Where God’s light shines

This Chanukkah I feel I’ve witnessed two moving examples of God’s presence in the world, and two more, by inference, which I’d rather not have seen.

Why ‘God’s presence in the world’? Because of a question the Talmud asks about the Menorah: ‘Does God really need its light?’ Isn’t it rather the other way round, that we need God’s light, not God ours?

The Talmud answers that the Menorah isn’t there to provide God with a torch, but to symbolise how God’s light illumines the world. The lamps of the Menorah ‘are testament that God’s presence dwells in Israel’ and throughout creation.

The first example of God’s light was very public, when the Mayor of London, Sadiq Kahn, celebrated Chanukkah in Trafalgar Square. London is the greatest city in the world, he declared, as he always loves to say. That’s because it’s a place where a Muslim mayor can light the Chanukkah candles with a rabbi next to a huge Christmas tree in its most famous square.

How often in human history, I wonder, has such togetherness been possible? To me, it exemplifies what the Torah means when it teaches that every person, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, gender, or any of the many features which so often divide us, is created equal in God’s image.

The second example was very private. I was welcomed into a residential care home to say the Chanukkah blessings. But it was a different light from that of the candles which caught my attention. I watched the staff; I witnessed their kindness, sensitivity and patience. It’s not easy to provide constant, intimate care to vulnerable people who’ve often lost so much of their stature and independence in the closing phases of their lives. The staff’s conduct made me think of the Kabbalistic quality of gevurah shebachesed, strength within loving kindness, that challenging balance of resilient compassion which requires so much attentiveness, gentleness and restraint. If God’s presence is anywhere in this world, it’s with people like these carers.

Sadly, there are two further examples I’d rather not have witnessed. Were they of God’s presence, or God’s absence? I’m not sure.

The first was the long queue at a nearby food bank. Yes, the bank shows that there exists deep compassion within our society, a determined protest against want, and against the harshness and injustice which causes it, and which leaves so many people unable to provide food and warmth for their families. But it would be incomparably better if such testament were not so desperately needed by so many.

The second was the news that girls have been denied access to serious education in Afghanistan. I know people this will affect, through the knowledge that the suffering their families and friends are enduring is now even greater. To me, this gross cruelty testifies precisely through what it negates: it highlights the truth that God’s presence shines equally in the minds and hearts of men and women, and that it’s deeply wrong, a devastating desecration, to attempt to limit that light.

So the Talmud’s answer makes every sense to me: Yes, God’s light shines across the world.

But how often it is obscured!

That leads me to challenge the rhetorical nature of the Talmud’s original question about God needing the Menorah’s light. The anticipated answers is, of course, ‘No!’.

But down here, in this complex world where the sacred is so often obfuscated by conflict, cruelty and self-interest, God does need us. It’s not our light which God needs, and that deep flame which illumines the heart and mind and shines through all creation doesn’t belongs to us anyway.

What God needs from us is to notice the light, in each other, every person and all life. God needs us to protect and nurture it wherever we perceive it. God needs the light of the Menorah to shine not just in our windows but in our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukkah

About hope and courage: why Chanukkah is truly a big festival

‘It’s the biggest Jewish festival,’ said the twins I was teaching for their Bar Mitzvah. ‘A big festival,’ said our Ukrainian guests, who’d evidently been reading up about Chanukkah just as we had about how Christmas is celebrated in Ukraine.

The truth is that, no, Chanukkah is fairly minor in the scale of Jewish festivals. But it felt mean to say this, so I replied that it had ‘become big.’ ‘Why?’ the boys, who recognise a half-hearted answer when they hear one, promptly asked. ‘Because of competing with Christmas, and because the Maccabees were important role models,’ I responded.

But there’s a better reason why Chanukkah is, and should be, big today: Chanukkah is about hope and courage and we need large doses of both. Our hearts go out to so many people in so many directions in these difficult times that we need reinforcements in our core.

Chanukkah begins on Sunday night with just one light, except for the servant-candle shammes. These days, everybody follows the School of Hillel whose principle is that ‘in matters of holiness we go up, not down,’ adding one further candle every night, culminating with eight. Eight is the Jewish number of the natural cycle of seven, plus one: plus wonder, faith and hope.

As everyone knows, we light the candles in honour of the pure olive oil the Maccabees found in the ruined precincts of the recaptured temple, which, sufficient for just one day, burnt on the menorah for eight.

But there’s a kashe, a logical problem. Why do we bless God for a miracle on the first night? One day’s oil ought to last for one day! A practical answer could be that the Maccabees saw immediately that something unusual was happening because the oil was burning very, very slowly. But they surely wouldn’t have noticed this phenomenon until at least part way through the day.

Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger (1847 – 1905) offers a better explanation: The miracle began because on that first night because the Maccabees lit the menorah with a whole heart despite having so little oil. In other words, miracles don’t begin in heaven, but here on earth, with what we do.

The Maccabees could have said: What when the oil runs out? Wouldn’t it be wiser to wait for more supplies? But they found the courage, took the risk and the flame they lit burnt not for one, nor even for eight days, but for generations, illumining innumerable dark and difficult years in countless lands and lives. Its light burns yet.

I’ve met many people who do like those Maccabees. They say: I don’t know where this’ll lead, but I’m starting a food bank. I’ll create a warm space. I’ll start Cook for Good, to bring whole communities together.

Perhaps almost everyone who has an idea is like that first contingent, who, looking round the war-ravaged temple precincts, asked themselves: What can we do? Where can we find some light?

They search, not in the rubble but in their hearts, and find their symbolic jar of oil, the fuel for a plan: Maybe this could work. Maybe this will bring some hope. Then they ask themselves: But will it take on? What about resources? Will it all go nowhere? Will the flame go out? But they find the courage; they make something happen.

Then, as so often when something good is initiated, others join in, bringing their own energy and inspiration. Further and further circles are drawn to the light. People ask how to help, what to contribute. They too feed the flame until its light lasts longer and spreads far wider than those who first lit it thought possible.

That’s what hope and courage can achieve.

Is the story of the Maccabees and the oil historically true? Probably not. But does it express and eternal truth? Yes definitely! That’s why Chanukkah is, and should be, truly a big festival.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach, Happy Chanukkah

 

Choose life!

Here we are back at the start of the Torah’s journey. Last week we read the magnificent poem with which the Torah opens, its hymn to creation, ‘In the beginning, God said “Let there be…”’ This week comes the sweeping flood, the terrible annihilation which life perilously survives, afloat in a tiny gene-pool, a wave-tossed ark of gopher wood.

Before us are creation and destruction, life and death, and we exist in the fragile interstice between them. Therefore, we must always be on the side of life, in our prayers, thought and deeds.

Prayer is not primarily the attempt to change God’s hidden mind through our petitions. It’s the art of connecting life with life. True prayer, wrote Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, happens only when the presence of God within us and the presence of God beyond us meet. This isn’t magic; it’s not too far from, or too hard for any of us. It occurs whenever life touches us in moments of humility, wonder, love, or inner silence and our heart is opened and our awareness expands, filled by that all-present energy or spirit which flows through all things.

Such prayer can happen in communion with the words of the prayer book, in a conversation in a hospital corridor, in the glimpse of a wren or the solitude of a walk. It’s a moment of hearing with the heart, of connection with the sanctity of life. Even in the presence of death it’s almost always a timeless act of intuitive homage. It deepens our compassion, it nourishes our joy, it makes of us servants of life.

Because all life is sacred, because, in theological terms, God is present in all that exists, it is God’s commandment at the root of all commandments that we should harm life as little as possible and cause as little pain as we can even in our most mundane actions, in how we eat, dress, travel, interact with people, animals and nature. ‘Choose life,’ the Torah insists.

Therefore, whatever our tasks are amidst the complexity and sometimes misery of everyday life, they must always be rooted in respect, justice and compassion, even when life confounds us or makes us angry with good reason. Those tasks can be anything, baking a birthday cake, working out how to teach an obstreperous class, fighting the soullessness of some obstinate system, administering a life-saving vaccine. The question is: am I doing this as well as I can for the sake of life?

I’m not writing these words out of naivety, and certainly not because I find any of this easy. I attended the meeting in the Houses of Parliament on ending indefinite detention for asylum seekers. I’m preparing a declaration by faith leaders on climate justice for Cop 27. I read the headlines about climate change. I feel frustrated and powerless time and again. I worry that the waters are once again rising around Noah’s precious ark.

But I know that the source of life is infinite and everywhere, and that the commandment to care for life is expressed in numberless ways, in kind words, in the beauty of the autumn’s red and yellow leaves, in the song of a blackbird, through reaching out for help in difficult times, in the loneliness of sorrow, and in the joy which can flow into the silence of solitude. It is the voice of the God who says, “Let there be life,” and who calls on us to answer.

The festivals are over, but we mustn’t leave them behind

The High Holydays have passed and the Jewish year has reverted to its weekly round of ‘six days shall you labour and, on the seventh, rest.’ The holidays may be over but, as we go out into this world with its numerous challenges, I don’t want to leave them behind. For they bring to our lives beauty and wonder, community and communion, responsibility and respect. Without these qualities I don’t know how we can face whatever time may bring.

So here are some of the experiences I want to stow away in my heart and carry with me through the year.

From Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, I want to take the sound of the shofar, that call of the ram’s horn which cries out on behalf of all life. For in its notes, the teki’a, shevarim and teru’a, are the tears, brokenness and yearning for freedom and joy of all existence. In them are the soul’s aspirations, the birdsong, the vastness of moors and the unheard voices of wrongly imprisoned victims of tyrannous suppression.

Before it is blown, we declare that we are commanded ‘to hear the call of the shofar.’ The assumption is that we comply by paying attention in those moments when it’s sounded. But maybe what’s required is that we retain the call in our soul and hear it over and again throughout the year, so that it re-awakens in us solicitude for suffering and solidarity with joy.

From Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I want to take the opening prayer, Kol Nidrei, All Vows. More than the words, its deep, uplifting music tells us that though, despite our best intentions, we fell short; our failures must in no way prevent us from endeavouring all over again to be the best person we possibly can ‘from this time forth until next Yom Kippur.’ Yet even as we say those words we acknowledge that we’ll fall short once more, but continue undaunted to strive, hope and aspire.

And from Yom Kippur I want to take too those painful reminders, ‘We’ve betrayed; we’ve done wrong.’ This is not in order to indulge in feeling guilty, but rather so as never blithely to forget the world’s sore hurts and our responsibility to heal. For our hope as humanity lies in truth, accountability and the commitment to make reparation.

From Succot, Tabernacles, the harvest festival, I want to take the gratitude and the beauty. It’s time now to take down the fruits we hung in thanksgiving, and the flowers and leaves have begun to wither. But it’s never the time to forget our dependence on the land and the rainfall, on the flow of the seasons which, in the Torah, God promises Noah never again to disturb, but which in many land we have profoundly disrupted.

I want to take too the friendship and fellowship of the Succah and the promise that its shade means God’s protection, as expressed in this prayer on leaving it at the festival’s end:

May the angels of your presence accompany us from the Succah back into our homes, for life and peace. Guard us from doing wrong; protect us from all harm and from the evil times which afflict the world. Give us the energy and inspiration to serve you in truth, with love and respect. Help us repair whatever we have hurt. May we find safety and peace.

As we go out into a difficult world, may what we take with us in our hearts from these festivals guide us, console us, cajole us when we feel helpless, and give us courage and hope.

Succot – the festival of welcome

From inside to outside, that’s the scramble when Yom Kippur ends and the joyful festival of Succot, Tabernacles, is merely five days minus seventy-five minutes away, with so much to do to prepare.

The two festivals have a complementary but collaborative relationship. Yom Kippur is a day indoors, within community; Succot is a time to sit outdoors, beneath the succah’s canopy of leaves supported on temporary, sometimes shaky, walls.

Yom Kippur is primarily a voyage inwards. In the days of the High Priests, when the Temple in Jerusalem still stood, it was a journey to the heart of the sacred compound, to its Holy of Holies, where the Cohen Gadol sought communal atonement from God. Today, when we have neither High Priest nor Temple, we each travel inwards to our heart to encounter life’s basic questions: Why am I here? What’s my life for? How do I use it for the best?

Succot is our first response, our immediate answer. In building our succah (or sharing a communal succah) and taking our meals in its shade, we live out three qualities: appreciation, hospitality and humility.

Before it became a symbol of the refugee status of our ancestors during their forty years in the desert, the succah was part of the world of farming. Jacob builds a succah to protect his cattle from the sun. Isaiah mentions the ‘succah in the vineyard,’ where the person paid to act as human scarecrow and protect the grapes from marauding foxes might gain a few moments’ rest.

In earlier times a succah was built from the stalks of the grain crops and pruned vine branches. It was decorated with the best of the harvest including flasks of wine and oil, bags of fine flour, peaches and grapes. To this day a succah should be a place of beauty, hung with the fruits of the year. Many a Jewish gardener decides what to sow based on whether it will yield produce to hang in the succah.

Succot is the antidote to entitlement. It says in the most basic, physical terms: thank you for shelter; thank you for food. The rabbis who created its liturgy were farmers, or from farming families. That’s why they prayed for God’s help in the most mite-sized of doses: protect us from blackfly and locusts, mildew and scorching, flooding and drought.

Hence the humility. In spending these days in the succah, we recognise that we are dependent in multiple ways: on the earth and rainfall, on agriculture and trade, on peace and the rule of just laws, all summed up, in traditional terms, in reverence for life and the God of all life.

The succot prayers have the simplest of chorus lines, consisting of just one Hebrew word: Hoshana! Save us! Look after us! We know we need your help, God, and support from one another.

Hence the importance of hospitality. Before we ourselves enter, we invite the ushpizin into our succah, the spirits of our ancestors, beginning with Abraham and Sarah. But they refuse to come if we have not first opened our succah to guests, or if we’ve forgotten those around us who have no food or shelter. Succah is a ‘please come in,’ not a ‘please go away’ festival.

Whereas the succah itself couldn’t be more down-to-earth, the space beneath its canopy is considered holy. It represents harmony, succat shalom, the Tabernacle of Peace. It expresses in the most basic terms the kind of balance we hope and strive for between nature, humanity and God: a relationship of harmonious growth together, of inclusion and compassion, justice and welcome, recognition and gratitude.

How our prayers may be answered this New Year

‘You stand, all of you, before the Sovereign your God,’ thus opens the Torah portion which we always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.

For what shall we pray as we stand before God on these Holy Days, the New Year, the Ten Days of Return and Yom Kippur? The world is faced by grave dangers: President Putin’s evil war, floods, droughts, a changing climate, turbulent politics and uncertain leadership. I don’t need to spell out the threats, it’s hard to bear even thinking about them.

We will surely ask God for peace and mercy, healing and plenty. Will God make it happen? Can God make it happen? For myself, I believe rather in the sacred presence of God within each of us and all creation than in some all-powerful being residing in heaven.

But these matters are mysteries, so we send forth our prayers in hope. May they ascend to the place of God’s mercy. May they descend to those spaces in our heart and conscience where the presence of God abides.

We can’t know what happens on high, but there are ways we can make certain that our prayers are answered below.

‘Prayer boomerangs,’ wrote the much-missed Rabbi Lionel Blue. We start by asking God to send us healing, then ask ourselves: what am I doing to bring more healing into the world? We pray for justice, and are motivated to campaign against injustice. We ask, in the words of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, for a year of beneficial rains and dew. Then we consider: what can I change and influence so that the earth remains fertile and people don’t suffer famine?

We misdirect our prayers if we only send them up to heaven and not down into our conscience and out into our actions every day.

There’s a spiritual as well as a moral dimension in which we can know that our prayers are worthwhile. ‘How can we be sure our prayers are effective on high?’ asked Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, subsequently know as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, before answering, ‘If they awaken in us the fear of God.’ ‘Fear’ has negative connotations, but that’s not what he intends. He’s referring to what he defines as ‘the fear, or awe, within love.’

What we love, we do not want to hurt. On the contrary, we do everything we possibly can to avoid causing those we love pain. The deeper the love, the more powerful the determination to inflict no harm and to prevent others from doing so. When we do cause hurt, we feel instinctively sorry: What have I done? How could I have spoken, how could I have behaved, that way?’

This ‘fear, or awe, within love’ comes from our core. We can experience it not just towards other people, but towards life itself. In the depths of our heart, do we really want to hurt any living creature? Would we not do everything we could to prevent their suffering? ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,’ declared Isaiah in some of the most beautiful words in the Hebrew Bible.

One of the first prayers we say is for the efficacy of prayer itself. Therefore, on this Rosh Hashanah and throughout the coming year, may the words we speak and the music and silence we share come before the presence of God which dwells in our heart and conscience, awakening us to deeper love and awe and motivating us to do what is just, good and kind ‘with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might.’

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah

Elul and the shofar’s call to love and truth

Sunday will bring the new moon of Elul, the month of preparation before the New Year. Playing with the Hebrew letters, as the rabbis often liked to do, they saw in the name Elul an acronym for Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li, ‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.’

