Can there be religious faith without justice?

This week the Torah moves us swiftly on from the great revelation at Mount Sinai to mishpatim, just laws. For at the heart of Judaism is the relationship between justice and faith.

Tyranny, cruelty, unfairness, the cynical perpetuation of inequality, are wrongs not only against our fellow human beings, but against God. This is because God, if God means anything significant to us at all, is not in the heavens, imprisoned up there in splendid isolation and irrelevance.

God’s living spirit breathes within all life, in every human being. It is therefore God’s presence on earth which is, or should be, the true preoccupation of religious life.

Faith and injustice may seem to be all too frequent companions. It is of course possible to mouth words of prayer and practise, or turn a blind eye towards, cruelty. But in truth, they are incompatible.

To seek God, to claim God’s nearness, while knowingly wronging our fellow women and men, is like turning the door handle to invite God to enter, while keeping the bolts firmly fastened. God can’t get through.

That’s why the small Hebrew letter vav, meaning ‘and’, is so powerful. The Torah passes without pause from the great revelation on Mount Sinai, ‘I am the Lord your God’, to the finer details of the laws of damages, having servants, owning sheep and cows, without more of a pause than that minimal prefix ‘and’. But this ‘and’ is vital; it connects God’s revelation on high with the most ordinary details of everyday life on this earth.

As commentators from the Talmud to modern times indicate, that ‘and’ contradicts our intuitive sense of discontinuity: What? What has religion got to do with how I let my ox behave, or whether some stranger accidentally falls into the hole I dug in a field? With how I treat outsiders? Or use abusive and humiliating language?

The answer is ‘everything’:

Rabbi Ishmael taught: ‘Just as the exalted principles come from [God at] Mount Sinai, so do the lower laws’. (Mechilta)

In fact, the lower laws may be more important. We aren’t responsible for whether there’s a God in the heavens, but we are answerable for whether God feels at home here on earth. As William Blake, passionately concerned with social injustice in the chartered streets of London wrote:

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage.

So does the mistreatment of the vulnerable, – almost always represented in the Torah by the frequent phrase ‘the stranger, the widow and the fatherless’. I don’t know of any other single sentence in the Hebrew Bible which contains three consecutive uses of the emphatic double-infinitive:

If you shall oppress and oppress them, and they then cry out, cry out to me, I shall hear, yes surely hear them’, [says God]. (Exodus 22:22)

That’s why we can’t hide behind the mantle of God’s imagined favour, if we mistreat women, let the poor go hungry, mock foreigners, leave asylum seekers to rot in loneliness and contempt and fail to protest when innocent people are attacked, imprisoned or murdered, anywhere on earth.

There is no society in the world which doesn’t have serious work to do to let God in, which does not face profound challenges of injustice. In this struggle there is no such thing as neutrality; bystanders don’t exist. We all have our hand on the door handle, to open it, or close it.

When God asks the questions

Life presents at least two major spiritual challenges. The first is: Where is God? The second is: Where is God not? The second is harder.

‘I am the Lord your God’ declares the first of the Ten Commandments, which we read in the Torah this week. To some this is life’s most unshakeable certainty. To others it’s a patent absurdity, manifestly confounded by the realities of history. To yet more it is a question, sometimes all but irrelevant, at other times urgent, piercing to the heart: ‘God, are you? God, where are you?’

I was invited to a class of seven-year-olds who’d prepared a series of questions about God: ‘Is God a person?’ ‘Is God a he or a she?’ No, I don’t think God is a person, not a he nor a she. ‘So, what is It then?’ at which point one of them mercifully chirped up with ‘God’s in everything.’

That’s what the mystics thought: ‘Leit attar panui minei – there’s no place empty of God’. God fills all space, is present in all things and transcends all things, hence the famous Dudele song of Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak of Berditschev: Only You, solely You, wherever I go it’s You’. It’s based on Yehudah Halevi’s great poem 700 years earlier: ‘God, where shall I find You? And where shall I find You not?’

The question of God is thus a matter of the sensitivity of heart and soul, rather than solely an issue addressed to the mind. Do I sense your presence, God, in my fellow human beings, in the breathing of the forest, birds, squirrels, deer? Do I hear you speak, or cry, or scream, in all creation and all destruction?

For you are the spirit, the energy, the consciousness which fills all life and all existence, always One, yet infinitely differentiated in this world of matter and substance, things, people different in innumerable ways.

That leads to the second question. It pursues us, challenges us in every true encounter.

Aren’t you there, God, in the hospital ward, the ICU, the fragility of birth, illness and dying?

Aren’t you there in the loneliness of the empty moor, bare rocks, mountains and water?

Aren’t you there in the thriving life of the woodlands, even when the chain saw cuts down the living trees?

Are you absent in this refugee, just seventeen, who fled here (Greece, Calais, London, Jerusalem) from the Sudan or Eritrea? Are you not there in those who try to care for her? And in those who are set to deport her?

These were the questions which made the prophet Jeremiah, determined to stop himself from constantly saying what no-one wanted to hear, cry out: I’m trying to be silent, but your word burns like fire in my bones.

This was the awareness which made the Psalmist sing: To you, God, silence is praise’, hearing God in the pre-articulate wonder of dawn, and at the spring where the gazelles come silently to drink.

But this leaves open the issue which bewilders us most often: So, God, what about your agency? What do you actually do? (There’s no obvious answer to the question. God’s in hiding. God is waiting; God could if God would. God used to intervene in history and shall one day again: Such explanations don’t help me. They make history seem even more unjust. They don’t take me further in God’s service.)

The answer which is most meaningful to me, which haunts and harasses me, is the counter-question: ‘And what about you?’ I believe God asks this question of us constantly, not from heaven, but from the lives of everyone we encounter, from their suffering, their joy, and above all from their needs. ‘What are you doing with the part of Me in you?’

The only true answer is what we do with our lives.

 

Let My People Stay

Wearing a kippah and knowing Hebrew didn’t seem the most relevant asset when I visited the so-called ‘Jungle’ in Calais 15 months ago with leaders of different faiths. Suddenly a young man touched me on the shoulder and addressed me in Ivrit. He’d been an asylum-seeker in Israel, he explained. People had been decent to him but there was no future there. So he’d returned to the Sudan, been shot at, and then made his perilous way across the sea and through Europe – to here. He showed me his tiny, flimsy tent.

Now Israel is proposing to deport its asylum-seekers, or detain them indefinitely. In defiance, Rabbis for Human Rights has started the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary movement to give refugees shelter and protection:

“Who here would be willing to house people?” asked Rabbi Susan Silverman at a gathering of rabbis and educators in Jerusalem. All 130 or so people in the room immediately raised their hands.  (Haaretz)

As that gathering clearly understood, ‘Jewish’ in the description ‘a Jewish state’ needs a moral, not just a national, meaning.

Meanwhile a hundred rabbis protested in Washington this Wednesday, urging the passage of a clean DREAM Act. DREAMers are undocumented children who’ve fled to the USA from Mexico and other South American countries.

Valeria Luiselli, a novelist translates for such children at immigration courts, writes about their experiences in Tell Me How It Ends: an Essay in Forty Questions. – (Those are the forty questions the children have to answer at the hearings)

The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

She describes the huge risks of violence, rape and ‘disappearance’ which the children run on La Bestia, the nickname for the train through Mexico on the roofs or between the carriages of which most of those children reach the border, before trying to give themselves up to US patrols before vigilantes find them.

The DREAM Act (The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) offered a pathway through education for such children to become citizens. Meanwhile, they were protected under the DACA programme (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), instituted during the Obama presidency. Last September President Trump determined to end this protection.

Alongside rabbis, protesters in Washington included leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, and HIAS (which assisted Jewish refugees to the States). Taking their cue from Moses, they sang ‘Let my people stay’, and ‘God is my strength’ as they waited to be arrested. Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the ADL said:

As the Jewish community intimately understands, at its best, the United States has been a beacon of hope for refugees and immigrants facing persecution… A clean Dream Act is a moral imperative for the heart and soul of our nation.

