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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.]

Tu B’Shvat Seder: Planet, Poetry, and Power

Next Sunday evening, February 9, on the Full Moon of midwinter, we are taught to gather for the Seder of Tu B’Shvat, the ReBirthDay of trees and of the One Great Tree of Life. We eat four kinds of fruits and nuts, and drink four varicolored cups of wine (or grape juice).



[This graphic is “The Tree of Life Afire,”  by the Prophet Leonard Cohen.  Is this fiery Tree a Burning Bush, calling us to free ourselves and Earth from tyranny? Can the burning of our common home awaken us?]

One of the most wise, most powerful, most poetic, and most activist of all these Seders I have seen was created by students in a class at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I invite, I urge, I implore you to read it and if you feel as drawn as I do, to use it, with whatever reshapings you desire, for your own Seder this coming Full Moon. Click here to access it:

https://theshalomcenter.org/content/trees-earth-justice-tu-bshvat-seder-if-all-3-really-matter

Of the four sorts of fruit, only three sorts are touchable. The four start tough outside, like walnuts; increase in vulnerability to fruit like olives, soft outside but inwardly protected; then to fruit like figs, soft all the way through; and finally to the fourth sort, so ethereal that the fruit is not touchable,  not visible, at all.   Here are four brief teachings that I suggest you might introduce into the Four Worlds of the Seder, with time for conversation about each. And two brief teachings about the Four Cups of wine or grape juice that we drink in honor of the Four Worlds.

Asiyah (Physicality): This is the only sacred Jewish meal that does not require the death of any living creature. (In fact, one might understand the pattern of this meal as a command that for this meal, celebrating the ReBirth of the Divine Tree of Life, not only is killing not required, but NOT killing IS required.) Even eating the Pesach bitter herb requires uprooting a radish, killing it.  But nuts and fruit come in such profusion that eating them does not threaten the lives or continuity of trees. 

Yetzirah (Interconnection, relationship): This holy day was rooted in Temple times for tithing fruit: that is, bringing a tenth of one’s own fruit harvest to make sure the poor who don’t own fruit trees get nuts and fruit to eat The Kabbalists chose this day partly because, just as they said eating without a brocha --  a blessing  -- was robbery from YHWH [Yahhh, the Holy Interbreath of life], so eating without sharing through tzedakah —socially responsible sharing for the sake of justice -- is robbery from the poor and from YHWH.

 Briyyah (Intellect, Creativity): The custom has grown up to refer to this day, the 15th of Shvat,  as Tu B’Shvat – using the numbers “Tav + Vav, 9+6” rather than “Yod+Hei, 10+5.”  This custom grew up to avoid using “Yod-Hei” as the name for the day because it is one of the Names of God, as in “Hallelu-Yah.” But: A teaching from Rabbi Phyllis Berman:  -- We should on the Full Moon of each month, and especially on the full moons of Shvat and Av, fully welcome the Divine Presence inscribed on the fullness of the moon: Yah B’Av and Yah B’Shvat.

Atzilut (Spiritual Nearness to God, fusion with the Divine): Taught by Rabbi Naomi Mara Hyman: In 1997, dozens of rabbis and other Jews and people of other spiritual, religious, or ethical communities were gathered in a California redwood grove protected by the government. We were holding a Yah B’Shvat Seder, preparing to mount an act of civil-disobedience resistance to a corporation that was logging nearby ancient redwoods. Naomi – sitting at a table for the Seder – looked up at the redwoods all around us, hundreds of feet tall, the tallest living beings on Earth.

She said: “These trees, we call them ‘Eytzim,’ right?”--  “Right.” --  “The two poles that hold up each Sefer Torah, each Torah Scroll, we call them ‘Eytzim,’ right?” – “Right!” --  “If these eytzim (gesturing at the trees) were the eytzim of a Sefer Torah, how expansive, how ‘Torah d’gadlut,’ would that Sefer have to be  -- not only in physical size but in spiritual grandeur?”

(A pause. Then:) “And each of us would be the right size to be a Letter in that Torah!

[This painting is "The Tree of Life Weeping," by Rabbi Meirah Iliinsky. See her Website illuminatedverses.com  This artwork was originally done in grief for those murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It applies as well to the whole planetary Tree of Life that is now burning, choking, and weeping in pain. More specifically, see  http://www.versesilluminated.com/virtual-exhibit-ii/the-tree-of-life-is-weeping-giclee-art-print  There Rabbi Iliinsky. points out and explains the symbolism within the painting.]

