Happy Purim!

Happy Purim! Last year Purim came just before lockdown; this year it comes just before lockdown – slowly, cautiously, eases and children can go back to school. Let’s hope it heralds a better year ahead.

There’s much not to like about the story of Purim. Without going into details, the scroll of Esther, read last night and this morning, poses as a fairy tale in which, by the grace of God, and heroine vanquish vizier and emperor.

But underneath the service, it’s a shrewd, hard-bitten account of insecurity, suppression and manipulation. There are plenty of places still like that in the world. The meme for survival is ‘How do I use people more deftly than they use me.’ There is no more astutely political text in the Bible.

But that’s not what we take away from the festival. On the thin ice of perilous existence, we dance, feast, give gifts and care for the poor. We mock tyranny, take the mickey out of pomp and laugh at life’s absurdity. We create joy.

That’s why tradition connects Purim with Yom KiPurim. On the latter we recognise how transient we are; we fast, repent and take stock of our soul. On the former we recognise how fragile we are; so we eat, drink and make the most of our moment. Carpe diem – seize the day. Mir seinen da! We’re here; let’s make the best of it. Lechaim, Lechaim! To life!

I admire this attitude; there’s courage as well as joy in laughter. It’s one of the great forms of resilience. It’s the underdog’s greatest weapons. It undercuts pride and pretence. It strengthens the spirit. I love the wit and grit of good humour, and appreciate those who have it and share it.

I love, too, the way joy connects us. Sometimes it’s thought that only sad events truly unite us. That’s simply untrue. Even though it was all on Zoom this year, watching a community in fancy dress, with floating hats and virtual moustaches, laughing together, then taking small gifts of foods to their friends (yes, wearing masks, leaving them on doorsteps and stepping away two metres) and knowing that we’ll all support the work of Feast and Leket (see below) making meals for anyone in hungry in these hard times – I feel like weeping with gratitude for being a part of it all.

That’s the lesson which emerges from the old story of intrigue and power (which still plagues the world in its versatile forms): when you get the chance, take life with a laugh, care for your friends and be there for those who need. For the long-standing tasks will soon call us back, to remove oppression and transform the world – and to do that we need all the joy and spirit we can muster.

Let me set down in couplets the key laws of Purim
Just as you’ll find them in the old Arba Turim.

You must read the Megillah when the sun’s gone away,
Then listen to it all over, early next day.

You must boo when it’s Haman, but as we’re on zoom
Please mute your computer before you go boom.

You may stuff your face full and it’s not seen as greedy,
So long as you offer two gifts to two needy

And regale with delicacies one friend at least,
Before you sit down to an unhealthy feast.

You mustn’t stay sombre or too circumspect,
Politically, now’s the moment to be incorrect.

You’re encouraged to dress as king, queen or clown,
To show that you know that the world’s upside down.



Sanctuary – in laughter and in tears

When I was little, I was known for hiding under the table. I felt safe among the shoes, hidden by the overhanging tablecloth, comforted by conversations drifting down without my needing to follow.

‘Make me a sanctuary,’ says the Torah this week. Sanctuary comes in many kinds and we all need our own, especially when days are difficult.

‘Tell me a lie and I’ll give you a dollar,’ said the rich man to Herschel Ostropolier, the wit of Yiddish tales. ‘What d’you mean one? You just said two!’ he answered instantly. I think laughter is a kind of sanctuary, so long as it’s not cruel. Humour can be a form of courage, giving the mind some breathing space from the world. We laugh at Haman on Purim; we’ve always laughed at our enemies. It’s very Jewish, – and very British too. (Next Friday is Purim, when I can talk rubbish with licence.)

‘Animal sanctuary,’ says the sign in the park. There are sanctuaries provided for animals, and animals who provide sanctuary. ‘My daughter tells the dog everything,’ is a not infrequent parental observation. For many of us grown-ups too, our canines are our confidants.

‘When can we come to your garden?’ I’m asked, ‘the children need your guinea pigs.’ Watching them watch them, I think that though it’s not what the holy book meant by ‘Make me a sanctuary,’ something is happening which I would call sacred.

Music is sanctuary. It’s no accident Beethoven chose Schiller’s Ode to Joy for the choral movement of his Ninth:

Joy, beautiful flame divine,
Daughter of Elysium!

