In July 1991, I was invited to teach at a Jewish Renewal retreat on the campus of Bryn Mawr College. My class was studying Jewish texts about the environment and expressing our relationship with the earth through music. One afternoon after meditating and praying under a large beech tree, I was moved to connect with the tree, an unusual experience for me. Embracing her wide trunk, I gazed up into her branches, and asked if she had a song for humanity. In the listening silence, I heard a three-note chant on the word ahavah, Hebrew for love. When I brought the tree’s song to my class, we immediately realized the spiritual power in its simple beauty and presented it as part of our performance at the end of the retreat.
Jewish tradition teaches that an all-pervasive love flows from the Creator, sustaining life on earth. The beech tree’s ahavah chant reminds us that love is the path for healing and returning us to wholeness with our Creator and with the earth. This chant, along with texts from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21, which are part of the daily prayers, became the theme and inspiration for Ahavah (Love).
A dramatic Sh’ma (hear/listen) introduces the first movement, containing both a warning and a promise of love and fulfillment. The mantra-like ahavah combines with a modal v’ahavta (“and you shall love…”) over lush orchestral harmonies, calling us to enter the Divine flow of love and unity, the Source of abundant blessing and goodness.
The second movement, Hishamru (Beware) warns of the consequences of turning away from God’s love and law with a strident musical language of chromatic harmonies and jagged percussive outlines: we will be cut off from God’s abundance, the earth will dry up, we will not survive. I view this text as a warning for the destruction we are now witnessing with climate change.
In the final movement, V’samtem (Place these words), quietly pulsating strings and a soothing melody restore order and promise, as the ahavah chant again weaves through.
Ahavah was premiered by the Columbia Choral Society and South Carolina Philharmonic, Nicholas Smith, conductor, with Jena Eison, mezzo-soprano. I drew on teachings from Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in interpreting the text.
1. Sh’ma v’ahavtah (Hear and love)
Sh’ma yisrael: Adoshem Elokeinu, Adoshem ekhad.
Listen, Israel: the Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone.
V’ahavta et Adoshem Elokekha v’khal l’vav’kha uv’khal nafsh’kha uv’khal m’odekha.
And you shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.
2. Hishamru (Beware)
Hishamru lakhem pen yifteh l’vav’khem v’sartem
Beware lest your hearts be swayed and you turn astray,
va’avadtem elokim akherim v’hishtakhavitem lakhem, and you worship alien gods and bow to them,
v’khara af HaShem bakhem. and the anger of the Eternal will rise against you.
V’atzar et ha-shamayim. V’lo yihyeh matar. The heavens will shut. There will be no rain.
V’ha-a-da-mah lo titen et y’vulah. The earth will not yield food (produce).
Va-ava-d-tem m’he-rah. And you will soon die (vanish).
3. V’samtem (Place these words)
Place these words upon your heart, and teach them diligently unto your children. Bind them on your hand, place them between your eyes, speak of them at home or on the way. Ahavah…
Write them on your doorposts and upon your gates. So that you may live, you and your children on the land which God gave to your ancestors. Ahavah…
For as long as the heavens are over the earth. Ahavah…
– Meira Warshauer, 2004