The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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Our relationship with God

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too often that voice goes unheard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

It was Nicky who noticed it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Our relationship with ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On Hope in a Time of Despair

Our relationship to hope

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

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

May the New Year and its blessings begin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

On faithfulness and friendship

Our relationship with Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why I love my Judaism

Our relationship with Judaism

I am writing about a great love of my life. I don’t put my love of Judaism before my love for my wife, children, family, friends, community, this astonishing world or even life itself. Rather, Judaism is the language in which I express those loves; it is the words to the music they create in my heart.

The High Holydays draw us closer to the source of those words; they call us to greater attentiveness, to turn aside from distractions and listen.

What can I say in a few paragraphs in honour of the faith to which a hundred generations have devoted their minds and souls; the faith by which they directed and purified their lives; into which they poured their questions and anguish; from which they drew purpose and courage; for which they lived and, tragically, sometimes died?

I do not want anti-Semitism to be the cause which draws us back to our Judaism. I do indeed feel troubled. On one side is the resurgent xenophobia of the right, across much of the globe. On the other is the anti-Semitism of the far left. The sometimes grudging and niggardly way in which this is treated suggests that the issues are not over. Added to these are the dangerous voices of radicalised religion. Together with all forms of racism, anti-Semitism must be challenged, rejected and, wherever possible, transformed into positive relationships.

Rather, I want love to draw us more deeply into our Judaism. These are the reasons why:

Judaism celebrates life; it counts life’s blessings and opens our hearts to gratitude. Its toast is ‘Le’Chaim, To Life!’

In an age of loneliness, Judaism draws us into community. It fosters companionship and solidarity. It asks us to make our congregations more open and inclusive, to welcome the youngest, appreciate the oldest and meet the needs of the vulnerable, because we need the insight and contributions of all.

Judaism guides us amidst life’s sorrows. Its practices in mourning are banisters to cling to when, bewildered by loss, we struggle to put one foot in front of the other. It wants us to care for the ill, be present with the dying and sit in solidarity with the grieving.

Jewish ritual structures time. It leads each working week into Shabbat, when nobody, no boss, screen or iPhone can tell us what to do, because we are free to be, simply be, and have time for those we love, for our own spirit, for the sky, the trees and God.

Jewish teaching leaves virtually no ethical challenge unexplored. It guides us in how to treat ourselves, each other, the poor, refugees, all those who have no one to advocate for their rights. It summons us constantly to live with integrity, justice and compassion

Judaism calls us to regular prayer and study, so that our spirit can connect in stillness with the spirit which lives in all life and breathes in all breath, so that the sometimes empty well in our heart can be replenished with cool water.

I don’t make these claims for Judaism in an exclusivist manner. I believe that following any faith with integrity, intelligence, sensitivity, compassion and self-discipline leads to the same depths. Sages of all religions have often found companionship as they seek the same wisdom.

For all these reasons, I am grateful for everyone who helps me deepen my understanding of my own faith. I want us all to share that journey, so that we don’t feel like tourists in our own culture, foreigners in our own language or strangers in our own texts.

For Judaism never just is; it is always in the making. What it offers is only a promise until we turn it into reality in our communities. That is a joy, opportunity and responsibility which summons us all.

 

 

About Money and Possessions

The most famous High Holyday prayer teaches that tzedakah transforms our lives. Tzedakah is usually translated as ‘charity’, but that’s not what the term means. It’s a form of the word tzedek, ‘righteousness’. Tzedakah is a commitment to economic and social justice.

We are taught to love God ‘bechol me’odecha – with all your might’. The rabbis understand this as meaning ‘all your money and possessions’.

We are judged for who we are, not for what we have. But what we do with what we have is an acute indication of who we are. There are few texts as astute as the opening lines of this Mishnah:

There are four attitudes [to possessions]. Someone who says ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s your is yours’ is an average person. However, some say it’s the attitude of Sodom. (Avot 5:13)

‘What’s mine is mine’ sounds reasonable enough. Why should anyone else have the right to take what’s ours, especially if we also respect their rights to what justly belongs to them? This is surely the basis of any law-abiding society.

Why then do ‘some say it’s like Sodom’, the wealthy city whose elders forbade sharing food with strangers, preferring to let them die of hunger in the street? The issue is that ‘what’s mine is mine’ sounds too much like: ‘This is my lot and I deserve it; that’s your lot and you deserve it. You get on with your life, and I’ll get on with mine. I have no obligation to care.’

None of us is that hard-hearted. We don’t just walk past every homeless person. We give charity. But I sometimes worry if I’m just doing ‘conscience money’.

Judaism sees wealth as a double gift: divine blessing, and sacred trust. We are at liberty to enjoy what we have; indeed, we should, and thank God for it. Ultimately, though, we are the trustees, not the final possessors, of what we ‘own’. Otherwise, it ‘owns’ us.

Tzedakah recalls us to our responsibilities to those in our communities and societies whose ‘mine’ is a fraction of ours. It’s often because of luck: where they were born, when they were born; what illness or mental distress they suffered; when their parent died who had hoped to eke out enough to give the children an education.

In our day there is a further issue. Few of us avoid the temptations of ‘retail therapy’ (my weaknesses: books and garden centres). Having everything on line makes it worse.

Bluntly, what trail of oppression, cruelty, waste and environmental destruction am I bringing into my house inside my shopping bags? These are urgent questions, because one day our children will ask why their elders were so careless about their descendants’ future:

Do I need those plastic bags and boxes which may go from my dustbin into the oceans? Must I buy clothes I may only wear twice? (I recently heard from an expert: ‘The clothing industry can’t recycle its way out of its responsibility to the earth’.) Do I need so much meat and dairy when I know a caged animal suffers? Who is paying the true cost of my cheap food?

These concerns scarcely feature among the sins we confess on Yom Kippur. That’s why they are so dangerous, because the societies we live in often don’t regard them as wrong.

On Yom Kippur we are judged for who we are. Our footprint on the earth is part of us. So too is what we give. In truth, who we are has much more to do with what we give than with what we retain.

 

Caught been timelessness and time

So many people have told me they can’t believe next week is already New Year. I was at the baker’s yesterday; she said:

It’s Rosh Hashanah in seven days’ time and no one has placed any orders. I know what’s going to happen: they’re all suddenly going to realise and we’ll be inundated at the last minute!

Every day between now and Yom Kippur I hope to focus on a key relationship in our lives (with friends, family, money, Judaism, God, plants and animals, ourselves, loved ones we’ve lost, prayer). But I want to begin with time.

‘It goes by faster each year’, said someone in his twenties. ‘And the bad news’, I replied encouragingly, ‘is that the speed only increases as you get older’. Hence the importance of Hillel’s saying: ‘If not now, when?’

Rosh Hashanah reminds us fiercely of our poignant relationships with both timelessness and time. I recall my grandfather saying in the elegant, lucid German in which he was accustomed to preach: ‘Eigentlich gibt es keine Zeit – In truth, there is no time’. He didn’t mean that we never have sufficient time (he regarded undue haste as ignoble). What he meant was that we ultimately belong to the timeless.

The mystic, legalist and poet, Nachmanides, would have agreed:

From the beginning, before the creation of the worlds
I was there in God’s treasure house sealed.

There are moments which call us back out of time, out of the incessant siege of its immediate demands (diary, meeting, email, email, diary meetings). We stand by the sea and a rhythm more ancient than even the first human beings ebbs and flows through our mind, tugs at the sand beneath our feet. Part of us belongs to the unbounded, the infinite, that which lies on the other side of time.

Music can affect us like that, including the music of liturgy. Forgotten through the year, with its first word the melody of the great High Holyday Kaddish is once again instantly familiar, with all the ancient songs of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; and our parents and grandparents are next to us once again while behind them stand the generations of our people, back through centuries, millennia.

Then we wonder: what am I doing here in this small moment, this interval between my first childhood memories and my unknown death, this patch of time where everything seems, but only seems, so permanent? The power of zikaron, remembrance, flows through us, for Rosh Hashanah is Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, of recall, of being re-called back. And we ask: Who am I? What am I for?

This is our gift, the consciousness of timelessness within time. I have my now, only this short now of undefinable duration, to bring what is eternal into the world of time. So what are those qualities which endure, beyond the confines of generations? Wonder, awe, love, justice, joy, fellowship with those who share this moment with me, people, creatures, trees. This is what my time is for; because time, in the end, is opportunity: ‘If not now, when?’

 

The fate of the earth: God and our children will hold us to account

Birthdays aren’t always simple experiences.

I remember as a child looking forward with impatient excitement to my birthday, then agreeing with my older brother that the day after was a low point, ‘because it’s now ‘364 days until your next birthday’. Those were the times!

As we get older we don’t necessarily want our friends to clock the passing of our life. I’ll never forget how we made a card for a relative’s ninetieth and were asked in no uncertain terms to alter the ‘9’. Few of us truly believe we’re getting older at the rate we actually are.

From time to time I’m asked questions trickier than such foibles: Do I send greetings to X? I hurt her, but want to make up, – is it OK to get in touch?

