Yesterday I joined the chaplaincy to the miles-long queue of people waiting to pay tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll. It was a moving and humbling privilege.
Have you been queueing long?
‘Yes, but it’s worth it, isn’t it? I have to show my respect.
‘Not really. If she can serve her country for seventy years, I can stand for seven hours to say thank you.’
The Torah portion for this Shabbat begins with gratitude. While the temple still stood, the entire people was commanded to bring the first fruits of their land and present them in Jerusalem in acknowledgement of God’s blessings. (Deuteronomy 26: 1-11) The ritual was known as viddu’i bikkurim, the confession over the first fruits. It was entirely different from what’s happening in Westminster now. But there’s one thing in common: gratitude.
Can I ask you what’s brought you here?
‘I just want to say thank you.’
Did you meet the Queen?
‘Never. But I saw how she dedicated herself to this country.’
‘Yes, many times. I worked in the palace; we had artisans with every kind of skill to build a new section.’
I learnt nothing which everyone hasn’t heard many times. I answered more questions about whether you could take hand-sanitiser through security (lots) than about faith and God (none). One man asked me in distress whether he’d be allowed to change from his trainers into the shoes he’d brought specially for when he entered Her Majesty’s presence. It was somehow truly touching.
I gleaned no different explanations for why people were here than what we’ve all heard many times. (Except for the gentleman down on one knee with Parliament in the background who claimed he wasn’t taking a picture of his partner but was about to propose. No one around believed him.)
What was moving was not anything exceptional which was said, but the opposite: the plain respect for a life of dignity, humanity and service:
‘She was the mother of the nation.’
‘She was the gran I never had.’
In this often throw-away age of public posturing, an age deeply wounded by fear and insecurity, these virtues are still the rock and at heart we all know it: service, humanity, discipline, dignity, faith.
‘Have you come far?’
‘From Glasgow, overnight. I’ll be back on the bus tonight, but I’m here now.’
‘From New York.’ New York! You came specially? ‘Yes. I just had to.’
The respect with which everyone waited reminded me of the reverence with which our family watched the footage of the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill (Levi Eshkol, Israel’s Prime Minister, walked all the miles of the procession because it was Shabbat). My parents weren’t uncritical of British policy, as many are today of the Royal Family and the concept of monarchy. But they knew that without Churchill the war might not have been won and the country which had offered them liberty as they fled Nazi Germany might not have withstood invasion. Part of what took me to Westminster yesterday (and I’m heading back in a few minutes) is gratitude for a country where my family, and we as Jews, can live in safety. I noticed how many people of different cultures smiled at me as I stood in my ‘faith team’ high-vis with my kippah on my head.
People spoke warmly with one another as they advanced along the line. ‘So you’re family?’ I asked several times:
‘No. We just met in the queue. But we know everything about each other now. We’re going to remain in touch.
According to the Mishnah (2nd century) when people arrived in Jerusalem with their first fruits everyone went out to great them, saying ‘Peace be upon you, my brothers and sisters.’
A queue of tens of thousands of people of all faiths, ethnicities and ages united by respect and reverence is not a daily sight. This, too, is the Queen’s achievement, her legacy. If only it could spread across the world, and long endure.