Chanukkah, festival of courage and hope

Chanukkah is the festival of courage.

It teaches us that however thick the surrounding darkness it cannot quench the inner light which burns in the human soul.

It teaches us that even amidst the ruins of temples and cities, at least one vial of pure oil, one flame of inspiration and illumination, can always be found.

It teaches us that when we kindle the lamp of hope, however little fuel we may have to nourish it, it always burns far longer and far brighter than we had imagined.

It teaches us that one light can be the source of many flames, one person’s courage and commitment can and will inspire that of others, one person’s goodness can guide a whole society.

It teaches us that cruelty will never triumph utterly over kindness and compassion.

Chanukkah exemplifies how throughout history we have never allowed violence, hatred and terror to put out our faith or extinguish our commitment to our values.

In a cruel year, giving rise to many fears, let us kindle our Channukah lights and, together with the light of other faiths and the inner light which is the soul of all humanity, set them against the darkness.

Interviewing Lord Dubs

As the horrors perpetrated in Aleppo intensify even further, as winter deepens across millions of refugees, tens of thousands of them in inadequate camps in northern Greece and elsewhere in Europe, it is a relief to listen to a voice of committed compassion.

Alf Dubs was born in Czechoslovakia in 1932. His departure as a small boy on the Kindertransport had a profound effect on him. To this day, he said, he still finds partings searingly painful. That’s no doubt an essential part of why he feels so strongly about the plight of refugees, especially unaccompanied children.

He entered politics to turn values into actions, to make a difference. ‘The vast majority of politicians are public servants with a genuine desire to do good’, he reminded us. He recalled the impact Joe Cox had on him, listening to her speaking in The Commons.

Concern for refugees has been central to his career, both in and outside of Parliament. Between 1988 and 1995 he was director of the Refugee Council. This work and his own life story made him determined to persuade the government to allow more children into this country in the shocking current crisis. At the second attempt ‘The Dubs Amendment’ was passed.

‘What did it’, Lord Dubs said, ‘Was public opinion. This country has a long history of welcoming refugees’. But at the same time he was well aware of the opposite trend, especially after Brexit, toward increased racism and xenophobia. ‘I spent hour after hour knocking on doors, campaigning for Remain,’ he told us.

He was impressed by the quotations from the Torah on either side of the ark in the New North London Synagogue: ‘Love your neighbour’ and ‘Love the stranger’.

Lord Dubs was given a prolonged standing ovation, a tribute to his determination to fight for values which we all share.

Masorti Judaism was key in raising £200,000 across the community to bring children to this country who had legal rights under Dublin 3 to enter the UK.

I have recently launched a further appeal, through the New North London Synagogue and beyond, to support key NGOs in their essential work of supporting refugee children in Europe and once they have reached this country. Please see click here. Please be generous.


The power of music; the power of evil

Yesterday we accompanied Leslie Lyndon to his final resting place. He was a founding member of our community, leader, cantor, teacher, for over a decade at the heart of our ministerial team, and a close friend. I shall miss him.

He had three especially great gifts: an unfailing smile which expressed a warm, calm and unfailingly kind presence; a beautiful and gracious voice in leading and facilitating prayer; and an unshakeably positive spirit. He was a man who welcomed, enabled, encouraged, included, and wanted no one to be hurt.

When I came home from the funeral and returned, reluctantly, to my computer, I found the following message* from the team who run our Drop-In for asylum seekers. It has no connection with Leslie, and is yet most deeply connected:

We’d like to share this inspiring version of “We Shall Overcome” sung by asylum seekers and refugees. You can watch at

Do listen. ‘We shall overcome…We shall all be friends…’: are these convictions not what lies at the heart of the very power of music itself? For music expresses the strength, tenacity and joy of spirit which tyranny, with all its ever more brutal weapons, its cruelty and its contempt for humanity and God, cannot extinguish, so long as life itself remains, so long as there is a heart to feel and a tongue to sing?

And there is so much to overcome, in the Congo, from where so many of those who attend our asylum seekers drop-in have fled; in Syria, about where the UN humanitarian advisor for, Jan Egeland, just tweeted:

For 3000 years #Aleppo gave so much to world civilisations. How come, when Aleppo’s people needed us the most, we gave so little back?’

I thought of Leslie and his music when I joined the tribute at Westminster Abbey’s Martyr’s Memorial to the men, women and children murdered and wounded in the vile attack on the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. They went there to celebrate the miracle of life, said Bishop Angaelos, who only two weeks ago was a guest in our community. But, he continued, evil cannot and shall not put out the light of compassion which has come into the world. He may have meant the words in a different theological context from mine, but it’s the same light and the same compassion.

It’s precisely the meaning of the miracle we celebrate at Chanukkah through the story of the one flask of incorruptible oil which the Maccabees found and lit when they re-entered the devastated precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is the inextinguishable light of the human spirit, which always burns longer and deeper than we might have thought possible. By the time one of its flames eventually goes out, another and then yet another has been inspired and ignited.

In the dimension of sight, the spirit is expressed through light; in that of sound, through music. Leslie and I once discussed the Torah’s puzzling words

God is my strength and my song

Is song, a mere sequence of notes, really strength? After all, it can’t prevent bombs from killing innocent people. It can’t often stay the ruthless power of disease. But it keeps the heart of humanity alive, the heart of goodness, kindness and compassion, and it is with that heart that we shall overcome.

 *From the team at the Drop-In for Asylum Seekers:

We hope the video will raise money for the Drop-in to purchase supermarket vouchers and travel money for our clients. If you would like to make a donation, you can do so here. The project provides support to hundreds of asylum seekers. It offers food, clothing, consultations with doctors, lawyers and therapists, supermarket vouchers and travel money. It is run entirely by volunteers.

