The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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To the leaders of the G7

Something has been haunting me this dawn. It’s connected to the G7, but it’s not about politics.

So that you remember:’ I woke with these words searching my head like torchlights. But what were they looking for? ‘Remember!’ Remember what? It was like one of those discomfiting moments when you can’t recall a familiar name; you know that you know it, but it remains obstinately irretrievable behind a barrier of unforthcoming brain cells.

Except that it wasn’t a name I was after. It was a spirit, an awareness, that sense ‘of something far more deeply interfused’ of which Wordsworth writes, which sometimes visits the soul in the pre-dawn, holding a hushed conversation in semi-comprehensible associations, like a friend from the old days who turns up unpredictably from nowhere, mysterious but benign, then vanishes.

Lema’an tizkeru – So that you remember:’ the words come from the Torah and form the core of the third part of the Shema, Judaism’s twice daily meditation:

So that you remember and do my commandments; then you shall be holy to your God. (Bemidbar 15:40)

Usually, it’s something specific we’re told to remember, an event or a date. But this ‘remember’ has no object, as if to say ‘remember everything’ – and the purpose beyond everything. This thought reminds me of how a person I scarcely knew once turned to me as I stood watching the river in Cambridge forty years ago: ‘Never forget why you’re here in this world,’ he said. ‘Don’t ever forget that you belong to something higher which you have to serve.’ His words stuck in my soul.

I’m one of a group of religious leaders who were invited to offer a short video message at last night’s multi-faith service in Truro Cathedral for the leaders of the G7. I don’t know if they actually attended, but our instruction was to talk values to power, to speak climate justice, vaccine justice and our duties to the destitute.

We were asked to give voice to a call to awareness, beyond machination and advantage, self-interest and the need for profit; to bring to mind that spirit, sacred and universal, to which all power owes allegiance.

Each faith addresses it in a unique manner, but it is ultimately one. Even God is only a name, a word in human language, for that oneness, all-present and all-pervading, manifest in everything, yet hidden in everything, to which we are summoned to devote our service and allegiance.

Bringing it to mind is not sufficient. We have to act on what it tells us to do. ‘Va’asitem et kol mitzvotai – then do my commandments,’ the Torah continues. The voice which speaks in private to the heart is at the same time the most powerful, unremitting, non-negotiable demand for action: do justice; be compassionate; discipline yourself; know your responsibilities; align yourself with creation.

The world looks intently to those in power, as it will again at COP 26, to exercise their influence humbly but urgently, according to the demands of sacred wisdom.

Ve’heyitem kedoshim – then you shall be holy to your God,’ the Torah concludes. God is called Chei HaChaim, the life of life, the life force within all existence.

We can quash individual lives, human or animal, but we can never crush that life within life. If, on the contrary, we conduct ourselves and the affairs of our communities and countries in harmony with it, it will guide us, strengthen us, partner with us, and bring us and the world its blessings.

We touch each other’s lives – for injury or blessing?

It was a beautiful place, out near Denham, northwest of London. We stood beneath a canopy of copper leaves, with wildflowers and rhododendrons. It was exactly the kind of ‘melodious plot / Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,’ imagined by Keats in his Ode to a Nightingale, where the birds sing ‘of summer in full-throated ease.’ The group standing around me began a chorus of All Things Bright and Beautiful.

‘Plot’ was sadly the right word, for this was a funeral. I’ve rarely conducted a burial service for a person who wasn’t Jewish. But the woman, who’d died comparatively young, had been married to Graham, a charming man who used to attend my Talmud class and who’d been laid to rest in this same woodland cemetery a decade earlier. The family had traced me, and now we stood together, a small group around the grave, touched by our shared humanity and mortality, and by a quiet sense of partnership with all this life around us. We sang; the birds sang. ‘The Lord God made them all:’ it was at once beautiful and humbling.

