The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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Therapy for madness

I’m losing people; they’re disappearing, – in my own home. The evening before last I couldn’t find two participants in my evening class. I discovered them kneeling by the couch, talking to the dog.

It was earlier that same day that I’d realised half way through the lesson that one of the girls in my Bnei Mitzvah group had come through the front door but never subsequently appeared in the class. I found her, – in our rear porch, hugging a guinea pig. When I mentioned to the whole group that we’d rescued a baby hedgehog, every single member one of the twenty-five voluble twelve-year-olds fell instantly silent: ‘Can we see it?’ There was even a ‘please’.

I’ve come to understand that this isn’t just an indulgence; it’s not merely sentimental. It’s therapy. It’s a need.

I’m feeling it myself. I have a longing to go to the New Forest. I want to spend a day, a dusk, a night walk among the ponies and donkeys, out with the trees, listening to them breath. My soul is craving sanity; it’s hungry and wants nourishment. I want to be rooted back in the earth, with the leaves, the breathing, grazing, chewing, rhythms of the animals, the branches and the wind.

I had a quiet word with the guinea-pig hugging pupil, – and let her be for the rest of the lesson. I saw that for her this wasn’t indulgence; it was therapy, and she needed it.

It’s a therapy I need too. We all need it; the whole of humanity needs it. Disconnected from the earth, the trees and the animals, our souls slowly forget how to breath. After a while our minds begin to malfunction because our brains are in receipt of insufficient spirit and too little humility. Then comes the greatest danger, that we forget what it is we’ve forgotten. We no longer realise that we’re part of creation, not its gods and owners. We imagine we’re morally, spiritually, economically, ecologically self-sufficient, that we don’t need the earth, the trees and the animals, that we can dispense with the hand that feeds us and the spirit which gives our hearts life.

Yet, hopefully, someone, something, some all but inalienable intuition calls us back: Can I hold that guinea pig please? Where’s the dog? I love horses. The children remind us.

I long to go to the forest, to listen to God. Humankind cannot live by Brexit, instant news, social media and the constant news of folly and disaster alone.

A colleague reminded me of these words by Henry Beston. They provide a fine commentary on book one, chapter one of the Bible, on the meaning of creation, of the gift of life among all other living beings:

We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.

I worry and fear daily, because the destiny of all other forms of life, and without it our own, now rests in our untrustworthy hands. Isaiah, chapter 11, is my ideal: ‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all [God’s] holy mountain’.

I hail this Native American prayer and want to wrap it round my arm, next to my heart, with my Tefilin, my phylacteries, every morning:

Every seed has awakened and so has all animal life.
It is through this mysterious power that we too
Have our being and we therefore yield to our neighbours,
Even our animal neighbours, the same right as
Ourselves, to inhabit this land.
Tatyanka Yotanka, Sitting Bull

 

 

Chanukah and Brexit

Happy Chanukah, on this fifth day of the festival.

There is a challenging connection between watching the Chanukah candles and looking at the news, as Parliament struggles miserably with the evident difficulties of Brexit.

Light, at least according to the mystics, represents the innermost of qualities. Yet on Chanukah we are commanded to place it in the reshut harabbim, the public square.

Or haganuz, the hidden light, is that first light with which God interrupted the reign of darkness over the face of the earth. While day after day and season by season the world now functions by means of the natural light from the sun and its reflection from the moon, that earlier inner light has not entirely disappeared.

It remains present but concealed. It is not just somewhere but everywhere, in each person and every life. It is the source of hope despite cynicism; of solidarity despite hatred; of kinship despite fragmentation, of faith despite despair. Its light is inalienable; it resides irremovably inside each and every one of us and no one can take it away. It is unquenchable; nothing, even long years in which we no longer believe it exists, can extinguish it entirely. It burns in secret, at the heart of life.

I conducted an experiment with my (large and lively) class of teenagers. I put out all the lights in the room, except for a single candle. I asked them: how many people can this one light inspire? They began to tell me who their inspiration was: Emeline Pankhurst, Nelson Mandela, their grandmother, the guitar playing of Jimmy Hendrix, their teacher, a friend who never gave up in spite of having an incurable illness. We talked about courage, determination, persistence, kindness. They were still telling me when the lesson ended.

