Nathan Elberg: Simple Truths: A Cree Indian Explains a 2,000 Year Old Rabbinic Teaching

From Israzine Nov., 2014: "Zionism, An Indigenous Struggle: Aboriginal Americans and the Jewish State"


Our Sages teach us that our livelihood is in the hands of God. While we have to go through the motions, our success has little to do with our machinations. Rather, it’s a reflection of what God has ascertained is best for us, whether it be immense wealth, terrible poverty, or somewhere in between. All is in the hands of God, and if we want financial success, we should address our request to heaven, rather than to the stockbroker.


It's a simple concept, and an easy principle for a pious person to accept intellectually. But it's much harder to believe in your gut. For example, when you have the opportunity to make extra money by cheating, is that money part of God's plans for you? Conversely, how will God protect your retirement savings when the CEO of the corporation in which you've invested commits massive fraud? If you recite a lot of Tehillim (psalms), is God going to suppress your boss's free will when you ask for a raise?

Two thousand years ago, when our Sages taught about our livelihood being in the hands of God, the economy was much simpler. If it rained, the farmers would be successful. If a Greek or Roman authority overtaxed the people, God could smite him, and solve the problem. If God sent forth the animals, hunters would be successful.

In succeeding centuries, in Babylonia, Spain, eastern Europe and elsewhere, the climate and other natural factors remained strong forces in the economy. Although trade, feudalism and war influenced people's well-being, the connection between livelihood and God was still clear.

With the industrial revolution, the western world turned its devotion to a new deity, progress. This theology placed the illusion of control in the hands of man. For the elite, for those controlling the means of production, the illusion seemed quite real. For the masses of workers, for the peasants, their livelihood became even more capricious. The weight of the burdens of the new taskmasters obscured the hand of God.

Robert Visitor, a Cree Indian living in the small community of Wemindji, taught me the meaning of Chazal's (our sages’) teaching about livelihood. I was a young anthropologist, visiting the Quebec coast of James Bay on behalf of the provincial native political association, doing research to fight the James Bay hydroelectric project.   Bobby and I had become friends, getting drunk together on the Anglican church's sacramental wine. Over the next few years, as I traveled back and forth to the James Bay coast, I always felt at home at Bobby's, and I tried to make him feel welcome when he visited the urban commune where I lived.


We were spending the winter in the sub-arctic forest in a region that was to be flooded by the hydro project, intending to trap all the fur-bearing animals. The nearest other people were fifty to a hundred miles away. There was no radio or telephone. The only roads were the rivers and lakes we paddled, or after freeze-up, walked along.


We had flown into the forest in the early fall. There were seventeen of us: three families, living in a teepee, going out on day-trips to set or check traps and fish nets. Our food was mainly fresh fish, rabbit, partridge and beaver, supplemented by oatmeal, coffee, tea and flour. Mostly, we lived off the land.


I didn't mind the minus-forty temperature. But I couldn't bring myself to stick my hands in a hole in the ice of the frozen lake to take the fish out of the net strung underneath. Bobby smiled, and explained that the water was warmer than the air.

The hunting, fishing, and trapping was successful.  Current anthropological research has indicated that many hunting societies lived relatively comfortable lives, much better off than the more "advanced" pastoral or farming societies that succeeded them. As I set rabbit traps, butchered a beaver, and filtered bugs out of the lake water, I had no thoughts about danger, hunger, or God doing anything not nice to me.


One November morning, nobody went hunting. We had freezing rain, and it was impossible to hunt, check fishnets, traps, or anything like that. At best, we could edge down the slippery path to the lake, re-open the hole in the ice, and draw drinking water.


On the second day of freezing rain, again nobody went hunting. No one seemed particularly concerned.


On the third day of freezing rain, I asked Bobby "what happens if the freezing rain keeps up?"


"We starve," he shrugged.

It was an interesting idea. But, I thought, "what if the federal government lowers interest rates to increase consumer spending? How about if the CEO announces a generous dividend? Lower taxes? Socialist revolution?"


These would not change anything. Nothing man could do would make any difference. If God kept the freezing rain going, we'd starve. If God improved the weather, we'd be fine.


