Sunday, 27 March 2022

A Month Like No Other

Since February 24th my mental world has subtly shifted on its axis. As the BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet put it on Thursday, with her customary clarity and concision: “It’s been a month like no other - for Ukraine, for Europe, and for the world.”

A cliché it may be to say it, but we are seeing history in the making. We’re seeing images we haven’t seen in Europe for generations: we lucky ones, who never lived through war, might have been brought up on grainy black and white footage of ruined cities and populations on the move, but did not seriously think we’d ever see that kind of ‘history’ again, at least not so close to home. Yes, we’ve had Aleppo, and Grozny and Sarajevo - but they were not quite on our doorsteps: they were just far enough away not to penetrate our lives every day as this war has done, and is doing, bursting into our living rooms night after night.

‘A month like no other’ in a world of continuous change. We are being taken on a journey: destination unknown and unknowable. And, yes, that’s the human condition: the “only certainty is uncertainty” as Professor Eugene Heimler used to say, born in Hungary, survivor of Buchenwald, writer and therapist, friend of the Finchley community of which I am a part.

So given that all is flux, turbulence, chaos, uncertainty, what struck me this week, was whether or not it was possible to imagine that those involved in Jewish life have a kind of antidote to all that? Maybe not an antidote exactly, but we do have the possibility of a perspective, an angle of vision, at odds with all that unpredictability that’s part of the human condition.

Because we live with another cycle of life, a seasonal cycle - of predictability and regularity and engagement with what is unchanging in an changing world. And that is due to our connection to something that never changes - the Torah.

Whatever is going on outside us - however history is unfolding in all its drama and grandeur and degradation - when Jews meet at the Shabbat service we encounter something unchanging: this week it was the chapters of Torah called  Shemini, the third section of the third book in our unchanging, unchangeable foundational text. This never changes. As if it’s eternal. When the Torah has been read we recite a blessing that acknowledges, with gratitude: chayai olam nata betochaynu - “You have planted eternal life within us”.

Is it the Torah that is eternal? Or the experience of engaging with it that puts us in touch with something eternal? Or both? However we understand these words, we sense we are guests invited into a mystery. Something timeless is planted within time - and within us who live, moment by moment, in time.

In other words we live, as Jews. in two worlds at once. Here we are rooted in a specific place, at a specific time in history, in our everyday world where wondrous and terrifying things happen, to us and around us. And we live in another world, the unchanging cycle of reading from Torah, week by week, year by year, century by century. It’s a cycle we connect to that never changes.

So we live in a world where everything changes, everything is uncertain - and in a world where nothing changes, just the chapters we read week by week, repeated year in, year out, a world where we know where we are and we know where we will be next week and the week after. This is our other world, unchanging, stable, consistent, reliable, reassuring, ‘eternal’.  This is a gift: it allows Jews to live in two worlds at once.

It’s good to know this, or be reminded of it. And we shouldn’t take it for granted. Because it’s precious - and not everyone has it. It could help give us some kind of anchoring when we, or the world, feel adrift, in peril, tossed around by the storms and vicissitudes of history.

Yet living in this other world certainly doesn’t solve any problems for us. It doesn’t solve our problems because it’s not like magic or medicine. Indeed the perspective from this other world  might highlight the complexity of the issues we face, here where we stand. It can make us giddy to view the world from the standpoint of the Torah, it can destabilise us as often as steady us.

This week’s chapters are a good example. They are part of that complex detailing of priestly rituals that fill the book of Leviticus. Chapter nine describes acts of purification and elaborate rituals for both the priests and the people: much blood is spilled as the animals are slaughtered in the prescribed manner, and many of us feel thankful that this is a world long gone. Since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70CE, we read these texts now only for their symbolic value (if we can find it). The chapter narrates how, when all the rituals were enacted, God was made present: “Moses and Aaron went inside the Tent of Meeting and when they came out they blessed the people va’yayrah chavod- Adonai el-kol-ha’am - and the presence/the substance/the glory of the Eternal appeared to all the people” (Leviticus 9:22-23).

But how do we understand that? Is it a one-off event? Or a promise? That through purity, through ritual actions - whether it is of a priestly tribe, or a kingdom of priests (the Israelite community) - God’s presence becomes manifest? What does that mean? What would that look like? How would we know? “The glory of the Eternal appeared to all the people”. How are we supposed to get our heads round that?

In the text it says that what the people actually saw was fire bursting forth and consuming the offerings on the altar. Is this the “glory of the Eternal”? Or a glorified barbeque? The people are told the former. We might just see the latter. What is going on? How are we to understand this fragment of eternal truth planted in our midst?

I am asking the questions in this to illustrate how we might have the Torah, our unchanging text, but the questions it raises are difficult and sometimes troubling. Because although we read them and ponder them, we don’t really understand what on earth, or in heaven, is going on. There are plenty of commentaries that seek to explain these texts - but I don’t trust anyone who tells me they do understand these texts. Because there is  a mystery at the heart of them.

Reading this text this week, I puzzle over it (as usual) - but when we step back and draw breath, and look out around us, aren’t we tempted to say: how can we even speak about God’s presence and the glory of the divine when the bombs are dropping, at this moment, indiscriminately destroying, and “who will live and who will die” (as our Yom Kippur text puts it) is just an accident of fate? Random, arbitrary, unpredictable, macabre. Children escape and children are trapped underground, or perish in the rubble - isn’t it offensive to talk at all about God’s presence, or God’s glory?

And yes, clergy (of all denominations) and theologians will come up with all sorts of rationalisations and platitudes to supposedly explain the inexplicable. But I am guided here - in relation to these profound challenges to religious belief and traditional pieties - I’m guided by Rabbi Irving Greenburg, Brooklyn-born rabbi and Orthodox scholar, who has written extensively about matters of faith after the Shoah, and about how Jewish life and thinking have to be radically reformulated and reworked and re-thought after the trauma of the Holocaust. He once wrote “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children”.

That for me is the most important religious statement of our times - it cuts through all the garbage - and I return to it today because it’s a touchstone of humanity and decency and Jewish faith in our times.  And, yes, it sets the bar very high, but it says to me that probably the most honest response, from a religious perspective, to Mariupol and the barbarities inflicted on Ukraine is silence. For no religious statement is credible in the presence of another generation of murdered children.

The only religious response is through action, not words, through forms of giving and doing: money, hospitality, campaigns to influence the UK government’s tortuous refugee policy - the bureaucracy for Ukrainians trying to get to the UK is still the ‘hostile environment’ of the last ten years.

You know the actions we can take - whether Jewish or Christian we draw upon the ethics of our unchanging texts: the compassion, the generosity to strangers and the dispossessed, and all the rest. We draw strength and inspiration from the vision of what is possible - while at the same time finding ourselves silenced by all that narrative exuberance about God’s presence and divine glory and ritual purification.

And, yes, I could say that the ‘rituals’ we now do involve us making our own ‘sacrifices’ - different kinds of ‘sacrifice’, of time and money and what we give of ourselves, and that this is how God is now brought into the world. Not from on high but through us. And I believe that is true, and I believe it necessary to say it, and to repeat it to our children - this is how Jews make God known in the world: through the fire in our hearts sparking us into life and action. Without that fire within, the Torah turns to ashes.

Maybe that’s as much as we can say. And the rest is silence.


[based on a sermon give on Zoom for Finchley Reform Synagogue, March 26th, 2022]

 

 

Saturday, 5 March 2022

On Ukraine: What Can One Say?

 First he came for the Chechens but I did not speak out because I was not a Chechen.

Then he came for Crimea but I did not speak out because I was not from Crimea.

Then he came for the dissidents and journalists but I did not speak out because I was neither a dissident nor a journalist.

Then he came for the Ukrainians - like the mother of Ira, our traumatised cleaner, whose mum is moving to a different room every night, still with internet connection so her daughter can speak to her every hour, every fifteen minutes; and the family of another Ukrainian I know, who are fleeing west, right now, from the family home they rebuilt by hand from the rubble and losses of World War 2; and three rabbinic colleagues who, with their children, have left their Ukrainian communities to seek safety abroad - yes, now he has come for the Ukrainians and - never mind ‘speak out’ - what can I say?

Because what is one to say that isn’t platitudes and emptiness?

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words - so let me tell you about the picture on the front page of last Saturday’s Guardian. The headline was ‘Kyiv On The Brink’ in extra large font, but the photo that accompanied it was of a railway carriage window behind which you could see two children, a girl of around nine or ten, I guess, with wire-rimmed glasses, and a boy nestling next to her, fair-haired, who looked around six or seven, they were waiting for the train to depart, and there was the figure of an adult  behind them, but not the adult’s face: the focus of the photo was on the two children, both looking out the window onto the platform, anxiety etched into their features.

And this could have been a scene, I suppose, from any Western conflict zone of the last eighty years - at different times Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Sarajevo  - but what made this photo completely contemporary, unmistakably of this moment in the 21st century, was that at the very centre of the photograph there figured - as large as the boy’s cherubic face - something the boy was holding horizontally, a shiny blue smartphone.

https://twitter.com/guardian/status/1497340896685301760?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

And there was something ever so ordinary about this but - it struck me - ever so extraordinary as well. For this is a new kind of war - as well as being eternally old in its brutality and senselessness.

It’s a new kind of war where the smartphone is a vital possession carried by victims as the flee, to keep in contact with family and friends, and a crucial  tool of those who remain, including a vast army of citizen journalists recording live from battle zones and basements and bedrooms, recording and transmitting into our homes, ensuring we the watching world know, hour by hour, what is unfolding.

It means the war is being fought in ways that we the bystanders become witnesses to, often in real time; it makes us, in a way, into participants; and looking away is possible of course, but that presents us with an emotional dilemma - to look can feel unbearable, but not to look feels equally problematic. On the one hand, can our souls bear to see? On the other hand, can they bear to turn away from seeing and knowing? Our souls are under bombardment either way.

For the first time in human history the reality of war and the ‘virtual reality’ of war are merging for millions around the globe. Through technological sophistication, the grotesque savagery of war is being brought into our homes at every hour of the day and night - and now we carry it around in our pockets too. We literally carry the war with us wherever we go. Our pockets, our handbags, are full of horror. 

Ukraine is one of the so-called ‘bloodlands’ [see historian Timothy D. Snyder, 2010] where Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union competed to exterminate people who, because of ethnicity or class, had no place in the fantasied societies they were building. A chilling image, ‘bloodlands’ - but the blood seeps into our pockets, onto our hands, into our comfortable living rooms and bedrooms. How does the soul endure?  And what can we say?

Then he came for Ukraine - and what did we say? What could we say? We are on the border of speechlessness. ‘Ukraine’ means ‘borderlands’: for centuries the land saw the intermingling of many cultures and languages - Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish, German, Yiddish - for borders were porous, cultures borrowed and blended their music and food and literature, and marriages took place across ethnic groups.

But we Jews have long memories - fortunately and unfortunately - which means it’s hard to romanticise Ukraine:  between November 1918 and March 1921, a time of civil war, there were  over a thousand anti-Jewish pogroms in over five hundred locations in Ukraine, over 100,00 deaths; 600,000 Jews fled abroad, millions more were displaced internally. And this is twenty years before the Shoah, where more than a third of all Jews murdered were killed close to home with the collaboration of people they knew: one million Jews were killed in Ukraine before the death camps were set up in 1942. And I’m not going to begin to speak about the Ukrainian fascists drafted into the SS death squads. 

But does any of this history matter now, eighty or a hundred years later? I speak of it only for the sake of a kind of emotional and/or intellectual honesty, and a resistance to amnesia, to acknowledge that there is complexity in the deep background of what is unfolding.

Yet on a human level it is a complexity that fades away when we see the faces of the children in the window of a train, when we hear the human stories, and see the devastation to a land recognisably part of our modern Europe. We may not know what to say, but we know what we feel: compassion lies deeper than words.

Of course helplessness too is part of what arises in us - but there are plenty of avenues for action: at this moment it appears that organisations working on the ground in Ukraine, and with refugees, are most in need of financial support - they know how best to spend the money we send. Charity, tzedakah, is a good antidote to helplessness - and speechlessness - as well as being a mitzvah in itself.

“Say little and do much…” was Shammai’s wise advice two millennia ago. And if one is moved to do more, one can always heed the words he added: “…and receive everyone with a trusting and hopeful expression on one’s face” (Pirke Avot: 1: 15).

