Thursday, December 2, 2010

Who is Judith or Yehudit and why is she important to the Story of Chanukah

Judith the Obscure

Dear Rivy,
I have heard something about a widow named Judith and her connection to the Chanukah story. But IO never seem to hear about her at holiday time. Judah Maccabee grabs center stage together with that oil!

Often what has become invisible through the ages is the female experience. The life of a seemingly obscure widow, Judith, deserves a bit of center stage of Chanukah. This comment of Susan Weidman Schneider in her book Jewish and Female got me thinking, She writes, "Whatever the reasons, Chanukah is one of the few markers on the Jewish Calendar that have not proved fruitful ground for Jewish women looking for a usable past. The only traditional Chanukah tale featuring a woman is the story of Hannah and her seven sons." I ask; could there be more?

To see a significant and meaningful place for women in the Chanukah celebration, one needs to perhaps don another pair of glasses. Let’s call them halachic glasses. These spectacles allow us to gaze at the vast body of rich Jewish legal literature. They sometimes reveal that which you least expect.

Let us begin by opening the Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, authored by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the sixteenth century. In section #970 we find the first law concerning Chanukah. He starts with the simple; Chanukah is for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev. These are days when eulogies and fasting are prohibited, but work is permitted - except for women who have the custom to abstain from doing any form of labor while the candles are burning. Further on, he writes that women are obligated in lighting Chanukah candles and may light on behalf of the entire household.

Two interesting points jump out. First, though the laws of Chanukah go on for pages, it is women's custom that immediately takes center stage. The only labor prohibited on the festival is by women - during the burning of the Chanukah candles. The second significant halachic twist is that in spite of the principal that women are exempt from positive time bound commandments - when it comes to the lighting of the Chanukah candles their obligation is equal to that of men.

Questions; why do women have the custom to refrain from work while the Chanukah candles burn? Why do they seem to have a higher level of commitment or perhaps reverence for the Chanukah lights? And finally, why are they obligated in lighting Chanukah candles?

Keep your halachic glasses on as we zoom back in time to search the pages of the Talmud for Rabbi Karo’s source. Opening to page 23a of Tractate Shabbat we find that “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says that women are obligated in the mitzvah of Chanukah lights, for they too were involved in the miracle." They too were involved in the miracle? Rabbi Shlomo Yischaki, Rashi, tenth century scholar, suggests two possible interpretations to the puzzling phrase. First, they too were involved in the miracle - they too were subjugated to the Greeks, but in a terribly tragic way particular to women only. Each Jewish virgin was forced to be with a Greek officer before marrying. Second possibility; it was through a woman that the miracle occurred. This provocative comment is echoed and enlarged upon by Rashi’s grandson Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, Rashbam, he adds, that the Chanukah miracle was done through the hands of Yehudit, Judith.

Ah, Judith the Obscure! To uncover her mystery, we must do some pasting together of Apocrypha, midrash and poetry. The reconstruction of this episode may never be completely satisfying, but what does emerge is a tale of heroism and sacrifice. It is unclear whether it is Judith the widow who goes forth willingly or Judith the bride who is taken by force, but, once alone with the Greek general she feeds him wine and cheese. She waits for the soporific meal to take its effect, cuts off his head, As recorded in Chapter 13 of the Book of Judith,

Then she came to the pillar of the bed, which was at Holofernes' head, and took down his fauchion from thence,
And approached to his bed, and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day. And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him.
She then gives his head to her maid who places it in her basket and they ever so nonchalantly return to the Judean camp.

Officers, troops and soldiers of the Greek camp are left in leaderless disarray and a breach enabling the smaller Judean army to triumph. And thus the miracle was truly executed by a woman.

Now what do we see? Is this what Schneider might call a usable past? I think so. The legend together with halachic practice has bequeathed to women a powerful symbol. Yes, we were victims; but we were also heroes. We are part of the miracle. We were oppressed, but we joined together with our brothers to fight back. Yehudit, Judith is enshrined forever in sculpture, art work, librettos, and novels. Her memory is recalled on the Shabbat of Chanukah when traditionally we recite a lengthy twelfth century piyyut, poem, describing the pathos of her wedding and youthful fears of what awaited her.

Let each and every woman light a Chanukah menorah, refrain from work, watch flames and remember. Let us see in those flames both the pain of our ancestors and the courage of their actions and for this I do not think that we will need any kind of glasses. And finally, let us praise Judith as she was praised then,
O daughter, blessed art thou of the most high God above all the women upon the earth; and blessed be the Lord God, which hath created the heavens and the earth, which hath directed thee to the cutting off of the head of the chief of our enemies. For this thy confidence shall not depart from the heart of men, which remember the power of God for ever. And God turn these things to thee for a perpetual praise, to visit thee in good things because thou hast not spared thy life for the affliction of our nation, but hast revenged our ruin, walking a straight way before our God. And all the people said; So be it, so be it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Chanukha Toy Story: A New Spin on Dreidels!

Dear Rivy,

Please settle this argument between myself and my spouse. I say dreidels are a Jewish version of a typical child’s toy that we plunked Hebrew letters on, she claims that the dreidel is a uniquely Jewish toy.

Before settling this marital difference of opinion; first we must do a review of dreidelosity. The dreidel or sivivon is the toy that we amuse ourselves with over the holiday of Chanukah. The word dreidel is Yiddish, to drei, is to turn. Sometimes the dreidel is called sivivon in Hebrew, meaning “round and round.”

It is a spinning top with four sides. On each side a Hebrew letter appears, nun – gimmel – heh – shin – standing for the words nes gadol haya sham, miracle – great – was – there, meaning a great miracle happened there; referring to the Chanukah miracle.

It is essentially a gambling game with each player initially contributing to the pot and then experiencing wins or losses according to the twists and turns of the dreidel. Play begins when the dreidel is spun. Depending on the letter upon which it lands the player must contribute to the pot or alternatively may be awarded an amount from the pot; perhaps half the pot or if you are lucky the whole pot! A miracle!

Traditionally, if you land on the nun – you neither put in nor take out – if you land on the gimmel you are awarded with the entire pot. Landing on heh gets you half the pot and if your dreidel ends its dizzying twirling on the dreaded shin, you must submit and put in the predetermined amount. .

Now to your question; to quote the larger-than-life Jewish philosopher, Tevye, you are right and your spouse is also right. You are right in that, though we attribute the first playing of the dreidel back to the time of the Greek-Syrians and the Chanukah story, we also know that in Europe, there was a gambling game with a spinning top that had been played for centuries by various people. In fact, the game of totum or teetotum is a gambling game with a spinning top first mentioned in approximately 1500.

The connection to the Chanukah story has this spin to it; when we were prohibited from studying Torah we needed a way to hide our Torah learning. Using the dreidel as a decoy, we Jews would hide our books, take out the dreidels, and trick the Syrians into thinking that we were just playing a game.

Either way, I believe that in this unassuming whimsical dreidel there lies or shall I say spins, a number of significant Jewish ideas and even critical Chanukah lessons. Therefore, though the dreidel may very well be a universal kind of top, it is without a doubt imbued with a specifically Jewish message and meaning.

Know, that nothing of Jewish practice is arbitrary; neither the foods we eat nor the customs that we practice. There is a big word on that dreidel and I do not mean gadol, I mean nes, miracle. The notion of miracle and the approaches to the idea of miracles is a critical one in Jewish thought. To be sure, it is concept that is fraught with controversy especially in the context of the Chanukah story.

Consider these Chanukah texts. First, the prayer that we add to our daily service and to the grace after meals throughout the holiday called "Al Hanisim", for the miracles. In the prayer we find a description of the events of the days of the Hasmoneans. Of the battle that was fought in order to protect our right to worship freely and unencumbered by Greek influence. God delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few. The spectacularly sensational victory permitted the purification of the Temple and the rededication of its vessels. A miracle, but, look closer, something is missing here. The oil! Where in this prayer of wonders is mention of the miracle of the oil?

To locate the oil we must search in the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, where we find first mention of the famed cruse. The text asks the question, what is the reason for Chanukkah? The passage explains that when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and then defeated the enemy, they entered the Temple to rededicate its environs, they made search and found but one lone cruse of oil with the seal of the High Priest. It contained a sufficient reserve for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought and they lit the lamp and it burned for eight days, allowing for time to produce more of the needed olive oil.

A bit of confusion from our sources; which miracle are we celebrating, is it the astounding triumph on the battlefield or the supernatural metaphysical miracle of oil that lasted for eight days?

