Friday, October 18, 2019

Bereshit--In the Beginning

This year’s E-Torah is actually E(co)-Torah, with a focus on Jewish ecological wisdom from each week’s portion.

In his seminal 1967 essay, “The Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Professor Lynn White argued that the Western religious tradition—particularly the creation narrative in this week’s parshah—bears a huge burden of guilt for the world’s environmental ills.  His primary focus was Genesis 1:28, where God blesses humanity and says: “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it, and take dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”  Over fifty years later, this critique is still prominent among many ecological activists.

Is this criticism merited?  While some have surely used the Genesis text to justify environmental exploitation, this has not been the mainstream Jewish reading of the verse. Our Sages consistently refused to interpret this passage as a divine carte blanche to exploit nature without remorse. Nine hundred years ago, Rashi, the most distinguished commentator on the Torah, noted that the Hebrew word for “take dominion” (v’yirdu) comes from the same root as “to descend” (yarad). Thus, he declares: “When humanity is worthy, we have dominion over the animal kingdom; when we are not, we descend below the level of animals and the animals rule over us.” We are preeminent only when we act in keeping with the highest standards of responsibility. Abusing the rest of the creation is a sign of debasement rather than dominion. For a modern example, if we destroy human life on earth with our greenhouse gases, the cockroaches will, in all likelihood, succeed us as the “masters” of the planet.

Furthermore, the true significance of the mandate given to humanity in Genesis 1 is not defined until the second half of the creation account, which is found in Gen 2:4–15. Many biblical critics of the past century have emphasized the discrepancies between these two stories, attributing them to different authorial traditions. However, Jewish tradition—and an increasing number of literary-minded contemporary scholars—view the accounts as complementary. Each speaks to an important aspect of our relationship with the rest of God’s creation, and the full picture emerges only in the rich dialectic between them.

While the first account is primarily concerned with the linear unfolding of God’s cosmic plan to impose order upon chaos, the second accentuates humanity’s links with the earth. It introduces the concept of stewardship. Humans (adam) are formed from humus (adamah). God set us in the garden and told us to work it and watch over it. This is what our dominion actually entails. As the twentieth century German-Jewish scholar Benno Jacob points out, God’s commandment to watch over the garden characterizes the land as God’s property, not ours. Genesis 2 defines the mandate set forth in the previous chapter. We are guardians of a divine trust. As the psalmist later reminds us, “The earth is the Eternal’s.”

The Midrash Koheleth Rabbah sums up this view of Creation with a wonderful story:
When the Blessed Holy One created the first human beings, God took them and led them around all the trees of the garden of Eden and said to them: “Behold My works! See how lovely and commendable they are! Pay heed that you do not corrupt and destroy My universe, for if you do corrupt it, there will be no one to repair it after you.”

How can you practice good stewardship this week and into the future?

Friday, October 11, 2019

Simchat Torah (Hourglass)

Sometimes, you are closer to your destination than you might think.

In his wonderful book about the Days of Awe, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew recalls a lesson that he learned from the great Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Solovetchik.  He notes: “If you are moving along the circumference of a circle, it might seem at first as if the starting point is getting farther and farther away, but actually it is getting closer and closer.  The calendar year is such a circle.  On Rosh Hashanah, a new year begins, and every day is one day farther from the starting point; but every day is also a return, a drawing closer to the completion of the cycle.”

If one thinks of our fall holy day season as a kind of marathon, then Simchat Torah represents the finish line—and it is within sight.  After the preparation of the month of Elul and the introspection of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we at last arrive at a time of pure and unabashed joy.  We exhale a collective sigh of relief: we have been written and sealed in the Book of Life, the harvest is secure—and now, at last, we can celebrate.

We dwell in the sukkah for a week, enjoying the beauty of the natural world.  And then, with Simchat Torah, we dance, we sing, we stomp and swirl and carry flags and Torah scrolls.   And amidst all this revelry, we welcome our newest students with a ceremony of consecration.  It is a raucous occasion; we’ve paid our dues and now it is time to party.  In the words of Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, “Simchat Torah celebrates a Torah of pure joy, a Torah without restrictions or sense of burden. . . It is a magical moment when all that exists are God and Torah and ourselves.  We throw ourselves into endless circles of dancing and become time lost.”

The circle is, indeed, the central image of the festival.  The Torah scroll circles back on itself, as we conclude the end of Deuteronmy and begin again with the Creation.
Our circle dances echo that circle of the text itself—and the circles that mark the journeys of our individual and communal lives.

