Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Urban Gardening and Torah: New and Old Ways to Overcome Fear - Rosh Hashanah 5774

I want to tell you an inspiring story about a man named Ron Finley. You probably have not heard of him, but if you have, it is most likely because of the TED Talk that features him telling his story. Ron Finley is a man who is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and tackle one of the biggest problems of modern inner cities - the lack of good, healthful produce. And how has he done this? By turning otherwise unused plots of land into vegetable gardens. That’s right, Ron is an urban gardener. His tagline in the TED Talk is, “If you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta.”

Ron grew up in the infamous South Central Los Angeles, a place that lacks many things. The list of problems facing those who live there might seem insurmountable. Fear permeates every corner of neighborhoods like this: fear of what dangers lurk on the streets; fear of not having enough to eat or not finding a job; fear of the police; fear of all types of individual and societal inadequacies. We often use the word ghetto to describe this environment, although the irony here is that the original ghetto was the Jewish quarter of Venice, Italy; its modern meaning is, as we all know, quite different.

In LA’s ghettos, as anywhere else, there is a fundamental problem that feeds into all others: finding good, healthy food is very hard. Many rely on fast food outlets, which are somehow never in short supply in these neighborhoods, or on bodegas, which provide highly-processed, not-very healthy options. These areas have come to be known as “food deserts.”

I have come to believe, in recent years, that the choices we make about food and drink are among the most important choices that we face. Without the availability of healthy food, parents cannot raise children in a nutritionally-sound manner, cannot raise children who can pay attention in school and learn all the essential lessons of self-respect that are necessary for becoming productive members of society.  

And of course, Judaism teaches us that how we eat is essential to who we are; kashrut, the set of Jewish dietary laws, establishes a framework for holy eating. Our relationship to food is integral to all of the other physical and spiritual aspects of our lives. Why do we make berakhot / blessing before and after we eat? To connect the tangible to the intangible; to elevate ourselves as we perform the most fundamental and mundane act.

Understanding the essential role of food in producing physically and emotionally healthy residents of LA, Ron Finley had an idea. A really great idea.  It occurred to him while driving 45 minutes to get fresh produce, past the dialysis clinics that were “popping up like Starbucks” in his neighborhood, that the lack of healthy vegetables was a major scourge on the community. At the same time, there was plenty of available land - vacant lots, dirt strips along sidewalks and roads, and so forth, an amount equivalent to 20 Central Parks. Ron put his aptitude for gardening to work, and began to plant fruits and vegetables on that otherwise-unused land.

Soon, Ron was coordinating volunteer teams of neighbors to help him. And the yield was growing. People were coming to pick the food and take it home to their families. Ron and his gangsta gardener allies were supplying people with something that they could not get before, and making a tangible difference in people’s lives. He created a non-profit, all-volunteer organization, LA Green Grounds, that plants tomatoes and peppers and squash and kale all over poorer neighborhoods of LA, yielding not only vegetables, but also pride, sustainability, and happier, healthier families. “If children grow kale,” he says, “they eat kale.”

Ron Finley triumphed over fear, hopelessness, and the intransigence of his city and community. He made, and continues to make a difference. He succeeded in repairing the world, in fixing up his very-fractured neighborhood just a little bit. And because of it, he’s a modern day hero.  

Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, the founder of the Bratslaver Hasidic movement, said (quite famously),
כל העולם כלו גשר צר מאוד, והעיקר לא לפחד כלל
Kol haolam kulo gesher tzar me’od; veha’iqar lo lefahed kelal.
The whole world is a very narrow bridge
And the essential principle is not to fear at all.

I love this image (and of course the song that goes with it) - we are all crossing over a tiny, rickety bridge over a vast chasm. This ain’t the Triboro; think wooden slats between pieces of frayed rope spanning two cliffs. We are crossing that narrow bridge. But we cannot allow fear to overtake us. Ron Finley has refused to be kept down by the rampant fears of the ghetto; he overcame fear by taking charge, by finding a solution.

A Hasidic story about fear goes like this:

A young girl from a very poor family was having terrifying dreams. Her parents consulted their rabbi about this problem. He said, “The sages say that we dream at night what we think about during the day [Berakhot 55b]. Ask your daughter what she is afraid of.”

When they asked her, she replied, “I often see how you both sit and worry over the poverty we live in. Of everything, I am most afraid of your fear.” (Schneerson, Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe, p. 138.)

Ladies and gentlemen, the older I get, the more fear I see in this world. We are a society consumed by fear; the question is, how do we respond? How do we overcome fear?

