For a blessing

Among my favourite greetings is ‘May you be for a blessing’. Admittedly, it can sound pious when spoken, but much less so when written at the close of a letter, or even an email. We use the words frequently in reference to the dead, such as in the abbreviation z’’l which stands for zichronah liverachah, ‘May her memory be for a blessing’, but less often towards the living. Yet I constantly meet many people who, in one manner or another, bring blessing and perhaps, in all the busyness of our complicated lives, it’s the most precious thing we do.
The words go back to Abraham. ‘Be for a blessing’, God says to him, which the rabbis expand into, ‘Up until now the blessings have been in My hands; from now on they are in yours’. One can disagree about the first half of that sentence, but not seriously about the second. The very way a person says ‘thank you’ can make someone else feel that their life is worthwhile.
That goes to the heart of how we as humans have the capacity to bless. There are many blessings all around us: yesterday I went for a run in the paths through Scratchwood where the purple rhododendrons were in bloom. (I know they are considered foreigners, but then so probably am I.) A young rabbit was enjoying the spring grass at the edge of a field. The chestnut trees had their full candelabra of white and red.
We cannot create the grace of a goldfinch or the soft fragrance of a wild rose, but we can and do affect the way those who encounter us are left feeling about the value of their lives. Whether we are aware of it or not, we make a difference all the time. Sometimes this is through specific and directed activity. I admire those who have the skills to save lives, enable bed-ridden people to use their limbs more fully and with less pain, help children overcome fear, have the administrative wisdom to know how to distribute food to the hungry. No one can know the immeasurable extent of the blessings they bring. No one can fathom either the joy and humility which beautiful music has the power to engender, re-opening the heart.
But I have in mind the so-called little things. Suddenly, as I write this, I remember the first time I was given a flower. My father had taken me out on a walk. We passed through a nursery and he stopped to speak with the gardener. A kind man, he must have enquired after the health of my mother, who was terminally ill at the time. He reached down and gave me a small pot with a yellow and amber primrose. I don’t remember what he said; it was something like ‘For your boy’. That man blessed me not only with a love of plants. He made aware for one of the first times in my life how much it matters how we make others feel. That is something which is never beyond our power and, worryingly, we do it constantly, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
Of the three short sentences out of which the famous blessing we read this week in the Torah is comprised, I find myself thinking most about the middle part: ‘May God’s presence shine upon you’. I’ve met many people who reflect that gentle light, no doubt not always, because everyone has their moods. They do so without any kind of pious intention, in how they speak, in simple gestures, in the way they notice people, even things. Without a word they seem to say ‘Look!’ and the light seems now to show not an easier or less painful, but a wiser and kinder reality. It’s a healing light, because, whoever we are, in its presence we feel more whole.
May God grant each of us the grace to be for a blessing.

The world in miniature

Shavuot is the festival of revelation, the commemoration of when God spoke at Sinai. To the mystics, God’s speech is never solely in the past; God speaks now and always, and to us. What this signifies is a deeply personal matter; it will be different for each of us, and vary as we change through the course of our lives. I have tried to set down in a short credo what it currently means, or what I would like it to mean, to me.
Ahavat- and Yirat- Shamayim, love and awe before Heaven, are shorthand for a lived and experienced reverence for life, not only as it is encountered in its particularity, in tree, bird, deer, people, but as it is inhaled in its essential vitality, as a vibrant awareness of the invisible oneness which fills all being, the ‘one motion and one spirit…that rolls through all things.’ [1]
Such awareness opens the heart to wonder and respect for the essence of life, to that to which the word ‘God’ serves as pointer, to what the kabbalists and mystics called Ein Sof, the unending and inexhaustible source of existence and the wellspring of being and beauty. Prayer is the attempt to spend time undistracted in the presence of this reality, to let it cleanse the mind, fill the heart, reinvigorate the spirit, motivate our conscience and guide our actions.
The very awareness of such a relationship with life is in itself a form of responsibility. How can one know, feel kinship, but then not care? Each person ‘has an infinite sphere of responsibility before the infinite’ [3] This is expressed not only in bonds of heart and soul, but in action, classically in mitzvot, doing what we experience ourselves as commanded to do.
The goal of this action is always Tikkun, reparation, motivated by the longing for the world to be as we believe God wants it, or dreams it. It is our response to what Hans Jonas called ‘the mutely insistent appeal of [God’s] unfulfilled goal’. [4]
Tikkun calls us to dedicate ourselves in two mutually necessary and inter-dependent ways.
On the one hand we are required to act. The possibilities are endless. The Mishnah’s remarkable statement that everybody needs to be able to say ‘for my sake the world was created,’ can be taken to mean that there are aspects of life and need which appeal to us especially because of our unique gifts, sensitivities, and vulnerabilities, calling on us to work, advocate, and seek healing for them. [5]
This commitment to care is always multiple. Rooted in the mutuality of community and the commonality of history, we are particularly responsible to our people Israel. We are at the same time answerable before all human life, since we share the equal privilege of being created in the image of God. No one may stand idly by the suffering of another: ‘To follow the Most High is to know that nothing is of greater importance than the approach made towards one’s neighbour, the concern with the fate of “the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the poor.”’ [6] We are accountable too before creation itself, the animals, birds, trees and plants entrusted to our safeguarding, as the rabbis enjoined: ‘Do not destroy my world [says God] for there is no-one after you who can put it right’. [7]
On the other hand, we are required to sensitise our mind and spirit, to listen and be still, so that we intuit and take inspiration from the speech which is latent in all things, powerful and inaudible at once, the hidden voice of God:
     Behold the heavens and their hosts proclaim the awe of you,
     without their voice being heard at all.    [8]
In these ways Tikkun Olam is both what we endeavour to do for one another and for the world, and an inner work of Teshuvah, return to and rediscovery of the person we could be and seek to be, a tikkun or reparation of the olam katan, the world in miniature, which each of us constitutes in our own life and spirit.


