The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

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Between Yom Ha’Shoah and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut

These days between Yom HaShaoh, the Hebrew date for Holocaust Memorial Day and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, are caught between anguish and hope.

I lit my yellow candle in memory of a child murdered by the Nazis. I thought, as I had promised my father, of all the members of the family who were killed, saying their names, one by one.

There went through my mind once again the unforgettable lines with which Primo Levi described the four Russian horsemen, the advance party of the Red Army, who freed him from the universe of Auschwitz. They did not greet those they liberated, nor did they smile, oppressed by a ‘confused restraint’:

It was that shame we knew so well…[the shame] that the 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, that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.

Such shame should penetrate the heart of humanity at the gassing of civilians, of children, in Syria. Once again, the will for good seems to have proved too weak. Once again, powerful amoral leaders and their armies behave with cynical contempt for life. Again, the West faces the difficult decision of if and how to intervene militarily so that the situation for those who have already suffered so much may be made better, not worse. In Israel, so a friend told me, the word on the horrified street was, ‘We must help the children, we must help the children’. (I hope one of the UK’s responses will be to take in more children, families, refugees from horror.)

Meanwhile Israel, our country, where I love to be, which has so many achievements, and so much idealism still today, approaches its 70th birthday with plenty of challenges and problems of its own.

In November 1943 my father’s uncle, Alfred Freimann, who fled Germany in 1933, wrote to his brother Ernst in New York, who escaped Europe in 1939:

We saw another part of our beautiful countryside; the whole strip of land along the coast is like one flowering garden. If they let us work in peace and quiet, and didn’t prevent immigration, we’d soon have one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

Alfred did not live to see either the flourishing of his hopes or the refusal of Israel’s enemies to allow the country to live in peace and quiet. He was killed in the infamous attack on a convoy of academics to Mount Scopus on this very day, April 13, 1948, exactly 70 years ago. My father, who was in the Hagganah at the time, spoke of this with horror and anger. His own Yahrzeit, fittingly, is on Yom Ha’Atazma’ut.

Each year at this season I phone my friend Aaron Barnea, whose son fell in Lebanon on the eve of Yom HaShoah. He’s a founding member of the Parents’ Circle, sharing grief, hope, and the determination to achieve a better future for both peoples with Palestinian bereaved. I have learnt, through Aaron and others like him, how deeply it matters to try to listen to and look at the world with a conscience for their grief and hopes as well.

I want to stand in solidarity with those who, in spite of everything, dream, aspire, care, teach, work, and dedicate their lives to creating the Israel described in the Declaration of Independence, a state Jewish not only in its demography but in its core values. I want to stand with those who live and teach the Torah of loving kindness and justice; who care for the hungry, the sick and the suffering; who build bridges between communities, faiths, and peoples; who strive to make Israel a land which welcomes, and does not deport, refugees from persecution; who share Israel’s skills and technological expertise with impoverished regions around the world; who live with faith, courage, creativity and hope amidst all the difficulties, dangers, threats, mistakes and bigotry which challenge the country from without and within; who want to get on with ordinary, decent, hardworking lives, raising their family, loving their children, and praying for a safe and peaceful future.

The world is once again in a frightening and dangerous place. The record of the Jewish past teaches us that if history challenges our dreams and ideals, we need to learn from that history and work for our dreams and ideals even harder.

 

Song of Songs: We must not fail to notice and to bless

I rose up early, to see the moon shining yellow through the branches of the pine tree.

I had awoken thinking of that wonderful moment when my son called out to me as I came into the final straight of the Jerusalem Marathon ‘Abba, Abba, run with me’ and had taken my hand and we’d completed the last two hundred metres together’. And at the same time, I was thinking of two close friends who have lost a child; my heart going out to them. And at the same time, thinking of this unknown, this beauty, anguish and heart-sorrow of life.

‘Run with me’: how short, how precious is the time we have, to stand together, to run, see, witness the glory of this world, to have the companionship of life.

On Chag Ha’Aviv, Pesach, the festival of spring, we read The Song of Songs. On Chag Assif, Succot, the festival of autumn and ingathering, we read Ecclesiastes.

Hevel Havalim, vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity.’ The autumn wind, leaf fall, life fall, may carry all before it.

But Ecclesistaes is wrong; surely all is not vanity. There is the glory of the in-between time, the span we are granted of life. ‘Draw me after you; we shall run and follow you’: the author, or authors, of The Song of Songs knew that life must be relished, pursued.

The Hebrew Bible is always a text which notices, from the first unfurling of the young leaves of creation, the planting of the first garden in Eden with its four rivers to water its growth.

