Listening – beyond what we hear

I’m often troubled by the thought of what we should have heard but missed.

There’s a cruel scene in tomorrow’s Torah. Rachel, who’s childless, turns in pain to her husband Jacob: ‘Give me children or else I die.’ He answers sharply: Do you think I’m God, who’s withheld from you the fruit of the womb?

The rabbis blame him doubly: Is that how you answer someone in pain? And why, just because you’ve got offspring through Leah, rub it in by stressing ‘from you’?

Rachel hurts. Sometimes people who hurt say things we fail to hear. Sometimes we react to the edge in their tone but miss the sorrow underneath. Sometimes people who’re suffering don’t say anything to us at all, and we don’t stop to listen. Sometimes we keep ourselves at too great distance for their voices to carry that far.

The Talmud describes a town which built a surrounding wall with thick gates. The prophet Elijah, who used to visit Rabbi Joshua ben Levi there, stopped coming. When he eventually returned, the rabbi asked why he’d been gone so long. He replied: I don’t go to places which insulate themselves from the cry of the poor.

The infinitive absolute has no grammatical equivalent in English: in Hebrew it’s the doubling of a verb for emphasis. The Torah has one verse in which this construction is used three times: God says ‘If you oppress, oppress them, and they cry out, cry out to me, I will hear, surely hear their outcry.’ Perhaps ‘hear’ is doubled because we humans too have to listen beyond what first strikes our ears, to the meaning, the spoken, the half spoken and the unspoken, beyond.

This is more than any of us can manage. Some kinds of listening can’t be delegated. Who should be hearing Rachel’s pain, if not Jacob? Sometimes listening needs to be shared: in a community we need to hear each other, but no one of us has the sensitivity, or capacity, to hear everyone. Sometimes it’s the responsibility of society as a whole to hear za’akat dalim, the cry of the poor.

These matters concern me at every level. Rabbis, like doctors, are not immune to the feedback: ‘You make time for lots of others, but where are you for your own family?’

Sometimes there are members of our community we don’t hear. During lockdown, the familiar channels through which we learn what’s happening to each other, at Kiddush, parties, shivas and in the shops, are mostly closed off. I worry about what we’re not attuned to in these semi-enclosed, shutdown months. Please help us understand! And I apologise for what we’ve missed.

Sometimes there are wider collective issues, markers, memorials which we haven’t registered. I’m conscious that 1st December is World Aids Day; I’m grateful to Laurence Jacobs, congregant and trustee of The Jewish Aids Trust, for informing me. ‘As always, the Jewish community, the first faith community to step up to the mark, makes me very proud,’ he said: everyone who dies of AIDS was someone’s child, sibling, partner; it’s not just across the world (where it’s killed 35 million people), it’s in North West London too. World Aids Day matters ‘to increase awareness, fight prejudice and improve education.’

I appreciate that head and heart are often full. One wants to put one’s hands over one’s ears: ‘Leave me alone, I can’t take any more.’ We need silence too, to retreat in our spirits to the tranquil waters for which the Psalmist longs. We need the quiet, or maybe it’s truly music, which calms the throbbing voices in the mind. That’s why I often walk or run at night, to be stilled by the gentle voices of the trees.

Quiet and prayer deepen the heart. We need them so that we can be more heedful listeners to life and show as little indifference, and give as few cruel answers, as possible.


For International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

As a community rabbi I see joy and beauty almost every day. But I also witness much suffering. Some of it cannot be avoided: as Virgil wrote, ‘sunt lacrimae rerum, there are tears in the nature of things.’

But cruelty is different. It has perpetrators. The legal dictionary defines it as ‘The deliberate and malicious infliction of mental or physical pain upon persons or animals.’ It continues: ‘As applied to people, cruelty encompasses abusive, outrageous, and inhumane treatment that results in the wanton and unnecessary infliction of suffering upon the body or mind.’

I would rather write about prettier matters. If I look up, the early light on the autumn trees summons me to shacharit, to praise the wonder of creation. But what of the those who can’t look out, because they are literally locked in, handcuffed, shackled, tied to bannisters? Or who are mentally and emotionally trapped with a man who threatens, bullies, undermines, and derides them and cunningly and calculatedly inflicts pain?

25 November is the date of The United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the beginning of sixteen days leading to International Human Rights Day on December 10. This Shabbat is dedicated to JWA, the work of Jewish Women’s Aid.

I looked up ‘cruel’ in Hebrew אכזרי – The first definition is ‘failing to show any mercy’. Job complains that even God has turned cruel, ‘oppressing me with all the power of his hand.’

But it’s cruelty by humans, by us, on which these days require us to focus. It’s not something which happens far away, done by the kind of people we never meet to others we never encounter.

I know this directly from personal testament, what women have told me about men and sometimes, too, what men have told me about other men – and, occasionally, women. It must take a lot to make a person tell their rabbi, – which says to me that what I know is only a tiny fraction of what, tragically and horribly, there is to know.

Abuse can be the loneliest of suffering, because a person feels too ashamed or afraid to tell, or because she is so brutally and ceaselessly policed that there’s no one accessible and no opportunity to tell. Lockdown has made all this far worse. It’s one thing to be at home with one’s beloved family, quite another to be shut in with one’s tormentor. Organisations like JWA can offer the only hope, therefore we must support them.

Seeing I’m writing bluntly, here are a number of frank questions – in which I include myself: have I never ever done anything cruel, not a hidden action, not a word, not a subtle aside, just to cause hurt? Have I never justified or been complicit with cruelty? Have I never, in those albeit limited circumstances when I could do something about it, ignored cruelty and simply carried on? Have I done my best to direct my words and actions to the opposite of cruelty, mercy and kindness?

There are two verses in the Torah which together define what it is to be a truly human being: ‘created in the image of God’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Jewish teaching names three outstanding characteristics by which these criteria are fulfilled: tsedek, fairness, rachamim, mercy, and chesed, kindness. The last is arguably greatest because it includes the others.

These are the qualities which make us truly human and our societies genuinely humane.


On AJEX Shabbat 5781

I remember seeing a programme about a British soldier, a highlander, from near Glen Coe, who’d served in Afghanistan. He spoke about returning home from his tour of duty, overwhelmed and bewildered by what he’d witnessed. He climbed high into the mountains above the Gen, and simply sat there in silence.

This is AJEX Shabbat; on Sunday, the Remembrance Service of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women will happen virtually at 2.30pm. Normally it takes place before the Cenotaph in Whitehall. I was deeply moved last year by the many hundreds present, by the large numbers from our own community honouring parents by wearing the medals they’d earned at the risk of their lives, and by the enormity of the events and the sacrifice to which we were gathered in tribute.

This year I stood with Nicky in our garden for the two-minute silence. Then we listened together to the last post; the notes, traversing that silence, penetrating the heart.

It’s 75 years since VE and VJ day, 80 since the Battle of Britain. It’s the plain, simple truth that hundreds of thousands in this country and millions worldwide gave their lives, suffered sudden or slow death, or enduring injuries, to allow my generation to grow up in freedom and peace. There is nothing adequate one can say.

At the yard where we chose our dog from a litter of puppies, there was a year-old collie who kept jumping up. ‘They just brought him back,’ the farmer said, ‘His owner was killed in Iraq.’ Suddenly that awful war sprung nearer. The dog was not naughty or badly trained; he was looking, looking, looking. What then do human hearts do with the irreparable, everlasting absence?

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall…

And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen: Anthem for Doomed Youth

I want to return to that soldier, alone above Glen Coe. For reasons hard to explain I connect those silent valleys with a space in the Torah named by Hagar. It’s where she’s found by an angel, pregnant, desolate, weeping after Abraham and Sarah have driven her out. She calls it be’er lachai ro’i, ‘the well of the living one who sees.’ ‘You are God who sees,’ she explains. Rashi adds in his commentary, ‘You, God, see the sorrow of the long-suffering.’

