The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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The pool beneath the heart

Since as long as I can remember I’ve always loved the sound of flowing water, the fall from the rock ledge of steep mountain streams, the call of small rivers descending through the valleys, the stillness of deep pools among the rocks. It’s as if they sing not only of the physical element of life-giving water but of the spirit which nourishes all life.

The Hebrew Bible is replete with images of water, from ‘the voices of mighty waters, the breakers of the sea’, in the 91st Psalm, to the beloved mei menuchot, ‘the waters of tranquillity’ in the 23rd.

But in the Torah itself it is the be’er, the well, which is most prominent. Abraham’s servant waits by the well for the daughters of the village to draw water; Jacob falls in love with Rachel by the local well. It is at the well that Moses rescues Jethro’s seven daughters from the shepherds who habitually bully them, and a well of flowing water accompanies the Children of Israel through the desert, on account, explain the rabbis, of the merit of Moses’s sister Miriam.

In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac strives to re-open the wells which his father Abraham had dug but which the Philistines had filled in. Clearly, struggles over water resources are as old as civilisation.

The Zohar, the Book of Splendour, the central text of Jewish mysticism, offers this description of the last of those wells:

Come and see: the fount of water and that well are one… For the source which flows into that well never ceases, and the well is constantly filled and replenished. Whoever beholds that well beholds the high mystery of faith itself… Zohar, Bereshit 141

I often wonder what is the secret of inner strength. What enabled Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, the Piazetsner Rebbe, to continue teaching not just Torah, but a Torah of piercing wisdom and sometimes radiant beauty, week after week in the Warsaw ghetto until 1943? Through what resources of the spirit did so many Tibetan monks resist not only the brutality of their Chinese jailors, but also the temptation to become contaminated internally by hate? What enabled Terry Waite not only to survive 1763 days in captivity near Beirut, but to gain such insight into the nature of resilience itself?

Such gifts belong not only to heroes, but to many people much closer to us. It is far from rare that I witness people struggling in physical or emotional pain, who yet find the capacity, not always but at least some of the time, to draw from some inner source of spirit tranquillity, generosity and a graceful self-possession which leaves those around them humbled and moved.

When people ask me in a time of acute to distress where they should go to find strength, I often ask them what it is which nurtures their spirit. Whatever their answer – music, nature, yoga, a quiet hour with a friend, a walk with the dog, – I say ‘However great the pressure, make sure you don’t deprive yourself of this’.

I believe in that inner well of which the Zohar speaks. I believe there is a space inside each of us, often hidden, a secret in the depths within or beneath the heart, which silently fills with living water. If we pay faithful attention, we can almost hear the slow flow and fall of this secret stream of vitality as it replenishes the pool of pure water from which our spirit drinks.

The fact that, as in the story of Isaac, the well inside us so often gets blocked up doesn’t mean that it has ceased to exist. In our case it’s not Philistines who fill it in with dry earth, but too much noise, inattention, lack of spiritual care.

But when we need it, when we seek to heed it, the well is there inside us with a pool of clear waters in its depths in which to bathe our thought and be refreshed with purity, humility, generosity and grace.

 

Whom we fail to notice

I’m writing on Thursday evening 9th November, shortly before dark on the night which 79 years ago became Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. In her outstanding book Between Dignity and Despair, Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, Marion Kaplan documents unsparingly the anguish which followed. Thus, Lisa Brauer was forced to sell her home for a pittance:

It was so terribly difficult to destroy… what one had created with so much love. My children had played and laughed here and romped in the grass with the dogs…

Others suffered worse… as we well know.

What is less familiar is Kaplan’s frequent reference to what so many (though not all) non-Jewish Germans increasingly did not, or chose not, to see. Jews became invisible to former friends; children were ignored by their playmates, as if they had never existed. This was of course better than the attention of the Gestapo and their many supporters. But it hurt.

The issue of what people fail to see, of how oblivious they are capable of being to the realities which define the lives of those next door, disturbs Kaplan deeply.

It should disturb us too, and not solely because of the past. I am profoundly troubled by what we manage not to know about those around us today and what we choose not to see.

Many of the reasons are as ordinary as everyday life itself.

