Torah sings in our aloneness too

I wish everyone, all the family of our community and all our friends, Chag Sameach.

Shavuot celebrates the most important relationships at the heart of Judaism, with Torah and God. Through three thousand years of history these have been bonds love, frustration, companionship, incomprehension, solace and joy. Neither degradation and death in the Crusades and the Holocaust, nor life with its allures and strange turnings, have parted us. These are relationships of unbroken collective resilience.

This year we celebrate alone what has always been a night of learning followed by a joyful communal service with Hallel and flowers. This strange circumstance leads me to pondering two very different pictures of Torah.

The first is Chagall’s painting Solitude. Copyright prevents me from including it, but here’s a link.

In the background is a village with towers and steeples covered in dark cloud, possibly smoke from a pogrom or fire. In the left foreground sits an elderly Jew, sorrowful and lonely. He holds a Torah scroll loosely against his heart. Balancing him in the right foreground is a calf, with a sweet face and a violin. They both appear to be outcasts. Yet they each have their music: the calf with her bow and instrument and the Jew with the Torah. I imagine that Torah singing quietly beneath its red cover, as in the Psalm-verse: ‘Your statutes have become my songs’ in the houses of my pilgrimage. In contrast to the dark earth and louring sky, a white angel shares brightness with the old man’s tallit and the gentle calf. There’s yet hope.

In just this way we hold the Torah to our heart because it’s been our music through all generations. When it sings to us, the calves, birds, mountains and valleys sing too. For, despite the testament of history, there is a sacred music half-hidden in all life. ‘Shema, listen,’ hear it and heed it, is Judaism’s simplest, most enduring injunction. This is the Torah of our aloneness.

The other picture is a work of art of a different kind. Last year in our synagogue after Simchat Torah we gathered all the families shortly to celebrate a Bat or Bar Mitzvah in a huge semi-circle. We unrolled a (printed) Torah scroll, which stretched all the way round the group, so that every child sat next to his or her special portion. It was beautiful, and fun. This is the Torah of community and joy.

Torah is with us both in our togetherness and our aloneness.

But togetherness and aloneness meet. I imagine the far end of the Torah scroll, invisible, hidden in the mystery of void and timelessness, held by the unknowable mystery of God. Then I envision Moses holding up the parchment, with Rabbi Akiva a millennium later, then Yehudah Halevi the poet and Maimonides, the philosopher and legalist, a thousand years after that. Four centuries later the mystics of Sefat sing Lecha Dodi as they hold up the parchment, and three hundred years later still the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, raising his arms and spirit to keep the holy text above the flames. Now that scroll reaches us, and it and all our generations call out to our heart. We’re never truly alone when we’re with Torah.

I imagine too a great song with innumerable parts, wind scores and bird scores, child scores and old persons’ scores. Often we don’t hear them, but they all in their different voices sing God’s song, that life is precious and sacred, and that no one and nothing doesn’t matter.

Our bond with Torah is our life’s song too.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom

Spiritual Leadership under Lockdown

Four challenges pursue me by day and sometimes keep me awake at night.

The first is how to find the language, rituals, virtual meeting places to connect us in our isolation, on the new(ish) map of Facebook, zoom, teams, and what’s app and many others. I think of how the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto re-interpreted Joseph’s dream through the insight that ilem, ‘sheaf’ can also mean ‘mute’. He read not ‘My sheaf stood up and your sheaves rose around,’ but ‘I stood up in my muteness and you gathered round.’ In this way, despite incomparably greater anxieties than ours today, he sought to re-establish communication and community. I honour how people in our congregation are reaching out to one another in friendship, solidarity, learning and prayer and respect the different, creative and open-hearted ways in which this is being done.

The second is how is to be present with the many of us who are worrying, unwell, grieving and bereaved when ‘present’ is precisely what we can’t be. ‘I am with you in your trouble,’ says God in the Psalms (91). But Judaism has never simply left that task to God. It’s up to us to be with one another in our hours of struggle and pain. Can we communicate that closeness across the ether? Zoom is remarkable, the phone is sometimes even better, but neither are a hug.

The third challenge is how to highlight, support and participate in the outpouring of neighbourliness, kindness, generosity and dedication which is currently characterising our society in ways I’ve never witnessed in my lifetime. ‘Love your neighbour’ is happening all around us, from food distribution at JW3, to the anonymous donor who kept the local pub in business by sponsoring fish and chips for every household in the village, to the congregant I called just as she was busy making her first ever protective gown for the NHS. If we don’t give these efforts our heart, what kind of human beings are we?

