What our lives add up to in the end

The best film I’ve seen this year lasts just 30 seconds; it’s been screened in one place only, on a friend’s iPhone. I asked him, ‘How does your daughter-in-law-to-be get on with your young twins?’ He opened his What’s App and showed me them throwing themselves into her arms with delight.

That needs no explanation, – but here’s a long-winded effort. God’s first words to Abraham are ‘Lech Lecha, Set forth! Be gone!’ With them, the journey of the Jewish People, and of every individual ever born, begins.

They sound at life’s beginning, when, according to the kabbalists, the soul parts reluctantly from God and descends into the body. They sing in the wind which carries us ineluctably over life’s ocean: ‘Onward, the sailors cry.’ They’re the words those who love us will say quietly after we die, ‘He’s gone.’ They’re the unspoken hope that somehow life’s journey continues, in realms unknowable from earth.

That’s why Lech Lecha resonates inside me, so that I tremble when we read those words in the Torah, as we shall tomorrow.

I used to be drawn to the mystics who, with typical licence, read lecha not simply as an emphatic particle, ‘Get thee gone’, but as ‘to you’: Go to yourself; make life a journey of ever deeper self-discovery until you reach the very wellspring of your spirit:

Go to yourself! Travel until you reach the roots of your soul. (Rebbe David of Lilov)

Go … to the land which I will show you: Go to the place where I’ll reveal to you your own true self. (Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi)

Life is, undeniably, thankfully, a voyage of self-discovery, though it goes in no straight line.

However, nowadays I’m compelled by a more basic explanation. It too is a play on words, though not one I’ve encountered in the classic commentaries. ‘Go to you’: make life a journey toward ‘you’, towards not yourself but other people. For who we are is what we mean to them, – and they to us.

I’ll never forget someone that I greatly respect said at the stone-setting for her husband: ‘Your place was in my arms; now it’s in my heart.’ Our ultimate place, the lands we reach on our journey, lie in each other’s hearts.

I’ve been to cemeteries too often in these last years. I look across the field of graves and the questions rise from the very earth: ‘What does it add up to? What does it all mean?’

‘Go to you’, is the best answer I know. We devote our lives to one another. We do so consciously, as parent, child, partner, friend, colleague, neighbour. We need to give; we want to make life kinder, better, gentler, for the other person.

We go beyond that circle, as we must. Yesterday I was asked: ‘Will your write a commentary about this picture from your community?’ I opened the file with the photo and saw an elderly doctor from our congregation gently examining a refugee. ‘Go – to the you of others who need you’ is God’s most urgent command. How many voices are there right now in the world, crying ‘Is anyone out there for me? Will you go – to me?’

Our places in each other’s hearts are not always good. We lack the power to select only those which show us best. They also include the wrongs and hurts we leave behind, which is why apology and healing are so important.

In the end I believe the journey to find ourselves and our journey toward others are the same. Ultimately, we are what others garner of us; that’s what continues to live of us after we’re gone.

That’s why those 30 seconds are my favourite film, that beautiful innocent image of throwing oneself so completely into such welcoming arms.

Was Noah the Greta Thunberg of his day?

Nature isn’t all loveliness. Yesterday just outside my study I saw a bird prey in the act of tearing open the pigeon it had just killed. I thought it was a sparrow hawk, but minutes later a peregrine perched by the window, looking for another victim.

Nevertheless, I feel awe, wonder, curiosity and joy before nature. Like many, I increasingly appreciate how interdependent we are with the natural world, from the rainfall to the quality of the soil, to the bees and the trees. Ruin nature and we destroy ourselves.

So Noah, the ‘righteous man before God’, the preserver who saves two of every species and ushers them into a new world, ought to be my hero. But he’s not; at least not entirely.

Here’s why. He simply obeys orders. When God tells him the world is wicked and about to be destroyed, he builds the ark as instructed. But he doesn’t argue back. He doesn’t say: ‘How can you, the creator, who holds such power, obliterate your own handiwork which you just recently called ‘good’ or ‘very good’?

