The Thirteen Petaled Rose of Memory

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, April 21, 2023 / 30 Nisan 5783

Summary: After the Yizkor service on Pesach, several people requested that I share my sermon with the congregation. Given that tomorrow is Earth Day, and that some of the themes touch on our awareness of the natural world, this seemed an appropriate time to reprint the talk here.

Reading Time: Seven minutes

It was the day before Pesach and Laura’s friend Froukje came to visit. She’s Dutch, lives in southern Oregon, and true to her heritage, she brought Laura a gift of tightly-closed, striated orange tulips. At the bottom of each petal, the orange shifted colors to a gentle butter yellow. The tulips were exquisite. It was touching to be able to throw a glance at them during our seders. Portland may be experiencing a delayed Spring, but the tulips weren’t much bothered. They were already prepared to do their job.

What is the job of a flower? Before we get there, it’s worth stating the obvious. Flowers are amazing—and mysterious. I once saw a documentary in which scientists had scanned some using an infrared camera. It revealed precise, runway sharp lines to guide the bees in for a perfect landing. Runways? It means a flower is literally a specific type of airport, designed to help bees refuel as they gather carbohydrate-rich nectar. There’s rich commerce happening in nature not so different from our human economy.

In other words, the things we find so beautiful about a flower only tell a small part of their story. It makes me wonder what other secrets they hold that science may one day reveal to us.

Which brings us back to the job of a flower. If you asked a botanist, you’d probably be told that the purpose of a flower is reproduction. Deep inside most flowers are ovaries and pollen, the female and male genetic material. To a botanist, the purpose of a flower is to make other flowers.

Is the purpose of a human to make other humans?

If we apply the botanist’s answer to us, the answer would be yes, yet while we understand the biological imperative for a species to pass down its traits and carry on, I doubt many of us believe that this is the only purpose a human has. We care how we spend our days, not merely that we exist. Life without a higher purpose—without love, connection, intriguing challenges, or moments of awe and beauty—wouldn’t be sufficient for us.

At a younger age, that distinction between the purpose of a human and flower would have been sufficient; as I age, however, I have come to realize how alive the natural world is with ambition, connection, mutual concern, and even altruism. What that means is that the botanist’s answer should be insufficient for us. A flower may have reproductive desires and designs like all living species, but why should we limit its sense of purpose?

Science has already taught us of the tremendous interconnection that flowers have with bees, hummingbirds, and the larger cycles of life. A flower matters, not simply to make other flowers, but also to sustain a vast swath of life. No flowers, no food for the bees, and more than half of the crops humans depend on disappear. A flower is significant.

Judaism has a rich and varied relationship with flowers.

Our sacred literature sometimes has compared the Jewish people to a precious flower. In Song of Songs, we read, “Like the rose maintaining its beauty among the thorns, so is my faithful beloved among the nations,” (Song of Songs 2:2).

In our festival Torah service, as we stand in front of the opened ark, we chant the 13 attributes of God (Adona-i, Adona-i, kel rachum v’chanun), which speak of God’s tremendous love and compassion for us. The Zohar, our great medieval work of mystical insight, develops this into the image of the thirteen-petaled rose, in which the Jewish people is likened to the rose in the Song of Songs, surrounded on all sides by God’s love for us.

In the Book of Numbers (17:20), we are told that Aaron’s staff brings forth beautiful almond tree blossoms.

Spiritual opportunities are often hidden in plain sight. For example, our two decorative Menorahs in the Main Sanctuary utilize a flower motif, based on the Biblical instructions given to Moses. A flower, in other words, is intended to illuminate our physical and spiritual selves.

We see this by examining a lesser-known set of blessings that are recited before enjoying fragrances. For perennial flowers—roses or trees or other flowers that re-bloom each year—we recite borei atzei besamim. Praised are you God, who creates flowering trees and shrubs. For annual flowers that only blossom once, the blessing is slightly different: Borei isvei besamim, praised are you who creates fragrant “grasses.” More important to me each week when I grind my coffee is the special blessing over smelling coffee: hanotein rei-ach tov b’peirot. Praised are you God, who endows fruits with a pleasant aroma.

Reciting each of these blessings is a marvelous manner to sensitize ourselves to the spiritual dimensions of flowers.

