Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Fire Next Time (portion Noach)

At the end of the story of the deluge in this week’s Torah portion, Noach, God promises: “The waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”   As a tangible reminder of this covenant with creation, God places the rainbow in the clouds.  Nachmanides suggests that it represents an archer’s bow, overturned.  By setting the bow’s arc heavenward, God indicates that no more arrows of destruction shall be let loose from above.  To this day, the rainbow remains a sign of hope, harmony, and peace.

Yet an old gospel song, made popular by the Carter Family, hints at a darker possibility: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign—no more water but the fire next time.”

These words ring forebodingly prophetic in this age of climate change, which Rabbi Arthur Waskow wisely calls “global scorching” since “warming” sounds far more pleasant than the grim reality that it presents.  As the song would have it, God may not flood the earth again, but we humans are doing an awfully efficient job of unleashing our own destruction, by way of fire.

I fear that years from now, when the massive damage caused by climate change is irreversibly done, our children and grand-children will look back and wonder, with deep sadness, why we did so little to avert the disaster unfolding before our very eyes.  They will see us as Nero, fiddling while Rome burned.

But while it may, alas, already be too late to completely undo the harm we have done, we can still at least mitigate it.  On this week of parshat Noach, let us re-dedicate ourselves to doing what we can.  Here at CABI, that effort should include a hard look at our own practices, from how we use our resources to the way we tend our landscape.  On Tuesday, Social Action committee chair Tom Rogers and I will be talking with Isaac Nuell of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, about steps that we can take to become part of a growing group of GreenFaith congregations of all religions committed to being better stewards of God’s earth.  You’ll be hearing more about this in coming weeks. 

God made a covenant with us after the flood.  Now it’s up to us to do our part to avoid the fire next time.

Fragility and Food: Idaho Statesman Column--September 28

Thursday, September 19, marked the first day of Sukkot, the week-long Jewish harvest festival. For seven days, we eat our meals in a sukkah, a fragile outdoor hut, exposed to the elements, specially constructed for the holiday.  Sitting beneath the open sky, we feel life’s transience and our vulnerability.  This Sukkot observance imposes a moral obligation to care for the needy: since all that we have is a gift of grace, just as easily lost as it was gained, we who are blessed with abundance are bound to share with those who are less fortunate.

It was, therefore, almost unimaginable to me when, on that very same day—Thursday, September 19—even as the Jewish community gathered to celebrate Sukkot, a practicing Jew, Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, pushed a bill through the House of Representatives that would cut $40 billion dollars from the food stamp program over the next ten years and limit recipients’ benefits to three months.  Almost four million people currently receiving food stamps would lose them next year.  As Timothy Egan noted in a recent piece in the New York Times,
“This is almost the exact amount of people who have managed to remain just above the poverty line because of that very aid, according to the Census Bureau.”
This is both unconscionable and foolish.  The primary beneficiaries of the food stamp program—the most basic part of the social safety net—are the elderly, disabled, working poor families, and children.   Ironically, these targets of the Republican plan—the ones who would feel the most pain from the proposed cuts—come disproportionately from overwhelmingly Republican states like Idaho, where so many hard-working individuals and families cannot earn a decent living due to the low wages.  The insidious ideology that drives the Republicans’ policy—the notion that the poor are somehow lazy and deserve their fate—is as self-defeating as it is cruel and unmerited.
It is no coincidence that Sukkot comes on the heels of Yom Kippur.  On that day of fasting, the most sacred occasion of the Jewish year, we read from the book of Isaiah.  The prophet lambasts those whose fast is not accompanied by a roused sense of social responsibility and reminds us of the real significance of the day:   
"’Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, why did You pay no heed?’ Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! . . . No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free; to break off every chain.
It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”

Shame on Representative Cantor and all of those in positions of power who would use their authority to punish children and working families.  In forgetting that, were it not for a lot of unearned luck and privilege, they might easily be in the place of the poor, they have defaulted on their most basic moral obligation and lost their essential humanity.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Beginning with Questions (Bereshit)

Years ago, at a conference, I heard Rabbi Ed Feinstein suggest that one could spend a lifetime of Jewish learning focused on just the questions that God asks in the Torah.

This week, at Simchat Torah, we will complete the scroll, with the death of Moses, and then begin anew with the creation narratives in Genesis.  Studying this material, I’ve been thinking of Rabbi Feinstein’s wisdom, because the opening of the Torah contains God’s first three questions—which, in a way, encapsulate the entire enterprise that follows.

