Whispering… With Trees

orange treeOnce upon a time, when the earth was bare, when no grasses filled the field, water swelled and rose until, finally, it found release, a place to flow out and over the earth.

Waters of life gave life. A human was born and the breath of life came into this human. With this breath, Targum Onkelos says, humanity was granted speech: “And the Lord God created the human of the dust of the earth and breathed upon the human’s face the soul-breath of life and, [then] the human had a spirit for speaking.”

A garden grew of the water and the earth, a garden Torah calls eden, “pleasure.” In the very center the Holy One placed the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and bad.

Imagine these not as two separate trees but as one — one singular tree of life and wisdom. Our Torah is both, so Tanakh tells us. Etz hayyim hi, Torah is a tree of life to those who uphold it (Prov. 3:18). Rabbinic tradition has long identified Lady Wisdom, who describes her own presence at God’s side when the world was created (Prov. 8: 22-30) as Torah.

Wisdom is the source of life. The two are bound together.

In Genesis 2:5, we read: When no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted… Genesis Rabbah tells us that that while the first three words of the second creation story may seem to read “no shrub was in existence” we should understand the passage quite differently:

No one to converse with, siakh, in the field (Gen. 2:5). All trees converse (mesikhim), as it were, with one another. Indeed, one may add, all trees converse with mortals; all trees [were] created to provide fellowship for mortals (Gen. Rabbah 13:2).

The rabbis translate siakh not as “shrub” or “bush,” though that seems natural enough given the context. Instead they read its homonym, also formed from the three-letter root sinn-yod-chet. Multiple possible meanings present themselves, including “to ponder, to reflect,” “to concern oneself with,” “to meditate with thanks and praise,” “to talk, discourse,” or even “to whisper.”

In Genesis Rabbah, humanity wakes up, breathing into a world that will include whispering, speaking trees. In another rabbinic vision, the tree of life is a canopy for knowledge. Life is the source of wisdom. The two are bound together

In the Garden of Eden, in every one of its recesses, there are eighty myriad species of trees, the least of which is more beautiful than all varieties of spice trees. Sixty myriads of ministering angels sing sweetly in each recess of the Garden. The tree of life is in the center, and its foliage spreads over the entire Garden of Eden. The tree has five hundred thousand kinds of fruit, each differing in taste; the appearance of one fruit is not like the appearance of another, and the fragrance of one not like the fragrance of another. Clouds of glory hover above the tree, and from the four points of the compass [breezes] blow at it, so that its fragrance is wafted from world’s end to world’s end. Under the tree sit disciples of the wise, explaining the Torah. Each of them has two canopies, one studded with stars and the other with the sun and moon. Between each pair of canopies there is a curtain of clouds of glory. Beyond each canopy there is Eden, in which are three hundred and ten worlds. (Yalkhut, Bereishit)

Our story may have divided one ancient story of one tree into two. Humanity has relied on binary categories to organize the world, sets of opposites and oppositions. Male and female. Black and white. Heavenly and earthly. Material and transcendent. Spiritual and religious. Them and us.

But we all know that such oppositions confuse rather than clarify. We all know that there is no such thing as race and that we are all related. We all know that we can’t place people on the opposite sides of any category and call it quits. We all inhabit and travel on a spectrum where our culture, our color, our gender, our age, our education, our everything may shift with time or inclination.

This world – and humanity itself — is made for fluidity, not for rigidity.

Imagine we had created our stories with wholeness, rather than separateness and separation. Imagine we had created all our stories and all our human histories by the light and guiding image of one tree to converse with, a tree of wisdom and life.

Then, go outside into the created world. Whisper.

From Regret to Joy – A Yom Kippur Journey

Flame_Apophysis_Fractal_FlameAlmost exactly fifteen years ago, my father-in-law, Willy, took a decided turn for the worse. Willy’s wife, Evelyn, had nursed him for over five years, hardly leaving their apartment except for necessary errands.

That fall, my husband, Ralf, was getting ready to leave for Germany to guest lecture at the university in Ludwigsburg. Just two weeks before Ralf was to leave the United States, Willy was hospitalized. Because of his father’s illness he planned to go to Hagen, first, where his parents lived.

Ten days before Ralf’s departure, Evelyn, called to let us know that Willy had become unresponsive. He did not recognize anyone, even his own wife. He could not talk. Still, Evelyn told us, he might come out of his present state.

We knew Ralf would be leaving soon. We assumed we had time.

Evelyn called five days later. Ralf wasn’t home; he was at UNC Charlotte, teaching. Willy had just hours, she told me, not days to live.

“It’s too late,” she told me.

I began making calls.

First, to a travel agent, to get Ralf on a flight that night. Then, Ralf’s colleagues, who would need to take over his final classes at UNCC. Then, finally, when I knew he had finished teaching, I called Ralf at his office.

“Ralf,” I said. “Willy is dying. Come home right away, honey,” I added. “You have a flight out of Charlotte tonight at 7 p.m.”

“I’ll never make it,” he said.

“Yes, you will,” I said. “Everything is taken care of. It’s all arranged. Colleagues will teach for you next week. I’ve started packing your suitcase. Come home.”

By the time Ralf was home, all he had to gather up were any academic materials he needed to teach in Germany.

“I can’t focus,” he said. His hands were shaking.

He was at the airport that night with half an hour to spare. I calculated the flight time to Frankfurt, the train trip to Hagen, the taxi drive home, the trip to the hospital. What were the chances that Ralf could make it to Willy’s bedside before he died?

I don’t know what role chance played. I do know that when Willy saw his son, his eyes cleared; his face came alive. It was the first time he had responded to anything or anyone for many days.

