What We Pray For

U’Teshuvah, u’Tefilah, u’Tsedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezerah: Repentance, Prayer and Charity remove the evil of the decree.’ These words come at the centre of our Yom Kippur prayers. Repentance, prayer and charity have the power to transform the meaning of our days, save lives, impact entire communities, and potentially even change the world. This is not because they call down miraculous interventions from heaven but because they appeal to our heart. They re-awaken the sacred spark of God within us all.

I’ve tried to write about Teshuvah during the course of this week. The opportunities for Tsedakah are all around us; the synagogue has communicated its priorities and numerous organisations contact us regularly. It is essential to understand Tsedakah not solely as ‘charity’, but as derived from the word’s root meaning: justice. Tsedakah is single-word shorthand for our obligation to work, through our money, time and values, for a less cruel, less unjust, more compassionate world.

What then about Tefilah, prayer? The machzor, the festival prayer book for Yom Kippur, contains thousands of words. Why so many? Why pray at all? I can only offer a personal response, for whatever it’s worth. But it’s an answer deeply rooted in the writings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889 – 1943), subsequently known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw, Ghetto, for whom my utter respect deepens with everything I read.

Of course, we pray for many things on Yom Kippur, forgiveness, healing, a better world; we pray for hope itself. But at heart, the Rabbi writes, we pray simply for ‘tosefet yirah me’ahavah, – more awe from love.’

Simple words are often the most evocative – and bewildering. I’ve puzzled over that phrase ‘more awe from love’ many times. I’ve asked others what they mean to them.

Ahavat, love, is the Rabbi’s most encompassing understanding of life’s purpose. It’s ‘love your God’, ‘love your neighbour’, ‘love the stranger’, ‘love Torah’ and ‘love the world’ all combined into one. It’s the heart’s response to God’s presence in the world; a presence often hidden, hard to disclose, difficult to discover, yet there within everything: in the preciousness, fragility, beauty and sanctity of life, in every person and all living beings.

Yirah can mean fear. But in this context, it should definitely be translated as awe, what Abraham Joshua Heschel called ‘radical amazement’. Awe is our response when we become aware of the wonder and holiness of life. Day by day, worn down by struggles and chores, far tougher in the Warsaw of the 30’s than for most of us today, we forget God’s presence in life. But the High Holydays, with their solemnity, rituals, music and liturgy stir the soul and re-awaken us to wonder.

That’s ‘love’ and ‘awe’. But what about ‘awe from love’? I understand it like this: those whom we love we experience as most special and most precious. We are also most acutely aware of their vulnerability. The very last thing we want to do is to hurt them in any way. This is awe from love, the determination to protect and cherish, honour and appreciate.

The Rabbi’s prayer is that we should experience an increase in such awe from love towards life itself. It’s a prayer that we be filled with wonder and respect before this beloved world, that such wonder doesn’t desert us but grows stronger within us, that it opens our hearts and guides our actions, that it motivates us to honour and love life more deeply. That, writes Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, is the essence of all prayer.

And how do we know if this prayer has been answered? He writes: the sign that our prayers have been listened to in heaven is if they’ve been heard by us in our hearts, if they’ve awoken our spirit to awe.


I’m troubled by how to translate those Hebrew words lephayeis et chavero, which the Shulchan Aruch, Joseph Caro’s sixteenth century code of Jewish law, tells us to do on the eve of Yom Kippur. ‘Appease our fellow beings’, ‘propitiate’: the words have a ring of insincerity, as if the important thing were to stop others from being upset with us rather than to address the hurt. That’s why I prefer ‘apologise’ or ‘seek reconciliation’.

The Torah states that Yom Kippur, with its rites and prayers, atones for ‘all our sins before God.’ But no amount of beseeching heaven can short-circuit the need to make reparation and apologise to each other. The notion that Yom Kippur amounts to God offering us a free pardon is false. We have to face our fellow beings whom we’ve hurt.

