The dreadful attacks in Israel

The murder of a young Palestinian child in what appears to be a ‘price tag’ extremist attack is utterly appalling and a desecration of God’s name and a perversion of Judaism. Our thoughts go out to the family.
Similarly vile are the stabbings of 6 people at the Pride march in Jerusalem yesterday, allegedly by a man who has perpetrated the same crime before. Our prayers are with all those who have been injured.


Today is Tu b’Av, the ancient Jewish equivalent of Valentine’s Day; at the close of the 2nd century the Mishnah had already surrounded it with a romantic halo:

  • There were no better days in Israel than Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur when the daughters of Jerusalem went out in borrowed white clothes, so as not to put to shame those who couldn’t afford them, and danced in the vineyards…

They teased the boys, saying: ‘don’t just look for beauty; think of family, ‘Grace is false and beauty vain; it’s the God-fearing girl who deserves praise’. I’m not sure that quote has ever been used in a Valentine’s card.
I won’t write about love and passion; it’s a wonderful subject, but it also hurts a lot of people (and I immediately think of favourite lines by Boris Pasternak: ‘She was as near and dear to him in every feature / As the sea is close to the shore in every breaker.’)
I’m going to pay homage to the word which partners ‘love’ in the Jewish marriage blessings,  re’u – companionship. Virtually everyone wants companionship; very few dispute the Bible’s assumption that ‘It isn’t good to be alone’. The relationship may be romantic, but often it’s ‘just friends’: someone to pick up the phone to, someone to text, someone to go for a walk with, someone who’ll listen when you need to pour out your heart, or merely spill out your irritations. (And no, he or she may be ‘man’s best friend’, but the dog doesn’t count. A dog lacks that capacity which is the hallmark of a truly true friend, the ability to say with a due balance of tact and firmness, ‘You may be mistaken’.)
As a rabbi I encounter the need for three kinds of companionship which aren’t quite the run of the mill. They’re all essentially spiritual. There’s the need for one’s heart’s doubts and fears to be heard by someone who won’t  criticise, or even necessarily comment; who won’t make comparisons, or say ‘the same thing happened to me’, or proffer unsolicited advice; but will merely, simply, listen. Except that ‘hear’ and ‘listen’ suggest something too loud, too articulate, when what seeks to be acknowledged usually lies in the gaps between the words, like the ‘fine silence’ which had a so much deeper effect on the prophet Elijah than thunder and earthquakes, that he covered his face with his mantle because he knew he was known.
People want God’s companionship. It’s not in our gift. We can all only aspire to be modest signposts, not towards any place, or page in the liturgy, but to a way of being, a wider and more inclusive awareness. People don’t necessarily expect anything specific from God; we just want God to be there, to be close to us, without signs or wonders, like in that wonderful reassurance in the 23rdPsalm, ‘I shall fear no evil for Thou art with me’, or as in the Yizkor Memorial Service: when my time comes to leave the earth, be Thou with me.
We also need each other’s companionship in the widest human solidarity, especially when we face persecution or disaster. My grandparents were given shelter when they came as refugees by a devout Christian family near Hemel Hempstead. As Jews we have often been forced to wait anxiously at the dangerous border between acceptance and persecution. Today the Christian communities in the Middle East need our prayers and support as they face the violent enmity of ISIS.
Humanity always calls out for companionship across the boundaries of nationality and faith; none of us are invulnerable before the basic needs for food, shelter and safety. It’s what Isaiah meant when he pleaded with his contemporaries ‘not to hide from your own flesh’.

Pregnant to good pity

I was in Poland this week and saw plenty of sites which accord painfully with the sad mood of the Fast of the Tishah be’Av, which begins towards the close of Shabbat and lasts until dark on Sunday (deferred by 24 hours so as not to fall on Shabbat itself).

Most haunting was the Jewish cemetery in the small town of Ostrow Lubelski, where my father’s aunt and all her close family were sent into exile from Poznan, and from where they were later deported to Treblinka in 1942. The site was marked by small white metal placards like road signs round the periphery stating that this was a Jewish cemetery. All that remained was an empty field, the long yellowing grass interspersed with flowers. Hidden in the middle and only to be found by the callous or intrepid, was a huddle of broken gravestones, half a name here, half an inscription there. A more desolate testament to the capacity to cause thousands of lives to vanish without trace would be hard to imagine.

