Friday, August 16, 2019

Tu B'Av and Love

by Rabbi Katy Allen

As the afternoon wanes and Shabbat approaches, the less-than-familiar-for-most-of-us holiday of TuB'Av, the 15th of the month of Av, also nears it's end.
There were no days of joy in Israel greater than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments in order not to shame any one who had none...The daughters of Jerusalem come out and dance in the vineyards. What would they say? Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty but set your eyes on the family.  --Mishnah Ta'anit 4:8
For centuries, this holiday was marked only by the absence of penitential prayers during the morning service. But it modern-day Israel, it is becoming a holiday of LOVE. A little like Valentine's Day here.

As a species, what love is more fundamental to our physical and spiritual well-being than our love of the Earth?

We need the Earth. Our very existence is dependent upon it being a reliable source of food, air, water, and shelter. But if we only take, as with the human loved ones in our lives, the relationship is doomed to failure.

And so, on this day of love, let us remember to give.

When we prepare to make a purchase, let us ask, Is this action good for Earth and it's inhabitants?  If the answer is "yes," then go for it. If the answer is "no," let us consider an alternative action.

When we prepare to vote, locally and on up, let us ask, Is this vote good for the Earth and it's inhabitants?  If the answer is "yes," then go for it. If the answer is "no," let us consider an alternative vote.

When we prepare to travel, let us ask, Is this trip good for the Earth and it's inhabitants?  If the answer is "yes," then go for it. If the answer is "no," let us consider how to repair our action.

When we prepare to do anything, from morning until evening, let us ask, Is this action good for Earth and it's inhabitants?  If the answer is "yes," then go for it. If the answer is "no," let us consider an alternative action.

Let us bring this question into our lives as though it were a blessing, as though it were a prayer, and let us answer it with all honesty. Let us bring love for the Earth into every action we take. It deserves it.

Tu B'Av sameach! Happy 15th of Av.

Rabbi Katy Allen is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long, and the co-founder and President pro-tem of the Jewish Climate Action Network-MA. She is a board certified chaplain and a former hospital and hospice chaplain and now considers herself an eco-chaplain. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY in 2005 and lives in Wayland, MA, with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the singing at Ma'yan Tikvah. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

Sinai and the Web of Life

by Rabbi Benjamin Weiner

At this time of year, two things coincide: the counting of the Omer and the planting of my crops.

The Omer is the period of seven weeks that stretch between the second seder of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot. They represent the time that elapsed between the moment when the Israelites were finally free of their Egyptian bondage, and the moment when they stood at the foot of the holy mountain to receive Torah. We count them each year, as if journeying ourselves, once again, out of narrow conceptions and into a deeper understanding of our relationship with what is holy.

According to mystical tradition, we mark these days by reference to seven of the kabbalistic sefirot, understood to be aspects or emanations of the divine, including, among others, abounding love, restricting firmness, splendor, endurance, and majesty. Beyond any single one of them, though, I am struck by how the totality of the system challenges us to relinquish the monomania that often passes for monotheism—inspiring us not to perceive the oneness of the divine as a simple, reductive dictatorship of any one single entity, but rather as the interactive tension of a multitude of forces held in balance.

I am thinking of them this year, in particular, after reading the reporting surrounding the latest UN study on species extinction, which confirmed, in the starkest of terms, what those who are aware already knew. We are at the beginning of a “sixth extinction” in which human activity is driving a staggering number of species of fauna and flora out of existence. This is not simply a moral or aesthetic crisis but also imminently threatens the future of the clever biped that thinks it is running the show. 

In the light of the sefirot, I see this crisis as perhaps the ultimate expression of a monomania subsittued for the sacred complexity of a whole and variegated fabric, and find myself wondering if there is, in fact, any way we can still escape from this Egypt, and toward a holier understanding of our relationship, as humans, to the holiness that is more than just us. 

So, as I plant this season, seeking to draw my family's food, sustainably and regeneratively, from the earth entrusted to my care, I am paying special attention to the insect life and the bees, in their reduced number, as they zip around me, to the milkweed and wild clover, to the hawks overheard and the worms and rodents in the soil, to the cluster of bats that paid a call a few nights ago at sunset. 

And I am thinking: whatever I find at Sinai this year, I hope it helps me, truly, to “choose life.”

Rabbi Benjamin Weiner is the spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Amherst.  He lives with his wife and son on their three-acre homestead.  

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Omer Reflection: Innermost - דביר

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

is just a word,
but with connections--
the Innermost Sanctuary,
the Holy of Holies;

the innermost recesses,
the sanctuary of my heart.

