On my father’s side, I am the fifth generation in Boston. Wherever my grandparents took my sisters and me, there were stories of their lives, their parents, their grandparents. This place is home to me — far more than Brest-Litovsk can be, the place my mother’s father and his mother had to flee, and certainly more than the towns where my family once lived in Germany. But when my family got here, striving immigrants and lucky refugees, the city that welcomed us had already made refugees of those who’d lived here originally. Whatever my ancestors knew, or didn’t, I can’t unknow that. And yet, I am home. I’ve been reckoning with this.
Two summers ago I was walking in the woods on Cape Cod. I had a feeling I might be on holy ground so I took off my shoes. This made me walk very slowly. Walking slowly allowed me to start noticing and wandering, and my mind wandered upon the phrase “Mother Earth,” which I grew up hearing overused, out of context, to the point of triteness. But as I walked on the roots of scrappy little oak and pine trees sunk in sandy soil, this phrase rolled in my head and I started to say to myself, “The Earth is my mother.” As I said it, I suddenly felt it — I felt myself as a creature of the Earth, and the trees and the birds and the little plants on the ground as my siblings. Suddenly the woods were not a wilderness to contend with, as I had always experienced them, but a family to learn to live among. This new, deeply felt understanding lasted only about five minutes, but it sent me on a new way of thinking and seeking.
This way led me to a gathering convened by the attorney, activist, and educator Sherri Mitchell, also known as Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset. Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset is part of the Penobscot Nation, in Maine, known to its original inhabitants as the Dawnland. Four years ago, Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset convened the first gathering of a 20-year ceremony called Healing the Wounds of Turtle Island. (Turtle Island is the name that many Indigenous people use for the land that is commonly called North America.) The ceremony is part of a process of healing to which everyone is invited. It is based in a prophecy that gives the name “the Eastern Door” to the places of contact between Europeans and Indigenous people on Turtle Island. In Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset’s words, “In order for […] healing to take root, the people must return to the place where the initial wounding on this land took place, and join together with one heart and one mind to heal the wounds that they carry within them, and those carried by Mother Earth. When they do, the Eastern Door will re-open and we will be able to renew our sacred contracts with one another as human beings, and between human beings and the rest of creation.” This vision of turning toward each other is a powerful model. It does not assume that those of us whose ancestors benefited from the genocide and displacement of Indigenous people should leave this land that is, for so many of us, the only home we’ve ever known. Instead, this vision imagines us getting into right relationship with each other, and getting into right relationship with Mother Earth. This vision allows for all of us who call this place home to keep doing so — in a process of teshuva.
But how should I as a Jew understand my place here, and my relationship to mother earth?
Our Torah offers us a confused and confusing set of guidance for how to live with the land, and with other people. In Bereishit God tells the first humans to conquer the Earth and dominate the creatures on it. But, as we are reminded by the beginning of this Shmitta year, our Torah preserves traces of reciprocity traditions, instructing us to treat the land in a way that places us in a humbler stance, allowing for a more harmonious relationship. The domination-oriented tradition does not allow for the possibility that the Earth could be alive, much less that she could be our mother … and how much more heartbreaking it would be if we, as a people, had been in relationship with a living entity from which we were separated so many times. In our origin stories — the story about the origin of humans, the story about the destruction and recreation of the world, and the stories about the origin of our people — there are at least five dislocations and migrations— and that’s BEFORE the 40 years in the desert. Contrast this with many indigenous peoples’ stories about how they came to be as a people: So many Indigenous creation stories start with the people emerging from the ground they live on, or being created specifically for the land they inhabit and being placed on it by their creator. The origin story of how Jews became a people is twice told, and both times it’s about being instructed to leave one place and re-settle in another. And during two millennia of diaspora, our ways of thinking, speaking, praying, and being have been scarred by leaving and colored by longing. What would it mean to be Jewish without longing for a lost home? As a people, do we know how to feel that we are at home? I have lived in the same place all my life, and I am tired of leaving and longing! I want to stay, to raise my grandchildren in the place where my grandparents raised me among the traces of their grandparents. I want every person to have the chance to choose to stay where they were born, and thrive there, and I want every people to be able to be at home wherever they are. I want that for us, and for all peoples.
Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset’s prophecy makes me feel that this is possible for us as Jews — that if we participate in the teshuva she envisions, the work of “renew[ing] our sacred contracts with one another as human beings, and between human beings and the rest of creation,” we could find ourselves in right relationship with each other, with our neighbors, and with our Mother the Earth. I know that so many people in this community are deeply engaged in various pieces of this work already. I want us to consider that the fulfillment of this work could be that where we achieve and sustain right relationship, it will be as if we are living on promised land, not as displacers or as displaced, or as displaced displacers, but as neighbors; it could be that we will discover ourselves to be already at home. Shanah Tovah.