Why we need sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you? Where are you?

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

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

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

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

Or is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True to our values in difficult times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why we are here on earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


These causes helping child refugees need our support urgently


World Jewish Relief

Mobile School Programme
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JCORE
Child refugee support co-ordinator
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JUMP (matches young asylum seekers and refugees who arrive alone in the UK with trained, adult befrienders)
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God and Farming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One life, one spirit

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

The darkness and the light

On a clear night now the growing crescent of the moon of Kislev, the month of Chanukkah, Festival of Lights, illumines the sky. Light is especially precious at this dark time of the year. Maybe that’s why each day the parting sun embraces the west in such a vivid band of burning orange, before it disappears.

Last week I was asked at short notice to stand in as Jewish chaplain for the North London Hospice’s annual Light up a Life. The streets around the building, for so many a place both of sorrow and intense loving-kindness, were closed. Hundreds of people stood quietly in the dark, each with a candle, each with memories of love and his or her intimate knowledge of the journey of grief.

I chose two short Hasidic teachings. The first is from Rebbe Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin (1823 – 1900) one of whose favourite sayings was ‘Bereisha chashocha ve’hadar nehora – First the darkness, then the light’.

Just as behind the light sometimes darkness is concealed;
so, behind the darkness is concealed the light.

 Darkness is no illusion; even the brightest light cannot always reach the shadowed and enclosed places where pain and fear, helplessness and despair lie crouching. ‘Even darkness is not too dark for you’, says the Psalmist, addressing God (Psalm 139). But for us humans, sometimes even love, courage and understanding cannot despite all their skill and tenacious tenderness penetrate the walls behind which suffering and loneliness inhabit the thick shadows.

Yet even here lies hidden light. I believe in the great endowment with which the human being is created: the capacities for love, compassion, selflessness, companionship, laughter, patience, endurance, wisdom, forbearance, reverence, wonder and creativity itself. Harsh experience may atrophy these attributes, encase them in cold hardness or even cruelty. But I do not believe that they cease to be there in potential. Thus, the human endeavour remains to help us find them despite life’s darkness, and, although we know too well that it is not always within our power, to alleviate that dark in so far as we can, for ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbours, and for the strangers and the refugees within our gates and beyond.

The second saying is from Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger (1847 – 1905), universally known as the Sefat Emet, ‘The Language of Truth’ after the title of his collected teachings.

One can blow out a candle, but light itself can never be extinguished.

I have witnessed time and again the light and loving-kindness which innumerable people carry in their hearts and seek to share wherever there is loneliness, grief and pain. I’ve been chastened on countless occasions by the ways generous and thoughtful people try to bring light wherever it is needed: gently, not in your face; selflessly, without show; sharing what they have and what their hearts know, not by what they say but by how they listen, not by what they tell but through what they do.

I know that so long as life on earth exists light itself can never be extinguished. I’m grateful to all our teachers, to all who carry that light.

Values in a frightening time

It’s three and a half thousand years, according to the traditional Biblical timescale, since God said to Abraham ‘lech lechaGo!’ Go, God said, from a city tyrannised by power and violence and create a land ruled by justice and compassion. Thus began the Jewish journey, and the journeys of other faiths, and all our individual journeys in search of what is right and good, journeys full of inspiration, also sometimes misdirection, and which remain today far from their envisaged messianic goals.

The world is not in a good place on that journey just right now. This Armistice Day I shall light my candle and wear my poppy for all who gave their lives fighting for a more compassionate earth, and all whose lives, rich with hope, were squandered by tyranny and evil.

At this strange and difficult juncture on the path of civilisation we must not lose our vision or our values. This week I heard the word ‘post-factual’ several times. It frightened me. It also set me playing with other prefix combinations: post-truth; post-humanitarian; post-compassionate, and now, with the sad passing of Leonard Cohen, post-Halleluyah. I don’t want to live in a ‘post’ world.

So here are some key values.

Honesty matters; facts matter. Facts are not the measure of everything; one would hardly expect a faith leader to argue that they were. As Shakespeare wrote, sometimes ‘The heart has reasons that reason cannot know’. Facts, too, have always been mustered, configured and fingered to support one’s own argument. But, as battleofideas puts it: ‘Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of “secondary” importance’. In a post-truth world Holocaust deniers hold equally valid opinions, and Judaism and Jerusalem need have no historical connection, if you choose to think so.

No; we must search for truth and listen to truths, even, and especially, inconvenient ones. Truth is our guide to integrity and justice.

Humanity matters. It consists primarily in the awareness that we share the privilege of existence with all other human beings; that we are all mortal, vulnerable and often afraid; that nevertheless we are endowed with creativity, conscience and the inexhaustible capacity for wonder and love. Such humanity is our guide to empathy, compassion and commitment to one another.

Faith matters. I don’t mean by faith that we know with absolute conviction what God said and whom God likes. I especially don’t mean that we know with absolute conviction whom God does not like. I mean the faith that everything has value, and not just ‘market value’; that life is imbued with a property which is hard to define but may be called ‘sacred’; and that there is a wonder and a oneness to the essence of all life. This is our guide to humility, awe and service.

Music matters; poetry matters. I doubt if anyone wants to live in a post-Halleluyah world. ‘Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord’, begins Leonard Cohen’s perhaps best-known song. Without it neither the heart of every culture nor the heart itself would be able to express the beauty of what the spirit knows but words alone cannot tell.

We must not desert these values, lest they desert us.

