Sunday, October 25, 2009

D’var Shabbat Noach, 10/24/09 Global Climate Healing Shabbat: Why bother?

Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream….merrily, merrily…life is but a dream. This ditty comes to mind whenever I see pictorial representations of the story of Noah. It’s a cute children’s song. The story of Noah is all too often presented as a cute tale for children. It adorns books, nurseries, blankets, our Temple Emanuel Learning Center walls and as well as walls in many other Jewish institutions that cater to children: schools, pediatric hospital wings, daycare centers; even the Union of Reform Judaism’s child naming certificates are beautifully adorned with Noah’s ark. Noah depicted as the nurturing caretaker, the zoo-keeper, providing for all the animals during the flood as if his ark flows ‘gently down the stream’ through the storm. I would dare to say that this is the most frequently drawn upon Torah story for children’s stuff. We don’t depict the Temple or the sacrificial cult detailed in Leviticus for our kids, though according to Rabbinic tradition Leviticus is the first book of Torah we are to teach our children; nor do we depict the Exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Reed Sea – a defining moment in Jewish peoplehood, on the walls of our nursery schools. No, we pick this sweet story of Noah caring for the animals during the flood.
But is it really? Is it such a sweet story? God is fed up with all that that has been created – particularly humankind and decides to “לשחת כל בשר אשר בו רוח חיים” destroy every thing that breathes. All living creatures save for a number of selected representatives only 2 of whom are human are doomed to destruction. Anyone who has witnessed the devastation brought on by massive flooding knows this is at heart a violent story. Our country and particularly the regions most affected are still recovering from the catastrophic floods of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. And our biblical narrative describes flood waters far more expansive, so high that the tallest mountains on earth were completely submerged bringing destruction and death to any and all life on earth. Carefully, painfully, the text explains: וימ֜ח את כל היק֣וּם אש֣ר על פנ֣י האדמ֗ה מאד֤ם עד בהמה֙ עד ר֙מש֙ ועד או֣ף השמ֔ים וימָ֖חוּ מן הא֑רץ ויִשָ֧אֶר אך נ֛ח ואש֥ר אִת֖ו בתבֽה, "God wiped out all that was on the face of the earth, from man to beast, from all that crawls to the birds in the sky, they were all wiped out from the earth. Only Noah and that which was with him in the ark remained." Bringing some goats and doves up as sacrificial offerings to God seems to me like light reading in comparison.

Perhaps we lighten it into a children’s story because we fear facing the horror of it. Denial is a very real psychological phenomenon! And it works.
Today has been labeled International Day of Climate Action. Jews have joined the hundreds of thousands of people in 158 countries who will be participating in this call to action by identifying this Shabbat, Shabbat Noah, as Global Climate Healing Shabbat. Today is expected to be the most widespread day of environmental action in our planet’s history. Extraordinary, really.

But why bother? There are many who argue that we are dealing with improbable, unpredictable, even uncontrollable phenomena; and, some of their arguments seem awfully compelling. Denial is easier, isn’t it. Sun columnist Mike Tidwell reminded us this past week that we “…comfortable Americans tend to view really big catastrophes such as tsunamis and famines as far away matters involving people usually too poor or undereducated to plan better.” But this does impact us, and this isn’t some children’s story, or even a tale we can dismiss as Mesopotamian myth like we can with our biblical text. This is our 21st century reality, and we’ve had our heads buried in the sand (whatever’s left of it) for far too long.
Twenty-one years ago, I was finishing up college, considering grad schools, diligently working at various jobs between classes while trying to maintain some assemblance of a social life. Twenty-one years ago, I blissfully knew nothing of the first congressional testimony regarding Global warming. I admit, I was a late bloomer when it came to interest in current events, but environmental and climate issues were far from most of society’s mainstream consciousness; this was a time when even recycling was limited to special event organizational drives. As early as 1988, though, Dr. James Hansen, of NASA, a scientist who perhaps has been studying climate trends for longer than anyone else, testified before our United States Congress that Global warming is real and has serious consequences if left unchecked.
Two decades later, we are finally beginning to pay serious attention., the sponsor of today’s International Climate Day and the motivator behind our Global Climate Healing Shabbat, views an international treaty as paramount to combating global warming and its consequences. Few remain confident that one will pass this December in Copenhagen as was hoped when leaders from the international community first began meeting, but at least the issue is being recognized and efforts are being made to further the environmentalist agenda. The momentum must continue, and we can do our part by encouraging our political leaders to stay the course and remain proactive on environmental issues. did not consult the Jewish calendar when selecting this date. Its confluence with parashat Noach – and this story of rising flood waters, is pure accident, yet it is fitting. It reminds us of our dependence on the earth’s resources for our survival and the extraordinary power of nature.

Our Torah portion tells the story of what happens when society is left unchecked. There are a variety of ways to understand the text. A fundamentalist reading strives to blame such natural climate phenomena on behavior that doesn’t fit into the overly rigid moral agenda of the religious right. The historical Rabbinic reading, our midrashic sages blamed such phenomena on the yetzer ha-ra, the human inclination towards lawlessness that was said to run rampant in Noah’s day. Today we recognize the science behind the pattern of global warming, a trend that if left unchecked could lead to continual glacial melting and subsequent flooding. Our behavior is critical – but the behavior that we now know is critical has all to do with our environmental choices. These must begin take on a moral imperative. takes its name from the upper limit (350 ppm) of carbon dioxide that is viewed by scientists across the board as the safe limit for the continued healthy functioning of our planet. America, while certainly not the largest producer of CO2 in gross output (I believe China and India can battle for that honor), yet we produce more CO2 per person than virtually every other country in the world.

It may not seem it, but there is much we can do to make a difference, and even small choices make an impact. The Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network (BJEN) has many suggestions which are listed on our website and on a poster in our lobby that range from planting trees, reducing our dependence on the automobile, changing what kind of light bulb we choose to use in our homes and offices, to simply unplugging unused electrical appliances and chargers. But we do have to make the choice to respond and act.

Our Torah portion makes it clear that humans continued to make poor choices even after the apparent lesson of the flood – we are far from perfect, we are inherently flawed. Yet we also have the capacity for incredible goodness. The text also makes clear that God recognizes this inherent goodness, for God decides never again to destroy humanity despite the fact that we will make mistakes. The symbol of this promise is of course the rainbow. The Hebrew is clear that this bow is far more than picturesque symbol; it is a tangible sign of, brit, of covenant. Covenant demands a partnership, an agreement between two parties by which both parties have responsibility. The text never outlines the human part of the deal that is left for our imagination. So, let us imagine that our responsibility is to wake up to the reality of what we can do to take care of this planet and do it, one small step at a time.

Noah according to the Biblical accounting lived interestingly enough 350 years after the flood. Let that span of his life, after the covenant of God’s rainbow, be a reminder of our part in reaching the communal goal of keeping our carbon dioxide emissions below that 350 ppm upper limit. If we don’t do our part to heal our planet earth, if warming trends and the melting of our earth’s glaciers continues, only we will be to be blame. And I guarantee we and our progeny won’t be rowing so merrily down the stream.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bereshit: A Model of Tolerance, delivered 10/16/2009 Rabbi Rhoda JH Silverman

We live, it seems, in a world of increasing divisiveness and intolerance of the other – perhaps this is a function of the economic stresses of the world that will fade once stability is restored. I am too young to know from actual experience if our nation faced such divisiveness in the last period of great economic depression to which this one is so often compared, and I am far from an expert on this relatively recent historical period; yet my sense from my limited reading is that our social and cultural response today is different. Perhaps time has softened the historical memory, but it appears to me that whereas in the past great stress brought our country together creating bonds among citizens, today it seems to be feeding a growing disparity between the right and the left and an increasing lack of tolerance for each other’s point of view.

Parashat Bereshit offers us a model of tolerance for differing views. Two creation stories are contained this week’s portion – two very different creation stories that despite the traditionalist and theological attempts to reconcile them into one story reflect drastically opposing world views.

