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.

Whom we carry in our hearts

Whose names do we carry on our shoulders and bear in our hearts?

My sartorial interests have always been minimal. Aware of their environmental cost, I shop for new clothes as rarely as possible. If I do have to visit a shopping centre like Brent Cross, the less time I have there, the more likely I am to buy what I need.

But the High Priest’s garments, described in this week’s Torah reading, fascinate me. The very names of the precious stones sewn onto them seem to glow in the text: sappir veyahalom, sapphire and diamond, shevo ve’achlamah, agate and amethyst.

Mystics see them as metaphors for the radiance of the soul. But in our sore times, I’m interested in something more down to earth. Two stones are carved with the names of the tribes of Israel, six names on each, and attached to the high priest’s ephod so that ‘he wears them on his shoulders as a memorial before God.’

Today there is no temple, no sacrificial service and no high priest. Instead, we each come before God carrying the names, hopes, anguish and aspirations of everyone we care about, before God.

My first meeting here in Israel was with my colleague Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, responsible for supporting the Jewish communities of Ukraine. This Shabbat, 24 February, brings the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion. She writes:

‘Two years have passed but the war still remains. These days, every Shabbat service in Ukraine begins with the prayer for peace in Israel and ends with the prayer for Ukraine.’

Last year, I joined Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski at the Ukrainian Cathedral in London. He carries on his shoulders the anguish of hundreds of thousands of his people, exiled to Britain or fighting and struggling at home. There’s no end in sight to the war. I send him a big hug of solidarity from Jerusalem.

As well as the stones on his shoulders, the high priest wore over his heart four rows of jewels, three in each row, carved with the individual name of one of Israel’s twelve tribes. We, being no formal high priests, carry them not on, but in, our hearts.

I don’t know whom you carry in your heart: someone you love who’s in danger, a hostage, a friend whose hand you want to hold but they’re on the other side of some border, at the other end of the world. What I do know is that we all carry names in our hearts ‘as a memorial before God’: people we love, for whom we hope and pray. I think of Pasternak’s poem:

‘In me are people without names…
I am conquered by them all, and this is my only victory.’

May the God of life embrace them all.

The high priest wears one more piece of clothing bearing a name, God’s name carved on a gold band worn round his head. It was his special tefillin, the small leather boxes with scrolls bearing the commandment to love God, which we place daily next to our heart and on our forehead.

The other morning, I tentatively mentioned to a friend that his tefillin were askew; instead of at the centre they were way off to one side of his forehead. ‘No,’ he wittily replied, ‘My tefillin are in the right place. It’s my head which is facing the wrong way.’ Since then, I keep asking myself which way my thoughts are facing.

The Torah explains that the high priest wears his special garments ‘to make him holy to serve me.’

So may we, each our own high priest, be granted to stand with our head and thoughts facing the God of all life, our hearts filled with love to carry the names of the people who need our embrace, and our shoulders strong to share their burdens, in these cruel, challenging times.

Antisemitism: the CST’s report

It is our tree of life. We are fed by its deep roots and rising sap. I refer to Torah, the source and font of resilience of the Jewish People. Today is both the birthday and the Yahrzeit of Moses our teacher ‘who commanded us Torah.’

By Torah, I mean everything from challah on Friday night to deep study and devotion. I mean being Jewish, belonging in Jewish history, sharing in Jewish community because that’s who we are.  

I stress this now, in these cruel days, when antisemitism is at its worst for forty years and we often feel bullied, maligned, threatened, intimidated and alone.

The Community Security Trust’s Annual Report indicates a massive rise in antisemitism, especially since October 7, an explosion of hatred which expresses ‘a celebration’ of Hamas and its unspeakably vile massacres. (Antisemitic Incidents Report 2023 and accompanying blog)

Antisemitic attacks target schools, campuses, communities and individuals. I came out of the local tube station to hear a drunk man calling out ‘Kill the Jews.’ Ignore it; he’s just drunk, I thought. Then I realised: it shows how the phrase is acceptable, OK.

It’s beyond appalling that university chaplain Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch, his wife and young children have had to go into hiding because of repeated blood-curdling death threats. As Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has said, these are attacks on our entire society. It is shocking that Mike Freer MP has decided not to stand for re-election because of threats against his life.

I feel for our students. I feel for the leaders and members of Jewish societies at schools and campuses. I wish I could reach out to them all!

