Hinneni: trying to be truly present

There’s one overriding question in the Hebrew Bible, and one essential answer. The question never lets one go and the answer is never complete.

The question comes right at the beginning: it’s what God asks Adam after he’s eaten the forbidden fruit. It consists of just one word in Hebrew, ‘Ayekah? Where are you?’

The answer, given by Abraham, Moses, and all of us too, with different degrees of consciousness, is also a single word: ‘Hinneni, I’m here.’

Between these two words lies the whole of our life, with all its relationships, to others, ourselves, the world, and God.

I felt bad on Wednesday night, pushing my trolley straight past the woman sitting on the ground outside Tesco’s. I’d given her a coin before and said hello; this time I had no change and failed to muster even a greeting before, mercifully, someone else spoke to her. I wished I’d at least acknowledged her existence. Some years ago, Nic Schlagman spoke on Yom Kippur about Isaiah’s command, ‘Feed the hungry.’ He’d been working among homeless people. It’s the communication, he said, the connection, the human contact: these are individuals, with lives, stories, hopes.

Hinenni, ‘I am here,’ is not something one says, but lives.

I’m chastened when I hear in eulogies, ‘Mum was always there for my sister and me;’ or ‘He was such a good friend; when any of us needed someone to talk to, someone you knew really cared, he was there.’ A little voice inside me then invariably says, ‘And what about you? Have you been there for your nearest and dearest?’ Yes? No? Partly? There are many half-ways: one can live one’s relationships (we probably all do, sometimes) in a state of presence-but-absence; one can hear, but not really listen; one can be there, but only when it suits.

(On a lighter note, our puppy dog Nessie is the champion of Hinneni from the moment you come through the door: licks, paws, tail wagging the whole of her eager dog body, ‘I’m here just for you,’ she says – and for your attention, biscuits and a walk.)

A cruel voice inside my head tells me, ‘You’re living your life in a flurry of inadequate Hinnenis.’ An excusing voice answers, ‘But we all do; that’s reality. One can’t be there for everyone all the time, even those one loves and cares for most.’

Then a kinder and wiser inner voice answers, ‘Don’t think like that. Say rather, ‘How can I deepen my Hinneni?’ How can we be more truly present, for those we’re closest to, for friends, for those who turn to us?

Hinneni is, as I wrote above, just one word. But that’s only part of its story; it’s actually the concatenation of two: hineh and ani, ‘Look,’ and ‘I’. But the combination doesn’t mean ‘Look, – me!’ Rather, the opposite is the case: Hinneni takes ‘me’ and makes it part of looking; it transforms the ‘I’ of me, my self, my wants, my ego, and reformulates it as awareness, attentiveness to the world. Rashi explains it as ‘an expression of readiness and humility.’

Hinneni is being there, with and for others, with and for ourselves, and with, if one experiences it that way, God. RS Thomas puts it magnificently in his wonderful poem Alive:

….I listen

And it if you speaking…

…At night, if I waken,

there are the sleepless conurbations

of the stars…

 

Hinneni is the deepening of who we are, life’s response to life.

What our lives add up to in the end

The best film I’ve seen this year lasts just 30 seconds; it’s been screened in one place only, on a friend’s iPhone. I asked him, ‘How does your daughter-in-law-to-be get on with your young twins?’ He opened his What’s App and showed me them throwing themselves into her arms with delight.

That needs no explanation, – but here’s a long-winded effort. God’s first words to Abraham are ‘Lech Lecha, Set forth! Be gone!’ With them, the journey of the Jewish People, and of every individual ever born, begins.

They sound at life’s beginning, when, according to the kabbalists, the soul parts reluctantly from God and descends into the body. They sing in the wind which carries us ineluctably over life’s ocean: ‘Onward, the sailors cry.’ They’re the words those who love us will say quietly after we die, ‘He’s gone.’ They’re the unspoken hope that somehow life’s journey continues, in realms unknowable from earth.

That’s why Lech Lecha resonates inside me, so that I tremble when we read those words in the Torah, as we shall tomorrow.

