For Pride Shabbat

This is Pride Month and we’re celebrating Pride Shabbat. This is a profoundly religious matter, going to the essence of what God wants of us.

I don’t believe in a God who is cruel and closed. On the contrary, I believe in a God who says to us over and again, in every encounter with each other and with life, ‘Open your heart.’

Therefore, our holy places must be open-hearted too, from the most public, our houses of prayer, to the most intimate, our souls, because all life is sacred and God’s presence dwells within us all.

A comment by Rashi sticks in my mind. Appealing for help in finding a leader for the next generation, Moses calls on ‘the God of the spirits of all flesh,’ a phrase used only twice in the entire Torah. (Bemidbar 27: 16) Rashi explains this choice of language:

The thoughts and feelings of each human being are revealed and known to you, God, and they are all different. Appoint a leader who will bear with every person according to their particular thoughts and feelings.

The words ‘bear with’ probably reflect Moses’ weariness after forty years putting up with everybody’s foibles and frustrations. I would prefer terms like ‘listens to’, ‘appreciates’ and ‘cherishes’.

Yet this is what a LGBT+ friend just wrote to me:

Hate crimes are rising. Many of us have been shouted at in the streets, me included. Some have suffered physical violence. Trans people experience deep hurt and discomfort in our congregations and wider societal spaces. They are often without support networks due to families turning them away.

Stonewall stresses that every LGBTQ person should feel ‘safe, respected, recognised and protected in law.’…Yet ‘with every day that passes, we feel a little less safe going about our lives.’

A populist wind has blown across the world eroding tolerance and the celebration of diversities. An Israeli woman told me she now fears regularly for her safety.

A tragic consequence can be the internalisation of feelings of rejection. Stonewall is currently focussed on seeing through proposed legislation banning so-called conversion therapy. The very premise implies that people must be wrong about who they feel themselves to be. Mind notes that those undergoing such “treatment” are ‘75% more likely to plan to attempt suicide.’ A gay friend told me it took him years to accept himself fully and say the daily thanksgiving blessing for being ‘made according to God’s will.’

Religion should be the most generous and inclusive social force but has sadly often proved bigoted and cruel. Armed with powerful ancient texts, which need to be carefully re-evaluated, God is deployed against all kinds of difference: in religion, ethnicity and gender orientation.

But I believe what God seeks is not contraction but expansion of the heart. This is the very essence of what God wants from us, irrespective of our gender identity: to live with integrity, justice and generosity, faithful to God’s presence in all life.

The Talmud records how Rabbi Beroka Hoza’a meets Elijah in the marketplace of Lefet and asks him, ‘Is there anyone here worthy of the world to come?’ The prophet points to a man who, of all professions, proves to be a jailer. ‘What do you do that’s so special?’ the rabbi enquires. He explains that he protects his inmates from sexual abuse and reports threats of racist attacks to the communal authorities. (Talmud, Ta’anit 22a)

God wants us not only to protect, but to listen to, support and cherish each other, so that we can create a world of safety, trust and togetherness.

For Refugee Week: God sees the tears of the oppressed

While Nicky’s not been well, I’ve slept in our spare room, where we’ve often hosted guests through the excellent organisation Refugees at Home. This is Refugee Week, and Tuesday was World Refugee Day.

I found a small note in that spare room last night. It was post-it size, stuck to the bedside bookshelf so that you could only see it with your head on the pillow.

It read as follows. On top was written in large letters simply: ‘A…’ (I won’t give his name). Underneath was ‘with love from Nicky & Jonathan & Libbi & Mossy & Kadya & Nessie.’ I guess A… cut it out from a birthday card we must have given him, I really don’t know…

A… has moved on now, to face a world which may or may not want him, where employers may help him, but may well also exploit him, where there may or may not be the apprenticeship as an electrician for which he’s been searching. (If you have any leads, please, please, tell me!)

Several times he said to us in the months that he was here: ‘Before I had no-one; now I have you.’ Our dog Nessie adores him.

I looked at the note and felt affection and appreciation, but also, and in greater measure, sadness and shame.

Many of our parents or grandparents, many of our great rabbis, were refugees. They knew from bitter experience what the Torah calls nefesh hager, ‘the soul of the stranger’.

Nachmanides, Moses son of Nachman (1194 – 1270), had to flee his native Girona; he would never see his beloved family again. Commenting on the Torah’s words ‘You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers…,’ he wrote:

I, God, see the tears of the oppressed who have no one to comfort them and power lies in the hands of their oppressors, and I protect every human being from the hands of those stronger than them. Similarly, [the Torah says] ‘you shall not afflict the widow or orphan,’ for I hear their cry. For all these people do not trust in themselves but put their trust in Me…[because] every stranger feels low and vulnerable… (comment to Exodus 22:20)

God protects the vulnerable! If only that were true!

Yet it is true, in an indirect, attenuated, broken way. It is to the small spark of God in us, the infinitesimal part within us all of the Infinite, Compassionate One, who desires that all life be nurtured and loved, that every refugee, everyone person who feels lost, everyone who feels helpless before the roar of life’s ceaseless, merciless traffic, looks.

