The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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Seeking light, sharing light: where the candles need to burn

The eighth day of Chanukah is known as Zot Chanukkat, ‘this is the dedication,’ following the words with which the Torah sums up the offerings brought for the inauguration of the altar. This leads to the beautiful verse describing how, as he enters the holy space of the Tent of Meeting, Moses overhears God’s voice.

Perhaps that’s how poets and composers feel in the moment of inspiration: that something sacred, infinite and indefinable is articulated in the universe which they try to capture or hint at in music and words.

Where is our tent of meeting, our sacred space in this Covid-troubled world?

I had taught the well-known passage from Shulchan Aruch many times before I realised that this was exactly the question it intended to answer:

You place the Chanukah candles at the threshold of your home, facing the public highway. [If you can’t do that] you put them in the window overlooking the main road. In times of danger, you set them on your table and that’s sufficient.

This instruction can be taken as referring not just to Chanukah but to religious life as a whole.

‘Times of danger’ are periods of religious persecution. But we too are living amidst danger, albeit of a different kind. Public highways carry risks, as do even our places of worship for those who need to shelter for themselves or their nearest and dearest.

As a result, spiritual life has [partly] moved from synagogue to home, from public to private, from what others lead for us to what we do for ourselves. Our kitchen table, back window, favourite plant has become our Tent of Meeting:

-          I said the memorial prayers at home for the first time. Behind me were pictures of my beloved parents; it all made more sense.

-          I pray in my garden, with the trees.

-          I lit my Chanukiah and felt its light had been burning in my heart all these months.

We’ve overheard life’s sacred speech in new ways, if only for rare moments. But that can suffice, as travellers navigating by the stars need to recognise only a few to find direction in the darkness. In these difficult times we need light on our home table.

But the high road matters too. Across the world our societies urgently require light in the public domain. Yesterday I took the boxes collected in our neighbourhood to the food bank in Colindale. I’ve been several times; the difference now is that the queue was three times longer. Jonathan Freedland wrote about the priest who wept as he related how children in the places where he took food parcels were so hungry they tore them open before he could properly hand them over. Those children and those tears, are also God speaking, crying to be heard.

When asked about Chanukah, I often say it’s the Jewish festival of light. But what the word actually means is ‘dedication,’ rededication to listening to God’s voice and to seeking and sharing whatever light we can, both in our hearts and in the public spaces of our society.

 

Chanukah lights: the rabbis’ alternative reality

The rabbis of the Talmud created an alternative reality about Chanukkah. Such words sound bad these days, like false-facts and post-truth. But that’s not what they intended, or achieved.

The politics of the Maccabean era was complex and messy. What is clear is that when Palestine passed from Ptolemaic rule in Egypt to Seleucid domination from Damascus, life become more complex and Jewish autonomy compromised. It wasn’t only that Antiochus Epiphanes was power crazy as well, many believe, as simply mad. Hellenist culture spread subtly into education, recreation, governance and law. It divided Jewish loyalties, all the way up to the rank of High Priest. Competing factions fought and blood was shed to purchase this ‘religious’ office from the Seleucid powers. It is not surprising that revolt and bitter conflict followed, in which the Maccabees fought for the independence of the Jewish commonwealth against vast and well-equipped armies. Only, it seems the Hasmonaean kingdom which they founded morphed into a dynasty not entirely unlike the powers it displaced.

The rabbis of the Talmud scarcely refer to all this bloodshed and turmoil. Instead, they tell the story of the single unsullied vial the victors searched for and found when they re-conquered the temple precincts in Jerusalem, the oil which should have burnt for just one day but illumined the Menorah for eight.

This is the ‘alternative reality’ they fashioned. Throughout our subsequent exiles and returns, through all the political confusion of history, it is this simple story which has endured. It is neither false nor merely fable. It doesn’t deny anything which may actually have happened. Rather, it expresses a deeper reality, a vital and eternal truth, to which life bears witness all the time.

The mystics understood that what the Maccabees rekindled was no ordinary flame but Or Haganuz, the hidden light, that first radiance with which God drew dawn out of darkness at the beginning of creation. Then God hid it, leaving the practical tasks of measuring day and night to the sun, moon and stars.

