In spite of, or because of, all the bleak news

‘Be holy, because I, your God am holy,’ teaches the Torah in the wonderful portion we read this week which contains the commandment to love our neighbour and ‘most of the Torah’s central laws’ (Rashi) about justice and compassion.

The Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed long ago, but there remain two temples we’re still able to visit in search of holiness. They exist almost everywhere and are open to everyone, though finding the entrance is not always easy and we often have to be patient, especially with ourselves.

They are places of inspiration and restoration, healing and purification, great antidotes to the cruelty and violence of the world. One of those temples is in nature, the other in the human heart. To visit them is both a privilege and a necessity.

Late last night, out with the dog when the Heath was almost empty, I saw fellow devotees at a distance, sitting in silence, watching the sun go down, the canopy of the trees turn to black shadows and the emergent moon gain strength. The small birds concluded their dusk serenade. An owl cried.

One sometimes has to go alone into the empty spaces and the forests in search of holiness and pure thoughts, wrote Rabbi Kalmish Epstein (1753-1825) known as the Maor vaShemesh,first a follower, and then a leader of Hasidic mysticism.

I’m lucky; I have our garden. I go out early every day to feed the birds as I say the first morning prayers. ‘God, the soul you’ve given me is pure’ – there’s still dew on the ground; tal techi, dew of life’s renewal, the rabbis called it. ‘Blessed is God who opens the eyes of the blind’ – there’s that starling, waiting by the feeders; it’s got a nest a couple of gardens away.

God is present too in the temple of the human heart. Here, the entrance is not always open. Often it’s the way back to our own heart which is shut: too much pressure, vexation, depression, anxiety. We need something to help us rediscover our soul, music, a poem, the chance for ten minutes’ aloneness perhaps.

But frequently it’s being touched by the hearts of others which restores us to our own heart. I recall being in hospital rooms, just sitting. Matters had been spoken; now everyone was quiet. We were just listening, each of us. To what? Not to words or specific thoughts, but simply to life; not in apprehension or expectation, just listening. The Talmud has the briefest, best description of such moments: lev yode’a, the heart knows.

My God is present in these temples. I don’t know God’s pronouns or what the nature of that consciousness which flows through all this living being including me, which is articulate but not in words, and which, if it has to be translated into language, is rendered most simply as plain ‘I am.’ But I know God is here.

And it’s from here, within these temples, that I hear God command. The details and discipline are set down in the Torah and its commentaries; they are essential, guiding us through all life’s situations, whatever the state of society and our own consciousness. But the essence is simple: ‘Don’t destroy, don’t cause careless hurt. Serve all life faithfully, with respect and love.’

I write of these matters, even as I redo the host’s application forms for Homes in Ukraine, because the Home Office seems to have lost some of them and no answers are obtainable, and as I read the bleak news. I do so to remind not only others but myself that faith in life is true and deeply rooted, and that, just as we need faith in life, life needs faith in us.

Passover and Earth Day – Our Hopes and Dreams

Hebrew has at least two words for freedom. Right now I’m mindful of them both, since tomorrow will be both the 7th day of Pesach and the 52nd celebration of Earth Day. Let me explain.

The older Hebrew term for freedom is dror. It derives from the root d.r.r. which, according to Brown, Driver and Briggs, my favourite Biblical dictionary, means to stream, flow abundantly, be luxuriant, even give light. The word dror occurs just once in this sense of freedom in the Torah, in reference to the Jubilee year when ‘you shall proclaim dror,freedom, to all the inhabitants of the earth.’ Dror can also mean a swallow, a bird whose swooping, delightful flight looks like the very embodiment of joyous liberty.

The later, rabbinic, term is herut. It is derived from the root h.u.r. meaning to be free, as opposed to being a slave. It may be linked to chorin, white garments worn by free persons. On Passover we trace our journey from servitude to becoming bnei chorin, people who wear the robes of liberty.

Today, I hope and dream of both kinds of freedom.

On the 7th day of Pesach we sing the song of the sea, reliving the relief and joy of the Children of Israel when, trapped between the sea and the rapidly approaching Egyptian army, the waters part and they cross in safety between the waves in which Pharaoh and his charioteers drown. The song celebrates what every refugee must feel when life-threatening danger lies behind them, when enemy bombs can no longer reach them, when the flimsy boats in which they’ve had to set sail reach the far-off shore. This is cherut, freedom, always provisional, always looking anxiously over its shoulder, from the long reach of oppression.

