God in the Garden

Because the rabbis said ‘Be happy when the Hebrew month of Adar begins’; because last week (and often) I’ve written on painful subjects; because people are – rightly- thinking about coronavirus and how to take sensible precautions; for all these reasons I’m going to focus on what brings many of us more joy than virtually anything else: the young flowers of the coming spring. Hopefully there’s a park, a garden, a city square, a row of trees, even a window box nearby for us to see the crocuses and daffodils.

The Hasidic teacher Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl notes that we read in the Torah about the making of the Tabernacle at the beginning of Adar. ‘Make me a holy place and I will dwell among you,’ says God. ‘A-dar,’ the rebbe explains, is composed of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, which symbolises God; and dar, which means dwell. It’s the month when God says, as it were, ‘I want to live with you. I’m near you, next to you; move over and give me some space.’

And where is God to be found more than in a garden, a park or among the hills and forests?

So please follow, along the path into the ordinary glory, so ordinary I literally don’t notice it many mornings. Here are the last of the snowdrops, their bells pure white, soon to retreat into their tiny bulbs and await underground until the January darkness calls them up to harbinger a new season.Daffodils-RJW-cropped

Here are crocuses, purple sentinels. Here are the daffodils with their bright yellow grace, and narcissi with their scented, many-headed flowers. There are early-bird December daffodils and late-comer May daffodils and there are ‘midwinter-spring’ February daffodils. But, most of all, there are ‘we love March and April’ daffodils, bringing joy when the mornings are once again light and the air smells of sweet rich grass and growth.

Pink-Catkins-RJW-croppedIt’s near to the close of the catkin season. ‘Touch them,’ I was tBeige-Catkins-RJW-croppedold as a child and I still remember my fingers being guided onto the soft silver of the willow-buds. Only silver? There are black willow catkins and pink willow catkins. The hazels and the alders have their catkins too, like tassels, yellow with dust-fine pollen.

More secretive are the primroses, Primroses-RJW-croppedhiding in the hedgerows in the countryside, thriving in semi-dark corners in the gardens. The wild kind are my favourite, not gaudy orange, but cream; simple in their single flowers, modest like the snowdrops, their wake-up-early neighbours.

I’m glad when I see the birds among the branches: blackbirds, ground-feeders, hopping down from a twig onto the grass; a wren on a stone; the air thick with the to-and-fro traffic of the blue-tits by the seed feeder, defying an upside-down squirrel; the sparrows making a modest comeback, bringing hope that other species too may one day return if we care for and protect them as we should.

These are all just small things. But they’ve changed my attitude. I used to think that the world was for me, for us, we human beings. Now I feel that I belong to the world, that I’m part of its far wider and deeper, incomparably richer and more nuanced communion of which I only understand a very tiny portion.

In the depth of it, in its music, and in the silence beyond the music is, A-dar, the presence of the God who dwells here, the life-giver of all things, wonder and the source of wonder.

The problem is not always God’s absence; the problem is our awareness.


After the terror attacks in Hanau

Like all of us, I feel disgusted and disheartened by the racist murders in Hanau. Our hearts go out to the grief-stricken, the wounded, their families and all who’ve been traumatised by this outrage. My thoughts are especially with everyone who was in Halle on Yom Kippur, and all people, wherever in the world they are, whose haunting memories of witnessing or being near victims of terror are reawakened by this latest outrage.

The terrorist killings in Hanau are an attack not only on those who lost their lives, and not only on the groups against which they were aimed: the Turkish community in Germany, as well as refugees, Muslims, Jews, all minorities.

They are an assault on the soul of society, against its heart, against the principle of togetherness itself, against the fact that we are all humans on this earth, that we need each other, that we should and must support each other, and that without such solidarity and cooperation we cannot survive, cannot thrive materially or spiritually and cannot pursue lives of happiness, dignity and value.

European history, and the history of the Jews of Europe above all, testifies to the brutal, shameful, bloody calamity of race hate. But history alone, without vigilance, is a singularly unsuccessful instructor.

