As I write we are, almost to the minute, half way through the forty-nine day period of the counting of the Omer. Jewish art has always been closely associated with objects connected with observing the commandments, Kiddush cups, Challah covers, Shabbat candlesticks, Chanukkiot, - and Omer counters. I have always loved our simple counter, made of olive wood, with a small window in which you can see the relevant date on a little scroll turned by two rollers. Beneath the weeks and days, which must both be counted, is inscribed their kabbalistic quality. I’m a little behind the times because it was last week’s feature, but a whole seven days are devoted to different aspects of Tiferet.
Tiferet is explained by the mystics as meaning either truth or beauty. I have often wondered about the relationship between these two domains. John Keats evidently had no doubt, concluding his Ode on a Grecian Urn with the striking lines:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
But is it really so? I had planned to write about a small but much loved manifestation of that beauty, one acclaimed by Keats’s fellow romantic poet William Wordsworth, - daffodils:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
We don’t have quite so many in our garden, but a cold spring has its rewards and those best loved of all the season’s flowers have been kept in glory for longer this year, making these April days a joy.
But then I thought that I mustn’t focus on such irrelevant trivialities. This week has seen a mean and cruel attack on the Boston Marathon, a run which is such a vibrant expression of freedom, equality and civic peace. (I wrote at once in solidarity to colleagues in The States). This was followed by a lethal explosion in the small Texan town of West. Look wider, and we come to Syria: what kind of spring is it for that country’s children? Look back, and this week brings the commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Who cares about daffodils? They may be beautiful, but how can they also be truth? Isn’t truth bigger, bolder and, all too often, nastier? What’s true about beauty?
Murder, cruelty and disaster are not only dreadful because of the horror they leave in their wake. They are terrible because they take away from ordinary human beings the basic right, or maybe it’s not a right but a privilege, of enjoying the most free, ordinary and elemental of things, - a spring day, sunlight on green grass, daffodils. It’s even worse when these simple joys are stolen from children, who are just beginning their great adventure of encountering this wonderful, beautiful, and vicious, world.
That’s what’s true about beauty, about the uncontrived and inimitable grace of a flower, or of an impromptu act of kindness. They bespeak, without saying anything, wonder, joy, goodness and the bountifulness of life.
How dare we take away from anybody the days in which to live in reverence of these things!