Friday, November 2, 2012

Parashat Vayera: Cranberries, Climate Change, and Cheer

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

I have been thinking a lot about The Food Stamp Challenge. I have found it is interesting that this does not seem to resonate with folks around me, and as I continue along with this idea alone, I find myself modifying my thoughts and intentions about it, in part because I’m still getting food from a CSA and don’t want it to go to waste in the process of trying to get myself to think about others who don’t have enough to eat, in part because it has less meaning to do it alone, and in part because, honestly, it is a little scary. 

I just spoke with a friend whose daughter teaches in Revere and many of her students come to school every day hungry. Revere is near by. Hunger is near by. Then I look at the spreads of too much food that are put out my workplace – and in other locations and situations, including in my own home – for a celebration or a gathering of one kind or another, and, if I want to not overeat, I must be judicious in what I take. And I think about the Earth from which we take this food, and how it is suffering from our damage to it, and I wonder. I wonder why we continue to eat more than we need and to throw out food, when we could be saving the money and using it to find food for those who don’t have enough. I wonder why we continue to eat more than we need and to throw out food, wasting our Earth’s precious resources. 

What would it take for us to change our ways and be more loving to those who are in need and to the planet that sustains us?

And then I always return to a question that often haunts me: Does it matter what I do? I just heard Bill McKIbben telling us that conservation won’t work. We can’t save the planet through our conservation efforts. His new push is getting institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies as a way to influence them to stop searching for more fossil fuels and to try to end climate silence. His global organization,, is working on this around the planet.

In contrast, there is a new movement to encourage us to calculate our Handprint (– as opposed to our Footprint, as a way to think positively about the things we are doing, because (and research apparently supports this idea) otherwise depression sets in and we feel that the world would be better off without us. There is something very Jewish about this way of looking at the world. We are commanded, each and every one of us, to perform every mitzvah, every commandment, ourselves. If we save one life, the Mishnah teaches, it is as though we saved the world. Judaism teaches us that our individual actions matter. And Judaism tells about both things we are to do as well as things we are not to do. In this week's parashah Vayera, Abraham welcomes strangers at his door; they turn out to be messengers from G!d, and from his welcoming of these guests we derive the mitzvah, with us still today, thousands of years later, to welcome guests into our home, to feed them (too much, of course), and give them the comforts they need.

We just put solar panels on our home. We haven’t yet flipped the switch. An individual action yes, but one done in community – the Solarize community. On the one hand, it feels good, like an important step in the effort to slow climate change, but at the same time I understand better now that the process of producing the panels is toxic to the planet, and I still haven’t gotten an answer to my question of how long the panels have to be at work before they “earn back” the energy it took to produce them in the first place.

The questions are complex, but our tradition teaches us not to avoid the questions just because the answers are not readily available, but to keep on moving forward

A disciple, tormented by wavering faith and unable to study, came to see R' Pinchas. The rebbe responded that, as a young man, he, too, had wrestled with questions and doubts. “About man and his fate, creation and its meaning. I was struggling with so many dark forces that I could not advance; I was wallowing in doubt, locked in despair. I tried study, prayer, meditation. Penitence, silence, solitude. In vain. My doubts remained doubts, my questions remained threats. Impossible to proceed, to project myself into the future. I simply could not go on.” Then, one day, when the Baal Shem Tov was visiting his town, R' Pinchas was led by curiosity to attend the gathering. “I was convinced that he was seeing me and no one else. … The intensity of his gaze overwhelmed me, and I felt less alone. And strangely, I was able to go home, open the Talmud, and plunge into my studies once more. You see, … the questions remained questions. But I was able to go on” [140].

The many questions remain, but we can go on, together. One of the ways at Ma’yan Tikvah that we went forward together was by picking cranberries at our annual Cranberry Shabbat, where we welcomed folks from Mosaic Jewish Outdoor Club. We had more than a dozen people picking and picnicking and praying together last Shabbat, and we will deliver the wild fruits of the earth that we picked to a homeless shelter for their Thanksgiving meal. It was renewing and healing for all of us.

Looking to the future, we are having Shabbat services outside tomorrow morning, so join us at Hamlen Woods on Rice Road in Wayland and dress for the weather. We are switching to our winter schedule and starting services at 10:30 AM

We never know when the strangers who suddenly appear in our lives will be messengers of God, as they were for Abram in our Torah portion, and so we ask the Holy One of Blessing to help us keep our hearts and our minds open, and to trust that, as Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav tells us, just as we can do damage, so, too, can we heal.

Shabbat Shalom!


  1. Mostly I wanted to relate to you how much more your thoughts on the Food Stamp Challenge resonate. And to wonder whether many others have written to say that this seems like a fruitful, if frustrating, line to pursue. Here, you ask, what we can do to change, to contribute. When Rosh Hashanah came, I vowed not to take another bag from any market or store, whether I had forgotten my bag or brought it. It makes the tiniest of contributions but it helps.

    Now, reading your words, I am struck by the idea of how much more I eat than my body needs and how I sometimes eat things that come from far away. I guess the next thing is to figure out how to eat more modestly and more locally. On the wider scale, let's see if there isn't a way to help feed children who are hungry. Yulik (Julian) grew up hungry in Tashkent. I remember well his story about how his mouth stung from eating the unripe fruit he stole from the neighbor's trees. Children shouldn't be hungry when we have so much. let's keep talking, and then do something.


  2. For discussing these topics! I wonder how much people feel overwhelmed by making choices among many activities and a lot of information. Also not necessarily having a personal connection to hunger or someone to do this activity with. In the U.S., at least in the urban population in many areas, we tend to be isolated from others and have to work to do things as a community. There is such a strong drive to be an individual, to compete, to ferry children to activities, to exercise, etc., often no longer in the same household or living quarters or area or state. It can be easier to donate money than to engage in another activity that may not have "practical" value. Just some thoughts from what I have heard/read here and there. That
    is why it is valuable for someone to address such issues in person to talk with others and/or model behavior and demonstrate what can actually be done.


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