I used to be a folksinger . . . through high school and college I played guitar and sang the songs of Tom Paxton and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and Judy Collins and Pete Seeger. I saw all of them perform live and they all moved me and inspired me, but there was something unique and authentic about Pete Seeger.
His death this week brought on a moment of sadness for me, although I hadn't thought about him for quite a long time, his music, his ethos, his example constituted one of the building blocks of who I am today.
Many of us know his songs . . . as sung by him or by other artists: "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "This Little Light of Mine," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Rambling Man," "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," "If I Had a Hammer." Those were all in my coffeehouse repertoire back in the day. The values expressed in those songs . . . humility, patience, compassion, hope, and the imperative to speak out against the opposite of those values . . . spoke to me as a teenager in the 60s and a college student in the early 70s (yes, I'm dating myself . . . do the math if you must).
One of Seeger's many gifts to me was his appreciation of all sorts of ethnic folk music. He sang Irish folk melodies, Appalachian songs . . . and even Yiddish and Hebrew folk melodies. His expansive appreciation of music from many cultures and many ethnicities gave me "permission" to delve into the world of Jewish music even as I built up my coffeehouse-protest-song-folk-ballad repertoire.
In a remembrance of Pete Seeger by Arlo Guthrie this week, Guthrie wrote about one of Seeger's most compelling qualities:
Sitting in the audience at a Pete Seeger concert, I felt that charisma . . . we all wanted to sing with him, to express the emotions and values of those songs with him. There was nothing flashy about Pete Seeger on a stage. He spoke quietly. Told gentle jokes and stories. Dressed simply. I actually remember him wearing that sweater you see in the photograph above. All of that added up to an undeniable, compelling presence that brought out the best in us.
Pete Seeger was not a flower child . . . he was a man of simple tastes and deep convictions who showed us that speaking truth to power with humility and perseverance was the dignified way to protest: the environment, the Vietnam War, prejudice were all causes Seeger stood up for.
I have found no evidence that Pete Seeger was familiar with the theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, but Seeger's response to a question about his own belief and faith links these two great sages:
Seeger speaks of awe, I think . . . .
Pete Seeger was an iconic figure for America: he taught us to embrace our culture and our values and he taught us that our voices are essential, raised in song or prose, to the endeavor of living in a value-inspired society.
The Pew Research Institute conducts invaluable research on many aspects of religion around the world. Their recently published survey of the American Jewish community triggered more than a flurry of reflections, condemnations, soul-searching, re-prioritizing around the American Jewish map of organizations and institutions.
This week, Pew published another study that touches on a subject that troubles me deeply: the dynamic of hostility targeting religion and hostility targeted by religion:
The study examines government restrictions on religion and religious groups and social hostilities involving religion . . . two fields of inquiry that simply should not exist. Title of the rubric under which Pew published the study is "Restrictions on Religion." Appallingly, the title of the published study is "Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High."
The opening words of the study are:
The issues around religious hostilities include government policies restricting religious practice in different ways; the existence of state-sponsored religion and the attitude toward other religions; state funding of religions and religious education. Social hostilities involving religion relate to violence, damage to property or person directed at the adherents of specific faiths, mob violence, violence perpetrated by one religious group against another religious group, and threats of violence and acts of violence to enforce religious norms,
It is inexpressibly tragic that religion is the catalyst for or the target of violence, hostility, hatred. It is a perversion of every true faith to turn the adherents of other faiths into targets of bias and hatred. There are so many factors that go into creating these lethal mixtures of restriction and hostility and faith . . . but they are not theological factors, they are economic and political and ethnic factors. Those who contend that religion divides people, creates barriers between people, take the name of religion in vain . . . and those who use the terminology and institutions of faith to create hatred and bias and violence take the name of religion in vain.
People of faith, people in whom the awe of God instills humility and gratitude and respect for all humanity know better.
This week's Torah reading, Yitro, includes the definitive moment of the revelation at Sinai. There is so much to be learned from this passage, there is an infinite amount of inspiration to be gleaned from this passage . . . and it is so powerful that we rarely look elsewhere in the parashah / Torah reading. So, this year, I direct your attention to a different moment in the parashah, the opening verses . . .
The methodology of naming our parshiot / Torah readings, is a practical one. Instead of serving as a title that summarizes or characterizes the parshah, the name of the parshah is basically a keyword. In a world of text, where so many paragraphs begin "Vaydabeir Adonay" (God spoke), or "Eilah" (these are) or "Vayomer" (He said), there needs to be a way to identify the opening verse of the passage in question, the parashah. Thus, the name of both the book of Exodus and the first parashah of Exodus is "sh'mot", "names." The opening words are "v'eileh sh'mot" . . . the word "sh'mot" is going to be more identifiable than the word "v'eileh" . . . and so the book and the parashah are named "sh'mot." The same is true of this week's parashah, which begins with the words "vyishma yitro" "And Jethro heard..." "Vayishma" is not going to serve as effectively as a keyword as "Yitro", therefore this week's parashah is named Yitro.