Elul is the month of relationships, of drawing close to our inner self, each other, the world and God. It is the month of teshuvah, return.

This is both a simple and a complex, an easy and a difficult, journey. The simplicity is that it’s motivated by love: I want to be the person I most deeply am, to feel near to the people I care about, to be true to my essential values, to be considerate, compassionate, generous and attentive to the world. I don’t want to live from the weary, distracted periphery of myself, but from the centre of my being.

Therefore, Elul is the month of wakefulness. ‘Come awake,’ it calls to us. Life is full of opportunity: there is good in the world that needs to be done; there is beauty in the world which we have to nurture and cherish.

Elul is like the knocking on the door in the middle of the night in The Song of Songs. When she hears it, the beloved says, ‘I am asleep but my heart is awake.’ Somewhere inside us our heart, too, is awake, waiting for us to shake off our weariness and follow what is loving and kind. That knocking on the door, the rabbis say, is God calling out to us.

But the journey is also difficult. In returning to our relationships with ourselves, each other and the world, we also have to confront what we, and others, have done wrong. Therefore, Teshuvah, though ultimately motivated by love, is also about rigorous integrity and truth.

The awareness that the world is full of injury is, today, inescapable. Some hurts are personal; there are very few close relationships in which we don’t on occasion misunderstand each other, lose patience, get angry and behave selfishly. These are matters for our private conscience; apology and the determination to do better are an essential part of teshuvah.

But other sores are public and concern us all as part of society and the human community: the searing inequalities which leave many with daily decision about which meal to forgo in order to feed the children; the damage we’ve done and continue to do to nature and the hurts we inflict on the fellow creatures with whom we share our planet; the obscene cruelties of war; the unthinkable injustices of suffering. Facing these realities, social, economic and environmental, must also be part of our collective teshuvah.

Therefore, we need to summon the powers of not only of love but also of truth to guide us on our journey. To many these are both expressed in the cry of the shofar, which we blow every morning during Elul. Though, as he acknowledges, its resonance penetrates deeper than language, Maimonides puts words to the shofar’s call:

Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep and you slumberers from your slumber. Remember your creator, you who forget the truth in the vanities of time.

I believe the shofar expresses joy, the wonder of the natural world, the appeal to its mysteries and depths, the awe with which it humbles us. But at the same time it is also the raw, un-honed, unvarnished demand for truth: Who are you? What are you? What are you doing with your life and with the world?

To these realities and opportunities the month of Elul summons us.

Looking beyond destruction to healing and rebuilding

My mood is summed up in a scene from fifteen years ago, when we were in the far north of Israel at the Hullah nature reserve. Before or since, I’ve never seen so many amazing birds. A tall, strong man was holding in his hands the tiniest of feathered creatures and putting a ring round its leg with deft gentleness. This would help ornithologists understand the bird’s flightpath and do more to protect the dangerous route of its annual migration.

So many people in today’s world hold onto power so hard that the harshness travels down their veins and ends up hardening their heart. If only we could treat life with that gentle dexterity yet firmness of purpose, with that dedication to healing and nurture, which that tall man epitomised all those years ago.

That’s why my heart is set on next Sunday afternoon and the weeks and Sabbaths which follow. I realise this shouldn’t be so. First comes this next Shabbat tomorrow, Shabbat Chazon, with Isaiah’s dire vision of the decadence and moral decay of Jerusalem. Then follows the night of the bleak fast of Tisha B’Av, recalling the destruction of the city. Sunday morning brings the liturgy of banishment, from England, France and Spain, and the bitter elegies after the destruction of the Jewish communities of the Rhineland by the Crusaders.

But my spirit is focussed on what comes after devastation, on what lies deeper than destruction: the longing to comfort, protect and recreate. For on Sunday afternoon, even in the middle of the fast day, the mood changes: the hour of consolation begins. ‘Nacheim, Comfort Jerusalem,’ we will pray. ‘Nachamau, nachamu ammi, Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,’ we will chant on Shabbat week.