Noah says neither a single word to God nor so much as a syllable of warning to his contemporaries. He could have taken up Dylan Thomas’s refrain: ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’ He could have done like the Jonah who, albeit reluctant, finally got to Nineveh and, covered in whale-spit, shouted down the streets: Change your ways or else this place will be destroyed.

The Zohar has this to say about Noah:

When he came out of the ark and saw the world in ruins, he started to weep and said to God: ‘You, who’re called “merciful and gracious,” shouldn’t you have shown mercy to your creatures?’ God replied: ‘Foolish shepherd; now you tell me! Why didn’t you say that when I instructed you…to build the ark?’ (Zohar 1:69)

Perhaps Noah thought there was no point: God’s mind can’t be changed. Maybe he saw in the power-holders of his day the same obstinacy and bondage to self-interest which has so often characterised it since. But in the Torah, he doesn’t even try. He isn’t the Greta Thunberg of his day.

Avivah Zornberg quotes Andre Neher: Noah shows ‘unqualified apathy.’ That’s harsh, since he does build the ark and cajole even the lions, elephants and mosquitoes aboard. But as Zornberg says in her own words:

[T]he impact of Noah’s silent acquiescence in the destruction of the world is devastating.

The rabbis, as ever, filled in the gaps in the biblical account. What happened during all the years it took Noah to build that ark? His contemporaries mocked him, and he answered back. But even here, Zornberg notes, his ‘imaginative solipsism’ is apparent: God ‘told me to make an ark,’ he says to them, ‘so that I and my household may escape.’

We, on our imperilled planet, in our ‘generation on the cusp,’ need to do more. The Biblical cue lies in the words Mordechai passed to Esther in the hour before Haman’s decree of destruction: ‘If you remain silent now…’

We need to speak up, and above all act, personally, communally, locally, nationally, internationally, for the sake of our beautiful world, on behalf of humanity, for the future. It’s a wonderful world and its children and children’s children deserve to receive it that way.

World of beauty, world of horrors?

I’ve never understood this; I’ve always been troubled. The Torah opens with a magnificent poem, a paean to the glory of creation. That first chapter of Genesis is utterly beautiful; the dawn light shining through the division of the waters, the first green stalks above the soil, the fruit-bearing trees, the fish in the rivers, the birds of the air, and on land the animals and humankind, in harmony all together.

Yet within scarcely three columns Cain has murdered his brother and his great- great- grandson Lemech is busily boasting to his wives that he’s killed a child. By the end of column five even God acknowledges, shockingly, that it’s all been a terrible mistake and it would have been better if humans had never existed in the first place: ‘I’m sorry I made them.’

How can something so wonderful descend so quickly into disaster?

Then I realised: this is the world we live in every day.

It’s full of beauty. The magic may be greatest when one’s young, the first fallen leaves to stomp through, the first excitement of snow. But one doesn’t get over it. On the contrary, the older one gets the more precious it often all becomes: that view crossed by the sun’s low rays of the autumn woodlands, yellow and orange, down to the fields with the ponies above the lake:

So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise. (Dylan Thomas: Fern Hill)

It’s true, at least it seems so in our moments of wonder: God renews the work of creation every day.

But the cruelty, misery and injustice are no less real.

Late last night I casually picked up The Guardian’s Long Read but paid careful attention when I saw that it was written by Zarlasht Halaimzai, whom I know. Her family were refugees from Afghanistan; now she devotes her life to helping others forced by violence and war to flee their homes:

Don’t leave the people in darkness, I pleaded. (The Long Read)

Most of her letters to officials across the globe received no reply at all.

Jewish leaders, she wrote, responded with heartfelt solidarity:

Many recognised their own family’s experiences in the images of parents handing their children over…

Several members of our community are desperately trying to get people out of the reaches of the Taliban. ‘And it’s only one family out of tens of thousands,’ a friend said as we sat last week in our Succah. ‘Whoever saves one life is as if they saved the world,’ we all replied.

Just that is our predicament: we stand at the interface between life’s wonders and its horrors. There, too, lies our responsibility. What can we do to help or save one person, one child, one living thing, one tiny corner of the earth?