I used to be drawn to the mystics who, with typical licence, read lecha not simply as an emphatic particle, ‘Get thee gone’, but as ‘to you’: Go to yourself; make life a journey of ever deeper self-discovery until you reach the very wellspring of your spirit:

Go to yourself! Travel until you reach the roots of your soul. (Rebbe David of Lilov)

Go … to the land which I will show you: Go to the place where I’ll reveal to you your own true self. (Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi)

Life is, undeniably, thankfully, a voyage of self-discovery, though it goes in no straight line.

However, nowadays I’m compelled by a more basic explanation. It too is a play on words, though not one I’ve encountered in the classic commentaries. ‘Go to you’: make life a journey toward ‘you’, towards not yourself but other people. For who we are is what we mean to them, – and they to us.

I’ll never forget someone that I greatly respect said at the stone-setting for her husband: ‘Your place was in my arms; now it’s in my heart.’ Our ultimate place, the lands we reach on our journey, lie in each other’s hearts.

I’ve been to cemeteries too often in these last years. I look across the field of graves and the questions rise from the very earth: ‘What does it add up to? What does it all mean?’

‘Go to you’, is the best answer I know. We devote our lives to one another. We do so consciously, as parent, child, partner, friend, colleague, neighbour. We need to give; we want to make life kinder, better, gentler, for the other person.

We go beyond that circle, as we must. Yesterday I was asked: ‘Will your write a commentary about this picture from your community?’ I opened the file with the photo and saw an elderly doctor from our congregation gently examining a refugee. ‘Go – to the you of others who need you’ is God’s most urgent command. How many voices are there right now in the world, crying ‘Is anyone out there for me? Will you go – to me?’

Our places in each other’s hearts are not always good. We lack the power to select only those which show us best. They also include the wrongs and hurts we leave behind, which is why apology and healing are so important.

In the end I believe the journey to find ourselves and our journey toward others are the same. Ultimately, we are what others garner of us; that’s what continues to live of us after we’re gone.

That’s why those 30 seconds are my favourite film, that beautiful innocent image of throwing oneself so completely into such welcoming arms.

Elul thoughts from the Scottish Highlands

I’m lucky enough to be writing from the Highlands of Scotland, a land our family loves. All around is wonderful beauty. I climbed until I was surrounded by hills, beneath me a small loch, before me to the west the sun setting over the Inner Hebrides and the Atlantic beyond. The only sounds were the small streams, half hidden beneath grass and bracken, and the baaing of sheep, – a living, gentle shofar-call for Elul.

There are road signs one doesn’t find in London: ‘Slow, red squirrels’ and ‘Otters crossing’ (we’ve seen neither). Over the years we’ve watched reforested moors grow into woodlands of birch and rowan. From the water’s edge we’ve heard the curlew’s soft song, and, above, the mew of buzzards and eagles.

On a human level, there’s kindness almost everywhere. I got lost on a run across the hills; an elderly lady was hanging out washing on an isolated farm, so I asked her where I was. ‘Follow that track,’ she said, pointing somewhere into the mountains, ‘it might take you roughly where you’re going.’ I apologised for troubling her: ‘Och, no; I like talking to people.’ Then I ran back the way I’d come.

Covid has hit hard here. People are trying to make modest livelihoods with small enterprises, a vegan café, yoga classes, artworks from driftwood. We attended a talk about the Shant Islands by Adam Nicholson: from the questions, it was clear that almost everyone there was knowledgeable in some area of marine ecology, local fauna, or rewilding.

But is this, with its kindness and beauty, the real world?

In my inbox are urgent requests: Please write in support of our emergency appeal for Haiti; there are two thousand dead from the earthquake and storms on the way (World Jewish Relief). You can’t be silent about Afghanistan; we need a statement. What about the women? And those refugees who do reach the UK, who’ll help them? From all around are reports of injustice, cruelty and environmental degradation, and appeals for action at COP.

I’m reading David Olusoga’s brilliant Black and British; A Forgotten History. Some sentences about the slave trade require little transposition into now. He quotes the abolitionist William Fox, who wrote in 1791:

If we purchase the commodity we participate in the crime. The slave-dealer, the slave-holder, and the slave-driver, are virtually the agents of the consumer…In every pound of sugar used…we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh. (p. 208)

The slave-trade is long abolished (though trafficking and slavery persist). But the trade in commodities continues, often bringing little benefit to local people and leaving their environment decimated. The increasing destitution of some funds the tenuous wealth of others.

So is this really a world of kindness and beauty?

On Rosh Hashanah, just two weeks distant, we pray to the God of both creation and justice. I believe that as we do so, God calls back to us: honour my creation; make my world more just. Of course, there’s no direct voice from heaven; there’s no need. We hear the call from everywhere, from mountains and moor, from misery and wrong. We know it in our conscience and soul.

It challenges and inspires us: what can you do to make this beautiful world less cruel? How are you honouring its wonder?

What else is our life for?

 

For the Month of Av: from Destruction to Restoration

We are on the eve of the new moon of Menachem Av.

The month begins in sorrow: ‘When Av comes in, joy is diminished.’ The ninth day is the fast of Tisha B’Av, when we remember the destruction of the Temples. But afterwards comes consolation, as we read from Isaiah ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.’ The full moon, Tu B’Av, is all celebration, Judaism’s ancient equivalent of Valentine’s Day.

I was privileged last week to share three experiences which expressed just this movement from sadness to restoration.

The first was in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, bombed out by the Luftwaffe in the night of 14 November 1940. We gathered, scarcely a dozen of us of different faiths and philosophies, surrounded by the remains of the walls and spires, made safe but not rebuilt. It’s not an obvious location for marking Britain’s first ever Thank You Day. But it’s a humbling space and that’s what drew us together. It opened our hearts. We were Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Bahai, Humanist. We all spoke, but the atmosphere of the place said more, reaching into us without words. We belonged to different generations and persuasions but it filled us with the same determination: not to hurt, not to denigrate, but to nurture and appreciate life.

The second was the Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral on the 73rd anniversary of the National Health Service. I sat next to Dr Perpetual Uke, a consultant at Birmingham City Hospital, who told me how she’d been caring for patients when she herself got Covid and became desperately ill. Now, thank God, she was almost entirely recovered. She was here both as giver and receiver of care. Nearby was a man representing the Ambulance Service. I told him how many times I’d had cause as a community minister to witness the kindness and skill of their teams.

Dr Uke lead the prayer:

For the vision of those who pioneered our National Health Service…
For the dedication of those who serve all in need of healthcare…
For the courage of those whose lives are marred by illness and bereavement…
For those who work for a healthier and fairer world.

What does one do when one hears such words? One feels saddened, humbled, touched, consoled and inspired all at once. One subconsciously resolves to do one’s best, to make one’s own contribution.

The third was the joy of two days in Scotland. Getting off the night train in the Highlands, the scents of woodland, heather, wild thyme and bilberry, the green of silver birch and pine, the sound of running streams – these are all God’s agents, they restore my soul. We experienced, too, a more practical kind of restoration in the regenerated woodlands, the young self-seeded trees carefully protected against deer and rabbits, the warnings not to disturb the rare capercaillie which nest on the ground, the feeding stations for red squirrels, the sight of an osprey. This too is part of health care, the health of the earth and our mental and spiritual health at the same time.

On Tisha B’Av we dwell only temporarily on destruction, long enough to rediscover the dedication to restore, rebuild, heal and replant in all God’s Temple, in Jerusalem itself, and throughout that universal Jerusalem which is God’s earth.

‘My light is in your hands’ – How we need to keep up each other’s spirit

I have always loved the Torah’s instructions for the lighting of the menorah, with which this week’s portion begins. It was the responsibility of the priests, the children of Aaron, who were commanded to use only the finest olive oil. They had to fill each lamp with sufficient fuel to burn through the longest nights of the year, to shine out amidst the darkness.

The relief depiction on Titus’s arch in Rome, showing defeated Jews carrying the Menorah in their enemies’ victory parade after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE, is vivid testament to the historical accuracy of the account of the lighting of the lamps in the Temple.

But more and more often I think of the description as a metaphor for an essential reality, a truth without which it would be almost impossible to live.

The Torah doesn’t say ‘Kindle the lamps;’ instead it uses the expression, ‘Cause the lights to ascend.’

How often in life the inner flame burns low, and bewilderment engulfs us. ‘I said “the darkness will crush me,” wrote the Psalmist, pausing before continuing, “But darkness is not too dark for you.”