But nowhere is this awareness more acute, more simple, more wondrous than in The Song of Songs. The young buds of the pomegranate; the fleeting deer standing still for a single moment by the lattice-work of the fence, before running hastily, gracefully away to the distant hills; the apple tree alone in the midst of the forest; the hour and season of the songbirds: these details, easily missed, easily regarded as irrelevant in a world of kings, prophets and wars, are observed, noted, cherished, loved. They are the garden, the universe, of the life and love we are granted, briefly, to share.

At the heart of this landscape is a mystery, gan na’ul, ‘a locked garden’, ma’ayan chatum, ‘a fountain sealed’. For we do not know and never will fathom the source and wellspring of the wonder of life, its small, everyday miracles, the primrose by the side of the stone, the violets in the grass beside the woodland path. Maybe one day it will be possible to offer a scientific, materialist analysis of everything, even consciousness itself. But in the moment of awareness, in the joy and engagement of seeing, in the companionship of love, such explanations will fall away, irrelevant, not contiguous, unable to touch the exhilaration of being alive.

Of course, Ecclesiastes is correct in the end. The day will come when the cord at the fountain is broken and the pitcher tumbles out of sight to the bottom of the well. We know what awaits.

But that does not, should not, must not negate the now, ‘The interim is mine’, ours, yours; the interim belongs to life. Admittedly only the interim, and that is the sorrow which seizes the heart.

But that interstice is now; therefore, as the lover says to his beloved in The Song, ‘Rise up, let us go’ for the garden is full of flower, the orchards and vineyards are in blossom. We must not fail to notice, and to bless.

 

Pesach Seder Reflections 5778

13 Nisan 5778/29th March 2018

It’s cleaning day, and if I write at too much length everyone will think I’m shirking. But I want to set down some thoughts about the Haggadah, which simply means ‘telling’, the telling of the story.

Whose story is it we tell?

First of all, it’s the story of our own people. Avadim hayinnu – ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt’: the narrative of our ancestors’ redemption from generations of slavery lies at the core not just of our history but of the entire Jewish ethical tradition. From hopelessness to hope, from indignity to dignity, from injustice to justice, from cruelty to compassion, from servitude to freedom – this is the journey we think of when we refer to the Exodus from Egypt not only at Passover, but every Shabbat when we make Kiddush, and every day, morning and evening in our prayers. It is for this journey that we thank God and strive to do God’s will. For the memory of the redemption from Egypt is not intended merely as the recollection of our collective past, but as the constant impetus towards a tomorrow when the dream of freedom and justice for us and for all nations will be realised.

The Haggadah is our particular, personal family story. I was asked only yesterday whether writing my book My Dear Ones: One Family and the Final Solution had ‘brought me closure’ regarding my father’s past. ‘The opposite’, I said. (I’m anyway suspicious of the word ‘closure’. Life does not hold closure, but only what we make of our past, how we travel onward with our experiences, both sweet and bitter). ‘Writing the book has brought openings, to people whose names I had scarcely heard, about whose lives I once knew nothing but now understand more. It has opened the door too to greater understanding of the plight of today’s refugees, desperate to gain the precious documents which will allow them to cross the borders between persecution and freedom, death and life; desperate to save their families, their children.’ I think of my great-aunt Sophie’s recipes, my great-grandmother sending food parcels from Nazi controlled Czechoslovakia to those even worse of – as long as she was allowed – and I see those who need such gifts around us today.

The Haggadah is thus also the story of all humankind. Some years ago, the leader of the local Bravanese community, whose centre was burnt down in a racially motivated arson attack, came to our Seder. ‘Your story is my story too. We said: “Our persecutors will kill us. We have to leave our home country at once!” My aged grandfather said, “I’m too old to leave”. We took him with us, and we fled…’

Avadim hayyinu, ve’attah bnei chorin – ‘we once were slaves but now are free’: how many people across the world are longing to share that song. In Britain, Europe, America, Israel, refugees wait in hope of leave to remain, in terror of deportation. These are the better countries; in many others they would not even have been allowed to enter, on pain of death. The Haggadah is the story of our vision of redemption for all humankind, for the day, as Isaiah puts it in the Prophetic vision we read on the final morning of the festival, ‘when none shall hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain’.

Precisely for this reason, the story of the Haggadah is also deeply personal: ‘we must see ourselves as if we ourselves are each going out of Egypt’. Where are we, in our conscience and spirit, on our own inner journey towards justice, compassion and freedom? What inner traits, what internal Pharaohs, detain us from being the person we could be and dream of becoming? For, according as we travel our own inner journey, so we are able to help others on humanity’s journey, and offer others the kindness, the companionship, the advocacy, the compassion, the music, the hope, which sings in our own soul. And, as we reach out to them, so others hopefully reach inward to us.

May our Haggadah, the telling of our story on Seder night, be fruitful and worthwhile.

12 Nisan 5778/28th March 2018

The central symbol of the Seder is the Matzah. Following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the formal cessation of sacrificial offerings, matzah replaced the Paschal lamb as the key food of the Passover celebration.

Matzah features repeatedly in the Seder. Close to the opening, it is described as Halachma Anya, ‘the bread of poverty’ our ancestors ate in Egypt. It was probably originally at this point that the door would be opened, to welcome in the hungry and the poor. In No Time For Tears, the touching account of his East End childhood in the 1930’s, Sidney Bloch recalls how his parents never locked the front door and always laid an extra place at the table.

Shmuel Hanagid (993 – 1056) has a simple culinary explanation:

Some say bread of poverty means, literally, the bread of the poor – because poor people, in the severity of their destitution, will take some floor, knead it and bake it into unleavened bread which they eat immediately…

The middle matzah is now broken, to represent how, as the Talmud, explains a poor person never has a complete loaf, only a torn half. Eli Wiesel provides a frighteningly poignant insight: the person in terror of starvation, who never knows from where the next miniscule, inadequate meal will come, doesn’t dare to eat a whole piece of bread, but hides half fearfully away.

The broken half is held up repeatedly during as we recount the story of slavery, remembering the suffering of our forebears in Egypt, and others who once were, and all who still today are, the slaves of hunger and exploitation.

Close to the end of the narrative, the very same matzah becomes the bread our ancestors take with them on their journey of freedom. It turns into the bread of hope, or, as the Zohar names it, the food of faith, mechla de’meheimanuta, and lachma de’asuta, the bread of healing. This health is moral rather than physical: it is the healing-power present in the society where those who are replete do not forget those who are hungry and use their freedom to set others free.

Matzah thus makes the journey from slavery to freedom alongside us.

There are still two further features which connect matzah with liberty. In a creative word play, the Talmud (Pesachim 115b – 116a) links lechem oni, the bread of poverty, with the verb oneh, ‘answer’. Matzah is the bread ‘over which matters are answered’. It is the food of discourse, of questions and discussions. Freedom of speech is an essential, primary freedom. In a totalitarian regime, in a country where people know that their every word may be overheard and reported, even in a household dominated by domestic tyranny, no one dares to speak out openly. ‘Bread over which matters are answered’, over which significant issues are challenged, debated and considered from a multitude of angles, is the bread of freedom indeed.

The Talmud takes this one step further. Baking matzah requires team-work. This is depicted clearly in numerous Haggadah illustrations: one person is measuring the flour, others are mixing the dough and yet others rolling it out, while further figures make the holes, put the pastry in the oven, take it out and place the finished matzah in baskets.

The right to collaboration is a form of liberty. The freedom to meet in open fellowship and association has been banned or controlled by every totalitarian regime. Nazi plans for the annexation of western Poland after their swift victory in 1939 included making it illegal for Poles to gather together, even in sports clubs or cafes. (Jews were simply deported).

Matzah, in contrast, celebrates and embodies the freedom of friendship and co-operation.

In Temple times, the last taste of the Pesach meal was the lamb of the Paschal offering. In place of that today, the final food we are supposed to eat is the Afikoman, the other half of the matzah broken close to the outset of the Seder, so that we end the night with freedom on our tongue, and in our songs.

11 Nisan 5778/27th March 2018

The greatest challenge to leading a Seder is how to include everyone, from the person determined to ‘do it my way’ to the child, or adult, for whom the key question isn’t Mah Nishtanah, but ‘How long to the food?’ How can a Seder be a discussion, not a row? How can everyone have a voice?

The Haggadah presents this issue through the Four Children. Each takes his or her question straight from the Torah, which mentions four times how to reply ‘when your child asks you tomorrow’.

I prefer to think of the four not as ‘personality types’, but as complementary voices in the great Haggadah debate.

Easiest to respond to are the encouraging enquiries of the ‘wise child’. Such persons refuse to take their own culture for granted. They are seekers; they want to understand Jewish practise, down to the detail. We need them in our communities; we must encourage them to study, in depth. The sound-byte, tweet-length, instant answer culture is dangerous, warns Timothy Snyder in his challenging On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (an excellent supplement for a Seder). Read, study, examine in depth.

Hard as it may seem, we need the ‘wicked child’s’ challenging ‘What’s this to you?’ Contempt is hard to include at the table: why should we? But anger may be a different matter. I’ve an orthodox colleague in Israel who’s angry: ‘How can I sit at the Seder while we deport asylum seekers?’ If that Seder amounts only to food plates and platitudes, there’s good reason to provoke us with anger. It’s hypocrisy to talk freedom but do nothing about the slavery of hunger, or the actual trade in slaves today, or any of those countless ways in which life is degraded and robbed of liberty and joy. Anger, justly warranted, must be turned into motivation.

