Rabbi Arthur Waskow on ‘Avatar’ : Celebrating the Tree of Life

Avatar and Tu B’Shvat:
Celebrating the Great Tree of Life

Avatar is extraordinary. Not only for the superficial but powerful technology… but most of all for its spiritually-rooted progressive politics.

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow / The Rag Blog / January 15, 2010

The film Avatar is an obvious metaphor for the European-USA destruction of Native America and Africa; for the corporate destruction of the Amazon forest and its tribal human eco-partners; for the U.S. destruction of much of Iraq and parts of Afghanistan.

For the indigenous peoples of the film’s quasi-planetary moon Pandora, the most sacred places are ancient living trees that embody the life force of the planet. So for me, the film spoke powerfully in the tongue of Tu B’Shvat, the festival of the Trees’ ReBirthDay.

Avatar is extraordinary. Not only for the superficial but powerful technology of the filming/viewing, 3D and FX, but most of all for its spiritually-rooted progressive politics.

See it!

See it in the spirit of its watchword: “I see you.” For Pandora’s people, these words express what in Hebrew is “yodea,” interactive “knowing” that is emotional, intellectual, physical/sexual, and spiritual all at one — what “grok” is in the English borrowing from High Martian, channeled by Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land.

In the film, the indigenous people of Pandora – the Na’vi – (in Hebrew, this would mean “prophet”) stand in the way of an Earthian techno-conquistador corporation that is hungry to gobble up a rare mineral crucial to an Earth that the human race, or at least its corporations and governments, have desolated.

The Na’vi worship/celebrate a biological unity of their planet and all its life-forms — Eywa — especially focused on great trees that are the most sacred centers of their lives. These great trees embody Eywa, the Great Mother – but S/He is more than even these trees, S/He is all life. Spirit incarnate. (Notice that “Eywa” can be heard as “Yahweh” (sometimes misdescribed as the Hebrew Name of God) turned inside-out).

Just as Avatar began appearing in theaters, we began approaching the ecological-mystical festival of Tu B’Shvat. It intertwines celebration of the midwinter rebirth of trees and the rebirth of the Great Tree of Life Itself, God, Whose roots are in heaven and whose fruit is our world.

Tu B’Shvat comes on the 15th day (the full moon) of the midwinter Jewish lunar month of Sh’vat. This year, that falls from Friday evening, January 29, till Saturday evening, January 30. Its observance was shaped by Jewish mystics –- Kabbalists — 500 years ago, but the breadth and depth of its sense of God can embrace all religious and spiritual communities — not Jews alone.

Out of winter, out of seeming death, out of seeds that sank into the earth three months before, the juice of life begins to rise again. Begins invisibly, to sprout in spring.

This is a social and political reality, as well as a biological one. Beneath the official deadly failures of the Copenhagen conference that was supposed to reinvigorate the world’s effort to face the climate crisis, the seeds of rebirth were growing. They were growing in the grassroots activists who will not let our earth die so easily at the hands of Oil and Coal and governmental arrogance as the Crusher tanks and rocket-planes and the robotic Marine generals and corporate exploiters of AVATAR would like to kill Pandora and its God/dess Eywa.

I urge that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, those who celebrate Manitou/ GreatSpirit in the varied forms of Native practice, join for Tu B’Shvat to celebrate the Sacred Forests of our planet.

I urge that we reach across our boundaries and barricades to celebrate the trees that breathe us into life. The forests that absorb the carbon dioxide that humans are over-producing, the forests that breathe out life-giving oxygen for ourselves and all the other animals to breathe in.

For us, Eywa is YyyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, “pronounceable” only by breathing, the Interbreathing of all life, Great Mother/Father/Creator of our planet Whose breath, Whose very Name, what we call “climate” or “atmosphere,” is being choked and scorched by corporate rapacity and governmental arrogance.

I urge that we begin by going, anytime from now till January 29, in interfaith, multireligious groups to see AVATAR and then — discuss its meaning in our lives. It is the discussion afterward that will make “seeing” the film into the profound “seeing” God, life, and each other that the film itself calls for. And then I suggest we gather on the evening of January 29 to celebrate the sacred meal of Tu B’Shvat together.

What’s to discuss?

  1. AVATAR teaches that the war against peoples and the war against the earth are the same war, being incited and fought by the same Crusher institutions. If we agree with this, how do we bring together the so-far separate struggles to end the two kinds of war? If we don’t agree, how do we see the relationship?

    Why does the Torah command that even in wartime, we must not destroy the enemy’s fruit trees? (The U.S. Army did precisely this to the forests of Vietnam; the Israeli Army has done this to Palestinian olive trees; in Avatar, the invading Earthians do precisely this to the sacred trees of the Na’vi. Why?)

  2. Avatar teaches that in the struggle to heal our world, birds and animals and trees and grasses can become our active allies if we “see” them as part of ourselves, part of our Beloved Community. Is there a way to make this true for us?
  3. Some knee-jerk leftists have criticized the heroism of Jake Sully as merely another racist case of a “white male Marine” becoming savior of the exploited community. Indeed, some conservatives have stolen that rhetoric to discredit a widely celebrated film that clearly threatens to undermine the corporate-military-conservative alliance. But there are two mistakes in this rhetoric:

    First, it is not Sully who leads the Na’vi; it is his Avatar who joins the resistance; he becomes a blueskin Na’vi transformed from his life as a Marine, just as Moses the Egyptian prince remakes himself into a leader of the Israelite slave revolt.

    More important, it is Eywa Herself, acting through the plants, birds, animals of Pandora, Who saves all life from depredation. The story echoes the biblical story of Exodus, in which Moses may be a spokesperson but it is the locusts, the rivers, the frogs, the hailstorms — what we call the Ten Plagues, the earth itself rising up as an expression of God’s Will to topple Pharaoh — that triumphs. It is YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh‘s very breath, becoming the Holy Wind that splits the Red Sea, that drowns Pharaoh’s army.

    What do we make of these stories? Can the Earth, God/dess Incarnate, defend Herself? What role do humans play?

  4. Avatar describes how some Earthians turn their backs on the military-corporate attempt to shatter the Na’vi and instead join the Na’vi resistance. They become — let’s not mince words — traitors. Or rather, they transform themselves into the Avatars that actually become Na’vi, loyal not to oppressive Crushers but to the web of life. What do we Americans, we Westerners — who have already done so much to crush the life from many parts of our planet and threaten to destroy the rest by choking its Breath, its Climate — what do we make of that? What do we owe the indigenes of Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Nigeria, Burma?
  5. In the climax of the film, it is not only the invading Marines in their Crusher machines who use extreme violence. The Na’vi and Eywa‘s life forms use violence too, to defend themselves. There is barely a hint of any attempt to use nonviolent resistance in the mode of King or Gandhi to defend Pandora. Can we imagine an alternative? Why did the film not present one?

Talking together may help us “see” each other; eating together may help even more. On January 29, what’s to eat? A sacred meal, a Seder with four courses of nuts and fruit and four cups of wine. Foods that require the death of no living being, not even a carrot or a radish that dies when its roots are plucked from the earth. For the Trees of Life give forth their nuts and fruit in such profusion that to eat them kills no being. The sacred meal of the Tree Reborn is itself a meal of life.

And the four cups of wine are: all-white; white with a drop of red; red with a drop of white; and all-red: the union of white semen and red blood that the ancients thought was the start of procreation. And the progression from pale winter to the colorful fruitfulness of fall also betokens the growing-forth of life. The theme of Fours embodies the Four Worlds of Kabbalah: Action, Emotion, Intellect, Spirit.

There is much more to learn about this moment that so richly intertwines the mystical, the ecological, and the political. I helped bring together the Tu B’Shvat Anthology called Trees, Earth, & Torah (available in paperback from the Jewish Publication Society at 1.800.234.3151) that traces the festival through all its own flowering across 4,000 years of history.

On the evening of Thursday, January 21, I will lead a teleconference seminar on the meanings of the Trees’ RebirthDay in the context of Avatar and the senate’s crippled debate on a climate bill. All are welcome. To take part, please click here.

I look forward to speaking with you, “seeing” you.

You can also click to this essay on the Shalom Center’s home page and comment there. Share your thoughts about AVATAR, sacred trees, Tu B’Shvat, violence/ nonviolence, and corporate/ military behavior!

With blessings of shalom, salaam, shantih — peace,

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Since 1969, Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow has been one of the creators and leaders of Jewish renewal and of several important interfaith projects addressing issues of peace, justice, and healing of the earth. He founded The Shalom Center in 1983 and has been its director since then.

His Freedom Seder (1969) seeded a generation of Passover seders that addressed the issues of our time. His book Seasons of Our Joy has become a classic guide to the history, practice, and spiritual meaning of the festival cycle.

Rabbi Waskow pioneered in developing Eco-Judaism, in seeking peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and in applying Jewish wisdom to issues of the nuclear arms race and world peace. In 1995 he was named by the United Nations one of 40 Wisdom-Keepers from around the world. In 2007 Newsweek named him one of the 50 most influential American rabbis. He has also been honored by several Muslim and several interfaith organizations.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is a regular contributor to The Rag Blog.

The Rag Blog

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4 Responses to Rabbi Arthur Waskow on ‘Avatar’ : Celebrating the Tree of Life

  1. Pollyanna says:

    Of the Four Reviews of “Avatar” that have appeared to date in the Rag Blog (my own among them), Reb Waskow’s is the deepest and most hopeful.

    I have always loved the Birthday of the Trees.

    There are many plants on Earth that can aid us in our struggle against war and exploitation. Called “plant teachers” by many, they are the plants the warmakers and exploiters seek to prohibit: Cannabis (a plant that gives us food, fuel, shelter, clothing, self-knowledge and a working bullshit detector); sacred mushrooms, e.g. Psilocybe, and cacti, e.g. Peyote, that teach us our true place in the Big Picture and cure us of the delusion of owning stuff; and other plant allies, such as South America’s Ayahuasca. Ayahuasca-based religions are among the world’s fastest-growing, and have gained a legal foothold in the U.S.; I can’t wait for a congregation to form here!

    Four Glasses of Wine, while a fine sacrament in many respects, increasing feelings of commonality and euphoria, can lead to dull, dependent insensibility if taken too often. Alcohol may numbs feelings of personal responsibility and impotence, making servitude bearable. That is why the masters of society allow it.

    Thank you, Teacher!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I seem to recall that, in addition to nut & fruit dishes, eggs were served at the few Seders I’ve attended. While of animal origin, they certainly symbolized life (and the circle of). But perhaps they are not part of the “essential” Seder meal? Regardless, Thanks to Rabbi Waskow for a fascinating analysis.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’d wondered too if the Navi Sully had to make the jump directly into violent resistance.

    It made sense in one way because the complete desensitization of the militarized wage-slave humans made their continued rampage apparently inevitable.

    On the other hand, maybe if they’d ceded ground and gathered in other parts of the world the Navi could have come up with other means. Maybe Eywa could have been coaxed by mass linkages to shake the ground under the human outposts, or a Navi herbalist could have concocted a potion to dip their arrows in (or darts) that could have caused some pacifistic mindbending.

    Hopefully this route would be taken in any sequels, unless Cameron’s convinced big battle scenes are de rigeur(mortis).

    – Piltz

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