Why Truth Matters

If I ever win the privilege of travelling back in time to a date and location of my choice, I want to spend a day observing the original editors of the Hebrew Bible at their remarkable task. Whoever they were and whenever they met, (I’d have difficulty giving the time-cab pilot clear instructions) they were people of extraordinary courage.

They could have said ‘No way!’ and left out the Book of Job which challenges God’s justice, offering no clear answers. They could have said ‘Impolitic, the Assyrians and Babylonians and Greeks are too busy attacking us already!’ and omitted the piercingly self-critical prophecies of Amos and Jeremiah. They could have said ‘Definitely not!’ and consigned Kohelet’s relentless questioning to the undiscovered dustbin of history’s lost masterpieces.

They did no such thing. Instead, they put the most difficult issues right in the heart of the sacred canon, making it everyone’s contemporary for all time, whatever the issues he, she, the entire community, or humanity itself has to face.

It’s customary to read Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on the Sabbath in the middle of Succot, – that is, tomorrow. Who he was, when he was, and the bottom line of what he actually meant, – these questions remain open to perennial debate.

But one thing is certain. The author was ardent in the relentless pursuit of truth:

I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom (1:13)

Unlike so many protected by privilege, he did not hide behind the walls of the castles and gardens he built with such profligacy:

Behold the tears of the oppressed; they have no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors is power (4:10)

Most radically of all, he refused all easy answers, questioning whether life has any enduring meaning whatsoever:

Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. (1:2)

This is, in effect, the strap-line of the book; it’s tantamount to testing every insight by multiplying it by zero and puzzling over the results. He refuses to be fooled.

These courageous qualities of Kohelet struck me forcibly this week for their sharply contemporary message, on two counts.

The first is the decision, taken by vote by UNESCO’s 58-member executive, that there is no ancient and integral relationship between Judaism and the Temple Mount. A fact doesn’t cease to be a fact because a wilfully ignorant group prefers it to be a fiction. The vote is by no means a unique occurrence; it is symptomatic of a civilizational drift away from empiricism towards mythology. It is a sign of the frightening reality that what matters today is all too often not what is, but in whose story it gets wrapped up.

The second is the 50th commemoration of the Aberfan disaster. I remember vividly the day when the huge coal-tip buried alive 116 children and 28 adults. Horror, grief and pity gripped the nation. What I didn’t know then was the slow and laborious manner in which the truth had to be dragged out of the National Coal Board that such a disaster could, and should, have been foreseen. Nor was I aware that the funds to remove the remaining pile of slag, and others like it, which terrified the surviving children were partly taken from the very moneys raised to support the victims, and that it was decades before they were repaid.

Should truth and responsibility cease to matter, lies and injustice will rule. When anyone with sufficient courage tries to call them to account, they will hide behind the virtually impenetrable barriers of fiction and unaccountability.

Therefore, let the voice of Kohelet speak out, probing, questioning, challenging and fearless for the truth.

‘This is about repentance’

Tomorrow is Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance and Return.

It’s over nine years now since we sat Shivah as a family for my father. Among the visitors was my teacher, Principal of Leo Baeck Rabbinical College during the time I studied there, Professor Rabbi Jonathan Magonet. He made his way carefully across the room, leant towards me and said quietly, ‘This is about Teshuvah (repentance)’.

Those were just four words, but they’ve stayed with me. I recall being puzzled at the time: Why was he telling me this? What did it have to do with my father? But his short sentence has grown for me into the most helpful of comments, both about Teshuvah and remembering my father.

What he wasn’t saying is ‘You’re a great sinner’ (at least, I don’t think so.) What he was saying is: ‘This is a time to rethink what matters in life’.

I hear that call in certain sayings of my father. I’m lucky; I can think of words from my mother, father, brother, wife and, more poignantly, children, all of which I would do well to ponder. But the words of the dead have a particular resonance in the heart, perhaps because we no longer have that opportunity, so easily taken for granted, to exchange with them the sometimes affectionate, sometimes irritating banalities of every day.

My father used to quote the Yiddish proverb
              Ueberlegt sich der Chochem, ueberlegt sich der Narr.
It’s hard to translate, but goes something like ‘While the person who thinks he’s so clever is busy thinking about the issue, so is the person he thinks is very stupid.’ What this means to me is: ‘Never imagine you’ve got it all right. Always ask yourself how matters look from the other person’s point of view’. It’s simple, but chastening. So much of what we do wrong is because we haven’t considered, felt or imagined how things feel to others. My father’s voice reminds me of this often, calling me to Teshuvah, to think again.

Probably, though, what Rabbi Magonet had in mind was the meaning of death itself, the impact of the brute truth that ‘The dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns to God who gave it’.

Time is limited. My father no longer walks in front of me, offering at least an imagined protection from the fact that I am next in line for the inevitable fate of every generation.

What, then, do I want to do with the rest of my life, before ‘the dust returns’? How do I want to give my spirit back to God, or life, or the infinite void, from which somehow, mysteriously, incomprehensibly, all spirit comes?

Afforded this privilege of life and the gifts of love, time and opportunity, wouldn’t we want to live our days in a manner which says ‘thank you’, in a way which indicates that we honour and appreciate all this wonder? Would we not want to be pure in heart, honest and truthful in our conduct, and generous, compassionate and kind in all our interactions? Isn’t that the direction in which life, and death, teach us to turn?

‘This is about Teshuvah’: I remember those four words.

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