My great grandmother, Beckie Mendelsohn, came to America in 1902, at the age of 14, from a town in Romania called Piatra Neamt. A beautiful spot, Piatra Neamt is nestled in the Carpathian Mountains, a place of deeps lakes and rolling hills. It is one of the oldest populated areas in the country, inhabited already for 10,000 years, maybe longer. The hills and lakes of northeastern Romania were formed tens of thousands of years ago by a series of volcanic eruptions. I want to tell you about one of them.
About 100 miles to the south of Grandma Beckie’s hometown, the Ciomadul volcano last blew its top approximately 30,000 years ago. It left behind a picturesque crater lake and a lovely landscape. Geologists, not to mention many generations of local people, have considered Ciomadul a dead volcano, extinct, its moment long passed, no danger of it ever erupting again.
New technology affords scientists a deeper look at the rocky crust beneath the crater of Saint Anne Lake; the result of this renewed look below the surface reveals something truly startling – somewhere between 5 and 14 cubic miles of magma still simmering far underground. As the authors of the original scientific journal article put it: “This illustrates the important longevity of a magmatic reservoir at temperature above the solidus, which implies that there is still a potential for rapid mush rejuvenation. That a seemingly dead volcano like Ciomadul is actually capable of erupting in the future calls for renewed attention to ‘inactive’ volcanoes worldwide and perhaps for a redefinition of their activity/inactivity status.”
If ‘rapid mush rejuvenation’ doesn’t stir your spirit, you may prefer William Faulkner’s pithier version: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
On Rosh Hashanah I invited us to ponder מה למעלה? What’s above and beyond us?
Today, on Yom Kippur I’d like to invites to go deep and to ask ourselves: מה למטה?
What’s below the surface, beneath our feet, deep under the ground.
Jonah, says the Midrash, takes an underground journey while in the belly of the big fish.
[Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 10]: (Jonah) said to it (i.e. the fish), Behold, I have saved you from the mouth of Leviathan, show me what is in the sea and in the depths. It showed him the great river of the waters of the Ocean, as it is said, “The deep was round about me” (Jonah 2:5), and it showed him the paths of the Reed Sea through which Israel passed, as it is said, “The reeds were wrapped about my head” (ibid.); and it showed him the place whence the waves of the sea and its billows flow, as it is said, “All of your waves and your billows passed over me” (Jonah 2:3); and it showed him the pillars of the earth in its foundations, as it is said, “The earth with her bars for the world were by me” (Jonah 2:6); and it showed him the lowest Sheol, as it is said, “Yet have you brought up my life from destruction, O Lord, my God” (ibid.); and it showed him Gehinnom, as it is said, “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you did hear my voice” (Jonah 2:2); and it showed him (what was) beneath the Temple of God, as it is said,”(I went down) to the bottom of the mountains” (Jonah 2:6). Hence we may learn that Jerusalem stands upon seven (hills), and he saw there the Eben Shethiyah (Foundation Stone) fixed in the depths. He saw the sons of Korah standing and praying over it. And the fish said to Jonah, Behold you stand beneath the Temple of God, pray and you will be answered.
Robert McFarlane’s remarkable book ‘Underland’ notes our culture’s ‘aversion to the underland’ and the ‘many reasons we tend to turn away from what lies beneath.’ ‘But now more than ever,’ he suggests, ‘we need to understand the underland…’ ‘Force yourself to see more deeply’ is McFarlane’s call to arms. His book details McFarlane’s own journeys down below; and his stories, he claims, highlight a seeming paradox: ‘that darkness might be a medium of vision, and that descent may be a movement towards revelation rather than deprivation.’
McFarlane’s chapter on Paris alone is worth the price of admission, with its description of catacombs and reservoirs, underground vaults and passageways, an entire ‘invisible city’ populated by different classes and groups of climbers, explorers, infiltrators. Along the way, McFarlane quotes Walter Benjamin: ‘Paris is built over a system of caverns…this great technological system of tunnels and thoroughfares interconnects with the ancient vaults, the limestone quarries, the grottoes and the catacombs which, since the early Middle Ages, have time and again been entered and traversed.’
Darkness = medium of vision; descent = movement towards revelation!
Let’s go underground, shall we?
1619 “In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. In the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.” The New York Times’s 1619 project “aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”
Earlier this year, along a handful of BAI folk, I had the opportunity to take a trip down south. We went to explore what a congregational trip might look like and I want to share just a pair of highlights from the dozens of powerful and moving moments that we experienced together.
