COP 15 and the jasmine in the porch

A tendril of jasmine has made its way through the tiny gap between the windowpanes and its small white blooms have brought their perfume into the porch where our guinea pigs live. Tiny, star-shaped, the flowers glow at night like nature’s own Chanukkah candles.

I write from love of this world of plants and animals. ‘You shall love your God with all your heart,’ teaches the Torah in Judaism’s best-known meditation. Part of that love is to love what God has created. I’m far from being a creationist; I embrace the science of evolution. But I’m with the mystics when they feel the divine presence both in people and nature, something holy that should not be hurt or harmed.

Several times during lockdown an email arrived in my inbox: ‘Please put your guinea pigs out on the lawn and leave your side gate open. My children have asked to see them; they need this for their mental health.’

For my own mental – and physical and spiritual – health, I had to get out early in the morning or late at night and join the trees in prayer. I’d go where they surrounded me with their meditations, their patient sense of time. Among them, I sensed the steady decontamination of my thoughts, the restoration of the mind’s clarity, the renewal of that bond with the sacred beauty which exists within this world. In such moments we touch a deeper consciousness with the power to guide us even through our complex dealings in this confusing world.

I’m reading Guy Shrubsole’s wonderful book The Lost Rainforests of Britain (If you need a seasonal present, I give it five stars). Someone directs him to the notebooks left by Oliver Rackman, ecologist and ‘wise man’ of the forests:

Written in pencil and faded ink, their well-thumbed pages read like prayer books to the woods in which [he] worshipped.

I hadn’t actually known that Britain had rainforests, but it turns out I’ve walked in them, lush, full of oaks, birches, rowans, ferns, lichens and other epiphytes. (Nearby was a conifer plantation, the ground beneath the serried trees almost lifeless, dark.)

I’m writing about these matters because I love those woods, and because I don’t want my or anyone else’s children or grandchildren to have ‘loved and lost.’

We’re several days into COP 15, the UN’s biodiversity summit. I hesitate to quote Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s opening words: ‘We are treating nature like a toilet. This conference is our chance to stop this orgy of destruction. To move from discord to harmony.’

At the close of his life Moses tells the people: Don’t say this teaching is far away. It’s not in heaven or over the seas: it’s ‘in your mouth and heart, for you to do it.’

The same applies to caring for nature, and each other. There’s so much near to home we can do. ‘I work with everyone, farmers, landowners, crofters,’ a forester told me as I tried to keep the midges out of my eyes and look out across the hillsides they were restoring. ‘This’ll be two hundred thousand trees, with ponds and pathways,’ Nick told us, as our community team took up their spades and started planting less than ten miles from home. (See JTree’s website for planting opportunities this winter).

People probably think I’m crazy because I sometimes say hello to the jays and blackbirds when I walk to the synagogue. But they’re part of my prayer life.

It’s not a question of either nature or people. To my mind, it’s always ‘both and.’ If you love the world, you care about everything.

AJEX Shabbat and Mitzvah Day

This week is AJEX Shabbat, followed on Sunday by the Jewish Military Association’s solemn commemoration. Whitehall is closed, service and ex-service men and women march by, as do their children wearing their parent’s medals in their honour. Over 120,000 Jews have served in the country’s armed forces.

But Sunday is also Mitzvah Day, a wonderful, creative and constructive response to the memory, and reality, of war.

Over the last years I’ve had the privilege of reciting the memorial prayer at the Cenotaph. I’ve found this humbling and intensely moving. Like so many of us, my grandfather and my father served, though in different armed forces. My wife’s uncle Sonny was killed supplying arms with the RAF to the French resistance. Jews, alongside other faith groups and minorities, have made immense contributions to this country, in war as well as in peace.

For those of us who’ve grown up since WW2, war in Europe had seemed a long way off. Not so now. Like others hosting families from Ukraine, Nicky and I wonder: do we leave the daily paper open, with the latest grim, or somewhat better, news? What immediate fears will the pictures bring when they come down for breakfast? It’s probably an idle question, as they speak to the men back in Kharkiv every day.

Here in the UK we are not faced with the constant threat of sudden death from bombs deliberately targeted at civilian infrastructures, something all too familiar to the generation who remember the V1s and V2s. We aren’t about to find on the outskirts of our towns and villages the half-concealed evidence of atrocities.