That means facing difficult truths in ourselves. Even saying a superficial sorry can be hard. ‘They’re incapable of admitting they’re wrong,’ is a not infrequent criticism when someone’s stubborn refusal to concede gets on our nerves, whether in family or political life.

But true apology goes deeper. It’s motivated by the awareness of what we’ve said and done may feel like to the other person. At the time we did it, we were impelled by our own emotions. Now, maybe soon or maybe long afterwards, maybe slowly or maybe suddenly, maybe because a third party tells us, we hear our words from a different perspective. We realise and take to heart the pain we’ve caused. We long to apologise, not because we’ve been told we ought to, or even because we want to clear our conscience, though that may remain a – legitimate – part of our motivation, but primarily because we are truly sorry that we’ve given hurt.

Dostoevsky described humility as the root of all good and humiliation as the cause of much evil. Is apologising humbling or humiliating? I believe it is, or at least should be, the former. It cuts into our pride and self-righteousness, but in so doing it opens and deepens our capacity to listen, our empathy, our moral imagination, our heart. Something is wrong if as a society we perpetuate a moral climate in which saying sorry is always seen as a climb-down, a failure, a form of self-abasement. It’s cruel when people who sincerely say sorry are mocked on social media. There’s dignity in honest apology.

But that doesn’t necessarily make it easier. It’s not enough to mutter a general ‘Sorry if I upset you.’ We have to name what we did and apologise specifically and clearly, unless that would cause additional pain to the other person. We’re not entitled to open old wounds, or cause fresh injuries, in order to relieve ourselves of a bad conscience.

If our apology isn’t accepted the first time, the Shulchan Aruch tells us to go as many as three more times, finding a different way to offer our apology on each occasion and taking three people with us as witnesses. Presumably this is to testify to the sincerity of our endeavour, and, if it’s a public falling out, to make it clear that we’ve done our best to put matters right.

If, after all these attempts, our apology is still not accepted, then, says the Shulchan Aruch, eyno zakuk lo, we don’t need…’ It’s unclear whether the lo means ‘it’, that is, acceptance of our contrition, or ‘him’, the person from whom we’re seeking that acceptance. Regarding the latter, Jewish teaching is clear: we shouldn’t be hard-hearted and refuse to forgive, because ‘measure for measure, God is forgiving to those who forgive others.’

It’s hard when our apology is rebuffed. We want to have a clear conscience, but this leaves us troubled. Where do we stand? It’s not dissimilar when we can’t apologise, although we really want to, because the relevant person is no longer accessible to us, or is unaware of what we did and to tell them would inflict new wounds. Sometimes the best we can do is be honest with ourselves, share our remorse with a trusted friend, or speak to God.

There’s a ritual for apologising to those no longer alive; one goes to the grave taking witnesses and says ‘I’ve done wrong before God and you…’ This is an act of truth, an act of love.

But what about all those we can never know we’ve hurt, people who suffer because of our way of life, because we damage the world, because we ignore, or had no time for, their needs. What about the animals? They are sentient too. What about nature?

In the end our apologies need to be like boomerangs, returning to our heart and conscience, telling us to try to do better. They must motivate us to be less blind, less cruel, more generous, more embracing in our empathy, kinder, better people.

Selichah uMechilah – On Forgiveness and Letting Go

On Yom Kippur we say over and again, ‘Selcah lanu, mechal lanu, forgive us and pardon us.’ But are we ourselves forgiving and pardoning? Like they say about charity, forgiveness begins at home. It’s easy to be sentimental – and superficial – about it; but genuine, deep-reaching forgiveness for real hurts is hard.

Of course, many of life’s incidents are trivial, and the sooner we see them as such the better, letting go of our irritation with a ‘these things happen’ smile.

But when it comes to real wounds, forgiveness entails emotional generosity and courage. Moreover, since old sores tend to re-open in our memory, forgiveness is often something we have to struggle with many times over.

Forgiveness includes forgiving each other, life itself for its cruelties and injustice, and, sometimes hardest of all, ourselves. It does not include condoning wrongdoing and undermining responsibility and accountability.

