Taking a ‘can do’ approach

I’m a Radio 4 fan, though usually just a casual listener catching parts of programmes while I’m driving along. (Except when Nicola Solomon [my wife] was on Money Box Live) That’s how last Sunday I heard the tail-end of a transmission about food in Birmingham.

Surplus food which would otherwise be wasted is brought to three recently created cafes; the chefs ‘menu on their feet,’ working out instantly what to cook with whatever arrives. There are plans to supplement supplies with grow-your-own vegetables and fruit on raised beds and allotments.

Meals are offered on a pay-as-you-feel basis. ‘I couldn’t afford lunch if it wasn’t for here,’ one frequenter said. ‘It’s company,’ said an older customer, ‘Without here, I’d speak to no-one all day.’

The project is social, environmental, communal; it’s creative, kind and not too complicated; it fights poverty, food-waste, climate change and loneliness. It’s graciously run, but with vision and determination. What more can one ask?

It left me thinking about just one word from the Torah, vehitchazaktem. It translates literally as ‘you [plural] strengthen yourselves’ and loosely as ‘build up each other’s morale’. It’s what Moses tells the spies to do when they pace out the Promised Land. It’s also precisely what they fail at. In fact, they do the exact opposite, dragging each other down.

I also recently learnt from Radio 4 that roughly 12% less people listen to the news these days; it’s too miserable. They don’t want to know. I can’t blame them; I admit, I can only take it in small doses. We need to know what’s happening in the world, especially in our own society. We have a responsibility to be aware. But that doesn’t make it a mitzvah to destroy our morale.

That’s where vehitchazaktem, ‘strengthen yourselves’,comes in. When I began to research the word, I was sure I’d find a creative Hasidic commentary. But I’ve drawn a blank, so I’m on my own.

The meanings of chazak, strong, are not always positive. Pharaoh strengthens and hardens his heart. The Children of Israel, too, have been known to take an obstinate stand against God. Strong can also mean stubborn, which isn’t always a good thing. Openness, flexibility and the readiness to be mistaken are important virtues.

But here vehitchazaktem is definitely positive: ‘strengthen each other’, ‘take a collective can-do approach.’ That’s the attitude we so badly need just now. It’s what I loved about that radio programme: it didn’t only talk about economic crisis, food poverty and climate emergency. It showcased what can be done, and how enjoyable it can be too.

Moses’ spies go in the other direction. They convince each other that they’re useless. ‘We were like insects in our own eyes,’ they say. It’s easy to blame them. But in these difficult times, we also can easily succumb to the feeling that nothing we do will make any difference and that quickly becomes a self-fulfilling truth.

It’s for precisely that reason that it’s so important to draw inspiration from the remarkable initiatives so many people are engaging in, and to go and do likewise.

But is it worth it? Will whatever project we create or join save the world? That’s when we need Rabbi Tarfon’s advice: ‘it’s not your responsibility to complete the work, but that doesn’t leave you free to opt out.’

‘Will it be enough?’ is also not the most helpful question. The real issue is: what good can you and I encourage each other to do together, to the best of our combined abilities? It won’t change the whole world on its own, but who knows who else it might inspire?

Seeing our own reflection: a Jewish version of Narcissus

I’ve been struck all week by a story from the Talmud. It’s told by Simon the Just. No one knows exactly when he lived, but folklore has him welcoming Alexander the Great to Jerusalem in the 4th century BCE.

One day there came to him ‘a man from the south, with beautiful eyes, good-looking, his hair finely arranged in curls.’ But he wanted to cut it all off and renew his vows as a Nazirite:

I asked him, ‘Why do you want to destroy this beautiful hair?’ He said, ‘I was shepherding my father’s flocks and went to draw water. When I saw my reflection in the stream, desire almost got the better of me…But I said to it: ‘Empty-head! Why be so proud in a world which isn’t yours, where your end will be worms?’ (Talmud, Nazir 4b)

The story initially reminded me of Hamlet’s advice to the actors who visit Elsinore on the purpose of art:

to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. (Act 3, Scene 2)

I can’t be the only one who can think of a lot of people in positions of power who could do with looking carefully at their own features.

