The pool beneath the heart

Since as long as I can remember I’ve always loved the sound of flowing water, the fall from the rock ledge of steep mountain streams, the call of small rivers descending through the valleys, the stillness of deep pools among the rocks. It’s as if they sing not only of the physical element of life-giving water but of the spirit which nourishes all life.

The Hebrew Bible is replete with images of water, from ‘the voices of mighty waters, the breakers of the sea’, in the 91st Psalm, to the beloved mei menuchot, ‘the waters of tranquillity’ in the 23rd.

But in the Torah itself it is the be’er, the well, which is most prominent. Abraham’s servant waits by the well for the daughters of the village to draw water; Jacob falls in love with Rachel by the local well. It is at the well that Moses rescues Jethro’s seven daughters from the shepherds who habitually bully them, and a well of flowing water accompanies the Children of Israel through the desert, on account, explain the rabbis, of the merit of Moses’s sister Miriam.

In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac strives to re-open the wells which his father Abraham had dug but which the Philistines had filled in. Clearly, struggles over water resources are as old as civilisation.

The Zohar, the Book of Splendour, the central text of Jewish mysticism, offers this description of the last of those wells:

Come and see: the fount of water and that well are one… For the source which flows into that well never ceases, and the well is constantly filled and replenished. Whoever beholds that well beholds the high mystery of faith itself… Zohar, Bereshit 141

I often wonder what is the secret of inner strength. What enabled Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, the Piazetsner Rebbe, to continue teaching not just Torah, but a Torah of piercing wisdom and sometimes radiant beauty, week after week in the Warsaw ghetto until 1943? Through what resources of the spirit did so many Tibetan monks resist not only the brutality of their Chinese jailors, but also the temptation to become contaminated internally by hate? What enabled Terry Waite not only to survive 1763 days in captivity near Beirut, but to gain such insight into the nature of resilience itself?

Such gifts belong not only to heroes, but to many people much closer to us. It is far from rare that I witness people struggling in physical or emotional pain, who yet find the capacity, not always but at least some of the time, to draw from some inner source of spirit tranquillity, generosity and a graceful self-possession which leaves those around them humbled and moved.

When people ask me in a time of acute to distress where they should go to find strength, I often ask them what it is which nurtures their spirit. Whatever their answer – music, nature, yoga, a quiet hour with a friend, a walk with the dog, – I say ‘However great the pressure, make sure you don’t deprive yourself of this’.

I believe in that inner well of which the Zohar speaks. I believe there is a space inside each of us, often hidden, a secret in the depths within or beneath the heart, which silently fills with living water. If we pay faithful attention, we can almost hear the slow flow and fall of this secret stream of vitality as it replenishes the pool of pure water from which our spirit drinks.

The fact that, as in the story of Isaac, the well inside us so often gets blocked up doesn’t mean that it has ceased to exist. In our case it’s not Philistines who fill it in with dry earth, but too much noise, inattention, lack of spiritual care.

But when we need it, when we seek to heed it, the well is there inside us with a pool of clear waters in its depths in which to bathe our thought and be refreshed with purity, humility, generosity and grace.

 

Whom we fail to notice

I’m writing on Thursday evening 9th November, shortly before dark on the night which 79 years ago became Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. In her outstanding book Between Dignity and Despair, Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, Marion Kaplan documents unsparingly the anguish which followed. Thus, Lisa Brauer was forced to sell her home for a pittance:

It was so terribly difficult to destroy… what one had created with so much love. My children had played and laughed here and romped in the grass with the dogs…

Others suffered worse… as we well know.

What is less familiar is Kaplan’s frequent reference to what so many (though not all) non-Jewish Germans increasingly did not, or chose not, to see. Jews became invisible to former friends; children were ignored by their playmates, as if they had never existed. This was of course better than the attention of the Gestapo and their many supporters. But it hurt.

The issue of what people fail to see, of how oblivious they are capable of being to the realities which define the lives of those next door, disturbs Kaplan deeply.

It should disturb us too, and not solely because of the past. I am profoundly troubled by what we manage not to know about those around us today and what we choose not to see.

Many of the reasons are as ordinary as everyday life itself.

We don’t see because we’re too preoccupied with our own lives. If we turned to look too often at the challenging realities facing so many others, who knows if we would complete one single day’s worth of our plans for ourselves and our families.

We don’t see because we simply lack the relevant experience to have the insight.

We don’t see because we’re afraid to look. I often think of George Elliot’s remarkable observation that ‘if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence’. Were all the anguish within a single square mile from our home suddenly to become audible, we would scarcely be able to bear the onslaught.

