Seeking light, sharing light: where the candles need to burn

The eighth day of Chanukah is known as Zot Chanukkat, ‘this is the dedication,’ following the words with which the Torah sums up the offerings brought for the inauguration of the altar. This leads to the beautiful verse describing how, as he enters the holy space of the Tent of Meeting, Moses overhears God’s voice.

Perhaps that’s how poets and composers feel in the moment of inspiration: that something sacred, infinite and indefinable is articulated in the universe which they try to capture or hint at in music and words.

Where is our tent of meeting, our sacred space in this Covid-troubled world?

I had taught the well-known passage from Shulchan Aruch many times before I realised that this was exactly the question it intended to answer:

You place the Chanukah candles at the threshold of your home, facing the public highway. [If you can’t do that] you put them in the window overlooking the main road. In times of danger, you set them on your table and that’s sufficient.

This instruction can be taken as referring not just to Chanukah but to religious life as a whole.

‘Times of danger’ are periods of religious persecution. But we too are living amidst danger, albeit of a different kind. Public highways carry risks, as do even our places of worship for those who need to shelter for themselves or their nearest and dearest.

As a result, spiritual life has [partly] moved from synagogue to home, from public to private, from what others lead for us to what we do for ourselves. Our kitchen table, back window, favourite plant has become our Tent of Meeting:

-          I said the memorial prayers at home for the first time. Behind me were pictures of my beloved parents; it all made more sense.

-          I pray in my garden, with the trees.

-          I lit my Chanukiah and felt its light had been burning in my heart all these months.

We’ve overheard life’s sacred speech in new ways, if only for rare moments. But that can suffice, as travellers navigating by the stars need to recognise only a few to find direction in the darkness. In these difficult times we need light on our home table.

But the high road matters too. Across the world our societies urgently require light in the public domain. Yesterday I took the boxes collected in our neighbourhood to the food bank in Colindale. I’ve been several times; the difference now is that the queue was three times longer. Jonathan Freedland wrote about the priest who wept as he related how children in the places where he took food parcels were so hungry they tore them open before he could properly hand them over. Those children and those tears, are also God speaking, crying to be heard.

When asked about Chanukah, I often say it’s the Jewish festival of light. But what the word actually means is ‘dedication,’ rededication to listening to God’s voice and to seeking and sharing whatever light we can, both in our hearts and in the public spaces of our society.

 

Chanukah lights: the rabbis’ alternative reality

The rabbis of the Talmud created an alternative reality about Chanukkah. Such words sound bad these days, like false-facts and post-truth. But that’s not what they intended, or achieved.

The politics of the Maccabean era was complex and messy. What is clear is that when Palestine passed from Ptolemaic rule in Egypt to Seleucid domination from Damascus, life become more complex and Jewish autonomy compromised. It wasn’t only that Antiochus Epiphanes was power crazy as well, many believe, as simply mad. Hellenist culture spread subtly into education, recreation, governance and law. It divided Jewish loyalties, all the way up to the rank of High Priest. Competing factions fought and blood was shed to purchase this ‘religious’ office from the Seleucid powers. It is not surprising that revolt and bitter conflict followed, in which the Maccabees fought for the independence of the Jewish commonwealth against vast and well-equipped armies. Only, it seems the Hasmonaean kingdom which they founded morphed into a dynasty not entirely unlike the powers it displaced.

The rabbis of the Talmud scarcely refer to all this bloodshed and turmoil. Instead, they tell the story of the single unsullied vial the victors searched for and found when they re-conquered the temple precincts in Jerusalem, the oil which should have burnt for just one day but illumined the Menorah for eight.

This is the ‘alternative reality’ they fashioned. Throughout our subsequent exiles and returns, through all the political confusion of history, it is this simple story which has endured. It is neither false nor merely fable. It doesn’t deny anything which may actually have happened. Rather, it expresses a deeper reality, a vital and eternal truth, to which life bears witness all the time.

The mystics understood that what the Maccabees rekindled was no ordinary flame but Or Haganuz, the hidden light, that first radiance with which God drew dawn out of darkness at the beginning of creation. Then God hid it, leaving the practical tasks of measuring day and night to the sun, moon and stars.

Those mystics debate where God concealed that primal light: In the Torah? In the souls of the righteous? In the world to come? I prefer their simplest answer: everywhere, in each and every human being and in all life. We have only to recognise it, to see, and see by, it.

It is the eagerness in the face of a child, the radiance in the eyes of wisdom coupled with kindness. It is the creative fire in which music and poetry are fashioned. It is the wonder of wild places, and the soul of a garden. It is the tenderness of a carer guiding with dignity arthritic fingers to hold a flexi-straw.

It’s inevitable that we only occasionally perceive this light. It’s in the nature of our fraught minds and hectic lives that we only rarely glimpse it in others or feel it illumine our spirit. But it is there always, though often suppressed and downtrodden.

It is a flame deeper than political division. It burns equally in our interlocutors and opponents. It may be forced to resort to bunkers and sealed rooms in wartime. Excess and exploitation hide it. But it never goes out. The mystics hold that those eight days for which it burnt in the Temple add up to more than one week plus twenty-four hours: they signify eternity.

This is the flame we light on Chanukah, in our windows and in our soul.

 

 

Until we wrest blessing from the darkness

‘I will not let you go until you bless me:’ these words, which Jacob says to the unnamed adversary who assails him in the night as he stands alone by the Jabok river, have become my motto.

They express the same attitude as the Maccabees, who, after re-conquering the desolate Temple precincts in Jerusalem, would not abandon the search among the ruins until they found the source of light and kindled the flame which has since illumined with courage and hope the entire history of the Jewish People.

Inevitably, we face challenges, personal and collective. Often, with courage, the help of others and maybe some luck, we somehow manage to struggle through them until break of day. Yesterday I heard for the first time the phrase ‘post traumatic growth,’ with the following definition:

‘Post-traumatic growth doesn’t deny deep distress, but rather posits that adversity can unintentionally yield changes in understanding oneself, others, and the world.’

I hadn’t known the name, but I’ve witnessed the reality many times:

‘Rabbi, I’ve been through…
It’s been lonely, hard.
But now I’m there for other people.
I wanted you to know in case you hear of someone else going through …’

Illness, sorrow: such pain and mental suffering must not be romanticised or ennobled. But if, in the inner spaces where we struggle, we can somehow extract blessing from our fearful encounters with them, they can become lamps in our hand to negotiate the winding steps to chambers in our heart we may not previously have explored. These are not easy places to inhabit, but they can become the source of our deepest compassion and most enduring commitments.

As individuals, though, we cannot vanquish everything. Years ago, I visited an elderly lady who had motor neurone disease. She was still able to speak, just; still able to hold a pencil, just. ‘Have I got it right?’ she asked, indicating her drawing of a baby elephant. She died a few weeks later.

She could not overcome the physical impact of that horrible illness; no one could. But this baby elephant was her ‘yes’ to life nonetheless, her stamina, her hope, her seizing of blessing from the last of her days. I still see that drawing before me. It’s a small thing; it’s a magnificent thing, tender, wonderful and great.

It is this very courage and faith in life, – with its baby elephants, children, adults, animals, everything – which together we muster in the short, dark days of the pandemic through which we are now living.

We have many assailants in this long night: the illness itself, fear, insecurity about the future, social injustice and cruelty. But, together, we shall not let go until we have grasped blessings nevertheless: deeper solidarity; less entitlement and greater appreciation; humbler recognition of our interdependence as humanity and part of nature; the determination to be healers in whatever way we can.

It is this very tenacity which led Rene Cassin to co-draft in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which we honour next week on 10 December, International Human Rights Day, in recognition

‘of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [as] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’

On Thursday evening, the first night of Chanukah we will not just take a match to a candle in our window. We will rekindle in our spirit the determination to seek out the source of light whatever the circumstances. We will find it and make it burn in our soul; we will acknowledge it and bless it in others; we will not give up until, together, we wrest blessing from this darkness.

 

The ultimate ‘thank you’ and ‘please’

It’s before dawn on this half-moon morning of Hoshana Rabba, the great Hoshana, with its closing prayers of the High Holydays before the Torah year starts again from the beginning with Bereshit, the wonder of creation.

It’s a day of two simple phrases: modeh, thank you, and ana, please.