It is a freedom attained at a terrible price. The Talmud imagines God forbidding the angels to join in as the Children of Israel rejoice: ‘My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are busy singing!’ It is the freedom obtained by the defeat of tyranny, which always comes at the cost of innumerable lives. It is the victory of freedom we will commemorate on VE day on the 8th of May. It is the liberty my father felt when the siege of Jerusalem was finally lifted in 1948, cruel and bloody weeks after Israel’s Declaration of Independence. It is the freedom battled for today in Ukraine. As we are tragically realising yet again, that freedom must be fought for and defended. Therefore, though we know it is not yet at hand, we hope and pray for the day when every nation will be free and weapons put away forever.

In my mind that hope is dror, complete, joyous liberty: the liberty of the flowing stream, the radiant light, the flight of the swift and swallow. It is of this that Earth Day makes me dream. It is a day of commitment to practical actions: – ‘This is the moment to change it all — the business climate, the political climate. Now is the time for the unstoppable courage to preserve and protect our health, our families, and our livelihoods.’ (https://www.earthday.org/history/) But I see through it the vision of pristine forests and mountain streams, an agriculture which feeds populations yet respects the insects, birds and animals of the fields, a humanity at one in its interdependence with all living beings, all together part of God’s creation.

For these two freedoms, cherut and dror, we must hope and pray, and, in whatever way and to whatever extent we can, dedicate our lives.

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.

Finding the voice of fine silence in the midst of the storm

I’m woken by gusts of storm and listen in between them to the first thin songs of the brave birds. I hear in the blasts of wind the opening lines of Shelley’s magnificent poem:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing…

It’s late winter now and it will be more than leaves which are driven and broken. I saw the damage of storm Arven in Scotland; swathes of trees taken down, their branches smashed. Whose homes are being battered now; what treasured woodlands, long nurtured, torn through? Who’ll be left cold, wondering what corner of their home they can afford to heat without the children going hungry?

There are other and worse storms in the offing too; may it please God that their fierce powers disperse and never blast their violent way. I’m soon going to be speaking with colleagues in the Ukraine; may they, their communities and all the land be safe [see below]. It’s rightly been said that there’s a whiff of Munich in the air, that cunning which can’t be trusted. One fears for what may again overtake those terrible bloodlands of Jewish history, once regions of great learning and deep piety, first home of Hasidism and rebbes with pithy teachings and tales of wonder.

What sustains us when the world clenches its fists? I’m moved by the awareness that there’s something else to be heard in the wake of the wind. It’s the same sound which reached Elijah when he stood on God’s mountain in the thunder, earthquake and storm. It’s the ‘voice of fine silence’ which is present everywhere, and almost everywhere outshouted. It’s the same call which Moses intuited when he stood by the entrance to the Tent of Meeting in the desert and overheard God’s voice, speaking to itself. It’s there today, within the wind, beneath the tumult of the storm, present in the heart of life, and in our heart, which belongs to life, and knows and recognises its call.

What is that we know? Into what instruction must ‘fine silence’ be transformed in this world which demands practicality and action? I believe it translates into that simple, all-embracing, endlessly challenging commandment: ‘And you shall love your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.’ It’s simple because there’s nothing sophisticated about it; all it requires of us is to try to do good. It’s endlessly challenging because it never lets go of us, both when we’re at our inspired best and when we’re tired, frustrated and at our demotivated worst. It’s all-embracing because it’s never about someone else, somewhere else or some time else. It’s now and always. For God’s presence is all about us, in all life. ‘You shall love’ is the demand which, throughout history, has impelled ordinary people to show extraordinary kindness despite the cunning and cruelty around them.

That voice, and the intentions and actions it draws out of us, unites us, even in times of deep uncertainty and trouble, with everything in the world which is good, kind, faithful and beautiful. We breath in the same breath which animates all of life and know that we belong to it. We are partners in the spirit of creation and compassion.

‘Pray for us; think of us; support us.’ Rabbi Reuven Stamov and his wife Lena, leaders of Masorti communities across the Ukraine, speak about their concerns.

Find the recording here.

Link to Masorti Olami’s campaign.

