‘My strength and my song:’ poetry, music and resilience

As Holocaust Memorial Day closed, with its commemoration of destruction, Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, with its celebration of creation, began. As the week including both of them ends, we arrive at Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song.

Song has accompanied humanity throughout. Judaism is a religion of song; the opening chapter of the Torah is a paean of praise to the emergence of the world of wonder, and the first weekly portion refers to the origin of music. Rabbi Avraham Isaac Hacohen Kook understood the very name Israel as the conjoining of two words shir and El, song and God: Israel means God’s song, singing before God.

Poets and musicians have written with passion about their art; philosophers of aesthetics have speculated about its essence and power. The Torah does not analyse its nature and origins, but declares, simply and frankly, the impetus towards it:

I shall sing, I must sing, to God…
God’s song is my strength.
This is my God, whose beauty I proclaim. ’ (Exodus 15:1,2)

Poetry is the language of the heart and soul; music is what they articulate beneath and beyond the limitations of words. Poetry, in its rhythm and alliteration, is music too. Both poetry and music have accompanied us and been created in even the bleakest and most terrible of times. Hence Carolyn Forche chose as motto for her anthology, Against Forgetting, Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, the lines by Bertold Brecht:

In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.

But how can there be song even in exile, even in transit, concentration and death camps? The question is ancient:

By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept:
How shall we sing God’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137)

 Yet even, and precisely, amidst brutality, words and music affirm dignity, constitute witness and even bring a strange beauty to places of suffering and longing where the heart and the unbearable are compelled to meet. ‘Can you put words to this?’ asked a woman in the starving queue of relatives outside a prison in Stalinist Russia, recognising that the person standing freezing next to her was Anna Akhmatova. ‘Yes, I can,’ she said; and did.

Song is resilience, resistance, and, like the song of the Children of Israel at the sea, its testimony remains long after tyrants and their empires have collapsed.

And song is also joy, music the surge of the spirit’s wonder. Poets and prophets have always understood that all creation sings: ‘The mountains and the hills will break forth before you in song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.’ (Isaiah 55:12) Tu Bishevat doesn’t just mark the importance of trees, with their essential contribution to our physical, mental and spiritual health. It reminds us to listen to how they, too, sing.

It isn’t only mystics with their obfuscating tendencies who hear music in the very nature of the universe. ‘We astronomers,’ wrote the poet and scientist Rebecca Elson, in an extraordinary, epigrammatic line, ‘Honour our responsibility to awe.’

The Torah portion which includes the Song at the Sea which gives this Shabbat its name, Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, concludes with the words, ‘For I am the God who heals you.’ In these difficult times, with their uncertainty, anxiety and grief, may music and poetry heal, restore and strengthen our heart and spirit.


Why I wept listening to President Biden

I cried when I listened to President Joe Biden’s inaugural address; I was far from the only one. I didn’t cry because it was a rhetorically eloquent speech, but because it was so eloquently simple, because it came from a human being, a person with a heart.

Biden’s words reminded me of a phrase from Vaclav Havel: what the world needs is a politics of responsibility, a politics of the heart:

“The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.”

Whether President Biden will prove able to provide enduring leadership of this quality, faced with all the challenges, tribulations and inevitable compromises of office, only the coming years will tell.

But the task is not his alone; it calls to us all.

The Torah has a great deal to say about hearts. Pharaoh has a hard heart. It would be fairer to say that his allotted role is to exemplify what hard-heartedness is: he doesn’t listen and doesn’t care, not just about the Children of Israel but even about his own Egypt.

It’s tempting to point at others, especially leaders, who’re hard hearted. The founder of Hasidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov, knew better: everyone, he said, has not just a Moses but also a Pharaoh inside.

I often end my day wondering if I’ve behaved with heart. The simple prayer says it all: ‘Open my heart through your Torah,’ which I take to mean ‘through all life,’ because all experience can be understood as God’s teaching.

I worry: have I said or done something harsh or hurtful? There is endless pain in the world, most of it unspoken. If life is a bird alighted next to us, it’s so easy carelessly to break its wing, so easy not even to notice it’s there.

This week is devoted to mental health. (Please see the events we’re hosting or recommending, and what my colleagues have written.) I only want to say that the Torah speaks of an open heart, a wise heart and a strong heart.

An open heart says, most often not through words: I’m here and I hear. It doesn’t say, or convey, ‘I don’t want to know;’ it doesn’t change the subject; it doesn’t have the answers. It simply communicates, ‘I care.’ I read of a refugee who told a woman who’d listened to his story: ‘I feel heard for the first time since I fled. I’m less in exile now.’

