My Dear Ones

I love the challenge and excitement of writing. In a brilliant but bleak image, no doubt influenced by the fact that he composed The Four Quartets during the Second World War, TS Eliot described the poet’s task as

….a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment

Are of these limitations, I think of writing as the endeavour to connect heart, mind and language. Sometimes words flow with impassioned intuition; sometimes one cannot coax a single sensible syllable put of one’s head.

This week brings the launch of my new book, My Dear Ones, One Family and the Final Solution. I am grateful to the community not only for allowing me time to write, but for seeing this as an essential part of what being a rabbi entails.

This book in particular is a form of tribute.

It is dedicated to my family, especially to my father. It was after his sisters died, and close of his own death, that my cousin and I opened the old wooden suitcase in which I found the letters through which the experiences of his family in the terrible years of 1937 – 1948 suddenly entered my life with a fullness, tenderness and horror of which I had heard only half articulated, semi-secret resonances before.

It is also dedicated to my close friend, the historian, public intellectual and holocaust scholar David Cesarani. ‘You have to write about those letters’, he would tell me, until I finally got down to work. He and Dawn would often join us for Shabbat lunch, where David would appear with a book, saying, ‘I think you ought to be reading this’. Or a parcel would arrive from Amazon. I miss our meals, walks and late night conversations. You left this world too early, our good friend.

The book is a tribute to those who perished. In the small Polish town of Ostrow Lubelski near Lublin there is not even a single marker to the thousands of Jews who were deported there, and thence to nearby Majdanek, or eastwards to Treblinka or Sobibor. David and I visited the town with Mossy, last July, seeking traces of my father’s aunt Trude. ‘It shows you can murder thousands without a trace’, David said. There are only a few broken gravestones in what was once the Jewish cemetery.

Perhaps even more importantly, My Dear Ones is a tribute to how those who lived, lived – whether or not they ultimately survived; a testament to their physical, emotional and spiritual courage, exemplified by the words of my great-grandmother, ‘Nothing of this can shake my faith’.

The book is not however, solely a family document. I have tried to show the development of Nazi policy in some detail, from the curtailing of the civic rights of Jews, through robbing them of their possessions, until the decisions were made to murder them systematically, sometime in 1941, in response to the slow progress of Operation Barbarossa and the setbacks inflicted by the Red Army. Only in this way is it possible to ponder how evil works towards its intention, and to consider the impossible circumstances with which those who could not escape its grip found themselves confronted. It’s a book Ken Livingstone ought to have on his reading list.

Finally, the book is dedicated to all refugees, especially the children, who may, if the world allows them a future, discover in forgotten texts and emails the terrible quandaries faced by their parents and grandparents.

‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain’

In her heartrending account of life in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in the Ukraine, Chernobyl Prayer Svetlana Alexievitch records the testimony of ordinary people in the region. Among them are the men who were brought in to shoot local animals and prevent them from spreading the radiation:

It’s better to kill from a distance. So your eyes don’t meet… The horses – they were being taken to the slaughter. They were crying… And I’ll add this. Every living creature has a soul.

The few who refused to be evacuated from their homes and secretly returned, despite the risks, to the places they had loved all their lives, greeted the surviving dogs, cats, deer and even birds they encountered like brothers and sisters: ‘Live with me and we’ll be less alone’. Their attitude to life changed instantly and instinctively; a deep kinship with all living being filled their lonely spirits.

Most of us do our utmost to avoid deliberately hurting other people, and animals too. I can’t understand people who are wilfully cruel, other than by thinking that they themselves must be deeply injured somewhere in their souls. Few Biblical verses are more powerful than those with which Isaiah concludes his vision of harmony on earth: ‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,’ which means that the world will truly be holy only when we stop hurting and destroying.

Yet we do hurt and destroy. We don’t do it with deliberate callousness. Yet we don’t do it in absolute ignorance either. We are aware, or capable of becoming aware, that the suffering of others is a frequent by-product of the way we live, – how we consume, how we want things for ourselves which aren’t equally available equally to others, how we hurt through carelessness, anger or by not noticing the sensitivities of others.

