We all need our moments of hope and reprieve

We need our bursts of joy and relief. That’s what Watkins’ great goal in the 90th minute of the Euro semi-final did for England on Wednesday, – though it may have felt different in Holland. It doesn’t spell an everlasting end to war, or no more human misery, but we all need such moments of reprieve.

‘Write about hope and resilience,’ my agent told me, ‘That’s what people want to hear.’ So that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’ve ditched the serious piece I just drafted in favour of what follows, especially as I’ve been lucky enough to have wonderful moments of positivity this week.

‘For those few seconds we were eye to eye,’ said Hugh Warwick, in a delightful talk he gave at my home last Sunday, during EcoJudaism’s awards ceremony at which our synagogue got gold. He was speaking about close encounters with hedgehogs. After all, he’s the author of A Prickly Affair (as well as many other books, including a recent best-seller).

He’s also the champion of the British Hedgehog Society. I cold called him a couple of years ago. As I struggled to explain precisely why a rabbi wanted a lecture on hedgehogs, he took the initiative by listing every single context in which the charming creatures are – arguably, very arguably indeed – mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.

Why hedgehogs? Because, Hugh Warwick answered, ‘I love them.’ It was that eye-to-eye, creature to creature, moment that sealed it. And, he added, you can only truly fight for what you love.

Others love hedgehogs too, he continued. ‘Groups won’t invite me to talk about climate disaster, or biodiversity loss. But champion Britain’s favourite animal and they’ll ask you gladly. And once on the platform, I can talk about everything.’

It’s what the great environmentalist Wendell Berry wrote: ‘Maybe the answer is to fight always for what you particularly love, not for abstraction, and not against anything.’

The following day I attended an event for Tree Aid. It focussed on their work in helping local groups in Ghana, particularly women, plant food-bearing trees as part of the Great Green Wall, the 8,000 kilometre long, 20 kilometre wide, tree belt intended to stop the southward creep of the Sahara. It was an evening of music, joy and love for what everyone was achieving. We felt we were watching the young trees and the strengthened communities grow together.

This may all sound stupid when there are wars on, when Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski, a good friend, sends me a picture from Kiev of his Cathedral with smoke rising from a bombsite in the background, and when there’s fighting in Gaza and the north of Israel, and the hostages still remain captive after nine bitter months.

But Ayelet, mother of Naama who’s still held by Hamas in Gaza, sent me a video of their dog. So I sent back a photo of Nessie. Stupid? Yes, I felt foolish taking that photo. But it’s a moment of reprieve, of closeness, and we need them in order to survive. There are times, and parts of the world, which are so cruel that minutes, even seconds, like that are almost unattainable. But when they’re possible they must be seized and relished. If we can, we should share them others.

Every morning we say in our prayers, ‘With great love, God, you have loved us.’ That love may take the micro form of a close encounter with a hedgehog, sharing a film of our dog, a kind word posted, a WhatsApp, or whatever. These may be small things in the global scale, but without them neither we nor the world can survive. 

Celebrating Pesach in this wonderful, terrible world

I’m bewildered by our world today, and struggling. I’m not alone. ‘Can I talk to you?’ people ask. I listen; I care about listening. But what shall I say?

It’s dawn and the garden birds are starting to visit the feeders. They’re singing: great tits, blue tits, goldfinches, wrens. I worry about the blackbirds. I don’t see them for weeks, but yesterday, there they were. I’m lucky; I was raised to notice such things.

My faith as a Jew teaches me that God is in all life. If I listen deeply enough, if I let the other voices in my head fall silent, the ‘I have’ and ‘I haven’t’, the ‘I want’ and ‘I ought’, I will feel the sacred stream of life flow from pool to pool in everything that exists, filling, too, the inner well beneath my heart. For long, dry months I may not be able to access the place, but this current of life does not fail.

But what kind of world is this really?

I think of Romi, a dancer just 23 years old, still hostage to Hamas after almost two hundred days. ‘I’ve switched off everything,’ her father tells me. ‘There’s only one message I’m waiting for, the call that she’s free.’ Daily we pray, ‘Our brothers and sisters from the whole House of Israel, in suffering and captivity…’

Every day, too, I see pictures from Gaza, desperate people. Are they not also made in God’s image? To what future is this hunger and ruin giving birth, irrespective of who’s to blame?

