The pool beneath the heart

Since as long as I can remember I’ve always loved the sound of flowing water, the fall from the rock ledge of steep mountain streams, the call of small rivers descending through the valleys, the stillness of deep pools among the rocks. It’s as if they sing not only of the physical element of life-giving water but of the spirit which nourishes all life.

The Hebrew Bible is replete with images of water, from ‘the voices of mighty waters, the breakers of the sea’, in the 91st Psalm, to the beloved mei menuchot, ‘the waters of tranquillity’ in the 23rd.

But in the Torah itself it is the be’er, the well, which is most prominent. Abraham’s servant waits by the well for the daughters of the village to draw water; Jacob falls in love with Rachel by the local well. It is at the well that Moses rescues Jethro’s seven daughters from the shepherds who habitually bully them, and a well of flowing water accompanies the Children of Israel through the desert, on account, explain the rabbis, of the merit of Moses’s sister Miriam.

In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac strives to re-open the wells which his father Abraham had dug but which the Philistines had filled in. Clearly, struggles over water resources are as old as civilisation.

The Zohar, the Book of Splendour, the central text of Jewish mysticism, offers this description of the last of those wells:

Come and see: the fount of water and that well are one… For the source which flows into that well never ceases, and the well is constantly filled and replenished. Whoever beholds that well beholds the high mystery of faith itself… Zohar, Bereshit 141

I often wonder what is the secret of inner strength. What enabled Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, the Piazetsner Rebbe, to continue teaching not just Torah, but a Torah of piercing wisdom and sometimes radiant beauty, week after week in the Warsaw ghetto until 1943? Through what resources of the spirit did so many Tibetan monks resist not only the brutality of their Chinese jailors, but also the temptation to become contaminated internally by hate? What enabled Terry Waite not only to survive 1763 days in captivity near Beirut, but to gain such insight into the nature of resilience itself?

Such gifts belong not only to heroes, but to many people much closer to us. It is far from rare that I witness people struggling in physical or emotional pain, who yet find the capacity, not always but at least some of the time, to draw from some inner source of spirit tranquillity, generosity and a graceful self-possession which leaves those around them humbled and moved.

When people ask me in a time of acute to distress where they should go to find strength, I often ask them what it is which nurtures their spirit. Whatever their answer – music, nature, yoga, a quiet hour with a friend, a walk with the dog, – I say ‘However great the pressure, make sure you don’t deprive yourself of this’.

I believe in that inner well of which the Zohar speaks. I believe there is a space inside each of us, often hidden, a secret in the depths within or beneath the heart, which silently fills with living water. If we pay faithful attention, we can almost hear the slow flow and fall of this secret stream of vitality as it replenishes the pool of pure water from which our spirit drinks.

The fact that, as in the story of Isaac, the well inside us so often gets blocked up doesn’t mean that it has ceased to exist. In our case it’s not Philistines who fill it in with dry earth, but too much noise, inattention, lack of spiritual care.

But when we need it, when we seek to heed it, the well is there inside us with a pool of clear waters in its depths in which to bathe our thought and be refreshed with purity, humility, generosity and grace.

 

The God I do, the God I don’t, believe in

People talk to me about the God they don’t believe in. It doesn’t happen every day, but often enough for me to feel that theology is alive and well. Sometimes they also talk about the God in whom they do believe.

I find it easier to believe in a God who is than a God who does in history. Or perhaps the two are interconnected.

A God who does, who governs history, defeats tyranny, rebukes the unjust and intervenes with compassion on behalf of the millions at the mercy of those who exploit them, – I sometimes wish I believed in such a ‘hands-on’ God, but I can’t. If it were claimed that such a God is truly present and existent, all-knowing and all-powerful, but choosing for secret reasons not to intervene in the violent injustice of human history, I’d need to ask: ‘God, why? There’s too much wrong, too much cruelty for God to be a bystander. I would struggle to believe in a God who can, but chooses not to.