I can’t count the number of people across the professions who tell me they’ve been surrounded by a wall of silence, or outright hostility, who’ve felt let down or betrayed by colleagues and former friends.

Israel is cruelly and horribly demonised. Again and again, groups condemn the country, debasing and weaponising the ‘g’ word, often without even referring to the indescribable evils perpetrated by Hamas. (We know what ‘g’ truly means, as Judge Aharon Barak courageously made clear at The Hague). It’s appalling.

I received an environmental journal referring to ‘x’ days of atrocities by Israel. I counted and found they included 7 October itself. I wish that was incredible, but it’s not. ‘We know who Hamas and Hezbollah are,’ an Iranian refugee told me. ‘They’re the people the regime employed to crush the uprisings against the Ayatollahs and kill and put down Iranian women.’ Many here in the UK evidently don’t know, or choose not to.

There’s all the difference in the world between upholding the dignity of Palestinian men, women and children and praying for their safety and an ultimate peaceful solution, which I and countless like-minded Jews do, and supporting Hamas’s fighters, who are the enemies of the entire free world and must be defeated.

‘British Jews are strong and resilient,’ commented Mark Gardner, chief executive of the CST.

That strength is being tested. “When will they leave us alone” is the constant cry I hear from the community,’ commented Lord Mann, the government’s advisor on antisemitism. But our resilience will not be found wanting.

I was deeply touched watching Stephen Fry’s Alternative Christmas Message, strong, clear, and calmly spoken. ‘I’m a Jew,’ he said: ‘I’ll be damned if I let antisemites define me… I’ll take ownership.’

All my life as a Jew, a rabbi, I’ve wanted us to take deeper ownership of that Judaism. I see before me Chagall’s marvellous painting, Solitude. In the background the village burns. In the foreground, a man cradles the Torah, his consolation, music, strength and hope.

But Torah isn’t just for our aloneness; it’s about our solidarity. Through Torah we create community, celebrate life and strive to ennoble our every interaction.

Torah is three thousand years of cultures. It draws us together round the Shabbat table. It guides us inward to the depth of the soul. It leads us outward to make the world better for all humanity, all people whatever their background, and for all life.

In this spirit I want to reach out everyone, of all faiths, and say in the words of tomorrow’s Torah reading: instead of hatred, let’s make the world a dwelling place for us all and for our God.

So much pain, so much need for healing

I set my hope on two words in this week’s Torah reading: verapoh verapeh, ‘heal, surely heal.’ In fact, they’re just one word, doubled for emphasis: ‘Heal.’ I pray to the God of healing, and for the capacity in each of us to be healers.

Waves of worry and sorrow wash over us with a remorselessness most of us have not experienced in our lifetimes. It’s hard to hold still and strong in our hearts as we listen to the voices which cry out.

Sharone Lifschitz told our synagogue about her parents from Kibbutz Nir Oz, her mother Yocheved freed after two weeks, her father, aged 83 and with complex medical needs, still held hostage by Hamas after over 125 days. She spoke of the village they created, their love of nature, their friendships with Palestinians in Gaza, their lifelong commitment to peace-making. Her voice was calm, collected and humane throughout, even when she described the studied brutality inflicted on her community. The trauma is immeasurable, she stressed: do what you can to bring healing.

If we have space in our hearts to include it, and I believe we must, the pain on the other side of the border is also immense. Trapped in the whirlpool of a merciless politics in which many parties across the Middle East are to blame, caught now between Hamas and Israel, what are the thousands of Palestinian civilians to do, where are they to go, what future awaits them with any light of hope on its horizon?

None of this is helped by the tides of brash, one-sided, frequently ignorant and malicious accusations, which leave us Jews, and many Muslims also, feeling branded, lonely, and negated.

I cannot forget, too, a different pain: the suffering of nature itself. It is the greatest and most wonderful resource for our physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. Yet it is relentlessly depleted by our refusal to take sufficient cognisance and a politics of disregard. I love this world of trees and birds, yet there are days when I am full of sorrow for it all.

For all these reasons ‘Heal!’ cries out. In context, it expresses our obligation to cure any injuries we’ve inflicted on others, including their pain and humiliation. The Shulchan Aruch takes it as the basis for the physician’s obligation to practice. But in the widest sense, healing belongs to us all. We all long for the day when, in Malachi’s beautiful words, ‘the sun of righteousness will rise with healing on its wings.’

So what healing can we bring? There are countless good ways to donate and volunteer, and we should. But I’m thinking of the inner challenges. Can we listen to pain and worry in quiet companionship? Can we keep our heart free, not from just indignation, but from the floods of fury? Can we hold in our consciousness that she or he, too, is human? If there’s an opportunity to say something kind, can we make sure to take it? If there’s something difficult to express, can we do so honestly, but without inflaming more hurt? Can we try not to wound the lives of non-human creatures?

To meet these challenges, we have to nourish our reverence for life. Respect, wonder, kindness, appreciation, companionship, love and joy: these are our great resources for facing the wrongs of the world. These are our ways to bring healing.

Is what we can do together for our world ever enough? I don’t know. What I do know is that we must hold fast to the value of small things, to the confidence that the little differences we make will add up to making a true difference. Beyond that, we must pray that God, ‘the Creator of Healing’ who abides in all life, will bring healing to us all.

Chanukah 5784: trying to find light in this darkness

Please, do you have a light?

I haven’t become a smoker. But I keep asking this question, not in words but in spirit.

I’m only trying to copy what the Maccabees did twenty-two centuries ago. How bleak it must have been when they re-entered the ruined Temple, the shattered masonry, the broken sanctity, the war against the Seleucid powers far from over. Yet, so the Talmud teaches, they didn’t despair. Instead, they looked for oil to light the Menorah:

They searched and discovered just one vial, intact with the High Priest’s seal.

That they found it, lit it, and that its flame still burns today: this is the miracle of Chanukah.

We, too, need light in these cruel months of war. The unbearable details of 7 October continue to emerge. Israel’s military casualties mount, this family’s child, that family’s son. The hapless civilian population of Gaza suffers unimaginably; the huge death toll rises. Hamas fights on, merciless; hostages remain in its bleak tunnels. Grief spreads. Hatred thrives.

Near home someone chants ‘Kill the Jews’. ‘Why say that?’ I challenge, ‘They did in Sobibor and Auschwitz. God’s abandoned me. God’s abandoned the Jews. God’s…’ Realising the man’s drunk, I move on. But his words show how the refrain is out there.

‘How are you celebrating Chanukah this year?’ I’m asked by the BBC. With muted joy, but with great depth, I answer. For I’ve never felt closer to the Maccabees, searching for something to light in the darkness.

What can I find in the ruins? I’m not looking for a physical vial of oil. Instead, I’m mentally saying to everyone I meet: have you got some oil, some goodness, just a drop, to put in my jar?

I visit Isca, my and my brother’s second mother, at the Royal Free Hospital. Her days seem near their close. A nurse brings a small brush to moisten her lips. It’s not just the action, it’s the kindness and the smile. Where does the staff find the patience and gentleness? They put oil in the jar.

In the supermarket a woman stops every shopper, ‘Buy two cans of soup for the foodbank.’ How many of us, without her reminder, would have walked straight past that box labelled ‘Help Your Community’? That’s more oil in the jar.

I join Together for Humanity opposite Downing Street. Two men, one Palestinian, one Israeli, recount their losses, not to wound each other but to embrace the hope that a better way is possible, that we can live side by side. The crowd’s candles shine through the rainy dark.

In the same London drizzle, I speak at a gathering outside Liverpool Street Station to commemorate the arrival of the first Kindertransport train exactly eighty-five years ago. The girls and boys it carried were the light and hope of their parents, before the darkness asphyxiated them. What selfless love, to send your beloved child to an unknown land. What courage, to begin again alone in an unknown language.

Gradually the jar fills up. My vial of oil has no High Priest’s seal. But what it contains is holy nevertheless, because every drop derives from kindness and there’s nothing more sacred than compassion.

I shall take that oil and try to light it, not just on my Chanukiah but in my life. Through its flames I see innumerable other lights. They don’t extinguish the darkness, but they illumine a path through it. We may not get to the other side; there may even be no other side. But by our lights we shall remain human, caretakers of God’s holy light.

Crossing the silence: the healing power of listening

‘We came today to tell, to listen, to remember,’ said David Grossman at the mourning gathering of the Kibbutz movement. He knows what it’s like to lose a child.

I believe in the power of listening. It’s limited; it takes away from life’s sorrows nothing except the loneliness, the fear, the frustration that no one hears or cares. But that itself is solidarity and solace.

