Youth Strike 4Climate

If I’d known the date, I would have arranged to be with them. Next time, I want to be there. I’m proud that a year-ten group from our youth movement Noam is going.

I’m referring to the rally in Parliament Square today, the first British rally of Youth Strike 4Climate.

It shouldn’t be labelled ‘a strike by school children’. It’s an education event by tens, now hundreds, of thousands of pupils across the globe, many joined by parents and teachers. Next time, whole schools will participate, staff included. A key aim is – education itself: to make the climate crisis part of the national curriculum. So it’s not a strike but a critically important teaching day.

The age-group it’s targeted at is government, – the governments, business, political and communal (including religious) leaders across the world. The syllabus is the future of humanity.

The target group is also us, how we behave. The environmental crisis isn’t happening somewhere else. Others may suffer first and suffer more. But the future of every single living being is at stake, and it’s our children who have the most to lose. As one pupil said: What’s the point of my GCSE choices if there’s no future anyway? I’ve heard similar in my own home.

The movement is inspired by the vision and determination of Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old girl from Sweden who addressed the environment conference in Poland last autumn:

I beg the world’s leaders to care for our future….Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago…I want you to panic…

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres was entirely correct when he said: ‘We need to harness their energy, invention and political power…’

Greta began alone. When she first suggested they ‘strike’, her own classmates rejected the idea. Now she has allies across the globe; in the UK they span the country from Ullapool to Exeter.

It’s not the first great change to begin with the actions of just one person.

Abraham, according to rabbinic legend, broke the bickering idol-gods in his father’s shop, teaching that we are all children of the one God. (What are our idols today? – Growth as the ultimate measure of the good, our own unlimited capabilities, the control of all creation, the worship of absolute autonomy and unfettered choice?)

Moses began probably the most inspiring movement for freedom and dignity in human history when he, alone, left the safe enclave of the palace and determined to take action on behalf of suffering slaves.

Rosa Parks was alone when she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1st 1955. Later she became known as ‘the mother of the freedom movement’.

What begins with the conviction and courage of just one person must end with the participation of us all.

Every government across the world has to respond. Energy, transport, agricultural and waste recycling policies must alter. We too must be part of that change in our homes, work places, travel and consumption. This isn’t someone else’s problem.

Our attitude to nature has to return to what the authors of the Hebrew Bible understood so well because, unlike most of us, they were not alienated from the earth and they understood the meaning of reverence. Humanity exists in partnership with all life and even ‘the king is subject to the soil’.

 

 

 

 

‘As the deer longs for streams of water’: On the Book of Psalms

It was my grandfather who gave me my first copy of Tehilim, theBook of Psalms: ‘All of life is in it,’ he told me. I knew that he knew: a happy childhood in a rabbinic family, then student years in Berlin at its cultural prime had been followed by the Western Front, the great depression and inflation, the rise of Nazism, Dachau, exile, and a new life in Britain, haunted by losses. The book with his signature in it was my treasure, – until I lent it, I don’t recall to whom, and never got it back. When he died, we knew what to write on his gravestone: ‘I shall sing to God with my life, make music to my God with all my being’.

Now a group in our synagogue, our very own Chevrat Tehilim, Psalms Group, has completed a study of all 150 songs. It’s true, we haven’t done so quickly. The Psalms are traditionally divided into seven books, one for each day of the week. You can see pious Jews, women especially, on the buses in Israel reading the daily sections with deep devotion.

Admittedly, our group took a decade and a half, meeting roughly ten times a year to study each Psalm carefully and in order. But this too has been a deeply devoted and loving undertaking.

This Sunday we celebrate completing the Book followed, in traditional Jewish fashion, by starting immediately at the beginning. ‘May we not be forgotten by you, nor you be forgotten by us’, runs the customary invocation on completing a sacred text. We have no intention of forgetting.

No other book from the Hebrew Bible forms so great a part of the Siddur, the daily prayer book, as Psalms. No other text in world literature has become so intimate a part of the prayer life of tens of generations of both Jews and Christians. As my grandfather taught me, the entire life of faith and doubt, despair and hope, wonder and dismay, alienation and closeness, fear and trust – all of it is here.

There is the yearning of loving faith: ‘As the deer longs for the streams of water, so my soul longs for you, God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God.’ (Psalm 42)

There is the bewilderment of feeling utterly lost: ‘I said, “Darkness will surely cover me, light be night around me,”’ followed by the realisation, perhaps no less disturbing, that we are nevertheless not utterly alone, “Even darkness is not dark for You.” (Psalm 139)

There is the hopelessness of abandonment: ‘You have distanced from me my friends and those who love me; all who know me, darkness.’ (Psalm 88)

And there is wonder at creation: ‘[God] makes the streams run through the valleys, flowing between the mountains…The birds of the skies alight on them, and sing among the branches.’ (Psalm 104)

In all the years of prison and solitary confinement there was one item Anatole Shcharansky refused to let the KGB take from him: his book of Psalms. From it, he wrote later, he learnt the awe of God:

What is significant for me is that I feel a closeness to God in a most tangible manner. I sense its essence and domination over me. (Letter to his mother, 6 May 1984)

We can wrap our lives around the Psalms. And other people’s lives are wrapped in them too. I think of those who began the fifteen-year journey with us, but who didn’t complete in down here on earth: Olga Deaner, who adored Jane Austen but also developed her sense and sensibility among the songs of King David; Professor Bryan Reuben, who loved his Bible as much as his science; David Jackson who, despite two strokes which robbed him of his mobility, wrote music and a commentary for every single Psalm, continuing to do so when he could scarcely leave his room:

Though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death I shall fear no evil for You are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me…(Psalm 23)

…and Your music, Your Psalms, the wonder of Your world, and the companionship of those who care for such things – they comfort me too.

 

On Grief

Over the years I’ve witnessed many painful happenings: slow illnesses; sudden deaths, timely and untimely; people parted cruelty from those they love; young children losing parents; worst of all, parents losing their child. I never pass unthinking the words in the memorial service: ‘Our children, in whom are garnered all our love and hope’.

And this in peacetime in Britain, without the horror of war which so many earlier generations endured with courage, fear, and the gritty determination to live.

Mercifully, I’ve seen many causes for joy, tenderness, thoughtfulness, generosity, courage, and sheer beauty, – beauty in simple things: the winter sun in the branches of orange witch-hazel; a stock-still squirrel, watching the child watching it.

I often think how those whose hearts are broken might find enough love, purpose, meaning and healing to live with wounds which no one can take away. I know that life, which visits us with blessings, will inevitably bring us all, unpredictably, unequally, sorrow. We will all come to know what we don’t and cannot know, until…

So I hope… These are things I hope when pain visits those I care for. I hope love will be present, from family, a closest friend, to take her hand, to hug her, when the man she loved so long passes through the strange, bewildering gateway of death, where the living may not follow and they cannot turn back.

I hope that at the halvayah, the final accompanying journey… “I don’t know what to say,” people tell me often…I hope the hand with which we touch the mourner’s shoulder, take his hand, is a hand of faithful kindness, our presence at the prayers the promise of enduring solidarity.

I hope that in the numb days when it’s hard to believe it really happened, – “It feels unreal”, I’m so often told – there will be people, community, who’re attentive, listen, don’t ask, “How are you?”, know when to offer memories, when to take out the photograph and say “I knew your father”, when to laugh and when to keep silence.

I hope that when the daily rush has reabsorbed everyone in their customary preoccupations and the community has moved on to the next wedding, the next bereavement, steadfast friends won’t just leave a message “Don’t forget to ask me if there’s anything you need?” but say “Can I ask you, if you’re up to it, tomorrow at 3.00… If not, may I ask you in a couple of days again?”

I hope that over the searing months, when it’s impossible to know round what corner or inside what envelope memory waits in ambush with new pain, it may somehow be possible to begin to find purpose: “She cared about that; I’ll devote myself to that in faithfulness to her”; even, “My child loved music; I’m going to do something for children and music… I can’t have him back, but I can do a little of what he would have done.”

I hope that God will speak, not the God of “this happened because”, not the rationaliser or the blamer’s God, but the God of life, who talks in snowdrops, in the wren in the hedge, the God whose unspoken words translate simply as “I am here”.

I hope the Kaddish doesn’t feel like gestures, lies, homage to a past when others really did believe; I hope there’ll be moments when shirata are nechmata, when songs are truly comforts and praise, for a moment, makes sense.

I hope that slowly, over years, those we love, who once held our hand, traverse into our heart and speak to us from there, retelling us their wisdom, their bad jokes, listening when we need them, so that we say “She would have said…”.

I know there’s no gainsaying the empty room, the unoccupied space beside you which follows wherever you go, the dread of reaching for the key to unlock the empty house. I know that grief works to no time-table, conforms with no calendar.

Yet I hope that, somehow, there’ll be sufficient love, enough purpose to go on and live.

 

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