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, March 5th, 2022; with due acknowledgements to Pastor Martin Niemöller]

 

Saturday, 19 February 2022

A Traumatised People and Our Shared Heritage

 One’s heart goes out to those Israelites described in the saga of Exodus. In modern terminology we might say they were a traumatised people: oppressed for generations, they had just experienced the most tumultuous upheavals it’s possible to imagine. The land they were living in, the only land they knew, Egypt, had suffered a cataclysmic series of disruptions, disturbances, disasters natural and unnatural, plague after plague of apocalyptic events; the whole country was beset by chaos, turmoil, the breakdown of social order…and yet,  somehow, in ways they could not possibly understand, those Hebrew slaves  had been spared most of the horrors visited upon their Egyptian neighbours.

How could that be? Why them? Was it luck? Or magic? - how did daubing your doors with blood mean that your children were spared, but the children next door died? (Exodus 12: 7, 13) Or was it somehow connected with that strange character, Moses, born a Hebrew but brought up an Egyptian? Was that whole frenzied cataclysm of events connected to the story that Moses was telling - that their ancestral god was behind it all? Who could believe that?

And when the braver among the Israelites had interrogated this strange stuttering figure and asked him ‘Who sent you to do this, to be our representative, to provoke Pharoah, on whom our lives depend - hard as they are already - who told you to stir up trouble in the vain, vague hope this will somehow set us free?’, when they asked him who had told him to do it, the old man had merely replied with a name that nobody knew, more a sound than a name: ‘Ehyeh sh’lachani aleychem’ (Ex 3:14) - “I am has sent me to you” . Or did this mean “I will be has sent me to you”? Nobody could agree what he meant, all they could agree on was it didn’t make sense: how could a verb be a God?

And even when Moses had explained that this unfolding God-energy was continuous with the ancestral God, the so-called ‘God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’, not only was the theology too complicated for an exhausted and abused people to take in, but anyway that ancestral God had been silent for generations, he was as good as dead, it was just a folk-memory the people had retained in slavery, it was bubameisers that you tell the children to help them to get to sleep.

But the people had been freed, or at least they’d escaped: the Egyptian army had pursued them (Ex. 14:9), and as they staggered towards the Sea of Reeds they could hear the pounding of the horses’ hooves, but the tide was favourable and they’d waded in, in their tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, beyond counting, a vast crowd of panicked souls, breathless, desperate  to get across before the slaughter began, or the re-capture, and which would be worse? But the wind had blown and the tide had turned, and - extraordinary to say - their enemies had drowned and they had been saved (Ex. 14:28); and on the other shore, as the bodies of their defeated foes began to be washed up, Moses and his sister Miriam had broken into song and praised this newly-revealed divine energy, the ‘I was, I am, I will be’ (Y.H.V.H), the saving power of Israel’s story, a story that became inscribed in the mythic history of the Israelite people, “Mi Chamocha ba’elim Adonai?” - “Who is like you amongst the gods, the  godlings, Adonai?” . “Mi Kamocha Who is, like You, nedar ba-kodesh wrapped in holiness,  norah tehillot awe-inspiring,  oseh felle working wonders like this?”. (Ex.15:11)

And at that moment a traumatised people were swept up in a moment of wonder, of gratitude, of consciousness-raising openness: yes, some new possibility of belief was born - the old man and his family, Aaron and Miriam, were on to something, were into something, the dry land beneath the people’s feet testified to it, the hugging in joy with neighbours testified to it, the bodies of their oppressors left behind to rot in the sun or be swept away on the tides, they too testified to it. Something new was coming into being. But no liberation is free of pain. Relief and joy can’t wipe out the painful memory of what has been endured. So as the traumatised people marched off into the desert (Ex. 15:22) and left Egypt behind, they might have thought they were leaving their pain behind. But they were carrying it with them in the crevices of their souls.

As soon as Miriam’s song ends, Moses forces Israel on into the wilderness. And there’s no respite there from the harshness of life - as our Torah storytellers unfold their narrative, they tell of the first thing that happens in the wilderness: there is no water - who would have known? - and then the water they found was bitter, and “the people grumbled against Moses saying, “What shall we drink?”” (Ex. 15:24). Three days after the world-transforming, history-making, gratitude-making moment of redemption at the Sea of Reeds - and the Israelites’ intimation that there existed an incomprehensible power behind events, within events - within seventy-two hours, the pain is back and the long, long story of bitterness and complaint begins.

Marching through the desert they are still a traumatised people - and now they are a thirsty people as well. And six weeks later they are wishing they were dead (Ex. 16:2-3), and it’s all Moses’ fault.  Trauma does not get healed overnight, trauma lasts - and for as long as it lasts, somebody has to be blamed, somebody else has to be made to feel the pain, the distress: this is human nature. Or rather human nature in its rawest, regressed state.

In these texts in Exodus we see the Biblical narrators showing us how human nature is. That’s why we can recognise ourselves inside these texts. So we can understand how a Golden Calf gets made in the absence of Moses; we can understand how, when he disappears for days, then weeks, fear takes over: the absent leader creates a vacuum of uncertainty, mistrust, disillusionment, despair; it’s just too painful to bear uncertainty sometimes - where are we going? who is looking after us? are we going to perish in this god-forsaken (so to speak) spot?

They were faced not only with a leader who vanishes without a word, without explanation - a leader who abandons his primary role, to be visible and instruct and direct and make people feel safe and offer a sense of collective purpose - not only did that still traumatised people no longer have a leader to guide them and listen to them and calm them. But of course they did not have a God who could do any of those things either.

So: a leader who goes AWOL, disappears from sight, and a God who is defined by his invisibility. A God who can’t be seen, can’t be touched, can’t be heard - except by self-appointed old men like Moses and Aaron, who claim to hear him, but what good is that if we the people can’t hear him? A God who can’t be experienced by any of our human senses - eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands, none of them are any use  in getting hold of God, getting connected to this supposed divine energy that animates life. What good is ‘was, is, will be’ when your life is on the line?

And what fills the space is a wish, a fantasy, that a Golden Calf can fill the gap - you can make it yourself, a great collective project, you can fashion it, touch it, see it, it doesn’t disappear. This is basic human nature at play - trusting our five senses. And then you can project onto it whatever you want : “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32: 4). Who wouldn’t want to create an idol, gather round it and have a simcha - “they sat down to eat and drink and then they rose up to dance” (Ex 32: 6)? A feast for their all their senses. 

So, as I said, my heart goes out to those Israelites with their traumatic wounds and their need for certainty, for something to put their faith in that they can see and touch. I wonder how much we have changed over the millennia? Just below the surface of all our sophistication we are probably pretty much the same. We still have an invisible God and we still rely on hearsay to keep us going - we just call it ‘tradition’. When so much uncertainty is woven into our lives it’s hard to trust in something our five senses can’t readily experience.

