Rabbi Ralph OAM Keeps Connected
When we woke to the news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, we awakened to a strange new world. It felt for so many different-curiously personal like the passing of a dear and revered family member. Yet globally significant; the loss of someone larger than life itself, more like a tectonic shift.
To adapt the lines of the poet WH Auden, millions will “think of this day as one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.” The comment of the Rabbinic book, the Midrash on the exit of Jacob from Beer Sheba resonated: When a righteous person departs, the place is diminished - it’s majesty, it’s honour, it’s spark leaves with the departed. The world felt poorer, robbed of a sparkling personality, a majestic leader, an honourable human being. HRH was no longer with us.
Not everyone grieves her death…
The Queen’s death matters to millions across our planet because she was an exemplary leader and an exceptional mensch. There are of course many others who were not moved by her passing and are angry about the extensive coverage of her death. Some of our First Peoples feel that she represented the old and abusive colonial oppression of their people. Others feel affronted that their dissenting views are not represented and even ‘cancelled’. They of course have the right to be heard and respected for their different opinions. For me, in the wise words of King Solomon, there is a time and place for everything. For now, we are paying respects to a remarkable woman who embodied the power of one individual to change the world, a pause to grieve the loss of her stable and inspiring influence over so many for so long. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard surely got it right when she said a ‘measured steady discussion’ about an Australian republic is likely to start after the period of mourning is over. ‘There is a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them.’ For a huge number of people this is a time to gather together and affirm our common humanity; the time to debate the dignity of our differences will come.
Elizabeth the Second’s death matters to us as Jews because she reminded us of principles that we care deeply about:
1. Continuity and change
The Queen was a rock of tradition in a sea of change. Protocol and precedence were her hallmark. She represented the primeval allure and mystical power of a monarch despite the largely symbolic nature of her duties.
We learnt about awe from her and the meaning of the coming Days of Awe and their themes of kingship will surely mean a lot more to us this year. Watching the outpouring of grief and the crowds accompanying the Queen on her last long journey from Balmoral to London through those achingly beautiful green fields of Scotland, brought alive the rabbis comment that when the crowds grow large so does the honour of the royal one.
Yet alongside the quintessential dignity of ceremony and sense of enduring continuity, Queen Elizabeth was the very model of a modern monarch, receptive to a changing world, capable of changing herself. She did this by embracing technology from playful videos to Zoom conversations and more importantly by recognising that the monarchy would need to adapt its style and discard its stuffiness. She learnt (especially after an initially damaging distancing from the death of Diana) how to soften her stance and share some of her emotions.
She also helped guide the UK through what has been called one of the most significant changes of the past 60 years: Britain’s transformation into a multi-ethnic, multifaith society.
Getting the right balance between respecting tradition and being capable of changing remains the single most pressing issue for the continuity of Judaism as it does for most religions today.
2. Greatness in humility
Rabbi Ben Zoma challenged our notion of kavod or honour when he said: who is the one who is honoured and responded the one who pays respect to others. The Queen earned our respect not because of her considerable affluence and power but because of her influence and presence. She reached out to the people, she introduced the ‘walkabout’, she spoke to the ordinary men, women and children who came out to greet her. She related to them as she did to her staff and simply wasn’t stuck up or up herself. Like Moses she exemplified how humility is the key to greatness. In an age of me she taught the power of we.
3. Defender of faiths
In a world that increasingly derides faith, Elizabeth II remained a keen and fresh defender of the faith. She didn’t apologise about going to church regularly, she had her own spiritual advisor, she lived with faith. She had a remarkable interest in and respect for other faiths. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said of her: In her religious role, the Queen is head of the Church of England, but in her civic role she cares for all her subjects and no one is better at making everyone she meets feel valued. That applies not just to individuals but to all Britain’s faith communities. In one of the first public occasions of her Diamond Jubilee, the Queen met at Lambeth Palace with leaders of the nine leading faiths in Britain: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian and Bahai.
4. A life of service
To be an eved Hashem, a servant of God is a high calling of Judaism. To serve others is a distinct privilege of being Jewish. The Queen’s selfless dedication of her life to a cause larger than herself ironically enlarged her as an individual. Her timeless words at the age of 21 have been much quoted over the last days:
I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family. A pledge of duty and commitment echoed by the new King Charles.
It’s fascinating that in this time of rampant individualism the Queen’s fierce altruism has captured the popular imagination. It speaks surely of our yearning for meaning and our desire to break the shackles of egotism.
The true leader has an independence of thought and action is able to lead because they can read - read the texts that shape the mind and soul, read the hearts of their followers. The kings and queens of Israel were called on to have their own Torah scroll written and kept at their side constantly. They were however appointed by their people to remind them to stay in touch with the wonder and the quotidian and to help tame the wildness of the world. Such a leader was HRH QE2
It is said that in Elul month the King goes out to the field, to his people. This Queen in her travelling cortège, as in her life went out to her people and touched the souls of countless others.
So many will miss the Queen, her humanity and humility, dignity and strength, humour and grandeur.