About Money and Possessions

The most famous High Holyday prayer teaches that tzedakah transforms our lives. Tzedakah is usually translated as ‘charity’, but that’s not what the term means. It’s a form of the word tzedek, ‘righteousness’. Tzedakah is a commitment to economic and social justice.

We are taught to love God ‘bechol me’odecha – with all your might’. The rabbis understand this as meaning ‘all your money and possessions’.

We are judged for who we are, not for what we have. But what we do with what we have is an acute indication of who we are. There are few texts as astute as the opening lines of this Mishnah:

There are four attitudes [to possessions]. Someone who says ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s your is yours’ is an average person. However, some say it’s the attitude of Sodom. (Avot 5:13)

‘What’s mine is mine’ sounds reasonable enough. Why should anyone else have the right to take what’s ours, especially if we also respect their rights to what justly belongs to them? This is surely the basis of any law-abiding society.

Why then do ‘some say it’s like Sodom’, the wealthy city whose elders forbade sharing food with strangers, preferring to let them die of hunger in the street? The issue is that ‘what’s mine is mine’ sounds too much like: ‘This is my lot and I deserve it; that’s your lot and you deserve it. You get on with your life, and I’ll get on with mine. I have no obligation to care.’

None of us is that hard-hearted. We don’t just walk past every homeless person. We give charity. But I sometimes worry if I’m just doing ‘conscience money’.

Judaism sees wealth as a double gift: divine blessing, and sacred trust. We are at liberty to enjoy what we have; indeed, we should, and thank God for it. Ultimately, though, we are the trustees, not the final possessors, of what we ‘own’. Otherwise, it ‘owns’ us.

Tzedakah recalls us to our responsibilities to those in our communities and societies whose ‘mine’ is a fraction of ours. It’s often because of luck: where they were born, when they were born; what illness or mental distress they suffered; when their parent died who had hoped to eke out enough to give the children an education.

In our day there is a further issue. Few of us avoid the temptations of ‘retail therapy’ (my weaknesses: books and garden centres). Having everything on line makes it worse.

Bluntly, what trail of oppression, cruelty, waste and environmental destruction am I bringing into my house inside my shopping bags? These are urgent questions, because one day our children will ask why their elders were so careless about their descendants’ future:

Do I need those plastic bags and boxes which may go from my dustbin into the oceans? Must I buy clothes I may only wear twice? (I recently heard from an expert: ‘The clothing industry can’t recycle its way out of its responsibility to the earth’.) Do I need so much meat and dairy when I know a caged animal suffers? Who is paying the true cost of my cheap food?

These concerns scarcely feature among the sins we confess on Yom Kippur. That’s why they are so dangerous, because the societies we live in often don’t regard them as wrong.

On Yom Kippur we are judged for who we are. Our footprint on the earth is part of us. So too is what we give. In truth, who we are has much more to do with what we give than with what we retain.

 

Caught been timelessness and time

So many people have told me they can’t believe next week is already New Year. I was at the baker’s yesterday; she said:

It’s Rosh Hashanah in seven days’ time and no one has placed any orders. I know what’s going to happen: they’re all suddenly going to realise and we’ll be inundated at the last minute!

Every day between now and Yom Kippur I hope to focus on a key relationship in our lives (with friends, family, money, Judaism, God, plants and animals, ourselves, loved ones we’ve lost, prayer). But I want to begin with time.

‘It goes by faster each year’, said someone in his twenties. ‘And the bad news’, I replied encouragingly, ‘is that the speed only increases as you get older’. Hence the importance of Hillel’s saying: ‘If not now, when?’

Rosh Hashanah reminds us fiercely of our poignant relationships with both timelessness and time. I recall my grandfather saying in the elegant, lucid German in which he was accustomed to preach: ‘Eigentlich gibt es keine Zeit – In truth, there is no time’. He didn’t mean that we never have sufficient time (he regarded undue haste as ignoble). What he meant was that we ultimately belong to the timeless.

The mystic, legalist and poet, Nachmanides, would have agreed:

From the beginning, before the creation of the worlds
I was there in God’s treasure house sealed.

There are moments which call us back out of time, out of the incessant siege of its immediate demands (diary, meeting, email, email, diary meetings). We stand by the sea and a rhythm more ancient than even the first human beings ebbs and flows through our mind, tugs at the sand beneath our feet. Part of us belongs to the unbounded, the infinite, that which lies on the other side of time.

Music can affect us like that, including the music of liturgy. Forgotten through the year, with its first word the melody of the great High Holyday Kaddish is once again instantly familiar, with all the ancient songs of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; and our parents and grandparents are next to us once again while behind them stand the generations of our people, back through centuries, millennia.

Then we wonder: what am I doing here in this small moment, this interval between my first childhood memories and my unknown death, this patch of time where everything seems, but only seems, so permanent? The power of zikaron, remembrance, flows through us, for Rosh Hashanah is Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, of recall, of being re-called back. And we ask: Who am I? What am I for?

This is our gift, the consciousness of timelessness within time. I have my now, only this short now of undefinable duration, to bring what is eternal into the world of time. So what are those qualities which endure, beyond the confines of generations? Wonder, awe, love, justice, joy, fellowship with those who share this moment with me, people, creatures, trees. This is what my time is for; because time, in the end, is opportunity: ‘If not now, when?’

 

The fate of the earth: God and our children will hold us to account

Birthdays aren’t always simple experiences.

I remember as a child looking forward with impatient excitement to my birthday, then agreeing with my older brother that the day after was a low point, ‘because it’s now ‘364 days until your next birthday’. Those were the times!

As we get older we don’t necessarily want our friends to clock the passing of our life. I’ll never forget how we made a card for a relative’s ninetieth and were asked in no uncertain terms to alter the ‘9’. Few of us truly believe we’re getting older at the rate we actually are.

From time to time I’m asked questions trickier than such foibles: Do I send greetings to X? I hurt her, but want to make up, – is it OK to get in touch?

I feel like that about Rosh Hashanah, the ‘birthday of the world’. I love the world, yet know I mistreat it. What greeting should I send?

No-one attends a friend’s birthday, then stays behind to trash his home. But that’s what we do with the earth. It’s not ours. It belongs to God, to all the lives it sustains, and to our children’s children.

Yesterday I met with Michael, Gove, Secretary of State for the Environment. I spoke to many activists beforehand and read their papers: the net-zero carbon emissions target must urgently be brought forward to 2050; air pollution costs lives; intensive farming hurts wildlife and poisons the soil; eating little or, better, no meat would have a huge impact on global warming.

I had a pre-meeting with the editor of the government report: A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. I asked what legal teeth the good intentions in the paper would have in the forthcoming Environment Act and how urgent the timelines would be. ‘The Secretary of State and the Treasury need to hear these concerns from people like you’, he replied. (I’d been clear to the point of shameless about how many environmental groups I was in touch with.)

I believe the conversation with Michael Gove went well. ‘We need your pressure; hold us to account’, he stressed. ‘The timing is good, as we draft the Act’. ‘Will it comply with the net-zero emissions by 2050 target?’ I asked.

There was one email I received from a Christian activist which had no briefing papers attached. She simply wrote: ‘He’s meeting you because you’re a spiritual leader: you should say something about that’.

I did. Michael Gove was aware that Rosh Hashanah was near. At New Year we all stand before God. We can think of this also as standing before the world’s yet unborn generations. ‘Today is the birthday of the world’, we will say. Then what? What are we intending to do if we don’t want to continue trashing the celebrant’s home? God and our children’s children will hold us all to account, ministers of religion and state alike.

A beautiful, challenging Mishnah (2nd century) insists that every person must say, ‘For me the world was created’, because we each have a unique contribution to make.

‘For me’: what am I going to do about it?

 

The sound of the shofar and the breath of creation

It is the custom to blow the shofar every day (except Shabbat) during the month of Elul at the close of the morning prayers. So I picked up my shofar early this morning, then remembered the tacit agreement in our household, tacit being the word, that none was to blow the shofar before 9.00 am.

Instead, I simply breathed into the shofar, with no pressure, as I would breathe an ordinary breath. To my surprise, the shofar wasn’t silent, though I’m sure it wasn’t so loud that anybody else could hear it. It made a sound like a gentle breeze across fields or through a grove of trees on a still, calm day. Very quietly, the shofar sang.

It reminded me of a passage by the Hasidic teacher Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piazetsner Rebbe:

The fundamental reason all beings are created is so that they should sing, for in this way they reveal the greatness of God. Every single created being sings, as we know from The Chapter of Song. Thus, each and every being reveals a spark of the glory of the God of blessings.                      (Derech Hamelech to Rosh Hashanah)

The Chapter to which he refers ascribes words from the Bible to all existence, from the seas and rivers to the eagle and the swallow, whose lyrics are: ‘So that my soul may sing to you and not be silent’.

I always think of the shofar as coming from the depths of creation. Formed from the horn of a ram or mountain goat, its rough, un-honed cry calls of the bond which unites all nature, animal and human. It speaks without words of our bare and basic togetherness in this world of cold and warmth, food and hunger, life and death. The breath which flows through the shofar resonates with the ruach, the breath or spirit which breathes through all life, the spirit of God which hovered over the face of the deep in the beginning and which creates and sustains all living being. It calls us home to the sacred within ourselves, and in all life.

More than in any other section, the Torah speaks this week of our responsibility towards animals: not to ignore a lost ox or sheep; not to turn a blind eye toward a donkey collapsing beneath its burden; not to take a mother bird from the nest with its young and so hasten the extinction of its species; not to harness an ox and ass together, making a mockery of their unequal strength. The Torah and Talmud understood well what Jeremy Bentham later expressed: that the issue is not whether animals are intelligent or able to talk, but that, like us, they are susceptible to suffering.

The shofar calls us back to the bond of life. For too long a utilitarian attitude to nature has prevailed: How much land can I make mine? How much milk can I squeeze from each cow? Farmers do have to make a living in extremely hard times. But if a solely exploitative attitude prevails, humankind will suffer and perhaps perish alongside the world we abuse.

The Mishnah considers whether the shofar blown on the New Year should be pashut – ‘simple’, or kafuf’- ‘curved round’. Tradition decided in favour of the latter, seeing in the shape of such a shofar the image of a person bowed in prayer: ‘The more one humbles oneself the better.’

We need that humility. It’s not the humility of passivity or resigned subservience. It’s the humility of understanding, of realising that the breath which flows through us is part of the same gift, the same song which sings in all creation.

 

Praying with the sea and the wild deer

I have always loved Psalm 27, the special Elul and High Holyday meditation. But yesterday I got no further than the first three words: ‘To David: God, you are my light…’

The light was indeed wonderful across the far north west of Scotland. With glorious disregard for the dismal weather forecast, the sun shone bright across the mountains and the sea. So I set out for an early run and soon found myself alone on the half-mile curve of orange sand where the ocean yields to the hills and glens at Gairloch, There weren’t even any footprints, save the paw marks of a lucky dog who’d been out at dawn to race the white-crested waves.

It hadn’t been my plan when I set out, but I stopped to say shacharit. True, there weren’t the requisite ten people for the quorum. But how often in a life does one have for one’s prayers the company of the sand and the sea, the mountains, the forests, the clear air, the wind and the brightness of sunlight over the bay?

And God was here amidst this simple beauty, and it felt as if in response to my Shema, ‘God, you are one’, God was answering, ‘Yes, I am here; this is my home amidst this wonder. Recognise me; remember me wherever you are, and don’t let all your other thoughts block me out of your heart and mind.’

Later that day, at a roundabout where two major routes through the Highlands meet, we saw two young stags, calmly chewing the grasses and sedge by the road verge, unperturbed, contemptuous almost of all these high-velocity human interlopers; knowing with the same instinct with which they skipped nonchalantly over the tall fences, who is at home in these wild and wet lands and who is not; beautiful.

Had there been time I would have made them my companions in prayer for the afternoon minchah meditation. Instead, I simply looked. I didn’t look with my frequent worried eyes of ‘what’s expected of me and what am I supposed to do?’ I didn’t look with the selfish eyes of ‘what’s in it for me and mine?’ I just looked.

For those moments God was my light.

Now, back home in this Elul month of preparation before Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, a simple prayer flows through me; I’d like it to sing inside me like a clear mountain stream as it tumbles over rocks and through pebbles: Tahareni; purify me.

Help me to see to the quick of life, its wonder, its beauty. Give me eyes of openness and appreciation. Then may my attitude, my words and deeds, reflect back gratitude and kindness. May my response be care and consideration, and courageous compassion for this precious world and this brief time in which to know and cherish it.

God, be my light, to see all life in your light. For, though that light seems brighter and your song clearer where the small birds swoop over the shallow river as it flows from the loch to the sea, you are the heart of everything, all human life, all life.

Where we find comfort

Today is Tu B’Av, the 15th of the month of Av, the Jewish version of Valentine’s Day, when according to the Mishnah the daughters of Israel would dance in the vineyards and the young men would choose their life’s partners (not entirely egalitarian, but romantic nonetheless).

According to tradition, 15 Av marks the beginning of the grape harvest which continues until the eve of Yom Kippur, the other ‘dating date’ on which girls would go out to the vineyards and dance.

In Israel the day has been given a new name, Chag Ha’Ahavah, the Festival of Love. It is a special privilege to celebrate a wedding today.

Tomorrow is Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people’, declared the prophet Isaiah in words the timeless power of which inspired Martin Luther King’s famous speech on Capitol Hill:

Every valley shall be raised up and every mountain made low.
The glory of God will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

In Judaism there are two great sources of consolation: life itself, and values. War and persecution have never eroded the tenacious commitment to both. I often hear stories like these:

She met my father at a railway station in Poland in August 1945. They were both looking for surviving members of their families. They didn’t discover any, but they did find each other. She was just 18, he was 20.

 My father came here a refugee, alone. None of his achievements mattered to him a fraction as much as creating a new family. His loved to sit at the head of the Friday night table, his children and grandchildren around him.

Two weeks ago, I found myself overwhelmed by my own experience of consolation. It was Libbi’s graduation. As I watched her, with love and pride, it suddenly struck me that Lore, my mother, would have marked her graduation as a doctoral candidate in the very same location seventy years earlier. We’d named Libbi after her, giving her the same second name, Shulamit, and the same initials, L. S. When I got home, I looked out the photographs: the gown, the mortar board, – little had changed. Lore came to Britain as a refugee. She passed away young; she didn’t see her children grow up or marry, she never knew her grandchildren. Two generations had now passed, yet here we were: ‘Mir zaynen do’.

In his brief, warm welcome the Pro-Vice-Chancellor spoke of the 800-year-old ideals of the pursuit of truth and knowledge.

To Jews, these values are more ancient still, coupled with the commitment to carry out God’s will through justice and compassion. I saw them put into practice at Noam, our youth movement’s, pre-camp this week. There I witnessed four kinds of passion: a deep engagement in Jewish learning; an adventurous commitment to Tikkun Olam, making the world better for the outcast and neglected; an acute awareness that we must do far more for the wellbeing of our planet; a passion for shared, collaborative leadership.

In the love of life and the commitment to these ideals lies our consolation.

 

 

What we must learn from destruction

Tishah Be’Av, the bleak 25 hour fast of mourning on which we recall the disasters of Jewish history, poses a central question: What must we learn from destruction?

I grew up in a world which remembered war. One of my teachers had been decorated for bravery in the Royal Navy; another suffered continued mental torment from his years as a prisoner of the Japanese. My parents spoke about hunger, bombings, flight for their lives.

The generations who lived through the wars remembered; they strove for no more war.

In 1919 The League of Nations was created “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security.”

On 26 June, 1945, the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco:

We, The Peoples Of The United Nations, Determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind..

On 10 December 1948, in Paris, the United Nations adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming that

recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Too many leaders of our generation seem to have forgotten. National politics and international relations are increasingly characterized by self-interest, aggression, cunning, bigotry, folly and contempt for the lives of the weakest. Last night I heard Philip Pullman speak of an age of ‘mendacity, hypocrisy and stupidity’.

The rabbis of the Mishnah lived during the Roman persecutions, between the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135, both commemorated on Tishah Be’Av. They saw the war against Rome as leading only to self-destruction. The Talmud records that

There were sufficient supplies in Jerusalem to outlast a siege for 21 years. There were lawless gangsters there. The rabbis said to them: ‘Let’s go out and make peace’, but the former would not let them. They, in turn, said, ‘Let’s go and make war’. ‘It’s futile’, the rabbis responded’. The gangsters burnt down all the food stores and famine forced the people to fight.        Talmud, Gitin 56a

The Talmud’s overall verdict: ‘Needless hatred destroyed Jerusalem’.

Similar needless hatred could destroy the entire world today. That is why it is essential to learn from destruction.

What does it teach? Sadly, probably not that war is always wrong. There is a point when tyranny must be resisted, lest it swallow us all up. War remains a last resort.

We learn that we must try our utmost to live by the creative arts of peace and understanding. We learn that wanton aggression, boastfulness, vulgarity, cruelty, exploitation, injustice and contempt for life are evil, and exact a terrible price not just from their victims but, through the slow yet inevitable processes of time, on their perpetrators as well.

Above all, we learn to cherish life, all life, and the gifts of understanding, healing and creativity which lie within us all.

 

The Teaching of Life: tears and solidarity

There is one quality associated incomparably more than any other with Torah, the teachings, law and lore at the heart of Jewish existence: life. The Torah is Torat Chaim, the Torah of life. For its inspiration flows from the same invisible springs and currents which nourish all life, feeding the roots of the trees of forests and orchards, inspiring the heart, flowing through all living beings.

Consequently, the Torah is equally Torah Hesed, the Torah of faithful kindness, of a compassion which includes an urgent sense of justice. For how can the Torah of life require anything other than that we should respect, nurture and cherish all life? This is the ideal of which the prophet Isaiah dreamt in an ancient version of ‘Imagine’ when he saw a world in which ‘None shall hurt or destroy in all [God’s] holy mountain’.

Throughout the millennia, as Jewish teachers and communities have studied the Torah, understood as God’s word and the expression of God’s will, they have interpreted, re-interpreted and sometimes deliberately mis-interpreted its apparent meanings in the light of these overriding values: life, compassion, justice.

Yet this very week, as we approach Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah of Life, there has been bitter hatred and terrible killing. Whatever our politics, religion or identity, we must mourn these terrible wounds in the body and heart of our collective humanity.

The Talmud speaks of God weeping. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto, wrote in March 1942 of God withdrawing to the inner chambers to weep. He counsels those who feel terrified and alone to seek God there, in those interior spaces of the spirit.

Over the last five years it has become clear that we live at a time of a renewed and aggressive politics of identity. It is manifest in different, but inter-related ways, across much of the globe. It incites in us a visceral reaction to stand only with our own; to draw up lines of defence, internally as well as externally; to recall our universalist hopes or fantasies and batten down our moral imagination. It is hard to resist these reactions.

Yet we are also drawn to an inner space in which we hear life’s tears, the sorrows of those whose children have been killed; or whose sons have to go to the dangerous front lines of the army; or who have no homeland, or home; who face the brutal police of violent regimes, who are on the wrong side of the guns of vicious, racist militias. With us in that same space are those who devote their very souls to care for the ill, get food to hungry families, imagine how to give shelter to the destitute. There too are the people, from across the globe, who strive to protect the very earth which nourishes us, its animals, fishes, trees and meadowlands, and who mourn in the barren spaces where birdsong used to be.

I believe we can, and must, try to find each other there, not just because we each have cause to weep, but because, even more deeply, we are united by the love of life, the desire for life to thrive. The teaching of life and compassion, as Torah, Gospel, Koran, or as an agnostic sense of wonder and awe, calls us into fellowship to serve humanity, the earth and the life it sustains, and, if we so believe, the God of this rich and unfathomably intricate and inter-connected creation. We can only do so together; we can only maintain hope together, and, because we stand together, we can affirm to each other that no good, compassionate, creative action we undertake is too small to matter.

That, I believe, is what the giving and receiving of Torah truly means, on this festival of Shavuot.

Between Yom Ha’Shoah and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut

These days between Yom HaShaoh, the Hebrew date for Holocaust Memorial Day and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, are caught between anguish and hope.

I lit my yellow candle in memory of a child murdered by the Nazis. I thought, as I had promised my father, of all the members of the family who were killed, saying their names, one by one.

There went through my mind once again the unforgettable lines with which Primo Levi described the four Russian horsemen, the advance party of the Red Army, who freed him from the universe of Auschwitz. They did not greet those they liberated, nor did they smile, oppressed by a ‘confused restraint’:

It was that shame we knew so well…[the shame] that the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.

Such shame should penetrate the heart of humanity at the gassing of civilians, of children, in Syria. Once again, the will for good seems to have proved too weak. Once again, powerful amoral leaders and their armies behave with cynical contempt for life. Again, the West faces the difficult decision of if and how to intervene militarily so that the situation for those who have already suffered so much may be made better, not worse. In Israel, so a friend told me, the word on the horrified street was, ‘We must help the children, we must help the children’. (I hope one of the UK’s responses will be to take in more children, families, refugees from horror.)

Meanwhile Israel, our country, where I love to be, which has so many achievements, and so much idealism still today, approaches its 70th birthday with plenty of challenges and problems of its own.

In November 1943 my father’s uncle, Alfred Freimann, who fled Germany in 1933, wrote to his brother Ernst in New York, who escaped Europe in 1939:

We saw another part of our beautiful countryside; the whole strip of land along the coast is like one flowering garden. If they let us work in peace and quiet, and didn’t prevent immigration, we’d soon have one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

Alfred did not live to see either the flourishing of his hopes or the refusal of Israel’s enemies to allow the country to live in peace and quiet. He was killed in the infamous attack on a convoy of academics to Mount Scopus on this very day, April 13, 1948, exactly 70 years ago. My father, who was in the Hagganah at the time, spoke of this with horror and anger. His own Yahrzeit, fittingly, is on Yom Ha’Atazma’ut.

