Would Abraham have protested fracking?

I’ve been following the case of the anti-fracking activists, Simon Roscoe Blevins, Richard Roberts and Richard Loizou. Imprisoned for the offence of public nuisance, they were freed yesterday by the high court, which called their sentence ‘manifestly excessive’. Their crime was to ensconce themselves for days on top of trucks bringing drilling equipment.

Had Abraham our Ancestor been alive today, would there have been four men sent to prison?

There’s a good chance.

Abraham wasn’t a person easily deterred by power. He challenged Pharaoh (albeit after making his wife pretend she was his sister). ‘I thought there was no fear of God in this place’, he declared; which amounts to ‘Do you have any moral boundaries here?’

He went to war to rescue his nephew from pirating armies. He ensured the protection of the well supplying his water, defending his most important environmental asset.

‘Yes, but he did it all from self-interest’, it could be claimed. There’s little such motive in his horrified response when God threatens to destroy in entirety the perverse city of Sodom: ‘How can you annihilate the good alongside the evil? Should the judge of all the earth not do justice?’

Among the legends with which the rabbis embellish the biblical account, three stand out. Abraham defies the tyranny of the ‘mighty hunter’ Nimrod, walking with steady defiance through the ‘fiery furnace’ of all the weaponry unrestrained power has at its disposal.

Impressed with Abraham’s leadership qualities, God calls him not just servant, but officer, ambassador, secretary of state: ‘Walk ahead of me’, God instructs him. Shine a light on the dark pathways God’s presence has to penetrate in this world.

Most famous of all these rabbinic parables is the account of how Abraham found God:

He came upon a palace on fire. ‘How come it’s got no owner?’ he wondered. The owner looked at him and called out: ‘This palace belongs to me’.

I’ve puzzled over this picture for years: what’s the owner doing inside a burning building? ‘Get out, God!’ one wants to say, ‘After all, you’re supposed to be able to do anything.’

Maybe that’s the point. Abraham sees a world on fire with violence and brutality. The God he experiences needs humanity to put it out. God’s message to him is: ‘You and your fellow humans are responsible for the world.’

I worry repeatedly about what that responsibility entails. What does moral and spiritual leadership mean?

When Abraham challenges God about Sodom, the point they agree on is that to save the city requires a minimum number of good people. They argue over the figures: fifty, twenty, ten? But, whatever the case, these decent citizens have to be betoch, ‘in the midst of’, involved in their city. They must be ‘out there’, active, pro-active. If all they do is sit at home with their good ideas, they’re useless.

So I imagine Abraham might have climbed onto the cab of one of those lorries and protested, peacefully, with unshaking commitment.

After all, the world is in flames (and in floods). God is inside it, crying out from all nature and all humanity, ‘Put the fires out!’

 

Contempt for the UN climate report?!

‘Look, daddy, deer!’ Mossy, our son, pointed up to the rocky ridge to where the mountain met the grey sky; there they were, stationary, a whole line of red deer, staring down at us in the thin rain.

There are precious moments in the life of every family and friendship. These are some of mine:

When our daughter Libbi, then aged two, held a conversation with a lamb. The lamb said ‘Me’e’eh’. ‘No, you say “Baaa”’, said Libbi.

When our dog Safi first saw snow; refusing to alight from the train onto this unfamiliar substance, he waited until I had descended, then placed his paws carefully on my shoes.

When Nicky, my wife, touched my arm and mouthed ‘stop’, because a badger was staring at us from five yards away.

It’s a marvellous world. I want my children, all children, and their children, to experience its wonder, to love, care for and cherish it, and discover in its beauty the mystery and awe of the hidden presence of God.

I therefore feel great anguish, impassioned concern for this earth. That is coupled with boiling turmoil little short of fury at the political leaders who show contempt for the numerous scientists across the globe who compiled the UN IPCC report published this week. What right do the heads of state of Australia and America, among others, have to ignore, deride and set short term interests before the future of… simply before the future of anyone or anything? Why are endeavours to protect the huge rainforests of South America, Africa and Indonesia so often entrammelled in local corruption? What can be done?

