2005 New York Ride Keynote Address

 by Ariana Silverman

This summer, my uncle, a middle-aged working father of three, volunteered to be a Little League Umpire. As many of you know, the difficulty of this particular job is not the physical exertion, or the danger of being confronted by a player, or even that there are that many pitches that are too close-to-call, but having to face the genuine wrath of a parent who feels that his or her child, or even his or her child’s team, has been wronged. During one particularly heated game, my uncle’s calls were repeatedly followed by yelling from an offended mother in the stands. Trying to keep his cool, when, in the middle of the forth inning, she asked for the count, he obligingly held up his hands . My uncle was stunned by her temporary silence, and then it came: “Ump, you’re gonna hafta yell-out the count-I don’t have my glasses on!”

Tonight I invite you to join me in a conversation about seeing. Our Torah portion this Shabbat begins with the command to see: Re’eh. Re’eh Anochi Notein L’ifneicheim HaYom Bracha U’klalah. See, this day I set before you blessing and curse (Deuteronomy 11:26). This theme is not uncommon in the book of Deuteronomy, as the Jews, waiting to enter the promised land, are warned repeatedly that to keep the land they must remain loyal to the one Eternal God, to love God, and to hear God’s words. But why, in this particular portion, are we commanded to see? It is possible that we can actually see blessing and curse? Do we tend to see one more than the other? If God is everywhere in every moment, where are we supposed to look?

My thesis tonight is that we see what we choose to see. In order to have Hazon, vision, in order to see oneness, sometimes, we have to turn around.

What do I see in this place, in this moment? I could say that I see 100 people from different generations, from different hometowns, from differing religious and ideological perspectives, from different walks of life, who hold different hopes and harbor different fears.

At the same time, however, I see 100 people who were inspired by a goal, a passion, a friend, a family member, a colleague, or a Hazon staffer. I see people who consider themselves to be Jews, or bikers, or environmentalists, people who want to challenge themselves, people willing to try something new. I see a group of people that have traveled to north-west Connecticut to spend Shabbat together and some who plan to spend two days on a bicycle, or supporting people on bicycles, in order to travel a distance it took a bus only 2 hours to complete.

In other words, I see one people, my people-passionate, dedicated, hopeful, and yes, a little bit nuts.

What do you see when you look at me? Take a moment to answer that question for yourself. From my biography, you know that I am a Harvard-educated Washington-trained environmental lobbyist who decided to become a Rabbi. To my rabbinical school, I am a Reform movement poster-child who was the president of my youth group, chaired 5 different committees at Harvard Hillel, worked at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and then flew to my Wexner Fellowship interview from my job at the Sierra Club in the midst of a campaign to raise the fuel economy of America’s cars and trucks.

I am a Jew and an environmentalist, and I do not see them as separate. The environment, technically speaking, is not actually “outside” anything, including Judaism. I believe we must see the world in its totality. In both space and time. So let’s start with our history. Creationists, evolutionists, intelligent design theorists, biologists, anthropologists, and Rabbis hold the same view on at least part of our beginnings. The “environment” existed before monotheism developed. Whether in billions of years or in six days, what we often term as the environment-sun, wind, and rain, fertile soil, rainforests, and rivers, carbon cycles, and photosynthesis, the biodiversity of plant and animal species-had to be created in its magnificent complexity before human beings could survive. This understanding inspired human beings to intertwine their relationship with the Earth with their relationship to the divine.

This was certainly true for the Jews. My philosophy professor’s view of Jewish history can be summarized while standing on one foot: we were shepherds, then farmers, then city-dwellers. As shepherds, and certainly as farmers, we saw that both our lives and livelihoods depended on the Earth. Our holidays that used to require pilgrimage to the Temple-Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot-are based on agricultural cycles. In the Torah, God’s threatened punishment for all sorts of human failings is drought. This happens so frequently, my colleague Anna Stevenson wrote her senior thesis on it. Nili Simchai will be giving a workshop specifically on rain tomorrow. Even in our portion Re’eh, God instructs us to “consume the tithes of your new grain and wine and oil, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks, in the presence of the Eternal your God…so that you may learn to revere the Eternal your God forever” (14:23). We perceived God’s presence because meaningful eating, that ageless Jewish tradition, had everything to do with the land, which had everything to do with God.

Re’eh also outlines many of the laws of kashrut, including ritual slaughter, based on the understanding that what we take from the Earth as food demonstrates an intimacy with God. Today, if we are not lucky enough to be an Adamah fellow, us city-folk can express our reverence for God through what we eat, through blessings before and after our meals, through making food choices that will not damage the life-sustaining Earth in which we live. Do these expressions of reverence help us feel an intimacy with God? Food for thought for the workshop on how “Every Culture Eats its Story.”