The whole purpose of religion is to expand that spark of God in us, so that it fills our consciousness and directs our actions. Few prayers, if any, are more important than the simple words said three times every day: ‘Petach libbi beToratecha, God, may Your Torah, Your teaching, open my heart.’

The purpose of a religious community, whether synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, temple, or church, is to nurture through our religious practice and spiritual teaching a counterculture of compassion, understanding and welcome, in the face of the cruelty of so much of the world, the randomness of chance and the constant injustice and oppression caused by human actions.

We all inevitably give hurt, however much we determine to do so as little as possible. The essential question is: what can I do with my life to bring healing and compassion?

Keeping Up One’s Morale

I try to find ways of keeping up energy and hope. One has to, otherwise it’s all overwhelming.

‘Speak up!’ people say to me, over and again:

–          It’s Refugee Week starting Monday: refugees are people like us, yet they’re people nobody seems to want.

–          It’s Pride Month, this essential, all-embracing affirmation and celebration of the equality, dignity and unique value of every human being.

–          It’s Clean Air Day: our cities need not particles and nitrogen dioxide but life-giving, God-given air.

–          It’s No Child Left Behind week from the 24th. In Britain up to one mother in four skips meals in order to feed her children: how can they learn at school when their heads ache with hunger?

–          It’s London Climate Action Week at the end of June, please care! I do; I love our suffering, on-edge world of nature, love it in leaf, bird and secretive deer. And we all depend on it utterly.

Sometimes it feels so much that an awful line goes through my head: How do we get the world off death row?

So there are three things I do, if I can. I’m setting them down sequentially, but there’s no correct order.

First, I try to travel inwards to my personal Hebron. When, as we read in the Torah this week, Caleb was sent to spy out the Promised Land, he needed help to keep up his courage. The rabbis tell us that he took a detour to Hebron to pray at the graves of the ancestors. He said to them: this is hard and there’s great discouragement, so help me stay strong.

My inner Hebron holds not the graves of my grandfather and father, but their photographs. I look at them often during prayers, or see them in my mind’s eye. I say to them: you stood firm despite the Nazis and the wars. Be with me; give me strength. I sense them looking back at me, willing me courage.

I believe we all have our inner Hebron. I often ask people in their days of pain and trouble if they manage to visit it often enough.

Secondly, I team up with others who care. Last Wednesday, for example, I simply had to see my friend the bishop. I’ve several bishop friends, but I mean Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski, the leader of the Ukrainian community of displaced persons here in Britain.

We were glad to see each other. We had similar feelings in our hearts: outrage, inexpressible sorrow for the people, nature, future, ruined by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam. I called a congregant whose family live in Kherson. She emailed back: Our beautiful, beautiful land…

The bishop and I had the same question in our minds: what can one do? It’s a bad metaphor in the circumstances, we agreed, but if all one can achieve is a drop in the bucket, that, nevertheless, is what one has to do.

In situation after situation, focussing on that drop in the bucket becomes one’s strength, one’s grit and hope. Sometimes it even turns out that there are so many others doing what they can that the bucket is almost full. But even if that’s not the case, the solidarity, commitment, and sense of purpose one feels restores the muscles and the soul.

Thirdly, I look out at the beauty of the world. I‘ll never forget how once, very late, walking through Noam, our youth camp, I overheard a small choir rehearsing ‘It’s a wonderful world.’ Their voices carried far out into the night, bringing joy into the darkness.

I’ve set these matters down not because I need to tell others, but because, like many others, I need to tell them over and again to myself.

Caring for those who are not well

There are two wonderful books by Christie Watson about the values which underlie nursing: The Language of Kindness and The Courage to Care.Both are about the joys and challenges, the humanity and compassion, central to nursing.

In The Courage to Care Christie considers the many settings in which nurses operate, from hospitals to the military. ‘These,’ she writes about Learning Disability Nurses, ‘are the nurses working in the field of human essence.’ Maybe all medical staff work there too. In fact, in one way or another the focus of all our work, indeed of our lives, is this ‘field of human essence.’

It’s for that essence, for her sister Miriam’s very survival, that Moses pleads in those five words which to this day form the core of all our prayers for those who are ill: ‘God, please, heal her, please.’ ‘No one ever prayed more briefly,’ the Talmud notes. There was no need for more; those five heartfelt words say it all.

The daily morning service reminds us that visiting people who are ill is a mitzvah, a commandment which has no limit. But prayer is only one aspect of it. Practical help is at least as important: ‘I’ve dropped round some soup;’ ‘I’ll take you to your hospital appointment.’ It’s best to be specific. Generalities like, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ usually elicit a polite, slightly bewildered, ‘I can’t think of anything, thank you.’

Probably the most important thing we have to offer is our presence. The Talmud advises visitors not to sit on a chair or stool. This is because in those times the person who’s ill would probably be lying on the floor. Since ‘God’s presence rests above the pillow of the sick,’ we shouldn’t place ourselves higher than God. I understand this as a way of telling us not to hover above the bed when we go to see someone who is ill, but to sit next to them, on the level, and be truly present. Such companionship, notes the Talmud, tales away a sixtieth of the illness. In other words, it makes a difference.

There’s another meaning to ‘being on the level’: we open ourselves, if only briefly, to the truth that we too are mortal, that we’re not immune, that not just breaks and bruises but cancer, a stroke, heart problems or dementia may one day become our portion. It’s humbling. It may be why we sometimes find it difficult to visit. I’ve heard relatives say, ‘Some people have been amazing; others, once firm friends, have disappeared.’ This hurts. We must aspire to being faithful friends, in all situations. Part of the art of being human is to let the awareness of our mortality deepen not our fear but our chesed, our compassion.

Being ill is often a lonely experience. Even if not physically, we’re mentally and spiritually alone, in the sometimes bleak and anxious domain of our thoughts. Carers, too, may often feel quite isolated, especially if the responsibility falls overwhelmingly on just one family member. Carers can’t simply go out; neither their space nor their time is at their disposal. I’ll never forget the words of a woman who’d been married for sixty years: ‘For half a century I was his wife; now that he’s got Alzheimer’s, I’ve had to become his mother.’

An especially kind member of our community recently spoke to me about why people sometimes fail to visit when an old friend develops some horrible illness. ‘It’s not that they don’t care,’ he said, ‘It’s that they’re afraid.’ We may fear we’ll be expected to stay for a long time, that we won’t know what to say, that the person we’re visiting is no longer as we once knew them, that if we visited once we’ll be expected to come again and it’ll be a commitment…

In truth, visits, whether in hospital or at home, needn’t be long. Fifteen minutes can be good; long stays may in fact be inconvenient. We don’t need great things to say; such words probably don’t exist anyway. We have to be there, listen, give companionship, share memories… Our visit may be important mainly because it gives moral support to the partner and carer, some moments of solidarity and respite.

It’s true, visiting may become a commitment. We may not be able to go often, but coming when we can really matters. And what greater commitment can we have in life than to the humanity of others and, ultimately, ourselves.

Blessing: the wonder and oneness of life

Dod Werner, Uncle Werner, as everyone called him, has not been alive for many years now. I believe he made it to 102. Whenever I was in Jerusalem, I would visit him and ask him to bless me. I don’t entirely know why, since he wasn’t actually my uncle, but that of a friend and colleague. It was something about him, his wisdom, his presence.

Dod Werner wasn’t a cohen, a priest, to whom as we read tomorrow, the Torah entrusts the privilege of bestowing the blessing beloved of people of all faiths:

May God bless you and keep you.

May God’s face shine upon you and give you grace.

May God’s face be turned toward you and grant you peace.

But there’s something greater than saying a blessing. It’s what God tells Abraham: ‘heyeh berachah, be a blessing.’ A much-quoted Midrash has God say to him: ‘until now the blessings were in my hands, henceforth they are in yours.’ Since Abraham is ‘the father of many nations’ this instruction is the prerogative of all humanity. More than that: it’s a commandment; it’s what we are here for, it’s life’s purpose.

According to the Shulchan Aruch, the sixteenth century definitive code of Jewish law, we should say at least one hundred blessings every day: ‘Bless you for opening the eyes of the blind, for clothing the naked, for enabling people to walk…’ It’s hard to avoid reciting them by rote.

But they remain a bulwark against taking life for granted. And suddenly, when one’s back goes and one can hardly walk, one realises that nothing should be taken as given. The Talmud recounts how two rabbis pay their respects to a blind scholar in a village through which they happen to be passing. Moved by their kindness, the man thanks them, saying: ‘May the One who sees but cannot be seen bless you who visited one who can be seen but cannot see.’ There’s grace and gratitude in those words.

But blessing is more than words, more even, writes Rachel Remen in her wonderful book My Grandfather’s Blessings, than ‘something that one person gives another.’ When we bless, we ‘touch the unborn goodness’ in each other: ‘A blessing is a moment of meeting…in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth.’

Last Tuesday night, unable to sleep, I read Adam Kirsch’s ‘Can humans ever understand how animals think?’ Then I dreamt of how important it is to bless and feel blessed not just by humans, but by animals too. When the time comes, I’d like to spend some of my old age in their company, humbled, simplified, blessed by their presence.

Looking deeper at God’s instruction to Abraham, heyeh berachah, I realise that heyeh is composed of three of the letters in God’s name, Yod Heh Vav Heh, letters which also form havayah, the Hebrew word for ‘being’. When we bless truly, God is present, the being at the heart of all being. In blessing, life touches life in a moment of togetherness deeper than all the accidents, differences and injuries of this world.

The mystics relate berachah, blessing, with berechah, pool, the hidden reservoir from which life flows down through all existence. We cannot bless while we harbour arrogance or anger. Life won’t flow through us then.

Blessing is a moment of trust and entrusting, of fidelity and companionship with life. Words of blessing are important; we need to tell people how much we cherish and care for them. But blessing at its deepest has no words. It is known in the heart: a silent shared acknowledgement of the wonder and oneness of life.

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