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 day, after saying my afternoon prayers, I turned to behold a magnificent beech tree. Drawn to approach her, I embraced her wide trunk, gazed up into her branches, and a question emerged: Do you have a song for me? To my delight and wonder, I heard a simple chant on the Hebrew word for love, ahavah. It was as if the tree were emanating love to me, and to all of humanity. And later, I realized this message was from all the trees, from all of creation, singing love.
When I shared the chant with my class, we immediately recognized its spiritual power and presented it as part of our performance at the end of the retreat. (The chant, recently presented at Beth Shalom Synagogue in Columbia, SC, may be heard in this video which includes photos of the beech tree taken in early spring, 2019.
In light of the Climate Crisis we now face, the beech tree’s ahavah chant reminds us that love is the path for healing the earth. Jewish tradition teaches that an all-pervasive love constantly flows from the Creator, sustaining life on earth. Can we return this love? Can we live in harmony with the earth and with each other and repair our broken home? The ahavah chant, along with texts from Deuteronomy that call us to love, and that also warn of destruction if we turn away, became the theme and inspiration for Ahavah (Love).
A dramatic Sh’ma (hear/listen) introduces the first movement. I interpret Sh’ma here as a call to pay attention, and to remember that the entire universe is one grand Divinity, pulsing with love. The music softens into v’ahavta, “and you shall love,” leading to the ahavah chant over lush orchestral harmonies which invite us to enter the Divine flow of love and unity. This movement expresses gratitude for the abundant blessing of our earth home which has sustained us throughout generations.
The second movement, Hishamru (Beware) warns of the consequences of turning away from G-d’s love and law. For me, this represents our going astray as a society and civilization, unwilling to give up fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse warming, and allowing harmful activities which are rapidly destroying the entire ecosystem we depend on for life. A strident musical language of chromatic harmonies and jagged percussive outlines conveys the dire prediction of the text: we will be cut off from G-d’s abundance, the earth will dry up, we will not survive.
The final movement, V’samtem (Place these words), returns to the promise of blessing and sustenance. As the mezzo soprano sings a soothing melody over quietly pulsating strings, the ahavah chant again weaves through. This music expresses my prayer that we wake up and return to our Source, healing our home planet with love. And that the blessing in this text “that you may live, you and your children, on the land which G-d gave to your ancestors, for as long as the heavens are over the earth,” will be fulfilled. Ahavah…
I drew on teachings from Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in interpreting the text.
Ahavah was premiered by the South Carolina Philharmonic, Nicholas Smith, conductor, with the Columbia Choral Society, Larry Wyatt, director, and Jena Eison, mezzo-soprano soloist. It was later recorded by the conductor Kirk Trevor and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and Slovak Philharmonic Chorus with Jennifer Hines, mezzo soprano, and released on Albany Record’s Streams in the Desert (Troy 973).
Text and translation:
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…
Notes and translation by Meira Warshauer
To view the Piano/Vocal Score, click here.