I’ve seen videos made by Nasrullah and Hezbollah, the nefarious protegees of Iran’s murderous regime, how they plan to destroy…

So it’s a terrible world. Yet it’s a wonderful world. It’s a beautiful, cruel, bounteous, unjust, wretched, glorious world. I want to believe with Martin Luther King that ‘the arc of history bends towards justice.’ I wish! Perhaps he, too, was afraid, and spoke not in certainty, but hope.

Into all of this now comes Pesach, festival of freedom. We’re preparing our kitchens, buying matzah, eyeing our bitter herbs, and worrying. So, in line with all the ‘fours’ of the Seder, I’m telling myself four things:

Freedom: Recommit to the struggle for liberty, for Jews, Israel and everyone. Freedom only for some is freedom compromised. Nelson Mandela wrote A Long Walk to Freedom. In truth, that walk is unending, traversing the same tough ground over and again, while the promise of the messianic dream remains many wildernesses away. But that’s no reason not to put on our boots.

Story: Seder is the night of the story. We recount our people’s story and weave into it our own. It’s our past, our present, and our hope for what must be. We need a world that respects and welcomes our stories, Jews or Hindus, refugees, farmers, students, venerable elderly with the wisdom of ninety years. Silence our stories with hate, and liberty is silenced for all. Without stories there’s no freedom.

Earth: The Seder plate is Judaism’s earth-plate, – and this year Seder Night coincides with Earth Day. The field’s crops, wheat, barley, oats, spelt, rye, are matzah’s only ingredient, bar water. The karpas, greens, are anything blessed as ‘fruit of the ground.’ Maror is the soil’s bitter yield. Sweet charoset is an offering of fruits and spices lauded in The Song of Songs. It’s the ‘food of love’ the Jewish way, Earth’s love. Without cherishing the Earth there’s no freedom, because nobody will thrive.

Hope: the Seder journeys upward, from slavery to freedom, from a land of tyranny to a country of justice, dignity, liberty and loving kindness. The BBC’s Radio 4 just launched a new programme, Café Hope, where people share how they’re making the world a little bit better and fairer. The Seder table is Judaism’s Hope Café.

So may this be a year of courage, determination, commitment, vision – and hope!

God, and the geese by Loch Lomond

We need to nurture our sense of wonder. Otherwise, we take the world for granted, forget the privilege of being alive and allow our souls to become eclipsed.

My own sense of wonder has worn cobweb thin over these cruel, bitter times: the hostages still captive after 120 terrible days for them and their families, the dreadful war with its appalling cost in Israeli and Palestinian grief, the lack of well-founded hope.

So I did something crazy, because I understood that to keep going and caring I had to renew my spirit. Wonder nourishes the love of life, love of life makes us more aware, awareness makes us more compassionate, and without compassion, what are we?

I found myself with an entire day unexpectedly free. Open before me was the winter magazine of The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds:

Join us at Loch Lomond; watch thousands of geese rise over the water at first light.

I couldn’t make the dates for their guided walks, but what was to stop me going on my own? ‘Head torch, boots, warm clothing, that’s all you need,’ the charming staff at the RSPB lodge told me.

I booked my train tickets; I’d be in Scotland for less than twenty-four hours, but what’s long or short when you nourish the soul? I arrived at night and set out at once to savour the darkness, breathing with the stately trees, watching the moon between the bare branches of the beeches.

Six next morning found me on the well-laid paths by Loch Lomond. The woodlands were a realm of wordless prayer, each tree a sentinel at the border of an invisible world. What’s a year, ten years, or a century to an oak? They humble us, these trees; they liberate us from the siege of endless thought, the battering of depression and frustration. They embrace us in their silent meditations and windswept songs; they simplify us inside.

The waters, when I reach them, are, like the cloud above them, still depths of grey. But the first birds are waking, and the cold air carries their brief songs over the water. Then the geese begin to call, at first just individual birds. The early shift has awoken and alerts the others: dawn is rising, dawn is rising, prepare for flight. The night slowly pales.