We touch each other’s lives all the time, but often don’t know to what effect. Thank goodness, ten years ago I’d evidently not said the wrong thing, inadvertently alienating this family. But I also have moments I look back on with shame: why did I say that? We don’t always know whom we hurt and can’t always make amends. I remember hurrying into a bookshop where another customer asked me for a recommendation. I muttered something about being in a rush. Afterwards, recognising I’d been rude, I went back to apologise, but the person had gone and I’d no idea who it was.

Some lives we touch directly; others we affect remotely, since how we live here impacts on basic realities for people on the other side of the world. Distance doesn’t mean zero responsibility.

Nor is it only human life with which we interact. I often think of Thomas Hardy’s poem Afterwards. He imagines people thinking of him ‘when the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn’ and remembering how ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm.’ How I wish we could strive more effectively for all life to come to no harm, because all life matters, and, albeit in different ways, one spirit flows through us all.

Tomorrow, June 5, is World Environment Day, ‘the United Nations’ principal vehicle for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of the environment’. Looking online, I find Together We Can Be #Generationrestoration.

This media-age twitter-handle paradoxically takes me back to the oldest scene in the Torah, when God entrusts Adam and Eve with the wellbeing of creation. It recalls the rabbis’ explanation of God’s instruction to Abraham to be a blessing:

‘Until now the blessings were in my hands,’ says God; ‘from now on they’re in yours.’

Listening to All Things Bright and Beautiful, sung by a diverse group of people almost all of whom I’d never met before, brought together by the woman we’d laid to rest in this woodland full of life, reminded me of this great trust.

‘The capacity to bless life is in everybody,’ wrote Rachel Remen in My Grandfather’s Blessings:

When we recognise the spark of God in others, we blow on it with our attention and strengthen it, no matter how deeply it has been buried or for how long. When we bless someone, we touch the unborn goodness in them and wish it well.

Each of our lives, and all life, needs that blessing.

‘My light is in your hands’ – How we need to keep up each other’s spirit

I have always loved the Torah’s instructions for the lighting of the menorah, with which this week’s portion begins. It was the responsibility of the priests, the children of Aaron, who were commanded to use only the finest olive oil. They had to fill each lamp with sufficient fuel to burn through the longest nights of the year, to shine out amidst the darkness.

The relief depiction on Titus’s arch in Rome, showing defeated Jews carrying the Menorah in their enemies’ victory parade after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE, is vivid testament to the historical accuracy of the account of the lighting of the lamps in the Temple.

But more and more often I think of the description as a metaphor for an essential reality, a truth without which it would be almost impossible to live.

The Torah doesn’t say ‘Kindle the lamps;’ instead it uses the expression, ‘Cause the lights to ascend.’

How often in life the inner flame burns low, and bewilderment engulfs us. ‘I said “the darkness will crush me,” wrote the Psalmist, pausing before continuing, “But darkness is not too dark for you.”

Who is that ‘you’? Who, when they threaten to gutter, causes the inner flames of hope and joy to re-ascend inside us? What refills the spirit’s internal lamp, hoping it will burn through even the longest nights?

Sometimes it’s life’s simple wonders which restore us, like the moon which stood in stillness just above the trees, luminous and wonderful, as dawn came yesterday. Or as when a friend said, ‘Did you see that?’ ‘See what?’ I asked. ‘Oh, nothing,’ he answered. ‘It was just a little spider’s web, with dew on it, in a moment of sun.’ It wasn’t nothing; it was glory.

Sometimes it’s the dog, literally as well as figuratively, I walked home through local woods near midnight recently. It was so dark I couldn’t see the path and lost the feel of tarmac underfoot. Only the tiny patter of dog paws on the broken twigs made me find the way.

Sometimes it’s a stranger, like the attendant in one of the rooms of the National Gallery, who came up to me as I was drifting through on my own and said very quietly, ‘I don’t know why, but something is telling me to say to you: Remember life is precious and know that you have something to give.’ It was three seconds of solicitude 35 years ago, but it still directs my path.

Sometimes its music or a line of a poem. Since before sunrise the lines of this prayer have been calling me:

Pay attention to the soul, jacinth, agate, amethyst;
Hewn from the throne of glory… to give light towards the dawn.

