The Israeli elections on Tuesday; tomorrow Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, and Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees; National Holocaust Memorial Day on Sunday: – where does one begin?
The Mechilta, which contains discussions from the 2ndcentury and may be the oldest known stratum of rabbinic commentary, puzzles over one single word in the Song at the Sea: ve’anvehu. Is it related to noi, meaning beauty? If so, how does a mere human being render God beautiful? Or is it connected to the nounnaveh , meaning place? If so, how do we make a place for God in our world? Or perhaps the two meanings are connected, if not semantically, then at least morally: the world will only be beautiful if there is space within it for God, if there is place within it to respect the sacred within human, and all, life.
When Primo Levi wrote about the liberation of Auschwitz, 27 January 1945, from which the date for Holocaust Memorial Day was taken, he was as ever scrupulously unsentimental:
The four Russian soldiers who appeared on horseback through the mist did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint…It was that shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage…the shame..that the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist…(The Truce)
The world, and that must be the essential point in having a Holocaust Memorial Day, will only be God’s place when such crimes are no longer committed, against anyone anywhere.
The State of Israel was created as a homeland for the Jewish People, a democratic state proclaiming equality for all its citizens, in the immediate wake of the Shoah. Many who survived the death camps with nothing but their bare bones and scarcely a single survivor of all their loved ones, went to fight for its existence and build new lives there in freedom and dignity. This week’s elections are in and of themselves a proclamation of that democratic freedom, and , with a far more finely balanced Knesset than most had thought likely, and with many new MKs, among them more women than ever before in an Israeli Parliament, may lead to a fresh social inclusiveness, new hope and better opportunities for peace. ‘I will accompany God to God’s holy place’, say the sages, commenting on that elusive wordve’anvehu: maybe we can support that journey going a step further.
Meanwhile, ‘If you are planting a tree and you hear the Messiah approaching, don’t stop’, taught the rabbis, – but firm its roots properly in the soil. How can anyone talk about beauty or ‘God’s world’ without the trees? They’ve cut down Binsey Poplars, mourned Gerald Manley Hopkins over a century ago:
…Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river, and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
Therefore let us plant them back again along the valleys and wind-wandering paths, so that we can find wonder amongst them, with the birds and the pure air. ‘God’s world, those woodlands’, I think whenever I’m in the forests, in the Galilee, or Scotland, or the Jerusalem hills.