But in this case, Yitro is an excellent name for the text to come because it helps flag a passage that is so often dwarfed by the iconic revelatory moment encompassed by the parashah.
The parashah begins with an explanation: apparently, Moshe's father-in-law, Yitro, took his daughter and grandchildren back to Midian as God's campaign to free the Israelites intensified. Yitro hears the news that God has delivered the Israelites from slavery, redeemed them from Egypt and that they are safely encamped beyond the reach of the Egyptian army. So Yitro packs up his daughter and grandsons so they can be reunited with his ostensibly less-burdened son-in-law. The Torah relates:
And he said to Moses, "I, your father-in-law, Jethro, have come to you, and your wife and her two sons with her." And Moses went out to his father-in-law, and he bowed, and he kissed him, and they asked each other how they were, and they came to the tent. (Sh'mot/Exodus 18:6-7, Friedman translation)
So much to note, right here: there is clearly a warm relationship between father-in-law and son-in-law, a relationship of mutual respect and affection. Jethro, we have been reminded a few verses before, was "kohein Midyan", priest of Midian...so both men served as religious leaders and had that common denominator to bind them as well as their familial tie.
There is a parenthetical note to be made about the absence of an account of the reunion between husband and wife, father and children . . . and there are more than one possible ways to understand this. Perhaps for another year's Yitro blog!
In the following verses, Moshe tells his father-in-law about everything that had happened in Egypt: the plagues, the confrontations with Pharoah, God's ultimate redemption of the people. Jethro, priest of Midian, replies:
"Blessed is God, who rescued you from Egypt's hand and from Pharaoh's hand, who rescued the people from under Egypt's hand: now I know that God is bigger than all the gods because of the thing they plotted against them." (18:10-11)
And goes on to make a sacrifice to his son-in-law's God and to break bread with Aaron and the other elders.
The next day, Jethro watches as his son-in-law conducts the daily business of leading the people: from morning to evening, a never-ending line of people are coming to Moses asking for guidance from God and from the newly revealed tradition. Jethro, an older, experienced religious leader, watches this and then challenges his son-in-law: "What's this thing that you're doing for the people? Why are you sitting by yourself, and the entire people is standing up by you from morning until evening?" (18:14)
Moses replies like any other clergy person you'd ask today: it's my job; they need me; I am familiar with the content of God's revelation . . . . Jethro replies: "You'll be worn out, both you and this people who are with you, because the thing is too heavy for you." (18:18) . . . and then goes on to teach the newly minted religious leader how to delegate authority and how to create a system that works for the people, for Moses and for God. And perhaps Moses will have more time for his wife and children this way, too!
Jethro's respect for the God of his son-in-law is deeply moving. He is, after all, entrusting the well-being of his daughter and grandsons to the God of the Israelites who he has never served. Perhaps that is one of the reasons Jethro brings a sacrifice to Adonay after hearing of the love of God for the Israelites and the intelligence and humility of his son-in-law. We should not interpret Jethro's sacrifice as a "conversion" to the faith of the Israelites. Let's be mindful of the cultural assumptions of this time and place where polytheism was a cultural assumption and where "gods" were most often associated with specific geographic territories. Jethro, serving the gods of Midian, would have been impressed by the power of this Canaanite God to manipulate events in Egypt and would be acknowledging, as his words suggest, the unique power of the God of the Israelites. This is a milestone on the road to universal monotheism.
In his turn, Moses, touched by his father-in-law's words and actions, is able to hear the criticism as constructive and wise...rooted in love, respect and experience.
We who are leaders, we who are not leaders, we can all learn from Jethro's compassion, respect and wisdom. More often than not, there are those around ready to help us share the burden. More often than not, there are those around us who love us more than we are aware. It's ok to pick up our heads, look around and learn to share our burdens and our love.
January 8th 1964: President Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed Congress at his first State of the Union address . . . just a few months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In his predecessor's memory, President Johnson pledged to continue JFK's plans and programs, "not because of our sorrow or sympathy, but because they are right."
LBJ was a compelling speaker who described the realities of a United States burdened with 19% poverty:
"Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope -- some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.
This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.
It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. ...
Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them."
January 8th 2014: 100 Rhode Island faith leaders and social justice activists gathered in the rotunda of the State house. The Co-Chair of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty, Maxine Richman, connected our contemporary efforts with those of President Johnson 50 years ago to the day:
"The Food stamp Act, Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, Community Action programs, VISTA and The Job Corps were some of the historic legislation created as a response to the War on Poverty
With these important programs still in place today, our interfaith coalition asks:
How can it be that 50 years later, here in RI, 13.7% of our residents, 19.5% of our children and 9.2% of our seniors live in poverty?
