Over the last few years, I have developed a practice of going on daily walks in my neighborhood. Day after day, I gently press the form of my feet into the landscape and the ecosystems along these trails likewise make an impression on me, imprinting themselves on to my consciousness. I have become attuned to an entirely new universe of voices: the sounds of the birds, the moisture in the air, plants at various stages of bud, blossom, dormancy and decay. In this space without words, I hear the language of the living world calling out to me, drawing me into a relationship. The plants, trees, bugs and birds have become a part of me such that on days when I don’t get out, I miss them. No matter what may feel disjointed or agitating in the moment, I know there is a greater whole that I am part of and which I can know myself through.
There is a strand of thinking in Jewish tradition that holds the idea of a vertical axis between human beings and God. Down here on earth, we humans are ever striving upwards to a celestial realm where God resides in purity and perfection. But on my daily walks, I discovered a different paradigm for where divinity lies — not upwards toward the heavens, but outwards toward the natural world.
This seems to be what the philosopher and biologist Andreas Weber is pointing to in his book Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology, where he suggests that rather than searching the heavens for a model of wholeness, that which we seek can be found in nature. He writes: “As life-forms among the other beings of the natural world, we are ever observers of an aliveness that we also carry within ourselves … The natural world is a psyche whose outside gives us access to our inside.”
In this time of rapid change and increasing climate chaos, this paradigm offers us a different axis for connection — one that brings us closer to that which is humbling, generative and alive. Instead of looking for God up there, perhaps this moment of peril and possibility calls us to discover the divine down here, in the muddy, messy material reality where we are.
As we bring our attention down to the earthly realm, the ancient metaphor of celestial striving takes on a new form. Rather than yearning to be like angels without body or breath, we can recast our theology towards the holiness that exists right here — in the hummingbird outside our window and the tree at the end of our block, the bush that becomes flush with sweet berries when summer rolls around. These beings are not just companions, but as Weber helps us understand, they are reflections of us. We are adam, human beings, made of adamah, humus, soil, earth.
This is not just a sweet fairy tale, or an impediment to be overcome, but a powerful spiritual and scientific truth. The 70% water that makes up the majority of who we are is like the 70% water that is planet Earth. These waters collected from brooks and streams, ponds and glacial lakes, flow within us. From the watery depths that preexisted creation, to the pooling puddles down the block after the most recent storm, to the tears in our eyes and the blood in our veins — we are the ongoing aliveness of particles that existed in many other forms before they became “us” and that will go on in new forms after we are gone.
Sunday night begins the holiday of Tu Bishvat, the Jewish new year of the trees. The Jewish mystics who created the seder many of us will conduct on this holiday included in it this line from the Book of Deuteronomy: Ki ha adam eitz ha sadeh. Is a person a tree of the field? In its original context, this phrase is a rhetorical question to which the assumed answer is “no.” Yet the mystics read this not as a question, but as a statement of spiritual truth. Instead of looking up to the clouds for the disembodied image of holiness and perfection, what if instead we looked to the roots below our feet and branches overhead to reawaken us to who and what we truly are? Or as Weber writes, “We human beings see with plants and animals just as poets see with words … all being is reciprocity and reflection.”
This Tu Bishvat, let us honor the trees — and by extension all that is out there in the living world outside our doors — by honoring the tree-like qualities in ourselves, all the ways in which their attributes are also alive in us. May we feel our roots knotted, meandering, interwoven, linking ourselves in community, creating a foundation for ourselves and others to grow. May we feel our trunk grounded and strong, supported by a vital core through which energy, information and intelligence flows through and to all parts of who we are. May our mycelial networks of subterranean communication be ever-expanding, allowing us to collaborate with those around us towards resource sharing and mutual thriving. And may our branches reach outwards, the thick, sturdiness of old growth giving way to tender shoots, delicate blossoms and nourishing fruits just emerging. In this way, may we discover the Divinity we seek right here, right now, on earth.
This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on Feb. 4, 2023. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.