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Washing Hands & Counting Omer: From Corona Plague Toward a New Society

 

By Faryn Borella

As coronavirus began to become a reality in the U.S. and health experts began to urge us to wash our hands ever more frequently, a certain meme went viral. This meme listed a new order for the prescribed Passover Seder. What traditionally begins Kadesh (sanctification) Urchatz (washing) Karpas (vegetable), Yachatz (breaking of the middle matzah), etc. was transformed into something different, with “Urchatz” inserted, again and again, between each order of the seder, hand-washing becoming the transitional axis around which each element of Seder became possible.

This meme, intended as a joke--as a use of humor as a coping mechanism in challenging times--also contained within it a truth that none of us were fully willing to acknowledge at the time of its genesis--that this thing we’re going through might be much more long-term than we think. For it came out before the self-distancing, before the CDC bans on gatherings over 50 and the White House recommendation against gatherings over 10. Yet it revealed a truth--that even Jewish cycles of time, meant to co-regulate the collective Jewish nervous system--would be impacted by this thing, and our capacity to come together in the most challenging of times was being threatened. We are living in a world where it is quite likely that the Passover Seder, as the location of the ingathering, of community, becomes an impossibility.


Yet if there was one thing our ancestors deeply understood, it was the reality of not always having control over the external factors altering the course of our very lives. And they accounted for the impossibility of the offering of the Pesach korban (“bringing near” – usually translated “sacrifice” or “offering), the core mitzvah of Pesach, by instituting Pesach sheni--the second Pesach—exactly one Jewish moonth later for those who were tamei due to contact with a dead body, and therefore not permitted to offer the Pesach sacrifice.


What does it mean for one to be tamei? It is a state of being--often translated as impure in contrast to its counterweight  tahor, often translated as pure--in which one is not permitted to enter the sacred communal shrine to offer sacrifice to the divine. Yet these translations do us a disservice, as they lead us to believe there is something unhygienic or immoral about one who is tamei. Tumah, within Jewish thought, is not a measure of one’s worth or value, and nothing is inherently or everlastingly tamei. Rather, it is a temporary spiritual state that objects and people can take on due to an uncanny experience of the fragility of life--birth, sex, death. It does not mean you are any lesser than. It merely means you must wait, alone in your uncanniness, to undertake a ritual that makes it possible to rejoin the community. In the case of Pesach sheni, the holiday had to be instituted in order that those who took the time to caretake their dead still had the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of pesach.


At this moment, we are all collectively caretaking a dead body. As a virus runs its course through our globalized world population, death hangs heavy in the very air that we breathe. Our society at this moment is defined by death, our fear of it and our measures to prevent it. But our society itself is also experiencing a death of its own. A death of pace and scale and intensity. And it is rendering us all tamei


The primary means of becoming tahor in times of tumah  is by way of water. As Leviticus 15 states, in times of tamei, one must:

וְרָחַ֥ץ בַּמַּ֖יִם וְטָמֵ֥א עַד־הָעָֽרֶב


Bathe in water and you will remain tamei until evening


Bathing in water is the means by which we purify, but the bathing does not immediately render one pure. Rather, there is the ritual act, and then there is a period in which we must still wait for the ritual magic to take effect.

 

We are all in this period of waiting.

 How long must we wait to be tahor again? How long will it take our soapy water and hand sanitizer to purify our societies of exploitative, unchecked capitalism and fascist regimes that allow for one virus to reach the level of global pandemic? How long until we can hold one another again?

 Numbers keep getting thrown at us. Eight weeks. 50 people. Three weeks. Ten People. Two hands. Twenty seconds. One person. Six feet. Six feet. Six feet.

 The answer is, we don’t know. But we must prepare for our wait to be long. 

 In Judaism, we have a practice of counting the omer--counting the days between Passover and Shavuot. Between the Barley harvest and the wheat harvest. Between liberation and revelation. 

 This year, our count must begin sooner. We must count from isolation to reunion. From sickness to health. From old world order of Hierarchy and Subjugation  to new world order of Eco-relationship, Beloved Community.

Unlike the omer, in which we know for how long we count, in our times, we know where to begin our count but not yet where to end. Yet we still must ritually track the days in order that we don’t get lost in feeling that the count is perpetual. Let each day be distinguished from the last. Deserving in its own right. Set apart in its own holiness. Blessed and blessed and blessed.

