Bireh Doleket – Our Burning Fortress

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, She Natan Lanu Hizdamnut L’takein Et HaOlam.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Creator of this majestic beautiful universe, our tiny planet included, and everyone and everything on it, we thank you for giving us this opportunity to repair the world. Amen.

I believe we do still have a window of opportunity here, to repair our planet, to repair our relationship to her bounty, at least to some degree. Yet, I don’t have to tell you that that window is quickly closing — more quickly than we’d like to believe.

There is a 2000 year old midrash, a Jewish story, about a traveler who was venturing hither and yon, and saw something called a birah doleket, a burning fortress. The traveler said to herself, “Is it possible that such a fortress has no governor?”  At that moment, the master of the fortress peeked out the window at her and said, “I am the master of the fortress!”

So too, way back when Abraham was beginning his own spiritual discovery, he looked around at the world, and asked the same question, “Is it possible that this world has no governor?” And the Holy and Blessed One peeked out the window at him and said, “I am the Master of the world.”

My friends, our world is burning. This fortress, this home that protects us from the vacuum of nothingness, is burning! Our home is heating up, and we are its larcenists, and we are the ones who are trapped inside. We might be tempted to say, well, I’m in the living room, but it’s just the bedroom that is on fire. Or, it’s just the kitchen; we can just do take-out from now on. The problem is, someone’s sleeping in the bedroom and eating in the kitchen right now.

We are letting our housemates die, literally die, and, my friends, we are next on the list. Make no mistake, and it pains me so deeply to say this, but we all live in this house, and the fire will spread, and no one will be spared the consequences.

But all is not lost, not by a long shot, not if we remember to ask the traveler’s question: Whose house is this? When people of faith ask this question, we remember that God is here too, here with us in this house, trying in so many ways to respond: “I am the God of Creation; I built this place, and I care deeply about what happens here!” You’ll notice that even though the house was burning, God did not take the fire escape, but instead God was still inside, trying to be part of the solution. When our leaders look out at our world and say, “I belong to this, and this belongs to me, and it’s my responsibility to protect it,” we too will understand better the ways in which the Divine works in our world.

We hear God’s voice in all creation around us, peeking out of the eyes of the bees and amphibians who are among the first to be hardest hit.  Elijah heard God in the still, small voice, but that wasn’t loud enough for us to hear. We can hear you now, God, calling to us from a bomb cyclone in the middle of America last night, and thundersnows, and fire tornados, and mega tsumanis, and historic droughts…God’s warnings to us that we are not right with this planet.

See, when we don’t ask who’s birah this is, who’s house this, but instead, keep God hidden away, the distance is not a sign of God’s anger but instead of our forgetting to look.  We mistakenly think that our unending hunger and desire to consume the resources of this world will feed that empty place where God would be, where God still wants to be.

Through our heartbreak, we hear God calling for our compassionate response to death and pain and destruction. We feel God calling us to act, to mount massive action for the sake of our God and for the sake of our planet. We feel God calling us to organize some ‘Good Trouble,’ to rewrite the laws in favor of the planet and its inhabitants instead of companies and profits. We hear God calling to never give up the fight to change our course, to quench the thirst, to put out the fires, to create the Garden of Eden once again.

It’s important to note that the Birah Doleket, the burning fortress, can also be read in Hebrew as “the opposite.” Instead of burning, the birah doleket can also mean the illuminated house, the place from which light blazes forth, calling out its goodness, and richness and beauty. This burning house is also illuminated at the same time, for it is still the very throne of the Holy and Blessed One.

We still have a chance to stand beside God at the window of our burning and beautiful house, to plant our stake in equity and love and sustainability.

Im Lo Achshva, Eimatai – If not now, then when?

The house still has an open window with God standing in it. Who will join me there? It’s your home, it’s my home, it’s the home for my three children who will inherit a house that either burned to the ground or full of radiance and aglow with life. May God, and we, see fit to make it the latter.

This blog post initially was a presentation by Rabbi Lydia Medwin at Climate Reality Project’s Interfaith Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in March 2019. Rabbi Medwin serves at The Temple in Midtown Atlanta.

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