These are the qualities of the lights we are commanded to place in the public square on Chanukah. They are most urgently needed there.

This autumn has brought several eightieth commemorations of events in Germany in the 1930’s. Weimar was a far younger and weaker democracy than Britain. Its constitution was adopted on 11 August 1919. It was almost strangled in its opening years by threats of revolution from the left and paramilitaries on the right. It survived for less than 14 years.

But the reasons for its collapse are nevertheless apposite. It failed because of weaknesses in the democratic system and flaws in its key leaders. The other parties failed to come together to keep Hitler’s exciting nationalist populism at bay. Aging and ailing, President Hindenburg made the weak-minded decision to accede to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. Vice Chancellor Von Papen was too weak to offer counter-balance and resistance. What followed we all sadly know.

There are plenty of differences. But…But it’s not good when Parliament is experienced as weak, irrelevant, or lacking in capacity. It’s not good for the state whose politicians, most of whom are honest public servants, are held in contempt as a class. It’s worse when some or many of them deserve it. It’s bad when in-fighting and self-interest prevent the coming together of minds to arrive at the best decisions possible for the country as a whole.

I therefore pray at this critical time that the lights of Chanukah will illumine our democracy and its institutions, the lights of faith, courage, creativity, intelligence and wisdom. May they enlighten and inspire us and the leaders and members of the institutions which have created and protected this remarkable country, Israel, the United States, and all other democracies throughout the world.

 

The Hidden Lights of Chaunukah

Sunday brings the first night of Chanukkah.

Chanukkah takes my thoughts back to my grandmother’s house, when I would go to light the candles in the lonely years after my grandfather’s death. As we quietly watched them burn I would look in the window at their reflection, little lamps burning out there in the dark.

Chanukkah is the celebration of the light hidden within the darkness. The mystics explain that olam, ‘world’, derives from the same word-family as he’elem, concealment. We live in a world where the light of God’s spirit is concealed. But it burns secretly in every human being and all living things. It is the flame on the invisible Menorah which illumines the threshold of God’s temple.

Sometimes, though, its light shines out brightly. Chanukkah is the celebration of such moments.

The Talmud tells how the Maccabees searched the ruined temple precincts in Jerusalem for a single vial of unsullied oil to light the Menorah. This may not be historically true. But it’s a truth which illumines all history. There are always those who, with love and courage, seek out and nurture whatever sparks of light can be rescued from the wars and persecutions which mar the human record.

This Sunday marks eighty years since the arrival of the first Kindertransport in Britain. ‘It was a rough crossing’, Leslie Brent told me, recalling the overnight ferry journey from Hoek van Holland to Harwich. Those who created the plan, found, registered, accompanied and gave homes to those children, rescued precious lights which would otherwise have been extinguished and destroyed.

Eric Lucas recalled the final parting from his parents at the station:

First my father and then my mother had laid their hands gently on my bowed head to bless me…My father’s eyes were filled with tears of loneliness and fear.

One hopes his parents could carry the knowledge that their child was safe like a tiny lantern inside their hearts, even as they walked towards the darkness.

But it’s not only in war that hidden lights can guide us. It happens every day in the inspiration we give each other. I experience this often.

I recently received an award in New York. There’s no such thing as leadership without partnership and companionship, so it was really an award for our whole congregation. My first contract with our synagogue, as a youth worker, is dated January 1981, so it’ll soon be forty years my life has been guided by the inspiration of our community. I wrote next day:

I’m deeply touched by the love and generosity of my family, community and colleagues. It isn’t only yesterday. It’s the knowledge that not just my thoughts and, hopefully, many of my actions, but my heart has been, and still is, formed by the kindness, forbearance, wisdom, example, love and sometimes chastisement of so many people. ‘Formed’ is not an adequate word; I mean deepened and extended; people have pushed against inner doors I had not known existed and opened for me spaces of reverence, sorrow, gratitude, mourning and awe. That process has enriched me with the guidance, courage and love of many people, and, through them and the wonder of nature, with moments I think of as sparks from the radiance of God’s light.

