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An Earth of Neighborhoods: Torah This Week

This week in the scheduled reading of the Torah we reach two chapters of Leviticus that are among my favorite passages of Torah: Chapters 25 and 26, called B’Har (“On the mountain” – that is, Sinai – and B’chukkotai – that is, “About My carved-out rules.”

Chapter 26 ends as Chapter 25 begins, with the assertion that the teaching comes from Sinai. The Torah thus lifts this chunk of itself to supernal significance, like the Ten Teachings that coime with an eruption of fire, smoke, and the sounding of an eerie shofar blast. Yet it is only beginning to be treated as a whole, and as centrally important.

 

  I have written so often about the whole passage* that I can summarize most of it quickly and then I want to explore one part that I have not previously paid much attention to. The summary: Every seventh year, Earth must be allowed to rest from organized agriculture. In Lev. 25 this called Shabbat Shabbaton --  Shabbat to the exponential power of Shabbat. Elsewhere in Torah it is called “Shmita – “Release”: and the human community is released from debts owed by the poor to the rich, releasing the one from degradation and resentment, releasing the other from pride and anxiety.

The fiftieth year – that is, 7 x 7+1, is a year of Yovel – “Jubilee” ( a westernized transliteration, not a translation) , or in Everett Fox’s brilliant translation, “Home-bringing.”  In that year, the land rests again and families are restored to their ancestral holding. The rich give up their surplus, the poor give up their misery. (This happens not on Rosh Hashanah when the year begins, but after days of healing and forgiveness on Yom Kippur – I think, to make sure the transformation happens not out of rage or fear but out of love.)

Why all this? Because no person or institution “owns” the land or Earth – only YHWH, the Interbreath of Life, Which/Who leases it for a limited time to landholders. Then Chapter 26 asks what happens if the community refuses to let the land rest for its Shabbats, and answers that the land takes its Shabbats by force – plagues of dearth and disaster, fire and famine, exile as refugees.

Both chapters speak powerfully to our generation: what we must do, to let Earth rest, and what will happen – is already happening – if we won’t. The Shmita year of Release begins next fall, according to the ancient count. But in our society the process is not limited to a single year. Its values should pervade our calendar, in every month of every year: Sharing. A pulsating economy, not one of endless ”growth” that sweeps us over a catastrophic cliff.  Love for Earth as a whole and of our beloved neighborhood, its land and people.

 And that’s the passage of Torah that I want to lift up. In Lev. 25: 13-45 – way more than half the chapter – Torah devotes itself to a person’s ability to redeem, recover, his/her/ their home in the original family neighborhood. That is precisely the opposite of the degrading practice of Pharaoh’s Mitzrayyim, the Tight and Narrow Land of Pharaoh’s Egypt, described in Genesis 47:21, of moving the newly enserfed Egyptians far from their homes.  Indeed, the land system of Leviticus is in very detail the black-and-white reversal of Pharaoh’s Egypt.

How do we respect Torah’s concern for Earth as a whole with its concern for local neighborliness?

One suggestion: The biblical focus is food. In our lives, energy is food. Neighborhood solar-energy co-ops would in the same breath help heal all Earth from the climate crisis and help strengthen neighborhood ties and the democratic control of energy at the neighborhood level, rather than corporate control of huge solar farms or ocean-based gigantic wind turbines.

Among the proposals for a Green Jobs New Deal is for for Federal grants to solarize 30 Million American homes. Add “co-op” to that formula, and we are will on the way to a modern version of the biblical vision.

^^^^^^^

*I first wrote about this in the original Godwrestling (Schocken, 1978) and most recently in Dancing in God's Earthquake : The Coming Transformation of Religion  (Orbis, 2020). For its reviews and ordering info click  https://theshalomcenter.org/content/dancing-gods-earthquake-rabbi-arthur-how-order-copies, It is my life-harvest, intended not only to draw on the past but to feed the future. Together with Rabbis Jill Hammer and David Seidenberg I'll be explorong these and "other sides of Mt. Sinai" in a Zoom conversation on May 17. See --

https://theshalomcenter.org/civicrm/event/info?id=42&reset=1

"Another Side of Sinai" -- R's Hammer, Seidenberg, & Waskow

On the second night of Shavuot, from 7 pm to 9:45 pm on Monday May 17, with a 15-minute break in the middle for free song, movement, and breathing, Rabbis Jill Hammer, David Seidenberg, and I will share conversations with you about two texts from “Another Side of Sinai."

