Friday, April 19, 2024 -
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‘Let the heavens rejoice . . . ’

Last month, I hiked through fields of flowers in Montana, framed by a backdrop of the snow-covered Bridger Mountains. Several weeks later I rented a car in Portland and passed through lush vineyards and flourishing hazelnut orchards in the Willamette Valley on the way to the majestic Oregon coast. Returning to Boston, I was greeted by the reservoirs filled to capacity with rainwater, rimmed with rhododendron, impatiens and wild tiger lilies.

The great American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, once wrote: “Nature is the body of G-d and it’s the closest we’re going to get to the Creator in this life.”

Perhaps that is why many of us feel spiritually alive when we are surrounded by natural beauty.

I have heard people claim they are “not religious,” then describe with poetic proficiency their radiant feelings about nature. Captivated by the intricacies of flowers or the vast stillness of a night sky, they profess to feeling “spiritual” but not particularly religious — and certainly not Jewish.

Perhaps it is because much of our religious expression is “shul-based” that we don’t connect the awe-inspired feelings we experience in nature as being Jewish. Yet if we glean anything from the Bible about the human experience of G-d, it is that Judaism and our relationship to G-d are deeply and indelibly rooted in nature.

Biblical man’s first encounter with G-d was through the natural world, the Garden of Eden being the epitome of all that is beautiful on earth. We are placed in the Garden, given a Divine purpose for living that is directly linked to nature. In Genesis 1:28, G-d blesses man with these words: “… Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it; have dominion over … every living thing … ”

One chapter later, G-d places man in the Garden of Eden “to cultivate it and to guard it.” From the very beginning, we are given the inherently complex task of having complete control over the Earth, and are required to treat it with fiduciary responsibility.

But it doesn’t stop there.

The essence of G-d, as Creator of the world, is expressed in numerous ways within Judaism. Jewish blessings, sacred texts and liturgy are replete with examples acknowledging the connection between nature and G-d. The Hamotzi, the blessing we say over bread, praises G-d for “bringing bread from the earth.” The Kiddush we recite on Shabbat celebrates G-d’s works of creation, praising G-d as Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Images in the Psalms reinforce a joyous relationship between man, nature and G-d, like these words from Psalm 96:

“Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad, let the sea roar and the fullness thereof; let the field be joyful and all that is therein; then shall the trees of the forest rejoice before the L-rd …”

The Jewish calendar continuously commemorates and reinforces the connection between G-d and nature.

We are commanded weekly to refrain from our own labors and rest on Shabbat, the day we acknowledge that the Creator also rested.

Holidays like Sukkot, which commemorates the fall harvest, and Tu b’Shevat, the new year for trees, link nature to our annual cycle of festivals.

The sabbatical year (or Shmita in Hebrew) requires us to give the land a rest from planting every seven years, while the Yovel commands a redistribution of the land every 50 years.

All of these work to establish a continuing consciousness and intricate relationship between G-d, nature and the Jewish people.

During an 1893 trip to Colorado Springs, professor, poet and writer Katharine Lee Bates was so deeply moved when she witnessed the view from the top of Pikes Peak that she wrote a poem upon which the anthem, America the Beautiful, is based.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountains majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
G-d shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

The land we inhabit is beautiful, diverse and deeply inspiring. As Jews, and Jewish Americans, we have a responsibility that stems from our Jewish tradition to preserve and protect it for all time.

Judaism teaches us that the world we live in is filled with G-d’s presence. The Talmudic rabbis knew this when they wrote: “No spot on earth is devoid of the Presence.”

Copyright © 2021 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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IJN Columnist | Reflections

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