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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.” 

Through Bilhah she had two sons. The first she said was a proof of justice and she named the boy Dan, Justice. Is this a hint that justice must be born from the passion of slaves, as happened later in Egypt from the passion of an enslaved people and may be able to happen in our own country now only through the passion 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. Even modern commentators often dismiss the whole competition over children as an expression of the limited sphere of women's lives. Yet 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, though most Torah commentators seem to have ignored the implications. 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!

Planning Hanukkah #8Days4Climate

Green Menorah Covenant

Gather in community to devise a Green Menorah Covenant, binding the community together in continued climate justice action in the coming year. Write us what you are planning, at GMCovenant@theshalomcenter.org

Hanukkah begins Thursday evening, December 10. What do we want the commitment of our community to be, to do, by the last night?

We urge that you, we, together create the Green Menorah Covenant  -- a local group in your own community that will grow connections with Jews around the nation and the world. Green Menorah Covenanters will celebrate the Tree of Light that was the Menorah in the Temple, for the sake of protecting the Tree of Life and the Interbreathing of Life everywhere.  Healing our wounded Mother Earth and ourselves from the climate crisis.  

First of all, the original Mishkan Menorah was shaped like a tree -- branches, buds, flowers. At the heart of Hanukkah is this Tree of Light, connecting Earth with the handiwork of human earthlings. (Exodus 25: 31-39) This medieval portrayal makes the point, as does our generation's symbol for the Green Menorah Covenant:

 

Each year for the Shabbat of Hanukkah, we read a breathtaking passage from the Prophet Zechariah that goes even deeper to connect Earth with Humanity:  The Prophet Zechariah imagines two olive trees beside the Menorah in a yet-to-be-rebuilt Temple – already a radical departure from the Torah’s original ground-plan of the Holy House. The Haftarah explains the meaning of this prophetic vision: “Not by might and not by power but by My Interbreathing Spirit/Wind of Change, says YHWH [Yahhh/ the Breath of life].”  Let us remember this wisdom at the heart of Hanukkah, as we face the greedy power and the selfish might of carbon Empires that are condemning Earth to fires, floods, and famines.  

Then, in a passage just a few lines later, Zechariah asks for a further explanation:

“‘And what,’ I asked [God’s messenger], ‘are those two olive trees, one on the right and one on the left of the light-bearing Menorah? What are the two outgrowths of the olive trees that feed their golden oil through those two golden tubes? Then s/he explained, ‘These two reach out to take their stance to make a lordly connective-link to all the Earth for the shining oil-of-anointment.’” (Zechariah 4:11-14)

So from the Prophet Zechariah, we learn of the self-renewing miniature ecosystem that sustains the eternal burning of the Temple Menorah: two olive trees that feed their oil directly into the Menorah, with no human intervention needed. And what allows for it to be eternally alight with sacred fire? Trees that, springing directly forth from Earth, directly provide the resource necessary for the Menorah’s functioning. Trees, who spring from the Eternal Breath of Life and interweave their breath with all Earth’s animals and so sustain the human beings who fashion the Gold Menorah. And so the Eternal loop of Light and Life and Love that lights our way in the gusts of Winds of change.

Hanukkah was created in a time of resisting tyranny and honoring the resistance with a teaching and a practice: “Not by might and not by power, but by My Spirit, says the Breath of Life.” And the proof: One day’s energy, one day’s olive oil, met eight days’ needs! If we resisted tyranny and refused to worship idols, we could learn how to make sure that it would take only a minimum of nature’s energy to serve us.

What can we learn from the Green Menorah of the Temple -- one that is sustained indefinitely by cooperative relationship with the ecology of its surroundings? That we are reliant on the resources of our Earth around us and within us, and that we need to create social systems that not only sustain us, but allow for us and the Earth we’re harvesting to mutually sustain one another. Forever.

Therefore, when Hanukkah comes to a close, we invite you to open your imagination from thinking immediate to thinking long-term. What continued action can you commit to over the coming year? What covenant will you enter into with your community to ensure that Hanukkah’s lessons on resource conservation last all year?

And will continue to nurture us – IF we act to make sure our own mechanical out-breath of CO2 does not poison and burn the planet.  

What then could we promise to each other during Hanukkah?

We could promise to create our own congregational and neighborhood solar energy co-ops. And we could commit ourselves that these co-ops will work to support a national campaign for Federal grants to neighborhood solar-energy co-ops in every neighborhood --  urban, suburban, small town, rural.

In the spirit of Hanukah, we could watch on the evening of December 10 a PBS TV show that asks the question -- Why doesn’t every home in America have solar panels?

Watch Property Brothers star Jonathan Scott explain on PBS Power Trip how we can change America’s energy future together. Bring your questions to a  screening and Q+A discussion with Scott and Anya Schoolman, founder and exec of the Solar United Neigborhoods (SUN) program that has solarized many neighborhoods in DC and beyond. The show can be seen anytime with Q and A from 7 pm to 10 pm on December 10.  RSVP here today!  

That evening is the first night of Hanukkah. We can join by Zoom with family and friends to light the first Hanukkah candle, either at 6:30 pm Eastern Time, before this amazing PBS TV show, or after it finishes at 10 pm Eastern Time.  

Federal grants to neighborhood co-ops can bypass state and local officials. The new solar systems radically reduce the costs of electricity; radically increase the rapid spread of renewable energy and its jobs; reduce asthma and cancer rates in neighborhoods near coal-burning plants and oil refineries. Infusing national money into this local transformation would create millions of new “green jobs” in communities now hollowed out and dying. And the new solar systems would greatly reduce CO2 emissions that are scorching and burning our home – our planet.

What’s more, the co-ops themselves would become grass-roots political challenges to the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs that are making hyperwealthy profits by burning Earth, sowing the anti-life seeds of enormous floods, hurricanes, droughts, fires, and famines.

I sketch this approach as a model of what a community-based, compassionate, justice-seeking America – simultaneously “global” and “neighborly” -- might look like. I suggest that it could be good practical politics as well as good value politics – appealing as a Green Neighborhood New Deal to people who started out opposing the national program for the Green New Deal, just as Obamacare when it actually went into effect appealed to people who started out opposing it.

For that very reason, it may be bitterly opposed by the same politicians who bitterly opposed Obamacare, and still do. All the more reason for us to vigorously support it!

It's time to start preparing for the eight days of Hanukkah  and the twelve days of Christmas (starts Christmas Eve, December 24). When better for a healed economy, a healing Earth?

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.

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.

Healing Earth & Healing America, Both Halves

Yesterday, Against Disaster; Tomorrow, For a Fuller Democracy

We members and readers of The Shalom Center have been struggling to understand how we can meet the real needs, economic and cultural, of both the American electorate who voted for Trump, and those who voted for Biden.

We know from direct contact that “the others” are mostly lovable people. We know from political experience that our common house cannot stand if we treat each other as enemies, with hatred and contempt.

Trumpism did its best to treat the two as if we were enemies of each other.  We must create dialogues in which we all listen. We must also create policies in which we meet the economic and cultural needs of both great clusters.

And there is a third segment of the people––many many fewer.  We can try to pursue dialogue with them, but we must be prepared to learn it is useless, and we must be ready to politically defeat them. That is the inner structure of one political party that has decided it can never win elections if the whole American people gets to vote. So it has decided the ”real people”are not the whole American citizenry but only white Christian males and the women who obey and serve them.  Since that segment of America is increasingly a minority, for them to insist that they are the only people who count requires more and more force and violence to keep “the others” from winning elections and sharing power.

But addressing the needs of “long-forgotten America” (Blacks, Ladinx, Indigenous nations, women, LGBTQIA communities, immigrants and refugees) does not require forgetting the needs of “newly forgotten” Americans (rural and small-town folks and their suffering analogues in city neighborhoods).  

