What the donkey saw

Before we moved home, the way back from the synagogue lead through the local park which was open all the time. Our previous dog Safi loved this part of the walk. But one pitch dark night he lay down at the entrance and flatly refused to move. ‘You sense something wrong,’ I thought and, although for myself I could see nothing amiss, I took his advice and chose a different route.

In tomorrow’s Torah reading, Balaam’s donkey sees what he, the famous seer who commands a high fee to foresee the future, cannot. Three times the donkey ‘sees’ and three times Balaam punishes her, for what proves to be his own blindness.

What in life do we notice; what do we fail to perceive?

In A Passage to India two of E M Forster’s very British characters ask themselves, bewildered by a culture they cannot fathom:

Were there worlds beyond which they could never touch, or did all that is possible enter their consciousness?

Not everything possible enters our awareness and, like Balaam, we often punish those who inconvenience us with their deeper, or more challenging, perceptions.

God eventually makes Balaam’s donkey speak, a miracle, say the rabbis (who were generally suspicious of such supernatural interventions) prepared since the six days of creation. Balaam seems not the least surprised and enters unperturbed into a domestic quarrel with his ass.

One wonders what else the poor animal in her long experience of humility and humiliation might have known but never expressed. Perhaps, in an analogous manner, those wiser around us refrain from telling us what they understand all too well, realising that we will only react in defensive anger to the futile attempt to make us understand. Why should they suffer the snub of our insensitivity?

In the end God performs a second opening, this time of Balaam’s eyes. The seer finally sees. For most of us, the challenge of deepening our faculties of perception not just in our eyes but in our hearts, takes far longer. It belongs to the essence of our life’s journey.

Interestingly, neither of Hebrew’s two words for ‘open’ is used here, neither petach, often employed to describe the opening of the heart, nor pekach, the unveiling of the eyes in deeper discernment.

Rather, God ‘revealed’ to Balaam his own eyes. He finally notices what stands right before him, the angel blocking his path which his donkey had long noted – and taken those evasive steps to avoid which had so irritated her owner.

‘Reveal’ is a powerful term to use for so basic a perception. But revelation often lies in the simplest things. ‘I saw it, but didn’t really see; I looked, but never noticed’: we could all apply such sentences to ourselves, many times over.

There’s wonder in such moments of perception, like the friend who was told by the previous gardener: ‘After three months working here you’ll see kingfishers’, and, literally on the day he completed his third month, he saw them, and not because there’d been no kingfishers there before.

There’s compassion in such deeper comprehension, as when we begin to see into life in a manner we hadn’t before, like Moses, whose existence was turned inside out when he ‘saw into’ the sufferings of the slaves who’d been labouring next to the palace all the time. Or like the man who told me that when he was supporting his wife through her illness whole worlds opened up before them, offers of help, addresses to turn to, commiseration, encouragement. Then, he said, he saw into the lives of others with a gentler and kinder perception which, he confessed, he hadn’t found in himself before.

Open my heart, reveal my eyes, to see and feel the world with wonder and compassion

 

‘If this is a man?’ Primo Levi, the Torah, refugees…

If This Is A Man, the searing question which forms the title of Primo Levi’s first and most powerful testimony, has never gone away.

It points in two directions. It focuses on the victims. Can wretchedness grind the humanity out of a human being?

Consider whether this is a man…
Who labours in mud / Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread / Who dies at a yes or no. (Primo Levi: Shema)

An American colleague, Menachem Creditor, outraged at the separation of families, wrote a personal prayer for last Wednesday’s International Refugee Day:

God, we know there is little chance these poor children, newly huddled tender masses, will be reunited with their parents, little chance these terrorized parents will hold their children again…

I remember standing some years ago at the Hoek of Holland with ‘children’ who travelled that way on the Kindertransport, at the unveiling of a memorial. ‘It was an act of mercy’ one of them said. ‘And it was an act of cruelty: think of the parents…’

Levi’s question focuses equally on the perpetrators. Are we still human if we mock, beat, and kill? Is it human to allow other human beings to drown, starve, weep in lonely desperation?

The three simple words ‘this’, ‘Torah’, and ‘Adam’ – occur twice in immediate sequence in the Hebrew Bible. Together they form the statement: ‘This is the teaching of what it means to be human’. What is that teaching?