You can register at

https://theshalomcenter.org/civicrm/event/info?id=42&reset=1 

For the first adventure,  Rabbi Hammer – who co-founded Kohenet, the Institute for Hebrew Priestesses – and I will lead a participatory journey into a remarkable text called “The Thunder: Perfect Mind.” (For any of you who are just getting to know me, I’m one of the pioneers in creating “Eco-Judaism,” and the author most recently of Dancing in God's Earthquake : The Coming Transformation of Religion. 

“The Thunder” is often called a Gnostic text  from the library discovered at Nag Hamadi. But I think it is a Jewish text, for in it the Voice of Reality speaks, as in the Ten Teachings of the biblical Sinai, as “Anokhi  --“I.” But where in Torah “Anokhi” appears once, in “The Thunder” it appears more than 20 times, almost all as the Sacred Feminine in many paradoxical masks. What do we make of this?

 Then, after a pause to breathe easy, Rabbi David Seidenberg and I will explore the teachings of the Shabbat Shabbaton, the sabbatical year and Jubilee when Earth and Human Earthlings get to rest, and society gets to catch its breath and breathe in Justice, the sharing of abundance. 

Those teachings begin with “B’Har Sinai, On Mount Sinai.”  Rabbi Seidenberg is the author of Kabbalah and Ecology: God's Image in the More-Than-Human World. What can we actually make of this, in the midst of a planetary crisis?

Tuition for this double immersion in what came to us from “Another Side of Sinai” is $36.  Space in the Zoom  virtual frame is limited, so please sign up now. You can register at

https://theshalomcenter.org/civicrm/event/info?id=42&reset=1

We will record the sessions, so if you register you can watch and hear even if you can’t be present on Monday the 17th. But we do hope you’ll be involved, not only a spectator.

All three of us look forward to this journey with you.

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

Torah Portion "Emor": Transforming & Preserving the Flow of Festivals

In this week’s Torah portion, called “Emor,” one of the main passages is a recitation (Leviticus 23) of the festivals and how to observe them  -- the biblical version of Seasons of Our Joy. It begins with Shabbat and then follows the seasons of the year, from Pesach (Passover) in “the first month of the year” until the day after the seven-day fall festival of Sukkot.

From our own  standpoint, there are several surprising aspects to the recitation. First of all, in the description of Pesach there is not a work about the great liberation from slavery to Pharaoh in Mitzrayyim, “Narrowdom.” 

In fact, we hear about two festivals – one on the fourteenth day of the first “renewing” of the year – that is, the spring new moon, what we might call the first lunar “moonth.” That is when there must be a “pesach” or Pass-over, Skip-over, skipping or stumbling offering to the Breath of Life.

The next day, the fifteenth  day, we celebrate a different festival, the Feast of Matzot or Unleavened Bread. Still no mention of the “fierce urgency of Now,” the reason we hear elsewhere for baking a bread for a band of runway slaves to carry into the wilderness as emergency food.

What is going on here?  In the beginning, “Pesach,” it seems, was the stumbling, staggering, skipping gait of a newborn lamb. The offering of a “pesach” newborn lamb, roasted in fire newly tamed, was a “pesach” offering to the Breath of Life. The offering of a spring lambing by the shepherds of the land. Some scholars think the shepherds may even have imitated the newborn lambs by doing a skipping, stumbling dance of joyful celebration of their own.

 And why matzot the next day, with a commitment to eat only matzot for seven days? A festival of farmers, when the early-fruitful barley was breaking ground and offering itself as the first food of the first farmers who could pound barley into a powder, add water but no spices and no yeast, and bake the flat bread with fire newly tamed.

Then where did the Pesach of liberation come from? There must have been some event of blazing heat in the life of the people to melt a shepherd’s festival of newborn lambs and a farmer’s festival of new-sprung barley into one, a festival of freedom. 

Transforming the stumbling pesach steps of a newborn lamb and the pesach skipping dance of shepherds into the Pesach of the Messenger of Death skipped over, passed over, the homes of Israelites. Only the homes where blood had rimmed the doorways to bring new birth as the bloody doorway of a womb brings a new birth.

Spring and new birth, when translated to a social system, means freedom –- the unexpected, a new shape of living.  It is no surprise that the whole lunar-solar Jewish calendar is based on the certainty that Pesach must come in the spring.

And the transformation of Pesach should teach us a truth about other old symbols and practices: When we live through earthquakes, we can transform the old without forgetting it.