Can such a program bring together those who now live in the great metropolitan areas and see through their windows a wider world and a newer culture, with those who celebrate the old economy and culture of small stores and churches and who fear they are now the “forgotten Americans”? We cannot have a healthy and democratic America if either of these great clusters is left out.

A lesson from the past: In 1936 the New Deal met the needs of farmers and involved them in a fruitful coalition through the Rural Electrification Act. It provided federal loans for the installation of electrical distribution systems to serve isolated rural areas of the United States.  The funding was channeled through cooperative electric power companies.

Imagine a Neighborhood Solarization  Act that offers grants and loans to neighborhood co-ops in small towns and rural areas as well as urban neighborhoods, to solarize homes and businesses and schools that become co-op members, and also pays for training new home-grown solar and wind engineers and then pays them for new green jobs at decent wages.

Grants to neighborhood co-ops bypass state and local officials. The new solar systems radically reduce the costs of electricity; radically increase the rapid spread of renewable energy and its jobs; reduce asthma and cancer rates in neighborhoods near coal-burning plants and oil refineries. Infusing national money into this hyper-local transformation would create millions of new “green jobs” in communities now hollowed out and dying. And the new solar systems would greatly reduce CO2 emissions that are scorching and burning our home – our planet.

What’s more, the co-ops themselves would become grass-roots political challenges to the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs that are making hyperwealthy  profits by burning Earth, sowing the anti-life seeds of enormous floods, hurricanes, droughts, fires, and famines.

I sketch this approach as a model of what a community-based, compassionate, justice-seeking America – simultaneously “global” and “neighborly” -- might look like. I suggest that it could be good practical politics as well as good value politics – appealing as a Green Neighborhood New Deal to people who started out opposing the national program for the Green New Deal, just as Obamacare when it actually went into effect appealed to people who started out opposing it.

For that very reason, it may be bitterly opposed by the same politicians who bitterly opposed Obamacare, and still do. All the more reason for us to vigorously support it!

It's time to start preparing for the eight days of Hanukkah (starts the evening of December 10) and the twelve days of Christmas (starts Christmas Eve, December 24). When better for a healed economy, a healing Earth? More coming! 

Shalom, salaam, paz, peace!--  Arthur

Death: Peace Or a Coup? -- This Week’s Torah

In “Chayei Sarah,” this week’s Torah and Haftarah readings, there are two deaths and one impending death. The effects of each on the surrounding community are quite different, and we can learn from each of them.

The death of Sarah leads mostly to Abraham’s effort to buy a burial place for her and, it turns out for himself and several others of his family as well. He makes clear that until this moment he has been landless, a “ger toshav,” a “sojourner settled.”

 Is his land purchase a triumph, a peaceful bargain struck in an uncertain context? Most of Jewish tradition treats it that way, but later Torah (Lev. 25: 23) says that all human beings are “gerim toshavim,” sojourners who may settle on Earth but do not own any part of it. Only YHWH, the Breath of Life, owns the Land, the Earth.  We humans only rent it temporarily while we live. 

One might even learn from the story that only the dead get to “own” the land by purchase -– for then our earthy dust returns to the earthy dust whence it came, while our breath returns to the Breath of Life whence it came.

The next death in the story is Abraham’s own.  The main consequence is that his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, who seem to have been estranged for decades, come together to bury him. Indeed, this is the only time Torah calls them “Abraham’s  sons.”

We can only tell each other our imagined stories of what their conversation was like at the graveside of their dangerous father. Remember, he sent one of them into the wilderness ill-equipped to survive, and the other he took up the mountain, intending to slaughter him as an offering to God. Yet they joined to bury him and they reconciled with each other, so that Isaac went to live where Ishmael lived: The Wellspring of the Living One Who Sees Me.

For years my life-partner Rabbi Phyllis Berman and I have urged that this passage (Gen 25: 7-11) should be read on Yom Kippur as the reconciling resolution of the two stories that traditionally we read on Rosh Hashanah, of the near disasters that are visited upon the two brothers. And it deserves being lifted not only then but often as a quintessential teaching of the reconciliation that Torah teaches at its best.

