The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

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Why saying thank you matters

‘There are two reasons,’ my father used to explain, why the cat can’t say the Grace after Meals. Firstly, she can’t read; secondly she never thinks she’s had enough.’ He was referring specifically to the verse which, as it happens, we read in the Torah tomorrow: ‘You shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God.’ Our dogs have since acquired a similar trait to Fluffy, the cat of my childhood.

Judaism is a culture of blessing. I didn’t know the phrase hakarat hatov until a friend from Glasgow days drew it to my attention. It means recognising and appreciating the good which has been done to us. She phoned unexpectedly from Israel to thank me for publicly acknowledging how much her family had helped my father, my brother and I after our mother died. ‘Thank you for the hakarat hatov,’ she said.

There was a lot to be grateful to them for. They, the Gaba family, took us into their home almost every Friday night for many months, taught us the Shabbat songs, made wonderful meals of which my favourite part was always the jelly with tiny air bubbles in it, then saw us safely home. The two daughters took me to play with zoo animals while the boys challenged my brother at chess. Sadly, neither of the girls is living anymore; Phyllis was knocked down by a car and Judith, who’d phoned me scarcely twelve months ago, died just weeks ago of cancer.

Whenever I think of hachnasat orchim, hospitality and welcome, I think of that family; they are my role model for what chesed, true kindness, means.

The textual basis of hakarat hatov is the Mishnah’s insistence that we bless life for the good we receive. The formula is simple: ‘Blessed are you God…who is good and does good.’ Strangely, I’ve only heard this blessing recited twice in my life – and once it was by me. The parallel blessing Baruch Dayan Ha’emet , the Job-like ‘what can we do but accept this’ acknowledgement of bad tidings which is said at funerals, I’ve heard a hundred times. These proportion are surely wrong.

The emotional and spiritual reasons for acknowledging the good are that this creates an environment of generosity and appreciation. It’s an antidote to our culture of entitlement, in which we don’t even notice privileges because we simply take them as given. The last eighteen months have made many of us more aware of many basic aspects of our lives to which we may have given little thought before: what it means to have flour to bake good bread; the importance of faithful friends and helpful neighbours; the loveliness of what we may previously have seen as just a park or only a tree.

A young woman training for the priesthood offered a beautiful Thought for the Day on Radio 4 in the middle of the first lockdown. ‘Behold the lilies of the field,’ she quoted, ‘They toil not neither do they spin.’ I can’t recall her exact words, but they amounted to this: I’d always thought about the theology, about trusting God and not worrying. But walking in the park with my immune-compromised husband, I said to myself: ‘No; just look at the flowers. Behold them; just look.’

This week has reminded me once again of hakarat hatov because I’ve had the privilege of officiating at three weddings. I always ask the couple to tell me about the values with which they’ve been brought up that they want to take with them into the home they hope to build together. In each case this week, the bride and groom wrote about their parents and grandparents with tender appreciation. Yesterday, as I repeated some of her words under the wedding canopy, I watched the bride’s parents reach for and tightly hold each other’s hands.

In our too-fast-moving, grab-and-eat consume culture, if we noticed and acknowledged life’s gifts and appreciated one another more, we would be a less hurting and less hurtful society and cherish the world with more care.

The original Jewish Valentine’s Day

Judaism is a ‘love life’ religion; it says a big ‘yes’ to life.

In my head, these words sing in German: ‘Ja zum Leben.’ This is because, during a time when I found every day a struggle and almost everything frightening, my aunt Etti, three times removed but close as close, would buy me an Israeli yoghurt called Leben and instruct me before I ate it to say the name in German: Leben, life, yes to life.

Moon-watchers out with their dogs, or simply enjoying the cool after over-hot days, will have noted how beautifully it has shone these last evenings and know that tonight is the full moon. It heralds Tu Be’Av, the festival of the fifteenth of the month of Menachem Av, Av the Consoler. It’s the ancient Jewish forerunner of Valentine’s Day:

There were no days so good in Israel as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, when the girls went out to dance in the vineyards in borrowed white dresses (so as not to put to shame those who didn’t have). Whoever wasn’t married would go there. ‘Look,’ the girls would say… (Talmud, Ta’anit 30b-31a)

What follows is not egalitarian, definitely sexist, and certainly not PC. But it’s decisively an affirmation of life, future and fun. Significantly, the date is just six days after Tishah Be’Av, the bleak fast commemorating exile and destruction. The message is ‘Never give up’. More than that, it’s ‘Life is important, life can be good.’

