Thursday, June 5, 2014

Parshat B’ha’alotetcha / Finding the Silence

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen 
For Congregation Agudas Achim, Taunton, MA

I invite you to close your eyes for a moment and listen to words from the most sacred of all our texts, from this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’alotecha. And as you listen, I invite you to imagine that you lived about 3000 years ago in the ancient near east.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, "When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand." Aaron did so; he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses.--Now this is how the lampstand was made: it was hammered work of gold, hammered from base to petal. According to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses, so was the lampstand made.

Can you envision the seven lamps? Can you envision the lampstand, the hammered work of gold? Can you imagine the pattern?

So far, we are in the realm of the imaginable. One more question. Can you imagine how G!d showed Moses that pattern?

Now we move out of the readily imaginable into the more difficult to comprehend. What does it mean to have G!d show a pattern for a lampstand to a human being?

Even thinking about it requires us to give up some sense of control, some sense of knowing, some sense of our world knowledge.

Our parasha continues:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the Levites from among the Israelites and cleanse them. This is what you shall do to them to cleanse them: sprinkle on them water of purification, and let them go over their whole body with a razor, and wash their clothes; thus they shall be cleansed.

So far so good, we can imagine and handle that. Then we get this:

Let them take a bull of the herd, and with it a meal offering of choice flour with oil mixed in, and you take a second bull of the herd for a sin offering. You shall bring the Levites forward before the Tent of Meeting. Assemble the whole Israelite community, and bring the Levites forward before the Lord. Let the Israelites lay their hands upon the Levites, and let Aaron designate the Levites before the Lord as an elevation offering from the Israelites, that they may perform the service of the Lord.

Do you get it? Do you resonate with it? Is it meaningful to you?

My bet is that for most of us these verses are not easily meaningful. A couple of bulls and some flour for a sin offering to cleanse the Levites, in front of the whole community, who lay their hands upon them.

Now we are in a totally different cultural context. How can we possible relate to this?

So, here’s one way to think of it:

I work as a chaplain at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and I see many people who are extremely ill. As you may know from friends or family members’ illnesses, in today’s world, if we get sick, we may go through incredibly difficult treatments, and we may live many more years in good health, or at some point we may slowly decline and gradually journey toward the end of our lives.

One of the conversations I often have with people who are dealing with pain, incapacitation, loss of a sense of control of their lives, loss of the security of the idea that they will live for a long time, is about giving their burdens and their dilemmas to G!d. I have had this conversation with Christians, with Jews, with Muslims, and with Unitarians, and the conversation with all of them is essentially the same.

What does it mean to give something to G!d? Think about a time when you have been so overwhelmed that you just don’t know what to do. The situation is so complex that you cannot possibly figure out all the ins and outs. The more you think about it, the more distressed you get and the more complex it seems. And then you stop thinking. In the language I am using, you give your unanswerable question to G!d. You step back and let the Divine hold it, you hold the tension of not knowing, and then, suddenly, an answer may appear, a way forward may open before you. Perhaps not immediately, but before too long. This is what can happen when we give something of our lives to G!d.

It is easy to think of this as giving up. But giving up is different, and it feels different. Giving up is about a sense of hopelessnesss, giving something to G!d is about trust and faith in the future.

In the book of Shemot, Exodus, G!d says, ahyeh ashe ehyeh, I will be what I will be. This is what we need to hold on to, the idea that G!d will be. Just be. Not be something. Just be. And to let that sense of just being hold us.

In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, Rabban Gamaliel says: Provide yourself with a teacher and remove yourself from doubt....

Remove ourselves from doubt – getting rid of doubt means instead to trust, to have faith, to let ourselves be held.

And in the next mishnah, Rabban Gamliel’s son Shimon says: All my days have I grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a person than silence. Studying Torah is not the most important thing, rather fulfilling it.

Our relationship with G!d involves all three of the things that Shimon ben Gamliel mentions: study, silence, and doing; both study and silence are forms of prayer.

Shimon ben Gamliel tells us that silence is important, and to fulfill Torah is more important than to study it, but it is out of our study that the knowledge we need of how to fulfill Torah, in its largest sense, arises.

Why is silence so important?

To hold the tension of not knowing, not knowing what to do or to say, to stand in the breach, demands silence, silence of our heart as well physical silence, like the water of a quiet pond at dawn on a windless morning, and it is out of this silence that the faith that takes the place of doubt can arise. When G!d appeared to the prophet Elijah on the mountaintop, it was not in the wind, and it was not in the earthquake, and it was not in the fire that G!d appeared, but afterward, in the still small voice, kol d’mamma dakah. Out of the silence, quivering fear and uncertainty can be transformed into security and trust. And out of the security and trust can come action, fulfilling Torah, which is, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel so famously said when he walked beside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, Alabama, so many years ago, like praying with our feet. It is the prayers of our feet and our hands and our bodies – our actions, which are, in the end what is important. It is not about speaking, it is about doing, doing not speaking.