Maybe all art doesn’t just ‘hold as t’were, the mirror up to nature,’ as Hamlet said. It’s also a magic mirror, an entrance to a domain of beauty which secretly co-exists within our daily world of challenge and self-doubt. Music, literature, art: they are soul-balm, reprieve, relief and restoration. What’s sanctuary, if not that?

(As for those people who, ears in headphones and eyes on phones, walk straight at you on the pavement, perhaps the charitable thing is to appreciate that they’re not in the street at all but in their private heaven. After all, plenty of those who think they own heaven like to push others away.)

Gardens are sacred. ‘Do you think of your garden as a sanctuary, with its hedges all around?’ I was asked on what remains a highlight of my career, when we hosted Gardener’s Question Time. I hadn’t, until then. But it’s true. Love and care are what till a garden, alongside schlepping manure. Perhaps the many kinds of snowdrop, beloved by Nicky, are our garden’s Menorah, illumining the long January / Tevet nights, and the tiny blue irises I stared at yesterday are the reflection of heaven.

Mountains, forests, small grass islands by a stream: these are sanctuary too and every tree is the tree of life.

Sanctuary isn’t just for joy; you don’t have to be happy to find it. Sorrow may be when we need it most. Isabel Allende describes the long nights watching over her sick daughter, wandering the house ‘adrift on a sea of pain,’

My daughter has given me the opportunity to look inside myself and discover interior spaces – empty, dark, strangely peaceful – I had never explored before. These are holy places… (Paula, p. 272)

Prayer may be sanctuary. Prayer isn’t really about knocking at heaven’s gates but pushing at the door of our heart. To my mind, whether prayer ‘works’ is less a question of ‘Did God say yes?’ than of whether we found our way to our spirit, God’s breath in us all.

What is there within sanctuary when we find it? ‘The ark of testimony,’ says the Torah. But testimony to what? To God, to life, to a quiet knowledge of unassailable belonging to which one doesn’t put words.


On healing; caring for our carers

I’ve spent most of my week thinking about just two words from the Torah, verapo verapei, ‘be sure to heal.’ They’re accompanied in my mind by sentences from Rachel Clarke’s Breathtaking – Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic:

‘There is almost no situation that cannot be made better by someone reaching out, with love and tenderness…’

That’s what she’s seen among nurses, volunteers, doctors, drivers, despite the unrelenting daily pressures they face month upon month:

‘I fear…the public is unaware of how exhausted, stunned – shell-shocked even – many NHS staff and care workers remain.’

One has only to read the papers, pretty much any day, to understand how true both these sentences are. I therefore write with admiration, concern, respect, and also shame at recognising from the side-lines what is being done for us by so many whom we can never adequately appreciate or repay.

The Torah’s words call out in three distinct ways:

First, ‘be sure to heal’ requires anyone who’s injured others to pay for their care. Rabbinic tradition takes this to include medical costs, time off work, loss of future earnings, pain and humiliation. In all but the nastiest of cases no one has deliberately made someone else get Covid. So one could say that no one in particular has the duty to heal.

It’s just this which makes the NHS so profoundly moral, so right. Society, we, collectively take responsibility for our injured and our ill. We aren’t, and can’t all be, nurses or doctors. But we can, and must, enable them to care. Underfunding, (by more than one political party), shortages of personnel, lack of beds, especially in ITU: this is not what the Torah teaches when it says, ‘be sure to heal’. Nor does it mean that so many on whom we are so dependent should remain so badly paid.

Second, verapo verapei is a double verb, ‘heal, heal;’ it’s the most emphatic form Hebrew has. Rabbinic tradition often ascribes to each word of such doublings its own specific meaning. This leads me to almost everything I’m reading and hearing about those on the front line now. They’re striving to heal and heal.

They’re trying to use the best knowledge, subtlest skill, most careful monitoring and the latest almost up-to-the-minute research to save lives, care and, if possible, cure. Yet many are giving something else too: intuition, imagination, love.