I know the skeptical answer couched in historical realism and rationality, the "No, Virgina there was no long lasting oil"- response that many give. It does not work for me. I think of the oil's lasting for eight days as a sort of Divine Wake Up call, "Maccabees and all the rest of you, did you not notice what happened out there on the battlefield? - Yes you are good soldiers, but without Me, without the intervention of the Holy One, there would have been no victory, there would be no rededication of the temple and you would not have been poised to embark on your great long history.
It is never the might of the hand alone that brings the victory; it is the commitment to a higher good that ultimately affects triumph.

All of this is spinning before us in that dreidel. You pick up the dreidel, the seemingly quintessence of randomness, you spin it and as chance determines the fate of your pot the dreidel in turn teaches you the lesson of Chanukah - a great miracle happened there. No haphazardness in that Chanukah story, no arbitrary twist of history but rather a wondrous miracle reminding us that nothing about the fate of our people is by chance. David Ben Gurion, First Prime Minister of Israel put it this way, "In Israel, in order to be a realist, you have to believe in miracles."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Is Thanksgiving Jewish?

Connect the dots; Matriarch Leah, turkeys, and the Jewish people. Hint - they come together in November, forming an odd Chagall-like mosaic entitled Thanksgiving. The holiday I love to skip. Well, almost skip. No turkey, no big meal. We plan a very low key family day with little time in the kitchen. I do not do serious cooking on Thanksgiving - instead our family throws something together quickly, after all it is Thursday. And, if it is Thursday, it is humble macaroni and cheese night. The night before Shabbat generally is a night for modest dinners, this contrast adds to the honor and sparkle of the glorious Shabbat meal on Friday night.
As a first generation American, I appreciate this country and recognize that Thanksgiving is a good thing, a wonderful American celebration so I cannot cast it aside entirely. But still, why the day before Shabbat? Not good planning. Confident that George Washington, signer of the Thanksgiving Proclamation on November 26, 1789, would not mind, I simply slide our Thanksgiving over one day. I prepare turkey and stuffing, which then appear along with chicken soup, matzo balls and gefilte fish for dinner Friday night, a Jewish Thanksgiving, if you will.
And, Jewish it should be. Giving thanks is the very essence of who we are. The word Jew comes from the name Judah the largest tribe and the majority of Israelites at the time of the Babylonian Exile. Judah means to give thanks. Here is how the name was given. Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and Leah. Upon his birth Matriarch Leah declares joyfully, “This time I will thank God”. The name reflects a very special gratitude. Listen to what Rabbi Yochanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai about this gratitude, “From the day that God created His world there was no human who thanked Him as it says, ‘this time I will thank God’.
Leah is the first person to walk this earth, and turn to her maker and say a simple thank you, she teaches us gratitude. One would think that she of all the matriarchs would be the least likely to thank. Compelled to marry the beloved of her sister she might have been tempted to embrace bitterness - instead she teaches us all to be grateful, to appreciate what we have. Her “thank you” becomes the name Judah, the name of the Jewish people.
Names are more than labels, they reflect the true identity and reveal the essence of an individual. How marvelous it is that our people’s name reflects the particular noble quality of gratitude. To be a Jew is to give thanks.
Thankfulness is no simple matter. In Hebrew the word for thanks is l’hodot, the same word for admitting, confessing, as in the Viddui confession at Yom Kippur. I suppose that a sincere thank you involves a little of both, making the giving of thanks a bit of a humbling experience. It involves the admission of need and the recognition of gratitude. It is a tremendous deed to say thank you, and sometimes not an easy one.
Though difficult, thanking God can and should be the very elixir of life. The first words that roll off our tongues upon waking each morning, are words of gratitude, “modeh ani lephanecha”, I gratefully thank You for returning my soul. Our siddur, prayer book is telling us something interesting, to be a wakeful human is to greet each day with gratitude.
We’ve got Jew and Judah, Matriarch Leah, on to the bird. Turkey on Shabbat Thanksgiving is a perfect fit. The word for turkey in Hebrew is tarnigol hodu - the bird of the Indians - now, you and I both know that l’hodot means to give thanks - tarnigol hodu, hmm…the bird of thanks? Why not? A perfect food for Shabbat.
For me in a sense, Thanksgiving falls on Shabbat every week not just one November. Here’s how. Each day after morning prayers we state the day of the week and recall what the Levites would recite in the Holy Temple which was a specific Psalm designated for each of the days of the week. On Shabbat we say Psalm 92, “A psalm a song for the Sabbath day, It is good to give thanks to God”, Tov L’hodot Lhashem. Shabbat and giving thanks come together naturally; a day of rest and a day to think lofty thoughts, to look around and appreciate life’s gifts. There is nothing more sublime than gratitude and nothing as ugly as thanklessness.
Well, we have connected the dots; Matriarch Leah, turkeys and the Jewish people. In spite of the connections I am not going to lead a movement to switch Thanksgiving to Friday night. If your family’s tradition is to celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday that is wonderful - if invited I would even join you. Rabbinic teachings are on your side and have examined the modern phenomenon of observing Thanksgiving and have given it their ok. Thanksgiving on Thursday can also be Jewish. When celebrating Thanksgiving, think about making it a Jewish experience. Here are some ideas: a D’var Torah on the theme of giving thanks would be appropriate, calling to mind the unique place America has in our history is a gracious act of thankfulness, reciting the appropriate blessings before the foods and of course a Jewish flavor on the menu always helps.
I will stick with Thanksgiving on Friday night. It leads me to link American culture to our ancient traditions and values. Our name reflects our collective Jewish soul; it is a spirit, the very breath of gratitude that dances deep within us. Jew, Judah, giving thanks - the most eloquent of words. On this Thanksgiving, as on every day let us give thanks for all our blessings, for a country which has a designated a day to give thanks, for mornings that bring life and for Shabbats that teach us to say - we can’t ever say thank you enough.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Should Jewish Kids Do Halloween?