Please also give generously to these urgent causes

Please click here for links to charities helping refugees in the UK and in Greece.

One life, one spirit

I’ve been deeply struck by Eleanor O’Hanlon’s wonderful book Eyes of the Wild.Her insights as she describes the impact of her encounters with grey whales in the Bering Straits strike me with truth and beauty. Her thinking is profoundly affected and transformed by the grace and gentleness, the endurance and strength, of these huge animals.

One of them even nudges its baby towards her boat so that she can touch it. Eleanor understands this as a gesture not only of trust towards her, but of forgiveness towards the human race in general, which has hunted its own kind almost to extinction. In the presence of the whales she feels an overflowing sense of partnership, of ‘life meeting life, consciousness meeting consciousness, in recognition and peace’.

In the arctic lagoons, where even the powerful summer sun cannot melt the permafrost beneath the thin layer of briefly fertile soil on which she stands, she experiences the return of an inner awareness and expansiveness. It is so very different, she writes, from that relentless activity of the mind, arguing, judging and comparing, which so quickly overwhelms us in our contracted city lives.

She apprehends the divine, not as a voice calling from somewhere up in heaven, but within all life and embracing all life, and within her own self too. She feels what one might call teshuvah or ‘return’, in the genuine sense of ‘coming home at last after long unhappy wandering to your true belonging in the stillness’, to ‘the deepest reality within,’ which is also the deepest reality of everything which exists.

* * * * * * *

Awaking from his dream of angels on the ladder which reaches into heaven, Jacob cries out ‘Indeed there is God in this place, ve’anochi lo yadati – but I had not known’. It’s one of those sentences from Scripture which follows one round for the whole of one’s life. How often, maybe always, it isn’t the absence of God but the absenteeism of our own consciousness which leads us to miss the essence or the beauty, the poignancy or the wonder of the moment. For God is in all being and in every place, – unless, the mystics also say, we drive God away.

Or perhaps we look for God in the wrong direction; I don’t mean in the north instead of the north-west, but rather in the wrong dimension, amongst the wrong coordinates entirely. Maybe we want god to fit an image graven in our mind of what god is supposed to be, all-powerful, all-knowing, a voice from heaven calling down with audible instructions in our specific language. So perhaps when Jacob says ‘I hadn’t known’ what he meant was that he had been deploying the wrong kind of mental sensors. ‘I had no awareness’, he acknowledges; but now something has awoken in his consciousness. Or maybe what he means is anochi, ‘I’, had not known; when I was all focussed on ‘I’ and ‘me’ I did not find God. But now life is speaking and, at least for this moment, my ‘I’ has been dissolved in listening.

It isn’t solely in terrains of great beauty that one can find oneself saying ‘But God is on this place’. One can sense it too in situations where there is great pain, but also great compassion, among nurses, with carers, wherever there is attentiveness, attunement. For, in the words of theologian and scholar of Jewish mysticism Art Green, whom we’re privileged to host this Shabbat, ‘God is the innermost reality of all that is’. That is what Eleanor O’Hanlon rediscovers among the whales and dolphins, wolves and reindeer, to whom she hearkens as she researches their needs for protection:

And though I had worked for several years in conservation, whatever I believed I knew about the living earth was only a shadowy thought before this living radiance, this overwhelming presence – of sacredness.

The darkness and the light

On a clear night now the growing crescent of the moon of Kislev, the month of Chanukkah, Festival of Lights, illumines the sky. Light is especially precious at this dark time of the year. Maybe that’s why each day the parting sun embraces the west in such a vivid band of burning orange, before it disappears.

Last week I was asked at short notice to stand in as Jewish chaplain for the North London Hospice’s annual Light up a Life. The streets around the building, for so many a place both of sorrow and intense loving-kindness, were closed. Hundreds of people stood quietly in the dark, each with a candle, each with memories of love and his or her intimate knowledge of the journey of grief.

I chose two short Hasidic teachings. The first is from Rebbe Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin (1823 – 1900) one of whose favourite sayings was ‘Bereisha chashocha ve’hadar nehora – First the darkness, then the light’.

Just as behind the light sometimes darkness is concealed;
so, behind the darkness is concealed the light.

 Darkness is no illusion; even the brightest light cannot always reach the shadowed and enclosed places where pain and fear, helplessness and despair lie crouching. ‘Even darkness is not too dark for you’, says the Psalmist, addressing God (Psalm 139). But for us humans, sometimes even love, courage and understanding cannot despite all their skill and tenacious tenderness penetrate the walls behind which suffering and loneliness inhabit the thick shadows.

Yet even here lies hidden light. I believe in the great endowment with which the human being is created: the capacities for love, compassion, selflessness, companionship, laughter, patience, endurance, wisdom, forbearance, reverence, wonder and creativity itself. Harsh experience may atrophy these attributes, encase them in cold hardness or even cruelty. But I do not believe that they cease to be there in potential. Thus, the human endeavour remains to help us find them despite life’s darkness, and, although we know too well that it is not always within our power, to alleviate that dark in so far as we can, for ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbours, and for the strangers and the refugees within our gates and beyond.

The second saying is from Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger (1847 – 1905), universally known as the Sefat Emet, ‘The Language of Truth’ after the title of his collected teachings.

One can blow out a candle, but light itself can never be extinguished.

I have witnessed time and again the light and loving-kindness which innumerable people carry in their hearts and seek to share wherever there is loneliness, grief and pain. I’ve been chastened on countless occasions by the ways generous and thoughtful people try to bring light wherever it is needed: gently, not in your face; selflessly, without show; sharing what they have and what their hearts know, not by what they say but by how they listen, not by what they tell but through what they do.

I know that so long as life on earth exists light itself can never be extinguished. I’m grateful to all our teachers, to all who carry that light.

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