The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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‘No racist bone in my body’?

Are we the people we like to think we are?

The Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, this Sunday, marks the beginning of the Three Weeks culminating in Tishah be’Av, the Fast of the Ninth of Av, during which our rabbis ask us to reflect on sinat chinnam, gratuitous hatred, and the destruction it leads to across the world.

President Trump provided a shocking example of such conduct when he told four congresswomen to ‘go home’. His comment exceeded the level of disdain to which there is a risk that we may have grown dangerously accustomed. It showed, in addition to its racism and sexism, precisely that contempt for democracy, that readiness to attack and try to undermine the very processes and institutions which brought him to power, which Yascha Mounk so disturbingly describes in his book subtitled ‘Why Our Freedom Is In Danger’.

Such words, let loose from the very top of the social hierarchy, have an incalculably injurious after-life. At a rally in North Carolina, the crowds chanted to their hero President, ‘Send her back; send her back’. One does not have to agree with everything the congresswoman may have said to appreciate the outrageous injustice and terrible consequences of fanning such populist hatred.

Yet we learnt this week from the President himself that he has not a racist bone in his body. So, at least, he appears to have claimed. He is far from being the only political leader on the current world stage to maintain that he cannot possibly be a bigot, xenophobe, misogynist, Islamophobe or anti-Semite. Some may simply not care; others may be under intractable illusions about themselves: ‘What? This can’t be me! I’m not sexist. I’m not a racist’.

It’s easy to see such self-delusions in others, harder to acknowledge them in ourselves. Most of us want to be the people we wished we were. We are all susceptible to the dangers of configuring the stories of ourselves accordingly: ‘I didn’t really mean…That wasn’t the real me…’ Who else was it then?

But we are not judged solely by the claims we make about ourselves. Nor are we judged only by those who love and may therefore flatter us. We are also judged by those we hurt. Therefore, if we have a conscience we will want to listen to what they have to tell us, not because it’s pleasant or convenient, but because it may be precisely from them that we have the most to learn.

Of course, the accusations may not be justified. But if we have integrity and self-respect we will at least listen, then filter them in our heart and conscience.

If, however, we maintain our denials, we become responsible for all the further wrongs which are likely to ensue. If we occupy positions of power, be it as parents, teachers, religious leaders, politicians or presidents, we are answerable for the cultures of dishonesty, disingenuousness, bullying, repression and intimidation which may well follow. Far from being an acceptable excuse, dis-acknowledgement constitutes an abdication of responsibility which adds insult to injury.

Few verses from the Prophets are as widely quoted as Micah’s rhetorical question: ‘What does the Lord require of you? Only to love kindness, act justly and walk humbly with your God’. It has never struck me before how significant it is that these should be the words we read on the Shabbat which every year exactly precedes the commencement of the Three Weeks.

If we want to avoid causeless hatred, we need to ask ourselves regularly and often if we are treating other people, whoever they are, with fairness and compassion. We need to consider whether we are listening to God’s voice as it expresses itself through them and if we are allowing it to humble and to teach us.

 

The only illegitimate choice is to do nothing

It was noisy where I was sitting with X, a professor of Jewish Studies from America, for a chat and a snack. So I thought perhaps I’d misheard when he said: ‘I understand the Germans better now’.

But I hadn’t got it wrong. I sensed at once what he meant: German people in the Hitler years weren’t the only ones to carry on with their lives and not get involved when evil was happening at – and within – their borders. We’re capable of doing that too. It’s not a pleasant thought to let into one’s mind. Of course, there are radical difference in degrees of evil, the paralysing effect of fear and, no doubt, many other factors.

‘There are children of five and under’, my friend continued, ‘separated from their parents in detention centres near the US borders, living in their own excrement. The physical and mental trauma will never go away’.

Next day I received an email from a friend, now in another country:

We have a choice to see how today’s events pan out in history. Get out there, fight for [the democracy] we have. We cannot stand quiet. Make it clear there is a side for good and a side for evil. If alternatively you prefer to get that hoped for role of Kapo in the future state where all those moaning do-gooders like me will finally shut up about all those things that annoy you (Human Rights anyone?), please defriend me.

