Murky Sunset

Last night’s sunset was downright creepy. The Sabbath departed amidst the smoke of several huge fires upstate. The horizon was obliterated by the filth in the air; the murk appeared to swallow the burning orange ball of the sun.

The land is dry from four years of drought. Unwise management in the past has left us with a huge fuel load in many of our wild lands, and in some places there are stands of exotic (non-native) plants that add to the danger because they are rich in super-flammable oils. Now firefighters are risking their lives to try to protect people, animals, and property from the ravages of the fires – and fire season in California has months yet to go.

The facts of the drought here in California are sobering: right now, we have made our water supply almost completely dependent on the Sierra snow pack, which has not been replenished in four winters. The coming El Niño weather system may or may not bring the snow our system requires. Paleoclimate research by Dr. Lynn Ingram at UC Berkeley suggests that we are entering a period of prolonged drought: the “unusual weather” was the weather of the last 100 years, not this new and much drier weather. Ever since the snowpack water has gone, farmers in the Central Valley have been drawing on groundwater, a very limited resource that is also going dry. Many people in the Valley no longer have running water at home. Some species, like the Coho salmon, are now nearing extinction. And it is fair to say that this summer the state is burning up. Right this moment, 21 huge fires are burning across the state, only a few contained by firefighters (meaning that firefighters have managed to keep them from spreading, but they are still burning.)

What are we to do?

At least twice every day from the end of Sukkot to Passover, an observant Jew prays the words, “Mashiv haruach umorid hagashem.” [who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.] It is a daily prayer for rain, composed originally in the Land of Israel, which has a climate much like ours in California. Rain falls mostly in the wintertime, and it is scarce enough to be a constant concern. So it became our practice to pray for rain in its season.

In the dry season, we pray for dew (“morid hatal”) which reminds us that the tiniest drop of moisture is precious. When we cannot expect rain, we must still pray for dew, so that life can continue. The very text of our prayer causes us to remain mindful of water, regardless of current circumstance.

According to the experts, a lack of mindfulness about water is a big part of our problem right now. We have consumed recklessly, assuming that the snow will come to the Sierras so that we can plant whatever and wherever we want. We can use water – a limited resource – in whatever way amuses us, and we act as if we can afford to waste it.

Some Jews also recite the verses from Deuteronomy that make up the “second paragraph” of the Shema in their daily prayers:

So if you listen carefully to my mitzvot which I am giving you today, to love the Eternal your God and serve him with all your heart and all your being; then I will give your land its rain at the right seasons, including the early fall rains and the late spring rains; so that you can gather in your wheat, new wine and olive oil; and I will give your fields grass for your livestock; with the result that you will eat and be satisfied.’  But be careful not to let yourselves be seduced, so that you turn aside, serving other gods and worshipping them. If you do, the anger of the Eternal will blaze up against you. He will shut up the sky, so that there will be no rain. The ground will not yield its produce, and you will quickly pass away from the good land the Eternal is giving you. Therefore, you are to store up these words of mine in your heart and in all your being; tie them on your hand as a sign; put them on your forehead; teach them carefully to your children, saying them when you sit at home, when you are traveling on the road, when you lie down and when you get up; and write them on the door-frames of your house and on your gates — so that you and your children will live long on the land the Eternal swore to your ancestors that he would give them for as long as there is sky above the earth. – Deuteronomy 11:13-21

Some may scoff and say, “Oh, rabbi, do you really think that drought is a punishment from God?” I believe that it is, given my understanding of “God.” When we disregard the laws of nature, when we act as if  we can consume resources at will, without concern for anything or anyone else, when we worship the idols of the market and technology, we court disaster.

What can we do? Prayer and study are a beginning. Let us listen to the words of our prayers as we say them, and remember that we are merely stewards of creation, not the owners of it. While some make a pshat (surface) reading of Genesis 1 and say, “Ahh, we can do whatever we want!” the rabbis have long cautioned us that this is an improper reading. In Kohelet Rabbah 7:13, we learn that:

God showed Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”

The words of Torah in our prayers teach us  that we are the stewards of creation. We have more important things to do than merely to consume goods and services. We must care for creation, and for one another, whether we do that by fighting fires or by conserving limited resources. We can do it in our homes and in the voting booth. We can do it with our choices about consumption and tzedakah.

