On revelation: God in the supermarket

Shavuot, just nine days away, is the festival of revelation, of God’s giving the Torah.

I’ve experienced revelation; I suspect we all have. Of course, it’s not the grand kind, with God’s voice emerging amidst thunder and lightning. It’s the little kind, easily overlooked or discounted.

There’s the moment when I turned into our driveway and saw a little boy with his grandmother staring at our garden. They seemed nervous, as if they oughtn’t to have stopped so long and were about to be told to go away.

But they’d reminded me of how, when I was a small boy, my father took me for a walk soon after my mother had died. As we passed a plant nursery the owner came out; he and my father exchanged quiet words, then the man gave me a pot with a yellow primrose.

I lowered the car window and asked the child to choose the flower he liked best. He spent a long time deciding, before settling for a tall daffodil which I cut and gave to him.

It was that man at that nursery who helped me do what was right, fifty-five years later. He revealed to me a glimpse of that reservoir of kindness from which a constant river flows just beneath the surface of ordinary things, passing through the human heart. He showed me a path to its banks.

Or there’s the night before our teacher, Rabbi Jacobs, passed away, may his memory be for righteousness and blessing. He was in hospital in town. The family were all gathered there; it was a Friday night and I didn’t know what they had to eat. ‘Fruit’, I thought, ‘People do eat fruit at such anxious, loving vigils.’ Veronica Kennard helped me locate three nearby greengrocers.

I called the first number and explained. ‘I can do you a basket’, the man said. ‘And deliver it?’ ‘Yes’. I got out my credit card. ‘It’s £xx for the fruit’, he said. ‘And delivery?’ I asked. ‘I understand why you are doing this. It’s important. I wouldn’t dream of charging.’

The fruit arrived promptly. To my great sorrow, when I wanted to write and thank the man, I realised I’d lost the contact details. If by the remotest chance this reaches someone who recognises ‘that was me’ I thank you truly, and for more than the free delivery. You showed something deeper than the material fabric and materialist transactions which dominate this world.

Or there’s the rush-hour moment at the supermarket when the frail elderly lady in front of me reached the head of the queue. Despite impatient customers, the woman at the till greeted her with ‘How are you today, my darling?’ helped her put three small items in a much-used bag, and, when she handed over her purse saying ‘I can’t manage’, carefully counted out the exact amount, so that everything was open and fair.

Or when Heather, much missed, told me that her best therapy in her cancer was to walk around the corner and talk to her loved tree…Or when…Or when…

These in many ways ordinary experiences scarcely amount to God speaking from the mountain top. But to me they are far from unimportant. They show how the smallest interactions can be manifestations of love, kindness, faith and trust. So trivial they can easily be missed or dismissed, they testify to something gentle but tenacious, simple yet sacred, which unites us.

Maybe that’s why the Torah doesn’t just say ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, but ‘Love your neighbour as yourself, I am God’. For in such moments, something of God is revealed.

How can we hurt this earth as little as possible?

I look out of the windows of the train. (I’m travelling to Berlin for my termly teaching there, determined to go at least one way by train and cut my use of planes). We enter the flat lands of Brandenburg. In the fields are many horses. I glimpse a foal, an eager shake of mane and tail, then it’s gone. Or rather I’m gone, in this ridiculous way we speed across the world.

Ki li ha’aretz, ‘for the land is mine’: I often think about this short sentence which we read in the Torah tomorrow. It’s the explanation for the sabbatical year. The land is not left to rest to increase its yield in the six other years of the cycle. Its not left fallow for humans to have time off. It’s left, – left for the benefit of all that lives including wild animals and domestic, foreigners and citizens, home-owners and homeless – because it belongs to God. In the sabbatical year there’s no place for ‘No trespassers’ signs, except in so far as we are all tres-passers, passers through, passers across, God’s world.

God’s world? I’m more of a mystic than a Maimonidean. For the latter, the world is God’s work. To know God, study it and its very structure will lead you from the physical to the metaphysical, from what you see to what lies beyond what can be seen, the invisible, unknowable, unchanging, unbounded creator.

