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Sun, Sand and Soul – Lionel Blue and Jonathan Magonet

October 30, 2015

S S and SWhat’s not to like? Lionel Blue (b. 1930) is a British Reform rabbi, journalist and broadcaster. He was the first British rabbi publicly to declare his homosexuality.

He is best known for his longstanding work with the media, most notably his wry and gentle sense of humour on Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

This book gives us a series of meditations and prayers, at once light-hearted yet profound. They, like his radio talks, are able to touch ‘ordinary people’ not just the religious.

Quotations:

It isn’t as if my niceness is religious, because real religion isn’t cowardice. The Bible says explicitly when you’ve got a complaint against your neighbour point it out firmly. Which is why so much anger is expressed, not suppressed, in the Bible. Some of the psalms get so angry hey have to be truncated or just left out of the liturgy. The prophets get really mad, too, and Jesus causes I mayhem among the money-changers… Don’t blame yourself for your anger. You’re not the only one with it. The people around you have got to get rid of their tensions too. Remember you’ve got to love yourself as well as them. If your anger is too great for all the suggestions I’ve made, then turn up the radio or TV and scream it to God. He can absorb it, and won’t mind provided you don’t do it at night and keep other people awake with it. Some of the prophets did just that and why should you think you’re any better! As a spiritual exercise look up all the angry bits in a Bible.

And when the tabloids scream about the menace of asylum-seekers, get angry and write the paper a letter. The whole of our Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions go back to a few refugees like Abraham and Moses, and a bunch of slaves who managed to escape from Egypt. As every traveller knows in his or her heart, ‘We are all of us strangers almost everywhere in the world.’

nothing to lose. Old though he was, this might have seemed like a last chance to make a new beginning even now in the autumn of his life. It could have ended up in total failure. Or Abraham could have seemed just as silly or pathetic as Don Quixote — another old man with a strange vision, setting off on a romantic journey to rescue damsels in distress and tilt at windmills. Instead Abraham fathered a people that is still around today, Judaism sees him as its founder and he is regarded as a key figure in Christianity and Islam. The call he gets from God is not really a command, though most English translations make it seem so: ‘Go!’ or ‘Go now!’ But the original Hebrew has two words / which make it more of a request: ‘Go — for your own sake.’ He is to leave his old world behind and take a chance on a new one.

So Abraham went and arrived in the promised land. But here reality intrudes. The times are hard, there is famine in the land. Arid just when he is in trouble it seems that God is nowhere to be found. The voice that told Abraham to go is now silent. So Abraham gave up on God for the time being and used his own initiative. He journeyed down to the land of Egypt in search of food.

Abraham must have felt betrayed. After all he had given up everything for this journey of a lifetime. Perhaps he thought there was a ‘pot of gold’ waiting for him at journey’s end or at least a ‘happy end’. Instead he found himself stuck in yet another foreign country, living off his wits. Even so his heart was still set on that ‘promised land’ and he headed back at the first opportunity to try it again.

His departure from Egypt was without much dignity since he was escorted out under armed guard! He’d made a detour, but he’d also passed some kind of test by being willing to trust God and try again. There is another way to understand his call. ‘“Go” where I send you,’ says God, ‘but the rest is “up to you”. You will have what you need for your journey, but you will have to find your resources within yourself. And though we will meet now and then on the way, it will be at the times of My choosing,’ says God, ‘not always when you want it.’

All of which seems to belong to a holy day more than a holiday. But anyone who’s had a flight cancelled or had to change a booking because of some last-minute crisis knows that we are not in charge of the universe. ‘Man proposes, God disposes.’ But whether ‘holy’ or only ‘holi’, we are still in charge of how we deal with the things that come our way. So when things don’t work out as they should on holiday, remember ancient Abraham, without benefit of bus pass or travel insurance, packing up and heading off knowing that somewhere unexpected along the way God was waiting to meet him.

A friend of mine has the ability to devour new languages. He goes on holiday with a Serbo-Croat grammar and comes back fluent, with maybe a local dialect thrown in for good measure. He’s not Jewish but used to sit on the bus in New York reading a Yiddish newspaper.
I am pretty comfortable by now in French and German, and though my modern Hebrew is patchy, the classical language goes with the job as a rabbi. This is not to show off, but it must be a gift of some sort, plus a lot of work on grammar, vocabulary and practice over the years, the pain and boredom of which I have mercifully forgotten. Perhaps somewhere behind such an ability is the need to communicate. We can mime a lot to each other, and sometimes eyes can say more than a dictionary, but talking is what it is all about. And learning someone else’s language shows a commitment to others that people respect.
I still get a childish thrill about being able to get by in another language, however clumsily. French was my first school language — ‘Un, deux, trois, oil est le roi?’ ‘One, two, three, where is the king?’ Maybe our holidays in France as a child gave me an impetus. Though, my willingness to speak French was not always appreciated.

We must have been driving through Paris on the way to the South of France when my dad went through a red light and was pulled over by the police. ‘I’ll explain what happened,’ I offered. He gave me a dirty look. ‘We don’t speak any French!’ he snarled and turned on his Canadian charm and helplessness for the gendarme. It must have worked. I’ve also had to play the innocent, languageless tourist from time to time.

What is the effect of changing languages? A friend of mine from Holland, who has lived most of her adult life in England, once pointed out that her entire love life had been conducted in English and there were whole ranges of experience for which she had no vocabulary in her native language.

It is not only a matter of vocabulary. There is something about the intonation, diction, sound of another language that also affects us. German makes me more conscious of the structure of what I want to say — waiting to fit in all those verbs at the end. Churchill’s ‘that is something up with which I will not put’ makes perfectly good German sense. Perhaps the language knocks a bit of spontaneity out of me.

In French I flow and soften. The words roll into one another as if the hard edges are knocked off them. Am I different? Or is this just a more refined way of being prejudiced? Certainly biblical Hebrew must have had an effect on the behaviour of the children of Israel. The verb is the main thing in the language; nouns are only verbs that have stopped moving, ‘frozen’. And since the verb usually comes first in the sentence, before even the subject, biblical characters are off and running, always busy doing, and only thinking about it, if at all, afterwards.

All of which is just to point out how much more fun a holiday can be if we can get our tongues round a few words of the local language. It turns us from tourists into visitors, from strangers passing through to potential friends who can be taken seriously. It opens doors as well into people’s private worlds that would otherwise stay shut. Of course if all we want is two weeks with suntan oil and cheap booze at Bernie’s taverna (‘a touch of back home on the Costa’), it’s not worth the bother.

But there may be more to the whole business. The biblical story of the Tower of Babel tries to explain why different languages came into the world. Once there was only one language which everyone spoke, but when they tried to build a tower to heaven, God came down and confused their languages. It’s not clear why — God wanted people to explore the whole world and they wanted instead to stick together where they were. But whatever the reason, there is one odd nuance in the story that usually gets lost in the translation. When God scrambled their language it usually reads ‘so that a man could not understand his neighbour’. That is one meaning of the Hebrew verb sh’ma, but not the usual one. It is mostly translated as ‘hear’, as in the famous ‘Hear, 0 Israel, the Eternal our God, the Eternal is One’. So does it mean ‘hear’ or ‘understand’? Perhaps the problem was not that they could not understand each other, but that they just weren’t prepared to listen any more. They let the difference in languages get in the way of communicating with each other. If we want to understand each other we can, whatever the language we use. If we don’t want to understand each other, we can do that perfectly well even / if we speak the identical language. So learning another language is a great spiritual challenge because we have the chance to meet new worlds and discover how different and how similar they are. Opening doors to others opens doors within us as well. So, next time you pack a little phrase book, or leaf through one at the airport, and wonder how often you will need the phrase ‘Where is the nearest apothecary, my postillion has been struck by lightning’, learn it anyway and give it a chance. The next ‘apothecary’ you meet might become a friend for life.

 I can’t help collecting those mangled English translations that turn up on signs in other countries. Like the one above the taps on a French train: ‘Turn the lever indifferently to the left or right.’ Heigh-ho!

On the German autobahn I found this notice aimed at making us feel welcome: ‘Please leave the trays on the table. We want to make your stay in our house as comfortable as possible. You may leave the china in best conscience!’

Apparently a railway station in Hong Kong announces at regular intervals: ‘Beware of your luggage!’ Another one warns: ‘Beware of announcements!’
A French hotel had a questionnaire about your stay that was translated into impeccable English. The heading to the nicely presented document read in large letters:
‘Did you like it?’ But the French set me off in quite another direction. I would have understood ‘Avez-vous aimé’ to mean: ‘Have you loved?’ Apart from the impertinence of such a question — what business is it of theirs? I was very impressed that they could immediately come to the existential centre of my being. I’m still trying to figure out the answer.

Try another language of prayer

The prayers we say have been said so many times, many have become mere charms or mantras. Try saying them in the language of the country you are staying in! The result might surprise. I always dismissed the biblical injunction ‘Be ye perfect!’ because perfection is not a characteristic of our world. But in old Hebrew, there is no word for perfection. The words that it translates really mean ‘whole’, ‘complete’ or ‘innocent’. Those made sense.

Balaam travelled hopefully but almost never arrived.

His story seems to be about an outer journey but it is really about an inner one. Balaam was torn by conflicting wishes within himself. His reputation depended on his doing a good job of cursing, and he may have had some kind of personal animosity against the children of Israel as well. But he also knew that this was one job he should not have taken on since God was against it.

Now, it is not every day that we encounter angels and talking donkeys or for that matter receive messages from God telling us to do the opposite of what we desperately want to do.

But Balaam’s story gives a helpful warning. When our expected journey is constantly being interrupted; or if we find ourselves hurting the people we love or trust, it is time to stop and take a look at what is going on in our life. Perhaps we have taken a wrong direction. Perhaps we are no longer being true to ourselves and cannot see what is staring us in the face. And because we cannot sort out our inner problems we are taking them out on someone else. So instead of going round cursing others we should take a look at ourselves. Maybe the people we are cursing are really on our side and deserve a blessing instead.

If we do travel hopefully, then wherever we arrive may just turn out to be the place where we ought to be.

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