But war’s effects are all too clear. It wrecks the all-important works of peace. Farmlands are destroyed (We had eleven apricot trees, three produced really large fruits, all bombed, all bombed, ‘our’ grandmother said.) Grain from Ukraine’s rich black earth doesn’t reach the world’s poorest. Even in wealthy countries, rising prices push millions over the edge into destitution. Teachers in Birmingham say one child in three now lives in poverty. Richer nations are saying they can’t or won’t make the payments essential to help the planet’s most vulnerable nations minimise and adapt to climate change.

I’m sorry to write such horrible things but they weigh on the heart.

But they made me notice what I hadn’t properly taken in before: how, in the small siddurim, the grey-covered prayerbooks issues to His Majesty’s Armed Forces, the memorial prayers are followed immediately by verses full of longing for ‘the works of peace.’ They remind me that every Amidah, every single one of Judaism’s thrice-daily petitions, concludes with a prayer for peace. We must never take it for granted; it’s the most immeasurable blessing.

Late last night, unable to sleep, I went downstairs to fetch Isaac Rosenberg’s collected works. In a poem of 1917 he wrote how, returning from action, he and his men suddenly hear

But hark! Joy – joy – strange joy,

Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.

Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.

Death could drop from the dark / As easily as song –

But song only dropped

Our hearts go out to those like him who longed for peace but never lived to see it.

On their behalf, we must rededicate ourselves to the works of peace, to everything which Mitzvah Day upholds, caring across the boundaries of our communities, cooking, planting, giving, doing everything we can to make that peace as real, as lasting and as deep as we possibly can.

Cop 27 and EcoShabbat

In an intense and complex week, one theme runs through everything, the preciousness of life. That’s what I’m focussing on this EcoShabbat.

But first I want to acknowledge that today brings the memorial to that fateful eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when in 1918 the Armistice was signed which finally ended The First World War. Since then, this date has been marked as Armistice Day in Europe and Veteran’s Day in The States. (AJEX, the Jewish Military Association, holds its ceremony at The Cenotaph one week later).

It’s terrible to know that, in the words of Wilfred Owen, there’s another old man in Europe today who, unlike Abraham when the angel told him to spare his child,

Would not so, but slew his son

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Tonight, therefore, I will miss the beautiful synagogue service which marks the beginning of Shabbat, so as to attend a concert at the Ukrainian Cathedral, ‘The Cry, a Requiem for the Lost Child,’ in memory of the thousand children killed in Ukraine. Kenneth Nowakowski, the Eparchial Bishop, wept when I asked him to speak in our synagogue. It’s basic solidarity to stand with him in return.

Children were the subject at the service led by the Association of Jewish Refugees last Wednesday to mark Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, the Night of Broken Glass. That was when my grandfather, rabbi in Frankfurt, went into hiding, only to give himself up because he learnt that the Gestapo were waiting in his home. He feared he might be putting his wife and daughters at even greater risk.

In the terror which followed, the cry went out across Britain ‘Get the children out!’ the title of Mike Levy’s remarkable book subtitled The Unsung Heroes of the Kindertransport. A note on the cover reminds us that these issues aren’t over: ‘In support of Safe Passage, legal routes to sanctuary.’ There are few, if any, such routes for children of war and terror today.

Meanwhile COP 27 struggles to find a safe passage forward for our entire planet, one-and-a-fifth hands tied behind its back by the world’s economic and fuel crises and the paucity of courageous political leadership.

Nevertheless, I’m buoyed up by a resilient hopefulness based on what so many people are doing, locally, persistently. I was privileged to hear Charlie Burrell, who established Knepp, describe the swift return of species unseen for decades. (See his wife Isabella Tree’s wonderful book Wilding) The glimpse of a butterfly once thought extinct is joy!

I participated in the conversations of the Elijah Interfaith Institute yesterday. (Please join us this Sunday). I carry with me the words of Hindu and Buddhist colleagues: All is oneness. God’s presence fills all creation; let it fill your consciousness too. Let it descend to the heart. Let its light guide your conscience and actions. Then you will seek not to hurt or harm any creature.

As we move into EcoShabbat, I take from this week the gritty hope which feeds determination. I tell myself (and others!) Notice; be aware! Be there to care! One life flows through all things: if we nourish it, it will nourish us.

We must work for life in whatever ways we can.

Our EcoShabbat focusWhat’s Local To See:

Look out for the display in shul this Shabbat of our local wildlife.

