Gaze to the west-northwest from the peninsula of downtown Vancouver to the point where Burrard Inlet and Georgia Strait converge as the snow-capped Coastal Mountains sweep down 5,800 feet into those waters, and on a clear day you can identify Lighthouse Park, one of the most awe-inspiring hiking grounds of the Pacific coast, a stomping ground of my youth.

You might miss it on a typical hike, but there’s a special place there. After a long, winding descent to the lighthouse, then veering to the west, after scuttling a few massive rocks and negotiating some dense coniferous woods, you emerge suddenly into a grove of hemlocks, well-spaced due to the interpolation of rocks and the nearness of the sea, filtering an unexpected downpour of sunshine through their canopy.

Suddenly serene. That is my best stab at describing that grove. And suddenly just hemlocks. Not very tall ones—considering that this is Pacific rain forest. But nevertheless a statured, serene family of hemlocks.

You have to pause at this place and feel, “Something is going on amongst these lofty beings.” There is no doubt in my mind, if I were a First Nations person—as we call the Squamish who were there before us—I would consider this place sacred.

But that’s not my tribe. I am a Jew.

Can nature be sacred to a Jew?

It's a question with serious, practical ramifications beyond the mental health exercise we call hiking. Often I have asked myself, “Does a Jew have any reason other than utilitarian concerns to be involved in the conservation of nature? Is preservation of our forests and the great diversity of the species of our planet a concern that emerges out of my Jewishness, or from outside my Jewishness?”

Can nature be sacred to a Jew?

It is not as simple a question as it may seem. Animism, the attribution of a soul to animals, plants, and inanimate objects has long been perceived as a slippery slope towards worship of these beings, a form of polytheism. Indeed, worship within a sacred grove of trees was an ancient Canaanite practice forbidden by the Torah. Declaring a tree sacred seems well off limits for a Jew.

It might seem then that sanctifying a spot in nature would also be un-Jewish, even an anathema to monotheism. When there’s only one G‑d to be worshipped, infinite and unbounded, entirely transcendent of His creation, then what room is there to enshrine a particular finite creature or space? How can I pause in this one place and say, “I feel G‑d’s presence here,” when, in the words of wise King Solomon, “the heavens and the heavens of the heavens cannot contain Him?”1

And yet there are sacred spaces for Jews. To this day, no Jew is permitted to set foot in the space where once the Holy of Holies stood, the chamber of the ancient Temple that the High Priest alone would enter, once a year on Yom Kippur. Tradition has it that this was the same place where Jacob had his dream of a ladder to heaven and declared, “How awesome is this place! This is certainly the house of G‑d and the gateway to heaven!”

The notion of a soul to each thing is also not foreign to Judaism. The Book of Psalms repeatedly sings odes to nature’s beauty and wondrousness. “Every soul praises You!”—and not just human souls: the mountains and the hills, the date palms and the oaks, every bird and insect, even the fire, the wind and the hail.

Moses himself addresses the heavens and the earth as sentient beings, assigning them as witnesses to Israel’s covenant.2 And he is chided by G‑d for not speaking to a rock as he was instructed.3

One ancient Midrash, known as Perek Shirah, describes the song each creature sings to its Creator, including the song of the sun and the moon, ending with a sassy frog who boasts that his song is superior even to that of King David himself. Why? Because he gives his very life to feed the stork.4

Of course, all this could be taken allegorically, as some Jewish philosophers have chosen to do. But it certainly doesn’t read well that way.

Indeed, we find one of the most respected sages of our tradition, whose opinions are revered both in halachah and in kabbalah, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Ari, teaching that “even the silent world of rocks and earth have a soul and spiritual life.”5 His senior colleague, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, asserted that Planet Earth itself is a sentient being, with support from rabbinic sources6 —in contrast with Maimonides who held that celestial entities, such as the Sun and constellations, but not Earth, are “knowing and self-knowing” beings.7 Rabbi Chaim ibn Atar writes that everything G‑d created He imbued with a consciousness of its Creator.8

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero asserted that Planet Earth itself is a sentient being.

