Can Anger be Consoling?

Yesterday was the fast of The Ninth of Av, the bleak commemoration of disaster. Tonight begins Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. I wish there was a little more space between these days, because I’m still struggling with the tell-tale signs of a hangover from the fast, backache and tiredness, and need a little longer to shift my thoughts. According to tradition, the morning after, the first half of the tenth of Av, retains a lingering subdued mood because the fires in Jerusalem still raged – as do the fires today across Europe’s forests.

Yet the immediate proximity of these two dates, not rare in the Jewish calendar, has challenged my understanding of what consolation means. We can find solace in wonder. Can we also find it in anger?

Wonder is the theme of this coming Shabbat. Its readings are filled with beauty. Isaiah’s call to consolation is among the most stirring passages in the entire Hebrew Bible. He begins, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people…Speak to the heart of Jerusalem…’ and ends, ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see who created all these, who brought them forth in all their hosts.’

The story is told of a hasid who said to his rabbi: ‘I’ve read thirty-six interpretations of that verse, but it was only when I looked up and saw, really saw, the magnificence of the stars that I understood.’ ‘You must write your explanation down,’ the rabbi insisted. ‘No,’ the hasid replied; ‘that would merely turn it into explanation thirty-seven.’

The world is full of wonder, in skyscapes, landscapes, music and poetry and in the grace of so many human interactions. We need that beauty to restore our soul and enable us to go on living.

But maybe we also need our anger. ‘I’m so furious,’ a friend said to me at the close of yesterday’s prayers. He was referring to the all too frequently heartless treatment of refugees. ‘Indignant’ might be a better term, but it feels too weak to describe the fire in the bones that refuses to let us be passive in the face of cruelty.

Yesterday I came across astonishing lines by the German-speaking poet of the Holocaust, Gershon ben David. He sees himself standing in silent fields, ‘pregnant’ with ashes of the slaughtered:

And I asked myself: am I
The keeper
Of my brother Cain

It’s a startling inversion. In Genesis, God challenges Cain to explain the whereabouts of his brother Abel whom he’s just murdered. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Cain notoriously retorts. But in the poem, it’s not the guilty party who’s challenged about his responsibility toward the innocent, but the innocent brother who’s questioned about his responsibility toward the guilty.

Are we, too, all keepers of those potential Cains who inhabit our world? I’m not thinking of murderers, but of those who exhibit the cruelty, or heedlessness, which seems to come so frequently to the fore across our societies these days? What, too, about the small part of Cain which may be present in ourselves, waiting for us to loosen our guard? Are we responsible towards these ‘brother’ Cains? What might that entail? Can we awaken in them a better self, someone, beneath all appearances, potentially merciful? If not, how can we best challenge and overcome them?

I fear we are indeed the keepers of our brothers Cain, external and internal. To fight them we need the energy of anger; we might call this ‘the anger of compassion’. How otherwise can we confront the destructive forces in our world? The art is not just to challenge them but, if and when possible, to turn them about so that they too become part of the work of nurturing life.

We need the solace of wonder to nourish our heart and spirit, and the energy of indignation to give courage to our conscience so that we join the struggle for what is just and right. In so doing, we gain the consolation of contributing whatever we can towards life and hope.

Why Tisha B’Av Matters

Some people call it Shabbat Katan, the ‘little’ or ‘diminished Shabbat’, but it’s more often known as Shabbat Chazon, ‘the Shabbat of the vision’. It’s not exactly a happy vision, though: Isaiah spells out what a society looks like when it ignores God’s demand for justice. The contemporary relevance of his warning is painfully explored in Noah Yuval Harari’s reflection from last week’s Haaretz (please note, this article is behind a paywall).

Isaiah’s prophecies make a challenging start to the week which includes Tishah B’Av, the 25 hour fast when we read Lamentations and recall the sacking of both temples in Jerusalem, the Crusades, expulsions and pogroms which have marked our fate.

What’s the point of remembering destruction? I don’t think the reason is to create a culture of victimhood, despite the fact that the Jewish People has, over millennia, so often been a victim of hatred, contempt and persecution. Despite this, Judaism has through thick and thin courageously maintained an ethos of responsibility and positive commitment. Therefore I believe the purpose is to look destruction and its horrors in the face and determine to do our utmost not to allow the world to be that way anymore.

