The goodness in bread

Food is wonderful; but it takes a lot to beat a really good loaf of bread. Nothing quite equals a hunk of challah on Shabbat or a good thick slice of granary on a weekday. Even the dog always wants to share.

The Torah had much to say about dough, long before Masterchef made cooking cool, or The Great British Bake-Off turned the kitchen into a theatre for brilliance and bravado:

When you eat the bread of the land, raise a gift up to God (Numbers 15:19)

That gift is the original challah, which in the Biblical context means the portion of dough given to the priests. Like the first wool from the sheep, it was a tax for the civil service, as the priests effectively were while the Temple still stood.

I fondly remember studying the relevant tractate of the Mishnah with Libbi for her Bat mitzvah. Appropriately titled ‘Challah’, it discusses what grains are used for bread, what percentage of dough is taken, and, our favourite passage, how, if shepherds bake specially and solely for their dogs, no challah is given; whereas if they share the bread with their much-deserving hounds the gift for the priests must be taken.

Nowadays, only a residual of the rite remains: a blessing for ‘separating challah from the dough’ before a small portion is put aside in the oven to burn.

But bread remains essential, and we should still ‘raise up a gift’ when we eat it.

In Biblical times, the corners of the fields, fallen ears and forgotten sheaves were all left for the poor, refugees and the indigent old. The Mishnah tells how they would wait patiently for the harvest, so that they could glean.

I wish we too left corners in our fields, not because the hungry in today’s world are going to go there and wait, but for the meadow birds, for the animals vanishing for want of long grass, wild flowers and grain. The world would be desolate without bees or birdsong, in substance and in soul.

I wish every supermarket, bakery, restaurant and coffee shop, where most of us regularly buy more than plenty, had a clear sign on every counter which said: ‘It’s an ancient and just practice to give a small percentage of what you spend on yourself for those who have no food’. Most of us would give, at least some of the time.

I wish I said the blessing ‘hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz – who brings forth bread from the earth’ more sincerely more often. Blessing is recognition. When we bless one another, we notice and encourage the good within us; when we bless God for bread, we acknowledge that it’s not ours solely by right, but as a gift. ‘The earth is God’s’, teaches the Talmud; blessing is the expression of gratitude which makes us fit to enjoy it.

I’m glad so many in our communities cook for destitute asylum seekers, for friends, and strangers, who are ill, grieving, or under stress; and that we have our ‘challah project’ in which whole teams bake challot every week and take them to people’s homes before Shabbat, to say ‘we’re thinking of you’, in special moments of sadness or joy.

I’ll never forget how years ago, when I walked north along the Rhine carrying the flame from my grandfather’s former synagogue in Frankfurt with which to light the Eternal Lamp in our new building, my blood sugar ran low. Being diabetic, I urgently had to find the nearest source of food. The only place within miles was a castle with an exclusive restaurant. Seeing me, mud-covered, with a backpack and a dog, the waiter simply turned and disappeared. I couldn’t blame him and was about to leave, when he came back with a basket filled with many kinds of bread and fruit. ‘No’, he said as I made to pay, ‘It’s for your pilgrimage’.

 

My lamp is in your hands

Beha’alotecha – the opening word of this week’s Torah reading – matters to me, troubles me and moves me.

‘When you kindle the lamps’ doesn’t quite capture the subtlety of the Hebrew. A precise translation is ‘When you cause the lamps to ascend’. The reference is to the daily task of replenishing and lighting of the seven branched Menorah in the holy precincts of the Tabernacle.

But a pithy Midrash extends the meaning to the entire expanse of life: ‘Neri beyadecha, venerecha beyadi: My lamp is in your hands; your lamp is in mine’. The speaker is God and the lamp referred to here is every soul and spirit, the Temple of each life. It burns with the sacred vitality of everything which breaths; it illumines to our heart and conscience the path we are to walk.

