January 22, 2016 admin

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.

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