I can’t fathom the depths of what these words mean, but they’ve been singing inside my head.

There was a programme on music as survival on Radio 4 yesterday: ‘I was in the midst of post-natal depression, but when she started to sing, I felt she was speaking directly, personally to me.’

Most often it’s those we’re liable to take for granted, family, friends, community, and those ordinary, those ordinary-special things we do together: ‘Come on, shall we go for that walk?’ The love is in the everyday.

What I’m sure about is that we are all the children of Aaron, responsible for ‘causing the flame to ascend’ in each other’s lives. We can’t always succeed, but it is the determination not to give up which makes the record of human history not just painful but humbling and endlessly inspiring.

‘My light is on your hands, and your light is in mine:’ the rabbis put these words in God’s mouth. But they are true for every one of us towards each other too, and it’s for this that we are here.

One Year Later

Today marks one year since the murder of George Floyd. His simple words ‘I can’t breathe’, as he struggled for life, fill us with horror and shame.

In the US, the UK and across the world many have tried to live more deeply and sincerely the truth that Black Lives Matter. There is, hopefully, a greater awareness of what needs to be done in education, policing and across every layer of society and its organisations. This country has been forced to think more closely about the ongoing impacts of the colonial past.

In Judaism, the defining statement about the value of human life is that every person is created in God’s image and that every human being is both equal and unique. The far-reaching and incisive report commissioned by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and written by Stephen Bush sets out in detail the work we must do to live by those truths in our synagogues, schools, youth movements and homes.

 

 

Standing in solidarity with the bridge-builders and healers

‘And give you peace:’ these words, which we read in the Torah tomorrow, could not sound with greater urgency. They command us to be on the side of the healers, wherever and through whatever we live. Sometimes this is obvious and easy. Sometimes it demands the greatest vison and courage.

Just hours ago, a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas began. We must pray not only that it endures, but that it brings negotiations which lead to more than a temporary cessation in killing, to something which brings not just brief respite but well-founded hope to all, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs.

The rockets and bombs have left terrible new wounds and torn old injuries open. ‘When the siren went, my first thought was “I am a mother”,’ said an Israeli colleague with a six-month-old baby. What can one possibly say to parents in Gaza, or Israel, who have seen their child torn apart?

Frightful, too, are the wounds which cannot be captured in searing pictures: from the impact of fear, from the knowledge that there are those who want you dead, from the long-term effects of terror and trauma on the heart and psyche. ‘No one wanted to kill me in the place where I grew up,’ said an Israeli friend.

All around are the wound-harvesters, collecting the pain, anger, dread and frustration as ammunition for the next round of hate. They find no shortage of evidence to back their cases.

That is why it is so important to stand alongside the healers. It would be easy to underestimate the courage of those many groups of Jews and Arabs who have stood together, despite the destruction and threats, in Jerusalem at the Jaffa Gate, in Zichron, in Haifa and elsewhere. This is an act of inner as well as outer, courage under fire, in defiance of the voices which say, ‘Can’t you see, they all hate us?’

Here are the words of some of the leaders:

Living in Sderot, just a short distance from Gaza, I feel the explosions twice. I feel them at home and I feel them as they happen among our neighbours, the Palestinians in Gaza. Today we must and will continue to put the divine demand to “love your neighbour – your fellow human being – as you would love yourself” to the test. Avi Dabush, Executive Director, Rabbis for Human Rights

Today we are facing a test…on how we communicate to these young people that to be a hero means taking responsibility and to change reality, not through violence, hatred and incitement. Being a hero demands courage to talk, to meet reality head on. It demands strength and resilience. This is what we, as adults, must give to our kids. Parents, religious leaders, political leaders must take this mission up and go out and be with our young people, to meet them and speak with them and think with them about what we need to do to restore trust and faith. Ghadir Hani, Palestinian Israeli and activist.

Like everyone, I have read reports and opinions of all kinds, and failed or avoided reading many more. In the end, I don’t know where better to stand, albeit from a distance, than in support of the healers and bridge-builders. For the wounds of fear, grief, trauma and injustice cut to the heart on both sides.

My prayers are with these words, written together by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum and Sheikh Ibtisam Mahameed in Jerusalem:

God of Life!
You who heal the broken hearted, binding up our wounds…
Hear our voice that we not despair…
That we have mercy on one another…
That we hope together, one for another…*

* The full text can be found here.

Standing together at a very painful time

We stand just three days before Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah. This Torah is always understood as Torat chaim, the teaching of life. In these terrible times across Israel and Gaza, we pray for the teaching of life.

We pray for the safety of everyone, an end to the violence, a restoration of calm and coexistence across shared cities and neighbourhoods, and leadership which can bring hope for the future to both Israelis and Palestinians. Our hearts go out to everyone bereaved, wounded, and living in anxiety and fear. Our thoughts are for our family and friends, – and everyone.

The first of the Ten Commandments spoken at Sinai is ‘I am the Lord your God.’ Since the human being is created in God’s image, the echo of that commandment can be heard in every person. God calls out in the unique sanctity of each life. There is therefore no place in true faith for race hate, vigilante groups, be they Jewish, Muslim or any other, or for cruelty, injustice and humiliation.

I will never forget my short visit to Israel towards the end of the fighting in Gaza in 2014. I visited Tel Hashomer hospital and listened to wounded soldiers. A family whose son was killed showed me his Siddur, his prayer book. Handwritten on the opening pages were his hopes for a life of goodness and generosity. He’d been due to get married in just a few weeks.

I was taken to a hospital in East Jerusalem which was receiving wounded children from Gaza. I’ll never forget this searing experience. I asked an older man sitting by the bed of a child whether this was his son. ‘No,’ he said; the parents were dead, killed together with eighteen members of the family.

There is only more hurt in all this violence, another ring of pain and anger which will someday have to be overcome. Only respect for all human life, fairness and something to hope for can bring a truly safe future.

So I turn with respect and deep admiration to some of the messages sent in these last days. Here is a letter from The Abraham Initiatives:

We are planning a national campaign entitled: “Only Together.” The campaign, in Hebrew and Arabic, will feature images of Jews and Arabs in everyday life: shopping together; studying together at university; working together in hospitals fighting Covid-19. Our campaign will feature on the main TV channels…

Here is a joint statement sent by Rabbi Ofek Meir from headteachers of Jewish and Arab schools in Haifa:

Our role as educators is to raise the younger generation to be independent, critical thinkers, with values; and to be a generation who will create knowledge, opinions, narratives and culture; and who respect the other’s opinion, and who believe in the values ​​of equality and human rights. This is true anytime, anywhere, but especially now and in Haifa in particular.

This is from Rabbi Arik Ascherman, so often attacked for his defence of basic human justice:

One of the few positive developments has been the religious and other civil leaders who have begun to stand together and call for an end to the hate and violence that has led to Israeli Jews and Arabs lynching each other. Tonight around the country average Jewish and Arab citizens stood together to say no to the violence.

Here is from Rabbi Yoav Ende of the Masorti community of Hannaton:

Tonight, activists from Hannaton will join together with others from nearby communities and Arab villages for a joint demonstration of peace and hope;spreading a message of change, a message of a better Israel that can and must be here – showing that living together without conflict, without violence, is not only imperative, it is immediately achievable.

I see in my garden Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, three of whose daughters were killed in Gaza, standing by the apple tree I planted in their memory, taking a photograph of it to send to his other children. I often reread sections of his book I Shall Not Hate.

Dr Abuelaish, Rabbi Yoav Ende, may our prayers ascend together.

A cukoo and a foal

FoalIt happened almost at the same moment: we heard the call of the cuckoo and, as if that wasn’t joy enough, turned a corner on the hill path and saw the tiny foal lying in the heather. Holding tightly on to our dog, we watched the days-old animal muster control of its long thin legs and trot to its mother’s side.

