The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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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.

Can there be religious faith without justice?

This week the Torah moves us swiftly on from the great revelation at Mount Sinai to mishpatim, just laws. For at the heart of Judaism is the relationship between justice and faith.

Tyranny, cruelty, unfairness, the cynical perpetuation of inequality, are wrongs not only against our fellow human beings, but against God. This is because God, if God means anything significant to us at all, is not in the heavens, imprisoned up there in splendid isolation and irrelevance.

God’s living spirit breathes within all life, in every human being. It is therefore God’s presence on earth which is, or should be, the true preoccupation of religious life.

Faith and injustice may seem to be all too frequent companions. It is of course possible to mouth words of prayer and practise, or turn a blind eye towards, cruelty. But in truth, they are incompatible.

To seek God, to claim God’s nearness, while knowingly wronging our fellow women and men, is like turning the door handle to invite God to enter, while keeping the bolts firmly fastened. God can’t get through.

That’s why the small Hebrew letter vav, meaning ‘and’, is so powerful. The Torah passes without pause from the great revelation on Mount Sinai, ‘I am the Lord your God’, to the finer details of the laws of damages, having servants, owning sheep and cows, without more of a pause than that minimal prefix ‘and’. But this ‘and’ is vital; it connects God’s revelation on high with the most ordinary details of everyday life on this earth.

As commentators from the Talmud to modern times indicate, that ‘and’ contradicts our intuitive sense of discontinuity: What? What has religion got to do with how I let my ox behave, or whether some stranger accidentally falls into the hole I dug in a field? With how I treat outsiders? Or use abusive and humiliating language?

The answer is ‘everything’:

Rabbi Ishmael taught: ‘Just as the exalted principles come from [God at] Mount Sinai, so do the lower laws’. (Mechilta)

In fact, the lower laws may be more important. We aren’t responsible for whether there’s a God in the heavens, but we are answerable for whether God feels at home here on earth. As William Blake, passionately concerned with social injustice in the chartered streets of London wrote:

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage.

So does the mistreatment of the vulnerable, – almost always represented in the Torah by the frequent phrase ‘the stranger, the widow and the fatherless’. I don’t know of any other single sentence in the Hebrew Bible which contains three consecutive uses of the emphatic double-infinitive:

If you shall oppress and oppress them, and they then cry out, cry out to me, I shall hear, yes surely hear them’, [says God]. (Exodus 22:22)

That’s why we can’t hide behind the mantle of God’s imagined favour, if we mistreat women, let the poor go hungry, mock foreigners, leave asylum seekers to rot in loneliness and contempt and fail to protest when innocent people are attacked, imprisoned or murdered, anywhere on earth.

There is no society in the world which doesn’t have serious work to do to let God in, which does not face profound challenges of injustice. In this struggle there is no such thing as neutrality; bystanders don’t exist. We all have our hand on the door handle, to open it, or close it.

When God asks the questions

Life presents at least two major spiritual challenges. The first is: Where is God? The second is: Where is God not? The second is harder.

‘I am the Lord your God’ declares the first of the Ten Commandments, which we read in the Torah this week. To some this is life’s most unshakeable certainty. To others it’s a patent absurdity, manifestly confounded by the realities of history. To yet more it is a question, sometimes all but irrelevant, at other times urgent, piercing to the heart: ‘God, are you? God, where are you?’

I was invited to a class of seven-year-olds who’d prepared a series of questions about God: ‘Is God a person?’ ‘Is God a he or a she?’ No, I don’t think God is a person, not a he nor a she. ‘So, what is It then?’ at which point one of them mercifully chirped up with ‘God’s in everything.’

That’s what the mystics thought: ‘Leit attar panui minei – there’s no place empty of God’. God fills all space, is present in all things and transcends all things, hence the famous Dudele song of Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak of Berditschev: Only You, solely You, wherever I go it’s You’. It’s based on Yehudah Halevi’s great poem 700 years earlier: ‘God, where shall I find You? And where shall I find You not?’

The question of God is thus a matter of the sensitivity of heart and soul, rather than solely an issue addressed to the mind. Do I sense your presence, God, in my fellow human beings, in the breathing of the forest, birds, squirrels, deer? Do I hear you speak, or cry, or scream, in all creation and all destruction?

For you are the spirit, the energy, the consciousness which fills all life and all existence, always One, yet infinitely differentiated in this world of matter and substance, things, people different in innumerable ways.

That leads to the second question. It pursues us, challenges us in every true encounter.

Aren’t you there, God, in the hospital ward, the ICU, the fragility of birth, illness and dying?

Aren’t you there in the loneliness of the empty moor, bare rocks, mountains and water?

Aren’t you there in the thriving life of the woodlands, even when the chain saw cuts down the living trees?

Are you absent in this refugee, just seventeen, who fled here (Greece, Calais, London, Jerusalem) from the Sudan or Eritrea? Are you not there in those who try to care for her? And in those who are set to deport her?

These were the questions which made the prophet Jeremiah, determined to stop himself from constantly saying what no-one wanted to hear, cry out: I’m trying to be silent, but your word burns like fire in my bones.

This was the awareness which made the Psalmist sing: To you, God, silence is praise’, hearing God in the pre-articulate wonder of dawn, and at the spring where the gazelles come silently to drink.

But this leaves open the issue which bewilders us most often: So, God, what about your agency? What do you actually do? (There’s no obvious answer to the question. God’s in hiding. God is waiting; God could if God would. God used to intervene in history and shall one day again: Such explanations don’t help me. They make history seem even more unjust. They don’t take me further in God’s service.)

The answer which is most meaningful to me, which haunts and harasses me, is the counter-question: ‘And what about you?’ I believe God asks this question of us constantly, not from heaven, but from the lives of everyone we encounter, from their suffering, their joy, and above all from their needs. ‘What are you doing with the part of Me in you?’

The only true answer is what we do with our lives.

 

For Holocaust Memorial Day: the Power of Words

Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the date when the first units of the Red Army encountered the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau. This year, the theme for the day is the power of words.

I think immediately of the lines of the Russian-Jewish poet, Osip Mandelstam, twice exiled, who perished somewhere in the vast labyrinth of Stalin’s Siberian camps:

You gave me my shoe-size in earth, with bars around it.

But you left me my lips and they shape words, even in silence.

I’ve often wondered what words were shaped in the lonely silences, amidst the roar of the surrounding violence and hatred: in the trains which parted people forever from those they loved, on forced marches, in cold and filthy bunks, in the desperation of the devastated spirit. Those words rarely found a compassionate ear, a heart ready and able to help. The silence swallowed them up, with their love, their despair, their longing, all the complex eloquence of a human life.

From time to time, scraps of paper, even photographs, are still found in the restless earth and ashes of what were once those terrible camps. Or the living discover envelopes, and the murdered, a grandfather, a great-aunt, suddenly have a voice. People ask: ‘What do we do with those letters, hard to decipher, in a language we don’t understand?’ I recall the Biblical injunction: ‘dovev siftei yesheinim – give speech to those who sleep in the dust’.

But it is not just to the dead that we must listen; the silence of the living is more urgent.

‘They have no voice,’ a friend said to me. He’d stood together with those who were shot in river X for no reason; fled with cousins and companions who found no hospitable quarter; witnessed the deported depart; been detained with those for whom there was no one to speak out. ‘They have no voice’, he said; ‘they’re lost in the silence’.

But my friend is not right. It’s not that such people have no voice; it’s that too few are willing to listen. That’s always been the fate of the persecuted, the rejected, the neglected.

How do I find your heart? How do I access your compassion? Surely that was the outcry of millions who perished in the Nazi Holocaust, and in numerous genocides and mass murders since, and still ongoing. It’s the half-heard outcry of hundreds of thousands now, powerless victims of licenced violence, lawless militias, and calculated hatred.

It’s less troublesome to think only of the silence of the dead. But, more than anyone, those very dead would want us to listen, urgently, this very moment, now, to the unheeded among the living. What words are the persecuted, the hopeless, those who find little or no help, shaping in the silence now?

Meanwhile the world is full of noise. Angry, self-righteous, cruel words fly at us, sometimes from the highest places. Timothy Snyder’s short book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is essential contemporary reading. Be heedful with words, he warns. Speak truth, read carefully, listen out for honesty. Eschew the slogans of power and deceit. Beware of fake news, post truth and manipulative sound-bites. ‘Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant’ – He was thinking of Goebbels and Hitler, but mindful also of now.

There are few more generous encapsulations of what language is for than the short phrase from Proverbs, in praise of women: ‘Torah chesed al leshonah – the teaching of lovingkindness is on her tongue’.