Long pause.  “Right. And of course that is just what we are: letters in the great Torah of the planet, of the universe. We are the letters that can write a Torah that is filled with love and awe. And as is true in the parchment Scroll, no letter stands alone. Only together can we write a world of Torah.”

Four worlds, four Cups of Wine: the first all White; then White with a drop of Red; then half White, half Red; then Red with a drop of White. There are at least two ways to understand this progression. The first is that the colors hint at the dance of the seasons --  from White for winter through increasing redness as new vitality brings more color until the riot of colorful trees in autumn has within it a seed of white, about to go underground. A second understanding draws on the ancient Talmudic notion that fertility begins with mixtures of white semen and red blood, and that the whole process of the Seder evokes the birthing of new life. Both are about fruitfulness – the deepest desire of Tu B’Shvat.

And then there is the question, why wine altogether? Today many Jewish communities use grape juice as well or instead, but it is clear that for millennia, the tradition preferred wine. Why? The obvious answer is that unlike grape juice, wine has the power to change consciousness. Asking more deeply: Why is that?  Wine has fermented. That means it begins as sweet grape juice, turns sour, and then turns again – to a higher sweetness, capable of changing human consciousness.

The spiritual meaning -- rooted in the chemical reality but capable of teaching a truth beyond chemistry --  is that moving through sweetness to sourness offers the possibility of the next step – transformation into a more subtle, more entrancing, form of sweetness. Once we learn this, we can do it with grape juice, or water, or breathing. Once we know this, we may learn to treat neither sweetness nor sourness in our lives as a place to stop --  but as an invitation to transform ourselves.

To transform our selves to loving and healing each other and the mother of all fruitfulness, our Mother Earth and especially her trees. Acting, as Rabbi Langner wrote earlier this week, to feed our most poverty-stricken neighbors from the bounty of new-born trees, and to reforest Earth so that she and we can breathe again.

(See https://theshalomcenter.org/tu-bshvat-reforesting-earth-heal-both-poverty-climate.)

And once again, I encourage you to access, to modify, and to use the Seder at –

https://theshalomcenter.org/content/trees-earth-justice-tu-bshvat-seder-if-all-3-really-matter

Blessings of seed, roots, trunk, foliage, fruit, seed  --  Arthur

Tu B'Shvat: Reforesting Earth to Heal Both Poverty & Climate

[Tu B'Shvat, the midwinter festival that marks the ReBirthDay of trees and of the Divine Tree of Life, begins this year on Sunday evening February 9 -- the Full Moon of the Jewish moonth of Shvat. Rabbi Gilah Langner, who wrote this article, serves as rabbi of Kol Ami congregation in Arlington, Virginia, and of the Shirat HaNefesh independent synagogue in the broader Washington DC area.  She was the founding publisher and co-editor of the journal Kerem: Creative Explorations in Judaism,You can write her at gilah.langner@gmail.com

[Here she proposes that we celebrate Tu B'Shvat and other moments in the Jewish year and llfe-cycle by contributing to massive reforestation in Africa -- addressing both deep poverty in the "Global South" and the need for all Earth and all Earth's species, including Humanity, to breathe again. Forests breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen -- helping to restore the balance that burning fossil fuels has broken. 

[This fusion of social justice and eco-sanity is an important theme of the Hebrew Bible. Even the mystical Tu B'Shvat had its roots in the date of tithing fruit when the Temple stood -- a tax to make sure that those who were too poor to own fruit trees could eat the fruits and nuts provided by social justice-. -  AW, Ed.]

 By Rabbi Gilah Langner

Here's a worthwhile opportunity to take action on climate change -- just in time for Tu B’Shvat.  As you probably know, planting trees can play a vital role in combating the climate crisis, but the numbers of trees that need to be planted is massive.  And trees need to be nurtured and watered after they’re planted.

Enter Trees for the Future, a Silver-Spring based nonprofit that – realistically -- aims to plant 500 million trees by 2025.  Trees for the Future has developed a Forest Garden approach, working with tens of thousands of family farmers in six African countries. Each Forest Garden involves planting and caring for an average of 4,000 trees per one-hectare farm. The Forest Gardens yield food for the families and regenerate the soil so that it, along with the trees, can sequester carbon.  