But to the mystic God is within as well as beyond. They love to quote the Zohar: ‘No space is free of the wonder of God’. There’s nowhere it isn’t possible to wake up and say with Jacob after his dream of the angels ascending and descending between earth and heaven: ‘There’s God is in this place – and I hadn’t realised’

Around midnight in Berlin, a city I now love but by which I feel haunted, I go running. I pass the statue of Frederick the First at the entrance to 17 June Avenue, its towering victory column in the central circle and the Brandenburg Gate at its close. I pass too the Russian tanks, survivors of the final battle for Berlin in 1945, at the Red Army memorial and see half a kilometre away the outline of the Reichstag.

God isn’t the only one who ever said, ‘The land is mine’. In the Bible, the prophet Ezekiel puts these words in the mouth of the archetypal tyrant, Pharaoh: ‘It’s my Nile and I made it’. What did he think he was saying? Rashi explains: ‘By my might and through my wisdom I increased my greatness and my power’. Small bronze plaques to more recent victims of this monstrous tyranny are set amidst the Berlin cobbles. I almost tread on a group of them: ‘Deported; murdered; deported’.

I see myself back on the train, looking out of the window. We exit the forests and pass once again through farmland: fields to a distant tree line, a huddle of calves. I think of Blake’s poem:

Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead…

Okay, they’re not lambs – to whom the verses are addressed. But they’re no less innocent. They’re lucky calves. Their air and earth is as clean as it comes in Europe. ‘Dost thou know’, I wonder, what awaits you after this field?

I’ve always loved the vistas of this earth. In my earliest memory I’m looking out from the upstairs room my father built alongside the carpenter to extend our bungalow outside Glasgow. I can see a field and horses. I think I’ve always felt somewhere in my soul that it’s God’s earth, though I’ve often failed to realise: there’s always been wonder in the leaves, the fallen rhododendron flowers from next door’s garden, which I put on the ends of my fingers.

I can reach only one conclusion. Yes, we may live off the land. But it’s God’s. How, then, can I hurt it, and the creatures who live with us on it, as little as possible?

 

Earth Day and the songs of the earth

I received a beautiful greeting from my colleague in Jerusalem, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum: ‘May the songs of the sea, the earth, the animals and humankind be with you’.

On the seventh day of Pesach we sing the Song at the Sea. On the last day of the festival we recite the Song of Songs and read Isaiah’s wonderful prophecy of the time when humanity and nature live together in harmony and all the earth is called God’s place of prayer. Some communities hold a Se’udat Mashiach, a feast for the Messiah, on this day, to nourish our hopes of redemption.

Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, wrote that holiness conceived in opposition to nature is not true holiness:

The highest essence of holiness is the very holiness of Nature herself; it is the foundation of repairing the world in its entirety, tikkun olam kullo.
(Orot 77; Orot Hatechiyah 25)

When the holiness inherent in all things is truly appreciated ‘War will cease entirely…and all things will incline towards loving-kindness’.

He was referring to the mystical understanding, a felt and experienced reality to many lovers of wild places, that God’s sacred energy sings in different modes and rhythms throughout all creation.

We are tragically far from that time envisaged by prophets and seers. But this is no reason to desist from the responsibility of working towards it.

On the contrary, the hour could not be more critically urgent. All life urges us to act for its protection. The songs of nature are beautiful (our garden is so full of birdsong that a friend just asked me over the phone if I was calling from an aviary). But those very cries and are often calls of warning; for a small bird, life is always at risk.

We now know now that all life is on the line, certainly the lives of the poorest in drought-riven lands and flatlands swept by the rising sea.

Judaism speaks of two overwhelming spiritual feelings, love and fear (or awe). Both drive me in my concern for this wonderful earth. Since childhood I have loved woodlands, gardens and wild places: the green hills near our home just north of Glasgow, the pine-forests of Mount Carmel, owl calls, bats’ flights. Like all gardeners, I live by the smell of rain and the feel of the soil in my hands.

But now I’m also deeply afraid. Often dread sits in the pit of my stomach, alleviated only by moments of wonder at the sheer beauty of the world.

That’s why I attended the Jewish section of Extinction Rebellion’s Pesach picnic for Earth Day at the assigned area at Marble Arch on Monday, became a life member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and joined the London Wildlife Trust. It’s why I’m passionate to co-lead Eco Synagogue to change not just what we do in our religious buildings but in our homes, in how we eat, shop, travel, care for the world.

