‘Up there on the hillside are trees we planted six years ago. We put up a nesting box and a pair of barn owls took up residence within the month. If it wasn’t raining so hard the skylarks would be out in a chorus.’
I’m with James from The Woodland Trust, exploring the square mile of Surrey they’re re-foresting, one acre of which we’ve helped to plant through JTree.global*. (A square mile has 640 acres; Surrey is 190,000 square miles; one acre equals about 750 young saplings) A soggy Mitzpah dog looks up at me, ‘Can we go home now please?’ (At least he’s had half a day away from that upstart puppy who’s cheekily intruded into his household.)
There are oaks, rowans and beeches, the most recently planted scarcely peeping out above the tubing which protects them from the marauding deer. There are fallow fields: ‘We’re letting these re-wild. There are a few sheep grazing to take the excess nutrients out of the soil so that the chalklands can one again produce their native orchids.’
Next to a community orchard of apples, plums, pears and cherries are rows of life-sized wooden soldiers, a memorial for the centenary of World War I: it was here on Epsom Downs that Lord Kitchener marshalled troops before they crossed to France.
Creation or destruction: that’s where we stand now as we recommence reading the Torah. ‘In the beginning God created:’ to the rabbis, especially the mystics, that process is never complete. Day by day, sacred energy flows through the world, re-animating and filling anew with wonder the light and dark, the rivers, trees, animals and humankind.
But only five columns later in the Torah God, frustrated by the wilful selfishness of humans, wants to destroy everything. Life only escapes by a pinhead, the entirety of biodiversity adrift in a tiny ark, afloat on an endless ocean.
But it’s not just God who stands at the centre of the drama; it’s us. Which are we, destroyers or creators? The rabbis termed humankind ‘partners with God in creation,’ applying this to when we practise justice and keep Shabbat, pausing from gain-seeking to honour and appreciate our world. But they were also well aware that we are wreckers and ruiners, applying the commandment ‘Do not destroy’ to an ever-widening circle of wanton destructiveness.
So who are we, and who should we be?
There are many fascinating interpretations of the verse ‘God said, “Na’aseh adam – Let us make humankind”.’ The key question is: to whom is God speaking? Here are some classic suggestions:
– God consults the angels who say, too late, ‘Don’t do it.’
– God asks every person, ‘Let’s work together to make you into a truly human being.’
– The animals ask God to create a creature who can speak on their behalf.
But it’s a different insight which has caught my conscience this year: Don’t read ‘God said, “Let us make humankind”,’ but rather ‘God said to humankind, “Let us make”.
God wants us to be creators, creative, custodians of creation. God wants us to care for and cherish this world. More than that, God needs us to do so. Wonder, beauty, a sense of the sacred – these come from the divine. But the daily work of living faithfully by this instruction – that task belongs to us.
That is why I committed our community to planting a tree for every word in the seven days of creation. Never before in human history has it mattered so much to be co-creators and not co-destroyers.
That is the critical, urgent choice we all must make, individually, communally, nationally and across humankind.
*JTree.global is a project of Eco Synagogue, which is supported across all the denominations and has had strong backing from our community.