The Queue to see the Queen

Yesterday I joined the chaplaincy to the miles-long queue of people waiting to pay tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll. It was a moving and humbling privilege.

Have you been queueing long?

‘Yes, but it’s worth it, isn’t it? I have to show my respect.

And you?

‘Not really. If she can serve her country for seventy years, I can stand for seven hours to say thank you.’

The Torah portion for this Shabbat begins with gratitude. While the temple still stood, the entire people was commanded to bring the first fruits of their land and present them in Jerusalem in acknowledgement of God’s blessings. (Deuteronomy 26: 1-11) The ritual was known as viddu’i bikkurim, the confession over the first fruits. It was entirely different from what’s happening in Westminster now. But there’s one thing in common: gratitude.

Can I ask you what’s brought you here?

‘I just want to say thank you.’

Did you meet the Queen?

‘Never. But I saw how she dedicated herself to this country.’

‘Yes, many times. I worked in the palace; we had artisans with every kind of skill to build a new section.’

I learnt nothing which everyone hasn’t heard many times. I answered more questions about whether you could take hand-sanitiser through security (lots) than about faith and God (none). One man asked me in distress whether he’d be allowed to change from his trainers into the shoes he’d brought specially for when he entered Her Majesty’s presence. It was somehow truly touching.

I gleaned no different explanations for why people were here than what we’ve all heard many times. (Except for the gentleman down on one knee with Parliament in the background who claimed he wasn’t taking a picture of his partner but was about to propose. No one around believed him.)

What was moving was not anything exceptional which was said, but the opposite: the plain respect for a life of dignity, humanity and service:

‘She was the mother of the nation.’

‘Grandmother.’

‘She was the gran I never had.’

In this often throw-away age of public posturing, an age deeply wounded by fear and insecurity, these virtues are still the rock and at heart we all know it: service, humanity, discipline, dignity, faith.

‘Have you come far?’

‘From Glasgow, overnight. I’ll be back on the bus tonight, but I’m here now.’

‘From New York.’ New York! You came specially? ‘Yes. I just had to.’

The respect with which everyone waited reminded me of the reverence with which our family watched the footage of the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill (Levi Eshkol, Israel’s Prime Minister, walked all the miles of the procession because it was Shabbat). My parents weren’t uncritical of British policy, as many are today of the Royal Family and the concept of monarchy. But they knew that without Churchill the war might not have been won and the country which had offered them liberty as they fled Nazi Germany might not have withstood invasion. Part of what took me to Westminster yesterday (and I’m heading back in a few minutes) is gratitude for a country where my family, and we as Jews, can live in safety. I noticed how many people of different cultures smiled at me as I stood in my ‘faith team’ high-vis with my kippah on my head.

People spoke warmly with one another as they advanced along the line. ‘So you’re family?’ I asked several times:

‘No. We just met in the queue. But we know everything about each other now. We’re going to remain in touch.

According to the Mishnah (2nd century) when people arrived in Jerusalem with their first fruits everyone went out to great them, saying ‘Peace be upon you, my brothers and sisters.’

A queue of tens of thousands of people of all faiths, ethnicities and ages united by respect and reverence is not a daily sight. This, too, is the Queen’s achievement, her legacy. If only it could spread across the world, and long endure.

A tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll

These are days not just of national mourning for Queen Elizabeth ll, but of a sorrow which touches us communally and personally.

The Queen has always been there. In an age of instability, she symbolised stability; in an age of insecurity, she represented safety. In an age which promotes me, my and self, she embodied public service. In an age marked by the weaknesses of leaders, she personified discipline and dignity. In an age which dissects and debunks public figures, the respect she commanded, despite many trials, remained undiminished.

Perhaps we hadn’t realised how precious such qualities are. There’s less in the world now of that decency and order which we had hoped we could take for granted. We feel, many of us, a heartache and anxiety which takes us by surprise.

The rabbis composed a special prayer to be said on seeing a king or queen: ‘Blessed be God who has given of the divine glory to flesh and blood.’ What is that ‘divine glory’ they asked. Observing the juxtaposition in Deuteronomy of ‘God is great and mighty’ and ‘God loves the stranger and refugee,’ they noted that where we find God’s greatness there too we find God’s humility. They taught that, in this regard especially, earthy sovereignty should mirror heavenly sovereignty.