Rachel Clarke describes a lady who knits tiny hearts and gives them to the hospital. Mandi, a nurse, knows exactly what to do with them. She puts them in pairs: one she conveys to an anxious family, the other she puts by their loved one’s bed. Since the family can’t visit, she shows them that heart via video:

In this new hospital world of absence and barriers, the hearts speak of love, of kindness and compassion…

This is a double devotion: skill and soul at once.

Third, since they’re written without vowels, the Torah’s words can be pronounced in different ways. Verapo verapei can be (mis-) read as verofei verapei. It’s a sleight of hand Hasidic teachers often practise. Taken this way, the words mean ‘the healer shall be healed.’

A picture in today’s Guardian shows a doctor who’s volunteered to work in ITU. She’s watching the birds, a tiny moment of relief. What will bring restoration to those who’ve struggled so hard to save lives, yet attended on much dying? Who heals the healers?

Some healing is beyond human capacity. The Torah says, ‘I am God, your healer.’ To many, healing may only come slowly, perhaps through nature and music, both sacred and soothing – if only they get time to breathe them in.

But healing must also come from us, at the very least through acknowledgement and appreciation. Rachel Remen, whose life is devoted to caring for carers, writes that ‘medicine is as close to love as it is to science.’ Some of that love needs to come from each of us.


Being true?

Our older dog, Mitzpah, has aged greatly during lockdown. The puppy, who does her best to provoke him, succeeds in infusing him with a few minutes of daily zest. But often he follows me round, even more than he used to, staring up with that baleful look which one can’t help thinking dogs secretly perfect in the mirror. But he’s saying something different from ‘Give me another biscuit,’ or at least that’s what I hear. He’s asking, ‘Will you still look after me, will you still love me, now I can’t make the long walks, now I’m ninety-four?’

The question of truth is, rightly, at the forefront of public debate: is everything only ‘my truth’ or ‘your truth’? Are so-called ‘facts’ merely subjective, the way we choose, and try to make others choose, to see them? Or is there such a thing as empirically verifiable data which demands our respect?

But there’s another aspect of ‘truth’ which troubles me no less deeply: being true. ‘True’ in this sense translates into Hebrew not as emet, but as ne’eman, ‘faithful’; or, as my grandfather would say in German, not as wahr, but as treu. It’s how Matthew Arnold uses the word in Dover Beach:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain…

Being true to one another, he felt as he listened to the retreating tide symbolising faith’s ‘long, withdrawing roar’, is all we have on this earth.

As I write, a conversation returns to my mind, still filling me ten years later with a residue of the shame I felt at the time. It was only a two-minute exchange in the street about a mutual friend: ‘He thinks you’ve forgotten him now he’s not well.’

Since then, those words have been an ear-worm in my conscience. They’re my measure of what ne’eman means: faithful, trustworthy, present through thick and thin. I meet people who’re like that; I’m aware of more of them since lockdown has brought to the fore the importance of this kind of ‘truth’: people who keep in touch with everyone they know, who try to forget no one, who treat nobody, ever, as second class.

This is what it means to be human. I recently attended a conference about friendship in different faiths. Much of it left me unmoved because in the end all the theology comes down to this: we hold each other’s humanity in trust.

It’s a responsibility and privilege which goes beyond those we know already. I’ve heard the following often this year, and I’m struck every time:

‘I think it’s a medical student, or it might be a nursing assistant, or the intensive care nurse herself: she holds her mobile phone next to my father in the ICU and lets us talk to him. Sometimes we even sing.’

It’s a truism that ‘a patient is a person, not just someone who’s sick.’ But to live that truth when you’re long past exhausted, when your personal safety may be at risk, when your heart is worn bare by witnessing suffering, and yet still to have the love – what words do justice to this?

We hold each other’s humanity in our hearts, and sometimes in our very hands. How we do so defines us. I believe God asks us all the time ‘Are you being faithful?’ These words don’t come from above. They’re not in heaven but in our family, friends, fellow beings, even in the eyes of the dog.

We had a small family dinner on the Friday night of my Bar Mitzvah (as so many families would love to be able to do now!) I remember vividly something my grandfather said about me: ‘Er ist treu’ – he never got used to speaking in English – ‘he’s true.’ What he was really telling me was: ‘Be true, because that’s what matters.’

I still hear him say those words. I paid little attention at the time, but now they fill me with an inseparable mixture of shame, inspiration and love.


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