Between life and death, future and past

Here we are, caught between creation and destruction. Yesterday was Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees; tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day.

Tu Bishevat is a day of planting and celebration, when we’re partners with the God of creation who set the tree of life in the midst of the Garden of Eden.

Many of us were out there yesterday in the bright afternoon, placing rich mulch round the young crab apples and field maples we’d just planted. Trees mean future, long-term thinking, life, hope and joy. ‘We’ve a two-hundred-year management plan,’ explained Craig Harrison, head of Forestry England south.

Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day. I read compulsively about the Shoah and listen to the testament of survivors. I love their company. I admire how they have established new lives, brought up children and go into schools to speak against antisemitism and every form of prejudice. I find it remarkable how little bitterness so many of them bear, how much compassion they embody, how widely they spread warmth and hope.

But the most terrible testimony has no voice: that of the innumerable dead, across Europe, Rwanda, Cambodia, robbed of their homes, loved ones and lives; robbed of their voices which would tell us, if they could, of the sophisticated deceitfulness and cruel cunning of the murderers alongside their drunken brutality.

In the words of the searing Yom Kippur meditation, ‘Eleh Ezkerah – these things I bring to memory before God, who’s supposed to conduct the world in mercy, venaphshi alai eshpecha, and I pour out my soul, I don’t know what to do with myself.’

The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is the fragility of freedom. It could not be more apposite in this time of war in Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, the Middle East. Whatever ‘side’ we’re on, whatever political views we hold, we must not harden our hearts to the horror faced by the hostages and their families after 115 days of cruel captivity, the fear of parents for the lives of their children on the front lines, the desperate suffering of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians caught amidst the fighting.

To what pain will all this give birth, to what new fears and hatreds, to what hopes, longings and dreams? Beyond whatever particular loyalties we hold, say the Israeli and Palestinian parents of the Bereaved Families Forum, we need to remember that we should all ultimately be on the side of humanity.

So what do we do?

‘Choose life,’ teaches the Torah, be on the side of life!

These, then, are some of the questions which should preoccupy us: How can I find the courage to be truly human? What kindness can I do? Whose life can I make a bit better and not worse? What can I plant for our children’s children’s futures?

This sounds frail; it feels very small scale. But I put my hopes in a minor, often overlooked scene from the Torah. The Children of Israel are thirsty in the desert, but the waters before them are too bitter to drink. Therefore, God instructs Moses to throw into them the branches of a tree and when he does so the waters become sweet.

So let’s plant our trees, figurative trees of compassion, decency, humanity and hope, as well as real trees, maples, rowans, birch and oak. May they sweeten our own lives with a deep sense of purpose and bring a little sweetness to the future of the world.

For the love of trees – in honour of Tu Bishevat

‘No. You’re not buying another tree!’ the family protests as I eye up an apple, plum or rowan which, though discounted at the garden centre, looks good enough to me.

How many trees can you fit in the back of car – alongside two or three (grown up) children, at least one dog, walking boots, etcetera, etcetera? You’d be amazed! Though for the children, I admit, it’s not always a pleasant surprise.

But I love trees – as well as my family.

Thirty-three years ago, Nicky and I planned to marry on Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, (which begins this Wednesday evening.) But the synagogue had already been booked so we settled for a week later. ‘What shall I say about the two of you?’ our friend Ronnie enquired, whom we’d asked to speak on the Shabbat before our wedding. ‘That we both love plants and animals,’ we replied, and all these years later it’s even more true.

Trees make excellent gifts, so long as the recipient has a garden, or space for a large tub. Years later one looks back and reflects: ‘We got that tree when our baby was born’, ‘when our daughter was Bat Mitzvah’, or ‘in memory of our father’.

We measure time in the passing of years; trees measure time by the passing of generations. Trees humble us. The Psalmist is right: trees clap their hands, dance with their leaves and sing with the winds. But most of all they stand steadfast and, with their stillness, call us into quiet. Listen, they say. Listen first with your ears, and you’ll hear a leaf fall, a crow cry, maybe an owl call. Listen next with your spirit, and maybe you’ll hear the slow, steady flow of life itself. Then rest against the bark and know, even if only for a moment, that you’re safe despite all the world’s cruelty, for God is in this place.

