For the Month of Av: from Destruction to Restoration

We are on the eve of the new moon of Menachem Av.

The month begins in sorrow: ‘When Av comes in, joy is diminished.’ The ninth day is the fast of Tisha B’Av, when we remember the destruction of the Temples. But afterwards comes consolation, as we read from Isaiah ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.’ The full moon, Tu B’Av, is all celebration, Judaism’s ancient equivalent of Valentine’s Day.

I was privileged last week to share three experiences which expressed just this movement from sadness to restoration.

The first was in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, bombed out by the Luftwaffe in the night of 14 November 1940. We gathered, scarcely a dozen of us of different faiths and philosophies, surrounded by the remains of the walls and spires, made safe but not rebuilt. It’s not an obvious location for marking Britain’s first ever Thank You Day. But it’s a humbling space and that’s what drew us together. It opened our hearts. We were Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Bahai, Humanist. We all spoke, but the atmosphere of the place said more, reaching into us without words. We belonged to different generations and persuasions but it filled us with the same determination: not to hurt, not to denigrate, but to nurture and appreciate life.

The second was the Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral on the 73rd anniversary of the National Health Service. I sat next to Dr Perpetual Uke, a consultant at Birmingham City Hospital, who told me how she’d been caring for patients when she herself got Covid and became desperately ill. Now, thank God, she was almost entirely recovered. She was here both as giver and receiver of care. Nearby was a man representing the Ambulance Service. I told him how many times I’d had cause as a community minister to witness the kindness and skill of their teams.

Dr Uke lead the prayer:

For the vision of those who pioneered our National Health Service…
For the dedication of those who serve all in need of healthcare…
For the courage of those whose lives are marred by illness and bereavement…
For those who work for a healthier and fairer world.

What does one do when one hears such words? One feels saddened, humbled, touched, consoled and inspired all at once. One subconsciously resolves to do one’s best, to make one’s own contribution.

The third was the joy of two days in Scotland. Getting off the night train in the Highlands, the scents of woodland, heather, wild thyme and bilberry, the green of silver birch and pine, the sound of running streams – these are all God’s agents, they restore my soul. We experienced, too, a more practical kind of restoration in the regenerated woodlands, the young self-seeded trees carefully protected against deer and rabbits, the warnings not to disturb the rare capercaillie which nest on the ground, the feeding stations for red squirrels, the sight of an osprey. This too is part of health care, the health of the earth and our mental and spiritual health at the same time.

On Tisha B’Av we dwell only temporarily on destruction, long enough to rediscover the dedication to restore, rebuild, heal and replant in all God’s Temple, in Jerusalem itself, and throughout that universal Jerusalem which is God’s earth.

To the leaders of the G7

Something has been haunting me this dawn. It’s connected to the G7, but it’s not about politics.

So that you remember:’ I woke with these words searching my head like torchlights. But what were they looking for? ‘Remember!’ Remember what? It was like one of those discomfiting moments when you can’t recall a familiar name; you know that you know it, but it remains obstinately irretrievable behind a barrier of unforthcoming brain cells.

Except that it wasn’t a name I was after. It was a spirit, an awareness, that sense ‘of something far more deeply interfused’ of which Wordsworth writes, which sometimes visits the soul in the pre-dawn, holding a hushed conversation in semi-comprehensible associations, like a friend from the old days who turns up unpredictably from nowhere, mysterious but benign, then vanishes.

Lema’an tizkeru – So that you remember:’ the words come from the Torah and form the core of the third part of the Shema, Judaism’s twice daily meditation:

So that you remember and do my commandments; then you shall be holy to your God. (Bemidbar 15:40)

Usually, it’s something specific we’re told to remember, an event or a date. But this ‘remember’ has no object, as if to say ‘remember everything’ – and the purpose beyond everything. This thought reminds me of how a person I scarcely knew once turned to me as I stood watching the river in Cambridge forty years ago: ‘Never forget why you’re here in this world,’ he said. ‘Don’t ever forget that you belong to something higher which you have to serve.’ His words stuck in my soul.

I’m one of a group of religious leaders who were invited to offer a short video message at last night’s multi-faith service in Truro Cathedral for the leaders of the G7. I don’t know if they actually attended, but our instruction was to talk values to power, to speak climate justice, vaccine justice and our duties to the destitute.