This is a direct one-on-one relation with the concept that our livelihood is in G`d's hand. Bobby and his fellow Cree understood that teaching at a gut level. It wasn't an idea to be learned and integrated. It's part of the world. We don't have to be taught that the sky is above us, rain falls downward or that we get older over time. The Cree hunters of the northern forest know in the same way that our livelihood is in the hands of God.


We have been alienated from this knowledge by complex economies, high and low technology, and the mythology generated by progress. We can't know it instinctively, so we must rely on our Torah learning to allow us to grasp the wisdom hidden by the world around us.

A corollary of the teaching that our livelihood is in the hands of God is that we shouldn't worry about what we will eat tomorrow. When Bobby said "we'll starve," I could not be as blasé as him. I was concerned, and wanted to do something. Bobby knew that our fate was in God's hands, and was quite comfortable with it.

By the age of thirty-seven, he was periodically crippled by arthritis and bad medicine. He attributed the arthritis to traveling in the rain in the forest for many days. I blamed the bad medicine on government policies that treated natives as an annoying obligation. The hospital in Montreal had him travel twelve hundred miles to give him cases of aspirin, telling him to take twenty-four pills a day. Maybe the plan was to dissolve his stomach so they wouldn't have to bother with his arthritis, which on some days was so bad that he couldn't move out of bed. I brought him to my doctor, who changed Bobby's diet, eased the arthritis, and saved his stomach.

Bobby had a bad back. When he was a child in a church-run residential school, a teacher heard him speaking Cree, rather than English to a friend.  As punishment, the teacher smashed him on the back with a heavy stick. Decades later,  when beating and molesting young natives was no longer considered polite, the Chief in Wemindji told Bobby that he should file a claim for the damage he suffered from that punishment; he could probably get ten thousand dollars. As Bobby recounted this to me he was puzzled: what would he do with ten thousand dollars? Why would he need so much money? Bobby meant it. It wasn't a cliché or a bargaining point with him. It was him.

I've been in business negotiations with some of the wealthiest people in Canada. As they bargained over a transaction, they asked what difference it would make to get a better price; what difference would the extra money make in one's life?

Sitting on their tens of millions of dollars, those real-estate moguls did not impress me in their renunciation of the value of wealth. Bobby, who gave away his money as soon as he got it, who didn't have a bank account or even a phone, was really not interested in ten thousand dollars.

In Pirkei Avot , Ethics of the Fathers, we are told "Who is wealthy- he who is satisfied with his lot." It's a theme repeated in folk songs, in movies… It's usually written into the song or script by people with lots of money, and according to some is a capitalist plot to keep the poor from complaining about their impoverishment.


Bobby didn't calculate that he could use the money to buy some luxuries for his modest home, take a trip, or purchase a savings bond. Bent over by arthritis, without a penny to his name (and, at the time I last saw him, trying unsuccessfully to recover from a massive heart attack) Bobby was satisfied with what he had. It was his nature.


Bobby took me into his life, he disrupted his family, he traveled a thousand miles for me. If we went by bus, train, or chartered helicopter, it was the same to him. When I bought him an expensive shotgun as a gift, he didn't mind that it only worked properly with expensive shells. Bobby didn't have any money anyway, so whether the ammunition cost a lot or a little was irrelevant.

Bobby was a country & western singer. He considered himself Johnny Cash, but without the cash. He wrote what became a theme song for his people's resistance to the James Bay Hydro Project mentioned above. The refrain was straightforward:

Building dams on our land is not right

All the things we have will be destroyed

If you fellow Indians stand up and fight with all your might,

If you fellow Indians stand up and fight…


His people signed a multi­million dollar deal with the government, allowing the dams to be built, rivers diverted, hunting grounds flooded. It might have been a good deal had the government lived up to its obligations. Bobby was a bit upset when I satirically re-wrote his theme:


Building dams on our land is all right

Though the things we have will be destroyed

If you fellow Indians stand up and sign with all your might,

If you fellow Indians stand up and sign…

Pirkei Avot also teaches us that we are obliged to honor our teachers, even a person from whom we have learned only a single letter. Robert F. Visitor was a man of simple wants, uneducated, an alcoholic. He taught me deep truths, not through lessons or lectures, but through living, and I honor his memory.