Re-Thinking the Wicked Son

The Four Sons

by Richard Gwynallen

The recitation of the Four Questions in song form, traditionally led by the youngest child, is one of the most iconic aspects of the seder and one of the parts of the seder most eagerly awaited by attendees.  Just after the Four Questions comes the discussion of the Four Sons.  

One of the Sons receives a clearly larger portion of commentary, historically and in contemporary practice –  the Wicked Son (also referred to as the Contrary Son or Evil Son, and probably other names). There are many ways offered to understand the Wicked Son, but the generally understanding of the Wicked Son is that he has placed himself outside the community, distancing himself from Jewish traditions, and displaying arrogance.  However, the focus is always on the question posed by the Wicked Son.  The response to the Wicked Son always seemed to me to be worthy of discussion.  It strikes me as more aggressive than necessary:

“ . . . since he excluded himself from the collective, he denied a principle [of the Jewish faith]. And accordingly, you will blunt his teeth and say to him, “‘For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8).” ‘For me’ and not ‘for him.’ If he had been there, he would not have been saved.” Continue reading

All Night Conversations

The Five Rabbis at Bnei Brak

by Richard Gwynallen

It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining in B’nei Brak and were telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt that whole night, until their students came and said to them, “The time of reciting the morning Sh’ma has arrived.”

In my exeriencence, this short section of the Maggid is one that often gets simply read through as part of the seder, or brushed over lightly, or skipped, or adds some levity to the proceedings as people imagine the rabbis having to be told that it’s time for morning prayers.  It’s usually understood to convey that no matter how learned one is, one should tell the story of Exodus, learning new things from each other and dig into the implications of the story.

While this section gets only brief attention at many seders I’ve been at, I like the section a lot.  How often do we as mature adults get to be so wrapped up in large conversations that the entire night passes away?   We did it when we were younger, didn’t we? In college? On weekends with close friends at the end of a work week? Before children? Continue reading

Pesach Reflections: – A Great Act of Liberation

by Rick Gwynallen

I wrote an essay for the first Pesach under COVID-19 called Rising From the Seder Table – A Meditation on Liberation.  In that essay I wrote that the pandemic had put a bright light on the enormous inequities in our health care and economic systems, and that it was a time for action that rose to the level of the challenge. I pondered what will happen  when we as families, as communities, and as a society emerge from the pandemic?  While we all long for the comfort of routines that we have lost, that does not sound like a great act of liberation. Nor is it the scale of response needed to face the scale of our challenges from healthcare to climate change to economic inequity to racial disparities to the oppression of indigenous people. If there is anything to learn from COVID-19 it’s that normal was not that good. So, did we just return to normal or was there an impetus for fundamental change?  Perhaps the jury is still out on that one, but the rest of the thoughts in that 2020 essay still ring true for me.

A phrase has hung on with me through the yeast from the first rabbi I studied with, Rabbi David Zaslow of Havurah Shir Hadash.  He said in a class that the Jewish nation started with a great act of liberation, and the rest of the centuries unfolding was a constant call to us to achieve ever greater heights of liberation. It was an idea that opened doors for me in Judaism.   Continue reading

Pesach Musings: Deepening our Story – Walking with Ghosts

by Richard Gwynallen

Miriam's song of praise (Exodus 15), wood engraving, published 1877

Every year as we bring out the Pesach dishes I am reminded that moments like this underscore the link of generation to generation. Our Pesach dishes were Maraji’s paternal grandmother’s dishes and are, for her, filled with memories. Now these same dishes have become part of our daughter’s memories of Pesach, and are becoming part of our granddaughter’s memories of Pesach. 

We will all sit together and recite the story as we do every year.  We are supposed to understand the story as not just something that happened to our ancestors, but to us – a connection that is not always easy to make in a very deep way.  Nonetheless, this always appealed to me. One of the first meditative approaches I learned was to place myself in a tale, not as a key figure but as a minor one, and be aware of the unfolding of the tale.

Yet, if we are to see ourselves in the story, where is Maraji’s grandmother, or Maraji, or our daughter, or our granddaughter?  Not a single woman is actually named in the traditional Haggadah.  It’s as if in the society described in the Haggadah women do not exist in a role significant enough to be mentioned. Continue reading

Drawing close to G-d – Sacrifices in Torah

By Richard Gwynallen

The issue of sacrifices comes around every year, and just how challenging the subject is becomes evident just in how much we talk

Altar of Burnt Offering (Exodus 29), wood engraving, published 1886

The Altar of Burnt Offering. Wood engraving, published in 1886.

about the same subject every year.

How do we today grapple with the idea that our ancestors regarded animal sacrifice as a high form of worship?  Why would G-d even want such a thing –  the blood, the pain brought upon another creature, the gore involved in slaughter, and the smell of so much slaughter?

You could take Rambam’s position that sacrifices were never an ideal state.  In his position, the sacrifices were intended to allow the people a form of worship with which they were accustomed, and over time the people would grow past this need. (Guide for the Perplexed III:32)  This is an attractive position because it’s grounded in the idea that not everything in the Torah is an ideal. Some things point to an ideal. It makes sense.  People and societies change over time, particularly as economic systems change, and political structures, culture, and other social systems follow suit. 

You could take Ramban’s position.  He argued that Rambam was wrong, and asserted that sacrifices were always intended as a valid form of religious worship regardless of their use in idolatry, and pointed to Vayikra 1:9 where it indicates that the sacrifices are to G-d “ . . . a pleasing odor. . .”

וְקִרְבּ֥וֹ וּכְרָעָ֖יו יִרְחַ֣ץ בַּמָּ֑יִם וְהִקְטִ֨יר הַכֹּהֵ֤ן אֶת־הַכֹּל֙ הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חָה עֹלָ֛ה אִשֵּׁ֥ה רֵֽיחַ־נִיח֖וֹחַ לַֽיהֹוָֽה׃ {ס}    

Its entrails and legs shall be washed with water, and the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to יהוה.