The honking and crying grow louder. I turn to face the direction from where the swelling chorus seems to come and suddenly I see them, skeins of ten, thirty, fifty birds, too many to count. They fly like a great arrowhead, each goose in the slipstream of those in front, only the leader alone at the sharp point, its neck stretched into the wind. One bird, fallen behind, strives to resume its place upon the wing. Their cries mellow and soften as they grow smaller over the water; I cannot see where they land. The loch resumes its silence, and the small birds’ songs become audible once again.

Soon I’m back by the A road, roaring with rush-hour lorries. I promise myself not to let them, or all angers of this cruel world, crush this glimpse of wonder out of my soul.  

Tomorrow, we will read the Ten Commandments, the account of God’s great revelation.

I’ve been privileged to have my own small moment at my personal Mount Sinai and, in my own way, I believe I’ve overheard God speaking.

Now the challenge is to keep listening, to stay faithful to that voice, in a world where people do murder, steal, dispossess, lie and commit subtle cruelties.

So I pray, for myself and for everyone: God, may the wonder and beauty of your world protect us, sustain us and guide us through these cruel and brutal times.

Between life and death, future and past

Here we are, caught between creation and destruction. Yesterday was Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees; tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day.

Tu Bishevat is a day of planting and celebration, when we’re partners with the God of creation who set the tree of life in the midst of the Garden of Eden.

Many of us were out there yesterday in the bright afternoon, placing rich mulch round the young crab apples and field maples we’d just planted. Trees mean future, long-term thinking, life, hope and joy. ‘We’ve a two-hundred-year management plan,’ explained Craig Harrison, head of Forestry England south.

Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day. I read compulsively about the Shoah and listen to the testament of survivors. I love their company. I admire how they have established new lives, brought up children and go into schools to speak against antisemitism and every form of prejudice. I find it remarkable how little bitterness so many of them bear, how much compassion they embody, how widely they spread warmth and hope.

But the most terrible testimony has no voice: that of the innumerable dead, across Europe, Rwanda, Cambodia, robbed of their homes, loved ones and lives; robbed of their voices which would tell us, if they could, of the sophisticated deceitfulness and cruel cunning of the murderers alongside their drunken brutality.

In the words of the searing Yom Kippur meditation, ‘Eleh Ezkerah – these things I bring to memory before God, who’s supposed to conduct the world in mercy, venaphshi alai eshpecha, and I pour out my soul, I don’t know what to do with myself.’

The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is the fragility of freedom. It could not be more apposite in this time of war in Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, the Middle East. Whatever ‘side’ we’re on, whatever political views we hold, we must not harden our hearts to the horror faced by the hostages and their families after 115 days of cruel captivity, the fear of parents for the lives of their children on the front lines, the desperate suffering of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians caught amidst the fighting.

To what pain will all this give birth, to what new fears and hatreds, to what hopes, longings and dreams? Beyond whatever particular loyalties we hold, say the Israeli and Palestinian parents of the Bereaved Families Forum, we need to remember that we should all ultimately be on the side of humanity.

So what do we do?

‘Choose life,’ teaches the Torah, be on the side of life!

These, then, are some of the questions which should preoccupy us: How can I find the courage to be truly human? What kindness can I do? Whose life can I make a bit better and not worse? What can I plant for our children’s children’s futures?

This sounds frail; it feels very small scale. But I put my hopes in a minor, often overlooked scene from the Torah. The Children of Israel are thirsty in the desert, but the waters before them are too bitter to drink. Therefore, God instructs Moses to throw into them the branches of a tree and when he does so the waters become sweet.

So let’s plant our trees, figurative trees of compassion, decency, humanity and hope, as well as real trees, maples, rowans, birch and oak. May they sweeten our own lives with a deep sense of purpose and bring a little sweetness to the future of the world.

For the love of trees – in honour of Tu Bishevat

‘No. You’re not buying another tree!’ the family protests as I eye up an apple, plum or rowan which, though discounted at the garden centre, looks good enough to me.

How many trees can you fit in the back of car – alongside two or three (grown up) children, at least one dog, walking boots, etcetera, etcetera? You’d be amazed! Though for the children, I admit, it’s not always a pleasant surprise.

But I love trees – as well as my family.

Thirty-three years ago, Nicky and I planned to marry on Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, (which begins this Wednesday evening.) But the synagogue had already been booked so we settled for a week later. ‘What shall I say about the two of you?’ our friend Ronnie enquired, whom we’d asked to speak on the Shabbat before our wedding. ‘That we both love plants and animals,’ we replied, and all these years later it’s even more true.

