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Giving Thanks, Arlo Guthrie, & My 1st Yarmulke

A Ritual of Joyful, Thankful  Resistance

Dear friends, Just five minutes before noon today, I will take part in a wonderful ritual. One of the members of a men’s group that began 30 years ago – - Jeffrey Dekro, founder of the Isaiah Fund – will call me and the other men's group members to remind us to turn on our radios. He has been doing this, year after year on Thanksgiving Day, for almost all those thirty years.

And every year, for about a decade, I have been writing you to retell this story. So welcome once again to our Thanksgiving ritual.

Why?

 Every year at noon on Thanksgiving, WXPN Radio in Philadelphia (and many other radio stations around the country) play Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” about a Thanksgiving dinner in Stockbridge Mass. in 1967; about obtuse cops; and about nonviolent resistance to a brutal war.

 And every year, this seemingly non-Jewish set of rituals stirs in me the memory of a moment long ago when my first puzzled, uncertain explorations of the “Jewish thing” inside me took on new power for me. The moment when I came to understand the power of a yarmulke.

By now it is a tradition for me to retell the Yarmulke story every Thanksgiving. It carries deeper meaning this year, as we build a new Resistance, than it has for decades.

In 1970, I was asked by the Chicago Eight to testify in their defense. They were leaders of the movement to oppose the Vietnam War, and they had been charged by the Nixon Administration and Attorney-General John Mitchell (who turned out to be a criminal himself – see under “Watergate”) with conspiracy to organize riot and destruction during the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968. 

 I had been an alternate delegate from the District of Columbia to the Convention – elected originally as part of an anti-war, anti-racist slate to support Robert Kennedy. After he was murdered, we decided to nominate and support as our “favorite son” the chairperson of our delegation – Rev. Channing Phillips (may the memory of this just and decent leader be a blessing), a Black minister in the Martin Luther King mold.

 Our delegation made him the first Black person ever nominated for President at a major-party convention. The following spring, on the first anniversary of Dr. King’s murder, on the third night of Passover in 1969, his church hosted the first-ever Freedom Seder. (Its 50thanniversary came this past spring. We held it in a mostly African-American mosque -- probably a first in history! -- and among a dozen transformative speakers was the Reverend William Barber. Now we are at work on a book of many essays by many remarkable authors entitled How to Liberate your Passover Seder: A Handbook. 

 AND – back to 1968 -- besides being an elected delegate, I had also spoken the first two nights of the Convention to the anti-war demonstrators at Grant Park, at their invitation, while the crowd was being menaced by Chicago police and the National Guard. This is what the demonstration looked like, clustered nonviolently in the park: 

Across the street were the police and the National Guard, poised to attack. Scary to watch them.   

 On "Bloody Wednesday," the third night of the Convention, the police – not the demonstrators – finally did explode in vicious violence.

 

Although the main official investigation of Chicago described it as a “police riot,” the Nixon Administration decided to indict the anti-war leaders. So during the Conspiracy Trial in 1970, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Abby Hoffman, and the other defendants figured I would be reasonably respectable (as a former delegate) and therefore relatively convincing to the jury and the national public, in testifying that the anti-war folks were not trying to organize violence but instead were the victims of police violence.

 As the trial went forward, it became clear that the judge – Julius Hoffman, a Jew – was utterly subservient to the prosecution and wildly hostile to the defense. (Some of us thought he had become possessed by the dybbuk of Torquemada, head of the Inquisition. --- How else could a Jew behave that way? We tried to exorcise his dybbuk. It didn’t work.)

 Judge Hoffman browbeat witnesses, ultimately literally gagging and binding Bobby Seale, the only Black defendant, for challenging his rulings – etc. Dozens of his rulings against the Eight were later cited by the Court of Appeals as major legal errors, requiring reversal of all the convictions the prosecution had achieved in his court.

 So when I arrived at the Federal court-house in Chicago, I was very nervous. About the judge, much more than the prosecution or my own testimony.

 The witness who was scheduled to testify right before me was Arlo Guthrie. 

 In Grant Park, among the antiwar demonstrators pictured above, Arlo had sung “Alice’s Restaurant,” a joy-filled, funny song about resistance to the Vietnam War and to the draft, and about the perverted priorities of "justice" in America. In 1968 the song was only a few a few years old, but millions knew it. 

 Why did the defense want to call Arlo as a witness? To show the jury that there was no incitement to violence in it.

o William Kunstler, z’l, the lawyer for the defense, asked Guthrie to sing “Alice’s Restaurant” so that the jury could get a direct sense of the event.

