Pre-election nightmares…and convictions

‘Because we belong to one race, the human race,’ said Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger at our synagogue last night in a powerful rebuttal of religious, political and racial Antisemitism. Her words, spoken with that deep conviction modulated by kindness which characterises her, are a fitting prelude to Human Rights Shabbat.

I’ve woken twice this week with nightmares prompted by the forthcoming election. That’s how at 3.00am this morning I found myself thinking of the words with which Jacob awakes from his dream, that wonderful vision of a ladder placed towards the earth and ascending up to heaven: ‘There is God in this place, and I didn’t realise’.

But, unlike in Jacob’s experience, the world doesn’t seem like the gateway to heaven right now. I feel surrounded less by angels than by terrors. I’m not sure I should name them, but these are some of the demons haunting me in the night: The attack by cults of myths and lies on integrity and truth; the world-wide failure so far to act quickly and radically enough to protect our beautiful planet; what unbridled consumption does to the poor and to nature; vast, unjustifiable, unconscionable injustice; the whole unfinished Brexit saga; the language of abuse, particularly on social media, especially towards women; rising populism and racism against refugees, Muslims, Jews; Jew-hate rooted in the Hydra-like Protocols of the Elders of Zion; homelessness, the loss for so many of hearth, hope and everything.

It took me a long time to get back to sleep.

So where is God in this place?

When a bereaved father whose son was murdered by a terrorist says he won’t have the death used to increase hatred in the world – God is in that place, in his heart.

When courageous women (and men) stand for election (in different political parties) because they believe in justice and goodness, despite innumerable threats on social media, including to their very lives – God is in that place.

When a child calls on my mobile and says in an urgent voice, “How do I save the life of this injured bird I just found?” – God is in the hands with which she lifts it gently into a box.

When a woman says on the radio that she’s stopped buying fast fashion and goes to clothes-swaps because her teenage daughter has made her rethink – I believe God is in that place.

When, as happened in the last ten days, I share a platform with an Imam, and again with a leading Christian minister, and we say “We stand together” – then we are warranted in the hope that God will guide us.

When a young person stands up and tells his or her community, ‘This is the charity I’ve run for’, or walked for, or worked for – God is in their commitment.

God is in our hearts, addressing every one of us in the voices of a thousand lives: family, friends, strangers, refugees, homeless people, even the birds and the trees. Nothing, no living thing whatsoever, doesn’t matter. The sacred spirit of life cries out to us from everywhere; it calls from inside our own consciousness. The challenge is to hear it, not just to wake and say ‘God is in this place, and I didn’t realise’, but to stay awake, remain aware and act accordingly.

For there are allies everywhere, in everyone who cherishes life, puts respect before prejudice, generosity before contempt, concern for others before convenience to self.

God is in this place, if we have the conscience, courage and compassion to make it so. Nothing can take that away.

 

Choose Love – and the real choices at election time

I visited the Choose Love pop-up store yesterday evening, ahead of its official opening today. I bought five winter coats for children. But all I took away were postcards with the greeting ‘Love Has No Borders’.

It’s not the usual kind of shop. You buy for refugees. Help Refugees, whose planning, effort, teamwork and inspiration Choose Love is, send the products straight from local suppliers near the camps, to the refugees who desperately need them. You can choose from socks, blankets, towels, hot food, winter boots. Or you can simply buy the whole shop – people do – and gift one item of everything it contains.

Around the walls you don’t see adverts, but pictures like the view of the sea with the words of Warsan Shire: ‘No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land’, or the photo of a young girl writing in a notebook with the lines by Arundathi Roy:

Another world is not only possible, but she is on her way.
On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

It wasn’t quiet in the shop. It was packed with people talking, buying, hugging friends; there was loud music.

But in my head and heart it was quiet, for once.

More and more this year, especially these last weeks, I feel as if I’m stuck on a ship from which it is impossible to disembark as it drifts, half piloted, half hapless, on a sea of madness towards a land of little hope. I love that land, which I watch drifting by. I weep for it and wonder how to get back there.

