Trust and betrayal

This week brings Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, on Monday, and National Holocaust Memorial Day on Wednesday. The latter is not a specifically Jewish date – Yom Hashoah is the 27th of Nissan – but it marks the liberation of Auschwitz- Birkenau by the Red Army and has become a part of the national and international calendar which it is wrong not to acknowledge. This year, furthermore, it has a very specific meaning for me, the publication of the book Final Solution to which David Cesarani, may his memory be for blessing and inspiration, devoted so much of what tragically proved to be the last years of his life.

These two dates, this bifurcated week, bring to mind two Hebrew words, – aman, ‘trust’; and bagad, ‘betray’. In the great spheres of human and natural history, and in the smaller circles of our daily conduct, we live between the pulls of these contrary poles.  

‘Trust and trees’ sounds like little more than a pretty, alliterative fellowship. Yet the planting of a tree is always an act of trust; will drought desiccate it, animals devour it, war tear its roots from the earth, before it can bear fruit? Growing trees is a sign of faith in the future.

Season by season, too, trees are a vindication of faith. Tu Bishevat will bring the blossom back to the bare almond; March will swell the grey buds on the oaks; in May the apple trees will flower. In that marvellous chapter of War and Peace, Prince Andrei stares hopeless at the half hollowed trunk of an ancient oak; thus does life eat out our heart and destroy us. Months later, and now in love with Natasha Rostov, his heart rejoices as he passes the same glorious, vital, leaf-bedecked tree. I often think of trees when I say of God mechayyei hametim, ‘You revive the dead’; the trunks of trees are the pillars of my faith.

Aman, Amen, Emunah, that wonderful word-family, – don’t these words express, not blind belief or unyielding dogma, but trust in the profound rhythm of life, including even death; the hope and faith that it will nourish us as we nourish it; that, as we care for the hearts of others, so life will bring strength, wisdom and love to our heart too? And in these deep, slow processes we find our faith in wonder, love and God.

Bagad is not always a negative term; after all, the noun beged means an article of clothing, But even then the word connotes concealment, that gap between appearance and reality which offers ample space for perfidy. 

Is killing necessarily betrayal? Maybe it’s no more than survival of the fittest, when one group rises up against another and the rhetoric of racial or religious hatred is only a mask for the basic competition for land, water, oil, more space to propagate one’s progeny without the interfering presence of a different other. Maybe that’s the vicious truth of human nature, and morality is merely a fictitious veneer.

But at heart I do not believe so. That is why the killing of a fellow human being most of all, but also the wanton destruction of any living thing, constitutes betrayal. It is an act of treachery towards the agudah achat, the embracing bond of life, for which we pray on the New Year, to which we are attached by ties of kinship and on which we depend for our own existence. It is never merely a transaction when someone gives away their neighbours to those who intend their hurt. It is no excuse that we didn’t know, because someone else did the killing, or because it took place elsewhere, hidden in the silent depths of some deep and distant forest.

It’s all too easy to descend from trust to betrayal. The question facing humanity is whether we can re-ascend from treachery to trust.

The uncorrupted spirit

Faith and fear, these have been the dual poles of my week, and my life for these last many years.
I believe in wonder; I believe in life; I believe in the goodness of the human heart; I believe in loving kindness; I believe all being is animate with the sacred presence of the divine; I believe that every action matters. With this trust and hope, HaTikvah in its broadest, deepest as well as its specifically Jewish sense, I try to ground my feet and settle my spirits when I feel frightened.
There’s much which makes me afraid. I’m not referring to specific, personal fears; I‘m thinking of the challenges which face us all, all humanity together.
On Monday I attended a conference for faith leaders passionate about theology and ecology. It was engaging and full of practical ideas. But the issues are overwhelming. Why have we lost 50% of the mass of all animal life in the UK over forty years? What value do we place on non-human life? What does it mean to be a ‘creature’ amidst other creatures? Do we hear, in the words of Pope Francis, the cry of the poor alongside the cry of the earth?
On Thursday I met a priest from Latakia in western Syria. He runs the Awareness Foundation, to bring hope through education to young people. ‘The war’s an industry’, he said. ISIS trade in weapons, oil, antiquities; destruction isn’t collateral damage, but a deliberate aim’. Syrian Children feel utterly abandoned: has the world learnt nothing from history? ‘We train teenagers to be leaders. For the first day we just listen – to their sorrows and angers. As they became empowered as teachers their attitudes change.’
He was blunt about the hatreds of the region, so often ingrained by politics and implacable theology, – religion perverted into cruel bigotry. ‘Don’t imagine that at the first kind word it’ll all just melt away.’ 
And one listens to people pour out their hearts…
What does one do? I stopped myself short during the morning prayers. There I was saying to God ‘Shema kolenu – Hear our voice’, but what voices crying out on this earth for access to the human heart and conscience was I failing to hear? How many people are there hungry, homeless, hopeless; how many creatures pecking, scrabbling for a worm or a grain of seed in unpolluted earth?
Yet I still believe in the sheer vitality of life, and in wonder. I believe that the uncorrupted spirit experiences joy and awe at the unfurling of the leaves, the alighting of a bird, the sound of children playing. ‘Cruelty has a human heart’ wrote Blake, but I do not believe that it is our deepest, untaught desire to inflict pain. Rather, the bond of life calls out in us to loving kindness, to be on the side of life with all its needs for nourishment and protection. Hatred is not a natural condition, but an affliction of the soul.
I believe that Isaiah’s words ‘they shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain’ are a cry which issues not just from the mouth of a prophet long ago, but from life itself, – a call both silent and tumultuous to intelligence and compassion. That, I believe, is the voice of God.

