The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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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.


Key Words for Yom Kippur Part 1: Chesed

Leshanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah; I wish everyone a good year and a worthwhile Yom Kippur. This week I again plan to focus on one word each day.

The period from Rosh Hashanah up to and including Yom Kippur is known as asseret yemei teshuvah, the ten days of penitence or return, when we try to rediscover and re-inhabit the best portion of our inner selves. This is a time of healing, when we seek to make whole again our relationship with our own self, with those closest to us and with those, near or far, for whom we carry responsibility as fellow beings on this earth. In so doing, we hope to open our hearts to the presence of God which flows through us all and thus to make atonement, to be less at odds and more at one with life. This is a both a demanding challenge and a privileged opportunity.

Perhaps the key quality we need is chesed. Usually translated as loving kindness, chesed comprises love, mercy, loyalty and faithfulness. It expresses the best part of the human heart. Its oppositeis anger, cruelty, callousness, rejection.

The Talmud teaches that God ‘inclines towards chesed’, especially at this season. Over and again on Yom Kippur, we repeat the chorus verse of the day: ‘God, God, merciful and gracious’. The meaning is surely that we, too, should try to deepen the kindness, love and generosity in our hearts and view the world from there.

It isn’t hard to find reasons for being irritated with people. The mind all too readily hovers over its vexations and grudges: ‘He did this to me’; ‘She did that’ – few of us would have difficulty completing the sentence. We could no doubt provide ample justification for our hostile feelings. We might well be perfectly right; we might be entitled to feel angry and hurt. But will this bring healing, to us or anybody else? It probably leads only to more entrenched resentments and more alienated relationships.

Matters can look different if we view them with generous eyes. We can step back from judgment and approach life in the spirit of understanding. ‘Perhaps they too felt unheard…’; ‘Maybe I contributed…maybe I’m also at fault’; ‘I get where she’s coming from; she’s been through so much…’ To respond in this manner takes chesed, mercy and forbearance. It makes the situation look different; it doesn’t mean that we forgive or forget everything, but it may take us to a place from where healing is possible.

Therefore, we should try to fill the internal pool of our heart with chesed. We can do so by thinking of blessings we’ve received, altruism we have witnessed, pity we’ve felt, ways in which the world is beautiful, people for whom we love and care.

The world is too full of anger and recrimination. With chesed in our hearts, we may be able to counter at least some of the hatred, bringing healing to others and ourselves.


Three key things for Rosh Hashanah part 3: Remembrance

Leshanah Tovah, I wish everyone a good and worthwhile, peaceful and happy year.

My word for today is zikaron, remembrance. It’s the name the rabbis chose for Rosh Hashanah when they called the date Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, when we bring to mind what matters most in life, when we travel down to the core of our heart, where we and God can listen to one another undistracted, if only for a few indelible moments.

By God I don’t mean some external entity. I’m thinking rather of the voice which speaks as the truth inside our conscience, as love within our heart, and which flows likes a singing river through our very brain and body, filling us with the vibrancy of life. On Rosh Hashanah, we listen to the God of life, the creative spirit which animates and flows through all being. It calls us from the periphery to the centre, from the inevitable diversions of screens and mobile phones to the ultimate questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What matters? Rosh Hashanah summons us from distraction to Remembrance.

Who am I? The traditional answer is: a being fashioned in God’s image. If ‘there are seventy faces to Torah’, then this verse is no exception. But all the interpretations have this in common: they speak of the gifts and privileges of being human. We have a heart to listen and understand. We have a conscience to tell right from wrong. We have a spirit capable of intuiting beauty and experiencing wonder. We have a mind to weight what best to do and a body which enables us to act. We have empathy and imagination to intuit how the world feels to others. We have language with which to articulate care and compassion, to profess concern and protest injustice.

Why am I here? To make the most of life, to use the gift of life for the good of others and ourselves. My grandfather loved the words at the heart of the prayers devoted to the subject of memory:

zacharti lach – I remember unto you the faithful devotion of your youth, the love of your bridal days, how you followed me through the wilderness, a land unsown.

They were his tribute to my grandmother, with whom he was married for 58 years and together with whom he did indeed have to flee Nazi Europe to a country, if not unsown, certainly unknown. But the words meant more; they express the very reason for living: to behave with chesed, loving kindness, to family and stranger, Jew and non-Jew, alike; to have love, not hate, at the centre of one’s heart, whatever life might bring; and to be prepared to follow the sacred call to what justice and goodness demand, however much courage this may take. That is why we are here.

What matters, then? Everything.

