Turning 81: An Astonishment of Blessings

 Dear Everybody, I woke up this past Sunday morning to find that more than 100 (I stopped counting) people had sent me on FaceBook an outpouring of birthday wishes, cakes, skies, songs, and blessings.

I am deeply moved, highly honored, & utterly overwhelmed.

Let me share what this birthday means to me.

I was born on October 12, 1933. In those days that date was universally acknowledged as Columbus Day and everyone I knew thought Columbus was a hero.  But there was no Columbus Day holiday. I thought that was rude. But when the US government did finally get around to making Columbus Day a holiday, they took it away from my birthday and instead made it the nearest Monday. Even ruder!

Even during my childhood,  I looked forward with excitement to celebrating in 1992 the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall. In those days I did not expect that by then, there would be strong voices in American society – including mine – that were deeply critical of the way Columbus himself and those who followed him behaved toward the original communities of what some called “Turtle Island.”

When 1992 did come, I struggled with “the meaning of Columbus” not only for the sake of my own personal symbolism and politics, but for the sake of a society-wide ability to assess both the  destructiveness and creativity in our history, rather than being imprisoned in visions of black OR white. Finally I wrote an Op/Ed piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer called “Columbus: Explorer Yes, Conqueror No.”

That could model the motto for a decent America: Creator Yes; Conqueror No.   There would be a great deal of our history – slavery, genocide, cruel Imperial wars, the use of torture as public policy, the poisoning of our planet -- we would have to mourn in remorse,  and not only to mourn in words and tears of interior spiritual  repair but also to heal by vigorous public action and policy repair.

And there would be a great deal of our history that we could lift up in pride: past efforts to heal and transform ourselves: great waves of labor movement organizing; the creation of a free press and freedom of religion; the waves of spiritual exploration that have used freedom of religion to deep and worthy purposes; the bubbling up of businesses meeting real needs; the movements against imperial destruction of the Philippines in 1900 and Vietnam in 1968; struggles to open our society to women, peoples of color,  and those of heterodox sexual orientations.  And not only pride we celebrate in words, but also to use as encouragement to the liberatory movements of the present and the future.

All exploration. The creative Columbus.  Sailing not King Ferdinand's three ships but Noah's Ark --  for the sake of life, not conquest.

In 1933, October 12  -- as I learned many many years later – was also Shmini Atzeret.   That is the Jewish festival of inwardness.  The glowing, colorful, outburst of fruitfulness of Sukkot turns to the time of seed. Almost invisible, the wintertime festival of seeming death. (It actually begins tonight.)

This year, at 81, I want to affirm the "inner exploration" that is calling me, after a lifetime of more outward exploration -- as one well-wisher called it, "relentless work."

When I say "want to," I'm not sure how able I will find myself to respond to that more inward call, as I keep feeling the urgency of the crisis that is afflicting our planet and ourselves   -- adamah and adam.

Yet I know that inwardness, calm, playfulness, song, love and love-making –-- in a word, a label, a time, Shabbat! –-- are necessary not only to doing the work, to healing the soul. They are the goal itself.

Shabbat, says Jewish tradition, is a foretaste of the Messianic Age. We pray for a day that is yom shekulo Shabbat, a day that is wholly and deeply restful, reflective, joyful.   What Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.  What we might call the Beloved Ecosystem in which with consciousness we learn to nurture the life-forms of our planet.

Ourselves among them. In some ways we are stewards of our planet , but unlike most stewards we are part of what we steward. What we stew. We ourselves are in the pot we are stewing. To make a shared and pleasing dish, or burn the pots and pans to melted death.

For me, that taste of Shabbat, of Beloved Community, often comes when I can join with fellow-searchers in exploring Torah together. Finding in it new insights, seeds sown deep underground by those who ten generations ago, a hundred generations ago, struggled, explored, their own world –-- inner and outer.  Sometimes it’s music. Song. Chanting, breathing in unison.

Sometimes just dozing, snuggling, in bed. Thanking the God, the woman poet, and the ancient Rabbis who wove the Song of Songs into the Holiest of Holies.

And as I reach out to the community –- you-all!  -- with whom I share these electrons to converse, there comes to me a desire to ask you-all for a birthday gift.

First: the "birthday gift" I would most hope from each and all of you is setting aside two hours a week in your own lives to address that crisis -- whether it's making your own purchases of electricity from wind instead of coal and asking your congregation to do the same, or it's moving your money from a bank that invests in Big Oil to one that invests in your own neighborhood, or it's writing a letter to your Congressmember supporting EPA's effort to restrict CO2 emissions from coal power plants, or it's bringing together  a group of friends and congregants who will BOTH plan what to do if a new and worse Superstorm Sandy hits AND march upon a local coal power plant that is spewing asthma into the local neighborhood as well as CO2 into the global neighborhood  -- it all helps!

Both resistance and resilience -- it all helps.

And secondly, remember to re-member your own life. To bring together the fragmented “members” of your life by rhythmically turning inward to Shmini Atzeret, to letting seed go underground in quiet, the mysterious seed you may not yourself yet understand from the fruitful actions you’ve been taking.

Even if you are a passionate activist who knows full well that the great Pharaohs of Big Oil, Big Coal, take no Sabbath from their deadly work  -- do not imitate them. To grow a menshlich world, a communal world, a joyful world – it is necessary to be a mensch, to sow the seeds of community and joy.

Much less important, but still strongly helpful, would be a gift  –-  maybe $81? -- to The Shalom Center. That number, my mathematical stepson reminds me, is the square of 9. So choose a multiple of 9 –--  $81, or $36, or $180, or even just $9 itself   -- to help us keep breathing the Breath of Life into our country, our planet, ourselves.

Many many thanks to you-all, and a great deal of love from me, your
birthday boy -- -- Arthur


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