Those mystics debate where God concealed that primal light: In the Torah? In the souls of the righteous? In the world to come? I prefer their simplest answer: everywhere, in each and every human being and in all life. We have only to recognise it, to see, and see by, it.

It is the eagerness in the face of a child, the radiance in the eyes of wisdom coupled with kindness. It is the creative fire in which music and poetry are fashioned. It is the wonder of wild places, and the soul of a garden. It is the tenderness of a carer guiding with dignity arthritic fingers to hold a flexi-straw.

It’s inevitable that we only occasionally perceive this light. It’s in the nature of our fraught minds and hectic lives that we only rarely glimpse it in others or feel it illumine our spirit. But it is there always, though often suppressed and downtrodden.

It is a flame deeper than political division. It burns equally in our interlocutors and opponents. It may be forced to resort to bunkers and sealed rooms in wartime. Excess and exploitation hide it. But it never goes out. The mystics hold that those eight days for which it burnt in the Temple add up to more than one week plus twenty-four hours: they signify eternity.

This is the flame we light on Chanukah, in our windows and in our soul.

 

 

Until we wrest blessing from the darkness

‘I will not let you go until you bless me:’ these words, which Jacob says to the unnamed adversary who assails him in the night as he stands alone by the Jabok river, have become my motto.

They express the same attitude as the Maccabees, who, after re-conquering the desolate Temple precincts in Jerusalem, would not abandon the search among the ruins until they found the source of light and kindled the flame which has since illumined with courage and hope the entire history of the Jewish People.

Inevitably, we face challenges, personal and collective. Often, with courage, the help of others and maybe some luck, we somehow manage to struggle through them until break of day. Yesterday I heard for the first time the phrase ‘post traumatic growth,’ with the following definition:

‘Post-traumatic growth doesn’t deny deep distress, but rather posits that adversity can unintentionally yield changes in understanding oneself, others, and the world.’

I hadn’t known the name, but I’ve witnessed the reality many times:

‘Rabbi, I’ve been through…
It’s been lonely, hard.
But now I’m there for other people.
I wanted you to know in case you hear of someone else going through …’

Illness, sorrow: such pain and mental suffering must not be romanticised or ennobled. But if, in the inner spaces where we struggle, we can somehow extract blessing from our fearful encounters with them, they can become lamps in our hand to negotiate the winding steps to chambers in our heart we may not previously have explored. These are not easy places to inhabit, but they can become the source of our deepest compassion and most enduring commitments.

As individuals, though, we cannot vanquish everything. Years ago, I visited an elderly lady who had motor neurone disease. She was still able to speak, just; still able to hold a pencil, just. ‘Have I got it right?’ she asked, indicating her drawing of a baby elephant. She died a few weeks later.

She could not overcome the physical impact of that horrible illness; no one could. But this baby elephant was her ‘yes’ to life nonetheless, her stamina, her hope, her seizing of blessing from the last of her days. I still see that drawing before me. It’s a small thing; it’s a magnificent thing, tender, wonderful and great.

It is this very courage and faith in life, – with its baby elephants, children, adults, animals, everything – which together we muster in the short, dark days of the pandemic through which we are now living.

We have many assailants in this long night: the illness itself, fear, insecurity about the future, social injustice and cruelty. But, together, we shall not let go until we have grasped blessings nevertheless: deeper solidarity; less entitlement and greater appreciation; humbler recognition of our interdependence as humanity and part of nature; the determination to be healers in whatever way we can.

It is this very tenacity which led Rene Cassin to co-draft in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which we honour next week on 10 December, International Human Rights Day, in recognition

‘of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [as] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’

On Thursday evening, the first night of Chanukah we will not just take a match to a candle in our window. We will rekindle in our spirit the determination to seek out the source of light whatever the circumstances. We will find it and make it burn in our soul; we will acknowledge it and bless it in others; we will not give up until, together, we wrest blessing from this darkness.

 

Listening – beyond what we hear

I’m often troubled by the thought of what we should have heard but missed.

There’s a cruel scene in tomorrow’s Torah. Rachel, who’s childless, turns in pain to her husband Jacob: ‘Give me children or else I die.’ He answers sharply: Do you think I’m God, who’s withheld from you the fruit of the womb?

