God in the fire

‘He saw a palace in flames’. It’s the opening of the midrashic story about how Abraham found God. It came to my mind during a conversation about Grenfell Tower.

A man was walking from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered: Was it possible the building had no one in charge? The owner looked out at him and said, ‘I am the master of the palace.’

It’s supposed to describe how Abraham finds his faith. He sees the world burning with violence and injustice and thinks: perhaps it has no guide. God looks out at him and says: ‘I am the Master of the World’.

But why is God, the ‘owner’ in the parable, inside the building, letting it burn? Why isn’t he or she putting out the flames, rescuing others, at least getting out of the way of the fire?

Instead God, the so-called owner, is trapped inside among the victims, crying out to the bewildered passers-by.

That, it strikes me, is the point. If we’re looking for a God who won’t ever allow tragedies to happen, who intervenes in our world to prevent every disaster, who takes the responsibility for the safety of buildings, or countries, or children, out of our hands, we’ll probably search in vain.

It’ll be different if we look for God among those who’re struggling in the midst of the fire. I’m not thinking only of Grenfell Tower, but of everywhere people need to be rescued, helped, heard, or saved from the internal flames and demons which at times beset us.

God in the voice of the person at the window; in the longing of the firemen, ‘Can we reach that storey still?’? God in the angry accusations that too little was listened to, too late? What kind of a God is that? What can such a God possibly mean?

Because that is the God I believe in, those questions pursue me. They’re the questions against which I have to square my conscience, justify my life.

They entail principles which are challenging, difficult, even frightening; but essential, honest and true:

Every human life is part of Life, God’s life, because God is not some remote entity, some super-galactic being, but inhabits every single life here on earth. Every heart is God’s sanctuary, every song God’s music, and every cry God’s calling out.

If God is ‘the owner of the palace’ then everyone is the owner of that palace too. We all have the right, and carry the responsibility, to insist that it is safe and that there is space within it for the most indigent, as well as the most wealthy.

If God is ‘the owner of the palace’ the failure to listen to any voice raised fairly and justly against any wrong on earth is a failure to hear God.

Such a God is difficult. The trouble is that we may find ourselves hearing that God’s call anywhere, any time. We are all Abraham, and none of us will escape witnessing flames, metaphorical if not real. The constant challenge is, ‘to hear, or not to hear’, and the best we can manage is sometimes.

But there is wonder, too, with such a God. For God inhabits our heart also and speaks within our thoughts and feelings, awakening us to the glory of life, arousing in us a keen alertness to grace, beauty and tenderness.

And that very sensitivity, that love, makes us want to listen to the voice which is always calling out: ‘You there, don’t just walk away’.

 

‘If I am only for myself, what am I?’

‘It’s me’, my friend says, when I pick up the phone. If I were to answer, ‘Yes, but what do you mean by ‘me’, I imagine he might think I was having a nervous breakdown.

But it’s a question which preoccupies me, not as an egocentric fetish but as a moral concern.

Autonomy has become a modern God. ‘I am’; ‘I need’; ‘I want’. But who is this ‘I’? Maybe it isn’t one simple entity, me. Maybe, rather, it’s composed of many layers, and loves. Maybe it could become not just the driver of my wants and demands, but the source of intuition and compassion.

I’ve developed a new lesson for my course for teens on The Values That Matter. I put a Russian doll on the table, take out all the little dolls from inside each other, and ask: ‘If this doll is you, and these are the layers of your identity, what are they and how do they fit together?’ The discussion is vigorous:

The outermost doll is my name.
No, the innermost is my name.
No. What’s innermost is my heart.

‘What about being human?’ I ask. And ‘Where’s being Jewish?’ and ‘What about British?’

Jewish is on the outside. Then British.
No; on the inside.
No; Jewish is everywhere, through all the layers of me.
No; it’s being human which runs through all of me. Actually animal. Actually alive.

I might ask about family. ‘That layer is my parents: they made me’. Someone asks, ‘But who made them?’ ‘That tiny doll in the middle is Adam and Eve’, someone else says, only half facetiously, reminding me of the line, ‘We are atoms in the consciousness of God’.

I think of Hillel, the 1st century BCE sage, who begins his exploration of identity with the much-quoted assertion, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ People rarely cite the continuation, ‘But if I am just for myself, what am I?’ My connectedness with others is integral to who I am. Without it, I am just a ‘what’, a nothing.