We need a sixth sense - and maybe even a further, seventh sense - to grasp the ungraspable, and maybe we call the sixth sense our human spirits, or our soul, or our intuition - different names may come to mind - but they all point to something real about human experience: that we are capable of - and do - experience awe and wonder and hopefulness and an awareness of both our insignificance in the world and our deep individuality and significance.  Our sixth sense gives us an awareness that a mystery surrounds our life and that what ‘was and is and will be’ sustains us and nurtures us and supports us till the end of our days.

And if we do have a seventh sense - mirroring creation - it is that we too, collectively and individually, are wrapped in holiness, nedar ba-kodesh, and that when we act in that spirit of holiness we too norah tehillot, are capable of inspiring awe and gratitude, because we too can oseh felle, work wonders. We too can work wonders. It’s the gift we have been given, this divine-human potential. It’s the gift we have been given through Torah, which tells us about ourselves while purportedly telling us stories about our invisible, ungraspable God.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, February 19th, 2022) 

 

 

Sunday, 2 January 2022

New Year - New Hope?

 As the New Year starts, are we wishing we could hear a few words of encouragement? Some words of hopefulness? As we move into 2022 we might be thinking of turning the metaphorical page onto the next chapter of our lives -but are we ready yet for hope, genuine hope that isn’t superficial, or Pollyannaish? Hope that isn’t just putting a sticking plaster on our gaping wounds?

In this week’s Torah reading from the annual cycle of readings, we happened to have reached Exodus, chapter 6. We are inside the narrative of Israel’s liberation from bondage: but when Moses tells the enslaved children of Israel his message of hope - that liberation was coming,  that redemption was at hand, and goes on to speak of the ancestral promise of security in a land in which they could thrive (Exodus 6: 4-8) - when Moses brought this startling message of radical hope to the people, they couldn’t hear it. The text says that they couldn’t absorb it mikotzer ruach u’mayavodah kasha “because their spirits were crushed  and their working lives were filled with hardship” (verse 9).  

That’s a powerful, psychologically-true, image the narrators offer us. The people couldn’t hear about hope because their spirits were crushed and the conditions they had to endure were harsh. Does this speak at all to where we are, as the year turns? We know what we are living through now may not be backbreaking slavery - but we know the hardships we endure, the forces that seek to crush us.

It sometimes feels that we are in civilisational freefall: there’s a perpetual sense - that we try to keep at bay - of a great unravelling, all our old certainties have worn thin or have disappeared and we are bombarded by, on the one hand, vast acres of escapist trivia and social nonsense, all the distractions of Instagram and Twitter and memes and Strictly Come Love Island Bake Off; and  then, larger scale, there’s the slide into the quagmires of political corruption and anti-democratic malevolence and the bottomless anxiety of ecological dread. How do we stay human when our spirits are being crushed to extinction, and multiple forms of hardship are all around us? What hope is there for a message of divine hopefulness getting through all this grief and pain and fear? 

The pandemic is only part of this. But this pandemic is still and obviously with us, wave after wave of it; and because we know that until vaccines are made available globally, none of us will be safe, it’s just soul-destroyingly infuriating how self-defeating is the stance of national governments who are privileged to have the vaccines yet who nevertheless continue to fail to set up a system to get these vaccines distributed fairly and equitably.

As a former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, keeps on saying, and has been saying almost since the vaccines arrived - this last year has seen not just a failure of empathy and imagination, as well as a moral failure - “ a stain on our global soul” - but it’s an ongoing pragmatic failure  of global significance: in the long run we can’t protect ourselves unless everyone is protected. It’s a huge international challenge but it is do-able if short-sighted national self-interest doesn’t sabotage the larger task at hand. But that’s a big ‘if’ - and how hopeful are we about it?

We know that the most deadly pandemic of the 20th century, Spanish flu, lasted for nearly four years and went through wave after wave until it subsided into ordinary seasonal flu.  And that’s probably our best hope this time round as well. But we don’t know, and can’t know. As one of our leading public intellectuals, Professor Jacqueline Rose, has said about this year ahead: “Across the world, people are desperate to feel they have turned a corner, that an end is in sight, only to be faced with a future that seems to be retreating like a vanishing horizon, a shadow, a blur. Nobody knows, with any degree of confidence, what will happen next. Anyone claiming to do so is a fraud.”

That seems to put it well, with a clear-sighted down-to-earth Jewish pragmatism: there is a human wish/need to feel hopeful, yes, but it’s hard to see where that hope is coming from, on so many levels; we don’t know what 2022 will bring; anyone confidently claiming they do know is a fraud, a charlatan.

The Biblical story of a people too crushed and overwhelmed to hear a message of hope might be psychologically true, as I said, but it isn’t a psychologically nuanced text. It doesn’t speak - at least in this narrative - of the complexity surrounding human hopefulness. Because the other side of the coin is that in desperate times people are so much in need of hope, so hungry for it, that they become vulnerable to hearing hope wherever it shouts loudest. People have ears for and devour hope that comes in simple, neat packages, and in slogans - Make America Great Again, Take Back Control of our borders, “Jews will not replace us”.  We need - personally and collectively - to feel hope and we can see our tendency to clutch at it wherever we hear it, however false or fabricated it is.

Interestingly, in the Exodus narrative the children of Israel didn’t do that. They seemed to have experienced Moses as just another stuttering hope-merchant, a tongue-tied religious eccentric claiming to speak in the name of an invisible ancestral deity. How were they to know his hopefulness was credible? How are we to know what forms of hopefulness are credible? As Jacqueline Rose wisely says, anyone confidently claiming to know what will happen next is a fraud.

So you aren’t going to get any New Year forecasts here. But I am not sure I am ready quite yet to give up on hope itself. In spite of it all, I do feel glimmers of hopefulness, but it’s a low level everyday hopefulness that almost doesn’t count as hopefulness - but maybe it can stand in for hopefulness. And it comes in the usual places: it comes from observing the strength and resilience of community; in witnessing the kindness of those around me in family and community - and the kindness of strangers; in seeing the courage and dedication of carers in many settings, and NHS staff, who keep on going in spite of hardships; I see it in the vision of younger people who protest injustice, or discrimination, or global threats to their very future; I see it in those who don’t succumb to cynicism or defeatism or despair but say ‘I can make a difference’ and ‘we can work together to make things better, to effect change, to shape our society for the benefit of the majority and not the already privileged’.

New possibilities arise all the time, new growth emerges from the cracks, fresh hope trickles up through the barren landscape. The human spirit, the ruach in us all, is remarkably resilient. We just need to get started. January 1st is a new start. We just need to get started, to get our uncrushed spirits moving. That great Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney put it beautifully, in a speech to young people many years ago, 1966 - yes, it was a year when hope for the new was blossoming around the world, but his words still speak to us today, in darker times, words which evoke something timeless about the human condition. 

“Getting started, keeping going, getting started again - in art and in life, it seems to me this is the essential rhythm not only of achievement but of survival…[it’s] the basis of self-esteem and the guarantee of credibility in your lives, credibility to yourself as well as others.” 

So, as we search for sparks of hopefulness in the winter darkness, we recognise the rhythms of our lives do involve “getting started, keeping going, getting started again” - this is a moral achievement, a psychological achievement, a spiritual achievement. Getting started - each year, each week, sometimes each day - means we aren’t suffering from what our Biblical storytellers diagnosed in the children of Israel, kotzer ruach, crushed/atrophied spirits : the ruach in us, our spirits, is not crushed because the ruach Ha-kodesh (Psalm 51:12) the divine spirit, is breathing itself into us, it animates us, sustains us, even when we are not aware of it, even if we don’t believe in it. It still happens, like a miracle.

So, we’ve got ‘started’ this year; and I guess we are going to ‘keep going’ - and in good time we’ll see where we get to.

[based on a sermon at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, January 1st, 2022]

Sunday, 24 October 2021

Sight, Insight, Hospitality: Seeing the Divine in the Everyday

 

As a young man I was preoccupied - personally, and then professionally - with questions about God: the search for God, the experience of God, the centrality of God in Jewish religious life, other religious traditions’ views on God, the role of God and divinity in human life, how one might find God in everyday life. Inevitably too, and looming behind all these questions, there was the so-called ‘silence of God’ during the Shoah. 

Thinking it was part of the job of rabbis to talk about these things - and puzzled sometimes at how infrequently I heard colleagues talking about this stuff - I would often give sermons on these themes.  As if I thought I was some sort of expert on the topic.

I can now see, of course, how presumptuous this was. But it felt like a mission, of sorts, to keep on talking about God: to bring God under the spotlight, as it were, and try and illuminate all the issues and dynamics and problems and uncertainties surrounding this central character of our Jewish religious drama - although a phrase like ‘character…in our religious drama’ was not how I would have spoken about it in those days.  

But over the years something changed. I changed, I suppose - some people might call it maturing or growing up, though I’m not sure that’s quite the right language to capture what happened. But  gradually, over the decades, I  became aware that I was talking about God less and less - and often in sermons not at all. Certainly it wasn’t the focus of a sermon, as it had been in the past. If I was feeling particularly playful - or maybe it was just pious, or pseudo-pious, I don’t know - I might slip in a reference to God - almost as an aside to the themes I was exploring, a bracket as it were, but definitely not as the main topic.

So what happened? Why did God disappear, or fade from view, from what I found myself talking about? There were many reasons - psychological, theological, intellectual, spiritual, professional - but rather than open these up here. I want to focus on a couple of verses from this week’s Torah reading in the hope that through them I can cast a light on what changed in my approach to this youthful obsession of mine.

Our sedrah began with chapter 18 of Genesis. Va-yay’ra elav Adonai - “the Eternal One appeared to him…”, as Abraham sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day… (Genesis18:1).

And it continues Va-yisar aynav va-yar  - “and he lifted up his eyes and he saw…”. The text is subtle here, it separates off the verb ‘to see’ from what he sees. This suggests it isn’t just ordinary seeing, it’s more like ‘insight’ than ‘sight’. (The Hebrew doesn’t distinguish between these two).

The next word is ve-hinei, “and behold” - the word always acts like a  jump cut in a film, as the narrator ‘cuts’ to the subjective view of the character. So now the storyteller lets us find out what Abraham sees: shlosha anashim nitzavim alav, “three people are standing waiting above him” - he’s sitting, they are rearing up above him. (The word used for ‘standing’ n’z’v means ‘standing waiting/preparing for something’, a different word from the everyday Hebrew word for the physical act of standing a’m’d).

This is great storytelling: graphic, very precise, you can picture it in your mind’s eye, each word crafted to add a detail to the picture, so that you can see it (it’s like the specificity of individual words in a poem, or a Rembrandt painting where each brushstroke counts).

And what does Abraham do? The next word begins the second half of the sentence - but it’s not an action word, it’s a reflection word, the action is inwards: va-yar - again! - the word is repeated, it comes in each half of the sentence and Abraham has another moment of insight, where what he sees with his eyes joins up with what he’s seeing within himself, what he’s intuiting is happening. Va-yar va-yaratz...  “And he saw; and he ran out of his tent to greet them…”, and he bows low before them. Honour, respect, reverence, humility.

We are used to reading this ‘bowing down’ gesture in relation to Biblical characters, it comes dozens and dozens of times, it’s so familiar we stop even thinking about it. But it may be worth noting that this is the first time it is used in Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. In this scene, at this moment, this act of bowing down opens up a new way of people relating to each other. It’s an archetypal moment: respect, reverence in the face of the other, humility, making oneself smaller, giving space to the other. Abraham as an exemplar of a particular mode of being with the Other, of the ethics of interpersonal behaviour, the dynamics of I and Thou (to use Martin Buber’s language). Each Thou a glimpse of the Eternal Thou. This is his first impulse: he runs and prostrates himself.

This leads into the actions for which this scene is perhaps better know - and what’s talked about by the rabbinic commentators - his hospitality: water, food, shelter, provision. But what I’m wanting to focus on here is how the outer hospitality - the material hospitality and generosity - is preceded by another kind of hospitality, if we want to call it that, the hospitality to the lived experience of being in the presence of other human beings, souls like oneself, the hospitality of making space for a shared humanity with the other, with the stranger, the traveller, the ones who arrive from elsewhere, those who arrive out of nowhere - which is always somewhere.

Isn’t this a key aspect of the insight Abraham has? That these strangers are fellow travellers on the road through life, fellow human beings dependent on what provisions they receive on the journey - (we can also call it Kafka’s insight) - an insight into the way we all depend on each other to get through life, to get through the day?

But Abraham’s moment of insight is, remember, repeated: there are two moments of insight, two levels of revelation that follow on the heels of each other, as thoughts do - Va-yar…Va-yar - because Abraham also has a moment of insight not just into our shared humanity with the other, with the stranger, but even more profoundly, insight into this being one way that God is present in the world. It’s not just an awareness that, as we are accustomed to say in a rather abstract formulation, humanity is made “in the image of God/the divine”, b’zelem Elohim, as the beginning of Genesis puts it (1:27). But what Abraham realises in a more personal way - what the storytellers in their exquisite narration are signposting - is that in the encounter with another human being, God , Adonai, is present.

That’s how the narrative unfolds - Adonai appears to Abraham, verse 1. That’s the storyteller’s omniscient ‘objective’ perspective, as it were. The narrator is telling us what is going on, what we are going to see illustrated, illuminated. Va-yay’ra elav Adonai - “the Eternal One appeared to him”.  But what does Abraham actually see? What he sees are three people, people like him, three strangers. That’s his subjective experience - people awaiting a response. And the text dramatizes how what he sees with his eyes is linked to what he sees with his mind’s eye; and what he realises, what his insight is - and it is a theological insight and a spiritual insight - is that the divine appears in the everyday, the divine appears when you open your eyes to see what is in front of you, the divine is present in our interaction with others.  And that this experience is - for want of a better word - God. Or rather, this is also God.

We are not talking about a transcendent God here, something over and above us, beyond us, we are not talking about a creator God, separate from our lives, but an aspect of God here and now, present, waiting for us to see and to respond. Seeing with the eyes in this story isn’t enough, it is reflecting on what he sees and responding to what he sees, that makes Abraham into the exemplar, the model for Jewish lives, Avraham Avinu, the founding father of a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking about God.

If you look through all these chapters in which Abraham appears, he doesn’t seem to speak much about God - he doesn’t give sermons about God to his family, or to those the Torah describes him encountering. He mentions God to Isaac at the Akedah, but that’s just about it. But in our text today he introduces a way of thinking about God - or rather the storytellers use him to dramatize a way of thinking about God - that is ‘horizontal’ as it were, not ‘vertical’. (I’m borrowing Rabbi Arthur Green’s language here). It is a way of thinking about God as what is enacted on the human level; which is why - one of the reasons why - I stopped talking overtly about God and started talking more about compassion and justice, and generosity, and kindness, about human qualities and capacities, through which the divine enters into the world. God is revealed through us, through us inhabiting these so called ‘divine’ qualities and enacting divinity in our everyday lives. 'Horizontal' Judaism is a Jewish way of being and thinking in which God is present in and through the human, rather than God split off from humanity. 

Who knows, maybe in these latter years of my rabbinic life I might return to my roots. There’s still a lot to say, to puzzle over, to explore and wrestle with, about Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One of Israel, Ribbono shel Ha-Olam, the ‘Master’ of the Universe, Avinu Malkenu, ‘Our Father, Our Sovereign’, there’s still quite a bit of life in the old dog yet - and I’m not just talking about me.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, October 23rd 2021]

 

Saturday, 11 September 2021

When Is Enough, Enough?

The Jewish New Year started this week with our ‘new normal’ – and our ‘new caution’.  

You know what I mean by the ‘new caution’. That we’ve come to the end of something we were used to, and new questions and doubts have infiltrated our thinking: where do we feel comfortable going, out of the house? who do we meet? do we use public transport?  how close can we get to other people - even as the community gathered indoors this week, we were thinking : how close can I sit, is there enough space, enough ventilation, what is safe? Indeed, what does ‘safety’ really mean now? All this adds up to our ‘new caution’.

Something has been lost, we feel it. It’s as if our carefree days are behind us. They’re over. A sense of easygoingness in everyday life (if we ever had it), well, it belongs to a different era: B.C., as it were.

All those Rosh Hashanahs in the past, up to 2019 - that old B.C. era, Before Covid - we started the year with hopefulness; yes there were anxieties too, sometimes, but usually we had a sense of new beginnings where we could look forward with confidence, eagerness - and not too much apprehension. But my sense is that’s changed; that some deep, precious sense of the possibilities of carefreeness has gone. And the new caution has taken over.

Over this last year my mind has often turned to how, a century ago, in the 1920s, people in the UK looked back across the abyss of the Great War and started portraying the so-called  Edwardian period, pre-1914, as a golden age of long summer afternoons and garden parties, and they summoned up romantic, nostalgia-tinged memories (real and constructed) of basking in a carefree world (well, carefree if you had money), a world of Empire and national prestige and self-satisfaction. You’ve read the books, seen the films - Merchant-Ivory and the rest - things that evoke this period with its lives of hopefulness, excitement about the future, and optimism that although the world was changing rapidly, particularly technologically, it was obviously changing for the better. 

Living through those sun-drenched years, people just didn’t know they were coming to the end of something - that actually they were at the end of something - they could not imagine the devastation and the losses that 1914 and war inflicted on a whole generation, young and old alike; let alone imagine the horrors that were to come as the century unfolded. Carefree days indeed.

 

And here we are, a century later, not yet post-Covid (if we will ever be), taking these tentative steps into our New Year, but far - perhaps very far - from relaxed and care free. And the question is, where can we find what we need to help us navigate through these fraught and complex times? Emotionally complex, politically and socially complex, globally complex times. Where can we look for inspiration? For hope?  

There have been times during this pandemic when you will have heard it said that this worldwide event, in which there has been, and continues to be, so much distress and so many losses, could also be an opportunity. Not exactly a heaven-sent opportunity – that requires a faith, a theology, that’s a bridge too far for most of us - but an opportunity nevertheless. That although we need to acknowledge the suffering many, many people have gone through - and that isn’t over, the hardship – it’s also presented us with a chance, a welcome chance, to reconsider the status quo, to re-evaluate priorities – personal, communal, national, global; that it’s cracked open the carapace, the hard, shiny, dense complacency about how things have to be - economically, and how our societies are ordered, and the priorities we allow governments to choose for us.

For some, this last 18 months has opened us up to imagine a different kind of life, and different ways of promoting human well-being and human flourishing in society. Yes, the pandemic has revealed the scandals about existing inequalities and deprivations but it has - particularly in its early stages when so much previous thinking was turned upside down (imagine paying people not to work!) - it has, intermittently, created some space to think about other ways of living. Or so this upbeat narrative might suggest.   

