Helping others makes us a closer community

'In these worrying times, we have fallen back on the core of who we are, upon what matters to us most in life. These times have stretched all of us to the limit.'

April 17, 2020 12:24

The title of this column is “View From the Pulpit”. But the pulpit itself, at least in a formal sense, is currently inaccessible. So, what is the view from the rabbi’s home, his private pulpit, during these scarcely believable times? What can a rabbi say, amidst the personal pain of seeing his shul shut its doors, the place he sees as his second home, the beating heart and soul of the community? What is left when the word “Pulpit” is removed — and all that is left is the words “View From”?

As individuals have scrambled to reorganise and refocus their lives in this new world, so too has the Jewish community on an organisational level. And if there is one thing that people have remarked upon, both nationally and internationally, it is the fact that in these worrying times, we have fallen back on the core of who we are, upon what matters to us most in life. These times have stretched all of us to the limit.

And yet, they have also enabled us to see things differently, to see things in a clearer light, somehow, than was possible previously. This, then, is a view of the community from the private pulpit — a pulpit which may not be operating in a normal manner, but is perhaps returned to its original, simpler form — a pulpit of a bygone era.

In his classic halachic compendium, Mishneh Torah, Maimonides discusses what one should focus on more during the festival of Purim — sending gifts of food to friends, known as mishloach manot, or supporting the needy, matanot laevyonim. But Maimonides goes much further than simply ruling in favour of the latter. Instead, he expresses a crystal-clear view of priorities in life: “There is no greater and more splendid happiness than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the converts. One who brings happiness to the hearts of these unfortunate individuals resembles the Divine Presence, which is described as ‘reviving the spirit of the lowly and reviving those with broken hearts’ (Isaiah 57:15).”

If there is one thing that the Jewish community has been resolutely focused on since our now long-ago Purim celebrations, it is these words of Maimonides. The community has returned to the proverbial soup kitchens of old, to an overriding focus on the needy, the downtrodden, the lonely, the vulnerable, the isolated.

And it has done so in the most incredible, magnificent manner. Replicated across the length and breadth of this country, in communities large and small, amongst both rabbinic and lay fraternities, within cross-communal chessed and individual organisations, people have asked themselves just one question time and again: What can I do to help? How can I do something to make someone else’s life a little easier in these times?

We have seen volunteers step forward in an unprecedented manner. People who have never volunteered for a communal role in the past are suddenly in the centre of everything, raising their hands time and again, with the words “I’m here, I’m ready. Just let me know what I can do”.

Within my own rabbinic world, I have witnessed first-hand how my colleagues are literally working all hours to support isolated members, those who are unwell and tragically the many bereaved families in the community. Exceptional online programming and remarkable initiatives for the wider community have been continuously rolled out. People have been offered private guidance that isn’t trumpeted across the press but helps each family in their unique circumstances. And the leadership from the top has been nothing short of outstanding, with the Chief Rabbi, London Beth Din and United Synagogue making difficult decisions in unprecedented circumstances to support the community.

There is something deeply moving about all this. Amongst all the pain and heartache, the Jewish community has found its stride. The tradition of ensuring that the needy have what they require for Pesach, itself centuries old, was no side-show this year. It was front and centre of the Yomtov. It was the pulpit. It was the community.

When, one day, hopefully in the very near future, we all emerge from our homes, I firmly believe that this communal legacy of kindness and sensitivity, the time when all we wanted to do was to bring “happiness to the hearts” of those in need, will remain. The heroes of this era will remain ready to raise their hands again. Because, as Maimonides wrote all those centuries ago, to fulfil this role constitutes nothing less than resembling the Divine Presence itself.


Yoni Birnbaum is rabbi of Hadley Wood Synagogue

April 17, 2020 12:24

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