These matters are facts of daily life. The truth is that, while it is wrong to be persistently indifferent, we cannot possibly respond to everything which hurts those around us. We have to filter out most suffering if we are to respond in a meaningful way to any of it. That’s the best, often a very good best, which all but the most exceptional individuals can manage. And we need the resources of music, joy, friendship, and beauty to enable us to achieve that much.

What worries me more deeply, terrifies me at times, is the wilful incitement not to care. It’s what hatemongers do with such success.

It generally becomes evident first in the abuse of language. It is through words that we begin to ‘other’ the other, diminishing their dignity, marginalising and then deriding their right to our concern. Contempt for refugees, attacks on ‘foreigners’, resurgent white supremacism in the USA, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim rhetoric and literature, – these are all key phases in process by which we become blind to the lives, and, in the worst case, eventually deaths, of those around us.

Spreading contempt for others is often the beginning of a profound crime, not only against those whose dignity and rights we thus deny, but also against ourselves. It’s betrayal of our own humanity too.

I’m writing these words partly because I love life and aspire to care about people, yet am increasingly aware of my ignorance of the realities of what so many not far from me, refugees, people who stop you in the street to ask for 20p towards a sandwich, face.

I’m writing them, too, because fear and hatred are on the rise in our world and on this inauspicious date history provides us with a severe and searching warning.

 

The Balfour Declaration: 100 Years On

Balfour-Yiddish-Pamphlet

The person who casually commented to me that ‘the Balfour Declaration was a mistake as it made the British have blood on their hands’ was not prepared for the strength of my reaction. As Prime Minister Teresa May rightly said last night, the Declaration is ‘one of the most significant letters in history’, opening the doors to making the Jewish homeland a reality.

To me, and so many others, this is not simply an objective fact. It saved my father’s life. He and his family might have perished in Nazi Germany, had they not been able to emigrate to Palestine. How many in the late 1930s wished they could have followed that same route!

The Balfour Declaration emerged out of The First World War. In the bleak months of 1917, with the Ottoman Empire on the German side, the British sought the support of world Jewry, and, separately, that of Arab groups prepared to rebel against the Turks. Chaim Weizmann, a man of charm, charisma and a diplomatic brilliance sorely lacking in the globe today, turned this belief in Jewish power to advantage. The Declaration was also motivated by Christian feeling for Jews, founded on respect for the Biblical vision of an ancient and courageous people returning to the land from which it was cruelly expelled.

Thirty-one years later, years which contained the terrors of the Russian Revolution, the persecution of Jews in the area known as the Pale of Settlement, the incomprehensible cruelty and slaughter of the Holocaust, and the horrors of World War II, Israel’s Declaration of Independence expressed the aims of the newly proclaimed state in terms closely consonant with Lord Balfour’s letter:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex…

Last night, the current Lord Rothschild, great nephew of the recipient of the letter, referred to these words with careful wisdom, noting, as did Teresa May, that the second clause of Lord Balfour’s note, referring to the rights of the ‘existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’ awaited fulfilment. To that end, he said, the same vision, courage, faith and tenacity had to be devoted by all sides, and the international community, as the realisation of the seemingly far-fetched dream of a Jewish state had itself not so long ago required.

As a lover of Israel, opposed to the boycott, with Israeli Jewish and Palestinian friends, having stood on both sides of the wall, having listened (though only little compared to many others) to pain, fear and the terrible anguish of grief from both sides, I pray for the enduring fulfilment of every one of the 67 words in that remarkable letter. I pray that, as we look back now on Israel’s many and remarkable achievements, we will one day in the not too far future be able to look back on what seems so far from attainment today: peace, security, justice, and the collaboration in the common interest of us all of those who are so often forced to see each other as enemies.

Lord Balfour’s letter also has a third clause, often overlooked, stating that nothing must be done to diminish the ‘rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’. (The Nazis passed the Nuremberg Laws just 18 years later). This touches upon the charter by which we all hope to live in open, plural democracies: freedom of conscience, speech and movement, and the right to live in equality as citizens protected by the impartiality of the law. In far too few places in the world is this truly the reality.

Today we need to do more than defend the right of Israel to exist (a challenge no other country has to face). I believe we must to do our utmost to make whatever personal and collective contribution we can for the peace, well-being, safety, and dignity of life for all the country’s inhabitants, – exactly as Israel’s Declaration of Independence states.


The image is taken from Jonathan Fishburn’s catalogue at www.fishburnbooks.com. The heading reads: Patshegen Hadekliratziah. Pathshegen is borrowed from the Persian and found in the Megillah, where it refers to the letters sent out first by Haman, then countered by Mordechai and Esther, in which the destiny of all the Jews in the Empire is at stake. It makes a telling, partner with the transliterated ‘Dekliratziah’ promulgated by a different empire millennia later.

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