Queen Elizabeth achieved just that, combining the dignity of the throne with humility of person. Based on her Christian faith and her understanding of the best traditions of British royalty, she saw the prerogatives of office as the means to service. That was her promise when she came to the throne, and she lived by it unstintingly throughout the seventy years of her reign.

She combined regal bearing with the ability to touch the heart. She visited Aberfan in the days following the disaster in 1966 when a sliding mountain of coal slag submerged the local school, killing over a hundred children and many teachers. She returned to the town several times, as Elaine Richards, a bereaved parent, remembered:

She promised me 44 years ago that she would open the school when it is built and she is here today. It is a very emotional day, I had to be coaxed to come here to remember the little ones who died.

The words of her broadcast in the lockdown Christmas of 2020, when she alluded to the wartime song which kept hope alive in the nation’s soul, were illumined on placards which normally carry only commercial adverts:

We will be with our friends again.
We will be with our families again.
We will meet again.

She cared. She was patron of over six hundred charities and personally involved in many of them. They reflected her commitment to humanity and nature, her concern for people everywhere, for rural life, for animals, especially horses and dogs, and for the earth.

She was a human being, a wife, mother, even great-grandmother. The picture of her alone in her black coat, black hat and black facemask, observing the rules of isolation at the funeral of her beloved Prince Philip, is the very image of personal grief.

Neither she, nor her life, nor certainly her family, was always easy or perfect. Maybe that too is what draws her to the heart. She was ‘the nation’s grandmother,’ and grandmothers, as everyone knows, are figures as much of affection as of authority.

In Judaism, the queen is the symbol of the Sabbath, shabbat hamalkah, representing the vision of a world at peace. Queen Elizabeth lived through many wars, serving when princess as an auto mechanic in the ATS. Yet she represented something higher, a country, commonwealth and globe drawn together, a harmony to which we yet aspire.

In these difficult days at the start of his reign, we wish King Charles lll and all the royal family comfort and strength.

Like his mother, he has shown deep respect not just for the church but for all faiths. As Jews, we are fortunate to live in a country whose sovereign has visited our synagogues and shared in our prayers.

We hope his reign will be marked by the achievement across the country and the world of those values he has so often articulated: harmony with nature and across humanity.

We join with people of all faiths and none across the nation and the world in sorrow at the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth ll, and in gratitude for her life.

Why it matters to stand with Pride

Tomorrow is Pride Shabbat, a celebration of LGBTQ Jews, friends, families, and allies of all ages. It comes at a critical moment in history.

I’ve been increasingly worried over the last years that in the time ahead we may find ourselves looking back and saying, ‘This was when those liberties we took almost for granted began to be rolled back.’ In some parts of the world such words won’t be said too loudly, because you can never be sure who might be listening.

I’m thinking of Russia, with its vicious war against Ukraine, and of the surveillance, threats and punishments faced by anyone who dares to dissent. There’s the proto-fascist politics of Hungary, and the growing strength in parts of Europe of the populist far right, so say nothing of the Middle East. The repressive role of certain religious groups in these trends is additionally disturbing.

We need to look west as well as east. Last week’s overturning of Roe v Wade by America’s Supreme Court opens the way for states to enact laws likely to target women, and families, in deeply invasive ways. It also bodes the possible curtailment of other freedoms. (I’m horrified too at the Court’s destructive, irresponsible and retrograde decision relating to the climate crisis.)

The Court’s verdict turned on what rights not specifically stated in the Constitution it considered to be implied under the 14th Amendment, particularly the right to privacy in personal matters including contraception, abortion, marriage and sexual orientation.

The issue, wrote Justice Alito in delivering the Court’s opinion, was whether the right to abortion could be considered ‘deeply rooted in [our] history and tradition’ and ‘essential to our Nation’s “scheme of ordered liberty.”’ But that ‘history and tradition’ was established at a time when women had little public, and no legal, voice.

If the Court deemed abortion not to qualify, what will come next?

This is Pride Shabbat. The struggle against repression and violent hatred has been long and cruel. It isn’t over, as last week’s murderous attack on a gay venue in Olso tragically showed. Support and allyship have rarely been more important than now, as Sadiq Kahn states so well:

As mayor, and as an ally to our incredible LGBTQ+ community, I’ve always been a passionate supporter of LGBTQ+ rights because I feel strongly that no one should ever face prejudice, discrimination or violence because of who they are or who they love.