The Torah does not state that God regrets making the world; God is sorry only because of the way human beings behave. But God, tradition tells us, longs to rejoice in creation once again. What can we do to make that happen in one more child, one more parent’s heart, even in the free flight of the birds? That’s the everlasting challenge those first five columns of the Torah bequeath to us.

 

Hoshana Rabba

I’m taking the last opportunity in these High Holydays to wish everyone Shanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah, a good and worthwhile year.

I’ve just come home from the beautiful Hoshana Rabba – the Great Hoshana – service, in which we circle the synagogue seven times just as the pilgrims in Jerusalem circled the altar when the Temple till stood. We chant the ancient litany composed by a community which was deeply connected to nature:

God, save humankind and animals; body, soul and spirit; bone, ligament, and skin.
Renew the face of the earth, with the planting of breath-giving trees.
Send rain to make the earth fragrant, to restore abandoned lands.
Save the olive crop from falling, the wheat from locusts, the vines from worms, humankind from terror…

If once we thought such prayers quaint, far removed from our high street realities, we realise now that we’ve been mistaken. They could have been written today, as we experience a renewed appreciation of our dependence on the earth, the rainfall, the green life of nature, and even the wellbeing of bees, invisible insects and fungi.

To me and many others this year, Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world and the celebration of creation, is closely linked to COP 26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which follows a month from now. The ancient liturgy therefore speaks straight to the heart, with its deep attachment to the earth, its humility, and its beseeching chorus ‘Hoshana - Save’. This is expanded at the end of each section to ‘God and I, please save,’ referencing that long-standing partnership between humanity, God and nature which we so urgently need to restore, spiritually as well as ecologically, and in which we need to take a more conscious and constructive role.

The High Priest himself, after completing the complex atonement rituals on Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the year, concluded with a prayer for

a year of grain, wine and oil; a year of dew, rain and warmth, a year of blessing over bread and water, a year of plenty, a year of peace and tranquillity.

May this be God’s will for all humankind and all life on earth, and may we do our utmost to contribute to its fulfilment in the time ahead.


PS Please wish me luck for the virtual London Marathon this Sunday. If all goes well, I hope to finish at shul around (ideally a little before!) 11.45 or 12.00. If it doesn’t go so well, I hope to finish by Chanukah latest. You can see my route and the causes I’m running for here.

Virtual London Marathon

I’m planning to run (slowly) the virtual London Marathon on Sunday 3rd October 2021 to support World Jewish Relief and Israel Guide Dogs.

Please help them (and my stamina) by donating via these links:

Donate to World Jewish Relief
Donate to Israel Guide Dogs

Thank you!

Virtual London Marathon route plan (excluding various loops and pit-stop details)

I hope to start from home before 7.00, taking East End Road to East Finchley, then round the block and back via Long Lane, Squires Lane, Summers Lane, Ashurst Road, and on to the main road up to Whetstone; then via Friern Barnet Lane, Russel Lane and Gallants Park Road up Cat Hill and down Bramley Road to take a left opposite Oakwood Station into Trent Park; then out through the main entrance onto Cockfosters Road, across via Hadley Wood to High Barnet, along Wood Street, left at The Gate pub, across to Totteridge Lane, all the way along to Longland Drive, up to Nether Street, then, with any extra loop and circuits of Avenue Park, back to shul for Minchah. I hope to manage to run at least two thirds, and walk or crawl the rest!

Thank you for your support.

RJW with puppy

The joy of Torah

A thing I love is that one never completes reading the Torah. Within minutes of chanting its final verses, we’re back again at the beginning and the year-long journey commences all over again.

At the time I didn’t understand. I’d been instructed to go and see my great-uncle Ernst on one of his stop-offs in London between his home in New York and his family in Jerusalem. I duly stood, a dubious teenager, before the venerable man. He looked up at me from the book he was studying and said with a smile, in his accented voice: ‘I try to learn a different commentary on the Torah every year.’

Ernst had been conscripted to the Austro-Hungarian Army for the duration of World War 1; had trained as a doctor and worked in Frankfurt, been imprisoned by the Nazis in Buchenwald, escaped to Britain where, as an ‘enemy alien’, he was shipped to the isle of Mann; had sailed to America in convoy in 1940 and started a new life in New York, where his neighbours in the impoverished block where the family, dispossessed but safe, now settled, found in him ‘the best doctor we ever had.’