 But Judge Hoffman stopped him: “You can’t sing in my courtroom!”

 “But,” said Kunstler, “it’s evidence of the intent of the organizers and the crowd!”

 For minutes they snarled at each other. Finally, Judge Hoffman: “He can SAY what he told them, but NO SINGING.”

 And then – Guthrie couldn’t do it. The song, which lasts 18 minutes, he knew by utter heart, having sung it probably more than a thousand times – but to say it without singing, he couldn’t. His memory was keyed to the melody. And maybe Judge Hoffman’s rage helped dis-assemble him

 So he came back to the witness room, crushed.

And I’m up next. I start trembling, trying to figure out how I can avoid falling apart

I decide that if I wear a yarmulke, that will strengthen me to connect with a power Higher/ Other than the United States and Judge Hoffman. (Up to that moment, I had never worn a yarmulke in a non-officially “religious” situation. I had written the Freedom Seder in 1969, but in 1970 I was still wrestling with the question of what this weird and powerful “Jewish thing” meant in my life.)

So I tell Kunstler I want to wear a yarmulke, and he says – “No problem.” Somewhere I find a simple black unobtrusive skull-cap, and when I go to be sworn in, I put it on.

For the oath (which I did as an affirmation, as indicated by much of Jewish tradition), no problem.

Then Kunstler asks me the first question for the defense, and the Judge interrupts. “Take off your hat, sir,” he says.

Kunstler erupts. – “This man is an Orthodox Jew, and you want – etc etc etc.” I am moaning to myself, “Please, Bill, one thing I know I’m not is an Orthodox Jew.” But how can I undermine the defense attorney? So I keep my mouth shut.

Judge Hoffman also erupts: “That hat shows disrespect for the United States and this Honorable Court!” he shouts.

“Yeah,” I think to myself, “that’s sort-of true. Disrespect for him, absolutely. For the United States, not disrespect exactly, but much more respect for Something Else. That’s the point!”

 They keep yelling, and I start watching the prosecutor – and I realize that he is watching the jury. There is one Jewish juror. What is this juror thinking?

Finally, the prosecutor addresses the judge: “Your Honor, the United States certainly understands and agrees with your concern, but we also feel that in the interests of justice, it might be best simply for the trial to go forward."

 And the judge took orders!! He shut up, and the rest of my testimony was quiet and orderly

It took me another year or so to start wearing some sort of hat all the time –- a Tevye cap or a beret or an amazing tall Tibetan hat with earflaps and wool trimming, or a multicolored Jamaican cap with a zippered pocket (probably originally for dope; I used it to play Yankee Doodle with my grandchildren: "Stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni!"). Or a rainbowy yarmulke, like this:

 And whatever its shape or color, the hat continues to mean to me that there is a Higher, Deeper Truth in the world than any judge, any boss, any Attorney-General, any President, or any Pharaoh.

 It’s my – our – “Alice’s Restaurant.” Or maybe “Alice’s Restaurant” is Arlo’s yarmulke. And not only Arlo’s, but the yarmulke for all of us.

Let us face the truth – This Thamksgiving, we have In theWhite House itself a rhetoric and policy rooted in white nationalism. It has poured a fire of hate across America. Latinx, Blacks, women, Muslims, Jews, GLBTQ people, refugees, news reporters, even the Earth itself, have felt the fires.  In California, the fires have been physical, and murderous. Elsewhere, the fires have been words that beckoned murder – as in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. 

 That combination -- racist hate in major speeches, incitements to street violence -- has a well-known pedigree. When a society has lost its way, when its accustomed imperial army is failing and yet is eating up the country's own substance like a cancer, when a rising proportion of its people feel left out economically and culturally, and when demogogues define as traitorous enemies "the wetbacks," "the slant-eyes," "the kikes," "the niggers," "the ragheads," “the nasty, uppity women,” “the fake-news press,” the “lying scientists,” the "human scum" of Congressional leaders -- we are in the presence of a neo-fascist movement.  

 It will take concerted resistance and the sprouting of a new America of joyful solidarity to meet this challenge

 Resistance to what? Carbon Pharaohs. Billionaire election-buyers. Racist politicians. Hate-mongers in the White House, sending the Army to fire on bedraggled refugee families.

