Lately I've been talking with rabbinic colleagues about how best to minister to our congregants who are struggling with the news out of Israel/Palestine. We're hearing from people who are unable to fall asleep because they can't stop thinking about the images of destruction and grief, or who wake up and immediately start agonizing about the conflict or worrying about loved ones.
For some, the realities of what's happening there provoke a crisis of faith. For others, those realities provoke profound anxiety. How can we best care for people who are struggling in these ways? The question feels especially relevant to me because not only am I tasked with extending pastoral care to people who are struggling, but because I myself am also struggling to maintain my emotional and spiritual equilibrium in the face of the violence, destruction, and fear.
Maybe the first thing we can do is honor the reality of the struggle. A colleague just pointed me to something I found really interesting -- research showing that media exposure to trauma can create trauma in those who are watching, even from afar.
Tens of thousands of individuals directly witnessed 9/11, but millions more viewed the attacks and their aftermath via the media. In our three-year study following 9/11, my colleagues and I found that people who watched more than one hour of daily 9/11-related TV in the week following the attacks experienced increases in post-traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms (e.g., flashbacks, feeling on edge and hyper vigilant, and avoidance of trauma reminders) and physical ailments over the next three years.
The previous conventional wisdom had been that indirect media-based exposure to trauma is "not clinically relevant." But these researchers found otherwise. The article continues:
The relevance of indirect media exposure became apparent again after last April’s Boston marathon. In the days following the marathon bombings, my University of California, Irvine colleagues and I decided to replicate our 9/11 study and examine the impact of media exposure to the Boston Marathon bombings. We sought to look at all types of media: how much TV people watched, their exposure to disaster-related radio, print, and online news, and their use of social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Vimeo in the week following the bombings. We were especially interested in responses to social media coverage. Unlike traditional media that warn us about the gruesome nature of an image before showing it to us, social media typically display such images without warning.
Here's the conclusion to which I really want to draw your attention:
People who consumed lots of bombing-related media in the week after the bombings were six times more likely to report high acute stress than those who were at the Boston Marathon.
Let me be clear -- I am not suggesting that those of us who are following stories out of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza from afar are experiencing more trauma than those who are there. I recognize that from afar we can only barely begin to grasp the terror and the trauma. My child is safely watching cartoons; other peoples' children have been terrorized and killed. There is no comparison. What I am suggesting is that the media we consume has an impact in all four worlds: spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and even physical.
For that matter, I didn't even take on the practice of fasting for Tisha b'Av until a few years ago. (See This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av, 2011.) I didn't grow up observing the minor fasts, and I've never taken them on as a practice.
Instead I've tended toward finding other ways of understanding 17th Tammuz. Instead of focusing on the breach of Jerusalem's walls 2,600 years ago, I ponder breaches in the emotional walls which keep us safe, or the internal and interpersonal walls which need to come down in order for genuine connections to form.
But this year there is so much trauma and tragedy in Israel and Palestine, so much grief and destruction and fear happening right now, that I am fasting today and I am dedicating my fast to peace, compassion and kindness in that beloved corner of our world where so many people are suffering.
This was not my idea. Across Israel and Palestine, groups of Jews and Muslims are consciously choosing to fast on this day in solidarity with one another as what was initially called a Hunger Strike Against Violence, and has become part of an initiative called בוחרים בחיים / اختيار الحياة / Choose Life. The idea came from Eliaz Cohen, an Israeli Jew who lives in Gush Etzion, and Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian Muslim who lives in Beit Ummar, north of Khalil (Hebron). Cohen is a poet and a self-identified second-generation "settler kid" who supports the idea of one homeland for two peoples. Abu Awwad is founder of Al Tariq (The Way), which teaches Palestinians principles of nonviolent resistance.
(For more, see the front-page story in yesterday's Times of Israel, Aided by calendar, Jews and Arabs Unite in Joint Fast: West Bank activists organize Choose Life, a shared initiative to combat political violence and promote coexistence.)
Not long ago I posted a prayer co-written with Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb in remembrance of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Sha'ar, Eyal Yifrah, and Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir. (It's here: A prayer in remembrance.)
Rabbi Lila Veissid, who serves Kibbutz Ha-Ma'apil in central Israel, has translated that prayer into Hebrew. With her gracious permission, her translation is reprinted here.
מאת הרבה רחל ברנבלט
והרבה לין גוטליב
יהי רצון שזכרם של בנינו
שנהרגו בשל שנאה חסרת פשר
יהי רצון שרוחם תעלה
ותתנחם בחיבוקה החם
והאימהי של אלוהים.
יהי רצון שילדינו היקרים יהיו בטוחים מכל צרה.
יהי רצון שכל הילדים יהיו ילדינו.
יהי רצון שנגן על כל ההורים מן השכול.
יהי רצון שלבבנו ולבבם של בני עמנו
יירפא במהרה בימינו
מפצעי העבר וההווה.
יהי רצון שכל הורה אבֵל ימצא ניחומים.