The first time the words appear together is in the description of ritual impurity occasioned by death: ‘This is the Torah, when a man dies in the tent’ (Numbers 19:14). But their meaning is incomparably broader that that context: ‘This is the teaching for humans who are mortal’.

The inference could be that we needn’t bother. We all die in the end, so why make an effort? Neither the Bible, Jewish wisdom, any other faith, nor our plain humanity has ever understood matters that way.

We are physical, vulnerable, mortal beings. We get hungry, lonely and frightened. We want comfort, company, community. If these are our needs, they must be those of everyone else also. So what are we going to do about it? Just as we hate others doing nothing when we suffer, so we must not do nothing when others are in trouble:

Never say: “What am I and what difference can my actions make?” Everyone needs to understand, know, and fix firmly in their heart that all their thoughts, words and actions are never lost…Every one of them makes an impact… (Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin)

He was thinking of the second sequence of the three words, ‘this’, ‘Torah’ and ‘man’. This time the context is a basic existential question posed by King David: ‘Who am I?’ he asks God. How come I’m the recipient of so much privilege? Is ‘this the Torah of the human being, Lord God…’? (2 Samuel 7:18-19)

His words point to the other facet of mortal existence: to be human is to partake of God. To live is to embody a fragment of divine life; to feel life’s boundlessness flows through our consciousness; to apprehend wonder, know love and experience the fathomlessness of pity. We are mortals yet traversed and transformed by what is immortal.

If so, how can we let the lives of others be stymied by misery and their children be prevented from reaching out in joy and wonder towards the world?

 

The goodness in bread

Food is wonderful; but it takes a lot to beat a really good loaf of bread. Nothing quite equals a hunk of challah on Shabbat or a good thick slice of granary on a weekday. Even the dog always wants to share.

The Torah had much to say about dough, long before Masterchef made cooking cool, or The Great British Bake-Off turned the kitchen into a theatre for brilliance and bravado:

When you eat the bread of the land, raise a gift up to God (Numbers 15:19)

That gift is the original challah, which in the Biblical context means the portion of dough given to the priests. Like the first wool from the sheep, it was a tax for the civil service, as the priests effectively were while the Temple still stood.

I fondly remember studying the relevant tractate of the Mishnah with Libbi for her Bat mitzvah. Appropriately titled ‘Challah’, it discusses what grains are used for bread, what percentage of dough is taken, and, our favourite passage, how, if shepherds bake specially and solely for their dogs, no challah is given; whereas if they share the bread with their much-deserving hounds the gift for the priests must be taken.

Nowadays, only a residual of the rite remains: a blessing for ‘separating challah from the dough’ before a small portion is put aside in the oven to burn.

But bread remains essential, and we should still ‘raise up a gift’ when we eat it.

In Biblical times, the corners of the fields, fallen ears and forgotten sheaves were all left for the poor, refugees and the indigent old. The Mishnah tells how they would wait patiently for the harvest, so that they could glean.

I wish we too left corners in our fields, not because the hungry in today’s world are going to go there and wait, but for the meadow birds, for the animals vanishing for want of long grass, wild flowers and grain. The world would be desolate without bees or birdsong, in substance and in soul.

I wish every supermarket, bakery, restaurant and coffee shop, where most of us regularly buy more than plenty, had a clear sign on every counter which said: ‘It’s an ancient and just practice to give a small percentage of what you spend on yourself for those who have no food’. Most of us would give, at least some of the time.

I wish I said the blessing ‘hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz – who brings forth bread from the earth’ more sincerely more often. Blessing is recognition. When we bless one another, we notice and encourage the good within us; when we bless God for bread, we acknowledge that it’s not ours solely by right, but as a gift. ‘The earth is God’s’, teaches the Talmud; blessing is the expression of gratitude which makes us fit to enjoy it.

I’m glad so many in our communities cook for destitute asylum seekers, for friends, and strangers, who are ill, grieving, or under stress; and that we have our ‘challah project’ in which whole teams bake challot every week and take them to people’s homes before Shabbat, to say ‘we’re thinking of you’, in special moments of sadness or joy.