Theology meets Ecology

I’ve just returned from a wonderful seminar at the Ammerdown retreat centre together with faith leaders who are passionate about the environment.

One might think that after Paris action is all that matters. Certainly, we were all resolved to play our part in keeping government and the leaders of business to account. But action begins at home, with what we do in our own communities, communal buildings and homes. I’m very excited about the launch of Eco-Church, and have invited its creator Dr Ruth Valerio to speak in our community. There’s no reason why eco-synagogue, or eco-mosque, should not be developed along the same green-print.

But the discussions of text and theology were perhaps the most fascinating part of the encounter. Mary Colwell, who makes programmes on wildlife and the environment for radio and television spoke of the ‘catch-up’ theology has to do if it is to embrace a post-Darwin, and post DNA analysis world in which we understand that we share 50% of that DNA with a cabbage. More challenging still may be to reconcile the concept of a ‘good God’ with the presence of that God in a world of nature in which every leaf and tree is a battle ground in miniature in which species struggles with species for survival.

How then should we understand today the promise of ‘dominion’ granted to humanity by God in Genesis chapter 1? Does it point to a power we have exercised to our cost, or does it entail a responsibility of which we cannot become free? After all, do we really believe that all life is equal, and that humans should not be seen as having a special place in God’s ecology? Yet the occupation of that position with ruthless blindness to the place and value of other forms of life, except when sentimentality leads us to see them as ‘cute’, must surely be a crime.

Is ‘stewardship’ an adequate concept for the human role as God’s regent and servant on this earth, or is the expression too feudal, tasting too much of mastery in an age when we realise our constant dependence on even the bee the beetle and bacteria? How do we serve creation? It needs to be through acts of reason, as well as of love.

What then does it mean to be a ‘creature’ in such an inter-dependent world and what responsibilities are entailed? How important is the sense of kinship with all living being, and how is it related to the similar word ‘kindness’, which translates in Hebrew as the enduring covenant of hesed towards all life?

The fact is that certain texts, whether we are conscious of it or not, have over centuries formed the foundation of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Western attitudes to creation, God and life itself. But their anthropocentrism may call for revision, or at least counter-balancing with other, more embracing and inclusive, texts if we are indeed to ‘serve and preserve’ the garden of life, as God enjoins the first man and woman, before setting them in Eden.

These questions will be central to the discourse of humanity and the direction of both theology and ecology over the coming critical decades.

It was wonderful to be among Christians, Muslims and fellow Jews who care equally and passionately about the written text of Scripture and the sacred text of nature, – life in all its dimensions.

Small fragments

I read in this week’s Torah portion about how God promises to deliver the Children of Israel from slavery ‘with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,’ and, in a kind of davka response find myself thinking about Jacob Glatstein’s poem My Brother Refugee:
     I love my sad God,
     My brother refugee
     I like to sit with him on a stone
     And silence him to all my words.
(It took me a while to find the passage. I could remember the image but not the name of the poet, and while searching on-line and came across this verse by Benjamin Zephaniah:
     I come from a musical place
    Where they shoot me for my song
    And my brother has been tortured
    By my brother in my land…)
Jacob Glatstein wrote his poem after the Holocaust; he refers pointedly to ‘the God of my unbelief’ and to ‘my feeble God’ who is ‘human and unjust’.
But, for myself, I don’t think of the God who is ‘my brother refugee’ like that. Instead a host of biblical and rabbinic images come to mind. They may constitute ‘the lesser path’ of Jewish theology, while the more trodden road remains that of the God who is ‘rav lehoshiah – mighty to save’. But they demarcate a path nonetheless. They include such verses as ‘I am with each person in their trouble’ (Psalm 91) and Isaiah’s famous ‘In all their affliction [God] was afflicted’ (Isaiah 63:9). They embrace the image of God who promises to share with the people the uncertain fate of exile and remain close to them wherever misfortune leads them. They have their source in the basic faith that each person contains the ‘breath of God’ breathed into them at birth and that God is therefore the sacred and inalienable companion of every human life.
Glatstein continues:
      My God sleeps and I watch over him
      My tired brother dreams the dream of my people.

