Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Tuesday, September 8, 2017 / 17 Elul 5777

As part of our ongoing commitment to being good neighbors, here is a link to the flyer about an interfaith potluck that Neveh Shalom is participating in this Sunday from 3-5. Our friends at the Bilal Mosque and the West Hills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship will be there. I unfortunately have another synagogue commitment. If you’d like to attend, please rsvp here.

Summary: Rabbi Kosak reflects on the connections between this week’s Torah reading and the fires that are consuming our beautiful and rare Columbia River Gorge recreation area.

On Wednesday night, my family was sitting around the dinner table. White ash continued to strike our large picture window, then fell and gathered on the ledge. Turning to my boys, I asked them what they thought ought to be done to the teens who had started the Eagle Creek fire.

Amitai thought that they should be required to plant lots of seeds in the damaged areas. Shayah believed a more severe penalty should be exacted. There are 8760 hours in a year, so he thought the teens should each receive 10,000 hours of community service to be served over five years and be fined $5000. In other words, almost a quarter of their time for the next five years should be dedicated to some sort of reparative action. (Of course, that was after he relinquished his initial claim that they work off a debt of $2,000,000 for the pollution and destruction they caused. His initial impulse is not outlandish.) Laura for her part believes that as part of their penance, they should be required to speak at area middle schools and high schools to talk about what they did with a goal of preventing other teens from making the same mistake.

Vern, my father-in-law, wanted to consider if different responses were appropriate for each teen. After all, early reports state that the fifteen year old boy who was directly responsible for starting this devastating wildfire laughed when he saw how his firecracker set the forest aflame. Vern wondered what would help that child recognize the gravity of his actions. For my part, I found myself connecting the ceremony of first fruits that appears in this week’s parsha, Ki Tavo, to the wanton destruction these boys caused. It’s not an immediate connection, so let’s recap.

The first fruits ceremony was ordained by God to the Jewish people on entering the land. As harvests were gathered, each farmer would bring a tithe of their first yield and would hand these in a basket to the current high priest. On doing so, the person would recite a fixed liturgy. The first part of this recitation states, “I repeat this story today before Adon-ai your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give to us.” The second section is most famous for appearing in the traditional text of the Passover Haggadah:

“My father was an Aramean refugee. He descended to Egypt and lived there among scant numbers–but there he became part of a great and large nation. The Egyptians acted evilly against us and afflicted us and set upon us harsh labor. We cried to Adon-ai, God of our ancestors, and Adon-ai heard our voice and saw our affliction, our burden and our oppression. Adon-ai brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm and with signs and wonders. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And that is why I now bring the first fruits of the earth which you, Adon-ai, gave to me.”

When we recite this passage at Passover, it’s quite clear that we are celebrating and acknowledging God’s presence in history and the redemptive quality of divine power. Yet we do well to remember that the Pesach seder is not the original or intended location of this ritual.

Rather, after we freed slaves entered Canaan and had worked hard tilling the land, we might be expected to enjoy a sense of pride, perhaps even entitlement, at the yield which our efforts had produced. At exactly this moment, we are required to place our individual lives into a larger mosaic in a concrete, ritualistic manner. We are not to take undue credit for our accomplishments, because we are part of a more comprehensive narrative. By acknowledging all that God has given to us, we temper the small narcissism each of us carries. We contribute to the collective good precisely because we are the beneficiaries of a collective good we all too often overlook.

It makes me wonder what would happen to our sense of civics if instead of just paying our taxes on April, we had to take part in a ritual of gratitude. And it makes me wonder what sort of ethics and morality those teenagers might have absorbed and internalized if their entire culture understood how much we all have been given, and what sort of responsibility we have to the larger community, the world, and ultimately to the One who grants each of us the gift of life.

Do I think that such a ceremony would have prevented the fire? It’s hard to say. My next door neighbors and I loved to set off fireworks when we were kids. But somehow we understood the dangers of fire, so we only shot things off over the small lake near our homes. Maybe we were lucky. And perhaps our real fortune was to be surrounded by adults who constantly instilled in us a sense of duty?

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What do you believe would be a suitable response to the teens who started this blaze? What are your goals in this, and what do you hope such a response would accomplish?
  2. What was the most destructive and/or bone-headed action you took during your adolescence? When did you realize how foolish it was? Did that realization impact your future behavior, or did you need to suffer more negative consequences before you changed?
  3. Share a few of your favorite experiences in the Gorge. In this way, you can help preserve some of the natural beauty that was lost.

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.