A late night walk in downtown Montgomery, AL revealed to me that Rosa Parks’ bus stop, the route of Jefferson Davis’ inaugural parade, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (Dr King’s pulpit in the 1950’s), and the first Confederate White House are all in one spot, literally a stone’s throw away from one another.
Part of our journey this winter was to Helena, AK – now site of a memorial to the victims of the Elaine Massacre, America’s very worst incident of racial violence, which took place 100 years ago this past week. The monument faces Helena’s court house and is around the corner from the town’s very beautiful, and fully restored, synagogue. If you’re not from eastern Arkansas, you’ve likely never heard of the Elaine Massacre. I certainly hadn’t. It’s part of what lies beneath our feet.
Not just events of 50 or 100 or 150 years ago. 1619 continues to echo.
Just last week, the NY Times reported on “a little-noticed strategy document published last month to guide law enforcement on emerging threats”.
Here’s some language from the Department of Homeland Security’s newly published “Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence”.
White supremacist violent extremism, one type of racially- and ethnically-motivated violent extremism, is one of the most potent forces driving domestic terrorism.
Kevin K. McAleenan, then acting secretary of homeland security, in a recent talk shared this: “I would like to take this opportunity to be direct and unambiguous in addressing a major issue of our time. In our modern age, the continuation of racially based violent extremism, particularly violent white supremacy, is an abhorrent affront to the nation.”
Magma of violent white supremacy still hot and still stirring below our feet…
And a bit more from the DHS report:
White supremacist violent extremists often scapegoat the Jewish people, voicing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. On October 27, 2018, a gunman attacked Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the Tree of Life synagogue, D’Or Hadash, and Or L’Simcha congregations were gathered, killing 11 people and wounding six, including four law enforcement personnel who responded to the scene. Before the attack, he posted messages on Gab accusing a Jewish charity that assisted refugees of bringing in “invaders” to kill “our people.” Six months later, on April 27, 2019, a gunman opened fire on a synagogue in Poway, California, killing one. The shooter published an anti-Semitic manifesto on 8chan, citing the Christchurch and Pittsburgh gunmen as inspirations, and echoing similar anti-immigrant conspiracy theories.
And it’s not just Pittsburgh and Poway. Nor is anti-Semitism solely an expression of white supremacist thinking and hate. Consider Brooklyn over the past few months where Orthodox Jewish men have been violently attacked on the street a number of times… Or Berlin just this past week where a knife wielding attacker shouting ‘God is great’ in Arabic attempted to force his way into Kabbalat Shabbat worship at the historic Masorti synagogue there…not to mention the too many off hand, seemingly casual expressions of anti-Semitism that come from political leaders both right and left.
One community that has faced anti-Semitic threats directly is in White Fish, Montana. Their rabbi, a good friend, is named Francine Roston. Here’s what Rabbi Roston wrote to her community last week:
There is antisemitism in the world. What are we going to do about it? I must tell you that I have many answers to this question.
1 We are going to call it out and we are going to condemn it.
2 We are not going to view every antisemitic flier, or statement of a politician, as a death-threat against the Jewish people. In other words, we are going to identify the act or statement as antisemitic, if it meets the definition, and we will either speak out about it or make sure that someone else has represented our views, condemning the act or statement.
3 When we feel endangered, we are going to seek support from law enforcement, our fellow Jews and our neighbors of all persuasions.
4 We are going to practice self-care and when we feel threatened, act first to regain a sense of security and peace.
5 We are never going to get rid of racism or antisemitism. I learned this valuable lesson from Mr. Joe Levin, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. I heard him teach this at a talk: we will never end racism or antisemitism, but what we CAN do is change the way people respond. We can make sure that hatred is not normalized and that our communities respond in productive ways so that hatred is given no fresh ground to grow in.
6 We are NOT going to allow the antisemitic, racist actions and statements of others stop us from living our lives as proud American Jews. As Americans we have the right to gather in prayer and practice our religion in peace. As Jews we have spiritual resources to help us meet every experience life brings us. This is our New Year! Next week is the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur! We will not allow the cowardly, routine dropping of racist, antisemitic leaflets keep us from gathering as a community in prayer and celebration…
I strongly believe that the way we prevent the spread and growth of antisemitism and white supremacy is by strengthening community relationships so that there is no fertile ground for hate to take root. While there were white supremacist, antisemitic fliers dropped in Whitefish on Monday, I want you to know that the press attention brought phone, text and email messages from my Christian minister colleagues expressing their sadness, support for our community and condemnation of the hateful acts…
We are not alone. We are not in danger. We have work to do. Work of the heart and soul. Get to it!