The so-called ‘simple’ child also has an essential contribution. The Hebrew tam equally means ‘whole-hearted’. Such ‘children’ refuse to be deviated by details. Every group needs the voice which ask bluntly, ‘What’s this?’ It’s a counter-force to the dangerous tendency of religions to get lost in rituals and dogmas. ‘What’s this?’ calls us back to the purpose of the story. ‘Tell that child about the Exodus’ – and keep it simple, the Haggadah insists. Don’t let the cleaning, koshering, shopping and cooking (all important, all of which I love) make us forget the essential values of freedom, justice and dignity, or the travails our families passed through to attain them. We are accountable before God, history, our own People and all humanity for their defence.

Surely, though, the child who doesn’t know how to ask has no part in the discussion? However, the real meaning of she’eno yode’a lishe’ol is not ‘can’t ask’ but ‘lacks the confidence to ask’. Whether it’s because they’re young, or shy, or quiet with reflection, it’s up to us to bring such participants in. Perhaps it’s precisely the silent guest on whom the narrative is having the most impact. How many scenes do we harbour in our hearts where we spoke nothing, because they spoke unforgettably to us?

We all need all our voices, the longing for knowledge, the indignation, the desire to grasp – clearly and simply – the overall purpose, and the absorption of the listener reluctant to interrupt.

10 Nisan 5778/26th March 2018

Getting There

I heard two (slightly conflicting) views last weekend: first, that the week before Pesach has the lowest mortality rate in the Jewish year because everyone wants to make it to another Seder; second, that the nervous breakdown rate is the highest. So here are some thoughts on how to reach Seder night in good mental, physical and spiritual health.

Preparing for the Seder is as much about community as the Seder itself. If someone else in the family or among our friends is doing all the work, (cleaning, shopping, cooking, inviting, setting the table) we should ask ourselves why, and go and help. Wherever possible, no one should be left to prepare for the Seder alone.

Looking Outward

The Lovell Haggadah (a beautiful new edition, warmly recommended) has a wonderful double page. On one side is the title Turning Outward; on the other Turning Inward. The outward page focusses on Me’ot Hittin, ‘coins for wheat’, also known as Kimcha dePischa or ‘Pesach flour’. They exemplify the ancient rule that even the poorest person must be given the necessaries to celebrate Passover. We may not sit down to celebrate our freedom while other families can’t afford to do so. Freedom for some is not true freedom. We are all responsible towards the entire community of Israel. We should respond to at least some of the appeals for help which we no doubt all receive.

Similarly, we should do our utmost to ensure that no one is left to celebrate on their own. The Mishnah explains that a person alone on Seder night ‘asks him- or her-self the four questions’. It’s a lonely image; we shouldn’t allow it to happen.

By extension, we can’t drink to our own redemption while doing nothing at all for others, whoever they are, who are enslaved by hunger, homelessness or persecution. Turning a blind eye to the humiliation and misery of others, risks leading us into partnership with tyranny.

Looking Inward

The opposite page in the Lovell Haggadah describes the inner process of preparation. Mystics have long made a parallel between the domestic procedure of going through our drawers to remove the chametz and leaven and the spiritual process of cleansing our conscience.

Cupboards are memories: ‘Who gave me this mug?’ ‘My mother loved that plate.’ Recipes are testaments: ‘My grandmother made her charoset this way.’ My father cooked the soup.’ Thus we revisit the journeys of our generations and our own life talks back at us from pots and pans.

The Seder does not come alive just by reading the printed text. We must weave our own family stories into the Haggadah and include the stories of others. In this way we make the narrative ours, immediate, vital. Freedom, dignity, justice, journeys: the subjects are always contemporary. I began one Seder by reading the postcard my great-grandmother sent from Theresienstadt. It was written by order of the Nazis to ‘reassure’ the family that ‘everything was alright’:

My Dears! I’m often together with dear Recha; we talk a lot about you and all our dear ones. I’m most anxious about our dear children. I’ve been in the old age home for a while and I feel fine there. Heartfelt greetings from your faithful Regina Freimann.

‘Dear’ occurs four times in scarcely forty words. Love and tyranny – the eternal polarities of human existence.

My heart is my compass: Dr Abuelaish and ‘I Shall Not Hate’

Late last night I took a torch and, shining the beam across his path down the garden, lead our guest to the apple tree. The damp buds, latent with leaf and life, glistened in the darkness. My friend held up his phone and took photographs.

He was Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, author of I Shall Not Hate, about his life as a Gazan doctor with close friends and colleagues in Israel, who lost three daughters, Bessan, Aya and Mayar, when their home was shelled twice in swift, fatal succession in the Gaza war.

Soon afterwards, I came to know him and planted that tree in his daughters’ memory.

‘I’d like to see it’, Dr Abuelaish told me.

Earlier, we’d been in conversation at my synagogue, sitting together beneath the verse ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ inscribed above the holy ark. A hundred people were held silent by his heart-felt words.

From the time I was a very small boy I have been able to find the good chapter in a very bad story…

From where did he draw the strength?