A God who is, who, in the words of the mystics ‘fills all the worlds and surrounds all the worlds’; who is the one spirit, the creative, animating vitality which flows through all being and all matter; whose living presence can be overheard in the sap of trees, seen in the rhythm of dawn and twilight, felt in the heart’s meditation; whose abode is all life and every human being, even though this sacred essence is so often ignored, oppressed, brutalised, ground down by life’s daily distractions into a silence which seems like absence, – in this God, in the God who fills all things, I deeply believe. Therefore, the core of life’s endeavour lies in the hearing, in the struggle for awareness, and in the effort to respond accordingly. Maybe that’s why the central Jewish meditation begins with the imperative ‘Hear!’ and moves on to the imperative, ‘Love!’

Thus the gap between the God who is and the God who does may not be so great after all. For the God who is can become the God who does in history through what we do, at least partly so.

The human task, the essence of our responsibility, is to listen to the voice of God, to hear the sacred in its semi-silent calling out, in the hopes of a child, in the pain of the bereaved, in the songs of the happy, in the cry of the injured, and to follow through on what this voice calls upon us to do.

To hear is to become responsible, and responsibility demands action. That is the essence of mitzvah, of feeling and knowing ourselves commanded to do what is just, compassionate and creative. In the famous rabbinic phrase, we are summoned in this manner to become ‘partners with God in creation’. It seems clear that if we refuse we will destroy the world.

This week we begin the story of Abraham. A striking midrash, or rabbinic exploration, contrasts him with Noah:

Rabbi Nehemia said: [Noah] is like a friend of the king who’s sinking in thick mud. The king saw him and said, ‘Rather than sinking in the mud, come and walk with me.’ Thus, Scripture says ‘Noah walked with God’.

What is Abraham like [to whom God said, ‘Walk before me’]? It’s like a friend who saw the king walking in a dark alleyway. Observing this, he lit up the king’s path through the windows. The king saw him and said, ‘Rather than via the window, come out and light the way before me.’     Bereshit Rabbah 30:10

Can we, too, help light a path through the byways of a world so often overshadowed with bewilderment and suffering, for God, and for all to whom God, like ourselves, has given the gift and illumination of life? That’s what it means to be a child of Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father. It’s what it means to be created in God’s image and to nurture God’s image and God’s presence in all the people and all the life around us.

 

Three key things for Rosh Hashanah part 3: Remembrance

Leshanah Tovah, I wish everyone a good and worthwhile, peaceful and happy year.

My word for today is zikaron, remembrance. It’s the name the rabbis chose for Rosh Hashanah when they called the date Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, when we bring to mind what matters most in life, when we travel down to the core of our heart, where we and God can listen to one another undistracted, if only for a few indelible moments.

By God I don’t mean some external entity. I’m thinking rather of the voice which speaks as the truth inside our conscience, as love within our heart, and which flows likes a singing river through our very brain and body, filling us with the vibrancy of life. On Rosh Hashanah, we listen to the God of life, the creative spirit which animates and flows through all being. It calls us from the periphery to the centre, from the inevitable diversions of screens and mobile phones to the ultimate questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What matters? Rosh Hashanah summons us from distraction to Remembrance.

Who am I? The traditional answer is: a being fashioned in God’s image. If ‘there are seventy faces to Torah’, then this verse is no exception. But all the interpretations have this in common: they speak of the gifts and privileges of being human. We have a heart to listen and understand. We have a conscience to tell right from wrong. We have a spirit capable of intuiting beauty and experiencing wonder. We have a mind to weight what best to do and a body which enables us to act. We have empathy and imagination to intuit how the world feels to others. We have language with which to articulate care and compassion, to profess concern and protest injustice.

Why am I here? To make the most of life, to use the gift of life for the good of others and ourselves. My grandfather loved the words at the heart of the prayers devoted to the subject of memory:

zacharti lach – I remember unto you the faithful devotion of your youth, the love of your bridal days, how you followed me through the wilderness, a land unsown.

They were his tribute to my grandmother, with whom he was married for 58 years and together with whom he did indeed have to flee Nazi Europe to a country, if not unsown, certainly unknown. But the words meant more; they express the very reason for living: to behave with chesed, loving kindness, to family and stranger, Jew and non-Jew, alike; to have love, not hate, at the centre of one’s heart, whatever life might bring; and to be prepared to follow the sacred call to what justice and goodness demand, however much courage this may take. That is why we are here.

What matters, then? Everything.

Attah zocher – You, God, remember all deeds, ever…

This sentence is not about cowing us into constant anxiety before a God who refuses to let go of our smallest mistakes. Rather, these are words of encouragement: No word or act is too small to make a difference. Never feel ‘there’s nothing I can do’. Every kind deed is lodged somewhere, in someone’s heart. Who knows? Perhaps what you did for that girl ten years ago is quietly growing inside her into the inspiration to go and help another child who was not yet even born back then? Never think: ‘Why bother?’ Never give up.

These may feel like small, all but irrelevant, matters to write about when the world seems at the brink; when history is at not just at one, but at several junctures more perilous than for generations. But just this is what we have within our capacity to set with courage, intelligence and determination against hatred, violence, terror, famine, floods and the increasing threats of wars: our plain humanity, individual and collective. It is the weakest, it is also the most powerful, force in all the world.

Therefore, on this Day of Remembrance, we must strengthen ourselves with our truest, deepest values and muster our stamina and spirit, so that we draw together in solidarity to think, feel, work and struggle for life. As our prayers tell us over and again: ‘Remember us for life, O God of life.’

Leshanah Tovah – May this be a good, worthwhile, safe and peaceful year.

Three key things for Rosh Hashanah part 2: Book

Leshanah Tovah, I wish everyone a good and worthwhile, peaceful and happy year.

Following my plan to write about one key word each day, my second choice is sefer, book, because again and again over the High Holydays we ask to be written in God’s book of life, sefer hachayyim.

The image of the book can be daunting. Drawn from the Bible, it is developed in the Talmud into the idea that God opens, examines and inscribes in the books of the destiny in which the future fate of all living beings is recorded. As the famous mediaeval meditation Untenah Tokef describes, ‘On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die…’ Taken too literally, this prayer has put people off coming to the synagogue. Does God really seal our fate? Is God’s sentence necessarily just?

Surely not. I’ve always understand the image of the book, and this powerful prayer also, somewhat differently. We do not know what fate lies before us, what the unfolding pages of our destiny may bring. Many events to be recorded in the book of our lives will not be of our choosing, for good or bad: how long we and those we love will live; whether the world will be at peace or at war.

The purpose of this sharp reminder of the unknown nature of tomorrow is not to reduce us to helpless passivity but to urge us to write in the book of our own life, and to do so now. The script is ours, for concern or indifference, generosity or meanness, love or hate.

The words are what we do, – not what we do for a living, though that may be part of it, – but what we do because it truly matters, because that is where our heart is, what Wordsworth described as our

little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.                  (Lines Written above Tintern Abbey)

I sometimes think the ink on the page is our deeds, and the blank space all around, wordless, but without which the words have no meaning, is who we are.

We don’t only write in the book of our own life. Our words and deeds inscribe themselves in the books of the hearts of everyone around us, whether we intend it, or like it, or not. Perhaps our chapter in ‘God’s book’ is composed of the sum of all the impacts our conduct has had on everyone with whom we have ever interacted. No kind word or gesture of compassion goes unnoticed. Nor do our moments of anger and injustice evaporate into the ether. Everything matters.

I believe, too, that we write in the vast book of nature, as individuals and collective humanity. If we could understand their language, the birds, forests, elephants and albatrosses would have much to say about our copy. We must urgently renew our respect for this book. For what our behaviour inscribes in it will be read back to our children, with consequences.

Books are testimony, a record of accountability. That is why those who hate truth have so often sought to burn them. But the book of who we are is indestructible. It is written in our conscience, inscribed in the hearts of everyone we know.

These books of our lives can’t be reduced to tweets. But short synopses are produced after our days are over: ‘She was a blessing to all who knew her;’ ‘He spread kindness wherever he went’. While time is before us, and the page still has room, we should write as richly and fully as possible. For the words are in our heart and the pen is the deeds of our hands.

Three key things for Rosh Hashanah part 1: Life

Leshanah Tovah, I wish everyone a good and worthwhile, peaceful and happy year.