The world around us and within us is replete with complex questions and problems that we as communities and as individuals need to give to G!d. We swim in a sea of overwhelmingly intricate issues, but I am here to speak about just one of these.

In April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its fifth report on the status of climate change, including descriptions of widespread observed current – today – impacts across the globe. In early May, the US Climate Change Research Program released the Third National Climate Assessment, which provides chilling details of the current impact of climate change on each region of the US.

We humans have an impact on planet Earth. We cannot help but do so, for we inhabit nearly every nook and cranny of it. We impact the soil, the water, the air, the lakes, the mountains, the glaciers, the oceans. And we are feeling the impact of our impact. We worry if the water we drink is safe. We worry about the air we breathe and the food we eat. We worry about super storms, about sea level rising, about famine and drought and wildfires, about all the complex impacts of climate change on our planet and our lives. We worry about our children’s and our grandchildren’s future.

Through these two recent reports and many past reports, our nation’s and our world’s scientists are telling us that climate change is real and it is happening now. And they are also telling us that the issue is urgent and that we don’t have much time in which to act. And if we open our eyes and look around, we see it and we know that what they are saying is true. Climate change is already happening, and it is scary. It is, in fact, so scary that it is easier to look the other way and to go about our lives. We don’t want to think about famine and drought and flood and wildfires. We don’t want to experience them, see them on TV, think about them, or consider their impact. We want to go about our lives.

But our lives as individuals and as a society are dependent on all that is causing the problems. We need fossil fuels to heat and cool our homes, to travel, to transport food and clothing, to build plastics, and so much more. As a result, each of us unwittingly becomes a player in causing the destruction of the planet. 

What are we to do?

A bit further on in our parashah, in Chapter 11, the Israelites start moaning to Moses about the conditions in the desert:

The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!"

Think about it – they remember eating fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic when they were slaves in Egypt. Not a bad diet for a slave, wouldn’t you say? And now all they have is manna.

We may not feel like slaves today – we like to think that we are free. But we are, in essence, slaves to fossil fuels. Is there anyone here who can go a day without needing gasoline to get somewhere, oil or gas to heat or cool their home, electricity or gas to cook with, foods that traveled from somewhere – probably far away – transported by vehicles that use fossil fuels?

What are we to do? Silence that does not acknowledge the reality – the silence of avoidance or denial – is not the kind of silence Shimon ben Gamliel spoke of. It is exactly what we don’t need. But how do we fulfill Torah at a time like this – when scientists are telling us that we have so little time before runaway climate change totally disrupts our world?

Can we stop using fossil fuels suddenly, cold turkey? Scary to think about, isn’t it? And in fact, we literally could not survive.

We may prefer to say that we are dependent on fossil fuels, it is a nicer way to talk about it, but in essence we are enslaved by them. We are at their mercy.

And in the process we are destroying the sacred Earth that is the Divine creation.

What are we to do?

Have we given our pain and suffering to G!d? For most of us, the answer is NO. We have instead, eaten another bowl of ice cream, bought another new shirt, taken another trip, or in some other way, demanded something from our planet, gotten it, and not looked back.

What would happen instead, if the next time we were feeling a bit uncomfortable about something – related to climate change or not, we stopped and held onto that discomfort, and then opened up our heart and our mind and said, “G!d, hold me please in this discomfort. Allow my pain to move through me. I give myself to you. Let me serve you with my heart and with my soul.”

This is the kind of silence that Shimon Ben Gamliel was talking about, the kind of service that is the fulfillment of Torah of which he spoke.

Our Torah text speaks in the creation story of Adam being placed in the Garden of Eden l’ov’dah u’lshomrah. This is often translated as “to till and to tend,” or some other active doing to the Earth. But the root of the word ovdah is the same as in the word that is used when referring to the temple service, and it has the meaning “to serve.”

We are to serve the Earth and to guard it. Doing so is one important way to fulfill Torah.

What does this mean for us? How does this look, for you? For me? For someone else?

The Talmud teaches us that [Alexander the Great] asked them [the Jewish sages of the south], “Who is called a 'wise one'?” They responded to him, “The person who sees the consequence of their action.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tamid 32a)

This means that we must be first of all “wise people,” and see the consequences of our actions, and then, if need be, change our actions. This is what it means to fulfill Torah in relation to climate change.

