December 4, 2015 admin

Faith, light and gardens

Since I first heard my teacher Rabbi Jacobs chant them as he carried the Torah round the silent synagogue before the commencement of Kol Nidrei, the words have always sung to me – ‘Or zaru’a latzaddik, Light is sown for the righteous, joy for the upright in heart’. It’s an image both of gardening – though it was pointed out to me that light comes not in seeds to be sown but in bulbs to be planted – and of the spirit. Faith, light and gardens – it’s no wonder the verse sings to me.
First the light. I’m writing from Berlin. It’s not the only time I’ve been here, but I’ve never before taught Torah at the seminary. It’s a strangely moving experience. My grandfather on my mother’s side came here to study in the first decade of the twentieth century at the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums, the more progressive of the two rabbinical colleges, before being called to the rabbinate in Frankfurt-am-Main.  I’ve read and reread his account of his student years; Wohin, wohin, he begins the chapter ‘Whither has fled the youth that once was mine.’ He and his friends called themselves ‘The band of geniuses’. ‘It was presumably beyond our ability to come up with a more modest name,’ he reflected in his autobiography some fifty years later. 
My great grandfather on my father’s side also studied here, in the 1880s, but at the strictly orthodox Hildesheimer Seminar. He would return to the capital city in 1928 to spend the last decade of his life teaching at his alma mater and as Av Bet Din, head of the rabbinical court, of Berlin. He died in 1937, a blessing perhaps, since his wife Regina perished in Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.
Gone are my ancestors and gone the Germany they loved and in which they felt so deeply at home. Yet the light of Torah and its teachings still burns. Or Haganuz, the hidden light, the mystics called it, which went underground here for so many years. But now it burns once more in the increasing revival of Jewish life.
Thus burns also, often hidden and in secret, the spirit which sustains humanity.  Its flame shines in the individual heart and conscience; its light is the guide to compassion even when the world is filled with the rhetoric of anger and the wounds and ruins which are the inevitable legacy of violence.
It is the inextinguishable nature of this light which is the miracle we celebrate on Chanukkah. Even when it seems there is nothing left to sustain it, only one small jar of oil which can last no longer than a day, it refuses to gutter and die, and neither the world not the human spirit is left entirely in the dark.
Now the gardens. It was a highlight of my career to host Gardener’s Question Time and speak with Chris Beardshaw on the relationship between gardens and faith. Is it the choice of Biblical plants, the creation of a peaceful and secluded place, the opportunity for solitude and solace, or the sheer wonder of growth itself which makes life flourish in a garden? Or is it the very act of planting trees, with the implied belief in a peaceful future of forests and orchards to nourish many generations?
It was nice to have the approval of Dan Cocker, the programme’s producer. ‘Despite the wind trying to upstage us (!) the faith garden feature we recorded in the afternoon was very meaningful. It was refreshing to consider the relationship between gardening and faith…I know it will sound wonderful.’
Whether seeds, bulbs, corms or tubers, I hope light will grow and shine in our world and that, in the words of the prophet Malachai, it will bear  ‘healing on its wings’ for all those hurt and wounded and far from those they love in our world of violence and turmoil.

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