I’m not sure what a wise heart says. But I’ve met people who have one. I can’t remember anything specific they told me, but the feeling I had in their company remains. They listened. They gave out something which couldn’t exactly be called ‘advice.’ I don’t know how to describe it, and it was something more than words which conveyed it. It was an understanding that life has depth, is difficult; that pain is; that life is also robust; that the next step must be dared; that if I fell they’d be there for me still.

A strong heart is not the same as a hard heart. It is resolute not because it’s closed but because it’s open. Its defences exist only to protect and maintain its tenderness. They represent the strength not of coldness but of love.

At this time of intense individual stress and collective challenge, which affects each one of us, though in different ways, impacting every nation and the planet itself, I wish us openness, wisdom and strength of heart, for ourselves, each other and the leaders and presidents of the world.




Hang on in there

‘Hang on is there’ is what God says when Moses despairs of persuading his own people, let alone Pharaoh, that freedom will some day come. ‘Attah tireh,’ God tells him; ‘You’ll soon see.’

‘Hang on in there’ is what we must tell ourselves and each other over these difficult weeks. These winter lockdown days, long, lonely and anxious, are hard for us all and harsher for some than for others. We need all the morale, good humour, solidarity and stamina we can muster. Though we may be isolated and therefore dependent on our own internal resources first and foremost, we are not entirely alone, and must not leave each other feeling forgotten and apart. We have to muster all our strength, spiritually and collectively.

Immo anochi, ‘I am with you,’ is the simple message at the heart of the Psalms:

‘I said: the darkness will crush me,’
but I found even there that ‘Your hand guides me,
and Your right hand takes hold of me.’ (Psalms 91 & 139)

These beautiful words may sound like someone else’s faith from some faraway time. But they can be our words too, and often, even without our recognising it, they are.

‘I didn’t know what to do with the anxiety and pain,’ a colleague, Rabbi Lazar, said. ‘So I began to sing. In the hospital bed. The nurse thought I’d gone mad. I sang for two whole hours. It took me to a different place, a different level.’

We may find our inner strength through music, poems, films, cooking, meditation, prayer, walking, Pilates, bird-watching through the window, Torah study, photographing winter trees, wit, and the courage which lies within humour. These may not all be conventional ways of experiencing God’s hand guiding us. But where there’s wonder or reprieve, where, instead of feeling our spirit sink, we sense even a momentary surge of inner life and something within us sings, – there, I believe, is God’s presence.

‘Hang on in there,’ begins with ourselves. But it’s also what we must say to each other. Right now there’s probably no more important message we can give. We convey it by phoning, writing, perhaps even thinking. We say it by sending small gifts. Few things strengthen our own morale as much as knowing there’s something we can do for each other. I admire those who bake every week, for Great Ormond Street or The Royal Free, for their neighbourhood or a friend who’s unwell.

We say ‘hang on in there’ by creating whatever community we can, albeit for now online only. Prayer is a form of solidarity, but solidarity is also a form of prayer: we think together, we feel for each other.

‘Hang on in there,’ can’t be only for our family, friends and neighbours, though that’s where we start. I had the opportunity of a conversation with former prime minister Gordon Brown this week: ‘Up to four million children hungry in this country,’ he said. I’ve asked Leon Aarts to speak at our pre-Shabbat service tonight. He’s the chef who helped institute the mass cooking of nutritious meals at the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais. Now he and his volunteers cook every day for London’s children. If we’ve the privilege of plenty, we’ve the responsibility to share.

I respect everyone who’s caring for those who’re ill or injured, in body or spirit. I admire everyone who’s supporting homeless people and refugees. I feel solidarity with everyone who’s tending life in any of its needs, nursing abandoned animals, planting trees. Thank you for keeping us ‘in there’.

When we say to life ‘I’m with you’ then, I believe, life says ‘I’m with you’ back to us, even amidst pain and loss.

I’m aware that some of us carry far more hurt and anxiety than others. So, however we express it, our ‘hang on in there’ mustn’t be glib. It must come from the attentiveness of the heart.


Words of incitement; words of healing

Our world needs healing. Perhaps never since the Second World War, the hatred, incitement and viciousness which led to it, and the decimated lands and homeless populations it left in its wake, has this been so obvious.

My heart goes out to everyone on the front line of care, whether in ambulances and hospitals, or listening to people’s anguish and mental stress, or trying to heal the injustices and angers which divide our societies, or mend our relationship with the rest of creation, the very air, water and plants and animals on which the wellbeing of all life depends.

We all have the capacity to heal; and we all, too, have the power to make matters worse. In these pressured and anxious times, we must help one another be healers. Refa’einu veneirapei, runs the daily prayer, ‘Heal us, God, and we shall be healed.’ I like to think the words might also mean, ‘Heal us, God, and make us healers.’