Many marathons follow a circuit route: the finish and the starting lines are the same.  So, too, in so much of life: we end up, essentially, back where we began. 

But what matters is what we see and do along the way—the twenty six miles of the marathon, or whatever the years allotted to us.  “In the beginning” God creates the world.  At Torah’s end, Moses dies.  In between, in both the words and the spaces, life is lived.  And then God creates the world anew.  Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.

This marks my final e-Torah for the cycle of the past year, and so I’ll leave you, as usual, with a beautiful blues song—“Hourglass” from Patty Griffin’s spectacular 2019 self-titled album.  Her words capture the joy of this season with wonderful poetic imagery and deep feeling, as once again we finish and start anew:

The hourglass never really runs out of sand
You get to the end and you just turn it upside down again
It's like a book where the story never ends
The plot keeps turning around
I was dancing with my eyes closed
The music had me in a trance
Six o'clock in the morning came around
I was the last one at the dance


Next week, I’ll start the new cycle of e-Torah, which will truly be just that—
E(nvironmental)-Torah.  Each week, I’ll offer an ecological teaching based on something in the Torah portion for the coming Shabbat.  I look forward to re-reading the text through “green” eyes and sharing insights with you all.

Meanwhile, Chag Sameach—a joyous Sukkot and Simchat Torah to all.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Ha'azinu (Farewell Transmission)

“There’s a lot of difference between hearing and listening.”
                                                -G.K. Chesterton

“Hear, O heavens, and I will speak.
Let the earth listen to the words I utter.”
                                                -Deuteronomy 32:1, opening of portion Ha’azinu

As G.K. Chesterton notes, there is a significant difference between hearing and listening.  Hearing is a passive, automatic action for most of us.  Listening, by contrast, is a skill—which seems increasingly difficult in our world of digital distraction and information overload.  Listening is hearing—plus the critical elements of focus and attention.  And so our portion for this week, Ha’azinu, opens with the easy part—hearing—but immediately shifts to listening, which is the challenging heart of the matter.

We are in the middle of a season full of hearing.  During the Days of Awe, there is a lot to hear: prayers and petitions, songs and sermons, exchanged expressions of apology and forgiveness, given and received.  And, of course, the sound of the shofar, which calls us to wakefulness, remembrance, and action.  Our challenge is to move beyond mere hearing and really listen to these words and sounds—to reflect on them and use them as a springboard for true teshuvah and personal and communal transformation.

It is no accident that this portion falls on Shabbat Shuvah, just before Yom Kippur.  Yom Kippur is all about experiencing our mortality—about encountering death as a path to a better, more intentional and compassionate life.  We strip away the background noise—the constant distractions—so that we can hear and take to heart what really matters.  Moses delivers his speech in Ha’azinu just before he dies; we listen to it on the Shabbat just before we rehearse our deaths.  In both cases, the harkening clears the way to the Promised Land.

For a powerful expression of this journey in song, consider Jason Molina’s masterpiece “Farewell Transmission” from his Songs: Ohia album Magnolia Electric Co. 

The song begins with strong intimations of mortality:

The whole place is dark
Every light on this side of the town
Suddenly it all went down
Now we'll all be brothers of the fossil fire of the sun
Now we will all be sisters of the fossil blood of the moon
In the sirens and the silences now

As the song unfolds, anchored in Molina’s beautifully jagged guitar, the darkness continues to descend, and with it, a sense of our imperfection and fragility:
I will try and know whatever I try,
I will be gone but not forever
The real truth about it is
no one gets it right
The real truth about it is
we're all supposed to try

In a metaphorical sense, we are all in the same shoes as Moses: We make the long journey toward the Promised Land, but ultimately only get to see it from afar:

There ain't no end to the sands
I've been trying to cross
The real truth about it is my kind of life's no better off
If I've got the maps or if I'm lost
The real truth about it is there ain't no end to the desert I'll cross
I've really known that all along
Mama here comes midnight
with the dead moon in its jaws
Must be the big star about to fall

And then the poignant ending.  This is, for Molina, as for Moses, a “farewell transmission” that ends with the prophet imploring us to harken:

Long dark blues
Will o the wisp
The big star is falling
Through the static and distance
A farewell transmission


May this Yom Kippur deepen our passion for traveling toward our Promised Lands with integrity, for learning from our inevitable mistakes, and for emerging from our encounter with mortality to an even greater commitment to listening and living with all of our hearts and souls.

May 5780 be a sweet year for us all.  May we be written and sealed in the book of life.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

To hear Jason Molina's "Farewell Transmission":