 And what is a New America? From the bottom up: 

 Neighborhood solar-energy coops. Public gatherings of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists -- Black, Hispanic, Native, Asian, Euro -- to pray, sing, meditate, and vigil together. Sanctuaries for refugees. Schools, colleges, and universities that celebrate Black songs, Black poetry, Black wisdom, Black visionaries. Release from prison of nonviolent drug offenders, and active groups working for the full rehabilitation of "returned citizens." The Dreamers. Hundreds of Jews going to jail explicitly on a Jewish holy fast day, Tisha B'Av, to defend refugees and immigrants from White house cruelty.  Sanctuary cities. Indigenous communities defending ther sacred lands and teaching the rest of us about nurturing the sacred Earth -- and at last, being listened to, after centuries of being ignored. High-school kids defiantly sitting-in at the office of the Speaker, demanding an Earth that will not kill them. Cities and states that enforce a $15 minimum wage, with automatic cost-of-living increases. #MeToo as women take on an ingrained rape culture that has its hero in the White House, and as hundreds of women run for public office for the first time – and win. “Fusion politics” and a national campaign for moral renewal by the Poor People’s Campaign. Boycotts of global corporations that escape US taxes by pretending to "move" overseas. Demands for Medicare for All. Massive civil disobedience in the very halls of Congress to demand public financing of election campaigns.

At the "top" of the pyramids of power, it is the worst of times. At the grass-roots "bottom," it is the best of times. 

 So the Arlo Guthrie story speaks today in a stronger voice than it has for decades.

 So I invite you to celebrate Thanksgiving (or if you are too busy today, tomorrow -- on the “second day of the Festival”) by thanking the Spirit that calls us to resist those who wound our world and to celebrate those who work to heal it; by lifting your own spirit and encouraging your own commitment to freedom, peace, laughter, and nonviolence. 

For Arlo’s recording of “Alice’s Restaurant” for our own generation with an audience joining in, click to 

https://music.youtube.com/watch?v=B_tMzSxvoeA&list=RDAMVMB_tMzSxvoeA

 And if you take joy and sustenance in the work The Shalom Center does –- including this way of celebrating ritual as joyful social action and turning social action into joyful ritual –- then please make a (tax-deductible) donation by clicking on the maroon “Contribute” banner just below.

Thanks!  And blessings of a joyful Giving Thanks not only today, but as we keep moving, building a multifaceted movement to create a new and deeper, fuller, democratic America. ---   Arthur

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Hanukkah & Climate, Day 1: Torah Study on Energy & Earth

#Hanukkah8Days4Climate -- Day 1, Torah Study

A Prefatory Note by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 

director of The Shalom Center and 

Member, Visioning Team, Earth-Based Judaism track 

Of the ALEPH Ordination Program

Followed by a Torah Resource Page woven by 

Rabbinical Student (RRC) Faryn Borella,

The Ira Silverman Memorial Intern of The Shalom Center 

[In the Shalom Report we have suggested a Hanukkah Trajectory related to the climate crisis for the eight days of the festival. We suggest beginning on the first night (Sunday evening, December 22) with communal gatherings to light the first candle, share Hanukkah foods, and share participatory study of Torah passages that bear on the meanings of Hanukkah – especially its connection with Earth and with conservation of energy.

[Our bare-bones chart suggesting observances connected with the rhythms of the Moon for Days 2 through 8 appears in an article on the Home Page of our website at https://theshalomcenter.org/hanukkah8days4climate   In the next few weeks we will be sending Shalom Reports with more detailed suggestions for Days 2 through 8. --  AW] 

We begin below with a prefatory note that briefly outlines the history and relationship of some major Hanukkah-related texts, followed by the texts themselves.

We begin with the Talmud, which tells us that Hanukkah is a holiday created to commemorate the miracle of conservation of energy when one day’s oil to relight the sacred light-bearing Menorah, necessary in order to rededicate the Temple after its time under occupation by the imperial army of Hellenistic Syria, was enough to keep the Menorah lit for eight days.

In historical factuality, the Book of Maccabees (which was written much closer to the events) says the reason was to celebrate the eight days of Sukkot, which they had not been able to celebrate while the Hellenistic army had control of the Temple.  In all anthropological likelihood, the eight-day celebration of light when the Moon and Sun are darkest goes back even further into the religious history of communities in the eastern Mediterranean. 

Many modern scholars believe that the ancient Rabbis deliberately directed future attention away from the Maccabees because they did not want to encourage violent uprisings against imperial powers. For in their consciousness, the Maccabee-like revolt of Bar Kochba in 135 CE ended in utter disaster for the Jewish people, as Rome smashed the Jewish population of the Land of Israel. 

