Seeing our own reflection: a Jewish version of Narcissus

I’ve been struck all week by a story from the Talmud. It’s told by Simon the Just. No one knows exactly when he lived, but folklore has him welcoming Alexander the Great to Jerusalem in the 4th century BCE.

One day there came to him ‘a man from the south, with beautiful eyes, good-looking, his hair finely arranged in curls.’ But he wanted to cut it all off and renew his vows as a Nazirite:

I asked him, ‘Why do you want to destroy this beautiful hair?’ He said, ‘I was shepherding my father’s flocks and went to draw water. When I saw my reflection in the stream, desire almost got the better of me…But I said to it: ‘Empty-head! Why be so proud in a world which isn’t yours, where your end will be worms?’ (Talmud, Nazir 4b)

The story initially reminded me of Hamlet’s advice to the actors who visit Elsinore on the purpose of art:

to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. (Act 3, Scene 2)

I can’t be the only one who can think of a lot of people in positions of power who could do with looking carefully at their own features.

But the first person who needs to consider their reflection is always our own self. It’s not just water which can show us our image. Being with refugees has made me see myself in different ways. (Next week is refugee week) I was going to hold my wife’s hand during bensching, the grace after meals, as I often do. Then I wondered: but the Ukrainian women at the table are worrying all day long about their husbands stuck in the fighting. Might I be breaking the rabbinic rule of lo’eg larash, mocking the poor, understood metaphorically as insensitively doing something in the presence of another person who’s prevented by circumstances or disability from doing the same?

Then a young man from Somalia said, when I offered him more food, ‘Crossing the desert I got used to eating once in two days.’ I saw in that moment how much I take my plenty for granted. I wondered what I must look like in his eyes, and felt ashamed.

What do we do when we see our own reflection in such ways?

That’s when I realised that the Talmudic story is in fact a Jewish version of the myth of Narcissus.

Narcissus fails to requite the love of the broken-hearted mountain nymph Echo. Taking Echo’s part, the goddess Nemesis punishes Narcissus for his callousness by making him fall in love with his own reflection in the water which, in some versions, he leans forward to kiss and is drowned.

It’s a powerful metaphor for humanity today. Here we are, looking at our own image: are we so in love with ourselves in our anthropocentric universe that all we can see are our own power, skills, achievements and desires? If so, we are liable to fall beneath the spell of Nemesis.

Or do we say like the young man who comes before Simon the Just: what am I doing on this earth which isn’t mine, where I’m a temporary resident, a passer-through and pilgrim? What can I contribute? How can I serve? What good can I achieve for the children and the future of this world?

Listening, just listening

‘You weren’t listening, were you?’ I still remember from childhood the sound of that admonishment. I wonder if there is a child anywhere who was never reprimanded by their parent or teacher for that fault. Yet I must have listened to something, because the words have strangely stuck. I still hear them from deep down, ‘You haven’t listened, have you?’ accompanied by an intuitive unease that there’s something I’ve missed and that this ‘something’ may have been the real point.

A scene dwells in my conscience. Years ago, someone came to talk to me. It felt in the moment like an adequate communication; I remember responding to the questions I was asked with what seemed like appropriate suggestions. But I felt, rather I knew, as this person left the room that they were still carrying in their heart the burden of something unsaid. It wasn’t something obvious; I hadn’t cut them off in mid flow. It was rather that, if I had left a little more space, enabled a better attuned silence, something might have become clearer to the heart, whether formulated in words or not. That scene remains for me an inner chastisement.

Perhaps that’s why the opening word of Judaism’s best-known meditation is that single word, shema, listen. Yes, it’s the prelude to a theological assertion, that God is one. But it is also far more than that, or perhaps it is the essence of that: Listen, just listen, and you will hear. Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leb of Ger, known as the Sefat Emet, wrote just that about the opening words of the second paragraph of the Shema with their emphatic repetition, im shamoa tishme’u, – ‘if you listen you will surely hear.’

I don’t believe this is solely about listening to people, though that is endlessly important. How many individuals are there who would wish to communicate to us how life presses in on the quick of their soul, if they felt we would actually hear?

I believe that appeal to listen applies to the whole of life, to all of the living, breathing world too. A beautiful midrash teaches that in the beginning “the spirit that lives in the trees and nature conversed with humankind, for all beings in nature were created for mutual companionship with people.” (Bereshit Rabbah 13:2)

I don’t take this as sentimental nostalgia for some long-lost ancient Esperanto. Rather, I think it’s why, when the heart is sore, we so often seek the companionship of green spaces, the solace of woodland or seashore, and find quiet comfort in how the waves, or the trees, or the flow of the stream, commune without words with the soul.

