Torah for Tumultuous Times: April 2017

“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory with desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”

So said T.S. Eliot, riffing on Walt Whitman’s

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd ...

I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring"

about the April death of Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln was our greatest President because he was the one who did the most — not then or yet enough — to wrench America loose from the inheritance of slavery and to breed an expanded democracy out of the bleeding land.

Mixing memory with desire: The recipe for the Pesach Seder, usually in April, breeding freedom, past and future, out of the Narrow Land and its Narrow Pharaoh.

April — the cruellest month of American history, the yohrzeit month of Lincoln, FDR, and Martin Luther King,

This April,  we face our own Pharaoh, the American President who is already the worst, stifling democracy and choking Earth at every breath:

Then a new king came to power in the Land that became Tight and Narrow.

“Look,” he said to his people,

“The Godwrestling People have become far too numerous for us.

Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous

And, if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us

And rise up over  the country.”

So they put police over them to oppress them.

So this April, there will be a series of Shabbatot that beg for focusing Torah on tikkun olam, the healing of our country and the wounded Land of every country  --  Earth.

(1) April 1,  Vayikra.  This Shabbat immediately precedes the 50th anniversary (on April 4) of Martin Luther King's most  profound & prophetic sermon, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” given at Riverside Church in NYC with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel beside him on the bima.

I recommend using passages from this sermon as Haftarah. Do we need a warrant to name MLK a Navi? — Almost a year after the prophetic "Beyond Vitnam" sermon, Heschel spoke to the Rabbinical Assembly, introducing MLK and saying:

"Where in America do we hear a voice
Like the voice of the prophets of Israel?
Martin Luther King is a sign that
God has not forsaken the United States of America. …
Martin Luther King is a voice, a vision and a way.
I call upon every Jew
To hearken to his voice,
To share his vision,
To follow his way.
The whole future of America will depend upon
the impact and influence of Dr. King.”

And ten days later, on April 4, 1968, completing precisely a year from that Prophetic sermon,  Dr. King was murdered. Was that "America's" response to him? Did that murder define the whole future of America? Or is that future once more in our hands?

The whole “Beyond Vietnam” sermon, comments on it, and suggestions for action are on the new website <>. I hope that our congregations and all congregations and communities will on that weekend and/or on April 4 itself gather to read King’s prophetic words, discuss them in the light of our own lives, and decide together what actions we could take that would be worthy of King’s wisdom and his courage.

2)  April 8, Shabbat HaGadol. Check carefully the “HaGadol” haftarah, which warns of the Earth being consumed in a furnace of heat but says the “wings” of a just and righteous sun can remedy the danger (solar & wind energy?). The very end calls for the Prophet Elijah to turn the hearts of parents & children to each other lest the Earth be utterly destroyed.

    • Perfect text for  climate crisis, leading into Pesach & the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs of today, bringing Plagues upon the Earth.  
    • Perfect text for calling pre-B'nei Mitzvah kids & the rest of the congregation to stand and face each other, and to have both generations pledge to become Elijah so as to heal the Earth from danger.  
    • Perfect text to welcome Elijah to the Seder.

3)  April 16, Shabbat Chol Ha’Moed Pesach. The Haftarah is Ezekiiel’s “Dry Bones,” given new life by oft-repeated “Ruach" — obscured by most translations by using “breath," “wind” & “spirit” in different contexts, making it hard to realize they ae all the same. This can be used in many ways — the desiccated bones of US democracy needing Ruach to revive, the planet afflicted by drought as well as flood, etc etc.

(4) April 22,  Shmini and Earth Day. The parashah defines what is kosher. It would be relatively easy to craft divrei Torah about eco-kashrut. In doing that, it would be important to keep in mind that what Reb Zalman z’l and I had in mind was NOT just about food but about other elements that we humans (who are no longer chiefly shepherds & farmers) “eat” from the Earth.  — e.g. coaL, oil, uranium.  In our generation, energy is “food.”

What are the rules for the kosher eating of this food? (See my chapter, “What Is Eco-Kosher?” in my book Down-to-Earth Judaism.)

(5) April 29:  Tazria/Metzora and People’s Climate March/ Movement Shabbat.

I think the most relevant texts would be the two Haftarot.

(a) One is about how the lepers who are living (starving) on the margins of Israelite society end up becoming its saviors. It could be the focus of an affirmation of our various "outsiders” and a warning  not to squash those people because “the stone that the builders rejected is the cornerstone of the House.”   Warning: Don't make Muslims pariahs.

(b) Directly relevant to Climate concerns is the other Haftarah, in the context of Standing Rock’s “Water is Life.” General Naaman’s life is saved by dunking him in the Jordan River. At first he is scornful of the life-giving powers of such a piddling stream, but It Works!   Water IS Life!!  

Last week I sent out a mailing that calls for us to walk three paths in the period of the Trump-Bannon-Pence presidency: Resist, Rethink, Recreate. I hope these thoughts about the Shabbatot of April  will help stir our juices to the Rethinking that both Jewish and American peoplehoods need today.


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