Since I came back from Israel, people have asked me ‘Why did you go?’ I went to listen. I want to listen to those who suffer the anguish inflicted on them since October 7, grief, shock, and waiting, waiting, waiting for news of relatives taken hostage, news which may or may not come even today. As the Torah says in tomorrow’s reading: ‘Give me my wives and my children.’

I want to listen, too, to those who uphold the human spirit, bringing reprieve, strength and joy. And, as Grossman says, I also want to tell, so that there’s less aloneness and miscomprehension in the world.

What’s more challenging, I feel the need to listen, too, to those who inhabit the other side of silence, those to whom a Jew like me may not be thought to want to talk, and who may not want to talk to me, in these cruel and divisive days. I want to try, at least try, to listen to those whom the appalling death tolls and the relentless rhetoric of hate push apart:

If we don’t find ways to listen across the divide between factions and acknowledge each other’s pain, the current conflict… will remain embedded in patterns of trauma for generations to come, almost certainly birthing even more violence. This task is more urgent than ever. (Quoted by Solutions Not Sides)

There are so many reasons for avoiding listening, (and they aren’t always wrong): don’t legitimise their point of view; stay with your own; have no time; change the subject; argue back; don’t expose yourself to what you don’t want to know. I’m as guilty as anyone.

Yet I believe in listening. It’s not always possible; there can be too much division, too much hardness of heart, too much hate. Yet I believe, want to believe, in listening’s healing power.

So how do we enter those silences, those spaces filled with the unspoken, with suspicion, with hostility real or perceived, that separate us, Jews and Muslims, colleagues with whom we used to chat over coffee at work, friends, even members of our own family? Where does listening begin?

It’s a question as old as the Mishnah. ‘Listen,’ says Rabbi Yossei, means ‘hear the words your own mouth is speaking.’ He’s addressing an entirely different question: the import of the first word of the Shema, (‘Hear!’) which opens Judaism’s most familiar meditation.

Nevertheless, his explanation is acutely relevant. If we want to listen across the silence, we need to consider what we ourselves are putting into it. Have I said hate-filled words? Is my posture saying, ‘I don’t want to know you’? Can I articulate instead, in word or gesture, ‘I’m ready to hear’?

‘Hear’ isn’t the same as ‘agree’. ‘Hear’ means ‘hold your story’, have a place in my heart for your humanity too.

This takes courage, not the daring of a fighter, but the readiness to step off the ledge and abseil into the abyss of human troubles and sorrows, cruelties and injustice, held safe only by the thin rope of faith. This is not exactly faith in God. It’s the faith that somewhere in the rawness of our consciousness, across our different journeys between life and death, we can take heartfelt cognisance of each other’s humanity.

Then maybe, just maybe, we can nurture from there small shoots of hope and trust, vulnerable, subject to hail and drought, but slowly, slowly, capable of growth.

How else are we to rebuild, out of our griefs, our enmities, our fears?

Trying to be human at an inhuman time

Last week I accompanied a friend to the Knesset to mark the sheloshim, thirty days since the terrorist atrocities committed by Hamas. We joined a thousand people, families of the hostages and the murdered among them, gathered in the raw solidarity of trauma, pain and anger.

As we walked through the deserted artist’s quarter of Mishkenot Sha’ananim towards Israel’s parliament, I recalled a party held there forty years ago. Our host asked us to state in a single sentence what we wanted from life. Someone said simply, ‘I want to be a human being.’ I don’t recollect his name, but I haven’t forgotten his words.

People ask, ‘How are you coping these impossible days?’ It’s the wrong question, wrote Lital Kaplan in a poem composed just days ago:

‘What’s up?’ is disallowed. Instead ask:
‘What’s lost?’
‘What’s broken?’
‘What’s left?’

My only answer is that what remains is trying to be human. I’m hoping that’s sufficient to enable me to put one foot in front of the other, reject hatred, not yield to fear, not look away from pain and not shut my heart. I’m hoping it’ll help me stay loyal to who I am: a Jew, part of the family of Israel, a human being striving to live by that most universal appellation, ‘made in the image of God.’

I’m not finding it easy. There’s no guidebook to say precisely where that leads just now. I’m troubled and pained, and I’m far from alone. On just one day four groups approached me: ‘How do we cope with the silence, the hostility, the brazen hatred, at work, on campus, among colleagues?

It’s the cruellest time I’ve lived through.

