Listening at life’s door

I want to write, in preparation, for Shavuot, Zeman Mattan Torateinu, the festival which celebrates God’s revelation through the giving of the Torah.
In the last few days I have been a witness to some of the miracles and wonders of the human predicament, in an especially intense and unforgettable way. I sometimes find myself like a listener at the door of people’s souls, not as an eavesdropper, not in any inappropriate manner, but as if asked to testify, without comment or gesture, that such love, such alert and devoted affection, such discerning sensitivity and tenderness, does indeed exist despite all life’s dulling routines, the remorseless cruelties of illness and the implacable infractions of time.
In such moments, when we listen to one another, or to nature itself, as if the very heart of life were open and somehow talking to itself in its very pulse and depth, there can be no retreat or withdrawal to the shelter of indifference. The listener becomes addressee, drawn in, silenced, implicated in the conversation. Sometimes this feels as if a great love were then bestowed upon one there, in that moment of awareness and over-hearing, leaving one with a strong longing to do one’s utmost best in all one’s deeds, for other people, for the world itself. Sometimes one carries away a haunting shame, and a voice speaks powerfully into the complex and restless currents of one’s soul: ‘Purify yourself. Stop being so unworthy of so much life and wonder.’
It would not, I believe, be wrong to think of this converse, or silence, in the essence of all things as God’s voice. With no thunder, lightning or mountains, it is a gentle form of revelation. I think it is probably the only form of revelation of which we may be worthy. It is certainly sufficient to every moral and spiritual need we may ever experience in this life, down to our dying hour.
In and of itself, that voice knows no division into different faiths and therefore favours no gender, no race and no religion. It is the God of life within all of life.
From it, many laws follow. But at its heart is just one law, inextricably implied by its very essence and existence, and from which all others derive: respect and reverence for life itself. That is why, in the Ten Commandments, the words which parallel ‘I am’ are ‘You shall not kill’. Killing ‘in God’s name’ is almost always a desecration. God cannot be allied with hate. If only those would know it, who incite, or stone, or shoot, or bomb. If only we would all know it, always.
When I go to the cemetery I prefer to arrive early, to find somewhere in the nearby woodland and walk on my own, or with the dog, for a few minutes, going over the words I’ve been asked to say in honour and affection for the life which is now complete. Yesterday, when I returned along the lane down which I had driven past our burial grounds in search of such solitude, I had to stop three times in that brief half mile. First, a young rabbit hopped out from the thick grass verge onto the tarmac. Then a small deer walked tentatively over the road. Finally a duck waddled across in a diagonal trajectory, expressing in its gait, as ducks seem to do, a nonchalant kind of ‘What’s the hurry? You just wait there, you.’
And so I did. And so my heart was slowed, to listen at life’s door.

Overhearing God’s Voice

This was originally published in The Huffington Post

Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89

How do we hear God speak, if, that is, we hear God speak at all? Would the world be a better and safer place if we did; or would it be even more frightening and unstable?

The Torah describes the great procession with which the Children of Israel marked the dedication of the Tabernacle in the wilderness (Numbers 7). Perhaps it wasn’t as dull an occasion as it seems in the recounting. On each of twelve consecutive days, a prince of each of the tribes of Israel brings his offerings. To avoid any notion of preference, the presents are precisely the same. The Torah lists them in full detail, thus repeating itself 12 times and marking this out for many readers as one of the least inspiring of all its numerous chapters: “For the peace offering two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, five he-lambs of the first year.” When the last of the animals has been led down the path to its unhappily sacred destiny, the Torah duly records the totals: “Twenty-four oxen, sixty rams…”

As so often on state occasions, the drama lies in what happens afterwards:

When Moses came to the Tent of Meeting to speak to God, then he heard the voice speaking to him from above the cover over the ark of testimony, from between the two cherubim; and God spoke to him. (Numbers 7:89)

It is this public, yet deeply private, even secret, moment to which all the preceding solemnity has led. It feels almost as intimate as when the bridegroom and the bride leave the formal celebrations, the many guests, the well-decked tables with their flowers, and withdraw to the domain of their privacy. Indeed, the Song of Songs, which has long been understood in its imagery of lover and beloved as an allegory for the inner relationship between God and humankind, invites just this comparison:

The King brought me to his chamber…His standard over me was love. (Song of Songs 1:4; 2:4)

God and Moses are finally alone together in the privacy of the tent. What happens now?