That haunting phrase ‘the extinction of expereince’

‘The Hebrew for hedgehog,’ he said. It wasn’t the response I’d expected. Let me explain: the last of my series A Jewish Take on Life on Earth, scheduled for 9 March, is about mammals. Receiving no reply from elsewhere, I tried the British Hedgehog Society:

- Could they provide a speaker to follow on from my Biblical insights with something about the contemporary state of affairs?

- And you are???

- A rabbi; this is the kind of thing I do. You see, my community is very eco-minded…

To my surprise I’m given the mobile number of the Society’s spokesperson, Hugh Warwick, whose name I know from his books, such as A Prickly Affair. He answers at once. ‘I’m always up for a different kind of audience,’ he says kindly. ‘There are four references to hedgehogs in the Hebrew Bible, the word is kipod isn’t it, and there’s that magnificent passage in Job…’

As it happens, I’d already ordered his next book Linescapes about reconnecting Britain’s fragmented wildlife. On page 32 he quotes the remarkable phrase ‘extinction of experience’. He explains, ‘All over the world agricultural systems are being disrupted by this erosion – the loss of language, or just words, to describe, own and manage the land.’

That phrase ‘extinction of experience’ has climbed off the page into my head. It’s relevant not just to ecology, but to Judaism, and more: it encapsulates the danger there will be a rift, a break in transmission, in the core values of life.

When our children were growing up, we wanted them to have three loves: people, starting with family, nature and Judaism. We sought to teach them wonder, taking them to the forest by day, and in the owl-cry night. They’ve shown a remarkably loving degree of parent tolerance.

What we need to transmit aren’t facts or even skills. They’re experiences, and only the love and the living, the commitment of heart as well as head, has the power to communicate them.

Have I lived what I care about deeply enough? I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that being human, a teacher, indeed a rabbi is about precisely this: fostering the osmosis of good experience. Neither Judaism, nor nature, nor humankind can afford ‘the extinction of experience.’ One can teach through talks on Torah. That’s important. But the true purpose is to teach and learn through living and doing.

That’s the difference between being a teacher and an educator. I remember the names of many excellent teachers I’ve been lucky to have. But I’ve never even known the names of some of my educators, – like the elderly Jew who held a finger to his lips to tell me to be silent while he sewed new fringes onto my tallit, my prayer shawl, in an act of devotion the spirit of which still often wraps itself round me when I put the garment on.

That’s why, in a different context, I periodically WhatsApp our street, asking for shopping for the food bank. I’m aware that it makes better financial sense to set up a standing order to the Trussell Trust or Foodbank Aid; we should do that as well. But seeing the queue at the food bank makes me know something which filling in an online form cannot.

So I find myself, too, a rebel against extinction. I wouldn’t use all the strategies of XR. But I too feel the urgent need for a recentring of values back to the heart of being human.

My ambition at 64, felt even more deeply as I get older, is to live that love of people, nature and Judaism ever more fully and be inspired by others who do the same and more so.

Shaken, after 5 days at COP 26

I just came back from five days at COP 26, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. ‘Discombobulated’ is how Graham Usher, the Bishop of Norwich and Church of England’s climate change lead, described his feelings. I agree; I feel shaken.

Climate isn’t a subject I was disengaged from beforehand. But it’s different when you sit on a panel with a woman from Greenfaith working in Kenya who says: ‘When you’ve walked 7 kilometres with a pregnant mother who’s got a child on her back just to fetch water, then you understand what climate justice means.’

I stopped by a poster ‘COP welcomes Climate Criminals.’ Protest is necessary; 100,000 people are expected at demonstrations in Glasgow this weekend. Without the voices from the streets, many leaders would do much less. Anger has a role too, if controlled and directed, especially with hypocritical boasts or insincere promises about what this country or that business is doing for the climate. But the poster didn’t capture what I feel, and the worst climate criminals didn’t even show up in Glasgow.

What affected me deeply were the multi-faith meetings. At the interfaith vigil, live-streamed globally as COP began, prayers, – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Bahai, Buddhist, pagan, – didn’t focus on ‘against’. They were pleas for the earth, its peoples and leaders; they were prayers that those who bore huge responsibilities for the future of life itself would open their hearts and use all the skills and powers they have for good. For just as there’s only one planet, there’s only one team here. We’re all in it and we need each other to do our utmost, and more.

I sat with my friend Andy Atkins from A Rocha, a worldwide Catholic group focussing on NSBs, Nature-based Solutions. (I’m interviewing Israel’s NSB lead next week). ‘What are you here for?’ he asked me. ‘I’m with EcoSynagogue,’ I said. (Our stall in the COP green zone for NGOs went well.) But he was after something deeper.

So I asked him the same question. ‘What are you here for?’ ‘To lobby,’ he replied. He’s a COP veteran. ‘Deforestation ended by 2030 sounds great. But what does it mean? If there’s no detailed plan how to get from here to then, no measuring, no monitoring, no powers to implement and supervise, it amounts to nothing, or worse, a ten-year licence to exploit even faster. We need to hold feet to the fire.’

I was deeply affected by representatives from Africa, South America and the Pacific. Daryl Botu from Ghana was at the stand opposite EcoSynagogue. ‘I’m here about the Atawa Forest. It’s one of the most biodiverse places on earth. It provides water for five million people. Chinese investment wants to turn it into a bauxite pit. We’re campaigning to have it protected.’

Such voices were few: costs, Covid and vaccination recognition made it hard for people from the global south to get to Glasgow. I learnt a new term ‘recognition justice’: there can’t be climate justice or climate solutions without the voices, imagination, leadership and resilience of those who’re suffering the most.

I’m back in London, eager for our Eco-Shabbat, vegan Kiddush, ‘consume less’ and ‘waste less’ projects and glad about EcoSynagogue and Jtree.global (All I learnt indicates we’re planting trees with the right groups).

Being at COP was a success for EcoSynagogue. It was wonderful to be together with colleagues across the denominations and work with the Board of Deputies, and the Jewish community in Glasgow welcomed us warmly. Ever more synagogues are committing to the journey.

It was great, too, to be part of Faiths for the Climate, and to meet the leaders of Hazon, America’s Jewish environmental organisation.

But the real issue is: will COP 26 be a success for the planet?

There’s that personal question too: ‘Why are you here?’ I don’t yet know how, but this experience has, and has to, change me.

Why I’m going to COP

I’m going there to listen, learn, find every cause I can for hope and positive action and come back inspired and even more determined. I’m spending most of next week in Glasgow, the town where I was born, at COP 26, the most important gathering ever for the future of the planet.

I’ve no idea what it’ll be like, but I’ll certainly report back. I don’t imagine I’ll have the chance to meet the Pope, though I’d love to. I don’t think I’ll meet either President Biden or the Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of the State of Israel, though I’d like to. I don’t suppose I’ll bump into our own PM either, though there’s a lot I’d like to say.

It feels a bit Kafkaesque: there’s a green zone, for the NGOs (people like me with EcoSynagogue, leaders of Eco Church, etcetera); a blue zone for political actors, and a red zone for the highest level of heads of state. Like most faith leaders, my pass will only take me as far as the green zone, (I guess green is my true colour.) But walls and barriers have never put a stop to that age-old spiritual endeavour of trying to tell truth to power.

In fact, those truths are coming from every direction, from the world’s poorest countries already suffering the great impacts of climate change, and from the richest, where ever more economists and business leaders understand that there’s no point investing in fossil fuels and that green enterprise needs, and deserves, every support it can get. They come from the street, where across the world hundreds of millions of people, especially the young, are making it clear to their political leaders that they are out of patience with short-termism, self-interest, lip-service and lack of urgency. As the Talmud says about Noah’s flood, the truth is coming up through the earth in the form of droughts and fires and down from the skies in floods.

But I’m not going to Glasgow to find more cause for misery. These are hard times; only in this last week I’ve listened to several young people speak of their hopelessness. The climate emergency is a cruel inheritance to receive from their elders. But I’m mindful of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav’s maxim: Assur lehitya’esh – It’s forbidden to despair.

I’m going to Glasgow to find out about every form of positive action that I can. If I’m asked to plant trees, I’ll pick up my spade; if to show solidarity with communities struggling to adapt to climate change, I’ll ask them how; if it becomes even clearer that habits need to be changed, I’ll make my best efforts to do so.

I’m involved with all this because I’m haunted, possessed twice over. I’m seeing shadows where I hadn’t noticed them before: they follow my shopping bags and squat in my kitchen and bedroom with increasingly vividness. They whisper: ‘Is that there which you’re eating or wearing really worth what it’s doing to the earth and its peoples?’

But they don’t cling to me half as much as something else, a passionate, ineradicable love of this earth. It’s a love and joy as deep in me as the roots of a great tree. It brings nourishment to my body, mind and spirit. My God breathes in every living thing.