I grew up hearing from both my parents what it was like to flee persecution and start again with nothing. The Yishuv, the embryo Jewish State in Palestine, helped my father and his family; the British Consulate and many kind individuals, most not Jewish, assisted my mother. The message they passed on to me was clear: what others did for us, we must do for others.

Meanwhile here in the UK, people, including many children, sleep rough on nightmares of the violence they have fled, waking to a cold, lonely and uncertain future.

We can’t help everyone. But we are not at liberty to do nothing and help no one. Where the physical lives of the persecuted and destitute are on the line, our moral lives are on the line too.

 

‘We can’t leave it to others’: Thoughts for the 35th Martin Luther King Day

Late last night we celebrated with Kioumars, a refugee from Iran who has been staying with us and has just received leave to remain in the UK. He spoke to us about a church he attends in central London, saying:

You pray inside a building. You take a few steps outside and see two homeless people. You can’t separate these matters. It makes no sense to pray inside and not care what’s outside, on the doorstep. Where’s my responsibility?

Kioumars’s comment reminded me of the message Susannah Heschel sent last week on the Yahrzeit of her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He defined a religious person as

A person who is maladjusted, attuned to the agony of others, aware of God’s presence and God’s needs…always refusing to accept inequalities, the status quo, the cruelty and suffering of others.

In a touching reminiscence, Susannah asks from where her father drew his strength to march next to Martin Luther King, stand up against the Vietnam war and protest racism, narrow-mindedness and soullessness wherever he encountered them. ‘From prayer’, she answers, describing how she loved to sit quietly in the room while he enveloped himself in tallit and tefillin, in prayer-shawl and phylacteries, in liturgy and love.

But he did more: ‘I was praying with my feet’, Heschel answered a critic who challenged him about what he’d been doing down in Selma, Alabama, on that march to Montgomery in the spring of 1965.

Our rabbis define prayer as avodah shebalev, ‘service of the heart’, the devotion of the consciousness to God. They understood this as an integral part, the core and inspiration, of a life of avodah, a life devoted to service with all our being: feet and hands, body and soul.

This Monday, 15 January, marks Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It was a date hard fought for. It took fifteen years after his assassination, six million signatures, a hit song Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder and a gathering by veterans of the civil rights campaign on the 20th anniversary of King’s I Have a Dream, to establish the day in the American calendar.

It is a commemoration most urgently needed at the present hour. ‘My father’, Susannah Heschel wrote further, would have been devastated to witness ‘the KKK marching in the streets, neo-Nazis celebrating’ and racism emanating from the highest places: ‘He would be pacing the floor, unable to sleep…’

In this week’s Torah portion Moses and Aaron ‘go in to Pharaoh’ time after time. They are not frightened to confront tyranny, cruelty and moral blindness. Neither are they afraid of their own people’s preference for the status quo, their understandable concern that protest is only making matters even worse. Moses, who describes himself as ‘burdened in speech and heavy of tongue’, has a greater weight to consider which puts his own reticence into second place: the burdens of suffering born by his brothers and sisters.

We live in a time of danger, from East and West. Values of dignity, justice and compassion cannot be taken for granted. We cannot leave it to others to protect the humanity of the most vulnerable, or our own. ‘Stand up’, insists Timothy Snyder in his sharp-edged book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century: ‘Take responsibility for the face of the world’.

 

‘I never saw him again’ – can we help bring missing loved ones together?

‘I never saw him again’: it’s only this week that I heard those searing words from a refugee.

‘If only I could hear your voice’; ‘If only I could hold you in my arms once again’: few lives are never pierced by such thoughts.

It does not lie within our power to avoid the terrible separations of death.

Our heart is never only our own; those we have loved inhabit its chambers too. When they die, we may attempt to close the internal doors. But unlike the cupboards in the lounge, the contents of which we may take with sorrow to the second-hand shop, we never can empty the heart’s rooms of the looks, or smells, or the sound of the voices of those we love. We are never immune from memory, welcome guest, or sudden intruder when an unanticipated sight summons us unprepared to the when and the where of what once was.