When we see the world around us in its totality, Judaism cannot and does not exist outside of it. So why, you may ask, isn’t every Jewish organization that is concerned with the survival of Jews and Judaism a Jewish “environmental” organization? How did environmentalism and interconnectedness seem to slip away from Judaism?

I believe we as Jews, and as human beings, live in a society that has forgotten how to see unity, to see oneness. We have been blinded by intense and pervasive segregation and fear. Rather than being judged by the content of our character, as Martin Luther King dreamed, we are judged by the color of our skin, of our state, of our clothing. We live in blue states and red states, wear white collars or blue collars, as Jews we flash orange or blue to other Jews. We see our neighbors as Patriotic Americans, un-American, Arab-Americans, or simply foreign. We are soldiers or civilians, men or women, gay or straight, evangelical Christians, Muslims, Catholics, or on the sidelines of the discussion of “moral values.” We are welfare Moms or CEOs, union members or environmentalists, sustainable or disposable, young and impressionable, or old and forgotten. We are Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, or none of the above. And sometimes we won’t talk to, respect, engage, understand, apologize to, forgive, or pray with, the other.

What we do seem to have in common is fear. We fear environmental destruction, violence, and death. We worry about the future of our world, our country, our loved ones. And we have every reason to be afraid. The problem is that fear and segregation go hand in hand. Our fear causes us to close ourselves off, to move to where it is safer, to lock our doors, to buy bigger cars, to accumulate rather than share our resources, to feel powerless, to see violence as a first resort, to make us blind. To make us see only what we choose to see.

I saw a commercial in which a mother, seeing that her children are afraid of a thunderstorm, carries them from the house into the family’s parked SUV, where they peacefully fall asleep. As the storm rages around them, she sits in the front seat and smiles. Given that the SUV doesn’t move and you can barely see it, this commercial does not appear to be advertising horsepower or sex appeal or even luxury. This is not a vehicle to get you out into the great outdoors-it protects you from the scary outdoors. This commercial is literally selling “shelter from the storm.”

Sadly, however, to me, this commercial is about the danger of disengagement from the rest of the world. I understand fear. If I am blessed with children, I naturally want them to be safe, and I want to provide the best for them that I can afford. However, the supreme irony of this commercial is that it is the gas guzzling vehicles of all types that can create truly frightening storms. But, as Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, points out, we can’t see our gasoline creating carbon dioxide as it burns, we can’t really see how much carbon dioxide comes out of our tailpipes, and we certainly can’t see it thickening the heat-trapping layer of carbon dioxide around our planet. We can’t see, with our own eyes, our planet getting warmer, changing our climate and weather patterns, no matter how much research documents that it is happening. So we will not recognize the problem until climate change causes storms to increase in frequency and severity.

And even then it will be the poor, the sick, the elderly that will suffer the most. Many of us have the resources to find shelter from the storm, but as we saw with the Tsunami and see now with Katrina, it is the less privileged members of our world that get left behind. What I hear from my friends and family is entirely different from what we see on TV. Members of my extended family lost their homes, but they are able to stay with relatives, to be fed and protected, and that is a blessing. However, many of those who, as we speak, are sleeping in the Astrodome, have no place else to go or do not have the resources to get there.

Ours is a religion that demands that we protect the stranger, the widow and the orphan-precisely the people who may have no one else to shelter them. The Torah repeats this over and over again, just in case we didn’t see it the first time. The Torah commands us to pursue justice, repeating the word, tzedek, justice, twice in the same command (16:20). We watch with horror at the destruction wreaked by hurricane Katrina. We don’t need Re’eh to tell us, if “there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman” (15:7). Many of us already gave money or plan to. But there is something more profound, more just, more unified that we can do. Storms will always exist, but we can prevent them from getting worse. We know how to slow and curb the wrath of global warming. We cannot afford to be blind anymore. We need vision.

Sadly, both Jews and environmentalists are not good at vision. At a conference of Wexner fellows from both the United States and Israel we were put in small groups and asked to come up with a vision for Judaism’s future. But as we went around the circle of people in my group, I became increasingly discouraged and depressed. Every single person spoke not of vision, but of fear. They feared that their grandchildren would not practice Judaism, they feared that anti-Semitism was on the rise, they feared that their children did not understand how important it was to keep Jewish institutions alive. When it got to be my turn, I wanted to scream. That bleak future is not all that I see. Yes, young people should know that there are risks to being Jewish, but telling young people like me that we should remain Jewish because Judaism is in danger from both outside and within is probably not the best strategy for keeping us around.

I told the group that I remain Jewish because I see Judaism as a wise, beautiful, and sophisticated way of looking at the world in which we live. Judaism’s values continue to inform my choices, and Judaism’s rituals and holidays help me to reconnect with my family, with the world around me, and with Judaism’s rich past. I see Jewish art, music, literature, and recipes flourishing, and more and more Jews learning the skills to engage with our texts. Yes of course I see the challenges… but we have to see both the curses, and the blessings.

