By Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz
Before my family moved to Baltimore, I spent a great deal of time traveling internationally as a scholar in residence, speaking primarily on the topic of sustainability as refracted through the prism of a Torah-true lifestyle. My venues typically included shuls, Hillel and Chabad houses, JCC’s, Pesach programs and various environmental conferences. This week marks the anniversary of one of my most memorable teaching – and learning – experiences.
Several years ago, I was asked to participate in the Tribal Lands Climate Conference jointly hosted by the Cocopah Nation and the National Wildlife Federation. The conference, which that year was held on the Cocopah reservation on the outskirts of Yuma, AZ, highlighted the debilitating challenges facing the Native American population and their fight for survival in the face of crippling poverty, disease, rampant alcoholism and drug abuse all set against the backdrop of the tragic loss of tribal traditions which for a variety of reasons are not being transmitted to the next generation. I felt simultaneously honored and humbled that I was being asked to present a Torah perspective in an effort to help address their existential threats.
To be sure, despite the serious nature of the conference, there were lighthearted moments. A question on the registration form asked “What is your tribal affiliation?” Naturally, I responded in kind – “10 lost tribes – not sure which one”. Similarly, several of the media figures asked me to pose for photos with several of the tribal elders. One of the elders quipped, “Back in the day, we used to get 50¢ to pose for photos” to which I responded “Surely then a photo of a rabbi out here has to be worth at least a dollar!” He began asking me questions about shrouds and sitting shiva – it turns out he had done a stint with the Chevra Kadisha in California! Truth is often stranger than fiction!
So there we were – 155 Native Americans, including tribal elders from a score of tribes together with members of the AYEA (Alaskan Youth for Environmental Action – sort of an NCSY for Native American youth) and one bearded Orthodox Rabbi. One by one the speakers approached the podium each greeting the audience in their native tongue. Each tribal elder articulated their tribe’s historic but now tenuous relationship to the natural world. One of the elders 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 (who lived more than 200 miles from the nearest road!) added that his people were the People of the Bear. Now that the bear were disappearing, it spelled certain death for the Bear People.
When it came my turn to speak, I greeted the crowd with a “shalom aleichem” to which the attendees joyfully responded “shalom” and “peace”. 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 here in Yuma which in my sacred tongue meant “judgment day”. Further, I pointed out that 364 days a year, my people were people of the moon but on one day a year – December 5 – that very day – we were considered the people of the sun as we shifted the language of our prayers using the autumnal equinox as a baseline.
After my presentation, in a ceremonial gift exchange, one of the tribal elders presented me with a vial of what he called “living waters” from the pristine Navajo aquifer which his tribe (the Hopi) safeguards. The aquifer is reputed to be one of the purest water sources in the world. As the author of an article entitled “Water Conservation and Halacha – An Unorthodox Approach”, the gift was especially meaningful to me. I explained that in our culture as well the waters were similarly designated as “mayim chayim – living waters”. According to chassidic tradition, the well of Miriam – which sustained B’nai Yisrael through the desert until Miriam’s passing -courses through the veins of the earth and ascends every motzaei shabbos through all water sources the world over – even running up and down the maple trees on our farm as sap. I then closed the circle by presenting him with a bottle of maple syrup that we had produced on our farm in Vermont, ostensibly including the waters from his aquifer.
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 both?
Several months later, I was invited to conduct a “maple tisch” at a Jewish food conference where the sweetness of Torah, chassidishe stories, zemiros, niggunim and maple syrup flowed freely. I was sharing my experiences out in Yuma and then touched upon my unsettledness – as of then still unresolved – as to why I had been sent. I began to narrate the famous passage in Rashi’s Torah commentary wherein he describes the ephod worn by the high priest as an apron worn by noblewomen while they ride horseback. I explained the celebrated back story of Rashi seeing a noblewoman riding one day. Characteristically modest, he was bothered by the sight and he wondered why he had had to experience it. It was only years later when he sat down to compose his immortal commentary on the Torah and needed to describe the ephod, that he realized that in retrospect, his seeing the noblewoman afforded him an insight as to what the ephod probably looked like as well as what function it served.
I shut my eyes during a soulful niggun and began to hear the words of the Native American tribal elders in my head – “When the salmon disappear, the Salmon People disappear – when the bear disappear, the People of the Bear also disappear.” Suddenly it became clear why I had been sent. When we concluded singing, I continued to the mostly not yet frum 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 – the Kosher People, if you will. If kashrus disappears, then the Kosher People also disappear. Heads nodded knowingly, smiles all around, glasses raised, throaty “l’chayims” offered and the niggunim continued to echo over the frozen lake into the small hours of the wintry Shabbos night.