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.

 

Jeremiah and inconvenient truth

It’s among the most painful challenges: to find the words for the gravestone of someone you love.

But when my grandmother died, I knew: the quotation had to be from Jeremiah: ‘Zacharti lach: I remember the tender kindness of your youth, the love of your bridal days, how you followed me through an unsown land.’

She and my grandfather cherished those words, with their beautiful Rosh Hashanah melody. They captured their love for God and Judaism, but above all their deep affection for each other, his adoration of his beautiful bride Natalie Charlotte, with whom he was married for almost sixty years. They encapsulated, too, their shared destiny, flee Nazism in late mid-life to an unknown, if not unsown, land.

To me those words express tenderness, loyalty, moral courage and the great resilience of Judaism and the human spirit. To explain, I must go down into the depths with their author.

Every year at this season of bein hametsarim, ‘between the troubles’, in the three bleak weeks from the fast of 17 Tammuz when the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem, to Tishah be’ Av, when both Temples were destroyed, I am drawn to Jeremiah.

Jeremiah is the father of everyone killed for telling the truth. God appointed him the ill-fated bearer of warnings ignored. His contemporaries disregarded or despised him, burnt his writings, threw him into the dungeon and eventually stoned him to death.

But the Bible gave us his voice: implacable, tender, angry, lonely, wounded, ‘broken in the brokenness of my people.’ He sits alone, contemplating the troubles to come, then sits with Jerusalem in her aloneness when the Babylonians sack the city. He screams at his people in warning, weeps with them in sorrow, then chastises them once more. He cannot and will not be silent. God’s truth is obligation, compulsion, ‘fire in my bones.’ All around him others are mouthing convenient untruths; his is the burden of the inconvenient truth.

There are ‘truth-tellers’ who despise humankind seemingly proud of saying what’s painful to hear. But the truly great tellers of truths are lovers for humanity. They are our best allies not just in integrity and justice but in survival itself.

Among them are poets, scientists, journalists, lawyers, politicians, ‘ordinary’ people who refuse to see their neighbours wronged. They are united by the indelible conviction that they have to speak out. Some tell truth to power; often futile, sometimes fatal. Others seek people like you and me.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported over 550 killed in the last decade, many more dead under circumstances not yet clarified, famous among them Jamal Khashoggi of the Washington Post.

There’s nothing new about silencing of truth. I often think of Osip Mandelstam, dead in transit into Stalinist exile.

You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it.
Where did it get you? Nowhere.
You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.

     (trans. Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin)

It’s the ancient creed of prophets and poets.

There are plenty of warning voices now: about racism, proto-fascism, the climate emergency. We must not join the pallbearers and bury them in silence. God, teaches the Talmud, is amiti, truthful; God demands the resilient courage of truth.

My grandparents lie in Hoop Lane cemetery where their gravestone stands as part of Judaism’s undying testament against tyranny. I visit them each Tishah be’Av and read those words about faithfulness, our bond with truth and God.

 

Netivot Shalom Beha’alotecha

I came across a beautiful teaching by the Rebbe of Slonim, which we studied yesterday in my class on Hasidism. He refers to the hidden light, which, according to the mystics, God concealed close to the beginning of creation. In contrast to physical light, manifest in the rhythm of day and night, this secret illumination is the presence of the sacred in all things. He calls this Or Ha’elokut, the light of divinity, God’s light. It used to burn on the lamps of the Menorah in the Temple. But when the Temple was destroyed that Menorah was buried and concealed, a hidden vessel for hidden light.

Next week’s Torah portion (Shabbat week) opens with the injunction to Aaron beha’alotecha et hanerot, ‘when you make the flames ascend’ on the Menorah. He, the high priest, and his descendants after him had the responsibility of keeping the flame of spirit burning in the Jewish People and the world, of helping us find and be guided by the light of God’s presence.

Nowadays we all share the role delegated to Aaron; we are entrusted with nurturing each other’s spirit and helping one another find what is sacred in Torah and the world. The Rebbe of Slonim notes that this isn’t easy: only the person who labours in Torah merits discovering its hidden illumination.

If I can say so, I think the task is at once simple and extremely hard. It is not difficult to find the wonder in Torah and existence. There is a beauty which, in the worlds of Gerald Manley Hopkins, ‘Will shine out, like lightning from shook foil.’

But to nurture that sacred spirit in our ourselves, each other and the world is supremely challenging, especially at this time. It involves a deep and enduring commitment to the value of every human being and all of nature, to the sanctity at the core of life itself. We have only to witness what’s happening in America to realise how far we are from living, and from guiding our societies to live, by the hidden light of which the Rebbe of Slonim speaks. I am also deeply concerned about how we will stand as a society here as we move to face the next phase of the pandemic, and by how urgently we need, but may fail, to prioritise our environment.

