Hope and purpose: not a dream but a duty

From bitter years and cruel times, from far-off exile in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel bequeathed us beautiful verses proffering purpose and hope. We read them on this Shabbat Parah, with its focus on purification and renewal.

They concern our humanity:

‘I will give you a new heart and put into you a new spirit. I will remove the heart of stone from your body, give you a heart of flesh, and put my spirit in you.’ (36:26-7)

And they’re about our land, perhaps, by extension, about the very earth itself:

‘The desolate land, after lying waste in sight of every passerby, shall again be tilled. It shall be said, “That land, once desolate, is become like the Garden of Eden.’ (36:34-5)

As this is a leap year, we will recite these verses over Easter. They offer an apt shared context of hope in life’s renewal from which to wish Christian colleagues, friends and communities thoughtful and inspiring holy days.

We desperately need this hope. The great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Art Green, sends out apposite Hasidic teachings every week. Today he added a heartsore note: (The red heifer he refers to is the cow whose ashes, mixed with burnt cedar, hyssop and living water, confer ritual purification.)

I’ve never felt such a need for that ash of the red heifer as I do this year. Not, God forbid, from those cows that the Temple Mount crazies are trying to raise! I’m talking about some magical powder that might cleanse us of the constant contact with the dead and the subject of violent death that has so filled this year for us. Yes, I mean the horrid events of October 7, the deaths of so many young soldiers in the IDF, but also the deaths of many innocent Palestinians, both in Gaza and the West Bank, including far too many children.

I couldn’t agree more, except to add our terrible fear for the lives and wellbeing of the hostages held for so long deep underground by Hamas.

So where are the hope and purpose?

They lie firstly in becoming partners with God, with everything good, insightful, patient, and determined in humanity, in removing the hearts of stone from humankind. I hate to write this, but it seems there exist people whose hearts, through cruelty or despair, have ossified, and who are, in Shakespeare’s blunt words, ‘absolute for death.’

Yet it’s not the case that it’s always ‘us or them’. How many human, humane, beings, ourselves included, have hearts without a single calcified corner? How much of our own ‘heart of flesh’ are we prepared to expose in the endeavour to find, and maybe even melt, other hearts? It is this task, painful, demanding, unending, Sisyphean as it may be, at which we need to work if we want to create a world of understanding, compassion and peace.

Secondly, hope and purpose lie in the endeavour to transform ‘desolate land’ into God’s gardens. Ezekiel’s Hebrew suggests a remarkable wordplay: remove the double letter from neshammah, ‘desolate’, and it becomes neshamah, ‘soul’. Can we restore the soul and spirit of our beleaguered earth, war-torn, pollutant poisoned, plastic-ridden, so that the forests thrive, more birds sing and our hearts soother and softened, beneath this growing canopy, are opened once again to God and to each other?

On a large scale it’s beyond our capacity. But, in the words of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, assur lehitya’esh, ‘it’s forbidden to despair’, and we each have our own selves with whom to work to begin to make these tasks happen. They’re not a dream but a duty.

If only the Megillah were less relevant

Two verses from the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther, which we read this Saturday night and Sunday, give me strength and hope.

But first to the story. How I wish it was irrelevant. But beneath its smiling surface, Esther’s charm and King Achashverosh’s fickle favour, it’s vicious.

In two verses Haman, the villain, encapsulates antisemitism’s every trope: the Jews are everywhere, follow rules of their own, won’t mix and have lots of money.

He carries a long history of hating. He’s an Agagite, from the royal line of Amalek who ambushed the Israelites in the desert, slaughtering the weary and weak. In the Torah, Amalek is the embodiment of cruelty, against which God is eternally at war. But, it’s essential to understand this, the Talmud makes it clear that Amalek long ago ceased to exist. No one today is literally Amalek.

Haman’s hatred doesn’t come from nowhere. His ancestor, the first Amalek, is Esau’s grandchild. A shrewd legend has grandfather tell grandson: ‘I couldn’t take revenge on Jacob for cheating me; killing him would have made my father Isaac die of grief. I bequeath to you the duty of vengeance.’ Mordechai’s ‘great and bitter cry’ when he hears Haman’s plan to kill the Jews echoes exactly Esau’s ‘bitter cry’ a thousand years earlier, when he finds Jacob has taken his blessing. Haman no doubt sees himself as the true victim. Hurts don’t go nowhere.

