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.’