Friday, February 17, 2017

The Answer To Rising Waters Is Right In Front Of Us

The Answer To Rising Waters Is Right In Front Of Us
B’Shalach/Tu Bish'vat 5777/2017
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

A couple of years ago, during Parashat Noach, I gave a sermon that dealt with the issue of climate change and the role that we as humans have played in our changing environment. What was interesting was who was listening. In the congregation, there were a number of Canadian Jews. I’ll never forget the feedback I received from them in particular. “Rabbi, a good sermon, really, BUT…let me ask you something - you had a multi-national Jewish audience here listening to your sermon - why didn’t you speak about something that affects us all?!?

I looked at him in a sort of disbelief. At first, I could not understand what he was talking about - isn’t a message about climate change davka something that affects us all?!? But then I realized what he was talking about - he didn’t think it was a particularly Jewish message.

I am not for myself, who will be for me?

As Jews, we look at ourselves as a particularistic people, but here is something interesting: in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, we read about four new years - Rosh Hashanah, the new year of years, which marks the anniversary of the creation of the world, the 1st of Nissan, marking when Bnai Israel was taken out of Egypt, the 1st of Elul, the new year of the tithing of animals, and the 1st or 15th of Shevat, the new year of the trees. Out of that list, the only particularistic new year is the 1st of Nissan.

When we speak to the things in this world that touch us all - we are speaking in an authentically Jewish way - if I am only for myself, what am I?

This Shabbat is a rare occurrence, the combination of Shabbat Be’Shalach on Tu Bish’vat, the new year of the trees. Today, I wanted to look at how trees play a role in our parashah and what it says about our role as Jews and our relationship to the physical environment.

Of course, when we think about trees, we think about water, and water plays a large role in this week’s parashah. It is today that we mark the miracle of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, Kriyat Yam Suf, a divine intervention into nature. As if the miracles of the plagues were not enough, God shows God’s immense power and might to the entire world in this action. But, there is another reference to water immediately after this great miracle.

22 Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23 They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. 24 And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” - Exodus 15:22-24

The people have just experienced the splitting of a massive sea - they saw the walls of water surrounding them, and they come out on the other end, and are grumbling about water. They come to a place called Marah - which contains the word bitter in it. Think about it like this: they have just experienced more water than they can literally handle, and then, for three days, they have no water. After three days, they find water, but it is too bitter to drink.

And here we read about the second miracle regarding water in this week’s parashah.

וַיִּצְעַ֣ק אֶל־יי וַיּוֹרֵ֤הוּ יי עֵ֔ץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ֙ אֶל־הַמַּ֔יִם וַֽיִּמְתְּק֖וּ הַמָּ֑יִם שָׁ֣ם שָׂ֥ם ל֛וֹ חֹ֥ק וּמִשְׁפָּ֖ט וְשָׁ֥ם נִסָּֽהוּ׃
25 So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood, eytz; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.”

God shows Moses a tree, he throws the tree or wood into the water, and the water magically turns from bitter to sweet.

In our first miracle, God saves the people from death by separating them from water – putting them on dry land. We look at this as the great miracle of the parashah. But what we learn from here is that without water, the people will share the same fate – they will die. It's a slower death – but they would have died just as they would had the sea not split.

The Midrash and the Commentators attempt to explain this strange incident. Some commentators say that the wood was bitter as well, but adding it to the bitter waters made it sweet, thus making this miracle even greater. But others look at it differently – especially, Ramban, Nachmonides (Spain - 1194-1270). He looks at the words, God showed him a tree, and says, we should read the word as taught. God taught Moses that this particular kind of wood has the natural ability to sweeten water. In other words, the miracle was that Moses listened to God and learned that salvation was there in front of him the whole time.

So here we see two miracles – one in which God saves the people with God's power, literally intervening in nature, and the second, teaches us that the miracles are there for us to use to save ourselves.