I believe, too, that if we listened more, we would be humbled more, and would conduct our lives more heedfully and wisely. We would cause less hurt. Our heart would know more, and to know is often to respect, to cherish, even to love.

When, as we read this Shabbat, after all the rituals and formalities Moses finally enters the Tent of Meeting, he overhears God speaking and feels himself addressed. In truth, the whole world is a tent of meeting and there are a thousand ways in which we might overhear God’s speech.

Perhaps that sounds off-putting, too formal, too theological. I think of it simply as listening to creation, beginning with whatever it is we care about most on this particular day: that child, that birdsong. It’s not a listening with the ears, but in the heart. Then what we apprehend is not just that person, those unspoken words, that music, that blackbird, but something beyond all language as well, a welcome, a oneness which embraces us too as listening becomes presence, a togetherness with life’s heart.

Two teachers who’ve shaped my life…

Two moments have marked my week.

I didn’t expect to find myself emotional while waiting at Luton airport. I was simply standing at arrivals holding a sign.

The flight from Warsaw had landed half an hour ago; the bags were now in the hall. I held up the board with the names higher and stepped into the middle of the walkway so that the Ukrainian family wouldn’t miss me, and felt suddenly moved.

I soon realised why. Who was the person who’d held up such a sign eighty-four years ago, when my mother landed with her parents that 9 April 1938 at Croydon Airport, they too arriving in a country in which they had never imagined they’d be forced to seek refuge?

Of everything my mother has ever said to me it may be this which has stayed most firmly in my mind. When she left the family who hosted her in Boxmoor during the war, she asked the lady of the house, ‘How can we ever thank you?’ ‘Don’t thank us,’ she replied. ‘One day you’ll do for others what we tried to do for you.’ I’m sure that’s what led me, with my wife Nicky’s encouragement, to be standing here at Luton with this sign. Look, that must be them…

The other moment which shaped my week in fact occurred earlier, when I learnt of the death in Jerusalem of my teacher in Torah Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky.

For five years after I graduated as a rabbi from Leo Baeck College, I went to Israel regularly to learn Torah daily from him and his Hasidic friend Reb Dovid. Despite the good rabbinic education I’d received I felt (and still feel) wanting in Talmud and classic Jewish texts.

Rabbi Strikovsky taught me Bameh Madlikin,the chapter of Talmud which treats of the lights for Shabbat and Chanukkah, and which contains that beautiful passage about the awe of God: whatever one’s learnt, if one hasn’t got a spirit of reverence and wonder, it’s likely to turn to dust.

I never knew the story of Rabbi Strikovsky’s life. But whenever he taught me a Hasidic text, and he introduced me to the writings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav and the teachings of Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto who was murdered at Trawniki in 1943, – whenever he expounded these teachings, he would weep, his words coming slowly through his tears from his heart.

He belonged in spirit to that pre-Holocaust culture of complete immersion in learning and piety. He lived in the spiritual universe of Jewish knowledge and devotion, in that other-worldly, timeless discourse with the sages of all lands and eras about the service of God.

Yet tradition did not prevent him from courageously doing what he knew was just and right. It was at his initiative that to’anot rabbiniyot were introduced into the rabbinical divorce courts, women lawyers and para-rabbis to put the cases of wives and mothers before this daunting all-male enclave. He did not stop there: despite the entrenched establishment position, he gave semichah and ordained at least two women as rabbis, subsequently supporting them in their careers.

One day, too, after requesting to meet Nicky and our young son Mossy to bless him, he gave me his smichah too. I have it here, near me, with the signature Aryeh son of Baruch Strikovsky. May the memory of his righteousness be for a blessing.

A verse from Proverbs connects these two moments in my week: ‘Listen, my son, to the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the teachings of your mother.’ (1:8) (One’s Torah teacher is also understood, metaphorically, as one’s father.)

I hear that verse sung beautifully in our synagogue by a small family choir at the bnei mitzvah of their children. Right now, the words leave me feeling chastened by the loving trust and deep responsibility they bestow.

Music from over the fence: the joy of Lag Be’Omer

The sound of singing came over the fence with such compelling harmony that I simply had to get up from my desk and follow the music. It came from the home of my colleague, friend and neighbour, Rabbi Zahavit Shalev. Seated around the fire-pit in her garden were at least ten people playing the guitar and fifty more singing along. There were parents and children, and grandparents too. There was L. who still keeps the yellow star his family had to wear in the Budapest ghetto in his Passover Haggadah. There was M. who’d never been to a Jewish occasion before. There were lots of teens and young people.

It was the night of Lag Be’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, so-named after the measure of grain offered in the temple on its first night. The counting of the Omer marks the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. It’s traditionally a period of mourning, but Lag Be’Omer is a day of respite, a date for music and joy. ‘Despite the fact that Jewish history has more than its share of bleak and depressing chapters, the tradition sees itself as a joyous one,’ writes Arthur Green on the opening page of his delightful short book, Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas. Seeking God should fill the heart with joy: ‘Love, the wonders of nature, music, dance, and the close companionship of friends are all there to keep you on the path of joy.’ (We each have our strengths: ask me to join the dance and I’ve got two left feet; suggest a fifteen mile-hike in the wild countryside and the boots are on my feet.)

Lag Be’Omer has its hero, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in 2nd century Palestine. Betrayed to the Roman authorities for speaking ill of them, he flees to a cave where he hides with his son for twelve years. A well of water miraculously appears at the entrance, where a carob tree provides all the nutrition they need. Each day, every day, father and son study Torah together from memory.

Eventually Elijah announces that the Caesar who wanted them killed, has himself bitten the dust. Emerging from their cave, Rabbi Shimon and his son are dismayed at the sheer ordinariness of the world: ‘What,’ they exclaim, ‘People mundanely plough and sow, forgetting higher matters!’ A voice from heaven rebukes them: ‘Have you come out to destroy my world? Get back to your cave!’

When they re-emerge a year later (a period, perhaps, to process their post-traumatic stress) Rabbi Shimon has changed. Wherever he looks, he heals. Don’t remember me in sorrow, he says on his deathbed; let the anniversary of my death be a Hillula, a date for praising God with joy. That’s why Lag Be’Omer is also known as Hillula deRashbi (short for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai).

This story could be a parable for the whole history of the Jewish People, and other peoples, and individuals too, who’ve faced marginalisation and persecution. Don’t be daunted or diverted; deepen your own identity, seek the nourished of your spirit. Then, if and when the blessings of freedom come, don’t be disdainful of the world, don’t be bitter. Try to be a healer; bring understanding, foster conciliation. Behave in such a way that people will remember you with joy.

Judaism expresses this as the principle of simchah shel mitzvah, the joy which comes with practising God’s commandments, with doing what’s just, kind and good. ‘A mitzvah is a place where you can meet God,’ continues Arthur Green, ‘of course it makes you happy’ [his italics]. I would add that it’s also, or even more so, a place where we meet other people, our friends and companions in trying to bring happiness and healing in this challenging world.

Give me back my heart! The world in search of its soul

I was given a poem this week, an entirely unexpected, wonderful gift. It’s called ‘The Ballad of the Shot Heart.’ It relates to much I care about; let me explain why.
It was written by the Russian poet Nikolai Panchenko who served on the Voronezh front and was wounded twice in the Second World War:

At walking pace, my horseshoes ringing,
I know: my heart is getting smaller,
And suddenly – I have no heart!

With each burst of fire, he ‘donates’ a piece of his heart, losing it ‘bit by bit’ until there’s nothing of it left, because there’s an order ‘Don’t have a heart at war!’
He grows ever stronger; he helps save his country; he survives. But he’s lost his heart. Since then, he goes about trying to reassemble it:

“Give me a heart!” I shall knock at entrance halls.
“Give me a heart!” I shall cry through the door.
“Don’t you know, a man without a heart
Is more terrible by far than a beast who has one.”

These lines at once reminded me of another poem, by Avraham Sutzkever, about the lead plates of the Rom Printing Press, the best Jewish press in the world. The Rom Talmud serves to this day as the prototype for further editions. I’m lucky enough to have a set from the 1870’s, complete with the stamp of the Tzarist censorship. When I use a volume, I feel generations speaking from its pages, rich with the indentations of the letters. Sutzkever describes, in Yiddish, how he and other resistance fighters steal out of the Vilna Ghetto

…to seize
The lead plates at the Rom printing works.
We were dreamers, we had to be soldiers,
And melt down, for our bullets, the spirit of the lead.

One can turn a heart into heartlessness, and generations of culture into ammunition. But how does one turn them back?

Mercifully I’ve not been in the front lines. But I’ve met many whose souls carry the wounds of war, and of other forms of life’s many conflicts. I’ve learnt that repairing the heart and restoring the soul is the core of what religion is about.

Tikkun is an overused word, especially in the phrase tikkun olam, ‘repairing the world.’ But its true kabbalistic context remains closely relevant: it’s about reconnection, the part with the whole, the exhausted mind with the flow of life’s spirit. In the language of the mystics, it’s about restoring the spark of holiness, lost within us even to ourselves, to the healing divine radiance.

People don’t knock on my door, or on the gates of synagogues and churches, saying ‘Give me a heart.’ But that’s not because this isn’t what we want. It’s because we’re shy of such words, because we haven’t phrased our concerns in such language, even to ourselves. Or perhaps it’s because we aren’t consciously aware that it’s just this that we most need.

If, or rather when, we’re asked, what do we say? If we ourselves were asking, ‘Give me back my heart; restore me my soul!’ what would we do?

The Psalmist has an answer which speaks to me: ad avo el mikdeshei El, ‘until I come to God’s sacred spaces’ (73:17). I appreciate the plural because there are many such places: the quiet of prayer, which isn’t really about asking for things, but about re-finding ourselves in the presence of God; the welcome of a kind community; the affirmation which comes from being listened to with solicitude; the solitude and companionship of nature. All these are God’s sacred spaces.

We all need our hearts back. The world needs its heart back.

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.

It’s the actions of ‘ordinary’ people which prepare the way for redemption

If I could time-travel, I’d love to meet Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (1505-1580) who wrote the Shabbat hymn ‘Lecha Dodi, Come my Beloved’ and tell him how much his wonderful song means to me – and thousands of others in each generation. Every line is my favourite, but today it’s the words ‘Mah tishtochachi umah tehemi: Why be confounded and why be downcast, for in you, God, the poor of my people trust.’

I have felt downcast. I’ve just watched footage of the terror attack in Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv, which left at least two dead. My heart goes out to the bereaved families and all those injured. I join everyone praying and working for an end to the conflict, the killing and wounding from which Israelis, and Palestinians, have so long suffered.

I’m worried also because I’ve heard nothing substantive from the Home Office about the visa applications we submitted to host the Ukrainian family of good friends. I feel useless in the face of the outrages perpetrated across that blood-soaked land.

I receive pleas too: Don’t forget the refugees from Afghanistan; they’re still without homes in which to rebuild their lives.

Then there are the troubles and heartache in our own community, always leaving me wishing I could do something more, something, in the Talmud’s phrase, to take at least a sixtieth part of the hurt away.

This adds up to why those words ‘don’t be downcast’ speaking to me so persistently today. They’re nudging my spirit, like my dog who prods me with her paw when she wants attention.

Therefore, I’m determinedly counting everything good which has touched my heart this week. Here’s a small selection, all just from yesterday:

-        In the first wave of the pandemic, I couldn’t practise medicine like usual. There were literally no treatments we could give. So all day I talked to patients and their families. Often I spoke with the same daughter every day. It felt deeply real. Many people wrote thank-you letters afterwards.

-        I’m checking out homes on behalf of London boroughs, because so many people have offered to host refugees. It feels so worthwhile.

-        May this picture of the dawn light through the blossom bring you joy.

-        I tried to capture in a photo a hundred swifts across the sky.

-        There’s thirty-two families in the synagogue baking challah and having fun. D’you know anyone who’d like some? It’s the last chance before Pesach!

-        I’m bringing together Jewish and Muslim leaders working for reconciliation.

Speaking of Pesach, here’s a short comment on our much-loved Haggadah. The text attributes the defeat of the tyrant Pharaoh to God alone: ‘Not through an angel, not via a messenger, but God, directly and in person’ saved the people.

But I wish the Haggadah could also have mentioned all those whose small, and not so small, courageous actions prepared the path to liberation. What about the midwives, the first to defy Pharaoh and refuse to murder babies? Or Moses’ mother, who hides her little boy in a reed basket? Or Pharaoh’s own daughter, who rescues a forbidden Hebrew child from the water? Or Moses’s sister Miriam, who, just a young girl, bravely runs up to her asking ‘Shall I find you a wet-nurse?’

Redemption is created from such brave, determined actions of ‘ordinary’ women, men and children. That’s why I value every positive deed and word I hear. They’re what make me ‘not confounded and not downcast.’ In them I put my trust, as our people always has. They bring God into our world.

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.

Get in touch...