The necessity of hope

Who can live without hope?

I went running late last Friday, as I often like to do. There’s something special about the night of Shabbat, more deeply resonant, as if among the trees one could overhear God blessing the work of creation.

But what was that noise from the river below? Could it really be birdsong? It wasn’t an owl’s call, or the alarm with which a rook might charge to a higher branch. It was a hovering music, anxious yet sweet, a salutation from the soul of the mysterious dark. It was that cry I’d longed for years to hear,

That deep thrilling note that is wilder than all,
The voice of the wailing curlew. (James McKowen)

I don’t often spend Shabbat at a Christian retreat in the Yorkshire Dales. But I was invited by leaders of A Rocha, the Catholic organisation which created Eco Church, on which we modelled EcoSynagogue. I haven’t joined in meditation before with farmers, leaders in forestation, officers of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, for all of whom their patient work was a commitment rooted in faith. Faith in what? The prayers were brief and simple; in my thoughts I periodically substituted the words ‘through the eternal God’ and, with that, felt completely at home. For this was faith in life itself, the enduring strength of its deep roots.

A team from the Scottish Highlands spoke of their hopes for the next hundred years. The head of Forestry England referred to plans for the next two centuries, before acknowledging that climate change would inevitably necessitate as yet unpredictable adaptations.

One, two hundred years: those figures stuck in my mind. The timescale of climate emergency is a decade, twelve years minus the months since the clock in Time Square was set ticking its countdown to catastrophe. I believe in the severe urgency of the hour; action now must be a non-negotiable commitment. We owe it to our children.

But it’s equally essential to listen to the language of hundreds of years. For here lie vision and hope. I won’t see the branches of the oaks I helped plant reach out and attain their crowns. Yet the thought that they, or other trees, shall, – that comforts me; it leads my soul the quiet waters by.

There’s an evil war in Europe; Mr Putin knows neither humanity, justice nor mercy. Millions have lost everything. Around the world governments, seemingly with little moral compass, make short-term decisions for which the poor, the young, the least powerful and the non-human worlds of nature must suffer most. Who wouldn’t feel despair?

Yet against this humanity in many millions sets compassion and determination: we’ll give what we can, we’ll offer our homes to refugees. We’ll protest until our local council and MPs make the essential, right decisions. We’ll put up bird boxes, plant trees. If there’s no social justice, we’ll fight for social justice. If there’s not enough environmental care, we’ll go out and we’ll care.

Yet even as we are impelled by that ‘fierce urgency of now’ we need hope in the future. We need the language of long-term. We don’t know what trees will thrive best for the next hundred years or what birds will sing and where. But there shall be trees, and birdsong, and life.

I went out again next day, and the following night, and heard that music again. ‘Piercing, soul-aching,’ Mary Colwell calls it in Curlew Moon:

The pauses are as poignant as the cries themselves; they define the silence and fill it with expectation and emotion. Given a religious turn of mind, you could almost describe it as a benediction.

Together on the side of life

Please don’t lose heart in these cruel times. (I’m often talking to myself when I write these Friday notes). We shan’t and can’t lose heart.

These are harsh weeks. We constantly hear bad news: many among us worry about beloved family and friends caught up in this brutal war on Ukraine; all of us worry about those who worry. But we can’t and shan’t lose heart, because we’re together on the side of life.

In Jerusalem, it’s Purim today. The streets are full of children, and grown-ups, in fancy dress. Millions are busy practising the commandments of the festival, mishloach manot, bringing gifts of food to friends and neighbours, and mattanot la’evyonim, giving where there’s need. These simple actions convey a simple message: I care about you.

The Purim story is nasty and mean. It’s all there beneath the purple trappings of rich, indulgent society: trafficking, exploitation, manipulation, racism and attempted genocide. But hate is not the message its heroes sought to promulgate. ‘Remember!’ they taught, – but do so in order to seek peace and goodness. Start by showing in small, daily kindness that the people around you matter to you.

I often think about the Biblical meaning of the Hebrew verb yode’a, which translates as ‘know’. Except that it expresses something more than neutral cognition: what yode’a really means is ‘know and care.’

Lo yadati says Cain after killing his brother: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ – I don’t know and I couldn’t care less. Lo yadati says Pharaoh to Moses, ‘I don’t know God’ and therefore I don’t care about you or your ridiculous demand for freedom.

When people attain power who don’t care about the lives of others and who consider themselves accountable to no one, neither to God nor humanity, they inflict immeasurable hurt.

We fight back by caring. The Torah tells us that God ‘knows the pain’ of the Children of Israel in their slavery. We each contain a fraction of that God who knows. That infinitesimal portion may be invisible, dissolved somewhere within us, but it’s what gives us our conscience, heart and spirit. It’s what makes us love. It’s what makes us horrified when millions of people are bullied and bombed out of their homes and forced to become refugees. It’s what makes us say, ‘What can I do to help?’

There’s something essential which unites people who care. We may live in separate countries and have no common language. We may be concerned, at least ostensibly, about different matters: for children, or people rich in years, or animals, or nature. But we are all touched by the same spirit and impelled by the same imperative: life matters; life must be cherished; I have to do something for life.

