Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Willow Tree and Kaddish

The willow tree had a trunk spanning nearly six feet in diameter and towering what must have been 50 feet above our heads. The flowing branches and leaves hung down just above us, whispering their brushing swish-swish gently as they danced in the breeze.  Much of the base of the tree was covered with thick ivy clinging to the peaks and valleys of the rippled bark, and over time, climbing the trunk’s lofty heights. 

Under this immense tree is where I first saw them that late-Spring evening.  Usually, when I arrive at a home to lead a shivah minyan (a gathering of ten or more people in prayer enabling mourners to say Kaddish), I find the mourners and their visitors huddled around in the kitchen or crowded in a living room, but not this time.  This time, nearly all of them stood outside in the family backyard, on a lovely evening that teetered between crisp and comfortable, under a clear blue-lavender sky and lightly swaying, wispy willow tendrils.

The man who had died was beloved by his family and his community.  He was not young but not old, and his death came all too quickly. One of his children noted that the tree under which we stood had witnessed so much over the years, hosting countless family gatherings including the Brit Milah ceremonies of grandsons and even a wedding under the shelter of its foliage-reach - it had blossomed alongside the blossoming of the generations of their family.  And now, the tree beckoned us to stay under its protecting canopy again, so we clustered together for Kaddish.

“The Kaddish” is a little bit of a misnomer, because there isn’t just one of them – there are many.  Kaddish Yatom – the Mourner’s Kaddish is traditionally reserved for marking key moments as time distances the mourner from the death of a loved one.  Chatzi Kaddish is recited as a means of marking the end of one section of a service and the start of another one – it is the “semi-colon” of any service.  Kaddish Shaleim serves to mark the conclusion of a service and re-entry into the outside world.  There is a special Kaddish to recite after someone is buried – sometimes called Kaddish haGadol.  There is Kaddish de Rabbanan, the oldest form of Kaddish, to mark the conclusion of a course of study.

At the heart of all is the idea that we mark moments of transition by inviting holiness in.  After all, Kaddish – which literally means sanctification – comes from the Hebrew root meaning holy.    And we don’t discriminate either.  Moments of immense significance side by side with commonplace changeovers hold equal potential for a profound and imbued sanctity from the Jewish perspective.  And Kaddish is never about endings alone – it is always about endings and beginnings.  Kaddish is always bigger than we are, even when it marks a simple transition from one prayer to another, and as such, proves most significant in its rich, timeless and deeply rooted wisdom. 

And so, that evening at the end of one season and the start of another, we stood together to mourn, to pray, to give thanks, to laugh, to weep, to mark the end of a life and be charged to carry forth that life’s legacy in the lives of those who would go on living.  And the tree stood with us; it mourned and wept too.  Just as it had rejoiced alongside those who had sought its shelter before, as then and now, its branches swayed and shoots blossomed.  And the roots of that tree grew deeper and anchored it more firmly that day.  And just as the words of our faith called to us to praise the Source of All Being in all the shifts and changes throughout our own lives, that night, so too did the tree. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Divine Revelation and Processed Food?

In the world of nutrition and health today, there is a lot of talk about the difference between whole and processed foods.  In case you are unfamiliar with these terms, a “whole food” is basically in its natural, unaltered state – aka, human hands haven’t monkeyed with it all that much, other than harvesting it,  butchering it, maybe grinding or mushing it up. A processed food, on the other hand,  involves combining more than 1 ingredient in a process (sometimes other foodstuffs or sometimes additives, preservatives, chemicals) to form a different food product; put simply, to be processed, human hands necessarily are more involved.  And generally speaking, a whole food is a better nutritional bet than a processed food; better to eat an apple than Apple Jacks Cereal, for example. 
While we may believe that differentiating between whole and processed foods is modern reality, Judaism has been talking about it for a long time, and not just in relation to the condition of our bodies, but in relation to how we use whole or processed foods as a means to connect with the earth, our communities, our rituals, and the Divine. 
I am writing this piece on the 45th day of the counting of the Omer – the period of time between Passover and Shavuot.  As modern Jews, we likely understand this time primarily as the spiritual re-enactment of the 50 day journey our ancestors took from their Redemption from Egypt to Divine Revelation at Sinai.  We can generally credit the rabbis of the Talmud for our modern spiritual-historical understanding.  But if we look to Torah, we find this period originally entailed a spiritual-agricultural orientation, linking the early spring barley harvest to the late spring wheat harvest. 
Beginning the second day of Pesach, our ancestors would bring an Omer offering, which consisted of newly harvested barley rudimentarily beaten into a form of barley flour, then  waved (along with a few other foods) above the community as an offering to God.  It was, for all intents, a "whole food" offering of barley in a relatively pure state, as a means of thanking God for providing the fresh grain.  No one in the community could consume newly baked bread until this offering was made.  They would then count 49 days – the course of the 7 weeks from the barley to wheat harvest, leading up to Shavuot.

