Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The National and the Natural

Last week I had the opportunity to lead a Learner’s Service, focusing on how our prayers transport us to the land of Israel. As we journeyed through the opening Psalms, (called Pesukei d'Zimra), we noticed a progression of Zionist imagery equating the natural with the national. Psalm 147, for example, describes the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the return of exiles alongside natural wonders like snow and ice storms. Anyone who has ever seen snow in Jerusalem knows how awe inspiring this synthesis of national and natural can be. Then, Psalms 148, 149 and 150 continue this interplay, juxtaposing the rejoicing of pilgrims and the harmony of the heavens, Israel’s new sanctuary with God’s. Scholars have often seen the Temple in Jerusalem (and the sanctuary in the Wilderness before it) as being constructed from a blueprint analogous to the one God used in the Creation of the Universe. So now that idea is played out in the liturgy.

While the wonders of nature can be found everywhere, they achieve their greatest glory in the Land of Israel. “Wherever I go,” said Nachman of Bratzlav, “I go to Jerusalem.”

The Pesukey d’Zimra section concludes with the prayer Nishmat Kol Chai, “The Breath of Every Living Thing,” known in the Talmud as Birkat ha-Shir (Blessing of the Song). Subsequent generations picked up on the idea that every creature prays, each in its own way, simply by breathing. A few years ago in Israel, I picked up a booklet known as Perek Shira, in which appears the precise prayer that each creature utters, derived from biblical verses. You can download a 16-page booklet containing the text of Perek Shirah with an English translation by clicking here, and you can see a video presentation here.

Some say that uttering these verses can bring blessing (hence, Perek Shira became especially popular among Israeli settlers before the evacuation of Gaza in 2005). I’m not sure about blessing, but they certainly bring peace of mind and reinforce the mystical connection between nature and nation, between the people and land of Israel. In these prayers, all of creation is profoundly linked, and the holy land becomes our frame of reference for viewing all reality.

In Israel, you don’t look west, you look “seaward,” (yamma) and similarly, the word south is Negev, because that’s where it is, and the north, tzafon, means hidden, because northern Israel is covered with mysterious mountains and dark forests.

In Perek Shira - the lions aren’t merely models of brute strength but symbols of self control (because they sublimate their power to coexist in groups). This idea of quintessential strength and self restraint is profoundly Jewish, homegrown (see Pirke Avot 4.1) in the land of Israel.

The grasshopper, whose eyes and body are angled heavenwards, sings the verse from Psalm 121, “I lift my eyes up to the mountains; from where shall my help come?” And those mountains that the Psalmist invokes are the mountains surrounding Jerusalem.

If you listen closely enough, you just might hear the grasshopper singing Carlebach.

Grasshopper – mountains – Jerusalem….

Wherever I go…

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