Music from over the fence: the joy of Lag Be’Omer

The sound of singing came over the fence with such compelling harmony that I simply had to get up from my desk and follow the music. It came from the home of my colleague, friend and neighbour, Rabbi Zahavit Shalev. Seated around the fire-pit in her garden were at least ten people playing the guitar and fifty more singing along. There were parents and children, and grandparents too. There was L. who still keeps the yellow star his family had to wear in the Budapest ghetto in his Passover Haggadah. There was M. who’d never been to a Jewish occasion before. There were lots of teens and young people.

It was the night of Lag Be’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, so-named after the measure of grain offered in the temple on its first night. The counting of the Omer marks the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. It’s traditionally a period of mourning, but Lag Be’Omer is a day of respite, a date for music and joy. ‘Despite the fact that Jewish history has more than its share of bleak and depressing chapters, the tradition sees itself as a joyous one,’ writes Arthur Green on the opening page of his delightful short book, Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas. Seeking God should fill the heart with joy: ‘Love, the wonders of nature, music, dance, and the close companionship of friends are all there to keep you on the path of joy.’ (We each have our strengths: ask me to join the dance and I’ve got two left feet; suggest a fifteen mile-hike in the wild countryside and the boots are on my feet.)

Lag Be’Omer has its hero, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in 2nd century Palestine. Betrayed to the Roman authorities for speaking ill of them, he flees to a cave where he hides with his son for twelve years. A well of water miraculously appears at the entrance, where a carob tree provides all the nutrition they need. Each day, every day, father and son study Torah together from memory.

Eventually Elijah announces that the Caesar who wanted them killed, has himself bitten the dust. Emerging from their cave, Rabbi Shimon and his son are dismayed at the sheer ordinariness of the world: ‘What,’ they exclaim, ‘People mundanely plough and sow, forgetting higher matters!’ A voice from heaven rebukes them: ‘Have you come out to destroy my world? Get back to your cave!’

When they re-emerge a year later (a period, perhaps, to process their post-traumatic stress) Rabbi Shimon has changed. Wherever he looks, he heals. Don’t remember me in sorrow, he says on his deathbed; let the anniversary of my death be a Hillula, a date for praising God with joy. That’s why Lag Be’Omer is also known as Hillula deRashbi (short for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai).

This story could be a parable for the whole history of the Jewish People, and other peoples, and individuals too, who’ve faced marginalisation and persecution. Don’t be daunted or diverted; deepen your own identity, seek the nourished of your spirit. Then, if and when the blessings of freedom come, don’t be disdainful of the world, don’t be bitter. Try to be a healer; bring understanding, foster conciliation. Behave in such a way that people will remember you with joy.

Judaism expresses this as the principle of simchah shel mitzvah, the joy which comes with practising God’s commandments, with doing what’s just, kind and good. ‘A mitzvah is a place where you can meet God,’ continues Arthur Green, ‘of course it makes you happy’ [his italics]. I would add that it’s also, or even more so, a place where we meet other people, our friends and companions in trying to bring happiness and healing in this challenging world.

Passover, and the eternal and urgent fight for freedom

I wish everyone in our community, our family and friends and all who celebrate the festival across the world, Chag Sameach for Pesach, zeman cheirouteinu, the festival of our freedom.

Throughout the long experience of the Jewish People, and in the history of peoples across the world, freedom has never been a condition to be taken for granted. Rather, it has been fought for, with God’s help, but with human vision, courage and determination. As we read in the Haggadah, and as we witness today, in every generation there are those who rise up against the basic principles of liberty, justice and human dignity and threaten the world with their totalitarian ambitions and ruthless brutality.

Earlier this week I joined a visit of solidarity to Ukraine at the request of local leaders, arranged by the Elijah Interfaith Institute. We were asked to speak of comradeship, hope and faith. But what mattered to us most was to listen, to be within the close distance of the heart’s hearing.

At an orphanage on the edge of Chernivtsi, where the staff had received a hundred mothers and children fleeing the war-ravaged east, one woman spoke to us on behalf of many:

This is the second time I’ve had to flee. This war’s not been six weeks, but eight years. I have a four-month-old baby. My mother is with me. I worry for my husband, all the time, and about the situation. The world needs to know.