I have Black Friday all down my inbox. I don’t want to be cajoled into consuming as much as I can for as little as I can give. No doubt that’s because I already have far more than I need. No doubt the day brings good to some. But it’s symptomatic of a culture which eats the world and throws the packaging into the sea. It makes me afraid.

Outside the Choose Love store was a homeless man. I put a coin in his paper cup. ‘You’re the first he said,’ gesturing at all the people passing. Ninety-something per cent of the time, I’m also one of those who walk by. ‘Notice me’, the man was saying. ‘Notice’, says the Choose Love shop: notice what really matters.

Choose is a timely word. Beyond the forthcoming selection on the ballot paper is a deeper choice which no one can take away. No outcome can prevent it: we can choose to see, hear, care, reach out a hand, build, plant, tend; we can choose to live sustained and inspired by the vision of a kinder, less unjust and cruel world, a world sustained by integrity, humility, service and love. No incoming government can take that choice away.

In these difficult days, we must help each other make, and stick with, that choice. My favourite interpretation of God’s declaration ‘Let us make man in our image’ belongs to Rebbe Avraham Mordechai of Ger:

God says to each and every person:

“Let’s make of you a true human being, you and I together.”

God has many partners who help make us; who help us find our true humanity.

Thank you to them all.

 

Language of Contempt?

I’m often anxious after giving a sermon. What troubles me is: Have I said things which hurt others? This is not because I’m worried people may disagree with what I’ve said. It’s on account of a deeper issue: Have I spoken anything which directly or implicitly degrades other people because of who they are: white, or black, or male, or female, or not-Jewish, or indeed Jewish, or gay, or of other faith, or of none, or single, or married, or bereaved? Have I degraded the universal divine image which resides in every human being?

Because that’s a wrong; and from hustings, pulpit, parliament or temple, from any place of power, it’s an influential form of wrongdoing.

Since childhood, I’ve been struck by the prayer asking God to protect us ‘from the evil hours which distract the world’. What are those ‘hours’? Hours, I fear, in which racism, bigotry and hatred fill public discourse, inciting, and forming the prelude to, violence.

This week I signed a draft statement by the RA (The Rabbinical Assembly, to which most Masorti rabbis belong) condemning Stephen Miller, senior advisor to President Trump, for promoting white supremacist ideology and race hate. Based on documents released by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Hatewatch (what a term!) wrote that it could find no examples of Miller writing ‘sympathetically or even in neutral tones about any person who is nonwhite or foreign-born.’ The RA statement says that:

Both history and contemporary experience make us (as Jews) especially sensitive to any efforts that classify fellow human beings as “other.” We are all made in the image of God and worthy of dignity and respect.

These words should be taken to heart, including by leaders in Israel who make comments understood as provoking fear and hatred against Israel’s Arab citizens in sharp contradiction to the ideals set out in Israel’s wise and profoundly Jewish Declaration of Independence:

[The State of Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…

Closer to home, I’ve listened to more than one parliamentary candidate, from more than one party, telling me with personal pain about the race-based bigotry and hate-filled comments they both witness and receive as they campaign. This is wrong.

The US, the UK and Israel: these are three countries I admire and care about. There’s much I could say about places further from my heart…

We must not let the language of contempt go unchallenged. Disagreement, argument, impassioned debate, – yes. But bullying, bigotry and hatred, – no. They do not belong in genuine discourse; in the end they crush it. Those who suffer most are minorities, the ‘othered’, often women, writers, anyone too inconvenient in pursuit of truth, and, in the end, the whole of society.

That is why I welcome the Church of England’s report God’s Unfailing Word, which sharply challenges Christian teachings which have over centuries provided ‘a fertile seed-bed for murderous anti-Semitism’. The Archbishop of Canterbury, whom I’ve personally heard speak in the strongest terms against anti-Semitism wherever it is found in British life, acknowledged that

it is a shameful truth that, through its theological teachings, the church, which should have offered an antidote, compounded the spread of this virus.