Finally, the Haftarah or prophetic passage (I Kings 1: 1-31) that complements this Torah passage is a story of the very last days of King David, and here the consequence is very different.  David himself has promised the succession to Shlomo, “the peaceful one.” (We know him mostly as Solomon.) But another son has attempted a palace coup, gathering various officials around him and calling himself “king” even while David still lives.

The symbols of legitimacy gather around David. The Prophet Natan and David’s principal wife Batsheva, Solomon’s mother, ask David to say publicly what his choice is. He speaks for Solomon.  The plotters of the coup disperse, and as we know, Solomon becomes king when shortly after, David dies.

We ourselves live at a moment when all the normally legitimate social institutions are prophecying one succession in power.  Yet palace officials are edging close to a coup, and refuse to reconcile with previously estranged communities. Can we learn from Ishmael and Isaac?

Dancing in God's Earthquake: Sodom, Lot, & America Today

I’ve said that on Tuesday mornings I would post a quote from my new book, Dancing in God's Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion . This isn’t a quote, but reflections from the chapter called “The Sin of Sodom and the Sin of Lot.” (See Genesis chapter 19 for the biblical story.) It fits our discussion of how to welcome the newly arrived into a fuller American democracy, while respecting those who feel they have been forgotten although they used to think they were the heart of American society.

The sin of Sodom was that they hated foreigners. They barely tolerated Abraham’s cousin Lot, and when he welcomed two strangers to his house they mobbed the house and threatened to rape the visitors. The point was not sex, though much of Christian thought was that their sin was homosexuality; the sin was hatred. But Lot committed a sin that was the sin of Sodom upside-down: he offered to let them rape his own daughters if they would let the foreign visitors alone.

With a little stretch we can see our own dilemma: Shall we save the community that thinks we have forgotten the mystic ties that bind us together as friends and family, or save the newcomers for the sake of sacred justice? Have "the forgotten" fallen into hatred? Or are they frightened, desperate? Have the justice-focused forgotten that we all are entitled to justice, not only the newcomers? 

Lot and his family were saved, according to the story – remember, it’s a story! --  when his visitors struck the mob with a light so intense it blinded them from attacking. Already a paradox. A light that darkened.  What might that mean for us? How can we insist that our businesses stop pouring CO2 into the air that burns, floods, and kills our families – our children --  while affirming the cultures that believe global scorching is a hoax?

### ### ###

A letter from Karen Flotte, a member of the Justice Gardeners Team that works closely with the Central Reform Congregation of St Louis and with the nearby Black community to discern what people need and want to eat – and share in making it possible for all who hunger to tend and feed themselves from the communal garden. And who is a member of the Program Coordinator team for The Shalom Center.

This is a deeply personal post and not meant to be prescriptive for anyone. 

As the sun was setting yesterday evening, I found myself in a park weeping.  Weeping over the nation torn asunder we find ourselves in.  My heart as broken as our people.  

 Yesterday morning, I saw a post asking about a photo of Republican voters, “Who are these people?”  I immediately thought, “People I love.  My family, dear life-long friends, my neighbors.”  My grandparents and parents who taught me to protect those most vulnerable by the ways they lived and acted.  My friend of nearly 40 years who held my hand offering emotional and spiritual support and medical wisdom as my sister and father were dying.  A friend with whom I can consistently reach across the aisle and speak heart to heart about our different perspectives with respect and love. 

My neighbor who cares compassionately and practically for all he meets, especially the elders in my neighborhood.  The neighbor who I told my son would protect us with his own life when John Wesley asked if extremists would try to shoot us. 

I come from an all-American family, Jewish, Christian and nones; conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats as well as those who do not claim a space on that spectrum; urban and rural; queer and cis-gender straight.  Reflecting a part of the erev rav or great mixed multitude that comprises our nation.

