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.

 

Groundless hatred, causeless love and the fate of a young hedgehog

‘But think of the kindness to which it led.’ I’m holding on to Nicky’s words.

She’d been on her way home when the road was blocked by a police car. The policemen were not at their usual tasks; instead, they were trying to pick up a young hedgehog stranded in the road. Experienced in such matters, she wrapped the poor animal in a towel and brought it home for rehab.

Sadly, it wasn’t well. On the advice of the RSPCA we took it to the Royal Veterinary College. It cried all the way, piteously, like a kitten. The vet soon returned with the news that the little creature was too sick to save. We got home after midnight, upset.

‘But think of the kindness,’ Nicky said: ‘The police, all those drivers who stopped, David and Linda who care about hedgehogs, the woman on the helpline, the vet. We also did our best; it didn’t die abandoned. Even wild animals know.’

This may all sound trivial. But I’m not so sure.

The Talmud explains that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, gratuitous hatred. In response, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook famously wrote:

If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to causeless hatred, then we would rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with causeless love — ahavatchinam.

‘Causeless love’ is made up of small interactions. It’s Wordsworth who wrote that the best portion of a good person’s life consists of

little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.

Nothing is too small for love, even a young hedgehog.

These days before the bleak fast of Tishah Be’Av are understood as a time when anger is on the loose in the world. This fits well with our current predicament: lockdown has eased but Covid is still around and there are worrying warnings about autumn and winter. Frustration and anxiety are in the air, like the virus itself.

Short temper, blaming and hitting out are understandable. Who has never done it? But, as the cornerstone of our synagogue building reminds us, the world, so easily destroyed by groundless hate, is rebuilt through love: olam hesed yibaneh.

Transforming vexation into kindness is also a prickly matter to handle. We need to listen, but not react, holding back our own irritations, even if warranted. We don’t simply want to mirror anger back with anger. We need to respond with understanding.

Bernard Kops described how he was walking with his father in the East End when a man up a ladder reviled them with antisemitic abuse. ‘What’s hurting you?’ his father had asked. Somehow, he got the tone just right. The man ended up coming home with them for tea.

Perhaps that’s what Rabbi Yochanan (third century) meant when he explained that the temple was destroyed because ‘the judges ruled by the strict letter of the law’ and not with the generosity of compassion. ‘You’ve asked for it; you deserve to be hit back’ may be true. But it won’t draw the angry puss out of the wound; it won’t transform our world.

The mystics speak of the need to outweigh gevurah, judgement and harshness, with hesed, lovingkindness. This applies to our own emotional state, to the world at large, and even in the heart of God. ‘Noteh klappei hesed – God inclines toward mercy,’ teaches the Talmud, inviting us to do the same.

I’ll hear the whimpering of that hedgehog for a very long time. It is the minute articulation of cries of great suffering across our world.

 

Jeremiah and inconvenient truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the ancient creed of prophets and poets.

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

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

 

Torah sings in our aloneness too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom

A Different Night

This is written in haste on the eve of an exceptionally different night, at a bewildering and frightening time.

First and foremost, I wish everyone a good and safe festival.

Pesach means gratitude for deliverance. Words are insufficient to express our thankfulness to the NHS, to everyone caring, filling shop shelves, delivering food and medicines, helping the nation keep fit, supporting our morale and giving us strength in adversity. In the words of the Psalm, ‘May the work of your hands be blessed.’ Thank you, and thank you again!

When we sit at the table for the Seder tonight, when we open the Haggadah, however few we may be, even it is just me, or you, we must not think that we are alone. With us is Moses, leading the Children of Israel to freedom. Nearer us on our table sits Rabbi Akiva with his colleagues, debating liberty, dignity and justice until break of day. Yet nearer are our grand- or great-grandparents, who fled Nazism, escaped tyranny and fought for freedom across the earth. Surrounding us are women and men of all peoples who have found in this great story of liberty their hope, inspiration and courage. All of you, invisible as you are, are close by and with us, holding our hands, strong inside our hearts.

