Why I’m going to COP

I’m going there to listen, learn, find every cause I can for hope and positive action and come back inspired and even more determined. I’m spending most of next week in Glasgow, the town where I was born, at COP 26, the most important gathering ever for the future of the planet.

I’ve no idea what it’ll be like, but I’ll certainly report back. I don’t imagine I’ll have the chance to meet the Pope, though I’d love to. I don’t think I’ll meet either President Biden or the Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of the State of Israel, though I’d like to. I don’t suppose I’ll bump into our own PM either, though there’s a lot I’d like to say.

It feels a bit Kafkaesque: there’s a green zone, for the NGOs (people like me with EcoSynagogue, leaders of Eco Church, etcetera); a blue zone for political actors, and a red zone for the highest level of heads of state. Like most faith leaders, my pass will only take me as far as the green zone, (I guess green is my true colour.) But walls and barriers have never put a stop to that age-old spiritual endeavour of trying to tell truth to power.

In fact, those truths are coming from every direction, from the world’s poorest countries already suffering the great impacts of climate change, and from the richest, where ever more economists and business leaders understand that there’s no point investing in fossil fuels and that green enterprise needs, and deserves, every support it can get. They come from the street, where across the world hundreds of millions of people, especially the young, are making it clear to their political leaders that they are out of patience with short-termism, self-interest, lip-service and lack of urgency. As the Talmud says about Noah’s flood, the truth is coming up through the earth in the form of droughts and fires and down from the skies in floods.

But I’m not going to Glasgow to find more cause for misery. These are hard times; only in this last week I’ve listened to several young people speak of their hopelessness. The climate emergency is a cruel inheritance to receive from their elders. But I’m mindful of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav’s maxim: Assur lehitya’esh – It’s forbidden to despair.

I’m going to Glasgow to find out about every form of positive action that I can. If I’m asked to plant trees, I’ll pick up my spade; if to show solidarity with communities struggling to adapt to climate change, I’ll ask them how; if it becomes even clearer that habits need to be changed, I’ll make my best efforts to do so.

I’m involved with all this because I’m haunted, possessed twice over. I’m seeing shadows where I hadn’t noticed them before: they follow my shopping bags and squat in my kitchen and bedroom with increasingly vividness. They whisper: ‘Is that there which you’re eating or wearing really worth what it’s doing to the earth and its peoples?’

But they don’t cling to me half as much as something else, a passionate, ineradicable love of this earth. It’s a love and joy as deep in me as the roots of a great tree. It brings nourishment to my body, mind and spirit. My God breathes in every living thing.

Nothing can suck that love out of my soul, and there’s nothing greater I want to bequeath to my children. Therefore, though I know I fall short, I want to do, and engage others to do, everything I can to protect this wonderful world and pass it on, vital and beautiful, to the future.

Hinneni: trying to be truly present

There’s one overriding question in the Hebrew Bible, and one essential answer. The question never lets one go and the answer is never complete.

The question comes right at the beginning: it’s what God asks Adam after he’s eaten the forbidden fruit. It consists of just one word in Hebrew, ‘Ayekah? Where are you?’

The answer, given by Abraham, Moses, and all of us too, with different degrees of consciousness, is also a single word: ‘Hinneni, I’m here.’

Between these two words lies the whole of our life, with all its relationships, to others, ourselves, the world, and God.

I felt bad on Wednesday night, pushing my trolley straight past the woman sitting on the ground outside Tesco’s. I’d given her a coin before and said hello; this time I had no change and failed to muster even a greeting before, mercifully, someone else spoke to her. I wished I’d at least acknowledged her existence. Some years ago, Nic Schlagman spoke on Yom Kippur about Isaiah’s command, ‘Feed the hungry.’ He’d been working among homeless people. It’s the communication, he said, the connection, the human contact: these are individuals, with lives, stories, hopes.

Hinenni, ‘I am here,’ is not something one says, but lives.

I’m chastened when I hear in eulogies, ‘Mum was always there for my sister and me;’ or ‘He was such a good friend; when any of us needed someone to talk to, someone you knew really cared, he was there.’ A little voice inside me then invariably says, ‘And what about you? Have you been there for your nearest and dearest?’ Yes? No? Partly? There are many half-ways: one can live one’s relationships (we probably all do, sometimes) in a state of presence-but-absence; one can hear, but not really listen; one can be there, but only when it suits.

(On a lighter note, our puppy dog Nessie is the champion of Hinneni from the moment you come through the door: licks, paws, tail wagging the whole of her eager dog body, ‘I’m here just for you,’ she says – and for your attention, biscuits and a walk.)

A cruel voice inside my head tells me, ‘You’re living your life in a flurry of inadequate Hinnenis.’ An excusing voice answers, ‘But we all do; that’s reality. One can’t be there for everyone all the time, even those one loves and cares for most.’

Then a kinder and wiser inner voice answers, ‘Don’t think like that. Say rather, ‘How can I deepen my Hinneni?’ How can we be more truly present, for those we’re closest to, for friends, for those who turn to us?

Hinneni is, as I wrote above, just one word. But that’s only part of its story; it’s actually the concatenation of two: hineh and ani, ‘Look,’ and ‘I’. But the combination doesn’t mean ‘Look, – me!’ Rather, the opposite is the case: Hinneni takes ‘me’ and makes it part of looking; it transforms the ‘I’ of me, my self, my wants, my ego, and reformulates it as awareness, attentiveness to the world. Rashi explains it as ‘an expression of readiness and humility.’

Hinneni is being there, with and for others, with and for ourselves, and with, if one experiences it that way, God. RS Thomas puts it magnificently in his wonderful poem Alive:

….I listen

And it if you speaking…

…At night, if I waken,

there are the sleepless conurbations

of the stars…


Hinneni is the deepening of who we are, life’s response to life.

What our lives add up to in the end

The best film I’ve seen this year lasts just 30 seconds; it’s been screened in one place only, on a friend’s iPhone. I asked him, ‘How does your daughter-in-law-to-be get on with your young twins?’ He opened his What’s App and showed me them throwing themselves into her arms with delight.

That needs no explanation, – but here’s a long-winded effort. God’s first words to Abraham are ‘Lech Lecha, Set forth! Be gone!’ With them, the journey of the Jewish People, and of every individual ever born, begins.

They sound at life’s beginning, when, according to the kabbalists, the soul parts reluctantly from God and descends into the body. They sing in the wind which carries us ineluctably over life’s ocean: ‘Onward, the sailors cry.’ They’re the words those who love us will say quietly after we die, ‘He’s gone.’ They’re the unspoken hope that somehow life’s journey continues, in realms unknowable from earth.

That’s why Lech Lecha resonates inside me, so that I tremble when we read those words in the Torah, as we shall tomorrow.

I used to be drawn to the mystics who, with typical licence, read lecha not simply as an emphatic particle, ‘Get thee gone’, but as ‘to you’: Go to yourself; make life a journey of ever deeper self-discovery until you reach the very wellspring of your spirit:

Go to yourself! Travel until you reach the roots of your soul. (Rebbe David of Lilov)

Go … to the land which I will show you: Go to the place where I’ll reveal to you your own true self. (Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi)

Life is, undeniably, thankfully, a voyage of self-discovery, though it goes in no straight line.

However, nowadays I’m compelled by a more basic explanation. It too is a play on words, though not one I’ve encountered in the classic commentaries. ‘Go to you’: make life a journey toward ‘you’, towards not yourself but other people. For who we are is what we mean to them, – and they to us.

I’ll never forget someone that I greatly respect said at the stone-setting for her husband: ‘Your place was in my arms; now it’s in my heart.’ Our ultimate place, the lands we reach on our journey, lie in each other’s hearts.

I’ve been to cemeteries too often in these last years. I look across the field of graves and the questions rise from the very earth: ‘What does it add up to? What does it all mean?’

‘Go to you’, is the best answer I know. We devote our lives to one another. We do so consciously, as parent, child, partner, friend, colleague, neighbour. We need to give; we want to make life kinder, better, gentler, for the other person.

We go beyond that circle, as we must. Yesterday I was asked: ‘Will your write a commentary about this picture from your community?’ I opened the file with the photo and saw an elderly doctor from our congregation gently examining a refugee. ‘Go – to the you of others who need you’ is God’s most urgent command. How many voices are there right now in the world, crying ‘Is anyone out there for me? Will you go – to me?’

Our places in each other’s hearts are not always good. We lack the power to select only those which show us best. They also include the wrongs and hurts we leave behind, which is why apology and healing are so important.

In the end I believe the journey to find ourselves and our journey toward others are the same. Ultimately, we are what others garner of us; that’s what continues to live of us after we’re gone.

That’s why those 30 seconds are my favourite film, that beautiful innocent image of throwing oneself so completely into such welcoming arms.

Was Noah the Greta Thunberg of his day?

Nature isn’t all loveliness. Yesterday just outside my study I saw a bird prey in the act of tearing open the pigeon it had just killed. I thought it was a sparrow hawk, but minutes later a peregrine perched by the window, looking for another victim.

Nevertheless, I feel awe, wonder, curiosity and joy before nature. Like many, I increasingly appreciate how interdependent we are with the natural world, from the rainfall to the quality of the soil, to the bees and the trees. Ruin nature and we destroy ourselves.

So Noah, the ‘righteous man before God’, the preserver who saves two of every species and ushers them into a new world, ought to be my hero. But he’s not; at least not entirely.

