While the following story contains imagery commonly associated with other belief systems, it is part of a dvar Torah (explanation of Torah). In other words: be patient, there’s a point 😊
The thin green smell of the boiling cactus is strong within the hut. Its moisture coats the walls and ceiling. Its smell mixes with the clean aroma of the bamboo walls, the long-dried and toasted scent of the cogon grass roof and the earthy odor of the rich dirt floor.
The dark hut feels ready.
As I sit, surrounded by the humidity of the boiling vapors, others begin to enter. While none had spoken to me, I knew they would be coming. I had gone into the jungle days earlier. My frail body had slowly pushed through the underbrush. And I found what I needed for this visit; I had gathered the cactus that has been boiling for hours with their smell filling the air.
All around my hut are tall, once modern, apartment blocks. They rise 9 floors into the sky around my hut. They are concrete objects; their floors stacked lifelessly onto the earth below.
We used to live in a valley alongside a powerful river. I was only 8 years-old when men in strange clothes began to come to our valley. They said it was perfect for the building of a dam. They wanted us to move. Some objected. But many were excited. My parents were excited. After all, the men in strange clothes were generous. They offered to let us farm new land they had cut out of the jungle. They offered to share the technology necessary to make it flourish.
They offered to let us live in modern apartments.
I remember when one of the young men in strange clothes walked us through one of the apartments. I remember the adults watching in amazement as water and light came with the touch of a hand. I remember the women delighting in the ability to wash clothes and bake foods without needing to spend hours by the river or hours carefully stoking a cooking fire.
But most of all, I remember the look on the face of that particular young man in strange clothes. He was disgusted by us. He condescended to us. He saw us as savages to be lifted up by his offerings.
If the elders and the adults saw that same face, they chose to look past it.
As the men in strange clothes walked us through the ‘financial analysis’ of our annual crops and the value of our new land and apartments they argued that the bargain was a good one. They were being so generous because the dam would create tremendous amounts of ‘electricity’, the thing that enabled modern apartments like the ones we were being offered to function.
The land would be put to a far higher use.
The elders and the adults accepted their bargain. The men in strange clothes were being generous.
Just like that, we left our river valley.
I stayed, as an eight-year-old, for one day in the modern apartment. But even as a child, I felt revulsion when I touched the faucets or the switches or the machines. I remember my feet feeling dirtied by the floors that had no dirt and my body feeling discomfited by the comfort of my modern bed.
I left. In the middle of the night, I left.
I could not go back to our river valley, it was being flooded by the filling of the dam. I could not go elsewhere. All around the buildings, the jungle was thick and the concrete blocks were hours from any city. They were just a collection of buildings in… nowhere. But they had a clearing of their own. They had a courtyard. So that is where I went.
As a young boy I began to gather bamboo and cogon grass from the forest. I cut the bamboo with wooden tools, and drove stakes through it with the trunk of a heavier tree and fitted it all together and tied the pieces in place with strands of tough cogon grass. I created the structure of the hut that I live in today.
Over days and weeks, I gathered cogon grass and wove it into sections that I layered onto the roof of my small home like oversized shingles.
As I worked, the others watched from the windows of their modern apartments. They all knew what I was doing and how I was doing it. But none really understood why. None joined me.
Over the course of a month, I built my home alone. I built a home separate from all humanity, but surrounded by hundreds of my people.
Eighty years have passed since we left the valley of our ancestors. I am the only survivor from those who left. Now, their children and grandchildren come to me. Some of them are muscled and menacing. Others seem wasted away, halfway to a premature death. I look them over.
“Are you the council?” I ask.
There are fifteen of them. Our population has exploded into the thousands. The young men before me – and they are all men – nod.
“Yes,” one of them says. He towers over the rest. “We are the council.”
“And what is your question?”
“Should we take what is ours?” the leader asks. “Should we capture the power plant?”