As a rabbi, I’m well aware that there are hurtful texts to be faced in the heartland of our faith, in the Torah. I do so through what two thousand years ago ben Azzai considered the most foundational text of all, that every human being without exception is created in God’s image. To exclude someone from equal rights and privileges on grounds of sexual orientation is to disregard not only their humanity, but the presence of God in them, which is entrusted uniquely and specially to each and every person.

I believe God asks us not why our body chemistry is a certain way, but whether we are compassionate, just, trustworthy, respectful, generous, and committed to caring for each other and God’s world.

As Jews, we have often been in the front line of those whose rights to equality, if granted in the first place, have been threatened or withdrawn.

That too is why we should stand with Pride this Shabbat and celebrate the rich creativity of our community.

Taking a ‘can do’ approach

I’m a Radio 4 fan, though usually just a casual listener catching parts of programmes while I’m driving along. (Except when Nicola Solomon [my wife] was on Money Box Live) That’s how last Sunday I heard the tail-end of a transmission about food in Birmingham.

Surplus food which would otherwise be wasted is brought to three recently created cafes; the chefs ‘menu on their feet,’ working out instantly what to cook with whatever arrives. There are plans to supplement supplies with grow-your-own vegetables and fruit on raised beds and allotments.

Meals are offered on a pay-as-you-feel basis. ‘I couldn’t afford lunch if it wasn’t for here,’ one frequenter said. ‘It’s company,’ said an older customer, ‘Without here, I’d speak to no-one all day.’

The project is social, environmental, communal; it’s creative, kind and not too complicated; it fights poverty, food-waste, climate change and loneliness. It’s graciously run, but with vision and determination. What more can one ask?

It left me thinking about just one word from the Torah, vehitchazaktem. It translates literally as ‘you [plural] strengthen yourselves’ and loosely as ‘build up each other’s morale’. It’s what Moses tells the spies to do when they pace out the Promised Land. It’s also precisely what they fail at. In fact, they do the exact opposite, dragging each other down.

I also recently learnt from Radio 4 that roughly 12% less people listen to the news these days; it’s too miserable. They don’t want to know. I can’t blame them; I admit, I can only take it in small doses. We need to know what’s happening in the world, especially in our own society. We have a responsibility to be aware. But that doesn’t make it a mitzvah to destroy our morale.

That’s where vehitchazaktem, ‘strengthen yourselves’,comes in. When I began to research the word, I was sure I’d find a creative Hasidic commentary. But I’ve drawn a blank, so I’m on my own.

The meanings of chazak, strong, are not always positive. Pharaoh strengthens and hardens his heart. The Children of Israel, too, have been known to take an obstinate stand against God. Strong can also mean stubborn, which isn’t always a good thing. Openness, flexibility and the readiness to be mistaken are important virtues.

But here vehitchazaktem is definitely positive: ‘strengthen each other’, ‘take a collective can-do approach.’ That’s the attitude we so badly need just now. It’s what I loved about that radio programme: it didn’t only talk about economic crisis, food poverty and climate emergency. It showcased what can be done, and how enjoyable it can be too.

Moses’ spies go in the other direction. They convince each other that they’re useless. ‘We were like insects in our own eyes,’ they say. It’s easy to blame them. But in these difficult times, we also can easily succumb to the feeling that nothing we do will make any difference and that quickly becomes a self-fulfilling truth.

It’s for precisely that reason that it’s so important to draw inspiration from the remarkable initiatives so many people are engaging in, and to go and do likewise.

But is it worth it? Will whatever project we create or join save the world? That’s when we need Rabbi Tarfon’s advice: ‘it’s not your responsibility to complete the work, but that doesn’t leave you free to opt out.’

‘Will it be enough?’ is also not the most helpful question. The real issue is: what good can you and I encourage each other to do together, to the best of our combined abilities? It won’t change the whole world on its own, but who knows who else it might inspire?

Not just then but now – from where God is speaking

As we approach Shabbat and the festival of Shavuot, we simultaneously honour our Sovereign Queen Elizabeth II, and the Sovereign of the sovereign of sovereigns, our God.

Her Majesty the Queen has, through her unstinting devotion to duty and service, represented stability and dedication over seventy years in which the world has changed at an unprecedented rate. During her long reign, the Jewish community, alongside other faiths, has been able to flourish in an environment of peace and respect. It has often been acknowledged for its contribution to this country in the arts, sciences, education and business, and above all for its focus on charity and care.

We have only to look back through our history, or round about us to many other lands, to know how lucky we are to be living in this country. We wish Her Majesty strength on her remarkable Platinum Jubilee; we hope she finds joy and satisfaction in her many achievements.

The queen has modelled that very sense of service which lies at the core of Judaism, – the service of God. Those words ‘the service of God’ may sound leaden with piety. So how do we translate them into our lives?

Over three thousand years of Jewish life, the most significant truth has not been that long ago God once spoke at Mount Sinai and gave us the Torah. Rather, the essential inner reality is that God speaks all the time and that life is a continuous revelation, as the rabbis taught, ‘Every day a voice calls out from Horeb.’ Our task is to hear it.

Brooding over this, the central challenge of all spiritual life, two teachings come into my mind, both from the bleakest period of Jewish history. The first is from Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto:

When you listen intently, you can hear the voice of Torah, the oneness of God, in the chirping of the birds, the lowing of cows and the interactions of people.

He wrote these courageous and defiant words in 1941, very far from the birds and cows to which he refers. He subsequently buried his writings in the grounds of the ghetto; he did not survive to see them rediscovered.

The second teaching comes from Rabbi Hugo Gryn, of beloved memory. I want you to know, he wrote afterwards, that God was present in Auschwitz. But not, he added, the God of my childhood imaginings. God was there, abused and blasphemed.

These two teachings together form the heart, the two pumping valves of my Torah, and guide me through life. They remind me of what the mystics have always understood as the oneness of all things, garbed and concealed within our different material and mental forms. Where there is beauty, peace and joy this oneness sings out in wonder and glory. That is why all life must be cherished, why in William Blake’s words,

A robin redbreast in a cage / Puts all heaven in a rage.

It is the secret of the great togetherness of humankind and all creation.

But it does not follow that where there is suffering, misery, violence and cruelty God must be absent. Rather, the heart and conscience, the holy within life, screams out in pain and outrage. ‘Help me!’ it cries, ‘Bring me justice, decency, kindness, healing!’ To the best of our limited capacities, we have to respond. That is the meaning of being commanded.

These two teachings circumscribe every moment and situation of human life. They are, I believe, God speaking to us, not from afar, not from the remote distance of history and the heights of a mountain top, but from right here, from what’s next to us and within us.

The verse preceding the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus reads: ‘God spoke all these words, saying.’ ‘Spoke’ refers to the historical-mythical revelation at Sinai. ‘Saying’ is here, now, at all times and to us all.

Music from over the fence: the joy of Lag Be’Omer

The sound of singing came over the fence with such compelling harmony that I simply had to get up from my desk and follow the music. It came from the home of my colleague, friend and neighbour, Rabbi Zahavit Shalev. Seated around the fire-pit in her garden were at least ten people playing the guitar and fifty more singing along. There were parents and children, and grandparents too. There was L. who still keeps the yellow star his family had to wear in the Budapest ghetto in his Passover Haggadah. There was M. who’d never been to a Jewish occasion before. There were lots of teens and young people.

It was the night of Lag Be’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, so-named after the measure of grain offered in the temple on its first night. The counting of the Omer marks the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. It’s traditionally a period of mourning, but Lag Be’Omer is a day of respite, a date for music and joy. ‘Despite the fact that Jewish history has more than its share of bleak and depressing chapters, the tradition sees itself as a joyous one,’ writes Arthur Green on the opening page of his delightful short book, Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas. Seeking God should fill the heart with joy: ‘Love, the wonders of nature, music, dance, and the close companionship of friends are all there to keep you on the path of joy.’ (We each have our strengths: ask me to join the dance and I’ve got two left feet; suggest a fifteen mile-hike in the wild countryside and the boots are on my feet.)

Lag Be’Omer has its hero, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in 2nd century Palestine. Betrayed to the Roman authorities for speaking ill of them, he flees to a cave where he hides with his son for twelve years. A well of water miraculously appears at the entrance, where a carob tree provides all the nutrition they need. Each day, every day, father and son study Torah together from memory.

Eventually Elijah announces that the Caesar who wanted them killed, has himself bitten the dust. Emerging from their cave, Rabbi Shimon and his son are dismayed at the sheer ordinariness of the world: ‘What,’ they exclaim, ‘People mundanely plough and sow, forgetting higher matters!’ A voice from heaven rebukes them: ‘Have you come out to destroy my world? Get back to your cave!’