Our lives are simultaneously defined by the irrevocable passage of time and the irremovable presence of all we ever have been. Our hearts are fashioned by everyone to whom we are ever bound by love.

That is why unnecessary separations are so cruel, partings forced upon us by war, persecution, violence, cruelty and crime.

Since I had to flee, I’ve heard from two of my children. I’ve no idea where the other two are. Pray for them. Pray for me.

It’s several years since a mother from Africa spoke those words to me. There are millions like her, searching among the living, among the records of the dead, searching the lacerated terrain of memory; needing to move on, not wanting to let go.

Perhaps that was what those twenty-two years were like for Jacob, our Biblical ancestor, when he was shown that blood-soaked, multi-coloured coat and concluded that his beloved son Joseph was dead:

I will go down to my son mourning to the grave. (Genesis 37:35)

In this week’s Torah portion he is informed that Joseph is alive after all. ‘It is enough’, he says, ‘My son Joseph yet lives. Let me go and see him before I die’.

Their meeting is among the most moving moments in the Bible:

He appeared to him, and he fell upon his neck, and he wept upon his neck, more and more. (Genesis 46:29)

Who wept on whose neck? ‘It was Joseph who was weeping’, says the commentator Rashi. His father, Jacob, was engrossed in the recital of the morning Shema meditation. The moment had such power over him that he transposed his overwhelming feelings into prayer.

‘No’, explains Nachmanides; it was Jacob who wept:

It is well known in whom the tears are found, in the elderly father who finds his son alive following grief and despair, or in the regal young son…

Nachmanides knows all too well: he himself was forced to flee his native Spain, leaving all his family behind. In 1267 he added this postscript to his letter home:

I am banished from my table, far removed from friend and kinsman, and too long is the distance to meet again…I left my family, I forsook my house. There with the sweet and beloved children, whom I brought up on my knees, I left also my soul. With them, my heart and my eyes will dwell forever. (Letters of Jews through the Ages ed. F Kobler)

My heart goes out to all those who long to see a beloved face, hear a beloved voice, whom war, violence and cruelty keep apart. May the coming secular New Year herald a time of ‘Yet my loved one lives. Let me go and see him…’ May we, too, help bring refugee families together.

 

Hope – despite everything

At the Holocaust Survivor’s Centre yesterday a lady drew me aside and explained:

We have a picture from 1933. Down one side of the street are houses covered in swastikas, draped with Nazi flags. On the other side is a window with a Chanukkiah. You see, they lit their candles, in spite of everything.

That, I believe, is the meaning of Chanukkah, – not just the defiance, but the hope, the courage and the tenacity of spirit.

I thought the same when I read Sarah Cooper’s words yesterday, before the service at St Pauls marking six months since the appalling Grenfell Tower fire. She is head teacher of Oxford Gardens primary school, which lost a pupil and a former pupil, and where over a hundred and twenty children have been severely affected:

We decided to have a day in where we aren’t saying: ‘It’s six months since the fire’. We are saying: ‘It’s six months in which together we’ve built strength’.

Anyone who lives locally, has been part of the emergency services teams involved, or even who drives or walks in the district, knows that the charred, burnt out tower stands as a terrifying, searing and accusing landmark over the entire area.

Thus, too, the ruins of the interior of the Temple in Jerusalem and the casualties and debris of numerous battles, must have haunted the thoughts of the Maccabees whose rekindling of the menorah over two thousand years ago the festival of Chanukkah commemorates.

But such brutal realities are scarcely mentioned in the Talmud’s brief narrative on which the eight days of Chanukkah is traditionally understood to be based. The account is so short it could almost be a tweet:

When the Hasmonean powers grew strong and defeated the Seleucid armies, they searched and found only one vial of oil with the seal of the High Priest intact. It contained sufficient to burn for only one day, but a miracle occurred and they lit from it for eight.

There is no mention, except by inference, of violence and war. But I don’t think this represents avoidance, the attempt to deny history or create alternative facts.

