Hurray for Thanksgiving, America’s shabbes: time off, time out, stores close, commerce slows.
Family, friends, mounds of food. Weary cooks and grateful diners both happy that the meal’s preparation is done.
The familiar menu unites the family and nation, bringing forth memories of Thanksgivings past.
Rituals like this have the power to collapse time and stack it up in a grand heap before us so we can dive in, slip across the bounds of years, mix them up, and feel the presence of here and there, now and then, all at once.
In this collage of seasons, we glimpse the many blessings we are fortunate to have.
Especially today, in the midst of global pain and distress, when need relentlessly calls us to respond, it is good to pause in our crusades and recharge and live the way we want the world to look.
For only then, when tomorrow comes, can we hope to make it happen.
The leaves were frantic today. Perhaps they were spooked by last night’s storm or just pursuing their seasonal frenzy. Either way, they were in fine feather.
Dashing about in their clutches and clusters, they were blind to all else. Whole hoards of them were crossing lawns and stampeding over roads, oblivious to all but the run.
They seemed more like chattering, hyper-charged critters all in agreement about where they needed to go than dried up leaf litter simply defoliating the landscape.
Where, I wondered, did they think they were heading? What was pulling them so, driving them onwards?
Or perhaps they were not running toward anything but away from something, animated by fear and the desire to escape.
And it was in this confusion of movement that they reminded me of this nation and our frenzied populace. Those leaves seemed to be the animation of our spirit - so many of us rushing about, thinking we are motivated by a call to a greater vision of ourselves and our nation but really just moved by a desire to run from where we are now, heading who knows where, guided by no one more thoughtful or planful than the wind.
It is not, then, to the rush and the noise and the ones frantically vying to keep up with the rest that we should heed, but to the deliberate, the quieter, the thoughtful.
Then, perhaps, we just may be able to find our right way.
In America, we talk a lot about what we eat and how much we eat, how many calories and vitamins and fats we consume. We speak of food largely as a delivery system, an agglomeration of its different parts, about what we find when we pull it apart in a lab. Despite what we like to eat, we feel good or bad about what we actually eat depending on the value scientists have assigned to its constituent parts.
But food, like so many things in life, is so much more than the sum of its parts. In fact, if you really do pull it apart and deliver it in packets of pills and supplements, it is often less than the sum of its parts. The goodness of food, we are discovering, might only be found in the package as a whole.
The healthiest conversation about food might be less about what we eat than how we eat it.
In an interview about their work, “EATING: French, European, and American Attitudes Toward Food,” a study of 7,000 people in six countries, Claude Fischler and Estelle Masson note the following:
In France, Italy and Switzerland, [eating] mainly suggests shared pleasures, sociability, eating with family or friends. Eating means sitting at the table with others, taking one’s time and not doing other things at the same time… In the United States it is more a private, intimate, personal act that tends towards the almost impossible quest for an ideal diet that allows you to function better, stave off illness and live longer.
In the former countries, eating is a delight. In the later, it is a task. In the former, eating is measured in the experience of the moment. In the latter, in its outcome.
But even with food-as-task, we know that there is a gap between what people know they should do and what they actually do. “Nutrition education,” the authors unsurprisingly remark, “seems to have failed across the board, especially in those social classes who are the most ‘at risk’.” Food as chore doesn’t work.
Perhaps what we need is to reclaim the shared table and, in the words of the authors, “re-enchant” food.
“The problems of poor nutrition,” they conclude, “apparently are associated with less rather than more social value attributed to eating” (italics added). In other words, the more we build shared rituals around our food, the more warm memories and stories we associate with eating, the more we intentionally eat together, the healthier we are likely to be.
“Rather than a personalized diet,” they suggest, “... we would recommend cultivating the social practices of cooking and sharing a meal. Rather than training a population of diet experts, it would probably make more sense to have informed consumers, people sensitive to the qualities of a product, how it has been grown or produced and to a new food supply in which environment, health and pleasure would go hand in hand. In short, where food has become disenchanted, we should try to ‘re- enchant’ it.”
