100 young people determined to live values-driven lives

It was at Noam pre-Camp earlier this week. For anyone who doesn’t know, Noam is the Masorti Jewish youth movement. Pre-camp is the week of planning, study, reflection, prayer – and fun – when all leaders, from those who’ll look after a small group of children for the first time to those in charge for an entire camp of teenagers, prepare for the joys, challenges, responsibilities and unforeseeable faux pas of the fortnight ahead. Noam is a movement for young people, led by young people. Though there are ‘adults’ present to offer support (if needed and wanted), none of the leaders is above his or her mid-twenties.

To be there as one of the ‘older’ rabbis is a privilege, not only because it is exciting and moving to witness the special pre-camp energy and the culture of deep thoughtfulness among so many young people, but because even a rabbi is there as a ‘guest’, welcome, but by invitation.

After an eventful journey including two hours plus in a stationery train in the heat with no power, no air circulation, and no openable windows, (a potentially lethal design flaw), I got to the camp just before midnight. Wandering around, I caught phrases of conversations almost all of which were about how to care – for each other, for younger children, for those who might feel homesick or bewildered.

Next day there were two sessions on Jewish sources about looking after one another. I saw the group from the distance, discussing quietly in a circle. Even from far, one senses when a truly thoughtful conversation is taking place.

Pre-camp has always been special, but what’s recently grown year by year is the enthusiasm and energy around Jewish learning. It’s not just the great young rabbis, key as they all are; it’s a re-energised awareness that learning matters, that Judaism has plenty to say – about inclusion, social justice, environment, life…

My own session was on loving-kindness towards nature, and animal rights. Remarkably, the group reckoned 50% of their friends were vegetarian and 20% vegan.

I am proud that Noam launched its new Eco-Policy that very day. It includes the following commitments:

  • We will promote and educate around vegan and vegetarian diets and the impact of meat and dairy reduction on the environment.
  • We will advocate for yearly pledges from our members to reduce their environmental impacts.
  • We will take groups to climate marches…and use social media to campaign and raise awareness of climate emergencies.

Here at pre-camp are over a hundred highly motivated young people, determined that their lives should be driven and guided by learning and values. What more can one ask?

My conclusion is not simply, though, that the older should learn from the younger. I know many people, perhaps especially among the half generation above me, who have passionate, life-long commitments to social justice, anti-racism, and fighting for human rights.

Our best hope for the future lies in generations working together, listening to and learning from each other, bound by common concerns and united in shared actions.

Little is so powerful in Judaism as the commandment to teach our children. But how can we teach them if we aren’t also ready to learn from them? And what is the point of teaching them, if we don’t leave them a world fit and beautiful for living in?

 

What do Green Shabbat and Pride have in common?

I am pulled in two directions. In London, this Shabbat is Pride; it is also Green Shabbat across all UK Jewish communities as part of the capital’s Climate Action Week.

These are very different subjects and to mix them risks offending everyone. Yet, at least for me, there are deep commonalities.

I stopped for a coffee while taking Mitzpah to the dog osteopath. I sat on the grass and took out one of my favourite Hasidic works, Derekh Hamelech by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira. The book fell open at the following passage, as if the text knew exactly what I needed to read:

…Speech comes from the soul… it is only when the listener is able to understand the soul of the speaker, only when his soul is close to the speaker’s soul, that he truly hears.

The rabbi then turned to the world of nature: animals and birds understand each other, but we humans fail to comprehend them because we regard ourselves as higher beings and are not close to them in spirit. It’s not surprising, therefore, that we don’t hear

the call of all the worlds, every level of creation…crying out constantly that God is one…

I sense this ever more deeply the older I get, often to my shame: there is a great symphony of life to which we belong but to which we do not listen.

Because we refuse to heed them, we do our partners in life’s music the most terrible harm. We must learn to listen again, to the wind and water, to every living thing which sustains the life on which we too depend. We need to do so fast.

This has nothing to do with Pride. Except that I cannot be alone in appreciating that here too there needs to be a journey of listening.

When I was asked to help our community decide whether to conduct same-sex marriages, I was stopped more times than I can remember in corridors, corners, even on the underground, and the conversations almost all began like this:

Can I talk to you about how this feels to me?
I want to tell you about my daughter…
This is what happened to our close friend’s son…

I don’t want to convey the notion that the LGBTQ community is a ‘them’ for those of us who are not gay, and that we form a totally separate ‘us’. I wish to communicate something quite different. There is a symphony of life, to which we all belong. Whatever my own melody, whichever my own notes, if I disregard part of the music I both fail to appreciate its gifts and I myself am also incomplete. I would address any form of prejudice in this manner, including in myself: it hurts others, it shrinks my own heart.

I was moved by Alfie Ferguson’s poem in the leaflet prepared for the Jewish group at the UK Black Pride event, celebrating LGBTQ Jews of colour:

Who am I? Another Black soul like you, walking this earth the best way I can…
My Jewishness is me, the same as my Blackness is me, as my queerness is me.
The connection is so strong, honouring family, ancestors and pioneers.

People may think my priorities are wrong, too green, too whatever… There are many ways of describing life’s ultimate purpose. To my mind, the most important matter is to deepen and expand our hearts, to broaden and make brave our deeds, in compassion for all of life, in ceasing from hurting and striving to heal. I believe this is what serving God means. In that task I look every day for teachers and companions.

 

 

The Torah teaching of elephants

‘The way elephants help each other inspires me and I’ve learnt so much from them over the years…How I wish our planet was run by elephants’.

These words do not come from a commentator on the current political scene, but from Francoise Malby-Anthony’s wonderful account: An Elephant in my Kitchen.

No, I’m not going to write about ‘elephants and the Jewish problem’, just about elephants. I’ve never had an elephant in my kitchen, or my synagogue, or got close to one, though I have been in many rooms where they were purportedly present.

It’s been a week full of challenges; the marriage in hospital on Tuesday of a wonderful and wise friend who knows with good grace that she’s close to the end of her life; the faiths’ lobby for the climate on Wednesday; the terrible truth of a father and daughter photographed dead after trying to cross the Rio Grande into a different future…Through all this, that book about elephants and rhinos has spoken to my soul.

I’ve no excuse, no specific connection with this week’s Torah portion, for writing about elephants, except perhaps that the twelve spies sent out by Moses were terrified by the giants they saw in the land, though there is no mention of the latter possessing trunks. Or, perhaps, that in Perek Shirah, the mediaeval tract which ascribes a song to every creature, the elephant chants ‘How great are your works, O God’, a verse which, incorporated into the daily prayers, is a constant reminder to love and not destroy God’s world.

Francoise Malby-Anthony is a cosmopolitan Parisienne with a good job in the city who gives it all up after falling in love with Lawrence, a South African, to join him in creating a wildlife reserve for elephants, rhinos and their orphaned babies, Thula Thula, an oasis of safety amidst the horrors of poaching.. When Lawrence suddenly dies, she has no choice but to rise to the challenge and manage the place on her own. She is sustained by her deep love for the animals and their evident recognition of her.

After the scattering of her husband’s ashes, Francoise returns home sore at heart to find the whole herd of elephants gathered by the fence surrounding her homestead. There they stand, a natural minyan, a loving, loyal quorum, in quiet solidarity. On the first anniversary of his death, the elephants gather there again. How they know the date is a mystery belonging to a domain of intuitive knowledge we humans may never fathom.

The orphaned babies, rhinos and elephants, need bottles, blankets and, above all, love. They too experience post-traumatic stress. One baby rhino who saw his mothered slaughtered, suffers a terrible setback when he himself is shot. He recovers from the flesh-wound, but only physically, not emotionally. A carer has to sit with him for many days to prevent him from ending his life by submerging his head in a lake to drown his anguished heart.

They never abandon them, Francoise writes, describing how the elephants take orphaned infants into the herd. Hillel’s words ‘zil gmor – go learn,’ come to mind.

I am not proud to belong to the species which hacks these majestic and deeply feeling animals to pieces.

I fear they may be ivory decorations on a pair of rollers on which one of our Torah scrolls is wound: no doubt they date from the days when we still failed to realise how wrong killing for ivory truly is. If so, I want the ivory removed.

The Torah, God’s teaching, is Torat Chaim, a Torah of life and lovingkindness. We may have much to learn in this regard from creatures of whom we once thought that only their teeth and horns were of value.

No, Francoise’s book hasn’t made me want an elephant in my kitchen. But it has made me want to help preserve them alive, and keep them in my heart.

 

Don’t put out the light: the flame of all life in our hands

I often find myself worrying about the very first word of tomorrow’s reading from the Torah. It’s easy to translate it as ‘When you kindle’. The context is God’s commandment to Aaron and his descendants to light the lamps on the seven-branched Menorah.

However, beha’alotecha doesn’t mean ‘when you kindle’ but rather ‘when you cause to ascend’. On one level, it’s the same idea. You only have to think of the action of getting a reluctant candle to catch light, of straightening the wick with the end of the match so that the tiny flame can find its nourishment in the melting wax and burn bright and straight.

But on another level the word evokes something much deeper, which the rabbis expressed in an epigrammatic four-word Midrash which expands to embrace the very purpose of our lives: ‘Neri beyadecha, venercha beyadi – My light is in your hands, and your light is in mine’, says God. This saying has become to me a byword for responsibility, faith, even love itself.

God’s light is in our hands in innumerable ways.

Last night, here in South Wales where Nicky and I have travelled to celebrate a wedding, a hare got caught in our headlines. I was terrified of hurting it. Walking in nearby paths, the scent of honeysuckle in the hedgerow arrested us. A pair of blackbirds flew low across a lane. This country has lost over 90% of its meadows since the war; it’s among the lowest in the entire world in the preservation of its native species. Even a minyan, a quorum of bees, is God’s light in our hands.

I’m reading Francoise Malby-Anthony’s account of creating a wildlife reserve in South Africa: An Elephant in my Kitchen, in which she describes the almost impossible efforts to protect young elephants and rhinos, close to extinction, from poachers.

Today the light of all nature is in our care. We can let it ascend, or crush and kill it forever. There’s nothing which isn’t at stake.

Still, ‘my light is in your hands and your light is in mine’ finds its most intimate context in our relationships with one another.

We are here to enable each other’s light to ascend. The true teacher sees the pupil’s potential, sometimes even before she does herself, nurturing the flame until it gives light of its own accord.

Being a true friend means caring for the light in his or her life. Close relationships are not about seeking to benefit from, but cherishing, loving the flame in the heart and mind of our partner. Nowhere is this trust greater than in parenting and caring for children: their tender light lies truly in, and at, the mercy of our hands.

How shameful it feels to fail to appreciate and respect these lights, let alone be driven by wilful disregard, envy or enmity to dim and diminish them.

In the Temple, the Menorah was placed in the kodesh, the holy precincts, lighting the route to the kodesh hakodashim, the holy of holies, the most intimate space where God’s presence hovered invisibly over the ark of the covenant. The holy of holies in any life is always private, secret often even from ourselves. The Menorah illumines the path towards it.

Beha’alotecha, – in enabling each other’s flame to ascend, we can help one another find our way to what is most holy of all, the very source and wonder of life itself, in faithful trust and love. For we are responsible for each other, and all God’s creation.

 

How can we hurt this earth as little as possible?

I look out of the windows of the train. (I’m travelling to Berlin for my termly teaching there, determined to go at least one way by train and cut my use of planes). We enter the flat lands of Brandenburg. In the fields are many horses. I glimpse a foal, an eager shake of mane and tail, then it’s gone. Or rather I’m gone, in this ridiculous way we speed across the world.

Ki li ha’aretz, ‘for the land is mine’: I often think about this short sentence which we read in the Torah tomorrow. It’s the explanation for the sabbatical year. The land is not left to rest to increase its yield in the six other years of the cycle. Its not left fallow for humans to have time off. It’s left, – left for the benefit of all that lives including wild animals and domestic, foreigners and citizens, home-owners and homeless – because it belongs to God. In the sabbatical year there’s no place for ‘No trespassers’ signs, except in so far as we are all tres-passers, passers through, passers across, God’s world.

God’s world? I’m more of a mystic than a Maimonidean. For the latter, the world is God’s work. To know God, study it and its very structure will lead you from the physical to the metaphysical, from what you see to what lies beyond what can be seen, the invisible, unknowable, unchanging, unbounded creator.

But to the mystic God is within as well as beyond. They love to quote the Zohar: ‘No space is free of the wonder of God’. There’s nowhere it isn’t possible to wake up and say with Jacob after his dream of the angels ascending and descending between earth and heaven: ‘There’s God is in this place – and I hadn’t realised’

Around midnight in Berlin, a city I now love but by which I feel haunted, I go running. I pass the statue of Frederick the First at the entrance to 17 June Avenue, its towering victory column in the central circle and the Brandenburg Gate at its close. I pass too the Russian tanks, survivors of the final battle for Berlin in 1945, at the Red Army memorial and see half a kilometre away the outline of the Reichstag.

God isn’t the only one who ever said, ‘The land is mine’. In the Bible, the prophet Ezekiel puts these words in the mouth of the archetypal tyrant, Pharaoh: ‘It’s my Nile and I made it’. What did he think he was saying? Rashi explains: ‘By my might and through my wisdom I increased my greatness and my power’. Small bronze plaques to more recent victims of this monstrous tyranny are set amidst the Berlin cobbles. I almost tread on a group of them: ‘Deported; murdered; deported’.

I see myself back on the train, looking out of the window. We exit the forests and pass once again through farmland: fields to a distant tree line, a huddle of calves. I think of Blake’s poem:

Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead…

Okay, they’re not lambs – to whom the verses are addressed. But they’re no less innocent. They’re lucky calves. Their air and earth is as clean as it comes in Europe. ‘Dost thou know’, I wonder, what awaits you after this field?

I’ve always loved the vistas of this earth. In my earliest memory I’m looking out from the upstairs room my father built alongside the carpenter to extend our bungalow outside Glasgow. I can see a field and horses. I think I’ve always felt somewhere in my soul that it’s God’s earth, though I’ve often failed to realise: there’s always been wonder in the leaves, the fallen rhododendron flowers from next door’s garden, which I put on the ends of my fingers.

I can reach only one conclusion. Yes, we may live off the land. But it’s God’s. How, then, can I hurt it, and the creatures who live with us on it, as little as possible?

 

Earth Day and the songs of the earth

I received a beautiful greeting from my colleague in Jerusalem, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum: ‘May the songs of the sea, the earth, the animals and humankind be with you’.

On the seventh day of Pesach we sing the Song at the Sea. On the last day of the festival we recite the Song of Songs and read Isaiah’s wonderful prophecy of the time when humanity and nature live together in harmony and all the earth is called God’s place of prayer. Some communities hold a Se’udat Mashiach, a feast for the Messiah, on this day, to nourish our hopes of redemption.

Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, wrote that holiness conceived in opposition to nature is not true holiness:

The highest essence of holiness is the very holiness of Nature herself; it is the foundation of repairing the world in its entirety, tikkun olam kullo.
(Orot 77; Orot Hatechiyah 25)

When the holiness inherent in all things is truly appreciated ‘War will cease entirely…and all things will incline towards loving-kindness’.

He was referring to the mystical understanding, a felt and experienced reality to many lovers of wild places, that God’s sacred energy sings in different modes and rhythms throughout all creation.

We are tragically far from that time envisaged by prophets and seers. But this is no reason to desist from the responsibility of working towards it.

On the contrary, the hour could not be more critically urgent. All life urges us to act for its protection. The songs of nature are beautiful (our garden is so full of birdsong that a friend just asked me over the phone if I was calling from an aviary). But those very cries and are often calls of warning; for a small bird, life is always at risk.

We now know now that all life is on the line, certainly the lives of the poorest in drought-riven lands and flatlands swept by the rising sea.

Judaism speaks of two overwhelming spiritual feelings, love and fear (or awe). Both drive me in my concern for this wonderful earth. Since childhood I have loved woodlands, gardens and wild places: the green hills near our home just north of Glasgow, the pine-forests of Mount Carmel, owl calls, bats’ flights. Like all gardeners, I live by the smell of rain and the feel of the soil in my hands.

But now I’m also deeply afraid. Often dread sits in the pit of my stomach, alleviated only by moments of wonder at the sheer beauty of the world.

That’s why I attended the Jewish section of Extinction Rebellion’s Pesach picnic for Earth Day at the assigned area at Marble Arch on Monday, became a life member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and joined the London Wildlife Trust. It’s why I’m passionate to co-lead Eco Synagogue to change not just what we do in our religious buildings but in our homes, in how we eat, shop, travel, care for the world.

Only a sadist would intentionally harm someone they love. Only a very careless person would persistently hurt a loved one through neglect. If we love the world, love life itself, how can we go on behaving in ways which wound them?

So may the songs of the birds, trees, rivers and seas, as well as the songs of our own soul, guide us to protect and preserve the music of all creation.

 

Prickly Subjects

11pm last night was a highlight of my week. ‘Come’, my daughter Libbi called from the garden, ‘Quickly. I’ve seen it.’

‘It’ was the baby hedgehog I’d brought home one damp November night. I’d been out late with the dog on the Heath when I noticed a tiny ball of prickles curled up in the wet grass. Sometimes hedgehogs are born too late in the year to make it through the winter; they have to reach a minimum weight to survive hibernation. Was this baby animal too small? If I took it home to feed it up, would I be removing it from its family, doing more harm than good? But then, we had a large garden with other hedgehogs present and, following professional advice, we’d taken the essential measures to make our garden hedgehog friendly.

The animal fitted snugly in my glove. I ran home, dog leash in one hand, baby hedgehog in the other. I called the hedgehog help-line (yes, Britain has such a thing), took advice from congregants (there’s expertise on everything), bought the right food, fed the animal nightly and invested in a deluxe hibernation home. (‘A fool and his money are easily parted’, says my wife – who would have done exactly the same for an animal, or human, in need).

So, when Libbi called out, and we saw the hedgehog, thin but definitely alive, emerge from its winter sleep, we were thrilled.

I’m writing about this not just because it brought our family joy, and not only because over and again I reli­­­­ve a horrid scene where at a crossroads I watched a gang of teenagers stone a hedgehog to death.

I’m writing because, in a world which leaves so many of us feeling so powerless so much of the time, I am passionate about ‘can do’. ‘You are not at liberty to desist from the work’, insisted Rabbi Tarfon 1900 years ago, words we put on the certificates of achievement awarded by Eco-Synagogue.

We don’t have to watch, like helpless bystanders, the decline of wildlife, or race and inter-faith relations, or teenager safety and wellbeing, or social justice, or compassion itself.

I’ve had a learning week. I met Leket Israel, Israel’s National Food Bank, which last year gleaned 30 million tons of produce from the fields and saved 2 million hot dinners from waste. I saw City Harvest, which has provided 5 million rescued meals in London (they bring food to our asylum seekers drop-in). They estimate that 9.2 million meals are missed each month by Londoners who can’t afford food, while 13.3 million meals are thrown away.

I met with parliamentarians, religious leaders and the heads of The Wildlife Trust to discuss their input into the forthcoming environment act, based on their amazing report Towards a Wilder Britain. Britain is among the most environmentally degraded countries in the world.

Our hedgehog, our garden, our synagogue and Eco-Synagogue will all play a part.

I went to Barnet House to express solidarity against racism and anti-Semitism with members of the Muslim community. I listened to how teenage boys and girls experience our local streets. Last Friday a group of us took gifts to the North London Mosque following the atrocities in Christchurch. In this populism age, with xenophobia on the rise, we need to stand, and be seen to stand, together.

In his excellent book To Do The Right And The Good, Elliot Dorff describes compellingly how Judaism understands the creation of a compassionate, just and sustainable world as the inescapable responsibility of every individual, household and community, – our part in our partnership with God.

When that young hedgehog emerged last night from its long sleep, I felt that it was shaking me awake too, and all of us, to do more for the sake of life.

 

Please find out more from:

https://www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk

https://www.leket.org/en

www.cityharvest.org.uk

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wilder-future

https://jps.org/books/to-do-the-right-and-the-good/

Youth Strike 4Climate

If I’d known the date, I would have arranged to be with them. Next time, I want to be there. I’m proud that a year-ten group from our youth movement Noam is going.

I’m referring to the rally in Parliament Square today, the first British rally of Youth Strike 4Climate.

It shouldn’t be labelled ‘a strike by school children’. It’s an education event by tens, now hundreds, of thousands of pupils across the globe, many joined by parents and teachers. Next time, whole schools will participate, staff included. A key aim is – education itself: to make the climate crisis part of the national curriculum. So it’s not a strike but a critically important teaching day.

The age-group it’s targeted at is government, – the governments, business, political and communal (including religious) leaders across the world. The syllabus is the future of humanity.

The target group is also us, how we behave. The environmental crisis isn’t happening somewhere else. Others may suffer first and suffer more. But the future of every single living being is at stake, and it’s our children who have the most to lose. As one pupil said: What’s the point of my GCSE choices if there’s no future anyway? I’ve heard similar in my own home.

The movement is inspired by the vision and determination of Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old girl from Sweden who addressed the environment conference in Poland last autumn:

I beg the world’s leaders to care for our future….Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago…I want you to panic…

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres was entirely correct when he said: ‘We need to harness their energy, invention and political power…’

Greta began alone. When she first suggested they ‘strike’, her own classmates rejected the idea. Now she has allies across the globe; in the UK they span the country from Ullapool to Exeter.

It’s not the first great change to begin with the actions of just one person.

Abraham, according to rabbinic legend, broke the bickering idol-gods in his father’s shop, teaching that we are all children of the one God. (What are our idols today? – Growth as the ultimate measure of the good, our own unlimited capabilities, the control of all creation, the worship of absolute autonomy and unfettered choice?)

Moses began probably the most inspiring movement for freedom and dignity in human history when he, alone, left the safe enclave of the palace and determined to take action on behalf of suffering slaves.

Rosa Parks was alone when she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1st 1955. Later she became known as ‘the mother of the freedom movement’.

What begins with the conviction and courage of just one person must end with the participation of us all.

Every government across the world has to respond. Energy, transport, agricultural and waste recycling policies must alter. We too must be part of that change in our homes, work places, travel and consumption. This isn’t someone else’s problem.

Our attitude to nature has to return to what the authors of the Hebrew Bible understood so well because, unlike most of us, they were not alienated from the earth and they understood the meaning of reverence. Humanity exists in partnership with all life and even ‘the king is subject to the soil’.

 

 

 

 

For Tu Bishevat – the New Year for Trees

Matthew Biggs, of Gardener’s Question Time fame, refers to himself on Twitter as @plantmadman. I wouldn’t dream of comparing myself, but I’ve become in some small way a tree-mad-man.

I love trees, from the apple orchards of Kent to the Scots Pines of the old Caledonian forest; from the scented cypresses of Jerusalem to the scrub-oak woodlands of the Galilee. From the uncurling of their leaves in the springtime to the foliage fall in October, trees lead me through the seasons more gracefully than any diary. I like to look at them by day and listen to them by night.

Trees are good for us physically, emotionally, morally and spiritually. As the Torah says, ‘the tree of life is in the midst of the garden’, feeding all the worlds.

Physically, we need trees. ‘Rewilding’ is one of my favourite words. We must urgently replant the great forests, trees in billions, which store carbon, exhale oxygen and enable all living things to breathe. From Indonesia to Africa and the Amazon, from Scotland to the east and south of Europe, we must replant. Without the trees, the breath of life will choke.

Trees bring livelihoods to peoples across the globe. Tree Aid calls the Shea Tree ‘the little nut that makes a big difference’:

this humble native species provides local people with a cornucopia of essentials: food, fuel, fodder for livestock, medicinal products and building materials, as well as precious saleable commodities. Like all trees, it also aids soil fertility, water conservation and biodiversity. (www.treeaid.org)

We need trees for our emotional health too. We’re less alone when we’re out among the beeches and the oaks. A charming Midrash explains how it used to be:

All the trees, plants and spirits that dwell in nature conversed with one another. The spirit that lives in the trees and nature conversed with humankind for all of nature was created for mutual companionship with people. (Bereshit Rabbah 13:2)

I disagree only with the past tense: the trees still speak. At least, they’re trying; they’re waiting for us to switch off our social media and retune our souls to the wavelength of their spirit.

Nachmanides (1174 – 1270) explains that God didn’t just show Moses which tree to throw into the bitter waters of Mara to make them sweet. The Torah says not vayareihu, but vayoreichu – ‘he taught’. God taught Moses that the Tree of Life has the capacity to sweeten our inner bitterness. I can’t count how many people tell me: ‘Nature is the solace for my heartache’.

Trees are important morally. Rabbi Ari Killip explains how deeply the rabbis of the Talmud (c. 500CE) understood tree roots. They intermingle underground; they’re interdependent with innumerable micro-organisms: it’s a kind of subterranean mixed dancing. They operate in circles, not squares; they drink from the field of the farmer next door. They teach us that we’re not autonomous individuals but part of, and responsible to, the inseparable, impossible to disentangle community of life.

Trees nourish our spirit. Like the mystical texts of other faiths, the Zohar understands life as an upside-down tree. Its roots are in heaven; its branches are creation:

The world to come cares for this tree all the time, watering it…never at any time withholding its streams. Faith depends on this tree. (Zohar III 239a-b)

That’s what inspired Chaim Nachman Bialik in his magisterial poem Haberechah, the Pool:

There, between God’s trees which had not heard the axe’s echo,
On a path known only to the wolf and the mighty hunter,
I used to wander whole hours by myself…
Uniting with my heart and with my God
Until I came…To the Holy of Holies in the forest, the pupil of its eye…
A tranquil holy sanctuary, hidden between the shade of the trees.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Tu Bishevat – and may this be a year of planting.

A deeper EU, living in union with the earth

Our family were lucky enough to spend the last week in a cottage in South Wales. Outside the front door, below a lawn, was a shallow, fast-flowing river. Behind the house stood the oaks and beeches of a thin ridge of forest, above which stretched the stony, heath-covered hills of the Brecon Beacons.

I like to pray outside, even when the frost makes the grass crunch underfoot. It gives my prayers roots; I feel I’m praying not apart from, but with, the earth and the life it sustains.

Praying outdoors is an acknowledgement, too, that nature supports me, and that everything living around me, from the trees and birds to the people who live in these valleys, is my companion and fellow creature.

Yesterday I watched a dipper, a small black bird with a white front, diving for food off rocks in the middle of the stream. I know we’re not supposed to alter the matbe’a berachot, the ‘stamp’ or form of the blessings bequeathed us by our sages. But when I pray silently I often add just one word to the prayer for the land, asking God also to bless haberiyot, the creatures who live on it. Though the daily service refers in several places to all life, I don’t think there’s anywhere else that we pray for the plants and animals with whom we share our world and on which we depend.

Such a request is also a commitment. As Rabbi Lionel Blue once wrote, many prayers are boomerangs. How can we ask God to look after the sick, if we can’t be bothered ourselves? How can we ask God to care for nature, if we ourselves treat it at best with neglect and at worst with contempt? (The first hundred yards of the road past the cottage and out of the town was littered with every kind of rubbish, at the rate of at least one plastic bag, bottle, or can every foot.)

Tomorrow we begin to read in the Torah about the Ten Plagues. I think of them as the ‘anti-ten’, in contrast to the Ten Commandments which legislate for the presence of God in society and the Ten Utterances (the ten times God says ‘let there be’ in the story of creation) which speak of the presence of God in all living things.

The ten plagues are what happens when tyranny, in the archetypal figure of a wicked Pharaoh, shows contempt for human dignity. Injustice and exploitation first destroy human society, then the earth itself, until ‘the very land stinks.’

So, in this calendar year when we are likely to leave the European Union, I want to make a commitment to a different, deeper EU, a union with the earth: with life, with people, especially people in illness or anguish, with the animals, with forests, with the water, the air and the soil. We live as if they belong to us; whereas in truth we belong to them.

Monday brings the month of Shevat, with the New Year for Trees on its full moon. May this be a year of planting, a year of respect for the birch, the beech, the oak and the pine, a year of connection with who we truly are, before each other, before nature and before God.

Get in touch...