What God says

A dreamer’s Shavuot message for a troubled world.

We say every day in the morning prayers that the world is illumined berachamim, by mercy and love. Wendell Berry, writer, devoted Christian, farmer and environmentalist so committed that, on principle, he ploughs his land only with horses, puts it like this:

I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, in so far as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love.

I so much want to agree. But the world doesn’t appear to be like that. To take just one example, (alongside so many issues about which we justly worry) the displaced family from Kharkiv have just marked one year since they fled Ukraine and came to live with us. With no sign of the war abating, we wondered how to mark the day. (The region was bombed the night before.) I made them their favourite cheese scones, small compensation, and we commiserated.

So it doesn’t exactly feel as if the world in its current state ‘subsists and coheres’ through love. But about this there can be no doubt: that the world, each of us, all of us, everything alive, has much need of love.

Therefore, that’s how I want to hear God’s voice in the Ten Commandments, which we will read tomorrow in all synagogues in every land and across all denominations. A beautiful Mishnah teaches that God didn’t just say ‘I am’ once long ago on Mount Sinai. God says this every day, calling out for us to attend. And God’s ‘I am’ is more than just a pronoun followed by a verb. The words are an appeal: ‘Hear me, care for me, love me.’

But where do we hear those words? To the mystics, the Kabbalists and Hasidim, the answer is simple: in everything. The voice of the living God is the essence of life in all its forms, the very heart of existence.

Therefore, when we think of children, especially perhaps children faced with extra struggles, such as finding a safe country, being given a safe home, having the right teachers who understand their gifts as well as their needs, we can hear within them the voice which says ‘Look after me, cherish me, love me.’

When we consider people facing the hard years toward the close of a long life’s journey, the physical limitations, the indignities which age can bring, the loss of friends, we can feel in their presence the voice which says, ‘Be gently with me, respect me, care for me.’ And so often we can see that voice embodied in those precious, remarkable carers who, day in and day out, night in and night out, truly care.

When we read the statistics of declining species, yet learn of the work of those determined groups who restore habitats, clean rivers, watch nests, save toads from busy A-roads, and know how to discern the music of one small songbird from another; there, too, we can hear God’s voice saying ‘I am’ in all the innumerable languages of creation.

But isn’t this all mere sentiment, when we’re told that God’s voice is commandment, a firm ‘Thou shalt’?

Not so! What greater commandment can there be than to live with love of creation, in whatever sphere of life we can best express it?

Therefore, may this be a year of listening, and responding, to God’s great commandment, God’s patient, enduring, long-suffering, pleading ‘I am.’

Be on the side of life

These two times ‘I’ may be all the world needs. The first is ‘I am’ and the second is ‘I shall.’ But beyond them waits a third, the terrible sentence of Cain.

The first anochi, ‘I am,’ is the opening word of the Ten Commandments, which we will read next Friday morning on Shavuot, the Festival of the Giving of the Torah. The description of the scene at Sinai moves me greatly, the cloud over the mountain, the rising cry of the shofar, the voice of God from nowhere and everywhere, saying Anochi, ‘I’.

When they heard that ‘I am,’ wrote Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger, (1847 – 1905) when they experienced that ‘I am your God’, not just the Children of Israel but every living being felt it was addressed directly to them. More than that, they felt it was them, the voice at the very core of them, the holiness in the essence of all life.

Those simple words ‘I am your God’ say something deeper than the divine equivalent of ‘Look, this is me!’ They are not really words at all, but the translation into human language of a truth at the centre of all existence. They are vitality itself, the very articulation of the sacred energy which flows through all organic beings, giving them form, life, consciousness and the gift of time.

Therefore, the presence of God, – perhaps it’s less daunting to call it the sacred, the special, -can be felt in all things, in our fellow human beings, in our companion creatures on this earth, in the trees, in meadows, in a tiny flowering plant, even an insect.

This is the first, and most definitive, ‘I am,’ the life of all life.

The second anochi, ‘I’, is what Judah says to his father Jacob to persuade him to entrust Benjamin to his care and allow him to go with his brothers back down to Egypt to buy grain and stave off starvation. Anochi e’ervenu, he says, ‘I shall stand surety for him.’ (Bereshit 43:9) Send the boy with me; I’ll look after him.

I hear about that second anochi almost every day, and often witnessed with my own eyes: ‘I’ll commit to that,’ ‘I’ll take care.’ They’re simple words, but what they represent is not so easy, a combination of awareness, kindness, and the readiness to take responsibility.