Your strength is our strength; your resilience and faith is our faith and resilience. Together we partake of, and dedicate ourselves to, the unfailing spirit of humanity in our struggle against illness, in our fight against injustice, in our respect for God’s world, and in the inexhaustible capacity to turn to each other in times of need with generosity, understanding, kindness, healing and love.

Therefore, let this Seder be a night of affirmation and celebration.

We affirm and celebrate life itself, the precious gift of breathing, the ability to stand, stretch out, take steps, may God protect it in every one of us.

We celebrate, even as we treasure it more deeply in its absence, the freedom to move, to walk in whichever direction, to seek liberty and to work for that same liberty for those who suffer under persecution, until, in Isaiah’s words, we ‘Give food to the hungry, clothe the naked and break the bonds of oppression.’

We celebrate love and friendship, even as in their absence we are more intensely aware than ever of those we love, those for whose companionship we long, and those whose listening heart we need, as the beloved says in the Song of Songs: O my companions, listen to me; let me hear your voice.’

We celebrate the value and dignity of life, all life together, in this wondrous, interdependent, fragile, precious world. We honour the life and dignity of every human being, and the lives, may God protect them, of those we love.

Do not imagine you are utterly alone. Thought, with its secret powers, knows how to navigate heart-space. Our words and songs join with the voices of our ancestors of three thousand years, and with those of many peoples. Together we shall speak and we shall sing, we shall pray and we shall learn, until the birdsong heralds the new dawn – of life and hope and joy

 

The lights of Chanukah: inner illumination, public values

It’s not just the presents, the chocolate coins and the doughnuts which make Chanukah so many people’s favourite festival. It’s the lights.

The Chanukah candles represent the most inward and most outward of illuminations. They are both our inner light and the light we owe each other, our society and the world.

‘The human spirit is a lamp of God,’ quotes one of my favourite Hasidic teachers, Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger. The single, seemingly insufficient jar of pure olive oil the Maccabees found amidst the ruins of the Jerusalem temple symbolises to him ‘the tiny point’ of purity and holiness which exists in every human being. This point may be small but it is incorruptible, despite all life’s challenges and temptations. Its flame can never be extinguished, because the light with which it burns comes from God.

Hence, in typical Hasidic fashion, the Rebbe creatively misreads the Torah’s command to Aaron, who is charged with kindling the lamps on the Menorah in the Temple. What the Torah says is ‘When you cause the flames to ascend.’ What the Torah really means, he explains, is ‘You must cause your light to ascend’, words addressed not just to Aaron but to every single person, always.

It is often far from easy to find our own inner light. Anxiety, the ceaseless noise of endless interactions, make it hard for us to find recourse to our deeper inner selves. Often, there’s just too much to do, the opportunity simply isn’t there. At other times, sorrow or confusion hover like thick clouds between our harried minds and the stillness we can’t access in our hearts.

That’s why I love the small lights of Chanukah. Just looking at them can help us find the way back.

Frequently, though, we need the help of others, just as the candles on the Chanukiah have to be lit by a shammash. Time and again it’s acts of kindness, generous insights, a word of appreciation, an image from a poem, which illumine the world for me, re-opening the path to my own spirit.

Yet, intimate as our inner lights may be, the rabbis of the Talmud stipulated that the Chanukiah on which they burn must be placed overlooking the reshut harabbim, the busiest public highway. To the mystics those inner flames are loving kindness, moral strength, truth, constancy, beauty and commitment. They are nurtured by faith in life, trust in God, and hope.

It is not enough to reflect on them in solitude. We must use them to light the high roads, back alleys, porches where the homeless try to sleep, chambers where politicians legislate, – all those places, hidden and in plain sight, which define us as a society and world. We have a public duty to contribute from the heart, to shine light both on our own conscience and on that of our entire society, and to act according to what we see.

