Youth Strike 4Climate

If I’d known the date, I would have arranged to be with them. Next time, I want to be there. I’m proud that a year-ten group from our youth movement Noam is going.

I’m referring to the rally in Parliament Square today, the first British rally of Youth Strike 4Climate.

It shouldn’t be labelled ‘a strike by school children’. It’s an education event by tens, now hundreds, of thousands of pupils across the globe, many joined by parents and teachers. Next time, whole schools will participate, staff included. A key aim is – education itself: to make the climate crisis part of the national curriculum. So it’s not a strike but a critically important teaching day.

The age-group it’s targeted at is government, – the governments, business, political and communal (including religious) leaders across the world. The syllabus is the future of humanity.

The target group is also us, how we behave. The environmental crisis isn’t happening somewhere else. Others may suffer first and suffer more. But the future of every single living being is at stake, and it’s our children who have the most to lose. As one pupil said: What’s the point of my GCSE choices if there’s no future anyway? I’ve heard similar in my own home.

The movement is inspired by the vision and determination of Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old girl from Sweden who addressed the environment conference in Poland last autumn:

I beg the world’s leaders to care for our future….Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago…I want you to panic…

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres was entirely correct when he said: ‘We need to harness their energy, invention and political power…’

Greta began alone. When she first suggested they ‘strike’, her own classmates rejected the idea. Now she has allies across the globe; in the UK they span the country from Ullapool to Exeter.

It’s not the first great change to begin with the actions of just one person.

Abraham, according to rabbinic legend, broke the bickering idol-gods in his father’s shop, teaching that we are all children of the one God. (What are our idols today? – Growth as the ultimate measure of the good, our own unlimited capabilities, the control of all creation, the worship of absolute autonomy and unfettered choice?)

Moses began probably the most inspiring movement for freedom and dignity in human history when he, alone, left the safe enclave of the palace and determined to take action on behalf of suffering slaves.

Rosa Parks was alone when she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1st 1955. Later she became known as ‘the mother of the freedom movement’.

What begins with the conviction and courage of just one person must end with the participation of us all.

Every government across the world has to respond. Energy, transport, agricultural and waste recycling policies must alter. We too must be part of that change in our homes, work places, travel and consumption. This isn’t someone else’s problem.

Our attitude to nature has to return to what the authors of the Hebrew Bible understood so well because, unlike most of us, they were not alienated from the earth and they understood the meaning of reverence. Humanity exists in partnership with all life and even ‘the king is subject to the soil’.

 

 

 

 

‘As the deer longs for streams of water’: On the Book of Psalms

It was my grandfather who gave me my first copy of Tehilim, theBook of Psalms: ‘All of life is in it,’ he told me. I knew that he knew: a happy childhood in a rabbinic family, then student years in Berlin at its cultural prime had been followed by the Western Front, the great depression and inflation, the rise of Nazism, Dachau, exile, and a new life in Britain, haunted by losses. The book with his signature in it was my treasure, – until I lent it, I don’t recall to whom, and never got it back. When he died, we knew what to write on his gravestone: ‘I shall sing to God with my life, make music to my God with all my being’.

Now a group in our synagogue, our very own Chevrat Tehilim, Psalms Group, has completed a study of all 150 songs. It’s true, we haven’t done so quickly. The Psalms are traditionally divided into seven books, one for each day of the week. You can see pious Jews, women especially, on the buses in Israel reading the daily sections with deep devotion.

Admittedly, our group took a decade and a half, meeting roughly ten times a year to study each Psalm carefully and in order. But this too has been a deeply devoted and loving undertaking.

This Sunday we celebrate completing the Book followed, in traditional Jewish fashion, by starting immediately at the beginning. ‘May we not be forgotten by you, nor you be forgotten by us’, runs the customary invocation on completing a sacred text. We have no intention of forgetting.

No other book from the Hebrew Bible forms so great a part of the Siddur, the daily prayer book, as Psalms. No other text in world literature has become so intimate a part of the prayer life of tens of generations of both Jews and Christians. As my grandfather taught me, the entire life of faith and doubt, despair and hope, wonder and dismay, alienation and closeness, fear and trust – all of it is here.

There is the yearning of loving faith: ‘As the deer longs for the streams of water, so my soul longs for you, God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God.’ (Psalm 42)

There is the bewilderment of feeling utterly lost: ‘I said, “Darkness will surely cover me, light be night around me,”’ followed by the realisation, perhaps no less disturbing, that we are nevertheless not utterly alone, “Even darkness is not dark for You.” (Psalm 139)

There is the hopelessness of abandonment: ‘You have distanced from me my friends and those who love me; all who know me, darkness.’ (Psalm 88)

And there is wonder at creation: ‘[God] makes the streams run through the valleys, flowing between the mountains…The birds of the skies alight on them, and sing among the branches.’ (Psalm 104)

In all the years of prison and solitary confinement there was one item Anatole Shcharansky refused to let the KGB take from him: his book of Psalms. From it, he wrote later, he learnt the awe of God:

What is significant for me is that I feel a closeness to God in a most tangible manner. I sense its essence and domination over me. (Letter to his mother, 6 May 1984)

We can wrap our lives around the Psalms. And other people’s lives are wrapped in them too. I think of those who began the fifteen-year journey with us, but who didn’t complete in down here on earth: Olga Deaner, who adored Jane Austen but also developed her sense and sensibility among the songs of King David; Professor Bryan Reuben, who loved his Bible as much as his science; David Jackson who, despite two strokes which robbed him of his mobility, wrote music and a commentary for every single Psalm, continuing to do so when he could scarcely leave his room:

Though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death I shall fear no evil for You are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me…(Psalm 23)

…and Your music, Your Psalms, the wonder of Your world, and the companionship of those who care for such things – they comfort me too.

 

On Grief

Over the years I’ve witnessed many painful happenings: slow illnesses; sudden deaths, timely and untimely; people parted cruelty from those they love; young children losing parents; worst of all, parents losing their child. I never pass unthinking the words in the memorial service: ‘Our children, in whom are garnered all our love and hope’.

And this in peacetime in Britain, without the horror of war which so many earlier generations endured with courage, fear, and the gritty determination to live.

Mercifully, I’ve seen many causes for joy, tenderness, thoughtfulness, generosity, courage, and sheer beauty, – beauty in simple things: the winter sun in the branches of orange witch-hazel; a stock-still squirrel, watching the child watching it.

I often think how those whose hearts are broken might find enough love, purpose, meaning and healing to live with wounds which no one can take away. I know that life, which visits us with blessings, will inevitably bring us all, unpredictably, unequally, sorrow. We will all come to know what we don’t and cannot know, until…

So I hope… These are things I hope when pain visits those I care for. I hope love will be present, from family, a closest friend, to take her hand, to hug her, when the man she loved so long passes through the strange, bewildering gateway of death, where the living may not follow and they cannot turn back.

I hope that at the halvayah, the final accompanying journey… “I don’t know what to say,” people tell me often…I hope the hand with which we touch the mourner’s shoulder, take his hand, is a hand of faithful kindness, our presence at the prayers the promise of enduring solidarity.

I hope that in the numb days when it’s hard to believe it really happened, – “It feels unreal”, I’m so often told – there will be people, community, who’re attentive, listen, don’t ask, “How are you?”, know when to offer memories, when to take out the photograph and say “I knew your father”, when to laugh and when to keep silence.

I hope that when the daily rush has reabsorbed everyone in their customary preoccupations and the community has moved on to the next wedding, the next bereavement, steadfast friends won’t just leave a message “Don’t forget to ask me if there’s anything you need?” but say “Can I ask you, if you’re up to it, tomorrow at 3.00… If not, may I ask you in a couple of days again?”

I hope that over the searing months, when it’s impossible to know round what corner or inside what envelope memory waits in ambush with new pain, it may somehow be possible to begin to find purpose: “She cared about that; I’ll devote myself to that in faithfulness to her”; even, “My child loved music; I’m going to do something for children and music… I can’t have him back, but I can do a little of what he would have done.”

I hope that God will speak, not the God of “this happened because”, not the rationaliser or the blamer’s God, but the God of life, who talks in snowdrops, in the wren in the hedge, the God whose unspoken words translate simply as “I am here”.