Nothing can suck that love out of my soul, and there’s nothing greater I want to bequeath to my children. Therefore, though I know I fall short, I want to do, and engage others to do, everything I can to protect this wonderful world and pass it on, vital and beautiful, to the future.

Was Noah the Greta Thunberg of his day?

Nature isn’t all loveliness. Yesterday just outside my study I saw a bird prey in the act of tearing open the pigeon it had just killed. I thought it was a sparrow hawk, but minutes later a peregrine perched by the window, looking for another victim.

Nevertheless, I feel awe, wonder, curiosity and joy before nature. Like many, I increasingly appreciate how interdependent we are with the natural world, from the rainfall to the quality of the soil, to the bees and the trees. Ruin nature and we destroy ourselves.

So Noah, the ‘righteous man before God’, the preserver who saves two of every species and ushers them into a new world, ought to be my hero. But he’s not; at least not entirely.

Here’s why. He simply obeys orders. When God tells him the world is wicked and about to be destroyed, he builds the ark as instructed. But he doesn’t argue back. He doesn’t say: ‘How can you, the creator, who holds such power, obliterate your own handiwork which you just recently called ‘good’ or ‘very good’?

Noah says neither a single word to God nor so much as a syllable of warning to his contemporaries. He could have taken up Dylan Thomas’s refrain: ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’ He could have done like the Jonah who, albeit reluctant, finally got to Nineveh and, covered in whale-spit, shouted down the streets: Change your ways or else this place will be destroyed.

The Zohar has this to say about Noah:

When he came out of the ark and saw the world in ruins, he started to weep and said to God: ‘You, who’re called “merciful and gracious,” shouldn’t you have shown mercy to your creatures?’ God replied: ‘Foolish shepherd; now you tell me! Why didn’t you say that when I instructed you…to build the ark?’ (Zohar 1:69)

Perhaps Noah thought there was no point: God’s mind can’t be changed. Maybe he saw in the power-holders of his day the same obstinacy and bondage to self-interest which has so often characterised it since. But in the Torah, he doesn’t even try. He isn’t the Greta Thunberg of his day.

Avivah Zornberg quotes Andre Neher: Noah shows ‘unqualified apathy.’ That’s harsh, since he does build the ark and cajole even the lions, elephants and mosquitoes aboard. But as Zornberg says in her own words:

[T]he impact of Noah’s silent acquiescence in the destruction of the world is devastating.

The rabbis, as ever, filled in the gaps in the biblical account. What happened during all the years it took Noah to build that ark? His contemporaries mocked him, and he answered back. But even here, Zornberg notes, his ‘imaginative solipsism’ is apparent: God ‘told me to make an ark,’ he says to them, ‘so that I and my household may escape.’

We, on our imperilled planet, in our ‘generation on the cusp,’ need to do more. The Biblical cue lies in the words Mordechai passed to Esther in the hour before Haman’s decree of destruction: ‘If you remain silent now…’

We need to speak up, and above all act, personally, communally, locally, nationally, internationally, for the sake of our beautiful world, on behalf of humanity, for the future. It’s a wonderful world and its children and children’s children deserve to receive it that way.

For the Month of Av: from Destruction to Restoration

We are on the eve of the new moon of Menachem Av.

The month begins in sorrow: ‘When Av comes in, joy is diminished.’ The ninth day is the fast of Tisha B’Av, when we remember the destruction of the Temples. But afterwards comes consolation, as we read from Isaiah ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.’ The full moon, Tu B’Av, is all celebration, Judaism’s ancient equivalent of Valentine’s Day.

I was privileged last week to share three experiences which expressed just this movement from sadness to restoration.

The first was in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, bombed out by the Luftwaffe in the night of 14 November 1940. We gathered, scarcely a dozen of us of different faiths and philosophies, surrounded by the remains of the walls and spires, made safe but not rebuilt. It’s not an obvious location for marking Britain’s first ever Thank You Day. But it’s a humbling space and that’s what drew us together. It opened our hearts. We were Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Bahai, Humanist. We all spoke, but the atmosphere of the place said more, reaching into us without words. We belonged to different generations and persuasions but it filled us with the same determination: not to hurt, not to denigrate, but to nurture and appreciate life.

