A branch from my stately beech fell down the other day, a casualty of trimming being done to tame the wild offshoots of a neighboring tree. When I went to haul the branch away, I noticed buds, lots of them, all over.
Somehow, I had reached this stage of life believing that buds come out in spring.
But here I was, in the bitter cold, lugging away a 10’ beech branch which looked ever so ready to burst into bloom. I turned to my apple trees, a half-lawn away, and my cherry trees which overhang my mailbox and discovered that, yup, they too were embroidered with buds all tightly hunched over, secure against the winter wind.
Huh. Why, I wondered, do trees put their buds out before winter, making them vulnerable to the harshness of winter and the hunger of foraging animals? Why use their flagging energy for this exhausting effort? After trying other ways through millions of years of evolution, what advantage do winter buds give them?
Seeking an answer, I did the only thing I could do: I called Charlie.
This is what he said: Trees actually put out two kinds of buds in the fall: branch buds and flower buds. This is why when spring comes, it can come very fast—because the hard work of assembling the materials for growth and the alchemy of mixing them together is done. The growth process becomes more one of elongation and expansion than creation anew. It’s like going to a party, he explains, and finding a balloon to blow up versus going to party, then finding the ingredients to make the balloon, then making the balloon, then blowing up the balloon. Trees can respond to the right springtime growing conditions most efficiently and quickly if the buds are ready to go.
There is a welcome and comforting lesson in this as one gets older. (This time of year seems to shake loose the shadows of mortality and release the pensive musings that accompany them.) We who have been blessed with wonderful years of blooms and blossom, we who still dare to anticipate more seasons of growth, nonetheless can begin to think of that day when we expend our energies more for the sake of the next generation, and less for us.
Winter buds are nature’s version of the Honi tale about the old man who plants a carob tree. The tree takes 70 years to flower, and yet he plants it anyway in his waning years so that his grandchildren will find this gift of fruit ready and waiting when they arrive, just as he found the gift of fruit ready and waiting for him.
When his grandchildren join the party of life, all they will have to do is blow up the balloon. And as they get older, and their fall and winter approach, they too will set the buds for the next generation.
It is the perfect end-of-year lesson, something to carry us through all the falls and springs of our lives: the value of laying down seed for the dreams of tomorrow no matter how tired we may be; believing in the buds that lay dormant throughout a cold, harsh spell whose emergence into blossoms in the returning warmth will bring welcome blessings. Families, organizations, schools, projects, learning, civilization - all of them need nothing less.
If you would like to meet Charlie, learn more about Maryland’s natural heritage, and discover programs and courses you may enjoy, check out the Natural History Society of Maryland.
Have a wonderful Shabbat, and a happy new year.
(Photo: beech buds)
I was talking to a new friend today who - while healthy and strong - is designing ways to close up his affairs so that things are tidy when he goes. Both he and I imagine he has many years left, but tidying up is the sort of thing you want to do when it still feels optional.
The problem, he confessed, is that in planning too much and tying things up too well, he was fearful that he would outlive his dreams. He had run a most successful business but retired from that 20 years ago. His most active days in non-profit organizations are behind him. He founded and runs a foundation, but he is “spending that down,” determined to give all the money away, so that it too will end before he does.
He’s always prided himself on being the sort that manages things well and responsibly. But now, with all his careful planning properly in play, he fears he may have more time than dreams. Then what?
Not that he doesn’t have ideas - he has them aplenty. His mind and desire to help those in need and in pain are as sharp as ever. But how could he begin something he cannot finish?
It was then we spoke a bit about Moses. I had always thought it achingly unfair that Moses would suffer through the lonely pangs of leadership and not realize the fulfillment of his dream; that he would be called to carry the Jewish people 40 long years in the wilderness to the very threshold of the land of Israel yet not be able to enter it. Where is the fairness in that? How is it right that Moses, or we, die before the achievement of our life’s ambitions?
But then, I imagined the opposite. What if we live past our life’s last ambitions? What if we arrive at our destination and feel we are done? Then what?
