God and Farming

It’s not often one has the privilege of taking part in a conference which is as high in the sky as spirituality and transcendence, yet as rooted in the ground as a row of wheat or the hoofprint of a cow in the frozen grass. But yesterday I was on a panel about metaphysics at the Oxford Real Farming Conference together with the founder of the Campaign for Real Farming, Colin Tudge, and a Christian theologian and a Sufi.

This is not the beginning of a ‘the rabbi, the priest and the imam’ style joke. The session was one of the most moving and inspiring experiences of my life. The room was packed; there were farmers, foresters, and men and women of all walks of life for whom growing, gardening, the tending of animals and the nurture of the earth were a profoundly spiritual as well as an eminently practical pursuit.

Professor Tim Gorrange was a Christian, Dr Justine Huxley, the Director of St Ethelburgas Centre for Reconciliation a Sufi, and I a Jew, but we spoke the same language.

We shared an understanding of God as present in all being, of all life as sacred, silently articulate with the vital presence of the divine.

We shared an appreciation of creation as an integrated whole, and a view of humankind not as chosen by divine right to dominate, but rather as entrusted to respect, care, nurture and stand in humble accountability as part of the great web of life to which we and all things belong.

We spoke of listening, of trying to learn through the different disciplines of our faiths the art of becoming attentive to the silent voice which speaks from within all life, a voice which our civilisation all too often ignores, or imagines not to exist. We talked of the importance of the experience of reverence, and of how the cultivation of plants and crops can help us too to grow in wonder and respect.

But there wasn’t a ‘we’ and a ‘them’; the room was full of practitioners who have plenty to teach our world. ‘I work from a monastery’, one man said, ‘we create spiritual communities through gardening and the sharing of food. The homeless come; the wealthy come; both those  at the top and at the bottom of the conventional social hierarchy. We come together because we are all somehow broken, seeking healing as part of a greater wholeness.’

Another contributor spoke of the family smallholding where refugees and asylum seekers are made welcome; they tend the vegetables, cook, sing together and learn from one another. His brother is a member of our synagogue.

A pastor told me about his work in creating gardeners with former prisoners, finding healing in engagement with the earth itself. He asked me about the meanings of the Hebrew words for ‘earth’ and ‘serve’: ‘Does avad mean both to work the land, and to be a servant of God?’

We spoke of the urgency of placing responsibility, care, compassion and indeed love back at the heart of our culture. There was wide agreement when I mentioned Hans Jonas’ final lecture, delivered days before he died, in which he spoke of the next revelation as coming not from Sinai or Gethsemane but from ‘the outcry of mute things’.

Yesterday I met some of those who are devoting their lives to listening to that silent outcry, to becoming more deeply attuned to what it tells us about God, humanity, creation and the earth, and who are daily endeavouring to answer the call of its commandments.

Noticing small things

‘What’s that bird with the red patch on its head?’ This is the trouble with holding meetings in the garden; there are so many distractions.

Though they’re not really ‘distractions’; they’re the reason life is wonderful.

‘It’s a goldfinch’, I answered. Two years ago I wouldn’t even have known what a goldfinch looked like. But about that time they decided to start visiting our garden. Since then they’re here virtually every day in their numbers, often three or four at a time feeding on the sunflower kernels and niger seed which we diligently replenish.

Yesterday a fledgling hopped past outside my study. I gave it a stern warning about local cats, though mercifully the dog generally sees them off the territory. (The other day a young bird flew right into my study and sat surveying me from the bookshelf before mercifully finding its way back to the wide expanses of the unrestricted air.)

There are young wrens too; last year a brood kept looking in from the windowsill. My favourite of all was the season the greater-spotted woodpeckers raised a family in our garden.

Last Shabbat a mother blackbird pecked beakfuls of unripe fig-seed from our tree and fed it mouthful by mouthful to its two teenagers, whose young tail feathers were still speckled and brown.

I’m not just writing about these small matters to take my mind away from the terrors and disasters which almost daily afflict our world. Rather, it’s important to remind oneself what life is for, why it is such a privilege, and why even deliberately damaging the wing of one small bird is such an outrageous crime.

There’s a blessing, not said often enough: ‘Baruch she-kacha lo be’olamo; Blessed be the One in whose world it is thus!’ The ‘one’ may be God, or simply life itself, or perhaps they are really the same thing, that vital force in the quintessence of creation which generates such magnificent and infinitely varied forms of existence.

