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.