During the summer I finally got tired of asking people to repeat themselves and not understanding ‘television-speak’. So I gave in and went and got myself a hearing aid. I can’t say it’s revolutionized my life – I still occasionally can’t hear properly or understand the television, especially in American. But my ability to hear has definitely changed; in some ways it’s better, in others it’s worse or at least odd. But what it has done – and I’m so grateful for it – is made me much more aware of the natural world around me. Especially I’m aware of the birdsong in the garden and along the road. Last week I was in the West End, in Cavendish Square to be precise, and had what I can only describe as a moment of joy and insight. Above the traffic noise, up somewhere in the trees in the square, a bird – a blackbird I think – was singing in a pure and beautiful voice such a lovely song, that for a moment I wanted to cry, not for sadness but, as I said, for joy.
Of course I stopped to listen – in the proverbial patch of sunlight – yes, truly a patch of sunlight just for me – and the city with its noise and hubbub and smell went away. Somehow the sound connected to something really deep inside me and I was all of a sudden in another place, a spiritual place profoundly hidden, and mostly unreachable. It is a place of intense silence filled with – well, I can only say, God. It’s a place I’ve only experienced to the full once in the past, long ago now, at a time when I was in huge internal turmoil. It happened one Shabbat when I was in synagogue and praying alone amid everyone else’s prayers. I remember saying I couldn’t carry on like this and laying all of it before God and asking that God would, please, carry me for a while, I was so tired and confused. And out of that inward place came peace of mind, strength and the certainty that I could cope with what I had to cope with. And I cried that day, too: in fact, I seem to remember that I didn’t stop crying most of the day. In one moment the whole of my internal map got reworked, probably in the space of less than a minute, although in fact I have no sense of how long it was; it could have been half a minute or half an hour. But it certainly changed my life, because I became other than I had been and it was miraculous, and I have never stopped thanking God for it.
The bird in Cavendish Square reconnected me to that time, not as fully as the original experience, but enough to take me into the inner silence, which is where God is always waiting for us. And God really does wait for each of us, inside each of us. The posh word is ‘immanent’ but it’s not one that occurs when you’re in that place. In fact it’s not really a place of words at all, but rather a place of feeling and listening.
‘האזינו’ – ‘Listen’, says the text of Deuteronomy in this week’s parashah; and then lists, with some glee, I feel, all the dreadful and disastrous consequences of not listening to, or obeying the word of God. These are the words of God as transmitted to us by a man of God something around three thousand years ago. And for some people every jot and tittle of the mitzvot that we were given then are still to be obeyed. For other people there are other ways of listening to God, and I have already told you mine.
It is my most profound belief that God is available to each of us, without an intermediary. I do not mean that there is no need for teachers and guides, of course there is. All religious and for that matter, secular institutions have their teachers. And what is taught is valuable and important, or else we could get into a ‘Lord of the Flies’ situation. But there is also the place within where God is available to us. Not just within, either: I doubt there is a person alive who hasn’t at some time felt the need ‘to stop and stare’, in the way that the poet says. In that moment we are with God and God is with us. That’s the external equivalent – for me at least – of the internal moment, and it can lead you (as it did for me in Cavendish Square) inwards. The Eternal within us and the Eternal beyond us; both are true and how glorious it is to know that the One whose majesty and beauty is all around us, is also to be found waiting for us deep inside our very selves, closer than the person closest to us and always there.
Which is not to say that it is always easy to access those inmost depths, because in my experience, at least, it is not. All sorts of things, from outward concerns – business, illness, children, parents, you name it, get in the way. But then there is the time, when all unbidden, we are drawn within and can just ‘be’ in that space. Because it isn’t a matter of doing: it’s a matter of being and listening. And what we hear in that private space can be some quite small matter or it can become the cornerstone of our lives.
At this time of the year it’s really important to take time (in synagogue, in bed, out for a walk) to listen to that still small voice: we yet have time to repair what can be repaired, to apologize for something great or small to a friend or relation, or to turn our whole lives to a different path.
May these High Holydays come to us for good, and may we find ourselves able to stop and listen to the Voice within.
Rabbinic student Leo Baeck College
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.