When they re-emerge a year later (a period, perhaps, to process their post-traumatic stress) Rabbi Shimon has changed. Wherever he looks, he heals. Don’t remember me in sorrow, he says on his deathbed; let the anniversary of my death be a Hillula, a date for praising God with joy. That’s why Lag Be’Omer is also known as Hillula deRashbi (short for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai).

This story could be a parable for the whole history of the Jewish People, and other peoples, and individuals too, who’ve faced marginalisation and persecution. Don’t be daunted or diverted; deepen your own identity, seek the nourished of your spirit. Then, if and when the blessings of freedom come, don’t be disdainful of the world, don’t be bitter. Try to be a healer; bring understanding, foster conciliation. Behave in such a way that people will remember you with joy.

Judaism expresses this as the principle of simchah shel mitzvah, the joy which comes with practising God’s commandments, with doing what’s just, kind and good. ‘A mitzvah is a place where you can meet God,’ continues Arthur Green, ‘of course it makes you happy’ [his italics]. I would add that it’s also, or even more so, a place where we meet other people, our friends and companions in trying to bring happiness and healing in this challenging world.

Give me back my heart! The world in search of its soul

I was given a poem this week, an entirely unexpected, wonderful gift. It’s called ‘The Ballad of the Shot Heart.’ It relates to much I care about; let me explain why.
It was written by the Russian poet Nikolai Panchenko who served on the Voronezh front and was wounded twice in the Second World War:

At walking pace, my horseshoes ringing,
I know: my heart is getting smaller,
And suddenly – I have no heart!

With each burst of fire, he ‘donates’ a piece of his heart, losing it ‘bit by bit’ until there’s nothing of it left, because there’s an order ‘Don’t have a heart at war!’
He grows ever stronger; he helps save his country; he survives. But he’s lost his heart. Since then, he goes about trying to reassemble it:

“Give me a heart!” I shall knock at entrance halls.
“Give me a heart!” I shall cry through the door.
“Don’t you know, a man without a heart
Is more terrible by far than a beast who has one.”

These lines at once reminded me of another poem, by Avraham Sutzkever, about the lead plates of the Rom Printing Press, the best Jewish press in the world. The Rom Talmud serves to this day as the prototype for further editions. I’m lucky enough to have a set from the 1870’s, complete with the stamp of the Tzarist censorship. When I use a volume, I feel generations speaking from its pages, rich with the indentations of the letters. Sutzkever describes, in Yiddish, how he and other resistance fighters steal out of the Vilna Ghetto

…to seize
The lead plates at the Rom printing works.
We were dreamers, we had to be soldiers,
And melt down, for our bullets, the spirit of the lead.

One can turn a heart into heartlessness, and generations of culture into ammunition. But how does one turn them back?

Mercifully I’ve not been in the front lines. But I’ve met many whose souls carry the wounds of war, and of other forms of life’s many conflicts. I’ve learnt that repairing the heart and restoring the soul is the core of what religion is about.

Tikkun is an overused word, especially in the phrase tikkun olam, ‘repairing the world.’ But its true kabbalistic context remains closely relevant: it’s about reconnection, the part with the whole, the exhausted mind with the flow of life’s spirit. In the language of the mystics, it’s about restoring the spark of holiness, lost within us even to ourselves, to the healing divine radiance.

People don’t knock on my door, or on the gates of synagogues and churches, saying ‘Give me a heart.’ But that’s not because this isn’t what we want. It’s because we’re shy of such words, because we haven’t phrased our concerns in such language, even to ourselves. Or perhaps it’s because we aren’t consciously aware that it’s just this that we most need.

If, or rather when, we’re asked, what do we say? If we ourselves were asking, ‘Give me back my heart; restore me my soul!’ what would we do?

The Psalmist has an answer which speaks to me: ad avo el mikdeshei El, ‘until I come to God’s sacred spaces’ (73:17). I appreciate the plural because there are many such places: the quiet of prayer, which isn’t really about asking for things, but about re-finding ourselves in the presence of God; the welcome of a kind community; the affirmation which comes from being listened to with solicitude; the solitude and companionship of nature. All these are God’s sacred spaces.

We all need our hearts back. The world needs its heart back.

So much injustice: we’re not at liberty to do nothing

One WhatsApp, two emails, and three rabbinic sayings. (Is it only me, or is the attempt to catch up with all those texts an experience of constant failure for others too?)

