Life’s categorical imperative

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
It’s always our self we find in the sea.

These much-loved lines by EE Cummings could also describe Yom Kippur. For the Day of Atonement is a sea, a chance to wash ourselves until we find our most real self again, our truest, deepest self. I don’t know if the sea is the music and the waves the words of prayer, or if the sea is consciousness itself and music the tide which carries it in to the heart.

Shuvah means return. ‘Come home’, says God, ‘Come back to me.’ The voice which calls out to us, so I believe, is not that of some bleak moraliser, a spoiler at life’s dance who halts the music with a long list of don’ts. The voice is the call of life itself: ‘Hear me; see me. Have you noticed those amber leaves? That sky?’ If there are don’ts, they are simply these: don’t ignore me, don’t hurt me, don’t destroy me. (Simply these? Imperatively, categorically these!)

‘Return’ is the call chai ha’chaim, the very life of life, the call of God within life. Since that life is inside you and me, who are at this moment privileged with the wondrous, irreplaceable gift of life, the call to return comes not just from without but from within us. It is my own soul’s longing to belong to life, to be at one with and love life, as a child hugs her dog to her heart, wanting only to be inseparable forever.

‘Return’ is God’s call from inside my heart, as the Psalmist wrote ‘Lecha amar libbi’, loosely translatable as ‘my heart is You speaking’.

Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, one of the great spiritual teachers of the last century, not only because of his unvanquished courage in the Warsaw Ghetto, but because of his encompassing compassion and insight, taught that the Ten Days of Penitence are not, or at least not just, about repenting of specific sins. This we should do promptly, whenever we become aware of our mistakes and transgressions. Rather, these days are the longed-for opportunity to answer the heart’s call, God’s call, to cleanse our very consciousness in the One to which we belong.

What is that One, that sea, where I both lose and find myself? It is the essence of life, the oneness which unites all life and to which all life belongs. Therefore, it calls from everything; we can hear it everywhere and anywhere. It calls in the woodpecker half upside-down at the seed-feeder, and in the goldfinch waiting timidly in the queue. It calls from the sorrow of friends who lost their mother this week. It calls from the long line of men, women and children-in-buggies at the Drop-In, seeking support, solidarity, asylum, hope, future. It calls in the children’s protests: don’t destroy our future.

What difference does it make to bathe our consciousness in life’s sea, in the ocean of the presence of God? Our mind already knows the answer: I belong to life and am at life’s service. I am not here to hurt, uproot, exploit, destroy; I am here to tend, heal, plant, nurture, cherish, love and care. I am not here just for me, but to fulfil myself in life’s service.

Our mind knows. But when we are actually in that sea, our heart knows too. It absorbs the knowledge into its very depths and disburses it into the arteries which feed all our actions.

That, in this eleventh hour, must make all the difference.

 

Pretending we didn’t notice

I was out for a practice run for next Sunday’s marathon when I saw behind an archway a homeless man sitting next to his sleeping bag, a cardboard cup in his hand. I had no money on me; I didn’t stop. But I saw him see me and felt I could I hear him think, ‘Another person who pretends I don’t exist.’

Tomorrow we encounter one of the most important words in the Hebrew Bible. It appears twice in the same section and nowhere else in the entire Torah: lehitaleim, to hide oneself away, to pretend one hasn’t noticed. ‘You may not do that’, the Torah insists: you are not at liberty to turn a blind eye.

The context is animals: You mustn’t see your brother’s ox or sheep astray and carry on as if you hadn’t noticed; you mustn’t find his lost donkey and act as if you never saw.

Perhaps we are tempted to think ‘it’s only animals’, an unpardonable excuse given the wanton cruelty our civilisation habitually inflicts on them, with meagre pity and remorse. If so, Isaiah puts us right, in a passage given prime time on Yom Kippur morning:

If you see the hungry, feed them; the naked, clothe them; the oppressed, free them. Do not hide from your own flesh.

If we’re inclined to say to ourselves, ‘But it’s their flesh, not mine. I’m OK’, we should bear in mind Shylock’s masterful summary of what common humanity means: ‘If they prick us, do we not bleed?’

Lehitaleim is a gripping term, a reflexive verb formed from the root a.l.m, hidden, which also gives us the noun olam, the rabbinic Hebrew for ‘world’. We live in a universe of concealment, the mystics insisted, and the art is to learn to see.

Some things, it must be said, are obvious; they ‘stare you in the face’: a lost animal, lost child, refugee, the lost mobility of someone who can’t get into the building, or bathroom, because there’s no proper access. In such cases the Torah insists that we may not pretend we didn’t notice.