I knew the question long before he came to me. I have felt it bubbling up through our people over the course of years. But the asking is a part of the ritual.
I nod and then with shaking hands, I remove the boiling cactus from the flame.
As it begins to cool, I begin to sing. The song seems totally lacking in rhythm. It is haunting and in a language so ancient even I do not understand it. Some in the group close their eyes and listen. But none know the words. None have heard it before. It is the song of the oracle and even I have heard it only once. When I was maybe five years-old, the great shaman of our village had brought me into his hut. As the council watched, I heard and then sang the song I now sing. Then I joined that ancient shaman in the drinking of the cactus tea. He said I would, in time, become my people’s oracle.
Now, that time has arrived.
As the council watches, I wrap my hands in bamboo leaves and lift the still hot earthenware pot. I tip it up to my lips and I take a sip, just a sip, of the potent cactus waters.
Then I close my eyes.
I feel the tea flow down into my body. Moments later I feel it beginning to transform me. I find myself suddenly aware of negative energies that had been flowing through me. I feel darkness and doubt and fear and sadness evaporate from above me – like water disappearing from a leaf in the sun. I feel joy and confidence and light rush in to take their place.
I open my eyes.
I am shocked by what I see.
When I had drunk of the cactus as a child, I had been an oracle. When I opened my eyes, I had seen not physical people, but a glowing collection of life and energy and power. I understood: this was the council. They were filled with the energies of the world and they were great indeed.
But there are no great energies standing before me today. Instead, there are only gray shadows and shots of some evil force running through them.
I look at them, but I cannot understand.
Surely, I am not seeing their reality.
Then I sense something else. I glance upwards and far above me, far above the hut, I see the dancing of spirits in the heavens. Even they seem diminished. But I feel myself rising towards them. I feel myself wanting to ask them: “Why?”
I want to ask them “Why are you so weak?”
But I do not know if the spirits can answer me.
They are only servants of the one Most High.
As I rise, I look down towards the concrete blocks, but I see nothing. There is only darkness surrounded by the dimness of the jungle itself.
I rise further and then I feel myself amongst the spirits. But I do not stop. I rise above them. Then I see something more glorious than anything I have seen before. There is a radiance there, a power I can hardly comprehend. I shut my eyes, trying to lock out its immensity. But it will not be denied. Spasms of geometric patterns explode across my vision. I glance at them, overwhelmed by their power.
I open my eyes, facing the radiance once again.
I know I must be standing before an Aspect of the One Most High.
I look down again, into the dimness of the spirits and darkness of the world below. I find myself speaking, in the ancient tongue of the oracle song.
“Why” I ask, “have the spirits abandoned us?”
The Aspect does not answer me. Instead, I find myself suddenly within it. I feel myself being pulled back in time. As I watch, the world around me blooms with energy and life. The Aspect of blessing and goodness and joy filling it. I find myself coming down to our old village, the village in the midst of the valley. The people glow with energy.
I begin to travel forward, through the seasons. I see the river rise and the people pray to the One Most High for land. And they fill themselves with the spirit of the land. I see the river fall and I see the people pray for abundance. And they fill themselves with the spirit of abundance.
And I see the heat of the summer sun and I see the people pray for the river’s return.
And the spirit of the river fills them.
I see them living in the midst of the forces of the world. Of wind and river and land and life and death – all coming together in that valley and its people. They fill themselves with the spirits of the world and the spirits of the world rejoice in their seasons of victory.
The land and the river and the air and seasons had been a part of the people.
But, then there is a change. The people move and the valley begins to fill with the now still waters of the river. The spirit of the river celebrates its victory. Then, it realizes it has been trapped.
The people move to the spiritless concrete towers. They chose to move. In so doing, they tore the spirits away from themselves. The spirits grew angry. The people kept their rituals, but they had been emptied. What meaning was there in a prayer for a rising river when they irrigated their crops from a river that was trapped? What meaning was in a prayer for land when the land was never threatened? What was in a prayer for fertility in a world where they fertilized the soil?
The people sensed their loss. They tried to hold on to the rituals, but the spirits would not return. Everything was emptiness. They could not even connect to their apartments and the land they farmed. They owned neither. They lived there by the grace of the government; and the government had no spirit. Mankind had tamed the spirits and the spirits had vanished.
The people were empty. But they could not remain so. A dark energy came over them. It filled the vacuum the land and the river and the wind had left. It filled that vacuum with destruction and waste. It filled it with alcohol and drugs and endless wasted time before the televisions and video consoles the people now had. It filled the vacuum with crime, a vain effort by the spiritless to fill the emptiness of themselves with themselves.
The world around them began to crumble.
I saw the land they farmed. It was weak. It had little life force and it was not empowered by the people. They felt no connection to it. They just worked it, enslaving it and giving it no proper care.
I saw decades fly by as the meager land slowly began to fail. The fertilizers and irrigation could only accomplish so much given the weak nutrients of the jungle. What little life the land itself had departed it. And then, it could give no life.
The darkness became stronger within the people.
I find myself back within myself in my hut. Standing before me are darkness and evil.
I look up towards the great light of the Aspect, but it is already receding, hidden by the weak spirits of the world.
Then, I understand.
I close my eyes and feel the power of the cactus leave me.
I open them and I am back in the hut seeing the physical reality and knowing the spiritual one.
The people around me are empty shells. They are facing poverty and they are overwhelmed by social ills. They want a solution. They want to claim the hydroelectric dam. They want to claim it as their heritage and right.
They imagine it will give them what they need.
They want to fight.
The young men before me respect the traditions. They came to me because of it. But I know now that they can never understand what they had and what was lost.
They can never understand what it meant to be their own masters.
They can never understand what it meant to be at one with the land – growing towards it as it grew towards them.
I know they will not listen to me. They will not even hear my words. The respect they pay me and my words is respect for tradition, nothing more.
When I speak, I know I speak to emptiness.
“You will fight,” I say, “You will win. But all you will gain is the production of the plant. All you will gain is the payments from the government. You will get nothing that you truly need.”
The leader of the council just looks at me, hearing of victory and disregarding my warnings.
“Then,” I continue, “a few months later, the army will come. The army will slaughter you.”
The leader of the council smiles and says, “Then we will destroy the plant, and fight to revenge the loss of our heritage.”
I say nothing to him. I just sit there in my eighty-six year-old body.
I know that when the slaughter comes, nothing will be lost.
No matter their conquests, the men before me will remain nothing more than the empty shells of the men their parents and grandparents had once been.
Our people will vanish.
Nothing will be lost.
When you read the story of the Exodus, you can’t help but be shocked at the suffering of the Egyptian people. The Torah itself says we should deal kindly with the Egyptians, one generation after we leave their land. The obvious question is: how can G-d justify the plagues?
The answer, I believe, starts with Yosef (Joseph).
In this week’s Torah reading, Yosef buys the land from the people. As the verses state:
So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because the famine was sore upon them; and the land became Pharaoh’s. And as for the people, he removed them city by city, from one end of the border of Egypt even to the other end thereof… Then Joseph said unto the people: ‘Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh. Lo, here is seed for you, and ye shall sow the land… And it shall come to pass at the ingatherings, that ye shall give a fifth unto Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for them of your households, and for food for your little ones.’ And they said: ‘Thou hast saved our lives. Let us find favour in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s bondmen.’ And Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt unto this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth; only the land of the priests alone became not Pharaoh’s. (Gen 47:20-26)
I tried to imagine what this displacement would have done to those displaced. They were divorced from their lands. They were separated from what they had known and they were resettled. They were rationalized. The experience may well have destroyed them. The dream of the cows is a dream of the emaciation of the nation – not its food, but its spirit. In the process of making the Egyptians into shells of people, Yosef also made Pharaoh into the most powerful man who ever lived; the perfect foil for G-d in the story of the Exodus.