I feel like that about Rosh Hashanah, the ‘birthday of the world’. I love the world, yet know I mistreat it. What greeting should I send?

No-one attends a friend’s birthday, then stays behind to trash his home. But that’s what we do with the earth. It’s not ours. It belongs to God, to all the lives it sustains, and to our children’s children.

Yesterday I met with Michael, Gove, Secretary of State for the Environment. I spoke to many activists beforehand and read their papers: the net-zero carbon emissions target must urgently be brought forward to 2050; air pollution costs lives; intensive farming hurts wildlife and poisons the soil; eating little or, better, no meat would have a huge impact on global warming.

I had a pre-meeting with the editor of the government report: A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. I asked what legal teeth the good intentions in the paper would have in the forthcoming Environment Act and how urgent the timelines would be. ‘The Secretary of State and the Treasury need to hear these concerns from people like you’, he replied. (I’d been clear to the point of shameless about how many environmental groups I was in touch with.)

I believe the conversation with Michael Gove went well. ‘We need your pressure; hold us to account’, he stressed. ‘The timing is good, as we draft the Act’. ‘Will it comply with the net-zero emissions by 2050 target?’ I asked.

There was one email I received from a Christian activist which had no briefing papers attached. She simply wrote: ‘He’s meeting you because you’re a spiritual leader: you should say something about that’.

I did. Michael Gove was aware that Rosh Hashanah was near. At New Year we all stand before God. We can think of this also as standing before the world’s yet unborn generations. ‘Today is the birthday of the world’, we will say. Then what? What are we intending to do if we don’t want to continue trashing the celebrant’s home? God and our children’s children will hold us all to account, ministers of religion and state alike.

A beautiful, challenging Mishnah (2nd century) insists that every person must say, ‘For me the world was created’, because we each have a unique contribution to make.

‘For me’: what am I going to do about it?

 

The sound of the shofar and the breath of creation

It is the custom to blow the shofar every day (except Shabbat) during the month of Elul at the close of the morning prayers. So I picked up my shofar early this morning, then remembered the tacit agreement in our household, tacit being the word, that none was to blow the shofar before 9.00 am.

Instead, I simply breathed into the shofar, with no pressure, as I would breathe an ordinary breath. To my surprise, the shofar wasn’t silent, though I’m sure it wasn’t so loud that anybody else could hear it. It made a sound like a gentle breeze across fields or through a grove of trees on a still, calm day. Very quietly, the shofar sang.

It reminded me of a passage by the Hasidic teacher Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piazetsner Rebbe:

The fundamental reason all beings are created is so that they should sing, for in this way they reveal the greatness of God. Every single created being sings, as we know from The Chapter of Song. Thus, each and every being reveals a spark of the glory of the God of blessings.                      (Derech Hamelech to Rosh Hashanah)

The Chapter to which he refers ascribes words from the Bible to all existence, from the seas and rivers to the eagle and the swallow, whose lyrics are: ‘So that my soul may sing to you and not be silent’.

I always think of the shofar as coming from the depths of creation. Formed from the horn of a ram or mountain goat, its rough, un-honed cry calls of the bond which unites all nature, animal and human. It speaks without words of our bare and basic togetherness in this world of cold and warmth, food and hunger, life and death. The breath which flows through the shofar resonates with the ruach, the breath or spirit which breathes through all life, the spirit of God which hovered over the face of the deep in the beginning and which creates and sustains all living being. It calls us home to the sacred within ourselves, and in all life.

More than in any other section, the Torah speaks this week of our responsibility towards animals: not to ignore a lost ox or sheep; not to turn a blind eye toward a donkey collapsing beneath its burden; not to take a mother bird from the nest with its young and so hasten the extinction of its species; not to harness an ox and ass together, making a mockery of their unequal strength. The Torah and Talmud understood well what Jeremy Bentham later expressed: that the issue is not whether animals are intelligent or able to talk, but that, like us, they are susceptible to suffering.

The shofar calls us back to the bond of life. For too long a utilitarian attitude to nature has prevailed: How much land can I make mine? How much milk can I squeeze from each cow? Farmers do have to make a living in extremely hard times. But if a solely exploitative attitude prevails, humankind will suffer and perhaps perish alongside the world we abuse.

The Mishnah considers whether the shofar blown on the New Year should be pashut – ‘simple’, or kafuf’- ‘curved round’. Tradition decided in favour of the latter, seeing in the shape of such a shofar the image of a person bowed in prayer: ‘The more one humbles oneself the better.’

We need that humility. It’s not the humility of passivity or resigned subservience. It’s the humility of understanding, of realising that the breath which flows through us is part of the same gift, the same song which sings in all creation.

 

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