I hope the Kaddish doesn’t feel like gestures, lies, homage to a past when others really did believe; I hope there’ll be moments when shirata are nechmata, when songs are truly comforts and praise, for a moment, makes sense.

I hope that slowly, over years, those we love, who once held our hand, traverse into our heart and speak to us from there, retelling us their wisdom, their bad jokes, listening when we need them, so that we say “She would have said…”.

I know there’s no gainsaying the empty room, the unoccupied space beside you which follows wherever you go, the dread of reaching for the key to unlock the empty house. I know that grief works to no time-table, conforms with no calendar.

Yet I hope that, somehow, there’ll be sufficient love, enough purpose to go on and live.

 

Holocaust Memorial Day: 74 spells witness

On Sunday it will be 74 years since the first outriders of the Red Army reached the infernal universe of Auschwitz-Birkenau. 27 January is not a date in the Hebrew calendar, – that is 27 Nissan, Yom Hashoah. But it has become a critical and essential date in the moral history of humanity.

Every year I reread Primo Levi, whose accounts in If This Is A Man and The Truce will always remain among the most discomfortingly perceptive testimony to the vast, unfathomable multitude of crimes which is the Holocaust:

for us even the hour of liberty rang out grave and muffled, and filled our souls with joy and yet with a painful sense of pudency, so that we should have liked to wash our consciences and our memories clean from the foulness that lay upon them; and also with anguish, because we felt that this should never happen, that now nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out the past…

It is poignant to note that 74 is signified in Hebrew by the letters ayin and dalet, which together form the word ed, witness. This is precisely at a point when we are acutely aware that the last survivors of the Shoah are in their eighties and nineties and will not be with us forever. Who will testify then?

In a moving ceremony at the Foreign office earlier this week, Lord Eric Pickles, special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, noted that the website of the Holocaust Museum in Washington is the second most visited site on the subject. One might have thought that above it would come Yad Vashem or the museum and memorial at Auschwitz itself. But this is not the case; first place on the subject is taken by a Holocaust denial site.

There is no guarantee that what history records over the long elapse of time is actually the truth.

Therefore, the commemoration of the hour of liberty must still ring out grave and muffled for humankind, because we cannot and must not wash the wrongs of the past out of our memory and conscience.

The reason is not to preserve a sense of victimhood, or to make a moral claim against other nations, or agents, though the latter may sometimes remain important for the sake of the vindication of truth. Nor is it solely or primarily for the sake of the Jewish People. The matter goes far wider. There have been genocides since the Shoah, notable 40 years ago in Cambodia and 25 years ago in Rwanda. Each unique in its particular context and the nature of the cruelties practised upon its powerless victims, crimes of indescribably brutality and scale continue in the world today.

At stake is not the past but the present and future of humanity, in fact the very meaning of what being human is. Perhaps never since 1945 has this been so acutely the case. If we don’t want to succumb to the rallying cries of resurgent racism and xenophobia across the world, if we don’t want our conscience to be sucked in and dissolved in the acid stomach of hatred, we need to listen, learn and act.

Action begins with little things, noticing our own prejudices, not ignoring the person who seems lonely, bullied or left out; not being oblivious to the daily realities of being destitute, homeless, a refugee; not being seduced by the comfort of thinking we belong to the safe ‘us’, the comfortable majority at liberty to denigrate whoever the current ‘them’ might be.

We are one another’s guarantors; the safety and human dignity of others lies in our hands, words, hearts and deeds. Only by standing up for each other’s humanity can we truly assure our own. There is nothing else between degradation, humiliation and persecution, whether we become victims or perpetrators.

‘This isn’t about the past’, Lord Pickles said, ‘It’s about now’.

For Tu Bishevat – the New Year for Trees

Matthew Biggs, of Gardener’s Question Time fame, refers to himself on Twitter as @plantmadman. I wouldn’t dream of comparing myself, but I’ve become in some small way a tree-mad-man.

I love trees, from the apple orchards of Kent to the Scots Pines of the old Caledonian forest; from the scented cypresses of Jerusalem to the scrub-oak woodlands of the Galilee. From the uncurling of their leaves in the springtime to the foliage fall in October, trees lead me through the seasons more gracefully than any diary. I like to look at them by day and listen to them by night.

