Sunlight streaming through thin trees in a forest

The Jewish Divinity of Mary Oliver

I found G?!d through the words of the poet Mary Oliver. She came to me in the summer of 2018 as this city kid expanded their love for nature, working at a farm camp for teens. When I first read her lines “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it,” I immediately felt that these were instructions for living a specifically Jewish life (from “Sometimes” in Red Bird). The practice of paying attention to everything with a blessing of astonishment, out loud, feels quintessentially Jewish. Her prolific body of work chronicling the wonders of nature and the human condition opened the door to my spirituality. I use her words as often as I can in the services and rituals that I lead, and I am certainly not alone in that. I love the familiar warmth when I come across one of her poems in the supplemental pages of a siddur. In this essay, I plan to use those life instructions as wayfinders to explore how her words can and have opened up Jewish spirituality and liturgy.

I’m thinking in particular of the Nisim b’chol yom [daily miracles] in the Shacharit morning service with the litany of blessings upon waking — including the smallest most ordinary yet magnificently miraculous act of once again awakening to a new day.

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו חי העולמי המעביר שנה מעיני ותנומה מעפעפי

Blessed are you, Awakener, our God, life of all the worlds, who removes sleep from my eyes, and slumber from my eyelids

Every day / I see or hear / something / that more or less // kills me / with delight, / that leaves me / like a needle // in the haystack / of light. / It is what I was born for — / to look, to listen, // to lose myself / inside this soft world — / to instruct myself / over and over // in joy, / and acclamation. / Nor am I talking / about the exceptional, // the fearful, the dreadful, / the very extravagant — / but of the ordinary, / the common, the very drab, // the daily presentations. / Oh, good scholar, / I say to myself, / how can you help // but grow wise / with such teachings / as these — / the untrimmable light // of the world, / the ocean’s shine, / the prayers that are made / out of grass? (“Mindful” in Why I Wake Early)

We are tasked to remain attentive to these quotidien miracles each and every day and never to take them for granted. Oliver makes a case for the daily discipline and embodiment of davening [prayer]: “to instruct myself over and over in joy, and acclamation.” This vocal cacophony of praise is sewn into Jewish prayer — daily with the pesukei d’zimra [verses of praise] and weekly with the kavanah [intention] of joy required when welcoming the Sabbath.

The “over and over” of her self-instruction speaks to the self-discipline that also comes with a serious Jewish commitment to one’s own personal relationship to halakha [Jewish law]. There’s an impactful line from Rabbi Leon Morris in a story about wrapping tefillin in The Rituals and Practices of a Jewish Life. He talks about how the daily ritual of tefillin does not mean he experiences a “spiritual high” of contemplation and calm every morning, but rather “a different kind of spirituality — a spirituality of commitment and discipline.” Oliver’s ethos of paying attention continues to inspire me towards a life of Jewish obligation and fulfillment on my path towards the rabbinate.

I believe Oliver’s concept of astonishment aligns with the biblical concept of yirah, that linguistic see-saw of awe and fear. From Oliver’s instructions: “Be astonished.” G?!d is unknowable, ineffable, mysterious, scary, huge.

וַיַּסְתֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ פָּנָ֔יו כִּ֣י יָרֵ֔א מֵהַבִּ֖יט אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִֽים

[Exodus 3:6] And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at G?!d.

And Moses covered his face, for he felt awe at beholding the holiness of the Almighty.

This side by side translation comparison perfectly showcases the depth of interpretation available from the same shoresh [verb root]. In one of the most pivotal moments of Tanakh, Moses is confronted by the overwhelming presence of G?!d and initially cannot bear the intensity.

In my resistance to the image of G?!d as a white-bearded man in the sky, I also dislike the idea of needing to be full of fear. My Bat Mitzvah parsha [weekly Torah portion] included an instance of yirah in reference to G?!d in the Exodus story, and I remember my righteous anti-authoritarian discussions with the Rabbi; it just didn’t make sense to me that I was supposed to fear the divine. Even at 13, I was more into the idea of awe and wonder than the type of power that violently cultivates fear. I still prefer awe to fear, but I am curious how awe does also include the scary side of the divine. I’m thinking of the awesome quality of the ocean or outer space — beautiful, powerful, literally awesome, yet also dangerous and terrifying.