Amidst all the practical preparations for the festivals, shopping, cooking, inviting, and trying not to forget anything or fall out with anybody, it’s hard to focus on the core, the spiritual and personal meanings of the coming holy days. Therefore I plan to write about one key word each day, to help myself, as much as anyone else, to reflect.

My first word is life, chayyim. ‘Remember us for life;’ we pray. ‘Write us in the book of life;’ we ask God. ‘You sustain life with loving kindness,’ we say.

I’m putting life first because death has been so menacingly present this last year, in terror attacks, the Grenfell fire, and the shocking flooding in America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. So many people have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so many hearts left aching with grief.

Judaism teaches that life is the gift of God. It is a brief privilege, our almost infinitesimal opportunity in the endless unfolding of time to develop our understanding, deepen our heart, listen to our conscience and expose our soul to beauty. ‘Who taught me understanding; who gave me the gift of wonder?’ asked the 11th century poet Ibn Gavirol. Life can offer us adventure, companionship, love and joy. Our prayers remind us never to take such gifts for granted. We have an unqualified responsibility to cherish our own life as well as that of others.

As I write, I am anxiously aware that life can be unutterably painful; that not just the many organs of the body, but the mind, consciousness itself, can feel like a pulsing wound beyond the deepest reach of the most tender loving care. We have a responsibility, a duty guided by love, to help those in pain, knowing that we too will have moments when we need such support. At those sad times when the resources of healing are exhausted, we are left with sorrow and compassion.

‘If I am only for myself, what am I?’ asked Hillel. Our own life cannot be happy unless we experience it as meaningful, and the deepest source of meaning comes through what we give and receive from others. ‘You sustain life with loving kindness’ may be less a hopeful statement about God than a fact about human nature. What makes life worth living is the opportunity to show kindness and live in solidarity with others, be it as partner, parent, friend, colleague, teacher, even passer-by. For virtually no interaction is too small to offer the opportunity for a moment’s friendliness and humanity. I think of the chorus line from Naomi Shemer’s hit song: ‘Od lo ahavti dai – I haven’t loved enough’ as the great reason for living.

Judaism asks us to dedicate our life to two overriding values, chesed and tzedakah, compassion and justice. We must give of both our inner and outer capacities, our heart, money and time, to make the world less lonely, cruel and unjust. We are called upon to care not only for our own society, but for all human beings who suffer, for all living things and the very earth itself. The sacred stream of existence flows through us all; we are more inter-dependent than any of us can fully comprehend. We are all part of sefer hachayyim, God’s holy book of life.

Looking for God with the eagles and otters

I’m writing on the night train home from Scotland, trying to garner in my mind’s eye and in my heart the wonderful sights of mountains and eagles, mist and rain, waterfalls and sea shores, and the sunset quenched in the flaming red water; and to preserve in the soles of my feet the sensations of scrambling on grass, rock and heather; of walking, running and climbing through the thick highland mud.

I had no shofar with me to blow on the first day of Elul, but instead stood and prayed next to the hill-wise sheep with their impressive curled horns. It is of them and their glens that I will think on Rosh Hashanah when I say the blessing and endeavour to listen as deeply as I can to the sound of the shofar. Their hills are my personal Sinai, my place of revelation, where the wordless utterance of God says simply and constantly, ‘I am’.

I haven’t forgotten during this fortnight in the Highlands that the world is complex, full of violence, pain, alienation, unresolved conflicts and millions of innocent people who suffer for what they have not done. I spend most of my life inside the circumference of such concerns.

But all of us need to charge our heart and soul, to fill them with beauty, grace and inspiration so that we have the strength of spirit and the resilience to negotiate with courage and loving kindness the struggles of our own life and those of others. I often ask people when they turn to me in times of distress: ‘What nourishes your spirit?’ Perhaps it is music, prayer, poetry, nature, walking the dog, the companionship of those friends to whom you don’t have to tell everything because they know and understand. Then I say to them, ‘Whatever happens, take the time to restore your soul’.