The ancient Rabbis decided to use words from the Prophet Zechariah as the Haftarah (prophetic passage) to be read in synagogues on the Shabbat during Hanukkah. Like the legend of the eight-day bottle of one-day oil, it directed attention away from the Maccabeean guerrilla-band revolt, cresting with “Not by might and not by power…”

So after the Hanukkah-defining passage from the Talmud, we focus on Zechariah’s prophetic vision. He wrote or proclaimed it after the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonian Empire, and is envisioning a new Temple with some important differences from the one that had been destroyed  -- especially a radical vision of olive trees next to the Menorah.

Zechariah’s focus on the Temple Menorah reinforces the Rabbis’ focus on its connection with the reason for Hanukkah. We include Rashi’s interpretation of the strangest part of Zechariah’s ecstatic vision.  Then – to deepen our understanding of the Menorah that has become so central -- we go back to the Torah’s earliest definition of the Menorah in the portable Shrine in the Wilderness, and therefore ultimately in the Temple in Jerusalem.

A special note on translating “YHWH.”  Like the great Bible translator Everett Fox, rather than substituting the false translation as “LORD” I transliterate the Name.  I also “translate” it as “Breath of Life, Interbreathing Spirit of the world” because I think “pronouncing” it with no vowels brings forth the sound of a breath  -- ruach. And I think in our era that is a far better, more truthful metaphor for God than “King, Lord.” It betokens an ecological rather than hierarchical understanding of the world.

*** *** 

Resources for Torah Study, 

1st night or day of Hanukkah

Woven by Faryn Borella

Shabbat 21b, Talmud Bavli

מאי חנוכה דתנו רבנן בכה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה

The Gemara asks: What is Hanukkah, and why are lights kindled on Hanukkah? The Gemara answers: The Sages taught in Megillat Taanit: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks  [Syrian Hellenistic imperial army] entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one jar of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the Light-bearing Menorah for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the Light-bearing Menorah from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.

#Hanukkah8Days4Climate

[Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbinical Student Faryn Borella are working together on the year-long Shalom Center program of #Holy Days4Climate. Faryn is the Ira Silverman Memorial Intern for The Shalom Center. For the next several weeks, as we approach the darkest days of the ear,  we will focus on #Hanukkah8Days4Climate  -- the Festival of Lights.]

We hope to inspire Jewish activism on the climate crisis in tune with the festival cycle. The next Festival is #Hanukkah8Days4Climate, which begins with the first candle Sunday evening December 22 and runs through the evening of Monday Dec 30. (The eighth candle is Sunday evening.) 

We light those eight candles to honor the ancient legend that enough Oil for one day’s sacred use to heal the desecrated Temple lasted for eight days. “A Miracle!” says the story in the Talmud:  “God conserved energy to meet the sacred needs of God’s people to heal God’s Temple.”

Learning from this legend, how do we meet our sacred need to heal our desecrated Temple Earth?  By conserving sacred energy in our own way. By lighting and warming our own lives with wind and sunlight.

 How do we draw on the symbols and practices of Hanukkah to do that?

 We suggest drawing on the Eight Days of Hanukkah like this:

Is Burning the World Impeachable?

 Part 2 of "IMPEACHMENT: Constitutional, Moral, or Spiritual?"

[See Part 1 on the right-hand column of this Home Page. --  AW, editor]

For the human species and a million others now imperiled, our present crisis is meta-Constitutional. The present President has taken many actions to subsidize and support the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs that are burning the Earth -- what Pope Francis called our common home. But those actions do not violate any explicit provision of the US Constitution.

But in any sane world, risking the extinction of the human race would be the Highest conceivable of High Crimes and Misdemeanors. Claiming that there is no climate crisis, that it is all a hoax, does not exonerate him – even if he believes It. Claiming that bullets do not kill, that shooting someone dead is not a criminal act because the claim that bullets kill is a hoax, does not exonerate a murderer.

Impeachment: Constitutional, Moral, or Spiritual?

The American people and the human race are facing profound moral and spiritual crises -- so profound that they shake our political systems and take the form of a Constitutional crisis. They force us to face the meaning of government, law, and democracy. In US history, a similar crisis led to the most important and consequential effort to impeach and remove a President of the United States –- an effort that failed. Today a profound moral and spiritual crisis – in some ways rooted in that historic failure -- has brought us to the same moment.  

In this essay (in two parts) I will sketch the history and ethics that lead me to this belief, and then will end by suggesting the actions that this crisis calls forth.

What we call “politics” and “constitutions” embody the spirituality of a whole society, even the whole human community. Sometimes it is a demonic spirituality, as in Hitler’s Germany. Sometimes it is a sacred spirituality, as in the three Constitutional Amendments after the Civil War that outlawed slavery and attempted to end racial inequality in the US.

