We’re About to Stop Praying for Rain

March 22, 2014
Food grows where water flows in the Central Valley of California.

The Central Valley of California:
food grows only where there is water.

This was going to be the Year of the Garden. When I moved into the new house, I had great plans for a garden of California native plants, plus vegetables and fruits and a few old favorites. So I paid some nice folks to dig everything up, enrich the tired soil with compost, and cover the lot with some wood chips that will gradually decompose into the earth.  By the time it was all done, it was clear that we are in the midst of a terrible drought in California, and it is simply not responsible for me to go planting a bunch of tender new stuff that needs gallons of water. 

So the California natives and the iris and the day lilies will have to wait for next year. I’m getting ready to plant a little vegetable garden in barrels (easier to protect from wildlife and small peeing dogs) and I’ve got my two new baby figs. They are leafing out nicely, the little leaves looking like tiny hands that uncurl and reach for the sun. I’m glad I ordered the fig trees before I knew about the drought. Soon I’ll have the cukes and ‘maters and okra going, too. I’ll water them by drip and they’ll feed me and my family and maybe a few others as well.

I feel embarrassed to whine much about my little garden, when so many California farmers are trying to figure out how to survive this terrible drought. Water is expensive for them even in good years, and this year it sounds like no amount of money will buy the water they need, because the Sierra has little snow. When I served a congregation in the Central Valley, some of my congregants were small orange farmers. Their families had grown citrus for generations, and it was a beautiful thing to see the labor of the farmers and the natural wisdom of the trees come together to make a harvest of glowing fruit. Now they and others like them in the Valley are having to do a dreadful calculus: how many trees can they afford to irrigate? How many trees will be lost?

Over the months ahead, food will be more expensive for everyone in America, because the farmers of the Central Valley don’t have water. One third of all the produce grown in the United States comes from the Valley, and this year is a drought year.  That means that more people in America will eat less, and that much of what they are able to eat will be lower in quality, because fresh fruits and vegetables and meat will see the worst price increases. Drought means that there will be less work in the Valley, where poverty already runs rampant among the farmworkers, the people we all depend upon for our food.

Living a Jewish life pushes me to pay attention to these connections. The movement of the sun across the sky determines times for prayer. The sun sets at a different time every day, but its setting marks the beginning of a new day. From Sukkot to Passover, we pray for rain three times a day; soon we’ll change that prayer to a prayer for dew, which is the most an Israeli or California farmer can hope for between Passover and the High Holy Days. We Jews are tied to the natural world by our prayer cycle and our calendar; no matter how urban our lives, the connection is inescapable.

And that is a good thing, because we  – not just Jews, all of us! – need to remember that our lives and well being are linked with the lives of others. When I say motzi before eating a meal, I remind myself that bread doesn’t grow in the grocery store, or in a bread machine. It comes from the earth, it comes from all the creatures that fertilize the plants that went into it, it comes from the people who harvested the plants, it comes from the people who transported it and who worked in the factories that processed and packaged it. It comes from the people who stock the shelves, it comes from the checker who rang it up, it comes from a million parts of creation. Every bite of bread is holy.

So folks, it’s time to pray for the Valley. Time to pray for the people who live there, the people who work there, the bees that pollinate plants, for the earth itself. It’s time to pray that the politicians can find a compromise (that is what they do, when they’re doing their jobs) that will make it possible for find water to route to the thirsty plants before all the fields fall idle. It’s time to pray not just with our mouths, but with our hearts and hands and email and telephones, to insist that ways be found for vulnerable farmers to survive a bad year. It’s time to give money, or volunteer at the Food Bank, because the 49 million Americans who were hungry last year are going to be hungrier this year, because food prices will go up and up and up.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously spoke of “praying with his feet” when he marched at Selma. We are the hands and the feet of God in the world. God is not sitting idle, waiting for the right words to be spoken that will cause magical rain to fall from the heavens. God waits dormant within us, waiting for us to get off our collective tuchus and act.

This is a season of drought. It’s time to take care of one another.