The second was the Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral on the 73rd anniversary of the National Health Service. I sat next to Dr Perpetual Uke, a consultant at Birmingham City Hospital, who told me how she’d been caring for patients when she herself got Covid and became desperately ill. Now, thank God, she was almost entirely recovered. She was here both as giver and receiver of care. Nearby was a man representing the Ambulance Service. I told him how many times I’d had cause as a community minister to witness the kindness and skill of their teams.

Dr Uke lead the prayer:

For the vision of those who pioneered our National Health Service…
For the dedication of those who serve all in need of healthcare…
For the courage of those whose lives are marred by illness and bereavement…
For those who work for a healthier and fairer world.

What does one do when one hears such words? One feels saddened, humbled, touched, consoled and inspired all at once. One subconsciously resolves to do one’s best, to make one’s own contribution.

The third was the joy of two days in Scotland. Getting off the night train in the Highlands, the scents of woodland, heather, wild thyme and bilberry, the green of silver birch and pine, the sound of running streams – these are all God’s agents, they restore my soul. We experienced, too, a more practical kind of restoration in the regenerated woodlands, the young self-seeded trees carefully protected against deer and rabbits, the warnings not to disturb the rare capercaillie which nest on the ground, the feeding stations for red squirrels, the sight of an osprey. This too is part of health care, the health of the earth and our mental and spiritual health at the same time.

On Tisha B’Av we dwell only temporarily on destruction, long enough to rediscover the dedication to restore, rebuild, heal and replant in all God’s Temple, in Jerusalem itself, and throughout that universal Jerusalem which is God’s earth.

To the leaders of the G7

Something has been haunting me this dawn. It’s connected to the G7, but it’s not about politics.

So that you remember:’ I woke with these words searching my head like torchlights. But what were they looking for? ‘Remember!’ Remember what? It was like one of those discomfiting moments when you can’t recall a familiar name; you know that you know it, but it remains obstinately irretrievable behind a barrier of unforthcoming brain cells.

Except that it wasn’t a name I was after. It was a spirit, an awareness, that sense ‘of something far more deeply interfused’ of which Wordsworth writes, which sometimes visits the soul in the pre-dawn, holding a hushed conversation in semi-comprehensible associations, like a friend from the old days who turns up unpredictably from nowhere, mysterious but benign, then vanishes.

Lema’an tizkeru – So that you remember:’ the words come from the Torah and form the core of the third part of the Shema, Judaism’s twice daily meditation:

So that you remember and do my commandments; then you shall be holy to your God. (Bemidbar 15:40)

Usually, it’s something specific we’re told to remember, an event or a date. But this ‘remember’ has no object, as if to say ‘remember everything’ – and the purpose beyond everything. This thought reminds me of how a person I scarcely knew once turned to me as I stood watching the river in Cambridge forty years ago: ‘Never forget why you’re here in this world,’ he said. ‘Don’t ever forget that you belong to something higher which you have to serve.’ His words stuck in my soul.

I’m one of a group of religious leaders who were invited to offer a short video message at last night’s multi-faith service in Truro Cathedral for the leaders of the G7. I don’t know if they actually attended, but our instruction was to talk values to power, to speak climate justice, vaccine justice and our duties to the destitute.

We were asked to give voice to a call to awareness, beyond machination and advantage, self-interest and the need for profit; to bring to mind that spirit, sacred and universal, to which all power owes allegiance.

Each faith addresses it in a unique manner, but it is ultimately one. Even God is only a name, a word in human language, for that oneness, all-present and all-pervading, manifest in everything, yet hidden in everything, to which we are summoned to devote our service and allegiance.

Bringing it to mind is not sufficient. We have to act on what it tells us to do. ‘Va’asitem et kol mitzvotai – then do my commandments,’ the Torah continues. The voice which speaks in private to the heart is at the same time the most powerful, unremitting, non-negotiable demand for action: do justice; be compassionate; discipline yourself; know your responsibilities; align yourself with creation.

The world looks intently to those in power, as it will again at COP 26, to exercise their influence humbly but urgently, according to the demands of sacred wisdom.

Ve’heyitem kedoshim – then you shall be holy to your God,’ the Torah concludes. God is called Chei HaChaim, the life of life, the life force within all existence.

We can quash individual lives, human or animal, but we can never crush that life within life. If, on the contrary, we conduct ourselves and the affairs of our communities and countries in harmony with it, it will guide us, strengthen us, partner with us, and bring us and the world its blessings.

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