For Pride shabbat

‘Walk humbly with your God:’ we chose these beautiful words from the prophet Micah for my father’s tombstone. He well deserved them.

Micah’s words, which we read in the synagogue tomorrow, are among the most frequent of tributes to the dead. But what of living by them?

On the one hand it sounds simple, because Micah asks us to live with fairness and loving kindness, an open heart and no pretence.

On the other hand, it’s not simple at all. For how do I know where God is, in order for us to walk together? Maybe I passed God in the street? Maybe I absent-mindedly missed God, just as, absorbed in some distraction, I might fail to notice a friend or overshoot the turning I need?

When Jacob wakes up from his wonderful dream of the ladder reaching to heaven, he says to himself out loud: ‘God is in this place, and I didn’t realise.’

God is often in places, and people, and I haven’t realised.

I’m particularly mindful of such non-recognition, because this Shabbat we are celebrating Pride. Though it took place over thirty years ago, a conversation with a gay friend remains unforgettable. He spoke of his long struggle to accept himself as he truly was, (a struggle which some gay people, subject to crushing overt and covert pressures, have not survived), before concluding:

At last I was able to say, “Blessed are you, God, who made me in your image.”
‘I say it every day,’ he told me; ‘I say it joyfully.’

I believe in a God who enjoys that joy; in a God ‘shehasimchah bime’ono, in whose abode is joy;in a God who is present in each person, who needs us to recognise that presence in every person and who wants us to share their joy.

In trying to walk with God, I fear that most of us often go straight past. Perhaps we need to stop each other more often and say, quietly but firmly, ‘God is in this place.’

To walk humbly is to have a heart receptive both to sorrow and to joy. I often come across the story about the man who drinks a bit too much, then calls out loudly to the person opposite:

‘Hey, you, I’m your friend.’

The punchline is in the reply:

‘If you’re really my friend, tell me where I hurt!’

The story is intended to show the meaning of friendship. It does so, but inadequately. What’s missing is the other side of companionship:

‘And if you’re really, truly my friend, tell me also what makes me happy.’

In any community, a precondition for any person to feel comfortable, let alone happy, is to be included, appreciated, celebrated and offered a voice as who they are, both in sorrow and in happiness. According to a famous Mishnah, everyone needs to be able to say ‘For my sake the world was created.’ (Sanhedrin 4:5) If that is God’s will, how can it not be ours too?

I was going to write that I’m proud to celebrate Pride. But ‘proud’ is not the right word. I’d rather be humble in celebrating Pride. For the more we recognise the presence of God in each other and walk together, the better the world will be for us all and only by so doing can we follow Micah’s teaching

To do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)

The Hand of Humanity

In the Epilogue to his remarkable personal testament When they Came For Me, The Hidden Diary of an Apartheid Prisoner, John Schlapobersky writes

I have learnt to harvest the gifts of adversity from my own experience…

The sentence went straight to my heart.

It reminded me of Edgar’s words in Shakespeare’s King Lear when, disguised as a bedlam beggar, he leads his own father to Dover. Blinded, and ignorant that the peasant guiding him is in fact his own son, the old man asks, ‘Now, good sir, what are you?’ Edgar’s answer is unforgettable:

A most poor man, made tame to Fortune’s blows,
Who, by the art of known and feeling sorrows,
Am pregnant to good pity.  (Act IV, Scene VI)

Edgar’s next words are ‘Give me your hand.’

After suffering torture in prison followed by expulsion from South Africa, John Schlapobersky trained as a therapist in Britain. Together with Helen Bamber he was instrumental in establishing The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture(renamed Freedom from Torture). One of the many profoundly traumatized refugees he helped during decades of work there said to him at the close of a year of treatment:

Yours is the hand of humanity that has reached out to save me from drowning in my own sorrow.

We do not face equal difficulties during our lifetimes. The world is unjust and full of cruelty. As a family friend who’d served as a medic in the British Army in India used to tell me when I was small: ‘I saw terrible things, Johnny-boy. Suffering is not distributed equally in this world.’

But none of us are untouched by any troubles; at some point we all must struggle with challenges from without and mental turmoil from within. Can we too turn our learning into ‘good pity’ and hold out ‘the hand of humanity’? Can we, when we need it, find the help and friendship which will one day enable us to befriend and help others? Perhaps that’s what being human truly means.

This is Refugee Week. Lord Dubs sent the following tweet; my mother, ten years older when she came here, would say the same:

I am a refugee. When I was six, the UK saved my life and gave me a home and hope. My plea is for the UK to live up to its proud humanitarian tradition by giving hope to the refugee children of today.

The hand reached out to us may become the hand we reach out to others. Further, one day theirs may become the hand which reaches back to us.

Yesterday, I overheard two people discussing the words (from Proverbs) on our synagogue’s foundation stone: olam chesed yibaneh, which we translated as ‘the world is build on loving kindness.’ They were questioning whether this was an accurate rendition. It struck me that what we had written was correct, but incomplete. The verse is a declaration of hope: ‘The world should and shall be built upon loving kindness.’

A much-quoted passage from the Mishnah teaches that every life is equivalent to an entire world, therefore every person should be able to say: ‘For my sake the world was created.’ (Sanhedrin 4:5)

Loving kindness is more than presence in adversity. It means enabling one another to feel that the world has a place for each of us, so that we can look out at life with wonder and look forward with joy.

Another refugee helped by John Schlapobersky spoke afterwards about the group therapy which had formed such a critical part of his journey towards healing. He compared it to being put in a washing machine into which the therapists climb too:

We come out each week cleaned by talking and listening so we can go home safely, love our families and give thanks to God.








To the leaders of the G7

Something has been haunting me this dawn. It’s connected to the G7, but it’s not about politics.

So that you remember:’ I woke with these words searching my head like torchlights. But what were they looking for? ‘Remember!’ Remember what? It was like one of those discomfiting moments when you can’t recall a familiar name; you know that you know it, but it remains obstinately irretrievable behind a barrier of unforthcoming brain cells.

Except that it wasn’t a name I was after. It was a spirit, an awareness, that sense ‘of something far more deeply interfused’ of which Wordsworth writes, which sometimes visits the soul in the pre-dawn, holding a hushed conversation in semi-comprehensible associations, like a friend from the old days who turns up unpredictably from nowhere, mysterious but benign, then vanishes.

Lema’an tizkeru – So that you remember:’ the words come from the Torah and form the core of the third part of the Shema, Judaism’s twice daily meditation:

So that you remember and do my commandments; then you shall be holy to your God. (Bemidbar 15:40)

Usually, it’s something specific we’re told to remember, an event or a date. But this ‘remember’ has no object, as if to say ‘remember everything’ – and the purpose beyond everything. This thought reminds me of how a person I scarcely knew once turned to me as I stood watching the river in Cambridge forty years ago: ‘Never forget why you’re here in this world,’ he said. ‘Don’t ever forget that you belong to something higher which you have to serve.’ His words stuck in my soul.

I’m one of a group of religious leaders who were invited to offer a short video message at last night’s multi-faith service in Truro Cathedral for the leaders of the G7. I don’t know if they actually attended, but our instruction was to talk values to power, to speak climate justice, vaccine justice and our duties to the destitute.

We were asked to give voice to a call to awareness, beyond machination and advantage, self-interest and the need for profit; to bring to mind that spirit, sacred and universal, to which all power owes allegiance.

Each faith addresses it in a unique manner, but it is ultimately one. Even God is only a name, a word in human language, for that oneness, all-present and all-pervading, manifest in everything, yet hidden in everything, to which we are summoned to devote our service and allegiance.

Bringing it to mind is not sufficient. We have to act on what it tells us to do. ‘Va’asitem et kol mitzvotai – then do my commandments,’ the Torah continues. The voice which speaks in private to the heart is at the same time the most powerful, unremitting, non-negotiable demand for action: do justice; be compassionate; discipline yourself; know your responsibilities; align yourself with creation.

The world looks intently to those in power, as it will again at COP 26, to exercise their influence humbly but urgently, according to the demands of sacred wisdom.

Ve’heyitem kedoshim – then you shall be holy to your God,’ the Torah concludes. God is called Chei HaChaim, the life of life, the life force within all existence.

We can quash individual lives, human or animal, but we can never crush that life within life. If, on the contrary, we conduct ourselves and the affairs of our communities and countries in harmony with it, it will guide us, strengthen us, partner with us, and bring us and the world its blessings.

We touch each other’s lives – for injury or blessing?

It was a beautiful place, out near Denham, northwest of London. We stood beneath a canopy of copper leaves, with wildflowers and rhododendrons. It was exactly the kind of ‘melodious plot / Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,’ imagined by Keats in his Ode to a Nightingale, where the birds sing ‘of summer in full-throated ease.’ The group standing around me began a chorus of All Things Bright and Beautiful.

‘Plot’ was sadly the right word, for this was a funeral. I’ve rarely conducted a burial service for a person who wasn’t Jewish. But the woman, who’d died comparatively young, had been married to Graham, a charming man who used to attend my Talmud class and who’d been laid to rest in this same woodland cemetery a decade earlier. The family had traced me, and now we stood together, a small group around the grave, touched by our shared humanity and mortality, and by a quiet sense of partnership with all this life around us. We sang; the birds sang. ‘The Lord God made them all:’ it was at once beautiful and humbling.

We touch each other’s lives all the time, but often don’t know to what effect. Thank goodness, ten years ago I’d evidently not said the wrong thing, inadvertently alienating this family. But I also have moments I look back on with shame: why did I say that? We don’t always know whom we hurt and can’t always make amends. I remember hurrying into a bookshop where another customer asked me for a recommendation. I muttered something about being in a rush. Afterwards, recognising I’d been rude, I went back to apologise, but the person had gone and I’d no idea who it was.

Some lives we touch directly; others we affect remotely, since how we live here impacts on basic realities for people on the other side of the world. Distance doesn’t mean zero responsibility.

Nor is it only human life with which we interact. I often think of Thomas Hardy’s poem Afterwards. He imagines people thinking of him ‘when the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn’ and remembering how ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm.’ How I wish we could strive more effectively for all life to come to no harm, because all life matters, and, albeit in different ways, one spirit flows through us all.

Tomorrow, June 5, is World Environment Day, ‘the United Nations’ principal vehicle for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of the environment’. Looking online, I find Together We Can Be #Generationrestoration.

This media-age twitter-handle paradoxically takes me back to the oldest scene in the Torah, when God entrusts Adam and Eve with the wellbeing of creation. It recalls the rabbis’ explanation of God’s instruction to Abraham to be a blessing:

‘Until now the blessings were in my hands,’ says God; ‘from now on they’re in yours.’

Listening to All Things Bright and Beautiful, sung by a diverse group of people almost all of whom I’d never met before, brought together by the woman we’d laid to rest in this woodland full of life, reminded me of this great trust.

‘The capacity to bless life is in everybody,’ wrote Rachel Remen in My Grandfather’s Blessings:

When we recognise the spark of God in others, we blow on it with our attention and strengthen it, no matter how deeply it has been buried or for how long. When we bless someone, we touch the unborn goodness in them and wish it well.

Each of our lives, and all life, needs that blessing.

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