The report may not be perfect, but it is highly significant and timely. It is a courageous example of how we must all examine our conscience and our language: Are my words cruel? Do they damage the dignity of being human?

We need to ask that question not just from the viewpoint of those who are ‘like us’, but precisely from the perspective of those cast as ‘other’.

However strong our beliefs, may our words offer healing not hate.

 

We must not be disempowered by a culture of bullying

Professor Colin Schindler, a scholar of outstanding integrity whom we are privileged to have in our community, gave a lecture in Pittsburgh last week to commemorate Kristallnacht and honour those murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue just a year ago.

He quoted Hannah Arendt’s observation that authoritarianism flourishes when there is an alliance between the elite and the mob. Those who stand in its path become targets of retribution.

Her words are astutely relevant with the rise of populist political cultures, not confined to one country or party, in which powerful leaders claim to speak better for the people than the established bodies of democracy, parliament, judiciary, a free press and a pluralist culture of honest debate. Caught in this unsubtle and bullying jingoism, those in the middle and in minorities often feel helpless and afraid.

Absorbed in these reflections, I asked a particularly engaged class of twelve-year-olds whether they thought Judaism was an ‘I can do’ or an ‘I can’t do’ religion. ‘I can do’, they all said, producing a rush of examples starting with Abraham.

Abraham is not fault-free, especially in how he treats his family. But, as we read in the Torah tomorrow, he does stand up for his values. I care about him because he pursues justice, God declares.

Just four verses later that very God is the object of Abraham’s pursuit: ‘How can you destroy the righteous alongside the wicked?’ Abraham challenges: If there are fifty, forty, even a mere ten honest people engaged in the affairs of the city then you, God, must spare the entire constituency of Sodom for their sake!

My attention is captured by the phrase ‘engaged in the affairs of the city’. It’s easy to feel there’s little we can do. But we all have a sphere of influence: our family, friends, neighbourhood, workplace, community, town. The Talmud asserts that those who have the power to exert such influence, whether over a circle as seemingly small as their own self or as wide as the entire world, but fail to do so, are held accountable for what happens within its compass.

There is little as empowering as deeply rooted values, especially if we have the solidarity of others who share them. One of my heroes, who spoke with profound conviction out of his personal experience of persecution, was Rabbi Hugo Gryn. I miss his voice, his gentle, compelling inspiration. ‘I spend much of my time fighting racism as hard as I can,’ he wrote, because ‘I know that you can only be safe in a society that practises tolerance, cherishes harmony and can celebrate difference.’

You can be a builder or a destroyer of bridges, he once told me: ‘There is a choice. Life is holy. All life, Mine and yours.’ (Chasing Shadows)

This is Interfaith Week. We can make connections with our own and other communities. We can stand together for social justice, compassion and equality, and against racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and bullying. We can create bonds with those other communities of life which we so often ignore but on which we depend for our very existence: fields, meadows, forests, insects, birds.

We can, and we must. We are not at liberty to allow ourselves to be disempowered. Limited as our influence is, we still have significant capacity to co-create the societies and the world in which we want ourselves and our children to live.

 

81 years since Kristallnacht; 30 years since the Berlin Wall

Tomorrow evening brings the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Those who bear the searing memories of Nazi terror, imprisonment and murder in Germany and Austria are now in their eighties or nineties. We wish them every strength.

For them, the date of November 9th will never mean anything other than the Night of Broken Glass. Listening to their testimony at yesterday’s service held by the Association of Jewish Refugees, seeing them stop, weep, and then continue to speak from the soul, was humbling and moving.

Yet time and history impose fresh events on familiar dates. A baby is born on the Jahrzeit of a parent, carrying into new life the name of a grandparent she never knew. A family wedding is planned for a day previously remembered as the birthday of a much-missed relative.

That has been the case with the 9th of November. This year, everyone is talking about thirty years since the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Many of us recall the hope and fervour which that iconic break-through brought. More than any other specific event, it epitomised the end of the Cold War. East and West could hammer away stones, sing and encounter each other in freedom.

I’ve puzzled over the meaning of the juxtaposition of these two almost opposite events, seemingly brought together by mere coincidence of the calendar.

Many who lived through the rise of Nazism and the horror of Kristallnacht testified to how the absence of physical barriers added to their bewilderment:

The boys next door who used to play with me wouldn’t talk to me anymore.

‘Friends’ with whom we’d been on civil terms walked past us in the street.

I saw the man who was once my friend in Nazi uniform.

Our neighbour gave us away.

Walls are not necessarily made of stone. They can be built from the bricks of bigotry and hate and bound with the mortar of suspicion and fear. They are easily constructed; tyrants, racists, populists and liars readily find co-workers.

When ordinary people who know and like their neighbours, when courageous public figures counter prejudice and take those walls down, shadows often rebuild them in the night. Though more easily passed through than structures with watchtowers and barbed wire, the very intangibility of the barriers of prejudice and contempt make them more elusive to absolute, irrevocable deconstruction.

That is why the task of undoing bigotry remains constant and essential. We are all both empowered and required to engage in it.

It’s as easy as friendship, as simple as caring about people because we are all people. We want our children to be safe in the street, encouraged at school and have opportunities in the workplace. We want to live in a society which is cooperative, diverse, inclusive and creative. We want to care about and for each other.

But it’s also as hard as resisting the temptation in our own minds, often unscrupulously fanned from podiums, pulpits and the press, to blame, fear, label and ‘other’.

In these times of choice and uncertainty, we are all responsible for taking down the barriers of prejudice and hate.

 

Attack on the Synagogue and Jewish Community of Halle

We are shocked and dismayed to learn of the despicable attack on the synagogue in Halle while the community were at prayer on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

We admire the courage and swift reactions of the synagogue security in barricading the door. We stand together with the Jewish community of Germany in these days of anguish. We have written to the head of the community of Halle, Max Privorotzki, to express our solidarity.

Our hearts go out in sorrow to the families of those killed by the gunman in the streets outside the synagogue, on whom he vented his rage. May God be with you in your grief and bring you strength and comfort. We wish speedy healing to all those injured.

We appreciate Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immediate expression of solidarity.

We deplore all forms of racist violence and stand together with all Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of all faiths and beliefs who have been the victims of such murderous aggression in the past years.

As Imam Monawar Hussein of the Oxford Foundation writes:

We must all work to unite against those advocating violence, hatred and division. We must watch out for the vulnerable in our society, reach out to each other and strengthen the bonds of friendship

On Judaism, government and civil disobedience

Last week something happened in the synagogue which I had never heard before. People laughed during the prayer for the government of the country.

Someone asked me ‘How long does one go on saying that prayer?’ I’m sure he wasn’t thinking about the Queen, whose devotion to public service is justly admired, but of certain members of Her Majesty’s Parliament whose wisdom and statesmanship are equally justly doubted.

There have been worse periods in history. One has only to think of the lines from Fiddler on the Roof: God bless the Czar and keep him – far from us.’ Nor, as we know, was the Czar the worst of tyrants.

Still, these are anxious times. Leonard Cohen famously sung that it’s through the cracks of imperfection that the light gets in. But it’s also true that through the cracks in democracy populism, corruption, deceit and tyranny get in.

This is a price the world cannot afford. When, as the New Year prayers aptly and frighteningly say ‘the earth hangs over the void’ and climate change places destiny of life itself in the balance, we need leadership.

Therefore, our prayers, which are addressed not to the wellbeing of specific public figures but to the very principle and practice of just and compassionate government, are all the more important.