Trees are good for us physically, emotionally, morally and spiritually. As the Torah says, ‘the tree of life is in the midst of the garden’, feeding all the worlds.

Physically, we need trees. ‘Rewilding’ is one of my favourite words. We must urgently replant the great forests, trees in billions, which store carbon, exhale oxygen and enable all living things to breathe. From Indonesia to Africa and the Amazon, from Scotland to the east and south of Europe, we must replant. Without the trees, the breath of life will choke.

Trees bring livelihoods to peoples across the globe. Tree Aid calls the Shea Tree ‘the little nut that makes a big difference’:

this humble native species provides local people with a cornucopia of essentials: food, fuel, fodder for livestock, medicinal products and building materials, as well as precious saleable commodities. Like all trees, it also aids soil fertility, water conservation and biodiversity. (www.treeaid.org)

We need trees for our emotional health too. We’re less alone when we’re out among the beeches and the oaks. A charming Midrash explains how it used to be:

All the trees, plants and spirits that dwell in nature conversed with one another. The spirit that lives in the trees and nature conversed with humankind for all of nature was created for mutual companionship with people. (Bereshit Rabbah 13:2)

I disagree only with the past tense: the trees still speak. At least, they’re trying; they’re waiting for us to switch off our social media and retune our souls to the wavelength of their spirit.

Nachmanides (1174 – 1270) explains that God didn’t just show Moses which tree to throw into the bitter waters of Mara to make them sweet. The Torah says not vayareihu, but vayoreichu – ‘he taught’. God taught Moses that the Tree of Life has the capacity to sweeten our inner bitterness. I can’t count how many people tell me: ‘Nature is the solace for my heartache’.

Trees are important morally. Rabbi Ari Killip explains how deeply the rabbis of the Talmud (c. 500CE) understood tree roots. They intermingle underground; they’re interdependent with innumerable micro-organisms: it’s a kind of subterranean mixed dancing. They operate in circles, not squares; they drink from the field of the farmer next door. They teach us that we’re not autonomous individuals but part of, and responsible to, the inseparable, impossible to disentangle community of life.

Trees nourish our spirit. Like the mystical texts of other faiths, the Zohar understands life as an upside-down tree. Its roots are in heaven; its branches are creation:

The world to come cares for this tree all the time, watering it…never at any time withholding its streams. Faith depends on this tree. (Zohar III 239a-b)

That’s what inspired Chaim Nachman Bialik in his magisterial poem Haberechah, the Pool:

There, between God’s trees which had not heard the axe’s echo,
On a path known only to the wolf and the mighty hunter,
I used to wander whole hours by myself…
Uniting with my heart and with my God
Until I came…To the Holy of Holies in the forest, the pupil of its eye…
A tranquil holy sanctuary, hidden between the shade of the trees.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Tu Bishevat – and may this be a year of planting.

Reflections on Mental Health Awareness Shabbat

Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, the great teacher and story-teller to whose grave in Uman thousands make the pilgrimage every New Year, used to say: ‘Asur Lehitya’esh – It is forbidden to despair.’ To this was added, by him or by subsequent folklore the rhyme: ‘Rak Lismoach Yesh – Only and always be happy’. It won’t come as a surprise that he was reputed to suffer periodically from severe mental anxiety.

This Shabbat is Mental Health Awareness Shabbat. JAMI which supports mental health in the Jewish Community is focussing on its Head On campaign:

Head On aims to raise the profile of mental health in the Jewish Community. It is an opportunity to encourage people of all ages to be more in touch with their own mental health and wellbeing, and to raise awareness in the local and wider community. Head On falls annually on the Shabbat when the weekly Torah portion of “Bo” is read, which tells of the Plague of Darkness. The description of the plague of darkness has particular resonance with mental illness.