To feel hurt and resentment is only human. In our worst moments we’re liable to turn Hillel’s famous line on his head, ‘Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you,’ and think instead, ‘I want to do back to those so-and-sos exactly the same hateful things they did to me!’

Hebrew has two terms for forgiveness. The first is selichah, which my teacher Rabbi Magonet explains as almost always referring in the Bible to God. The second is mechilah, pardon, a word found more often in rabbinic literature, which indicates the willingness to let go of our dignity and rights, including the ‘right’ to hold over others the threat of hurting them back for what they’ve done to us.

I find this idea of ‘letting go’ helpful. Forgiving another person doesn’t mean forgetting, let alone condoning, what happened. Rather, it entails letting go of our justified feelings of hurt and anger in favour of repairing our relationship. The motivation for such mechilah is the value we attach to that relationship. Recognising that our collegiality, companionship, or, in our closest relationships, the love we have for each other matters more than the hurt which has come between us, allows us to stop holding the incident over the other person’s head.

Instead, we can acknowledge it and try to learn from it so that the connection between us, including its mistakes and wounds, grows deeper. This is forgiveness at its best.

I believe something related can apply to forgiving ourselves. Because we’re only human, we’re unlikely to avoid carrying deep, in-the-flesh-and-bone feelings of shame and regret. Others may, or may not, have forgotten or forgiven; but either way we struggle to do so. Perhaps we can think of God, or life itself, as saying to us: ‘We matter deeply to each other. You’re only mortal, and it’s impossible to get everything right. Accept this humbling truth. Then, for the sake of the future, let your self-doubts and mistakes become your teachers, deepening your understanding and compassion for yourself and others, inspiring you to bring healing to life.

What, though of true wickedness and evil, which one should be extremely sceptical about associating with a word like forgiveness lest it be thought that they could ever be forgotten or condoned? These are wounds to humanity itself, and to the victims in particular, from which we have to hope, vainly it often seems, that humankind will learn for the future.

What, too, of life itself, with all its inequality and unfairness, the illness it often randomly inflicts, the untimely griefs it can bring, the way it puts hapless people in the wrong place at the wrong time, and makes millions, children included, carry pain in the heart for the rest of their lives? How can one forgive?

It’s understandable if people end up bitter.

But it’s a bad outcome. Sometimes we have to try to let go, simply because not to do so hurts more. We embrace, and asked to be embraced by, the spirit of compassion, the God of mercy, so that we can live not a bitter or hard-hearted but a generous and loving life.

Like so much else connected with forgiveness, it’s easily said, but a life-long task to do.

We Need to be Healers and Fighters

I wish everyone, our families, our friends, and our congregation Shanah Tovah. I pray for a good year for the whole Jewish community, all humanity, and all life in our beautiful, beleaguered world sheculo chal mipanecha, which both trembles and rejoices before God.

This year may we be healers. The world is full of wounds and the dangers that lie ahead, for Israel, for many countries and for nature are obvious. One’s heart weeps.

Healing is an art which often requires sophisticated skills. But in essence it’s simple; it’s based on just two words: ‘I care.’ But where do we start, when from all around there are ceaseless appeals and the very earth can feel like one great cry? In the ancient words of Rabbi Tarfon, the one choice we are not at liberty to make is to do nothing.

I believe we should focus on whoever it is in our nature to care about naturally. If we love children, do what you can for them. If we feel a special tenderness for older people, listen to them. If we love birds and animals, plant gardens, woods and meadows. The other day I saw a chair tied firmly to a lamppost outside a café. On it was a sign: ‘If you’re no longer so young, or walking is difficult, please take a rest. We care about you.’ What kindness! Caring is often expressed in seemingly small things, but the difference it makes is inestimable.