Dear Rivy,
Every year my children come home from Hebrew School telling me that their teachers told them that they should not go “Trick or Treating” on Halloween and that Halloween is not for Jewish children. I tell them that there is nothing wrong with Halloween; it's American, fun and what we have always done. Now I am starting to wonder. Is there anything wrong with Jewish children going out on Halloween night “Trick or Treating”?

As Americans we have many privileges; including the privilege of additional holidays - not that we need any more – we seem to already have plenty. However, human beings crave celebration and ritual hence, the “Hallmark-atization” of our calendar. In lieu of a commonly shared ancient religion we Americans have developed a fun lighthearted civil religion; we share the quasi-secular celebrations of New Years, Thanksgiving, Valentines Day, the obviously civil observances of Veteran’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Flag Day, and the unquestionably religious holidays of Christmas, Saint Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras and Easter. At these times of the year color schemed cards and elaborate decorations become exasperatingly pervasive.

Discussion about Jews observing New Years, Thanksgiving and Valentines Day occur annually and I suppose it is the time of year for the Halloween conversation. The conflict with these four days, New Years, Thanksgiving, Valentines Day and Halloween is unlike Christmas, Saint Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras and Easter which are clearly religious in origin. The religious origins of New Years, Thanksgiving and Valentines Day and Halloween are obscured and somewhat vague. Additionally, current prevalent observances are mostly secular in nature. Because of this haziness, the question around their observance is up for discussion and halachic scrutiny.

The accepted approach towards Thanksgiving is that it is permissible to feast on turkey and even laudable to join in the festivities since the religious nature of its origin is less than compelling. Celebrating New Years is deemed inappropriate by many on account of its connection to the religious observances related to Christmas; check out your local Wikipedia for more details. Valentines Day, romantic though it may be, is a day that commemorates the death of Christian martyrs and as such its religious origins are clear. The argument offered on behalf of Jewish observers of Valentines Day is that there is little or no connection to its origin in its modern day practices. However, the allure of Valentines Day, chocolate notwithstanding, is small time compared to Halloween.

The clamoring for Halloween fun is all different. Children are primed for its parties, haunted houses, costumes and vast amounts of candy wherever they go. Supermarkets, schools, doctor’s offices urge participation in the revelry. And in case, that by any stretch of the imagination, you missed it – don’t worry, television shows and advertisements remedy that oversight quite comprehensively. The issue of Halloween is for more pressing and contentious.

Jewish law concerning the observance or participation in holidays whose origin is of a religious nature is based on this verse from Leviticus 18:3, After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do; and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statutes. This “neither shall we walk in their statues” is a big deal. Following the threads of halachic analysis from the Talmud, to Talmudic commentaries up through the Code of Jewish law, we learn that if a seemingly innocuous practice has its origins in a pagan custom or has a taint of an idolatrous derivation then the activities are forbidden.

