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.