We Need to be Healers and Fighters

I wish everyone, our families, our friends, and our congregation Shanah Tovah. I pray for a good year for the whole Jewish community, all humanity, and all life in our beautiful, beleaguered world sheculo chal mipanecha, which both trembles and rejoices before God.

This year may we be healers. The world is full of wounds and the dangers that lie ahead, for Israel, for many countries and for nature are obvious. One’s heart weeps.

Healing is an art which often requires sophisticated skills. But in essence it’s simple; it’s based on just two words: ‘I care.’ But where do we start, when from all around there are ceaseless appeals and the very earth can feel like one great cry? In the ancient words of Rabbi Tarfon, the one choice we are not at liberty to make is to do nothing.

I believe we should focus on whoever it is in our nature to care about naturally. If we love children, do what you can for them. If we feel a special tenderness for older people, listen to them. If we love birds and animals, plant gardens, woods and meadows. The other day I saw a chair tied firmly to a lamppost outside a café. On it was a sign: ‘If you’re no longer so young, or walking is difficult, please take a rest. We care about you.’ What kindness! Caring is often expressed in seemingly small things, but the difference it makes is inestimable.

In these tough times, to be healers we must also be fighters. There is unavoidable suffering on earth. But there is also wanton cruelty: the brutality of aggressive war; the contemptuousness of race and gender hate; the despotic arrogance which seeks to crush justice and freedom; the despoliation of the earth which may benefit some but devastates others and destroys the viability of our planet. We must fight these wrongs, skilfully, determinedly, forcefully but peacefully, acknowledging that in some we too may be implicated.

At stake are Judaism’s core principles: that this is God’s earth for which we must care with respect, justice and compassion. The very essence and reputation of Israel, and of Judaism itself, are currently at stake.

From where do we draw our strength?

We do so from solidarity, hope, love and faith.

Solidarity and community are the basis of Jewish life, and of all society. Whether looking after the sick, combatting poverty, cleaning up local rivers or defending minorities, belonging to like-minded communities renews our resolve and restores our morale.

Hope, tikvah, is not airy optimism, but the elixir of vision, aspiration and action combined.

Love is our deepest motivation, God’s presence in our hearts, as we pray each day: ahavat olam, inspire us with eternal, inexhaustible love.

Faith is not pious dogma, but the awareness of the deep resilience of the human spirit, of Judaism, of life itself.

May we have the faith, love, hope and solidarity to be healers in the years ahead.

The True Guardians of our Humanity

As the moon wanes to a sliver and the old year ends, I want to thank those who guide us in all walks of life.

The rabbis read Elul, the current Hebrew month, as an acronym for two biblical verses. (Sadly, this doesn’t work in English.)

The first is ‘Ani ledodi vedodi li – I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.’ They took this as the love between God and the soul.

God is infinite. But in practice God comes to us in many shapes and sizes. None of us knows how the spirit touches the hearts of others. Therefore, I want to thank everyone who helps us perceive the holy in anything and everything.

Thank you to the teachers and youth leaders who understand how to draw out of every child what is special and sacred and enable that uniqueness to become a light for others.

Thank you to Eleanor O’Hanlon for her book, Eyes of the Wild, about how in the ‘spaciousness of nature, we find our own expansiveness again… And that space is not separate from Eternal Presence, holding all life as one and allowing it to be – growing, blossoming, dying and reemerging in all its manifold diversity and grace.’

Thank you to the team in that tiny bird reserve between the Supreme Court and the Knesset in Jerusalem, who measure the length of small birds’ wings before releasing them from their carefully cupped hands. You show that these lives too are holy.

Thank you to those of all faiths who see beyond the dogmas of their creed and know that God is in all life everywhere.

You bring God into our hearts. You curb our cruelty and deepen our compassion.

The second of the Elul verses comes from Esther: ‘Ish lere’ehu, umattanot la’evyonim, – Each for their fellow, and gifts to the needy.’

I’m grateful to everyone who shows us how to be present for our fellow human beings, family, friends, community, people we encounter by chance.