Here’s the WhatsApp: it’s from X, who stayed with us some years ago for a few months before he got long term leave to remain in the UK. I’ve stopped filing his messages under ‘refugee’ and put them in the ‘family’ folder instead. He wrote:

‘Lost 4 kilos. Lost my momentum. I’m in hospital tonight. Covid negative.’ Then came ‘Sending me home in a taxi. I can’t speak properly.’

That had Nicky and I searching for his flat number in West London late last Saturday night with a bag of food and jars of soup and, specially requested, flowers from our garden. Bless him, he’s a lot better now. There are some requests to which it’s easy to respond.

Next the first email, which came on Wednesday. Others receive dozens like it:

This family haven’t had a hot meal or anything cooked since Sunday. No cooker, no house ware. There are 4 children aged 6 – 13. Address in previous email. Delivery ideally today/tmw. If I can update them with something definite, that will reassure emotionally as well as practically. Neither parent has the right to work. I just don’t know how they’re supposed to survive.

By the time I got this alert several people had already helped. The family are refugees. But as we know on this icy first day of T S Eliot’s ‘April, the cruellest month’, you don’t have to be a refugee to be unable to afford both food and heating, or either, or sometimes neither. We’re a country of massive social inequality.

Now the second email:

I’ve heard from my family at last. They’ve managed to get out of Ukraine. We’re the only relatives who can help. They need to be near us. Do you know hosts who’ll sponsor them?

Fortunately, we do. The reason I’ve never left my community is because of the number of people who’re committed to living actively and consistently by the laws of justice and kindness.

Here, then, are the three teachings of the rabbis (freely translated). The first is the most famous:

Hillel used to say, ‘If I don’t stand up for myself, who am I? But if I exist only for myself, what am I?

In other words, who I am isn’t just about me but how I interact with and contribute to others.

The second is the most radical:

There are four attitudes to money: 1. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours. But there are those who say that this is the way of Sodom.

‘What’s mine is mine’ sounds fair at first hearing. But what kind of society are we if I don’t care where that leaves you? ‘You haven’t enough food for your children? Your problem!’ How can such an attitude conceivably be just?

The third saying is the most chastening for those of us fortunate to have plenty today:

Poverty is a turning wheel.

I often find myself thinking about my father. He fled aged sixteen from a middle-class home to virtually nothing. I remember him speaking about ‘that gnawing feeling of constant hunger…’ He was in the siege of Jerusalem: ‘People were eating grass,’ he said.

When X kept saying thank you after he’d stayed with us for a while, I told him: ‘Who can know? Maybe one day your descendants will be looking after mine.’ Obviously, I hope not. I hope there’ll be a better world for everyone.

What’s happening right now is overwhelming. We can’t do everything, but we must do something. There are thousands of ways to care, from bringing people joy through music, to helping children learn to read, or cooking for a shelter. We are not at liberty to do nothing.

 

 

The necessity of hope

Who can live without hope?

I went running late last Friday, as I often like to do. There’s something special about the night of Shabbat, more deeply resonant, as if among the trees one could overhear God blessing the work of creation.

But what was that noise from the river below? Could it really be birdsong? It wasn’t an owl’s call, or the alarm with which a rook might charge to a higher branch. It was a hovering music, anxious yet sweet, a salutation from the soul of the mysterious dark. It was that cry I’d longed for years to hear,

That deep thrilling note that is wilder than all,
The voice of the wailing curlew. (James McKowen)

I don’t often spend Shabbat at a Christian retreat in the Yorkshire Dales. But I was invited by leaders of A Rocha, the Catholic organisation which created Eco Church, on which we modelled EcoSynagogue. I haven’t joined in meditation before with farmers, leaders in forestation, officers of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, for all of whom their patient work was a commitment rooted in faith. Faith in what? The prayers were brief and simple; in my thoughts I periodically substituted the words ‘through the eternal God’ and, with that, felt completely at home. For this was faith in life itself, the enduring strength of its deep roots.

A team from the Scottish Highlands spoke of their hopes for the next hundred years. The head of Forestry England referred to plans for the next two centuries, before acknowledging that climate change would inevitably necessitate as yet unpredictable adaptations.