We need to see and be guided by the hidden sacred light which burns concealed in all and every life.

 

 

Torah sings in our aloneness too

I wish everyone, all the family of our community and all our friends, Chag Sameach.

Shavuot celebrates the most important relationships at the heart of Judaism, with Torah and God. Through three thousand years of history these have been bonds love, frustration, companionship, incomprehension, solace and joy. Neither degradation and death in the Crusades and the Holocaust, nor life with its allures and strange turnings, have parted us. These are relationships of unbroken collective resilience.

This year we celebrate alone what has always been a night of learning followed by a joyful communal service with Hallel and flowers. This strange circumstance leads me to pondering two very different pictures of Torah.

The first is Chagall’s painting Solitude. Copyright prevents me from including it, but here’s a link.

In the background is a village with towers and steeples covered in dark cloud, possibly smoke from a pogrom or fire. In the left foreground sits an elderly Jew, sorrowful and lonely. He holds a Torah scroll loosely against his heart. Balancing him in the right foreground is a calf, with a sweet face and a violin. They both appear to be outcasts. Yet they each have their music: the calf with her bow and instrument and the Jew with the Torah. I imagine that Torah singing quietly beneath its red cover, as in the Psalm-verse: ‘Your statutes have become my songs’ in the houses of my pilgrimage. In contrast to the dark earth and louring sky, a white angel shares brightness with the old man’s tallit and the gentle calf. There’s yet hope.

In just this way we hold the Torah to our heart because it’s been our music through all generations. When it sings to us, the calves, birds, mountains and valleys sing too. For, despite the testament of history, there is a sacred music half-hidden in all life. ‘Shema, listen,’ hear it and heed it, is Judaism’s simplest, most enduring injunction. This is the Torah of our aloneness.

The other picture is a work of art of a different kind. Last year in our synagogue after Simchat Torah we gathered all the families shortly to celebrate a Bat or Bar Mitzvah in a huge semi-circle. We unrolled a (printed) Torah scroll, which stretched all the way round the group, so that every child sat next to his or her special portion. It was beautiful, and fun. This is the Torah of community and joy.

Torah is with us both in our togetherness and our aloneness.

But togetherness and aloneness meet. I imagine the far end of the Torah scroll, invisible, hidden in the mystery of void and timelessness, held by the unknowable mystery of God. Then I envision Moses holding up the parchment, with Rabbi Akiva a millennium later, then Yehudah Halevi the poet and Maimonides, the philosopher and legalist, a thousand years after that. Four centuries later the mystics of Sefat sing Lecha Dodi as they hold up the parchment, and three hundred years later still the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, raising his arms and spirit to keep the holy text above the flames. Now that scroll reaches us, and it and all our generations call out to our heart. We’re never truly alone when we’re with Torah.

I imagine too a great song with innumerable parts, wind scores and bird scores, child scores and old persons’ scores. Often we don’t hear them, but they all in their different voices sing God’s song, that life is precious and sacred, and that no one and nothing doesn’t matter.

Our bond with Torah is our life’s song too.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom

God in the Garden

Because the rabbis said ‘Be happy when the Hebrew month of Adar begins’; because last week (and often) I’ve written on painful subjects; because people are – rightly- thinking about coronavirus and how to take sensible precautions; for all these reasons I’m going to focus on what brings many of us more joy than virtually anything else: the young flowers of the coming spring. Hopefully there’s a park, a garden, a city square, a row of trees, even a window box nearby for us to see the crocuses and daffodils.

The Hasidic teacher Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl notes that we read in the Torah about the making of the Tabernacle at the beginning of Adar. ‘Make me a holy place and I will dwell among you,’ says God. ‘A-dar,’ the rebbe explains, is composed of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, which symbolises God; and dar, which means dwell. It’s the month when God says, as it were, ‘I want to live with you. I’m near you, next to you; move over and give me some space.’

And where is God to be found more than in a garden, a park or among the hills and forests?

So please follow, along the path into the ordinary glory, so ordinary I literally don’t notice it many mornings. Here are the last of the snowdrops, their bells pure white, soon to retreat into their tiny bulbs and await underground until the January darkness calls them up to harbinger a new season.Daffodils-RJW-cropped

Here are crocuses, purple sentinels. Here are the daffodils with their bright yellow grace, and narcissi with their scented, many-headed flowers. There are early-bird December daffodils and late-comer May daffodils and there are ‘midwinter-spring’ February daffodils. But, most of all, there are ‘we love March and April’ daffodils, bringing joy when the mornings are once again light and the air smells of sweet rich grass and growth.

Pink-Catkins-RJW-croppedIt’s near to the close of the catkin season. ‘Touch them,’ I was tBeige-Catkins-RJW-croppedold as a child and I still remember my fingers being guided onto the soft silver of the willow-buds. Only silver? There are black willow catkins and pink willow catkins. The hazels and the alders have their catkins too, like tassels, yellow with dust-fine pollen.

