What I found most interesting about “Avatar” was its spiritual message and how the film spoke to my Jewish soul.
The people of Pandora are called the Na’vi. In Hebrew, the word “navi” means “prophet.” I found myself wondering if director James Cameron is trying to make these people into “prophets” for us. Perhaps the Na’vi in the movie are not only predicting our future, but they are also warning us and chastising us in the present.
By the way, the great biblical prophets did more “chastising” than predicting. After all, the cry for righteousness and justice was an integral part of the prophetic narrative.
The Na’vi, when they are in a total reciprocal relationship with someone, will say “I see you.” This is a deep type of seeing, the type that the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber would have called an “I-Thou” relationship.
Now what does it mean to truly see someone else or, for that matter, a tree? Here again the Bible gives us an answer.
After almost sacrificing his son Isaac, Abraham looks up and sees a ram caught in a thicket (Genesis 22:13). I think the ram was always there for him to see, but it was only at that moment that he actually saw it. It was only at that moment that he learned to see deeply and with God’s eyes. Notice as well that Abraham names the place Adonai Yireh: the place of “God vision.”
Similarly in Exodus 3, Moses sees a bush burning that was not consumed. The greatness of Moses, in my opinion, was that he saw deeply enough to see that this was no normal occurrence. Moses was able to see with the eyes of God.
So when the Na’vi say, “I see you,” their type of seeing resonates with me both biblically and in terms of the I-Thou philosophy of Buber. Through the Na’vi people, Cameron is warning us that when we do not truly see others as what they really are, we will indeed become destructive toward them.
Later this month, the Jewish world will celebrate the holiday of Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees. From the beginning, our ancestors realized the importance of trees.
In Genesis 2:5, we read: “when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil.” The Hebrew here is “v’chol siach hasadeh terem yi’yeh ba’aretz” – “when no shrub of the field was yet on earth.” It can be translated as, “when no conversation of the field was yet on earth.”
Perhaps the implication here is that after the world of trees and vegetation is created, the human being is to enter into dialogue with it. So perhaps Tu Bishvat is a time when we are not only supposed to see trees, but also to enter into discussion with them.
Trees figure prominently in “Avatar.” The place where the Na’vi live is called Hometree – a giant tree that sits on top of a large amount of Unobtainium, an element that provides energy. Human beings from Earth are trying to get this element because the energy resources on Earth have been depleted. As the movie progresses, the humans first attempt to convince the Na’vi to abandon Hometree.
It is also interesting that the roots of Hometree are said to be connected to the roots of all of the other trees of the planet. For me as a Jew, this is reflective of the Kabbalistic teaching that we all are connected to the Source or God. In the Kabbalah, the unity of creation is its Oneness. We are all interconnected to each other and to God, and the ultimate advancement in the history of humankind will be when we recognize that oneness.
Another tree in the movie is the “Tree of Souls.” This tree enables the Na’vi to connect with the souls of their ancestors and to overcome their persecutors. For the Na’vi, the Tree of the Souls is also the way in which they connect to Eywa, the one and only God in their tradition.
Here I find it very interesting that the word “Eywa” seems to approximate the sound of a breath. This, by the way, is also the sound of YHVH in the Bible.
YHVH is the holiest word for God in the Bible and is virtually unpronounceable, except as a breath. For the Na’vi and for we Jews, God is the breath of all humankind. Without Eywa, and without YHVH – without the breath – we cannot survive.
Cameron has created an incredibly spiritual movie that resonates with me as a Jew. With the threats now facing our planet through the scourge of war and global warming, I begin to wonder if we as human beings will be able to come together to resist the forces of greed that seem to be destroying our Hometree. Will we be able to learn how to truly see the “other,” not as an opponent, but as part of the Oneness of God’s creation?
Perhaps most important though, will we be able to come together to save and heal the planet and humankind? Will we be able to eliminate the exploitation of people and resources, to destroy the forces of bias, bigotry and racism and to create what Jesus, who after all was a great Jewish teacher, once described as a “beloved community”?
I hope that you will go see this extraordinary movie. My prayer is that we all will take its spirituality and message to heart. May we be able to truly see the oneness of creation, the holiness that exists in all people and things. This is so important that future generations might very well depend on how well we heed the words of Cameron’s warning to human beings as presented in this wonderful movie, “Avatar.”
Rabbi Fred Guttman is rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C.