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What Do Trees Pray on Tu B'Shvat?

Can you imagine celebrating Tu B’Shvat from  the standpoint of The Trees of Planet Earth?  Not eating their fruit to stir our celebration, but celebrating their own needs and desires?   The Trees need Soil, Water, Sun, Air.  – and “Quintessence,” the Fifth Reality, Love.   How do we nourish them with each of these?

We can imagine how to nourish them, and we invite you to join us to learn how, in a collaboration between COEJL --- the Conference on the Environment and Jewish Life, led by Rabbi Dan Swartz   --   and The Shalom Center, led by Rabbi Arthur Waskow.  They will be joined by Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, author of the first widely used Earth-centered Tu B’Shvat Seder, Birthday of the Trees. There will be the music of the Trees as well.

The gathering will take place on Zoom and FaceBook Live from 8:30 pm to 10 pm Eastern (5:30 to 7 pm Pacific) on Thursday, January 28 --- Yontif Sheni, “HolyDay Second” of celebrating the Tree of Life. (We thought this unprecedented celebration of the Trees themselves  should have  its own unprecedented time.) 

To register, please click to: https://theshalomcenter.org/civicrm/event/info?reset=1&id=36

This event will involve a free-will offering: Give what you feel moved to give when you register. 

You will receive the Zoom link shortly before Tu B’Shvat. 

Get ready for Tu B’Shvat with this book:

 Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B'Shvat Anthology

 Edited by Ari Elon, Naomi Mara Hyman, & Arthur O. Waskow

Presents everything you want to know about this holyday: how it has changed and grown over the last 2500 years. Stories and teachings from Torah, Talmud, Hassidism,  Zionism, Eco-Judaism. Poems, songs, art, comix, adult-level and child-level Seders for Tu B’Shvat. The book is available from the Jewish Publication Society at --   https://jps.org/books/trees-earth-and-torah/

Get ready for Tu B’Shvat with this Tree:

During the day Thursday, January 28, make your way, if you safely can, to a Tree outside where there is quiet.

Come close -- "Eytz chayyim hi, l'machazikim bah: A Tree of Life she is, for those who hold her close."

Let yourself feel Tree breathing out what you need to breathe in. Feel Tree breathing out in a still small voice: YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh.  Feel yourself breathing in: Ehyeh, "I will be."

Now listen for what Tree is praying, not only breathing. What does it need, what is it asking for? Asking you, asking World?

Say aloud, to help you remember, what Tree is praying. Say "Ameyn," out loud.

When you are ready, go back inside. Jot down Tree's prayer.

Bring your note to the Seder Thursday evening. 

We look forward to seeing you, hearing you breathe, on the Second Day of Tree's BirthDay. Remember: Register at --

https://theshalomcenter.org/civicrm/event/info?reset=1&id=36

Shalom, salaam, paz, peace, namaste! --  Arthur

GEORGIA: You prepared for us a nourishing table, encountering our enemies:

You healed our head with justice;

You made overflow our cup of joy.

Yes! We seek to let loving-kindness, good action, move us

All the days of our life.

For we seek to live where the Breath of Life is at home

And so to lengthen the days of us all.

That is, of course my gently midrashic translation of part of the 23d Psalm. Let me turn from my rabbinic yarmulke to my Tevye cap as activist and the fedora of a US historian.

As I write, it seems clear that both a Black minister, Rev. Raphael Warnock ,and a Jewish documentary film-maker, Jon Ossoff,  have been elected to the US Senate from Georgia: the first in both cases.  Their election makes it possible for the first woman, first Black, and first Asian-American Vice-President to organize the 50-50 Senate in favor of the Democratic Party. (The media have not yet, as I write, “called” one of those senatorial  victories, and the victor’s opponent is sure to make every effort under the sun and under the sea to challenge him.)

 There is a specially sweetly pungent flavor of Healing to the table these elections prepare for us. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), from 1877 to 1950 there were 588 lynchings of Black people in Georgia (second only to Mississippi). There was one lynching of a Jew, the only one in American history – Leo Frank, in 1915. He had been, despite little concrete evidence, convicted of the murder of a working woman in the factory in which he was among the managers. He was sentenced to death, had his sentence commuted because the Governor of Georgia doubted his guilt, and then was lynched by a mob made up of white Christians. During the whole case, though Black and white opponents of lynching rallied to condemn the lynching of Frank, there also arose some tension between the Black and Jewish communities, because the only other suspect was a Black man, and some of Frank’s defenders used racist rhetoric to absolve him.