I recently heard Hugh Warwick speak about hedgehogs. I love them, he said, so I fight for them. He was voicing a truth which embraces far more than those prickling animals, endearing as they are: we fight for what we love.

Loving life teaches us to love the lives of others, and to fight for them, and for life itself, in any way we can. Even if what we do feels insignificant, trivial, not much more than nothing, we should never say ‘It makes no difference.’ The issue is not ‘it’s so little that I do,’ but ‘What’s the little that I can do?’

I’m inspired and humbled by people who really care. It’s not just what they do; it’s the spirit they impart, the strength and solidarity they convey – that we’re together on the side of life.

It wasn’t nothing

I had a humbling visit last night from Mr Makaya, his wife Christine and two of their friends. While Mr Makaya was imprisoned in Congo Brazzaville, his wife came to our synagogue and attended Seder at our home. She asked us to pray for her husband and spoke of her deep faith in God’s redeeming power. I feared we would never see Mr Makaya alive.

Last night he came to say thank you for our community’s help. ‘We did nothing,’ I said. ‘It wasn’t nothing,’ Christine replied. ‘The deputy American Ambassador came to your synagogue. You introduced me to her and she connected me to the Ambassador who made sure the White House knew how my husband was being mistreated. That protected him.’

‘We need your help now to keep going,’ the friends explained. ‘How can we sit here and have tea and cake when our people are dying back home because they haven’t even the money to buy aspirin on account of the corruption of one ruling family who controls everything?’

I’m sharing this now because the murderous attack on Ukraine may make us feel helpless and useless. But we must do whatever we can. We must believe that our actions, however tiny, are not nothing and that, please God, they may lead to more than we think.


Fighting evil

What can one say? Where’s the limit to the brutality, cruelty and lies? In the chilling words of Yuval Noah Harari, it’s those who did Homs and Aleppo who are now aiming at Mariupol, Kyiv and Kharkiv. (See video here). We stand with Ukraine in the face of the crimes committed against it before our eyes. Today Ukraine is the front line of civilisation.

Tomorrow is Shabbat Zachor, on which we are commanded to remember Amalek, who attacked the weak and helpless as the Children of Israel traversed the desert on their exodus from Egypt. Amalek the nation has long ceased to exist. But as an attitude, a way of behaving, with its contempt for hospitals, children, civilians and the sovereignty of other nations, here its behaviours are before us, wanton and merciless.

The Hasidic leader Rebbe Yitzhak Meir of Ger (1799 – 1866) explains that the root of the Amalek-ism is the denial of accountability: the world is random; there is no God and nobody cares. That is false. At this very moment the world is filled with the visible proof that millions upon millions care very deeply. If conscience is ‘the God within the mind,’ then God in the form of the collective conscience of humanity is even now holding Mr Putin and the perpetrators of this war to account. Those who mastermind and carry out this atrocity are answerable for ever before the families of every one of the dead and before every refugee.

The Torah teaches that God, our very God, is at war with such evil. Therefore, all strength, courage and success to those who stand bravely on the front line against this brutal outrage.

Those of us who’re more distant must not be mere spectators. Our arms are our commitment, humanity, generosity and compassion. Our weapons are the open doors of our hearts, and, when refugees reach Britain too, our communities and homes. This must not be limited to our immediate response towards people from Ukraine only; we can, and must, oppose brutality and cruelty through solidarity with any and every kind of suffering and need.

For practical actions we can take, click here: these are our immediate responsibilities.

But if you, like me, still feel helpless and frustrated in the face of this horror, there is something more to say. It goes to the heart of Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath on which we recall Amalek. Though the specific instruction is to remember and fight evil, behind it is the injunction to recall the Exodus from Egypt and, beyond that, the commandment to remember the seventh day and keep it holy.

For we oppose evil by refusing to be halted on our journey from slavery to freedom, from injustice to justice, from division to inclusion and from indifference to lovingkindness. Therefore, any action we can take to help any living being, to liberate any person anywhere in any way from any form of suffering, takes us onward on that journey. For we are summoned by the goal of a world in which all life is sacred and all the earth God’s holy temple. Therefore, there is never nothing we can do in pursuit of that vision. Every kind deed, every creative project, every act of healing is a step on our challenging journey. We are not at liberty to stop.


Ukraine: Don’t be silent now

‘Min hameitsar karati – From this narrow space I call out to you, God.’ As we speak these words of the Hallel, the short selection of Psalms read on the new moon and festivals, we hear them cried out loud from friends, colleagues, fighters, children, in bunkers in Kyiv, Kharkiv, across the Ukraine.

If you’re like me, you too probably feel useless, powerless to help. For now, the message from humanitarian agencies remains clear: what’s needed is funds, funds, funds (click here). When refugees do arrive here in the UK it’ll be different; we, like millions of people in East and Central Europe, will greet them with signs of welcome. (Meanwhile there are so many refugees and victims from other vicious conflicts, calling out from Afghanistan, Xinjiang, or as asylum-seekers nearby, needing help. Down the road are people struggling because of the pandemic, rising prices, the cost of heating, queuing at food banks.)