Tisha Be’Av lies immediately before us. I want to focus not on the elegies but on the hope, on the tradition of the Jerusalem Talmud that this sad date will one day become a holiday, because on it the Messiah is born (Berachot 2:4).

I’m not sure I believe in a ‘personal messiah’, in one single being sent by God to redeem the whole of history. But I certainly believe in the personal redemptive capacity within each one of us, our ability to help turn suffering into understanding, loneliness into community, and desolation into hope. It is in order to do precisely this that we remember and reflect on tragedy and destruction.

One of my favourite Hebrew words is hesed; loving or faithful kindness. In the Bible it indicates attitudes and actions of goodness and generosity within the partnership between person and God, from person to person, nation to nation, and towards all life.

Kindness is sometimes slighted as a dull and middle-aged virtue. Putting oneself to the test of never saying an unkind word or doing an unkind act for just a single day, or week, is likely to cause anyone who holds such a view to revise their opinion.

Hesed embraces hospitality, caring for the sick, helping others at any and every stage of life, comforting the bereaved, and avoiding hurtfulness in any and every deed and word. As the Talmud says, ‘eyn lahem shiur – these things have no limit’.

Tishah be’Av directs attention to a profound and universal challenge: can we take our sufferings and transmute them into compassion? It’s thoughtless to suppose that the more a person has suffered, the kinder they will be. The heart often responds to cruelty in the same way as the body reacts to a fist; it takes evasive action. There’s always the danger that pain and hurts make us not softer-, but harder-hearted. It takes particular love and insight, and often help from others, to enable harsh experiences to become a more compassionate and engaged attitude to others. That’s why one of my favourite lines in all of Shakespeare is Edgar’s answer when challenged about the manner of person he is: ‘One who by the art of known and feeling sorrows am pregnant to good pity’.

On Tishah be’Av we sit on the ground and contemplate destruction, in order to rise and say ‘what can I do?’ It is a ‘what can I do?’ which extends from our immediate personal lives to embrace all Israel, the Jewish People, the city and country we live in, and life itself in every form we encounter.

Hollow grey frames

‘When the month of Av enters, our joy is diminished’, says the Mishnah (c 200CE). Between the first of Av and the Fast of the Ninth of Av one does not eat meat or drink wine, except on Shabbat, wear new clothes, do the washing, except for essential hygiene, get married or hold joyous gatherings.
It seems strange this year that just as Ramadan ends and the feast of Eid begins, we in the Jewish community are lessening our joy. It’s at odds with the traditional upbeat Jewish note of tikvah, hope. So why do it?
The plain answer is: because we remember. We recall the destruction of both the First and the Second Temple on the 9th of Av, and the decrees, burnings, exiles and expulsions which have marked Jewish history.
For many people, though, that merely pushes the question one level back: ‘Why remember these events of long ago? Isn’t there enough to live with now, today?’
That’s the point. ‘It’s a wonderful world,’ but not always, and not for everyone.
There are three things we all care about, whether we acknowledge it or not: people, nature and civilisation. Everyone finds people irritating at times, but we’re thoroughly dependent on one another, practically and emotionally. One only has to think of the sounds of the voices of those we love. How we miss them when they are not there. How happy we are to hear them, especially after absence has made the heart grow fonder. How we take their background clatter and chatter for granted, until it is not there.
We are similarly dependent on civilisation, more than we like to think, on ‘services’ like water, food, electricity, transport, communication, satellites. I recently heard, and thought it must be an exaggeration, that if satellite-systems ceased to function, the world would come to a halt. But there’s nothing so basic as food and water.
They remind us that we are all reliant on nature, as The Preacher says in Ecclesiastes, ‘the king is slave to the field.’ We need the bees, the birds and the thousands of organisms we can’t even see with the bare eye. We require them for our physical survival, and we need them for our spiritual wellbeing.
These domains together constitute creation, which we celebrate and bless each day, or at least we should. But we also inhabit and participate in a world of destruction.
As a rabbi I spend much time listening. I hear a lot of heartache, have wished countless times it lay within my power to heal, and have often prayed in silence that God reach the pain inaccessible to human hands with the touch of consolation and fresh courage. Sometimes lives are wounded by the intractable realities of mortality and illness. But often the hurts are needlessly inflicted by carelessness or cruelty.
Every day the media shows us villages and cities destroyed by war or floods or famine. It is a horror beyond my capacity to imagine. This is how my grandfather described returning to his beloved Frankfurt eleven years after he fled in 1939:   
         Shattered and shaken, one walks through the old, no longer recognisable streets and squares. In the hollow grey frames of the broken windows dwells terror and from above the clouds look through.
I can’t bear to speak about what we do to nature, the broken wings and oil-soiled feathers of its once free flight.
If we don’t think about destruction, frankly and with the determined purpose to do all we can to end it, we shall never preserve the wonder and glory of creation.
The full name of this month, which begins in sadness, is Menachem Av, ‘Comforter Av’: if we look with pity, compassion and remorse, – and only if we look thus – we will know what we must do to bring consolation.