Only a sadist would intentionally harm someone they love. Only a very careless person would persistently hurt a loved one through neglect. If we love the world, love life itself, how can we go on behaving in ways which wound them?

So may the songs of the birds, trees, rivers and seas, as well as the songs of our own soul, guide us to protect and preserve the music of all creation.

 

God, an old Kentish orchard and a prayer for people of all faiths

It’s the simplest Hasidic interpretation, but it’s beautiful. It’s how Yehudah Aryeh Leib, the Rebbe of Ger, reads the opening words of the 2nd paragraph of the Shema:Im shamoa tishme’u’. Any grammarian will tell you that the repetition of the root shema, ‘hear’ is for emphasis only.But the rebbe understands it differently: ‘If you listen’, he explains, ‘You will surely hear’.

But where should we listen? And to what?

‘Anywhere’, he would answer, ‘And to anything’; because the presence of God is in all things, and all life speaks God’s secret speech. We only have to listen.

That awareness overcame me this morning, looking at the willow catkins, the almond blossom, the daffodils beneath the yew. The voice of God is in all creation.

I felt the same when I attended the morning service for Ash Wednesday in St Margaret’s Church next to Westminster Abbey as a guest of Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkins, chaplain to Parliament and the Queen. There were a dozen Christian worshippers, silent, immersed in prayer, and there was Nicky and me. We didn’t join the prayers, but we did join prayer, because the quiet concentration which is prayer’s heart comes over one ineluctably in such silence, such attentiveness.

Sometimes the language and imagery of other faiths troubles me; I hear a note which is difficult for Jews. But more often I feel moved, especially in ancient churches hallowed by generations of worship. I’m carried down to the depths of echad, the oneness of God, the oneness of all life which embraces and humbles us all.

Aida Edemariam wrote a wonderful piece in yesterday’s Guardian about the lost art of listening. The essence, she said, is ‘to find the humility to set aside the needs of self and listen’. The Rebbe of Ger would have agreed. There is only one condition, he explained in a letter to his children: to set aside self. Then the holiness which abides in all things becomes apparent. Listen, and you will surely hear.

I’m not very good at attaining such inner silencing. But sometimes it attains, overcomes me. I had such a moment a week ago in Nicky’s beloved native Kent, in the orchards next door to the house where she grew up. Immediately afterwards I was asked to compose a prayer for an interfaith service:

I write as the February sun shines through the branches of old apple trees in a venerable Kentish orchard, disbursing the mist above the frost-hardened grass. In my soul is thanksgiving for the privilege of life, this gift of awareness in a world full of wonder.

Trees, birds, animals, people, all creation alive at this moment, we are entrusted to each other at this critical hour on the journey of our planet.

May neither fear, greed, ignorance, heedlessness, heartlessness nor lack of imagination misguide us into hurting, fighting and destroying each other. May our different ways to God educate and enrich our spirit so that, even as we follow our own path, we find companionship and inspiration from others who follow theirs.

May our humanity not make us arrogant, as if we owned creation. Rather, may the sensitivities and vulnerability of our hearts deepen our consciousness, so that we recognise with humility our fellowship and interdependence with all existence.

Together, may we be moved to love life more deeply. May we be inspired to serve the God of life by working, each with our unique gifts, insight and energy, for the good of all living beings.

 

 

‘As the deer longs for streams of water’: On the Book of Psalms

It was my grandfather who gave me my first copy of Tehilim, theBook of Psalms: ‘All of life is in it,’ he told me. I knew that he knew: a happy childhood in a rabbinic family, then student years in Berlin at its cultural prime had been followed by the Western Front, the great depression and inflation, the rise of Nazism, Dachau, exile, and a new life in Britain, haunted by losses. The book with his signature in it was my treasure, – until I lent it, I don’t recall to whom, and never got it back. When he died, we knew what to write on his gravestone: ‘I shall sing to God with my life, make music to my God with all my being’.

Now a group in our synagogue, our very own Chevrat Tehilim, Psalms Group, has completed a study of all 150 songs. It’s true, we haven’t done so quickly. The Psalms are traditionally divided into seven books, one for each day of the week. You can see pious Jews, women especially, on the buses in Israel reading the daily sections with deep devotion.

Admittedly, our group took a decade and a half, meeting roughly ten times a year to study each Psalm carefully and in order. But this too has been a deeply devoted and loving undertaking.

This Sunday we celebrate completing the Book followed, in traditional Jewish fashion, by starting immediately at the beginning. ‘May we not be forgotten by you, nor you be forgotten by us’, runs the customary invocation on completing a sacred text. We have no intention of forgetting.

No other book from the Hebrew Bible forms so great a part of the Siddur, the daily prayer book, as Psalms. No other text in world literature has become so intimate a part of the prayer life of tens of generations of both Jews and Christians. As my grandfather taught me, the entire life of faith and doubt, despair and hope, wonder and dismay, alienation and closeness, fear and trust – all of it is here.

There is the yearning of loving faith: ‘As the deer longs for the streams of water, so my soul longs for you, God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God.’ (Psalm 42)

There is the bewilderment of feeling utterly lost: ‘I said, “Darkness will surely cover me, light be night around me,”’ followed by the realisation, perhaps no less disturbing, that we are nevertheless not utterly alone, “Even darkness is not dark for You.” (Psalm 139)

There is the hopelessness of abandonment: ‘You have distanced from me my friends and those who love me; all who know me, darkness.’ (Psalm 88)

And there is wonder at creation: ‘[God] makes the streams run through the valleys, flowing between the mountains…The birds of the skies alight on them, and sing among the branches.’ (Psalm 104)

In all the years of prison and solitary confinement there was one item Anatole Shcharansky refused to let the KGB take from him: his book of Psalms. From it, he wrote later, he learnt the awe of God:

What is significant for me is that I feel a closeness to God in a most tangible manner. I sense its essence and domination over me. (Letter to his mother, 6 May 1984)

We can wrap our lives around the Psalms. And other people’s lives are wrapped in them too. I think of those who began the fifteen-year journey with us, but who didn’t complete in down here on earth: Olga Deaner, who adored Jane Austen but also developed her sense and sensibility among the songs of King David; Professor Bryan Reuben, who loved his Bible as much as his science; David Jackson who, despite two strokes which robbed him of his mobility, wrote music and a commentary for every single Psalm, continuing to do so when he could scarcely leave his room:

Though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death I shall fear no evil for You are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me…(Psalm 23)

…and Your music, Your Psalms, the wonder of Your world, and the companionship of those who care for such things – they comfort me too.

 

Spiritual Resilience

As it nears its close, few people are talking about 2018 in glowing terms. ‘Hard’, ‘gloomy’, ‘wearying’, ‘frightening’, are some of the adjectives I hear. The big issues, political, economic, environmental remain unresolved; they’ll be back next year.

So we need hope, courage and tenacity in large quantities. ‘Spiritual resilience’, said my Sufi friend, which I think of as inner, spiritual security, no less important than its external physical counterpart.

Resilience is social; it’s about creating and drawing us in to warm-hearted, inclusive and outward-looking communities. Resilience is moral; it’s about studying, debating and living our values. Resilience is spiritual; it means developing a restorative, healing inner life.

At its heart is prayer. There are many ways to pray: silence, music, meditation, walking. I love the beaten path of Jewish prayer, its discipline, its words, its music and mantras.

Most of the time I don’t pray in the hope of changing the mind of some all-powerful, heavenly being, – though sometimes, in moments of fear, I do.

I mostly pray to go downwards, not up. I try to pray like a digger of wells who persists until fresh water seeps through the dry earth and fills the hidden depth. That depth is not in the earth, but in myself. Can I get there? Can I listen, travel down below my flitting, floating thoughts, beneath my irritations and preoccupations, and feel life from my heart? At that moment, new sweet water flows and sings its way back into the dried out receptacle of the soul. What I feared was empty is replenished.

Some rare days this is easy. Many days I fail, usually because I don’t stay still in mind or body long enough, or because my effort is forced and I leave my spirit behind.

But when the water sings, it’s always a gift. Someone or something has been the inspiration: a kindness I witnessed, a moment of generosity or tenderness, a phrase of poetry, a quietly grazing horse.

The gift is life, connection with the life which nourishes all things. It begins with particular connections, with the trees, the birds, with people around me, this community at worship, that man in the hospital who said, ‘Can we pray together’. I feel the same spirit flow through us all, bestowing on us our respective consciousness. We belong together, all of life. It owns us, and none of it do we own.

