The unwritten story

Of all things this sad week, I had to speak yesterday at a seminar in Cambridge on ‘The Good Death’. I hadn’t given the subject much specific thought because all these last days I’ve been thinking about little else.

My good friend David Cesarani, (professor, OBE) the world isn’t the same without you, the warmth, the wit, the vast knowledge and huge love of learning, the man who advised governments, who was a key public voice on Holocaust, history and justice, who loved good food, good soup, good parties, was generous and soft-hearted to the core, (and sometimes outrageous as well) the best friend of tens of friends across the world, and who owed so much to the devotion, love, perceptiveness and good judgment of his wife Dawn, and to his joy in his children Daniel and Hannah, who were also, something few fathers achieve, his close friends and partners in the love of books and ideas, music, mountains and life.

I looked down at the nearby ground as we stood at the cemetery and saw that I was surrounded by friends. There you are, David Jackson, who for forty years after your first stroke scarcely complained, but wrote music and poetry, mastered the disciplines of Talmud, wrote a commentary to very one of the 150 Psalms, intercepted any notion of self-pity with humour and banter, and remembered the silent lakes of North Wales where your father took you fishing (‘I always put them back in the water’) with a wistful recollection of tranquil wonder.

And there is Cheeky, who plied my children with chocolates every time we came to visit, who remembered how in the small town in South Africa the women (injustice) worked all night to prepare for Pesach, then slept exhausted the whole Seder through, and who (‘why waste time’) spent the days before her operation helping the over-worked nurses on the ward at the Royal Free.

And there is my father-in-law, whose welcome into the family I still see before my eyes every time I go down to Kent, and whom I hear say to Nicky and me in his speech at our wedding, ‘I hope it won’t be too long before you present us with the ultimate gift’ and who won at bridge even years into his dementia, and who always smiled.

And there are all the others; the older one gets the more friends one has in low places. But they are very reliable, and unequalled in eloquence, and they all say the same: ‘These are the things that matter: goodness, kindness, friendship, love’.

There’s much to say about ‘A Good Death’ (like making sure the nurses and doctors and everyone else who cares for the ill and dying is cared for too, so that they have more heart, and time, to care). But nothing so contributes to a ‘good death’ as a good life, whether short or long.

A co-speaker on the panel (whom I can’t name because I haven’t asked permission) whose self-deprecating wit was a weak defence against his obvious perceptiveness and warmth of heart, spoke of how little he often knew about the earlier lives of the patients he saw in their last days, and how humbled it made him feel if he did later learn of their achievements.

‘I need to do something interesting to brighten up my obituary’ he said wryly, a great – and awful – line; by which he meant that we’d better fill our lives with friendship, courage, goodness and affection while we can, because they compose the unwritten story those around us carry in their hearts.

As if

The simple words ‘Shabbat Shalom’ are so easily taken for granted that I’m not sure I’ve ever paused to rest on their meaning. Shabbat UK, is a good time to ponder their implications.
My first thought is that they don’t make sense.
‘Shalom’: Really? Is the world ever actually at peace? I think of Israel (and many parts of the world) today and wish and pray that there actually was peace on the streets, in the hearts, in the intentions of everyone there towards everyone else. Alas, it is not yet so.
‘Shabbat’: Is life like that? Can one ever truly let go of all one’s worries, one’s anxieties about uncompleted tasks, unfinished conversations, niggling issues which make it hard to sleep? If only! Even the Shulchan Aruch, acknowledges that one must conduct oneself on Shabbat ce’ilu, ‘as if’ all one’s work were done. It never is.
Yet it is precisely in the face of these realities that Shabbat has such profound value. Hasidic interpretations often fly in the face of all the rules of grammar and syntax, to point at deeper truths. One such observation sees the verb veyachal, ‘God finished [on the seventh day the work which God had done’] as deriving from clal, togetherness: ‘God brought everything and everyone together.’ Instead of feeling like frenzied particles in a mass of ceaseless interactions, Shabbat invites us to understand ourselves in the context of a greater whole. It tells us to stop seeing life as ‘what do have to do next?’ and experience it as a deeper and more embracing belonging in which all creation shares.
Shabbat changes our perspective; for one day each week it insists that the sphere of me and my intentions must not eclipse the universe of all life and its wonder. Shabbat alters our horizons. It says: ‘Look out at the trees; look up to the skies, look in to the soul’. ‘Shabbat’, writes the contemporary theologian Arthur Green, ‘is an extended meditation on the wonders of the created world and the divine presence that fills it’.
The rest which Shabbat brings is not only physical, but spiritual; ‘restoration’ might be a better term. The Torah expresses this in the remarkable word vayinafash, which we repeat every week in the Saturday morning Kiddush. It derives from nefesh, ‘life’, or, in later Hebrew, ‘soul’. On Shabbat we get our soul back, the meaning of our life is restored to us.
One can think of Shabbat in concentric circles. Time and again children tell me they love the way family and friends get together on Friday night (arguments notwithstanding). I’ve even heard them note with appreciation the rule that all electronic apparatus must be switched off. If that’s the first circle, connection with community is the second. The third, to my mind, is reconnection with nature; we’re instructed not to rush, but to walk. One notices things when one goes on foot; a robin, a spider, the colours of the October leaves.
The connection which embraces all these reconnections is the rediscovery of our own self, our soul, the part of God within us. We’re reminded that life can’t be evaluated just in terms of personal achievements, but derives its meaning and beauty from a great belonging in which we too, together with all life, are privileged to be embraced.

From darkness to light

These are terrible times in Israel. Many people are simply afraid each time they have to leave their homes and worry constantly for their children. Our thoughts and prayers are with our family and friends and all the people of Israel. Our sympathies are with all the bereaved and the wounded and their families. We stand in solidarity with all people against terror and violence.
We pray that anger and frustration may be replaced by a politics founded on hope, understanding, peace and security for all the citizens of the country, so that no one will have to live in fear, pain or hopelessness any more.
I’ve received many moving and courageous emails from Israel. One of the most striking came from Devora Greenberg of Hanaton, the Masorti kibbutz in northern Israel:
       As the wave of terror continues to engulf the streets of Jerusalem and other cities and communities across the country, our minds are filled with thoughts and prayers for a more peaceful time. Images that we saw through social media shocked us to the core and some footage was eerily reminiscent of memories from the Second Intifada. One of the ways for us to deal with these days of tension, unrest and fear is to respond with acts of love and kindness. In order to counter hate and bloodshed we spread comfort and a sense of gratitude.
She then described how Noam youth together with members of the kibbutz took part in a demonstration at the Zarzir Bedouin village, Jews and Muslims calling together “we refuse to be enemies”.
The Parents Forum PCFF for Israelis and Palestinians who’ve lost loved ones in the conflict are resuming their regular public events so as ‘to be a resource for reconciliation and dialogue and to change minds, one heart at a time, inspiring others to support peace and reconciliation instead of revenge’.
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, active at the forefront of conflict reconciliation through Rabbis for Human Rights, wrote with courageous dignity that ‘We too, even when faced with a wave of murderous violence which might, God forbid, lead us to devalue the lives of others in our fear, must remember that the Torah teaches us that all life is precious, without distinction.’
At a time when it is easier simply to be angry, afraid or hopeless, these remarkable people present examples of fortitude and hope. If they can conduct themselves in this manner while while living in the midst of the conflict, then we in the diasporas, whether Jews or Muslims, must do no less. We must avoid passing messages through social media which exacerbate prejudice, falsely accuse and increase hate. 
Instead we should reach out to family, friends and colleagues in Israel and beyond, help those protecting lives and treating all the wounded, support those trying to build bridges or keep them open, and work for peace and understanding. We should increase our efforts to create connections across our faiths within our local communities.  

I asked an activist friend what we should do from here. ‘Pray’, he replied. We pray that, like God who as we read this week in the Torah decides never again to send a flood, we draw back from the brink of destruction and find a way forward defined by respect and mercy for all life.
Here are two prayers to hold in mind:

  • May God protect your going out and your coming home, now and for evermore.        Psalm 121
  • Our brothers and sisters, the whole house of Israel, and all people whoever and wherever you are,  in distress or captivity, on land or sea, may the All-Present God have mercy on you and lead you from trouble to deliverance, from darkness to light and from oppression to freedom, speedily, soon, now.

On the current situation in Israel

In these terrible, frightening times our thoughts and prayers are with our family and friends and all the people of Israel. Our sympathies are first of all with the bereaved and the wounded and their families. We stand in solidarity with all Israel against terror and violence.

‘We pray that anger, frustration and violence may be replaced by a politics founded on hope, understanding, peace and security for all the citizens of the country, so that no one will have to live in fear or pain any more.’

‘May God protect your going out and your coming home, now and for evermore.’ Psalm 121

‘Our brothers and sisters, the whole house of Israel, who are in distress or captivity, whether on land or sea, may the All-Present God have mercy on you and lead you from trouble to deliverance, from darkness to light and from oppression to freedom, speedily, now, and let us say ‘Amen’.’

