Thursday, September 29, 2022

Rosh Hashanah Evening 5783/2022: Let the Earth Teach You Torah

Tomorrow, as on every Rosh Hashanah, Jews everywhere will proclaim, “Ha-yom harat olam—Today the world was born!”  We will celebrate with apples and honey and the sounding of the shofar.  Yet one guest will be conspicuously absent from the party—the birthday girl herself.  Instead of feting the earth that houses and sustains us, we confine our New Year concerns to our Jewish lives—missing the mark and making teshuvah, what we’ve done and failed to do.  While these matters are, indeed, important, our narrow focus on ourselves is deeply problematic.  After all, the world is 4.5 billion years old and home to an estimated 8.7 million species of flora and fauna, not to mention the countless seas and sands, peaks and plains.  Our human existence amounts to the blink of an eye.  And from the perspective of the mountains, to which the psalmist raised his eyes for help, our vaunted Jewish history is but a watch in the night.  


How and why have we come to this place, where our Rosh Hashanah rituals largely ignore the holy Creation they purport to acclaim?  

It wasn’t always this way.  In the beginning, and for most of our history, we lived in intimate reciprocal relationship with the More-than-Human World.  Our planet was enchanted, a living ecosystem of plants and animals, rocks and rivers, inseparably bound with one another. Our biblical ancestors conversed with snakes and stones, marked time by the circle of the seasons, and reveled in mountains and brooks that sing for joy and leap like young rams. Of course there were also devastating storms, deadly disease and dangerous predators—but they, too, were part of the animistic earth we all shared together.

With the rise of Greek philosophy, this changed.  Hellenism gave us many gifts, from the foundations of modern science to the Passover seder.  But its disenchantment of nature came at a high cost.  Aristotle reconfigured our mutual relationship with our environment into a hierarchical Great Chain of Being, with humans on top, manipulating the lower-tiered animals, plants, and minerals.

With the scientific revolution, the Western world grew even more alienated from the Creation.  While most indigenous cultures maintained the old ways, Europe abandoned them.  Rene Descartes conducted torturous experiments on animals, who he insisted were unthinking and unfeeling automatons.  Newtonians drew a strict distinction between mind and matter, with us as actors and the rest of the world inert stuff to be acted upon.  Hence the perspective that dominates our culture to this day, which envisions nature as a collection of objects rather than a communion of subjects.  

For the most part, the Jewish world followed this path.  We turned away from rabbinic and kabbalistic texts that celebrated other beings as embodied souls or nefashot, fashioned, like us, in the image of God.  While our greatest sage, Moses Maimonides, insisted that the Holy One did not form the world for humanity’s sake, we nevertheless enthroned ourselves as kings and queens over a diminished Creation.

And so here we are today, lost and lonely residents of a planet brought to its knees by our unsustainable lifestyles.  Our estrangement from the natural world is sickening both ourselves and our environment.  Author Richard Louv defined our modern malady as “nature-deficit disorder.”  And here’s how native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko diagnoses the Western worldview in her book Ceremony:

They see no life.  When they look

They see only objects.

The world is a dead thing for them. . . 

The deer and bear are objects.

They see no life.

They fear.

They fear the world.

They destroy what they fear.

They fear themselves. 

Living this way, it’s no wonder we fail to invite the world to her own birthday party.


But all is not lost.  Slowly but surely, a new paradigm is emerging that marries a stunning, cutting-edge approach to the life sciences with the rich and ancient spiritual vision of an animistic earth.  Twenty-five years ago, eco-philosopher David Abram published his pathbreaking book The Spell of the Sensuous, which teaches that our humanity is inexorably formed in concert with the More-than-Human world. Abram notes:

Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth—our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese.  To shut ourselves off from these other voices. . . is to rob our senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence.  We are human only in contact and conviviality with what is not human.

Scores of recent scientific discoveries corroborate this insight.  Thanks to ecologist Suzanne Simard and her students, we now know that trees and grasses communicate constantly with one another, sharing information and resources through vast underground fungal networks that many now refer to as the “wood wide web.”  Genetic research reminds us of the kinship of origins and substance that we share with all living beings.  Rigorous medical studies show that our bodies, minds and moods benefit significantly from time outdoors, interacting with the More-than-Human World.  As the eminent biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her best-selling book Braiding Sweetgrass:

We are all bound by a covenant of reciprocity: plant breath for animal breath, winter and summer, predator and prey, grass and fire, night and day, living and dying.  Water knows this, clouds know this.  Soil and rocks know they are dancing in a continuous giveaway of making, unmaking, and making again the earth. . . all flourishing is mutual.  The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken.