The violets are not blue any more

I would rather not write most of this email. I would have preferred to focus on the strawberries and cauliflowers in the synagogue garden.
The Torah says clearly and simply: ‘Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa – You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour.’ How are we to live that commandment?
It’s been a week of memorials, with the 75th commemoration of the Battle of Britain beginning today, the date when the Luftwaffe began to attack the South East of England just as Sir Winston Churchill had predicted when he spoke to the nation on 18 June 1940: ‘The battle of France is over. The battle of Britain is about to begin.’ I remember well the gratitude with which my grandparents and parents spoke of the courageous pilots and crew of the RAF.
On Monday I was at Westminster Abbey for A Solemn Commemoration For Srebrenica Memorial Day, marking 20 years since the massacre of 8372 men and boys, after the United Nations troops abandoned its so-called ‘Safe Haven’ and left those who had sought shelter there to the mercilessness of their killers.
I shan’t forget the words of Munira Sybasic, President of the Mothers of Srebrenica Association. She spoke with a passion obvious even to those who, like me, understood not a word of what I think was Serbo-Croat. Her speech was not translated. Whoever arranged this powerful service understood that it was not right to require everyone to speak in English. The vast majority followed Ms Sybasic by reading the translation provided:
       Although it has been twenty years since this inhuman atrocity, some mothers are still searching for the bones of their children…I doubt all of you can understand the pain and suffering we must endure, but I am certain that any mother can. Help us find the bones of our children!
The next day, we stood in Tavistock Square outside the British Medical Association in the silence at 9.47, ten years after the Number 30 bus was blown up by a terrorist murderer. Maybe it’s because I know Mavis Hyman and her family so well, whose daughter Miriam died here, that I found myself noticing the mothers. I saw Mrs Fatayi-Williams, whose son Anthony was killed:
         Oh, how I miss you sorely, such that the rose is not red and the violets are not blue any more for me…He lived for humanity and radiated joy and peace from childhood to adulthood.
On Wednesday evening at my home I listened as Tongomo Okito, leader of the Congolese community in Britain and long-standing friend of our community, describe how under the brutal regime of Joseph Kabila, who has outstayed as President the terms allowed him by the constitution, ‘young people are vanishing off the streets; university students disappear; their parents do not know what has happened to them…A mass grave has been discovered. The regime scorns the United Nations and the West. I feel powerless. I don’t know what to do’. His words are all too familiar from Jewish history. We must arrange another shared event with Okito’s community; it’s the least we can do by way of solidarity.
Last Shabbat at lunch in the small Czech town of Holesov I met Mrs Frelichova, the daughter of the lady who persistently sent food parcels to try to save members of my father’s family who’d been deported to Terezin, although she herself had little to eat and she never received a single sign that any of her gifts arrived. ‘I didn’t think this history would come alive again after seventy years’, she said, and she wept, and so did most of us there.
Commemorations are profoundly important. But, as was said at Westminster Abbey, ‘It’s not enough to remember. We also have to act’.