In her, and in the kind, calm women who ran this remarkable place I met today’s incarnation of the biblical midwives who risked their lives in the defiance of tyranny: ‘No, Pharaoh, these babies shall live!’

In a powerful statement sent to accompany our interfaith visit and read out in the Chernivtsi theatre in Ukrainian, Pope Francis referenced an even earlier killer:

All this troubles our consciences and obliges us not to keep silent, not to remain indifferent before the violence of Cain and the cry of Abel, but instead to speak out forcefully in order to demand, in the name of God, the end of these abominable actions.

In the history of the Jewish People, and all humanity, freedom has only been won by struggle and maintained through vigilance. This struggle has not always been military. It encompasses the poet who composes from the conscience, that invincible force which tunnels beneath tyranny. It includes lawyers and journalists who defend the victims of state and gang violence in the face of judicial corruption and political convenience. It involves teachers who daily plan lessons to enable all their pupils to learn towards their dreams. It embraces those striving for the just, compassionate treatment of refugees.

Heroes of freedom include those who composed and ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and The United Nations Convention on refugees, and who put genocide and crimes against humanity on the international statute book, as documented in Philippe Sands’ East West Street. In all these achievements, the experiences and efforts of Jewish people, alongside others, have been key motivators.

Therefore, while Pesach celebrates freedom from, fromthe tyranny of Pharaoh and his like in all ages, it marks no less the importance of freedom to. From that freedom, that task of redemption, we are never free on earth – unless we take freedom for granted or hold it in little regard. For freedom is easily squandered.

Therefore, this Pesach we rededicate ourselves to the work of freedom in whatever ways we are able to pursue it.

Sometimes the battle for freedom must be fought in the front lines against the perpetrators of war crimes. But freedom is also won, and its preservation is only ensured, in the daily tasks of peacetime: combatting hatred and racism, working for social justice, caring for children, and in any activity or action in which the dignity of each person is recognised and validated.

We put our trust in the God of life, in the knowledge that God’s presence is working with us for the good and blessing of all living beings.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach

Tu Bishevat, responsibilities and trees

‘This is why we’re working here,’ said Nic, looking round at the thousands of young trees, or whips, already planted. The January sun was slowly melting the frost off the grass in the valley. ‘It’s partly for park land, partly for flood protection, so that heavy rains don’t drain too swiftly into the Lee River, causing havoc downstream.’

We were in Enfield, just past Trent Park, a few hundred yards below a road I know well. But I’d never seen the landscape from this perspective before. Normally I drive this way to our community cemetery, heavy-hearted, thinking of people I care about. But today I was here to plant trees for the future, for new life.

It will be Tu Bishevat, The New Year For Trees this Sunday night and Monday. A fresh consciousness, a re-awoken awareness of our dependence on soil and insect, trees and rainfall, clean air and water, is traversing the world, including all faiths and all sectors of the Jewish community. We can’t teach our children Torah if we don’t bequeath them, and all the world’s children, a liveable, sustainable, bio-rich planet.

As so often, Tu Bishevat comes in the same week as Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. ‘They sang this song of triumph o’er,’ runs the line from the much-loved spiritual Go Down Moses. Overcoming contemporary Pharaohs and tyrants is always a struggle and always important.

But it’s a different singing humanity most needs now, the kind heralded by the Psalmist when they ‘heard melodies from the corners of the land,’ when ‘the hills and valleys burst into song and the trees of the fields clapped their hands.’ We must attend to the music, including the laments and elegies, as well as the arias and ballads of the earth.

Old prayers can be like old friends; one takes them for granted without thinking how much they mean to us. Every day I’ve said the Amidah blessing thanking God who ‘makes the shoots of salvation grow – matzmiach keren yeshua.’ It’s always seemed to me an odd combination of words: what’s salvation got to do with shoots and sprouts?

But that morning planting trees has helped me understand better. According to the Talmud, we will all be asked in the world to come if we have ‘looked forward to salvation.’ Judaism understands salvation not as some state which will suddenly descend miraculously from heaven, but as a task, at which – with God’s help – we have to work. It’s our commitment to the future, our contribution to making it better. What nicer way of doing so can there be than planting shrubs and trees, and flowers for the birds and the bees? It’s our part in ‘making salvation flourish.’

