The book of life

The great metaphor of these Days of Awe, in the middle of which we now stand between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is the book of life. ‘Write us in the book of life,’ we pray. The traditional greeting, Gmar Chatimah Tovah, ‘a good closing seal,’ expresses the hope that God will seal us in that vital book.

No less than eight times we add the word ‘life’ to our daily prayers, speaking of God ‘who loves life’ and ‘sustains life with lovingkindness.’ If, in the classic rabbinic phrase, we are ‘partners with God in creation’ then we too must be participants in that love and nurture of life. There is nothing more important at this juncture in the world’s development, with its economic and ecological crises. Both these words derive from the Greek oikos, home: the question, then, is what we can do to make our communal, national, and earthly home kinder, more sustaining and sustainable, and more full of loving kindness.

These urgent tasks draw on our time and money, mind, imagination and heart. This year above all we need to dedicate ourselves in whatever ways we best can to supporting the most destitute and endangered among our people and across our societies. We need to share in making this a life-giving earth and put a break on whatever in our own habits is contributing to the earth’s destruction.

‘All life shall acknowledge you,’ we say every day. All existence, human, animal and the life of all nature, is precious; it is all part of a fragile, interdependent whole. Our final service on Yom Kippur concludes with a prayer, addressed more to ourselves than to God: ‘May we cease from exploitation,’ ‘May I never sin again.’

This week we’ve lost someone who was a great campaigner for the most vulnerable lives, Barbara Winton, daughter of Sir Nicholas Winton who saved hundreds of children from Nazi Europe. Inheriting her father’s passion, modesty and determination to do whatever lay in his power to help, she too fought for refugees, particularly children, especially those who dared their terrible journeys of escape from persecution all on their own. May Barbara find rest in the presence of God and may we all be heirs to her values.

It’s all very well to speak in praise of life, but life is often far from easy. It frequently hurts and most of us bear sore wounds. The very focus on life draws us to think of those who are no longer with us. There they are, their picture on the shelf, their shadow still next to us, but their wit, laughter, affection and irritating habits all gone. May their love still sustain us, their foibles still amuse us and their voice still speak in our hearts.

Every day in our prayers and many times during Yom Kippur we say Mah anu? Meh chayeinu? What are we? To what does our life amount? But the answer is never ‘nothing; don’t bother.’ Life is our opportunity to make the most of the gifts with which we are endowed: the capacity for wonder, joy, creativity, empathy, compassion, dedication and endurance. An anonymous poet imagines what death would tell us if it could speak: it does not speak about itself but rather says

Think of life;

Think of the privilege of life;

Think of how great a thing life may be made.

May this be a year in which we do our utmost to work alongside each other, all faiths and all nations, as partners with God in appreciating and sustaining life with loving kindness.

How our prayers may be answered this New Year

‘You stand, all of you, before the Sovereign your God,’ thus opens the Torah portion which we always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.

For what shall we pray as we stand before God on these Holy Days, the New Year, the Ten Days of Return and Yom Kippur? The world is faced by grave dangers: President Putin’s evil war, floods, droughts, a changing climate, turbulent politics and uncertain leadership. I don’t need to spell out the threats, it’s hard to bear even thinking about them.

We will surely ask God for peace and mercy, healing and plenty. Will God make it happen? Can God make it happen? For myself, I believe rather in the sacred presence of God within each of us and all creation than in some all-powerful being residing in heaven.

But these matters are mysteries, so we send forth our prayers in hope. May they ascend to the place of God’s mercy. May they descend to those spaces in our heart and conscience where the presence of God abides.

We can’t know what happens on high, but there are ways we can make certain that our prayers are answered below.

‘Prayer boomerangs,’ wrote the much-missed Rabbi Lionel Blue. We start by asking God to send us healing, then ask ourselves: what am I doing to bring more healing into the world? We pray for justice, and are motivated to campaign against injustice. We ask, in the words of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, for a year of beneficial rains and dew. Then we consider: what can I change and influence so that the earth remains fertile and people don’t suffer famine?

We misdirect our prayers if we only send them up to heaven and not down into our conscience and out into our actions every day.

There’s a spiritual as well as a moral dimension in which we can know that our prayers are worthwhile. ‘How can we be sure our prayers are effective on high?’ asked Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, subsequently know as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, before answering, ‘If they awaken in us the fear of God.’ ‘Fear’ has negative connotations, but that’s not what he intends. He’s referring to what he defines as ‘the fear, or awe, within love.’

What we love, we do not want to hurt. On the contrary, we do everything we possibly can to avoid causing those we love pain. The deeper the love, the more powerful the determination to inflict no harm and to prevent others from doing so. When we do cause hurt, we feel instinctively sorry: What have I done? How could I have spoken, how could I have behaved, that way?’

This ‘fear, or awe, within love’ comes from our core. We can experience it not just towards other people, but towards life itself. In the depths of our heart, do we really want to hurt any living creature? Would we not do everything we could to prevent their suffering? ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,’ declared Isaiah in some of the most beautiful words in the Hebrew Bible.