So it is a deep healing that a flood of Black votes in Georgia elected a Black and a Jew to the US Senate. It is an even deeper healing that the two stood shoulder to shoulder calling for an end to racism and a healing of Earth and Humankind from the climate crisis. (It was not surprising but it was disgusting that some small but wealthy parts of the Jewish community tried to elect Republicans by condemning Rev. Warnock for his assertion of Palestinian rights – as if an assertion of those rights were antisemitic. Hundreds of rabbis and other serious Jews spoke out for Rev. Warnock.)

(See https://www.ajc.com/news/local/hundreds-more-were-lynched-the-south-than-previously-known-report/gOEGtsSud4utD6Uiqkx1LN/

And  https://history.msu.edu/files/2010/04/Nancy-MacLean.pdf)

If all goes well today inside and outside the US Capitol –- even though some Senators and House members are deliberately lying about the presidential election and some ultra-right-wing militant white supremacists are roaming the streets, all trying to muddy the clarity of President-Elect Biden’s legitimacy –-  then there will be at least the possibility of joint action by President and Congress to take steps to healour simultaneous macro-crises.

As I have said several times recently, I think it is both ethically crucial and politico-practically essential to address the pain, death, and despair of far too many rural and small-town neighborhoods and the pain, death, and despair of far too many big-city neighborhoods, with a nation-wide campaign of Green Co-ops focused on solar and wind energy. Whoever the people in those neighborhoods voted for, any honorable progressivism, any compassionate and just religion, must act to give their neighborhoods new life – and Earth new health.

The Georgia elections and their roots in transforming the past make possible a much more hopeful future – if we act. Especially if the faith communities act.

We must heal our hearts with justice;

We must fill our cups with joy.

Yes! We must let loving-kindness, good action, move us

All the days of our life.

Only then can we live where the Breath of Life is at home

Only then can we lengthen the days of us all.

              Shalom, salaam, paz, peace, namaste!  --  Arthur 

Torah: The Grandchildren

In this week’s Torah portion, there is a unique biblical passage on the relationships between a grandparent and grandchildren (Genesis 48). In the biblical case, it was pretty one-sided. As myself a grandparent in a multisided relationship, I know how interesting, and how precious, that can be.

Grandpa Jacob, knowing his death is near, reenacts with a big difference his own long-ago history of reversing the fortunes of first-born and second-born sons. He had as a young man lied to his father, disguising himself as his older brother Esau in order to secure the first-born blessing for himself.

This time he calls for his son Joseph to bring his two oldest sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and “adopts” them as his own, giving them a privileged place among Joseph’s other brothers. Then he blesses them both, putting his right hand (which in conventional ritual should have rested upon the older son), upon the younger – and his left had upon the older.

When Joseph protests that he has gotten it backwards, he shrugs off the warning. We can almost hear him saying, “Who are you trying to teach about older-younger transformation? I wrote the book about it!”

 

But then he gives them the same blessing, aloud. No lies, no cheating, no theft.  They know. And his blessing is that long long into the future, Israelite children will be blessed to be “as Ephraim and Manasseh.”  And even today, almost three thousand years after the story first was told, traditional Jews bless their sons with those words.

What do the words mean? Why do they come at the end of Jacob’s life and close to the end of the Book of Genesis? What happens to the rivalry of brothers in the rest of Torah and Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible)?

 

It seems to me that the reversal of brotherly fates is Torah’s first clumsy effort to enact social justice. Favoring the first-born son is not fair; so Torah tries to turn it around. But the result is long estrangement, until the older forgives the younger and they are able to be reconciled. Here Jacob short-circuits the long tension. The principle of social justice is upheld by his reversal of the blessing hands; the harsh price of long hostility is avoided.

