Preparing for Sinai: Uniting Earth & Heaven, Words and Wheat

From the evening of Tuesday June 3 through the evening of June 5, Jews will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot, which in most of Jewish life today is focused on the revelation and acceptance of Torah at Mount Sinai.

During the next weeks, the Shalom Report will be suggesting ways to enrich what has become a somewhat forlorn festival in the Jewish calendar.

And since Shavuot became transcribed in Christian tradition into Pentecost, perhaps Christians as well as Jews might learn from reexamining this holy day.  (More about Pentecost below.)

The Hebrew word “Shavuot” means “Weeks.”  Its name comes from the festival’s timing in regard to Passover: It comes after a “week of weeks,” seven weeks and one day, beginning on the second night of Passover.

In Biblical Israel, Shavuot was the celebration of a successful spring wheat harvest. For seven weeks, the community anxiously counted its way into the precarious abundance of harvest.  The counting began on Passover as each household brought a sheaf of barley to the Temple, for the barley crop ripened before wheat.

On the 50th day, there was a unique offering at the Temple -- two loaves of wheat bread –-- regular leavened bread, not unleavened matzah, on the only occasion all year when leavened bread was offered. 

This agricultural celebration of Shavuot fit into the broad pattern of Biblical Judaism. During the Biblical era, spiritual leadership of the People was held by a hereditary priesthood defined by the body from birth and skilled in the body-rituals of bringing various foods  (beef, mutton, matzah, grain, pancakes, fruit) as offerings to a physical place.

Then the People Israel was severed from the land and from its ability to bring earthy offerings of foods of the Land of Israel to the Temple. During the same crisis when the People was deprived of its original, indigenous sacred relationship with the Earth, it was introduced to an alternative form of sacredness. From Hellenistic philosophy, it became clear that adept use of words could make connection with the Divine. And words could be carried from place to place, land to land.

So spiritual leadership was redefined. It was handed to a meritocratic lineage of men skilled in words –- the Rabbis.

In accordance with this profound transformation, the Rabbis redefined Shavuot –-- as no longer the celebration of spring wheat, but the anniversary of Revelation of the Word.

Experimenting toward an American Sabbatical/Shmitah Year

Can we turn our Eco-Wisdom
Away  from Climate Doom,
Into a Joyful Future?

Often the climate crisis is described ONLY as approaching doom. As the official US report on the impact of global scorching (just released this week) makes clear, that is one possible result. Yet the Torah portion we read this week (Leviticus 25, called B’Har) makes clear that we could learn to live more joyfully with the rhythms of the Earth.

Our growing ecological science could enrich the Torah's teachings and help us on the journey toward a more joyful relationship between adam (humanity) and adamah (the Earth).  Could help us turn what the Hebrew words say -- that human earthlings and the Earth are intertwined -- into a joyful era, rather than disaster.

Indeed, it is our new scientific awareness of how fully all life on Planet Earth is interwoven that warns us of disaster. That same knowledge could make it possible to turn human and planetary history in a more fruitful direction.

The Sabbatical/ Shmita Year – a year in which the Earth and the human community get to rest --  is proclaimed in this week’s Torah portion. That vision is a teaching about how to affirm the economics of making the Earth do our will in order for human life to thrive, with a time of pausing for the earth and human society to catch our breath -- and thrive.

If Shmitah is a worthy vision, how do we begin to make it real? Let us start with an “impractical” vision: creating nine-day Shmitah/ Sabbatical Festivals in all our neighborhoods.

All too few are now "neighborly" as the assumptions of compassion have broken down in the face of both the content and the form of the mass media, the defunding of face-to-face education, despair over permanent impoverishment juxtaposed to quick riches from illegal drugs. How do we transform them?

Imagine this “impractical” scenario:  Our government empowers all our neighborhoods to hold a nine-day neighborly Shmitah/ Sabbatical celebration, once a year from Friday through the Sunday  a week later. We the People, acting through our shared government, give seed grants to neighborhood institutions to plan such events. We make the Shmitah Festival a decentralized but universal event, a universal national "Shabbat" on all but life-preserving emergency services.

We close down highways, trains, hotels, television stations, newspapers, along with factories and offices. We rediscover walking and talking, singing and cooking. We rediscover our nearby neighbors.

Healing Mother Earth by drawing on 4 Worlds of Transformative Judaism

We face a planetary crisis. How would Transformative Judaism, drawing on the Four Worlds of Kabbalah, seek to heal our wounded Mother Earth? 

Since human action has endangered the web of life on earth, human action can heal it.

And the religious and spiritual communities of our planet have the wisdoms and the tools to do the healing.

Sacred Work, Sacred Rest: Free Time for a Free People

Six days shall you labor and do all your work; but on the seventh day you shall rest."

Why? Because this teaches you the deepest truth of the Cosmos, that a rhythm of Doing and Being is part of every molecule and every galaxy, every human and every tree and tiger. (Exod 20: 8-11)

Why? To make real your own freedom -- and the freedom of the workers who are bound to you. For only slaves must work all the time. (Deut. 5: 12-15)

May Day & Torah

Biblical Ecology & Economics for the 21st (or 58th) Century

There are two May Days in Western cultural tradition, one celebrating the Earth and the other calling for social justice. Torah treats these "two" issues as one.

