Never despair! Thoughts on a difficult spring’

Tomorrow is the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan; in Jewish terms it’s the first day of spring.

Nisan is a month of celebration. Sad, penitential prayers are left out of the liturgy. Instead, in the domain of history we focus on Passover; we follow our ancestors on their journey from slavery to freedom and try to create a world which celebrates, life, liberty and justice.

In the domain of nature, we go out into the fields and gardens and say a unique, once-a-year-only blessing to God

in whose world nothing is lacking, who created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for the enjoyment of humankind.

I’ve just been outdoors to check: the almond tree is pink with bloom; the apricot, usually first to blossom, is wisely still sleeping out an especially long winter; the pears have a good month to go before May, their season of white glory.

Yet, despite all this, I’m struggling to feel joyous.

Instead, I feel anxious, afraid for our beautiful world. We live in increasingly dangerous times. Much of humanity, or at least its leadership, seems intent on a journey from liberty to tyranny, from peace to war and from injustice to greater injustice. Meanwhile, the poorest and weakest, who have always suffered, suffer even more.

In the world of nature, I read with despair of the huge decline in animal life, of species hunted to extinction, of the pollution of land and ocean by plastic particles. You may think me crazy, but these matters drive me close to tears.

I could take to retail therapy, decide not to think, or close my eyes, and heart, and sit back to enjoy my corner of privileged living, among the world’s wealthiest.

But that’s not the human, certainly not the Jewish way. ‘You are not free to cease from the work’, said Rabbi Tarfon almost two thousand years back. ‘Assur lihitya’esh; it’s forbidden to give up and despair,’ insisted Rebbe Nachman of Breslav two hundred years ago, despite, or because of, his own susceptibility to depression. And, on the back of today’s Guardian, Gareth Southgate adds his own gloss to his rabbinic antecedents: ‘You can live in fear or you can get on with it’.

That’s what saying the blessing over ‘beautiful creatures and beautiful trees’ means right now. Never give up! Never stop appreciating how wonderful the world can and should be! For the sake of the beauty of children, help the besieged, the hungry, the persecuted. For the sake of the beauty of animals and trees, plant and protect, so that they, and humankind together, may live and flourish to breathe a better future.

Last Friday, as I approached the old Jerusalem railway station, some 28 kilometres into running the marathon, I passed a group of people pushing their friend in a wheelchair, or rather in something more like a full hospital bed. According to my running app, the Jerusalem marathon route has a total climb of well over 2,000 feet, with challenging hills and sharp descents. These good people must have taken turns to push their friend up the hardest inclines, then hold on tightly to ensure a smooth run down the steepest slopes. When they reached the finishing line, the entire crowd cheered.

That’s love; that’s courage; that’s doing the best one can to share the basic freedoms of breathing the open air, enjoying the wide panorama, waving to friends, relishing the crazy happiness of those mad enough to run.

On Seder night I don’t just want to read the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus. I want it to shout back at me: Never give up on freedom. When I go outside, I don’t just want to see the world. I want it to sing back at me: Look at all this beauty! Use your life to love it and protect it!


Seeing the world feelingly

I’m not a person who believes in beschert, pre-destined, but – there may be exceptions, and, as my teacher Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs said, quoting Solomon Schechter ‘the best theology is inconsistent’.

I walked out of the Conservative Yeshivah into the Jerusalem street and there he was in front of me, a beautiful young black Labrador. He wore that jacket which tells people like me, who’re too much inclined to strike up conversations with every dog they meet, that he was in training and strictly not to be distracted.

I asked the young woman who was walking him: ‘He’s going to be a guide dog’, she explained. He’s just eight months old and I’m his carer for the year.’

I couldn’t believe it. This is the day before I’m due to run the Jerusalem Marathon in aid of Toby’s very organisation, the Israel Guide Dog Centre. I apologised for thus accosting her puppy out of the blue and told the girl what I was doing. ‘His name’s Toby’, she then said. I don’t think she wanted me to get too familiar with her hound. ‘And you’re welcome to take pictures.’

Then, as we went our separate ways at the corner, she added: ‘When my father’s friend went blind we saw how important dogs are. We’ve been deeply involved ever since.’

The encounter felt like a blessing, a token of good luck from heaven.

As I walked away I found myself thinking about the girl’s words: ‘We saw how important…’

They are so many ways of seeing, and not seeing.

The world is full of beauty. ‘Lift up your eyes and see who created these’, says Isaiah; I’d always thought he was referring to the stars, but it could be trees, or clouds, or flowers, or human faces, all the wonder of which, in our rushed lives, we so often fail to take note. To lose one’s sight is, in Milton’s famous lines, to have beauty at ‘one entrance quite shut out’. It must be an extremely painful loss.