The rabbis want to know why the 15th Av is so special. They come up with some remarkably odd reasons: it’s the date by when the last of the generation doomed to wander in the desert without reaching the Promised Land had died. Alternatively, it’s when the Romans allowed the dead of Betar, the last Jewish stronghold of the Bar Kochba revolt, to be buried.

Admittedly, they also offer somewhat less unromantic explanations. But what are they trying to say? I believe it is this: whatever tribulations we have been through, we have to carry on with life. We mustn’t forget the past, but we must also embrace the future. Maybe that’s why, almost two millennia later, the birth rate among Jewish survivors in the Displaced Persons camps in Germany was extraordinarily high.

It strikes me how deeply Tu be’Av speaks to our reality today. Covid is not over in the UK, certainly not in other parts of the world. But life is calling us to step forward, carefully, with due concern for others and ourselves. Life beckons, with all its joys and challenges. Life is precious, all the more so because we’ve learnt to take its opportunities less for granted.

Etti’s youngest brother Gabi, may he live to the legendary age of 120, used to remind me that ‘life is made up of the little things.’ How can we appreciate everyday blessings? How can we share small acts of kindness and generosity, which maybe aren’t so small after all?

I’ve been bottling red- and blackcurrants these last days. By my side have been my father, much missed, who taught me the skill, and his aunt Sophie who wrote to her mother in the summer of 1938 that she’d been preserving blueberries, – and blackcurrants too. She perished in Auschwitz. Nevertheless she was in my kitchen, because love from the past feeds the present and travels on into the future.

I listened last night to a webinar by Rewilding Scotland. No, said one of the presenters, I don’t just want “sustainable”. I’m working for a re-forested, re-meadowed, re-invigorated, beautiful land for my children.

I hope we can embrace the future like that.

Tu Be’Av marks the turn-around, from destruction to creation.

Why I was at the mural of Marcus Rashford at 2 in the morning

Sometimes one does crazy things.

I’m not a follower of football, but I had to watch the Euro Final. My excuse: ‘People will talk about it, so I need to know what happened.’

I hadn’t the nerves to sit calmly through the whole game, but I did see the penalties. My heart went out to the players who didn’t score. I don’t know how these young men have the guts to come up for their kick, or how they cope afterwards if pressure gets the better of them and the ball doesn’t go where it went every single time on a hundred practice runs.

Friends told me later how they realised the moment they saw by whom England’s last three penalties were taken that there’d be trouble if the ball didn’t hit the back of the net. ‘I knew instantly,’ wrote Bukayo Saka.

I left it too late to write in the press how passionately our community is opposed to racism and how deeply we feel solidarity with these courageous players. But I had to do something. On Tuesday evening the feeling grabbed me that I had to show my respect by going to the mural of Marcus Rashford, disgracefully defaced the previous night. Minutes later I was on the road.

I got to South Manchester around 2.00am. I chatted with the one other person there. ‘I needed to be here,’ he said. We added our messages to the outpouring of love which the wall had by now become.

Before I’d set off, I’d phoned Rabbi Weiner for advice: ‘Is this crazy?’ His answer was great: ‘Yes. But sometimes we need to do crazy things.’

I’m glad I went. My reasons are obvious, but here they are:

If we let racism pass without showing our face, we’re the silent majority who’re assumed to condone it.

That’s true, whoever the victims. But these footballers are true moral heroes. Through these bleak lockdowns, it’s Marcus Rashford who lifted our spirits by insisting children who needed them got free school meals, including during the holidays. He made the government think again; he showed how one person can make all the difference. He’s our nation’s conscience, and he’s not the only one in that England team.

Kate note to Marcus RashfordThere’s something personal as well. My parents were thrown out of Germany by Nazi racism. Out of loyalty to my family, I had an absolute duty to protest the abuse to which these footballers were so vilely subjected.

I went in the name of my community and everything Judaism stands for. In my head was the phrase sinat chinam, ‘causeless hate’. This Sunday is Tishah Be’Av, the fast when we remember the misery destructiveness brings. The rabbis blame the burning of the Temple on just such causeless hate, which brings only misery as hate always does.