Even with just a cursory glance at encyclopedic entries on Halloween we quickly learn that Halloween has quite the pagan history. Here are some snippets form our beloved Wikki, “The term Halloween is shortened from All-hallow-even, as it is the evening of/before "All Hallows' Day", also known as "All Saints' Day". It was a day of religious festivities in various northern European Pagan traditions…Halloween is very popular in Ireland, where it is said to have originated, and is known in Irish as "OĆ­che Shamhna" or "Samhain Night". Pre-Christian Celts had an autumn festival, Samhain" End of Summer", a pastoral and agricultural "fire festival" or feast, when the dead revisited the mortal world, and large communal bonfires would hence be lit to ward off evil spirits…” There is a lot more that makes it abundantly clear that the origin of Halloween is undeniably pagan.

This said, it is also quite obvious that very few happy chirpy little American children experience the holiday within a pagan context - they have a fun day dressing up and getting candy. What are Jewish parents to do?! We certainly do not want to build resentment, bitterness and hostility towards Judaism by giving our children the experience of being denied the super fun day of Halloween. What we need to do is build the Jewish identity of our children and help them to not feel that they are missing out by not participating in Halloween – if something is taken away then something else must be provided in its stead. The Jewish child that grows up with a rich Jewish home life feels few if any pangs of a Hallloweenless childhood.

Here are a few pointers to bolster your stance if you choose to withhold Halloween…

• Plan. Sit down with your children and help them to understand the halacha. That though Halloween seems fun, it is not in line with Jewish values and its roots are not in sync with what we hold dear. Though paganism seems innocent and far from foreboding in our day and age, it is a belief system that is wholly at odds with belief in a transcendent God, creator and orchestrator of the universe. Children need to know that belief is something that is critical and worth sacrificing for, even if it means giving up “Trick or Treating.” Truth be told this lesson learned early, will pave the way for when being Jewish will demand more far more from them than simply a candy bar.
• Fill your Jewish home with Jewish practice. I will not be the first one to remind you that we Jews have a fantastically fun holiday called Purim, when dressing up in costumes is based on holy traditions and at what time instead of going house to house demanding treats, children are trained to go from house to house delivering treats!
• Though they cannot participate in the dressing up on Halloween, they can certainly take part by picking out the candy that they will dispense on Halloween night and by meeting and greeting trick or treat-ers the night of. This is considered laudable by our tradition in the spirit of establishing peaceful relations among our neighbors.

Finally, there are many surveys that examine Jewish continuity based on synagogue membership, school attendance, camp participation and youth group associations. I would like to advocate for all of the above but mostly for homes abounding with joyful Jewish life. Do not abdicate your children’s Judaism whole scale to others – it is primarily the responsibility of parents to set the tone and to guarantee that Judaism is transmitted through love, commitment and delight in the home. Halloween will not be missed if you make sure that its void is filled with authentic Jewish experiences.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Judaism, Nature and the Summer

Dear Rivy:
My husband and I have just moved back to Seattle. I am a native Pacific Northwestener and as such get great joy from being outdoors. Not so my New York husband. It is only despite many an objection that I am able to coax him into the great outdoors. He offers strong protestations and even thrusts Judaism at me as a basis for his nature avoidance, claiming that Jews are indoor people; intellectuals, pray-ers and House of Study folks. Help! I know in my heart that this cannot be true and with summer looming this has become a pressing issue.

What could be more Jewish than nature? But, I appreciate his disconnect. It is perfectly understandable to perceive Judaism as an indoor sport. However, he may be using his religion as a ploy to ditch a potentially intimidating experience or to dodge an activity that is clearly out of his comfort zone. It is your job to initiate him ever so gently into the magnificence of nature and to the inspirational qualities of this precious earth. If Judaism is the palette upon which he has chosen to launch his conversation; then so be it. Here is offered to you, a short “Jews & Nature Treatise” six points strong.

1. The Rationalist Approach
Maimonides in his work, the Mishneh Torah, goes to great lengths and much detail in describing the natural world and its wonders. After setting forth his basic notion that the “foundation of foundations and the firmest pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is a First Being” and in an effort to explicate the commandment to love and be in awe of the Almighty, he urges us, to devote time to reflect on the great works, planets, stars, mountains, glaciers and wonderful creatures of this universe, in order to best understand the matchless wisdom of God and thereby come to love and esteem the Creator. In Maimonides thought then, nature leads to belief.