IMPEACHMENT IN 1867

Those Amendments tried to create what would have been a Second Constitution of the United States. They emerged from a moral and spiritual effort to end the original sin – notice the “spiritual” word -- of slavery and racism in the original US Constitution and social system, and to bring about real racial equality. For almost a century, they mostly failed. Not till the grass-roots upheaval of the Black-led freedom movement in the 1960s did the courts give some of those amendments reality. 

The first sign of that century of failure came in a failed effort to use the impeachment provisions of the Constitution to remove from office President Andrew Johnson. The House of Representatives in 1867 brought charges of “high crimes and misdemeanors” against him. By a single vote, the Senate failed to remove him.

The House had impeached Johnson for (a) firing an activist Secretary of War, appointed by President Lincoln, who was ready to have the US Army ensure racial equality in the South, and (b) claiming

SUKKOT: From Earliest Humankind to Our Planetary Crisis

[Rabbi Arthur Green, the authorof the following essay, is founder and rector of the Rabbinical School of Boston Hebrew College. He is a profound scholar of classical Hassidism, having written biographies and masterful translations of several Hassidic rebbes. He was one of the founders of the havurah movement, and is a proponent of neo-Hassidism, drawing on classical Hassidism and reframing its wisdom for a world very different from that of its birth. His newest book is a two-volume examination of A New Hassidism. Even more recently, he has taken steps into the transcendent public issue of the climate crisis, showing how his concerns are rooted in Jewish tradition. 

[When The Shalom Center began urging that we make #Sukkot4Climate Healing into an activist campaign, Rabbi Green sent us this essay. It deeply explores the spiritual meanings of Sukkot, and then joins in urging its wisdom be turned to healing our deeply wounded planet.  Do not miss the sting in the tail of this seemngly gentle exploration! 

[On the day of the Climate Strike, he, my life-partner Rabbi Phyllis Berman, and I all found ourselves in St. Louis to teach at two different synagogues. We spoke together, each of us from a different perspective, on the future of Judaism as we face one of the greatest crises in planetary history, and then we all joined in the Climate Strike demonstration. 

[For further information on #Sukkot4Climate Healing -- see the Home Page of this website -- AW, editor]

 By Rabbi Arthur Green

The two great pilgrimage festivals of the Hebrew Bible, Pesah andSukkot, begin on the days of the spring and fall full moon. Biblical scholars have long understood the origins of these festivals in ancient seasonal rites, tied to the agricultural cycle of spring planting and fall harvest. As presented in the Torah, they are at midpoint in the course of transformation from agricultural season festivals into celebrations of the national saga of redemption, the rituals of a sacred people tied to its collective history, rather than to the land itself.

Pesah, combined with the festival of Matzot, has completed that transition as presented in the text; the old festival of slaughtering spring lambs is completely subsumed within the Exodus narrative. Sukkot is just beginning that transition, as presented in the Torah. Amid much talk of the harvest, a single verse says “for I caused your ancestors to dwell in booths as I took them forth from the land of Egypt (Lev. 23:43).”

I have long had a suspicion – for which I can marshal no evidence – that there may be a still more ancient layer of memory behind these agricultural festivals. The transition from the hunter/gatherer period of human history, continuing into the wandering herdsman’s way of life, to that of agriculture and settlement, marked one of the first great changes in human history. Because it took place before written documents, and maybe even before the full development of language itself, we have no clear record of it. But it is reflected in the tale of Cain and Abel, as well as in earlier Near Eastern parallel texts. (The theme of herdsman - or “rancher” - versus farmer is familiar to all of us who grew up watching Western movies.)

 I suspect that the trauma of this change brought about a nostalgia for prior times that somehow needed to be ritually commemorated. Thus were created two great ritual occasions. Beginning on the spring full moon, for a week one ate only the food that was consumed before there were ovens, before humans had learned how to bake bread, a defining feature of settled existence in the West. Matsah, laid out in the sun to bake as best it could, took the place of risen bread. On the fall full moon, one went out and dwelt in huts for a week, just as we had “in the olden days,” when we still wandered with the flocks. The sukkah, or “temporary” home, a kind of bedouin tent, took the place of the real and solidly built farmhouse.

Sukkot is surely a festival that puts us in touch with some of the most ancient of human memories. The hosha‘not or “Save us!” processions around the synagogue, carrying the fruits of the trees, culminating in the “stripping of the willows” rite on the seventh day, Hosh‘ana Rabbah, a day of awesome judgment evoking echoes of Yom Kippur, places us back in the vulnerable mindset of early farmers in an arid climate, living on the edge of a desert, calling out for rain. Our waving of the lulav or palm-branch in all directions on each day of the festival is also surely a vestigial form of rain-dance, urging the blessed water-filled clouds to appear from one direction or another.

Just as Yom Kippur is simply called yoma, “the Day” in Talmudic sources, Sukkot is named ḥagga, or “the festival.” But the root of that word (the same as ḥaj, in Arabic, by the way) really means “circle.” In Temple times, Sukkot was the great annual pilgrimage festival, the time when Jews from throughout the land, and even from abroad, would gather in Jerusalem. The main feature of that celebration were circumambulations around the altar, still copied in the synagogue in the ritual of hosha’not. The palm, willow, and myrtle branches we carry, along with the bright yellow etrog, also carry an awful lot of history within them.

 

All of these things have, of course, long been spiritualized, transformed into rites in which we seek both collective and personal meaning. The early rabbis saw the four species as representing four types of Jews or four vital organs that constituted the moral self. The Hasidic masters speak beautifully of waving the branches in each direction, then coming back to the heart, as an exchange of blessing between the inner self and all the farthest corners of one’s daily life. In their spirit, we too, seeking out a more universalist Jewish spirituality, see the innermost self reaching forth in all directions, extending our love and concern to the four corners of the earth, reaching also up toward the sky and down into the soil, but then bringing that love and concern back into our hearts.

Judaism thrives on its unique way of preserving ancient religious forms and remaining open to their constant re-interpretation. But in this case, I also find something attractive about pausing in our rush to reinterpret, just to enjoy living in the presence of these most ancient of ancestral memories. This historical perspective on our sacred calendar does not diminish the power of the festivals for me, as it does for some refugees from a fundamentalist Judaism (“If God didn’t really command that we do these things, why do we have to do them?”). On the contrary, it deepens and enriches their power, and makes me more want to immerse myself into their full praxis.

This is what I mean by a post-critical or post-modern return to Judaism. The historical dimensions of Jewish religious life, including our many borrowings from various cultural settings amid which we have lived, make the ritual forms all the more interesting and attractive. Certainly, my kavvanah or inner intent in doing them will focus on the spiritual, but the historical and anthropological “baggage” that comes along with that becomes part of the inspiration. The fact that my Sukkot celebrations draw me nearer to the Plains Indian, dressed up for his Rain Dance, or the Masai shepherd in Kenya who is still undergoing the transition from nomadic to settled existence, enhances my sense of partaking in our Jewish version of the great human drama called religion.

There is certainly a profound demonstration of human frailty and vulnerability in the command to “go forth from one’s permanent home to this temporary dwelling.” Although the authorities were lenient in allowing one to leave the sukkah if being there causes suffering, the very fact that you have to leave your true “home” and seeker shelter elsewhere is itself a significant statement. With all the great systems of protection we have – be they residential, medical, economic, or whatever – the truth is that we are utterly frail, vulnerable human creatures. We do not know whether a sudden fall, a heart attack, or an aneurism might cause us to disappear from this world tomorrow. The hastily thrown together shelter in which we are told to dwell for this week serves as a reminder that our vast network of creature comforts and security devices creates nothing more than an illusory bulwark against mortality.

Sukkot comes at the moment of seasonal transition. In the Land of Israel, the endlessly sunny summer is over, and the much-needed rains are about to begin. At the conclusion of Sukkot, we will pray for rain, and will begin to ask for it daily in our winter ‘amidah. But in our four-season climate, too, this is the week when we end our summer of outdoor living, knowing that we will need shelter from the rain, snow, and frost to come. That we first enter into this frailest of all structures is a way of recognizing the frailty of all our efforts to protect ourselves. It is only by entering the true inner sukkah that the Kabbalists call “the shade of faith” that we will really find ourselves protected.

It is almost ironic that this demonstration of vulnerability is given to us in the context of the single festival that is liturgically designated as zeman simḥatenu – “the season of our rejoicing.” The joy is in celebration of the fact that we are still here, even in the face of all that vulnerability. The psalms of Hallel, chanted throughout the festive week, are very much in that spirit. They are not proclamations of simple joy, but of the special gratitude for having been saved from the seemingly arbitrary clutches of death. “I shall not die, but live, and recount the deeds of God.” ”For you have saved my soul from death, my foot from stumble, my eye from tears, my foot from stumble.” “The dead praise not Y-H-W-H, nor those who go down into silence. But we” – the living – “shall praise YaH from now and forever!”

There is a sense here of proclaiming immortality, not by defeating the inevitable, but by a sense of continued existence in the ongoing community of the faithful, who will forever continue forward in their songs of praise. That defeat of death represents a special quality of joy.