But the first person who needs to consider their reflection is always our own self. It’s not just water which can show us our image. Being with refugees has made me see myself in different ways. (Next week is refugee week) I was going to hold my wife’s hand during bensching, the grace after meals, as I often do. Then I wondered: but the Ukrainian women at the table are worrying all day long about their husbands stuck in the fighting. Might I be breaking the rabbinic rule of lo’eg larash, mocking the poor, understood metaphorically as insensitively doing something in the presence of another person who’s prevented by circumstances or disability from doing the same?

Then a young man from Somalia said, when I offered him more food, ‘Crossing the desert I got used to eating once in two days.’ I saw in that moment how much I take my plenty for granted. I wondered what I must look like in his eyes, and felt ashamed.

What do we do when we see our own reflection in such ways?

That’s when I realised that the Talmudic story is in fact a Jewish version of the myth of Narcissus.

Narcissus fails to requite the love of the broken-hearted mountain nymph Echo. Taking Echo’s part, the goddess Nemesis punishes Narcissus for his callousness by making him fall in love with his own reflection in the water which, in some versions, he leans forward to kiss and is drowned.

It’s a powerful metaphor for humanity today. Here we are, looking at our own image: are we so in love with ourselves in our anthropocentric universe that all we can see are our own power, skills, achievements and desires? If so, we are liable to fall beneath the spell of Nemesis.

Or do we say like the young man who comes before Simon the Just: what am I doing on this earth which isn’t mine, where I’m a temporary resident, a passer-through and pilgrim? What can I contribute? How can I serve? What good can I achieve for the children and the future of this world?

Listening, just listening

‘You weren’t listening, were you?’ I still remember from childhood the sound of that admonishment. I wonder if there is a child anywhere who was never reprimanded by their parent or teacher for that fault. Yet I must have listened to something, because the words have strangely stuck. I still hear them from deep down, ‘You haven’t listened, have you?’ accompanied by an intuitive unease that there’s something I’ve missed and that this ‘something’ may have been the real point.

A scene dwells in my conscience. Years ago, someone came to talk to me. It felt in the moment like an adequate communication; I remember responding to the questions I was asked with what seemed like appropriate suggestions. But I felt, rather I knew, as this person left the room that they were still carrying in their heart the burden of something unsaid. It wasn’t something obvious; I hadn’t cut them off in mid flow. It was rather that, if I had left a little more space, enabled a better attuned silence, something might have become clearer to the heart, whether formulated in words or not. That scene remains for me an inner chastisement.

Perhaps that’s why the opening word of Judaism’s best-known meditation is that single word, shema, listen. Yes, it’s the prelude to a theological assertion, that God is one. But it is also far more than that, or perhaps it is the essence of that: Listen, just listen, and you will hear. Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leb of Ger, known as the Sefat Emet, wrote just that about the opening words of the second paragraph of the Shema with their emphatic repetition, im shamoa tishme’u, – ‘if you listen you will surely hear.’

I don’t believe this is solely about listening to people, though that is endlessly important. How many individuals are there who would wish to communicate to us how life presses in on the quick of their soul, if they felt we would actually hear?

I believe that appeal to listen applies to the whole of life, to all of the living, breathing world too. A beautiful midrash teaches that in the beginning “the spirit that lives in the trees and nature conversed with humankind, for all beings in nature were created for mutual companionship with people.” (Bereshit Rabbah 13:2)

I don’t take this as sentimental nostalgia for some long-lost ancient Esperanto. Rather, I think it’s why, when the heart is sore, we so often seek the companionship of green spaces, the solace of woodland or seashore, and find quiet comfort in how the waves, or the trees, or the flow of the stream, commune without words with the soul.