My absolute ideal would be to lead a life in which I would not by my actions bring pain to any person or creature. It’s impossible. Which of us is free of heedlessness or anger? Which of us knows the full consequences of what we do? My more reasonable aspiration is to give less hurt and increase the amount of loving kindness in the world.

In The New Monasticism, a remarkable book which speaks to those of all faiths seeking to lead a morally committed, spiritually guided and disciplined life, Rory McEntree and Adam Bucko suggest nine vows people should consider. The second is ‘to live in solidarity with…all living beings.’  The third is ‘to live in deep nonviolence’. I would like to strive to be worthy of making those vows my ideal.

I have a vision of how God judges us. It has little to do with a deity in heaven reading out our sentence from on high. Rather, we are made to pass before all the people and every creature with whom our life has brought us into contact and they, without a word but by the way they look at us, convey directly to our hearts what kind of human we have been. I used to think this would happen at the end of our lives, but now I see it also as continuous, and profoundly chastening, assessment.

The Talmud teaches that we are not asked first by God how religious we have been, but whether ‘we behaved in all our dealings in good faith’. This is often understood to refer to integrity in business. But the words go deeper: have we acted in good faith towards life itself? Have we, to the best of our ability, neither hurt nor destroyed in God’s holy mountain? How we answer that question is where our faith, our ethics and our daily life must meet.

We must never forsake our vision or lose hope

Every week we pray in the words: veshav Ya’akov veshakat vesha’anan, may the descendants of Jacob return [to their historic ancient home] and find quiet and tranquillity.

My father’s uncle, who found refuge in Palestine from Nazi Germany and had been destined to play a major role in the early legislature of the state, wrote shortly after the end of the Second World War of his travels to different kibbutzim through a land in blossom. It’s a beautiful country, he said, if only they let us live in peace. He was killed in the convoy ambushed on the way to the Mount Scopus Campus of the Hebrew University less than a month before the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel.

Sixty-eight years later quiet and tranquillity are still elusive, and many thousands of soldiers and civilians across at least three generations have given their lives for our country. Grief is a universe of its own and obeys no conventional laws of time: we stand in quiet reflection and silent solidarity with all who long for voices they will never again hear and the companionship of those who never came home. Perhaps no one has written more poignantly than David Grossman, following the loss of his son, in Falling Out of Time

In August he died, and / when that month was over, I wondered
How can I move / to September
While he remains / in August?

We acknowledge, too, with pain and regret, the loss of all innocent life; we know that heartache and sorrow know no boundaries of nationality or religion. Grief is grief; injury is injury; fear is fear.

At the same time, we affirm our commitment to life and hope and to making our own personal contribution to the wellbeing of Israel, which, we hope and pray, will be part of the peace and wellbeing of all peoples in the region, as the founders of the State declared:

the country [will be developed] for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions…

We hope that the time will soon come when the country will not be threatened by the imminence of further conflict, when fear will be diminished, when justice and peace will dominate public discourse and action in Israel and among its neighbours, and Israel’s remarkable achievements will be properly recognised and appreciated and bring benefit across the region and the world.

However hard the times, that remains Hatikvah, our Hope.

Self love – self hate?

‘Love your neighbour as yourself, I am the Lord,’ thus run perhaps the most famous words in the Hebrew Bible.

I’ve reflected on this brief, profound and poignant sentence many times and led numerous discussions about its many meanings and interpretations. Invariably, someone would ask: ‘But what if you don’t love yourself?’ Usually, I would acknowledge the question, note its importance, and move on.

Then I began to reflect: this wasn’t a matter to avoid or push under the carpet. I began to prepare texts to address the question properly: what did it mean to love oneself? Was it really okay to do so, when selflessness was the ideal? Was there a sort of self-love which was important, even essential, while other kinds remained wrong?

The first time I taught those texts I saw someone get up and leave the synagogue shortly after I began. How we love ourselves is neither a simple nor an insignificant matter.

Of course, for many people on this earth the issue might seem absurd: ‘Love myself? What do you mean! I’m too busy trying to keep alive and feed my family.’