It is this larger context of flowers—their role in sustaining so much life and their spiritual attunement that hammer home for me that the botanists can only offer us a reductive understanding of a flower. It is not only to reproduce itself, any more than a human is. Flowers have a grander purpose.

If we believe life is beautiful, then it becomes clear that the deepest meaning and purpose of a flower is to be beautiful.

We often think that beauty is a luxury, something we can attend to only after we have cared for our survival needs, but when we consider it is the beauty of flowers—their landing strips and aromas, their sweet nectar—that sustains life, we realize that beauty is not only one of the world’s deepest requirements, but that all of existence is meant to be beautiful. Not only can we all find moments to appreciate beauty, but we all have a need to do so.

The Japanese understand this better than most cultures. Their twin arts of ikebana, or flower arranging, and hanami, flower viewing, are meant to awaken us to beauty. Simultaneously, their emphasis on wabi sabi, beauty in imperfection, brings us back to Froukje’s tulips. I have watched them go from being tightly closed to fully open, to dropping their petals. At this point, most of the petals are lying on the table, yet the tulips are no less beautiful than they were when fresh. To believe that is to fall into our society’s trap of worshipping youth.

That’s unhelpful in developing our spiritual capacities. Laura’s dad, Vern, is in his nineties. He has slowed down and is becoming more confused about the outer world. Yet the other day, I observed him looking at each fallen tulip petal for nearly an hour. He was deeply moved by the transience of their beauty. With what matters, he was completely absorbed and unconfused. Beauty is a gateway to the divine, and at this late phase of his life, his purpose is to be open to the opening.

In Yizkor, we read that “humans are as a breath, their days like a passing shadow. In the morning they flourish anew; in the evening they shrivel and die.”

This comparison of our lives to flowers is given fuller expression in an excerpt from Borchi Nafshi, Psalm 113:

אֱ֭נוֹשׁ כֶּחָצִ֣יר יָמָ֑יו כְּצִ֥יץ הַ֝שָּׂדֶ֗ה כֵּ֣ן יָצִֽיץ׃

Man, his days are like those of grass;
he blooms like a flower of the field;

כִּ֤י ר֣וּחַ עָֽבְרָה־בּ֣וֹ וְאֵינֶ֑נּוּ וְלֹֽא־יַכִּירֶ֖נּוּ ע֣וֹד מְקוֹמֽוֹ׃

a wind passes by, and it is no more,
its own place no longer knows it.

If we were to take the Psalmist simply, we might decide that human life doesn’t matter any more than the short-lived life of a flower. Yet the Psalmist has a deeper purpose, much like Japan’s concept of wabi sabi. Transience and mortality are meant to waken us to the beauty that permeates all of existence. The Psalmist isn’t saying that life doesn’t matter because we die; rather, the Psalmist reminds us of mortality so that we can better live.

We remember those who have died and crossed the veil, of course because we miss them. We recognize that just as flowers come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, so, too, did our loved ones.

Yet we also remember them because the beauty of their lives matters; they leave behind a unique legacy that touches the lives of all those who knew them, and many who did not, just as an unknown field flower has a role in sustaining all of life.

Even after reminding us of our ephemerality, the Psalmist continues,

וְחֶ֤סֶד יְדוָ֨ד ׀ מֵעוֹלָ֣ם וְעַד־ע֭וֹלָם עַל־יְרֵאָ֑יו וְ֝צִדְקָת֗וֹ לִבְנֵ֥י בָנִֽים׃

But the LORD’s steadfast love is for all eternity
and is discerned by those who live with awe.

We remember because that is an expression of our human beauty. We are touched deeply by life, and most deeply by those whom we love. Memories are the inscription of that beauty, their history.

More than just a reflection of the past, however, human memory can be likened to those invisible infrared runway markings on a flower petal, directing us and focusing us, and ultimately connecting us to all of existence. That which is not visible often matters most.

Chag Kasher Sameach,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. How will you mark Earth Day this year?
  2. What are some early memories you have of flowers? For example, I remember buttercups as a young child and holding them under our chins to see whom we loved.
  3. How often do you stop to smell the roses, both actually and metaphorically?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.