Not that the rivalry itself ends; not only do many siblings in our own world find themselves at semi-war, but in the stories of King David’s family, many of David’s sons are at sword’s point. (in his biblical analysis King and Kin, Joel Rosenberg even argues that many of the tales of family struggles in the Abrahamic clan are rooted in the historical struggles among the sons of David.)

But the Book of Exodus turns the whole transformation of first-bornness in a totally new direction, indeed making the point of social justice inescapable. YHWH, the Interbreathing Spirit of the world, tells Moses (Exodus 4:22), “Israel is my first-born.” This is manifestly socially and politically not true; Egypt is richer, more powerful, bigger, older, smarter. But all this is to be overturned.

We are left with two profound questions: The grabby Heel “Jacob” who blessed his grandchildren with honesty and comradeship was the “Yisrael, Godwrestler,” who by learning to wrestle God made possible peace with his brother. Is it the bio-political People Israel that is God’s first-born, or is it the Godwrestlers of any and every people who bear the burden and the blessing? And is the goal of the blessing the triumph of second-borns over first-borns, or reconciliation – peace and love – between them? 

Torah: The Grandchildren

In this week’s Torah portion, there is a unique biblical passage on the relationships between a grandparent and grandchildren (Genesis 48). In the biblical case, it was pretty one-sided. As myself a grandparent in a multisided relationship, I know how interesting, and how precious, that can be.

Grandpa Jacob, knowing his death is near, reenacts with a big difference his own long-ago history of reversing the fortunes of first-born and second-born sons. He had as a young man lied to his father, disguising himself as his older brother Esau in order to secure the first-born blessing for himself.

This time he calls for his son Joseph to bring his two oldest sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and “adopts” them as his own, giving them a privileged place among Joseph’s other brothers. Then he blesses them both, putting his right hand (which in conventional ritual should have rested upon the older son), upon the younger – and his left had upon the older.

When Joseph protests that he has gotten it backwards, he shrugs off the warning. We can almost hear him saying, “Who are you trying to teach about older-younger transformation? I wrote the book about it!”

 

But then he gives them the same blessing, aloud. No lies, no cheating, no theft.  They know. And his blessing is that long long into the future, Israelite children will be blessed to be “as Ephraim and Manasseh.”  And even today, almost three thousand years after the story first was told, traditional Jews bless their sons with those words.

What do the words mean? Why do they come at the end of Jacob’s life and close to the end of the Book of Genesis? What happens to the rivalry of brothers in the rest of Torah and Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible)?

 

It seems to me that the reversal of brotherly fates is Torah’s first clumsy effort to enact social justice. Favoring the first-born son is not fair; so Torah tries to turn it around. But the result is long estrangement, until the older forgives the younger and they are able to be reconciled. Here Jacob short-circuits the long tension. The principle of social justice is upheld by his reversal of the blessing hands; the harsh price of long hostility is avoided.

Not that the rivalry itself ends; not only do many siblings in our own world find themselves at semi-war, but in the stories of King David’s family, many of David’s sons are at sword’s point. (in his biblical analysis King and Kin, Joel Rosenberg even argues that many of the tales of family struggles in the Abrahamic clan are rooted in the historical struggles among the sons of David.)

But the Book of Exodus turns the whole transformation of first-bornness in a totally new direction, indeed making the point of social justice inescapable. YHWH, the Interbreathing Spirit of the world, tells Moses (Exodus 4:22), “Israel is my first-born.” This is manifestly socially and politically not true; Egypt is richer, more powerful, bigger, older, smarter. But all this is to be overturned.

We are left with two profound questions: The grabby Heel “Jacob” who blessed his grandchildren with honesty and comradeship was the “Yisrael, Godwrestler,” who by learning to wrestle God made possible peace with his brother. Is it the bio-political People Israel that is God’s first-born, or is it the Godwrestlers of any and every people who bear the burden and the blessing? And is the goal of the blessing the triumph of second-borns over first-borns, or reconciliation – peace and love – between them? 