יהי רצון שנזכה לראות את היום
שבו לא יהיו עוד הורים אבֵלים
(You can read the prayer in English at the original post: A prayer in remembrance, July 3 2014.)
I have been watching the news (and reading blog posts and tweets and Facebook updates) out of Israel and the Palestinian territories with a sense of unbearable heartbreak. It brings me to the brink of something like a panic attack: my chest tightening, my throat choked with tears, the embodied feeling that the grief will wash me away altogether. And I am aware that those who live there are experiencing something far more powerful.
The only thing which brings any comfort is poetry and prayer. Bethlehem Blogger posted A prayer in times of violence, which though it is explicitly Christian speaks to me nonetheless. Wendell Berry's poem The peace of wild things speaks right to my heart. I daven the oseh shalom blessing -- "may the One Who makes peace in the high heavens make peace also for us" -- with particular fervor.
If there are prayers or poems which bring you comfort at times like these, please feel free to share them in the comments so that other readers (and I) can benefit from them.
I wrote a prayer in 2012 called Prayer for the Children of Abraham / Ibrahim, which begins:
For every aspiring ballerina huddled
scared in a basement bomb shelter
For every toddler in his mother's arms
behind rubble of concrete and rebar
For every child who's learned to distinguish
"our" bombs from "their" bombs by sound...
I hate that it is once again resonant. I yearn for the day when this prayer will look outdated and ridiculous -- when the children of our children, running across this prayer in some shred of their grandparents' generation, will say "I can't believe that war went on for so long." Please, God, may the day come speedily and soon.
When I announced the publication of Days of Awe: the Velveteen Rabbi's Machzor for the Yamim Nora'im, several people emailed to find out whether the prayerbook is available in a hardcover edition. It wasn't then, but it is now!
That original post -- which contains information about the book: what's in it, what priorities informed its creation, how it came together, and so on -- has been edited to include links to all three current editions:
and now also available in hardcover $19.59 L to R binding
The covers vary slightly. Both of the editions printed by Lulu have a deep red / almost maroon cover; the cover of the edition available at Amazon is a brighter, lighter red. And the paperback cover and the hardback cover have different designs (though both feature the beautiful pomegranate illustration by Natalia Moroz).
But the interior of all three editions is exactly the same, aside from the interior margin choices which have to do with whether the book is bound like a Hebrew book or like an English one. You will find all of the same prayers, poetry, artwork, photography, kavvanot (intentions), teachings, and texts, no matter which edition you choose.
A few people have asked, so I also want to add -- there are also other Jewish Renewal machzorim which are fantastic. I'm particularly fond of the New Kehilla Machzor edited by Rabbi David Shneyer and Machzor Kol Koreh edited by Rabbi Daniel Siegel. (You can see an excerpt from Kol Koreh in this post from Reb Daniel: Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot.)
Days of Awe was designed with the needs of my own community in mind, and I'm thrilled that it's being used in a few other communities this year as well -- but if you are interested in Jewish Renewal prayerbooks or in machzorim in general, I commend to you both New Kehilla and Machzor Kol Koreh. With machzorim, as with everything else, there's no single way to "do Renewal."
Shekhina, I need to recharge
help me find a dock
with the right number of pins.
I'll send You every gratitude
every blessing, spoken and unspoken
Install Your presence on my heart
I can't face murder and grief
without despair anymore:
update my trust.
When my system is corrupted
by vindication and despair
update my kindness.
Toggle my settings
so no matter where I go
I have five bars of You.
In my post about Reb Zalman z"l (may his memory be a blessing), Remembering my rebbe, I wrote about his love of computer metaphors. I thought of him as I wrote this psalm this week.
May the coming Shabbat bring peace and recharging to everyone who needs it -- especially in the wartorn Middle East, where I grieve every death of recent days.
On Tuesday, July 15, many Jews will observe Tzom Tamuz, "the fast of Tamuz" -- one of Judaism's minor fast days, commemorating the breach of Jerusalem's city walls which led (three weeks later) to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.
I say "many Jews" because I know that the minor fasts are not universally observed, especially in liberal Jewish communities. The notion of commemorating the first chink in Jerusalem's armor almost two thousand years ago may seem strange to us.
But I think there's value in observing 17 Tamuz, and being conscious of the Three Weeks which link it with Tisha b'Av, even if you do not fast, and even if you aren't certain you actually want to mourn the fall of a Temple you can barely imagine.
There is a deep wisdom in the way the Jewish calendar unfolds. Our festivals and fast days are waypoints along the journey we travel each year. 17 Tamuz marks the beginning of the descent toward Tisha b'Av. At Tisha b'Av, we mark the beginning of the ascent toward the Days of Awe.
In Hasidic tradition there's the idea that often in order to rise, one first has to fall. Yeridah tzorech aliyah: one has to go down in order to be able to go up. Descent for the sake of ascent. This drama plays itself out in a variety of places in Torah -- for instance, in the Joseph story, in which "descent for the sake of ascent" is a recurring motif. The downs are necessary precursors to the ups.
