March 31, 2023 admin

Whose faces do we see?

I received a remarkable WhatsApp from Raba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, rabbi of the Tsion community in Jerusalem. The colleague who introduced us said to me ‘Meet your soul-sister’. It’s an honour I don’t deserve, though now that her family has a puppy maybe it’s a little less untrue.

Rabbi Tamar had just concluded a ten-day hunger strike out of deep anguish for Israel. Two weeks ago, she told me at the demonstrations in Jerusalem, ‘Don’t compromise your principles. But listen to everyone.’ The struggle for democracy and justice must be won. But behind it lie further dangerous rifts, angers, insecurities, wrongs and fears.

Tamar reflected deeply on the words of the Hatikvah, “The Hope”, Israel’s national anthem, especially on the line kol od baleivav penimah, ‘For so long, deep within the heart…’ Penimah means ‘within’, but panim are also ‘faces’. She wrote:

 ‘So long as I have within my heart the faces of my brothers and sisters, so long as I acknowledge them, carry them, seek their peace as I seek my own…’

Her words reminded me of Pasternak’s poem ‘Daybreak

In me are people without names,

Children, stay-at-homes, trees,

I am conquered by them all

And this is my only victory.

So who are these people we must carry in our heart?

Some are our nearest-and-dearest because we feel and care in similar ways. But Tamar’s point is that’s not enough. What about others?

Pharaoh asked Moses this very question three thousand years ago: Who’s going with you on your journey to freedom? ‘Our old and our young,’ he replied, ‘our sons and our daughters.’ Moses was leaving no one behind.

Now, approaching Pesach, ‘The Festival of Our Freedom’ who must we carry with us in these troubled times? To whom as we open the door to Elijah, prophet of peace, can we open our hearts and minds?

Some things are easily said, just hard to do. We must take the poor with us in our increasingly unequal societies, refugees, children, all children, those who cope readily in our fierce-elbowed world and those who find it tough.

Some things are hard even to say. Can we carry in understanding, without agreeing or conceding, those whose views, and often actions, we oppose, including, perhaps, communities we call ‘ultra-orthodox’ who fear modernity? Are there values with which we can empathise?

Is there a place in our thinking for those whose hurts are also, alongside the oppression and hatreds of so much Iranian and Middle Eastern politics, partly our responsibility after fifty-five years, Palestinian people on the wrong side of those concreate walls, without rights we mostly take for granted? If not, to what shared pain are we jointly condemned?

Is there even space in my imagination for those whose actions I utterly deplore and in no way seek to justify, supremacists and racists who profane the name of Judaism? Should I see their actions, without in any way exculpating them, as in part the product of hurts and wrongs, pogroms and attempted genocides, absorbed by Jews for centuries and now poured forth in vindictive anger, and fear?

To what wrongs – I write this with trepidation – here in the UK, across this unjust world, and among my own people, am I too party? We read the famous verse v’ahavta le’re’acha kamocha, as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, which numerous rabbis, being pragmatists, understand as ‘respect and acknowledge others as you want to be respected.’ But the words, vowel-less in the Torah, can be misread as ve’ahavta lera’achah. It’s a harsh misreading, but not beyond the scope of what one sometimes finds in Hasidic discourse. It means something like ‘acknowledge the bad which is like you,’ the wrongs in which I also have a share.

If we wish to advance our journey towards freedom and redemption this Pesach, these are some of the questions we may have to face.

I love the festival and shall write affectionately and uncritically about its details on Monday.

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