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At the Confluence of a New Month and an Old War

At the Confluence of a New Month and an Old War

This piece was written for Glacier Jewish Community ~ my end of week message for the Jewish community I serve in the Flathead Valley of Northwest Montana.

This week we welcome the Hebrew month of Shvat. On the ‘טו, tet-vav (pronounced “tu”), 15th of this month, we celebrate the Jewish new year for the trees. Even in the bitter cold, we celebrate this seasonal shift, when hours of daylight slowly begin to increase and sap begins to flow deep within the bark-dark interior of the trees. We are now on the new year side of the darkest night of 5784. Trees connect us to timelines far longer than our own, and Judaism is an even longer connection to ancestors and experiences that resonate within us.

The cold days of winter are a good time (one of many) to reflect on those who have influenced our own growth  ~ an invitation to check in with those who are our mentors and teachers, whose subtle or not-so-subtle intervention has shaped our branches over the years. In addition, the Jewish new year of the trees is an opportunity to pay attention to our trunks, the core of our bodies, and what flows within us. We strengthen our roots by turning inward to nourish our connections in this world and the world of the ancestors and the future we will not see. And we strengthen our roots as as turn outward to absorb the nutrients that come to us from the planet and the elements and other creatures with whom we share this planetary home.

At the same time that life continues and flows for us, we will mark, on Sunday, yom rishon b’Shabbat (the first day after Shabbat), 100 days of captivity for the hostages and their families who wait, suspended in a horror they could not fathom before October 7th. And the war that ensued from Hamas’ horrific terrorist attack on October 7th, continues with its devastating death toll, displacement of tens of thousands, and horrific conditions for the living. For many I speak with in the land of Israel, it is a daily challenge (even for very tough and resilient people) to “move on” from the barbaric terrorism of murderous rampage, sexual violence, mutilation, and carnage of that dreadful Shabbat. Complicating the trauma is the disconnect between so many Israelis and the governmental forces that advance war and sew discord to shore up their personal and political power.

And out my window this morning, I heard voices, amplified by megaphones, from a nearby protest. (I live only a few blocks from some foreign embassies and residences in DC.) I listened carefully, expecting it to be related to the massive loss of life in Gaza, more calls for attention to be paid to the Palestinian lives … Instead, the chants were about the Amhara people — victims of mass extermination in Ethiopia for more than three decades. I was embarrassed to have to look up the Amhara people, though the name was familiar to me as someone who worked in refugee resettlement, including many Eritrean, Somali, and Ethiopian people in the late 20th and early 21st century. Today’s protest, I learn as I listen, was sparked by the International Criminal Court entertaining South Africa’s calls for Israel to be accused of genocide because of the loss of Palestinian lives in Gaza over the past three months. “You are quick to condemn Israel for the loss of Palestinian lives, but what about the Amhara?” they ask. I have similar questions, but I have not asked them out loud (yet).

In TaNaKh (Torah – Nevi’im/Prophets – Khetuvim/Writings), we read so many stories of war. In history, we read so many stories of war. Why? “When will we ever learn?’ I hear this musical float across my consciousness.  In the scroll that we read during Sukkot ~ Kohelet/Ecclesiastes, we are told: “That which has been is that which shall be; And that which has been done is that which shall be done; And there is nothing new under the sun.” (Kohelet 1:9) The cynic in me goes to this commonly quoted biblical verse. And the eternal optimist in me cannot sit with it for long. The Yisra-El/God-Wrestler within me reminds both the cynic and the optimist that there are so many ways to look at truth in the world and I must rise to the challenge of my inheritance to hold, question, turn, listen, and study the truths of my time.

This week, in a deeply nourishing Jewish Renewal conference (my annual  OHALAH rabbinic conference), one of my brilliant and thoughtful teachers offered a perspective (which I will attribute as soon as I dig it out of my notes) that truly spoke to my neshamah, my soul. She told a midrash/story that we walk backwards in this world. We can always see the past, and the present unfolds beneath our feet. However, the future is always behind us; thus, we are unable to see it.

So although there may be “nothing new under the sun” today; tomorrow is unknown until it happens. Because of our creativity and our creation in the “image of the Divine Infinite,” I am inspired to continue to hold, question, turn, listen, and study the multiplicity of truths, so that I may act, to the best of my ability, to unfold along paths of lovingkindness, justice, and peace.

What will inspire you this week?

Chodesh tov and Shavua tov,
Rabbi Jessica Shimberg

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