It's from this second teaching we get the story of the most faithful, but also the most foolish, rabbi in history who happened to live in America. The story goes as follows: It is teeming rain in the flood plain of the Mississippi Valley, and the rising river begins to threaten every home in the area, including that of the local Rabbi. With water coming into the ground floor, a rowboat with police comes by, and the officer shouts, "Rabbi, let us evacuate you! The water level is getting dangerous." The Rabbi replies, "No thank you, I am a righteous man, who trusts in God, and I am confident Hashem will deliver me." Three hours go by, and the rains intensify, at which point the Rabbi has been forced up to the second floor of his house. A second police rowboat comes by, and the officer shouts, "Rabbi, let us evacuate you! The water level is getting dangerous." The Rabbi replies, "No thank you, I am confident God will deliver me." The rain does not stop, and the Rabbi is forced up onto the roof of his house. A helicopter flies over, and the officer shouts down, "Rabbi, grab the rope and we'll pull you up! You're in terrible danger!" The Rabbi replies, "No thank you, I'm waiting for God." The deluge continues, and the Rabbi is swept off the roof, carried away in the current and drowns. He goes up to heaven, and comes before the Divine Presence. The Rabbi asks, "Creator of the World, I don't understand. I've been a righteous observant person my whole life, and depended on you to save me in my hour of need. Where were you?"
And the Lord answered, "Shmendrink, I sent two boats and a helicopter, what more do you want!”

While all of us were focused on various issues, a changing presidency in the United States, confirmation debates, immigration and refugee bans, terrorist attacks or threats in Israel and around the world, something significant occurred that will affect us all, and many of you probably did not even here about it:

A huge fissure in an Antarctic ice shelf, known as Larsen C, extended 17 miles over the past two months. The New York Times reported: “A rapidly advancing crack in Antarctica’s fourth-largest ice shelf has scientists concerned that it is getting close to a full break. The rift has accelerated this year in an area already vulnerable to warming temperatures… Of greater concern to scientists is how the collapse of ice shelves can affect the glaciers that flow behind them, because the melting of those glaciers can cause much higher levels of ocean rise.” This fissure is a result of climate change brought on by human activities including the burning of fossil fuels, mainly, coal and oil. Eventually, this massive ice burg the size of the state of Delaware will break off and lead to a further raising of ocean levels. The journal Nature reported that based on research in Antarctica, scientists now estimate a six-foot rise in sea level by the Year 2100 which would prove devastating for global coastal communities. Yes, that means us living in Florida. If things continue as is, West Boca will be beach front property in less than 100 years.

Humanity is standing at Yam Suf – an ocean that is going to envelop us, and we are also in a situation where billions of people do not have water that they can drink. We can continue on living as we do and wait for a miracle, or we can look around at what we have around us, God's wisdom and God's creations, and act in the world to prevent our deaths. There is a famous midrash which talks about our responsibility to earth:

When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13)

For years, we have been talking about solutions to these problems. God gave us wisdom, discernment, and understanding – we know how to solve the problems, but will we is the question? As the midrash says, there is no one else to repair it – If we are not for ourselves, for humanity, who will be for us? And if not now...when?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

My Father Was a Wandering European©

My Father Was a Wandering European©

Parashat Bo – 2017/5777
 Rabbi David Baum

My uncle Harry is the keeper of our history.  He was old enough when they left to remember what life was like in the old country, especially the challenges they faced on a daily basis, and he was old enough to remember the journey - and he’s alive to tell the story.  My uncle was taught by his father, my grandfather, to be a tailor, and so, he’s our family’s resident tailor, and when he’s working on hemming my pants, he tells me these stories.

I wanted to share one of these stories: the story of how they came here, to American in the 1960’s from Poland.  After my grandparents were liberated from Auschwitz, they went back to the familiar - the only language they knew, the only country they knew, the only people they knew - Poland.  They moved to a different city together, Włocławek and rebuilt their lives.  Following the war, Poland became a Communist country as it was.  My grandfather was a factory foreman in a coat factory where they made one type of coat for everyone.   He made money on the side by tailoring these coats for customers in his apartment, which was illegal.  He was almost put in jail on several occasions for this crime.  Finally, in 1960, they had their chance to leave Communist Poland and come to America.  And they came - but there were some strict conditions - each person was only allowed to bring the equivalent of $5 in currency, and they had to place all their belongings in one wicker basket.

This wicker basket became their ‘teiva’ - their ark.  Like Noah and Moses before them - it was not only items that were placed in this basket - but the hopes and dreams for a brighter future for their family.

He told me what it was like to finally make it here after that long boat ride,  welcomed by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in this new land, with food, some more money in their pockets, and a train ticket to their final destination.

My grandmother on my father's side had a similar story - she was able to leave Communist Czechoslovakia and come to America because an American Jew saw her name on a roster of survivors, and thought it was his cousin.  She came to America without her husband, but with her three year old son.  She apologized to the man when she came to America - your cousin is dead, and I used her name.  His response:  "I am very happy to have rescued a surviving Jewish family from the destruction of the Jewish people in Europe."  The man gave that boy a birthday gift every year on his birthday.  My grandmother managed a hotel in Budapest, hiding as a Christian, and after the war, she was an interpreter for the Red Army and ran a successful restaurant.  But in America, she was a lowly maid, who slept on a down blanket in a basement with her son - my father.