 Through our counting, we will learn how long it takes to purify a society of greed. Of exploitation. Of the scorching of the earth. We will learn the number toward which we must count. If only we are willing to wait, and take part in a ritual act of reconnection.

April 14! -- Freedom Seder in this Plague Year

Tuesday evening, April 14, is the 7th night of Passover. Traditionally, it is the night to celebrate the ancient crossing of the Red (Reed) Sea, and there has been a tradition of Seders to honor that night.

This year, The Shalom Center will hold an on-line Seder specially written to address our crisis, facing the Eleventh Plague --  the Coronavirus Plague --  as well as other plagues of wounded Earth and Humankind.

We see this as another in the great line of spiritually rooted and creatively activist Seders that goes back to the Freedom Seder of 1969. 

Please save the date and time – 7 p.m. to about 9 p.m Eastern Time on Tuesday, April 14. We will be back in touch with you with more details, the link, etc. We will welcome freely offered contributions and we will freely welcome all who wish to take part  – as the Haggadah itself says, Let all who are hungry, all who are in need,  come and celebrate Pesach. We would add, all who are hungry for emotional, spiritual, and intellectual sustenance in this moment of crisis broad and deep.

With blessings of health restored, of freedom renewed, of Earth and Humankind closer to the Land of Promise, the Beloved Community --  Arthur

A Prayer for the Health and Healing of Healers

[Rabbi  Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in  New York City circulated this beautiful prayer for health care workers by her colleague Rabbi Ayelet Cohen. Rabbi Kleinbaum added that CBST had just suffered their first death from this virus. "Sending blessings to all," she added.--  AW, ed.]

May the One who blessed our ancestors
Bless all those who put themselves at risk to care for the sick
Physicians and nurses and orderlies
Technicians and home health aides
EMTs and pharmacists
And bless especially / an individual or other categories of health workers/
Who navigate the unfolding dangers of the world each day,
To tend to those they have sworn to help.

Bless them in their coming home and bless them in their going out.
Ease their fear. Sustain them.
Source of all breath, healer of all beings,
Protect them and restore their hope.
Strengthen them, that they may bring strength;
Keep them in health, that they may bring healing.
Help them know again a time when they can breathe without fear.
Bless the sacred work of their hands.
May this plague pass from among us, speedily and in our days.

--- Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen, March 2020

Gaia and Shekhina Speak: A Message from Mother Earth

[Arlene Goldbard, who wrote and painted the following essay, served for ten years as an amazingly adept President of The Shalom Center.  She is now our beloved President Emerita and continues to provoke new thought as a blogger. You can SUBSCRIBE FREE to her blog or post comments at her Website: arlenegoldbard.com – AW, ed.]

What can console us in the face of the Great Unknown? I thought I understood that safety was always an illusion: any of us could be struck down at any moment. But having the illusion of safety erased, that's uncertainty of another magnitude, so vastly out of proportion to the "normal," default reality that words can't do it justice.

Gaia and Shekhina Speak: Earth, Water, Fire, Air © Arlene Goldbard 2020

When I painted the first of these self-portraits in August—the one with my hair on fire—I had no idea it would add up to something much larger and more urgent, compelling me to share with you. I soon had the idea of depicting the remaining three elements: water, earth, and air.

I knew that my own face could stand in for the weathered face of Mother Earth. I knew there would be a stark contrast in each painting between the aging face and the wild energy of the element supporting it; between the lines and shadows and the relentless gaze. A few weeks before the pandemic began to make headlines, the texts written on the lower edge of each painting came to me.

But I didn't know till this week that something beyond my own hands had painted these pictures: the voices of Gaia and Shekhina.

In Greek mythology, Gaia is the feminine embodiment of life, the personification of Planet Earth. Her name has come to be central to ecological thinking since James Lovelock's 1979 book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. It introduced "the Gaia hypothesis," asserting that all that exists on this planet is part of a complex dynamic system that sustains life on earth, that intervening in one part of that system inevitably affects the whole.

In Jewish spirituality, Shekhina is the imminent Divine Presence, the feminine aspect of the Divine. Because the ancient sacred texts are sorely lacking in direct address of the role of women in making and upholding the world as a holy vessel for life, in recent decades, Jewish teachers, especially women, have created new liturgy, practices, and understandings to right this omission as a path to healing the world.

I am not a Pollyanna. I have no more idea than anyone what this plague will bring: my inbox, like yours, is overflowing with best and worst-case scenarios, and like you, I will have to do my best to help while I wait and see which comes true.

I see this plague unmasking the terrible inequities of the modern world, in which the privileged bask in their advantages while the marginalized bear the brunt, in which a giant deranged baby rules in the White House. Whether he is merely blind to others' suffering or basking in it, I cannot say, but he seems determined to say and do the precisely worst thing at every turn, the thing that multiplies harm.

So many people are responding to this moment with compassion and generosity, even as some public officials and private corporations rush to profit from suffering, finding infinite ways to rationalize their greed. I am fearful, hopeful, obsessed, distracted, and each of these swirls into the next without a pause.

Yet the message brought to me by Gaia and Shekhina is this: while green life springs from the dust and birds course through the spring air, life abides. The spirit that sustained us to meet this moment can carry us into the next, if only we listen. I am choosing to listen. 

Yesterday an essay by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone came my way:

"The Sacred Meaning of COVID-19." It arrived just as I was thinking how to share these paintings, the best way to offer these images as a gift. She wrote this:

What if we understood KOVID-19—this horrific virulent virus (our ancestors would surely call it a plague)—as Shechinah’s formidable face showing up today to admonish us, correct us, love us back into our rightful place as creatures, not masters, of this earth?

"Shechinah's formidable face" is what I have tried to depict. If you find this image useful and want to share it for some noncommercial purpose, please contact me. You can also see it and more of my paintings at my website

May you be blessed with health and well-being, with ears to hear the voices of Gaia and Shekhina, with eyes to see both the suffering of the world and its beauty, with voice to speak out when needed, to comfort and console.

"Mother Earth" by Tracy Nelson.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yw0jGceuiKE&feature=youtu.be

READ ABOUT The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future and The Wave.

Useful Lessons from the Coronavirus Crisis

1. People are discovering that we really are one planet. Even prohibitions on “foreign” travel have mostly been too late to prevent transnational contagion. This is true even when human travel is the carrier; can we translate that knowledge to even stronger cases, like the unity of our dangerously and recklessly overheated atmosphere and oceans affecting the whole planet?

The Plagues of Exodus & Today

Facing Our Plagues

In an Earth-Healing Activist Passover

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Faryn Borella *

During most of Jewish history, Passover has been seen as a tale of Jewish oppression and Jewish liberation. Since the Freedom Seder in 1969, many Jews have treated it as an opportunity to face social injustice and liberation more broadly, in other contexts including and going beyond the Jewish people:  racism, oppression of immigrants, or workers, or women, or GLBTQIA communities, or unjust wars. 

From that perspective, the Ten Plagues and their disturbance of the rhythms of Earth as well as of society have rarely been the focus of the Passover story – though they were the focus of the biblical story of the Exodus. But in our generation, haunted by the fear and the reality of deep disturbances in planetary climate and local weather patterns, the Plagues may claim new attention.

What were the Ten Plagues of Exodus, and what caused them? How might we think about them in the light of our own generation’s ecological disasters, and how might we think and act about our “climate crisis” in the light of the Exodus plagues?

There are two quite different theologies for explaining the plagues.

First is that a kind of Super-pharaoh in the sky brings on the Plagues in order to demonstrate His superior power to the human Pharaoh on the throne of Egypt and to the Egyptian and Israelite peoples, and coerce Pharaoh into letting the Israelites leave slavery and Egypt.

Second is that Pharaoh addicts himself to his own power and cruelty so that what begins as his hardening his own heart ends by God – that is, Reality – hardening Pharaoh’s heart as his addiction  rigidifies.  The Plagues are ecological disasters brought on by Pharaoh’s own addiction to subjugating humans, which results in his attempts to subjugate all Earth. Earth responds in agony, with the plagues.

The first way of understanding is easier to accept if the community of experience and memory follows a worldview built on Hierarchy: a God Who is Adonai and Melekh, Lord and King triumphs over a Pharaoh, who is beneath Him on the scale of lordship and kingship.

The second way of understanding is easier to accept if the community of experience and memory follows an ecological worldview in which human interactions with Earth bring on changes in great patterns because all life is interwoven. This would follow if YHWH is not “Adonai/ Lord” or “Melekh/ King” but YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh and Ruakh: the interbreathing of all life.

