Desert Island Texts – My Grandfather’s Forces Prayer Book

I had a piece published in the Jewish News for their Desert Island Texts series (print version here).

Interestingly, my grandfather arranged for Rosh Hashanah services to take place in Devon, supported by a good friend and Rabbi Reinhardt (of the West London Synagogue). His commanding officer apparently told him if they were to have a ‘church’ like service then they would have to parade through the streets on the way to the service – which they duly did. Apparently my grandfather gave the sermon on Yom Kippur – but wasn’t happy with it (he was only 21). There is a lovely account of his time in the Pioneer Corps in Dr Helen Fry’s book ‘The King’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens’.

Here’s my Desert Island text piece:

A young man in 1940, a Private in the Pioneer Corp, is issued with a “Prayer Book for Jewish Members of H.M. Forces”. The prayer book survived the war and was given to me by my grandmother. The young man in question was my grandfather of blessed memory, and the prayer book is a treasured volume.

My grandfather had relatively recently arrived from Nazi Germany. He was an Enemy Alien, by virtue of his birthplace, and therefore, initially part of the Pioneer Corp. I never talked with him in great detail about his war time experiences, though I have read some of his memoirs.

The prayer book itself is short, a reflection of the exigencies of war; the midrashic teaching, that there is a time to lengthen and a time to shorten in one’s prayers, was surely created for times such as these.  Stuck on my Desert Island, I imagine energy will be better spent saving my life in deeds rather than praying for salvation. The composition of the prayers is deeply moving; I would find it very difficult to write prayers in times of such deep crisis. Drawing on traditional motifs from the liturgy, this prayer book speaks to the inner spirit of human kind.

More than the prayers, in being cast away with this book, I will be reminded of the troubles that have befallen my people and humanity. My family witnessed the devastation of life and the blackest of nights. Yet, with great nobility, people began to rebuild. They did not despair.

Can you imagine concluding prayers for those fallen in battle, ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’ only to go back to battle? These young soldiers did and then they went on to work for peace. Such profound resilience and fortitude. I would hope that the prayer book might remind me of my own capacity for strength and resourcefulness to tend to the future once again, as my grandfather did before me.

Thought for the week at Liberal Judaism – Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudey

Below is my contribution to Liberal Judaism’s ‘Thought for the Week‘. I think the link changes each week, hence reproducing it below.

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“Thus were completed (vayechulu) the heavens and earth and all their host and God completed on the seventh day the work which God had done.” (Genesis 2:1-3)

“Thus was completed (vayechulu) all work of the Tabernacle of the tent of meeting and the children of Israel did according to all the Eternal One commanded them… and Moses completed the work”.  (Exodus 39:32 & 40:33)

There is a famous midrash from Pesikta de Rav Kahana that plays on the same root of the world ‘vayechulu’ (‘thus was completed’), but in this case from the book of Numbers in relation to the Torah reading for Chanukah, that describes how God’s presence (the Shekhina) gradually moved away from the world as a result of the ‘sins’ of the people in it.  However, for these ten generations that forced God out into a self-imposed exile, there are ten corresponding generations that brought God’s presence back into the world.  It is as if, according to the midrash, the world was intended to be the dwelling place for God, but the behaviour of the people forced God out of God’s self-made home.  Yet, with righteousness and truth and justice God’s presence can once again be made to feel at home.  For that reason, the midrash concludes with the ‘completion’ of the building of the Tabernacle; because the mishkan is a purpose built structure, within which God’s presence is theoretically palpable. The manifestation of God’s presence has shifted from the whole world to the tiny new world of the Tabernacle. This is the reason for the parallel between the completion of the creation of the world and the completion of the creation of the Tabernacle.

Of course, that does not mean God is not everywhere, but that within the Tabernacle – its building, its preciously guarded rites and rituals – God can be, if you like, at home.

You don’t have to be a genius to see how little has changed.  In the biblical description, God was reduced to dwelling in a small tent wandering through the wilderness.  Today, I suspect the space available where God’s presence can dwell may be even smaller.  We have succeeded in shutting out holiness.  We have mastered the arts of deception, of gossip, of greed and selfishness.  We have triumphed in hatred, oppression and causing enmity amongst fellow human beings.  We are universally brilliant at ensuring that God cannot dwell amongst us.

As I mentioned before, the Tabernacle was a microcosm of the universe – a place where God could dwell. Maybe it was easy for the ancient Israelites to have a place which was kept pure and untarnished in which God’s presence is realised.  It is much harder to extend this realm into a world outside of the confines of the tent that was the mishkan; it definitely was not possible once we reached the period of the Temple, the fixed equivalent to the portable sanctuary. After all, the Second Temple is destroyed, we are taught in a rabbinic teaching, because of baseless hatred. After the Second Temple is destroyed, as Liberal Jews, we do not believe the task is to rebuild the Temple in a literal sense, but to rebuild it wherever we find ourselves. To create a space fit for God’s presence anywhere that we dwell.

The prayerbook for the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism reminded me of this and provides some food for thought.

In all Jewish communities, in the daily Tefillah (not on Shabbat) there is a blessing for Jerusalem. The blessing for Jerusalem in one of its classic modern formulations is as follows:

“Have mercy and return to Jerusalem, Your city. May Your presence dwell there as You have promised…”
“Velirushalayim ir’cha berachamim tashuv, vetishkon betocha ca’asher dibarta…”

Yet, in the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism siddur we read:

“Dwell amidst Jerusalem your city just as you have promised…”
“Shechon betoch yerushalayim ir’cha ka’asher dibarta”

Those of you with good Hebrew will notice that the opening word is an imperative form of ‘dwell’.  So, whilst following the Sephardi rite (which has ‘tishkon’ – the non-imperative form of the same verb) the word has changed and the sense is of demand or pleading with a God who feels absent. Absent from the holy place of Jerusalem and also from all spaces and places. If Jerusalem is a symbol an intimation for us all, as well as a reality (as suggested by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book ‘Israel: An Echo of Eterntiy’), perhaps we should all change our liturgy to reflect a greater necessity and urgency for this prayer to become realised. With no small amount of chutzpah we demand that God will once again dwell among us. But the demand is made of us not of God; it was people who expelled God’s presence and it is people who will let God back in – whether in Jerusalem, between Israel and the Palestinians, in Syria in the face of tyranny or even here in the UK.

We do not pray to get God to listen to us and intervene with miracles; we pray, in my opinion, that we may be worthy of God hearing our prayer.  Perhaps then, when we are worthy, the prayer will no longer be necessary.