We don’t see because we’re too preoccupied with our own lives. If we turned to look too often at the challenging realities facing so many others, who knows if we would complete one single day’s worth of our plans for ourselves and our families.

We don’t see because we simply lack the relevant experience to have the insight.

We don’t see because we’re afraid to look. I often think of George Elliot’s remarkable observation that ‘if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence’. Were all the anguish within a single square mile from our home suddenly to become audible, we would scarcely be able to bear the onslaught.

These matters are facts of daily life. The truth is that, while it is wrong to be persistently indifferent, we cannot possibly respond to everything which hurts those around us. We have to filter out most suffering if we are to respond in a meaningful way to any of it. That’s the best, often a very good best, which all but the most exceptional individuals can manage. And we need the resources of music, joy, friendship, and beauty to enable us to achieve that much.

What worries me more deeply, terrifies me at times, is the wilful incitement not to care. It’s what hatemongers do with such success.

It generally becomes evident first in the abuse of language. It is through words that we begin to ‘other’ the other, diminishing their dignity, marginalising and then deriding their right to our concern. Contempt for refugees, attacks on ‘foreigners’, resurgent white supremacism in the USA, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim rhetoric and literature, – these are all key phases in process by which we become blind to the lives, and, in the worst case, eventually deaths, of those around us.

Spreading contempt for others is often the beginning of a profound crime, not only against those whose dignity and rights we thus deny, but also against ourselves. It’s betrayal of our own humanity too.

I’m writing these words partly because I love life and aspire to care about people, yet am increasingly aware of my ignorance of the realities of what so many not far from me, refugees, people who stop you in the street to ask for 20p towards a sandwich, face.

I’m writing them, too, because fear and hatred are on the rise in our world and on this inauspicious date history provides us with a severe and searching warning.

 

The Balfour Declaration: 100 Years On

Balfour-Yiddish-Pamphlet

The person who casually commented to me that ‘the Balfour Declaration was a mistake as it made the British have blood on their hands’ was not prepared for the strength of my reaction. As Prime Minister Teresa May rightly said last night, the Declaration is ‘one of the most significant letters in history’, opening the doors to making the Jewish homeland a reality.

To me, and so many others, this is not simply an objective fact. It saved my father’s life. He and his family might have perished in Nazi Germany, had they not been able to emigrate to Palestine. How many in the late 1930s wished they could have followed that same route!

The Balfour Declaration emerged out of The First World War. In the bleak months of 1917, with the Ottoman Empire on the German side, the British sought the support of world Jewry, and, separately, that of Arab groups prepared to rebel against the Turks. Chaim Weizmann, a man of charm, charisma and a diplomatic brilliance sorely lacking in the globe today, turned this belief in Jewish power to advantage. The Declaration was also motivated by Christian feeling for Jews, founded on respect for the Biblical vision of an ancient and courageous people returning to the land from which it was cruelly expelled.

Thirty-one years later, years which contained the terrors of the Russian Revolution, the persecution of Jews in the area known as the Pale of Settlement, the incomprehensible cruelty and slaughter of the Holocaust, and the horrors of World War II, Israel’s Declaration of Independence expressed the aims of the newly proclaimed state in terms closely consonant with Lord Balfour’s letter:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex…

Last night, the current Lord Rothschild, great nephew of the recipient of the letter, referred to these words with careful wisdom, noting, as did Teresa May, that the second clause of Lord Balfour’s note, referring to the rights of the ‘existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’ awaited fulfilment. To that end, he said, the same vision, courage, faith and tenacity had to be devoted by all sides, and the international community, as the realisation of the seemingly far-fetched dream of a Jewish state had itself not so long ago required.

As a lover of Israel, opposed to the boycott, with Israeli Jewish and Palestinian friends, having stood on both sides of the wall, having listened (though only little compared to many others) to pain, fear and the terrible anguish of grief from both sides, I pray for the enduring fulfilment of every one of the 67 words in that remarkable letter. I pray that, as we look back now on Israel’s many and remarkable achievements, we will one day in the not too far future be able to look back on what seems so far from attainment today: peace, security, justice, and the collaboration in the common interest of us all of those who are so often forced to see each other as enemies.