I’ll never forget how years ago, when I walked north along the Rhine carrying the flame from my grandfather’s former synagogue in Frankfurt with which to light the Eternal Lamp in our new building, my blood sugar ran low. Being diabetic, I urgently had to find the nearest source of food. The only place within miles was a castle with an exclusive restaurant. Seeing me, mud-covered, with a backpack and a dog, the waiter simply turned and disappeared. I couldn’t blame him and was about to leave, when he came back with a basket filled with many kinds of bread and fruit. ‘No’, he said as I made to pay, ‘It’s for your pilgrimage’.

 

My lamp is in your hands

Beha’alotecha – the opening word of this week’s Torah reading – matters to me, troubles me and moves me.

‘When you kindle the lamps’ doesn’t quite capture the subtlety of the Hebrew. A precise translation is ‘When you cause the lamps to ascend’. The reference is to the daily task of replenishing and lighting of the seven branched Menorah in the holy precincts of the Tabernacle.

But a pithy Midrash extends the meaning to the entire expanse of life: ‘Neri beyadecha, venerecha beyadi: My lamp is in your hands; your lamp is in mine’. The speaker is God and the lamp referred to here is every soul and spirit, the Temple of each life. It burns with the sacred vitality of everything which breaths; it illumines to our heart and conscience the path we are to walk.

‘My lamp is in your hands’ speaks of the responsibility we have, first and foremost, to what is most precious in our own self. Etti Hilesum understood this intuitively. After receiving the dreaded deportation order which forced her to leave her beloved Amsterdam, she wrote in her diary:

[T]hat is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. (July 1942)

But the lamp in our hands is also God’s sacred presence in the life of others. That light often, maybe all too often, rests in the cusp of our trust, – in our partner, children, friends, the animals, even the breathing trees. The destiny of this entire living, breathing world has fallen within our power and become our constant responsibility. It lies within our capability to kill, maim, belittle, degrade, uproot, destroy; to love, nurture, respect, inspire and plant. If God is present in all that lives, then, too, a part of God lies within the circumference of our capacity to hurt.

That is why beha’alotecha, causing the flame on the lamp to ascend is so critically important. Our task is not to extinguish or diminish its light, but to enable the flame of life to burn more purely and more truly. Every deed of kindness, the most ordinary, in-the-street, any-time-of-day-or-night goodness, is a curling of the hands around the light of a friend, child, frightened animal, bird with a wounded wing. Every act of wanton cruelty spits on the flame of another being’s soul.

It is the challenge of living by this knowledge, this reality, which is captured in the Hebrew word for faith, emunah. It does not refer to a set of mental convictions, but to a way of life, an approach to every interaction deriving from a heartfelt respect for the vulnerability of all beings, from a daily humility before the simple task of honouring all life, its tenderness, wounds and dreams.

From where does the inspiration come even to try to live in this manner? ‘Your lamp is in my hands’, says God. One feels this – in quiet moments among the trees, in the silence of listening, the quiet of meditative prayer, in noticing a kindness. In the music of such moments our own inner flame is restored:

For the quiet joy of breathing and of living,
Tell me, to whom have I to give my thanks?
(Osip Mandestam: Stone, 8, trans. R. H. Morrison)

 That’s what existence is for: to cause the flame of the lamp, in ourselves, those we love, life itself, to ascend.

 

The greatest blessing – to notice our blessings?

This is the week of the Torah’s most beautiful blessing, loved by Jews and Christians alike:

May God bless and keep you; May God’s presence shine upon you and give you grace; May God’s presence be turned towards you and bring you peace.

I remember most poignantly going to see my father for his blessing on the Eve of Yom Kippur in the final years of his life. It meant far, far more than any mere formula; it was a kind of alignment of his love, the love and spirit of the generations of the family, and the hope for God’s grace and guidance, touching my head through his hands, and my heart and conscience through the ancient words. I have carried that blessing with me, most often as encouragement, but sometimes also as chastisement, in all the years since. I hope it reaches and touches the souls of the children.

But what exactly is a blessing? It’s easy to speak about when we say them and what precise words we’re supposed to employ. But what does ‘blessing’ itself actually mean? It was to this subject that we devoted the many discussions of our retreat just two weeks ago.