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Adam Reeder


Prayer for the Opening of Baseball Season

March 1, 2014
Dodger Stadium, Opening Day 5773

Dodger Stadium, Opening Day 5773

The opening of the new baseball season (Rosh Z’man Beisbol) is a major festival for many American Jews. Discussions on the holiday are recorded in Tractate Miskhakim (Games) and in Hilkhot Z’man Beisbol (Laws of the Season of Baseball) as well as in HaYachalom HaHakir (The Precious Diamond), a mystical work. The prayer that follow is from Sefer Greenberg, a book of prayers attributed to Jewish baseball great Hank Greenberg, although those skeptical Wissenschaft yekkies insist that it is a pseudapigraphal piece, probably written in about 5768 by a ba’al teshuvah in Detroit, most likely a Tigers fan.

There is disagreement as to whether this prayer should be said at the opening of Spring Training or on Opening Day. Consult a rabbi or your home team office for the minhag hamakom (local custom) upon this matter.*

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who created human beings out of the clay of the earth, breathing into them the breath of Your life. You set within each human being a love of play, as well as a sense of fair play, and a desire for games that would satisfy both the body and the mind. From these human desires You brought forth baseball, a game of bats and balls played upon the diamond. It is an orderly game, as Your creation is orderly, and a mysterious game, as Your creation is mysterious, revealing to its devotees deep truths about Your world.

It is a game subject to times and seasons, and we give thanks for the fact that we are now at the beginning of the season of baseball. Amen.

It is a game subject to rules and statistics, and we give thanks for the Official Baseball Rules as well as their league variations, and also for the many statistics that add to the strategies of managers and the enjoyment of fans. Amen.

Even as one cannot achieve a five run home run, let our foes be unable to defeat us. Amen.

Even as no one can achieve a quadruple play, let them be filled with dread at the sight of our bats. Amen.

And when the forces of Light and Dark join upon the diamond field, let our players play uninjured and mighty. Let the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd fill every ear and every heart, so that the words of the prophet may be fulfilled: Play Ball!

And when this season nears completion, when the dwindling hours of day reflect the dwindling number of teams in post-season play, let our team remain victorious to the last inning, so that we may glorify Your Name with the World Series trophy. Amen.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who enlivens our hearts with games.

Image: LicenseAttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Steve Devol

*To my “Beginner” readers – the words in italics at the top of this entry are a little rabbinical joke. Don’t worry about what it means; it’s a bit of Adar silliness.


The Rabbi Has a Code

December 29, 2013

Dear God,

 

I know what I’m supposed to be doing today: I’m supposed to be getting lesson plans ready for the winter, writing thoughtful blog entires for days ahead, studying a little Torah lishma (Torah just for its own sake), visiting an elderly lady, and unpacking my library.  That was the plan.

 

What is it that they say, “Man plans, and God laughs?”

 

I have a cold. I have one of those stupid sorts of cold that gums up my brain so I can’t think and renders me into very little more than a factory for germs. I can’t go visit any shut-ins: this bug might kill them. I can’t follow my own notes for a lesson plan. And the only thing I can think to do with my blog is whine about my cold, which is very, very lame.

 

Here’s what I want to know: why did You make the Common Cold virus? Is is just to keep us humble? It’s a trivial illness for most of us, miserable but inconsequential. It will pass in 7 days to 3 weeks, leaving no trace. And yet:

 

I remember when a cold virus got loose at the nursing home where I was a student chaplain. It was as if the Angel of Death flew down the hallway; it took half the souls on the first floor alone. For the frail or the already-sick, this thing is no joke. So I must be careful with it, stay home for the worst of it, carry tissues and wash my hands like a crazed raccoon when I do go out, because every sneeze is the launch of a zillion warheads.

 

So here I am, whining to the internet:  Poor me. Home with a cold. In my nice warm house, with nice warm soup on the stove. With my own bed. With loving friends sending me the occasional text: are you OK? Do you need anything?

 

Maybe the lesson of the cold is this: for at least some of us, there are always blessings to count, even when the count sounds like “One, Du, Tree.” And the universe is not all about me: it’s going right along, cold bug and all, while I hunker down with my blessings to get over it.

 

When I feel a bit more coherent, I should do something about the people with fewer blessings: those who lose their federal benefits this week, those who don’t have warm soup or a warm place to be. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to learn a little compassion for those whose illnesses are not so trivial, who feel just as miserable and know that they will never feel better.