Part of the answer lies in a single small dot, or rather in the difference between one such dot and two. The Hebrew letters as written in the scroll of the Torah are not vocalised; the text contains only the consonants, but not the small combinations of dots and dashes that signify how the words must be read. This is determined primarily by the rules of grammar, and, in cases of possible ambiguity, by ancient tradition. It is that tradition which dictates that the common word for “speaking,” medabberis not to be read in our verse in the familiar manner, as if the first letter were punctuated with two dots vertically aligned underneath it, but rather as meedabberwith just a single dot, a chiriq, indicating the “ee” sound. The difference looks minimal, but is in fact profound, because it changes the verb from active to reflexive. Moses doesn’t therefore hear God speaking to him directly in the Tent of Meeting; rather, he overhears God speaking to God’s self. What occurs there is thus neither a dialogue between them, nor even a monologue in which God passes on instructions. Rather, Moses becomes a witness to the most intimate of meditations, or perhaps it is really a semi-silence, at the heart of holiness and wonder, the communion between God and God.

I often shiver when, after the long repetitions of all the dull parades, I reach these simple, extraordinary words about the voice “speaking to itself.” People who consider that God speaks to them directly in the form of propositions and injunctions usually frighten me. They tend to know precisely what God has to say; all too often it is clear-cut, divisive and bears a remarkable affinity to their own political or military interests. When I hear such calls in God’s name I generally experience a rush of appreciation for atheists.

But I feel very differently towards those whose testament derives from overhearing God speaking to God’s self. Admittedly, the observations gleaned from these experiences tend to be rather general: that God is; that life is sacred; that God animates and loves all life; that God seeks and longs for the good. Such vague statements may shed no instant light on difficult policy decisions. But they are an unfathomable source of inspiration, courage and moral direction. They nourish the heart, restore the spirit and foster the discipline of inner purification. After all, to overhear God speaking to God’s self, one has to wait and listen, paying attention to the world, maintaining respect and reverence, keeping one’s own voice still.

The Tent of Meeting, however, is not hard to find. Life is in deep converse with itself everywhere. If we seek no special revelation and do not expect to be addressed exclusively with particular instructions, we can hear its meditations everywhere, the heart and essence of being, and, if we so choose, understand them as God’s sacred voice:


is nothing too ample

for you to overflow, nothing

so small that your workmanship

is not revealed. *

* R. S Thomas: ‘Alive’; in Later Poems 1972-1982 (Papermac, 1984, London)

Leaving corners

I attended a symposium yesterday on Judaism and poverty.
There was a survivor present. ‘I’ve known what hunger means’, he said in a very quiet voice; ‘We must not forget the hungry’. He was freed in Theresienstadt by the Red Army at the close of the war. It was the last camp to be liberated. In the previous months the Nazis no longer killed Jews there, he explained. They didn’t have to; people simply died of hunger. That’s why he’s devoted the rest of his life to the relief of the hungry, Jew and non-Jew, whoever they are. I’ll hear and re-hear his quiet voice speaking into my heart for many years to come; at least I hope I shall.
Once each month I meet with a small group of young people at a café in St Pancras Station. (It’s the busiest underground interchange in London, so it’s easy to access on the way home from work.) We’re studying tractate Pe’ah from the Mishnah. This ancient text discusses in exacting detail the laws of the corners of the fields, the sections which must be left for the poor:
      ‘If your field is divided in half by a river, [you need to leave corners in both parts]’ (2:1); ‘If you harvest some of your onions fresh for the market, but leave others to store away dry, you must leave corners [from the rows] of each’ (3:3)
Why bother, two thousand years later, to study these details of ancient agrarian life (in a busy London café)?
The fact is that they move me. They show how deeply integrated into the muddy round of everyday life the understanding was that when you care for yourself you look after others as well. Every community had a weekly fund for the poor and a food plate distributed daily. Some communities don’t hand out food, wrote Maimonides a thousand years later, but we’ve never heard of such a thing as a Jewish community which lacks a fund for the poor.
It was chastening to learn of the realities today. There are Jewish poor in Britain, and most certainly in Europe, especially Eastern Europe. Many of them in this country, though far from all, belong to the very orthodox community. It was deeply humbling to hear what those synagogues and stiebels, what groups of mothers and fellowships of Hasidim do to help: Shabbat food, provisions for Pesach, ‘there’s a fund or a supply for every essential item you can think of’.
It was no less stirring to learn about the extraordinary work of World Jewish Relief and Tzedek. It’s an ancient duty to support the non-Jewish sick and poor; the Talmud describes it as motivated by darkei Shalom, ‘the ways of peace’, an inclusive vision of how the entire world could and ought to be. These organisations, with an ideology rooted deeply in Judaism, sit at the table with Christian Aid and Islamic Aid and together explore the universal principles of caring for the most desperate: ‘You don’t ask about religion. You help that child.’
Time and again I find myself thinking about a piercing text from the Mishnah:
     The person who says “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” is average.
     There are those who say that this is the way of Sodom. (Avot 5:13)
The world wouldn’t function if there was no respect for ownership. But if ‘what’s mine is mine’ defines the limits of my moral imagination; if I pretend to myself that what I own is mine by entitlement and am callous enough to let the implication stand that the poor deserve their lot; if I fail to realise that I have an irreducible responsibility to share life’s gifts and blessings, because they belong to God, or to the world, or to good fortune, but certainly not to me; if I fail to act on that realisation, then what kind of a human being am I and what faith am I keeping with those two most essential values of my Judaism –tzedakah vachesed, justice and compassion?

