Beshallach

The Torah of Reparations for Slavery

The Torah of Reparations for Slavery

Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein

[We are in the midst of an extraordinary event in American history: a multiracial nation-wide uprising against deeply dug-in racism. It started with rejection of the use of racist violence by some among police forces. That was a profoundly wise response, since our whole society has assigned the police the American monopoly on the legitimate use of violence inside our country. If they use that license in racist ways, the whole society is responsible to change course.

[This movement has broadened, to look at other aspects of institutionalized  racism that have been the long long shadow of enslavement. One question that has arisen is whether some form of reparations is due from America to the Black community. For Jews, this question has special importance. For we and the Japanese-American community are the only segments of American society that have in fact received reparations --  Jews from Germany, for the almost unfathomable violence against the Jewish people in the Holocaust; and Japanese-Americans from the US government, for their imprisonment in detention camps and loss of property during World War II. So the Jewish community may have some special insight into the ethical issues involved in reparations.

[In addition, our deepest spiritual and religious roots – the biblical story of the Exodus – are intertwined with a story of reparations to the whole people for having been enslaved by Pharaoh, the embodiment of Mitzrayyim – the Hebrew word for Egypt, which means “the tight and narrow place.”  So The Shalom Center will bring our members and readers a series of articles from various standpoints – religious, historical, and personal -- on the question of reparations. The following is the first in a series of such essays. It is a much-abbreviated version of Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein’s extraordinary 2018 article, “The Torah Case for Reparations,”  which you can read in full at this link. The author prepared this shortened version especially for The Shalom Center. --  AW, ed.]

The Torah of Reparations for Slavery

Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein

In the last several years, cultural and political winds have moved the demand for reparations to Black Americans from the fringe into the mainstream of American politics. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s magisterial 2014 article, “The Case for Reparations”, deserves much of the credit for this shift. Slavery and its aftermath sit at the heart of the mythic consciousness of Judaism. Does Judaism have anything to contribute to a national consideration of reparations? I think it does. 

 We Took Reparations

Jews must support reparations in principle, because we took reparations for our slave labor, we were commanded by God to do so, and we were promised these reparations in the earliest Divine plan for our liberation. The Torah emphasizes that on the way out of Egypt, the Israelites emptied their Egyptian neighbors of their wealth (Exodus 12:35-36).

This taking of reparations was not castigated as dishonest plundering or sinful vindictiveness, nor even as an optional bonus, but was a required component of liberation, as God had explicitly commanded the day before (Exodus 11:2). Receiving reparations was a core component of the Exodus. God’s first promise to liberate the Israelite slaves, spoken to Moses at the burning bush, already explicitly included abundant reparations (Exodus 3:21-22). The taking of reparations is at the very heart of the slavery story, even promised to Abram as part and parcel of the Bible’s first premonition of slavery and redemption.

The first time the Torah’s core story — slavery and liberation — is revealed, the entire content of that liberation is the future departure from Egypt with reparations: “Know for sure that your seed shall be an alien in a land not their own, and shall serve them; and they shall abuse them -- four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with significant property” (Genesis 15:13-14). We recite this passage ritually in our Passover seders to this day, annually reviewing that God’s faithfulness is expressed through a promise kept over hundreds of years, and that that promise was reparations for slavery.

Are these Really Reparations?

The Rabbis of the Talmud understood the wealth taken by the Israelites as slavery reparations, as shown in a piquant story in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) which imagines the Egyptians suing the Jews in the court of Alexander the Great to return the wealth they took on the way out of Egypt. A non-rabbi named Geviha ben Pesisa serves as defense attorney for the Jews and countersues: “I, too will bring you evidence only from the Torah, as is said, ‘And the Israelites’ residence, which they resided in Egypt was 430 years’ (Ex. 12:40): Give us payment for the labor of 600,000, whom you enslaved in Egypt for 430 years.”

The Egyptians offer no response and drop their case. Egypt had exploited the Israelites for hundreds of years, stealing their labor. Egypt owed the Israelites generations of reparations, but was not about to pay them willingly or to acknowledge the depth of its wrongdoing. According to the Talmud and even the Torah itself, not only were reparations just, but taking them by any means necessary, even deception, was just and commanded by God and should be intelligible to the international community.

The Rabbis place this (fictional) lawsuit during a Sabbatical year, when Jews are prohibited from farming. Observing the sabbatical year disrupts anyone’s domination over land and people. The land is released to grow wild and debts are relieved. Temporary economic straits, then, cannot plunge a person into structural poverty and servitude.