It is not too late to change our ways.

A Visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls

The California Science Center in Los Angeles has an exhibit titled The Dead Sea Scrolls now through Sept 7, 2015, and yesterday my friend Rabbi Sabine Meyer and I went to see it. If you live in L.A., or will visit there anytime soon, it’s well worth the admission fee.

They have done a nice job of putting the Scrolls in their historical context, explaining how they relate to other documents (the Hebrew Bible, Christian Bibles, and the Quran) and to the history of the Middle East. They also explained some of the science involved in their restoration. I could have used a bit more of the science: without it, the scrolls would have been nothing more than a curiosity, because we would not have been able to read them.

There’s a nice archaeological exhibit included as well, with a huge stone from the Temple Mount, pottery and building stones, figurines and inscriptions. Those who wish to read scripture as history, or who wish to read the Bible as infallible will be uncomfortable with it, but I liked the forthright approach to the science of the scrolls.

The scroll fragments come at the end of the exhibit, in a display that echoes the display at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. It is always a shock to see how tiny the fragments are, and how difficult it is to make out anything on them. I wish there had been more to explain how the scientists who reclaimed the scrolls made it possible for scholars to read them. When I looked at the blown-up images of the scroll fragments, enhanced for legibility, the calligraphy on them is beautiful and in fact easy to read – but the little flakes of actual scroll are hard to see, much less read. (If you’d like to see the scrolls for yourself, you can also take a look at them at the Digital Dead Sea Scrolls site maintained by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.)

So if you get a chance, go! But if Los Angeles is far away, let me give you a brief primer on the scrolls:

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered accidentally by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947. They include most of the books of the Hebrew Bible, with the exception of the Book of Esther. They also include some other texts which seem to have been exclusive to the Jews who lived together at Qumran in the first century CE.

The people who owned and hid the scrolls may have been Essenes, a sect of Judaism mentioned by Josephus in his history of the Jews. However, this is by no means certain. What we do know is that about the time of the failed revolt against Rome, the owners of this library of scrolls sealed it up in jars, stashed it in hard-to-reach caves above the Dead Sea, and there they stayed until the 20th century.

For more about the history and significance of the scrolls, the Virtual Jewish Library has an excellent set of articles.

Holiness in the Nail Parlor

I met a remarkable woman last month, and I spent time with her today. Delane Sims has a little business in my home town of San Leandro, Delane’s Natural Nail Care. If all she did was nails, hers would still be a remarkable shop because she is committed to healthy methods and to good labor practices.

I originally found Delane’s because I was tired of going to get my nails done and then fearing that the women working on my hands were slave labor and/or that I was going to acquire an infection or fungus. I did a search online and found this wonderful place just a mile from my home.

But when I met Delane herself, I was in for a real treat. She runs her business with a vision of health and wholeness, and treats her staff like human beings. But that isn’t all: she is the primary mover of not one but two programs that are changing this corner of the world for the better.

The first is Steps to Success, a program that seeks out low income single mothers and empowers them through education, mentoring, and sustainable job placement in the nail care industry. Graduates have gone into business for themselves, or used the employment in nail care as a springboard to other choices including college educations. All of that is accomplished with an emphasis and active mentoring on work/family balance!

Her other program is Senior Moments, which identifies and reaches out to isolated seniors in the community, matching them up with appropriate professional referrals and volunteers. Senior Moments partners with a number of community organizations to bring help to the elderly. Elders are prey to scammers, they are vulnerable to sudden changes in health and life situation, and they often have thin resources for coping when these things happen. Senior Moments sees to it that whatever their income, they are rich in available resources for help and connection.

