What’s in my soul to write about has nothing to do with this week’s Torah portion, except for just one phrase and then only if I take it out of context.
I want to write about the trees, the oaks, beeches and hollies in the steep hills of the Wye valley, ‘Thou wanderer through the woods’, as Wordsworth called this beautiful river 200 years ago in his wonderful Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey.
I want to write about the birds which came each day to the feeder where our family stayed. ‘Have you seen the nuthatches?’ Yes, we watched them, these shy birds who feed upside down like woodpeckers, only smaller, blue-grey backed and orange-breasted, which came so near and privileged us so closely to witness the life of the forest.
At night and before dawn the owls called, their cries like their flight, floating out of the darkness suddenly, gliding still-winged, then with two or three beats rising back into the blackness of the branches, from where, impossible to see, they with their huge eyes see all.
Later, out walking with the family or running in the early light, the mist concealed the river and turned the trees into harbingers of the forest’s mystery, with its falling streams and the pale glimmering from the edges of wet fallen leaves.
‘Wilderness is a curse word to me’, said Ernestine, a native Tlingit living in the islands off Alaska, to the ecologist-researcher Lauren Oakes. Lauren is shocked that these vast areas she had helped struggle to protect, ‘where earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor and does not remain,’ should be considered a ‘curse’. Then she understands: the world can’t be divided into ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’, wilderness and civilisation, exploitable and untouchable. Nature and humanity are not separate: what we need is relationship, but on terms enduring and endurable for all life. This is something Ernestine’s family have understood for generations: when to take and when to refrain from taking, so that millennia hence the forests will still be there. (see Lauren Oakes: In Search of the Canary Tree)
That’s the phrase from the Torah which returns to me again and again, ever since it caught my attention because of the haunting way it was sung in a Hasidic stiebl in Shaarei Hesed in Jerusalem: nafsho keshurah benafsho, his life is bound to his life; his soul is bound to his soul.
In context the words have nothing whatsoever to do with nature. Judah speaks them to describe the bond between his youngest brother Benjamin and his aging father Jacob: without the beloved son from whom he was so deeply reluctant to part, from whom only the unrelenting desperation of famine could divide him, the elderly parent will die.
But the words transcend that context. They do speak, indeed, of a bond of spirit between us and the people we love. But they also describe, with inimitable brevity, the vital connection between us and nature, between our life and all life, between our tiny fragment of spirit and the spirit of all being, between us and what we may perhaps mean by God.
This bond is the greatest of things, and the smallest, revealed in a water-drop condensed on a leaf, in the alighting of a tiny bird.