What are you afraid of? Failure, crime, being sued, death, germs, Bisphenol A, what might be in our air or water or food, what our kids might be learning or not learning, losing a job or a loved one or an opportunity, or that next medical checkup?

I must confess that I am as guilty as everybody else: I am afraid of climate change, of the easy availability of guns, of the constant intrusion of various types of electronic gadgets into our everyday lives. I am afraid of what kind of world my kids will inherit. I am afraid of failure - in my work, in my marriage, in my relationship with God.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, quite famously, in his inaugural address in 1932:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
President Roosevelt was speaking to a ruined nation, a country ravaged by the Great Depression, where the unemployment rate was as high as 25% (in our recent recession, unemployment topped out near 10%), where hopelessness and fear kept this country from moving forward for nearly a decade of misery.

Perhaps we fear more today than we ever have; or maybe not. One thing is certain: in every generation, we fear the loss of what we know and have.

We fear change. We fear waking up in a world that is unfamiliar and maybe dangerous, a world in which all those things that we have held dear are no longer important or valued or even present.

In the past year, Judy and I were turned on to Downton Abbey. (Who here has seen it?) For the uninitiated, it is a period drama on PBS from the years after World War I in which an aristocratic English family and their servants watch the world changes and their traditional way of life crumbles. Their fears play out as Lord and Lady Crawley, the Earl and Countess of Grantham, are busy trying to marry off their daughters, who have decidedly modern and independent notions of their own.  

A ways into the third season, I realized that Downton Abbey is effectively Fiddler on the Roof set in England, and with much, much more money.  (And, by the way, it is worth noting that Lady Crawley is, in fact, an American heiress whose maiden name is, get this, Levinson. That’s right, she’s a Member of the Tribe. A Jewess.) I actually made the connection between Downton Abbey and Fiddler a week or so before seeing an article in the Forward that said more or less the same thing.

Fiddler on the Roof (many of us may recall, since the Temple Israel Players mounted it this past spring) is a story about an ordinary Jewish guy living in a Russian shtetl, Tevye the Milkman, trying to find suitable matches for his daughters while eking out a living and avoiding the dangerously anti-Semitic local authorities. Meanwhile, the daughters continually subvert their father’s vision of the world by making their own increasingly-challenging decisions about marriage. And while state-sponsored pogroms rage in Anatevka and communists gather their forces in Moscow for the coming revolution, Tevye mourns for what was and fears for what will be.

I don’t know how or when Downton Abbey will conclude; Lord and Lady Crawley and their servants (who all charmingly refer to each other as Mr. and Mrs., e.g. Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes) seem to be willing to adapt to changing times, but it is not without grief and occasional agony. Of course, Tevye and his family ultimately leave Anatevka. And where did they go? They are us.

Think about that for a moment: the Jewish people have lived in many places over the last 2500 years, and we have managed to take our faith, our culture, our language, and our Torah with us everywhere. Our strong, rich heritage has sustained us as we were welcomed and then exiled from lands that stretch over much of the world. We are still here. And we too are living in changing times, in which what we know and love may soon be lost.

How do Tevye and Lord Crawley manage, as their worlds decay around them? They learn to accept, and they keep moving. They do not succumb to fear.

So here is the question we must ask ourselves on this day of introspection: How do we overcome fear?

And here is the answer: We overcome fear by staying above the fray, by not letting ourselves sink into that swamp. And the way to do that is to work for the benefit of others.

Rabbi Stecker will be speaking here tomorrow about taking a leap of understanding. I’d like to suggest another leap: the leap of action.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the foremost Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, suggests in his monumental work, God in Search of Man, that faith comes through our deeds rather than our beliefs:

“A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought... In carrying out the word of the Torah he is ushered into the presence of spiritual meaning. Through the ecstasy of deeds he learns to be certain of the hereness of God.” (God in Search of Man, p. 283)
The first way to overcome fear is by taking a leap of action. By doing, we infuse our lives with holiness. And in particular, by doing for others in need, we raise ourselves up from the depths of fear and hopelessness. Ron Finley figured that out, and he has raised not only himself up, but a whole bunch of other residents of South Central along with him.

