By Isabel deKoninck and Joseph Berman
There is nothing in the world more grievous than poverty the most terrible of sufferings. Our teachers said: All the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other. Midrash Rabbah Exodus 31:12
In January we traveled to El Salvador as a part of the American Jewish World Service’s rabbinical school delegation. The trip was designed to bring rabbinical students from all of the major rabbinical schools together to see the work of AJWS, learn about sustainable development and the impact of globalization, and discover new ways to bring concepts of global justice into our emerging rabbinates.
Much of our time in El Salvador was spent in Ciudad Romero, a small community nearly two hours outside of San Salvador. In many ways, Ciudad Romero is representative of both the extreme poverty that afflicts El Salvador, as well as the kind of dynamic hope that is made possible by grassroots ingenuity and funding from organizations like AJWS.
In El Salvador, we learned the true meaning of poverty. Most of the families living in the community were resettled in Ciudad Romero after living in exile during much of the civil war. Families live in small cinderblock homes on dirt roads where live stock roam freely. Many women raise their families on their own as many of the men were either killed in the gruesome civil war, or have left for America (not a few illegally) in order to make money to send home to their families. Many children only get elementary education, and even that is a struggle for the community to fund. What is most shocking is that Ciudad Romero is one of the better off communities in its region, the roads are planned in a grid, each family has its own latrine, and there is a community center and organizing committee that brings hope to this impoverished place.
As we encountered the devastating poverty in El Salvador we began to ask why? Why is this place so poor? Why does the gap between the haves and have-nots continue to widen in our world? Can anything be done to change things?
What we learned were the difficult lessons of internal political struggle, and the crippling effects of US international economic and military policies and free trade agreements. The civil war that pit workers, farmers and the Church against landowners and the ruling class (backed by the United States) was long, bloody, and destroyed El Salvador. In many ways this civil war was a war about land, power, and poverty. The economic situation for the tenant farmers and day laborers in El Salvador became so untenable that many felt the only way to affect change was through uprising, and for many this meant through violence.
For many people of faith, however, this struggle was a religious and non-violent one. Led by the Archbishop Oscar Romero, many of the peasants began to conceive of their struggle in biblical terms; a modern day exodus from Egypt and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Body of the people. Many in El Salvador, especially those in Ciudad Romero (named after the late Archbishop), live their faith and politics as one, affirming a God of this worldly salvation. It was in part this religious movement that led to the end of the civil war in 1991 and helped affect some minor progress towards greater equality and real democracy.
Still, even after the war, though certain aspects of political and economic life in El Salvador have improved, poverty and inequality still grip most of the nation.
There is nothing in the world more grievous than poverty the most terrible of sufferings. Our teachers said: All the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other.
In El Salvador we understood this Midrash perhaps truly for the first time. Poverty is the root of so many systemic problems poor health, poor education, the inability of communities to develop and thrive, or even to fight to protect their own rights. Feeling hypersensitive of our privilege as Americans, we wanted to know what we could do to help.
While in Ciudad Romero we were the guests of La Coordinadora the coordinating committee for the Lempa Valley Region, and a grassroots organization that is responsible for many of the successes of Ciudad Romero and a partner of AJWS. As an organization that is bringing hope and visions of sustainable development to El Salvador, we asked, as Americans how can we help to end this kind of global poverty.
The simplest answer was that we should continue supporting organizations like AJWS that work with grassroots groups to help cultivate sustainable development. The more complex and difficult response was that the only way to affect real, grand, systemic change, is to help change global economic policies. “Free trade is crippling us,” they said. “How can we hope to build our economy and our small farming communities when the United States forces us into trade agreements that benefit only wealthy Americans, and big business here in El Salvador.”
They asked us to go home, support fair trade, work to counter CAFTA, and work to educate ourselves and our communities about the complexities of globalization and the possibilities and challenges of global markets.
We spent only eight days in El Salvador, but in those eight days, we learned first hand why our Rabbis felt that poverty was a greater affliction than any other. As we left El Salvador we knew that poverty’s greatest challenge is its challenge to those of us with privilege – how much are we willing to give of ourselves so that every person in the world can have a safe place to sleep, enough to eat, and the opportunity to pursue their modest dreams.
The 35th Day of the Omer: Malkhut in Hod
...Therefore, may it be Your will, Yah our God, and the God of our ancestors, that in the merit of the Omer Count that I have counted today, may there be a tikkun (fixing) for whatever damages I have caused in the sefirah of Malkhut in Hod. May I be cleansed and sanctified with the holiness of Above, and through this may abundant bounty flow in all the worlds. And may it make a tikkun for our lives, spirits, and souls from all sediment and damage, may it cleanse us and sanctify us with Your exalted holiness. Amen Selah! Excerpt from the Kabbalistic concluding blessings for counting the Omer
Today is the 35th day of the Omer. For the kabbalists, this day, like every one of the 49 days of the Omer, represents more than just a day leading up to the holiday of Shavuot. Rather, each day becomes a time to taken (fix) a different aspect of divine revelation within ourselves and thereby bring that aspect of God into the world, coming closer to the time when the world will be characterized by wholeness and unity rather than brokenness and division. The sefirah, or sphere, for the 35th day of the Omer is Malkhut she'beh Hod, or Kingdom within Splendor. Hod, the sefirah for this week, is described as one of the sources of prophecy in our world. And Malkhut stands for the Shekhinah, the source of all life and the manifestation of God in our world.
Our time in El Salvador gave us the distinct impression that there are certainly prophets in our world, like Archcbishop Romero, who draw from the holiness of above, but that they are few and far between. At the same time, the poverty and inequality we witnessed made it seem as if there is a very real absence of the Shekhinah in parts of our world. We recalled the words of the Jewish prophet Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote: “God himself is not at home in the universe. He is not at home in a universe where His will is defied and where his kingship is denied. God is in exile; the world is corrupt. The universe itself is not at home.” (The Insecurity of Freedom, 258).
Questions for Thought/Discussion