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Seeing Through the Smoke - Rabbi Joey

“V’chol ha-rish’a kula k’ashan tichleh. . .  What’s bad, all of it, will vanish like smoke.”  

These words from the Rosh Hashana Machzor came to mind as Av wound down, and Elul, harbinger of a new year, approached.  The panoramic photos of Brazil’s Amazon on fire spoke volumes about a vacuum of leadership in the world – on climate, human rights, on racial and economic justice.

Does the smoke go away?  

Baruch Halevi Epstein, who saw firsthand as an old man the decimation of humanity by Nazi Germany, wrote in his Baruch Sheamar that the wording kula (all of it) in the verse is key.  Tackling one aspect of the world’s imbalance can divert us from a thoroughgoing analysis.  And yet, there’s so much that assails us every day, it can feel daunting to take it on.

We gulp for breath at every instance of chicanery. Bolsonaro’s malign neglect is enabled by Washington lobbyists in the oil and gas, mining, and agribusiness sectors.  A capricious American president “paved the way,” says a gleeful corporate player, quoted in The Intercept.  

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The political horizon has left us sighing to one another during the past year.  In the morning, we pray Hasheeva shofteynu k’varishona. . .v’haser me’menu yagon va’anacha.   Reflecting the nuanced speech of Isaiah, we stake our hopes on the reinstatement of (good) judges, and the melting away of our grief and moaning.  But how to square this prophetic idealism with the toxins in the atmosphere?

In the coming year, where is hope?

The commentator Malbim (Eastern Europe, 19th century) offers a brilliant and inspiring way to think about the emotional impacts of a world spinning out of control.  In his commentary on Isaiah 35:10, “The refugees of God shall return. . . they shall attain joy and gladness, while sadness and groaning will flee,” he observes that it really doesn’t go down this way.  These anxieties don’t tend to evaporate overnight. It’s only at the point, he says, when we truly realize that we ourselves are restored that fear and despair go away. 

The implication is that true joy leaves no room for all the despair and hurt; and, conversely, amidst the work we must do painstakingly, we should stay focused on what’s right and what’s kind while we approach it step by step.  

In this sense, there’s no magical coronation of a regime, at Rosh Hashana or at any other time, that will bring justice to the world – or that will teach us to share our wealth, or to preserve the earth’s bounty, or to welcome the stranger who resides next door.

In fact, it’s the stranger who is likely the key to us discovering the way out of our predicament.    

In her novel The Dry Heart, the Jewish Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, no stranger to fascist cruelty, wrote: “All of us are trying to imagine what someone else is doing, eating our hearts out trying to find the truth and moving about in our own private worlds like a blind man who gropes for the walls and the various objects in the room.”  

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If there is a cure for the distress we feel, the sadness and the groaning, as the new year comes in, it’s in squinting through the smoke to try and see what each of us can do, incrementally, to stand up for justice together with others.  We can apply pressure to local and state leaders who want to allow our communities to become passageways for tar sands oil trains, or sit down in front of I.C.E. headquarters to resist the incarceration of asylum seekers, or work for reproductive rights.  We can get out the vote over the next several months, and we can enter into conversations with our neighbors and with people whose worries have left them isolated from us – while our political convictions have made us tone-deaf to them. 

Blowing smoke, literally and metaphorically, will leave us ravaged.  We’ll have only one choice, if we’re to banish all that’s bad. We’ll have to be models of justice thoroughly.  

On Rosh Hashana, may we join in the work ahead with our friends in the inspiring T’ruah community to restore our hearts and souls, and may we clear the air with kindness and joy.  

Rabbi Joey Wolf, now two years retired, was the spiritual leader of Havurah Shalom in Portland, Oregon for 30 years.  He has also served on T’ruah’s national board and stays active in social justice issues.

Mon, February 17 2020 22 Shevat 5780