Just as the Torah contrasts Egyptian slavery with observance of the weekly sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:15), the prophet Jeremiah tells the people that God commanded the Sabbatical year laws “on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Jeremiah 34:13). For the Rabbis, Egyptian spoils

My small personal crisis and the Great American Social Crisis


Dear friends,

This past Wednesday afternoon, I found all my leg muscles very weak and my speech slurred. Seemed like it might be a stroke, so Phyllis with the help of wonderful friends hurried me into an ambulance to a hospital. The hospital found there was nothing at all wrong with my brain, but something was wacky with my liver. During the next 24 hours my liver calmed down. The medical hunch was that there had been a stone interrupting the internal processes of the liver, the stone passed,  the processes worked right, and I felt fine. On Friday afternoon they sent me home.

It was a powerful lesson: In the Hierarchical picture of the world, my Brain is in charge. The liver is deeply subordinate. But that is just not so. In an Ecological picture of the world, the liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, belly – – including even the million microscopic creatures living in my belly that are not even me – – as well as my brain work together to keep me alive and making sense. If I were to act as if my liver were unimportant, a mere appendage, disaster. Domination, subjugation can kill me.

There was another powerful lesson. The official ethic of the hospital was honesty and transparency with patients. But over and over during those 40 hours, particular medical professionals withheld vital information from me. Their refrain: "We didn't want to scare you." My refrain: "I'm a grown-up. I want to know the truth." It was only because I pushed and challenged that I found out what was going on.

"Easier" for them to control the information, even if that meant I didn't get fed dinner and didn't get medicine pills I needed. It was only because I pushed and challenged -- made them uneasy -- that I found out what was going on.

In the great American social crisis we are living through, the official ethic of America is democracy and honesty in government. But the White House has chosen Domination, Subjugation, and a flood of lies to support them as the mode by which to lead America. It has viewed with contempt and oppressive behavior the liver and the kidneys and the lungs of American society. It has done that literally in the face of a virus that is saying, “Pay attention to all the organs!” And so Americans are dying by unnecessary tens of thousands.

More metaphorically, the Black community which has always been treated like an unimportant liver in the American social system has wakened not only itself but many other organs of the system who understand the Ecological rather than the Hierarchical way of keeping America healthy. So there has perhaps for the first time, or perhaps for the first time since the Civil War, been a multiracial uprising against racism.

The White House, in its obsessive commitment to Dominate and Subjugate, is trying to deal with at uprising by making an American police state. That may create chaos, but it will not create health and prosperity.

That obsession with Subjugation is the politics of Pharaoh. It ended up drowning Pharaoh himself in the Sea of Reeds, but it took tens of thousands of Egyptians with him. First in ecological upheavals we call the Plagues, finally in the death of the firstborns.

What can we do? Nonviolent action both inside and outside the system are necessary. The House of Representatives should be refusing to appropriate any money at all for the Department of Homeland Security without a physical withdrawal of all its police forces from American cities, and with legislative provisions to prevent what has happened in Portland and now in Seattle. Senators committed to democracy with a small “d” should be filibustering every so-called “must-pass” bill until no American city is under Pharaoh’s occupation. The ACLU should be going to court everywhere to restore and renew the right to vote freely and to demonstrate freely.

And I do not think that this kind of action will happen, or will matter without nonviolent direct action by the people. I emphasize nonviolent. Even where a particular building is itself a repository of Subjugative violence, it will make more sense in this situation to avoid attacking that building. We should be enforcing a nonviolent discipline in order to gather against Pharaoh’s violence.  Closing the roads around such a building, closing the highways, creating a campaign for “denial of service” to computers in Department of Homeland Security and the White House – – all those will be necessary to protect us in our myriad vital organs of society from Pharaoh and from the Plagues that Pharaoh has brought upon us.

I want to come back to my own personal crisis of life and death. In October I will be 87 years old, and as one of those who is most vulnerable to terrible torment or death by the Coronavirus, I have been extraordinarily careful to protect myself and my immediate family.

In early October, what I think may be the most important work I’ve done since the Freedom Seder in 1969 will be published. It’s a book entitled Dancing in God's Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion. It’s an effort to reimagine Judaism, Christianity, and other religious communities as committed to an Ecological rather than Hierarchical vision of the world. I very much hope to be here, able to speak and to write and to teach what that book is saying.