The first, a story that like much of the biblical text – particularly the material attributed to the Priestly hand (as is this) - is difficult to date. There are a couple of differing and compelling scholarly theories, yet clearly it reveals an awareness of Mesopotamian mythology and thus may have roots in that culture. This presentation of creation is an orderly and systematic accounting of the world’s creation out, תהו ובהו, of utter chaos. It is memorable – “בראשית ברא אלהים” – at the start, or as popularly translated, ‘in the beginning,’ God created…” as God proceeds carefully through each day commanding ‘ויאמר אלהים’, through speech, the creation of light, land & water, vegetation, the lights in the sky including the sun, moon, and starts, the animals that fill our earth, and of course humankind.

It’s a lovely story in its order and simplicity: God is all-powerful and systematic; and humans are simply one element among a grand litany of God’s creations. Certainly we humans are differentiated from the rest of God’s creation, not only by the use of the Hebrew word ויברא in place of the word ויעש– the verb used for the rest of creation, but also by the statement that we are בצלם אלהים, made in God’s image. Like God, we are given power over other creations, yet despite humans being given special consideration (and the midrashist’s interpretation that the world was created entirely for our sake), the creation of man is not the central facet of this story of creation. Creating divine order out of disorder is.

Story two, most probably an older textual tradition (attributed to the J strand), offers a different opinion. Here, despite the passage creating an expectation that we will now hear אלה תולדות השמים והארץ בהבראם, a chronicled history of the making of heaven and earth, man takes center stage in no less than 3 verses and remains central throughout the rest of the story, the raison d’etre for the creation of all other animals. Unlike the first story presented, this rendition is far from orderly – on the contrary, the author is far less concerned with outlining an ordered and detailed litany of creation than with explaining the human condition. If anything, creation goes from order, gan eden, to chaos in this version. Moreover, there is no b’tzelem Elohim. On the contrary, there is the implication that God doesn’t want humans to be God-like, at least if we are to believe the serpant: “כי וֹדֵעַ אלהים כי ביום אכָלכם ממנו ונפקחו עיניכם והייתם כּאלהים...,” “God knows that on the day that you eat from that tree, the tree of knowledge, your eyes will be opened and v’hyitem k’Elohim, you will be like God.” God is not all-powerful in this story, rather the free will of human beings interferes with God’s control of order shatters the orderliness, the paradise, of Eden.

So which is it? The former offers a version where order is paramount and a Divinely dictated hierarchy is implicit. All creation comes from the word of God. The latter offers a version where earth is not only primary but serves as literally the source material for mankind who then becomes the center of all attention and all further creative activity, some good and some not so good. Theologians throughout history have worked to reconcile these two stories into a seamless whole, and some have striven to use their theology in order to scientifically explain creation; yet, be clear that regardless of any creationist attempt at creating science out of theology, the biblical text was never intended to serve as scientific truth. Rather the intent of the biblical author (whether God or human hand – that of course is another question entirely, and most everyone here should know where I stand on that issue), was to introduce ideology, a moral code – a way of understanding the universe, not necessarily knowing the universe. Science, as a discipline, comes much later.

The goal of Torah is to explain the selection of the Israelites, to couple them with this God known as י-ה-ו-ה and to the Land of Canaan, and to follow their journey to this place. Parashat Bereshit really does nothing to further this specific agenda; but, it does provide important background, a preface, if you will, to the story of our national development. It provides a universal setting and primeval history to the birth of a specific people. At the same time, these stories present different philosophies on the nature of human kind – they prioritize different ideas; and, and here’s the point: from the Torah’s perspective, it doesn’t matter! What is important to the wholeness of Torah is that these stories share the then innovative idea of an ever-present and singular God.

Perhaps the inclusion of these two diametrically opposed stories by the final biblical redactor was purposeful as a reminder to all future generations – including us - that Judaism has never been monolithic; there is, and always has been, room for difference of opinion and for debate. It is that very fluidity and open mindedness that keeps Jewish life growing and thoroughly enriching.

Liberals and Conservatives have similar ultimate goals – we all want peace, here and abroad; we all want affordable health care, and we expect those most in need to be cared for properly; we all want jobs – and the opportunity to feel productive while experiencing the joy of our world; we all want a stable economy and affordable housing. We all care about life, protecting it and ensuring the mental and physical health of all humankind. There are different opinions as to how to accomplish all of these goals; and mostly like there is more than one right way of how to get there, but we won’t get there if we remain divided, unwilling to fully listen and hear, to work with and ultimately compromise with each other.