More secretive are the primroses, Primroses-RJW-croppedhiding in the hedgerows in the countryside, thriving in semi-dark corners in the gardens. The wild kind are my favourite, not gaudy orange, but cream; simple in their single flowers, modest like the snowdrops, their wake-up-early neighbours.

I’m glad when I see the birds among the branches: blackbirds, ground-feeders, hopping down from a twig onto the grass; a wren on a stone; the air thick with the to-and-fro traffic of the blue-tits by the seed feeder, defying an upside-down squirrel; the sparrows making a modest comeback, bringing hope that other species too may one day return if we care for and protect them as we should.

These are all just small things. But they’ve changed my attitude. I used to think that the world was for me, for us, we human beings. Now I feel that I belong to the world, that I’m part of its far wider and deeper, incomparably richer and more nuanced communion of which I only understand a very tiny portion.

In the depth of it, in its music, and in the silence beyond the music is, A-dar, the presence of the God who dwells here, the life-giver of all things, wonder and the source of wonder.

The problem is not always God’s absence; the problem is our awareness.

 

Prayer that ‘lets the light into your soul’

I went outside this morning to begin my prayers among the trees. The beech has turned yellow-brown; the ash still holds its colour. The rain falls mildly, melody from thousands of leaves.

The Hasidim had a genius for creative misreading whenever they sensed an opportunity to reveal a hidden depth in Scripture. ‘Make a window in the ark,’ God tells Noah. But the Hasidic masters didn’t take the verse that way. The term for ark, tevah, can also mean ‘word’. ‘Make a window in your words,’ they therefore taught: ‘Pray in such a way that it lets the light into your soul’.

I’ve been asked to pray for many outcomes, for people in many and varied situations. I shouldn’t really say ‘people’, since last week I was asked to include a healing prayer for a cat with a broken leg. I did. It was simpler than the request which came through the synagogue office many years ago to perform an exorcism on a cat possessed by evil spirits. I didn’t. I had no idea how.

Of course, I pray for outcomes. Who wouldn’t, when someone we love is ill or in great pain, when we hear accounts of hungry children, when war threatens?

I pray now, as electioneering commences, that whatever government comes into office will be led with integrity, rule without bigotry, focus on the issues which truly matter to humanity and life, and be guided by the values of justice and compassion.

But, I believe, the essence of prayers is not asking. Rather, it is listening. I often think in terms of ‘praying with’, rather than ‘praying for’. I recall bedsides by which I’ve sat in so many of London’s hospitals, The Royal Free, Barnet General, UCH, the North London Hospice. By ‘praying with’ I don’t chiefly mean saying the words or singing a melody together. The ‘with’ is not chiefly about sharing the page in the prayer book or being in the same physical place, but rather about being together in the heart’s space. Prayer, the rabbis taught, is avodah shebalev, heart’s work. It brings our consciousness together with life; it paces it at life’s service.

That, too, is why I often prefer to pray outdoors. The birds, the leaves, the dog watching and waiting, are simplifications. ‘Echad’, they say; ‘Be at one with the oneness of God’. Except that they don’t say. There are no words; rather they, we, participate together in the quiet of the spirit which transverses all things. ‘Prayer is the life of all the worlds,’ wrote the first Chief Rabbi of what was then Mandate Palestine, Abraham Isaac haCohen Kook. I wonder if this is what he meant.

Even in a space with five hundred people one senses when such togetherness, such energy is present, in the shared melodies, in the awareness which no one articulates but everyone senses that something which transcends us fills our hearts, dispelling the petulant distractions of our busy, fussing minds.

None of this, however, is an excuse for avoiding action, a contemplative alternative to commitment on the level of doing and striving.

On the contrary, prayer leads to action. If we listen to life, hold life’s cry as well as life’s stillness in our consciousness, how can we not devote ourselves to caring and to healing?

 

The Torah begins with wonder

The Torah, like a child, begins its explorations with wonder.

I think the magic of that first light of the first ever day has never entirely dimmed in our souls. ‘Look’, says Nicky, ‘Come out in the garden’. The sun has sunk and clouds of red and orange illumine the pear trees from behind and even the high roads to the west are touched by transient, lucent beauty.

Day two is land and water. Every adult becomes part child again at the sea’s edge. Shells, stones smoothed by a thousand years of tides, rock pools like mini oceans with their strange anemones, tiny replicas of Shelley’s sea-blooms and oozy woods ‘which wear the sapless foliage of the ocean’, the mesmerising rhythm of falling waves which were before and shall be after: these mysteries beguile our complications, untwist our thoughts into the simplicities of wonder and of joy.

