Between Pharaoh’s Army and the Sea, Today

“Normal” Subjugation or the Unknown?

Courtesy of Arthur Waskow. Photo of Rabbis Phyllis O. Berman and Arthur O. Waskow taken at Occupy Sukkot near City Hall, Philadelphia, 2011

The world is in super-crisis, standing where the ancient Israelites stood at the climax of Exodus: Ahead, a stormy Reed Sea, and an Unknown Wilderness. Behind, the hoofbeats of Pharaoh’s horse-chariot Army, offering subjugation and submission as the price of normalcy.

According to creative midrash on the biblical story, it took an adventurous activist, to walk one – two – a dozen — steps into the water, up to his nose, on the verge of drowning, before the rush of waters broke, divided, and a path opened up from what had become a Tight Place to signal that the birthing into Unknown could begin.

There are some prophetic voices today who will take the first steps into the Unknown to grow a new world of love and justice.

Or will the Greed of some and the Fear of others return us to normalcy and subjugation?

The Problem: We face a double existential crisis, intertwined: Earth is under threat of mass extinctions and climate chaos arising from “Corporate Carbon Pharaohs” that bring plagues of fire, flood, famine and disease on large regions and small towns and neighborhoods.

And in the United States and around the world, movements have grown to overthrow democracy, Surrendering to Pharaoh’s army, to corporate overlords who seek to cement their power by subjugating communities by race, immigrant/refugee status, sex, gender, religion, kinds of work, and low income.

A Theory of Change: The dangers that we face are rooted in spiritual failings – Greed for Wealth and Power, plus Fear of the unknown. Faith communities ought to be, and sometimes are, the embodiment of a world where Greed and Fear are minimal, the values of Love and Justice are central. And the Jewish “faith community” is one with a strong bent toward blurring the boundaries between “religion” and a “secular” passion for eco/social justice.

Those values need to be actively carried into the world, not nurtured only at home or in a congregation. When great change has happened in America before, faith communities have gone into the streets and voting booths to make it happen. That is what the Prophetic Voice must inspire.

Some synagogues, like Beyt Tikkun, have made some of the holydays into frameworks for public action to make eco/ social change. A few organizations have mobilized thousands for public action on a single holyday, as Bend the Arc, several years ago, did for Tisha B’Av to challenge US policy on refugees. These ventures, like the Passover Actions of last Pesach, have pointed the way. 

But making the actifests an integral part of the sacred calendar will take a leap of consciousness like the Rabbis’ transmutation of Shavuot from the (biblical) festival of harvesting spring wheat to the anniversary of Torah at Mount Sinai.

Actifests: Activist Festivals to Transform the Future: The Shalom Center will respond to this super-crisis by activating activist festivals—“Actifests.” We will focus on the Jewish festival cycle, while welcoming allies to our public celebrations aimed at transforming the broader society, and will share in theirs when we are welcomed to their own new Actifests: 

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For example:

Passover Seders in the Streets, led this past Pesach by The Shalom Center, Jewish Youth Climate Movement, Dayenu, and Earth Quaker Action Team. Those actions confronted the “pharaohs” who are plaguing Earth by burning fossil fuels, and the banks that keep these pharaohs afloat by lending them money.

Tisha B’Av: Adding to our grief about the ancient Temples our grief about the Destruction of Temple Earth. Escalating the rituals of shiva – sitting on the floor, clothing the Sefer Torah in black – to die-ins marking companies that are scorching, boiling, broiling Earth.

Isaiah’s challenge on Yom Kippur: “The fast God seeks is to Feed the Hungry, Clothe the Naked, House the Homeless, Free Prisoners from their Handcuffs” — not only chanted in congregations but chanted again during the Ten Days of Awe and Tshuvah at Congressional home offices: “End Hunger in America!” “House Every Homeless Person in America!” until the laws are passed and implemented.

Photo of scroll blessing Birhat HaChamah, Blessing of the Sun, on April 8, 1981. Courtesy of Arthur Waskow

“Share Sukkot, Green and Grow the Vote”:

Providing people with simple instructions for gathering at home offices of Senators or Congressmembers or state/local officials, or of national offices or local branches of Chase Banks — shaking the Four Species of branches and fruit in the seven directions of the universe, with suggestions for using North American species if the activists wish.

Add new “Hosha-Na Please Save Us” prayers directed to the Breath of Life,  addressing the need to save us from the poisoning of our neighborhoods and the broiling of our planet. Connect with Get Out The Vote information.

Hanukkah, the festival of energy conservation as in “One day’s oil serves eight days’ needs:” Use it in every synagogue and havurah to organize a solar-energy co-op of the membership or the neighbors. Demand that your Federation lend money to every Jewish institutional building in your town to solarize itself, plus 25 low-income churches and mosques each year.

Tu B’Shvat (or as some call it, Y’H B’Shvat, not fearing to welcome the Breath of Life to the 15th day, the fullness of the moonth): Not only hold a Seder in the evening, but next day visit your Senator to demand a fund of billions to reforest all Earth.

Purim: Street theater aimed at the pompous prigs of anti-feminist modern Ahasuerus, vicious greedy Hamans who poison whole neighborhoods with coal dust and oil fumes, brain-damage whole cities with lead-laden water from their own once-life-giving rivers, broil whole regions in 130 degrees Fahrenheit..

And then we come back and forward to Passover on the Festival spiral. Spiral because we learn each time around, learning from our past experience to rise into another curve. That will be especially true as we integrate the actifests into our lives.

We also look toward strengthening and renewing two festivals that were initiated by women: Tu B’Av (or as some call it Y’H b’Av), the full moon of midsummer Av, when the women of ancient Israel would go out to dance in the fields and choose their partners; and the yearly four-day gathering of women to bewail Bat Yiftach, the Daughter of Jephthah, who had been “sacrificed” by her father to fulfill his vow if he won a war. (See Judges 11:40) Both lend themselves to gatherings of women and people of unconventional gender to affirm and insist on their own moral agency and control over their own bodies.

We choose for The Shalom Center this “actifest” role to move and mobilize those who are fed up with celebrating the past while the present and the future dribble blood. We choose this path like a wise individual species or culture in the eco-system; like a wise piece of the jigsaw puzzle, shaping its own unique shape to fit with others in a Unity of bounty.

We choose this path to bring “spirituality” and “eco/social transformation” into a coherent sacred whole.

 In an old and exhausted “normal,” the festival cycles of the Jewish people celebrated moments from the past, rooted in the earthy dance of Earth, Moon, Sun. Now they need also to tap into a root that calls forth transformation of the eco/social future.

What do we expect to happen from adopting the actifest commitment? We expect a new self-awareness of the American Jewish community, seeing itself in public calling for eco/social change. We see other Americans viewing us with greater understanding and respect, noting our prophetic voice — not only in the percentages reported in exit polls from secret ballots, inside closed curtains of the voting booths — but in the streets where our ceremonies and our politics merge in visibly powerful configurations.

We choose this path because, in the Diaspora, the Festival cycle is the clearest way in which the Godwrestling Folk can make clear our prophetic vision in the seeing of all people. Can choose not bowing low to Pharaoh’s Armies, but to walk through waters of Unknown, into the Wilderness.

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