Attah zocher – You, God, remember all deeds, ever…

This sentence is not about cowing us into constant anxiety before a God who refuses to let go of our smallest mistakes. Rather, these are words of encouragement: No word or act is too small to make a difference. Never feel ‘there’s nothing I can do’. Every kind deed is lodged somewhere, in someone’s heart. Who knows? Perhaps what you did for that girl ten years ago is quietly growing inside her into the inspiration to go and help another child who was not yet even born back then? Never think: ‘Why bother?’ Never give up.

These may feel like small, all but irrelevant, matters to write about when the world seems at the brink; when history is at not just at one, but at several junctures more perilous than for generations. But just this is what we have within our capacity to set with courage, intelligence and determination against hatred, violence, terror, famine, floods and the increasing threats of wars: our plain humanity, individual and collective. It is the weakest, it is also the most powerful, force in all the world.

Therefore, on this Day of Remembrance, we must strengthen ourselves with our truest, deepest values and muster our stamina and spirit, so that we draw together in solidarity to think, feel, work and struggle for life. As our prayers tell us over and again: ‘Remember us for life, O God of life.’

Leshanah Tovah – May this be a good, worthwhile, safe and peaceful year.

Three key things for Rosh Hashanah part 2: Book

Leshanah Tovah, I wish everyone a good and worthwhile, peaceful and happy year.

Following my plan to write about one key word each day, my second choice is sefer, book, because again and again over the High Holydays we ask to be written in God’s book of life, sefer hachayyim.

The image of the book can be daunting. Drawn from the Bible, it is developed in the Talmud into the idea that God opens, examines and inscribes in the books of the destiny in which the future fate of all living beings is recorded. As the famous mediaeval meditation Untenah Tokef describes, ‘On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die…’ Taken too literally, this prayer has put people off coming to the synagogue. Does God really seal our fate? Is God’s sentence necessarily just?

Surely not. I’ve always understand the image of the book, and this powerful prayer also, somewhat differently. We do not know what fate lies before us, what the unfolding pages of our destiny may bring. Many events to be recorded in the book of our lives will not be of our choosing, for good or bad: how long we and those we love will live; whether the world will be at peace or at war.

The purpose of this sharp reminder of the unknown nature of tomorrow is not to reduce us to helpless passivity but to urge us to write in the book of our own life, and to do so now. The script is ours, for concern or indifference, generosity or meanness, love or hate.

The words are what we do, – not what we do for a living, though that may be part of it, – but what we do because it truly matters, because that is where our heart is, what Wordsworth described as our

little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.                  (Lines Written above Tintern Abbey)

I sometimes think the ink on the page is our deeds, and the blank space all around, wordless, but without which the words have no meaning, is who we are.

We don’t only write in the book of our own life. Our words and deeds inscribe themselves in the books of the hearts of everyone around us, whether we intend it, or like it, or not. Perhaps our chapter in ‘God’s book’ is composed of the sum of all the impacts our conduct has had on everyone with whom we have ever interacted. No kind word or gesture of compassion goes unnoticed. Nor do our moments of anger and injustice evaporate into the ether. Everything matters.

I believe, too, that we write in the vast book of nature, as individuals and collective humanity. If we could understand their language, the birds, forests, elephants and albatrosses would have much to say about our copy. We must urgently renew our respect for this book. For what our behaviour inscribes in it will be read back to our children, with consequences.

Books are testimony, a record of accountability. That is why those who hate truth have so often sought to burn them. But the book of who we are is indestructible. It is written in our conscience, inscribed in the hearts of everyone we know.

These books of our lives can’t be reduced to tweets. But short synopses are produced after our days are over: ‘She was a blessing to all who knew her;’ ‘He spread kindness wherever he went’. While time is before us, and the page still has room, we should write as richly and fully as possible. For the words are in our heart and the pen is the deeds of our hands.

Three key things for Rosh Hashanah part 1: Life

Leshanah Tovah, I wish everyone a good and worthwhile, peaceful and happy year.

Amidst all the practical preparations for the festivals, shopping, cooking, inviting, and trying not to forget anything or fall out with anybody, it’s hard to focus on the core, the spiritual and personal meanings of the coming holy days. Therefore I plan to write about one key word each day, to help myself, as much as anyone else, to reflect.

My first word is life, chayyim. ‘Remember us for life;’ we pray. ‘Write us in the book of life;’ we ask God. ‘You sustain life with loving kindness,’ we say.

I’m putting life first because death has been so menacingly present this last year, in terror attacks, the Grenfell fire, and the shocking flooding in America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. So many people have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so many hearts left aching with grief.

