Tapestry #5 Shevat: A Month To Care and Repair

ShevatThe second chapter of Genesis begins as the first creation story, depicted on our windows, is completed. God blesses the seventh day and makes it holy.   But, the second creation story is very different from the first as it begins in the fifth verse of Chapter 2.   God creates a spring of water to water the earth and then God creates man from the dust of the earth.   God breathes the breath of life into “adam” and man becomes a living being with a “nefesh”, a soul.   The word for man is “adam” in Hebrew. The word for soil in Chapter 2 from which the man was created is “adamah.”  The earth and the man are one, made from the same dust, and represented by the same word.  From the moment of our creation, we humans have been inextricably linked to the earth, because we are part of the earth; we come from the earth.

God plants a garden in Eden and causes everything man could need for food to be grown there.   In verse ten, it says, “A river issues from Eden to water the garden, and it then divides and becomes four branches.”  The four branches being the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates – the birthplaces of civilization.  Indian and Chinese traditions have similar creation myths.

In verse 15, Genesis says,

 “So the Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to work it and protect it.”  From that moment on, we became responsible for this planet.  We became obligated to protect our earth and its environment.  So the longest words on our tapestry are this quote from Genesis 2:15 which states our responsibility and purpose directly from God.  

The Hebrew words pale in comparison to the magnificence of the images created by our tapestry artists, Bracha and Menachem Lavee of Jerusalem.  How can you possibly focus on the Hebrew words when you are nourishing your soul with the wonder and richness of the greens and the three dimensional blue water of the idyllic stream which carries us away?   But, the words of Torah and the Hebrew phrases ground the tapestry in our B’nai Shalom values. They are the anchors that make the tapestry Jewish and holy.

Etz Chayyim Hi – It is a Tree of Life appears above the grand tree rooted securely in the earth holding the planet earth in her branches, like a mother holds a child.   What is the Tree of Life?   We know from our tradition that the Tree of Life is one of two special trees that were planted in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:9, the other being the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.    Our rabbis teach us that the Tree of Life is the Torah.  The Torah grounds our lives and roots us in our relationship with God and the people of Israel.  The Torah is the giver of life for our tradition and our faith.   And the Tree of Life is our history that is passed from generation to generation.

For us, here at B’nai Shalom, the Tree of Life was the theme for the building of this temple on nine acres of trees.  We embraced Proverbs 3:18 and 17 as they are reversed in our prayerbook, “It is a tree of life to them that hold fast to it (the Torah)… and all its paths are peace.”  So our ark has the words, Etz Chayyim Hi on one side and Shalom on the other, as crafted by our designer Harold Rabinowitz in his exquisite metal work.  And then the magic of our ark unfolds as we open the ark to see the tree guarding our beloved Torah scrolls.   The Tree of Life has always been the symbol of our congregational commitment to always living and teaching Torah in every aspect of temple life.  We are a value driven and centered congregation.   The Torah doesn’t just reside in our sanctuary. It’s message resounds in every classroom, board room and office of God’s house that we call B’nai Shalom      .

Tu B’Shevat is the birthday of the trees, the holiday in the Jewish calendar that celebrates the importance of trees in Judaism.

Talmud Bavli, Taanit 23a

One day, while walking along the road, Honi (also known as Onias) saw a man planting a carob tree and said to him, “Since a carob tree does not bear fruit for seventy years, are you certain of living so long as to eat the fruit of that tree you are planting?

The man replied, “I found the world provided with carob trees because my forefathers planted them for me.  I am planting them now for my sons.”

When I was a little girl, we sold trees in Israel to help reclaim the land from swamps and deserts.  I remember how proud I was to put a sticker of a leaf on my tree each year, knowing that my dime was making Israel green.   There are many jokes of Jews who go to Israel and asks to see their tree, but the reality is that the planting of those trees made lifelong Zionists out of my generation.  And our love for Israel’s trees, translated into our love for all trees.

Jews have always been proponents of environmental protection.   We are the sacred caretakers of our planet.   Tu B’Shevat has become the environmental holiday in our sacred calendar.  Hug a tree today and be grateful that someone cared to plant it for you yesterday.   The Dettelbachs planted a tiny tree outside my office window ten years ago when we moved in.  My desk faces the tree which was once, like most of our kids, shorter than I am.  It has blossomed and grown beyond my wildest dream. I have watched it as it was watered and grew.  We saved so many trees when we built our temple and planted many to blossom for us and those who come after us.

Nestled in this tapestry’s tree is our world.   We are a congregation grounded in the Jewish value of  Tikkun Olam – repairing our world- two other Hebrew words that appear on our tapestry.   The mystical Jewish tradition talks about the vessels of God that shattered, leaving our world broken.   We do not have to look far to see how broken our world is.  An 8 year old shot a 7 year old in day care this week.   There is war and famine and genocide plaguing our planet, and every person with a conscience is heart-broken over it all.   We have neighbors who are hungry down the road in Lorton and Woodbridge, and although we pledge to feed them today, we have not solved the problems that will keep their children hungry tomorrow.   We have human brothers and sisters in Darfur dying from the worst atrocities our world knows .  Why aren’t their daily screams matched with the cries of the leaders of the free world pledging to make their plight a priority.   Who can plead the case of the homeless, the poor, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised if not we, who were slaves in Egypt.   We stand before Pharaoh this week in the Torah asking for our freedom and redemption from oppression.  We must stand before all the Pharaohs pleading for the repair of our broken world.

Two weeks ago, Jason Kleinman, of the Religious Action Center in DC, told us to look upstream to the source of the problems, even as we dive in to save people one at a time. Every time I look at this stream, I hear his voice and see the message of Tikkun Olam in the realms of the global and individual brokenness we can’t ignore exist each and every day.

The genius of this tapestry is the statement that science is an invaluable tool to world repair and environmental protection. The DNA molecule and other molecules depicted in our tapestry remind us of the medical miracles and breakthroughs that we don’t just pray for, but contribute toward with our dollars, our votes, and our advocacy.   We must make resources available to find the cures we so desperately need to heal humanities ravaging diseases.   We have food to feed the hungry, if we find ways to be generous.  And we have the science and technology to heal the sick, if we allocate the resources and fight the crippling religious blindness that is hindering stem cell research, and the politics and profit seeking that is holding up desperately needed funds, grants and approvals for medicines and cures.  God has given, but we hoard.   God has given and we are greedy. God has given and we take and take and break.   Tikkun Olam can come from science, too.   God has given us the intelligence to design solutions, if only we would seize the opportunities.

And the other planets are in the tapestry to remind us that space is another venue for exploration, and worthy of our care.   Cures for disease and answers to energy depletion could be a solar system away.   We are not one planet alone in God’s universe.  Our world rests in God’s loving hands, just as there may be other worlds resting as well.   We are the generation “that seeks out new life and new civilizations” in the interest of making our world and planet a more peaceful, global entity.   Years ago, I was asked to teach tolerance in an elementary school.  I explained to the children that we would stop dividing ourselves by religion or color, nationality or politics when we become earthlings.   Beings from another planet would not see our differences, we would all be humans.  We need to look at one another with the eyes of the universe to heal the brokenness that divides us.  There are those who believe that we will only be one humanity when we stand beside some other life form and make it “the other”.  ( I’d love to host an alien congregation from some far off planet at TBS.   Maybe there are Jews out there! I’d welcome them to oneg! ) We take care of our environment when we recognize that our earth has layers of protection around it that we are destroying.  One in three people “down under” gets skin cancer from the hole above Australia and New Zealand in our atmosphere.   How frightening to know that New Zealand heads the list on nations caring about environmental protection, but can’t protect itself from the damage we have done to our atmosphere.

The colors of the tapestry and lush richness of nature beckon us to protect our environment, our planet given to us by God, and to promise to obey the command to care for and to repair our world.   With the Torah as our guide and our command, we come into our sanctuary this Shabbat to rekindle our commitment to Tikkun Olam.  In two weeks, when we celebrate Tu B’Shevat let us all promise that we will have done one thing to take the values of this tapestry and make them come alive in our world.

“So the Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to work it and protect it.”  This isn’t Eden, but we have our work cut out for us.   May we be shomrim, caretakers for God.   May we care and repair with all of our hearts, all of our souls and all of our might, with every drop of earth and water in our being.  Shabbat Shalom.