The story is well known of how, when Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues secretly visited the Temple Mount, a desolate zone declared out of bounds by the Romans, they all tore their garments in sorrow. Seeing a fox emerge from the ruins, his companions wept, but Rabbi Akiva laughed. Jeremiah foretold that foxes would wander the ruins of Jerusalem, he explained to his companions, bewildered by his inappropriate reaction. If his prophecy of destruction has been fulfilled, then surely the many prophecies of rebuilding must one day prove equally true. (Talmud Makkot 24b)

‘Comfort ye, comfort ye’ we’ll sing, but it’s not just words of comfort which the world urgently needs. We need actions which bring consolation, which make the healing real.

I wept when England won the Women’s Euro 2022, not because I wanted Germany to lose (I felt for their players) but because it was an amazing achievement, because it was women who made it happen, but above all because it lifted everyone’s spirits, mine included, and the country desperately needed that cheer.

But it’s not just what makes the big screen; it’s the millions of deeds which, if they get recorded at all, appear on the small screens of local what’s app groups. It’s people taking provisions to their local food banks; I saw the queues there yesterday, all ages from children to old men needing crutches. I’ll be out there when the rain finally comes and we can replant the trees which didn’t make it through this burning summer drought. When a leader comes who truly promotes greater social justice, I’ll be listening.

It’s not good enough today to say ‘Comfort ye.’ We need to turn the words inside out, as the rabbis always have, and say: ‘Ye – that is you and me – have to make that comfort happen.’ God’s part is to inspire us, guide us and give us the imagination, determination and courage to bring healing to the world.

Not just then but now – from where God is speaking

As we approach Shabbat and the festival of Shavuot, we simultaneously honour our Sovereign Queen Elizabeth II, and the Sovereign of the sovereign of sovereigns, our God.

Her Majesty the Queen has, through her unstinting devotion to duty and service, represented stability and dedication over seventy years in which the world has changed at an unprecedented rate. During her long reign, the Jewish community, alongside other faiths, has been able to flourish in an environment of peace and respect. It has often been acknowledged for its contribution to this country in the arts, sciences, education and business, and above all for its focus on charity and care.

We have only to look back through our history, or round about us to many other lands, to know how lucky we are to be living in this country. We wish Her Majesty strength on her remarkable Platinum Jubilee; we hope she finds joy and satisfaction in her many achievements.

The queen has modelled that very sense of service which lies at the core of Judaism, – the service of God. Those words ‘the service of God’ may sound leaden with piety. So how do we translate them into our lives?

Over three thousand years of Jewish life, the most significant truth has not been that long ago God once spoke at Mount Sinai and gave us the Torah. Rather, the essential inner reality is that God speaks all the time and that life is a continuous revelation, as the rabbis taught, ‘Every day a voice calls out from Horeb.’ Our task is to hear it.

Brooding over this, the central challenge of all spiritual life, two teachings come into my mind, both from the bleakest period of Jewish history. The first is from Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto:

When you listen intently, you can hear the voice of Torah, the oneness of God, in the chirping of the birds, the lowing of cows and the interactions of people.

He wrote these courageous and defiant words in 1941, very far from the birds and cows to which he refers. He subsequently buried his writings in the grounds of the ghetto; he did not survive to see them rediscovered.

The second teaching comes from Rabbi Hugo Gryn, of beloved memory. I want you to know, he wrote afterwards, that God was present in Auschwitz. But not, he added, the God of my childhood imaginings. God was there, abused and blasphemed.

These two teachings together form the heart, the two pumping valves of my Torah, and guide me through life. They remind me of what the mystics have always understood as the oneness of all things, garbed and concealed within our different material and mental forms. Where there is beauty, peace and joy this oneness sings out in wonder and glory. That is why all life must be cherished, why in William Blake’s words,

A robin redbreast in a cage / Puts all heaven in a rage.

It is the secret of the great togetherness of humankind and all creation.

But it does not follow that where there is suffering, misery, violence and cruelty God must be absent. Rather, the heart and conscience, the holy within life, screams out in pain and outrage. ‘Help me!’ it cries, ‘Bring me justice, decency, kindness, healing!’ To the best of our limited capacities, we have to respond. That is the meaning of being commanded.

These two teachings circumscribe every moment and situation of human life. They are, I believe, God speaking to us, not from afar, not from the remote distance of history and the heights of a mountain top, but from right here, from what’s next to us and within us.

The verse preceding the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus reads: ‘God spoke all these words, saying.’ ‘Spoke’ refers to the historical-mythical revelation at Sinai. ‘Saying’ is here, now, at all times and to us all.

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.

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