The voice

The problem with Shavuot is that there isn’t enough to do.  If it were Pesach we’d be rushing around cleaning cupboards and trying to bake decent cakes with matzah meal; if it were Succot we’d be constructing our Succah. But for Shavuot the preparation is of a different order; it calls less for outer, and more for inner, work.

Actually, that isn’t entirely true. It’s the custom to decorate the synagogue with flowers to celebrate the marriage between God and Israel solemnised through the contract of Torah. Yesterday for the first time in my life I met several groups of Hasidim in a garden centre. ‘Buying for the Shul?’ I asked. ‘Of course’, they replied, and we had a short discussion on the merits of various plants. [They bought conifers and begonias; dull, if you ask me. I went for anemones, jasmine and an apple tree: you’ll see them, quotations attached, tomorrow.] It’s also traditional to bake cheesecake; some say this is because the milk went sour from all the thunder and lightning when the Children of Israel were encamped around Mount Sinai. I prefer the explanation that milk foods represent life and that we avoid meat on this festival to celebrate the fact that the Torah is a teaching of life.

But the real preparation for Shavuot is within. Even the beautiful mystical practice, now widespread, of studying Torah all night is not only to express our love of learning, but to prepare ourselves so that at dawn we can hear the voice of God which calls to us from Sinai.

But is there still such a voice? Does God speak anymore today? Or did that only happen once, back then? Or was it always a fiction, even if an admittedly useful one to impose morality on the world? Has Darwin robbed us forever of our nice, consoling God?

To the mystic, to the lover of the world, these constitute no answers. I’ve met many such people, who hear God speak. They are not hermits, or lunatics, or dogmatists with closed minds. They may use different words to express it, but these are some of the things I hear them say:

-          I hear God in the sheer beauty of life. I feel a presence in wild and open places, a being and a calling, which transcends our individual existence.

-          I’ve sensed God within my despair. I kept hearing an inner voice saying, ‘What’s the point?’ I felt close to wanting to die. Then I realised that the question was also the answer. The point was that I had been given life and had to use it well. In that moment I no longer felt alone.

-          I find God in the human heart. I suppose that’s why I do the work I do in this hospital. I feel a great tenderness at the heart of everything, calling out to be cared for. I don’t know if I’d call it God, but something greater than us is there in all that love and need.

Such people are my teachers and my guides. I know that they are all around me, Jews and non-Jews, young and old. When I miss them it’s because I’ve been too preoccupied to listen. For the voice is always there saying, in countless different ways, ‘I am the Lord your God’ and commanding us to serve.

Rising smoke

With what does one associate the image of rising smoke, apart from the comforting sight of rural cottages on a winter’s evening?

It is only nine days now until Shavuot, when we will read concerning the revelation at Sinai that the mountain was cover by a dense mist as God descended towards it, and that ‘its smoke rose as the smoke of a furnace’ before God spoke amidst the lightning and the sound of the shofar and said ‘I am’, and all the rest of the commandments – that we should not kill, or steal, or hurt each other but love one another, – followed as a consequence.

For many years now a counter-image has clung to that picture and confused it, so that I cannot read those words from the Torah without thinking of it, – the smoke of the chimneys at Birkenau. Again this week I stood with members of our community amidst their ruins. The smoke, the cries, the smells, the gas, the terror are gone, except in the nightmares of those who were there and remember. But the knowledge of what was done is available to all humanity and constitutes a kind of counter-revelation, – of the merciless, sadistic cruelty by which the almost infinite sensitivity of human nerves and heart can be made to suffer, and by which love and life can be annihilated, turned to ash and smoke, in a moment.

Maybe that is why I believe that it is of the essence to seek to listen when one visits such a site. These are places ofyirah, fear. Fear in the first instance means terror, and it is surely impossible for any one who was not present then even to begin to intimate the horror, dread and brutality which once inhabited there. But beyond that hovers, assaulted in every possible manner but by no means annihilated, a second kind of fear, fear in its spiritual sense as the mystics understood it, a deep awe and respect for the human spirit and body, and for the sanctity of life and love which animates them, and for their beauty and because of their vulnerability:

The doors had been opened and the SS men yelled out, “The men out! All the men out!” There was wild confusion in the car, as women and children clung tearfully to their men…Sasha gently loosened the hands of his beautiful wife from his neck; the children – adorable little fair-haired angels – he firmly and tenderly prised away from his legs. It had to be. Outside one of the Germans had already slaughtered a child… (Fred Wander: The Seventh Well)

Perhaps that is why it is the hair which so often moves people most. It is in fact obscene that it should be exhibited, metre by metre, at Auschwitz and elsewhere. Perhaps it should be covered tenderly and put away, lock by lock. For hair is about beauty and love and, whether in the houses of the most pious Hasidim or the most secular Bundists, mothers will have said to their little children, ‘Come here darling and let me do your hair’.

I realise as I write that I’ve been mistaken. I once thought that these two kinds of smoke, these two kinds of revelation contradicted one another in every possible respect. Now I realise that in one sense at least they do not: they both command the world about the sanctity of love.

What does ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ really amount to? There’s nothing sentimental about it; on the contrary. It means struggling to create a world in which our neighbours, of any race or faith, can love their friends, their family and their children as tenderly, deeply and safely as we love ours.

There is a choice

I imagine most of us have moments in which we say to ourselves, just a minute too late, ‘I shouldn’t have reacted; I should have understood’. Meanwhile we’ve gone and said the unhelpful words, or shouted back, or turned away, – and it could have been so different. Just too late we think, ‘But I don’t know what the world feels like to him’, or ‘Maybe there’s a reason why she feels hurt and now I’ve gone and added to it’. But the moment of opportunity, the moment of understanding, has slipped away and we’ve simply added to the constant karma of action and reaction.

I don’t think to be human means that we are necessarily entitled to respond according to our spontaneous emotions, or say what we feel like saying, or always stick up for ourselves, or be assertive. To be human means to be devoted to increasing the amount of compassion and understanding in the world, in the face not only of life’s cruelties, and the petty attrition it may impose on us, but also of the injustice, anger, pain and frustration we so often inflict on one another.

In his moving book Mindful Jewish Living Jonathan Slater writes about how his teacher Rabbi Jeff Roth interprets the strange and haunting scene in which God hides Moses in a cleft of the rock on Mount Sinai. ‘No one shall see me and live’, God tells Moses, ‘But you can see my back’. Thus Moses stands in a cave covered over by the divine hand while God passes by; God then removes it and Moses sees whatever it is which may be meant by ‘God’s back’. The point, teaches Rabbi Roth, is that for those few moments Moses looks out at the world through God’s eyes, through the back of God’s head. What thoughts are filling the divine head at that moment? What is God saying right then? That much the Torah agrees to tell us: God is busy declaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and great in love’. These are the ‘eyes’ through which we are taught to view the world.

I find this abstruse and mysterious scene increasingly close to home. That’s not because I’ve been taking psychedelic drugs or floating off on some magic carpet. It’s because it touches intimately on the issues I find myself struggling with in my inner self. I realise more and more as I get older that there is a choice, though not an easy one even to perceive at the key moment, let alone make well. I can say: ‘This person was unfair’; ‘That comment was unjust’. The question is not simply whether these judgments of what happened in the moment of interaction are accurate; sometimes they are not, sometimes they are. The real issue concerns what I do next.

Often, to my shame, I realise it too late, but there is a choice. I don’t have to react in the same vein; nothing except my own weakness can coerce me into simply answering back. Sometimes that may indeed be the right thing to do; after all, it isn’t appropriate either that all our behaviour should be ‘thought through’. But how often do the sharp words and deeds which we experience as addressed hurtfully at us emerge from the pain, injustice and sores which the other person has previously experienced? If we looked out at the person before us with ‘God’s eyes’ with the eyes of true compassion and kindness, we would see before us time and again not the action which we experienced as aimed at us, but a whole chain of suffering,  and struggles, and stressful inner accommodations.

To be human is not to insist on being right; it is to find the compassion, and to hope to be given the humility, to understand rather than react, and, at least some of the time, to act accordingly.

Sufferings of love

The Talmud contains a troubling discussion over which I’ve often found myself puzzling and pained. If a person perceives that sufferings come have come upon him, it suggests, then let him consider his deeds. Is there something he has done which he shouldn’t have? Or maybe there is something of profound importance which he has neglected? (The Talmud of course explains this as failure to study sufficient Torah.) However, if the suffering can be attributed  neither to bad things we’ve done, nor to good things we’ve failed to do, then, it teaches, ‘it is well known that these are sufferings of love’. What’s that supposed to mean?

There is ample reason to find the passage hurtful and offensive. Suffering calls for compassion, not judgement. To point the finger of blame at those upon whom life has inflicted pain is not only insensitive but morally and spiritually ugly. Sometimes, as when explanations are offered as to why God sent the Asian Tsunami, or caused the Holocaust, it amounts to blasphemous obscenity. Life brings all kinds of hurts. People inflict terrible wrongs on one another. Sometimes we do indeed contribute to our own afflictions, but often they have nothing more to do with what we’ve done than that we’ve found ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the question ‘why?’ is one of the ultimate imponderables of existence. Neither blaming God nor blaming the victim helps. On the contrary, seeking God can help us find the inner strength to make the best of our new and challenging circumstances.

I’m often witness to the bravery, anguish, sorrow, love and hope with which people struggle with life’s hurts. I often hear people trying to make sense of them, working within themselves to tell an inner story which helps them integrate and cope with them. There’s almost always a great deal of courage and love in this endeavour. At its heart is the realisation that we may not be able to change the facts of what has happened to us, but that we are able to determine, at least in part, what it should mean in our souls and in our lives. 

This leads to a rather different way of interpreting the troubling passage from the Talmud referred to above. It needs to be understood as an internal conversation. ‘How can I understand this? What can I see this experience as telling me? How must I, and how do I want to, change my inner life?’ Thus I do hear people who have suffered asking themselves what they’ve done and how they are using their time: ‘I haven’t been as aware of others as I would now like to be’; ‘I’ve spent too little time with those I love; I have different priorities now’. ‘I think I understand others better now, and I’m going to use that in my life’. ‘I’ve found my own heart – in a deeper way.’

This leads back to that curious phrase about ‘sufferings of love’. Mercifully perhaps, the Talmud refrains from suggesting what it might mean, leaving it open to our own inner interpretation.

I do not read the words as suggesting that suffering is essentially noble or good. Far from it; the Talmud goes on to tell the stories of three rabbis who all preferred to be cured of their illness than to gain the insights of suffering. But, God knows, and we know too, such cure is not always possible. Nor can grief simply be rolled back and undone. Suffering is a reality some of the time in every life, and much of the time in many. The challenge is what we make of it.

The Talmud is offering a teaching, which I have seen fulfilled in many lives in our own community, that afflictions can be turned into ‘sufferings of love’, sufferings, that is, through which the capacity of love is somehow made deeper within us, through which our own sensitivity towards others grows and through which our desire to give of our heart becomes more real, suffering through which our awareness of our own hurts and pain leads to loving care for and deep, compassionate attentiveness towards those around us.

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