Torah This Week: Sharecroppers to Pharaoh

For me, one of the saddest parts of Torah is what many other commentators celebrate as a great triumph. It is the way Joseph (Yosef) deals with the great famine by demanding that an entire population in danger of starving turn their land over to Pharaoh, and become sharecroppers. From Genesis 47:13-19, we learn how, during the years of famine, the farmers of Egypt on the edge of starvation year by year buy the grain stored in Pharaoh’s storehouse --first with all their silver, so that all of Egypt’s silver comes under Pharaoh’s control;  then with the seed that they had set aside for the next year’s sowing; then with ownership of the land itself; and finally with their own freedom. The result is described in  Genesis 47:20-26 (Everett Fox transl., The Five Books of Moses (Schocken, 1995.)

 The result is described in  Genesis 47:20-26 (Everett Fox transl., The Five Books of Moses (Schocken, 1995):

 

 So Yosef acquired all the soil of Egypt for Pharaoh -- for each of the Egyptians sold his field, for the famine was strong upon them- and the land went over to Pharaoh. As for the people, he transferred them into the cities, from one edge of Egypt's border to its other edge.  Only the soil of the priests he did not acquire, for the priests had a prescribed-allocation from Pharaoh, and they ate from their allocation which Pharaoh had given them, therefore they did not sell their soil. Yosef said to the people: Now that I have acquired you and your soil today for Pharaoh, here, you have seed, sow the soil! But it shall be at the ingatherings, that you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, the four other parts being for you as seed for the field and for your eating-needs, for those in your households, and for feeding your little-ones. They said: You have saved our lives! May we find favor in my lord's eyes: we will become servants to Pharaoh. And Yosef made it a prescribed-law until this day, concerning the soil of Egypt: For Pharaoh, every fifth part! Only the soil of the priests, that alone did not go over to Pharaoh.

 

Joseph could have freely given the stored-up grain to the people, leaving them as independent farmers. But he transferred power to Pharaoh and to himself as viceroy.  Moreover, he forced the people to move from their ancestral homes. Only the priests retained their land  -- their economic power – as well as their religious authority.

Whether or not this is an accurate factual and historical picture of a great change in Egypt’s political economy, it is the story Torah chooses to tell. And that makes it remarkable that it is precisely the opposite of the land-and-people system described in Leviticus 25 as how the Breath of Life wants the People Israel and all its settler-sojourner foreigners to live. For in that picture the people are guaranteed the right to redeem their land even if they become poor and need to become indentured servants. The king is not allowed to pile up silver  or land for himself. The priests do not own land, and so cannot add economic power to religious authority. And even if the people move, they are absolutely entitled to return once a generation to their ancestral homes.

All this is guaranteed in Leviticus by the Seventh Year, Shabbat Shabbaton (Sabbath  to the exponential power of Sabbath), the Shmita  or “Year of Release.”  So this may remind us that Yosef’s whole power trip begins with interpreting Pharaoh’s dream to predict that there will be seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. He goes out of his way to say there is no way out – the future is determined.

 

What if he had said there would be seven years of plenty – and if Egypt treated the seventh year as a year of sabbatical rest for the land, a year of releasing the land and its people from overwork , there would be no famine? But if they farmed the land without a pause, a rest, a release – then there would be famine. (Compare Leviticus 26 as a description for what would happen if the land were not allowed to rest.) What if he had said the dream was a warning, not a prediction?

(Is the Torah suggesting that bad experience of land policy [as described in Genesis about Egypt]  has formed a much wiser sense of land policy for the Land of Israel [as expressed in Leviticus]? Or is Torah hinting that having shaped the Leviticus /Shmita rhythm out of direct experience as farmers, the writers and chanters of ancient story introduced the precise opposite of Leviticus into their tales about Joseph, to enhance freedom with a tale of enslavement? Or is Torah saying that Joseph’s whole life-path of determinism – there are no choices possible – fits with Subjugation, with Power Over others?]

 Most commentators read the rest of Genesis as a triumph for Joseph and hi family. They live affluently by Pharaoh’s grace, in a territory of their own --  Goshen. At last Joseph’s own life-long dream of and effort to win power over his equals has been rewarded. After all, this was his fourth try: seeking power over his brothers brought him into the pit and sale as a slave into Egypt. Grasping power in Potiphar’s household brought him fury from Potiphar’s wife, whom he had displaced from her role as supervisor, and who maneuvered him into prison. In prison he rises to appointment as a “trusty,” an aide to the warden – but is left a prisoner when he sets himself up as a dream interpreter for other prisoners. Finally, he rises to sit above all Egypt, next to Pharaoh himself.  His life-search finds utter triumph!