Complete this survey to tell us which of these local animals, birds and trees you see over the next three weeks. Post your photos, stories, anecdotes in our Facebook group. Prizes will be awarded for the best responses.

Hear my Thought for the Day from this Thursday – ‘On Hope’

Hope, and how to find it

The first I heard about the results of Israel’s elections was an email from the Freddie Krivine Initiative which brings children together from every background: We shall not give up on our work! That was enough to tell me all the rest.

That vote, and other world events besides, made me turn urgently to Emily Dickenson’s poem

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul –

We need hope; we need it to land like a familiar robin on our outstretched hand and hop down into our heart.

The stirring Psalm recited through the Hebrew month of Elul and the High Holydays concludes with the repeated instruction

Hope in God; be brave, make your heart strong, and hope in God (Ps. 27)

The rabbis taught that every repetition in the Bible has a purpose. The point here is that to have true hope we need to work at strengthening our heart with everything which inspires us.

So these are some of the things which motivate me. The first is people. Three secondary school boys came to my home for lessons yesterday. The first two said ‘COP 27 is going to be a disappointment, like COP 26.’ ‘Only partly,’ I replied, wishing I disagreed more. But the third said something different: ‘I’m in a local group which plants trees, clears weeds and improves paths. I go once a month with my father. The sustainability committee at my school has got rid of plastic bottles.’

So the first message I tell myself when I feel low is ‘Stick with people who’re doing good. Find them, follow them, keep them in sight.’ That’s how I felt at Parliament for a launch of the Walking Inquiry into Immigration Detention. Here were people, some who’d been detained themselves, who listen to asylum seekers, walk together, act together, and who’re determined to keep going until they right the wrongs of the system.

That’s why, regarding Israel, we must speak out for the dignity of all people, condemn racism clearly and specifically from wherever it originates and support everyone working for a respectful, pluralist society.

Fortunately, across the world there’s no shortage of people from every faith and walk of life whose purpose is to do what’s good, and who’re passionate about it. I try to go where I can learn from them. They strengthen my heart.

My second source of hope is the world’s beauty. This isn’t about aesthetics; it’s about love. My wife and I saw a deer trapped in a fence. She’d misjudged the height of the top wires and caught her hoof between the strands. She hung upside down, her head on the turf. I tried to speak gently as I wedged the wires apart and watched her limp off, her leg sprained but not broken. ‘She’ll rest in the woods. There’s food there, and water,’ Nicky said.

How can one not love our fellow creatures, our companions on this earth, especially when they don’t harm us? That’s my second source of hope: the sheer preciousness, the vulnerability and wonder of human life and all life, inspiring us to work for people, also animals, trees, nature itself which needs our urgent engagement.

‘Od lo avdah tikavetnu, Our hope has never ceased…’ runs Israel’s national anthem, expressing the secret of Jewish, of all human, resilience.

Our hope may never have ceased, but few of us can honestly say that it’s never even faltered. That’s when we need to nourish that hope and, fortunately, as Emily Dickenson concludes in her final verse

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Choose life!

Here we are back at the start of the Torah’s journey. Last week we read the magnificent poem with which the Torah opens, its hymn to creation, ‘In the beginning, God said “Let there be…”’ This week comes the sweeping flood, the terrible annihilation which life perilously survives, afloat in a tiny gene-pool, a wave-tossed ark of gopher wood.

Before us are creation and destruction, life and death, and we exist in the fragile interstice between them. Therefore, we must always be on the side of life, in our prayers, thought and deeds.

Prayer is not primarily the attempt to change God’s hidden mind through our petitions. It’s the art of connecting life with life. True prayer, wrote Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, happens only when the presence of God within us and the presence of God beyond us meet. This isn’t magic; it’s not too far from, or too hard for any of us. It occurs whenever life touches us in moments of humility, wonder, love, or inner silence and our heart is opened and our awareness expands, filled by that all-present energy or spirit which flows through all things.

Such prayer can happen in communion with the words of the prayer book, in a conversation in a hospital corridor, in the glimpse of a wren or the solitude of a walk. It’s a moment of hearing with the heart, of connection with the sanctity of life. Even in the presence of death it’s almost always a timeless act of intuitive homage. It deepens our compassion, it nourishes our joy, it makes of us servants of life.

