Music from over the fence: the joy of Lag Be’Omer

The sound of singing came over the fence with such compelling harmony that I simply had to get up from my desk and follow the music. It came from the home of my colleague, friend and neighbour, Rabbi Zahavit Shalev. Seated around the fire-pit in her garden were at least ten people playing the guitar and fifty more singing along. There were parents and children, and grandparents too. There was L. who still keeps the yellow star his family had to wear in the Budapest ghetto in his Passover Haggadah. There was M. who’d never been to a Jewish occasion before. There were lots of teens and young people.

It was the night of Lag Be’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, so-named after the measure of grain offered in the temple on its first night. The counting of the Omer marks the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. It’s traditionally a period of mourning, but Lag Be’Omer is a day of respite, a date for music and joy. ‘Despite the fact that Jewish history has more than its share of bleak and depressing chapters, the tradition sees itself as a joyous one,’ writes Arthur Green on the opening page of his delightful short book, Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas. Seeking God should fill the heart with joy: ‘Love, the wonders of nature, music, dance, and the close companionship of friends are all there to keep you on the path of joy.’ (We each have our strengths: ask me to join the dance and I’ve got two left feet; suggest a fifteen mile-hike in the wild countryside and the boots are on my feet.)

Lag Be’Omer has its hero, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in 2nd century Palestine. Betrayed to the Roman authorities for speaking ill of them, he flees to a cave where he hides with his son for twelve years. A well of water miraculously appears at the entrance, where a carob tree provides all the nutrition they need. Each day, every day, father and son study Torah together from memory.

Eventually Elijah announces that the Caesar who wanted them killed, has himself bitten the dust. Emerging from their cave, Rabbi Shimon and his son are dismayed at the sheer ordinariness of the world: ‘What,’ they exclaim, ‘People mundanely plough and sow, forgetting higher matters!’ A voice from heaven rebukes them: ‘Have you come out to destroy my world? Get back to your cave!’

When they re-emerge a year later (a period, perhaps, to process their post-traumatic stress) Rabbi Shimon has changed. Wherever he looks, he heals. Don’t remember me in sorrow, he says on his deathbed; let the anniversary of my death be a Hillula, a date for praising God with joy. That’s why Lag Be’Omer is also known as Hillula deRashbi (short for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai).

This story could be a parable for the whole history of the Jewish People, and other peoples, and individuals too, who’ve faced marginalisation and persecution. Don’t be daunted or diverted; deepen your own identity, seek the nourished of your spirit. Then, if and when the blessings of freedom come, don’t be disdainful of the world, don’t be bitter. Try to be a healer; bring understanding, foster conciliation. Behave in such a way that people will remember you with joy.

Judaism expresses this as the principle of simchah shel mitzvah, the joy which comes with practising God’s commandments, with doing what’s just, kind and good. ‘A mitzvah is a place where you can meet God,’ continues Arthur Green, ‘of course it makes you happy’ [his italics]. I would add that it’s also, or even more so, a place where we meet other people, our friends and companions in trying to bring happiness and healing in this challenging world.

Give me back my heart! The world in search of its soul

I was given a poem this week, an entirely unexpected, wonderful gift. It’s called ‘The Ballad of the Shot Heart.’ It relates to much I care about; let me explain why.
It was written by the Russian poet Nikolai Panchenko who served on the Voronezh front and was wounded twice in the Second World War:

At walking pace, my horseshoes ringing,
I know: my heart is getting smaller,
And suddenly – I have no heart!

With each burst of fire, he ‘donates’ a piece of his heart, losing it ‘bit by bit’ until there’s nothing of it left, because there’s an order ‘Don’t have a heart at war!’
He grows ever stronger; he helps save his country; he survives. But he’s lost his heart. Since then, he goes about trying to reassemble it:

“Give me a heart!” I shall knock at entrance halls.
“Give me a heart!” I shall cry through the door.
“Don’t you know, a man without a heart
Is more terrible by far than a beast who has one.”

These lines at once reminded me of another poem, by Avraham Sutzkever, about the lead plates of the Rom Printing Press, the best Jewish press in the world. The Rom Talmud serves to this day as the prototype for further editions. I’m lucky enough to have a set from the 1870’s, complete with the stamp of the Tzarist censorship. When I use a volume, I feel generations speaking from its pages, rich with the indentations of the letters. Sutzkever describes, in Yiddish, how he and other resistance fighters steal out of the Vilna Ghetto

…to seize
The lead plates at the Rom printing works.
We were dreamers, we had to be soldiers,
And melt down, for our bullets, the spirit of the lead.

One can turn a heart into heartlessness, and generations of culture into ammunition. But how does one turn them back?

Mercifully I’ve not been in the front lines. But I’ve met many whose souls carry the wounds of war, and of other forms of life’s many conflicts. I’ve learnt that repairing the heart and restoring the soul is the core of what religion is about.

Tikkun is an overused word, especially in the phrase tikkun olam, ‘repairing the world.’ But its true kabbalistic context remains closely relevant: it’s about reconnection, the part with the whole, the exhausted mind with the flow of life’s spirit. In the language of the mystics, it’s about restoring the spark of holiness, lost within us even to ourselves, to the healing divine radiance.

People don’t knock on my door, or on the gates of synagogues and churches, saying ‘Give me a heart.’ But that’s not because this isn’t what we want. It’s because we’re shy of such words, because we haven’t phrased our concerns in such language, even to ourselves. Or perhaps it’s because we aren’t consciously aware that it’s just this that we most need.

If, or rather when, we’re asked, what do we say? If we ourselves were asking, ‘Give me back my heart; restore me my soul!’ what would we do?

The Psalmist has an answer which speaks to me: ad avo el mikdeshei El, ‘until I come to God’s sacred spaces’ (73:17). I appreciate the plural because there are many such places: the quiet of prayer, which isn’t really about asking for things, but about re-finding ourselves in the presence of God; the welcome of a kind community; the affirmation which comes from being listened to with solicitude; the solitude and companionship of nature. All these are God’s sacred spaces.

We all need our hearts back. The world needs its heart back.

In spite of, or because of, all the bleak news

‘Be holy, because I, your God am holy,’ teaches the Torah in the wonderful portion we read this week which contains the commandment to love our neighbour and ‘most of the Torah’s central laws’ (Rashi) about justice and compassion.

The Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed long ago, but there remain two temples we’re still able to visit in search of holiness. They exist almost everywhere and are open to everyone, though finding the entrance is not always easy and we often have to be patient, especially with ourselves.

They are places of inspiration and restoration, healing and purification, great antidotes to the cruelty and violence of the world. One of those temples is in nature, the other in the human heart. To visit them is both a privilege and a necessity.

Late last night, out with the dog when the Heath was almost empty, I saw fellow devotees at a distance, sitting in silence, watching the sun go down, the canopy of the trees turn to black shadows and the emergent moon gain strength. The small birds concluded their dusk serenade. An owl cried.

One sometimes has to go alone into the empty spaces and the forests in search of holiness and pure thoughts, wrote Rabbi Kalmish Epstein (1753-1825) known as the Maor vaShemesh,first a follower, and then a leader of Hasidic mysticism.

I’m lucky; I have our garden. I go out early every day to feed the birds as I say the first morning prayers. ‘God, the soul you’ve given me is pure’ – there’s still dew on the ground; tal techi, dew of life’s renewal, the rabbis called it. ‘Blessed is God who opens the eyes of the blind’ – there’s that starling, waiting by the feeders; it’s got a nest a couple of gardens away.

God is present too in the temple of the human heart. Here, the entrance is not always open. Often it’s the way back to our own heart which is shut: too much pressure, vexation, depression, anxiety. We need something to help us rediscover our soul, music, a poem, the chance for ten minutes’ aloneness perhaps.

But frequently it’s being touched by the hearts of others which restores us to our own heart. I recall being in hospital rooms, just sitting. Matters had been spoken; now everyone was quiet. We were just listening, each of us. To what? Not to words or specific thoughts, but simply to life; not in apprehension or expectation, just listening. The Talmud has the briefest, best description of such moments: lev yode’a, the heart knows.

My God is present in these temples. I don’t know God’s pronouns or what the nature of that consciousness which flows through all this living being including me, which is articulate but not in words, and which, if it has to be translated into language, is rendered most simply as plain ‘I am.’ But I know God is here.