10 years after 7/7

I am standing at Tavistock Square, outside the BMA building, shortly before the minute’s silence at 9.47. The plaque, in memorial to those who were killed here exactly 10 years ago, is surrounded by flowers. We think of the pain, anguish and fear of those who were killed and wounded and traumatised. We think of the grief of the families. We think also of the courage of all those who came to the rescue. We are mindful of the suffering of the bereaved families and of the extraordinary way in which so many of them have striven to turn grief into compassion and outrage into understanding and darkness into light. Here, Miriam Hyman died in the bus that was blown up, together with 12 others. May the memories of all who died in 7/7 be cherished in the heart of all who knew them and all who know their families. And may humanity learn from these terrible events.

Light out of darkness

I am writing from the old Jewish Quarter in Prague, from round the corner from the remarkable exhibition of Czech Jewish life in the beautiful Maisels Synagogue. This will be the Shabbat before the three weeks known as bein hametzarim, between the troubles, which lead from the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, this Sunday, until the fast of the Ninth of Av. I have taken a brief absence from the group I’m accompanying here, leaving one of our members watching the modern screen showing in rotation photographs of all the old synagogues of the Czech lands, because he suddenly saw a picture of the shul of the small town his family came from, and wept, and is now waiting for that image to reappear so that he can capture it on camera, and fix its image in his heart.

Later we will go to Holesov, which my family have always known by the German spelling of Holleschau. That’s how it’s written in Hebrew too, because it was an important Jewish community on a key trade route through the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There my great-grandparents lived twenty happy years as Rabbi and Rebbitzen of the town. ‘Always listen to your wife in household matters’, my great-grandfather wrote in his Torah commentary to the words in Genesis ‘It is not good for man to be alone,’ before proceeding to quote the Talmud, ‘even if she is short and you have to bend down’. I have a photograph of the couple: she was at least eighteen inches smaller than was he.

From there too my great-grandmother and great aunt were deported, first to Theresienstadt, then onwards further east to their deaths. My great-grandfather died in 1937; one might say it was a mercy. His grave lies undisturbed amidst the long grass of the old Jewish cemetery in the town. 

I think the service we shall conduct in the sixteenth century Shach Synagogue (the ‘New’ Synagogue, dedicated by my great-grandfather in 1893 was burnt to the ground by the Nazis; there was an internal struggle over who should benefit from the proceeds from the sale of the re-usable metalwork and bricks, but the Jews were given the bill for clearing up.) I think it may be the first Shabbat service held in the town since Reinhard Heydrich, second in command of the SS to Heinrich Himmler, ordered the closure of all synagogues on Simchat Torah in 1941. The Nazis knew what dates would hurt the most.

Creation, destruction: the battle continues.

Nicholas Winton will be commemorated here today with a gathering by the statue of him in Prague’s main railway station, from where the trains with the children departed for Britain, safety, and, for most, eternal separation from their loving, beloved parents. He saved 669 lives, maybe more. He found those children homes in Britain too.

But Tuesday brings ten years since the 7/7 London bombings. I asked a class of teenagers I was teaching what it was that could make people murder innocent citizens. ‘Could it happen again?’ one of them asked. It was clear the group were afraid. I wished I could have taken away their fears. As a response, we studied the famous Mishnah (c. 200CE) ‘Whoever destroys a single life is as if they destroyed the whole world. Whoever saves a single life is as if they preserved the entire world’. We analysed it literally: One person may become the ancestor of many; a killer kills the victim’s children too. We analysed it figuratively: isn’t every person also an entire world and the way he or she perceives, experiences and appreciates everything utterly unique?

We are in this world to value, cherish and care for life. Life is of incomparable value for its own sake, even more so since God is in all life.

I admire most profoundly those who manage, not to turn life into death – which is no great feat, but those who turn grief and death into a force for life – which is extraordinarily, loving and courageous. Such people exist among the families of those murdered on 7/7 and 9/11. When John Hyman was dying, I was asked to talk to him in his last hours. I said, because in memory of their daughter Miriam who perished at Tavistock Place the family created a hospital for restoring sight to blind children, ‘You have literally brought light out of darkness and joy from pain’.

May that become the pathway of all humankind.

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