 

But… first I have to get past the worst of this cold. Please, God, heal me, and help me learn whatever it is I can learn from this thing.

 

Amen.

 

Love,

 

Ruth

 

 

 


“Baruch Dayan Emet” – Why Do We Bless God When Someone Dies?

December 7, 2013
Angel of Grief - Hill Family

Angel of Grief (Photo credit: Mike Schaffner)

The traditional Jewish response to news of a death, any death, is “Baruch Dayan emet,” “Blessed is the true Judge.”

Here are some reasons for this ritual:

1. If there is a ritual formula to say when I get shocking news, I am less likely to say something inappropriate.  Death is solemn, and even when it is expected, it can be a shock. People say stupid things when they are shocked. Having a script for the first few moments can be very helpful.

2. The statement acknowledges that I do not know the sum of that person’s life. I am not qualified to stand in judgment upon them. By saying that only God is so qualified, I either affirm faith that God is the only true judge, or (if I am not a believer in a personal God) I acknowledge that only God, if there were such a person, can sit in judgment.

3. Making a statement of humility (“I cannot judge”) reminds me not to say something stupid with my next words.

4. If the death is tragic or inexplicable, it is a way of saying, “I do not understand how this could have happened” without starting a conversation about the possibilities. It keeps us away from platitudes that might get in the way of healthy grief, or other statements that might be unhelpful to the mourners.

5. The longer form of the blessing appears first in the Mishnah Berachot 9:2 (“Blessed are You, Eternal our God, ruler of the Universe, who is the True Judge.” We are told in that Mishnah that this is a blessing to say at the reception of any bad news. Rabbi Louis Rieser teaches that this is a way of acknowledging the Presence of God at a moment of high emotion, when we are most overwhelmed by loss.

6. The moment of death is a time when no words suffice, but we human beings are relentless with our words. By providing a simple ritual of humility with many possible interpretations, Jewish tradition gives us a container for our words at a time when they can do terrible harm. There is no need to say anything more, after “Baruch Dayan emet” – ultimately it says, I have no words for this. We stand with the mourner or stand as a mourner in the presence of the greatest mystery of life, and with these words clear the way for the long process of grief.


A Prayer for Superman Sam

December 3, 2013
My brother John  & Me. The family resemblance should positively shine after my prayer in March!

My brother John & me. The family resemblance should positively shine after my prayer in March!

This March, I am going to pray in a new way: I’m going to shave my head.

The backstory:

Sam is a eight year old with acute myeloid leukemia, the son of two of my colleagues, rabbis in the Midwest. He has been through a year and a half of horrific treatments, and recently doctors informed his parents that the disease is back but all of Sam’s treatment options are exhausted. The leukemia is going to take Sam’s life, despite all he and his family have suffered.

Many of us who have prayed and watched with breaking hearts as this drama unfolded have struggled for some response to this. We have learned some startling things: that only 4% of federal funding for cancer research is earmarked for children’s cancers, that many of the treatments available are hideous and, bottom line, too many children go through those difficult treatments and still die of cancer.

I saw some of this first hand a few years ago when I was a chaplain intern in the Bone Marrow Unit at City of Hope in Duarte, CA. Bone marrow transplants can sometimes work miracles, but even the success stories are harrowing. Following Sam’s story brought back memories and nightmares from that internship, and I was not a patient, only a chaplain.

This March 31, at the national convention of Reform rabbis, 36 of us are going to shave our heads in solidarity with the children and the families that are devastated by cancer. We’re calling it 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave. We do this as a prayer: a prayer for more research, a prayer for more effective, less destructive treatments, and a prayer that the children and their families will know that we stand with them as they face these terrible diseases. We will do it as a prayer of lamentation for young lives that know too much pain, for young lives cut short, for families who have to watch as little children suffer.

But this is an active prayer, and we ask others to participate. Here’s the deal: I’m going to shave my head. You, dear reader, can participate by donating to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a fundraiser for children’s cancer research. All you have to do is click the link at the bottom of this post and donate what your heart suggests. In exchange, I will send you a nice thank you note with an “after” picture of myself, bald as my baby brother. You will also have a tax deduction and the knowledge that you have not stood by while your neighbor bleeds – or goes bald. (Leviticus 19:16)

During the Civil Rights Movement, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that he “prayed with his feet” at Selma. I am going to pray with my hair. Please, join me in prayer by clicking on the link and joining me in speaking up for children with cancer. We cannot save Sam, but this we can do.

