‘Min hameitsar karati – From this narrow space I call out to you, God.’ As we speak these words of the Hallel, the short selection of Psalms read on the new moon and festivals, we hear them cried out loud from friends, colleagues, fighters, children, in bunkers in Kyiv, Kharkiv, across the Ukraine.
If you’re like me, you too probably feel useless, powerless to help. For now, the message from humanitarian agencies remains clear: what’s needed is funds, funds, funds (click here). When refugees do arrive here in the UK it’ll be different; we, like millions of people in East and Central Europe, will greet them with signs of welcome. (Meanwhile there are so many refugees and victims from other vicious conflicts, calling out from Afghanistan, Xinjiang, or as asylum-seekers nearby, needing help. Down the road are people struggling because of the pandemic, rising prices, the cost of heating, queuing at food banks.)
‘From the straits I call to you, answer me with the freedom of broad spaces:’ That you is not just God; it’s us. It’s not within our individual power to respond militarily. But we can and must offer the ‘broad spaces’ of our humanity, heart, solidarity. Here is an extract from emails between John in our community, and his colleague Taras, trapped in Kyiv:
John: We see what extraordinary resilience you show in the maintenance of your own state… The courage of the Ukrainian people is inspiring the world. I have been listening to your MP, Leseya Vasilenko, talking about taking up arms as a woman to stand in defence of her town, her children and her society. She is lucid, clear-headed, purposeful, determined.
Taras: I want you to know that your letters… are very, very important to me and to everyone here. I may not be able to respond quickly, or at all, but the feeling of your presence, your sympathy and support is extremely valuable. In the current catastrophe not only sympathy, but also the most active actions are vital from you and from all our friends in Europe and beyond. I beg you, shout at all corners, tell everyone you know, use whatever leverage you have at your disposal to stop this madness immediately, so that the invaders cease fire and get out of our land…
We must not be silent. This was President Zelensky’s explicit message to Jews around the world: ‘Do not be silent now.’ Consciously or not, he was repeating Mordechai’s words to Esther as their entire people stood in danger of annihilation: ‘If you keep silence now…’ This in turn echoed the Torah’s injunction, ‘Don’t stand idly by your fellow’s blood…’
Without making their existence even harder, keep contact with friends and colleagues in Ukraine, fleeing Ukraine, who have relatives there or nearby, or who are supporting refugees. Be in touch with those in Russia too. Write to your MP for us to do more; (See the advice from World Jewish Relief) Share poetry, music, art from the Ukraine; say out loud what you are doing.
The bombing of Babi Yar by the Russian air force re-opens the graves of the victims of the worst outrages perpetrated by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen on the body of the Jewish People. This reveals to the whole world the wretched sum of what dictatorship, brutality and mercilessness achieve. We can all see. It shows, written in bones, what we must never allow.
This is existential, for the physical lives of many, and for the moral and spiritual lives of all. It goes straight to the core of the Jewish and universal values learned in the crucible of slavery long ago: human dignity, freedom, justice and the infinite value of life.
Today is the first of the true month of Adar when, the Talmud teaches, ‘joy increases.’ I doubt any of us feels that way. But behind true joy lie courage, generosity, faith, care for others, and freedom in body, heart and soul. Let these increase, now.