Indigenous Hebrew Reflections on Standing Rock
Indigenous Hebrew Reflections on Standing Rock
Some context to what follows: Although we may not have known exactly what we were getting into at the time, 21 years ago we in the nascent Passover Village (PV) began a quest to dig down deep into the Earth to recover our connection to our ancient Hebrew ancestors and reclaim our indigenous Hebrew soul. As current events have evolved, with the election of a neo-fascist government, the accelerating destruction of Earth through climate change, and the rise of a grass roots indigenous resistance movement, I am left to ponder what the wisdom of an authentic Hebrew indigenous tradition has to offer in these times. What follows then are some reflections on my experiences at Standing Rock in early December.
It has been just over a month since I returned from 3 days in Standing Rock. Although I could only go for a short time, I knew I had to go, to be there, to witness, to see and understand with my own eyes, to support those protectors who were on the front lines. People ask me: “How was it?”. I don’t have the words to answer. “Great!” is an absurd answer. “Amazing”, inadequate. “Real” perhaps getting closer, but no one would understand that answer. “A walking prayer” is perhaps the most accurate, but there is little in the Western mind to understand the depth of what that means.
When you drive into the Oceti Sakowin camp and get out of the car, there is a palpable sense that you have entered another world, another way of being. It is a community of prayer. It is a community of ceremony. It is a community of respect. People live there in a different mind, and a different heart, from the way we live in modern, western culture. One knows the air you are breathing is different, though you may not quite know how. We dropped off our offerings of buffalo meat to the kitchen and medical supplies to the medic tent. I looked for my sweat lodge brother’s tipi, but couldn’t find it. We made our way to the dome, where the day’s schedule of meetings was posted on a white board and where the community meets in council each morning, but it was afternoon and we would have to wait for the next day for our orientation. We met a young woman with bright eyes and wide-open heart, who welcomed us and told us of communal tents where someone without their own shelter could sleep. We made our way to the sacred fire in the center of the camp, where the man on the microphone announced comings and goings – this person needs a ride to Bismarck, this person needs some firewood – and where the drummers and singers interspersed sacred Lakota prayer songs. I recognized the songs from my travels on the Red Road, and I recognized the feelings of being around the central fire, seeing the man tend it with intention and stillness, focus and deference. I knew that I stood in the heart place of a community of prayer, standing there with all those who had been there for months and all those who, like us, had just recently arrived to stand with the Native peoples. A tall native man, a US combat veteran with an American flag tucked into his backpack, had just that moment arrived to the camp and was given the mike. He had walked much of the way from Oklahoma. As he spoke, other native veterans joined the group, made a circle, and welcomed this man, giving him water, food, and shelter. And I knew then what this struggle was about, the struggle which we had come to support.
You must know, it isn’t just about water, though water is the precipitant reason for the current stand. And it is right that water should be - that Elemental that carries the essence of fluidity, purification, healing, constant movement and flowing. “You will draw forth the water with joy from the wellsprings of salvation ”, Isaiah tells us. Of course water is calling us. But it isn’t about her only. She is the force of healing, what is needed to heal, and it is for that global healing that we are called together to stand, and to point out to our friends, relatives, the world.
Our world has suffered terribly for over 2000 years from a plague I will call “colonial mind”. It is the plague of a way of thinking that is imperialistic, greedy, colonial, and conquest-driven, combined with a religious scaffolding that claims to be the god-given “Way”. This is a mind that across the ages has led to death, genocide, environmental destruction, and repetitive cycles of tragedy. It is the mind that says we need more, more, always more – more oil, more profit, more land, more growth. It is the mind that led to the Native American genocide, which most people in our country won’t even acknowledge or think about, let alone address honestly. It led to the shameful practice of American slavery of African peoples and the ongoing fallout from that horrific trauma. And it led to millennia of persecution, hatred, and massacres of my people, the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust. It is a mind of arrogance and narcissism, a taking mentality, and it is the basis for the dominant culture of the United States, which promotes greed, status, and individual success above such communal values of balance, harmony, and respect for all things.