But to many it is a significant matter, whether consciously or unconsciously so. It goes deeper than body image, troubling as that may be in itself. The feeling ‘I hate my body’ (and perhaps many of us have such moments) can express many things. Our self-image, perceived size, imagined lack of grace, may embody our sense of futility, hopelessness at our capacity to meet what we see as others’ expectations of us, or anger at our own ageing. Anorexia is a long, painful, pitiful form of suffering and self-torture, and torment for those who love the person concerned. Suicide may be the result of a life-long process of loneliness and alienation, or the culminating rush of overwhelming feelings of pain or futility in an inner domain of the self which neither the love of others nor objective realities can, in those fatal moments, reach.

One of the most challenging and sorrowful states I encounter is when a person has had stolen from them their natural unself-conscious love of self by the way they have been treated by others. There are people who have been repeatedly told as a child, directly in terms, or through the eloquence of neglect, or through violence, that they are unwanted, unlovable, a nuisance who ought not to exist. It is not just that they haven’t been loved, which is in itself a terrible wrong.  It is as if they have had the very capacity to feel lovable punctured inside them, excised from them with verbal or physical knives. Sexual violence, selling children into the sex and slave trade: – these can have similar effect. Wounds can be inflicted which love itself can scarcely know how to heal.

All these matters call for our mercy, understanding, and love. Part, perhaps the most important part, of ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is to foster in all those with whom we interact in this world the other person’s dignity, self-respect, integrity, and feeling that they are worthy of love and regard.

To return to the text, what then is the ‘love’ with which we should love ourselves? It is obviously not vanity, self-centredness or arrogant pride.

The traditional answer derives from the understanding that we are created in God’s image. Not just our soul or mind, but also our body, is an instrument of God’s sacred will and deserves our attentive care. We are a loved and cherished part of God’s creation and have a responsibility to treat each other, and ourselves, as such.

Life Matters

‘I wanted to live:’ thus spoke Sabina, a remarkable nonagenarian Holocaust survivor from Poland, a lady of obvious verve, determination and goodness, when she addressed us on Yom Hashoah last Wednesday evening.

As she recounted how she hid in the forest, took on the identity of a non-Jewish Polish girl, was brought to Warsaw, incarcerated in the Pawiak prison, and finally brought as a farm labourer to Germany, we were struck not simply by the horrors through which she had passed, but by her deep intuition concerning whom to trust, the compassion she encountered alongside the cruelty, and the triumph of life her eventual survival – and her creation of a new existence in Britain with six grand- and six great-grandchildren – expressed.

It could be said that listening to such an account, told with such spirit, is an escape from pondering the brutality of the murder of millions. That is of course true.

Yet there is a particular importance to thinking about life, even in the context of so much death. Nothing reminds us with so much power of life’s importance, poignancy, beauty, opportunity and value. I believe all of us who listened last Wednesday came away valuing and caring about life more deeply.

Next day I was walking in the woods and paused to look up at the tall beech trees with their grey trunks and lucent young green leaves. The lines came to my mind from Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale in which, surrounded by illness and suffering from consumption, he addresses the poem’s namesake who ‘In some melodious plot / Of beechen green and shadows numberless / Singest of summer in full-throated ease’. The bird, as Keats so painfully observes, soon flies away to be ‘buried deep / In the next valley-glades.’ But we must not squander the wonder of that song, while it is ours to hear and appreciate.

The Torah instructs us concerning God’s commandments, which ‘a person shall do and live by them’ (Vayikra 18:5). ‘Live by them, and not die by them’, says the brief, incisive and well-known rabbinic comment, leading to the rule that virtually every Jewish law may be broken for the sake of saving life (Talmud, Yoma 85b). ‘Choose life,’ Moses later repeats in the closing oration of his own earthly career.

Life is easily hurt. We hurt each other, and nature, all the time. Yet, on the contrary, how important it is to cherish life, to protect it for ourselves and for each other, to strive never to wound or harm it, and to do our utmost to nurture it through compassion and generosity at all times.

We live constantly at the meeting place between immense cruelty, with the innumerable wounds humanity inflicts on the innocent, and life’s infinite possibilities for beauty, goodness and kindness. At every moment we choose our direction; those choices constitute the meaning and purpose of our existence.

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