Causeless hate is only overcome by ahavat chinam, causeless love. That’s why, of all the messages pinned on that Manchester wall, one stood out, signed simply by Kate:

There will always be hate in this world unfortunately but there is much, much, much more love.

Where do we go now? For sure we must stand alongside the victims and potential victims of racism and bullying. Race hate must be challenged. Social media platforms have work to do.

But is there something more?

Sinat chinam is usually translated as ‘causeless hate’ but ‘pointless hate’ explains it better. Hate gets us nowhere, but does it always come from nowhere? It’s certainly not the fault of those it targets. But are there cruelties and injustices in our world which pour their poisonous fertilisers on the soils which make hurts grows into hates? Ahavat chinam, causeless love, needs to consider this too.

Meanwhile I wish I could give Marcus Rashford a hug and tell him he and his colleagues are heroes of our heart and conscience.

For the Month of Av: from Destruction to Restoration

We are on the eve of the new moon of Menachem Av.

The month begins in sorrow: ‘When Av comes in, joy is diminished.’ The ninth day is the fast of Tisha B’Av, when we remember the destruction of the Temples. But afterwards comes consolation, as we read from Isaiah ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.’ The full moon, Tu B’Av, is all celebration, Judaism’s ancient equivalent of Valentine’s Day.

I was privileged last week to share three experiences which expressed just this movement from sadness to restoration.

The first was in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, bombed out by the Luftwaffe in the night of 14 November 1940. We gathered, scarcely a dozen of us of different faiths and philosophies, surrounded by the remains of the walls and spires, made safe but not rebuilt. It’s not an obvious location for marking Britain’s first ever Thank You Day. But it’s a humbling space and that’s what drew us together. It opened our hearts. We were Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Bahai, Humanist. We all spoke, but the atmosphere of the place said more, reaching into us without words. We belonged to different generations and persuasions but it filled us with the same determination: not to hurt, not to denigrate, but to nurture and appreciate life.

The second was the Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral on the 73rd anniversary of the National Health Service. I sat next to Dr Perpetual Uke, a consultant at Birmingham City Hospital, who told me how she’d been caring for patients when she herself got Covid and became desperately ill. Now, thank God, she was almost entirely recovered. She was here both as giver and receiver of care. Nearby was a man representing the Ambulance Service. I told him how many times I’d had cause as a community minister to witness the kindness and skill of their teams.

Dr Uke lead the prayer:

For the vision of those who pioneered our National Health Service…
For the dedication of those who serve all in need of healthcare…
For the courage of those whose lives are marred by illness and bereavement…
For those who work for a healthier and fairer world.

What does one do when one hears such words? One feels saddened, humbled, touched, consoled and inspired all at once. One subconsciously resolves to do one’s best, to make one’s own contribution.

The third was the joy of two days in Scotland. Getting off the night train in the Highlands, the scents of woodland, heather, wild thyme and bilberry, the green of silver birch and pine, the sound of running streams – these are all God’s agents, they restore my soul. We experienced, too, a more practical kind of restoration in the regenerated woodlands, the young self-seeded trees carefully protected against deer and rabbits, the warnings not to disturb the rare capercaillie which nest on the ground, the feeding stations for red squirrels, the sight of an osprey. This too is part of health care, the health of the earth and our mental and spiritual health at the same time.

On Tisha B’Av we dwell only temporarily on destruction, long enough to rediscover the dedication to restore, rebuild, heal and replant in all God’s Temple, in Jerusalem itself, and throughout that universal Jerusalem which is God’s earth.

Britain’s first Thank You Day – a Jewish appreciation

I hadn’t even heard of it, until I received an email from interfaith activist Julie Siddiqi to participate in a service in the grounds of what was once Coventry Cathedral, and an invitation to attend a thanksgiving service for the NHS at St Paul’s.

July 4 is Britain’s first ever Thank You Day and sixteen million Brits are preparing to take part. It’s the culmination of a month of community, including Volunteer Week, Loneliness Awareness Week, Refugee Week, Small Charity Week and many other ways of making and celebrating connections across our society. The day is supported by as diverse a group of organisations as the NHS, the Football Association (who’ll be even more thankful if England gets through to the Euro semi-finals) and the Church of England.

