Reb Arthur's Latest Thoughts

Cleaning out the Climate Chumetz

 Torah teaches us that as Passover begins we must clean from our houses all traces of "chumetz” -- leavening, yeast, whatever makes our bread rise and our cucumbers turn sour.

The Hasidic communities interpreted this to mean whatever makes our selves, our egos,  swell up and turn sour. So Passover, they said, is the time to get rid of the Pharaoh inside us, what turns us from "grown-ups" to "blown-ups," whatever tugs us toward domination rather than community.

In our generation, this certainly means moving away from the habits that dominate, subjugate, and endanger Mother Earth. In our generation, energy is food. And the most dangerous, most ego-swelling chumetz that we "eat" are fossil fuels. Burning them is the most dangerous thing we do because the C02 and methane this emits are burning up our planet.

So let us make a commitment this Passover that we will take the steps to clear our common home, our Earth, from this destructive chumetz.

 At the Seder, let us make three pledges to each other:

1. During or very soon after Passover, we will invite ten of our neighbors to gather in our living room to discuss what it would mean to create a neighborhood solar-energy co-op.

 2.  During the next two weeks, our senators and congressmembers are at home. We will invite the same ten neighbors to make an appointment to meet with one of these officials to urge that they support national policies to heal our Earth from the climate crisis, and that they will oppose all efforts to impose upon us the chumetz of burning fossil fuels.

3. During Passover, we will send serious contributions of money to organizations that are bringing deep spiritual values into working for eco-social justice and against the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs at three levels -– to heal our neighborhoods from asthma caused by coal dust and oil-refinery fumes; to heal whole regions from the poisoned air and water caused by oil-bearing pipelines; and to heal the Earth and prevent climate chaos by moving quickly to the use of wind and solar energy.

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Bringing Elijah truly into the Passover Seder

"Elijah Turning  the Hearts of Parents and Children to Each Other Lest the Earth be Devastated"

 On the Shabbat just before Passover, traditionally we read a passage from the last of the classical Hebrew Prophets –-- Malachi.  It cries out:

"Here! The day is coming that will flame like a furnace, says the Infinite YHWH / Breath of Life, when all the arrogant and all evil-doers, root and branch, will like straw be burnt to ashes.

Yet for those of you who revere My Name, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath that breathes all life, a sun of justice will arise with healing in its wings.

“Here! Before the coming of the great and awesome day of YHWH/ the Breath of Life, I will send you the Prophet Elijah to turn the hearts of parents to children and the hearts of children to parents, lest I come and smite the earth with utter destruction." (Malachi 3: 20-21, 23-24.)

This teaching can make a powerful difference in our Passover Seder, where there is a tradition to open the door to welcome the Prophet Elijah.  Out of Jewish suffering in the Middle Ages came the outcry at that moment of opening the door: “Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not respond to Your Unity, Your Call to love each other!"

But far better in our generation would be to open the door for Elijah and say:

“Holy One, We open this door to open ourselves to all of Earth and all Humanity. We take upon ourselves the mission of Elijah. We will act now before the Breath of Life becomes a searing hurricane. We will turn our own hearts to the lives of our grandchildren; we will work to create for them a world as fruitful and as beautiful as the world of our grandparents. We invite their hearts to learning from the deepest teachings of the Wisdom we inherited -- that together we can yet avert the utter devastation of Your Earth."

Let us search more deeply into Malachi’s Prophetic outcry:  Why this danger and this chance for healing?

"You are defrauding Me!" says God. "You fail to share My abundance with the poor and landless, you will not bring the common wealth into the common storehouse. Only if you turn back to My teaching will the locusts vanish from your fields. Only then, if you will share My rain of blessings on your harvests, will I pour those blessings down from Heaven." (Malachi 3: 8-11)

Let us open our ears and hearts to Malachi speaking to our own generation:

"Here! If you oppress the poor, impoverish workers, and wring super-profits from the earth to plump the rich and powerful, the Earth itself will suffer a planetary scorching. If you turn My Breath, My Air, into a furnace, not only the arrogant pharaohs of your day will suffer, but also all life and humankind, as all Egypt suffered from the arrogance of Pharaoh long ago.

"Already droughts scorch your continents, already your waters boil into typhoons and hurricanes, already the ice melts and your sea-coasts flood, already your birds and insects and diseases migrate where there is no place to weave them into the healing web of life.

