On Being a Member of the Tribe


I spend a great deal of time traveling as a scholar-in-residence, speaking primarily on the topic of sustainability as refracted through the prism of a Torah lifestyle. Venues typically include synagogues, Hillels and Chabad Houses, JCCs and various environmental conferences. Several years ago, I was asked to participate in the Tribal Lands Climate Conference sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation and held that year on the Cocopah Reservation on the outskirts of Yuma, Ariz.

There we were, 155 Native Americans, including tribal elders from a score of tribes and one bearded Orthodox rabbi. One by one the speakers approached the podium each greeting the audience in his or her native tongue. One elder lamented that his people were the People of the Salmon. Now that the Colorado River had been diverted, the salmon were disappearing and “once the salmon disappear, the People of the Salmon disappear.” Similarly, a tribal elder from Alaska added that his people were the People of the Bear. Now that the bears were disappearing, it spelled certain death for the bear people.

When it came my turn to speak, I greeted the crowd with a hearty “shalom aleichem.” I explained that in my world there were no coincidences — that this conference could have been held anywhere in the universe but instead it was being held in Yuma, which in my sacred tongue meant “judgment day.” I pointed out that 364 days a year, my people were people of the moon but on one day a year, Dec. 5 — that very day — we were considered the people of the sun, as we added a prayer for rain, based on a date calculated from the halachic autumnal equinox.

After my presentation, one of the elders presented me with a vial of what he called “living waters” from the pristine Navajo aquifer that his tribe, the Hopi, safeguards. The aquifer is reputed to be one of the purest water sources in the world. I explained that in our culture as well the waters were similarly designated as mayim chayim, “living waters.”

According to Chasidic tradition, the well of Miriam, which sustained the Israelites until her passing, courses through the veins of the earth and ascends every Saturday night through all water sources the world over — even running up and down the maple trees on our farm as sap. I then presented him with a bottle of maple syrup that we produced on our farm in Vermont.

On the flight home from Phoenix, I contemplated why Hashem had sent me to this remote corner of the earth to speak. What was I doing there? Was I sent to “give over” or to receive or perhaps both?

Several months later, I was invited to conduct a “maple tisch” at a Jewish food conference, where the sweetness of Torah, Chasidic stories, niggunim, and maple syrup flowed freely. I was sharing my experiences in Yuma and then touched upon my unsettledness, as of then still unresolved, as to why I had been sent.

I shut my eyes during a soulful melody and began to hear the words of the Native American elders in my head — “When the salmon disappear, the Salmon People disappear.”

Suddenly it became clear why I had been sent. I then told the conference audience: “So too we are the people of the Shabbos — the Shabbos People. When Shabbos disappears, the Shabbos People also disappear. We are the People of Kashrus. If kashrus disappears, then the Kosher People also disappear.”

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