 

There is one more astonishing fact about Emor’s recitation of the seasonal festivals. In Lev. 23: 22, there is a sudden departure from explaining holy-day observance to explaining how to treat the poor in time of harvest:

         You are not to finish-off the edge of your field when you harvest (it),

             the full-gleaning of your harvest you are not to glean; for the afflicted and

             for the sojourner you are to leave them, I am YHWH

             [the Breath of Life, Interbreathing Spirit of the world] your God!

 Then the text goes on to the blowing of the Shofar for Renewing of the moon of the seventh moonth – what we know as Rosh Hashanah.

Why this interruption in the flow of holy days?

I can only tell you how it makes me feel: That after the  Spring wheat harvest at Shavuot, there is a kind of plug that blocks the flow of abundance from Earth – UNLESS we pull that plug open by sharing the flow with the poor, who don’t own land. We need to pull that plug if we want to keep moving to the fall harvest.  If we stopped sharing our harvest with the poor, the rhythm and flow of the harvest itself would stop.  Another reminder from the Torah that the meaning of YHWH, Interbreathing, is that social justice and Earth’s abundance can never be severed.

Without sharing Earth's abundance, we would never get to the seventh month, the sabbatical month of four different festivals. A microcosm of the year and of our lives: birth at the New Moon; encounter with another Identity on Yom Kippur; fulfillment at the full moon of harvest; inwardness, seeming death and underground rebirth as the full fruit of Sukkot becomes the invisible seed of Sh’mini Atzeret, waiting for Spring to sprout again.

Blessings as we count the Omer of the Spring wheat harvest, relieving our anxiety and permitting celebrations as on the 33d day the wheat has grown enough to make clear the harvest will be plentiful.

That’s the deep, the sensible understanding that Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman brings to what to many seem the puzzling moment of Lag B’Omer. This week, Thursday night and Friday.

 With that note of joy and comfort, blessings of shalom, salaam, peace, paz, namaste! --- Arthur

Shavuot Learning from Sinai to Heal Earth

Dear friends,

Let me begin with the point of this letter – then the explanation. I am writing to invite you to take part in two conversation about applying the year of Shmita --  the biblical seventh year, when Earth should be released from overwork – to our own generation’s urgent need to heal Earth from the climate crisis.  Details below, after background.

There are three weeks and a couple of days from Earth Day to Shavuot. Is there any connection between the 3,000-year=old festival and the 51-year-old one? Yes, two connections in fact – and we can do something about them 

When Jews today think about Shavuot, they think Sinai. And that means that they think either the Ten Utterances or the entire body of Torah being revealed to the whole Jewish people, present throughout time.

Aside from the Ten Utterances, there is a passage of Torah which says explicitly that it came from Mount Sinai. It is chapter 25 and 26 of Leviticus. Chapter 25 begins “B’Har Sinai, On Mount Sinai” and chapter 26 ends “These are the instructions that YHWH,  the Breath of Life,  gave between Godself and the children of Israel at Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses.”

 And what is contained in these two chapters? In the first, Torah explains that every seventh year must be Shabbat Shabbaton, Sabbath to the exponential power of Sabbath, in which Earth is allowed to rest. Then chapter 26 asks, what happens if you will not allow Earth to rest in that seventh year?  It answers, Earth rests anyway – – on your head. It rests through plague, famine, fire, exile.

So Shavuot, if we pay attention, is a time to remember the ancient wisdom of healing the relationship between Earth and Human earthlings by pausing to release Earth from organized agriculture.  The word “Release” – in Hebrew, Shmita – became the name of that seventh year.

According to the ancient count, Shmita begins this very fall. What better time to pay attention, as the US government gears up at long last, 40 years late, to address the climate crisis?

I wrote about Shmita and Jubilee in the original Godwrestling published in 1978 when no one paid attention, I write about it again in the book I’ve just published, Dancing in God's Earthquake  : The Coming Transformation of Religion and now people are paying attention.

In many synagogues and havurot, there is a tradition that on the first night of Shavuot (the night that begins the evening of Sunday, May 16), there is a gathering to study Torah. This year that probably means by Zoom. What I have ibn=n mind and plan is both exploring the ancient text for its obvious and hidden meanings, and exploring with you how we might apply this in a very different planetary arena.


One more thing.  In Christian tradition, a Shavuot gathering of followers of Jesus morphed into what became Pentecost, this year May 23. If you want to explore these ideas for Pentecost Sunday, sign up!