Judaism teaches that life is the gift of God. It is a brief privilege, our almost infinitesimal opportunity in the endless unfolding of time to develop our understanding, deepen our heart, listen to our conscience and expose our soul to beauty. ‘Who taught me understanding; who gave me the gift of wonder?’ asked the 11th century poet Ibn Gavirol. Life can offer us adventure, companionship, love and joy. Our prayers remind us never to take such gifts for granted. We have an unqualified responsibility to cherish our own life as well as that of others.

As I write, I am anxiously aware that life can be unutterably painful; that not just the many organs of the body, but the mind, consciousness itself, can feel like a pulsing wound beyond the deepest reach of the most tender loving care. We have a responsibility, a duty guided by love, to help those in pain, knowing that we too will have moments when we need such support. At those sad times when the resources of healing are exhausted, we are left with sorrow and compassion.

‘If I am only for myself, what am I?’ asked Hillel. Our own life cannot be happy unless we experience it as meaningful, and the deepest source of meaning comes through what we give and receive from others. ‘You sustain life with loving kindness’ may be less a hopeful statement about God than a fact about human nature. What makes life worth living is the opportunity to show kindness and live in solidarity with others, be it as partner, parent, friend, colleague, teacher, even passer-by. For virtually no interaction is too small to offer the opportunity for a moment’s friendliness and humanity. I think of the chorus line from Naomi Shemer’s hit song: ‘Od lo ahavti dai – I haven’t loved enough’ as the great reason for living.

Judaism asks us to dedicate our life to two overriding values, chesed and tzedakah, compassion and justice. We must give of both our inner and outer capacities, our heart, money and time, to make the world less lonely, cruel and unjust. We are called upon to care not only for our own society, but for all human beings who suffer, for all living things and the very earth itself. The sacred stream of existence flows through us all; we are more inter-dependent than any of us can fully comprehend. We are all part of sefer hachayyim, God’s holy book of life.

Will life harden, or soften, our hearts?

I often think of King Lear’s question. As he shelters in a hovel from the storm which rages not only among the elements but in his mind, he contemplates how cruel humanity can be and asks:

Is there any cause in nature makes these hard hearts?

It’s not really a question but a cry from the soul. No one around him attempts to respond.

I’m struck at least as frequently by the opposite thought: What makes so many hearts soft? That’s why I find the verse from this week’s Torah portion especially moving:

God will open your heart and the hearts of your children to love your God with all your heart and all your soul, for the sake of your life. (Deuteronomy 30:6)

Harder, softer; kinder, crueller – what happens to the heart as we progress through life? What about my own heart as I get older? Which way is it going?

I meet many people whose hearts have been opened by experience. For example:

-   ‘Those children I met in Greece have suffered so much. And they’re so lovely to each other. The older ones look out for the younger; when one of them is sad, the others comfort him. I can’t just leave them.’

-    ‘I wanted to have a meal with their family. I promised to pay, because they were very poor. Then I saw their meagre food, their water from a cistern of mud, where the children mess…. I’d rather go back to Africa to help my people and risk prison, than be a free here in London.’

I see kindness in little things too, all the time: ‘I’ll help’; ‘I can do that’. It’s just the shopping, or giving a friend’s child a lift. It’s just listening as someone shares the sorrow which has engulfed her. Except there’s no ‘just’; these are not responses to take for granted.

I sometimes think the answer to Lear’s question isn’t difficult. Life is often cruel and unjust. There are plenty of reason why, involuntarily perhaps, people protect their heart against the pain with which life pierces it. It’s far from incomprehensible that we should want to build a wall of self-protection and turn our heart into a fortress. Its foundations are made of evasions: ‘I can’t bear to see; I don’t want to feel’. Its fortifications are protected by dogmas: ‘Why should I care? Those aren’t my kind of people. They’re……’.

But in truth those walls are also often made of pain: It’ll hurt too much if I let down the drawbridge to my soul.

None of us knows in advance whether experience will make our heart softer as we grow older, or harder and more defended. That’s why the verse from the Torah is more of a prayer than a description: God, open my heart; awaken me to deeper solidarity and compassion; make me more human.

Unlike many prayers, the answer is all around us. It comes not as a voice from heaven, but in the innumerable voices of life, crying out from a child, from a person in grief, or lonely. God speak in them all, and in all of us. The answer to the prayer lies waiting in our own heart, in our response.

Eva Ehrenberg fled from Nazi Europe to Britain. She wrote poetry in both German and English. In a witty rhyme, she notes that when you boil eggs in their shells they get hard, but if you bake potatoes in their jackets and they go soft. She concludes:

In pain as all of us are oft, we too become in our skin or shell
Some of us hard and others soft. (with thanks to Professor Timms)

It takes courage and trust, as well as compassion, to let the heart grow soft; maybe that’s why we need God’s help to open it.

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