‘My lamp is in your hands’ speaks of the responsibility we have, first and foremost, to what is most precious in our own self. Etti Hilesum understood this intuitively. After receiving the dreaded deportation order which forced her to leave her beloved Amsterdam, she wrote in her diary:

[T]hat is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. (July 1942)

But the lamp in our hands is also God’s sacred presence in the life of others. That light often, maybe all too often, rests in the cusp of our trust, – in our partner, children, friends, the animals, even the breathing trees. The destiny of this entire living, breathing world has fallen within our power and become our constant responsibility. It lies within our capability to kill, maim, belittle, degrade, uproot, destroy; to love, nurture, respect, inspire and plant. If God is present in all that lives, then, too, a part of God lies within the circumference of our capacity to hurt.

That is why beha’alotecha, causing the flame on the lamp to ascend is so critically important. Our task is not to extinguish or diminish its light, but to enable the flame of life to burn more purely and more truly. Every deed of kindness, the most ordinary, in-the-street, any-time-of-day-or-night goodness, is a curling of the hands around the light of a friend, child, frightened animal, bird with a wounded wing. Every act of wanton cruelty spits on the flame of another being’s soul.

It is the challenge of living by this knowledge, this reality, which is captured in the Hebrew word for faith, emunah. It does not refer to a set of mental convictions, but to a way of life, an approach to every interaction deriving from a heartfelt respect for the vulnerability of all beings, from a daily humility before the simple task of honouring all life, its tenderness, wounds and dreams.

From where does the inspiration come even to try to live in this manner? ‘Your lamp is in my hands’, says God. One feels this – in quiet moments among the trees, in the silence of listening, the quiet of meditative prayer, in noticing a kindness. In the music of such moments our own inner flame is restored:

For the quiet joy of breathing and of living,
Tell me, to whom have I to give my thanks?
(Osip Mandestam: Stone, 8, trans. R. H. Morrison)

 That’s what existence is for: to cause the flame of the lamp, in ourselves, those we love, life itself, to ascend.

 

The greatest blessing – to notice our blessings?

This is the week of the Torah’s most beautiful blessing, loved by Jews and Christians alike:

May God bless and keep you; May God’s presence shine upon you and give you grace; May God’s presence be turned towards you and bring you peace.

I remember most poignantly going to see my father for his blessing on the Eve of Yom Kippur in the final years of his life. It meant far, far more than any mere formula; it was a kind of alignment of his love, the love and spirit of the generations of the family, and the hope for God’s grace and guidance, touching my head through his hands, and my heart and conscience through the ancient words. I have carried that blessing with me, most often as encouragement, but sometimes also as chastisement, in all the years since. I hope it reaches and touches the souls of the children.

But what exactly is a blessing? It’s easy to speak about when we say them and what precise words we’re supposed to employ. But what does ‘blessing’ itself actually mean? It was to this subject that we devoted the many discussions of our retreat just two weeks ago.

Berachah, berech, bereichah, ‘blessing’, ‘knees’, ‘pool of water’: seemingly unlikely partners in English, in Hebrew the three words derive from the same root. They are evidently inter-related, but how? Based on a lecture she had heard, one of the participants demonstrated a literal connection, acting out the sequence of finding a pool of cool water in a desert, falling down on one’s knees and prostrating oneself to drink, before thanking God for this life-giving moment.

Or perhaps the bereichah, the pool, does not refer to not a physical gathering of waters, but rather to the flow of vitality from the invisible reservoir of spirit by which all life is nourished. ‘My soul thirsts for You’, says the Psalmist: ‘Like a deer longing for streams of water, so my whole being longs, God, for You’. I sometimes think it’s the closest we know to the presence of God, when a new alertness, a deeper awareness, quickens us as if from the inside of our own mind.

It’s similar with the artist’s prayer when feeling helpless and useless in an arid zone of zero creativity, like T S Eliot on Margate Sands where he ‘can connect Nothing with Nothing’. Then, as if all at once and from nowhere, the words, the music flow again.

