Friday, September 27, 2013

Sukkot on the Farm

Four elements. One pair of blue jeans. What has this to do with Judaism, or with Spirit? In this case—everything.

I turned off the Cabrillo Highway some twenty-five miles south of Half Moon Bay onto a very bumpy, dusty road not knowing the power of the experience I was to receive during the next two days. I parked my car and grabbed a few items—a bag of gear and a small tent—from all I had brought to sustain me for this adventure, and walked a few hundred steps to a welcome table where I was gaily greeted and duly registered as a participant in Sukkot on the Farm—sponsored by Wilderness Torah a group whose mission is to “awaken and celebrate the earth-based traditions of Judaism to nourish the connections between self, community, earth, and Spirit.” This was my first event with them and all I can say is that they fulfilled their mission in every way!

Green Oaks Creek Farm, Pescadero, CA

At the registration desk I was assigned my tribe—Snow—one of maybe a dozen such subgroups all named after some form of water. I selected a thin crosscut slice of tree branch from hundreds that had been provided to make nametags, and carefully lettered my name on it with red and yellow markers. I signed up for an early shift helping out in the kitchen—appropriately called the Hearth. Then I was greeted by a regal looking young lady who seemed to be expecting me, although I sense now that her generous spirit probably would make anyone feel immediately welcomed and familiar. She would not let me, as an “elder,” carry my items and insisted that she take them and everything else I had stuffed in the car, put them in a makeshift wheel barrow and personally shlep them up a hill that seemed to get longer as we climbed it, to what she felt was a prime camping site overlooking our temporary village. She was not complete until she had fully assembled the tent I had borrowed for the weekend, a feat I am not sure I would have been able to accomplish on my own. I was beyond grateful and had only just begun to sense the honor of elders that was present throughout this gathering. 

Gimme shelter

The official start of the weekend was still a few hours away. With arrivals and departures staggered throughout the weekend the gathering was more intimate on Thursday than at its maximum on Saturday. I found myself quickly engaged in conversation with others, most of whom, I imagined to be in their twenties and thirties. I headed to the Hearth where I greatly enjoyed dicing vegetables and chatting with others. Several very young women, all Urban Adamah Fellows[i], were taking long shifts in the kitchen in lieu of fees for the weekend. It was easy to slip into the role of Elder in their midst, demonstrating knife skills and telling stories. Taking an active part of the preparation of fresh, organic produce for community consumption, being connected to the Earth’s abundance, to our sustenance, to our interdependencies, was integral to the overall experience. Later when I dined on Thai soup I could taste the ginger I had grated.
How goodly are thy tents....
The program for the weekend was as varied, abundant, and flavorful as was the food—from studying Hebrew harvest songs across the millennia, to weaving willow frames that would later hold rosemary enshrouded rainbow trout over an open fire pit, to a wild edible and medicinal plant walk, and many more arts, crafts, games, and forms of instruction and study. At times there were gatherings of the entire community, such as at Kabbalat Shabbat. There were tribal meetings for small group sharing. There were options for Shabbat morning prayer—musical, traditional, or a walk in nature. Although, as it turned out nature came to all of us in the form of a huge downpour, forcing us to all huddle close to the Torah under a tarp that provided more protection than the open slats of the Sukkah. That seemed either horrible or absurd or both at first, but upon reflection perfectly underscored our connection to the elements and the frailty of our shelter. It naturally drew us closer together physically and spiritually. Shabbat ended with a traditional Havdallah service followed by a reenactment, as much as our imaginations would allow, of a little understood Sukkot water ritual and soiree—Simchat Beit Hashoevah.

Amidst this day of rest and joy was a singular event—a community conversation with Jon Young, an inspirational man from the area who has dedicated himself to connecting people with nature. His descriptions of indigenous tribes in the United States and around the world made it indelibly clear that the work we were doing in community this weekend was not a frivolous New Age game, but taking steps to repair the broken link between ourselves and our ancient roots in the land. It was a tonic for the environment. It made a difference.

Up to this point I had had some interesting experiences and observations, but this conversation positively cemented them. The message was simple, though a deep understanding of it often elusive—connection to nature is essential. Our disconnection is so pervasive we can barely see it. I tap the keys of this computer in the seemingly safe, warm protective cocoon of my suburban home. Even news stories and personal accounts of forest fires, flooding and other natural disasters don’t quite penetrate the false sense of security I live with. Sukkot is designed to remind us of how precarious our existence is, to be grateful for our abundance, and to provide reason to celebrate life all the more. The ecology movement of 1970 began a dialogue about what we are doing to destroy what we have been given, so these thoughts are not new. Nor, sadly, are they universally understood and accepted. I wish everyone could have heard this gentle man speak these simple truths. When asked to add a closing comment to all that Jon had said, Rabbi Burt Jacobson extemporaneously described it as our return to the Garden of Eden that we lost after eating of the Tree of  Knowledge. I almost wept at the concept.

