Finding the voice of fine silence in the midst of the storm

I’m woken by gusts of storm and listen in between them to the first thin songs of the brave birds. I hear in the blasts of wind the opening lines of Shelley’s magnificent poem:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing…

It’s late winter now and it will be more than leaves which are driven and broken. I saw the damage of storm Arven in Scotland; swathes of trees taken down, their branches smashed. Whose homes are being battered now; what treasured woodlands, long nurtured, torn through? Who’ll be left cold, wondering what corner of their home they can afford to heat without the children going hungry?

There are other and worse storms in the offing too; may it please God that their fierce powers disperse and never blast their violent way. I’m soon going to be speaking with colleagues in the Ukraine; may they, their communities and all the land be safe [see below]. It’s rightly been said that there’s a whiff of Munich in the air, that cunning which can’t be trusted. One fears for what may again overtake those terrible bloodlands of Jewish history, once regions of great learning and deep piety, first home of Hasidism and rebbes with pithy teachings and tales of wonder.

What sustains us when the world clenches its fists? I’m moved by the awareness that there’s something else to be heard in the wake of the wind. It’s the same sound which reached Elijah when he stood on God’s mountain in the thunder, earthquake and storm. It’s the ‘voice of fine silence’ which is present everywhere, and almost everywhere outshouted. It’s the same call which Moses intuited when he stood by the entrance to the Tent of Meeting in the desert and overheard God’s voice, speaking to itself. It’s there today, within the wind, beneath the tumult of the storm, present in the heart of life, and in our heart, which belongs to life, and knows and recognises its call.

What is that we know? Into what instruction must ‘fine silence’ be transformed in this world which demands practicality and action? I believe it translates into that simple, all-embracing, endlessly challenging commandment: ‘And you shall love your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.’ It’s simple because there’s nothing sophisticated about it; all it requires of us is to try to do good. It’s endlessly challenging because it never lets go of us, both when we’re at our inspired best and when we’re tired, frustrated and at our demotivated worst. It’s all-embracing because it’s never about someone else, somewhere else or some time else. It’s now and always. For God’s presence is all about us, in all life. ‘You shall love’ is the demand which, throughout history, has impelled ordinary people to show extraordinary kindness despite the cunning and cruelty around them.

That voice, and the intentions and actions it draws out of us, unites us, even in times of deep uncertainty and trouble, with everything in the world which is good, kind, faithful and beautiful. We breath in the same breath which animates all of life and know that we belong to it. We are partners in the spirit of creation and compassion.

‘Pray for us; think of us; support us.’ Rabbi Reuven Stamov and his wife Lena, leaders of Masorti communities across the Ukraine, speak about their concerns.

Find the recording here.

Link to Masorti Olami’s campaign.

That haunting phrase ‘the extinction of expereince’

‘The Hebrew for hedgehog,’ he said. It wasn’t the response I’d expected. Let me explain: the last of my series A Jewish Take on Life on Earth, scheduled for 9 March, is about mammals. Receiving no reply from elsewhere, I tried the British Hedgehog Society:

- Could they provide a speaker to follow on from my Biblical insights with something about the contemporary state of affairs?

- And you are???

- A rabbi; this is the kind of thing I do. You see, my community is very eco-minded…

To my surprise I’m given the mobile number of the Society’s spokesperson, Hugh Warwick, whose name I know from his books, such as A Prickly Affair. He answers at once. ‘I’m always up for a different kind of audience,’ he says kindly. ‘There are four references to hedgehogs in the Hebrew Bible, the word is kipod isn’t it, and there’s that magnificent passage in Job…’

As it happens, I’d already ordered his next book Linescapes about reconnecting Britain’s fragmented wildlife. On page 32 he quotes the remarkable phrase ‘extinction of experience’. He explains, ‘All over the world agricultural systems are being disrupted by this erosion – the loss of language, or just words, to describe, own and manage the land.’

That phrase ‘extinction of experience’ has climbed off the page into my head. It’s relevant not just to ecology, but to Judaism, and more: it encapsulates the danger there will be a rift, a break in transmission, in the core values of life.

When our children were growing up, we wanted them to have three loves: people, starting with family, nature and Judaism. We sought to teach them wonder, taking them to the forest by day, and in the owl-cry night. They’ve shown a remarkably loving degree of parent tolerance.

What we need to transmit aren’t facts or even skills. They’re experiences, and only the love and the living, the commitment of heart as well as head, has the power to communicate them.

Have I lived what I care about deeply enough? I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that being human, a teacher, indeed a rabbi is about precisely this: fostering the osmosis of good experience. Neither Judaism, nor nature, nor humankind can afford ‘the extinction of experience.’ One can teach through talks on Torah. That’s important. But the true purpose is to teach and learn through living and doing.

That’s the difference between being a teacher and an educator. I remember the names of many excellent teachers I’ve been lucky to have. But I’ve never even known the names of some of my educators, – like the elderly Jew who held a finger to his lips to tell me to be silent while he sewed new fringes onto my tallit, my prayer shawl, in an act of devotion the spirit of which still often wraps itself round me when I put the garment on.

That’s why, in a different context, I periodically WhatsApp our street, asking for shopping for the food bank. I’m aware that it makes better financial sense to set up a standing order to the Trussell Trust or Foodbank Aid; we should do that as well. But seeing the queue at the food bank makes me know something which filling in an online form cannot.

So I find myself, too, a rebel against extinction. I wouldn’t use all the strategies of XR. But I too feel the urgent need for a recentring of values back to the heart of being human.

My ambition at 64, felt even more deeply as I get older, is to live that love of people, nature and Judaism ever more fully and be inspired by others who do the same and more so.

