Word is that SodaStream is packing up their factory in the occupied territory and heading to the Negev desert in Israel. A piece at ShalomLife.com takes aim at the BDS movement, which took aim at SodaStream this year, imagining what might happen if SodaStream packs up and leaves behind the hundreds of Palestinian workers who make a living at the factory. The article, of course, has a disclaimer at the bottom, presumably tacked on after a large number of comments pointed out that this particular piece of Hasbara (“advocacy” in Hebrew) had jumped the gun, given that the the official announcement is yet to be made and there is no word as to what SodaStream will do regarding their Palestinian workforce. It is actually rather funny to have an entire article dedicated to an imaginary scenario, which then is noted as imaginary in a disclaimer at the end. Here it is:
DISCLAIMER** We would like to thank everyone for reading and commenting on the article, and make a clarification: the company has yet to make an official statement regarding this situation (they have only announced the new factory), but, as IsraellyCool points out, it its considered “common knowledge” that this may indeed happen. As stated above, the decision to move factories is non-political, and whether or not the Palestinian employees will be able to continue working with SodaStream remains to be seen. In this article, we are simply looking at what we believe will take place as a result of the BDS movement. Thank you.
So, to be clear, none of what the article posits is based on reality as of now.
Now, first of all, decisions about strategy and aims for Palestinian self determination are not for ShalomLife and JewSchool to make. They are for the individuals and collectives that make up the Palestinian people. That is a minimum requirement for self determination. It is no doubt true that Palestinians under occupation and people in liberation movements throughout the world have had to and will have to face economic, physical, and many other kinds of danger. Whether it is worth it for these workers to put themselves at further economic risk in order to resist occupation is not really for me to decide. The jobs those people have are very real and provide very real food and shelter and life. I can not judge. I can only suggest, opine and stand in solidarity. Still, while one can’t say that SodaStream does no good, it is a certainty that SodaStream perpetuates economic injustice and the occupation.
The truth is that the entire argument that the ShalomLife article is predicated on betrays the first and foremost problem with SodaStream’s relationship to the Palestinian people working there: The workers have very little power. SodaStream can pack up and leave, as they may be doing. They can fire them any time, and they have. Even Palestinian ministers cannot move about without Israel’s permission, how much power do you think those workers have? The very fact that an Israeli company can set up shop in occupied territory with only the permission of the occupier, and employ people living under occupation without a great deal of human and civil rights wraps the entire argument up in a nice tidy little package: People living under occupation don’t have the same access to the choices that people not living under occupation have, and while it may provide short term sustenance to a person or family or town, it cannot be relied on as a basis for livelihood for a family or community because it is in someone else’s control. This isn’t a problem limited to the occupied territory, mind you. Lack of power over our own communities, families and environment is a problem at the core of capitalism. The inequality of the occupation makes it that much worse.
If SodaStream were actually dedicated to the betterment of the lives of the Palestinians they employ there are plenty of things it could do: It could, at minimum, have secure, fair, long term contracts that protect workers from unfair dismissal (such as happened), for example. SodaStream could give ownership of the West Bank factory to the Palestinian SodaStream workers living under occupation. It could move the factory out of occupied territory and also get permits for the workers that want to work in the Negev, if they wanted to. The workers could be given shares in the company and/or make SodaStream cooperatively owned by Palestinians and Israelis. Shared ownership would make it a potential example of co-existence, which is the image the company wants to project anyhow. The CEO could make a statement against the occupation and endorse political candidates that stand against the occupation. They could do a whole lot of stuff to fight the occupation, but they don’t. If they didn’t want to deal with these issues, they shouldn’t have set up a factory in the center of the occupation.
We must build movements to struggle for self-determination for all peoples as well as economic and environmental justice (and much more… There is much to do). Yes, SodaStream is a pretty good solution for the quadrillion plastic bottles we use every year, but as it stands now they benefit from the occupation and economic injustice, and so they perpetuate a reality in which millions live without control over their future.
A. Daniel Roth is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv. You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org and follow him on twitter @adanielroth
This summer, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s List College is introducing an exciting new pre-college summer program focusing on service learning. Inspired by the success of its undergraduate program in social and entrepreneurial initiatives, List College wants to extend its resources to a wider audience of rising junior and senior high school students from across the country looking for a hands-on combination of Jewish traditional text study and internships in social change agencies in New York City.
