Judith Sinclair-Cohen
Judith Sinclair-Cohen

Remembering Rabbi Jonathan Sacks this Shavuot

 With a Painting, a Historian and a Parliamentarian.

Reuven Rubin, (1893-1974), The First Fruits, 1923, triptych, oil on canvas, coll. Rubin Museum, Tel Aviv

First Fruits was painted by artist Reuven Rubin in 1923. It is a triptych, a painting in three panels, traditionally a Christian expression of homage, that can be viewed from several angles. It is a landscape. The people in the picture represent those then found in Mandatory Palestine. The Arabs in the two side panels are sidelined, in favor of the drama of the central panel, which depicts the ritual offering of the Bikkurim, firstfruits offered up during the days of the Temple. These first fruits are both real and figurative. In the panel on the right, the camel nails the scene firmly in the Orient; the lily is a symbol of renewal.

Look at the horizon. It is contiguous across all three panels, yet it contrasts with traditional landscapes where the sky makes up two-thirds of the scene. Here, the land practically fills the whole canvas. Notice how the people are connected to the land. They are all barefoot. The soles of their feet grace the ground, as if planted there. It’s all about the land. Rubin has painted a land that nurtures a new native identity.

The couple on the right, represent the new Hebrews. The man stands tall, his muscular back is tanned from working outside in the fields. He is a pioneer in touch with nature, who realizes the Zionist dream through physical labor. This is how Jews of the Yishuv saw the pioneer in the 1920s. He lives in harmony with nature which grants him fruit.

Does the man remind you of anyone from Greek mythology? Is he perhaps Atlas carrying the world on his back? Yet notice that the watermelon, and the early bunch of green bananas are fruits that are new to the land. His fair-skinned mate, signifies a sort of fertility goddess. This model for Israeli identity, unrestrained by an old religion, was inspired by Nietzsche and by Soviet socialist ideals of the New Man. This confident-looking couple wants to direct their own collective destiny and free themselves from dependency on the diaspora.

The traditional couple on the left are Oriental Jews. Their modest dress reflects a deep-rooted, devout religious way of life.  Their closed body language cowers in comparison with the other couple.  Although the wife holds a rimon, a pomegranate, a biblical symbol of fertility in her right hand, it is the child that is held close. This is their first fruit. The offering they bear, is their child. Their firstborn.

It is an imposing work, in size, in the large flat planes of color and in its deceptively simple theme.  Yet I never warmed to this picture. Not until I realized that, in a manner of speaking, I had come across the pioneers in this picture before. This was when I realized a connection between pioneers living in mandatory Palestine around the time of the painting and a pivotal visit made by then British Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill.

***

Let me explain: Historian Martin Gilbert was Winston Churchill’s official biographer. In this role, he was meticulous in probing every minuscule detail of Churchill’s life. He had a long, long trestle-style table in his study, where, for each day of Churchill’s life, all the material was laid out in chronological order. And it was from this multitude of minutiae, that he would summon the story.

As Gilbert was also a Jewish historian, Churchill’s visit, in 1921, to Jerusalem and the new Yishuv settlement of Rishon LeZion, was of particular interest.

He was intrigued to find out more about the Rishon LeZion visit, as experienced by those early pioneers — our couple on the right! He dived into the Yishuv archives and managed to extract the minutes of a meeting when Churchill’s visit was first proposed. The results were surprising.

There was uproar: Why do we need this?

What? Should we take precious time away from our important work here to entertain some British official?

We have plenty else to do! Swamps to drain! Soil to till! Orchards to plant! Vineyards to tend!

There were, however, those at the meeting who felt otherwise. The debate was heated, but eventually, they came to a decision. And as they were a collective, once the decision was made, they ran with it.

And so, on the 21st of March 1921, our couple on the right of the painting took time off from draining, ploughing, tilling, pruning, picking and packing. They set aside their ploughs, spades, hoes and rakes. And – hachnasat orchim[1] – they got ready to receive their guest… not forgetting the wine; at the outset, Baron de Rothschild’s agricultural experts had advised that the land was suitable for growing grapes.

Then they bathed. And they donned their Sabbath best, in honour of the British Colonial Secretary.

*

A hundred years on, we know how history turned out. But back then, in 1921, the ink on the Balfour Declaration[2] had only dried a few years previously. The creation of a Jewish homeland was not a given. Back in Britain, the ruling power, despite that Declaration, there were those who opposed Jewish settlement in Palestine and the pioneering endeavors of the Jews.

And when, thousands of miles away, such opposition was voiced, who could the Zionists rely on to champion their cause? Who understood their aspirations?  Who had the oratory?

And so, it came to pass: on 14th of June, 1921 when Churchill stood up in the House of Commons[3]. He told of his visit to Rishon LeZion. and how: from the most inhospitable soil, surrounded…  by barrennesss… He was: driven into a fertile and thriving country estate, where the scanty soil gave place to good crops and good cultivation.

He told the House of the: ‘vineyards’ and ‘the most beautiful, luxurious orange groves’. And how it was: all created in 20 or 30 years by the exertions of the Jewish community who live there…And the: ‘50 or 60 young Jews, galloping on their horses’.

As well as: 300 or 400 of the most admirable children, of all sizes and sexes, and about an equal number of white-clothed damsels. All topped off by a sampling of the ‘excellent wines’.

Summing up, Churchill charged: I defy anybody, after seeing work of this kind, achieved by so much labour, effort and skill, to say that the British Government…  could cast it all aside and leave it to be rudely and brutally overturned by the incursion of a fanatical attack… from outside.

And so it was, in Rishon LeZion, in March 1921, that diplomacy won the day.

The way that Martin Gilbert read out Churchill’s words to a rapt audience, back in 1983, you could almost smell the orange blossom.

***

But what of the religious couple on the left of the painting?

In reality, the stereotypes weren’t quite so stark. Not all religious Zionists were oriental. And not all pioneers were secular. In the 1880s, just before Rishon LeZion was founded, it was actually a Lithuanian Rabbi who broke ground over in Petach Tikva. As a malaria epidemic raged, it was Rabbi Aryeh Leib Frumkin who built the first house there, and planted the first tree.  That tree is the emblem of the city.

That tree-planting rabbi overcame many challenges, but was finally was forced to decamp with his family to London, where he founded a wine business. Later on, leaving the business in the hands of the next generation, he returned with his wife to Petach Tikva, where he passed away, a year before the Balfour Declaration.

Much much later came, that vintage year, 1948. And when the State of Israel was declared, Reb Aryeh Leib’s granddaughter Libby was sitting in London with a babe in arms. It was her firstborn. A boy. They called him Jonathan.

He too would grow up to be a pioneer. No. Not in the soil-tilling sense of the word. He would cultivate ideas. Life-changing ideas. He would grow up to be a philosopher, and then, also a Rabbi.

*

Jonathan’s first Rabbinical post was in London, in 1978. The congregation was old and established. All this philosophy, all this thinking… Didn’t the young rabbi realize, that Judaism was about doing. And at the United Synagogue they knew how to do things. They had been doing it that way for years.

He wooed them with words. He spoke of Torah and connected it to things happening all around. He was witty too. He spoke of an age of nuclear fission and silicon chips. Truth be told, he wasn’t a fish and chips sort of man. Not one to hang around after the service and chat. Still, those sermons; they were stunning. The congregants were spellbound. When this Rabbi spoke, no one fell asleep. And no one needed to nip off for a quick whisky in the boardroom. With time, people started to walk over from other synagogues, just to hear him speak.

Anglo-Jewry: Jewish on the inside and English on the outside. In connecting those two worlds Rabbi Sacks somehow made them feel whole.  And he had a way of explaining things: late one Yom Kippur afternoon, he assured his congregation that God had indeed answered their prayers. Only perhaps the answer this year, was No. Or — injecting an optimistic tone – not yet!

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks began to broadcast on the BBC. One day, he spoke on infertility. His words were heard all over the British Isles. In the highlands of Scotland. In the Welsh valleys. In places you’ve never heard of. Places where they had never met a Jew or heard of Torah. And hearing his words, people cried. Even those blessed with children cried.

Then came Jamie Bulger, the two-year-old boy from Liverpool murdered by ten-year-olds. Shocking. Unfathomable. What did this say about British society in 1993? People needed answers. They were still fumbling around for the questions, when an article penned by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks appeared in the The Times newspaper. His phone rang the following day. It was the Prime Minister on the line. Thus it continued for many years. Consultation. Public debate. Broadcasts. Books. Addressing the issues of the age.  Philosophy was turning out to be surprisingly practical after all.