Then the questions turn into: What can we, what can I do? What influence can we bring to bear and how do we best accomplish this?

There is nothing more urgent than establishing and following the political, technological and moral guidance which will lead us back from the threat of disaster towards a sustainable relationship with the planet on which we all depend.

I know too that I am also part of the problem. So I plan to fly less, use fossil-fuels less and waste less. (I can’t add eat far less meat, as I’m vegetarian already, but I’m committed to eating less dairy.) I will continue to be passionate about planting trees and cherishing the wellbeing of earth, water and air. I welcome guidance on what will enable me to look children, God and even the trees and birds around me in the face without having to turn away in shame.

It takes God just five chapters in the book of Genesis to regret making human beings. The angels warned God, our rabbis explain in a typical moment of phantasy:

‘Don’t do it’, the angels say, ‘humans are full of lies. Don’t do it; they’ll spend their whole time fighting’. ‘While you’ve been busy arguing’, God tells them, ‘I’ve gone and made humans anyway’. (Bereshit Rabbah 8:5)

God defies the angels and instead puts immense trust in us, placing the whole world under our stewardship. But stewardship means respectful care, not simply the application of power. We are yet to prove ourselves fitting for this role.

I respect and love this world, its wonder, beauty, balance, and intricate interdependence. I want it to be there for my children to love, and for their children and children’s children too. I want to conduct myself, and for all humanity to conduct itself, accordingly.

Read Rabbi Wittenberg’s article What can we learn from Noah? published in the Jewish Chronicle this week.

Ode to Wonder; set this on your heart

The Hebrew Bible opens with delight in life. The first chapter of the Torah is a great celebration. Were it a scientific account of the process of creation we would have to find it wanting, absurd. But it’s not; it’s an ode to wonder:

Let there be light, let the partnership of day and night bring dawn and twilight to the gathering waters in seas and rivers and streams. Let sunlight cause the seeds to germinate and rainfall make them grow. Let the sun guide the seasons, the moon rule the tides, and the stars illumine the night.

May there be birds to feed on the fruit-bearing trees and fish in the cold depths of the oceans. May there be deer, secretive and swift; and horses and wolves:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings… (Gerald Manley Hopkins, Pied Beauty)

Created amidst this abundance, human beings are celebrated too. We have the unique responsibility of being formed in God’s image, perceptive, articulate, intelligent, capable of moral discernment, creation and destruction, generosity and love – there is no consensus about what ‘In God’s likeness’ means. Except that, like God, human beings possess inherent kavod, dignity, which we are expected to uphold towards ourselves in all own conduct and honour and respect in all others.

Life is good, not just the first, but every day. The flow of time, evening and morning; the sharing between humans and animals of the fruit of the land and trees; the inter-dependence and overall balance of nature: God looks at it all, blesses it and sees that it is ‘very good’.

God appoints human beings to rule; to do so by means of avodah, – work, respect and reverence, and shemirah, – observation, awareness and nurturing care.

These opening verses are worth laying on our hearts in a world of violence and vulgarity. They are worth remembering in a week when no less a figure than the President of The United States of America mocks, – not just questions, legitimately and fairly, but mocks and derides – the testament of a woman who has come forward with serious allegations against a man who could hold decisive powers for decades, while around him everyone jeers. We should lay them on our hearts when the President of Russia lies and lies again, and the essential tasks of caring for our world are relegated before the vanities of power and ignored.

The mystics teach that God’s speech in creation is not a once-off ‘God said’ pitched in the past tense. It is present and continuous: we can hear it the flow of a stream, the cry of a bird, the whinnying of horses, the intake of our own breath. God’s sacred speech is the vitality which animates all existence, the energy latent in all matter, the potential in all life.

More and more these days, I intuit that voice not just as a statement but a plea: Hear me! Listen to me! Heed me in all nature; honour me in every human life!

We have choices, constantly. We can destroy, or protect and create.

The beginning of Bereshit, the ode to wonder which opens the Hebrew Bible, summons us to stand, with vigilance, urgency, determination, curiosity and joy, on the side of creation.