Who is that ‘you’? Who, when they threaten to gutter, causes the inner flames of hope and joy to re-ascend inside us? What refills the spirit’s internal lamp, hoping it will burn through even the longest nights?

Sometimes it’s life’s simple wonders which restore us, like the moon which stood in stillness just above the trees, luminous and wonderful, as dawn came yesterday. Or as when a friend said, ‘Did you see that?’ ‘See what?’ I asked. ‘Oh, nothing,’ he answered. ‘It was just a little spider’s web, with dew on it, in a moment of sun.’ It wasn’t nothing; it was glory.

Sometimes it’s the dog, literally as well as figuratively, I walked home through local woods near midnight recently. It was so dark I couldn’t see the path and lost the feel of tarmac underfoot. Only the tiny patter of dog paws on the broken twigs made me find the way.

Sometimes it’s a stranger, like the attendant in one of the rooms of the National Gallery, who came up to me as I was drifting through on my own and said very quietly, ‘I don’t know why, but something is telling me to say to you: Remember life is precious and know that you have something to give.’ It was three seconds of solicitude 35 years ago, but it still directs my path.

Sometimes its music or a line of a poem. Since before sunrise the lines of this prayer have been calling me:

Pay attention to the soul, jacinth, agate, amethyst;
Hewn from the throne of glory… to give light towards the dawn.

I can’t fathom the depths of what these words mean, but they’ve been singing inside my head.

There was a programme on music as survival on Radio 4 yesterday: ‘I was in the midst of post-natal depression, but when she started to sing, I felt she was speaking directly, personally to me.’

Most often it’s those we’re liable to take for granted, family, friends, community, and those ordinary, those ordinary-special things we do together: ‘Come on, shall we go for that walk?’ The love is in the everyday.

What I’m sure about is that we are all the children of Aaron, responsible for ‘causing the flame to ascend’ in each other’s lives. We can’t always succeed, but it is the determination not to give up which makes the record of human history not just painful but humbling and endlessly inspiring.

‘My light is on your hands, and your light is in mine:’ the rabbis put these words in God’s mouth. But they are true for every one of us towards each other too, and it’s for this that we are here.

Beauty – a human need?

‘A well of living waters,’ ‘A fountain [feeding] gardens:’ these are just two of the images from the Song of Songs, which we read tomorrow. The Songs draw us into worlds of wonder, sensual and spiritual at once: ‘I am dark and beautiful;’ ‘Rise up, my beloved, for the winter has ended, the rains have passed and gone;’ ‘Come out into the fields.’

We need beauty in our lives.

Or is that a wrong thing to say?

We need food, shelter and health care. I’ve only to think of yesterday. My phone went mid-afternoon: ‘I got your number from the synagogue. Help me with food vouchers.’ I went out late to buy vegetables; near the shop is another refugee I know who’s sleeping in a tent and the cold days have returned. On the way back I listened to a report from Kenya: Vaccines aren’t yet part of our solution; we’ve only just got them and our roll out has scarcely begun.

When the world is like that, is beauty really a need?

Yes, I believe so. It’s not just the body which must live, but also the soul. Perhaps that’s why, of all the alluring images in the Song of Songs, – the fleeting deer, the small foxes eating the unripe grapes, the wild lilies, the bodies of lover and beloved, – it is those of flowing water which haunt me most: ‘A locked garden is my sister, my bride; a wave enclosed; a fountain sealed.’

It is as if we are taken to the very edge of life’s source, the secret elixir which flows through all things, pure, holy, beautiful, alluring, longed for, unpossessable, yet known in wonder.

It could be that this is the spirit which brings the composer the first apprehension of melody, the poet the magic sound of the opening words. Then, transported to a different realm of apprehension, they transpose this ‘airy nothing’ into music and rhythm and give it ‘a local habitation and a name.’ The Jewish mystics called this meeting space binah, intuition, deep wellspring, fountain on high; the zone of encounter where the unknowable holy spirit and human consciousness meet.

What would life be if we had no music, no poetry, no awe; if we could never watch the dawn, listen to a running stream, or note how a bird twitches this way and that before alighting on the grass? These are sacred matters; God is in these things.

I had always thought the link between Pesach, the festival of our freedom, and the Song of Songs was seasonal because both rejoice in the spring. The textual connections are tenuous.

