Friends, it’s a pleasure to be here participating, once again, in the annual Interfaith service organised by the Brighton and Hove Interfaith Contact Group. Every time we come together from across the city, my spirit is lifted by the spirit of hope, goodwill and mutual respect that we generate in these gatherings. It is vital that we nurture that spirit within us and between us and share it with others tomorrow and the day after, and the day after that. The Brexit debate has divided this nation for over three years now and the threat of climate change puts all our reserves of hopefulness to the test. Meanwhile, the global refugee crisis demands that we continue to welcome those in need of refuge with open hearts and resist the ugly forces of xenophobia.
During the past year, the Interfaith Contact Group adopted the theme of the Tree of Life as an act of solidarity with the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh USA that was attacked on 27th October 2018 by a gun-wielding ultra-right anti-Semite as congregants were gathering for a Sabbath morning service. His blog posts indicated that he targeted the synagogue because of its support for migrants and refugees. Tragically, it was not the last terrorist assault against a house of worship. On 15th March, the worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand were attacked by another gun-wielding extremist in the midst of Friday prayers, and on Easter Sunday, three churches and four hotels in Colombo, Sri Lanka were targeted in a series of suicide bomb attacks. Of course, there have been many more assaults against synagogues, mosques and churches since – not least, in Halle, in Germany, just over six weeks ago, when an ultra-right extremist attempted to break into the synagogue there on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most sacred day of the Jewish year.
It is hard in the face of hate-fuelled violence not to give in to despair. But we must not. The tree of life beckons us to join our hands together around its trunk and shelter together beneath its branches. The symbolism of the tree of life reminds us of our connections with one another and our firm roots in the earth that is our home and that we are committed to protecting. The first reference to the tree of life is found in the Torah in the Book of Genesis, in the account of the Garden of Eden: ‘The Eternal God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there, God put the human whom God had formed. And out of the ground, the Eternal God caused to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food; and the tree of life in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ (Genesis 2:8-9). Specifically, commanded not to eat of ‘the tree of knowledge of good and evil’ (2:17), If we follow the story, which seems to focus on what happens when the first human beings transgress that command (Genesis 3), it’s easy to ignore the powerful symbolism of the tree of life in the midst of the garden. If we become preoccupied with the forces of nihilism and destruction all around us in our world today, we are in danger of ignoring the tree of life in our own midst.
In the Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible, we read that wisdom ‘is a Tree of Life to those who grasp it and all who cling to it find happiness. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace’ (3:18). The liturgy of the Torah reading service which includes this verse when the Torah scroll is returned to the Holy Ark [aron ha-kodesh] identifies ‘wisdom’, hochmah, as Torah, the ‘teaching’ of the Eternal One. Whether one prefers to think in terms of ‘wisdom’ or ‘teaching’ – or, indeed, imagine the tree of life in another way – let us take up the invitation to grasp it with both hands and to plant trees for the sake of the Earth and all the forms of life that inhabit this planet with us; our only home.
I would like to close by singing the verse from Proverbs (3:18) together with the penultimate verse of the Book of Lamentations (5:21), both of which accompany the closure of the Ark doors at the end of the Torah reading service. I will sing the verses more than once, so please follow the words you can see on the screen and join in with me, when you feel comfortable.
It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and all who cling to it find happiness. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all of its paths are peace.
Return us to you, Eternal One, then we shall return, renew our days as of old.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Interfaith Contact Group Annual Service
Stanford Avenue Methodist Church
24th November 2019