"Yet even now you can turn away from arrogance and greed, from the fires of coal and oil and unnatural gas; even now you can turn to sharing the abundance that still flowers from the Earth, even now you can turn to the solar energy and the winged wind that rise from a sun of justice and tranquility to heal your planet.

“Most urgent: BE Elijah, turning the hearts of the  generations to each other, to save the Earth from devastation!”

 

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Till Next April 4: Creating #MLK50Awake -- A Jubilee Year of Truth and Transformation

Dr. King Beckons Us:

Beginning a Year of Truth & Transformation

Toward the 50th Anniversary of his Death

April 4, 2017, marked the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s prophetic sermon, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” at The Riverside Church in New York.  April 4, 2018, will b the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

During the last year of his life, he struggled in the midst of war and governmental abandonment of the poor to create new multiracial, multi-religious coalitions of action -- coalitions rooted in the spiritual vision of a society committed not to "things" but to people.

This was the heart of his prophetic gift to America:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. . . . . When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. … We are confronted by the fierce urgency of Now.”

As he faced a government obsessed with an immoral and destructive war, today we face the US government's extraordinary efforts to expand the overwhelming wealth and power of the few, and to subjugate the poor, Black and Brown communities, Muslims and oher religious minorities, immigrants, women, those who identify as LGBTQ, those who need medical care, the press, the working and middle class, and even our all-nurturing Mother Earth.

The speech and many thoughtful comments on its meaning and its history are at the website <MLK50.org>

In Washington DC, on  April 4, we gathered at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church for a teach-in: reflection on Dr. King’s message, followed by action.  We began with an intergenerational and interfaith conversation about our current moral crisis with Sister Simone Campbell (“Nuns on the Bus”); Rabbi David Saperstein (former Director, Religious Action Ctnter of Reform Judaism); Imam Talib Shareef (Masjid Muhammad); and Rev Anthony Grimes (Fellowship of Reconciliation & Black Lives Matter).

Workshops and teach-ins on the triplets of racism, materialism and militarism followed. 

The day culminated with a multi-religious Call to Prayerful Action by leaders from Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, and Bahai communities, and then rousing calls by Rev. Aundreia Alexander (Associate General Secretary, National Council of Churches) and Bishop Dwayne Royster (Political Director, PICO National Network)  sending the community forth on a March to the White House where we held a Vigil till a minute of silence at 6:01 pm, the moment of Dr. King's death 49 years ago.

Around the country —at Riverside Church in New York with Rev. William Barber and Ruby Sales and Michelle Alexander, in Memphis with Rev. Barber again, in Boston and a myriad other places, in the pages of the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Washington Post and Tikkun and Sojourners and with Democracy Now, the Stony Point Center and the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the National Council of Elders and the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee and the “US Department of Arts and Culture” (not a government agency!) and Interfaith Moral Action on Climate and in many many more places — the “Beyond Vietnam” prophetic utterance was lifted up. Later this month the Ecumenical Days of Advocacy by many Christian leaders will focus the triplets of Racism, Materialism, and Militarism.

 I see this as a beginning for all of us. I hope we will keep in touch with each other . I invite each and all of us to send our thoughts and plans to <MLK50.org> as we continue to unfold the meaning of Dr. King's prophetic outcry into this year ahead, the Jubilee Year of Truth and Transformation.

And I hope we will start planning now for one year from now at the fifieth anniversary of Dr. King's death. It is already clear there will be a great outpouring.  Let us make sure it will address the profound and prophetic depth of Dr. King.

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Jewish Gravestones Toppled, Mosques Torched, Sioux Water Endangered, ICE Cops Go Wild: How Come?

How Come?

Are these moments connected?

In Philadelphia yesterday, hundreds of gravestones in a Jewish cemetery were toppled.

In Tampa yesterday, a mosque was burned.

In Standing Rock, North Dakota, a careful legal memo written by a Justice Department lawyer detailing the right of the Sioux Nation to protect its land and water was thrown in the garbage by command of the White House and bulldozers resumed tearing through Sioux graves and driving out the Water Protectors.

In the Fort Lauderdale Airport,  Muhammad Ali’s son – a US citizen -- was detained and  grilled for hours by federal agents about whether he was a Muslim.