So do we give reverence to these lives, these souls all around us? We treat human life with a certain sanctity because we believe that something more than a mobile sack of meat and bones stands before us, that there is a soul which is somehow divine. Why not animals as well? And maybe trees and mountain ranges while we’re at it? It’s not just a question of “where do we draw the line?”—it’s a question of monotheism itself.

There Is No Matter

The question would seem insurmountable. And it is—until we examine the assumption that provides its foundation: That there is a universe of entities that somehow exist independently of their Creator.

Fundamentally, this is the doctrine of matter that Western thought has swallowed and metabolized almost unquestioned—the notion that there is a fundamental substance, “stuff” that eternally just is, that G‑d is given to work with, like we work with clay. Something external to Him which He imbues with form.

But it’s a doctrine quite difficult to align with our tradition.

Look again in Genesis, and in those Psalms, indeed throughout the entire Tanach (Hebrew Bible). There’s no matter, no stuff, no things. All there is is G‑d speaking.

There’s no matter, no stuff, no things. All there is is G‑d speaking.

We translate the Hebrew davar as “thing,” but its actual meaning is “word.” That is all there is to a rock, a tree, a wind, a universe: “G‑d spoke and it came to be.”9

When did He speak? Just now.

As the Midrash on the Psalms10 tells us, those words and that act of speaking is happening at every moment, because “His words are alive and endure for all time.”11 Each created being has its word, its combination of divine forces that generate its existence, sustain it, and give it life and form every moment anew—much like the code on a digital device generates and sustains the images and events on its display. The words themselves stand outside of time even as they are invested within time.

That is all there is to this phenomenon we call matter—it is not a thing, but an ongoing event, a process of being, entering, departing and re-entering existence at every moment.

The Baal Shem Tov drew a powerful idea out of that Midrash,12 one that explains so much by saying so little: The idea that existence itself is a living being entirely one with its Creator.

He explained that if those divine articulations of creative energy would depart for but a moment and return to their origin within G‑d, the world wouldn’t simply vanish—it would never have existed. No, not “Monday there was no world, Tuesday there was a world over here, and then Wednesday—hey, where did that world go?” No. Just a rollback to that pre-spacetime utter silence when nothing ever was said to begin with—not even a beginning.

Because it’s not just the particulars of this world that are generated by these divine articulations. It is existence itself—time, space, consciousness, logic, the very parameters of being. Remove that sustaining force and the very notion of a binary is/is-not existence has vanished.

Language fails us when we attempt to describe this, but nothing could ever have existed if existence no longer exists.

In the metaphor of one of the earliest texts of Jewish thought, the Book of Formation, there are only three things: A Storyteller, a story, and the telling of the story.13 Which indeed reduces to: All there is is a storyteller telling a story.

All there is is a storyteller telling a story.

One story He tells is of a family of hemlocks who live at the foot of a great mountain. They are not things. They are the sounds of a story being told.

Living Matter

Now let’s revisit that assertion of the Ari that even rocks and earth have a soul.

Here’s how Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi reads that: The Ari is speaking of the divine articulations of creative energy that sustain the very existence of the rock and imbue it with its particular properties and purpose.14 Nothing exists without a soul, a divine consciousness sustaining it, because in reality, all that exists is divine consciousness.

Or, as Rabbi Moshe Cordovero wrote:

The verse reads, “You are He who alone is G‑d. You made the heavens, the heavens of the heavens, the earth and all upon it, the seas and all that is within them. And You vivify all of them.”15

But we have a tradition that “vivify” here means “isify.” For since He is the one who isified everything out of the void, He must sustain at every moment the isness of all that is.

In this way we can understand that which we say in our prayers, “In His goodness, He renews every day constantly the act of the beginning.”16

No, it is not so radical, simply an articulation of an earlier and simpler conception of our universe. In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi:

No, it is not so radical, simply an articulation of an earlier and simpler conception of our universe.

This is not a kabbalistic wisdom from the mysteries that belong to G‐d alone. Rather, it is an open, revealed matter to all Jews—to believe with perfect faith in the explicit statement of scripture, “‘Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?’ says G‐d.”17 The verse, in principle, does not leave behind its plain meaning.

And aside from this, it is a matter of simple faith among Jews in general. It is handed down to them by their holy ancestors who walked earnestly with G‐d, without attempting to apply human intellect to philosophize about G‐dliness—something that is infinitely beyond intellect—to understand just how He fills the entire earth.

Only that at a certain point, some Jews decided to philosophize about this, and it is impossible to bring it within the reach of their reason except by means of premises borrowed from the writings of the Ari, divested from the physical connotations, and according to what I heard from my masters, may their souls rest in Eden.18

And it is not so foreign to modernity as it may seem. We’ve all been taught in school about the invisible fields of forces that hold our universe in place—every atom and every particle of every atom. Why doesn’t your hand go through that table? Because the electromagnetic fields that hold the atoms of the table in place don’t allow it. They have their rules, and according to those rules the space is full already—even if it’s 99.99% empty.

What are those fields and forces? Definitely not “stuff” as we know it. If those fields are real, it means that our world is held together by information and rules. At the quantum level, particles are emerging into existence every moment out of those fields, traveling through multiple infinite values to get there—not traveling through time, but through some sort of mathematical reality that we can calculate to some degree, even if we have no idea what it is.19

If so, it’s not so distant from our current understanding of physics to see our universe as a single being, a single field, only that it is a sentient, conscious and deliberate one, generating each detail of reality out of the void, articulating itself in infinite diversity and detail.

Not G‑d But G‑dliness

The question now: The life within each thing, the consciousness that is capable of creating and sustaining an entire universe with its endless diversity and perfect harmony, is that G‑d?

Yes and no.

Yes, because who else creates and sustains the universe other than G‑d?

No, because none of this defines G‑d. G‑d doesn’t have to create this universe in this way. Time and space do not have to be. Nothing has to be. Just as the things you think, say and do don’t define you—but much more so, nothing about this universe defines G‑d.

In the words of the Zohar, “He is within all worlds and He is beyond all worlds. He defines all things, but none of them define Him.”20

That’s why, rather than saying this is G‑d, we say this is His “G‑dliness.” That’s a convenient term similar to saying it is His light or His energy. Only that light and energy radiate outside of their source. G‑dliness is still within G‑d.21

That’s why, rather than saying this is G‑d, we say this is His “G‑dliness.”

All things are still within G‑d. That grove of hemlocks is still within G‑d.

So why does it feel so real? How can we perceive anything at all, if the reality is that there is only Him?

Because it is such great art. As King David exclaims in his psalm, “How awesome are your works, oh G‑d! You are so intense, your enemies deny You!”22

Meaning to say: You created such a masterpiece of art, arranged such believable characters and consistent patterns of nature, such suspension of disbelief, that those who wish to deny Your existence are able to delude themselves that it’s all just dumb matter following its own, internally consistent laws.

To a degree, it is so with all great art. But the only instance where it is absolutely so is with the grand Artist of all things.

That’s because when we create, our art has no ego of its own. Because we have no true ego of our own—we ourselves are artifacts of a greater Ego. Only an absolute existence, a primal existence without cause or precedent, a true Ego, can inject within His art a sense of self, so that each of His artifacts takes up its own space where no other can enter, asserts itself as a being all its own, and senses its own “I am.” As though it has no cause or precedent.23

As though there is a thing called matter, external to its Creator.

The Universe as a Parable

Thinking of the universe this way makes it a very different place. No longer is it stuff that’s “just there,” but a force, a continual process that says, “I am not a thing. I am just G‑d creating.”

So, no, the tree is not G‑d, or even G‑dliness. Neither is the universe G‑d or G‑dliness.

Because as soon as you identify the tree or the universe as an entity of its own, you’ve grasped the artifact without the artist. And that is a delusion.

As soon as you identify the tree or the universe as an entity of its own, you’ve grasped the artifact without the artist. And that is a delusion.