Perhaps we don’t say that blessing enough because we don’t notice. That’s what most adults love about small children. ‘Look!’ they cry, ‘Look at that!’ all their energy and excitement bounding into a great exclamation mark of curiosity and delight. And we relearn through them to look again, the dust blown away from our habituated perceptions.

I can imagine a God who challenges us with disappointed puzzlement: ‘You were in my world, but you didn’t notice!?’ The question applies to beauty and wonder as much as it does to sensitivity towards other people, their suffering, their sensibilities.

At the bottom of the garden the sweet peas are flowering in perfumed cascades (There are some in the synagogue garden too). I know they are just little things. But they are also why it’s so terrible to be forced to become a refugee, why war is so appalling, – because a person loves the scents and colours of home, because its dawns and dusks, its shrubs and trees, its birds and animals make sense, and nowhere else ever does to the same depth, with that same breath of childhood, that same intuition of life’s wholeness. Friends who have allotments say it’s the world in a vegetable patch, everyone aspiring to grow the tastes of home, wherever that once was.

The uncorrupted spirit

Faith and fear, these have been the dual poles of my week, and my life for these last many years.
 
I believe in wonder; I believe in life; I believe in the goodness of the human heart; I believe in loving kindness; I believe all being is animate with the sacred presence of the divine; I believe that every action matters. With this trust and hope, HaTikvah in its broadest, deepest as well as its specifically Jewish sense, I try to ground my feet and settle my spirits when I feel frightened.
 
There’s much which makes me afraid. I’m not referring to specific, personal fears; I‘m thinking of the challenges which face us all, all humanity together.
 
On Monday I attended a conference for faith leaders passionate about theology and ecology. It was engaging and full of practical ideas. But the issues are overwhelming. Why have we lost 50% of the mass of all animal life in the UK over forty years? What value do we place on non-human life? What does it mean to be a ‘creature’ amidst other creatures? Do we hear, in the words of Pope Francis, the cry of the poor alongside the cry of the earth?
 
On Thursday I met a priest from Latakia in western Syria. He runs the Awareness Foundation, to bring hope through education to young people. ‘The war’s an industry’, he said. ISIS trade in weapons, oil, antiquities; destruction isn’t collateral damage, but a deliberate aim’. Syrian Children feel utterly abandoned: has the world learnt nothing from history? ‘We train teenagers to be leaders. For the first day we just listen – to their sorrows and angers. As they became empowered as teachers their attitudes change.’
 
He was blunt about the hatreds of the region, so often ingrained by politics and implacable theology, – religion perverted into cruel bigotry. ‘Don’t imagine that at the first kind word it’ll all just melt away.’ 
 
And one listens to people pour out their hearts…
 
What does one do? I stopped myself short during the morning prayers. There I was saying to God ‘Shema kolenu – Hear our voice’, but what voices crying out on this earth for access to the human heart and conscience was I failing to hear? How many people are there hungry, homeless, hopeless; how many creatures pecking, scrabbling for a worm or a grain of seed in unpolluted earth?
 
Yet I still believe in the sheer vitality of life, and in wonder. I believe that the uncorrupted spirit experiences joy and awe at the unfurling of the leaves, the alighting of a bird, the sound of children playing. ‘Cruelty has a human heart’ wrote Blake, but I do not believe that it is our deepest, untaught desire to inflict pain. Rather, the bond of life calls out in us to loving kindness, to be on the side of life with all its needs for nourishment and protection. Hatred is not a natural condition, but an affliction of the soul.
 
I believe that Isaiah’s words ‘they shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain’ are a cry which issues not just from the mouth of a prophet long ago, but from life itself, – a call both silent and tumultuous to intelligence and compassion. That, I believe, is the voice of God.

Theology meets Ecology

I’ve just returned from a wonderful seminar at the Ammerdown retreat centre together with faith leaders who are passionate about the environment.

One might think that after Paris action is all that matters. Certainly, we were all resolved to play our part in keeping government and the leaders of business to account. But action begins at home, with what we do in our own communities, communal buildings and homes. I’m very excited about the launch of Eco-Church, and have invited its creator Dr Ruth Valerio to speak in our community. There’s no reason why eco-synagogue, or eco-mosque, should not be developed along the same green-print.

But the discussions of text and theology were perhaps the most fascinating part of the encounter. Mary Colwell, who makes programmes on wildlife and the environment for radio and television spoke of the ‘catch-up’ theology has to do if it is to embrace a post-Darwin, and post DNA analysis world in which we understand that we share 50% of that DNA with a cabbage. More challenging still may be to reconcile the concept of a ‘good God’ with the presence of that God in a world of nature in which every leaf and tree is a battle ground in miniature in which species struggles with species for survival.

How then should we understand today the promise of ‘dominion’ granted to humanity by God in Genesis chapter 1? Does it point to a power we have exercised to our cost, or does it entail a responsibility of which we cannot become free? After all, do we really believe that all life is equal, and that humans should not be seen as having a special place in God’s ecology? Yet the occupation of that position with ruthless blindness to the place and value of other forms of life, except when sentimentality leads us to see them as ‘cute’, must surely be a crime.

Is ‘stewardship’ an adequate concept for the human role as God’s regent and servant on this earth, or is the expression too feudal, tasting too much of mastery in an age when we realise our constant dependence on even the bee the beetle and bacteria? How do we serve creation? It needs to be through acts of reason, as well as of love.

What then does it mean to be a ‘creature’ in such an inter-dependent world and what responsibilities are entailed? How important is the sense of kinship with all living being, and how is it related to the similar word ‘kindness’, which translates in Hebrew as the enduring covenant of hesed towards all life?

The fact is that certain texts, whether we are conscious of it or not, have over centuries formed the foundation of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Western attitudes to creation, God and life itself. But their anthropocentrism may call for revision, or at least counter-balancing with other, more embracing and inclusive, texts if we are indeed to ‘serve and preserve’ the garden of life, as God enjoins the first man and woman, before setting them in Eden.

These questions will be central to the discourse of humanity and the direction of both theology and ecology over the coming critical decades.

It was wonderful to be among Christians, Muslims and fellow Jews who care equally and passionately about the written text of Scripture and the sacred text of nature, – life in all its dimensions.

How a Temple ceremony can teach us about climate change

I’ve always loved people, animals and plants. My nightmares are full of fears about what might destroy them: terror and violence, or pollution and greed.

I imagine the following conversation as Noah’s flood engulfs the Earth.

A father is chivvying his son up the mountain. The boy asks: “Daddy, why didn’t you listen when they warned you?” He has no answer, only guilt and sorrow.

The Talmud notes that it took decades to build the ark, during which time Noah unremittingly urged his contemporaries to change their ways. They mocked his rebukes and countered his every warning with “O, but we have technological answers to that”.

In worse moments, I imagine that conversation happening between myself and my future grandchildren: “Why didn’t you listen when they told you the way you live was destroying the world?” What will I say then?

The forthcoming climate talks in Paris may be our last best chance to create legally binding international agreements to prevent the world’s temperature rising by more than two degrees centigrade. Global warming isn’t a specifically “Jewish issue”; it doesn’t address our most prepossessing anxieties: Israel, antisemitism, terror, assimilation. But it unquestionably is a Jewish issue, because regarding the survival of life on Earth, the fate of one is the fate of all.

Pope Francis’s outstanding encyclical Laudato Si speaks of the Earth as “our common home”, drawing on the Hebrew Bible as its primary source.

The rabbinic phrase “partners with God in creation” encapsulates exactly the nature of the responsibility to which he calls people of all faiths and none: “I urgently appeal for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet…the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots… affect us all.”

There is no room, he insists, for obstructionism, indifference or blind belief in technology.

Contrary to how it has often been represented, the Pope notes that “the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures”. Rather, we are stewards entrusted with the wellbeing of all creation. Equally, as Naomi Klein states bluntly in This Changes Everything, there’s no place for the unregulated power of money and economic growth as the unrivalled determinant of what societies mean by success. We therefore need to change both out thinking and our conduct.

Where is the Jewish voice in this crisis of civilisation?

Contemporary theologian Arthur Green focuses on the spiritual dimension of ecology, God’s presence in all living being. He finds the call to action in God’s one-word challenge to Adam in Eden: “Where are you?” What God means is: “Where are you in helping me to carry this project of creation forward?” We must deepen our awareness of the basic unity of all life and our responsibility towards it.

He has therefore reintroduced the ancient tradition of ma’amadot, vigils, at Hebrew College in Massachusetts, where he’s principal. In Temple times, when the priests from any town ascended to Jerusalem to serve their shift at the altar, the local people gathered daily for ma’amadot, the recitation of the section from Genesis I, recounting the creation for that day of the week. Explaining the practice, the Talmud quotes Jeremiah: “God has a basic covenant with day and night, with the very laws of nature” (33:25).

Our way of life risks undermining those laws and making our world uninhabitable. The ma’amadot teach us to change. Through daily attention to each facet of creation, light, water, plants, animals, humankind, we deepen our appreciation of it, our determination not to pollute or destroy it and our commitment to work for ecological harmony and justice.

A ma’amad can be as simple as reciting the verses for the appropriate day. It can be a solitary meditation, or a reading in the presence of hundreds. It can be enhanced by poetry, music, pictures and reflections. But it should lead to commitments. The phrases are familiar: conserve more, waste less. Every individual can do something; communities and corporations can do more. Ultimately essential are national and international commitments to renewable energy and a limit on fossil fuels. We mustn’t invest in enterprises which destroy the world. We mustn’t consume their products. We’re all guilty and must all modify how we live.

I’m a lover of woodlands and wild places, but climate change isn’t just about nature. It’s about stopping making the poor pay for our wealth by contributing directly or indirectly to the destruction of their incomes, homes and countries. As Jews we empathise, rightly, with refugees. If we fail to act on climate change we will see refugees in even greater numbers as entire peoples strive to escape floods, droughts and wars over the still habitable corners of once fertile lands.

We owe it to life itself, and to this beautiful world with which we are entrusted, not to let that happen.

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.

For this we are all responsible

‘Stay here in Canaan; don’t go to Egypt because of the famine’. In this manner God prevents Isaac from becoming the second environmental refugee in Jewish history. The first was Abraham, when hunger forced him to seek the mercies of Pharaoh.
 
Yesterday I was at the refugee camp in Calais, with an interfaith group of leaders. In an hour I’m off to join the start of the pilgrimage to Paris, prior to the climate talks. Refugees; environment: the two concerns, the greatest for our day and age, are devastatingly interconnected.
 
It wasn’t hard to talk to people at Calais. Many of the young men who thronged the so-called street that made its way among the hundreds of tents and wood-and-plastic-sheeting shelters wanted to speak. Had they crossed seas and walked two-and-a-half thousand miles in search of a future for their stories to be shut down here?
 
‘Where are you from?’ ‘Afghanistan. I worked with the British army 5 years at Camp Bastion’ His friend was there 7 years. Now they’re stranded here.
 
‘We’re Kurds. From Iran, Iraq. I taught computers at college.’ ‘We’re Kurds too, from Iran, from Iraq. They try to kill us. Two people drowned from our boat.’
 
‘I’m from Syria’. The man makes the action children make in playgrounds as if they are holding an imaginary machine-gun. ‘All my family are killed.’
 
‘Shalom’ says a voice behind me. I hadn’t thought Hebrew would be an asset here; Arabic, Pushtu, of course. ‘I’m from Sudan. I was in Tel Aviv, Eilat; I had a visa, no work. I went back to Sudan, they try to kill me.’ He invites me to his tent, living space for two, smaller than the surface of a kitchen table.
 
‘I’m a medic. I want to save lives.’ ‘My sister and mother are in the UK; they can’t get me out of here’.
 
It’s cold as the group makes its way to the Church of St Michael, a place of beauty created somehow midst the turmoil by refugees from Eritrea. A man stops me: ‘It’s winter soon: the rain; the snow; the cold.’ He points around at all these people; what are they to do?
 
Amongst ourselves we share our impressions: It’s an abomination. It’s tragic. This place ought not to exist. Here, in the heart of 21st century Europe! What’s to be done?
 
‘Doctors are needed, to volunteer at weekends. Money will be needed for decent winter meals. And here is far from the worst place. Think of the Balkans, the Turkish borders, Greece…And that’s only the immediate necessities. The real need is for a path to their futures. There has to be an agreement across Europe.’ Yvette Cooper, chair of labour’s refugee taskforce, speaks to us eloquently: such suffering should not be, especially for the children.
 