I’m grateful for everyone like the friend who simply said, ‘I’m on my way,’ when I called in a panic, ‘I need a lift with my dog to the vet, this moment, now.’ I’m grateful to those with the gift for thoughtful words, kind, insightful, with a lightness of touch. I’m grateful for those who listen, enabling the quietness that calms the heart.

I’m grateful to all who fight for the rights of others, who won’t yield to indifference, carelessness or rudeness, who call out bigotry and bullying. I’m grateful to everyone who helps create encompassing, compassionate community. Thank you for showing us what ‘Each for their fellow’ truly means. You deepen our humanity.

‘Gifts for the needy’ may sound patronising. But who knows which of us will be needy over time? This isn’t about reaching down but reaching out, to those whose lot has fallen more cruelly than ours on earth.

I’m grateful to all who refuse to walk pass hunger, who ensure foodbanks remain stocked. I’m grateful to that postman in whose van we caught a lift years ago, who stopped at every house in the long, remote road saying ‘If I don’t check on these elderly folk, who will?’

I’m grateful to Sally Hayden who records in My Fourth Time We Drowned, how she took that first unanticipated call from tormented refugees, subject to blackmail and rape, and became their lifeline, their sole electronic pathway towards liberty. I’m grateful to the lawyers, journalists, takers of video clips, who risk their lives exposing inhumane policies and brutal regimes. You live the meaning of integrity and truth.

How urgently we need you all, teachers and guides, because, as we pray on Rosh Hashanah, the fate of the world is in the balance.

Why Democracy and Equality Matter

I had two small encounters yesterday on my way to a conference in Cambridge.

I took a cab from the station to a used-car garage which had a possible replacement for our electric vehicle which was stolen last month. Noting my ‘small hat’ the driver told me he used to work in Brent Cross. ‘All Jews are rich,’ he added.

‘That’s not true,’ I said, taken by surprise by this gratuitous comment. ‘There are many poor in the Jewish community.’

‘All the big companies are owned and run by Jews.’  

‘That’s not true.’

Ugly thoughts invaded my mind: if I’m ‘a Jew’ he’s ‘an Asian.’ Shall I ask where he’s from? Of course, I didn’t. I didn’t even want to have such a thought in my mind. But now neither of us were simply you and me.

Perhaps stupidly, I had another unpleasant thought: ‘Is he at all right? Are we, am I, too entitled? Here’s me, trying to buy a car…’

‘Let me out here,’ I said, preferring to walk the last stretch, ‘have a good day.’

Before I even entered the garage showroom, the salesman approached me, ‘I know who you are. I’ve looked you up. We’re both Glaswegians. And another thing we have in common – border collies. Mine died a week ago; we’re heartbroken. The dog waited until my son came back specially from the States. He stood up from his basket, licked his hands, lay down and died…’

The man’s humanity touched me exactly when I needed such kindness.

These two small incidents connected me with the great issue which preoccupies so many of us regarding Israel, and many other countries across the world. How do we defend democracy? Why does it matter so profoundly? Why is equality essential?

Demos means ‘people’: democracy is the endeavour to do the best for society in a spirit of collective responsibility, while protecting the freedoms, rights and opportunities of each individual, whatever their faith, ethnicity or gender.

With heart-rending concern, David Grossman wrote this week:

Now a process of destabilization and disintegration is taking place (in Israel), a shattering of the social contract… [R]egression is intensifying: to reactionary attitudes of discrimination and racism; to the exclusion of women and LGBTQ people and Arabs; to ignorance and boorishness as a positive value. (Haaretz, August 27)

At stake is what the Torah calls anshei kodesh, being ‘holy people,’ that is, people who respect the holy in every life, including ourselves and everyone else.

Grossman continued:       

The protest movement is the hope…the creative act, the mutual responsibility, the ideological courage. It is the lifeblood of democracy. It is our and our children’s chance to live a life of liberty here. 

These collective public actions, in Israel, London and across the world, are hugely important. At the same time, underlying them must be a more basic, constant, all-pervasive protest, manifest through who we are. It should permeate all our actions, and, as much as humanly possible, our very thoughts and feelings.

