Shaken, after 5 days at COP 26

I just came back from five days at COP 26, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. ‘Discombobulated’ is how Graham Usher, the Bishop of Norwich and Church of England’s climate change lead, described his feelings. I agree; I feel shaken.

Climate isn’t a subject I was disengaged from beforehand. But it’s different when you sit on a panel with a woman from Greenfaith working in Kenya who says: ‘When you’ve walked 7 kilometres with a pregnant mother who’s got a child on her back just to fetch water, then you understand what climate justice means.’

I stopped by a poster ‘COP welcomes Climate Criminals.’ Protest is necessary; 100,000 people are expected at demonstrations in Glasgow this weekend. Without the voices from the streets, many leaders would do much less. Anger has a role too, if controlled and directed, especially with hypocritical boasts or insincere promises about what this country or that business is doing for the climate. But the poster didn’t capture what I feel, and the worst climate criminals didn’t even show up in Glasgow.

What affected me deeply were the multi-faith meetings. At the interfaith vigil, live-streamed globally as COP began, prayers, – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Bahai, Buddhist, pagan, – didn’t focus on ‘against’. They were pleas for the earth, its peoples and leaders; they were prayers that those who bore huge responsibilities for the future of life itself would open their hearts and use all the skills and powers they have for good. For just as there’s only one planet, there’s only one team here. We’re all in it and we need each other to do our utmost, and more.

I sat with my friend Andy Atkins from A Rocha, a worldwide Catholic group focussing on NSBs, Nature-based Solutions. (I’m interviewing Israel’s NSB lead next week). ‘What are you here for?’ he asked me. ‘I’m with EcoSynagogue,’ I said. (Our stall in the COP green zone for NGOs went well.) But he was after something deeper.

So I asked him the same question. ‘What are you here for?’ ‘To lobby,’ he replied. He’s a COP veteran. ‘Deforestation ended by 2030 sounds great. But what does it mean? If there’s no detailed plan how to get from here to then, no measuring, no monitoring, no powers to implement and supervise, it amounts to nothing, or worse, a ten-year licence to exploit even faster. We need to hold feet to the fire.’

I was deeply affected by representatives from Africa, South America and the Pacific. Daryl Botu from Ghana was at the stand opposite EcoSynagogue. ‘I’m here about the Atawa Forest. It’s one of the most biodiverse places on earth. It provides water for five million people. Chinese investment wants to turn it into a bauxite pit. We’re campaigning to have it protected.’

Such voices were few: costs, Covid and vaccination recognition made it hard for people from the global south to get to Glasgow. I learnt a new term ‘recognition justice’: there can’t be climate justice or climate solutions without the voices, imagination, leadership and resilience of those who’re suffering the most.

I’m back in London, eager for our Eco-Shabbat, vegan Kiddush, ‘consume less’ and ‘waste less’ projects and glad about EcoSynagogue and Jtree.global (All I learnt indicates we’re planting trees with the right groups).

Being at COP was a success for EcoSynagogue. It was wonderful to be together with colleagues across the denominations and work with the Board of Deputies, and the Jewish community in Glasgow welcomed us warmly. Ever more synagogues are committing to the journey.

It was great, too, to be part of Faiths for the Climate, and to meet the leaders of Hazon, America’s Jewish environmental organisation.

But the real issue is: will COP 26 be a success for the planet?

There’s that personal question too: ‘Why are you here?’ I don’t yet know how, but this experience has, and has to, change me.

Why I’m going to COP

I’m going there to listen, learn, find every cause I can for hope and positive action and come back inspired and even more determined. I’m spending most of next week in Glasgow, the town where I was born, at COP 26, the most important gathering ever for the future of the planet.

I’ve no idea what it’ll be like, but I’ll certainly report back. I don’t imagine I’ll have the chance to meet the Pope, though I’d love to. I don’t think I’ll meet either President Biden or the Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of the State of Israel, though I’d like to. I don’t suppose I’ll bump into our own PM either, though there’s a lot I’d like to say.

It feels a bit Kafkaesque: there’s a green zone, for the NGOs (people like me with EcoSynagogue, leaders of Eco Church, etcetera); a blue zone for political actors, and a red zone for the highest level of heads of state. Like most faith leaders, my pass will only take me as far as the green zone, (I guess green is my true colour.) But walls and barriers have never put a stop to that age-old spiritual endeavour of trying to tell truth to power.