One, two hundred years: those figures stuck in my mind. The timescale of climate emergency is a decade, twelve years minus the months since the clock in Time Square was set ticking its countdown to catastrophe. I believe in the severe urgency of the hour; action now must be a non-negotiable commitment. We owe it to our children.

But it’s equally essential to listen to the language of hundreds of years. For here lie vision and hope. I won’t see the branches of the oaks I helped plant reach out and attain their crowns. Yet the thought that they, or other trees, shall, – that comforts me; it leads my soul the quiet waters by.

There’s an evil war in Europe; Mr Putin knows neither humanity, justice nor mercy. Millions have lost everything. Around the world governments, seemingly with little moral compass, make short-term decisions for which the poor, the young, the least powerful and the non-human worlds of nature must suffer most. Who wouldn’t feel despair?

Yet against this humanity in many millions sets compassion and determination: we’ll give what we can, we’ll offer our homes to refugees. We’ll protest until our local council and MPs make the essential, right decisions. We’ll put up bird boxes, plant trees. If there’s no social justice, we’ll fight for social justice. If there’s not enough environmental care, we’ll go out and we’ll care.

Yet even as we are impelled by that ‘fierce urgency of now’ we need hope in the future. We need the language of long-term. We don’t know what trees will thrive best for the next hundred years or what birds will sing and where. But there shall be trees, and birdsong, and life.

I went out again next day, and the following night, and heard that music again. ‘Piercing, soul-aching,’ Mary Colwell calls it in Curlew Moon:

The pauses are as poignant as the cries themselves; they define the silence and fill it with expectation and emotion. Given a religious turn of mind, you could almost describe it as a benediction.

Together on the side of life

Please don’t lose heart in these cruel times. (I’m often talking to myself when I write these Friday notes). We shan’t and can’t lose heart.

These are harsh weeks. We constantly hear bad news: many among us worry about beloved family and friends caught up in this brutal war on Ukraine; all of us worry about those who worry. But we can’t and shan’t lose heart, because we’re together on the side of life.

In Jerusalem, it’s Purim today. The streets are full of children, and grown-ups, in fancy dress. Millions are busy practising the commandments of the festival, mishloach manot, bringing gifts of food to friends and neighbours, and mattanot la’evyonim, giving where there’s need. These simple actions convey a simple message: I care about you.

The Purim story is nasty and mean. It’s all there beneath the purple trappings of rich, indulgent society: trafficking, exploitation, manipulation, racism and attempted genocide. But hate is not the message its heroes sought to promulgate. ‘Remember!’ they taught, – but do so in order to seek peace and goodness. Start by showing in small, daily kindness that the people around you matter to you.

I often think about the Biblical meaning of the Hebrew verb yode’a, which translates as ‘know’. Except that it expresses something more than neutral cognition: what yode’a really means is ‘know and care.’

Lo yadati says Cain after killing his brother: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ – I don’t know and I couldn’t care less. Lo yadati says Pharaoh to Moses, ‘I don’t know God’ and therefore I don’t care about you or your ridiculous demand for freedom.

When people attain power who don’t care about the lives of others and who consider themselves accountable to no one, neither to God nor humanity, they inflict immeasurable hurt.

We fight back by caring. The Torah tells us that God ‘knows the pain’ of the Children of Israel in their slavery. We each contain a fraction of that God who knows. That infinitesimal portion may be invisible, dissolved somewhere within us, but it’s what gives us our conscience, heart and spirit. It’s what makes us love. It’s what makes us horrified when millions of people are bullied and bombed out of their homes and forced to become refugees. It’s what makes us say, ‘What can I do to help?’

There’s something essential which unites people who care. We may live in separate countries and have no common language. We may be concerned, at least ostensibly, about different matters: for children, or people rich in years, or animals, or nature. But we are all touched by the same spirit and impelled by the same imperative: life matters; life must be cherished; I have to do something for life.

I recently heard Hugh Warwick speak about hedgehogs. I love them, he said, so I fight for them. He was voicing a truth which embraces far more than those prickling animals, endearing as they are: we fight for what we love.

Loving life teaches us to love the lives of others, and to fight for them, and for life itself, in any way we can. Even if what we do feels insignificant, trivial, not much more than nothing, we should never say ‘It makes no difference.’ The issue is not ‘it’s so little that I do,’ but ‘What’s the little that I can do?’

I’m inspired and humbled by people who really care. It’s not just what they do; it’s the spirit they impart, the strength and solidarity they convey – that we’re together on the side of life.

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