Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Torah of Pete Seeger

With the death of Pete Seeger earlier this week, I’ve been reading a lot about his music, his practices, and his commitment to justice/tzedek and repair of the world/tikkun olam.  I’d like to share the Torah/teachings of Pete Seeger, as I understand them.

I.   Say what you believe, regardless of the consequences.  During the “Red Scare” of the 1950’s, Pete was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and  refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights: "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” (Wikipedia).  He was indicted and later convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to “name names.” The conviction was ultimately overturned, so he didn’t have to serve any of the 10 years he was sentenced to.  In the meantime, his mobility was restricted, and he was blacklisted from appearing on television until the mid-60’s.  He was willing to pay the price for adhering to his First Amendment rights.

II.  It’s not enough to “talk the talk,” we must be willing to “walk the walk.”  There was a solid consistency between the words that Pete sang, and the activism he engaged in.  Starting with his involvement in the labor movement of the 30’s and 40’s, through his protests against nuclear proliferation (1950’s), and his work on behalf of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, Pete’s presence and his music spoke loudly on the behalf of the disenfranchised.  In the mid-1960’s, he began his work on environmental education and action, which continued up until the time of his death.  He was also heavily involved in the Jewish camping movement – specifically with the Surprise Lake Camp in New York.  The Camp’s mission statement says they "provide a high quality Jewish camping experience where children and young adults will be safe, have fun, and grow as they engage in programs and activities that enable them to learn values and skills that will help them lead fulfilling lives and be assets to their communities." [emphasis added]

III.  When one problem is “solved,” move on to the next.  We have not yet reached the point where we’ve brought repair to the entire world (tikkun olam).  By his words and actions, Pete exemplified the following quote from Pirke Avot (The Wisdom of the Fathers): "We are not obligated to complete the task, neither are we free to desist from it." (Pirke Avot, 2:16).  Or, put another way – in the language of the 1970’s – “We have to keep on keeping on.”

IV. We must use our gifts to try to bring repair to the world.  Pete dreamed of being a journalist and took courses in journalism and art, taught music, worked as a puppeteer, and an archivist for the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folksong.  But it was his gift as a singer/performer and a song writer that changed the landscape of social justice.  “We Shall Overcome” has been the anthem of every group of people protesting for equality for over 50 years.  From “The Talking Union Blues” (early 1940’s) through his performance at Farm Aid in September 2013, Pete used his music and influence to bring attention to the issues of our times.

V.  To bring repair/tikkun, you must collaborate with others.   And Pete showed by example how critical this collaboration is.  Some of the finest songs he sang were in conjunction with other noted  musicians – the Weavers, Peter Paul and Mary, Woody Guthrie and – later  – Arlo Guthrie.  From the Musar Movement, we learn that one should occupy “no more than my place, no less than my space.” Pete wasn’t afraid to lead… but he also was willing to share the responsibility for leadership. Which leads to the next bit of teaching…

VI. Involve those who look to you for leadership. A Pete Seeger concert wasn’t a Pete Seeger concert, unless the audience sang along at full voice.  We weren’t passive observers, but active participants in this experience.

VII.  If they don’t know the words, coach them!  Pete never assumed people knew the lyrics to his songs.  As he encouraged us to sing along, he reminded us of the lyrics for the next time.  Let’s not be afraid to “coach” each other in this job of working for tzedek/justice.

VIII.  We’re never “too old” to be involved in the work of bringing justice to our world.  As late as 2013, at the age of 93, Pete was performing on behalf of Farm Aid.

IX.  Values are timeless.  The values Pete espoused through his music and the words of his songs are truly timeless – and resonate through the ages. As our words and actions should be.  

X.  In the tradition of prophetic Judaism, we are obligated to speak up when we see wrongs around us.  If we don’t, by our silence, we allow them to perpetuate.  His legacy will live in the words we sing and the actions we complete. As one Facebook poster wrote, “And thank you for showing us that we ALL have a hammer, a bell, and a song to sing... 

In Pirke Avot 4:13, we read that Rabbi Shimon said: “There are three crowns--the crown of the Torah [learning], the crown of the priesthood [service to God], and the crown of royalty [leadership].  But,” said Rabbi Shimon, “the crown of a shem tov/good name surpasses them all.”

