On Wednesday evening I met a group of colleagues from America who had served as rabbis for over twenty-five years. I was completely struck by what they had done. The range of activity was huge, but what so many had in common was their devotion. One had so consistently cared for the local poor, of all faiths and none, that he was simply known by the city authorities as ‘the pastor’. Another had fostered over eighty children across the years. Two had worked with Habitat for Humanity, bringing their congregations together with Muslim and Christian communities to build liveable homes where they were most needed across the world. Many had spent their time fostering bonds with different faiths.
The verb ve’ahavta, ‘you shall love’ occurs, I believe, just twice in the Torah: once to command us ‘you shall love the Lord your God’, and once to teach us ‘love your neighbour’. We read the latter tomorrow. It is intimately connected to the former. One can’t love God and hate people, or claim to care about religion and be indifferent to the hurts and sufferings of God’s creatures. Just as God’s presence and vital being is manifest in all life, so the love and concern for life is the actualisation of the love of God. The love of God is not intended to describe simply a state of inner feeling, important as that is in itself; it is a command, a call to committed and sustained action through the care for God’s works. It may indeed be that precisely such concern and giving is our specific task as humankind, our contribution to the ecology of being. As so often Arthur Green puts the matter beautifully:
- It is as bearers of compassion that we become the partners of God in Creation. The divine energy flows outward from the Source, through the complex and multipronged evolutionary process, and into us, giving us an extra sense of charge and dynamic movement forward. We, by adding to it the insight and act of compassion, send it streaming back to the One, our gift in gratitude for the gift of existence itself. (Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical theology, p. 93)
No one can care for everybody and everything. We are all inevitably choosers, even in compassion. I’ve come to understand that it is usually in those areas where our own experience has led us to feel most deeply that we are best able to make our contribution. It is where our own inner journey has opened our heart and touched our vulnerability that we are most able to care for others. But this is not necessarily so. Some people simply have a passion for helping children, or the aged, or for planting forests and nurturing not just human but animal life also.
This week has seen unimaginable devastation in the beautiful and mysterious, but poor and now overwhelmed country of Nepal. I’m moved by the contribution made so swiftly by Israel, by pictures of Israeli and Nepalese soldiers together rescuing the wounded. The remarkable organisation Tevel b’Tzedek which works in Katmandu has appealed for help. In the UK, World Jewish Relief has called for our urgent support . Thus the commandments of the Torah translate into what we must do here and now to care for our neighbour. In the compass of all life, in the eyes of God as it were, we are all neighbours and what happens to one could easily happen to others also.
Love and care for life: that is the purpose of our existence, what gives us value and meaning, and we are not at liberty to desist.