I sometimes think about that well. It’s one of several locations in the Torah one can’t find on Waze. One can only travel there in the soul. It’s somewhere in life’s wilderness, deep enough beneath the desert for the living waters to drip down into it and replenish the inner well which the spirit needs in order not to die of thirst. It’s far below the aggression and abrasions, the conflicts and the shouting, of life’s battlegrounds. No beaten path exists to take us to it but we know it when we’re there: ‘the well of the living one who sees.’

I don’t think God regards us like someone who catches us in the lens, takes a photograph, prints it out and puts our name and the date on the back. But something, some living presence in that place, comforts us, unbinds our knotted-up spirit, puts ointment on the heart’s wounds and lets us weep.

I wonder if this is where that highlander went, above Glen Coe. I hope he found stillness there, as I wish everyone traumatised by war: soldiers, civilians, refugees, may.

It’s the place I unconsciously mean when I say the traditional words of consolation to mourners: Hamakom Yenachem. ‘Makom’ means place, but the rabbis understood it as a name for God. Hence the frequent translation, ‘May the Omnipresent comfort you.’

But perhaps the words have another meaning also: may you reach the place within you where the living waters flow. May the God within all life find you there and bring you stillness and restoration.

What gives us strength in uncertain times

There’s been something lovely, this unlovely week. I keep picking up my phone to look; not just in addictive anxiety at the latest on the US election, but at the newest postings of pictures from nature, – swans, trees, autumn leaves – in our new WhatsApp group MasorTeva, Masorti Nature, our local Jewish version of Nature Watch.

These are some of the things which keep me going during these complex, strange and difficult days, aside from my family, guinea pigs, dogs and all, whom I’m so lucky to have.

Ordinary beauty: the deep red of the crab apples, the orange and brown of the fallen leaves, the moon, the red-patched faces and yellow-tinged wings of goldfinches.

Kindness: I don’t know why, but what happened when my grandfather died came back into my mind. I’d finished 6th form and was helping at a primary school in Brent. ‘Go home,’ this lovely, warm-hearted lunch lady said, ‘that’s where you’re needed.’ This was 45 years ago, but those few seconds of her smile, her look of deep understanding, still bless me.

Kindness: K. who found asylum in our house for some months, and is now one of the family, calls to say he’s come across another refugee who has no food. ‘Please help him,’ he says, ‘Let’s help him together.’ A message comes through from D. ‘Do you have a buggy in the baby-equipment pool for a local Syrian family?’ One lives to learn to be kind.

Poetry and song: one verse can nourish the spirit periodically for a lifetime. Autumn poems have been following me around, especially Yeats’s Wild Swans at Coole:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans…

Torah: the verses, arguments, lore, law, and music of Judaism. A word is not just one word but seventy voices: Do you understand it this way or that? The fierce pursuit of meanings, precise, exacting, combative, across the cross-referenced interpretations of generations, mutates into something timeless: is that your voice, God, in the spaces between and the silence beyond the letters?

Prayer: I love our Jewish prayers, (as those of other faiths no doubt love theirs). There are so many kinds of connection, not just with our community of today but zooming across time: the prayerbook is a receptacle of the spirits of generations, those who wrote them and repeated them, putting their souls and struggles out there into the infinite. In them are my father, his grandmother and all the teachers and wanderers who knew the words by heart and, turning toward Jerusalem from many lands, spoke them into the ether.

Among, or beyond, or hidden within all is God, or, at least, what I think of as God. I only know these moments of interconnection, when the echo-chamber of my head is quiet, except for the flow of the one and same consciousness which gives life to the trees, the birds and the winds which move them all.

I’m far from unaware that these current days bring many difficult matters: 25 years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the commemoration of Kristallnacht, Remembrance Sunday, the AJEX parade (online only) and, no doubt, politics of every kind.

But through and beyond the anguish, it is these simpler, purer, gentler things we live for. Quietly, insistently, they form our knowledge of right and wrong and create the person we aspire to be. They bring us strength of spirit and resilience; from them community and faithfulness are built.

They are what countless young people longed for when they died on battlefields. They are what I hope the world’s children will live for and grow up to cherish.


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