On Shavuot, however, instead of bringing another Omer, our ancestors would instead bring the first fruits of the wheat harvest as an offering.  But rather than bringing the sheaf in the form of newly ground flour, the people were commanded to offer it in the form of the very first "processed food" - as baked and leavened bread. (See Vayikra 23:15-23)  Here, their offering marking the wheat harvest was not a presentation of a pure foodstuff, but rather,  something whose individual ingredients (wheat, oil, etc) started out as sourced directly from God but whose resulting form (bread) required human hands to create.  As we know, God did not make the bread, humans did. 
So why the difference in grain offerings from one observance to the other?   If the point of harvest-time offerings  was to credit God as the provider of food and thus sustainer of life, it would make the most sense to offer “whole” offerings, certainly not processed ones, right?  Why not just repeat the exact same ritual with the wheat as they did with the barley?
One reason may very well have to do not only with the evolution of the harvest season, but also with the evolution of our ancestors' relationship with the Divine, as seen over the arc of Passover to Shavuot.  At Passover, God redeemed our people through great signs and miracles.  The Jewish people's role was simply to trust in God and walk out of Egypt.  God really did all the work.  This very much refects the direct nature of the Omer offering - the barley in its pure form clearly represents a direct gift from God - with notably minimal human involvement. 

On Shavuot, however, something different happened.  There were still, of course, great signs and wonders at Mt. Sinai as God gave "Torah." But there, the people had a direct role as well: they had to receive it.   Very much like harvesting wheat and processing it into bread, the Torah could not be made real in the world unless and until the people took it in, processed it, and enacted it.  At the same time, because the people are commanded to offer to God the first fruits of the wheat harvest in the form of bread, they are, at once, reminded that even when they create something themselves, it is never a result of their actions alone.  God still remains the ultimate provider, however, the vision at Shavuot, is one of Divine/human partnership, and not solely Divine power alone. The bread offering becomes a consumable symbol of the covanental, two-part relationship between us and God in making the Divine vision manifest in the world. As such, it is notable that of the Omer and Shavuot offerings, Torah only designates the Shavuot offering of bread as "holy" (see Lev. 23:20). 

So as far as modern day health is concerned, go ahead and consume the whole food.  But on this Shavuot, before your blintzes and cheesecake, say haMotzi and eat some bread!  Let it connect you to our past, our present, and our future as the Jewish people, to the land from which it came, to the Divine provider of it all!

Friday, May 18, 2012

This Land Is Your Land?

I wrote this for AJWS, and it was published on their website earlier this week.

Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” is perhaps the most celebrated love song for the varied wonders of American terrain. Although its verses reveal Guthrie’s love for the land, the song’s title and catchy refrain, “this land was made for you and me,” express how many of us relate to the land: as something we possess.
In contrast, Parshat Behar offers a very different paean to the land, as it describes the precepts of Shmitah (the sabbatical year). It states that when the people arrive in the Land of Israel, the land must observe a Sabbath—a rest. The people may “work” their land for six years, but during the seventh year, they are forbidden to prune or sow, and can eat only what the land produces naturally.
Of all of the details of Shmitah, what stands out to me is that it is not the people who are first commanded to observe Shmitah, but rather the land itself!1 In fact, the mitzvot incumbent upon the people are presented only after and secondary to the declaration mandating the land’s Sabbath, dictating that the Israelites act in a way that enables the land, personified, to rest.
This notion challenges the way so many of us understand ourselves in relation to the land, how we treat it, and what we derive from it today. We generally assume that humans, in a position of power, can use the land as an important commodity from which to procure the resources we desire. But Behar pushes us to see our relationship with the land as we see ourselves: living, commanded by God and deserving of rest. With that, the land and humans are equalized, allowing us to move beyond our perception of land as something only to be controlled or dominated and into a symbiotic relationship that is sustainable for both of us.2
The organic and holistic link between humanity and the land is encoded in our earliest history and understanding of our origins. In the Torah’s second creation narrative,3 God creates the land and then a human, made literally of the earth, to fill the need for the land’s care.4 In this story, far from being permitted to exploit the land, humans were created from the land and charged with protecting it. The interconnectedness of humans and the land is emphasized again with the Torah’s depiction of Cain’s murder of his brother. Here, even though the crime reflects the sinful actions of a human being toward another, the land also suffers; it is personified as swallowing Abel’s blood and becomes toxic itself, mirroring the death of Abel.5 This powerful early example reminds us of the ways in which we and the land are intertwined.
Unfortunately, modern economic forces make sustaining a holistic, interconnected relationship with the land notably difficult. Our insatiable desire for natural resources like gas, minerals and water has depleted the land, especially in the Global South, where much of the world’s relatively untouched territory remains. The traditional societies who live holistically and symbiotically on these lands are finding their ways of life threatened by the encroachment of development that seeks to possess the earth and subdue it.
Take, for example, the Garífuna people of Central America, who represent a significant percentage of the population along the Caribbean coast. For over 200 years, the Garífuna have subsisted on the products of their local eco-system, taking what they need while ensuring that the land is not depleted. The Garífuna live harmoniously with the land, relying on it not just for food, but also for maintaining their collective religious and cultural identity and practices.
Unfortunately, in recent years, this land has been cultivated by people who fail to view it as an equal partner. The Garífuna ecosystem is suffering at the hands of erosion and destruction, deforestation of the mangroves, and business investments in large palm oil plantations along Honduras’s northern coast. With the ecological balance upset and the soil depleted, Garífuna communities are experiencing food insecurity for the first time.6 And because their very identity is connected to the land, their entire culture is at risk of disappearing.
Parshat Behar can teach us to see the land not as our possession, but as an extension of ourselves—together dynamic partners in assuring that God’s entire creation flourishes. If we reorient our view, perhaps we will see a turn in the tide of resource depletion and imbalance that persists throughout our world. Rather than viewing the land as “made for you and me,” we might begin to see it as made alongside us and embodying the same Divine image that makes humanity and the universe holy.