2. The Mystical Angle
A mystical advance to the Divine urges an encounter with nature. Throughout our tradition from the days of early kabbalists in Safed to the days of the Baal Shem Tov in Eastern Europe, nature was a force to experience first hand. Where most parishioners gathered in synagogues, those adherents to Lurianic Kabbalah in Safed advocated stepping out into the fields in order to greet the Sabbath, imitating Rabbi Chanina of the Talmud, who would wrap himself in his cloak and say, “Come, let us go and greet the Shabbat Queen.” While much later the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, would spend lengthy days alone in the woods and surrounded by nature. Reb Nachman of Bratzlav famously declared that every blade of grass is urged to grow. This seeing of the Divine in every element of nature was a break from the more typical search for God on the page of the Talmud and lent a new value to the natural world.

3. A Patriarchal Past
Three Patriarchal scenes. One cannot help but notice the spiritual inspiration situated in nature found in the Torah. It was outdoors to where God led Abraham to help him understand the promise of his children being as numberless as the stars, And he brought him outside, and said, Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them; and he said to him, So shall your children be. It is the aroma of the celestial outdoors that persuades Isaac to bless Jacob, And he came near, and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his garment, and blessed him, and said, See, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which the Lord has blessed. Indeed, it was out camping where Jacob dreamed of a ladder grounded on earth reaching heavenward, And he lighted upon a certain place, and remained there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. Quite the outdoorsmen our forefathers.

4. Experiential Existentialism
It is no accident that the Torah was given in the desert wilderness of Mount Sinai. Our very existence as a people is grounded in the outdoors. Our tradition esteems the barren qualities of the desert terrain, in contradistinction to the pulsating city civilizations of the day found in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The desert is the great equalizer, teaching humility, accessibility and vulnerability. The vast emptiness of the desert instructs us to empty and un-entitle ourselves with a humility learned uncompromisingly by the vast wasteland of the desert. To experience the desert in all its grandeur is to embrace a compelling seemingly unfathomable infinity. A place fitting for our introduction to God.

5. Heschel-ian Radical Amazement
To really get a powerful feeling for the deep connection between Jewish spirituality and nature - look no further than the rapturous, Psalm 104. Whose heart cannot help but resonate with the splendor described here; He sends the springs into the valleys, they flow between the mountains. They give drink to every beast of the field; the wild asses quench their thirst. Beside them dwell the birds of the sky, among the branches they sing. He waters the mountains from his high abode; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your works. He makes the grass grow for the cattle, and plants for the service of man, that he may bring forth food from the earth; And wine that gladdens the heart of man, and oil to make his face shine, and bread which strengthens man’s heart. The trees of the Lord have their fill; the cedars of Lebanon, which he has planted, Where the birds make their nests; as for the stork, the cypress trees are her house. The high mountains are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the badgers. He appointed the moon for seasons; the sun knows its setting time. You make darkness, and it is night; when all the beasts of the forest creep forth. The young lions roar for their prey, and seek their food from God. The sun rises, they gather themselves together, and lie down in their dens.

6. Modern & Secular Connections
If none of this convinces it might be helpful to note that the very founder of the “Outward Bound” movement was a German Jew. He listed, “natural world” as the eighth of his “Ten Expeditionary Learning Principles” justifying it this way; “A direct and respectful relationship with the natural world refreshes the human spirit and teaches the important ideas of recurring cycles and cause and effect. Students learn to become stewards of the earth and of future generations.”
Hopefully, these six points one for each of the six days of creation should do the trick!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Jewish Look at the Oil Spill

Dear Rivy,
Is the world coming to an end? The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the latest Pandora-like circumstance to plague mankind. One difference; Pandora opened her box out of curiosity while BP drilled the depths of the sea with greed and recklessness; cutting corners in the production and in failing in subsequent attempts at capping the eruption. Every day brings me deeper feelings of despair at the state of the world. Perhaps, a Jews lens on this epic oil leak and man-made catastrophe will lend the issue some perspective. Any thoughts?

Just when we thought it would be safe to watch the nightly news again, what with the economic crisis in a supposed recovery and the world looking possibly less bleak - here we are with perhaps the most uncontainable and unruly situation ever. No amount of resources, bail outs, taxes, congressional hearings, peace keeping forces, speeches, negotiations are going to get us out of this one. People so undeserving of the consequences of this drilling fiasco are losing livelihood, fish and wildlife are being destroyed along with who knows how many eco-systems. And here we are with nothing to do but to watch it all unfold in slow motion. Oil and tar are slowly by slowly washing up on beaches further and even further away from the original site of the imploded rig. Frustration, dismay and futility are being felt by all. Who could have seen this coming?