‘From the straits I call to you, answer me with the freedom of broad spaces:’ That you is not just God; it’s us. It’s not within our individual power to respond militarily. But we can and must offer the ‘broad spaces’ of our humanity, heart, solidarity. Here is an extract from emails between John in our community, and his colleague Taras, trapped in Kyiv:

John: We see what extraordinary resilience you show in the maintenance of your own state… The courage of the Ukrainian people is inspiring the world. I have been listening to your MP, Leseya Vasilenko, talking about taking up arms as a woman to stand in defence of her town, her children and her society.  She is lucid, clear-headed, purposeful, determined.

Taras: I want you to know that your letters… are very, very important to me and to everyone here. I may not be able to respond quickly, or at all, but the feeling of your presence, your sympathy and support is extremely valuable. In the current catastrophe not only sympathy, but also the most active actions are vital from you and from all our friends in Europe and beyond. I beg you, shout at all corners, tell everyone you know, use whatever leverage you have at your disposal to stop this madness immediately, so that the invaders cease fire and get out of our land…

We must not be silent. This was President Zelensky’s explicit message to Jews around the world: ‘Do not be silent now.’ Consciously or not, he was repeating Mordechai’s words to Esther as their entire people stood in danger of annihilation: ‘If you keep silence now…’ This in turn echoed the Torah’s injunction, ‘Don’t stand idly by your fellow’s blood…’

Without making their existence even harder, keep contact with friends and colleagues in Ukraine, fleeing Ukraine, who have relatives there or nearby, or who are supporting refugees. Be in touch with those in Russia too. Write to your MP for us to do more; (See the advice from World Jewish Relief) Share poetry, music, art from the Ukraine; say out loud what you are doing.

The bombing of Babi Yar by the Russian air force re-opens the graves of the victims of the worst outrages perpetrated by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen on the body of the Jewish People. This reveals to the whole world the wretched sum of what dictatorship, brutality and mercilessness achieve. We can all see. It shows, written in bones, what we must never allow.

This is existential, for the physical lives of many, and for the moral and spiritual lives of all. It goes straight to the core of the Jewish and universal values learned in the crucible of slavery long ago: human dignity, freedom, justice and the infinite value of life.

Today is the first of the true month of Adar when, the Talmud teaches, ‘joy increases.’ I doubt any of us feels that way. But behind true joy lie courage, generosity, faith, care for others, and freedom in body, heart and soul. Let these increase, now.

Ukraine: How we can help

How horribly apposite the words of the Psalm for Wednesday are: ‘For how long will the wicked rejoice? They tell lies. They kill widows, refugees and orphans. They say, “God isn’t looking.” (Psalm 94)

We ask ourselves what we can do to help as we feel helpless, watching the brutal invasion of the Ukraine. We must not do nothing. If you have friends with family in the Ukraine or nearby, be appropriately in touch; don’t let people feel alone. If you can, donate (see our appeals below; there are many others too). For the present, the most useful thing most of us can give is money. The organisations we support are helping neighbouring countries cope, too, as refugees arrive in hundreds of thousands in Poland, Moldova, Hungary and beyond. ‘You can see the trauma in their faces,’ a colleague in Budapest told me.

The Prime Minister has referred to as many as 200,000 refugees been allowed into the UK. There’s been mention of individual and corporate sponsorships; as soon as details become available, we will share them with the community. Please join tonight’s briefing, organised for all our communities by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon. Please join tomorrow’s session on refugees, focussed both on Jewish values and practical ways of helping. We mustn’t forget at this time that refugees from Afghanistan are still – refugees from Afghanistan. If we feel powerless to affect events across the world, there are many close to home, like local food banks, who need our help.

Jewish communities and leaders across Europe and beyond are finding ways of supporting each other, practically, with morale and in prayer. Adapting the words of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto,

Mutual sharing and helping is not limited to giving charity. When one hears of the troubles of others and does all one can to help, if one’s heart s broken…then this too is a gift we receive from one another… (March 16, 1940)

Wishing all of us the strength to help wherever we can and to support one another.

Masorti Olami Ukraine Appeal

Masorti Olami, which supports Masorti congregations across the world, is appealing for our direct help. They write:

We are in close contact with our communities in Kyiv, Chernivtsi, Odessa, Kharkov and Dnipro who report that they are currently safe and at home, but are worried about the future and are in a state of uncertainty, not sure when an invasion could occur or how it would play out. They have conveyed to us their current fears and needs and we have created this campaign, calling on the assistance of our supporters around the world, to help them.

Click here to donate to their appeal via Masorti Judaism in the UK. Click here for further information.

World Jewish Relief Ukraine Appeal

World Jewish Relief has launched a special appeal:

Russia has launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Our 29 partners across the country describe fear, panic and disbelief, and are doing everything they can to protect their communities in the face of active conflict.

No one knows how far-reaching the consequences of invasion will be, but we know that for the communities we have supported for 30 years the impacts will be catastrophic.

We will respond to the most urgent humanitarian needs as they arise, prioritising food, cash, medical, material, and psychological support for the worst affected, whether fleeing their homes or unable to escape violence.

For details and to donate click here.

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