Maybe it was the Torah which gave him the strength, not just ahavat Torah, love of Torah, which he inherited from his rabbinic parents, but the fact that Torah remained fresh to him, an undiscovered country through which each year’s new commentary would guide him to different peaks and depths. His life remained an adventure until his hundredth birthday.

It’s Simchat Torah, this Tuesday night and Wednesday: – the ‘Rejoicing of the Law’ as the ghastly formal translation has it. Hopelessly three-legged myself, I still love the singing and dancing. But the deepest magic is the moment when we start all over again from that first ‘In the beginning’ when God says ‘Let there be light.’ Moses’s eyes have scarcely been closed in death after beholding the promised land which he sees but may not enter, before we commence once more with that beautiful poem to the as-yet uninhabited earth, the unspoiled wonder of creation. What’ll happen this time? Not, of course, in the columns of the Torah: they’re always the same. But what’ll they mean to you, me and humanity, in this tempestuous world?

One might think it dull to reread the identical stories every year, those same laws, those boring lists of names. The Torah isn’t about perfect people either, so we get them all over again, those familiar mistakes, those old misunderstandings. Isn’t there anything new to be had?

I don’t think that way anymore. On the contrary, how lucky we are that these same narratives accompany us year by year, generation after generation, our Shabbat-fellows, thought-fellows, the core and substance of that constant conversation across centuries and continents. What does that word mean? What did Rashi say? How come it sounds so different to me now from how it seemed last year? It’s not just that we measure out our lives in Torah portions, but that they are the measure of us. What’s the ladder made of this year which connects my heaven and my earth? Who’s going up? And coming down? Will I find liberation? Will I hear God this time round?

I’ve taken to storing in my prayer books and Torah editions those small cards with the names of those who perished, which come with the yellow candles for Holocaust Memorial Day. There I find them year by year. But not just them; my family are here too. My father loved this phrase; he used to sing it at the end of his life. And didn’t that girl who had her Bat-Mitzvah six years ago say something gripping about that verse?

It’s not just that we dance with the Torah; we dance in it; and it sings and dances in us. That’s the simchah, the joy, of Torah.

 

The joy of the Succah

The distribution of Jewish festivals around the year is scarcely an example of equality and balance. Rosh Hashanah falls on the first of Tishrei, the fast of Yom Kippur follows on the tenth, and the eight days of Succot begin on the fifteenth. There’s hardly time to breath, let alone cook.

The tradition is to start building the succah, a small booth or hut, straight after the fast. I love this! We take our contemplations in our heart, a hammer and scissors in our hands, and turn our inner resolutions into practical actions.

For a succah is special; it can be as small as ten handbreadths high, or as tall as twenty cubits, so small just one person can sit in it, or big enough for a hundred. The roof must be of leaves and branches and the walls can be constructed out of virtually anything. But whatever the case, a succah must be built with affectionate respect because it’s a holy space, and these are some of the reasons why.

A succah is a place of humility. As the Mishnah says, a house is keva, permanent, but a succah is ara’i, temporary, like life itself, reminding us of the passing of our days, a thought set deeply in our hearts in these chastening times.

A succah is a space of grace. The earliest sources speak of noi succah, the beauty of the succah. They tell of decorating it with corn and fruits, flasks of wine, sacks of flour and jars of oil. For Succot is a harvest celebration and the succah is a place of thankfulness for the produce of the year. (Like many Jewish gardeners, we grow for the Succah as much as for the pot.)

A succah is a place of joy, built to mark the happiest of the festivals, the chag par excellence, as the Mishnah tells: Jerusalem was lit with lamps all night; the rabbis and the people danced all night. Making the succah is itself a joy too; it’s the paramount example of simchah shel mitzvah, the happiness to be found in following God’s commandments.

A succah is a space of connection between humankind and nature. We recognise our indebtedness and dependence, our need for the gifts of the soil. It teaches us the most urgent of contemporary lessons, to respect and reverence God’s earth.