Which, in other words, is sadder: outliving our dreams or having our dreams outlive us?
The Torah, it seems, has chosen: we should always have dreams that excite us and drive us; we should always have dreams that we may never fulfill.
“It is not ours to complete the task,” our rabbis similarly teach us, “but neither are we free to ignore it.”
The Bekhor Shor, a biblical commentary, reinforces this by teaching that God’s last act of kindness to Moses was taking him up to the mountaintop and giving him a preview of the destiny of his people, what they would encounter, what they would achieve in the years to come, all the way til the end of time.
Do not read “and God showed him the whole land… as far as the Yam Ha-aharon, the Mediterranean Sea, but rather the Yom Ha-aharon, the last of days.”
My friend and I determined it was okay, indeed it was proper, for him to possess the vision, stoke the passion, and lead his people on a journey that he may never finish. Others can carry on after him.
If we are lucky, we will all be so blessed
“In fitting the space around her, a woman does not necessarily fill it the way a solid plugs up a hole. Instead, what happens for her is apt to be a circular stretching, such that she touches all the edges without filling up the center, thus still allowing the interior its essential emptiness.”
This quote is from a book called The Sacred and the Feminine: toward a theology of housework by Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi.
(Okay, I should probably pause here and explain that, no, the title is not a joke, though it comes perilously close to sounding like one. And no, Rabuzzi is not a friend - I don’t even know her; and no, I am not cozying up to her so she will take my cat. I am reading her book as part of the research for my book on home that I am hoping to work on when Avram and I go on sabbatical in January. No doubt there will be much on home, and new discoveries of place written here over the next few months. And rest assured, there is no wood-burning stove in our temporary apartment. No woods, no scavenged logs, no sawing to write about. Lucky you.)
The quote precisely captures the differing, indeed gendered, senses of tzimtzum (personal contraction) I have mused about before.
Tzimtzum, of course, is the kabbalistic term for God’s contraction, withdrawal, from the expanse of the universe to leave room for the creation of matter, the world and us.
Know, that before the emanations were emitted and the creatures were created, a supernal light was extended, filling the entire universe. There was no unoccupied place, that is, empty air or space; rather, all was filled by that extended light…. But then, the Infinite contracted Itself into a central point which is truly in the center of the light, and that light was contracted and withdrew to sides around the central point. Then an empty place remained with air and empty space. The Infinite then extended one straight line from the light, and in the empty space It emanated, created, formed, and made all of the worlds in their entireties (Etz Hayyim, Part 1, Chapter 1).
As I always understood it, the kabbalists imagined God retracting into one very small space, and leaving the whole expanse of the universe empty, ready to be filled with life. The supernal light then surrounded “the Infinite” like shrink-wrap, and shot out, re-entering and forming the world as we know it.
But this always felt a bit severe, lonely, and masculine. It seemed like God was not just retracting but retreating, moving away when moving aside would have been enough.
I thought about this as I imagined all the women who make room in their bodies for the children they bear, moving aside to create that “essential [life-giving] emptiness” that surrounds the child within. I thought about this when I imagined how we hold a newborn, not by pulling back and away but opening up and around, re-arranging our arms to create new, emptied, bounded space in which the child will be coddled, protected and loved; or how parents make room for their children on sofas and chairs, moving their arms and opening laps and creating space that is waiting to be entered.
Why, I thought, couldn’t that be the way God contracted in the story?
This translation gives us an opening to read it that way. Perhaps the sides to which the supernal light “contracted and withdrew” were not those of the Infinite but the outer sides of the universe. Perhaps the Infinite was in the middle and the light occupied the surround, edging the universe, bounding the empty space into which life would now be poured.
Perhaps the classic but harsher emptying-out and moving-over vision of the world’s creation can give way to this opening-up, enlarging self, embracing arms vision of the world’s birth. It makes the world a softer place to be.
