This is the week of cleaning and scouring. Out come the pots and frying pans, the familiar plates and the half forgotten dishes unused from one year’s end to the other, from the depths of their respective cupboards which now receive a scrubbing and dousing which removes the old encrusted flakes of dough and splashes of tomato sauce from corners which they should never have reached in the first place. Even the oven is eventually coaxed into parting with its grime and after much elbow-grease the grids finally shine almost as they did in the forgotten years when they were new. If a little bit of ingrained charcoal from the sauce of an apple pie which spilled over from its dish six months ago refuses to quit the floor of the oven, well then, so be it. It’s probably not ra’oui le’achilat celev – fit for consumption by a dog – the halakhic definition of when something ceases to be considered food (though in my experience relatively little passes this ultimate test). Jerusalem at this season becomes a city of beaten out carpets draped over balconies.

What has this crazy activity (much of which I have to confess to loving) got to do with anything of any importance?

Last Tuesday Nicky and I took a day out and walked in the New Forest. We stopped for a while in a grass glade, while the dog immersed himself in a mikvah of mud. Above the semi-circle of grey oaks surrounding us was a rim of pale brown, made by countless buds fed by the sap of the spring. Soon everywhere will burst into pale green fragrance. Back home in the garden many of those buds have already opened and the tiny red leaves of our young miniature chestnut tree have that sweet delicacy of infant hands. What tyrant can hold back the passionate, inexorable spring?

Yet precisely amidst this joy, and Pesach is the festival of both spring and freedom, one senses the tragedy of so much of human history. What does a person, any person, want, if not to be allowed to grow towards the light, to let their heart unfurl in the warmth of the sun, to dance in the green shadows and at the sound of rain, to seek love, to rejoice in the beauty of the earth and its abandon and to worship the God of all this wonder? That’s why we read the glorious, romantic Song of Songs on Pesach.

But the world is full of cruelty, negligence and repression. We kill, and we let die. We allow lives to pass from birth to death without liberty, without enough to eat and drink, without the right to sing in freedom the songs of their own people and their own heart.

It is against this crime that Passover, the Festival of Freedom is in perpetual rebellion. God is the energy in the heart and kernel of all life and will not allow us, or any human being, or any living creature, to be enslaved without the essence of all existence crying out in protest.

How does this connect with standing with chapped hands immersed in dirty water at the kitchen sink?

In all that scrubbing and scouring I’m not saying, ‘I have a dirt fetish’, or ‘I’m willing to let some ancient, male-dominant rabbinic law turn me into a nervous wreck’. The activity is an expression of something quite different. What I’m really saying is: ‘I will not allow any part of me, not my kitchen, not my home, not my heart, not my relationships, not my moral sensitivity, not my joy in life’s endless creative energy, to become dull, dirty and crusted over, so that I no longer feel, or see, or think, or care, or protest, or sing anymore.

Let life dance! Let even the oven shine!

The greatest wrong

I felt it was essential to write to the head teacher of the Ozar Torah school in Toulouse:

I’m writing on behalf of my community to express our horror, sorrow, anguish, pain and fellow-feeling for all of you, – the parents who have lost their dear children, your staff who have lost a faithful teacher, and all the Jewish congregation and people of Toulouse and France. May God give you strength, comfort, wisdom and guidance in these sad and hard times.

May the all-present God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

People should be remembered not just in general, but by their names and their lives, however tragically short. I have since learnt that those murdered are Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and his children Gavriel and Aryeh, as well as Miriam Monsonego. I do not know the names of the other victims of the killer.

Deeply connected with this extraordinarily cruel and violent crime is an issue which goes to the heart of religion; it is a matter which concerns not just the few, or the extremists, but all of us. A few months ago I was part of a group of rabbis meeting a gathering of imams. The question was discussed: What is the best example we can offer through our role, and what, by contrast is the worst?

The answer to my mind is clear, especially when we take into account the fact that the pulpit has real power. It is not only economic opportunism which arms violent maniacs, terror organisations, gangs, militias, and sometimes whole armies. Even more powerful can be what we say about the other, especially what we say about that other in the name of God. Hatred inspired by religion has been one of the most malevolent forces in history. Its role in the future is yet to be seen, but leaves ample grounds for fear.

The greatest wrong religious leaders and congregations can do is to teach their own community to hate. It makes no moral difference whom the object of that hate is, Jews, Muslims, or non-believers. It makes little difference whether that hatred is conveyed through the application of sacred text, the appeal to dogma, the harnessing of popular discontent or the desire to find a cheap and easy way to create identity. It is wrong.

The greatest responsibility of religious leadership and community is to understand, respect and teach that all life is sacred, that God can be present in the heart and revealed in the actions of any human being, irrespective of whatever faith he or she may or may not profess, and that all life and especially all people are to be treated in a spirit of respect, understanding, mercy and justice.

Only the very greatest human beings have truly managed to conduct their daily lives according to these truths. But it remains the responsibility of us all to try to do so.

The truths that all life is sacred and that all life seeks our respect and compassionate concern are not naïve. They are not some flight-of-fancy, foolish and blind alternative to taking measures to protect our children, all children, and ourselves. As and where needed, such measures must be taken with alacrity and intelligence.

But the core of the struggle in each human life, in humanity in general and for the future of the world, is whether there is more compassion, understanding and love, or more fear and hatred, in each and all of our hearts.

Nothing can requite the gratuitous murder of children, just as nothing can justify it. The most valuable response is for each of us to try to increase the amount of compassion in the world.


This week I had the privilege of listening to Terry Waite. In 1994, some thirty months after his release from almost five years as a hostage, most of it in solitary confinement, often chained and with no access to ordinary daylight, he wrote in the postscript to his book Taken on Trust:

It will take a long time for me to understand what was happening to my soul during those long years of silence. I hope that my continued feeling of vulnerability, developed as a result of being treated as less than a person for so long, will enable me to be of more constructive help to others who struggle. (p. 460)

 These words may at first sight seem surprising. One might have thought that someone who had undergone such trying and challenging experiences, who had been confronted so cruelly and for so long with the awareness of their own frailty and susceptibility to the whims of others, would shun nothing so much as the sense of vulnerability. Would one not want to feel safe, protected, as close to invulnerable as one possibly could?

Yet Terry Waite wrote, and he referred to it too on Wednesday evening, of the importance to him of just the opposite. He didn’t speak about the value of feeling vulnerable per se, but rather of using such vulnerability to care more deeply for others. For the first time he read in public poems he’d written over the past few years, poems of great tenderness, from which it became clear that the solitary imprisonment and torture which he’d endured had not confined his heart and soul. On the contrary, their world had somehow expanded outwards to embrace concern for all vulnerable life and the experience of having no door through which he could physically pass had fashioned windows in his heart through which the needs and suffering of others could enter in many ways.

On reflection I realised that Waite’s words were reminding me of a passage from another thinker, also a minister of the church, whom I very much admired, the writer Albrecht Goes, a friend of Martin Buber and a close friend of my grandfather. Addressing a Jewish audience in Hamburg in 1962 he said

I believe we have learnt all over again what the countenance of a man who is truly able to help men looks like: It is a face from which stubbornness, cocksureness, the worshiping of success, rigidity, and a pedantic clinging to principles increasingly vanishes to give way to other, greater, realities: astonishment, the ability to be frightened, defencelessness, reverence, awe, gratitude. (Men of Dialogue, p. 270)

He was of course speaking about the legacy of fascism, but he might also have been addressing certain aspects of our society today where for many assertiveness, power and image are considered of such importance. I feel sure that Terry Waite and Albrecht Goes would have understood one another immediately.

They would both too have understood the lady who came to see me a while ago. ‘How are things going?’ I asked her. There had been many tensions in her family. ‘Much better’, she replied, ‘My life is changing’. ‘How is that happening?’ I enquired. She answered, ‘Through realising that I may be wrong.’ She continued, ‘You see, for all those years I thought I had the truth. I couldn’t see the world from the point of view of others. It’s different now; I’m beginning to understand.’

 It takes great courage for a person to be vulnerable, and real love to turn that vulnerability into – love.

A love-hate relationship

Chag Purim Sameach – Happy Purim; I hope you enjoy the festival with us in our community, or wherever you are. I have a love-hate relationship with the day.

I both love and hate the Megillah, the story itself. I love reading it. Beneath the seeming surface of palace furnishings, drinking parties, bath-oil recipes for how to be most popular at the harem, the drawing of lots, the sending of letters, royal horses, and the ancient world’s equivalent of phone-tapping, the Megillah is among the sharpest and shrewdest accounts of Realpolitik in that sharp and shrewd anthology which constitutes the Bible. Think how the king manages, or fails to manage, the insecurity of ruling 127 provinces whose languages he cannot possibly understand. Consider how Haman, himself a survivor in a tiny minority group, so inwardly uncertain beneath his arrogance that he tells his wife how many children they have, manipulates those royal anxieties: ‘those Jews, they’re everywhere; they have their own laws; they don’t care about yours; they’re a danger; get rid of them.’ It’s the first example of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in literature. Then ponder how Esther plays even more astutely upon those same insecurities by inviting Haman to her parties, leaving the sleepless king wondering just what may be going those two which he ought to know about.

But I hate the harshness of this politics, the Darwinian survival of the most cunning, the violence, the sense that this is only one turn of the screw, that whoever ends up winning this round may well lose the next. Surviving is always a provisional matter; the problems are bound to resurface, sometimes with us as the victims, sometimes with others. And in this cruel world God is ex machina, palpably, seemingly absent…It’s the year’s most troubling festival.

However I love the Purim customs. We celebrate in four ways (besides hearing the Megillah evening and morning).

Firstly we give to the poor. Two gifts to at least two poor, rules the Shulchhan Aruch, basing itself on the text in the Megillah which instructs us to give mattanot la’evtonim, gifts (plural) to the poor (plural). One tradition is to give half units of currency, in memory of the half shekel for theTemple; but the greater the generosity the better. In Austria they used to give half a Wiener, so my colleague Rabbi Chaim of that name should not celebrate in Vienna. One may give to whom one chooses.

Secondly we share gifts of food, mishloach manot ish lere’ehu, ‘the sending of portions, each to their fellow’. Parcels should therefore include at least two kinds of food. One may give to whom one wishes, though the Shulchan Aruch notes that one should be careful with single women lest it the gift be seen as a bridal present and one is held to have married the recipient.

Thirdly, we eat and drink, the latter, rules the Shulchan Aruch, until we don’t know the difference between ‘blessed is Mordechai’ and ‘cursed is Haman’. This was too much for Rabbi Moses Isserles, who recommended instead that one drink until one falls asleep, at which point one knows the difference between nothing and nothing anyway.

Finally, we dress up. ‘It’s an upside down world’, says the Megillah, ‘nahaphoch hu’, and on this day we may be whoever we choose. Don’t we play roles in life anyway? Aren’t we pushed into them by the politics of society all the time? By the way, if you haven’t worked out your disguise yet, then you’re in the same boat as I am. I’m going to stare at Nicky’s hat boxes, the children’s toys, the dog’s tray, and see if there is anything vaguely unusual I can stick over my head.

Who is wise?

I’ve had a week of privileged conversations, most of them around the big oak table at my home (most of them open to anyone who wants to join in). On Friday night we invited couples just married and those about to get married, so that the former could give the latter advice (‘It was when she walked round me seven times that I truly really realised…’). On Sunday night we studied Mishnah with a group who’d moved from banking to philanthropy (There was a pious man whom Elijah the prophet used to visit. But after they built a gatehouse and walls he stopped coming: ‘I don’t go to places where you can no longer hear the knocking of the poor’. Talmud: Bava batra 7a) On Monday night it was people converting to Judaism and their partners, discussing Heschel’s book The Sabbath (‘I went to Sainsburys on Saturday afternoon because we’d run out of food; it totally spoiled Shabbat for me and I realised it was something I’d never ever do again.’) Tuesday and Wednesday nights were theology (‘Every person can become attached to God wherever he is, through the holiness that exists in every single thing…’ Rebbe Yehudah Aruyeh-Lev of Ger). Last night it was the question of whether trying to be a traditional Jew in the modern world was possible and desirable, or more like the Yiddish proverb about trying to dance at two weddings at the same time.

But my mind is drawn most to a quiet conversation with a small group of teenagers at the Haderech programme. We were discussing the question put by the second century sage Ben Zoma, ‘Who is wise?’ (Mishnah Avot 4:1). I asked the class for their own opinions and one girl replied, ‘It’s a person who doesn’t forget but always forgives’. Ben Zoma himself answered, ‘It’s someone who learns from all people’.

I’m moved by the humility of these responses. In a world where so much store is set by success, by getting it right, by having the edge over others in cleverness and coolness, wisdom is here understood as the quality of understanding and forgiving, of always being interested, always open to learning. It implies a deep and patient respect for life. Such a person doesn’t turn anyone away as too stupid, too unimportant, too young, too old or too boring. There is always, so the answers imply, a patient, understanding openness to life. Wouldn’t we all want to be like that?

The word ‘wisdom’ appears frequently in connection with the making of the sanctuary for God. ‘I shall fill him with the spirit of the Lord, in wisdom, understanding and in knowledge’, says God to Moses, referring to Bezalel, the artist who shares the key responsibility of leading the work. These are the very words used about God’s own self in the creation of the world, when ‘the spirit of the Lord’ hovered over the waters. Is wisdom then also an openness to this presence of God in beauty and wonder, potentially manifest in all things and all people, in the daffodils I noticed just out in flower this morning, in the person walking along the other side of the street? Is wisdom a kind of compassionate wakefulness, free of harsh judgement, but marked rather by generous understanding? Is it perhaps the most important of all qualities if we are to make a sanctuary, that is, make this often violent and unholy world around us into a place of true sanctuary, not just for the strongest, but for the weakest, for the bewildered, for the suffering, for all of us who struggle?

Get in touch...