Off the Shelf: Prayer and nature by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

People find peace and comfort through different activities. Take, for example, two recent books, one of which looks at prayer and the other at gardening. Rabbi Dov Singer gives suggestions to help people have meaningful prayer experiences in “Prepare My Prayer: Recipes to Awaken the Soul” (Maggid Books). Israeli writer Meir Shalev has a more mundane mission: as an amateur gardener, he wants to share his love of gardening and nature in “My Wild Garden: Notes from a Writer’s Eden” (Schocken).

Singer believes in the power of prayer – that it can help people change the world in which they live. He compares his work to a recipe book, noting that once someone has the correct ingredients and learns the proper techniques, they can cook. The same is true for prayer. In fact, Singer believe that prayer is a natural skill – that he is just helping people release what is already inside them. His suggestions, then, serve as reminders of the way they can reach out to God. 

The book is divided into 11 sections, each of which offer a recipe for how to achieve meaningful prayer. These sections include short quotes from biblical, talmudic and other sources relating to the theme. They are followed by practical suggestions on how to create a time and space for exploring that part of the prayer experience. For example, when helping people “open their senses” before entering the synagogue to pray, Singer suggests several steps on how to make this happen: going outside and experiencing the world with eyes closed, followed by opening one’s eyes and taking in the details of nature. Then people should open their hearts to all the sights, sounds, smells and tastes surrounding them. This openness and appreciation of the wonders of God’s world helps create a better prayer experience.

Singer knows that it’s not necessarily easy to pray so he offers a variety of ways to enter prayer, from keeping a journal to experimenting with primal sounds. The idea is to get past whatever blocks people have about prayer or, perhaps more accurately, that make them feel self-conscious about opening themselves to the Divine. 
The theology of “Prepare My Prayer” is Orthodox, but Singer’s suggestions can be used by Jews of all denominations. He acknowledges that prayer is an individual practice and that each person using his book will have to find their own path. Anyone looking to improve their prayer practice should find this book helpful.

While Singer’s life clearly revolves around his religious practice, Shalev’s connection to religion is more problematic. His work is not a scholarly treatise on Israeli plants, although readers learn a great deal about native Israeli plants. Instead, he offers personal musings about everything from his personal obsession with the seeds he harvests to his fascination with the animals and insects that share his garden. He frequently quotes from writers – Israelis and others – about plants and gardens. Shalev does talk about God, but in the context of Sukkot and the prayer for rain – even including the story of Honi the rainmaker (who, during a drought, told God he wasn’t moving until the proper rains came), although his commentary is less religious and more cynical than more traditional retelling. Shalev also makes it clear that he is not fond of the current Israeli rabbinate, whom he believes lack the ability for creative solutions offered by those in past centuries. 

However, his work is filled with biblical references and discussions of Hebrew. For example, he writes about fruit trees mentioned in Genesis: the fig tree, whose leaves he believes covered Adam and Eve after they realized they were naked, and the olive tree, which played a role in the Noah story. He refers to plants found in the vineyard as fruit trees, noting that they were used by Noah to make wine after the flood. 

Shelav also writes of the emotions he believes his plants experience. On the one hand, he realizes this is a bit ridiculous. On the other, he can’t help imagining how they might be feeling, for example, a lost seed being distressed that it will never grow and blossom. In addition, he acknowledges the different quirks gardeners have. The funniest example comes when he compares Jewish ritual observance to the use of composters. Just as each ethnical and religious variation of Jew celebrates holidays differently, so do composters differ in their approach to composting. These range from those who only put vegetable products in the composter to the fanatics who want everything (including human waste) to be recycled. Shalev seems to find it amusing that gardeners feel as strongly about this issue as others feel about their religious practice.

“My Wild Garden” makes for light, pleasant reading. Even those who are not gardeners will find his comments interesting and amusing. Adding to the pleasure of the book are illustrations by Rafaella Shir that feature views of Shalev’s garden, some of the plants he discusses and other Israeli natural habitats.