The Jewish tradition of praying for our rulers is ancient. It begins with the pacts Abraham and Isaac make with local leaders. In the 6th century BCE, in a missive which must have shocked his contemporaries in beleaguered Judaea, Jeremiah instructs the exiles in Babylon to pray for the wellbeing of the cities to which they have been deported and where they must now rebuild their lives. Though well aware of the brutal side to Roman rule, in the 2nd century CE Rabbi Hanina directed his colleagues to ‘pray for the wellbeing of the government, because, were it not for the fear of its authority, people would swallow each other alive.’ (Mishnah, Avot 3:2) He comes close to Thomas Hobbes’s warning at the close of Leviathan that without a social contract life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

As for us, privileged above virtually all other generations in history to live in an open democracy, we have a responsibility not only to pray for good governance, but also to hold our government to account.

Therefore it is important to know that there is an equally ancient tradition in Judaism of civil disobedience. It begins among women: the midwives in Egypt refused to obey Pharaoh’s command to kill all the male Hebrew babies. Moses conducted what may be regarded as the most successful strikes in history. He did so in the name of dignity and equality, sacred values which, then and ever since, God has commanded us to uphold towards every person, everywhere. Rabbi Akiva refused to stop teaching Torah during the Roman persecutions of the second century, paying for his dedication with his life. I imagine the spirits of these women and men walking invisibly alongside Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel in Selma, Alabama.

However, it should not be concluded that Judaism advocates defiance, let alone anarchy; time and again it emphasises the importance of justice and – compassionate – law.

But there is something higher than fear of the powers-that-be: Yirat Shamayim, Fear of Heaven, awe before the presence of God, and the consequent commandment not to comply in silence with what is unjust, cruel and destructive.

Asked about the legitimacy of civil disobedience, Martin Buber wrote in 1963:

I know no other answer than that disobedience of this nature is legitimate when it is in fact obedience, obedience to a law superior to that which is being disobeyed here and now – in a word, when it is obedience to the supreme law.

As to when such disobedience is justified in specific situations, there are, he said, no general rules.

Climate Action Week begins today. I plan to participate in an interfaith service later today.

The climate emergency may lead to situations which warrant peaceful civil disobedience for the sake of specific, well thought-through goals. There can be no higher cause calling for disinterested commitment than the future of God’s world and the lives of the world’s children.

What is certainly not merely warranted, but commanded, is that we hold our leaders in government, industry, finance, religion, law and the media to account unless we do our utmost for the collective future of life.

 

 

Pretending we didn’t notice

I was out for a practice run for next Sunday’s marathon when I saw behind an archway a homeless man sitting next to his sleeping bag, a cardboard cup in his hand. I had no money on me; I didn’t stop. But I saw him see me and felt I could I hear him think, ‘Another person who pretends I don’t exist.’

Tomorrow we encounter one of the most important words in the Hebrew Bible. It appears twice in the same section and nowhere else in the entire Torah: lehitaleim, to hide oneself away, to pretend one hasn’t noticed. ‘You may not do that’, the Torah insists: you are not at liberty to turn a blind eye.

The context is animals: You mustn’t see your brother’s ox or sheep astray and carry on as if you hadn’t noticed; you mustn’t find his lost donkey and act as if you never saw.

Perhaps we are tempted to think ‘it’s only animals’, an unpardonable excuse given the wanton cruelty our civilisation habitually inflicts on them, with meagre pity and remorse. If so, Isaiah puts us right, in a passage given prime time on Yom Kippur morning:

If you see the hungry, feed them; the naked, clothe them; the oppressed, free them. Do not hide from your own flesh.

If we’re inclined to say to ourselves, ‘But it’s their flesh, not mine. I’m OK’, we should bear in mind Shylock’s masterful summary of what common humanity means: ‘If they prick us, do we not bleed?’

