Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Passover: A Time for Redefining Hope

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

As you read this post, I invite you to hold a stone, a rock, a solid piece of the Earth, as a way to connect in a physical way to Tzuri v'goali, my Rock and my Redeemer, and also to remember, Ki l'olam chasdo - G!d's love endures forever.

I was dying. Not just in the way that we’re all inching inevitably toward our own deaths each moment; I was hurtling toward a specific death with a name, a shape, and a timeline. I was 37 years old and I was dying of leukemia.

Thus begins Alison Spodek Keimowitz's recent article in Slate, “I Felt Despair About Climate Change—Untila Brush With Death Changed My Mind”. Keimowitz is an assistant professor at Vassar College with a focus on environmental chemistry and pollution. 

I used to work in an large acute-care hospital, and one of my floors was an oncology unit. Many of the patients on that floor were preparing for or undergoing stem cell transplants, the treatment Keimowitz had for her leukemia. I have journeyed beside people young and old as they suffered through the intense emotions around diagnosis and the subsequent powerful treatment that is designed to keep them alive, but that makes them incredibly sick in the process. I watched people suffering pain, discomfort, intense nausea, and terrible mouth sores as a result of their treatment. Enduring the long stem-cell transplant process takes incredible courage and perseverance, and speaks to the power of the human drive to stay alive.

Repeatedly throughout my years in the hospital, I witnessed and was amazed by the lengths to which people are willing to go to buy the possibility of many or a few more years of life, or even just months or weeks.

Keimowitz describes the agony of her stem-cell transplant and how difficult it was just to get through a day, even an hour or a minute. She also tells of learning mindfulness techniques, and the power of breathing and counting to four to help her endure. Whenever she thought that she couldn't go on one more minute, she found that counting to four was something she could do, once, and then again, and again, and thus she survived the emotional and spiritual and physical agony of her situation. The mindfulness practices she learned saved her.

When she returned to college teaching a year later, Keimowitz found that some of what she taught was the same—chemical reactions and other basics of chemistry hadn't changed. But she was also teaching about climate change, biodiversity, and extinction, and all of these took on new significance for Keimowitz.

This planet is dying. Not just in the way that life on Earth is always, inevitably beginning and ending, that species are rising and falling, that extinction and evolution occur, and that temperature and sea levels cycle dramatically and irregularly. In the 21st century, Earth is hurtling toward a specific death with a shape, a name, and a timeline. It is dying of global warming, climate change, extinction, biological annihilation, and ocean acidification. The exact names and the exact timing is debated, but the overall trajectory of life on Earth is well-understood: We are in the midst of Earth’s sixth mass extinction, and the odds of human civilization reaching the 22nd century are often estimated at no better than 50/50.

This is really difficult to read. It is hard to comprehend, to accept, and to internalize. It is incredibly challenging to really understand--perhaps impossible to understand.

When I began teaching environmental change in 2005, I focused on how to build a track away from the cliff of environmental catastrophe. When I returned to teaching in 2014, I found that I no longer could see a track that turned away from the edge. We are already locked into catastrophic changes, terrible human and animal suffering, the loss of so much of what makes this Earth itself.

Keimowitz knew all the technical information, but her training as a scientist couldn't help her with the work of grief and naming and acknowledgment that she now felt compelled to share with her students. Her training in mindfulness during her illness, however, could help her. She had learned how to breathe with and through her grief and her pain, how not to look away from the hard things, but to sit with them, how to acknowledge and name the pain, and how to trust herself to be able to move forward.

Many students came into Keimowitz's classes already knowing about carbon dioxide, sea level rise, and mass extinction. But how to move forward, how to breathe, and how to live with the knowledge of their own personal and planetary mortality was something entirely different. Keimowitz realized that as a result of her experience with leukemia, she could offer her students tools to help them survive and endure with some grace.