The rabbis blame him doubly: Is that how you answer someone in pain? And why, just because you’ve got offspring through Leah, rub it in by stressing ‘from you’?

Rachel hurts. Sometimes people who hurt say things we fail to hear. Sometimes we react to the edge in their tone but miss the sorrow underneath. Sometimes people who’re suffering don’t say anything to us at all, and we don’t stop to listen. Sometimes we keep ourselves at too great distance for their voices to carry that far.

The Talmud describes a town which built a surrounding wall with thick gates. The prophet Elijah, who used to visit Rabbi Joshua ben Levi there, stopped coming. When he eventually returned, the rabbi asked why he’d been gone so long. He replied: I don’t go to places which insulate themselves from the cry of the poor.

The infinitive absolute has no grammatical equivalent in English: in Hebrew it’s the doubling of a verb for emphasis. The Torah has one verse in which this construction is used three times: God says ‘If you oppress, oppress them, and they cry out, cry out to me, I will hear, surely hear their outcry.’ Perhaps ‘hear’ is doubled because we humans too have to listen beyond what first strikes our ears, to the meaning, the spoken, the half spoken and the unspoken, beyond.

This is more than any of us can manage. Some kinds of listening can’t be delegated. Who should be hearing Rachel’s pain, if not Jacob? Sometimes listening needs to be shared: in a community we need to hear each other, but no one of us has the sensitivity, or capacity, to hear everyone. Sometimes it’s the responsibility of society as a whole to hear za’akat dalim, the cry of the poor.

These matters concern me at every level. Rabbis, like doctors, are not immune to the feedback: ‘You make time for lots of others, but where are you for your own family?’

Sometimes there are members of our community we don’t hear. During lockdown, the familiar channels through which we learn what’s happening to each other, at Kiddush, parties, shivas and in the shops, are mostly closed off. I worry about what we’re not attuned to in these semi-enclosed, shutdown months. Please help us understand! And I apologise for what we’ve missed.

Sometimes there are wider collective issues, markers, memorials which we haven’t registered. I’m conscious that 1st December is World Aids Day; I’m grateful to Laurence Jacobs, congregant and trustee of The Jewish Aids Trust, for informing me. ‘As always, the Jewish community, the first faith community to step up to the mark, makes me very proud,’ he said: everyone who dies of AIDS was someone’s child, sibling, partner; it’s not just across the world (where it’s killed 35 million people), it’s in North West London too. World Aids Day matters ‘to increase awareness, fight prejudice and improve education.’

I appreciate that head and heart are often full. One wants to put one’s hands over one’s ears: ‘Leave me alone, I can’t take any more.’ We need silence too, to retreat in our spirits to the tranquil waters for which the Psalmist longs. We need the quiet, or maybe it’s truly music, which calms the throbbing voices in the mind. That’s why I often walk or run at night, to be stilled by the gentle voices of the trees.

Quiet and prayer deepen the heart. We need them so that we can be more heedful listeners to life and show as little indifference, and give as few cruel answers, as possible.

 

For International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

As a community rabbi I see joy and beauty almost every day. But I also witness much suffering. Some of it cannot be avoided: as Virgil wrote, ‘sunt lacrimae rerum, there are tears in the nature of things.’

But cruelty is different. It has perpetrators. The legal dictionary defines it as ‘The deliberate and malicious infliction of mental or physical pain upon persons or animals.’ It continues: ‘As applied to people, cruelty encompasses abusive, outrageous, and inhumane treatment that results in the wanton and unnecessary infliction of suffering upon the body or mind.’

I would rather write about prettier matters. If I look up, the early light on the autumn trees summons me to shacharit, to praise the wonder of creation. But what of the those who can’t look out, because they are literally locked in, handcuffed, shackled, tied to bannisters? Or who are mentally and emotionally trapped with a man who threatens, bullies, undermines, and derides them and cunningly and calculatedly inflicts pain?

25 November is the date of The United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the beginning of sixteen days leading to International Human Rights Day on December 10. This Shabbat is dedicated to JWA, the work of Jewish Women’s Aid.