There are always people near us who have the gift of nurturing the light hidden within the world’s darkness, through how they care for children, practise healing, fight for the vulnerable, protect the beauty of nature, and stalwartly prove how untrue it is that nothing can be done.

Such people’s lights illumine our only path to victory over brute power, cruelty, lies and destruction.

On Chanukkah we’re commanded to place those lights bireshut harabbim, overlooking the highway, in the public square. We take the sacred hidden light we receive from God, the world and each other, honour it, celebrate it and make it define the direction of our lives.

 

International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women

#IDEVAW2018

I doubt there is a single one of us who feels we have managed all our relationships perfectly, or even three quarters as well as we could and should. If there is such a person, he or she should be the first to see a therapist.

Rabbinic tradition names the strange figure with whom Jacob wrestled all night as the guardian angel of Esau. It’s the Esau in his conscience, whose cry and tears Jacob hears now, twenty years later, as he crosses back over the physical and emotional border to re-enter the landscape of his childhood.

Jacob has had many opportunities to learn to listen better over the intervening years. He’s experienced for himself what it’s like to be on the wrong end of deception. He’s witnessed, disturbingly aloof, the pain each of his wives has felt, Leah unloved, Rachel long unable to conceive a child. Only now, at last, his conscience is open.

Most of us don’t intend to inflict suffering on those we love. But over years of family life, the whole of our self inevitably comes into play. Few of us have a perfect grip on our temper, always. Our vulnerabilities, especially those of which we are not conscious, make us defensive. Defensiveness easily becomes aggression. Trying to compensate for aspects of our upbringing we didn’t like, we lean the other way and inflict different wounds. Philip Larkin has a strong line about what parents do to their children, only it’s not one a rabbi can repeat.

That’s why the best qualities we can bring to our relationships, with friends and colleagues as well as family, are appreciation, humility, the readiness to acknowledge we may be wrong, forgiveness, kindness and openness of heart. Most of the time, these attitudes see most relationships through the downs as well as the ups.

But there are also crueller, deeper hurts, leaving scars which never heal. In her poem about her new dog Benjamin, Who Came From Who Knows Where, Mary Oliver describes how she only has to reach for brushwood or the broom for the animal to rush away. When he returns, she strives to comfort him, telling him not to worry:

I also know the way
the old life haunts the new.

 Sunday is International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women.

I’ve listened to the fear, distress, humiliation and destruction of self-esteem domestic violence can leave. Sometimes it involves physical brutality; sometimes it includes financial manipulation; often it takes the form of emotional bullying and coercive control; frequently it is exercised in subtle and cunning, but no less powerful, demeaning and cruel, ways.

I’ve learnt of the impact of abuse on children, ongoing decades after it took place. I know that whatever I’ve heard is only a tiny fraction of what takes place. I feel nervous even trying to bring words to this hidden, taboo subject, for fear they might cause further hurt. I tried to do so in Things My Dog Has Taught Me; perhaps the book’s overt topic gave cover:

There exists something even worse than depriving a person of love: to rob him or her of the feeling of being worthy of receiving love, of being lovable and capable of giving love at all. We are born with the capacity to respond to love; as it grows we develop the ability to love others in return. It is a sin is to starve that faculty for love in another person, especially a child. It is an even greater sin… to punch holes in the fragile membranes of the heart where those experiences are stored and garnered which nurture inside us the feeling that we ourselves are lovable and able to give love, kind and able to show kindness, good and capable of altruistic goodness.

We must do everything we possibly can to make safety and support accessible to everyone who is suffering bullying and abuse, be it behind closed bedroom doors, at work, or wherever. I know to my horror that too many bullies get away with it. Too many people whom they hurt are left to suffer and go on suffering.

This responsibility is even more urgent when bullying and contempt for women are expressed from the highest places, and the victims ignored or jeered at.

We must all also try to learn from the sore places in our own hearts, and from our own potential angers and capacities to bully. We are at our most truly human when we are not hurters but healers.