Yet there are different ways of seeing and being enabled to see. In rabbinic Hebrew a blind person is referred to as Sagi Na’or, a person of great light. The verb for seeing, ro’eh, is often used in the Bible to refer to other and deeper kinds of awareness and emotional sensitivity. God ‘sees’ the sufferings of human beings; God ‘knows’. People, too, often ‘see’ the pain of others, and their own.

Such usage is by no means unique to Hebrew. Shakespeare gives searing expression to this relationship between sight and insight when the maddened King Lear meets the blinded Earl of Gloucester on the cliffs above Dover. ‘No eyes in your head nor no money in your purse, yet you see how this world goes?’ the crazed King challenges. ‘I see it feelingly’, the former Earl replies. He did not of course see it with any such feeling when he had his eyes, his title and his power.

That is not to glorify or romanticise the painful, frightening loss of sight. But it does show that they are many depths to how we see the world. Responding to an unknown critic who condemned Picasso for painting the sky green, E M Forster wrote that he was grateful to see the world through Picasso’s eyes, if only for a few moments.

Countless people enable us to see. We see the world not just through one another’s eyes, including the beautiful eyes of guide dogs, but through each other’s hearts. Maybe that’s why I love Amazing Grace, because I not rarely fear I may have been blind to important sensitivities, and hope that ‘now I see’.

When I run tomorrow – (‘What time do you hope to finish by?’ I was just asked in an email. ‘Pesach’, I answered) – I shall think of the many people who have helped me to see, and hope that I too can occasionally help bring sight to others, – a gift which the wonderful dogs for whom I’m running have in affectionate abundance,

Toby guide dog

Where God is in a bleak climate

I woke up this morning thinking of Moses’ words to God: ‘va’eida’acha – let me know you’, wondering what this means. I’ve been trying to work out why this was on my mind.

I’d listened to the news on my way back from Cambridge last night. I’d heard about Vladimir Putin’s televised address in which he spoke of Russia’s new weapons, nuclear, intercontinental, five times the speed of sound, undetectable by any defence system present or future. What a thing to be proud of! And what about what Russia is doing in Syria? Poor humanity!

I’d listened to a report on changing wind patterns in the Artic, the possible cause of the unpleasantly named ‘Beast from the East’. Even the penguins are in trouble, the polar bears too. Others may feel this is foolish, but it pains me: more elephants are currently shot each day by poachers than are born. Who gave us the right?

There are times when I simply feel frightened for the future, and ashamed of being human, part of this species inflicting such hurt on creation.

I’d been on an interfaith panel at The Perse School in Cambridge. We’d been sent in advance the questions pupils wanted to ask. Next to my name I saw:

How can religions, supposedly all about love and peace, use God’s name in war?

Part of me was glad we ran out of time before that particular issue was raised.

But I know how I would answer.

I’d walked a couple of miles last night in the freezing streets. Poor people who have no roof over their heads, nowhere to retreat from the elements, no hot food, no stove, no bed. How can we do more for them?

I’d looked out at the frozen gardens, watching the birds, virtually queueing by the feeders, tiny, fragile, ice upon their wings. A couple of raisins or sunflower seeds could be a matter of life or death for them.

What sort of human wants innocent people, innocent creatures to die?

All this adds up to why Moses’ questions ‘Let me know you, God’, was on my mind.

Knowing God isn’t about being certain God’s on one’s side, automatically, ipso facto, just because one’s a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, or anything else. It’s not about knowing what God’s against and whom God hates. God’s is not the will behind the invention of even more lethal weapons of war. All this is idolatry; worse, it’s idolatry posing as religion.

Every act of terror purportedly in God’s name defiles that name. Every time we cause hurt to any living thing we hurt God too.

So what about Moses’ question – ‘Let me know you, God’? Even for Moses, isn’t this asking too much? No one ever really, truly knows God.

But we know enough. We know all we need to know, and we know it with the heart. There is something of God’s presence in those hungry birds. There is much of God’s being in every homeless, hungry person. God is present among the civilians in Syria, the DCR, and every war zone, unable to escape the clever weapons which destroy their towns, homes, children, souls, lives.

We are not mere bystanders while all this takes place around us. We are joined together by this moment of existence, this flow of life which animates us all this very breath-take, now. We are bound to each other by this call for compassion which cries out from round about us: Help me! Shelter me! Feed me! Save my children!

What more do we need to know about who or what or where God is?


Get in touch...