I looked up ‘cruel’ in Hebrew אכזרי – The first definition is ‘failing to show any mercy’. Job complains that even God has turned cruel, ‘oppressing me with all the power of his hand.’

But it’s cruelty by humans, by us, on which these days require us to focus. It’s not something which happens far away, done by the kind of people we never meet to others we never encounter.

I know this directly from personal testament, what women have told me about men and sometimes, too, what men have told me about other men – and, occasionally, women. It must take a lot to make a person tell their rabbi, – which says to me that what I know is only a tiny fraction of what, tragically and horribly, there is to know.

Abuse can be the loneliest of suffering, because a person feels too ashamed or afraid to tell, or because she is so brutally and ceaselessly policed that there’s no one accessible and no opportunity to tell. Lockdown has made all this far worse. It’s one thing to be at home with one’s beloved family, quite another to be shut in with one’s tormentor. Organisations like JWA can offer the only hope, therefore we must support them.

Seeing I’m writing bluntly, here are a number of frank questions – in which I include myself: have I never ever done anything cruel, not a hidden action, not a word, not a subtle aside, just to cause hurt? Have I never justified or been complicit with cruelty? Have I never, in those albeit limited circumstances when I could do something about it, ignored cruelty and simply carried on? Have I done my best to direct my words and actions to the opposite of cruelty, mercy and kindness?

There are two verses in the Torah which together define what it is to be a truly human being: ‘created in the image of God’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Jewish teaching names three outstanding characteristics by which these criteria are fulfilled: tsedek, fairness, rachamim, mercy, and chesed, kindness. The last is arguably greatest because it includes the others.

These are the qualities which make us truly human and our societies genuinely humane.

 

On AJEX Shabbat 5781

I remember seeing a programme about a British soldier, a highlander, from near Glen Coe, who’d served in Afghanistan. He spoke about returning home from his tour of duty, overwhelmed and bewildered by what he’d witnessed. He climbed high into the mountains above the Gen, and simply sat there in silence.

This is AJEX Shabbat; on Sunday, the Remembrance Service of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women will happen virtually at 2.30pm. Normally it takes place before the Cenotaph in Whitehall. I was deeply moved last year by the many hundreds present, by the large numbers from our own community honouring parents by wearing the medals they’d earned at the risk of their lives, and by the enormity of the events and the sacrifice to which we were gathered in tribute.

This year I stood with Nicky in our garden for the two-minute silence. Then we listened together to the last post; the notes, traversing that silence, penetrating the heart.

It’s 75 years since VE and VJ day, 80 since the Battle of Britain. It’s the plain, simple truth that hundreds of thousands in this country and millions worldwide gave their lives, suffered sudden or slow death, or enduring injuries, to allow my generation to grow up in freedom and peace. There is nothing adequate one can say.

At the yard where we chose our dog from a litter of puppies, there was a year-old collie who kept jumping up. ‘They just brought him back,’ the farmer said, ‘His owner was killed in Iraq.’ Suddenly that awful war sprung nearer. The dog was not naughty or badly trained; he was looking, looking, looking. What then do human hearts do with the irreparable, everlasting absence?

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall…

And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen: Anthem for Doomed Youth

I want to return to that soldier, alone above Glen Coe. For reasons hard to explain I connect those silent valleys with a space in the Torah named by Hagar. It’s where she’s found by an angel, pregnant, desolate, weeping after Abraham and Sarah have driven her out. She calls it be’er lachai ro’i, ‘the well of the living one who sees.’ ‘You are God who sees,’ she explains. Rashi adds in his commentary, ‘You, God, see the sorrow of the long-suffering.’

I sometimes think about that well. It’s one of several locations in the Torah one can’t find on Waze. One can only travel there in the soul. It’s somewhere in life’s wilderness, deep enough beneath the desert for the living waters to drip down into it and replenish the inner well which the spirit needs in order not to die of thirst. It’s far below the aggression and abrasions, the conflicts and the shouting, of life’s battlegrounds. No beaten path exists to take us to it but we know it when we’re there: ‘the well of the living one who sees.’