Changing our actions alone can feel both lonely and futile – we are so small in terms of the overwhelming nature of the problems. Doing something with our family may feel somewhat more empowering and less alone. And doing something with our community can feel even more empowering.

In my case, one of the ways I am trying to fulfill Torah in relation to climate change is in helping to form and lead the Jewish Climate Action Network. Together with Eli Gerzon, now working for Better Future Project/350MA, I helped this nascent organization come into being. Those of us involved in JCAN are members of the Jewish community who are passionate about the Earth and its inhabitants and the critical need for action. We are diverse in our backgrounds and in the kinds of action we believe are important, but we are united by our care and concern for the world around us.

JCAN is focused on tikkun tevel – healing of the Earth. JCAN’s objectives focus on five areas, and include promoting awareness and understanding of environmental problems, in particular, climate change, supporting political advocacy and action for better climate and environmental policies, encouraging personal and communal change, bringing attention to social and economic injustices associated with climate change, and providing support to those working to preserve the environment.

This sounds wonderful, but what does it mean for all of us?

As individuals and families, we can examine our lives and think about how to live in greater harmony with G!d’s creation, how we can better serve the Earth and G!d though our day-to-day actions.

As a congregational community, you can invite in MA Interfaith Power and Light to help you determine the best ways to make your buildings more energy efficient, saving money for your congregation even as you reduce your carbon footprint.

You can engage in the study of Torah and money in order to be able to fulfill Torah by considering the synagogues finances. The Shalom Center, with its Move Our Money, Protect Our Planet (MOM/POP) campaign can provide resources, as can JCAN.

You can be one of the first 10 synagogues to sign onto the JCAN invitation / challenge to commit to entering into a process of moving your funds out of fossil fuel industry and into the green energy field. Yes, you are a small congregation. But that does not mean that you cannot be a leader in this arena.

You can find ways to engage in advocacy for the environment. JCAN can provide resources to help your congregation learn more about how climate change is not an environmental question, but an existential question about survival. It is a moral question, not a political question, and we as faith communities have a responsibility to stand up and speak out for the Earth and for the most vulnerable in our world who are the most easily impacted and for all of the descendents of all of the inhabitants of the planet.

You can ask your rabbi to be one of the first 10 rabbis to take the JCAN  invitation / challenge to commit to speaking about climate change during the High Holidays, and helping to spread the word to others in your congregation and to the larger community.

What we cannot do alone, we can do together. And there are many things we can do, there are answers and there are ways to build a more resilient and vibrant world.

On a more personal level, I invite you to share with me and with Rabbi Heath your fears, your despair, your grief, as well as to tell us about the actions you are already taking to conserve resources or to act, individually, communally or politically. I invite you to join JCAN and other members of the Jewish community as we explore ways to act together. And please know that JCAN and its members would like to be a resource for your community in whatever way might be helpful.

We read in Leviticus 19:16, “You shall not go about slandering your kin. You shall not stand over the blood of your fellow man. I am the Lord.” The Rambam, Moses Maimonides, in his code of Jewish law, teaches us that “by this prohibition [Leviticus 19:16] we are forbidden to neglect to save a life of a person whom we see in danger of death and destruction and whom it is in our power to save...” (Book of Commandments, no. 297)

We are forbidden to neglect to save the lives of those who are in danger – including from climate change. We must act and we must do, in order to fulfill Torah.

At the same time, we must also take care of ourselves so that we can do the work we need to do. And so, I also invite you to join others from the Jewish community at this year’s third Metrowest Shabbat Retreat in Nature to be held in Ashland in late August, a weekend of outdoor tefillah, outdoor eating and sleeping, being and doing Jewish, and in the process renewing our connection and commitment to the natural world, giving back to ourselves, taking care of ourselves.

I leave you today with two quotes from Jewish tradition. The first, an ancient midrash: Shimon bar Yochai taught that “if you are holding a sapling in your hand, and someone says that the Messiah has drawn near, first plant the sapling, and then go and greet the Messiah.” (Avot d’Rebbe Natan 31b)

And from the Israeli poet, Leah Goldberg

Teach me, O G!d, a blessing, a prayer
On the mystery of a withered leaf,
On ripened fruit so fair,
On the freedom to see, to sense,
To breathe, to know, to hope, to despair.
Teach my lips a blessing, a hymn of praise,
As each morning and night
You renew Your days,
Lest my day today be as the one before;
Lest routine set my ways.

Todah rabbah and Shabbat shalom.

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