Community Blog Learning, Loving, & Losing: The Torah Of Trees

By Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman
little boy

(Originally posted on Beloved on the Earth: Honest Reflections from a Beautiful and Unsafe World.)

This year, as what we call the world fell apart faster than we’d expected, I fell in love with trees. Like in love, in love. Not the crush of my girlhood when I admired them and fancied myself the child at the end of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. In love like I dream about them. I see their bodies when I close my eyes, branches and trunks of different species trace my insides depending on the mood: the arch of the redbud’s trunk in joy and pleasure. The tight winter huddle of the spruce in fear.

Our patio backyard has a lot of different trees, including, as I write this but not for much longer, two slender sickly eastern Hemlocks. They are dying as the wooly adelig sucks their sap, just as the insect is killing the great hemlock forests of the Appalachians. Abraham, now 28 months, walked with me under the trees last week. I showed him the fuzzy white eggs on the undersides of the needles, and explained the trees were sick.

“He wan’ his Mama,” Abraham said, reaching for the drooping branch closest to his chubby hand. “Mama, I wanna hold his hand.” Clasping the twig, he looked up into the tree. “Hemyot tyee, you feeyuh bettah? [hemlock tree, do you feel better?”

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I could scarcely breathe, startled by the sudden clarity that I am teaching my child to love a dying and transforming world, that he will learn to love and lose in the same breath, and that I will learn along with him.

“Yes, the hemlock tree wants his Mama,” I managed to say. “He wants to go back to Mama Earth. Honey, our hemlock trees are dying. We will have to cut them down soon, and let them become soil.” Tears pooled in my own eyes, for our trees, but also the great forests we are losing.

Abraham sat down under the hemlocks on soil packed hard by his play. Last fall he named this spot Frog & Toad’s corner, and he likes to go on toddler ‘trips’ there before triumphantly rushing back into my arms when he ‘comes home’ to the patio. His little body rocked back and forth quietly. I resisted the urge to distract him, or myself, from our own versions of the same giant and holy grief.

Then, after a minute or two, Abraham began to sing. This isn’t something he does much yet. But there he was, singing the same five notes down a scale, over and over, somberly and slowly, as he kept shuckling back and forth. Eventually I began to sing quietly with him.

The niggun, or wordless Jewish melody, that came to Abraham and me felt precisely and powerfully like a gift from the hemlocks themselves. He sang the first part, and the other three came to me as we sat there together. The melody communicates the trees’ story in four parts– starting with their current tragic decline, but then celebrating the fullness of their lives: the giddy growth of new trees; the joy of the thick expansive canopy; and the dimension of long slow forest time that is so difficult for us humans to understand. (You can learn this niggun and many others on Hebrew College’s Niggun Seminar.)

I received the niggun straight from the trees in the period of the Omer, the days when Jews count down to the moment of receiving Torah on Mount Sinai. The power of the niggun, based on an immediate experience far from the words of sacred text, enflamed a question that has pulled at me for decades: What is Torah? What counts as Torah?

Years ago, I ran into Rabbi Victor Reinstein, a dear teacher, on the 39 bus in Jamaica Plain. As I was straining to see out the window to avoid motion sickness, he was bent reverently over the pages of Rebbe Nachman. I think I said something about being impressed, and he responded in his characteristically gentle way: “I carry a sefer (holy book) with me wherever I go, to be able to study Torah in every moment I can.”

I am an ordained rabbi but do not have the urge or discipline these days to spend hours studying our ancient texts in my free moments. Since rabbinical school, I have struggled on and off with voices of imposter syndrome and shame. Shouldn’t a rabbi study Torah in her spare moments? Am I wasting my time? Am I not worthy of the title I worked so hard to receive?

Yet these past few months, as I’ve discovered I don’t want to go anywhere without my tree field guides, it reminds me of nothing so much as that moment on the bus with Rabbi Victor. Even if I forget a field guide book, the trees themselves are everywhere and it is hard to waste a moment without noticing them – out the car window, on the socially distant strolls, in the Arnold Arboretum down the block from our home. I greet the trees I know, and stop when I can to study the ones I don’t.

