Parshat Re’eh with Guest Darshan Tiferent Zimmern-Kahn

My grandfather’s first yahretziet was the 25th of Av—5 days ago. He lived fully and healthfully to the age of 92 and died after only a handful of days in the hospital.

Grandpa was from Czechoslovakia, and met my grandmother at a dance in London on furlough from the Czech army in 1942. They were separated for a number of years and wrote letters back and forth as my grandfather learned English. My grandparents saved these letters, and my grandmother recently reported deriving much joy from reading them through again, reliving the kindling of their love so long ago. In 1947 they were married—him Ashkenazi, my grandmother from a Sephardic family, and remained married for 67 and a half years. They eventually made aliyah, and he passed away and is buried in Israel.

Grandpa was a kohen, and took his duties as a kohen to his community seriously. Living in Israel, he duchenned (performed the priestly blessing) every Shabbat, would often lead shacharit or musaf and was lauded for his lyrical voice. He was proud of this position in the community. My grandfather had a few jokes he liked to tell. One of them, recounted at my brother’s wedding, goes as follows: Why is a kohen so short tempered? They wash their hands, get nothing to eat, and besides, they have to worry about someone stealing their shoes! (If you don’t get it, don’t worry about it, I’m not sure I do either…)

My grandfather believed firmly in upholding Jewish tradition from keeping kosher and Shabbat, to supporting others in his community who needed assistance, be it financially or otherwise. He had a strong moral character amongst family, friends, and business partners. As his grandchildren, we were told about how Grandpa would always sincerely thank Grandma for a meal, even if all it was was a boiled egg. He recognized his place in the family. He would say: “I am the head of the family, but your grandmother is the neck. The head goes wherever the neck turns.”

All of his grandchildren flew in from abroad to put him to rest. My father and uncle both took leadership roles in the congregation, as mourners are encouraged to do. Parshat Re’eh, this week’s parsha, was read the first Shabbat after my grandfather’s funeral. My father recited the haftarah after a hiatus of many years from layning. His death was unexpected in some ways, coming so suddenly, but also expected, seeing as he was an old man. We came together as a family to do what we could to follow in his footsteps and do it right. My cousins who got married this past year both formed their chuppot from Grandpa’s talit. Our actions remember him and will continue to do so.

I was asked to speak today especially about Jewish environmental concepts, so I’ll leave my memories of Grandpa for the time being, and oblige.

I grew up in a traditional family outside of Boston, and I loved nature—oxymoronic? Maybe… However, it was difficult to find a suitable outlet for this interest. There weren’t many organized hiking trips or environmental programs I could comfortably participate in as an observant Jew. So I was interested to learn of the growing Jewish environmental movement as I was getting ready to finish college. Since graduating, I’ve worked as a Jewish environmental educator at Surprise Lake Camp, the Teva Learning Alliance, and the Pearlstone Center’s educational farm outside Baltimore, MD. I continue to be connected to this community through attending conferences, visiting friends and reading blog posts. My training in these communities serves as a backbone for my teaching today: I focus on hands-on experiential lessons, and getting my students outside whenever possible.

To this end, in 2013, a friend (Ris Golden-Sieradski) and I co-founded the Syracuse Jewish Community Garden. It’s meant to provide a space for hands-on Jewish environmental and agricultural education for Jewish students (both adult and youth) in Syracuse. Most of the food we grow is donated to local family shelters, emphasizing our tradition’s commitment to social justice and caring for those in need.

A garden is a space where children and adults can come into contact with many different pieces of nature, and heighten our awareness of the kinds of relationships humans have had with plants and animals over the centuries. Adding a Jewish element to the programming connects us even more deeply to an identity we’ve held dear throughout our lives. To confine one’s Jewish identity to the synagogue is a disservice (no offense). By relating to nature as Jews, we deepen our relationship to both elements: Judaism and nature.

Since first identifying as a Jewish environmental educator eight years ago, the basics of how Judaism asks us to cultivate a meaningful and deep relationship with nature feel seamlessly integrated into my own personal practices.

The first couple of chapters of Genesis tell the story of creation, positioning the human “L’ovdah u’leshomrah” to work and to serve creation. We are here not to dominate, not to control and not to take advantage, but to care for and to tend.

The rabbis’ recommendation of saying one hundred blessings a day brings us into a relationship of awareness with creation that cultivates awe and gratitude.

The concept of “Bal Tashchit,” which has come to mean, “don’t wantonly destroy or waste” reminds us to be mindful of the resources we use and not to needlessly waste.

