Why we should all love rainbows

I was crossing the Heath last week when, unexpectedly, I saw a double rainbow. I didn’t just recall Wordsworth’s poem; I experienced it:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man…

I looked around and saw that everyone seemed to feel the same: a moment of wonder embraced us. Even the dogs were lolloping more lightly.

I remembered the brachah too:

Blessed are You, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who remembers and keeps faith with his covenant and is true to his word.

It was a marvellous way to begin the week of Noah, about whom we read in the Torah tomorrow. After the mass devastation of the flood, God promises never again to destroy life, making the rainbow the symbol of this, the first and most comprehensive pact in the Bible.

The rainbow is one of humanity’s most enduring and versatile symbols. Look online and you can see what it means in virtually every culture.

I’m moved by what it signifies today. I hear in my mind Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking with courageous pride about South Africa, ‘the rainbow nation’. Of course, the rainbow is the symbol of Pride itself. A YouTube video explains how each colour expresses a different quality: life, nature, serenity and healing. Keshet, ‘rainbow’ in Hebrew, is the name of UK Jewish organisation working for LGBT+ inclusion.

During lockdown, the rainbow has become an international symbol of solidarity and hope. I’m cheered whenever I see on windows, placards and even in the middle of roundabouts: the colours embracing NHS, or words of gratitude to those who dedicate themselves to our society.

Last, and definitely least, there’s a ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ page on a site about household pets, where you can record the name and endearing qualities of your late lamented guinea pigs.

The rainbow has a profound and complex history in Judaism. On Rosh Hashanah, Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance and judgement over all life, the rainbow is the first covenant we mention: ‘God remembered Noah and all the animals with him in the ark’. Nachmanides notes that keshet is an archer’s bow, but as a rainbow it is inverted to indicate that God will not shoot arrows of anger, but instead send healing to the earth.

More puzzling is the Talmud’s warning not to gaze at rainbows because this shows a lack of respect for God’s glory. This derives from Ezekiel’s description comparing ‘the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds’ to ‘the appearance of the brightness round about the likeness of God’s glory.’ (Ezekiel 1:28). Rabbi Isaac de Trani offers a moving explanation: every person experiences the sacred in different ways and the divine in different shades. We should not attempt to fathom the depth and richness of the spirit.

I’m struck as we begin One World Week by what these interpretations have in common: the rainbow represents the ability to see beyond the self and value existence in all its wealth of forms and colours. Only the capacity to value and care for life in this comprehensive manner can save us from destruction.

Or perhaps it’s all much simpler: rainbows are just beautiful and that makes us feel happy.

Creators or Destroyers: that is our critical choice

‘Up there on the hillside are trees we planted six years ago. We put up a nesting box and a pair of barn owls took up residence within the month. If it wasn’t raining so hard the skylarks would be out in a chorus.’

I’m with James from The Woodland Trust, exploring the square mile of Surrey they’re re-foresting, one acre of which we’ve helped to plant through JTree.global*. (A square mile has 640 acres; Surrey is 190,000 square miles; one acre equals about 750 young saplings) A soggy Mitzpah dog looks up at me, ‘Can we go home now please?’ (At least he’s had half a day away from that upstart puppy who’s cheekily intruded into his household.)

There are oaks, rowans and beeches, the most recently planted scarcely peeping out above the tubing which protects them from the marauding deer. There are fallow fields: ‘We’re letting these re-wild. There are a few sheep grazing to take the excess nutrients out of the soil so that the chalklands can one again produce their native orchids.’

Next to a community orchard of apples, plums, pears and cherries are rows of life-sized wooden soldiers, a memorial for the centenary of World War I: it was here on Epsom Downs that Lord Kitchener marshalled troops before they crossed to France.

Creation or destruction: that’s where we stand now as we recommence reading the Torah. ‘In the beginning God created:’ to the rabbis, especially the mystics, that process is never complete. Day by day, sacred energy flows through the world, re-animating and filling anew with wonder the light and dark, the rivers, trees, animals and humankind.

But only five columns later in the Torah God, frustrated by the wilful selfishness of humans, wants to destroy everything. Life only escapes by a pinhead, the entirety of biodiversity adrift in a tiny ark, afloat on an endless ocean.

But it’s not just God who stands at the centre of the drama; it’s us. Which are we, destroyers or creators? The rabbis termed humankind ‘partners with God in creation,’ applying this to when we practise justice and keep Shabbat, pausing from gain-seeking to honour and appreciate our world. But they were also well aware that we are wreckers and ruiners, applying the commandment ‘Do not destroy’ to an ever-widening circle of wanton destructiveness.

So who are we, and who should we be?

There are many fascinating interpretations of the verse ‘God said, “Na’aseh adam – Let us make humankind”.’ The key question is: to whom is God speaking? Here are some classic suggestions:

-        God consults the angels who say, too late, ‘Don’t do it.’

-        God asks every person, ‘Let’s work together to make you into a truly human being.’

-        The animals ask God to create a creature who can speak on their behalf.

But it’s a different insight which has caught my conscience this year: Don’t read ‘God said, “Let us make humankind”,’ but rather ‘God said to humankind, “Let us make”.

God wants us to be creators, creative, custodians of creation. God wants us to care for and cherish this world. More than that, God needs us to do so. Wonder, beauty, a sense of the sacred – these come from the divine. But the daily work of living faithfully by this instruction – that task belongs to us.

That is why I committed our community to planting a tree for every word in the seven days of creation. Never before in human history has it mattered so much to be co-creators and not co-destroyers.

That is the critical, urgent choice we all must make, individually, communally, nationally and across humankind.

 

*JTree.global is a project of Eco Synagogue, which is supported across all the denominations and has had strong backing from our community.

The ultimate ‘thank you’ and ‘please’

It’s before dawn on this half-moon morning of Hoshana Rabba, the great Hoshana, with its closing prayers of the High Holydays before the Torah year starts again from the beginning with Bereshit, the wonder of creation.

It’s a day of two simple phrases: modeh, thank you, and ana, please.

This year I feel more than just an ordinary thank you for enabling us to celebrate this season together. I’m aware how that ‘together’ has been diminished over these months of anxiety for all and loss for many. Although it’s over a decade ago, I think of my father. Each year we would meet early on Hoshana Raba and go to pray together. I miss him and appreciate how much more intensely so many miss those who, scarcely moments back, stood by their side.

I have many thank you’s.

Thank you to my community; to the leaders who spent hours every day thinking through in detail how to stand safely together as a community before God; thank you to everyone who phoned, wrote and took gifts so that we could try to forget no one as we wished each other a good new year; thank you to all who wrote, edited, and produced special editions of our prayers; thank you to each person who learnt new melodies and lead us in synagogue; thank you to everyone who helped stream these unique services by sharing the skills learnt from zoom Shabbat which, though not quite within the remit of the rabbis, enable so many people to feel comforted and strengthened in spirit through these lonely months.

Thank you to God for first light and the birds now singing like the psalmist ‘I awake the dawn’. Thank you for life itself, which, since the pandemic has brought mortality closer, feels more precious than ever.

And the ‘please’. It’s the please said over and again in today’s prayers. It’s a ‘please’ to God: ‘Ana hoshi’a naPlease save us.’ It’s an impassioned ‘please’ to each other and ourselves, because the fate of the earth is not simply in God’s hands. We have agency and power to do what is just, compassionate and urgent. Please ‘save humankind and the animals; save body, soul and spirit; save this beauty as transient as breath.’ Make us to do everything possible for our beleaguered world.

Please teach us and our leaders across the globe that we have obligations to justice. Don’t make us inured to the cruelty and inequality which afflict our societies, to the worry of millions who face losing their jobs, who struggle to have food for the family, whose children go to school hungry if classes are open, and have no access to study if they are not.

Please save this tevel hamesuyamah, this beautiful world. Make us and the decision-makers across society respect the land and water, plants and animals, fields, forests and the very air which keep us alive. Don’t let us destroy this wonderful world or any of the species with which we share the intricate bonds of life which alone enable us to survive. Command us from inside our conscience to be faithful to the future, so that we practise no more hurt.

Please place us on the side of life. Please, God, seal us, and help us seal each other and our world in the book of life.

 

 

Succah and Solidarity

The rain descends noisily; throughout the dry summer I longed for that sound. But there’s still so much to be done to finish the Succah!

Yet we can never complete the most important part of the Succah, even in the best of weathers: uphros aleinu succat shelomecha, that God should spread over everyone the canopy of peace. For this we can only pray, and make what contribution we can.

I understood that canopy of peace from a different angle yesterday, when I was taken (virtually) to visit the Little Squares of Hope Succah at JW3.

The sides of that Succah are lined with quilts composed of small squares of fabric, each of which contains a drawing or embroidery by a refugee. Together they provide vivid testimony of what it means today to be a homeless wanderer, to ‘dwell in booths’, cross hostile deserts, traverse waters in which you know you may drown, and to have no decent shelter over one’s head. One square shows two children standing before the sea, staring at a tiny boat. In another there is a young girl; over her head is a single word, ‘Bye’.

How urgently these tempest-tossed lonely young lives need shelter, safe physical space, warm heart space and space for hope for a better future. Covid has made everything many times harder still for refugees. We must do what we can for so many people whose desert is not only the literal wilderness they have crossed, as our ancestors traversed Sinai and the Negev, but the loneliness and hopelessness of our cities.