Society is most vulnerable to attack at its periphery. That is why the Torah commands us over and again to respect and protect the ger, the newcomer, the outsider, the person who is different. Samson Raphael Hirsch, who fought for equal rights for Jews across the German speaking world, described the ger as liable to being accorded

no rights to land, home, or existence, and towards whom everything was consequently regarded as permitted…

Therefore, beware, he warns,

lest in your state you make the rights of anyone dependent on anything other than the simple fact of their humanity, which every human being possesses by virtue of being human.

Yet every society throughout the ages has struggled to embrace such a universalist vision.

There are indeed limits to how many people a country can welcome, and it is reasonable for any state to regard its primary responsibility as caring for its citizens. Any society, community and individual needs a sense of identity and belonging.

The danger begins to grow when we begin to define our Us by a Them; when we project onto that Them our fears and prejudices; when we use that Them as a tool in an ideology of supremacism and exclusion; when we legitimise contempt.

Regarding perpetrators like the murderer in Hanau, it is probably impossible to know whether racism incubates their hatred, or whether their hatred finds a nurturing home in Neo-Nazi racism.

Whatever the case societies, including our own, need to be vigilant not only in intelligence, policing and the protection of vulnerable community, but also in challenging racism and hatred in public policy and discourse, in every domain of civic life, in communities and in schools.

Whatever the opposite of race-hate is, it needs to be fostered everywhere, not excluding with us, in our actions, words and thoughts. That’s why so many of us believe in and are committed to working with people of other faiths and in other communities, meeting, learning, even planting trees, together.

Hanau is very close to Frankfurt, where my grandfather served as rabbi for thirty years. When, after fleeing the Nazis in 1939, he returned to the city in 1950 to rededicate the Westend Synagogue, he prayed for a different future. I echo his prayers today.



Valentine’s Day and Hesed

I realised yesterday as I bought my bunch of early daffodils at a stall in Camden Town, that I’d interrupted the saleswoman from her task of tying up single red roses in pretty paper.

February 14 is not a fixture in the traditional Jewish calendar. But Valentine’s Day does have its ancient equivalent, Tu B’Av, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, when girls would dress in white and dance in the vineyards where the watching boys would choose partners. It was hardly an egalitarian set-up.

Judaism believes in love. As the wedding blessings show, Hebrew has an extensive vocabulary for romance, affection and fellowship: ahavah, love; achavah, closeness; shalom, peaceful togetherness; re’ut, comradeship. The Bible affirms the magic of passion, as when in The Song of Songs, the whole world is glorious, alluring and full of wonder.

But the greatest love word of all is hesed. No translation feels adequate: ‘loving-kindness’ is too ponderous; ‘faithful kindness,’ while more accurate, sounds pious; just ‘kindness’ seems too commonplace.

But kindness is what the word means, or tenderness, or faithfulness, the enduring, life-long, heart-felt commitment to treating others with warmth, compassion and proactive concern.

Hesed applies most closely towards those with whom we are most close. In intimate relationships it doesn’t exactly refer to passion, but it does express the thoughtfulness, affection and appreciation which differentiate love from lust.

In relationships between children, parents, grandparents and close family, hesed is all those little things –favourite foods, whats-apps about ‘how’s your day’, hugs, notes with the right message at the right time, allowances for our moods – which make us feel safe, loved and cared for, which make the difference between loneliness and home.

But hesed is not just a pretty term for those lucky enough to live inside cosy bubbles.

‘The world is built on hesed’, wrote the author of Proverbs, presumably intending this as a prayer rather than a statement about reality. Those are the words on the foundation stone of our synagogue. They are the base-line of our values: they express an attitude, a determination, a will to make the world different, especially in an environment which feels more cruel, hard-hearted and brash towards so many.

Hesed is present when, like Barbara Stern, you semi-retire and devote yourself to Home Start because so many local children don’t get breakfast before school and have no one to help with their homework and give them a decent chance in a competitive world. Hesed is when the man filling shelves in the store doesn’t just answer her question, but accompanies the lady with the white stick to where the rice is and asks her which kind she wants. Hesed is when any government, anywhere, doesn’t just say it cares but allocates budgets and acts because it really does care, and believes that the country is a safer, better and stronger place because of it.