The first comes in the Garden of Eden, just after Adam and Eve have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Feeling guilty, they try to flea from the presence of God, who asks, “Ayeka—Where are you?” 

God is not interested in playing hide and seek.  S/he knows very well where they are, physically and spiritually.  But God is giving them an opportunity to step up and acknowledge their actions, to say, “Hineni—Here I am, ready to accept responsibility for my choices."  When they, alas, fail to do so, God gives them a second chance and asks: “What have you done?”  Again, they do not rise to the occasion, as Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent.  God’s first two questions present opportunities, lost to Adam and Eve.

So, too, with Cain.  Just before he kills his brother, Abel, God asks him, “Why are you angry?”  And after the first fratricide, God (knowing very well what Cain has done) inquires, “Where is your brother?” Cain replies with a cynical question of his own: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Again, the Holy One offers the opportunity to reflect and learn through questioning, and again, the human blows it.

But we can do better.  We are each Adam and Eve and Cain.  God’s questions are addressed to all of us, and, in the end, it really comes down to these three: Where are you?  Where is your brother?  What have you done?

Where are we? 
In this still-new year, we reflect on where we’ve been and where we are headed.  Are we ready to accept responsibility for our choices and to make changes, when needed?

Where are our brothers and sisters?
It is not enough to address our own spiritual concerns.  We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.  When others suffer, we must not stand idle.   One cannot be religious without engaging the wider world and working towards healing—tikkun olam.

What have we done?
And what will we do?  As Hillel reminds us, if not now, when?
The time to begin making repairs, both within our own souls and in the world at large, is here and now.  The hardest part is to begin.  As we read portion Bereshit—In the Beginning—we learn of God’s beginnings and find inspiration toward our own.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ben Zoma's Pilgrims: Coda--The Way Home

All day, the Professor, the Billionaire, the General and the Actress fasted and prayed.  They recalled the too many times they had missed the mark, and considered all they had learned and cherished on their shared pilgrimage.  It was Yom Kippur as it should be—serious but not sad.  Indeed, as dusk approached, they experienced the relief and joy of spiritual cleansing that comes at the close of an arduous journey taken with integrity.

As the sun sank low in the western sky, the Beggar emerged from behind the iron gate to the white-domed burial cave.

G’mar tov,” he said—“May you all be sealed for blessing in the Book of Life.  The day is fading, the sun is setting.  Ne’ilah has arrived.  It is the hour of the closing of the gates.”[i]

Then the Beggar threw back his hood and all the ragged bandages covering his body fell away.  As he stood tall, stepping out of the shadows in gleaming white garments, the Companions immediately recognized him from their dream: their enigmatic guide had transformed into the sage they had sought from the start.

“Shimon Ben Zoma!” they gasped, “You’ve been with us all the while.”

Hineni” said the Sage, “Here I am.  Here we are, together at the end and beginning of the trail.”

There was a long silence. 

Each of the Companions was flooded with reflections on the lives they’d left behind and all that loomed upon their now-imminent return:

Relationships to mend.

Careers to reconsider.

Promises to keep

Wounds to heal.

Opportunities to explore.

So many choices to be made, and challenges to be met.

There were old dreams yet to be realized, new ones still to be born,
and all the responsibilities that come of those dreams, old and new alike.

Ben Zoma looked into their eyes and felt their trepidation.

“Yes, my Companions, it’s true—your road from here will not be easy.  But you have proven yourselves wise and wealthy, honored and powerful enough to walk it with your heads held high.”

“But tell us,” said the Companions, “where do we go from here?”

“You go where you’ve been traveling, though you did not know it, since the moment you left.  You see, this journey is like moving along the circumference of a circle.  As you set out, it feels like every day, the starting point is getting further and further away.  But actually it is also drawing closer.

For everywhere you’ve gone, you’ve been heading for home.”[ii]

With that, Ben Zoma waved farewell, then turned back toward the burial cave and closed its iron gate behind him.

The Companions lingered there for a long while.  And then, at last, they, too, turned, beneath the brightly shining stars, to start off, together, toward the countless gates awaiting us all in this still-new year.

[i] From a piyut, a poem in the traditional ne’ilah service: “Open the gates for us, even now, even now, as the gates are closing and the day begins to fade.  Oh, the day is fading, the sun is setting.  Let us enter your gates!
[ii] Rabbi Alan Lew cites this teaching from Rabbi Joseph Solovetchik in his book This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared.