March 28, 2024 admin

Hope and purpose: not a dream but a duty

From bitter years and cruel times, from far-off exile in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel bequeathed us beautiful verses proffering purpose and hope. We read them on this Shabbat Parah, with its focus on purification and renewal.

They concern our humanity:

‘I will give you a new heart and put into you a new spirit. I will remove the heart of stone from your body, give you a heart of flesh, and put my spirit in you.’ (36:26-7)

And they’re about our land, perhaps, by extension, about the very earth itself:

‘The desolate land, after lying waste in sight of every passerby, shall again be tilled. It shall be said, “That land, once desolate, is become like the Garden of Eden.’ (36:34-5)

As this is a leap year, we will recite these verses over Easter. They offer an apt shared context of hope in life’s renewal from which to wish Christian colleagues, friends and communities thoughtful and inspiring holy days.

We desperately need this hope. The great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Art Green, sends out apposite Hasidic teachings every week. Today he added a heartsore note: (The red heifer he refers to is the cow whose ashes, mixed with burnt cedar, hyssop and living water, confer ritual purification.)

I’ve never felt such a need for that ash of the red heifer as I do this year. Not, God forbid, from those cows that the Temple Mount crazies are trying to raise! I’m talking about some magical powder that might cleanse us of the constant contact with the dead and the subject of violent death that has so filled this year for us. Yes, I mean the horrid events of October 7, the deaths of so many young soldiers in the IDF, but also the deaths of many innocent Palestinians, both in Gaza and the West Bank, including far too many children.

I couldn’t agree more, except to add our terrible fear for the lives and wellbeing of the hostages held for so long deep underground by Hamas.

So where are the hope and purpose?

They lie firstly in becoming partners with God, with everything good, insightful, patient, and determined in humanity, in removing the hearts of stone from humankind. I hate to write this, but it seems there exist people whose hearts, through cruelty or despair, have ossified, and who are, in Shakespeare’s blunt words, ‘absolute for death.’

Yet it’s not the case that it’s always ‘us or them’. How many human, humane, beings, ourselves included, have hearts without a single calcified corner? How much of our own ‘heart of flesh’ are we prepared to expose in the endeavour to find, and maybe even melt, other hearts? It is this task, painful, demanding, unending, Sisyphean as it may be, at which we need to work if we want to create a world of understanding, compassion and peace.

Secondly, hope and purpose lie in the endeavour to transform ‘desolate land’ into God’s gardens. Ezekiel’s Hebrew suggests a remarkable wordplay: remove the double letter from neshammah, ‘desolate’, and it becomes neshamah, ‘soul’. Can we restore the soul and spirit of our beleaguered earth, war-torn, pollutant poisoned, plastic-ridden, so that the forests thrive, more birds sing and our hearts soother and softened, beneath this growing canopy, are opened once again to God and to each other?

On a large scale it’s beyond our capacity. But, in the words of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, assur lehitya’esh, ‘it’s forbidden to despair’, and we each have our own selves with whom to work to begin to make these tasks happen. They’re not a dream but a duty.

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