In fact, those truths are coming from every direction, from the world’s poorest countries already suffering the great impacts of climate change, and from the richest, where ever more economists and business leaders understand that there’s no point investing in fossil fuels and that green enterprise needs, and deserves, every support it can get. They come from the street, where across the world hundreds of millions of people, especially the young, are making it clear to their political leaders that they are out of patience with short-termism, self-interest, lip-service and lack of urgency. As the Talmud says about Noah’s flood, the truth is coming up through the earth in the form of droughts and fires and down from the skies in floods.

But I’m not going to Glasgow to find more cause for misery. These are hard times; only in this last week I’ve listened to several young people speak of their hopelessness. The climate emergency is a cruel inheritance to receive from their elders. But I’m mindful of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav’s maxim: Assur lehitya’esh – It’s forbidden to despair.

I’m going to Glasgow to find out about every form of positive action that I can. If I’m asked to plant trees, I’ll pick up my spade; if to show solidarity with communities struggling to adapt to climate change, I’ll ask them how; if it becomes even clearer that habits need to be changed, I’ll make my best efforts to do so.

I’m involved with all this because I’m haunted, possessed twice over. I’m seeing shadows where I hadn’t noticed them before: they follow my shopping bags and squat in my kitchen and bedroom with increasingly vividness. They whisper: ‘Is that there which you’re eating or wearing really worth what it’s doing to the earth and its peoples?’

But they don’t cling to me half as much as something else, a passionate, ineradicable love of this earth. It’s a love and joy as deep in me as the roots of a great tree. It brings nourishment to my body, mind and spirit. My God breathes in every living thing.

Nothing can suck that love out of my soul, and there’s nothing greater I want to bequeath to my children. Therefore, though I know I fall short, I want to do, and engage others to do, everything I can to protect this wonderful world and pass it on, vital and beautiful, to the future.

Was Noah the Greta Thunberg of his day?

Nature isn’t all loveliness. Yesterday just outside my study I saw a bird prey in the act of tearing open the pigeon it had just killed. I thought it was a sparrow hawk, but minutes later a peregrine perched by the window, looking for another victim.

Nevertheless, I feel awe, wonder, curiosity and joy before nature. Like many, I increasingly appreciate how interdependent we are with the natural world, from the rainfall to the quality of the soil, to the bees and the trees. Ruin nature and we destroy ourselves.

So Noah, the ‘righteous man before God’, the preserver who saves two of every species and ushers them into a new world, ought to be my hero. But he’s not; at least not entirely.

Here’s why. He simply obeys orders. When God tells him the world is wicked and about to be destroyed, he builds the ark as instructed. But he doesn’t argue back. He doesn’t say: ‘How can you, the creator, who holds such power, obliterate your own handiwork which you just recently called ‘good’ or ‘very good’?

Noah says neither a single word to God nor so much as a syllable of warning to his contemporaries. He could have taken up Dylan Thomas’s refrain: ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’ He could have done like the Jonah who, albeit reluctant, finally got to Nineveh and, covered in whale-spit, shouted down the streets: Change your ways or else this place will be destroyed.

The Zohar has this to say about Noah:

When he came out of the ark and saw the world in ruins, he started to weep and said to God: ‘You, who’re called “merciful and gracious,” shouldn’t you have shown mercy to your creatures?’ God replied: ‘Foolish shepherd; now you tell me! Why didn’t you say that when I instructed you…to build the ark?’ (Zohar 1:69)

Perhaps Noah thought there was no point: God’s mind can’t be changed. Maybe he saw in the power-holders of his day the same obstinacy and bondage to self-interest which has so often characterised it since. But in the Torah, he doesn’t even try. He isn’t the Greta Thunberg of his day.

Avivah Zornberg quotes Andre Neher: Noah shows ‘unqualified apathy.’ That’s harsh, since he does build the ark and cajole even the lions, elephants and mosquitoes aboard. But as Zornberg says in her own words:

[T]he impact of Noah’s silent acquiescence in the destruction of the world is devastating.

The rabbis, as ever, filled in the gaps in the biblical account. What happened during all the years it took Noah to build that ark? His contemporaries mocked him, and he answered back. But even here, Zornberg notes, his ‘imaginative solipsism’ is apparent: God ‘told me to make an ark,’ he says to them, ‘so that I and my household may escape.’

We, on our imperilled planet, in our ‘generation on the cusp,’ need to do more. The Biblical cue lies in the words Mordechai passed to Esther in the hour before Haman’s decree of destruction: ‘If you remain silent now…’

We need to speak up, and above all act, personally, communally, locally, nationally, internationally, for the sake of our beautiful world, on behalf of humanity, for the future. It’s a wonderful world and its children and children’s children deserve to receive it that way.

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.

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