Lord Balfour’s letter also has a third clause, often overlooked, stating that nothing must be done to diminish the ‘rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’. (The Nazis passed the Nuremberg Laws just 18 years later). This touches upon the charter by which we all hope to live in open, plural democracies: freedom of conscience, speech and movement, and the right to live in equality as citizens protected by the impartiality of the law. In far too few places in the world is this truly the reality.

Today we need to do more than defend the right of Israel to exist (a challenge no other country has to face). I believe we must to do our utmost to make whatever personal and collective contribution we can for the peace, well-being, safety, and dignity of life for all the country’s inhabitants, – exactly as Israel’s Declaration of Independence states.


The image is taken from Jonathan Fishburn’s catalogue at www.fishburnbooks.com. The heading reads: Patshegen Hadekliratziah. Pathshegen is borrowed from the Persian and found in the Megillah, where it refers to the letters sent out first by Haman, then countered by Mordechai and Esther, in which the destiny of all the Jews in the Empire is at stake. It makes a telling, partner with the transliterated ‘Dekliratziah’ promulgated by a different empire millennia later.

The God I do, the God I don’t, believe in

People talk to me about the God they don’t believe in. It doesn’t happen every day, but often enough for me to feel that theology is alive and well. Sometimes they also talk about the God in whom they do believe.

I find it easier to believe in a God who is than a God who does in history. Or perhaps the two are interconnected.

A God who does, who governs history, defeats tyranny, rebukes the unjust and intervenes with compassion on behalf of the millions at the mercy of those who exploit them, – I sometimes wish I believed in such a ‘hands-on’ God, but I can’t. If it were claimed that such a God is truly present and existent, all-knowing and all-powerful, but choosing for secret reasons not to intervene in the violent injustice of human history, I’d need to ask: ‘God, why? There’s too much wrong, too much cruelty for God to be a bystander. I would struggle to believe in a God who can, but chooses not to.

A God who is, who, in the words of the mystics ‘fills all the worlds and surrounds all the worlds’; who is the one spirit, the creative, animating vitality which flows through all being and all matter; whose living presence can be overheard in the sap of trees, seen in the rhythm of dawn and twilight, felt in the heart’s meditation; whose abode is all life and every human being, even though this sacred essence is so often ignored, oppressed, brutalised, ground down by life’s daily distractions into a silence which seems like absence, – in this God, in the God who fills all things, I deeply believe. Therefore, the core of life’s endeavour lies in the hearing, in the struggle for awareness, and in the effort to respond accordingly. Maybe that’s why the central Jewish meditation begins with the imperative ‘Hear!’ and moves on to the imperative, ‘Love!’

Thus the gap between the God who is and the God who does may not be so great after all. For the God who is can become the God who does in history through what we do, at least partly so.

The human task, the essence of our responsibility, is to listen to the voice of God, to hear the sacred in its semi-silent calling out, in the hopes of a child, in the pain of the bereaved, in the songs of the happy, in the cry of the injured, and to follow through on what this voice calls upon us to do.

To hear is to become responsible, and responsibility demands action. That is the essence of mitzvah, of feeling and knowing ourselves commanded to do what is just, compassionate and creative. In the famous rabbinic phrase, we are summoned in this manner to become ‘partners with God in creation’. It seems clear that if we refuse we will destroy the world.

This week we begin the story of Abraham. A striking midrash, or rabbinic exploration, contrasts him with Noah:

Rabbi Nehemia said: [Noah] is like a friend of the king who’s sinking in thick mud. The king saw him and said, ‘Rather than sinking in the mud, come and walk with me.’ Thus, Scripture says ‘Noah walked with God’.

What is Abraham like [to whom God said, ‘Walk before me’]? It’s like a friend who saw the king walking in a dark alleyway. Observing this, he lit up the king’s path through the windows. The king saw him and said, ‘Rather than via the window, come out and light the way before me.’     Bereshit Rabbah 30:10

Can we, too, help light a path through the byways of a world so often overshadowed with bewilderment and suffering, for God, and for all to whom God, like ourselves, has given the gift and illumination of life? That’s what it means to be a child of Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father. It’s what it means to be created in God’s image and to nurture God’s image and God’s presence in all the people and all the life around us.

 

Living in peace with creation

Only last week, in the beautiful poem with which the Hebrew Bible opens, we read of a God in love with the world. ‘God saw that it was good’ is the chorus line of creation.

