Song of Songs: We must not fail to notice and to bless

I rose up early, to see the moon shining yellow through the branches of the pine tree.

I had awoken thinking of that wonderful moment when my son called out to me as I came into the final straight of the Jerusalem Marathon ‘Abba, Abba, run with me’ and had taken my hand and we’d completed the last two hundred metres together’. And at the same time, I was thinking of two close friends who have lost a child; my heart going out to them. And at the same time, thinking of this unknown, this beauty, anguish and heart-sorrow of life.

‘Run with me’: how short, how precious is the time we have, to stand together, to run, see, witness the glory of this world, to have the companionship of life.

On Chag Ha’Aviv, Pesach, the festival of spring, we read The Song of Songs. On Chag Assif, Succot, the festival of autumn and ingathering, we read Ecclesiastes.

Hevel Havalim, vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity.’ The autumn wind, leaf fall, life fall, may carry all before it.

But Ecclesistaes is wrong; surely all is not vanity. There is the glory of the in-between time, the span we are granted of life. ‘Draw me after you; we shall run and follow you’: the author, or authors, of The Song of Songs knew that life must be relished, pursued.

The Hebrew Bible is always a text which notices, from the first unfurling of the young leaves of creation, the planting of the first garden in Eden with its four rivers to water its growth.

But nowhere is this awareness more acute, more simple, more wondrous than in The Song of Songs. The young buds of the pomegranate; the fleeting deer standing still for a single moment by the lattice-work of the fence, before running hastily, gracefully away to the distant hills; the apple tree alone in the midst of the forest; the hour and season of the songbirds: these details, easily missed, easily regarded as irrelevant in a world of kings, prophets and wars, are observed, noted, cherished, loved. They are the garden, the universe, of the life and love we are granted, briefly, to share.

At the heart of this landscape is a mystery, gan na’ul, ‘a locked garden’, ma’ayan chatum, ‘a fountain sealed’. For we do not know and never will fathom the source and wellspring of the wonder of life, its small, everyday miracles, the primrose by the side of the stone, the violets in the grass beside the woodland path. Maybe one day it will be possible to offer a scientific, materialist analysis of everything, even consciousness itself. But in the moment of awareness, in the joy and engagement of seeing, in the companionship of love, such explanations will fall away, irrelevant, not contiguous, unable to touch the exhilaration of being alive.

Of course, Ecclesiastes is correct in the end. The day will come when the cord at the fountain is broken and the pitcher tumbles out of sight to the bottom of the well. We know what awaits.

But that does not, should not, must not negate the now, ‘The interim is mine’, ours, yours; the interim belongs to life. Admittedly only the interim, and that is the sorrow which seizes the heart.

But that interstice is now; therefore, as the lover says to his beloved in The Song, ‘Rise up, let us go’ for the garden is full of flower, the orchards and vineyards are in blossom. We must not fail to notice, and to bless.

 

Never despair! Thoughts on a difficult spring’

Tomorrow is the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan; in Jewish terms it’s the first day of spring.

Nisan is a month of celebration. Sad, penitential prayers are left out of the liturgy. Instead, in the domain of history we focus on Passover; we follow our ancestors on their journey from slavery to freedom and try to create a world which celebrates, life, liberty and justice.

In the domain of nature, we go out into the fields and gardens and say a unique, once-a-year-only blessing to God

in whose world nothing is lacking, who created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for the enjoyment of humankind.

I’ve just been outdoors to check: the almond tree is pink with bloom; the apricot, usually first to blossom, is wisely still sleeping out an especially long winter; the pears have a good month to go before May, their season of white glory.

Yet, despite all this, I’m struggling to feel joyous.

Instead, I feel anxious, afraid for our beautiful world. We live in increasingly dangerous times. Much of humanity, or at least its leadership, seems intent on a journey from liberty to tyranny, from peace to war and from injustice to greater injustice. Meanwhile, the poorest and weakest, who have always suffered, suffer even more.

In the world of nature, I read with despair of the huge decline in animal life, of species hunted to extinction, of the pollution of land and ocean by plastic particles. You may think me crazy, but these matters drive me close to tears.

I could take to retail therapy, decide not to think, or close my eyes, and heart, and sit back to enjoy my corner of privileged living, among the world’s wealthiest.

But that’s not the human, certainly not the Jewish way. ‘You are not free to cease from the work’, said Rabbi Tarfon almost two thousand years back. ‘Assur lihitya’esh; it’s forbidden to give up and despair,’ insisted Rebbe Nachman of Breslav two hundred years ago, despite, or because of, his own susceptibility to depression. And, on the back of today’s Guardian, Gareth Southgate adds his own gloss to his rabbinic antecedents: ‘You can live in fear or you can get on with it’.

That’s what saying the blessing over ‘beautiful creatures and beautiful trees’ means right now. Never give up! Never stop appreciating how wonderful the world can and should be! For the sake of the beauty of children, help the besieged, the hungry, the persecuted. For the sake of the beauty of animals and trees, plant and protect, so that they, and humankind together, may live and flourish to breathe a better future.

Last Friday, as I approached the old Jerusalem railway station, some 28 kilometres into running the marathon, I passed a group of people pushing their friend in a wheelchair, or rather in something more like a full hospital bed. According to my running app, the Jerusalem marathon route has a total climb of well over 2,000 feet, with challenging hills and sharp descents. These good people must have taken turns to push their friend up the hardest inclines, then hold on tightly to ensure a smooth run down the steepest slopes. When they reached the finishing line, the entire crowd cheered.

That’s love; that’s courage; that’s doing the best one can to share the basic freedoms of breathing the open air, enjoying the wide panorama, waving to friends, relishing the crazy happiness of those mad enough to run.

On Seder night I don’t just want to read the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus. I want it to shout back at me: Never give up on freedom. When I go outside, I don’t just want to see the world. I want it to sing back at me: Look at all this beauty! Use your life to love it and protect it!

 

Can there be religious faith without justice?

This week the Torah moves us swiftly on from the great revelation at Mount Sinai to mishpatim, just laws. For at the heart of Judaism is the relationship between justice and faith.

Tyranny, cruelty, unfairness, the cynical perpetuation of inequality, are wrongs not only against our fellow human beings, but against God. This is because God, if God means anything significant to us at all, is not in the heavens, imprisoned up there in splendid isolation and irrelevance.

God’s living spirit breathes within all life, in every human being. It is therefore God’s presence on earth which is, or should be, the true preoccupation of religious life.

Faith and injustice may seem to be all too frequent companions. It is of course possible to mouth words of prayer and practise, or turn a blind eye towards, cruelty. But in truth, they are incompatible.

To seek God, to claim God’s nearness, while knowingly wronging our fellow women and men, is like turning the door handle to invite God to enter, while keeping the bolts firmly fastened. God can’t get through.

That’s why the small Hebrew letter vav, meaning ‘and’, is so powerful. The Torah passes without pause from the great revelation on Mount Sinai, ‘I am the Lord your God’, to the finer details of the laws of damages, having servants, owning sheep and cows, without more of a pause than that minimal prefix ‘and’. But this ‘and’ is vital; it connects God’s revelation on high with the most ordinary details of everyday life on this earth.

As commentators from the Talmud to modern times indicate, that ‘and’ contradicts our intuitive sense of discontinuity: What? What has religion got to do with how I let my ox behave, or whether some stranger accidentally falls into the hole I dug in a field? With how I treat outsiders? Or use abusive and humiliating language?

The answer is ‘everything’:

Rabbi Ishmael taught: ‘Just as the exalted principles come from [God at] Mount Sinai, so do the lower laws’. (Mechilta)

In fact, the lower laws may be more important. We aren’t responsible for whether there’s a God in the heavens, but we are answerable for whether God feels at home here on earth. As William Blake, passionately concerned with social injustice in the chartered streets of London wrote:

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage.

So does the mistreatment of the vulnerable, – almost always represented in the Torah by the frequent phrase ‘the stranger, the widow and the fatherless’. I don’t know of any other single sentence in the Hebrew Bible which contains three consecutive uses of the emphatic double-infinitive:

If you shall oppress and oppress them, and they then cry out, cry out to me, I shall hear, yes surely hear them’, [says God]. (Exodus 22:22)

That’s why we can’t hide behind the mantle of God’s imagined favour, if we mistreat women, let the poor go hungry, mock foreigners, leave asylum seekers to rot in loneliness and contempt and fail to protest when innocent people are attacked, imprisoned or murdered, anywhere on earth.

There is no society in the world which doesn’t have serious work to do to let God in, which does not face profound challenges of injustice. In this struggle there is no such thing as neutrality; bystanders don’t exist. We all have our hand on the door handle, to open it, or close it.

When God asks the questions

Life presents at least two major spiritual challenges. The first is: Where is God? The second is: Where is God not? The second is harder.

‘I am the Lord your God’ declares the first of the Ten Commandments, which we read in the Torah this week. To some this is life’s most unshakeable certainty. To others it’s a patent absurdity, manifestly confounded by the realities of history. To yet more it is a question, sometimes all but irrelevant, at other times urgent, piercing to the heart: ‘God, are you? God, where are you?’

I was invited to a class of seven-year-olds who’d prepared a series of questions about God: ‘Is God a person?’ ‘Is God a he or a she?’ No, I don’t think God is a person, not a he nor a she. ‘So, what is It then?’ at which point one of them mercifully chirped up with ‘God’s in everything.’

That’s what the mystics thought: ‘Leit attar panui minei – there’s no place empty of God’. God fills all space, is present in all things and transcends all things, hence the famous Dudele song of Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak of Berditschev: Only You, solely You, wherever I go it’s You’. It’s based on Yehudah Halevi’s great poem 700 years earlier: ‘God, where shall I find You? And where shall I find You not?’

The question of God is thus a matter of the sensitivity of heart and soul, rather than solely an issue addressed to the mind. Do I sense your presence, God, in my fellow human beings, in the breathing of the forest, birds, squirrels, deer? Do I hear you speak, or cry, or scream, in all creation and all destruction?

For you are the spirit, the energy, the consciousness which fills all life and all existence, always One, yet infinitely differentiated in this world of matter and substance, things, people different in innumerable ways.

That leads to the second question. It pursues us, challenges us in every true encounter.

Aren’t you there, God, in the hospital ward, the ICU, the fragility of birth, illness and dying?

Aren’t you there in the loneliness of the empty moor, bare rocks, mountains and water?

Aren’t you there in the thriving life of the woodlands, even when the chain saw cuts down the living trees?

Are you absent in this refugee, just seventeen, who fled here (Greece, Calais, London, Jerusalem) from the Sudan or Eritrea? Are you not there in those who try to care for her? And in those who are set to deport her?

These were the questions which made the prophet Jeremiah, determined to stop himself from constantly saying what no-one wanted to hear, cry out: I’m trying to be silent, but your word burns like fire in my bones.

This was the awareness which made the Psalmist sing: To you, God, silence is praise’, hearing God in the pre-articulate wonder of dawn, and at the spring where the gazelles come silently to drink.

But this leaves open the issue which bewilders us most often: So, God, what about your agency? What do you actually do? (There’s no obvious answer to the question. God’s in hiding. God is waiting; God could if God would. God used to intervene in history and shall one day again: Such explanations don’t help me. They make history seem even more unjust. They don’t take me further in God’s service.)

The answer which is most meaningful to me, which haunts and harasses me, is the counter-question: ‘And what about you?’ I believe God asks this question of us constantly, not from heaven, but from the lives of everyone we encounter, from their suffering, their joy, and above all from their needs. ‘What are you doing with the part of Me in you?’

The only true answer is what we do with our lives.

 

It’s not about hate

‘Rabbi, how does one find one’s path in life?’

This was the question X asked me as we travelled together to Liverpool for his interview with the Home Office about his asylum application. He spoke of the hatred he had witnessed in the country he’d fled: ‘It’s the wrong path, isn’t it?’

I’ve spent much of my last weeks with people struggling with pain, be it from politically or religiously motivated persecution, the verbal or physical brutality of family members, or the after-effects of tragedy.

Asked by a colleague what one-word subject I wanted to talk about, I answered ‘cruelty’.

But I don’t. In a week when North Korea tests more lethal weapons, when the President of the United States gratuitously repeats hate-tweets, when violence and fear feel ever more prominent, I want to talk about the opposite. If only to myself, I want to answer X’s question on that train to Liverpool.

What are the values by which the world should be led? What, at least, are the qualities by which our own lives should be led, which we should develop in ourselves in a frightening, beautiful, inspiring world?

We need justice. For students of the Hebrew Bible this is founded on the principle that every human being is created in God’s image. Therefore, as the Mishnah declares, ‘No one may say, “My parents were greater than yours.”’ No life is intrinsically of lesser value. We may not despise or ignore the rights, hopes and sufferings of another human just because he or she is different from ourselves. Justice equally requires us to expect that they treat us likewise.

We need a listening heart. We need imagination, the capacity to think and feel what the world is like from the other person’s point of view. Where does the spiked wheel of fortune cut into his or her heart? What would bring him or her relief, joy, at least a sense of not being alone?

We need compassion. The Talmud teaches that life is unbearable for the person who tries to feel for everyone. There are limits. But it is a good daily goal to ask ourselves ‘What kindness can I do? How can I avoid giving hurt?’ If we had such an attitude towards everyone we encountered, from our own family, to our neighbour, to the blackbird on the grass, we would be far closer to Isaiah’s vision of a world where ‘they neither hurt nor destroy in all God’s holy mountain’.

We need moral courage. We are not here to tolerate every outrage. History shows that if we fail to stand up for ourselves and others in the name of truth, integrity and justice, we too will be swept away on the tide of anger or the backwash of indifference.

We need faith. The mystics teach that God is everywhere and in all things. I am less interested in the infinite God in the unfathomable reaches of the universe. I care most about the presence of God here before me, in this particular person, her gifts, opportunities and hopes. I care most about the presence of God in the birds, in the deer who drink from this river, in the God of this life around me. For it is here, in this immediacy, that God commands me to do what is just and good.

We need faith in ourselves. This is not faith in our superiority; it is not arrogant or disparaging of others. On the contrary, it is the faith that despite our failures, limitations and confusion, there is within us light and strength, hope and love which glows from the sacred source of all life.

We are not here to let our souls be echo-chambers for hate or despair, but to transform them through courage, imagination and compassion, into healing.

 

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.

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