So I’ll be back in Enfield planting again in the weeks ahead, hopefully with a bevvy of young people from our community. We’ll be part of those cohorts across the globe planting, and helping others to plant, sustainably, locally, for the good of humans, animals and the world.

‘Those tall protectors,’ said Nic, pointing to the four-foot-high shields, are against deer, ‘so that they can’t bite off the tops of the young trees. The smaller ones,’ – he indicated a pile just half the height, – ‘Are for the shrubs, to keep the rabbits off them.’ It’s one of the great challenges of re-foresting, stopping eager herbivores from feasting on the freshly planted saplings.

But who’s protecting the worlds trees and forests against the depredations of humans? We live at a critical moment; we’re at the start of a complex rebalancing of the relationship between human need and nature, as urgent as it is profound. It’s all-encompassing. It’s theological: this is God’s world, not ours to possess but to preserve. It’s economic: we must sustain nature, so that it can sustain us. It’s moral: the earth’s resources need to be distributed justly. It’s spiritual and emotional: without the restoration of our minds and souls in woodlands and wild places, we’re weary and bewildered.

Most important: it’s on our doorstep, it’s here and now, and it’s our responsibility to do our best to get it right.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Tu Bishevat

Chanukah and the light we give each other

I wish everybody Chag Urim Sameach, a Happy Festival of Lights, on this fifth day of Chanukah, the eve of the Shabbat which marks the 47th birthday of our congregation.

Last night we were privileged to host members of different faith communities; it was a warm-hearted gathering. Reverend Philip, from the local church of St Mary’s, spoke of ‘a contagion of light.’ I’ve heard the word ‘contagion’ many times during these Covid months, but never before in a positive sense.

The Talmud asks a technical question: ‘Is it permitted to light one Chanukah candle from another?’ On a practical level, it’s not really an issue: every Chanukiah has, as well as its eight holders for each of the lights of the eight-day festival, a special place for the shammash or servant candle. It’s traditionally set higher than the rest, just as Abraham and Sarah remained standing so that they could serve their seated guests. If any of the Chanukah candles goes out, one takes the shammash to re-ignite them.

But on a symbolic level the issue is real. We need our own light, and we need each other’s too. Sometimes, the fire in us burns strong: we’re excited with life, full of the love of it, with plans and hopes, and dreams as well as deadlines to fulfil. But in harder weeks our inner light fades; fears, griefs and thick mental shadows cloud it out. Why be here? What’s the point?

That’s when we need one another’s light and inspiration. Maybe that’s why Jewish law rules that, yes, one may indeed kindle one Chanukah candle from another. Emotionally and spiritually, we do so all the time. That’s what Reverend Philip must have meant by the ‘contagion of light.’

I’ve remained a rabbi of the same community all my career, not because it’s always been easy but because of the light I’m constantly given. There are the little, not-so-little, things: ‘We’ve made a food rota while their mother’s in hospital;’ ‘We’ve created a new game so every child can engage;’ ‘We’re offering those saying Kaddish the opportunity to tell us in a sentence about the person they’re remembering.’ There’s little so humbling as everyday thoughtfulness. It takes us down into ourselves, touches the heart and replenishes our own inner flame.

Just as the Chanukah lamps are sacred, so is that of each person. Though death takes their warmth from us, it cannot entirely extinguish the light of those we love. When I visit the cemetery where many of our community now lie, I think of them as much with affection as sorrow. They inspire me still.

There’s David Jackson, who had a stroke at the age of forty. When he came from Liverpool to London, he knew little Hebrew. He made himself into a scholar; he attended everything. He could muster a wicked smile, had a self-deprecating sense of humour and obstinately refused to stop feeding KitKats to my dog. He loved the Psalms, and even after a further stroke kept him to his room, wrote music and a personal commentary for each of the hundred-and-fifty in the Psalter. David, I sense you here, sitting where you always sat, just behind where I’m writing now in this same room.

Most of my job as rabbi consists in enabling candles to be replenished from the candles which burn; those which give light all the way back from the ancient Jewish past, through the travails of millennia, to our lives today; those we proffer each other, and those we share across our faiths and out into lonely and dark places in our societies and occluded depths in our souls.

