PREPARING THE ROAD FOR HINENI—AND THE ROAD GOES THROUGH INDIA
“Solu solu panu derech,” I kept chanting to myself like a mantra as I carried load after load of bricks or shoveled dirt or used the giant tamper to level the ground as part of our effort to restore parts of a school at the obscure farming village of Bacari Pura in Northeastern India just outside of the city of Lucknow. “Solu solu panu derech” means, “build up, build up the highway, clear the road,” and it is the first line of the Haftarah we will read tomorrow from Isaiah 57. Isaiah probably didn’t mean those words literally; he was more likely preparing for a spiritual highway, but it sure seemed to fit the occasion of 17 rabbis laying bricks, mixing cement, and applying plaster. Meanwhile, against the background of my “solu solu” I kept hearing the foreman from the village shouting “masala, masala, mix, mix,” referring to the crude version of concrete our group was attempting to mix, made up of part actual cement, part water, part red dirt, and part gray gravel. There was no particular recipe for this mixture. We just made whatever consistency the foreman seemed to like. Some of you may have seen the pictures of me in my ridiculous straw hat, hospital scrubs, and work boots. If you haven’t, check the TBA Facebook page. If you have, well, it looked even more ridiculous than the pictures indicate.
The work was hard enough, more fun than you might think, but the work was not the hardest part. The hardest part? Probably the humidity. Our room had a swamp cooler, which blows water through a fan for a cooling effect, instead of an air conditioner. These things work well in desert environments like the Negev or Arizona. But in a humid environment like India, it was just releasing more humidity into the room. “How humid was it?” you ask. It was so humid that I had to put baby powder all over my body so I wouldn’t stick to myself. “How humid was it?” you ask. It was so humid that when I washed my clothes (and they told us to pack as lightly as possible so I only had a few changes of clothes), they never dried. They just sort of turned moldy. Or maybe it was the food. I don’t do spicy, and, well, this was India. I tried just about every dish the first few days, but they all burned my throat. So, thanks to Steve Grossman and CliffBar, I subsisted on Mojo Bars from Cliff and Peanut Butter. Until the last day when the staff prepared a special banquet for us made up of food from their home kitchens. And they knew I didn’t eat spicy food, so they made a number of dishes just for me. And since they made it for my sake I had to eat it in front of them. Sure enough, I got sick—just in time for the 46 hour journey home. I am not exaggerating that, by the way. It really was 46 hours from door to door. But enough complaining. I’m good at it, but we have much more important things to discuss this evening.
So what was I doing in the mitten drinnen of India in the heat of late July helping to build a school in a village when our custodian, Joe Lewis, would have been far more qualified for the job? I was part of a rabbinic cohort of the American Jewish World Service sent there, yes, to work on the school in the farming village, but also to study Jewish texts relating to global justice and to meet with what could best be described as the mitzvah heroes of India, individuals who are doing amazing things there in terms of human rights and global justice. Much to my chagrin, we did not meet any of the amazing Jewish communities of India during our visit there, not the Cochini Jews or the B’nai Menashe or the B’nai Israel, whose Jewish communities go back for centuries. Nor did we see any of the great Hindu sites of India or the bustling metropolis’ of Mumbai or Delhi and certainly not the Taj Mahal. Next time. But the mission of the American Jewish World Service is not to tour, certainly, and it’s not even to focus on helping Jewish communities in need. Rather, the mission of the American Jewish World Service is, as they themselves put it, and now I’m quoting: “Inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice, American Jewish World Service works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world.” To achieve these goals, they partner with organizations in these developing countries that are already doing poverty and human rights work. They are not helping other Jews. They are utilizing Jewish values to help the broader world.
Our trip was divided into two parts. In the morning we worked in the village building the school, and in the afternoons we sat in classrooms studying texts and meeting with some of these “mitzvah heroes.”
We met a woman named Renu, a lawyer who focuses on women’s rights and takes up cases that no one will take for women who have been abused by their husbands or denied access to education or harassed in the work place. India has many well-intentioned laws on its books, but enforcing them is another matter. For instance, you are not allowed to get married until you are 18 years old in India, but girls are routinely married off at 12 or 13. Whether the cause of this is deeply entrenched cultural values, bureaucratic corruption on a scale we can barely conceive of, or sheer numbers (it is, after all, a land of a billion people), this kind of women’s rights work is overwhelmingly necessary.