 There are two goals I have in mind: The first is simply exploring these ideas for you to apply in your own life. The second is preparing you,  if you wish,  to lead an hour-long discussion during the Shavuot Night of Learning and discussion.

If the second appeals to you, we suggest you ask whoever is organizing your Shavuot Night of Learning to assign you an hour to lead with this topic. Or if you are not in touch with any organized Shavuot plan, invite some of your friends for a pleasant evening of talk and song about this on May 16.

I look forward to meeting with you on May 5 and 12. If you can’t make one or both of those dates, register anyway and we will record the sessions.

The recipe for healing: Mix justice with joy.  Shalom, Arthur

Who Can't Breathe? Three Outcries and a Prayer

In Memory of George Floyd

And Thousands More Since 1619 

 

I Can’t Breathe 

Again and again,

With gun or choke-hold.

Police have stolen the breath of Black Americans.

The police are not merely police

For they hold a national authority

To use violence on behalf of the nation:

To serve us all, protect us all.

When they subjugate the Black community

They implicate us all,

They make us all Subjugators

And they subjugate us all.

But their misdeeds have stirred

A great Uprising against racism.

We will let no ruler pretend

The protest is the danger.

 

We Can’t Breathe 

All humanity is choking

From a virus that invades our lungs

We have left no space for other species

And the virus leaps into our lives.

If our rulers minimize the danger

It becomes still worse

Choking our societies, our jobs, our businesses,

Our democracy. Our lives.

 

Earth Can’t Breathe

All life on Earth depends on Interbreathing.

We breathe in what the trees breathe out;

The trees breathe in what we breathe out.

Our Interbreathing is the Breath that keeps all Earth alive.

Our Interbreathing is the very Name we call You,

For YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh

Is the still small voice of simply breathing.

But the Flood of CO2

That we call the “climate crisis” 

Chokes our breathing.

Chokes Your Breathing,

All Earth is scorched by burning fossil fuels

And Carbon Pharaohs burn their way to faster wealth.

Earth can’t breathe and Your Name rattles in our throats.

  

A Prayer and a Response 

You Who are the Breath of Life,

At Sinai You taught us,

You shall not take My Name with an empty heart.

You shall not breathe My Name with empty Spirit.

Every breath we take

is Itself Your Name,

Part of that great Breath that is the Holy One.

You Who are the Breath of Life,

Heal us to breathe.

 

I Speak 

I Who free you from choking

In the Tight and Narrow Place:

I Who send you Broad Spaces

Where My breath,

My wind, blows free:

No one shall rob you of My Name,

My Breath, My Holy Spirit.

Embody Me!

 

Woven by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The Shalom Cente

 Creative Commons Copyright

Put Not Your Trust in Princes: Biden -- 2 Failures of Love, 2 Victories

Dear friends,

“Put not your trust in princes,” said an immigrant-rights activist this past week – one who had put his trust in President Biden.

For Mr. Biden could have, as he promised again and again during his presidential campaign, changed the abysmally low level the number of refugees Trump had set – 15,000 a year – to be allowed to enter the US. Could have raised to a decent humanitarian level the number of refugees admitted to the US.

Torah of “Tamei”: Laser-Beam Holiness, Not “Impurity”

[Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman had this insight and wrote this Torah teaching. She is the lead co-author of A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven on the Jewish life-cycle, author or co-author of many essays and books on Torah, and a spiritual director. – AW, editor]

 By Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman

 The  Torah portion “Tazria” that we read this week begins (Lev. 12: 2-8) with the instruction that, when a woman gives birth to a male child, she's "excluded" from the community for 40 days because she's "tamei."  But when she gives birth to a female child, she's excluded from the community for 80 days because she's "tamei".  After that, she once again becomes "tahor."

 Reading this, I think about my experience as a mother who gave birth first to a male child and later to a female child. I re-member that, in the early weeks after the birth of each baby, all of my energy was focused on getting to know and understand how to respond to the needs of this new being. I thought about how it takes at least 80 very intense days to get the rhythm of sleep and awakenessof feeding and interacting with a baby before a woman can actually understand what the baby is communicating and needing and is finally fluent/fluid enough to re-enter a life before baby.

The conventional understanding of that text has always focused on why the separation-time after the birth of a girl-child was twice as long – assuming that the time for birth of a male child was the norm.