 

A hundred years since the war

In this week of Armistice commemorations I feel saddened, touched, bewildered and concerned.

Last week I walked slowly past the sixty thousand poppies in the grounds of Westminster Abbey, so many young lives calling to the heart:

Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world…     (Wilfred Owen: Strange Meeting)

I hear in my mind how Helen recalled her final parting from her husband, the poet Edward Thomas, when he climbed the country path away from their house, calling out to her as he always did ‘coo-ee; coo-ee’ through the thickening mist. Her searing account formed part of the ceremony in Glasgow Cathedral to mark a hundred years since the outbreak of the war.

I see my English teacher looking over our class and saying: ‘If this was 1910, half of you would die in the trenches’.

Then yesterday I stood at the graves of the Jewish soldiers of Frankfurt am Main and lit the memorial lamp for the 447 Jewish sons of the city who died for their Fatherland. The shadow of my grandfather stood beside me, – except that I felt that he was truly present, and I was the shadow. I imagined him, a chaplain for the duration with the 5th German Army, speaking at the dedication of this site in 1923. I opened my address with his words:

‘Kameraden!’ Heute begruessen uns die Tote: ‘Comrades!’ Today the dead hail us: ‘Do not abandon us to the grave. Let us live in your hearts…’

The old Jewish cemetery was beautiful. All around among the tall trees were graves with familiar family names. I felt I stood among my people. In 1932 Nazi threats forced an end to all official commemorations. Until 2008 the soldiers lay forgotten by the country for which they had died.

I was asked to speak afterwards at the general military cemetery. ‘Accept’, my Jewish contact advised me, but know that some SS may be buried there too. In that vast arena level grey gravestones stretched away, row after row.

The General who spoke before me was frank about the past, and forthright about the rise of race-hate today. I was blunt about the bitter, murderous fate meted out with merciless thoroughness to Germany’s Jews, and the return of race hatred once again stalking the streets of the cities of so many states.

But I also remembered how the English war poet Keith Douglas, himself killed soon afterwards in Normandy, had looked with pity at the body of a Wehrmacht soldier in whose he found a tattered note from his girlfriend: ‘Steffi; Vergissmeinnicht’.

What a waste and destruction of life.

That evening after I’d spoken about my grandfather’s life a kind elderly gentleman took me aside. He’d grown up in the post-war ruins of the city. His father, a survivor, dealt in groceries. ‘Father’, he’d asked him one day, ‘Why do you buy your potatoes from that miserable small store? Why not get them somewhere decent?’ ‘No’, his father had replied. ‘That man threw potatoes over the fence when we were rounded up for deportation. The others from whom I buy gave us bread in those terrible times. Now it’s my turn to help them.’

‘My father’, he explained further, ‘Ran a soup kitchen for destitute Jews in the 30s. Your grandfather gave him money. An SS man used to come secretly, after dark, bringing food. When the war began, he brought all his money, then shot himself. I found the man’s SS insignia in a box my father bequeathed me’…

Why did he join the SS in the first place? – My new friend had no answer…

Why do so many succumb to hatred? Why do we surrender our conscience to populists and hate-mongers? How is it that, despite everything, some still obey the heart’s law of loving kindness? Why do millions follow the madness fanned by the few? Why do millions more have to die, who had only wanted to live their peaceful lives, with their family, their farm, their walks across the hills?

I wish these questions belonged only to the past. I wish, preach and pray for us all to speak out, before we too are devoured in the horrors.

 

Service at Westminster Abbey on the 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht

It was profoundly stirring to participate yesterday in the commemoration service at Westminster Abbey on the 80th year since Kristallnacht. Walking through the precincts, past the memorial of 60,000 poppies for those who died in the First World War was already deeply humbling.

Most moving was the testament of three ‘Kinder’ who recalled the terror of the Night of Broken Glass. They were no longer young; the silence as they slowly negotiated the steep wooden steps to the Abbey lectern drew their words even more deeply into the heart.

