Prayer that ‘lets the light into your soul’

I went outside this morning to begin my prayers among the trees. The beech has turned yellow-brown; the ash still holds its colour. The rain falls mildly, melody from thousands of leaves.

The Hasidim had a genius for creative misreading whenever they sensed an opportunity to reveal a hidden depth in Scripture. ‘Make a window in the ark,’ God tells Noah. But the Hasidic masters didn’t take the verse that way. The term for ark, tevah, can also mean ‘word’. ‘Make a window in your words,’ they therefore taught: ‘Pray in such a way that it lets the light into your soul’.

I’ve been asked to pray for many outcomes, for people in many and varied situations. I shouldn’t really say ‘people’, since last week I was asked to include a healing prayer for a cat with a broken leg. I did. It was simpler than the request which came through the synagogue office many years ago to perform an exorcism on a cat possessed by evil spirits. I didn’t. I had no idea how.

Of course, I pray for outcomes. Who wouldn’t, when someone we love is ill or in great pain, when we hear accounts of hungry children, when war threatens?

I pray now, as electioneering commences, that whatever government comes into office will be led with integrity, rule without bigotry, focus on the issues which truly matter to humanity and life, and be guided by the values of justice and compassion.

But, I believe, the essence of prayers is not asking. Rather, it is listening. I often think in terms of ‘praying with’, rather than ‘praying for’. I recall bedsides by which I’ve sat in so many of London’s hospitals, The Royal Free, Barnet General, UCH, the North London Hospice. By ‘praying with’ I don’t chiefly mean saying the words or singing a melody together. The ‘with’ is not chiefly about sharing the page in the prayer book or being in the same physical place, but rather about being together in the heart’s space. Prayer, the rabbis taught, is avodah shebalev, heart’s work. It brings our consciousness together with life; it paces it at life’s service.

That, too, is why I often prefer to pray outdoors. The birds, the leaves, the dog watching and waiting, are simplifications. ‘Echad’, they say; ‘Be at one with the oneness of God’. Except that they don’t say. There are no words; rather they, we, participate together in the quiet of the spirit which transverses all things. ‘Prayer is the life of all the worlds,’ wrote the first Chief Rabbi of what was then Mandate Palestine, Abraham Isaac haCohen Kook. I wonder if this is what he meant.

Even in a space with five hundred people one senses when such togetherness, such energy is present, in the shared melodies, in the awareness which no one articulates but everyone senses that something which transcends us fills our hearts, dispelling the petulant distractions of our busy, fussing minds.

None of this, however, is an excuse for avoiding action, a contemplative alternative to commitment on the level of doing and striving.

On the contrary, prayer leads to action. If we listen to life, hold life’s cry as well as life’s stillness in our consciousness, how can we not devote ourselves to caring and to healing?

 

The Torah begins with wonder

The Torah, like a child, begins its explorations with wonder.

I think the magic of that first light of the first ever day has never entirely dimmed in our souls. ‘Look’, says Nicky, ‘Come out in the garden’. The sun has sunk and clouds of red and orange illumine the pear trees from behind and even the high roads to the west are touched by transient, lucent beauty.

Day two is land and water. Every adult becomes part child again at the sea’s edge. Shells, stones smoothed by a thousand years of tides, rock pools like mini oceans with their strange anemones, tiny replicas of Shelley’s sea-blooms and oozy woods ‘which wear the sapless foliage of the ocean’, the mesmerising rhythm of falling waves which were before and shall be after: these mysteries beguile our complications, untwist our thoughts into the simplicities of wonder and of joy.

Day three is the creation of the grass and trees, meadowlands and forest. Late January is the time to walk in the early light among the oaks and beeches, to see the glory of their branch-work unveiled by the long-fallen leaves. April is the month to capture the day, when the grey twigs of the oak, as many as a quarter of a million on an ancient tree, reveal the tiny leaves, or when the sticky dark brown chestnut buds unfold their curious fingers to feel the new spring air. Give me a night walk through the forest when the deer race across the twilight path and the last birds chant their ragas to the night and I’ll be there.

The Torah is concerned with many matters: right and wrong, good and evil, family feuds, tyranny, injustice, bullying, peer pressure, and how to remain just and kind nonetheless. There’s nothing with which our lives are intertwined, our thoughts burdened, or our hearts weighed down about which the Torah and its commentators have nothing to say.