Until we turn the Torah Scroll to the Book of Exodus.

 [Please pause from this reading for a few minutes to think through the “white fire” of the blank spaces between the two books. What is the story written in the "white fire"? What happened between the two books? What does it mean? And then come back.]

 

As Exodus begins, Joseph’s descendants become slaves, victims of attempted genocide.

Is the Torah trying to tell us an epic story of how Subjugation of the People and the Land recoils upon the heads of Subjugators and must – if we are wise enough to hearken to the Breath of Life --  result in a Great Turning ? Is this story not merely antiquarian history but a great and hidden parable? What is its meaning for today?

Sacred Lights, Sacred Action: Sunday evening

Join The Shalom Center in virtual sacred community on Sunday, December 13, 8 p.m. Eastern Time,  in celebrating 4th Night, 4th Light of Hanukkah with  Rabbi Arthur, Rabbi Phyllis Berman, Anya Schoolman, the founder of Solar United Neighborhoods (SUN) musician Jessica Roemer, Rabbi Margot Stein, singer/song-writer, and some astounding graphics of art, wisdom, and activism across millennia. 

We will light our lights, share soul-filled, inspiring music, and hear a lively discussion about an innovative way of joy-filled community resistance to the tyranny of carbon pharaohs in our time.

Just imagine a Neighborhood Solarization Act that breaks through the hostile divide that is paralyzing America by offering grants and loans to neighborhood solar and wind energy  co-ops in small towns and rural areas as well as urban neighborhoods… Join us to hear more:

Links below:

https://www.facebook.com/TheShalomCenter

https://www.youtube.com/user/TheShalomCenter

Recordings will remain on line through Hanukkah.

What does it mean to "Wrestle God"?

Today’s Torah portion includes the famous Godwrestle passage, which give the people Yisrael its name – Godwrestler. In a nutshell, Jacob, with a retinue of wives, children, workers, sheep, and goats is on his way returning home. He hears that his brother Esau, whose birthright and blessing as the first born he has stolen, is on his way to meet him with four hundred men. He sends his entire retinue across a river with gifts for Esau, and he stays alone for a momentous night.

He stays alone, and yet the story says he wrestles with men and with God. In the wrestle he is wounded so that he limps the rest of his life. He demands to know the name of the Being with Whom he wrestles, but the Being turns aside the question and changes his name from Jacob/Heel-Sneak to Godwrestler. The next morning he meets his brother, who embraces and kisses him. They both weep.

The story raises at least two deep questions, and gives several hints toward answers. The first question is: What does it mean to wrestle God, for Jacob and for each of us and for the People Yisrael? (and perhaps for other Peoples?) The second: Why does this Wrestle make it possible for the two brothers to reconcile?

One hint: In Hebrew, his name is Yaakov. The river where he stays “alone” is the Yabok – his own name inside out. And the first word for his wrestling with the Being is yaavayk – again, a wounded version of his own name. So he learns that his own name has many faces he must learn.

Another hint: When Jacob sends gifts to Esau, he says to himself (Gen. 32:21; Everett Fox trans.): “I will wipe the anger from his face, with the gift that goes ahead of my face; afterward, when I see his face, perhaps he will lift up my face!” Four times, the word “face,” in a single verse! And after the Godwrestle, after he has asked the name of his wrestling-partner and been turned aside, after he has named the place where it all happened “God’s Face,” after he and Esau have embraced, he says to his brother, “I have, after all, seen your face, as one sees the face of God.”  (Gen. 33: 10)

So he seems to have discovered at least one of the names and faces of the Being with whom he wrestled. And where he began wanting Esau to see his face, he ends by realizing it is crucial for him to see Esau’s face.

So I ask again: What does it mean to wrestle Giod, and why did it matter? I will tell you my answer, but first – stop reading here, or pause the video – and let your own answer come to you. When you feel ready, come back to me.  Then let us together wrestle God ...

