Here we are, caught between creation and destruction. Yesterday was Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees; tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day.
Tu Bishevat is a day of planting and celebration, when we’re partners with the God of creation who set the tree of life in the midst of the Garden of Eden.
Many of us were out there yesterday in the bright afternoon, placing rich mulch round the young crab apples and field maples we’d just planted. Trees mean future, long-term thinking, life, hope and joy. ‘We’ve a two-hundred-year management plan,’ explained Craig Harrison, head of Forestry England south.
Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day. I read compulsively about the Shoah and listen to the testament of survivors. I love their company. I admire how they have established new lives, brought up children and go into schools to speak against antisemitism and every form of prejudice. I find it remarkable how little bitterness so many of them bear, how much compassion they embody, how widely they spread warmth and hope.
But the most terrible testimony has no voice: that of the innumerable dead, across Europe, Rwanda, Cambodia, robbed of their homes, loved ones and lives; robbed of their voices which would tell us, if they could, of the sophisticated deceitfulness and cruel cunning of the murderers alongside their drunken brutality.
In the words of the searing Yom Kippur meditation, ‘Eleh Ezkerah – these things I bring to memory before God, who’s supposed to conduct the world in mercy, venaphshi alai eshpecha, and I pour out my soul, I don’t know what to do with myself.’
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is the fragility of freedom. It could not be more apposite in this time of war in Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, the Middle East. Whatever ‘side’ we’re on, whatever political views we hold, we must not harden our hearts to the horror faced by the hostages and their families after 115 days of cruel captivity, the fear of parents for the lives of their children on the front lines, the desperate suffering of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians caught amidst the fighting.
To what pain will all this give birth, to what new fears and hatreds, to what hopes, longings and dreams? Beyond whatever particular loyalties we hold, say the Israeli and Palestinian parents of the Bereaved Families Forum, we need to remember that we should all ultimately be on the side of humanity.
So what do we do?
‘Choose life,’ teaches the Torah, be on the side of life!
These, then, are some of the questions which should preoccupy us: How can I find the courage to be truly human? What kindness can I do? Whose life can I make a bit better and not worse? What can I plant for our children’s children’s futures?
This sounds frail; it feels very small scale. But I put my hopes in a minor, often overlooked scene from the Torah. The Children of Israel are thirsty in the desert, but the waters before them are too bitter to drink. Therefore, God instructs Moses to throw into them the branches of a tree and when he does so the waters become sweet.
So let’s plant our trees, figurative trees of compassion, decency, humanity and hope, as well as real trees, maples, rowans, birch and oak. May they sweeten our own lives with a deep sense of purpose and bring a little sweetness to the future of the world.