Trees make excellent gifts, so long as the recipient has a garden, or space for a large tub. Years later one looks back and reflects: ‘We got that tree when our baby was born’, ‘when our daughter was Bat Mitzvah’, or ‘in memory of our father’.

We measure time in the passing of years; trees measure time by the passing of generations. Trees humble us. The Psalmist is right: trees clap their hands, dance with their leaves and sing with the winds. But most of all they stand steadfast and, with their stillness, call us into quiet. Listen, they say. Listen first with your ears, and you’ll hear a leaf fall, a crow cry, maybe an owl call. Listen next with your spirit, and maybe you’ll hear the slow, steady flow of life itself. Then rest against the bark and know, even if only for a moment, that you’re safe despite all the world’s cruelty, for God is in this place.

But if we’re safe among the trees, are the trees safe among us? In Jewish law it’s a crime wilfully to cut down a fruit tree. How much more important a wider prohibition would be now, when we know that trees sustain us not just with food but through the very air we breathe.

We need to live, to eat, travel and build, in ways which don’t destroy the great forests of the Amazon, Congo and Indonesia. Here at home, we must replant. We must let the remnants of our rainforests spread, which cling to the west of England, Wales and Scotland, and leave the bright-coloured jays, those acorn-burying birds, to plant their oaks. (See Guy Shrubsole’s amazing The Lost Rainforests of Britain.)

Earth science is challenging us with new phrases, like ‘Climate change velocity,’ and ‘Adapt, move or die.’ But, asks Ben Lawrence in his brilliant, disturbing The Treeline, ‘What if you are a tree?’  

Yet trees, too, are on the move, not individual specimens, but species. Larch, birch, poplar and rowan are on the march north. What, then, do you plant to future-proof your woodlands? It’s a question with which foresters struggle. For we must do our utmost to bequeath to our children breathable air, a life-sustaining natural world and the wonder and spirit of the trees.

So let’s go plant!

If this seems fatuous in times of war, we should remember the Midrash of the old man and the emperor:

‘What are you doing?’ the latter asked.
‘Planting saplings.’
The emperor was scornful.

But what were his thoughts when, years later, on his return from many battles, the old man offered him fruits from those same trees?

For Eco Shabbat: between shame and compassion

This is Eco Shabbat, timed to coincide with COP 28.

I don’t love the name ‘Eco’, apt as it is. I’d rather describe the day in spiritual terms: the Shabbat dedicated to reverence before the beauty of creation, the subtle and wondrous interconnectedness of all life; the Shabbat in which we determine to honour and protect it.    

Yet I’m struggling with a feeling I hesitate to name, a deep sense of shame.

This is due, partly, to the war between Israel and Hamas. But the causes lie wider.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. This is in no way, heaven forbid, shame at being Jewish. I joined the rally against antisemitism last Sunday, profoundly moved by the historic companionship of tens of thousands proud of our identity. No, I reverence our millennial tradition of devotion to God and Torah which demands of us everything. I know myself an unworthy heir to its depth and wisdom.

It’s not shame for my strong connection to Israel, my bonds with precious friends and colleagues there, my prayers for those confronting Hamas, my joy at the release of tens of hostages and my hopes, and fears, for those still left in the tunnels of Hamas.

Nor is it shame that I listen with sorrow to the distress and desperation, anger and tears, of families of Palestinian civilians caught in the horrors of Gaza, or pursued by settlers on the West Bank who profane the name of God and Judaism.

No; it’s more than that. Sometimes I’m simply ashamed of being a human.

It’s the shame described by Dante when, overcome in the presence of his beloved Beatrice, he lowers his gaze and, seeing his own reflection in the waters of a stream, looks instantly away ‘filled with shame unspeakable.’

It’s akin, despite the utterly different circumstances, to the shame Primo Levi perceives in the faces of the first Russian horsemen when they come into sight of Auschwitz-Buna in January 1945, the shame ‘a just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.’ (The Truce, p. 188)

I keep thinking of the unanswerable Biblical question, Eichah? How? Why? How has humanity descended into such destruction? Where are those evil ideologies conceived that long to hurt and kill? How have we reached the state where, across the globe, homes, cities and landscapes are laid waste? Why are we ruining our sweet air and beneficent earth? Why do we continue to do so, when we know the price our grandchildren will pay for our actions?