There are certainly other concepts that have shaped my Jewish practice to embody environmental values (for example, the agricultural connection of the holidays, celebrating Tu Bishvat, and Shmita, the implications of which I’m still striving to understand). However, these days, I’m feeling more interested in something a little deeper and a little broader.

Aside from being a Jewish environmental educator, I also teach science in the secular world. One of the goals that motivate me in this work is to heal the divide between “humanity” and “nature.” Much of the destruction we witness in and enact on the natural world originates with the false dichotomy between “us–humans” and “it—nature.” I’ve been guilty of reinforcing that dichotomy through the language I’ve used thus far in this drash. It’s taken me a while to find new language to express my ideas.

Rabbi David Seidenberg, in his recent book, Kabbalah & Ecology asks: can we make the claim that other (non-human) life is made in God’s image? Answering this question propels us toward finding the Jewish foundation for seeing ourselves as PART of creation, rather than APART FROM it. Seidenberg consistently uses the phrase “more-than human world,” explained in a footnote to “uproot the culture/Nature dichotomy…[It] includes the human—conceptualizing the environment that surrounds us as inclusive of humanity. It not only embraces a world that is both immanent and intimately related to us, but also acknowledges that this world transcends our needs, purposes, and knowledge.” This subtle redefining of terms can create a powerful paradigm shift.

Seidenberg presents a reading of traditional texts that reveals the Jewish teachings of how to live with the earth, offering us a way of relating to the More-Than Human World in order to sustain life. If we follow God’s commandments we will be able to live harmoniously, sustaining life on the planet in general. Parshat Re’eh details the ways the Israelites should live when they finally enter the land of Israel. We are instructed to live a spiritually sustaining life, close to God’s commandments and guidance, keep Kosher, and observe shmita every seventh year to release each other from debts and the land from our labor. Doing so, we will be rewarded with abundant sustenance, both physically and spiritually. However, the parsha also lays out the alternative: if we choose to commit adultery, follow false prophets, or ignore God’s commandments, we will be punished with a life of scarcity and struggle.

Traditional views of this parsha present God as a supernatural force that will cause it to rain when we’ve brought enough sacrifices or when we keep Kosher properly. The same force will deny us rain if we worship idols. This isn’t really the way I like to think about God—as a possessive and jealous force that I’m able to anger or please based on my actions and choices.

However, Seidenberg (and others) brings a different reading to this text. Not following God’s commandments about how to live well on the land will bring about a natural consequence of struggling. By ignoring the guidelines, we will be living a life alienated from the land, from ourselves, and ultimately from God. It’s a subtle twist, but to me, makes these ideas more palatable.

To tease this out a little more, let’s look to the laws of Kashrut as an example. In Re’eh, God outlines the animals we are allowed to eat and are not allowed to eat. We may only eat animals that have split hooves, as well as chew their cud. All animals that only possess one or the other or neither are “unclean” for us. How can we understand that following these laws has a natural consequence of living harmoniously with the land, and is not just obeying God’s seemingly random whim?

Seidenberg gives a fascinating explanation. An animal that chews its cud: what does this imply? It derives its sustenance from grasses, something that we as humans are not designed to do. What does cloven feet imply? These are animals that thrive on rocky slopes—land that is near impossible to cultivate. By limiting our domesticated flocks to animals who both chew their cud and have cloven hooves, we are ensuring that they are neither competing with us for a food source, nor with our crops for space. This choice will make it easier for us to sustain ourselves on the land, leading to more abundance than if we were to raise pigs, for example. As a student of ecology and a farmer, this makes sense to me.

Braiding Sweetgrass, by Dr. Robin Kimmerer (of SUNY-ESF) asks similar questions of how to heal our relationship with the more-than human world. As an ecologist and a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, she draws out answers from her own native traditions as well as western scientific knowledge and methodology. Her writing is exquisite and many of her essays have moved me to the brink of tears. In one essay, Kimmerer describes her realization that as much as she loves the earth, the earth must love her back. She writes, “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”

There is so much that needs to happen to shift the course of environmentally destructive policies and practices toward more sustainable ones. However, I am not one to advocate for social change on Shabbat. Today is a day to stop, and enjoy Creation without trying to change it or make improvements. It’s an exercise in awareness of all the “Tov Me’od—very good” that God beheld at the culmination of the creation of the world.

