – venissa – above all hills, and every nation will flow to it.’ (2:2)
With every person for whom we care, with every spirit we raise, we help build that Jerusalem.
Shabbat Shalom, be safe and be well