This year I feel more than just an ordinary thank you for enabling us to celebrate this season together. I’m aware how that ‘together’ has been diminished over these months of anxiety for all and loss for many. Although it’s over a decade ago, I think of my father. Each year we would meet early on Hoshana Raba and go to pray together. I miss him and appreciate how much more intensely so many miss those who, scarcely moments back, stood by their side.

I have many thank you’s.

Thank you to my community; to the leaders who spent hours every day thinking through in detail how to stand safely together as a community before God; thank you to everyone who phoned, wrote and took gifts so that we could try to forget no one as we wished each other a good new year; thank you to all who wrote, edited, and produced special editions of our prayers; thank you to each person who learnt new melodies and lead us in synagogue; thank you to everyone who helped stream these unique services by sharing the skills learnt from zoom Shabbat which, though not quite within the remit of the rabbis, enable so many people to feel comforted and strengthened in spirit through these lonely months.

Thank you to God for first light and the birds now singing like the psalmist ‘I awake the dawn’. Thank you for life itself, which, since the pandemic has brought mortality closer, feels more precious than ever.

And the ‘please’. It’s the please said over and again in today’s prayers. It’s a ‘please’ to God: ‘Ana hoshi’a naPlease save us.’ It’s an impassioned ‘please’ to each other and ourselves, because the fate of the earth is not simply in God’s hands. We have agency and power to do what is just, compassionate and urgent. Please ‘save humankind and the animals; save body, soul and spirit; save this beauty as transient as breath.’ Make us to do everything possible for our beleaguered world.

Please teach us and our leaders across the globe that we have obligations to justice. Don’t make us inured to the cruelty and inequality which afflict our societies, to the worry of millions who face losing their jobs, who struggle to have food for the family, whose children go to school hungry if classes are open, and have no access to study if they are not.

Please save this tevel hamesuyamah, this beautiful world. Make us and the decision-makers across society respect the land and water, plants and animals, fields, forests and the very air which keep us alive. Don’t let us destroy this wonderful world or any of the species with which we share the intricate bonds of life which alone enable us to survive. Command us from inside our conscience to be faithful to the future, so that we practise no more hurt.

Please place us on the side of life. Please, God, seal us, and help us seal each other and our world in the book of life.

 

 

Succah and Solidarity

The rain descends noisily; throughout the dry summer I longed for that sound. But there’s still so much to be done to finish the Succah!

Yet we can never complete the most important part of the Succah, even in the best of weathers: uphros aleinu succat shelomecha, that God should spread over everyone the canopy of peace. For this we can only pray, and make what contribution we can.

I understood that canopy of peace from a different angle yesterday, when I was taken (virtually) to visit the Little Squares of Hope Succah at JW3.

The sides of that Succah are lined with quilts composed of small squares of fabric, each of which contains a drawing or embroidery by a refugee. Together they provide vivid testimony of what it means today to be a homeless wanderer, to ‘dwell in booths’, cross hostile deserts, traverse waters in which you know you may drown, and to have no decent shelter over one’s head. One square shows two children standing before the sea, staring at a tiny boat. In another there is a young girl; over her head is a single word, ‘Bye’.

How urgently these tempest-tossed lonely young lives need shelter, safe physical space, warm heart space and space for hope for a better future. Covid has made everything many times harder still for refugees. We must do what we can for so many people whose desert is not only the literal wilderness they have crossed, as our ancestors traversed Sinai and the Negev, but the loneliness and hopelessness of our cities.

The fate of so many refugees, and the cause which forced them to leave their homelands in the first place, is bound together with an even greater question of destiny to which the succah directs our attention. With its leaky, wind-shaken roof of branches, it represents not just the vulnerability of human life, but the fragility of our bond with nature.

The succah calls us out of our keva, our supposedly fixed and permanent home, into the ara’i, the temporary space of a mere shelter. In post-biblical times, succahs were made from the prunings of the vineyards and the stalks of the corn fields, then decorated with fruits, flasks of wine and sacks of flour. Many of us today hang the produce of our gardens and allotments, – apples, gourds, the last of the runner beans. The purpose is to reminds us of beauty and humility, the gifts of nature and our utter dependence on them.