If all life is interwoven, then actions aimed at one sphere of life will have consequences in another sphere.  Attempts to pile up enormous wealth and power by insisting on the hyper-lucrative use of coal and oil and unnatural gas will have consequences on global temperatures --  heating and burning – and thus on forests,  fires, melting ice, torrential  floods, disease spread, etc.

From this perspective, there is no such thing as a “natural disaster” – a plague brought on by “Nature.” If there is one thing we learned from Hurricane Katrina, it is this: There is no such thing as a natural disaster. The natural world is capable of tremendous feats, but what makes them disastrous has everything to do with humanity. Where we live. The infrastructure we have in place. The tools we have at our disposal to respond. Repair. Heal. And all of these things are determined by sociological factors--race and class, nationalism and imperialism. What often renders the natural disastrous is the systems we humans put in place to create hierarchies and stratification.

But we, as humans, not only turn great upheavals into great disasters. In our own generation, we also now have great impact in the first place on what is natural. It is becoming increasingly clear that human action is taking what are natural occurrences and intensifying them to the point of calamity. There is nothing inherently wrong with an earthquake. A hurricane. A wildfire. This is Earth’s method of self-regulation from long before humanity was even a thought in its imagination.

But what happens when a component of that very Earth--the human race--usurps such power as to dysregulate the entire earth’s balance--inverts Earth’s entire operating system, weaponizing its own tools for healing against its self? We end up with superstorms. Mass species extinction. Crop Failure. Mass disease. Undrinkable water. Mass death. In short, planetary versions of the Plagues of the biblical Exodus.

 Earth--whether it be the Creator’s creation or the InterBreathing One Themself--will probably find a means to re-regulate, but this re-regulation may not include us. The human race. Only we have the power to ensure a future with us in it. And this requires first that we take notice.

One way that the Plagues are described in the Book of Exodus is as “signs and wonders.” The intention of the Plagues is to indicate that business as usual is no longer an option. They offer a disruption to daily life. They force us to take notice of what is already happening but what we have, thus far, been able to choose to ignore. They are both the direct consequence of corrupt abuse of power and the tool of resistance against it. They serve as a point of rupture out of which a new world order can be born.

The Plagues appear as natural disasters. But we know nothing about them is “natural.” They are by humans. To remind us of our collective power to make change. For humans. To awaken us to change our behavior. Through humans. So that we know our potential to serve as conduits for divine power.

Thus the natural disasters of our times serve too as plagues. They place us panim-el-panim, face-to-face with ourselves, forced to stare at ourselves in the mirror and confront what it is that we have done to ourselves. That we have done to Earth. And yet they also serve as a point of rupture out of which a new world of loving order can be born. They are both calamity and possibility. End and Beginning.

The biblical plagues needed to occur in order that Exodus be possible. So too it might be our unfortunate truth that these natural disasters must occur in order that a sustainable future be born. For when we as humans put the systems into place that are now destroying Earth, “we” did not do so with that intention in mind. It was an unforeseen consequence of what could only be understood at the time as progress toward the greater good.

 It is only in retrospect that we now more and more fully understand the consequences of these actions. And these consequences create openings--openings through which we can envision new ways of being. What do these calamities allow us to see that we might not have been able to see before? Once we realize the consequences, once we realize that some powerful corporations and governments keep upholding their habitual behavior despite knowing their disastrous consequences, how do we respond?  How might these “plagues” offer not only the problem but also the solution?

Therefore, we invite you in the Ten Days leading up to Passover to contemplate the Plagues of our times--both their destructive properties and the opening they give us to envision something better. To be with the pain of being confronted in order that the liberating possibility be laid bare before you. And to begin to dance with that liberating possibility, ever so slowly at first. More swiftly as we learn to understand. More swiftly still as we learn how swiftly the consequences come.

The devastation of the plagues was not linear nor progressive  --- a small one followed by a big one. What could be “bigger” than the first biblical plague --  all the water of a society becoming undrinkable?  They were cumulative. Each was devastating individually; cumulatively, they wre earth-shattering. So too are our plagues. Cumulatively, they are Collapse.

So we have assigned each plague a day to capture the linearity of the Exodus narrative, and to explore the ways in which each plague may be said o have its own its own contemporary analogue. We must attend to the double impact of each Plague  -- to damage us and to awaken us, to horrify us and to liberate us.  We grapple with the astounding parallels between the biblical story and our travail today. (Not so astounding if we realize that the biblical story of Exodus is a superlatively accurate tale of Power-Run-Amok, applicable in every generation and in any society.)