Now, just one week’s reading later, God sees that the world is bad. Losing patience with humanity ‘whose every thought is evil’, God determines to destroy the earth. Only Noah is to survive, with the precious gene-pool of all living things sealed away in the floating bubble of the Ark.

Everyone knows the story. Except that we sing it from the point of view of the animals who ‘came in two by two’. What about those who didn’t? And the people? Were they all so awful that they really deserved to drown?

Afterwards, God is sorry. It’s history’s first ‘Never again!’ In soothing words, God ensures Noah that

All the days of the earth [the rhythm of] seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day-time and night-time shall never come to rest (Genesis 8:22)

It feels a little late. According to the Zohar, when Noah opens the portal of the Ark and looks out on the mud-flats of devastation where once there had been villages, fields and forests, he weeps. So Noah is sorry too.

What about us? Do we regret, or really care about, what we do to the earth?

The Torah tells us what was wrong before the flood: ‘All flesh had destroyed its way upon the earth’. But what does this broad indictment actually mean?

Rashi, the great 11th century commentator, explains: ‘even the cattle, wild animals and birds interbred,’ corrupting their species. Blame the animals, too.

Nachmanides (1194 – 1270) disagrees, maintaining that the plain meaning is that ‘all flesh’ refers only to humans. Our species did wrong, but all living beings had to pay the price.

This is disturbingly close to home. If we’re not disturbed, we’re probably missing the most important issue confronting our civilisation.

To return to the critical sentence: what might ‘destroyed its way’ mean to us? The Hebrew for ‘way’ derech, appears in another, much-loved verse about the Torah and wisdom as a whole:

Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.

Are our ways, towards each other, nature and life itself, ways of pleasantness and peace? If not, how can we make them so, urgently?

Every day I receive letters about cruelty, the callous neglect of human life and contempt for nature. Some provide distressingly explicit details about the deliberate, sadistic enjoyment of the pain suffered by animals, – and by people.

While I obviously abhor the particular abuses described, such communications leave me with a more difficult question: am I, too, complicit? Can I live without colluding with, or even relying on, the practice of cruelty and injustice to someone else, to some other living being, somewhere?

Can we live in ‘peace and pleasantness’ with each other and with nature?

No issue is more urgent

 

Hoshana Rabba

I always think of my father on Hoshana Rabba. For so many years we would go together to the New London Synagogue for this beautiful service which carries in its complex liturgy the melodies of all the High Holyday prayers and completes the season. Hoshana Rabba is the sealing of the books, the Ne’ilah of the Ne’ilah, the closing of the closing.

This is not destiny turning the page on our life, rendering immutable whatever has been inscribed there by God’s inscrutable hand. Rather, it is our chance to reflect on what we want to write in the unfolding scroll of our coming year; to set in our heart our best intentions about the good we desire to achieve. Afterwards, we venture out and encounter as well as we can the unknown blessings and adversities of the months ahead.

There are three books in which we all want to be sealed (at least, I can’t imagine otherwise). The first is Sefer haChayyim, the book of life. I see it more like a garden than a volume on a shelf. I imagine the book of life as forests and farmlands, cities and gardens, rivers and seas all nourished by the sap of God’s invisible Etz HaChayyim, tree of life, by which, according to the mystics, all vital being is nourished. I want to be a planter, not an uprooter, a person who nurtures life, rather than a destroyer of living things; I want to be a fellow gardener in this sacred world. I would like to have a green-fingered soul, – and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

The second volume is Sefer Toldot Adam, the book of humankind. The phrase comes from, and, strictly speaking refers specifically to, the Torah. But it can also be understood more comprehensively as the index of all humanity, comprising in its pages the fortunes, joys, sufferings, mercies and injustices which visit each and every person. My aspiration is to try to be faithful to the trust reposed in Abraham when God said to him, ‘heyeh berachah, be a blessing’. Judaism has always understood that, if this is to amount to anything more than vague intentions, it must entail standing up with courage and persistence for human dignity. It means confronting cruelty, hatred and wrong in a spirit of justice, and seeking to heal suffering and pain in a spirit of kindness and compassion.