Yet if between now and January 20, 2021, it is necessary to bring all my organs, all my body, into the struggle to prevent a police state under Pharaoh, then I will.

With blessings for each and all of us – – each human being and all life forms, free and unique organs to give life to the Loving and Beloved Community, the ONE –
 Arthur

Is Coronavirus a Biblical "Plague"?

In the ancient biblical tradition, what is a "plague"? Where does it come from? Is it anything like coronavirus? Is it anything like the wildfires that have so damaged California and Australia? Can these ancient stories teach us anything today?

Some of the great plagues of the Exodus are what we would call diseases, but not all. There is a cattle affliction that sounds something like mad cow disease. There is an affliction of all water in the land of Egypt, not only the Nile but even water in pots and pans. There is the death of all firstborns.

But there are also the invasions of frogs, of locusts, of lice or mosquitoes. These are ordinary animals in extraordinary numbers and places. But so are diseases. The Coronavirus is perfectly normal until it leaps a species. Carbon dioxide is perfectly normal – – even necessary – – until human corporations create so much of it by burning fossil fuels that it becomes extraordinary, planet-destroying. The Exodus move to a freely wandering, struggling, learning, growing journey in a Wilderness, seeking to become a loving and beloved community.

The Exodus is empowered by a series of Ten Plagues. In some understandings, they were brought on by a God Who is a sort of Super-Pharaoh in the sky, proving he is even more powerful and more cruel than the Pharaoh on the Egyptian throne, who claims to be a god. Pharaoh enslaves Israelites; God kills Egyptians.

This understanding that the Exodus is a contest between a king and a Super-King is underlined by the false biblical translation of YHWH as “LORD.” (The rabbinic tradition substituted “Adonai/ Lord” for “YHWH” but the Hebrew Bible does not.) It is more likely that YHWH with no vowels is simply a breath – Yyyyyhhhhhwwwwwhhhh: the Breath of life, sometimes the Wind of change, sometimes the Hurricane of destruction. 

This Ruach (Hebrew for “breath, wind, spirit”) is what intertwines all life. We know now this is literally, physically, scientifically true: the Oxygen-CO2 interbreathing between animals and vegetation keeps all life alive. So YHWH is the bearer of consequence, not punishment or rewards. Try reading the whole Plague narrative substituting “Interbreath of life” instead of “LORD.”  For me and others who have tried this, it changes the whole story. 

From this vantage point, the concentrated power and the arrogance, cruelty, and stubbornness of a Pharaoh whose subjugation of human beings soon became subjugation of Earth. The cruelty that Pharaoh sows, all Egypt reaps.

Those plagues did not come from outside us. They came from our own society, from our own government, from our own way of living. "We" allowed a Pharaoh who turned Egyptian farmers into sharecroppers and an immigrant community into slaves.

And that's the case today. The coronavirus only becomes destructive and deadly because we don't leave space between ourselves and various other species. We don't leave space for bats who fly around perfectly well carrying that virus. We take up all the space there is, and we take up all the air there is with far too much CO2. We allow ourselves to become "sharecroppers" within the system that brings plagues upon us. And we become accustomed to the system of domination, so much that we think it is normal. It is not arrogance, it is not cruelty; it is normal.

Until Earth rebels, and what is normal becomes lethal. Some groups of us suffer more from the "diseases" than others, die more than others. More and more of us even begin to notice that the "overseers" who casually murdered Israelite slaves in the ancient story are not so different from the police today who use their legitimized authority to kill more Blacks. Then more and more of us realize that some of us are sharecroppers and some of us are enslaved.

Yet these plagues have an unexpected effect, in the ancient story and for us today. Though the ancient plagues were the horrifying results of Pharaoh’s cruelty, they became the instruments of liberation.

How could both truths be true? The Exodus story splits the targets of the plagues. For Egyptians, they were utterly destructive. For Israelites, who according to the story were physically and ecologically separated in their own region of Goshen, the plagues were liberating. Zoom becomes our Goshen. And if we stop to think, we know that Zoom is a class and racial privilege. The deeply poor do not get to live in Zoom.

Whether the separation was factually accurate or a part of a larger parable, it was a way of celebrating the emergence of a new kind of community  -- committed to a new birth of freedom yet welcoming, as the story of Pharaoh’s daughter indicates, to “renegade refugees” even from the palace of privilege and power.

We, living in the midst of the Coronavirus Plague and the varied plagues of global scorching, do not have the luxury of regional separation.  Our own “Goshen” is retreat into our own homes, scattered everywhere. Our own new plagues imposed by modern pharaohs are again horrifying and might-be liberating: Undrinkable water.  Intrusive “forever plastics,” even inside human bodies. Droughts. Famines. Floods. Fires. Human beings becoming unable to see each other through the darkness of fear. Ultimately, the dangerously impending death of the next generation of the human species -- our own first- and second- and tenth-borns.

Our new Plagues might be sounding the death-knell of an old world order of Domination and Hierarchy. Or they might by making uprising for freedom so difficult to do in public and by destroying jobs and workplaces, reinforce the power of our pharaohs until all of us are conscripted into the chariot army that drowns in the Sea of misery, despair, and death.

Which future is our future depends on us. Can we suffer from the plagues and yet --  and therefore! -- act on them as birth-cries of a new worldview of ecological interwovenness: seeing our communities of life as conscious interconnected ecosystems of biology, culture, and society--rooted in love and flowering in life-affirming justice? 

In the ancient story, on the very night when they must choose Exodus or Death, the Israelites must encircle the doorways of their houses with blood. To leave the Tight and Narrow Land, they must leave a household rimmed with blood. There is one bloody house that every human being exits: the womb, in every birth.  Here a whole people is reborn.

 And then, those Israelites who made that choice – not every descendant of Abraham and Sarah did, and some Egyptian-born, like Pharaoh’s daughter, joined that choice to be reborn –- met another birth-choice on the seventh day.

On that day they found themselves at the shores of the Sea of Reeds, a roaring, roiling ocean. Behind them they heard the drumming hoof-beats of Pharaoh’s horse-chariot army. It was coming to insist they turn back to familiar life: slavery, yes, and accustomed onions, garlic, chewy meat.

Which should they choose? The unknown? The Sea of drowning? A wilderness beckoning on the other shore -- still more unknown?

They chose another birth – the breaking of the waters.

Today the whole human species is standing between the Unknown Sea and the world of Customary Order – garlic, onions, and slavery.

Time to choose.

"Stunningly beautiful and inspiring" - 7th Night Seder Conversation

Dear friends, Sara Schley writes --

Beloved holy friends,

 Wanted you to know how the experience of 7th night Seder is. Wow. Our entire local community is reveling in it.

 Thank you for that

 I am following your lead to "listen deeply" for the new Reality that is emerging. 

 ###  ###  ###  ###  ###  ### 

Dear friends,  What is the 7th night Seder Conversation? The videotaping of 16 people –- rabbis, teachers, cantors, singers, chanters –- who gathered by Zoom on the 7th Night of Passover to explore the meaning of that night.

 

 What is special about the Seventh Day? According to tradition, that was the day the Children of Israel, fleeing slavery, reached the Red Sea.  Behind them was Pharaoh’s Army, racing to force them to return to their accustomed slavery, with its perks of onions and garlic. Before them was the unknown. The Sea that might be New Birth, if the birthing waters broke. Or the Sea of Drowning, if they didn’t. The Sea of Freedom-Maybe. The Sea of Active Hope. The Sea of sharing life with all life-forms, not imposing slavery and forcing plagues on Earth as well as Humankind.

The entire human race stands now, today, at that moment. Will we go back to “normal” life, a life of plagues and hierarchy, or step into the Sea, reaching toward the Beloved Community?

I invite you to watch that conversation, “stunningly beautiful and inspiring” as Sara Schley describes it. Feel free to share the link with all your friends. Feel free to pause the video to discuss it with your housemates, to call your community and watch it together in your separate places. Click this link!

https://youtu.be/YVZcYEDApVs

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

 

Murderous White Nationalists, Modern Pharaohs, and the Sea of Reeds

As virulent White Nationalism spreads, we must affirm and act on our solidarity and shared sorrow with the dead of “Tree of Life” and its site-sharing synagogues in Pittsburgh, of the Al Noor Mosque and Lynwood Mosque in New Zealand, of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

In Philadelphia, a dozen rabbis and about 20 other Jews  responded by joining the Jumaah (Friday afternoon) prayers at Masjidullah, a leading mosque.  We were warmly welcomed by the Muslim community. On Saturday evening, at LOVE Park near City Hall, about 300 people took part in a gathering initiated by CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic-Relations). Representatives of the city and state governments spoke alongside clergy from several religious traditions. I was able to share the seeing and the meaning of my Tallit (prayer shawl).