1 Vayikra 25:2.
2 Some might say Behar suggests that the land sits at even a higher place than people, especially if we consider God’s declaration: “...for the land is Mine; you are but strangers dwelling with Me.” (Vayikra 25:23)
3 The first two chapters of Breishit describe two different versions of the creation story. The first story (Breishit 1:1-2:4), describes God’s creation of the earth in seven days. This narrative features a notably hierarchical model in which humanity’s purpose is to “fill the earth” through reproduction and “subdue” it. The second narrative (Breishit 2:5-2:24), is the one from which the rest of the Torah narrative unfolds, and focuses on creation as manifest in the Garden of Eden. It describes the role of the human as more partnered and organic with the land.
4 Breishit 2:5-7.
5 Breishit 4:11. (“And so, cursed shall you be by the soil that gaped with its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand.”)
6 Ramor Ryan, “The Last Rebels of the Caribbean: Garifuna Fighting for Their Lives in Honduras,” Upside Down World, 27 March 2008. To learn more about the rights of indigenous people in Honduras, see Rebecca Fries and Luis Diaz-Alberini, “Defending the Human Rights of Indigenous People in Honduras,” Global Voices, 10 June 2011.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Dreams for My Children

Like all parents, I have many hopes and dreams for my children.  On one level, I just hope I don’t screw them up too much.   But above all, I dream: each will grow into the best of who he or she is meant to be and fulfill his or her life’s unique purpose.  Each will experience success, know failure, and be a better human being as a result of both.   Each will be rooted in and wrestle with their faith, and be stronger for both.  I hope they will be truth-tellers, justice-seekers, and good neighbors.   I dream they will be and feel free to love and be loved in return.  And I pray that when they look in the mirror, they will be content and proud of the person they see. 
I think a lot about the challenges my children might face if they love and are loved by someone of their same gender.  I think about what obstacles society might put in their way that would impact the course of their lives and their evolution as people.  I am literally sickened when I think about how some might not only judge, but fear and detest them for being who they are or choose to be or both.  I think about how they might be tormented or abused, or driven out of fear or shame, live in a way that belies who they are.  And I think about, as a person of deep faith and an American, how their rights as people and citizens of this country might be withheld from them if they one day seek to express their love for their chosen partner through the institution of marriage.
Today, one day after yet another state passed a ban on same-sex marriage, the President of the United States FINALLY spoke his truth, endorsing not just civil unions, but marriage equality for ALL.  It was a brave thing for him to do, given the fact that only 7 states and Washington, DC currently allow same-sex marriages and this is an election year.  The fact that 12 states permit civil unions or domestic partnerships is no consolation either, for our current President, for me, or for anyone seeking to be married to someone of the same gender, because ONLY marriage offers comprehensive state and federal benefits and protections. ONLY marriage equates to real equality.  So today was a promising day for the United States of America, but there is yet so much work to be done.  Love is love. If a person is lucky enough to find a fitting partner, whatever their gender might be, they must be permitted to express who they are and who they love, based on the same terms and maintaining the same rights alongside all other people who seek to do the same.
And so I pray and I dream, not just for my own children, but for all children – for all people.  Today marks an important step in raising up the highest value that all of us are created as equals, each of us an image of the Divine.  The prophets of my faith envisioned a day when justice would well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream. Perhaps this tide will be the one that washes away the wasteland of fear, discrimination, and ignorance that consumes so much of this land, and leaves in its wake a ground nourished by and  fertile with love, acceptance, hope and promise for us all.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Counting Up?