Of all the burdens we have in life, this seems like one we can enjoy. And of all the other gifts of Shabbat, re-enchanting the food of our lives is one of my all-time favorites.
This coming Thanksgiving may be a good time to start. It is the one American holiday when we all expect - or hope - to sit down to a home cooked meal.
And then, the next day, we can do it again for Shabbat.
In one of those moments of sweet serendipity, I bumped into the same spiritual message twice in the same week, from two mightily different sources. The one was in an ad promoting Malcolm Gladwell’s upcoming appearance at the Meyerhoff sponsored by the Baltimore Downtown Partnership, and the other was on page 32 of Kenaf Renanim, the modern commentary by Hanokh Zundel Luria on the ancient book of Perek Shira, the song of nature.
Malcolm Gladwell, true to his pithiness, put it succinctly: “The key to good decision-making is not knowledge; it is understanding.”
Luria, true to his expansive style, put it in a paragraph. (I will summarize it for you.) Comparing Abraham and the Greek philosophers, Luria distinguishes between discovery that yields knowledge (speaking of the Hellenists) and discovery that yields belief (speaking of Abraham). The difference, he intimates, lies not in the body of facts but in the soul of the seeker.
Either way, we are reminded of an age-old conundrum that the purveyors of pedagogy struggle with to this day: knowing does not always lead to caring; facts do not always lead to action.
That is one reason why we may know one thing and do another. And why despite strong evidence, many Americans still question the reality of climate change and the need for reducing our energy consumption, converting to green energy, and otherwise tending well to the health of the earth.
Whole disciplines and centers of investigation now exist to help us bridge the gap between environmental knowledge and environmental behavior.
It all comes down to the human spirit. How do we awaken passions that lead to action? How do we “sell” people on sova, contented enoughness? How do we turn an economy-of-consumption into an economy-of-caring? How do we replace a focus on daily returns with a vision of a far horizon?
These are questions that Madison Avenue tends to know best. They are equipped to help open people’s hearts and fashion public attitudes. We need to tap into their genius and get the word out. The problem: Who is going to pay for such a campaign?
I just returned from the Arbor Day Foundation’s community forestry conference in Philadelphia.
On the whole, it was wonderful. Urban foresters, tree group advocates, dynamic volunteers, warm-hearted utility arborists all symbiotically co-habiting (not that way, this way: “to dwell with another or share the same place, as different species of animals”, from dictionary.com)
the urban landscape of Loew’s Hotel on Market Street.
Some of these folks have been in the field for 40 years, since its very inception. Others were fledglings like me. And the field is growing.
Cities like Philadelphia, New York, Nashville, Indianapolis and dozens more are transforming the “built environment,” utilizing trees as the anchor for creating a “green infrastructure” that is more affordable, more secure, more flexible and more efficient than the contemporary “gray infrastructure”. The efforts were grounded in trees but were not bound to trees. That is, trees were seen as the leading edge toward creative and sustainable initiatives of economic redevelopment, social equity, urban re-design and renaissance, and the sense of place.
I learned that 2011 is the United Nations International Year of the Forest. Organizations here in Baltimore are -hopefully - going to educate, celebrate and forestate (okay, I made that word up) throughout the year. At the very least, we each should get trees and plant them in our yards, at our congregations, in our neighborhoods.
If you live in the city, you can contact TreeBaltimore, or if you live in the county, the Growing Home Campaign.
They can give you more information, as well as discounts and coupons on trees.
I learned much and was mostly heartened by the people there and their often amazing ideas and efforts.
Yet here is the context in which I learned all this. We stayed in a lovely hotel, with lush linens, plush bathrobes, marble floors, plenty of food. We were three blocks away from City Hall, one block away from the famed Reading Terminal Market - think Lexington Market tripled or so.
