‘Speak to the whole community of Israel:’ thus opens the second half of this week’s Torah portion. ‘That section was said at the great gathering,’ noted the eleventh century commentator, Rashi, referring to how the entire community would gather at Tabernacles to hear Torah. What would Rashi have said about our isolation today?
Yet, despite lockdown, I experience a profound sense of community. I feel it in my head, heart and hands. There is a coming together such as I have not known in my lifetime, not only of Jewish, or of British society, but of so many millions across the world. It expresses itself online, from balconies, over What’s App, in thought waves and currents of feeling. It’s an energy, a will, a commitment to a re-prioritisation of values which must herald what’s being called the ‘new normal’.
It is a vision deeply rooted in the teachings of the Torah, in the wisdom of all true faith and in the heart of humanity.
‘Be holy, for I your God am holy’ (Leviticus 19:1): The secret of holiness, wrote the Hasidic teacher Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, is wonder, the awareness that in each and every life there dwells the presence of God. ‘Be holy’ is a call to reverence for all living things. It’s a plea to travel through life with an open soul, to recognise the preciousness of all persons, all creatures and all things. If we have such reverence in our heart, it must follow that we will not desire to hurt or destroy, but, on the contrary, to cherish, nurture and care for all life.
‘Love your neighbour as yourself, I am the Lord’, the chapter continues (verse 18). Samson Raphael Hirsch, who campaigned for civil rights for Jews in Moravia before becoming the rabbi of the orthodox community in Frankfurt, understood the words to mean that we must fight for those same rights and opportunities for others as we seek for ourselves. ‘Love your neighbour’ is thus the essence of society.
More intimate is the explanation by Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin: when people truly care for their fellow human beings God says, ‘among friends like these I want to be there too.’ That’s why I believe God is present among the people running food banks and those who collect and deliver to them; with the chefs who turn their restaurants into kitchens for the NHS; among shop staff who make a point of being kind to their customers and making sure that they give what they can to those who’re struggling. I think God is there with the gifted 9 year-old violinist who put out a note online asking anyone feeling lonely to let him know and he’d serenade them beneath their window. God’s there in our wish to give more and care more; God’s even there even in our frustration that there seems to be so little we can do to help those really on the front line in our hospitals.
‘When you plant trees for food,’ the passage continues (verse 23). These trees are both real and metaphorical. I’ve been planting trees as a prayer for people who are ill, because trees represent life, vigour, strength and hope. But there’s also a figurative planting, a sowing for the future, towards the cultivation of a way of life, an economy and ecology, which understands that all existence is mutually interdependent, that we are not simply masters of nature and that the only path for humanity is to be a respectful part of the interwoven bio-diversity of creation. (I have several young trees acquired from the Woodland Trust and am tempted to sneak out one midnight with a spade to find a wild spot and plant them.)
I believe that even under lockdown these principles are finding affirmation in the insight and good will of hundreds of millions of people and that they therefore have the power to transform us globally into a community wiser, humbler and kinder than before.
Despite everything, this gives me hope and inspiration.