Back home, I’m asked why these people want to come to the UK. (Compared to the total numbers of refugees, the figures are small.) Many have family here. An expert in post-trauma work explains: ‘An island country with a reputation for civic accord, where the police don’t carry guns, where it’s known people smile in the street, has a special appeal for those fleeing murderous conflict.’
 
Within the abomination there is also inspiration: the resilience of those we meet, their aspiration to create new lives, the will for life.
 
What must be done? The short term goal is to give destitute people hope, help and a future. The long term goal must be to stop more and more of the world becoming less and less habitable for political, military and environmental reasons. For this we are all responsible.

Why animals need their own New Year

“There are four new years,” explains the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1). The best known is Tishri 1, the New Year par excellence, Rosh Hashanah, when “all who enter the world pass before God”. Next most familiar is Shevat 15, the New Year for Trees, the Jewish “Earth Day”. Least known is Ellul 1, the New Year for the Tithing of Cattle.

It sounds irrelevant: how many of us today keep cows? And anyway the date only really mattered while the Temple stood.

Yet there is a drive among Jewish environmentalists to develop the day into a Jewish New Year for Animals. This isn’t merely sentimental. It’s not about bringing our mongrels to shul for mi-sheberachs, let alone making a chopped-liver effigy of them or a vegetarian equivalent for kiddush, like the worst excesses of the bark-mitzvah catering market.

It’s about seeing the sacred in all living beings and understanding our own place in an immense and intricate material and spiritual ecology. This belongs to what the sages called “accepting the yoke of the sovereignty of God”, by acknowledging that we exist not to exploit and kill other forms of life, though we may use them thoughtfully and compassionately for our livelihood, but to protect the earth and its creatures which are entrusted by God to our care. It is a day on which to abjure cruelty and affirm our kinship with creation.

The Jewish way is not to invent a new date but to build on existing moments in the traditional calendar. What then was the New Year for the Tithing of Cattle? Maimonides describes it in Hilchot Bechorot (6:1): “It is a positive commandment to separate one out of every 10 kosher animals born to a person each year. This mitzvah applies only to cattle and sheep, as Leviticus 27:32 states: ‘All the tithes of your cattle and sheep…’”

The Talmud deemed that most animals were born by the month of Av; a tenth of the newly born could therefore be consecrated for Temple sacrifice at the start of Ellul.

This hardly sounds like the best date to celebrate animal life. But it shows that our ancestors lived in close connection with animals. The Torah makes this clear. If a sheep or ox gets lost or an over-laden donkey collapses under its load we must help (Deuteronomy 22:1-4). Such occurrences must have been as frequent then as traffic accidents today. It was a civilisation less anthropocentric and less alienated from the natural world than now.

This closeness is expressed in Judaism’s injunction against tza’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting suffering on living creatures. Like Buddhist prayer for “all sentient beings”, it shows deep compassion before the fact that animals also experience pain. Based on the Torah’s ban against immediately separating young from their mothers, Maimonides understood this to include emotional suffering as well. If “God’s mercies are upon all God’s works” (Psalm 145:9), human mercies should include animals too.

This attitude is a sharp indictment of how we treat animals today. The meat industry may be less culpable for how it kills them than for how it makes them live, with the immense cruelties of factory production and mass transportation. The dairy industry is also far from innocent.

It’s sometimes argued that compassion should be reserved for humans, that “Nazis were sentimental about pets”. The latter may be true. Yet there’s a profound connection between our attitudes to human pain and animal pain. What we don’t see doesn’t bother us. Just as we’re generally untroubled by the pain entailed in meat and eggs arriving neatly on the shelf, so we’re often heedless of the human misery behind so many products we want to buy cheap.

The Bible is also deeply sensitive to wild animals. The Psalmist feels in the deer’s longing for water the image of our yearning for God. The author of Job finds in the secretiveness of animals a sign of God’s mysteries. Rabbinic Judaism countenances encroachment on the natural world out of genuine human need, but not through carelessness, cruelty, greed, wastefulness, or ever to an extent which threatens biodiversity. After all, we say daily, “God, how manifold are your works.”

What might a New Year for Animals look like? Ellul 1 is when we first blow the shofar, whose raw call awakens an awareness of a world deeper and more extensive than human society alone. This cry should be accompanied by two modes of liturgy: penitence, “For the sins we’ve committed in cruelty to lives with no political voice or economic power”; and praise, “Praise God, wild and domestic animals, creeping creatures and birds on the wing” (Psalm 148). If I was brave, I would add a Council of All Being, developed by Rainforest to help us recognise, not just intellectually but experientially, our bond with nature. Participants choose an animal, and through quiet reflection, try to imagine how life feels from inside its skin.

Then we should go out and care for the beautiful world committed to our trust.

—-

This piece first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle

Chastening

Alongside work within the community, I have been deeply involved this week in three issues about which I care deeply.

On Tuesday I had the privilege of meeting with His Grace Bishop Angaelos, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK.  The previous day he was awarded the OBE ‘for services to International Religious Freedom’.  He said he felt humbled by the award, which was really for everyone who worked with him, and that ‘it comes with a sense of sadness that in the 21st century we still need to defend people’s God-given rights and freedoms in this way’.

Coptic Christians, like many other Christian groups, are persecuted across the Middle East and the Council of Christians and Jews (www.ccj.org.uk) are encouraging all communities to reflect and pray, just as we want other faiths to stand up for us in our times of trouble. We spoke too about attitudes to Israel and what the Jewish community seeks from the churches.

Good relations with other faiths and faith leaders are critically important, especially in such difficult and unpredictable times as these. We need solidarity from one another, but that has to be earned. I invited Bishop Angaelos to visit our synagogue and I hope arrangements will soon come to fruition.

On Wednesday I was invited to speak on behalf of the Jewish community at the Climate Change rally opposite Parliament. I spent much of last night writing a Jewish response (which I hope The Times will publish tomorrow) to Pope Francis’ outstanding encyclical Laudato Si ‘On care for our common Home’. What can I say? I have grown up with a deep love for hills and rivers, trees and gardens, birds and animals, a love which has grown stronger year by year, and which contains in its heart not only a vibrant joy, a song to God for the wonder which permeates all things, but also an inescapable anguish which reports of drought, thirst and dying landscapes have intensified into a terrible fear. The issues are out in the public domain; the international meetings are scheduled; it remains for us all to take action at every level, international, national, local, communal and in each business, community and home.

The Pope concludes with a universal Prayer for the Earth:

“Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.”

To such words I am glad to say ‘Amen’.

Yesterday I joined Refugee Tales (www.RefugeeTales.org). We spoke about the meaning of welcome. ‘You listened’, said one former detainee, ‘that was welcome’. Welcome is to accept others as people, to respect their story, not to delay deciding their case for ten years or more, not to detain them indefinitely, not to take them from a hostel in the dead of night and deport them on a so-called ‘ghost plane’ to a land where they once again struggle in immediate fear for their lives.

I thought of my parents, both refugees at the age of sixteen. I thought of Dan Pagis’ poem ‘They were in the image. I was a shade. A different creator made me.’ We cannot say to another human being, either by commission or omission, ‘Sorry, but you are not made in God’s image. Get lost!’

It’s been a chastening week.

Gentian

I saw my first gentian when I was just four. We’d travelled by train to Switzerland for a holiday and I was sitting in a field with my cousin. I remember thinking even then that the deep, pure blue of the gentian was beautiful, and I certainly think so now.
 
My parents brought me up to appreciate beauty in the natural world. Watching a small bird glance this way and that deciding whether to dare to fly to the feeder; noticing the fallen crab apples in the cold October grass: these simple sights offer not only an external source of interest but an inner companionship as well, a sharing of life’s very rhythm and vitality. Deprive a person of the sound of leaves, the shade of trees, the sight of the sky, the comfort of the colour green, and you half-starve their heart of God’s presence. Maimonides saw in the love of the natural world the first steps towards the love of God, as if we were allowed to look at creation for just a moment through God’s eyes and see that it is good.
 
Then, just a week after the story of creation in the ceaseless cycle of Torah readings, five columns later in the scroll itself, comes the great destruction. The word ‘bad’ appears for the first time: “For great was the evil of humankind upon the earth, and the drive of their hearts’ thoughts was bad all day long” (Bereshit 6:5). The waters rise mercilessly over all that wonderful creation in which God had so recently rejoiced, obliterating every living thing.
 
There is a small instruction, just a footnote, in the Tikkun or guide used by those who prepare to chant from the Torah. It concerns the words ‘vayetze Noach - Noah went out of the ark’: ‘Sing them extensively’ it reads. But when Noah finally emerges from that ark, the first ever seed and gene-bank in which every species has been stored on God’s instruction, Noah doesn’t sing. Neither does he speak. Even God’s promise of a rainbow elicits no response. Silently he plants vines and gets drunk. He has nothing to say to God. In the remaining three hundred years of his life he opens his mouth just once, to curse.
 
When my grandfather returned to Frankfurt, eleven years after he fled in 1939, he found the city with its alleyways full of rubble and its shattered windows open to the sky, virtually unrecognisable. How much more so must the desolate earth have seemed so to Noah! Is this bare mud, he must have thought, where the deer used to graze? Is that where the crows once flocked in the tops of the tall trees? Did my neighbours used to live here? He must have died devoured by mourning, a lonely, haunted man.
 
No part of the Bible frightens me as much as the story of the flood. What eats at me isn’t only fear; it’s a kind of anguish, as if one might be about to lose, slowly but irretrievably, all the people one most deeply loves, without whose companionship one’s own life is inconceivable. This earth, this beautiful world, God’s world, – we don’t want to lose it. We want our children and children’s children, everybody’s children and children’s children to rejoice in it.
 
That’s why I believe that alongside caring for the hungry and the homeless, while not neglecting the fight against Ebola and other diseases, we must plant trees, protect and regrow forests, keep pesticides and poisons out of our land and water, protect insects, fishes, birds and mammals and curb the wasteful heedlessness of how we live. What protects the earth saves human lives as well.
 
That’s why I believe we should plant and grow, understand the love of soil and seed, and root our spirituality in the earth about which the Torah tells us that God saw it, blessed it, declared it good and placed it in our trust.

Moment of grace

It was one of those moments of grace which reminds the soul of wonder and makes one see once more God’s glory in the world.

It was only a little thing; I turned onto a small path which climbed into the forest and, looking upwards into the hill, saw a young deer grazing in the long grass. It raised its head and looked at me but I swiftly froze and it did not run away. I curbed my wish to draw closer and took only the smallest, quietest steps before stopping altogether. It returned to feed among the grasses.

Mal’ah ha’aretz kinyanecha – The world is full of your wonders, O God! I don’t why I love deer so much, especially fawns. Maybe it’s because of their innocence; they kill no other sentient beings. Or maybe it’s because of their timidity; one sees them only relatively rarely, just as wonder and beauty only rarely overwhelm the heart. But for those few minutes they absolutely did, and for once the world of enmities and angers, politics and conflicts, was not the reality at all. It was wiped in a moment right out of my brain. Instead came this heaven on earth, this precious, beautiful, tender life. A further movement caught my attention and on the other side of the footpath I saw another deer behind the pine trees; she seemed a little larger, perhaps the mother of this young one or perhaps a slightly older companion. They continued to graze, unperturbed.

I stood still and watched, fearful lest I make the animals afraid. I regret this fear we humans carry with us like our own shadow, ineluctably, like the sorrow which followed after Eden. Why do we of necessity cause so many other living beings to be frightened of us? Why, at the very smell of us, do they flee? Often I’m ashamed of our species.

Here, I thought, was the proper place to pray. ‘Consider, as you do so, that the Shechinah, the presence of God, is immediately before you’, teaches the Shulchan Aruch, the sixteenth century standard code of Jewish law. But this time I did not have to imagine. Surely this was God’s very world right before me and, if the name Shechinah, (from the root shachan, ‘to dwell’) meant God’s indwelling presence, then at this moment it dwelt right here in this forest and within these gentle animals. So I prayed with them, and my companionship with them was my prayer and God was all around us, and infinitely beyond.

When I finished I did not turn round to walk away but took small steps backwards as I do when I withdraw from before the open Ark, finding it a slight, and shameful, to turn one’s back on holiness.

I realise that what I’ve written has nothing to do with anything, except that without such moments would we really want, or be able, to live? They sustain us in secret for days and months and decades, like a subterranean well within the depths of the heart. They are the wonder, the song and the glory which the soul has always longed for and which it recognises at once when it sees: ‘This is my God, whose beauty I shall tell’.

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