Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
I’d never thought I’d find William Blake’s famous lines so sustaining. But with the marathon in the holy city cancelled, I plan to run my 42.2 kilometres here and think myself in Jerusalem. (After all, Israel Guide Dogs and Peace of Mind still need the funds I hope to raise in order to offer the amazing help they provide.)
Lots of us have had to cancel travel plans. It’s a minor inconvenience compared to what those who are really struggling with Coronavirus are going through, especially those whose lives or livelihoods are threatened. We pray for healing for those who have the illness. We wish strength, courage, good judgement and inspiration to everyone working in health care, public health planning, and on the basic infrastructures of food, water and medical supplies in countries across the globe.
Please follow the advice we have issued to our community. We are trying to find the right balance of sound guidance based on the best medical advice, so that we avoid negligence on the one hand and panic on the other.
On a spiritual level, the virus is forcing many of us to rethink. It’s taking us back to the limitations of earlier ages when one could not assume freedom of movement, ease of travel or (relative) safety from infection. A few injections, we’ve assumed, and we can go almost anywhere in the world.
This week is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of ‘Remember.’ Before Purim, we recall the evils which Haman’s ancestors, the Amalekites, perpetrated against the Children of Israel.
But Zachor, ‘remember’, ‘be mindful’, has a far wider resonance in Judaism and I’m wondering if this can help us in our present situation.
Every day we are called upon to be mindful of creation, zecher lema’aseh bereshit. With my plans of going here, there and to lots of places, I often fail to notice where I am. ‘Did you see that amazing tree?’ my wife may ask me. ‘What tree?’ I am liable to answer.
Few of us will find it easy if we should be restricted in our movements or even quarantined, voluntarily or otherwise. But perhaps for at least some of the time, we can make this an inner opportunity to revisit in our thoughts, or online, places we have seen, a view we cherish, a leaf or flower we enjoy. It’s never too late to value the experience with which life has privileged us. I’m drawn to people who speak with grace about even the so-called little things, a poem, a view, a conversation with a friend.
The author of Psalm 8 asks ‘What is a human being, that you [God] should be mindful of him or her?’ It’s a question to put to ourselves. I rush past so many people and, though I try, am attentive to so few. Now, when we are more vulnerable, we can perhaps think of our neighbours, anyone who might appreciate a call, a small kindness in a time of anxiety. We might value it for ourselves, reconsider how deeply such ordinary words and actions matter.
Mindfulness applies to our own lives too. With more stillness, can I hear myself breathe, listen to my own spirit, ponder and re-evaluate the meaning of this gift of life? Can reading, poetry, Jewish teaching, ancient wisdom, music, a true conversation, help me?
Every day, too, we are told in our prayers to remember the Exodus from Egypt. It’s a call to respect human dignity, – in every human being. Don’t degrade; don’t misuse; don’t make anyone feel like a slave. Don’t garner every stalk of grain, don’t go over your fruit trees for a second picking, we are told in Deuteronomy. Leave enough for the poor. It’s a constant recall to the understanding that, whatever our status, we belong to one humanity, one natural world.
The swift and frightening travel of the Coronavirus is an uncomfortable, but hopefully passing, reminder of this interdependence. However, the question of what we do to our world and how we leave it for each other and the future is far deeper and more ancient. How can we be faithful trustees of human life? Of all life? It’s the issue at the top of the international, trans-cultural agenda: a call, not to despair, but to consider how we can change our habits and what we can give.
I hope that, through these anxious times, we can support each other and perhaps even help make them, in part at least, an opportunity to deepen our own lives, our commitment to others and our care for the world.