But blessings are not only from above to below. They also flow between us, and sometimes from below to above. We pondered God’s words to Abraham, ‘Be a blessing’. How is he, how are we supposed to do that? What does ‘be a blessing’ mean? Rachel Remen addresses exactly this question in her beautiful book My grandfather’s Blessings:

When we recognise the spark of God in others, we blow on it with our attention and strengthen it, no matter how deeply it has been buried or for how long. When we bless someone, we touch the unborn goodness in them and wish it well…A blessing is a moment of meeting, a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth, and strengthen what is whole in one another. (p. 5, p. 6).

The final word of the priestly blessing is indeed ‘Shalom’, peace, from a root which means ‘whole’: ‘May God make you whole’.

But what is wholeness, when life so often grinds us down or breaks us apart? ‘Nothing is more whole than the heart which is broken’ said the hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, known to have suffered from depressions. It’s what opens us out which makes us most deeply human. Sometimes it’s what seems to break us, which makes the deepest inner wellspring of blessing flow out towards others in recognition and compassion.

Yet that must not make us forget the simple blessings of sights and scents and actions, – for tree blossom, fruits, mountains, and lightning; for being able to open our eyes, get out of bed, put on clothes, – gifts so ordinary we’re in danger of appreciating them only when we no longer have them.

Perhaps the deepest blessing is to be the kind of people who notice our blessings.

 

The Teaching of Life: tears and solidarity

There is one quality associated incomparably more than any other with Torah, the teachings, law and lore at the heart of Jewish existence: life. The Torah is Torat Chaim, the Torah of life. For its inspiration flows from the same invisible springs and currents which nourish all life, feeding the roots of the trees of forests and orchards, inspiring the heart, flowing through all living beings.

Consequently, the Torah is equally Torah Hesed, the Torah of faithful kindness, of a compassion which includes an urgent sense of justice. For how can the Torah of life require anything other than that we should respect, nurture and cherish all life? This is the ideal of which the prophet Isaiah dreamt in an ancient version of ‘Imagine’ when he saw a world in which ‘None shall hurt or destroy in all [God’s] holy mountain’.

Throughout the millennia, as Jewish teachers and communities have studied the Torah, understood as God’s word and the expression of God’s will, they have interpreted, re-interpreted and sometimes deliberately mis-interpreted its apparent meanings in the light of these overriding values: life, compassion, justice.

Yet this very week, as we approach Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah of Life, there has been bitter hatred and terrible killing. Whatever our politics, religion or identity, we must mourn these terrible wounds in the body and heart of our collective humanity.

The Talmud speaks of God weeping. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto, wrote in March 1942 of God withdrawing to the inner chambers to weep. He counsels those who feel terrified and alone to seek God there, in those interior spaces of the spirit.

Over the last five years it has become clear that we live at a time of a renewed and aggressive politics of identity. It is manifest in different, but inter-related ways, across much of the globe. It incites in us a visceral reaction to stand only with our own; to draw up lines of defence, internally as well as externally; to recall our universalist hopes or fantasies and batten down our moral imagination. It is hard to resist these reactions.

Yet we are also drawn to an inner space in which we hear life’s tears, the sorrows of those whose children have been killed; or whose sons have to go to the dangerous front lines of the army; or who have no homeland, or home; who face the brutal police of violent regimes, who are on the wrong side of the guns of vicious, racist militias. With us in that same space are those who devote their very souls to care for the ill, get food to hungry families, imagine how to give shelter to the destitute. There too are the people, from across the globe, who strive to protect the very earth which nourishes us, its animals, fishes, trees and meadowlands, and who mourn in the barren spaces where birdsong used to be.

I believe we can, and must, try to find each other there, not just because we each have cause to weep, but because, even more deeply, we are united by the love of life, the desire for life to thrive. The teaching of life and compassion, as Torah, Gospel, Koran, or as an agnostic sense of wonder and awe, calls us into fellowship to serve humanity, the earth and the life it sustains, and, if we so believe, the God of this rich and unfathomably intricate and inter-connected creation. We can only do so together; we can only maintain hope together, and, because we stand together, we can affirm to each other that no good, compassionate, creative action we undertake is too small to matter.

That, I believe, is what the giving and receiving of Torah truly means, on this festival of Shavuot.

Between cruelty and wonder: how we treat life

I’ve woken up with a divided spirit these last few days.

I go out into the garden we are privileged to care for, in this most beautiful of seasons, and feel wonder. Already this morning I’ve seen sparrows, great tits, blue tits, parakeets and a jay. I know the blackbirds are eating the raisins I spread on the lawn. Maybe I’ll get another glimpse of the wren I spotted earlier. Yesterday a woodpecker came to the feeder opposite the window of my study; I stopped all else and watched.

There are bluebells, and the rhododendrons, my favourite, are stunning. When I was a small boy in Scotland, our neighbours had a huge rhododendron. I would put the fallen pink white flowers like little bells over my fingers and feel the drops of dew inside them run down my hands. I think of this now as a blessing from life itself, which is exactly what it was.

Kadosh, ‘holy’, is the dominant word in the sections of the Torah we are currently reading: Be holy, because I, your God, am holy’. The sacred spirit of life flows through all existence, life’s secret essence from God, Chei ha’olamim, life of all worlds. It is not directly perceptible. Since we never hear or see it, we may conclude that it doesn’t exist. Today we can describe in accurate materialist terms the cause of virtually all phenomena. We don’t need mystery, or holiness, to explain the inexplicable away. But if we choose to live without sensitivity to life’s spirit we have less space for reverence, wonder, humility and joy. Our life and our world are diminished.

The other part of me wakes up reflecting on yesterday’s interactions. In one single day this week I spoke to three people, each of whom had been tortured, each in a different country. One of them, in response to a question about whether she now had sufficient support, simply put her head in her hands and wept.

Nicky and I have been watching late at night the BBC’s serialisation of Wilkie Collins’s gripping novel, The Woman in White. The subtle and brilliant portrayal of cruelty disturbs me greatly. I’ve witnessed several times the aftermath of pain when men have calculatedly, unashamedly, instrumentalised, humiliated, and treated with cunning physical and emotional contempt women, sometimes children, with little power to evade their control.

Nature, too, is full of cruelty. I was driving to a memorial service for a young woman murdered by her husband when right in front of me a bird of prey flew down and snatched from the verges a helpless rabbit which it carried away, writhing in its claws. The image abides with me, an evil emblem.

The opposite of honouring life’s sanctity is desecration, hillul. The Torah enjoins us not to desecrate God’s holy name. This isn’t about ritual piety. It’s an appeal to recognise and respect God’s presence in all life, human life first and foremost, but also throughout creation.

Any act, however small, which enhances the awareness of life’s value is a sanctification of God’s name, Kiddush Hashem. Any act which shows contempt for life’s sacred value is a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

When any of us behaves with the intention to harm, with deliberate cruelty, or negligent callousness, we strip life of its beauty and void it of its preciousness. When any of us tries to nurture, cherish, honour, heal and love life in any of its forms, we deepen the presence of reverence and wonder. We honour the sacred spirit which flows through all life.

There is little, if any, space for neutrality.

It is clear what we are here on earth to do.

 

A specifically rabbinic response to racism and antisemitism

I have a full heart after speaking at the synagogue of my friend, companion and colleague Marc Soloway, about my book My Dear Ones: One Family and The Final Solution. I think of the love my great-grandmother had for her children, the love and faith she carried in her heart through all the terrible years. She began even her last postcard, from Theresienstadt, with the words ‘My Dear Ones’. Life is precious and the bonds of love are ‘powerful as death’.