Each of the thirteen founders of Thank You Day is devoted to community. It’s moving to read their stories here. May Parsons, matron at University Hospital Coventry, gave one of the first Covid vaccination in the world (outside of clinical trials). Sonny Purba and his son Sameer have been calling people isolated during Covid; they say volunteering ‘has brought them closer together as father and son.’

This all fits well with Judaism, which is a thank you religion. The day begins with the prayer ‘Modeh Ani, I give thanks before you, living God, for restoring my soul in mercy.’ What this really means is ‘Thank you for another day of life.’ I don’t always succeed, but I try to start each morning with those lines, not by looking at my phone.

Saying blessings is a discipline of gratitude. ‘Baruch Attah, blessed are you, God,’ should also be translated as ‘Thank you…’ The words can easily degenerate into a pious formula, what the rabbis called mitzvat anashim melummadah, a mitzvah done by rote. But sometimes they jump out. It’s happened to me a few times, that I’ve lain down on the ground, wanting to put my heart as close to the earth as possible and say with all my being ‘Thank you! It’s a wonderful world!’

It may seem odd to write of ‘discipline’ in this context. But there’s much to be said for cultivating a spirit of gratitude. I know people who won’t go to sleep before recalling five things they’ve appreciated each day.

The ideal is to have a grateful and gracious consciousness. No one can accomplish this all the time. There’s much in the world to be less than grateful for. Why should someone mistreated, or injured by cruel fortune, feel grateful while they absorb the blow?

What we really want to avoid, though, is a bitter and resentful mind. Most of us have tasted those feelings and the flavour isn’t pleasant. While we may not always be able to escape them, we don’t want them to take up residence in our consciousness. For many of us this may sometimes be a struggle in which the help of others and the quiet and beauty of nature are indispensable allies.

The rabbis of the 1st century were deeply aware of this challenge. They puzzled over the familiar phrase in the Shema commanding us to love God ‘bechol me’odecha – with all your might.’ The words translate literally as ‘with all your very-ness.’ But what does that mean? Working carefully with the Hebrew, they explained:

Whatever measure of fortune God metes out to you, acknowledge God most profoundly.

In Hebrew ‘acknowledge’ and ‘thank’ are the same word.

I think of this instruction when I meet people who take their tough fate with good grace, like the man with Parkinson’s, of whom his wife said after he died, ‘He never ever complained. He would look out into the garden and see the good in every day.’

Contemporary life often incites us into a culture of entitlement, of ‘I need’ and ‘I want.’ Thank You Day encourages us to replace, or at least supplement, these demands with two questions: ‘What can I contribute?’ and ‘How can I say thank you?’

For Pride shabbat

‘Walk humbly with your God:’ we chose these beautiful words from the prophet Micah for my father’s tombstone. He well deserved them.

Micah’s words, which we read in the synagogue tomorrow, are among the most frequent of tributes to the dead. But what of living by them?

On the one hand it sounds simple, because Micah asks us to live with fairness and loving kindness, an open heart and no pretence.

On the other hand, it’s not simple at all. For how do I know where God is, in order for us to walk together? Maybe I passed God in the street? Maybe I absent-mindedly missed God, just as, absorbed in some distraction, I might fail to notice a friend or overshoot the turning I need?

When Jacob wakes up from his wonderful dream of the ladder reaching to heaven, he says to himself out loud: ‘God is in this place, and I didn’t realise.’

God is often in places, and people, and I haven’t realised.

I’m particularly mindful of such non-recognition, because this Shabbat we are celebrating Pride. Though it took place over thirty years ago, a conversation with a gay friend remains unforgettable. He spoke of his long struggle to accept himself as he truly was, (a struggle which some gay people, subject to crushing overt and covert pressures, have not survived), before concluding:

At last I was able to say, “Blessed are you, God, who made me in your image.”
‘I say it every day,’ he told me; ‘I say it joyfully.’

I believe in a God who enjoys that joy; in a God ‘shehasimchah bime’ono, in whose abode is joy;in a God who is present in each person, who needs us to recognise that presence in every person and who wants us to share their joy.

In trying to walk with God, I fear that most of us often go straight past. Perhaps we need to stop each other more often and say, quietly but firmly, ‘God is in this place.’