I am grateful for this week in the Herefordshire hills, with the birdsong as my shacharit chorus, the blackbirds, pied wagtails, chaffinches and goldfinches, and with the dawn sun on the young leaves of oak and alder. The bluebells are out, the wild garlic too, primroses, cowslips and wood anemones. In almost every field (you’re back on the lead dogs, I’m afraid) are lambs.

There have been so many losses in our community, so much illness and worry. And beyond, across the world, all the cries for urgent help, and all the loneliness of grief. It sits in one’s heart, fills one’s thoughts and calls out in one’s prayers. And one can’t take people’s troubles away; at best all one can do is maybe for a brief time make wounds a little less painful to bear.

Therefore I am grateful for these days, not to get away, but rather to take strength, to experience the flow of something deeper, the resilience and renewal of life in the simplicity of its wonder, and feel it fill the soul with quiet restoration.

Shavuot, the celebration of God’s word at Sinai, is just over a week away. But that revelation is also every day, in the very current and essence of life. ‘Zeh Eli: This is my God,’ goes the song in the Torah: right here is your presence, in the dawn light shining in the river as it runs over the stones, in the green glow of young leaves and in the maple’s red.

I was privileged to listen to a dialogue between two great teachers of Bible, Professor Michael Fishbane and Professor Ellen Davis (a Christian scholar from whose book Scripture and Agriculture I often quote). They spoke on Psalm 19, which we read every shabbat morning. It opens with the sunrise and nature, turns to Torah and the wisdom of its teachings, and concludes with the soul’s desire to be pure of wrongdoing so that it can hear God’s voice.

That Psalm contains one of my favourite verses:

Day utters speech to day and night whispers knowledge to night;
There is no speech, there are no words, in which their voice is not heard.

Ellen Davis cited lines from a poem, a commentary, or perhaps in truth a contemporary Psalm in itself, by Malcolm Guite. He listens ‘In that still place where earth and heaven meet’ and understands that ‘these are all God’s words.’ (David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms, Psalm 19)

It’s one of the deepest joys of human life, overhearing as God speaks in the birdsong and the trees, sensing the oneness of all things, feeling that same spirit flow also through me as it flows through every life.

 

Lag Be’Omer

We are all deeply shocked by the news from Israel this morning. Over forty people have been crushed to death through crowd pressure during Lag Be’Omer celebrations in Miron in the Galilee. We do not yet know either the full extent or the causes of this appalling and heart-rending disaster. But a day which should mark healing and joy has become a tragedy.

Our hearts go out to the families of the bereaved and injured, to everyone traumatised, to all the responders and medics who did and are doing their utmost to help.

The Jewish response, the human response, and probably the only thing we can do from afar, is to give tzedakah. This is probably the only channel we currently have to express our sorrow and solidarity. It is not yet clear if there is a specific appeal for the victims. So please consider supporting any medical charity in Israel and / or contributing to any cause of healing.

We have also been asked by members of our community currently living in India to contribute to the British Asian Trust Emergency Appeal. It is providing desperately needed oxygen and life-saving equipment. You can donate here.

All we can do is be on the side of chaim vechesed, life and compassion.


Today is the morning of Lag Be’Omer, the day of healing which comes two thirds of the way between Pesach and Shavuot, Passover and Pentecost. It’s beautiful in the gardens today; the pear trees and apple trees are in blossom and the scented lilac, held back by April frosts, will soon be open.

The date has a particular resonance this year. According to tradition, it marked the end of a plague which killed thousands of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva in the second century. Though the pandemic afflicting us is not over, we hope this day may come to mark an irrevocable turning point back to life, community and hope. Wherever in the world Covid continues to spread, bringing sickness and grief, we must all do our utmost to help.

Strangely, the date has its own ancient lockdown story too. Its hero is Rabbi Shimeon bar Yohai, who died on Lag Be’Omer and who whose life is celebrated annually with bonfires and songs. He was forced to hide in a cave for twelve years together with his son Elazar, to escape the Roman authorities who had condemned him to death for criticising their works. It’s a long time to be shielding, in secret, from the entire world.