That is why hatred is such a sin against humanity, both that of the person who is hated, and of the person who harbours hate. ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart’, the Torah commands. The word ‘brother’ must be understood as comprehensive and inclusive. It is not okay to hate people because they are white, because they are black, because they are Jewish or Muslim. When we hate others because of the bare fact of their religion, nationality or identity, we destroy each other; we denigrate them and defile ourselves. That is why the rhetoric of racism, antisemitism and nationalist and religious abuse is so dangerous and must be countered, in whatever form or forum it is expressed.

This week the Board of Deputies of British Jews met with Jeremy Corbyn. This followed a powerful Parliamentary debate in which John Mann spoke movingly about the threats to his family while chairing the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, – online attacks, a dead bird in the post.  Meanwhile communal action by Jews and those in solidarity with us has once again been branded a ‘Corbyn smear’. In fact, many of those who dare to raise these challenging issues are, or wish to be, Labour supporters, and several Jewish Labour MPs and local party activists have received appalling abuse.

The Board and the Jewish Leadership Council welcomed Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘personal involvement in the discussion’ and his further comments recognising and apologising for antisemitism in the Labour Party. But they found the meeting ‘a missed opportunity’; none of the six action points they had set out in order to establish a rigorous, unambiguous and transparent policy were agreed.

Antisemitism is not, of course, solely a province of the left. Across parts of Europe, and the globe, it is once again a weapon of the far right. For yet others it is simply a politically expedient tool, to be exploited as a cynical instrument of self-interest. Nor are Jews alone in facing a rise of racist attack in an increasingly aggressive and dangerous world.

Saying we have no place for antisemitism and racism is not enough. Professing ideological opposition (‘I don’t believe in racism, so how can I be a racist’) may be little more than self-deceit. It is our actions, far more than our words, which show who we are.

So what must we do to stand up both for ourselves and other vulnerable groups? It is not my role to determine what must be done politically and legally. Rather, as a rabbi, I want to stress a specific Jewish response. It derives from an incident in the Talmud on which I often reflect. During the Roman persecutions in the early second century Rabbi Pappos comes upon Rabbi Akiva, who is teaching Torah in public, an activity strictly forbidden by the Roman rulers. ‘Desist’, Pappos insists. Rabbi Akiva refuses. He is promptly caught and imprisoned. Shortly afterwards Pappos is also incarcerated. (Tyrants will always find reasons for persecuting their ‘others’) ‘Happy are you Akiva’, Pappos tells him when he meets him in prison, ‘At least you were caught for something’.

In standing up against antisemitism and racism we should know who we are. I do not mean this in an arrogant manner. Rather we should seek strength in knowing and living what it means to be Jewish; by making ourselves more deeply literate in our history and faith, studying our texts, knowing the language of our traditions, exploring and expanding our spirituality, participating in our communities and living our values. In this way we stand up for our Judaism and for humanity in general, because to know our Judaism is to know that we and every other human being created in God’s image, of unique and special value, never to be hated, but protected and cherished in his or her particular dignity.

 

After Yom Ha’Atzmaut: Humanity and Hope

Many of us reach this Shabbat with full and thin-skinned hearts after ten days of remembrance and celebration: Yom HaShaoh, Yom HaZikaron, on which Israel remembers over 23,000 dead, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s 70th Day of Independence.

Many searing words have been said. In our own community, two hundred of us listened in gripping silence as six courageous teenagers from Shlomi in the North of Israel, invited by the UJIA, spoke in fluent, eloquent English, each sentence learnt by heart, of the losses the country recalls, and of their own fears and aspirations, as they approach the age of army service. Our hearts go out to them in all their hopes for a life of peace and safety.

