BLESSING THE SEA – ISSUE 19, January 2023 “With Peace from Panama”

Rio Gatun, Panama © Lane Igoudin, 2023

“The forest is our mother,” an Emberá woman explains to the camera. “My daughter and I will look for a ‘chagra’ tree I saw in the jungle. We will go and cut it because we use it to weave.” Later in the forest with younger women, “Daughters, look over here because this ‘chagra’ has a mother, and you always ask the mother before cutting.” Turning to the tree: “I will cut you short because I need you, will you give me permission?” She pauses and asks again, “Can I cut?” “You can cut,” someone says.

From the documentary “Being Emberá

How often do we ask for permission from nature instead of just taking what we need?

I just returned from a 10-day trip to Panama with my daughter, where the most memorable experience to me was not seeing the canal, nor the skyscraper forest of Panama City, but learning from the Emberá –

the indigenous inhabitants of the Panamanian rainforest about respect, interconnectedness of all life, but also of the dangers of mixing things that should not be mixed.

I recount our visit to their village in a mini-travelogue.

At a used bookstore in Panama City, I picked up a small, yellowed book published in 1982 – and what a joy it was!

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez depicts a murder in a coastal town in Colombia (of which Panama was part until 1903), a murder everyone anticipates and either abets, does nothing about, or thinks someone else will prevent it. Marquez’s fast reportage, grisly, funny, and magical, reconstructs the sights, smells, and the traditions of the region. Highly recommended.

My other book recommendation is The Magician, Irish novelist Colm Tóibín’s sweeping fictionalized biography of Thomas Mann, Germany’s greatest 20th c. writer – and a married and closeted public figure. I loved it and reviewed it for Lambda Literary. Take a look, and please support this wonderful organization.

Speaking of writing, my parenting essay “The iPad Wars” has been republished in the online StoryHouse Writers’ Showcase of The Preservation Foundation, a literary non-profit “preserving the extraordinary stories of ‘ordinary’ people” since 1976.” It originally appeared in the 2018 issue of The Citadel, the literary journal published at Los Angeles City College.

A couple of illuminating Jewish teachings that I came upon recently.

Alanna Apfel’s article in the Hanukkah issue of The Jewish Home alerted me to an interesting Talmud ruling (Shabbat 21b) regarding the menorah candles that have accidentally gone out – do not relight them.

Why? The sages explain that the commandment to light the Hanukkah candles is already fulfilled.

This teaches us, Apfel elucidates, that“we do not have to be perfect to succeed in fulfilling the mitzvah. Showing up with the genuine intent to fulfill [it] and putting our best effort forward to do the best we can is enough. Perhaps it’s more than enough, maybe it’s even perfect.”

In Apfel’s interpretation, “our imperfections . . . are the very vehicles for perfection in their truest form.” In other words, it’s the commitment and effort that count, not the achievement; work, not perfection.

At one point in the Book of Exodus which we read in January, Moses asks his father-in-law Jethro for the permission to return to Egypt. Most Bibles (e.g., King James, NIV, JPS, even Sefaria, I checked…) translate Jethro’s reply incorrectly as “Go in peace,” substituting the preposition ‘to’ in the original with ‘in’ to align it with a common English idiom.

Talmud (Berachot 64a) picks up on this linguistic nuance, comparing it to another place in the Bible where “Go in peace” leads to death. The sages advise to use Jethro’s “Go to peace” to greet a departing friend lest the departing becomes departed.

Rav Kook takes it one step further in his commentary on ‘to’ vs. ‘in’ (Ein Ayah, II 396): We should warn our friends at the start of their journey: know that peace and tranquility are far from us.

Proceed towards your destination, but do not expect that the path itself will be peaceful and easy. The road is full of impediments; only by overcoming them will you reach peace and completeness.

Go to peace, my dear friends, and see you next time!


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