The Teaching of Life: tears and solidarity

There is one quality associated incomparably more than any other with Torah, the teachings, law and lore at the heart of Jewish existence: life. The Torah is Torat Chaim, the Torah of life. For its inspiration flows from the same invisible springs and currents which nourish all life, feeding the roots of the trees of forests and orchards, inspiring the heart, flowing through all living beings.

Consequently, the Torah is equally Torah Hesed, the Torah of faithful kindness, of a compassion which includes an urgent sense of justice. For how can the Torah of life require anything other than that we should respect, nurture and cherish all life? This is the ideal of which the prophet Isaiah dreamt in an ancient version of ‘Imagine’ when he saw a world in which ‘None shall hurt or destroy in all [God’s] holy mountain’.

Throughout the millennia, as Jewish teachers and communities have studied the Torah, understood as God’s word and the expression of God’s will, they have interpreted, re-interpreted and sometimes deliberately mis-interpreted its apparent meanings in the light of these overriding values: life, compassion, justice.

Yet this very week, as we approach Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah of Life, there has been bitter hatred and terrible killing. Whatever our politics, religion or identity, we must mourn these terrible wounds in the body and heart of our collective humanity.

The Talmud speaks of God weeping. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto, wrote in March 1942 of God withdrawing to the inner chambers to weep. He counsels those who feel terrified and alone to seek God there, in those interior spaces of the spirit.

Over the last five years it has become clear that we live at a time of a renewed and aggressive politics of identity. It is manifest in different, but inter-related ways, across much of the globe. It incites in us a visceral reaction to stand only with our own; to draw up lines of defence, internally as well as externally; to recall our universalist hopes or fantasies and batten down our moral imagination. It is hard to resist these reactions.

Yet we are also drawn to an inner space in which we hear life’s tears, the sorrows of those whose children have been killed; or whose sons have to go to the dangerous front lines of the army; or who have no homeland, or home; who face the brutal police of violent regimes, who are on the wrong side of the guns of vicious, racist militias. With us in that same space are those who devote their very souls to care for the ill, get food to hungry families, imagine how to give shelter to the destitute. There too are the people, from across the globe, who strive to protect the very earth which nourishes us, its animals, fishes, trees and meadowlands, and who mourn in the barren spaces where birdsong used to be.

I believe we can, and must, try to find each other there, not just because we each have cause to weep, but because, even more deeply, we are united by the love of life, the desire for life to thrive. The teaching of life and compassion, as Torah, Gospel, Koran, or as an agnostic sense of wonder and awe, calls us into fellowship to serve humanity, the earth and the life it sustains, and, if we so believe, the God of this rich and unfathomably intricate and inter-connected creation. We can only do so together; we can only maintain hope together, and, because we stand together, we can affirm to each other that no good, compassionate, creative action we undertake is too small to matter.

That, I believe, is what the giving and receiving of Torah truly means, on this festival of Shavuot.

Humankind and Nature Together

There are hours when I’m troubled with mourning, not for the past but the future. It isn’t just fear for humanity, for a world from which, in Matthew Arnold’s warning words, faith has withdrawn like an ebbing tide and ‘ignorant armies clash by night’. It’s fear for the future of nature itself, of beauty and awe, of birdsong and the sound of the wind in the woods and the mountain crags.

The Hebrew Bible opens with an ode to the wonder of creation. Humankind is not made alone, but fashioned to the rhythm of dawn and twilight, surrounded by the abundance of trees and grasses, set amidst the companionship of the birds and animals. I worry, often: will we destroy all this? Will not just Noah’s dove, but all the birds in existence ‘find no resting for the soles of their feet’ in our concrete agglomerations? What will happen then to the human soul, malnourished without the wildlands and the animals?

That’s why I linger on our last nights on Scottish holidays, staring out at the blackening sea, listening to the seabirds and waders who cry out like a piercing prayer in the thickening light:

Music, as desolate, as beautiful

as your loved places,

mountainy marshes and glistening mudflats

by the stealthy sea

                   Norman MacCaig, ‘Curlew’ in Mary Colwell, ‘Curlew Moon’

God worries that ‘It’s not good for man to be alone’. I imagine God had not just to human partnership, but this strange kinship with all that lives which those who love nature know.

That is why I appreciate the Torah’s description of the sabbatical cycle. In the seventh year, when the land is left fallow and all have equal rights to whatever it naturally brings forth, the border fences come down. The rich are forbidden to exclude the poor. ‘My’ dissolves into ‘our’. For one year in seven, it’s not ‘my land’ but ‘our land’. Stranger and citizen have equal access. They cannot be banned from anyone’s ‘territory’ because the sole proprietor is God, and my fellow human being is as much God’s creation as I am.

Nor does community comprise only humans: wild and domestic animals are entitled to roam the land, and eat. It is a return, temporary for sure, symbolic perhaps, but a return nevertheless to the full community of creation.

Sunday is Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. I’ll never forget how my father woke me, a boy of nine, in the middle of the night, to tell me Israel had recaptured the Old City. He bitterly remembered its loss in 1948; he was there. Some regard the date as solely about territory. Kehillat Zion, the remarkable open and inclusive community led by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum is celebrating more profoundly, by listening to voices from the different peoples of the city, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, Bucharan, Yemenite. I imagine that’s what the Psalmist meant in describing Jerusalem as ‘shechubrah lah yachdav, – united all together’, in one fellowship before God.

Alongside the earthy city, Judaism speaks of a ‘heavenly Jerusalem’, a dream, an ideal. It’s that Jerusalem which William Blake sung of creating (with only metaphorical bows and spears) ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’. In that Jerusalem there will be space for all. There will be wild places too, forests, mountains, wet lands, meadows. No one will be persecuted; no species will become extinct; birdsong will not cease. Until we have created it, in Israel, England, anywhere, there will be no completer resting for our soul.

Between cruelty and wonder: how we treat life

I’ve woken up with a divided spirit these last few days.

I go out into the garden we are privileged to care for, in this most beautiful of seasons, and feel wonder. Already this morning I’ve seen sparrows, great tits, blue tits, parakeets and a jay. I know the blackbirds are eating the raisins I spread on the lawn. Maybe I’ll get another glimpse of the wren I spotted earlier. Yesterday a woodpecker came to the feeder opposite the window of my study; I stopped all else and watched.

There are bluebells, and the rhododendrons, my favourite, are stunning. When I was a small boy in Scotland, our neighbours had a huge rhododendron. I would put the fallen pink white flowers like little bells over my fingers and feel the drops of dew inside them run down my hands. I think of this now as a blessing from life itself, which is exactly what it was.

Kadosh, ‘holy’, is the dominant word in the sections of the Torah we are currently reading: Be holy, because I, your God, am holy’. The sacred spirit of life flows through all existence, life’s secret essence from God, Chei ha’olamim, life of all worlds. It is not directly perceptible. Since we never hear or see it, we may conclude that it doesn’t exist. Today we can describe in accurate materialist terms the cause of virtually all phenomena. We don’t need mystery, or holiness, to explain the inexplicable away. But if we choose to live without sensitivity to life’s spirit we have less space for reverence, wonder, humility and joy. Our life and our world are diminished.

The other part of me wakes up reflecting on yesterday’s interactions. In one single day this week I spoke to three people, each of whom had been tortured, each in a different country. One of them, in response to a question about whether she now had sufficient support, simply put her head in her hands and wept.

Nicky and I have been watching late at night the BBC’s serialisation of Wilkie Collins’s gripping novel, The Woman in White. The subtle and brilliant portrayal of cruelty disturbs me greatly. I’ve witnessed several times the aftermath of pain when men have calculatedly, unashamedly, instrumentalised, humiliated, and treated with cunning physical and emotional contempt women, sometimes children, with little power to evade their control.

Nature, too, is full of cruelty. I was driving to a memorial service for a young woman murdered by her husband when right in front of me a bird of prey flew down and snatched from the verges a helpless rabbit which it carried away, writhing in its claws. The image abides with me, an evil emblem.

The opposite of honouring life’s sanctity is desecration, hillul. The Torah enjoins us not to desecrate God’s holy name. This isn’t about ritual piety. It’s an appeal to recognise and respect God’s presence in all life, human life first and foremost, but also throughout creation.

Any act, however small, which enhances the awareness of life’s value is a sanctification of God’s name, Kiddush Hashem. Any act which shows contempt for life’s sacred value is a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

When any of us behaves with the intention to harm, with deliberate cruelty, or negligent callousness, we strip life of its beauty and void it of its preciousness. When any of us tries to nurture, cherish, honour, heal and love life in any of its forms, we deepen the presence of reverence and wonder. We honour the sacred spirit which flows through all life.

There is little, if any, space for neutrality.

It is clear what we are here on earth to do.

 

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