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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spiritual Resilience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom

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

Jonathan Wittenberg

 

Therapy for madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Hidden Lights of Chaunukah

Sunday brings the first night of Chanukkah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Would Abraham have protested fracking?

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

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

There’s a good chance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ode to Wonder; set this on your heart

The Hebrew Bible opens with delight in life. The first chapter of the Torah is a great celebration. Were it a scientific account of the process of creation we would have to find it wanting, absurd. But it’s not; it’s an ode to wonder:

Let there be light, let the partnership of day and night bring dawn and twilight to the gathering waters in seas and rivers and streams. Let sunlight cause the seeds to germinate and rainfall make them grow. Let the sun guide the seasons, the moon rule the tides, and the stars illumine the night.

May there be birds to feed on the fruit-bearing trees and fish in the cold depths of the oceans. May there be deer, secretive and swift; and horses and wolves:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings… (Gerald Manley Hopkins, Pied Beauty)

Created amidst this abundance, human beings are celebrated too. We have the unique responsibility of being formed in God’s image, perceptive, articulate, intelligent, capable of moral discernment, creation and destruction, generosity and love – there is no consensus about what ‘In God’s likeness’ means. Except that, like God, human beings possess inherent kavod, dignity, which we are expected to uphold towards ourselves in all own conduct and honour and respect in all others.

Life is good, not just the first, but every day. The flow of time, evening and morning; the sharing between humans and animals of the fruit of the land and trees; the inter-dependence and overall balance of nature: God looks at it all, blesses it and sees that it is ‘very good’.

God appoints human beings to rule; to do so by means of avodah, – work, respect and reverence, and shemirah, – observation, awareness and nurturing care.

These opening verses are worth laying on our hearts in a world of violence and vulgarity. They are worth remembering in a week when no less a figure than the President of The United States of America mocks, – not just questions, legitimately and fairly, but mocks and derides – the testament of a woman who has come forward with serious allegations against a man who could hold decisive powers for decades, while around him everyone jeers. We should lay them on our hearts when the President of Russia lies and lies again, and the essential tasks of caring for our world are relegated before the vanities of power and ignored.

The mystics teach that God’s speech in creation is not a once-off ‘God said’ pitched in the past tense. It is present and continuous: we can hear it the flow of a stream, the cry of a bird, the whinnying of horses, the intake of our own breath. God’s sacred speech is the vitality which animates all existence, the energy latent in all matter, the potential in all life.

More and more these days, I intuit that voice not just as a statement but a plea: Hear me! Listen to me! Heed me in all nature; honour me in every human life!

We have choices, constantly. We can destroy, or protect and create.

The beginning of Bereshit, the ode to wonder which opens the Hebrew Bible, summons us to stand, with vigilance, urgency, determination, curiosity and joy, on the side of creation.

 

 

 

Our relationship with God

‘God, where can I find you?’ asked the great Jewish poet from Spain, Yehudah Halevi, in the opening of one of his most famous poems, before continuing, ‘And God, where can I find you not?’

Over the millennia Jews have called out to, hoped in, searched for, found, lost and felt abandoned by God in countless ways. Of all generations, perhaps ours have it hardest. This is not because we live in the most testing times; we don’t. Rather, scientific knowledge offers causal explanations for almost everything, while the history of collective suffering makes it hard to believe that a beneficent deity can possibly exist. I recall hearing Claude Landsman’s reply to a questioner who suggested, following a showing of his remarkable film Shoah, that the Holocaust was a punishment for the Jewish People: he simply said ‘You are being obscene’. I agree.

Yet we and God have never given up on one another.

I don’t find my God as the Keeper of Justice of history, though I wish that were so. I often can’t find God either in the fates which overtake individuals: accidents, strokes, dementia. God is not a tool to iron life’s injustices into a smooth fabric of fairness and goodness. I don’t believe in a God who needs children to die, young people to have cancer or millions to go hungry each day.

Yet, I believe God is in those places. Wherever there is suffering, we can hear not one voice, but two. There is this special person, her life, her family, her struggle. And there is the presence of God in her, the unique way the consciousness which fills all life fills hers; how it seeks to help her find strength, understanding, healing. That voice, God’s voice, calls out from every person, every creature which suffers, asking:

Where are the human beings, in whose hearts I say constantly: “Be compassionate! Be Just!” Where are they? Where are my partners, my agents in this world?

Too often that voice goes unheard.

Those who say, ‘God is at home in the world’ are wrong, wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel, the twentieth century mystic and social activist, who hated complacency: ‘God is not at home in this world’.

I half agree. I think God is always at home, yet always not at home.

If you walk among trees at night you can hear God’s presence in the sap and the branches. That cry is not just an owl; it’s the call of wonder in creation. God is in everything which inspires awe; God is in the human spirit. It’s all God’s home.

God is also here in all suffering; God suffers alongside. God is in the pleading face, the bowed over beggar, the shaking hand which holds the cardboard cup for a ten pence piece, a pound. God was there too in the sad history which led this person to drink or destitution, to flee home and be a refugee ever after.

That is the God who is not at home in this world, the God who says in the universal language of everything which evokes pity: ‘I don’t want it to be like this. Heal this wrong. End this hurt. Change the world!’

We are all trustees of God’s will. God may not reach down into history, but God does reach into our hearts. We must meet and hear God there. That is a key purpose of prayer. Prayer is silencing the noise to listen to God in our hearts.