Cutting the shoots

On those days when we don’t have a service in the synagogue, I like to say Shacharit, the morning prayers, in the garden, especially at this time of the year, the season of its greenest glory. Today as I did so a blue tit caught my eye, hopping in and out of its nest to bring food to its fledglings. Mercifully, it didn’t have far to fly; maybe it even chose the site because we’d hung feeder nearby with sunflower seeds and fat. I watch it descend for a quick peck, before returning to its needy progeny.
The bird didn’t distract me from my prayers, (so I would choose to argue). Rather, it directed them. It made me think about chesed, loving-kindness, perhaps the highest in the hierarchy of values.
Nothing is too small for chesed: ask the man in hospital, anxious, in pain and struggling to find sleep, about the difference between the nurse who straightens the bedclothes efficiently but with just that sense of roughness which betrays a corner of resentment at being called, and the nurse who does so with a kind word. Or ask a child at school; she probably won’t tell, but she would know to which teacher she could go, (after doing a ‘mood test’ first) if everything felt too much.
Nothing is too great for chesed. It isn’t ideology alone which makes some people hide fugitives in a time of persecution, give them food, bring them on their way to refuge, or conceal them in their very home for many months. It’s an intuitive realisation, which many would acknowledge that they had not known they harboured with such depth and grit, that one cannot betray a fellow human being, cannot break faith with life.
Chesed is that kindness which marks generous and attentive awareness of the bond between all life. That is why it is so often partnered in the Bible by the word brit, covenant. That is not the covenant of specific partners only, but that of which God is understood to speak when God says that the divine covenant is with all creation, with the very rhythm of day and night and with all living being.
The mystics use a puzzling phrase to describe the essence of sin, calling it ‘cutting the shoots’. Perhaps being a gardener makes it sound less strange; it describes the act of taking life and breaking its growth, wantonly, or through the negligence which comes of self-absorption.
I imagine we all know we are blessed with the hands which smooth the pillow with love, the tongue which says the gentle word and the heart which longs for what is most deeply kind. We know too that we have the hands and tongue which can be cruel, and, when truth penetrates us, we realise in our hearts that we have used them in such capacities.  
Chesed is indicative of a very different philosophy of life from ‘the survival of the fittest’. It seeks the generous and gracious in all things; it understands intuitively where fear and vulnerability lie. It never seeks to hurt or triumph, but to help and heal and, if it cannot do so, to bear witness in solidarity and love.
God, says the Talmud, ‘mattei klapei chesed, inclines towards loving-kindness’. The context of the saying is judicial: God prefers mercy over justice. But, taken more broadly, the words carry a different and more universal meaning: God turns to those places where kindness is found; wherever there is loving-kindness, God is manifest too.


