God, and the geese by Loch Lomond

We need to nurture our sense of wonder. Otherwise, we take the world for granted, forget the privilege of being alive and allow our souls to become eclipsed.

My own sense of wonder has worn cobweb thin over these cruel, bitter times: the hostages still captive after 120 terrible days for them and their families, the dreadful war with its appalling cost in Israeli and Palestinian grief, the lack of well-founded hope.

So I did something crazy, because I understood that to keep going and caring I had to renew my spirit. Wonder nourishes the love of life, love of life makes us more aware, awareness makes us more compassionate, and without compassion, what are we?

I found myself with an entire day unexpectedly free. Open before me was the winter magazine of The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds:

Join us at Loch Lomond; watch thousands of geese rise over the water at first light.

I couldn’t make the dates for their guided walks, but what was to stop me going on my own? ‘Head torch, boots, warm clothing, that’s all you need,’ the charming staff at the RSPB lodge told me.

I booked my train tickets; I’d be in Scotland for less than twenty-four hours, but what’s long or short when you nourish the soul? I arrived at night and set out at once to savour the darkness, breathing with the stately trees, watching the moon between the bare branches of the beeches.

Six next morning found me on the well-laid paths by Loch Lomond. The woodlands were a realm of wordless prayer, each tree a sentinel at the border of an invisible world. What’s a year, ten years, or a century to an oak? They humble us, these trees; they liberate us from the siege of endless thought, the battering of depression and frustration. They embrace us in their silent meditations and windswept songs; they simplify us inside.

The waters, when I reach them, are, like the cloud above them, still depths of grey. But the first birds are waking, and the cold air carries their brief songs over the water. Then the geese begin to call, at first just individual birds. The early shift has awoken and alerts the others: dawn is rising, dawn is rising, prepare for flight. The night slowly pales.

The honking and crying grow louder. I turn to face the direction from where the swelling chorus seems to come and suddenly I see them, skeins of ten, thirty, fifty birds, too many to count. They fly like a great arrowhead, each goose in the slipstream of those in front, only the leader alone at the sharp point, its neck stretched into the wind. One bird, fallen behind, strives to resume its place upon the wing. Their cries mellow and soften as they grow smaller over the water; I cannot see where they land. The loch resumes its silence, and the small birds’ songs become audible once again.

Soon I’m back by the A road, roaring with rush-hour lorries. I promise myself not to let them, or all angers of this cruel world, crush this glimpse of wonder out of my soul.  

Tomorrow, we will read the Ten Commandments, the account of God’s great revelation.

I’ve been privileged to have my own small moment at my personal Mount Sinai and, in my own way, I believe I’ve overheard God speaking.

Now the challenge is to keep listening, to stay faithful to that voice, in a world where people do murder, steal, dispossess, lie and commit subtle cruelties.

So I pray, for myself and for everyone: God, may the wonder and beauty of your world protect us, sustain us and guide us through these cruel and brutal times.

For the love of trees – in honour of Tu Bishevat

‘No. You’re not buying another tree!’ the family protests as I eye up an apple, plum or rowan which, though discounted at the garden centre, looks good enough to me.

How many trees can you fit in the back of car – alongside two or three (grown up) children, at least one dog, walking boots, etcetera, etcetera? You’d be amazed! Though for the children, I admit, it’s not always a pleasant surprise.

But I love trees – as well as my family.

Thirty-three years ago, Nicky and I planned to marry on Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, (which begins this Wednesday evening.) But the synagogue had already been booked so we settled for a week later. ‘What shall I say about the two of you?’ our friend Ronnie enquired, whom we’d asked to speak on the Shabbat before our wedding. ‘That we both love plants and animals,’ we replied, and all these years later it’s even more true.

Trees make excellent gifts, so long as the recipient has a garden, or space for a large tub. Years later one looks back and reflects: ‘We got that tree when our baby was born’, ‘when our daughter was Bat Mitzvah’, or ‘in memory of our father’.