Pete Seeger, of blessed memory, wore the crown of a shem tov.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Religion of TIme

Parshat Bo is a familiar one to many of us – it contains a recounting of the last three plagues before Pharaoh finally tells the Israelites to leave Egypt immediately.  But there’s an interesting insertion between the ninth and tenth plagues. 

We read: “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (12:1-2). And then, even before the Israelites leave Egypt, the mitzvot associated with the observance of Passover are given. The narrative of the Exodus resumes at 12:21, with Moses instructing them how to prepare for the final plague: the death of the first-born of all Egyptian families.

Upon rereading these verses (12:1-20), several questions came to mind:  Why is the first mitzvah/commandment given the one that deals with the calendar and marking time? Why is this considered the “first month of the year for you” – what about Rosh Hashanah? Why are the mitzvot/commandments about how to observe Passover given before the event occurs?

On the surface, the response to the first question is very pragmatic:  in order to celebrate the exodus on the fifteenth of the month, one needs to know when the month begins.  But perhaps the establishment of a unique calendar including human responsibility for keeping time (declaring the new month after witnesses testify their viewing the moon at the Sanhedrin) is less a technical command and more a spiritual gift.

Rabbi Ari Kahn from Aish added another dimension to the discussion by saying, “Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, z’l, explained why this commandment was given here, and now. The Jews in Egypt were slaves, and therefore lacked a sense of time. They needed to acquire a sense of time in order to be truly liberated, transformed from objects to independent people.”

It is our ability to delineate time which gives us both the freedom AND the responsibility to carve out meaningful lives for ourselves.  

All joking about “Jewish time” aside, Jewish time is an interesting phenomenon: it’s both fixed and flexible.  It’s fixed in that it’s based on the cycles of the moon – the waxing and waning that occurs every month on a predictable pattern.  We know when Sukkot, Purim and Pesach are approaching, by the moon’s increasing fullnessWe know when Rosh Hashanah, a new year, is here – just as we see the new moon.  Chanukah’s end is announced by the sighting of the new moon, as well (plus one!).

It’s flexible in that the days begin and end at different times, depending on the season and the latitude at which one lives. And we must acknowledge that it’s just plain confusing to have our days begin at sundown the night before- confusing only because we spend much of our lives removed from the natural world in which we live.  Our lunar calendar also needs to be flexible so that our cherished marking of the harvest festivals, dependent on the solar cycle, will fall on the appropriate seasons. And so we get that quaint phenomenon of needing to ask if Passover is "early or late" each year.

Why is this considered the “first month of the year for you”? Our tradition lists four different “new years” – that of the civil year, the religious year, the beginning of the tax (tithing) year, and that of the trees.  A number of commentators make the distinction between Rosh Hashanah as the celebration of creation, which applies to all; while Passover is the celebration of OUR liberation (think of the difference between January 1st and July 4th for Americans).

Finally, why are such detailed instructions given for observing an event which hasn’t even occurred yet? A number of commentators make the point that the Israelites don’t automatically become a free people when they leave the land of Egypt.

Rabbi Lucy F.H. Dinner, in the Women’s Torah Commentary, reminds us that “To be truly free, individuals need faith in their identity as a free people and in their own unquestioned autonomy.  As much as liberation is about release from forced servitude, it is also about the psychological and spiritual strength required to act according to one’s own will.” Liberation then requires individuals to “act as if” they are liberated – even if they don’t quite feel it.

The great modern philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us that Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time.  It may be a fair contrast to note that the Egyptian civilization enslaved people to build storehouses, royal cities, and perhaps some pyramids.  It was a kingdom of sacred places.  The new Israelite nation had to escape the boundaries of space created by human technology and architecture, and learn to use what Heschel called "the architecture of time" in which to build lasting "palaces in time" like Shabbat and the festivals.

We send our children off to conquer the world with a list of instructions and reminders about those events and activities which are important to us and, hopefully in time, to them as well. We adults who manage home and office schedules, the balance between work and rest, know how critical time management is to our success.  And we can see how time challenged people find it difficult to prepare for, and celebrate with calm and joy, holiday and life cycle events. So we can surely appreciate the tradition that notes that the Israelites leave Egypt with a prescription for how to cope with time for physical and spiritual success in whatever circumstances they find themselves.  It is a gift worthy of study and transmission to our children and grandchildren.

Published by the Washington Jewish Week, January 2, 2014