“No man is on an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any man’s death diminishes me because I’m involved in mankind”.
John Donne, metaphysical poet, preacher and writer penned these words almost 400 hundred years ago. They’re part of a memorable piece called ‘Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Several Steps in my sickness”. They were written as a meditation after a severe illness; they are a cry from the heart; they speak to the heart and are as relevant and rousing today as they were a century ago.
They speak directly to me as a Jew and as a rabbi because they evoke not only the Torah’s poignant phrase “It is not good for a human being to be alone” (Genesis 2:18) but also because they speak of our interdependence, our responsibility to one another as Jews (in the rabbinic adage: “All Israel are obligated to each other”; Kol Yisrael Areivim). They also remind us of our vulnerability and need for empathy and compassion; to strive to feel the pain and loss of the other regardless of who they are. It’s often only when we’ve suffered or sorrowed that we better understand the anguish of another human being. Only then we recognise the blessing and burden of humanity; that we’re born into the midst of a wider world, that we’re involved in the world whether we like it or not: It’s not by chance that Donne wrote this passage as he was emerging from the darkness of ill health.
This piece talks to me as a rabbi because I’ve always thought and taught that we’re not just “a people who live on their own” but we’re also part of the global village; created like all of God’s humans in his inestimable image. (Incidentally these lines have been used in the Brexit debate against isolationism.) And of course, I love the way Donne uses language and have always admired his poetry with its mix of intellect and emotion paradox and pilpul, spirituality and sensuality. Some of his lines line my very soul: “Death be not proud, though some have called you Mighty and Dreadful, for you are not so …/ you are slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men…/ One short sleep we wake eternally / And death shall be no more; death you shall die”. These lines give me comfort and reassurance in the face of death with their very Jewish belief that death is just a blink in the eye of eternity. And then there are the delightful, playful expressions like “Busy old fool, unruly sun, why do you thus, through windows and through curtains call on us?”
I’ve been thinking of John Donne because of the sentencing of Cardinal Pell and because of the people I have worked with in the Catholic church. This isn’t just a Catholic issue, not least because we’re ‘involved in humankind’. It impacts on all religions and the indictment of Malka Leifer brings it closer to home than any of us would wish for. We’re all impacted because regardless of the final outcome of Pell’s appeals and that he may yet be found innocent, the damage is done. Hardly any religion has escaped from the exposes of the last decade and, in Australia, from the Royal Commission’s searing findings. Religion has been the loser. God has been the loser. We are all in need of introspection and self-examination. We are all flawed and fragile human beings and the unending pain of the victims (and especially the children) of sexual abuse tears at our hearts and the very fabric of society.
The final words of Donne’s excerpt are as famous as they are fearless: “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. The bell was tolled when a person died and it refers back to the fact that we should all feel diminished by the death of another. Rav Soloveitchik in his iconic essay on the individual and the community echoes this sentiment. He writes of how each individual possesses something unique and rare and is a little world, a majestic microcosm: “with the death of the individual, this little world comes to an end. A vacuum which other individuals cannot fill is left”. He goes on to suggest that the sensitive rules pertaining to mourning are rooted in the Halacha’s perception of the “tragic singleness of man, in the awareness that man… exists once in an eternity”.
Another very Jewish take on Donne’s bell was given in a Rosh Hashanah drasha many years ago. “Never ask” said the rabbi “for whom the shofar blasts. It sounds for you”. The shofar is a call to responsibility and for action. It’s a uniquely Jewish sound but it’s also a heart-breaking sobbing sound; a reminder that the world out there is broken, in need of mending and healing. Let’s be sure we hear and respond to its call to improve ourselves within and interact with faith and compassion to those around us.