‘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.