Social Action Education as Spiritual Practice – Lessons from Standing Rock, by Rabbi Rain Zohav

Every time we take action, we are also educating. If we are lobbying, we are educating our legislators. If we are protesting, we are educating the public and the “powers that be”. And we are educating ourselves in how to be effective and live our values.

In this moment, the Water Protectors at Standing Rock are a strong example of the intertwining of education, action, and spiritual practice. I was privileged to be able to answer the call of Chief Looking Horse for clergy to come to Standing Rock to pray and be in solidarity with the water protectors on Sunday, Dec. 4. This is perhaps the first lesson for allies to any cause: Listen and wait to be invited if you are supporting groups whose oppression you do not share. In the Jewish tradition, our central prayer, the Sh’ma, is all about listening. Listening to the Divine who is One: transcendent, immanent and reflected in the face of every human being.

Before leaving, I read the Seven Lakota Values of the Oceti Sakown camp: Prayer. Respect. Compassion. Honesty. Generosity. Humility. Wisdom. See full explanations of these here.

While at the camp, I tried to keep the principle of being “in a constant state of Prayer and Ceremony” in mind at all times. This is one way to actualize social action as spiritual practice: by bringing a prayerful spirit to your action, creating and participating in ceremony as you go. I experienced this at Oceti Sakowin Camp almost continuously. The sacred fire was kept burning, which reminded me of the ner tamid – the eternal light – that was kept burning in our Temple and is lit above the ark that holds the Torah scrolls in our synagogues.

Living up to communal values is another way to practice social action as a spiritual practice, and the water protectors are embodying their values constantly. Respect, especially for elders, was like nothing I have ever experienced. From the moment I got out of my car, white hair quite visible, people ran to help. They helped us carry the food and water we had brought, they helped me navigate the flowing mud that had melted the ice on the dirt road, they helped me on the snow that was full of sinkholes where we walked, and they helped us back out when it was time to leave. By my second day at the camp, I had learned that I could simply put out my hand and someone would take it on the mud or ice.

This kind of respect, that embodies generosity and compassion, was also evident throughout the camp. There were eight communal kitchens operating; full of food donated by people near and far and kept open for warm(er) communal sleeping places at night. Folks wandered through the camps offering food: apples, protein bars, Latin American sweets all the way from Cleveland. No one took if they didn’t need and those of us who were only there for a short time were asked to give more than we took.

I believe that all of our spiritual traditions, including the secular traditions that motivate so many in social justice movements, emphasize sharing of resources. At Standing Rock, this value was lived.

Humility was also thankfully evident in the interfaith service I took part in while there. All of the allies spoke briefly, giving the Native Americans the vast majority of “air time”. It became apparent that part of our work there was once again to listen, to witness, and to hold the sacred space. This is spiritual social action in practice.

The wisdom of the Native American elders was also evident when they asked us not to march to the bridge, but rather to continue praying and to encircle the camp with our bodies in prayer. And the clergy attempted to do this, although the camp was huge. For several hours we held the space. And then we heard a great shout go up from the area of the sacred fire and went to see what had happened. And we heard the good news that the Army Corp of Engineers had denied the easement.

And we let ourselves rejoice. Another important part of spiritual social action education: celebrating victories, even if only of a momentary win, not the entire agenda. I can’t ever remember in my long history of social action, being at a protest and hearing right then of a win. This is a moment that will stay with me forever in deepest gratitude. The closest feeling might be hearing of a candidate that I supported winning and being at the celebration.  Even though we knew that the oil company would not simply give up and go away, we allowed ourselves a moment of joy, tears and prayer.

Rabbi Rain Zohav serves, with Rabbi Lori Shaller, as co-director of Educating for Spirituality.  This post is cross-posted from Tikkun.