But my memory of mothering made me flip the conventional understanding. Rather than the 80 days being an "anomaly,” perhaps the normal time from a mother’s standpoint was 80 days, and the "anomaly”  was the shortening of the normal time needed for that bonding of mother and child, from 80 days to 40 days. 

Why might this shortening have been imposed? Perhaps the male society worried that a male child, left "isolated" with his mother for more than 40 days would become too "feminized" whereas they were unconcerned about the female child being "isolated" with her mother for 80 days.

This way of thinking then led me to probe the actual meaning of "tamei" and "tahor" which has, since the time of the King James translation of the Chumash into English, been most often translated as "unclean" or "unpure" (tamei) and "clean" or "pure" (tahor).  Instead, in considering those moments in life when we are completely consumed by something -- a new baby, a new love-making, a new creative development, sickness, death -- we naturally separate ourselves from the community. Then we can concentrate on that which demands our complete attention. We are "tamei" during a time of intense concentration on one aspect of our lives and separation from the other aspects. 

At other times, we are able to focus on multiple concerns, balancing them all with relative ease. Then we are "tahor", able to hold multiple identities and tasks in and beyond our home and work lives.

Both "tamei" -- that intense laser beam of concentration -- and "tahor" -- that balance that enables us to be in and out of community fluidly as appropriate -- are holy ways of being at different times of our life.  I believe these are the real meanings of these two terms that have been so poorly translated, with so much damage in particular to women, for so many hundreds of years.

Laws of political physics, 2020-2024

I have kept writing and saying that “we” as the human species and “we” as the American people are facing a profound choice – between going backward under the control of Pharaoh’s army or forward into the Unknown of the Red Sea. And I believe that the survival of democracy in America and the survival of humanity on the planet are deeply intertwined.

The choices are so big and so urgent that they go beyond electoral politics into profound issues of society, culture, religion, and spirituality. Yet they include crucial choices in electoral politics, which did not end in 2020.  Indeed, even elections and who votes in them are shaped by deep spirituality.

I will come back to that. But let me look at elections themselves, from now till 2024:

 

  • 1. Unless the US Senate filibuster rule is ended, at least for bills concerning voting rights, there is no way to pass the For the People bill and the John Lewis bill to reawaken and transform the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

  • 2. Unless those bills are passed, there is no way to prevent the passage of laws in at least a dozen states that cut deeply into the voting ability of Black, Latinx, and college-student communities.

  • 3. If those state laws to restrict and suppress the vote are passed, it is likely the House and Senate in 2022 and the Presidency in 2024, will be won by right-wing politicians who will renew their destruction of the world by the burning of fossil fuels and the elimination of American democracy. They will install instead an ethnic hierarchy topped by extreme wealth and corporate control, ready to use violence to suppress opposition. The voting regime of Jim Crow 2.0, and worse.
  • 4. Therefore, there is an immediate urgent goal not only of secular progressives and the prophetic religious and those deeply rooted in the Spirit; but also small-r republicans who are committed, in Benjamin Franklin's words, to “a republic, if you can keep it”; and small-d democrats who are committed, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, to government “of the people, by the people, for the people – the whole people of all colors and ethnic origins and genders and sexualities and religions and incomes.
  • 5. The immediate goal is abolition of the filibuster, at least in regard to bills embodying voting rights.

 

  • 6. And there is one substantive bill that may seem miniscule compared to this overarching decision about democracy, but which I think is intrinsically connected. That is the campaign for Thirty Million Solar Homes, with a special effort to provide strong federal grants to neighborhood co-ops in rural and small town and hollowed-out former industrial working-class cities as well as marginalized Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous neighborhoods. What is so special about that campaign?

  •        We cannot heal our Earth if 51% of Americans believe the climate crisis a lethal threat, and 49% think it is a hoax. Solar/ wind neighborhood co-ops in “red” America could break through the official rejection of renewable energy and the whole notion that climate crisis is a hoax that is held by about half the national elected officials.  That is one place where Spirit and Polling Booth, neighborhood and planet, connect.

  • This coverage of ALL marginalized Americans is crucial ethically and as effective politics. Those who oppose renewable energy as long as it is only ink on paper will come to support it when it is money in the bank and good jobs on the local newspaper’s front page.  (That is what saved Obamacare.)

  • 7. After these two efforts, the next major campaign must be to affect the Congressional elections in 2022 to make the passage of voting-rights bills possible. That will be extremely difficult, if the electorate has been hobbled and suppressed.