It’s an unceasing protest against bigotry and dehumanisation, proven in the way we treat everyone and anyone. For I am not ‘the Jew’ and that other person is not ‘the Asian’, ‘the Palestinian’ or ‘the Charedi’. Rather, we all carry an aspect of God’s image and our purpose on earth is to uphold and develop that sanctity in ourselves and each other.

What that car salesman really said to me was, ‘I know who you are. You’re a human being, like me.’

For more information about Israel Democracy Week, click here. Highlights include:

Time to take a stand: Judicial reform or regime coup?, Monday 4 September, 4pm  
Speakers: Yossi Klein Halevi, Daniel Gordis, Matti Friedman 

Democracy Rally, Sunday 10 September, 3-5pm
Speakers: Yuval Noah Harari, Mika Almog

Time to take a stand: what can the Jewish diaspora do?, Monday 11 September, 7pm
Speakers: Yossi Klein Halevi

For Pride Shabbat

This is Pride Month and we’re celebrating Pride Shabbat. This is a profoundly religious matter, going to the essence of what God wants of us.

I don’t believe in a God who is cruel and closed. On the contrary, I believe in a God who says to us over and again, in every encounter with each other and with life, ‘Open your heart.’

Therefore, our holy places must be open-hearted too, from the most public, our houses of prayer, to the most intimate, our souls, because all life is sacred and God’s presence dwells within us all.

A comment by Rashi sticks in my mind. Appealing for help in finding a leader for the next generation, Moses calls on ‘the God of the spirits of all flesh,’ a phrase used only twice in the entire Torah. (Bemidbar 27: 16) Rashi explains this choice of language:

The thoughts and feelings of each human being are revealed and known to you, God, and they are all different. Appoint a leader who will bear with every person according to their particular thoughts and feelings.

The words ‘bear with’ probably reflect Moses’ weariness after forty years putting up with everybody’s foibles and frustrations. I would prefer terms like ‘listens to’, ‘appreciates’ and ‘cherishes’.

Yet this is what a LGBT+ friend just wrote to me:

Hate crimes are rising. Many of us have been shouted at in the streets, me included. Some have suffered physical violence. Trans people experience deep hurt and discomfort in our congregations and wider societal spaces. They are often without support networks due to families turning them away.

Stonewall stresses that every LGBTQ person should feel ‘safe, respected, recognised and protected in law.’…Yet ‘with every day that passes, we feel a little less safe going about our lives.’

A populist wind has blown across the world eroding tolerance and the celebration of diversities. An Israeli woman told me she now fears regularly for her safety.

A tragic consequence can be the internalisation of feelings of rejection. Stonewall is currently focussed on seeing through proposed legislation banning so-called conversion therapy. The very premise implies that people must be wrong about who they feel themselves to be. Mind notes that those undergoing such “treatment” are ‘75% more likely to plan to attempt suicide.’ A gay friend told me it took him years to accept himself fully and say the daily thanksgiving blessing for being ‘made according to God’s will.’

Religion should be the most generous and inclusive social force but has sadly often proved bigoted and cruel. Armed with powerful ancient texts, which need to be carefully re-evaluated, God is deployed against all kinds of difference: in religion, ethnicity and gender orientation.

But I believe what God seeks is not contraction but expansion of the heart. This is the very essence of what God wants from us, irrespective of our gender identity: to live with integrity, justice and generosity, faithful to God’s presence in all life.

The Talmud records how Rabbi Beroka Hoza’a meets Elijah in the marketplace of Lefet and asks him, ‘Is there anyone here worthy of the world to come?’ The prophet points to a man who, of all professions, proves to be a jailer. ‘What do you do that’s so special?’ the rabbi enquires. He explains that he protects his inmates from sexual abuse and reports threats of racist attacks to the communal authorities. (Talmud, Ta’anit 22a)

God wants us not only to protect, but to listen to, support and cherish each other, so that we can create a world of safety, trust and togetherness.

Caring for those who are not well

There are two wonderful books by Christie Watson about the values which underlie nursing: The Language of Kindness and The Courage to Care.Both are about the joys and challenges, the humanity and compassion, central to nursing.