Participants will have the opportunity to choose from a wide array of internship sites, including government NGOs, sustainability and environmental non-profits, interfaith groups, and education and youth organisations. Before beginning the internships, which will include direct mentorship, students will participate in an orientation, in which they will be trained to work as service professionals in social change agencies. Throughout the program, participants will reconvene together regularly to engage in facilitated Jewish text study, focusing on the theological and historical underpinnings of social action. Additionally, participants will enjoy a guest lecture series and a college prep workshop series offered by Barnard College.
According to Aliyah Vinikoor, assistant Dean of List College and director of their Fellowship for Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, JustCity hopes to empower pre-college students to engage in direct service while also building Jewish community across denominational lines. The program also aspires to reach out to other faith-based groups to help build a multi-faith social change network.
The program dates this summer are from June 30-July 28; participants have the option of living on JTS’ campus. Partial need-based scholarships available. Registration is currently open and applications are due May 1. You can learn more about Just City here. You can also email JustCity at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)
I hope everyone had a great New Year of the Trees! Several days ago, the Jewish environmental organization H’zon put up (and sent to their email list) a blog post defending their practice of incorrectly referring to the holiday as “Tu B’Shvat”. (h/t to commenter Joel for “H’zon”.)
A review of why this is incorrect: In Hebrew, a word may not begin with two shevas. (A sheva is the vowel that looks like a colon underneath the letter; depending on context, it is pronounced either not at all or like the English schwa.) Therefore, if one of the prefixes b-, k-, or l- is placed on a word beginning with a sheva, the prefix letter gets a chirik (the “ee” vowel, represented by a single dot under the letter) instead of a sheva. For example, the name of the month of Sh’vat (uniquely among all the Hebrew months) begins with a sheva, so when the prefix B- is attached to the month, you get Bishvat (or BiShvat or biShvat or Bi-Shvat or BeeShvat — however you want to write it).
To be clear, this is a Hebrew grammar issue; it is NOT a transliteration issue. The issue has nothing to do with the choice of which English characters are used to represent each Hebrew letter and vowel — the same issue would come up in vocalized Hebrew, in which בִּשְׁבָט is correct and בְּשְׁבָט is incorrect. (In unvocalized Hebrew, of course, the difference is invisible.) As a parallel, suppose your organization sent out an email (in English) around the new year (the tree one or any other one) saying “Shanah tov!” If someone then responded “Actually, it should be ‘shanah tovah’, since ‘shanah’ is a feminine noun, so it should take a feminine adjective”, you wouldn’t reply “Hey, you’re entitled to your preference, but there’s no right or wrong way to transliterate Hebrew into English characters.” It should be obvious that such a reply would be a non sequitur, since noun-adjective agreement is obviously unrelated to transliteration – nothing would be different if the email had been in Hebrew and said שנה טוב, and then was corrected to שנה טובה.
In short, anyone who says this is a transliteration dispute either doesn’t understand the issue (and should defer to those who do) or is intentionally obfuscating.
With that in mind, here’s the story so far:
Around this time last year, I wrote a blog post, “The War on Tu Bishvat”, enumerating and responding to the top five rationalizations for “B’Shvat”/”B’Shevat”, and explaining why they are without merit, followed by a second blog post, “Tu Bishvat Halls of Fame and Shame”, which laid out who was on each side of the issue. I then had some unfortunate online interactions with H’zon, during which one of their staffers acted unprofessionally, and I wrote it up in a third blog post, “Hazon sinks deeper into the hall of shame”.
If you haven’t read those three blog posts (or even if you have), read them now before proceeding further.
I know what you’re thinking – you want to refer to the 4 worlds in your Tu Bishvat seder but they’re confusing and…oh, if there were only a song that allowed you to sing through the four worlds (like we sing the order of the Passover seder) so folks could remember the order of the Tu Bishvat seder.
NOW YOU CAN. Check out track #3 here from Taya Shere. If you love it, it’s yours for 99 cents!
Last year Shir Yaakov Feit & I would sing the whole song, then sing up to the ‘world’ we are at throughout the seder.
Click here for many great free resources available for YOUR seder from our friends at Hazon.
My suggestion? Add-on a seder to your Shabbat dinner or lunch. Then if you are in NYC, head out for The Best Tu Bishvat Party in NYC.