In the Philadelphia Daily News, columnist Will Bunch drew together reports of Immigration officers reveling in cruel and pointless humiliation of American Muslims and brownish “foreigners.”  See <http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/attytood/Just-following-orders-Trumps-goon-squad-goes-wild.html>

Are these moments connected? Indeed they are. When a fish rots, the stink begins at the head.

The stink of cruelty and subjugation begins in the White House, and it infects not only those under direct orders but those “volunteers,” those civilians whose worst bendings of the soul are glorified by the White House, and whose best impulses toward compassion and truth are met with sneers and contempt.

These moments are indeed connected. And so must be our response, as it already has been. Muslims raised money and brought their bodies to repair Jewish gravestones. A Jewish woman suffered the mangling of her arm by a police-fired concussion grenade because she steadfastly insisted on being a Water Protector for the Sioux of Standing Rock. And those are but a few of the glowing lights of love.

For years, The Shalom Center has focused most of our attention on those whose greed for Hyperwealth and drive for domination are destroying our common home, the Earth wherein we live. We call them the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs because, like Pharaoh in our ancient story in the ancient Bible, they subjugate human communities and they bring Plagues upon the Earth.

As the Bible tells the story --

“Then a new king came to power in the Land that became Tight and Narrow. ‘Look,’ he said to his people, ‘The Godwrestling People have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous And, if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and rise up over the country.’

“So they put police over them to oppress them.”

 Sound familiar? The morning papers report – The White House is preparing a Federal budget that will slash civilian spending   -- on pure water, truthful teachers, swift railroads, skilled doctors, justice-pursuing lawyers -- and ramp up the military money that already outdoes all the other  military establishments and terrorist arsenals in the world, put together.

 Racism, militarism, and materialism are the three deadly “triplets” endangering America, said Martin Luther King on April 4, 1967, fifty years ago, exactly one year before he was murdered.

We need “a radical revolution of values,” said Martin Luther King on April 4, 1967, fifty years ago. 

We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society [where] machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people -- to a “person-oriented” society,” said Martin Luther King on April 4, 1967, fifty years ago. 

We are confronted by the fierce urgency of Now,”  he said.

Today the urgency of Now is even fiercer.

We must end the subjugation of the Earth, of women, of Blacks and Muslims and Mexicans and Jews and Sioux and of the white working-class and lower-middle class people who in despair and rage voted for their enemy.

The fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s most profound and prophetic sermon-speech should be a time for us to gather, to relearn his wisdom and to act with as much courage as he did. Already networks are gathering to do this. (See https://MLK50.org.)

We are in this together. That is the only truth the White House is trying to teach us, precisely with its myriad lies. If we focus on different issues, it is because the issues are different the way the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle are different. They fit together in a wholeness of Truth.

And so must we.

With blessings of Truth, Justice, and Peace –-- the three pillars which, the ancient Rabbis said, make it possible for the world to stand. And then one of them added, “These are not three, but one!”   --  Arthur

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Torah for Tumultuous Times: April 2017

“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory with desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”



So said T.S. Eliot, riffing on Walt Whitman’s

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd ...

I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring"

about the April death of Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln was our greatest President because he was the one who did the most — not then or yet enough — to wrench America loose from the inheritance of slavery and to breed an expanded democracy out of the bleeding land.

Mixing memory with desire: The recipe for the Pesach Seder, usually in April, breeding freedom, past and future, out of the Narrow Land and its Narrow Pharaoh.

April — the cruellest month of American history, the yohrzeit month of Lincoln, FDR, and Martin Luther King,

This April,  we face our own Pharaoh, the American President who is already the worst, stifling democracy and choking Earth at every breath:

Then a new king came to power in the Land that became Tight and Narrow.

“Look,” he said to his people,

“The Godwrestling People have become far too numerous for us.

Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous

And, if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us

And rise up over  the country.”

So they put police over them to oppress them.

So this April, there will be a series of Shabbatot that beg for focusing Torah on tikkun olam, the healing of our country and the wounded Land of every country  --  Earth.

(1) April 1,  Vayikra.  This Shabbat immediately precedes the 50th anniversary (on April 4) of Martin Luther King's most  profound & prophetic sermon, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” given at Riverside Church in NYC with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel beside him on the bima.

