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Wednesday, 23 January 2013

To Have Or To Hold - A Tu BiShevat Thought

When Zafra walks past a flower, there are two things that she likes to do - to pluck it or to smell it. Sometimes they're mutually exclusive - she'll sometimes pluck but not smell or sometimes smell but not pluck. Sometimes, she does both, in either order. It's rare that she doesn't at least pluck or smell. But this very simple act of plucking a flower (or not) always leaves me conflicted for a number of reasons.

Very rarely before I can stop her, she actually breaks the law. I know... seriously? If you're in park land then according to UK law it's illegal to pick deliberately planted flowers. Normally, though, this isn't an issue because it's normally wild flowers she goes for, but if something is really pretty then she can sometimes really want it. She doesn't terrorise local parks tearing up daffodils, so it's not normally the law I'm worried about.

What I'm more concerned about is what message she'll get from the flower. Are flowers for her to pluck, take with her and enjoy with the family for a few days (before they wither and die) or are they for her to smell and enjoy without taking ownership? I'm reminded of Shel Silverstein's classic text The Giving Tree which is a clear critique of a utilitarian approach to nature. In essence (at least the way I read the book), it reminds us that we can't just take from the natural world according to our own wishes but, rather, have to live with the natural world. So, I want her to not pick the flower and just leave it be.

And yet, if she can take the flower home, enjoy it, and then watch the consequences of an uprooted flower, isn't there the potential for an even more powerful lesson? A lesson, perhaps, in how short-term pleasure isn't as satisfying as long-term pleasure, or that short-term human pleasure can often come at the cost of long-term existence of nature? A bit heavy for someone not yet three years old but definitely there can be the foundation of that lesson.

Then I think to myself, am I overanalysing this? This is a young girl, not an eco-Rabbi like me, simply living in the moment enjoying nature. Can't I just enjoy her enjoyment? So I put the thinking to the side and just live in the moment as she does. And then she goes to pluck the flower and I instinctively cry out "No!" I can't help it.

I share this personal inner debate on Tu BiShevat because while we may wonder about children, I think there can be no doubt about adults. We have passed so many ecological thresholds already that we cannot continue a utilitarian approach to nature. We have to put our short-term pleasures to the side whenever they contradict the long-term health of the natural world.

For me, Tu BiShevat is not just about celebrating trees or, even, planting a tree and helping us feel like we've offset all our paper usage and carbon emissions for the year (!).  Tu BiShevat has to be a call to re-evaluate our relationship with nature. We can have it in our lives for perpetuity or we can try to hold onto it, grasp it, use it, exploit it for a brief while before watching it wither. Let's have nature exist for it's own sake, not for our own. Let it exist because it attests to its Creator not because it's useful for us. Let Tu BiShevat remind us that our relationship with nature does not have to be utilitarian and exploitative but can be, should be... must be mutual and sustainable.

Chag Sameach!

Monday, 14 January 2013

Symbols of the Past, Present and Future

I was talking with someone the other day and they mentioned the Liberty Bell in America. I made some remark about how when I went to see it, I was one of those wise-guy tourists who loudly says, "But it's cracked!"

When I think about it, though, that isn't my overriding memory of the Liberty Bell. There are two things I particularly remember. The first was the security, the extraordinary security designed to protect a bell. The second thing that I remember was that outside in a street lamp a squirrel had made its home! The lamp obviously no longer worked and the squirrel had brought leaves and the like into the shade in order to make a very comfortable bed. I took more photos of that squirrel in the lampshade than I did of the bell, the actual tourist attraction.

This evening, I just heard that Jurgen Moltmann said that the future is more important than the past. I have much sympathy with that position. And yet the present is more important still. The Liberty Bell is an artefact of the past - an important symbol of freedom but a symbol nonetheless. The squirrel was alive, vibrant, a part of the great web of life. Yet the people around us paid more attention to the bell than to the living, extraordinary being in front of them. You might think "But there are millions of squirrels!" To which I would reply "But there are millions of bells." "Ah," you might think, "but there's only one Liberty Bell." "True," I would reply "but each squirrel is unique, too."

I don't intend to demean the Liberty Bell by comparing it with a squirrel... obviously not! Rather, what I'm saying is that the Liberty Bell is a symbol from the past that affects the present and the future. The squirrel is alive in the present, in the here and now. Although, of course, strictly speaking it was in the past, an event many years ago, and that squirrel may no longer even be alive today. Interestingly, the bell endures, a symbol of enduring freedom, in theory, at least. Indeed, the only way I can blog about this entire event is by reflecting back into the past to try to make it alive today.

So the past is important and can be brought into the present and the future, like the Liberty Bell. It can teach us valuable lessons, such as the importance of Freedom. And yet the past is not alive and neither is the future. Only the present is alive, alive as that squirrel I saw on the same day. Life is something so extraordinary even though we so often take it for granted. It is wondrous, beautiful, and awe-inspiring. Just as the Liberty Bell is a symbol, so, too, is every living being - a symbol of the glory of life, the wonder of existence and the need to never become complacent in the face of pure being. Those are the symbols that none of us can ignore.