The sanctuary of my heart,
an inner space,
from whence emerge words--
deepest, innermost words.

When a door slams shut,
unrelenting silence rules;
when a troubled mind overpowers,
words tumble out, unchecked,
shouting out pain, anger
fear, despair--
the past controls.

When pathways open wide
abundance flows,
words stream forth freely,
sharing understanding, wisdom,
courage and compassion--
the present reigns. 

Innermost is just a word.
The innermost recesses,
the sanctuary of my heart--

that is another matter.

רק מילה,
אבל עם קשרים--
דביר קודשך,
דביר ביתך;

דביר מִשְׁקָעִים,
דביר לבי.

דביר לבי,
מקום פנימי,
משם יוצאות מילים--

כשדלת נטרקת ונסגרת,
שקט אַכְזָרי שׁורר;
כשדעה עכורה גוברת,
מילים, לא מבוקרות, נוהרות החוצה,
זועקות כאב, כעס,
פחד, ייאוש--
העבר שולט.

כששבילים  נפתחים בִרְחָבָה,
שפע זורם,
מילים מתגלגלותהחוצהבחופשיות,
מפיצות הבנה, חכמה,
אומץ ורחמים--
ההווה מולך .

דביר רק מילה.
דביר מִשְׁקָעִים, 
דביר לבי--
זה דבר אחר.

Rabbi Katy Allen is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long, and the co-founder and President pro-tem of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network. She is a board certified chaplain and serves as an Eco-Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit, and is a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY in 2005 and lives in Wayland, MA, with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the singing at Ma'yan Tikvah.

Monday, April 22, 2019

What's Jewish About Earth Day?

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
[This post was originally published on]

Earth Day is April 22. This year, it falls on the 17thof Nisan. But it isn't always on the 17thof Nisan. It doesn't begin in the evening and end in the evening. We don't light candles or eat special Jewish foods. There are no special prayers. We won't find Earth Day on the Jewish calendar.

Sounds like it isn't a Jewish holiday.

And it isn't. At least not officially. And yet, there is so much about Earth Day that is Jewish, beginning with the story of creation in the first chapter of the Torah. All the Universe is part of that story, including this precious planet.

In the second story of creation, the Garden of Eden presents an image of what life on Earth could be like, and in that image we read that G!d placed ha'adam, Adam, the person, in the garden, l'ovdah ul'shomrah, generally translated as “to till and to tend it” or “to cultivate (or work) and keep it.” 

What might our relationship to the Earth look like if we to think about it as though we were ha'adamin the Garden of Eden? Another meaning for the root ayin, vet, daletis “to serve”, either a ruler or G!d. What might our actions in connection to the Earth look like if we considered our all of them as service to G!d through the maintenance of this Divine Creation upon which we live? How might we behave in relation to the trees and sky and water and fungi and whales – and everything else?

We have many opportunities in the Jewish calendar to consider our relationship to the Earth – Rosh HaShanah, sometimes described as the Birthday of the World; parashat Bereshitwhen we read the creation stories; parashat Noah, when we read about the flood, parshiot Mishpatim and B'harwhen we read about letting the Earth rest during the Sabbatical year; and Tu BiShvat, sometimes known as the “Jewish Earth Day.” 

But there are actually so many other opportunities. A reading through the Five Books of Moses provides encounters with the Earth in one way or another in almost every weekly portion. G!d told Abraham that his offspring would be as many as there are stars in the sky – is that the starless city sky or the dazzling wilderness night sky? Jacob laid his head upon a stone at night and dreamed of angels going up and down on a ladder – is that a bit of the crushed gravel in one's garden or driveway, or a red desert rock? Sacrifices were made of animals in fire. The list goes on and on. And if we turn to the Psalms, there are even more references to the natural world

Another way to consider Judaism's connection to the Earth is in the morning blessings, Birkat HaShachar. In the diagram below, the 13 short blessings have been rearranged and placed in concentric circles, starting with the person reciting the blessings at the core. The blessings in blue express what is being requested or stated in a very personal way, beginning with the understanding of our own free will. Moving outward to those that are related to being part of a community, the Jewish people (in green), “who made me of the people Israel” (turquoise) expresses the transition from the personal to the communal. In yellow are found blessings that are universal, such as opening the eyes of the blind. In orange are two blessings that relate to the natural world, widening our connections to include the Earth and its more-than-human inhabitants. 

At the outer edge of the diagram, in the deep orange, is an extra blessing not in the siddur, but in the spirit of Jewish tradition. Rabbi David Seidenberg in his seminal work, Kabbalah and Ecology: The Diving Image in the More-Than-Human World, presents a clear case that everything, not just humans, but the plants and animals and rocks – everything– is created in G!d's image. As a second grader explained, when presented with the idea of a blessing “Who made usin your image”: “It comes from the creation story, because G!d created everything.” So, it must all be in G!d's image and therefore sacred.

And returning to the dark blue, the core, G!d made us free – free to choose how we will be in relationship to the sacred Earth.

From an understanding of the Earth as sacred, as created by G!d, as made in G!d's image, the Jewishness of Earth Day becomes readily apparent. Earth Day is a reminder of the sacredness and importance of the Earth and of our role and responsibility in maintaining it for all its inhabitants, both human and more-than-human. It is a reminder that there is a time and a place when the secular becomes sacred. It is a reminder to renew our effort to preserve this planet while it is still possible, because – it is up to us. We are free to choose to stand idly by or to act and “keep” or preserve this amazing planet and and all it contains.

Rabbi Katy Allen is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long, and the co-founder and President pro-tem of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network. She is a board certified chaplain and serves as an Eco-Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit, and is a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY in 2005 and lives in Wayland, MA, with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the singing at Ma'yan Tikvah.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Task Is Great, the Time Is Short

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
[Note: This d'var was originally delivered at Temple Reyim, Newton, MA, on Shabbat Zachor, March 16, 2019 / 9 Adar II, 5779.]

This week we begin to engage deeply with the sacrifices as we read the first parasha in the Book of Leviticus, Vayikra.

What do these sacrifices mean for us today? We certainly are not about to bring a bull to an alter, slaughter it, and sprinkle it’s blood around. At least I know I’m not, and I assume you feel the same way.

And sacrifice? As we think of it? Giving things up is what sacrifice means to us today, self-deprivation. Which - aside from Yom Kippur and other fast days - is not how we tend to think about Judaism.

So what are we to think about the sacrifices?To bring meaning and to make my point, I’d like to begin by considering what sacrifices meant to the ancient Israelites. In Temple times, making sacrifices was a religious rite, usually a joyful one. It was a prayer, of petition or purification, atonement or reverence or thanksgiving. The worshipper brought as large and as choice an offering as possible.

What our squeamish stomachs reject - the slaughter of animals and their preparation for eating - most of us don’t witness. We are generally sheltered from the realities of death, not only of the animals that provide the meat we eat, but also often even of our loved ones. Not so the ancient Israelites. They lived closer to the land than we do today, they were intimately connected to birth and to death.

The meaning of the Hebrew, as opposed to the English - can provide insight for us. The word for sacrifices, Korbanot, comes from the root Qof-Resh-Bet, which means "to draw near," and indicates the primary purpose of offerings: to draw the individual or group near to G!d.

There are three basic concepts underlying Karbanot

The first is the aspect of giving. A korban required giving and giving up something that belonged to the person making the offering. Sacrifices were made from domestic animals, not wild animals (since wild animals do not belong to anyone). Offerings of non-meat food were ordinarily in the form of flour or meal, which require human intervention and time.

A second important concept regarding korbanot is the element of substitution. The idea is that the thing being offered is a substitute for the person making the offering, and the things that are done to the offering are things that should have been done to the person offering. The offering is in some sense "punished" in place of the offerer. Whenever the subject of Karbanot is addressed in the Torah, the name of G!d used is the four-letter name indicating G!d's mercy.

The third important concept is the idea of coming closer. The essence of sacrifice is to bring a person closer to G!d.

Given all of that, the question nevertheless remains, what are we to think about all of the sacrifices that are offered up in the Torah. How can we make meaning out of them in today’s world?

I am going to offer a suggestion. But first, let me describe the five different kinds of sacrifices described in our parashah.

The first is the olah, a voluntary sacrifice.
If his offering is olah korbano, a burnt offering from the herd, he shall make his offering a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, for acceptance in his behalf before the LORD. He shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, that it may be acceptable in his behalf, in expiation for him.
After some details about mammal innards, we are then told:
the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD.
This sacrifice, which expiates the giver of guilt, is totally burned on the altar. None of it was eaten, although the hide was preserved and given to the priests.

The root of olah, Ayin-Lamed-Heh, means “to go up”, or “ascend”, as in having an aliyah, going up to the bimah for the blessing for reading the Torah, and la’alot l’yisrael, to make aliyah and move to Israel. The olah is the oldest form of sacrifice, and was the most common. It represented submission to G!d's will. Think about it. Something precious to you, that could sustain you during times of want, and you completely burn it on an altar, giving it in its entirety to G!d. This profound gift of an entire animal to G!d was an expression of complete submission to G!d's will, and of a desire to commune with G!d. In the process, that complete submission expiated one’s sins - consider, how could you commune with G!d if you were experiencing the guilt of sin? And it makes sense that this was a voluntary offering. If you are giving up something dear to you to come closer to G!d and express your complete submission to the Divine will, that spiritual journey is not something that someone can force you to take.

