My mood is summed up in a scene from fifteen years ago, when we were in the far north of Israel at the Hullah nature reserve. Before or since, I’ve never seen so many amazing birds. A tall, strong man was holding in his hands the tiniest of feathered creatures and putting a ring round its leg with deft gentleness. This would help ornithologists understand the bird’s flightpath and do more to protect the dangerous route of its annual migration.
So many people in today’s world hold onto power so hard that the harshness travels down their veins and ends up hardening their heart. If only we could treat life with that gentle dexterity yet firmness of purpose, with that dedication to healing and nurture, which that tall man epitomised all those years ago.
That’s why my heart is set on next Sunday afternoon and the weeks and Sabbaths which follow. I realise this shouldn’t be so. First comes this next Shabbat tomorrow, Shabbat Chazon, with Isaiah’s dire vision of the decadence and moral decay of Jerusalem. Then follows the night of the bleak fast of Tisha B’Av, recalling the destruction of the city. Sunday morning brings the liturgy of banishment, from England, France and Spain, and the bitter elegies after the destruction of the Jewish communities of the Rhineland by the Crusaders.
But my spirit is focussed on what comes after devastation, on what lies deeper than destruction: the longing to comfort, protect and recreate. For on Sunday afternoon, even in the middle of the fast day, the mood changes: the hour of consolation begins. ‘Nacheim, Comfort Jerusalem,’ we will pray. ‘Nachamau, nachamu ammi, Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,’ we will chant on Shabbat week.
The story is well known of how, when Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues secretly visited the Temple Mount, a desolate zone declared out of bounds by the Romans, they all tore their garments in sorrow. Seeing a fox emerge from the ruins, his companions wept, but Rabbi Akiva laughed. Jeremiah foretold that foxes would wander the ruins of Jerusalem, he explained to his companions, bewildered by his inappropriate reaction. If his prophecy of destruction has been fulfilled, then surely the many prophecies of rebuilding must one day prove equally true. (Talmud Makkot 24b)
‘Comfort ye, comfort ye’ we’ll sing, but it’s not just words of comfort which the world urgently needs. We need actions which bring consolation, which make the healing real.
I wept when England won the Women’s Euro 2022, not because I wanted Germany to lose (I felt for their players) but because it was an amazing achievement, because it was women who made it happen, but above all because it lifted everyone’s spirits, mine included, and the country desperately needed that cheer.
But it’s not just what makes the big screen; it’s the millions of deeds which, if they get recorded at all, appear on the small screens of local what’s app groups. It’s people taking provisions to their local food banks; I saw the queues there yesterday, all ages from children to old men needing crutches. I’ll be out there when the rain finally comes and we can replant the trees which didn’t make it through this burning summer drought. When a leader comes who truly promotes greater social justice, I’ll be listening.
It’s not good enough today to say ‘Comfort ye.’ We need to turn the words inside out, as the rabbis always have, and say: ‘Ye – that is you and me – have to make that comfort happen.’ God’s part is to inspire us, guide us and give us the imagination, determination and courage to bring healing to the world.