Ramban focuses on the sin offering, the chatat.  In his analysis, the animal to be sacrificed is a surrogate for the penitent whose life is owed to G-d due to the person’s sin.  Through the process of slaughtering the animal, sprinkling its blood, and offering up its innards, the penitent identifies with the animal and is moved toward real teshuvah as G-d accepts the offering of the surrogate.  Great for the penitent. Not so great for the animal. On the other hand, unless you are a vegetarian you eat animals that have been sacrificed to your appetite, just not with religious trappings.

In either case you could still accept the idea of animal sacrifice as part of the past of our people, but certainly not something for today. When we eat meat today that has been slaughtered through an industrial scale process we do not think of the reality of that killing process, even if it is kosher meat.

An alternative is Rav Kook’s position.  In Resisei Or (Fragments of Light), he wrote: “The free movement of the moral impulse to establish justice for animals generally and the claims of their rights from mankind are hidden in a natural psychic sensibility in the deeper layers of the Torah…The hidden yearning to act justly towards animals will emerge at the proper time. What prepares the ground for this state is the commandments, those intended specifically for this area of concern.”

Further, in his prayer book commentary, Olat Hara’yah, Rav Kook stated that in the Messianic era, “the effect of knowledge will spread even to animals…and sacrifices in the Temple will consist of vegetation, and it will be pleasing to God as in days of old…” 

Some people talk about the eventual return of sacrifices, but I suspect that the vast, vast majority of Jews today would find such a thing offensive.

So where does that leave us in trying to understand sacrifices?

Distanced from agriculture

Sacrifice is difficult to understand because we are not as close to agricultural life today as were our ancestors. We benefit from it but are distanced from the realities of country life and how our food gets to us, particularly if we eat meat.  This wall between us and agricultural life is not that old for many of us. My mother told me once that when she was a child and a very young woman she had livestock around her all the time in rural North Carolina, and didn’t think anything about killing and preparing a chicken for dinner, aside from a moment to give thanks for what died to give her food.  But, she said, “I don’t think I could do that anymore.” It took less than a generation to make that shift.  

Jews have been separated from such sacrifices for almost two thousand years.

Though, with effort, one could keep the reality of meat production alive for those who are no longer around it on a regular basis.

I once worked with a fellow whose grandparents emigrated from Ireland and ended up in California where their children were born.  They chose to carry on a tradition intended to reinforce the connection of their children to life and death.  When each child reached 18 years of age, the parents would buy a sheep from a farm and have the child slaughter the sheep, which they would take home and freeze.  My friend and his siblings did the same when they reached 18 years of age. Their parents told them that it’s okay to eat meat as long as you know how it comes to you, in pain and blood, and that you are grateful.  They had several vegetarians in their family.

Societal wealth is calculated differently today

At the time of the sacrifices, the animals brought for sacrifice, as well as the grain, represented wealth.  This was one of the main ways wealth was calculated for much of human history.  The sacrifice of the animal was a material loss for the person offering the sacrifice and for their family.  Today we would achieve the sacrifice of wealth in a different way.

The sacrifices also represented labor

While the sacrifices represented a loss of wealth, they also represented the labor of the people.  Most of us work in some way, but that does not necessarily mean we produce wealth.  Work in the sense of producing wealth with use-value fosters a much different relationship to that wealth. Both the mind and body have been involved in wealth production, and it produces a more intimate relationship with the products of labor.  Today, most people who are involved in the production of wealth that has use-value produce that wealth for others, the owners of the means of production.  

Our ancestors had a connection to the flocks or herds that they tended, to the land itself, and the crops they raised. There was a visceral bond, and the act of offering was a visceral act.  When they made these offerings to G-d, they were literally giving G-d the labor of their hands, and in so doing forging a deep connection to G-d. When I repeat the lines about sacrifices I do so primarily as a reminder of the visceral nature of our ancestor’s sacrifices.

Drawing close to G-d

In a 2014 D’var Torah on Vayikra, Rabbi Dov Linzer, pointed out that despite Ramban’s emphasis on the sin offering, Vayikra opens with “ .  . olah, the burnt offering, which is offered freely, not based on sin . .  The sacrifice will be li’rzono, for his favor. And he shall be makriv, bring his sacrifice close. Indeed, the very word sacrifice, korban, comes from the word karev, which means to bring forward. It is the bringing forward of the animal to God, but also the bringing forward of oneself to God . . .”

Rabbi Linzer emphasizes that the point of the sacrifice was less the offering itself but that it was intended to draw one close to G-d.

How do we create that visceral connection today? Do we accomplish it through our prayers?  Though our prayers are supposed to be the substitute for animal sacrifices, do we really give ourselves over to them so that the experience of prayer is visceral?  I have witnessed prayer in the form of dance and song where the participants certainly gave up their energies to the Divine, but I can’t say that I accomplish that on any regular basis in my davening.  And even when it does happen, it’s not the same as offering up the labor of my hands.  It may be the offering up of myself in an emotional or mental sense, but it is not the same sacrifice of our ancestors.

Offering the labor of our hands

Rev. Marion Bascomb was a Maryland civil rights legend. I had the privilege of hearing him speak at a small community dedication of a park.  He asked the audience: “How well do we spend G-d’s currency?”  He said that we are very careful about how we spend human currency, money, but posed the question: “Are we so careful about how we spend G-d’s currency, time?”

Ultimately, we make sacrifices for that which we love.  We want to draw close to that which we love.  Sacrifices surround us every day.  We make sacrifices for our lovers or spouses, for our children, for our families, and for all those things with which we have a bond of love, a bond we want to deepen. In fact, if you aren’t willing to sacrifice for something or someone, perhaps you do not love it or the person very deeply. Can we feel that love for G-d, for the earth, for a just world, for the future generations from whom we have borrowed this world? Can we dedicate our lives to something greater than ourselves?

If the korbanot were really about drawing us closer to G-d as Rabbi Linzer points out, and it was the closeness that was “ . . . a pleasing odor . . .”, then perhaps we can offer up, as Rabbi Linzer also points out in the same d’var,  our time, by expending our own labor in the service of G-d, that is to say, in the service of creating a world in which G-d can dwell.

Certainly there are the quickest answers – prayer, study, mitzvot – as ways of serving G-d  But perhaps we can find ways to dedicate our labor to God in a way that helps bring into being the world in which G-d may dwell. The question is always how do we focus our labor to accomplish that? There are many possible answers, but in his  1998 article “The Last Stop Sign,” Gary Delgado, at the time the director of the Applied Research Center, called upon community organizers to abandon the “small, winnable issue” approach and tackle larger, systemic, and even controversial issues.  In other words, what is the largest impact you can make?

Whatever decision anyone makes to further this approach, may we find the ways to offer up our lives to make a world in which G-d can dwell, and, In so doing, draw ourselves closer to God, and. hopefully, find that the offering of our labor is received as “ . . . a pleasing odor . . .”

Power & Poverty in the Book of Ruth

Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 2). Chromolithograph, published in 1886.

By Rick Gwynallen

Perhaps my mind is moving to the Book of Ruth even before we reach Purim because our shul is already collecting topics for a Yom Limmud. 

I have always appreciated the Book of Ruth.  While we tend to regard Pesach as the Jewish storytelling festival par excellence, the Book of Ruth, to my mind, has an equally important place in the storytelling tradition.  I once read it described as less theological treatise than a narrative – a compelling story.  I agree, a narrative played out within the social formation of  the time, with a wide range of deeply embedded principles.

As with most stories, there are multiple layers of meaning in the Book of Ruth, multiple lessons to take from it. Certainly, the book teaches us the importance of chesed; that if we want to actually transform peoples’ lives we have to engage in acts of loving kindness, as Boaz did. 

The story has also been used to describe the transformation of the convert and the importance of converts.  Ruth’s pledge to remain with and emulate Naomi is arguably the most well known soliloquy in Jewish texts. Without doubt, a story centered on the experiences, relationships and resilience of women, in a culture where women were marginalized, and whose stories were not fully conveyed to us, stands out.

And, there are other very interesting though less examined ideas in the book.  

One is the role of human labor. The Book of Ruth is set at the time of the festival of the barley harvest , and through the harvest the book emphasizes the connection between God’s blessing and human labor. 

You shall observe the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field. (Shemot 23:16)

Other passages connect human labor to God’s blessings.

Devarim 16:9-12

וְעָשִׂ֜יתָ חַ֤ג שָׁבֻעוֹת֙ לַיהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ מִסַּ֛ת נִדְבַ֥ת יָדְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתֵּ֑ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר יְבָרֶכְךָ֖ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks for your God יהוה, offering your freewill contribution according as your God יהוה has blessed you.

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֞ לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ אַתָּ֨ה וּבִנְךָ֣ וּבִתֶּ֘ךָ֮ וְעַבְדְּךָ֣ וַאֲמָתֶ֒ךָ֒ וְהַלֵּוִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ וְהַגֵּ֛ר וְהַיָּת֥וֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּקִרְבֶּ֑ךָ בַּמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר יִבְחַר֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לְשַׁכֵּ֥ן שְׁמ֖וֹ שָֽׁם׃

You shall rejoice before your God יהוה with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the [family of the] Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where your God יהוה will choose to establish the divine name.

וְזָ֣כַרְתָּ֔ כִּי־עֶ֥בֶד הָיִ֖יתָ בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וְשָׁמַרְתָּ֣ וְעָשִׂ֔יתָ אֶת־הַֽחֻקִּ֖ים הָאֵֽלֶּה׃ {פ}

Bear in mind that you were slaves in Egypt, and take care to obey these laws.

From these passages, we can understand the product of human labor as an extension of God’s work in the world, and that God’s blessing on human labor is bound to God’s command to provide generously for those without the means to provide for themselves.

Another intriguing aspect of the story is the subject of migration by people who saw no other option in face of some disaster.  The story revolves around a famine that drove Elimelech, Naomi, and their family to Moab, and a return migration by Naomi and Ruth after the death of Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, and their sons, Mahlon, and Chilion, and when Naomi learns that the famine had ended.

Ruth 1:1

וַיְהִ֗י בִּימֵי֙ שְׁפֹ֣ט הַשֹּׁפְטִ֔ים וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיֵּ֨לֶךְ אִ֜ישׁ מִבֵּ֧ית לֶ֣חֶם יְהוּדָ֗ה לָגוּר֙ בִּשְׂדֵ֣י מוֹאָ֔ב ה֥וּא וְאִשְׁתּ֖וֹ וּשְׁנֵ֥י בָנָֽיו׃

In the days when the chieftains ruled, there was a famine in the land; and a man of Bethlehem in Judah, with his wife and two sons, went to reside in the country of Moab.

Ruth 1:6

וַתָּ֤קׇם הִיא֙ וְכַלֹּתֶ֔יהָ וַתָּ֖שׇׁב מִשְּׂדֵ֣י מוֹאָ֑ב כִּ֤י שָֽׁמְעָה֙ בִּשְׂדֵ֣ה מוֹאָ֔ב כִּֽי־פָקַ֤ד יְהֹוָה֙ אֶת־עַמּ֔וֹ לָתֵ֥ת לָהֶ֖ם לָֽחֶם׃

She started out with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab; for in the country of Moab she had heard that the LORD had taken note of His people and given them food.

The story does not tell us what caused the famine that drove Elimelech and Naomi from their land.  It could have been drought, disease, soil exhaustion, climate changes, or something else that resulted in a sustained crop failure.  We are also not told what caused the death of Elimelech and the two sons of Elimelech and Naomi.  Poverty and early death have haunted the landless poor across cultures and time. 

Crop failure has driven many a people to abandon their ancestral land.  While such dramatic examples as the Great Famine, or Great Hunger, in 19th century Ireland, or the Dust Bowl of the southern plains in the United States of the 1930s, might be the first things we think of, we see such ecological and economic dislocation today as the impacts of climate change increase.

The Book of Ruth could be a lens to examine whether or not modern farming, business, consumption, and investment systems hurt the landless poor, concentrate wealth, disrupt ecological systems, and endanger habitat; and what a religious response should be to such systems.

Poverty and Class in the Book of Ruth

However, throughout a range of analyses that address the above topics, the view of Boaz is usually similar.  Boaz is described by such terms as attentive, responsive, and generous. He showed concern for the stranger and the widow. He was a responsible relative and member of society using his position in the family,  power, and wealth to help Naomi and Ruth.  I have to admit that I have not hda such a positive view of Boaz

Years ago, the story of Dina made me think that Torah contains negative lessons as well; things we should never do again.  Learning from the errors of the past, as it were. I think that the Book of Ruth exists to expose the ugliness of poverty and the injustice of unequal power relations. In the Book of Ruth, it’s underscored that the poor have to work hard every day just to get enough food to eat that night; that you are vulnerable to abuse as  the workers in the field were.  And, most importantly, that the systems society puts in place to prevent the poor from starving do little more than that. They will not lift you out of poverty. They will not get you ahead. They will just make sure that you have enough food to physically survive and be able to work to make wealth for others.

Boaz seems in the story to be compassionate, and uses his potential as a responsible member of both the family and the society to help Ruth and Naomi.  But it was his choice to do so.  Another in the same situation, or even Boaz in other circumstances, could choose otherwise. 

The story of Ruth could and should serve to make us care about the predicament of anyone in a vulnerable state or a foreign place. However, we cannot forget that Boaz is a native, wealthy, land-owning man while Ruth is a foreign, widowed woman with no rights.

The only way out of poverty in the Book of Ruth is through the noblesse oblige of the wealthy. At Naomi’s urging, Ruth uses what little power she has to do what is necessary in order to ensure their survival, though at possibly great risk to her personal safety.  In the end, except for a happy ending for Ruth and Naomi, the poor are still poor, the rich are still rich, and the system moves on unchanged.

We see stories in the news, or just through community connections, every day that mirror the plight of Ruth and Naomi. And, often we hear a feel-good story of someone with wealth or power helping someone out of poverty; people also being responsible members of society, as was Boaz. Such stories might be beautiful moments, but, like the Book of Ruth, these are not happy stories at their core  because art the very roots of the story is the persistent vulnerability of poverty  And, at the end of the day, the poor are still poor, the rich are still rich, and the system moves on unchanged.

So, what would a radical act of loving kindness that really made a difference to more than one person look like?  We would have to recognize that the systems we have in place to support the poor are not enough to elevate people out of poverty, and that if we want to actually make a difference in someone’s life we have to be willing to place a critical eye upon a system that does not distribute wealth fairly and maintains a huge wealth chasm, and challenge ourselves to struggle for a system that would place human and planetary needs first. Rather than admire Boaz’s benevolent paternalism and look for people to emulate it today, we would strive to create a society that would remove the injustices that leave women like Ruth and Naomi in such desperate circumstances in the first place.  It is the experience not just of Naomi and Ruth, nor of just women, but of the disenfranchised and dispossessed. We would change the intersecting power imbalances oppressing poor and working people and women. That would truly be loving kindness.

Tu B’Shevat Musings

By Richard Gwynallen

Table Rock - Pear Orchard

Tu B’Shevat Musings
Liberating the earth from capital

Kohelet Rabbah: 7:13

רְאֵה אֶת מַעֲשֵׂה הָאֱלֹהִים כִּי מִי יוּכַל לְתַקֵּן אֵת אֲשֶׁר עִוְּתוֹ, בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן, נְטָלוֹ וְהֶחֱזִירוֹ עַל כָּל אִילָנֵי גַּן עֵדֶן, וְאָמַר לוֹ, רְאֵה מַעֲשַׂי כַּמָּה נָאִים וּמְשֻׁבָּחִין הֵן, וְכָל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָאתִי בִּשְׁבִילְךָ בָּרָאתִי, תֵּן דַּעְתְּךָ שֶׁלֹא תְקַלְקֵל וְתַחֲרִיב אֶת עוֹלָמִי, שֶׁאִם קִלְקַלְתָּ אֵין מִי שֶׁיְתַקֵּן אַחֲרֶיךָ, 

When the Holy One blessed be He created Adam the first man, He took him and showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden, and He said to him: ‘See My creations, how beautiful and exemplary they are. Everything I created, I created for you. Make certain that you do not ruin and destroy My world, as if you destroy it, there will be no one to mend it after you . . . “

With Tu B’Shevat approaching, many in the Jewish community turn their thoughts to trees and more broadly to the earth. For myself, I brought a prior passion for the environment and social equality into my Judaism. I entered with a deep feeling that religion and spirituality should connect one to the larger world, and to have something to say about the stewardship of our world. Consequently, I always liked Tu B’Shevat.  I like the D’vrei Torah emphasizing our connection to the natural world. I like the rituals around it. I like the moment we take to remind ourselves of these connections and our responsibilities to protect the earth and pass down a healthy world to our future generations. I like the sense of spirituality drawn from the land. While it is more cleanly stated in Kohelet Rabbah (7:13), I like the fact that we can find those connections in many of our texts.  

There is a lot written on Tu B’Shevat and the New Year of the Trees, and even more on how trees play a central role in many Jewish teachings, including Torah, Talmud, and Jewish mysticism.  Trees stand at the very heart of much Jewish imagery and meditations. I won’t be going into a lot of detail about that. In this discussion I am going to explore ideas around the urgency of what Tu B’Shevat and the values expressed through it could compel us toward.

As to urgency, more than three decades since warnings started about climate change, neither the dire warnings of scientists nor the consequences of extreme weather have fundamentally altered the global response to climate change. The International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental advisory agency, released a roadmap to achieving a net-zero global energy sector by 2050. It calls for  “unparalleled changes across all parts of the energy sector  . . . simultaneously”.  It requires a massive reallocation of resources, directing social resources to meet social needs not private profit.  It requires a rational economic plan coordinated on a global level.

Yet, such reallocation and planning will not come within the existing economic system. This point was underscored in recent weeks when Harvard University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research released the first ever study of oil industry research on climate change, offering one of the clearest pictures to date of the role of capital in creating the climate crisis.

I start from the premise that we must see ourselves as stewards of the world, not just for our immediate well being, but for the sake of our future generations.  We must individually and communally come to see our responsibilities as part of what is commonly expressed in North America as the Seventh Generation Principle; drawing upon the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that the decisions we make today should benefit the people seven generations from today.  In the words of the Seneca and Onondaga leader, Oreon Lyons: ” . . ., when you sit in council for the welfare of the people, you must not think of yourself or of your family, not even of your generation.  . . ., make your decisions on behalf of the seven generations coming, so that they may enjoy what you have today.” 