In The Courage to Care Christie considers the many settings in which nurses operate, from hospitals to the military. ‘These,’ she writes about Learning Disability Nurses, ‘are the nurses working in the field of human essence.’ Maybe all medical staff work there too. In fact, in one way or another the focus of all our work, indeed of our lives, is this ‘field of human essence.’

It’s for that essence, for her sister Miriam’s very survival, that Moses pleads in those five words which to this day form the core of all our prayers for those who are ill: ‘God, please, heal her, please.’ ‘No one ever prayed more briefly,’ the Talmud notes. There was no need for more; those five heartfelt words say it all.

The daily morning service reminds us that visiting people who are ill is a mitzvah, a commandment which has no limit. But prayer is only one aspect of it. Practical help is at least as important: ‘I’ve dropped round some soup;’ ‘I’ll take you to your hospital appointment.’ It’s best to be specific. Generalities like, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ usually elicit a polite, slightly bewildered, ‘I can’t think of anything, thank you.’

Probably the most important thing we have to offer is our presence. The Talmud advises visitors not to sit on a chair or stool. This is because in those times the person who’s ill would probably be lying on the floor. Since ‘God’s presence rests above the pillow of the sick,’ we shouldn’t place ourselves higher than God. I understand this as a way of telling us not to hover above the bed when we go to see someone who is ill, but to sit next to them, on the level, and be truly present. Such companionship, notes the Talmud, tales away a sixtieth of the illness. In other words, it makes a difference.

There’s another meaning to ‘being on the level’: we open ourselves, if only briefly, to the truth that we too are mortal, that we’re not immune, that not just breaks and bruises but cancer, a stroke, heart problems or dementia may one day become our portion. It’s humbling. It may be why we sometimes find it difficult to visit. I’ve heard relatives say, ‘Some people have been amazing; others, once firm friends, have disappeared.’ This hurts. We must aspire to being faithful friends, in all situations. Part of the art of being human is to let the awareness of our mortality deepen not our fear but our chesed, our compassion.

Being ill is often a lonely experience. Even if not physically, we’re mentally and spiritually alone, in the sometimes bleak and anxious domain of our thoughts. Carers, too, may often feel quite isolated, especially if the responsibility falls overwhelmingly on just one family member. Carers can’t simply go out; neither their space nor their time is at their disposal. I’ll never forget the words of a woman who’d been married for sixty years: ‘For half a century I was his wife; now that he’s got Alzheimer’s, I’ve had to become his mother.’

An especially kind member of our community recently spoke to me about why people sometimes fail to visit when an old friend develops some horrible illness. ‘It’s not that they don’t care,’ he said, ‘It’s that they’re afraid.’ We may fear we’ll be expected to stay for a long time, that we won’t know what to say, that the person we’re visiting is no longer as we once knew them, that if we visited once we’ll be expected to come again and it’ll be a commitment…

In truth, visits, whether in hospital or at home, needn’t be long. Fifteen minutes can be good; long stays may in fact be inconvenient. We don’t need great things to say; such words probably don’t exist anyway. We have to be there, listen, give companionship, share memories… Our visit may be important mainly because it gives moral support to the partner and carer, some moments of solidarity and respite.

It’s true, visiting may become a commitment. We may not be able to go often, but coming when we can really matters. And what greater commitment can we have in life than to the humanity of others and, ultimately, ourselves.

What God says

A dreamer’s Shavuot message for a troubled world.

We say every day in the morning prayers that the world is illumined berachamim, by mercy and love. Wendell Berry, writer, devoted Christian, farmer and environmentalist so committed that, on principle, he ploughs his land only with horses, puts it like this:

I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, in so far as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love.

I so much want to agree. But the world doesn’t appear to be like that. To take just one example, (alongside so many issues about which we justly worry) the displaced family from Kharkiv have just marked one year since they fled Ukraine and came to live with us. With no sign of the war abating, we wondered how to mark the day. (The region was bombed the night before.) I made them their favourite cheese scones, small compensation, and we commiserated.

So it doesn’t exactly feel as if the world in its current state ‘subsists and coheres’ through love. But about this there can be no doubt: that the world, each of us, all of us, everything alive, has much need of love.

Therefore, that’s how I want to hear God’s voice in the Ten Commandments, which we will read tomorrow in all synagogues in every land and across all denominations. A beautiful Mishnah teaches that God didn’t just say ‘I am’ once long ago on Mount Sinai. God says this every day, calling out for us to attend. And God’s ‘I am’ is more than just a pronoun followed by a verb. The words are an appeal: ‘Hear me, care for me, love me.’

But where do we hear those words? To the mystics, the Kabbalists and Hasidim, the answer is simple: in everything. The voice of the living God is the essence of life in all its forms, the very heart of existence.

Therefore, when we think of children, especially perhaps children faced with extra struggles, such as finding a safe country, being given a safe home, having the right teachers who understand their gifts as well as their needs, we can hear within them the voice which says ‘Look after me, cherish me, love me.’

When we consider people facing the hard years toward the close of a long life’s journey, the physical limitations, the indignities which age can bring, the loss of friends, we can feel in their presence the voice which says, ‘Be gently with me, respect me, care for me.’ And so often we can see that voice embodied in those precious, remarkable carers who, day in and day out, night in and night out, truly care.

When we read the statistics of declining species, yet learn of the work of those determined groups who restore habitats, clean rivers, watch nests, save toads from busy A-roads, and know how to discern the music of one small songbird from another; there, too, we can hear God’s voice saying ‘I am’ in all the innumerable languages of creation.

But isn’t this all mere sentiment, when we’re told that God’s voice is commandment, a firm ‘Thou shalt’?

Not so! What greater commandment can there be than to live with love of creation, in whatever sphere of life we can best express it?

Therefore, may this be a year of listening, and responding, to God’s great commandment, God’s patient, enduring, long-suffering, pleading ‘I am.’

Who’s heard of Rainbow Day?

If you have never heard of Rainbow Day, you’re not alone. I learn of it for the first time just this week, in a note from Rabbi David Seidenberg. He describes himself as a neo-hasid, a modern mystic, and is passionately concerned for nature, attitudes I 100% share.

There are more than 365 (or even 366) ‘days’ in the year. There are days devoted to almost every area of human concern, and to numerous species of animals, birds and even insects. So what is Rainbow Day and how did it begin?

I’d assumed it must have secular origins, like so many ‘societies for the protection of…’ (even one, I’m told, for the appreciation of dandelions, though this may be a tease.) But I would be wrong. In fact, the source is in the Torah: ‘In the 2nd month, on the 27th day, the earth dried out,’ and Noah, his family and all the animals were finally able to leave the ark and re-establish life on earth. (Bereshit 8:14)

This year the 27th of Iyyar, (the 2nd month in the Hebrew calendar) falls next week, on the night of the 17th / 18th May.

I’ll certainly be marking the date. For, as Rabbi Seidenberg writes, it’s ‘a chance to reflect on the deep spiritual and religious meaning of diversity, creation, and our role as part of creation and partners with God.’ This matters urgently, both in human society and nature.

It’s not just because I’m Jewish that I understand viscerally the importance of societies which don’t just tolerate but respect and celebrate diversity. But being a Jew has made me skin-thin sensitive to this essential concern. Additionally, hosting refugees from Iran, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Somalia has made me look at the world in new and challenging ways. It’s brought the truths of injustice, hatred and cruelty closer. It’s made me realise what a proper meal, a bottle of water, a hand in friendship can mean.

I agree with the government that the merciless exploitation of refugees by traffickers is a vicious wrong. But I admire the Archbishop of Canterbury for bluntly speaking truth to power in calling the proposed immigration bill morally unacceptable, a slur on Britain’s reputation and a threat to international cooperation in supporting refugees from war, famine, and persecution. We need safe, legal and justly administered routes for people seeking asylum. That’s fundamental to being a decent country in a rainbow world.

As a rabbi I have the privilege of listening to many people: this has sensitised me to the importance of Rainbow Day in other ways too. If the doors of our community spaces, homes and hearts are open only to those who are so-called ‘normative’, be that gender-normative, neuro-normative, or indeed physical body ‘normative,’ (I use these words with trepidation) we leave a lot of people outside and cause much pain.

Talking about ‘outside’ takes me to the other half of Rainbow Day: anxiety, hope and care for the natural world. When I think of this my heart, like Wordsworth’s, ‘leaps up’.

I’ve always loved animal. Once scared of birds, I’ve learnt to love them too. I watch eagerly for the jays and woodpeckers, the long-tailed tits and occasional grey-blue nuthatch. I’ve understood that insects matter and treasure log-piles for beetles. Life on earth starts here.

But then my heart shrinks back, confronted with what we humans do to our diverse world. As Rabbi Seidenberg writes, ‘The Torah teaches that God has promised never to flood the Earth again. But that doesn’t mean humanity can’t’ – and won’t.

Therefore I want to remain a tree-planter, meadow-lover, and carer for both people and animals to my dying day. That’s why I’ll say my first-timer shehecheyanu thanksgiving blessing this Rainbow Day and henceforth mark it always.

On the Coronation as King Charles III and Queen Camilla

On this day of their coronation, we ask God to bless King Charles III and Queen Camilla.

Through the millennia Jews have lived under many rulers. The Hebrew Bible and rabbinic writings in the Mishnah and Talmud testify to the experiences of being subject to Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. Through the Middle Ages and into the modern era we have suffered oppression under many cruel leaders and been blessed by the enlightened policies of some who were benign. But scarcely ever have we been settled in a country which has offered such deep equality, opportunity, justice and protection as Britain, ruled by a democratically elected government, under the constitutional monarchy of the House of Windsor.

Queen Elizabeth II was greatly admired for her unfailing dedication to service, her self-discipline and dignity and, despite the wealth and privilege of royalty, her personal humility. Many in the long queues to pay tribute commented that her heir would continue in the same manner.

During his years as Prince of Wales, King Charles showed a deep commitment to core values: to the environment, following his father the Duke of Edinburgh; in the welfare of refugees, exemplified in his sustained support for the welcome centre for Ukrainian people displaced by the war; and to the wellbeing of the different faith groups of this multi-cultural country.

Influenced, perhaps, by the example of his grandmother Princess Alice, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, King Charles has been constant in his support of the Jewish community as this message to him and Queen Camilla from World Jewish Relief testifies:

We are grateful for Their Majesties’ remarkable friendship to the Jewish community, and particularly for the 8 years the former Prince of Wales has spent as [our] committed and actively engaged Royal Patron. 

King Charles will say the following words, with their universal vision, within the Christian context of his coronation service at Westminster Abbey:

Grant that I may be a blessing to all thy children, of every faith and conviction, that together we may discover the ways of gentleness and be led into the paths of peace.

We are fortunate to live in a country whose King and Queen aspire to live by such a creed. We are grateful for this privilege and pray that these should be the values at the heart of all leadership.

From Psalm 72 (Verses which will be read at the Abbey)

אֱֽ-לֹקים מִ֭שְׁפָּטֶיךָ לְמֶ֣לֶךְ תֵּ֑ן וְצִדְקָתְךָ֥ לְבֶן־מֶֽלֶךְ׃

יָדִ֣ין עַמְּךָ֣ בְצֶ֑דֶק וַעֲנִיֶּ֥יךָ בְמִשְׁפָּֽט׃

יִשְׂא֤וּ הָרִ֓ים שָׁ֘ל֥וֹם לָעָ֑ם וּ֝גְבָע֗וֹת בִּצְדָקָֽה׃

יִשְׁפֹּ֤ט עֲֽנִיֵּי־עָ֗ם י֭וֹשִׁיעַ לִבְנֵ֣י אֶבְי֑וֹן וִ֖ידַכֵּ֣א עוֹשֵֽׁק׃

יִֽפְרַח־בְּיָמָ֥יו צַדִּ֑יק וְרֹ֥ב שָׁ֝ל֗וֹם עַד־בְּלִ֥י יָרֵֽחַ׃

Give the king your judgements, O God, and your righteousness to princes. Then shall he judge your people righteously and your poor with justice. Let the mountains produce well-being for the people, the hills, the reward of justice. May he defend the poor among the people, deliver the children of the needy and crush the oppressor. In his time shall righteousness flourish, and abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.

Prayer for the King and Queen

God of all life, Sovereign over all sovereigns, bless King Charles III and Queen Camilla on their coronation. Give them wisdom, compassion and insight, health, fortitude and resilience. Strengthen in them the spirit of service and commitment to all that is just. Grant them length of days and the happiness which comes from dedication to what is right and good.

May their hearts be open to the many and different needs of all the peoples of these lands. May they continue to support all those who seek to do good for human society and for all life. May they uphold the values of justice, freedom, equality and democracy according to which this country has been and must be governed.

May they, in the spirit of Aaron, love and seek peace. May they be guided, as the Torah commands, by awe and humility before God and by the love of God’s creation.

And let us say ‘Amen.’


The Prayer for the Country

המנוןאנגליה – The National Anthem

By Yoav Oved and David Djemal – New London Synagogue









Melekh khen sh’mor-na El

Melekh hod n’tsor haEl

Shom’rehu El.

Hamshila g’vurato

V’netsakh tifarto

Ha’arekh malchuto

Shom’rehu El:

Report from a visit to Kyiv

I’ve spent most of my week in Kyiv, with a small group Christian, Muslim and Jewish faith leaders, organised by Europe, A Patient. As I write, I’m on the long train journey back to the Polish border now, watching the snow-bound flatlands and villages with homes with a well in the garden, where it’s easy to imagine our ancestors, in their poverty, with their horse and cart, and the Rebbe with the faithful in the small Beis Medrash.

Of many encounters, two are foremost in my mind. We visited the Kyiv Masorti community where the group of roughly twenty was largely composed of women of a grandmotherly generation. ‘You’re in charge,’ I was brusquely informed. I hoped these women would tell their stories and, once had begun, they readily did. Fortunately Olena Bogdan, formerly head of religion and culture in Ukraine, was with us, with her superb English. Here’s some of what was said:

–          I stayed in Ukraine because I felt the presence of women was needed. I lost my job caring for children with Down’s syndrome when they were evacuated. I spend my time supporting whoever I can, helping with humanitarian aid, rescuing animals too. I’m a psychologist. I support those going through trauma. The sirens, especially at night, shatter our nerves.

–          I’ve no relatives. I don’t even know for certain I’m Jewish. But my grandmother’s sister was killed at Babi Yar. In this centre I feel safe; they’re my family. We care for each other.

–          My family were mostly murdered at Babi Yar; who’d have thought we’d face another war? My son-in-law was killed. The Russists, that’s what we call them, fired randomly at columns of cars trying to rescue civilians. You never knew who’ll be hit.

(Babi Yar is at the outskirts of the city. We prayed by its frozen ravines. Here tens of thousands were shot by the Nazis in two days in September 41’ and thousands more in the weeks which followed. We were shown fragments of the Russian bombs which hit the adjacent television tower, in this sick, lying war against ‘Nazi’ Ukraine.)

We met Ukraine’s leading civil servant, a member of the Masorti community; when I asked him ‘What shall I say in London?’ he replied simply ‘Give us weapons.’ All the rest is secondary.

I shall never forget meeting Metropolitan Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine. He had that presence one recognises in a person of courageous integrity, astute moral perception and embracing vision.

He spoke not just of the horrors of the war, but of its ideological character, its aim of obliterating Ukraine and Ukrainian identity. The Russians burnt books, including Bibles, he told us, just because they were written in Ukrainian. This brought to mind Heine’s warning that those who burn books proceed to burn people. We saw exactly what the Metropolitan meant in Borodianka, a small town next to Bucha and Irpin, where, among the air attacks on blocks of flats and civil institutions, Russian pilots strafed the statue of the poet Taras Shevchenko, founder of the modern Ukrainian language. (Over 20 people are still missing, unaccounted for presumed burnt to a cinder. Father Yasroslav, who showed us round said that for weeks he led seven funeral columns every day after the town was freed).

This is a war which concerns us all: of truth against lies; of freedom against totalitarianism; and, on a religious level, of faith in the God present in every human being and all life, as opposed to the idolatry of co-opting God to justify crimes against humanity. We ignore what’s happening in Ukraine at our peril.

For all that, the streets of Kyiv were far from empty, the cafes, including the kosher restaurant, were open and serving good food. But, as Olena warned, it’s an unreal normality: anything can happen in a moment. And the horror and trauma weight heavy in people’s hearts.

I’ll close by reverting to the words of the Metropolitan: ‘I’m concerned not just about the war, but the quality of the peace which has to follow, for Ukraine, for Russia and for the world.’

I’m writing these words for the Shabbat on which we read in the Torah, ‘Thou shalt not murder.’

For Holocaust Memorial Day: being ‘ordinary people’

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, established to correspond with the date when the first units of the Red Army reached Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945. The horrors are unspeakable; many, including the second generation, feel more shocked, bewildered and bereft year by year. We live as Jews in solidarity with our own people and with victims everywhere.

This year’s theme is ‘Ordinary People.’ As the home page of the HMD website says:

Ordinary people turn a blind eye, believe propaganda, join murderous regimes. And those who are persecuted, oppressed and murdered in genocide aren’t persecuted because of crimes they’ve committed – they are persecuted simply because they are ordinary people who belong to a particular group (eg, Roma, Jewish community, Tutsi).

I don’t think the Bible has such concept as ‘ordinary people’. A ben adam, a human being, is, without exception, made in God’s image. The Mishnah (c. 200CE) elaborates: every person is yechidi, createdunique. I’ve stood by the broken concrete at Birkenau and wondered: who did each of these people love, for whom did they long, as they were forced toward those chambers?

Yet the words ‘ordinary people’ ring true. We are all other people’s ‘ordinary people’. In an excellent talk, Dr John Launer noted how so many ‘ordinary’ individuals allowed the Nazis to come to power. Then, speaking of bystanders in general, he said with brave frankness that the older he gets the less he feels like the judge, and the more he feels among the judged.

The Torah forbids us to be bystanders: ‘Don’t stand idly by your fellow human’s blood.’ (Vayikra 19:16) ‘If you know that someone intends to threaten another person’s life, you have to speak out,’ explained Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1816 – 1893), head of the Volozhyn Yeshivah destroyed half a century later by the Nazis.

This is incomparably easier said than done. It leaves the discomforting question: whose bystander, whose ‘ordinary person’, am I?

Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, was famed as a Torah educator. Who am I? he asked, before answering: I am those aspects of my potential self which my experiences have drawn out of me. That’s why it’s essential to live in environments which bring out the best and deepest within us.

He reminds me of when I was a guest of the church in Germany the 1990s. ‘Had the visit left me angry?’ I was asked on my return. In truth, something quite different had gripped me: relief that I lived in a country whose laws prevented me from doing the worst of which I might prove capable. How would I have behaved had I been an ‘ordinary’ Aryan under Nazi rule? How could I be sure? The consciences of so many people were so deeply infiltrated by the vicious yet alluring discourse around them that they failed to perceive they were doing evil.

But today? I’m less confident our society and world is helping prevent the worst in us.

I stress one hundredfold that there is no comparison with Nazi or other such evil regimes. But I fear the atrophy of conscience. Are we supposed to accept homelessness in our streets, the drowning of refugees in the Channel, the indefinite detention of asylum seekers, or mass food insecurity? What’s being done in the name of my own good country? What racism do some utter, profaning the name and true values of my beloved Judaism?

The Torah speaks not of ‘ordinary’ but of ‘holy people’, anshei kodesh. They aren’t priests or anyone special, but you and me. Anshei, from anoosh, indicates open-heartedness, empathy, humility. Holiness means being truly deeply human.

We can’t help sometimes being bystanders. There’s simply too much wrong. But we must never become inured to it, let alone make it worse. We must seek the courage to be, at least sometimes, not just ‘ordinary’ but ordinary holy people.

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