All this, which daily confronts us, fills me with shame. How can humanity look itself in the face? If God were a person, God would be tearing out so much hair that the Godhead had none left.

Yet maybe something else, something better, can emerge from the pain.

I joined a vigil for the children of Israel and Gaza in St James’ Church, Piccadilly. Every quarter of an hour, a participant from a different faith spoke for just two minutes. The rest was silence.

In that rich quiet, I felt once more the compelling power of pity. In that heart-space of grief, wordlessly there grew a resolute, implacable commitment to compassion, to caring for life more fiercely than before, for this vulnerable world, its tenderness, beauty and wonder, its undressed wounds and inconsolable sorrows. We must lay it upon our hearts that, despite everything, humanity is commanded, ceaselessly and irrevocably, by compassion

Be for life!

I dressed in haste this morning, trying not to lose track of an elusive voice. The Zohar teaches that when the darkness of night begins to wane, the spirit of hesed, lovingkindness, hovers over the world and whispers into our dreaming minds. On blessed mornings we wake up not with the shock of ‘Oh my God, another day!’ but touched by something gentle but compelling, urgent yet benign, some spirit or instruction from worlds beyond.  

This voice had been strong in the half-dream from which the early light woke me. But it receded swiftly. It hovered at the corner of my consciousness before vanishing, taking with it something essential it wanted to tell me from some other realm.

All I could retain was that this was about caring for life. The half-dream was specific. But all I could retain was this generality, and the sensation that something had touched my heart which I didn’t know how to retrieve.

‘Be for life.’ It sounds so banal. But on a single-track road in Scotland we stopped the car because a toad was squatting on the tarmac. Nicky got out, took a photo, then gently moved the creature into the safety of the grass verge. The remarkable thing was that the driver in the car behind didn’t hoot. She waited, understood.

This reminded me of a scene from when I was seven or eight, next to my father in the car. He braked because a duck was leading her ducklings in slow procession across the busy Finchley Road up to the ponds in Golders Hill Park. ‘What if someone else won’t stop?’ I asked him. ‘Who would be so cruel?’ he replied.

I know I’m sentimental, but I don’t care for animals at the cost of caring for people. We’re all part of life together.

Maybe that voice, reduced to this generality ‘Be for life!’ came to me because of a conversation yesterday with our family from Ukraine. ‘I want to go home,’ said the grandmother, ‘but they’ve bombed the railway station.’ The mother gestured the outlines of a pincer movement: maybe the Russian Army will cut Kharkiv off. What is there left to say?

I sometimes fear we’re in a vehicle with some uncontrollable, manic driver who doesn’t know how, or maybe, I think in my worst moments, doesn’t really even try, to find the brakes.

But I know something else at least as well; that an immeasurable tenderness interpenetrates with life, despite its manifest cruelties and endless injustices; that this spirit of lovingkindness calls out constantly to the heart in the community of people and the ceaseless intercommunications of non-human life, and through the wordless communion of the spirit which hovers over the earth.

‘Be for life’ is the voice of our Rosh Hashanah prayers: ‘Remember us for life; Our father and mother, our sovereign, inscribe us for life.’

More importantly, it’s there in our prayers every day. The morning service opens with two short reflections I love. The first is a reminder: gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness are of limitless value. The second is a recall: ‘My God, the soul you have given me is pure.’

We belong to a spirit whose ethos is profoundly other than ‘me and mine’, than ‘I don’t care who this hurts.’ Life flows into us from somewhere, some reservoir, some being or consciousness, which fills the heart with pity and love.

Watching in sheer wonder

My words come from the northwest of Scotland where our family are on holiday. I wasn’t going to write, but I changed my mind, moved by the beauty, care, diligence and creativity of so much we’ve witnessed. We’ve visited projects of regeneration, replanting, reintroduction; we’ve seen what the impact not just on woodlands, insects, birds, and animals, but for people: the mental and spiritual restoration, the rehabilitation into the world of sacred wonder.

