On Plants and Places
I took an interesting train ride last Sunday. I got on in Sheffield, and the train ran up through seemingly every city in northern England. From Sheffield we went through Leeds, then to York, Durham, and Newcastle before crossing the border into Edinburgh and then cutting across to Glasgow.
So many people were getting on and off, moving between different cities. When you take the train from Glasgow to London, most people are either leaving from Glasgow, or going to London - there aren’t huge numbers of people travelling just from Oxenholme to Warrington Bank Quay. This train was different - a long line of people, going on their own individual journeys: Leeds to York, Durham to Newcastle - all brought together by the Crosscountry line snaking its way across England.
I’m sitting on the edge of the reservoir after an afternoon swim. It’s a cool day for late July, yet I spent over an hour floating in the water. I lost track of time, suspended there, and I didn’t feel the cold until I’d climbed out and sat on the grassy bank to read my book.
I watched as the cows slowly made their way along the hillside opposite. They came down to drink from the water’s edge, and slowly made their way across to the gate in the stone wall where they pile up. It was so relaxing, doing nothing but watching the cows eat and the swans swim along.
In the water, you can swim up and examine the grasses and weeds growing at the waters edge. You can crouch in the shallows, watching the birds hiding in the rushes. The shoreline looks different at eye level than it does from above.
In Likutei Moharan (Part II, 11:1), Rebbe Nachman writes:
דַּע, כְּשֶׁהָאָדָם מִתְפַּלֵּל בַּשָּׂדֶה, אֲזַי כָּל הָעֲשָׂבִים כֻּלָּם בָּאִין בְּתוֹךְ הַתְּפִלָּה, וּמְסַיְּעִין לוֹ, וְנוֹתְנִין לוֹ כֹּחַ בִּתְפִלָּתוֹ.
Know! when a person prays in the fields, all the flora enters into the prayer, helping him and strengthening his prayer.
Rebbe Nachman was no stranger to praying outdoors. One of his most well-known practices is that of hitbodedut הִתְבּוֹדְדוּת - going out alone into a natural place for meditation, prayer and reflection. When I think of Breslover Chassidim practicing hitbodedut, a very particular image comes to mind, but this is something that we can all do. Floating in a pond and examining the reeds can be a form of hitbodedut.
What I love about Rebbe Nachman's teaching is how he suggests that the plants have a real impact on our experience. He explains how when Yitzchak prayed, he went out into the field to be alone. The word he uses for this prayer is lasuach לָשׂוּחַ, which is not such a common word. Some say it’s derived from sicha שִׂיחָה, or conversation, showing that Yitzchak was not merely speaking, but rather engaging. Some say that lasuach לָשׂוּחַ is derived from siach שִׂיחַ, or shrub. This implies that Yitzchak is engaging with nature. He’s not stayed home for his conversation, he’s gone out, and his experience is supported and influenced by the plants around him.
We speak about a continual force of creation. As kids, we’re taught that G-d made the world in six days, finished up and then took a break. But in reality, the world is in a constant process of creation. Some people consider the force that allows this process to take place to be G-d, while some try to explain it through science. I try to imagine the sunlight getting absorbed by the plants, being photosynthesized into energy, and spreading into my own body, physically nourishing me, filling my own veins with chlorophyll.
I spent the last weekend in Nottinghamshire, on a nature Shabbaton. The site we were on was small and fenced in on all sides by high metal fences. We were in the industrial wasteland of the East Midlands, cornered in between a train line, a motorway, an algae-infested lake and a giant hospital complex. Yet in the midst of all this was a small meadow, ringed with dozens of varieties of wildflowers. Plum and apple trees lined the path, and there were rabbits, mice, bees and newts all hiding amidst the shrubs.
And in the middle of all this was the largest living willow hut I’ve ever seen. It was round with entrances on four sides, leading to a central hollow. There were 4 round chambers around this, between the passages leading to the central space. It was tall enough to stand in everywhere except the entrances, and the branches reached up to form a roof on the top.
From the outside, it looked like an exceptionally large willow bush, and you couldn’t tell that it was anything more until you found your way into one of the entrances. Once there, you couldn’t see how big it was until you stepped inside. People could walk past it and not know you were there.