I read Rabbi Roston’s powerful words on Facebook where I also found some very beautiful responses to her. Here’s Deborah Lipstadt’s addendum:
Well said. Well done. And if I can add one thing to do or not to do: to let antisemitism be what defines and unites us. We are Jews not because of antisemitism. We are Jews DESPITE antisemitism. G’mar tov.
Bubbling magma not so far below the surface…
And, also true…
A lovely set of rabbinic stories describe a network of tunnels beneath Eretz Yisrael…rendering the ‘underland’ as a place of deepest and easiest connection [Talmud Yerushalmi, Ma’aser Sheni 5:1(56a)]:
Women of Tzippori would travel and spend Shabbat in the Temple and then be first to return to their own fig trees in the Galilee come morning.
Women of Lod would knead dough, travel to Jerusalem to pray, and be back before the dough had risen!
How? מחילות היו ונגנזו – there used to be tunnels that have become hidden.
And much of our history is to found underground as well. Foundations – including the ‘Kotel’ tunnels, and the new underground passageway from the Gihon spring to the Temple mount itself, just two recently excavated examples of the glory that still resides underneath.
One exits from that underground Herodian passageway at Robinson’s Arch, at the southwest corner of the Temple mount which has been excavated down to the Roman era street: there one encounters ancient market stalls evoking the Christian scriptural stories of Jesus and the moneychangers; there’s the outline of the arch itself which was a main entrance into Temple compound for generations of Jews; and a quite prominent hole in cornerstone, according to Islamic legend, the very place where Muhammad tethered his horse before beginning a night journey to the heavens. That possibility of sharing in holiness, of truly and deeply understanding and appreciating one another’s traditions and faith, that resides underground as well.
And it’s not the only treasure to be found beneath the earth.
A delicious Hasidic story:
“Reb Izik dreamed that he should journey to Prague, where he would find a great treasure.
So, he journeyed to Prague. All day long he would walk back and forth near the bridge, deep in thought, hesitant to dig, out of fear of the soldiers who guarded the bridge. Each night he would return to the inn to rest. And he did so for many, many days.
After watching for many days, one day, one of the guards called out to Reb Izik and gently asked, ‘what are you looking for, for whom are you waiting here for so many days?’ So Reb Izik told the guard his story, of his recurring dream that depicted a treasure buried in this spot, and how he had come to Prague to find it.
The guard, of course, had the opposite dream – that if he journeyed to Krakow and went to the home of R. Izik, he would find a treasure buried under R. Izik’s stove. Thinking the whole thing foolish, the guard never made the journey.
Suddenly, R. Izik knew the real purpose of his journey to Prague. Immediately, he turned around, journeyed home, searched, dug, and found the treasure in his own house. With the wealth from that treasure, Reb Izik built in Krakow a shul bearing his name, one that still stands.”
So taught the 19th century Hasidic master Reb Simcha Bunem.
“Deep waters,” teaches the Book of Proverbs (20:5), are “the counsels in a person’s heart, but a woman or man of discernment can draw them out.”
Hovot haLevavot, our tradition’s first organized Mussar book, pushes deeper:
A third Sage said “there is wisdom which lies hidden in the hearts of the wise, like secret treasure. If they conceal it, man cannot discover it. If they reveal it, man cannot deny the correctness of their words regarding it. And this is as Scripture says ‘wisdom in the heart of man is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out’ (Prov. 20:5), i.e. wisdom is innate in a man’s being, in his nature and faculties of perception, like water that is hidden in the depths of the earth. The intelligent and understanding individual will strive to investigate what is in his potential and inward faculties in order to discover and expose this wisdom, and will draw it forth from his heart, just as one searches for water that is in the depths of the earth.”
The past is never dead. It isn’t even past! From the darkness of the ‘underland’ we have the opportunity to develop deeper and more focused vision. And from our descent below we have the opportunity to make a move towards revelation. We get to discover and expose the deeply hidden wisdom in our hearts and underground. So start digging; the treasure really is under your feet!
L’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu – לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו