Late last night we celebrated with Kioumars, a refugee from Iran who has been staying with us and has just received leave to remain in the UK. He spoke to us about a church he attends in central London, saying:
You pray inside a building. You take a few steps outside and see two homeless people. You can’t separate these matters. It makes no sense to pray inside and not care what’s outside, on the doorstep. Where’s my responsibility?
Kioumars’s comment reminded me of the message Susannah Heschel sent last week on the Yahrzeit of her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He defined a religious person as
A person who is maladjusted, attuned to the agony of others, aware of God’s presence and God’s needs…always refusing to accept inequalities, the status quo, the cruelty and suffering of others.
In a touching reminiscence, Susannah asks from where her father drew his strength to march next to Martin Luther King, stand up against the Vietnam war and protest racism, narrow-mindedness and soullessness wherever he encountered them. ‘From prayer’, she answers, describing how she loved to sit quietly in the room while he enveloped himself in tallit and tefillin, in prayer-shawl and phylacteries, in liturgy and love.
But he did more: ‘I was praying with my feet’, Heschel answered a critic who challenged him about what he’d been doing down in Selma, Alabama, on that march to Montgomery in the spring of 1965.
Our rabbis define prayer as avodah shebalev, ‘service of the heart’, the devotion of the consciousness to God. They understood this as an integral part, the core and inspiration, of a life of avodah, a life devoted to service with all our being: feet and hands, body and soul.
This Monday, 15 January, marks Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It was a date hard fought for. It took fifteen years after his assassination, six million signatures, a hit song Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder and a gathering by veterans of the civil rights campaign on the 20th anniversary of King’s I Have a Dream, to establish the day in the American calendar.
It is a commemoration most urgently needed at the present hour. ‘My father’, Susannah Heschel wrote further, would have been devastated to witness ‘the KKK marching in the streets, neo-Nazis celebrating’ and racism emanating from the highest places: ‘He would be pacing the floor, unable to sleep…’
In this week’s Torah portion Moses and Aaron ‘go in to Pharaoh’ time after time. They are not frightened to confront tyranny, cruelty and moral blindness. Neither are they afraid of their own people’s preference for the status quo, their understandable concern that protest is only making matters even worse. Moses, who describes himself as ‘burdened in speech and heavy of tongue’, has a greater weight to consider which puts his own reticence into second place: the burdens of suffering born by his brothers and sisters.
We live in a time of danger, from East and West. Values of dignity, justice and compassion cannot be taken for granted. We cannot leave it to others to protect the humanity of the most vulnerable, or our own. ‘Stand up’, insists Timothy Snyder in his sharp-edged book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century: ‘Take responsibility for the face of the world’.