Here is the presence of God, not in the heights but in the earth and everything alive. Without words it instructs us to take off not just our shoes but our selfishness, for the ground on which you stand is holy.

It’s the source of love, not perhaps of passion and attachment, but of a steady, determined chesed, a faithful kindness, which condemns cruelty, and insists that all life commands respect and needs compassion and understanding.

It’s the source of responsibility and moral determination, reminding us that we are not here to make life serve us, but to be of service to life. This is the truth we must not betray and try never to let down: that everything and everyone matters.

Shabbat Shalom

I wish all our Christian friends and their families a good and happy Christmas and a peaceful, worthwhile New Year

Jonathan Wittenberg

 

Therapy for madness

I’m losing people; they’re disappearing, – in my own home. The evening before last I couldn’t find two participants in my evening class. I discovered them kneeling by the couch, talking to the dog.

It was earlier that same day that I’d realised half way through the lesson that one of the girls in my Bnei Mitzvah group had come through the front door but never subsequently appeared in the class. I found her, – in our rear porch, hugging a guinea pig. When I mentioned to the whole group that we’d rescued a baby hedgehog, every single member one of the twenty-five voluble twelve-year-olds fell instantly silent: ‘Can we see it?’ There was even a ‘please’.

I’ve come to understand that this isn’t just an indulgence; it’s not merely sentimental. It’s therapy. It’s a need.

I’m feeling it myself. I have a longing to go to the New Forest. I want to spend a day, a dusk, a night walk among the ponies and donkeys, out with the trees, listening to them breath. My soul is craving sanity; it’s hungry and wants nourishment. I want to be rooted back in the earth, with the leaves, the breathing, grazing, chewing, rhythms of the animals, the branches and the wind.

I had a quiet word with the guinea-pig hugging pupil, – and let her be for the rest of the lesson. I saw that for her this wasn’t indulgence; it was therapy, and she needed it.

It’s a therapy I need too. We all need it; the whole of humanity needs it. Disconnected from the earth, the trees and the animals, our souls slowly forget how to breath. After a while our minds begin to malfunction because our brains are in receipt of insufficient spirit and too little humility. Then comes the greatest danger, that we forget what it is we’ve forgotten. We no longer realise that we’re part of creation, not its gods and owners. We imagine we’re morally, spiritually, economically, ecologically self-sufficient, that we don’t need the earth, the trees and the animals, that we can dispense with the hand that feeds us and the spirit which gives our hearts life.

Yet, hopefully, someone, something, some all but inalienable intuition calls us back: Can I hold that guinea pig please? Where’s the dog? I love horses. The children remind us.

I long to go to the forest, to listen to God. Humankind cannot live by Brexit, instant news, social media and the constant news of folly and disaster alone.

A colleague reminded me of these words by Henry Beston. They provide a fine commentary on book one, chapter one of the Bible, on the meaning of creation, of the gift of life among all other living beings:

We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.

I worry and fear daily, because the destiny of all other forms of life, and without it our own, now rests in our untrustworthy hands. Isaiah, chapter 11, is my ideal: ‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all [God’s] holy mountain’.

I hail this Native American prayer and want to wrap it round my arm, next to my heart, with my Tefilin, my phylacteries, every morning:

Every seed has awakened and so has all animal life.
It is through this mysterious power that we too
Have our being and we therefore yield to our neighbours,
Even our animal neighbours, the same right as
Ourselves, to inhabit this land.
Tatyanka Yotanka, Sitting Bull

 

 

The Hidden Lights of Chaunukah

Sunday brings the first night of Chanukkah.

Chanukkah takes my thoughts back to my grandmother’s house, when I would go to light the candles in the lonely years after my grandfather’s death. As we quietly watched them burn I would look in the window at their reflection, little lamps burning out there in the dark.

Chanukkah is the celebration of the light hidden within the darkness. The mystics explain that olam, ‘world’, derives from the same word-family as he’elem, concealment. We live in a world where the light of God’s spirit is concealed. But it burns secretly in every human being and all living things. It is the flame on the invisible Menorah which illumines the threshold of God’s temple.

Sometimes, though, its light shines out brightly. Chanukkah is the celebration of such moments.