I don’t think God regards us like someone who catches us in the lens, takes a photograph, prints it out and puts our name and the date on the back. But something, some living presence in that place, comforts us, unbinds our knotted-up spirit, puts ointment on the heart’s wounds and lets us weep.

I wonder if this is where that highlander went, above Glen Coe. I hope he found stillness there, as I wish everyone traumatised by war: soldiers, civilians, refugees, may.

It’s the place I unconsciously mean when I say the traditional words of consolation to mourners: Hamakom Yenachem. ‘Makom’ means place, but the rabbis understood it as a name for God. Hence the frequent translation, ‘May the Omnipresent comfort you.’

But perhaps the words have another meaning also: may you reach the place within you where the living waters flow. May the God within all life find you there and bring you stillness and restoration.

What gives us strength in uncertain times

There’s been something lovely, this unlovely week. I keep picking up my phone to look; not just in addictive anxiety at the latest on the US election, but at the newest postings of pictures from nature, – swans, trees, autumn leaves – in our new WhatsApp group MasorTeva, Masorti Nature, our local Jewish version of Nature Watch.

These are some of the things which keep me going during these complex, strange and difficult days, aside from my family, guinea pigs, dogs and all, whom I’m so lucky to have.

Ordinary beauty: the deep red of the crab apples, the orange and brown of the fallen leaves, the moon, the red-patched faces and yellow-tinged wings of goldfinches.

Kindness: I don’t know why, but what happened when my grandfather died came back into my mind. I’d finished 6th form and was helping at a primary school in Brent. ‘Go home,’ this lovely, warm-hearted lunch lady said, ‘that’s where you’re needed.’ This was 45 years ago, but those few seconds of her smile, her look of deep understanding, still bless me.

Kindness: K. who found asylum in our house for some months, and is now one of the family, calls to say he’s come across another refugee who has no food. ‘Please help him,’ he says, ‘Let’s help him together.’ A message comes through from D. ‘Do you have a buggy in the baby-equipment pool for a local Syrian family?’ One lives to learn to be kind.

Poetry and song: one verse can nourish the spirit periodically for a lifetime. Autumn poems have been following me around, especially Yeats’s Wild Swans at Coole:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans…

Torah: the verses, arguments, lore, law, and music of Judaism. A word is not just one word but seventy voices: Do you understand it this way or that? The fierce pursuit of meanings, precise, exacting, combative, across the cross-referenced interpretations of generations, mutates into something timeless: is that your voice, God, in the spaces between and the silence beyond the letters?

Prayer: I love our Jewish prayers, (as those of other faiths no doubt love theirs). There are so many kinds of connection, not just with our community of today but zooming across time: the prayerbook is a receptacle of the spirits of generations, those who wrote them and repeated them, putting their souls and struggles out there into the infinite. In them are my father, his grandmother and all the teachers and wanderers who knew the words by heart and, turning toward Jerusalem from many lands, spoke them into the ether.

Among, or beyond, or hidden within all is God, or, at least, what I think of as God. I only know these moments of interconnection, when the echo-chamber of my head is quiet, except for the flow of the one and same consciousness which gives life to the trees, the birds and the winds which move them all.

I’m far from unaware that these current days bring many difficult matters: 25 years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the commemoration of Kristallnacht, Remembrance Sunday, the AJEX parade (online only) and, no doubt, politics of every kind.

But through and beyond the anguish, it is these simpler, purer, gentler things we live for. Quietly, insistently, they form our knowledge of right and wrong and create the person we aspire to be. They bring us strength of spirit and resilience; from them community and faithfulness are built.

They are what countless young people longed for when they died on battlefields. They are what I hope the world’s children will live for and grow up to cherish.

 

After the EHRC report

I keep thinking this morning of that image of an old man in a boat. One sees it on the front of reprints of old Haggadot: there’s a big river, in the middle of which is a fragile skiff with an old man holding the oars, rowing towards the unknown bank, away from everyone else.

It’s a depiction of Abraham, Avram Ha’Ivri, ‘Abram the Hebrew,’ whose story we begin to read at this difficult time for our country and the world. Avar means ‘cross’, ever is a bank; so Abram is the one who crosses to the far side. He’s the ‘other’, different, alone, following the voice which tells him to ‘leave his land, his motherland.’