Two questions accompany our lives, though often unconsciously: ‘what belongs to me?’ and ‘to what do I belong?’ The former question fills much of our immediate concern. What am I getting paid for this? Can I buy that item? Is this mine? Even in the world of emotions the great romantic question is sometimes put as ‘will you, my beloved, be mine?’
The latter question may be more subliminal, but suffuses our concerns nevertheless. Life can be unbearably lonely. Those hours in which one feels that one is utterly cut off, that the distance between oneself and the next person is immeasurable, that some impermeable membrane seals one in, so that one is left alone in the anguish of one’s consciousness with one’s torments, fears and griefs, – such hours are among the most unbearable in any human life. However much we may also be afraid of it, we also want to belong, to other people, to life, to the world, perhaps to God.
We are currently in the midst of a sabbatical year, the seventh year in the cycle, when the land is not worked, the poor are released from their debts and servants set free to re-establish their own lives. Although the Torah calls it the sabbatical, shenat shabbaton, the rabbis preferred another name, the shemittah, from the word which means to release; they called it the year of letting go.
It’s more than the release of loans and pledges, as required by the Torah. It is a deeper letting go of boundaries, both practical and existential. It is a year when we relinquish the primacy of the concern with ‘what belongs to me’, in favour of the more profound ‘to what do I belong’. ‘What the land produces in its rest shall be for you to eat, for your servant, maidservant, hired worker, fellow citizen and the stranger; for your cattle and for the wild animals in your land.’ (Leviticus 25:6,7) Gates must be opened, or fences taken down. For at least one year out of seven we can’t say ‘Get off my land!’ Instead, the great community becomes apparent in the midst of which we have been living without necessarily noticing all this time: workers alongside landowners, the dispossessed next to those in possession, citizens next to wayfarers, animals together with humans, the wild together with the tame, a vast companionship of being.
The seventh year is not just a removal of boundaries but a re-organisation of consciousness, the restoration of a more embracing awareness. From an ‘I’ struggling for what is mine, we move to a ‘we’ which includes all life, an ecology of being united by the simplest common denominators of breathing the same air and needing the same earth and water for food and drink.  
If I am part of something, I am also responsible towards it. Does the family of life to which I belong find hospitality in my home, or thoughts, or in the time-slots of my diary? Yesterday when I went to buy challah for Shabbat Rabbi Herschel Gluck stopped me and asked in his customary charming and warm-hearted manner: ‘What are you doing for the refugees in the boats on the Mediterranean?’ After all, we agreed, that’s just what happened to our parents or grandparents, sailing in scarcely sea-worthy over-loaded ships for the shores of hope in Palestine. What am I doing for the lives of other people, and for the animals and birds, for life?
For one year in every seven the primacy of the preoccupation with what’s mine must yield, and not just in moments of kindness, generosity and prayer, but profoundly, to the deeper concern: to what do I belong and what can I give?
The reward is that very sense of belonging, that we do not suffer existence in isolation, but as a breathing, vital part of the sacred bond of life.

