To the leaders of the G7

Something has been haunting me this dawn. It’s connected to the G7, but it’s not about politics.

So that you remember:’ I woke with these words searching my head like torchlights. But what were they looking for? ‘Remember!’ Remember what? It was like one of those discomfiting moments when you can’t recall a familiar name; you know that you know it, but it remains obstinately irretrievable behind a barrier of unforthcoming brain cells.

Except that it wasn’t a name I was after. It was a spirit, an awareness, that sense ‘of something far more deeply interfused’ of which Wordsworth writes, which sometimes visits the soul in the pre-dawn, holding a hushed conversation in semi-comprehensible associations, like a friend from the old days who turns up unpredictably from nowhere, mysterious but benign, then vanishes.

Lema’an tizkeru – So that you remember:’ the words come from the Torah and form the core of the third part of the Shema, Judaism’s twice daily meditation:

So that you remember and do my commandments; then you shall be holy to your God. (Bemidbar 15:40)

Usually, it’s something specific we’re told to remember, an event or a date. But this ‘remember’ has no object, as if to say ‘remember everything’ – and the purpose beyond everything. This thought reminds me of how a person I scarcely knew once turned to me as I stood watching the river in Cambridge forty years ago: ‘Never forget why you’re here in this world,’ he said. ‘Don’t ever forget that you belong to something higher which you have to serve.’ His words stuck in my soul.

I’m one of a group of religious leaders who were invited to offer a short video message at last night’s multi-faith service in Truro Cathedral for the leaders of the G7. I don’t know if they actually attended, but our instruction was to talk values to power, to speak climate justice, vaccine justice and our duties to the destitute.

We were asked to give voice to a call to awareness, beyond machination and advantage, self-interest and the need for profit; to bring to mind that spirit, sacred and universal, to which all power owes allegiance.

Each faith addresses it in a unique manner, but it is ultimately one. Even God is only a name, a word in human language, for that oneness, all-present and all-pervading, manifest in everything, yet hidden in everything, to which we are summoned to devote our service and allegiance.

Bringing it to mind is not sufficient. We have to act on what it tells us to do. ‘Va’asitem et kol mitzvotai – then do my commandments,’ the Torah continues. The voice which speaks in private to the heart is at the same time the most powerful, unremitting, non-negotiable demand for action: do justice; be compassionate; discipline yourself; know your responsibilities; align yourself with creation.

The world looks intently to those in power, as it will again at COP 26, to exercise their influence humbly but urgently, according to the demands of sacred wisdom.

Ve’heyitem kedoshim – then you shall be holy to your God,’ the Torah concludes. God is called Chei HaChaim, the life of life, the life force within all existence.

We can quash individual lives, human or animal, but we can never crush that life within life. If, on the contrary, we conduct ourselves and the affairs of our communities and countries in harmony with it, it will guide us, strengthen us, partner with us, and bring us and the world its blessings.

We touch each other’s lives – for injury or blessing?

It was a beautiful place, out near Denham, northwest of London. We stood beneath a canopy of copper leaves, with wildflowers and rhododendrons. It was exactly the kind of ‘melodious plot / Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,’ imagined by Keats in his Ode to a Nightingale, where the birds sing ‘of summer in full-throated ease.’ The group standing around me began a chorus of All Things Bright and Beautiful.

‘Plot’ was sadly the right word, for this was a funeral. I’ve rarely conducted a burial service for a person who wasn’t Jewish. But the woman, who’d died comparatively young, had been married to Graham, a charming man who used to attend my Talmud class and who’d been laid to rest in this same woodland cemetery a decade earlier. The family had traced me, and now we stood together, a small group around the grave, touched by our shared humanity and mortality, and by a quiet sense of partnership with all this life around us. We sang; the birds sang. ‘The Lord God made them all:’ it was at once beautiful and humbling.

We touch each other’s lives all the time, but often don’t know to what effect. Thank goodness, ten years ago I’d evidently not said the wrong thing, inadvertently alienating this family. But I also have moments I look back on with shame: why did I say that? We don’t always know whom we hurt and can’t always make amends. I remember hurrying into a bookshop where another customer asked me for a recommendation. I muttered something about being in a rush. Afterwards, recognising I’d been rude, I went back to apologise, but the person had gone and I’d no idea who it was.

Some lives we touch directly; others we affect remotely, since how we live here impacts on basic realities for people on the other side of the world. Distance doesn’t mean zero responsibility.

Nor is it only human life with which we interact. I often think of Thomas Hardy’s poem Afterwards. He imagines people thinking of him ‘when the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn’ and remembering how ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm.’ How I wish we could strive more effectively for all life to come to no harm, because all life matters, and, albeit in different ways, one spirit flows through us all.

Tomorrow, June 5, is World Environment Day, ‘the United Nations’ principal vehicle for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of the environment’. Looking online, I find Together We Can Be #Generationrestoration.

This media-age twitter-handle paradoxically takes me back to the oldest scene in the Torah, when God entrusts Adam and Eve with the wellbeing of creation. It recalls the rabbis’ explanation of God’s instruction to Abraham to be a blessing:

‘Until now the blessings were in my hands,’ says God; ‘from now on they’re in yours.’

Listening to All Things Bright and Beautiful, sung by a diverse group of people almost all of whom I’d never met before, brought together by the woman we’d laid to rest in this woodland full of life, reminded me of this great trust.

‘The capacity to bless life is in everybody,’ wrote Rachel Remen in My Grandfather’s Blessings:

When we recognise the spark of God in others, we blow on it with our attention and strengthen it, no matter how deeply it has been buried or for how long. When we bless someone, we touch the unborn goodness in them and wish it well.

Each of our lives, and all life, needs that blessing.

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