Our hearts are with the families of the victims

Our hearts go out to all the families who have been devastated by the evil killings in the Manchester Arena. It’s been heart-rending to think of parents looking for their children, calling on their mobile phones, waiting in the desperate hope of news. The pictures of the faces of the children and young people killed fill us with pain and pity. The young have every right to hope for security, love, joy, excitement and music. Had the attack been at the concert scheduled in London, young people from our community may well have been there.

Our prayers are with the wounded, the bereaved and all who care for them. Our thoughts and appreciation are also with the emergency services, the police and all who strive to keep us safe.

Next week is Shavuot, Zeman Mattan Toratenu, the Time of the Giving of our Torah. One simple, over-riding teaching has been in my mind all week. The Torah is Torah Chayyim, the Torah of Life. We shall read the Ten Commandments on Wednesday. Our rabbis emphasise the close correlation between the first and the second five. ‘I am the Lord your God’ is thus parallel with ‘You shall not murder’. It is, or should be, as plain as daylight: since the sacred presence of God is in all life, we may not hurt or harm, let alone wilfully and wickedly take away, another person’s life. This is the foundation of all morality and all religion; there is no place for relativism or retraction.

I spent the last two days engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue at the Kirchentag in Berlin, a huge gathering of the Protestant Church. The motto of this year’s conference is a verse from the story of Hagar, when she says to God ‘You see me’. The issue for us is not just whether God sees us, but whether we see one another: do we see in each other human beings, equally deserving of life? Do we see and respect each other across the differences of faith, history, nationality, gender, age? If we don’t, or won’t, those who pay the price will include, over and again, the most innocent among us.

At the Kirchentag Amos Oz was awarded the Abraham Geiger prize in recognition of his life’s achievement as foremost among the greatest living authors. His acceptance speech was magnificent, brilliant, courageous and sharply to this point. He spoke of the Jewish gene and genius, – not a biological, but an intellectual and emotional gene, and not, he added, just Jewish either, – for debate, argument, exploration, disagreement. I love my country and my faith, he said, because of my right to disagree with them. This is by no means a privilege to be taken for granted across the world.

He focused on the importance of curiosity; it’s what makes him a writer. A person has to ask, ‘What if I were him or her?’ not in order to become him or her, but to enlarge one’s understanding of others by considering what the world looks like to them. Such curiosity makes one intellectually, emotionally and morally a better person. It also, he argued, makes one a better driver, because you think ‘What’s that idiot going to do next?’

The Manchester killer did not see others. The doctrine which filled, and killed, his heart and mind, prevented him from seeing them, – young people who merited incomparably better of life. He, and above all those who brain-washed and destroyed him, are eternally responsible for the pain following their terrible deaths.

We can’t bring the murdered back. Maybe the awareness of our solidarity will diminish by some tiny amount the loneliness of those whose lives have suddenly been flooded with inexplicable suffering.

But we can resolve to see one another, as the God of all life, and the Torah of Life, require us to do. And we can aspire to find the courage and compassion to act accordingly.

Humanity’s Heart

Yesterday evening I was at Humanity’s Heart (www.humanitysheart.com).

Yesterday and today that heart bleeds, looking at pictures of missing children, – children like our own children who just wanted to enjoy the excitement and beauty of music – thinking of their parents and loved ones searching for them, ever more desperate, not wanting to give up, preserving hope. May God be with them. May God ‘bring back the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents’. May they find one another alive; may they have healing.

But we know that not all will receive the news they long to hear. There is no comfort which can remove that pain. Maybe our solidarity can make their grief hurt a little bit less. May they find ways for their pain to be a source less of anger and more of love. May God bring comfort.

Humanity’s Heart is a film about refugees; it’s about people who devote themselves to caring for the homeless and sometimes hopeless. It’s about people who give of themselves just because they care, because they know that to help those who’ve lost almost everything is what it means to be human, to have a heart. They do it from love, from the determination to bring hope, joy, future, music, safety, education, opportunity back to broken lives, because every child and every person deserves no less.

We can’t undo the shocking, vile, evil crime committed in Manchester Arena on Monday night, or stop the tears it has and will bring. But we can determine to be a part of humanity’s heart, more deeply than before.