(Photo: Me, holding my granddaughter at her baby naming in October, 2010)
”“And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”
The grandeur of the universe stupefies. Indeed, its very existence, its origins and dimensions, are baffling.
How could it have begun, morphing over the course of billions of years into something so grand while emerging from something so null? No stuff, no space, no time, no nothing. And then poof. Or bang. And voila. Shooting stars and tuna melts.
Or perhaps it has been there all along, existing for ever and all time, never a start, not knowing before?
Which makes more sense, a universe that stretches on forever and ever and ever and ever in space as it does in time, or one that starts (magic!) and then stops. Period. The End. Which is easier to grasp: absolute boundedness with nothing, nothing, on the other side (not even a side to consider “other”), or eternity, endlessness upon endlessness? How can we even wrap our minds around such concepts?
Add to that the fact that we are told the universe is mostly dark energy and dark matter; that it curves around on itself so finitude and infinity may eventually meet; that our senses and instruments limit the ways we know things so, like the characters in Flatland (a playful - if gender-biased - sociology of perception in the land of geometry), we can hardly imagine the worlds lying beyond us; and suddenly the next trip to the dentist seems oddly reassuring.
There is a blessing we are asked to say when we see lightning, shooting stars, a particularly spectacular sunset, and breathtaking vistas like the Grand Canyon: Blessed are you Adonai our God ruler of the Universe who continually (re)makes the work of creation… Oseh ma’asei bereishit.
I wonder what the rabbis of old would have said if they knew of miniature radios and microwave ovens, MRI machines, cell phones, fractal geometry and the stuff in the photographs from NASA’s “Image of the Day”. Our days would be spent in one long mantra of praise for the Creator.
Those of us who are easily distracted by the physics of a tube of toothpaste (never mind the crack of spaghetti) might want to consider adding oseh ma’asei bereishit to our daily morning fare, to cover all the miracles we encounter in the awe that accompanies us throughout the day.
We keep the public spaces of our house set at 62-65 degrees - which, despite one’s initial expectations, is surprisingly comfortable. (Although my husband may differ with me here.)
So, on an ordinary winter day, the living areas of our house that face north are a cool but manageable (depending on whom you ask) 62-65 degrees.
My office, on the other, hand faces south, with a bank of windows reaching 12 feet high that lets the sun in all day long. We knew that without the foliage from the giant beech, poplar and hickory trees in front, the winter sun beats in and helps heat my office somewhat.
What we did not know, til we removed the screens (to aid in watching the eclipse!) that the screens kept out so much light. And therefore so much heat. We decided not to replace the screens and see what happened.
This is what I can report. Here I sit, 2:00 p.m., sleeveless, in a room that is 78 degrees, heated passively by the light of the winter sun. As long as the sun is shining, my office is bright and toasty. Come evening, however, since there is almost nothing in my office that is designed to hold in the heat, the room cools down pretty quickly.
Which is why I was particularly interested to learn more about passive house technology.
Developed in Germany, modern passive building technology allows homes, congregations, offices to run with almost no reliance on fossil fuels for heating or cooling*. The siting, orientation, materials, airflow design and insulation all combine to create a healthy, comfortable and energy-lite building.
(* For all those keeping score, this statement does not take into account the fossil fuels needed to manufacture the materials or dig the holes or lay the foundation, etc. But the passive home folk DO account for that, that is, they conduct a comprehensive life-cycle analysis when planning your building so you can know from soup to nuts what your building’s carbon footprint is.)
This is not new. Generations of builders worked with the sun and the earth to build homes that capitalized on the free resources of nature. With the heady advent of cheap energy and the seductive promises of early technology, the era of the man-made trumped the wisdom of nature.
Now, we are returning to those lessons of old, blending the most efficient ways of the natural world with the imagination of human ingenuity. There are exciting times ahead.
I wish I had known that when I was renovating my home.
(Photo: my office bathed in December sunlight)
I started reading a curiously entertaining book called Home: the story of everyone who ever lived in our house by Julie Myerson. I have paused at page 47, the mere beginning of the 451-page book.