 
What is at stake here? The profound spiritual question:  Do “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” or only some select part of them? Our oldest, deepest wisdom says: The whole people must be fully present at crucial moments of their history, their future. 

In our ancient teachings from the Hebrew Bible, there are moments that make the answer clear: Moses, speaking to the children of the Sinai generation, insists (Deut 5:3) that they— even though they had not yet been born – stood at Sinai. Not only the physically living in the present but also the future must count. Then Torah has Moses make the convocation rhythmic and permanent by requiring (Deut. 31: 10-12) that during Sukkot after every seventh year, the Shabbat Shabbaton or Shmitah,  the whole people must assemble. Old and young, women and men, even babes in arms, must assemble to renew Torah. Much later, after the return of exiles from Babylonia, Ezra and Nehemiah convoke the whole people (Nehemiah 8)  to recommit themselves to Torah.

What does this mean for us? Last week I urged members and readers of The Shalom Center to take action – easy and simple --  for renewing democracy in  the Senate itself: simply by calling 1202-224-3121 and speaking to their own Senators. I would add, for those who can invest fifteen minutes a day, calling also – one office each day this week --the offices of Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Senator Mitt Romney of Utah.

 What message should you bear? That the filibuster must be abolished, at least for bills to make clear that the Federal government will act to guarantee that all adults are entitled to vote.

 The Senators I named are thought to be the most likely to make the 50 votes necessary, together with the Vice-President, to limit the filibuster and pass the voting-rights bills. I urge you to ask first to speak to the Senator's staffer most involved in voting rights, and if that becomes impossible, to record your comments: your name, where you live, your spiritual or vocational connection if you are willing, and your insistence that this moment  is so crucial to our future that the whole people must be enabled to vote.

 If you want more information about the state voter-suppression bills being passed, you can check https://demcastusa.com/2021/04/08/jim-crow-voting-laws-then-and-now/

If you want more information about the "For the People" bill now before the Senate,check the Brennan Center for Justice at

 https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/people-act-americas-next-great-civil-rights-bill

 If you want The Shalom Center to continue working for an American democracy healthy enough to heal Earth from the climate crisis, and for climate solutions able to make possible small-d democratic neighborhood-based  management of renewable solar and wind energy, please contribute $72 or more by clicking on  the maroon “Contribute” banner just below my signature.

 In writing you this letter, I am calling on my whole life-experience – as an historian of the US past, as a legislative assistant in the House of Representatives, as an active public intellectual at the Institute for Policy Studies and the Public Resource Center, as an elected delegate to the Democratic National Convention of 1968, as a civilly disobedient activist, and as a spiritual seeker drawing on the depths of Torah. All to say that this is a crucial moment in American and planetary history: We must consult our whole society.

Thank you.

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

Over-Burdened Oxen & “Eco--Kosher": This Week’s Torah

Two passages speak especially to me in this week’s Torah Portion, called “Sh'mini.” Or rather, the creative explorations of the two are what speak to me.

One is the shocking story (Lev. 10) of the High Priest Aaron’s two sons, who brought “strange fire” into their offering to the Breath of Life; and were instantly struck dead. Was their offering fatally improper? Or did they bring so much the fullness of themselves that there was no need for them to keep on living?

The Haftarah (prophetic passage) seems a commentary on that story, and its study bears a personal delight for me. So I will explore it first.

First you need to know that as the Coronavirus lock-down first took effect a year ago, my 19-year-old grandson Elior Waskow emailed me: “Granddad, you clearly know a lot of Torah. How about we make a chevrusa (partnership to study Torah) once a week?” I was immensely pleased by the invitation, and agreed. We alternated which of us would choose a passage to read from the Torah portion or its accompanying Haftarah.

When we got to Sh’mini, I chose the Haftarah (II Samuel 6). It is the story of what happened when King David tried to bring the Ark of the Covenant to his capital city, Jerusalem, hoping to add to his prestige as an upstart king. The Ark was carried in a cart drawn by a team of oxen. The oxen “stumbled,” according to most translations. (Everett Fox says they “let it slip.”)

Uzzah, one of the guards, grabbed the Ark to keep it from falling on the ground, and was instantly struck dead. This incident has traditionally been thought to point like the tale of Aaron’s sons to the inexplicably awesome tremendum of God’s presence so that touching the Ark, like bringing “strange fire,” brought death.