We were asked to give voice to a call to awareness, beyond machination and advantage, self-interest and the need for profit; to bring to mind that spirit, sacred and universal, to which all power owes allegiance.

Each faith addresses it in a unique manner, but it is ultimately one. Even God is only a name, a word in human language, for that oneness, all-present and all-pervading, manifest in everything, yet hidden in everything, to which we are summoned to devote our service and allegiance.

Bringing it to mind is not sufficient. We have to act on what it tells us to do. ‘Va’asitem et kol mitzvotai – then do my commandments,’ the Torah continues. The voice which speaks in private to the heart is at the same time the most powerful, unremitting, non-negotiable demand for action: do justice; be compassionate; discipline yourself; know your responsibilities; align yourself with creation.

The world looks intently to those in power, as it will again at COP 26, to exercise their influence humbly but urgently, according to the demands of sacred wisdom.

Ve’heyitem kedoshim – then you shall be holy to your God,’ the Torah concludes. God is called Chei HaChaim, the life of life, the life force within all existence.

We can quash individual lives, human or animal, but we can never crush that life within life. If, on the contrary, we conduct ourselves and the affairs of our communities and countries in harmony with it, it will guide us, strengthen us, partner with us, and bring us and the world its blessings.

Why we should all love rainbows

I was crossing the Heath last week when, unexpectedly, I saw a double rainbow. I didn’t just recall Wordsworth’s poem; I experienced it:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man…

I looked around and saw that everyone seemed to feel the same: a moment of wonder embraced us. Even the dogs were lolloping more lightly.

I remembered the brachah too:

Blessed are You, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who remembers and keeps faith with his covenant and is true to his word.

It was a marvellous way to begin the week of Noah, about whom we read in the Torah tomorrow. After the mass devastation of the flood, God promises never again to destroy life, making the rainbow the symbol of this, the first and most comprehensive pact in the Bible.

The rainbow is one of humanity’s most enduring and versatile symbols. Look online and you can see what it means in virtually every culture.

I’m moved by what it signifies today. I hear in my mind Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking with courageous pride about South Africa, ‘the rainbow nation’. Of course, the rainbow is the symbol of Pride itself. A YouTube video explains how each colour expresses a different quality: life, nature, serenity and healing. Keshet, ‘rainbow’ in Hebrew, is the name of UK Jewish organisation working for LGBT+ inclusion.

During lockdown, the rainbow has become an international symbol of solidarity and hope. I’m cheered whenever I see on windows, placards and even in the middle of roundabouts: the colours embracing NHS, or words of gratitude to those who dedicate themselves to our society.

Last, and definitely least, there’s a ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ page on a site about household pets, where you can record the name and endearing qualities of your late lamented guinea pigs.

The rainbow has a profound and complex history in Judaism. On Rosh Hashanah, Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance and judgement over all life, the rainbow is the first covenant we mention: ‘God remembered Noah and all the animals with him in the ark’. Nachmanides notes that keshet is an archer’s bow, but as a rainbow it is inverted to indicate that God will not shoot arrows of anger, but instead send healing to the earth.

More puzzling is the Talmud’s warning not to gaze at rainbows because this shows a lack of respect for God’s glory. This derives from Ezekiel’s description comparing ‘the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds’ to ‘the appearance of the brightness round about the likeness of God’s glory.’ (Ezekiel 1:28). Rabbi Isaac de Trani offers a moving explanation: every person experiences the sacred in different ways and the divine in different shades. We should not attempt to fathom the depth and richness of the spirit.

I’m struck as we begin One World Week by what these interpretations have in common: the rainbow represents the ability to see beyond the self and value existence in all its wealth of forms and colours. Only the capacity to value and care for life in this comprehensive manner can save us from destruction.

Or perhaps it’s all much simpler: rainbows are just beautiful and that makes us feel happy.

Creators or Destroyers: that is our critical choice

‘Up there on the hillside are trees we planted six years ago. We put up a nesting box and a pair of barn owls took up residence within the month. If it wasn’t raining so hard the skylarks would be out in a chorus.’

I’m with James from The Woodland Trust, exploring the square mile of Surrey they’re re-foresting, one acre of which we’ve helped to plant through JTree.global*. (A square mile has 640 acres; Surrey is 190,000 square miles; one acre equals about 750 young saplings) A soggy Mitzpah dog looks up at me, ‘Can we go home now please?’ (At least he’s had half a day away from that upstart puppy who’s cheekily intruded into his household.)

There are oaks, rowans and beeches, the most recently planted scarcely peeping out above the tubing which protects them from the marauding deer. There are fallow fields: ‘We’re letting these re-wild. There are a few sheep grazing to take the excess nutrients out of the soil so that the chalklands can one again produce their native orchids.’

Next to a community orchard of apples, plums, pears and cherries are rows of life-sized wooden soldiers, a memorial for the centenary of World War I: it was here on Epsom Downs that Lord Kitchener marshalled troops before they crossed to France.

Creation or destruction: that’s where we stand now as we recommence reading the Torah. ‘In the beginning God created:’ to the rabbis, especially the mystics, that process is never complete. Day by day, sacred energy flows through the world, re-animating and filling anew with wonder the light and dark, the rivers, trees, animals and humankind.

But only five columns later in the Torah God, frustrated by the wilful selfishness of humans, wants to destroy everything. Life only escapes by a pinhead, the entirety of biodiversity adrift in a tiny ark, afloat on an endless ocean.

But it’s not just God who stands at the centre of the drama; it’s us. Which are we, destroyers or creators? The rabbis termed humankind ‘partners with God in creation,’ applying this to when we practise justice and keep Shabbat, pausing from gain-seeking to honour and appreciate our world. But they were also well aware that we are wreckers and ruiners, applying the commandment ‘Do not destroy’ to an ever-widening circle of wanton destructiveness.

So who are we, and who should we be?

There are many fascinating interpretations of the verse ‘God said, “Na’aseh adam – Let us make humankind”.’ The key question is: to whom is God speaking? Here are some classic suggestions:

-        God consults the angels who say, too late, ‘Don’t do it.’

-        God asks every person, ‘Let’s work together to make you into a truly human being.’

-        The animals ask God to create a creature who can speak on their behalf.

But it’s a different insight which has caught my conscience this year: Don’t read ‘God said, “Let us make humankind”,’ but rather ‘God said to humankind, “Let us make”.

God wants us to be creators, creative, custodians of creation. God wants us to care for and cherish this world. More than that, God needs us to do so. Wonder, beauty, a sense of the sacred – these come from the divine. But the daily work of living faithfully by this instruction – that task belongs to us.

That is why I committed our community to planting a tree for every word in the seven days of creation. Never before in human history has it mattered so much to be co-creators and not co-destroyers.

That is the critical, urgent choice we all must make, individually, communally, nationally and across humankind.

 

*JTree.global is a project of Eco Synagogue, which is supported across all the denominations and has had strong backing from our community.

The Jewish New Year for Animals – why this is so important

When I was small, favourite things were the dried flower my parents bought me as a treat from Hoyes, the sweet shop. You put the flower in a jar of water and it would unfurl, a growing, gripping thing.

The Mishnah, edited in the Galilee around 200CE, often seems to me like that: a text which unfolds, growing in one’s mind, complex, vital. One of my favourite mishnayot concerns Rosh Hashanah (rapidly approaching).

It begins unexpectedly: ‘There are four new years…’ The first is the 1st of Nisan, new year for kings (important for dating documents). The second is today, the 1st of Elul, new year for tithing cattle. The third is the 1st of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah par excellence, when every living being passes before God. The four is the 15th of Shevat, new year for trees.

As this Mishnah opens out I feel it encompass every aspect of life: our practical and financial affairs; our connection with God and conscience; our response to trees and nature and our relationship with animals.

This is, admittedly, a liberal interpretation. In fact, the new year for trees was a date for taxing crops. The new year for cattle was when farmers had to give every tenth lamb and calf to the Temple. But today, just as the Rosh Hashanah has become a time of profound reflection on what it means to be human, so Tu Bishevat calls on us to examine our attitude to nature, and the 1st Elul has been rebranded as the Jewish New Year for Animals.