The second kind of sacrifice described in our parasha is the mincha, or meal offering, from prepared grain. It was a voluntary offering of those fruits that were not natural, but required human work to prepare them. The word mincha literally means “gift,” and a sacrifice of flour was a gift to G!d, given freely, and served the purpose of drawing people closer to the Holy One. 
When a person presents an offering of meal to the LORD, his offering shall be of choice flour; he shall pour oil upon it, lay frankincense on it, and present it to Aaron’s sons, the priests. The priest shall scoop out of it a handful of its choice flour and oil, as well as all of its frankincense; and this token portion he shall turn into smoke on the altar, as an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the LORD. And the remainder of the meal offering shall be for Aaron and his sons, a most holy portion from the LORD’s offerings by fire.
The third type of sacrifice described in our parasha is called zevach shlemim. 
If his offering is l’zevach shemim, a sacrifice of well-being—  he shall bring before the LORD [an animal] without blemish....He shall present from the sacrifice of well-being, as an offering by fire to the LORD, the fat that covers the entrails and all the fat that is about the entrails; the two kidneys and the fat that is on them....Aaron’s sons shall turn these into smoke on the altar, with the burnt offering which is upon the wood that is on the fire, as an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the LORD. 
Zevach means “to slaughter,” and can be used as a general term to refer to sacrifices. Zevah shleamim is often translated as a “peace offering,” which makes sense due to the root Shin-Lamed-Mem, the same as the word shalom. But zevach shleamim isn’t intended as a peace offering in the way we think of it, as a way to appease someone who has offended us. It is better translated as a “sacrifice of well-being,” connecting to the meaning of the root of “wholeness, happiness, and health,” as when we ask, ma slomech or slomcha -  how are you? This offering was distinguished by the festive meal eaten by the person brining the sacrifice and his guests, after part of it was offered on the altar and another part given to the priests. It could be an offering of thanksgiving (todah) or in fulfillment of a vow, or simply as a free-will offering. In other words, we cannot achieve a full sense of wellbeing if we don’t say thank you, if we don’t follow through on our commitments, and if we don’t sometimes just say to G!d, I remember You are in my life, which is so amazing.

The fourth type of sacrifice is the chatat, the sin offering, which could be brought by an individual or for the whole community.
Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the LORD’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them—....he shall offer for the sin of which he is guilty a bull of the herd without blemish as a sin offering to the LORD.
If it is the whole community of Israel that has erred and the matter escapes the notice of the congregation, so that they do any of the things which by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt—when the sin through which they incurred guilt becomes known, the congregation shall offer a bull of the herd as a sin offering, and bring it before the Tent of Meeting.
The first three kinds of offerings were voluntary, but a chatat was obligatory, an offering to atone for and purge a sin. It was an expression of sorrow for the error and a desire to be reconciled with G!d. The root Chet-Tet-Alef means “to miss the mark” or to sin. The chatat was offered mainly for unintentional sins committed inadvertantly, through carelessness, not for intentional, malicious sins. In other words, just as you can’t rob a bank the day before Yom Kippur and expect to atone for it the next day, you couldn’t deliberately do a wrong and then take care of it by bringing a chatat sacrifice.

Communal chatat offerings represented the interdependence of the community, the fact that we are all responsible for each others' sins. A few special chatatot could not be eaten, but for the most part, for the average person's personal sin, the chatat was eaten by the priests, which was an important part of achieving atonement.

The fifth kind of sacrifice was the asham, or guilt offering, was also obligatory. A guilt offering was to atone for sins of misappropriating property. The person had to restore what was taken, plus a 20% indemnity, and by brining an asham offering to the Temple. Once these were completed, the person was fully restored to divine favor.

Some sins for which one brought an asham were deliberate, but not all. It was brought when you were not sure whether you had committed a sin or what sin you had committed, or for breach of trust. For example:
If a person incurs guilt— When he has heard a public imprecation and—although able to testify as one who has either seen or learned of the matter—he does not give information, so that he is subject to punishment;
Or when a person utters an oath to bad or good purpose—whatever a man may utter in an oath—and, though he has known it, the fact has escaped him, but later he realizes his guilt in any of these matters—when he realizes his guilt in any of these matters, he shall confess that wherein he has sinned.
And he shall bring as his penalty to the LORD, for the sin of which he is guilty, a female from the flock, sheep or goat, as a sin offering; and the priest shall make expiation on his behalf for his sin.
That is the asham offering.

