I love this pre-dawn, pre-rush quiet. I think it’s what Isabel Allende called her ‘witching hour.’ Spirits talk to us from worlds beyond, or maybe they’re really worlds within, our subconscious and soul. Perhaps they always speak, but in this calm it’s easier to hear. Then the roads and emails wake up, and the spirits retreat to hiding places down inside the heart.
This morning I wake with conflicting voices. Until midnight Nicky and I watched America and the Holocaust. It’s outstanding, horrifying, honest, brutal, clear. Superimposed on the pleading letters ‘Let my children in,’ I saw my own family’s handwriting: Trude, deported to Ostrow-Lubelski, setting down desperately ‘Tell them we’re still alive.’ Cruelties unthinkable; wrongs unhealable! I feel cold to the depths of my soul.
Yet something inside me still sings and won’t stop, sings from a very different world. For yesterday, too, I interviewed nature-lover, author and passionate campaigner George Monbiot. ‘I’ve felt more alive ever since,’ he wrote of his experiences in the Amazon. ‘What trees do you like most?’ I asked him. ‘Dead ones,’ he replied, enjoying my surprise. ‘Because they’re not really dead but sustain countless creatures, beetles, birds, small mammals, the seeds of innumerable new lives.’
Here we are, two thirds of the way across the calendar from Holocaust Memorial Day to Tu Bishevat, the New Year of the Trees, which begins this Sunday night. Half my heart is numb; half of it sings.
I sing because I love this world, people, animals, trees, the wren that sat on my windowsill, tiniest of birds, before recommencing its amazingly loud round of songs; the mini-flock of long-tailed tits that chattered around the feeder like congregants at Kiddush; the snowdrops, though I’m no expert on the two hundred varieties as Nicky is; the winter jasmine, wintersweet, mahonia, which reserve their fragrances and flowers for February. How wondrous this world is!
‘What do you need to replenish your spirit?’ I asked a person in mourning earlier this week. ‘I walk for an hour in the woods every day. The trees restore my soul.’
‘The fundamental reason all beings are created,’ wrote Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira
‘is so that they should sing, for in this way they reveal the greatness of God. Every single created being sings… Each and every being reveals a spark of the glory of the God of blessings.’
With a courage, devotion and discipline which are utterly beyond my capacity to imagine, he did not allow even the Nazis and the Warsaw Ghetto to silence his spirit’s song.
The songs of which he wrote are not just melodies of prayer, in heart language; they are no less songs of action, of chesed, deeds of kindness, justice, humanity and defiance. We must not fail to turn our love of the world into action, George Monbiot said to me. We need to sing and help the world sing, in word and deed.
Tomorrow is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. ‘So that my soul shall sing of you and not be silent,’ wrote the Psalmist. Only a person who understands the power of silence could write such words, its deep gravitational draw: How can I speak at all, when cruelty and horror destroy our world? Only a person who loves life could have composed them: How can I be silent when such beauty, tenderness and hope call out to my spirit to sing? ‘Oh God, I give thanks to you!’ (Psalm 30:13)