I’m writing, too, because today is the new moon of Elul, the month of Teshiuvah, repentance, return andreflection. It’s the date when we first hear the shofar calling us, in Maimonides’ words, ‘to wake from our sleep’ and return to God.

The first of Elul is also the ancient date for the tithing of cattle, when every tenth calf, lamb or kid born in the last year was taken to the temple. Turning this round, many contemporary rabbis honour this day as the New Year for Animals. This parallels how Tu Bishevat, originally a date for the taxation of their fruits, became the New Year for Trees, a time to celebrate orchards and forests.

These matters go together; there’s little more urgent to which we must wake up than how we treat the rest of creation. Over the last few days our family has been privileged to witness wonderful examples of such awakening and Teshuvah, return, to the physical and spiritual roots of our lives.

 At Dundreggan, home to Trees For Life, we met Nick Barnes, a psychiatrist who works between the NHS, University College London and Scottish rewilding projects. We engage with schools and across Scotland, he explained. The connection with nature, trees and soil de-stresses and re-centres us, restoring mental health.

We walk round with a guide: his knowledge, not just of every insect, bird and tree, but also of centuries of local history, of Gaelic names and what can be learnt from what used to be, is amazing, and carried with good-humoured humility.

Days later we’re in Knappdale Forest, meeting a ranger in a tiny chalet full of books. ‘Wait at the hide at the far end of the loch; listen, watch.’ For once, we resolve to leave the dog in the car, safe in the evening cold. But she cries so loudly that we take pity on her, realising also that our chances of seeing any wildlife within a mile of such a pitiful racket are zero. Nessie comes with, behaving impeccably thereafter.

We walk round the loch, uncomfortably conscious of our family’s talent for failing to spot the animals we’ve come to observe. Finding the hide, we watch the light change over the small waves, glowing red as the sun sinks low. Three ducks, a fourth lagging behind, swim slowly across the water. I can recall no other time when I’ve listened like this, motionless, just listening to the wind and the bird cries for an entire hour.

Then we see the beaver, swimming across the loch, then towards us, nearer, nearer, diving down, resurfacing just feet from where we watch. These are moments of pure wonder.

But behind them are decades of dedication: consultations, negotiations with farmers, bureaucracy. Finally the first permits for reintroduction are granted, since beavers improve wetlands, prevent flooding and help water conservation in drought-prone regions, including London.

Judaism knows two kinds of motivation: fear and love. We need fear to motivate international leadership to mitigate and reverse the disintegration of our biosphere.

But, as our family have witnessed, it’s love, patient, knowledgeable, determined love, which is needed to repair nature for the sake of humanity and all life. Mercifully, the work we saw is being replicated all across the world. It’s very far from enough. But it represents true Teshuvah, repentance and restoration.

Can Anger be Consoling?

Yesterday was the fast of The Ninth of Av, the bleak commemoration of disaster. Tonight begins Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. I wish there was a little more space between these days, because I’m still struggling with the tell-tale signs of a hangover from the fast, backache and tiredness, and need a little longer to shift my thoughts. According to tradition, the morning after, the first half of the tenth of Av, retains a lingering subdued mood because the fires in Jerusalem still raged – as do the fires today across Europe’s forests.

Yet the immediate proximity of these two dates, not rare in the Jewish calendar, has challenged my understanding of what consolation means. We can find solace in wonder. Can we also find it in anger?

Wonder is the theme of this coming Shabbat. Its readings are filled with beauty. Isaiah’s call to consolation is among the most stirring passages in the entire Hebrew Bible. He begins, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people…Speak to the heart of Jerusalem…’ and ends, ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see who created all these, who brought them forth in all their hosts.’

The story is told of a hasid who said to his rabbi: ‘I’ve read thirty-six interpretations of that verse, but it was only when I looked up and saw, really saw, the magnificence of the stars that I understood.’ ‘You must write your explanation down,’ the rabbi insisted. ‘No,’ the hasid replied; ‘that would merely turn it into explanation thirty-seven.’

The world is full of wonder, in skyscapes, landscapes, music and poetry and in the grace of so many human interactions. We need that beauty to restore our soul and enable us to go on living.