For Lurianic kabbalists, the whole of creation was a shattering which it is our unique privilege to be able to rebuild. If there had never been a rupture, then there couldn't be a healing.
This drama plays itself out on the stage of every human life. We fall down, we get up again. And while our modern sensibilities may be offended by the notion that tragedy or trauma is necessary in order for growth or forward motion to appear, I believe that there are gifts to be found when circumstances have laid us low. As the 17th-century Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide wrote, "My barn having burned down, I found I could see the moon."
17 Tammuz, the Three Weeks which follow it, and Tisha b'Av which comes at the end of those weeks, are a time for us to delve together into descent. It's not only "my barn" which has burned down -- it's our barn, the place which was spiritual home for all of us together. It's not only my life which sometimes contains brokenness or sorrow -- it's all of our lives. We're in this together.
It can be tempting to want to paper over the places that hurt. To look on the bright side, to put on a happy face, to focus on the positive. I do these things all of the time. But 17 Tammuz and the weeks which follow are an opportunity to let ourselves experience moments of descent, together.
17 Tamuz is a day to consider: when and how do your "walls," the boundaries of your emotional and spiritual integrity, feel breached? What is it like to feel that something painful has come through your defenses? When and how do we come to feel that the integrity of our community has been shattered? What issues, subjects, or sore spots make us feel defenseless and alone?
The tradition says that 17 Tammuz is the anniversary of the day when Moshe came down the mountain, saw the people worshipping the golden calf, and in heartbroken fury shattered the first set of stone tablets containing God's words. What are the idols our communities have fallen into holding sacred? Can we allow ourselves to grieve the ways in which our communities are not yet what we most yearn for them to be?
The point of 17 Tammuz and the Three Weeks and Tisha b'Av isn't wallowing in anger and sorrow. It's allowing ourselves to recognize the things that hurt, the places where we are broken, so that together we can emerge from those places humbled and energized to begin the climb toward the spiritual heights of the High Holidays. Descent for the sake of ascent. If we're willing and able to go down together, we build bonds of community which will lift us to greater heights when it's time to climb up.
All of the things I've just written are, I think, true every year as we reach this moment in our seasonal-liturgical cycle. Here is something which is unique to this year:
This year the 17th of Tammuz falls during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when our Muslim cousins are fasting from dawn to nightfall every day. (This "minor fast" in our tradition is observed in the same way -- morning to night, not 25 hours like Yom Kippur.) And this year, 17 Tammuz arises amidst tremendous bloodshed and suffering in Israel and Palestine -- the murders of the three Israeli teens Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Sha'ar, and Eyal Yifrah; the murder of Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, apparently burned alive; Hamas firing rockets into Israel (see A view from Jerusalem - Israel at war); Israel bombarding Gaza in return (see You can never be emotionally ready).
Eliaz Cohen, a poet who lives in the settlement of Gush Etzion, has suggested that in the midst of so much sorrow and violence in Israel and Palestine, Jews and Muslims can choose to consciously fast on this day in solidarity with one another, as a "Hunger Strike Against Violence." You can learn more at Fasting Together, Jews and Muslims Choose Life (FB, mostly in Hebrew) 0r War Looming: Make Fasts of 17 Tammuz and Ramadan Hunger Strikes Against Violence (English). Some of us who are the talmidim (students) of Reb Zalman are taking on this joint fast in his memory, knowing that he wept for both the children of Abraham and the children of Ibrahim.
Whether or not you fast from food and drink on 17 Tammuz, I ask my Jewish and Israeli readers to please consider fasting from negative assumptions about our Muslim cousins and Palestinian neighbors; whether or not you are observing the Ramadan fast from food, I ask my Muslim and Palestinian readers to please consider fasting from negative assumptions about your Jewish cousins and Israeli neighbors in turn. May this minor fast day, and the following Three Weeks of opening ourselves to grief, bring us together in our low places so that together we may begin the work of building a better world.
So many others knew him longer than I did. And so many others have written, and will write, about how his extraordinary life and work have shaped Jewish life today. I only knew his work for the last twenty years; I only knew him in person for ten years. Many of his students, colleagues, and friends spent a lifetime with him.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow has written, "No one else in the 20th/ 21st century brought such new life, new thought, new joy, new depth, new breadth, new ecstasy, new groundedness, new quirkiness, into the Judaism he inherited –- and transformed." (Reb Zalman: His Light is Buried Like A Seed -- To Sprout.)
Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan has written, "Reb Zalman was an extraordinary individual who appeared at an extraordinary moment in time, and helped shape a response. In many ways, all of Judaism today is a renewed Judaism." (A Special Person at a Special Time: Reb Zalman's Jewish Renewal.)