But the Jews of Persia are victims indeed, exiled from their land when Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem, forced to court favour, subject to both royal and popular whim.

So the story depicts a horrible ‘concurrence victimaire’ , in the recently coined French phrase. No one feels secure, even King Achashverosh, who amorally plays Agagite and Jew against each other, with the sole aim of self-preservation.

The tables turn and the Jews forcefully defend themselves, killing thousands, egged on by Achashverosh who wants all Haman’s followers dealt with, but in such a way that he can lay the blame, should it subsequently prove necessary, on those Jews. Here the Megillah ends. But we can guess the next turn of the screw.

So much of today’s pain is here. What was done to Israel by Hamas with such calculated brutality is unspeakably horrific. The ongoing trauma, especially of the families of hostages and those wounded or killed, is shattering. The hatred unleashed against Jews worldwide is appalling. The starving misery of hundreds of thousands of Gazan civilians, into whose wretched fate Hamas has cynically drawn us, so that we too are implicated, is utterly terrible. 

Thus heavy in heart, I turn to my two verses for guidance.

The first is Mordechai’s message when he begs Esther to petition the king to save their people: ‘If you stay silent now…’ I hear those words whenever the world confronts us with cruelty and wrong. They’re not an invitation to join the social media racket. They’re a command to do what we can, whatever our capacity, to make life better for someone somewhere. We’re not allowed to do nothing, and that imbues us with purpose.

The second is Mordechai and Esther’s instruction: ‘Each to their neighbour and gifts to the needy.’ It’s why we send presents of food on Purim. But the words mean more: ‘Be there for your fellow human beings.’ We need the companionship of our own people. But we must also go further, reach out hands, whenever we can, with members of other faiths. We must listen to their pain, and they to ours, so that together we can uphold each other’s humanity and re-open doors and hearts.

Only thus will we move beyond prejudice and hatred toward ‘the words of peace’ with which the Megillah closes.

‘The world is built on loving kindness:’ is it really so?

Since long before dawn, a verse has been going round and round in my mind like a tune which won’t let go: ‘Olam chesed yibaneh; the world is built on loving kindness.’ Those words are inscribed on the cornerstone of our synagogue. Maybe they’re pursuing me because tomorrow we read in the Torah about the completion of God’s sanctuary. Where chesed, kindness, is absent, God is half absent too. Places are only holy if God is welcome too.

But is the world really so? Is it anything more than a placatory wish, a delusive fiction, that, amidst war, destruction, cruelty, hatred, broken cities, broken trust and broken lives, ‘the world is built on loving kindness’?

Yet through these pre-dawn hours – hours when, the mystics tell us, the archangel Raphael traverses the heavens with healing on his wings – those words have accumulated details and restored memories which give them solid substance.

Last year in Kyiv, in a dim hall scarcely two miles from Babin Yar, I listen as Jewish women tell their stories. ‘I lost so many of my family in that place. Now I’m left here in this city. I used to care for children with disabilities, but they’ve all evacuated now. So I look after abandoned dogs and other animals. What’s life worth, if there’s no other life to care for?’

Last week, in the north of Israel, I hear how every morning at 6.00am volunteers prepare 500 breakfast rolls for displaced families and soldiers guarding against Hezbollah. ‘They come, day in, day out. All the ingredients are donated. They organise it all, shopping, preparing, distribution, everything.’

Last Shabbat I was at the table of my colleague Raba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum in Jerusalem. I asked her about inter-faith relations in the city. ‘They reach out to me, Christians, Muslims, fellow Jews, and I reach out to them. We need each other more than ever now.’

Yesterday, I was invited to offer a prayer in a multi-faith Iftar at Brent Mosque, commemorating five years since the massacre of Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. I learnt that the Mosque’s kitchen doesn’t close at lunchtime during Ramadan. They continue to offer free meals for local non-Muslim people, the cooks preparing foods they themselves can’t eat for many more slow hours.