We met another amazing woman named Kavita, who belongs to the lowest caste in India, the Dalit, known as the “untouchables,” and that was probably the least of her struggles. Her parents pulled her out of school after first grade, but she ran away from home in order to find a school where she could learn. Despite family opposition, Kavita attended an education center in her village but was married off at a very young age. Nevertheless, she was able to negotiate her relationship with her husband and in-laws and managed to continue her education, eventually receiving a master’s degree in political science. She now edits a weekly newspaper that is actually the only newspaper specifically covering six rural districts in two different states. Her staff is made up entirely of other Dalit or “untouchable” caste women, and she highlights the concerns of the poor and on cases of violence against women.
These are but two examples of the kinds of work being done by the American Jewish World Service’s partners in India, and they work in 18 other countries in the developing world as well.
Still, it was hard to sit in a classroom, on the floor, no less, and listen to speakers all day. So the most interesting part of the trip was probably the work we did in the village. Let’s be honest. We were not doing high quality work. Two village men could probably have accomplished in five hours what we accomplished in five days. Moreover, with our limited skills in bricklaying and cement mixing, I’m not 100% sure they didn’t just tear down our work the minute we left and start all over again. Honestly, I think the work was more for us than for them, to get us invested in the program, the project, and the people, and certainly, the most interesting and rewarding part to me was the work in the village.
Their village is certainly poor by our standards. It’s not Slumdog Millionaire poor. We didn’t see so much of that, since that depicts the poverty of the urban centers, not the rural areas. But there is no electricity or plumbing and is certainly poor by any of our standards. Still, their basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing are met, and they manage also to have leisure time and to raise cash crops of wheat, rice, and peppermint. The children are educated in their simple school through 12th grade, and they wear adorable British style uniforms provided by the government with these cute little ties. When we arrived we were greeted by the children of the school, who sang us several songs. One that stood out for me had a line in it about how it was important to be like running waters that flowed rather than like still waters which never move. In a land filled with standing water and malaria causing mosquitoes, it made perfect sense. The girls in the village especially lopped on to the female rabbis in our group, treating them as new aunts, in a way, holding their hands, and showing them things and saying “it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful?” I remember two of the girls, because they had Israeli sounding names—Goldie and Sivani. They began to show us their homes, which were essentially one wall with a roof made of straw and open to their neighbors on two or three sides, making our group of rabbis think of Sarah and Abraham and the hospitality they showed to the three angels in Genesis. In fact, with their tents and their water buffalos, cows, and goats all around them, I imagine these villagers lived far closer to the lives of our Biblical ancestors than we do in most respects. More on that in just a little bit.
Toward the end of our work there, we had a chance to meet in separate gender circles with the women and men of the village. We asked each other a series of questions. We compared holidays, Jewish and Hindu, and talked about what it meant to be a man in each of our societies, They wanted to know whether we were primarily a wheat people or a rice people, and they wanted to know about Jewish holidays. But the question that really stood out was “after you get married, do you go to live with the husband’s family or the wife’s family?” In their part of India it was the custom to move to the husband’s family’s village. When we explained that we move in together into our own homes separately from our parents, they were puzzled. Their followup question was: “Then who takes care of the parents when they get older?” It was a piercing question that I don’t think American society has really solved. The East Bay Jewish Federation has begun to deal with this issue and is presenting a series of seminars on this topic, dealing with our own aging issue in the Jewish community right here. But clearly, we have as much to learn from them as they do from us, maybe even more.
So that is “how I spent my summer, part 13.” And while that is all well and good, I imagine at least some of you thinking, it’s nice that the rabbi went on a Jewish-“ish” trip to India and that the congregation didn’t have to pay for it, but “what’s the point, rabbi?” Where is the Hineni, here I am moment in tonight’s sermon? You didn’t think I’d forget about the central theme, did you? What is the takeaway for us?
I’ll get to the Hineni in just a moment, but first a few lessons that I learned for myself. The first is a lesson in gratitude. When you spend time in the developing world it’s hard not to be overwhelmed with how much we have and take for granted. We should express our thanks for what we have more regularly, and I began to think about that in the context of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer we read on both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. That is the prayer where it says: “On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst… but teshuva, tefila, and tzedaka can temper the severity of the decree.” This poem can be difficult to relate to in the modern world, but the rabbinic sages who wrote this poem probably lived lives much closer to the life of the Indian villagers than they did to ours. So these metaphors made sense. They dealt/deal with floods and famines and wild animals which had the potential to wipe out entire villages. So the way the sages dealt with it was to acknowledge that sometimes these tragedies happen and “there but for the grace of God go I.” And should they happen in our lives, let’s try to mitigate these things with teshuva, tefila, tzedaka, repentance, prayer, and charity. So it provided me with an entirely new understanding of this prayer.