God knows what has to be, he said. Therefore, we must take what happens for the best.

Maybe his beloved wife Nadia had died four months before the tragedy so that she wouldn’t have to witness the deaths of three of her daughters. Mothers are the life-givers, the life-cherishers: let women walk in this world not behind us men, but by our side, out in front…

Do not see the other; he said. Do not look at the world out of one eye only, one perspective; see the humanity in all. (I still have that vista before me, the day I first saw a familiar Jerusalem scene from a Palestinian home in a refugee camp. Yes, I knew this valley; I recognised that road. But I’d never seen it from this angle. It was a mere 500 metres away, and a universe apart. I love Israel no less, but with more complexity, more simplicity, more humanity, since.)

Do not blame, Dr Abuelaish added. Don’t say ‘them!’. God judges us for what we do. We must take responsibility, each for our actions, our errors and our future.

Life is a short journey. He pointed at the doors on either side of the synagogue: ‘We enter here and exit there’. In the space between, we can do good. We can leave behind kindness, love. That is all that matters.

Afterwards, at my home, he said ‘My heart is my compass’.

On Passover night we dip our maror, the bitter herbs of history and memory, into the sweet paste of charoset, made, the Talmud teaches, ‘in memory of the apple’.

What apple? ‘It’s the apple tree in the Song of Songs’, the commentators explain. Beneath it during their slavery and degradation in Egypt, the Children of Israel showed each other solidarity and love.

Thus, the sweet charoset mitigates, overcomes, the venom of the bitter maror. So may love disarm hate; the steady heart of compassion withdraw the fuse from fury and from fear.

Will it work?

I asked Dr Abuelaish how the next ‘good chapter’ in a harsh story could be written. He made no comment about the plot, but pointed at the authors.

We are all responsible. We are all the writers of the future. No action is too small to matter and every one of us can choose to be a healer.

 

Never despair! Thoughts on a difficult spring’

Tomorrow is the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan; in Jewish terms it’s the first day of spring.

Nisan is a month of celebration. Sad, penitential prayers are left out of the liturgy. Instead, in the domain of history we focus on Passover; we follow our ancestors on their journey from slavery to freedom and try to create a world which celebrates, life, liberty and justice.

In the domain of nature, we go out into the fields and gardens and say a unique, once-a-year-only blessing to God

in whose world nothing is lacking, who created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for the enjoyment of humankind.

I’ve just been outdoors to check: the almond tree is pink with bloom; the apricot, usually first to blossom, is wisely still sleeping out an especially long winter; the pears have a good month to go before May, their season of white glory.

Yet, despite all this, I’m struggling to feel joyous.

Instead, I feel anxious, afraid for our beautiful world. We live in increasingly dangerous times. Much of humanity, or at least its leadership, seems intent on a journey from liberty to tyranny, from peace to war and from injustice to greater injustice. Meanwhile, the poorest and weakest, who have always suffered, suffer even more.

In the world of nature, I read with despair of the huge decline in animal life, of species hunted to extinction, of the pollution of land and ocean by plastic particles. You may think me crazy, but these matters drive me close to tears.

I could take to retail therapy, decide not to think, or close my eyes, and heart, and sit back to enjoy my corner of privileged living, among the world’s wealthiest.

But that’s not the human, certainly not the Jewish way. ‘You are not free to cease from the work’, said Rabbi Tarfon almost two thousand years back. ‘Assur lihitya’esh; it’s forbidden to give up and despair,’ insisted Rebbe Nachman of Breslav two hundred years ago, despite, or because of, his own susceptibility to depression. And, on the back of today’s Guardian, Gareth Southgate adds his own gloss to his rabbinic antecedents: ‘You can live in fear or you can get on with it’.

That’s what saying the blessing over ‘beautiful creatures and beautiful trees’ means right now. Never give up! Never stop appreciating how wonderful the world can and should be! For the sake of the beauty of children, help the besieged, the hungry, the persecuted. For the sake of the beauty of animals and trees, plant and protect, so that they, and humankind together, may live and flourish to breathe a better future.

Last Friday, as I approached the old Jerusalem railway station, some 28 kilometres into running the marathon, I passed a group of people pushing their friend in a wheelchair, or rather in something more like a full hospital bed. According to my running app, the Jerusalem marathon route has a total climb of well over 2,000 feet, with challenging hills and sharp descents. These good people must have taken turns to push their friend up the hardest inclines, then hold on tightly to ensure a smooth run down the steepest slopes. When they reached the finishing line, the entire crowd cheered.

That’s love; that’s courage; that’s doing the best one can to share the basic freedoms of breathing the open air, enjoying the wide panorama, waving to friends, relishing the crazy happiness of those mad enough to run.

On Seder night I don’t just want to read the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus. I want it to shout back at me: Never give up on freedom. When I go outside, I don’t just want to see the world. I want it to sing back at me: Look at all this beauty! Use your life to love it and protect it!

