Let The Trees Teach You Torah

pomegranate-treeby Rabbi Wendy Spears

One of my favorite Broadway musicals is now a major motion picture. I’ve seen Into The Woods twice on stage and I’m looking forward to seeing Meryl Streep play the Witch, an iconic role played so brilliantly by the fabulous Bernadette Peters. One of the themes of the play is to be careful of what you wish, because it might come true.

The forest of European folktales is a dark and scary place, full of carnivorous animals that consider humans an easy meal as well as numerous other dangers that can catch the average walker unaware and unprepared. Certainly, Cheryl Strayed finds this to be the case when she walks the Pacific Crest Trail on her own as portrayed in her book and the film Wild. She faces down a bear and suffers through blistering heat and bone chilling cold. These experiences change her irrevocably, as are those who venture into the woods in European folktales. The characters are called to draw on their inner resources of intelligence and ingenuity, as well as their physical strength and perseverance. The folktale woods are places of magic and revelation, both about the world at large and the human psyche.

The trees in Jewish tradition aren’t clustered together as a dark and forbidding forest. They are the dry shrubs and scrubby trees of an arid landscape, providing shade and food. This wilderness, like the European forests, is also a place of magic and revelation; a bush burns unconsumed, a sea parts, and there is fire on the mountain. Jews recognize the wilderness as a place to participate in a revelation that God will continue to care for us and protect us. We experience awe as both wonder and a feeling that causes us to shake in our boots.

Historically, the trees that survive in the arid wilderness are the fig, the olive, the date palm, and the pomegranate. The pomegranate, with it’s abundance of juicy seeds, is by itself considered a symbol of abundance. It’s likely that Adam and Eve ate figs rather than apples, since figs are native to the environment of the Middle East. The honey in the phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey” refers to the sweetness of dates rather than honey from bees.

The Jewish festival of trees, Tu BiShvat (the 15th day of the month Shvat), begins the evening of February 3 this year. The medieval Jewish mystics expanded the holiday from simple tree planting and pruning to include a Passover-like seder that celebrates the turn of the seasons with 4 cups of wine (from white , to pink, to deep red), and a tasting of the various types of tree fruit (those with outer rinds or shells that are inedible, those that have inedible inner pits, and those that are completely edible inside and out) to increase our awareness and appreciation of trees and nature in general. It is also a time to share stories about trees.

Since we are dependent on trees, shrubs, and grasses for the balance of oxygen on our planet, let’s renew our celebration of Tu BiShvat with more tree planting in our own yards as well as in our community, and invite family and friends to share stories around a table with many kinds of fruit and wine. This is a great way to remind ourselves that spring is just around the corner, and to give thanks to God for all of our abundance and blessings.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

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Dear Miley Cyrus

You certainly received a lot of attention for your VMA performance this past week, which was undoubtedly your intention. It is likely that you think of this event as a rousing success. And the backlash against the explicit sexuality of your performance is probably a bonus, from your point of view, because we are all now talking about you. Even bad publicity is good publicity, right?

It is indeed unfair that most of the discussion has centered on you rather than Mr. Thicke, highlighting the double-standard with regard to female sexuality. But that is not even remotely the most pressing problem here. It is, in fact, merely a distraction to keep you and all of us from noticing the real problem.

Here is the real issue: You had a fan base of millions of young girls who looked up to you and pretended to be you. They had your likeness on their bedroom walls. They sang your songs into their hairbrushes.

Cyrus portrayed singing at the top of the moun...

Cyrus portrayed singing at the top of the mountain in the music video to “The Climb”. This setting is similar to that of the music video for “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” by Britney Spears. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And then you became an adult and that role no longer fit you. Tired of your old image, you shaved off your hair. Good for you.

So you were standing there with your hair cropped, all eyes on you, a brand-new adult. Imagine what would have happened then had you turned to that fan base and said, ‘girls, you do not have to be pretty or sweet in order to matter in this world. Cut your hair if you want or leave it long – that’s not what’s important. Who you are is what matters most. Choose your own path, and find your own voice.’

Imagine what would have happened then.

