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Plagues and heros

We need a hero today, as in the days of Moses. After snowstorm Athena dumped on us a week after Hurricane Sandy, one of my students joked if there are locusts next week, I give up!
But climate change and storms of this magnitude are no joke.

In the saga of Egyptian slavery we read of ancient plagues. These are no ordinary plagues, they are karma. Egypt does not honor laws of kindness and decency, does not choose life. An edict that newborn Hebrew boys shall be slaughtered is supported by arousing anxiety that these boys will grow to be soldiers and defeat Egypt. The midwives and moms know better, they fear God and disobey the man/god Pharaoh. In the first plague, the Nile. that life giving blast of fresh water, turns to blood: it is the blood of the baby boys.  The Hebrews are described as “swarming” and “multiplying”as if they were annoying insects rather than humans, and several plagues involve swarming: lice, locusts and frogs. I love it, nature is called to rebel against the inhumanity. The plague of darkness is described in next week’s reading as a thick darkness. Now if I were describing it, I might say it was so thick I couldn’t see my hand before my face. But this is no ordinary darkness,  rather it’s a blindness/ darkness of spirit, a darkness so thick that a person could not see their brother!  Egypt turned Hebrews into “others” rather than “brothers”.

What does this have to do with snowstorms and hurricanes, you ask? Well the climate is changing due to increases carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, global temperature has already increased. The temperature in the Atlantic that fueled Sandy was 4-5 degrees warmer than normal. It’s hard to wrap our heads around the magnitude of harm we are bringing upon ourselves,  so we don’t try, and we live as though nothing’s wrong. For a brief tutorial on climate change try this Ted lecture

It’s scary. But as in ancient times, we ignore the danger, we grow used to it. Torah says that God “strengthens” Pharaoh’s heart  – the Hebrew y’chazek means to strengthen (not harden) and I believe God is the power which can strengthen our hearts – but that’s not always good! Sometimes we need a more vulnerable heart, which can fear and feel, perhaps that’s the heart of a hero – or some balance of the two. That’s why midwives Shifra and Puah, mom Yoheved, and sister Miriam are heroines, they act with a feeling heart. They are also subversive, defiantly choosing life, so that yet another hero, Moses can live. I met a hero this spring, Reb. Arthur Waskow, founder of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia  He, with his wife R. Phyllis Berman, works to subvert the status quo in support of what is decent and good and right in many ways. Reb. Arthur speaks of the changes happening in society and on this beautiful planet of ours as an “earthquake”. He says there are many ways people respond: by apathy because “there’s nothing I can do”; or by retreating, blindly clinging to ancient ways. Arthur proposes an alternative, to respond, to dance in this earthquake! Reb Arthur told of a Tub’shevat observance several years ago in the remnant of a forest in which  a company had clear cut old growth giant redwood stands. In defiance of local edicts, Arthur and others carried redwood saplings onto the muddy ground of the ruined forest. He danced in the earthquake! I was inspired to write a song, at the suggestion of Cantor Leon Sher, much of which is below. I changed the first verse written here after Sandy.

Dancing in the Earthquake, for Arthur

A perfect super storm bears down on New York City,

Charged up seas stretch out an angry hand.

Hearts will tear as images reveal  homes and lives swept to the raging tide.

Heroes rise; hear our anguished cries,

Kol han’shama t’hallel Yah, all souls with breath shall praise the breath of life,

Praying with our legs* we learn to dance!

Kol han’shama t’hallel Yah, all souls with breath shall praise the breath of life,

Dancing in the earthquake, what will be our dance?

Teeth of metal gash the ancient bark, mighty redwood you will fall.

Trembling earth receives your body’s every branch, broken hearted.

Eytz chayim hee, our Tree of Life!


Eyts chayim hee, we are your letters, each soul bound with ev’ry other ‘neath majestic boughs

Oh, Arthur stands upon scarred ground, cradles a seedling in his hands

Teaching us: this can be our dance!

Kol han’shama t’hallel Yah, all souls with breath shall praise the breath of life,

Praying with our legs* we learn to dance!

Kol han’shama t’hallel Yah, all souls with breath shall praise the breath of life,

Dancing in the earthquake, this will be our dance, this will be our dance!

* Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said this about marching with Dr. Martin Luther King: “I felt as though my legs were praying”


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