Meanwhile, farm families who are among the most vulnerable to climate impacts are being brought out of extreme poverty, and are learning "perma-gardening" techniques that will sustain food security for future generations. 

 

Shirat HaNefesh in the Washington DC area is hoping to mobilize Jewish communities across the country to fund a full project’s worth of 300 Forest Gardens in Senegal in 2020.  The idea is for synagogues to make tree planting in Africa a new priority – just like tree planting in Israel used to be.  In the process, we can connect our communities with the fate of the entire planet, helping African families and villages pull themselves out of hunger and poverty, while they, in turn, contribute to saving the planet.  Each Forest Garden costs $640, for a remarkably cost-effective 16 cents per tree.  Here are some ways to get involved: 

  • Ask participants in a Tu B'Shvat Seder to contribute for a $640 Forest Garden.
  • Funding a Forest Garden makes a beautiful Bar or Bat Mitzvah project or a Living Legacy for congregants' loved ones.  
  • Synagogues can commit to funding a certain number of Forest Gardens over the coming year, with a webpage devoted to their own challenge.  
  • To participate in the immediate Tu B'Shvat effort, please go to:  donate.trees.org/TuBShvatPlanters
  • For more information on the organization's activities, watch the documentary:  https://trees.org/documentary/ or browse the website:  trees.org

Many thanks for being part of a Jewish response to the climate crisis. 

East Bay, Feb 3-10: Sacred Trees, Starhawk, Rabbis Waskow & Berman

 Earthy Events in the East Bay, February 3-10

https://www.facebook.com/pg/jewitchcollective/events/

 Monday Feb 3, 7pm @ Urban Adamah

Nature Tales of Joy and Wonder: Hebraic & Pre-Hebraic Stories of Earth, Sky & Ocean 
Rabbis Phyllis Berman & Arthur Waskow, and Starhawk

1151 6th St, Berkeley
Enjoy ancient and modern tales of earth, sky, and ocean with these master storytellers.
Tickets & Info – 

https://urban-adamah.secure.force.com/WebEvent?eid=nature-tales-of-joy-and-wonder-202023

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https://www.facebook.com/events/2678408058919638/


Israel / Palestine: Creating an Ethical Jewish Response
Rabbi Dev Noily facilitating,  Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Starhawk
Tuesday, Feb 4, 7pm @ Kehilla Community Synagogue
1300 Grand Ave, Piedmont
As Jews and allies, what does it mean to love Israel and hold it accountable for its actions? Join this community conversation, facilitated by Rabbi Dev Noily.
Tickets & Info - Share on FB

https://kehillacs.wufoo.com/forms/q10opzon0llh4vy/

Earth and Spirit: A Multi-Faith Response to Climate Crisis
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll (Green the Church), & Starhawk


Wednesday, Feb 5, 6:30pm-9:30pm @ St. John's Presbyterian Church
2727 College Ave, Berkeley
Join three powerful change-makers working at the intersection of climate activism and spirituality for an inspiring evening of song, ceremony, preaching, prayer, and community.
Tickets & Info - Share on FB

JeWitch Camp: Jews, Pagans & Those Who Love Them
Heaven Walker, Rabbis Phyllis Berman & Arthur Waskow and Starhawk

Friday-Sunday, Feb 7-9 @ Humanist Hall, Oakland


A rare opportunity to spend three days with these prophetic teacher-activists in JeWitchy community. A non-residential retreat/Shabbaton celebrating the Jewish New Year for Trees, including rituals, workshops, storytelling, song and delicious mealtime conversations. Includes a field trip to Wilderness Torah's Tu B'Shvat in the Forest, where we and our teachers will share camp's magic with the wider Jewish community.
Registration & Info - Share on FB
See www.jewitchcamp.org for full teacher bios and additional info

Uprooting Antisemitism, Planting Resilience: A Tu B'Shvat Workshop
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rabbi Phyllis Berman and Friends
Monday, Feb 10, 2pm in Oakland - Address available upon registration
Commemorate the Jewish New Year for trees at the site of an Oakland tree that has been defaced with a swastika. We'll cultivate community, create amulets for protection, as well as develop and use ritual for transformation. When we're done, the swastika will be obscured by a community created symbol of our strength, love, and resilience.
Info & Registration-

https://www.facebook.com/events/527745474754391/

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