But if we’re safe among the trees, are the trees safe among us? In Jewish law it’s a crime wilfully to cut down a fruit tree. How much more important a wider prohibition would be now, when we know that trees sustain us not just with food but through the very air we breathe.

We need to live, to eat, travel and build, in ways which don’t destroy the great forests of the Amazon, Congo and Indonesia. Here at home, we must replant. We must let the remnants of our rainforests spread, which cling to the west of England, Wales and Scotland, and leave the bright-coloured jays, those acorn-burying birds, to plant their oaks. (See Guy Shrubsole’s amazing The Lost Rainforests of Britain.)

Earth science is challenging us with new phrases, like ‘Climate change velocity,’ and ‘Adapt, move or die.’ But, asks Ben Lawrence in his brilliant, disturbing The Treeline, ‘What if you are a tree?’  

Yet trees, too, are on the move, not individual specimens, but species. Larch, birch, poplar and rowan are on the march north. What, then, do you plant to future-proof your woodlands? It’s a question with which foresters struggle. For we must do our utmost to bequeath to our children breathable air, a life-sustaining natural world and the wonder and spirit of the trees.

So let’s go plant!

If this seems fatuous in times of war, we should remember the Midrash of the old man and the emperor:

‘What are you doing?’ the latter asked.
‘Planting saplings.’
The emperor was scornful.

But what were his thoughts when, years later, on his return from many battles, the old man offered him fruits from those same trees?

We need strength

In these difficult days we all need strength, to stand firm against the wrongs and brutalities of the world; to speak out for justice, even where that is unpopular; to cauterise with healing the endless hurts suffered by so many.  

It’s not a choice. Take Moses for example. He has a whole list of reasons why he can’t face Pharaoh as God requires: Who am I to do that; I can’t speak; Pharaoh won’t listen; my own people call me a troublemaker; if they won’t listen, the Egyptians never will.

But God doesn’t ask; God demands: ‘God spoke to Moses and Aaron, and commanded them against Pharaoh, king of Egypt.’ (Ex. 6:13)

I hear these words echoed in Timothy Snyder’s short diatribe: On Tyranny, Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century. It’s necessary reading in today’s distorted world:

Take responsibility…Believe in truth…Stand out. Someone has to…

It takes guts to confront evil when it surrounds us. My grandmother went to the Gestapo buildings while my grandfather was in Dachau in November 1938. She passed through doors with no handle inside. She demanded: ‘Where’s my husband?’ Asked the same question back, she retorted, ‘You’ve got him; you should know.’ That’s courage.

We need such strength to stand up to Putin, Iran, Hamas, Hizbollah, the worldwide web of lies they spin with threads of hatred, and the violence and defamation they direct against Israel, Ukraine, Jews and numerous others.

We require such strength too, to challenge the hatemongering corruption of Trump, should he stand for president again, let alone if he succeeds.

We need it, dare I say it, too, to confront prime minister Netanyahu, to call out the blatant racism and contempt of certain ministers and policies, even amidst this terrible, grief-bringing war.

But what is strength, beyond anger and frustration?

We stand between the Yahrzeit of Abraham Joshua Heschel, last December 31st, and Martin Luther King Day, next Monday 15th January. They drew their strength from the spirit. Their activism came from listening intently to the voice of God in the soul. They were followers of Zachariah, whose words we read on Chanukkah:

‘“Not by might and not by power, ki im by my spirit,” says God.’ (4:6)

Ki im is often read as ‘but’. It really means ‘except’ or ‘unless’. No true strength, Zachariah teaches, except with God’s spirit.

It’s a dangerous description. Few promulgate hatred more fiercely than zealots who claim to know God’s mind.

But true strength of spirit is rooted not in violence but in solidarity with life and the God of life. It knows not hatred or the urge to destroy, but the indignation of injustice which will not be ignored. It is driven not by contempt for suffering, but by the determination to heal.