To walk humbly is to have a heart receptive both to sorrow and to joy. I often come across the story about the man who drinks a bit too much, then calls out loudly to the person opposite:

‘Hey, you, I’m your friend.’

The punchline is in the reply:

‘If you’re really my friend, tell me where I hurt!’

The story is intended to show the meaning of friendship. It does so, but inadequately. What’s missing is the other side of companionship:

‘And if you’re really, truly my friend, tell me also what makes me happy.’

In any community, a precondition for any person to feel comfortable, let alone happy, is to be included, appreciated, celebrated and offered a voice as who they are, both in sorrow and in happiness. According to a famous Mishnah, everyone needs to be able to say ‘For my sake the world was created.’ (Sanhedrin 4:5) If that is God’s will, how can it not be ours too?

I was going to write that I’m proud to celebrate Pride. But ‘proud’ is not the right word. I’d rather be humble in celebrating Pride. For the more we recognise the presence of God in each other and walk together, the better the world will be for us all and only by so doing can we follow Micah’s teaching

To do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)

The Hand of Humanity

In the Epilogue to his remarkable personal testament When they Came For Me, The Hidden Diary of an Apartheid Prisoner, John Schlapobersky writes

I have learnt to harvest the gifts of adversity from my own experience…

The sentence went straight to my heart.

It reminded me of Edgar’s words in Shakespeare’s King Lear when, disguised as a bedlam beggar, he leads his own father to Dover. Blinded, and ignorant that the peasant guiding him is in fact his own son, the old man asks, ‘Now, good sir, what are you?’ Edgar’s answer is unforgettable:

A most poor man, made tame to Fortune’s blows,
Who, by the art of known and feeling sorrows,
Am pregnant to good pity.  (Act IV, Scene VI)

Edgar’s next words are ‘Give me your hand.’

After suffering torture in prison followed by expulsion from South Africa, John Schlapobersky trained as a therapist in Britain. Together with Helen Bamber he was instrumental in establishing The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture(renamed Freedom from Torture). One of the many profoundly traumatized refugees he helped during decades of work there said to him at the close of a year of treatment:

Yours is the hand of humanity that has reached out to save me from drowning in my own sorrow.

We do not face equal difficulties during our lifetimes. The world is unjust and full of cruelty. As a family friend who’d served as a medic in the British Army in India used to tell me when I was small: ‘I saw terrible things, Johnny-boy. Suffering is not distributed equally in this world.’

But none of us are untouched by any troubles; at some point we all must struggle with challenges from without and mental turmoil from within. Can we too turn our learning into ‘good pity’ and hold out ‘the hand of humanity’? Can we, when we need it, find the help and friendship which will one day enable us to befriend and help others? Perhaps that’s what being human truly means.

This is Refugee Week. Lord Dubs sent the following tweet; my mother, ten years older when she came here, would say the same:

I am a refugee. When I was six, the UK saved my life and gave me a home and hope. My plea is for the UK to live up to its proud humanitarian tradition by giving hope to the refugee children of today.

The hand reached out to us may become the hand we reach out to others. Further, one day theirs may become the hand which reaches back to us.

Yesterday, I overheard two people discussing the words (from Proverbs) on our synagogue’s foundation stone: olam chesed yibaneh, which we translated as ‘the world is build on loving kindness.’ They were questioning whether this was an accurate rendition. It struck me that what we had written was correct, but incomplete. The verse is a declaration of hope: ‘The world should and shall be built upon loving kindness.’

A much-quoted passage from the Mishnah teaches that every life is equivalent to an entire world, therefore every person should be able to say: ‘For my sake the world was created.’ (Sanhedrin 4:5)

Loving kindness is more than presence in adversity. It means enabling one another to feel that the world has a place for each of us, so that we can look out at life with wonder and look forward with joy.

Another refugee helped by John Schlapobersky spoke afterwards about the group therapy which had formed such a critical part of his journey towards healing. He compared it to being put in a washing machine into which the therapists climb too:

We come out each week cleaned by talking and listening so we can go home safely, love our families and give thanks to God.








To the leaders of the G7

Something has been haunting me this dawn. It’s connected to the G7, but it’s not about politics.

So that you remember:’ I woke with these words searching my head like torchlights. But what were they looking for? ‘Remember!’ Remember what? It was like one of those discomfiting moments when you can’t recall a familiar name; you know that you know it, but it remains obstinately irretrievable behind a barrier of unforthcoming brain cells.