I’ve always liked animals; my parents assumed I’d be a vet. I include an extra word in my prayers every day: when we ask God to bless the years, I add ‘vehabriyot - and the animals’.

In Biblical and early rabbinic times, Jews had close relationships with nature. ‘The righteous person feels for the life of his domestic animals,’ teaches Proverbs. Oxen and asses must not be burdened on Shabbat. But donkeys often feel cold, so it’s permitted to put a blanket over them on Shabbes. Tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, the prohibition against making animals suffer, is regarded as Torah law, legislation of the highest authority.

Maimonides noted that mother animals feel pain similar to humans when separated from their young. Nachmanides observed how animals can make choices and some show love, implying that they have souls.

I admit I’m sentimental, but I believe this New Year for Animals is highly important. I’m horrified by how we as a species treat them, excepting only our beloved household pets. In Curlew Moon, Mary Colwell records how many people hadn’t even noticed that they hadn’t noticed how the haunting calls of these remarkable birds, once so familiar, had become absent. The spring, and all the seasons, had simply fallen silent around them; they hadn’t even realised. I fear we’re the same.

Judaism teaches that we’re part of creation, dependent on it, interdependent with it and answerable to God for our relationship towards it.

If animals could write, there would be trillions of signatures on their ‘J’accuse’. How we treat food animals is unthinkable; that is, virtually all of us fail to, choose not to, or can’t bear to think about it. Where’s the humility; where’s the compassion? Unless we sharpen our agrichemical laws, the small mammals and songbirds will be gone from our fields. And we call ourselves human, humane!

Yet we almost all say we love nature. In Jewish teaching love is never just sentiment but always also commandment, as the Torah demands: ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ – and all God’s works.

Like the Rosh Hashanah, today’s New Year for Animals calls us to teshuvah, repentance, rethinking, realignment of who we are.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov, a good and thoughtful month of Elul

Green Shabbat

It’s Green Shabbat tonight, part of London Climate Action Week.

A close friend just had a double cataract operation. When I called last Friday he said, ‘I’m OK. But almost blind. I don’t know how this is going to be.’ Mercifully, an operation was scheduled the following Monday. When I phoned that night, he said: ‘It’s wondrous; I came out and there was this brilliant, marvellous light.’

Every morning we give thanks for the gift of seeing the world: ‘Baruch pokeach ivrim – Bless, you, God, for opening the eyes of the blind.’

There are millions of people for whom this miracle never happens. The Talmud tells how two rabbis on a journey turn aside to visit a blind scholar. When they leave, he blesses them: ‘May the One who sees but can’t be seen, bless you who saw me but whom I can’t see.’ So sight is indeed a blessing and a privilege.

That morning prayer is not just about seeing, but about how we see. I’ve become a fan of David Godfrey, congregant, wildlife photographer 24/6, whose mantra is ‘the three l’s: look, listen, learn’, and who’s called his recent work ‘Chasing the light in London’s lockdown.’ ‘It’s about wonder,’ he said.

Love of nature isn’t a distraction from my spiritual life; it’s the heart and soul of it. When I hear the dawn birds I’m listening to God’s songs. When I see pictures of elephants mysteriously dying in Botswana in hundreds, I think of the words the Talmud puts in God’s mouth: ‘My head hurts,’ alas for what’s wrong in my world. When I witness the needless destruction of nature, the Talmud’s words make my heart ache: ‘We’re shoving God’s presence away.’

My family is privileged to have a huge garden; it’s made lockdown a hundred times easier. ‘We need to spread access to nature far wider,’ said Tamara Finkelstein, Permanent Secretary at Defra, on an Eco Synagogue event followed by hundreds last night. We need all of us to love and care for it more.

Deena Kestenbaum brings the healing of nature to young adults in the Grenfell area: ‘What are you seeing outside your window? Adopt a tree or plant,’ she teaches. She creates virtual vistas onto open spaces, and they watch together, ten minutes every day. ‘I find a stillness in it;’ she says, and brings that stillness to others.

The blessing for ‘seeing’ isn’t just about the eyes. In the Bible, seeing is with the heart and has to lead to action. Otherwise, we count with those who ‘look but fail to see.’

I don’t find that heart part hard: when I think of the forests, rivers and savannas (I belong to The Woodland Trust, RSPB, WWF, Plantlife, etc. etc…) though wonder lifts my soul, anguish eats me alive.