Lots of people, lots of policy makers, groaning stalls over-flowing with foods of all kinds. And yet I could not walk from one end of a block to another without passing wheel-chaired amputees begging for money, self-appointed panhandlers raising money for a worthy cause (I present them to you at face-value), and plain old needy beggars.
Just inside so much food was being prepared, sold and consumed on sight that it was almost grotesque. (Vegetarians beware: there is more bare animal flesh laid out in what some people clearly think is a tantalizing manner than you ever want to see. And no manner of averting your eyes will save you.)
A bit Fellini-esque (I didn’t make that word up). But outside was want, filth, passing eyes that never met, momentary blindness afflicting the hapless pedestrians for they could not bear to see the press of the need and requests these leading-edge beggars represented.
The contrast between want outside and fullness inside; them and us; seeking and blindness; forestry on a block where hardly a tree could be found, cast a shadow on the experience, and reminded us that all that we do with trees must also respond to this.
(Hurray hurray for standard time! Now even us early-ish risers can once again wake up to the sun. At least for a few more weeks until the morning is once again swallowed up by nighttime’s darkness. But blissfully that is not now, and it won’t last long. If you are affected by this seasonal dark, get those S.A.D. lights now. And don’t forget the spiritual lift that exercise gives you.)
William Cronon is an environmental historian, a scholar who explores how civilizations use and think about nature.
Recently, I bumped into an article he wrote called “A Place for Stories: Nature, History and Narrative.”
In it he talks about the role that environmental narratives (the stories we tell ourselves about the world around us) play in shaping our behavior and our understanding of “natural” events.
What we learn is that there is nothing natural about the way we see and interact with nature. We do what we do because of the stories we tell ourselves.
In that light, I thought again about the stories of creation that we find in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and how different they are.
Genesis 1 offers a vision of nature as abundance, a divine world-made-in-a-week, full of life carrying within it the promise and capacity for more life. It was only at the end of the sixth day, the last moment of creation, that humans were called into being. We entered, and discovered the world as a table set before us, ready upon our arrival, filled to overflowing with all sorts of delights and possibility, easily within our grasp. All we had to do was sit down and enjoy. That was indeed our task.
Not so with Genesis 2. Here, the picture is more complicated. At the opening scene, the world is barren and dry because “the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no human to work the ground.”
So God created the rivers that irrigated the land, and made the human to bring life to the earth. Here, nature is not self-sufficient, as it is in Genesis 1. Here, nature is dependent on two things: water (a gift from God) and people (also a gift from God). Humans are, in this light, as essential to the earth’s welfare as water. While we are also its beneficiaries, similar to the humans in chapter 1, we are most assuredly, and primarily, its caretakers. Indeed we are its tenders so that we may earn the right to be its beneficiaries.
We are, in a word, workers, bound to tend well to the needs of the earth so that it will tend to ours.
Interestingly, neither of these stories gives us an ending we can use. In the first, we are formed, brought to see the fullness of the world before us, blessed, and then, just as the living of life would begin, action stops. We have Shabbat. We are left to imagine how things spin out.
In the second, the end is unhappy. We can read it this way (which, admittedly fights with my feminist reading of the text, but then that is the beauty of midrash, it gently cradles multiple even contradictory meanings and gives us the right to hold them simultaneously): being seduced by the vision and promise spun by the snake, we experience desire, endless desire, which quickly leads to mistreatment of the earth. Our eating the apple represents our misuse the gifts of the earth, over-mining earth’s resources, over-indulging our appetites, trespassing into terrain that leads to the collapse of earth’s resources.
Hardship, exile, famine, loss result.
It is so very hard for us to imagine such visions when we are alive on a day like today, filled with sun’s splendor, crisp fall air, stocked refrigerators, affordable foodstuffs in the grocery stores, full tanks in our cars. It is a far cry from here to the anguish of widespread need.
But Genesis 2 also teaches us that we can move from a sense of abundance and security to a world loss and need in a moment.
Graciously, the Torah teaches us both these stories, so there must be truth in both.