A heart which listens truly, will speak the truth of lovingkindness.

 

Let My People Stay

Wearing a kippah and knowing Hebrew didn’t seem the most relevant asset when I visited the so-called ‘Jungle’ in Calais 15 months ago with leaders of different faiths. Suddenly a young man touched me on the shoulder and addressed me in Ivrit. He’d been an asylum-seeker in Israel, he explained. People had been decent to him but there was no future there. So he’d returned to the Sudan, been shot at, and then made his perilous way across the sea and through Europe – to here. He showed me his tiny, flimsy tent.

Now Israel is proposing to deport its asylum-seekers, or detain them indefinitely. In defiance, Rabbis for Human Rights has started the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary movement to give refugees shelter and protection:

“Who here would be willing to house people?” asked Rabbi Susan Silverman at a gathering of rabbis and educators in Jerusalem. All 130 or so people in the room immediately raised their hands.  (Haaretz)

As that gathering clearly understood, ‘Jewish’ in the description ‘a Jewish state’ needs a moral, not just a national, meaning.

Meanwhile a hundred rabbis protested in Washington this Wednesday, urging the passage of a clean DREAM Act. DREAMers are undocumented children who’ve fled to the USA from Mexico and other South American countries.

Valeria Luiselli, a novelist translates for such children at immigration courts, writes about their experiences in Tell Me How It Ends: an Essay in Forty Questions. – (Those are the forty questions the children have to answer at the hearings)

The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

She describes the huge risks of violence, rape and ‘disappearance’ which the children run on La Bestia, the nickname for the train through Mexico on the roofs or between the carriages of which most of those children reach the border, before trying to give themselves up to US patrols before vigilantes find them.

The DREAM Act (The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) offered a pathway through education for such children to become citizens. Meanwhile, they were protected under the DACA programme (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), instituted during the Obama presidency. Last September President Trump determined to end this protection.

Alongside rabbis, protesters in Washington included leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, and HIAS (which assisted Jewish refugees to the States). Taking their cue from Moses, they sang ‘Let my people stay’, and ‘God is my strength’ as they waited to be arrested. Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the ADL said:

As the Jewish community intimately understands, at its best, the United States has been a beacon of hope for refugees and immigrants facing persecution… A clean Dream Act is a moral imperative for the heart and soul of our nation.

I grew up hearing from both my parents what it was like to flee persecution and start again with nothing. The Yishuv, the embryo Jewish State in Palestine, helped my father and his family; the British Consulate and many kind individuals, most not Jewish, assisted my mother. The message they passed on to me was clear: what others did for us, we must do for others.

Meanwhile here in the UK, people, including many children, sleep rough on nightmares of the violence they have fled, waking to a cold, lonely and uncertain future.

We can’t help everyone. But we are not at liberty to do nothing and help no one. Where the physical lives of the persecuted and destitute are on the line, our moral lives are on the line too.

 

‘We can’t leave it to others’: Thoughts for the 35th Martin Luther King Day

Late last night we celebrated with Kioumars, a refugee from Iran who has been staying with us and has just received leave to remain in the UK. He spoke to us about a church he attends in central London, saying:

You pray inside a building. You take a few steps outside and see two homeless people. You can’t separate these matters. It makes no sense to pray inside and not care what’s outside, on the doorstep. Where’s my responsibility?

Kioumars’s comment reminded me of the message Susannah Heschel sent last week on the Yahrzeit of her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He defined a religious person as

A person who is maladjusted, attuned to the agony of others, aware of God’s presence and God’s needs…always refusing to accept inequalities, the status quo, the cruelty and suffering of others.

In a touching reminiscence, Susannah asks from where her father drew his strength to march next to Martin Luther King, stand up against the Vietnam war and protest racism, narrow-mindedness and soullessness wherever he encountered them. ‘From prayer’, she answers, describing how she loved to sit quietly in the room while he enveloped himself in tallit and tefillin, in prayer-shawl and phylacteries, in liturgy and love.

But he did more: ‘I was praying with my feet’, Heschel answered a critic who challenged him about what he’d been doing down in Selma, Alabama, on that march to Montgomery in the spring of 1965.

Our rabbis define prayer as avodah shebalev, ‘service of the heart’, the devotion of the consciousness to God. They understood this as an integral part, the core and inspiration, of a life of avodah, a life devoted to service with all our being: feet and hands, body and soul.

This Monday, 15 January, marks Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It was a date hard fought for. It took fifteen years after his assassination, six million signatures, a hit song Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder and a gathering by veterans of the civil rights campaign on the 20th anniversary of King’s I Have a Dream, to establish the day in the American calendar.

It is a commemoration most urgently needed at the present hour. ‘My father’, Susannah Heschel wrote further, would have been devastated to witness ‘the KKK marching in the streets, neo-Nazis celebrating’ and racism emanating from the highest places: ‘He would be pacing the floor, unable to sleep…’

In this week’s Torah portion Moses and Aaron ‘go in to Pharaoh’ time after time. They are not frightened to confront tyranny, cruelty and moral blindness. Neither are they afraid of their own people’s preference for the status quo, their understandable concern that protest is only making matters even worse. Moses, who describes himself as ‘burdened in speech and heavy of tongue’, has a greater weight to consider which puts his own reticence into second place: the burdens of suffering born by his brothers and sisters.

We live in a time of danger, from East and West. Values of dignity, justice and compassion cannot be taken for granted. We cannot leave it to others to protect the humanity of the most vulnerable, or our own. ‘Stand up’, insists Timothy Snyder in his sharp-edged book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century: ‘Take responsibility for the face of the world’.

 

In Honour of Aharon Appelfeld

I had wanted to write about the moon in the water of the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal. I was running with the dog at dawn when I saw, trapped on the surface of the water among the reflected branches of the trees, the image of the moon. Maybe it’s the Hebrew word sihara, the rarer, more poetic term for ‘moon’, which makes me think of the adjective ‘serene’, but there was a silence, a beauty and a mystery to this scene, the cream moon-shadow floating on the blue-black water among the trees.

I wanted to write about how such images sustain me in the torn-edged rush of life. I like to say my prayers in such places, in woodlands, beside small streams, in a garden. It’s different, praying amid such company. It’s not so much about me saying words of prayer, as letting the noise inside my head yield to the stillness, quieted by the call of a bird, the semi-silent movement of a sheep in the neighbouring field. Then reverence and prayer enter me. I do not know the language of the oak trees, blackbirds, or of the slowly flowing water but I am content to be articulated by their wordless liturgy.

I just now read that the Israeli novelist and short-story writer Aharon Appelfeld died yesterday. I met him several times in Jerusalem, a peaceful, wise and quiet man. I met his son Meir also, on one searing occasion when his wife was very ill. I’ve taken down from the shelves and placed next to me his books A Table for One, illustrated by Meir, in which he writes of his love for Jerusalem’s cafes, and his autobiography, The Story of a Life.

I find Appelfeld’s fiction hard, as no doubt it is intended to be. Often it depicts a world of waiting and not knowing, a bewilderment as threatening as Kafka’s, but with its castles, courtrooms and transformations, its deadly geography concealed. His characters often seemed trapped in the ordinariness behind which we know hides waiting a most unordinary death, which, like so many millions of Europe’s Jews in the 1930s, they cannot escape.

Appelfeld himself survived, hiding in the forests of the Ukraine for over two years. One learnt to keep quiet, to distrust fluent speech: ‘War is a hothouse for listening and for keeping silent…I’ve carried with me my mistrust of words from those years’.

Moments of trust came from elsewhere:

In the forest I was surrounded by trees, bushes, birds and small animals. I was not afraid of them. I was sure they would do nothing harmful to me…Sometimes it seemed to me that what saved me were the animals I encountered along the way, not the human beings.

From the moment I first read them, I have stored those sentences in my mind. I think of them often. We humans are creatures of politics and history, unable for the most part to escape the lethal battlefields of identity and ideology. They are shaping up their armies across the globe even now and whether we like it or not it is almost impossible to escape being enlisted.

That is why I savour a moment by a canal, the moon shadow on the water. They are evanescent; the rising day will lot them out. But they are also redemption, partaking of the slow, trustworthy rhythms of ancient time, by which all life is nurtured and sustained.

‘I never saw him again’ – can we help bring missing loved ones together?

‘I never saw him again’: it’s only this week that I heard those searing words from a refugee.

‘If only I could hear your voice’; ‘If only I could hold you in my arms once again’: few lives are never pierced by such thoughts.

It does not lie within our power to avoid the terrible separations of death.