This sort of celebration is, of course, entirely appropriate to the season. The harvest is in; the fields are empty. Soon they are to be devastated by winds and rain – in our case, covered with snow. Some of us, as individuals, will also be harvested or culled from the flock in the course of this harsh season, and will no longer be here when the spring comes. But there will be a spring, and there will be a community singing Hallel once again. The passing of the fall full moon means that the spring full moon is now less than half a year away.

As we engage in this demonstration of vulnerability, it is not surprising that our remotest ancestors, desert wanderers that they were, show up for a visit. The original ushpizin, spiritual “guests” we welcome into the sukkah, are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. Greeting those ghostly guests (and hopefully their female counterparts), along with all the real flesh-and-blood guests who show up with them, is an essential part of this celebration, where bounty and vulnerability are tied together. Harvest time – there is suddenly more than we could possibly eat (think of the price of zucchini in September!), and it won’t keep very well. So let’s invite our poorer neighbors in. They have been having a hard year, but we know full well that it could be we who will be struggling next year.

There is a sense here that we are all bound together – all of us in our farming community, studded with these little huts – but also all of Israel, all of humanity, all of nature - face the same threat of mortality, and are thus called upon to share. The patriarchs – and now the matriarchs - and other heroines of Jewish history who have decided to join them in these visits – are here to remind us of all that.

As the produce is gathered in from the fields, so are we gathered, and sometimes crowded, into our tightly-packed sukkah. We can only make room for yet another guest by loving each other a little more, as a Hasidic saying would have it. That too is why the sukkah is called by the Zohar tsila di-mehemenuta, “the shade of faith.” It is our faith – in Y-H-W-H and in the human community with whom we share so much  – that shades and protects us from the hot sun beating down on us, here perhaps a stand-in for the pressure of mortality. We will wither under it, if we stand out there alone. Here, being together under these frail branches, we find a bit of shade. Dwelling in the sukkah, together with guests both real and imagined, is a statement of our collective survival in the shade we share.

That consolation, however, is not enough to shield us any more. Sukkot, with its combined celebration of the harvest’s plenty and awareness of life’s frailty, is a festival that calls out to be transformed once again.

As we made the move from the fall full moon festival to the memory of our ancestors’ wanderings, then on to commemorating the Temple rites long after they were gone, the inner voice demands yet another step in this celebration’s long history.

Sukkot is a time to acknowledge that today our planet, including all its future harvests and all our ensuing generations, is under dire threat, much of it caused by the intentional and irresponsible blindness of the society in which we live, especially by our so-called “leaders.” As lovers of God’s created world, we cannot be guilty bystanders to its rampant destruction by forces of human greed.

 In times like these, our gathering around the sukkah table should contain an element of strategic planning alongside the celebration. What can we do, in this longer winter season ahead, to thwart the plans of those who consistently put short-term profiteering above protection of our shared natural legacy? What can we do this year to bring their wicked plans to naught?

Think of Rabbi Akiva and his friends sitting all night at the seder table on Pesah. Were they indeed, as some have claimed, planning the Bar Kokhba rebellion against the Roman Empire? How can we, following God’s call to our generation, become sukkah revolutionaries?

Action Guide for #Sukkot4ClimateHealing : Part 2, Ritual Resources

[At https://theshalomcenter.org/content/inviting-you-join-sukkot4climatehealing is the basic unfolding of our spiritually rooted strategy for engaging a wide variety of religious and spiritual communities in healing Earth and Humankind from climate disaster. This report follows the Guide to Sukkot Action, Part 1,  accessible at https://theshalomcenter.org/action-guide-sukkot4climatehealing-part-1. That report lays out the step-by-step process of organizing a Sukkot action to heal Earth.

[This Guide to an activist celebration of #Sukkot4Climate Healing was written by Faryn Borella. She is a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Ira Silverman Memorial Intern at The Shalom Center. The Guide is intendedd to support groups of Jews and memberss of other religious, spirituaal, and ethical groups who joiin in celebrating Sukkot, the Jewish Harvest Festival tht traditionally welcomes participation by all communities that seek to honor, protect, and justly share Earth's abundance. In our generation, this includes insisisting on public policies to heal Earth and Humanity from the climate crisis. AW, editor]

Ritual Resources:

For a classic book on the history, spiritual meaning, and practices of the flow of the Jewish festivals, see Arthur Waskow’s  Seasons of Our Joy. The third edition, published by the Jewish Publication Society, is available from the publisher at  https://jps.org/books/seasons-of-our-joy/

 

 

General Sukkot Ritual Practices:

 

Below is a list of rituals traditionally practiced on Sukkot.Any one of these rituals could be used as part of your action. Here, they are summarized. Below, find amended versions of the rituals that tailor them toward the goal of Climate Healing.