I recommend using passages from this sermon as Haftarah. Do we need a warrant to name MLK a Navi? — Almost a year after the prophetic "Beyond Vitnam" sermon, Heschel spoke to the Rabbinical Assembly, introducing MLK and saying:

"Where in America do we hear a voice
Like the voice of the prophets of Israel?
Martin Luther King is a sign that
God has not forsaken the United States of America. …
Martin Luther King is a voice, a vision and a way.
I call upon every Jew
To hearken to his voice,
To share his vision,
To follow his way.
The whole future of America will depend upon
the impact and influence of Dr. King.”


And ten days later, on April 4, 1968, completing precisely a year from that Prophetic sermon,  Dr. King was murdered. Was that "America's" response to him? Did that murder define the whole future of America? Or is that future once more in our hands?

The whole “Beyond Vietnam” sermon, comments on it, and suggestions for action are on the new website <http://MLK50.org>. I hope that our congregations and all congregations and communities will on that weekend and/or on April 4 itself gather to read King’s prophetic words, discuss them in the light of our own lives, and decide together what actions we could take that would be worthy of King’s wisdom and his courage.

2)  April 8, Shabbat HaGadol. Check carefully the “HaGadol” haftarah, which warns of the Earth being consumed in a furnace of heat but says the “wings” of a just and righteous sun can remedy the danger (solar & wind energy?). The very end calls for the Prophet Elijah to turn the hearts of parents & children to each other lest the Earth be utterly destroyed.

    • Perfect text for  climate crisis, leading into Pesach & the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs of today, bringing Plagues upon the Earth.  
    • Perfect text for calling pre-B'nei Mitzvah kids & the rest of the congregation to stand and face each other, and to have both generations pledge to become Elijah so as to heal the Earth from danger.  
    • Perfect text to welcome Elijah to the Seder.


3)  April 16, Shabbat Chol Ha’Moed Pesach. The Haftarah is Ezekiiel’s “Dry Bones,” given new life by oft-repeated “Ruach" — obscured by most translations by using “breath," “wind” & “spirit” in different contexts, making it hard to realize they ae all the same. This can be used in many ways — the desiccated bones of US democracy needing Ruach to revive, the planet afflicted by drought as well as flood, etc etc.

(4) April 22,  Shmini and Earth Day. The parashah defines what is kosher. It would be relatively easy to craft divrei Torah about eco-kashrut. In doing that, it would be important to keep in mind that what Reb Zalman z’l and I had in mind was NOT just about food but about other elements that we humans (who are no longer chiefly shepherds & farmers) “eat” from the Earth.  — e.g. coaL, oil, uranium.  In our generation, energy is “food.”

What are the rules for the kosher eating of this food? (See my chapter, “What Is Eco-Kosher?” in my book Down-to-Earth Judaism.)

(5) April 29:  Tazria/Metzora and People’s Climate March/ Movement Shabbat.

I think the most relevant texts would be the two Haftarot.

(a) One is about how the lepers who are living (starving) on the margins of Israelite society end up becoming its saviors. It could be the focus of an affirmation of our various "outsiders” and a warning  not to squash those people because “the stone that the builders rejected is the cornerstone of the House.”   Warning: Don't make Muslims pariahs.

(b) Directly relevant to Climate concerns is the other Haftarah, in the context of Standing Rock’s “Water is Life.” General Naaman’s life is saved by dunking him in the Jordan River. At first he is scornful of the life-giving powers of such a piddling stream, but It Works!   Water IS Life!!  



Last week I sent out a mailing that calls for us to walk three paths in the period of the Trump-Bannon-Pence presidency: Resist, Rethink, Recreate. I hope these thoughts about the Shabbatot of April  will help stir our juices to the Rethinking that both Jewish and American peoplehoods need today.

 

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The Loooong Narrow Pharaoh and the Midwives Who Gave Birth to Freedom

The Short Colorful Passover Gift-Books for Kids & Their Grown-Ups
As Passover approaches, you may find especially delicious a colorful way to share the story with your children or grandchildren, your friends' kids, your Seder hosts and guests, and for that matter with grown-ups who are open to laughng at loooong narrow pharaohs of the past as well as the present.  

 



That’s what our words and the wonderful pictures by Avi Katz (a creative illustrator for the Jerusalem Report)  do with this new brief and colorful book --  The Loooong Narrow Pharaoh and the Midwives  Who Gave Birth to Freedom.  We share a new story of both resistance to a cruel ruler and the birthing of a new community.