Now back to my initial question—what do four elements and one pair of blue jeans have to with Judaism? After the Shabbat morning deluge, a group of these vibrant young adults celebrated the moment in the central open space in song and dance. One could not help but hear their mirth, see their joy, and feel their exuberance. When they sang and danced an old bar mitzvah party standard, “ Yesh Lanu Tayish” I took particular note because each stanza begins with a repeated shout of my name. I walked in their direction and arrived just as they were finishing the Virgina Reel-like dance. As I stood at the end of their double row of participants, they looked at me and as if in one voice all shouted another round of “Yesh! Yesh! Yesh!” and invited me to dance down the aisle as they had just done. With no hesitation I complied as they continued singing the chorus. I no sooner got to the end of the phalanx when I put on the brakes to make the return dance back whence I started, but the mixture of Earth and Water beneath my feet caused them to slide out from under me and for my entire body to come in sudden contact with the muddy ground.  There was a brief moment of tension and concern as the crowd wondered if I had hurt myself, followed by laughter and cheers as I gathered myself and arose with a smile. This is, after all Ziman Simchateynu—the Season of our Joy, and that was what we were all feeling.
Sunrise by the campfire
Later, as the damp and chill of the day were starting to sink into my bones, I stood by an inviting open pit fire. I hadn’t realized just how cold I had become until I received the comfort of this warmth. One of the lessons we had received in a session the day before was how Shamayim—the Heavens were a combination of two other Hebrew words, aish—fire, and mayim—water. There on my mud-caked jeans we had it all. The Fire heated up the combination of Earth and Water and was turning it to Air as the steamy vapor rose from my pants. There they were—all the elements, and a visceral connection to nature—abundance, frailty, joy, and community—and new insight into our solemn obligation to sustain our precious gifts. 

[i] The Urban Adamah Fellowship is a three-month residential program for adults ages 21-31 that combines urban organic farming, social justice training and progressive Jewish learning and living. Fellows learn and work at the Urban Adamah farm in Berkeley, California, and live together in a shared house nearby.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

God Is Not Impressed!

The following is the text of my remarks to Congregation Beth Jacob of Redwood City CA on Yom Kippur 5774.

Before we talk about this morning’s Haftarah, let’s have a quick show of hands. How many of you are hungry? [A few hands went up.] Okay, for those who didn’t raise your hand, how many figure by the time we get to Ne’ilah and Havdallah at eight o’clock tonight you will be hungry? [Many hands went up.]

Pretty good. Looks like we’re all doing what’s right, doing what we can to get closer to God. [Dramatic pause.] Well, I’ve got bad news for all of you. You may be starving your bodies, but God is not impressed! It's not enough to pray with your stomach. You've gotta pray with your heart!

[I think they were starting to squirm at this point. I asked them not to show their hands for the following questions.] 

How many of you sneaked in a little work since sunset last night, or checked your email, or read the business pages? How many of you cut someone off on the road rushing to shul last night? How many of you have spoken harshly to your spouse or children or parents? Is there anyone here who hasn’t broken at least one of the Ten Commandments? I bet you’ve broken half of them today! You sit here, acting so holy, fasting and beating your chest, but admit it, YOUR FAST IS ABSOLUTELY MEANINGLESS! [This last sentence crescendoed to a shout “with full throat” to the stunned amazement my fellow congregants.]

[Aside] Rabbi, was that too much? [Feigning innocence:] I was just paraphrasing the text of this morning’s Haftarah

Check it out at the top of page 285 of the Machzor. God commands Isaiah, "Cry with full throat, without restraint; raise your voice like a ram’s horn! Declare to my people their transgression, to the House of Jacob, [to Beth Jacob, declare] their sin.”

I wondered how Isaiah must have felt standing before hundreds of people with empty bellies shouting at them that their fast was meaningless, so I decided to give it a shot. [This actually got a laugh. Phew, they were with me!]

For one thing, it takes a lot of chutzpah, but it’s also very humbling. It demanded that I first put myself under the microscope, and what I saw really wasn’t very pretty. It was hard for me to read what’s required on this fast day—and truly every day. God demands much. It’s overwhelming to think of meeting all of God’s demands for freeing the captive, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, just to name a few.

Despite what we do here at CBJ in the Home and Hope shelter network, at the community hot meal program Breaking Bread, and in our personal contributions of time and money to many causes, it seems like it’s never enough. Poverty, hunger, homelessness, and oppression are so great that, despite all of our political and philanthropic actions, it’s beyond any individual or even our community’s capacity to eradicate them. Facing the enormity of need in our world and our limited ability to respond, we could easily get to a point of such despair that we would be tempted to throw in the towel—“why bother!” We could fill ourselves with a sense of futility—that we’ve failed to measure up to the challenges of this day, and we could conclude that ours is not the fast that God desires.

The question I offer is, “How do we acknowledge our falling short of the mark without becoming so discouraged that we become immobilized and fail to move ever closer to what is asked of us?”

The answer comes from a little secret about Haftarah that I recently learned. Did you know that every Haftarah passage ends on an up note? Thank God for that! Even after being castigated by Isaiah we finish on the bright side, especially when you consider all the acts of loving kindness that I just mentioned that we indeed accomplish. Beginning at Verse 10 we read: “[If] offer your compassion to the hungry ... then shall your light shine in darkness... The Lord … will slake your thirst in parched places and give strength to your bones.”

What I draw from this is that though we can never do enough to eradicate the world’s problems, not even on Yom Kippur are we held to an unattainable standard of perfection. Let’s remember the words from Pirke Avot, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.”

God commanded Isaiah to cry out and remind Beth Jacob of their misdeeds. While we consider our failings, let us also recall our good deeds, so that we may build on them, and find the hope and comfort that lies in this passage as well.

Gamar Tov.