Because all life is sacred, because, in theological terms, God is present in all that exists, it is God’s commandment at the root of all commandments that we should harm life as little as possible and cause as little pain as we can even in our most mundane actions, in how we eat, dress, travel, interact with people, animals and nature. ‘Choose life,’ the Torah insists.

Therefore, whatever our tasks are amidst the complexity and sometimes misery of everyday life, they must always be rooted in respect, justice and compassion, even when life confounds us or makes us angry with good reason. Those tasks can be anything, baking a birthday cake, working out how to teach an obstreperous class, fighting the soullessness of some obstinate system, administering a life-saving vaccine. The question is: am I doing this as well as I can for the sake of life?

I’m not writing these words out of naivety, and certainly not because I find any of this easy. I attended the meeting in the Houses of Parliament on ending indefinite detention for asylum seekers. I’m preparing a declaration by faith leaders on climate justice for Cop 27. I read the headlines about climate change. I feel frustrated and powerless time and again. I worry that the waters are once again rising around Noah’s precious ark.

But I know that the source of life is infinite and everywhere, and that the commandment to care for life is expressed in numberless ways, in kind words, in the beauty of the autumn’s red and yellow leaves, in the song of a blackbird, through reaching out for help in difficult times, in the loneliness of sorrow, and in the joy which can flow into the silence of solitude. It is the voice of the God who says, “Let there be life,” and who calls on us to answer.

Longing for the sound of raindrops!

A thing I love is the sound of running water, not always or everywhere, not like our first night in our new house twenty years ago when our daughter woke us calling ‘Mummy, mummy, it’s raining in my bed,’ and we found a torrent from a leaked pipe streaming down the walls. But I love the sound of rainfall at the close of a summer day and the songs of small streams that calm the mind as if they flowed through the soul.

Therefore, I’m frightened by these droughts. As we say in the great annual prayer for rain, ‘Our life-spirit longs for water.’ The authors of the Bible knew the seasons and the soil; they understood the need for rain- and dew-fall in their proper times. They saw them as God’s reward, and the withholding of them as God’s punishment for our sins. The rabbis of the Mishnah (1st and 2nd centuries) instituted a series of up to thirteen fasts to petition God to pardon us and send us rain. That theology, too blunt, even unjust, in its raw form, nevertheless calls out to be revisited. What have we done to this earth, and what atonement, what reparation can we effect?

I woke in the middle of the night hoping to hear the beautiful sound of raindrops. Not one. I went down to my study to pray for rain. There’s a special blessing for the fertility of the land in every daily prayer, to which one adds the words ‘grant dew and rain’ from late autumn to early spring, stopping at Passover after which rainfall can be damaging to the crops. These prayers reflect the seasonal needs of Israel and Babylon, where most Jews lived after the wars with Rome.

But what about other parts of the world, Sefarad and Ashkenaz, Spain and Central Europe? What if rain is desperately needed there in the summer? Ask for it in shome’a tefilah when we bless for listening to our prayers, rules the Shulchan Aruch. Our custom, comments Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838 – 1933) is to recite verses about rainfall, and, on Sabbaths and Festivals, to chant the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy and relevant Psalms. Eastern Europe where he lived evidently suffered all too often the ravages of drought.

The Psalms are full of the love of water, for God ‘whose voice is upon the waters,’ who fashions ‘springs and deep pools,’ who ‘leads me the quiet waters by,’ and for whom we yearn ‘as the deer longs for streams of water.’

I received an emergency message before the burning heat of last Monday and Tuesday: ‘Humans can turn on taps, but what about the animals? Do what you can for them!’ So I duly went out at night with an easy-to-drink-from bowl and left it full of water beneath a tree on the Heath Extension with a sign: ‘For the animals, wild and pets: please leave – and refill if you can.’ Who knows what passers-by may have thought?

But it’s not true that people everywhere can simply turn on taps. Thirst is a cruel way to suffer. Access to clean water is the most basic of all necessities, so thank goodness for organisations like Water Aid.

Even in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ it’s not a given fact that we can always turn on the shower. We can do so only if there’s water in the pipes, if our reservoirs, lakes and rivers don’t run dry, and for that we’re dependent on the heavens.

That’s why the rabbis of the Talmud understood rainfall as one of three hidden treasures to which only God has the key: the mystery of birth, the secret of what happens after death, and ‘the mighty act of sending rain.’

May God bless this earth for all who live on it.

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.

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