Kindness is no bomb shelter. But it builds deep, deeper than the seductive reach of collective hate. Kindness has special chambers of its own, most importantly at this bleak time, the chamber of hope. I mean hope in human nature, hope in the hard-won ability to transform anger and transcend borders, hope in life itself.

Yet still the question returns: ‘Olam chesed yibanei’ – is it really so? Our world doesn’t look that way just now. Then I remember: the root of the word ‘olam’ means ‘hidden’. Underneath everything, half concealed, in ways we often cannot see because they look so small, so fragile, so feebly person-to-person in this age of the mass and crass, it will be kindness, if anything, which rebuilds our broken world.

To the kabbalists, kindness is a holy quality. The divine vitality pours forth from its deep, unknowable heights into binah, intuition and understanding, out of which is formed the awareness that all life is precious and holy. From there, this sacred energy flows into chesed, calling on each of us from within our heart to nurture and sustain the life around us with care and loving kindness.

The question isn’t ‘Is this true?’ but, in these bleak and aggressive times, ‘Can we make it so?’

With light feet, but a heavy heart

I hope to run the Jerusalem Marathon with light feet today. But I won’t be running with a light heart; my heart is full and heavy. I can’t add up the feelings or experiences which fill it. Some are contradictory. I make no comparison and suggest no equivalence between them. Some of the people who moved me hold radically different views. But they’re all people, and what they had to tell has left me, in every case, with two similar feelings.

The first is deep, anguished sorrow. In a noisy café at Tel Aviv Savidor Station I had a long conversation with two psychotherapists: ‘The need is huge,’ they told me. ‘The immediate circle of family members traumatised on 7 October is 20,000.’ And the circles beyond? ‘Tens of thousands more, the families of soldiers killed and wounded…’ 
At the previous station I’d met Aaron Seitler who’s walking the Israel Trail (the sections which aren’t too dangerous) to raise money for The Society For The Protection of Nature In Israel’s project Nature Heals which takes relatives into the gentle consolation of green spaces.
I travelled on north, and sat with x – I’m not sure she wants to be named. ‘I need a shoulder to cry on again,’ she wrote to me after we met the first time, last November. ‘I’m still in touch with my friend in Gaza. I’m so worried; he hasn’t replied to my last message. I don’t know if he’s still alive.’ She showed me a video of him holding the hands of a circle of children, then another of him cooking a vat of soup, the children running up to him while he turns aside and weeps. ‘I’m careful whom I talk to. Many here would be furious with me.’ Actually, I’m seeing more indications of deep concern for the children of Gaza.
I spent Wednesday in Kfar Veradim with my amazing colleague Rabbi Nathalie Lastreger. (The warning there when Hizbollah send missiles is zero seconds.) Lastreger means ‘bearer of burdens,’ and she carries the burdens of countless people with courage and love. She introduces me to Eitan Gonen, father of Romi, who’s still held hostage. ‘Tell us about her.’ ‘She loves animals, people, life, connects with everyone instantly. She’s a dancer in six different styles. She’s my sunshine, positive energy always. It’s 150 days; even one is unimaginable. She’s strong.’ All over Kfar Veradim are pictures of her, with her beautiful smile. ‘Every day I say: “This is the day she’ll be home.” Make a deal, any price; get them back.’ 
I ask what we can do to help. He answers with the same words as Ayelet, Naama’s mother, whom I met last week: Send good energy, prayers, heart’s warmth. I believe, I know, it’ll reach her, however deep the tunnels.’
We hear a terrifying army briefing about the threats posed by Hizbollah – another of Iran’s vicious proxies. Then Nathalie takes me to the homes of two bereaved families. Salman Habaka was a high-ranking Druse officer: ‘They had their eyes on him to be the IDF’s first Druse Commander-in-Chief,’ his father says. ‘Ani rishon; I go first,’ was his motto. He inspired everybody, gave his soldiers confidence and courage. He rescued many people.’ His father gives me a keyring with his picture. His mother cries quietly. 
Uria Bayer belonged to a Christian family, originally German, whose lives have been devoted over three generations to caring for Holocaust survivors in Israel. Uria received a bullet through the head in Gaza. ‘“Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,” his father said. ‘These words have an even greater meaning for me now. For four days we witnessed the care at Saroka Hospital. Unbelievable!’ The family draw great comfort from their faith. As Uria’s father speaks, the family dog looks up and holds out her paw.
Yesterday I went to the South Hebron Hills with Joel Carmel and a team from Breaking the Silence. Seemingly unimpeded by the army, settlers are exploiting the aftermath of October 7, violently intimidating and driving away villagers across the West Bank. We wander round the ruins of the ancient Palestinian village of Khirbet Zanuta; the whole population of 250 fled after repeated threats. One settler drove his bulldozer into the small, abandoned school; books and broken desks lie across the ruined floor. These are different kinds of injuries, deep and terrible wounds.
Today when we gather at Gan Sacher for the start of the races, I will see on countless running shirts the names of loves ones, taken hostage, tortured, murdered on Shabbat Shechorah, killed in the fighting. I will carry the memory of Martin Segal, for many years head of The British Friends of Israel Guide Dogs, who died this year, young, courageous, gentle. 
That takes me to the second group of emotions that all these experiences – which I can’t add up and can’t compare, except to say that they overwhelm me, every one of them – have in common. All of them evoke a powerful determination to see justice and compassion, to care, support, and create a safer, fairer, better, kinder world. 
That’s what I’m running my marathon for. I want to join those who, whoever and wherever they are, devote their lives to compassion.