In these tough times, to be healers we must also be fighters. There is unavoidable suffering on earth. But there is also wanton cruelty: the brutality of aggressive war; the contemptuousness of race and gender hate; the despotic arrogance which seeks to crush justice and freedom; the despoliation of the earth which may benefit some but devastates others and destroys the viability of our planet. We must fight these wrongs, skilfully, determinedly, forcefully but peacefully, acknowledging that in some we too may be implicated.

At stake are Judaism’s core principles: that this is God’s earth for which we must care with respect, justice and compassion. The very essence and reputation of Israel, and of Judaism itself, are currently at stake.

From where do we draw our strength?

We do so from solidarity, hope, love and faith.

Solidarity and community are the basis of Jewish life, and of all society. Whether looking after the sick, combatting poverty, cleaning up local rivers or defending minorities, belonging to like-minded communities renews our resolve and restores our morale.

Hope, tikvah, is not airy optimism, but the elixir of vision, aspiration and action combined.

Love is our deepest motivation, God’s presence in our hearts, as we pray each day: ahavat olam, inspire us with eternal, inexhaustible love.

Faith is not pious dogma, but the awareness of the deep resilience of the human spirit, of Judaism, of life itself.

May we have the faith, love, hope and solidarity to be healers in the years ahead.

Can Anger be Consoling?

Yesterday was the fast of The Ninth of Av, the bleak commemoration of disaster. Tonight begins Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. I wish there was a little more space between these days, because I’m still struggling with the tell-tale signs of a hangover from the fast, backache and tiredness, and need a little longer to shift my thoughts. According to tradition, the morning after, the first half of the tenth of Av, retains a lingering subdued mood because the fires in Jerusalem still raged – as do the fires today across Europe’s forests.

Yet the immediate proximity of these two dates, not rare in the Jewish calendar, has challenged my understanding of what consolation means. We can find solace in wonder. Can we also find it in anger?

Wonder is the theme of this coming Shabbat. Its readings are filled with beauty. Isaiah’s call to consolation is among the most stirring passages in the entire Hebrew Bible. He begins, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people…Speak to the heart of Jerusalem…’ and ends, ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see who created all these, who brought them forth in all their hosts.’

The story is told of a hasid who said to his rabbi: ‘I’ve read thirty-six interpretations of that verse, but it was only when I looked up and saw, really saw, the magnificence of the stars that I understood.’ ‘You must write your explanation down,’ the rabbi insisted. ‘No,’ the hasid replied; ‘that would merely turn it into explanation thirty-seven.’

The world is full of wonder, in skyscapes, landscapes, music and poetry and in the grace of so many human interactions. We need that beauty to restore our soul and enable us to go on living.

But maybe we also need our anger. ‘I’m so furious,’ a friend said to me at the close of yesterday’s prayers. He was referring to the all too frequently heartless treatment of refugees. ‘Indignant’ might be a better term, but it feels too weak to describe the fire in the bones that refuses to let us be passive in the face of cruelty.

Yesterday I came across astonishing lines by the German-speaking poet of the Holocaust, Gershon ben David. He sees himself standing in silent fields, ‘pregnant’ with ashes of the slaughtered:

And I asked myself: am I
The keeper
Of my brother Cain

It’s a startling inversion. In Genesis, God challenges Cain to explain the whereabouts of his brother Abel whom he’s just murdered. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Cain notoriously retorts. But in the poem, it’s not the guilty party who’s challenged about his responsibility toward the innocent, but the innocent brother who’s questioned about his responsibility toward the guilty.

Are we, too, all keepers of those potential Cains who inhabit our world? I’m not thinking of murderers, but of those who exhibit the cruelty, or heedlessness, which seems to come so frequently to the fore across our societies these days? What, too, about the small part of Cain which may be present in ourselves, waiting for us to loosen our guard? Are we responsible towards these ‘brother’ Cains? What might that entail? Can we awaken in them a better self, someone, beneath all appearances, potentially merciful? If not, how can we best challenge and overcome them?

