Listening at life’s door?
I want to write, in preparation, for Shavuot, Zeman Mattan Torateinu, the festival which celebrates God’s revelation through the giving of the Torah.
By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
In the last few days I have been a witness to some of the miracles and wonders of the human predicament, in an especially intense and unforgettable way. I sometimes find myself like a listener at the door of people’s souls, not as an eavesdropper, not in any inappropriate manner, but as if asked to testify, without comment or gesture, that such love, such alert and devoted affection, such discerning sensitivity and tenderness, does indeed exist despite all life’s dulling routines, the remorseless cruelties of illness and the implacable infractions of time.
In such moments, when we listen to one another, or to nature itself, as if the very heart of life were open and somehow talking to itself in its very pulse and depth, there can be no retreat or withdrawal to the shelter of indifference. The listener becomes addressee, drawn in, silenced, implicated in the conversation. Sometimes this feels as if a great love were then bestowed upon one there, in that moment of awareness and over-hearing, leaving one with a strong longing to do one’s utmost best in all one’s deeds, for other people, for the world itself. Sometimes one carries away a haunting shame, and a voice speaks powerfully into the complex and restless currents of one’s soul: ‘Purify yourself. Stop being so unworthy of so much life and wonder.’
It would not, I believe, be wrong to think of this converse, or silence, in the essence of all things as God’s voice. With no thunder, lightning or mountains, it is a gentle form of revelation. I think it is probably the only form of revelation of which we may be worthy. It is certainly sufficient to every moral and spiritual need we may ever experience in this life, down to our dying hour.
In and of itself, that voice knows no division into different faiths and therefore favours no gender, no race and no religion. It is the God of life within all of life.
From it, many laws follow. But at its heart is just one law, inextricably implied by its very essence and existence, and from which all others derive: respect and reverence for life itself. That is why, in the Ten Commandments, the words which parallel ‘I am’ are ‘You shall not kill’. Killing ‘in God’s name’ is almost always a desecration. God cannot be allied with hate. If only those would know it, who incite, or stone, or shoot, or bomb. If only we would all know it, always.
When I go to the cemetery I prefer to arrive early, to find somewhere in the nearby woodland and walk on my own, or with the dog, for a few minutes, going over the words I’ve been asked to say in honour and affection for the life which is now complete. Yesterday, when I returned along the lane down which I had driven past our burial grounds in search of such solitude, I had to stop three times in that brief half mile. First, a young rabbit hopped out from the thick grass verge onto the tarmac. Then a small deer walked tentatively over the road. Finally a duck waddled across in a diagonal trajectory, expressing in its gait, as ducks seem to do, a nonchalant kind of ‘What’s the hurry? You just wait there, you.’
And so I did. And so my heart was slowed, to listen at life’s door.