We measure time in the passing of years; trees measure time by the passing of generations. Trees humble us. The Psalmist is right: trees clap their hands, dance with their leaves and sing with the winds. But most of all they stand steadfast and, with their stillness, call us into quiet. Listen, they say. Listen first with your ears, and you’ll hear a leaf fall, a crow cry, maybe an owl call. Listen next with your spirit, and maybe you’ll hear the slow, steady flow of life itself. Then rest against the bark and know, even if only for a moment, that you’re safe despite all the world’s cruelty, for God is in this place.

But if we’re safe among the trees, are the trees safe among us? In Jewish law it’s a crime wilfully to cut down a fruit tree. How much more important a wider prohibition would be now, when we know that trees sustain us not just with food but through the very air we breathe.

We need to live, to eat, travel and build, in ways which don’t destroy the great forests of the Amazon, Congo and Indonesia. Here at home, we must replant. We must let the remnants of our rainforests spread, which cling to the west of England, Wales and Scotland, and leave the bright-coloured jays, those acorn-burying birds, to plant their oaks. (See Guy Shrubsole’s amazing The Lost Rainforests of Britain.)

Earth science is challenging us with new phrases, like ‘Climate change velocity,’ and ‘Adapt, move or die.’ But, asks Ben Lawrence in his brilliant, disturbing The Treeline, ‘What if you are a tree?’  

Yet trees, too, are on the move, not individual specimens, but species. Larch, birch, poplar and rowan are on the march north. What, then, do you plant to future-proof your woodlands? It’s a question with which foresters struggle. For we must do our utmost to bequeath to our children breathable air, a life-sustaining natural world and the wonder and spirit of the trees.

So let’s go plant!

If this seems fatuous in times of war, we should remember the Midrash of the old man and the emperor:

‘What are you doing?’ the latter asked.
‘Planting saplings.’
The emperor was scornful.

But what were his thoughts when, years later, on his return from many battles, the old man offered him fruits from those same trees?

They still speak to us, the dead we have loved

Sometimes a verse jumps out from the weekly Torah portion, chimes with what we’re living through, meets a spark in our own spirit. That’s how those words from the start of Exodus speak to me now: ‘And Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation.’

They’re all gone now, my parent’s generation, all the relatives amidst whose conversations, half German, half English, half refugee, half British, but always deeply Jewish, I grew up. They lie at peace in Hoop Lane cemetery, or rest, like my father’s sisters, on the Mount of Olives.

But they’re not silent, at least not in this world. They speak to us, our dead, they talk inside us. ‘Live!’ they say, ‘Live!’ They put resilience in our bones; they set their playlist in our soul. There’s nothing morbid or spooky about it; the dead who were close to us in life stay near and dear when they’re gone. The loss of them hurts deeply. But they urge us on. ‘Have courage,’ they say, ‘We’re with you all the way. Love life; live it well.’

Two moments come to my mind whenever I say the prayer carved in stone in every Jewish cemetery, ‘Umekayyem emounato lisheinei afar – Keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust.’ Twice my father, deeply asleep in his last hours, raised himself from his pillows, spoke those words into the ether and collapsed back into the semi-consciousness of his final journey.

It never occurred to me otherwise than that he was speaking to God: ‘Be with me in this boundaryless time-space where you’re taking me.’ They were words of trust and fear in equal measure.

But now it strikes me that I was partly wrong; my father was also talking to me: ‘Keep faith,’ he was saying, ‘keep faith through everything.’

So here, at the beginning of 2024, I walk among them in my mind, the departed, who lived through the Holocaust and the war. I try to listen, to draw courage for this current time of troubles, when Israel, Judaism and so much else seem on the line.

Here by the pathway is Jacqueline du Pre. I played a recording of her Kol Nidrei to Isca, my second mother, in her last hour. Isca adored the cello. The melody descends into the soul, says without words like the Psalmist, ‘From the depths I have called unto you,’ then rises, declaring ‘Seek beauty, aspire; always aspire.’ That’s why Isca loved such music.

Here, in the same row as my mother and father, lies Leo Baeck, leader of German Jewry in the terrible years, teacher of Theresienstadt. Nothing crushed his spirit, his faith not just in God but in humanity. Not rarely, he recalled, even in Berlin under the Nazis in ’40 or ’41, there would be an egg or apple secretly left by his door. He taught that God is mystery become commandment: what we know from life’s depths must teach us how to act.

And, Adi, my father, who by the age of forty-one had lost his own father, oldest sister, first wife, and three of his favourite aunts and uncles? He still comes into my room late at night, unexpectedly, as he did when I was in my teens, saying ‘Remember: only what’s in your mind can never be taken from you.’ And, since he was a practical person, I hear him say when a chair creaks or a shelf breaks, ‘Repair it, don’t throw it away.’ And, seeing he lived through the cruel years of Israel’s struggle for independence, ‘Be loyal; always stand by your friends.’

These are the secret ingredients of their strength, which, like the unique recipes for cheesecakes and strudels that they refuse to disclose while they’re alive, our forebears bequeath to us after they’re gone.

With them, we turn with gritty faith, resilient hope, and love of life, to face the year ahead.

Hope in the darkness

Something I love about Chanukkah is reflections.

When I was small, we often used to light the candles in my grandparents’ house. They had a ‘through room’ with bay windows looking onto the road in front and out into their large, half-wild garden at the back.

I used to stare not just at the candles but at their reflections, and the reflections of their reflections as the lights were mirrored back and forth from window to window. I would watch them receding, over the street and out into the city on the one side, and through the dark garden on the other, until they were caught in the branches of a huge oak tree, the venerable marker of some ancient boundary.

I saw those lights then, and still see them now, as fragile illuminations, flickering markers of hope and warmth, small fingers of humanity reaching out into the night. How desperately we need them now at the close of this year of hatred and war!

Those lights are to me the true miracle of Chanukkah. As Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger wrote, ‘For this the human being was created, to give light in the darkness.’

Can those lights, stretched out like hands of greeting, be us, become humanity, seeking each other, calling to one another in a world grown dark with cruelty and fury?

Beha’alotecha et hanerot, says the Torah. Don’t read those words, insist the mystics, as if all they mean is ‘When you light the menorah.’ Take them according to their literal meaning: ‘When you raise yourself up with the lights.’ For God’s light burns within us all, though it’s often hidden even from ourselves.

Can we find that light in our own hearts? Can others help us? Can we, even if only occasionally, rekindle that light in each other, through kindness, attentiveness, listening to one another’s stories, aspirations and griefs? Might we, then, by means of this heart-light, look beyond the frustrations and festering resentments, the ignorance and wilful disinformation, that so often set us apart? Can we hope?

As Jews we have often hoped in vain. But we have never submitted to the notion that hope itself is in vain. ‘Od lo avdah tikvateinu, our hope has never ceased’: that is the true anthem of the Jewish People.

But yesterday, watching the reflections of all eight candles on the final night of Chanukkah, and the reflections of their reflections now stretching out from my own home, I felt a sense of loss. ‘Farewell, light and hope of Chanukkah!’ I felt I was saying. ‘Farewell! Don’t get lost in the darkness!’

It was then that it struck me for the first time that those flames might be travelling in the opposite direction. Maybe they weren’t going out into the darkness but seeking to come in from it. Maybe they were saying to me: ‘Let me in!’

There passed through my mind the beautiful lines from Yehudah Halevi’s sea poem, when the waters, finally calm after a terrifying storm, once again peacefully mirror the night sky

‘And the stars are astray in the heart of the sea
Like exiles driven from their homes.

So I ask myself now, ‘Whom can I let in to my heart-space, to my home? What light might they bring with them, and what might I see differently, or entirely anew, by its flames?’

That is my hope for this year ahead, that, whoever we are, we may see further, more widely and more deeply, that we have seen before.

Hoshana Rabba – Who Saves?

Once again today, as on Yom Kippur, the greeting is Gmar Tov, ‘A good ending’: May we, our communities, our country and the world be sealed for a good destiny. In rabbinic tradition Hoshana Rabba is the day of the final closing of the books, when the blessings and challenges, the rainfall and drought, for the year ahead are determined. Once again, the leader wears white and for one last time we hear the deep melodies of the High Holydays.

I do not take these concepts literally, but they express the deep reverence I have for this day, and the respect and love I feel for its powerful, unusual prayers. As long as he lived, I would go to synagogue with my father on Hoshana Rabba: it was our special time together before God.

I was up early, as one has to be on Hoshana Rabba. I woke with the rabbis’ ancient question in my mind, ‘What was God doing before creating this earth?’ The answer they give is: ‘God was busy creating and destroying other worlds.’ In my head, too, was that line from the liturgy which predates astrophysics by millennia: ‘Toleh erets al blimah, – God suspends the earth over nothingness.’ A similar thought must have gripped the scientist and poet Rachel Elson, who wrote the marvellous line: ‘We astronomers honour our responsibility to awe.’

So where is our world going? Toward what destiny are we headed?

One word and one line are repeated over and again in the ancient litany of today. The word is ‘Hoshana, Save!’ It’s as plain a cry to God as language can produce. The line is only slightly longer: Ani Vaho Hoshi’ana, – I and God, let us save.’ The single word places all the burden on the divine; the line understands that responsibility as shared: What can you and I, what can God and we, do together to save our world?

There is nothing banal or generalised about the pleas which follow. They are the beseeching of people who know their vulnerability, the pleas of subsistence growers, tenant farmers, viticulturists, pilgrims all, who well understand the perils which beset them:

Save sinew, bone and skin; save the winepress and the standing corn; save with strong, healing rains that give life to forsaken lands…

The prayers are the petitions, too, of a nation which knows persecution, of communities who ‘understand the soul of the refugee,’ They are the cries of the asylum-seekers of previous centuries, small-boat people of all generations:

Save the exiled and cast out; save those scattered among those who hate them…

Though each brief prayer is punctuated by the cry Hoshana, the final line is Ani vaHo, We and God: what can we and the divine, what can each of us, inspired and chastened by the presence of God in each other and all life, achieve together? What can we do for our beautiful, joyous world, beleaguered by suffering and injustice. What can we save?

Just as Neil’ah holds the paradox that at the closing of Yom Kippur we pray for the opening of the gates, so, despite the greeting ‘a good ending’, Hoshana Rabba calls us not to a fate already sealed but to a new beginning. It tasks us with the fashioning of a different and better collective destiny, to which we, all humanity together with God, must devote our grit, determination, inspiration, body, mind and soul.

What We Pray For

U’Teshuvah, u’Tefilah, u’Tsedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezerah: Repentance, Prayer and Charity remove the evil of the decree.’ These words come at the centre of our Yom Kippur prayers. Repentance, prayer and charity have the power to transform the meaning of our days, save lives, impact entire communities, and potentially even change the world. This is not because they call down miraculous interventions from heaven but because they appeal to our heart. They re-awaken the sacred spark of God within us all.

I’ve tried to write about Teshuvah during the course of this week. The opportunities for Tsedakah are all around us; the synagogue has communicated its priorities and numerous organisations contact us regularly. It is essential to understand Tsedakah not solely as ‘charity’, but as derived from the word’s root meaning: justice. Tsedakah is single-word shorthand for our obligation to work, through our money, time and values, for a less cruel, less unjust, more compassionate world.

What then about Tefilah, prayer? The machzor, the festival prayer book for Yom Kippur, contains thousands of words. Why so many? Why pray at all? I can only offer a personal response, for whatever it’s worth. But it’s an answer deeply rooted in the writings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889 – 1943), subsequently known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw, Ghetto, for whom my utter respect deepens with everything I read.

Of course, we pray for many things on Yom Kippur, forgiveness, healing, a better world; we pray for hope itself. But at heart, the Rabbi writes, we pray simply for ‘tosefet yirah me’ahavah, – more awe from love.’

Simple words are often the most evocative – and bewildering. I’ve puzzled over that phrase ‘more awe from love’ many times. I’ve asked others what they mean to them.

Ahavat, love, is the Rabbi’s most encompassing understanding of life’s purpose. It’s ‘love your God’, ‘love your neighbour’, ‘love the stranger’, ‘love Torah’ and ‘love the world’ all combined into one. It’s the heart’s response to God’s presence in the world; a presence often hidden, hard to disclose, difficult to discover, yet there within everything: in the preciousness, fragility, beauty and sanctity of life, in every person and all living beings.

Yirah can mean fear. But in this context, it should definitely be translated as awe, what Abraham Joshua Heschel called ‘radical amazement’. Awe is our response when we become aware of the wonder and holiness of life. Day by day, worn down by struggles and chores, far tougher in the Warsaw of the 30’s than for most of us today, we forget God’s presence in life. But the High Holydays, with their solemnity, rituals, music and liturgy stir the soul and re-awaken us to wonder.

That’s ‘love’ and ‘awe’. But what about ‘awe from love’? I understand it like this: those whom we love we experience as most special and most precious. We are also most acutely aware of their vulnerability. The very last thing we want to do is to hurt them in any way. This is awe from love, the determination to protect and cherish, honour and appreciate.

The Rabbi’s prayer is that we should experience an increase in such awe from love towards life itself. It’s a prayer that we be filled with wonder and respect before this beloved world, that such wonder doesn’t desert us but grows stronger within us, that it opens our hearts and guides our actions, that it motivates us to honour and love life more deeply. That, writes Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, is the essence of all prayer.

And how do we know if this prayer has been answered? He writes: the sign that our prayers have been listened to in heaven is if they’ve been heard by us in our hearts, if they’ve awoken our spirit to awe.

Reconciliation

I’m troubled by how to translate those Hebrew words lephayeis et chavero, which the Shulchan Aruch, Joseph Caro’s sixteenth century code of Jewish law, tells us to do on the eve of Yom Kippur. ‘Appease our fellow beings’, ‘propitiate’: the words have a ring of insincerity, as if the important thing were to stop others from being upset with us rather than to address the hurt. That’s why I prefer ‘apologise’ or ‘seek reconciliation’.

The Torah states that Yom Kippur, with its rites and prayers, atones for ‘all our sins before God.’ But no amount of beseeching heaven can short-circuit the need to make reparation and apologise to each other. The notion that Yom Kippur amounts to God offering us a free pardon is false. We have to face our fellow beings whom we’ve hurt.

That means facing difficult truths in ourselves. Even saying a superficial sorry can be hard. ‘They’re incapable of admitting they’re wrong,’ is a not infrequent criticism when someone’s stubborn refusal to concede gets on our nerves, whether in family or political life.

But true apology goes deeper. It’s motivated by the awareness of what we’ve said and done may feel like to the other person. At the time we did it, we were impelled by our own emotions. Now, maybe soon or maybe long afterwards, maybe slowly or maybe suddenly, maybe because a third party tells us, we hear our words from a different perspective. We realise and take to heart the pain we’ve caused. We long to apologise, not because we’ve been told we ought to, or even because we want to clear our conscience, though that may remain a – legitimate – part of our motivation, but primarily because we are truly sorry that we’ve given hurt.

Dostoevsky described humility as the root of all good and humiliation as the cause of much evil. Is apologising humbling or humiliating? I believe it is, or at least should be, the former. It cuts into our pride and self-righteousness, but in so doing it opens and deepens our capacity to listen, our empathy, our moral imagination, our heart. Something is wrong if as a society we perpetuate a moral climate in which saying sorry is always seen as a climb-down, a failure, a form of self-abasement. It’s cruel when people who sincerely say sorry are mocked on social media. There’s dignity in honest apology.

But that doesn’t necessarily make it easier. It’s not enough to mutter a general ‘Sorry if I upset you.’ We have to name what we did and apologise specifically and clearly, unless that would cause additional pain to the other person. We’re not entitled to open old wounds, or cause fresh injuries, in order to relieve ourselves of a bad conscience.

If our apology isn’t accepted the first time, the Shulchan Aruch tells us to go as many as three more times, finding a different way to offer our apology on each occasion and taking three people with us as witnesses. Presumably this is to testify to the sincerity of our endeavour, and, if it’s a public falling out, to make it clear that we’ve done our best to put matters right.

If, after all these attempts, our apology is still not accepted, then, says the Shulchan Aruch, eyno zakuk lo, we don’t need…’ It’s unclear whether the lo means ‘it’, that is, acceptance of our contrition, or ‘him’, the person from whom we’re seeking that acceptance. Regarding the latter, Jewish teaching is clear: we shouldn’t be hard-hearted and refuse to forgive, because ‘measure for measure, God is forgiving to those who forgive others.’

It’s hard when our apology is rebuffed. We want to have a clear conscience, but this leaves us troubled. Where do we stand? It’s not dissimilar when we can’t apologise, although we really want to, because the relevant person is no longer accessible to us, or is unaware of what we did and to tell them would inflict new wounds. Sometimes the best we can do is be honest with ourselves, share our remorse with a trusted friend, or speak to God.

There’s a ritual for apologising to those no longer alive; one goes to the grave taking witnesses and says ‘I’ve done wrong before God and you…’ This is an act of truth, an act of love.

But what about all those we can never know we’ve hurt, people who suffer because of our way of life, because we damage the world, because we ignore, or had no time for, their needs. What about the animals? They are sentient too. What about nature?

In the end our apologies need to be like boomerangs, returning to our heart and conscience, telling us to try to do better. They must motivate us to be less blind, less cruel, more generous, more embracing in our empathy, kinder, better people.

Selichah uMechilah – On Forgiveness and Letting Go

On Yom Kippur we say over and again, ‘Selcah lanu, mechal lanu, forgive us and pardon us.’ But are we ourselves forgiving and pardoning? Like they say about charity, forgiveness begins at home. It’s easy to be sentimental – and superficial – about it; but genuine, deep-reaching forgiveness for real hurts is hard.

Of course, many of life’s incidents are trivial, and the sooner we see them as such the better, letting go of our irritation with a ‘these things happen’ smile.

But when it comes to real wounds, forgiveness entails emotional generosity and courage. Moreover, since old sores tend to re-open in our memory, forgiveness is often something we have to struggle with many times over.

Forgiveness includes forgiving each other, life itself for its cruelties and injustice, and, sometimes hardest of all, ourselves. It does not include condoning wrongdoing and undermining responsibility and accountability.

To feel hurt and resentment is only human. In our worst moments we’re liable to turn Hillel’s famous line on his head, ‘Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you,’ and think instead, ‘I want to do back to those so-and-sos exactly the same hateful things they did to me!’

Hebrew has two terms for forgiveness. The first is selichah, which my teacher Rabbi Magonet explains as almost always referring in the Bible to God. The second is mechilah, pardon, a word found more often in rabbinic literature, which indicates the willingness to let go of our dignity and rights, including the ‘right’ to hold over others the threat of hurting them back for what they’ve done to us.

I find this idea of ‘letting go’ helpful. Forgiving another person doesn’t mean forgetting, let alone condoning, what happened. Rather, it entails letting go of our justified feelings of hurt and anger in favour of repairing our relationship. The motivation for such mechilah is the value we attach to that relationship. Recognising that our collegiality, companionship, or, in our closest relationships, the love we have for each other matters more than the hurt which has come between us, allows us to stop holding the incident over the other person’s head.

Instead, we can acknowledge it and try to learn from it so that the connection between us, including its mistakes and wounds, grows deeper. This is forgiveness at its best.

I believe something related can apply to forgiving ourselves. Because we’re only human, we’re unlikely to avoid carrying deep, in-the-flesh-and-bone feelings of shame and regret. Others may, or may not, have forgotten or forgiven; but either way we struggle to do so. Perhaps we can think of God, or life itself, as saying to us: ‘We matter deeply to each other. You’re only mortal, and it’s impossible to get everything right. Accept this humbling truth. Then, for the sake of the future, let your self-doubts and mistakes become your teachers, deepening your understanding and compassion for yourself and others, inspiring you to bring healing to life.

What, though of true wickedness and evil, which one should be extremely sceptical about associating with a word like forgiveness lest it be thought that they could ever be forgotten or condoned? These are wounds to humanity itself, and to the victims in particular, from which we have to hope, vainly it often seems, that humankind will learn for the future.

What, too, of life itself, with all its inequality and unfairness, the illness it often randomly inflicts, the untimely griefs it can bring, the way it puts hapless people in the wrong place at the wrong time, and makes millions, children included, carry pain in the heart for the rest of their lives? How can one forgive?

It’s understandable if people end up bitter.

But it’s a bad outcome. Sometimes we have to try to let go, simply because not to do so hurts more. We embrace, and asked to be embraced by, the spirit of compassion, the God of mercy, so that we can live not a bitter or hard-hearted but a generous and loving life.

Like so much else connected with forgiveness, it’s easily said, but a life-long task to do.

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.

Can Anger be Consoling?

Yesterday was the fast of The Ninth of Av, the bleak commemoration of disaster. Tonight begins Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. I wish there was a little more space between these days, because I’m still struggling with the tell-tale signs of a hangover from the fast, backache and tiredness, and need a little longer to shift my thoughts. According to tradition, the morning after, the first half of the tenth of Av, retains a lingering subdued mood because the fires in Jerusalem still raged – as do the fires today across Europe’s forests.

Yet the immediate proximity of these two dates, not rare in the Jewish calendar, has challenged my understanding of what consolation means. We can find solace in wonder. Can we also find it in anger?

Wonder is the theme of this coming Shabbat. Its readings are filled with beauty. Isaiah’s call to consolation is among the most stirring passages in the entire Hebrew Bible. He begins, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people…Speak to the heart of Jerusalem…’ and ends, ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see who created all these, who brought them forth in all their hosts.’

The story is told of a hasid who said to his rabbi: ‘I’ve read thirty-six interpretations of that verse, but it was only when I looked up and saw, really saw, the magnificence of the stars that I understood.’ ‘You must write your explanation down,’ the rabbi insisted. ‘No,’ the hasid replied; ‘that would merely turn it into explanation thirty-seven.’

The world is full of wonder, in skyscapes, landscapes, music and poetry and in the grace of so many human interactions. We need that beauty to restore our soul and enable us to go on living.

But maybe we also need our anger. ‘I’m so furious,’ a friend said to me at the close of yesterday’s prayers. He was referring to the all too frequently heartless treatment of refugees. ‘Indignant’ might be a better term, but it feels too weak to describe the fire in the bones that refuses to let us be passive in the face of cruelty.

Yesterday I came across astonishing lines by the German-speaking poet of the Holocaust, Gershon ben David. He sees himself standing in silent fields, ‘pregnant’ with ashes of the slaughtered:

And I asked myself: am I
The keeper
Of my brother Cain

It’s a startling inversion. In Genesis, God challenges Cain to explain the whereabouts of his brother Abel whom he’s just murdered. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Cain notoriously retorts. But in the poem, it’s not the guilty party who’s challenged about his responsibility toward the innocent, but the innocent brother who’s questioned about his responsibility toward the guilty.

Are we, too, all keepers of those potential Cains who inhabit our world? I’m not thinking of murderers, but of those who exhibit the cruelty, or heedlessness, which seems to come so frequently to the fore across our societies these days? What, too, about the small part of Cain which may be present in ourselves, waiting for us to loosen our guard? Are we responsible towards these ‘brother’ Cains? What might that entail? Can we awaken in them a better self, someone, beneath all appearances, potentially merciful? If not, how can we best challenge and overcome them?

I fear we are indeed the keepers of our brothers Cain, external and internal. To fight them we need the energy of anger; we might call this ‘the anger of compassion’. How otherwise can we confront the destructive forces in our world? The art is not just to challenge them but, if and when possible, to turn them about so that they too become part of the work of nurturing life.

We need the solace of wonder to nourish our heart and spirit, and the energy of indignation to give courage to our conscience so that we join the struggle for what is just and right. In so doing, we gain the consolation of contributing whatever we can towards life and hope.

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