Eicha for the Oil Spill: A Tisha B'Av for the Earth

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June 14, 2010

“It’s an infusion of oil and gas unlike anything else that has ever been seen anywhere, certainly in human history,” said Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia, the expedition leader.” (NY Times June 9, 2010.)

Michael Jankovitz

What can we do to prevent the disaster in the Gulf from ever being repeated—from becoming a model of disaster for all Earth?

Hearing about this spill day after day, my heart is drawn to Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the midsummer month of Av when we mourn the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. On that day, Jews have traditionally chanted in a special mournful melody the Book of Lamentations — in Hebrew named Eicha, loneliness:

“How lonely
sits the city,
once full of life,
now desolate!”

I want to suggest drawing on ancient midrash and our own good sense to see Tisha B’Av this summer as a framework for grief, vision, and especially for action on behalf of the sacred Temple of our day — the great round Earth.

The First Eicha

Ancient rabbinic midrash asks, “When was the first Eicha ?” and answers – Ayyeka, “Where are you?” – the question God put to the human beings after they ate of the tree in the Garden of Eden, Delight. (In Hebrew the two words have the same consonants; only the vowels are different.) The first exile is the exile of adam, humankind, from adamah, the earth.

And what has occasioned this exile? Why does God cry out “Ayyeka” and then lament as God later lamented when the Temple was destroyed?

Think back on the teaching of Eden: God says to the human race: “Here there is overflowing abundance. Eat of it in joy!–But you must also learn self-restraint. Do not gobble up all this abundance. The fruit of one tree you must not eat.”

But the first people do not restrain their appetites. They do eat everything in sight, including the forbidden fruit, and their eating ruins the abundance. So they must work with the sweat pouring down their faces just to wring from the earth enough to eat, for it will give forth thorns and thistles.

The ancient midrash roots the destruction of the Temple in the destruction of the Garden, in the ruining of Earth itself.

Temple Earth

Moreover, the Temple is known as the microcosm of Creation. To quote from one Hassidic interpretation:

“The rites performed within [the Temple] are both symbolic of and actualizations of the wider divine service that [hu]mankind performs in the world at large.

“To wit: Salt is a mineral, and through it the mineral kingdom was rectified. The wine and the oil [offered with the sacrifices] rectified the vegetable kingdom. The animals rectified the animal kingdom. The confession the animal’s owner recited over the animal corresponds to the articulate kingdom [i.e., humankind]. The intention of the priest while he was offering the sacrifice corresponds to the soul within [humanity]. Through these five aspects of the sacrifice, the four ‘kingdoms’ are elevated.”

So not only is the Exile from Eden the prototype of Tisha B’Av, but the Holy Temple itself is but a microcosm of the earthy creation, intended to heal spiritual brokenness in the earth.

Shekhinah Herself — the Divine Indwelling Presence embodied in the world, usually seen in the Jewish mystical tradition as the Feminine aspect of God– is embodied and symbolized in Earth.

In our generation when the web of life on Earth is in danger of destruction; when Her vitals in the depths of Ocean have been raped to gouge out and gobble up every last gallon of oil, and Her guts are pouring out to wreak destruction; when Her sacred nourishing mountaintops of West Virginia have been pillaged to dig out every last lump of coal, Her shriek of pain calls on us to make clear and explicit a “new” aspect of Tisha B’Av:

We must grieve the destruction we ourselves have wrought –”For our sins is this Holy Temple shattered.”

Hope in Lament

Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning. Yet, the ancient rabbis tell us that it is on this day of grief that we are are able to welcome the first stirrings of the birthing of Messiah. The Rabbis’ envisioned that on this day of disaster Messiah can be born. They believed that sorrow turns to hope.

Eicha/Lamentations ends with this hope: Turn us to You, O Breath/Wind/ Hurricane of life — and we shall indeed return.” The book does not tell us that we will be saved—but that we will have the possibility of saving ourselves. Hope returns if we grasp that hope. Today, we must act if we are to save our Mother Earth.

What could we do to make this Turning toward the One real and active?

Three possible approaches:

1) Educate ourselves. Join with your community (synagogue, minyan, circle of friends) to observe Tisha B’Av on the evening of July 19. Along with the chanting of Eicha and kinot (poems of lament) in memory of the Temple, include some Kinot of outcries from and for the wounded earth.

In our generation, perhaps the very form of kinot should expand to include the following videos – laments for and from the Gulf Coast:



2) Educate the public. On the Sunday before Tisha B’Av, July 18, gather in a public place – perhaps near a Senator’s home office, a BP office, etc.–to pray, chant, and describe what you think are the necessary elements of change in public policy.

Have a brief religious service, including old or new prayers, psalms, etc., that praise the Creator of our sacred earth, led by clergyfolk if possible, dressed in clerical garb. Chant in the wailing melody of the Book of Lamentations. Blow the shofar, toll bells, chant from the Bible and Quran.

Recite aloud the names of coal miners recently killed in West Virginia, the oil-rig workers killed in the Gulf, and the species of birds, fish, animals endangered in the Gulf. Then set aside five minutes of utter silence.

Consider being dramatic — e.g., wearing gas masks or bandannas across the face, carrying signs with photographs of oil-soaked pelicans, saying “The Gulf Now – All Earth Tomorrow?” or “Senator [Blank]: Will you Vote against Offshore Oil Wells?” or “Coal Kills.”

End with a passage of ancient or modern sacred text that envisions a world of harmony, with songs of joy and dancing.

3)Take Action. On Tisha B’Av itself, July 20, ask several friends and co-workers to join with you to visit your Senators’ home offices. Call ahead to make an appointment to meet with the Senator or a policy staffer.

If possible, include a rabbi, minister, priest, nun, imam, monk , and/or earth scientist – but go ahead even if they can’t make it.

If you have permission from an organization to take a stance, make that clear; if not, say who you are as an individual and note your chief affiliation. Say politely but clearly and firmly how dangerous to us, our children, and our grandchildren are the CO2 emissions that are heating our planet.

Urge the Senator or his/her staffer to support the CLEAR Act sponsored by Senators Maria Cantwell (D – Washington) and Susan Collins (R—Maine), the “cap and dividend” bill. It will set a year-by-year cap on CO2 emissions in the US, will draw our society away from carbon-based fuels by raising their cost through a Federal fee, and then will return more than the higher cost by a dividend to every American of about $1,000 a year.

If the Senator or staffer says we can’t just shut down coal mining and oil burning, firmly but gently point out that we could start now to set regulations and ramp them up over the next decade as we create new green jobs. Point out that Congress can and should provide retraining and reemployment for coal miners and oil workers as well as capping national CO2 emissions.

My organization, The Shalom Center, is offering the text of an Eicha for our generation, along with further information and support, on our website at http://www.theshalomcenter.org. Let The Shalom Center know what you are planning and what you have done. (Write us at office@shalomctr.org)

May the sacred energy you bring to healing our future, our country, our Earth and the Shekhinah bring back to you the blessings of healing and shalom, salaam, peace.

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