Prefer to sit home and dream of summer? Enjoy this music video from our friends Stereo Sinai.
I Am Planting [OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO] from Stereo Sinai on Vimeo.
Love to farm? Get your hands dirty? Make things grow, or work with organizations that do?
A slew of opportunities from our friends in the Jewish farming and ecology world….
1. TEVA Learning Alliance seeks an Educator at Isabella Freedman Center, Fairs Village, CT.
2. Adamah is looking for interns for their Jewish Urban Farming Fellowship in Berkeley, CA.
3. Wilderness Torah seeks a Festival Coordinator in Berkeley, CA.
4. Teva is also looking for a Program Coordinator!
Want to learn more about these positions? Click here!
x-posted to Justice in the
Justice Roberts surprised everybody yesterday by joining and writing the opinion for the majority in this week’s Supreme Court decision to uphold most of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I want to suggest that his decision is to be appreciated by the progressive community not only for upholding the act but also for shifting the legal conversation.
The decision was a major step forward toward creating a more perfect union, toward helping to forge a society in which we all share obligations toward those who cannot fend for themselves, toward a vision of a just society which honors each and every person as being created in the tzelem elohim/the image of God. This experiment in democracy—in which we have given our trust and loyalty, and by way of which we have pledged to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor—has taken a major stride forward in affording tens of millions of people the ability to have health insurance and thereby health care. At bottom, upholding the constitutionality of the ACA saved lives. People who otherwise might have died, will not die because they will have access to doctors, medicines and life saving treatments.
However, the Roberts decision in my opinion also set the legal conversation about civil and human rights on a firmer moral ground. Roberts sided with the conservative wing of the court to say that the ACA was not constitutional under the commerce clause. The commerce clause, is the clause in “the Constitution [which] authorizes Congress to ‘regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.’ (Article I, sec. 8, cl. 3)” Further, and more importantly “[o]ur precedents read that to mean that Congress may regulate ‘the channels of interstate commerce,’ ‘persons or things in interstate commerce,’ and ‘those activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.’” (quoting from Justice Roberts’ opinion p. 4) Roberts upheld the ACA based on Congress’s power to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” (U. S. Const., Art. I, sect. 8, cl. 1) Roberts interprets this straightforwardly that: “Put simply, Congress may tax and spend.” (Roberts’ opinion p. 5)
Read the rest here then come back and comment.
This is a guest post by Leora Mallach, the Co-Founder and Director of Ganei Beantown: Beantown Jewish Gardens. You can join her this Sunday April 22nd to celebrate Earth Day at the first Boston Jewish Food Conference at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA. When not shifting paradigms in the Boston Jewish community, she can be found doing batik.
There feels to be a lot of energy currently around the “new Jewish food movement.” It’s not new, nor a passing fad, but a logical element within the continuum of the broader Jewish food conversation.
If we acknowledge it is a movement, and the growth in both national and place-based organizations over the last few years would indicate it is, we must consider where this momentum comes from. What we eat as Jews has been discussed, dictated and consumed from the earliest of days. The story of the migration of our ancestors and their adaption to local culture and cuisine is well documented. It has produced such great rifts like the debate over whose bagels are better: Montreal or NYC. (Duh, NYC)
All religion is interested in sustainability. According to Wikipedia , “Sustainability is the capacity to endure.” Our current rabbinic tradition has origins in the preservation of culture and community after the destruction of the Temple. We are a religious continually struggling with adaption to the period of galut (exile) while still holding true to values, ritual and community. This too has manifested and morphed over the centuries. More »
It’s like this
Learn more about how you can dig in here.
!!זאָל זיין מיט מזל
This is a guest post by Joelle Novey, Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Rabbi David Shneyer, Jonah Adels, Phil Aroneanu, Laura Bellows, Lisa Jo Finstrom, Robert Friedman, Elizabeth Gaines, Johanna Galat, Richard Graves, Glenn Hurowitz, Joshua Kahn Russell, Lawrence MacDonald, Jeff Mann, Geri Maskell, Karen Menichelli, Sam Novey, Lore Rosenthal, Leslie Schwartz Leff, Harriet Shugarman, Joe Solomon, and Basia Yoffe, who were among 1,253 people arrested at the White House in August and September protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Jonah Adels. Photo credit: Josh Lopez
(Crossposted to the Huffington Post.)