Yesterday was a painful day for many. I tried to write down Ruth Smeeth’s words as she responded to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on antisemitism and the Labour Party. It vindicated Jewish Labour Party members, she said. But what came across was the pain: how for years she’s been unable to go anywhere, including the party conference, without security; how this has affected her family; that she’s had to move home; that she received constant abuse, including death threats. She emphasised the viciousness to which Jewish women have been exposed: abuse on social media is almost invariably even more vile for women. I think of Louise Elman, Luciana Berger and Margaret Hodge: I admire the courage of these women, – and also the men – who spoke up persistently in the face of deafness, indifference and, not rarely, malice. ‘It’s also about those who kept silent and failed to speak out when they knew what was going on,’ Luciana Berger told me. As Jews we know all too well the price of not speaking out, strongly and early, against injustice.

A young man in our community listed the names of contemporaries who left the party because of intimidation and bullying at local meetings, each of them someone I’ve watched grow up, at whose Bar or Bat Mitzvah I’ve spoken. Of course, there are many who are equally passionately engaged with other parties and social and national causes – and rightly so: that’s how it should be in an open, democratic society.

Deeper than the politics, I feel for the aloneness these MPs and young people have experienced. There’s a rabbinic saying that ‘ma’aseh avot siman labanim, the deeds of the ancestors are signs for their children.’ There are times when we are, once again, Abram on that river. I wonder if that’s how my grandfather felt in the autumn of 1916, when, a chaplain in the German Army on the Western Front at Verdun, he witnessed the very country for which he’d enlisted because the Kaiser proclaimed that citizens of all faiths were equal, turn against its Jews.

But this isn’t just about Jews. It concerns society as a whole and the sanctity of faith. Did Vincent Loques, the verger murdered yesterday in Notre Dame in Nice, feel suddenly and utterly alone when the terrorist came towards him with a long knife, in the church where he’d faithfully lit the candles and welcomed visitors for a decade? My heart goes out to his family and the families of the two women murdered alongside him.

Our faiths and faith communities with their sacred precincts, both physical and spiritual, should be places where we re-encounter the God of all flesh and re-affirm our commitments to compassion, justice and service. From there we should be able to go out in freedom to contribute to our societies, which should be enriched and strengthened both by the unifying commonalities of our faith-rooted values and the diversity and wealth of our different cultures.

The first word of the EHRC report is ‘trust’. I hope that processes will be strengthened at this critical time in the UK, in the US with its elections, and across the world, to heal our wounded trust.

 

Why we should all love rainbows

I was crossing the Heath last week when, unexpectedly, I saw a double rainbow. I didn’t just recall Wordsworth’s poem; I experienced it:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man…

I looked around and saw that everyone seemed to feel the same: a moment of wonder embraced us. Even the dogs were lolloping more lightly.

I remembered the brachah too:

Blessed are You, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who remembers and keeps faith with his covenant and is true to his word.

It was a marvellous way to begin the week of Noah, about whom we read in the Torah tomorrow. After the mass devastation of the flood, God promises never again to destroy life, making the rainbow the symbol of this, the first and most comprehensive pact in the Bible.

The rainbow is one of humanity’s most enduring and versatile symbols. Look online and you can see what it means in virtually every culture.

I’m moved by what it signifies today. I hear in my mind Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking with courageous pride about South Africa, ‘the rainbow nation’. Of course, the rainbow is the symbol of Pride itself. A YouTube video explains how each colour expresses a different quality: life, nature, serenity and healing. Keshet, ‘rainbow’ in Hebrew, is the name of UK Jewish organisation working for LGBT+ inclusion.

During lockdown, the rainbow has become an international symbol of solidarity and hope. I’m cheered whenever I see on windows, placards and even in the middle of roundabouts: the colours embracing NHS, or words of gratitude to those who dedicate themselves to our society.

Last, and definitely least, there’s a ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ page on a site about household pets, where you can record the name and endearing qualities of your late lamented guinea pigs.