In the South of Israel

I spent yesterday in the south of Israel with my colleague Doron Rubin, many years ago a shaliach in our community, now rabbi in Rechovot. I was looking at projects for our community to support. We drove past Kfar Aza and Be’eri, which suffered the worst of the vicious horrors on October 7, down to Kibbutz Re’im.

Imri, a close friend of members of our synagogue, met us there. For the next two hours, alleyway by alleyway, house by house, tree by tree, he talked us through how he and a tiny number of others fought off as many as a hundred Hamas fighters: ‘I ran here; the four police who joined us returned fire from there… We heard Hamas were inside that house… We stopped them getting through there; that was another miracle that saved us…’  

Many times, he stopped to play on his phone the explosions, voices, calls for help of that morning. He relived it with us, took us inside the burnt-out rooms, some with the grim notice ‘Declared clear by Zaka,’ the organisation which identifies the dead.

‘This is where my friend stopped the attack but gave his life. He had a small chocolate business; we want to start it up again in his memory. He loved sport. We want to be a centre for sports again. Everybody joins in, all the local communities, Bedouin, Thai families, they all play. Bring a football team from your community.’

Imri, and everyone else we met (few have so far returned) thanked us repeatedly for coming, as if this minuscule gesture of solidarity actually amounted to something.

Doron and I then went to the site of the Nova festival. Eucalyptus saplings had been planted for those murdered or taken hostage, a deep, extensive field of trees, the last of the dark red poppies in between them. The trees had names and messages by them: ‘We love you and long for you.’ Some had pictures, beautiful, happy young people. Some saplings had been watered just that day.

I shall see that field as long as I live.

Tomorrow I’m going north to meet a colleague and her community who’ve been facing the threats from Hizballah.

What can I say? I’ve been asked to emphasise hope. Please God, there will be a deal and, after 150 unimaginable days, the hostages will be freed. Briefings by senior military figures stress their concern for the humanitarian needs of the hundreds of thousands of people caught in the middle. But the war against Hamas, hidden in tunnels underneath their own people whom they calculatedly use as human shields, is unlikely to be about to end.

Realistic, long-term hope has to offer a safe, secure, dignified future for everyone, Israel and its neighbours. For that, right now, we can only pray. I pray for the hostages and their families; for the grief-stricken, the wounded, the traumatised; for the soldiers going into danger; for ordinary people caught up in horror, whoever they are on whichever side of the border; for this mad world that contains such nihilistic terror as well as so much beauty.

