Human Rights Shabbat and Chanukah

This weekend is Human Rights Shabbat; 2018 will bring the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Leo Baeck was the leader of German Jewry during the Nazi years. Imprisoned five times for refusing to bow to Nazi demands, he was deported to Theresienstadt in 1943. He survived. Afterwards, in one of the earliest collections of testaments, he wrote:

The principle of justice is one the whole world over. Justice is like a dike against inhumanity. If a small part breaks, the whole is threatened…An injustice to one is an injustice to all.

His words recall those of an earlier German-Jewish leader, Samson Raphael Hirsch, who warns in his commentary on the commandment not to oppress the stranger:

Beware… lest in your state you make the rights of anyone dependent on anything other than the simple fact of their humanity, which every human being possesses by virtue of being human. With any diminution of this human right, the door is thrown wide open to the whole horror of the experience in Egypt, the wilful mistreatment of other people.

Through listening to refugees, I’ve learnt how close at hand that ‘whole horror’ is. People have their homes bombed to pieces in wars pursued by leaders with utter contempt for human life. They are persecuted by regimes with brutal laws administered at the whim of tyrants. To escape with their lives, they may be forced to sell themselves to people merchants, traffickers who promise, in exchange for whatever money their hapless victims could save from the wreckage of their lives, to deliver them to a free country. Bundled into the backs of lorries, onto planes bound they may not know where, they find themselves in a strange country, bereft of family, friends, money, language, everything they had ever known.

‘Do you have family in Ethiopia?’ I eventually asked a refugee who was staying with us, not knowing what wounds I might be re-opening.

My mother and brother were murdered. I haven’t heard from my father for 12 years. He’s in prison, or killed. I don’t know.

Perhaps, like our ancestor Jacob who believed for 20 years that his beloved Joseph was dead, her heart has an inconsolable corner which she visits in tears when no one is looking.

The least we can do is to help such fellow human beings as best we can. At a session on behalf of Refugees at Home my co-speaker and I were persistently heckled: ‘Those people want to kill our children. They want to live in Kensington and Mayfair’. I’m sure that among the millions of refugees there are a very small number of terrorists. (Others are here already, developing their hideous plans) Vicious people always find ways of abusing the misery of others. We must support and pray for the success of our intelligence and security forces.

But that is no reason to pass collective judgment over all refugees. It is indescribably hard for them to create a new life. Many wait for years, a decade, for permission to remain. Meanwhile they’re not allowed to work. How should they live? This country also permits indefinite detention, in defiance of Magna Carta. The threat hangs heavy in hearts which harbour wounds most of us cannot imagine, torture, hunger, catastrophic loss.

This week brings the wonderful festival of Chanukah. The miracle it proclaims concerns not just the eight days for which a single day’s supply of oil burnt in the ruined Temple in Jerusalem 2,150 years ago. The miracle begins when, amidst the desolation, someone finds that tiny vial of pure olive oil and the decision is made to light it. Despite everything, in defiance of all violence and destruction, the light of hope and courage starts to shine.

To this day it has not been extinguished. It never shall be, if we nourish it not just through our rituals but our deeds.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem

Sha’alu shalom Yerushalayim: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem

I have two reactions to President Trump’s announcement concerning Jerusalem this week.

This ancient, beautiful city was the Jewish capital from the time of King David until its destruction by the Romans. Through almost two millennia of exile it stayed the capital of the Jewish heart, and remained the home of a poor, but enduring, Jewish community. Since 1948 it has been de facto the centre of Israeli government, containing the Knesset and the Supreme Court. I remember my father, who recalled with pain the many lives lost in trying to defend the old city in 1948, waking me in the night in June 1967 when I was a boy of ten, to tell me that the old city had been recaptured.

At the same time, I vividly recall sitting with Palestinian families in their homes in East Jerusalem, now on the other side of the wall. I can never forget the hours I spent with the CEO of the Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem during operation Protective Edge, listening to his pain. These experiences affected me profoundly, bringing home the truth that there can be no solution which does not offer hope, opportunity, safety and dignity for all. I think too of the many friends, Muslim, Christian and Jewish, in various NGOs devoting their lives to the endeavour to create the civic groundwork for co-existence between two peoples and three religions for when a political solution is eventually achieved.

I also know that Judaism, with its many texts attesting to the integrity of its history and to its ancient presence in Jerusalem, preceding Christianity and Islam, also demands equal justice in the treatment of each and every individual person and calls upon us to act faithfully in the name of the God of all humanity.

I fear for what President Trump’s words will do in this complex balance of religion, history, emotion and politics, words for which he will not suffer the immediate consequences.

In the language of the Friday night prayers

May God spread peace over us, over all God’s people and over Jerusalem

It’s not about hate

‘Rabbi, how does one find one’s path in life?’

This was the question X asked me as we travelled together to Liverpool for his interview with the Home Office about his asylum application. He spoke of the hatred he had witnessed in the country he’d fled: ‘It’s the wrong path, isn’t it?’

I’ve spent much of my last weeks with people struggling with pain, be it from politically or religiously motivated persecution, the verbal or physical brutality of family members, or the after-effects of tragedy.

Asked by a colleague what one-word subject I wanted to talk about, I answered ‘cruelty’.

But I don’t. In a week when North Korea tests more lethal weapons, when the President of the United States gratuitously repeats hate-tweets, when violence and fear feel ever more prominent, I want to talk about the opposite. If only to myself, I want to answer X’s question on that train to Liverpool.

What are the values by which the world should be led? What, at least, are the qualities by which our own lives should be led, which we should develop in ourselves in a frightening, beautiful, inspiring world?

We need justice. For students of the Hebrew Bible this is founded on the principle that every human being is created in God’s image. Therefore, as the Mishnah declares, ‘No one may say, “My parents were greater than yours.”’ No life is intrinsically of lesser value. We may not despise or ignore the rights, hopes and sufferings of another human just because he or she is different from ourselves. Justice equally requires us to expect that they treat us likewise.

We need a listening heart. We need imagination, the capacity to think and feel what the world is like from the other person’s point of view. Where does the spiked wheel of fortune cut into his or her heart? What would bring him or her relief, joy, at least a sense of not being alone?

We need compassion. The Talmud teaches that life is unbearable for the person who tries to feel for everyone. There are limits. But it is a good daily goal to ask ourselves ‘What kindness can I do? How can I avoid giving hurt?’ If we had such an attitude towards everyone we encountered, from our own family, to our neighbour, to the blackbird on the grass, we would be far closer to Isaiah’s vision of a world where ‘they neither hurt nor destroy in all God’s holy mountain’.

We need moral courage. We are not here to tolerate every outrage. History shows that if we fail to stand up for ourselves and others in the name of truth, integrity and justice, we too will be swept away on the tide of anger or the backwash of indifference.

We need faith. The mystics teach that God is everywhere and in all things. I am less interested in the infinite God in the unfathomable reaches of the universe. I care most about the presence of God here before me, in this particular person, her gifts, opportunities and hopes. I care most about the presence of God in the birds, in the deer who drink from this river, in the God of this life around me. For it is here, in this immediacy, that God commands me to do what is just and good.

We need faith in ourselves. This is not faith in our superiority; it is not arrogant or disparaging of others. On the contrary, it is the faith that despite our failures, limitations and confusion, there is within us light and strength, hope and love which glows from the sacred source of all life.

We are not here to let our souls be echo-chambers for hate or despair, but to transform them through courage, imagination and compassion, into healing.

 

Light up a Life

‘God revives the dead – mechayei hametim’ – Among the many challenging phrases in the prayers, this is probably one of the most difficult. Do we or don’t we believe in life after death?

 

I often reflect on how many possible meanings the sentence contains. Does it refer to literal resurrection? Or does it express how we hold precious in our hearts the love of those no longer with us in this world, so that they, their goodness, their wisdom and their foibles continue to live within us?

