"Avatar," Exodus, & Kabbalah

The film AVATAR weaves together what we usually call the spiritual and the political. Indeed, whether its director realized it consciously or not, AVATAR echoes two major strands of religious wisdom that began in Jewish thought but have had deep influence on cultures far beyond the boundaries of Jewish peoplehood. The two strands of ancient wisdom are "archetypal" -- that is, they appear over and over again in human thought because they arise in human experience and yearning -- with or without conscious transmission of the stories.

One is the biblical story of the Exodus from slavery under Pharaoh (rooted in the Spirit but notably political) ; the other, the Kabbalistic metaphor of God as the Tree of Life, unfolding through successive emanations from the Infinite to the Incarnate so that its roots are in Heaven and its fruit is our world. This wisdom is notably "spiritual," but has as its roots a political vision of sharing food among the whole community, and sharing God's abundance with all living beings.

Both these great myths, interestingly, are encoded in Festival Seders --– sacred meals that actually embody in earthy ways, through what we eat and drink, the sublime meaning of each festival.

The Exodus story and its Passover Seder is the better-known (though Kabbalah began already in the Middle Ages to seep into Christian and Muslim mysticism). Both archetypal tales echo in the "AVATAR" film when all the life-forms of the planet-moon Pandora, including but not only the quasi-human blue-skinned people who call themselves the Na'vi (in Hebrew this word means "Prophet") rise up against the tyrannical power of a rapacious Earthian corporation backed by a hyper-mechanized invading mercenary army made up of ex-Marines.

In the Exodus story, it is locusts and frogs, rivers and hailstorms – what we call the Ten Plagues – that carry out the word of God and shatter Pharaoh when he refuses to free the shepherd-folk, the Hebrews, whom he has tried first to enslave and then to exterminate. The story climaxes when YHWH, the God Whose name can only be "pronounced" by simply breathing "YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh," becomes the Holy Breath/ Wind that splits the Red Sea, drowning Pharaoh's army.

In AVATAR, it is forests and stegosauruses and winged banshees who alongside the blue-skinned Na'vi vanquish the invaders.

In Exodus, it is Moses, an Egyptian prince with a physical flaw -- a stuttering tongue – who after stammering his doubts and unwillingness commits treason against his Pharaoh-father. He becomes a spokesperson for YHWH, a leader of the rebellious slaves, and the invoker of the Plagues.

In AVATAR, it is Sully, a crippled Earthian white male ex-Marine, who commits treason against his tribe and institution. He becomes through 22d-century science an Avatar, a blue-skin who is drawn to lead the Na'vi and call upon the Earth-Goddess of Pandora to rouse her web of life to break the Earthian army and defend the Na'vi and all the life-forms of Her planet. (This Crusher army is Pharaoh's horse-chariot army turned hypermechanical.) This Na'vian "Moses" does raise the problem (as Michael Lerner has pointed out) that to some viewers the heroic leader may at first glance seem to nullify the need for a transformational social movement. But a deeper seeing of the film makes clear that it is the Na'vi as a community and the whole Pandoran web of life that rise in revolt.

After rabbinic Judaism developed the tradition of telling the Exodus story through a sacred meal, the Seder, it assigned the Song of Songs to be chanted at the Seder or on the Shabbat of Pesach. In this unique book of the Bible, God's Name is never mentioned and the reader is invited into a mystical sense that the very flow of the book itself in its spring-flowering erotic dance of woman and man, human and earth, is in its fullness and its mystery the all-embracing Name of God. If this Divine Presence were to have a name, it would be the mystics' Shekhinah -- the Holy Female, the Indwelling Divine, Present in all being.

And in "AVATAR," the moon-planet Pandora in all the luscious colors of its forest, in the lyrical weave of unity between earth and human, and in the love affair of Sully's Avatar and a Na'vi princess, there is a delicious taste of the Song of Songs.

How does Avatar echo the Kabbalistic mythos? The festival through which the Kabbalists 500 years ago left a deep mark of their beliefs is Tu B'Shvat, which comes at the full moon of the midwinter lunar month of Shvat.

It was known in Jewish lore as the New Year of the Trees, dividing one tax year of tithing fruit from the next –-- therefore, a time to ensure that the poor and the landless get enough to eat. The kabbalists drew on the legend of the Tree of Life in Eden's garden of Delight -- and turned this moment into the New Year of "The Tree," God's Own Self, which in the time of cold, the time of invisible seed, begins to grow new life into the world. The Tree of Life, God's greatest plentiful abundance, had vanished from human ken when the humans tried to gobble up all they food they saw, and thereby banished themselves from Eden.

That banishment is what the Earthians of Avatar have done to themselves. By gobbling up the earth they live in, they have killed it and driven themselves to seek another in Pandora. But they have learned nothing.

In the winter of their discontent, despair, they glimpse the Tree of Life, the Garden of Delight. They meet the Na'vi, who live their whole lives in the grown-ups' Garden of Eden for a grown-up “human” race -- the garden of the Song of Songs. They celebrate "Tu B'Shvat" all year long. Their worship especially focuses on great trees that are the most sacred centers of their lives. These great trees embody the Goddess Eywa,– but S/He is more than even these trees, S/He is all life. Spirit embodied, incarnate. Notice that “Eywa” can be heard as “Yahweh” (sometimes misdescribed as the Hebrew Name of God) turned inside-out.

The film is a profound challenge to the official militarized foreign policy, Big-Business-dominated and oil-addicted economy, and consumer-addled life-style of the United States, and even to the official religious life of American churches, synagogues, and mosques.