I wouldn’t have used exactly that language (you should see some of the political comments which, as a rabbi, I left out). But I feel no less strongly.

For two thousand years our teachers have understood the danger of moral indifference. The rabbis took the Torah’s instruction ‘You may not stand idly by your brother’s blood’ as a commandment never to be a mere onlooker in the face of evil.

Evil is not endemic in our society. But it has roots, and shoots which look like growing: ignorance among the rich and comfortable of the life of the poor; hostility to ‘outsiders’ (not excluding Jews); contempt for the environment; shamelessness and disdain for truth and integrity in high places; unbridled consumerism for which our children will pay the real price.

Good is also all around us: letters and emails from organisations and individuals courageous in compassion pour through my letterbox and into my inbox. As the Torah says: the choice has been set before us.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once thought he’d spend his life as a spiritual teacher, serving ‘in the realm of privacy’. Three considerations changed his attitude. The first was the inability to sustain inner stillness in the face of what was happening around him. The second was ‘the discovery that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself’. The third was the impact of the outspoken moral courage and visceral compassion of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, on whom he wrote his PhD in Berlin, precisely as Nazism was tightening its hold on power:

There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of the dream of honesty.

I think of these words alongside those which the biblical Mordechai passed in secret to his protegee Esther at the critical hour in their shared destiny, knowing even as he did so that it would be hard for her to act on them: ‘If you remain silent now…’

There are innumerable issues which go to the heart of justice and compassion. The only illegitimate choice is to engage with none.

 

What do Green Shabbat and Pride have in common?

I am pulled in two directions. In London, this Shabbat is Pride; it is also Green Shabbat across all UK Jewish communities as part of the capital’s Climate Action Week.

These are very different subjects and to mix them risks offending everyone. Yet, at least for me, there are deep commonalities.

I stopped for a coffee while taking Mitzpah to the dog osteopath. I sat on the grass and took out one of my favourite Hasidic works, Derekh Hamelech by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira. The book fell open at the following passage, as if the text knew exactly what I needed to read:

…Speech comes from the soul… it is only when the listener is able to understand the soul of the speaker, only when his soul is close to the speaker’s soul, that he truly hears.

The rabbi then turned to the world of nature: animals and birds understand each other, but we humans fail to comprehend them because we regard ourselves as higher beings and are not close to them in spirit. It’s not surprising, therefore, that we don’t hear

the call of all the worlds, every level of creation…crying out constantly that God is one…

I sense this ever more deeply the older I get, often to my shame: there is a great symphony of life to which we belong but to which we do not listen.

Because we refuse to heed them, we do our partners in life’s music the most terrible harm. We must learn to listen again, to the wind and water, to every living thing which sustains the life on which we too depend. We need to do so fast.

This has nothing to do with Pride. Except that I cannot be alone in appreciating that here too there needs to be a journey of listening.

When I was asked to help our community decide whether to conduct same-sex marriages, I was stopped more times than I can remember in corridors, corners, even on the underground, and the conversations almost all began like this:

Can I talk to you about how this feels to me?
I want to tell you about my daughter…
This is what happened to our close friend’s son…

I don’t want to convey the notion that the LGBTQ community is a ‘them’ for those of us who are not gay, and that we form a totally separate ‘us’. I wish to communicate something quite different. There is a symphony of life, to which we all belong. Whatever my own melody, whichever my own notes, if I disregard part of the music I both fail to appreciate its gifts and I myself am also incomplete. I would address any form of prejudice in this manner, including in myself: it hurts others, it shrinks my own heart.

I was moved by Alfie Ferguson’s poem in the leaflet prepared for the Jewish group at the UK Black Pride event, celebrating LGBTQ Jews of colour:

Who am I? Another Black soul like you, walking this earth the best way I can…
My Jewishness is me, the same as my Blackness is me, as my queerness is me.
The connection is so strong, honouring family, ancestors and pioneers.