I believe, too, that if we listened more, we would be humbled more, and would conduct our lives more heedfully and wisely. We would cause less hurt. Our heart would know more, and to know is often to respect, to cherish, even to love.

When, as we read this Shabbat, after all the rituals and formalities Moses finally enters the Tent of Meeting, he overhears God speaking and feels himself addressed. In truth, the whole world is a tent of meeting and there are a thousand ways in which we might overhear God’s speech.

Perhaps that sounds off-putting, too formal, too theological. I think of it simply as listening to creation, beginning with whatever it is we care about most on this particular day: that child, that birdsong. It’s not a listening with the ears, but in the heart. Then what we apprehend is not just that person, those unspoken words, that music, that blackbird, but something beyond all language as well, a welcome, a oneness which embraces us too as listening becomes presence, a togetherness with life’s heart.

Not just then but now – from where God is speaking

As we approach Shabbat and the festival of Shavuot, we simultaneously honour our Sovereign Queen Elizabeth II, and the Sovereign of the sovereign of sovereigns, our God.

Her Majesty the Queen has, through her unstinting devotion to duty and service, represented stability and dedication over seventy years in which the world has changed at an unprecedented rate. During her long reign, the Jewish community, alongside other faiths, has been able to flourish in an environment of peace and respect. It has often been acknowledged for its contribution to this country in the arts, sciences, education and business, and above all for its focus on charity and care.

We have only to look back through our history, or round about us to many other lands, to know how lucky we are to be living in this country. We wish Her Majesty strength on her remarkable Platinum Jubilee; we hope she finds joy and satisfaction in her many achievements.

The queen has modelled that very sense of service which lies at the core of Judaism, – the service of God. Those words ‘the service of God’ may sound leaden with piety. So how do we translate them into our lives?

Over three thousand years of Jewish life, the most significant truth has not been that long ago God once spoke at Mount Sinai and gave us the Torah. Rather, the essential inner reality is that God speaks all the time and that life is a continuous revelation, as the rabbis taught, ‘Every day a voice calls out from Horeb.’ Our task is to hear it.

Brooding over this, the central challenge of all spiritual life, two teachings come into my mind, both from the bleakest period of Jewish history. The first is from Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto:

When you listen intently, you can hear the voice of Torah, the oneness of God, in the chirping of the birds, the lowing of cows and the interactions of people.

He wrote these courageous and defiant words in 1941, very far from the birds and cows to which he refers. He subsequently buried his writings in the grounds of the ghetto; he did not survive to see them rediscovered.

The second teaching comes from Rabbi Hugo Gryn, of beloved memory. I want you to know, he wrote afterwards, that God was present in Auschwitz. But not, he added, the God of my childhood imaginings. God was there, abused and blasphemed.

These two teachings together form the heart, the two pumping valves of my Torah, and guide me through life. They remind me of what the mystics have always understood as the oneness of all things, garbed and concealed within our different material and mental forms. Where there is beauty, peace and joy this oneness sings out in wonder and glory. That is why all life must be cherished, why in William Blake’s words,

A robin redbreast in a cage / Puts all heaven in a rage.

It is the secret of the great togetherness of humankind and all creation.

But it does not follow that where there is suffering, misery, violence and cruelty God must be absent. Rather, the heart and conscience, the holy within life, screams out in pain and outrage. ‘Help me!’ it cries, ‘Bring me justice, decency, kindness, healing!’ To the best of our limited capacities, we have to respond. That is the meaning of being commanded.

These two teachings circumscribe every moment and situation of human life. They are, I believe, God speaking to us, not from afar, not from the remote distance of history and the heights of a mountain top, but from right here, from what’s next to us and within us.

The verse preceding the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus reads: ‘God spoke all these words, saying.’ ‘Spoke’ refers to the historical-mythical revelation at Sinai. ‘Saying’ is here, now, at all times and to us all.

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