Monday, September 29, 2008

Yirat Shamayim - Fear of Heaven

I’m sure I’m not the only one for whom today is an ‘I’ll never, ever, ever, possibly ever get everything done I’m supposed to do before Yom Tov’ sort of day. Perhaps the best solution is to concede that it’s true, and then relax, hoping that, though I may forget things, I won’t forget people.

I promised to write about yirat shamayim, the fear of heaven.

In traditional Jewish theology fear of heaven is the partner of love of heaven, only it’s the unpopular member of the pair. Rabbi Louis Jacobs lamented that modern theologians tend to ignore it altogether. Yet it’s a deeply important - I was going to say ‘concept’, - but I should say feeling. The higher aspect of fear of heaven is called by the mystics yirat harommemut, awe before the exalted divine presence. Maimonides describes it as the impulse of humility, of withdrawal almost, before the experience of great wonder. It might be associated, for example, with the stillness we feel as we reach the summit of a mountain and see the majestic view unfold before us, rock, precipice, forest, sky and distant sea. For a moment something so vast invades our heart that we are silenced, lost in the presence of incomparably greater being. But here is a moment when the poet Rilke finds such awe in something very small:

I found you
One time…
You are a fledgling with yellow claws
And big eyes, and it hurts to see you so.
(My hand is far too broad for you.)
And I take with my fingers a drop from the spring.
I strain to see if you will take it with gaping beak.
I feel your heart throbbing and my own heart, too,
And both from fright.

The wonder of life has settled in the poet’s palm. We can appreciate the tiny bird’s terror. But the man, being so much stronger, why should he be afraid? Maybe it is the awe of such an unexpected encounter which overwhelms him. Or maybe it is the feeling of deep tenderness towards this little, fragile life, which he desperately hopes not to hurt. This reminds me of a Hasidic explanation of the meaning of yirat shamayim: it is what we experience when we care so much and are frightened lest we should ever inadvertently bring pain to the one whom we so deeply love.

I hope our hearts are stirred by such awe and that it touches our prayers with its wonder.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Love of God

I’ve never done this before, but I thought I would write a short message each day from now until Erev Yom Kippur.

If I were to say that all is calm and organised in this particular rabbinical household, with the tables laid and the apples shining next to the pot of honey, - well, then, I would be lying. Nor are the sermons all neatly written out and lying in a pile appropriately labelled. Nor have I visited everyone I intended to visit or written all the cards, or made all the phone calls…I’m sorry.

In spite of the rush and the pre Yom Tov angst, there are two qualities which matter above all. I really want them to prevail through our community. These are attitudes which we can only find and maintain with the help of one another. They are the classic terms in which Judaism describes the approach to God’s service and are so fundamental that Maimonides describes them both in the second chapter of his Laws of the Foundations of Torah. They are the love of God and the awe of God. I’ll say a few words about the former now, and about the latter tomorrow.

One can’t love God if one doesn’t love God’s world, especially other people. Yet we all know that even in our closest relationships, vexations and irritations often prevent us from appreciating those who deserve far better from us. Top of my agenda, therefore, and most especially so at this time of year, is to appreciate my family, friends, people with whom I share community, neighbourhood, even a casual conversation, and to try to show it. I seek out moments, places, poems which help me to realise what a privilege it is to be alive. I try to see the ordinary, beautiful things I so often simply rush past. Here, too, I know I don’t succeed in the way that I should wish.

But, thank goodness, there are extraordinary reminders. Twelve of us gathered at the Western Cemetery today for the short memorial service which has now become a Minhag of our community. Afterwards someone said to me, ‘I don’t know how this should be, but I leave here sad, yet grateful. I’m sad because of this great loss, yet I feel deeply grateful for the gift of life.’
This, to me, is the love of God: nothing pious, just a feeling for the wonder of life, and love. That’s the spirit I’m sure we would all like to have in our hearts when we stand before God. When it touches the heart, that is the moment when we are most truly in God’s presence.