I can’t count how many people tell me they feel closest to God in nature. I often think the same. Not always; because there are times of closeness between people, bonds of listening and fellowship, in which God seems present too.
‘The earth shall rest a sabbath to God,’ teaches the Torah in tomorrow’s portion about the sabbatical year. ‘Like on the Sabbath of creation,’ explains the medieval Bible scholar Rashi.
But on that first Shabbat (whether we believe there literally was such a day, or take this just as an idea) no labour had been performed from which either land or human could rest. Only God had been at work. So that first sabbath was pure appreciation of the wonder of creation.
This remains the essence of every Shabbat and sabbatical year. ‘Stop’, they tell us: ‘look, listen, notice’.
Every Shabbat, Nicky and I walk together round the garden with which we have been blessed. We don’t do so in order to decide what beds need weeding and which plants need pruning (though I admit that we do discuss this). We look at the garden in order to see and appreciate it, to breathe it in: the smell of the rain on the wet leaves, the last of the apple blossom.
The mystics have a beautiful misreading of that verse about the sabbatical year: ‘When the earth rests, it says to us ‘for God’.
When Moses asks to know God’s name, God answers ‘I am that I am’.
Sometimes, we hear the earth itself articulate that ‘I am’. The earth isn’t there just for our use, important as this is. It isn’t there solely for what it produces, essential though that is for the sustenance of life. The earth itself, soil, plant and tree, wild flowers and cultivated crops, is part of the all-present ‘I am’ of the sacred. This name, God’s name, the unnameable sound of being itself, addresses us from the essence of all living things in unending, semi-silent vibrancy. We are prevented from hearing it not because it ever ceases, but because of the noise of everything we do.
Yet it is always possible to regain our attentiveness. To do so, we must make ourselves still and listen; we must liberate ourselves from preoccupation. That is the purpose of Shabbat.
The Torah has a cruel punishment for the failure to observe the sabbatical year, – exile from our land. I believe this is neither more nor less that the plain truth. The failure to listen to nature, both its beauty and its humbling power, risks making us exiles and strangers not only from the earth itself and from other creatures, but from our own soul. We need the sea, the trees, the insects and the plants, not only physically for our bodily survival, but spiritually, to know who we are, to know the God of all life.
Every day we pray for knowledge: the Hebrew term is da’at. I’ve often wondered what this da’at is: science, skills, understanding, wisdom, academic success? All these attainments matter.
But just this week I came across a Hasidic explanation: da’at is awareness of the sacred, of the value of all things, of the presence of God in every life and every person. In praying for da’at, we ask to be the exact opposite of Oscar Wilde’s definition of the cynic: we ask to know not the price, but the value of everything.