When I was studying to be a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Rabbi Carol Davidson, told my class a truly amazing story. She and her husband befriended a homeless man who was living on the street near their apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He had been in and out of prison, and every time he got out, he returned to the streets and his street pals, where he begged and used drugs and eventually would be sent back to jail. But Rabbi Davidson could also see that this man had potential, and so they embarked on a campaign to get him a job and a life off the streets. They found him an apartment, got him some clothes and basic necessities, and gave him all the support that he needed to get himself on his feet. After a personal investment of thousands of dollars and a good deal of time and energy, this formerly homeless man had a career and a family and was living happily in New Jersey.

Now, I may not advocate this approach for every homeless person you might find; Rabbi and Mr. Davidson took a big risk. But the message is this: We can submit to our fears of social ills, like potentially dangerous people living on the street or on the public dime, or we can reach out and overcome them in appropriate ways.

And, on a larger scale, all of the fears that we identified earlier, all of the little daily challenges that plague our everyday existence, can be surmounted if we engage ourselves in tackling those problems. Concerned about climate change (and you should be)? Try to reduce your energy footprint. Concerned about the safety of your neighborhood? Get to know your neighbors. Concerned about your children’s future? Spend more time talking to them about their own hopes and dreams. Take a leap of action.

But that’s not enough. Reaching out to others is not the only path to conquer fear. Fear is, after all, an internal struggle, a battle with ourselves over control of our own emotions. And Judaism offers ways to address the internal struggle.  The Torah, and Jewish learning in the wider sense, offers us a sort of how-to guide to facing our inner fears.

The first way is tefillah, prayer, one of the primary reasons that we are here today (well, some of us). Curiously enough, there is no accurate Hebrew translation of the English word “prayer,” and there is a good reason for that. “Prayer” is the recitation of words, ostensibly so some higher power can hear them. But that is not what Jews do when they come to a service, or when they recite the words of Jewish liturgy by themselves.

Rather, the Hebrew verb that approximates the meaning of “to pray” is “lehitpallel.” But that word comes from a rather obscure Hebrew root meaning, “to judge.” And it’s a reflexive verb - anybody here who has studied a Romance language should be familiar with reflexive verbs - it reflects back on the speaker. So what Jews do in synagogue three times a day is “lehitpallel” - to judge oneself. When we pray, we are judging ourselves.

Tefillah, self-judgment, is an internal act. Yes, there are words that we say, and we wonder, maybe God hears them and maybe not. But the act of tefillah is about our own internal scales, about examining ourselves, about challenging ourselves to think better, to act better, to do better.

So tefillah, so-called “prayer,” self-judgment, can be one path to overcoming fear.

And here is the other: We read the Torah in its entirety once through every year. (Actually, the rabbis of the Talmud exhort us to read it three times each year, but if we can get through it all once, it’s enough.) Five times throughout the year, we conclude one of the Five Books of Moses. And what do we say immediately after finishing each book? Hazaq, hazaq, venithazzeq. Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened. Hazaq, hazaq, venithazzeq.

That third word, venithazzeq, is yet another reflexive verb! Lehithazzeq, “to strengthen oneself,” suggests that the Torah is the source by which we make ourselves not physically beefier, but spiritually stronger.

Torah (here used in the wider sense, not just the Five Books of Moses, but the collective body of Jewish knowledge) is the source of our strength as Jews - the textual heritage that has sustained us for millennia as we traveled through Baghdad and Rome, Cordoba and Tehran, Warsaw and “Anatevka” and New York and Tel Aviv.

Every time we put the Torah away, we say,  
עֵץ-חַיִּים הִיא, לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ; וְתֹמְכֶיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר
Etz hayyim hi lamahaziqim bah, vetomekheha me’ushar.
It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and all who hold it up are happy (Proverbs 3:18). 
We have overcome the fear of change and the hopelessness caused by exile and dispersion by holding firmly onto that Etz Hayyim, the Tree of Life that is our source of strength. Holding on to the Torah, learning from it, gives us knowledge, pride, comfort, healing, and spiritually erodes our fear.

To recap, here is our battle plan for conquering fear: Through the one-two punch of tefillah and Torah, we continue to wage that internal battle against fear. And by doing for others, by taking that leap of action, we conquer fear externally.

By judging ourselves, by connecting with our intellectual heritage, and by repairing the world, we can face the future and rise above the things that want to drag us down. Tevye did that even as he lost his home and set out for America; Rabbi Davidson repaired her world by following lessons from our tradition. And we can do that too.

Veha’iqar lo lefahed kelal. The most important thing is not to fear at all. Shanah tovah umetuqah, a happy and sweet new year.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Rosh Hashanah 5774, 9/5/2013.)

1 comment:

  1. Health and prosperity for you and your family! Shana Tova!