I fear we are indeed the keepers of our brothers Cain, external and internal. To fight them we need the energy of anger; we might call this ‘the anger of compassion’. How otherwise can we confront the destructive forces in our world? The art is not just to challenge them but, if and when possible, to turn them about so that they too become part of the work of nurturing life.

We need the solace of wonder to nourish our heart and spirit, and the energy of indignation to give courage to our conscience so that we join the struggle for what is just and right. In so doing, we gain the consolation of contributing whatever we can towards life and hope.

Why Tisha B’Av Matters

Some people call it Shabbat Katan, the ‘little’ or ‘diminished Shabbat’, but it’s more often known as Shabbat Chazon, ‘the Shabbat of the vision’. It’s not exactly a happy vision, though: Isaiah spells out what a society looks like when it ignores God’s demand for justice. The contemporary relevance of his warning is painfully explored in Noah Yuval Harari’s reflection from last week’s Haaretz (please note, this article is behind a paywall).

Isaiah’s prophecies make a challenging start to the week which includes Tishah B’Av, the 25 hour fast when we read Lamentations and recall the sacking of both temples in Jerusalem, the Crusades, expulsions and pogroms which have marked our fate.

What’s the point of remembering destruction? I don’t think the reason is to create a culture of victimhood, despite the fact that the Jewish People has, over millennia, so often been a victim of hatred, contempt and persecution. Despite this, Judaism has through thick and thin courageously maintained an ethos of responsibility and positive commitment. Therefore I believe the purpose is to look destruction and its horrors in the face and determine to do our utmost not to allow the world to be that way anymore.

I can’t help seeing Lamentations in double-vision. We read: starving children cry out to starving mothers, ‘Where are corn and wine?’ I think of the desolate alleys of a burnt-out Jerusalem where no one has the power to hold back the Babylonian soldiers any longer. Then I see pictures of Yemen, Somalia, and more. We read of the ruin of cities, and I see Mariupol, Bucha, and more.

Where is God amidst all this tragedy and evil? the rabbis asked, and continue to ask, over and again. Why does God let such things happen?

A famous Midrash imagines God summoning the ministering angels. God asks them: ‘What do human sovereigns do when a child of theirs has died?’ The angels answer: ‘They draw down the blinds, tear their garments and sit on the ground and weep.’ ‘Then I’ll shut up the heavens in darkness and do the same,’ says God.

Admittedly, this Midrash doesn’t answer the question of why God allows evil to happen. Instead, it speaks of a God who cries with us in every sorrow and whose tears fall with ours at every act of wanton destruction. It tells of a God who says, ‘It pains me terribly that my world should be like this.’ It depicts a God who suffers alongside humanity, and who therefore hopes and aspires alongside us too. It speaks of a God who says, ‘Let’s change the world, you and I.’

That, to my mind, is the point of remembering destruction: so that we determine to do our utmost for life in whatever field or manner lies within our power; so that we take into our hearts the presence of a God who weeps when life is squandered because God, too, loves life; so that we know and remember that this is what God wants of us most of all.

That’s why we hold that the Messiah is born on Tisha B’Av, and why it is the Sephardi custom to sweep our homes from midday on to make ready for the Messiah’s coming: Tisha B’Av is, strangely and paradoxically, the birthday of hope and determination.

That’s why, despite the fact that feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness often haunt me, I’m going to try to brush out of my spirit those thoughts of ‘can’t!’, ‘why bother?’, and ‘what’s the point?’

It’s why I’m determined to say, including to myself: If you can help one person, do it! If you can plant one tree, do so! If you can make one refugee, whom no one seems to want, feel wanted, do it! If you can let the wild flowers bloom that feed the insects that feed the birds, go and rejoice in them! ‘Kumah! Get up!’ we tell God whenever in our services we return the Torah scroll to the holy ark. I imagine God replying: ‘Yes, but you get up too. Get up, and I’ll get up with you. Care for my world, and I’ll care with you. Nurture one child, just one living thing, and I’ll be there right with you, in your heart and in your hands.’

Click here to listen to Rabbi Jonathan on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on Thursday 20 July.