I’m not convinced this God is as deeply asleep as Glatstein suggests as, or that God has been transformed into the fabric of a dream, as it must almost inevitably have seemed to the poet in the terrible revelations of the post-Holocaust years. In the history of the Jewish People, and in that of many other peoples; in weeks and months of long, hungry and thirsty pilgrimages; in the flight across borders; in the longing for safety and a land of our own where no one will shoot us for our songs; in all these immortal hopes and struggles for justice and kindness, dignity and respect, my refugee brother God cries out.
It is in fact one and the same God who called to Moses in the burning bush, in the unquenchable fire of his heart, with the promise of salvation and redemption.
I don’t believe in any literal, physical sense, that God reached down from the skies and sent a plague upon the cattle as they pastured by the Nile. But I do believe that tyranny and cruelty destroy countries with the plagues of war, drought, darkness and disease; the evidence is before our eyes. And I believe in the mighty power of the God whose call for freedom, dignity and justice is harboured in small fragments in a million, million hearts.


It’s not Rosh Hashanah today, yet the wider world is waking to a new year and it’s hard not to be drawn into the mood of reflection on times past and times ahead.
It would be easy to list the last year’s terrors and disasters and the current fears with which they leave us. But, while it is neither right nor possible to ignore them, I want to concentrate instead on what has the power to inspire and sustain us in the year ahead.
Life calls out for our compassion, concern and solidarity. ‘If you listen, you will certainly hear’, taught the Hasidic sage Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Lev of Ger, known after his main work as the Sefat Emet, which can be translated loosely as ‘speaker of truth’. He was simply taking the familiar words from the daily Shema meditation ‘Vehayah im shamo’a tishme’u’ and giving them a new twist of meaning: Listen, and you will surely hear: – hear, that is, the voice of God in the most ordinary things, calling us to service.
In front of me is today’s newspaper with a picture of Tima Kurdi. She lives in Canada; she’s the aunt of the little boy whose picture when he was picked up drowned on the Turkish Coast awoke the conscience of the world. She’d been sending money to all her brothers in Syria. It wasn’t enough, she now feels; ‘I wish I had sent more food’. Perhaps then the family wouldn’t have felt the need to undertake their terrible journey. Her words in their pain embody the longing to help, nurture and protect our family, our friends, our fellow human beings, all vulnerable life.
Life can make us hardened, selfish, calculating and cruel. It can certainly be argued that it’s a mark of luxury and privilege if one has the choice to do anything much more than fight one’s own corner. But to someone with an open spirit, another person’s pain, struggle, hope, or indeed joy, tugs on the invisible bonds of fellowship, pulls at a cord attached to one’s heart and conscience, so that one feels, ‘How can I do nothing? How can I exist, and fail to care?’
This represents a different form of conquest from the triumph of force; it’s the recognition of life’s power over us, of life’s strength within us to call us to its service. Perhaps that’s why the words of the Shema ‘If you listen, you will surely hear’ are followed at once by the injunction to serve God with all one’s heart. This means to me not blind obedience to an inscrutable deity, but rather the attentive concern for all life, people first, but also all living beings, which are the manifestation of that vitality, consciousness and mysterious source of wonder which is the tangible presence of God in this world.
The aim is not to dominate life, but to let life inspire, motivate, purify and overcome us. It’s a form of victory beautifully expressed in Pasternak’s poem Daybreak:
     In me are people without names,
     Children, stay-at-homes, trees.
     I am conquered by them all
     And this is my only victory. 
Perhaps the greatest ambition one can have in life is to be more deeply conquered by it, and to serve it more truly.
All around me I see people who proffer such service, who show kindness in a countless proliferation of ways, who respect and tend to life’s vulnerability, beauty and wonder, and they are my constant inspiration.
I want this to be my, and our, motivation in the year ahead.

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