But it’s what transpires when he emerges from lockdown which is so strangely moving. He and his son are unable to come to terms with the ordinariness of the world. They see people ploughing and sowing. Little could be more innocent or necessary and yet the sight angers them:

‘They forsake the life of the world to come (the study of Torah), and busy themselves with the things of this world!’ (they exclaimed.) Wherever they looked, they destroyed. (Talmud, Shabbat 33b)

A voice comes down from heaven, or perhaps it expresses the misgivings in their own conscience, and says: ‘Have you come out to destroy my world? Go back to your cave!’

The world is beautiful. It is God’s world, sacred and wonderful. Nothing in nature is too simple to be cherished. Life, ordinary, everyday life, is a privilege. Nothing should be taken for granted.

Perhaps it’s the shock of the transition which was too much for Rabbi Shimeon and his son. They return to their cave to absorb these lockdown lessons, which we too have been taking to heart for these last fifteen months. After a year, the same voice which ordered them to go back calls them to come out of their cave. They see an old man running to honour the Sabbath with bunches of myrtle; the sight restores their spirits. His son remains troubled, but wherever Rabbi Shimeon now looks, he heals.

I am moved by what might today be termed this post traumatic stress growth. Lockdown leaves many wounds. In the legend Rabbi Shimeon is met by his father-in-law Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, who takes him to the bathhouse to treat his emaciated body. When he sees the cracks and chaps in his son-in-law’s skin from hiding for so long in a dry cave, he weeps and his falling tears sting the very sores he is trying to heal. It’s a tender scene of sorrow, hope and learning shared.

But what is decisive is that voice which Rabbi Shimeon hears when he first emerges back into life. It’s ‘my world,’ God’s world: life is to be loved and honoured; the ordinary is wondrous too; people’s foibles are to be tolerated and their devotion respected and admired….

What Earth Day, Stephen Lawrence, & the BoD’s Commission on Inclusivity have in common

‘Awareness was in exile.’ These words stuck in my mind through yesterday’s double date.

It was Earth Day, founded 51 years ago out of love of our planet.

It was Stephen Lawrence Day, established in 2018, ‘about the part we all play in creating a society in which everyone can flourish.’

Yesterday, too, the Board of Deputies of British Jews published the report by Stephen Bush of its Commission on Racial Inclusivity in the Jewish Community. Based on the testimony of numerous witnesses, its insights are heartfelt and incisive and its recommendations clear, specific and detailed. Every community and organisation should study it and make plans to implement its findings.

The day before yesterday, the killer of George Floyd was found guilty of murder.

‘Awareness is in exile’ is a catchphrase from the Jewish mystics. The Hebrew is ‘hada’at begalut’. Da’at is usually translated as knowledge but here it means more: perception, realisation, awareness. When we have da’at,our mind and conscience are alert. We recognise what we do to each other and the world. When da’at is in exile, we’re oblivious.

These mystics weren’t cocooned in a spiritual reverie of practical and social irrelevance. ‘Awareness is in exile’ was how they explained that archetypal landscape of injustice in the Torah: slavery in Egypt, the cruel, racist dehumanising of others.

Different as they are, Earth Day and Stephen Lawrence Day have a disturbing amount in common. Both have roots in a history of exploitation. In A Decolonial Ecology, Michael Ferdinand makes a disturbing link between colonising other peoples and colonising nature. He refers to

a certain way of inhabiting the earth, some believing themselves entitled to appropriate the earth for the benefit of a few… This is what I call “colonial habitation” – a violent way of inhabiting the earth, subjugating lands, humans, and non-humans to the desires of the coloniser.

I want to rebel against these harsh and discomfiting words. But are they untrue? I can hear Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (1730 -1787) in whose work I first encountered the words ‘awareness is in exile,’ saying to me: ‘Are you respectful towards the earth? Do you honour God for its gifts? Are you respectful towards all human beings, created in God’s image?’