On this lighting of one light from another the flame of our collective resilience, courage and hope depends.

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.



Hoshana Rabba

I’m taking the last opportunity in these High Holydays to wish everyone Shanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah, a good and worthwhile year.

I’ve just come home from the beautiful Hoshana Rabba – the Great Hoshana – service, in which we circle the synagogue seven times just as the pilgrims in Jerusalem circled the altar when the Temple till stood. We chant the ancient litany composed by a community which was deeply connected to nature:

God, save humankind and animals; body, soul and spirit; bone, ligament, and skin.
Renew the face of the earth, with the planting of breath-giving trees.
Send rain to make the earth fragrant, to restore abandoned lands.
Save the olive crop from falling, the wheat from locusts, the vines from worms, humankind from terror…

If once we thought such prayers quaint, far removed from our high street realities, we realise now that we’ve been mistaken. They could have been written today, as we experience a renewed appreciation of our dependence on the earth, the rainfall, the green life of nature, and even the wellbeing of bees, invisible insects and fungi.

To me and many others this year, Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world and the celebration of creation, is closely linked to COP 26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which follows a month from now. The ancient liturgy therefore speaks straight to the heart, with its deep attachment to the earth, its humility, and its beseeching chorus ‘Hoshana - Save’. This is expanded at the end of each section to ‘God and I, please save,’ referencing that long-standing partnership between humanity, God and nature which we so urgently need to restore, spiritually as well as ecologically, and in which we need to take a more conscious and constructive role.

The High Priest himself, after completing the complex atonement rituals on Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the year, concluded with a prayer for

a year of grain, wine and oil; a year of dew, rain and warmth, a year of blessing over bread and water, a year of plenty, a year of peace and tranquillity.

May this be God’s will for all humankind and all life on earth, and may we do our utmost to contribute to its fulfilment in the time ahead.

PS Please wish me luck for the virtual London Marathon this Sunday. If all goes well, I hope to finish at shul around (ideally a little before!) 11.45 or 12.00. If it doesn’t go so well, I hope to finish by Chanukah latest. You can see my route and the causes I’m running for here.

The joy of Torah

A thing I love is that one never completes reading the Torah. Within minutes of chanting its final verses, we’re back again at the beginning and the year-long journey commences all over again.

At the time I didn’t understand. I’d been instructed to go and see my great-uncle Ernst on one of his stop-offs in London between his home in New York and his family in Jerusalem. I duly stood, a dubious teenager, before the venerable man. He looked up at me from the book he was studying and said with a smile, in his accented voice: ‘I try to learn a different commentary on the Torah every year.’

Ernst had been conscripted to the Austro-Hungarian Army for the duration of World War 1; had trained as a doctor and worked in Frankfurt, been imprisoned by the Nazis in Buchenwald, escaped to Britain where, as an ‘enemy alien’, he was shipped to the isle of Mann; had sailed to America in convoy in 1940 and started a new life in New York, where his neighbours in the impoverished block where the family, dispossessed but safe, now settled, found in him ‘the best doctor we ever had.’

Maybe it was the Torah which gave him the strength, not just ahavat Torah, love of Torah, which he inherited from his rabbinic parents, but the fact that Torah remained fresh to him, an undiscovered country through which each year’s new commentary would guide him to different peaks and depths. His life remained an adventure until his hundredth birthday.

It’s Simchat Torah, this Tuesday night and Wednesday: – the ‘Rejoicing of the Law’ as the ghastly formal translation has it. Hopelessly three-legged myself, I still love the singing and dancing. But the deepest magic is the moment when we start all over again from that first ‘In the beginning’ when God says ‘Let there be light.’ Moses’s eyes have scarcely been closed in death after beholding the promised land which he sees but may not enter, before we commence once more with that beautiful poem to the as-yet uninhabited earth, the unspoiled wonder of creation. What’ll happen this time? Not, of course, in the columns of the Torah: they’re always the same. But what’ll they mean to you, me and humanity, in this tempestuous world?

