Rabbi Wittenberg Reflects Post Nice On the Value of Life
Shalom New North London
Erev Shabbat, 9 Tammuz 5776
Friday, 15 July 2016
I’ve just spoken to my colleague David Touboul, rabbi of the Masorti community in Nice. Mercifully, it seems his congregation are safe, though many were nearby when the attack took place. But poor people of Nice. Our thoughts are with the bereaved, the wounded and the traumatised. Poor France, and alas for a world where so many people suffer terror or the threat of terror every day of their lives.
Only this winter I celebrated with Rabbi David the twentieth birthday of his congregation at which everyone sung and danced with the Torah.
The Torah is called Torat Chayim, The Torah of Life. To hold it is to embrace the tree of life, like a child who throws its arms around the trunk of an oak tree in the park. You feel as if its sap is rising not only into its branches and leaves, but through you; you push your heart against the bark and sense the great nourishment of the giver of all life.
Judaism, life itself, finds its strength and joy through attachment to the tree of life. In hours of pain and confusion we turn to the Torah and its teachings to seek healing; in times of celebration we sing and dance with the Torah, like the dance of life itself.
The aim of terror and hatred is to detach us from the tree of life, to kill us physically and to maim us spiritually by destroying our confidence and joy. Any terror outrage anywhere is an attack on the preciousness of life everywhere. We must never condone it, or, though we have to be vigilant, be cowed by it, or allow it to undermine our values, at the heart of which is the simple truth that every life and all life matters beyond any price that can be put upon its head.
It is our duty to bring healing wherever we can. There are innumerable ways in which we can make this part of our lives, each of us according to our gifts and opportunities. Healing is not just saving lives, though nothing is more important where life itself is at stake. Healing can be listening to stress and anger with patience, a kind word in an otherwise anonymous interaction, a gift to someone who is hungry, the offer of help with a lonely, challenging task.
It is also incumbent on us to reach out to others, now more than ever. There are many within our own community (whether that is Jewish, Christian, Muslim or the locality of our street or village) who are isolated by age, disability or distance from their loved ones. It is far harder to bear difficult times alone than within the embrace of a neighbourly group. There are also many who feel unheard, unwanted and unwelcome. We must respond to those who exploit differences to foster fear and prejudice by crossing the lines of apparent division to develop friendship, mutuality and trust. That is the only way to defeat hatred.
Most of all, it remains our privilege and responsibility to celebrate life. We respond to contempt for life by honouring life; to the destruction of life by the nurturing of life. Celebration is not the same as heedless hedonism. It is an affirmation of the privilege of being able to breath, feel, communicate, enjoy, care, love, – all the sensations and emotions of being human, many of which we share with other forms of existence as well.
It is a basic form of gratitude. It is a way of saying: we never hold life in contempt; we are never indifferent; we are grateful for this short gift of time and will use it to cherish and love our comrades in this partnership of life.
It is the way we put our arms around the tree of life, – and sometimes even that strong and sustaining tree needs our embrace as well.