How we tell our stories

There aren’t many roads in the north of Scotland, which is a good thing, but does have its problems. The going had been fine past Loch Ness, then everything stopped: a tree had fallen a few miles ahead and it would take three hours to clear the carriageway. We weren’t going to reach our destination before Shabbat, and anyway we’d miss the ferry.

‘There’s an alternative route,’ said Nicky, staring at the map, ‘a mere detour of 137 miles.’ We rethought our plans.

What makes a journey into a journey, rather than a set of random directions? Is life itself a journey, or a series of misadventures?

‘These are the journeys of the Children of Israel who left Egypt,’ says the Torah; ‘Moses wrote down where they left and where they were headed, by the mouth of God.’ (Numbers 33:1-2)

Really? Was everything truly God’s intention, including thirty-eight years of wandering in the desert, the frustrations over food and water, the quarrels with Moses and even with the Deity itself? Surely not!

But that’s not what the words mean, noted Nachmanides. ‘By the mouth of God’ refers not to where the people went but to how Moses wrote it all down.

It’s a penetrating comment. Whether we see our life as a God-given journey or a haphazard scramble may be less about what happens and more about how we write it down, how we tell ourselves our story in our head and heart.   

The other night Nicky and I, both exhausted, switched on the television to 24 Hours in A & E. An Afghan gentleman was brought in with dangerous levels of carbon dioxide and weakness in the limbs. The doctors told his weeping children it was probably Motor Neuron Disease.

His daughter spoke of how her father had loved his life as a fruit-picker in Afghanistan. Then came the Russian invasion: war everywhere. Her father went to London, always sending them money and occasionally visiting back home, until he could bring his family to Britain. Here he did menial work, making just enough to give his children a good education.

They kissed their dad as he was taken into intensive care. We are going to make sure he enjoys the rest of his life, they said.

Will they ‘write down his journeyings’ as: ‘He slaved away at miserable jobs far from the countryside he loved, and look what fate has dealt him’? Or will they say: ‘He sacrificed so much because he loved us so deeply. He brought us to safety and gave us a better life’? I’m sure it will be the latter.

And you and me? In what spirit do we tell the story of our life and the lives of those we love? The Talmud says that ‘everything is in the hands of heaven, except the fear of heaven.’ I take this to mean that we cannot necessarily determine what happens to us, but we do have some control over how we understand it.

Few of us are spared episodes at which we look back in sorrow or anger. But there’s all the difference between reviewing our whole life with regret, and reflecting on it in love. Probably we do a bit of both, depending on our mood. Of course, for some people there’s far more about which to feel justly pained. Even so, there are plenty of individuals who view with generous grace what must have been very tough lives.

‘I know I’m loved,’ were the last words of a young man I knew, before he was cut off in mid-life. He saw his hard journey as ‘by the mouth of God.’ Perhaps that’s the meaning of the rabbis’ phrase ‘died by God’s kiss.’

I’m deeply moved by people like that.

The voice of hope and courage

‘Go tell Jerusalem, “I remember the devotion of your youth, the faithful love of your bridal days, following me through an unsown land…” (Jeremiah 2:2) These are some of my favourite words.

In the Bible, they’re what God instructs Jeremiah to tell an imperilled Jerusalem. In my family, they’re the inscription on my grandmother’s grave. My grandfather fell in love with her at a Purim party. They had to wait through most of the First World War before they could marry. They fled Nazi Germany together to a – to them – unknown and unsown land, this England.

Romantic as they sound, the truth behind God’s words to Jeremiah is hard. God is frustrated. Jerusalem is on the brink of destruction, yet the people won’t listen. They put their trust in the wrong things; they refuse to change their ways. It’s scarcely the best time to speak of love.

Yet to God nothing is more important. So why does God do it? How do we? In a world full of reasons for anguish, how do we turn to healing and love?

These are questions which weigh on the soul at this challenging season of the Jewish year, the three weeks beyn hameytsarim, ‘in the straits’, between the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem and the sacking of the city by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Romans in 70 CE. How do we turn destructiveness into creativity and frustration into hope?

I struggle with these issues constantly. Things distress me: how will what’s happening in Israel ever lead to less hatred and more understanding? Things sadden me: tomorrow will be the 500th day of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Things madden me: why is there such heartless injustice? Why does so much money go into things which destroy nature, and so little into restoring it?

But there’s no point, no strength of morale, no leadership in venting such feelings. What, then, is the spiritual formula, the inner alchemy, which turns anguish into action and trepidation into inspiration?

It’s definitely doable. The NHS, seventy-five this week, was established in the wake of the Second World War. It’s our best loved public institution, and deserves to be, for all it’s done and continues to do for tens of millions. Choose Love, which supports thousands of homeless refugees, was created out of the ‘Jungle’ at Calais. The Psalmist’s hope has been vindicated time and again: ‘I lie down at night in tears, but the morning brings joy.’

What nourishes this resilience? The inspiration is all around us. We have only to see what so many people are doing. I get requests all the time: Join our campaign to protect Europe’s wild spaces. Write about free school meals for children whose cupboards at home are bare. Meet Ukrainian environmentalists planning how to rebuild greener. Support our work to bring together women leaders from across Israel’s society, orthodox, secular, Druse, Christian, Muslim. How can one not be moved by what so many good people do, sometimes in private, often in small local groups, but also nationally and internationally against the current, courageously?

As well as looking outwards, it’s also important to travel inwards. We need to go down, not, as can happen, to grey inner spaces, but deeper still, to the well of living waters, the inexhaustible flow of God’s spirit within us. Here at this hidden well, life cleanses the mind, heals the heart and renews the spirit.

Here we encounter the voice which says, ‘Leave anger and frustration. Don’t feel down and don’t give up. Remember that faithful love which has led so many generations through unsown lands. It will surely guide you too.’

It’s a voice we need to hear.

Blessing: the wonder and oneness of life

Dod Werner, Uncle Werner, as everyone called him, has not been alive for many years now. I believe he made it to 102. Whenever I was in Jerusalem, I would visit him and ask him to bless me. I don’t entirely know why, since he wasn’t actually my uncle, but that of a friend and colleague. It was something about him, his wisdom, his presence.

Dod Werner wasn’t a cohen, a priest, to whom as we read tomorrow, the Torah entrusts the privilege of bestowing the blessing beloved of people of all faiths:

May God bless you and keep you.

May God’s face shine upon you and give you grace.

May God’s face be turned toward you and grant you peace.

But there’s something greater than saying a blessing. It’s what God tells Abraham: ‘heyeh berachah, be a blessing.’ A much-quoted Midrash has God say to him: ‘until now the blessings were in my hands, henceforth they are in yours.’ Since Abraham is ‘the father of many nations’ this instruction is the prerogative of all humanity. More than that: it’s a commandment; it’s what we are here for, it’s life’s purpose.

According to the Shulchan Aruch, the sixteenth century definitive code of Jewish law, we should say at least one hundred blessings every day: ‘Bless you for opening the eyes of the blind, for clothing the naked, for enabling people to walk…’ It’s hard to avoid reciting them by rote.

But they remain a bulwark against taking life for granted. And suddenly, when one’s back goes and one can hardly walk, one realises that nothing should be taken as given. The Talmud recounts how two rabbis pay their respects to a blind scholar in a village through which they happen to be passing. Moved by their kindness, the man thanks them, saying: ‘May the One who sees but cannot be seen bless you who visited one who can be seen but cannot see.’ There’s grace and gratitude in those words.

But blessing is more than words, more even, writes Rachel Remen in her wonderful book My Grandfather’s Blessings, than ‘something that one person gives another.’ When we bless, we ‘touch the unborn goodness’ in each other: ‘A blessing is a moment of meeting…in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth.’

Last Tuesday night, unable to sleep, I read Adam Kirsch’s ‘Can humans ever understand how animals think?’ Then I dreamt of how important it is to bless and feel blessed not just by humans, but by animals too. When the time comes, I’d like to spend some of my old age in their company, humbled, simplified, blessed by their presence.

Looking deeper at God’s instruction to Abraham, heyeh berachah, I realise that heyeh is composed of three of the letters in God’s name, Yod Heh Vav Heh, letters which also form havayah, the Hebrew word for ‘being’. When we bless truly, God is present, the being at the heart of all being. In blessing, life touches life in a moment of togetherness deeper than all the accidents, differences and injuries of this world.

The mystics relate berachah, blessing, with berechah, pool, the hidden reservoir from which life flows down through all existence. We cannot bless while we harbour arrogance or anger. Life won’t flow through us then.

Blessing is a moment of trust and entrusting, of fidelity and companionship with life. Words of blessing are important; we need to tell people how much we cherish and care for them. But blessing at its deepest has no words. It is known in the heart: a silent shared acknowledgement of the wonder and oneness of life.

Be on the side of life

These two times ‘I’ may be all the world needs. The first is ‘I am’ and the second is ‘I shall.’ But beyond them waits a third, the terrible sentence of Cain.

The first anochi, ‘I am,’ is the opening word of the Ten Commandments, which we will read next Friday morning on Shavuot, the Festival of the Giving of the Torah. The description of the scene at Sinai moves me greatly, the cloud over the mountain, the rising cry of the shofar, the voice of God from nowhere and everywhere, saying Anochi, ‘I’.

When they heard that ‘I am,’ wrote Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger, (1847 – 1905) when they experienced that ‘I am your God’, not just the Children of Israel but every living being felt it was addressed directly to them. More than that, they felt it was them, the voice at the very core of them, the holiness in the essence of all life.

Those simple words ‘I am your God’ say something deeper than the divine equivalent of ‘Look, this is me!’ They are not really words at all, but the translation into human language of a truth at the centre of all existence. They are vitality itself, the very articulation of the sacred energy which flows through all organic beings, giving them form, life, consciousness and the gift of time.

Therefore, the presence of God, – perhaps it’s less daunting to call it the sacred, the special, -can be felt in all things, in our fellow human beings, in our companion creatures on this earth, in the trees, in meadows, in a tiny flowering plant, even an insect.

This is the first, and most definitive, ‘I am,’ the life of all life.

The second anochi, ‘I’, is what Judah says to his father Jacob to persuade him to entrust Benjamin to his care and allow him to go with his brothers back down to Egypt to buy grain and stave off starvation. Anochi e’ervenu, he says, ‘I shall stand surety for him.’ (Bereshit 43:9) Send the boy with me; I’ll look after him.

I hear about that second anochi almost every day, and often witnessed with my own eyes: ‘I’ll commit to that,’ ‘I’ll take care.’ They’re simple words, but what they represent is not so easy, a combination of awareness, kindness, and the readiness to take responsibility.

I saw only part of the film Mo Farah is making about his life. Alongside those who trafficked him to the UK and enslaved him in domestic service were those who heard him, listened and strove to protect and love him. ‘I’ll stand surety for him,’ they said.

We hold innumerable lives in our hands. The great question, the issue which will define the future of humanity, is whether we can say ‘I’ll stand up for you,’ and mean it truly. That ‘you’ may be a child. But it may also be an orphaned or mal-treated animal, a local park, a meadow. I’ve met people who treasure the tiniest creatures, looking after with wonder. What matters is that we are on the side of life, engaged in heart, practical in our care.

These two words, God’s ‘I am’ and our answer ‘I shall’, may be all we need to find our path through life.

But against them, louring, is a third anochi, the ‘Am I?’ of Cain: ‘Hashomer achi anochi? Am I my brother’s keeper?’ He’s the prototype of those treacherous perpetrators who stalk our future with their byline: Why should I care who I hurt or kill?

That’s why it matters absolutely, always to be on the side of life.

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