To my mind, all of this speaks directly to climate change. For all of us. Here’s how I see it, and how I invite you to absorb it.

I begin with the chatat - the obligatory offering in response to unintentional sins.

We did not mean to fry our planet. None of us intended that, or meant to do that, and yet we did, and we do. Every day we keep on doing it. We heat our homes with fossil fuels, we drive our cars with fossil fuels, we charge our electronic devices with fossil fuels, we cook our food with fossil fuels, and so much more.

We didn’t mean to destroy life as we know it on this planet, but we are doing so. We need to make a sin-offering. What might such an offering in response to our inadvertent role in making climate change -- one we are REQUIRED to give -- look like? 

In order for our sin- offering to have any meaning, we need to stop doing what we are doing. Many of us are the ones who can afford heat pumps on our homes and in our shuls. We are the ones who can afford electric cars and solar panels and better insulation. Many of us are the ones with money in the banks and in the stock market, and we need to make sure that those funds are 100% fossil fuel free. We may have the physical strength to ride a bicycle or walk instead of driving, or we could ride the T or a bus. We can take a train or a bus instead of an airplane. These could be our chata’ot.

We have the wisdom and the time and the ability to check out for whom we vote, if they have received funding from fossil fuel companies and where they stand on climate change. We are the ones who can write to our state and local reps and tell them to work toward meaningful environmental and environmental justice laws that will make our state a leader in the nation.

There is more, of course, but these are a start for how we can atone for our unintentional sins.

Next let’s consider the asham, the guilt offering in response misappropriation of property, another obligatory offering.

Misappropriation of property? Yes. Think about it. Think about children being born now. Will they breathe the clean air our parents breathed? Will they have the seaside residences, the beaches, the snowy mountains, that we have enjoyed? Will a home beside a river be available to them? Will their houses be safe from wildfires?  Will the woods behind our homes still be there? No, they will not! And if they are poor or people of color, they will lose this and more before any of the rest of us even notice that the sun has risen. They are already losing, and they will lose more and they will continue to lose it first. We have misappropriated the future. We have misappropriated so many beautiful gifts that this amazing planet had on it when our grandparents were born, that are now gone for good. We have stolen not only from our children, but also from G!d.

What might a guilt offering -- an asham -- in response to our misappropriation of property that has led to climate change look like? 

Think about this verse: If a person incurs guilt— When he has heard a public imprecation and—although able to testify as one who has either seen or learned of the matter—he does not give information, so that he is subject to punishment;

We KNOW about climate change. We KNOW about environmental injustice. We are all guilty here. We are not shouting about these out from the mountaintops. We are not talking about them at family dinners. We are not writing enough letters and emails to our local, state, and national representatives. We are buying and buying and buying, oblivious to the public imprecation we have heard. We need to start talking about climate change and climate injustice, morning, noon, and night. We need to sign the Jewish Environmental Voter Pledge and do SOMETHING to let our reps know that this is super important to us. And we need to give tzedakah - we need to give to all those who are less fortunate and who are already suffering the impacts of climate change, both our neighbors and those on the other side of the world.

All of these, the obligatory offerings, are the hard driving things we need to do. But we also need to consider the voluntary offerings, we need to be gentle with ourselves, and to work hard to come closer to G!d. We need to make free-will mincha offerings -- gifts to G!d. We need to break bread with friends, to walk in the woods, to experience with awe the natural world, to sing, to weep, to give the gifts of our hearts, those gifts that do more for the giver than the receiver. We need to pray and to study and to draw and to dance. We need to share our hearts and our souls. 

We need at times to celebrate as well, to voluntarily give our zevach shleimim, our well-being offerings, and have a feast. When we are ready to say “thank you” for what we have received, when we have fulfilled our commitments to make changes in our lives to live better for the planet, and sometimes just because we feel moved, we need to delight in locally grown foods, in our gardens, in plant based foods we didn’t even know were so delicious. We need to invite our friends and neighbors together and share the bounty we are privileged enough to have access to. We need to do the things that bring us a sense of well-being, and in the process bring ourselves closer to G!d.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to remember the olah, the critical voluntary offering that is about fully giving ourselves to G!d, submitting our will to the Divine will. What is G!d calling you to do to protect the planet for future generations? What would it mean for you to fully submit to G!d in order to help protect the world and its inhabitants that the Holy One created? To end environmental injustice? 