In recent years, there has been a growing understanding across the branches of Judaism that we can no longer ignore the massive impact that our global society is having on the ecosystems of the earth.  At the same time, the problem is often expressed as “our unbounded use of fossil fuels”, our energy-intensive lifestyles”, “our growing demand for timber and beef”.  

The problem often gets expressed as a consumer problem requiring lifestyle adjustments from everyone. None of us escape our culture. Colonialism, capitalism, consumer society, modernity has affected all of us.  In July 1980 I sat on a South Dakota prairie and heard the Indigenous leader John Trudell give a powerful speech. In part of it, he said, “We must become of a resistance consciousness. We must say that, “We will not allow you to smash us, even if it means that we have to deal with that part of you that you planted in me . . .

But are we equally to blame? Are our lifestyle habits the root of the problem? What is required to ensure life on earth?

In that same speech, Trudell also said: “Only by fulfilling our obligation to the earth can we fulfill our obligation to the people.  Only by understanding our connection to the earth can we create a fair system that’s going to be good to the people.”

In this discussion, I am more interested in these questions, and in thinking about what Tu B’Shevat, and this larger understanding of our role in the universe as stewards, leads us to today.  

Background and Personal Views

Tu B’Shevat seems to reassert itself, to re-flower, if you will, periodically.  We find it in ancient Jewish society.  In Tractate Rosh Hashanah (2a:4; 14b:1)  we see that “the New Year of the Trees” divided the tithing of one year’s crop from the next. But with the expulsion from Israel, the festival went dormant, until the kabbalists of Safed in the late 15th and 16th centuries rediscovered Tu B’Shevat and gave shape to the seders of today.  Later the early Zionist settlers found in Tu B’Shevat a celebration of their reconnection to the land of Israel. Finally, Tu B’Shevat received renewed focus, propelling a growing interest in it up to today, from the intersection of counterculture and revolutionary movements of the 1960s with a growing focus on environmental protection, and growing critiques of Christianity and Judaism for an ideological focus on humanity to the detriment of the natural world.

My earliest murmurings of a spiritual experience of the world came from the hikes and walks of my childhood; long hours, or days, spent in woods or marshes. The totality of what we derive from the wisdom of the trees, and the place of trees in Jewish thought is vast, but, to me, part of that wisdom is that our lives are more than just the days we are living.  It’s intergenerational wisdom. Our life is connected to the lives that came before us, and the generations that will come after us. In that sense, our lives don’t just begin with our birth or end with our death. In this sense, our life is not like a single season, but a larger and more continuous thing. The wisdom of our ancestors goes through many generations. Thus, my life is not just about the days I spend on the earth.  If our lives are interconnected, then we are responsible for the world of our future generations. 

I have always enjoyed a particular midrash that speaks to this interconnectedness of generations. Honi, who had a reputation for being very wise, was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. As wise as he was, Honi was confounded by the man’s actions.  It takes 70 years for a carob tree to bear fruit. So, Honi said, “You’ll never see the fruit of this tree, so why are you going to all  this work?”” The man answered, “The carob trees I am now eating from were planted by my grandfather. Just as these trees were planted for me, I am planting trees for my grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of the trees I plant.”

All life is geared toward producing more life, and that is.the guiding principle of the Tree of Life – the growth of life.  Tree roots draw water from the earth, water that comes from many sources. The tree is connected to the soil and water in a continuous cycle. Groundbreaking research emerged from the University of British Columbia in the late 1990s demonstrating that trees communicate with each other, even across species, and has led to remarkable discoveries about tree life.

In nature there is no waste. When a branch of a tree breaks off or the tree itself falls it decomposes and becomes part of the earth, enriching the soil. Humans are the only species that have the ability, and sometimes the desire, to waste and destroy.  The Creator created all life to bring more life. Trees become a model that even love and energy and goodness can cycle through the generations like the  cycle of trees. And so, Kohelt Rabbah reminds us of our responsibilities.

Yet . . . study, talking, and teaching is not action

As much as I like all these things about Tu B’Shevat, as I’ve mentioned in other essays about the Pesach seder, Sukkot, and other moments in the Jewish year, for me, what’s important is what happens after the words, after the services, after the seders – after we rise from these many worthy and good things. 

The evidence today is beyond doubt that climate change is a significant danger to the entire world, and that human causes are driving it. The problem is that when our occupations are more mental types of work, when we focus on study and talk, we can mistake talk, study, and analysis for action, then go back to our daily lives. But it’s not action, and action is what’s needed now. 

The early 20th century constitutional scholar Jacob tenBroek was fond of saying that “Movements without principles are dangerous things. They shouldn’t exist. But principles without movements are just plain pointless.”

Some might understandably see Dr. tenBroek’s comment as overstated. We certainly need a firm foundation in ideology and principles. Still, Dr. tenBroek reminds us that principles do not make change. Movements make change.

Our times of study and exchange refine our thinking and shape our actions.  It enables us to deepen our understanding of our tradition, and turn a critical lens upon history and our contemporary world.  Without study and collective exchange, we can’t develop a critical analysis, but developing a critical analysis is only part of the journey. We might see, as I do, the moments in our Jewish year, like Tu B’Shevat, as opportunities to remind ourselves of what is most important in our lives individually and communally, and to deepen our thinking around these matters. We are influenced by so many different things in life that such moments can help to cut through some influences.  Decolonization has become a popular term for removing ideological constructs and repairing social damage.  The decolonizing of education, and the decolonizing of the mind have become common phrases.  However, back in 1963, we were told by Frantz Fanon, the author of the classic, The Wretched of the Earth, that decolonizing the mind is just the first step, not the only step. Learning and teaching something new can be so powerful it feels like it’s making change, but it’s not. In their 2012 paper, Decolonization is not a metaphor, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, cautioned against deploying the term ‘decolonization’ as a metaphor that can be applied to social justice projects, for things we want to do to improve our societies and schools, that do not result in changes in land distribution, use, and especially relationships. In the end, action that sets things to rights is what’s important.

The scope of the challenge

So what kind of actions?  If we are individually obligated to be part of the solution to sustaining life, and be part of the solution to a major threat to life in our era – the climate crisis – what actions do we take?  Are we to reduce our carbon footprint through decisions we make regarding purchases and consumption?  Lifestyle changes also have the tendency to make us feel we are taking effective action. But are we? Is it just good but insufficient? There have been tremendous lifestyle changes over the last decades but we still face the worst environmental disaster in modern history.

And who is driving the human caused climate crisis? Are we equally responsible as individuals for the crisis?

In recent weeks, Harvard University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research released the first ever study of oil industry research on climate change, and it offered one of the clearest pictures of the role of capital in creating the climate crisis.  It demonstrated what many have long asserted – that the oil industry was aware of its impacts on the planet and was misleading the public. ” . . . between 1977 and 2003 . . . scientists within Exxon modeled and predicted global warming with . . . skill and accuracy only for the company to then spend the next couple of decades denying that very climate science.” “Exxon scientists . . . predicted that human-caused global warming would first be detectable in the year 2000 . . .”

This was the first study, but not the first indication of what the oil industry knew. In 2021, researchers uncovered speeches from scientists to oil industry executives dated from the 1950’s, which warned of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse effect, and melting polar ice caps.

In their 2010 book “Merchants of Doubt,” Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway exposed campaigns by oil companies to spread disinformation. Then in a 2021 paper, Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran outlined some of the rhetorical strategies oil companies used. For example, in the media, oil companies were able to frame climate change as a “risk” rather than a reality. They also placed special emphasis on consumer “demand” rather than their own supply of products they knew were harming the planet. They framed climate change as “everyone’s responsibility,” rather than those who were actually producing and selling fossil fuels, and they managed to invent the narrative that fossil fuels would be “necessary for the foreseeable future,” while preventing awareness of renewable energy sources, and obstructing legislation that would develop them. 

Yet, this is not the only study showing where the weight of responsibility settles.  An Oxfam study released in July 2022, Carbon Billionaires: The investment emissions of the world’s richest people, “analyzed how 125 of the world’s richest people had invested their money and looked at the carbon emissions of those investments.”  With a collective $2.4 trillion stake in 183 companies. this group :emits “ .  .3 million tonnes a year, more than a million times the average for someone in the bottom 90% of humanity.”

Writing for CNBC, Hannah Ward-Glenton quotes Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive of Oxfam GB: “The role of the super-rich in super-charging climate change is rarely discussed .  .These billionaire investors at the top of the corporate pyramid have huge responsibility for driving climate breakdown.”

Even further back, in the 1990s, the former Oil, Chemic, and Atomic Workers International Union had advanced the Superfund for Workers proposal. The Superfund was a response to the growing concern over the environment, and the efforts by companies to saddle the public and their own workers with the consequences of industry actions. The Superfund asserted that workers in natural resource industries had no vested interest in the damage to the planet, and should not bear the brunt through loss of jobs for industry-caused damage. The Superfund proposed a GI Bill-style system of support for workers that would help them retrain. The movement was founded upon the idea that we are all impacted by environmental damage, but we are not equally responsible, or equally at risk.

The Harvard and Potsdam study followed upon the failure of COP26 and COP27 to enact meaningful, systemic solutions to the climate crisis, and the realization by even supporters of these conferences that the people who got us into this mess cannot and will not be the people who will get us out of it.  

What does this have to do with Tu B’Shevat? 

Perhaps nothing directly.  But I think that the context of our times, and what is required of us today, should be brought into our Tu B’Shevat awareness if the connections we reaffirm at Tu B’Shevat are to have an impact in our world today.  We are long past the time in which an “action item” attached to the end of a seder is sufficient.

In Our History is the Future,  the Indigenous scholar, Nick Estes, asked: “How can settler society, which possesses no fundamental ethical relationship to the land or its original people, imagine a future premised on justice?”

His point is mirrored by Mairi McFadyen, in the article Cainnt nan Eun: Language of the Birds,in which she asserts that without an intimate relationship to the land“ . . . we are sleepwalking into oblivion”.

Estes posed a possible answer to his own question: “Perhaps the answers lie within the kinship relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous and the lands we both inhabit.”

To my mind, Tu B’Shevat crystallizes the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual roots of an ethical relationship to the larger world in the context of the Jewish community.  It allows for a Torah of earth, or place, in a broader sense.  

In our Scottish Gaelic world, dùthchas, as a Gaelic ontology and methodology, stresses the interconnectedness of people, land, culture, and an ecological balance among all entities, human and more than human.  It offers a foundation upon which we foster the kinship relations expressed by Estes.

Does Tu B’Shevat and the concepts surrounding it, offer us as Jews that same foundation upon which to approach building broader kinship relations?  Can we allow it to become the springboard for fundamental change? Tu B’Shevat can call upon us to consider where our society has gone wrong – Deforestation. Land use practices that degrade planetary health. Carbon emissions – and provide a framework for reversing the damage and building a new social order.

I was reminded of another comment by Estes, also in Our History is the Future, “Whereas past revolutionary struggles have strived for the emancipation of labor from capital, we are challenged not just to imagine, but to demand the emancipation of earth from capital.”

So, once we are past studying texts and defining all the reasons we should take action, what is that action? How do we take action? How do we make it more than study and words?

In the last chapter of the Book of Esther we read:

וַיָּ֩שֶׂם֩ הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ (אחשרש) [אֲחַשְׁוֵר֧וֹשׁ] ׀ מַ֛ס עַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְאִיֵּ֥י הַיָּֽם׃

King Ahasuerus imposed tribute on the mainland and the islands.

Every year when I reach that line, I am reminded that despite the victory of the Jews in that instance, and the staving off of destruction, nothing fundamental changed.   Ahasuerus was still king.  As long as Esther and Mordecai remained in the king’s favor, peace might continue for the Jews, but the system was the system as before.

If we are to stave off planetary destruction, we can’t leave the same system in place. If we all fulfilled our obligation to protect life on earth for our future generations by joining mass movements that struggle for governmental and industry reforms on the one hand and fundamental change, systemic change on the other,, we could really bring about lasting change worldwide.

But we need to take action as an obligation.  Every year, our daughter asks us to write letters to our granddaughter that our granddaughter will open when she is 18. So, we are writing to her future self.  In one of those, I wrote: “I hope you will feel our generation did enough to make the world a better place, and that you do not have to struggle with the same injustices which face us today because of our inaction.”

It is indeed hard to commit yourself to such a struggle when you have professional goals to achieve that seem like they will provide more prosperity for your family than such a struggle, when you have travel or other personal goals you want to undertake. Again, it can only happen if it is seen as an obligation, a duty.  In the words of the 20th century poet, Deorsa Mac Iain Deorsa in his poem Dleasnas Nan Airdean / The Duty of the Heights. 

(select passages)

Dheonaich beagan an sàrach
Tric los càch a bhith blasad
Air an t-sonas chaidh bhuinnig

Often a few have assented to trials
So that others should taste
The happiness that was won . . .

A òigridh mo dhùthcha,
An e ciùine nan rèidhlean
Fois is clos nan gleann iosal,
Air an dion o ‘n gharbh shèideadh?
Biodh bhur ceum air a’ mhullach,
Is bhur n-uchd ris na speuran.
Dhuibh srac-ghaoth nam bidean
Mu’n tig sgrios ‘na bheum-slèibh oirinn.

Youth of my country,
is it to be the tranquility of the plains, then,
the peace and slumber of the low valleys,
sheltered from the rough blast?
No, let your step be on the summit,
and your breast exposed to the sky.
For you the tearing wind of the pinnacles,
lest destruction come on us as a landslide.

Reflections on Shmita and COVID

By Richard Gwynallen


Earlier this summer, I participated in a 5-class series on Rav Kook’s thinking on Shmita led by Yedidya Sinclair, who is one translator of Rav Kook’s seminal work Shabbat Haaretz.  There were many interesting questions taken up in the sessions well beyond the usual halachic considerations, such as whether or not Shmita has an application outside Israel. How does Shmita apply if you are not a farmer or working in agriculture in some way?  And, has the COVID lockdown taught us anything about letting the land rest?

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Making Change – The Long Road to a Redeemed World

By Richard Gwynallen


Theories abound on how people make social change.  Frederick Douglass famously said, “If there is no struggle there is no progress .  .  . Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

This year I read an excerpt from a course in which Rabbi Avi Killip prompted people to think about examples of creating change in the Exodus story and she offered two midrashim to get started.  I thought it was a good idea.  In the story of the Exodus we have at least three examples of trying to achieve change.

An individual reaching out to help

וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם.

In addressing what is meant regarding Moses when “ . . . he looked upon their burdens”.  (Exodus 2:11)

 רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בְּנוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי יוֹסֵי הַגְּלִילִי אוֹמֵר רָאָה מַשֹּׂוֹי גָדוֹל עַל קָטָן וּמַשֹּׂוֹי קָטָן עַל גָּדוֹל, וּמַשֹּׂוֹי אִישׁ עַל אִשָּׁה וּמַשֹּׂוֹי אִשָּׁה עַל אִישׁ, וּמַשֹּׂוֹי זָקֵן עַל בָּחוּר וּמַשֹּׂוֹי בָּחוּר עַל זָקֵן. וְהָיָה מַנִּיחַ דְּרָגוֹן שֶׁלּוֹ וְהוֹלֵךְ וּמְיַשֵּׁב לָהֶם סִבְלוֹתֵיהֶם, וְעוֹשֶׂה כְּאִלּוּ מְסַיֵּעַ לְפַרְעֹה.

Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean said: [If] he saw a large burden on a small person and a small burden on a large person, or a man’s burden on a woman and a woman’s burden on a man, or an elderly man’s burden on a young man and a young man’s burden on an elderly man, he would leave aside his rank and go and right their burdens, and act as though he were assisting Pharaoh. The Holy One Blessed is He said: You left aside your business and went to see the sorrow of Israel, and acted toward them as brothers act. [Shemot Rabbah 1:27 – Sefaria translation]

And here we have our first example.  As a prince of Egypt, Moses is a person of privilege and power within an oppressive system. In this instance, he is depicted in the midrash as recognizing the oppressive burden of the Israelites and acting to help. We hear no protest from Moses. He just recognizes the problem and strives to help by relieving another’s immediate burden.  He does so with his privilege and power being a shield against retaliation for his act, and is depicted as framing this help as being to Pharoahs benefit; presumably because it would make the work more effective.

In this example, we see the temporary alleviating of a burden, but no fundamental change to the system, no systemic change. Moses is at the stage of recognizing the problem, but not thinking of any solution other than to help in the immediate situation.

Advocating for reform

In Shemot Rabbah 1:28 we see an interpretation of “And he saw their suffering”. “He [Moses] went and said to Pharaoh, ‘One who has a slave, if he does not rest one day a week, he will die! While your slaves, if you don’t allow them rest one day a week , they will die!’ He [Pharoah] said to them, ‘Go and do for them as you are saying.’ Moses went and established the Sabbath day for them to rest.” (Sefaria translation)

In this case, Moses has grown past simply recognizing a problem. In this case, Moses approaches the one in power and advocates for a reform to the system that will give some relief to the most oppressed in their society.  He contextualizes the change not as a right of the slaves or that their oppressed status is neccessarily wrong, but as benefiting the existing system.  Pharoah responded positively because of Moses’ rank, because of their shared privileged position in society, and because he was convinced that it was to his benefit.  Moses appealed for change on Pharoah’s terms. Two men of power were deciding whether a matter benefited the system or not.  The system remained intact, though mildly more humane for the slaves.

Here, we see an approach to advocating for reform.  The issue Moses raised was not presented as connected to any other issue. It was not presented as a demand. Moses placed himself as a person with power who would negotiate between the oppressed and the Egyptian ruling class. He succeeded in bring some relief the slaves, but Pharoah was still Pharoah, and the slaves were still slaves.