The fate of so many refugees, and the cause which forced them to leave their homelands in the first place, is bound together with an even greater question of destiny to which the succah directs our attention. With its leaky, wind-shaken roof of branches, it represents not just the vulnerability of human life, but the fragility of our bond with nature.

The succah calls us out of our keva, our supposedly fixed and permanent home, into the ara’i, the temporary space of a mere shelter. In post-biblical times, succahs were made from the prunings of the vineyards and the stalks of the corn fields, then decorated with fruits, flasks of wine and sacks of flour. Many of us today hang the produce of our gardens and allotments, – apples, gourds, the last of the runner beans. The purpose is to reminds us of beauty and humility, the gifts of nature and our utter dependence on them.

If we want to be protected in our succah, we need to protect the earth which offers us that protection. In the words of Albert Einstein, we need to free ourselves from the delusion that we are separate from nature and ‘widen our circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of Nature in its beauty.’ The succah invites us into the physical and spiritual space which represents that change. It is at once frightening, humbling, beautiful and inspiring.

One might have thought that the succah, unsafe in strong winds and unable to keep out the rain, would be the last place to asks guests. Yet it is the ancient tradition to summon our ancestors with the Aramaic invitation ‘Ullu, Ullu – come, come,’ before welcoming contemporary visitors.

For, paradoxically, in its very frailty the succah calls for the greatest solidarity, with humankind, and with all living things with whom we hope to share God’s protection.

 

 

Kol Nidrei 5781

We stand tonight, apart in person, but close in spirit.

We stand in reflection and prayer, with wounds from loss, scars of illness, and anguish about the future.

We stand before the God of atonement, healing and forgiveness.

But healing begins with truth. Therefore, accountability is at the heart of Yom Kippur.

In a post-fact world, when lies are promulgated from high places, and the loudest shouting on social media often wins, when a spreading culture of shamelessness has as its motto ‘If you can get away with it it’s OK,’ Yom Kippur summons us before the God of truth.

Eyn nistar minegged einecha – Nothing is hidden from Your eyes

I don’t believe in an x-ray God who keeps a record of our every sin. I do believe that, somehow, I am known by the God of life, whose presence is in all living being. I am answerable to life.

Accountability begins at home. In my heart of hearts I want to be known. In the editing room of memory, when I hear myself say ‘It wasn’t me. So-and-So made me do it. I was only…’ a deeper voice calls, ‘And the truth?’ Honesty and remorse sting, but I must welcome them, so that my past can help me grow.

We are accountable not just in private, but to society. Seeing others go to foodbanks, make masks, bake for hospitals, hearing Marcus Rashford use his iconic status for so much good, puts the question: ‘And you? What are you contributing?’ The God of justice cries out.

We are accountable before nature. One sacred spirit flows through all living being. The plundered forests and poisoned earth accuse us. Mary Colwell wrote in Curlew Moon that sometimes it was only when she pointed it out that people realised they hadn’t heard the haunting cries of these birds for decades. They hadn’t noticed the silence, so were silent. If we too are mute, inactive bystanders before its devastation, we share the guilt for the ruination of our planet.

Above all, we are accountable to our children. We were born into a complex but wonderful world, leant us by the future. Isn’t it our duty to keep it safe for our children’s children?

We are answerable for failing to protest wrong. As we mourn Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we recognise that we must fight for integrity and accountability not just in our conscience but in the public square.

Otherwise Lady Macbeth’s repost that no one will dare call her murderer because ‘none can call our power to account,’ the by-word of tyranny through the ages will, become the strapline of our time. The world can’t afford this.

Accountability, in contrast, is the foundation of integrity. Integrity is the basis of responsibility. Responsibility is the grounds of healing and hope.

The challenges ahead are many.

Therefore may our Torah of justice, compassion and dignity bring us strength.
May the dedication of our ancestors and teachers strengthen us, who strove to be faithful to these principles, and stand with us now in worlds beyond time.
May the beauty of our prayers fill our hearts with strength.
May we find strength in each other, and solidarity in our neighbourhoods and communities.
May we take strength from our very responsibilities which give us purpose and dignity.
May our children, our commitment for the future strengthen our resolve.

So may this be a year of healing;
a year of integrity and truth in our conscience, communities and public squares;
a year of lovingkindness and care, awareness and social justice;
a year of moral and spiritual imagination;
a year for reshaping our societies, rewilding our lands and restoring the earth for all life.

May God’s inspiration and guidance help us turn the spirit of humanity from anguish and fear into determination and hope.

Leshanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah.

 

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