People may think my priorities are wrong, too green, too whatever… There are many ways of describing life’s ultimate purpose. To my mind, the most important matter is to deepen and expand our hearts, to broaden and make brave our deeds, in compassion for all of life, in ceasing from hurting and striving to heal. I believe this is what serving God means. In that task I look every day for teachers and companions.

 

 

The Torah teaching of elephants

‘The way elephants help each other inspires me and I’ve learnt so much from them over the years…How I wish our planet was run by elephants’.

These words do not come from a commentator on the current political scene, but from Francoise Malby-Anthony’s wonderful account: An Elephant in my Kitchen.

No, I’m not going to write about ‘elephants and the Jewish problem’, just about elephants. I’ve never had an elephant in my kitchen, or my synagogue, or got close to one, though I have been in many rooms where they were purportedly present.

It’s been a week full of challenges; the marriage in hospital on Tuesday of a wonderful and wise friend who knows with good grace that she’s close to the end of her life; the faiths’ lobby for the climate on Wednesday; the terrible truth of a father and daughter photographed dead after trying to cross the Rio Grande into a different future…Through all this, that book about elephants and rhinos has spoken to my soul.

I’ve no excuse, no specific connection with this week’s Torah portion, for writing about elephants, except perhaps that the twelve spies sent out by Moses were terrified by the giants they saw in the land, though there is no mention of the latter possessing trunks. Or, perhaps, that in Perek Shirah, the mediaeval tract which ascribes a song to every creature, the elephant chants ‘How great are your works, O God’, a verse which, incorporated into the daily prayers, is a constant reminder to love and not destroy God’s world.

Francoise Malby-Anthony is a cosmopolitan Parisienne with a good job in the city who gives it all up after falling in love with Lawrence, a South African, to join him in creating a wildlife reserve for elephants, rhinos and their orphaned babies, Thula Thula, an oasis of safety amidst the horrors of poaching.. When Lawrence suddenly dies, she has no choice but to rise to the challenge and manage the place on her own. She is sustained by her deep love for the animals and their evident recognition of her.

After the scattering of her husband’s ashes, Francoise returns home sore at heart to find the whole herd of elephants gathered by the fence surrounding her homestead. There they stand, a natural minyan, a loving, loyal quorum, in quiet solidarity. On the first anniversary of his death, the elephants gather there again. How they know the date is a mystery belonging to a domain of intuitive knowledge we humans may never fathom.

The orphaned babies, rhinos and elephants, need bottles, blankets and, above all, love. They too experience post-traumatic stress. One baby rhino who saw his mothered slaughtered, suffers a terrible setback when he himself is shot. He recovers from the flesh-wound, but only physically, not emotionally. A carer has to sit with him for many days to prevent him from ending his life by submerging his head in a lake to drown his anguished heart.

They never abandon them, Francoise writes, describing how the elephants take orphaned infants into the herd. Hillel’s words ‘zil gmor – go learn,’ come to mind.

I am not proud to belong to the species which hacks these majestic and deeply feeling animals to pieces.

I fear they may be ivory decorations on a pair of rollers on which one of our Torah scrolls is wound: no doubt they date from the days when we still failed to realise how wrong killing for ivory truly is. If so, I want the ivory removed.

The Torah, God’s teaching, is Torat Chaim, a Torah of life and lovingkindness. We may have much to learn in this regard from creatures of whom we once thought that only their teeth and horns were of value.

No, Francoise’s book hasn’t made me want an elephant in my kitchen. But it has made me want to help preserve them alive, and keep them in my heart.

 

Don’t put out the light: the flame of all life in our hands

I often find myself worrying about the very first word of tomorrow’s reading from the Torah. It’s easy to translate it as ‘When you kindle’. The context is God’s commandment to Aaron and his descendants to light the lamps on the seven-branched Menorah.

However, beha’alotecha doesn’t mean ‘when you kindle’ but rather ‘when you cause to ascend’. On one level, it’s the same idea. You only have to think of the action of getting a reluctant candle to catch light, of straightening the wick with the end of the match so that the tiny flame can find its nourishment in the melting wax and burn bright and straight.

But on another level the word evokes something much deeper, which the rabbis expressed in an epigrammatic four-word Midrash which expands to embrace the very purpose of our lives: ‘Neri beyadecha, venercha beyadi – My light is in your hands, and your light is in mine’, says God. This saying has become to me a byword for responsibility, faith, even love itself.

God’s light is in our hands in innumerable ways.

Last night, here in South Wales where Nicky and I have travelled to celebrate a wedding, a hare got caught in our headlines. I was terrified of hurting it. Walking in nearby paths, the scent of honeysuckle in the hedgerow arrested us. A pair of blackbirds flew low across a lane. This country has lost over 90% of its meadows since the war; it’s among the lowest in the entire world in the preservation of its native species. Even a minyan, a quorum of bees, is God’s light in our hands.

I’m reading Francoise Malby-Anthony’s account of creating a wildlife reserve in South Africa: An Elephant in my Kitchen, in which she describes the almost impossible efforts to protect young elephants and rhinos, close to extinction, from poachers.

Today the light of all nature is in our care. We can let it ascend, or crush and kill it forever. There’s nothing which isn’t at stake.

Still, ‘my light is in your hands and your light is in mine’ finds its most intimate context in our relationships with one another.

We are here to enable each other’s light to ascend. The true teacher sees the pupil’s potential, sometimes even before she does herself, nurturing the flame until it gives light of its own accord.

Being a true friend means caring for the light in his or her life. Close relationships are not about seeking to benefit from, but cherishing, loving the flame in the heart and mind of our partner. Nowhere is this trust greater than in parenting and caring for children: their tender light lies truly in, and at, the mercy of our hands.

How shameful it feels to fail to appreciate and respect these lights, let alone be driven by wilful disregard, envy or enmity to dim and diminish them.

In the Temple, the Menorah was placed in the kodesh, the holy precincts, lighting the route to the kodesh hakodashim, the holy of holies, the most intimate space where God’s presence hovered invisibly over the ark of the covenant. The holy of holies in any life is always private, secret often even from ourselves. The Menorah illumines the path towards it.

Beha’alotecha, – in enabling each other’s flame to ascend, we can help one another find our way to what is most holy of all, the very source and wonder of life itself, in faithful trust and love. For we are responsible for each other, and all God’s creation.

 

90 Years Since the Birth of Anne Frank

Last Wednesday was the 90th anniversary of the birth of Anne Frank, 75 years since the last birthday she reached before she and her family were betrayed.

I have in front of me a small book, really a pamphlet, called Kinder der Naechte, Children of the Nights. I’m sure I’ve written about it before. On the front is a picture of letters, maybe a name, carved into what looks like a cellar wall, with the date, 1940. The booklet was published in the 1960’s, in Frankfurt, Anne’s place of birth, ‘for pupils of 13 and above’.

I almost threw this meagre item away when clearing their bookshelf after my grandparents died. Fortunately, I chanced to open it and saw that a note had been pasted in: Otto und Fritzi Frank, mit sehr herzlichen Gruessen.

Anne’s father must have given it to my grandparents after the war. The families knew each other from Frankfurt, where both Anne and my mother were born. Only, Anne’s family fled to Holland. Who ever imagined it would be overrun in mere days? My family reached England. Who knew then that it would survive, at first little aided, but uninvaded, and win the war?

I’m ashamed to say that I never read the book – until now. On page 32 there’s a letter from 12-year-old Bernard, dated Paris 18.7.1942

They’re looking for me. Yesterday morning they took Papa and Mama away. I’d gone to get milk; when I came back a neighbour quickly pushed me into his cellar. He told me that every evening he’ll bring me food for the whole day. He’s going to try to get me to his brother in the country. Jojo, if something like this happens to you, don’t lose courage. I promise you I’m not sitting here with my head hanging low…

Jojo is Bernard’s 16-year-old cousin in Toulouse.