Vayameish choshech, God instructs Moses before sending the penultimate plague: ‘Let there be palpable darkness’. There then descended over Egypt a darkness so thick that ‘no one could see his brother or get up from his place for three days.’ (Exodus 10:23)

The plain meaning is that it was utterly and impenetrably dark. But the verse put me painfully in mind of something different. Lo kamu ish tachtav, are the exact words in the Torah: literally, ‘no one could raise himself up from his low place’. We have them, inside us, such spaces. …. If we’ve been spared ever visiting those bleak internal realms we’re blessed. I know this from listening to people and from the rare dreadful hour – which few of us never experience. It’s been described to me as follows:

One can descend inside oneself to places where one’s terrors and persecutions are seemingly one’s only reality; down to the basement of the basement of some internal prison, den, horror-film mental ward; down below the sign at the entrance to Dante’s hell: ‘Abandon hope all you who enter here’. There one may sit, mentally banging one’s head against the dirty concrete wall, sometimes thinking that there’s only one way out…

One may know it’s absurd. People one loves may be in the next room, the same room, talking to one. But some seemingly impenetrable membrane separates them off. They belong to another universe. One knows they exist, but how to get back to them…

Kumu, kumu – get up, rise up,’ one says, holding out one’s hand to a mourner at the end of the seven days of the shivah, helping them up from the traditional low chair. Similarly, we hope that the hand held out to us in our hours of darkness, the hands we hold out to others, the heartfelt intention in the gaps between our inadequate words, will reach, make contact, and we will manage to help each other up.

Hopefully we return with relief and gratitude back from dark places into the daylight. Just as God, after hovering over the void where ‘darkness covered the deep’ calls out ‘Let there be light’, so the spirit of God inside us calls out in blessing and appreciation to the wonder of light.

We don’t know the inner reality of other people’s lives. We can never understand in full the brightness of their light or the depth of their – sometimes – darkness.

But we do know that we can be aware of one another, younger or older; show solidarity to each other; open the doors of our community, and, if we can our homes; acknowledge the hours of darkness and help each other find the right support and understanding. Depression and mental illness can make not just the sufferer but everyone around feel helpless and worthless. But often just being there, with patience and thoughtfulness, makes more difference than we can imagine.

We must keep faith that we will one day together once again bless the wonder of life and light.

 

A deeper EU, living in union with the earth

Our family were lucky enough to spend the last week in a cottage in South Wales. Outside the front door, below a lawn, was a shallow, fast-flowing river. Behind the house stood the oaks and beeches of a thin ridge of forest, above which stretched the stony, heath-covered hills of the Brecon Beacons.

I like to pray outside, even when the frost makes the grass crunch underfoot. It gives my prayers roots; I feel I’m praying not apart from, but with, the earth and the life it sustains.

Praying outdoors is an acknowledgement, too, that nature supports me, and that everything living around me, from the trees and birds to the people who live in these valleys, is my companion and fellow creature.

Yesterday I watched a dipper, a small black bird with a white front, diving for food off rocks in the middle of the stream. I know we’re not supposed to alter the matbe’a berachot, the ‘stamp’ or form of the blessings bequeathed us by our sages. But when I pray silently I often add just one word to the prayer for the land, asking God also to bless haberiyot, the creatures who live on it. Though the daily service refers in several places to all life, I don’t think there’s anywhere else that we pray for the plants and animals with whom we share our world and on which we depend.

Such a request is also a commitment. As Rabbi Lionel Blue once wrote, many prayers are boomerangs. How can we ask God to look after the sick, if we can’t be bothered ourselves? How can we ask God to care for nature, if we ourselves treat it at best with neglect and at worst with contempt? (The first hundred yards of the road past the cottage and out of the town was littered with every kind of rubbish, at the rate of at least one plastic bag, bottle, or can every foot.)

Tomorrow we begin to read in the Torah about the Ten Plagues. I think of them as the ‘anti-ten’, in contrast to the Ten Commandments which legislate for the presence of God in society and the Ten Utterances (the ten times God says ‘let there be’ in the story of creation) which speak of the presence of God in all living things.

The ten plagues are what happens when tyranny, in the archetypal figure of a wicked Pharaoh, shows contempt for human dignity. Injustice and exploitation first destroy human society, then the earth itself, until ‘the very land stinks.’

So, in this calendar year when we are likely to leave the European Union, I want to make a commitment to a different, deeper EU, a union with the earth: with life, with people, especially people in illness or anguish, with the animals, with forests, with the water, the air and the soil. We live as if they belong to us; whereas in truth we belong to them.

Monday brings the month of Shevat, with the New Year for Trees on its full moon. May this be a year of planting, a year of respect for the birch, the beech, the oak and the pine, a year of connection with who we truly are, before each other, before nature and before God.

Spiritual Resilience

As it nears its close, few people are talking about 2018 in glowing terms. ‘Hard’, ‘gloomy’, ‘wearying’, ‘frightening’, are some of the adjectives I hear. The big issues, political, economic, environmental remain unresolved; they’ll be back next year.

So we need hope, courage and tenacity in large quantities. ‘Spiritual resilience’, said my Sufi friend, which I think of as inner, spiritual security, no less important than its external physical counterpart.

Resilience is social; it’s about creating and drawing us in to warm-hearted, inclusive and outward-looking communities. Resilience is moral; it’s about studying, debating and living our values. Resilience is spiritual; it means developing a restorative, healing inner life.

At its heart is prayer. There are many ways to pray: silence, music, meditation, walking. I love the beaten path of Jewish prayer, its discipline, its words, its music and mantras.

Most of the time I don’t pray in the hope of changing the mind of some all-powerful, heavenly being, – though sometimes, in moments of fear, I do.

I mostly pray to go downwards, not up. I try to pray like a digger of wells who persists until fresh water seeps through the dry earth and fills the hidden depth. That depth is not in the earth, but in myself. Can I get there? Can I listen, travel down below my flitting, floating thoughts, beneath my irritations and preoccupations, and feel life from my heart? At that moment, new sweet water flows and sings its way back into the dried out receptacle of the soul. What I feared was empty is replenished.

Some rare days this is easy. Many days I fail, usually because I don’t stay still in mind or body long enough, or because my effort is forced and I leave my spirit behind.

But when the water sings, it’s always a gift. Someone or something has been the inspiration: a kindness I witnessed, a moment of generosity or tenderness, a phrase of poetry, a quietly grazing horse.

The gift is life, connection with the life which nourishes all things. It begins with particular connections, with the trees, the birds, with people around me, this community at worship, that man in the hospital who said, ‘Can we pray together’. I feel the same spirit flow through us all, bestowing on us our respective consciousness. We belong together, all of life. It owns us, and none of it do we own.

Here is the presence of God, not in the heights but in the earth and everything alive. Without words it instructs us to take off not just our shoes but our selfishness, for the ground on which you stand is holy.

It’s the source of love, not perhaps of passion and attachment, but of a steady, determined chesed, a faithful kindness, which condemns cruelty, and insists that all life commands respect and needs compassion and understanding.

It’s the source of responsibility and moral determination, reminding us that we are not here to make life serve us, but to be of service to life. This is the truth we must not betray and try never to let down: that everything and everyone matters.

Shabbat Shalom

I wish all our Christian friends and their families a good and happy Christmas and a peaceful, worthwhile New Year

Jonathan Wittenberg

 

Therapy for madness

I’m losing people; they’re disappearing, – in my own home. The evening before last I couldn’t find two participants in my evening class. I discovered them kneeling by the couch, talking to the dog.

It was earlier that same day that I’d realised half way through the lesson that one of the girls in my Bnei Mitzvah group had come through the front door but never subsequently appeared in the class. I found her, – in our rear porch, hugging a guinea pig. When I mentioned to the whole group that we’d rescued a baby hedgehog, every single member one of the twenty-five voluble twelve-year-olds fell instantly silent: ‘Can we see it?’ There was even a ‘please’.

I’ve come to understand that this isn’t just an indulgence; it’s not merely sentimental. It’s therapy. It’s a need.

I’m feeling it myself. I have a longing to go to the New Forest. I want to spend a day, a dusk, a night walk among the ponies and donkeys, out with the trees, listening to them breath. My soul is craving sanity; it’s hungry and wants nourishment. I want to be rooted back in the earth, with the leaves, the breathing, grazing, chewing, rhythms of the animals, the branches and the wind.

I had a quiet word with the guinea-pig hugging pupil, – and let her be for the rest of the lesson. I saw that for her this wasn’t indulgence; it was therapy, and she needed it.

