Thursday, August 17th, 2017

When To Speak Up, That is The Question by Gidon Rothstein

March 21, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

I recently received a copy of Columbia magazine devoted to water issues (and, of course, how members of the Columbia University community are helping work to solve those problems).  Reading, I was reminded by a verse in Zechariah we read in the haftarah of the first day of Sukkot.

In the context of describing some far-off Sukkot, Zechariah 14;17 says that those nations that do not come to Jerusalem to bow to God on Sukkot will not get rain.  There are many ways to understand the verse, but I was led to wonder about the following scenario: what if God was predicting a time when rain would be necessary for access to safe and clean water, and recognizing God necessary for rain?

 We could argue that such a prophecy, in its negativity, might be amenable to people changing themselves and avoiding the decree.  Perhaps the prophecy predicts the future based on people’s ordinary actions, and adjusting our use and misuse of water would be enough to avoid that outcome.

But suppose the prophecy was more than that (as it seems to be): suppose it was declaring God’s intent to bring about a time when the need for rain would propel people to Jerusalem to worship God once a year (as the Sefer haChinuch thinks the laws of maaser sheni and neta revai were for Jews). Aside from what that would suggest about global warming and the other causes of our water shortages, I think the text presents a challenge we often shy from considering.

Suppose, to repeat, Zechariah is telling us there will come a time when rain will be necessary for water needs, all over the world, and the only way to secure rain will be by worshiping God in Jerusalem on Sukkot.  Obviously, those who don’t accept that God acts so directly will reject the possibility; but I am wondering how else to read the verse, and its ramifications.

My question is, when would we feel was the time to broadcast that message? The world, after all, would roundly reject it, at least at first, would get angry at us for thinking ourselves so special as to be the locale for such a pilgrimage, would resent our assumption that our religion is truer than theirs, and so on.  So when do we mention it?

Much of the world, theoretically, should know it, because they, too, study the book of Zechariah (some of them more assiduously than we ourselves). But they have already re-interpreted it so as to be immune to its intent, have modified it to fit their purposes, so they would never see it that way. Leaving me, again, with my question.

Even if you reject my reading of Zechariah, the questioin stands for other circumstances as well: what would you do if you knew someone’s rejection or ignorance of some central Jewish belief about God was hurting that person or those people in the immediate and painful moment? If you saw an idol-worshipping nation (literally, and there are such even today) suffering a plague or other disaster?

I choose the example here because it seems safely theoretical, so we can take some of the rawest emotion out of the discussion.  Let’s start by agreeing we wouldn’t say anything now, because there’s no Temple, and world-wide water shortages aren’t nearly severe enough to open a door to that kind of a conversation (although large percentages of the world’s population do today lack secure access to clean water)?

If people were dying daily from thirst, and Sukkot was around the corner, would we still not say anything, because some would object and even, perhaps, hate us for it? What if dozens were dying, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands?  Would there come a point where we would feel we had to say, “you know, God tells us…”?

My question, I hope obviously, is not only about rain, it is about the balance between maintaining our usual polite silence about our beliefs and when our pain at others’ suffering would lead us to at least broach the topic, however gingerly.  It is about whether we’d ever have the self-confidence to suggest God’s answers are true in the same way science is true (or more so), and try to help others see when their stubborn denial hurts them.  When does the trouble get so severe we feel we must speak?

I don’t pretend to know the answer, but I know the question, and that’s a start.

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