Except that it wasn’t a name I was after. It was a spirit, an awareness, that sense ‘of something far more deeply interfused’ of which Wordsworth writes, which sometimes visits the soul in the pre-dawn, holding a hushed conversation in semi-comprehensible associations, like a friend from the old days who turns up unpredictably from nowhere, mysterious but benign, then vanishes.

Lema’an tizkeru – So that you remember:’ the words come from the Torah and form the core of the third part of the Shema, Judaism’s twice daily meditation:

So that you remember and do my commandments; then you shall be holy to your God. (Bemidbar 15:40)

Usually, it’s something specific we’re told to remember, an event or a date. But this ‘remember’ has no object, as if to say ‘remember everything’ – and the purpose beyond everything. This thought reminds me of how a person I scarcely knew once turned to me as I stood watching the river in Cambridge forty years ago: ‘Never forget why you’re here in this world,’ he said. ‘Don’t ever forget that you belong to something higher which you have to serve.’ His words stuck in my soul.

I’m one of a group of religious leaders who were invited to offer a short video message at last night’s multi-faith service in Truro Cathedral for the leaders of the G7. I don’t know if they actually attended, but our instruction was to talk values to power, to speak climate justice, vaccine justice and our duties to the destitute.

We were asked to give voice to a call to awareness, beyond machination and advantage, self-interest and the need for profit; to bring to mind that spirit, sacred and universal, to which all power owes allegiance.

Each faith addresses it in a unique manner, but it is ultimately one. Even God is only a name, a word in human language, for that oneness, all-present and all-pervading, manifest in everything, yet hidden in everything, to which we are summoned to devote our service and allegiance.

Bringing it to mind is not sufficient. We have to act on what it tells us to do. ‘Va’asitem et kol mitzvotai – then do my commandments,’ the Torah continues. The voice which speaks in private to the heart is at the same time the most powerful, unremitting, non-negotiable demand for action: do justice; be compassionate; discipline yourself; know your responsibilities; align yourself with creation.

The world looks intently to those in power, as it will again at COP 26, to exercise their influence humbly but urgently, according to the demands of sacred wisdom.

Ve’heyitem kedoshim – then you shall be holy to your God,’ the Torah concludes. God is called Chei HaChaim, the life of life, the life force within all existence.

We can quash individual lives, human or animal, but we can never crush that life within life. If, on the contrary, we conduct ourselves and the affairs of our communities and countries in harmony with it, it will guide us, strengthen us, partner with us, and bring us and the world its blessings.

We touch each other’s lives – for injury or blessing?

It was a beautiful place, out near Denham, northwest of London. We stood beneath a canopy of copper leaves, with wildflowers and rhododendrons. It was exactly the kind of ‘melodious plot / Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,’ imagined by Keats in his Ode to a Nightingale, where the birds sing ‘of summer in full-throated ease.’ The group standing around me began a chorus of All Things Bright and Beautiful.

‘Plot’ was sadly the right word, for this was a funeral. I’ve rarely conducted a burial service for a person who wasn’t Jewish. But the woman, who’d died comparatively young, had been married to Graham, a charming man who used to attend my Talmud class and who’d been laid to rest in this same woodland cemetery a decade earlier. The family had traced me, and now we stood together, a small group around the grave, touched by our shared humanity and mortality, and by a quiet sense of partnership with all this life around us. We sang; the birds sang. ‘The Lord God made them all:’ it was at once beautiful and humbling.

We touch each other’s lives all the time, but often don’t know to what effect. Thank goodness, ten years ago I’d evidently not said the wrong thing, inadvertently alienating this family. But I also have moments I look back on with shame: why did I say that? We don’t always know whom we hurt and can’t always make amends. I remember hurrying into a bookshop where another customer asked me for a recommendation. I muttered something about being in a rush. Afterwards, recognising I’d been rude, I went back to apologise, but the person had gone and I’d no idea who it was.

Some lives we touch directly; others we affect remotely, since how we live here impacts on basic realities for people on the other side of the world. Distance doesn’t mean zero responsibility.

