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The Home Ground
Thoughts on Text and Nature
1. The Forest for the Trees
I moved to unceded Duwamish and Coast Salish territory (Seattle) almost exactly a year ago. February snow set a canvas for March daffodils and cherry blossoms, and by the end of April the trees were emanating all their varied leaves, and by May the horse chestnuts bloomed, and all the while the steady conifers pretended like they were just background rather than the stars of this Evergreen State.
Here’s a thing I never thought I’d accomplish - being able to distinguish any conifers apart. But when you learn to read their leaves and limbs and cones, the forest unblurs into exquisite individuals. I’ve barely begun to learn their alphabet, but already I can start to make out the staunch Douglas firs with their mouse-tail cones from the lifting limb dance of western redcedars. Learning a new language is daunting, but exhilarating. New words open up.
In Jewish tradition, when you want to talk about the ultimate place of wisdom, you refer to torah. In the eighth chapter of the book of Proverbs, Wisdom is referred to as “a tree of life”, and so the ancient sages began referring to torah as a tree! Reading a book, reading nature, all of it is steeped in knowledge we need, for our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls.
2. The Scholar to Whom His Book is True (after a poem by Wallace Stevens)
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
Books have been my walled garden, a place of beauty, joy, pleasure; dreams, knowledge, heart-expanse; secret rendezvous with the past and the future; where I go when I stumble in the world and need to regain my grounding in self. At a young age, I bounced from encyclopedias to the Hardy Boys to the infinite expanse of Star Trek novels. Torah filled my ears, too, as my parents read a little bit of sacred story to my brother and me each night.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
How did I come to be a rabbi? I’ve given many answers, but one true answer is that Jewish text has always drawn me with a strange magnetism. It is as if when I look at a shelf of books, ones that engage Jewish text have a beautiful aura that mark them as home. Many of them are homes I haven’t visited yet, or homes whose nooks and crannies I have yet to explore. And yet, home.
Trying to articulate this once, I compared Jewish text to family, and all other texts that I enjoy or find valuable to friends. In fact, I sometimes prefer the company of the German Romantic poet Rainer Maria Rilke to that of Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi, the codifier of the early rabbinic lawbook, the Mishnah. But I always come back to Jewish text as the grounding of my identity, my ancestry, and my native land of imagination and mystery.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
When I read, I have to grapple with the usual distractible mind, but one question often surfaces as a worry specific to reading itself. Even while I am enjoying a book, I worry about all the other books that I haven’t read. In the Jewish liturgical poem Akdamut Milin, recited on Shavuot - a holiday which has come to be practiced as an ode to reading! - the poet exclaims: “Were all the skies parchment, and all the reeds pens, and all the oceans ink, and all who dwell on earth scribes, God’s grandeur could not be told.” The entirety of human literary creation cannot begin to hold the immensity of all we could learn. But even what has been written dwarfs my capacity to comprehend. How do I choose wisely what to encounter, let alone understand, let alone internalize, among the “many books without end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)?
The Japanese concept of tsundoku (Japanese: 積ん読) helps. This delightful term describes gathering books around you without needing to have read them all. I take it as a practice of knowing I will never complete the task, yet savoring the sea of written word surrounding my life.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
3. Learning from the Jewish Library
There are two concepts that I particularly love within the Jewish reading experience. The first is torah lishmah, studying torah (= the entirety of Jewish text) for its own sake, as a worthy endeavor in its own right. Wallace Stevens evokes for me this sense of Jewish study as a merging of reader into text, a calm world where truth is the experience of reading itself and everything else recedes into “no other meaning”.
The second concept is halakhah l’ma’aseh, studying torah in search of guidance for walking one life’s path. The ideas, stories, rules, debates, speculations, and evocations I encounter have the potential to impact how I think and behave. In other words, the meaning of the text is wrapped up in how it changes me, which then changes my actions.
Transmuting books into behavior isn’t automatic. In my experience, one of the grounding principles of encountering Jewish text is a dual acknowledgment: (1) the text is distant from me; (2) the text speaks to me. It isn’t code that programs me, it is a conversation partner whose perspective surprises my assumptions, or reinforces my instincts, or provides raw material that I process into something new. Turning text into practice is an art form*, and reflects the agency of a reader who takes the conversation seriously.
*Turning text into practice communally introduces other dimensions of interpretation that are as much about social conformity and political power as artistry.
In these essays, I am particularly interested in exploring three strands of Jewish text as they relate to the plant world. Nature is another realm in which I experience the dual delights of encounter for its own sake and the wonder of receiving the gifts of plants through human cultivating and craft. Witness and work.
Most broadly, I seek Jewish ancestral plant wisdom (as myth, medicine, memory, and metaphor). This strand is closest to lishmah learning. I want to lean over the leaf and be in relationship to ancestors and to learn from their relationships to the natural world around them.
On a more practical and creative level, I seek textual resources for building a mental model and practice of bio-regional Judaism. What does it mean to be Jewish at this moment in this place? How can we consciously, reverently, and ethically root ourselves wherever we live? So much of Jewish tradition delineates home as the land of Israel. For thousands of years, wherever Jews lived in Diaspora was labeled galut - Exile. In America, many Jews rejected the label of Exile. I want to explore further how we might hold onto a healthy spiritual nonattachment (“Exile”) but also embrace the entire world as our home as humans, practiced through wise attachment to our specific locality.
Finally, I seek to develop something I’m calling herbal mussar. Mussar is Jewish virtues ethics, through which we probe our souls, develop our characters, and take on the yoke of care for others. Both mussar and herbs have ways of refining our perception and bringing our being and doing into balance.
These are some of the journeys I am embarking on, along with my brother and herbalist Benjamin. I hope these essays spark interest, conversation, and creativity everywhere Judaism and plants intersect.