The sea can do craziness, it can do smooth, / it can lie down like silk breathing / or toss havoc shoreward; it can give // gifts or withhold all; it can rise, ebb, froth / like an incoming frenzy or fountains, or it can / sweet-talk entirely. As I can too, // and so, no doubt, can you, and you. (“The Poet Compares Human Nature to the Ocean From Which We Came” in A Thousand Mornings)

We certainly experience some of the havoc and wonder of the ocean with the climax of the Exodus story, as the Hebrews faced an impassable sea with violent pursuit hot on their heels. Facing the water in the moments before and after the splitting of the sea, I imagine the Hebrews experienced all the shades of yirah. A cacophony of fear and awe cohabitating in the heart as they witnessed the miracle of impassable water opening into a walkable path. Similarly, the human experiences most related to yirah are birth and death, those life bookends when we are closest to the vast unknown — again beautiful and powerful, yet terrifying. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks about this feeling in terms of sublime wonder:

Among the many things that religious tradition holds in store for us is a legacy of wonder. The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin. (God in Search of Man)

I believe Heschel and Oliver are discussing the same thing: don’t take the miracle of life/existence for granted.

Mary Oliver says, “if you notice anything, / it leads you to notice / more / and more” — this practice is an iterative process of gratitude and paying attention (from “The Moths” in Dream Work). It also involves community — “tell about it” — that I see reflected in the Jewish need for multiplicity, whether through the minyan needed for certain prayers or the love for chevruta-style paired learning. When I did not have an entry-point to the liturgy-based spirituality of the synagogue, Oliver opened the door to an embodied understanding of the divine, based in sober appreciation of the natural world. Paradoxically to the “tell about it” theme, Oliver’s practice involves a lot of humble listening to the silence around us. This is beautifully highlighted in her famous poem “Praying,” which I put into conversation with the words that begin the central Amidah portion of the service. This offering into the Amidah is a liturgical way to attempt opening that doorway into thanks.

אֲ֭דֹנָי שְׂפָתַ֣י תִּפְתָּ֑ח וּ֝פִ֗י יַגִּ֥יד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ

Adonai, open up my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise

It doesn’t have to be / the blue iris, it could be / weeds in a vacant lot, or a few / small stones; just / pay attention, then patch // a few words together and don’t try / to make them elaborate, this isn’t / a contest but the doorway // into thanks, and a silence in which / another voice may speak (“Praying” in Thirst)

This prayer-poem also pairs well with “I know a lot of fancy words. I tear them from my heart and my tongue. Then I pray” (#1 from “Six Recognitions of the Lord” in Thirst). I am interested in the tension between listening and telling, and what those have to do with the posture of prayer.

Mary Oliver’s lens on the world showed me the door to G?!d, perhaps a name for that “other voice” that speaks in the silence of gratitude and stillness. My spirituality has been completely shaped by her tender yet serious practice of appreciation and acknowledgement, especially for the living world around us.

As I moved through the discerning process of my path to the rabbinate, I held this final poem excerpt with me. I don’t claim to know what the soul or the divine is, but I know I want to spend my life playing at those edges: “looking, and touching, and loving.”

Understand, I am always trying to figure out / what the soul is, and where hidden, / and what shape / and so, last week, / when I found on the beach / the ear bone / of a pilot whale that may have died / hundreds of years ago, I thought / maybe I was close / to discovering something / for the ear bone / is the portion that lasts longest / in any of us, man or whale; […] it was only / two inches long / and thought: the soul / might be like this / so hard, so necessary / yet almost nothing. […] and what the soul is, also / I believe I will never quite know. / Though I play at the edges of knowing, / truly I know / our part is not knowing, / but looking, and touching, and loving, / which is the way I walked on, / softly, / through the pale-pink morning light. (from “Bone”, Why I Wake Early)

Léah's an incoming first year rabbinical student at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. They love knitting, running lights in dusty theatres, and nerding out.