If we want to be protected in our succah, we need to protect the earth which offers us that protection. In the words of Albert Einstein, we need to free ourselves from the delusion that we are separate from nature and ‘widen our circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of Nature in its beauty.’ The succah invites us into the physical and spiritual space which represents that change. It is at once frightening, humbling, beautiful and inspiring.

One might have thought that the succah, unsafe in strong winds and unable to keep out the rain, would be the last place to asks guests. Yet it is the ancient tradition to summon our ancestors with the Aramaic invitation ‘Ullu, Ullu – come, come,’ before welcoming contemporary visitors.

For, paradoxically, in its very frailty the succah calls for the greatest solidarity, with humankind, and with all living things with whom we hope to share God’s protection.

 

 

Kol Nidrei 5781

We stand tonight, apart in person, but close in spirit.

We stand in reflection and prayer, with wounds from loss, scars of illness, and anguish about the future.

We stand before the God of atonement, healing and forgiveness.

But healing begins with truth. Therefore, accountability is at the heart of Yom Kippur.

In a post-fact world, when lies are promulgated from high places, and the loudest shouting on social media often wins, when a spreading culture of shamelessness has as its motto ‘If you can get away with it it’s OK,’ Yom Kippur summons us before the God of truth.

Eyn nistar minegged einecha – Nothing is hidden from Your eyes

I don’t believe in an x-ray God who keeps a record of our every sin. I do believe that, somehow, I am known by the God of life, whose presence is in all living being. I am answerable to life.

Accountability begins at home. In my heart of hearts I want to be known. In the editing room of memory, when I hear myself say ‘It wasn’t me. So-and-So made me do it. I was only…’ a deeper voice calls, ‘And the truth?’ Honesty and remorse sting, but I must welcome them, so that my past can help me grow.

We are accountable not just in private, but to society. Seeing others go to foodbanks, make masks, bake for hospitals, hearing Marcus Rashford use his iconic status for so much good, puts the question: ‘And you? What are you contributing?’ The God of justice cries out.

We are accountable before nature. One sacred spirit flows through all living being. The plundered forests and poisoned earth accuse us. Mary Colwell wrote in Curlew Moon that sometimes it was only when she pointed it out that people realised they hadn’t heard the haunting cries of these birds for decades. They hadn’t noticed the silence, so were silent. If we too are mute, inactive bystanders before its devastation, we share the guilt for the ruination of our planet.

Above all, we are accountable to our children. We were born into a complex but wonderful world, leant us by the future. Isn’t it our duty to keep it safe for our children’s children?

We are answerable for failing to protest wrong. As we mourn Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we recognise that we must fight for integrity and accountability not just in our conscience but in the public square.

Otherwise Lady Macbeth’s repost that no one will dare call her murderer because ‘none can call our power to account,’ the by-word of tyranny through the ages will, become the strapline of our time. The world can’t afford this.

Accountability, in contrast, is the foundation of integrity. Integrity is the basis of responsibility. Responsibility is the grounds of healing and hope.

The challenges ahead are many.

Therefore may our Torah of justice, compassion and dignity bring us strength.
May the dedication of our ancestors and teachers strengthen us, who strove to be faithful to these principles, and stand with us now in worlds beyond time.
May the beauty of our prayers fill our hearts with strength.
May we find strength in each other, and solidarity in our neighbourhoods and communities.
May we take strength from our very responsibilities which give us purpose and dignity.
May our children, our commitment for the future strengthen our resolve.

So may this be a year of healing;
a year of integrity and truth in our conscience, communities and public squares;
a year of lovingkindness and care, awareness and social justice;
a year of moral and spiritual imagination;
a year for reshaping our societies, rewilding our lands and restoring the earth for all life.

May God’s inspiration and guidance help us turn the spirit of humanity from anguish and fear into determination and hope.

Leshanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah.

 

A prayer of healing for the new year

I wish everyone a Shanah Tovah, a good, safe and worthwhile year.

A prayer for the new year

May this be a year of healing for us, our societies, and our beautiful, beleaguered, wonderful world.

