Tonight is the new moon of Nisan, the month of spring, bringing Pesach, the festival of liberation and redemption. The first fruit trees are in blossom, the daffodils radiant in the woods and gardens. It’s a wonderful time of year to be alive. In the heart, hope and joy, like young leaves pushing aside the cusps of their protective buds, emerge and sense the air.
I was supposed to write about the horrors and memorials which fill the news, but instead I want to write about healing.
‘Heal me, God, and I shall be healed’: few prayers are said with deeper feeling. Who does not want the magic hand of healing to cleanse with an invisible touch all the sores of the body and soul?
There are so many wounds upon the body of humankind. There are wounds from terrors witnessed through fragile slats which conceal the traumatised survivors them from the killers of their families: yesterday marked twenty-two years since the slaughter began in Rwanda. There are wounds of war, carried in broken bodies and families left bereft. There are wounds of flight: futures fractured in so many places that no one yet knows what splint can serve to re-align the destinies of families scattered in strange lands and often inhospitable places. There are wounds of illness and grief, and wounds from hopes which never find fruition.
Fate is unjust and suffering unequally distributed; millions of people pass through troubles unimaginable to those of us lucky enough to have lived relatively safe and settled lives. But nobody carries no wounds at all. The question then is what we make of our heart’s fears and injuries and how we bring healing to one another.
The Talmud contains the moving description of how Rabbi Yochanan, the third century teacher famous for his good looks, visits an impoverished pupil who lives in a low, dark room. Rabbi Yochanan has himself recently been ill and in need of assistance. He hears the sound of weeping, but his inept questions fail to elicit the reason for those tears, until his student finally tells him: ‘It is because beauty such as this must perish in the dust that I am weeping’. At these words Rabbi Yochanan weeps too, and, as they cry together, holds out his hand and helps raise his pupil from his bed. (Talmud, Berachot 5b)
I am touched by at least three qualities in this story: beauty, humility and compassion.
Beauty is worth weeping for, because it is for beauty that we live. It is unfathomable and endless. There is the beauty of gardens and forests, coast lands and wild skies, music and poetry. There is the beauty of love, companionship, community and friendship. It is life’s great gift to us, the essence of the joy of being alive. We can’t ‘make beauty happen’, but we can, like Rabbi Yochanan’s pupil, point to it, share it with others, and weep, or keep silence, or sing, or hold out our hand and draw another person towards it. It is the very essence of God’s presence and God’s healing in this world.
Humility is perhaps a precondition. Many people do indeed have specific and invaluable healing skills to offer. But in countless situations all we have is our humanity, our spirit’s attentiveness, our heart’s openness from all the places where experience has penetrated it and left it open and exposed and willing to descend and listen wherever life may call it.
Compassion is life’s most compelling and universal commandment. That is not because the world itself is innately compassionate. Far from so; in a challenging passage the Talmud counsels us to refrain from calling even God compassionate, lest the cruelties of destiny make us lose faith with faith itself. But compassion, simple kindness, is the one thing we can always offer. There are innumerable injuries it is powerless to prevent, but its capacity to bring healing, not the ‘perfect healing from heaven’ we refer to in our prayers, but at least the human touch of a healing hand, or the sound of a healing word, can never be exhausted.