It was the lice comment that threw me for a loop.
Sunday morning started out like a normal Hebrew School day. We opened with our usual Tefilah Circle. Maybe I was a little off my game. The circle had had too many chairs and was a funny shape and I asked everyone to move their chairs and in the process I ended up sitting on one which I never do, since I typically stand in the middle with my guitar. So there I was at eye level with the kids, young ones on both sides of me.
We opened singing Modeh Ani, the morning blessing, as we often do. When it ended I riffed a little on the Jewish custom of beginning the day with gratitude for waking up and getting out of bed.
"Not me," said the boy on my left. "I wish I was still under the covers." I searched for some rabbinic response, how his climbing out of bed anyway was a blessing for us all, but mostly I was noticing how much I wished I were still under the covers too.
"Uh-huh," I said articulately. And I riffed a little more about how in the morning we thank God that we can see, move, wash, dress. And then I asked the children to articulate blessings they were feeling in that moment. I'd done this scores of times with adults with no ill effect.
There was a little lag, and then one girl raised her hand and said, "The rain."
"Terrific. The rain is a great blessing. We need it to make things grow. What else?
Another hand went up. "The flowers are blooming."
"Flowers. Beautiful to look at. What else."
The girl on my right turned and said, "The mosquitoes are out. I keep getting bitten by mosquitoes."
Now here's where things started going off the rails. Because I'd mis-pitched the question. On other days I had tried bringing an awareness of the seasons by asking what the kids had noticed in nature. But today I'd asked them to articulate blessing, which turns out to be a little more adult, more abstract, of a question.
I was not certain how to salvage the mosquito comment. "Yes, I said, the whole world is coming alive, eh? And with the blessing of spring we get mosquitoes. What else?"
A girl across the circle raised her hand high. "At my school we have snakes." She mimed a shudder, as did other children in response.
"Ah, the wonders of nature," I tried.
"At my school," said a boy sitting near her, "we have snakes that kill the deer."
"Yeah, I've seen it. The snakes bite the deer. They kill them because they come into the garden."
We were now clearly careening from Hebrew School to Animal Planet, with me still searching for the brakes.
"Hmmm. Maybe the adults have some blessings to name!" I asked hopefully.
A dad sitting at 10:00 came to the rescue. "Recovering from being sick," he said.
I took a deep breath of gratitude. "Yes, recovering from being sick is a great blessing. Who here has been sick in the last month?" There were lots of hands. "Yes," I said, "there's been a lot going around this winter. And such a blessing to be healthy again."
The girl on my right, the erstwhile mosquito girl, raised her hand with great seriousness. "Yes," I asked feebly.
"You know what's going around my school," she asked.
"Lice. The whole school! Lice."
I now felt like Dante at the gates of hell - lasciate ogne speranza voi ch'intrate. Abandon all hope ye who enter here. The conversation was entirely out of my control now. We were not going to be talking about blessing. In that moment, less than two weeks before Pesach, an outsider listening in would certainly have thought we were discussing the Ten Plagues.
I began to laugh at myself, at my own narrow idea of blessing. Somehow I was in the habit of thinking that unless something looks pretty or feels good or feeds us or cures illness, it doesn't count as a blessing. Maybe the kids had it right! The snakes and mosquitoes and lice were a blessing, even if they didn't help us and even if they were oogy.
Why shouldn't we honor other species without regard to human benefit? We are, after all, just one of almost 9 million species in this biosphere. They are our roommates. Is the fullness of life on this planet not a blessing? And is blessing limited to humanity? Are these creatures not worthy of blessing of their own? Yes, what a blessing for the lice to find a nice head of hair or two at that school!
It's funny how on a planet of 9 million species, we can so readily think of ourselves, and no other creatures, as the ones. As the Earthlings. Imagine how insulted we'd be if aliens finally landed and, calling out, "Hello Earthlings," they breezed right past us to speak with a rosebush.
Over the week I was looking at an oak tree next to our house and it suddenly hit me - not that I didn't know this already, but it hit me in a different way - that the tree and I share DNA. Lots of it. And now that we're all swept up in this DNA-based genealogy craze, it makes this more noticeable. We share DNA. The tree and I are cousins, no matter how distantly, sharing some primordial single-celled great grandmother.
May my cousin the tree be blessed! And blessings on my closer cousins, the lice and mosquitos, next to whom the snake is practically my sister! Blessings on the things that make us smile and the things that make us shudder and the things that nature impels us to swipe away. Blessings on the life-filled world, the paintings of which we refer to as landscapes when, if you think about it, they are really group portraits. Just not of us.
And what are "we" anyway? We now know that in each of our bodies, microorganisms outnumber what we call human cells 10 to 1. Many of these microbes play a role in the machinery that keeps us alive and healthy. So when I say "I," who am I speaking for? Just my human cells? Or for the collective? Maybe the royal "we" is not such a bad way to speak of ourselves, the whole symphony of organism that is each one of us! So blessings on my human cells! And blessings on my microbes! And on all of yours too.
Maybe the real blessing is Earth's insistence on churning out life in infinite variety, churning it out even faster than we can destroy it. What an honor to be part of such a life-giving being!
Of course we don't always experience the world's effusion of life forces as blessing. At seder this week we will name those Ten Plagues on Egypt, including lice and so much more.
So what was this frightening and threatening effusion of life forces that we remember as Ten Plagues on Egypt? Rivers running red with microorganisms, frogs having an exceptionally successful year, lice thriving, insects eating crops. The world described by the plagues might be a changing world, an evolving world, even a rebelling world. But it is a living world. Whatever it is our ancestors or their ancestors witnessed, they passed it down to us as a story of makot, of plagues. The word makah, "plague", is literally a hit, a klap. Like you might slap at a mosquito. Is this a story of Gaia, of the living Earth, slapping back? If so, at what?
Our long tradition understands these klaps as a response to the enslavement of the Hebrews, and perhaps more broadly as a response to enslavement per se. When we enslave, Torah seems to teach, Nature will fight back. And we, as a species, as a culture, have a tendency to enslave everything within reach: land, resources, water, animals, other humans. And as we so enslave, we have begun to feel Gaia's klap ourselves.
But the Plague episode is not our tradition's only text about right living with the world around us, with the nature that we are actually part of, with the 9 million species of which we are just one. Venerable Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches a number of Torah texts as lessons on peaceful and mindful living on the planet. He points to the laws of shmitah, of giving cultivated earth a break from our farming every seven years. It is a lesson in restraint. And there's the story of the Hebrews collecting manna in the wilderness. Except for Friday's double portion, there would only be enough to meet each day's needs. Any extra collected out of greed or fear would spoil and become garbage. Again, restraint is the first component.
And there's another component too, having to do with love. He offers up Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs, which we also recite at Seder, as a model for living in the garden. Song of Songs focuses on a pair of lovers. They plan rendezvous in the orchard. They compare each other constantly to flowers and trees and fruits and animals. The natural world is their vocabulary of love. As I read Shir Hashirim, with this idea in mind, I begin to see more and more. When one of the lovers sings:
בָּאתִי לְגַנִּי אֲחֹתִי כָלָּה
"I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride," we imagine the garden as a wedding site for the lovers - both chupah and marriage bed. But we could also read "my sister, my bride" as referring not to a human lover but to the garden itself. "I have come to you, O my Garden, my Beloved, my Betrothed." How might we live in this world if the planet were our beloved? If the Earth were our betrothed?
There is much we could do in our Jewish practices to remind ourselves of our non-centrality and to honor the vast array of life. When we pray for peace at the end of Kaddish, we now add v'al kol Yoshvei Teyvel to our traditional v'al kol Yisrael, indicating that we are extending our prayer for peace and wholeness to all people, not just our people. But Yoshvei Teyvel doesn't mean "people". It means "those who dwell on Earth". And that must include all of our planet-mates. All life. All 9 million species. So maybe we can begin to think much more globally when we offer those words in prayer! Peace and wholeness: to the trees and grass and microbes and snakes and mosquitoes and even to the lice. We don't have to like every creature to pray for them to be blessed with peace. To paraphrase Fiddler on the Roof, may God bless and keep the lice - far away from us.
Moving out of the center of the planet doesn't mean we must feel small or insignificant but rather that we should feel awe. And it is an invitation to take our rightful and humble place on the planet. As psalmist Mary Oliver writes:
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
I am grateful for the teachings of Rabbi Arthur Waskow and of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z"l. For a wonderful Seder addition, describing charoset as the edible embodiment of Song of Songs, visit Rabbi Art's website here.