That’s my story - it’s a story I was reminded of on a weekly if not daily basis as a child.  I can see the wicker basket in my mind - I actually saw some of the items that went in the basket; I can see the down blanket - I can feel what it must have been like to curl up with my grandmother on that cement floor in a cold and dark basement.

We all our sacred myths - the stories we tell about how we came to be - some facts might be changed, but the story is true.

My father and mother were wandering Europeans - and they came here, to America, to be free.

Each one of you has a story – maybe it's not as fresh in your mind as it is in mine, because it has been a couple of generations since you were wanderers.

Our people have a sacred myth also - Avadim Hayinu v’atah bnai chorin; we were slaves and now we are free people.

Or, maybe, it is, once, we were strangers in a strange land...

But what do we do once the time passes – once we forget what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land?  What am I going to tell my children about their grandparents and great-grandparents?  How will I get them to see the wicker basket, the down blanket, the basement floor?

In our parashah this week, Moses tells the people what they already know in

Chapter 13.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶל־הָעָ֗ם זָכ֞וֹר אֶת־הַיּ֤וֹם הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצָאתֶ֤ם מִמִּצְרַ֙יִם֙ מִבֵּ֣ית עֲבָדִ֔ים כִּ֚י בְּחֹ֣זֶק יָ֔ד הוֹצִ֧יא יְקוָ֛ק אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִזֶּ֑ה וְלֹ֥א יֵאָכֵ֖ל חָמֵֽץ׃
And Moses said to the people, “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the LORD freed you from it with a mighty hand: no leavened bread shall be eaten.

And the rest of the chapter gives reminders in the form of ritual – the holiday of Pesach, the introduction of the mitzvah of tefillin on your arm, so that you know that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt.

Why Does God need to remind the people of what they are going through at that moment?  How can they forget?  Moses is not just talking to those people, but he is talking to us, their children.  We are reminded of this journey from slavery to freedom literally everyday, when we put on tefillin, when we pray in Shacharit and repeat the story of our redemption.

It is moments like these, in our time, when we must be reminded of our story.

What I didn't know about my family was the fear that people here in America had about them.  It began in the 1930's – Jewish refugees from Europe were looked at as spies for the Nazis.  There was truth to this:  a Nazi spy was caught disguised as a Jewish refugee, although the story was exaggerated and possibly inaccurate.  In the 1950's and 60's, the Jews who stayed behind, my family, were looked at as Communists.  And there is some truth to this – remember, there was only one party allowed in these countries. He was, for all intents and purposes, a member of the Communist party, and I'm sure if the same vetting for refugees and immigrants that is done today was done back then, this would have come up.  Many Jews were the primary leaders in the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and some were in charge in the Soviet block countries.  We weren't perfect – and there might have been some bad apples in the bunch.

Those who left Egypt during the Exodus were certainly not perfect or pure.  The Torah tells us that others came with them – the Erev Rav, a mixed multitude of non-Israelite laborers.  The rabbis do not look kindly upon this mixed multitude, the rabbis claim it was this group that started all of the trouble in those wilderness years.

But, truthfully, we do not know if the Erev Rav were the reason we got into trouble; and we really do not know if any of the European Jews who came as refugees were dangerous.  But perception is reality.

I do not want to quote you facts about this current refugee ban – you can find that information out for yourself, but I am here to give you teachings from the Torah on how to look at the other – the people who look differently than we do – the strangers from a strange land.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, wrote the following:  “I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Then I realised that it is easy to love your neighbour because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers”, resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.”

Eventually, people in this country, were able to see beyond the label, and see the individual human being – to love the stranger.

During the ninth plague, the Egyptians were struck with a darkness that was palpable.  The Torah states:

לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וּֽלְכָל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם׃
People could not see their brother and sister, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.

It was not just a physical darkness, but a spiritual darkness.  The Egyptians could not see the plight of the human beings that they ruled over – the strangers in their midst.  But the Israelites had light in their dwellings – sometimes strangers can see what other cannot – the human behind the label.

Eventually, the strangers were able to put their wicker baskets in their own home and put some more money in their pockets; they were able to move out of the basements, off the cold floors with just their blankets, and into beds and homes of their own.  Eventually, the stranger because less strange.  And here we are – at this moment, where we are reminded once again of where we came from.

And God compels us once again to remember our story, to remember how strange we once were – our story is summoning us now, let us be ready to listen.