Harold Kushner wrote that the essential issue for the spiritual person is not ‘the existence of God but the importance of God, the difference that God makes in the way we live’. I hope we hear God this Yom Kippur and that it changes how we live.

 

 

The sound of the shofar and the breath of creation

It is the custom to blow the shofar every day (except Shabbat) during the month of Elul at the close of the morning prayers. So I picked up my shofar early this morning, then remembered the tacit agreement in our household, tacit being the word, that none was to blow the shofar before 9.00 am.

Instead, I simply breathed into the shofar, with no pressure, as I would breathe an ordinary breath. To my surprise, the shofar wasn’t silent, though I’m sure it wasn’t so loud that anybody else could hear it. It made a sound like a gentle breeze across fields or through a grove of trees on a still, calm day. Very quietly, the shofar sang.

It reminded me of a passage by the Hasidic teacher Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piazetsner Rebbe:

The fundamental reason all beings are created is so that they should sing, for in this way they reveal the greatness of God. Every single created being sings, as we know from The Chapter of Song. Thus, each and every being reveals a spark of the glory of the God of blessings.                      (Derech Hamelech to Rosh Hashanah)

The Chapter to which he refers ascribes words from the Bible to all existence, from the seas and rivers to the eagle and the swallow, whose lyrics are: ‘So that my soul may sing to you and not be silent’.

I always think of the shofar as coming from the depths of creation. Formed from the horn of a ram or mountain goat, its rough, un-honed cry calls of the bond which unites all nature, animal and human. It speaks without words of our bare and basic togetherness in this world of cold and warmth, food and hunger, life and death. The breath which flows through the shofar resonates with the ruach, the breath or spirit which breathes through all life, the spirit of God which hovered over the face of the deep in the beginning and which creates and sustains all living being. It calls us home to the sacred within ourselves, and in all life.

More than in any other section, the Torah speaks this week of our responsibility towards animals: not to ignore a lost ox or sheep; not to turn a blind eye toward a donkey collapsing beneath its burden; not to take a mother bird from the nest with its young and so hasten the extinction of its species; not to harness an ox and ass together, making a mockery of their unequal strength. The Torah and Talmud understood well what Jeremy Bentham later expressed: that the issue is not whether animals are intelligent or able to talk, but that, like us, they are susceptible to suffering.

The shofar calls us back to the bond of life. For too long a utilitarian attitude to nature has prevailed: How much land can I make mine? How much milk can I squeeze from each cow? Farmers do have to make a living in extremely hard times. But if a solely exploitative attitude prevails, humankind will suffer and perhaps perish alongside the world we abuse.

The Mishnah considers whether the shofar blown on the New Year should be pashut – ‘simple’, or kafuf’- ‘curved round’. Tradition decided in favour of the latter, seeing in the shape of such a shofar the image of a person bowed in prayer: ‘The more one humbles oneself the better.’

We need that humility. It’s not the humility of passivity or resigned subservience. It’s the humility of understanding, of realising that the breath which flows through us is part of the same gift, the same song which sings in all creation.

 

Praying with the sea and the wild deer

I have always loved Psalm 27, the special Elul and High Holyday meditation. But yesterday I got no further than the first three words: ‘To David: God, you are my light…’

The light was indeed wonderful across the far north west of Scotland. With glorious disregard for the dismal weather forecast, the sun shone bright across the mountains and the sea. So I set out for an early run and soon found myself alone on the half-mile curve of orange sand where the ocean yields to the hills and glens at Gairloch, There weren’t even any footprints, save the paw marks of a lucky dog who’d been out at dawn to race the white-crested waves.

It hadn’t been my plan when I set out, but I stopped to say shacharit. True, there weren’t the requisite ten people for the quorum. But how often in a life does one have for one’s prayers the company of the sand and the sea, the mountains, the forests, the clear air, the wind and the brightness of sunlight over the bay?

And God was here amidst this simple beauty, and it felt as if in response to my Shema, ‘God, you are one’, God was answering, ‘Yes, I am here; this is my home amidst this wonder. Recognise me; remember me wherever you are, and don’t let all your other thoughts block me out of your heart and mind.’

Later that day, at a roundabout where two major routes through the Highlands meet, we saw two young stags, calmly chewing the grasses and sedge by the road verge, unperturbed, contemptuous almost of all these high-velocity human interlopers; knowing with the same instinct with which they skipped nonchalantly over the tall fences, who is at home in these wild and wet lands and who is not; beautiful.

Had there been time I would have made them my companions in prayer for the afternoon minchah meditation. Instead, I simply looked. I didn’t look with my frequent worried eyes of ‘what’s expected of me and what am I supposed to do?’ I didn’t look with the selfish eyes of ‘what’s in it for me and mine?’ I just looked.

For those moments God was my light.

Now, back home in this Elul month of preparation before Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, a simple prayer flows through me; I’d like it to sing inside me like a clear mountain stream as it tumbles over rocks and through pebbles: Tahareni; purify me.

Help me to see to the quick of life, its wonder, its beauty. Give me eyes of openness and appreciation. Then may my attitude, my words and deeds, reflect back gratitude and kindness. May my response be care and consideration, and courageous compassion for this precious world and this brief time in which to know and cherish it.

God, be my light, to see all life in your light. For, though that light seems brighter and your song clearer where the small birds swoop over the shallow river as it flows from the loch to the sea, you are the heart of everything, all human life, all life.

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