Instead, the story expresses something deeper, – the discovery of light in spite of everything. That, to my mind, is the real miracle. The search for the oil in the ruined precincts of the Temple is a symbolic expression of the quest to find the inner strength and the tenacity of spirit to sustain us despite everything, all the cruelties, injustice and hardship which life can bring. It is a quest we all must make, though some in incomparably more difficult circumstances.

The one vial of pure, unsullied oil is the unquenchable, inexhaustible flame of hope. It is the fuel on which creativity, inner strength and inspiration draw. If we have the courage to light it, the flame almost invariably lasts far longer than reason would have us calculate.

One person’s spirit kindles others, and they in turn impart strength to the person from whom they drew their first inspiration. Such light, sometimes in remote individual flames, sometimes in glowing solidarity, has illumined humanity in defiance of war and disaster, hatred and persecution, throughout the ages. It will not be extinguished.

Jewish law directs us to place our Chanukkah candles in the most visible place, ideally outside the front door to the left as we enter our home, or in a window overlooking the street. For we need strength of spirit in every domain; in our inner life to restore and maintain our own individual sense of purpose; in art, poetry and music; and in the public square to face with hope and courage the collective challenges with which history presents us.

It’s not about hate

‘Rabbi, how does one find one’s path in life?’

This was the question X asked me as we travelled together to Liverpool for his interview with the Home Office about his asylum application. He spoke of the hatred he had witnessed in the country he’d fled: ‘It’s the wrong path, isn’t it?’

I’ve spent much of my last weeks with people struggling with pain, be it from politically or religiously motivated persecution, the verbal or physical brutality of family members, or the after-effects of tragedy.

Asked by a colleague what one-word subject I wanted to talk about, I answered ‘cruelty’.

But I don’t. In a week when North Korea tests more lethal weapons, when the President of the United States gratuitously repeats hate-tweets, when violence and fear feel ever more prominent, I want to talk about the opposite. If only to myself, I want to answer X’s question on that train to Liverpool.

What are the values by which the world should be led? What, at least, are the qualities by which our own lives should be led, which we should develop in ourselves in a frightening, beautiful, inspiring world?

We need justice. For students of the Hebrew Bible this is founded on the principle that every human being is created in God’s image. Therefore, as the Mishnah declares, ‘No one may say, “My parents were greater than yours.”’ No life is intrinsically of lesser value. We may not despise or ignore the rights, hopes and sufferings of another human just because he or she is different from ourselves. Justice equally requires us to expect that they treat us likewise.

We need a listening heart. We need imagination, the capacity to think and feel what the world is like from the other person’s point of view. Where does the spiked wheel of fortune cut into his or her heart? What would bring him or her relief, joy, at least a sense of not being alone?

We need compassion. The Talmud teaches that life is unbearable for the person who tries to feel for everyone. There are limits. But it is a good daily goal to ask ourselves ‘What kindness can I do? How can I avoid giving hurt?’ If we had such an attitude towards everyone we encountered, from our own family, to our neighbour, to the blackbird on the grass, we would be far closer to Isaiah’s vision of a world where ‘they neither hurt nor destroy in all God’s holy mountain’.

We need moral courage. We are not here to tolerate every outrage. History shows that if we fail to stand up for ourselves and others in the name of truth, integrity and justice, we too will be swept away on the tide of anger or the backwash of indifference.

We need faith. The mystics teach that God is everywhere and in all things. I am less interested in the infinite God in the unfathomable reaches of the universe. I care most about the presence of God here before me, in this particular person, her gifts, opportunities and hopes. I care most about the presence of God in the birds, in the deer who drink from this river, in the God of this life around me. For it is here, in this immediacy, that God commands me to do what is just and good.

We need faith in ourselves. This is not faith in our superiority; it is not arrogant or disparaging of others. On the contrary, it is the faith that despite our failures, limitations and confusion, there is within us light and strength, hope and love which glows from the sacred source of all life.

We are not here to let our souls be echo-chambers for hate or despair, but to transform them through courage, imagination and compassion, into healing.

 

Whom we fail to notice

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

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

Others suffered worse… as we well know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Living in peace with creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No issue is more urgent

 

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