The Torah commands us not to sit there doing nothing while our neighbour’s lifeblood drains away. Nature is everyone’s neighbour; furthermore it’s a neighbour we depend on. Its life is our children’s lives. So we’re forbidden to do nothing.

We know what we have to do: it’s not an issue of knowledge but of will and urgency.

Plant gardens, bee friendly, restore forests; eat healthily for ourselves, animals and the earth; use green energy, insulate our homes, travel with greater care; invest savings in a green future. Advocate for change, in business, economics, energy, transport, farming, law. In democracies, if enough voices are raised, leaders have to listen. We need to span the distance far more quickly between what we know and what we do.

This is what Jodi Coffman, a young member of our community who’s passionate for nature recommends. I’m glad to have her generation as my teachers.

The rabbis teach that there are two motives for doing what’s right: love, or fear. Let’s act out of love. I love our beautiful world.

 

A Light Footprint?

There’s a blessing, ‘Tread lightly on the face of the earth’. It translates into Jewish as: Go gently through God’s garden, because the Shechinah dwells among you.

The pictures I’ve been sent over these last weeks of flowers, sunsets and birds, the sound files of birdsong, and even the short film of members of our community isolating in Barbados trying to follow Kabbalat Shabbat while a troupe of monkeys determinedly distracts them, tell me that we do feel that the world is God’s garden. We may not use the word ‘God’, but we sense this is, could, and should be a beautiful, wondrous, holy place.

It’s five years since Pope Francis’ remarkable encyclical Laudato Si. It was published prior to the Paris climate conference; its fifth anniversary is being marked in time for COP 26, planned for this autumn but now postponed.

The Pope draws overwhelmingly on the Hebrew Bible to describe the relationship between humankind and the rest of the creation and, in particular, to make the connection between environmental and social justice which lies at the heart of his letter. Nowhere is this more evident in the Torah than in the closing chapters of Vayikra we read last Shabbat, which describe how we must treat the earth, our fellow human beings and all creatures.

The summary of Laudato Si outlines the tasks which are even more urgent now than at the time of writing:

I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human mean­ing of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle.

We personally, our synagogue building for certain, and perhaps this country, have rarely had so modest an environmental footprint as over the last two months. Now that we and the economy are beginning to be on the move again, the challenge is to keep it low. We cannot let this primary concern fall off our communal, national or international agenda. Talk of a ‘green recovery’ needs to be made real, starting with ourselves. What values have mattered to us in lockdown by which we are now determined to live? What didn’t we miss not having or doing? What did we appreciate, more than before?

I believe we’ve relearnt how much we love the world. We need to translate that into caring.

Let’s Plant

For two millennia Judaism has had its own Arbor Day, Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees.

I don’t know when the love of trees begins, when you first kick the piled autumn leaves and watch in delight as they scatter, when you collect your first conkers, put acorn cups on your fingers, climb for the biggest, most elusive apple, dare the dark forest and find it full of wonder, or listen like Keats to the birds which sing amidst the ‘beechen green and shadows numberless’. I believe everyone has a favourite tree.

We need trees and trees need us. We need them for our spirit, for our very life.

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The Hebrew root siach means both ‘shrub’ and ‘meditation’. Forests, gardens, indeed solitary trees, are wonderful companions in prayer. I love to listen to them. They silence the arguments in my head and speak to my soul. Trees, like all life, are a dwelling place of God.

The rabbis taught that when a tree is cut down, a cry goes out from one end of the world to the other, yet nobody hears.

That’s not entirely true. Our friend Heather, who had cancer, would walk daily to the corner of her street to be with her beloved tree. ‘They cut it down,’ she told us sadly one day. Soon afterwards, she died.

We’re learning to listen to the loss of our trees. We need them, physically, economically, ecologically, emotionally and spiritually. The authors of the Bible, the early rabbis living close to the land and the kabbalists understood this at every level.

I used to think that the first trees mentioned in the Torah, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, were two separate entities. But to the mystics this was not so; they were one and the same. Knowledge of good meant awareness of the vital, sustaining spirit which flows through all creation in the great rhythm of life, death and new life. Evil meant the weaponization of knowledge to exploit and destroy the leaves and roots of life’s tree.

