For Chanukah: Setting the light of the human spirit against all cruelty

I wish everyone a Good Chanukah, a Chag Urim Sameach, a happy Festival of Light. The lamps we kindle bring much needed hope and warmth in cruel and challenging times.

I also want to say Happy Thanksgiving. These celebrations go well together, calling on us to appreciate the blessings we have and, above all, to celebrate the resilience, imagination and courage of the human spirit.

In the shadow of the drowning yesterday of so many refugees attempting to cross the English Channel, the light of that spirit and the lamps of Chanukah must be set against all the misery, indifference, injustice, hard-heartedness and exploitative cruelty, by whoever and in whichever country it is inflicted, which culminate in such horrors. We have hosted in our home young people who have made similar crossings in equally unseaworthy dinghies; we’ve heard them speak from their hearts, and our hearts go out to them.

The story of the Maccabees as recorded in the Talmud may never have happened. Who knows if, when they reconquered the Temple in Jerusalem, they really searched among the ruins and found that one sealed vial of pure oil, or whether it actually burnt miraculously for eight cold winter days?

Yet that is precisely what happens all the time. The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger describes the matter with succinct grace. There is in every person an infinitesimal but irreducible amount of inextinguishable spirit. Just as the jar of oil found by the Maccabees was closed with the High Priest’s insignia, so this spirit is marked by the seal of God. It is the sacred core of every soul; no one can take it from us and nothing can corrupt its essence. Our challenge is to find it, deep within ourselves, and, when we have done so, not only to kindle it but also to let its flame light us.

Such a flame, when it burns in the dark days of the world, possesses a compelling magnetism. It draws others into its circle of brightness and warmth. It inspires us, illumining the pathway to our own inner light. Soon we witness how not just one sole candle, but many flames burn in the night. They are not easily extinguished; once lit, their fires cling tenaciously to the wick, casting back the darkness of harsh days, weeks, and sometimes years and even decades.

Halakhah, Jewish law, requires the Chanukah lights to be set outside, or at least in the window which overlooks the public domain. Except in times of danger, they are not a private secret which has to be concealed.

Across the world our public squares need such illumination. The spirit’s light, the heart’s warmth, the fire in the conscience, must be set at the centre of human activity, in the board room and the body politic, in council and senate chambers, in parliaments, and in the souls of all who work there and the minds of us all. With its illumination we must follow the pathway to recognise, connect with and protect what is sacred in every human life and holy in all creation.

We are not at liberty in these complex and difficult times to neglect the search for our own inner light, or to refuse to kindle it and bring it as our contribution to the square. The light of all humanity is needed, urgently.



Turning struggle into blessing

Life throws so much in peoples’ faces. I can’t bear to see the news, a friend just told me. The earth has so much beauty, yet is beset by so many threats and troubles, and each life is a world in miniature: how does one avoid feeling overwhelmed?

Against all this I set Jacob’s words which we read in the Torah tomorrow: ‘I shall not let you go until you bless me.’ It’s his response to the strange figure which attacks him in the night as he stands alone in that liminal space which is neither here nor there, which lies outside of life’s unremitting ‘do this’ and ‘do that’, somewhere in the solitary landscape of the soul. Who is he, this mysterious assailant, who comes upon him in the lonely dark: is it man or angel, Jacob’s conscience, the guardian spirit of his wronged brother Esau whom he will shortly re-encounter, or God and truth itself? The Torah refrains from saying.

But when at daybreak this unnamed combatant sees that he cannot overcome Jacob and begs him, ‘Let me go because the dawn has risen,’ Jacob replies, ‘I shall not let you go until you bless me.’ That line is my motto and my hope.

Through all life’s troubles those words call out like the light from a far-away house at the edge of a pitch-dark moor. They shine through fear, exhaustion, sorrow, depression and misjudgement. Sometimes their light disappears from sight; then one has no choice except to put one foot before the other, keeping faith through the bleak and utter darkness, until it re-emerges. For those words ‘until you bless me’ are the inextinguishable flame in the soul, the inexpressible inspiration for all song, the source of courage and hope: Whatever you throw at me, life, I shall not let you go until you bless me.

In 1940, Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman Shapira wrote in the Warsaw Ghetto that Jacob spoke those words as a signal to the generations to come. It’s not enough to survive troubles and persecutions. One has to wrest from them a blessing. This, he explains, is the assailant’s parting challenge as he changes Jacob’s name to Israel, which means ‘one who yassar im El, who struggles with God,’ or, as the mystics like to read it, ‘one who shar im El, whosings God’s song.’

One cannot help but question if it is truly always possible to find blessings. But it remains an aspiration.