Rabbi Jay Michaelson has written, "Hundreds of teachers, rabbis, cantors, and Jewish leaders found in Reb Zalman’s 'translation' of traditional Judaism into contemporary life a way to savor the blessings of Jewish life and practice, while consciously confronting those aspects of Jewish tradition which needed to be renewed — or discarded outright." (Reb Zalman, the Prophet of Both-And)
Other people have written about him wisely and well, is what I'm saying. But his teachings and his life have been so foundational to my sense of what Judaism is and can be -- I can't let his passing elapse without writing something here. Writing is how I remember, and I want to remember him. Have you ever been around someone who -- the moment you enter into their presence -- you can just feel that they really have it together, that they're tapped into something deep? Reb Zalman was one of those people.
I said last week that Reb Zalman is the reason I became a rabbi. And he is. I became a rabbi because I wanted to serve God and the Jewish people. But for many years I thought that was a yearning which would go unfulfilled. I found my teachers, my community, and ultimately my rabbinic lineage through Reb Zalman.
And I found Reb Zalman through Rodger Kamenetz.
In 1994, my dear friend David (who is now soon to be ordained a rabbi himself) gave me a copy of Rodger Kamenetz's book The Jew in the Lotus. The story it tells is a true one: about the delegation of rabbis spanning the breadth of Judaism and Jewish practice who went together to Dharamsala, India to meet with the Dalai Lama and answer his question of how the Jewish poeple had survived 2000 years of Diaspora.
I remember reading that book -- I was in college at the time -- and being deeply moved by Rodger's descriptions of Reb Zalman. I remember in particular the scene where Reb Zalman goes to daven alongside Sikhs at prayer in their temple. Rodger writes:
Reb Zalman's spontaneous davening in a Sikh temple had placed him squarely on the side of total immersion dialogue. Explaining to me later, he quoted from the Psalms, "I am a friend to all who respect you, O Lord." The Sikh guru and he are "in the same business, struggling to see holy values don't get lost. I see every other practitioner as organically doing in his bailiwick what I am doing in mine. When a non-Jewish person affirms me, I feel strengthened in my work. When I affirm a non-Jewish person, he or she feels strengthened in their work." Zalman also cited Isaiah's prophecy, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations."
...I was electrified by his joyous crossing of boundaries, his davening chutzpah. It broke through my own neat categories. I associated Orthodox practice with insularity. Yet here was Zalman, making contact with another religion by davening maariv.
I read that and I thought: holy wow -- his roots are so deep, and his wings are so broad.
Ten years ago when I first heard Reb Zalman (zichrono livracha / may his memory be a blessing!) teach in person, he sighed that the Fourth of July had once been an important yontif (holiday), but seemed no longer to be so for many American Jews. He was talking about how certain ideas don't necessarily hold the power for us that they did in earlier eras. (For instance, "King" used to work well as a metaphor for God, but today it doesn't have the resonance it used to, so we've needed to find different partzufim, different "faces" of God, to which we can better relate.)
I suspect that when Reb Zalman was a young man it was easier than it is today to feel unambiguous patriotism. That may have been especially true for Jews who came here in the wake of the Shoah and saw America as the goldene medina, the golden land of opportunity and freedom where it was safe to be a Jew and where anyone could succeed. Certainly that was true for Reb Zalman, as it was true for my grandparents -- all of whom escaped wartorn Europe, all of whom lost loved ones in the Shoah, all of whom found new opportunity in this land.
In my generation, at this moment in time, patriotism can be a complicated thing. Many of us have mixed feelings about our government and its actions, regardless of which party is in power. We're increasingly aware of how our nation's exercise of power around the world can be problematic. We're also increasingly aware of systemic racism and injustice -- places where our nation hasn't lived up to our hopes.
I love many things about this country; I love many places in this country; I love many of the ideals of this country. But I don't love everything that this national entity does. And patriotism seems inextricably linked with nationalism, and nationalism has led to a lot of suffering around the world in recent history. As Lee Weissman tweeted a few days ago:
The simple cure for Nationalism should be a decent high school course in Modern European history.— Lee Weissman (@JihadiJew) July 2, 2014
It seems to me that nationalism played a role in both World War I and World War II. (Certainly German nationalism was one of the forces which fed into Hitler's ascent to power and the horrors of the Shoah and the deaths of millions.) Nationalism played a role in the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, in which at least a million people were killed and some 12-14 million people were displaced. And I think nationalism plays a role in the continuing conflict in Israel and Palestine.
In our household we talk a lot about cosmopolitanism, embracing the notion of being a citizen of the world in all of its interconnectedness. Here's how my husband Ethan described cosmopolitanism in an interview with Henry Jenkins:
[Kwame] Appiah, a Ghanaian-American philosopher, suggests that cosmopolitans recognize that there is more than one acceptable way to live in the world, and that we may have obligations to people who live in very different ways than we do. This, he argues, is one of the possible responses to a world where we find ourselves interacting with people from very different backgrounds. Cosmopolitanism doesn’t demand that we accept all ways of living in the world as equally admirable – he works hard to draw a line between cosmopolitanism and moral relativism – but does demand that we steer away from a fundamentalist or nationalist response that sees our way as the only way and those who believe something different as inferior or unworthy of our consideration or aid.