A succah is a place of welcome. One brings guests to eat there, spiritual and temporal, summoning one’s ancestors, starting with Sarah and Abraham. But they refuse to come unless one invites friends and neighbours as well. For the succah reminds us to offer shelter, especially to refugees, as the Torah says, ‘For I [God] made the Children of Israel dwell in Succahs when I brought them out of the land of Egypt,’ and as it says also, ‘For you know the soul of the stranger.’

A succah is a space of refuge, as it says in the Psalms, ‘You hide me in Your Succah on the day of evil.’ Impermanent, easily blown away by a strong wind, it’s scarcely a castle or fortress. But it offers a deeper protection, foretelling a world in which everyone will be able to dwell safely ‘under their vine and fig tree.’

For a succah represents a tranquillity, succat shalom, the canopy of God’s peace, towards which the whole world should aspire. The mystics call the succah Tsila Di’Mehemanuta, the shade of the Faithful One, for it represents God’s protection, so badly needed by so many until the dawn of that better, future era of universal harmony.

So build with joy. If you have the opportunity, do make, or share in making, your own succah. If not, please help creating that most important of all succahs, a world where humanity, nature and God are all at peace with each other, – a task which needs the co-operation of us all

 

As Yom Kippur Approaches

I write with that trepidation in the heart which I always feel as Yom Kippur approaches, this year maybe more than ever. We stand before God, the world, our community, the people we love and our own soul.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, later known as the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, asked the question: Since all through the year we pray for forgiveness three times a day in every service, what’s different about this season? He answered that in the midst of the ceaseless daily grind we can just about manage to apologise for particular wrongs we’ve done, harsh words, thoughtless actions. But during the Days of Awe we take time to reflect on the whole of our life, the arc of our days and their purpose, who we are, through to our core being, down to our hidden-most heart and conscience where we encounter the living God.

What sustenance do we have for that inner journey?

What can we take? I’ve been to the cemetery too often during the past months. I walk between the rows and realise I’m among friends. I talk to some of them, tell them I still love them. I believe they say back to me, ‘Keep living. Try to do what’s right. Be kind. Until you join us.’ No other festival than Yom Kippur says so clearly ‘your days pass like a shadow.’ But it also says: life is magnificent, precious and tender, an immeasurable privilege. Cherish it. So we take with us before God the love of both the living and the dead.

What can we do?

Judaism teaches that every action is important. Maimonides asks us to imagine that not only our whole life but the entire world is always balanced on the sharp fulcrum between worthy and unworthy, kind and cruel, good and bad. Our next deed will determine which way we and our destiny tip. Everything matters. Therefore we must keep faith that we can make a difference, enable one family to be less hungry, give one person a roof, heal or comfort one person in body or spirit. ‘Never despair, never give up,’ taught Rebbe Nachman of Breslav (who himself battled with despair). We take with us on our journey our unremitting determination to do good.
Before whom are we accountable?

The obvious answer is ‘God’. But where do I find that God? I overheard a good-humoured exchange on zoom yesterday. ‘Move back a little,’ one participant said to another, ‘You’re too near your screen for me to see you.’ I’d sometimes thought the Torah taught that God was invisible because God was so far away. But perhaps it’s because God is so near that we don’t see.

God is present in our conscience whenever we hear truth, and in our heart whenever we feel moved and touched. God is in every person; God’s breath is the life-force within us all. God’s vitality is in the birds, and in the trees which sway to God’s song, most audibly so at night when the noisier world is silent.

What reply might we receive when we bring our life and soul before God? Without words God tells us: know my presence; listen to me; hurt no one and nothing. Love, cherish and nurture my world.

What do we say in response? The Torah suggests just one word: ‘Hinneni, I am here,’ which Rashi explains as an expression of readiness and humility.

For the fate of the world is in the balance and we have agency. The purpose of our life is to serve, care, heal, and endeavour with whatever capacities and time we’ve been gifted, to do right and good.