As a Jew, it is easy to blame Christianity for this state of affairs, specifically the Pauline Christianity that chose to supercede rather than co-exist with Judaism, the Christianity that was combined and launched with the abusive, imperial power of Rome under Constantine. This led to centuries of persecution, pogroms, forced conversions, and Holocaust. But I also have to look in the mirror, and read the sacred texts of my own people to see what role we may have played as well. One does not have to look far. In the Torah, God gives Moses the charge: wipe out the Canaanite nations that are currently in the land into which I will bring you so that you may possess it and inherit it (Deuteronomy 20:17). Is this not imperial/colonial mind, justified and presented by the writers of the Torah as an instruction from the Holy One? And the Book of Joshua describes this conquest in gruesome, bloody detail, the slaughter of every man, woman, and child, and even animals of village after village. I can’t help but think: is not this the precursor, some 3000 years earlier, of the policy of Manifest Destiny that was used in the genocide of the native peoples of North America? Did Judaism then, through its sacred scriptures, play a role in transmitting this poison into the world, which then Christianity took to such murderous extent, that it now infects the entire planet? Why didn’t Joshua “just say no”? There was precedent for disagreeing with Divine instruction. When God told Abraham he was going to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah, Abraham argued with God to spare the cities for the sake of only 10 righteous people that might still live there (Genesis 18:32). This is understood as one of the 10 tests of Abraham, who is understood in the Jewish tradition to represent the archetype of Hesed, loving-kindness. But neither Joshua nor Moses challenged the Holy One at this critical moment. Perhaps that was their test, and they failed miserably. And we are still suffering to this day because of it.
DAPL and Energy Transfer Partners is just the latest manifestation of this destructive mind. They see nothing wrong with putting a pipeline under one of the biggest water sources in the United States, desecrating (yet again) sacred Native lands and burial sites, ignoring (yet again) treaties made with the native peoples, because it will lead to profit. For to them, really, nothing else matters. Oil spills and death of animals and poisoning of water – it’s not the water the CEOs and investors of Energy Transfer Partners drink, so why care about a bunch of poor brown and red people who will have their water poisoned? And it must be known by all that DAPL is not the only oil pipeline being built, for ugly and dangerous black snakes of pipelines are crossing the nation. But DAPL is just a symptom, just another example of the destructive, crazy mind that has destroyed countless indigenous peoples, that has polluted our air and brought us climate change that threatens all of our existence (which of course that mind denies, against all objective evidence, because if it did not deny, it would have to actually face the facts of what it has done and is doing).
So, it’s clear we are in a time, a new time. Let’s call it “these times”. With the rise in the U.S. of a mostly white, abusive, greed-driven, power hungry, racist, fascist-leaning government, it should be clear to all what we are facing. We cannot pretend this is not happening, or we will all be destroyed. As Martin Luther King said, “Together we must learn to live as brothers, or together we will be forced to perish as fools.” And as the Lakota people teach, we must think of the children 7 generations down from us, and base every action from that perspective. Or as the Hebrew people say, the wrongdoings of the fathers will be transmitted 11 generations . . . unless we say “no”. Unless we stand, and meet the test. The Standing Rock Sioux have given us a great gift. In their example, they have shown us what it means to have fortitude, bravery, compassion, respect, and humility. It is time to stand to save the Earth Mother and the community of all beings. It is time to stop the greed-driven destruction. Good people of good heart can do this. All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people do nothing.
Back to my time at Standing Rock. The native people told us, in our orientation to the camp where they transmitted the words of the elders, to look at our actions, to explore our colonized minds, to understand that we are “settler citizens” and have been acting like this for hundreds of years. Custer raped the Black Hills for gold, Energy Transfer rapes the land for black gold.
And also, I feel there is another important element. We must see our “enemies” as “no enemies”. These are human beings, like us. And they are also traumatized, either personally or culturally or historically, and they know not what they do. So, while standing firmly and resolutely, we must stand with empathy and love and complete nonviolence. The struggle is not one to be engaged with anger and hatred. That is the very mind we are struggling against. We must remain in our hearts, with prayer, ceremony, community. This is the gift given to us by the Standing Rock Sioux and the historic gathering of over 200 other native tribes who have joined them in North Dakota. We must stand for the Earth, for our children and their children, and theirs down 7 or 11 generations, with a love so deep, and a desire for peace and balance so strong, that all the genocidal forces of that colonial mind have no way to get traction. If such a stand had happened in the 1930s in Germany, 6 million of my people would not have been slaughtered. If this had happened in the United States in the decades preceding the late 19th century, the genocide of the native peoples of this continent would not have happened.
But it seems not enough to know what we are standing against. It seems we must know what we are standing for. And for that, again, we owe a debt of gratitude to the native peoples, and in this case the Standing Rock Sioux in particular. One just need look around the camp and listen to the teachings of the elders to understand what this movement is all about. It is about prayer, ceremony, community, connection to Earth, and connection to Spirit. All spiritual traditions that speak to these common values are welcome at the table. A Judaism that lives by “love your neighbor as you love yourself” is welcome to join a movement that honors “all my relations”. But a Judaism that thrives on the Joshuaic idea that justifies oppression, imprisonment, and killing because “God gave us this land, and it is ours not theirs” is off track and out of balance with both the land and our fellow human beings. A Christianity that follows the loving teachings of Jesus is welcome, but the Chrisitanity feels it is “the way”, and that God has given it license to put down other traditions as “Christ killers”, “savages”, or other historical epithets that self-justified conquest, power, and genocide, is not welcome, and must look at itself fully in the mirror and make amends. An Islam that is guided by the loving principles of the prophet is welcome, but a murderous Islam that twists the meaning of jihad, beheads civilians, and terrorizes people of all faiths is not.
In the Torah God gives the people the challenge: you may choose blessing, or curse, life or death (Deuteronomy 30:19). It seems too long that humankind has followed the path of curse. This path is one of division, self-righteousness, imbalance, greed, extraction capitalism, use, and abuse. Really, haven’t we all had enough?. The positive and loving messages of all faiths show us the path: prayer, ceremony, community, Earth, Spirit. Isn’t it about time we chose the blessing? Isn’t it about time we chose life?
Water is Life
Mni wiconi, water is life. This is the “billboard” of the Standing Rock movement. On my last morning in the camp, I went to the dawn community prayer ceremony at the sacred fire. An elder, a Tlingit woman from the Pacific Northwest, led the prayer and the ceremonial walk to the river. She taught us a chant and implored us to translate it into our languages and share it. Here is the chant and its English translation.
Mni t’hey hey hey la Water I love you
Mni wopeda e’ chi chi ya Water I thank you
Mni o ha la hey. Water I respect you
Here is my version of the Hebrew form, recognizing that I take license with some of the grammar. I wondered, should I translate to modern Hebrew, or the ancient biblical Hebrew of our indigenous ancestors? The latter seems more appropriate for this use, but modern Hebrew speakers would be puzzled. I ended up with a mix, for the poetry of it. I use mostly feminine forms of the verbs – haven’t we had enough of the patriarchy, really? And somehow the sweetness of the song, that it was sung as a processional water ceremony led by native women, gently asks for us to honor that Feminine aspect of both God and our souls. In the Hebrew tradition we know Her as Shechinah, or long before we knew Her by that name, we knew Her as Asherah.
Mayim ohevet otach
Mayim modah ani lach, modeh ani lach
Mayim m’kavedet otach
On Being Human
Following that water ceremony, I got cold from the below 20 degree temperature and brisk wind at the river. I was shivering as I walked through the camp, and I found my friend’s tipi. He came out and walked me to their kitchen tent, where about 8-10 people were milling about in the cozy, propane-heated interior. He led me to a big pot of hot beef stew, which I poured and warmed myself with from the inside as I sat by the heater. I think I have never had such a rich and delicious stew. I met a woman who spoke of her tribe, the Maudi of Northern California. “I do not know of your people,” I told her, “but I will learn”. I have. They were one of the dozens of California Indian tribes decimated by the Catholic missions, whose leader, Junipero Serra, was recently canonized by the pope. The woman said she really needed some thermal underlinings, and I offered the pair of women’s long underwear my mother had given me just a few days earlier to donate. It was a brief meeting of synchronicities, of reciprocal exchange and mutual benefit, my offering her warmth as the soup and fire of the community kitchen tent warmed me. Connections, caring, community, paying it forward. This is what it means to be a human being.
Standing Rock and the community camps there, Oceti Sakowin, Rosebud, Standing Stone, they have shown us what is possible. There will be many more opportunities to stand together in the coming years. We must have heart and come together in this action. All people from all spiritual traditions of good will must feel the call, and must come to do this. It is the only response we can have, and the only thing that will stop the shadow that is unashamedly raising its head, yet again, in our country at this time, threatening to divide, conquer, ravage, pillage, abuse, and destroy. We have only love, prayer, ceremony, community, Earth, Spirit, balance, harmony, respect, humility. It is enough.
Mitakuye oyasin – All my relations.
Mayim Ha'chayim – Water is life.