You were, in a word, dangerous. Whole industries would suffer if these girls become empowered. Who is going to buy all this lip-gloss and mascara? Insecurity is what sells product. And more: imagine you had a real message, something deeper and more profound than the simple exhortation to ‘find yourself,’ and that you too had been encouraged to find your own voice. What would you have said then? I really wish that we knew.

Instead, your handlers convinced you that the best way to break out of your candy-coated shell is to start pole dancing, stripping, and twerking.

Let me tell you a dirty little secret: strippers and pole dancers have no power. Absolutely none. In fact, they don’t even use their real name. They are intended to be nameless, faceless, and voiceless.

You gave up your ‘Destiny’ to become ‘Miley,’ the smiley girl. You have been reduced to a smiling mouth with a suggestive tongue.

Perhaps you disagree? Perhaps you think you have been liberated, able to act like a man? Here is an exercise for you: imagine, for a moment, that you had gone out there on the VMA stage without a microphone that night. Imagine the exact same performance, but without a sound. Would you have garnered the same attention? Yes, absolutely yes. Would we be saying the very same things about you this week? Oh yes, definitely.

You know what that means? You have been effectively silenced. Your voice was not heard. You were merely there as eye candy, and not as a singer. You are now replaceable with a topless dancing girl.

In other words, it’s no accident that the most widely distributed photo of your performance has you bent over and submissive, practically naked, clearly silent as you are licking your lips, while Mr. Thicke stands over you, clearly dominant and fully clothed, holding a microphone to his lips.

Who are we listening to now?

Your God-given talent will eventually want to make itself heard. If you continue on this path, it is going to take more and more drugs to silence it. Your handlers will see to it that you get them. They will be there, ready to go, even before you ask. And then they will tip off the paparazzi regarding the publishable antics of the latest ‘hot mess.’

And when you are no longer useful as a brand, you will be unceremoniously deposited at rehab. Perhaps you might be in the same wing as fellow child-stars Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, both of whom were cut down when they discovered that their talent had its own voice. Get angry, dear, get angry.

In the meantime, I wish all the best to you. I hope that you eventually prove to be better than all of this. I suspect that you are.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Dr. Kari Tuling

Rabbi Dr. Tuling serves Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh, New York where she lives with her family and two cats. In her free time, she likes to read weekly journals of cultural anthropology, such as US Magazine.

Behar-Behukotai

by Kari Tuling

Does God reward good behavior?

When we read this week’s Torah portion, we encounter one of two sets of blessings and curses specifically related to the performance of the commandments.

First, if you do what is good and follow God’s commandments, then all will go well for you. But, if you reject God’s commandments, then a litany of curses will be upon your head. Many of them are quite graphic; they are intended to be frightening.

Specifically, the blessings are as follows:

  1. Fertility of the land (verses 4-5);
  2. Peace in the land (v. 6);
  3. Victory over external enemies (7-8);
  4. Divine individual providence, increase of the population, coupled with economic prosperity (9-10);
  5. The dwelling of the Shekhina in the midst of Israel.[1]

The Shekhina, by the way, is the indwelling presence of God, which during the wandering in the desert is represented by a pillar of fire or cloud. Though the Shekhina represents the spiritual realm, it is indeed a physical manifestation of God. The Israelites can see the Shekhina as it travels with them.

It could be said, in fact, that each of these blessings are a form of material reward.

And some of the commentators have had a genuine problem with that fact. It makes no sense to them. How can we gain material goods by doing what is right? How can it be that piety is rewarded with free stuff?

For example, Rabbi Yitzhak Abravanel (born in the 15th Century in Spain) asks the question directly:

“Why does the Torah confine its goals and rewards to material things…and omit spiritual perfection an the reward of the soul after death – the true and ultimate goal of [hu]man[kind]? Our enemies exploit this text and charge Israel with denying the principle of the soul’s judgment in the afterlife.”[2]

And he has a point. This issue has long been a point of attack by those who have sought to discredit Judaism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, argued that Judaism is not properly a religion because the Jewish Bible makes no mention of an afterlife. In his view, only those traditions that promise a reward in the world to come can make a claim to being a true religion.

What are we to make of this? We have a couple of possibilities here.

Manuscript page in Arabic written in Hebrew le...

