Earth Etude for Elul 7: Between Pharaoh’s Army and the Sea: “Normal” Subjugation or the Unknown

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The world is in super-crisis, standing where the ancient Israelites stood at the climax of Exodus: Ahead, a stormy Reed Sea and an Unknown Wilderness. Behind, the hoofbeats of Pharaoh’s horse-chariot Army, offering submission as the price of normalcy.

It took an adventurous activist, to step one – two – a dozen — steps into the water, up to his nose, on the verge of drowning, before the rush of waters broke, divided, and a path opened up from what had become a Taut Place to signal that the birthing into Unknown could begin. There are some prophetic voices today who will take the first steps into the Unknown to grow a new world of love and justice. Or will the Greed of some and the Fear of others return us to normalcy and subjugation?

The Problem: We face a double existential crisis, intertwined: Earth is under threat of mass extinctions and climate chaos arising from “Corporate Carbon Pharaohs” that bring plagues of fire, flood, famine and disease on large regions and small towns and neighborhoods.

And in the United States and around the world, movements have grown to overthrow democracy, Surrendering to Pharaoh’s army, to corporate overlords who seek to cement their power by-subjugating communities by race, immigrant/refugee status, sex, gender, religion, kinds of work, and low income.

A Theory of Change: The dangers that we face are rooted in spiritual failings – Greed for Wealth and Power, plus Fear of the unknown. Faith communities ought to be, and sometimes are, the embodiment of a world where Greed and Fear are minimal, the values of Love and Justice are central.

And those values need to be actively carried into the world, not nurtured only at home or in a congregation. When great change has happened in America before, faith communities have gone into the streets and polling booths to make it happen. That is what the Prophetic Voice must inspire.

Actifests: Activist Festivals to Transform the Future: The Shalom Center will respond to this super-crisis by activating activist festivals—“Actifests.” We will focus on the Jewish festival cycle, while welcoming allies to our public celebrations aimed at transforming the broader society, and will share in theirs when we are welcomed to their own new Actifests: 

For example:

Passover Seders in the Streets, confronting those “pharaohs” who are plaguing Earth by burning fossil fuels. 

Isaiah’s challenge on Yom Kippur: “The fast God seeks is to Feed the Hungry, Clothe the Naked, House the Homeless, Free Prisoners from their Handcuffs, ” not only chanted in congregations but chanted again during Sukkot at Congressional home offices: “End Hunger in America!” “House Every Homeless Person in America!” until the laws are passed and implemented.

“Share Sukkot, Green and Grow the Vote”: In every Sukkot, we seek to harvest abundance not for the Jewish people alone, but for all the “seventy nations of the world.” 

In every Sukkot, we re-member that milchama, the Hebrew for “war,” means “m’lechem, away from bread” – that it is hunger for bread or for dignity that sparks wars and violence.

We remember that we pray, “Ufros alenu sukkat shlomecha, Spread over all of us the sukkah of Your shalom” – not a fortress or a bomb shelter but this vulnerable, leafy, leaky hut is where we can share peace with our neighbors.

Not only the Human neighbors but all the lIfe-forms of our planet, each a necessary part of the Great Eco-System of Echad.

In every Sukkot, but especially this year. For this very year is Shabbat Shabbaton, a seventh year, a Year of Shmita – Release. Release for Earth from being forced to work and release for the pressed-down poor from debt. So next Sukkot comes just after the Year of Release. We hear Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher, telling us:

And Moshe commanded them, saying: At the end of seven years, at the appointed-time of the Year of Release, on the pilgrimage-festival of Sukkot, when all Yisrael [the Godwrestling folk] comes to be seen at the presence of YHWH [Yahh, the Breath of Life] your God, at the place that the One chooses, you are to proclaim this Instruction in front of all Yisrael, in their ears.

Assemble the people, the men, the women, and the little-ones, and your immigrant  that is in your gates, in order that they may hearken, in order that they may learn and have-awe-for YHWH your God, to carefully observe all the words of this Instruction;

And (that) their children, who do not know, may hearken and learn to have-awe-for YHWH your God, all the days that you remain-alive on the soil that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.