***

A few answers

[Dear folks, I only had time to check with two people to see whether it would be OK to quote their responses to my question: What do they feel is the meaning of “Godwrestling” --  the heart of the Torah portion this Shabbat?   Shalom, AW, editor]

 

It means to come face-to-face with, and more than that, because face-to-face is not a merger, the faces are still exterior to each 

other. It means acknowledging the pains and injustices of the world and experiencing that they are internal to yourself, both as causer and as 

sufferer. It's a terrible wrestling, and leaves you wounded. You are yourself the hate and the love, and the helplessness to "fix" any of it. 

It all just IS. And you are of it. But in the end you are still walking.

 By Mary Weinstock Gilbert, that Quaker up near Boston whose father grew up 

in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in Manhattan, as yours did in Baltimore.

 ***

I believe that, as I've learned from meditation with Ram Dass:  "Self, soul and G!d are one”  When we are searching deeply within, we meet ourselves in our G!d soul. Then we must recognize that the One is within – is -- each of us. Jacob must have seen this. The way to see that ‘face’, that four-in-one face, is to see his brother in his G!d, soul, self. Love (or use another word, compassion, understanding) is what we meet in that reflection of seeing ourselves and G!d in everyone. That way Jacob went forward and Esau ’saw’ himself reflected in this loving way. 

 By Linda Tobin, Cleveland, Board member, The Shalom Center

***

OK, I'm back again: Jacob said, aloud, with his whole body, heart, mind, soul: “Why is the world this way? I know, my mother taught me, and I know, who I aim to be. Why is the world so built that I needed to lie, to rob, to steal, to make my way there? Is there no other way? There must be other way!”

And his challenging the world as it was, opened up a world as it could be.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

When the Axis of Death Meets, Murder is Sure to Follow

Dear friends,

It’s 2:26 on Monday morning, the midst of a dark night. I’ve just awakened and can’t go back to sleep. There’s an email message scheduled waiting to go out to you this Monday morning about a new approach to solarizing America. It’s about winning over with love, not force, the rural and small town neighborhoods that have supported politicians who sneered at the climate crisis as a hoax. I just pushed the “pause” button on that email.

Why?

What’s haunting me awake is that the Axis of Death met in Saudi Arabia just days ago --  the Saudi MbS who runs the country and decided to murder and dismember a democracy-yearning Saudi journalist who lived in America; the IsraelI prime minister ‘Yahu has done his best to make a peaceful Palestinian state impossible by jamming Israeli settlements down the throats of the West Bank, and who is facing three different indictments for acts of corruption and tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrating at his office and his home for weeks, demanding his resignation; and Trump’s toady Sec State Pompeo ignoring with his master the suffering and deaths of thousands of Americans from COVID19 as the pathologue president’s term runs out.

And just a few days after they met, the Israeli Secret Service murdered an Iranian nuclear scientist and now brags about it, with an anonymous Israeli official telling the NY Times the world should thank them.

Thank them for what? For “preventing” an Iranian nuclear weapons arsenal? President Obama had done that far more effectively years before by leading an intricate negotiation in which France, Germany, Britain, Russia, China, and the US agreed to step-by-step withdrawal of sanctions against Iran in exchange for an astoundingly intrusive and effective international inspection regime that was conclusively showing that Iran had totally abandoned its nuclear weapons program.

That policy was a brilliant example of one way the Torah seeks peace: “Spread over us the sukkah of shalom.” The sukkah, fragile and vulnerable, becomes a house of peace when two who shake in the cold wind of its vulnerability turn that truth to agreement, not force. Iran was vulnerable to economic sanctions; many countries were vulnerable to a possible Iranian nuclear arsenal.

And the Obama “sukkah of shalom” deal had in it the seeds of a careful, care-filled journey that might have slowly flowered into bringing Iran into a relationship more respectful of its own people and more respectful of its neighbors, including Israel.

But the no-nukes/ no-sanctions deal was shattered by the Dominate-and-Subjugate, Starve-and-Kill policy of the Trump regime. It imposed worse and worse sanctions on Iran, hoping to force a collapse of the Iranian government. The people suffered more and more, but stiffened too. The regime, never a model of democracy, became still more hard-line. So Trump became Trumpier.

