Living in peace with creation

Only last week, in the beautiful poem with which the Hebrew Bible opens, we read of a God in love with the world. ‘God saw that it was good’ is the chorus line of creation.

Now, just one week’s reading later, God sees that the world is bad. Losing patience with humanity ‘whose every thought is evil’, God determines to destroy the earth. Only Noah is to survive, with the precious gene-pool of all living things sealed away in the floating bubble of the Ark.

Everyone knows the story. Except that we sing it from the point of view of the animals who ‘came in two by two’. What about those who didn’t? And the people? Were they all so awful that they really deserved to drown?

Afterwards, God is sorry. It’s history’s first ‘Never again!’ In soothing words, God ensures Noah that

All the days of the earth [the rhythm of] seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day-time and night-time shall never come to rest (Genesis 8:22)

It feels a little late. According to the Zohar, when Noah opens the portal of the Ark and looks out on the mud-flats of devastation where once there had been villages, fields and forests, he weeps. So Noah is sorry too.

What about us? Do we regret, or really care about, what we do to the earth?

The Torah tells us what was wrong before the flood: ‘All flesh had destroyed its way upon the earth’. But what does this broad indictment actually mean?

Rashi, the great 11th century commentator, explains: ‘even the cattle, wild animals and birds interbred,’ corrupting their species. Blame the animals, too.

Nachmanides (1194 – 1270) disagrees, maintaining that the plain meaning is that ‘all flesh’ refers only to humans. Our species did wrong, but all living beings had to pay the price.

This is disturbingly close to home. If we’re not disturbed, we’re probably missing the most important issue confronting our civilisation.

To return to the critical sentence: what might ‘destroyed its way’ mean to us? The Hebrew for ‘way’ derech, appears in another, much-loved verse about the Torah and wisdom as a whole:

Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.

Are our ways, towards each other, nature and life itself, ways of pleasantness and peace? If not, how can we make them so, urgently?

Every day I receive letters about cruelty, the callous neglect of human life and contempt for nature. Some provide distressingly explicit details about the deliberate, sadistic enjoyment of the pain suffered by animals, – and by people.

While I obviously abhor the particular abuses described, such communications leave me with a more difficult question: am I, too, complicit? Can I live without colluding with, or even relying on, the practice of cruelty and injustice to someone else, to some other living being, somewhere?

Can we live in ‘peace and pleasantness’ with each other and with nature?

No issue is more urgent

 

Hoshana Rabba

I always think of my father on Hoshana Rabba. For so many years we would go together to the New London Synagogue for this beautiful service which carries in its complex liturgy the melodies of all the High Holyday prayers and completes the season. Hoshana Rabba is the sealing of the books, the Ne’ilah of the Ne’ilah, the closing of the closing.

This is not destiny turning the page on our life, rendering immutable whatever has been inscribed there by God’s inscrutable hand. Rather, it is our chance to reflect on what we want to write in the unfolding scroll of our coming year; to set in our heart our best intentions about the good we desire to achieve. Afterwards, we venture out and encounter as well as we can the unknown blessings and adversities of the months ahead.

There are three books in which we all want to be sealed (at least, I can’t imagine otherwise). The first is Sefer haChayyim, the book of life. I see it more like a garden than a volume on a shelf. I imagine the book of life as forests and farmlands, cities and gardens, rivers and seas all nourished by the sap of God’s invisible Etz HaChayyim, tree of life, by which, according to the mystics, all vital being is nourished. I want to be a planter, not an uprooter, a person who nurtures life, rather than a destroyer of living things; I want to be a fellow gardener in this sacred world. I would like to have a green-fingered soul, – and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

The second volume is Sefer Toldot Adam, the book of humankind. The phrase comes from, and, strictly speaking refers specifically to, the Torah. But it can also be understood more comprehensively as the index of all humanity, comprising in its pages the fortunes, joys, sufferings, mercies and injustices which visit each and every person. My aspiration is to try to be faithful to the trust reposed in Abraham when God said to him, ‘heyeh berachah, be a blessing’. Judaism has always understood that, if this is to amount to anything more than vague intentions, it must entail standing up with courage and persistence for human dignity. It means confronting cruelty, hatred and wrong in a spirit of justice, and seeking to heal suffering and pain in a spirit of kindness and compassion.

The third book is the book of the heart, as the beloved says in the Song of Songs ‘set me as a seal upon your heart’. It is in the hearts of those who have known us that our life has its greatest impact. Sadly, almost none of us can avoid sometimes causing each other pain. We say and do hurtful things, usually inadvertently. But we aspire to the opposite. So long as we live, we hope to be generous, loyal, wise and loving enough to leave marks of affection and respect in the hearts of those we care for, and who care for us. The end of a good life is that we continue to speak in memories of blessing, encouragement and love in the lives of those we have touched.

May we all be guided to write ourselves deeply in these three books of life during the coming year.

The Succah and protection against evil

First and foremost, I want to express my shock and sorrow at the appalling killings in Las Vegas. Like everyone else, I felt shaken just at the news. Heaven only knows how utterly terrifying it must have been to be there. Our thoughts and prayers are with the bereaved, the wounded, the traumatised and their families.

President Trump rightly called the appalling massacre ‘an act of pure evil’. It leaves one with disturbing questions about the nature of evil, similar perhaps to those which troubled Hannah Arendt in the 1940’s. Is evil rooted in boiling, premeditated hatred, or in cold, untroubled indifference to human life, or in both? I don’t know what is more frightening.

The horror was perpetrated at a Harvest Festival concert. Now, 2 days later, we are about to celebrate Succot, our harvest festival.

For six weeks we’ve been reading Psalm 27 morning and evening. Its author tells us that ‘God will hide me in God’s Succah on the evil day’. But what good would a mere Succah have been to protect the people at Las Vegas, or in Manchester, or at the Bataclan? I’ve often thought: ‘God, can’t you do better than a flimsy, made-of-anything, covered-in-leaves, blown-away-by-a-strong-wind, harvester’s booth Succah? God, couldn’t you at least manage a castle? Or a shelter, far underground?’

But that’s the point. Ultimately, our protection doesn’t lie in the strength of the walls which surround us, necessary as they often are in times of war and terror. (Though, even then, castles didn’t save the Jews of the Rhineland from the brigands of the First Crusade.) I agree with President Trump when he called upon ‘the bonds that unite us: our faith, our family and our shared values’, our citizenship and common humanity (and I hope he calls for urgent gun control).

Succot is about faith. Indeed, the mystics call the Succah tsila de’Meheimanuta, ‘the shadow of faith’. To live for seven days in the Succah is to live out our faith, to put our trust in God’s protection. The Talmud explains that the Succah represents Ananei haKavod, the ‘Clouds of Glory’ with which God protected the Children of Israel against scorching winds and burning heat as well as the enmity of those whose lands they passed by on their forty years’ journey through the wilderness.

Clouds don’t stop missiles. Ultimately, our safety, even the very survival of humankind, does not depend on military defences alone. There are weapons enough across the world capable of destroying anything and everything. There are invisible, or semi-visible dangers to our planet, which, unless we limit them, can obliterate life on earth.

In the end, our protection does lie in faith. This is not a blind faith that God will defend us, whatever we do. Rather, it is the faith that we are God’s creatures, or at least that life is precious and wondrous. It is a faith which requires our active and pro-active participation in developing and maintaining relationships of sufficient trust with one another to enable us to survive. It is a faith rooted in the acute awareness of shared responsibilities, towards humanity, towards life itself.

The very openness of the Succah and our vulnerability as we dwell in it point to the sources from which our collective strength must come. These are: fellowship and communication with one another, since the Succah epitomises hospitality; respect and humility before the natural world, from which the defining feature of the Succah, its roof, must be composed; and faith in God, or – to put this in a manner more acceptable to an atheist or agnostic-, faith in the spirit and value of life itself, which unites us all.

Succot is a festival of joy. It is these simple, universal truths which we must honour and celebrate.

 

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