 

Seeing the world feelingly

I’m not a person who believes in beschert, pre-destined, but – there may be exceptions, and, as my teacher Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs said, quoting Solomon Schechter ‘the best theology is inconsistent’.

I walked out of the Conservative Yeshivah into the Jerusalem street and there he was in front of me, a beautiful young black Labrador. He wore that jacket which tells people like me, who’re too much inclined to strike up conversations with every dog they meet, that he was in training and strictly not to be distracted.

I asked the young woman who was walking him: ‘He’s going to be a guide dog’, she explained. He’s just eight months old and I’m his carer for the year.’

I couldn’t believe it. This is the day before I’m due to run the Jerusalem Marathon in aid of Toby’s very organisation, the Israel Guide Dog Centre. I apologised for thus accosting her puppy out of the blue and told the girl what I was doing. ‘His name’s Toby’, she then said. I don’t think she wanted me to get too familiar with her hound. ‘And you’re welcome to take pictures.’

Then, as we went our separate ways at the corner, she added: ‘When my father’s friend went blind we saw how important dogs are. We’ve been deeply involved ever since.’

The encounter felt like a blessing, a token of good luck from heaven.

As I walked away I found myself thinking about the girl’s words: ‘We saw how important…’

They are so many ways of seeing, and not seeing.

The world is full of beauty. ‘Lift up your eyes and see who created these’, says Isaiah; I’d always thought he was referring to the stars, but it could be trees, or clouds, or flowers, or human faces, all the wonder of which, in our rushed lives, we so often fail to take note. To lose one’s sight is, in Milton’s famous lines, to have beauty at ‘one entrance quite shut out’. It must be an extremely painful loss.

Yet there are different ways of seeing and being enabled to see. In rabbinic Hebrew a blind person is referred to as Sagi Na’or, a person of great light. The verb for seeing, ro’eh, is often used in the Bible to refer to other and deeper kinds of awareness and emotional sensitivity. God ‘sees’ the sufferings of human beings; God ‘knows’. People, too, often ‘see’ the pain of others, and their own.

Such usage is by no means unique to Hebrew. Shakespeare gives searing expression to this relationship between sight and insight when the maddened King Lear meets the blinded Earl of Gloucester on the cliffs above Dover. ‘No eyes in your head nor no money in your purse, yet you see how this world goes?’ the crazed King challenges. ‘I see it feelingly’, the former Earl replies. He did not of course see it with any such feeling when he had his eyes, his title and his power.

That is not to glorify or romanticise the painful, frightening loss of sight. But it does show that they are many depths to how we see the world. Responding to an unknown critic who condemned Picasso for painting the sky green, E M Forster wrote that he was grateful to see the world through Picasso’s eyes, if only for a few moments.

Countless people enable us to see. We see the world not just through one another’s eyes, including the beautiful eyes of guide dogs, but through each other’s hearts. Maybe that’s why I love Amazing Grace, because I not rarely fear I may have been blind to important sensitivities, and hope that ‘now I see’.

When I run tomorrow – (‘What time do you hope to finish by?’ I was just asked in an email. ‘Pesach’, I answered) – I shall think of the many people who have helped me to see, and hope that I too can occasionally help bring sight to others, – a gift which the wonderful dogs for whom I’m running have in affectionate abundance,

Toby guide dog

Where God is in a bleak climate

I woke up this morning thinking of Moses’ words to God: ‘va’eida’acha – let me know you’, wondering what this means. I’ve been trying to work out why this was on my mind.

I’d listened to the news on my way back from Cambridge last night. I’d heard about Vladimir Putin’s televised address in which he spoke of Russia’s new weapons, nuclear, intercontinental, five times the speed of sound, undetectable by any defence system present or future. What a thing to be proud of! And what about what Russia is doing in Syria? Poor humanity!

I’d listened to a report on changing wind patterns in the Artic, the possible cause of the unpleasantly named ‘Beast from the East’. Even the penguins are in trouble, the polar bears too. Others may feel this is foolish, but it pains me: more elephants are currently shot each day by poachers than are born. Who gave us the right?

There are times when I simply feel frightened for the future, and ashamed of being human, part of this species inflicting such hurt on creation.

I’d been on an interfaith panel at The Perse School in Cambridge. We’d been sent in advance the questions pupils wanted to ask. Next to my name I saw:

How can religions, supposedly all about love and peace, use God’s name in war?

Part of me was glad we ran out of time before that particular issue was raised.

But I know how I would answer.

I’d walked a couple of miles last night in the freezing streets. Poor people who have no roof over their heads, nowhere to retreat from the elements, no hot food, no stove, no bed. How can we do more for them?

I’d looked out at the frozen gardens, watching the birds, virtually queueing by the feeders, tiny, fragile, ice upon their wings. A couple of raisins or sunflower seeds could be a matter of life or death for them.

What sort of human wants innocent people, innocent creatures to die?

All this adds up to why Moses’ questions ‘Let me know you, God’, was on my mind.

Knowing God isn’t about being certain God’s on one’s side, automatically, ipso facto, just because one’s a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, or anything else. It’s not about knowing what God’s against and whom God hates. God’s is not the will behind the invention of even more lethal weapons of war. All this is idolatry; worse, it’s idolatry posing as religion.

Every act of terror purportedly in God’s name defiles that name. Every time we cause hurt to any living thing we hurt God too.

So what about Moses’ question – ‘Let me know you, God’? Even for Moses, isn’t this asking too much? No one ever really, truly knows God.

But we know enough. We know all we need to know, and we know it with the heart. There is something of God’s presence in those hungry birds. There is much of God’s being in every homeless, hungry person. God is present among the civilians in Syria, the DCR, and every war zone, unable to escape the clever weapons which destroy their towns, homes, children, souls, lives.

We are not mere bystanders while all this takes place around us. We are joined together by this moment of existence, this flow of life which animates us all this very breath-take, now. We are bound to each other by this call for compassion which cries out from round about us: Help me! Shelter me! Feed me! Save my children!

What more do we need to know about who or what or where God is?

 

Laws and Customs of Purim

Chag Purim Sameach! Happy Purim!

Here are some of the commandments and traditions connected with the festival, which begins fully tonight.

First of all, we are instructed to listen to the reading of the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther, tonight and tomorrow morning. It is a gripping and contemporary tale. Behind the colourful facades and drinking parties, the protagonists conduct a politics which, though it may look casual, is cunning and ruthless. In two short sentences Haman puts before King Achashverosh every trope of Antisemitism: the Jews are everywhere; they’re rich; they have secret communications networks; they care only about themselves. Esther defeats Haman’s plans not by wiles but through astute political judgment. The Megillah is the classic tale about what minorities have to do to survive caught in the lethal interplay of the interests of more powerful others.

As if to create a different and more compassionate reality, we are instructed to give mattanot la’evyonim gifts to the poor, on Purim. Because both words are plural in Hebrew, we are required to give at least two gifts to two different people or groups of people suffering hardship. The Mishnah Berurah (late c19 commentary to the classic 16th century code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch) comments movingly that ‘it is better to give much to the poor than it is to spend greatly on one’s Purim feast or in giving gifts to one’s friends, because there is no greater happiness than causing the hearts of the poor to rejoice’. It is evident from the Shulchan Aruch that in many places it was also customary to give to the local poor, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, and to bring gifts to the neighbours among whom one was living ‘for the sake of the ways of peace’. (See below concerning two groups for whom we are collecting as a community this year.)

Equally, it is the custom to take portions of food and drink to friends and acquaintances, following the instruction in the megillah that people sent mishloach manot ish lere’ehu, ‘parcels of food to one another’. It is an enjoyable custom to prepare cheerful baskets of basic food and treats both for friends and people one doesn’t know. Within the community, it is a way of including members who may be unwell or frail, so that they too can find happiness on Purim. Some communities also do this collectively, using the money they raise for charity.

One of the central themes of the megillah is the interplay between appearance and identity. There is probably no other Biblical story in which clothing features with such prominence. Hence it is the tradition to dress up on Purim. An ‘upside-down world’ is created, in which one no longer knows who’s who. Add to this a carnival spirit and you enter the world of Purimspiels, cabaret acts, disguises, and fun. The date has long been a holiday for children, who wear fancy dress and give and receive presents of food. It’s in the spirit of Purim, for adults to dress up too.

In the afternoon of Purim day, one gathers for the Purim Se’udah or special meal. Traditional foods include pulses (less widely eaten on Purim today) because Daniel ate vegetarian when he was an exile in the court of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. More popular are Purim challah made with raisins inside and hundreds-and-thousands all over, and Hamantaschen, filled with anything from poppy-seed to chocolate.

Stoneman Douglas #NeverAgain – I admire the pupils’ courage

My teenage class this week wanted, perhaps needed, to talk about the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school.

-          People blamed pupils for tweeting and using WhatsApp while it was happening, but they must have been terrified.
-          We’ve had lock-down practice at our school, but this – it’s beyond me. I can’t even begin to imagine it.

One student at the school had tweeted “Our school is having a shooting. I’m not even kidding I’m about to die.” Poor people. Thank God if pupils here in the UK can’t imagine such a thing.

But since the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, many classes in the US have had ‘active-shooter drill’ practice, from Kindergarten age upwards. ‘Seeing a school shooting as an event to prepare for, rather than an awful aberration, seems to have fueled the students’ anger’, noted The Guardian newspaper.