To donate to St. Baldrick’s Foundation via my page, click here. You will find info for donating directly online,  by mail, or by phone. 


How Do Jews Pray for the Sick?

December 2, 2013
A Prayer for healing. . .

A Prayer for healing. . . (Photo credit: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton)

I got a question via Twitter: “How do Jews pray for the sick?”

The simplest prayer for the sick is one we learn from Moses. In Numbers chapter 12, Moses’ sister Miriam falls ill with tzra’at (tzah-RAH-at), a terrible sickness something like psoriasis. (It’s often translated “leprosy” but that translation is inaccurate.) Horrified, Moses blurts out the shortest prayer in the Torah, indeed, in our tradition: “El na refah na la!”  “Please, God, heal her!” God’s response is to say that she will be healed, after it runs the minimum course of seven days and she follows the rules for those who have tzara’at, living outside the camp.

 

In this story, Miriam gets the disease because she gossiped with Aaron about their brother Moses. Tzara’at was understood to be the result of the particularly pernicious sin of evil speech. Notice, though, that Aaron was not struck ill even though he was a full participant in the sin. Some suggest that Aaron’s punishment was to see his sister suffer when he knew he was partially responsible. I think it is a message to the reader that wrongdoing and sickness are not always linked.

Today this is only one prayer we say for the sick. We recite a “Mi Shebeirach” (mee sheh-BAY-rach) (“May the One Who Blessed”) prayer during a Torah service for the sick, and in some congregations the same prayer is said or sung at other services as well. We pray extemporaneously, as Moses did, and we also say prayers for the healthy body. Some of us pray for the sick in other ways, by doing medical research, or caring for the sick and their families, or by doing other things. My next blog post will be about one of those prayers. (Stay tuned!)


How Will I Ever Feel At Home in Services?

November 12, 2013
Grand Lake Theater of Dreams

When I drive past the Grand Lake Theater, I am flooded with memories.(Photo credit: Thomas Hawk)

Last night I attended a memorial service in Fremont, CA. It’s just down the freeway from my home, but I have only been there a couple of times, and I was completely dependent on my GPS getting in and out. I passed lots of places that meant absolutely nothing to me.  Eventually I arrived at my destination, attended a beautiful service, and then did the whole thing again going home.

It’s different when I drive around Oakland. I lived in Oakland for almost 20 years, and now I live in the town next door. When I drive anywhere in Oakland, every street corner has a memory. I used to drive down Grand Ave, by the Lake, to take the kids to school. When I drive down Piedmont Ave, I am reminded of lunches with my old study partner. When I drive up Redwood Road, I remember the scary time I was trying to take the kids home and the road turned into a river of muddy water around us.  And so on.

Attending religious services is like driving in a town. If I attend a Unitarian service, I have no idea what’s going on. I’ve only been to one service and I was lost the whole time. I could tell that the people around me were “into” it, but I didn’t know what was going on, and there were no memories connected with any of it. It was like driving around Fremont, clinging to the GPS.

But in the familiar Jewish service, I meet memories at every corner: that prayer comforted me when my friend died, this prayer was taught me by a beloved teacher. One prayer annoys me, and another prayer always thrills me. I remember when new things were added (sort of like remembering what was on Lakeside Dr. before the Trader Joe’s went in) and I feel at home.

There is only one way to get that kind of homey familiarity with a town or with a service: you have to live there for a while. Maybe not 27 years (I lived in Jerusalem only for a year, and it is full of memories) but you have to show up, and get lost, and get found, and stumble around. That messy stage of finding one’s way is an integral part of the process.

So the next time you are in a service and you feel like, gee, when am I ever going to feel at home with this? – consider the possibility that maybe you need to go more often, or more regularly. It’s only by logging the miles that the place will really become home. The good news is that as that if you put in the time, it’s inevitable.  That mysterious service will be well and truly yours.


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