And it’s from here, within these temples, that I hear God command. The details and discipline are set down in the Torah and its commentaries; they are essential, guiding us through all life’s situations, whatever the state of society and our own consciousness. But the essence is simple: ‘Don’t destroy, don’t cause careless hurt. Serve all life faithfully, with respect and love.’

I write of these matters, even as I redo the host’s application forms for Homes in Ukraine, because the Home Office seems to have lost some of them and no answers are obtainable, and as I read the bleak news. I do so to remind not only others but myself that faith in life is true and deeply rooted, and that, just as we need faith in life, life needs faith in us.

Between Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut

When I was compiling the synagogue’s shivah book for prayers in the house of mourning, I came across this short teaching by the Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noach Barzovsky (1911 – 2000)

A broken heart…

must always belong to the world of building

not to the world of destruction.

Moved by these words, I included them in the short section on Hasidic teachings at the back of the book. By mistake they were moved by the printers to the front page. I left them there, where they stand as an introduction and a motto.

This Shabbat finds us between Yom HaShoah, commemorating the Nazi Holocaust, and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, marking the creation of the State of Israel. That in the wake of so much horror people could find the courage, energy, initiative and vision to establish a new country is remarkable.

I have only to think of my father. It’s his Yahrzeit on Yom Ha’Atzma’ut. How I wish I had asked him more questions, listened to him more and thought more carefully about his life while he was with us! The family fled from Germany to Jerusalem in 1937, where he became a main breadwinner for his parents and three sisters in the difficult years of the war and the even harder, uneasy and impoverished times between 1945 and 48.

Family letters explore the empty spaces after the Holocaust: Is there any news of Mama, the family matriarch, my great-grandmother, last heard of in Theresienstadt? A handful of Jews have returned to Holesov in Moravia, from where she was deported: is it worth travelling there to ask? What about my father’s aunt Trude, and her husband and son? Or Sophie, always elegant, who hoped she could live the evil times out in Czechoslovakia? There is no news. The gaps cannot be closed; the silences remain. None of them will be coming back.

Yet at the same time the surviving family participated in an extraordinary intellectual life and the building of the country. My father’s uncle Alfred was offered the directorship of the National Library and considered as a candidate for the Supreme Court. He travelled length of the land, teaching:

We saw another part of our beautiful countryside, the whole strip along the coast is like one flowering, fertile garden…We’re working hard at the preparations for the Jewish State. I’m responsible for the department of religious, family and inheritance law.

Tragically, he was killed in the convoy to Mount Scopus in the War of Independence on April 13, 1948.

I hear from so many other families too about this determination to build a new future after the Shoah: ‘My parents met in the DP camps in ’46; all they wanted to do was start a fresh life.’ ‘My mother lost everyone; nothing mattered to her so much as creating a new family.’

This capacity to ‘belong to the world of building’ despite so much loss, heartache and trauma is brave, visionary and extraordinary.

Faced today with the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and so much stress, trouble and stalemate across the world, that courage, hopefulness, creativity, imagination, determination, and zest for life is exactly what we all now need.

Passover and Earth Day – Our Hopes and Dreams

Hebrew has at least two words for freedom. Right now I’m mindful of them both, since tomorrow will be both the 7th day of Pesach and the 52nd celebration of Earth Day. Let me explain.

The older Hebrew term for freedom is dror. It derives from the root d.r.r. which, according to Brown, Driver and Briggs, my favourite Biblical dictionary, means to stream, flow abundantly, be luxuriant, even give light. The word dror occurs just once in this sense of freedom in the Torah, in reference to the Jubilee year when ‘you shall proclaim dror,freedom, to all the inhabitants of the earth.’ Dror can also mean a swallow, a bird whose swooping, delightful flight looks like the very embodiment of joyous liberty.

The later, rabbinic, term is herut. It is derived from the root h.u.r. meaning to be free, as opposed to being a slave. It may be linked to chorin, white garments worn by free persons. On Passover we trace our journey from servitude to becoming bnei chorin, people who wear the robes of liberty.

Today, I hope and dream of both kinds of freedom.