In the 1990s things had begun to open up in many walks of life and Anglo Jewry began a process of renewal. And when you listened to Rabbis Sacks you realised, that you didn’t have to be religious to appreciate Torah Intelligence: If you can’t say something nice about someone, say nothing at all. He shared everyday Jewish wisdom. Don’t judge people, God’s better at it than you are. The importance of Shabbat, a day of rest — always with a careful reminder of how this, now universal concept, first originated in the Hebrew Bible. And he told wonderful stories:  When asked about the impact of hateful speech, he explained it with the age-old tale about a rabbi, a pillow and feathers[4].

After he retired as Chief Rabbi, he became even more prolific, spreading the word with judicious use of social media. His missives were sent forth in a multitude of languages, eagerly awaited by thousands of people each week. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was courted worldwide by Heads of State, by royalty and by ordinary people who needed answers.  (When he became a Lord, all agreed that – long before the title was formalized — his wife Elaine had always been a Lady.)

When Covid came, Rabbi Sacks commented that as a virus too small to see had brought the world to its knees, this was surely a lesson in humility.  At the same time, he observed that Covid had also brought about many a good deed, such as help for those in need. Good deeds, as he once explained, are like children. They beget more good. One good deed ultimately leads to another.

Such was his rapport with other religious leaders, always building and enhancing common ground, that on 8th November 2020, Sunday morning worship on BBC Radio 4 was practically hijacked by the grief of his passing the previous day.

*

On the subject of Bikkurim, Rabbi Sacks explains that it was through the process of bringing first fruits to the Temple that we told our collective story. This is one of his many life-changing ideas[5]: That telling our story has forged and perpetuated our identity.  And in this we have been unique. Telling our story, has buttressed Jewish heritage against two millennia of exile; during this time, we survived as a people even though we had no political power or shared territory; we didn’t even have a shared everyday language. He says that we should repeat our story regularly, and make sure that it speaks to our highest aspirations. As it is the stories that we tell about ourselves that shape our lives.

In his book Morality[6], he cautions that there is no escaping identity. As human beings, we need to know who we are. We need to feel unique. He argues, that this is precisely why the universal world shorn of identities, to which the Enlightenment aspired, back in the 18th century, failed. This universalism was envisioned to avoid the conflicts of ‘us’ and ‘them’. However, the opposite happened. It precipitated the horrors of nationalism, race and class warfare. The Pity of it All[7].

***

On Tuesday 14th June 1921, British Colonial secretary Winston Churchill stood up in Parliament to present his plans for the Middle East. He proposed the creation of an independent Arab state in Mesopotamia, which became Iraq; and a Zionist state in Palestine, which eventually became the State of Israel.  And I like to think that it was thanks to our couple on the right of the painting, and the fruits of their ‘inhospitable soil’ (inhospitable!), that nudged Churchill’s plan in our favor.

On that Tuesday in 1921, in the British Parliament almost exactly a hundred years ago, Churchill was perhaps unaware that the date in the Hebrew calendar was the 8th Sivan. And that back in Rishon LeZion, that very weekend, his pioneer pals had been celebrating. They had again set aside their agricultural tools. And had again bathed and dressed in anticipation — among them the white-clothed damsels and most admirable children of all sizes and sexes.

On this occasion, they had done so, to honor the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot is a harvest festival. It has several names in Hebrew, one of which is Chag HaBikkurim. The Festival of First Fruits.

May their memories be for a blessing:

Sir Martin John Gilbert CBE FRSL (1936 – 2015)

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Henry Sacks (1948 – 2020)

Thank you to the readers: Ann, Annette, Debbie, Eliot, Eytan, Jill, Lila, Mark, Myra, Rebecca, Thelma and Yvette.

Further works by the artist can be viewed at the Rubin Museum, Tel Aviv. http://www.rubinmuseum.org.il/en/home/a/main/

[1] The Jewish tradition of hospitality.

[2]Elliot Jager. The Balfour Declaration: 67 Words: 100 Years of Conflict. Gefen Books. 2018.

[3] https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1921/jun/14/middle-eastern-services#S5CV0143P0_19210614_HOC_420    See lines 286-287

[4] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/812861/jewish/A-Pillow-Full-of-Feathers.htm

[5] Jonathan Sacks. Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas. A weekly reading of the Jewish Bible. Koren Publishers. 2020. Page 80.

[6] Jonathan Sacks. Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. Hodder & Stoughton. 2020.

[7] Elon, Amos. The pity of it all: a history of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933. Metropolitan Books. 2002. New York.

About the Author
Judith Sinclair-Cohen is an independent consultant in public health, who lives with her family in Modiin, Israel. She is a guide at the Israel Museum.
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