Having sat with many grieving families in the hospital and later in hospice during my years working as a chaplain in the health care system, and having, over my lifetime, learned – at last most of the time – how to deal with my own PTSD, the result of childhood and adult trauma, I have learned much. Like Keimowitz, I have been experiencing my own grief and despair about the Earth, over the years learning how to face it and move onward. I have been gradually coming to terms with planetary death, and I hope that I, too, can help others with their grief and despair.

When Keimowitz was ill, she was terrified – what mother of two kids under age six with a disease with a two-year survival rate of 25 percent wouldn't be? Initially she read and read and read, all about her disease and the statistics on prognosis. When she was able to fully acknowledge and name for herself the nearness of own death, only then did her anxiety began to ease. By being more present to her suffering on her worst days, by naming it not just clinically, but with the fullness of her heart, with her whole being, then she suddenly found herself more present to joy as well.

My own need to both name and express my grief about the planet has become more and more acute over the years. I have held the grief for a long time, longer, I've been realizing recently, than I'd been aware of it. For many years, I didn't name it fully – I may have said it, but I wasn't feeling it with the fullness of my heart and with my whole being. But as I've been watching the storms and the fires and the floods and the droughts, and as I've listened as scientists have told us that 1) 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide, or maybe 400, is the maximum to maintain a livable planet; 2) it takes 50 years for the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to impact the climate; and 3) the current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is over 408 ppm. When I put those realities together in my mind, and also consider shrinking ice sheets, etc., along with my perception that we are not going to suddenly, tomorrow, stop our fossil fuel usage, I've realized that the future will be far worse than the present. I've become alive to naming planetary destruction.

I've begun to recognize that my intellectual understanding has lagged behind my grief. The grief has been with me for a long time, and as I've become more aware and more willing to name it, I've also become more able to express it. I have walked in the woods, and in my grief, I have stopped and hugged a tree and wept out loud, tears welling up from within. I've cried out to the tree and the woods and the universe, asking for forgiveness for not being able to save the tree, the habitat, the planet, and all that lives and breathes on Earth.

In my journey through my dark emotions, I have found sustenance in what's left of nature, and in Jewish tradition.

The times and places in which the Jewish people has experienced almost total destruction and annihilation and somehow found strength to go on are too numerous. After the destruction of First and Second Temples and the subsequent expulsion from the Land of Israel, the Jewish people had to totally reframe and redefine their identity and their relationship to G!d. When the Golden Age of human co-existence in Spain came to a crashing end, the Jews were forced to convert or leave for unfamiliar lands, or risk imprisonment or death. And then, of course, nothing stands out more dramatically than the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were murdered, and we are still too close to it to understand its longterm impact on the Jewish people.

All of these historical events have given rise to myriad resources about survival and resiliency that can speak to the current planetary destruction crisis. But what I have found most helpful, what has spoken to me most deeply, has been the work of A. D. Gordon, a Labor Zionist born in 1856 in Russia. Gordon, an ardent Zionist, managed a large tract of land which was rented out for farming. In 1903, when the lease on the lands he managed expired, Gordon emigrated to Palestine and became an agricultural laborer. A white collar worker with no experience in manual labor, Gordon believed that physical act of working the land created an organic interrelationship between the worker, the land, and culture, and would bring about his personal redemption as well as the redemption of the Jewish people. A pragmatic and non-Marxist socialist, Gordon, a generation older than most of the early pioneers, a philosopher by nature and an avid writer, became a spiritual leader of the younger labor Zionists in Palestine.

I was introduced to Gordon's work by Rabbi Lenny Levin, and in response to his challenge and invitation, I began translating some of Gordon's writings. The first, written in 1909, was The Dream [line breaks added]:

In my dream--
here I am arriving at the land.
And the land is neglected and desolate
and is in the hands of foreigners,
and destruction darkens the light of her face
and destroys her spirit,
and an alien government corrupts her.
Distant from me and strange to me
is the land of my ancestors,
and I, too, am distant from her and a stranger to her.
The single connection that ties me to her,
and the lone memory that reminds me
that she is my mother and I am her son,
is--because my soul is also desolate
like her,
for it, too, fell into the hands of foreigners,
to destruct it and destroy it.

These dark and powerful words immediately resonated for me. We can ask, in our day, in relation to what is happening to the Earth: Who is it that is neglecting the Earth and causing its destruction? Who are the foreigners and the alien governments who corrupt her? Who is it that is darkening the face of the Earth? Destroying the Earth's spirit?

I leave these questions unanswered for the moment, for it is not the answers to the questions that concerns me so much as the grief and the pain and the despair, the desolate and destroyed souls.

Gordon expresses the impact of what happens to the land on the spiritual wellbeing of those connected to it:

I feel the destruction and I ponder the ruins with all the facets of my soul,
with all the limbs and nerves of my body,
and a Divine Voice goes forth from the ruins and declares,
“Mortal! Consider these ruins,
and consider them once again,
turn not a blind eye to them.
But understand to the depths of your being
what your mind acknowledges,
that the destruction is the destruction of your soul,
and the destroyer is the destroyer in your life...

Jews in earlier centuries were living in foreign lands not by their own choice. By the same token, most of us today are not actively seeking and choosing to live a soul-destructing life. We didn't personally and intentionally create the fossil-fuel dependent culture and lifestyles that are hurtling us toward planetary destruction. Our current lifestyles were created by
               white privilege,
               the fossil fuel industry,
               the military – industrial complex,
               large corporations,
               and so many others,
but perhaps most of all, our planet- and soul-destroying lifestyles were created
               by our collective human desire for a comfortable life,
               by our collective ignorance,
               and by our collective greed.

With our ongoing participation we are complicit in continuing them.

But, no matter who or what was and is responsible for the condition of the Earth and the atmosphere, here we are today, in this situation, deep into the destruction of our lives and our souls, deep into the destruction of the planet.

What do we do? How do we cope?

In addition to describing the destruction and the pain, Gordon also offers hope:

And as you continue to ponder and to dig deeper,
you shall see that from below the ruins an orphaned ember still whispers,
saved by hiding from the spirit of that life,
and the spirit of the land breathes upon [the ember]
to bring it to life.
And when you totally abandoned that life, which others created,
when you left their land and arrived here
to create a new life for yourself,
your life--
then the ember flickered and lived,
glowed and brought forth its flame,
and you came alive again,
and your people and your land returned and lived.

Unlike Gordon and the Jews of the early 20th century, we cannot simply move across the planet to leave behind the destroying foreigners. We cannot find a lost but remembered land to give us new life.

So what is it that can bring us to life again? What can we do?

Keimowitz tells us that:

By finally looking mortality in the face, its presence in my soul began to shrink, and I could enjoy the small joys that I could find. I taught my 2-year-old to taste honeysuckle; I showed my 6-year-old cicada shells.

This is how we can come alive again. We can allow our hearts to break fully and completely apart. We can look planetary destruction in the face, and when we do, our hearts and our souls will also break open. With our hearts broken open, we become open up to feeling deeply, down, down, to the farthest depths, and as we feel deeply the pain, we also become more able to access the joy. When we acknowledge the destruction, a flickering ember will glow, and its flame can be brought forth.

The impact of allowing my heart to break apart is similar to what happened to Keimowitz. I can enjoy the delights of nature with my grandchildren, and with other children with whom I walk the trails. I have become more ready and able to forgive myself and others, and grudges more easily slip away. I find myself letting go of old pain and guilt I had held onto for so long. Open and ready to experiencing the joy I had long ago lost touch with, I'm learning anew to smile and laugh, more authentically, more readily, more gracefully. I'm feeling a deepening of my relationship to G!d and of the work that I do. Tears still well up within me at times, but my step is lighter, my heart more open, my insights deeper, and joy is more easily accessible.

I have begun to redefine hope.