I saw only part of the film Mo Farah is making about his life. Alongside those who trafficked him to the UK and enslaved him in domestic service were those who heard him, listened and strove to protect and love him. ‘I’ll stand surety for him,’ they said.

We hold innumerable lives in our hands. The great question, the issue which will define the future of humanity, is whether we can say ‘I’ll stand up for you,’ and mean it truly. That ‘you’ may be a child. But it may also be an orphaned or mal-treated animal, a local park, a meadow. I’ve met people who treasure the tiniest creatures, looking after with wonder. What matters is that we are on the side of life, engaged in heart, practical in our care.

These two words, God’s ‘I am’ and our answer ‘I shall’, may be all we need to find our path through life.

But against them, louring, is a third anochi, the ‘Am I?’ of Cain: ‘Hashomer achi anochi? Am I my brother’s keeper?’ He’s the prototype of those treacherous perpetrators who stalk our future with their byline: Why should I care who I hurt or kill?

That’s why it matters absolutely, always to be on the side of life.

Who’s heard of Rainbow Day?

If you have never heard of Rainbow Day, you’re not alone. I learn of it for the first time just this week, in a note from Rabbi David Seidenberg. He describes himself as a neo-hasid, a modern mystic, and is passionately concerned for nature, attitudes I 100% share.

There are more than 365 (or even 366) ‘days’ in the year. There are days devoted to almost every area of human concern, and to numerous species of animals, birds and even insects. So what is Rainbow Day and how did it begin?

I’d assumed it must have secular origins, like so many ‘societies for the protection of…’ (even one, I’m told, for the appreciation of dandelions, though this may be a tease.) But I would be wrong. In fact, the source is in the Torah: ‘In the 2nd month, on the 27th day, the earth dried out,’ and Noah, his family and all the animals were finally able to leave the ark and re-establish life on earth. (Bereshit 8:14)

This year the 27th of Iyyar, (the 2nd month in the Hebrew calendar) falls next week, on the night of the 17th / 18th May.

I’ll certainly be marking the date. For, as Rabbi Seidenberg writes, it’s ‘a chance to reflect on the deep spiritual and religious meaning of diversity, creation, and our role as part of creation and partners with God.’ This matters urgently, both in human society and nature.

It’s not just because I’m Jewish that I understand viscerally the importance of societies which don’t just tolerate but respect and celebrate diversity. But being a Jew has made me skin-thin sensitive to this essential concern. Additionally, hosting refugees from Iran, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Somalia has made me look at the world in new and challenging ways. It’s brought the truths of injustice, hatred and cruelty closer. It’s made me realise what a proper meal, a bottle of water, a hand in friendship can mean.

I agree with the government that the merciless exploitation of refugees by traffickers is a vicious wrong. But I admire the Archbishop of Canterbury for bluntly speaking truth to power in calling the proposed immigration bill morally unacceptable, a slur on Britain’s reputation and a threat to international cooperation in supporting refugees from war, famine, and persecution. We need safe, legal and justly administered routes for people seeking asylum. That’s fundamental to being a decent country in a rainbow world.

As a rabbi I have the privilege of listening to many people: this has sensitised me to the importance of Rainbow Day in other ways too. If the doors of our community spaces, homes and hearts are open only to those who are so-called ‘normative’, be that gender-normative, neuro-normative, or indeed physical body ‘normative,’ (I use these words with trepidation) we leave a lot of people outside and cause much pain.

Talking about ‘outside’ takes me to the other half of Rainbow Day: anxiety, hope and care for the natural world. When I think of this my heart, like Wordsworth’s, ‘leaps up’.

I’ve always loved animal. Once scared of birds, I’ve learnt to love them too. I watch eagerly for the jays and woodpeckers, the long-tailed tits and occasional grey-blue nuthatch. I’ve understood that insects matter and treasure log-piles for beetles. Life on earth starts here.

But then my heart shrinks back, confronted with what we humans do to our diverse world. As Rabbi Seidenberg writes, ‘The Torah teaches that God has promised never to flood the Earth again. But that doesn’t mean humanity can’t’ – and won’t.

Therefore I want to remain a tree-planter, meadow-lover, and carer for both people and animals to my dying day. That’s why I’ll say my first-timer shehecheyanu thanksgiving blessing this Rainbow Day and henceforth mark it always.

On the Coronation as King Charles III and Queen Camilla

On this day of their coronation, we ask God to bless King Charles III and Queen Camilla.

Through the millennia Jews have lived under many rulers. The Hebrew Bible and rabbinic writings in the Mishnah and Talmud testify to the experiences of being subject to Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. Through the Middle Ages and into the modern era we have suffered oppression under many cruel leaders and been blessed by the enlightened policies of some who were benign. But scarcely ever have we been settled in a country which has offered such deep equality, opportunity, justice and protection as Britain, ruled by a democratically elected government, under the constitutional monarchy of the House of Windsor.

Queen Elizabeth II was greatly admired for her unfailing dedication to service, her self-discipline and dignity and, despite the wealth and privilege of royalty, her personal humility. Many in the long queues to pay tribute commented that her heir would continue in the same manner.

During his years as Prince of Wales, King Charles showed a deep commitment to core values: to the environment, following his father the Duke of Edinburgh; in the welfare of refugees, exemplified in his sustained support for the welcome centre for Ukrainian people displaced by the war; and to the wellbeing of the different faith groups of this multi-cultural country.

Influenced, perhaps, by the example of his grandmother Princess Alice, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, King Charles has been constant in his support of the Jewish community as this message to him and Queen Camilla from World Jewish Relief testifies:

We are grateful for Their Majesties’ remarkable friendship to the Jewish community, and particularly for the 8 years the former Prince of Wales has spent as [our] committed and actively engaged Royal Patron. 

King Charles will say the following words, with their universal vision, within the Christian context of his coronation service at Westminster Abbey:

Grant that I may be a blessing to all thy children, of every faith and conviction, that together we may discover the ways of gentleness and be led into the paths of peace.

We are fortunate to live in a country whose King and Queen aspire to live by such a creed. We are grateful for this privilege and pray that these should be the values at the heart of all leadership.

From Psalm 72 (Verses which will be read at the Abbey)

אֱֽ-לֹקים מִ֭שְׁפָּטֶיךָ לְמֶ֣לֶךְ תֵּ֑ן וְצִדְקָתְךָ֥ לְבֶן־מֶֽלֶךְ׃

יָדִ֣ין עַמְּךָ֣ בְצֶ֑דֶק וַעֲנִיֶּ֥יךָ בְמִשְׁפָּֽט׃

יִשְׂא֤וּ הָרִ֓ים שָׁ֘ל֥וֹם לָעָ֑ם וּ֝גְבָע֗וֹת בִּצְדָקָֽה׃

יִשְׁפֹּ֤ט עֲֽנִיֵּי־עָ֗ם י֭וֹשִׁיעַ לִבְנֵ֣י אֶבְי֑וֹן וִ֖ידַכֵּ֣א עוֹשֵֽׁק׃

יִֽפְרַח־בְּיָמָ֥יו צַדִּ֑יק וְרֹ֥ב שָׁ֝ל֗וֹם עַד־בְּלִ֥י יָרֵֽחַ׃

Give the king your judgements, O God, and your righteousness to princes. Then shall he judge your people righteously and your poor with justice. Let the mountains produce well-being for the people, the hills, the reward of justice. May he defend the poor among the people, deliver the children of the needy and crush the oppressor. In his time shall righteousness flourish, and abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.

Prayer for the King and Queen

God of all life, Sovereign over all sovereigns, bless King Charles III and Queen Camilla on their coronation. Give them wisdom, compassion and insight, health, fortitude and resilience. Strengthen in them the spirit of service and commitment to all that is just. Grant them length of days and the happiness which comes from dedication to what is right and good.

May their hearts be open to the many and different needs of all the peoples of these lands. May they continue to support all those who seek to do good for human society and for all life. May they uphold the values of justice, freedom, equality and democracy according to which this country has been and must be governed.

May they, in the spirit of Aaron, love and seek peace. May they be guided, as the Torah commands, by awe and humility before God and by the love of God’s creation.

And let us say ‘Amen.’

 

The Prayer for the Country

המנוןאנגליה – The National Anthem

By Yoav Oved and David Djemal – New London Synagogue

מֶלֶךְחֵןשְׁמוֹר-נָאאֵ’

מֶלֶךְהוֹדנְצֹרהָ-אֵ’

שָׁמְרֵהוּאֵ’.

הַמַּשִּׁילָהגְּבוּרָתוֹ

וְנֶצַחתִּפְאַרְתּוֹ

הַאֲרֵךְמַלְכוּתוֹ

שָׁמְרֵהוּאֵ’:

 

Melekh khen sh’mor-na El

Melekh hod n’tsor haEl

Shom’rehu El.

Hamshila g’vurato

V’netsakh tifarto

Ha’arekh malchuto

Shom’rehu El:

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