Tuesday, Eilat Chayim:
“To See the World in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower; To hold infinity in the palm of your hand, eternity in an hour” William Blake
I used to say these words to my daughter as a newborn, so tiny, yet so beautiful and profound in her just being there.
This week I’m studying with Rabbi Natan Margalit at the Isabella Friedman Jewish nature retreat, a week long course called Wild Roots of Torah. It is Tuesday and I just had the most amazing insights from a spruce twig and my partner’ s white and black pebbles. We were engaged in studying natural objects using the Pardes method of Torah study – beginning with a simple description, deepening to personal connection, then to life lessons, and finally to mysterious unity. I might have been skeptical, but I spent the most amazing day in Nature/Torah study. There was a moment in the forest in which after learning to really activate my awareness, the plants and trees around me came alive with a palpable presence, almost like that feeling when a child’s born, and suddenly was in the room with me, looking my way. Today the woodland air seemed to tingle with life and possibility. It was weird!
So I described my spruce twig, its scent was fresh and fragrant. It bent and felt soft, its needles alternated from a central stem. Deeper: its scent reminded me, a city girl, of the forest, as did its colors, which made me smile and relax. Deeper still – its needles had to be tiny rather than broad to withstand the frost. Yet each one was arrayed at a different angle from the stem, so that together they contributed to the large lushness of the spruce, and captured enormous amounts of sunlight. Further the stem reminded me of my own spine, with limbs and other things radiating out. In fact, I have much in common with this plant – sharing almost 50% of my genetic material with this ancient cousin who builds cells a lot like my own, and it breathes out the oxygen I breathe in (and vice versa). So the spruce and I are all part of the grand design, the One-ness
Then I turned my attention to my partner’s pebbles – one rough and black, one white and smooth. They are Torah, she told me: Black fire and white fire, as the letters of Torah are surrounded by the white parchment – the spaces surrounding each level pregnant with meanings and interpretations. What about an even deeper meaning? I offered this possibility to my partner: this white smooth pebble may have been forged in a stream, a part of the rock cycle, thousands or millions of years in the making just to form this perfect white stone, and may very well be soil particles in the future! We saw the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower! Really!
Chevrutah, is what this method of study is called, pairing off to learn with the synergy that comes from interacting, exploring, even arguing “for the sake of heaven” – of finding truths. And it’s just magic! In our next venture we linked Pirke Avot section on what it means to argue “for the sake of heaven” as did Hillel and Shamai, who disagreed, but honored the words of their opponent. The opposite would be those who try to crush their opponents utterly. Natan brought in a quote from Michael Pollan’s Second Nature in the battle of a farmer against his insects. In trying to destroy insects with DDT or plants with Roundup, harsh, unintended consequences result. “Better to keep the quarrel going, reasons the good gardener…” We must maintain the struggle between different truths, perhaps it is an essence of life, we concluded.
In relating this lesson to our lives, we found this: The bully that only cares to belittle and squash his target may cause the suicide of the victim, or his own destruction or both. Rhonda is a social worker. In the attempt to utterly crush poverty with President Johnson’s Great society, laws that allowed only single women with children to receive checks chased men away, and encouraged a culture of dependence. Always the struggle against poverty, and never the victory? There is some aspect of truth in all arguments, Rhonda concluded, and so the deepest truth is present in allowing both sides of the argument to remain viable.
“Elu v’ elu divre Elohim chayim” Natan reminded us: After a three year argument between the schools of Hillel and Shamai, God’s very voice was heard to say: both this and that argument are the words of the Living God. Living in the complexity, and the striving toward truth. “What can we learn from this about the Israel/ Palesitinian conflict?” asked another student. Perhaps that peace can only come when honor is granted the opponent, when the conflict is for the sake of a better future for the children, rather that to crush an opponent.
Earlier today, we read in Deut. Chapter 11 that the Creator was searching/ looking after us in the land of Israel! I found it surprising that God could be searching for us like some game of hide and seek – isn’t it usually we who seek? But this was a moral seeking – insisting that we turn our efforts to creating a just society so that the very rains and dew from the sky would come. Today in the world we are burning up, and in some areas drying out. Rains that had fallen no longer do. The link of ethical negligence to climate change is powerful, and real. We choose actions of relationship or of combat with one another and with elements of the natural world. And it seems unlikely that these actions can impact the larger world or even the climate – but they do! Each of our actions matter. There really can be a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower.