Ne’eman – holding each other in our hearts

Ever since meeting the families of hostages, both here and in Israel, I feel connected. The families made two requests. Do everything you can to secure my relative’s freedom. Hold us in your heart. With regard to the first I feel powerless; regarding the second, yes, I try to hold you in my heart. 

Indeed, life is about how we hold each other in our hearts, how we honour our connection with each other and even with the very earth itself. Let me explain, and then return to the tears, and hopes, of now.

A key word for me is the Hebrew word ne’eman; it stems from the same roots as the familiar amenNe’eman means faithful, true and trustworthy in all our relationships, to each other, all creatures and life itself. There aren’t many words we can use both about our dog’s behaviour towards us and our attitude to God. But it works for ne’eman, because it describes how we hold each other in our hearts.

I admire people who are ne’eman, who are not just honest, truthful and kind, but reliably so with whomever they are engaged, without prejudice or contempt towards anyone.

I bought a wonderful book this week. I came across it by happy accident, while searching for another work by the same author. It’s a slim volume, less than one hundred pages: The Democracy of Species by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I want to order a whole pile, to give a copy to everyone I care for.

Kimmerer writes about her efforts to learn her native American language, Potawatomi, from the few remaining elders who know it. It’s a language of relationship, of far more verbs than nouns, because it’s a language ‘for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things.’ It’s the language she absorbs when she sits and listens, simply listens, her back against a pine tree in the woods. It’s the speech ‘of our kinship with all the animate world’.

Translating this into Hebrew, I hear the deep truth of ne’eman, faithfulness to life and the God of life. In fact, the most intimate name we have for God, Yud Heh Vav Heh, is a verb. It means being, or coming-into-being, or was-is-and shall-be. It eludes translation. As contemporary theologian Arthur Green points out, the letters, re-arranged, form ha-va-ya-h, ‘existence’. God’s name is the heart of being.

To be ne’eman is thus to be faithful to the sacred essence of life. It’s the converse of a careless, contemptuous or exploitative attitude to anyone or anything. It expresses a way of being rooted in awareness and respect. It challenges our contemporary world and leads me to conclusions which often leave me ashamed.

The horrors we witness in this times of wars call on us for profound ne’emanut, faithfulness. I feel this first towards my own people, the father I met whose daughter is held in Gaza, the mother whose girl is still a hostage deep in some grim tunnel, the parents whose son was killed on October 7. I feel it too towards Yael, an Israeli committed, despite everything, to action for peace, who wept as she showed me pictures of her friend in Gaza making soup for hungry children. Unless we’re on the side of cruelty, forfeiting our own humanity, we must, somewhere within us, feel kinship with all hurt, all hunger, all suffering.

Ne’emanut is deeper than all politics. It reaches down into that kinship with each other and life itself, in which, despite everything, we must not give up hope.

In striving to be ne’eman we hold each other, and humanity itself, including our own, in our hearts. We testify against cruelty, hatred and destruction. We live in solidarity with life.

We all need our moments of hope and reprieve

We need our bursts of joy and relief. That’s what Watkins’ great goal in the 90th minute of the Euro semi-final did for England on Wednesday, – though it may have felt different in Holland. It doesn’t spell an everlasting end to war, or no more human misery, but we all need such moments of reprieve.

‘Write about hope and resilience,’ my agent told me, ‘That’s what people want to hear.’ So that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’ve ditched the serious piece I just drafted in favour of what follows, especially as I’ve been lucky enough to have wonderful moments of positivity this week.

‘For those few seconds we were eye to eye,’ said Hugh Warwick, in a delightful talk he gave at my home last Sunday, during EcoJudaism’s awards ceremony at which our synagogue got gold. He was speaking about close encounters with hedgehogs. After all, he’s the author of A Prickly Affair (as well as many other books, including a recent best-seller).

He’s also the champion of the British Hedgehog Society. I cold called him a couple of years ago. As I struggled to explain precisely why a rabbi wanted a lecture on hedgehogs, he took the initiative by listing every single context in which the charming creatures are – arguably, very arguably indeed – mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.

