The harvest was and is a time of celebration (or in bad years intense mourning); a successful harvest means that there will be enough food for the winter, and that famine would be averted for another year. Today in first world countries we are part of a global market and little feel the effects of famines. Yet in Africa and parts of Asia they still pose a significant threat. Here in Japan we had the tiniest taste last winter with a butter shortage, due to a bad winter for cows in Hokkaido. Markets rationed customers to only one or perhaps two packs of butter, causing no doubt great suffering and deprivation.
Non-destructive rain sufficient for growth is one of the principal necessities for a good harvest. Therefore water may play a central role in rituals of thanksgiving, which also are prayers of hope for the future seasons. Several years ago Shelley and I just happened upon a small local matsuri here in Tokyo. The drums summoned us to the small neighborhood procession near our hotel. Somewhat inebriated chanting young people enthusiastically carried their mukoshi through the tiny streets, and as they passed, the watching bystanders sprayed and threw water over them. This strongly reminded me of Sukkot’s focus on rain (expressed though the sound of the shaking lulov) and by a memory of shooting water (or spray ribbon, etc) at the kittled davener (prayer leader) during the Geshem (rain) prayer on Shemini Atzeret. In India the spring holiday of Holi has a similar water spraying custom. These rituals express the life giving importance of rain, yet for many of us its lack is only expressed in brown lawns with dead grass, and perhaps dirty cars about which we bitterly complain.
This year I have been very engrossed in the processes within the matsori that we have experienced, trying to understand underlying motivations beyond mere celebration. Interestingly, the one most evident over the past few weeks has been creation of community, both in the support of social structure and in the bringing together of disparate units in the creation of a harmonious whole.
Many people make a matsori possible, and there are clear distinctions in roles that form and support the implicit and explicit social structures of the community. These roles (to some degree addressed by me elsewhere in a previous blog) create a pyramid of participants, with very different roles in the event, and perhaps within the community as a whole. Often at a matsori these distinctions are indicated by differing costumes. The mass of volunteer participants, usually those who pull drums, or carry the mukoshi (portable shrines) wear simple uniform hopi coats (and sometimes not much else), while a small group of more senior volunteers wear more elaborate hopi coats. The most formally garbed are a much smaller group of very old men and women who wear a special ukata (cotton summer kimono) designed for the event.
The matsori also brings together disparate groups both at a micro level (as discussed in connection with the Nikko Yayoi Sai Matsuri in a previous blog), but also at a broader macro level. Similar to the Nikko festival, the Akasaka Hikawa Shrine Matsuri which Shelley and I attended this past Sunday creates a broader sense of community within disparate groups within the Minato City ward. The matsuri featured a giant procession of 15 mukoshi (each with a large entourage), drums, musicians and a lead dashi or float. As I watched it became quickly evident that each mukoshi belonged to a different shrine or community group within the ward, as each had its own mass of young and older volunteers, ready to enthusiastically carry it through the streets, and each entourage proudly wearing their own colorful hopi coat. Joining together in a giant matsori and procession was clearly a way of unifying the larger ward community.
But a matsori also can create a spirit of unity in a very different way, on a much more macro level of city or even country. Thinking about Japan as largely Shinto and/or Buddhist is a giant simplification. On an obvious level there are many other religions including older foreign traditions, and many new indigenous traditions present in the country. Less obviously, the terms Shinto and Buddhist are simplifications of vastly diverse traditions with numerous sects and sub-sects often with their own Kami or focus Buddha, scriptures and traditions. The presence and festivals of each of these traditions within Tokyo (or Japan) create a vibrant city culture, and together help to create a Japanese whole enriched by diversity.
Tokyo is also a city of immigrants, not necessarily or primarily from outside Japan, but rather incomers from small communities all over Japan. These immigrants have brought their traditions, and often matsuri from their home villages to the great metropolis. It is not uncommon to find these immigrants (often with the help of their home communities) celebrating their imported festival with their new Tokyo neighbors. Indeed, even festivals from outside Japan have become part of the celebratory schedule of the city. All these diverse festivals enrich the cultural life of Tokyo, and like the Akasaka Hikawa Matsori help to shape a shared sense of community.
Interestingly, immigrants also form a major theme in many matsuri, as represented by the presence of the Seven Lucky Gods (discussed in an earlier blog, “In Search of ... The Lucky Seven”). The Schichifukujin include Ebisu, Daikoku, Benton, Fukurokoju, Hotai, Jurojin, and Bishamon, who visit Japan on their treasure ship Takarabune. Interestingly, these seven are drawn from Chinese, Japanese and Indian sources. Indeed, only Ebisu, a Shinto kami of fishing, is a native Japanese deity. Yet, coming as immigrants on their ship (perhaps in a way as refugees) these diverse gods together bring luck to Japan.
These themes came together for me this holiday season as I have read of the refugee crisis inundating much of the world. Sadly, the reaction of many has not been welcoming, as borders close and intolerance rises. Their presence is often greeted with fear and loathing, rather than with a spirit of acceptance, kindness and mercy. Some countries lag behind their people, and in others people lag behind their leaders, with a sum result that not nearly enough has been done to help suffering people.