Berachah, berech, bereichah, ‘blessing’, ‘knees’, ‘pool of water’: seemingly unlikely partners in English, in Hebrew the three words derive from the same root. They are evidently inter-related, but how? Based on a lecture she had heard, one of the participants demonstrated a literal connection, acting out the sequence of finding a pool of cool water in a desert, falling down on one’s knees and prostrating oneself to drink, before thanking God for this life-giving moment.

Or perhaps the bereichah, the pool, does not refer to not a physical gathering of waters, but rather to the flow of vitality from the invisible reservoir of spirit by which all life is nourished. ‘My soul thirsts for You’, says the Psalmist: ‘Like a deer longing for streams of water, so my whole being longs, God, for You’. I sometimes think it’s the closest we know to the presence of God, when a new alertness, a deeper awareness, quickens us as if from the inside of our own mind.

It’s similar with the artist’s prayer when feeling helpless and useless in an arid zone of zero creativity, like T S Eliot on Margate Sands where he ‘can connect Nothing with Nothing’. Then, as if all at once and from nowhere, the words, the music flow again.

But blessings are not only from above to below. They also flow between us, and sometimes from below to above. We pondered God’s words to Abraham, ‘Be a blessing’. How is he, how are we supposed to do that? What does ‘be a blessing’ mean? Rachel Remen addresses exactly this question in her beautiful book My grandfather’s Blessings:

When we recognise the spark of God in others, we blow on it with our attention and strengthen it, no matter how deeply it has been buried or for how long. When we bless someone, we touch the unborn goodness in them and wish it well…A blessing is a moment of meeting, a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth, and strengthen what is whole in one another. (p. 5, p. 6).

The final word of the priestly blessing is indeed ‘Shalom’, peace, from a root which means ‘whole’: ‘May God make you whole’.

But what is wholeness, when life so often grinds us down or breaks us apart? ‘Nothing is more whole than the heart which is broken’ said the hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, known to have suffered from depressions. It’s what opens us out which makes us most deeply human. Sometimes it’s what seems to break us, which makes the deepest inner wellspring of blessing flow out towards others in recognition and compassion.

Yet that must not make us forget the simple blessings of sights and scents and actions, – for tree blossom, fruits, mountains, and lightning; for being able to open our eyes, get out of bed, put on clothes, – gifts so ordinary we’re in danger of appreciating them only when we no longer have them.

Perhaps the deepest blessing is to be the kind of people who notice our blessings.

 

The Teaching of Life: tears and solidarity

There is one quality associated incomparably more than any other with Torah, the teachings, law and lore at the heart of Jewish existence: life. The Torah is Torat Chaim, the Torah of life. For its inspiration flows from the same invisible springs and currents which nourish all life, feeding the roots of the trees of forests and orchards, inspiring the heart, flowing through all living beings.

Consequently, the Torah is equally Torah Hesed, the Torah of faithful kindness, of a compassion which includes an urgent sense of justice. For how can the Torah of life require anything other than that we should respect, nurture and cherish all life? This is the ideal of which the prophet Isaiah dreamt in an ancient version of ‘Imagine’ when he saw a world in which ‘None shall hurt or destroy in all [God’s] holy mountain’.

Throughout the millennia, as Jewish teachers and communities have studied the Torah, understood as God’s word and the expression of God’s will, they have interpreted, re-interpreted and sometimes deliberately mis-interpreted its apparent meanings in the light of these overriding values: life, compassion, justice.

Yet this very week, as we approach Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah of Life, there has been bitter hatred and terrible killing. Whatever our politics, religion or identity, we must mourn these terrible wounds in the body and heart of our collective humanity.

The Talmud speaks of God weeping. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto, wrote in March 1942 of God withdrawing to the inner chambers to weep. He counsels those who feel terrified and alone to seek God there, in those interior spaces of the spirit.

Over the last five years it has become clear that we live at a time of a renewed and aggressive politics of identity. It is manifest in different, but inter-related ways, across much of the globe. It incites in us a visceral reaction to stand only with our own; to draw up lines of defence, internally as well as externally; to recall our universalist hopes or fantasies and batten down our moral imagination. It is hard to resist these reactions.