And yes, so much has already changed - where you work from, how often you get on a plane, how you shop, how you hold a meeting, how religious services happen, how much you cycle or walk, even where you live, see a doctor - there’s an endless list of  everyday stuff that has been impacted by the pandemic and is in the process of changing; or where there’s been at least a glimpse of a different way of doing things, where perhaps a better quality of life might be possible. That’s not to deny the losses we have experienced, but to acknowledge some of the more hopeful developments and possibilities that have been opened up. Even if the opening up has only been in our thinking, our capacity to imagine a different future, this pandemic has catalysed some deep shifts in our consciousness.    

But a lot of these possibilities we’ve glimpsed, or have been spoken about, or have begun to be enacted, are linked to something much more difficult to think about, let alone accept. To put it as simply as possible: we are being forced by the circumstances in which this pandemic is occurring to think about something maybe we’d much rather not have to think about, something quite painful.

If changes are coming to how we live and how we organize things, and if a sense of carefreeness is to return, whatever transformations happen would need to be such that we don’t have to continue to fear devastating floods and famine-inducing droughts and unbearable heatwaves and out-of-control wildfires, when we wouldn’t have to worry that our children and grandchildren are being brain damaged from the womb onwards by chemical pollution from plastics or from the very air they breathe. If change is going to happen in the directions we all pray for – or if not pray for, then at least wish for – if we are collectively going to turn things round and shape a better world then we have to start thinking about the hard question, the fundamental question: whether we really need all the things we think we do.

And this is the hard part about what any positive changes this pandemic is catalysing has revealed. How much do we need? How much do we tell ourselves we need? It can pain our hearts to look inside and consider these things, but during these Ten Days set aside in the Jewish calendar it is - whether we like it or not - part of the spiritual challenge of these days to reflect on some of these difficult questions.

There may not be any shortcuts here, or easy answers, or in the end any effective ways of avoiding the painful choices that are going to need to be made. To repeat the question again – the question this pandemic has brought out into the open, the question for our times: Do we really need all the things we think we do: the objects we buy, the experiences we buy, the holidays we buy, the kind of food we buy (all that meat with its environmentally destructive consequences), do we really need it all, and more of it, and different, and the new, and the latest, and what others have, do we really need it all?

And remember ‘need’ is different from ‘want’. ‘Want’ is easy to feel, sure. Of course we want stuff. But do we need what we ‘want’? ‘Want’ is an emotion, a feeling. And our emotions are powerful forces within us and can often rule us, to our own detriment. But ‘need’ is something else. ‘Do I need this?’ is a different question from “Do I want this?” . “Do I want this?” is a subjective question about our feeling life. But “Do I need this?” is, I’d suggest, a different kind of question. At root it’s an ethical question.

And as we know, however reluctantly we might want to know it, being Jewish just happens to mean having a commitment to ethical questions. Otherwise what’s the point? Without the ethical questions we are just another tribe in the human family, just another club to belong to. I’m not knocking the fringe benefits of tribalism or club membership: ask any sports fan about the sense of belonging tied up as a supporter; ask any member of a gym or a golf-club and they’ll tell you of the health benefits or the social contact membership offers. These are all good things - but they aren’t at the heart of the Jewish endeavour in the world, which is ask the hard questions; and not just ask them but respond to them in action. And - I’ll repeat it - the question for our times is, I think: Do we really need all the things we think we do? or feel we do?

In a world running out of resources, at the edge of catastrophe, where glimpses of devastation are becoming unignorable and a helplessness can easily set it, or a pessimism, or a cynicism, or fearfulness, or just an angry indifference, the most important ethical and political and environmental and spiritual idea can be summed up in one word: enough. Dayenu – the springtime Passover/Pesach text belongs here too, during our Ten Days of Self-judgment. Dayenu. Enough. When is what we have, what we already have, enough?

Can we stop the unrelenting urge to have more long enough to feel we have enough? To appreciate what we have. We already have enough. We reading this blog - just like the community who heard these words earlier in the week - already have enough. There are many millions who don’t have enough and that’s a huge national and international challenge - but I’m not talking about them, right now. I’m talking about us.

How do we feel we have enough? How do we get to the point where we say to ourselves: stop, dayenu? The problem is that if we are empty inside we will always want more. Nothing will ever feel enough. Which is why the question about limiting our consumption – whether it is of holidays in the sun, or meat, or anything else – although it’s a psychological problem is at root a spiritual problem.

Appetites are endless, but if there’s an emptiness inside us – and we may or may not be aware of it – we will never be able to say: enough. We won’t be able to say stop, we won’t be able to clear a space to consider how those who genuinely do need more can be helped, what changes do need to be made, economically and socially. What sacrifices need to be made.

What is this emptiness? The word is shocking, easy to deny. But what I’m talking about by ‘emptiness’ is how painful it can be to feel some lack inside ourselves: whether it is friendships, or love, or self-esteem, the right body shape, educational success, financial reward, health, meaning, purpose – we can feel a lack, an emptiness about any of this.

Sometimes we are living from a place inside us where we know, or have a sense about, what our deprivation is about; sometimes we can’t even identify what that is; but either way, if we sense some inner emptiness – or even worse if the emptiness is there and we don’t sense it, just drive ourselves crazy trying to fill ourselves up anyway – if this is how we live in the world, if this is what is going on inside of us – and what I am saying is a reality for countless, countless people - if this is what is going on, we can never say enough, we can never say stop, we can never say - because we can never feel - “I have enough”, I am blessed. We can never think: “I am enough”, I am blessed, and grateful. As I said, this is a psychological issue, but it’s also a spiritual issue.  

Our spirits might be restless, our souls might feel ill-nourished, our inner selves may feel aching and unsatisfied, but what these Ten Days in our calendar offer us is an opportunity to look at this – and to do something about it. Even to look at it, to think about it, is the beginning of doing something about it. Because what the Jewish tradition has created – what the Jewish people have created – is a framework for hopefulness. We can change, we are not pre-programmed - or not pre-programmed in ways that can’t evolve and change and grow.

Teshuvah means we can turn to the questions that matter.  Teshuvah means we can return to what we truly need, not what we think we need. And what we truly need, is to be able to be in contact, in living contact, with the spirit of all being that is in us, and in others around us - that’s the great value of community, that the divine can be experienced through the person you are sitting beside - even if it’s not too close.

What we yearn for, what gives our lives real meaning and a sense of purpose, is to be in contact with the spirit of all life, which is inside us and in each other, and that flows through all creation. Feeling it, knowing it, experiencing it, communing with it, singing it, praying it, speaking it, holding it in silence within us - we yearn for it. To experience the fulness of life in us and around us and between us.  