Why hedgehogs? Because, Hugh Warwick answered, ‘I love them.’ It was that eye-to-eye, creature to creature, moment that sealed it. And, he added, you can only truly fight for what you love.

Others love hedgehogs too, he continued. ‘Groups won’t invite me to talk about climate disaster, or biodiversity loss. But champion Britain’s favourite animal and they’ll ask you gladly. And once on the platform, I can talk about everything.’

It’s what the great environmentalist Wendell Berry wrote: ‘Maybe the answer is to fight always for what you particularly love, not for abstraction, and not against anything.’

The following day I attended an event for Tree Aid. It focussed on their work in helping local groups in Ghana, particularly women, plant food-bearing trees as part of the Great Green Wall, the 8,000 kilometre long, 20 kilometre wide, tree belt intended to stop the southward creep of the Sahara. It was an evening of music, joy and love for what everyone was achieving. We felt we were watching the young trees and the strengthened communities grow together.

This may all sound stupid when there are wars on, when Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski, a good friend, sends me a picture from Kiev of his Cathedral with smoke rising from a bombsite in the background, and when there’s fighting in Gaza and the north of Israel, and the hostages still remain captive after nine bitter months.

But Ayelet, mother of Naama who’s still held by Hamas in Gaza, sent me a video of their dog. So I sent back a photo of Nessie. Stupid? Yes, I felt foolish taking that photo. But it’s a moment of reprieve, of closeness, and we need them in order to survive. There are times, and parts of the world, which are so cruel that minutes, even seconds, like that are almost unattainable. But when they’re possible they must be seized and relished. If we can, we should share them others.

Every morning we say in our prayers, ‘With great love, God, you have loved us.’ That love may take the micro form of a close encounter with a hedgehog, sharing a film of our dog, a kind word posted, a WhatsApp, or whatever. These may be small things in the global scale, but without them neither we nor the world can survive. 

Democracy and Service

The need to cry surged up in me as I left the polling booth yesterday.

It wasn’t about who would win. It was about the act of voting itself, the opportunity to choose freely what cross I marked on my ballot paper. It was about the process of true democracy at work.

I thought of my grandfather. I envisaged him emerging weak and sick from Dachau concentration camp. Then I imagined what he would say about the freedom we enjoy here today.

In how many countries of the world are there genuinely fair and honest elections? Don’t the women, and men, of Iran, and so many other states across the world, long for just this? It’s a matter of deep principle, pride and commitment that, despite all its problems, Israel was founded as, and continues to be, a democracy.

Indeed, writing as a Jew, in how few generations, in how few times and places, have we had the equal right to vote, men and women? In how many lands have we been able to stand for election and represent our constituencies and country? Even when he wrote in Frankfurt in the late eighteenth century about the importance of participating in newly won civic opportunities, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch could only dare to hope for this.  

I have been moved, too, over the last weeks to see so many young people, in support of whichever party, volunteering, knocking on doors, engaging in the process of democracy, motivated by the belief, the hope and trust, that one can stand up for one’s values and make a difference to how one’s country is run. 

So now the UK has a new government. 

When Rishi Sunak called the election, he probably didn’t know that the Torah reading for the following Shabbat would contain the story of Korach. There are of course alternative readings, but the classic understanding is that Korach challenged Moses’ leadership not because he cared more deeply for his people, or had a greater commitment to justice, but because he wanted power for power’s sake. His arguments were not ‘for the sake of heaven,’ true ideological difference which deserve to be debated because truth is multi-faceted, but merely cantankerous personal attacks. 

The great majority of those who stood for election in this country are not like Korach. In the early hours of the night, I heard moving speeches, both by winning candidates and former MPs who lost their seats, about the privilege of caring for their cities and their people. That is public service in the true sense of the words. In the classic Hebrew phrase, such individuals intend ‘to occupy themselves betsorchei tsibbur be’emunah, with the concerns of the community in good faith.’

In these challenging times, those entering or re-entering Parliament carry profound responsibilities. I pray for their safety and wellbeing. It’s horrifying to learn of the vile abuse, the online bullying, the threats, including death threats and threats to their families, to which MPs, especially and particularly women, are now so often subject. May God, and we as a society, keep our elected representatives safe from harm, free in person and in spirit, to serve our country.