Yet we are also drawn to an inner space in which we hear life’s tears, the sorrows of those whose children have been killed; or whose sons have to go to the dangerous front lines of the army; or who have no homeland, or home; who face the brutal police of violent regimes, who are on the wrong side of the guns of vicious, racist militias. With us in that same space are those who devote their very souls to care for the ill, get food to hungry families, imagine how to give shelter to the destitute. There too are the people, from across the globe, who strive to protect the very earth which nourishes us, its animals, fishes, trees and meadowlands, and who mourn in the barren spaces where birdsong used to be.

I believe we can, and must, try to find each other there, not just because we each have cause to weep, but because, even more deeply, we are united by the love of life, the desire for life to thrive. The teaching of life and compassion, as Torah, Gospel, Koran, or as an agnostic sense of wonder and awe, calls us into fellowship to serve humanity, the earth and the life it sustains, and, if we so believe, the God of this rich and unfathomably intricate and inter-connected creation. We can only do so together; we can only maintain hope together, and, because we stand together, we can affirm to each other that no good, compassionate, creative action we undertake is too small to matter.

That, I believe, is what the giving and receiving of Torah truly means, on this festival of Shavuot.

Between cruelty and wonder: how we treat life

I’ve woken up with a divided spirit these last few days.

I go out into the garden we are privileged to care for, in this most beautiful of seasons, and feel wonder. Already this morning I’ve seen sparrows, great tits, blue tits, parakeets and a jay. I know the blackbirds are eating the raisins I spread on the lawn. Maybe I’ll get another glimpse of the wren I spotted earlier. Yesterday a woodpecker came to the feeder opposite the window of my study; I stopped all else and watched.

There are bluebells, and the rhododendrons, my favourite, are stunning. When I was a small boy in Scotland, our neighbours had a huge rhododendron. I would put the fallen pink white flowers like little bells over my fingers and feel the drops of dew inside them run down my hands. I think of this now as a blessing from life itself, which is exactly what it was.

Kadosh, ‘holy’, is the dominant word in the sections of the Torah we are currently reading: Be holy, because I, your God, am holy’. The sacred spirit of life flows through all existence, life’s secret essence from God, Chei ha’olamim, life of all worlds. It is not directly perceptible. Since we never hear or see it, we may conclude that it doesn’t exist. Today we can describe in accurate materialist terms the cause of virtually all phenomena. We don’t need mystery, or holiness, to explain the inexplicable away. But if we choose to live without sensitivity to life’s spirit we have less space for reverence, wonder, humility and joy. Our life and our world are diminished.

The other part of me wakes up reflecting on yesterday’s interactions. In one single day this week I spoke to three people, each of whom had been tortured, each in a different country. One of them, in response to a question about whether she now had sufficient support, simply put her head in her hands and wept.

Nicky and I have been watching late at night the BBC’s serialisation of Wilkie Collins’s gripping novel, The Woman in White. The subtle and brilliant portrayal of cruelty disturbs me greatly. I’ve witnessed several times the aftermath of pain when men have calculatedly, unashamedly, instrumentalised, humiliated, and treated with cunning physical and emotional contempt women, sometimes children, with little power to evade their control.

Nature, too, is full of cruelty. I was driving to a memorial service for a young woman murdered by her husband when right in front of me a bird of prey flew down and snatched from the verges a helpless rabbit which it carried away, writhing in its claws. The image abides with me, an evil emblem.

The opposite of honouring life’s sanctity is desecration, hillul. The Torah enjoins us not to desecrate God’s holy name. This isn’t about ritual piety. It’s an appeal to recognise and respect God’s presence in all life, human life first and foremost, but also throughout creation.

Any act, however small, which enhances the awareness of life’s value is a sanctification of God’s name, Kiddush Hashem. Any act which shows contempt for life’s sacred value is a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

When any of us behaves with the intention to harm, with deliberate cruelty, or negligent callousness, we strip life of its beauty and void it of its preciousness. When any of us tries to nurture, cherish, honour, heal and love life in any of its forms, we deepen the presence of reverence and wonder. We honour the sacred spirit which flows through all life.

There is little, if any, space for neutrality.

It is clear what we are here on earth to do.

 

Song of Songs: We must not fail to notice and to bless

I rose up early, to see the moon shining yellow through the branches of the pine tree.

I had awoken thinking of that wonderful moment when my son called out to me as I came into the final straight of the Jerusalem Marathon ‘Abba, Abba, run with me’ and had taken my hand and we’d completed the last two hundred metres together’. And at the same time, I was thinking of two close friends who have lost a child; my heart going out to them. And at the same time, thinking of this unknown, this beauty, anguish and heart-sorrow of life.

