A Letter from London Bridge

I am writing this to you from the centre of Borough Market. I am sitting at a free table, an open table that isn’t part of any of the stall or cafes in the market. It is Friday morning, and the market is open for its third day since the terrible events just a couple of weeks past. I am in the centre, opposite the Wheatsheaf pub. I am trying to think about what it is like to come back, to be in this place. Every stall holder has had to clean everything up. It all looks a bit more shiny, a bit more new. I think about the years I have been coming here, how for so long I felt a bit cross about how expensive it was, but then how over time I found the places I like to shop at, as a local. I didn’t realise, till I came here with my nine-year-old daughter yesterday, how long term our relationships with the stall holders actually were, how people came up and recognised us, how we called in on people who felt as though they are becoming our friends. In the market, today I see a group of two years old from a local nursery, the same nursery most of my children’s friends went to. People are watchful, there are security guards here.


The night before this morning I went, the only Jewish person, to the Grand Iftar at Southwark Cathedral. It lies just beside the market. I heard how the Bishop of Southwark had led a walk around the market on the day that it was able to re-open, and he said, ‘we walked and we sprinkled water’, water that he had blessed, and how they carry incense, incense because spreads like prayers and rises up to heaven. I spoke to the Bishop after his speech, and I thanked him. Because I could see how much we need this act, this permission, this moment of transition, to be able to come back to this place, to feel that it is possible and good to carry on with life.  And just last week, the tragedy of the fire in West London. There is anger, today. And that is a sort of change. Because before the anger it seems as though the only real emotion to show in public is the idea of the ‘London spirit’; if you like, the spirit of the blitz. This idea that no matter what you do to us, we will carry on. I believe that in the idea of the ‘London spirit’ there is something missing. It is the need for a space to say, “we will come back, but things will never be as they once were.” It is impossible to go on without a time for mourning. And mourning is hard, very hard, when it is your city, you community that has been struck, when the dead and wounded are not so close, but though we don’t actually know them, they are still us.


And with this attack, comes, also, the sense of escape. It might have been us. Were we walking though the market, were we on that bridge, were we outside that mosque. All of us are touched somehow by the sense that we carry on by the skin of our teeth. How well then can we understand that cry of our own ancestors, in last week’s parashah, and pretty much all the way through the book of numbers, when they cry out, lu matnu b’eretz Mitzrayim, ‘if only we had died in the land of Egypt or in this wilderness’, lu matnu. If we cannot be sure of our safety, of the safety of our children and our childrens’ children, then how can we be here? How can we face this complete loss of predictability? It fascinates me that when our ancestors cry out in fear, and wish they could either go back to Egypt or die right there, Moses and Aaron show a complete failure of leadership. They don’t get it. They think that everyone must be brave, have faith and carry on. Borough Market, London Bridge, Grenfell Tower, they all teach me about the depth of this leadership failure.


Because no-where in the stories our liberation, our Exodus, our journey to freedom, do I see our leaders naming our sense of loss. Freedom came to us at a terrible price, but no-one helped our ancestors to pay it. Our liberation came with a terrible debt, forty years of wandering in the wilderness, so that none of the traumatised survivors of the Exodus would make it to the promised land. And trauma there surely was. Because when they ran away from Egypt, and walked through the sea of reeds, and saw the waters in two high walls on either side of them, when they saw that water come crashing down, and felt their own narrow narrow escape, when they felt the nearness of death, wasn’t their freedom also a tragedy for them? To walk away from certainty, even the certainty of being a slave.  To know that the next stage of the journey could be you last. Why act in any way for the future, when you cannot know what the future will bring? This is the role of leadership, and Moses fails. Aaron fails. God too fails. And possibly we all fail. Because here is the task of seeing human fragility, of understanding that it is easy to be angry, easy to be strong, but much much harder to say, we are fragile, we are weak, and we need help. Our leaders today will need to be very careful with their actions and with their words, to comfort us in London, to step back from stoking the fires of anger for their own political ends, and to use their power to hold for us our fear, to create small spaces of safety, to properly grieve, and one day, slowly, but with certainty, to know that it is possible, again, to live.


There is only one way forward, it means carrying each terrible event with us, naming and mourning them, grieving for what is truly and utterly destroyed and broken. And then to carry on.


Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu


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