 

 

 

What the succah and the Walk for Wildlife have in common

I have the privilege of writing in our lovely Succah, the harvester’s hut constructed of beams and poles recovered yearly from their dusty storage to build the frame for our booth of branches and flowers. Above my head, among the bay twigs which compose the Shach, the leafy roofing material which defines a Succah as truly a Succah, hang gourds, peppers, black- and-red-grained sweet corn, pumpkins and even the one and only melon we succeeded in growing this year.

A Succah is a place of joy, beauty and, above all Hallel, praise and thanksgiving:

Thank you for shelter
Thank you for land on which to grow grain, vegetables and fruits
Thank you for the rain and dew fall
Thank you for life.

 In the Succah we ask for a blessing upon the seasons, vistas and scents which form the subliminal rhythm of our existence, those smells of field and mountain, twilight and rainfall, for which every refugee from a once safe homeland longs:

‘There’s nowhere on earth so beautiful as my northern Iran’, says K, who fled for his life from his native country, nevertheless insists.
‘The allotments are full of people from all over the world, growing what they miss from home’, a fellow gardener tells me.

The Succah smells of the beauty and preciousness of the earth. Yet, like the slight bitterness the autumn brings to the misty smells of dawn, the tang of brevity hangs about the Succah and its end-of-season fruits: the unavoidable knowledge that time and destiny leave us uncertain, vulnerable, ignorant of our destiny in our pilgrimage on earth.

Maybe that’s why the prayers on this festival are formed round a key word more powerful even than thanksgiving, more urgent and more poignant: Hoshana, Save!

Save your city, save your people;
Save humankind and the animals;
Save men and women, formed in your image and likeness;
Save the vineyards and sycamore groves;
Save the trees planted in the desolate earth.

I realise now that when last Shabbat I joined the first People’s March for Wildlife, enjoying four and a half hours of cheerful rainfall to catch up with the thousands of demonstrators whose placards filled the mile to Whitehall with calls to save the bees, badgers, bats, trees, owls, nightingales and meadows, I was in fact part of an urgent contemporary Hoshana: Save this beautiful earth.

‘There is a time to plant,’ says Ecclesiastes, (which we read in Synagogue tomorrow) before adding that there is also ‘a time to uproot that which has been planted’. Our world knows too much uprooting, of refugees from their lands and persecuted people from homes where they once felt safe, of sustaining rainforests and rich ancient woodlands, and of the trees which prevent hot lands from turning into uninhabitable deserts.

This is a time to plant, a time to save and protect the lands and trees whose shade and whose fruits sustain us. The Succah reminds me how much I love this world, its landscapes, its fruits, the bronze and red beauty of an apple in the autumn. ‘Save this earth!’ There is no prayer more urgent.

 

 

The Sukkah and ‘not the Sukkah’

There is nothing I enjoy so much after Yom Kippur as going outdoors to build the Sukkah. If the Day of Atonement takes us to the depths and challenges of the inner world, Sukkot leads back out among the leaves and branches to an appreciation of the world of nature and agriculture around us.

Making a Sukkah, (a shelter with at least three walls, a roof of cut branches and leaves, and decorations from the year’s harvest) is the most tangible manifestation of simchah shel mitzvah, joy in the commandments. It’s fun to build and lovely to sit in; it’s a pleasure to share food there with guests.

Thinking about the festival begins early, with the seed catalogues in winter. What can we try to grow for our Succah? This year we have pumpkins, corn, even a small water melon (small really means tiny – it’s slightly larger than a tennis ball).

The Sukkah spans a paradox. It recalls our wanderings, our history of exile and flight, of being ‘of no fixed abode’. More than once refugees have asked me: ‘Can I give your address; I’m hoping for a letter’. Yet the Sukkah also embodies the privilege of having land to grow the fruits ‘of the vine and the fig tree’, wheat, barley and olives (and pumpkins and corn). Perhaps that’s the point: our blessings remind us of what not to take for granted.

