Valentine’s Day and Hesed

I realised yesterday as I bought my bunch of early daffodils at a stall in Camden Town, that I’d interrupted the saleswoman from her task of tying up single red roses in pretty paper.

February 14 is not a fixture in the traditional Jewish calendar. But Valentine’s Day does have its ancient equivalent, Tu B’Av, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, when girls would dress in white and dance in the vineyards where the watching boys would choose partners. It was hardly an egalitarian set-up.

Judaism believes in love. As the wedding blessings show, Hebrew has an extensive vocabulary for romance, affection and fellowship: ahavah, love; achavah, closeness; shalom, peaceful togetherness; re’ut, comradeship. The Bible affirms the magic of passion, as when in The Song of Songs, the whole world is glorious, alluring and full of wonder.

But the greatest love word of all is hesed. No translation feels adequate: ‘loving-kindness’ is too ponderous; ‘faithful kindness,’ while more accurate, sounds pious; just ‘kindness’ seems too commonplace.

But kindness is what the word means, or tenderness, or faithfulness, the enduring, life-long, heart-felt commitment to treating others with warmth, compassion and proactive concern.

Hesed applies most closely towards those with whom we are most close. In intimate relationships it doesn’t exactly refer to passion, but it does express the thoughtfulness, affection and appreciation which differentiate love from lust.

In relationships between children, parents, grandparents and close family, hesed is all those little things –favourite foods, whats-apps about ‘how’s your day’, hugs, notes with the right message at the right time, allowances for our moods – which make us feel safe, loved and cared for, which make the difference between loneliness and home.

But hesed is not just a pretty term for those lucky enough to live inside cosy bubbles.

‘The world is built on hesed’, wrote the author of Proverbs, presumably intending this as a prayer rather than a statement about reality. Those are the words on the foundation stone of our synagogue. They are the base-line of our values: they express an attitude, a determination, a will to make the world different, especially in an environment which feels more cruel, hard-hearted and brash towards so many.

Hesed is present when, like Barbara Stern, you semi-retire and devote yourself to Home Start because so many local children don’t get breakfast before school and have no one to help with their homework and give them a decent chance in a competitive world. Hesed is when the man filling shelves in the store doesn’t just answer her question, but accompanies the lady with the white stick to where the rice is and asks her which kind she wants. Hesed is when any government, anywhere, doesn’t just say it cares but allocates budgets and acts because it really does care, and believes that the country is a safer, better and stronger place because of it.

Hesed is the essence of creation. It’s a basic rabbinic view that God made the world from and for the sake of hesed. The trouble is that this simply doesn’t appear true. In a cruel, self-devouring world the evidence just isn’t there.

That’s why the words of Arthur Green speak to me so sharply:

The flow of life as we experience it is morally blind… But as humans we are here to direct that flow of life, to lead the divine energy in the world in the direction of compassion… The divine energy flows outward from the Source, through the complex and multi-pronged evolutionary process, and into us… We, by adding to it the insight and act of compassion, send it streaming back to the One, our gift in gratitude for the gift of existence itself. (A Jewish Mystical Theology)

Hesed is the latent possibility in every relationship, every encounter. Through love of life and love for life, even in the smallest acts and simplest words, we make it real.

 

Let’s Plant

For two millennia Judaism has had its own Arbor Day, Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees.

I don’t know when the love of trees begins, when you first kick the piled autumn leaves and watch in delight as they scatter, when you collect your first conkers, put acorn cups on your fingers, climb for the biggest, most elusive apple, dare the dark forest and find it full of wonder, or listen like Keats to the birds which sing amidst the ‘beechen green and shadows numberless’. I believe everyone has a favourite tree.

We need trees and trees need us. We need them for our spirit, for our very life.

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The Hebrew root siach means both ‘shrub’ and ‘meditation’. Forests, gardens, indeed solitary trees, are wonderful companions in prayer. I love to listen to them. They silence the arguments in my head and speak to my soul. Trees, like all life, are a dwelling place of God.

The rabbis taught that when a tree is cut down, a cry goes out from one end of the world to the other, yet nobody hears.

That’s not entirely true. Our friend Heather, who had cancer, would walk daily to the corner of her street to be with her beloved tree. ‘They cut it down,’ she told us sadly one day. Soon afterwards, she died.

We’re learning to listen to the loss of our trees. We need them, physically, economically, ecologically, emotionally and spiritually. The authors of the Bible, the early rabbis living close to the land and the kabbalists understood this at every level.

I used to think that the first trees mentioned in the Torah, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, were two separate entities. But to the mystics this was not so; they were one and the same. Knowledge of good meant awareness of the vital, sustaining spirit which flows through all creation in the great rhythm of life, death and new life. Evil meant the weaponization of knowledge to exploit and destroy the leaves and roots of life’s tree.

Judaism encourages us to enjoy the fruits of that tree of life, but only with respect and humility. To consume without appreciation or blessing, is, in the Talmud’s words, the wrongful misappropriation of God’s gifts.

We need trees and trees now urgently need us. Across the faiths, on the internet and media, are numerous projects for planting and rewilding, such as the search-engine Ecosia whose users have planted 83 million trees. The figure goes up as you watch.

Judaism has an ancient tradition of nurturing trees. Two thousand years ago, challenged for planting carobs, which would never bear fruit in his lifetime, Honi the Circle-Drawer explained that he’d found the world with trees and intended to leave it so for his children.

Today, we need to leave it with trillions more than we find it. This applies from Britain, among the least forested countries in Europe, to the global south; from the diminished Caledonian forests to Madagascar and the Pacific Islands, whose very future depends on how we rewild and mitigate climate change. The destiny, too, of countless wild plants, insects, birds and animals is in our hands.

Communities of all faiths are responding. Ruth Valerio, who consulted me about Jewish sources when she wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2020, Saying Yes to Life, describes the moving relationships between UK churches and rural communities in Peru who are personally planting thousands of saplings to preserve both nature and their livelihoods.

We must do no less. That’s why JTree.global has been rooted, here in the UK, in the US, with further young branches in Israel and Canada. It facilitates planting through environmental NGOs who work with local communities, sustainably and ethically. Our New North London target is 50,000 trees. Please join us!

As Kohelet said, ‘There’s a time to plant’. It was never so urgent as now.

 

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