(Read the whole interview at Henry Jenkins' blog. And hey, while you're at it, read Ethan's award-winning book Digital Cosmopolitans: Why We Think the Internet Connects Us, Why It Doesn't, And How To Rewire It.)
What does one do with all of these feelings on the Fourth of July?
For me, the glorious Fourth feels a little bit like the tailgate party outside a Green Bay Packers game. Does that sound sacreligious? I suppose that's evidence for Reb Zalman's theory that for many Jews today, Independence Day is less a yontif than it was for our forebears. But I don't mean it as a knock on the day. It's great to celebrate one's team and the community which has arisen around that team -- as long as one doesn't fall into the fallacy of imagining that people who support a different team are inferior.
How will we celebrate the Fourth? Weather permitting, we'll go to the sweet little parade in a nearby town. Everyone will be wearing red, white, and blue. There will be bunting and streamers and balloons galore. There will be a marching band, and kids on tricycles, and people riding in classic convertibles throwing candy. Everyone will cheer. Then my family will go to the synagogue picnic, where little kids will splash in a kiddie pool, and adults will grill hot dogs and hamburgers, and we'll eat watermelon and popsicles. Then, after the kids are put to bed, we'll sit on our deck and watch distant fireworks across the valley.
It feels great to celebrate community. But at the end of the day, just as I know that there are other teams in the NFL besides the Packers for whom one might reasonably root, I know that my community -- this nation -- isn't the only wonderful one in the world. I know that our customs and contexts aren't the only way to live. (They're not even the only good way to live. Those who've been fortunate enough to live in, or even to visit, more than one country get a sense for how norms and customs differ, without any one set being the "right" ones -- that's part of why travel is so wonderfully broadening.) And that's okay. I don't need my country to be the "best place on earth" -- I just need it to be the best version of itself that it can be.
I want to live in an America which lives up to the ideals I hold dear. Some of those ideals were built into the fabric of its founding (equality, rights, liberty and justice for all.) Others have arisen in recent decades as humanity as a whole has become more enlightened (equal rights for women and for people of all races, equal marriage rights, equal rights for GLBTQIA folks, and so on.) When I think about the positive valances of patriotism, I think of those ideals. I think of times when I've felt hope that this country could be a better place, a kinder place, a more just and righteous place. That's what I'd like to be cultivating today.
Some months ago a friend and I went to the Williams College Museum of Art to see, among other things, original copies of some of America's founding documents. I felt a frisson of awe looking at that looping old handwriting, the paper so fragile but the words so enduring. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..." I admire the idealism and the optimism with which those words are imbued.
Is today a yontif, a holy day, for me? Not exactly. But it is a day for pausing to celebrate where we are, before we pick up our tools again and continue the work of -- in the words of our Constitution's Preamble -- trying to "form a more perfect Union." Happy Fourth of July to all who celebrate.
Related: the poem Not There Yet. "When Moshiach comes / everyone will celebrate / interdependence day..."
My beloved teacher, rebbe, and zaide ("grandfather") Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, z"l (may his memory be a blessing) died this morning in his sleep. He was 89.
Here is a seven-minute video in which he explains and explores psalm 23 -- which seems like a fitting way both to remember his vitality, his laughter, and his wisdom, and also to ease the hearts of those who grieve.
I'll write more about him later. Right now I have only tears and gratitude.
Reb Zalman is the reason I became a rabbi. That's a longer story; maybe I'll tell it next week. For now, I am so endlessly grateful to have known him, to have learned from him, and to be a part of his rabbinic lineage.
May all who mourn his passing -- most especially his widow Eve, his many children and grandchildren, his students and the students of his students -- be comforted. זכרונו לברך –– may his memory be a blessing.
Memorial contributions may be made to ALEPH's Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Endowment for Jewish Renewal.
by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
May the memories of our boys
killed in senseless hatred
be for a blessing.
May their spirits be lifted up
and comforted in the close embrace
of God's motherly presence.
May our precious children be safe from harm.
May all the children be our children.
May we protect all parents from mourning.
May our hearts and the hearts of our people
be healed quickly in our day
from the wounds of the past and present.
May every grieving parent find comfort.
May we live to see the day
when no parent has to grieve.
We'll read this prayer at my congregation on Shabbat morning before mourner's kaddish. If it speaks to you, you are welcome to share it with your community, though please take care to keep authors' names attached. May the families of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Sha'ar, Eyal Yifrah, and Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir be comforted.
Edited to add: this post has also been shared at Kol ALEPH, the blog of ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
Edited to add: Rabbi Lila Veissid has graciously translated this prayer into Hebrew; you can read it here.
I will wake in the morning -- will my breath remember me, will my spirit be returned back from the rooms' shell, caverns echoing and empty?