Here’s why. He simply obeys orders. When God tells him the world is wicked and about to be destroyed, he builds the ark as instructed. But he doesn’t argue back. He doesn’t say: ‘How can you, the creator, who holds such power, obliterate your own handiwork which you just recently called ‘good’ or ‘very good’?

Noah says neither a single word to God nor so much as a syllable of warning to his contemporaries. He could have taken up Dylan Thomas’s refrain: ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’ He could have done like the Jonah who, albeit reluctant, finally got to Nineveh and, covered in whale-spit, shouted down the streets: Change your ways or else this place will be destroyed.

The Zohar has this to say about Noah:

When he came out of the ark and saw the world in ruins, he started to weep and said to God: ‘You, who’re called “merciful and gracious,” shouldn’t you have shown mercy to your creatures?’ God replied: ‘Foolish shepherd; now you tell me! Why didn’t you say that when I instructed you…to build the ark?’ (Zohar 1:69)

Perhaps Noah thought there was no point: God’s mind can’t be changed. Maybe he saw in the power-holders of his day the same obstinacy and bondage to self-interest which has so often characterised it since. But in the Torah, he doesn’t even try. He isn’t the Greta Thunberg of his day.

Avivah Zornberg quotes Andre Neher: Noah shows ‘unqualified apathy.’ That’s harsh, since he does build the ark and cajole even the lions, elephants and mosquitoes aboard. But as Zornberg says in her own words:

[T]he impact of Noah’s silent acquiescence in the destruction of the world is devastating.

The rabbis, as ever, filled in the gaps in the biblical account. What happened during all the years it took Noah to build that ark? His contemporaries mocked him, and he answered back. But even here, Zornberg notes, his ‘imaginative solipsism’ is apparent: God ‘told me to make an ark,’ he says to them, ‘so that I and my household may escape.’

We, on our imperilled planet, in our ‘generation on the cusp,’ need to do more. The Biblical cue lies in the words Mordechai passed to Esther in the hour before Haman’s decree of destruction: ‘If you remain silent now…’

We need to speak up, and above all act, personally, communally, locally, nationally, internationally, for the sake of our beautiful world, on behalf of humanity, for the future. It’s a wonderful world and its children and children’s children deserve to receive it that way.

World of beauty, world of horrors?

I’ve never understood this; I’ve always been troubled. The Torah opens with a magnificent poem, a paean to the glory of creation. That first chapter of Genesis is utterly beautiful; the dawn light shining through the division of the waters, the first green stalks above the soil, the fruit-bearing trees, the fish in the rivers, the birds of the air, and on land the animals and humankind, in harmony all together.

Yet within scarcely three columns Cain has murdered his brother and his great- great- grandson Lemech is busily boasting to his wives that he’s killed a child. By the end of column five even God acknowledges, shockingly, that it’s all been a terrible mistake and it would have been better if humans had never existed in the first place: ‘I’m sorry I made them.’

How can something so wonderful descend so quickly into disaster?

Then I realised: this is the world we live in every day.

It’s full of beauty. The magic may be greatest when one’s young, the first fallen leaves to stomp through, the first excitement of snow. But one doesn’t get over it. On the contrary, the older one gets the more precious it often all becomes: that view crossed by the sun’s low rays of the autumn woodlands, yellow and orange, down to the fields with the ponies above the lake:

So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise. (Dylan Thomas: Fern Hill)

It’s true, at least it seems so in our moments of wonder: God renews the work of creation every day.

But the cruelty, misery and injustice are no less real.

Late last night I casually picked up The Guardian’s Long Read but paid careful attention when I saw that it was written by Zarlasht Halaimzai, whom I know. Her family were refugees from Afghanistan; now she devotes her life to helping others forced by violence and war to flee their homes:

Don’t leave the people in darkness, I pleaded. (The Long Read)

Most of her letters to officials across the globe received no reply at all.

Jewish leaders, she wrote, responded with heartfelt solidarity:

Many recognised their own family’s experiences in the images of parents handing their children over…

Several members of our community are desperately trying to get people out of the reaches of the Taliban. ‘And it’s only one family out of tens of thousands,’ a friend said as we sat last week in our Succah. ‘Whoever saves one life is as if they saved the world,’ we all replied.

Just that is our predicament: we stand at the interface between life’s wonders and its horrors. There, too, lies our responsibility. What can we do to help or save one person, one child, one living thing, one tiny corner of the earth?

The Torah does not state that God regrets making the world; God is sorry only because of the way human beings behave. But God, tradition tells us, longs to rejoice in creation once again. What can we do to make that happen in one more child, one more parent’s heart, even in the free flight of the birds? That’s the everlasting challenge those first five columns of the Torah bequeath to us.


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