But maybe we also need our anger. ‘I’m so furious,’ a friend said to me at the close of yesterday’s prayers. He was referring to the all too frequently heartless treatment of refugees. ‘Indignant’ might be a better term, but it feels too weak to describe the fire in the bones that refuses to let us be passive in the face of cruelty.

Yesterday I came across astonishing lines by the German-speaking poet of the Holocaust, Gershon ben David. He sees himself standing in silent fields, ‘pregnant’ with ashes of the slaughtered:

And I asked myself: am I
The keeper
Of my brother Cain

It’s a startling inversion. In Genesis, God challenges Cain to explain the whereabouts of his brother Abel whom he’s just murdered. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Cain notoriously retorts. But in the poem, it’s not the guilty party who’s challenged about his responsibility toward the innocent, but the innocent brother who’s questioned about his responsibility toward the guilty.

Are we, too, all keepers of those potential Cains who inhabit our world? I’m not thinking of murderers, but of those who exhibit the cruelty, or heedlessness, which seems to come so frequently to the fore across our societies these days? What, too, about the small part of Cain which may be present in ourselves, waiting for us to loosen our guard? Are we responsible towards these ‘brother’ Cains? What might that entail? Can we awaken in them a better self, someone, beneath all appearances, potentially merciful? If not, how can we best challenge and overcome them?

I fear we are indeed the keepers of our brothers Cain, external and internal. To fight them we need the energy of anger; we might call this ‘the anger of compassion’. How otherwise can we confront the destructive forces in our world? The art is not just to challenge them but, if and when possible, to turn them about so that they too become part of the work of nurturing life.

We need the solace of wonder to nourish our heart and spirit, and the energy of indignation to give courage to our conscience so that we join the struggle for what is just and right. In so doing, we gain the consolation of contributing whatever we can towards life and hope.

What God says

A dreamer’s Shavuot message for a troubled world.

We say every day in the morning prayers that the world is illumined berachamim, by mercy and love. Wendell Berry, writer, devoted Christian, farmer and environmentalist so committed that, on principle, he ploughs his land only with horses, puts it like this:

I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, in so far as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love.

I so much want to agree. But the world doesn’t appear to be like that. To take just one example, (alongside so many issues about which we justly worry) the displaced family from Kharkiv have just marked one year since they fled Ukraine and came to live with us. With no sign of the war abating, we wondered how to mark the day. (The region was bombed the night before.) I made them their favourite cheese scones, small compensation, and we commiserated.

So it doesn’t exactly feel as if the world in its current state ‘subsists and coheres’ through love. But about this there can be no doubt: that the world, each of us, all of us, everything alive, has much need of love.

Therefore, that’s how I want to hear God’s voice in the Ten Commandments, which we will read tomorrow in all synagogues in every land and across all denominations. A beautiful Mishnah teaches that God didn’t just say ‘I am’ once long ago on Mount Sinai. God says this every day, calling out for us to attend. And God’s ‘I am’ is more than just a pronoun followed by a verb. The words are an appeal: ‘Hear me, care for me, love me.’

But where do we hear those words? To the mystics, the Kabbalists and Hasidim, the answer is simple: in everything. The voice of the living God is the essence of life in all its forms, the very heart of existence.

Therefore, when we think of children, especially perhaps children faced with extra struggles, such as finding a safe country, being given a safe home, having the right teachers who understand their gifts as well as their needs, we can hear within them the voice which says ‘Look after me, cherish me, love me.’

When we consider people facing the hard years toward the close of a long life’s journey, the physical limitations, the indignities which age can bring, the loss of friends, we can feel in their presence the voice which says, ‘Be gently with me, respect me, care for me.’ And so often we can see that voice embodied in those precious, remarkable carers who, day in and day out, night in and night out, truly care.

When we read the statistics of declining species, yet learn of the work of those determined groups who restore habitats, clean rivers, watch nests, save toads from busy A-roads, and know how to discern the music of one small songbird from another; there, too, we can hear God’s voice saying ‘I am’ in all the innumerable languages of creation.

But isn’t this all mere sentiment, when we’re told that God’s voice is commandment, a firm ‘Thou shalt’?

Not so! What greater commandment can there be than to live with love of creation, in whatever sphere of life we can best express it?

Therefore, may this be a year of listening, and responding, to God’s great commandment, God’s patient, enduring, long-suffering, pleading ‘I am.’

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