But Elior, closely reading the Hebrew, interrupted: “Granddad, here’s your favorite word in the whole Tanakh!”  “What?” said I. “Shmita! Your favorite word! Release, the seventh year when Earth is released from overwork and human beings are released from debt!”  -- See, right here, “Shamtu habakar”  --“The oxen made a release!”

 

[The death of Uzzah by  Giulio Quaglio the Younger in a medaillon in Liubljana Cathedral (1704)]

Wait a minute, I said. “The oxen didn’t stumble. The burden of pulling the Ark was too great, the burden of adding to the king’s prestige for his sake, not God’s, was too great. They tried to release themselves from the burden, and Uzzah tried to force them to bear the burden.” For this the  Breath of Life stopped breathing, for this God’s “nose was inflamed with anger,” for this was Uzzah struck dead. For the freedom of the ox from overwork was more important than housing the Ark in a fragrant cedar palace to make the king more powerful.

In an era when we humans are overburdening many species into their extinction, does the story speak to us?

Elior's discovery transforms the meaning of the passage, and I am “tickled pink,” as my mother used to say, that it was Elior who discovered it and knew that “shmita” was one of my favorite parts of Torah. One of those moments when a whole life-journey seems worthwhile; one is released from doubt. A moment of shmitah.

The other passage that attracted me in this week’s Torah portion is the recitation (Lev. 11) in great detail of animals that Israelites were permitted to eat, and those that were forbidden. I will explore Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi’s transformative exploration of kashrut into what he called “eco-kosher” in our own day.

The biblical recitation is not random. It follows the order of creation: Air, Sea, Land. But beyond that, it is hard to discern a pattern. Perhaps we are forbidden to eat some animals because they eat other animals -- while those we may eat make us “virtual vegetarians.” Perhaps some amphibians must not be eaten because they insist on crossing between land and sea, confounding the great divisions of Creation. Fastidious folk may be surprised to know there are even six species of grasshoppers and locusts that are kosher; other species are forbidden.

Maybe what seems irrational has a higher reason: If there is no simple general rule, everyone who eats must pay close attention to the food, making sure it is sacredly permitted.

When the rabbis of the Talmud prohibited raising sheep and goats in the Land of Israel, was that betrayal of Abraham’s heritage or an Abraham-respectful response to population growth that would denude the land and destroy its fertility if herding were permitted?

Today we are beginning to see efforts to say that beef is not kosher because huge herds of cattle threaten the planet by emitting methane gas. Or perhaps that beef can be kosher but only if its animals are grass-fed and because of this diet emit very little planet-scorching methane. Who decides? Each consumer? A religiously constituted court, for each religion? A national elected legislative body? Are these three possibilities part of an escalating process rooted in public opinion?If so, do religious bodies have an obligation to apply their ethical standards and move the process forward?

Even all this applies only to food we eat with our mouths. But today, is energy “food” that we eat with our whole bodies?  

Enter Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He went deeply into the roots of biblical kashrut. “Why these elaborate rules of what to eat?” he asked. “Because shepherds and farmers had to affirm a sacred relationship with Earth; and because food was the strongest connection between human earthlings and Earth; so rules emerged that specified what is sacred food and what is forbidden food. Now few of us are farmers or shepherds, and we take from Earth energy by way of coal, oil, natural and unnatural gas, uranium,  water-power from rushing tides or flowing rivers, wind, sunlight.

 Which of these – he coined a word – are “eco-kosher”?

 Though Reb Zalman’s coinage was explicitly not about food, the power of the “food” aura around “kosher” has brought almost all exploration of “eco-kosher” to discussions of food. 

When will we start developing standards and rules about eco-kashrut for energy? Who decides?

The Shalom Center needs your help to keep looking deeper into Torah for its deep wisdom for our day. Please click the maroon “Contribute” button in the left-hand margin.

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

Ecstatic Visions: Passover, Easter, MLK

Today is the 8th and final day of Pesach, in many Diaspora communities. It is also Easter in most Christian communities. And it is April 4, the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s most profound speech in 1967 and of his death in 1968 --  a sacred date to an increasing number of Americans. This last date in past and present will be honored tonight at 7 pm Eastern time by the reading of Dr. King's greatest speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" by a group of national truth-tellers. We will explain this third date – today – in more detail close to the end of this Shalom Report.

Both the final day of Passover and the final day of Holy Week could be described as calling forth an ecstatic vision, affirming and transcending the highest notions of political freedom and justice.

