‘Be holy, because I, your God am holy,’ teaches the Torah in the wonderful portion we read this week which contains the commandment to love our neighbour and ‘most of the Torah’s central laws’ (Rashi) about justice and compassion.
The Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed long ago, but there remain two temples we’re still able to visit in search of holiness. They exist almost everywhere and are open to everyone, though finding the entrance is not always easy and we often have to be patient, especially with ourselves.
They are places of inspiration and restoration, healing and purification, great antidotes to the cruelty and violence of the world. One of those temples is in nature, the other in the human heart. To visit them is both a privilege and a necessity.
Late last night, out with the dog when the Heath was almost empty, I saw fellow devotees at a distance, sitting in silence, watching the sun go down, the canopy of the trees turn to black shadows and the emergent moon gain strength. The small birds concluded their dusk serenade. An owl cried.
One sometimes has to go alone into the empty spaces and the forests in search of holiness and pure thoughts, wrote Rabbi Kalmish Epstein (1753-1825) known as the Maor vaShemesh,first a follower, and then a leader of Hasidic mysticism.
I’m lucky; I have our garden. I go out early every day to feed the birds as I say the first morning prayers. ‘God, the soul you’ve given me is pure’ – there’s still dew on the ground; tal techi, dew of life’s renewal, the rabbis called it. ‘Blessed is God who opens the eyes of the blind’ – there’s that starling, waiting by the feeders; it’s got a nest a couple of gardens away.
God is present too in the temple of the human heart. Here, the entrance is not always open. Often it’s the way back to our own heart which is shut: too much pressure, vexation, depression, anxiety. We need something to help us rediscover our soul, music, a poem, the chance for ten minutes’ aloneness perhaps.
But frequently it’s being touched by the hearts of others which restores us to our own heart. I recall being in hospital rooms, just sitting. Matters had been spoken; now everyone was quiet. We were just listening, each of us. To what? Not to words or specific thoughts, but simply to life; not in apprehension or expectation, just listening. The Talmud has the briefest, best description of such moments: lev yode’a, the heart knows.
My God is present in these temples. I don’t know God’s pronouns or what the nature of that consciousness which flows through all this living being including me, which is articulate but not in words, and which, if it has to be translated into language, is rendered most simply as plain ‘I am.’ But I know God is here.
And it’s from here, within these temples, that I hear God command. The details and discipline are set down in the Torah and its commentaries; they are essential, guiding us through all life’s situations, whatever the state of society and our own consciousness. But the essence is simple: ‘Don’t destroy, don’t cause careless hurt. Serve all life faithfully, with respect and love.’
I write of these matters, even as I redo the host’s application forms for Homes in Ukraine, because the Home Office seems to have lost some of them and no answers are obtainable, and as I read the bleak news. I do so to remind not only others but myself that faith in life is true and deeply rooted, and that, just as we need faith in life, life needs faith in us.