This land is shrunk (an accidental sermon)

I foolishly forgot that I’m not supposed to be leading a service tonight, so wrote a sermon for it anyway. Unfortunately it’s a topical one so can’t be recycled next year, so enjoy it while it’s fresh:

I’m fed up with all my local parks. And local walks. And local streets. For eight months now I’ve been taking my daily exercise on the same routes and I’m bored of them. And I’m lucky enough to have the Hampstead Heath Extension on my doorstep. But I’ve done it now.

So it was extremely exciting to read earlier this month that the Ramblers’ Association has discovered more than 49,000 miles of rights of way and public footpaths that have been lost from the maps.[i] If these lost routes are all restored to the official listings, the network of paths in England and Wales would grow by around a third.

How can a footpath just get forgotten? They might not be busy thoroughfares, but surely enough people used them that they couldn’t just drop out of our nation’s collective memory? How can the total amount of footpaths in the country just shrink by a third?

But it turns out the rabbis foresaw this possibility.[ii] In a discussion about which hillocks should be presumed impure, because they might contain graves, we read: “Mounds which are near to a city are impure [because this is exactly the sort of place where people would bury their dead]. Mounds which are not near to a city: recent ones are pure, but old ones are impure. What counts as old: Rabbi Judah says, ‘Old enough that nobody remembers [when it was made].’” The concern was that there might once have been a city nearby, a city which buried its dead in the now-unmarked mound in the middle of nowhere. And people might have forgotten that this city ever existed!

The fact is, land use is incredibly transitory. More transitory than any of us would care to think about. There are ghost towns all over the world which were once thriving centres of human life, and – due to war, famine, natural disaster or just changing economic circumstances – are now empty and falling to pieces. And how many of us have had one of those, “Remember when that building used to be Woolworth’s/ a cinema/ a pub before they turned it into a block of flats?” type conversations?

When we fail to use and enjoy the land, we forget it. When we forget it, our country shrinks. When our country shrinks, we don’t notice immediately; it happens bit-by-bit. But it just takes a short lockdown – and eight months is relatively short in the grand scheme of things – to run out of interesting roots, and then our freedom shrinks too. Out of our own indolence. Use it or lose it!

The land of Israel shrunk too, apparently. In this Shabbat’s parashah, we read God’s great promise to Jacob: “I am the Eternal One, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring.”[iii] The Talmud explains that this gift included the whole of the country: “The Holy One rolled up the entire land of Israel, and placed it under Jacob.”[iv] This is lovely symbolism, but frankly it’s also necessary in order to make the verse meaningful. If Jacob had literally been given only the actual ground on which he actually lay, we would be forgiven for wondering – as did the commentator Rashbam – “This is a little sparse!”

Then again, it may be self-defeating symbolism. By coming up with the fiction of the rolling-up of Israel, the rabbis didn’t make Jacob as big and great as the land. It made the land as small and meagre as Jacob.

We set the boundaries of our land and we determine the size of our land. Maps showing who owns what are, ultimately, irrelevant. Promises and bequests and sales and shares too. Ultimately, when we go for a stroll somewhere new, when we roam where we have never roamed before, we broaden our horizons. We enlarge our lives.

This month, we learned that England shrunk. But we can enlarge it once again. Kein y’hi ratzon: may this be God’s will.

Notes:

[i] Patrick Barkham. “More than 49,000 miles of paths lost from maps in England and Wales”, The Guardian (2 November 2020): http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/nov/02/more-than-49000-miles-paths-lost-maps-england-wales

[ii] m.Ohalot 16:2

[iii] Genesis 28:13

[iv] b.Chullin 91b

4 comments

  1. Land does disappear; it’s a fact. Whatever happened to Tanganyika, or, for that matter, what became of Bechuanaland?

    1. I don’t think either of those pieces of land disappeared? They got renamed, sure (Tanzania and Botswana) but they’re still there and – for the people who live and work there – far from forgotten.

  2. 1) there’s probably not a piece of land in civilized regions where there are not dead buried, and not just in hillocks, but on flats, in forests, in caves, etc. Wherever you tread, there’s possibly some human bones beneath your feet. 2) Land disappears, in natural disasters like floods and earthquakes. How many cities have by now been found on ocean floors? 3) Land, in a another sense, doesn’t disappear, it’s countries, nations, civilizations that disappear. 4) And last but not least: borders are artificial, they get slung around by history like pieces of thread. I do enjoy your column.

  3. Lest there is any misunderstanding I should say that my initial comment was tongue in cheek…Land does sometimes disappear though, see the case of Dunwich in the 13th century. That was ‘shrinkage’ on a disastrous scale.
    What does fascinate me is our attachment to certain places and how that feeling of attachment may wax and wane depending on how development of the environment occurs through human intervention.

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