Friday night, after we lit Shabbat candles, I led a group meditation inside the willow hut. We sat in a circle, breathing and listening and reflecting on our weeks. We opened our eyes to the light fading through the tops of the willow leaves.
The willow, or arava עֲרָבָה, is a plant that we use on Sukkot, one of the four species, or arba'ah minim אַרְבָּעָה מִינִים, that make up a lulav לוּלָב. Each of these four species has its own special qualities. The etrog אֶתרוֹג, or citron, tastes and smells great. The lulav לוּלָב, or date palm, has no smell, but its fruits taste amazing. The hadas הֲדַס, or myrtle, is inedible but has a beautiful smell, and then we have the arava עֲרָבָה, or willow, which has no taste and no smell.
In a lot of ways, the willow is very plain. It has nothing to draw us in. It is beautiful, its leaves hanging down in long sweeps, but with no taste or smell it can often be overlooked. But perhaps this is what makes it special. It has nothing fancy to attract us, it has to rely on itself. It is what it is, and we have to appreciate it for its true essence.
Here in Glasgow, we get our lulavs imported. Some parts come from Israel, some from Morocco. Each piece comes individually wrapped in plastic, and has to be kept in the fridge to keep it fresh throughout Sukkot. Last Sukkot, my arava didn’t make it, and went mouldy halfway through the holiday. So I went down to the Rabbi’s house, where he cut me a new arava from the willow tree he planted in his yard.
And that’s what’s so great. Judaism doesn’t have to be something specially preserved, imported from Jerusalem and kept in a fancy plastic bag. Judaism can be natural, homemade, picked from the tree in the backyard. Prayer can take place in a synagogue, or it can take place in a pond or a willow hut or wherever you are.
Rebbe Nachman continues (Likutei Moharan, Part II, 11:4):
כִּי אֲפִלּוּ כְּשֶׁאֵינוֹ מִתְפַּלֵּל בַּשָּׂדֶה, נוֹתְנִים גַם־כֵּן יְבוּל הָאָרֶץ סִיּוּעַ בִּתְפִלָּתוֹ, דְּהַיְנוּ כָּל מַה שֶּׁסָּמוּךְ אֶל הָאָדָם, כְּגוֹן אֲכִילָתוֹ וּשְׁתִיָּתוֹ וְכַיּוֹצֵא, רַק כְּשֶׁהוּא בַּשָּׂדֶה, שֶׁאֲזַי סָמוּךְ לָהֶם בְּיוֹתֵר, אֲזַי כָּל הָעֲשָׂבִים וְכָל יְבוּל הָאֲדָמָה נוֹתֵן כֹּחַ בִּתְפִלָּתוֹ כַּנַּ"ל.
Now, even when a person does not pray in the fields, the earth’s produce—i.e., whatever is near the person, such as his food and drink and the like—aids his prayer. But when he is in the field, because he is particularly close to these things, all the flora and all the soil’s yevul (produce) empower his prayer.
Spending Shabbat in a living willow hut in Nottinghamshire is great. Whiling away afternoons floating in ponds and watching the cows pass by is incredible, but it won’t be July forever. These moments are so crucial - spending real and intentional time in nature, picking through leaves, foraging for berries, breathing and watching and being. But just like Rebbe Nachman says, the earth’s produce sustains us anyways. Even when we’re indoors, we can still consider how we’re living off of the bounty of the earth. We can still consider how miraculous the formation of an apple is, whether we pick it off a tree in an orchard, or we buy it from the shelves at Lidl.
I think back to all the people getting on and off the train, going about their daily lives, all of them living, being sustained by this energy. Flowing through Leeds and Durham, everything felt industrial - brick and metal and glass. But the trees are there. The pineapple weed is poking through cracks in the pavement. And even glass and metal come from natural places.
So I go on with my day. I dry off from swimming, and head back up the path, collecting raspberries as I go. I’m very lucky that I get to live in such a beautiful place, and that I come from a tradition that encourages me to slow down and think about the flowers. And that I live in a world full of plants and natural things that I can appreciate, and in turn, be sustained by them.