For the past two months I have been grappling with the realities of living in a developing country, where issues such as environmental degradation are of no real importance- at least when compared to the plethora of social justice issues that Nepali people face on a daily basis. Whether it is the large proportion of child laborers, rampant malnutrition or the repercussions of a decade long civil war- this country is certainly not short of problems, bottom of the list being the environment.
Nepal is a small country of about 26 million people, sandwiched between two of the largest nations in the world- India and China. In 2010 the Human Development Report ranked Nepal third among 135 developing countries in terms of progress made in the last four decades. However, despite the improvements Nepal still faces an upward struggle in fields such as health and education. So where does this leave the environment?
While the majority of Nepal’s landscape is breathtakingly gorgeous, I have had the privilege of volunteering in Kathmandu- a city that sits in a valley and collects dust like its job depends on it. I live in an area of Kathmandu called Kalimati, where those on the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder reside. There you will find the Bagmati River overflowing with garbage, piles of plastic being burned on every other corner and a large city dump. I wouldn’t call it a slum, but it is certainly very devastated.
I have been volunteering with Tevel B’Tzedek (TBT), an Israeli NGO that sends Israelis and Diaspora Jews to the developing world to volunteer in impoverished communities. For the past month I have been working at the Kuleswore primary school, located right next to the Bagmati River. On clear days you can see the Himalaya range from the school, and most days you cannot. Due its location, the school boasts a constant pungent smell of garbage, and the schoolyard is littered with trash (as trash collection is reserved for only those who can afford the luxury). It is apparent that what is lacking is a sense of urgency or concern to the gravity of the situation.
Nevertheless, when a school garden project was proposed, the school fully supported the idea and initiative- who wouldn’t want to bring some more beauty to this place? The garden will be used as a tool to raise awareness about the environment, and hopefully bring some aesthetic pleasure to a school that so desperately needs it. School garden projects are no revolutionary idea, especially with the advent of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. School gardens in the United States are generally used in a number of subjects from science and art to nutrition and sustainability.
In Nepal this idea is not as widespread, and the idea of growing vegetables simply as a learning tool has not caught on. Food and water remain a large issue, and nothing should be wasted. With this in mind, we intend to grow plants that require little water and stick to flowers and shrubs.
As I tried this week to think of the best way to connect the school garden project to Jewish tradition, I came across myriad of biblical texts, commentary and source sheets about the environment. However, none of these ancient texts really spoke to me.
Then in a true Chanukah miracle, I had the honor of spending Shabbat with Melila Hellner, a professor of kabbalah at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. And what did we discuss? None other than a biblical text related to the environment- straight from Genesis. “A river flows from Eden to water the Garden…” (Genesis 2:10)
This parsha is quoted most often in the Zohar, and for good reason. The Zohar, which is the foundational literature of Jewish mystical thought, notes that the river is a metaphor for the world that is coming- continuously. This world is a world of infinite blessings, and to attain it we are responsible to constantly water the garden. The sages say that the river of blessings is dependent on our good work. And without our efforts the river will fill with garbage. How much more literal could we get in Kalimati?
In the same way that Jews need to awaken and become proactive in bringing the river of blessings into their lives, so too do activists. Activism is in a sense an opening of sources, while stagnation of the status quo is a clogging of them. We have the power and the responsibility to bring in the flow of blessings into our world.
“This river and how it waters this garden, how it works and how it behaves, all are dependent on man. Through his deeds he irrigates the garden and channels water to it, he increases its plans and causes them to grow, he increases its fruits, he refines it and fertilizes it through the secret of his labor.” Here Rabbi Moshe Cordevero, a leading mystic sage living in Safed in the 16th century, clearly spells it out for us. If we want to be awakened then it is completely up to us. In other words (Gandhi’s to be exact) we must be the change we want to see in the world.
We have the power to irrigate our souls with the flow of blessings just as we have the power to irrigate our literal gardens through social activism. This goes both ways though.
“And on the contrary, he is liable to dry up the spring and the source, and to cause the river to become parched and the garden to lay fallow and desolate, and to decrease its plants and cut them down.”
The way I see it, the metaphorical and physical garden is one in the same. We are here in this world to cultivate our gardens, to actively seek change and to enhance our experience in this world.
Rabbi Moshe Cordevero continues by saying “…everything he does, whether by deed or whether by thought, whether by intent or by context, matters.” Our intentions are also what matters in this cultivation. As activists we are always trying to bring a little more light into a dark world. And what better time to bring light into the darkness than in the month of Kislev?
As we light our Hanukkah candles this year, bringing light to dark, we can all remember Rabbi Moshe Cordevero’s words and be the rulers of our rivers- whether spiritually, physically or mentally. We have the power to bring positive change into our lives, and allow the river of blessings to flow freely into our gardens.
This Hanukkah I will be putting in the hard work in trying to transform the darkness of the environmental degradation in Kathmandu, and bring forth a bit more light and blessings to the Kuleswore School. While I am working with a physical garden, I believe these lessons can be applied to any aspect of our lives. So, which garden will you be cultivating this season? How will you bring a little more light into the darkness?
Anabelle Harari is a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College and writes about food as an agent of change on her local food blog. She attended the Hazon Food Conference in August as a member of Pursue’s food justice cohort. Anabelle is currently volunteering with an Israeli social justice organization in Nepal, and you can connect with her on Twitter @thelocalbelle.