A close reader of the Torah might have had a clue. Sadly the headline, “Human Actions Destroy World” is not unique the Gulf Coast Oil Spill. There is nothing new under the sun. We humans have been wreaking havoc with our world from the get go. Consider this early series of hair-raising tales from Bereshith.

Scene One: Creation. God plants a Garden in Eden, places the first human into its midst and causes every tree that is pleasant to the sight to grow delicious for his very consumption. In spite of this, immediately upon being put in this abundantly lush garden, the Torah tells us that Adam, paying no heed to the single, only command of God; to not eat of the Tree of Knowledge, tastes of the forbidden fruit and causes an immediate diminution of the workings of the world. And unto Adam He said: 'Because you have hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and have eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you, saying: You shall not eat of it; cursed is the ground on your account; in toil shall you eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles will it bring forth for you; and you shall eat the herb of the field. What?! Adam and Eve, the two humans on the planet, commit the act of eating of the Tree of Knowledge and as a result the earth is cursed on their account? The good earth that God has created is now suddenly, as a result of man’s actions, become downgraded - it will not yield produce freely, will not bear fruit without struggle. It will take human sweat to flourish and furthermore the fruit itself will come along with thorn and thistle – falling short of some original perfection – now forever lost to us. At first this glance this seems neither fair, nor logical.

But, that is the very point of this first essential lesson to mankind. Don’t cross lines. Do not take what is not yours and that which is seemingly out of your reach. The powerful yet as unlearned basic core lesson; not everything on this earth is for human consumption. Some say this original command of, not eating of the tree, is a foreshadowing of the laws of kashrut, which come as well to teach, not everything is ours to consume. Your taking of it will have dire and long range consequences on you and your surroundings.

Scene Two: Field, east of Eden. Brother murders brother as rabid jealousy leads to bloodshed. Cain cannot bear the pain of being outdone by his brother. God’s look of favor upon Abel leads to the very first fratricide. Again, the earth is grippingly dragged into the drama. And now cursed are you from the ground, which has opened her mouth to receive your brother's blood from thy hand. When you tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto you her strength; a fugitive and a wanderer shall thou be in the earth.'A fascinating twist of events. Cain’s punishment bleeds out to into his environment. The punishment for fratricide is not limited to perpetrator alone. It is visited upon its accessory to the crime, the earth which had opened up its mouth to accept the blood of Abel. Really? Can there be an authentic culpability in passive soil? They are far from being co-conspirators. Cain has murdered. The inanimate mud beneath the feet of Abel cannot help but reflexively swallow up the blood that pours forth. Is it fair that its yield is permanently crippled as a result of man’s murderous envy?

There seems to be, between human beings and the earth from whence they have been formed, a profound inescapable symbiotic link; “Adam”, “adamah”, earthling, earth. Humans commit atrocities and the soil beneath his very feet cannot help but bear the burden. Man murders and his timeless partner suffers as a result. A mighty lesson.

Scene Three: Mount Ararat. The gig is up; man’s deeds again have led to crushing results for the world. But in the aftermath of the flood, the LORD smelled the sweet savour; and the LORD said in His heart: 'I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.'

This three stage progression in Bereshith draws a clear inextricable link between the earth and man’s actions. These two first pasrhiyot of the Torah were to have provided us with an obvious object lesson for perpetuity and a cautionary tale to have animated the depths of our consciousness. The first human eats of the tree – now there must be toil and sweat, fratricide leads to diminishing returns in all efforts put forth on the farm and finally man’s evil deeds affect the entire world as it is wiped away with water spilling out from above and below.
Some might say that these words, these core ideas have been forgotten. As greed continues to take hold of each of us – all of us consumers, share in the culpability of our manic drive for energy and our continued addiction to a life of luxury fueled by comforts and lifestyles that our own grandparents could never have dreamed of.

A murky summer lurks as we continue to bear witness as this latest “man- earth” travesty unfolds with these words of Koheleth Rabbah echoing in our mind:
When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first man, He took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ' Behold My works, how beautiful and commendable they are! All that I have created, for your sake I created it. Pay heed that you do not corrupt and destroy My universe for if you corrupt it there is no one to repair it after you.