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Pirkei Avot, Passover & the Mashpee Wampanoag

Dear Jewish Community,

I hope everyone is healthy and well, staying strong and resilient, and finding new sources of communication and connection. Check out this beautiful Tkhine When an Epidemic Breaks Out (1916) – a non-canonized, Yiddish Ashkenaz prayer translated by Noam Lerman and others.

I have been attending SVARA’s daily Mishnah studies and wanted to share something that is sticking with me from a recent beit midrash (study session). We have been breaking down Masechet Avot, Chapter 6, Mishnah 6, a portion of which reads:

הַמַּכִּיר אֶת מְקוֹמוֹ, וְהַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ

and which translates as: [Torah is acquired by] one who knows their place/Place, and one who rejoices in their lot.

One way I read this passage is as encouragement to be in firm solidarity with indigenous people. I offer the following as a project for Pesach, as a call to action, and as a set of learning opportunities for folks in quarantine, especially those with children.


To know my place/Place is to recognize whose homelands I live within and the peoples impacted by my being here – my own people included, and wherever ‘here’ is. To know my place/Place is to learn about respective struggles for sovereignty and survival, and to show up with integrity in active support. To know my place/Place is to wrestle with the complexity of being both a displaced, diasporic Jew and a European settler. (The confluence of your identities may be different.)

The Wampanoag have resided in their homeland for over 12,000 years. The year 2020 marks the 400-year anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower at Patuxet (Plymouth) within Wampanoag territory. Instead of honoring this anniversary by celebrating the endurance and cultural survivance of the Wampanoag, the Secretary of the Interior has revoked their reservation status. This action effectively stunts the Wampanoag’s ability to govern itself as a nation and to provide to its people vital services such as housing, education, health care, language learning, and culturally relevant agriculture. 

This issue is important to me because, as a Jew, I understand something about displacement, about dispossession of life and lands, about state-sanctioned violence against my people, and about the struggle for cultural continuance.

In many Jewish communities, in the JOFEE (Jewish Outdoor Food Farming and Environmental Education) world, and in the progressive Jewish world at large, this issue is relevant because the forces of colonization that harm indigenous communities, earth and food systems, and people’s access to healthy and culturally relevant foods are the same forces that perpetuate antisemitism and exploitive, extractive economic paradigms – purportedly forces that our movements seek to change.

I rejoice in my lot. I am thankful for the collective resilience and resourcing I have in the Jewish world. We have means to strengthen our connections to Jewish life and to build vibrant, earth-connected, ecologically-aware Jewish communities. Will you take a few minutes of your time to support the Mashpee Wampanoag in their efforts, as well?

Here are some actions you can do:

1. (Teach your children to) Call your Congress people and government officials. 
Two key bills will reverse the federal government’s action and prevent similar actions from happening to other native nations. These bills have already passed the House with strong bipartisan support, but are stalled in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

  • H.R. 312 / S. 2628 — The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, which effectively reverses the Secretary of the Interior’s action.
  • H.R. 375 / S. 2808 —  An amendment/update to the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which effectively protects other native nations from similar actions. 

Call Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs at (202) 224-2551 and urge him to support the forward movement of the two bills. Then, call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask to speak to your Senators (or find your senator here), and urge them to support these two bills. Finally, call Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt at 202-208-3100 x3 and call for his efforts to disestablish the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation to be halted and reversed.

2. Sign this petition calling on Congress to pass the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act. 

3. Engage in these or other discussion questions with your children, friends and loved ones:

  • What is a native nation? What is a reservation (reserve, in Canada)? What role do reservations play in native survivance?
  • Who are the Mashpee Wampanoag? What do they have to do with you/us?
  • Where do your ancestors come from? If they immigrated from an old place/Place, where did they come from, and where did they go to? Who was there when they arrived? How did their arrival affect the people who were already there? (This is a helpful starting place for learning about the tribes and treaties in the places we live across Turtle Island/North America.)
  • If your ancestors were already in place/Place when colonizers arrived, where were/are they from and how were/are they affected by colonization? 
  • What might indigenous solidarity have to do with Jewishness? With Pesach and liberation?

4. Add an acorn to your seder plate and discuss its meaning.
One way some people acknowledge and explore the impacts of colonization at Passover is to place an acorn – a staple food of many Turtle Island (North America) native nations – on the seder plate.

Rabbi Zelig Golden taught me that in Genesis, when Avraham seeks wisdom in the place/Place of Shechem, he receives divine wisdom through “אלון מורה” (alon moreh). While this phrase is usually translated simply as “the oak trees of Mamre,” Zelig explains,

“…the literal translation of “אלון” (em>alon) is “oak tree” and “מורה” (moreh) is “teacher.” It is also telling that the word for “advice,” עצה (etzah), contains the same root as the word for tree, עץ (eytz).”

From Abraham’s Oaks: Portal to the Divine by Rabbi Zelig Golden

Our Jewish ancestors have thus been listening to the wisdom of “teacher trees” for thousands of years. Do you know where to find an acorn? Do you know how to identify an oak tree in late winter/early Spring that does not yet have leaves? What wisdom might teacher trees have to offer you going into Pesach?

Here are some resources from native voices to learn more about the issue facing the Mashpee Wampanoag:

  1. This 12-minute video offers a detailed explanation of the legal issues and the timeline of events leading up to the federal government’s action last week.
  2. These media releases from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe offer up to date responses from Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell.
  3. This online learning space provides a Wampanoag perspective on Plymouth 400.
  4. Lesson Three of the Dawnland teacher’s guide by Upstander Project explores colonial-indigenous governance systems and the settling of Wampanoag territory.

Please engage with this material, and please pass this information on to folks in other communities and in states other than where you live.

Have a blessed and beautiful Pesach.

Towards Tikkun,
Many Thanks,
Cara Michelle Silverberg

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