I shall never forget knocking on the door of John and Mavis Hyman after learning that their daughter Miriam was among the victims of the London bombings of 7 July 2005. Unsure what to say, I muttered, ‘I wish you strength.’

I still see John standing on the path in front of me, a tall man then, nodding, saying, more to himself than me, ‘Yes. That’s the one. We’ve had many greetings. But that’s the one.’  

And strong he was, and strong Mavis is still, in her constant efforts to bring healing in her daughter’s name, to meet sorrow with love and counter racism with the teachings of understanding.

True strength has many forms. It may be steady presence amidst grief, diligence in under-appreciated caring, defying bigotry to stand with the mistreated and maligned, challenging injustice and cruelty in the face of brute power on the political stage.

We need such strength, in our hearts, communities and the public square.

They still speak to us, the dead we have loved

Sometimes a verse jumps out from the weekly Torah portion, chimes with what we’re living through, meets a spark in our own spirit. That’s how those words from the start of Exodus speak to me now: ‘And Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation.’

They’re all gone now, my parent’s generation, all the relatives amidst whose conversations, half German, half English, half refugee, half British, but always deeply Jewish, I grew up. They lie at peace in Hoop Lane cemetery, or rest, like my father’s sisters, on the Mount of Olives.

But they’re not silent, at least not in this world. They speak to us, our dead, they talk inside us. ‘Live!’ they say, ‘Live!’ They put resilience in our bones; they set their playlist in our soul. There’s nothing morbid or spooky about it; the dead who were close to us in life stay near and dear when they’re gone. The loss of them hurts deeply. But they urge us on. ‘Have courage,’ they say, ‘We’re with you all the way. Love life; live it well.’

Two moments come to my mind whenever I say the prayer carved in stone in every Jewish cemetery, ‘Umekayyem emounato lisheinei afar – Keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust.’ Twice my father, deeply asleep in his last hours, raised himself from his pillows, spoke those words into the ether and collapsed back into the semi-consciousness of his final journey.

It never occurred to me otherwise than that he was speaking to God: ‘Be with me in this boundaryless time-space where you’re taking me.’ They were words of trust and fear in equal measure.

But now it strikes me that I was partly wrong; my father was also talking to me: ‘Keep faith,’ he was saying, ‘keep faith through everything.’

So here, at the beginning of 2024, I walk among them in my mind, the departed, who lived through the Holocaust and the war. I try to listen, to draw courage for this current time of troubles, when Israel, Judaism and so much else seem on the line.

Here by the pathway is Jacqueline du Pre. I played a recording of her Kol Nidrei to Isca, my second mother, in her last hour. Isca adored the cello. The melody descends into the soul, says without words like the Psalmist, ‘From the depths I have called unto you,’ then rises, declaring ‘Seek beauty, aspire; always aspire.’ That’s why Isca loved such music.

Here, in the same row as my mother and father, lies Leo Baeck, leader of German Jewry in the terrible years, teacher of Theresienstadt. Nothing crushed his spirit, his faith not just in God but in humanity. Not rarely, he recalled, even in Berlin under the Nazis in ’40 or ’41, there would be an egg or apple secretly left by his door. He taught that God is mystery become commandment: what we know from life’s depths must teach us how to act.

And, Adi, my father, who by the age of forty-one had lost his own father, oldest sister, first wife, and three of his favourite aunts and uncles? He still comes into my room late at night, unexpectedly, as he did when I was in my teens, saying ‘Remember: only what’s in your mind can never be taken from you.’ And, since he was a practical person, I hear him say when a chair creaks or a shelf breaks, ‘Repair it, don’t throw it away.’ And, seeing he lived through the cruel years of Israel’s struggle for independence, ‘Be loyal; always stand by your friends.’

These are the secret ingredients of their strength, which, like the unique recipes for cheesecakes and strudels that they refuse to disclose while they’re alive, our forebears bequeath to us after they’re gone.

With them, we turn with gritty faith, resilient hope, and love of life, to face the year ahead.

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