Other matters are less apparent. I’ve often had the privilege of being in the company of people who truly see, – and deeply:

‘Did you notice how exhausted she looked? She always makes light of what she has on her shoulders. But…’

‘He was smiling. But he looked so pale…’

People like that see not just with their eyes but with their heart. They teach and humble us all.

In the long confession on Yom Kippur we ask atonement ‘for the sin of haughty eyes.’ The opposite is to have eyes of loving kindness and compassion, to see and not turn away, notice and not ignore. It’s the only antidote to the world’s hard-heartedness.

When the mystics describe our world as a domain of concealment, they don’t just mean that there is much suffering of which we fail to take note. They understand the presence of God to be hidden throughout creation, covered over by the material form which all being takes, driven down into the recesses of our consciousness because of our preoccupation with practical concerns.

But da’at, deeper, reflective awareness, can reveal to us the preciousness of everything, the inestimable value of all life, that there is not a living being which does not matter. In the rare, gifted moments when we see like that, we look with the heart and see to the heart. Then we realise; then we do not turn aside.

In the bewildering rush of the ceaseless encounters which urban life entails, we are bound to be overwhelmed. Inevitably, we will sometimes turn aside, turn a blind eye, hide ourselves away, pretend we hadn’t noticed. We couldn’t survive otherwise.

But sometimes, as much as we can, we must look and see, see and act, act from the heart. Otherwise we won’t know we have a heart anymore, and the purpose of life is to deepen the heart’s compassion.

 

Building the Temple in a riding centre in Toxteth and a crocheting commune in Tel Aviv

There is no such thing as neutrality, wrote the Hasidic teacher Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger, known after his work as the Sefat Emet. He was quoting the ancient rabbinic saying that ‘any generation in which the Temple is not built is a generation in which it is destroyed’. On Tisha Be’Av, the bleak fast which begins this Saturday towards the close of Shabbat and continues until dark on Sunday, we remember the destruction and commit ourselves to rebuilding.

In referring to the Temple, the Sefat Emet didn’t only have in mind a physical construction on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. His was the temple of the spirit, a fourth dimension in which we live according to what God asks for us. If we did so, this physical earth too would be transformed into a world of loving-kindness, justice and peace. It would finally become the sacred space God dreamed of at creation.

I have watched the Temple being built – and destroyed – in many places; so, I’m sure, have you.

I’ve seen its foundation stone set in the Drop-in for Destitute Asylum-Seekers. Bearing the wounds of trauma, yet all too often unwanted, unheard, un-helped and rejected, here people find an island of humanity. If someone were to ask: ‘What’s that got to do with Tisha Be’Av?’ I would answer: on this date our people were made homeless by the sacking of our sacred city and our land; this is the day our people became refugees:

Judah was exiled through poverty and hard labour;
her pursuers trapped her in the narrow passes…(Lamentations 1:3)

I’ve seen another keystone at Kuchinate in south Tel Aviv. Here Eritrean women, who’ve undergone horrors of which they do not speak, can earn enough money to avoid having to live on the streets and resort to prostitution to save their young children from hunger. They weave beautiful baskets to the sound of Eritrean music; they cook familiar dishes and find solidarity in working together.

The Temple is not just a structure of stone; it is also made of trees and meadows, of harmony between nature and humankind. I’ve seen it destroyed in sweeping measure, but also, on a scale as yet too small, recreated. I’ve walked with the family amidst bare mountains in Scotland and, revisiting them years later, seen flourishing woodlands. I’ve planted trees myself to restore the forests of the Jerusalem Hills.

God’s Temple is being built in numerous and unimagined ways. Esther Sills, new on the staff of The Council of Christians and Jews, told me how she connected Park Palace Ponies, a riding centre in an abandoned cinema in Toxteth, with asylum-seeker children. They aren’t allowed to go to school, she told me; they’re stuck inside their accommodation, isolated and frightened. But when they met the ponies they relaxed, smiled for the first time, gained confidence.

This reminds me of a moment of holiness in a central London hospital, where, my friend Jane told me, they brought a horse up 14 stories in the lift because a dying girl wanted to say goodbye. A few weeks later, Jane married her long-time partner there, in the visitor’s room of the neighbouring ward. The nurses allowed flowers; they decorated the whole area; they helped bring Jane to her marriage in a wheelchair. Less than a week later, she died, wise, accepting and at peace.

As we fast on Tisha Be’Av we think of our people’s pain through history, of the suffering of many peoples, of the devastation of nature, – and we therefore resolve to be builders of the Temple and not its destroyers. According to tradition the Messiah is born on Tisha Be’Av afternoon; let the Messiah of hope and commitment be born inside each of us then.

It is essential, wrote Rebbe Shalom Noach of Slonim, that ‘a broken heart belong always to the world of building, not to the world of destruction’.

 

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

 

 

Get in touch...