October 24, 2014 admin

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.

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