I respect that anger. I admire the initiative shown taken by pupils from the Stoneman Douglas high school since. All strength to their #NeverAgain campaign with its slogan ‘Protect our lives not our guns’.

Yet more guns cannot be the main answer. What’s clearly needed, what has clearly and self-evidently been needed for years, are changes to US gun laws. (It’s easy to say that from the UK, but that makes it no less true.)

My role in my teenage class is to provide the Jewish content. Our rule is: they choose the topic and bring the You Tube video or online article; I bring a relevant Jewish text or idea in response. The deal is that I get at least two day’s notice.

But this discussion was unplanned. So what was I to bring?

I tried to draw the discussion round to the significance of human action. We exist to make a difference. Action in defense of what is just and right is not an option but an obligation, a categorical responsibility, the core responsibility which defines what it means to be human. (And what is more right that the right of pupils and staff in schools to survive their day, learn and help create a better tomorrow?)

That’s why I agree with The Economist:

It has been the response of the surviving students… that has kept the tragedy in the news a little longer than usual. The pupils… have poured their grief and rage into a new campaign for gun control. In television interviews, speeches and social-media posts they have excoriated politicians who take cash from the National Rifle Association…

I admire their activism.

This week brings the festival of Purim. The language of the key text of the festival, the Scroll of Esther, draws repeatedly on the Torah’s description of Joseph’s experiences in Egypt. Both describe the situation of the Jew in the court of the all-powerful non-Jew: Joseph and Moses before Pharaoh; Mordechai and Esther before Ahasuerus.

But the key actor in Exodus is absent in the world of Mordechai and Esther. In Exodus Moses calls upon God and God at once intervenes. But God isn’t mentioned, not even once in the Scroll of Esther. The world, and our fortunes within it, are entirely delivered over to human agency.

That is not the same as saying that God is absent. There are God-like, God-inspired and God-required courses of action. But that action is dependent upon us.

This is something the frightened and grieving pupils and teachers of Marjory Douglas Stoneman high school have understood and grasped. Their courage and determination bring hope to us all.

 

Signing off on your heart

‘Set your signature on my heart’, says the lover in The Song of Songs.

We carry each other’s signatures in our hearts. Every day we write ourselves into each other’s lives and spirits.

Sometimes it happens with sudden drama, as when people fall madly in love. More often it occurs slowly, imperceptibly almost. Teacher, neighbour, colleague, friend, man at the gate, – months pass, years pass, turn unnoticed into decades. We share a hundred ordinary things, take each other for granted, like the trees along the side of the road.

When a person we know in such a way dies, we lose them, their idiosyncrasies, humour, how they liked their coffee, said ‘good morning’.

And we lose a part of our own self also. For our lives are interwound and a part of us dies with each other’s death. That is why John Donne’s words leave few untouched:

No man is an island entire of itself…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.   Meditation XVII

Bernard Schneider died last week. If you didn’t know him, imagine a person who was always there, faithful, quiet-spoken, kind; a man with a sense of humour so dry or droll that I sometimes gave people who’d never before met him a quiet health-warning in advance; a person loyal to family, community and the Jewish religion, with an immovable commitment which not rarely suggested the words ‘stubborn’ or ‘obstinate’; a man on whom the congregation could utterly rely; a man who never lost touch with the child-part of his own soul, so that he was, until almost the end, a wonderful reader of stories, player of games, pusher of swings with his children and grand-children.

He used to approach me at the end of the synagogue service and make a gesture of turning a door knob. I would hand him my bunch of keys to the office and he would go upstairs and place some essential document in the community wedding files.

For Bernard really did write signatures of the heart. During thirty-five years he was our registrar, our senior secretary for marriages, who filled in the forms in indelible ink in the official books; held out the pen to bride, groom and witnesses; sat on the other side of the table while the photographers captured that iconic moment in which the newly-weds signed away the rest of their lives; and finally confirmed with a signature of his own that this was indeed a marriage faithfuly performed ‘according to the usages of the Jews’.

I’ve been told that Bernard officiated at three hundred weddings (including Nicky’s and mine), almost all of them after the death of his first wife, which made me realise what courage lay concealed within his humour and unflappable self-possession.

Bernard’s passing is to me and his friends not at all like his loss for his wife, children and grandchildren. My heart goes out to them.

Losses are never comparable. I cannot but think today of the shocking murder of seventeen young people and staff at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. (It’s inconceivable to me why America does not change its gun laws.) I think of all of them, their parents and families, and of the ties friends and colleagues may have with the five Jewish victims.

Sometimes our writing on each other’s hearts feels like the calm presence of a steady hand, sometimes like the reassurance of a calming caress, and sometimes like the cutting and tearing of an adze.

Our heart is full of other people. We should acknowledge them, appreciate them, thank them, share their greetings, quip back at their crazy humour, stand by them in loyalty, while they and we still can.

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