I learned about and witnessed people redefining hope when I worked in the hospital. Redefining hope is, for most people, part of the journey toward the end of life. The hope of watching grandchildren grow up and marry is transformed into the hope of being present at a bar mitzvah or a birthday. The hope of being present for a bar mitzvah or a birthday is transformed into the hope of simply seeing that child one more time. The desire to hike the mountains becomes the desire to experience one more springtime. And so it goes, narrowing our source of meaning and strength in life as the options become more limited. Redefining hope gives life meaning at the very moments when it might otherwise appear to be losing meaning.

When we allow our hearts to break in regard to the Earth, we can begin to redefine what hope means for us not just personally, but for all humanity, all life.

In another essay, Consciousnesses and Unconsciousness, Gordon explores the human relationship to nature. He compares humans in relation to nature to fish in water, and the need of the fish for water to our need for nature.

From all the foregoing it becomes clear
that the earthling, because he is an earthling
must always be in the midst of nature;
because nature is to the conscious and perceptive earthling
exactly as water is to the fish.
For, not just upon the reflection of bringing nature into his psyche
is the earthling dependent.
He is dependent upon the sphere of nature,
upon the encompassing and uniting pressure that nature,
that the infinite existence,
presses upon every point of his entire body and soul,
and forces him to live,
to be an earthling and to be the essence of his wholeness;
he is dependent
upon the connection without a perpetual intermediary
between himself and the infinite nature,
upon the unseen absorption,
in which every ounce of his body and soul absorbs from the infinite nature
and in which all of him absorbs from eternity;
he is dependent not only upon awareness and perception,
he is dependent on life everlasting.
The more the earthling opens up,
the more his perception and his awareness deepens
expanding and enriching the treasure of his knowledge
the more he is dependent upon cleaving nature
without an intermediary,
to absorb the infinite existence
without an intermediary.
The natural earthling, the wild one,
nourishes from what is available, whether material or spirit.
He doesn’t spend much,
and he is not dependent on a large income.

This, Gordon postulates, is how we should be in relationship to nature, not demanding, not destroying, simply embedded in the natural world, part of it, as a fish is in water, connecting to Ain Sof—the Infinite Existence. But, of course, most of us do not live this way:

Not thus
is the earthling
who is the child of the culture of thought and feeling.
He is not content with what is available
and demands only taking or seizing,
moreover, he strives to create what is not available;
he is not satisfied with what is apparent,
but rather, he seeks to penetrate into the consciousness of nature
and to see what is concealed from him.
On one side, he surveys and looks, examines and inspects,
analyzes and assembles, researches and investigates--
seeking to know the details of everything,
and from the other side to gain,
something more about the details
and about the sum total of them--
the universal harmony, the universal truth--
the everlasting life.
He spends a great deal, he wastes much...
and of necessity, earns much,
of necessity, he is dependent upon the flow that doesn’t cease...

Out of our desire for comfort and wellbeing, we demand so much more than our share of nature, and as a result, we destroy the very Earth upon which we depend. We lose our ability to be embedded within the natural world, to be dependent upon a direct spiritual connection to nature, to feel and to experience the essence of the natural world with every ounce of our body and soul, to cleave to it, to have full cognition of our dependence upon awareness and perception, and upon life everlasting.

How do we make the transition from one who seizes and takes, who strives to extract what is not readily available, one who needs an intermediary between ourselves and the universal harmony, the everlasting life, to one who is fully connected to the Universe? How do we not demand, but simply be one who “nourishes from what is available”? How do we feel ourselves fully and truly embedded within the natural world?

On thing that has helped me along that journey, and can help with the mindfulness we need to deal with our grief, is the theology put forth by Rabbi David Seidenberg in his book, Kabbalah and Ecology: the Divine Image in the More-than-human World, in which he demonstrates that certain strands of Jewish tradition teach us that everything is created in Divine Image.

I suspect that one of the reasons Seidenberg's work has spoken to me so powerfully is that I didn't come to it in a vacuum. About 12-15 years ago, I began to pray outside on a regular basis, and about 10 years ago, I began to lead services outdoors throughout the year. Over time, I began to notice that my spiritual practice of outdoor prayer was changing my relationship to the natural world, and deepening it. I was gradually, at a level beyond words, becoming more aware of the sacredness of the world around me. Rabbi Seidenberg was articulating something that I was already experiencing, and after some time of integrating his ideas, I changed the way I recite one of the morning blessings:

Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu melch ha-olam sheh’ah’sa’nee b’tsalmo.
Blessed are you Adonai our God, Amazing One of the universe who made me in your image.

Instead, I started saying:

Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu melch ha-olam sheh’ah’sa’noo b’tsalmo.
Blessed are you Adonai our God, Amazing One of the universe who made us in your image.

We may consider intellectually that everything is created in G!d's image, but if we want to begin to truly feel the “us” in the blessing, something needs to shift in how we interact with the Universe. Our ability to count to four, not just once, but again and again and again, to pray, to stand in the tension, in the breach between G!d and our physicality, can help us to just be, and to be part of the “us.” Our efforts at mindfulness can bring us into a more sacred connection with the trees and the sky and the rocks and the water – with all that is.

Resources for helping us integrate ourselves more fully with the Universe are numerous. This teaching from Rabbi Israel Salanter – the founder of the Modern Musar or Jewish Ethical Mindfulness Movement – can also address what it takes for us to be nourished more simply:

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn’t change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family.

Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, but I’ve come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world.

We are part of a wondrous world created in the Divine image, and we are also small and with a defined power. Acknowledging this can help us put things in perspective, reminding us of the importance of how we present ourselves, both to ourself and to those around us.

So, I invite you to join me in acknowledging as fully as possible the reality of what is happening to our planet, in overcoming our addictions to a life of comfort and privilege, to changing ourselves, and maybe, just maybe, in the process we will change the world, even just a little bit. Keimowitz ends:

Inevitably, the climate will warm; whole ecosystems will be lost; and someday, there will be a last generation of humans on Earth. But the years we can postpone each loss, and each wild place and creature saved, are incalculably valuable. And so I keep teaching, and processing, and working to stave off the inevitable. I don’t know if any of those things will truly prevent catastrophic changes on Earth; I suspect not. But I give these gifts freely, hopefully, and in the knowledge that they are all I have to give. Nothing we can do will prevent the Earth from being deeply transformed. Maybe the next generation, my children or grandchildren, will be the last to live in large-scale human civilization. Or, maybe the efforts of me, my students, and millions of other like-minded folks will push back the inevitable collapse for another 100 years, or 500 years, perhaps allowing us to coexist longer with the wonder of wild places and creatures. There is no preventing the inevitable, but the delay is precious. It is all we have. 

Grief over the destruction of the planet, like any grief, takes time to experience and to process. Really acknowledging the loss takes time, and happens slowly, step by step. But let us not be afraid to face the grief and to acknowledge it, for doing so can free us from its bondage. It is easy to be ambivalent about freedom – so many times, the Israelites complained to G!d, “Did You bring us into the wilderness just so we could be hungry, struggle, and wander?” Being free isn't easy, but let us remember that only if we cross the sea into freedom, only if we allow ourselves to be redeemed, are we able to receive the gift of revelation at Sinai.

This Passover, may we find the courage and the strength to stand in the pain of our grief, to count to four, to redefine our hope, and through this, to live in the fullness of each moment, with joy and with peace in our heart.

I invite you to take again the stone in your hand, and to connect to it, as I leave you with these last words from A. D. Gordon:

The unconscious side--
this is the where the situation gets sticky,
where the soul of the individual earthling
cleaves with the soul of all creation
and they become one living soul;
this is the avenue by which the life of the individual earthling
and the lives of the entire creation flow together and unite
for everlasting life;
this is nature itself within the soul of the earthling
and this is the source of life.
All that which lives within the soul of the earthling,
every living thought and every living emotion,
everything that is original and lights up with a supernal light,
this is what is called flight of the spirit, the holy spirit, creation--
here it springs forth from within this boundless source--
and from within this limitless sea.
Chag sameach!

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 Spiritand 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.

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