 For many years, my friend Rabbi Randy Fleisher has been working with the story of Jacob and Esau, the story of a generation divided, of fear and of hatred.  In the few short years I have known Randy, he has taught this story in different ways, examining it deeply, wrestling with its meaning for our time.  In this story as Jacob returns anticipating meeting his brother Esau, he wrestles for a full night before crossing over to meet his brother.

 I have spent the last few days wrestling within.  If the election season can be compared to the High Holidays of my adopted tradition, Judaism, I feel like I am standing in Yom Kippur, taking a full accounting of my soul.  I live my life on this truth, that the wholeness of the community depends on the wholeness of the entire community.  The entire community.  

I need to take a full accounting of my soul.    How have I personally missed the mark?  What are the ways that I have allowed my heart to harden?  How have the way I speak about my fears, values and perspectives led to alienation, oppression of others?  Has my own speech and thinking contributed to violence, hatred and divide?   

How do I need to listen deeper?  How do I bring compassion and healing to myself, to others?  My inner work, inner healing is necessary if I want to be an active participant in tikkun olam or repair of the world and our nation in the days that follow.

Four years ago on the Shabbat after the election, Rabbi Mem Movshin (of blessed memory), who did the teaching that day, posed this question to all of us, “how will you be a blessing in the days to come?”  Jacob and Esau are able to cross the divide and embrace in an act of blessing.  I fear that if I am unable to do the work of inner healing, of opening my own heart to the entire community -- person to person, face, to face -- the forces which have torn our people asunder will, in fact, win.  As I enter this Shabbat after the election, I ask myself Rabbi Mem’s question again, “how will I be a blessing in the days to come.”  And I carry deep within my heart this prayer by St. Francis which I learned in my parent’s home:

Yah, make me an instrument of your peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy.

 

O Divine Breath of Life,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

Amen.

###  ###  ###

A glimmer of answers, a glow of light to let us blur our differences and let us see what we might share:

 Rabbi Doris Dyen of Pittsburgh, from one of the congregations that met in the Tree of Life building where murder struck two years ago, recommends two groups that are working to make dialogue possible across what has been our splitness:

 Braver Angels --  https://braverangels.org/ 

The organization was originally called "Better Angels," drawing from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.  They facilitate structured "red / blue" conversations between groups of ordinary people with opposing political views.  They also provide training for conversation moderators.

 

Multi-Faith Neighbors Network --  https://www.mfnnetwork.com/ 

This organization was started by an Evangelical Christian pastor Bob Roberts in Texas, a Muslim leader (also in Texas I believe?) Imam Mohamed Magid, and Rabbi David Saperstein.  I participated in their 6-week workshop of guided conversations this summer, taught by Pastor Roberts and Imam Magid, which brought together local spiritual leaders from the three Abrahamic faiths here in Allegheny County. 

Pastor Roberts, Imam Magid, and Rabbi Saperstein lead these workshops all over the country:  they want to get the spiritual leaders talking/listening to each other, and attending each other's religious services if possible, activities which are then followed up by their congregations doing community service projects together, so that the congregants also begin to establish rapport. 

The long-range goal is to build "resilient communities" where people are working cross-culturally for constructive change together on things they can agree on.  Our chavurah has since participated in two interfaith community food distribution projects in Pittsburgh with the churches/mosques whose leaders I got to know through the Network workshop series.  

### ### ###

There will be more as we explore this question, for life and not for death.  How can we pursue justice and love at the same time, when parts of our people have such different ideas of what both of them mean?  Can we create forms of action that almost all of us agree on, in our differences?

Meanwhile, if you want to explore this and other questions in the glowing light of Torah transformed: Gloria Steinem, Ruth Messinger, Rev. William Barber; Rabbis Art Green, Jonah Pesner, and Jill Hammer; Bill McKibben, Marge Piercy, and Rev. Jim Wallis have all read and praised Dancing in God's Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion. You can order it from The Shalom Center or from Orbis Books. Click to --

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.

Can We Walk, Breathe Deep, and Sing at the Same Time?

