Hineni: being there with each other at this cruel time

In these cruel times I keep thinking of Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker and hearing in my head that unique low voice which goes straight to the soul:

Hineni, hineni,
I’m ready, my lord…

These are the words Abraham speaks, as we read in the Torah tomorrow. He says them no less than three times, when God commands him to offer up his son and he tries, impossibly, to be present not just for his God but also for his beloved child.

Leonard Cohen follows Rashi in his lyrics, that great eleventh century commentator who explains that hineni means humility, readiness. But the most basic translation of hineni is simply ‘I’m here.’ It’s the answer we try throughout our life to give to God’s first, and everlasting, question: ‘Ayeka: Where are you?’

In these distressing weeks, there are so many for whom we are called to be here, not just in body but in heart. Almost everyone reading these words will have loved ones for whom they are deeply concerned, in Israel, perhaps in Gaza, around the world. Saying hineni, being together, gives us strength.

Hineni is the coming together of two words, ‘Hineh, Behold!’ and ‘Ani, I’. But it signifies the very opposite of ‘Look at me!’ On the contrary, it means that I dedicate my self to being present with you: ‘I’m here, I’m listening, “I’m ready, my Lord.”

I feel for so many people. Yesterday I found myself helping facilitate three different groups about Israel and Gaza, for colleagues, a multi-faith team, and an online gathering wanting to understand what’s happening and what it all might mean. I imagine that, in different contexts, that’s been other people’s week too.

‘I’m here and my heart is here:’ how do we say that truly? We must do our best to be there for our own people, family, friends, here, in Israel, anywhere. We must do our best to be there for those who’re afraid, or grieving, or worrying because their children have been called up, or desperate for relatives taken hostage.

Being there is not just about doing, though often there’s much we can and should do. Being there is not about having the right words, though sometimes there are things to say. But often there are no great words. There’s only the heart’s language, the unspoken, the hug, real or virtual, the tears.

Hineni is not just for those who see the world the same way as we do. What kind of humanity do I have if I withdraw into hostility or indifference when the person next to me says quietly that she’s had no news from family in Gaza, not for days or weeks, and a whole generation maybe gone?

Strangely, paradoxically perhaps, this is where we can meet, Jews and Muslims, people of other faiths and none, in our very anguish, our fear for those we love, our aloneness when we feel shunned because we’re a Jew, or a Muslim. The very pain that divides us may become the pain that unites us, at least here in the UK.

Only if we reach deeper than fear and hate can our world progress beyond hatred.

It’s not possible with people while they proclaim and act out antisemitism or any form of racist spite. It’s unthinkable with the brutal terrorists who commit wanton, indescribable acts of premeditated torture and murder.

But where it may be possible, there we must try.

How, though, can the heart find the strength? I believe that if we go down, down and down, we reach within ourselves the deep hidden river of life through which all spirit, all existence is sustained.

We make that journey each in our own way, through prayer or silence, music or nature, alone or touched by others.

It takes us to that place of mercy, hidden yet all around us and within us, where God, the unnameable, gives us strength and hope.

We Need to be Healers and Fighters

I wish everyone, our families, our friends, and our congregation Shanah Tovah. I pray for a good year for the whole Jewish community, all humanity, and all life in our beautiful, beleaguered world sheculo chal mipanecha, which both trembles and rejoices before God.

This year may we be healers. The world is full of wounds and the dangers that lie ahead, for Israel, for many countries and for nature are obvious. One’s heart weeps.

Healing is an art which often requires sophisticated skills. But in essence it’s simple; it’s based on just two words: ‘I care.’ But where do we start, when from all around there are ceaseless appeals and the very earth can feel like one great cry? In the ancient words of Rabbi Tarfon, the one choice we are not at liberty to make is to do nothing.

I believe we should focus on whoever it is in our nature to care about naturally. If we love children, do what you can for them. If we feel a special tenderness for older people, listen to them. If we love birds and animals, plant gardens, woods and meadows. The other day I saw a chair tied firmly to a lamppost outside a café. On it was a sign: ‘If you’re no longer so young, or walking is difficult, please take a rest. We care about you.’ What kindness! Caring is often expressed in seemingly small things, but the difference it makes is inestimable.

In these tough times, to be healers we must also be fighters. There is unavoidable suffering on earth. But there is also wanton cruelty: the brutality of aggressive war; the contemptuousness of race and gender hate; the despotic arrogance which seeks to crush justice and freedom; the despoliation of the earth which may benefit some but devastates others and destroys the viability of our planet. We must fight these wrongs, skilfully, determinedly, forcefully but peacefully, acknowledging that in some we too may be implicated.

At stake are Judaism’s core principles: that this is God’s earth for which we must care with respect, justice and compassion. The very essence and reputation of Israel, and of Judaism itself, are currently at stake.

From where do we draw our strength?

We do so from solidarity, hope, love and faith.

Solidarity and community are the basis of Jewish life, and of all society. Whether looking after the sick, combatting poverty, cleaning up local rivers or defending minorities, belonging to like-minded communities renews our resolve and restores our morale.

Hope, tikvah, is not airy optimism, but the elixir of vision, aspiration and action combined.

Love is our deepest motivation, God’s presence in our hearts, as we pray each day: ahavat olam, inspire us with eternal, inexhaustible love.

Faith is not pious dogma, but the awareness of the deep resilience of the human spirit, of Judaism, of life itself.

May we have the faith, love, hope and solidarity to be healers in the years ahead.

The True Guardians of our Humanity

As the moon wanes to a sliver and the old year ends, I want to thank those who guide us in all walks of life.

The rabbis read Elul, the current Hebrew month, as an acronym for two biblical verses. (Sadly, this doesn’t work in English.)

The first is ‘Ani ledodi vedodi li – I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.’ They took this as the love between God and the soul.

God is infinite. But in practice God comes to us in many shapes and sizes. None of us knows how the spirit touches the hearts of others. Therefore, I want to thank everyone who helps us perceive the holy in anything and everything.

Thank you to the teachers and youth leaders who understand how to draw out of every child what is special and sacred and enable that uniqueness to become a light for others.

Thank you to Eleanor O’Hanlon for her book, Eyes of the Wild, about how in the ‘spaciousness of nature, we find our own expansiveness again… And that space is not separate from Eternal Presence, holding all life as one and allowing it to be – growing, blossoming, dying and reemerging in all its manifold diversity and grace.’

Thank you to the team in that tiny bird reserve between the Supreme Court and the Knesset in Jerusalem, who measure the length of small birds’ wings before releasing them from their carefully cupped hands. You show that these lives too are holy.

Thank you to those of all faiths who see beyond the dogmas of their creed and know that God is in all life everywhere.

You bring God into our hearts. You curb our cruelty and deepen our compassion.

The second of the Elul verses comes from Esther: ‘Ish lere’ehu, umattanot la’evyonim, – Each for their fellow, and gifts to the needy.’

I’m grateful to everyone who shows us how to be present for our fellow human beings, family, friends, community, people we encounter by chance.

I’m grateful for everyone like the friend who simply said, ‘I’m on my way,’ when I called in a panic, ‘I need a lift with my dog to the vet, this moment, now.’ I’m grateful to those with the gift for thoughtful words, kind, insightful, with a lightness of touch. I’m grateful for those who listen, enabling the quietness that calms the heart.

I’m grateful to all who fight for the rights of others, who won’t yield to indifference, carelessness or rudeness, who call out bigotry and bullying. I’m grateful to everyone who helps create encompassing, compassionate community. Thank you for showing us what ‘Each for their fellow’ truly means. You deepen our humanity.

‘Gifts for the needy’ may sound patronising. But who knows which of us will be needy over time? This isn’t about reaching down but reaching out, to those whose lot has fallen more cruelly than ours on earth.

