Shabbat Shelakh L’kha: Trust or Fail

In these days of many kinds of prayers, let us consider the nature of Jewish prayer. Jews pray in highly specific ways, teaching us by way of this mindfulness practice a Jewish ethics of existence.

The first kind of prayer we see demonstrated in our siddur, our makhzor and any other kind of prayer compilation is תהילה tehilah – praise. It is the expression of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called the “radical amazement” of being alive. The morning prayers, for example, remind us to be aware of and grateful for our body’s abilities, of just waking up alive.

The prayer of praise captures that moment when you stand on a mountain top and see the beauty of all that is, and know your place in it. That mountaintop is experienced in parenting, in friendship, in community, in love.

The second kind of prayer is בקשה, bakashah – seeking. It is to see the beauty from the mountaintop and seek the link to that beauty through the ethics and obligations of our days. The vision is wholeness, and the bridge we seek to build to it is the mitzvot of justice and kindness we are taught to fulfill.

Bridge-building is difficult and dangerous, marked by thankless effort, uncertainty and fear. This is true whether one lays bricks across a cavern or reaches out, step by step, to challenge injustice. The one unforgivable sin of this work is to undermine the most important building material of all: trust.

In the parashat hashavua our ancestors had come so close to their vision of wholeness. Before they entered, scouts were sent ahead into the uncertainty. When they returned, they reported much beauty and promise, but also challenges and obstacles to overcome.

The great sin happened here: the people refused to make the effort to trust that the path they were on was worthwhile, that it would indeed lead to the beauty of the vision they longed for. Rather than face the difficulty with trust, they gave in to fear, and lost the moment. They never got another chance; it would be many years of wandering before that bridge would finally be built.

Only three weeks ago on Shabbat we marked Shavuot, the moment when our people stood at a mountain and saw, for once clearly, the meaning of their lives. That moment was marked by fire, by lightning and thunder and the blast of the shofar. It was probably terrifying. Such moments of naked exposure to truth probably always are.

From that mountaintop we have been privileged in these days to see a vision of justice for the United States. Dr Martin Luther King Jr taught us that the road is long and there are no guarantees that any one of us will get there. Not unlike the wilderness generation, many of us have not been taught to trust, and it is terrifying to recognize the might of the evil unleashed among those of us who are Black and Brown. 

On this Juneteenth of 2020, we are privileged to experience the presence of G*d in history and event. The building of the bridge to a better world has made some progress, and that brings us to our third kind of prayer: הודאה, hoda’ah – gratitude.

Little by little, each in our own way, we carry forward our people’s memory of the vision we had on the mountaintop: of community, of justice, and of wholeness. May we be true to it, and trust it in the uncertainty and fear of our days. 

Shabbat shalom and Happy Juneteenth!

Rabbi Ariel

A Rabbinic Statement Supporting the Lakota Nation in its Opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline

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