In her 1899 pamphlet, Reform or Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg, argued that while reforms were necessary for the oppressed to build a collective consciousness and have hope, reform would not transform society.

The third example in the Exodus story of a type of change comes when Moses returns with G-d’s instruction to free the enslaved Israelites. This Moses is a very different Moses.  Having had no recourse but to flee the society in which he had grown up, and which he ultimately could not change, Moses had built a different life. That life was interrupted by G-d’s call to return to Egypt.  

This time, before he approaches power he reintroduces himself to Aaron and Miriam, and lives amongst the Israelites. He had not shared their lives, and, as such, was not one of them, but Aaron and Miriam were, and Moses could stake his claim with the Israelites with Aaron and Miriam to convince the masses. Also, he was no longer a person with power, so he rallied some support before going before Pharaoh.

וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹ֑ן וַיַּ֣אַסְפ֔וּ אֶת־כׇּל־זִקְנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

“Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites.” (Exodus 4:29)

This Moses came with a demand.  However, at first, he did not demand full liberation..”

וְאַחַ֗ר בָּ֚אוּ מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאַהֲרֹ֔ן וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כֹּֽה־אָמַ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל שַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־עַמִּ֔י וְיָחֹ֥גּוּ לִ֖י בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃

“Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says יהוה, the God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.’ “ (Exodus 5:1)

Today we might think of this demand as a transitional demand.  That is to say, a demand that will lead to something more extensive.  The idea of an entire enslaved people being allowed to go into the wilderness to celebrate a festival for their God raises questions that Pharoah understood. They would get relief from their burdens, a reattachment to G-od, a collective sense of peoplehood, a taste of freedom.

Pharoah denied the demand and increased the burdens of the Israelites, making their work harder, and thus turning some of them against Moses and Aaron. 

So, G-d and Moses upped the ante.

יהוה spoke to Moses, saying,

“Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.” (Exodus 6:10-11)

Now the demand was to depart Egypt, to be fully liberated from Egypt.  What transpired in the following period was increased pressure and misery on the Egyptians to force Pharoah to relent.  

In all three of our models, the Israelites have been passive.  Whatever change occurs is the work of G-d and Moses with Aaron’s help. Nor does Moses or Aaron try to move the masses into action. Through the fear created amongst Egyptians from the plagues, the Israelites did gain some power, even taunting the Egyptians with the sacrifice of sheep, and gathering the wealth of Egypt before they finally departed. However, these were fairly low-level ways of participating, and, in the case of preparing the paschal sacrifice, driven by self-preservation to avoid the death of first borns.  Even the passive resistance of the women to Pharoah’s edicts did not rise up to the level of an organized drive for freedom.

Ultimately the Egyptian army pursued the Israelites to the sea and perished in the water. Throughout the plagues and the drowning of the Egyptian army, it is G-d assaulting Pharoah and Egypt, not the organized Israelite masses.  Still, liberation was achieved by consistent pressure applied consistently leading not to changes around the edges of the system, but the liberation of the Israelites.

Lessons of Liberation

The Exodus story has inspired many oppressed people.  Harriet Tubman was the “Moses of her people.”  The 18th century Scottish religious poet, Donald Matheson, evoked the Exodus when he called on his people to escape oppression at home for the promised land of Carolina.

My first rabbi, Rav David Zaslow, once said that the birth of the Israelite people as a nation came through a great act of liberation, and the unfolding of the rest of history was a path of continual liberation, the responsibility of each generation to achieve further liberation. What could not be achieved by one generation in their particular historical circumstances can be achieved by a future generation.

The Exodus did not end oppression, even among the Israelites.  It did not overthrow the Egyptian ruling class.  It did not create a society without inequality.  But it set in motion a liberation that would create a conception of life that, if achieved, would result in the perfection of the world.  It demonstrated that just as a life of slavery in Egypt did not have to last forever, so oppression and inequality today do not have to last forever. 

Most of us are not slaves today in the sense of the Exodus.  Most of our causes are not aimed at freeing people from chattel slavery.  However, Frederick Douglass also said that “experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other”.

Oppression and socio-economic inequality is not a forever thing.  But the challenge to perfect the world and end oppression and social inequality is one that we must take up without waiting for miracles. While the Israelites may have been passive participants, we cannot be. Instead of just re-living the Exodus at Pesach, the challenge is to remember that liberation is possible, and apply that possibility for liberation today. The seder allows us to step away from the solid land of everyday life into the river that is flowing toward the ocean.  In Scottish Gaelic, the word deo, refers to a place where a stream falls into the sea, but it also refers to the spark of life and vision.  The seder is a ritual that lets us step into the river and takes us to that place where the river flows into the ocean.  It reminds us of the possible and counters the tendency to accept the status quo. It ties our past to our present and to our future. It’s what we do when we rise from the seder table that matters.

The Kiss

by Richard Gwynallen

Maraji and I have a copy of one of our favorite paintings, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss – an exchange between two people whose hearts are so full of love that the world around them bursts into color. Yet, they are not kissing. It is the moment just before the kiss. 

The lovers are giving themselves over to that moment, their bodies almost bleeding into one another, the moment of merging when both unity and separateness stand equal together – each in their own world – yet sharing their moment, the moment just prior to the kiss, where they are aware of each other’s life force.

Kissing in the rain has come to represent a particularly romantic moment.  Normally people will try to get somewhere dry when it’s pouring, but when you kiss someone you forget how soaked you are getting in the rain.  You are so into that other person that you forget your surroundings.

But we see the idea of kissing even in blissful moments of other experiences. The kiss of the sun is an oft used phrase in poetry.

It seems like the kiss is as close we get to a sense of oneness, like the instant where the human soul comes to feel the embrace of the Divine.  

Recently, I was reading a commentary by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach on Parashat Vayechi that gave me a renewed feeling around the kiss. He wrote that when you love someone you may look at them intensely, appreciating them, wanting to know them, but “When you kiss somebody, you automatically close your eyes. That one split second when your eyes are closed is on the level of Mashiach.” When you kiss you don’t speak, but you are “uttering blessings”, you are wanting to be connected on that very deep level. Even a fleeting kiss can remind you of that connection.