Sunday, November 10, 2019

Vayera: The Torah of Trees



Trees occupy a special place in Jewish thought and practice.  In the beginning, God places the Tree of Knowledge in the center of the Garden of Eden.  The book of Proverbs famously describes Torah as a Tree of Life and the Midrash teaches that, indeed, “the life of humanity is from the tree.”  The Kabbalists employ the tree as a metaphor for the diverse aspects of both the human psyche and the Divine nature.  It is no wonder, then, our tradition celebrates the New Year of the Trees every Tu B’Shevat.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, begins: “God appeared to Abraham beneath the great oaks of Mamre.”  We should not be surprised that the Holy One becomes manifest in a grove of tall trees—one need only look up from the base of a redwood, sequoia, or even an old growth Idaho ponderosa pine to feel the awe that these ancient, majestic and holy creatures inspire in the human heart and soul.

What’s even more amazing is that humans and trees dearly need one another.  We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide; trees do just the opposite.  As Rabbi Arthur Waskow notes:
“We breathe in what the trees breathe out; the trees breathe in what we breathe out: we breathe each other into life.”  Waskow adds: God’s most sacred name, YHVH, is, in its essence, the sound of breathing.  Abraham’s encounter with the Holy One beneath the oaks of Mamre is renewed each and every moment of each and every day, in the Interbreathing of Life that spells out the Divine Name in the miraculous, loving exchange between lungs and leaves.

Today, when climate change poses an existential threat to life as we know it, perhaps no act is holier than planting a tree.  It embodies hope for the future—and creates the breath that might yet sustain us through it. 

May we, too, find God in and amongst the trees.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Lech L'chah: Duplicity and Deprivation


This week’s Torah portion describes the origin of the Jewish people.  We are born of a journey, when God calls to Abraham “Lech l’chah—Go forth, from your land.  .  . to the place that I will show you.”  Abraham and Sarah answer this call, making their way to Canaan.

But almost immediately upon arriving, they leave!  As the text teaches: “There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.”  To make matters even worse, Abraham’s plan entails a deeply misguided act of deception.  Fearing that the Egyptians will lust after Sarah and kill him in pursuit of her, Abraham tells his wife to lie and say that she is his sister.  Not surprisingly, this ruse does not end well.

In his 14th century work Tur HaAroch, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher comments on this episode.  He starts by citing a classic Talmudic principle: Ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim, which translates roughly into “the stories of our ancestors’ lives portend our own fate.” Abraham’s descent into exile in Egypt foreshadows that of Jacob and his family—and countless displacements and expulsions over the next three thousand years of Jewish history.  It is no accident that both of these prominent patriarchal famine narratives feature significant elements of deception.  Abraham deceives the Egyptians at Sarah’s expense, while Jacob’s descent is part of the web of deceit surrounding Joseph and his brothers.

Just as duplicity and deprivation play a prominent role in the book of Genesis, so, too, do they figure significantly in our contemporary story of catastrophic climate change. 

We now know that scientists at ExxonMobil deceived the public for decades.  Starting in the late 1970s, Exxon’s researchers recognized the deleterious effects of fossil fuel consumption.  The company even raised the height of the platforms on their off-shore oil rigs in anticipation of rising sea levels—at the same time that they were spending billions to fund climate change denial.  This deception set the entire world back at least twenty years.  Instead of sounding an alarm, and changing course to promote cleaner alternative energy sources, we ignorantly caused massive irrevocable damage to our planet. 

One of the most distressing manifestations of that damage is famine.  The United Nations Relief Agency notes that in 2017 alone, around 18.8 million people were displaced by famine-inducing drought, flooding and other natural disastrous that can be traced back to human-caused climate change.  Like Abraham and Sarah, and Jacob and his family, these exiles struggle to feed themselves and their families.  But while our biblical ancestors suffered from acts of God, today’s climate refugees suffer the consequences of our own human failings.

Now is the time for us to go forth, toward a Promised Land for all of Creation, fueled by clean energy and defined by honesty and integrity.  May we, like Abraham and Sarah, learn from our past mistakes and secure a brighter future.