The Biblical text is clear, whether made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, or from the very dust of the earth – or somehow both – we humans all share our humanity in common however that humanity has come to be. Let the difference of opinion, the diversity inherent and retained in our biblical text help us counter fundamentalist and rigid ideology. Let it serve as a model of tolerance for us in this challenging economic and political climate. Let it remind us that it is through the diversity of opinion and open minded compromise that the solutions to our most difficult challenges will be found.
Ken y’hi ratzon!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Be Happy! Delivered Shabbat/Sukkot morning, October 3, 2009/15 Tishre 5770

Shabbat/Sukkot 1, 15 Tishrei 5770
This special portion for the holiday of Sukkot, a passage from parashat Emor, details what we are supposed to do. The requirements are outlined clearly:

• On the first day and the last day, don’t go to work; it is a sacred day that demands complete rest. That’s clear, no? Whether we choose to honor that commandment, well that’s another story, but the expectation is clearly stated for us to understand: these days are to be set aside as distinct and deserving of שבתון.

• For 7 days, bring offerings: meal offerings, burnt offerings, sacrifices, etc. to God. Okay - an instruction that at first glance seems no longer relevant -- we worship, thankfully, in an entirely different manner today; but, in the context of the biblical period, it is clear what was expected: a public expression of worship and appreciation for this specific holiday, separate from anything else.

• We are commanded to gather together the 4 species: פרי עץ הדר, כפת תמרים, ענף עץ עבת, & ערבי נחל, together known as the lulav and etrog. No explanation is given here in this particular passage, but it is a tangible and clear instruction nonetheless.

• We are commanded to live in booths, in sukkot during the holiday - not only a tangible task, but one with a reason offered namely to remind us that the Israelites lived in temporary dwellings after they were redeemed from Egypt.

There is one last commandment offered in this festival passage that our Bar Mitzvah will recite in just a few moments:
ושמחתם לפני יהוה ואלהיכם שבעת ימים.- “You shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days.”

Many of us, particularly the adults in the kahal (Oliver & his friends perhaps may be to young) may be familiar with the Bobby McFerrin song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” This now old song pops into my head every time I read this passage. ושמחתם - it’s not a suggestion rather our text is clear: וחגתם אתו חג ליהוה שבעת ימים בשנה חקת עולם לדרתיכם....(ויקרא כג) - “you shall make it a festival to Adonai - to God for 7 days a year; it is a chok, a law for all time throughout your generations”, in other words, forever. Again, this isn’t a recommendation or a suggestion, this is a command: “You, be happy! And be so for 7 days”. Moreover - and here’s the catch- rejoice while outside in the sukkah, that fragile incomplete shelter that is susceptible to wind and rain and that has little room for any material belongings.

On Thursday of this week, China celebrated the milestone of their nation’s 60th anniversary, a celebration that stands in stark contrast to the expectation of this command. Based on reports in the paper, this anniversary was marked with the kind of pomp, materialistic display, military bravado, and rejoicing that one might expect at such a celebration - especially for this country which is proud of and eager to revel in its growing position as a world power. It is easy to rejoice and celebrate in our material achievements. The timing of this nationalistic display, though, can serve to remind us of the very different intent of our biblical command, ושמחתם, to rejoice.

Sukkot requires that we rejoice despite our being out in the most simple and fragile of settings separated from those very material things that we think give us security or power. We are expected - we again are commanded - to rejoice in the simplest of pleasures: inviting guests and sharing a meal not in our elaborate redesigned 21st century kitchens with its granite counter tops and stainless appliances, but in our fragile and often less than comfortable sukkahs accessorized with perhaps a picnic table and folding chairs, but hopefully filled with people.

It is nice to have things. It is nice to surround ourselves with all of the comforts of modernity and the excesses of American consumerism; yet it is all too easy to allow ourselves to mistakenly equate these material and tangible things and structures in our lives with security and protection from our own human frailties and the reality of our mortality.

Sukkot with its seemingly paradoxical focus on the temporary and shaky sukkah and the simultaneous commandment of s’machtem, of rejoicing, reminds us that not only can we not escape insecurity of the human condition, but that we must find a way to celebrate and rejoice in our lives, in our humanity, despite it.