The words ‘veTorat chesed al leshonah, the Torah of loving-kindness is on her tongue,’ keep going round my mind. Maybe it’s because I was asked to respond to Pope Francis’s letter on mercy, which resulted in a stirring Jewish-Christian conversation last night on the meaning of love, justice and forgiveness in our faiths.
Or maybe it’s because there just isn’t enough loving-kindness in the world. I think of Professor Michael Feige, killed in the vile terror attack in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night. He was a friend of members of our community, a scholar in the field of Israel Studies, and known to all as a gentle and sensitive teacher. May his memory, together with the memories of all the victims, be for a blessing. May God bring peace.
The phrase Torat Chesed is also on my mind because we’re at the threshold of Shavuot, the festival which celebrates our relationship with the Torah, a bond not simply of acceptance, but of love. When I hold the Torah I sometimes feel I’m being held by all who’ve loved Torah, studied it, lived by it, even died by it throughout the ages. This Torah is a Torah of stories, of laws, of values, but at heart it is above all a Torah of loving-kindness.
Chesed, loving-kindness, vies with Tzedakah, the implementation of social justice, as the most important word in the language of Judaism, of religious values overall.
I had two discussions with teenagers this week about if and where God talks. One said she didn’t know if she really believed in God, but sometimes she sensed something speak in her heart. That spoke to me.
The God I believe in, the God who in my best moments I too hear in my heart, inhabits all life. This is not a ‘soft’ version of God, an enfeebled God who can’t command. On the contrary, God commands from all of life: don’t hurt, don’t ignore, don’t be selfish. Don’t live under the illusion that you own life and can do what you feel like. Listen, and be chastened by the bonds of love and partnership which bind you to all things.
This, I believe, is the God who spoke at Sinai, and speaks always; this is the root of all the commandments which teach us to create sacred community, act with loving kindness and justice, and discipline our body and spirit to serve the Most Deep, the Most High.
I had a letter from a new friend, Adam Bucko, a spiritual teacher and priest in training who’s worked for years among homeless children in New York. At 3.00am he was out trying to protect street children from the pimps and drug-mules who ruin their lives, and to bring them instead into the centre he created with his friends to care for them and give them a future. He heard a crazy preacher screaming: ‘Where’s God? Where’s God? Where’s God?’ My God is here on the street with those children, he realised.
This reminded me of the words of Nachmanides (1194 -1270, one of my favourite rabbinic figures: ‘[Throughout history God says] I see the tears of the oppressed who have no one to comfort them, and power lies in the hands of their oppressors, and I protect every human being from the hands of those stronger than them’. He was thinking of the stranger, the refugee and the orphan, the street child.
Judaism speaks of the partnership of God and humanity. God works through us in this world. It’s a bond of both vulnerability and mutual strength. When nothing speaks in our heart, when we can’t hear God’s voice, or the echo of that voice, or even how others we trust have intuited that voice, and we feel alone and purposeless, then God’s dreams are – temporarily – abandoned.
But that moment we do hear God speak through all life, any life, our spirit is strengthened, our own life finds new meaning, and the longing for tzedakah va’chesed, righteousness and loving-kindness, finds new hands in this world to bring them into the reality of the hungry, the vulnerable, or the lonely.
To hear that voice is to receive the Torah, whose deepest language is chesed, the teaching of loving-kindness.