We are Jewish folks who joined more than a thousand others in getting ourselves arrested in front of the White House this past summer protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline. Some of us are rabbis; many of us wore kippot that day; all of us did what we did because it felt, among other things, like a mitzvah.
Before the project was delayed last month, the pipeline would have carried crude oil from the Canadian tar sands across 1,700 miles and six states. The extraction of tar sands oil generates more heat-trapping climate pollution than other oil. Climate scientist James Hansen has said that fully exploiting the tar sands would essentially spell “game over” for our climate.
It would have been nice for us to know — as our Catholic, Methodist, Quaker, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist sisters and brothers knew — that our larger religious community supported our stand. But on the Keystone XL Pipeline, the major Jewish organizations were mostly silent.
dcc seen at 10 years old.
My first year at camp as a kid was great: Sports, Arts and Crafts, Lake Front, Advanced Swimming and, of course, the coveted first dance with a girl. All of this was set against the bucolic setting of the NJ-YMHA-YWHA Jr. camp, Camp Nah-Jee-Wah. Two years later I would be off to California with my family but Camp Nah-Jee-Wah has always held a special place in my heart and so did that dance with Rachel Cohen-Stien-Berg-Steen (clearly it was much more important at the time).
All kidding aside, Jewish summer camp changed my life for the better. I learned more in five years as a camper at Camp Alonim than I did in more than a decade of religious school. I met my wife and a number of our lifelong friends at Greene Family Camp. I went into Jewish Community Work all because of the things that happened to me at camps.
The most important thing I learned at these camps besides being one of the best sports players at a Jewish summer camp really isn’t so impressive when you come back home, was that our traditions teach us to respect ourselves, our bunkmates and camp, to stick by our bunkmates when they sneak out at night and get caught and that if you kill it you fill it. Take these concepts to a more mature conclusion and you get respect for sanctity of life and environment and the importance of sticking to our values in the face of hardship (and really if you kill it you better fill it, I love the tater tots).
So when I read in the Forward this week that New Jersey’s YMHA-YWHA Camps have leased their land for hydraulic fracturing a little piece of my childhood became filled with carcinogenic waste, naturally occurring radioactive materials and devastated shale. More »
This is a guest post by Lawrence MacDonald and Geri Maskell, co-chairs of the Green Team at Temple Rodef Shalom, the largest Jewish congregation in Virginia. The authors can be contacted at lawrencemacdonald at gmail.
We are two members of Temple Rodef Shalom, a Reform synagogue in northern Virginia, who are exploring with fellow congregants what it means to be a “green” congregation as the world teeters on the brink of rapid, catastrophic climate change. This is our unfinished story.
For the past four years, we have been working with our clergy and lay leaders to increase attention to the climate change threat. We invited speakers and organized events, helped to reduce energy use within the synagogue, promoted home energy conservation, organized temple members to write letters and make phone calls in an effort to block construction of a new coal-fired power plant in southwestern Virginia, and visited Richmond as participants in a Jewish Advocacy day to lobby for clean energy.
Meanwhile, nearly every year has set a new record high average global temperature. The Arctic ice is shrinking much faster than experts predicted. Extreme weather events are claiming lives and dislocating millions of people: fires in Russia, floods in Pakistan and Australia, and just this month drought-fueled wildfires in Texas and an unprecedented spate of killer tornadoes across the southeastern U.S.
Scientists are alarmed but much of the American public, confused by coal and oil industry propaganda, is complacent. Climate legislation stalled in the Senate, then died after the mid-term elections. President Obama, who had spoken passionately about the climate threat, has stopped saying “climate,” preferring to talk about “clean energy.” The U.S. failure to act has torpedoed international negotiations.
The technology exists to substantially cut the emission of heat-trapping gasses, slowing climate change. But there is a failure of political will. Could our tiny efforts in Temple Rodef Shalom make a difference in the face of this impending catastrophe? Is there something more that we and other Jews could do to help sound the alarm?
Having now dug out of the Chicago storm code-named Blizzaster, I’m hearing some interesting stories emerging beyond the spontaneous Parking Lot formed on Lake Shore Drive. So much parking so close to the lake is a miracle unto itself, but what about the snow?
One cool story is the Chuppah of Sarah Finkel and Shmulie Schochet (they had a Ketublizzard).
“It’s a happy occasion that the snow cannot deter. The snow does not change anything,” said Bernie Finkel, of Evanston, the bride’s grandfather. “There is thought in the Jewish religion about luck: the dew in the spring at Passover, the rain in the fall during Sukkot. And now I am saying snowfall is lucky too. This is a special time. There should be a special time to pray for snow.”
By now, most of us are pretty tired of snow. But Finkel (who hosts a local Jewish radio program) raises an interesting point. It is truly a wonder to get such an amount of snow. Surely we should acknowledge HaShem’s hand in such an event, yes? What would the text be for a Prayer for Snow (or its speedy removal)? I wanna hear it. Make it snow!
Yesterday, I was at Makom Hadash for the first time. Makom Hadash is a shared office in New York City, operated by Jewish environmental organization Hazon. It also currently houses GLBTetc organization Nehirim, Jewish learning conference of awesomeness Limmud NY and probably some other groups.
The office is not finished yet, but here are the plans, which I perused while I was poking around:
Notice the bike next to it. One of Hazon’s big programs is a series of annual bike rides. So it was nice to see a couple bikes laying around the office, not to mention a clear attention to sustainability in the office kitchen area.
But it gets better. In the final plan, there will be an office bike rack!
It’s gonna be a pretty cool office when they finish it. And the point is that it’s great to see an organization’s values reflected in its offices. I was thinking about this while I was at home in Austin over break, when I discovered that the synagogue where I grew up currently has no recycling. Which is even more troubling than it would be on its own, given that the congregation makes a lot of noise about environmentalism. More »
If you’re looking for both inspiration and practical skills, register now for Inside the Activists’ Studio 2010 and get yourself to Joanna Kent Katz’s interactive workshop.
During the day, Kent Katz is an urban farmer in Philadelphia, working with a group of ten high school students from a neighborhood which is mostly Jamaican and African American. Together, they address issues of food sovereignty, building leadership and knowledge and holding two markets a week in the “food desert,” meaning there are no fresh, green vegetables available for purchase within a mile of the neighborhood.
“It’s not just about making healthy choices.” says Kent Katz, “It’s about creating healthy options.” She, her coworkers and their team of students have also built a food justice curriculum, addressing racism, the legacy of slavery and how it plays out in the community, undermining the connection between people and where their food comes from and moving towards a reclamation of the wisdom and action of growing food.
Kent Katz is also a social justice educator in the Jewish community, where she works with young Jewish adults around issues of liberation and oppression. “Cleaning up your own backyard” refers to bringing work done outside the Jewish community back home, helping Jews connect to their own isolation from one another, the result of internalized anti Semitism, sexism, and the roles imposed by privileged identity.
Kent Katz cites her mentor, Barbara Love, as helping her learn how to teach anti oppression with tools that will actually free the world, as opposed to approaching the work within the context of blame and guilt. “It has been work towards liberation,” Kent Katz says, “not just anti-oppression.”
At this year’s Inside the Activists’ Studio, Kent Katz will share her skills as a practitioner of the Theatre of the Oppressed. “That’s my gem,” she says. “We’ll get into our bodies.” This framework presents the possibility for folks to both understand how oppression works on a cultural and institutional level and to think about what the world could look like. “I’m only interested in talking about oppression without shame, blame and guilt. I invite people to try it out with me, learn together.”
For an innovative, genuine encounter with politics, your body and social justice, join Joanna Kent Katz and other dynamic folks on Sunday, December 5th at the 92nd street Y in Tribeca. Inside the Activists’ Studio 2010 is hosted by Purse: Action for a Just World, a project of Avodah and American Jewish World Service, and is co sponsored by Jewschool.
This is a long-overdue shout-out to my friends Naf and Anna Hanau — friends and former coworkers from my days at Hazon — for their entry this summer into the micro-enterprise field of kosher organics. Naf went so far as to receive shochet training himself and together with wife and Jewish food educator extraordinaire Anna, have sourced chickens and turkeys from all-natural farmers in upstate New York and in Pennsylvania.
And now, just in time for Thanksgiving, they are delivering kosher organic turkeys to the NYC area.
Know another organic and kosher provider? Let us know in the comments.
[Post-note: Naf informs me the turkeys are pastured, which is better than organic. They don't pay for certification and thus can't/don't use the term organic. The use here is mine.]
There’s an article in the current Washington Jewish Week, of DC not the state, that addresses this week’s parasha, specifically those sticky parts we say in the daily Sh’ma. You know, the passage about God rewarding us or punishing us by manipulating the rain.
Written by Joelle Novey of Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light, it’s well worth reading. I’m just going to copy the whole thing here. You’ll thank me.
We are turning away from God’s command
by Joelle Novey
Special to WJW
I’ve been having a hard time with a passage in Ekev, this week’s Torah portion. Unfortunately, I’ll be reading it again soon, because the words appear in our daily liturgy, after the Sh’ma:
“If you heed my commandments, then I’ll grant your land’s rain in its season, that you might gather your grain, wine and oil. I’ll grant grass in your fields for your cattle, that you might eat and be satisfied.
“Take care that you not be seduced and turn away to serve other gods. Then God’s fury will turn against you. God will block the sky. There will be no rain. The earth will not grant its produce. You will quickly perish from the good land that God grants you” (Deuteronomy, 11:13-17).
It’s harsh, and some prayer books have omitted it, uncomfortable with divine judgment. But that’s not what concerns me.
For me, it’s hard not to notice that the threatened curse itself seems to be coming true.
The global average temperature has risen 1.4 degrees in the past 150 years, and is rising faster and faster. Spring is coming one to two weeks earlier across the Northern Hemisphere. We have just lived through the hottest April, May and June ever recorded.
Around the world, rain isn’t coming in its season. Draught and other climactic changes have caused $5 billion in crop losses annually for three decades. Many are finding it more difficult to eat or to be satisfied.
Why is this happening? We have blocked the sky. Coal-fired power plants, airplanes, cars and agriculture are generating greenhouse gases. They accumulate and trap the sun’s heat, causing the Earth to warm. The safe carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere is 350 parts per million. We’re near 400 already, and rising.
“Isn’t the weather God’s department?” writes Rabbi Julian Sinclair of the Jewish Climate Initiative. “In traditional Jewish theology, climactic conditions are part of the divine prerogative.” But now, “the natural climactic systems are responding to human actions … [that] are creating their own retribution.”
Some teachers of Jewish ecology have suggested that we understand “turning away” to describe people polluting. Then, the climactic punishment fits our crime. The text, at least, is fulfilled.
Unfortunately, what’s really happening isn’t anywhere near that fair. We have turned away, but it is others who find that there is no rain, and the earth won’t grant its produce. Those perishing from the good land have done least to contribute to the problem. Already, the World Health Organization estimates that 300,000 people around the world are dying from direct effects of climate change, most of them in developing countries.
In the weeks following Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, we seek consolation.
In this, what is our consolation? Maybe Americans will call on Congress to pass strong climate legislation. Maybe in our homes and communities, we will find ways to reduce our carbon emissions. Our society may yet come together to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Maybe this work will leave us ultimately with a better world.
But today, as I anticipate hearing that threat read from the Torah, I don’t feel ready for consolation. I’m just too sad to be living in a time when human beings have managed to cause, for ourselves, the most terrifying divine punishment our biblical forebears could imagine.
It’s lonely to be in uncharted territory, beyond even the harshest rebuke from nature that the Torah describes.
Who are we in this story? We are both those who heed the Torah and those who interfere with rain in its season.
No matter what we do next, we’re already partly too late. I grieve that even those of us who say the Sh’ma — who call on our people to hear, three times daily, about the unity of all — I grieve that we, of all people, haven’t been listening.
Joelle Novey directs Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light, which works with local congregations to respond to climate change.
(With apologies for such a belated vort)
Looking back at Parashat Balak, one might be compelled to ask why exactly is this story included within the book of Numbers. In particular, the Moabite prophet Balaam’s peculiar exchange with his donkey seems rather random when considered within the larger narrative arc of the story.
As the only instance of a speaking animal since the cunning snake in Genesis, one might expect our portion’s donkey to say something of exceeding importance and weight. Instead, she utters something utterly understated and even banal: she asks her master why he struck her three times when she has never wronged him. The simplicity of the dialogue and the repetitive rhythm of the characters’ actions here all suggest an almost fable-like story structure. As such, we can perhaps most productively view this story as primarily didactic in nature.