What the earth says

I can’t count how many people tell me they feel closest to God in nature. I often think the same. Not always; because there are times of closeness between people, bonds of listening and fellowship, in which God seems present too.

‘The earth shall rest a sabbath to God,’ teaches the Torah in tomorrow’s portion about the sabbatical year. ‘Like on the Sabbath of creation,’ explains the medieval Bible scholar Rashi.

But on that first Shabbat (whether we believe there literally was such a day, or take this just as an idea) no labour had been performed from which either land or human could rest. Only God had been at work. So that first sabbath was pure appreciation of the wonder of creation.

This remains the essence of every Shabbat and sabbatical year. ‘Stop’, they tell us: ‘look, listen, notice’.

Every Shabbat, Nicky and I walk together round the garden with which we have been blessed. We don’t do so in order to decide what beds need weeding and which plants need pruning (though I admit that we do discuss this). We look at the garden in order to see and appreciate it, to breathe it in: the smell of the rain on the wet leaves, the last of the apple blossom.

The mystics have a beautiful misreading of that verse about the sabbatical year: ‘When the earth rests, it says to us ‘for God’.

When Moses asks to know God’s name, God answers ‘I am that I am’.

Sometimes, we hear the earth itself articulate that ‘I am’. The earth isn’t there just for our use, important as this is. It isn’t there solely for what it produces, essential though that is for the sustenance of life. The earth itself, soil, plant and tree, wild flowers and cultivated crops, is part of the all-present ‘I am’ of the sacred. This name, God’s name, the unnameable sound of being itself, addresses us from the essence of all living things in unending, semi-silent vibrancy. We are prevented from hearing it not because it ever ceases, but because of the noise of everything we do.

Yet it is always possible to regain our attentiveness. To do so, we must make ourselves still and listen; we must liberate ourselves from preoccupation. That is the purpose of Shabbat.

The Torah has a cruel punishment for the failure to observe the sabbatical year, – exile from our land. I believe this is neither more nor less that the plain truth. The failure to listen to nature, both its beauty and its humbling power, risks making us exiles and strangers not only from the earth itself and from other creatures, but from our own soul. We need the sea, the trees, the insects and the plants, not only physically for our bodily survival, but spiritually, to know who we are, to know the God of all life.

Every day we pray for knowledge: the Hebrew term is da’at. I’ve often wondered what this da’at is: science, skills, understanding, wisdom, academic success? All these attainments matter.

But just this week I came across a Hasidic explanation: da’at is awareness of the sacred, of the value of all things, of the presence of God in every life and every person. In praying for da’at, we ask to be the exact opposite of Oscar Wilde’s definition of the cynic: we ask to know not the price, but the value of everything.


Creating communities of ‘we’

Changing the story people tell, altering the narrative of a nation, can feel like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around by engaging a group of swimmers to push it in a different direction.

I spent yesterday at a conference arranged by the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations. The subject was promoting inclusion and countering anti-migrant narratives. This meant narratives of xenophobia, racism, including anti-Semitism, and hate for refugees.

The room was full of inspiring people; the world full of disturbing realities. Moving examples of generosity, welcome and integration were shared. But it was felt the world was headed in a different direction, driven by narrowing identity slogans of ‘Me’: Russia for the Russians; America for the Americans. How do we tell a more complex story of identity? How do we create a community of ‘We’?

I thought of this Shabbat’s Torah reading, with its (almost) concluding verse: ‘You shall have one and the same system of justice; it shall be the same for the citizen and the stranger’ (Leviticus 24:22). It’s the first piece of Torah I ever learnt. The great 11th century Bible commentator Rashi makes the stirring comment: ‘I am the God of you all; just as I make my unique name known over you, so do I make known over the stranger’.

‘Tell success stories about refugees; talk about the great contributions they make’, one delegate stressed, ‘That’s how to change public opinion about refugees’.

Others demurred. Refugees from persecution have a claim on our humanity not because they will become a success, though they may, but because of our shared humanity. That is what connects us: our shared hopes for safety, food, a home, a future; our shared fears of violence, homelessness, hunger, being unable to look after our children. How does one persuade people to open their heart to these truths?

I was struck by the contribution of a storyteller who works with children. You don’t change attitudes by going on about human rights, he said. People just think, ‘these lefties and their slogans’. But when someone’s child comes home from school and talks about the new friend in the class, that’s different.

I spoke about how members of our community invite refugees to cook together, share music, and tell their stories. Food, music, family, stories: that’s who we are and how we learn who others are. It’s when we are accepted for who we are that we feel at home. I often think about how Isca, my mother, first felt at home in Britain when she studied at Birmingham University, at the Quaker College of Woodbrooke and was invited to play the cello.

The most challenging conversations concerned how to respond to groups which promulgate racism.

They need to be challenged. I was impressed by Stop Funding Hate, which persuades big brands not to advertise in newspapers which incite xenophobia.

But they also need to be understood. We live in a world of renewed fear, for jobs, housing, national security. It’s not helpful, someone said, to think in terms of; ‘refugee’ and ‘local’; ‘outsider and insider’. Instead, we need to think of a more embracing ‘us’.

We have three objectives, the UN Commission told us: Protecting the human rights of everyone; listening to people’s stories; and create communities of ‘we’.

‘Creating communities of we’ seems to me like an ancient, contemporary, honourable, essential, deeply human and deeply Jewish endeavour.

Prayers of listening

I had two unusual prayer experiences yesterday, even three. It wasn’t that I was ‘seized by the spirit’; or perhaps, in a very quiet way, I was.

Prayer has always been to me first and foremost about connection, about bringing my consciousness home. Like most of us, my mind is full of plans, worries, questions, wants and don’t wants. When I pray, I hope to let go of all that, even if only for the shortest of time. I hope that God, life’s spirit, will enter me like water from an unquenchable source creeping, seeking its way rivulet by rivulet, back up a river bed which has become dried out. I hope to be reunited, even for mere seconds, with the vastness and wonder of life, and made silent.

I was in Israel yesterday morning, in Tiveriah. I found a path to the fields and said shacharit, the morning service, next to brilliant blue cornflowers growing among the wheat, my prayers accompanied by the white caper blossoms with purple stamens of which the Talmud speaks. There’s teaching in the simplicity of their grace; it’s good to be humbled by such beauty.

I hadn’t realised that there were to be more prayers later that morning. I’d been invited to Israel participate in a Catholic Jewish encounter, as a guest at the Domus Galilaeae of the Neocathecumenal Way. The ‘house’, a place of prayer, retreat and service, is situated on the Mount of Beatitudes. Jewish participants, largely orthodox, including representatives of Israel’s chief rabbinate, were warmly welcomed. This Christian group appreciates its deep roots in Judaism, profoundly regrets the Church’s history of persecution and sees in Jewry an essential partner in maintaining our spiritual and moral heritage. We joined them for shared prayers, consisting overwhelmingly of Psalms.

They sung Psalm 150, the Halleluyah Psalm, in a multitude of voices. Then they sung their own composition of Shema Yisrael, repeatedly affirming the oneness of God as the foundation of faith. The Cardinal of Perugia preached quietly about respect and love as the foundation of shared ethics, including the love of nature, animals, people different from ourselves.

I was moved by the singing and these gentle words. Having listened to many of the people around me, I know they spend their lives working amongst the poor, the destitute in the slumlands surrounding the wealthy core of the world’s big cities, that they lead profoundly dedicated lives amidst very difficult conditions. I thought of the words: ‘Open my heart through your Torah, your teaching’: we can learn about God’s presence from people of our own faith, other faiths, and no faith, and from nature itself. Life and its spirit flow through all things, in different ways but from the same infinite source. Moments when that oneness touches us are special; they penetrate the heart and retain the power to speak to us even years later and purify our lives.

On the way home from the airport close to midnight, the cab driver, a Muslim man originally from Afghanistan whom I had met a couple of times before, and I found ourselves deep in conversation about prayer. ‘I feel not right with myself when I don’t pray during the day’, he said. I agreed: ‘It’s as if there’s something missing, as if I haven’t been in touch with truth, haven’t been washed clean by life, or listened with my soul.’

Perhaps the deepest prayers are less about what we say than what we hear and how that speaks to us in our heart.


Get in touch...