‘Run with me’: how short, how precious is the time we have, to stand together, to run, see, witness the glory of this world, to have the companionship of life.

On Chag Ha’Aviv, Pesach, the festival of spring, we read The Song of Songs. On Chag Assif, Succot, the festival of autumn and ingathering, we read Ecclesiastes.

Hevel Havalim, vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity.’ The autumn wind, leaf fall, life fall, may carry all before it.

But Ecclesistaes is wrong; surely all is not vanity. There is the glory of the in-between time, the span we are granted of life. ‘Draw me after you; we shall run and follow you’: the author, or authors, of The Song of Songs knew that life must be relished, pursued.

The Hebrew Bible is always a text which notices, from the first unfurling of the young leaves of creation, the planting of the first garden in Eden with its four rivers to water its growth.

But nowhere is this awareness more acute, more simple, more wondrous than in The Song of Songs. The young buds of the pomegranate; the fleeting deer standing still for a single moment by the lattice-work of the fence, before running hastily, gracefully away to the distant hills; the apple tree alone in the midst of the forest; the hour and season of the songbirds: these details, easily missed, easily regarded as irrelevant in a world of kings, prophets and wars, are observed, noted, cherished, loved. They are the garden, the universe, of the life and love we are granted, briefly, to share.

At the heart of this landscape is a mystery, gan na’ul, ‘a locked garden’, ma’ayan chatum, ‘a fountain sealed’. For we do not know and never will fathom the source and wellspring of the wonder of life, its small, everyday miracles, the primrose by the side of the stone, the violets in the grass beside the woodland path. Maybe one day it will be possible to offer a scientific, materialist analysis of everything, even consciousness itself. But in the moment of awareness, in the joy and engagement of seeing, in the companionship of love, such explanations will fall away, irrelevant, not contiguous, unable to touch the exhilaration of being alive.

Of course, Ecclesiastes is correct in the end. The day will come when the cord at the fountain is broken and the pitcher tumbles out of sight to the bottom of the well. We know what awaits.

But that does not, should not, must not negate the now, ‘The interim is mine’, ours, yours; the interim belongs to life. Admittedly only the interim, and that is the sorrow which seizes the heart.

But that interstice is now; therefore, as the lover says to his beloved in The Song, ‘Rise up, let us go’ for the garden is full of flower, the orchards and vineyards are in blossom. We must not fail to notice, and to bless.

 

Never despair! Thoughts on a difficult spring’

Tomorrow is the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan; in Jewish terms it’s the first day of spring.

Nisan is a month of celebration. Sad, penitential prayers are left out of the liturgy. Instead, in the domain of history we focus on Passover; we follow our ancestors on their journey from slavery to freedom and try to create a world which celebrates, life, liberty and justice.

In the domain of nature, we go out into the fields and gardens and say a unique, once-a-year-only blessing to God

in whose world nothing is lacking, who created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for the enjoyment of humankind.

I’ve just been outdoors to check: the almond tree is pink with bloom; the apricot, usually first to blossom, is wisely still sleeping out an especially long winter; the pears have a good month to go before May, their season of white glory.

Yet, despite all this, I’m struggling to feel joyous.

Instead, I feel anxious, afraid for our beautiful world. We live in increasingly dangerous times. Much of humanity, or at least its leadership, seems intent on a journey from liberty to tyranny, from peace to war and from injustice to greater injustice. Meanwhile, the poorest and weakest, who have always suffered, suffer even more.

In the world of nature, I read with despair of the huge decline in animal life, of species hunted to extinction, of the pollution of land and ocean by plastic particles. You may think me crazy, but these matters drive me close to tears.

I could take to retail therapy, decide not to think, or close my eyes, and heart, and sit back to enjoy my corner of privileged living, among the world’s wealthiest.

But that’s not the human, certainly not the Jewish way. ‘You are not free to cease from the work’, said Rabbi Tarfon almost two thousand years back. ‘Assur lihitya’esh; it’s forbidden to give up and despair,’ insisted Rebbe Nachman of Breslav two hundred years ago, despite, or because of, his own susceptibility to depression. And, on the back of today’s Guardian, Gareth Southgate adds his own gloss to his rabbinic antecedents: ‘You can live in fear or you can get on with it’.