What is the relevance of the speaking donkey? The Midrash Rabbah on the book of the Numbers explains that this scene represents the ultimate reversal of nature. Balaam was the wisest of men, and here he is upstaged by his donkey, the lowest of animals. For a more lofty and respectful view on the man-animal relationship however, let us turn our attention to a more inspiring passage found in the book of Job (Job 12:7-8):
But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish of the sea inform you
Here animals can be understood as possessing the very essence and wisdom of our earth. To communicate with animals is to share in their well-being, which is ultimately our well-being as humans. Perhaps this ‘dialogue’ does not take place in actual words, as it does in Parashat Balak, but rather, in actions, such as the way we relate to the environment and to our fellow creatures inhabiting this earth. Animals serve as the index of our respect for our planet, and, as we see from the recent BP disaster, when we turn away from our responsibility, the result to the earth and to the creatures which inhabit it is devastating.
If we are thinking about what it means to relate meaningfully to animals, we also must consider what it actually means to be human. As humans, we possess the intelligence and power to be deliberately holy beings. From the text alone, it appears the prophet Balaam prophesizes in the name of “Hashem, my God.” The overwhelming majority of the midrashic commentators pounce on this phrase and insist, rather vehemently, that Balaam was not a monotheistic, but rather, an idol worshipper, diviner, and a generally evil person. (Intriguing evidence of the former can be found in an inscription discovered in 1967 in the plains of the Jordan, at a site identified with Sukkoth in the area of the Jabok river. These fragments from “Visions of Balaam the son of Beor, seer of the gods” include a description of a goddess, fear of the havoc she could wreck, and an interesting array of god-names.)
Image of the Balaam Inscription
The overarching message, however, seems clear: whereas animals are all too often subjugated to their masters’ will (or that of other creatures), man possesses the unique capacity both for flaw and transcendent holiness, as we also learn through the story of Adam, Eve, and the snake. How? Through freedom of choice.
Balaam even knew in advance that his attempts to curse the Jews would ultimately prove abortive, but he kept trying—a weakness on his part. Despite his intimate knowledge of God (with God writ large or god in the plural, depending on your understanding of the text), Balaam remained a slave to his own social context. Balaam certainly was capable of achieving holiness, but he failed by succumbing to external pressures until only a donkey could teach him otherwise.
Interestingly, all but one of the Biblical characters in the Pentateuch whose names are immortalized as parasha titles are figures born as non-Jews. In the cases of Noah, Sarah, and Jethro, each drew closer to God in her/his own way through righteous and deliberate actions (Sarah and Jethro being ‘Jews by choice,’ but I contend that in our modern times all Jews are Jews by choice—today to identify actively as Jewish is no small feat). Such is most certainly not the case with Balak, the Moabite king after whom this pericope is named. All we know of Balak is his fear and desire to thwart the Israelites in their attempt to pass through the land. In this way, Balak seems to forgo our most interesting and empowering birthright as humans: our capacity for choice and constructive conflict resolution.
Which leads into this coming Shabbat’s portion, Parashat Pinchas, which immediately follows Parashat Balak. The only born-Jew to have a portion named after him, Pinchas, is, in a way, the Jewish counterpart of Balak, the Moabite king. Here again, we are revealed the disastrous consequences of an over-zealous man whose only response to a perceived threat is violence and destruction. Ironically, the house of David emerges from a Moabite woman (Ruth), as if to teach us, at this intersection between the Balak and Pinchas narrative, that all Jews originate from non-Jews, and in all cases (whether Jew or non-Jew), holiness is a choice, and constructive co-existence is a worthy uphill battle.
Image from the Soncino edition of Meshal HaQadmoni. The above shot is from the third chapter, entitled "In Praise of Good Advice," which even includes a story involving a donkey
(And If you’re a fan of morals and religious teachings embodied through speaking animals, I hereby commend yourattention to 13th century Spanish qabbalist R’ Isaac Ibn Sahula’s wonderfully understated collection of fables, Meshal HaQadmoni, a kind of Jewish, Torah-inspired answer to Aesop’s fables.)
They’re sure getting a lot of press these days. And why not? Tomorrow is their grand opening: they will be the first Jewish environmental sleepaway camp, welcoming the first session of “134 campers from 17 states and 4 countries with smoothies from a bicycle-powered blender, solar-oven cooked snacks from our farm, live music, campfires and more.”
Sounds pretty great to me! Read more about Eden Village Camp below the jump.