I cannot answer this question for you. I cannot insist that you do it. It must be, after all, a voluntary, free-will offering. I can only tell you that now more than ever, G!d needs us to do this work here in the earthly realm. I can only tell you that this is work we absolutely MUST do, each and every one of us. There is no planet B.

The Jewish Climate Action Network is immensely grateful to Temple Reyim for opening your space to us for the Second Jewish Climate Change Conference: The Time Is Short, the Task Is Great. This is an important communal offering you are making. 

Why might you come on March 24? You might come to learn what your options are, to figure out how to make each of your kinds of offerings. You might come to discover that you are not alone in your concern. You might come to sing and to schmoose, to learn Jewish truths and secular truths, and, you might come in order to feast with your friends and your neighbors in a locally grown, plant based extravaganza of a meal at the end of the conference. You might come to bring your teen or b’nai mitzvah student, letting them know you care about their future.

If you haven’t already, please register for the conference. For every five people from Temple Reyim who register, one gets in free. Bring your teens for the special teen workshop. And sign up for dinner this weekend, as the deadline for that is Monday. You won’t regret taking the day to begin or to renew your process of making offerings to G!d with the goal of preserving our planet.

Thank you very much. Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Katy Allen is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long, and the co-founder and President pro-tem of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network. She is a board certified chaplain and serves as an Eco-Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit, and is a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY in 2005 and lives in Wayland, MA, with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the singing at Ma'yan Tikvah.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Journey to Doing the Work

This d'var was delivered at Temple Ohabei Shalom, Brookline, MA, on Friday, February 15.

Erev tov – good evening, and thank you for having me here with you this Shabbat evening.

This week's parashaTetzaveh, begins with the following words

וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל׃ 
You shall instruct the Israelites..

But the word translated as “instruct” is from the same root as mitzvah, commandment. More accurately, the parasha begins, “You shall command the Israelites.”

You shall command [them] to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.

What does it mean to be commanded? The answer is different for each of us. For me, I experience it as a feeling that I have to do something, even if it is difficult, that I really have no choice. I needed a place to work on environmental issues, in particular, and I needed to be able to do it in a Jewish context. I needed that because of how much I feel that my Judaism is inextricably linked to my deep need to act in response to what is happening to this amazing Earth upon which we are blessed to live, but no such organization existed, so, I co-founded the Jewish Climate Action Network, and serve as its president pro tem. On some level, I HAD to do this. For me, this is what it means to be commanded.

What does it mean to you? How does it feel for you? Have you experienced it? When? In what regard?

Given my role at JCAN, it will not surprise you that I am going to speak to you about climate change this evening. To begin, I'd like to describe stages of grief related to climate change. I assume you are familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's famous stages of grief outlined many decades ago. Psychologists have learned much more about how we process grief in the years since then, and we understand that grief isn't linear, it is complex, a veritable mosaic of emotions and connections and responses to others. But the idea remains useful for us as a reminder that grief is multi-faceted and healing is possible.

In regard to climate, as in impending death, the stages begin with denial with their own set of stages. There are many kinds of climate denial, which have been outlined by award-winning climate scientist Michael E. Mann and others..

Five Stages of Climate Denial:
  1. Deny the problem exists
  2. Deny that we're the cause
  3. Deny it's a problem
  4. Deny we can solve it
  5. Or say it's too late so why bother

Denial, especially Stage 1, can be quite comfortable. Beyond denial, there are also the stages of grief that we can experience, as originally outlined by Nobel Laureate Steve W. Running.

The second stage — anger — anger can be all encompassing. We may be angry at all the people who are talking about climate change. Anger at all the people who are saying we have to drastically change how we live on this planet if we want to keep on living it. Anger, at everything.

Then comes bargaining, when we begin to acknowledge that global temperatures are indeed rising, but claim it’s due to natural causes. Or they taking stance like ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s — admitting climate change is a major, man-made problem, but claiming that the answer is to “adapt” to it instead of changing our behavior.

Once awakening about climate disruption begins for real, depression can become a too familiar state of being. The problem is so huge and so overwhelming and so frightening, that one might wish once more for being in denial. The awakening process continues every time we absorb more bad news about the climate.

Acceptance is the hardest stage, because the reality of what is happening and what is coming is so incredibly frightening. We are surpassing all of scientists’ worst-case scenarios and all those record droughts, floods, storms, and forest fires are beginning to be “the new normal.” Acceptance doesn't mean accepting it as OK, as acceptABLE, rather accepting that it is REAL.