The incoming Biden presidency had promised to try to restore the sukkah of shalom. In Trump’s last days, Trump decided to make that policy much harder to make real. He consulted his new yes-men in the Pentagon about a US attack on Iran. They said No. He seemed to accept the decision. But ‘Yahu was willing. And so were the Saudis.

The gravest danger is that the US might encourage a worse Israeli attack. Bombing non-weapon nuclear-energy facilities could easily kill thousands of Iranians, most of them civilians, simply by spreading radioactive materials. Would Trump, ‘Yahu, or the Saudi MbS, care? Not likely.

Now – why did I wake up so haunted so early this morning? What does this have to do with The Shalom Center ‘s mission, especially to work for a new US policy for a Green New Neighborhood Deal, a new interpretation and approach to the Green New Deal that our children and grandchildren have been so presciently calling forth?

Years ago, we decided that the best Jewish and spiritual path for The Shalom Center in the midst of a planetary crisis was to lift up the most Earth-affirming wisdom of biblical Judaism. At first slowly and then more swiftly during the last few years, that has worked to awaken more and more Jews and believers in other spiritual paths to pay attention to our earthy spiritual treasury in the Hebrew Bible. I think we are at the moment, almost two months from now, when those seeds could sprout and flower.

Then why “pause,” even for a few days, an email to nurture that approach?

Because, first of all, in a somewhat narrow sense, when the government of Israel intrudes itself as a stumbling-block against an incipient American government that seeks peace and seeks to heal our badly wounded Mother Earth, our task is to speak out. We did this during the Obama Administration, when ‘Yahu tried to prevent the crucial nuclear-weapons-prevention agreement with Iran in the first place.

And more profoundly -- because I could not bear that the government of what claims to be a Jewish state would poison the blood-stream of Torah with a murder. A murder so blatant, so boastful. I could not bear that The Shalom Center, this voice of Torah, what we claim to be a prophetic voice, would not be raised against it.

I urge that many voices of Torah and all other voices of the Spirit be raised against this murder-- 

Against any further attacks on Iran,

Against any actions intended to block a new government of the American people from remaking, renewing, improving a seeking of peace with Iran --

One that protects the people of Iran from hunger and disease,

One that protects the people of the world from an Iranian nuclear arsenal,

One that step-by-step begins to welcome Iran fully into the community of nations, 

One that welcomes all nations into the new world treaty that has just come into effect -- seeking to abolish nuclear weapons. 

When the Sisters Struggle God, Why is This Torah Little Noticed?

This week’s Torah portion, called “Yayetzei, And he [Jacob] went forth” focuses on Jacob’s sojourn in the home of his uncle Laban, his marriages to his cousins Leah and Rachel and their handmaidens Bilhah and Zilpah, and the competition between them for his love and for bearing his children.

Laban tricks Jacob by giving him Leah as his first wife when he had promised him Rachel, the younger sister – and when Jacob complains, he answers: “ Such is not done in our place, giving away the younger before the firstborn”  -- directly challenging Jacob for stealing his older brother’s birthright.

Leah had many children and Rachel none. So Rachel, perhaps recalling the story of Jacob’s grandmother Sarah and her handmaid Hagar, said to Jacob,

“Here is my slave-girl Bilhah; come in to her, so that she may give birth upon my knees, so that I too may be built-up-with-sons through her.” (Everett Fox transl, The Five Books of Moses (Schocken, 1995).

Through Bilhah she had two sons. The first she said was a proof of justice and she named the boy Dan, Justice. Though we do not know what sex with Jacob was like, we know that as a slave-girl she had no choice. Is this a hint that justice must be born from the suffering of slaves, as happened later in Egypt from the suffering of an enslaved people and may be able to happen in our own country now only through the suffering of a people long enslaved?

Of the second son she said, “A struggle of God have I struggled with my sister; yes, I have prevailed! So she called his name: Naftali/My Struggle.”

This line (Gen. 30: 8) is a pre-echo of a story we will read next week, far more famous, in which Jacob in the midst of a struggle with his brother Esau wrestles with God’s Own Self, “prevails,” and finds his own name changed to Yisrael, Godwrestler. The presence of the pre-echo is no accident. What is Torah trying to teach us?

First, that two women can also have a “struggle of God,” not only two men. Perhaps that is precisely why there is little effort to connect it with the later story. There are two levels of dismissal of the story. One is old-fashioned: grave and pompous men dismiss it because, after all, it is merely a women's story. The second is by more clever, more modern men and women: See, biblical women are so disempowered that the only power they have is to struggle over children. Dismissal in the mask of feminism. But think! The woman in this story says it is a God-struggle to struggle over children! Is she right? Children are the future! 

The verse is a Banner, waving, waving, “Pay attention!” And perhaps we really should pay attention to the teaching that a struggle over children, a struggle over the future, is a Godstruggle. Indeed, the struggle between Leah’s children and Rachel’s turns out to be momentous for the future, cast as the struggle between Joseph (a true child of Rachel) and his half-brothers.

For our own generation, what could be more a God-struggle than the future of our children as Earth reels in pain, croaking, “I can’t breathe”? As we know now, we are pouring so much CO2 into the planet that all its trees and grasses cannot breathe it in and transmute it to oxygen. So it suffocates and scorches us: our Earth can’t breathe, God’s Name can’t breathe, our grandchildren won’t be able to breathe.

As the very last words of the very last of the classical Prophets say, “I [YHWH, the InterBreath of Life] will send you Elijah the Prophet to turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents, lest I come not as the Breath of Life, not even as the Wind of Change, but as the Hurricane of Disaster to smite Earth with utter destruction!” (Malachi 3: 23-24).

O You Who still Breathe life, give us the love to struggle with You as Rachel did for the sake of our children!

Torah of the Not-First-Born

We begin this week’s Torah portion, “Toldot, Begettings,” at Genesis 25: 19 with the begetting of twins to Rivka [Rebekah], Isaac’s wife.

Says Torah [using mostly Everett Fox’s translation, in my view the best into English: “The Five Books of Moses,” published by Schocken],

 

The children almost crushed one another inside her, so she said:

“If this be so,

for what is this I?”

And she went to inquire of YHWH [Yahhhh]

[The Breath of Life, Interbreathing Spirit of the world].

YHWH [Yahhhh] said to her:

“Two nations are in your body,

Two tribes from your belly shall be divided;

Tribe shall be mightier than tribe,

Elder shall be servant to younger!”

 

I think Father Isaac loved Esau the athletic archer because he was like Isaac's older half-brother Ishmael, who had been stolen from him, sent into the wilderness; Rivka loved Jacob because she had heard the Voice proclaim that he, the younger twin, would be victorious over the elder. Here for the third time we see God favoring the younger son: Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau. It happens again: Joseph and Benjamin over their elder half-brothers, Ephraim over Manasseh. They are all reversals of the official legal framework in which the older brother is supposed to inherit more property, more blessing.

The first conflict between these pairs ends in murder when the elder refuses to back off, and Cain the killer suffers not death but a kind of continuing trauma of the oppressor –- the mark that makes him alien wherever he travels.  All the rest of these conflicts end in some sort of reconciliation, with the elder accepting the leadership of the younger. The repetitions in Genesis presage the moment in Exodus when God proclaims the People Israel first-born, when clearly Egypt is older, stronger, richer. And yet this disempowered people wins its freedom. And the Bible celebrates the day when in the long run Egypt too will win its freedom, and even Imperial Nineveh.

To me this seems an early set of mythic pointers toward a rough sort of social justice.  What does it mean in the relations between the seemingly powerful and the disempowered today -- Euros and Indigenes, Anglos and Latinx, Whites and Blacks, Men and Women, Humanity and Earth? Would the stories suggest it is time not for self-destruction or humiliation but humility, acceptance of Truth and Reconciliation?

 

P.S. My newest book is Dancing in God's Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion. Gloria Steinem, Ruth Messinger, Rev. William Barber; Rabbis Art Green, Jonah Pesner, and Jill Hammer; Bill McKibben, Marge Piercy, and Jim Wallis have all read and praised it. Join them! Order it from The Shalom Center for your own reading or from Orbis Books for a congregational conversation. See --- https://theshalomcenter.org/content/ordering-dancing-gods-earthquake-rabbi-arthur  This book is the harvest of my whole life-experience – and like a harvest, intended not only to draw on the past but to feed the future.

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