As we approach Shabbat and the festival of Shavuot, we simultaneously honour our Sovereign Queen Elizabeth II, and the Sovereign of the sovereign of sovereigns, our God.
Her Majesty the Queen has, through her unstinting devotion to duty and service, represented stability and dedication over seventy years in which the world has changed at an unprecedented rate. During her long reign, the Jewish community, alongside other faiths, has been able to flourish in an environment of peace and respect. It has often been acknowledged for its contribution to this country in the arts, sciences, education and business, and above all for its focus on charity and care.
We have only to look back through our history, or round about us to many other lands, to know how lucky we are to be living in this country. We wish Her Majesty strength on her remarkable Platinum Jubilee; we hope she finds joy and satisfaction in her many achievements.
The queen has modelled that very sense of service which lies at the core of Judaism, – the service of God. Those words ‘the service of God’ may sound leaden with piety. So how do we translate them into our lives?
Over three thousand years of Jewish life, the most significant truth has not been that long ago God once spoke at Mount Sinai and gave us the Torah. Rather, the essential inner reality is that God speaks all the time and that life is a continuous revelation, as the rabbis taught, ‘Every day a voice calls out from Horeb.’ Our task is to hear it.
Brooding over this, the central challenge of all spiritual life, two teachings come into my mind, both from the bleakest period of Jewish history. The first is from Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto:
When you listen intently, you can hear the voice of Torah, the oneness of God, in the chirping of the birds, the lowing of cows and the interactions of people.
He wrote these courageous and defiant words in 1941, very far from the birds and cows to which he refers. He subsequently buried his writings in the grounds of the ghetto; he did not survive to see them rediscovered.
The second teaching comes from Rabbi Hugo Gryn, of beloved memory. I want you to know, he wrote afterwards, that God was present in Auschwitz. But not, he added, the God of my childhood imaginings. God was there, abused and blasphemed.
These two teachings together form the heart, the two pumping valves of my Torah, and guide me through life. They remind me of what the mystics have always understood as the oneness of all things, garbed and concealed within our different material and mental forms. Where there is beauty, peace and joy this oneness sings out in wonder and glory. That is why all life must be cherished, why in William Blake’s words,
A robin redbreast in a cage / Puts all heaven in a rage.
It is the secret of the great togetherness of humankind and all creation.
But it does not follow that where there is suffering, misery, violence and cruelty God must be absent. Rather, the heart and conscience, the holy within life, screams out in pain and outrage. ‘Help me!’ it cries, ‘Bring me justice, decency, kindness, healing!’ To the best of our limited capacities, we have to respond. That is the meaning of being commanded.
These two teachings circumscribe every moment and situation of human life. They are, I believe, God speaking to us, not from afar, not from the remote distance of history and the heights of a mountain top, but from right here, from what’s next to us and within us.
The verse preceding the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus reads: ‘God spoke all these words, saying.’ ‘Spoke’ refers to the historical-mythical revelation at Sinai. ‘Saying’ is here, now, at all times and to us all.