Yet, acceptance is critical to appropriate action. But acceptance does not mean that all is lost. There is another stage beyond acceptance, what Daphne Wysham calls Doing The Work. As she writes, Doing the Work means “taking courage from each other as we look this monster in the eye and fight side-by-side in the battle of a lifetime. Systemic change — not just light-bulb change — is what’s required now. This must include everything from replacing the GDP as an outdated measure of progress to getting schools to teach climate science and arm the next generation with the facts.”

Doing the work is a powerful antidote to depression, to eco-despair. Someone I recently spoke with mentioned exactly this to me, that starting to do work she had felt she didn't have time for has helped her to feel more at peace. Doing the Work doesn't protect us from feeling the pain and the grief, but it can act as an antidote and get us going again.

And no matter where we are, as in grieving a loved one, we circle back to the other stages. It isn't linear.

Do any of these ring true for you? All of us live in denial much of the time, on some level, because it is such a huge problem and because we usually can't think about it 24/7. I often hover between 4 and 5, believing it is too large to be solved and it really is too late. And I certainly experience the grief on a regular basis. But I keep doing the work, because the HOW matters to me as much as the WHY, and the work does help give meaning to life, no matter what the future may bring.

I give you all of this as background, as we begin to look at the messages from this weeks Torah portion. Fittingly, our parasha begins with kindling lights, finding a source of energy to kindle the lamps of the Tabernacle in the desert. Harnessing the energy of olives to make a holy light.

That holiness is inherent in the whole process described here, of building the Tabernacle and making it functional. We read next that the priests are involved – people with a special task of serving G!d in a way that is different from others. Anointed, they lead the rituals and help to connect the rest of the people to G!d. G!d says to Moses:

You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests: Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron.

For every sacred task, there are leaders. Parents are leaders in raising their families. Teachers are leaders in preparing our children to go out into the world. The head of your ritual committee is a leader in helping to make decisions about the ritual life of your community. Who are the people you know, in this community or beyond, who are leaders in regard to preserving our planet? What leadership role have you played? What leadership role might you play?

All of the work of the Tabernacle requires not just priests, but all kinds of skilled people.

וְאַתָּ֗ה תְּדַבֵּר֙ אֶל־כָּל־חַכְמֵי־לֵ֔ב אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִלֵּאתִ֖יו ר֣וּחַ חָכְמָ֑ה 
Next you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill

Those also called to service to G!d are those with the gift of skill – in this case to make Aaron's garments. 

In this effort to confront climate change, people with many kinds of skills and many passions are needed: Perhaps you have engineering skills or understand buildings and can work toward reducing energy consumption; perhaps you have people skills and are good at talking to others and helping to get them on board; perhaps you have leadership skills and can lead a contingent to the State House to advocate for just and equitable renewable energy laws; perhaps you love to cook, and can help transform your kitchen and kiddush into environmentally friendly places and times. There are so many opportunities for all of us with gifts of different kinds of wisdom and skill.

Part of the instruction regarding making the priestly garments is to
take two lazuli stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel:  six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth. On the two stones you shall make seal engravings—the work of a lapidary—of the names of the sons of Israel. Having bordered them with frames of gold

In other words, the priests do not do their holy work independently and separately. They carry with them into their holy ritual work all of the community. The names of the tribes are a reminder that they are serving not just G!d, but all of the people, too. Their role in relation to other people is as important as their role in relation to G!d.

So, too, each of us who works for our planet does not work alone. We work in community, supported by each other, challenged by each other, strengthened by each other. This is holy work, and in our tradition, we rarely do such work alone. Even on Yom Kippur, when we do that holiest of work of self-transformation, we gather together in community, supported by the knowledge that we are not alone in having sinned.

The parasha continues with many more details of what the workers are to do. For example:

You shall make a breastpiece of decision, worked into a design; make it in the style of the ephod: make it of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width. 

Nothing is left to discretion. All is spelled out, clear, exact. No questions need be asked.

And yet...we read:

Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the LORD. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the LORD at all times.

There ARE decisions that have to be made. Not everything is spelled out, clear, and exact. Life is messy. Life is full of decisions, from morning to night, we make decisions, all of us. But Aaron carries with him a special instrument – lost now, no longer available to us – that made the process of decision making easier, that clearly brought G!d into the process.

So, too, are there many decisions for us. Many pathways forward are clearly spelled out by those with knowledge of them. But we must decide to take those pathways. We must decide which forks in the road to follow. Constantly we must decide. We no longer have the Urim and Thummim to help us decide, but we do have in our communities many people with much knowledge and experience. They can help us decide. They, with their holy knowledge, can help us decide.

And the text tells us that:
Aaron shall wear [the instrument of decision] while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the LORD and when he goes out—that he may not die.

That he may not die!?

Coming so close to G!d, making a critical decision – these are dangerous moments. Their intensity is high, the stakes are high, and the risk is great.

We read this not just once, but twice.

The [instruments of decision] shall be worn by Aaron and his sons when they enter the Tent of Meeting or when they approach the altar to officiate in the sanctuary, so that they do not incur punishment and die. It shall be a law for all time for him and for his offspring to come.

The stakes of climate change are high. They are real. They are happening today. You know about them. You read about them – fires, floods, drought, extreme cold, extreme heat, rising seas. They touch people far away, and they touch people nearby. People die because of these. And we humans are responsible for the growing number of climate disasters. 

The long-term and more-than-human consequences of climate disruption are even greater. Species are going extinct daily at a frightening rate; insect populations and diversity are plummeting. We are in what has been called the Sixth Great Extinction, the previous ones having occurred long before our existence here on this earth. There are even concerns about the ability of the human species to survive this global threat. That we may not die, we must do the work.

What else in this parasha is pertinent to today and our current state of climate change?

We read:
This is what you shall do to them in consecrating them to serve Me as priests: Take a young bull of the herd and two rams without blemish; also unleavened bread, unleavened cakes with oil mixed in, and unleavened wafers spread with oil—make these of choice wheat flour. Place these in one basket and present them in the basket, along with the bull and the two rams.

Again and again, we are told in the Torah, and once again in this parasha: you shall make sacrifices to G!d. You shall give up the best of your herds and flocks, your grains, your oils, and you shall give them to G!d. Not just the old worn out clothes in the back of the closet, but the best of what you have.

And in regard to all that good food -- and maybe you are hungry, or maybe you are poor, we are taught: 

And if any of the flesh of ordination, or any of the bread, is left until morning, you shall put what is left to the fire; it shall not be eaten, for it is holy.

It is holy.
It is special.
It is set apart.
It is not for regular usage.
Do not eat it.

And this is not just for ancient times, but an offering, as the text tells us 
throughout the generations, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting before the LORD. 

Throughout the generations – for always, now. You. Me. We are commanded to make sacrifices. We are commanded to give up the best of our “herds” and our “flocks” and our “wheat.” Yes, it is true that after the destruction of the second Temple and the rise of rabbinic Judaism, we turned away from sacrifice as a way to be in communication with G!d, and turned toward prayer and study. But the messages are still there. We read them many weeks of the year. Let them not fall on deaf ears. Let us not think that these rituals that feel so foreign and perhaps barbaric to us, that they do not have a message for us today.

We who are comfortable in life live in a world of plenty, of excess, of a sense of our right to all that we have. What would it mean tfor me to truly sacrifice to G!d? What would it mean for you? 

When we figure it out, and when we do all this – when we work with skill and dedication, when we offer up the best of what we have, when we sacrifice something we think we need, then
there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you,
I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their God. 
And, when we do all of this, we will know that we are not alone; we will remember our history, and that we were once slaves, but were redeemed from bondage:

They shall know that I the LORD am their God, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them, I the LORD their God. 

We are currently in bondage. We are slaves to fossil fuels, to having everything we wanted, to believing that comfort and possessions and travel lead us to the best possible life, to thinking that the world outside our doors is not holy. But our tradition teaches that redemption is possible. And in our parasha, we find that when we move toward freedom, when we do this work and make these sacrifices and

Place them in front of the curtain that is over the Ark of the Pact—in front of the cover that is over the Pact—[there G!d] will meet with you [us].

G!d will meet us. G1d will be with us, in a place and time of transformation. As Daphne Wysham concludes: “Together, we can get a glimpse, beyond despair, of a world of transformation and rebirth that is possible if we’re courageous enough to fight for it."

To help find the courage, and the community, for Doing the Work, join me at the Second Jewish Climate Change Conference: The Time Is Short, the Task is Great, at Temple Reyim in Newton, MA, Sunday, March 24, from 12:30 PM - 7:30 PM.

May each of us find the courage to hear and understand how we are commanded. May we accept that command, do the work we are skilled to do, and make the sacrifices we must. May we meet G!d in that space and time, and may we act in time and with enough energy to save our planet and its inhabitants.

Thank you. Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Katy Allen is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long, and the co-founder and President pro-tem of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network. She is a board certified chaplain and serves as an Eco-Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit, and is a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY in 2005 and lives in Wayland, MA, with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the singing at Ma'yan Tikvah.