Lehitaleim is a gripping term, a reflexive verb formed from the root a.l.m, hidden, which also gives us the noun olam, the rabbinic Hebrew for ‘world’. We live in a universe of concealment, the mystics insisted, and the art is to learn to see.

Some things, it must be said, are obvious; they ‘stare you in the face’: a lost animal, lost child, refugee, the lost mobility of someone who can’t get into the building, or bathroom, because there’s no proper access. In such cases the Torah insists that we may not pretend we didn’t notice.

Other matters are less apparent. I’ve often had the privilege of being in the company of people who truly see, – and deeply:

‘Did you notice how exhausted she looked? She always makes light of what she has on her shoulders. But…’

‘He was smiling. But he looked so pale…’

People like that see not just with their eyes but with their heart. They teach and humble us all.

In the long confession on Yom Kippur we ask atonement ‘for the sin of haughty eyes.’ The opposite is to have eyes of loving kindness and compassion, to see and not turn away, notice and not ignore. It’s the only antidote to the world’s hard-heartedness.

When the mystics describe our world as a domain of concealment, they don’t just mean that there is much suffering of which we fail to take note. They understand the presence of God to be hidden throughout creation, covered over by the material form which all being takes, driven down into the recesses of our consciousness because of our preoccupation with practical concerns.

But da’at, deeper, reflective awareness, can reveal to us the preciousness of everything, the inestimable value of all life, that there is not a living being which does not matter. In the rare, gifted moments when we see like that, we look with the heart and see to the heart. Then we realise; then we do not turn aside.

In the bewildering rush of the ceaseless encounters which urban life entails, we are bound to be overwhelmed. Inevitably, we will sometimes turn aside, turn a blind eye, hide ourselves away, pretend we hadn’t noticed. We couldn’t survive otherwise.

But sometimes, as much as we can, we must look and see, see and act, act from the heart. Otherwise we won’t know we have a heart anymore, and the purpose of life is to deepen the heart’s compassion.

 

Bribery, blindness and politics

Three words encapsulate Jewish values: tzedek, ‘righteousness’, the practice of justice in all our dealings (which implies honesty and integrity); tzedakah, a virtually untranslatable noun which expresses the vision, commitment and generosity to work proactively for a more just world; and hesed, ‘faithful lovingkindness’, which should permeate all our actions.

This week’s Torah portion focuses on the first of these terms, tzedek, with the famous verse ‘Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue,’ preceded by this sharp warning:

Do not take a bribe, because bribes blind the eyes of the wise and pervert the words of the just.’ (Deuteronomy 16:19)

I always thought bribes meant serious criminality; that bribery was corruption writ large. I realise now that it can also be something more refined, subtle enough that we may not even notice we’re part of it.

The issue came up in a conversation about climate change with an Australian colleague: ‘Democracy’s part of the problem’, he said. ‘Democracy invites short-termism,’ I agreed.

Neither of us had the remotest intention of preferencing a different form of government. But we were concerned that leaders who depend on frequent re-election want to please their voters who naturally and usually rightly want what’s in their own best interests. The result can be that essential long-term goals, which require the courage to make short-term changes and sacrifices, are pushed into the background.

Foremost among these is the protection and regeneration of the earth. But the money to be made on the immediate exploitation of irreplaceable resources blinds the eyes of those who should be wiser. Their children, too, will pay the price. But I don’t see why my children, or the children and children’s children of billions of others, should have to pay it too.

It’s easy to incriminate others. I realise, though, that it’s not just ministers of state who’re blinded. I know from experience that it’s not always easy for ministers of religion to say what people may not want to hear. The so-called ‘fine line’ between leadership, courage, tact and empathy, not to mention the awareness that we may be mistaken, is more like a net beneath a trapeze artist than a line at all.

Few of us face truth with the integrity we should.