The non-linearity of the biblical plagues and their different numbering and ordering in different parts of the Tanakh demonstrate that this order is arbitrary. Therefore, we ask you to enter these ten days leading up to Pesach as a meditation upon the plagues of our time, and to engage with their non-linearity.

Perhaps the first way to do this is to treat the meaning of the Plagues, ancient and contemporary, as a spur for deep Torah-study. Then, perhaps, we can turn to activist plans for

Choose a plague. Or plagues. And take action aligned with their liberatory possibility. Choose to engage where you can. For you cannot address Collapse. But you can address one of the pillars that seem to make Collapse inevitable. Break one or more of these pillars, and you – we – make Collapse far less likely.

 

    Biblical Plagues

Contemporary Plague: Earthly Manifestation

 

Contemporary “Counter-Plagues with Liberating Potential

  Water into Blood

 

   Polluted, Undrinkable    Waters and Mass Droughts

Rainwater Catchments, Grey-Water Systems, Black-water systems

Frogs

 

Invasive Species and “Forever Plastics”

Treat “Forever Plastics” as invasive species. Stop making them. Isolate them from oceans and other vulnerable milieu.

 

Lice

Opioid Epidemic

Trauma Healing on Individual, Collective, Intergenerational and Ancestral Levels

Wild beasts

Species Extinction

 

Major expansion of Species Preservation Act & Reforestation

Pestilence of livestock

  Factory   Farming   Industry

 

Reducing Beef Consumption, Buying Local, Forbidding Antibiotic Suffusion of Livestock

Boils

Exacerbated Spread of Disease

 

Free Healthcare  for All

 

Thunderstorm of hail and fire

  Superstorms      and Wildfires

 

Local Disaster Preparedness Networks and destruction of energy monopolies.

Locusts

Crop Failures.

 

Local, Organic Farms.

 

 

Darkness

Mass Blackouts, reliance on mass fossil fuel monopolies

Congregation-based & neighborhood-based Solar Cooperatives; Renewable energy grids

 

 

Death of the firstborn

Climate Collapse and its destruction of the next generation

The Sunrise Movement and other youth movements demanding holistic action like the Green New Deal

               

 All the ancient Plagues were brought on by Pharaoh’s cruelty and stubbornness, by his addiction to his own power, and by his insistence on being treated as a god. Today the plagues are brought upon us by the addiction of major corporations and governments to their own power and by the public acceptance that their wealth is a marker of “the way things are and must be” – a quasi-Divine approval of the social system they dominate  -- the social system built on domination.

In the ancient Exodus, the power of the Interbreathing Spirit of all life undermined public acceptance of the Pharaoh’s authority. Today, a new paradigm -- an ecological, not hierarchical worldview -- must gain strength to undermine our modern pharaohs.

 Today, the Jewish people and all communities of Spirit face first of all whether we can transform our own worldviews from “Hierarchy” to “Ecology.” Whether we can renew our understanding of ourselves as “Godwrestlers.” The ancient enslaved Godwrestlers needed to end their deep attachment to the God of Nurture, El Shaddai, in order to connect with a new way of thinking about the world if they were to embark on their Freedom Journey. Just so must we  move from the God of Kingly Lordship to the God of Eco-Interbreathing if we are to join a living, a loving Earth. Only if we do this can we also turn to action, to “Exodus” not geographic but social, from Tight and Narrow Space (“Mitzrayim = Egypt”) to the Beloved Community, the Earth of Promise?  -- An Exodus that transforms society and makes all Earth a conscious, loving eco-system?

To end the power of modern pharaohs to subjugate our communities and all Earth, we must reframe spiritual, religious, and ethical understanding to celebrate the Interbreathing Spirit, not domineering King or Lord.

Through that spiritual transformation, in its very midst,  can we turn to action?  Perhaps in the week before Pesach --  could Jewish communities or multireligious alliances confront Members of Congress  or major banks that invest in  Carbon Pharaoh corporations or those corporations themselves, demanding action to end the plagues of Climate Crisis? On the evening of April 9 (the 2d night of Pesach), or perhaps on Sunday evening April 12 (the 5th night of Pesach) can communities or families create Pesach Seders that point toward and embody the Beloved Community and the Earth of Promise?

 [*Waskow is the founder (1983) and director of The Shalom Center; Borella is a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Ira Silverman Memorial Intern at The Shalom Center.]

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