Yesterday, Shabbat, turned out to be a day of celebration: the election  of a new President of the United States! My city, Philadelphia, was at the heart of the “dancing in  God’s earthquake.”  Literally dancing. 

And then came the ceremony of Havdalah, distinguishing between Shabbat and the work week.  The ceremony calls the rest of the week, in Hebrew, “chol.” Many translate that as “mundane.” But my teacher Rabbi Max Ticktin, of blessed memory, taught that “chol” came from the same root as “chalil” or “chilul,” hollow like a flute waiting to be filled. Shabbat is given as holy; the rest of the week is up to us to fill with holiness or not. There is much we must yet do, to fulfill our sacred vision of a full democracy: 

 There are three immediate tasks that I think that our community needs to address. 

 One – that I devoutly hope we will not need to muster, but we might – is to mount a vigorous, utterly nonviolent campaign protecting democracy, in case the present lame-duck President tries to shatter it. As of this morning, November 8, that seems unlikely – but not yet impossible. 

 The second -- is to make it possible for President-Elect Biden to govern with a Congress able to respond to serious proposals to meet the deep crises facing America and Earth: 

 There are at least four: public health in a worsening pandemic; massive disemployment; broad awareness of embedded racism (including White House contempt and hatred for immigrants and refugees); and the climate crisis of wildfires and floods.

Whether President Biden can meet the need to address these four immediate crises may depend on whether half the Senate behaves as it did facing President Obama, determined to destroy every one of his initiatives, no matter how shaped to benefit the nation.  

 OR --

it may depend on the results of two run-off elections for the US Senate in Georgia. If the two Democrats both win, the Senate would be tied 50-50 and Vice-President Kamala Harris would shortly vote to organize it with Democrats in the majority.  That might not make possible major steps like admitting the District of Columbia to statehood, but it would make it possible for President Biden to name his own Cabinet without being denied major nominations by a Republican Senate (as some Senators have already threatened).

One of those Georgia elections is between Jon Ossoff. a young Jewish journalist, a moderate liberal who was interviewed three years ago by a leading reporter of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and an incumbent Senator, David Perdue, whose record is reported by Wikipedia. (If Ossoff’s name seems odd, it is a variant of “Yosef,” or “Joseph.”)

The other run-off is being contested by Rev. Raphael Warnock, for 15 years pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which had been the church of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Kelly Loeffler,  a very rich appointee to fill the seat of a resigned senator who has put up 20 million dollars of her own money to pay for her campaign to fill the rest of the Senate seat.  

We will supply more detailed information about all four of these candidates. 

The third task that we face is deeper and harder. About 48% of the America people voted for a president who many of the other 52% think was a neo-fascist. That does not make 48% of the people racists, fascists, pro-billionaire,  pro-wildfire, pro-virus. It does bespeak a call, an outcry,  from the depths of pain of almost all the people – a call to speak and to listen to each other. We will soon write more about how to do that.

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

Torah This Week: Seeing God in the Trees

The Torah portion this coming Shabbat is called “Va’yera” after its first word, which means “was seen” or “became visible.”  The opening sentence (Genesis 18:1) reads like this:

“Now YHWH [the Interbreathing Spirit of the World] was seen by him [by Avraham} in the oaks of Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance to his tent at the heat of the day.”

 First let me say, “in the oaks of Mamre” is an unconventional but utterly reasonable translation of "b'elonai.”  Most translators say “by the oaks” because they want to point to three men who are about to appear as messengers of God, making God visible, and they are uncomfortable with the notion that God may be visible in the trees themselves.  But most of the time in the Bible,” b'means “in.”

 How could God be visible in that forest? If “YHWH” is the Breath of Life, the Wind of change, the Spirit of the world, then the rustling of leaves in that forest, blown by the Wind, would make visible the Wind that is about to change the life of Abraham and Sarah and the world.

 Secondly, in our own generation the scientists at last have taught us– – and perhaps long ago wise human beings knew the deep truth – that trees use chemicals to communicate with each other, that they help each other when some of them are in danger, that they breathe out the oxygen we need to breathe in and they breathe in the CO2 we breathe out.