One May Day is rooted in ancient pagan celebration of the spring, including Maypole dances.

The second May Day is rooted in the struggle of American workers beginning in the 1880s to win limits on the work-week to five days of eight hours. One apt slogan: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will.”  A recognition that social justice required not only decent pay and treatment for workers and their unions, but also time – free time -- for the workers’ own intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth.

The two versions of May Day have remained unconnected.  And in the political world, the two focuses –- social justice and healing of the Earth  -- have also remained mostly segregated from each other.

Though the US and the world are struggling with both economic and ecological crises, most people see them as unconnected. In the secular “social justice” world, many organizations  ignore ecological issues. In the secular  “environmental” world, many organizations ignore issues like disemployment or income inequality or overwork.  And in both worlds, there is little talk about the need for free time, restfulness.

Even in the religious world, the loudest voices in American Christianity affirm an economics of minimal regulation of private property and competition, and minimal protection for the Earth from human exploitation.

But Torah says otherwise. Leviticus 25 & 26 call for an entire year of rest for the land and its workers, every seventh year. Deuteronomy adds that in that year, everyone’s debts are annulled. (Deut. 15: 1-3). Thus Torah sees economics and ecologics as intimately intertwined, affirms that both the land and the people need time to rest, and calls for a practice of strong, spiritually rooted regulation of both.

Green Festival, Green Hevra, Green Earth

Green is the color of today.

 Our own Green Hevra, the green of trees and grasses, and the green of Islam in one of its great festivals.

Today, as many of us who are involved in the Green Hevra (there's a description below) are both taking joy in and mulling over the excellent work we did in an intensive two-day retreat this week,  we might also pause to take note of today’s beginning of the four-day Muslim Festival of Eid-al-Idha.

 The festival remembers and honors a moment that Jews remember as well. Abraham / Ibrahim / Avraham prepared to obey God’s command to offer up his son as a sacrifice – and then at the last moment heard God calling on him to save his son and offer instead a ram caught by its horns in a nearby thicket.  And obeyed.

Muslims honor his willingness to obey God, and they translate this honor into feeding the poor and the outcast.  Drawing on Ibrahim’s offering of the ram, Muslims will take the meat of a ritually slaughtered lamb to share with their extended families and with the poor.

The Shalom Center says to the Muslim world --  Eid Mubarak! May your festival be blessed!

May it help us all to make real the teaching of these days: “Do not kill your children; Feed the poor!”

May we deeply learn that our present mode of life is lifting the deadly "knife" of overburning fossil fuels -- the knife that will kill our children and grandchildren. May we turn away, to make an offering of life, instead.

 I’ve just returned from a two-day intensive retreat of the year-old Green Hevra, a network of about 15 Eco-Jewish organizations, ranging from Jewish organic farms and an eco-focused summer camp to an educational center for kids in Jewish schools for learning Torah of the Earth to groups focused  on the hands-on physical greening of Jewish buildings to several organizations (including The Shalom Center) that fuse Jewish wisdom and practice with eco-policy activism.

The gathering was deeply joyful for me, both collectively and personally --  because the Hevra took several important decisions to address the climate crisis, and because the Hevra honored me as a teacher in a circle of blessing.

The GREEN HEVRA decided to adopt  “Growing a Sustainable Climate” as a focus for the work of the Hevra as a whole and as an important theme in much (not all) of the work of the member organizations.

We identified two special times for lifting up this work

Nullifying Debt: Ancient Torah, Contemporary Crisis.

Sharing Resources, Liberating Time

American society is simmering with energy, demanding action against economic inequality and ecological destruction.

Are these just problems of the 21st century?

Hardly! Ancient Torah confronts them in a prophetic mode.

On the Shabbat morning of May 19 this year, many Jews will read Leviticus 25, which calls for us to make sure that every seventh year, the Earth gets to rest from human domination, and workers get to rest from their toil.  The weeks before and after that Shabbat could be a time for reflecting on our contemporary economic/ ecological  crisis in the light of this portion and the related passage in Deuteronomy (15: 1-18) which calls for debts to be annulled in every seventh year

When we read this passage a few weeks hence, we could focus attention on acting upon it as well as reading it. Its teaching of economic justice and ecological sanity calls out to us, today. Our society has degraded us--all of us-- through economic inequality and ecological destruction; what must we do to heal ourselves?

This  seventh year (often called "sabbatical year" in conventional English), was in Hebrew a year of shmitah ("release"-- or "non-attachment" in a more evocative translation). And this spiraling pattern--six years of work; a seventh year of release, pause, reflection, celebration--was in fact carried out in biblical history. The record of its dating has survived these thousands of years. The next Shmitah year will run from the fall of 2014 to the fall of 2015.

But we do not need to wait till then, for us to act upon it.

Why did Deuteronomy add to the Leviticus passage this new approach to the seventh year  -- annulling debt?

Shabbat B’Har: the Seventh Year: Resources to Share, Time to Free Up

The Torah reading that calls us to “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25) will be read this year (2012) on the morning of May 19. (Since the passage begins “B’Har Sinai, On Mount Sinai,”  underlining its relationship to the Great Revelation, it could be appropriate to  address also on Shavuot, the festival of Revelation, May 27-28.)


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