That’s what saying the blessing over ‘beautiful creatures and beautiful trees’ means right now. Never give up! Never stop appreciating how wonderful the world can and should be! For the sake of the beauty of children, help the besieged, the hungry, the persecuted. For the sake of the beauty of animals and trees, plant and protect, so that they, and humankind together, may live and flourish to breathe a better future.

Last Friday, as I approached the old Jerusalem railway station, some 28 kilometres into running the marathon, I passed a group of people pushing their friend in a wheelchair, or rather in something more like a full hospital bed. According to my running app, the Jerusalem marathon route has a total climb of well over 2,000 feet, with challenging hills and sharp descents. These good people must have taken turns to push their friend up the hardest inclines, then hold on tightly to ensure a smooth run down the steepest slopes. When they reached the finishing line, the entire crowd cheered.

That’s love; that’s courage; that’s doing the best one can to share the basic freedoms of breathing the open air, enjoying the wide panorama, waving to friends, relishing the crazy happiness of those mad enough to run.

On Seder night I don’t just want to read the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus. I want it to shout back at me: Never give up on freedom. When I go outside, I don’t just want to see the world. I want it to sing back at me: Look at all this beauty! Use your life to love it and protect it!

 

Can there be religious faith without justice?

This week the Torah moves us swiftly on from the great revelation at Mount Sinai to mishpatim, just laws. For at the heart of Judaism is the relationship between justice and faith.

Tyranny, cruelty, unfairness, the cynical perpetuation of inequality, are wrongs not only against our fellow human beings, but against God. This is because God, if God means anything significant to us at all, is not in the heavens, imprisoned up there in splendid isolation and irrelevance.

God’s living spirit breathes within all life, in every human being. It is therefore God’s presence on earth which is, or should be, the true preoccupation of religious life.

Faith and injustice may seem to be all too frequent companions. It is of course possible to mouth words of prayer and practise, or turn a blind eye towards, cruelty. But in truth, they are incompatible.

To seek God, to claim God’s nearness, while knowingly wronging our fellow women and men, is like turning the door handle to invite God to enter, while keeping the bolts firmly fastened. God can’t get through.

That’s why the small Hebrew letter vav, meaning ‘and’, is so powerful. The Torah passes without pause from the great revelation on Mount Sinai, ‘I am the Lord your God’, to the finer details of the laws of damages, having servants, owning sheep and cows, without more of a pause than that minimal prefix ‘and’. But this ‘and’ is vital; it connects God’s revelation on high with the most ordinary details of everyday life on this earth.

As commentators from the Talmud to modern times indicate, that ‘and’ contradicts our intuitive sense of discontinuity: What? What has religion got to do with how I let my ox behave, or whether some stranger accidentally falls into the hole I dug in a field? With how I treat outsiders? Or use abusive and humiliating language?

The answer is ‘everything’:

Rabbi Ishmael taught: ‘Just as the exalted principles come from [God at] Mount Sinai, so do the lower laws’. (Mechilta)

In fact, the lower laws may be more important. We aren’t responsible for whether there’s a God in the heavens, but we are answerable for whether God feels at home here on earth. As William Blake, passionately concerned with social injustice in the chartered streets of London wrote:

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage.

So does the mistreatment of the vulnerable, – almost always represented in the Torah by the frequent phrase ‘the stranger, the widow and the fatherless’. I don’t know of any other single sentence in the Hebrew Bible which contains three consecutive uses of the emphatic double-infinitive:

If you shall oppress and oppress them, and they then cry out, cry out to me, I shall hear, yes surely hear them’, [says God]. (Exodus 22:22)

That’s why we can’t hide behind the mantle of God’s imagined favour, if we mistreat women, let the poor go hungry, mock foreigners, leave asylum seekers to rot in loneliness and contempt and fail to protest when innocent people are attacked, imprisoned or murdered, anywhere on earth.

There is no society in the world which doesn’t have serious work to do to let God in, which does not face profound challenges of injustice. In this struggle there is no such thing as neutrality; bystanders don’t exist. We all have our hand on the door handle, to open it, or close it.

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