I feel a pounding urgency to learn them, like the tendrils of a root system seeking water. How well can I see you? How much can I know you? Do you have alternate or opposite leaves? Smooth or toothed margins? Is your bark deeply furrowed or smooth? What shape do your branches take? Your seeds? Your flowers? What story do you tell about the land? What is our history together? What are you saying?

I want to be able to read the trees the way I once yearned to learn how to study the Hebrew Bible fluidly in Hebrew, wanted that kind of hot breathy intimacy with the text. Rare butternut hybrid. American Elm. Norway Maple. Red Oak. Arborvitae. Grey Birch. Eastern Redbud. Arrowood Viburnum. Crabapple. Teach me your Torah, teach me in time – before you die, before I die. Before we both turn back to humus.

The exit from Fairies’ SecretUp in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, behind the house we’ve rented for vacations since I was a girl, there is an enchanted path called Fairies’ Secret (right). In the winter it is a cross country ski trail, but our family goes there in the summer, when the bright greens of different thick mosses cover the path like the Emerald City, and you can see the jagged white quartz peaking up from the once-frozen ground. This spring, pouring over books of trees and also photos of the land in Vermont, finding names for trees I have known and loved my whole life, I realized that the thick stands on the sides of the moss path must be hemlocks. The blight is spreading north with the warming climate. It’s only a matter of time.

 “How do I mourn for a lost sacred place?” I cried outloud to myself, keening over a photo of Fairies’ Secret, imagining a future without this place where I have knelt literally hundreds of times to bury my face in the moss and kiss the ground, where I have felt the Divine thick and close, as if God were breathing on my neck. Then I suddenly burst out laughing, remembering that I am ordained in a tradition that grew out of exactly this question. How do we mourn for the lost sacred places? What do people do when their most holy place is destroyed, when they are exiled from their land? Rabbinic Judaism rises in all its complexity and depth to answer.

But what is the tradition saying I should do? Commemorate specific ecocides once a year by fasting and reading Lamentations? Pray every day in vain for the forests’ speedy return? Or take it in another direction and make it metaphor and myth? Be content to bring the forests of Appalachia inside my heart?  Surely these are not sufficient. Honestly, in this moment, they are not compelling.

The “Papa Tree” with redbud arching underneath himThis evening, while cleaning the kitchen and talking out my thoughts about Torah and trees with Yotam, I looked at the giant Norway Maple in our backyard, the tree Abraham calls the Papa Tree (left with redbud arching underneath him). I heard the tree, or maybe it was Torah herself, playfully smacking me upside the head.

“You silly!” She said. “That’s not really what rabbinic Judaism teaches. What do you think you were doing for six years in the beit midrash? How do you mourn the lost sacred places? You study. And in studying you honor, you intimately know, you make love, you unfold into into that which you learn, and it unfolds into you. This is your homecoming. There you can can live, even in the midst of loss.”

Oy Torah, you trickster. I went to rabbinical school 12 years ago to better have a platform for social and environmental activism, and to ground myself in Judaism to help sustain that work. I’ve looked into the texts for wisdom and sustenance, but this Shavuot I saw a new dimension: Torah study as a way of life, as an answer to the destruction of the Temple, teaches that studying what was lost and what is being lost is one way we keep it alive, one way to sustain our hearts as we grieve. When we learn something, we fall in love with it – Genesis, Rebbe Nachman, A Natural History of North American Trees, by Donald Cullross Peattie, the Arborvitae in my yard. And to love is to belong.

The Torah is a Tree of Life to those who hold fast to her, says Proverbs.

“Mama, I wanna hold his hand,” says Abraham.

The Papa Tree waves black against the gray Boston sky. Urgent. Pounding. Let me know you. Let me see you. Seek my face.

Some recommended further reading:

  • The Overstory by Richard Powers
  • A Natural History of North American Trees by Donald Culross Peattie
  • Tree Finder: A Manual for Identification of Trees by their Leaves by Mary Theilgaard Watts
  • Trees of Eastern North America, published by Princeton Field Guides
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman is Director of Professional Development at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Learn more about her at rabbishoshana.com.

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