At the broadest, geopolitical level, we have been horrified by the violence at the United States Capitol. The Rabbinical Assembly immediately called on ‘all American political and religious leaders to condemn in unequivocal terms this attack on democracy and its institutions,’ to confirm the results of the elections and ensure the peaceful transfer of authority.

I felt shocked, but not entirely surprised, at what happened on Wednesday night. It is a consequence of years of incitement to contempt. I was reminded of the Torah’s account of Pharaoh’s address to his people almost three millennia ago: ‘Come, let us deal wisely:’ that seductive appeal to fear and hatred as a justification for tyranny, which led to enslavement, misery and murder.

It was galling to hear leaders of far less democratic countries than America ‘cash in’ on America’s hour of shame. I pray that world leaders will have the wisdom to speak words of healing, and that Joe Biden, who knows the depths of personal tragedy, will find the inspiration, courage and support from those around him to be ‘the healer president.’

What is said from the top travels far further and carries greater power. But all our words matter. In these times of great stress, blame and anger tempt us all. The challenge is whether we can call injustice and wrong by their names, yet listen to what hurts and troubles others, and speak calmly and with integrity, keeping the values of justice, truthfulness and compassion before us always. The adage that ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,’ is simply not true. It’s often the words which lead people to pick up the stones, and the guns. But it’s also often words which bring the beginning of healing.

Therefore on the far smaller, local scale, words matter too, in our homes, phone calls, zooms, emails, and in our two-metres-apart greetings in the half-empty streets. It’s not just what we say, but what we don’t say. Frustration has grated the skin away and exposed our nerves. It’s easy to be angry. Loneliness has settled on many like a low-grade, immovable ache.

Please, and I include myself, think of friends we may not have spoken to, acquaintances after whom we have not enquired. Be in touch; say hello. Risk calling the number. Share a memory, something gracious, something which lifts the spirit. Listen. It takes all of us to make ‘we are not alone’ real.

Ordinary words of kindness, small acts of consideration, lead to a spirit of generosity which has the power to draw in others, to find quiet routes across the fissures of society, and bring that light ‘with healing on its wings’ which the prophet Malachi speaks of.

We can all incite to anger, or guide to understanding.


Don’t chase happiness; seek to be giving…

May 2021 be a year of healing for everyone who is ill. May it be a year of healing in body and spirit, across society and nations, and between humanity and nature. May it be a year of chesed ve’emet, honesty, integrity, kindness and generosity.

I want to give thanks to everyone who has helped preserve our physical and mental health and sustain our spirit:

Thank you to everyone who has kept in touch with neighbours, turned acquaintances into friends and shared their cares;

Thank you to everyone who has preserved and strengthened community, who, undaunted by tiers and lockdowns, has created ways for us to connect;

Thank you to everyone who has found beauty and wonder in nature and opened our eyes to see it as well;

Thank you to everyone who has brought music and poetry to cheer our spirit;

Thank you to everybody who has found wells of emotional and spiritual strength and helped us find them too;

Thank you to everyone who has kept our conscience alert and our moral horizon wide;

Thank you to everyone who has helped us through their example to live by the values of justice and compassion we profess;

Thank you to everybody who, at personal risk, has served long and challenging shifts in care homes, surgeries, hospitals, ambulances and in public health;

Thank you to everyone who has worked inventively and undauntedly to engage and educate children and young people

Thank you to everyone who has made sure the shops and foodbanks aren’t empty, the recycling and waste is still collected, and letters and parcels are delivered;

Thank you to everyone who has shown chesed, kindness, and chesed shebechesed, kindness within kindness, that special sensitivity which touches the heart;

Thank you to everyone who has, in spite of everything, found ways of keeping positive through bleak days and who has helped us by acknowledging how hard that can be;

Thank you to everyone who has kept a sense of humour.

Yesterday I heard a remarkable address by a grandfather to his granddaughter on her Bat Mitzvah. Don’t chase happiness, he said; like a butterfly, it will always drift away just as you think you are about to grasp it. What happiness you do find will be along the way, in little things and small moments. Rather, seek to be giving. Thank you, then, to everyone who has been and continues to be giving.

In special reflections last night – we haven’t usually marked the secular new year as a community – we drew on the ancient night-time prayers known as Tikkun Rachel and Tikkun Le’ah. They focus on seeking an end to exile and finding new hope. Therefore they speak to us in our mini-exile from our family, friends and familiar places and in our longing to come back together.

They include the beautiful 42nd Psalm

Like a deer longs for pools of water, so my soul longs for you, God…Don’t be downcast, my soul: hope in God…For by day God commands lovingkindness and by night God’s song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

May lovingkindness guide us and God’s song sustain us in the year ahead.


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