Sunday, December 8, 2019

Vayishlach: A River Runs Through It

An undisturbed river is as perfect a thing as we will ever know, every refractive slide of cold water a glimpse of eternity.
-Thomas McGuane

At the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob is preparing for a long-awaited—and feared—reunion with his estranged brother Esau.  The night before that critical encounter, he ferries his entire family across the River Jabbok, then returns to the far bank, where he is left alone at nightfall.  There, by the riverside, he wrestles with a divine being until sunrise.

I believe the setting for this fateful meeting is no accident.  In the Midrash Tanchuma, the Rabbis teach that after the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, there was no more revelation outside of Israel—except along the banks of rivers.  Our Sages knew that the Eternal One could be found in the presence of living water.  Daniel received the divine call as he stood by the Ulai River, and Ezekiel beheld the hosts of heaven from the banks of the Chebar.  Ezekiel’s ensuing vision of the Divine Chariot—complete with a raging storm, fiery winged, multi-headed creatures, and wheels rimmed with eyes—became the touchstone experience for all subsequent generations of Jewish mystics.  Thus an episode of revelation that is arguably second in importance only to Sinai took place along an otherwise unknown Chaldean stream.

Why does the Holy One so often choose to appear to our ancestors along river banks?  Perhaps there is something about flowing water that makes such places uniquely felicitous for people to receive the Divine Presence. The kabbalists believe that more than any other manifestation of God’s creation, rivers remind us of life’s fluidity. 

Alas, climate change is already taking a heavy toll on our rivers.  For six million years, the Colorado River ran to the sea.  Today, it dries out in the middle of the desert, deprived of water by dams and droughts.  Drastic changes in the timing and quantity of precipitation is already leading to both flooding and drought, and declining water quality as well. 

When a river dies, we squander a source of much bounty, to humanity and far beyond, to entire riparian ecosystems.  We also lose our spiritual centers where God is revealed to those who know how and where to look.  Jacob wrestled with the Divine—and found his best and brightest self—along the River Jabbok.  Without living rivers, where will we, his descendants, encounter the Holy One?

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Vayetze: A Sense of Place

Contemporary ecologists use the term topophilia to describe the strong feeling of a sense of place, the affective bond between people and the landscapes we inhabit.  It’s an important notion, for as we envision and seek new, more sustainable life practices, it is critical to consider where we live.  Whether or not we are fully aware of it, our local ecology and geography shape all of our choices.  Environmental responsibility begins with a conscious knowledge of—and connection with—the earth beneath our feet.

Place is very much at the center of this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze.  Consider its second verse, which describes the commencement of Jacob’s long journey away from his family home in Be’er Sheva:

“He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set.  Taking one of the stones of that place he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 

The Hebrew word makom—place—occurs three times in this short passage.  And that’s not the end of the matter.  After a few verses describing Jacob’s famous dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, the patriarch awakens and proclaims:  

“Surely God is in this place and I did not know it. . . . How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the abode of God and the gateway to heaven.”

The portion’s association of the Divine with a physical sense of place is so powerful that the Rabbis who read it were inspired to create a new name for God: HaMakom—The Place. 
The Holy One is intimately bound with the world in all of its particularities.  To lovingly know a particular, tangible place is an essential path toward knowing and loving God.

So, too, to love the planet as a whole, we must first know and love the little corner of it that we call home.  Ecology begins in relationship with the soil we tread, the flora and fauna that share our place, the sources of our water, the clouds and stars that fill our skies.  The contours of a sustainable lifestyle are not the same in Boise as they are in Beijing or Bangladesh—or even in Portland or Seattle.  Our high desert environment should shape what we grow and eat and drink, the clothes we wear, the ways we travel and the hours that we keep.  The landscape design appropriately full of water-loving plants in the rainforest west of the Cascades is better served by xeriscaping in the rain shadow that defines our intermountain region. 
It is no accident that the Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, comes from the verb “to speak.”  If we listen to our local ecosystem, it will speak to us.  Our challenge is to act accordingly.
When we do, we, like Jacob, might well discover: “God is in this place—and I did not know it.”