 

  

As you see, woven physically as well as symbolically into it are sacred places of Judaism and Islam – the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock – and if you look carefully between them, the Rock itself on which Abraham our Forebear bound Isaac and from which the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him,  leapt into his mystical journey to Heaven.

I arranged to have it woven for me in 1974 after I added “Ishmael” to my Hebrew name (“Avraham Yitzchak Yishmael,” =  "Ibrahim Is'haq" Ismail"“ = "Abraham Isaac Ishmael”) adding the traditional forebear of the Arab peoples and the transmitter of the values of islam taught by his parents Abraham and Hagar --  thus uniting in my name, my self, all the families of the Abrahamic tradition within me. 

 On Saturday night, I explained that ever since, when there is violence within the broader family between its different cohorts, I feel myself torn apart. When we turn to love and healing with each other, I feel whole within. I suggested we all need to see ourselves, each of us and each of our communities and traditions, with each of the others living within us. With that awareness expanding our tradition, not watering it down.

 Not Muslim “theys” died in New Zealand, not Christian “theys”in South Carolina, not Jewish “theys” in Pittsburgh, but ALL OF US in all three places.

 White Nationalism has become the Pharaoh oppressing us all. Just like the ancient Pharaoh who said to his folk of "pure blood and soil," --  

“There is a people, immigrants with a different religion and a different language from our pure-blood Egyptians. who may turn against us, become terrorists to join with our enemies. We must subjugate them, enslave them, even murder their children. We must deploy brutal “overseers” [=racist police], incite unofficial members of the public into hatred and murder, and ultimately mobilize my horse-chariot Army to repress them!” 

 And this ancient Pharaoh and our modern pharaohs brought plagues upon not only human communities but our shared Mother Earth herself. Plagues that were eco-disasters, killing human beings through undrinkable water, famine, and disease.

 

We must see the Modern Pharaohs' attacks on climate science and decent climate policy as part of the same White Nationalist mind-set: --  For the Hyper-Wealthy Corporate Carbon Pharaohs, everything. For those who drink water, breathe air, farm the land, eat the food, nothing.  

 

 Friday was a day of disaster.  It was also a day of grass-roots transformation. Tens of thousands of schoolchildren went on strike around the world, demanding that our governments act NOW to keep their lives livable 30 or 40 years from now.

Pharaohs always breed Resistance.  Which will be victorious?  The answer is blowing in the Wind, the Breath of Life, the Interbreathing Spirit of us all, that Holy ONE Whose Name can only be "pronounced" by breathing. And by Action.

The ancient Pharaoh's arrogance, stubbornness, cruelty ended when the Pharaoh’s power dissolved into the Sea of Reeds. 

 Today We the People must become the Sea of Reeds. Each of us a reed that may for a moment bend but never break, after each momentary bending springing upright to catch the Pharaohs and dissolve their power.

We can turn our own memories of resistance to Pharaoh past, encoded in the Passover Seder, into an “insightment” of future transformation.


RThat is what the Interfaith Freedom Seder + 50 will be, as national leaders of the Resistance and local survivors-and-resisters of plagues come together.  If you live in or near Philadelphia, you can register for a Dinner and/or the Seder at TINYURL.COM/FREEDOMSEDER50. The cost of both will rise on March 23, so register NOW. There will be no walk-ins.

 If you live more than 70 miles from Philadelphia, you can pick up the live-streamed Seder by registering here:

TINYURL.COM/FREEDOMSEDER50LIVE

You can invite friends to join with you, or organize a larger Seder. You can watch and listen to it all, or single out some parts and bring your own local leaders and organizers to speak.

 Fifty years after the original Freedom Seder, in another time of deep crisis in American democracy and now in our planet’s history as well, I look forward to joining with you on April 7!

 Shalom, salaam, paz, peace –- at a moment when each of those languages radiates both hurt and transformation. --  Arthur

 

Torah Study, Eco-Science, & Activism

Ecological Devastation & the Poor Peoples Campaign

Several weeks ago, Truah: A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights decided to support the organizing efforts of the Poor Peoples Campaign by supplying Torah-study texts and questions for the six different focuses of the six different weeks of the 40-day PPC campaign. Truah asked several rabbis, including me, to provide these texts and studies.