There are so many dead. ‘I’ve seen wars,’ a journalist told me, ‘They’re disgusting, indescribable.’ ‘People we know are losing their sons,’ said an Israeli colleague. ‘My uncle died in Gaza City,’ said MP Layla Moran, before hundreds gathered opposite Downing Street under the banner Humanity Not Hate. ‘My parents were murdered on 7 October,’ said Ido at the same vigil. ‘More deaths won’t bring them back.’

There are huge demonstrations everywhere. ‘When Russia invaded Ukraine,’ an international analyst told me, ‘Colleagues in India said it was a regional conflict and not their concern. Suddenly they’re all worked up about Israel. I knew there was European antisemitism, but I never thought it would burst out like this worldwide.’

Yet the marches are complex. Some people flock to banners of hate. Many more are ignorant, driven by disinformation. But thousands, Jews included, are deeply distressed by what’s happening to innocent people in Gaza, can’t understand how this will bring the hostages home and fear that violence must breed more violence.

What horrors Hamas has released, knowingly, cunningly, upon Israel, Jewry, the world, and, not least, the Palestinian people, for whose lives they care not at all! I ask myself how and by whom such deep, heart-destroying hatred has been promulgated. I shudder to think how much more contagious it may yet prove to be.

On top of everything are the terrible wrongs perpetrated by West Bank settlers driving out Palestinian villagers while the world, mostly, looks the other way. They undermine both Israel and the moral standing of Judaism.

What, then, does trying to be human mean at this time, loyal as a Jew and loyal to the image of God?

It calls me into solidarity with suffering, firstly among my own people, but also with whoever feels anguish and grief. It teaches me to rejoice in nobody’s pain. It demands my commitment to chesed and tsedek, loving kindness and justice. It requires me to do everything I can for the hostages, for life, for the future.

Most days that’s enough to help me put one foot in front of the other and find companions to walk together.

Just back from Israel: this isn’t post-trauma; it’s trauma

‘This is the life of:’ thus begins tomorrow’s Torah reading. How many families are staring, half numb, at what those words conceal: ‘This is the death of…’ But, unlike our biblical mother Sarah, their loved ones didn’t reach the ripe age of one hundred and twenty-seven. They were scarcely twenty; maybe they weren’t even seven.

Yesterday Ilana Kaminka sent me pictures of the sheloshim, the thirtieth day of mourning, for her son Yannai. He was one of seven soldiers, men and women, boys and girls really, killed as they courageously defended their army base at Zikim, protecting their ninety new recruits against Hamas. ‘He missed out on his life,’ said my friend who’d been one of Yanai’s teachers.

‘I’ll continue taking Palestinian patients to hospital appointments in Israel,’ said Ilana, gently but firmly. as we left. ‘With Road to Recovery?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said, with Humans Beyond Borders.

The same day I got a whatsapp from Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish – my brother found me his number. ‘Your family in Gaza?’ I’d asked him. ‘Tens dead. When will this horror and violence end?’ He’s the author of I Shall Not Hate. Just now he’s sent me the You Tube of his interview with Piers Morgan: Palestinians Are Not Numbers, They’re Human

‘Is he family?’ I asked a woman at the huge, quiet gathering for the sheloshim outside the Knesset. She was holding a picture of a young man killed on October 7. ‘My son,’ she said, simply. ‘My son Tom,’ said his bereaved father, addressing the crowd. There was deep pain, and anger at Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government who left the south defenceless.

Tom’s father is encamped outside the Knesset with other families of those murdered and taken hostage. There’ll be even more fury if it proves true that a significant deal involving the release of many of the latter wasn’t followed through.

Our group met President Herzog and the First Lady. ‘The date in Israel is still October 7,’ she said. ‘This isn’t post-trauma; it’s trauma.’

The shock to the country is immense. The breach of confidence is multiple: political, military, economic, personal (can my children ever feel safe here?); spiritual (where was God?); societal (how long will unity last when blame has already begun? Can we trust Palestinians after what Hamas did? Can Palestinians, also fearful, trust Israelis after what the West Bank settlers are doing? Can we ever co-exist?) The unaskable question is: if not, then what?

Leaving Israel yesterday felt treacherous. Walking down the long slope at Tel Aviv airport you pass large pictures of each and every one of the hostages. It feels like betrayal, like leaving them behind. We shan’t.

So where do we who live outside Israel place ourselves right now? I’m not speaking politically, but as a Jew, a human being, someone for whom those two loyalties are inseparable because true faith and true humanity must be one.