The third book is the book of the heart, as the beloved says in the Song of Songs ‘set me as a seal upon your heart’. It is in the hearts of those who have known us that our life has its greatest impact. Sadly, almost none of us can avoid sometimes causing each other pain. We say and do hurtful things, usually inadvertently. But we aspire to the opposite. So long as we live, we hope to be generous, loyal, wise and loving enough to leave marks of affection and respect in the hearts of those we care for, and who care for us. The end of a good life is that we continue to speak in memories of blessing, encouragement and love in the lives of those we have touched.

May we all be guided to write ourselves deeply in these three books of life during the coming year.

The Succah and protection against evil

First and foremost, I want to express my shock and sorrow at the appalling killings in Las Vegas. Like everyone else, I felt shaken just at the news. Heaven only knows how utterly terrifying it must have been to be there. Our thoughts and prayers are with the bereaved, the wounded, the traumatised and their families.

President Trump rightly called the appalling massacre ‘an act of pure evil’. It leaves one with disturbing questions about the nature of evil, similar perhaps to those which troubled Hannah Arendt in the 1940’s. Is evil rooted in boiling, premeditated hatred, or in cold, untroubled indifference to human life, or in both? I don’t know what is more frightening.

The horror was perpetrated at a Harvest Festival concert. Now, 2 days later, we are about to celebrate Succot, our harvest festival.

For six weeks we’ve been reading Psalm 27 morning and evening. Its author tells us that ‘God will hide me in God’s Succah on the evil day’. But what good would a mere Succah have been to protect the people at Las Vegas, or in Manchester, or at the Bataclan? I’ve often thought: ‘God, can’t you do better than a flimsy, made-of-anything, covered-in-leaves, blown-away-by-a-strong-wind, harvester’s booth Succah? God, couldn’t you at least manage a castle? Or a shelter, far underground?’

But that’s the point. Ultimately, our protection doesn’t lie in the strength of the walls which surround us, necessary as they often are in times of war and terror. (Though, even then, castles didn’t save the Jews of the Rhineland from the brigands of the First Crusade.) I agree with President Trump when he called upon ‘the bonds that unite us: our faith, our family and our shared values’, our citizenship and common humanity (and I hope he calls for urgent gun control).

Succot is about faith. Indeed, the mystics call the Succah tsila de’Meheimanuta, ‘the shadow of faith’. To live for seven days in the Succah is to live out our faith, to put our trust in God’s protection. The Talmud explains that the Succah represents Ananei haKavod, the ‘Clouds of Glory’ with which God protected the Children of Israel against scorching winds and burning heat as well as the enmity of those whose lands they passed by on their forty years’ journey through the wilderness.

Clouds don’t stop missiles. Ultimately, our safety, even the very survival of humankind, does not depend on military defences alone. There are weapons enough across the world capable of destroying anything and everything. There are invisible, or semi-visible dangers to our planet, which, unless we limit them, can obliterate life on earth.

In the end, our protection does lie in faith. This is not a blind faith that God will defend us, whatever we do. Rather, it is the faith that we are God’s creatures, or at least that life is precious and wondrous. It is a faith which requires our active and pro-active participation in developing and maintaining relationships of sufficient trust with one another to enable us to survive. It is a faith rooted in the acute awareness of shared responsibilities, towards humanity, towards life itself.

The very openness of the Succah and our vulnerability as we dwell in it point to the sources from which our collective strength must come. These are: fellowship and communication with one another, since the Succah epitomises hospitality; respect and humility before the natural world, from which the defining feature of the Succah, its roof, must be composed; and faith in God, or – to put this in a manner more acceptable to an atheist or agnostic-, faith in the spirit and value of life itself, which unites us all.

Succot is a festival of joy. It is these simple, universal truths which we must honour and celebrate.

 

Key Words for Yom Kippur Part 4: Us and We

We live in frightening times. Despite everything, may this be a year of peace, a year in which we understand more deeply how essential it is to prevent violence, eschew hatred, foster understanding, and care with shared responsibility for each other and this beautiful earth.

The word I want to write about today is simply ‘us’, ‘we’. It comes in many forms in the liturgy, as anachnu, anu, or just nu at the end of a noun or verb.