The way this was to work: Each of us proposed some texts of Torah (in the broad sense: the Hebrew Scriptures and rabbinic commentaries) that dealt with the key Spirit--rooted areas of the PPC campaign: poverty; racism; militarism; ecological devastation and health; jobs, income, and housing; and “a fusion movement rising up in response to a false moral narrative.”

Along with the texts we chose,  we provided some questions to encourage and enrich exploration of these issues from a Torah perspective. We did not provide “correct answers”; the purpose was to encourage open exploration by a gathering of people.

The texts and questions for the six weeks were published at <www.truah.org/ppc>.  I encourage you-all to look at them and to draw on them for conversations in your own community (face-to-face or on-line.)   Below I will add my own section, which addresses  “Ecological Devastation”  -- the issue that the Poor Peoples Campaign is dealing with this week.

As you will find by exploring these biblical texts,  both ancient Torah and modern science predict climate chaos and ecological disaster, if we keep on overworking our Earth and denying her the rhythmic restfulness that the Breath of Life requires.  So I urge you to join in the Poor Peoples Campaign at your own state capitol this week, demanding action to prevent even worse disasters than the droughts, famines, floods, and wildfires that our modern Carbon Pharaohs are already imposing on us. Find your closest action by clicking here: <https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/events/>

 I asked the Truah staff whether there might be a way to  invite people to respond with their own thoughts to any and all of these explorations of Torah, and to circulate their responses. The answer came back that Truah was not in a position to do this.

 So I am inviting you-all to do this. I invite you to read the Truah gathering of wisdom -- either on your own or in community --  and to respond with your own thought by clicking to the ”Comment” section for this report, on The Shalom Center ‘s website. So please click <www.truah.org/ppc>  to read the rabbis’  thoughts that Truah collected, and then click here <> to share your thoughts with each other and the public.

 Here is my own contribution to Truah’s effort:

 The biblical passages about Creation (in  Genesis) draw our attention to who we are as human “earthlings” and our relationship to the Earth. And later texts (especially in Exodus 16 and Leviticus 25-26) explore how we can fulfill that relationship so that future generations can prevent ecological disasters and live sustainably.

(Torah translations are slightly modified from Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses (Schocken); the passage from II Chronicles, from the New Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh. For this section of Truah’s exploration of Torah, I chose the texts and the accompanying questions.)

I. ADAMAH & ADAM

A. Genesis 2:5

No bush of the field was yet on earth, no plant of the field had yet  sprung up, for YHWH [Yahhhh, Breath of Life], God, had not made it rain upon the earth, and there was no human/ adam to till the soil/ adamah.

AW: Isn’t this backward to our understanding of evolution and to Genesis 1, in which vegetation emerged before Homo Sapiens ? Why would this Torah passage say it was necessary for the human (adam) to be present for shrubs of the earth (adamah) to grow?

The Torah continues (Gen. 1: verses 6-7): “but a surge would well up from the ground and water all the face of the soil; and YHWH, God, formed the human [adam], of dust from the soil [adamah]. YHWH [Yahhhh, Breath of Life] blew into his nostrils the breath of life and the human became a living being.

AW: From the adamah (earth) comes forth adam (the human earthling). First this newborn loses the –ah, the Hebrew letter hei  that is the sound of breathing. Then the Creator Breath of Life (YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh Elohim) “blew into the newborn’s nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living, breathing person.” What do these two passages mean about relationship between adam and adamah?

What do they mean about the relationship between God and Breath? About the YHWH Name?

About the relationship between an individual human birth and the emergence of the human species? 

TWO PARABLES: EDEN AND MANNA/SHABBAT

AW: Do these two parables have any connection with each other?

A. Eden

Genesis 2:15-17:  YHWH, God, took the human and set him in the garden of Eden [Delight}, to work it and to watch it. YHWH, God, commanded concerning the human, saying: From every (other) tree of the garden you may eat, yes, eat, but from the Tree of the Knowing of Good and Evil—you are not to eat from it, for on the day that you eat from it, you must die, yes, die.

 AW: Paraphrasing: “On this earth there is wonderful abundance. Eat of it in joy. But you must restrain yourselves just a little: Of this one tree, don’t eat.”  But the humans refuse to restrain themselves, and insist on leaving no part of the Garden uneaten.