One of the first prayers we say is for the efficacy of prayer itself. Therefore, on this Rosh Hashanah and throughout the coming year, may the words we speak and the music and silence we share come before the presence of God which dwells in our heart and conscience, awakening us to deeper love and awe and motivating us to do what is just, good and kind ‘with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might.’

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah

The Queue to see the Queen

Yesterday I joined the chaplaincy to the miles-long queue of people waiting to pay tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll. It was a moving and humbling privilege.

Have you been queueing long?

‘Yes, but it’s worth it, isn’t it? I have to show my respect.

And you?

‘Not really. If she can serve her country for seventy years, I can stand for seven hours to say thank you.’

The Torah portion for this Shabbat begins with gratitude. While the temple still stood, the entire people was commanded to bring the first fruits of their land and present them in Jerusalem in acknowledgement of God’s blessings. (Deuteronomy 26: 1-11) The ritual was known as viddu’i bikkurim, the confession over the first fruits. It was entirely different from what’s happening in Westminster now. But there’s one thing in common: gratitude.

Can I ask you what’s brought you here?

‘I just want to say thank you.’

Did you meet the Queen?

‘Never. But I saw how she dedicated herself to this country.’

‘Yes, many times. I worked in the palace; we had artisans with every kind of skill to build a new section.’

I learnt nothing which everyone hasn’t heard many times. I answered more questions about whether you could take hand-sanitiser through security (lots) than about faith and God (none). One man asked me in distress whether he’d be allowed to change from his trainers into the shoes he’d brought specially for when he entered Her Majesty’s presence. It was somehow truly touching.

I gleaned no different explanations for why people were here than what we’ve all heard many times. (Except for the gentleman down on one knee with Parliament in the background who claimed he wasn’t taking a picture of his partner but was about to propose. No one around believed him.)

What was moving was not anything exceptional which was said, but the opposite: the plain respect for a life of dignity, humanity and service:

‘She was the mother of the nation.’


‘She was the gran I never had.’

In this often throw-away age of public posturing, an age deeply wounded by fear and insecurity, these virtues are still the rock and at heart we all know it: service, humanity, discipline, dignity, faith.

‘Have you come far?’

‘From Glasgow, overnight. I’ll be back on the bus tonight, but I’m here now.’

‘From New York.’ New York! You came specially? ‘Yes. I just had to.’

The respect with which everyone waited reminded me of the reverence with which our family watched the footage of the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill (Levi Eshkol, Israel’s Prime Minister, walked all the miles of the procession because it was Shabbat). My parents weren’t uncritical of British policy, as many are today of the Royal Family and the concept of monarchy. But they knew that without Churchill the war might not have been won and the country which had offered them liberty as they fled Nazi Germany might not have withstood invasion. Part of what took me to Westminster yesterday (and I’m heading back in a few minutes) is gratitude for a country where my family, and we as Jews, can live in safety. I noticed how many people of different cultures smiled at me as I stood in my ‘faith team’ high-vis with my kippah on my head.

People spoke warmly with one another as they advanced along the line. ‘So you’re family?’ I asked several times:

‘No. We just met in the queue. But we know everything about each other now. We’re going to remain in touch.

According to the Mishnah (2nd century) when people arrived in Jerusalem with their first fruits everyone went out to great them, saying ‘Peace be upon you, my brothers and sisters.’

A queue of tens of thousands of people of all faiths, ethnicities and ages united by respect and reverence is not a daily sight. This, too, is the Queen’s achievement, her legacy. If only it could spread across the world, and long endure.

A tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll

These are days not just of national mourning for Queen Elizabeth ll, but of a sorrow which touches us communally and personally.

The Queen has always been there. In an age of instability, she symbolised stability; in an age of insecurity, she represented safety. In an age which promotes me, my and self, she embodied public service. In an age marked by the weaknesses of leaders, she personified discipline and dignity. In an age which dissects and debunks public figures, the respect she commanded, despite many trials, remained undiminished.

Perhaps we hadn’t realised how precious such qualities are. There’s less in the world now of that decency and order which we had hoped we could take for granted. We feel, many of us, a heartache and anxiety which takes us by surprise.

The rabbis composed a special prayer to be said on seeing a king or queen: ‘Blessed be God who has given of the divine glory to flesh and blood.’ What is that ‘divine glory’ they asked. Observing the juxtaposition in Deuteronomy of ‘God is great and mighty’ and ‘God loves the stranger and refugee,’ they noted that where we find God’s greatness there too we find God’s humility. They taught that, in this regard especially, earthy sovereignty should mirror heavenly sovereignty.

Queen Elizabeth achieved just that, combining the dignity of the throne with humility of person. Based on her Christian faith and her understanding of the best traditions of British royalty, she saw the prerogatives of office as the means to service. That was her promise when she came to the throne, and she lived by it unstintingly throughout the seventy years of her reign.