Elul and Tishrei are the months of the beautiful 27th Psalm, ‘On your part does my heart say: “Seek my Face.”’ The heart, teaches the Zohar, is God’s temple within each person, God’s sacred abode in each and every life. It longs for its home with God, and, like a satnav to a different dimension, tries to help us locate it here on earth.

Libbi, our elder daughter has always loved otters. The Isle of Mull has at least one otter family for every mile of its 360 miles of coastline, so at dusk we went down to the shore to see if we could find one of their havens. We sat in silence as the twilight deepened in to darkness. We listened to the washing of the waves against the rocks, the constant variations in the movement of the ripples of the water, the seaweed, the boats moored a small distance from the shore. We found not a single otter.

Instead a deeper presence found us, calmed and silenced us, and without words reminded us that the world is full of the presence of God. For a moment, we were privileged to enter malchut shamayim, the sovereign domain of heaven.

 

Where comfort lies?

I am always glad when Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation, arrives. The bleak fast of the Ninth of Av has passed and we move from contemplating destruction to hope and comfort.

Comfort, O comfort my people; speak to the heart of Jerusalem   Isaiah 40:1

But where does comfort come from? Experience as a community rabbi has made me wary of trite comments like ‘time is a healer’. Time pushes us by the shoulder into the bewildering future. But it rarely fills in the holes in the heart through which, mercifully, painfully, those we have lost make unpredictable reappearances in our consciousness. No one lives only in the present.

In the wider frame of history, what is destroyed is rarely speedily rebuilt. The impact of persecutions, wars, disasters, marks those affected forever, and often defines the lives of their children, even their children’s children. Violence hasn’t vanished from the world, or racism, anti-Semitism and hatred gone away.

So where is comfort?

I saw a sign stuck on a lamppost ‘Ich liebe mein Leben’, ‘I love my life,’ with a small red heart underneath. Thank God, the love of life has tenacious powers. Like the pale leaves emerging in April from the thick, sticky buds of a chestnut tree after a winter of dormancy, the will to live reawakens in the human heart.

Like the wild flowers that grew in the bomb craters of London after the war, life has extraordinary resilience. It finds a foothold once again, not the same as it once was, but life nonetheless.

Destruction is powerful. But creation and creativity have – so far – found the subtle, visceral, tenacious resources to fight back:

However many rings of pain the night welds around me,
The opposing pull is stronger, the passion to break away.   Boris Pasternak

Yet, as life rushes on, what about the wounds left behind?

The issue takes me to the story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and his desire to question the Messiah. But where should he find him? ‘Among the poor at the gates of the great city’, Elijah informs him, referring to Rome, recently responsible for the sacking of Jerusalem. The rabbi promptly travels to the great metropolis, where he sees a host of destitute people taking off their bandages and gazing at their injuries. The Messiah, however, removes only one bandage at a time before hastily replacing it, saying ‘Maybe I am needed’.

I’ve met a lot of people like that. Sometimes they come up to me and say, ‘Remember me when you hear about someone else going through what I’ve been through’. It may be grief, depression, illness, the sudden loss of their job. They have turned their wounds into ‘Maybe I am needed’.

Nervous before the start of the Royal Parks half marathon last year, I asked the runners waiting next to me why they were doing the race:

‘For the Alzheimer’s Society, in memory of my mum’
‘For Cancer Research, because of what happened to my brother’

They too have turned their sorrow into ‘Maybe I am needed’.

Such people are my heroes, healers, redeemers, the rebuilders of Jerusalem.

Much as I sometimes wish to, I don’t think I believe in a single personal magical Messiah who’ll descend from heaven on a long rope into the maelstrom of history and solve all its ills.

But I believe in the redemptive spirit in humanity, within each of us, and in our capacity, with each other’s help, to try to turn pain into healing, destruction into rebuilding, grief into consolation, mourning into hope.

Causeless hatred – and its causes

The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans:

‘because there was gratuitous hatred during that period’. Talmud, Yoma 9b

As the Fast of the 9th of Av approaches, the day in the Jewish year in which we are asked to reflect on destruction and destructiveness in our world, I find myself puzzling over what that ‘hatred’ is, and how we can stop hating.

‘Gratuitous hatred’, sinat chinam in Hebrew, may be defined as the opposite of righteous indignation. If the latter is anger directed at removing a wrong or injustice in the world, the former is pointless rage and recrimination, justified by no cause.

Sinat chinam has both a personal and a political dimension.

On the personal level, I don’t think gratuitous hatred means hatred which has come from nowhere and has no source. Anger almost always has its pretexts; the mind is liable to hover over them until they become an ingrained bitterness of the soul: ‘I was neglected’ ‘I was treated unfairly’ ‘Life never gave me what I deserved’. Ground can always be found, or invented, for such thoughts.

‘Gratuitous hatred’ draws attention to their futility. Where do they take us, if not back to our own mental prisons of grudges and resentments? As Nelson Mandela famously said:

As I walked out the door towards the gate that would lead to my freedom I knew that if I didn’t leave bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

None of us wants to go through life with part of our heart in an internal solitary cell of our own making. Once one has taken two or three turns in the labyrinth of resentment, it is extremely hard to find one’s way out. We need kindness, from ourselves as much as from others, inner understanding and self-discipline to help us.

On the political level, gratuitous hatred means wantonly or ignorantly engaging in disputes which could and should have been avoided.

This is probably what the Talmud means by the phrase. The wars against Rome were driven by extremists. The zealots who eventually burnt the food supplies in the besieged city of Jerusalem and forced its citizens to fight to the hopeless end, refused to listen to moderating voices.

The heirs of sinat chinam today are all who practise a politics of extremism and rejection and all of us who demonise others. The healers are those who practise the difficult, dangerous, often seemingly futile art of building bridges with the fragile armoury of words and relationships; with tentative sensitivity to how the world may feel like to others…all who reach out to care for others with humility, courage and faith.

I believe causeless hatred also describes pain and anger we end up provoking without even thinking about it. In a news report from the civil war in Yemen, Orla Guerin interviewed a family whose son had lost both legs in a bomb, then spoke to a local journalist, who asked: ‘Why does the west arm Saudi Arabia? You are people who believe in humanistic values, so why do you leave us to suffer?’ Sixty per cent of the population of Yemen don’t know where their next food is coming from.

No doubt the politics are complex. But it is a fact that, indirectly and without wishing to do so, we are all implicated in vast suffering in many parts of the world.

It is not pleasant to face a date established in the Jewish calendar to ponder the terrible exiles and persecutions we as a people have been forced to undergo, and to think about why there is so much hatred across the globe. But the day is important. If we refuse to visit the angriest, most hurt places in our hearts, our history and in the world, we will not be able to bring healing.

It is only out of understanding that redemption is born. Hence the teaching that it is on the Fast of the 9th of Av that the Messiah is born. This may be understood metaphorically as the desire and determination in each of us to rebuild and restore creation through justice, compassion and love.

Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it. Martin Luther King

 

God in the fire

‘He saw a palace in flames’. It’s the opening of the midrashic story about how Abraham found God. It came to my mind during a conversation about Grenfell Tower.

A man was walking from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered: Was it possible the building had no one in charge? The owner looked out at him and said, ‘I am the master of the palace.’

It’s supposed to describe how Abraham finds his faith. He sees the world burning with violence and injustice and thinks: perhaps it has no guide. God looks out at him and says: ‘I am the Master of the World’.

But why is God, the ‘owner’ in the parable, inside the building, letting it burn? Why isn’t he or she putting out the flames, rescuing others, at least getting out of the way of the fire?

Instead God, the so-called owner, is trapped inside among the victims, crying out to the bewildered passers-by.

That, it strikes me, is the point. If we’re looking for a God who won’t ever allow tragedies to happen, who intervenes in our world to prevent every disaster, who takes the responsibility for the safety of buildings, or countries, or children, out of our hands, we’ll probably search in vain.

It’ll be different if we look for God among those who’re struggling in the midst of the fire. I’m not thinking only of Grenfell Tower, but of everywhere people need to be rescued, helped, heard, or saved from the internal flames and demons which at times beset us.

God in the voice of the person at the window; in the longing of the firemen, ‘Can we reach that storey still?’? God in the angry accusations that too little was listened to, too late? What kind of a God is that? What can such a God possibly mean?

