December 1, 2023 admin

For Eco Shabbat: between shame and compassion

This is Eco Shabbat, timed to coincide with COP 28.

I don’t love the name ‘Eco’, apt as it is. I’d rather describe the day in spiritual terms: the Shabbat dedicated to reverence before the beauty of creation, the subtle and wondrous interconnectedness of all life; the Shabbat in which we determine to honour and protect it.    

Yet I’m struggling with a feeling I hesitate to name, a deep sense of shame.

This is due, partly, to the war between Israel and Hamas. But the causes lie wider.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. This is in no way, heaven forbid, shame at being Jewish. I joined the rally against antisemitism last Sunday, profoundly moved by the historic companionship of tens of thousands proud of our identity. No, I reverence our millennial tradition of devotion to God and Torah which demands of us everything. I know myself an unworthy heir to its depth and wisdom.

It’s not shame for my strong connection to Israel, my bonds with precious friends and colleagues there, my prayers for those confronting Hamas, my joy at the release of tens of hostages and my hopes, and fears, for those still left in the tunnels of Hamas.

Nor is it shame that I listen with sorrow to the distress and desperation, anger and tears, of families of Palestinian civilians caught in the horrors of Gaza, or pursued by settlers on the West Bank who profane the name of God and Judaism.

No; it’s more than that. Sometimes I’m simply ashamed of being a human.

It’s the shame described by Dante when, overcome in the presence of his beloved Beatrice, he lowers his gaze and, seeing his own reflection in the waters of a stream, looks instantly away ‘filled with shame unspeakable.’

It’s akin, despite the utterly different circumstances, to the shame Primo Levi perceives in the faces of the first Russian horsemen when they come into sight of Auschwitz-Buna in January 1945, the shame ‘a just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.’ (The Truce, p. 188)

I keep thinking of the unanswerable Biblical question, Eichah? How? Why? How has humanity descended into such destruction? Where are those evil ideologies conceived that long to hurt and kill? How have we reached the state where, across the globe, homes, cities and landscapes are laid waste? Why are we ruining our sweet air and beneficent earth? Why do we continue to do so, when we know the price our grandchildren will pay for our actions?

All this, which daily confronts us, fills me with shame. How can humanity look itself in the face? If God were a person, God would be tearing out so much hair that the Godhead had none left.

Yet maybe something else, something better, can emerge from the pain.

I joined a vigil for the children of Israel and Gaza in St James’ Church, Piccadilly. Every quarter of an hour, a participant from a different faith spoke for just two minutes. The rest was silence.

In that rich quiet, I felt once more the compelling power of pity. In that heart-space of grief, wordlessly there grew a resolute, implacable commitment to compassion, to caring for life more fiercely than before, for this vulnerable world, its tenderness, beauty and wonder, its undressed wounds and inconsolable sorrows. We must lay it upon our hearts that, despite everything, humanity is commanded, ceaselessly and irrevocably, by compassion

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