Our cliffhanger (see part 1 here ) left us with the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge firmly planted not within Tu B’Shevat, but within the middle of Mi Chamocha our blessing-song for redemption. Mi Chamocha is invoked in every prayer service directly after the Shema. We’ll begin by trying to make sense of this very old word, redemption, and then offer some ideas why Reb Elimelech of Grodzisk (d. 1892) might have placed his wisdom of the two trees there. Ready to wade in the water?
As we get our toes wet, let’s first explore redemption- our personal, communal and cosmic invocation of trust in a bright future. Let’s start with a surprisingly fun analogy from Rabbi Marcia Prager. She compares redemption with the old collectible green stamps. Back in the 1960’s, collecting them built grocery store fidelity- you would get a few with each purchase and could trade in books for new small appliances. Individually each stamp was near worthless, but she saw her mom filled with zeal- (you know, trust, commitment, enthusiasm and yearning), as she licked her stamps and filled out the books. She wasn’t just licking stamps- she was visualizing her new toaster! And when her zeal would flag, and doubt would creep in to her mind, and she wanted to say, “why bother!” she’d just look over to the counter and see that electric can-opener and know that it happened before and it can happen again!
Reb Marcia is playfully teaching us, like the Kabbalists before her, that redemptive power can be accessed in our small daily steps. Guided by the brightest future our imagination can view up ahead on the horizon- we keep our eyes on the prize as we place our steps each day and each moment. Planting trees, tending gardens, raising children, helping others… And yet, sometimes the goal can feel impossibly far away, our zeal begins to flag and we think- why bother? Then let’s remember crossing the Sea, the song celebrated in our Mi Chamocha prayer. Whether it is crossing the Sea or a new electric can-opener sitting on the counter- there are many personal, national and cosmic miracles that bring us to this day. Our tradition is teaching that to remember and celebrate is the path of renewed trust.
So now let’s take a breath and re-connect the wisdom of the two trees with this redemption contained within Mi Chamocha. Can you sense how Reb Elimelech is kind of like a great systems thinker? Holding with confidence that the world is non-linear, that tomorrow might be radically different than today; confident that surprises, even as big as the parting of the sea, can happen for us. In this context, perhaps the wisdom of the two trees is his reminder to balance each placed step to the best of our ability- because after all, as every hiker knows, our steps take us into the future. Reb Elimelech goes even further by implying that with this wisdom we can even help build the path as we are walking.
I’d like to swim a little deeper before we enter into the match of the century. As you can imagine, it turns out that the kabbalists have explored these images for quite some time. Reb Elimelech was not the first.
The kabbalists didn’t sculpt, paint with oil or create stained glass- their medium of choice, was image and story! (you gotta love’em) Their creative imaginations were set to the project of imagining God- before, during and after the existence of our world. In their imaginations, they connected the unimaginable cosmic Nothingness that pervades all with the Tree of Life. It doesn’t have to make sense- just flow with it. Our world flows from the Nothingness creating the Somethingness that is this world. This Somethingness is connected with the Tree of Knowledge. The important point for us is that early on, the kabbalists paired the Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge together, teaching that only together can they make up our world. After all, they are both mentioned in the Garden of Eden= they must have to be connected. A paradox is formed if you choose ‘either/or’. By the mystics definition, no forms are possible in the sea of Nothingness from which all creation flows. Alternately, the forms by themselves are merely outer coverings, like the bandages that create the presence of the invisible man.
In the 1700’s, a new community of mystics began to create new meanings. Hasidism combined these ideas from the medieval Zohar with their characteristic psychological insight and creativity and created something new. They connected the pathos of selfless humility with the cosmic Nothingness of the Tree of Life and the pathos of self assertion with the Somethingness that is also the Tree of Knowledge. These personally intimate layers also generate paradox if you mistakenly try and imagine only one pole of this pair.
For instance, humility alone can devolve and collapse into meekness. Imagine here Peretz’ long suffering Bontsha the Silent. When Bontsha is given an opportunity to ask for anything from the heavenly hosts, including redemption for the entire cosmos, he can only ask for a warm roll with butter. In response, a sustained groan spills from the heavenly realms. Self assertion can also prove problematic by easily turning into hubris and arrogance when we forget the mysterious gift of life that manifests our actions. Growing up in America we don’t have to go far to understand this.
