Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Not Even a Mustard Seed

by Susan Weinberg

We moved into our second virtual Artists’ Lab like old pros, now familiar with breakout rooms, chat and muting.  Photos of our group filled the screen as we gathered to discuss Mussar, a movement of virtue-based ethics that guides us in living a meaningful and ethical life. 

Meryll began by noting the convergence of many events which lead to our topic. We are in the period of counting the Omer during the period from Passover to Shavuot. It is bookended by the reading of two megillot, the Song of Songs at Pesach and the Book of Ruth at Shavuot. The Song of Songs has a backdrop of nature while Shavuot is the time when we received the law. On a more secular level, tomorrow is Earth Day. Our topic is timely, our purpose to examine how the law addresses our responsibility to the environment. 

At our last session we took a look at a number of relevant laws. We were told to not only let the land have a sabbath, but to leave grain for those in need. Land law and social welfare were knit together. We were reminded that we didn’t own the land, a belief system quite similar to Native-Americans. 

Center Artwork: Global Waters by Bonnie Heller
Meryll shared a rabbinic commentary that reminds us that "Righteous people do not destroy even a mustard seed in the world and they are distressed at every ruination and spoilage they see; and if they are able to do any rescuing, they will save anything from destruction, with all of their power." (Sefer HaChinuch: D’varim 20:19 number 529)

Liba has been a student of Mussar and summarized it by noting that every person has a soul (and sole) curriculum in their life through both home and group practice. That may include patience, humility and gratitude. We are to come to it with openness, curiosity, humor and compassion. 

Meryll gave us a bit of background on Mussar which is a practice of ethical instruction. It began in Spain in the eleventh century and was moved from individual to community practice by Rabbi Israel Salanter in 19th century Lithuania. Meryll drew our attention to our handout which enumerated the middot, the qualities that help us build an ethical life (Mussar and the Environment and see graphic above). She took us through a number of the qualities noted in the handout including equanimity, the ability to rise above events which are inconsequential, to breadth, seeing the big picture. We considered whether there was an order to these qualities as we began with an objective not to get distracted by the inconsequential and ended with encouragement to focus upon the big picture. In between we were encouraged to practice such qualities as patience, order, frugality, humility and calm. 

We then broke into subgroups where we were charged with considering which quality we were personally strongest in and where we could improve. Together we were to consider what two qualities were most relevant to address the environmental crisis. Kris and I shared our choices and I realized that while they were different attributes, they embodied many of the same elements. Kris proposed frugality as an important element, not being wasteful and destructive of the environment. She noted that deforestation which created suburbs on the east coast, also destroyed the opossum population that eats ticks, resulting in an increase in Lyme disease. I spoke on behalf of breadth because our environment is part of a system of moving parts with each influencing each other and in fact well-illustrated by her example. We only begin to see the interactions when we look at the bigger picture. We both concurred that humility was an important element as well. When we regrouped, it appeared that many shared the qualities of frugality, breadth and humility as well as truth and decisiveness to guide us on our path.

(And as a side bar, diligence topped my personal list while patience is quite neglected and lonely at the bottom.) 

We turned our attention to the second text on the handout where God walks Adam through the garden and admonishes him not to spoil it as there will be no one to repair it should he do so. What is the ethical imperative? “You break it, you buy it” was proposed half in jest.  It was suggested that in our absence the likelihood is that nature will regenerate. Look at what is happening as we reduce activity in this time of the coronavirus.

Meryll asked us if the topic of the environment was still relevant in our current circumstances. There was a resounding “yes” voiced by our group. This time period has reminded us not only of our impact on the world, but of the global nature of our interactions and the importance of science. On an individual level it has gotten people outside, deepening our appreciation of nature as we slow down and occupy a smaller space in a deeper fashion.