  • Building and dwelling in the Sukkah
  • Ushpizin: A ritual to welcome our “sacred guests” into the sukkah with us. We perform a short ceremony to welcome the ushpizin (Aramaic for “guests”). The full text of the ritual invites them to join us, including prayers that our fulfillment of the mitzvah of sukkah will be worthy of Divine favor. Then, on the first day we say, “I invite to my meal the exalted guests, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. May it please you, Abraham, my exalted guest, that all the other exalted guests dwell with me and with you – Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.”

In many communities, women ushpizot have been added. One approach to naming them is based upon the seven women prophets named in the Talmud: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther. Other lists connect with the deep understandings of the spiritual aspects of various biblical women, especially the Four Foremothers, Miriam, Hannah, and Esther..

And in some communities, heroic men and women of later eras and other-than-Jewish communities are welcomed as sacred guests: for example, Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer; John Muir and Rachel Carson.

  • On each day, a different one or two of the seven or fourteen is singled out, in order. [Check Ritualwell or Open Siddur for roster of uspizot] For more information, see here
  • Hallel: chanting Psalms 113-118, songs of joy and thanksgiving. The full text can be found here:

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ushpizin-welcoming-guests/.

  • Benching Lulav and Etrog: Waving the lulav and etrog, in the seven directions ---  six outward – Left, Right, Front, Back, Up, Down – each time bringing the lulav inward to touch your heart --  the seventh direction,accompanied by blessings.
    • Take up the lulav and etrog.
    • Say: May my thoughts be holy, in token of the abundance of blessing that is mine from heaven and earth. With these fourspecies, I reach out to the Interbreathing Spirit of all Life, whose Presence is with us in all directions and all ways.
    • Wave the species in the seven directions and recite the blessing (below listed first in the masculine, then in the feminine.
    • בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יָהּ אֱלֹהֵינוּ רוּחַ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת לוּלָב   
    • Barukh Atah Yah, Eloheynu ruakh haolam, asher kidshanu b'mitzvot v'tzivanu al netilat lulav.
    • בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ יָהּ אֱלֹהֵינוּ רוּחַ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְשַׁתְנוּ בְּמַצּוֹתֶיהָ וְצִוַתְנוּ עַל נְטִילַת לוּלָב
    • Brukhah At Yah Eloheynu ruakh haolam asher kid'shatnu b'mitzvot v'tzivatnu al n'tilat lulav.   
    • Blessed are you, Yah, Breath of Life, who makes us holy us with Your commandments [or “connections”] and has enjoined upon us the mitzvah of the lulav.   
    •   בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יָהּ אֱלֹהֵינוּ רוּחַ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמָן הַזֶּה
    • Barukh Atah Yah, Eloheynu ruakh haolam, sheheheyanu v'kiy'manu v'higiyanu lazman hazeh.       
    • בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ יָהּ אֱלֹהֵינוּ רוּחַ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָתְנוּ וְקִיְּמָתְנוּ וְהִגִּיעָתְנוּ לַזְּמָן הַזֶּה   
    • Brukhah At Yah Eloheynu ruah haolam sheheheyatnu v'kiy'matnu v'higiatnu lazman hazeh.   
    • Blessed are you, Yah, Breath of Life, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment.
  • Torah: On the first day of Sukkot, the Torah portion Emor (Leviticus 23:33-44) is read, which includes the instructions to dwell in booths. The Haftarah, the special selection from the prophetic books that accompanies Torah readings on Shabbat and holidays, is from Zechariah 14:7-9, 16-21. The Torah is read on every day of the festival, including the Shabbat that falls during Sukkot. On this Shabbat, the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is read.
  • Hoshanot: prayers recited each day of Sukkot, asking the divine for salvation. For more information, see here
  • Hoshanah Rabbah: The seventh and final day of the intermediary days of Sukkot, prior to Shemini Atzeret, on which it is said the judgement of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur draws to a close and the world is judged for how much rain it will receive. Seven Hoshanot are recited as we circle the bimah seven times. For more information, see here.
  • Simchat Beit Hasho’evah: An ancient ritual of water-pouring, recently revived, in which the act of water pouring is used to induce the rains from the heavens. For more information, see here and here.

 

Alternative Sukkot Prayers/Practices for Climate Healing:

 

More information on Climate Catastrophe and Just Response:

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