Earth Etude for Elul 17 – Tree Speaking
by Rabbi Jill Hammer~
The trees are speaking with one another. The trees are speaking with all creatures… and all the conversations of living things are about the earth. (Genesis Rabbah 13:2)
Trees have been speaking with me since I was a child, and each tree speaks in its own way. The pine shelters; the willow bends in the wind; the birch has its cool gracefulness. The sycamore sheds its bark in July; the oaks drop their acorns in autumn; the maple leaks sap in February. The cherry, pear and apple blossoms make spring an enchanted kingdom. My father’s chestnut trees drop their spiked balls in the fall. These trees help me know where and who I am in the world. Their beauty soothes and grounds me. My life would not be the same without them. My language about the world would not be the same without them.
As I visit other climates and locales, I learn about other trees: the red gnarled manzanita in the West, the pomegranate and orange trees in my grandmother’s backyard in Phoenix, the tall redwoods of California; the lindens of Paris, the elders of Germany, the maples and weeping cherries of Japan. These trees help define those other landscapes for me. They add to my visual language.
Trees defined the landscape for my ancestors as well. The cedars, date palms, fig trees, and vines of ancient Israel helped my ancestors become who they were. They used the properties of the trees as a language to talk about the world: the fruitfulness of vines, the tall straightness of palms, the strength of cedars, the lusciousness of date honey and the breadth of a fig leaf. Much of the beauty of the Psalms comes from its descriptions of physical landscape: sky, mountain, trees, rivers. That language, the language of the Bible, of Torah, would be different if the trees were different. Torah is specific to a landscape; it is specific to a particular conversation between trees and human beings.
I recently helped lead a retreat in California, in the mountains above the Napa valley. As we prayed and learned together, the retreatants were all intensely aware that many of the trees in our shared space were “ancestral” trees mentioned in the Bible: a great branching olive, a majestic craggy cedar that went up and up; a cypress with fragrant boughs; a trellis with grape-laden vines. We told stories about the trees: cedar is used for building and purifying sacred space and was a building block of the Temple; a cypress is planted at the birth of a girl; an olive signifies light and peace. Grapes are for sanctification and transformation. Being in the presence of these trees was like being in the presence of our ancestors. We felt connected to our past through our meeting those trees in the present.
We sometimes treat trees as ornaments, but they are foundations for how we understand the world. Trees are, of course, physically necessary for our existence: producing oxygen, cleansing air, offering food and healing substances. They also speak to us, giving us a visual language, offering us images of what it means to stretch between earth and sky. They are an alphabet of meaning.
One of my core sacred practices is dreamwork, and one of the kinds of dreams I collect are dreams about trees. In some of these dreams, my own and others, the trees are massive, reaching from earth to sky. In one dream a friend shared, she was inside a tree hollow as massive as a hotel lobby, and sensed the tree’s “great giant consciousness.” In another friend’s tree dream, the tree grew books, one for each soul in the world. In another, the dreamer entered a home inside a tree and a tree spirit made her tea and showed her the movements of the stars. As the dreamer watched the stars, she began to understand that she herself was the tree.
I call dreams like this “Tree of Life” dreams. They are images of the world-soul, the divine connective tissue that brings us all together. We encounter these mysterious dream-trees in ways that teach us the oneness of all things. Yet we would not have this language for oneness if not for the trees we encounter every day.
Each dream is different. Each image of the world-tree is unique to the dreamer. Our inner landscapes are unique. So too, our outer landscapes, specific to place and time, provide us with a distinct language for the real. We access the universal through the particular.
The realities of trees and of the Tree are intertwined. When we create the conditions for trees to thrive, they help us thrive, and we also create new languages, new revelations for ourselves and our descendants. We make possible the rediscovery of the Tree of Life.
May the trees go on speaking to us and one another.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion. She is also a co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. She is the author of a number of books, including The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for all Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (with Taya Shere), and The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries. She lives in New York City with her wife and daughter. For more information on Jewish ancestral trees, see Tree Psalms, a study guide and liturgy for Tu b’Shevat by Jill Hammer.