Tag Archives: Re’eh

The World is Burning – Re’eh 5778

I mentioned last week that I was out west two weeks ago. My son and I, along with my brother and my nephew, took an epic road trip that began in Phoenix. We spent Shabbat in Grand Canyon National Park, then moved on to Arches NP, Dinosaur NP (which has a Pittsburgh connection, by the way: it was initially excavated by Earl Douglass of the Carnegie Museum beginning in 1909; several of the dinosaur skeletons unearthed there are located in PGH at the museum); Devil’s Tower NP; and ending at Mt. Rushmore, with a few other destinations along the way. It was a long drive and a lot of fabulous locations to squeeze into a week, but it was my first trip out west (excluding California), and the scenery was almost overwhelmingly beautiful. The mountains, the rivers, the cliffs, the arches, the prairies, the unusual rock formations, the spacious skies, the amber waves of grain, etc.

Devil's Tower

It’s almost impossible to believe or understand how you can drive 90 miles between two intersections and not see a single home or store or even gas station, and barely any other cars on the road. There is a lot of space out there. And, given that we spent most of the time without wifi or mobile phone service, it was easy to forget about the world, to not be reminded of the Russia investigation, or the burning kites released into Israel from Gaza, or the anniversary of Charlottesville.

Except that there was one thing that we could not get away from, something lurking in the background pretty much wherever we went. Lurking in the background is this:

The world is on fire.

On the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, you can clearly see on the North Rim three wildfires. (Smoke by day, actual fire by night.) At several points along the trip, in Arizona, in Utah, and in Colorado, we saw signs and smelled the smoke of wildfires.

Smoke in Grand Canyon

The Adelson boys in the Grand Canyon. Smoke from wildfires can be seen over my left shoulder.

You may be aware that the currently-burning Mendocino Complex Fire is the largest ever recorded in California, having destroyed over 300,000 acres; another current fire, the Carr Fire, has killed 8 people and destroyed over 1,000 homes.

And it’s not just the American West. There are currently 1200 firefighters and 19 aircraft battling wildfires in southern Portugal. Wildfires in Sweden (!) destroyed 61,000 acres of forests in July. A wildfire in Greece killed 90 people in the last couple of weeks. There is an epic heat wave in Europe, such that the cattle who graze in the Swiss Alps are parched – helicopters are airlifting water to them. Sweden’s highest peak, the Kebnekaise glacier, actually dropped into second place because the heat melted the glacier, and it is now 13 feet shorter. There is a severe drought in Australia as well.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world is burning up.

Now, of course we cannot attribute any particular weather event to climate change; please remember that climate is not equal to weather. But when we consider that 7 of the 12 most destructive fires in California’s history have occurred in the last three years; when we consider that we are now losing polar ice at a rapid rate; when some climate scientists are concerned that we have already passed a global “tipping point,” beyond which we may never return to where we were, we have to ask ourselves, where are we headed? If we extrapolate this line, what will our future be?

And, as Jews, we must ask ourselves, what can we do right now to change the outcome?

Up front in Parashat Re’eh, right at the very beginning, is one of the clearest statements of the Torah’s understanding of theology (Devarim / Deuteronomy 11:26):

רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה

Re’eh anokhi noten lifneikhem hayom berakhah ukelalah.

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.

Look, says God, I have put before you today blessing and curse. If you follow My mitzvot, you’ll get the blessings. If you don’t, you’ll get the curses.

It’s very simple. Black and white. You do X, you get Y. If you don’t do X, you don’t get Y. That is also the theology described in the second paragraph of the Shema, and in many other places in the Torah.

However, that is not actually the theology that we hold by, we who live in 21st-century America. We know that God is more complicated than that. And that’s not a contemporary re-reading; even the rabbis of the Talmud (Bavli Berakhot 7a) observe that God does not seem to work like this. And I am grateful for all of the modern Jewish philosophers (Buber, Heschel, Kaplan, Gillman, etc.) who have enabled us to understand God differently.

But there is also something powerful here, embedded in this binary theological formula that cannot be ignored: that we still have to strive for blessings, and we have within our hands, at least in some cases, the potential to earn those blessings. We also have the potential to create curses. In endowing us with free will, God puts before us the power to create our own blessings and curses.

None of the classical commentators picks up on this, but note the presence of the word “hayom” (“today”) in that verse. Look, says God, I have put before you TODAY a blessing and a curse.

It is up to us today to make the choice. And every day we make these choices. Today is not just today; it is yesterday and tomorrow. In every moment, we can fashion the future.

So how do we maintain the blessing? How do we choose the good? How do we honor God’s Creation and make sure that it is there for generations to come? How do we ensure that we do not turn Scandinavia into a desert and drown Bangladesh?

It is that we make the choice today. And not just us, in this room, but all of us. The entire world.

Here is why the challenge of climate change is so hard for us to solve: we all have to cooperate to make it happen.

The reason that we are all here, ladies and gentlemen, gathered together in this building, in a city in North America, is because of the most salient ability of Homo sapiens: the ability to share ideas. Were it not for this remarkable talent, humans would never have passed the stage of nomadic hunter-gatherers. It was this intellectual revolution that enabled agriculture, trade, money, religion, nation-states, human rights, universities, the space program, etc., etc.

And you know what? As individuals, we can all spend all of our energies trying to minimize our carbon footprints, offsetting our transportation by planting trees, and so forth. We can stop eating meat. We can reduce, reuse, recycle all day long. But this will accomplish virtually nothing with respect to climate change – not compared to the 100 million barrels per day of crude oil that the world consumes.

The polar ice caps will continue to melt until every single government in the world commits to some serious legislation that will lessen the amount of greenhouse gases that we are pouring into the atmosphere. That was exactly the point of the Paris Climate Accords, through which the 196 signatories pledged to ensure that total global warming is limited to 2 degrees Celsius. (We are already halfway there.) It’s not enough of a limit according to scientists, but it is something.

Now, I know that there are always those among us for whom government is perceived to be the problem, rather than the solution. To you I offer a challenge: How can the private sector alone solve this problem? Is this something that the free market can solve? If so, I would like to hear those ideas.

Failing some other solution, I think that the only thing we can do is to implore our elected officials to push for legislation. The United States produces 15% of the world’s greenhouse gases; China produces 25%. Changing that will be hard.

But as California burns, I think we have to ask ourselves, can we afford not to do so?

Yesterday morning, I heard an interview with Pastor Ira Acree, who leads a Christian congregation on the west side of Chicago. He was speaking with an NPR reporter about violence in Chicago. The reporter noted that last weekend was especially bloody: 70 people were wounded in gun violence, 11 died. Toward the end of the interview, he quoted Proverbs 29:18:

בְּאֵין חָזוֹן, יִפָּרַע עָם

Where there is no vision, the people perish (KJV)

About half of the population of the world lives within 120 miles of a coast. Without a vision for reining in our production of greenhouse gases, many, many people will die, and for the rest, life will be unimaginably transfigured.

Re’eh anokhi noten lifneikhem hayom.

I put this before you today. Now is the time to act for blessings. Now is the time for vision.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/11/2018.)

 

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Halakhah and The Big Picture – Re’eh 5775

I am particularly fortunate to have started this week in Pittsburgh for Parashat Re’eh. It’s one of my favorites. OK, so it’s true that I have a lot of favorite parashiyyot, but this is an especially good one. I do enjoy the passages of the Torah that include numerous mitzvot / commandments, not only because they give us insight into how our ancestors lived and the values they held, but also because they continue to shape our lives today.

But let’s face it: there is quite a bit of obscure and/or curious stuff in the Torah – commandments that don’t apply to anybody today, like those related to sacrifices, or obligations for agricultural behaviors or activities that are irrelevant to contemporary non-farmers, or things that are just downright strange.

For example, in today’s parashah we encounter the obligation not only to not worship like the Canaanites do, but indeed to destroy their altars. (Has anybody met any Canaanites lately?) Also, there are commandments to tithe from our produce, to eat only certain kinds of animals, and to be particular about not eating their blood with the meat. There is the commandment to take care of the needy people around you, and the strange law about piercing the ear of the slave who opts to stay with his master rather than go free. And then there is a whole range of holiday practices.

For us today, we immediately understand the relevance of kashrut and holiday observances – most of us have been doing some of these things for our entire lives. But to an outsider looking in, this parashah might look like a jumble of eccentric behaviors that make no particular sense.

And I might argue that, if we were to look at these things objectively, devoid of context, we might also think that it is odd, for example, to avoid eating leavened things for a week, or to build and live in a temporary hut outside your home for a different week.

But I think that sometimes it is a good idea to pull back the camera to try to see the greater picture.

I recently heard a TED talk about ants, featuring the ecologist Deborah Gordon, who studies ant colonies for a living. What is striking about ants, she says, is that ants function as a collective unit without speaking, without memory, and without a visible leader. And for sure they don’t have the Internet or smartphones. And yet, they have a highly complex society that functions quite well even though not a single one of them can actually see the larger picture. No ant understands how it fits into the colony, and nobody is telling it what to do, but somehow it all works together like some magnificent symphony.

Aluminum cast of a fire ant colony.

Aluminum cast of an ant colony

One principle that makes an ant colony function is that it has rules. Some ants forage, other ants are soldiers, the queen lays eggs, and so forth. Those rules are governed by what is encoded in the ants’ DNA.