The Prophetic reading for the last day of Passover is a passage from Isaiah, including the ecstatic vision of Chapter 8:


But a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse, A twig shall sprout from his stock.

The ruach [spirit /breath /wind] of YHWH [the Breath of Life] shall alight upon him:

A ruach of wisdom and insight, A ruach of counsel and valor,

A ruach of devotion and reverence for YHWH [the Breath of Life].

He shall sense the truth by his reverence for YHWH [the Breath of Life]:

He shall not judge only by what his eyes see, Nor decide only by what his ears hear.

For he shall judge the poor with equity And decide with justice for the lowly of the land.

He shall strike down a land with the rod of his mouth

And slay the wicked with the breath of his lips.

Justice shall be the belt around his loins, And faithfulness the belt around his waist.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, The leopard lie down with the kid;

The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, With a small child leading them.

The cow and the bear shall graze, Their young shall lie down together;

And the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw.

A babe shall play Over a viper’s hole, And an infant pass his hand Over an adder’s den.

In all of My sacred mount Nothing vile or evil shall be done;

For the land shall be filled with deep knowing of YHWH [the Breath of Life]

As water covers the sea.

Here even what seems like violence – striking a land, killing the wicked – is done by speech, by persuasion. By nonviolence. And then the ecstatic vision takes off entirely: in even the order of nature, of God’s more-than-human Creation, violence shall end.

For Easter, we begin with the Holy Week of nonviolent resistance to Rome. Just a few days before Pesach, a protest march from the Mount of Olives into the midst of Jerusalem, scattering palm branches  -- a sign of spring and new life, as a modern protest might wave placards of defiance. Singing songs of joy, psalms well-known to the people. Climaxing with a challenge to the official system  supported by the Empire:

         And Jesus went into the Temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the Temple, and overthrew            the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said to them, ”It is written, “My house shall be           called the house of prayer.’ But you have made it a den of thieves.”

The week proceeds with a Pesach Seder where the band of resisters plan the next steps. It is infiltrated by a paid hireling of the Empire’s secret police, who betrays then to the police. Rabbi Jesus is arrested, subjected to a “perp walk” through the city, and crucified  -- tortured to death.

 And three days later, the urge for freedom surges into an ecstatic vision: the despised prisoner who dared to resist the Empire is restored to life. The normal order of nature is reversed.  And the political order is transformed as well: the crucified rabbi becomes a transcendent hero and the God of the Empire that killed him.

In Jewish tradition, ten great rabbis tortured and killed by Rome are remembered by chanting their story on the holiest day of Jewish reverence, Yom Kippur. The nearest the story comes to an ecstatic reversal of the natural order is not the resurrection of any of the ten rabbis but their “immortalization” through memory and one element of Rabbi Akiba’s death. Akiba is sad to have smiled while  being tortured, turning his torture and death into a midrash on the meaning of the Sh’ma.

Half a century ago, the nonviolent spiritual leader Martin Luther King, who resisted governmental injustice  -- racism and war --  was murdered on  the first anniversary of his speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In it he prophetically warned the deadly “triplets” haunting America – militarism, racism, and materialism – would ruin America if they were left to fester. Perhaps he used the word “triplets” instead of “trio” to point out they share the same DNA -- the impulse to dominate and subjugate. We have watched other forms of the same DNA – sexism, hatred of foreigners, religious bigotry, contempt for the processs of democratic elections and workers’ rights and the free press, contempt for and poisoning of our mothering Earth – bring death and despair to many Americans.

Dr. King’s ecstatic vision did not call for tha transformation of the natural world. It focused on the transformation of human society:

“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.

"A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

"This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.

"Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.

"We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation."

Dr. King has been immortalized in many ways – a national holy day in his name, the creation of the Freedom Seder and its being first held on April 4 -- the first anniversary of his death—and in many instances for the last half century on a date very close. For the 50th anniversary, on April 7, 2019, a Freedom Seder held in a Philadelphia Mosque, the Freedom Seder built to a climax with the Prophetic speech of Reverend William Barber II, who drew on Jeremiah to call for a march to the “royal palace”  -- the White House --  of our own corrupt and murderous king.

And now there has arisen a new way of calling out the Prophet Martin’s truth.This very evening, a band of national leaders will take turns reading his speech about the deadly triplets. Here is how you can join in the moment:

Click NOW to KINGANDBREAKSILENCE.ORG.

The Shalom Center is a co-sponsor of the reading.

 With blessings of freedom and eco/ social justice, Arthur

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