Earth Etude for Elul 3: G-d’s Might, Detroit, and Coming Back to Life
by Moshe Givental
~ Every year on Tisha b’Av we begin a 7-week journey of preparation for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Like most significant experiences in life, for the Jewish Holy Days to have the potential for transformation, they require preparation. So we started a few weeks ago by looking at the broken-ness of our physical, ethical, and spiritual worlds signified by Tisha b’Av, moved towards the hope of a world filled with love 6-days later at Tu b’Av, and are now in the midst of a month of working on Heshbon HaNefesh (our soul accounting), reflecting on our past year, righting the wrongs we can, softening our hearts enough to apologize where needed, setting new goals, and beginning again the work of rebuilding relationships with family, friends, G-d, and our selves.
This year my journey of reflection and rebuilding started in Detroit, a city ravaged by decades via an exodus of jobs from the city after WWII, then white flight and abandoned property, then riots, crime and outrage, then political mismanagement and neglect, and most recently the recession of 2008, followed by Emergency Management’s systematic undermining and deconstruction of many basic vital services such as education, city pensions, and access to water for the city’s poor residents. It’s devastating to hear and watch. However, amidst all of that, what was even more powerful is the way that the Detroit’s residents are sowing seeds of hope and life. Street Art such as the Heidelberg Project are giving residents a way to express their grief and dreams, while beautifying their neighborhoods. Residents surrounded by the blight of empty lots and decrepit buildings, are getting their hands dirty and learning how to grow food. Places like The Georgia Street Community Center are putting Detroit at the top of urban agriculture in the U.S., a part of the city’s approximately 1,300 urban gardens and farms, while building community, the local economy, and resilience in the process.
Detroit is literally coming back to life, from the inside out, while its old top-down and government controlled structures are still crumbling. Reflecting on this transformation, I think of our prayers for renewal and growth each day and on the High Holidays! It brings me to the Amidah’s second prayer, referred to as Gevurot / God’s Might. While some Reform and Reconstructionist prayer books interpret resurrection literally and balk, our tradition long ago recognized the Mekhayeh Metim – the coming back to life – is also metaphor for something we all experience as we grow, stumble, fall, and try again. Our prayer repeats the phrase “Mekhayeh Metim” three times. Therefore, the sages ask, what are the three different ways in which we fall into despair, into darkness and destruction, and might be able to come back to life? Instead of giving you their answers, I challenge us all to meditate on this question as we continue prepare for Rosh HaShanah. The residents of Detroit are clearly organizing, rebuilding, and bringing their city back to life! The questions for all of us are: What do we see in our life that is falling apart? What’s decomposing? What kinds of seeds do we need the creativity and courage to plant in order to come back to life?
Moshe Givental is a former psychotherapist, currently an activist and in his last year of Rabbinic school at Hebrew College.