I can’t help seeing Lamentations in double-vision. We read: starving children cry out to starving mothers, ‘Where are corn and wine?’ I think of the desolate alleys of a burnt-out Jerusalem where no one has the power to hold back the Babylonian soldiers any longer. Then I see pictures of Yemen, Somalia, and more. We read of the ruin of cities, and I see Mariupol, Bucha, and more.

Where is God amidst all this tragedy and evil? the rabbis asked, and continue to ask, over and again. Why does God let such things happen?

A famous Midrash imagines God summoning the ministering angels. God asks them: ‘What do human sovereigns do when a child of theirs has died?’ The angels answer: ‘They draw down the blinds, tear their garments and sit on the ground and weep.’ ‘Then I’ll shut up the heavens in darkness and do the same,’ says God.

Admittedly, this Midrash doesn’t answer the question of why God allows evil to happen. Instead, it speaks of a God who cries with us in every sorrow and whose tears fall with ours at every act of wanton destruction. It tells of a God who says, ‘It pains me terribly that my world should be like this.’ It depicts a God who suffers alongside humanity, and who therefore hopes and aspires alongside us too. It speaks of a God who says, ‘Let’s change the world, you and I.’

That, to my mind, is the point of remembering destruction: so that we determine to do our utmost for life in whatever field or manner lies within our power; so that we take into our hearts the presence of a God who weeps when life is squandered because God, too, loves life; so that we know and remember that this is what God wants of us most of all.

That’s why we hold that the Messiah is born on Tisha B’Av, and why it is the Sephardi custom to sweep our homes from midday on to make ready for the Messiah’s coming: Tisha B’Av is, strangely and paradoxically, the birthday of hope and determination.

That’s why, despite the fact that feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness often haunt me, I’m going to try to brush out of my spirit those thoughts of ‘can’t!’, ‘why bother?’, and ‘what’s the point?’

It’s why I’m determined to say, including to myself: If you can help one person, do it! If you can plant one tree, do so! If you can make one refugee, whom no one seems to want, feel wanted, do it! If you can let the wild flowers bloom that feed the insects that feed the birds, go and rejoice in them! ‘Kumah! Get up!’ we tell God whenever in our services we return the Torah scroll to the holy ark. I imagine God replying: ‘Yes, but you get up too. Get up, and I’ll get up with you. Care for my world, and I’ll care with you. Nurture one child, just one living thing, and I’ll be there right with you, in your heart and in your hands.’

Click here to listen to Rabbi Jonathan on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on Thursday 20 July.

How we tell our stories

There aren’t many roads in the north of Scotland, which is a good thing, but does have its problems. The going had been fine past Loch Ness, then everything stopped: a tree had fallen a few miles ahead and it would take three hours to clear the carriageway. We weren’t going to reach our destination before Shabbat, and anyway we’d miss the ferry.

‘There’s an alternative route,’ said Nicky, staring at the map, ‘a mere detour of 137 miles.’ We rethought our plans.

What makes a journey into a journey, rather than a set of random directions? Is life itself a journey, or a series of misadventures?

‘These are the journeys of the Children of Israel who left Egypt,’ says the Torah; ‘Moses wrote down where they left and where they were headed, by the mouth of God.’ (Numbers 33:1-2)

Really? Was everything truly God’s intention, including thirty-eight years of wandering in the desert, the frustrations over food and water, the quarrels with Moses and even with the Deity itself? Surely not!

But that’s not what the words mean, noted Nachmanides. ‘By the mouth of God’ refers not to where the people went but to how Moses wrote it all down.

It’s a penetrating comment. Whether we see our life as a God-given journey or a haphazard scramble may be less about what happens and more about how we write it down, how we tell ourselves our story in our head and heart.   

The other night Nicky and I, both exhausted, switched on the television to 24 Hours in A & E. An Afghan gentleman was brought in with dangerous levels of carbon dioxide and weakness in the limbs. The doctors told his weeping children it was probably Motor Neuron Disease.

His daughter spoke of how her father had loved his life as a fruit-picker in Afghanistan. Then came the Russian invasion: war everywhere. Her father went to London, always sending them money and occasionally visiting back home, until he could bring his family to Britain. Here he did menial work, making just enough to give his children a good education.