In his next saying, Hillel develops this thought further: ‘Never separate from the community, or trust solely in yourself until your dying day’. I imagine he means both horizontal and vertical community: our dependence on and responsibility for our contemporaries, as well as our connection with the cultures of our ancestors. We belong to, and must learn from, both our past and our present.

I fantasize that none of this is lost on the class of teens. It certainly touches me, – and I’d thought I was the one asking the questions. Instead, those questions grow inside me.

Literature contains some wonderful responses to them. John Donne’s is among the most famous:

No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (Meditation XVII)

But my favourite is by Boris Pasternak, from his Zhivago poems:

In me are people without names,
Children, stay-at-homes, trees.
I am conquered by them all
And this is my only victory.

‘I am involved in mankind’, ‘In me are people without names’: that’s what I want my class to understand. It’s how I want to live.

If our ‘I’ was less full of me, if we had more space inside us for the lives and loves, the identities and cares, which compose us, – then both we and the world around us would be very different. Pasternak is right: that is our only victory.

 

We miss them: But their love still speaks in our hearts

We go into my study, stopping outside in the dark to look at the moon. We dial the number: will anyone else join us tonight? We’ve led this short service over the phone for two years now, late on Wednesday nights, on a party line so that anyone can call in, carer, sufferer, seeker of consolation. Leslie sings the song of the four angels: ‘Before me is Uriel, angel of light; behind me is Raphael, angel of healing; over my head is God’s presence.’

Leslie was there with his smile when I first came to our community, 36 years ago. That smile never left him, warm, embracing, simplifying life’s adversities into welcome, ushering everybody, old friend, new acquaintance into a sunshine of welcome. It never left him, except perhaps in the cruellest phase of his illness.

I see Leslie leading the services in the Synagogue: Kol Nidrei: All our vows and dreams, may we never give up hope of fulfilling them; Shuvi Nafshi; may my soul find her rest; Ve’avitah tehillah: you, eternal God, love the songs of mortals, made of flesh, blood and confusion, fleeting as shadows through a turbulent world.

Leslie was a wonderful teacher: ‘Half the battle is helping the boys relax, taking the pressure off them’. He’d talk to the parents: ‘Don’t worry, she’ll be great on her Bat-Mitzvah’.

Leslie loved animals. I see him, gently calling to the horses at the farm on Regents Park Road. He adored dogs, and they him. If I let my dog off the lead in a room full of forty people, it was Leslie to whom he ran.

Leslie had a moral passion too, refugees, people in pain. He helped fight for the Race Relations Act.

But it’s his from-the-heart smile we all remember most. He could almost disarm destiny with that smile, and nearly did, running with the Olympic Torch in honour of the generous, accepting spirit in which he took his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. But in the end, it wasn’t Leslie any more, but the faithful love of his family, close friends and carers which formed the counterforce of love against the cruelty of the disease.

We gardened together during the first stages of that illness, when his kindness shone out even more and he wouldn’t hear a single bad word about anyone, not his synagogue and certainly not his rabbi. I think of us together, planting hundreds of daffodils.

The wonderful poet Helen Dunmore understood, in her own dying:

My life’s stem was cut…
I know I am dying
But why not keep flowering
As long as I can
From my cut stem?

Forgive me for writing about Leslie, but he is the closest of my colleagues to have gone to his eternal rest. There are so many others whom we remember. Today is July 7, twelve years since the London bombings (before those this year). I think of Miriam Hyman, Susan Levy, and others whom I only know by name. Tomorrow is the Pride March in London; I think of Shira Banki stabbed to death in Jerusalem’s 2015 parade.

There are so many with whom our daily lives are inextricably, instinctively bound: parents, partners, children. Living without them was unthinkable until…

A friend who lost his wife spoke to me of his dislike of the term ‘closure’. I agree. Love, and loss, do not know closure. They continue to grow in us. What we have is not closure, but becoming, what the voices of the dead say inside us.

This is true of sorrow, as David Grossman wrote in Falling Out Of Time, reflecting on the death of his son Uri: ‘the boy / is dead…But his death, / his death / is not / dead.’

This is no less true of love. We carry within us the ongoing becoming of those we have loved. Sometimes, in some seasons, on days with a special light, we notice that they are still flowering. We all have gardens in our hearts, into which time painfully transplants more and more of the lives we have loved around us, until it takes us too, and leaves us, also, vital memories in the hearts of others.

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