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.

 

What the earth says

I can’t count how many people tell me they feel closest to God in nature. I often think the same. Not always; because there are times of closeness between people, bonds of listening and fellowship, in which God seems present too.

‘The earth shall rest a sabbath to God,’ teaches the Torah in tomorrow’s portion about the sabbatical year. ‘Like on the Sabbath of creation,’ explains the medieval Bible scholar Rashi.

But on that first Shabbat (whether we believe there literally was such a day, or take this just as an idea) no labour had been performed from which either land or human could rest. Only God had been at work. So that first sabbath was pure appreciation of the wonder of creation.

This remains the essence of every Shabbat and sabbatical year. ‘Stop’, they tell us: ‘look, listen, notice’.

Every Shabbat, Nicky and I walk together round the garden with which we have been blessed. We don’t do so in order to decide what beds need weeding and which plants need pruning (though I admit that we do discuss this). We look at the garden in order to see and appreciate it, to breathe it in: the smell of the rain on the wet leaves, the last of the apple blossom.

The mystics have a beautiful misreading of that verse about the sabbatical year: ‘When the earth rests, it says to us ‘for God’.

When Moses asks to know God’s name, God answers ‘I am that I am’.

Sometimes, we hear the earth itself articulate that ‘I am’. The earth isn’t there just for our use, important as this is. It isn’t there solely for what it produces, essential though that is for the sustenance of life. The earth itself, soil, plant and tree, wild flowers and cultivated crops, is part of the all-present ‘I am’ of the sacred. This name, God’s name, the unnameable sound of being itself, addresses us from the essence of all living things in unending, semi-silent vibrancy. We are prevented from hearing it not because it ever ceases, but because of the noise of everything we do.

Yet it is always possible to regain our attentiveness. To do so, we must make ourselves still and listen; we must liberate ourselves from preoccupation. That is the purpose of Shabbat.

The Torah has a cruel punishment for the failure to observe the sabbatical year, – exile from our land. I believe this is neither more nor less that the plain truth. The failure to listen to nature, both its beauty and its humbling power, risks making us exiles and strangers not only from the earth itself and from other creatures, but from our own soul. We need the sea, the trees, the insects and the plants, not only physically for our bodily survival, but spiritually, to know who we are, to know the God of all life.

Every day we pray for knowledge: the Hebrew term is da’at. I’ve often wondered what this da’at is: science, skills, understanding, wisdom, academic success? All these attainments matter.

But just this week I came across a Hasidic explanation: da’at is awareness of the sacred, of the value of all things, of the presence of God in every life and every person. In praying for da’at, we ask to be the exact opposite of Oscar Wilde’s definition of the cynic: we ask to know not the price, but the value of everything.

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Prayers of listening

I had two unusual prayer experiences yesterday, even three. It wasn’t that I was ‘seized by the spirit’; or perhaps, in a very quiet way, I was.

Prayer has always been to me first and foremost about connection, about bringing my consciousness home. Like most of us, my mind is full of plans, worries, questions, wants and don’t wants. When I pray, I hope to let go of all that, even if only for the shortest of time. I hope that God, life’s spirit, will enter me like water from an unquenchable source creeping, seeking its way rivulet by rivulet, back up a river bed which has become dried out. I hope to be reunited, even for mere seconds, with the vastness and wonder of life, and made silent.

I was in Israel yesterday morning, in Tiveriah. I found a path to the fields and said shacharit, the morning service, next to brilliant blue cornflowers growing among the wheat, my prayers accompanied by the white caper blossoms with purple stamens of which the Talmud speaks. There’s teaching in the simplicity of their grace; it’s good to be humbled by such beauty.