How can it be that nearly 180,00 Rhode Islanders depend upon SNAP or food stamps to supplement their nourishment and that the General Assembly ‘s community grant to The RI Food bank has been reduced by half since 2008 ?
How can it be that 6000 people waited in line, some all through the night, to put their names on a waiting list for affordable housing in East Providence. and that it could take years before they would be called for an apartment?
How can it be that 370 Head Start slots in RI for low income preschoolers were cut due to the sequester, when early childhood education is imperative to help lift these children out of poverty?"
How can it be?
As I read President Johnson's State of the Union Address and I contemplated the questions posed by Maxine Richman on behalf of our Rhode Island Coalition to Reduce Poverty, I was struck by the overlap between President Johnson's agenda and the legislative agenda advanced by our Coalition for the Rhode Island General Assembly's new legislative session:
President Johnson wrote of the pressing need for "better schools, better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities. Our Coalition Legislative Agenda, circulated at the Statehouse this past Wednesday states:
All Rhode Islanders have a warm place to live, food on the table and adequate health care:
Affordable Housing and Just Cause (eviction). (RI Coalition for the Homeless)
State appropriate for the RI Food Bank (RI Community Food Bank)
Affordable health insurance for seniors (Senior Agenda)
If you work you should not be poor:
Increase the minimum wage and the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EPI)
Reform Pay Day lending (Pay Day Lending Coalition)
Allow working parents who can’t afford child care to keep their child care assistance as income rises. Provide child care assistance to parents who want to go to job training. (EPI and RI Kids Count)
Allow parents with limited literacy and/or English language skills who receive RI Works cash assistance to gain the skills they need to be successful in the workforce by lifting the 6 month limit on work-readiness programs targeted to this population. (EPI and RI Kids Count)
Education, healthcare, housing, job training . . . 50 years after President Johnson's declaration of war, these battlegrounds are still hotbeds of contention. 50 years after President Johnson's compassionate acknowledgement of Americans "living on the outskirts of hope" we are still pulling together as faith communities united in the determination to instill hope.
The biblical book of Mishlei/Proverbs teaches: "One who oppresses the poor disdains their Maker;
whoever is gracious to the needy honors God." (Proverbs 14:31)
This is a call to both compassion and action. Perhaps 50 years is not long enough to win such a war . . . but we are not allowed to lose heart, for so many are depending on this war being won. God-willing it won't take yet another 50 years. For the honor of God, for the sake of our own humanity, let us advance on these battlefields, let us urge our legislators to move forward . . . . because it is the right thing to do.
Every time we come to this week's parashah / Torah portion, I wonder again at the phenomenon of miracles . . . . Theologically speaking, a miracle is an act initiated by God that is impossible according to the laws of nature (established by God). That's what makes a miracle miraculous. That's also why the insurance companies term for terrible natural acts like tornadoes and hurricanes is so off-target . . . because these are not deliberate "acts of God", these are not miracles imposed on the world by a vengeful or angry deity . . . but they are phenomenon ruled by the laws of nature established by God.
In the setting of biblical Egypt, though, the "wonders" performed by God . . . and by the Egyptian gods . . . seem to be the stuff of divine "throwdowns." God instructs Aaron to throw down his staff (in last week's Torah reading) and the staff turns to a snake. Not to be outdone, the Pharaoh's wizards also throw down their staffs, which also turn to snakes . . . but in this moment of divine one upmanship, the God of the Israelites prevails by having Aaron's snake devour those of the Egyptian wizards. It's an omen Pharoah will ignore at his peril and the peril of his people until the end of this week's parashah.
No one, though, blinks an eye at the phenomenon of the Israelite God or the Egyptian gods manipulating events and nature at will.
I don't think we'd be so sanguine today.
We do speak of miracles . . . but in general we are expressing appreciation for moments when the laws of nature work particularly beautifully and well: when a healthy baby is born, when someone recovers from a life-threatening illness or injury. It's good that we are appreciative of such blessings. But a personal blessing is not the same as a public miracle. God no longer moves through this world countering the laws of nature.
Although it would be exciting to witness a real contradicting-the-laws-of-nature miracle, I think it would also be terrifying . . . look at the panic that spreads when something happens that is within nature's set repertoire! So now, we need to look more carefully, on the micro-level, for signs of God's hand in the world . . . not the grand stage of miracles, but the quiet phenomenon of blessing: the constant renewal of life and love. It is God, after all, who bestows these blessings on us if we only take the time to see them.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.