Friday, June 5, 2015

What Makes a Text Sacred? Parashat Beha’alotkha

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

What does it mean for a text to be sacred?

When I was growing up, my father read the Christmas story from the Bible each year, but this was our sole connection to any traditional sacred text.

In my adulthood, my mother found meaning through art and photography, philosophy, science, nature writing, poetry. She often quoted Gregory Bateson and others. My father died when I was young, and I am not sure what he considered sacred – perhaps the physiology of plants that was the foundation of his research and his teaching, perhaps the garden in which he grew delicious vegetables or the orchard that brought apples and peaches to our kitchen. As adults, my brothers connected with Christian texts and now find meaning in Jesus. I turned to Judaism and delight in Torah and Talmud.

In the interfaith and environmental work that I do, I often speak of three kinds of sacred texts: the texts of our lives – our life stories and experiences, the texts of the Earth – the stars, the rocks, the plants, the water, the creatures that populate this amazing planet, and the texts of our tradition, whether that be the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, the Koran, or something else, quite different. To help people understand the broad nature of what I encourage them to consider “sacred text,” I often say that in my childhood home, Winnie the Pooh was sacred text.
I've said this many times, but I had never tried to articulate what it really means. And then, this week, I had an experience that clarified for me just how it is Winnie the Pooh is, for me, truly a sacred text.

My brother Tom recently moved to Flint, Michigan, and my brother David and I traveled from New Hampshire and Massachusetts, respectively, to visit him. We met and talked with many of Tom's friends, we saw places he frequents in Flint, and we had deep and meaningful conversations. On the morning of our last day together, we took a walk in Kearsley Park, across the street from my brother's home. We enjoyed the open air, the trees, and the streams flowing through the park. As we crossed one of the wide bridges in the park, Tom suddenly said, “How about if we play Pooh sticks?”

If you know Winnie the Pooh at all, you know the game of Pooh sticks, which Pooh and Piglet were playing when poor old Eeyore came floating down the river, upside down, having been “bounced” into the river by the rambunctious Tigger. Pooh sticks was a favorite childhood game of ours, played at any opportunity of a bridge over a stream or river while on hikes and walks with our parents, or when off exploring on our own in campgrounds around the country. Playing Pooh sticks connected us to the times when our father read aloud the chapters of Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, times when our family came together and bonded with shared listening, laughter, and delight.
On this early summer morning, David and Tom and I played Pooh sticks in Flint. We found sticks, we dropped them in the water, and raced to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick came through first. We joked together, smiled together, and laughed heartily, laughter that unexpectedly brought me to brief, deep, inexplicable tears. We commented on the water, the trees, and our shared experiences of Pooh as children and as a family. And in this moment, it became crystal clear that, in the context of our family, Winnie the Pooh is, indeed, a sacred text.

Together in Flint my brothers and I shared a ritual, the ritual of a game. We remembered shared times of the past, times of healing and bonding in our family of origin. We understood that this text held meaning for everyone in our family. It was and is a text through which we can all connect, each and every one of us, through space and time, even though our parents are no longer with us.

Later, I was reading a d'var Torah written by my friend and colleague Cantor Marcia Lane on this week's Torah portion, Beha'alotekha. It is in this portion that two upside-down letter nuns are found in the text. Cantor Lane offers some of the suggestions of commentators as to the meaning and purpose of the strange and unique appearance of these letters in our text, but all of them are just that - suggestions. No one knows for sure why these nuns are there. It is a mystery.

Mystery. That is part of what makes a text sacred. What are the mysteries found in Winnie the Pooh? Though far from the realm and power of the mysteries found in Torah and Bible, one may, nevertheless, comment on and discuss just what is a Heffalump. One may ponder the meaning of having one's head stuck in a jar. One may consider and compare the “personalities” of Eeyore and Pooh and Piglet, Kanga, Roo, and Tigger. One may wonder about the role and significance of Christopher Robin. Always, one can find answers, and always one can find more questions. Always, at least in our family, one can find meaning, and always one can find connection.

These are traits of sacred texts. Sacred texts come in many forms, but they all provide meaning and connection. They give rise to rituals with meaning beyond the actual actions we take. They maintain a sense of mystery. And they are powerful tools for healing.

Each of us has unexpected sacred texts in our lives. The more clearly we identify them as such, even when at first glance they appear to be far from sacred, and the more often we connect them to the texts of our lives and the texts of the Earth, the more powerful and meaningful they become in our lives.

My brothers and I practice different religions. Our parents practiced little or no religion. But through our shared connections to a very personal and particular text, Winnie the Pooh, and through the playing of Pooh sticks which connects us to the texts of the streams and sticks and sky and trees as well as to the texts of the stories of our lives, through all of these combined together we find meaning, build stronger connections, and heal the hurts of the past.

Thank you, A. A. Milne, for giving us your stories.

Rabbi Katy Allen is a board certified chaplain and serves as a Nature Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit. She is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long. She is the President of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network

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