Brachot and Amazement

"Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed. "

--Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “God in Search of Man”

As a Jewish environmental educator, one of my main goals for my students was to experience the natural world with a sense of awe and wonder.  If you spend most of your time inside (“Where the electrical outlets are,” to paraphrase Richard Louv), encountering unfamiliar settings and creatures in the woods can be overwhelming.  Instead of simply cataloging all the different kinds of plants and animals, I aimed to help kids discover emotional connections to the world around us by developing their awareness skills.    To enhance our awareness, we used both classic environmental education techniques and the traditional Jewish practice of reciting brachot (blessings).  

We practiced listening to sounds in the woods using our “deer ears” (hands cupped around ears).  We noted the different colors, textures and shapes we encountered on the forest floor and canopy.  We breathed in the different scents of pine sap and leaf mold.  We stroked the velvety leaves of mullein and carpets of moss.   Soon, the kids themselves were pointing out different bird calls they heard in the distance, the skittering of red newts through the fallen leaves, the soft rustling of wind through the branches.  They grew more confident in their sensory awareness and became excited about all the new things they were noticing. 

Jewish tradition recognizes that approaching the world with awareness is also crucial to spiritual connection.  The practice of reciting a bracha (blessing) can be an expression of thanks or something we hope to happen, but is also an opportunity to greet an “ordinary” experience with amazement and wonder.  I carried a set of laminated cards with several of these traditional blessings for my students to pull out as we encountered various organisms and occasions over the course of our day. There are blessings for smelling a pleasant fragrance (like pine sap), for eating fruits of trees and vegetables of the earth, for viewing a comet or a rainbow or seeing the ocean.  There are blessings for beholding a particularly beautiful or even extraordinarily strange-looking creature. (We would often say both upon discovering dragonfly nymphs or slime molds.)

There is even a traditional blessing you can say after using the restroom.  For our students, we turned “giving nitrogen to a tree” (i.e. peeing in the woods) into an opportunity to acknowledge the amazingness of our bodies and our place in the nutrient cycle.  With this attitude of “Radical Amazement,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called it, any moment can become a time for mindfulness and appreciation, for wonderment and awe.   For me, these instances of reciting brachot in the woods with kids have been among the most authentic spiritual experiences of my adult life.

Awareness, as we taught our students, is only the first step.  It is not enough to say blessing over a dragonfly nymph.  Once we start realizing the interconnectedness of humans and the ecosystems that sustain us, we must accept the responsibility of caring for the Earth.   Many of our students resolved to undertake a Brit Adamah, or “covenant with the Earth,” to put this accepted responsibility into practice. This could be deciding to use a reusable water bottle in their lunch to reduce waste or turning the lights off each time they leave a room to reduce energy usage.   The students chose a promise that was meaningful (and doable) for them and committed to keeping it for 6 weeks.   

 Tu B’shvat, or the New Year of the Trees, takes place on Wednesday, February 4th this year.  In modern times, this ancient festival has become “Jewish Earth Day.”  Make this Tu B’Shvat special by taking time to notice some of the amazing things living alongside us.  Say a traditional blessing or even make up one of your own.  Resolve to incorporate a new Earth-friendly practice into your life.  Blessed are You, Creator of the Universe, who gives us this opportunity to protect the Earth.     

Batsheva Glatt is a former TEVA educator for Hazon in Northwest Connecticut, where she taught 5th and 6th graders ecology and Jewish values as part of the Shomrei Adamah program.  Hazon is an environmental non-profit working to “create healthier and more sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond.”  You can read more of Batsheva’s work at her blog, The Protopian Pickle Jar.