The Talmud observes that ‘a judge who judges truly [refusing to take bribes] is like a partner to God in the work of creation.’ An unnamed commentary offers this explanation:

Shochad, (the Hebrew for ‘bribe’) derives from chad, meaning ‘one’. A judge who takes a bribe becomes at one with the litigant who gives it…But the judge who refuses to take bribes, is at one with neither litigant. To such a judge God says, ‘Since you rejected partnership with them, I shall consider you a partner with me.’

The etymology is almost certainly wrong. But the idea is profound. The path of integrity can be lonely and hard. There is a price to following inconvenient truths and eschewing convenient untruths. But if we want to be ‘partners with God in sustaining creation’ we must refuse the alluring bribes of short-term gain and listen to enduring wisdom.

I’m frightened by the populism which has taken hold of politics and nations, and the bullies of any party or persuasion whose paths it paves.

Judaism, like all faiths rooted in a just and sustaining vision, requires us to be faithful to deeper and enduring values: justice, faithful kindness and partnership with God in caring for creation.

 

The Jewish New Year For Animals

The new moon of Elul is approaching, the month of wakefulness. Every morning the shofar calls, ‘Awake, you slumberers; rouse yourselves, all you who are asleep’ (Maimonides). For soon all life will pass before God, in judgment tempered by love.

But the new moon of Elul is not merely the herald of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year par excellence. According to the majority view in the Mishnah, it is also a distinct new year in its own right:

The first of Elul is the new year for tithing cattle. (Mishnah: Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

Something of the kind must have been going on at the farm next to where we stayed last week for five wonderful days on the Isle of Mull (maybe it’s because the farmer almost certainly wasn’t Jewish that he got the date slightly wrong). Most mornings only a few highland cattle were in the yard. But on this particular day there were tens of them, cows and calves, with shovings and mooings, while the farmers with their crooks looked about as successful in trying to direct them as secondary-school teachers on a challenging day. No, it wasn’t an entirely bucolic scene; in the loud and frequent lowings were the indisputable tones of fear. The abattoir was just a dozen miles down the road.

The truth is that this is all too close to what the first of Elul originally was, the date on which all calves born in that year were counted and every tenth delivered to the Temple to await its turn to be sacrificed.

That was two thousand years ago. In recent times the first of Elul has been re-invented as The New Year for Animals, in exactly the same way as Tu Bishevat was re-created as The New Year for Trees. (See Hazon.org)

It is far from insignificant that this is the very date when the shofar first calls to us to account for our lives before God, ourselves, each other, and nature itself. The shofar is fashioned from the horn of an animal. It has always sounded in my spirit as the cry of all life, of the animals, forest, mountains, rivers, rain and mists; as a plea for life from the depths of the heart of all living being.

It’s not just because I love animals, because I find companionship and consolation in the presence of those animals who have been humankind’s partners for hundreds of generations. It’s also because I cannot bear the thought of the cruelty with which we habitually treat them, the disregard, the wilful ignorance, the contempt for their suffering. It’s also because I am terrified that we have spread so many poisons in the very elements of air, soil and water, and so trivially and thoughtlessly scattered the detritus of our carelessness and self-regard, that we will kill the birds, fish and bees, the invisible insects and the great wild animals. It’s because I fear, too, that only in the eleven-and-a-halfth hour will we truly understand how deeply interconnected we are, that our physical, moral and spiritual wellbeing is interdependent with all life. It is for all these reasons that I believe that a day demarcated in the calendar for honouring and respecting animal life is so important.

But a sole and single day is insufficient. The most urgent issue for humanity in our time is the rebalancing of our relationship with all life, the reconsideration of how we consume, travel and waste. For certain, there are sacrifices to be made. But the gains are greater: a deeper awakening to wonder, respect, awe and kinship; a renewed integrity and wholeness to our moral and spiritual being; the knowledge that what we bequeath to our children’s generation will not be a wasteland but somewhere beautiful, nourishing and inspiring.

I am horrified by the behaviour of my own species. I cannot say I am not guilty. But I want and intend to do all I can to make atonement with nature, and in so doing, with God.

 

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