Renewal and Ritual for the Earth

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March 1, 2005
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New Jewish ritual, especially ritual celebrating the earth, is often based on very old rituals whose meaning has been forgotten and remembered in a new way. Tu B’shvat seders, for example, are almost ubiquitous nowadays, but the first modern seder was celebrated just under 25 years ago; only a few decades earlier, the Jewish National Fund connected Tu B’shvat to their tree planting campaign. The first Tu B’shvat seder, however, was published in the 1600s, and the custom of eating fruit on this holiday goes back at least another century to the circle of the great kabbalist Yitzhak Luria, the Ari.

In that seder, called “P’ri Eitz Hadar,” we are taught to eat a seder meal of fruit on the full moon of Shvat (usually two moons before Passover), and to pray, “May the flow of desire and blessing and free energy flow over the fruit trees, and may the protectors and guardian angels over them be filled with strength, and may the whole creation return to its original strength.” With so much ecological juice in this prayer, it is astonishing that the traditional seder only recently returned to communal use. Yet we have made good use of our forgetfulness. When the holiday was reclaimed by Zionists and ecologists, the thickness of the tradition didn’t overwhelm people’s creativity. Now, as contemporary Jews begin to renew and reweave the seder, the words of this prayer, in particular, are filled with new meaning and hope.

Good rituals hold their shape as they change, and deeper meanings fill in where old ones have become inadequate. When Tu B’shvat became the Jewish Earth Day, a direct line was drawn back to the Mishnah’s declaration that this day was “Rosh Hashanah la’ilan ” — the trees’ New Year, or, as the Kabbalists understood this phrase, the New Year of the Tree of Life. The essential shape of the kabbalistic Tu B’shvat seder, moving through the four worlds from doing to being, can embrace new understandings of the Tree of Life — not only the kabbalistic sefirot, but also the web of life studied by ecologists, and the evolutionary tree of life, in which all species are related to one another. At the Tu B’shvat seder, therefore, the exact order for eating the 30 fruits found in ” P’ri Eitz Hadar ” is rarely followed, but the order of the four worlds almost always is.

Most Jewish rituals and observances have a connection to the earth’s cycles. For example, the purpose of the Sukkot ritual cycle is to bring fertility and rain to the land. We pray on Hoshanah Rabbah — “Please save, renew the face of the ground! Save the planting of trees…undergrowth to strengthen… flowers to uphold…Save the one who drinks. Exalt her! Save what is suspended upon nothingness.” Yet because the ritual of Hoshanah Rabbah — circling the Torah with lulav and etrog while singing these chants — is usually muttered top-speed, with little understanding of the difficult Hebrew poetry, its purpose is usually overlooked.

As old as this custom is, few people associated Sukkot with environmental activism until Arthur Waskow suggested taking Hoshanah Rabbah out of the synagogue to the river bank. Not surprisingly, the majority of people who first responded to his call were people who had never celebrated the holiday.

New ritual can still fall into a rut — liturgy can be written to soothe, not challenge; prayers can be recited without understanding. But in periods of creative change, experimental ritual can be quickly transformed when it doesn’t work. One of the challenges is that we are a “texty” people; it’s a rare Tu B’shvat seder that isn’t cut and pasted from a dozen or more books and pamphlets (and at a celebration of trees, copied onto many sheets of paper). The ecological rituals we create should open doorways to the world around us rather than wrap us in a new cocoon of words. To this end, I’ve written a one-page “Save-the-Trees” haggadah template that doesn’t require a lot of photocopying to make a beautiful seder.

The new rituals we develop for Tu B’shvat will help us connect to all life, to our creatureliness, to the richness of our senses. We can strengthen this evolution by recognizing how truly old these connections are within Judaism. For example, our rituals can revive the teaching of Sefer Bahir , an 11th-century text that describes the waving of lulav and etrog as a way to recreate the cosmic tree that sustains the universe. Similarly, when we do an ecological seder, we are bringing back to life themes of that first seder, offering prayers for the bounty of the fruit of the earth and the fruit of our bodies.

The blessing from the original P’ri Eitz Hadar seder can be found on shma.com, along with a new seder, the “One Page Save-the-Trees Flow Chart Haggadah.”

hadar prl_eltz_hadar

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David Seidenberg holds a doctorate in Jewish Thought on Ecology and Kabbalah and received s'mikhah from JTS and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. David lives in Los Angeles where he is on the faculty of the Academy for Jewish Religion. His published work can be found in Trees Earth and Torah (JPS), in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (Continuum), and on the web at www.coejl.org and www.ohalah.org.

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