‘We too, even when faced with a wave of murderous violence which might, God forbid, lead us to devalue the lives of others in our fear, must remember that the Torah teaches us that all life is precious, without distinction.’ Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann

What we can do:
– Phone and keep in touch with family and friends
– Support medical organisations treating all the wounded (such as Magen David Adom and Hadassah)
– Pray and work for peace and understanding

A single syllable

William Blake wrote of seeing ‘the world in a grain of sand’; the rabbis of the Talmud sometimes saw it in a single syllable.

A fine example is the letter Heh in the last word of the opening chapter of the Hebrew Bible, the beautiful account of the six days of creation. Why, when the previous five days are simply called ‘day three’ or ‘day four’, does the Torah say of the date on which human beings were made ‘hashishi – thesixth day’? Why this sudden addition of the definite article when it would have sufficed to say ‘day six’? Is there somewhere a specific ‘sixth day’ to which the text might be alluding? There is indeed, and there’s only one option, just one other ‘sixth day’ of importance: the sixth of the Hebrew month of Sivan, when the Torah was given at Sinai.

It’s interesting that it’s the third century rabbi Resh Lakish who makes this observation. Formerly a gladiator or circus performer at the beck and call of the Romans, he’s now a teacher of Torah. He explains: ‘The Holy One made a condition with all the works of the creation: “If Israel accepts the Torah, you will survive. If not, I’ll return the world to chaos.”’

Put in universal terms this means: ‘If humankind agrees to be governed by basic moral laws, the world will survive. If not, chaos and destruction will ensue.’ Pre-eminent among those laws are ‘You shall not kill’, and ‘You shall not steal’.

Resh Lakish’s perceptive homily on a single letter is a brilliant way of expressing a self-evident truth. It also captures the precise point at which we find ourselves as a civilisation and a planet.

The world is beautiful beyond description. Nicky and I once stood looking out over the autumn forests above Pitlochry, where the lowlands meet the highlands in Scotland. A man passing by called out to us, ‘I’ve travelled the world and seen sights as beautiful, but nothing more beautiful than this’.

Yet we kill each other, sell each other the means to kill (the more efficiently the better), allow each other to starve, exploit tracts of land and sea which don’t belong to us, and rob and rape the very earth without respect for its need for replenishment and rest.

It is not hard to hear, in our fellow human beings, in the lives of animalsand birds, in the destiny of forests and seas, even in the meadows and streams, the voice of the law which calls for respect, restraint and compassion. We know, if we do not heed it, what must ensue.


When my distant but very special cousin Mira took her boyfriend home to tell her parents they’d decided to get married he brought a carefully chosen present. A skilled craftsman, he’d made a Kiddush cup on which he’d carved the words: ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the sun’. It was a gracious gift for his in-laws to be.
‘To everything a season’ is probably the best known verse from Ecclesiastes, which we read this Shabbat of Succot. The text does indeed suit well with the season. As the leaves grow yellow and the dawns misty one finds the questions seeping under one’s skin: what remains; what has meaning; what am I doing with my time?
I find myself caught between two interpretations of Ecclesiastes’ famous words. The first is about having time for what really matters. I’ve never been able to get this Hasidic anecdote out of my mind:
       Rebbe Avraham Mordechai of Ger said: ‘A certain Jew defeated me. As I went into my room he approached me with a request. I said to him: ‘Believe me I don’t have a single spare moment!’ He replied: ‘I’ve had over twenty years of free time to care for my sick daughter, and the Rebbe doesn’t have one single minute for her?
I once read an ethical will in which a father advised his son how to divide the hours of the day between the different responsibilities enjoined on him by the Torah. I added up the list several times and invariably came to the same total: twenty-four and a half hours. Maybe that was the point. One fails; one doesn’t do what one might have done both to help others and to develop one’s own heart. Few people pass their years unassailed by what they might have done.
The second interpretation is quite different. All things have their moment, but everything passes. Nothing abides, including us. Therefore, Ecclesiastes enjoins us, accept both aspects of life with good grace: both the beauty of all things and the passing of all things. The message is implicit in the very rhythm of the words. There ‘is a time to be born / and a time to die; a time to weep / and a time to laugh; a time to mourn / and a time to dance’. The wise person understands when to speak and when to be silent, when to hold on to life and when to let go, when to struggle and when to accept.
It’s easy to feel persecuted by time. Maybe that’s why I can’t bear to wear a wristwatch; I fear I’d feel it tick straight into my bloodstream. Anyway a digital dial is rarely more than ten feet away.
The wisdom lies in filling our time, while understanding that we don’t own it; in using our time generously, while appreciating that it is a gift of unknown duration, to be taken with gratitude and relinquished with grace. It’s far easier said than done.

Between Fragility and Protection

(Chol haMoed Sukkot: Exodus 33:12-34:26)

My father-in-law was a warm-hearted man who took each day with good cheer and had a smile for everyone. The family therefore chose as the inscription on his grave, “Enjoy life for it is the gift of God.” It’s a quotation, more or less, from Ecclesiastes, which is customarily read this week (in addition to the Torah reading from the Book of Exodus and the prophetic reading from the book of Ezekiel), on the Shabbat that falls during the holiday of Sukkot, the seven-day Festival of Booths.

Both the text and the festival draw attention to the interplay between joy and fragility, meaning and futility, which make life so poignant, so precious, and at times so tragic.

The leitmotif of Ecclesiastes is the line best known in English in the King James translation: “‘Vanity of vanities’, saith the preacher, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity'” (1:2). The word rendered as “vanity” is hevel in the original Hebrew, literally “breath breathed out.” It contrasts with neshima, breath breathed in, the source of life, which is closely related to neshama (soul) — as in the phrase nishmat chaim, the soul or “breath of life” that God blew into the nostrils of the first human, transforming mere earth into a living being. Hevel, however, is merely old air after the goodness has been sucked out of it; it is worthless and useless, mere vanity.

In Ecclesiastes, the “preacher” explores one dimension of existence after another, the pursuit of wealth, wisdom, happiness, justice, and meaning. On each occasion the conclusion is the same: everything is mere hevel, vanity, including the very effort of inquiry itself. One by one virtually every facet of life is examined and then multiplied by zero, and the result, not surprisingly, is nought: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

If for T.S Eliot, in The Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages, “Time the destroyer is time the preserver,” to Ecclesiastes, time the giver is always also time the taker, and nothing remains that is not unravelled by its passage. Just as there is “a time for every purpose under the sun”, so there is a time for the undoing of that work: “There is a time to plant and a time to uproot what has been planted” (3:2).

Why bother? Has anything any point? One has to admire the courage of the editors of the Hebrew Bible, who, rather than excluding the texts which ask the most corrosive questions, brought the challenges articulated by such books as Job and Ecclesiastes inside the canon.

Yet there is a dimension of existence the author of Ecclesiastes insists on continuing to value, despite his scathing critique of virtually every endeavour. It consists of the most ordinary things: eat and drink, he says, for these are the gifts of God. Sweet is the well-earned sleep of the laborer. Friendship matters, otherwise who will be there to support the loner when he falls? Enjoy the companionship of the partner of your youth; it’s cold to sleep alone. One might have thought from his claim to have been king in Jerusalem and his protestations of wealth and wisdom that the author was an aristocrat through and through. But there is nothing more simple than the pleasures he recommends as life’s compensations, or than the injunction with which he concludes: “Fear God and keep God’s commandments” (12:13).

There is a profound consonance between Ecclesiastes and Sukkot, the festival during which it is read and which marks the turn of the seasons, the beginning of the fall. Like the text, the festival turns our attention to life’s most basic concerns. We leave our houses to live in booths, defined by their permeable roofs of branches, which, as those of us in London well know, are powerless to impede the rain. We are required to eat all our meals in the sukkah, even to sleep there if the nights are not penetratingly cold or miserably wet. For the duration of the festival, you must make the impermanent shelter your regular abode and your permanent home merely secondary, insists the Mishnah, the second-century rabbinic code.

Yet the sukkah should also be a place of beauty. Though it is not an absolute requirement, since ancient times it has been customary to decorate it with fruits and vegetables, the produce of the year hung on display in gratitude to God. The message is similar to that of Ecclesiastes: these are life’s simple but essential blessings. Existence is short and will soon turn for us into hevel, breath breathed out. Enjoy it, for it is beautiful, but brief.

The sukkah thus symbolises God’s protection on life’s journey. The Torah refers specifically to how God made “the Children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out from the Land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). But Jewish history has known many other exiles, migrations, and flights from persecution. With parents who both fled Nazi Germany in their teens, I never celebrate Sukkot without thinking of the meaning and privilege of having a home and a shelter. Transcending any specific journey, the sukkah represents God’s protection on life’s pilgrimage, with all its fragility, vulnerability, and wonder.

The combination of the impact of Ecclesiastes and Sukkot is especially poignant this year. The “simple” gifts of shelter, food and drink, of the opportunity to work and afterwards sleep in peace, of knowing your family is together and safe, of having land to cultivate so that its fruits can be hung in gratitude — how far these basic blessings are today from so many.

It makes no moral sense to speak of the sukkah as God’s protection without working urgently to extend it over as many as possible of the thousands of desperate refugees seeking shelter from violence and destitution along the borders of Europe. I refuse to build my sukkah this year, or listen to Ecclesiastes, without contributing towards a shelter for at least one family who long to be able to eat and drink and put their children to bed in safety.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

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