(Or maybe it's not just an old story, since the Pharaoh tried to incite hatred of an immigrant community who talked a strange languag and had a different religion. Uncannily familiar, maybe? )

(Anyway, the story we tell sure is new --  Like, Did you ever hear it was really the midwives who inspired and led the Exodus itself? Was that a secret, long kept hidden by the men who wrote our Bibles?  Or was it --- shshsh!)

The long narrow Pharaoh ordered two midwives, Shifra and Puah -- to kill the boy-babies of that immigrant community, the Cross-Over People.  BUT ---



 

AND THEN --  (Sh-sh-sh, you remember that Women's March last January, all over America and all around the world?)

But we don't want to spoil the story by telling what happens next.  Get the book to find out!

You can order The Loooong Narrow Pharaoh and the Midwives  Who Gave Birth to Freedom  by clicking here:

<https://www.amazon.com/Looooong-Narrow-Pharaoh-Midwives-Freedom/dp/069275721X>  

At the bottom of the same Amazon page you’ll find another of our books,  The Rest of Creation, and you can buy them both together.  Here’s a page from that one:





So —  who explained to God why there needed to be a day of resting from Creation? And who came up with exactly the right name for the day? Read the book to find out!

If you want to make an extra gift to The Shalom Center without any additional cost to you, you can start -- before you begin shopping -- by going to  AmazonSmile (smile.amazon.com), and naming The Shalom Center (the one in Philadelphia) as  the organization to receive Amazon’s donations of a percentage of your purchases.

We promise that you and your kids and grandkids, nephews and nieces,  your neighbors' children -- will enjoy the time you share reading and  looking together at the colorful pictures in these books.

 We've tested the books by telling them as stories in many synagogues on Friday evening and some churches on Sunday morniing, and find that adults enjoy them too.

Grown-ups, kids, and YOU will enjoy learning how “the Bible, “the Torah,” can become seeds of creativity rather than narrow strictures of rigidity. We ourselves can leave behind our own Narrow Pharaoh to become the midwives of our freedom.

Remember -- you can order the book through Amazon by clicking here:
https://www.amazon.com/Looooong-Narrow-Pharaoh-Midwives-Freedom/dp/069275721X


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Tu B'Shvat/ YAH B'Shvat: 4 Teachings, 4 Worlds, ONE Tree

 

     
 

This year the festival of Tu B'Shvat -- the ReBirthDay of earthly trees and of the supernal Tree of Life, falls on Friday evening Febuary 10/ Saturday February 11.  For a unique treasury of history, wisdom, and practtiuice of Tu B'Shvat that will help ylu celbrate Tu B'Shvat, see the book Trees, Earth, and Torah (publ by Indiana Univ Press for the Jewish Publication Society, ed. by Ari Elon, Rabbi Naomi Mara Hyman, and Rabbi Arthur Waskow). Available from Amazon.

These four teachings might be included in the passages read for the four courses of the Tu B’Shvat Seder, marking the Four Worlds of reality through which the Kabbalists of Tzfat 500 years ago shaped the mystical Seder of God’s ReBirthDay on the full Moon of Midwinter.  

1. Asiyah, Physical Actuality: The foods of the Tu B’Shvat Seder (this year, Sunday evening  January 24) are nuts and fruit, the rebirthing aspects of a plant's life-cycle. They are the only foods whose eating requires no death, not even the death of a plant (like the radish or the Bitter Herb in the Pesach Seder).  Our living trees send forth their fruit and seeds in such profusion that they overflow beyond the needs of the next generation. This is the sacred meal of Eden, the Garden of Delight. The sacred meal of Mashiach-zeit, the Messianic Age.  

2. Yetzirah, Relationship: The four cups of wine for the Tu B’Shvat Seder are white; white with a drop of red to become pink; red with a drop of white to become rose;  red. Red and white were in ancient tradition seen as the colors of  generativity. To mix them was to mix the blood and semen that to the ancients connoted procreation. The Seder celebrates rebirth in all its forms throughout the world.  

