I’m a Radio 4 fan, though usually just a casual listener catching parts of programmes while I’m driving along. (Except when Nicola Solomon [my wife] was on Money Box Live) That’s how last Sunday I heard the tail-end of a transmission about food in Birmingham.
Surplus food which would otherwise be wasted is brought to three recently created cafes; the chefs ‘menu on their feet,’ working out instantly what to cook with whatever arrives. There are plans to supplement supplies with grow-your-own vegetables and fruit on raised beds and allotments.
Meals are offered on a pay-as-you-feel basis. ‘I couldn’t afford lunch if it wasn’t for here,’ one frequenter said. ‘It’s company,’ said an older customer, ‘Without here, I’d speak to no-one all day.’
The project is social, environmental, communal; it’s creative, kind and not too complicated; it fights poverty, food-waste, climate change and loneliness. It’s graciously run, but with vision and determination. What more can one ask?
It left me thinking about just one word from the Torah, vehitchazaktem. It translates literally as ‘you [plural] strengthen yourselves’ and loosely as ‘build up each other’s morale’. It’s what Moses tells the spies to do when they pace out the Promised Land. It’s also precisely what they fail at. In fact, they do the exact opposite, dragging each other down.
I also recently learnt from Radio 4 that roughly 12% less people listen to the news these days; it’s too miserable. They don’t want to know. I can’t blame them; I admit, I can only take it in small doses. We need to know what’s happening in the world, especially in our own society. We have a responsibility to be aware. But that doesn’t make it a mitzvah to destroy our morale.
That’s where vehitchazaktem, ‘strengthen yourselves’,comes in. When I began to research the word, I was sure I’d find a creative Hasidic commentary. But I’ve drawn a blank, so I’m on my own.
The meanings of chazak, strong, are not always positive. Pharaoh strengthens and hardens his heart. The Children of Israel, too, have been known to take an obstinate stand against God. Strong can also mean stubborn, which isn’t always a good thing. Openness, flexibility and the readiness to be mistaken are important virtues.
But here vehitchazaktem is definitely positive: ‘strengthen each other’, ‘take a collective can-do approach.’ That’s the attitude we so badly need just now. It’s what I loved about that radio programme: it didn’t only talk about economic crisis, food poverty and climate emergency. It showcased what can be done, and how enjoyable it can be too.
Moses’ spies go in the other direction. They convince each other that they’re useless. ‘We were like insects in our own eyes,’ they say. It’s easy to blame them. But in these difficult times, we also can easily succumb to the feeling that nothing we do will make any difference and that quickly becomes a self-fulfilling truth.
It’s for precisely that reason that it’s so important to draw inspiration from the remarkable initiatives so many people are engaging in, and to go and do likewise.
But is it worth it? Will whatever project we create or join save the world? That’s when we need Rabbi Tarfon’s advice: ‘it’s not your responsibility to complete the work, but that doesn’t leave you free to opt out.’
‘Will it be enough?’ is also not the most helpful question. The real issue is: what good can you and I encourage each other to do together, to the best of our combined abilities? It won’t change the whole world on its own, but who knows who else it might inspire?