Or, to put this in philosophical terms, we are moving from Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” to the South African wisdom known as Ubuntu: “I am because we are.”


Over the past year, this paradigm shift inspired me to become a forest therapy guide.  But there’s no training required to re-orient relationship with our living planet and the beings with whom we share it.  You need not be a scientist, philosopher, or naturalist to affirm that all flourishing is, indeed, mutual.  There are many practices that lead toward that end.  As the poet Rumi taught: There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Leave your phone behind and walk a forest trail.  Or wander, wherever the woods and wild places take you, for to wander is to re-kindle wonder, which is the beginning of awe.  Have a conversation with a spruce or sagebrush, a rock or a river—you need not go beyond your own backyard to discover what Shakespeare named as tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.  Take off your watch and shoes and sit outdoors in silent solitude.  Drive a little out of town, turn off your lights, and enjoy the glory of the dark night sky.  Watch birds—or fish or frogs or any other of the countless miraculous creations that surround us every moment of every day.  Such experiences are a form of teshuvah, returning and re-enchanting us, as they fundamentally shift the way we see the world and our place in it.

The paths and possibilities are limitless—you can choose one that’s well-trodden or blaze your own.  As Mary Oliver so eloquently put it in her short poem, “Instructions for Living a Life”:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.


As for individuals, so, too, for the Jewish people as a whole, with whom we gather across the globe on this joyous day—the seeds of our return to right relationship with the More-than-Human-World are already sown within the sacred wisdom of our tradition.  Our collective calling in this decisive hour is to cultivate those seeds anew.

At every Jewish funeral, we pray that the soul of the deceased be woven into the web of life—v’yitzror b’tzror ha-chayyim et nishmatam.  That prayer powerfully affirms our commonality with all of the Creation; our challenge is to not just die but live by this truth for all our days.

How might we start?  Perhaps by making Shabbat a bigger part of your week, to take a break from the technology that so frequently forms a barrier between ourselves and the natural world.  Come Sukkot, build a sukkah and eat out under its canopy.  Plant trees for Tu B’Shevat and parsley for Pesach.  Nurture gratitude by reciting blessings over rainbows, rivers, and shooting stars—and the food that sustains you.  Follow in Solomon’s footsteps and learn the language of birds—crows and ravens communicate in astonishingly sophisticated ways.  Join us in Kathryn Albertson Park for tashlich later this afternoon. Or just step outdoors and breathe, because to breathe is to praise the Holy One and the Creation.  As Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes: 

The name of God, YHVH, for which we usually substitute the term Adonai, is actually the sound of breathing.  We breathe and the trees breathe.  We breathe in what the trees breathe out.  And so we breathe each other into existence. . . 

Long ago, God urged Job, “Let the earth teach you Torah”—it’s time we return to this wisdom.  Let us now listen and learn.


Which brings us back to today, Rosh Hashanah—Ha-yom harat olam—the birthday of the world.  At first pass, our liturgy for this occasion doesn’t much feel like a celebration of the Creation’s miracles.  How many shall pass on and how many will be born; who shall live and who shall die—it’s not exactly candles and cake.

But these prayers, and others like them, can, indeed, express a heartfelt commitment to our covenant of reciprocity with the wild world—because they address not only Jews or humanity but all beings.  To recite these weighty words is to affirm that we are all bound up with one another, for the answer to the question they ask—who shall live and who shall die—is all of us—plants and insects and animals, mountains and rivers, the whole of Creation.  We’re all born, we all die—and after we die, we’ll live again, for we are all stardust, ever re-imagined and re-formed, inseparably woven into the web of life.  As Walt Whitman told his readers:

If you want me again, look for me under your bootsoles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good help for you nevertheless.

Today, with reflection, reciprocity, and deep humility, we call ourselves into being, together with the More-than Human world. For even as we speak, our shared earth is being born as it ever will be, again and again.  It is delivered through the unending song we sing in concert with all of God’s Creation. We hear that music today in the sound of the great shofar, in the still, small voice that follows, and everything in between.

So let us join the joyful chorus of all beings with whom we share this precious earth:

Zeh hayom asah Adonai nagilah v’nis’michah bo—

This is the day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!


1 comment:

Andrea said...

Braiding Sweetgrass is a favorite read of mine and I immediately recognized Rabbi Fink's reference to resprocity within our natural world and all living and all matter. Allowing the earth to teach us is honoring the earth and we can and do rejoice in this day. How refreshing!
Thank you for this poetic prayer Rabbi Fink