The Sukkah also expresses another equally poignant tension. The Mishnah describes living for seven days in the Sukkah as going from our enduring home into a temporary shelter. The physical move probably amounts only to a few metres. But the emotional transition is far greater: from a safe and solid building to a fragile structure, subject to wind, rain and cold; from the assumption of security to the awareness of vulnerability, brevity and dependence.

This takes me to a frightening place. The earth with its fields, farms and forests signifies permanence. After the Flood, God promises that summer and winter, seed-time and harvest-time will never again cease. Generations come and go but ‘the earth remains forever’, says Ecclesiastes. But what if that’s no longer true? What if the very earth itself is vulnerable, perishable, together with all life on it? It’s a thought too unbearable to entertain, and too dangerous to fail to entertain.

The idea goes through my mind of building Not a Sukkah, the walls made entirely of waste plastic bottles collected off the street, the roof from the broken-up roots of decimated forests. To it I’ll invite not the traditional visitors, but a guest-list of extinct species. Instead of seven days of rejoicing, they’ll be turned, as God threatens in the Bible, into seven days of mourning for the loss of the sustaining beauty and fertility of this world.

I won’t do it. I don’t need it. That Sukkah is already under construction, – in innumerable throw away actions.

Instead, tomorrow I hope to join the first ever Peoples Walk for Wildlife, to which Everyone is invited – foresters, reserve wardens, teachers, students, children, scientists, artists, bloggers, activists, volunteers, gardeners. We are going to sing songs, play birdsong from the missing birds and share our love of all species. (Chris Packham).

Instead, my Sukkah will be a reminder to cherish the world, to waste and pollute less, and instead to know, love and respect more fully the natural world which is so wondrous and on which we and all life depend.

Our relationship with God

‘God, where can I find you?’ asked the great Jewish poet from Spain, Yehudah Halevi, in the opening of one of his most famous poems, before continuing, ‘And God, where can I find you not?’

Over the millennia Jews have called out to, hoped in, searched for, found, lost and felt abandoned by God in countless ways. Of all generations, perhaps ours have it hardest. This is not because we live in the most testing times; we don’t. Rather, scientific knowledge offers causal explanations for almost everything, while the history of collective suffering makes it hard to believe that a beneficent deity can possibly exist. I recall hearing Claude Landsman’s reply to a questioner who suggested, following a showing of his remarkable film Shoah, that the Holocaust was a punishment for the Jewish People: he simply said ‘You are being obscene’. I agree.

Yet we and God have never given up on one another.

I don’t find my God as the Keeper of Justice of history, though I wish that were so. I often can’t find God either in the fates which overtake individuals: accidents, strokes, dementia. God is not a tool to iron life’s injustices into a smooth fabric of fairness and goodness. I don’t believe in a God who needs children to die, young people to have cancer or millions to go hungry each day.

Yet, I believe God is in those places. Wherever there is suffering, we can hear not one voice, but two. There is this special person, her life, her family, her struggle. And there is the presence of God in her, the unique way the consciousness which fills all life fills hers; how it seeks to help her find strength, understanding, healing. That voice, God’s voice, calls out from every person, every creature which suffers, asking:

Where are the human beings, in whose hearts I say constantly: “Be compassionate! Be Just!” Where are they? Where are my partners, my agents in this world?

Too often that voice goes unheard.

Those who say, ‘God is at home in the world’ are wrong, wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel, the twentieth century mystic and social activist, who hated complacency: ‘God is not at home in this world’.

I half agree. I think God is always at home, yet always not at home.

If you walk among trees at night you can hear God’s presence in the sap and the branches. That cry is not just an owl; it’s the call of wonder in creation. God is in everything which inspires awe; God is in the human spirit. It’s all God’s home.

God is also here in all suffering; God suffers alongside. God is in the pleading face, the bowed over beggar, the shaking hand which holds the cardboard cup for a ten pence piece, a pound. God was there too in the sad history which led this person to drink or destitution, to flee home and be a refugee ever after.

That is the God who is not at home in this world, the God who says in the universal language of everything which evokes pity: ‘I don’t want it to be like this. Heal this wrong. End this hurt. Change the world!’