On the 7th day of Pesach we sing the song of the sea, reliving the relief and joy of the Children of Israel when, trapped between the sea and the rapidly approaching Egyptian army, the waters part and they cross in safety between the waves in which Pharaoh and his charioteers drown. The song celebrates what every refugee must feel when life-threatening danger lies behind them, when enemy bombs can no longer reach them, when the flimsy boats in which they’ve had to set sail reach the far-off shore. This is cherut, freedom, always provisional, always looking anxiously over its shoulder, from the long reach of oppression.

It is a freedom attained at a terrible price. The Talmud imagines God forbidding the angels to join in as the Children of Israel rejoice: ‘My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are busy singing!’ It is the freedom obtained by the defeat of tyranny, which always comes at the cost of innumerable lives. It is the victory of freedom we will commemorate on VE day on the 8th of May. It is the liberty my father felt when the siege of Jerusalem was finally lifted in 1948, cruel and bloody weeks after Israel’s Declaration of Independence. It is the freedom battled for today in Ukraine. As we are tragically realising yet again, that freedom must be fought for and defended. Therefore, though we know it is not yet at hand, we hope and pray for the day when every nation will be free and weapons put away forever.

In my mind that hope is dror, complete, joyous liberty: the liberty of the flowing stream, the radiant light, the flight of the swift and swallow. It is of this that Earth Day makes me dream. It is a day of commitment to practical actions: – ‘This is the moment to change it all — the business climate, the political climate. Now is the time for the unstoppable courage to preserve and protect our health, our families, and our livelihoods.’ (https://www.earthday.org/history/) But I see through it the vision of pristine forests and mountain streams, an agriculture which feeds populations yet respects the insects, birds and animals of the fields, a humanity at one in its interdependence with all living beings, all together part of God’s creation.

For these two freedoms, cherut and dror, we must hope and pray, and, in whatever way and to whatever extent we can, dedicate our lives.

Passover, and the eternal and urgent fight for freedom

I wish everyone in our community, our family and friends and all who celebrate the festival across the world, Chag Sameach for Pesach, zeman cheirouteinu, the festival of our freedom.

Throughout the long experience of the Jewish People, and in the history of peoples across the world, freedom has never been a condition to be taken for granted. Rather, it has been fought for, with God’s help, but with human vision, courage and determination. As we read in the Haggadah, and as we witness today, in every generation there are those who rise up against the basic principles of liberty, justice and human dignity and threaten the world with their totalitarian ambitions and ruthless brutality.

Earlier this week I joined a visit of solidarity to Ukraine at the request of local leaders, arranged by the Elijah Interfaith Institute. We were asked to speak of comradeship, hope and faith. But what mattered to us most was to listen, to be within the close distance of the heart’s hearing.

At an orphanage on the edge of Chernivtsi, where the staff had received a hundred mothers and children fleeing the war-ravaged east, one woman spoke to us on behalf of many:

This is the second time I’ve had to flee. This war’s not been six weeks, but eight years. I have a four-month-old baby. My mother is with me. I worry for my husband, all the time, and about the situation. The world needs to know.

In her, and in the kind, calm women who ran this remarkable place I met today’s incarnation of the biblical midwives who risked their lives in the defiance of tyranny: ‘No, Pharaoh, these babies shall live!’

In a powerful statement sent to accompany our interfaith visit and read out in the Chernivtsi theatre in Ukrainian, Pope Francis referenced an even earlier killer:

All this troubles our consciences and obliges us not to keep silent, not to remain indifferent before the violence of Cain and the cry of Abel, but instead to speak out forcefully in order to demand, in the name of God, the end of these abominable actions.

In the history of the Jewish People, and all humanity, freedom has only been won by struggle and maintained through vigilance. This struggle has not always been military. It encompasses the poet who composes from the conscience, that invincible force which tunnels beneath tyranny. It includes lawyers and journalists who defend the victims of state and gang violence in the face of judicial corruption and political convenience. It involves teachers who daily plan lessons to enable all their pupils to learn towards their dreams. It embraces those striving for the just, compassionate treatment of refugees.

Heroes of freedom include those who composed and ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and The United Nations Convention on refugees, and who put genocide and crimes against humanity on the international statute book, as documented in Philippe Sands’ East West Street. In all these achievements, the experiences and efforts of Jewish people, alongside others, have been key motivators.

Therefore, while Pesach celebrates freedom from, fromthe tyranny of Pharaoh and his like in all ages, it marks no less the importance of freedom to. From that freedom, that task of redemption, we are never free on earth – unless we take freedom for granted or hold it in little regard. For freedom is easily squandered.

Therefore, this Pesach we rededicate ourselves to the work of freedom in whatever ways we are able to pursue it.

Sometimes the battle for freedom must be fought in the front lines against the perpetrators of war crimes. But freedom is also won, and its preservation is only ensured, in the daily tasks of peacetime: combatting hatred and racism, working for social justice, caring for children, and in any activity or action in which the dignity of each person is recognised and validated.

We put our trust in the God of life, in the knowledge that God’s presence is working with us for the good and blessing of all living beings.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach

It’s the actions of ‘ordinary’ people which prepare the way for redemption

If I could time-travel, I’d love to meet Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (1505-1580) who wrote the Shabbat hymn ‘Lecha Dodi, Come my Beloved’ and tell him how much his wonderful song means to me – and thousands of others in each generation. Every line is my favourite, but today it’s the words ‘Mah tishtochachi umah tehemi: Why be confounded and why be downcast, for in you, God, the poor of my people trust.’

I have felt downcast. I’ve just watched footage of the terror attack in Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv, which left at least two dead. My heart goes out to the bereaved families and all those injured. I join everyone praying and working for an end to the conflict, the killing and wounding from which Israelis, and Palestinians, have so long suffered.

I’m worried also because I’ve heard nothing substantive from the Home Office about the visa applications we submitted to host the Ukrainian family of good friends. I feel useless in the face of the outrages perpetrated across that blood-soaked land.

I receive pleas too: Don’t forget the refugees from Afghanistan; they’re still without homes in which to rebuild their lives.

Then there are the troubles and heartache in our own community, always leaving me wishing I could do something more, something, in the Talmud’s phrase, to take at least a sixtieth part of the hurt away.

This adds up to why those words ‘don’t be downcast’ speaking to me so persistently today. They’re nudging my spirit, like my dog who prods me with her paw when she wants attention.

Therefore, I’m determinedly counting everything good which has touched my heart this week. Here’s a small selection, all just from yesterday:

-        In the first wave of the pandemic, I couldn’t practise medicine like usual. There were literally no treatments we could give. So all day I talked to patients and their families. Often I spoke with the same daughter every day. It felt deeply real. Many people wrote thank-you letters afterwards.

-        I’m checking out homes on behalf of London boroughs, because so many people have offered to host refugees. It feels so worthwhile.

-        May this picture of the dawn light through the blossom bring you joy.

-        I tried to capture in a photo a hundred swifts across the sky.

-        There’s thirty-two families in the synagogue baking challah and having fun. D’you know anyone who’d like some? It’s the last chance before Pesach!

-        I’m bringing together Jewish and Muslim leaders working for reconciliation.

Speaking of Pesach, here’s a short comment on our much-loved Haggadah. The text attributes the defeat of the tyrant Pharaoh to God alone: ‘Not through an angel, not via a messenger, but God, directly and in person’ saved the people.

But I wish the Haggadah could also have mentioned all those whose small, and not so small, courageous actions prepared the path to liberation. What about the midwives, the first to defy Pharaoh and refuse to murder babies? Or Moses’ mother, who hides her little boy in a reed basket? Or Pharaoh’s own daughter, who rescues a forbidden Hebrew child from the water? Or Moses’s sister Miriam, who, just a young girl, bravely runs up to her asking ‘Shall I find you a wet-nurse?’

Redemption is created from such brave, determined actions of ‘ordinary’ women, men and children. That’s why I value every positive deed and word I hear. They’re what make me ‘not confounded and not downcast.’ In them I put my trust, as our people always has. They bring God into our world.

So much injustice: we’re not at liberty to do nothing

One WhatsApp, two emails, and three rabbinic sayings. (Is it only me, or is the attempt to catch up with all those texts an experience of constant failure for others too?)

Here’s the WhatsApp: it’s from X, who stayed with us some years ago for a few months before he got long term leave to remain in the UK. I’ve stopped filing his messages under ‘refugee’ and put them in the ‘family’ folder instead. He wrote:

‘Lost 4 kilos. Lost my momentum. I’m in hospital tonight. Covid negative.’ Then came ‘Sending me home in a taxi. I can’t speak properly.’

That had Nicky and I searching for his flat number in West London late last Saturday night with a bag of food and jars of soup and, specially requested, flowers from our garden. Bless him, he’s a lot better now. There are some requests to which it’s easy to respond.

Next the first email, which came on Wednesday. Others receive dozens like it:

This family haven’t had a hot meal or anything cooked since Sunday. No cooker, no house ware. There are 4 children aged 6 – 13. Address in previous email. Delivery ideally today/tmw. If I can update them with something definite, that will reassure emotionally as well as practically. Neither parent has the right to work. I just don’t know how they’re supposed to survive.

By the time I got this alert several people had already helped. The family are refugees. But as we know on this icy first day of T S Eliot’s ‘April, the cruellest month’, you don’t have to be a refugee to be unable to afford both food and heating, or either, or sometimes neither. We’re a country of massive social inequality.

Now the second email:

I’ve heard from my family at last. They’ve managed to get out of Ukraine. We’re the only relatives who can help. They need to be near us. Do you know hosts who’ll sponsor them?

Fortunately, we do. The reason I’ve never left my community is because of the number of people who’re committed to living actively and consistently by the laws of justice and kindness.

Here, then, are the three teachings of the rabbis (freely translated). The first is the most famous:

Hillel used to say, ‘If I don’t stand up for myself, who am I? But if I exist only for myself, what am I?

In other words, who I am isn’t just about me but how I interact with and contribute to others.

The second is the most radical:

There are four attitudes to money: 1. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours. But there are those who say that this is the way of Sodom.

‘What’s mine is mine’ sounds fair at first hearing. But what kind of society are we if I don’t care where that leaves you? ‘You haven’t enough food for your children? Your problem!’ How can such an attitude conceivably be just?

The third saying is the most chastening for those of us fortunate to have plenty today:

Poverty is a turning wheel.

I often find myself thinking about my father. He fled aged sixteen from a middle-class home to virtually nothing. I remember him speaking about ‘that gnawing feeling of constant hunger…’ He was in the siege of Jerusalem: ‘People were eating grass,’ he said.

When X kept saying thank you after he’d stayed with us for a while, I told him: ‘Who can know? Maybe one day your descendants will be looking after mine.’ Obviously, I hope not. I hope there’ll be a better world for everyone.

What’s happening right now is overwhelming. We can’t do everything, but we must do something. There are thousands of ways to care, from bringing people joy through music, to helping children learn to read, or cooking for a shelter. We are not at liberty to do nothing.

 

 

The necessity of hope

Who can live without hope?

I went running late last Friday, as I often like to do. There’s something special about the night of Shabbat, more deeply resonant, as if among the trees one could overhear God blessing the work of creation.

But what was that noise from the river below? Could it really be birdsong? It wasn’t an owl’s call, or the alarm with which a rook might charge to a higher branch. It was a hovering music, anxious yet sweet, a salutation from the soul of the mysterious dark. It was that cry I’d longed for years to hear,

That deep thrilling note that is wilder than all,
The voice of the wailing curlew. (James McKowen)

I don’t often spend Shabbat at a Christian retreat in the Yorkshire Dales. But I was invited by leaders of A Rocha, the Catholic organisation which created Eco Church, on which we modelled EcoSynagogue. I haven’t joined in meditation before with farmers, leaders in forestation, officers of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, for all of whom their patient work was a commitment rooted in faith. Faith in what? The prayers were brief and simple; in my thoughts I periodically substituted the words ‘through the eternal God’ and, with that, felt completely at home. For this was faith in life itself, the enduring strength of its deep roots.

A team from the Scottish Highlands spoke of their hopes for the next hundred years. The head of Forestry England referred to plans for the next two centuries, before acknowledging that climate change would inevitably necessitate as yet unpredictable adaptations.

One, two hundred years: those figures stuck in my mind. The timescale of climate emergency is a decade, twelve years minus the months since the clock in Time Square was set ticking its countdown to catastrophe. I believe in the severe urgency of the hour; action now must be a non-negotiable commitment. We owe it to our children.