Earlier this week, I reviewed the concept of Sephirat haOmer/ the Counting of the Omer with our adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah class.  When I explained that we Jews mark the 49 day period of time between the 2nd day of Pesach up to Shavuot  by literally counting each day, some of the students began to panic.  Truth be told, we studied the Counting of the Omer in the class last year, and there was no problem then.  So what was so problematic now?  Well, the class has been learning together for almost 2 years, much of their work in anticipation of being called to Torah on this Shavuot.  When I announced “Today is the 21st day of the Counting of the Omer…” many misunderstood me to mean that there were 21 days remaining until Shavuot, assuming that they had miscounted, leaving 8 fewer days for them to practice, review etc.   But this wasn't a misunderstanding based on an error in calculation of time.  There were in fact still 29 days left until Shavuot. This was a misunderstanding about how we approach markers in time, because there is a major orienting difference between the way popular culture marks time verses how Jews do!
Generally speaking, at least in most circles of modern American society, the concept of counting down is the way we do things.  Think about the drum roll as David Letterman finally announces “…and number one on the top ten things that…”; or the anticipation in the “5,4,3,2,1” before midnight on the secular New Year; or even crossing off each day on a calendar in anticipation of experiencing a big event, thinking to yourself, ‘only _x_ many days until…."  In mainstream culture, we heighten anticipation and excitement through counting down.
Judaism teaches us something entirely different.  Jews always count up.  Not just on the counting of the Omer where we announce each day: “Today is the __x_ day, that is the __x_ day of the __x_ week of the Omer.”  We count up when it comes to marking Holy Days too: the 1st day of Sukkot, the 2nd day of Sukkot – not the 7th to last day of Sukkot, the 6th to last day of Sukkot, etc.   
And although I can’t be sure of the exact point in Jewish history that this understanding emerged, I imagine much of it comes from a  famous Talmudic machloket (disagreement) between the Houses of Hillel and Shammainot on the way we count the Omer, but rather on the way we handle the Chanukah lights. (See Talmud Bavli Shabbat 21b).   Shammai’s school appreciated the idea of a countdown, and as such, believed that on the first day of Chanukah, we should light all 8 candles, and each subsequent day, take 1 away; Hillel’s camp took a different approach, saying we should light only 1 candle on the first night, and then continue adding 1 each night until all the candles on the menorah were lit on the final night.   Later rabbinic teachers offered reasons for their positions, asserting first that Shammai’s suggestion corresponded to the days of the holiday that remained, whereas Hillel’s corresponded to the days that had past. They offered a second reason: Shammai’s corresponded to the parallel sacrificial ritual of the Biblical Sukkot, whereas Hillel’s followed the legalistic notion that we “ma'alin ba'kodesh, v’ain moridin -  we increase in matters of holiness, not decrease.”  And because Jews today start with 1 candle and increase to 8, we deduce that the judgment went with Hillel.
So in matters of holiness, we count up, we build up, we lift up.  The drum rolls and anticipation of modern countdowns are one thing, but cultivating a sense of increased importance, an accumulating momentum that carries within it the experiences that have  come before it, proves entirely different, more challenging, and also more rewarding in the end.  To view life through the lens of the countdown insinuates an under-valueing of what has led up to any given experience.  It places emphasis entirely around the destination, with little if any value placed on the steps and stops along the path.  To see life through the lens of the "count up" enables us to celebrate our arrival at the finish line, but at the same time, to honor the significance of the journey we've travelled to get there. 

And so, for our Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah students, I hope they know that the hours and hours of study they have undertaken are what will make Shavuot, when it arrives, most meaningful. And although they may sigh of relief once their aliyah is over, I hope they will also look back with great pride on the entire experience in all its fullness.  For the Jewish people, I pray our annual spiritual journey from the freedom of Passover to the receiving of Torah on Shavuot is enhanced and deepened by each opportunity we have to add another day to our Omer counting, as we build to 49.  And for all of us, regardless of faith, I dream we  might each honor and raise up every experience we have, both positive and negative, as a means of becoming the best of who we are meant to be so we can serve our world in a way that not only makes it better, but makes it whole.