 

Are the words rather a metaphor for the whole rhythm of dying and living, of lives ending and new lives being born? Or might they even be a description of the flow of the years as the seasonal leaf fall, the annual dying of autumn, is succeeded by the unfurling leaves and germinating seeds of spring?

 

But this morning a different thought passed through my mind. On Sunday I participated in the moving Light up a Life ceremony at the North London Hospice. It opened with the ancient Hindu right of kindling a flame and meditating on the light of compassion. Later, a father spoke with gratitude, as well as pain, about how his son’s final weeks at the hospice were made bright and full of life by the care and love of staff, friends and family.

 

‘Mechayei hametim: you revive the dead’ – The words are in the present continuous tense; a more unusual, but no less literal, translation might be ‘you bring life to those who are dying’. I thought about the tenderness, love, sorrow, gratitude, humility and gentleness; about the deep sense of service and reverence I have witnessed at the hospice so many times; about how the value of each life and its unique relationships has been protected, and even enhanced, there during so many people’s final days.

 

Perhaps this, too, is what those words mean.

 

And I thought also of so many families and their loved ones who parted in that precious, special place.

For the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

Often, it’s the little words which do the damage. Or it’s the words not said, like the unspoken ‘but’ after an insincere ‘I love you’. It’s absent in the semantics but all too evident in the intonation, undermining what’s being professed, hurting the hearer to the heart.

It’s with words that we do most of our wounding, – and blessing. That’s partly why the rabbis who studied the Hebrew Bible discounted not one word, ignoring not a single syllable or even a seemingly superfluous letter. It all had to have meaning. Rabbi Akiva was famous for interpreting every particle, every ‘and’ and ‘also’ in the Torah.

There’s a challenging example in these week’s portion. Jacob has just been deceived by his father-in-law Laban into marrying Leah, when it is her younger sister Rachel with whom he is in love. Now, just one week later, Laban ‘gives’ him the latter too in marriage:

And Jacob slept also with Rachel and loved also Rachel than Leah (Genesis 29:30)

That second ‘also’ – it comes twice in six words – is like the laceration of Leah’s wound. That she knows to her core that she isn’t loved is apparent from the name she gives her first son, whom she calls Re’u-ven, ‘Look, a son’, saying, ‘For God has seen my affliction and now my husband will love me’. Thus, the innocent baby imbibes with his first milk the life-long burden of being the son of the one who wasn’t loved.

One wonders: with whom would Leah be most angry, her father, her husband, her hapless, no less wounded sister? Which one of them has betrayed her most? (Yet she still manages to be sister, wife, and eventually mother of six sons and a daughter.)

Leah’s poignant cry, ‘Surely now he’ll love me’, has ached in countless hearts in every generation. It still does.

Decades later, children carry the wounds of homes where love went wrong. Sometimes it’s the after-shock of homes full of violent anger; sometimes it’s the cold absence of affection; sometimes it’s contempt; sometimes it’s abuse, made even worse if others knew but turned a blind eye.

These are hurts which damage not just the body but the soul. They invade a child’s, a woman’s, a person’s, sense of self-respect. They attack the essential inner feeling of being lovable, worthy of another’s love. They penetrate into places to which it is extremely hard to bring healing. Even the memory of such afflictions may be deeply, overwhelmingly humiliating.

Maybe that is, partly, what leads many women to suffer in silence verbal contempt, emotional belittling and bullying, physical violence, threats to their very lives. Sometimes, even amidst the cruelty, the hope in Leah’s desperate words still echoes in the heart, ‘Maybe now he’ll love me???’

Jewish Women’s Aid, similar organisations in other faiths, and national agencies are calling on us not to ignore such suffering. If we glimpse such cruelty within ourselves, we must take ourselves to therapy. If there are victims within our families, or among those we know, we need to think carefully, and maybe seek confidential advice, about how to help. What we must not do is condone; that aligns us with the perpetrator.

We have seen in the Jimmy Saville scandal, and many since, (not exactly the same issue, but closely connected) is not only that there are people whose behaviour is vile, but that there are far more who turn a blind eye, as if the prevailing culture considered it ‘OK’ to treat women, and children, in such ways. It is most definitely not OK.

Leah, we are told, has einayim racot; a kind translation would be that her eyes are ‘gentle’ but the usual rendition is that they are ‘weak’. Maybe, though, the true weakness resides in the eyes of those around her, and all those since, who look but refuse to see.

Jewish Women’s Aid, is the only specialist organisation in the UK supporting Jewish women and children affected by domestic abuse. Their free phone confidential helpline is 0808 801 0500

The pool beneath the heart

Since as long as I can remember I’ve always loved the sound of flowing water, the fall from the rock ledge of steep mountain streams, the call of small rivers descending through the valleys, the stillness of deep pools among the rocks. It’s as if they sing not only of the physical element of life-giving water but of the spirit which nourishes all life.

The Hebrew Bible is replete with images of water, from ‘the voices of mighty waters, the breakers of the sea’, in the 91st Psalm, to the beloved mei menuchot, ‘the waters of tranquillity’ in the 23rd.

But in the Torah itself it is the be’er, the well, which is most prominent. Abraham’s servant waits by the well for the daughters of the village to draw water; Jacob falls in love with Rachel by the local well. It is at the well that Moses rescues Jethro’s seven daughters from the shepherds who habitually bully them, and a well of flowing water accompanies the Children of Israel through the desert, on account, explain the rabbis, of the merit of Moses’s sister Miriam.

In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac strives to re-open the wells which his father Abraham had dug but which the Philistines had filled in. Clearly, struggles over water resources are as old as civilisation.

The Zohar, the Book of Splendour, the central text of Jewish mysticism, offers this description of the last of those wells:

Come and see: the fount of water and that well are one… For the source which flows into that well never ceases, and the well is constantly filled and replenished. Whoever beholds that well beholds the high mystery of faith itself… Zohar, Bereshit 141

I often wonder what is the secret of inner strength. What enabled Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, the Piazetsner Rebbe, to continue teaching not just Torah, but a Torah of piercing wisdom and sometimes radiant beauty, week after week in the Warsaw ghetto until 1943? Through what resources of the spirit did so many Tibetan monks resist not only the brutality of their Chinese jailors, but also the temptation to become contaminated internally by hate? What enabled Terry Waite not only to survive 1763 days in captivity near Beirut, but to gain such insight into the nature of resilience itself?

Such gifts belong not only to heroes, but to many people much closer to us. It is far from rare that I witness people struggling in physical or emotional pain, who yet find the capacity, not always but at least some of the time, to draw from some inner source of spirit tranquillity, generosity and a graceful self-possession which leaves those around them humbled and moved.

When people ask me in a time of acute to distress where they should go to find strength, I often ask them what it is which nurtures their spirit. Whatever their answer – music, nature, yoga, a quiet hour with a friend, a walk with the dog, – I say ‘However great the pressure, make sure you don’t deprive yourself of this’.

I believe in that inner well of which the Zohar speaks. I believe there is a space inside each of us, often hidden, a secret in the depths within or beneath the heart, which silently fills with living water. If we pay faithful attention, we can almost hear the slow flow and fall of this secret stream of vitality as it replenishes the pool of pure water from which our spirit drinks.

The fact that, as in the story of Isaac, the well inside us so often gets blocked up doesn’t mean that it has ceased to exist. In our case it’s not Philistines who fill it in with dry earth, but too much noise, inattention, lack of spiritual care.

But when we need it, when we seek to heed it, the well is there inside us with a pool of clear waters in its depths in which to bathe our thought and be refreshed with purity, humility, generosity and grace.

 

Whom we fail to notice

I’m writing on Thursday evening 9th November, shortly before dark on the night which 79 years ago became Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. In her outstanding book Between Dignity and Despair, Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, Marion Kaplan documents unsparingly the anguish which followed. Thus, Lisa Brauer was forced to sell her home for a pittance:

It was so terribly difficult to destroy… what one had created with so much love. My children had played and laughed here and romped in the grass with the dogs…

Others suffered worse… as we well know.

What is less familiar is Kaplan’s frequent reference to what so many (though not all) non-Jewish Germans increasingly did not, or chose not, to see. Jews became invisible to former friends; children were ignored by their playmates, as if they had never existed. This was of course better than the attention of the Gestapo and their many supporters. But it hurt.

The issue of what people fail to see, of how oblivious they are capable of being to the realities which define the lives of those next door, disturbs Kaplan deeply.

It should disturb us too, and not solely because of the past. I am profoundly troubled by what we manage not to know about those around us today and what we choose not to see.

Many of the reasons are as ordinary as everyday life itself.

We don’t see because we’re too preoccupied with our own lives. If we turned to look too often at the challenging realities facing so many others, who knows if we would complete one single day’s worth of our plans for ourselves and our families.

We don’t see because we simply lack the relevant experience to have the insight.

We don’t see because we’re afraid to look. I often think of George Elliot’s remarkable observation that ‘if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence’. Were all the anguish within a single square mile from our home suddenly to become audible, we would scarcely be able to bear the onslaught.

These matters are facts of daily life. The truth is that, while it is wrong to be persistently indifferent, we cannot possibly respond to everything which hurts those around us. We have to filter out most suffering if we are to respond in a meaningful way to any of it. That’s the best, often a very good best, which all but the most exceptional individuals can manage. And we need the resources of music, joy, friendship, and beauty to enable us to achieve that much.

What worries me more deeply, terrifies me at times, is the wilful incitement not to care. It’s what hatemongers do with such success.

It generally becomes evident first in the abuse of language. It is through words that we begin to ‘other’ the other, diminishing their dignity, marginalising and then deriding their right to our concern. Contempt for refugees, attacks on ‘foreigners’, resurgent white supremacism in the USA, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim rhetoric and literature, – these are all key phases in process by which we become blind to the lives, and, in the worst case, eventually deaths, of those around us.

Spreading contempt for others is often the beginning of a profound crime, not only against those whose dignity and rights we thus deny, but also against ourselves. It’s betrayal of our own humanity too.

I’m writing these words partly because I love life and aspire to care about people, yet am increasingly aware of my ignorance of the realities of what so many not far from me, refugees, people who stop you in the street to ask for 20p towards a sandwich, face.

I’m writing them, too, because fear and hatred are on the rise in our world and on this inauspicious date history provides us with a severe and searching warning.

 

The Balfour Declaration: 100 Years On

Balfour-Yiddish-Pamphlet

The person who casually commented to me that ‘the Balfour Declaration was a mistake as it made the British have blood on their hands’ was not prepared for the strength of my reaction. As Prime Minister Teresa May rightly said last night, the Declaration is ‘one of the most significant letters in history’, opening the doors to making the Jewish homeland a reality.

To me, and so many others, this is not simply an objective fact. It saved my father’s life. He and his family might have perished in Nazi Germany, had they not been able to emigrate to Palestine. How many in the late 1930s wished they could have followed that same route!

The Balfour Declaration emerged out of The First World War. In the bleak months of 1917, with the Ottoman Empire on the German side, the British sought the support of world Jewry, and, separately, that of Arab groups prepared to rebel against the Turks. Chaim Weizmann, a man of charm, charisma and a diplomatic brilliance sorely lacking in the globe today, turned this belief in Jewish power to advantage. The Declaration was also motivated by Christian feeling for Jews, founded on respect for the Biblical vision of an ancient and courageous people returning to the land from which it was cruelly expelled.