We are all trustees of God’s will. God may not reach down into history, but God does reach into our hearts. We must meet and hear God there. That is a key purpose of prayer. Prayer is silencing the noise to listen to God in our hearts.

Harold Kushner wrote that the essential issue for the spiritual person is not ‘the existence of God but the importance of God, the difference that God makes in the way we live’. I hope we hear God this Yom Kippur and that it changes how we live.

 

 

Our relationship with those who have ‘gone to their eternal rest’

It was Nicky who noticed it.

We were at the Fairy Lochs in the far north of Scotland. A small wind caused little waves to lift the leaves of the water lilies in the small lochan and gently let them fall. All around, on the rocks and grass, protruding from the water, was the wreckage of the USAAF aircraft which had crashed in heavy mist as it sought to bring the crew and passengers home to their families in America after the end of World War II. A plaque listed their names and requested all visitors to respect this, the site of their memorial, remote in the Highland mountains.

Nicky pointed to a rough stone on the ground below. On it was written: ‘The family of John Hallissey was here 7.26.18.’ Sergeant John Halissey had been a passenger on the ill-fated flight; he was just 27 when he died.

What drew his family to climb the muddy, scarcely way-marked tracks to this remote outcrop, seventy-one years later? Had we come here days earlier, we might have met them. Perhaps they were his children. Now no longer young themselves, maybe they wanted to see while they still had strength and time this place where their father had died, whom in life they had scarcely known. Maybe they wanted to show their grandchildren: ‘Your grandfather was a hero…’

Every year before Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur we hold a memorial service at the cemetery where many of the dead of our community lie buried, following the practice in the Shulchan Aruch that ‘there are places where it is the custom to visit the graves and give charity generously’.

When I go out among the stones, I feel I am not just there personally, but as a representative of our congregation. Over time I know an increasing number of the people; I have more and more friends out there. It’s what happens as one gets older.

I wander round the graves and remember with affection. I try to listen, and I’m afraid I do talk back:

D: I miss the open-armed hug of your friendship; the way you loved the soup. Where is your voice now, you who would have spoken out so frankly, fairly, fearlessly in honour of Jewish history, in defence of our people?

E: Your boys are growing up beautifully; you’d be so proud of them

X: Your son has the same depth, the same loving-kindness, that you had. But, of course, you already knew that…

I never hear the dead say a bad word. ‘Honour life,’ they say, ‘love life’, like the words on my father-in-law’s stone: ‘Enjoy life for it is the gift of God’. Then they add, as we, the now- living, turn back to our bewildering day and amnesia-inducing iPhones, ‘Use life; it’s the loving-kindness, the faithfulness, that matters’. And then they add further, ‘Don’t be afraid’.

On Kol Nidrei night, at the start of the great Day of Judgment, when all Israel stands before our God, I do not think of us solely as the transitory generations, abandoned to time, alone in our swiftly passing years.

Those who gave us life are among us still, unseen. We carry them in our hearts; the hearts which their love, devotion, hopes, foibles, failings and affection nourished. And in their hearts are the hearts of our shared ancestors, backwards through time, century by century. They all sing with us and the melodies are rich with the resonance of their voices.

We sing together beyond, outside of, time, before the Eternal God, testimony to ancient, enduring and defiant wonder, hope and longing.

 

 

Our relationship with ourselves

The Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, call us to reckoning with ourselves:

Mah anu, meh hayyenu:
What are we? To what does our life amount?
To what do our love, our righteousness, our hope, add up?
We are required to be honest with ourselves, ‘to speak truth in our heart’.

However, just as we should be sincere, yet kind, to others, so we should be truthful, but not cruel, to ourselves.

There are people who have been so badly wounded, often in early childhood, often precisely by those who should have nurtured them and given them a sense of self-worth, that they feel haunted by self-contempt in places so deep inside that it is hard for love and understanding to reach them and heal their broken self-respect.

Our inner lives are in each other’s hands. We are the source of hurt and healing to one another. We owe it to each other and ourselves to be merciful as well as honest. Kindness and goodness are more likely to open our heart to remorse than accusation and contempt.

Judaism teaches us that God wants us to appreciate, value, bless and love life, including our own.