I hadn’t realised that there were to be more prayers later that morning. I’d been invited to Israel participate in a Catholic Jewish encounter, as a guest at the Domus Galilaeae of the Neocathecumenal Way. The ‘house’, a place of prayer, retreat and service, is situated on the Mount of Beatitudes. Jewish participants, largely orthodox, including representatives of Israel’s chief rabbinate, were warmly welcomed. This Christian group appreciates its deep roots in Judaism, profoundly regrets the Church’s history of persecution and sees in Jewry an essential partner in maintaining our spiritual and moral heritage. We joined them for shared prayers, consisting overwhelmingly of Psalms.

They sung Psalm 150, the Halleluyah Psalm, in a multitude of voices. Then they sung their own composition of Shema Yisrael, repeatedly affirming the oneness of God as the foundation of faith. The Cardinal of Perugia preached quietly about respect and love as the foundation of shared ethics, including the love of nature, animals, people different from ourselves.

I was moved by the singing and these gentle words. Having listened to many of the people around me, I know they spend their lives working amongst the poor, the destitute in the slumlands surrounding the wealthy core of the world’s big cities, that they lead profoundly dedicated lives amidst very difficult conditions. I thought of the words: ‘Open my heart through your Torah, your teaching’: we can learn about God’s presence from people of our own faith, other faiths, and no faith, and from nature itself. Life and its spirit flow through all things, in different ways but from the same infinite source. Moments when that oneness touches us are special; they penetrate the heart and retain the power to speak to us even years later and purify our lives.

On the way home from the airport close to midnight, the cab driver, a Muslim man originally from Afghanistan whom I had met a couple of times before, and I found ourselves deep in conversation about prayer. ‘I feel not right with myself when I don’t pray during the day’, he said. I agreed: ‘It’s as if there’s something missing, as if I haven’t been in touch with truth, haven’t been washed clean by life, or listened with my soul.’

Perhaps the deepest prayers are less about what we say than what we hear and how that speaks to us in our heart.

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Why we need sanctuary

‘They will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them’ (Exodus 25:8). These words come near the opening of the long section of the Torah devoted to the building of the Tabernacle which travelled with the Children of Israel through the wilderness. Over the subsequent millennia they have come to mean far more, to express our need for safe spaces in our world, countries, cities and souls.

Since childhood I’ve always been excited when I see a road sign with the words ‘animal sanctuary’. I doubt if the animals fortunate to find respite there offer oblations to the divinity and spend their days in contemplative meditation. Rather, the few square miles are a place of refuge from hunting, predation by humans, and the slow, seemingly unstoppable retraction of their natural habitats of meadow, and woodland, valleys and rivers. Just as the animals need sanctuary from us, we, too, seek sanctuary from the noise, pressure and remorseless demand for ‘more, more’, which characterise so much of modern civilisation. Animal sanctuaries are also soul sanctuaries, where bird song brings healing and the sounds of the small streams are meditations.

Sanctuary cities are not dissimilar in concept. They offer refuge to humans seeking safety from violence and persecution. As the sanctuary city movement in the UK writes: “We believe the ‘sanctuary message’ of welcome and inclusion is needed in all spheres of society and as such we are committed to helping schools, universities, health and maternity services, theatres and arts centres, churches and other faith centres, sports, communities, businesses and homes become ‘places of sanctuary’”. Sanctuary cities are not there, as their opponents have claimed, especially recently in the USA, as safe havens for criminals. Judaism condemns the notion of any refuge from justice for murderers and the perpetrators of evil. They exist to allow communities to come together in harmony, and refugees to rebuild shattered lives.

Places of sanctuary, synagogues, churches, mosques, temples, perhaps we should add libraries, offer calm and quiet in a turbulent world. They allow us to find the self and soul we so easily lose in the ceaseless chase to catch up with our daily commitments. They enable us to listen to our own heart and, within it, to hear the voice, or silence, of God’s presence. How I wish there were no such thing as security concerns and our synagogue could be open day and night to offer hot soup for the body, and music and silence for the spirit!