There is a deep connection between the recommendations of the Board of Deputies’ report and President Biden’s call yesterday for the US to cut emissions by 2030 to under 50% of what they were in 2005. In the classical language of Judaism, these are calls to Teshuvah, recognition, rethinking and restoration. They require us to take responsibility and make reparation.

The report of the Commission on Racial Inclusivity is based on the statements of witnesses. At the core of this testimony is the failure to notice: what it feels like to be stopped time and again by security; to have one’s specific culture, from the historical and spiritual to the culinary, ignored; to hear hurtful remarks, usually unintentional but no less culpable for that, passed from pulpit and pew.

We hurt the earth, too, because we so often don’t notice, sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes because we feel we can’t help it, most often because we don’t realise, and sometimes wantonly.

The essential question now is what we can do to put things right. We need to bring a deeper awareness out of exile, back to the centre of our mind, heart and conscience.

Israel: the love, the fear, the frustration, the hope

Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, was brought forward to yesterday. But the official date is tomorrow, 5th Iyar, and seeing today is still only the 4th, I’m sticking with the subject. For, despite the wrongs committed against it, and sometimes by it, despite the ugly politics, with four inconclusive elections, Israel holds a place in my soul which even beautiful Scotland, nursing among its lochs my earliest childhood memories, cannot parallel.

Like many Jewish people, I’ve no single answer to why. It’s about ancient history; here Isaiah foresaw the day when nations would unite in righteousness. Here Rabbi Akiva taught that nothing matters more than concern for one’s neighbour. Here the rabbis dreamed and argued through every word of Torah. It’s about humility before the country’s achievements. It’s about frustration over the angers, the unhealed wounds of rejection and injustice, which hurt every sector of the population, each in different ways. It’s about fear; it’s about hope.

Scenes, beautiful, frightening, painful, pursue me. I’m focussing on the former.

It’s an unprepossessing entrance in South Tel Aviv. So the colour upstairs is like an embrace: baskets, small as nut-bowls, big enough to hide in, red and orange, blue and brilliant green. Here, Eritrean women weave and work, talk, cook, listen to music and earn just enough to feed their children. Refugees, robbed, raped in the deserts they fled across, find sanctuary here at Kuchinate.

I recall a not always edifying film about attitudes to refugees in Tel Aviv: a middle-aged man stands before an enormous vat of soup. He holds up his ladle: ‘This is Judaism,’ he says, ‘my parents fled too,’ then fills another bowl and hands it out.

It’s Jerusalem Marathon day, the year I hurt my back and couldn’t run. So Nicky and I watch a different race: the 100 metres for young people with mobility challenges. The children progress slowly, sometimes just one step a minute. A bevvy surrounds each one: family, nurses, maybe a physio. All faiths are here, all focussed on one matter: tender, practical love. This stamina is far deeper than out there on the 42k course.

It’s a path in the Jezreel valley. Yitzhak, over eighty, has silver hair and the wizened face of a truly kind man. Trained as a rabbi in Germany, he came here in the 1930’s. ‘Of course it gives satisfaction when the trees you planted in the bare hills give shade and the wild flowers grow.’

It’s East Jerusalem, and I’m looking at a street I know well, but until now from a very different angle. I’d rarely been in a Palestinian home before. This house was demolished, then rebuilt, and rebuilt again, by a joint Israeli – Palestinian team. It can be done. I’m reminded of sitting with the Imam in a village off the Jerusalem highway, with my close friend whom all the children run to greet: ‘Hey, Simon; Simon.’ I’ve been with the Imam many times; he died this Corona year. I don’t recall exactly, so I’m paraphrasing: ‘I’m often left feeling less than equal in this country. But the thirst for righteousness is here.’

It’s kilometre 34 in a year when I am marathon fit. Noach, who established Israel’s guide dog training school, shouts ‘Take the lead in your left,’ and, passing me golden retriever Harry, we run a hundred metres together.

If only the whole country, the entire region, had a faithful guide dog to see a safe way ahead!

Both times when I crossed that marathon finishing line I wept. I can’t explain why.

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