But the Torah begins with wonder; wonder comes first, and wonder is something we all need.

Day four is the moon and stars; day five are the fishes and the birds, the loud-mouthed wren, the nuthatch which feeds upside down; the morning of the sixth day brings the horses, foxes, hedgehogs, beavers, badgers, wolves.

Finally, we humans enter creation, in the image of God, capable of creating or destroying, of wonder or contempt. I didn’t ask for an easy life, Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, ‘I asked for wonder, and God gave it to me’. I believe the capacity for wonder exists in every child and in the child within every adult and remains with us lifelong as the secret wisdom of growing older without becoming old.

The philosophers and mystics debate which of the commandments comes first: to know God, love God or be filled with the awe of God. I don’t think the order matters very much. Rather, take them all together, apply them not to what we cannot know but to what lies before our eyes, that autumn chrysanthemum, that blackbird, that cloud which can’t quite catch up with the moon, – and they add up to a wonder, a reverence, a sheer, overwhelming joy which sometimes overtakes us with such power that we stop still, our thoughts still, our soul still, traversed by the mystery of endless life which has bestowed on us, briefly, temporarily, this unfathomable consciousness.

We need wonder. Where there is wonder, there is reverence and respect. How then can we ever seek to hurt or to destroy?

 

Walking the Moonlit Walk

There is a custom among mystics to observe one’s moon-shade on the night of Hoshana Rabba (the Great Hoshana). You have to find a field or forest far from light-pollution and walk with the moon behind you, observing how it casts your shadow at your feet.

The date is significant because Hoshana Rabba is regarded as the day when the books of destiny are finally sealed. One wears white; the liturgy is an after-echo of the melodies of the Days of Awe; the greeting is Gmar Tov, ‘a good conclusion: May you be included in the book of a good life and good deeds’. The service ends with seven circuits of the synagogue chanting our hopes for humanity, nature, the very earth itself and the ultimate Jerusalem when peace will settle over the face of the globe. The chorus is always Hoshana, ‘Save!’ Hence the name Hoshana Rabba.

Hoshana Rabba begins this Saturday night and the weather forecast for London is mediocre, in case anyone does fancy that midnight moonlit adventure. The more compete your shadow, the fuller your year will be.

The fact that I don’t believe in such superstitious myths, and even regard them as spiritually dangerous, has proved insufficient to prevent me from sometimes following the dark night path. (Maybe I should regard this as a mere by-product of walking the dog. And what can be bad about a night-walk among the moon-shadows of the trees with a dog for company?)

For, though I deplore the custom if taken literally, as a metaphor I find it deeply significant.

The danger with literalism is that it presupposes a God who lengthens or shortens our days according to some inscrutable criterion of divine justice. Life contains too much patent unfairness for it to be possible, to me at least, to believe in such a deity. Nor do I want anyone to feel that the losses, sorrows and fears which life invariably entails, though distributed in unequal measure, are necessarily our just deserts. Life is often cruel.

But as a metaphor the night-lit wander on Hoshana Rabba shines into my conscience. The High Holydays are behind us now. What light do they cast on the path before me in the year ahead? What kind of me do they project into the footsteps of the future?

I have listened to much beauty: music and words two thousand years-old which directed my ancestors’ lives: ‘Open your heart’, ‘Remember; be aware!’ ‘Write for life with the God of life’.

I have heard much wisdom from many people: we’ve debated the nature of truth and the moral centrality of integrity and accountability; we’ve spoken about love of the world and our urgent responsibility towards nature, trees, even bees; we’ve discussed the plight of refugees, families fleeing persecution, women trying to escape societies which fail to protect them from abuse.

These responsibilities and truths now shine on my path ahead, outlining in shadow form who I might be, what I could, should, might do with this precious next year of life: Will I care enough? Will I be kind? Will be a planter or uprooter? Will I have the integrity to follow the example of other people’s light, or the courage to step forward where the path is yet unlit?

The God I believe in speaks to the heart, breathing into it wonder, love, honesty and courage. Will we listen in the year ahead? Will we walk the walk?

 

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.

 

 

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