Meanwhile, what we can do is show solidarity, whatever our political opinions. We can keep contact with friends, family, anyone who needs us. We can help rebuild, more so over time. We can, and must, stand alongside suffering; we can help heal, in whatever tiny way we are able, the deep hurts of our own people, and of everyone, because all wounds cry out to God and every life matters.

I was asked to be up-beat, so, at the risk of sounding trivial and foolish, I’ll end on a different note. I slept on Saturday night at Israel’s Guide Dog Training Centre; apparently, I was the only human present. ‘The need for therapy dogs is huge,’ they told me in the morning, showing me eleven six-week-old puppies. One day, maybe, we humans will become as good as these cute creatures at bringing love and healing.

Naama Levy, the hostage we’ve adopted

I spent yesterday evening in Raanana with Ayelet, mother of Naama Levy, and Naama’s Noam (youth movement) friends. Naama is the hostage our synagogue has adopted. 

Only, I don’t want to write ‘hostage’ because Naama is – Naama. She’s a girl of nineteen. If I understood the swift, warm Hebrew conversation, she joined Noam in eleventh grade but fitted in at once: ‘We’d go to the beach before maths tests to study. We’d talk for hours, not on our phones (after I asked), we’re local, we’re the Raananot, the Raanana girls, always together. We meet: tea and cake, our last-school-day trip to the sea; five days together in Prague…’ Bafi the dog barks, nervous of men. But I’m good at making friends with dogs. This feels like family now.

But Naama is a hostage. She was seen being taken into Gaza on October 7. That’s 150 days ago. ‘There’s no commandment greater than redeeming captives;’ ‘Bring them home now;’ ‘Lead them from darkness and death’s shadow to freedom and light;’ so run the posters, prayers, pictures, on every building, every wall, here in Israel. 

‘What can we do?’ I asked. ‘That’s the question we keep asking too,’ Naama’s friends reply. ‘Don’t let her be forgotten,’ says Ayelet. ‘Keep her story in your hearts: I believe in thought- waves; goodwill energy somehow travels.’ I agree. ‘Talk about her beyond your community, at work, among friends. I’m worried life will just go on, – it has to – and Naama and the other hostages will be forgotten. I hope a deal will soon free her and them all.’

We don’t talk about the calculated, nihilistic brutality of Hamas, killers of their own people too.

Remember! Don’t forget! is the Torah’s unequivocal commandment about combatting evil. 

We take pictures. Her friends plan to send stories, vignettes about Naama. We’ll put them in the synagogue. When we pray for the release of all the hostages, for the safety of all the victims of this horrible war, we’ll include Naama’s name.

‘We made challah with Rabbi Chaya Rowen-Baker, such a gentle ritual,’ Ayelet explained. I know Rabbi Chaya; she radiates chesed, loving-kindness. 

I’ve had many other conversations, with more next week. I’m glad to be here among my people.

I’ve listened to two frank army briefings: the impossible challenges, freeing the hostages, ensuring protection, food and medical aid for the huge number of Palestinian civilians, without everything getting into the hands of Hamas, the thorough degrading of Hamas so that they can never do October 7 again, fears of what could happen in the north. 

Three moments stand out from these conversations. I have a heart-to-heart with Dr Stephen Arnoff, executive director of the Conservative Yeshivah, where I’m part of an in-depth environment programme: ‘We want a spiritually engaged, committed, observant, deeply humanist Judaism.’

Friends take me to an Israeli-Arab family I’ve known for years. ‘We’re careful about talking about how we feel,’ says the woman, putting her finger to her lips. She volunteers at a hospital; she has the quiet smile of wisdom. We each see different suffering, different wounds and nightmares. But it’s suffering all the same. May the compassionate God hear our prayers for compassion.

I sit with Professor Paul Mendes-Flohr. He tells me colleagues, Palestinian, Jewish, call him, some several times a day, just to be human together. He points to his heart: ‘There’s more than one chamber here to teach us to have a place for many different people’s different pain.’ 

Back in Ayelet’s living room, it turns out I’ve heard her talk about Naama before, last November at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv. I may have even met her before that, before the horrors, when she was duty doctor at the Jerusalem Marathon and I was happy not to need her services.

Back in Ayelet’s living room, despite everything, the space is full of loving friendship.

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