I had the privilege of giving the address (Part will be familiar to my own community):

On the 10th November, the morning after Kristallnacht, my grandfather was summoned by the Gestapo to the Hauptsynagoge in Frankfurt. Flames pierced the building, no one did or dared do anything to extinguish them. Yet, as he walked through the crowd of onlookers, he overheard them say that in his own Westendsynagoge, though the interior had been destroyed by rioting Nazis, the Eternal Light was still burning. They took this as a sign from God.

It struck me that my grandfather found himself between two kinds of flame, the fires of destruction, and the Ner Tammid, the calm, inextinguishable inner light which denotes the presence of God.

Through the 30s and 40s both those flames burnt fiercely.

The fire of devastation destroyed synagogues throughout Germany. It crossed the Channel in the Blitzkrieg burning whole districts of London and many British cities. It soared obscenely in the indescribable crematoria by the gas-chambers. Eventually it came back full circle to ravage the towns of Germany. When, after 11 years absence, my grandfather returned to his beloved Frankfurt, he wondered through ‘the unrecognisable streets and squares, while from the broken, hollow windows horror stared’.

Yet the light of God’s presence burnt also. Is glowed in the heart of the British Consul General, Robert Smallbones, through whose offices tens of thousands, my family included, received transit visas to Britain, and who wrote later of his shame for every hour when, overcome by sleep, he was not writing affidavits. It shone in Frank Foley in Berlin, who refused to let the powers that be prevent him from issuing visas for China, because Jews had the right to choose their own fate and ‘would rather die as free men in Shanghai, than as slaves in Dachau’.

It illumined the debate in Parliament, when Britain granted entry to an unlimited number of children. It illumined the words of the MP for Gower, David Rhys Grenfell, who testified to the queues of despairing people outside the passport offices of Germany and Austria, waiting as if before the tribunal which would decide between life and death. It burned in the actions of those British officials who endeavoured to process with courtesy their desperate applications. Indeed, my grandparents described the British consulate in Frankfurt as an island of humanity in a sea of violence and contempt.

It burnt in the hearts of Jewish leaders, Quakers, Christadelphians, churchmen and women, good people, who rescued children, taking them into their homes. It illumined the heart and home of the Bishop of Durham, who took in the ‘Kind’ John Rayner, subsequently Rabbi Dr John Rayner, my teacher, and in his Bishop’s residence ensured he received a Jewish education and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah.

Those same two fires burn today.

The searing flames of incitement rage in those who preach hatred of Jews for being Jews and Muslims for being Muslim, who fan the populist fires of resurgent racism and xenophobia. They burn in the murderous assault on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in every attack on congregations at prayer, or children at school, or people at Thousand Oaks outside LA, enjoying the simple pleasure of dancing.

But God’s Eternal Light also burns, in the actions of those who create foodbanks, shelter the homeless, share their homes with refugees, run drop-ins and havens for asylum-seekers, reach out a hand to those of different faiths, hoping that it will be taken in trust and fellowship. In shines in the work of Lord Alf Dubs, himself one of the Kinder, tireless in striving to bring lonely, helpless children to safety and the hope of a future in Britain.

But which of those kinds of fire is more powerful?

I imagine a conversation: ‘My grandfather, my Opa, as you stood then between those two flames, which did you think was the stronger?’

I picture him answering with the ancient rabbinic sentence, just four words in Hebrew: neiri beyadecha, veneirecha beyadi: “My light is your hands”, says God, “Your light is in mine”. ‘It’s up to you’, he would say, ‘Which of those flames is stronger lies in your grasp.

The fire of destruction or the flame of sacred light? The choice lies in our hands. Therefore, God, protect our light in Your hands, so that we can protect and nurture Your light entrusted into ours.

In solidarity with the Tree of Life synagogue

I share with our community, with all Jewish congregations around the world, particularly in America, in Pittsburgh, and among the members of the Tree of Life synagogue, a heavy heart.

Those murdered in the appalling gun attack last Shabbat were the faithful of the congregation: a couple, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, married for 62 years; two brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal, who ‘loved their community and never missed a Saturday’; Daniel Stein, with a ‘very dry sense of humour’, who recently became a grandfather. As a colleague wrote, they were those good, kind, reliable souls ‘on whom we all depend in our communities’.