A heart of sanctuary is a place which exists within us all. The challenge for each of us is not to create it; it’s already present inside us. The challenge is to find our way back to it. When people come to talk to me in times of trouble, when I try to listen to myself in my own hours of trouble, I often find myself asking the question: ‘What brings you solace?’ Maybe it is music, or walking among trees, or meditating on the name of God, or a quiet conversation with a friend, or yoga, or the study of Torah, or rereading a favourite poem. ‘Do it’, I say to people. ‘However much pressure you are under, don’t starve yourself of whatever it is which nourishes your own soul’. (I hope others listen to me better than I listen to myself).

That, to me, is what prayer is for: to bring my consciousness back from a hundred frets and engagements, to let it settle in my heart, to listen. For in the heart is a stairwell down to a well of water. That water is inexhaustible and unfathomable, because it flows from the fountain of being which has its source in God. It never fails; it never dries up. As the Torah says ‘I shall dwell within them’, which mean that God dwells within each and every human being, and within all life.

We need sanctuaries to know the world and its wonder, to know and care for each other as different peoples and faiths, to know ourselves, and to know God.

From such sanctuaries, blessing always flows. It may not change the course of events in the way we would most wish; it cannot prevent us from being vulnerable and mortal. But it always has the power to transform us through loving-kindness, and guide us with wisdom.

And you? Where are you?

In these troubling weeks, I feel myself nagged and bothered by the first commandment, those simple words ‘I am the Lord your God’. They stalk me, stare out at me, echo back at me from everything I encounter.

I saw that commandment when I passed a young man sleeping rough on the street. I heard it when I spoke with my friend Okito, the leader of the Congolese community in London. I even see it when I look out at the goldfinches on the bird feeder. I know I’m going hear it again, loudly, when I visit at the local hospital. And these days I feel I overhear the words weeping almost every time I look at the newspaper.

What stalks me is the sense of my personal, and our collective, failure; what haunts me is a sense of shame.

How can one be stalked by ‘I am the Lord your God’? After all, it’s only a sentence. It isn’t even really a commandment (and some theologians don’t count it among the ten in the Decalogue). ‘I am the Lord your God’ doesn’t even ask us to do anything. The words are merely the preamble. Specific instructions follow: ‘Don’t murder’, ‘Don’t steal’, ‘Don’t be faithless in relationships’. But ‘I am your God’ is not itself a command.

Or is it?

There are two ways (at least) to read it. One can take it as saying ‘Tick this box’. Agree to this about how the world is’. An alternative box is ‘I’m an atheist’, or ‘I don’t care’. Of course, which box we tick in our heads is important. Though I’m nervous of people whose boxes are ticked only in their heads; there’s always the danger they’ll go to war with people whose boxes are different.

It’s the other way of hearing the first commandment which haunts me. If there is one God, one vitality, one community of life which connects us all and to which we all belong, vast and varied as that community is, then the words ‘I am the Lord your God’ cry out at us from every living thing.

They call to us from the person sleeping rough. They cry to us from the woman deported back to a country where she fears for her life. They appeal to us from the Jew afraid because of hate threats to go outside with a kippah. They weep from every wound, every injury and every wrong inflicted on our fellow human beings and nature itself.

They say to us ‘I, God, am here too, in this hurt and this injustice’. They say at the same time, ‘I, God, am here in this beauty, in this creativity, in this potential goodness of all life’. They say, ‘You there, walking past, do you hear me? I am the sacred in all life. I speak in everything around you, and in your heart. Are you listening? Are you there?’

That’s how the Rabbi of Slonim, the Netivot Shalom, understood that First Commandment: ‘God spoke and created all things, so that they say: “I am the Lord your God”’.

How then can I, how can we, how can leaders and governments across the world, be callous, unjust, cruel, careless, heedless, selfish?

The First Commandment is really the first half of a question: I am the Lord your God, God of all life – And you, where are you?

True to our values in difficult times

I listen to the news of the attack at the Louvre, icon of France’s love of beauty, and feel profound dismay. Poor Paris, city which has suffered so much in the last two years.

