In This Moment
Shabbat-O-Gram, January 22, 2021
So nu? Bo!
I'll speak more about this eventful week at services this evening. But as we embark on this next phase of our journey together, the first line from this week's portion comes to mind. Moses is commanded by God to "come to Pharaoh," (Bo el Par'aoh). Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the Zohar asks: Why does the Torah say "Come to Pharoah", it should have been "Go to Pharaoh", why say "come"? Rabbi Ashlag replies: "The difference between come and go, is that "come" means that we go together, as one says to a friend: 'come'."
It's true that in Hebrew, we often will say "bo" idiomatically as a means of starting a class, a project or a conversation. It's similar to the way we might use the word "nu" in Yiddish. "Nu...let's get started." (Here's some history of "nu" from the Forward). I'm not sure there is an English parallel. I suppose there's "so..." which is often used as an initiator in conversation. (Next time you find yourself watching talking heads on cable news, first ask yourself whether you might be better off reading a book or taking a walk. It's time to breathe deeply and let the world be boring for a little while. But then, count how many times people begin what they are saying with the word "so.")
"So" and "bo" are far from synonymous. The former is a simple silence breaker, a neutral expression designed to shift the topic or answer a question. Bo brings with it a sense of purpose. It's a word that summons us to roll up our sleeves and get to work. It's not merely an initiator of action, it's a call to action. In English "come" is usually a command reserved for dogs, one of the first words most dogs learn. It's also only the second Torah portion whose name is a command. The first, from Genesis, is "Go!" the command to Abraham (Lech Lecha) to leave their homeland. God sends Abraham and Sarah off on that journey. With Moses, God announces that God is coming along for the ride.
In Hebrew, we begin a new venture with "Bo." Come. And in the true spirit of Hebrew, the journey is never taken alone. As Rabbi Ashlag states, it is a journey that we must take together.
This new journey that began on Wednesday is one that is best taken together. Unity has all kinds of political implications, which will sort themselves out. I'm talking about a more fundamental unity, one that sees the innate dignity in everyone around us, one that sees everyone, no matter who they voted for, as a fellow traveler.
So "bo natchil." Come, let's begin. Let's roll up our sleeves and get to work!
Here are some interesting items to read and watch.
Check out this Israeli song of hope during the latest wave of Covid
(make sure to set it for cc to get English subtitles)
And speaking of soaring anthems of hope, read Amanda Gorman's poem again and again...
Or better yet, watch it:
The Capitol mob followed the same violent playbook as the Charlottesville rioters. We have to hold them all accountable. (JTA)
Watch Senator Warnock's sermon at the Temple in Atlanta last Shabbat.
What Trees Can Teach Us
Join Katie Kaplan and me for our adult Tu B'Shevat Seder this Wednesday at 7 PM. Go to this Zoom link to participate. Passcode: 661785. We'll explore the kabbalistic, Zionist and environmentalist roots of this increasingly popular holiday. As with a Passover seder, we'll drink four cups, representing the four worlds, which represent the four spiritual realms in which we live. To participate fully, it helps to have some white and red wine or grape juice nearby, along with examples of the symbolic foods listed in the chart below. And below that you'll find my own personal tribute to trees. You can preview our haggadah or take a look at another example. Join us on Wednesday as we inaugurate a new TBE tradition!
Tu B'Shevat has changed over time, reinventing itself in at least four incarnations: Talmudic, Kabbalist, Zionists and environmentalist. Now we can add one more dimension: relational. trees are teaching humans how we might all get along.
Deuteronomy 20 asks, "Are trees of the field human" that they should callously be cut down? No, they aren't human - but the Torah implies that they might be able to teach humans a lot about how to act toward innocent bystanders in times of war. From the very beginning, trees have been seen as receptacles of our highest aspirations - the Torah itself is called a "tree of life."
I've always been inspired by Shel Silverstein's timeless classic, "The Giving Tree" (which you can read here in full). It speaks of how a tree continues to give of itself long after it is no longer useful, even when it becomes merely a stump. It's a lovely poem, but the premise, that trees actually form relationships, seems a little far-fetched.
Or does it?
Now we are finding that trees indeed interact with those around them. Dr. Tamir Klein of Israel's Weitzman Institute recently made a startling discovery that neighboring trees relate with one another in complex ways. Klein found that the same trees not only compete for resources such as light and nutrients, but also engage in sharing. Trees form communities and protect one another, and amazingly, they also form families, with parents protecting their children.
These discoveries are echoed in the recent bestseller, "The Hidden Life of Trees," by Peter Wohlleben, which I picked up a while back. The complexities of a tree's ecosystem are mind-boggling. As Wohlleben writes, "There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet. A mere teaspoonful contains many miles of fungal filaments. All these work the soil, transform it, and make it so valuable for the trees."
When strong trees get sick, as happens inevitably, other trees rally to their support, through root networks and crowning in ways that maximize water and sunlight for those who need it most. This all plays out at a much slower pace than humans are used to - but it does play out. Trees mount defenses. Trees even feel pain. Leaf tissue sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt.
Wohlleben speaks of a "wood wide web" of soil fungi connecting trees and other vegetation "in an intimate network that allows the sharing of an enormous amount of information and goods." He writes of how trees communicate through emitting and interpreting scents, often as warnings when predators approach.
"If every tree were looking out only for itself," he adds, "then quite a few of them would never reach old age."
Here's another gem from the book:
Under the canopy of the trees, daily dramas and moving love stories are played out. Here is the last remaining piece of Nature, right on our doorstep, where adventures are to be experienced and secrets discovered. And who knows, perhaps one day the language of trees will eventually be deciphered, giving us the raw material for further amazing stories. Until then, when you take your next walk in the forest, give free rein to your imagination-in many cases, what you imagine is not so far removed from reality, after all!
While comes as no shock to us that trees are living beings, perhaps it is time to stop calling them "things." Decades ago, Martin Buber wrote in "I and Thou,"
I contemplate a tree. I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of blue silver ground. I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, thriving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air - and the growing itself in the darkness.... One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity. Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.
I'm not suggesting that we stop picking fruit or using wood for our homes. Even Wohlleben acknowledges that in order to survive, we need the help of organic substances of other species. All animals do.
But just as we have now come to understand that other animals too have complicated emotional existences (yes, even fruit flies have feelings), we need to see that tree as a fellow traveler on this increasingly fragile planet, a "thou" rather than an "it," and one not existing in isolation but living in relationship with all of us.
Shel Silverstein was not far off base in bringing us that immortal tree-buddy. Neither was Disney's Pocahontas. And if we can begin to anticipate every walk in the woods as chance to forge new and fascinating relationships, sort of like a high school dance with sap, maybe our world would be much better off.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
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