These months have brought mortality nearer us all, and grief to many homes. Some deaths have been lonely; some untimely; some the results of self-sacrifice to care for others. Sorrow doesn’t go away; it is gradually transformed. May life, which tears the heart apart, show its tenderness too, drawing together the torn edges of our wounds.

God of life, breathe love and purpose back into our spirits.

Many people have struggled with illness and its after-effects; the fear of it troubles us all. Moses prayed in just five words for his sister who became sick: ‘God, please, heal her, please.’ ‘Please!’ when we plead for someone we love is a big enough word on its own to absorb our whole heart.

God of healing, give us the dedication, science, finance, wise leadership and loving kindness to enable us to be cured.

Society has come together to care in creative and inspiring ways: neighbourhood groups; clapping, and cooking, for carers; mask-making, gown-sewing, medicines brought to the door. All age-groups and faiths have participated. But we’ve also seen the crevasses of inequality: hunger; children with screens for home study and children with none; families with gardens and families with no space for beds; people whose work is hectic, people whose income has gone.

God of justice, who deplores the attitude that ‘I’m alright and that’s your problem,’ make us redress the wrongs.

We’ve shared words of appreciation and kindness. We’ve said to people whom we never told before how much we value them. ‘They say “thank you”’ explained a man filling supermarket shelves. ‘My patients ask, “And doctor, how are you?”’ But there’s also a language of contempt at large: unbridled racism, mockery, contempt, especially towards women, unashamed lying.

God of truth and purity, make us cleanse how we speak and deepen how we listen.

The world has seen courageous and compassionate leadership. But we also witness the lack of integrity in high office, wilful deceit, absence of vision, refusal to submit to accountability and the failure to act swiftly on issues on which the planet depends.

God of integrity, guide us to do, influence others to do, and seek leaders who do what is right and just.

We’ve been attentive to beauty we missed before: What bird is that singing in these quietened skies? We’ve watched the colour of the leaves unfurling, now yellowing and curling. Walks and parks have been our solace. Yet we make nature sick and our habits destroy life in near and far away places.

God of creation, put wonder in our hearts and urgency in our conduct.

God of healing, you’ve entrusted us with life and power. Teach us, cajole us, shame us, but above all inspire us through love to be healers in your beautiful world whose birthday we celebrate now.

 

 

9/11, the Battle of Britain and the God of life

‘I set before you life and good, death and evil:’ What words to read in our Torah on the date of 9/11, and before the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain, marked this coming week.

Everyone of us alive then remembers where we were when we heard of the attack on the twin towers, when we switched on our televisions and saw. Our hearts not go out even now, nineteen years later, to every person trapped on those high floors, who phoned their husband, wife, children, parents, to say in whatever words they could muster: I’m going to die in minutes; I love you, love you, farewell.

Incomprehensible, that madness must have seemed; we cannot possibly imagine the bewilderment and terror. The world shook then, not just in Manhattan; and it has never felt steady since.

On 22 May 1940, soon after the Nazi invasion of Holland, Belgium and France, Guy Mayfield, chaplain to RAF Duxford near Cambridge, wrote in his diary:

Peter has been talking today…about not wanting to die yet…The heartache is to see these young men waiting to have their lives cut short….They talk to me.’

‘One hopes to keep them cheerful,’ he wrote two days later, referring to the many pilots and airbase personnel who drank and talked with him through the early hours. They knew what was coming; they didn’t assume that fate or flak would spare them. ‘Drowned it in rye and dry,’ he noted another night. ‘Prayed,’ he noted too, for the German widows too.

Peter was last seen only weeks later, bailing out of his Spitfire by the French Coast near Dunkirk, into the guns and waves.

Eighty years afterwards, we too are part of the many who owe so much to so few.

My Talmud class struggled over the words of the famous prayer:

On The New Year it is written and on The Day Of Atonement sealed…who shall live and who shall die…

I couldn’t encourage anyone to believe literally in an ‘inscriber God’ dictating the destiny of each and every person down to the very day and date to the penmanship of fate.

But I do believe in the God who writes the book of life, – although believe is not the best word. I feel you near. You are all around me; I hear you in the bird song, see you through the window in the leaves of the olive tree, the vine, the medlar fruit. When I said at dawn Modei ani lefanecha, ‘I acknowledge before you,’ it was you who woke me up, gave me, gives me life.

