The full moon, the freezing ground part covered by snow, the dark branches against the sky, – it’s been a beautiful night for the beginning of Tu Bishevat, the New Year of the Trees. Though it feels this season as if the festival belongs more to the winter than the spring, the snowdrops are out, humble and beautiful in gardens and hedgerows, and there are even some primroses and early daffodils too.
I was in the New Forest on Sunday, out early on the moors with the dog, saying Birkot Hashachar, the dawn blessings, the first part of the morning prayers. I had just reached the sentence, ‘and grant us favour, kindness and mercy in the eyes of all who see us’ when a large pony began to walk slowly towards me. It didn’t pause at a safe distance; rather it came right up to me and, far from afraid, pointed its ears forward and snuffled at my face. Sorry to be caught empty-handed, I remembered that I had an apple in the car and quickly went to fetch it. I felt happy to have been granted favour in the eyes of this horse, who evidently understood Hebrew perfectly. Far too often we instil fear and suspicion, to the extent that most birds and animals rightly flee at our approach.
The Jewish attitude to nature cannot be summed up in a single sentence. But there are certain general propositions. ‘The earth is God’s and all that is in it’ (Psalm 24:1): the world belongs not to us, but to God. The Talmud construes the blessings we say before eating as a form of asking permission: ‘God we acknowledge that this food is yours; please allow us to enjoy it’. In so far as the earth, with its mineral resources, agricultural potential and wealth of species is given over to us, this is understood as an act of trust, inviting a response not of exploitative greed, but of concerned stewardship. The challenge for humankind is how to enjoy and share the benefits of nature, while protecting its fragility, beauty and diversity. We are strictly forbidden to destroy. On the contrary, protecting species and planting trees are commandments and a famous rabbinic saying teaches that we shouldn’t stop even if the Messiah arrives and finds us in our garden, or planting trees in Israel, or with the Woodland Trust, or writing out our donation to Tree Aid.
But to the mystic this is not enough. Our relationship with the natural world is not about ‘them and us’, however friendly we try to make the ‘and’. We belong to one life. The same vitality which gives breath to me also gives breath to that horse; we are different manifestations of the same divine consciousness. The nature of our awareness, the manner in which we participate in the life of all things, and the way in which we will be gathered back into God at the end of our days, – there processes may be different. But God, or whatever name we give to this endless unfolding of being throughout the universe, has animated us both, together with all people, all the animals and even all the trees.
Therefore the gentle approach of this horse makes me happy. I have been allowed to find favour in its eyes and together we participate for a rare moment in an act of worship: we belong to you God, together with all this world of grasses and shrubs, birds and trees, people, deer and horses.