I pray that our MPs, civil servants and all who work with them, will govern for the sake of tsedek and tsadakah, justice and social justice, chesed veshalom, compassion and peace. May they, and we, work for the national and international good, and for the wellbeing not just of humankind but of our planet and all the intricately interdependent life upon it. 

May they, and we, take forward the sacred task of letakken olam, making the world a safer, fairer and better place for everyone, as is God’s will.

Keeping the Inner Flame Alive

In tomorrow’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha, God commands Aaron to ‘cause the lights to go up’ on the seven-branched Menorah in the Tabernacle. Rashi, the great mediaeval commentator, explains: Kindle the lamps carefully, making sure that the flame takes hold on the wick so that the light can ascend freely.

It’s a specific instruction to Aaron in his role as High Priest. But it’s also a metaphor for life. As one of my favourite Hasidic teachers, the Maggid of Kozhenitz, observes: when we do what is good and right, we light the lamps of love and wonder in our hearts. Our first responsibility is to ourselves, to feed those flames. But then, through acts of kindness, we must try to nourish the spirits of others. Or perhaps it’s the other way round; by caring for others, we strengthen the light in our own hearts.

This goes to the core of the challenges so many of us are experiencing in these times of war and anguish. How do I stay human? How can I be loyal all at once to my own people, to humanity, to life, and to my God?

Here’s something small which happened to me yesterday. I’ll recount it not because of what I did, more or less by chance, but because of how it touched me, what it did for me.

I learnt that this Shabbat is Naama Levy’s twentieth birthday. She’s still held hostage by Hamas. May she be freed at once to return to her family. May this terrible war end, with plans for safer, better years for the people of Israel and Gaza.

I called the flower shop nearest to where Naama’s mother, Ayelet, lives and asked the florist, whom I’ve got to know a little over these grim months, to send a bunch of flowers. What else can one do, but these gestures?

The florist understood at once. ‘So painful,’ she said. ‘The war goes on and on…Everyday more death.’ She sounded so dejected that I asked her to add a bunch of flowers for herself, from my community. ‘I’m going to cry,’ she said. Minutes later, she messaged: ‘I don’t remember anyone sending me flowers since I opened my shop.’ What more can we do, we agreed, than try to care for each other?

Such things seem futile, even stupid, before the threats and horrors we face from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, from Russia and North Korea, and underneath it all, from the changes to our climate, the nurturing water, earth and air.

But often this is all we can do, – keep each other’s hearts alive, help the flames of love and kindness ascend within us, even for a moment. It helps us stay human, and by the light of that humanity, we recognise the humanity of others.

That’s why the prayer, co-written by Raba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum and Sheikha Ibtisam Mahameed just weeks after October 7, touches me so deeply:

God of life, may it be your will to hear the prayer of mothers…

That we have mercy for each other,

That we have pity for each other,

That we have hope for each other,

… For your sake, God of Life.

That, too, is why I’m moved that World Jewish Relief, which has been financing trauma services in Israel, is now also ‘providing targeted support to the International Medical Corps, a trusted international partner, to provide emergency maternity, obstetric and newborn baby care services in Gaza.’ As CEO Paul Anticoni adds: This is in accord with ‘our own Jewish values, humanitarian principles and [has the] explicit encouragement and endorsement from the President of Israel’s office.’

Hatred and destruction have immense powers at their disposal. Goodness and kindness seem feeble beside them, their actions so local, so small. But, like the sacred light hidden within all life, compassion and kindness reside within us everywhere, waiting to be illumined. That is their deep, indestructible, inextinguishable strength.

The heartbeat of our faith

It was minutes before the festival, and I hadn’t decided which prayer book to take. Of course, it would have to be the correct machzor for Shavuot, Zeman Mattan Toratenu, the Season of the Giving of our Torah. Machzor means cycle, a lovely, simple word with which to refer to the beauty of Judaism’s liturgy for the annual rhythm of our festivals.

I didn’t have a copy of the most recent Koren edition, with its thoughtful, practical notes. But what about the Artscroll, with its excellent layout, but super-pious commentary? Or the classic British Routledge, the translations archaic but the Hebrew large and clear?

No, none of these would do.

Instead, I sought out my grandmother’s old Machzor. I first saw it, and its companion volumes, on the bookshelf in the flat on Ramban Street in Jerusalem, where the family fled from Nazi Europe in 1937. When my grandmother had gone to her eternal rest, and her daughters and son-in-law who had lived there with her were dead too, and my one-and-only cousin and I were clearing the flat, I asked if I could have those books. They now live in my study.

I opened the machzor for Shavuot; it was dated 1838. The title page read: ninth edition, arranged and translated into German by Wolf Heidenheim (1757 -1832, a renowned liturgical scholar). The books were printed in Roedelheim, in Frankfurt.

On the back page was a solemn admonition, threatening with the rabbinic ban anyone who reprinted the volume unlawfully before 25 years had elapsed since its publication.. It was an early, probably unenforceable, version of copyright protection.

I kissed the machzor, as one does. It’s not that I needed a two-hundred-year-old book. What I wanted were the two hundred years of prayer which its pages, thin and yellowing yet untorn and clear, breathed out. I needed their strength, resilience and piety. I wanted the love instilled into their words and melodies by at least eight generations of family. I wanted the hope and faith, even the tears and fears, of everyone who’d prayer through those pages to slip into my heart. For ancient books carry within them the devotion of centuries.

With the Jewish world in profound trouble, I sought refuge in two hundred years of prayer. With Israel under attack, with so many still held hostage, so many killed and grieving, I needed the yearning and hope of two centuries of prayer. With so many dead in Gaza through Israel’s response, and page after page of condemnation of Israel, I sought the integrity, depth and truth of two hundred years of prayer. With so many people telling me how they feel shunned at work, isolated, proud, ashamed, distressed, resolute, I needed the resilience of two centuries of prayer. With the Jewish world torn in its heart, I sought the faith and faithfulness of two hundred years of prayer.

To whom had those prayerbooks originally belonged, with their poetry and piety? In whose hands did they survive the 1848 revolution, the rise of political antisemitism, the horror of the First World War and its disastrous aftermath for Germany and Austro-Hungary, the hunger of 1919, the great inflation and the great depression? How did they escape the Holocaust? How did they get to Jerusalem? Did my great-grandmother Regina, widowed in 1937, send them ahead to her son and daughters in the land that she herself was destined never to reach, murdered at Birkenau in 1944? I’ll never know.

But of this I am certain: those prayer books were a most treasured possession. They were loved and cherished. They were our family’s pathway upwards to God and down into the soul. They were their truth and strength.

On that path I strive to follow them, hearing in them, as we all need to hear, the heartbeat of our deep and resilient faith.

Together at Mount Sinai

Rashi, the great Torah and Talmud commentator, had eyes for every word, indeed for every syllable and letter.

He noted a seeming contradiction in the sentence which describes the arrival of the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai, the prologue to the giving and receiving of Torah which we celebrate tonight on Shavuot.

The verse reads ‘They came to the wilderness of Sinai and encamped there (plural verb); Israel encamped (singular verb) opposite the mountain.’ (Exodus 19:2) Why this difference between the two verbs?

The Israelites, Rashi explains, each came with their own opinions and different experiences.  But then, in order to hear God and receive Torah, they listened ‘with one heart, like one single person.’

No doubt, Rashi had his reasons back in the late eleventh century for stressing this point, as every generations of Jews have had before and since. We are a discursive, debating, not to say arguing people.

But when it comes to hearing God’s voice, the ‘life of all life’, the voice at the heart of creation and in the core of our souls, we listen all together.

When it comes to embracing the core values of Judaism, as expressed by Simon the Just over two millennia ago,  ‘Upon three things the world is established, upon Torah, upon loving kindness, and upon the service of God,’ we commit ourselves to transcending our differences, and to harnessing them for our collective good, so that we work together for the sake of God’s will.  

Chag Sameach and may Torah enter our hearts.

From the 80th anniversary of D-Day to Shavuot

It’s the simple truth: ‘They died so that we can live.’

I’ve visited the Normandy landing beaches many times, showing the young people of Noam round Sword and Gold on peaceful, sunlit days, so very different from the murderous fighting of eighty years ago.

I’ve just re-read Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy.

Sometimes I had to put the book down struck to the core by the sheer courage of so many, or by sheer horror at the slaughter.

I’m smitten by the compassion shown in the midst of the fighting by so many (but not the SS): dressing comrades’ wounds, even tending the injuries of those who, minutes earlier, would have killed them.

Soldiers who’d been farmers milked the desperate cows who’d survived the strafing and shooting.

One infantryman noted how a foal refused to leave its dead mother, walking round her and round her so often that it had beaten a circular path through the grass.

I’ve visited the war cemeteries, now quiet, now peaceful, beautifully tended, with the names and units of the dead, the rows of crosses, among which are many Magen Davids.

I don’t know who decided that the words ‘Known unto God,’ should be inscribed on the gravestones of those whose deaths left their bodies so mangled that they could not be identified. They weren’t just left unnamed; they were people who mattered, mattered to God.

Yesterday I attended the lighting of the beacon by AJEX, The Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, in the grounds of the Jewish Free School. I listened to the voices and accounts of veterans.

I was privileged to read out on behalf of us all the 23rd Psalm: ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for You are with me.’

Once again, we walk though that valley, witnesses as others traverse its dangerous, often fatal, depths.

Yesterday I got news from a friend whose relative in the north of Israel was killed by Hezbollah. What can one say? I hear with a sinking heart of more deaths in Gaza. Is this what you want from your creation, God, You whom we call ‘God of the spirits of all flesh’?

We believe in a God of life, Chei HaChaim, the very Life of Life, whose breath imparts consciousness to all life, who mechalkel chaim bechesed, who ‘nurtures all life with lovingkindness.’

That is the God whose presence abides in all living beings, including us, even though we so often struggle to feel it, and humanity so often behaves as if it did not know it.

This is the God whose voice within us, so frequently out-shouted by the endless noise around us and inside us, so often reduced to a whisper of a whisper, calls us to practice kindness and justice because that is God’s will towards life.

That is why we call God’s word Torat Chaim, the Torah of life, as we receive once again this coming week on the festival of Shavuot.

This is what we mean when we pray for our hearts to cleave to the Torah’s commandments: we pray that all the angers and fears, the injustice and cruelty, the frustration and despair across the world around us, and in our inner world inside us, will not extinguish your voice in us, God of life, your voice which commands justice and loving kindness.

This war through Chagall’s eyes?

I write from a full heart.

I feel great distress for Naama Levy, still held hostage by Hamas after 230 days. Her family released heart-rending footage of her capture in a desperate effort to persuade governments to do more.

Her mother Ayelet says: “We only see a fraction of the horrible things that are going on in their surrounding in the shelter. [Naama] is terrified and wounded, there is fear in her eyes, and she is saying what she can, she is begging for her life. The top priority is to bring her home, bring them all home now.”

I wrote to Ayelet at once: We feel heartfelt solidarity with you.  

In the video we hear Naama say, ‘I have Palestinian friends.’ Ayelet told me, ‘I hope she’ll soon be back to building such bridges.’ Amen to such prayers.

Since October 7 I’ve written repeatedly about the horrors of this war, brutally instigated by Hamas, into which it has calculatedly drawn Israel to such grim and disturbing effect.

Forgive me if today I try to imagine looking at it through the eyes of Chagall.

My wife and I had two hours to spare in Nice, after a conference of European rabbis to which she accompanied me. ‘You must see the amazing Chagall pictures,’ Nicky insisted. I’m so glad I did.

The Musee National Marc Chagall was built during the artist’s lifetime to exhibit his series of extraordinary paintings of Biblical scenes. At the opening, in July 1973, Chagall said:

‘I wanted to leave them in this House so that men can try to find some peace, a certain spirituality, a religiosity, a meaning in life.’

The paintings of the Flood engrossed us most deeply. Chagall’s genius is that, like rabbinic Midrash, his work can be interpreted in so many ways, all valid, none ‘correct’.

In Noah’s Ark the hero is inside his great ship, his tired face benign, one hand on the head of a calf as if in blessing, the other releasing the dove. Outside, a dead man floats past. Behind Noah, a crowd huddles. Are these the unsaved? Some hug, someone screams, some stand haplessly by. Are these, also, some of the numberless, including Chagall’s own family, who drowned in the gas?

In Noah and the Rainbow, Noah reclines beneath God’s outstretched white wings. Is he at peace with God’s promise? It’s hard to know. A crowd – those same unsaved? – still stands between him and his God.

Every corner of these paintings is full: figures clear in colour, figures half-hidden, gentle faces, sharp-beaked birds. But everywhere there’s empathy. Maybe that’s why the paintings are so beautiful: – the wonder and pathos of life in the magnificent depths of colour.

Sadly, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking: How would Chagall paint this terrible war now? What figure would be centre, – a hostage, a mother in Israel, or Gaza, or both? He would surely ignore none of the many kinds of pain. In what colours would be Israel’s, and Gaza’s griefs?  

Yet, as he said, ‘Is not painting and colour inspired by love?’ In the richness of his colours, love and care would surely, somehow, show through.

That’s what matters now in our own communities, and hearts. We’re each responding differently to different parts of the pain and wrong. We’re each clutching differently at the wind-blown blanket of hope.

Therefore, despite our diverse feelings, we must lay this upon our hearts: What’s required of us, amidst our fears and anguish, is our love, hope and empathy. That’s what we need from each other. That’s what Israel and the Jewish People need. That’s what the suffering of ordinary people trapped in Gaza, and everywhere in war’s horror, calls out to us for. That’s what the world needs. That’s why we’re here on this earth.

As Chagall said in his inaugural speech:

‘‘If all life moves inevitably towards its end, then we must, during our own, colour it with our colours of love and hope.”

Seeking inner strength in cruel times

Yesterday someone asked me the million-dollar question, ‘How do you find strength in times of personal and collective suffering?’ Only, ‘a million dollars’ is not enough: this is a matter beyond all price, at the very core of life.

I had no chance to ask, ‘Why are you asking?’ no opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of what pain lay behind the request, and no way to escape responding.

Which of us knows the answer to such a raw and penetrating question in these cruel times (to which I make no specific reference in what follows)? What can one say? One can only speak from one’s heart and pray that one’s words will be true, that, in the unknown heart-space where they land, they will, at least, not cause further hurt.

There’s deep strength in our ancient prayers. I say Shema, Listen! – the opening of Judaism’s twice daily meditation. It’s not about what I mean when I cover my eyes and utter the words. It’s the presences which meet me. I enter a timeless soul-space; without speech or gesture they greet me, our ancestors, generation before generation, who’ve lived through all the travails and tribulations of history. They take my consciousness into their custodianship. For a blessed moment, I am a drop of water drawn into a great pool of spirit, and all the anxious thoughts of my ‘I’ are obliterated, washed clean. This happens for me only rarely. But that’s enough, because I know that this can be, that this is so.

There’s another way to follow the path of Listen. Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, taught that God speaks in two ways in our world. One is Torah, the language of Judaism’s, and humanity’s, great spiritual traditions. The other is creation, life itself. These two modes are in truth one, because through both, if we are aware, we can hear the ceaseless flow of sacred life, ‘in the chirping of the birds, the lowing of cows and the tumult of human discourse.’ (Esh Kodesh, Warsaw Ghetto, July 1942) Therefore I tell myself:  Stop and listen. I say in my heart, ‘You there, goldfinch, squirrel, beech-leaf,’ and, recognising that they belong to the source of all life, am calmed and strengthened in the knowledge that I belong there too.

Sometimes, it’s nothing at all; no effort, no intention. It’s simply what the beloved speaks in The Song of Songs: ‘I sleep, but my heart wakes.’ For precious moments I live from my heart, not my head, and know the Psalmist’s truth: ‘To You, God, silence is praise.’

Therefore, my most urgent prayer to God, people, all the life around me is simply: don’t shut yourself off when I seek you.