At the same time, this season of repentance summons us to unconditional integrity, to own up in our conscience to the wrongs we have done. This is not just because ‘God in heaven knows anyway’. It’s because the voice of truth, which we can hear if we listen without pretexts, and excuses, is God’s voice speaking in the sacred precincts of our heart and our mind.

In the end, we are not here to be right. Our aim in life is not to rationalise all our errors and justify the hurtful things we may have said and done. We are here to learn from life, to hollow out more fully the open spaces in our heart and try to become kinder and more understanding human beings.

For these reasons, it is important to be able to say sorry. Sometimes this entails having the humility to admit to other persons that we have wronged them. Sometimes it is only ourselves whom we have to tell. Perhaps the people with whom we would have wanted to speak are no longer alive, or beyond our reach. Perhaps we have to bear our regret internally, because to inform or remind the person we hurt would constitute a further wrong, a selfish indulgence to salve our own feelings.

Collectively, we have a responsibility to engender an environment in which it is possible to say sorry, to admit we’ve made mistakes, failed to live up to our values, and regret words we spoke and actions we did. Our response to the errors of others should not be self-righteous pride, but the humbling thought that ‘I, too, have done wrong things’. Otherwise we lock each other and ourselves in a prison of self-justification and self-deceit which prevents us from learning from our mistakes. For our mistakes are often our best, most unforgettable teachers.

But ‘speaking truth in our hearts’ is not only about critical self-examination. It is at least as important to re-affirm the good inside us. Only yesterday someone said to me, ‘I want to do more kindness in my life. Help me find the right context’.

Our inner world is fashioned not just from guilt but from hope, aspiration, love and the need for purpose. For months at a time we may be motivated by projects, hobbies, specific tasks. But our deepest sense of meaning, what gives significance to the years of our life, is what we give to others.

The first part of Hillel’s saying is justly famous, ‘If I am not for myself, who shall be for me?’ The second part is less often quoted: ‘When I am only for myself, what am I?’ This is not so much a moral comment about self-centredness, but an existential truth.

In the end, ‘I’ am not an enduring separate entity. I am born of life, nourished by life, dependent on life and belong to life. Who I am is what I give to life.

 

On Hope in a Time of Despair

Our relationship to hope

At dawn I could see only the finest edge of the waning moon, a thin white curve in the grey blue sky. We are at the threshold of the new year.

Avraham Chazzan, a thirteenth century poet from Gerona, Catalonian home of many Jewish mystics, wrote a prayer for the moment the old year yields to the new. Each verse concludes with the chorus line: ‘May the year and its curses end’. Only the last stanza finishes with:

May the New Year and its blessings begin.

I must write about hope. It is not for no reason that Hatikvah, The Hope, is the national anthem of Israel. That hope, which inspired the courageous creation of the country, is nourished by Judaism’s ancient vision of a society, a world, redeemed from cruelty, injustice and misery in which all life can flourish together. It is founded on Judaism’s faith in the potential for good within every human being.

Such a perspective must often through history have seemed nothing more than a stupid phantasy. Today again the world feels dangerously insecure, more so than we might have imagined even five years ago. As a result, I have many conversations about hope and despair.

Hope begins at home. Judaism has never taken a naïve view of human nature. From Cain and Abel on, jealousy, violence and conflict are part of our collective narrative. The rabbis were realists about the yetzer hara, the libidinous energy which is so easily misdirected towards selfishness and cruelty.

But Judaism has never seen this as the deepest core of the human being. Don’t ask where to find God’s teaching, insists the Torah in a verse we read on the eve of every New Year:

For it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, for you to do it. (Deuteronomy 30:14)

This is the secret of the love of God, wrote Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh-Lev of Ger, known as the Sefat Emet, ‘speaker of truth’. Love of God, God’s creation, people, nature, life, lies deeper in the heart than any other drive. The art, the discipline, is to enable it to flow.

I’m not alone in often failing. I appreciate how a person can feel locked many levels below ground in a bleak, inescapable concrete labyrinth, daylight beyond reach. That’s why we need each other to help put our foot back on the ladder which climbs to the windows of hope.