Perhaps the deepest American assumption that is challenged by the film is the one that superior technology always wins, by crushing the weak in their spiritual ineffectuality. And perhaps the film won the largest audience in movie history because in America and the rest of the world, there is an uncomfortable suspicion that perhaps the days of the Arrogant Techno-Empire are numbered and that colored Vietnamese, Iraqis, Afghans, Venezuelans, and Chinese –- and the many-colored earth itself –- are beginning to prevail.

Yet the Na'vi rise also a level beyond the Native Americans of "Dances with Wolves" and the Pocohontas stories. They have a technology, but it is not mechanical. It is organic. The biological fringes they brush against each other -- living, pulsating versions of the tzitziot, the fringes on the corners of a sacred Jewish garment -- are the technology of organic intimacy. As even one of the Crusher Corporation's servants sees in an uncharacteristic moment of deep vision, they make possible a "global network."

What some critics of AVATAR have seen as an internal muddle between anti-tech regression to the past and pro-tech dream of the future is not a muddle but a synthesis.

Like any film, AVATAR is meant for seeing. But unlike most films, it explicitly makes the act of seeing into a spiritual discipline. The watchword of the Na'vi is, “I see you.” For Pandora’s people, these words express what in Hebrew is “yodea,” interactive “knowing” that is emotional, intellectual, physical/ sexual, and spiritual all at one. And that is how an aware audience should "see" AVATAR: with serious discussion afterwards, open to all its meanings. And open to the delicious creatures and colors of its utterly see-able forest.

That synthesis beyond the muddle is true of the film itself. It is a high-tech film, higher-tech than practically all its contemporaries. It leaps far beyond the conventional technology of film in its ultra-special effects and its 3-D coming-to-life. But the technology leaps beyond itself as well, to make a deeper vision possible. The medium befits the message.

What’s to discuss?

1) AVATAR teaches that the war against peoples and the war against the earth are the same war, being incited and fought by the same Crusher institutions. If we agree with this, how do we bring together what in our own society are the so-far separate struggles to end the two kinds of war? If we don’t agree, how do we see the relationship? Why does the Torah command that even in wartime, we must not destroy the enemy’s fruit trees? (The US Army did precisely this to the forests of Vietnam; the Israeli Army has done this to Palestinian olive trees; in AVATAR, the invading Earthians do precisely this to the sacred trees of the Na’vi. Why?)

2) AVATAR teaches that in the struggle to heal our world, birds and animals and trees and grasses can become our active allies if we "see" them as part of ourselves, part of our Beloved Community. Is there a way to make this true for us? Can the Earth, God/dess Incarnate, defend Herself? What role do humans play?

3. AVATAR describes how some Earthians turn their backs on the military-corporate attempt to shatter the Na'vi and instead join the Na'vi resistance. They become –- let's not mince words –- traitors. Or rather, they transform themselves into the Avatars that actually become Na'vi, loyal not to oppressive Crushers but to the web of life. What do we Americans, we Westerners -- who have already done so much to crush the life from many parts of our planet and threaten to destroy the rest by choking its Breath, its Climate -- what do we make of that? What do we owe the indigenes of Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Nigeria, Burma? What do we owe our own lakes, forests? Our own lungs, choking in the air we have befouled?

4. In the climax of the film , it is not only the invading Marines in their Crusher machines who use extreme violence. The Na'vi and Eywa's life-forms use violence too, to defend themselves. There is barely a hint of any attempt to use nonviolent resistance in the mode of King or Gandhi to defend Pandora. Can we imagine an alternative? Why did the film not present one?

We can learn a great deal by talking together about these Four Questions, and others. Talking together may help us "see" each other; eating together may help even more. Every Tu B'Shvat, what's to eat? A sacred meal, a Seder with four courses of nuts and fruit and four cups of wine. Foods that require the death of no living being, not even a carrot or a radish that dies when its roots are plucked from the earth. For the Trees of Life give forth their nuts and fruit in such profusion that to eat them kills no being. The sacred meal of the Tree Reborn is itself a meal of life.

And the four cups of wine are: all-white; white with a drop of red; red with a drop of white; and all-red: the union of white semen and red blood that the ancients thought were the start of procreation. And the progression from pale winter to the colorful fruitfulness of fall also betokens the growing-forth of life. The theme of Fours embodies the Four Worlds of Kabbalah: Action, Emotion, Intellect, Spirit.

So do the Four Questions and the Four Children of the Passover Seder.

There is much more to learn about these moments that so richly intertwine the mystical, the ecological, and the political. Let us especially explore the roles of the Plagues (seen as eco-disasters brought on by Pharaoh's arrogance); the meaning of the delicious ceremonial dish charoset, made of chopped nuts and apples, raisins and wine -- embodying the Song of Songs (traditionally read on Pesach); and the Haftarah (prophetic reading) for Shabbat HaGadol just before Pesach, in what they have to say about Pharaoh, liberation, spring, and the relationship between adam and adamah --human earthlings and the earthy humus. (Essays on all these questions are in the Pesach subsection of this website at http://www.theshalomcenter.org/treasury/105 )

The genius of the Passover and Tu B’Shvat Seders at their best — not often achieved — is that through discussion and by embodying ideas they make possible a social movement rooted in many places but ready to share ideas, a spiritual orientation, and a bodily commitment to action. Could “AVATAR” become such a text for discussion, insight, and action -- Could it be introduced into the festivals we already celebrate? Could it go further -- become the center, for instance, of an ”Earth Day” Seder, far beyond the boundaries of Jewish peoplehood as the Exodus and Kabbalah have crossed those boundaries?

Let us compare our experience of AVATAR with our experience of Passover and Tu B'Shvat as they have been and our vision of these festivals as they could be -- and could transcend themselves.
* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center http://www.theshalomcenter.org and the author of Interfaith Seder for the Earth; Godwrestling — Round 2; and Down-to-Earth Judaism.


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