Because that is the God I believe in, those questions pursue me. They’re the questions against which I have to square my conscience, justify my life.

They entail principles which are challenging, difficult, even frightening; but essential, honest and true:

Every human life is part of Life, God’s life, because God is not some remote entity, some super-galactic being, but inhabits every single life here on earth. Every heart is God’s sanctuary, every song God’s music, and every cry God’s calling out.

If God is ‘the owner of the palace’ then everyone is the owner of that palace too. We all have the right, and carry the responsibility, to insist that it is safe and that there is space within it for the most indigent, as well as the most wealthy.

If God is ‘the owner of the palace’ the failure to listen to any voice raised fairly and justly against any wrong on earth is a failure to hear God.

Such a God is difficult. The trouble is that we may find ourselves hearing that God’s call anywhere, any time. We are all Abraham, and none of us will escape witnessing flames, metaphorical if not real. The constant challenge is, ‘to hear, or not to hear’, and the best we can manage is sometimes.

But there is wonder, too, with such a God. For God inhabits our heart also and speaks within our thoughts and feelings, awakening us to the glory of life, arousing in us a keen alertness to grace, beauty and tenderness.

And that very sensitivity, that love, makes us want to listen to the voice which is always calling out: ‘You there, don’t just walk away’.

 

‘If I am only for myself, what am I?’

‘It’s me’, my friend says, when I pick up the phone. If I were to answer, ‘Yes, but what do you mean by ‘me’, I imagine he might think I was having a nervous breakdown.

But it’s a question which preoccupies me, not as an egocentric fetish but as a moral concern.

Autonomy has become a modern God. ‘I am’; ‘I need’; ‘I want’. But who is this ‘I’? Maybe it isn’t one simple entity, me. Maybe, rather, it’s composed of many layers, and loves. Maybe it could become not just the driver of my wants and demands, but the source of intuition and compassion.

I’ve developed a new lesson for my course for teens on The Values That Matter. I put a Russian doll on the table, take out all the little dolls from inside each other, and ask: ‘If this doll is you, and these are the layers of your identity, what are they and how do they fit together?’ The discussion is vigorous:

The outermost doll is my name.
No, the innermost is my name.
No. What’s innermost is my heart.

‘What about being human?’ I ask. And ‘Where’s being Jewish?’ and ‘What about British?’

Jewish is on the outside. Then British.
No; on the inside.
No; Jewish is everywhere, through all the layers of me.
No; it’s being human which runs through all of me. Actually animal. Actually alive.

I might ask about family. ‘That layer is my parents: they made me’. Someone asks, ‘But who made them?’ ‘That tiny doll in the middle is Adam and Eve’, someone else says, only half facetiously, reminding me of the line, ‘We are atoms in the consciousness of God’.

I think of Hillel, the 1st century BCE sage, who begins his exploration of identity with the much-quoted assertion, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ People rarely cite the continuation, ‘But if I am just for myself, what am I?’ My connectedness with others is integral to who I am. Without it, I am just a ‘what’, a nothing.

In his next saying, Hillel develops this thought further: ‘Never separate from the community, or trust solely in yourself until your dying day’. I imagine he means both horizontal and vertical community: our dependence on and responsibility for our contemporaries, as well as our connection with the cultures of our ancestors. We belong to, and must learn from, both our past and our present.

I fantasize that none of this is lost on the class of teens. It certainly touches me, – and I’d thought I was the one asking the questions. Instead, those questions grow inside me.

Literature contains some wonderful responses to them. John Donne’s is among the most famous:

No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (Meditation XVII)

But my favourite is by Boris Pasternak, from his Zhivago poems:

In me are people without names,
Children, stay-at-homes, trees.
I am conquered by them all
And this is my only victory.

‘I am involved in mankind’, ‘In me are people without names’: that’s what I want my class to understand. It’s how I want to live.

If our ‘I’ was less full of me, if we had more space inside us for the lives and loves, the identities and cares, which compose us, – then both we and the world around us would be very different. Pasternak is right: that is our only victory.

 

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