The rainbow has a profound and complex history in Judaism. On Rosh Hashanah, Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance and judgement over all life, the rainbow is the first covenant we mention: ‘God remembered Noah and all the animals with him in the ark’. Nachmanides notes that keshet is an archer’s bow, but as a rainbow it is inverted to indicate that God will not shoot arrows of anger, but instead send healing to the earth.

More puzzling is the Talmud’s warning not to gaze at rainbows because this shows a lack of respect for God’s glory. This derives from Ezekiel’s description comparing ‘the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds’ to ‘the appearance of the brightness round about the likeness of God’s glory.’ (Ezekiel 1:28). Rabbi Isaac de Trani offers a moving explanation: every person experiences the sacred in different ways and the divine in different shades. We should not attempt to fathom the depth and richness of the spirit.

I’m struck as we begin One World Week by what these interpretations have in common: the rainbow represents the ability to see beyond the self and value existence in all its wealth of forms and colours. Only the capacity to value and care for life in this comprehensive manner can save us from destruction.

Or perhaps it’s all much simpler: rainbows are just beautiful and that makes us feel happy.

Creators or Destroyers: that is our critical choice

‘Up there on the hillside are trees we planted six years ago. We put up a nesting box and a pair of barn owls took up residence within the month. If it wasn’t raining so hard the skylarks would be out in a chorus.’

I’m with James from The Woodland Trust, exploring the square mile of Surrey they’re re-foresting, one acre of which we’ve helped to plant through JTree.global*. (A square mile has 640 acres; Surrey is 190,000 square miles; one acre equals about 750 young saplings) A soggy Mitzpah dog looks up at me, ‘Can we go home now please?’ (At least he’s had half a day away from that upstart puppy who’s cheekily intruded into his household.)

There are oaks, rowans and beeches, the most recently planted scarcely peeping out above the tubing which protects them from the marauding deer. There are fallow fields: ‘We’re letting these re-wild. There are a few sheep grazing to take the excess nutrients out of the soil so that the chalklands can one again produce their native orchids.’

Next to a community orchard of apples, plums, pears and cherries are rows of life-sized wooden soldiers, a memorial for the centenary of World War I: it was here on Epsom Downs that Lord Kitchener marshalled troops before they crossed to France.

Creation or destruction: that’s where we stand now as we recommence reading the Torah. ‘In the beginning God created:’ to the rabbis, especially the mystics, that process is never complete. Day by day, sacred energy flows through the world, re-animating and filling anew with wonder the light and dark, the rivers, trees, animals and humankind.

But only five columns later in the Torah God, frustrated by the wilful selfishness of humans, wants to destroy everything. Life only escapes by a pinhead, the entirety of biodiversity adrift in a tiny ark, afloat on an endless ocean.

But it’s not just God who stands at the centre of the drama; it’s us. Which are we, destroyers or creators? The rabbis termed humankind ‘partners with God in creation,’ applying this to when we practise justice and keep Shabbat, pausing from gain-seeking to honour and appreciate our world. But they were also well aware that we are wreckers and ruiners, applying the commandment ‘Do not destroy’ to an ever-widening circle of wanton destructiveness.

So who are we, and who should we be?

There are many fascinating interpretations of the verse ‘God said, “Na’aseh adam – Let us make humankind”.’ The key question is: to whom is God speaking? Here are some classic suggestions:

-        God consults the angels who say, too late, ‘Don’t do it.’

-        God asks every person, ‘Let’s work together to make you into a truly human being.’

-        The animals ask God to create a creature who can speak on their behalf.

But it’s a different insight which has caught my conscience this year: Don’t read ‘God said, “Let us make humankind”,’ but rather ‘God said to humankind, “Let us make”.

God wants us to be creators, creative, custodians of creation. God wants us to care for and cherish this world. More than that, God needs us to do so. Wonder, beauty, a sense of the sacred – these come from the divine. But the daily work of living faithfully by this instruction – that task belongs to us.

That is why I committed our community to planting a tree for every word in the seven days of creation. Never before in human history has it mattered so much to be co-creators and not co-destroyers.

That is the critical, urgent choice we all must make, individually, communally, nationally and across humankind.

 

*JTree.global is a project of Eco Synagogue, which is supported across all the denominations and has had strong backing from our community.

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