The origins of this post began over a year ago when I came across a quote that looked to me like Rabbi Heschel challenging Martin Buber’s masterpiece, I and Thou. Unbelievable, right? Like two superheroes fighting. I was compelled to explore deeper.
Here’s what Rabbi Heschel 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’. How could this be? After sitting with this question for over a year, I think I’ve found the key. Surprisingly, it takes us into the heart of Tu B’Shevat.
It’s as simple as this- both trees from the Garden of Eden- the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge- are the ways of God. I know it doesn’t seem like much, however, it turns out this image from Elimelech of Grodzisk (d.1892) is mythic shorthand and is jam-packed with wisdom about life. To open these words in our hearts, we need to journey through worlds of the imagination that will take us to Tu B’Shevat and beyond.
We begin before the beginning began. All is without end, without boundary, Infinitely One that is Zero. Can you imagine? No crown, no head, no fingers, no toes, no body. The All is Nothing. Desire grew, spurred on by great loneliness and love, until a small space of emptiness was created to receive an outpouring of Nothingness. As Nothing was congealing into the Something that is our world, tragedy struck. A cosmic wound, a shattering crack, the mythic “breaking of the vessels” occurred during the very act of creation.
Yes, our world is created from wounds, with great needs, giving us much work to do. However, let’s not collapse into despair. After all- our world was created. Our world was created! We could dance and dance with this one marvelous idea all night long, but Reb Elimelech is beckoning. He’s bringing us into the Garden. Not just any garden, but the Garden of Eden, the place where the first humans had the opportunity to repair the breach of creation. Not just a short fix either, a patch that might fall off after a few generations, but a forever-long guaranteed fix until the end of time! The entire future of the cosmos was waiting for the action of those first humans. Alas, we all know how that turned out- ouch!
Or do we? Every story is affected by the storyteller- and our tradition loves storytellers! Reb Elimelech takes a creative turn sharing from the Zohar, our mythic proto-novel of sacred fantasy (this really is how scholars describe the Zohar). Reb Elimelech teaches that the problem was NOT eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. No, the problem was our first representatives on planet earth ONLY ate the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge- they did not ALSO partake of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Life as well!
What is this? The problem is that they did not partake in a balanced meal? This is still a problem- but a very different kind of problem. We are gifted with an image, like a dream from another generation, speaking of a world out of balance. Two trees with potent powers and yet only one is activated; over activated; colonizing the landscape with the power of house sparrow and dandelion. How might this ring mythically true and sound for you? Living in a world overgrown with energies from the Tree of Knowledge? For me, I experience plenty that is out of balance: How about, ‘Better living through chemistry’ and all the rest of the plastic-crazed, preservative-enhanced, speed-induced, data overloaded, super-sized, sprawling challenges of our world? Not to exclude the various off-kilter wobblings in my personal life and neighborhood organizations. Might the overbearing Tree of Knowledge share mythic blame?
If so, what is the counterbalance? What might it mean for us to tend to the Tree of Life? Like all good dreams, artwork, poems, the image is not a recipe in a cookbook. Many more questions are present than answers. It is here that I jump to Tu B’Shevat. After all, the Kabbalists transformed the Mishnah’s minor event of a new years’ tax day for the trees, to the mythically rich Rosh Hashanah for the Tree of Life itself!
Mythically, our seders are reviving participation in the cosmic repair of the world, in tikkun olam- Right? Every piece of fruit we eat, if we can expand our imagination enough, focused with blessing and intention, helps complete the sacred circuit, allowing for the flowing energy of Eden to enter and nourish our world. We are taking a bite out of the fruit from the Tree of Life itself! Rebalancing, nay, fructifying our world! Surely this is tending to the Tree of Life.
But is our Tree of Life ceremony enough? Reb Elimelech is sharing that the Tree of Knowledge remains a co-star in the story of our world. To remember that if two trees are growing next to each other, we can expect their roots to be intertwined. If facts out of context make the Tree of Knowledge overgrown and off kilter (in a scary tower of Babel kind of way), how might we positively stimulate the healing energies of the Tree of Knowledge on Tu B’Shevat? If our sensual pleasure of the meal; chewing fruit, drinking wine, and saying blessings stimulates the Tree of Life- what is it that would positively stimulate the Tree of Knowledge?
Wait a minute- the answer is right here, already inside our ceremony. How about knowledge in service of earth, community and life! Couldn’t this be the positive stimulation of the Tree of Knowledge. The best part of this story is that our seders are already filled with teachings that connect people with trees, the life history of our food, environmental issues, systems thinking, the natural world, the history of Jewish environmentalism, our totally awesome and cool traditions, inspiring source texts…? We are already positively stimulating the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life- check and double check!
So let’s review and see where Reb Elimelech’s teaching of the two trees has taken us. Basically, it seems like Tu B’Shvat is the perfect holiday- part educational teach-in, part mystical repair of the cosmos! Able to activate both trees in a single bound, er, ceremony.
I am so ready to break out in congratulatory pats on the back and enjoy extra helpings of smugness seeing Tu B’Shevat celebrated throughout the Jewish landscape. However, Reb Elimelech is here with us, and the thing is, he is not talking about Tu B’Shevat at all- His teaching of the two trees is placed inside our daily song-blessing of deep hope, Mi Chamocha. Curious, eh?
Let’s listen in as Reb Elimelech re-imagines the meaning of our daily celebration song for trust in a bright future. In a swift daring move, he shifts the question of Mi Chamocha B’Eylim– ‘who is like you among the Gods’ to a declaration: the Mi– ‘Who’ is a traditional mystic name for God (from the Zohar) and B’Eylim– ‘among the gods’ is converted to B(et)’ Ilan– ‘two trees’. Mi Chamocha becomes: God- the two trees.
Wow- I love the fresh power of this teaching! And yet…what might it mean? I love how our amazing tradition supports such bold and daring creativity. Though, what might Reb Elimelech be trying to tell us by connecting this cryptic image of the two trees identified as God with our blessing-song of deep hope and redemption?
Stay tuned tree friends- I’ll be back same tree time, and same tree channel with part two exploring this dance with Reb Elimelech. Could it be as simple as Tu B’Shevat Kol Yom (transl: Earthday is everyday)? Guaranteed ring side seats for the match of the century: Martin Buber vs. Abraham Joshua Heschel, for all who come back. Please write with comments, questions and reflections. firstname.lastname@example.org.
This blog is based on teaching from Elimelech of Grodzisk (d. 1892). He was the father of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro who became known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. I found this teaching in Lawrence Hoffman’s (editor) amazingly vast, multi-volume, contemporary commentary on the prayerbook called My People’s Prayerbook, volume Shema. Nehemiah Polen and Lawrence Kushner bring the mystical and Hasidic perspectives to this book.