Since we’re not immediate combatants in the horror of the front lines, we can, and should, be in places of healing. To be clear, this involves no compromise whatsoever with the indescribable hatefulness of what Hamas did on October 7.

There are innumerable options. We can give money for hospitals, orphans, displaced people. We can volunteer to pick crops, pack food. We can ‘adopt’ specific people who need us. We can draw into our communities, homes and hearts, Israelis, fellow Jews, and, importantly, others too, who feel broken and alone. We can, and should, speak frequently to Israeli friends, and, more importantly, listen.

Where possible we can dare the silence and suspicion and try to share with Muslim colleagues, ‘I hurt; you hurt too.’ A Palestinian student at Israel’s Arava Institute wrote of the ‘implied consensus to act from a place of compassion and not from a place of anger.’ If a bereaved mother can commit to Humans Beyond Borders, we can too.

What we can’t allow to be broken are courage, compassion, determination and hope.

Hineni: being there with each other at this cruel time

In these cruel times I keep thinking of Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker and hearing in my head that unique low voice which goes straight to the soul:

Hineni, hineni,
I’m ready, my lord…

These are the words Abraham speaks, as we read in the Torah tomorrow. He says them no less than three times, when God commands him to offer up his son and he tries, impossibly, to be present not just for his God but also for his beloved child.

Leonard Cohen follows Rashi in his lyrics, that great eleventh century commentator who explains that hineni means humility, readiness. But the most basic translation of hineni is simply ‘I’m here.’ It’s the answer we try throughout our life to give to God’s first, and everlasting, question: ‘Ayeka: Where are you?’

In these distressing weeks, there are so many for whom we are called to be here, not just in body but in heart. Almost everyone reading these words will have loved ones for whom they are deeply concerned, in Israel, perhaps in Gaza, around the world. Saying hineni, being together, gives us strength.

Hineni is the coming together of two words, ‘Hineh, Behold!’ and ‘Ani, I’. But it signifies the very opposite of ‘Look at me!’ On the contrary, it means that I dedicate my self to being present with you: ‘I’m here, I’m listening, “I’m ready, my Lord.”

I feel for so many people. Yesterday I found myself helping facilitate three different groups about Israel and Gaza, for colleagues, a multi-faith team, and an online gathering wanting to understand what’s happening and what it all might mean. I imagine that, in different contexts, that’s been other people’s week too.

‘I’m here and my heart is here:’ how do we say that truly? We must do our best to be there for our own people, family, friends, here, in Israel, anywhere. We must do our best to be there for those who’re afraid, or grieving, or worrying because their children have been called up, or desperate for relatives taken hostage.

Being there is not just about doing, though often there’s much we can and should do. Being there is not about having the right words, though sometimes there are things to say. But often there are no great words. There’s only the heart’s language, the unspoken, the hug, real or virtual, the tears.

Hineni is not just for those who see the world the same way as we do. What kind of humanity do I have if I withdraw into hostility or indifference when the person next to me says quietly that she’s had no news from family in Gaza, not for days or weeks, and a whole generation maybe gone?

Strangely, paradoxically perhaps, this is where we can meet, Jews and Muslims, people of other faiths and none, in our very anguish, our fear for those we love, our aloneness when we feel shunned because we’re a Jew, or a Muslim. The very pain that divides us may become the pain that unites us, at least here in the UK.

Only if we reach deeper than fear and hate can our world progress beyond hatred.

It’s not possible with people while they proclaim and act out antisemitism or any form of racist spite. It’s unthinkable with the brutal terrorists who commit wanton, indescribable acts of premeditated torture and murder.

But where it may be possible, there we must try.

How, though, can the heart find the strength? I believe that if we go down, down and down, we reach within ourselves the deep hidden river of life through which all spirit, all existence is sustained.

We make that journey each in our own way, through prayer or silence, music or nature, alone or touched by others.

It takes us to that place of mercy, hidden yet all around us and within us, where God, the unnameable, gives us strength and hope.

Not alone: hopes and prayers in these times of deepest distress

Two people reached out to me unexpectedly last week. The first was Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, who called me in the days after the horrors perpetrated by Hamas. Years ago, we’d walked together through the centre of London leading a protest against racist violence of all forms.

‘We need to do something he said.’ That was the start of conversations which led to his public condemnation of antisemitism and my response to him in the presence, and with the strong support, of Archbishop Justin Welby. ‘We’re all on the side of life,’ I concluded. (Click here to read the statements in full).

