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Shabbat B'Chukkotay

20 May 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

One morning, a few weeks ago, I discovered a large nest resting on the branches of the holly bush, whose branches reach out over the drive I share with my neighbour. Little attempt had been made to conceal it and I wondered at its vulnerability and the ease with which predators might steal its contents.  Over a few days, I stood underneath the bush, watching the still head of a bird sitting on her eggs.  On one day, I discovered two birds fussing over the nest, a few feathers flying.  But recently, everything has gone quiet. The nest remains, but no evidence of any birds, let alone eggs or hatchlings.  I don’t know whether a squirrel or magpie or another predator has made off with the eggs before they had a chance to hatch.  Or whether the chicks emerged and just didn’t make it and the parents have gone off to make a new start?  The empty nest remains abandoned and whatever promise of new life there might have been, is no more.

Nature can be predatory.  The Egyptian geese in the park hatched five goslings a few weeks ago, now there are just three, almost as big as their parents.  We mourn their loss, but I wonder about the geese themselves; do they weep over their offspring?  Are there bird rituals that acknowledge their loss and help them to care for their surviving chicks?

Perhaps we project our own sense of loss on to the creatures around us.  We see a world in mourning when, in fact, our creaturely neighbours simply get on with life.  Driven out of their home, the birds of the holly bush have, no doubt, found another place to lay their eggs – I hope – a safer, hidden, non-accessible spot, away from the prying eyes and antennae of their predators. 

This week’s parashah, B’chukkotay, forms the conclusion to the Book of Leviticus and includes the list of ‘blessings and curses’ – the blessings with which Israel will be rewarded if obedient to God, the curses for disobedience.  Each one of the blessings is related to the land: rains in their season, abundant produce and trees yielding fruit, enough food that threshing will overtake the vintage and vintage overtake sowing. And peace - God will grant peace in the land and the earth will find respite from vicious beasts; God’s presence will rest on the land and in the midst of the people. 

And the curses will wreak misery – disease, drought, famine, wild beasts, warfare and desolation of cities and the land around them.

Rashi (1040-1104), drawing on an ancient midrashic commentary, notices the order of blessings at the beginning of this parashah.  You might think, he says, that abundant rains providing water and food is enough for human beings to live well.  But if there is no peace, all this is nothing. That is why the Torah states after these promises, ‘I will grant peace in the land’ (Leviticus 26.6).  From this we learn that peace counter-balances everything.

Our global food system is battered by the war in Ukraine, as well as Covid-19, the climate catastrophe and what the Economist calls an ‘energy shock.’ What we have felt in the west from the cost-of-living crisis is just the edge of what those in the global south will experience unless Russia’s war in Ukraine does not cease soon - countries on the brink of famine, children who will die of starvation and political unrest which will destabilise those states already vulnerable to conflict and turmoil.

The Torah’s mandate for human beings to ‘follow [God’s] laws and faithfully observe [God’s] commandments’ is a directive to the world to work together to ensure the poorest receive grain and food and receive debt relief.
But ultimately, it is only peace that can help to avoid such a world-shattering crisis. Here, we can only pray for nation to cease lifting up sword against nation, so that cities can be rebuilt, food circulate freely and fairly, and families and communities, mourning over their losses, can rebuild their broken lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright 

Tue, 24 May 2022 23 Iyar 5782