The first anachnu is the plural within the singular, the ‘us’ inside the ‘me’. We all have different parts to our personality, many inner voices. On Yom Kippur we need to allow the light of conscience to shine upon them all. We mustn’t avoid the memories of which we are ashamed: how otherwise can we learn from them? Nor should we forget the good deeds we’ve done and witnessed: they are our motivation and guide. We want to leave Ne’ilah strengthened from our weaknesses and inspired in our strengths.

Around us is the anachnu, the we, of our family and friends. Most of us live by an ‘I take you for granted’ norm. Our colleagues, neighbours, people we see every day, even (perhaps especially) our own partner and children: it’s chastening to think how much we can fail to listen to them or notice. They are the core of our human solidarity, our strength and wellbeing. The eve of Yom Kippur is a time of recognition, of apology for the hurts we’ve given and appreciation for the kindness and love we’ve received. We may have more, or less, to say sorry about; but we certainly have a great deal for which to say thank you. It must not go unspoken.

Surrounding us are the congregations with whom we stand together in prayer: va’anachnu core’im, – we bow down together. On Yom Kippur we are especially aware that we are a community across time and generations. To the soul, the division between living and dead is less clear. They stand behind us and beside us in spirit, – our parents, grand- and great-grandparents, singing the same melodies, blessing us, fortifying us to bear faithfully the trust and hope, values and culture which unite us beyond the boundaries of time. As Rabbi Leo Baeck wrote to all the congregations across Germany in 1935, ‘In this hour all Israel stands before God, the judge and the forgiver’.

We stand also together with all those with and for whom we share responsibility. Al chet shechatanu, we say, ‘For the sin we have sinned’. Wherever we are, London, Jerusalem, New York, a small village, we affirm that we are answerable all together for each other, and for the homeless, the lonely, the refugees, the vulnerable and the sick. As Sadiq Kahn declared after the terror killings in Westminster and again after London Bridge, we will not allow hatred to destroy the bonds of solidarity which unite us.

Finally, we stand together as all life. Kol ba’ei olam – ‘all who enter the world’ come before God’, taught the Mishnah two thousand years ago. We know that for us to be ‘written in the book of life’, the seas, forests, rivers and fields must also be inscribed there, together with all the fishes, birds and animals they shelter and feed. We are bound together in a mutuality and interdependence deeper than we understand. When we ask ‘Zochrenu lechayyim, Remember us for life’, we ask together with all life.

Just as the wind makes every tree bend, all living being is bowed in prayer for our shared existence. May God hear us. May we hear each other. May we ourselves be helped to listen to the words we say.

Leshanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah; may this be a year of good decrees.

Key Words for Yom Kippur Part 3: Teshuvah

Leshanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah; I wish everyone a good year and a worthwhile Yom Kippur.

Teshuvah is a beautiful word. It means at once penitence and return. It refers to the inner process of acknowledgement, regret, remorse, apology and reparation for specific wrongs we have committed. But it also describes life’s spiritual journey, the desire to return to, or become, the best person we can, the human being we hope, strive and dream that we can be, – according to our character, gifts, limitations and opportunities.

Life has no ‘replay’ button. We may not ‘crop’ from our conscience the deeds and experiences we would rather not have committed or endured, however great the conscious, and unconscious, temptation. We can, of course, feed our soul a diet of ‘alternative truths,’ but in the end we will only poison our own spirit.

Teshuvah begins with inner integrity; with facing ourselves honestly. It offers us the opportunity to do so not in a negative spirit, not to shoot us down with recriminations or wipe our faces with our guilt. Rather, it invites us to do the most creative thing we can with the hurts committed both by us and against us: – to turn them into opportunities for insight and moral and spiritual growth.

The Talmud stresses that the deepest Teshuvah derives its energy not from the fear of the consequences if we continue to repeat the same transgression, important as such motivation often is. The best impetus to Teshuvah comes from love.

The Talmud doesn’t define what it means by that love. I believe it is linked to faith and hope, a deep trust the great majority of us want to be the best person we can, and that life has the power to draw us not just downwards towards our faults, but upwards towards our ideals. Maimonides concludes his magnificent treatise on Teshuvah with an impassioned description of the love of God, burning like a man’s love for a woman whom he cannot get out of his thoughts. This love draws us back towards what is right and just, pure and beautiful.