-- Seon Joon, "the quiet"
Because You grant it
I will emerge from sleep
not once but twice tonight
my spirit returning
to alight in this body
like a small butterfly
as I shuffle yawning
across warped floorboards
until my feet reach cool tile
tubes and openings
if one were to be closed
where it should be open
-- another clot to the brain
this time maybe
not so gentle. But so far
so good: the body's working
and when dawn comes
my soul, my breath
will be restored to me
for another day
of offering praise.
You have faith in me.
This poem was inspired by a line from Seon Joon's post the quiet, which was in turn inspired by a poem by Luisa A. Igloria.
On "another clot to the brain," see One year stroke-free (2007.)
On "my soul, my breath / will be restored to me," see One from the archives: morning blessing poem cycle (2012). (Some of those poems will appear in my next collection, Open My Lips, forthcoming from Ben Yehuda Press -- stay tuned.) Also see On gratitude and thanks: a sermon for the UU community of Montréal (2013.)
A while back I ran across a quotation from Audre Lorde which really struck me, so I copied it into the to-do list file which is always open on my computer, as a reminder that self-care is always on the to-do list. Lorde wrote:
"Caring for myself is not self-indulgence;
it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare."
Our world tells us, in myriad subtle and unsubtle ways, that taking care of ourselves is self-indulgent and that we should be focusing our energies on more important things. (This message is, I think, most insidiously communicated to women, particularly mothers -- though I'm sure that men and non-parents hear it too.) But I believe Lorde is right: taking care of oneself is an act of self-preservation, and because that act flies in the face of every voice which would argue that we're not important, it's an act of profound defiance.
You are important. You, reading this right now. Regardless of your gender or race or class or faith, regardless of whether you are healthy or sick, whether you are able-bodied or disabled, no matter who you are and where you come from -- you matter. And your wellbeing matters. In (Jewish) theological language, I would say that you are made b'tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Your soul is a spark of light from the Source of all light. And that makes you holy and worthy of care, as are we all.
I'm going to assume for the moment that you agree with me that self-care is valuable and that each of us is deserving of care. So far, so good. But what does it mean to care for oneself online? In the offline world it's relatively easy to discern ways of taking care of oneself: get enough sleep, exercise, perhaps treat oneself (budget permitting) to an iced coffee or a manicure -- we all know our preferred modes of self-care. But how do we practice responsible self-care online?
I'm not entirely certain what online self-care entails, but I'm pretty sure that one piece of that puzzle is being mindful in where we go, online, and what kinds of conversations we have when we're there. The things we read, the news we consume, the conversations in which we engage: all of these have an impact. They impact us in all four worlds: not only intellectually, but also emotionally, spiritually, even physically in our bodies. And there's a lot of tough news in the world right now.
Maybe for you it's news about the Facebook research on "emotional contagion." (Lab rats one and all: that unsettling Facebook experiment.) Or the recent Supreme Court decisions. (I feel sick: liberal pundits react to Hobby Lobby ruling.) Or the deaths of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frankel, and Eyal Yifrach. (We should all be ripping our clothes in mourning.) Or the death of Yousef Abu Zagha. (What was Yousef Abu Zagha's favorite song?) Or something else I haven't mentioned -- there's always something else.
One way or another, our social media spaces -- our virtual public square -- are the places where we connect. And as Facebook's "emotional contagion" research showed --and I suspect most of us knew this intuitively -- the things we hear from the people around us have a measurable impact on how we ourselves feel. (As Charlie Brooker quipped in the Guardian, "Emotional contagion is what we used to call 'empathy.'") When people are expressing joy and celebration, our hearts incline in that direction too. And when people are expressing grief, anxiety, sorrow, pain, our hearts incline in those directions instead.
That our hearts feel a pull toward the emotions expressed by other people in our lives is a fact of human nature, and on balance I think it's a good thing. But the internet facilitates more kinds of connections, between larger networks of people, than used to be part of ordinary human existence. Many of us check in with social media many times daily. Maybe you keep Twitter open in another browser tab, or check Facebook on your phone while standing in the check-out line at the drugstore. This can be a tremendous boon -- I remember nursing our infant son in the middle of the night and reading updates from friends on my phone, and feeling incredibly grateful that I could be connected with their lives even when my own life felt so isolating.
But sometimes our interconnection can become enmeshment. And at times of tragedy or crisis, it's easy to get caught-up in online conversations which aren't actually healthy. Pause and notice how you're feeling when you're navigating your online world. Make an active decision about whether your online spaces are helping you feel connected, or whether they're contributing to feelings of alienation or overwhelm. Different people can handle anger, anxiety, and grief to differing degrees. And any single person will be able to handle different levels of these emotions at different times in their life, depending on what else they may be carrying.
Maybe you're usually able to handle a lot of negativity around a given issue, but right now you're worried about a sick family member, and as a result your heart feels more exposed, which means you're experiencing everyone else's sorrow more deeply, so reading Twitter has you near tears. Maybe you're usually untroubled by confronting other people's anxiety, but today you're finding that your own fears are triggered by what you're reading, and watching friends argue on Facebook is making your chest feel clenched and tight.