For those that know Hasidic stories, we can sum up by saying, ‘Number 27’. You know, the one where Reb Simcha Bunam talks about the two notes we should always carry in our pockets- in one pocket we carry the note that says ‘we are dust and ashes, going back to dust and ashes’. In the other pocket we carry the note ‘for my sake the world was created’. Is this not the wisdom of the two trees? In this way, we can remember that all acts of our self assertion are buoyed by the mysterious source of life. The same wisdom that sustains the prophets as they confront injustice can also sustain us in our everyday life. Reb Elimelech is reminding us that all of this is planted inside our humble Mi Chamocha prayer.
Now we are able to come back around to the “match of the century’. What might Rabbi Heschel have meant when he said: “…I am not ready to accept the ancient concept of prayer as dialogue. Who are we to enter a dialogue with God?” He then declares that he is only an “it” immersed within the all that is God and can not be an ‘I’. Why might Rabbi Heschel be attacking dialogue, which just happens to be the backbone of Martin Buber’s work? Perhaps Rabbi Heschel is reminding us of the wisdom of the two trees and balancing Martin Buber’s vision of God that is found in our relationships, by focusing on the Tree of Life, the cosmic Nothingness, an aspect of God in which we are totally subsumed. Reminding us not to forget the wisdom of both trees, of balance, of active God work in creating an “I and Thou” field, as well as the totally subsumed, “All is the immensity of God no matter what we do”, view as well.
I wonder if perhaps Rabbi Heschel is playing the trickster by specifically attacking dialogue in his comments. It seems that Rabbi Heschel was particularly good at rebuking the traditional community for not being liberal enough and rebuking the liberal community for not being traditional enough. Perhaps, Rabbi Heschel is reminding us to remember that this word “God” whatever it might mean to us, means way more than we can ever hold in our words and in our being.
Whew, Deep breath. One last question. In what additional ways might we understand this image of the two trees? What polarities might be smoothed when we open our hearts and imagination to Reb Elimelech’s wisdom. Are we becoming out of balance by focusing too much effort on personal change and minimizing civic engagement? Are we bringing our attention only to the human community around us and forgetting our neighbors that are birds, animals, trees, rocks and water? Are we pouring our energy into words of utility and forgetting words of prayer? Are we spending too much time with words and forgetting color, music, dance, forest and stream? As we imagine the biggest and brightest sustainable and peaceful earth we can imagine, here’s to the wisdom of the two trees helping us move there, step by step.
Please share where Reb Elimelech leads your imaginings. After all, as the divine voice from the heavenly realms was recorded to say in the Talmud, “These and these are the words of the living God”*.
PS This blog is based on a beautiful teaching that I’ve learned from Elimelech of Grodzisk (d. 1892). He was the father of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira who became known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. I found it in a book about the Shema, a volume of Lawrence Hoffman’s (editor) amazingly vast, multi-volume, contemporary commentary on the prayerbook called My People’s Prayerbook. Nehemiah Polen and Lawrence Kushner bring the mystical and Hasidic perpectives to this book and the teaching grows from Reb Elimelech’s perspective on the daily blessing Mi Chamocha, our celebration song for trust in a bright future- trust because after all, we have just crossed the sea to safety.
The teaching from Rabbi Marcia Prager was a small bit from her teaching on the Shema and blessings, heard in person at the Davenning Leadership Training Institute. For further information on this transformative two year prayer leadership program, please visit, http://www.davvenenleadership.com/
Maggid David, www.maggiddavid.net
*The full text is found in this wonderful collections of texts on civility can be found on the Jewish Council for Public Affairs site here:
Rabbi Abba said in the name of Sh’mu’el: For three years the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel debated [a matter of ritual purity]. These said, “The law is according to our position,” and these said, “The law is according to our position.” A divine voice came and said, “These and these are the words of the living God, and the law is according to the House of Hillel.” But if these and these are both the words of the living God, why was the law set according to the House of Hillel? Because they (the House of Hillel) were gentle and humble and they taught both their own words and the words of the House of Shammai. And not only this, but they taught the words of the House of Shammai before their own.(Talmud Eruvin 13b)