Day three is the creation of the grass and trees, meadowlands and forest. Late January is the time to walk in the early light among the oaks and beeches, to see the glory of their branch-work unveiled by the long-fallen leaves. April is the month to capture the day, when the grey twigs of the oak, as many as a quarter of a million on an ancient tree, reveal the tiny leaves, or when the sticky dark brown chestnut buds unfold their curious fingers to feel the new spring air. Give me a night walk through the forest when the deer race across the twilight path and the last birds chant their ragas to the night and I’ll be there.

The Torah is concerned with many matters: right and wrong, good and evil, family feuds, tyranny, injustice, bullying, peer pressure, and how to remain just and kind nonetheless. There’s nothing with which our lives are intertwined, our thoughts burdened, or our hearts weighed down about which the Torah and its commentators have nothing to say.

But the Torah begins with wonder; wonder comes first, and wonder is something we all need.

Day four is the moon and stars; day five are the fishes and the birds, the loud-mouthed wren, the nuthatch which feeds upside down; the morning of the sixth day brings the horses, foxes, hedgehogs, beavers, badgers, wolves.

Finally, we humans enter creation, in the image of God, capable of creating or destroying, of wonder or contempt. I didn’t ask for an easy life, Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, ‘I asked for wonder, and God gave it to me’. I believe the capacity for wonder exists in every child and in the child within every adult and remains with us lifelong as the secret wisdom of growing older without becoming old.

The philosophers and mystics debate which of the commandments comes first: to know God, love God or be filled with the awe of God. I don’t think the order matters very much. Rather, take them all together, apply them not to what we cannot know but to what lies before our eyes, that autumn chrysanthemum, that blackbird, that cloud which can’t quite catch up with the moon, – and they add up to a wonder, a reverence, a sheer, overwhelming joy which sometimes overtakes us with such power that we stop still, our thoughts still, our soul still, traversed by the mystery of endless life which has bestowed on us, briefly, temporarily, this unfathomable consciousness.

We need wonder. Where there is wonder, there is reverence and respect. How then can we ever seek to hurt or to destroy?

 

Walking the Moonlit Walk

There is a custom among mystics to observe one’s moon-shade on the night of Hoshana Rabba (the Great Hoshana). You have to find a field or forest far from light-pollution and walk with the moon behind you, observing how it casts your shadow at your feet.

The date is significant because Hoshana Rabba is regarded as the day when the books of destiny are finally sealed. One wears white; the liturgy is an after-echo of the melodies of the Days of Awe; the greeting is Gmar Tov, ‘a good conclusion: May you be included in the book of a good life and good deeds’. The service ends with seven circuits of the synagogue chanting our hopes for humanity, nature, the very earth itself and the ultimate Jerusalem when peace will settle over the face of the globe. The chorus is always Hoshana, ‘Save!’ Hence the name Hoshana Rabba.

Hoshana Rabba begins this Saturday night and the weather forecast for London is mediocre, in case anyone does fancy that midnight moonlit adventure. The more compete your shadow, the fuller your year will be.

The fact that I don’t believe in such superstitious myths, and even regard them as spiritually dangerous, has proved insufficient to prevent me from sometimes following the dark night path. (Maybe I should regard this as a mere by-product of walking the dog. And what can be bad about a night-walk among the moon-shadows of the trees with a dog for company?)

For, though I deplore the custom if taken literally, as a metaphor I find it deeply significant.

The danger with literalism is that it presupposes a God who lengthens or shortens our days according to some inscrutable criterion of divine justice. Life contains too much patent unfairness for it to be possible, to me at least, to believe in such a deity. Nor do I want anyone to feel that the losses, sorrows and fears which life invariably entails, though distributed in unequal measure, are necessarily our just deserts. Life is often cruel.

But as a metaphor the night-lit wander on Hoshana Rabba shines into my conscience. The High Holydays are behind us now. What light do they cast on the path before me in the year ahead? What kind of me do they project into the footsteps of the future?

I have listened to much beauty: music and words two thousand years-old which directed my ancestors’ lives: ‘Open your heart’, ‘Remember; be aware!’ ‘Write for life with the God of life’.

I have heard much wisdom from many people: we’ve debated the nature of truth and the moral centrality of integrity and accountability; we’ve spoken about love of the world and our urgent responsibility towards nature, trees, even bees; we’ve discussed the plight of refugees, families fleeing persecution, women trying to escape societies which fail to protect them from abuse.

These responsibilities and truths now shine on my path ahead, outlining in shadow form who I might be, what I could, should, might do with this precious next year of life: Will I care enough? Will I be kind? Will be a planter or uprooter? Will I have the integrity to follow the example of other people’s light, or the courage to step forward where the path is yet unlit?

The God I believe in speaks to the heart, breathing into it wonder, love, honesty and courage. Will we listen in the year ahead? Will we walk the walk?

 

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