It’s a therapy I need too. We all need it; the whole of humanity needs it. Disconnected from the earth, the trees and the animals, our souls slowly forget how to breath. After a while our minds begin to malfunction because our brains are in receipt of insufficient spirit and too little humility. Then comes the greatest danger, that we forget what it is we’ve forgotten. We no longer realise that we’re part of creation, not its gods and owners. We imagine we’re morally, spiritually, economically, ecologically self-sufficient, that we don’t need the earth, the trees and the animals, that we can dispense with the hand that feeds us and the spirit which gives our hearts life.

Yet, hopefully, someone, something, some all but inalienable intuition calls us back: Can I hold that guinea pig please? Where’s the dog? I love horses. The children remind us.

I long to go to the forest, to listen to God. Humankind cannot live by Brexit, instant news, social media and the constant news of folly and disaster alone.

A colleague reminded me of these words by Henry Beston. They provide a fine commentary on book one, chapter one of the Bible, on the meaning of creation, of the gift of life among all other living beings:

We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.

I worry and fear daily, because the destiny of all other forms of life, and without it our own, now rests in our untrustworthy hands. Isaiah, chapter 11, is my ideal: ‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all [God’s] holy mountain’.

I hail this Native American prayer and want to wrap it round my arm, next to my heart, with my Tefilin, my phylacteries, every morning:

Every seed has awakened and so has all animal life.
It is through this mysterious power that we too
Have our being and we therefore yield to our neighbours,
Even our animal neighbours, the same right as
Ourselves, to inhabit this land.
Tatyanka Yotanka, Sitting Bull

 

 

Chanukah and Brexit

Happy Chanukah, on this fifth day of the festival.

There is a challenging connection between watching the Chanukah candles and looking at the news, as Parliament struggles miserably with the evident difficulties of Brexit.

Light, at least according to the mystics, represents the innermost of qualities. Yet on Chanukah we are commanded to place it in the reshut harabbim, the public square.

Or haganuz, the hidden light, is that first light with which God interrupted the reign of darkness over the face of the earth. While day after day and season by season the world now functions by means of the natural light from the sun and its reflection from the moon, that earlier inner light has not entirely disappeared.

It remains present but concealed. It is not just somewhere but everywhere, in each person and every life. It is the source of hope despite cynicism; of solidarity despite hatred; of kinship despite fragmentation, of faith despite despair. Its light is inalienable; it resides irremovably inside each and every one of us and no one can take it away. It is unquenchable; nothing, even long years in which we no longer believe it exists, can extinguish it entirely. It burns in secret, at the heart of life.

I conducted an experiment with my (large and lively) class of teenagers. I put out all the lights in the room, except for a single candle. I asked them: how many people can this one light inspire? They began to tell me who their inspiration was: Emeline Pankhurst, Nelson Mandela, their grandmother, the guitar playing of Jimmy Hendrix, their teacher, a friend who never gave up in spite of having an incurable illness. We talked about courage, determination, persistence, kindness. They were still telling me when the lesson ended.

These are the qualities of the lights we are commanded to place in the public square on Chanukah. They are most urgently needed there.

This autumn has brought several eightieth commemorations of events in Germany in the 1930’s. Weimar was a far younger and weaker democracy than Britain. Its constitution was adopted on 11 August 1919. It was almost strangled in its opening years by threats of revolution from the left and paramilitaries on the right. It survived for less than 14 years.

But the reasons for its collapse are nevertheless apposite. It failed because of weaknesses in the democratic system and flaws in its key leaders. The other parties failed to come together to keep Hitler’s exciting nationalist populism at bay. Aging and ailing, President Hindenburg made the weak-minded decision to accede to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. Vice Chancellor Von Papen was too weak to offer counter-balance and resistance. What followed we all sadly know.

There are plenty of differences. But…But it’s not good when Parliament is experienced as weak, irrelevant, or lacking in capacity. It’s not good for the state whose politicians, most of whom are honest public servants, are held in contempt as a class. It’s worse when some or many of them deserve it. It’s bad when in-fighting and self-interest prevent the coming together of minds to arrive at the best decisions possible for the country as a whole.

I therefore pray at this critical time that the lights of Chanukah will illumine our democracy and its institutions, the lights of faith, courage, creativity, intelligence and wisdom. May they enlighten and inspire us and the leaders and members of the institutions which have created and protected this remarkable country, Israel, the United States, and all other democracies throughout the world.

 

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