From the human perspective, we don’t see how the ants function as individuals. We only see the final product: that the ants build extensive homes underground, and forage for food, sometimes in your pantry, and somehow manage to survive the winter to build a new colony next year. And all of this depends on the series of rules for how the ants work.

But humans are not like ants. We think; we communicate; we argue; we create; we destroy; we doubt; we cooperate; we sabotage; and so forth. Each of us as individuals has the potential to help or wound, to be selfish or to participate with others.

And that is why we need a framework. That is why human societies have always had guidelines. Laws. Courts.

And the Torah is our framework, including its obscure laws and its odd commandments. The mitzvot are our rules, and as a people, we have spent the better part of the last two millennia trying to figure out exactly how to carry out these rules. We call that system of rules, “halakhah,” which the Hebrew scholars among you will know is from the verb lalekhet, to go. Halakhah is how we walk through life.

And, just like the ants, it is difficult, and some might even say impossible, for us to see the true bigger picture. Yes, our intellect allows for us to understand more than the ants. But the larger spiritual picture is blurred; all we know is that we have a fundamental drive to reach higher, to seek holiness, to seek purity, to seek the Divine.

Our greatest sages have spent two millennia analyzing and interpreting the meaning, the reasons for, and how to carry out the mitzvot, and we continue to do so ledor vador, in each generation in its context.

You see, when it comes down to it, we don’t really know why the Torah asks us not to mark our bodies permanently, or burn animals on an altar. Even the obvious things, those mitzvot which we are naturally inclined to keep: we don’t even really know why the Torah instructs us not to murder others, or honor your parents, or abstain from sexual indiscretion. We will never really be clear on the big picture. But that is what makes Judaism interesting, and has allowed for an ongoing discourse across the ages over the meaning of what we read in the Torah. An absolute, definite answer would be boring; our tradition allows for continual renewal.

All we can really say for certain is that this template for holy living is what makes our world function. It affects the greater good. It works down here and on high. It is tried and true for 5775 years.

Now I can hear the skeptics among us who might be thinking, “OK, Rabbi, that sounds just peachy. But come on – does it really matter if I pray, or put on tefillin, or avoid shellfish?”

And the answer is yes. 100%. Why? Because you know as well as I that the America of today is one of limitless choice. We are so bombarded with “freedom” that simply choosing a toothpaste or a salad dressing from the hundreds on offer takes up far too much of our time, taking bandwidth away from things that are far more important. And the message that we continually reinforce to our children is, “What do you want?”

We need boundaries. We need framework. Some choices are acceptable, and some are not. All of us who are parents know that, but it applies to adults and children equally. What does infinite choice yield? Indecision. Paralysis. Disunity. Dissatisfaction. The feeling that even though you chose this product, or this school, or this spouse, there might be a better one behind door number 2.

Jewish life gives us a frame through which our lives are endowed with stability and purpose. And we need that more than ever.

Now, that does not mean that the boundaries do not change. Of course they have, and they will continue to change. It is a good thing for the Jews, and Maimonides says so outright in the Mishneh Torah, that prayer replaced sacrifice. It is a good thing that the slavery described in the Torah is no longer permitted. It is wonderful that we at Beth Shalom treat men and women as absolute equals under Jewish law. It is a good thing that we view halakhah through the lens of modernity; Jewish law changes with us, slowly but always for the better.

So, while the Torah includes a number of imperatives that are no longer applicable, we continue to read it and respond to it with change. The history behind the evolution of halakhah is an essential piece of this holy framework.

It’s up to us to find ways to interpret the Torah for today. That is the principle upon which I have built my rabbinate. We have to read the Torah in today’s context; not in the context from which it emerged; not in the context of 12th-century Egypt (Maimonides) or 16th-century Tzefat (Rabbi Yosef Karo, who authored the Shulhan Arukh). We welcome all of those guys to the table, but we have to seek our own meaning. We have to set the boundaries as a community, and the way we do that is the same way that our ancestors have done so for two thousand years: we open the book, and we dig into the text. (The berakhah for Torah study is “La’asoq bedivrei Torah” – to get busy with the words of Torah.)

As I move forward from this starting point here in Pittsburgh, I hope to continue doing exactly that. You will hear me say this over and over: the highest mitzvah in Jewish life is not keeping Shabbat or kashrut or daily tefillah / prayer or even honoring your parents. The highest mitzvah (Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1) is talmud Torah, interactive study of our ancient texts.

And that is how the whole system functions. We may not see the big picture, but within that microcosm, the arba amot shel halakhah, the four cubit radius of our own personal spheres of Jewish existence, we have a holy framework for living that is guided by our personal and communal understanding of Torah. And by following that framework, we each contribute individually to the overall picture.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/15/2015.)

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