Each year at this season I phone my friend Aaron Barnea, whose son fell in Lebanon on the eve of Yom HaShoah. He’s a founding member of the Parents’ Circle, sharing grief, hope, and the determination to achieve a better future for both peoples with Palestinian bereaved. I have learnt, through Aaron and others like him, how deeply it matters to try to listen to and look at the world with a conscience for their grief and hopes as well.

I want to stand in solidarity with those who, in spite of everything, dream, aspire, care, teach, work, and dedicate their lives to creating the Israel described in the Declaration of Independence, a state Jewish not only in its demography but in its core values. I want to stand with those who live and teach the Torah of loving kindness and justice; who care for the hungry, the sick and the suffering; who build bridges between communities, faiths, and peoples; who strive to make Israel a land which welcomes, and does not deport, refugees from persecution; who share Israel’s skills and technological expertise with impoverished regions around the world; who live with faith, courage, creativity and hope amidst all the difficulties, dangers, threats, mistakes and bigotry which challenge the country from without and within; who want to get on with ordinary, decent, hardworking lives, raising their family, loving their children, and praying for a safe and peaceful future.

The world is once again in a frightening and dangerous place. The record of the Jewish past teaches us that if history challenges our dreams and ideals, we need to learn from that history and work for our dreams and ideals even harder.

 

Song of Songs: We must not fail to notice and to bless

I rose up early, to see the moon shining yellow through the branches of the pine tree.

I had awoken thinking of that wonderful moment when my son called out to me as I came into the final straight of the Jerusalem Marathon ‘Abba, Abba, run with me’ and had taken my hand and we’d completed the last two hundred metres together’. And at the same time, I was thinking of two close friends who have lost a child; my heart going out to them. And at the same time, thinking of this unknown, this beauty, anguish and heart-sorrow of life.

‘Run with me’: how short, how precious is the time we have, to stand together, to run, see, witness the glory of this world, to have the companionship of life.

On Chag Ha’Aviv, Pesach, the festival of spring, we read The Song of Songs. On Chag Assif, Succot, the festival of autumn and ingathering, we read Ecclesiastes.

Hevel Havalim, vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity.’ The autumn wind, leaf fall, life fall, may carry all before it.

But Ecclesistaes is wrong; surely all is not vanity. There is the glory of the in-between time, the span we are granted of life. ‘Draw me after you; we shall run and follow you’: the author, or authors, of The Song of Songs knew that life must be relished, pursued.

The Hebrew Bible is always a text which notices, from the first unfurling of the young leaves of creation, the planting of the first garden in Eden with its four rivers to water its growth.

But nowhere is this awareness more acute, more simple, more wondrous than in The Song of Songs. The young buds of the pomegranate; the fleeting deer standing still for a single moment by the lattice-work of the fence, before running hastily, gracefully away to the distant hills; the apple tree alone in the midst of the forest; the hour and season of the songbirds: these details, easily missed, easily regarded as irrelevant in a world of kings, prophets and wars, are observed, noted, cherished, loved. They are the garden, the universe, of the life and love we are granted, briefly, to share.

At the heart of this landscape is a mystery, gan na’ul, ‘a locked garden’, ma’ayan chatum, ‘a fountain sealed’. For we do not know and never will fathom the source and wellspring of the wonder of life, its small, everyday miracles, the primrose by the side of the stone, the violets in the grass beside the woodland path. Maybe one day it will be possible to offer a scientific, materialist analysis of everything, even consciousness itself. But in the moment of awareness, in the joy and engagement of seeing, in the companionship of love, such explanations will fall away, irrelevant, not contiguous, unable to touch the exhilaration of being alive.

Of course, Ecclesiastes is correct in the end. The day will come when the cord at the fountain is broken and the pitcher tumbles out of sight to the bottom of the well. We know what awaits.

But that does not, should not, must not negate the now, ‘The interim is mine’, ours, yours; the interim belongs to life. Admittedly only the interim, and that is the sorrow which seizes the heart.

But that interstice is now; therefore, as the lover says to his beloved in The Song, ‘Rise up, let us go’ for the garden is full of flower, the orchards and vineyards are in blossom. We must not fail to notice, and to bless.

 

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