One might think it dull to reread the identical stories every year, those same laws, those boring lists of names. The Torah isn’t about perfect people either, so we get them all over again, those familiar mistakes, those old misunderstandings. Isn’t there anything new to be had?

I don’t think that way anymore. On the contrary, how lucky we are that these same narratives accompany us year by year, generation after generation, our Shabbat-fellows, thought-fellows, the core and substance of that constant conversation across centuries and continents. What does that word mean? What did Rashi say? How come it sounds so different to me now from how it seemed last year? It’s not just that we measure out our lives in Torah portions, but that they are the measure of us. What’s the ladder made of this year which connects my heaven and my earth? Who’s going up? And coming down? Will I find liberation? Will I hear God this time round?

I’ve taken to storing in my prayer books and Torah editions those small cards with the names of those who perished, which come with the yellow candles for Holocaust Memorial Day. There I find them year by year. But not just them; my family are here too. My father loved this phrase; he used to sing it at the end of his life. And didn’t that girl who had her Bat-Mitzvah six years ago say something gripping about that verse?

It’s not just that we dance with the Torah; we dance in it; and it sings and dances in us. That’s the simchah, the joy, of Torah.


The joy of the Succah

The distribution of Jewish festivals around the year is scarcely an example of equality and balance. Rosh Hashanah falls on the first of Tishrei, the fast of Yom Kippur follows on the tenth, and the eight days of Succot begin on the fifteenth. There’s hardly time to breath, let alone cook.

The tradition is to start building the succah, a small booth or hut, straight after the fast. I love this! We take our contemplations in our heart, a hammer and scissors in our hands, and turn our inner resolutions into practical actions.

For a succah is special; it can be as small as ten handbreadths high, or as tall as twenty cubits, so small just one person can sit in it, or big enough for a hundred. The roof must be of leaves and branches and the walls can be constructed out of virtually anything. But whatever the case, a succah must be built with affectionate respect because it’s a holy space, and these are some of the reasons why.

A succah is a place of humility. As the Mishnah says, a house is keva, permanent, but a succah is ara’i, temporary, like life itself, reminding us of the passing of our days, a thought set deeply in our hearts in these chastening times.

A succah is a space of grace. The earliest sources speak of noi succah, the beauty of the succah. They tell of decorating it with corn and fruits, flasks of wine, sacks of flour and jars of oil. For Succot is a harvest celebration and the succah is a place of thankfulness for the produce of the year. (Like many Jewish gardeners, we grow for the Succah as much as for the pot.)

A succah is a place of joy, built to mark the happiest of the festivals, the chag par excellence, as the Mishnah tells: Jerusalem was lit with lamps all night; the rabbis and the people danced all night. Making the succah is itself a joy too; it’s the paramount example of simchah shel mitzvah, the happiness to be found in following God’s commandments.

A succah is a space of connection between humankind and nature. We recognise our indebtedness and dependence, our need for the gifts of the soil. It teaches us the most urgent of contemporary lessons, to respect and reverence God’s earth.

A succah is a place of welcome. One brings guests to eat there, spiritual and temporal, summoning one’s ancestors, starting with Sarah and Abraham. But they refuse to come unless one invites friends and neighbours as well. For the succah reminds us to offer shelter, especially to refugees, as the Torah says, ‘For I [God] made the Children of Israel dwell in Succahs when I brought them out of the land of Egypt,’ and as it says also, ‘For you know the soul of the stranger.’

A succah is a space of refuge, as it says in the Psalms, ‘You hide me in Your Succah on the day of evil.’ Impermanent, easily blown away by a strong wind, it’s scarcely a castle or fortress. But it offers a deeper protection, foretelling a world in which everyone will be able to dwell safely ‘under their vine and fig tree.’

For a succah represents a tranquillity, succat shalom, the canopy of God’s peace, towards which the whole world should aspire. The mystics call the succah Tsila Di’Mehemanuta, the shade of the Faithful One, for it represents God’s protection, so badly needed by so many until the dawn of that better, future era of universal harmony.