3. Briyyah, Creative Intellect: In two separate epiphanies, Rabbi Phyllis Berman and Ari Elon pointed out that the conventional name for the festival of the Trees’ ReBirthDay names it in a constricted, fearful way. The festival comes on the 15th day (the Full Moon) of the midwinter lunar “moonth” of Shvat, and “Tu” is  made up of two Hebrew letters, Tet and Vav, that numerically are “9+6,” making 15. But this way of counting is an anomaly. Normally with numbers in the teens we say the letters for “10+x,” not “”9+y.”  That would mean “Yod-Aleph” for 11, “Yod-Bet” for 12, and so “Yod-Hei” for 15.  But “Yod-Hei” is “Yah,” one of the Names of God (as in Hallelu-YAH.).

So out of fear and reluctance to say God’s Name when we name the festival, we use “9+6,” “Tu,” instead.

But – “What might happen if we joyfully proclaim God’s full Presence on that day of God’s Rebirth, YAH B’Shvat, and on every Full Moon of each month?” said both Phyllis and Ari.  

4. Atzilut, Spirit.  At a Tu B’Shvat Seder held in a grove of ancient and majestic redwoods  to protest the logging of such redwoods for corporate profit, then rabbinical student Naomi Mara Hyman (now a rabbi) gestured at the tall-reaching trees around us  — the tallest living beings on the planet —  and said, “These are eytzim [“trees”], yes?  And the wooden poles that hold a Torah scroll, we also call them eytzim, yes? Imagine a Torah Scroll so majestic that these redwoods were its eytzim! In that Torah, each of us would be just large enough to be one letter in that Torah!” And that is what we are: each a letter making up together the words, the wisdom, of that Great Torah that is indeed the Tree of Life.

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Wanted for Arson --

 Wanted for Arson  --

NOT for Secretary of State

 

 

Rex W. Tillerson

President and chief executive of Exxon Mobil.

Nominated by Donald Trump  for Secretary of State

Burn one home, you’ve prison years to count.

Burn our common home, the Planet Round –-

With billions in your bank account,

It’s to High Office that you’re bound.

If you believe that world-wide arson is a crime:

1) Turn the upper part of this message into a poster and the whole thing into a flyer (adding a local contact); gather others; and picket a high-visibility Exxon station in your community.
 2) Call 202-224-3121, ask for each of your Senators, and urge them to refuse confirmation of Tillerson to be Secretary of State. Ask the offices for their fax numbers and send a letter of your own to each Senator.
3) Invite your friends and neighbors for a conversation about forming a neighborhood solar-energy co-op. Click to  <http://communitypowernetwork.com/> and

    <http://nwphillysolarcoop.com/about/> for more information

4) Please drop us a note at Office@theshalomcenter.org about what you are doing, and please contribute to support our work.       Click on the maroon "Contribute" banner on the left margin of this page.

5)  Forward this message to your friends and community leaders.

 

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Hanukkah and Christmas: Spiritual Siblings in a Time of Dark

The Deeper Story of the Dark-Time Festivals of Light

This coming Shabbat, we will have the opportunity to explore anew the meaning of Hanukkah. I hope we will go deeper than the Hanukkah story that is now most often shared --  the Talmudic legend of the  oil that should have been enough to last for one day but instead lasted for eight.

The story has its uses today in a time when we desperately need to conserve the use of  oil and other forms of carbon-burning energy in order to heal our wounded planet – but  there are deeper meanings to the festival  that may speak more deeply to our people, hungry for  connection to the Spirit in a time of Darkness.

This year, the first night of Hanukkah coincided with Christmas Eve. Hanukkah begins each year on the 25th day of the Jewish lunar month of Kislev. Christmas comes each year on the 25th day of the Western solar month of December. Since both Kislev and December are timed for early winter, both festivals come close to the day of the winter solstice, the darkest time of year in the Northern Hemisphere.

Is all this a coincidence? I think not.


What do we know about the origins of each of these festivals?

In Jewish lore, Hanukkah is connected with the desecration and rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Its desecration by order of Antiochus, ruler of a Hellenistic Empire, came on the 25th of Kislev in the year we would now call 168 BCE. Three years later, the guerilla uprising led by the Maccabee brothers was successful in beginning the rededication of the Temple on the same day, 25 Kislev.

