It all came out of staring at a patch of mud and weeds. Then I found I had a bag too much of horse manure in the back of the car. (There’s nothing quite like shovelling the stuff into sacks on a cold February day: the warmth of the hay, the sweet and acrid smell of life.) So I dug the contents, and that of twenty more bags, into the soil and ordered six kilos of seed potatoes.
It was after Pesach that this became Leslie Lyndon’s and my shared project; rabbi and chazzan digging the synagogue garden together, – there has to be something symbolic in that. The potatoes sprouted, the sunflowers grew tall, the courgettes produced green and yellow fruits. People stopped us to chat: ‘What’s that you’re growing there? How’s the corn doing?’ We put ourselves on the waiting list to host Gardener’s Question Time.
The children from the pre-school joined us to harvest the potatoes; I wondered how many had ever lifted a tuber out of the furrow before, or seen the secret of the growth of chips and crisps. We sold the courgettes for a donation to any charity which fed the hungry. Someone made a vegetable casserole and took it to the Drop-In for asylum seekers. People went home from the synagogue carrying the unanticipated burden of a sack of potatoes.
It was at a conference in Edinburgh that I met the lady who told me about her project. Every time she went to visit her husband, who sadly couldn’t be cared for at home, she’d find herself staring at the waste ground behind the hospital building. Slowly she turned it into a garden; gradually everyone joined her, patients, families, staff: ‘What’s that we’re growing over there?’ ‘It used to be a rubbish-heap’, she said, ‘and many of the patients used to feel that they were rubbish too. But aren’t we gardeners all?’
I hadn’t realised how many people had noticed the patch in front of our synagogue. A group of ten-year-olds accosted me: ‘We want them crysanthemums!’ I hadn’t thought plants were cool. I asked the children at Gan Alon nursery what they might like: ‘Sweet corn and strawberries’, they answered, so sweet corn and strawberries it shall be, (in addition to the potatoes, sunflowers and courgettes.) It’s all good news for the local blackbirds, thrushes and tits.
‘God planted a garden in Eden to the east’, says the Book of Genesis, describing God’s first horticultural venture. But there’s no such a thing as a garden which isn’t God’s garden, and isn’t the command to ‘tend it and look after it’ God’s everlasting instruction about loving and respecting this world? After all, to whom do the earth and the seasons belong? People know it, too. Those who might never step inside a temple, synagogue or church see wonder in the snowdrops, feel before the wild plum and the almond blossom the touch of a gentle heaven.
All that was last year’s affair. But this year’s labours have now begun. You’ll see as you walk towards the synagogue that we’re having two raised beds constructed. A person in a wheelchair will be able to circumnavigate them too, brush a hand against orange-scented thyme, plant crocuses, pick a strawberry or a courgette (with a little bit of luck).
We may never say the word aloud, but I hope that garden will put the feeling of baruch in our minds, baruch which means blessed, – blessed this world, blessed this life, blessed the vitality that makes the leaf unfurl, the flower open and the embryo fruits set. For a garden is the prayer before the prayers begin, God’s place in which is set God’s house.

Ears and sheaves

I had thought of writing just about the snowdrops. In February the small lanes of South Wales and the South West are beautiful with snowdrops. They grow in clumps and clusters by the road side, even right under the hawthorn, and on the climbing riverbanks. They grow beside the hedgerows, on the other side of which two ewes call out to their tiny lambs, just born. They grow in the churchyards, alongside the paths and among the graves. They guide the way into the old village churches.
Some of these churches are over a thousand years old, simple spaces filled with hearts’ lives, with the humility and prayer of generations. Opposite the entrance of one particular church, Nicky found two wooden panels on which was recorded the outcome of an ancient court case. It had involved the village priest; as a result it had been determined that for every measure of harvest, for each milch-cow born and for every lamb, a tithe was duly to be given. Nothing suggested greed or embezzlement. Rather, from what the land brought forth the poor, too, had to be fed.
I was reminded of Maimonides’ explanation, in that most moving section of his great 12th century code,  Hilchot Mattanot La’Evyonim, Laws concerning Gifts to the Poor, of the Torah’s rules on tithing. Ma’asrot, or tithes, provided for the landless servants of the community, the Priests and Levites. At certain points in the seven-year cycle they also benefited the local poor. More important for the itinerant destitute, who included orphans, the very old and the sick, were those parts of every harvest which the Torah declared theirs: the forgotten ears and sheaves, the second pickings from the ground crops and the orchards, and the corners of the fields.
But that was not sufficient. No Jewish community, ruled Maimonides, basing himself on the final chapter of the 2nd century Mishnaic tractate Pe’ah, was worthy of the title unless it had at least two regular collections: – the kuppah, or fund, from which the local poor were allocated money for their weekly needs, and the tamchu’i, or plate, on which surplus food was collected every day for the itinerant poor and the hungry. There is ample testament that these moneys, and various other funds, to support universal education, to marry off penniless young people, to provide for the sick and to care for the dead, have been the mark of Jewish community life throughout the ages. We are forbidden to eat in ease while our fellow human beings starve, suffer cold, and face homelessness and sickness.
‘Bishops cannot stay silent on political issues, because at the heart of religion is the question of how the community delivers justice’, wrote Ed West in today’s Times. He was referring to the claim, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury and twenty-seven other bishops, that cuts in welfare provision are driving more and more people to depend on food banks. Whether they are correct about the details of the causes is a matter of research and policy; but the bishops are certainly right to speak out. That is a question of values. Religion is not about God in heaven, but about God’s presence on earth, about the justice, compassion and kindness we strive to implement in our countries, cities and villages.
Only for Jews the unit of ultimate responsibility is not the state. Rather, it is the community, guided sometimes chided, by the vision of justice apprehended by the prophets, and the provisions of justice mandated by Jewish law. 

Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day, as I learnt by looking on Wikipedia, is named after Saint Valentinus, who, according to legend, ‘was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians’. Its association with romantic love apparently dates back Chaucer, because of the couplet in his Parliament of Fowles:
          For this was on seynt Volantynys day
          Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

Those of Scottish descent may prefer to point to the lines by Robert Burns:
‘My love is like a red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June’, which appear to have had an undue influence on the commercial realities of the date.

But the question I’m usually asked is: ‘Is there a Jewish equivalent?’ The answer is a politically incorrect ‘yes’: Yom Kippur (of all days!) and the 15th of Av, for on these dates

           The daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards.
           What would they say? ‘Young man, lift up your eyes and consider what to choose.
           Don’t set your eyes on beauty but rather on family, “For grace is false and beauty
           is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised”. (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8)

Sexist, unequal, – no doubt this custom is open to many criticisms. But it points at something deeply important.
Judaism believes in abiding romantic love and regards those who find it as blessed and lucky. It has a wonderful vocabulary for such feelings: ahavah, ve’achavah, veshalom ver’ut, – love, togetherness, peace and companionship. Social changes in the modern period have taught us to understand more deeply how such feelings can only flourish with the equality and freedom of women as well as men. More recently, growing insight has taught society to show the same respect for the fostering of relationships rooted in the same feelings and values between people who are gay. (Judaism is also realistic about the fact that, with the best will in the world, relationships don’t always work out, and well aware that at any time life may take from us those we love most.)
But for Judaism the ideal of love is not simply what happens between two lucky people in a lonely world. Romantic love is set within the enduring context of chesed, faithful loving-kindness, a bond which should embrace us all in a collective brit or covenant of mutual care. This begins with family, extends to community, and ultimately encompasses all life, God’s creation entrusted to our care. Such chesed, or faithful kindness, is the power with which Judaism opposes indifference, be it the amorality of nature, or the callousness of cruel people. It is the practice of chesed which turns us into a community of responsibility, respect, and compassionate concern.
This takes me back to where I was going to begin my letter, – until it struck me that it would be mean-spirited to ignore Valentine’s Day, which most people regard as at worst harmless and at best a happy way to tell the person they love how deeply they hold them in their soul.
On a day about heart and hearth, thousands of people’s homes are under water, with more storms to come. Last week I wrote to the Bishop of Taunton; yesterday I spoke to Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue. Both appreciated the gesture of solidarity, neither sought practical help at present. But please tell me if you do know what we might do to assist.
Ultimately, if Valentine’s Day has something to teach us in such circumstances, it is that we must not leave anyone to feel alone and abandoned, ever.


I was reading from the Torah recently when someone asked for something to be said on behalf of a relative who was ill. At once, before I could do anything about it, the traditionalMisheberach was intoned, the prayer which asks God to send ‘complete healing of the spirit and the body’. But, as I and many others knew, the person concerned was dying. What mattered now was not physical healing but comfort, companionship and peace. I thought of the simple words of a colleague in a similar situation: ‘May God be with her and her family on this journey’. That was so much more appropriate.
Today, the 7th of Adar, is traditionally regarded as the anniversary of Moses’ death. His brief, heartfelt supplication for his sister is still the heart of all our healing prayers: ‘Please, God, heal her, please’. Of the five Hebrew words, two are the same: ‘na – please’. Sometimes in our anxiety and helplessness next to the bed of the person we love, all language and all feeling contracts into just one single word: ‘Please!’ or maybe two words: ‘Please, God. Please, God. Please!’
Prayer is about how we engage our heart and consciousness with the greatest possible being. Sometimes it is a passionate, unrestrained outpouring of hope and need, as if we were flinging ourselves into the winds of the storm. Sometimes it is a stepping back, as if the breeze were entering us, breathing into unexplored chambers of the heart. Sometimes prayer is formed of words and song, sometimes silence. Sometimes we can ascribe to it no content, only the quiet awareness that we have been in partnership. If asked: ‘In partnership with what?’ we would find it hard to answer, but might say, tentatively, ‘With life, with my own spirit, with nature, with God’. But we would probably rather not answer.
The practice of praying in the congregation for those who are ill is Talmudic at the latest. The Shulchan Aruch (16th century) rules that we should include them in the community of those who are also ill, saying “May the All-Present One heal you amidst the sick of all Israel” Many of us add: ‘and all humankind’. The emphasis is that a person is not alone, both because there are many others who are ill too, and because we as a community now commit ourselves to supporting them and all who care for them.
I don’t think we manage these prayers well in our community, or in most others I have visited. People come to the synagogue with many anxieties and fears, about their own health, and about the wellbeing of family and friends. There are many kinds of illness too, and they all feel different at varying stages. The book Where Healing Resides, prepared by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, contains many thoughtful reflections, such as this prayer about chronic illness:
         Compassionate One, give me the strength and courage to face the daily challenges in my life…Be by my side…
or this meditation for people commencing treatment:
         Grant me strength to overcome any obstacles that lie ahead [and] hope to allow me to persevere in moments of darkness. Grant that those providing medical care may be gentle and compassionate.
I would like to prepare a card with a number of different healing prayers and make it available to whoever chooses for personal reflection. Each week, too, we should include a brief communal prayer from a selection touching on different aspects of healing. This will remind us to be aware of and compassionate towards each other through life’s many, exacting and often lonely challenges.

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