Hesed is the essence of creation. It’s a basic rabbinic view that God made the world from and for the sake of hesed. The trouble is that this simply doesn’t appear true. In a cruel, self-devouring world the evidence just isn’t there.

That’s why the words of Arthur Green speak to me so sharply:

The flow of life as we experience it is morally blind… But as humans we are here to direct that flow of life, to lead the divine energy in the world in the direction of compassion… The divine energy flows outward from the Source, through the complex and multi-pronged evolutionary process, and into us… We, by adding to it the insight and act of compassion, send it streaming back to the One, our gift in gratitude for the gift of existence itself. (A Jewish Mystical Theology)

Hesed is the latent possibility in every relationship, every encounter. Through love of life and love for life, even in the smallest acts and simplest words, we make it real.


Let’s Plant

For two millennia Judaism has had its own Arbor Day, Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees.

I don’t know when the love of trees begins, when you first kick the piled autumn leaves and watch in delight as they scatter, when you collect your first conkers, put acorn cups on your fingers, climb for the biggest, most elusive apple, dare the dark forest and find it full of wonder, or listen like Keats to the birds which sing amidst the ‘beechen green and shadows numberless’. I believe everyone has a favourite tree.

We need trees and trees need us. We need them for our spirit, for our very life.


The Hebrew root siach means both ‘shrub’ and ‘meditation’. Forests, gardens, indeed solitary trees, are wonderful companions in prayer. I love to listen to them. They silence the arguments in my head and speak to my soul. Trees, like all life, are a dwelling place of God.

The rabbis taught that when a tree is cut down, a cry goes out from one end of the world to the other, yet nobody hears.

That’s not entirely true. Our friend Heather, who had cancer, would walk daily to the corner of her street to be with her beloved tree. ‘They cut it down,’ she told us sadly one day. Soon afterwards, she died.

We’re learning to listen to the loss of our trees. We need them, physically, economically, ecologically, emotionally and spiritually. The authors of the Bible, the early rabbis living close to the land and the kabbalists understood this at every level.

I used to think that the first trees mentioned in the Torah, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, were two separate entities. But to the mystics this was not so; they were one and the same. Knowledge of good meant awareness of the vital, sustaining spirit which flows through all creation in the great rhythm of life, death and new life. Evil meant the weaponization of knowledge to exploit and destroy the leaves and roots of life’s tree.

Judaism encourages us to enjoy the fruits of that tree of life, but only with respect and humility. To consume without appreciation or blessing, is, in the Talmud’s words, the wrongful misappropriation of God’s gifts.

We need trees and trees now urgently need us. Across the faiths, on the internet and media, are numerous projects for planting and rewilding, such as the search-engine Ecosia whose users have planted 83 million trees. The figure goes up as you watch.

Judaism has an ancient tradition of nurturing trees. Two thousand years ago, challenged for planting carobs, which would never bear fruit in his lifetime, Honi the Circle-Drawer explained that he’d found the world with trees and intended to leave it so for his children.

Today, we need to leave it with trillions more than we find it. This applies from Britain, among the least forested countries in Europe, to the global south; from the diminished Caledonian forests to Madagascar and the Pacific Islands, whose very future depends on how we rewild and mitigate climate change. The destiny, too, of countless wild plants, insects, birds and animals is in our hands.

Communities of all faiths are responding. Ruth Valerio, who consulted me about Jewish sources when she wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2020, Saying Yes to Life, describes the moving relationships between UK churches and rural communities in Peru who are personally planting thousands of saplings to preserve both nature and their livelihoods.

We must do no less. That’s why JTree.global has been rooted, here in the UK, in the US, with further young branches in Israel and Canada. It facilitates planting through environmental NGOs who work with local communities, sustainably and ethically. Our New North London target is 50,000 trees. Please join us!

As Kohelet said, ‘There’s a time to plant’. It was never so urgent as now.


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