But, perhaps we can craft an appropriate Shabbat practice toward healing our relationship with the more than human world. How can we better see ourselves as part OF creation, instead of apart FROM? What might it be like to interact with a tree the same way you would interact with a friend? After coming home from a long day at work, running to embrace the first friend in your path, a maple tree that’s always stood tall and strong in your front yard right near the drive way. Or, to give the same attention to a hawk flying overhead as you would to receiving a new email or text message.

The last conversation I had with my grandfather was an argument. I left his car crying and feeling hurt, and he angrily drove away. That was the last time I saw him and the last time I heard his voice. We did exchange a few emails. He apologized, I forgave him, and I apologized too. Then about four months later, my cousin told me of his sudden decline.

Noticing mistakes and claiming them goes a long way in strengthening relationships, which are not always easy. In fact, the most intimate ones usually withstand the most hardship and challenge. It is this willingness to engage and get through the difficult times, which builds the intimacy that comes to be so ultimately rewarding. Healing our relationship with the more than human world will certainly challenge our culture and our way of life. But, hopefully, in so doing, it will strengthen our relationship to what we call nature, to what we call God and ultimately to ourselves, and in the process making our lives more whole.

Shabbat Shalom


Parshat Va’etchanan: Guest Darshan Tony Kennison-Adams

Sometimes one has to really dig into a parsha to get a few thoughts on which to write a d’var. This week’s parsha, Va’etchanan, does not need such digging; this parsha is an abundance of riches. It contains Moses’ narrative covering the freedom from slavery, the journey through the wilderness the provision of God and the pleading of Moses to God for God to change Gods decision stopping him from entering the promised land. It recaps the Decalogue and contains the shema.

Not wishing to outstay my welcome with a three-hour d’var, I will reserve my comments to a mini-study on the leadership style and behaviors of Moses with a view to understanding if this is a model of leadership that we can emulate as Jewish leaders today.

So why is this important to us sitting here? Primarily because, each one of us has a role in Jewish leadership. Be that in a formal leadership role in the shul, in work, as a parent, a teacher, a partner, or as part of a community raising our children together. Also, we are looked at by those outside of our community as different as a community within a community. People look to us for a lead. I remember some words that Sid gave in the introduction to his Bar Mitzvah Haftarah about our responsibility never to do anything that reflected badly on the Jewish community. Others are looking to us by reputation, as leaders or just as fellow travelers. One of the most import aspects of Moses’ leadership for me was not the grandiose miracles or earth shattering words, but his flawed humanity. This is an important lesson for us to be effective leaders; we do not need to be eternal or omnipotent, just human. We bring whatever we are into our leadership behaviors with us. But knowing that, makes us more effective than those who think they stand head and shoulders above the masses due to power or qualification.

So what human behaviors did Moses bring to his leadership? Moses railed against the people that it was their fault that he would never enter Canaan, when we know it was clearly Moses’ disobedience before God that was the bar to Moses inheriting the land. Was this Moses’ pride, regret, realization of a lack of faith or just a need to transfer his blame to others? Whether we feel sorry for him, believe it was just desserts or that he received his own reward in leadership or the manner of his passing, Moses’ folly is actually a demonstration of his humanity and like him we bring our weaknesses, frustrations, and inadequacies to our leadership rolls. Thus we should not be condemned by our humanity but encouraged by it.

It is often said that the role of leadership is to set the vision and remove the barriers. Moses certainly had the vision from the moment of the burning bush and he went on to remove the barriers of slavery of Pharaoh, the sea of reeds, bread, water, meat and so much more. But what kind of a person carries through such a mission when they know they will not inherit the vision, when they are going to put in thirty-eight years of effort and get no reward for their efforts. How many of us would start a physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual journey if the prize was thirty-eight years of kvetching and then being refused entrance to the winner’s enclosure. But such was the measure of the leader in Moses. He saw the vision and he removed the barriers. Much like the generations of leaders who eventually brought about the modern state of Israel. Their vision took two thousand years and, though there are still barriers to the complete peace and security of Jerusalem, leadership has brought Israel into reality. There is much in common with our wanderings in the wilderness here.

Moses however was not just a leader with a vision, but more importantly he was a follower. A follower of the leader Hashem. All great leaders understand the importance of being followers, of being under authority, because they understand the relationship that they have as a follower to their leader. A great example to this was when Moses acceded to the requests of the elders for him to appoint judges over the mass of Beit Yisrael. He could not be a judge alone. His followers came to him, he acknowledged the need and delegated authority to his followers to in turn be leaders. Followers have great ideas; they can be creative, insightful, and decisive but can only flourish and feel that they can contribute if the leader provides an environment in which they feel safe and valued. As leaders our role is not command and control, but climate control. We do not have to command and control followers, we have to control a climate in which followers will come forward, will risk, will experiment and will safe to do so. As leaders today we must not forget that we are still followers, we follow Torah, we align our lives with Torah precepts, instructions and commands. But we also put ourselves under the authority of others when it is for our good, the good of the community, our families, or even our children when they in turn are in a place where they become leaders. So to be an authentic Jewish Leader, we should first become an authentic follower, then nurture those who choose to follow us. This was what Moses did for Joshua, he gave Joshua the responsibility to spy out the land and in return he nurtured him to maturity and did what all leaders should do and that is to do themselves out of a job.

Moses in pleading with God to put aside God’s previous judgement banning him from entry to Canaan also was putting aside a key lesson that leaders must remember, and stick to, and that is that actions have consequences. In his pleading Moses was asking God to put aside the consequences of Moses’ disobedience to speak to the rock, but God knew that removing the consequence would not help Moses. One of the earliest leadership lessons in Breisheet is when God sent Adam and Eve out of the Garden because they had disobeyed God’s simple instruction: don’t touch the fruit of that tree. Eat anything else but not that one.

Having worked a lot with young people, I have seen a trend that many who find themselves getting deeper and deeper into trouble are those who consistently did not have to live with the consequences of there actions. Parents who had turned a blind eye to bad behavior, given a second, third, forth chance without consequence. Paid the fine for speeding, and still not held a son to account. Youth given a third, fourth or fifth caution that then learn to laugh at authority, until a judge eventually sends the kid to jail. As leaders we have to realize that our actions have consequences but that we too must hold those whom we ‘lead’ to account. Not just because of a rule but to promote growth and nurturing which is a key responsibility of leadership. If Hashem had said to Moses, “Ok I give up you can go to Canaan,” what would have been the effect on Israel? They would have thought that they had cart blanche to do whatever they wanted. If that had been so, would we be here today, or worshipping at a temple in front of a huge golden cow?

Actions not only have consequences but those consequences can have a ripple effect through time.

I was once told that if I wanted to know what kind of leader I was, I should turn around and see who is following me. The people followed Moses for forty years, they didn’t turn back, they didn’t go their own way. They followed Moses to the point of his death and then mourned the one whom they had loved. But they quickly got on with their lives and turned to the new leader, Joshua, and followed him into Canaan. Moses knew that the people would have to cope without him. The loss of the leader needs to be like pulling your hand out of a bucket of water, there are a few ripples but soon all is calm again. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said great leadership happens “ when the people say at the end of the task we did this ourselves.” The leader is not there for her glory but for the enrichment of the led, the followers.

As Jews, the Rabbis tell us not to seek leadership roles, but if we are called that, we serve with our whole being. But when the people elect one to leadership, that does not mean that one is in for an easy ride. The very person who casts their lot for the leader becomes the greatest critic when something does not go their way. Yes the people followed Moses out of Egypt but they were very soon were cursing Moses who had ‘led them to die in the dessert.” I often think that, to use animal analogies that a leader needs the courage of a lion, the cunning of a fox, the caring of a kangaroo, and the hide of a rhinoceros. But also they need those around them whom they can trust to keep them grounded. Moses was well grounded by Aaron, Miriam and others of his family. He was loved and even revered by them, but they still criticized him when they thought he was wrong such as with his marriage to “that Cushite woman.”

Having trusted advisors to help through leadership situations is vital, a partner, a friend, a teacher, someone that we can trust and keep us grounded. Moses had the benefit of walking with Hashem in a very physical sense. We have to strive for the same through our relationships with those made in Hashem’s image.

We must also not put on heirs and graces and flaunt our power as leaders, look what happened to Uriah as a result of a leader, King David, when he grew too big for his boots. Golda Mier, was never so grand as Prime Minister not to wash her own dishes. She wrote in her biography about a time when after a very long day she had had a large dinner in her private apartment with leading dignitaries. The hour was late when they left, but because her cleaner was coming in the morning she washed all the dishes and did the hoovering so as not to make the cleaner start off with a mountain of work for her day. This nor only speaks to the fact that Golda remembered where she had come from but even in the grand position of Prime Minister she remembered to look after even the lady who came to clean her bathroom.

We are part of a continuum of followers and leaders. We are just human even as Moses was just human, we are flawed, just as Moses was flawed, but that does not mean we should not step up to the challenge of making a difference as Jewish leadership. We must continue to have vision and remove barriers for ourselves and others as we lead and follow to our own Canaan.

Shabbat shalom