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.

Where Do You Sacrifice the Animals?

This model of 1st c. Jerusalem, complete with Temple (in the foreground) stands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
This model of 1st c. Jerusalem, complete with Temple (in the foreground) stands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

“Rabbi, can we see where you sacrifice the animals?”

A group from a local Christian church was touring the synagogue. I explained that we don’t sacrifice animals anymore. We haven’t sacrificed animals since the destruction of Herod’s Temple in year 70 of the common era. Our rules said we could only do that in the Temple in Jerusalem, so once that building was gone, we had to find a new way to stay connected with the Divine.

I don’t think he believed me, but it is the truth.

In a Reform synagogue, not only do we not sacrifice animals, we are no longer hoping to rebuild the Temple. We agree with Maimonides, who wrote in about 1190 in The Guide for the Perplexed that what God wanted from us was prayer, not sacrifices. The sacrifices had been instituted, he wrote, because we saw other people in the ancient world making sacrifices to their gods, and so God gave us a limited program of sacrifice: only certain animals, and only in one place. That program was meant to move us towards prayer as worship. Maimonides never wrote “so don’t bother to rebuild the Temple” but that became the position of the Reform Jews of the 19th century.

Instead of the sacrifices in the Temple, Jews say a prayer every day at the times appointed for the sacrifices. That prayer, often called “the Amidah” [standing prayer] is a series of short blessings said without a pause or interruption. Rather like the pyre on the altar that they replace, these prayers are layered one upon another in a particular prescribed order. For Orthodox Jews, the Amidah includes a prayer for rebuilding the temple, but in the Reform version, that prayer becomes a prayer that God will “pour out Your spirit” upon us, instead.

There are some people so interested in rebuilding the Temple that they have built elaborate models of it, and others who are trying to develop a red heifer so that the new Temple could be properly purified.

I think there are enough mitzvot that need doing in the world without rebuilding the Temple. I am reminded of the words of the Prophet Hosea, and other prophets as well:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6

The Temple was one of the wonders of the world in its time. Today, that space is occupied by someone else’s house of worship since the year 703. Meanwhile, Jews have moved on to a new, more portable form of worship, the layered daily Amidah, and the shorter Amidah for Shabbat. Personally, I’m glad.

What about you? Would you like to see the Temple rebuilt? Why or why not?

Praying for Rain, Drowning in Snow

New England has been hit with a huge snowstorm. I’ve seen it on the news: multiple feet of snow, snow billowing in the wind, filling up the screen. I know that it is causing a lot of suffering; I shudder to think what homelessness or poverty mean in weather like that.

And yet I have to confess that one of my emotions watching this news is envy.  I’m in California. The East is having biblical storms, and we are having biblical drought. As awful as that blizzard was, we’d need a few of them up in the Sierras before we could quit worrying about water here.

The phrase in Hebrew in the tweet is “who sends wind and causes the rain to fall.” It’s a prayer we say daily as part of the Amidah from Sukkot to Passover, asking for rain to fall, asking that winter be winter. So far, winter in California has been more like fall or spring: cool and breezy, but not much rain since December.  And winter “back East” and in the Midwest has been brutal and wet.

Our climate is out of whack. There’s a section of the Shema I think about a lot lately, one that the early Reformers ditched back in the 19th century because they felt it too “superstitious:”

And if you obey My commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, to love the Eternal your God and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then the Eternal’s wrath will flare up against you, and God will close the heavens so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land which the Eternal gives you. – Deuteronomy 11: 13-17

Let’s leave the traditional understanding of that passage aside, just for a moment. Try this paraphrase of the last bit:

Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray from the commandments and worship alien gods (like power, money or convenience) and bow down to them (give them priority over the commandments.) For then there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish.

The last several years have been the hottest on record. Drought plagues the breadbasket of the nation and the eastern cities are awash in floods and snow. Perhaps, just perhaps, greed might have something to do with this. Convenience might have something to do with this. A desire to ride in my own car all by myself, no matter the cost, might have something to do with it. That’s what the scientists are saying; so much for “superstition.”

I have lost count of the number of my friends with cancer. I’m a baby boomer. We’ve been swimming in toxic chemicals all our lives, from dyes to food additives to pesticides and plastics. DDT wasn’t banned for agricultural use until 1972. Questionable stuff abounds in our air, our food, our water, and in our bodies. All of those things make money for someone, give power to someone, are convenient for someone. When “someone” is myself, it’s still cold comfort when the diagnosis comes.

Are money, power and convenience bad? Of course not, not in and of themselves. In excess, though, they can be a problem. When we put them before our ethics, yes, a problem.

One of the purposes of Jewish prayer is to make us more aware of the contradictions in our lives. If we say the Shema and pay attention to the meaning, every word of it will transform our lives. Same with the daily Amidah: say it and pay attention, and suddenly life will look different.

As for this one prayer for rain, I suggest to anyone who feels waterlogged that they might quietly add “b’California” (“in California”) to the line. We’re mighty dry.

