Each of Us Is a Tree of Life
Rabbi Mychal Copeland’s new book teaches children how to embody Torah through yoga.
Look at a tree, or imagine one. What do you have in common with your tree? You are both living organisms. Strong. Vulnerable. Dynamic. In Jewish teaching, our Torah is called the Tree of Life. Our sacred stories come alive as we reread them each year, bringing our unique, contemporary lenses to ancient tales. Torah is called a Tree of Life. Jewish mystics even created a map which arranged multiple aspects of the Divine in the form of a tree. That map also forms the shape of a human body. Your human body. Human beings, Torah, and God all take the form of a tree.
The practice of yoga gives us a way to experience, feel, and breathe our stories in the tree trunks of our bodies, our bones. As we move through the yoga poses in my book, I Am the Tree of Life: My Jewish Yoga Book, we make connections between the poses and stories in the Torah. The practice of yoga teaches us to embody aspects of our world rather than passively standing outside of them as if we are separate. We don’t just pretend to stand “like” a tree, or “as if” we were a mountain. We become the tree or the mountain. In the same way, we don’t just read our Jewish texts as if we are outside of them; we become them, we enliven them. So what happens when we form a mountain pose in a Jewish context? We become Mt. Sinai. When we slither into cobra? We become Aaron’s staff, transforming into a snake in front of Pharaoh. And when we stretch out our arms as branches in tree pose? We become a container for the Divine. We become the Tree of Life.
Our spiritual selves are connected to our physical selves. There is spiritual wisdom that can be accessed through felt sensation in our bodies. When we are in emotional distress, we feel it in our bodies. When our bodies hurt, we experience emotional and spiritual pain. Bringing each part of ourselves together in embodied practice can be part of our healing. When we eat, drink, walk, dance, sing, hum, pray or do yoga, we become more deeply aware of ourselves, other people, and the world we live in. Our ancestors sang, chanted, swayed, shuckled, bowed, rose up, and prostrated themselves on the ground as they prayed. They engaged their whole selves in spiritual practice: body, soul, and intellect.
Judaism teaches that our bodies are holy, beautiful, unique. We say Asher Yatzar, a prayer of gratitude that our bodies were created with wisdom, followed by Elohai Neshama, a celebration of our pure souls. These words are a daily reminder of the interconnection between body and soul. But we also learn from these ancient Jewish writings that each of us is a divinely created vessel, as is every other person.
We can read a tree’s history by looking at its rings. Human beings carry our stories in our bodies, too. Besides those from Jewish tradition, we internalize family memories passed down from generation to generation, stories about where we came from, and even painful tales from our past. In My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, Resmaa Menakem teaches that embedded in our DNA are our ancestors’ stories, both of trauma and resilience. He writes that although our inclination is to talk out the places of hurt, we won’t actually heal, individually or collectively, until we also get in touch with how we remember those stories in our bodies. When people have experienced trauma, such as violence perpetrated against Black bodies or constant fear of brutality, we often become fearful of our own physical sensations. Menakem writes that we need to teach our kids body awareness practices such as meditation. Yoga is another practice that teaches us to pay attention to our bodily sensations, and allows what we may be suppressing to rise to the surface. Passing embodiment practices like singing and movement onto the next generation creates a culture of caring for our whole selves. Menakem suggests that healing from both our individual and collective trauma is a crucial part of our social justice work. So much pain is passed on from generation to generation, but when we work through that pain, we have the power to heal our bodies and the world.
Our work of tikkun olam, healing the world, and tikkun ha-nefesh, healing ourselves, are symbiotic. We open to the possibility of joy in our bodies when we recognize that this is precisely where wisdom and resilience reside. We can pass this wisdom onto our children.
One way we can work toward healing is to address invisibility. In the United States, Jews of color make up about 15-20% of the overall Jewish population, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the makeup of Jewish organizations. Or in Jewish children’s books. Too many kids from non-white, multiracial, and interfaith families grow up hearing that they are not Jewish enough, or are assumed to not be Jewish at all, even in the synagogues where they were raised.
In early conversations with Apples & Honey Press about my book, I wanted to make sure the children pictured would reflect these demographics. They enthusiastically agreed, bringing Brazilian artist Andre Ceolin to the project. Portraying children of color in books does not solve the deep-seated issues we face in the Jewish community or our larger American culture. Yet making sure people of color are represented in Jewish children’s literature is one way we can show kids they are visible in Jewish life, while showing white children that a diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds is what Jewish looks like. We can offer the next generation an invitation to connect themselves to Jewish stories and other Jews. Collectively, we can make intentional choices about which stories and images are passed on.
Each of us is a Tree of Life, just like the Torah. What stories live within you?