In Israel, David Grossman addressed a Remembrance ceremony intended for all, Israeli and Palestinian bereaved as well as those in solidarity with them, at a gathering attended by thousands. He spoke from personal grief, ‘from the fragile place that vividly remembers the existential fear, as well as the strong hope that now, finally, we have come home’. He spoke as a person proud of Israel’s achievements, ambitious and determined for the country’s true values, and as a consummate artist of the Hebrew language.

He spoke as a man ‘who resists rage and hate’ because it takes away ‘living contact with my son’, his Uri, killed in Lebanon in 2006. He spoke as one ‘doomed to touch reality through an open wound’. From out of those wounds, he spoke with frank and forthright humanity of his hopes for an end to injustice and violence on both sides, when Israelis and Palestinians could stand side by side without fear and share in their respective anthems the line “To be a free nation in our land”.

His painful, challenging, hopeful words reminded me of Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish who visited our garden after speaking in our Synagogue about his book I Shall Not Hate. He photographed the apple tree my wife and I planted in memory of his daughters, Bessan, Aya and Mayar, killed in Gaza. He wrote to us afterwards that he could see his three girls there in the garden, standing beside that tree.

These anniversaries occur at a time when cruelty and brutality are reasserting themselves across the world. The guiding values of liberal democracy are themselves in danger: tolerance, decency, forbearance, the aspiration toward social justice, and fair-minded, independent institutions to safeguard them.

Until recently, many of us took almost for granted the illusion that these values would assure humanity a journey onward and upward, hopeful, towards the ever better. Now they are under threat, from brutal attacks by nihilist fundamentalists like ISIS, from the amoral calculations of cunning leaders with blatant contempt for life, and from heartlessness within our own societies.

Here in Britain we should be ashamed of the treatment of the Windrush generation, as the implications of creating a ‘hostile environment’ become apparent in the impact on octogenarians, the sick, those who want to spend their lives with their families in the land where they’ve lived for decades. In Israel, we as Jews should stand alongside those who refuse to be silent at the gap between the love of the stranger emphasised in the Torah and the threatened deportation of thousands of asylum seekers. These concerns are symptoms, perhaps only small symptoms, in countries which essentially committed to justice and fairness, of a far crueller world liable to close in about us.

Therefore, humanity matters. Every person matters. Every kindness matters, every act of justice, every word, gesture and demonstration of solidarity which affirms the dignity and worth of life. In this endeavour, which is the ultimate purpose and meaning of our lives, we are committed first to those closest to us, our community, our people, Israel, the UK, but also to all humanity, every specific, individual before us. What denigrates one person, demeans us all. What enhances the life of one person, affirms the value of us all.

We pray for the wellbeing of Israel, of this country and of the world.

My heart is my compass: Dr Abuelaish and ‘I Shall Not Hate’

Late last night I took a torch and, shining the beam across his path down the garden, lead our guest to the apple tree. The damp buds, latent with leaf and life, glistened in the darkness. My friend held up his phone and took photographs.

He was Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, author of I Shall Not Hate, about his life as a Gazan doctor with close friends and colleagues in Israel, who lost three daughters, Bessan, Aya and Mayar, when their home was shelled twice in swift, fatal succession in the Gaza war.

Soon afterwards, I came to know him and planted that tree in his daughters’ memory.

‘I’d like to see it’, Dr Abuelaish told me.

Earlier, we’d been in conversation at my synagogue, sitting together beneath the verse ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ inscribed above the holy ark. A hundred people were held silent by his heart-felt words.

From the time I was a very small boy I have been able to find the good chapter in a very bad story…

From where did he draw the strength?

God knows what has to be, he said. Therefore, we must take what happens for the best.

Maybe his beloved wife Nadia had died four months before the tragedy so that she wouldn’t have to witness the deaths of three of her daughters. Mothers are the life-givers, the life-cherishers: let women walk in this world not behind us men, but by our side, out in front…

Do not see the other; he said. Do not look at the world out of one eye only, one perspective; see the humanity in all. (I still have that vista before me, the day I first saw a familiar Jerusalem scene from a Palestinian home in a refugee camp. Yes, I knew this valley; I recognised that road. But I’d never seen it from this angle. It was a mere 500 metres away, and a universe apart. I love Israel no less, but with more complexity, more simplicity, more humanity, since.)

Do not blame, Dr Abuelaish added. Don’t say ‘them!’. God judges us for what we do. We must take responsibility, each for our actions, our errors and our future.

Life is a short journey. He pointed at the doors on either side of the synagogue: ‘We enter here and exit there’. In the space between, we can do good. We can leave behind kindness, love. That is all that matters.

Afterwards, at my home, he said ‘My heart is my compass’.

On Passover night we dip our maror, the bitter herbs of history and memory, into the sweet paste of charoset, made, the Talmud teaches, ‘in memory of the apple’.

What apple? ‘It’s the apple tree in the Song of Songs’, the commentators explain. Beneath it during their slavery and degradation in Egypt, the Children of Israel showed each other solidarity and love.

Thus, the sweet charoset mitigates, overcomes, the venom of the bitter maror. So may love disarm hate; the steady heart of compassion withdraw the fuse from fury and from fear.

Will it work?

I asked Dr Abuelaish how the next ‘good chapter’ in a harsh story could be written. He made no comment about the plot, but pointed at the authors.

We are all responsible. We are all the writers of the future. No action is too small to matter and every one of us can choose to be a healer.

 

Never despair! Thoughts on a difficult spring’

Tomorrow is the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan; in Jewish terms it’s the first day of spring.

Nisan is a month of celebration. Sad, penitential prayers are left out of the liturgy. Instead, in the domain of history we focus on Passover; we follow our ancestors on their journey from slavery to freedom and try to create a world which celebrates, life, liberty and justice.

In the domain of nature, we go out into the fields and gardens and say a unique, once-a-year-only blessing to God

in whose world nothing is lacking, who created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for the enjoyment of humankind.

I’ve just been outdoors to check: the almond tree is pink with bloom; the apricot, usually first to blossom, is wisely still sleeping out an especially long winter; the pears have a good month to go before May, their season of white glory.

Yet, despite all this, I’m struggling to feel joyous.

Instead, I feel anxious, afraid for our beautiful world. We live in increasingly dangerous times. Much of humanity, or at least its leadership, seems intent on a journey from liberty to tyranny, from peace to war and from injustice to greater injustice. Meanwhile, the poorest and weakest, who have always suffered, suffer even more.

In the world of nature, I read with despair of the huge decline in animal life, of species hunted to extinction, of the pollution of land and ocean by plastic particles. You may think me crazy, but these matters drive me close to tears.

I could take to retail therapy, decide not to think, or close my eyes, and heart, and sit back to enjoy my corner of privileged living, among the world’s wealthiest.

But that’s not the human, certainly not the Jewish way. ‘You are not free to cease from the work’, said Rabbi Tarfon almost two thousand years back. ‘Assur lihitya’esh; it’s forbidden to give up and despair,’ insisted Rebbe Nachman of Breslav two hundred years ago, despite, or because of, his own susceptibility to depression. And, on the back of today’s Guardian, Gareth Southgate adds his own gloss to his rabbinic antecedents: ‘You can live in fear or you can get on with it’.

That’s what saying the blessing over ‘beautiful creatures and beautiful trees’ means right now. Never give up! Never stop appreciating how wonderful the world can and should be! For the sake of the beauty of children, help the besieged, the hungry, the persecuted. For the sake of the beauty of animals and trees, plant and protect, so that they, and humankind together, may live and flourish to breathe a better future.

Last Friday, as I approached the old Jerusalem railway station, some 28 kilometres into running the marathon, I passed a group of people pushing their friend in a wheelchair, or rather in something more like a full hospital bed. According to my running app, the Jerusalem marathon route has a total climb of well over 2,000 feet, with challenging hills and sharp descents. These good people must have taken turns to push their friend up the hardest inclines, then hold on tightly to ensure a smooth run down the steepest slopes. When they reached the finishing line, the entire crowd cheered.

