October 9, 2015 admin

A single syllable

William Blake wrote of seeing ‘the world in a grain of sand’; the rabbis of the Talmud sometimes saw it in a single syllable.

A fine example is the letter Heh in the last word of the opening chapter of the Hebrew Bible, the beautiful account of the six days of creation. Why, when the previous five days are simply called ‘day three’ or ‘day four’, does the Torah say of the date on which human beings were made ‘hashishi – thesixth day’? Why this sudden addition of the definite article when it would have sufficed to say ‘day six’? Is there somewhere a specific ‘sixth day’ to which the text might be alluding? There is indeed, and there’s only one option, just one other ‘sixth day’ of importance: the sixth of the Hebrew month of Sivan, when the Torah was given at Sinai.

It’s interesting that it’s the third century rabbi Resh Lakish who makes this observation. Formerly a gladiator or circus performer at the beck and call of the Romans, he’s now a teacher of Torah. He explains: ‘The Holy One made a condition with all the works of the creation: “If Israel accepts the Torah, you will survive. If not, I’ll return the world to chaos.”’

Put in universal terms this means: ‘If humankind agrees to be governed by basic moral laws, the world will survive. If not, chaos and destruction will ensue.’ Pre-eminent among those laws are ‘You shall not kill’, and ‘You shall not steal’.

Resh Lakish’s perceptive homily on a single letter is a brilliant way of expressing a self-evident truth. It also captures the precise point at which we find ourselves as a civilisation and a planet.

The world is beautiful beyond description. Nicky and I once stood looking out over the autumn forests above Pitlochry, where the lowlands meet the highlands in Scotland. A man passing by called out to us, ‘I’ve travelled the world and seen sights as beautiful, but nothing more beautiful than this’.

Yet we kill each other, sell each other the means to kill (the more efficiently the better), allow each other to starve, exploit tracts of land and sea which don’t belong to us, and rob and rape the very earth without respect for its need for replenishment and rest.

It is not hard to hear, in our fellow human beings, in the lives of animalsand birds, in the destiny of forests and seas, even in the meadows and streams, the voice of the law which calls for respect, restraint and compassion. We know, if we do not heed it, what must ensue.

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