Here we are back at the start of the Torah’s journey. Last week we read the magnificent poem with which the Torah opens, its hymn to creation, ‘In the beginning, God said “Let there be…”’ This week comes the sweeping flood, the terrible annihilation which life perilously survives, afloat in a tiny gene-pool, a wave-tossed ark of gopher wood.
Before us are creation and destruction, life and death, and we exist in the fragile interstice between them. Therefore, we must always be on the side of life, in our prayers, thought and deeds.
Prayer is not primarily the attempt to change God’s hidden mind through our petitions. It’s the art of connecting life with life. True prayer, wrote Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, happens only when the presence of God within us and the presence of God beyond us meet. This isn’t magic; it’s not too far from, or too hard for any of us. It occurs whenever life touches us in moments of humility, wonder, love, or inner silence and our heart is opened and our awareness expands, filled by that all-present energy or spirit which flows through all things.
Such prayer can happen in communion with the words of the prayer book, in a conversation in a hospital corridor, in the glimpse of a wren or the solitude of a walk. It’s a moment of hearing with the heart, of connection with the sanctity of life. Even in the presence of death it’s almost always a timeless act of intuitive homage. It deepens our compassion, it nourishes our joy, it makes of us servants of life.
Because all life is sacred, because, in theological terms, God is present in all that exists, it is God’s commandment at the root of all commandments that we should harm life as little as possible and cause as little pain as we can even in our most mundane actions, in how we eat, dress, travel, interact with people, animals and nature. ‘Choose life,’ the Torah insists.
Therefore, whatever our tasks are amidst the complexity and sometimes misery of everyday life, they must always be rooted in respect, justice and compassion, even when life confounds us or makes us angry with good reason. Those tasks can be anything, baking a birthday cake, working out how to teach an obstreperous class, fighting the soullessness of some obstinate system, administering a life-saving vaccine. The question is: am I doing this as well as I can for the sake of life?
I’m not writing these words out of naivety, and certainly not because I find any of this easy. I attended the meeting in the Houses of Parliament on ending indefinite detention for asylum seekers. I’m preparing a declaration by faith leaders on climate justice for Cop 27. I read the headlines about climate change. I feel frustrated and powerless time and again. I worry that the waters are once again rising around Noah’s precious ark.
But I know that the source of life is infinite and everywhere, and that the commandment to care for life is expressed in numberless ways, in kind words, in the beauty of the autumn’s red and yellow leaves, in the song of a blackbird, through reaching out for help in difficult times, in the loneliness of sorrow, and in the joy which can flow into the silence of solitude. It is the voice of the God who says, “Let there be life,” and who calls on us to answer.