We need to learn how we successfully blend the two, blend a world in which the table is both set before us and waiting for us to set it; blend the world of privilege with a world of responsibility; blend the world of expansiveness with a world of boundaries.
That has clearly been our task from the birth of civilization. It is remains, as it has always been, a matter of life and death.
My husband and I have begun to study together a commentary on Perek Shira (“The Book of Song”), a slender, ancient book which reads something like an anthology of spiritual lessons from the natural world. Each entry is a quote from a verse somewhere in Tanakh (the Bible).
The author, who is anonymous, clearly reveled in nature and needed a way to weave his love of nature and devotion to God together. Not since the psalmist, centuries before, had Judaism offered such a sweeping, authorized way to indulge in the attentiveness to and enjoyment of nature, and press that into a “kosher” way to seek and find God.
This book does. Yet, it is telegraphic, somewhat cryptic, and needs, in the jargon of the academy today, to be “unpacked.”
Luckily, there is a commentary by Hanokh Zundel Luria that tries to do just that. Called Kenaf Renanim, it is as robust as the original is spare - over 500 pages of explanation and inspiration layered over the 84 one-line entries of the original.
You can dip in anywhere you like. Each of the sayings is self-contained, with the whole definitely greater than the sum of the parts.
We opted to start at the beginning.
Luria explains the first entry: “The heavens tell of the grandeur of God, and the sky proclaims God’s handiwork.” (Psalm 19:2)
Why does the book start here?
There are so many lessons that people need to learn; so many mysteries we yearn to uncover.
Sometimes, these lessons are particular and focused, like the values our parents try to teach us when we are young: modesty, thrift, diligence… We learn such particular lessons from particular elements of nature: modesty from the cat; caring (hesed) from the stork (hasidah); and so on.
But life’s fundamental lessons, the pursuits of life’s constant mysteries that are neither episodic nor situational but are present day in and day out, are taught through broader, enduring means.
As Luria says: Those all-enveloping elements of nature that are constantly in view constantly remind us of life’s all-enveloping truths. Just as we are unable to overlook or ignore the heavens, so we are unable to overlook or ignore their teaching that God is all-enveloping and ever-present.
Even more, as heaven and earth sing their song of creation, they remind us of the Creator who gave them voice, and a reason, to sing. There can be no song and no singer without the composer.
A nice reason to hum our way through the day. Even and especially when the days are hard and dark.
The mid-term elections are over. The results are in: gridlock and stalemate for the next two years. Perhaps the best thing we can expect is politicians with great biceps from all the futile arm-wrestling they do.
Here’s one suggestion for getting through the next two years: furlough Congress. With all the money we save, we could pay for retrofitting our homes with energy efficient insulation, high efficiency heaters and green appliances .
No need to pay our elected officials for what they aren’t going to do anyway. Let them stay home, be with their families, garden a bit and bake home-made bread. Meanwhile, it will let us keep our money. That way, we will all take a much-needed national time-out and come back and try again in another two years.
Since that is not likely to happen, here is an even better, if chimerical, idea put forward by Green America: Clean Energy Victory Bonds.
Green America is a dynamic organization dedicated to “advancing social justice and environmental responsibility through economic action.”
These folks know that money talks, money guides and money gets the attention of politicians, business-folk and plain-folk alike. That, at least, is something we can all agree on.
They are all about using that common interest to create a more just, equitable, cleaner, healthier world.
This past September, cleverly capitalizing on the pervasive patriotic trope in today’s public discourse, they launched what just might be a fabulous idea: Clean Energy Victory Bonds.
This, they explain, is a way to “finance the next big wave of solar and wind—without one penny of taxpayer dollars.”
It would work like the Victory Bonds that helped finance World War II. If 85 million Americans bought bonds back then, when our population was but 132,122,000, leveraging $185 billion, think of what we could do today, of the jobs we would create, the energy - both human and electrical - we would generate, and of the healing we would bring.
And they are suggesting making the bonds available in denominations almost all of us could afford.
Not a bad idea to help us dream big during these hard times.