The wisdom of our imperfections

Whatever our feelings as more and more results come in through the dawn hours, we should be moved by the process of democracy. In almost all the centuries of dispersion our ancestors could only dream of having the right to participate in determining their rulers. The establishment of a fair, peaceful, open and equal process of electing governments which includes women and men, rich and poor, and citizens of all faiths and none, is one of the great achievements of humanity. May the leaders now elected govern with compassion, justice, wisdom, courage and deep respect for all life.
The Torah speaks in this week’s portion about inclusion in a different but no less important context. To be honest, it actually speaks about exclusion, but subsequent Jewish thought reframed its ideas. Moses is told to instruct Aron that any of his descendants, the Cohanim or priests, who ‘has a blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatever man he is that has a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame man, or a man maimed in any part…’ (Leviticus 21: 17-18) The Torah does not offer any explicit rationale for this commandment, but probably, like the sacrificial animals themselves which had to be whole in body, the priests had to come as close as possible to the embodiment of physical perfection in their service of the one and perfect God.
When the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE and animal sacrifice ended, the priests lost almost all their functions; almost all, but not entirely all, because they retained the privilege of invoking God’s blessing on the people. To say before the congregation the beautiful words ‘May God bless you and keep you’ remains their prerogative to this day. But do the same restrictions still apply to a priest who has a blemish? The Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish Law compiled by Joseph Caro in the 16th century, seems initially to rule that they do: ‘A Cohen who has a blemish on his face or hands…should not raise his hands in blessing because the people are looking at him’. However, it continues: ‘But if that Cohen is familiar in his city, and everyone knows him and that he has this disability, he should raise his hands [to bless the people] even if he is blind in both eyes’. ‘Familiar in his city’ is defined as having lived there for 30 days.
This reflects a certain reality, however discreditable that may feel. When a person has a disability, it’s hard for those who don’t yet know him or her to avoid seeing first the disability and only afterwards the person. I remember meeting someone in a wheelchair: ‘Please see me,’ he said, ‘not my chair’. But when we know a person, what we experience is that person as him- or herself, for whom she or he is.
Many people are, and feel, excluded from our community and society. It’s easy not to notice, because all too often they’re simply not there. They can’t physically get there. They feel not wanted. But it is profoundly important to be inclusive. This isn’t just for the sake of them (and who knows who’ll we’ll be if we get ill, when we get older). It’s for the sake of us all. The matter goes to the very heart of what we value, what we really care about as human beings and as society.
We live in a utilitarian age. Too often the value of a person is assessed according to their usefulness: ‘he does this’ ‘She does that’. When I’m ill or old I plunge in value; I’m not worth anything anymore. Such judgments are often not only around us, but also inside us; a sense of worthlessness is all too easily internalised.
Of course, what we do matters. We almost all want to be active, up-and-about. But what we do is not identical with what we contribute. What of wisdom, experience, kindness, creativity, the richness of different perspectives and ways of understanding life, the deeper kind of wholeness formed not because any single one of us is whole, but because every single one of us is there?
The Torah doesn’t say that God created some people in the divine image, the perfect people, totally fit in body and mind. It proclaims that everybody contains God’s image. It is even possible that God is often revealed more deeply precisely in the wisdom of our wounds and imperfections.

The compass of all life

On Wednesday evening I met a group of colleagues from America who had served as rabbis for over twenty-five years. I was completely struck by what they had done. The range of activity was huge, but what so many had in common was their devotion. One had so consistently cared for the local poor, of all faiths and none, that he was simply known by the city authorities as ‘the pastor’. Another had fostered over eighty children across the years. Two had worked with Habitat for Humanity, bringing their congregations together with Muslim and Christian communities to build liveable homes where they were most needed across the world. Many had spent their time fostering bonds with different faiths.
The verb ve’ahavta, ‘you shall love’ occurs, I believe, just twice in the Torah: once to command us ‘you shall love the Lord your God’, and once to teach us ‘love your neighbour’. We read the latter tomorrow. It is intimately connected to the former. One can’t love God and hate people, or claim to care about religion and be indifferent to the hurts and sufferings of God’s creatures. Just as God’s presence and vital being is manifest in all life, so the love and concern for life is the actualisation of the love of God. The love of God is not intended to describe simply a state of inner feeling, important as that is in itself; it is a command, a call to committed and sustained action through the care for God’s works. It may indeed be that precisely such concern and giving is our specific task as humankind, our contribution to the ecology of being. As so often Arthur Green puts the matter beautifully:

  • It is as bearers of compassion that we become the partners of God in Creation. The divine energy flows outward from the Source, through the complex and multipronged evolutionary process, and into us, giving us an extra sense of charge and dynamic movement forward. We, by adding to it the insight and act of compassion, send it streaming back to the One, our gift in gratitude for the gift of existence itself.  (Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical theology, p. 93)

No one can care for everybody and everything. We are all inevitably choosers, even in compassion. I’ve come to understand that it is usually in those areas where our own experience has led us to feel most deeply that we are best able to make our contribution. It is where our own inner journey has opened our heart and touched our vulnerability that we are most able to care for others. But this is not necessarily so. Some people simply have a passion for helping children, or the aged, or for planting forests and nurturing not just human but animal life also.
This week has seen unimaginable devastation in the beautiful and mysterious, but poor and now overwhelmed country of Nepal. I’m moved by the contribution made so swiftly by Israel, by pictures of Israeli and Nepalese soldiers together rescuing the wounded. The remarkable organisation Tevel b’Tzedek  which works in Katmandu has appealed for help. In the UK, World Jewish Relief has called for our urgent support . Thus the commandments of the Torah translate into what we must do here and now to care for our neighbour. In the compass of all life, in the eyes of God as it were, we are all neighbours and what happens to one could easily happen to others also.
Love and care for life: that is the purpose of our existence, what gives us value and meaning, and we are not at liberty to desist.

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