If being in your usual online spaces is giving you more anxiety, or more grief, or more anger than you can comfortably manage, give yourself permission to step away. (Or if you need permission from outside yourself, consider it rabbinically granted!) Keeping up with every latest update -- every news bulletin, every blog post, every Tweet and status update -- may help us feel informed, but it doesn't necessarily help us emotionally or spiritually. Guard your own boundaries however you need to do.
It's okay to step away from certain parts of the internet, or to deflect certain dinner table conversations, in order to maintain your equilibrium. And if someone in your life needs to step away from something, give them the benefit of the doubt. We never know what the other people in our lives are dealing with. (We especially never know what other people on the internet are dealing with.) No one can be responsible for taking care of everyone's emotional and spiritual needs, but each of us can be responsible for her own.
This post's title is borrowed from an REM song.
I also commend to you Beth Adams' A plea against anxiety.
On the one hand: today. This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! I offer a morning prayer for gratitude, I open up my calendar, I scan to see with whom I am meeting today and what is on my to-do list.
On the other hand: Shabbat. I study this week's Torah portion, I prepare verses to read from the scroll, I think about songs and prayers. I pick up my guitar and my fingers automatically go to the chords for our Shabbat melodies.
On yet another hand: the Days of Awe. Now the machzor is released into the world, and I'm having weekly Skype dates with our student cantor. Every time he sings a line of high holiday nusach, the holidays come rushing in around me like waves.
On another hand still: a funeral which took place many months ago, and the ritual unveiling of the headstone which will take place some months hence. A "then" which is past, and a "then" which hasn't happened yet.
I remember preparing the eulogy for that funeral. I remember standing on the cold winter earth. I imagine what it will feel like to return to that spot with the family to dedicate the stone which marks that spot, which memorializes that life.
One of the names for God which we most frequently use is מלך העולם, melech ha'olam, usually translated as "king of the world" or "sovereign of the universe." But the word olam can mean both space and time (as in l'olam va'ed, "for ever and ever.")
My son sometimes asks me at bedtime where God is, and I tell him that God is everywhere. ("But invisible," my son prompts, and I confirm that yes, he's got that right.) God is also everywhen -- present in every moment. Past, present, and future all at once.
It's my job to be in this moment -- if I am sitting with a congregant for a pastoral conversation, they deserve my full presence. And also to be in that moment, and that other moment -- remembering what has come before; anticipating what's yet to come.
An afternoon at a friend's house. The scent of sunscreen, the feel of water lapping against my body, the excited squeals of several little boys wearing floaties and splashing around the pool clutching pool noodles and kickboards emblazoned with superheroes.
In between swishing our kids through the water in giggly circles, the adults talk about books we've been reading, about the local college (from which many in this circle of friends graduated, and where others among us now teach), about summer memories.
I remember chlorinated swimming pools, and fingers wrinkled pruny from spending all day there. The rub of the diving board beneath my tender toes. Sunwarmed bricks at the edge of the pool. Night swimming, lit by one underwater light.
I remember the warm waters of Lake McQueeney and the gentle Guadalupe which feeds into it. I remember floating in an inner tube down the river, or leaping from the back of a boat in a lifevest and skis, letting rough woven rope play through my hands.
And I remember basking like a contented lizard in the south Texas sun, lying on a woven chaise and listening to Ottmar Liebert or k.d. lang as sweat dripped down my nose, holding out as long as I could before diving into the pool and exulting in the cool splash.
In between swimming this afternoon we pause to eat cold crisp cubes of watermelon and fresh local strawberries warm from the sun. I wonder what this group of little boys will remember about this ordinary, extraordinary summer day when they are grown.
“If when you walk into a store, the workers sometimes suspect you are going to steal something because of your race, take one step back.”
“If you see people who share your identity reflected on television and in movies in roles you don’t consider degrading, take a step forward.”
When we began the exercise, we were standing in a row, holding hands. Our facilitators took turns reading a series of statements: if this is true for you, step this way. If that is true for you, step that way. It wasn’t long before our chain of hands was broken.
Before this session, I would have said I was aware of my privilege as a white, affluent, college-educated, Jewish cis-gender woman. I’ve read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. But it turned out that I wasn’t nearly as aware of privilege as I had thought.
In Jewish Renewal we speak often in the paradigm of the “four worlds”, of assiyah (physicality), yetzirah (emotion), briyah (thought) and atzilut (spirit/essence). In briyah, the world of intellect, I think I did have a handle on my own privilege. But when I had the physical experience of having to let go of the hands of my friends, and of seeing at the end where each of us was positioned, the realities impacted me in the emotional and spiritual realms, and they hit me hard.
This exercise, often called The Privilege Walk, was part of our session on “Challenges in Jewish-Muslim Engagement” at a wonderful retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders, held this month in Chester, Connecticut, and organized by the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College’s department of multifaith initiatives...