According to I Maccabees, a sacred book in Christian but not Jewish tradition, when the uprising succeeded in establishing control of the Temple once again, the victorious guerillas decided to celebrate the eight-day harvest festival of Sukkot that had not been possible to observe during the three years of Imperial control. (Sukkot was traditionally the time of year when King Solomon dedicated the First Temple; a good time to rededicate the second one.)

But the Rabbis, about 200 years later, were worried that lionizing the Maccabees might lead to disastrous violent rebellions against the Roman Empire. (That’s why they never decided that the Books of the Maccabees were sacred for Jews.) So they put forward a legend about a bottle of olive oil that was supposed to light the Temple for one day but lasted eight – and thus explained the eight-day festival of Hanukkah.

But let’s go back to the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus’ army on 25 Kislev back in 168 BCE.  Why on that day?

Here let me make a leap of “midrashic history” or “imaginative historical reconstruction.” The 25th of a  lunar “moonth” is the time of any month at which the moon diminishes and then vanishes.   And Kislev is the month in which the sun is also at its darkest. This is a perfect time for a spiritually awe-struck ceremony affirming the dark-time and imploring both the light of the moon and the light of the sun to return –-- which it does, year by year, confirming that it is a good thing to honor the gods at that moment.  (And perhaps in terms we might today find more palatable, successful because the ceremony helped dispel dark depression and despair.)

So perhaps what for the Jews was Antiochus’ desecration of the Temple was for the Hellenistic Empire a celebration of this sacred moment in its own spiritual calendar, facing and transcending the dark of moon and sun --using practices that for the Jews were desecration?  

Perhaps it was not only the memory of a guerrilla victory but the attractiveness of celebrating this moment of Light Renewed  that drew the Jewish people into adopting and celebrating the festival? And perhaps the Talmud’s legend of the miraculous Light-bearing Lamp was a way of connecting the two  -- celebrating both Light Renewed and the breakthrough of political joy and Rededication in a time of darkness?  

Now let us turn to the origins of Christmas. In the first few centuries of Christianity, there was no celebration of Jesus’ birth. The Gospels did not give the date of his  birth. And some modern commentators have pointed out that the descriptions of society at the time sound more like fall than winter.

Then in the Fourth Century, as Christianity was becoming the Established Church of the Roman Empire, the Church decided to make a major spiritual holy day of Jesus’ birth. But –- what day?

In Rome during those centuries, one of the most widely celebrated festivals was the Birth of Mithras, the god of a “mystery religion” with origins in Persia and the Eastern Mediterranean. And Mithras’ birthday was December 25.

The Christian Church adopted this day for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. One might see this as “surrendering to paganism” or as “cultural appropriation” or as a way of recognizing and affirming the spiritual power inherent in some aspects of another tradition.

Yet –- why, of all possible days in December, was the festival marked on the 25th? The Roman calendar was solar, not lunar or lunisolar.  Was “December 25” an effort to transcribe the lunar  “Kislev” date when the moon was vanishing, into a solar calendar?

I would called Hanukkah and Chrstmas “siblings” because they were both born from a “pagan” mother, celebrating Mother Earth. Though they are not twins, they share some DNA -- the theme of kindling light in a time of encroaching darkness.  They even share the notion of a Tree of Light – though our trees are very different. Both also emphasize joy at a time of what for many may be “SADness:  --  Seasonal Affective Disorder.”  

And there is a shared theme of spiritual or political resistance to the forces of Imperial oppression. In Hanukkah this theme is boldly lit, in the story of the Maccabeean revolt led by a small-town family. In Christmas it is muted, but Caesar Augustus and the murderous King Herod are the dark forces in the world when light is born in Jesus  -- the child of a working-class carpenter so poor the family could not find a hotel room for his birthing.

So what does this mean for me and for us?

First of all, as in 1981 I wrote the handbook of Jewish festivals called Seasons of Our Joy, it became clearer and clearer to me that the “seasons” celebrated by the festivals were rooted in the dance of Earth with Moon and Sun. When the book was published, its first review by a Jewish magazine dismissed it as a “pagan” distortion of Judaism. Yet, just as I freed myself from that kind of stifling darkness, the Jewish world began to free itself as well to dance in a warmer light. Seasons of Our Joy came to be called a “classic,” rather than a  travesty.