Later, Ralf joked with his father and told him, “This will teach you to stop smoking.” Willy managed to lift an eyebrow and breathe something like a laugh.

He died that night.

Ralf came home a few weeks later, after taking care of the funeral, the paperwork, and his mother. He had to drive twelve hours each weekend to and from Ludwigsburg where he was teaching and Hagen. He did all this with pneumonia in both lungs. There was no time for his own grief.

He was quiet and calm when he returned. When I asked him how he was feeling, he would say that he was all right. It wasn’t, after all, as if we hadn’t expected it.

Two years later, I walked into our kitchen to find my husband leaning over the counter, his hands covering his face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I can’t explain it,” he said, looking up. His face was drawn. “It’s ridiculous. So long afterwards.”

Then Ralf told me. The night Willy died Evelyn wanted to leave the hospital. Ralf wanted to stay. It was very late; she had practically lived in that room for days. Ralf was torn between his exhausted mother’s exhaustion and the look in his father’s eyes.

“I can’t forget his eyes,” Ralf told me. “Pleading.”

For two years, Ralf had punished himself for leaving his father, following his mother out the door, and driving her home.

We arrive at Yom Kippur filled with regrets. If we had only had more time. If we had only said these words, not those. If only….

Give us a few moments to reflect on the past year, and we will recall the priorities we ignored, the hopes we did not honor, the needs we repressed. Yes, we failed to do all that we longed to do.

How might we honor the regrets of the last year? They came straight from our hearts, which are now sore and wounded. How do we free ourselves from the weight of “might have” and “should have”?

Our regrets come from our longings.

Let us discern our heart’s longings. May we know compassion – from ourselves and from others, and from the Holy One of all Blessing, who, our Torah tells us, once promised us blessing simply for appearing at the Tabernacle to ask for it.

You let me sing, you lifted me up, you gave my soul a beam to travel on. You folded your distance back into my heart. You drew the tears back to my eyes. You hid me in the mountain of your word. You gave the injury a tongue to heal itself. You covered my head with my teacher’s care, you bound my arm with my grandfather’s strength. O beloved speaking, O comfort whispering in the terror, unspeakable explanation of the smoke and cruelty, undo the self-conspiracy, let me dare the boldness of joy. (Leonard Cohen, Psalm 19)

May we turn from regret to joy: Joy in the offer of forgiveness and understanding. Joy in the opportunities ahead to live a life of love and hope and kindness.

May we know the boldness of joy.

Breathe, and Act: Save Syrian Lives

In the morning you shall say, “If it were only evening!” and in the evening you shall say, “If it were only morning!” – because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see (Deut. 28: 67)

Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi died 500 meters from the Greek shoreline. His five-year-old brother, Ghalib, died with him, as did his mother, Rehan.

Seven and a half million Syrian children, inside and outside Syria, are in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Two million are living as refugees. These days, Syria is one of the most dangerous places in the world if you happen to be a child. Syrian children

If you saw the pictures of refugees packed into a train in Hungary, desperate and hungry and without a modicum of food or water, or the images of Syrians lying packed side-by-side on the floors of Hungarian prison cells and, if you happen to be Jewish (or just plain human) – you might be finding it a little hard to breathe.

All the images we are seeing now, images we have been seeing for some time, are pictures that are familiar, terrifying.

Some have known that terror.

Alyth Synogogue was founded in London during the 1930s. Many of the first congregants were refugees themselves, fleeing Nazi Germany.

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith is the synagogue’s rabbi. Recently, he published an article in The Guardian entitled: ”In the spirit of the Kindertransport we want to extend a warm welcome to Syria’s refugees.”

The Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) program of 1938 and 1939 saved about 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi gas chambers.

Those children are now elderly. Some went with Rabbi Goldsmith to a meeting at Parliament – together with young Syrian refugees.

One million Jewish children died in the Shoah. There was little to nothing done by the Allies to save them.

But these men and women, among the very few who were saved, are convinced that Great Britain can act on behalf of Syrian families, and help rescue Syrian children.

Here, in America, there are Jewish institutions trying to open our doors to Syrian refugees. One of them is HIAS (once the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society), the oldest voluntary resettlement program in the world. Some of our grandparents were the beneficiaries of the work of HIAS did around the turn of the twentieth century.

On September 4, NPR’s Robert Siegel interviewed HIAS President and CEO Mark J. Hetfield on All Things Considered. “We have 200,000 dead in Syria,” Hetfield said. “We have people fleeing not once, but twice from the conflict.”

But the United States and many countries in Europe, Hetfield added, are assuming a “business as usual” approach to the crisis.

The United States, he pointed out, managed to take in 200,000 human beings during the 1980 Indochina boat crisis with absolutely no infrastructure in place. So far, we’ve offered safety to some 1,800 Syrians.

We might as well be offering Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who openly insists that his country does not want Muslims in his country, a warm handshake and a pat on the back.

If we go on like this, we can certainly expect to see the bodies of more children washed up on Europe’s shorelines.

Or we could do this instead: We could look for each and every opportunity to act and to give.

This High Holy Day season, every dollar we offer HIAS will be matched. We can sign petitions. We can insist that our representatives open the doors to Syrian refugees. We can ask presidential candidates where they stand and we can insist on specific and detailed responses.

This morning, during Torah study at Temple Or Olam, we remarked on the way in which Parshat Ki Tavo depicted the kind of horrors we were seeing in the media. In the text, they are a threat; for Syrians, those horrors are real.

We know what happens in an indifferent world to those no one wants to save.

None of us believe that what we are seeing in this refugee crisis is God’s work. But since God created both weal and woe, humanity has been given the chance to choose: We can make either into reality.

We can act. We can save lives. In the memory of Aylan, Ghalib, and Rehan Kurdi, let us do exactly that.