Going to get my nails done at Delane’s is both relaxation and inspiration. The last time I went, I was inspired to volunteer to work in her programs. Today I stopped by for a pedicure and we wound up talking Torah and she reminded me of all the many opportunities we each have for doing good in the world, if we are but willing to see the image of the Holy One in the face of every person we encounter. Delane seems to have mastered the art of staying in that holy mindset full time.

If you happen to live in the San Francisco East Bay Area, consider making an appointment with Delane. I know you will leave with healthy fingers and toes. I suspect your heart will have had a makeover as well: I know that mine gets one every time I see her.

The Jewish Introvert

I’ve been absent for a couple of days. I was right here at home, but silent. I’m an introvert, and sometimes we just need to be quiet for a while.

I find introversion and Judaism to be a challenging mix, sometimes. When I became a Jew, someone said to me, “Ruth, the good news is, you’ll never be alone. And the bad news is, you’ll never be alone.” And it’s true: I pray with others, I talk with others, I teach with others, I plan things in conjunction with others, and I write a blog that is, at its heart, about connecting with Jews. So when my honey set off for Disneyland with a friend, I went to ground for a couple of days. I filled up the buffer, to put social media on “hold” for a bit and enjoyed a little sabbatical from connection with other people.

When I really let myself be quiet for a while, it renews me. I used to think it was a character flaw, but I’ve come to understand that it’s just the way some of us are wired. I don’t want or need to live that way all the time, but occasional alone time gives my brain a chance to relax – that’s the best way I can describe it.

Are you an introvert or extrovert? How does this personality trait affect the way you go about living out your Jewishness, if at all?

Thoughts for the 4th of July

I listened this morning as the announcers on NPR read the Declaration of Independence aloud.

I noticed something I’d never noticed before: Passover and the Fourth of July have a lot in common. Both celebrate the moment when a small group of people made the decision to take an enormous risk. In both cases, the leaders went out on a dangerous limb and miraculously, the people went with them. In both cases, they defied a government with overwhelming power and resources.

Moses had defied Pharaoh repeatedly and to his face, but while that was going on, the average Hebrew was still making straw bricks to build Pharaoh’s monuments. Only on the first night of Passover did that average man and woman throw down their burdens and walk away. Surely there were skeptics who grumbled over the first Passover meal that Moses was crazy and the whole bunch of them were doomed. Not until the reception of the Torah and the forty years in the wilderness did Israel become a nation, and even then, a work in progress.

And so it was on July 4, 1776: not everyone thought that it was a great idea to defy the British Parliament and Crown. But eventually  the cruelties of the War of Independence forged a new nation, a nation that continues, fitfully, to pursue the ideals articulated in the Declaration.

Both acts, while daring, were incomplete. Freedom alone is not enough to sustain a nation. Passover’s liberation requires Shavuot’s Torah to sustain and propel the nation forward. The Declaration of Independence similarly requires the Constitution with its Bill of Rights. Otherwise “freedom” would have disintegrated into chaos and there would be nothing to celebrate – in fact, nothing to remember.

The Declaration of Independence is a soaring document written by a flawed man, signed by similarly flawed men. The Hebrews who downed tools and followed Moses into the desert were imperfect, too. In both cases, the journey begun in daring led later to the acceptance of responsibility, and continues in an ongoing pursuit of the ideals articulated by limited human beings.

So as we grill our Hebrew National hot dogs, as we watch the fireworks, let us remember that 0ur work is incomplete. Until we build societies that live up to our fine words, we are not done.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

A Visit to the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Today Linda and I had a business meeting over in San Francisco. I’ve been dithering forever about taking BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) on my scooter, and I figured today was a great opportunity, since we were going together.

BART is great for reading San Francisco without having to park or fight traffic on the Bay Bridge. It is less than lovely in some other ways, namely, the hard-to-find elevators and the sometimes-rude riders. I practically had to run over a guy to get him to allow me my wheelchair spot on the train.

After our business meeting, we stopped to get a sandwich and then traveled a few short blocks to the Contemporary Jewish Museum. I am embarrassed to say this was my first visit, since mobility fears had kept me away.

The facility is truly beautiful and wonderfully accessible. I never once had any problem accessing anything, and the security guard was extremely pleasant. Architecturally, the building is a fabulous mix of old and new, the old Pacific Gas & Electric Jessie Street Substation with a dynamic contemporary structure by architect Daniel Libeskind.

Exhibits at the CJM are staggered so that there’s always something interesting to see. We toured Bound to be Held: A Book Show by Josh Green. It was an intriguing combination of elements: a collection of books donated by famous and private individuals, with personalizations (“Read by Famous”) and The Library of Particular Significance, a lending-library of 1,000 books significant to the people who donated them, with which viewers could interact via post-its or by (imagine that!) reading them. It was both fun and thought-provoking.

The current work on view in In that Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art was somewhat less engaging for us. Bay Area visual artist Anthony Discenza collaborated with New York-based author of horror novels Peter Straub to present a piece on Das Beben, a nineteenth century artistic movement who apparently managed to have themselves and their work burnt up in not one but two catastrophic fires. None of their actual work survives; we were apparently supposed to imagine it from the descriptions. We were mystified and left feeling a bit stupid, but we tried!

We are now members of the museum and will return to see other exhibits soon. It’s a wonderful building and clearly the curators are looking to challenge visitors. If you are in the Bay Area or planning to visit, I recommend it!

Contemporary Jewish Museum
736 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

Approaching the museum from Mission Street, with the old PG&E substation on view.
Approaching the museum from Mission Street, with the old PG&E substation on view.

For the Mothers and the Fathers, the Sisters and the Brothers

It’s Memorial Day here in the USA, and I am cranky.

This is the day we remember our brothers and sisters who died in the wars. And I honor every one of them. I am grateful that of those I have loved who have served our country, all came home in one piece – well, in more or less one piece. As my better half, Linda, said this morning, no one who sees combat is ever really the same again.

She should know. She served in the Navy during Vietnam as a drug and alcohol counselor. She was a sailor on a landlocked base (how surreal is that?) trying to help those who returned stateside with a problem.

Our son joined the Navy on his 21st birthday. I was on the other side of the world, in Jerusalem, and called to wish him a happy birthday. He was all excited about his news, and I kept my voice as calm as I could. This was during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and the writing was pretty much on the wall. The idea of my baby in a war, in a stupid, stupid war, was almost more than I could bear. As things worked out, he didn’t go to war, but as far as I knew that day, he was headed straight into it. I was proud of him and I was terrified.

All soldiers in every war are somebody’s baby. They might be big and strong and capable with weapons, but they are each beloved of someone. My heart today, Memorial Day, aches for the mamas and the fathers and the sisters and the brothers. I ache for the girlfriends and the boyfriends and the family pets. I ache for everyone who remembers someone they loved who will never grow older.

And I am angry – deeply angry – at anyone who dares to sell those precious lives  cheaply. Saying “I support the troops” is nothing; it’s lip service. Sending other people’s children into war when yours aren’t going is about as low a thing as anyone ever did. And yes, I know, great men have done it: Abraham Lincoln tried to keep his son out of the Civil War, to name just one. That doesn’t make it right.

I don’t want to hear about how “they are all volunteers, so it’s OK.” Aaron was, yes, but the vast majority of young men and women who go into the military in this country do so because it’s their best option, because college has been priced out of their means. The only way I will accept that our Congress and the Executive Branch can send our young people to war will be if all their kids have to go, too.

That was part of my experience in Israel: when I was completely shaken by Aaron’s news, Israeli parents would put an arm around me and hug me. They told me to be proud, that I had raised a good man. And I knew those weren’t cheap words, because they had served, and their children would serve. And I was consoled, not because some idiot in a suit “supported the troops” but because those men and women understood.

Today, Linda and I remembered those who died. It’s not a weekend for barbecues and celebration at our house; it’s quiet. It’s the day I count my blessings, because all my loved ones are home. It’s the day I think of all those who miss someone who will never come home again.

It’s the day I pray that Isaiah’s vision will someday come true:

[God] shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. – Isaiah 2:4