January 20, 2018 / 4 Sh’vat 5778
What should we prioritize when the urgent needs of the present moment conflict with long-term goals? Let me tell you a story that concretizes this problem. The story happens to be about a farmer in Indonesia. But his story is in different ways our story.
In the late 80s, an indigent farmer named Sadiman was struggling to make ends meet. Though his village in Central Java was once surrounded by luscious banyan forests, the landscape had been transformed by loggers and then by plagues of wildfire and drought. All around him, farmers began moving to the cities looking for other work. But Sadiman didn’t want to leave his land. He longed for the banyan forests of his youth. He was convinced that banyan trees were more important than anyone imagined.
And so, even though he was working hard to cobble together an income for his family, he began buying banyan seeds and planting them in the nearby forest. This was not easy. Unlike cloves or other food crops which are cheap to plant and generate income, a banyan seed costs over $7 to plant and offers no return on investment. His neighbors ridiculed him. How can you waste your money on worthless crops while your family is barely getting by? They would pluck his banyan saplings and leave the plants to die on the ground. But Sadiman would not be deterred. He worked hard to provide for his family and to plant as many banyan trees as he could.
Though Sadiman lives in Indonesia, his story is not foreign to us. We know how it feels to watch our environments changing around us. We know how it feels to remember a bygone time where everything was green and growing. We know how it feels to look around and see only dried out remnants of the past.
This is a conversation I have almost every day with parents and grandparents of teenagers. They tell me what Judaism looked like during their school years—about vibrant youth groups and children’s services, about classrooms bursting to the seams with children speaking Hebrew. They tell me about how they dreamed of building a Jewish home, about how important Judaism was to their parents and grandparents. And then, they say, I’m so worried about my child. My grandchildren don’t seem to feel as connected with Judaism. The stream of Torah is drying up for them.
When I meet with teens after their bar/bat mitzvah, before we play the game of “all the things you didn’t know you desperately want to do here at Temple Emanuel,” I ask teens how they spend their time. In our community, it’s not uncommon for teens to give me a 7-day calendar filled to the brim with activities. Monday will be soccer and tutoring, Tuesday speech and debate and student government, Wednesday dance and improv, Thursday wrestling, Friday study hall and SAT prep—each day is filled with activities designed to launch our teenagers into college and then into a successful career.
I ask teens when they have time to meet with me; when they might be able to come to Jewish events here at Temple Emanuel. Often, it’s hard for them to find the time. Teens are caught—they are so focused on meeting the demands of the present moment—of getting good grades and getting into college—that they don’t have the time or the bandwidth to engage Jewishly. And when teens don’t engage Jewishly now, when they don’t have the time to plant the seeds of Jewish wisdom and tradition, they’ve got nothing to harvest in the years to come when they really need it.
The truth is, Jewish education is like a banyan tree. It’s expensive to plant, and you don’t always see an immediate economic return. We live in a world which is driven by profit margins. We live in a world where our neighbors might scorn us for planting Jewish seeds instead of investing in secular education, sports, or programming which will give our children career advantage. Jewish education and Judaism grow slowly. Like the banyan tree, Judaism retains groundwater—stores up droplets of Torah and meaning against drought, stabilizes our inner environments against the unpredictability of the world. Jewish engagement probably won’t help our teens to get into college, but it will help them to weather the storms of life and to find meaningful community.
This is, of course, not just a teenage challenge. We all find ourselves caught between the needs of the present moment and the long-term goals which will sustain our futures. How often do we put off the tasks which nourish our hearts to pay the bills or wash the dishes or do the laundry? I have a dear friend who has dreamed of writing a book for the past 10 years. He has everything outlined. He bought a computer and set up an office space. And yet, for ten years his book has been on hold. Every time he has a pocket of time to write, he gets caught up in something “important.” A famous author even promised to write a forward for him if he could complete the book during his lifetime. But that author has now died; the book remains unwritten.
We do this too. We dream of travelling to a special place, but we become so engrossed with the present that we forget to book the tickets and make it happen.
We love our family and want to provide our children with the best possible opportunities, but the more time we spend at work, the less time we have available to be with our loved ones.
Our rabbis teach אין קמח, אין תורה that without satisfying our basic needs, it is impossible for us to access Torah and the deeper meaning of life. We know this to be true. What we don’t always remember is the rest of the teaching—אין תורה, אין קמח. When we don’t satisfy the needs of our souls, when we don’t plan for the needs of the future, we can’t satisfy our basic needs in the present.
This tenuous and important balance is played out in our Torah reading. As the final plagues unfold, it becomes clear that our ancestors need to get out of Egypt. Pragmatically, all they needed to do was to pack up their belongings, gather wealth, and get out of dodge. But God understood that our ancestors required more than the satisfaction of their basic human needs—they needed the spiritual tools which would help them to make meaning and engage with the future. So God constructs a ritual for them. They are to sacrifice a lamb, and paint the blood on the doorposts, and gather in family units for a particular feast. They are to eat in the night and set off in the day light. That ritual was a moment of perfect balance—a moment in which our ancestors filled their bellies and satisfied their souls. They couldn’t make it out of Egypt without food and water and clothing, but they also couldn’t make it out without spiritual connection and meaning.
We are no different. Though we can subsist on paychecks deposited, bills paid, calories eaten, our souls crave more than the fulfillment of basic physical needs. Our souls are hungry for meaning. Our hearts crave connection. We need to carve out the time for our own spiritual transformation—whatever that may look like. We can set aside time every day to be present to the needs of our souls. We can take 20 minutes in the morning to meditate or spend time with God davenning, we can write our books and do our crafts, we can make the time to spend with loved ones and to schmooze with friends. We can help our children too—we can make sure that our teens have time for Jewish engagement and time for school. The truth is, there is no scarcity of time, when we are conscious of all our needs, we can plant seeds for the future just as we harvest the bounty of the present moment.
Which brings me back to Sadiman. Over the course of 19 years, Sadiman planted more than 11,000 banyan trees over 250 acres of land. His theory proved to be correct—the banyan trees that he planted were able to retain the groundwater from the rainy season and stabilized the environment. His village is no longer threatened by wildfires—his trees have grown into a luscious forest once again and with flowing rivers, his community is no longer at risk. And he is seen as a hero who changed the fate of an entire community.
It’s time for us to plant seeds. Seeds of spiritual transformation. Seeds of spiritual connection. Not just seeds for today, but seeds for tomorrow. The future depends on us.