The Torah of Nature

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh - January 2010]

I am essentially a city (or city-ish) boy. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, a brand new suburb, paved over a cornfield, where the trees were all saplings chosen simultaneously with the color of house paint, and whatever fauna had once frequented the fields had been officially turned out. It was an orderly and safe place, where nature was kept at bay. I remember our excitement when the first rabbits moved in, and then the squirrels; and our dismay at the first opossums, which seemed like science-fiction versions of the rats my parents had left behind in the city.

I now live on Sonoma Mountain which, though far from being Wilderness, has been my first chance to notice Nature's constant voice. I've begun to learn the futility of planting water-guzzling imports instead of California natives. I've begun to appreciate the deer's grace and the jackrabbit's speed and the bobcat's caution. I've witnessed the destructive power of a single branch falling from a tree that was far bigger and older than I. I don't exactly feel like an intruder here, but I definitely feel like a novice.

As Diaspora Jews, we've been forcibly separated from Nature through our history of confinement to shtetlach and laws prohibiting us from working the land. We conceive of Jewish life and Jewish culture as being urban. Our prayers, after all, happen indoors.

But our texts do not require this, and those who go outdoors to pray find new life breathed right into them. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav used to require his Chasidim to take walks in the woods, and to pray their hearts not in Hebrew, but in whatever words naturally came to them as they walked under the branches and leaves.

We have another tradition, often overlooked, that has come down to us, and sits right on Page 704 of the siddurim sitting in our sanctuary. It is called Perek Shira. It is an assemblage of some of our most magnificent nature-based quotes from Psalms, Song of Songs and other Biblical books. But Perek Shira takes the extra, imaginative step of putting those quotes in the mouths of the animals, plants, rivers and mountains themselves, so that we hear all of Creation praising Creation. Our texts are moved out of the four walls of synagogues and yeshivot and are universalized -- as the voice of the Universe. So, for instance, the line from Psalm 96, "Then shall all the forest's trees cry out for you before The One," is re-set like this:

The trees say: "Then shall all the forest's trees cry out for you before The One."

Such a simple addition. "The trees say." But as it shifts the praise-filled voice from us to the trees; it invites us to be smaller -- to be just one voice in an infinite chorus of praise that constitutes the World we live in.

This is the text that Rabbi Shefa Gold will teach us during her weekend here at the end of January. She will bring her musical gifts, which Jewish communities around the globe have relied on for decades now, and her unique way of connecting song and text and Earth and spirit, to give us this teaching which she developed while on a pilgrimage to the Galapagos. We all know from the coverage of last week's Copenhagen conference the delicate balance upon which the Earth turns at this moment, and our own vulnerability when we think of ourselves as apart from or better than the Nature that gave birth to us. Perek Shira is one tool we may use to strengthen our resolve to heal the planet and ourselves.

Let's spend some time this month being aware of the world around us, as we prepare for our weekend with Shefa Gold. I look forward to seeing you there.