The book deserves to be large because, like so many houses, it gives birth to more stories than its space can readily contain. The single-family house that is now the author’s home is 150 years old and, for reasons yet to be revealed, has had an unusually large number of people living there.
In the pages of this book, the reader is treated to the rare, voyeuristic (and in this case, legal) pleasure of peeking both inside a family as it goes about its private life and looking inside the bones of a house as it morphs and molds around its residents.
The surprising success of this book gives me hope that just maybe the 20th century obsession with virgin buildings (an odd Victorian relic in an otherwise hedonistic world) is finally and blessedly giving way to an appreciation of the old. This, despite the fact that the marketplace continues to measure economic vitality by housing starts, even in this environment of bulging house foreclosures and an over-stocked housing market. I wish someone would explain that to me.
Perhaps the American 20th century urge to dismantle or, worse, simply abandon the old and begin anew, to venerate the untouched as opposed to the well-used, to build where no one has ever built before, is abating.
Why, for example, should uncirculated coins be worth more than circulated ones? Why should something pristine and never-used, wrapped and boxed and locked away in a vault somewhere be more valuable than one that survives after having withstood exchanges, drops, moving, loving hands caressing it, flooding, fires, being tossed, lost or otherwise misplaced? Why is disturbing old-growth forests and undeveloped land with impermeable surfaces, strip malls and cul-de-sacs in non-walkable communities preferable to re-inhabiting, renovating and rebuilding neighborly neighborhoods? Gratefully, attitudes are changing and the tide is turning.
More and more municipalities are pursuing smart growth; young adults and retirees both are moving back to the city. Homeowners and developers are building with salvaged materials, re-using planking, tiles, bricks, stone. Sometimes we are even charging premiums prices for that privilege.
While historians will no doubt speak of the first decade of the 21st century as one of ethnic and religious conflagration, and as a reckless, recurring, and astonishing betrayal of fiscal morality and abandonment of concern for public good by Wall Street, hopefully they will also see it as the struggle of individuals – millions of us - to reclaim a sense of the depth of time, the richness of history, the call of tomorrow and the realization that we are just a blip in the endless flow of time and place.
Our legacy, such as it is, will be carried downstream - as a blessing or curse for others. The choice is ours.
It is 2:07 a.m. and something is definitely eating the moon. We can see the slow assault from our living room window, the moon riding high in the sky, methodically being devoured by some nocturnal creature.
Or perhaps we are witness to celestial pentimento, the gods’ regret, the divine painting-over of the moon so it no longer beams itself down upon us, leaving only a delicate smudge stubbornly proclaiming its past glory. (The gods now wondering what to paint next.)
What must the benighted ancients have been thinking as they watched the heavens swallow up their moon?
3:00 a.m. The moon is a dim, red disk, reflecting the sunlight bending and streaming around the edges of the earth. As someone said, it is as if the moon is being bathed in all the earth’s sunrises and all the sunsets all at once. This is pure grist, reflections of love or portents of destruction depending if you are poet or prophet.
3:30 a.m. The mood is totally different. We watch the moon struggle to be free from the overshadowing earth. It now looks like a birth, the pale disk pushing through a translucent, ruddy placenta to once again shine white and full-bodied on the face on the deep.
The eclipse is a slowly unfolding affair.
3:50 a.m. The white edges are reasserting themselves. Before it sets, the moon will fully recover, no worse for the wear, a celebration of persistence, healing and renewal.
Soothing lessons to carry off to bed.
The winter solstice and a lunar eclipse converge tonight in a midnight extravaganza.
(You can learn more about tonight’s eclipse here.)
One of the wonders of lunar eclipses is the color of the moon. It turns coppery-red, reflecting the sunlight filtered through the earth’s shadow. Because of recent volcanic eruptions, the color may be even deeper than usual this year.
The eclipse begins at 1:33 am Tuesday morning. Totality happens at 2:41 am and lasts 72 minutes. The eclipse ends (that is, the moon totally exits the earth’s umbra, the conical core shadow) at 5:01 am.
So settle in for a sweet evening’s nap, rise around midnight, make a thermos of your favorite cocoa or cider, or something harder if you wish, snuggle up with a loved one and spend some time gazing at one of the greatest shows above earth.
The Book of Genesis opens its saga of human settlement by describing the rivers that gave life to our first place:
A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
Likewise, by law Jewish divorce documents, called gittin, must identify the town in which it they are written by naming its closest river or body of water.
I have been thinking that from now on, I, too, as best as I am able, am going to introduce myself not just as someone who lives in Pikesville or Baltimore County, but as someone who lives in the Jones Falls watershed inside the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
That will remind me - and hopefully others - that we all live not just in a city or town nested in a county which is nested in a state, but in a particular watershed nested inside a larger watershed nested inside an even larger watershed.
I know that today, if someone asks me to imagine a map of Baltimore County or of the town I live in, I think of man-made elements: local streets, landmark buildings, major highways and county lines (though, luckily, given our location, much of Baltimore County’s boundaries are formed by our local watercourses).
But I am hoping my relationship to place differs, deepens, if I speak of myself as located not only within a legal, political entity but also within a construct crafted and defined by nature.
Of course it is not either/or. I live within nature and civilization. I am a child of both. But for all my life I have been preferencing the one and ignoring the other. What if I elevated them both to the same level? acknowledged them both equally, to myself and others? What if my watershed became as much a piece of my proclaimed identity as my little, unincorporated township?
Well, we will see.
We are the products of the world around us. Not just our bodies - fed by the nutrients of the soil and particles in the air, and absorbing the chemicals in the water, our bottles, packaging, pots and pans.
It is not just our bodies that are molded by the shape and texture of the world around us but our spirits as well. At first blush it seems a bit odd to imagine that matter can leave a fingerprint on the soul; that the material world can leave an impression on the spirit. But there it is, nonetheless.
The ecologian, Thomas Berry, wrote: “If we lived on the moon, our mind and emotions, our speech, our imagination, our sense of divine would all reflect the desolation of the lunar landscape.”
(And while I strongly agree, I might also counter that if the moonscape were our spiritual landscape, perhaps we would find beauty in the subtle, sandy hues; the sharp textures of light; the brilliant blueness of the earth. And that, then, would shape us. So while Berry’s point is valid, and is the jumping off point of this entry, the affect might be mistaken. The moon might not feel so desolate to a native as we think.)
Our spirit is fired up by the natural beauty around us. The grandest poems in the Bible speak of God being adorned with, served by and literally wrapped up in nature:
“The LORD wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.” Psalm 104
We encounter God through nature. God appeared to Moses in a bush; was present to the Israelites in a cloud; bore the Israelites to freedom on eagle’s wings. God blesses us with abundant rain, fertile land and bountiful harvests. The Bible is steeped in the laws of agriculture, how we must treat the land and what we must do with our harvest. Lessons of gratitude, the nature of ownership, the responsibilities to community, social justice all play out in the context of nature.
In short, the lingua franca spoken between God and the Jews is the language of nature.
But our ancestors were much more fluent in it than we are. That is reason enough for us to return to the soil; to know the qualities of different trees; to grow our vegetables and learn the names of our local farmers; to know the many ways snow falls.
We gain, thereby, a greater sense of place, belonging, connection and awe.
(Photo: a burning bush in my mother’s garden)
Earthshine, the phenomenon of the earth’s light reflecting back to us from the dark patch of the moon, is an overlooked treasure of a powerful symbol.
Some refer to it as “the old moon in the new moon’s arms.” This image is so tender, so raw and unadorned, that I ache when I think of it.
Who, I wonder, is this pair? A child cradling the frail body of an ailing mother? A nymph wrapped around a wise but wizened paramour? A small child riding on his father’s back, arms draped around his father’s shoulders?
But perhaps it is not about age at all. Perhaps it is a wife greeting her husband upon his long-awaited return? Mismatched lovers imagining they are shielded by the night? A toddler stumbling around with an overstuffed teddy bear? A 20-something carrying a well-used chair into her very first apartment?
No matter the image, it conjures up excruciating intimacy, the deep comfort that comes from touching, encircling, embracing or the excitement of life when it is over-sized and new.
It is good we can only see this earthshine every once in a while. I am not sure I could bear the intensity more often than that.
Thursday night my Google Gadget told me the moon was 19% full, in its waxing phase.
As is sometimes the case in these early and late lunar phases, I could see the barely visible presence of the full-bellied moon, the hint that there was more to this celestial being than the curved sliver that catches the eye.
This ghostly glow, I learned, is Earthshine, the “reflected earthlight visible on the moon’s night side.”
(Perhaps even more endearingly, it is also called “The Old Moon in the New Moon’s Arms.” But I will explore that image another time.)
It was a welcome vision at a tender time.
Sometimes almost all of us feel invisible, as if pieces of our talents, our gifts, our wisdom are overlooked. Squandered even. The world is noisy, fast, busy and crowded and becoming more so. Staking a claim takes more work than ever. Ideas, energy, egos abound. It is sometimes hard to know if others see us shine.
Even more, and sadder still, as bits of us seem invisible to others, they threaten to become invisible to us as well. We cease to see all the talents we possess, the contributions we offer, the differences we make in others’ lives.
I think that is one reason why we like It’s a Wonderful Life. This lovable, small-town stalwart somehow loses his way and ceases to see the beauty and value of his life.
On those occasions when one’s own light fails, when the shine is gone and doubt covers the face, light enough can come from another source. Not enough to fully light us up, but just enough to show us that we are still there, that the self and our talents have not disappeared.
That is why I like the moon in earthshine. It reminds us that though others may sometimes be unable to always recognize the good that dwells within us, and though we, in response, may succumb to their judgment of us, darkening and withdrawing parts of ourselves, there are others who believe, others who shine their gaze upon us, others who will light us up even when we feel dark.
It is through their goodness, their trust, that the full outlines of our being are once again lit up. It is they who give us the strength to return to our full brilliance. Because of their faith, our lights glow, the night sky shines again - and we are all the brighter for it.
I am mostly an incrementalist. Which means that I believe that progress can often be gained step by step, brick by brick.
I can be happy with the success of “some” knowing that “all” is often elusive. I can be satisfied with “a little” knowing that “a lot” can be built by an accumulation of “littles”.
So, where others may strain and fuss against the restraints of incrementalism, I can thrive.
Still, even I must admit that sometimes, incrementalism is not enough. In fact, sometimes it is wrong. Sometimes, you have to go all in.
As in so many things, I learned this lesson best from my wood. Or more precisely, from my wood-burning stove.
This is a big stove, something like 18” x 15” x 24”. Being cautious in the amount of fuel I consumed, I began by putting small amounts of wood in the stove. Paper enough to ignite the kindling; kindling enough to ignite the slender logs; and then one or two modest logs to warm the stove, the room and me.
For the longest time I wondered why the stove didn’t work well. Here was a workhorse built of cast-iron, a bulldog of a stove meant to handle a cavernous room. And there I was, sitting not 3 feet away and barely able to feel the heat.
Perhaps, my husband gently opined, you need to fill it up. Perhaps the stove needs to reach a certain peak of temperature before it starts pumping out the volume of heat it needs to conquer the space around it.
Not finding any good reason to refute this, I conceded that that might do the trick.
Whatever the physics, whatever the reason, it did. Half a stove is marginally better than none. But a full stove is ten times better than a half.
So it is in life sometimes. We cannot build a business, a non-profit, a movement with bits of our soul. We cannot move mountains if we start by opting for half. And we cannot compromise fairly if we start from a position of too little.
This is true in our private lives and it is true in national politics.
The challenge, as in so many aspects of our lives, is to know when to do what.
Mr. President, this looks like the time to go all in.
The fires burned, the world responded and then, the rains came.
At last word, the Carmel fire took the lives of 42 Israels and consumed 15,000 acres. It has also caused Israel to reassess its emergency preparedness of natural disasters.
International aid, including 13 firefighting planes and helicopters from the U.S., U.K., Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Turkey, France, Russia, Italy and Jordan, helped contain the fire. (Israel currently has no aerial fire-fighting capacity of its own.)
And on Monday morning, Israel time, the rains came.
It was just about that time, too, that the Jews in the diaspora began to add the prayer for “dew and rain,” tal u’matar, in the daily Amidah.
Now, we all know that correlation does not equal causality. And I am not suggesting that the prayers of world-wide Jewry brought the rains and put out the fires. Indeed, it took the hard, generous and brave work of the international community to do that.
But still there is poetry in the gift of rain at this moment.
May the last nights of Hanukkah bring a new light, a healing light, an or hadash, to all Israel.
Even after 2700 years, his language and message grab us.
(What writer today dares to imagine their works will be read and cherished 2700 years from now!)
Fresh from my meeting of the Sustainable Maryland Certified Social Equity Task Force (see 11/30 blog), I bumped into Isaiah 5:7-9. This is a famous chapter about the vineyard, and these verses in particular speak of social wrongs and excessive consumption, pressing them right up against one another.
“God hoped for justice (mishpat),” Isaiah writes, “but behold, injustice (mispah); equity (tzedakah) but behold iniquity (tza’akah). Woe for those who add house to house and join field to field til there is room for none but you to dwell in the land.”
Now, as my children will be the first to remind me, correlation does not prove causality. And here, they might say, juxtaposition does not prove relation. But the rabbinic rules of reading biblical text are a bit different. Here, being next to a verse often means being related to a verse.
So, it is not inappropriate to argue that in placing these two verses back-to-back, Isaiah was linking land grab (more broadly defined as excessive acquisition) to a slide into social injustice. Or perhaps even more daring, he may be saying that land grab itself is a form of social injustice.
Of course, there is nothing wrong, indeed there is much right, in building houses and transforming fields to farms. These are good and necessary acts of a civilization. The questions are: to what extent? How shall we balance open space with farms, and buildings with open space? How shall the resources of the world be shared? How much is right for any one person own? What are the social consequences - for both the possessor and the community at large - of over-aggregated ownership and bloated consumption?
These are not new problems. They are part and parcel of the human condition. Drawing boundaries between necessary, rightful and generative possession on the one hand and too-much, diminishing and constricting possession on the other is hard. Isaiah reminds us of the treachery of seduction, that we can all-too-easily slip into doing wrong simply by doing too much of what seems right.
Once again, the ethic of sova, the joy of just-enough, seems to be an antidote to this social ill, knowing that it is only there that true satisfaction can be found.
A new initiative designed to assist Maryland’s 157 municipalities in their journeys toward sustainability has recently begun. Coordinated by the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland and called Sustainable Maryland Certified, it is an effort to encourage the growth of livable, lively, thriving cities.
The idea is similar to LEED accreditation: offer a menu of sustainable actions that municipalities can choose from, with each action yielding a certain number of points. The goal is to reach a numerical threshold, reflecting a certain level (bronze or silver as of now) of sustainability.
What makes this program especially exciting is that along with the expected topics of natural resources, agriculture, economic development and the built environment, it includes points for health and social equity.
Seven task forces will be meeting over the course of the next 6-8 months to develop the overall criteria for certification. (I serve on the Social Equity task force.)
Our task, as I see it, is to embed in this program the value that the benefits and burdens of consuming the earth’s resources should be equitably shared among all peoples, across space and time.
How this can be done is the daunting question. It will be instructive to hear the conversations around the creation of the program’s criteria, interesting to see the final menu of options and fascinating to see how the ethics of environmental justice and social equity get woven into the fabric of our sustainability efforts.