Think of the world as a parable.24 All great art is parable. Art is an artist using the tools and techniques of his art to express something that cannot be seen or heard or expressed—other than by a parable. At its best, a work of art is a parable for the very essence and soul of the artist.

So let’s say someone tells you a parable. Perhaps a parable about a farm, one on which the animals are very dissatisfied and so chase the farmer away and run the farm themselves. And by changing everything, nothing changes.

You might recognize this as the masterwork of George Orwell, who wrote Animal Farm as a parody of the Bolshevik revolution and its failure to do much more than replace one tyranny with a yet fiercer one. Yet when I asked one adolescent student what the book was about, she replied, “It’s about a farm run by pigs. It’s sort of funny.”

That is precisely what we do when we say “this is a tree.” Or “this is a universe.” By grasping the artifact and leaving the artist behind we delude ourselves with an artificial reality.

The tree is not a tree. It is art. It has meaning only within a story told by a Storyteller. It points upward and says, “There is an Artist that cannot be seen or heard or defined in any way, and He is sharing with you His unknowable infiniteness condensed miraculously within the finite beauty of this tree. I am here so that you can know Him, attain awe and wonder, even love for our Creator.”

Because, yes, in the art is the artist, if you will seek Him there. If you will meet the artist in person, you may have some faint idea of who he is. But if you want the soul of the artist, you must look inside his art.

As the Baal Shem Tov taught, in everything you see or hear the Author of this story is teaching you how to connect with Him.

Here’s a connection:

“A human being,” Torah tells us, “is a tree of the forest.”25

The tree is reaching up toward the sun. It will twist and turn, extrude new branches and drop old ones, reach deeper into the earth, widen its trunk, all so that it can grasp more sunlight. That pursuit of light, that is the tree's entire life.

And you? Isn’t your life also such a struggle to attain light? If so, learn from the tree how to attain that light.

The tree is reaching upward toward the sun. Isn’t your life also a struggle to attain light?

Another—but with a preface:

The earth beneath our feet is also a living being. Indeed, we and that earth are close relatives. We human beings are called “Adam,” because we are formed from earth—“adamah.”26

Here’s something amazing: The halachah considers us to remain earth. Before we eat a vegetable that grows in the earth, we say a blessing, “You are the source of blessing, G‑d … who has created the produce of the earth.” Now, let’s say it were grown in soil, but in a pot indoors. Then a different blessing must be said before eating it, because it is no longer produced in the earth.

But if it grew on a human being, no matter where that human was, the blessing is still “…who has created the produce of the earth.” Because we are earth, walking and speaking earth.27

Now this year, beginning this autumn season, is a shemitah year in the Land of Israel. That means the earth lies fallow, unseeded and unworked for an entire year.

In the seventh year the land shall have a shabbat of complete rest, a shabbat dedicated to G‑d: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.28

The land, being a living being, needs time off to reconnect to its Maker once in seven years. We human beings, also being earth, also need to unplug from our busy world and reconnect with the G‑d point within us—once in seven days.


The first thing that strikes me upon leaving the city to enter a forest is the integral harmony. We build cities like we build machines, piecing together disparate parts, foreign to one another at their core. It is an artificial world, a disintegrated world. The forest is a single whole manifest in a multitude of living souls.

That is not just a harmony of parts, but of body and soul. If you would ask me, “Is the forest a physical place or a spiritual place?” I would not have an answer. Space, time and spirit are one in the forest in the way I can’t imagine in the city.

But the forest empowers me to return to the city and at least attempt to attain some semblance of its harmony. Is my soul at peace with my body to the point that they are in perfect oneness with each other? Is my mind at peace with my heart? Is my life a single integral whole?

Isn’t that the role of Torah observance in my life—to create that integrity of being, that wholeness, in which every thought, word and action is moving in the same direction? So that my consumption of food should be as spiritual an act as my morning prayers, and my contemplations of the divine should affect the way I treat a fellow human being at the office.

Halachah itself is an integrated organic system, a great forest of trees more ancient than the sequoias. We’ve learned that we can live in harmony with the forest, and with the ecology of our entire biosphere if we first study it well before building, so that we can reduce our footprint as much as possible–and perhaps we may even delicately improve upon that system.