The second is a lesson in universal connection. One of the really neat things about the trip was spending the Shabbat there with all those other rabbis. With that kind of knowledge, and an unusual amount of pleasant singing voices, the ruach in the room during the services was phenomenal. Earlier in the service, a tall Indian woman in a beautiful, flowing sari had wandered into our service and sat down. Most of the Indian people we met were rather small, so small in fact, that I could even find shoes in my size there. Anyway, this was a woman who was both part of the lowest caste, Dalit, and who had been abused by her husband. SSK, the place we were staying, was part human rights organization headquarters, part battered women’s shelter, and part youth hostel, and they took her in and gave her some work as part of the custodial staff. During the Torah service, as we were singing and dancing our way around the hot room, this woman stood up and joined in on the dancing with her arms flowing and her spirit soaring right up to the Heavens, it seemed. It was a spiritual moment that transcended our different religions and cultures, and was simply transcendent in general. Sadly, for several days after Shabbat, when we were sitting in discussions, she peeked her head in our room and asked “singing today?” Unfortunately, we were not, but for that one moment, you could sense the joy and the excitement and the spirituality that links all humanity together.
The third and final lesson is about our relationship to the wider world. The AJWS focuses on the Jewish response to the wider world. We often need a reminder that there is a broader universe that needs our help, though I don’t think that’s our primary problem here in the Bay Area. The Jewish community of Northern California doesn’t need a lot of reminders about our universal obligations, for they/we seem to be more universalistic in our thinking and increasingly less particularistic. An extreme example of this is the City of Berkeley passing all kinds of resolutions about global problems and doing seemingly very little about their own homeless population problem. Judaism has a point-of-view on this when these natural impulses conflict. There’s a Talmud text from Bava Metzia 71a where Rabbi Yosef brings forth a teaching based on Exodus 22:24, where it says, “If you lend money to any of my people that are poor with you.” According to Rabbi Yosef:
This teaches that if the choice lies between a Jew and a non-Jew, the Jew has preference; the poor or the rich, the poor takes precedence; your poor (meaning your relatives) and the general poor, your poor take precedence; the poor of your city and the poor of another town the poor of your city takes precedence.
This is a complicated way of saying charity begins at home. This seems natural, but it is not necessarily a lesson our children are processing. I recently discovered that, in our religious school, almost all the classes were voting to send their tzedaka money to general causes rather than Jewish causes. That will actually change this year, because we are making it a requirement that each class donate at least half of their money to Jewish causes. As individuals when you consider your own charitable giving as well as where you put your time and energy and even prayers, ideally we touch on our local Jewish community, meaning our congregation, the bigger Jewish community such as the Federation, which distributes money to Jewish organizations and people in need, including in Israel, and, finally the many worthy causes of the wider world. Maybe I’m a dinasour in this regard, but I believe that only Jews will take care of the Jewish people and that only Oaklanders are going to take care of Oakland. .
So while the trip was supposed to inspire us to think about global justice, what it actually inspired in me was the idea that we need to do more for the local community right here in the city of Oakland. We do a great job with hunger here, giving more money than any almost any other congregations to the Alameda County Food Bank and at all times of the year. But, with the idea of thinking globally but acting locally what I hope we can also do this year is take one of these global issues where there is a compelling Jewish imperative and figure out how we can become more involved on a local level. I’d like to start with the issue of human trafficking, which is not only consistent with the Jewish command to remember that we ourselves were slaves in the land of Egypt, but as it turns out, is a very serious issue here in Oakland. We’ll start out with some text study, then do an educational session about what is happening regarding trafficking here in Oakland, and, hopefully, from there will emerge specific actions that we as a congregation can take. While the India trip was ideally meant to inspire us to become involved in global justice, what it inspired in me was that I/we need to be more involved in issues of local justice.
I began my remarks tonight with the beginning of the Haftarah, solu solu panu derech, build up a highway, clear a road. But the heart of the Haftarah which we will read tomorrow, just as we are beginning to feel the pangs of hunger from our fasting, is when Isaiah asks: .
Is this the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
When you see the naked, clothe him
Then the text tells us, when we do these things God will say “Hineni,” here I am, for you, the people. It is the only instance amongst the Hineni’s in the Torah where God is the one who says “Here I am.” When we say Hineni for other people, God says Hineni for us. And partnering with God we can then declare, “solu solu panu derech, build up, build up a highway, clear a road, in India and in Oakland, a road that, God willing, will be filled with justice and peace.