From the Shalom Center:
We are living in the midst of a profound spiritual crisis in American society, expressed in the current election campaign and in many other forms as well.
One of the most poignant is the nonviolent protest in North Dakota, led by people of the First Nations, against the imposition of the oil-bearing Dakota Access Pipeline upon the sacred ancestral lands of the Sioux Nation. The pipeline is desecrating their graves, threatening to poison the water of the Missouri River, and endangering the entire web of life of Mother Earth by increasing the burning of fossil fuels.
Already hundreds of representatives from many of the First Nations living in the United States, gathered for the first time in history beyond all previous divisions and alliances, together with growing numbers of other Americans and of indigenous peoples from other countries, have gathered to face this onslaught with prayerful nonviolent resistance.
Yet as they pray, police have already used dogs, pepper gas, and clubs – and with rifles loaded and lifted threaten to use deadly force — to impose this destructive pipeline on the region, on the nation, and on the Earth.
As spiritual leaders and teachers of the Jewish people, we affirm Torah’s commitment to protect the Earth from which the human race was born (Gen 2: 7) and which we are commanded to allow to rest in rhythmic celebration of the Creator (Lev. 25: 1-12, 23).
Indeed, Torah adds that if we block this rhythmic rest, the exhausted earth will erupt against us (Lev 26: 34-35, 43). These commands and warnings were rooted in our ancestors’ deep experience of the sacred unity of all life.
They are confirmed by scientists today.
And already we are seeing these ancient prophecies and modern scientific predictions come to life — in higher rates of asthma and cancer where coal, oil, and fracked unnatural gas are extracted, refined, and burned; in unprecedented floods and droughts and superstorms all around the planet.
On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stood together in Riverside Church in New York City. Dr. King spoke out not only against the Vietnam War but even more deeply against what he called the deadly triplets afflicting America — racism, militarism, and materialism. And he called for a commitment to nonviolent activism to bring about a “revolution in values” for America.
In the Dakota confrontation, all three of those triplets have borne monstrous offspring in one clarifying moment:
Corporate greed has in this case taken the “materialism” triplet to its extreme; the armed police have brought militarism home; the trampling on Native rights and needs echoes the earliest racism of our past.
For all these reasons, we urgently call on President Obama as Commander-in-Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers to firmly and clearly prohibit the Dakota Access Pipeline from encroaching on the Missouri River, and we urge all state and federal agencies to affirm and respect the role of the Native communities in defending the weave of life upon the continent we know as North America, and they have for centuries called Turtle Island.
And we call on Jewish communities and their leaders throughout our country to speak out in congregations and publicly, to gather in prayerful vigils in our own communities, and to assist the Lakota protest as it moves into a stern Dakota winter by sending money to buy clothing, food, and other supplies for a lengthy steadfast stay. Please send your gifts by clicking here: http://www.ocetisakowincamp.org/
We encourage our communities to call North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple at (701) 328-2200 to leave a message stating your opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline; to call the White House at (202) 456-1111 or (202) 456-1414 to tell President Obama to rescind the Army Corps of Engineers’ permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline; and to call the Army Corps of Engineers (202) 761-5903 and demand that they rescind the permit.
In his Riverside speech, Dr. King lifted up “the fierce urgency of Now.” And in our lives today, facing both a spiritual crisis in America and a world-wide spiritual crisis in the relationship between adam and adamah, humanity and Earth, the urgency of Now is far more fierce.
This letter has so far been signed by more than 270 Rabbis and Cantors at the initiative of Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Shalom Center
Our parashah is called Va’Etkhanan, literally translated “I beseech.” Moshe is recounting to us how he begged G*d for the one thing he could not have: the ability to cross over the Jordan River with the People of Israel into the Promised Land. Moshe our leader was denied the satisfaction of crossing the finish line himself. Although he was allowed to see it from afar, G*d made it clear to him that he would not enter.
This type of prayer, from the root kh.n.n, is familiar to us: we call those prayers Selikhot, and recite them every year at the time of Atonement. So it seems that our parashat hashavua acts for us as an early warning system. Yom Kippur is coming! From Shabbat Va’Etkhanan it is a bit less than eight weeks in the future.
There are many words for prayer in our sources. An ancient commentary on our parashah offers that
“prayer is called by ten names: cry, howl, groan, song, encounter, stricture, prostration, judgment, and beseeching.” (Midrash Rabbah)
It can be startling to consider how many of our acts are actually a form of prayer. Now we can see why Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that when he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, he felt that his feet were praying. But which form of prayer did he mean?
It would give us a pretty picture to contemplate if we consider that he meant “encounter” or even “song”; indeed, the famous photograph gives support for that reading. But as we in our community grapple with our responsibility as part of the White community of the United States of America, and keep tripping over our vulnerability as part of the Jewish community of the world, we may find ourselves more able to relate to more painful moments of prayer:
Stricture: we may feel confused, and constrained in our ability to act meaningfully.
Groan: more and more people tell me that they are no longer watching the news, for it is too painful.
Prostration: this is a posture of helplessness in the face of overwhelming anxiety.
Rabbi Heschel’s statement offers us a way to explore this idea further: it seems that the Jewish concept of prayer covers much human territory. More, it does so by offering context out of Jewish history, culture and ethics. To pray, for Jews, is sometimes to sit in meditation on the words and what they mean; but more often, it is to act in full awareness that by our acts we carry out the words and their meaning.
It can be a perfect circle: the words help us find meaning, and we instill meaning into the words by carrying them out.
So this is what Rabbi Heschel might have meant for us by his marching in Selma, and calling it prayer: each of us Jews becomes the best possible White citizen of the U.S. when we are empowered by the awareness that our lives are prayers, and when we know what that means, and can mean, for us.
We are now entering a time of focus upon beseeching G*d for clarity, for understanding and for mercy, preparatory to and part of the atonement process. May you find your own way into all ten expressions of Jewish prayer and may it empower you to see all your life as one great prayer, in every moment. There is much crying, much howling, that is a true expression of our day. May there also be much opportunity – made by our efforts – for song.