One decision

I’ve always loved the trees in winter, their branches reaching into the mist, the glimmering of the damp against the bark, though it’s terrible for the woodpeckers when there’s a long freeze and ice seals the access to their food.
Actually, I love trees in every season. The movement of the invisible sap is like the living God silently flowing through all things. Sometimes one can feel it speaking, without words but audible, palpable to the heart. That’s why there are so many people who simply like to stand and listen among the trees. Each one, especially the old trees, tall and deeply rooted, might be, or maybe really is, the tree of life.
That tree has its roots in heaven, teaches the Zohar, and its gardener is eternal life itself:
         This world to come cares for this tree all the time, watering it and preparing it through its work, crowning it with crowns, never at any time withholding its streams….(Zohar III 239a –b)
To the mystics, that tree nourishes all the earth.
In life one really has just one decision, a decision beyond or within all the small decisions which busy one’s every day, like what to eat and where to go and who to call and what to do and to which charities to give money. It’s a decision one has never finally or irrevocable made, because one’s bound up with it all one’s life long, and the options repeat themselves again and again in all life’s changing circumstances, fortune and misfortune, health and illness, mortality and joy. It’s the decision to be on the side of life.
Sometimes this decision calls for singing and celebration; sometimes the deepest silence is not deep enough to intuit the unspoken flow of life’s currents in the heart. People live their decision in innumerable different ways; by becoming a care-worker, or a teacher; by creating a hospitable home, whether it has one room or ten; by trying as often as possible to offer a kind word. Some people show immense courage, like doctors working in Syria, and aid workers among refugees; some people express, year in, year out, that ordinary kindness without which the world would be dismal, a smile at the counter, helping the children over the road.
But there is something all this has in common: the understanding that there is no living being that is not part of life’s sacred tree; no person, whether he or she belongs to a group we know or don’t know, whether he or she carries the label of enemy or friend; no animal, no bird, not even a branch or flower which one is entitled simply to hurt for hurt’s sake, or out of carelessness crush.
The mystics had a strange phrase to describe sin, or at any rate the one great sin which they felt mattered most: kotsets banetiyot, breaking the growing shoots, as if to say ‘this person or creature isn’t part of life’s tree’. It’s a phrase which makes sense to any gardener, and we are all the gardeners of that tree of life.
One doesn’t go through life breaking nothing; that’s just too much to ask. Sometimes, or perhaps always, it’s really oneself which one breaks off. One can’t always help it; life is also cruel and harsh. One struggles, depressed and feeling as if one’s lost one’s purpose, until one finds that, no, in the heart of hearts one is still connected to the tree.
The spirit flows back and one thinks once again, ‘Life, precious and wonderful life’.
I love the trees in winter, and at any season.

God intended it for good

When their father Jacob dies, the brothers are afraid: what is there now to hold Joseph back from exercising his right to revenge? He has the means, he has the cause, and they have guilt in their hearts. ‘Now he will hate us’, they think as they prostrate themselves and beg for his pardon.  But Joseph responds quite differently from how they had imagined: ‘You thought to do me harm’, he says, ‘But God intended it for good’. (Bereshit 50:20)
Last Tuesday, in an extraordinary speech to honour an extraordinarily great man’s life, President Obama spoke of Nelson Mandela, like Joseph a man who came out of jail to save the country which had imprisoned him, in terms of an equal, or even deeper, generosity of spirit: 
                  we remember the gestures, large and small – introducing his jailers as honored guests at his inauguration; taking the pitch in a springbok uniform; turning his family’s heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS – that revealed the depth of his empathy and understanding… It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth.
It is not just the good and great who are called upon to develop the qualities of understanding and forgiveness, but all of us. For we interact with one another, not as perfect people, not as the ideal human beings we may dream of becoming, but with our faults and weaknesses and the wounds we bear, known or unbeknown to ourselves, as the result of our personal histories and the histories of our families. Maybe it is precisely in this truth that one of the secrets of understanding lies.
It should be said that forgiveness and generosity of spirit do not and must not render the strictures of justice insignificant. They don’t turn right into wrong, or make cruelty acceptable. They don’t alleviate the conscience of the need for inner accounting. We are known, whether we consider the repository of that knowledge to be God who ‘sees to the heart’; or to be the sum of all the memories of us in all the hearts we have touched either for blessing or for hurt; or whether, in the words of Stephen Duncan, it is in some mysterious way the world itself which knows us:
           Because even the breeze is your companion
           And the sun sees every hand that moves wrongly…

Yet there is an attitude which transcends and transforms the desire to hit back, to see the person who has hurt us hurt in turn.
Partly, that attitude is rooted in empathy and imagination, the capacity to see the other person not as our antagonist but in the wholeness of his or her life, as one who has also been fashioned by circumstances not of their choosing, by suffering as well as love, and by the angers and acts of unfairness, alongside the blessings, which have impacted upon their spirit.

Partly that attitude is rooted in humility and the capacity for self-retraction. If it is really me with whom the other person is angry, then I need to search myself, consider if I am in the wrong, partly or completely, and make good. But maybe it is not mainly about me. If so, then the anger is itself a symptom of deeper hurt. Do I then respond in kind, angry and hurtful in turn? Or is it possible to seek to understand and endeavor to bring healing?
Partly that attitude is rooted in a greater vision: you and I, can we see each other not as antagonists, but as participants and beneficiaries together in life’s struggles and life’s blessings?
‘God intended it for good’; the issue is how we can make our lives a part of that intention.

The teacher of us all

Life feels different this morning. One of the most deeply loved and most universally respected leaders of all time has gone to rest with his ancestors.
For as long as there is recorded history Nelson Mandela will be remembered for his deeds: for his courage and defiance at the Rivonia Trial; for his unyielding dignity during twenty-seven years of imprisonment on Robben Island; for his generosity and forbearance on his release; for his determination and wisdom in leadership, and for his vision and humanity in statesmanship.
More than this, he is and will be loved, both by all who knew him and by the incomparably greater number of people who felt as if they knew him because he embodied, with a humility and understanding which disarmed and encompassed even those who were once his fiercest antagonists, everything which is most true about what being human can and ought to mean.
People will no doubt debate and disagree with some of his political decisions. But it is unlikely that many will ever doubt his intentions, because they were not motivated by self and pride, but by the lights of dignity, justice, integrity and wisdom. By these he was guided through the unlit and criss-crossing paths of destiny, at the risk of his life and amidst severe privations, ready to die for them, but far happier to live and see them illuminate new freedoms.
Unlike many great leaders, he was not, thank God, assassinated; he did not die young; he brought his vision to a measure of fulfilment; his guidance has not been marred by overwhelming contention, and he has left a further legacy in lucid writings which include some of the most compelling moral prophecies of our age:
                It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black… A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.
                 When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.

I don’t know if there is anyone else in the world about whose death I’ll find myself joining in conversation in deep shared sorrow with the staff of the supermarket close to midnight and feeling comforted by their words: ‘He fulfilled his destiny’.
Many Jewish teachings have been going through my mind, but especially that of Shimon ben Zoma in the 2nd century: ‘Who is strong?’ he asks, and answers: ‘The person who overcomes his selfish inclination’.
I believe the root of Nelson Mandela’s greatness lies not in how his personality conquered the world, how his vision won over South Africa, or how his courage made him leader of his own people. It begins in his soul. At Mandela’s core was a personhood which had learnt to be motivated not by self, with all the pride, demands and defensiveness which so complicate human life, but by the steady awareness of what is right and the good. It is this which guided him not to succumb either to the humiliations or to the inducements of proffered privilege in prison, or to the prerogatives of power in government, but to be the unbending servant of his just, compassionate and universal vision.
He is the teacher of us all.

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