I dressed in haste this morning, trying not to lose track of an elusive voice. The Zohar teaches that when the darkness of night begins to wane, the spirit of hesed, lovingkindness, hovers over the world and whispers into our dreaming minds. On blessed mornings we wake up not with the shock of ‘Oh my God, another day!’ but touched by something gentle but compelling, urgent yet benign, some spirit or instruction from worlds beyond.
This voice had been strong in the half-dream from which the early light woke me. But it receded swiftly. It hovered at the corner of my consciousness before vanishing, taking with it something essential it wanted to tell me from some other realm.
All I could retain was that this was about caring for life. The half-dream was specific. But all I could retain was this generality, and the sensation that something had touched my heart which I didn’t know how to retrieve.
‘Be for life.’ It sounds so banal. But on a single-track road in Scotland we stopped the car because a toad was squatting on the tarmac. Nicky got out, took a photo, then gently moved the creature into the safety of the grass verge. The remarkable thing was that the driver in the car behind didn’t hoot. She waited, understood.
This reminded me of a scene from when I was seven or eight, next to my father in the car. He braked because a duck was leading her ducklings in slow procession across the busy Finchley Road up to the ponds in Golders Hill Park. ‘What if someone else won’t stop?’ I asked him. ‘Who would be so cruel?’ he replied.
I know I’m sentimental, but I don’t care for animals at the cost of caring for people. We’re all part of life together.
Maybe that voice, reduced to this generality ‘Be for life!’ came to me because of a conversation yesterday with our family from Ukraine. ‘I want to go home,’ said the grandmother, ‘but they’ve bombed the railway station.’ The mother gestured the outlines of a pincer movement: maybe the Russian Army will cut Kharkiv off. What is there left to say?
I sometimes fear we’re in a vehicle with some uncontrollable, manic driver who doesn’t know how, or maybe, I think in my worst moments, doesn’t really even try, to find the brakes.
But I know something else at least as well; that an immeasurable tenderness interpenetrates with life, despite its manifest cruelties and endless injustices; that this spirit of lovingkindness calls out constantly to the heart in the community of people and the ceaseless intercommunications of non-human life, and through the wordless communion of the spirit which hovers over the earth.
‘Be for life’ is the voice of our Rosh Hashanah prayers: ‘Remember us for life; Our father and mother, our sovereign, inscribe us for life.’
More importantly, it’s there in our prayers every day. The morning service opens with two short reflections I love. The first is a reminder: gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness are of limitless value. The second is a recall: ‘My God, the soul you have given me is pure.’
We belong to a spirit whose ethos is profoundly other than ‘me and mine’, than ‘I don’t care who this hurts.’ Life flows into us from somewhere, some reservoir, some being or consciousness, which fills the heart with pity and love.