(Indeed, it is now in its third edition, published by the Jewish Publication Society with a new section on how even since its original publication there continue to be creative birthings of new ways of celebrating . You can get a copy through  <http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/product/Seasons-of-Our-Joy,675595.aspx>)

And finally, the wide world. We are certainly living in a dark time. We have a President-Elect who threatens the press, who appoints a racist to be Attorney-General and a White Supremacist to guide his over-all strategy, who dismisses the climate crisis as a hoax and turns over Earth policy to the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs to commit their profit-obsessed arson against our common home.

But the Maccabees did win over a swollen Elephantine Empire. This year we can begin our Resistance right now: No Bannon, no Jeff Sessions, no registry of Muslims, no deportation of undocumented millions.  Into every local gas station of the planetary arsonist Exxon as well as into every Senator’s eyes and ears we can carry the message: “No chief of Exxon, father of lies about the Earth and oil, to be Secretary of State.

 By Resisting with active and assertive nonviolence, we can embody the wisdom of the Prophet Zechariah (4: 6), in the Haftarah the ancient Rabbis taught us to read for Shabbat Hanukkah: “ ‘Not by might and not by power, but by My Spirit,’ said the Infinite Breathing Spirit of the world.”

Zechariah also envisions that in the rebuilt Temple, the light-bearing Menorah, itself a Tree of Light with branches, calyxes, flowers shaped in gold, will be flanked by two olive trees. Already a break with tradition!

And then Zechariah (4: 11-12)rises to Prophetic ecstasy when he sees those two trees feeding their oil directly into the Menorah. This tiny forest of three trees – a forest that both grows from earth and is carved out by human hands --  reminds us that our human species began, the Torah teaches, when adam was born from adamah  (Gen. 2: 7). The story reminds us that just as the two words are intertwined, so Earth and human earthlings are intertwined. Zechariah gives us a physical symbol  of that Truth, at the heart of our most sacred space.

As Hanukkah promises, The Light does glow again each year as the darkness dissipates. This year at Hanukkah we can breathe deeply in the Breath of Life Whose “Name” is YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, which can only be “pronounced” by simply breathing,. We can look into each others’ light-filled eyes, and light our varied lights against the stifling darkness.

Shalom, salaam, peace, Earth!  --  Arthur

 

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Book Party @ Big Blue Marble Bookstore: The Loooong Narrow Pharaoh

 

Dear friends,

At 10 in the morning on Sunday, December 18, one week before both Hanukkah and Christmas, you can enjoy two new books with a hippopotamus  and a peacock, two gutsy midwives and a Lonnnnng Narrow Phaaoh -- all at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in West Mount Airy (551 Carpenter Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19119). 

Hanukkah and Christmas,  those two festivals of Light in a time of Dark, have become a commercial bonanza, mostly devoid of spiritual meaning. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Giving gifts should be an avenue of joyful sharing --  filled with Light.

For Phyllis and me, the best way of sharing the Light of Bible and Torah is with a light touch and gentle laughter --  for deep meaning. (“Phyllis” is Rabbi Phyllis Berman, my life-partner and a creative teacher, prayer-leader in new modes, and midrash-maker. )   And for us, the touch of Light is also the touch of Color.

 So that’s what we’ve done with these two new brief and colorful books: The Rest of Creation -- why we pause for Shabbat; and The Loooong Narrow Pharaoh and the Midwives  Who Gave Birth to Freedom, in which we share a new story of both resistance to a cruel ruler and the birthing of a new community. (Did you know it was "really" the midwives who inspired and led the Exodus itself? A secret story, long ignored by the men who wrote our Bibles!))

For both books, we sought illustrations by Avi Katz, whom I got to know as a creative illustrator for the Jerusalem Report.

The long narrow Pharaoh ordered two midwives, Shifra and Puah -- to kill the boy-babies of an immigrant community, the Cross-Over People, when the children were born. BUT ---


 AND --  Now the story really goes somewhere new!

 



We promise that you and the kids and grandkids, nephews and nieces,  whom you know will enjoy the time you share reading and  looking together at the colorful pictures in these books.

 We've tested the books by telling them as stories in many synagogues on Friday evening and some churches on Sunday morniing, and find that adults enjoy them too.

Grown-ups, kids, and you will enjoy sharing how “the Bible, “the Torah,” can become seeds of creativity rather than narrow strictures of rigidity. We ourselves can leave behind the Narrow Pharaoh to become the midwives of our freedom.

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