A brave soldier was swift enough to shoot the attacker. But the event still increases fear and suspicion. It cannot be doubted that we live in a world where constant vigilance and good intelligence are a sad but basic necessity for our security.

Yet we do not want to inhabit a society divided on religious, racial or ethnic grounds by barricades of suspicion, prejudice and anger. A world, state or city separated into ‘them and us’, with mass collective exclusions, is not the answer. It represents a victory for fear and hate; it is already a kind of failure. For division is the hallmark of hatred and fear.

Judaism has always had at its heart the belief in one God. Oneness is perhaps Judaism’s most unique and characteristic idea. What does it mean?

The oneness of God comes first. As Maimonides wrote in The Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, and as the mystical tradition persistently emphasises, to declare that ‘God is one’ is not simply to say that God is not two, or four, or eight. It is a profound affirmation that a sacred oneness, the divine spirit and presence, permeates all things and transcends them; that all life belongs to God and God belongs in all life; that there is therefore nothing and no one devoid of sanctity and value.

It follows that humanity is ultimately one. The description in the first chapter of Genesis that God made the human being in the divine image, is not a scientific account of what actually happened, but an assertion of the ultimate equality of all life. In the words of the Mishnah; ‘No one can say “My parents were better than yours”’. There is therefore no such thing, to use the ugly Nazi phrase, as ‘a life unworthy of life’. People may behave disgracefully, treacherously and wickedly and therefore merit punishment. But ab initio, they are not children of a lesser God, or of less intrinsic worth because they are Jews, Muslims, or Zoroastrians, for we are all not just children, but agents, of the one living God.

It follows further that all life is part of one inter-connected web of sacred vitality, as the prayers on the New Year declare, ‘let us all be part of one bond, to do God’s will with a perfect heart’. We are mandated to participate in a profound sharing of the resources of the earth and the gift of life itself. This is a truth affirmed at one end by a deep faith in the sanctity of all things, and at the other by the empirical evidence of ecological examination.

What then are we supposed to do in a time when fear and hatred threaten to pull us apart, yet togetherness, mutuality and understanding are at the heart of our vision?

We should be neither naïve, nor passive. Individually and collectively we need to do our utmost to remain true to our faith and ideals. We must deepen our roots within our own community, reach out to those who feel isolated, build relationships with those of different faiths and groups, and engage with those who are strangers, outsiders and refugees.

We need to be vigilant against violence, whether in words or actions, and whoever the victim. At the same time, we also need to be vigilant in our own hearts and minds, in what we say and hear said, against the proliferation of hatreds and prejudices of our own.

We need to work even harder to be true to our ideals. At this time of greater difficulty, the rewards are also great: new friendships, new connections, deeper bonds of shared humanity and commitment to justice and compassion.

Why we are here on earth

It has been for me a week of heartfelt conversations. In such reflection, in such endeavour to find words which are gentle, honest, encouraging, and which do not infringe upon the shared attentiveness of listening, it becomes clear how much of life is about recognition. Sometimes this recognition concerns acknowledgement of sorrow, sometimes the wondrousness of beauty, but always it deepens our awareness both of each other’s humanity and of our own.

Biblical Hebrew has a profound vocabulary for such realisation. The verb yada is generally translated simply as ‘know’. Though it is used casually in modern conversation – ‘I don’t know’; ‘Who knows?’ – it often expresses in its biblical context the deepest possible dimension of knowing: ‘And you shall know this day and lay it to your heart that God is God’.

This knowledge may be experienced in little things, in the small winter flowers which perfume even the coldest day, in the red fruit of the crab-apple tree, offering January nourishment to the hungry birds. It may be felt in life’s great moments, of birth, love or death, when we perceive even in the mundane, a candle, a tree, a sense of mystery and wonder. It is discovered in moments of awe, in that reverence for life which motivated Isaiah to proclaim his great ideal as if it were the simplest, most obvious truth: ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain’. Isn’t it our failure to feel it as holy which leads us to wound and damage so much of life? That is why it’s so important to pray, since the essence of prayer is to listen, to be cleansed, quietened, simplified, re-centred from all our distractions, so that we know.

The verb Hikir means ‘to recognise’. It means perceiving and understanding what is in front of our eyes. This is not always as easy as it may sound. Jacob, for example, did recognise the multi-coloured coat of his son Joseph when the brothers brought it to him dipped in goat’s blood. But he failed to perceive those betrayals of which the manner of its appearance might have made him aware. In its deepest sense, hikir involves sensing the unseen; the needs, sensitivities and vulnerabilities, the unspoken stories held in the heart.

Most beautifully, Ruth, the foreign girl from Moab, turns in deep appreciation to Boaz who has just welcomed her as a gleaner in his fields and says: ‘How come I’ve found favour in your eyes that you should recognise me, a stranger’. Such recognition is what so many refugees await from us: an appreciation of their humanity, losses, hopes. It expresses the understanding we need in order to breech the barriers of prejudice, between faiths, nationalities, ethnic groups. It’s what we need from each other in ordinary, everyday life, and even more so in times of stress and pain: to feel heard, included, valued, encouraged. What needs hearing is never only that which we succeed in putting into words but what eludes them in the silence of the heart.

Such knowledge and recognition leads us, simply and clearly, towards life’s purpose, a purpose we may express through our family, friendships, work, community, volunteering, activism, religion, faith, or simply through the way we interact with one another: We are here in this world to bring our humanity together in loving kindness, so that we can act to mitigate the cruelty of things, and we are here to appreciate and celebrate life’s blessings.

That’s what our lives, families, friendships, communities and faith are for.


These causes helping child refugees need our support urgently


World Jewish Relief

Mobile School Programme
For more information and to donate, click here

JCORE
Child refugee support co-ordinator
For more information and to donate, click here

JUMP (matches young asylum seekers and refugees who arrive alone in the UK with trained, adult befrienders)
To donate, click here

God and Farming

It’s not often one has the privilege of taking part in a conference which is as high in the sky as spirituality and transcendence, yet as rooted in the ground as a row of wheat or the hoofprint of a cow in the frozen grass. But yesterday I was on a panel about metaphysics at the Oxford Real Farming Conference together with the founder of the Campaign for Real Farming, Colin Tudge, and a Christian theologian and a Sufi.

This is not the beginning of a ‘the rabbi, the priest and the imam’ style joke. The session was one of the most moving and inspiring experiences of my life. The room was packed; there were farmers, foresters, and men and women of all walks of life for whom growing, gardening, the tending of animals and the nurture of the earth were a profoundly spiritual as well as an eminently practical pursuit.

Professor Tim Gorrange was a Christian, Dr Justine Huxley, the Director of St Ethelburgas Centre for Reconciliation a Sufi, and I a Jew, but we spoke the same language.

We shared an understanding of God as present in all being, of all life as sacred, silently articulate with the vital presence of the divine.

We shared an appreciation of creation as an integrated whole, and a view of humankind not as chosen by divine right to dominate, but rather as entrusted to respect, care, nurture and stand in humble accountability as part of the great web of life to which we and all things belong.

We spoke of listening, of trying to learn through the different disciplines of our faiths the art of becoming attentive to the silent voice which speaks from within all life, a voice which our civilisation all too often ignores, or imagines not to exist. We talked of the importance of the experience of reverence, and of how the cultivation of plants and crops can help us too to grow in wonder and respect.

But there wasn’t a ‘we’ and a ‘them’; the room was full of practitioners who have plenty to teach our world. ‘I work from a monastery’, one man said, ‘we create spiritual communities through gardening and the sharing of food. The homeless come; the wealthy come; both those  at the top and at the bottom of the conventional social hierarchy. We come together because we are all somehow broken, seeking healing as part of a greater wholeness.’

Another contributor spoke of the family smallholding where refugees and asylum seekers are made welcome; they tend the vegetables, cook, sing together and learn from one another. His brother is a member of our synagogue.