הַנֶּאֱהָבִים וְהַנְּעִימִם
בְּחַיֵּיהֶם וּבְמוֹתָם לֹא נִפְרָדוּ

They were beloved and kind in their lives;
and [cruelly] in their deaths they were not divided.

There has been an immediate, immense, shocked, heartfelt outpouring of solidarity. It is local: the Muslim community raised tens of thousands of dollars to support the bereaved and injured; at a nearby school, pupils of all faiths sang Havdalah. It is national: at synagogues across America thousands upon thousands have gathered in sorrow and support, queueing in the streets outside, often joined by Christians and Muslims. It is international, as here in London, where the Home Secretary, the Mayor and the American and Israeli Ambassadors spoke out.

Whatever comfort this brings, I’m sorrowfully aware that it does not remove the nightmare that a place of prayer has been made the site of a massacre and that families now face the long years of irreplaceable loss. May God be with them and with their friends, their community and all who lead and guide them.

Those murdered are the victims of three crimes. First, anti-Semitism. They were killed as Jews, because they were Jews, at synagogue, engaged in Jewish prayer. It is abominable proof, as if that were wanted, that this ancient hatred, of Jews for being Jews, is not over.

Second, racism; specifically, white supremacist racism. The killer targeted the Tree of Life synagogue because it works with HIAS, the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, to support refugees. He screamed abuse about both Jews and Muslims. His actions are an eruption of a vicious hatred of the other; a scornful and fearful contempt which considers itself increasingly legitimised not just in America but across Europe and much of the world.

Third, gun violence. From Britain, American gun laws seem incomprehensible. Why should such lethal, often military-grade, weapons be accessible to those who plan slaughter in schools or places of worship? It is a United States issue, but not solely so. We must all be ashamed that wealth is made from the arms trade, money out of violence. Mostly we don’t know the victims; here, we do.

How must we respond?

Hate speech is lethal. This should not need saying and yet must be said.

Hate speech leads to hate actions. It prepares the ground for lynching, killing and mass murder. It must not be legitimated in the classroom, workplace, clubroom, or from the pulpit of any and every religion. It must on no account be legitimised from high office. ‘Life and death depend on the tongue,’ says the Talmud. The more powerful the tongue, the greater the responsibility. We must therefore reach out to each other across the ‘boundaries’ of faith and ethnic group, as Tree of Life did and does, and as their Muslim neighbours have demonstrated by example. We must never listen passively to hatred and bigotry, against us, any individual or group.

Above all, we must live by our values. We must be vigilant. But we must also be defiant, not in an aggressive manner, but with the defiance of commitment and inner depth.

Our strength lies in living by our Judaism, in rooting our daily actions in its teachings of disciplined dedication to community, to our people and to humanity in all our potential for good and all our susceptibility to suffering.

This is what faith truly means: trustworthiness and service before life and before God. It unites us with the deepest source of inspiration: the dedication, courage, wisdom and compassion of Jewish people, and countless people of other faiths and none, across the troubled millennia.

 

 

Were you there when I needed you? How much of our lives do we miss?

I’ve just come home from the synagogue where my friend and colleague Rabbi Amanda Golby spoke beautifully on her father’s tenth Yahrzeit about the word Hinneni, ‘Here am I’. She talked of our responsibility towards those who’ve loved us to live with as much presence and sensitivity to those around us as we can.

As it happens, I spent a couple of sleepless midnight hours pondering that hinneni. It’s a concatenation of two simple words, ani, ‘I’, and hinneh, usually translated as ‘behold’. But the combination doesn’t mean ‘Look, this is me’, a Biblical version of ‘I’m doing it my way and I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks’.

On the contrary, as Rashi explains, hinneni is an expression of humility, of readiness to listen. It means ‘I’m there for you’, whether that ‘you’ is God, one’s partner, child, or life itself. The ani, the ‘I’, has become a suffix, transposed into the ‘ni’ at the end of hinneh to produce that hinne-ni. It symbolises how the ‘I’ of the ego has become the ‘I’ of awareness. I am not just present, but presence, listening to life’s ‘Hinneh’, to life’s ‘Behold’, life’s ‘Open your heart and be still’. It’s the hinneni of the bird-watcher: quiet, attentive, not wanting to frighten away the singer of that music.

I’m writing just like everybody else, as a person who’s both succeeded and failed. Sometimes I’ve really ‘been there’ for others; sometimes I’ve not. For certain I’ve merited the painful rebukes: ‘You weren’t there when I needed you’, and ‘Your ears were there, but where was your heart?’

Abraham says ‘Hinneni’ three times. Rabbinic tradition sees perfection in each of those responses. I’m not sure. There’s no doubt about his initial reply when God calls; he takes his son Isaac as instructed and walks three silent days until he ‘sees the place’ for the sacrifice. There’s no unclarity either about the third time, when the angel cries out ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ urgently commanding him to withhold the knife.

But what about Abraham’s response, when, as they climb Mount Moriah together, Isaac turns to him and says, ‘My father’, and he answers ‘Hinneni beni – Here am I, my son’? Is he really there for his child?

Maybe that’s the real truth of ‘the sacrifice of Isaac’. No, Abraham definitely doesn’t kill his son. But he does sacrifices him in other ways: by putting his relationship with God first, and not just on this occasion.

Abraham walks before God; he’s a wonderful partner to the Almighty. But it’s hard to say the same about his relationship with his wife Sarah, or with Isaac, or Hagar, the surrogate mother to his other son Ishmael. After the episode on Mount Moriah, he and Isaac never meet again. When Sarah dies, Abraham isn’t there.

I’m not trying to fault Abraham, only to note that we all struggle with multiple and conflicting calls on our consciousness. I think of my friend whose son was killed in the Lebanon. He’s a true Zionist, of the left, a peace-maker. But he wishes deeply he’d said less of an hinneni to his country, and more to his beloved child. How could he feel otherwise?

Mercifully most of our struggles are not matters of life and death. But they do go to the core of life’s quality, both for ourselves and for our family, friends, colleagues, and even the world of nature around us.

How much hinneni do I say to my desk? How much to my wife? Did I notice that person in the corner, crying? Did I actually see those trees? How much of my own life, and other peoples’ lives, have I missed?

In the end, it’s a question of trying to perceive life’s often silent, unstated Hineh! Behold! with an attentive and compassionate heart.

 

Would Abraham have protested fracking?

I’ve been following the case of the anti-fracking activists, Simon Roscoe Blevins, Richard Roberts and Richard Loizou. Imprisoned for the offence of public nuisance, they were freed yesterday by the high court, which called their sentence ‘manifestly excessive’. Their crime was to ensconce themselves for days on top of trucks bringing drilling equipment.

Had Abraham our Ancestor been alive today, would there have been four men sent to prison?

There’s a good chance.

Abraham wasn’t a person easily deterred by power. He challenged Pharaoh (albeit after making his wife pretend she was his sister). ‘I thought there was no fear of God in this place’, he declared; which amounts to ‘Do you have any moral boundaries here?’

He went to war to rescue his nephew from pirating armies. He ensured the protection of the well supplying his water, defending his most important environmental asset.

‘Yes, but he did it all from self-interest’, it could be claimed. There’s little such motive in his horrified response when God threatens to destroy in entirety the perverse city of Sodom: ‘How can you annihilate the good alongside the evil? Should the judge of all the earth not do justice?’

Among the legends with which the rabbis embellish the biblical account, three stand out. Abraham defies the tyranny of the ‘mighty hunter’ Nimrod, walking with steady defiance through the ‘fiery furnace’ of all the weaponry unrestrained power has at its disposal.

Impressed with Abraham’s leadership qualities, God calls him not just servant, but officer, ambassador, secretary of state: ‘Walk ahead of me’, God instructs him. Shine a light on the dark pathways God’s presence has to penetrate in this world.