Our heart is never only our own; those we have loved inhabit its chambers too. When they die, we may attempt to close the internal doors. But unlike the cupboards in the lounge, the contents of which we may take with sorrow to the second-hand shop, we never can empty the heart’s rooms of the looks, or smells, or the sound of the voices of those we love. We are never immune from memory, welcome guest, or sudden intruder when an unanticipated sight summons us unprepared to the when and the where of what once was.

Our lives are simultaneously defined by the irrevocable passage of time and the irremovable presence of all we ever have been. Our hearts are fashioned by everyone to whom we are ever bound by love.

That is why unnecessary separations are so cruel, partings forced upon us by war, persecution, violence, cruelty and crime.

Since I had to flee, I’ve heard from two of my children. I’ve no idea where the other two are. Pray for them. Pray for me.

It’s several years since a mother from Africa spoke those words to me. There are millions like her, searching among the living, among the records of the dead, searching the lacerated terrain of memory; needing to move on, not wanting to let go.

Perhaps that was what those twenty-two years were like for Jacob, our Biblical ancestor, when he was shown that blood-soaked, multi-coloured coat and concluded that his beloved son Joseph was dead:

I will go down to my son mourning to the grave. (Genesis 37:35)

In this week’s Torah portion he is informed that Joseph is alive after all. ‘It is enough’, he says, ‘My son Joseph yet lives. Let me go and see him before I die’.

Their meeting is among the most moving moments in the Bible:

He appeared to him, and he fell upon his neck, and he wept upon his neck, more and more. (Genesis 46:29)

Who wept on whose neck? ‘It was Joseph who was weeping’, says the commentator Rashi. His father, Jacob, was engrossed in the recital of the morning Shema meditation. The moment had such power over him that he transposed his overwhelming feelings into prayer.

‘No’, explains Nachmanides; it was Jacob who wept:

It is well known in whom the tears are found, in the elderly father who finds his son alive following grief and despair, or in the regal young son…

Nachmanides knows all too well: he himself was forced to flee his native Spain, leaving all his family behind. In 1267 he added this postscript to his letter home:

I am banished from my table, far removed from friend and kinsman, and too long is the distance to meet again…I left my family, I forsook my house. There with the sweet and beloved children, whom I brought up on my knees, I left also my soul. With them, my heart and my eyes will dwell forever. (Letters of Jews through the Ages ed. F Kobler)

My heart goes out to all those who long to see a beloved face, hear a beloved voice, whom war, violence and cruelty keep apart. May the coming secular New Year herald a time of ‘Yet my loved one lives. Let me go and see him…’ May we, too, help bring refugee families together.

 

Hope – despite everything

At the Holocaust Survivor’s Centre yesterday a lady drew me aside and explained:

We have a picture from 1933. Down one side of the street are houses covered in swastikas, draped with Nazi flags. On the other side is a window with a Chanukkiah. You see, they lit their candles, in spite of everything.

That, I believe, is the meaning of Chanukkah, – not just the defiance, but the hope, the courage and the tenacity of spirit.

I thought the same when I read Sarah Cooper’s words yesterday, before the service at St Pauls marking six months since the appalling Grenfell Tower fire. She is head teacher of Oxford Gardens primary school, which lost a pupil and a former pupil, and where over a hundred and twenty children have been severely affected:

We decided to have a day in where we aren’t saying: ‘It’s six months since the fire’. We are saying: ‘It’s six months in which together we’ve built strength’.

Anyone who lives locally, has been part of the emergency services teams involved, or even who drives or walks in the district, knows that the charred, burnt out tower stands as a terrifying, searing and accusing landmark over the entire area.

Thus, too, the ruins of the interior of the Temple in Jerusalem and the casualties and debris of numerous battles, must have haunted the thoughts of the Maccabees whose rekindling of the menorah over two thousand years ago the festival of Chanukkah commemorates.

But such brutal realities are scarcely mentioned in the Talmud’s brief narrative on which the eight days of Chanukkah is traditionally understood to be based. The account is so short it could almost be a tweet:

When the Hasmonean powers grew strong and defeated the Seleucid armies, they searched and found only one vial of oil with the seal of the High Priest intact. It contained sufficient to burn for only one day, but a miracle occurred and they lit from it for eight.

There is no mention, except by inference, of violence and war. But I don’t think this represents avoidance, the attempt to deny history or create alternative facts.

Instead, the story expresses something deeper, – the discovery of light in spite of everything. That, to my mind, is the real miracle. The search for the oil in the ruined precincts of the Temple is a symbolic expression of the quest to find the inner strength and the tenacity of spirit to sustain us despite everything, all the cruelties, injustice and hardship which life can bring. It is a quest we all must make, though some in incomparably more difficult circumstances.

The one vial of pure, unsullied oil is the unquenchable, inexhaustible flame of hope. It is the fuel on which creativity, inner strength and inspiration draw. If we have the courage to light it, the flame almost invariably lasts far longer than reason would have us calculate.

One person’s spirit kindles others, and they in turn impart strength to the person from whom they drew their first inspiration. Such light, sometimes in remote individual flames, sometimes in glowing solidarity, has illumined humanity in defiance of war and disaster, hatred and persecution, throughout the ages. It will not be extinguished.

Jewish law directs us to place our Chanukkah candles in the most visible place, ideally outside the front door to the left as we enter our home, or in a window overlooking the street. For we need strength of spirit in every domain; in our inner life to restore and maintain our own individual sense of purpose; in art, poetry and music; and in the public square to face with hope and courage the collective challenges with which history presents us.

Human Rights Shabbat and Chanukah

This weekend is Human Rights Shabbat; 2018 will bring the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Leo Baeck was the leader of German Jewry during the Nazi years. Imprisoned five times for refusing to bow to Nazi demands, he was deported to Theresienstadt in 1943. He survived. Afterwards, in one of the earliest collections of testaments, he wrote:

The principle of justice is one the whole world over. Justice is like a dike against inhumanity. If a small part breaks, the whole is threatened…An injustice to one is an injustice to all.

His words recall those of an earlier German-Jewish leader, Samson Raphael Hirsch, who warns in his commentary on the commandment not to oppress the stranger:

Beware… lest in your state you make the rights of anyone dependent on anything other than the simple fact of their humanity, which every human being possesses by virtue of being human. With any diminution of this human right, the door is thrown wide open to the whole horror of the experience in Egypt, the wilful mistreatment of other people.

Through listening to refugees, I’ve learnt how close at hand that ‘whole horror’ is. People have their homes bombed to pieces in wars pursued by leaders with utter contempt for human life. They are persecuted by regimes with brutal laws administered at the whim of tyrants. To escape with their lives, they may be forced to sell themselves to people merchants, traffickers who promise, in exchange for whatever money their hapless victims could save from the wreckage of their lives, to deliver them to a free country. Bundled into the backs of lorries, onto planes bound they may not know where, they find themselves in a strange country, bereft of family, friends, money, language, everything they had ever known.

‘Do you have family in Ethiopia?’ I eventually asked a refugee who was staying with us, not knowing what wounds I might be re-opening.

My mother and brother were murdered. I haven’t heard from my father for 12 years. He’s in prison, or killed. I don’t know.

Perhaps, like our ancestor Jacob who believed for 20 years that his beloved Joseph was dead, her heart has an inconsolable corner which she visits in tears when no one is looking.

The least we can do is to help such fellow human beings as best we can. At a session on behalf of Refugees at Home my co-speaker and I were persistently heckled: ‘Those people want to kill our children. They want to live in Kensington and Mayfair’. I’m sure that among the millions of refugees there are a very small number of terrorists. (Others are here already, developing their hideous plans) Vicious people always find ways of abusing the misery of others. We must support and pray for the success of our intelligence and security forces.

But that is no reason to pass collective judgment over all refugees. It is indescribably hard for them to create a new life. Many wait for years, a decade, for permission to remain. Meanwhile they’re not allowed to work. How should they live? This country also permits indefinite detention, in defiance of Magna Carta. The threat hangs heavy in hearts which harbour wounds most of us cannot imagine, torture, hunger, catastrophic loss.

This week brings the wonderful festival of Chanukah. The miracle it proclaims concerns not just the eight days for which a single day’s supply of oil burnt in the ruined Temple in Jerusalem 2,150 years ago. The miracle begins when, amidst the desolation, someone finds that tiny vial of pure olive oil and the decision is made to light it. Despite everything, in defiance of all violence and destruction, the light of hope and courage starts to shine.

To this day it has not been extinguished. It never shall be, if we nourish it not just through our rituals but our deeds.

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