20 years since 9/11

I knew that tomorrow would be 9/11, twenty years since the terror attack against America and the horrendous destruction of the twin towers. I knew it in my head. But seeing footage; listening to the voices of people who were there at the time, men, women, wives who took that last call from their husbands; watching the firemen; listening to them speak both then and now two decades later, – that brings 9/11 home at a very different depth. I remember the shock at the time; even three thousand miles away it felt as if the pavement was shaking. The shock remains even now.

Two years ago, in that age when one still travelled easily, Nicky and I visited the memorial at ground zero. What can one say? It’s heart-rending.

For some there has been healing. For others, like the woman filmed as she stared out to sea and said she was still mourning the man she loved most in all the world, the sorrow is scarcely diminished.

Suffering begets compassion. But it often also leads to more suffering, as so many desperate to escape Afghanistan know only too well.

I am sure I can say on behalf of my community that our hearts go out to everyone to whom 9/11 has brought, and still brings, grief and pain.

Tomorrow is also significant in the Jewish year. It’s Shabbat Shuvah, which mediates between the New Year and the Day of Atonement. Teshuvah is usually translated as ‘repentance’. Though accurate, this has, for me at least, a limited resonance, as if teshuvah were always about sin. Teshuvah is more comprehensive than that: it’s a rethinking of how we are in the world; it’s a questioning, a re-evaluation, of what matters.

During the shivah for my father – I can’t believe it’s fourteen years since he died – my teacher Rabbi Magonet came up to me after the prayers as I sat on the traditional low chair and said very quietly, ‘This is about teshuvah.’

At first I was puzzled: was he suggesting I’d done wrong? Then I understood that what he meant was something deeper: This is about what truly matters, why we’re here, what it’s all for.

The questions aren’t complicated. On the contrary, it’s the simplicity which makes them so searching: What am I doing with my life? How am I using the limited time I have here on this earth?

The answers aren’t complex either. The heart doesn’t always need sophisticated terminology: It has love at its core, and sorrow for all the hurt that has so wrongly come to exist in the world. It wants to heal, as a mother longs to protect her child. As the rabbis said: Lev mevin – the heart understands.

The heart is such a small and vulnerable organ to set against all the violence, injustice and pain in the world, planes flown with incomprehensible brutality into towers full of people, bombs, the injuries which cruelty and illness inflict every ordinary day.

Or is it? It has remarkable resilience. It often responds to the worst life can do with the best that it can offer in return. It has depth upon depth of strength. When, all but exhausted, it feels it has no resources left, it finds replenishment through the companionship of friends, in the kindness of others, in wonder, even within the smallest of things, and through that spirit which flows subliminally and invisibly and which communicates without words: I am with you; I am life.

If we can return to those depths, we will know what we have to do with our days and our years.

 

A Prayer for the World on the Jewish New Year

God,
The world has so much beauty, such wonder in a moment,
Yet so much suffering – body pain, heartache, mind ache,
And fear – as if the future might collapse like a rotten floor.

We call on you in these bewildering years
Not as a remote God, not as distant other,
For you inhabit everything; the life of all creation is your breath,
The songs of wrens and owls, and humans also, is, all of it, your music.

We need to know your presence, feel you here in consciousness and conscience,
God, closer to us ‘than our own body and our soul.’ (Yehudah HaLevi)
We have to be attentive to each other.
Speak to us from inside our mind and heart
So that our actions become the articulation of your will.

You are near to us in all with whom we ever shared the bonds of care.
What is a heart but chambers full of people,
From whom our very thought is inextricable, even after death?
Speak to us through them.

God, who taught us always to listen to the stranger,
You, who have become their brother and sister refugee
In search of shelter and compassion here on earth,
Make us hear you in their weary hope, and hopelessness.

God, who calls out from all existence,
In the brave compulsion which makes the small birds overfly the oceans,
In the soil itself, where mineral become energy in the life-force of
and turns back again to matter in the falling of the leaves,
God for whom

There / is nothing too ample
for you to overflow, nothing
So small that your workmanship
is not revealed (RS Thomas: Alive)

Make us know you in the rivers and the trees.

Waken our heart, summon our mind, alarm our conscience
With all the powers of wonder, tenderness, compassion, even tears,
So that love for you and your creation
Ignites our fervour and guides our plans
To serve you here on earth in all we do.

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