For hope is not just our individual but our collective aspiration and responsibility. It calls out in the vision of the prophets and the dreams of our prayers: ‘All created beings will recognise that You created them’; ‘They will form one bond to do Your will’.

This hope exists within the context of a vivid realism. It requires us to challenge tyranny and deceit, confront injustice, poverty, collective meanness, and the convenience of turning a blind eye to the sufferings of others, whoever and wherever they may be.

Our hope is therefore task-oriented, and that gives it its grip. The question is not ‘What could or should or might have been?’ but ‘What can we, I and you, do now?’

With that resolve, each of us and together, let us make this a year when we

expand the compassion in our hearts;
deepen our connection to our community and its social and spiritual faith;
make whatever lives we can reach less harsh, less marginalised and less alone;
speak and act against all forms of prejudice, hatred and cruelty;
plant forests, cherish the earth and live in solidarity with humanity and nature.

 

 

On faithfulness and friendship

Our relationship with Friends

When Honi, the wonder-working rabbi of the Mishnah, found that he’d been asleep beneath his carob tree for seventy years and no one recognised him any longer in his beloved House of Study, he said ‘O mituta o chavruta – Give me friends or let me die’, and died.

We all need friends, and the kind of friend we are is a profound indicator of who we are as a human being.

Breaking my principle of avoiding unnecessary flying, I spent a single day in Stuttgart before Pesach, leaving home at dawn and back the same night. A friend’s husband had died. Devoted Catholics, they’d hosted me in their home, invited me to speak in local churches and been generous to our synagogue. I spent the day in quiet conversation with the family. I felt it was the least I could do.

I mention this because what made me go was partly shame. That moment still burns in my conscience when friends of a friend who’d become ill told me that he felt I’d all but forgotten him. I never want to be guilty of such a hurt again.

Since then I’ve often wondered what kind of a friend I am. I have excellent role-models. There are people around me who epitomise the quality best expressed by the Hebrew adjective ne’eman, ‘faithful’, ‘true’. I hear them say things which stay in my heart: ‘Life’s hard for her; I make sure we go for coffee every week’; ‘Now he’s unwell I try to see my brother every day’.

Ne’eman, faithful, derives from the same root as emunah, faith in God. Loyalty to one other is the foundation of faithfulness to God. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, another miracle working rabbi of the Mishnah period, posed the question: ‘With whom does God feel comfortable?’ He answered: ‘With those with whom people feel comfortable’.

Friendship is full of happiness and fun: a joy shared is a joy doubled. It’s about mutual hobbies, interests, travels and memories (‘Do you remember how we saw Australia collapse to 93 for 8?’ ‘Wasn’t the clue for 8 down in that Times crossword a stinker?’) It’s about knowing how to listen, knowing when to offer counsel, and when to listen with all the heart and none of the tongue. Friendship is about being there, whatever.

Friendship may test us. The first question in the Torah is ‘Where are you?’ God wants to talk to Adam, but he’s hidden himself away. How often do we hide, missing the often unspoken ‘where are you?’ of a friend who need us?

Friendship may call us to face challenges and fears. Families in mourning sometimes say: ‘Friends have been amazing. It’s strange, though. Some we thought close have stayed away, while others we’d not felt close to before stood by us all the time.’ After a tragedy I’m not rarely told: ‘Friends cross the road when they see me’. Friendship may require us to help one another amidst sorrows we cannot remove or remedy but only help each other bear.

Friendship may summon us to cross difficult borders, like Ruth who followed her mother-in-law Naomi to a strange land and religion out of devoted loving-kindness. One thinks of those who put their very lives at risk, or lost them, because they refused to betray their Jewish neighbours. Which of us knows if we would have the courage to do likewise should such a situation re-occur?

I don’t believe there’s a neat division between the two classic rabbinic categories of ‘commandments between person and person’ and ‘commandments between a person and God’. Where another person is, there too is the presence of God. Emunah, living with faith, is founded on living in faithful solidarity towards each other. It is my aspiration to learn to be a more faithful human being, towards people, nature and God.

 

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