                                                       (Deuteronomy 31: 9-13å)

So as part of our commitment to address the future with actifests, we must make every effort to make real Hak’hel  — Assemble!  — to challenge the House of Greed and Fear, to give fuller meaning to this Sukkot  — the Festival of Huts, the House of Love and  Shalom. We know that we can only sow the seed for a future Harvest.

For example, one approach to connecting prophetic Sukkot vision with contemporary issues and vigorous action this year: 

Providing people with simple instructions for gathering at home offices of Senators or Congressmembers or state/local officials, or of national offices or local branches of Chase Banks,  or of local gun shops — shaking the Four Species of branches and fruit in the seven directions of the universe, with suggestions for using  North American species if the activists wish.

Add new “Hosha-Na Please Save Us” prayers directed to the Breath of Life,  addressing the need for even stronger climate action, for control of guns, for codifying Roe into state and national law. Connect with Get Out The Vote information.

We choose for The Shalom Center this “actifest” role to move and mobilize those who are fed up with celebrating the past while the present and the future dribble blood. We choose this path like a wise individual species or culture in the eco-system; like a wise piece of the jigsaw puzzle, shaping its own unique shape to fit with others in a Unity of bounty.

We choose this path to bring “spirituality” and “eco/social transformation” into a coherent sacred whole.

 In an old and exhausted “normal,” the festival cycles of the Jewish people celebrated moments from the past, rooted in the earthy dance of Earth, Moon, Sun. Now they need also to tap into a root that calls forth transformation of the eco/social future.

We choose this path because in the Diaspora, the Festival cycle is the clearest way in which the Godwrestling Folk can make clear our prophetic vision in the seeing of all people. Can choose not bowing low to Pharaoh’s Armies, but to walk through waters of Unknown, into the Wilderness.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow  founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center . He is the author  of 28 books, including the Freedom Seder, Seasons of Our Joy, Godwrestling — Round 2, and Dancing in God’s Earthquake    

Member since 2010
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph. D., founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center https://theshalomcenter.org In 2014 he was honored by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights with their first Lifetime Achievement Award as a “Human Rights Hero.” In 2015 he was named by The Forward one of the “most inspiring” American rabbis. Beginning in 1969 with writing the original Freedom Seder and continuing with his seminal work as editor of New Menorah magazine and author of Godwrestling (1978) and Seasons of Our Joy (1982), he has been a leader of the movement for Jewish political and spiritual renewal. Waskow pioneered in the development of Eco-Judaism in theology, liturgy, daily practice, and activism -- • through his books Seasons of Our Joy; Godwrestling – Round 2; Down-to-Earth Judaism; Trees, Earth, & Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology; and Torah of the Earth: 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought; • as author of a pioneering essay on “Jewish Environmental Ethics: Adam and Adamah,” in Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality (Elliot N. Dorff and Jonathan K. Crane, eds.; Oxford University Press, 2013); • through the Green Menorah organizing project of The Shalom Center; • through the Interfaith Freedom Seder for the Earth and a number of climate-focused public actions drawing on and transforming traditional liturgies for Tu B’Shvat, Passover/ Palm Sunday, Tisha B’Av, Sukkot, and Hanukkah; • as a candidate for the World Zionist Congress on the Green Zionist Alliance slate; • as a participant and speaker in the World Interfaith Summit on the Climate Crisis called by the Archbishop of Sweden in Uppsala in 2008; • as a founding member (2010-2013) of the stewardship committee of the Green Hevra (a network of Jewish environmental organizations); • as a member of the coordinating committee of Interfaith Moral Action on Climate; • and as a practitioner of nonviolent civil disobedience who has been arrested in climate protests in the US Capitol, at the White House, and has undertaken civil disobedience at Philadelphia conclaves of fracking corporate leaders.
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