I enjoy being a ‘Radio 4 while I’m driving’ listener. But my heart sunk as I picked up the word ‘halal’ and a new round of the debate about ritual slaughter. I felt sympathy for the Muslim lady who suggested that the way the issue was raised could be an invitation to racism. But I largely lost it when she claimed that no one would bandy the word ‘kosher’ about in the way she felt ‘halal’ was used to get at Islam.
The specific issue is the labelling of meat products so that the customer can know whether or not the animal from which dinner came was, or was not, stunned before slaughter. Kosher meat is not pre-stunned; halal meat often is. It is argued that stunning prevents any subsequent pain, while animals slaughtered by shechitah retain feeling, and therefore suffer, for a few seconds afterwards. The counter argument is that mis-stunning is widespread and that many animals suffer severely in massive abattoirs over a much longer period as a result. Animal Aid claims its investigations have uncovered terrible cruelties at a high percentage of slaughterhouses. Shechitah, righty practised, requires each animal to be treated individually, and with dignity.
As a vegetarian I should perhaps be the last person to comment. I don’t want to be responsible for the routine killing of animals in any manner. But I find it at best questionable that, amidst the vast cruelties of the meat and dairy industries, and the even greater scale of the moral issues in food production, ritual slaughter should be picked out.
I was going to write that we should add a line to the confessional liturgy of Yom Kippur about the ‘sins we commit when we shop’. But we already do confess to ‘the sins we commit in eating and drinking’. We say the words, but do we make atonement? These are some of the issues involved:
Am I causing suffering to animals and birds, not just because of how they’ve been killed to reach my plate, but because of how they are forced to live, how forced to travel, how force-fed? Even the shortest of productive animal lives is incomparably longer than the time it takes to die.
What human suffering am I causing? It cannot be right to put in my shopping trolley the products of what is effectively another person’s misery. We should be concerned not just about the hygiene standards of our food, but about its moral standards; the fairness of the labour conditions in which it was grown, harvested, processed and transported.
What environmental degradation am I causing? Am I effectively signing up to a message which says, ‘I don’t mind bequeathing to our children oceans with few fish, lands with few songbirds and a sultry, unhealthy earth full of my generation’s non-biodegradable waste?
What about those who’ve nothing to eat? Every shop should have a basket for the hungry, and it should be expected that we place something in it when we pay. In Jewish law, ‘the poor of your own city’ take precedence over all other demands of justice and generosity.
It could be argued that all these concerns are a rich person’s luxury, – aiming to buy organic, fair trade, local and so forth. That may often be so. But all the more then are they the responsibility of those who can afford it.
I’m aware that I’m expressing myself strongly. I do so not because I feel I have the right to be indignant but because I often feel ashamed. I know I will continue to fail by most of my criteria, but I would like at least to try to do better.
In all this, the issue of how meat is labelled is not morally irrelevant. But it mustn’t be a distraction from far deeper concerns.

The shells

I felt much moved when we added special prayers for Israel’s peace and wellbeing to our daily Shacharit Service this morning, and when we read the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

 God who scattered Israel, will gather [its people] back together and care for them as the shepherd for the flock….There is hope for your future, says the Lord, for the children shall return to their borders. (Jeremiah 31:10, 17)

Today is my father’s Yahrzeit. Being the 6th of Iyar, it does not always fall on Yom Ha’Atzmaut for which the historic date is Iyar 5. It happens only in years such as this, when the festival is delayed so that the sadness of Yom Hazikaron should not descend the very moment Shabbat is over. My father fled to Palestine with his family in 1937, joining his uncle who left Germany in 1933 when he was no longer permitted by the Nazi authorities to enter the courtroom over which he had previously presided as judge. Uncle Alfred was an eminent authority on Jewish law and belonged to a working party on a possible constitution for the future state. He was killed in the notorious attack on the convoy of scholars travelling to Mount Scopus on 14 April, just three weeks before Israel’s independence was declared.

I recently chanced to pick up an old copy of Jerusalem Embattled: A Diary of the City under Siege, by Harry Levin. My father was in the Hagganah there during those difficult months. He spoke about it, but only in fragmentary fashion. Maybe, I thought, this book would give me a fuller picture of what he went through. The entry for May 6, 1948 reads:

The heat blowing in from the dry, parched desert pierces every nook. No refuge anywhere from its incessant presence. Peculiar crackle to a shot in this heat…Shooting stiffened tonight. We edged low along the outer wall, then took cover behind the new defence wall before the Yeshurun Synagogue. 

And for May 7

Mortaring heavy, too, especially at Rechavia towards dusk.

The pagazim, my father would sometimes say, – the shells. But I had no true notion of what he, or Jerusalem, or the country, went through in those decisive days.

Since that terrible battle for its capital, Israel has gone on to success and excellence in virtually every field of human endeavour, agricultural, artistic, scientific, scholastic, technological, military. Never in Jewish history has there been such engagement with Jewish learning and activity at all levels. A spirit of creative partnership links Israel and the Diaspora in innumerable ways.

Yet the final blessing has been and remains elusive, peace; peace which the rabbis describe as ‘the vessel which contains all other blessings’. Across the spectrum from right to left everyone will have a different explanation for this tragic impasse: the opportunities the Arab countries wasted or missed, those the Palestinian people missed, those Israel failed to take. Everyone will assign different percentages to each category. But nobody will disagree about the need for that ultimate blessing of peace.

Therefore let these be our prayers on Israel’s 66th birthday: prayers for peace for all the inhabitants of the country; prayers for a change of heart and attitude among all who deny Israel the right to exist at peace; prayers for deeper understanding between Israel’s citizens of all faiths and denominations; prayers for wisdom and kindness in the face of our shared humanity; prayers for courage both in the search for security, the search for justice and the search for peace.

Sacred energies

The most important dates this coming week are Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the Memorial Day for the dead in Israel’s wars, and Israel Independence Day. I plan to write about them on Yom Ha’Atzmaut itself, next Tuesday, which is also the Jahrzeit for my father, who was part of the Haganah in Jerusalem in the siege of 1948.
But now, if people will forgive, me I want to ponder over an aspect of the Counting of the Omer which has been close to my heart in the last couple of days. To the mystics the forty-nine days of the Omer are not merely seven weeks, albeit those connecting Pesach, the Festival of Freedom, with Shavuot, the Giving of the Torah through which the way we put that freedom to use is defined. Each week has for them its unique spiritual character, defined by one of the seven lower Sephirot, or sacred energies, as described in Kabbalah; and each day within them has its special focus on a particular aspect of that quality. This is the week of Tiferet, beauty, or truth; its domain is traditionally understood as the heart.Tiferet is about life as experienced through the heart. The day before yesterday was the date of chesed shebetiferet, love within beauty; yesterday was the day of gevurah shebetiferet, strength within beauty; and today is the date of tiferet shebetiferet, beauty or truth within beauty. I’m lucky enough to be spending these days in the far north of Scotland, one of the most glorious areas on earth, trying to shaking off tiredness amidst the glory of these mountains and rivers, and I’ve been reflecting on the meaning of these dates of the Omer.
What is ‘love within beauty’? The train stopped and a lamb, maybe just a whole day old, looked up startled from its mother’s side. Who can resist the face of a young lamb? It stared at the train bewildered as if wondering: What is this world? What are these sights and noises it contains? What do they feel like? Will they hurt me, or will I be safe? The lamb ran back to its mother. One feels, as for a small child, a wave of love for this gorgeousness and sweetness, of determination to protect it from all harm. This, it seems to me, is the meaning of ‘loving-kindness within beauty’. I’ve never understood how anyone can enjoy killing a living being, and Isaiah’s prayer that ‘they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain’ has long seemed to me the ultimate commandment.
What is ‘strength within beauty’? Is it not the capacity to garner and retain within the heart the abiding presence of these privileged moments, the call of a cuckoo, rain on pale birch leaves, a glade of primroses and bluebells; to store them in some larder of the soul, and to recall, when life is cruel, oppressive, unjust, or simply a long dull grind and struggle, that wonder and glory do exist, and to keep alive our hope and strength until joy and beauty bless us once again.
What is ‘truth within beauty’? What ‘truth’ can beauty possibly possess? Yet it comes to mind that when Keats wrote those famous lines, ‘Truth is beauty, beauty truth; this is all / You know on earth and all you need to know’, he was less than 25 years-old and dying and he knew it. Yesterday I stood by myself at the top of a mountain with one of the most marvellous views I’ve ever seen; a sweep of glory from Ben Nevis in the south to the Quaraing in the north of Skye, hill, forest, sea and even snow. We drink in such wonder for a moment. Then we pass, but it endures, – to bless other lives, inspire other hearts with exultation. Maybe this is the ‘truth’ of beauty: that it is for our humbling as well as our joy, and that we should walk with it in deep respect. For all this marvellous world belongs to God, while our breath passes onwards and away, into the infinite beyond.

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