What Goes On in a Jewish Service? (Especially for Beginners)

A reader asked: “Is there a general pattern to the service, or not?”

The Jewish service may seem aimless to a newcomer. We stand, we mumble, we sit, we sing, we repeat a prayer from earlier, we do something that looks suspiciously like the hokey-pokey, we read some more prayers, we sing, we’re done. It is no surprise that many newcomers are left wondering: “What was THAT?”

I supply links to more detailed material. Click on any word you don’t understand or want to learn about more deeply. If I haven’t supplied a link, let me know in the comments and I’ll fix that.

Warm Up with Blessings and Praise

In the beginning, the service leader takes us through a series of “warm-ups” designed to help us prepare to pray. They might include a greeting, songs or psalms, and some prayers. This is one of the parts of the service that will vary greatly from place to place.

You will know this section is over when we stand for the “Barechu” prayer. It signals that we’re ready to get down to serious business.

Prelude and Postlude: Blessings

The Shema is preceded by two blessings. These prayers lead us into the proper frame of mind for the Shema. The first blessing has to do with Creation, the natural world. The second has to do with Revelation, how we have received Torah. The Shema itself is a passage from Torah. Then we say a blessing of Redemption, and the passage “Mi Chamocha” remembering our deliverance from Egypt.

The Core of the Service: Shema & Amidah

The service addresses two specific sets of mitzvot (commandments.) The first set is to say the Shema twice daily.

The second set is a little more complex. We say the Amidah [Standing Prayer] in order to fulfill our duty to maintain the Temple sacrifices. Back when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, we sacrificed animals according to the directions in the book of Leviticus. The book of Deuteronomy makes it clear that we are not to make sacrifices anywhere other than the Temple in Jerusalem. So once the Romans destroyed the Temple, we had a problem: how could we meet our obligation to maintain the sacrificial cult?

The Jewish people came up with an ingenious replacement for the sacrifices. Instead of sacrificing animals, we would make sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. If you read the first four chapters of Leviticus, you will see that every sacrifice was stacked upon the altar in a very specific way. Ever since the loss of the Temple Jews have kept the obligation to sacrifice by chanting the “stacked” prayers of the Amidah.

The final prayer in the Amidah is a prayer for shalom, for peace.

Sermon & Torah

At this point in the service, the “Torah service” (reading from the Torah) may be inserted. Traditionally Torah is read only in daylight on Shabbat, Mondays, and Thursdays.

If there is to be a sermon it will also usually come at this point.

Cool Down with Aleinu and Kaddish

We finish the service with the “concluding prayers.” Aleinu [“It is upon us”] is a mission statement for the Jewish People. If that sounds like a tall order, it is, which is why there are many versions of this prayer. Kaddish is a prayer for transitions; you will have heard it previously at least once in the service, but the Mourner’s Kaddish is usually the last big prayer in the service. We say it to recognize the last big transition in life, the transition from life to death. We recall the names of people who have died recently and in the past when we say this prayer.

These last prayers get us ready to go back out into the world, reminded of our mission in life and that life itself is actually very short.

Closing Song

Just as we do not stop a Torah or Haftarah reading on a sad verse, we don’t finish the service with the Mourner’s Kaddish. One very popular song for the end of the service is Adon Olam. Another is Ein Keloheinu:

A few other notes:

  • The exact parts and order of the service will vary by time of day. Check this chart for details.
  • The Shabbat Amidah is different from the weekday Amidah. This article has details.
  • Services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur have the same elements, with considerable additions.
  • It takes time and practice to learn the service. This article may be some help for beginners.

It’s Half-Past Sukkot – Do You Smell Rain?

Areas with Mediterranean climate
Areas with Mediterranean climate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Israel and the California coast both have a “Mediterranean climate.” We have rain in the winter, and it is dry in the summer.

For California Jews, this means that we experience the seasons as if we lived in Israel.  At the end of Sukkot, we will change a phrase in our daily Amidah prayer from a prayer for dew (the summertime prayer) to a prayer for wind and rain.  And sure enough, a trifle ahead of schedule, there is rain in the forecast for Northern California. Ideally, it would wait a few days, but still — pretty close!

I love the way the calendar reconnects me to the natural world.  The new day comes when the sun sets, not when the clock clicks over a line. I can look at the night sky, and know where I am in the Jewish month. Certainly, I can look everything up on, but the daily observance of Judaism pushes me to open my eyes, take a walk outside, and notice the world.

Some may say, “Ah, this is because the Jewish Calendar has its roots in the agricultural calendar of the Ancient Near East.” That’s true. But as with many things in Judaism, while it may have its roots in something impossibly long ago and far away, the effect of the observance in the here-and-now is fresh and urgent. Torah calls out to us to pay attention: pay attention to the world of which we are a part, pay attention to the people around us, pay attention to our own words and behavior.

Pay attention!