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Monday, 2 September 2013

King Lear and the Jewish New Year

In the midst of King Lear, the homeless and demented king finds himself wandering in the wilderness, an outcast battling the hardships of the heath in a raging storm. He stumbles upon  a wretched figure, ‘poor Tom’ -  it’s Edgar, son of Gloucester, in disguise – and Lear addresses him, in a moment of extraordinary empathy and self-recognition:

“Is man no more than this? Consider him well...Thou art the thing itself...unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal  as thou art” (Act 3, scene4).
I have been haunted by this text over the summer, and I am taking it with me into this New Year, and the annual period of reflection and self-examination that this season in the religious calendar prompts in us. I find this text wondrous - and yet it fills me with apprehension. And maybe wondrous because it fills me with apprehension. For as these Days of Awe approach, I feel I come to them ‘unaccommodated’ – not unaccommodated like Lear, without a home,  without a roof over my head; but in some deeper sense. I know I am - fortunately, blessedly  - accommodated in the plain sense of the word, unlike the 2 million and more people who have now left their homes in Syria as refugees, or the 45 million forcibly displaced people around the world who are literally ‘unaccommodated’.  
But still I am, I feel, ‘unaccommodated’, perhaps in the sense that Shakespeare is pointing towards: for what does it really mean  to feel ‘at home’ in the world? Do we feel  ‘at home’ in the world? Relaxedly, casually, gracefully, ‘at home’ in this fractious, tempestuous world? Do we feel we live in a world that gives us warmth and security and protection?  We recognise that we need our clothes, our homes, our heating, our beds, we need to be part of a society in which these can be available – but needing these things makes us dependent, it makes us vulnerable, we work so hard to ensure we have these kinds of security, but out the corner of our eyes we glimpse the fragility of it all, how it can be taken away by forces out of our control.
Stockmarkets crash, or illness strikes, or death claims someone close to us and we are left suddenly alone in the world, and if it doesn’t happen to us but to someone else, we may count our blessings - but we also might shudder at the randomness of it all, the ways (so many ways) in which our lives are not in our own hands. If Lear can be reduced to homeless nothingness, it can happen to any of us. The play makes us feel the storm raging against the paper-thin walls of what we construct around us as we try to feel secure and contained and content.

The tides of history may have been kind to us – but in our hearts we know they are tides. One moment you can be secure, ‘accommodated’ in the world, and the next day your world can be turned upside down. This is the ageless human story, and it is certainly the Jewish story. Feeling ‘accommodated’ in the world is often contingent on circumstances quite out of our control. It might happen more by luck than by any good judgement or cleverness from us.
So where are we ‘at home’? In our families? In our work? In our local community? In our religious/synagogue community? All these have the capacity to make us feel at home – but also the potential to make us feel unsettled or alienated. None of them have the quality of ‘at homeness’ as a given. All can let us down, just as the material world can let us down.
But maybe looking outside ourselves to feel at home is looking in the wrong place. Maybe we should be asking: do we feel ‘at home’ in ourselves? Can we rest inside ourselves? How often do we  feel distracted, on edge, ill-at-ease? We know so well how fragile things are inside us. Not just our body’s state, but our emotional state, and our psychological state. We know how prone we are to swings of mood, to pettiness, to irritation, to anger, to jealousy, possessiveness, envy... Are we ever really ‘at home’ with ourselves and in ourselves?
At this season I ask these questions of myself – or rather the liturgy of our tradition asks us these questions, sometimes in language we embrace and sometimes in language we flinch from. How often it reminds us in almost exactly Shakespeare’s words: “Is man no more than this? Consider him well” – and then offers us a  list: ‘a cup so easily broken... like grass that withers, like flowers that fade, like passing shadows and dissolving clouds, a fleeting breeze and dust that scatters, like a dream that fades away...’.  And we do approach these days as “poor, bare” creatures – ‘empty of good deeds’ we say in the liturgy. The dominant motifs of the prayer book are of our impoverishment, our inadequacy, our incapacities in the things that matter.
Of course this is only part of the story of what it is to be human, because we are also capable of the most extraordinary good deeds, we all have the potential for compassion and love and dedication and a sense of justice and altruism and sacrifice. This is also part of the human story, the Jewish story, and it is important that we hold on to the knowledge of these parts of ourselves as well at this season - even though the emphasis in the High Holy Days is on the other sides of our nature: our failures and wrongdoing and perversions of what we know to be right. We are innately two-sided, pulled between opposites.
This is what I think Shakespeare is alluding to when he describes us as “unaccommodated, poor bare forked creatures...”. Maybe this is my own imaginative reading, or creative mis-reading, of ‘forked’, but I hear, see, in that expression the reflection of what in rabbinic Judaism is termed the yetzer tov and the yetzer hara, normally translated as our capacity for good and our capacity for evil, or our ‘good inclination’ and ‘bad inclination’. But I think of that duality in a more expanded sense: as our ‘creative’ capacities in tension with our ‘destructive’  impulses.

Judaism acknowledges that we are ‘forked’ creatures, we human animals, and the whole of our High Holy Days revolves around that central drama of the two sides of our natures. We look back and wonder: where have we failed in this last year to live out the more benign aspects of ourselves? We look forward and wonder  - and pray - will this next year be one where we can transform stubbornness into openness, callousness into generosity, self-possessiveness into righteousness, a year where we can turn our hearts, inch by painful inch, towards the finer qualities we have incarnated in us?
(Forks in the era of Shakespeare were of course two-pronged: a beautiful example of one was excavated recently from the site of the Rose Theatre on London’s South Bank, dated exactly to Shakespeare’s times, 1592. You can see it at  
Over these next days between the New Year and Yom Kippur I’m going to be reflecting on this marvellous humbling description -  “unaccommodated, poor bare forked creatures such as we all are” – and looking at how often it is reflected in our liturgy. And not least in the image of Adonai  - the Eternal One - as our home, our only true home:  “Return to Me, and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:7). The prophet intuits God’s promise that the Holy One is our ultimate home - origin and home - an energy that animates all of being, including ourselves, a presence that accommodates us, that has room for us, that wants us nestled, housed, within its embrace, the wings of the Shechinah. This is the spiritual vision of ‘home’ that our Days of Awe offers us, the only home that is constant from age to age, from generation to generation.
I wish all of you reading this a good journey of return, of homecoming, in these days ahead.

[adapted from some thoughts shared at Finchley Reform Synagogue during the Selichot service on the evening of August 31st]


  1. I am so grateful that my physical and communal homes allow me the opportunity and calm to seek my inner spiritual home. Thank you,Howard.

  2. I am so grateful that my physical and communal homes allow me the opportunity and calm to seek my inner spiritual home. Thank you,Howard.

  3. I enjoyed hearing this very much, Howard, thank you for sharing it on your blog.