 When in Deuteronomy 20:19 Torah asks, “Are the trees of the field human?” we thought the question was tongue-in-cheek and that the answer was obviously No. But perhaps if being “human” means communicating wisdom across generations the answer is obviously “Yes!” (Consult Richard Powers’ insightful novel The Overstory.)

 I have several times led prayer circles where I have invited people as part of the service to seek out a tree and listen to it breathe, then hear the tree’s own prayer, then come back to the community and share the tree’s prayer. When a dozen people do this, each prayer is unique, the prayers are as different as you can imagine --- and profoundly “spiritual.”

 Finally, how many of us have seen God become visible in a forest, a river, a bird, a cloud of fireflies? Time for us to welcome these bearers of life into the minyan, the quorum that makes prayer possible. Indeed, there could be no minyan without them.

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P.S.--  I invite all of you to "like" the Shalom Center Facebook page, where I share updates about our important work for eco/social justice and healing of our woundeed Earth. -- including video of this and other Torah teachings.  Like it here: https://www.facebook.com/TheShalomCenter

Prophetic Song for This Time: Leonard Cohen's "Democracy is Coming to the USA"

The darkest, most honest, most prophetic patriotic song I know is Leonard Cohen’s  “Democracy is Coming to the USA.”

It’s a song for tonight and the morning after Election Day and the weeks that will follow.  

First look at these words below in case you might miss a few in the hearing/ watching. Then check the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DU-RuR-qO4Y&feature=youtu.be . I recommend watching/ hearing the first go-round with wonderful graphics, and stay to watch and hear the Prophet Leonard himself sing it a second time.  

Whatever attacks we face against democracy in the next few months, I hope this song will give us joy and inner strength through our tears.   “Oz v’zimrat YAHHHH: Strength and Song:  The Breath of Life.” --- 

Feel free to share this with your friends  ---  Arthur

  “Democracy is Coming to the USA”

  Leonard Cohen 

 It's coming through a hole in the air, 

from those nights in Tiananmen Square. 
It's coming from the feel 
that this ain't exactly real, 
or it's real, but it ain't exactly there. 
From the wars against disorder, 
from the sirens night and day, 
from the fires of the homeless, 
from the ashes of the gay: 
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A. 

It's coming through a crack in the wall; 
on a visionary flood of alcohol; 
from the staggering account 
of the Sermon on the Mount 
which I don't pretend to understand at all. 
It's coming from the silence 
on the dock of the bay, 
from the brave, the bold, the battered 
heart of Chevrolet: 
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A. 

It's coming from the sorrow in the street, 
the holy places where the races meet; 
from the homicidal bitchin' 
that goes down in every kitchen 
to determine who will serve and who will eat. 
From the wells of disappointment 
where the women kneel to pray 
for the grace of God in the desert here 
and the desert far away: 
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A. 

Sail on, sail on 
O mighty Ship of State! 
To the Shores of Need 
Past the Reefs of Greed 
Through the Squalls of Hate 
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on. 

It's coming to America first, 
the cradle of the best and of the worst. 
It's here they got the range 
and the machinery for change 
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. 
It's here the family's broken 
and it's here the lonely say 
that the heart has got to open 
in a fundamental way: 
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A. 

It's coming from the women and the men. 
O baby, we'll be making love again. 
We'll be going down so deep 
the river's going to weep, 
and the mountain's going to shout Amen! 
It's coming like the tidal flood 
beneath the lunar sway, 
imperial, mysterious, 
in amorous array: 
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A. 

Sail on, sail on ... 

I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean 
I love the country but I can't stand the scene. 
And I'm neither left or right 
I'm just staying home tonight, 
getting lost in that hopeless little screen. 
But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags 
that Time cannot decay, 
I'm junk but I'm still holding up 
this little wild bouquet: 
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

### ### ###  

 P..S My newest book, Dancing in God's Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion is my sketch of the do-able future. 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 or from Orbis Books. 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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