A pastor told me about his work in creating gardeners with former prisoners, finding healing in engagement with the earth itself. He asked me about the meanings of the Hebrew words for ‘earth’ and ‘serve’: ‘Does avad mean both to work the land, and to be a servant of God?’

We spoke of the urgency of placing responsibility, care, compassion and indeed love back at the heart of our culture. There was wide agreement when I mentioned Hans Jonas’ final lecture, delivered days before he died, in which he spoke of the next revelation as coming not from Sinai or Gethsemane but from ‘the outcry of mute things’.

Yesterday I met some of those who are devoting their lives to listening to that silent outcry, to becoming more deeply attuned to what it tells us about God, humanity, creation and the earth, and who are daily endeavouring to answer the call of its commandments.

One life, one spirit

I’ve been deeply struck by Eleanor O’Hanlon’s wonderful book Eyes of the Wild.Her insights as she describes the impact of her encounters with grey whales in the Bering Straits strike me with truth and beauty. Her thinking is profoundly affected and transformed by the grace and gentleness, the endurance and strength, of these huge animals.

One of them even nudges its baby towards her boat so that she can touch it. Eleanor understands this as a gesture not only of trust towards her, but of forgiveness towards the human race in general, which has hunted its own kind almost to extinction. In the presence of the whales she feels an overflowing sense of partnership, of ‘life meeting life, consciousness meeting consciousness, in recognition and peace’.

In the arctic lagoons, where even the powerful summer sun cannot melt the permafrost beneath the thin layer of briefly fertile soil on which she stands, she experiences the return of an inner awareness and expansiveness. It is so very different, she writes, from that relentless activity of the mind, arguing, judging and comparing, which so quickly overwhelms us in our contracted city lives.

She apprehends the divine, not as a voice calling from somewhere up in heaven, but within all life and embracing all life, and within her own self too. She feels what one might call teshuvah or ‘return’, in the genuine sense of ‘coming home at last after long unhappy wandering to your true belonging in the stillness’, to ‘the deepest reality within,’ which is also the deepest reality of everything which exists.

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Awaking from his dream of angels on the ladder which reaches into heaven, Jacob cries out ‘Indeed there is God in this place, ve’anochi lo yadati – but I had not known’. It’s one of those sentences from Scripture which follows one round for the whole of one’s life. How often, maybe always, it isn’t the absence of God but the absenteeism of our own consciousness which leads us to miss the essence or the beauty, the poignancy or the wonder of the moment. For God is in all being and in every place, – unless, the mystics also say, we drive God away.

Or perhaps we look for God in the wrong direction; I don’t mean in the north instead of the north-west, but rather in the wrong dimension, amongst the wrong coordinates entirely. Maybe we want god to fit an image graven in our mind of what god is supposed to be, all-powerful, all-knowing, a voice from heaven calling down with audible instructions in our specific language. So perhaps when Jacob says ‘I hadn’t known’ what he meant was that he had been deploying the wrong kind of mental sensors. ‘I had no awareness’, he acknowledges; but now something has awoken in his consciousness. Or maybe what he means is anochi, ‘I’, had not known; when I was all focussed on ‘I’ and ‘me’ I did not find God. But now life is speaking and, at least for this moment, my ‘I’ has been dissolved in listening.

It isn’t solely in terrains of great beauty that one can find oneself saying ‘But God is on this place’. One can sense it too in situations where there is great pain, but also great compassion, among nurses, with carers, wherever there is attentiveness, attunement. For, in the words of theologian and scholar of Jewish mysticism Art Green, whom we’re privileged to host this Shabbat, ‘God is the innermost reality of all that is’. That is what Eleanor O’Hanlon rediscovers among the whales and dolphins, wolves and reindeer, to whom she hearkens as she researches their needs for protection:

And though I had worked for several years in conservation, whatever I believed I knew about the living earth was only a shadowy thought before this living radiance, this overwhelming presence – of sacredness.

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