‘Live!’ that’s what that prayer means to me. Be on the side of life!

We don’t know if the days before us will be tens of thousands or just tens. But we can make them days of life, days of the love of life. That, too, may not always be easy, since often there are troubles are fears and depressions to fight. But it does not lie entirely beyond our power.

So that is what we must do this difficult year: strive to live and help others to live too. We shall not be on the side of death. We will be on the side of healing, in society and nature. We will take food to food banks; we will not say ‘none of my concern’ when children get to school hungry, or refugees have nothing to eat. We will look out for and look after one another. We will write, phone, email, whatsapp friends and neighbours, and risk greeting people we don’t yet know to say Shanah Tovah, here’s to a good year, in spite of the worries, despite lockdown and its limitations. We will plant trees, let meadows grow and fill the bird feeders. We will stop consuming the planet to the brink of destruction. We will serve the God of life through the service of all life.

There’s nothing better we can do to honour those who so much longed to live.

 

The Jewish New Year for Animals – why this is so important

When I was small, favourite things were the dried flower my parents bought me as a treat from Hoyes, the sweet shop. You put the flower in a jar of water and it would unfurl, a growing, gripping thing.

The Mishnah, edited in the Galilee around 200CE, often seems to me like that: a text which unfolds, growing in one’s mind, complex, vital. One of my favourite mishnayot concerns Rosh Hashanah (rapidly approaching).

It begins unexpectedly: ‘There are four new years…’ The first is the 1st of Nisan, new year for kings (important for dating documents). The second is today, the 1st of Elul, new year for tithing cattle. The third is the 1st of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah par excellence, when every living being passes before God. The four is the 15th of Shevat, new year for trees.

As this Mishnah opens out I feel it encompass every aspect of life: our practical and financial affairs; our connection with God and conscience; our response to trees and nature and our relationship with animals.

This is, admittedly, a liberal interpretation. In fact, the new year for trees was a date for taxing crops. The new year for cattle was when farmers had to give every tenth lamb and calf to the Temple. But today, just as the Rosh Hashanah has become a time of profound reflection on what it means to be human, so Tu Bishevat calls on us to examine our attitude to nature, and the 1st Elul has been rebranded as the Jewish New Year for Animals.

I’ve always liked animals; my parents assumed I’d be a vet. I include an extra word in my prayers every day: when we ask God to bless the years, I add ‘vehabriyot - and the animals’.

In Biblical and early rabbinic times, Jews had close relationships with nature. ‘The righteous person feels for the life of his domestic animals,’ teaches Proverbs. Oxen and asses must not be burdened on Shabbat. But donkeys often feel cold, so it’s permitted to put a blanket over them on Shabbes. Tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, the prohibition against making animals suffer, is regarded as Torah law, legislation of the highest authority.

Maimonides noted that mother animals feel pain similar to humans when separated from their young. Nachmanides observed how animals can make choices and some show love, implying that they have souls.

I admit I’m sentimental, but I believe this New Year for Animals is highly important. I’m horrified by how we as a species treat them, excepting only our beloved household pets. In Curlew Moon, Mary Colwell records how many people hadn’t even noticed that they hadn’t noticed how the haunting calls of these remarkable birds, once so familiar, had become absent. The spring, and all the seasons, had simply fallen silent around them; they hadn’t even realised. I fear we’re the same.

Judaism teaches that we’re part of creation, dependent on it, interdependent with it and answerable to God for our relationship towards it.

If animals could write, there would be trillions of signatures on their ‘J’accuse’. How we treat food animals is unthinkable; that is, virtually all of us fail to, choose not to, or can’t bear to think about it. Where’s the humility; where’s the compassion? Unless we sharpen our agrichemical laws, the small mammals and songbirds will be gone from our fields. And we call ourselves human, humane!

Yet we almost all say we love nature. In Jewish teaching love is never just sentiment but always also commandment, as the Torah demands: ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ – and all God’s works.

Like the Rosh Hashanah, today’s New Year for Animals calls us to teshuvah, repentance, rethinking, realignment of who we are.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov, a good and thoughtful month of Elul

The Shabbat of Consolation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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