The fourth is how we influence what will soon have become our ‘new normal.’ The planet can’t afford a rush back to what was before, appealing as it sometimes feels. Can we take our deepened awareness of social justice, the importance of community and connection, and a deeper and humbler appreciation of nature and put them at the core of our society? If we say and do nothing, we will have made ourselves bystanders in one of the greatest opportunities in decades, perhaps in our last, best chance.

These are the challenges. With faith, energy, generosity, courage, inventiveness and compassion, we can at least give them all our best.

On Jerusalem and what being a leader means

My heroes are people to whom other people – yes, and sometimes animals too – matter. More than that: they’re people who make other people understand and feel that they matter, whether those are young children, men and women in the bewildering landscape of Alzheimer’s, Jews, non-Jews, or people of any faith, station or status.

That’s why the word which characterises the opening chapters of the Book of Numbers, which we begin today, speaks to me: ‘se’u – lift up.’ In context it means ‘count’; in spirit it means ‘make count’. ‘Lift up the heads of the whole community of Israel,’ says the Torah. The role of leaders, commented the Hasidic teacher Avraham of Trisk, is to raise the spirits, morale and self-esteem of everyone.

The opposite of ‘lift up’ is ‘put down’, as in ‘he delivered a put down.’ It’s rarely warranted. Once, over twenty years ago, I asked a child to stop doing something which was distracting me while I was giving a sermon. Afterwards, my much-missed friend David Cesarani said to me, ‘A rabbi telling off a congregant; I’m not sure I like that.’ His words periodically ring in my head to this day and I still feel shame. I hope the person – I don’t know who it is – has forgiven me.

Putting down is easy; lifting up is harder. It may take vision, thoughtfulness, sustained attentiveness and compassionate imagination. But at its root is just one quality – kindness.

The reason I’m writing about this now is because I witness such ‘lifting up’ all around me, here in London, and, if I imagine myself there for this special day, in Jerusalem.

I’ve had a multi-faith week, with a session on refugees, an inter-faith Iftar and two debates on ‘green recovery’ in light of the 5th anniversary of Pope Francis encyclical Laudato Si. The aim has always been the same: how can we recognise and lift up those so often marginalised and forgotten. At the Iftar a local woman, Farida, was asked ‘How many meals did you deliver today?’ ‘172,’ she answered, smiling, and looking exhausted. There are many like her. In the Jewish community we have only to see what JW3 is doing.

If I travel, virtually, to Jerusalem, I recall the soldier next to whom I was once sitting on an Egged bus, who said to me kindly and quite unexpectedly, ‘You’re not looking well; can I help you in any way?’ And I think of the great scholar Paul Mendes-Flohr who took me to a falafel shop and, instead of ordering food, asked the young Arab man how his wife was, whether she had recovered from her illness and how he could assist their children. I haven’t forgotten. I’m deeply worried about annexation.

The role of leaders is to lift up. In fact, it’s the desire and capacity to lift people’s morale, economic position, skills, self-esteem and spirits which make people leaders.

This week on Shavuot we’ll read the Ten Commandments, including ‘Lo tissa – Don’t lift up God’s name in vain.’ It’s the same word as se’u, only preceded by a ‘don’t’. But that ‘don’t’ implies a ‘do’: do lift up God’s name in truth and with integrity. God’s name, I believe, is not in heaven, but in the heart of every person, at the heart of life.

Isaiah has a wonderful vision of Jerusalem: ‘At the end of days, the mountain of the House of God will be established above all mountains and uplifted – venissa – above all hills, and every nation will flow to it.’ (2:2)

With every person for whom we care, with every spirit we raise, we help build that Jerusalem.

Shabbat Shalom, be safe and be well




A Light Footprint?

There’s a blessing, ‘Tread lightly on the face of the earth’. It translates into Jewish as: Go gently through God’s garden, because the Shechinah dwells among you.

The pictures I’ve been sent over these last weeks of flowers, sunsets and birds, the sound files of birdsong, and even the short film of members of our community isolating in Barbados trying to follow Kabbalat Shabbat while a troupe of monkeys determinedly distracts them, tell me that we do feel that the world is God’s garden. We may not use the word ‘God’, but we sense this is, could, and should be a beautiful, wondrous, holy place.

It’s five years since Pope Francis’ remarkable encyclical Laudato Si. It was published prior to the Paris climate conference; its fifth anniversary is being marked in time for COP 26, planned for this autumn but now postponed.

The Pope draws overwhelmingly on the Hebrew Bible to describe the relationship between humankind and the rest of the creation and, in particular, to make the connection between environmental and social justice which lies at the heart of his letter. Nowhere is this more evident in the Torah than in the closing chapters of Vayikra we read last Shabbat, which describe how we must treat the earth, our fellow human beings and all creatures.

The summary of Laudato Si outlines the tasks which are even more urgent now than at the time of writing:

I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human mean­ing of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle.

