Monday, October 26, 2009

Lech Lecha / You want me to go where?

The Lord said to Avram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse whoever curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
Torah pictures Avram as leaving everything behind at God’s behest. He does so without question, hesitation, or protest. Avram is 75 years old when we first meet him and we might wonder what it takes for a 75-year-old to make such a drastic change in his life.

Midrash Tanhuma wonders why God does not initially tell Avram his destination, and answers the question by saying that the command to leave his homeland is a test, and the mystery of his destiny intensifies the test. It is a test within a test.

At this juncture in history, we too are being tested. It is a test of our own making, however, and there is a test within the test. We don’t know the ultimate destination in the sense that we don’t know what the landscape will look like.

Our fossil-fuel-dependent economy and lifestyle must change soon. We are at the same time: (1) supporting with our petro-dollars the very political regimes that foment the terrorism we are fighting, and (2) pouring hydrocarbons into the atmosphere that are degrading the very earth we depend upon to sustain our lives. Scientists are warning us we cannot continue. Yet we don’t yet feel the need for change acutely, just as Avram did not feel the need to leave Haran until God told him to go. And just as Avram faced a test within a test, we don’t know our final “destination.” Certainly solar and wind power – completely free and completely renewable – will be part of the “destination,” but so too will there be new innovative technologies that will free us from dependence on fossil fuels.

Here is one hint concerning the future landscape: Prof. Yair Ein-Eli of Israel’s Technion Institute (in collaboration with Prof. Digby Macdonald of Penn State University and Prof. Rika Hagiwara of Kyoto University) has invented a battery made of silicon (essentially sand), has a long shelf life, can revert to sand at the end of its useful life, and although it is not rechargeable, it can supply power for several thousands of hours. Imagination the battery for an electric car made from sand and recycled to sand. Read more here and here and obtain a pdf manuscript publication by clicking here (click on “2009” – it’s the fourth entry).

Avram rises to the challenge and passes the test. He initiates enormous change and we are still feeling the wonderful reverberations in our lives of his response. The challenge before us is enormous. Will we respond positively?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Noach / Abundance of Water, Scarcity of Animals

In Noah’s time, there was an abundance of water and a scarcity of animals, given how many died in the raging floods. In our time we have seen an abundance of flooding and a frightening decrease in the number of species on earth.

From the beginning, Torah tells us that God is invested in biodiversity:
God said: Let the earth sprout vegetation, seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it. And it was so. (Genesis 1:10)
We are told the same thing concerning sea creatures, birds, and land animals: each is endowed with the capacity for self-replication so that every kind can continue to prosper (see Genesis 1:21-22 and 24-25).

In this week’s parashah, God affirms the divine commitment to biodiversity:
Of all that lives, of all flesh, you shall take two of each into the ark to keep alive with you; they shall be male and female. From birds of every kind, cattle of every kind, every kind of creeping thing on earth, two of each shall come to you to stay alive. For your part, take of everything that is eaten and store it away, to serve as food for you and for them.” (Genesis 6:19-21)
Today, one species goes extinct every 20 minutes. Gone forever. Scientists estimate that is 1000 times the rate throughout history.

Torah tells us that in Noah’s time, God brought a mabul, a flood. Even then, God acknowledged this was a colossal mistake. We have seen floods of epic proportion in our own time caused by the global climate change; specifically, the warming oceans. Global climate change is real and every reputable scientist understands that. Those who claim it’s a hoax are on the payrolls of fossil fuel companies.

The implications of global climate change and the rate of species extinction are drastic. We might prefer not to think what this means for us in terms of rising oceanic levels, expanding deserts, increasingly extreme weather phenomena, but we can no longer afford that irresponsible luxury.

We have come to think that we live above and beyond the other species of this planet, and that since we don’t directly depend upon them to live, we can live without them. But we can’t. Our lives have from the beginning of creation, from the dawn of evolution, been integrally intertwined with other creatures – plant and animal – on Earth.

Our Rabbis provided us this prescient warning in midrash Kohelet Rabbah, written 15 centuries ago:
Upon creating the first human beings, God guided them around the Garden of Eden, saying, “Look at My creations! See how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! I created everything for you. Make sure you don’t ruin or destroy My world. If you do, there will be no one after you to repair it.”
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, October 12, 2009

Beraishit / Eve: Villain or Heroine of Humanity?

Just before the man and woman are expelled from the Garden of Eden, God calls a meeting to inform the main characters of the Eden drama of the consequences of their actions: The serpent is cursed. The soil is also cursed and, as a result, the man will have to work ceaselessly in order to eat (no more Club Med existence). And then there is this recondite phrase addressed to the woman:
Harbah arbeh itzvonekha v’heroneikh b’etzem teil’di vanim v’eil isheikh t’shukateikh v’hu yimshal bakh -- I am doubling and redoubling your toil and your pregnancies; with anguish shall you bear children, yet your desire shall be for your man, and he shall rule over you.
Is this a punishment? Or is this a natural consequence of mortality? I would suggest the latter.

In the Garden, the man and woman are permitted the Tree of Life which insures their immortality. They are forbidden the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that imparts moral discernment. If they do, their access to immortality will be revoked (Genesis 2:17). The Tree of Knowledge is off limits because immortality plus moral discernment would make the people too much like God.

The serpent certainly tempts Eve, but little encouragement is needed: Eve is determined to eat the fruit. She courageously chooses to trade immortality for moral discernment because without it, she can never be fully human. To be a higher level animal, but one that cannot distinguished good from evil, is not being human. Facing difficult decisions with moral capacity and free will is the essence of being human. The consequence of giving up immortality is the need to reproduce. The people can no longer live in the Garden because the Garden cannot sustain a growing human population. It is not the case that there was a time when giving birth was not painful for humans and then it changed because they were punished; it has always been painful because that’s simply the way it is.

If ever you’re tempted to think for a moment that Eve is cursed, read the Torah – it doesn’t say anything like that. If ever you’re tempted to condemn Eve for her “sinfulness,” consider this: if she hadn’t eaten the fruit, you would never have been born.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What is Shemini Atzeret Anyway?

Shemini Atzeret is a curiosity. It’s the one festival for which we have no rituals, images, or narrative. It just is – but what is it?

The “Eighth Day Assembly” comes at the tail end of Sukkot, wrapping up the harvest festival. To understand its possible meaning, let’s take a look at the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (so-called because in ancient times, Jews would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate them together). They are Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

Taken together, they tell the story of our ancestors:
  • We were slaves in Egypt but God redeemed us and brought us out of bondage and into freedom (Pesach).
  • As free people and as a newly-formed nation, we arrived at Mt. Sinai where we entered into an eternal Covenant with God who revealed to us Torah, the text of our binding contract with God and our nation’s constitution (Shavuot).
  • We wandered through the wilderness for the next 40 years because the generation born into slavery in Egypt lacked the vision and courage to enter Eretz Yisrael and face the risks and challenges of living as an independent nation (Sukkot).
Each year we relive and rehearse that early history through our festival celebrations: redemption, revelation, wandering. But something is missing! In this cycle we never arrive in Eretz Yisrael, settle the Land, and build our nation on holy soil and sand. We come to the border, again and again, but always remain outside.

Perhaps this is because the notion of settling the Land and building a nation there is not just a matter of history; as a religious ideal it has never been entirely met. Our image of the messianic age involves ingathering and resettlement, restoration of the nation and resurrection of the throne of David. It is the missing chapter in the cycle writ large.

Perhaps Shemini Atzeret is that last chapter, a subtle, quiet, stealth festival. The number eight is significant. Seven is the cosmic number of creation. Eight is the number of creation realized, perfected. Hence circumcision is on the eighth day: it perfects the created child. The “Eighth Day Assembly” needs no rituals, images, or narratives because it is mysterious and, as yet, closed off to us. It is for us to imagine and envision what the messianic age will be like to inspire ourselves to act in the world so as to bring it ever nearer.

On the day following Shemini Atzeret, we celebrate Simchat Torah and rejoice fully and whole-heartedly in Torah – in Torah wisdom, Torah learning, Torah that builds community, Torah that enriches and inspires and consoles us, Torah that make us the People Israel, Torah that helps us be our best selves. Simchat Torah is precisely what the world will be like the day after the Messiah arrives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Time to Party in the Sukkah

Sukkot is the only festival that is termed z’man simchateinu “the time of our joy.” Torah tells us, You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities (Deuteronomy 16:14). God wants us to experience joy! Is that consistent with worship and religious behavior? Absolutely – Psalm 100:1 says, Serve God in gladness, come into God’s presence with shouts of joy.

Is it easier or harder to be joyous in a cramped, fragile hut open to the elements and utterly lacking the appurtenances of our comparatively luxurious homes (including a roof, windows, and the miracle of indoor plumbing)? I think we can learn something useful to answering this question from the tradition of the arba minim (four species) we bring to the sukkah: lulav, etrog, hadas, and aravah. Talmud (Menachot 27a) tell us:
The four plants are bound together in one cluster. It is comparable to Israel’s endeavor to conciliate God, which is successful only when all of Israel are together in one cluster.
The religious goal of connecting with God is here identified with quality human relationships. When we come together and get along with one another, then we can connect with God. When we repair and improve our relationships with each other, we can more easily repair and improve our relationship with God.

We have a choice: we can see time spent in a sukkah as time spent in a cramped, drafty, shabby hut – or we can see it as a wonderful adventure in family time, an opportunity to enhance precious relationships without the distractions of TV, computers, video games, and telephones. In a sukkah, there is time to eat, talk, tell stories, catch up, reconnect, and spend genuine quality time with people we love. What could be more joyous than that – for us and for God?

If you don’t have your own sukkah yet, there are plenty available for anyone to use. Most synagogues have sukkot. Pack up a picnic dinner and take your family or invite a few friends. Eat, laugh, tell stories and jokes, shakes the lulav and etrog, feel the breeze, gaze up at the stars, and luxuriate in the wonder of being alive in this universe and having loving relationships.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman