Be for life!

I dressed in haste this morning, trying not to lose track of an elusive voice. The Zohar teaches that when the darkness of night begins to wane, the spirit of hesed, lovingkindness, hovers over the world and whispers into our dreaming minds. On blessed mornings we wake up not with the shock of ‘Oh my God, another day!’ but touched by something gentle but compelling, urgent yet benign, some spirit or instruction from worlds beyond.  

This voice had been strong in the half-dream from which the early light woke me. But it receded swiftly. It hovered at the corner of my consciousness before vanishing, taking with it something essential it wanted to tell me from some other realm.

All I could retain was that this was about caring for life. The half-dream was specific. But all I could retain was this generality, and the sensation that something had touched my heart which I didn’t know how to retrieve.

‘Be for life.’ It sounds so banal. But on a single-track road in Scotland we stopped the car because a toad was squatting on the tarmac. Nicky got out, took a photo, then gently moved the creature into the safety of the grass verge. The remarkable thing was that the driver in the car behind didn’t hoot. She waited, understood.

This reminded me of a scene from when I was seven or eight, next to my father in the car. He braked because a duck was leading her ducklings in slow procession across the busy Finchley Road up to the ponds in Golders Hill Park. ‘What if someone else won’t stop?’ I asked him. ‘Who would be so cruel?’ he replied.

I know I’m sentimental, but I don’t care for animals at the cost of caring for people. We’re all part of life together.

Maybe that voice, reduced to this generality ‘Be for life!’ came to me because of a conversation yesterday with our family from Ukraine. ‘I want to go home,’ said the grandmother, ‘but they’ve bombed the railway station.’ The mother gestured the outlines of a pincer movement: maybe the Russian Army will cut Kharkiv off. What is there left to say?

I sometimes fear we’re in a vehicle with some uncontrollable, manic driver who doesn’t know how, or maybe, I think in my worst moments, doesn’t really even try, to find the brakes.

But I know something else at least as well; that an immeasurable tenderness interpenetrates with life, despite its manifest cruelties and endless injustices; that this spirit of lovingkindness calls out constantly to the heart in the community of people and the ceaseless intercommunications of non-human life, and through the wordless communion of the spirit which hovers over the earth.

‘Be for life’ is the voice of our Rosh Hashanah prayers: ‘Remember us for life; Our father and mother, our sovereign, inscribe us for life.’

More importantly, it’s there in our prayers every day. The morning service opens with two short reflections I love. The first is a reminder: gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness are of limitless value. The second is a recall: ‘My God, the soul you have given me is pure.’

We belong to a spirit whose ethos is profoundly other than ‘me and mine’, than ‘I don’t care who this hurts.’ Life flows into us from somewhere, some reservoir, some being or consciousness, which fills the heart with pity and love.

Watching in sheer wonder

My words come from the northwest of Scotland where our family are on holiday. I wasn’t going to write, but I changed my mind, moved by the beauty, care, diligence and creativity of so much we’ve witnessed. We’ve visited projects of regeneration, replanting, reintroduction; we’ve seen what the impact not just on woodlands, insects, birds, and animals, but for people: the mental and spiritual restoration, the rehabilitation into the world of sacred wonder.

I’m writing, too, because today is the new moon of Elul, the month of Teshiuvah, repentance, return andreflection. It’s the date when we first hear the shofar calling us, in Maimonides’ words, ‘to wake from our sleep’ and return to God.

The first of Elul is also the ancient date for the tithing of cattle, when every tenth calf, lamb or kid born in the last year was taken to the temple. Turning this round, many contemporary rabbis honour this day as the New Year for Animals. This parallels how Tu Bishevat, originally a date for the taxation of their fruits, became the New Year for Trees, a time to celebrate orchards and forests.

These matters go together; there’s little more urgent to which we must wake up than how we treat the rest of creation. Over the last few days our family has been privileged to witness wonderful examples of such awakening and Teshuvah, return, to the physical and spiritual roots of our lives.

 At Dundreggan, home to Trees For Life, we met Nick Barnes, a psychiatrist who works between the NHS, University College London and Scottish rewilding projects. We engage with schools and across Scotland, he explained. The connection with nature, trees and soil de-stresses and re-centres us, restoring mental health.

We walk round with a guide: his knowledge, not just of every insect, bird and tree, but also of centuries of local history, of Gaelic names and what can be learnt from what used to be, is amazing, and carried with good-humoured humility.

Days later we’re in Knappdale Forest, meeting a ranger in a tiny chalet full of books. ‘Wait at the hide at the far end of the loch; listen, watch.’ For once, we resolve to leave the dog in the car, safe in the evening cold. But she cries so loudly that we take pity on her, realising also that our chances of seeing any wildlife within a mile of such a pitiful racket are zero. Nessie comes with, behaving impeccably thereafter.

We walk round the loch, uncomfortably conscious of our family’s talent for failing to spot the animals we’ve come to observe. Finding the hide, we watch the light change over the small waves, glowing red as the sun sinks low. Three ducks, a fourth lagging behind, swim slowly across the water. I can recall no other time when I’ve listened like this, motionless, just listening to the wind and the bird cries for an entire hour.

Then we see the beaver, swimming across the loch, then towards us, nearer, nearer, diving down, resurfacing just feet from where we watch. These are moments of pure wonder.

But behind them are decades of dedication: consultations, negotiations with farmers, bureaucracy. Finally the first permits for reintroduction are granted, since beavers improve wetlands, prevent flooding and help water conservation in drought-prone regions, including London.

Judaism knows two kinds of motivation: fear and love. We need fear to motivate international leadership to mitigate and reverse the disintegration of our biosphere.

But, as our family have witnessed, it’s love, patient, knowledgeable, determined love, which is needed to repair nature for the sake of humanity and all life. Mercifully, the work we saw is being replicated all across the world. It’s very far from enough. But it represents true Teshuvah, repentance and restoration.

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