Parsha Noach: Feeding the Sacred
1 Cheshvan 5778 | October 20, 2017
Today we breathe a little easier because thank God the rains have finally arrived and the Santa Rosa fires just north are all but contained. But the fires have left many of us stunned and traumatized. Many lost their homes and some lost their lives in the raging fires that took us by surprise. Today we also mourn the loss of critical communal infrastructure — Camp Newman in the Santa Rosa hills, in particular, is an enormous loss for our community.
My new home in Occidental is about 10 miles from where the fires raged, and while my home was never directly threatened, it was a real wake up call. Friends who were evacuated came and lived with us for a spell, shelters popped up and volunteer services were created — much of it entirely grassroots — just motivated by love of community and empathy for those displaced and traumatized. Take our sister, Tali Weinberg — I watched her selflessly and tirelessly launch a network of impromptu, volunteer, bodywork and acupuncture clinics within the shelters giving life-nourishing services for first responders, elderly, and others in need. Shomrei Torah, the Reform synagogue in Santa Rosa, has and is still offering a free kids camp for affected families. Many educators have gone to volunteer and give their time.
I am so touched by the profound human response to this tragedy, the instant selflessness and instant community with those who you would have never known. I took my car into the dealer yesterday to get fixed and the man who helped me told me his story of defending his home an community in Rincon, right between Fountain Grove and Coffee Park. They got lucky, and they came together to protect their lands. After this immense tragedy, he commented, neighbors and people on the street are for the first time stopping to say hello, wave at each other as they pass by in trucks, and generally asking how they can help each other out.
I feel so much gratitude for this moment, where those once separated are coming together by those who are motivated to selflessly care for the other in need. But is it not true that there are always those in need? Our relatives live on the streets, struggle with poverty, or wrestle with the societal maladies of gender, racial, and oppression of many kinds. Why is it that it takes tragedy to open us up to those in need?
I’m also asking myself, what is going on in the world right now?
In the wake of North Bay Fires, perhaps the greatest natural disaster in California’s history, right on the heels of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Ophelia, it feels clear to me that these are not normal times. No matter how much Scott Pruit and his crumbling EPA wants to deny the results of the human-made changes in our climate, I feel that we are truly facing an apocalypse.
Now I’ll admit, I’ve been feeling the rattle in my bones that I imagine Jeremiah the prophet must have felt when he warned us of the destruction that would befall us because of our misdeeds and misguided ways. And while I do think the hurricanes and fires we saw this year are but the beginning, rather than isolated events, of a new normal we will have to face in a worsening climate change reality, the imminent destruction of the world is not exactly what I mean when I say “apocalypse.”
Apocalypse, based on its Greek and Latin origins, literally means to “reveal” or “uncover.” The natural tragedies of today are symptoms of something deeper, a “removing of the veil.”
So what is being unveiled?
Yes, human-caused climate change is undeniably altering climate patterns, giving us successively worse hurricanes, and apparently dryer, hotter, and faster Santa Anna winds that provoke potentially catastrophic fires. But what is behind those symptoms?
I recently sat with one of my spiritual teachers, Arkan Lushwala, an indigenous, Peruvian-born healer and ceremonialist. Last weekend he reflected on the deeper dimension of this moment and he explained that humans have fundamentally forgotten a few critical truths:
- We are the earth. Adam, earthling, comes from Adamah, the earth. This is one of the first core teachings of the Book of Genesis.
- One of humanity’s primary, unique roles in this world is to not only feed our own individual bodies but to feed the earth.
- We are failing to realize that the earth is reacting and responding. We have received warnings and extension upon extensions, and now we are out of extensions.
He teaches that this unveiling is happening now because we have so profoundly forgotten who we are that we now face the consequences. There is a price for taking and taking and failing to feed our precious earth.
This feeding, of course, is not something new to the Jewish people. It is at the very root of Jewish tradition. In Temple times, we offered plant, animal, and mineral offerings to the fire on the Temple Altar. These offerings we call Korbanot. Korban (offering) is rooted in the same word as l’karov (to come close to). The ancestors understood that by feeding the sacred with our offerings we come close to God. We have to be close to the earth to raise up these plants and animals, and we have to be close in soul to remember to feed that sacred power, and then we come close in spirit by offering up the fruits of our labors and our lands.
When we lost the temple, those korbanot, those offering technologies for coming close, were converted into forms of prayer or avodah, service of the heart. Arkan explained that this is another valid way of feeding the earth — song, prayer, ritual. He also said that all ancient peoples understood that if we fail to feed the earth and feed the sacred in these ways, then we will pay in other ways — fires, wars, floods.
In this week’s Torah portion, Noah, it’s the flood. At a time when the earth is corrupt, as it says in Genesis chapter 6, all that lives and breathes is wiped off the face of the earth by a great flood. From that tragedy, God established the first Covenant with Noah and the generations that follow. We learn that from tragedy we can recover, reorient, and begin again. In the story of Noah, it’s complete destruction. But ideally, we can learn from the lessons of the past to avoid such complete ruin again.
So what is the medicine that Noah teaches us and how can we integrate that lesson and deploy that for our time?
Noah, Nun Chet, also means “rest” or “relax.” In a sense, in the wake of the destruction of the world, “rest” and “relaxation” rescue life, preserve all the plants and animals, and reestablish life on earth. What does this mean?
Sefat Emet, the 19th-century Chasidic master, teaches as his core Torah that within everything in Creation, there is a Holy Inner Point, a spark of God within. It’s the human job to expand this inner point to generate life on earth. He understands from Noah that generation of life must come through human self-negation, surrendering to our inherent holiness. We must know and release those parts of us that are corrupt, that worship the materialism of our time, that separate us from others. Then, we generate life by letting go of these parts of ourselves and expanding our inner Holiness.
Cheshvan, the month we begin today, offers us the perfect opportunity for this. Having completed the wild ride of holidays in Tishrei, the month of Cheshvan gives us a respite and time to just be, to resonate in the womb of the sacred. This too is the medicine of Noah – not to run and solve the problems of our time, but rather to find the solutions by slowing down, resting, relaxing, and expanding our inner holiness, and listening deeply to that Inner Point within.
Then, from this place of rest, relaxation, and deep connection, let’s learn again to feed the sacred. Let’s begin with our song and prayer. And if you feel moved, give the earth a sip of your water, a bite of your food, or give the earth something precious at a sacred place. Lets pause and remember to feed this sacred world as our ancestors did.