The second person was a woman walking behind me on Lambeth Palace Road. I’d paused to put my backpack down on a bench when she turned to me: ‘I’m so glad to see you wearing your kippah round here,’ she said, starting to cry. ‘I’m Jewish and I’m so afraid.’ My heart went out to her. My heart goes out the many who feel as she does.

I’ve thought repeatedly this week of those pictures one finds in old Haggadot of a man rowing a boat crossing a wide river. They’re illustrations of ‘Avram Ha’Ivri, Abraham the Hebrew.’ Ivri derives from ever, meaning bank or side. As the rabbis put it: ‘All the world on one side, and Abraham on the other.’

I feel for everyone who finds themselves alone at this extraordinarily difficult time, especially students, especially pupils in non-Jewish schools, especially those working in places where there are no fellow Jews. How many times I’ve heard: ‘There’s a wall of silence around me; even my friends don’t ask.’ Or those seeming friends post something vile on Instagram.

I feel, too, for everyone for whom the pogroms by Hamas have re-awoken the traumas of the Shoah and earlier ages.

We must reach out to each other; we must open our doors, our kitchens, our hearts. Over and again, I hear from friends in Israel: ‘What’s not let us down is our society. Everyone’s helping. Am Yisrael chai – the people of Israel lives.’ We, too, must be in sustained contact with our family, friends and colleagues in Israel, and with each other.

And we must try to reach further. Despite the mass rallies, the hatred and the disgusting social media, we do have friends. I’ve had many messages of solidarity, from Christian groups especially, but also from other faiths, and from acquaintances near and far.

Wherever possible we must build with these relationships. Cruel as the times are, we must not solely hunker down in distrust, fear and anger. We must find those with whom we can stand together in a deeper, more embracing humanity. I believe in God who is ‘Elohai haruchot lechol bassar, God of the spirits of all flesh.’

We must not lose our hope or our deepest Jewish, humanitarian values. Beyond war there has to be a different vision. All the people I’m close to feel deep pity for everyone across Israel and the Jewish world who is grief-stricken, traumatised, desperate for the release of family members taken hostage. At the same time, we also feel great pity for the poor people caught up in their thousands in Gaza, who want nothing to do with Hamas and who are, in a different way, also hostages, struggling to escape with their lives, their children.

We pray, for all our sakes, for a better outcome than the creation of the next generation of fear and hate. I think of Zechariah’s prophetic words, lo vechayil velo vecho’ach ki im beruchi. What they mean to me today is: Neither power nor force will help unless guided by My spirit, says our God.

My feelings were summed up when I listened to my colleague Nathalie Lastreger, rabbi of Kfar Veradim in the far north of Israel, as she struggled to keep singing the HaTikvah through her flowing tears: Od lo avdah tikvateinu, Our hope has not ceased.’

Hope itself must never cease.

A Prayer

In the midst of our own trauma, grief and anguish, we do not lose sight of Judaism’s supreme values of chesed and rachamim, loving kindness and mercy.

We protest and pray for the release of all the hostages and for their safe return to their longing and desperate families. We pray for a minimum of casualties in the IDF, and among all civilians, in Israel’s war against the terrorist organisation Hamas. We pray for strength for everyone, across the whole of Israel’s society and the Jewish world, who gives shelter and support to the tens of thousands evacuated from their homes and to everyone traumatised and grief-stricken by Hamas’ barbaric attack.

Our God is the God of all life. We pray, too, for the safety of all the many, many thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians caught up in this horror, who desperately need food, water and medical aid. Their plight is unimaginable. They desperately need a safe escape route from the fighting. We ask and pray for a humanitarian corridor to be established, maintained and safely supervised. We pray for a better future of life, hope and freedom for them too.

Our prayers are with the remarkable people who devote themselves to saving lives, wherever they are. We pray for all who, despite the fear and hostility, recognise the image of God in all the victims of this terrible conflict and who work for healing on all sides.

We pray, too, for our society here in Britain, that we should not be the targets of antisemitism, that all forms of race and religious hatred and prejudice be overcome, that we should work together in solidarity for a safe and harmonious future for all.

Even as continued fighting seems inevitable, we pray that a better way will swiftly be found than war with all its unspeakable horrors, so that Israel and its neighbours can live together in safety and peace, with life and hope for everyone.

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