We can have all the material goods and possessions in the world, we can have all the exotic adventures that life offers, but in the end it is something intangible that we really need, something that is elusive and uncapturable and sometimes fleeting, something that our millennia-old Jewish tradition circles round and plays with and hints at - and reveals in sacred moments in our lives. Moments when we discover that we are a part of the sacred, that a spark of the divine is in the depths of our being - and I know that means nothing and yet I  also know that it means everything.

Our hope, personally and collectively, our hope, renewed in every generation, is that this spirit of being can live in us, can be expressed through us. It’s a gift and a mystery and a destiny. That source of all life that the tradition has named Adonai [the Eternal One] can heal our emptiness, it whispers its blessing : “You have enough, you are enough, you are blessed, this is my gift, this is the mystery, this is your destiny”.

[based on a sermon given at the Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, on the second day of the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, September 8th, 2021]

 

 

 

Saturday, 29 May 2021

'Sitting Here Stranded': Dylan at 80

 “We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it” (Visions of Johanna, 1966)

I guess that Zimmerman must have been a heavy overcoat of a name to bear for a teenage boy in Minnesota in the 1950s, and particularly a teenager with a guitar in hand who was in thrall to Little Richard and Elvis Presley. But in the ‘land of the free’ millions discarded the names of their ancestors and chose to re-invent themselves – or at least don a different, lighter name to wear in that brave new melting-pot world. Not only an American phenomenon of course: many of us here in the UK may have parallel stories of Jewish assimilation – or attempted assimilation.

All of which is to say ‘Happy 80th  Birthday’ this week to Bob Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, Shabbtai Zissel ben Avraham, the grandson of refugees who fled the infamous pogrom in Odessa in 1905. “I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans/ I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard” (A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, 1962) – you can change your name to that of a dead Welsh poet, but your Jewish sensibility will keep coming though whatever coat you wear.

“We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it”

Dylan’s lyrics, his poetry, his songs, have become part of the backdrop to countless lives around the globe. I’ve never been a so-called ‘fan’ of his – from the Latin fanaticus, ‘inspired by a deity’ - but I have learnt over the years to recognise a literary craftsman when I come across one. As presumably did the committee awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature five years ago in recognition of a unique polyphonic oracular voice speaking over the decades of love and loss, hope and despair, and the wrestling of meaning from the chaos of life: all the normal stuff of a Jewish sensibility seeking a home amidst the dislocations and contradictions and vicissitudes of life; like an ancient bard weaving a web of tangled and knotted narratives out of, and in protest against, the fracturedness and indifference of the world he finds himself in.

“We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it” 

Yes, that’s us too right now, stranded in our Zoom boxes but making the best of it, doing our best to deny what our hearts and bodies truly yearn for. As we sit and appreciate what we have, and what we receive through the screen, and genuinely value the connectedness and sense of belonging that is possible even through the screen - even while all that is going on and we feel our gratitude that it is going on, we are simultaneously in a state of suspended animation, in part-denial of – holding at arm’s length, as it were - what we really want: which is to see each other in the flesh again, hug each other, feel the living presence of each other and experience our own aliveness through that. But we are getting there. Slowly.

Meanwhile, “We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it”

As I reflect on that line, “turn it over and over”, as the rabbis said of the texts of Torah, “for everything is within it”, I find it resonating with so much of what is happening around us. Have we not all felt a bit stranded in recent weeks as the latest chapter of violence and pain has unfolded in Israel and Palestine, and the now predictable upsurge in antisemitic rhetoric and activity is disgorged into the airways and streets around us? Yes, we sit here stranded, doing our best to deny the painful knowledge that our own wellbeing as diaspora Jews seems to be at the mercy of, and in a perverse symbiotic enmeshment with, Israeli politics. And we probably would prefer to deny that this is the dark mirror image of how it was supposed to be: Israel not an admired “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) but the opposite - making it less safe to be Jewish around the world than it’s been for seventy years and more. 

“We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it”

And with Covid too, although of course we can be active in terms of vaccinations and the precautionary measures we take personally, we are still to a greater degree than we can sometimes bear to think about at the mercy of  forces beyond our control (new variants, government confusion, the irresponsibility of others hellbent on returning to pleasure-seeking of various kinds, whether its nightclubs or sun-soaked holidays). And what we might be most in denial of is that none of us will ever be safe again until the vaccination process - with its concomitant need for probably annual renewal - has become a truly global reality. And although there is a real acknowledgment of this in the scientific community, and the World Health Organization, and some more enlightened governments around the world, that line of Dylan’s about feeling stranded still resonates.

And it may feel similar too with the climate crisis: although activism and campaigning and pressuring for change can all counter that sense of being stranded, there may still be a part of us – large or small – that’s doing our best to deny how threatened we are, and/or how threatened we feel. I’m not going to open this theme out now, because it’s quite easy to switch off one’s attention around this – that’s how denial works – but for those who are interested I’ll put a link a bit later in the chat to a piece about a powerful new report from Imperial College, London,  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/may/26/climate-crisis-inflicting-huge-hidden-costs-mental-health about the worldwide mental health cost of the climate emergency: suicide, stress, depression, the debilitating effects of inequality, famines, floods, droughts, dislocation, we are talking about psychological trauma on a massive scale, and particularly in younger people when they see lack of action. 

Yes, “We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it” . And yet this isn’t set in stone, this isn’t inevitable: actions by individuals, governments, communities, have proven benefits to our mental wellbeing through an increased sense of agency and hope - as well of course as being vital in themselves to safeguard our futures, and our planet’s survival.

“I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans…

And I'll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect from the mountains so all souls can see it…”
(A Hard Rain…)

Well, he’s done good, the Jewish youngster who wrote those words when he was just 21 – ridiculous! - the boy from Hibbing, Minnesota has spent a lifetime doing it. A hundred shows a year, from 1990 to 2019, around the world – just think about that, how a visionary and poet kept on ‘telling it and speaking it and thinking it and breathing it’, indifferent to public opinion or approval, like the prophets of old, finding his religiosity in the music, in the verses, in the words that came out of him, and the spaces between the words.

Happy 80th, Shabbtai Zissel ben Avraham. Ad meah v’esrim, as the traditional Jewish blessing says, “May you live to 120”: ‘telling it and speaking it and thinking it and breathing it…so all souls can see it’.

[based on a sermon given on Zoom at Finchley Reform Synagogue, May 29th, 2021]