How can we hurt this earth as little as possible?

I look out of the windows of the train. (I’m travelling to Berlin for my termly teaching there, determined to go at least one way by train and cut my use of planes). We enter the flat lands of Brandenburg. In the fields are many horses. I glimpse a foal, an eager shake of mane and tail, then it’s gone. Or rather I’m gone, in this ridiculous way we speed across the world.

Ki li ha’aretz, ‘for the land is mine’: I often think about this short sentence which we read in the Torah tomorrow. It’s the explanation for the sabbatical year. The land is not left to rest to increase its yield in the six other years of the cycle. Its not left fallow for humans to have time off. It’s left, – left for the benefit of all that lives including wild animals and domestic, foreigners and citizens, home-owners and homeless – because it belongs to God. In the sabbatical year there’s no place for ‘No trespassers’ signs, except in so far as we are all tres-passers, passers through, passers across, God’s world.

God’s world? I’m more of a mystic than a Maimonidean. For the latter, the world is God’s work. To know God, study it and its very structure will lead you from the physical to the metaphysical, from what you see to what lies beyond what can be seen, the invisible, unknowable, unchanging, unbounded creator.

But to the mystic God is within as well as beyond. They love to quote the Zohar: ‘No space is free of the wonder of God’. There’s nowhere it isn’t possible to wake up and say with Jacob after his dream of the angels ascending and descending between earth and heaven: ‘There’s God is in this place – and I hadn’t realised’

Around midnight in Berlin, a city I now love but by which I feel haunted, I go running. I pass the statue of Frederick the First at the entrance to 17 June Avenue, its towering victory column in the central circle and the Brandenburg Gate at its close. I pass too the Russian tanks, survivors of the final battle for Berlin in 1945, at the Red Army memorial and see half a kilometre away the outline of the Reichstag.

God isn’t the only one who ever said, ‘The land is mine’. In the Bible, the prophet Ezekiel puts these words in the mouth of the archetypal tyrant, Pharaoh: ‘It’s my Nile and I made it’. What did he think he was saying? Rashi explains: ‘By my might and through my wisdom I increased my greatness and my power’. Small bronze plaques to more recent victims of this monstrous tyranny are set amidst the Berlin cobbles. I almost tread on a group of them: ‘Deported; murdered; deported’.

I see myself back on the train, looking out of the window. We exit the forests and pass once again through farmland: fields to a distant tree line, a huddle of calves. I think of Blake’s poem:

Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead…

Okay, they’re not lambs – to whom the verses are addressed. But they’re no less innocent. They’re lucky calves. Their air and earth is as clean as it comes in Europe. ‘Dost thou know’, I wonder, what awaits you after this field?

I’ve always loved the vistas of this earth. In my earliest memory I’m looking out from the upstairs room my father built alongside the carpenter to extend our bungalow outside Glasgow. I can see a field and horses. I think I’ve always felt somewhere in my soul that it’s God’s earth, though I’ve often failed to realise: there’s always been wonder in the leaves, the fallen rhododendron flowers from next door’s garden, which I put on the ends of my fingers.

I can reach only one conclusion. Yes, we may live off the land. But it’s God’s. How, then, can I hurt it, and the creatures who live with us on it, as little as possible?

 

Mental Health Awareness Week: We can ask; we can care

This Monday to Sunday is Mental Health Awareness Week. Nicky and I stayed up past midnight watching Horizon’s Stopping Male Suicide:

I walked the Golden Gate Bridge for forty minutes. I’d made up my mind that if anyone, just one single person, asked me ‘Are you OK?’ I wouldn’t do it. Joggers, drivers, police, walkers all went passed. A tourist gave me her camera to take snaps. I did. Then she went without a word. At that moment a voice said ‘Jump’. I jumped…

It’s one of many outstanding programmes featured this week, including Nadia Hussain on how she suffers from anxiety and Alastair Campbell about depression. What emerges is that there is something we can do: notice, ask, care. It may not be enough, but it’s better than not caring, or, more likely, being held back by nervousness about showing we care. (And sometimes caring means respecting people’s boundaries, their space, their quiet.)

We may be fortunate not to suffer severely, but the evidence is that most of us have had bleak days, frightened days, days when even walking down the street is a challenge (I need to pass the tree on that side, not this), days when our mind has rolled around the thought of ending it all.

Over the last years I’ve had many conversations with family members of people who have taken their own lives. My heart aches for them, left in unchartered territories, grief-stricken, maybe helpless, angry, regretful; wondering if it could have been possible to reach with greater love, understanding or vigilance into the inner spaces where consciousness had felt so painful that it was impossible to bear. (Sometimes the answer is no; it was not possible to access those bleak and suffering places, encased in some membrane impenetrable even to love.)

It’s well known that Judaism, like Christianity, understands suicide to be wrong. Our body is not our own to harm or destroy, but on loan to us by God for the duration of our lifetime, to be used in good deeds of kindness and justice. That’s the theory.

But the following passage in the Talmud, though puzzling, is more compassionate:

For two and a half years, the Schools of Shammai and Hillel debated: These said: It would have been better for a person not to have been created than created. Those said: It is better for a person to have been created than not created. (Eruvin 13b)

They put the matter to the vote and decided that it was better not to have been created.

The Talmud sadly omits to tell us the contents of the argument. Did the rabbis regard life as too complex, too full of temptation, too painful, too great a trial? We don’t know. But they certainly understood the harsh grind of daily existence: ‘You’re born, you live, you die whether you like it or not’.

After the vote the rabbis agreed that, since we have been created, we need to consider our actions. This doesn’t initially sound helpful. But what I think they mean is that we are all responsible for creating societies in which each and every person, and each of every person’s actions, matters. We may not leave anyone feeling meaningless, disconnected, unwanted, thinking that their life, their day, is pointless. In our communities, each person is to be respected and welcomed for his or her human dignity and unique contribution, and treated with hesed, thoughtful and attentive kindness.

That’s not enough to heal all inner pain. But it’s where we have to start from, and just to get to that starting place would be an achievement requiring the participation of us all.

 

My Heart is in the East

‘My heart is in the East, and I – in the far distant West’, wrote Yehudah Halevi, in one of his best loved poems. That’s how I have felt much of this week.

On the night of Yom Hazikaron, the day of memorial to those fallen in Israel’s wars, I spent the midnight hour translating from the army’s tribute to Nadav Elad, the brother of a friend and colleague, who was killed before he was even twenty. His comrades, who were with us in our community on the Peace of Mind programme, wrote:

Nadav, you were the heart of the team, the spokesman, – now everything’s gone silent. Nadav, we’ll remember, remember and never forget, how you were a brother to us, a comrade and a role model….We’ll always be there for your family, and for you, Nadav, full of memories, longing for you….Your unit

I thought about my father’s uncle Alfred, who fled Germany in 1933 when he was dismissed from his post as a judge, who settled in Jerusalem and was set to be a leading expert on jurisprudence and Jewish law in the about-to-be-declared new state. He was killed in the convoy attacked and left to burn, with all its passengers trapped inside, on its way to the enclave of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus.

My heart was with the memorial gathering, organised despite many obstacles by the Parents Circle, and including several friends, Israelis and Palestinians, who for the last several years have come together to mourn their children, brothers, sisters, not in a spirit of anger but in the solidarity of grief acknowledged and shared, and in the commitment to work together until the longed-for day when fear, hatred and war are over and gone.

I thought of the beauty of the land. I remembered my father’s uncle Alfred’s letter in which he wrote after a lecture tour of kibbutzim in the north in 1946 or ’47 of the wild-flowers and the wonder of the spring. In idle moments before the Jerusalem marathon I took pictures of cyclamen, anemones, a pair of hoopoes feeding in a meadow.

Most of all, I reflected on the prayer which asks God to

Grant those entrusted with guiding Israel’s destiny the courage, wisdom and strength to do Your will. Guide them in the paths of peace and give them the insight to see Your image in every human being. Be with those entrusted with Israel’s safety and keep them from all harm. Spread your blessings over the land. May justice and human rights abound for all her inhabitants. Guide them ‘to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God’ (Micah 6:8)…May the vision of Your prophet soon be fulfilled: ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore’ (Isaiah 2:4)

Who would not want such a prayer to be read before the governments in Jerusalem, Tehran, Ankara, Gaza City, and perhaps every capital city in the world every single day?

I think with profound respect of all those who build bridges, in Israel, Jordan, Palestine, anywhere in the world, between different faiths and peoples, between community and community, school and school, refugees and people fortunate to be refugees no longer, between individuals and their own heart and soul, humanity and nature, the animals, the trees and the very earth. They are the fellowship to which I aspire to belong.

I would like to mark Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, as my colleague Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum does there at her Kehillat Zion, by praying together with rabbis, priests and imams for the peace and wellbeing of the city shechubrah lah yachdav, which is united all together (Psalm 122)

 

Yom Hashoah: memory and what we do with it

We carry them with us, those who loved us and whom we have loved. We don’t know what unexpected sound, smell, touch will suddenly bring their memory to consciousness. In such matters the passage of time is irrelevant. A month, twenty years: the dead speak in our hearts as if eternity were a single everlasting yesterday:

And pricking himself on a needle
Still stuck in a piece of sewing,
Suddenly he sees her
And cries quietly. (Boris Pasternak: The Zhivago Poems)

Yesterday was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day according to the Jewish date. My yellow candle has now burnt out. I lit it, as did tens of thousands of others, for a child, family unknown. Aleksandr Derevicher was 5 when he was murdered at Mariupol in 1941. I shall put the little card with his name in one of my prayer books; there I shall find it again, amidst the songs and prayers.

Zochrenu lechayyim, remember us for life: it’s the simplest, most poignant phrase from the High Holyday liturgy. We take those who loved us with us into the life they gave us, the life they enriched for us with their faith and wisdom, and no doubt also complicated with their foibles, their meshugaas. We also carry with us those they loved, and who loved them, and even the communities who nurtured them. Somehow, little Aleksandr Derevicher walks with us too, his own life, his childhood eagerness, so utterly and cruelly destroyed.

On the day before Pesach I was putting jars of the charoset my son had just made into parcels of food and wine for the Seder night to send as small ‘thinking-of-you’ tokens to families where there was illness or grief, when I recalled the letter my great-aunt Sophie sent to her brother in New York from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on April 8, 1941:

We finished our preparations for Easter. The house is in order. Dear Mama did a lot of work on the Easter gifts; we sent eight parcels…

Presumably she wrote ‘Easter’ instead of ‘Passover’ to bypass the censor.

Tomorrow I shall take down one of the sealed jars of fruit which I bottled in memory of Sophie because that’s what she used to do with her garden produce, and because my father taught me how to do it too. Nicky and I will serve it to our guests for Shabbat lunch.

I never knew Sophie. Yet she’s in my life, her memory for a blessing.

In his powerful book Who Will Write Our History, Samuel Kassow records the words of David Graber, a member of the Oyneg Shabbes group who hid documents, diaries, testaments in milk cans beneath houses in the Warsaw Ghetto:

What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground…We would be the fathers, the teachers and educators of the future. But no, we shall certainly not live to see it…May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened…

The truth, the facts, must be known; every piece of testament is significant. Deceit and denial will only arm other hatreds. They already do.

But there is also something else, something no less important: zochrenu lechayyim, remembering for life, in the small, ordinary things we do, the foods we cook, the melodies we sing, the long and ancient tradition of compassion and community, mitzvot and learning, which is in reality a mosaic of the loves, fears and values of millions of lives, some lived into venerable age, some cut short by terrors.

To be faithful to those who perished, we must try to turn memory not only into warning, but also into wisdom.

 

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