 Genesis 3:17: To Adam [Human] God said: Because you have hearkened to the voice of your wife and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying: You are not to eat from it! Damned be the soil on your account, with painstaking-labor shall you eat from it, all the days of your life. Thorn and sting-shrub let it spring up for you, when you (seek to) eat the plants of the field! By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, until you return to the soil, for from it you were taken. For you are dust, and to dust shall you return.

AW : By trying to gobble up all the abundancee, we have ruined it. Only by toiling every day of our lives with the sweat pouring down our faces will we find enough to eat from an earth that gives forth mostly thorns and thistles.”

B. Manna & Shabbat

Exodus 16:13b-18 (and continuing through verse 35)

...And at daybreak there was a layer of dew around the camp; and when the layer of dew went up, here, upon the surface of the wilderness, something fine, scaly, fine as hoar-frost upon the land. When the Children of Israel saw it they said each-man to his brother: Mahn hu/what is it? For they did not know what it was. Moshe said to them: It is the bread that YHWH has given you for eating. This is the word that YHWH has commanded: Glean from it, each-man according to what he can eat, an omer per capita, according to the number of your persons, each-man, for those in his tent, you are to take. The Children of Israel did thus, they gleaned, the-one-more and the-one-less, 18 but when they measured by the omer, no surplus had the-one-more, and the-one-less had no shortage; each-man had gleaned according to what he could eat.

AW :The Torah provides us this near-Edenic parable on the same theme, a story that points toward the healing of the disaster at the end of Eden. This is the parable of manna and Shabbat (Exodus 16). For in this story, as in Eden, the Great Provider showers adam again with almost free abundance. The only work the Israelites need to do is to walk forth every morning and gather the manna—a strange “vegetation” that is like coriander seed but far more nourishing.

No sweat, no toil, no thorns or thistles. Self-restraint is built in: Anyone who tries to gather more than enough to eat for a day finds that the extra rots and stinks. On the sixth day, enough manna falls to feed the people for another day, and it does not rot. It will meet their needs for the seventh day. On the seventh day, Shabbat, no manna falls. Self-restraint is again built in. But the two versions of self-restraint are quite different.

What was the self-restraint required in Eden? What was the self-restraint required in the wilderness when the Manna appeared? How do they differ?

III. SPIRITUAL PRACTICE & THE LAND: SHMITA AND ITS FAILURE

A. Leviticus 25:1-4, 6, 10, 23.

YHWH spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land is to cease, a Sabbath-ceasing to YHWH. For six years you are to sow your field, for six years you are to prune your vineyard, then you are to gather in its produce, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of Sabbath-ceasing for the land, a Sabbath to YHWH: your field you are not to sow, your vineyard you are not to prune...Now the Sabbath-yield of the land (is) for you, for eating, for you, for your servant and or your handmaid, for your hired-hand and for your resident-settler who sojourn with you...

You are to hallow the year, the fiftieth year, proclaiming

freedom throughout the land and to all its inhabitants; it shall be Homebringing [Yovel or Jubilee] for you, you are to return, each-man to his holding, each-man to his clan you are to return... But the land is not to be sold in-harness, for the land is mine; for you are sojourners and resident-settlers with me...

AW: Can we apply these teachings in our day? How?

1. Excerpts from Leviticus 26:14–46, especially verses 34–35 and 43

14 But if you do not hearken to me, by not observing all these commandments... you I will scatter among the nations; I will unsheath the sword against you, so that your land becomes a desolation and your cities become a wasteland. Then the land will find-acceptance regarding its Sabbaths, all the days of desolation—when you are in

the land of your enemies—then the land will enjoy-cessation, and find-acceptance regarding its Sabbaths. All the days of desolation it will enjoy-cessation, since it did not enjoy-cessation during its Sabbaths when you were settled on it.

B2. II Chronicles 36: 20. Those who survived the sword he exiled to Babylon, and they became his and his sons’ servants till the rise of the Persian kingdom,  in fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, until the land paid back its sabbaths; as long as it lay desolate it kept sabbath, till seventy years were completed.

AW: Through drought and famine, pestilence and plague, through an exile that today we would call a flood of refugees, our Mother Earth will indeed “rest” by failing to be fruitful. (N.B. Verse 23 of this chapter is the end of the entire Hebrew Bible.)

Are these disasters punishments? Consequences? How do we understand them? How do they compare with what modern climate scientists are predicting if we keep spewing CO2 and methane into our atmosphere?