To bring this to life, I chose a modern corollary. All over the world there are native people displaced. In many cases they are displaced by higher economic uses for their lands, dams among them. Once they are displaced, they cannot go back. Their societies are often ripped apart by the social pressure of being unmoored from the basis of their existence.
Of course, given the opportunity they will want to capture what they feel is due to them: the productiveness they were displaced to allow. The dam in the story provides great economic power as do oil facilities in Nigeria or mines in South America. The Children of Israel are seen the same way in Egypt. Yosef was responsible for the disruption in Egyptian life (albeit with the agreement of the people). Because of this, later generations feel they should be able to harness the power of the Jewish people. They enslave the Children of Israel, hoping for material gain.
When they fail to realize their goals, they try to destroy the Children of Israel just as the people in the story promise to destroy the dam. When the plagues come, like the army of the government, the Egyptians are simply shells of people who have chosen to enslave and then destroy others.
They are first cut adrift by their own decisions and then they are condemned by them.
Joseph started the process in this Torah reading.
I don’t believe Joseph meant to do what he did. He worked hard; I believe he worked to save lives from famine. But his decisions undermined Egypt just as they undermined his own family. We read:
“And Joseph sustained his father, and his brethren, and all his father’s household, with bread, according to the want of their little ones.” (Gen 47:12)
By paying them welfare, ‘by the want of their little ones’, he took from them the opportunity to dedicate the product of their hands to the sustenance of their own children. While we must support the poor who cannot earn a living, extending this to those who need not be poor takes from them one of the most basic ways we can dedicate our creative effort to the timeless relationship with G-d. It takes from them the ability to support their own future. It creates people fundamentally in the now, not the future. They lose a fundamental connection to the timeless that no ritual can replace. They lose true agency; they not only multiply, but the land fills itself with them (vatimale); and they teem (shirtzu) like insects (Ex 1:7).
However well-meaning his use of power, Joseph actually destroys those he is trying to help.
He keeps his family separate – but he enslaves Egypt and Israel alike.
It is a lesson in the limits of wisdom.
In the story, I wrote about spirits of the land and river and seasons. The Egyptians certainly believed the Nile had its own character. But the Chumash has space for a seemingly similar belief; although it is limited to the land. In later verses we see:
For all these abominations have the men of the land done, that were before you, and the land is defiled– That the land vomit not you out also, when ye defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (Lev 18:27-28)
Then shall the land be paid her sabbaths, as long as it lieth desolate, and ye are in your enemies’ land; even then shall the land rest, and repay her sabbaths. (Lev 26:34)
In these verses, the land has both rights and agency.
But its relationship to us and G-d is different than the relationship in the story. In the story, the people relate to the Most High through the spirits of the world. Many modern earth-focused belief systems do the same, relating to some fundamental life force through nature. But the Jewish people invert this; we relate to the Land through our relationship with the Most High.
While we must treat the Land with respect and while we must honor the limits of our own role in nature, we are forbidden from worshiping high places or seemingly powerful trees.
Everything must go through Hashem.
Although the relationship to the Land is valuable, it has no place outside of the relationship to G-d
The people in the story (and perhaps the Egyptians) wove the what they believed were the spirits of the river and land into themselves. But we believe that we can weave Hashem Himself into our souls, directly. We believe this is open to all of humanity. We believe – I believe – this is a far higher and more fulfilling ideal.
Of course, it is also far more robust. Those who connect to Hashem can spiritually flourish even when surrounded by the supposed emptiness of modern life.
They can imbue the world around them with the spirit of Hashem.
p.s. the story borrows very loosely from the belief system of the Philippine Dumagats while the boiled cactus is borrowed from the South American San Pedro Cactus.
Image: Yaniv Knobel, Unsplash