Stephen Harper of Canada claims, for example, that Canada need not help more refugees, but instead by attacking Isis will solve the problem, as if bombing the region will stem the tide of suffering refugees. Yet, Canada has always prided itself on providing a positive response to human tragedies around the globe. I have also heard many say, “there are other countries with greater responsibility than ours; let them help these people”. Yet, are we not all part of one human family, with equal responsibility for all its members?
I am saddened to hear people in my own community, and friends on Facebook close their hearts and minds to suffering. Often, I think it is built on fear of the “other,” people we don't understand, and who may not yet understand us. We look at the suffering people and with our fear we only see stereotypes – we perceive in our minds “Arab” or “Muslim” tropes so that instead of people we see terrorists. Yet maybe it would be good to remember Roosevelt’s words, “that the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”
Yet, on Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the creative processes. Some suggest that the holiday celebrates the first day; the beginning of creation, while others suggest it is the 6th, the day when humanity was created. This year the second answer speaks to me because of its focus on the entire human community.
The rabbis expend a good deal of thought on the nature of humanity. They most often focus on the concept of universal, and also of the importance of each individual as a unique human being.
Perhaps the most interesting question examined in several texts found in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a), asks why was one human being – Adam – created while all other animals were created in their multitudes? There are many answers given to this question.
One answer, made famous by Schindler’s clearly establishes the importance of each human being, no matter who he or she is. The Talmud asks, “Why does the Torah state that one human being was created? To teach that if one saves a single human life it is as if one has saved the entire world.” (The Talmudic dictum on the value of saving a human life is also echoed with an identical formulation in the Quran 2:190.) To the author of this statement, each of us represents a whole world of potential, both within ourselves and within our descendants. Therefore, each of us is important and unique.
In a second answer, each individual’s uniqueness is also stressed in a parable interpreting the concept of creation in the image of God. “The greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, is thus demonstrated. For, when a man mints coins from one die, each one is the same as the rest. But, when the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, coined each person with the die of Adam, each one is different." (Bereshit Rabba 24:7)
The text from the Talmud adds an additional explanation for the creation of a single human, which stresses even more explicitly the necessity, stemming from creation, of accepting and embracing diversity. “Man was created alone for the sake of peace. So that one man would not say to another, my father was greater than your father.” In this text the Talmud explicitly rejects any view of superiority between the peoples of the world.
Interestingly, when thinking of a "Golden Rule" for humanity, people often quote “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Leviticus 19:18). Yet there is a much more profound verse in the same section of the Torah, namely verse 19:34, “The stranger who resides with you should be treated the same as the native born, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Obligations to the stranger, and the necessity of creating a world where care is provided for strangers and indeed all who are disadvantaged, forms an important refrain throughout the Jewish tradition. Judaism has always stressed that experience is the great educator. When Jews look back at our history we are obligated not to see it just as events in the past, but rather as events that we ourselves participate in, and which give us insights into how to shape our lives.
Perhaps the most important set of commandments built on experience are those that stem from the time that our people were slaves in Egypt. The Torah teaches that this experience should not teach bitterness, or even hatred of the Egyptians, rather we are commanded to learn compassion and obligation for those outside the community. “You shall not wrong the stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:20). We, as a people, knew what it was to be oppressed as strangers in a strange land. We knew that the stranger was easily oppressed in the ancient – as well as the modern-world, since he did not have a family or community on which to depend. Therefore experience – and God – demands that we treat the stranger with respect and even love.
The importance of this law is indicated by the number of times that it is mentioned in the Torah. The rabbis of the Talmud count thirty-six occurrences of commandments based on the obligation to remember the stranger and treat him/her well (Baba Metzia. 59b). Indeed, the obligation to the stranger goes well beyond the avoidance of oppression. In addition to the negative formulations of “not wronging him,” (Lev. 19:33) and “not subverting his rights” (Deut. 24:17) we are also positively commanded to “rejoice with the stranger,” (Deut. 16:11) and to “love him as yourself” (Lev. 19:34).
To me the challenge of refugees, whether from the violence of the Middle East, from famine in Africa, or other global catastrophes is the defining moment of the beginning of the 21st century. Have we learned from the horrors of the twentieth century, or are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Eighty years ago the world ignored the plight of refugees from the Nazi horrors and millions people died, and more recently we were largely silent at the horrors of Ruanda and Pol Pot followed by the deaths of millions. How many more people need to die before we realize that each of us is responsible one for the other?
Like in the Japanese festivals our communities are enriched by their diversity, and like the lucky gods, the people who are now refugees can often bring unexpected gifts. Indeed, each of them has a potential, as our traditions teach, to build an entire world. Marc Chagall, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Marlene Dietrich (to name but a few), all were refugees who enriched their new countries and indeed the world.
This year as the New Year begins let us move beyond fear to love. We need to call on our governments to welcome these “strangers,” who one day can be neighbors. We need to provide the supports needed so that all of us can help to alleviate this global crisis. This year, let us rejoice with the stranger, and love them as we love ourselves.