They kissed their dad as he was taken into intensive care. We are going to make sure he enjoys the rest of his life, they said.

Will they ‘write down his journeyings’ as: ‘He slaved away at miserable jobs far from the countryside he loved, and look what fate has dealt him’? Or will they say: ‘He sacrificed so much because he loved us so deeply. He brought us to safety and gave us a better life’? I’m sure it will be the latter.

And you and me? In what spirit do we tell the story of our life and the lives of those we love? The Talmud says that ‘everything is in the hands of heaven, except the fear of heaven.’ I take this to mean that we cannot necessarily determine what happens to us, but we do have some control over how we understand it.

Few of us are spared episodes at which we look back in sorrow or anger. But there’s all the difference between reviewing our whole life with regret, and reflecting on it in love. Probably we do a bit of both, depending on our mood. Of course, for some people there’s far more about which to feel justly pained. Even so, there are plenty of individuals who view with generous grace what must have been very tough lives.

‘I know I’m loved,’ were the last words of a young man I knew, before he was cut off in mid-life. He saw his hard journey as ‘by the mouth of God.’ Perhaps that’s the meaning of the rabbis’ phrase ‘died by God’s kiss.’

I’m deeply moved by people like that.

The voice of hope and courage

‘Go tell Jerusalem, “I remember the devotion of your youth, the faithful love of your bridal days, following me through an unsown land…” (Jeremiah 2:2) These are some of my favourite words.

In the Bible, they’re what God instructs Jeremiah to tell an imperilled Jerusalem. In my family, they’re the inscription on my grandmother’s grave. My grandfather fell in love with her at a Purim party. They had to wait through most of the First World War before they could marry. They fled Nazi Germany together to a – to them – unknown and unsown land, this England.

Romantic as they sound, the truth behind God’s words to Jeremiah is hard. God is frustrated. Jerusalem is on the brink of destruction, yet the people won’t listen. They put their trust in the wrong things; they refuse to change their ways. It’s scarcely the best time to speak of love.

Yet to God nothing is more important. So why does God do it? How do we? In a world full of reasons for anguish, how do we turn to healing and love?

These are questions which weigh on the soul at this challenging season of the Jewish year, the three weeks beyn hameytsarim, ‘in the straits’, between the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem and the sacking of the city by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Romans in 70 CE. How do we turn destructiveness into creativity and frustration into hope?

I struggle with these issues constantly. Things distress me: how will what’s happening in Israel ever lead to less hatred and more understanding? Things sadden me: tomorrow will be the 500th day of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Things madden me: why is there such heartless injustice? Why does so much money go into things which destroy nature, and so little into restoring it?

But there’s no point, no strength of morale, no leadership in venting such feelings. What, then, is the spiritual formula, the inner alchemy, which turns anguish into action and trepidation into inspiration?

It’s definitely doable. The NHS, seventy-five this week, was established in the wake of the Second World War. It’s our best loved public institution, and deserves to be, for all it’s done and continues to do for tens of millions. Choose Love, which supports thousands of homeless refugees, was created out of the ‘Jungle’ at Calais. The Psalmist’s hope has been vindicated time and again: ‘I lie down at night in tears, but the morning brings joy.’

What nourishes this resilience? The inspiration is all around us. We have only to see what so many people are doing. I get requests all the time: Join our campaign to protect Europe’s wild spaces. Write about free school meals for children whose cupboards at home are bare. Meet Ukrainian environmentalists planning how to rebuild greener. Support our work to bring together women leaders from across Israel’s society, orthodox, secular, Druse, Christian, Muslim. How can one not be moved by what so many good people do, sometimes in private, often in small local groups, but also nationally and internationally against the current, courageously?

As well as looking outwards, it’s also important to travel inwards. We need to go down, not, as can happen, to grey inner spaces, but deeper still, to the well of living waters, the inexhaustible flow of God’s spirit within us. Here at this hidden well, life cleanses the mind, heals the heart and renews the spirit.

Here we encounter the voice which says, ‘Leave anger and frustration. Don’t feel down and don’t give up. Remember that faithful love which has led so many generations through unsown lands. It will surely guide you too.’

It’s a voice we need to hear.

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