Nor is it only human life with which we interact. I often think of Thomas Hardy’s poem Afterwards. He imagines people thinking of him ‘when the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn’ and remembering how ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm.’ How I wish we could strive more effectively for all life to come to no harm, because all life matters, and, albeit in different ways, one spirit flows through us all.

Tomorrow, June 5, is World Environment Day, ‘the United Nations’ principal vehicle for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of the environment’. Looking online, I find Together We Can Be #Generationrestoration.

This media-age twitter-handle paradoxically takes me back to the oldest scene in the Torah, when God entrusts Adam and Eve with the wellbeing of creation. It recalls the rabbis’ explanation of God’s instruction to Abraham to be a blessing:

‘Until now the blessings were in my hands,’ says God; ‘from now on they’re in yours.’

Listening to All Things Bright and Beautiful, sung by a diverse group of people almost all of whom I’d never met before, brought together by the woman we’d laid to rest in this woodland full of life, reminded me of this great trust.

‘The capacity to bless life is in everybody,’ wrote Rachel Remen in My Grandfather’s Blessings:

When we recognise the spark of God in others, we blow on it with our attention and strengthen it, no matter how deeply it has been buried or for how long. When we bless someone, we touch the unborn goodness in them and wish it well.

Each of our lives, and all life, needs that blessing.

‘My light is in your hands’ – How we need to keep up each other’s spirit

I have always loved the Torah’s instructions for the lighting of the menorah, with which this week’s portion begins. It was the responsibility of the priests, the children of Aaron, who were commanded to use only the finest olive oil. They had to fill each lamp with sufficient fuel to burn through the longest nights of the year, to shine out amidst the darkness.

The relief depiction on Titus’s arch in Rome, showing defeated Jews carrying the Menorah in their enemies’ victory parade after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE, is vivid testament to the historical accuracy of the account of the lighting of the lamps in the Temple.

But more and more often I think of the description as a metaphor for an essential reality, a truth without which it would be almost impossible to live.

The Torah doesn’t say ‘Kindle the lamps;’ instead it uses the expression, ‘Cause the lights to ascend.’

How often in life the inner flame burns low, and bewilderment engulfs us. ‘I said “the darkness will crush me,” wrote the Psalmist, pausing before continuing, “But darkness is not too dark for you.”

Who is that ‘you’? Who, when they threaten to gutter, causes the inner flames of hope and joy to re-ascend inside us? What refills the spirit’s internal lamp, hoping it will burn through even the longest nights?

Sometimes it’s life’s simple wonders which restore us, like the moon which stood in stillness just above the trees, luminous and wonderful, as dawn came yesterday. Or as when a friend said, ‘Did you see that?’ ‘See what?’ I asked. ‘Oh, nothing,’ he answered. ‘It was just a little spider’s web, with dew on it, in a moment of sun.’ It wasn’t nothing; it was glory.

Sometimes it’s the dog, literally as well as figuratively, I walked home through local woods near midnight recently. It was so dark I couldn’t see the path and lost the feel of tarmac underfoot. Only the tiny patter of dog paws on the broken twigs made me find the way.

Sometimes it’s a stranger, like the attendant in one of the rooms of the National Gallery, who came up to me as I was drifting through on my own and said very quietly, ‘I don’t know why, but something is telling me to say to you: Remember life is precious and know that you have something to give.’ It was three seconds of solicitude 35 years ago, but it still directs my path.

Sometimes its music or a line of a poem. Since before sunrise the lines of this prayer have been calling me:

Pay attention to the soul, jacinth, agate, amethyst;
Hewn from the throne of glory… to give light towards the dawn.

I can’t fathom the depths of what these words mean, but they’ve been singing inside my head.

There was a programme on music as survival on Radio 4 yesterday: ‘I was in the midst of post-natal depression, but when she started to sing, I felt she was speaking directly, personally to me.’

Most often it’s those we’re liable to take for granted, family, friends, community, and those ordinary, those ordinary-special things we do together: ‘Come on, shall we go for that walk?’ The love is in the everyday.

What I’m sure about is that we are all the children of Aaron, responsible for ‘causing the flame to ascend’ in each other’s lives. We can’t always succeed, but it is the determination not to give up which makes the record of human history not just painful but humbling and endlessly inspiring.

‘My light is on your hands, and your light is in mine:’ the rabbis put these words in God’s mouth. But they are true for every one of us towards each other too, and it’s for this that we are here.

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