Environmentalists have the same problem, and are beginning to address it. A controversial article that came out in October of 2004 was entitled, “The Death of Environmentalism” and argued that the environmental movement is failing on all fronts, and is therefore essentially dead. The article makes a number of critiques and suggestions, and the details will come out in tomorrow’s workshop. There was something in the article, however, that particularly caught my eye. In only 22 pages, the authors use the word “vision” 33 times.

Environmentalists are now trying to articulate a vision. A vision of partnership with labor unions, with people of faith, with communities victimized by environmental injustice. A vision of building an energy future that depends not on fossil fuels but on hydrogen fuel-cells, wind, and sun. I believe in this vision. I have seen it. I have seen these technologies; I have seen the power of partnership.

But I think that Judaism has something to add. God willing, during the Ride we will have sun to light our journey and the wind at our backs. Please take a moment to notice them. Thousands of years ago, Jews figured out what we are re-learning now-that the Earth, in all of its complexity, literally has the power to keep us alive. Not just to feed our bodies and power our homes, but to make energy universally available, for while oil fields are limited, the sun and the wind cover the planet, and technology is transferable.

The Arava Institute has already shown us that environmentalists, whether they are Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Egyptians, know that we all share the same water, the same air, and God willing someday, we will share the same peaceful future. I believe that environmentalism is not just preventing us from the curses of destruction, but will teach people to see the blessings of integration. So I do not believe that environmentalism is dead. But I do think it might not be a bad idea for the movement to take “movement” seriously, and take a good look around.

There is a story in the Talmud in which Moses sees God affixing the crowns to the letters in the Torah. When Moses asks why, God explains that someone in the distant future, a man named Rabbi Akiva, will be able to interpret their meaning. When Moses asks to see this man, God tells him to turn around, and suddenly Moses is sitting in the back of Akiva’s classroom. Here, and again later in the story, Moses turned around to see the future.

I can’t get this image, Moses turning around to see the future, out of my head. We tend to think of the future as something in front of us. But when we walk backwards, it is our past that we see, in increasing perspective. We cannot see what is behind us, and we cannot see the future. Not seeing where we are going is a scary thing. We all, like Moses, wish we could see into the future. But we can’t. All we can do is envision what we would like it to look like, and plan our steps accordingly.

Moses’ turning should be an inspiration to us all, especially as we enter the month of Elul together. As the high holidays approach, many Jews will begin to start the process of tshuva, of turning, returning to holiness, perhaps returning to God. What will we see along the way? This year, will we see not just our past, but perhaps a vision of the person we wish to become?

In every moment we are literally surrounded by and create changes in the world. Judaism can be a part of that process. Our sense of what it means to be a blessing in the world should inform not only ritual choices but our consumer choices, our political choices, what we choose to see. From the confines of a Birmingham jail, Reverend King wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” In a place of utter isolation, he taught the world about connection.

As he marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “I felt like I was praying with my feet.” In a few days, many of us will have the chance to pray with our bodies as well. I am not suggesting that you don’t keep your eyes on the road, but when it is safe to do so, please take a look around. The money we rose and the energy we contributed are making a difference in the world. They really are. We are showing the world that a group of people with many differences can move together as one. That religion, however we define it, can take back its relationship to the Earth. We are proving that we know transportation alternatives exist, and we will welcome them. You inspire me, you give me hope, and for that I thank you.

Two weeks ago, the incoming Hazon Rabbinical Fellow, Jacob Fine asked, “Is it possible to pray with our eyes?” I know this may sound crazy, but before I conclude, I would like to ask everyone to please rise. I would do the rabbinical hand gesture thing, but that doesn’t work until at least your fourth year. In a moment I am going to ask you to turn around. I would like you to do so at your own pace, but very slowly. I want you to try to see everything around you, and when you come across something that you have never seen before, or that just catches your eye, please stop and take a long, hard look. If you would like to pray silently, feel free to do so, if you would like to just allow your mind to clear of everything but sight, please do so, if you would like to roll your eyes and think that I am nuts, that’s ok too, just think of this as the seventh-inning stretch and respect those around you. After a few moments, I will ask you to be seated. Please, to the extent that you are able, begin to look around.

Please be seated. As we share the experience of praying together, I would like to echo your prayers with my own. Eternal God, please help me to see the blessings around me, but not turn a blind eye to the curses. May my actions in the world lead to greater unity, as you God, are one. Please help me to have the courage to face the future with vision, not fear. And please allow me to make my life a blessing, in gratitude for the life that surrounds me, and gives me life. Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu ruach haolam, pokeach ivrim. Blessed are you God, who opens the eyes of the blind.

That is my vision. What’s yours?

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