The Talmud tells how the Maccabees searched the ruined temple precincts in Jerusalem for a single vial of unsullied oil to light the Menorah. This may not be historically true. But it’s a truth which illumines all history. There are always those who, with love and courage, seek out and nurture whatever sparks of light can be rescued from the wars and persecutions which mar the human record.

This Sunday marks eighty years since the arrival of the first Kindertransport in Britain. ‘It was a rough crossing’, Leslie Brent told me, recalling the overnight ferry journey from Hoek van Holland to Harwich. Those who created the plan, found, registered, accompanied and gave homes to those children, rescued precious lights which would otherwise have been extinguished and destroyed.

Eric Lucas recalled the final parting from his parents at the station:

First my father and then my mother had laid their hands gently on my bowed head to bless me…My father’s eyes were filled with tears of loneliness and fear.

One hopes his parents could carry the knowledge that their child was safe like a tiny lantern inside their hearts, even as they walked towards the darkness.

But it’s not only in war that hidden lights can guide us. It happens every day in the inspiration we give each other. I experience this often.

I recently received an award in New York. There’s no such thing as leadership without partnership and companionship, so it was really an award for our whole congregation. My first contract with our synagogue, as a youth worker, is dated January 1981, so it’ll soon be forty years my life has been guided by the inspiration of our community. I wrote next day:

I’m deeply touched by the love and generosity of my family, community and colleagues. It isn’t only yesterday. It’s the knowledge that not just my thoughts and, hopefully, many of my actions, but my heart has been, and still is, formed by the kindness, forbearance, wisdom, example, love and sometimes chastisement of so many people. ‘Formed’ is not an adequate word; I mean deepened and extended; people have pushed against inner doors I had not known existed and opened for me spaces of reverence, sorrow, gratitude, mourning and awe. That process has enriched me with the guidance, courage and love of many people, and, through them and the wonder of nature, with moments I think of as sparks from the radiance of God’s light.

There are always people near us who have the gift of nurturing the light hidden within the world’s darkness, through how they care for children, practise healing, fight for the vulnerable, protect the beauty of nature, and stalwartly prove how untrue it is that nothing can be done.

Such people’s lights illumine our only path to victory over brute power, cruelty, lies and destruction.

On Chanukkah we’re commanded to place those lights bireshut harabbim, overlooking the highway, in the public square. We take the sacred hidden light we receive from God, the world and each other, honour it, celebrate it and make it define the direction of our lives.

 

Were you there when I needed you? How much of our lives do we miss?

I’ve just come home from the synagogue where my friend and colleague Rabbi Amanda Golby spoke beautifully on her father’s tenth Yahrzeit about the word Hinneni, ‘Here am I’. She talked of our responsibility towards those who’ve loved us to live with as much presence and sensitivity to those around us as we can.

As it happens, I spent a couple of sleepless midnight hours pondering that hinneni. It’s a concatenation of two simple words, ani, ‘I’, and hinneh, usually translated as ‘behold’. But the combination doesn’t mean ‘Look, this is me’, a Biblical version of ‘I’m doing it my way and I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks’.

On the contrary, as Rashi explains, hinneni is an expression of humility, of readiness to listen. It means ‘I’m there for you’, whether that ‘you’ is God, one’s partner, child, or life itself. The ani, the ‘I’, has become a suffix, transposed into the ‘ni’ at the end of hinneh to produce that hinne-ni. It symbolises how the ‘I’ of the ego has become the ‘I’ of awareness. I am not just present, but presence, listening to life’s ‘Hinneh’, to life’s ‘Behold’, life’s ‘Open your heart and be still’. It’s the hinneni of the bird-watcher: quiet, attentive, not wanting to frighten away the singer of that music.

I’m writing just like everybody else, as a person who’s both succeeded and failed. Sometimes I’ve really ‘been there’ for others; sometimes I’ve not. For certain I’ve merited the painful rebukes: ‘You weren’t there when I needed you’, and ‘Your ears were there, but where was your heart?’

Abraham says ‘Hinneni’ three times. Rabbinic tradition sees perfection in each of those responses. I’m not sure. There’s no doubt about his initial reply when God calls; he takes his son Isaac as instructed and walks three silent days until he ‘sees the place’ for the sacrifice. There’s no unclarity either about the third time, when the angel cries out ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ urgently commanding him to withhold the knife.

But what about Abraham’s response, when, as they climb Mount Moriah together, Isaac turns to him and says, ‘My father’, and he answers ‘Hinneni beni – Here am I, my son’? Is he really there for his child?

Maybe that’s the real truth of ‘the sacrifice of Isaac’. No, Abraham definitely doesn’t kill his son. But he does sacrifices him in other ways: by putting his relationship with God first, and not just on this occasion.

Abraham walks before God; he’s a wonderful partner to the Almighty. But it’s hard to say the same about his relationship with his wife Sarah, or with Isaac, or Hagar, the surrogate mother to his other son Ishmael. After the episode on Mount Moriah, he and Isaac never meet again. When Sarah dies, Abraham isn’t there.

I’m not trying to fault Abraham, only to note that we all struggle with multiple and conflicting calls on our consciousness. I think of my friend whose son was killed in the Lebanon. He’s a true Zionist, of the left, a peace-maker. But he wishes deeply he’d said less of an hinneni to his country, and more to his beloved child. How could he feel otherwise?

Mercifully most of our struggles are not matters of life and death. But they do go to the core of life’s quality, both for ourselves and for our family, friends, colleagues, and even the world of nature around us.

How much hinneni do I say to my desk? How much to my wife? Did I notice that person in the corner, crying? Did I actually see those trees? How much of my own life, and other peoples’ lives, have I missed?

In the end, it’s a question of trying to perceive life’s often silent, unstated Hineh! Behold! with an attentive and compassionate heart.

 

Would Abraham have protested fracking?

I’ve been following the case of the anti-fracking activists, Simon Roscoe Blevins, Richard Roberts and Richard Loizou. Imprisoned for the offence of public nuisance, they were freed yesterday by the high court, which called their sentence ‘manifestly excessive’. Their crime was to ensconce themselves for days on top of trucks bringing drilling equipment.

Had Abraham our Ancestor been alive today, would there have been four men sent to prison?

There’s a good chance.

Abraham wasn’t a person easily deterred by power. He challenged Pharaoh (albeit after making his wife pretend she was his sister). ‘I thought there was no fear of God in this place’, he declared; which amounts to ‘Do you have any moral boundaries here?’

He went to war to rescue his nephew from pirating armies. He ensured the protection of the well supplying his water, defending his most important environmental asset.

‘Yes, but he did it all from self-interest’, it could be claimed. There’s little such motive in his horrified response when God threatens to destroy in entirety the perverse city of Sodom: ‘How can you annihilate the good alongside the evil? Should the judge of all the earth not do justice?’

Among the legends with which the rabbis embellish the biblical account, three stand out. Abraham defies the tyranny of the ‘mighty hunter’ Nimrod, walking with steady defiance through the ‘fiery furnace’ of all the weaponry unrestrained power has at its disposal.

Impressed with Abraham’s leadership qualities, God calls him not just servant, but officer, ambassador, secretary of state: ‘Walk ahead of me’, God instructs him. Shine a light on the dark pathways God’s presence has to penetrate in this world.

Most famous of all these rabbinic parables is the account of how Abraham found God:

He came upon a palace on fire. ‘How come it’s got no owner?’ he wondered. The owner looked at him and called out: ‘This palace belongs to me’.

I’ve puzzled over this picture for years: what’s the owner doing inside a burning building? ‘Get out, God!’ one wants to say, ‘After all, you’re supposed to be able to do anything.’

Maybe that’s the point. Abraham sees a world on fire with violence and brutality. The God he experiences needs humanity to put it out. God’s message to him is: ‘You and your fellow humans are responsible for the world.’

I worry repeatedly about what that responsibility entails. What does moral and spiritual leadership mean?

When Abraham challenges God about Sodom, the point they agree on is that to save the city requires a minimum number of good people. They argue over the figures: fifty, twenty, ten? But, whatever the case, these decent citizens have to be betoch, ‘in the midst of’, involved in their city. They must be ‘out there’, active, pro-active. If all they do is sit at home with their good ideas, they’re useless.

So I imagine Abraham might have climbed onto the cab of one of those lorries and protested, peacefully, with unshaking commitment.

After all, the world is in flames (and in floods). God is inside it, crying out from all nature and all humanity, ‘Put the fires out!’

 

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