She combined regal bearing with the ability to touch the heart. She visited Aberfan in the days following the disaster in 1966 when a sliding mountain of coal slag submerged the local school, killing over a hundred children and many teachers. She returned to the town several times, as Elaine Richards, a bereaved parent, remembered:

She promised me 44 years ago that she would open the school when it is built and she is here today. It is a very emotional day, I had to be coaxed to come here to remember the little ones who died.

The words of her broadcast in the lockdown Christmas of 2020, when she alluded to the wartime song which kept hope alive in the nation’s soul, were illumined on placards which normally carry only commercial adverts:

We will be with our friends again.
We will be with our families again.
We will meet again.

She cared. She was patron of over six hundred charities and personally involved in many of them. They reflected her commitment to humanity and nature, her concern for people everywhere, for rural life, for animals, especially horses and dogs, and for the earth.

She was a human being, a wife, mother, even great-grandmother. The picture of her alone in her black coat, black hat and black facemask, observing the rules of isolation at the funeral of her beloved Prince Philip, is the very image of personal grief.

Neither she, nor her life, nor certainly her family, was always easy or perfect. Maybe that too is what draws her to the heart. She was ‘the nation’s grandmother,’ and grandmothers, as everyone knows, are figures as much of affection as of authority.

In Judaism, the queen is the symbol of the Sabbath, shabbat hamalkah, representing the vision of a world at peace. Queen Elizabeth lived through many wars, serving when princess as an auto mechanic in the ATS. Yet she represented something higher, a country, commonwealth and globe drawn together, a harmony to which we yet aspire.

In these difficult days at the start of his reign, we wish King Charles lll and all the royal family comfort and strength.

Like his mother, he has shown deep respect not just for the church but for all faiths. As Jews, we are fortunate to live in a country whose sovereign has visited our synagogues and shared in our prayers.

We hope his reign will be marked by the achievement across the country and the world of those values he has so often articulated: harmony with nature and across humanity.

We join with people of all faiths and none across the nation and the world in sorrow at the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth ll, and in gratitude for her life.

Make the world better step by step; don’t be overwhelmed

In a couple of hours I hope I’m going to ask him, ‘How do you keep up hope?’ I’m referring to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whom I have the privilege of interviewing over Zoom later this morning about his remarkable book Seven Ways To Change The World.

I asked his office to arrange this opportunity before the High Holydays as we badly need messages of positivity and empowerment. Our key Rosh Hashanah theme this year is making the world better. The world desperately needs it, and we need it too. We have to feel that there is something we can do, something we must do, so that we maintain our sense of direction and purpose, our tikvah, our hope and our determination. That is the essence of practical teshuvah.

I will ask Gordon Brown what specific contributions faith communities can make. Should he say, ‘Aren’t you a faith leader, what do you think?’ I’ll reply with some of the actions, big and small, taken by so many in our congregation and beyond, since that’s what keeps me determined and inspired.

We’re in the Torah week of ‘tsedek tsedek tirdof, justice, justice shall you pursue.’ (Deuteronomy 16:20) The rabbis had a principle of zero unemployment; God, they assumed, would surely never allow one single word in the holy Torah to be redundant. So why this repetition of tzedek, justice? It comes once to teach you to resolve potential conflicts calmly and fairly, like who should go first in a one-way shipping lane, and once for when you really need to resort to the courts,’ suggests the Talmud. (Sanhedrin 32b) ‘Once for legal justice, once for social justice,’ I’ve heard it said, or ‘Once for educational, once for ecological justice.’

A wonderful aspects of Torah interpretation is that the words strike us differently every year. So here’s what they’re saying to me today: The first tzedek teaches us the centrality of justice. The immense injustices in our world and the sufferings they cause millions of people, especially children, make the need for justice overwhelming. Hence the second tsedek: don’t let the big picture make you feel there’s nothing you can do. Contribute what you can; make one situation, one person’s life, fairer and better.

Yesterday I heard Clare Balding’s appeal for the people of Pakistan on behalf of the DEC. Over thirty million people affected, she said, outlining the scale of the flooding. Then she continued: if you can give ten pounds, that’s blankets, fifty pounds, that’s food for a family for a month. She left her listeners feeling that we can make a difference. World Jewish Relief has also appealed.

Tsedek, justice, and chesed, loving kindness, are Judaism’s supreme and universal values. They light the path forward for all humankind. They stand at the forefront of our values; they must guide our minds, hearts and deeds. That’s the first tzedek.

Then we need to break them down into what we can do, each according to our gifts and opportunities, every day. I’ve never forgotten what Sandra, the late and much missed Leslie Lyndon’s wonderful sister, said to me one day: ‘When I feel low, I go and give blood. I won’t have a day contributing nothing.’

In the meantime, I’ve had that Zoom interview. Hope, said Gordon Brown, is having the dream, like Martin Luther King, then step by step making the impossible possible. It’s large numbers of people doing what they can, day in, day out, with commitment and determination, and it begins with faith communities.

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