That’s love; that’s courage; that’s doing the best one can to share the basic freedoms of breathing the open air, enjoying the wide panorama, waving to friends, relishing the crazy happiness of those mad enough to run.

On Seder night I don’t just want to read the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus. I want it to shout back at me: Never give up on freedom. When I go outside, I don’t just want to see the world. I want it to sing back at me: Look at all this beauty! Use your life to love it and protect it!

 

Seeing the world feelingly

I’m not a person who believes in beschert, pre-destined, but – there may be exceptions, and, as my teacher Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs said, quoting Solomon Schechter ‘the best theology is inconsistent’.

I walked out of the Conservative Yeshivah into the Jerusalem street and there he was in front of me, a beautiful young black Labrador. He wore that jacket which tells people like me, who’re too much inclined to strike up conversations with every dog they meet, that he was in training and strictly not to be distracted.

I asked the young woman who was walking him: ‘He’s going to be a guide dog’, she explained. He’s just eight months old and I’m his carer for the year.’

I couldn’t believe it. This is the day before I’m due to run the Jerusalem Marathon in aid of Toby’s very organisation, the Israel Guide Dog Centre. I apologised for thus accosting her puppy out of the blue and told the girl what I was doing. ‘His name’s Toby’, she then said. I don’t think she wanted me to get too familiar with her hound. ‘And you’re welcome to take pictures.’

Then, as we went our separate ways at the corner, she added: ‘When my father’s friend went blind we saw how important dogs are. We’ve been deeply involved ever since.’

The encounter felt like a blessing, a token of good luck from heaven.

As I walked away I found myself thinking about the girl’s words: ‘We saw how important…’

They are so many ways of seeing, and not seeing.

The world is full of beauty. ‘Lift up your eyes and see who created these’, says Isaiah; I’d always thought he was referring to the stars, but it could be trees, or clouds, or flowers, or human faces, all the wonder of which, in our rushed lives, we so often fail to take note. To lose one’s sight is, in Milton’s famous lines, to have beauty at ‘one entrance quite shut out’. It must be an extremely painful loss.

Yet there are different ways of seeing and being enabled to see. In rabbinic Hebrew a blind person is referred to as Sagi Na’or, a person of great light. The verb for seeing, ro’eh, is often used in the Bible to refer to other and deeper kinds of awareness and emotional sensitivity. God ‘sees’ the sufferings of human beings; God ‘knows’. People, too, often ‘see’ the pain of others, and their own.

Such usage is by no means unique to Hebrew. Shakespeare gives searing expression to this relationship between sight and insight when the maddened King Lear meets the blinded Earl of Gloucester on the cliffs above Dover. ‘No eyes in your head nor no money in your purse, yet you see how this world goes?’ the crazed King challenges. ‘I see it feelingly’, the former Earl replies. He did not of course see it with any such feeling when he had his eyes, his title and his power.

That is not to glorify or romanticise the painful, frightening loss of sight. But it does show that they are many depths to how we see the world. Responding to an unknown critic who condemned Picasso for painting the sky green, E M Forster wrote that he was grateful to see the world through Picasso’s eyes, if only for a few moments.

Countless people enable us to see. We see the world not just through one another’s eyes, including the beautiful eyes of guide dogs, but through each other’s hearts. Maybe that’s why I love Amazing Grace, because I not rarely fear I may have been blind to important sensitivities, and hope that ‘now I see’.

When I run tomorrow – (‘What time do you hope to finish by?’ I was just asked in an email. ‘Pesach’, I answered) – I shall think of the many people who have helped me to see, and hope that I too can occasionally help bring sight to others, – a gift which the wonderful dogs for whom I’m running have in affectionate abundance,

Toby guide dog

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