But now I sense a deeper kinship. Humanity certainly needs physical freedom; freedom from tyranny, slavery, hunger, abuse and degradation. But we need the spirit’s liberty too, the transformation of tired, earthbound, task-bound, daily-round-bound body into the exaltation of wonder and joy, the excitement of beauty; beauty which is in this world and beyond this world at once.

Yes, I believe beauty is a human need. I doubt if it’s inscribed in the Universal Charter of Human Rights. But perhaps it should be, because cruelty and misery can still strive to deny it to us. Access to it should not be expensive: park, poem, sunlight, wild space, music, dew.

For the quest for beauty is not just a human right or need; it’s intrinsic to what makes us human.

 

Sanctuary – in laughter and in tears

When I was little, I was known for hiding under the table. I felt safe among the shoes, hidden by the overhanging tablecloth, comforted by conversations drifting down without my needing to follow.

‘Make me a sanctuary,’ says the Torah this week. Sanctuary comes in many kinds and we all need our own, especially when days are difficult.

‘Tell me a lie and I’ll give you a dollar,’ said the rich man to Herschel Ostropolier, the wit of Yiddish tales. ‘What d’you mean one? You just said two!’ he answered instantly. I think laughter is a kind of sanctuary, so long as it’s not cruel. Humour can be a form of courage, giving the mind some breathing space from the world. We laugh at Haman on Purim; we’ve always laughed at our enemies. It’s very Jewish, – and very British too. (Next Friday is Purim, when I can talk rubbish with licence.)

‘Animal sanctuary,’ says the sign in the park. There are sanctuaries provided for animals, and animals who provide sanctuary. ‘My daughter tells the dog everything,’ is a not infrequent parental observation. For many of us grown-ups too, our canines are our confidants.

‘When can we come to your garden?’ I’m asked, ‘the children need your guinea pigs.’ Watching them watch them, I think that though it’s not what the holy book meant by ‘Make me a sanctuary,’ something is happening which I would call sacred.

Music is sanctuary. It’s no accident Beethoven chose Schiller’s Ode to Joy for the choral movement of his Ninth:

Joy, beautiful flame divine,
Daughter of Elysium!

Maybe all art doesn’t just ‘hold as t’were, the mirror up to nature,’ as Hamlet said. It’s also a magic mirror, an entrance to a domain of beauty which secretly co-exists within our daily world of challenge and self-doubt. Music, literature, art: they are soul-balm, reprieve, relief and restoration. What’s sanctuary, if not that?

(As for those people who, ears in headphones and eyes on phones, walk straight at you on the pavement, perhaps the charitable thing is to appreciate that they’re not in the street at all but in their private heaven. After all, plenty of those who think they own heaven like to push others away.)

Gardens are sacred. ‘Do you think of your garden as a sanctuary, with its hedges all around?’ I was asked on what remains a highlight of my career, when we hosted Gardener’s Question Time. I hadn’t, until then. But it’s true. Love and care are what till a garden, alongside schlepping manure. Perhaps the many kinds of snowdrop, beloved by Nicky, are our garden’s Menorah, illumining the long January / Tevet nights, and the tiny blue irises I stared at yesterday are the reflection of heaven.

Mountains, forests, small grass islands by a stream: these are sanctuary too and every tree is the tree of life.

Sanctuary isn’t just for joy; you don’t have to be happy to find it. Sorrow may be when we need it most. Isabel Allende describes the long nights watching over her sick daughter, wandering the house ‘adrift on a sea of pain,’

My daughter has given me the opportunity to look inside myself and discover interior spaces – empty, dark, strangely peaceful – I had never explored before. These are holy places… (Paula, p. 272)

Prayer may be sanctuary. Prayer isn’t really about knocking at heaven’s gates but pushing at the door of our heart. To my mind, whether prayer ‘works’ is less a question of ‘Did God say yes?’ than of whether we found our way to our spirit, God’s breath in us all.

What is there within sanctuary when we find it? ‘The ark of testimony,’ says the Torah. But testimony to what? To God, to life, to a quiet knowledge of unassailable belonging to which one doesn’t put words.

 

On AJEX Shabbat 5781

I remember seeing a programme about a British soldier, a highlander, from near Glen Coe, who’d served in Afghanistan. He spoke about returning home from his tour of duty, overwhelmed and bewildered by what he’d witnessed. He climbed high into the mountains above the Gen, and simply sat there in silence.

This is AJEX Shabbat; on Sunday, the Remembrance Service of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women will happen virtually at 2.30pm. Normally it takes place before the Cenotaph in Whitehall. I was deeply moved last year by the many hundreds present, by the large numbers from our own community honouring parents by wearing the medals they’d earned at the risk of their lives, and by the enormity of the events and the sacrifice to which we were gathered in tribute.

This year I stood with Nicky in our garden for the two-minute silence. Then we listened together to the last post; the notes, traversing that silence, penetrating the heart.

It’s 75 years since VE and VJ day, 80 since the Battle of Britain. It’s the plain, simple truth that hundreds of thousands in this country and millions worldwide gave their lives, suffered sudden or slow death, or enduring injuries, to allow my generation to grow up in freedom and peace. There is nothing adequate one can say.

At the yard where we chose our dog from a litter of puppies, there was a year-old collie who kept jumping up. ‘They just brought him back,’ the farmer said, ‘His owner was killed in Iraq.’ Suddenly that awful war sprung nearer. The dog was not naughty or badly trained; he was looking, looking, looking. What then do human hearts do with the irreparable, everlasting absence?

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall…

And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen: Anthem for Doomed Youth

I want to return to that soldier, alone above Glen Coe. For reasons hard to explain I connect those silent valleys with a space in the Torah named by Hagar. It’s where she’s found by an angel, pregnant, desolate, weeping after Abraham and Sarah have driven her out. She calls it be’er lachai ro’i, ‘the well of the living one who sees.’ ‘You are God who sees,’ she explains. Rashi adds in his commentary, ‘You, God, see the sorrow of the long-suffering.’

I sometimes think about that well. It’s one of several locations in the Torah one can’t find on Waze. One can only travel there in the soul. It’s somewhere in life’s wilderness, deep enough beneath the desert for the living waters to drip down into it and replenish the inner well which the spirit needs in order not to die of thirst. It’s far below the aggression and abrasions, the conflicts and the shouting, of life’s battlegrounds. No beaten path exists to take us to it but we know it when we’re there: ‘the well of the living one who sees.’

I don’t think God regards us like someone who catches us in the lens, takes a photograph, prints it out and puts our name and the date on the back. But something, some living presence in that place, comforts us, unbinds our knotted-up spirit, puts ointment on the heart’s wounds and lets us weep.

I wonder if this is where that highlander went, above Glen Coe. I hope he found stillness there, as I wish everyone traumatised by war: soldiers, civilians, refugees, may.

It’s the place I unconsciously mean when I say the traditional words of consolation to mourners: Hamakom Yenachem. ‘Makom’ means place, but the rabbis understood it as a name for God. Hence the frequent translation, ‘May the Omnipresent comfort you.’

But perhaps the words have another meaning also: may you reach the place within you where the living waters flow. May the God within all life find you there and bring you stillness and restoration.

Have hatred and racism driven God from our world?

The Torah and the newspaper are open next to me on my desk. I am not sure if they’re screaming at each other or rising together in protest.

This is the headline: ‘I still feel the pain of his loss’: these are the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s daughter Bernice and his son Martin Luther King III. They were small children when their father was assassinated. Today they are sharing in the recreation of his 1963 ‘I have a dream’ march to Washington. There has probably been no time since then when his words and spirit are more urgently needed. He looked forward to the day when his children would be ‘judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character’. Yet after the murder of George Floyd, Martin’s 11-year-old daughter Yolanda told her father she was too frightened to go outside and play…

This is the verse from the Torah:

The Lord your God walks with you in your encampment…
So let your camp be holy, lest God see ugliness in you and turn away. (Deut. 23:15)

There are several critical words:

Encampment refers to where the community lives, specifically where we pray; these places should be physically and morally clean. To the Hasidim ‘camp’ also means the human mind and body; we should be pure in thought and deed. To the universalist our encampment is the whole world, the inner cities, towns and countryside entrusted to our care for the duration of our lives.

Holy means free of oppression. In the very next verse, the Torah commands us not to send refugee slaves back to their oppressors. On the next page in the newspaper is the account of a trafficked women who evaded the trade-ring of pimps exploiting her and strove to bring them to justice. She’s one of very, very few who gets away. Holy isn’t just about sacred states of spirit; it’s about grounded realities, the sanctuaries of justice and compassion.

Walks’ is a weak translation. The Hebrew word is reflexive, meaning not ‘walk past,’ but ‘walk about’, stay, abide, feel at home. It’s the exact opposite of ‘turn away’.

So we’re told we must maintain a world where God feels at home, or else God will walk away. Do we?

‘No,’ answered Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King’s close companion in campaigning: God is not at home in the world and our task is so to transform it that God will once again feel comfortable among us.

I therefore believe in a God who hovers, who knocks at our heart, mind and imagination. I believe in a God who can take us by surprise, as when Jacob awoke from his dream of a ladder from heaven to earth and said ‘There’s God in this place and I didn’t realise’. I believe in a God who can be present in such a way as I witnessed in moments of lovingkindness at the North London Hospice this week, and as I saw when watching the wings of a golden eagle from high in the Scottish mountains.

I don’t believe in a God who simply walks away, but in a God who shrinks smaller and smaller when we do wrong, until there’s only a small tight knot of the divine left in our hearts crying ‘let me in’, but we hardly hear.

I believe in a God who weeps for the race hate, injustice and cruelty we humans show each other and nature, but who hugs and sings and rejoices in the joy of beauty, kindness, justice, courage, humility, understanding, graciousness and love.

I believe in the struggle to make our encampment holy.

 

The Shabbat of Consolation

For much of last night Isaiah kept going round in my head: ‘Nachamu, nachamu ammi: Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people; speak to the heart of Jerusalem.’ The Sabbath after Tishah Be’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, ‘The Shabbat of Consolation,’ after these words.

I can’t be the only person who doesn’t sleep well after a fast day. Driving down to Kent late last night to celebrate my daughter Kadya’s birthday at my mother-in-law’s, where the family almost always gathers on special occasions, I’ve had the privilege of praying in the orchards while the mist is low among the apple trees, the first birds are singing, the last star is still visible in the sky and the horizon to the east is red with expectation. That in itself is balm and consolation.

What brings comfort? How can we offer it to one another? These questions drifted in and out of my half sleep as they’ve flowed through my thoughts all my working life. What can one do about the pain in so many lives, the sorrow in so many hearts?

Sometimes it’s about action. Have you anything to eat? Are you being bullied? Who hurt you like that? These questions may need to be asked. I’ve seen the queue at the local food bank, the children waiting. When someone’s hungry, comfort starts with food. Where there’s race hatred, consolation begins with calling the perpetrators speedily and unhesitatingly to account, – and stopping them misusing twitter. Comfort begins with the commitment to compassion and justice. That’s why Martin Luther King quoted Isaiah’s next verse in his great speech “I have a dream”: ‘Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low.’

‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem:’ sometimes comfort demands words. Social media has advanced the art of the cleverly cruel put-down. Incomparably more important is the opposite skill: knowing how to offer the right words of support, especially to children, so that those around us feel valued, encouraged and empowered. ‘So many people have made me feel worthless. You helped me see I was somebody, that I had something to give.’ This is one of the greatest compliments I ever heard a pupil pay a teacher. ‘You changed my life.’

Yet there are also sorrows which neither actions nor words can reach. What can heal the grief in another person’s heart? What can we do or say? We have nothing to offer but our own heart’s attentiveness, nothing else but companionship to give. ‘Speak,’ says Isaiah, but maybe it’s more important to listen, simply to be present and hear, without platitude and fear, but with kindness and calm, and maybe, if appropriate, a gentle touch of humour.

And at times it is we ourselves who seek comfort. What human being is never in need of consolation? We may turn to others for guidance, but in the end only we can know how to find healing for our spirit.

Perhaps it is among the trees, with the birdsong, by the rockpools on the shore, where, like the sea tide, a greater life flows into our heart’s wounds and withdraws again, flows in and withdraws, and quietly we know: I accept life in its mystery, even with its flaws and hurts. I am at one, amidst this endlessness, with my smallness and mortality. I hear you, God of life.

 

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