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.

We need strength

In these difficult days we all need strength, to stand firm against the wrongs and brutalities of the world; to speak out for justice, even where that is unpopular; to cauterise with healing the endless hurts suffered by so many.  

It’s not a choice. Take Moses for example. He has a whole list of reasons why he can’t face Pharaoh as God requires: Who am I to do that; I can’t speak; Pharaoh won’t listen; my own people call me a troublemaker; if they won’t listen, the Egyptians never will.

But God doesn’t ask; God demands: ‘God spoke to Moses and Aaron, and commanded them against Pharaoh, king of Egypt.’ (Ex. 6:13)

I hear these words echoed in Timothy Snyder’s short diatribe: On Tyranny, Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century. It’s necessary reading in today’s distorted world:

Take responsibility…Believe in truth…Stand out. Someone has to…

It takes guts to confront evil when it surrounds us. My grandmother went to the Gestapo buildings while my grandfather was in Dachau in November 1938. She passed through doors with no handle inside. She demanded: ‘Where’s my husband?’ Asked the same question back, she retorted, ‘You’ve got him; you should know.’ That’s courage.

We need such strength to stand up to Putin, Iran, Hamas, Hizbollah, the worldwide web of lies they spin with threads of hatred, and the violence and defamation they direct against Israel, Ukraine, Jews and numerous others.

We require such strength too, to challenge the hatemongering corruption of Trump, should he stand for president again, let alone if he succeeds.

We need it, dare I say it, too, to confront prime minister Netanyahu, to call out the blatant racism and contempt of certain ministers and policies, even amidst this terrible, grief-bringing war.

But what is strength, beyond anger and frustration?

We stand between the Yahrzeit of Abraham Joshua Heschel, last December 31st, and Martin Luther King Day, next Monday 15th January. They drew their strength from the spirit. Their activism came from listening intently to the voice of God in the soul. They were followers of Zachariah, whose words we read on Chanukkah:

‘“Not by might and not by power, ki im by my spirit,” says God.’ (4:6)

Ki im is often read as ‘but’. It really means ‘except’ or ‘unless’. No true strength, Zachariah teaches, except with God’s spirit.

It’s a dangerous description. Few promulgate hatred more fiercely than zealots who claim to know God’s mind.

But true strength of spirit is rooted not in violence but in solidarity with life and the God of life. It knows not hatred or the urge to destroy, but the indignation of injustice which will not be ignored. It is driven not by contempt for suffering, but by the determination to heal.

I shall never forget knocking on the door of John and Mavis Hyman after learning that their daughter Miriam was among the victims of the London bombings of 7 July 2005. Unsure what to say, I muttered, ‘I wish you strength.’

I still see John standing on the path in front of me, a tall man then, nodding, saying, more to himself than me, ‘Yes. That’s the one. We’ve had many greetings. But that’s the one.’  

And strong he was, and strong Mavis is still, in her constant efforts to bring healing in her daughter’s name, to meet sorrow with love and counter racism with the teachings of understanding.

True strength has many forms. It may be steady presence amidst grief, diligence in under-appreciated caring, defying bigotry to stand with the mistreated and maligned, challenging injustice and cruelty in the face of brute power on the political stage.

We need such strength, in our hearts, communities and the public square.

For Eco Shabbat: between shame and compassion

This is Eco Shabbat, timed to coincide with COP 28.

I don’t love the name ‘Eco’, apt as it is. I’d rather describe the day in spiritual terms: the Shabbat dedicated to reverence before the beauty of creation, the subtle and wondrous interconnectedness of all life; the Shabbat in which we determine to honour and protect it.    

Yet I’m struggling with a feeling I hesitate to name, a deep sense of shame.

This is due, partly, to the war between Israel and Hamas. But the causes lie wider.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. This is in no way, heaven forbid, shame at being Jewish. I joined the rally against antisemitism last Sunday, profoundly moved by the historic companionship of tens of thousands proud of our identity. No, I reverence our millennial tradition of devotion to God and Torah which demands of us everything. I know myself an unworthy heir to its depth and wisdom.

It’s not shame for my strong connection to Israel, my bonds with precious friends and colleagues there, my prayers for those confronting Hamas, my joy at the release of tens of hostages and my hopes, and fears, for those still left in the tunnels of Hamas.

Nor is it shame that I listen with sorrow to the distress and desperation, anger and tears, of families of Palestinian civilians caught in the horrors of Gaza, or pursued by settlers on the West Bank who profane the name of God and Judaism.

No; it’s more than that. Sometimes I’m simply ashamed of being a human.

It’s the shame described by Dante when, overcome in the presence of his beloved Beatrice, he lowers his gaze and, seeing his own reflection in the waters of a stream, looks instantly away ‘filled with shame unspeakable.’

It’s akin, despite the utterly different circumstances, to the shame Primo Levi perceives in the faces of the first Russian horsemen when they come into sight of Auschwitz-Buna in January 1945, the shame ‘a just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.’ (The Truce, p. 188)

I keep thinking of the unanswerable Biblical question, Eichah? How? Why? How has humanity descended into such destruction? Where are those evil ideologies conceived that long to hurt and kill? How have we reached the state where, across the globe, homes, cities and landscapes are laid waste? Why are we ruining our sweet air and beneficent earth? Why do we continue to do so, when we know the price our grandchildren will pay for our actions?

All this, which daily confronts us, fills me with shame. How can humanity look itself in the face? If God were a person, God would be tearing out so much hair that the Godhead had none left.

Yet maybe something else, something better, can emerge from the pain.

I joined a vigil for the children of Israel and Gaza in St James’ Church, Piccadilly. Every quarter of an hour, a participant from a different faith spoke for just two minutes. The rest was silence.

In that rich quiet, I felt once more the compelling power of pity. In that heart-space of grief, wordlessly there grew a resolute, implacable commitment to compassion, to caring for life more fiercely than before, for this vulnerable world, its tenderness, beauty and wonder, its undressed wounds and inconsolable sorrows. We must lay it upon our hearts that, despite everything, humanity is commanded, ceaselessly and irrevocably, by compassion

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.

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