Judaism encourages us to enjoy the fruits of that tree of life, but only with respect and humility. To consume without appreciation or blessing, is, in the Talmud’s words, the wrongful misappropriation of God’s gifts.

We need trees and trees now urgently need us. Across the faiths, on the internet and media, are numerous projects for planting and rewilding, such as the search-engine Ecosia whose users have planted 83 million trees. The figure goes up as you watch.

Judaism has an ancient tradition of nurturing trees. Two thousand years ago, challenged for planting carobs, which would never bear fruit in his lifetime, Honi the Circle-Drawer explained that he’d found the world with trees and intended to leave it so for his children.

Today, we need to leave it with trillions more than we find it. This applies from Britain, among the least forested countries in Europe, to the global south; from the diminished Caledonian forests to Madagascar and the Pacific Islands, whose very future depends on how we rewild and mitigate climate change. The destiny, too, of countless wild plants, insects, birds and animals is in our hands.

Communities of all faiths are responding. Ruth Valerio, who consulted me about Jewish sources when she wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2020, Saying Yes to Life, describes the moving relationships between UK churches and rural communities in Peru who are personally planting thousands of saplings to preserve both nature and their livelihoods.

We must do no less. That’s why JTree.global has been rooted, here in the UK, in the US, with further young branches in Israel and Canada. It facilitates planting through environmental NGOs who work with local communities, sustainably and ethically. Our New North London target is 50,000 trees. Please join us!

As Kohelet said, ‘There’s a time to plant’. It was never so urgent as now.

 

On nuthatches, nature and God

What’s in my soul to write about has nothing to do with this week’s Torah portion, except for just one phrase and then only if I take it out of context.

I want to write about the trees, the oaks, beeches and hollies in the steep hills of the Wye valley, ‘Thou wanderer through the woods’, as Wordsworth called this beautiful river 200 years ago in his wonderful Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey.

I want to write about the birds which came each day to the feeder where our family stayed. ‘Have you seen the nuthatches?’ Yes, we watched them, these shy birds who feed upside down like woodpeckers, only smaller, blue-grey backed and orange-breasted, which came so near and privileged us so closely to witness the life of the forest.

At night and before dawn the owls called, their cries like their flight, floating out of the darkness suddenly, gliding still-winged, then with two or three beats rising back into the blackness of the branches, from where, impossible to see, they with their huge eyes see all.

Later, out walking with the family or running in the early light, the mist concealed the river and turned the trees into harbingers of the forest’s mystery, with its falling streams and the pale glimmering from the edges of wet fallen leaves.

‘Wilderness is a curse word to me’, said Ernestine, a native Tlingit living in the islands off Alaska, to the ecologist-researcher Lauren Oakes. Lauren is shocked that these vast areas she had helped struggle to protect, ‘where earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor and does not remain,’ should be considered a ‘curse’. Then she understands: the world can’t be divided into ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’, wilderness and civilisation, exploitable and untouchable. Nature and humanity are not separate: what we need is relationship, but on terms enduring and endurable for all life. This is something Ernestine’s family have understood for generations: when to take and when to refrain from taking, so that millennia hence the forests will still be there. (see Lauren Oakes: In Search of the Canary Tree)

That’s the phrase from the Torah which returns to me again and again, ever since it caught my attention because of the haunting way it was sung in a Hasidic stiebl in Shaarei Hesed in Jerusalem: nafsho keshurah benafsho, his life is bound to his life; his soul is bound to his soul.

In context the words have nothing whatsoever to do with nature. Judah speaks them to describe the bond between his youngest brother Benjamin and his aging father Jacob: without the beloved son from whom he was so deeply reluctant to part, from whom only the unrelenting desperation of famine could divide him, the elderly parent will die.

But the words transcend that context. They do speak, indeed, of a bond of spirit between us and the people we love. But they also describe, with inimitable brevity, the vital connection between us and nature, between our life and all life, between our tiny fragment of spirit and the spirit of all being, between us and what we may perhaps mean by God.

This bond is the greatest of things, and the smallest, revealed in a water-drop condensed on a leaf, in the alighting of a tiny bird.

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.

 

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