We personally, our synagogue building for certain, and perhaps this country, have rarely had so modest an environmental footprint as over the last two months. Now that we and the economy are beginning to be on the move again, the challenge is to keep it low. We cannot let this primary concern fall off our communal, national or international agenda. Talk of a ‘green recovery’ needs to be made real, starting with ourselves. What values have mattered to us in lockdown by which we are now determined to live? What didn’t we miss not having or doing? What did we appreciate, more than before?

I believe we’ve relearnt how much we love the world. We need to translate that into caring.

Good Things to Learn from Lockdown

I’ve rarely experienced such closeness as in these weeks of distance. I’m not alone; so many have said the same.

It’s not that there’s no loneliness; the stress of isolation is felt by us all, though more cruelly for some than others.

But it’s made us appreciate our connections.

I’ve always loved nature, and now more than ever. The first sight of a hedgehog in the garden this year: what joy! And the great tits are flitting to and from the nest box in the almond tree. Emma Mitchell puts it so beautifully in The Wild Remedy:

It is the same giddy, soaring feeling I experienced as a child if I found a miniscule froglet next to my grandfather’s pond…It is a new discovery, a small living treasure…

I feel close to my family, although we’ve been isolating in four different places. The sound of your voices over the phone; the sight of you all on zoom before Shabbat; the ‘how are you?’ without not listening to your answer; the ‘I love you,’ deeply meant.

Friends, colleagues round the world: I appreciate you! Phone, what’s app, zoom: we’re lucky to have them, and it’s a deprivation we must remedy for those who don’t. They’re great negaters of distance (though not time zones). Cape Town or Toronto: we’re as near as next door. I never thought a screen could be personal. It can’t allow hands, but can enable hearts, to touch. Words of kindness, Torah, prayer from your hearts have entered mine.

I feel close to my society. I’m as ignorant as ever of much of it. But I wave and applaud bus drivers, thank the milkman and the girl who delivers the paper, and don’t take the people who collect our rubbish and recycling for granted. I’m not going to sit silent if we continue to expect the NHS to heal us, without our healing the deficiencies in its finances and equipment. I see so much dedicated, creative loving kindness around me of which I want to be part.

I feel closer, too, to myself. That may sound foolish, but I’m not the only one. Not travelling outside has made time to travel inside. Unfathomable is the heart, says the Bible. Many of us have explored it further in our aloneness than before and found it to contain not only fears but also chambers we hadn’t known were so deep: endurance, empathy, tears and love.

I understand better, too, that I’m not actually only me. Just as my body is made of many elements, so is my spirit too. My soul is composted from God’s words to Abram ‘Lech lecha, Go, discover’; from the sight of the sea in the north west of Scotland, blue-black at twilight with the curlew’s cry; from my father asking ‘do you say the Shema each night?’ and from the good counsel of so many of you, words spoken thirty years ago, and yesterday. ‘My’ life is, in truth, a multitude of gifts.

I feel closer to God, because I notice and appreciate more, because, notwithstanding the distinct value of each person, action, tree or bird, I experience within them all, and within me too, the breathing of a great togetherness: Shema Yisrael: God is one and oneness.

All these matters I want to glean and gather, before the winds of ‘back to normal’ blow them away. I want to plant their seeds for the future, for a kinder, closer, more connected and compassionate world.


75 years since VE Day

I find myself crying as I read the words of veterans in the papers this morning:

‘They were just dots below us on the beaches – some moving and some not,’

recalls Andre Hissink, aged 100. He’d been a pilot and navigator in the RAF’s 320 (Netherlands) squadron, after escaping the Nazi invasion of Holland in 1940.

‘My heroes are the guys that hit the beaches, so many of whom never came back.’ Says Gregory Melikian, now aged 97, who was chosen by General Eisenhower to transmit to London the coded message of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Now, because of Covid 19, he’ll have to spend VE Day at home, but hopefully not alone. I wish there were a way we could send cards or greetings to our veterans.

Our community will of course observe the national 2-minute silence at 11.00 am, before our own special programme about our parents who served in the Allied Forces (at 11.30am). I wish my father was still here, so that I could ask him; I only recall brief mentions about repairing tanks for the Royal Engineers, in Egypt, behind El Alamein.

‘This is your hour,’ Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill told the huge cheering crowds in Parliament Square. ‘We were alone for a whole year’, he continued.
There we stood, alone. Did anyone want to give in?

‘No,’ shouted the crowd.
‘Were we downhearted?’
The lights went out and the bombs came down. But every man, woman and child in the country had no thought of quitting the struggle.
(Martin Gilbert: Road to Victory, p. 1348)

For us Jews the bells of liberation rang, in Primo Levi’s words, ‘grave and muffled.’ There was another kind of aloneness as survivors of the Shoah absorbed the devastating reality that no one else, none of their family, comrades or often even of their community remained alive to meet them back home. Home? Home existed no more.

After liberation, I suffered probably more from the loneliness and the isolation…Feeling of yes, I’m alive, but that’s it. For what? For who?
(Dan Stone: The Liberation of the Camps)

Now the struggle to reach and build a new homeland in Palestine began in earnest, from the DP camps, through the networks of the secret Aliyah Bet, in running the British blockade, in forming the Haganah.

But Jews had been in uniform too in the British, American and Soviet armies in all the forces and had contributed bravely and greatly to the Allied victory.

We therefore share today’s celebrations as Jews, as citizens of our countries and above all as human beings who know through our bleakest experiences that freedom and justice must sometimes be fought for and always protected and preserved.

The courage, grit and humanity of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations stand as an example to us in our far lesser, but nevertheless real and current, tribulations.

Churchill also addressed the House on victory day:

…the strength of the Parliamentary institution has been shown to enable it at the same moment to preserve all the title-deeds of democracy while waging war in the most stern and protracted form. I wish to give my hearty thanks… to everyone in every part of the House wherever they sit, for the way in which the liveliness of Parliamentary institutions has been maintained under the fire of the enemy…
(Martin Gilbert: ibid p. 1346)

It was indeed during the bitterest war years that the Education Act was passed, heralding free secondary schooling for all, and the groundwork prepared for creating the Welfare State and the National Health Service.

As we honour this moving day in silence, memory and song, we might think of how from the midst of our own difficulties we too must envisage a more just, peaceful and harmonious future for all humankind and for our planet.


Hope under lockdown

‘Speak to the whole community of Israel:’ thus opens the second half of this week’s Torah portion. ‘That section was said at the great gathering,’ noted the eleventh century commentator, Rashi, referring to how the entire community would gather at Tabernacles to hear Torah. What would Rashi have said about our isolation today?

Yet, despite lockdown, I experience a profound sense of community. I feel it in my head, heart and hands. There is a coming together such as I have not known in my lifetime, not only of Jewish, or of British society, but of so many millions across the world. It expresses itself online, from balconies, over What’s App, in thought waves and currents of feeling. It’s an energy, a will, a commitment to a re-prioritisation of values which must herald what’s being called the ‘new normal’.

It is a vision deeply rooted in the teachings of the Torah, in the wisdom of all true faith and in the heart of humanity.

‘Be holy, for I your God am holy’ (Leviticus 19:1): The secret of holiness, wrote the Hasidic teacher Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, is wonder, the awareness that in each and every life there dwells the presence of God. ‘Be holy’ is a call to reverence for all living things. It’s a plea to travel through life with an open soul, to recognise the preciousness of all persons, all creatures and all things. If we have such reverence in our heart, it must follow that we will not desire to hurt or destroy, but, on the contrary, to cherish, nurture and care for all life.

‘Love your neighbour as yourself, I am the Lord’, the chapter continues (verse 18). Samson Raphael Hirsch, who campaigned for civil rights for Jews in Moravia before becoming the rabbi of the orthodox community in Frankfurt, understood the words to mean that we must fight for those same rights and opportunities for others as we seek for ourselves. ‘Love your neighbour’ is thus the essence of society.

More intimate is the explanation by Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin: when people truly care for their fellow human beings God says, ‘among friends like these I want to be there too.’ That’s why I believe God is present among the people running food banks and those who collect and deliver to them; with the chefs who turn their restaurants into kitchens for the NHS; among shop staff who make a point of being kind to their customers and making sure that they give what they can to those who’re struggling. I think God is there with the gifted 9 year-old violinist who put out a note online asking anyone feeling lonely to let him know and he’d serenade them beneath their window. God’s there in our wish to give more and care more; God’s even there even in our frustration that there seems to be so little we can do to help those really on the front line in our hospitals.

‘When you plant trees for food,’ the passage continues (verse 23). These trees are both real and metaphorical. I’ve been planting trees as a prayer for people who are ill, because trees represent life, vigour, strength and hope. But there’s also a figurative planting, a sowing for the future, towards the cultivation of a way of life, an economy and ecology, which understands that all existence is mutually interdependent, that we are not simply masters of nature and that the only path for humanity is to be a respectful part of the interwoven bio-diversity of creation. (I have several young trees acquired from the Woodland Trust and am tempted to sneak out one midnight with a spade to find a wild spot and plant them.)

I believe that even under lockdown these principles are finding affirmation in the insight and good will of hundreds of millions of people and that they therefore have the power to transform us globally into a community wiser, humbler and kinder than before.

Despite everything, this gives me hope and inspiration.


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