Most famous of all these rabbinic parables is the account of how Abraham found God:

He came upon a palace on fire. ‘How come it’s got no owner?’ he wondered. The owner looked at him and called out: ‘This palace belongs to me’.

I’ve puzzled over this picture for years: what’s the owner doing inside a burning building? ‘Get out, God!’ one wants to say, ‘After all, you’re supposed to be able to do anything.’

Maybe that’s the point. Abraham sees a world on fire with violence and brutality. The God he experiences needs humanity to put it out. God’s message to him is: ‘You and your fellow humans are responsible for the world.’

I worry repeatedly about what that responsibility entails. What does moral and spiritual leadership mean?

When Abraham challenges God about Sodom, the point they agree on is that to save the city requires a minimum number of good people. They argue over the figures: fifty, twenty, ten? But, whatever the case, these decent citizens have to be betoch, ‘in the midst of’, involved in their city. They must be ‘out there’, active, pro-active. If all they do is sit at home with their good ideas, they’re useless.

So I imagine Abraham might have climbed onto the cab of one of those lorries and protested, peacefully, with unshaking commitment.

After all, the world is in flames (and in floods). God is inside it, crying out from all nature and all humanity, ‘Put the fires out!’

 

Contempt for the UN climate report?!

‘Look, daddy, deer!’ Mossy, our son, pointed up to the rocky ridge to where the mountain met the grey sky; there they were, stationary, a whole line of red deer, staring down at us in the thin rain.

There are precious moments in the life of every family and friendship. These are some of mine:

When our daughter Libbi, then aged two, held a conversation with a lamb. The lamb said ‘Me’e’eh’. ‘No, you say “Baaa”’, said Libbi.

When our dog Safi first saw snow; refusing to alight from the train onto this unfamiliar substance, he waited until I had descended, then placed his paws carefully on my shoes.

When Nicky, my wife, touched my arm and mouthed ‘stop’, because a badger was staring at us from five yards away.

It’s a marvellous world. I want my children, all children, and their children, to experience its wonder, to love, care for and cherish it, and discover in its beauty the mystery and awe of the hidden presence of God.

I therefore feel great anguish, impassioned concern for this earth. That is coupled with boiling turmoil little short of fury at the political leaders who show contempt for the numerous scientists across the globe who compiled the UN IPCC report published this week. What right do the heads of state of Australia and America, among others, have to ignore, deride and set short term interests before the future of… simply before the future of anyone or anything? Why are endeavours to protect the huge rainforests of South America, Africa and Indonesia so often entrammelled in local corruption? What can be done?

Then the questions turn into: What can we, what can I do? What influence can we bring to bear and how do we best accomplish this?

There is nothing more urgent than establishing and following the political, technological and moral guidance which will lead us back from the threat of disaster towards a sustainable relationship with the planet on which we all depend.

I know too that I am also part of the problem. So I plan to fly less, use fossil-fuels less and waste less. (I can’t add eat far less meat, as I’m vegetarian already, but I’m committed to eating less dairy.) I will continue to be passionate about planting trees and cherishing the wellbeing of earth, water and air. I welcome guidance on what will enable me to look children, God and even the trees and birds around me in the face without having to turn away in shame.

It takes God just five chapters in the book of Genesis to regret making human beings. The angels warned God, our rabbis explain in a typical moment of phantasy:

‘Don’t do it’, the angels say, ‘humans are full of lies. Don’t do it; they’ll spend their whole time fighting’. ‘While you’ve been busy arguing’, God tells them, ‘I’ve gone and made humans anyway’. (Bereshit Rabbah 8:5)

God defies the angels and instead puts immense trust in us, placing the whole world under our stewardship. But stewardship means respectful care, not simply the application of power. We are yet to prove ourselves fitting for this role.

I respect and love this world, its wonder, beauty, balance, and intricate interdependence. I want it to be there for my children to love, and for their children and children’s children too. I want to conduct myself, and for all humanity to conduct itself, accordingly.

Read Rabbi Wittenberg’s article What can we learn from Noah? published in the Jewish Chronicle this week.

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