So build with joy. If you have the opportunity, do make, or share in making, your own succah. If not, please help creating that most important of all succahs, a world where humanity, nature and God are all at peace with each other, – a task which needs the co-operation of us all


As Yom Kippur Approaches

I write with that trepidation in the heart which I always feel as Yom Kippur approaches, this year maybe more than ever. We stand before God, the world, our community, the people we love and our own soul.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, later known as the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, asked the question: Since all through the year we pray for forgiveness three times a day in every service, what’s different about this season? He answered that in the midst of the ceaseless daily grind we can just about manage to apologise for particular wrongs we’ve done, harsh words, thoughtless actions. But during the Days of Awe we take time to reflect on the whole of our life, the arc of our days and their purpose, who we are, through to our core being, down to our hidden-most heart and conscience where we encounter the living God.

What sustenance do we have for that inner journey?

What can we take? I’ve been to the cemetery too often during the past months. I walk between the rows and realise I’m among friends. I talk to some of them, tell them I still love them. I believe they say back to me, ‘Keep living. Try to do what’s right. Be kind. Until you join us.’ No other festival than Yom Kippur says so clearly ‘your days pass like a shadow.’ But it also says: life is magnificent, precious and tender, an immeasurable privilege. Cherish it. So we take with us before God the love of both the living and the dead.

What can we do?

Judaism teaches that every action is important. Maimonides asks us to imagine that not only our whole life but the entire world is always balanced on the sharp fulcrum between worthy and unworthy, kind and cruel, good and bad. Our next deed will determine which way we and our destiny tip. Everything matters. Therefore we must keep faith that we can make a difference, enable one family to be less hungry, give one person a roof, heal or comfort one person in body or spirit. ‘Never despair, never give up,’ taught Rebbe Nachman of Breslav (who himself battled with despair). We take with us on our journey our unremitting determination to do good.
Before whom are we accountable?

The obvious answer is ‘God’. But where do I find that God? I overheard a good-humoured exchange on zoom yesterday. ‘Move back a little,’ one participant said to another, ‘You’re too near your screen for me to see you.’ I’d sometimes thought the Torah taught that God was invisible because God was so far away. But perhaps it’s because God is so near that we don’t see.

God is present in our conscience whenever we hear truth, and in our heart whenever we feel moved and touched. God is in every person; God’s breath is the life-force within us all. God’s vitality is in the birds, and in the trees which sway to God’s song, most audibly so at night when the noisier world is silent.

What reply might we receive when we bring our life and soul before God? Without words God tells us: know my presence; listen to me; hurt no one and nothing. Love, cherish and nurture my world.

What do we say in response? The Torah suggests just one word: ‘Hinneni, I am here,’ which Rashi explains as an expression of readiness and humility.

For the fate of the world is in the balance and we have agency. The purpose of our life is to serve, care, heal, and endeavour with whatever capacities and time we’ve been gifted, to do right and good.

A Prayer for the World on the Jewish New Year

The world has so much beauty, such wonder in a moment,
Yet so much suffering – body pain, heartache, mind ache,
And fear – as if the future might collapse like a rotten floor.

We call on you in these bewildering years
Not as a remote God, not as distant other,
For you inhabit everything; the life of all creation is your breath,
The songs of wrens and owls, and humans also, is, all of it, your music.

We need to know your presence, feel you here in consciousness and conscience,
God, closer to us ‘than our own body and our soul.’ (Yehudah HaLevi)
We have to be attentive to each other.
Speak to us from inside our mind and heart
So that our actions become the articulation of your will.

You are near to us in all with whom we ever shared the bonds of care.
What is a heart but chambers full of people,
From whom our very thought is inextricable, even after death?
Speak to us through them.

God, who taught us always to listen to the stranger,
You, who have become their brother and sister refugee
In search of shelter and compassion here on earth,
Make us hear you in their weary hope, and hopelessness.

God, who calls out from all existence,
In the brave compulsion which makes the small birds overfly the oceans,
In the soil itself, where mineral become energy in the life-force of
and turns back again to matter in the falling of the leaves,
God for whom

There / is nothing too ample
for you to overflow, nothing
So small that your workmanship
is not revealed (RS Thomas: Alive)

Make us know you in the rivers and the trees.

Waken our heart, summon our mind, alarm our conscience
With all the powers of wonder, tenderness, compassion, even tears,
So that love for you and your creation
Ignites our fervour and guides our plans
To serve you here on earth in all we do.

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