The intricacies of halachah are quite the same. Don’t go ripping things out of the ground just because you don’t see any point in them being there. Embrace the forest, study it well. Build your home wisely within its eco structure and become part of its song.

All the world is a parable. It is G‑d speaking to you, guiding you to become closer.

When you listen to it that way, then certainly it is divine. You have shattered the illusion and made it so.

The I of a Leaf

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson of Lubavitch told this story:

It was the summer of 1896, and Father and I were strolling in the fields of Balivka, a hamlet near Lubavitch. The grain was near to ripening, and the wheat and grass swayed gently in the breeze.

Said Father to me: “See G‑dliness! Every movement of each stalk and grass was included in G‑d’s primordial thought of creation, in G‑d’s all-embracing vision of time and space, and is guided by divine providence toward a G‑dly purpose.”

Walking, we entered the forest. Engrossed in what I had heard, excited by the gentleness and seriousness of Father’s words, I absentmindedly tore a leaf off a passing tree. Holding it a while in my hands, I continued my thoughtful pacing, occasionally tearing small pieces of leaf and casting them to the winds.

“The Holy Ari,” said Father to me, “says that not only is every leaf on a tree a creation invested with divine life, created for a specific purpose within G‑d’s intent in creation, but also that within each and every leaf there is a spark of a soul that has descended to earth to find its perfection and fulfillment.”

“The Talmud,” Father continued, “rules that ‘a man is always responsible for his actions, whether awake or asleep.’29 The difference between wakefulness and sleep is in the inner faculties of man, his intellect and emotions. The external faculties function equally well in sleep; only the inner faculties are confused. So dreams present us with contradictory truths. A waking man sees the real world; a sleeping man does not. This is the deeper significance of wakefulness and sleep: when one is awake one sees divinity; when asleep, one does not.”

“Nevertheless, our sages maintain that man is always responsible for his actions, whether awake or asleep. Only this moment we have spoken of divine, detailed providence, and unthinkingly you tore off a leaf, played with it in your hands, twisting and squashing and tearing it to pieces, throwing it in all directions.”

“How can one be so callous towards a creation of G‑d? This leaf was created by the Almighty towards a specific purpose, and is imbued with a divine life-force. It has a body, and it has its life. In what way is the ‘I’ of this leaf inferior to yours?”

When you are not dreaming, you are awake to the “I” of each being, and you sense that it is no less an “I” than your own. As your “I” has meaning, divine meaning, so has this leaf, this rock, this wind, this sunshine that seeps through the canopy and caresses your skin.

When you are not dreaming, you are awake to the “I” of each being, and you sense that it is no less an “I” than your own.

What is that meaning? It is the relentless ascent of all things to reconnect with their origin above, to allow the G‑dliness within them to shine.

On the one hand, we are an integral player in that drama. We are, as mentioned above, the soil itself.

On the other hand, we are gardeners by design. When we were first created, we were placed in the Garden of Eden “to work it and to protect it.”30

Because without us it is just nature. We reveal nature’s secret, that it is truly pure G‑dliness. We are the agent placed within this universe to make that connection—a process we call tikun, repairing and perfecting.

So that when some instance of beauty calls out to you from this universe, whether the majesty of a humpback whale or the stunning ingenuity of a tiny hummingbird, the fury of a hurricane or the serenity of a mountain stream, contemplate its depth, come to know its Creator through this particular window, say some words of Torah that will reconnect this beauty to its place above, find the mitzvah, the divine connection that belongs to this place alone. What is G‑d telling you here and now?

In this here and now we have reached a critical point in history when G‑d tells the gardener, “I’m giving you a crucial problem to solve. But you can only solve it if you choose to work together, all of you, every nation and every corporation and every individual, all as one. If you could make this mess, you can save this planet.”

We can accomplish our assignment by beginning to recognize that which lies hidden within nature: Eternal meaning, a divine, living work of art, before which we must stand in awe and reverence.

G‑d’s voice whispering in our ear.