Thirty-one years later, years which contained the terrors of the Russian Revolution, the persecution of Jews in the area known as the Pale of Settlement, the incomprehensible cruelty and slaughter of the Holocaust, and the horrors of World War II, Israel’s Declaration of Independence expressed the aims of the newly proclaimed state in terms closely consonant with Lord Balfour’s letter:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex…

Last night, the current Lord Rothschild, great nephew of the recipient of the letter, referred to these words with careful wisdom, noting, as did Teresa May, that the second clause of Lord Balfour’s note, referring to the rights of the ‘existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’ awaited fulfilment. To that end, he said, the same vision, courage, faith and tenacity had to be devoted by all sides, and the international community, as the realisation of the seemingly far-fetched dream of a Jewish state had itself not so long ago required.

As a lover of Israel, opposed to the boycott, with Israeli Jewish and Palestinian friends, having stood on both sides of the wall, having listened (though only little compared to many others) to pain, fear and the terrible anguish of grief from both sides, I pray for the enduring fulfilment of every one of the 67 words in that remarkable letter. I pray that, as we look back now on Israel’s many and remarkable achievements, we will one day in the not too far future be able to look back on what seems so far from attainment today: peace, security, justice, and the collaboration in the common interest of us all of those who are so often forced to see each other as enemies.

Lord Balfour’s letter also has a third clause, often overlooked, stating that nothing must be done to diminish the ‘rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’. (The Nazis passed the Nuremberg Laws just 18 years later). This touches upon the charter by which we all hope to live in open, plural democracies: freedom of conscience, speech and movement, and the right to live in equality as citizens protected by the impartiality of the law. In far too few places in the world is this truly the reality.

Today we need to do more than defend the right of Israel to exist (a challenge no other country has to face). I believe we must to do our utmost to make whatever personal and collective contribution we can for the peace, well-being, safety, and dignity of life for all the country’s inhabitants, – exactly as Israel’s Declaration of Independence states.


The image is taken from Jonathan Fishburn’s catalogue at www.fishburnbooks.com. The heading reads: Patshegen Hadekliratziah. Pathshegen is borrowed from the Persian and found in the Megillah, where it refers to the letters sent out first by Haman, then countered by Mordechai and Esther, in which the destiny of all the Jews in the Empire is at stake. It makes a telling, partner with the transliterated ‘Dekliratziah’ promulgated by a different empire millennia later.

The God I do, the God I don’t, believe in

People talk to me about the God they don’t believe in. It doesn’t happen every day, but often enough for me to feel that theology is alive and well. Sometimes they also talk about the God in whom they do believe.

I find it easier to believe in a God who is than a God who does in history. Or perhaps the two are interconnected.

A God who does, who governs history, defeats tyranny, rebukes the unjust and intervenes with compassion on behalf of the millions at the mercy of those who exploit them, – I sometimes wish I believed in such a ‘hands-on’ God, but I can’t. If it were claimed that such a God is truly present and existent, all-knowing and all-powerful, but choosing for secret reasons not to intervene in the violent injustice of human history, I’d need to ask: ‘God, why? There’s too much wrong, too much cruelty for God to be a bystander. I would struggle to believe in a God who can, but chooses not to.

A God who is, who, in the words of the mystics ‘fills all the worlds and surrounds all the worlds’; who is the one spirit, the creative, animating vitality which flows through all being and all matter; whose living presence can be overheard in the sap of trees, seen in the rhythm of dawn and twilight, felt in the heart’s meditation; whose abode is all life and every human being, even though this sacred essence is so often ignored, oppressed, brutalised, ground down by life’s daily distractions into a silence which seems like absence, – in this God, in the God who fills all things, I deeply believe. Therefore, the core of life’s endeavour lies in the hearing, in the struggle for awareness, and in the effort to respond accordingly. Maybe that’s why the central Jewish meditation begins with the imperative ‘Hear!’ and moves on to the imperative, ‘Love!’

Thus the gap between the God who is and the God who does may not be so great after all. For the God who is can become the God who does in history through what we do, at least partly so.

The human task, the essence of our responsibility, is to listen to the voice of God, to hear the sacred in its semi-silent calling out, in the hopes of a child, in the pain of the bereaved, in the songs of the happy, in the cry of the injured, and to follow through on what this voice calls upon us to do.

To hear is to become responsible, and responsibility demands action. That is the essence of mitzvah, of feeling and knowing ourselves commanded to do what is just, compassionate and creative. In the famous rabbinic phrase, we are summoned in this manner to become ‘partners with God in creation’. It seems clear that if we refuse we will destroy the world.

This week we begin the story of Abraham. A striking midrash, or rabbinic exploration, contrasts him with Noah:

Rabbi Nehemia said: [Noah] is like a friend of the king who’s sinking in thick mud. The king saw him and said, ‘Rather than sinking in the mud, come and walk with me.’ Thus, Scripture says ‘Noah walked with God’.

What is Abraham like [to whom God said, ‘Walk before me’]? It’s like a friend who saw the king walking in a dark alleyway. Observing this, he lit up the king’s path through the windows. The king saw him and said, ‘Rather than via the window, come out and light the way before me.’     Bereshit Rabbah 30:10

Can we, too, help light a path through the byways of a world so often overshadowed with bewilderment and suffering, for God, and for all to whom God, like ourselves, has given the gift and illumination of life? That’s what it means to be a child of Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father. It’s what it means to be created in God’s image and to nurture God’s image and God’s presence in all the people and all the life around us.

 

Living in peace with creation

Only last week, in the beautiful poem with which the Hebrew Bible opens, we read of a God in love with the world. ‘God saw that it was good’ is the chorus line of creation.

Now, just one week’s reading later, God sees that the world is bad. Losing patience with humanity ‘whose every thought is evil’, God determines to destroy the earth. Only Noah is to survive, with the precious gene-pool of all living things sealed away in the floating bubble of the Ark.

Everyone knows the story. Except that we sing it from the point of view of the animals who ‘came in two by two’. What about those who didn’t? And the people? Were they all so awful that they really deserved to drown?

Afterwards, God is sorry. It’s history’s first ‘Never again!’ In soothing words, God ensures Noah that

All the days of the earth [the rhythm of] seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day-time and night-time shall never come to rest (Genesis 8:22)

It feels a little late. According to the Zohar, when Noah opens the portal of the Ark and looks out on the mud-flats of devastation where once there had been villages, fields and forests, he weeps. So Noah is sorry too.

What about us? Do we regret, or really care about, what we do to the earth?

The Torah tells us what was wrong before the flood: ‘All flesh had destroyed its way upon the earth’. But what does this broad indictment actually mean?

Rashi, the great 11th century commentator, explains: ‘even the cattle, wild animals and birds interbred,’ corrupting their species. Blame the animals, too.

Nachmanides (1194 – 1270) disagrees, maintaining that the plain meaning is that ‘all flesh’ refers only to humans. Our species did wrong, but all living beings had to pay the price.

This is disturbingly close to home. If we’re not disturbed, we’re probably missing the most important issue confronting our civilisation.

To return to the critical sentence: what might ‘destroyed its way’ mean to us? The Hebrew for ‘way’ derech, appears in another, much-loved verse about the Torah and wisdom as a whole:

Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.

Are our ways, towards each other, nature and life itself, ways of pleasantness and peace? If not, how can we make them so, urgently?

Every day I receive letters about cruelty, the callous neglect of human life and contempt for nature. Some provide distressingly explicit details about the deliberate, sadistic enjoyment of the pain suffered by animals, – and by people.

While I obviously abhor the particular abuses described, such communications leave me with a more difficult question: am I, too, complicit? Can I live without colluding with, or even relying on, the practice of cruelty and injustice to someone else, to some other living being, somewhere?

Can we live in ‘peace and pleasantness’ with each other and with nature?

No issue is more urgent

 

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