At the same time, the love which motivates Teshuvah must also come from us; from the environment we create in our homes, communities, schools, countries and even in the public square. This not the same as, indeed it is the opposite of, condoning wrongdoing and providing morally slippery justifications for evil. Teshuvah is only possible where there is rigorous moral integrity. In every sphere, beginning with our own heart, we should foster a spirit of conciliation and respect for all who genuinely learn from their mistakes and try to make good. For each and every one of us is part of that ‘everyone’.

We all sometimes sin and do harm (though not to the same degree or with equal consequence). We must all face the inner challenge of admitting to the centre of our conscience the hurtful acts we did and the wounding words we spoke, even though it would be easier to push them to the periphery, or beyond. We must all come to know the burning of remorse, the humility of apology, the awareness that however much we make reparation we cannot rewrite the history of our own life, or that of the persons we have wronged.

But Teshuvah allows us to do with our mistakes and transgressions the one best thing we can: to learn from them, deepen our hearts and behave towards each other with greater fairness, respect, compassion and understanding.

Key Words for Yom Kippur Part 2: Shalom

Leshanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah; I wish everyone a good year and a worthwhile Yom Kippur.

Shalom certainly among the most important words in the world. It may have been the unknown author of the mediaeval Sefer Heyzirah, Book of Creation, who first used the phrase ‘toleh etetz al beli-mah, – God suspends the earth over the void.’ Today, the forces not of creation but of destruction remind us quite how perilous the future planet is, the world suspended over nothingness. Shalom - and fear of the opposite – is in all our minds.

During the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur the final words of the Amidah, the prayer par excellence, are simplified to oseh hashalom, blessing God for making the peace, the ultimate peace which sustains the world. May this be God’s will.

It must also be our will. The Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century code of Jewish law edited by Joseph Caro, instructs us that everyone ‘is obliged to make up with their fellow human beings on the eve of Yom Kippur’. Yom Kippur does not atone for wrongs we’ve committed against each other unless we first acknowledge what we have done, apologise and make restitution. There is no turning to God for short-cuts. We can neither evade our own conscience nor avoid our responsibilities to other people. We may not side-step the humbling requirement to apologise where we are at fault, and to try to understand and forgive, or at least let go of feelings of bitterness and revenge, where we ourselves have been hurt.

The days before Yom Kippur are especially set aside for reconciliation so that we enter God’s presence on the most holy day of the Jewish year in a spirit of integrity with our own selves and solidarity with one another. However, life does not conform to neat patterns and relationships don’t work by the calendar. The work of inner truthfulness combined with empathy and forbearance towards others is ongoing. We all live with ‘unfinished business’, the regrets, angers, incomplete conversations which are a fact of the human condition.

Dostoevsky wrote that humility is redeeming, humiliation wounding. We must not to be too proud to say sorry, including to children. Equally, we should not turn our injuries into vengeance and refuse, in the presence of genuine remorse and reparation, to forgive. No good comes of humiliating others. We are, however, not only permitted but required to stand up for truth; we should not let guilt be foisted on us for what we have not done.

There is no ‘high’ and ‘low’ in apology and reconciliation, because the person asked to forgive must also relinquish any potential pride in having ‘the right to be right’ in favour of understanding and letting go, not of the fact that a wrong took place, but of any wish to ‘get my own back’ and inflict hurt in return. Only then do our wounds become opportunities to learn.

There are situations in which we seek peace but the persons we feel we have hurt are no longer alive, or beyond all reasonable possibility of contact, or it would only inflict further injury if we burdened them with our own need for forgiveness. In such circumstances, we may talk to God, and our conscience, being specific – as we would if apologising to a person in front of us – in what we say. We may wish to have someone else present to act as our witness, if only to our own selves. The ancient tradition is to take a minyan to the cemetery who, after hearing our confession, say ‘Amen; it is forgiven you in the name of the God of Israel’.

A disturbing feature of a world of grandstanding, in which public figures are advised not to apologise, or that they will lose so much face by saying sorry that they will never survive in their roles, is that it encourage brazenness and self-justification.

A world in which it is possible to be wrong and even, where appropriate, to back down, is more likely to be at peace. For Shalom is composed of truth, integrity, courage, understanding and humility.

 

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