My colleagues and I have been talking a lot about Rabbi Charles Cytron-Walker, familiar to everyone around him simply as Charlie. Today he’s known around the world for his courage, composure and astutely judged conduct when he and members of his congregation were taken hostage last Shabbat in the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville. He’d received special training in how to respond, emotionally and practically, in just such a situation, but in the end it’s a person’s character which shines through. Thank God, and thanks to the skill of the security services, he and all the hostages were freed.
The rabbi’s friends said it was ironic, as well as tragic and shocking, that such an attack should have taken place in his community. He and his wife are known for their openness and their work with people of different faiths. As one of his teachers at rabbinic school said, he ‘could establish bonds with everybody. He is blessed with the ability to connect with people and become beloved.’ (The Forward)
Sadly, the necessity for security means that we have to patrol perimeters, carefully watch, and sometimes close and lock, entrances. It’s the last thing one truly wants to do in the house of God.
But there is one kind of door which, as a matter of ultimate security, we must not seal, – the door of the heart. We’ve read enough about Pharaoh’s hardened heart during the last weeks, the misery this caused The Children of Israel and the destruction it brought down on his own people.
One of my favourite verses in the Torah focusses on the very opposite:
God will open your hearts and the hearts of your children, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, so that you shall live. (Deuteronomy 30:6)
An ancient rabbinic teaching consists of just two words: lev yode’a - ‘the heart knows.’ The verb carries no object, so what is it that the heart can know? The meaning is that the heart has the capacity to know God, not in the abstract as a mere idea or dogma, but feelingly, in life, in nature and, most importantly, in other people.
I admire those whose hearts are open in this way. I don’t think of them as ‘pious’ in any formal sense. I see them rather as deeply perceptive and kind in a sensitive, unobtrusive manner. The deputy head teacher at a school where I taught before becoming a rabbi was like that. She somehow communicated the sense that she felt the potential for life and joy, the dignity and uniqueness, the presence of God, in every child, and they responded to her with instinctive, smiling respect.
Last Monday, the same date news of the arrests in Manchester in connection with the Colleyville siege became the top headline, was Martin Luther King Day. Reverend King understood that freedom would come to America only on the ‘day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands.’ He kept his heart open in the face of constant threats, vilification and imprisonment and, in the end, paid with his life for his deep faith in the oneness of all peoples.
It was because of this shared vision of God and humanity that he and Abraham Joshua Heschel became close friends and spiritual allies, so that they walked together arm in arm in the front line of the march in Selma, Alabama.
Tomorrow we read in the third of the Ten Commandments, ‘Don’t take the name of the Lord your God in vain.’ The exact translation is ‘Don’t carry God’s name in vain.’ The negative implies a positive, that we do carry God’s name, each of us in a unique way.
The ultimate security of humanity lies in recognising that name and presence and honouring it, in ourselves, each other and all life.