But it’s equally essential to listen to the language of hundreds of years. For here lie vision and hope. I won’t see the branches of the oaks I helped plant reach out and attain their crowns. Yet the thought that they, or other trees, shall, – that comforts me; it leads my soul the quiet waters by.

There’s an evil war in Europe; Mr Putin knows neither humanity, justice nor mercy. Millions have lost everything. Around the world governments, seemingly with little moral compass, make short-term decisions for which the poor, the young, the least powerful and the non-human worlds of nature must suffer most. Who wouldn’t feel despair?

Yet against this humanity in many millions sets compassion and determination: we’ll give what we can, we’ll offer our homes to refugees. We’ll protest until our local council and MPs make the essential, right decisions. We’ll put up bird boxes, plant trees. If there’s no social justice, we’ll fight for social justice. If there’s not enough environmental care, we’ll go out and we’ll care.

Yet even as we are impelled by that ‘fierce urgency of now’ we need hope in the future. We need the language of long-term. We don’t know what trees will thrive best for the next hundred years or what birds will sing and where. But there shall be trees, and birdsong, and life.

I went out again next day, and the following night, and heard that music again. ‘Piercing, soul-aching,’ Mary Colwell calls it in Curlew Moon:

The pauses are as poignant as the cries themselves; they define the silence and fill it with expectation and emotion. Given a religious turn of mind, you could almost describe it as a benediction.

Together on the side of life

Please don’t lose heart in these cruel times. (I’m often talking to myself when I write these Friday notes). We shan’t and can’t lose heart.

These are harsh weeks. We constantly hear bad news: many among us worry about beloved family and friends caught up in this brutal war on Ukraine; all of us worry about those who worry. But we can’t and shan’t lose heart, because we’re together on the side of life.

In Jerusalem, it’s Purim today. The streets are full of children, and grown-ups, in fancy dress. Millions are busy practising the commandments of the festival, mishloach manot, bringing gifts of food to friends and neighbours, and mattanot la’evyonim, giving where there’s need. These simple actions convey a simple message: I care about you.

The Purim story is nasty and mean. It’s all there beneath the purple trappings of rich, indulgent society: trafficking, exploitation, manipulation, racism and attempted genocide. But hate is not the message its heroes sought to promulgate. ‘Remember!’ they taught, – but do so in order to seek peace and goodness. Start by showing in small, daily kindness that the people around you matter to you.

I often think about the Biblical meaning of the Hebrew verb yode’a, which translates as ‘know’. Except that it expresses something more than neutral cognition: what yode’a really means is ‘know and care.’

Lo yadati says Cain after killing his brother: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ – I don’t know and I couldn’t care less. Lo yadati says Pharaoh to Moses, ‘I don’t know God’ and therefore I don’t care about you or your ridiculous demand for freedom.

When people attain power who don’t care about the lives of others and who consider themselves accountable to no one, neither to God nor humanity, they inflict immeasurable hurt.

We fight back by caring. The Torah tells us that God ‘knows the pain’ of the Children of Israel in their slavery. We each contain a fraction of that God who knows. That infinitesimal portion may be invisible, dissolved somewhere within us, but it’s what gives us our conscience, heart and spirit. It’s what makes us love. It’s what makes us horrified when millions of people are bullied and bombed out of their homes and forced to become refugees. It’s what makes us say, ‘What can I do to help?’

There’s something essential which unites people who care. We may live in separate countries and have no common language. We may be concerned, at least ostensibly, about different matters: for children, or people rich in years, or animals, or nature. But we are all touched by the same spirit and impelled by the same imperative: life matters; life must be cherished; I have to do something for life.

I recently heard Hugh Warwick speak about hedgehogs. I love them, he said, so I fight for them. He was voicing a truth which embraces far more than those prickling animals, endearing as they are: we fight for what we love.

Loving life teaches us to love the lives of others, and to fight for them, and for life itself, in any way we can. Even if what we do feels insignificant, trivial, not much more than nothing, we should never say ‘It makes no difference.’ The issue is not ‘it’s so little that I do,’ but ‘What’s the little that I can do?’

I’m inspired and humbled by people who really care. It’s not just what they do; it’s the spirit they impart, the strength and solidarity they convey – that we’re together on the side of life.

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