Chanukah is not only the festival of light, but also of courage, the determination to live according to the values which God’s light illumines in our souls.

 

Walking the Moonlit Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why Succot may be even more important today than Yom Kippur

Succot is a first Jewish memory; my father was a wonderful Succah maker. My family have inherited his booth-building passion.

If Yom Kippur takes us up to heaven, Succot brings us down to earth. If Yom Kippur leads us to the Holy of Holies of the spirit, Succot reconnects us with the soil.

Long before the building of huts with sheaves and leaves and branches became associated with our ancestors’ forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Succot was an ancient harvest festival.

‘Festival’ may not be the right word; succot, booths or shelters, were a farming necessity in lands where the sun beat relentlessly onto the fields. Thus, the first mention of a succah in the Bible has nothing to do with what we now call Tabernacles; it refers to the shelters Jacob built to allow his cattle to rest in the shade.

It is just this earthiness which makes me love and respect the festival.

Succot is a celebration of our bond with the earth, a festival of gratitude. To ensure we experience it personally, Nicky and I have long chosen seeds, tended the young plants, watched them grow and, if they thrived, ensured we left the last pickings of beans and courgettes, kohlrabi and pumpkins, for the Succah. Last year we even had just one home-grown watermelon (the magic size of a tennis ball) to share among our 27 guests in miniature slices.

We were only following ancient custom: the Talmud refers to hanging sheaves of corn, flasks of wine and plums (or their equivalent) in the festival booth. These basic foodstuffs were eloquent with a directness our supermarket generation has half-forgotten: ‘Thank you for the gifts of the soil. Without the rain, the insects, and the right weather we could not live’.

For, as the festival prayers make clear, we are utterly dependent. The two-thousand-year-old chants were not written in remote academies. They were composed by farmer-poets who knew the land, understood in the stomach the meaning of flood and drought: ‘Save man and beast, restore the soil, protect the trees which shelter us from desolation, O God who holds the world suspended over the void’. (I shared this text at the Succah in Trafalgar Square last night.)

This awareness of dependence underlines the bond not just between humans and nature, but also between ourselves, as families, communities and faiths.

‘Hide me in your Succah during evil days’, goes the Psalm. It sounds like a bad prayer. What could be a worse place to hide than a hut of sticks and branches? But that’s the point. True safety in any society is not when we need bunkers, but when we can dwell together, outside, protected only by the thin walls of makeshift celebratory huts because we understand that we will all only survive if we recognise together the shared gifts of this earth.

That is precisely what isn’t happening today, when only the strong doors of the synagogue in Halle kept the attacker out, and when he vented his rage on unprotected passers-by.

If I had to choose, I might say that our world needs the teachings of Succot even more urgently than those of Yom Kippur.

 

Saying sorry

On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we must make our peace with one another. The Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish Law composed by Joseph Caro in the middle of the sixteenth century in Safed, devotes a whole section to this difficult subject.

We should apologise even if we only hurt the other person with words. If we caused them loss or other quantifiable harm, we need to make good. If our sincere apology is not initially accepted, we should offer it a second and a third time.

To withhold acceptance of an apology is considered hard-hearted, unless the wrong inflicted on us is grievous and beyond healing. Even then, though, says the Shulchan Aruch, it is an act of mercy and kindness to receive an honest and remorseful apology with good grace. It is worth remembering Nelson Mandela’s counsel that to hold on to resentment and bitterness is like drinking a cup of poison and expecting our opponent to die.

I’m often asked what to do if it’s difficult or impossible to offer our apology face-to-face. We want to come clean with both the person we have hurt and with our own conscience. But sometimes that person is not accessible to us.

If he or she is no longer alive, the tradition is to speak our heart at the graveside. If life has driven us apart through a painful shared history no one is eager to revisit, or if we have uttered disparaging words but the other person is not necessarily aware of this, we can only speak truth to our own heart and to God, or to a trusted friend, and resolve to learn for the sake of the future. What we are not entitled to do is to hurt another person further (‘You may not remember, but…’) in order to salve our own conscience. Life, sadly, usually has unfinished business.

All that said, this is not primarily the way I feel about these days before Yom Kippur. Rather, I experience them as precious days, days of appreciation. I think about my family, especially my wife and children. Somehow, the heightened sense of life’s fragility, of the brief, wonderful, uncertain privilege of time, of each holiday and ordinary day shared, deepens my awareness of them. What goes through my heart is gratitude, the wish to acknowledge what I owe to them, and to my friends, to my community, to tens of people whom I have encountered, whose poetry I have taken to heart.

Apology follows, in thought more often than word. I regret the ways I have hurt you.

I imagine my reactions are typical.

Then our ‘I’m sorry’, flows from love as in Naomi Shemer’s song ‘I haven’t loved enough’: ‘I haven’t told you, appreciated you, given back to you or life, enough’. Thus sorrow and remorse become part not only of contrition but of blessing, for a beautiful but deeply challenging world which urgently needs our faithful loving kindness and enduring care.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah

Life’s categorical imperative

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
It’s always our self we find in the sea.

These much-loved lines by EE Cummings could also describe Yom Kippur. For the Day of Atonement is a sea, a chance to wash ourselves until we find our most real self again, our truest, deepest self. I don’t know if the sea is the music and the waves the words of prayer, or if the sea is consciousness itself and music the tide which carries it in to the heart.

Shuvah means return. ‘Come home’, says God, ‘Come back to me.’ The voice which calls out to us, so I believe, is not that of some bleak moraliser, a spoiler at life’s dance who halts the music with a long list of don’ts. The voice is the call of life itself: ‘Hear me; see me. Have you noticed those amber leaves? That sky?’ If there are don’ts, they are simply these: don’t ignore me, don’t hurt me, don’t destroy me. (Simply these? Imperatively, categorically these!)

‘Return’ is the call chai ha’chaim, the very life of life, the call of God within life. Since that life is inside you and me, who are at this moment privileged with the wondrous, irreplaceable gift of life, the call to return comes not just from without but from within us. It is my own soul’s longing to belong to life, to be at one with and love life, as a child hugs her dog to her heart, wanting only to be inseparable forever.

‘Return’ is God’s call from inside my heart, as the Psalmist wrote ‘Lecha amar libbi’, loosely translatable as ‘my heart is You speaking’.

Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, one of the great spiritual teachers of the last century, not only because of his unvanquished courage in the Warsaw Ghetto, but because of his encompassing compassion and insight, taught that the Ten Days of Penitence are not, or at least not just, about repenting of specific sins. This we should do promptly, whenever we become aware of our mistakes and transgressions. Rather, these days are the longed-for opportunity to answer the heart’s call, God’s call, to cleanse our very consciousness in the One to which we belong.

What is that One, that sea, where I both lose and find myself? It is the essence of life, the oneness which unites all life and to which all life belongs. Therefore, it calls from everything; we can hear it everywhere and anywhere. It calls in the woodpecker half upside-down at the seed-feeder, and in the goldfinch waiting timidly in the queue. It calls from the sorrow of friends who lost their mother this week. It calls from the long line of men, women and children-in-buggies at the Drop-In, seeking support, solidarity, asylum, hope, future. It calls in the children’s protests: don’t destroy our future.

What difference does it make to bathe our consciousness in life’s sea, in the ocean of the presence of God? Our mind already knows the answer: I belong to life and am at life’s service. I am not here to hurt, uproot, exploit, destroy; I am here to tend, heal, plant, nurture, cherish, love and care. I am not here just for me, but to fulfil myself in life’s service.

Our mind knows. But when we are actually in that sea, our heart knows too. It absorbs the knowledge into its very depths and disburses it into the arteries which feed all our actions.

That, in this eleventh hour, must make all the difference.

 

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