I invite you to respond with your own thoughts by clicking to the ”Comment” section for this report on The Shalom Center ‘s website, to share your thoughts with each other and the public.

Bitter Waters – from the Sinai Wilderness to Flint of Michigan

These past few weeks, an ancient and a modern tale of bitter, poisonous waters suddenly rang together as an alarm and an awakening. Right now: We have been learning about the horrifying and disgusting behavior of the government of Michigan, turning off the pipes bringing pure water from Lake Huron to the mostly Black citizens of the city of Flint and instead sending poisonous waters to Flint. (The Governor, Rick Snyder, is no Tea Party type, but a fairly typical "establishment" Republican businessman  -- anti-labor, anti-choice for women, anti-Syrian-refugees, and contemptuous of pleas from the Black folks of Flint to end the poisoning of their children.) So the bitter waters came:  Waters that stank and were colored brown and green, waters that caused rashes and boils to spring up on the skins of those who had to drink it.  Waters infused with lead, which is well-known to permanently and irreversibly damage the brains of young children.  Long long ago: The age-old Torah telling that we read this past Shabbat was the story of how ancient Israel crossed the Red Sea while Pharaoh’s power dissolved and his army drowned there.  Just a few days later, according to the story, they protested because they had no water fit to drink.  What connects these two events?  On February 25, 1964, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, soon to become a friend and political comrade

1st-Borns, ReBirth, & Passing Over: My Own & All of Us

This year I am feeling haunted by one of the lesser-known aspects of Passover: On the morning before the First Seder –- which means this very morning –— First-born sons (or in this generation, first-born children) are supposed to fast from daybreak till the Seder.  

We first-borns are released from this obligation if we study Torah and then conclude with a “seudat mitzvah” – a meal celebrating the fulfillment of a mitzvah, which means a commandment or a connection-making between ourselves and the Holy One of Being, the Breathing-Spirit of the world.

Why should we first-borns fast as we approach Passover? Presumably in grief, relief, and gratitude – grief for all the first-borns of Egypt, Mitzrayyim, the Tight and Narrow Place, who according to the Exodus story died that night, and in relief and gratitude that our families of the Godwrestling folk were spared the disaster.

So from 1971 or ’72 on, as I found my way through the Freedom Seder deeper and deeper into Passover and Torah, I have fasted –— or studied Torah – during this day, in honor of the ancient story.

But this year I am feeling a more personal grief. In some strange way I am no longer a “first-born” — because my younger brother died two years ago. Indeed, on his deathbed I said to him that he had become for me the older brother that he wished I had been for him. He nodded, using the little breath left to him: “It’s true.”

After "Sandy": We Need a Hurricane of Social Change

Suppose we were applying biblical theology to the events of today:
 
We might say that God listened to the two major candidates for President of the most powerful nation in the world refusing to say the words “climate change” or “global warming” in a single one of their major speeches and debates.
 
And then God, His face flaring red in hot anger, acting as King and Judge and Lord to rebuke their sin, would send their country an overheated storm to punish and remind them what is the greatest problem they should have been addressing.
 
Suppose we were instead applying a theology that sees the Divine Presence more infused in the world.  That understands “YHWH” as a Breath. (Try pronouncing it without any vowels.) Not just as a breath, but as the Interbreathing of all life. As a concise statement of the science that says: We breathe in what the trees breathe out,  the trees breathe in what we breathe out.
 
This theology fuses religious wisdom with scientific knowledge. Through this lens we see the interplay of Breath, this balanced interplay of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere, the very Breath of Life throughout our planet, as God’s Presence in our midst.
 
When human beings insist on overburning fossil fuels and thereby “breathing” far far more CO2 into the atmosphere than the trees and grasses can breathe in, this imbalance overheats our planet. It threatens the balance that makes life possible. It burns holes into the “YHWH” that is the Divine life-giving Breath of Life.
 
What we call the climate crisis is a crisis in the very Name of God.

Occupy Holy Week, Occupy Passover: Dancing in the World-wide Earthquake

Flyer  for Philadelphia event: Occupy Holy  Week & Passover, April 1

[Click on the graphic to expand it.]

Can Religion be Transformative?

Can we Empower the 99%, Democratize the 1% ?

Plans are under way in Philadelphia & New York City for an action to “Join with Occupy: Celebrate  Holy Week & Passover.”   People of faith could undertake actions like it all across the country.

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