For Chanukah: Setting the light of the human spirit against all cruelty

I wish everyone a Good Chanukah, a Chag Urim Sameach, a happy Festival of Light. The lamps we kindle bring much needed hope and warmth in cruel and challenging times.

I also want to say Happy Thanksgiving. These celebrations go well together, calling on us to appreciate the blessings we have and, above all, to celebrate the resilience, imagination and courage of the human spirit.

In the shadow of the drowning yesterday of so many refugees attempting to cross the English Channel, the light of that spirit and the lamps of Chanukah must be set against all the misery, indifference, injustice, hard-heartedness and exploitative cruelty, by whoever and in whichever country it is inflicted, which culminate in such horrors. We have hosted in our home young people who have made similar crossings in equally unseaworthy dinghies; we’ve heard them speak from their hearts, and our hearts go out to them.

The story of the Maccabees as recorded in the Talmud may never have happened. Who knows if, when they reconquered the Temple in Jerusalem, they really searched among the ruins and found that one sealed vial of pure oil, or whether it actually burnt miraculously for eight cold winter days?

Yet that is precisely what happens all the time. The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger describes the matter with succinct grace. There is in every person an infinitesimal but irreducible amount of inextinguishable spirit. Just as the jar of oil found by the Maccabees was closed with the High Priest’s insignia, so this spirit is marked by the seal of God. It is the sacred core of every soul; no one can take it from us and nothing can corrupt its essence. Our challenge is to find it, deep within ourselves, and, when we have done so, not only to kindle it but also to let its flame light us.

Such a flame, when it burns in the dark days of the world, possesses a compelling magnetism. It draws others into its circle of brightness and warmth. It inspires us, illumining the pathway to our own inner light. Soon we witness how not just one sole candle, but many flames burn in the night. They are not easily extinguished; once lit, their fires cling tenaciously to the wick, casting back the darkness of harsh days, weeks, and sometimes years and even decades.

Halakhah, Jewish law, requires the Chanukah lights to be set outside, or at least in the window which overlooks the public domain. Except in times of danger, they are not a private secret which has to be concealed.

Across the world our public squares need such illumination. The spirit’s light, the heart’s warmth, the fire in the conscience, must be set at the centre of human activity, in the board room and the body politic, in council and senate chambers, in parliaments, and in the souls of all who work there and the minds of us all. With its illumination we must follow the pathway to recognise, connect with and protect what is sacred in every human life and holy in all creation.

We are not at liberty in these complex and difficult times to neglect the search for our own inner light, or to refuse to kindle it and bring it as our contribution to the square. The light of all humanity is needed, urgently.



Turning struggle into blessing

Life throws so much in peoples’ faces. I can’t bear to see the news, a friend just told me. The earth has so much beauty, yet is beset by so many threats and troubles, and each life is a world in miniature: how does one avoid feeling overwhelmed?

Against all this I set Jacob’s words which we read in the Torah tomorrow: ‘I shall not let you go until you bless me.’ It’s his response to the strange figure which attacks him in the night as he stands alone in that liminal space which is neither here nor there, which lies outside of life’s unremitting ‘do this’ and ‘do that’, somewhere in the solitary landscape of the soul. Who is he, this mysterious assailant, who comes upon him in the lonely dark: is it man or angel, Jacob’s conscience, the guardian spirit of his wronged brother Esau whom he will shortly re-encounter, or God and truth itself? The Torah refrains from saying.

But when at daybreak this unnamed combatant sees that he cannot overcome Jacob and begs him, ‘Let me go because the dawn has risen,’ Jacob replies, ‘I shall not let you go until you bless me.’ That line is my motto and my hope.

Through all life’s troubles those words call out like the light from a far-away house at the edge of a pitch-dark moor. They shine through fear, exhaustion, sorrow, depression and misjudgement. Sometimes their light disappears from sight; then one has no choice except to put one foot before the other, keeping faith through the bleak and utter darkness, until it re-emerges. For those words ‘until you bless me’ are the inextinguishable flame in the soul, the inexpressible inspiration for all song, the source of courage and hope: Whatever you throw at me, life, I shall not let you go until you bless me.

In 1940, Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman Shapira wrote in the Warsaw Ghetto that Jacob spoke those words as a signal to the generations to come. It’s not enough to survive troubles and persecutions. One has to wrest from them a blessing. This, he explains, is the assailant’s parting challenge as he changes Jacob’s name to Israel, which means ‘one who yassar im El, who struggles with God,’ or, as the mystics like to read it, ‘one who shar im El, whosings God’s song.’

One cannot help but question if it is truly always possible to find blessings. But it remains an aspiration.

Challenges lie behind and before us. Tomorrow is AJEX Shabbat, honouring Jewish service- and ex-service- men and women. Last week was Remembrance Sunday. The terrors so many faced in war, and still confront today, are unimaginable to those of us lucky enough to have been spared such experiences.

Before us lie other battles, first and foremost for the future of life itself on our planet, for humankind and nature and a new, more humble understanding of the relationship between us.

When everything feels overwhelming, I shall set Jacob’s words before me: ‘I shall not let you go until you bless me.’

And there are blessings. This is Interfaith Week. I participated in four multi-faith gatherings at COP 26 in Glasgow and have attended in several since. We spoke with different, but never differing, voices. We drew from the distinctive wisdom and beauty of our own faith’s prayers and teachings, but the import was the same: love and humility before the dignity of life, wonder at the complex beauty of this world, and a shared determination to take responsibility, learn, cherish and care.

Soon it will be Chanukkah. I see myself sitting in my grandmother’s lounge, watching the candles burn in front of me. They are reflected in the windows at either end of the room, and the reflections are themselves then reflected. There are two, four, eight chanukkiot hovering in the night, as if lamps from past generations were signalling to the future: make light, keep hope, don’t give up until you turn the darkness into blessing.



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.


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