At a gathering hosted in Parliament, Tim Robertson, chief executive of the Anne Frank Trust, reminded us that it was not the words of a politician, religious leader, general, financier or celebrity which had most deeply touched the heart of the world, but that of an ordinary, gifted, articulate teenage girl:

I will make my voice heard, I will go out into the world and work for mankind. (April 11, 1944)

Anne could not have known the sad manner in which her voice would reach the lives of hundreds of millions. But reach us it has; and it’s up to each of us to hear.

Our community should be proud of the work of The NNLS Destitute Asylum Seekers Drop In, (and other ways such as Refugees At Home or OSH, Our Second Home) in which we listen and offer support to those whose experiences of persecution are beyond our knowledge and imagination. Still, we need more financial support and fresh volunteers.

Most of all, we need more compassion. Of course, every country has limited capacities for absorption and a primary duty of care to its own citizens. But that does not mean that unaccompanied children should be left destitute, desperate and in danger; or that thousands with well-founded fears of persecution and death in their countries of origin should find no resting place, no heart open to their suffering and no chance to build a future.

The coming days, 17 -23 June are Refugee Week, with its theme of You, Me and Those who Came Before.

A Christian couple helped my mother’s family when they fled to Britain from Nazi Germany. We now, the great majority of us, have safe homes. We have the capacity to assist.

Generation after generation, refugees have sought the hands of others – and not always found them outstretched. Who knows what the future will bring, whose great-grandchildren may need help from whom? Perhaps the ancestors of those whose hands our descendants may need are right now stretched out in hope towards us?

In words given prime-time in the Jewish year, the morning of the Day of Atonement, Isaiah stated simply: ‘Lo tuchal lehit’alem – You are not at liberty to hide yourself away’.

 

D-Day and a Torah of Life

Torat Chaim, – a Torah of life’: these words keep going through my mind as I think of yesterday’s commemorations of D-Day, and of the world and its needs today.

BBC Radio 4 news was absolutely right to conclude its broadcast with the words of veterans: ‘My friends who were hit lay in the water, face down. We could do nothing to help them. I’ll never forget them’.

It’s simply true: they died so that we could live. They risked their lives, poured out the irreplaceable ‘sweet red wine of youth’ and lost their lives in the cause of life itself, fighting a culture at the core of the ideology of which was death: the mass murder of millions deemed ‘unworthy of existence’. One thinks of how Ann Frank marked the advance of the western allies, for so many critical weeks so painfully slow, on the family’s map in the secret annexe. Would life or death reach them first?

Last Sunday was Yom Yerushalayim. I remember as a boy of nine my father phoning his sisters in Jerusalem, overhearing him repeat ‘They’ve sent the children home from school’. I’m still in touch with the two boys of my age whose parents sent them to stay in London, because they feared the worst. Many, only a few years older, gave their lives in that city, may the day come soon when it is surrounded by true, enduring peace.

For years, I took groups from Noam camp in France to see the Normandy beaches. We would go to a small cemetery, hard to find in the narrow lanes connecting the villages and farms behind Sword beach. I’ve always been moved by the words on the graves of soldiers whose names could no longer be identified: ‘Known unto God’. This simple phrase expresses the refusal to consider any life ever as without value.

On one grave in the British military cemetery at Bayeux, where yesterday’s main commemorations were held, I saw just the one word ‘Mitzpah’. Considering the Biblical context, I think it meant ‘I, your wife, will treasure your memory forever; and you, look after me from heaven’. Our dog of that name was in the car. ‘Maybe that soldier loved dogs’, Nicky said, and we stood there thinking not just of the violent death that young man had encountered but of the life, the fun and joy of life, which had been stolen from him.

So today, we who have inherited life, freedom and the trusteeship of a world for which so many died: what do we owe? How can we duly, truly honour life?

The close of Shabbat will usher in Shavuot, celebrating the giving of the Torah of life. This Torah opens with a poem, a paean, a celebration of creation, from the first unfolding of light, to the trees, birds, animals and human. Each and every element, from land and water upwards, has its natural integrity; each and every human being carries the innate dignity of bearing the image of God, creator and lover of life.

Our generation too must fight for life, in every sphere of existence. We need to challenge hatred, racism, anti-Semitism and the denigration of others wherever and in whatever sphere we encounter them. We need to value and care about one another’s lives, from refugees from terror to whoever lives in our street. We need to care for the homeless and destitute and those who feel no hope. We must cherish and rewild our landscapes and our world, so that we stop killing off the millions of plants and animals with whose future’s our own continued existence is inextricably intertwined. We need to consider and change our habits of unreflective consumption which are poisoning the very elements, of creation, water, air and earth.

It is such a beautiful world. So many who died so young would have given so much just to stare at a hillside, to see their children bathe their feet in a stream. All the Torah of life asks us to do is to love life and respect it, in faithfulness and service.

 

75 Years Since D-Day

Like all of us, I am mindful today of the great courage of so many hundreds of thousands who fought on D-Day and across Europe for our freedom.

I’ve been many times to the Normandy beaches and visited the military cemeteries. I’ve stood by the graves marked with a Magen David and looked up in the carefully kept record books the short entries about the lives of those soldiers. Many were refugees from Nazi Germany, advised to change their names before going on active service so that, if captured, they would be treated as British prisoners of war, not as Jews.

I’ve thought often about the inscription ‘Know unto God’ and of the families who never received the small comfort of knowing at least when and where their sons died.

The American memorial on Omaha beach, where the bitterest battles were fought, offers an especially moving film. It doesn’t only feature the bravery of the landings. Rather, through interviews with families of soldiers who were killed, it focuses on the lives they would have led if they had survived to return to their homes.

The familiar words are simply true: they died so that we, our grandparents, parents and children, could live in freedom.

Earlier this week was Yom Yerushalayim. I remember my father waking me in the night to tell me that the Old City, where several of his friends fell in 1948, had been captured.

For those like me who never served in an army, the courage and resilience of those who fought for the freedom of others, risking death and terrible injury, is unimaginable.

We must never take for granted the peace and freedom for which so many died.

 

On revelation: God in the supermarket

Shavuot, just nine days away, is the festival of revelation, of God’s giving the Torah.

I’ve experienced revelation; I suspect we all have. Of course, it’s not the grand kind, with God’s voice emerging amidst thunder and lightning. It’s the little kind, easily overlooked or discounted.

There’s the moment when I turned into our driveway and saw a little boy with his grandmother staring at our garden. They seemed nervous, as if they oughtn’t to have stopped so long and were about to be told to go away.

But they’d reminded me of how, when I was a small boy, my father took me for a walk soon after my mother had died. As we passed a plant nursery the owner came out; he and my father exchanged quiet words, then the man gave me a pot with a yellow primrose.

I lowered the car window and asked the child to choose the flower he liked best. He spent a long time deciding, before settling for a tall daffodil which I cut and gave to him.

It was that man at that nursery who helped me do what was right, fifty-five years later. He revealed to me a glimpse of that reservoir of kindness from which a constant river flows just beneath the surface of ordinary things, passing through the human heart. He showed me a path to its banks.

Or there’s the night before our teacher, Rabbi Jacobs, passed away, may his memory be for righteousness and blessing. He was in hospital in town. The family were all gathered there; it was a Friday night and I didn’t know what they had to eat. ‘Fruit’, I thought, ‘People do eat fruit at such anxious, loving vigils.’ Veronica Kennard helped me locate three nearby greengrocers.

I called the first number and explained. ‘I can do you a basket’, the man said. ‘And deliver it?’ ‘Yes’. I got out my credit card. ‘It’s £xx for the fruit’, he said. ‘And delivery?’ I asked. ‘I understand why you are doing this. It’s important. I wouldn’t dream of charging.’

The fruit arrived promptly. To my great sorrow, when I wanted to write and thank the man, I realised I’d lost the contact details. If by the remotest chance this reaches someone who recognises ‘that was me’ I thank you truly, and for more than the free delivery. You showed something deeper than the material fabric and materialist transactions which dominate this world.

Or there’s the rush-hour moment at the supermarket when the frail elderly lady in front of me reached the head of the queue. Despite impatient customers, the woman at the till greeted her with ‘How are you today, my darling?’ helped her put three small items in a much-used bag, and, when she handed over her purse saying ‘I can’t manage’, carefully counted out the exact amount, so that everything was open and fair.

Or when Heather, much missed, told me that her best therapy in her cancer was to walk around the corner and talk to her loved tree…Or when…Or when…

These in many ways ordinary experiences scarcely amount to God speaking from the mountain top. But to me they are far from unimportant. They show how the smallest interactions can be manifestations of love, kindness, faith and trust. So trivial they can easily be missed or dismissed, they testify to something gentle but tenacious, simple yet sacred, which unites us.

Maybe that’s why the Torah doesn’t just say ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, but ‘Love your neighbour as yourself, I am God’. For in such moments, something of God is revealed.

How can we hurt this earth as little as possible?

I look out of the windows of the train. (I’m travelling to Berlin for my termly teaching there, determined to go at least one way by train and cut my use of planes). We enter the flat lands of Brandenburg. In the fields are many horses. I glimpse a foal, an eager shake of mane and tail, then it’s gone. Or rather I’m gone, in this ridiculous way we speed across the world.

Ki li ha’aretz, ‘for the land is mine’: I often think about this short sentence which we read in the Torah tomorrow. It’s the explanation for the sabbatical year. The land is not left to rest to increase its yield in the six other years of the cycle. Its not left fallow for humans to have time off. It’s left, – left for the benefit of all that lives including wild animals and domestic, foreigners and citizens, home-owners and homeless – because it belongs to God. In the sabbatical year there’s no place for ‘No trespassers’ signs, except in so far as we are all tres-passers, passers through, passers across, God’s world.

God’s world? I’m more of a mystic than a Maimonidean. For the latter, the world is God’s work. To know God, study it and its very structure will lead you from the physical to the metaphysical, from what you see to what lies beyond what can be seen, the invisible, unknowable, unchanging, unbounded creator.

But to the mystic God is within as well as beyond. They love to quote the Zohar: ‘No space is free of the wonder of God’. There’s nowhere it isn’t possible to wake up and say with Jacob after his dream of the angels ascending and descending between earth and heaven: ‘There’s God is in this place – and I hadn’t realised’

Around midnight in Berlin, a city I now love but by which I feel haunted, I go running. I pass the statue of Frederick the First at the entrance to 17 June Avenue, its towering victory column in the central circle and the Brandenburg Gate at its close. I pass too the Russian tanks, survivors of the final battle for Berlin in 1945, at the Red Army memorial and see half a kilometre away the outline of the Reichstag.

God isn’t the only one who ever said, ‘The land is mine’. In the Bible, the prophet Ezekiel puts these words in the mouth of the archetypal tyrant, Pharaoh: ‘It’s my Nile and I made it’. What did he think he was saying? Rashi explains: ‘By my might and through my wisdom I increased my greatness and my power’. Small bronze plaques to more recent victims of this monstrous tyranny are set amidst the Berlin cobbles. I almost tread on a group of them: ‘Deported; murdered; deported’.

I see myself back on the train, looking out of the window. We exit the forests and pass once again through farmland: fields to a distant tree line, a huddle of calves. I think of Blake’s poem:

Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead…

Okay, they’re not lambs – to whom the verses are addressed. But they’re no less innocent. They’re lucky calves. Their air and earth is as clean as it comes in Europe. ‘Dost thou know’, I wonder, what awaits you after this field?

I’ve always loved the vistas of this earth. In my earliest memory I’m looking out from the upstairs room my father built alongside the carpenter to extend our bungalow outside Glasgow. I can see a field and horses. I think I’ve always felt somewhere in my soul that it’s God’s earth, though I’ve often failed to realise: there’s always been wonder in the leaves, the fallen rhododendron flowers from next door’s garden, which I put on the ends of my fingers.

I can reach only one conclusion. Yes, we may live off the land. But it’s God’s. How, then, can I hurt it, and the creatures who live with us on it, as little as possible?

 

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