But the challenge does not lie elsewhere. It’s in myself. No passport or permission is required to visit the places where God’s spirit flows. Access, the only access, is through our own consciousness and heart.

Here lies the challenge: how do I find the way to myself? How do I still myself enough to listen when I say Listen. That’s why I often say when people ask me about inner strength: What brings a touch of calm into your day? Yoga, prayer, dog-walk, coffee, friends, music, park-walk, crossword, swimming, moments of pure nothing? Do it! Because that’s what takes you to your unique entrance to the pathway to the infinite, the inexhaustible and unfathomable, the source of strength and life.

This all sounds very private. But it’s about community and friendship too because they give us the space, support and encouragement to seek to what lies beyond all space, the spirit from which we draw the strength to live, to care and love.

For Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, in a terrible year

I face next week with pain, fear, dismay and anger, yet with prayer, hope and love. Monday brings Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for the Dead. Tuesday is Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. If only things were simpler; everything tears at the heart.

There’s pain. ‘It’s over twenty years since my son Noam was killed in Lebanon,’ my friend Aaron Barnea tells me, ‘Yet a hundred and fifty people still came for the anniversary.’ I think of Ilana Kaminka, her son killed defending his base, on October 7. My heart travels to the site of the Nova Festival, the trees planted for everyone killed, the photos and letters tied to them: ‘We miss you, love you, long for you.’

I hear the terrible cry of the Palestinian mother, trapped between Hamas and the IDF in Gaza’s misery. Her child has just been killed: ‘Before God I call to account…’

On Yom HaZikaron I’ll say the Prayer of the Grieving Mothers, written by Raba Tamar Elad-Applebaum and Sheikha Ibtisam Mahameed together:

God of Life, who heals the broken hearted…
Hear the prayer of mothers…
For you did not create us to kill each other…
But …to sanctify Your name of Life… [1]

I fear the hatred waiting to ambush the future. For decades, Hizbollah’s gunmen lie hiding beneath the houses of South Lebanon, foot-soldiers of Iran’s brutal, hate-filled leaders, dreaded and loathed by their own people.  

I feel shame and dismay at the racist haters among my own people. I saw the children’s books scattered across the broken floor of a Palestinian school bulldozed by a settler, after the villagers, intimidated and afraid, abandoned their homes. This isn’t what God meant by commanding us to be anshei kodesh, holy, heart-aware people, attuned to the sanctity of life.

Then there’s the chaos of the campuses, the bigotry, hatred and folly. Is this really for the good of Palestinian people, or another way in which their just needs are betrayed? I feel for the fear and loneliness of so many fellow Jews in this threatening, violent world.

But I can’t stop here. For we have prayer, hope and love to strengthen our hearts.
My prayer is ‘Veshavu banim legevulam – May the children, may all the hostages, be returned to their longing families. May this terrible fighting, this catastrophe, end, with a forward-looking plan for the security and dignity of all. Mindful of Nachmanides’ words that ‘where true tears are, God is too,’ I pray with all who weep.

For we mustn’t act as God tries to act after the golden calf. ‘They’re your people now,’ God tells Moses,’ You deal with them.’ God – albeit temporarily – wants nothing to do with them anymore. In contrast, I recall the woman in Israel’s far north who turned to me quietly: ‘People are saying, “My country, right or wrong.” I’m saying, “Wrong. But they’re still my people.”’

I struggle, like countless others. I think, ‘Right in this; wrong in that.’ But the Jewish people is my people and Israel is our only country. I pray for it to survive and thrive. I’m bound by ties of faithfulness and love. I don’t mean love for any racist and corrupt members of Israel’s leadership who disgrace Judaism. Many families of hostages are furious with them, wanting a deal, not yet more bloodshed.

But I care deeply for the innumerable Israelis, Jews and also Arabs, who work to heal wounds, in Israel’s hospitals, food banks, hesed (lovingkindness) NGOs, schools and arts.

I know so many who see beyond the bloodshed and anger, who reach across the grim wall between Israelis and Palestinians and say, ‘Enough tears, enough heartache; how can we build together?’ How can my heart not be with them? With them rest my prayers, love and hope.

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