I’m grateful to all who refuse to walk pass hunger, who ensure foodbanks remain stocked. I’m grateful to that postman in whose van we caught a lift years ago, who stopped at every house in the long, remote road saying ‘If I don’t check on these elderly folk, who will?’

I’m grateful to Sally Hayden who records in My Fourth Time We Drowned, how she took that first unanticipated call from tormented refugees, subject to blackmail and rape, and became their lifeline, their sole electronic pathway towards liberty. I’m grateful to the lawyers, journalists, takers of video clips, who risk their lives exposing inhumane policies and brutal regimes. You live the meaning of integrity and truth.

How urgently we need you all, teachers and guides, because, as we pray on Rosh Hashanah, the fate of the world is in the balance.

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.

Why Tisha B’Av Matters

Some people call it Shabbat Katan, the ‘little’ or ‘diminished Shabbat’, but it’s more often known as Shabbat Chazon, ‘the Shabbat of the vision’. It’s not exactly a happy vision, though: Isaiah spells out what a society looks like when it ignores God’s demand for justice. The contemporary relevance of his warning is painfully explored in Noah Yuval Harari’s reflection from last week’s Haaretz (please note, this article is behind a paywall).

Isaiah’s prophecies make a challenging start to the week which includes Tishah B’Av, the 25 hour fast when we read Lamentations and recall the sacking of both temples in Jerusalem, the Crusades, expulsions and pogroms which have marked our fate.

What’s the point of remembering destruction? I don’t think the reason is to create a culture of victimhood, despite the fact that the Jewish People has, over millennia, so often been a victim of hatred, contempt and persecution. Despite this, Judaism has through thick and thin courageously maintained an ethos of responsibility and positive commitment. Therefore I believe the purpose is to look destruction and its horrors in the face and determine to do our utmost not to allow the world to be that way anymore.

I can’t help seeing Lamentations in double-vision. We read: starving children cry out to starving mothers, ‘Where are corn and wine?’ I think of the desolate alleys of a burnt-out Jerusalem where no one has the power to hold back the Babylonian soldiers any longer. Then I see pictures of Yemen, Somalia, and more. We read of the ruin of cities, and I see Mariupol, Bucha, and more.

Where is God amidst all this tragedy and evil? the rabbis asked, and continue to ask, over and again. Why does God let such things happen?

A famous Midrash imagines God summoning the ministering angels. God asks them: ‘What do human sovereigns do when a child of theirs has died?’ The angels answer: ‘They draw down the blinds, tear their garments and sit on the ground and weep.’ ‘Then I’ll shut up the heavens in darkness and do the same,’ says God.

Admittedly, this Midrash doesn’t answer the question of why God allows evil to happen. Instead, it speaks of a God who cries with us in every sorrow and whose tears fall with ours at every act of wanton destruction. It tells of a God who says, ‘It pains me terribly that my world should be like this.’ It depicts a God who suffers alongside humanity, and who therefore hopes and aspires alongside us too. It speaks of a God who says, ‘Let’s change the world, you and I.’

That, to my mind, is the point of remembering destruction: so that we determine to do our utmost for life in whatever field or manner lies within our power; so that we take into our hearts the presence of a God who weeps when life is squandered because God, too, loves life; so that we know and remember that this is what God wants of us most of all.

That’s why we hold that the Messiah is born on Tisha B’Av, and why it is the Sephardi custom to sweep our homes from midday on to make ready for the Messiah’s coming: Tisha B’Av is, strangely and paradoxically, the birthday of hope and determination.

That’s why, despite the fact that feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness often haunt me, I’m going to try to brush out of my spirit those thoughts of ‘can’t!’, ‘why bother?’, and ‘what’s the point?’

It’s why I’m determined to say, including to myself: If you can help one person, do it! If you can plant one tree, do so! If you can make one refugee, whom no one seems to want, feel wanted, do it! If you can let the wild flowers bloom that feed the insects that feed the birds, go and rejoice in them! ‘Kumah! Get up!’ we tell God whenever in our services we return the Torah scroll to the holy ark. I imagine God replying: ‘Yes, but you get up too. Get up, and I’ll get up with you. Care for my world, and I’ll care with you. Nurture one child, just one living thing, and I’ll be there right with you, in your heart and in your hands.’

Click here to listen to Rabbi Jonathan on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on Thursday 20 July.

How we tell our stories

There aren’t many roads in the north of Scotland, which is a good thing, but does have its problems. The going had been fine past Loch Ness, then everything stopped: a tree had fallen a few miles ahead and it would take three hours to clear the carriageway. We weren’t going to reach our destination before Shabbat, and anyway we’d miss the ferry.

‘There’s an alternative route,’ said Nicky, staring at the map, ‘a mere detour of 137 miles.’ We rethought our plans.

What makes a journey into a journey, rather than a set of random directions? Is life itself a journey, or a series of misadventures?

‘These are the journeys of the Children of Israel who left Egypt,’ says the Torah; ‘Moses wrote down where they left and where they were headed, by the mouth of God.’ (Numbers 33:1-2)

Really? Was everything truly God’s intention, including thirty-eight years of wandering in the desert, the frustrations over food and water, the quarrels with Moses and even with the Deity itself? Surely not!

But that’s not what the words mean, noted Nachmanides. ‘By the mouth of God’ refers not to where the people went but to how Moses wrote it all down.

It’s a penetrating comment. Whether we see our life as a God-given journey or a haphazard scramble may be less about what happens and more about how we write it down, how we tell ourselves our story in our head and heart.   

The other night Nicky and I, both exhausted, switched on the television to 24 Hours in A & E. An Afghan gentleman was brought in with dangerous levels of carbon dioxide and weakness in the limbs. The doctors told his weeping children it was probably Motor Neuron Disease.

His daughter spoke of how her father had loved his life as a fruit-picker in Afghanistan. Then came the Russian invasion: war everywhere. Her father went to London, always sending them money and occasionally visiting back home, until he could bring his family to Britain. Here he did menial work, making just enough to give his children a good education.

They kissed their dad as he was taken into intensive care. We are going to make sure he enjoys the rest of his life, they said.

Will they ‘write down his journeyings’ as: ‘He slaved away at miserable jobs far from the countryside he loved, and look what fate has dealt him’? Or will they say: ‘He sacrificed so much because he loved us so deeply. He brought us to safety and gave us a better life’? I’m sure it will be the latter.

And you and me? In what spirit do we tell the story of our life and the lives of those we love? The Talmud says that ‘everything is in the hands of heaven, except the fear of heaven.’ I take this to mean that we cannot necessarily determine what happens to us, but we do have some control over how we understand it.

Few of us are spared episodes at which we look back in sorrow or anger. But there’s all the difference between reviewing our whole life with regret, and reflecting on it in love. Probably we do a bit of both, depending on our mood. Of course, for some people there’s far more about which to feel justly pained. Even so, there are plenty of individuals who view with generous grace what must have been very tough lives.

‘I know I’m loved,’ were the last words of a young man I knew, before he was cut off in mid-life. He saw his hard journey as ‘by the mouth of God.’ Perhaps that’s the meaning of the rabbis’ phrase ‘died by God’s kiss.’

I’m deeply moved by people like that.

For Pride Shabbat

This is Pride Month and we’re celebrating Pride Shabbat. This is a profoundly religious matter, going to the essence of what God wants of us.

I don’t believe in a God who is cruel and closed. On the contrary, I believe in a God who says to us over and again, in every encounter with each other and with life, ‘Open your heart.’

Therefore, our holy places must be open-hearted too, from the most public, our houses of prayer, to the most intimate, our souls, because all life is sacred and God’s presence dwells within us all.

A comment by Rashi sticks in my mind. Appealing for help in finding a leader for the next generation, Moses calls on ‘the God of the spirits of all flesh,’ a phrase used only twice in the entire Torah. (Bemidbar 27: 16) Rashi explains this choice of language:

The thoughts and feelings of each human being are revealed and known to you, God, and they are all different. Appoint a leader who will bear with every person according to their particular thoughts and feelings.

The words ‘bear with’ probably reflect Moses’ weariness after forty years putting up with everybody’s foibles and frustrations. I would prefer terms like ‘listens to’, ‘appreciates’ and ‘cherishes’.

Yet this is what a LGBT+ friend just wrote to me:

Hate crimes are rising. Many of us have been shouted at in the streets, me included. Some have suffered physical violence. Trans people experience deep hurt and discomfort in our congregations and wider societal spaces. They are often without support networks due to families turning them away.

Stonewall stresses that every LGBTQ person should feel ‘safe, respected, recognised and protected in law.’…Yet ‘with every day that passes, we feel a little less safe going about our lives.’

A populist wind has blown across the world eroding tolerance and the celebration of diversities. An Israeli woman told me she now fears regularly for her safety.

A tragic consequence can be the internalisation of feelings of rejection. Stonewall is currently focussed on seeing through proposed legislation banning so-called conversion therapy. The very premise implies that people must be wrong about who they feel themselves to be. Mind notes that those undergoing such “treatment” are ‘75% more likely to plan to attempt suicide.’ A gay friend told me it took him years to accept himself fully and say the daily thanksgiving blessing for being ‘made according to God’s will.’

Religion should be the most generous and inclusive social force but has sadly often proved bigoted and cruel. Armed with powerful ancient texts, which need to be carefully re-evaluated, God is deployed against all kinds of difference: in religion, ethnicity and gender orientation.

But I believe what God seeks is not contraction but expansion of the heart. This is the very essence of what God wants from us, irrespective of our gender identity: to live with integrity, justice and generosity, faithful to God’s presence in all life.

The Talmud records how Rabbi Beroka Hoza’a meets Elijah in the marketplace of Lefet and asks him, ‘Is there anyone here worthy of the world to come?’ The prophet points to a man who, of all professions, proves to be a jailer. ‘What do you do that’s so special?’ the rabbi enquires. He explains that he protects his inmates from sexual abuse and reports threats of racist attacks to the communal authorities. (Talmud, Ta’anit 22a)

God wants us not only to protect, but to listen to, support and cherish each other, so that we can create a world of safety, trust and togetherness.

For Refugee Week: God sees the tears of the oppressed

While Nicky’s not been well, I’ve slept in our spare room, where we’ve often hosted guests through the excellent organisation Refugees at Home. This is Refugee Week, and Tuesday was World Refugee Day.

I found a small note in that spare room last night. It was post-it size, stuck to the bedside bookshelf so that you could only see it with your head on the pillow.

It read as follows. On top was written in large letters simply: ‘A…’ (I won’t give his name). Underneath was ‘with love from Nicky & Jonathan & Libbi & Mossy & Kadya & Nessie.’ I guess A… cut it out from a birthday card we must have given him, I really don’t know…

A… has moved on now, to face a world which may or may not want him, where employers may help him, but may well also exploit him, where there may or may not be the apprenticeship as an electrician for which he’s been searching. (If you have any leads, please, please, tell me!)

Several times he said to us in the months that he was here: ‘Before I had no-one; now I have you.’ Our dog Nessie adores him.

I looked at the note and felt affection and appreciation, but also, and in greater measure, sadness and shame.

Many of our parents or grandparents, many of our great rabbis, were refugees. They knew from bitter experience what the Torah calls nefesh hager, ‘the soul of the stranger’.

Nachmanides, Moses son of Nachman (1194 – 1270), had to flee his native Girona; he would never see his beloved family again. Commenting on the Torah’s words ‘You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers…,’ he wrote:

I, God, see the tears of the oppressed who have no one to comfort them and power lies in the hands of their oppressors, and I protect every human being from the hands of those stronger than them. Similarly, [the Torah says] ‘you shall not afflict the widow or orphan,’ for I hear their cry. For all these people do not trust in themselves but put their trust in Me…[because] every stranger feels low and vulnerable… (comment to Exodus 22:20)

God protects the vulnerable! If only that were true!

Yet it is true, in an indirect, attenuated, broken way. It is to the small spark of God in us, the infinitesimal part within us all of the Infinite, Compassionate One, who desires that all life be nurtured and loved, that every refugee, everyone person who feels lost, everyone who feels helpless before the roar of life’s ceaseless, merciless traffic, looks.

The whole purpose of religion is to expand that spark of God in us, so that it fills our consciousness and directs our actions. Few prayers, if any, are more important than the simple words said three times every day: ‘Petach libbi beToratecha, God, may Your Torah, Your teaching, open my heart.’

The purpose of a religious community, whether synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, temple, or church, is to nurture through our religious practice and spiritual teaching a counterculture of compassion, understanding and welcome, in the face of the cruelty of so much of the world, the randomness of chance and the constant injustice and oppression caused by human actions.

We all inevitably give hurt, however much we determine to do so as little as possible. The essential question is: what can I do with my life to bring healing and compassion?

Caring for those who are not well

There are two wonderful books by Christie Watson about the values which underlie nursing: The Language of Kindness and The Courage to Care.Both are about the joys and challenges, the humanity and compassion, central to nursing.

In The Courage to Care Christie considers the many settings in which nurses operate, from hospitals to the military. ‘These,’ she writes about Learning Disability Nurses, ‘are the nurses working in the field of human essence.’ Maybe all medical staff work there too. In fact, in one way or another the focus of all our work, indeed of our lives, is this ‘field of human essence.’

It’s for that essence, for her sister Miriam’s very survival, that Moses pleads in those five words which to this day form the core of all our prayers for those who are ill: ‘God, please, heal her, please.’ ‘No one ever prayed more briefly,’ the Talmud notes. There was no need for more; those five heartfelt words say it all.

The daily morning service reminds us that visiting people who are ill is a mitzvah, a commandment which has no limit. But prayer is only one aspect of it. Practical help is at least as important: ‘I’ve dropped round some soup;’ ‘I’ll take you to your hospital appointment.’ It’s best to be specific. Generalities like, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ usually elicit a polite, slightly bewildered, ‘I can’t think of anything, thank you.’

Probably the most important thing we have to offer is our presence. The Talmud advises visitors not to sit on a chair or stool. This is because in those times the person who’s ill would probably be lying on the floor. Since ‘God’s presence rests above the pillow of the sick,’ we shouldn’t place ourselves higher than God. I understand this as a way of telling us not to hover above the bed when we go to see someone who is ill, but to sit next to them, on the level, and be truly present. Such companionship, notes the Talmud, tales away a sixtieth of the illness. In other words, it makes a difference.

There’s another meaning to ‘being on the level’: we open ourselves, if only briefly, to the truth that we too are mortal, that we’re not immune, that not just breaks and bruises but cancer, a stroke, heart problems or dementia may one day become our portion. It’s humbling. It may be why we sometimes find it difficult to visit. I’ve heard relatives say, ‘Some people have been amazing; others, once firm friends, have disappeared.’ This hurts. We must aspire to being faithful friends, in all situations. Part of the art of being human is to let the awareness of our mortality deepen not our fear but our chesed, our compassion.

Being ill is often a lonely experience. Even if not physically, we’re mentally and spiritually alone, in the sometimes bleak and anxious domain of our thoughts. Carers, too, may often feel quite isolated, especially if the responsibility falls overwhelmingly on just one family member. Carers can’t simply go out; neither their space nor their time is at their disposal. I’ll never forget the words of a woman who’d been married for sixty years: ‘For half a century I was his wife; now that he’s got Alzheimer’s, I’ve had to become his mother.’

An especially kind member of our community recently spoke to me about why people sometimes fail to visit when an old friend develops some horrible illness. ‘It’s not that they don’t care,’ he said, ‘It’s that they’re afraid.’ We may fear we’ll be expected to stay for a long time, that we won’t know what to say, that the person we’re visiting is no longer as we once knew them, that if we visited once we’ll be expected to come again and it’ll be a commitment…

In truth, visits, whether in hospital or at home, needn’t be long. Fifteen minutes can be good; long stays may in fact be inconvenient. We don’t need great things to say; such words probably don’t exist anyway. We have to be there, listen, give companionship, share memories… Our visit may be important mainly because it gives moral support to the partner and carer, some moments of solidarity and respite.

It’s true, visiting may become a commitment. We may not be able to go often, but coming when we can really matters. And what greater commitment can we have in life than to the humanity of others and, ultimately, ourselves.

Blessing: the wonder and oneness of life

Dod Werner, Uncle Werner, as everyone called him, has not been alive for many years now. I believe he made it to 102. Whenever I was in Jerusalem, I would visit him and ask him to bless me. I don’t entirely know why, since he wasn’t actually my uncle, but that of a friend and colleague. It was something about him, his wisdom, his presence.

Dod Werner wasn’t a cohen, a priest, to whom as we read tomorrow, the Torah entrusts the privilege of bestowing the blessing beloved of people of all faiths:

May God bless you and keep you.

May God’s face shine upon you and give you grace.

May God’s face be turned toward you and grant you peace.

But there’s something greater than saying a blessing. It’s what God tells Abraham: ‘heyeh berachah, be a blessing.’ A much-quoted Midrash has God say to him: ‘until now the blessings were in my hands, henceforth they are in yours.’ Since Abraham is ‘the father of many nations’ this instruction is the prerogative of all humanity. More than that: it’s a commandment; it’s what we are here for, it’s life’s purpose.

According to the Shulchan Aruch, the sixteenth century definitive code of Jewish law, we should say at least one hundred blessings every day: ‘Bless you for opening the eyes of the blind, for clothing the naked, for enabling people to walk…’ It’s hard to avoid reciting them by rote.

But they remain a bulwark against taking life for granted. And suddenly, when one’s back goes and one can hardly walk, one realises that nothing should be taken as given. The Talmud recounts how two rabbis pay their respects to a blind scholar in a village through which they happen to be passing. Moved by their kindness, the man thanks them, saying: ‘May the One who sees but cannot be seen bless you who visited one who can be seen but cannot see.’ There’s grace and gratitude in those words.

But blessing is more than words, more even, writes Rachel Remen in her wonderful book My Grandfather’s Blessings, than ‘something that one person gives another.’ When we bless, we ‘touch the unborn goodness’ in each other: ‘A blessing is a moment of meeting…in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth.’

Last Tuesday night, unable to sleep, I read Adam Kirsch’s ‘Can humans ever understand how animals think?’ Then I dreamt of how important it is to bless and feel blessed not just by humans, but by animals too. When the time comes, I’d like to spend some of my old age in their company, humbled, simplified, blessed by their presence.

Looking deeper at God’s instruction to Abraham, heyeh berachah, I realise that heyeh is composed of three of the letters in God’s name, Yod Heh Vav Heh, letters which also form havayah, the Hebrew word for ‘being’. When we bless truly, God is present, the being at the heart of all being. In blessing, life touches life in a moment of togetherness deeper than all the accidents, differences and injuries of this world.

The mystics relate berachah, blessing, with berechah, pool, the hidden reservoir from which life flows down through all existence. We cannot bless while we harbour arrogance or anger. Life won’t flow through us then.

Blessing is a moment of trust and entrusting, of fidelity and companionship with life. Words of blessing are important; we need to tell people how much we cherish and care for them. But blessing at its deepest has no words. It is known in the heart: a silent shared acknowledgement of the wonder and oneness of life.

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