Manuscript page in Arabic written in Hebrew letters by Maimonides (12th century CE). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first possibility is that God really does reward us in our observance of the Torah. The great thinker Maimonides (who was born in the 12th century in Spain) takes this position:

“…These matters are to be understood as follows: The Holy One, blessed be He, gave us this law – a tree of life. Whoever fulfills what is written therein and knows it with a complete and correct knowledge will attain thereby life in the world to come. According to the greatness of his deeds and abundance of his knowledge will be the measure in which he will attain that life.”

The more that you know, the greater your reward will be. Maimonides was, admittedly, an elitist. But he continues, arguing that you will reap material rewards as well:

“The Holy One, blessed be He, has further promised us in the Torah that if we observe its behests joyously and cheerfully, and continually meditate on its wisdom, He will remove from us the obstacles that hinder us in its observance, such as sickness, war, famine, and other calamities; and will bestow upon us all the material benefits which will strength our ability to fulfill the Law, such as plenty, peace, abundance of silver and gold.”[3]

In other words, following the Torah will indeed make things go better for you, both in the material world and in the world-to-come.

How can that be? From Maimonides’ perspective, the Torah is the product of God’s overflow, distilled into human language. Its purpose is to provide guidance in response to the daily decisions that arise in the ongoing challenge of ethical living.

The best choices, of course, are those that are founded on a true understanding of the world.  For Maimonides, the Torah is the source of that knowledge, for the structure of Jewish law corresponds exactly to the very structure of creation. So, that’s why it is true that if you follow the Torah, all will go well for you.

But the problem with this point of view is twofold.

First, if God’s providence could be counted on to rigidly assign suffering to those who had committed the most grievous sins, then perhaps problems like extreme poverty would not be a problem. Such suffering could be rationalized as deserved punishment for wrongdoing. But that is not how the world works.

We know of people who are deeply knowledgeable about Torah who have seen sickness, war, famine, and other calamities. We know righteous people who have suffered.

Second, we know of problems within the Torah text itself that have caused difficulties. For example, one of the precepts of this week’s double portion is the law of the jubilee year:

“You shall count off seven weeks of years — seven times seven years — so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years… and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family…”[4]

On the face of it, this suggestion sounds like a great idea. The jubilee year would prevent permanent debt and see to it that no one would lose his or her family’s ancestral home. However, in practice, the problem was that in the years leading up to the jubilee, loans to the poor stopped. Why make a loan if it will be forgiven shortly thereafter, without receiving payment?

And the problem with that approach is one we understand: if no one can get credit for activities such as buying and selling land, then even greater harm is caused to the poor. So the rabbis enacted a takanah – a fix – that would see to it that these kinds of problems would be avoided.

So let’s consider our second possibility: this series of blessings and curses is a kind of covenantal language. In the Ancient Near East, covenant agreements would be enacted with a series of ritual gestures. It is a way of guaranteeing that each side of the agreement – in this case, us (the descendants of the Israelites) and God – will follow it.

To give an example, when I was a teacher, I enacted an agreement with my students who had been facing a difficult situation. Their teacher had left midyear and I was asked to take over the classroom. They were unnerved by the changes and needed reassurance. So together we created a covenant that specified what they would do and what I would do. We identified witnesses to our covenant – in the case of the covenant with God and Israel, it is the heaven and the earth that serves as witnesses. In our case, it was the Principal and Vice-principal. And we had blessings and curses. They were really more like incentives and punishments, really. Good behavior was rewarded at the end of semester with cake (their suggestion) and bad behavior was punished with an extra assignment (my suggestion).

The advantage of the covenant model is not that we can predict how life will unfold for us if we follow the commandments. Rather, the purpose of this structure is to remind us that the world does make sense, at the core of it, even in the midst of chaos.

Shabbat Shalom.

Kari Tuling is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel of Plattsburgh and an adjunct instructor at SUNY Plattsburgh. She will receive her PhD from Hebrew Union College in June.


[1] Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, Behukotai II” (Jerusalem, Haomanim Press), p. 580.

[2] Ibid., “Behukotai I,” p. 572.

[3] From Hilkhot Teshuvah 9, 1, translated by Isadore Twersky, as quoted in Leibowitz., pp. 577-8.

[4] JPS translation.