The other morning Babushka – we all call her that though her actual name is Galina – came down crying. I didn’t need Russian to know she was telling me her home town of Kharkiv had been bombed that night.
Tomorrow is the 17th of Tammuz, the fast which begins the three weeks of beyn hametsarim, ‘between the troubles,’ culminating in the 25-hour fast of Tishah B’Av, the Ninth of Av. (Because it’s Shabbat, the fast is deferred to Sunday).
The 17th Tammuz commemorates the breech in the walls of Jerusalem; Tishah B’Av marks the sacking of the city and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and again by the Romans in 70 CE. Into this bleak period are added memorials to the crusades, blood libels, expulsions, persecutions and executions from which Jewish communities have suffered through two millennia.
Sometimes I struggle to comprehend why, when there’s so much destructiveness in today’s world, we need a special period of time to think about it. It feels enough just to listen to the news.
Part of the answer is that we must remember our history, the wars and struggles faced by our ancestors. This reminds us that, despite all our concerns, we live in fortunate times and privileged parts of the world. Probably never in history have so many of us had so much freedom.
But behind this lies a deeper reason. Recalling the horrors people have suffered makes us value the most basic things, life, safety, shelter, food, what it means to be able to walk in the street without fear for our lives. It teaches us to protect these freedoms, to oppose destructiveness in any and all of its manifestations and to place ourselves on the side of creation, proactively, determinedly and always.
Before I write one word more, I have to admit that sometimes during prayers what I really want to do is cover my face and weep before God. What’s being done to this beautiful world in which life is such a blessing is sometimes so wicked, often so careless, and more often still the undesired but nevertheless clear consequence of the way we live, that my heart aches, my head hurts and I have to swallow down despair.
But that is not the way.
Tomorrow’s Torah tells how Balaam, the hapless seer whose ass could out-see him, nevertheless managed, with some assistance from heaven, to turn his curses into blessings. That’s the challenge: whether the stresses and dangers which threaten our world can draw out of us the creativity and determination to find new ways of blessing.
Ma’alin bakodesh, teaches the Talmud: in matters of holiness we go not down, but up. I take this to mean that we must always be on the side of life to cherish it and appreciate its holiness. I see people doing just that all around me, and that’s what keeps me going.
Here’s an unexpected example: owls. ‘Small bird, large impact’ runs the headline in the Jerusalem Post. Instead of spreading toxic poisons to kill off crop-destroying rodents, across Israel farmers are now placing nesting boxes. The barn owls arrive and feast off the rats and voles, restoring nature’s balance chemical free. But it’s not just about animals; the scheme has brought co-operation between Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and beyond.
Here’s a different, humans-only example. I wish I could speak to those people in Birmingham I mentioned weeks back, who created the ‘pay as you feel’ cafes from food rescued from being wasted, supplemented from community allotments, cooked by chefs who think menus on their feet and catering for many who’d otherwise have little to eat.
In Rebbe Nachman’s great tale The Seven Beggars, my favourite is the figure who goes around daily collecting deeds of kindness to give to the world’s heart so that it can sing to the spring which gives life to the world for one further day.