Challenges lie behind and before us. Tomorrow is AJEX Shabbat, honouring Jewish service- and ex-service- men and women. Last week was Remembrance Sunday. The terrors so many faced in war, and still confront today, are unimaginable to those of us lucky enough to have been spared such experiences.

Before us lie other battles, first and foremost for the future of life itself on our planet, for humankind and nature and a new, more humble understanding of the relationship between us.

When everything feels overwhelming, I shall set Jacob’s words before me: ‘I shall not let you go until you bless me.’

And there are blessings. This is Interfaith Week. I participated in four multi-faith gatherings at COP 26 in Glasgow and have attended in several since. We spoke with different, but never differing, voices. We drew from the distinctive wisdom and beauty of our own faith’s prayers and teachings, but the import was the same: love and humility before the dignity of life, wonder at the complex beauty of this world, and a shared determination to take responsibility, learn, cherish and care.

Soon it will be Chanukkah. I see myself sitting in my grandmother’s lounge, watching the candles burn in front of me. They are reflected in the windows at either end of the room, and the reflections are themselves then reflected. There are two, four, eight chanukkiot hovering in the night, as if lamps from past generations were signalling to the future: make light, keep hope, don’t give up until you turn the darkness into blessing.



Shaken, after 5 days at COP 26

I just came back from five days at COP 26, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. ‘Discombobulated’ is how Graham Usher, the Bishop of Norwich and Church of England’s climate change lead, described his feelings. I agree; I feel shaken.

Climate isn’t a subject I was disengaged from beforehand. But it’s different when you sit on a panel with a woman from Greenfaith working in Kenya who says: ‘When you’ve walked 7 kilometres with a pregnant mother who’s got a child on her back just to fetch water, then you understand what climate justice means.’

I stopped by a poster ‘COP welcomes Climate Criminals.’ Protest is necessary; 100,000 people are expected at demonstrations in Glasgow this weekend. Without the voices from the streets, many leaders would do much less. Anger has a role too, if controlled and directed, especially with hypocritical boasts or insincere promises about what this country or that business is doing for the climate. But the poster didn’t capture what I feel, and the worst climate criminals didn’t even show up in Glasgow.

What affected me deeply were the multi-faith meetings. At the interfaith vigil, live-streamed globally as COP began, prayers, – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Bahai, Buddhist, pagan, – didn’t focus on ‘against’. They were pleas for the earth, its peoples and leaders; they were prayers that those who bore huge responsibilities for the future of life itself would open their hearts and use all the skills and powers they have for good. For just as there’s only one planet, there’s only one team here. We’re all in it and we need each other to do our utmost, and more.

I sat with my friend Andy Atkins from A Rocha, a worldwide Catholic group focussing on NSBs, Nature-based Solutions. (I’m interviewing Israel’s NSB lead next week). ‘What are you here for?’ he asked me. ‘I’m with EcoSynagogue,’ I said. (Our stall in the COP green zone for NGOs went well.) But he was after something deeper.

So I asked him the same question. ‘What are you here for?’ ‘To lobby,’ he replied. He’s a COP veteran. ‘Deforestation ended by 2030 sounds great. But what does it mean? If there’s no detailed plan how to get from here to then, no measuring, no monitoring, no powers to implement and supervise, it amounts to nothing, or worse, a ten-year licence to exploit even faster. We need to hold feet to the fire.’

I was deeply affected by representatives from Africa, South America and the Pacific. Daryl Botu from Ghana was at the stand opposite EcoSynagogue. ‘I’m here about the Atawa Forest. It’s one of the most biodiverse places on earth. It provides water for five million people. Chinese investment wants to turn it into a bauxite pit. We’re campaigning to have it protected.’

Such voices were few: costs, Covid and vaccination recognition made it hard for people from the global south to get to Glasgow. I learnt a new term ‘recognition justice’: there can’t be climate justice or climate solutions without the voices, imagination, leadership and resilience of those who’re suffering the most.

I’m back in London, eager for our Eco-Shabbat, vegan Kiddush, ‘consume less’ and ‘waste less’ projects and glad about EcoSynagogue and (All I learnt indicates we’re planting trees with the right groups).

Being at COP was a success for EcoSynagogue. It was wonderful to be together with colleagues across the denominations and work with the Board of Deputies, and the Jewish community in Glasgow welcomed us warmly. Ever more synagogues are committing to the journey.

It was great, too, to be part of Faiths for the Climate, and to meet the leaders of Hazon, America’s Jewish environmental organisation.

But the real issue is: will COP 26 be a success for the planet?

There’s that personal question too: ‘Why are you here?’ I don’t yet know how, but this experience has, and has to, change me.

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