Read my whole essay at Zeek: New Depths in Jewish-Muslim Dialogue: Jewish Privilege.
Deep thanks to RRC and to the Henry Luce Foundation for making the retreat possible, and to my Jewish and Muslim sisters who attended, facilitated, and taught at the retreat.
Shabbat shalom and chodesh Tamuz tov to my Jewish readers; to my Muslim readers, Ramadan Mubarak!
Several years ago, at an ALEPH Kallah in California, I was blessed to take a week-long sacred storytelling class taught by master storyteller Debra (a.k.a. Dvorah) Zaslow. The class was wonderful, not least because Dvorah's way of telling stories, and teaching the telling of stories, goes straight to the heart. So when I heard that she had a new book out -- Bringing Bubbe Home: A Memoir of Letting Go Through Love and Death (White Cloud Press, 2014) -- I knew I wanted to read it.
Here's a video trailer for the book:
"Seventeen years ago I was immersed in my life as a professional storyteller, wife of a rabbi, and mother of two teenagers when I felt compelled to bring my 103 year-old grandmother, Bubbe, who was dying alone in a nursing facility, home to live and die with my family. I had no idea if I'd have the emotional stamina to midwife her to the other side."
The story unfolds with slow inexorability. There is nothing easy about bringing an elderly relative home to die, and this slim but powerful memoir doesn't gloss over the hard parts. And yet once I started reading, I didn't want to stop; I wanted to know how it would unfold. It's not exactly that I wanted to "know what happens next" -- obviously the book was going to lead to death, the end of every human story since time immemorial. But I wanted to see how it would happen, and how Dvorah and her family would get there, and what blessings might be there for the finding.
Bless us and guide us in living with awe and singing, shouting with joy. -Psalm 67: 7,8,5 What inspires our awe? How can we cultivate joy?— A Way In @ Mishkan (@awayinms) June 22, 2014
I retweeted that message a few days ago. It comes from my friends and colleagues at A Way In at Mishkan Shalom, and the questions it raises have stayed with me. What inspires our awe? How can we cultivate joy? I was glad to see these questions crop up in my Twitter stream amidst tweets about the World Cup and about injustices both large and small and about everything that's agitating people in the news. (I'm always glad to see people using Twitter for contemplative purposes.)
Awe is an essential component of spiritual life. The Hebrew יראה / yirah is one of the two quintessential ways we're meant to respond to God. (The other is אהבה / ahavah, love.) I feel awe when I gaze at a beautiful vista, or experience the power of nature, or encounter ancient history by walking in a place where people have walked for thousands of years. I felt tremendous awe when our son was born. I also feel awe when I name a baby, join two people in marriage, or stand before my community for a funeral.
Joy is essential too -- which is not the same as happiness or cheer. (I've written about that before: What does it mean to be commanded to be joyful?) I feel joy when I bless our son on Friday nights; when I am reunited with people I love who live far away; when I sing the beloved melodies of the Days of Awe; when I look around the table at the faces of my loved ones at Pesach or Thanksgiving or Christmas eve. Often music, singing, great stories, and feeling known and understood bring me joy.
I think it's not accidental that this tweet uses the language of cultivation. These spiritual qualities don't necessarily arise on their own. Each of us needs to tend to her own spiritual soil, to nurture and nourish these seedlings so that they will grow. We can practice receptivity to moments of awe -- which won't necessarily make the awe arise, but may make us more inclined to notice it and experience it fully. And we can practice receptivity to moments of joy in the same way, creating space in which joy can arise.
Drawing out the cultivation metaphor further: I've learned that there are certain subjects, emotions, states of being which poison my soil. And just like in a literal garden, if there's a little bit of toxicity in my soil, the things I'm cultivating can still grow, though they may be impacted by what nutrients are and aren't available. But if the soil becomes too poisoned, then awe and joy can't grow there. Reb Zalman talks sometimes about the "spiritual vitamins" which we need. It's also important to avoid spiritual toxins.
Prayer and meditation are the most effective tools I've found for this work. I don't only mean liturgical prayer and regular sitting-in-meditation, though both of those are part of my practice. I also mean what Reb Shawn (Rabbi Shawn Zevit) and Reb Marcia (Rabbi Marcia Prager) called "living with prayerful consciousness." Can I bring a sense of prayerful awareness to every moment in my day? Can I approach ordinary time with the meditative ability to step back and notice my own thoughts arising?
Paying attention to the transitions between weekday and Shabbat, and to the journey from one festival to the next -- paying attention to when my heart and soul feel expansive, and when they feel constricted -- having the discernment to pull myself away from places, ideas, and activities which feed anger and ego instead of awe and joy -- these are some of the items in my contemplative toolbox. They don't necessarily inspire awe or bring joy, but they make me more receptive to both when they arise.
For those who are so inclined: I'd love to hear your answers to the questions posed by the folks at A Way In. What inspires your awe? How do you cultivate joy?