A New Year's greeting from all of us at Bayit: Your Jewish Home:
May you build with joy, and may you be signed and sealed for a year of goodness.
A New Year's greeting from all of us at Bayit: Your Jewish Home:
May you build with joy, and may you be signed and sealed for a year of goodness.
Run after justice
the way an eight-year-old
runs after the ice cream truck
chasing its elusive music
sandals slapping asphalt
until panting, calves burning
you catch it
and taste sweetness.
Run after justice
with the single-minded focus
brings to their phone.
Run after justice
the way the mother
of a colicky newborn
Run after justice
whole-hearted and open, as though
justice were your beloved
who makes your heart race,
whose integrity shines
like the light of the sun,
who makes you want to be
better than you are.
Run after justice. See Deuteronomy 16:20.
[W]hole-hearted. See Deuteronomy 18:13.
Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.
I offered this poem at my shul this morning to close our Torah discussion. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Over the years I've posted a few different poems that riff on the haftarah (the reading from the Prophets) that tradition assigns to the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which is a text from 1 Samuel, the story of Chanah who poured out her heart in prayer.
I'm delighted to be able to share that I have a new resource to offer this year on that front. This is a revision of one of my Chanah haftarah poems, co-created with Rabbi David Markus, who has also set it to haftarah trope and recorded it.
If you wind up using this in your Rosh Hashanah celebration, let us know how it works for you!
This is the sermon I offered this morning at Rensselaerville Presbyterian Church. You can read other sermons in their summer sermon series here. This year's theme is "And still we rise."
In Hasidic tradition -- in the Jewish mystical-devotional tradition that arose in Eastern Europe in the late 1700s -- there is the concept of yeridah tzorech aliyah. "Descent for the sake of ascent." We experience distance from God in order to draw close. We fall in order to rise.
The term "fall" may have connotations here, in this Christian context, that I don't intend. I'm not talking about the Fall of Man, with capital letters, as I understand it to be interpreted in some Christian theologies. Judaism doesn't have a doctrine of original sin. I'm talking about something more like... falling down. Falling short. Falling away.
The paradigmatic example of descent for the sake of ascent is the narrative at the end of the book of Genesis that we sometimes call "the Joseph novella." We just heard a piece of that story this morning, so here's a recap for those who need it. Jacob had twelve sons, and his favored son was Joseph, for whom he made a coat of many colors. Joseph had dreams of stars bowing down to him, sheaves of wheat bowing down to him, and his dreams made his brothers angry, and as a result they threw him into a pit. He literally went down. And then he was sold into slavery in Egypt, and the verb used there is again he went down: in Hebrew one "goes down" into Egypt and "ascends" into the promised land.
In Egypt, he fell from favor with Potiphar and went down into Pharaoh's dungeon. And there he met the two servants of Pharaoh for whom he interpreted dreams, and he ascended to become Pharaoh's right-hand man.
And because of those things, he was in a position to rescue his family from famine, thereby setting in motion the rescue of what would become the entire Jewish people. Descent for the sake of ascent.
His descendants would become slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt for 400 years. Finally our hardship was too much to bear, and we cried out to God. Torah tells us that God heard our cries and remembered us and brought us forth from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Because we were low and we cried out, God heard us and lifted us out of there: descent for the sake of ascent.
Coming forth from slavery was the first step toward Jewish peoplehood; receiving Torah at Sinai, and entering into covenant with God, was the event that formed us as a people. Our enslavement led to our freedom which led to covenant and peoplehood: descent for the sake of ascent.
The summer season on the Jewish calendar mirrors this same trajectory. Just a few weeks ago we marked the day of communal mourning known as Tisha b'Av, the ninth day of the lunar month of Av, the lowest point in our year.
On Tisha b'Av, we remember the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon in 586 BCE. We remember the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of Rome in 70 CE. We remember the start of the Crusades, the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto, an incomprehensibly awful litany of communal tragedies that have all, somehow, against all odds, befallen us on or around that same calendar date. On Tisha b'Av we fast, we hear the book of Lamentations, we read poems of grief, we dive deep into the world's sorrow and suffering and brokenness.
And, Jewish tradition says that on Tisha b'Av the messiah will be born. Out of our deepest grief comes the spark of redemption. And every year Tisha b'Av is the springboard that launches us toward the Days of Awe, the Jewish new year and the Day of Atonement, of at/one/ment. Authentic spiritual life demands that we sit both with life's brokenness and life's wholeness. A spirituality that's only "positive," only feel-good, isn't real and isn't whole. When we sit with what hurts, that's what enables us to rise. Descent for the sake of ascent.
The Hasidic master known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim teaches that ascent and descent are intimately connected. When a person falls away from God, the experience of distance from the Divine spurs that soul's yearning to return. Falling down is precisely the first step of rising up. Our mis-steps are precisely what spur us to course-correct and adjust our path. Descent for the sake of ascent.
Looking at the world around us, it's easy to feel that everything is falling apart. Migrant children torn from the arms of their parents and imprisoned in cages. Hate crimes on the rise. People of color killed by police who are supposed to be sworn to protect. Incidents of prejudice increasing: against religious minorities, and against transgender people, and against people of color. Our political system seems to be broken. International relations seem to be broken. There is brokenness everywhere we look.
Our work -- the spiritual work of this moment in time -- is twofold. One: we have to resist the temptation to paper over the brokenness with platitudes and pretty words, "God has a plan," or "everything's going to be okay." My theology does not include a God Who sits back and allows rights to be stripped away for the sake of some greater plan we don't have to try to understand. And two: we have to face the brokenness, even embrace the brokenness, and let it fuel us to bring repair. We have to make our descent be for the sake of ascent.
When we feel our distance from the divine Beloved, there's a yearning to draw near. Our hearts cry out, "I miss Your presence in my life, God, I want to come back to You." Or in the words of psalm 27, the psalm for this season on the Jewish calendar, "One thing I ask of You, God, this alone do I seek: that I might dwell in Your house all the days of my life!"
When we feel our distance from the world as it should be -- a world where no one goes hungry, where bigotry has vanished like morning fog, where every human being is uplifted and cherished as a reflection of the Infinite divine -- we yearn to bring repair. When we feel what's lacking, we ache to fill that void. Feeling how far we've fallen is precisely what spurs us to seek to rise. This is built into the very order of things. And that's where I find hope during these difficult days.
This is the work of spiritual life as I understand it. There are times that feel like a descent into the pit, a fall away from God, even imprisonment in Pharaoh's dungeon. This is true both on the small scale of every individual human life, and on the broader canvas of the nation or the world at large. But the thing about hitting bottom is, there's nowhere to go from there but up.
Our job is to inhabit every broken place, every spiritual exile, and let them fuel us to ascend closer to God and closer to the world as we know it should be. Then those who have sown in tears will reap in joy. Then those who went out weeping, carrying the seeds of the tomorrow in which they could barely find hope, will return in gladness bearing the abundant harvest of everything they need. Kein yehi ratzon: so may it be.
I've never been to the First Presbyterian Church in Rensselaerville, NY, but their all are welcome page makes me love them already. I'll be worshipping with them next Sunday, August 5, because I've been invited to preach.
How does it come to pass that a rabbi will be preaching from their lectern? It turns out I'm far from the first to do so. Every summer they they welcome clergy and religious folks of different faiths to bring spiritual sustenance to their community. They've been doing that for more than 100 years:
For a short period in the second half of the 19th century, the village of Rensselaerville was a lively industrial town as the first site of the Huyck Woolen Mills. When mill founder and Presbyterian Church member F. C. Huyck Sr. moved his mill to Albany, he did not sever ties with the village or the church. But as jobs left with the mill so did many of the village residents, leaving the church without enough members to maintain a year-round pastor. The church continued because the Huyck family returned to Rensselaerville each summer to vacation and provided for a pastor during their stay.
F.C. Huyck Sr.’s granddaughter Katharine Huyck Elmore expanded the vision of the summer services, in the mid-20th century, to encompass various faith traditions and invited ministers, rabbis, priests, nuns and other preachers to bring their messages of compassion, social justice and stewardship of the world and community to our pulpit.
Their theme for this summer is "And still we rise" (after "And still I rise" by Maya Angelou), and everyone who's preaching there during the summer season is offering a reflection on that theme.
They asked me a few months ago to give them the title for my sermon. While I often struggle to come up with sermon titles (usually I write the sermon first and then figure out whatto call it), in this case I knew right away that I would call my remarks "Descent for the Sake of Ascent." I will draw on Torah, Hasidic tradition, and the unfolding of the Jewish sacred calendar to offer hope, strength, and consolation appropriate for listeners of any faith.
Worship begins at 11am. If you're in or near Rensselaerville next Sunday, I hope you'll join us.
Going through a box of old papers and photographs in my parents' garage, I unearthed an embroidered velvet bag. Inside it was a set of tefillin -- old and worn, with straps that are thin both in diameter and in heft. One of the batim (the little houses that hold the scrolls) was partially crushed, and one of the retzuot (the straps) had broken into two pieces.
I was amazed. I went upstairs to find my father. The initials on the bag could be his: were these his tefillin?
"I don't think so," he said. "I don't recognize them. I don't think I've ever seen that bag before. Besides, mine are in my bedside drawer."
We went to his bedside table and sure enough his own tefillin were there, in their velvet bag, just as he thought... along with yet another set of tefillin!
"These are mine," he said, taking his own set briefly out of their case, "and I don't think I've put them on since my bar mitzvah! But I have no idea where this third set" -- the other ones in the back of his drawer -- "came from either."
This third set of tefillin has no bag or carrying case. Unlike the ones in the embroidered bag, which are clearly damaged, these seem to be intact. They show some signs of age, but the retzuot feel firm and the batim feel solid.
After some reflection, he decided that the third set -- the one in better shape -- probably belonged to his father Israel Barenblat z"l, and the ones in the velvet bag might have belonged to his grandfather Benjamin Barenblat z"l. But we can't be certain. We don't know the origins or original owner of either set.
I didn't bring my tefillin on this trip. Holding these -- especially the seemingly-intact third set -- made me yearn to put them on. So I said the blessings and wrapped myself in them.
Was it my imagination, or did I feel a pulse of energy coming through them, a zetz of connection with whichever ancestor once owned them?
They definitely felt unfamiliar. My own tefillin were brand-new when they were given to me thirteen years ago. They are a different size than these, and their straps feel different beneath my fingers and on my arm. But even though these were clearly not my tefillin, they felt good on my body. As tefillin always do, they activated my awareness of connection with God -- always thrumming beneath the surface. I sat in them for a moment, and said the shema silently, and marveled, and then took them off.
Both sets are coming home with me, and I'm already making inquiries with my friend Rabbi / Sofer Kevin Hale to see if he will check them and make repairs as necessary. Maybe one of these sets will pass to my son when he becomes bar mitzvah.
For now, I'm traveling home with the family tefillin safely tucked into my carry-on. I'm thinking about my family and its generations. I hope my ancestors to whom these once belonged would be happy to know that their tefillin have found a new home with their descendant the rabbi, even if my rabbinate would have been unimaginable to them.
Whenever I visit my birthplace and my parents I expect to come away with a renewed sense of connection to where I come from. But these tefillin crystallize that connection in a beautiful and unexpected way. I am grateful.
An early Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.
The mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, is said to have originated with the Holy One of Blessing. When God visits Avraham by the oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day, that's understood to mean not just the literal heat of afternoon but the internal heat of fever. God visits Avraham as Avraham is recovering from his circumcision. In visiting the sick, we emulate God.
Another teaching, this one from the Gemara, holds that the Shechinah -- the immanent indwelling divine Presence -- hovers over the head of the sickbed like a mother bird protecting her young. God's Presence is with those who are ill, whether they are aware of it or not. When we visit those who are sick, we enter into the divine Presence. The sickbed is a sacred space.
When we visit those who are ill, it's not our job to offer explanations for why we think they are sick, or tell them why their illness isn't so bad, or tell them how to feel about however they are. It is our job to be present, be kind, be ready to listen. To hold space for whatever they want or need to say. To take their cues about what they want to discuss. To let them rest when they need to.
And... all of these responsibilities may become more difficult if the person one is visiting is part of one's family. We all have roles that we play in our family systems: caregiver, rescuer, mediator, truth-teller, clown, the one who cheers people up, the one who picks fights, the one who makes peace. When someone is ill, those roles and their familiarity may lock old patterns in place.
Part of the work of bikkur cholim with one's own family is cultivating compassion for oneself amid the inevitability of sliding into those old roles. If you are visiting a family member who is ill, cultivate kindness both toward the person you are visiting, and toward your own neshamah (your own soul) as you do the visiting. You too are likely to need some gentleness and care.
For anyone who's doing the work of bikkur cholim, it's important to seek out a trusted friend, or rabbi, or spiritual director with whom you can process whatever comes up for you. Don't burden the person who is sick with responsibility for your reaction to their illness. Emotional reactions are normal! Don't be afraid to lean on your own support network before and after you visit.
It is natural to want to "fix" things -- especially if the person you are visiting is a member of your family. And... making things better is not your job. No matter what. The best gift you can offer is your presence, and your attentiveness to their needs. And you can best tend to the one who is sick if you're attentive also to your own needs for solitude and downtime and care.
In 1877, The Fresh Air Fund, an independent not-for-profit organization, was created with one simple mission – to allow children living in low-income communities to enjoy free summer experiences in the country. [Source]
Back when the Fresh Air Fund was started, tuberculosis was a serious danger, and fresh air was understood to be restorative. We have other ways of treating TB now, but the Fresh Air Fund is still sending low-income city kids to the country. Their mission -- "getting children out of the city and into fresh air where they [can] play freely and not worry about the grinding pressures of hunger, crime, and poverty – remains unchanged." [Source]
Some months ago, the local Fresh Air Fund representative contacted me to see if I would share a flyer with the synagogue community. The place where I live is part of their Friendly Towns Program, and I have congregants who have hosted Fresh Air Fund kids in years past. Of course I agreed to share their materials with my shul community. And I thought, "Wow: wouldn't it be great for my kid if we served as a host family?"
I ran the idea by my kid, and he agreed enthusiastically to the idea of hosting. My ex and his partner and I filled out the paperwork, underwent the requisite background check, and waited. Finally we learned that we'd been matched with a boy a year younger than ours. And this week we are a Fresh Air Fund host family, in our two households, introducing a city kid to life in northern Berkshire (and southern Vermont, where he is joining my son at day camp for the week.)
When I ran the idea by my kid all those months ago, I think he was mostly excited about the prospect of having a playmate. We talked about how it's a mitzvah (a commandment, a core part of Jewish life and practice) to be generous and hospitable, and to share what we have with those who have less, but I'm not sure how much that really penetrated his consciousness.
I don't think my son realizes how fortunate we are. He has not one but two homes: his father's house and mine. He has summer camp opportunities, and a condo pool, and pretty much all the LEGOs a kid could want, and great expanses of back yard and woods to run around in. I want him to learn that it's our job to share our abundance. One way we try to do that is that half of his allowance each week goes to tzedakah. Another way we're trying to do that is inviting someone who doesn't have all of those opportunities to share for a week in the bounty we enjoy.
And... while I know I just said we're sharing our abundance, we also can't position ourselves as the generous hosts who "have" and are sharing with those who "have not." These boys both have things to teach each other and to learn from each other. In a way, this is a cultural exchange program both for the city kid who comes here, and for the country kid who hosts him.
As our first Fresh Air Fund week unfolds, I think both boys are learning a lot. Our visitor speaks Chinese on the phone home with his parents, while my son's vocabulary is sprinkled with Hebrew words. My son marvels that his new buddy walks to school and to the grocery store and takes the subway all the time -- those are city norms that are unfamiliar to my small-town kid. Meanwhile, his new friend had never swum in a pond or a stream before, and finds it strange that we have to drive to get anywhere other than our mailbox and the condo pool.
Welcoming an unfamiliar kid into the household is a learning experience for all of us. It's an opportunity for my son to learn how to be a gracious host, which is an important mitzvah though not always an easy one. Sharing one's stuff with another kid is hard, especially when that other kid is a stranger, especially when you may not easily be able to find common ground. I'm learning how to moderate the two boys' needs, taking into account the fact that one of them is a visitor far from home and the other is my own kid whose wants and needs I know well.
I'm grateful that we're doing this -- and I'm grateful not despite the challenges, but in part precisely because of them. I think my son is growing a lot this week, and I suspect that as I grapple with the challenges of parenting (or serving in loco parentis for) two very different kids, I'm growing too. And I'm happy that we're able to give this city kid a week's worth of country adventures: frog ponds and campfires, swim dates and streams, evening popsicles on our mirpesset under the wide open small-town sky.
Deep gratitude to Camp Sarsaparilla in Pownal, VT, which offers scholarships each week for Fresh Air Fund kids.
Seven is a special number in Judaism. Seven are the days of the week (six days of creation + Shabbat). In many Jewish weddings, the partners circle each other seven times. We make seven stops when carrying a casket to the grave. Seven are the colors of the rainbow.
We count the Omer for seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, and some of us do a reverse Omer count during the seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. And all of these sevens can be echoes, or reminders, of the seven energetic qualities that our mystics find in divinity (and in us.)
Our mystics understand God to be both transcendent (infinite, beyond our grasp) and immanent (reachable / relatable / embodied in creation). They envisioned a map of ten divine qualities or energies (called sefirot) through which God's infinity flows into finite creation.
You might imagine the sefirot as electrical transformers that enable the energy of divine infinity to "step down" and modulate to a level that's graspable in physical creation. Sometimes these ten qualities are depicted as nodes in a map of energy-flow. Sometimes they're depicted superimposed over an image of a tree, or over an image of a human being.
At the "top" of the map is Ein Sof -- "Without End," limitlessness, infinity. ("Top" and "bottom" are metaphors for something that's not actually spatial at all, but we use a spatial metaphor to help us imagine this.) The "upper" three sefirot are usually considered so lofty that we can't reach them. (Different schools conceptualize the upper three in different ways and with different names: "Crown" and Wisdom and Understanding, or Wisdom and Understanding and Knowledge.)
But the "lower" seven sefirot are energetic qualities that are accessible to us and are manifest in creation. These are the energetic qualities that we cultivate and discern during the year's two seven-week corridors of inner work and counting: one in the (Northern hemisphere) spring between Pesach and Shavuot, and the other in the (Northern hemisphere) late summer / early fall between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. They are chesed, gevurah, tiferet, netzach, hod, yesod, and malchut.
Chesed is love, lovingkindness, unbounded flow. Chesed is the outpouring of overabundant love.
Gevurah is boundaries, strength, judgment. Gevurah is a strong channel, and the ability to discern good from bad.
Tiferet is harmony, balance, beauty. Some see tiferet as the perfect harmony of love and boundaried-strength.
Netzach is endurance and perseverance. Netzach is the energy of persistence, the energy of eternity.
Hod means both humility and splendor. This can be a kind of koan: splendor-in-humility, humility-in-splendor.
Yesod is foundations, roots, generativity. Yesod roots us in the generations, both past and future.
Malchut, sometimes translated as nobility or kingship, is presence and manifestation. Malchut is associated with Shechinah -- the immanent indwelling divine Presence, the divine feminine, the essence of Shabbat.
Each person manifests each of these qualities. One component of the inner work that Jewish tradition calls us to do is discerning which of these qualities we need to strengthen and how to keep them in good balance. Each of these is a good thing when balanced with the others, and each can become a negative thing if it grows unchecked. (For instance, chesed -- lovingkindness -- is a wonderful quality -- but if it flows without limit, it can lead to ethical breaches, boundary crossing, and spiritual bypassing.)
Tisha b'Av is coming up at the end of this week. After Tisha b'Av, there are seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah. During the seven weeks after Pesach (the Omer count) we begin with the quality of chesed and culminate with the quality of malchut. During these coming seven weeks, we begin with malchut -- presence, Shechinah, the divine feminine -- and "ascend" the energetic ladder all the way back to chesed, the energy of lovingkindness that will lead us into the start of a new Jewish year.
Bayit's summer learning week together begins with Shabbes. We come together from all of our various home places, put on our Shabbes whites, and daven, walking outside with a guitar to welcome the Shabbat bride into our midst. When we gather around the dining table, our kiddush soars, and my soul with it. We feast and talk and laugh and sing the birkat hamazon (grace after meals). We walk to the beach under the just-past-full moon and swoon at the sparkling path of moonlight across the waves.
On Shabbes morning our davenen is long and leisurely. Leadership flows organically: someone picks up the guitar or begins to offer a melody and the rest follow. Rabbi Mike Moskowitz gives over some Torah, and we talk about Balaam, social justice, and when it is and isn't someone's job to educate those who mistreat them. Later we study when one can send a shaliach (messenger) on one's behalf and when it's important to do a mitzvah with one's own hands, and social justice, individual, and community.
There's beach time, text study, singing. There's the indescribable sweetness of spending a full Shabbat with others who care as much as I do. There are long afternoon conversations, and singing around the table as daylight wanes. There's havdalah outside, our hands cupped around the candle so the ocean breeze doesn't blow it out. There's late-night conversation about what it means for our building work to be a tikkun for what has been broken, and even later-night Pictionary with endless laughter.
And that's just the first night and day.
We daven every day, gliding in and out of service leadership, singing in harmony. We dedicate hours to talking about Bayit's mission and vision, about the projects that are already underway, about partnership and collaboration, about what we yearn to build. We cook meals and clean up from meals and walk across the street to the beach and lounge by the ocean and swim and bask in the sunshine. We dive deep into the nature of innovation, systems and structures, how to wisely do spiritual R&D.
We study Ezekiel with Dr. Tamar Kamionkowski from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, diving into difficult questions of theodicy, relationship, spiritual formation, privilege, bypassing, gender, and grief. We study the theology of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy): how narratives and instructions from earlier in Torah are recast there, and what it means to hear God's voice and study God's word, and immanence and transcendence, and what the Deuteronomic God asks of us (learning and love.)
We study mussar, Shabbat, and medical halakha and ethics with Rabbi Jeff Fox, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat. There's a text from the Nezer Yisrael -- about Shabbat, oscillation between giving and receiving, and how divinity can be manifest in authentic relationship -- that lights me up like a Chanukiyah. There are teshuvot (responsa) and texts that raise big questions about identity, disability, change, personhood, and the halakhic process. We talk and grapple and question and learn.
We spin blue-sky dreams about where we want the Jewish future to go and what we want to build, about curation and collaboration and innovation -- and then we anchor those dreams in six-month and one-year and three-year and five-year plans. We talk about empowering folks to build an accessible, meaningful Judaism now. We talk about governance and publishing and the internet and spiritual seekers and "all ages and stages." Then we set our work aside and immerse in the ocean, with joy.
We begin to brainstorm about how we might re-invent the second day of Rosh Hashanah. What is the spiritual journey of that day, and how is it different from the first day? What do our communities need on that day? What elements ask a new uplift? What is the valance of teshuvah (returning / "repentance") on that day distinct from the day before? What kind of temporal and spiritual runway do we need so our communities can accompany us into the spiritual territory we want to explore that day?
One night we bring folding chairs to the beach and daven ma'ariv with a guitar, accompanied by the waves, beneath the spread of stars. No one has a siddur, but it doesn't matter; we have the words and the matbe'ah (the service's internal structure) by heart. We sing to the One Who placed the planets in their orbit and the stars in the heavens. Because it came up in conversation earlier that day that one of us loves "Hotel California," we close with "Adon Olam" to that melody in multipart harmony.
When Bayit's summer learning and visioning week comes to an end, I'm sad to leave this space of learning and visioning and holy play... and grateful to have such hevre with whom to do the holy work of building together. Deep thanks to The Jewish Studio, our fiscal sponsor, for making this week possible -- and to my hevre, for dedicating their hands and hearts to the proposition that everyone can be a builder, and that a meaningful, accessible, renewing Judaism is ours to build together.
With [some of] my Bayit hevre: building toward the Jewish future together.
...There’s something inherently funny about [a] talking donkey, but her voice hints at a deeper theme. “What did I ever do to you, that you should hit me with that stick,” said the beleaguered beast of burden. The Israelites might say the same thing to King Balak: what did we ever do to you, that you should seek to curse us for fleeing from horrific circumstance?
King Balak felt threatened by the presence of refugees on his doorstep. It’s not hard to find a contemporary analogue, someone in a position of tremendous power who looks at refugees and sees, not human souls in need of help and welcome, but a teeming horde of foreigners whose very presence is a threat...
That's from my latest for The Wisdom Daily: Wisdom about the refugee crisis… from a talking Biblical donkey.
Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. #goodtrouble— John Lewis (@repjohnlewis) June 27, 2018
That's a tweet from Representative John Lewis. (If somehow you don't know his story, I recommend the graphic novel trilogy March, which he co-wrote with Andrew Aydin and is illustrated by Nate Powell -- it brings the Civil Rights struggle to life.)
Many of us are reeling this week at the Supreme Court's upholding of Trump's horrendous and unethical #MuslimBan, followed by the news that Justice Kennedy is retiring. I'm hearing a lot of grief and fear and despair. (I too am feeling those things.)
I have two suggestions to offer.
The first is: take care of yourself. There is no merit badge for enduring anxiety and panic. If you have a spiritual practice, strengthen it. If you don't have one, consider taking one up. The work at hand is immense, and our overwhelm helps no one.
The second is: once your head is above water, find something you can do. If you have funds, donate. If you have time, volunteer. Register people to vote. Make phone calls to voters who might make a difference. And above all, do not lose hope.
I know that may sound naïve. But hope is not a luxury: it's a necessity. Without hope, life loses its brightness and despair settles in. Hope is quintessential to Jewish spiritual life, and I suspect that's true not just in my own tradition but across the board.
Raymond Williams wrote, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.” (I learned that from a talk called Applied Hope, in 2016.) Here's a thread I read on Twitter this morning that gave me a bit of hope to cling to:
I tweeted this earlier today but just going to say again: abolitionists lost every single SCOTUS case. every single one. John Brown failed. And chattel slavery is over now.— Dr. T’Chanda Prescod-Weinstein🙅🏽♀️ 🇧🇧 (@IBJIYONGI) June 27, 2018
I take heart from that reminder. The Supreme Court's rulings should be expressions of real justice, but there have been times in our history before when SCOTUS has ruled unjustly. With hard work and persistence we can move toward justice anyway.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg tweeted recently "This is a relay, not a marathon." If you can carry the baton forward, then do so. If you can't, then take a break: have a Shabbes, turn off the news, spend time with a friend, whatever replenishes your well.
And then tag in and pick up a baton again when you can. The work of repairing the world is infinite; it will always be there for you to return to. When you feel depleted, pause and recharge so that you can rejoin the relay strengthened and full of holy fire.
Above all, do whatever you can to maintain hope in the better world you want to see. Dream it, so that you can work toward it. We may not see a nation (a world!) of compassion and justice in our lifetime, but we need to do everything we can to build it.
Sunday will be the 17th of the lunar month of Tamuz, the day when we enter the period known as the Three Weeks. I haven't had the spaciousness to write something new about the spiritual journey of this season this year, so here are two posts from previous years that I hope will still resonate.
The first one is a post about moadim -- "festivals" or "appointed-times" -- of closeness to our Source, and moadim of distance from our Source. Times when God feels near, and times when God feels far away. That language comes from R' Shlomo Wolbe, known as the Alei Shur:
...In the Alei Shur's language, [the Three Weeks] are a moed of distance. They're balanced by the three weeks from Rosh Hashanah to Shemini Atzeret, a moed of closeness and drawing-near. Our calendar gives us three bitter weeks, and three sweet ones... and we need to experience them both. The soul gets "out of whack" otherwise. It's not healthy to marinate only in sorrow all year long, or to allow ourselves only to feel joy all year long. Both of those extremes are spiritually damaging. We need the both / and...
Read the whole post here: Days of closeness, days when God feels far away (2017).
And the second is a post about how the Three Weeks lead us to Tisha b'Av, which in turn is our springboard toward the High Holidays:
...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...
Read the whole post here: The fast of Tamuz (2014).
May we all find the inner resources we need to do the spiritual work of this season anew this year, and may our inner work impel us in turn to the outer work of creating justice in the world.
(Local folks: here's a save-the-date for my synagogue's observance of Tisha b'Av on July 21. All are welcome.)
This is the note I wrote to send to my synagogue community this week. I'm sharing it here in case it also speaks to those who are not part of my local community but are part of my broader online community.
Many of you who have spoken with me this week have described your despair at current policy of stripping children from parents in order to deter immigration. You've spoken to me about your shock and heartbreak, about the emotional and spiritual impact of that news recording of children crying out for parents they may never see again, about the known traumatic impacts of separating young children from their caregivers.
Recent public discourse has included the suggestion that immigrants are "infesting" our country -- language which should deeply trouble us as Jews: it's the language the Nazi party used to justify what we now know as the Holocaust, and it's also the language Pharaoh used in Torah to describe our spiritual ancestors before setting the enslavement of the Israelites in motion. I know that many of you are troubled by this language too.
Like many of you, I am descended from immigrants who came here seeking asylum from state-sponsored persecution, which gives me an extra sense of connection with today's refugees. Like many of you, I have been gutted to imagine what those children are going through -- and to imagine the anguish their parents now face. Like many of you, I have felt sometimes paralyzed by the enormity of the injustice currently on display.
I am writing to you today to urge you not to give in to that paralysis or to its psycho-spiritual sibling despair. The need is too great. The work of creating a more just world is work in which all of us are obligated as human beings and as Jews. The call to "love the stranger, for [we] were strangers in the land of Egypt" is repeated in Torah no fewer than 36 times. Separating parents from children is the very opposite of showing love.
The ADL recently sent Jeff Sessions a letter, co-signed by 26 American Jewish organizations, arguing that taking children away from parents is unconscionable and that as Jews we understand the plight of immigrants fleeing danger and seeking asylum. On this, every branch of Judaism -- the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Reconstructing Judaism movement, and the Orthodox movement --- is in agreement.
Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization that works toward creating a more just world, has established a petition declaring a state of moral emergency. As of this writing, more than 14,000 people have signed it. Here's a secular petition as well. Signing a petition doesn't "do" much, but it can break the personal sense of powerlessness. Reaching out to elected officials is another small act that can begin to create change.
There is a custom of giving tzedakah before Shabbat in order to prime the pump for blessing to flow into the world over Shabbes and in the week to come. My tzedakah donation this week will go to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing immigrant families and refugees (including children) with affordable legal assistance.
Another possible place to direct your tzedakah this week is the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, which advocates for the safety and well-being of unaccompanied kids arriving in the United States. The organization recently announced a project specifically dedicated to helping children separated from their parents at the border. You can learn more about the program's efforts and how to donate here.
I believe that as human beings and as Jews we are called to speak and work and act against injustice wherever it arises. Separating parents from children is injustice. Please do what you can to encourage our government to end this inhumane policy now.
And please take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually as you work to better the world. For some of us that means taking a Shabbat respite from the news, or entering into spiritual practice to replenish our hearts and souls for the work to come. Creating a more just world is fundamental to who we are as Jews -- and it's work that calls us also to self-care, so that we can be here to keep doing the work in all the tomorrows to come.
Blessings to all --
I keep trying to write something about the current state of affairs in my country and being too daunted to begin. My words fail me. What wisdom can I possibly offer about migrant children torn from their parents and held in cages? All I have is heartbreak.
But the fact that I am stunned and horrified and sickened by what's happening in my nation is no excuse for my silence. If I can't find words of my own, the least I can do is point to words by others. Here are five tweets I've signal-boosted in recent days (the first one of these is a thread -- click through to read the whole):
1. So I’m just going to start a thread of all the faith groups/faith leaders condemning either the Trump admin’s zero tolerance policy that separates families (and/or asylum change), Sessions’ argument that the Bible supports its enforcement, or both.— Jack Jenkins (@jackmjenkins) June 15, 2018
Here are a few.
When crying children are taken from their parents’ arms, the American Jewish community must not remain silent. We declare: Not here. Not now. Not in our name. This is a state of moral emergency. #FamiliesBelongTogether https://t.co/2IfnoO5h9Q— Rabbi Sara Zober 🏳️🌈 (@RebbeSMZ) June 18, 2018
To "love the stranger" is the single most repeated commandment in the Hebrew Bible. We do not show love by separating parents from children. The idea that this somehow accords with "Biblical" values is an absurd and evil claim. Shame on those who use faith to justify oppresssion— Lee Weissman (@JihadiJew) June 17, 2018
Unconscionable. Say it again: unconscionable. https://t.co/nrQP0f1646— Dan Shapiro (@DanielBShapiro) June 14, 2018
If you want to know what you can do to make this better, here's a list of seven groups supporting children at the border that need our help. Donating to organizations like these doesn't feel like enough, but if the choice is between "doing something insufficient" and "doing nothing at all," I believe the former is better than the latter.
Sunset is early in winter, and the air is too cold for my comfort most of the time, and my mirpesset fills up with snow and I can't open the door until that snow melts in the spring.
But in summer my balcony is one of my favorite places to be, and one of my favorite ways to spend evening time: gazing at the always-perfect and always-changing sky.
On the one hand sky-gazing can feel frivolous. There's so much that needs doing. On the micro scale there are household chores; on the macro scale there's the badly broken world.
But it's exactly because the work is endless that taking a pause from that work is so important. It's the same principle as taking a Shabbat: ideally it restores me for the week.
And even when I don't daven a full ma'ariv service I can pause to notice, and bless the One Who evens the evenings, mixing the changing colors of the evening sky.
This shouldn't be news to me. I've been privileged to work with several fine publishers, from Pecan Grove Press (who published my first chapbook in 1995) to Phoenicia Publishing (who published 70 faces: Torah poems and Waiting to Unfold) to Ben Yehuda Press (who published Open My Lips and Texts to the Holy.) And yet every time I hold a new printer's proof in my hands, I'm always awestruck by how real the volume feels, and how different that is from a PDF on my computer screen.
The volume in question this time is a printer's proof of the first third of Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal, the volume for mourners being co-published by Bayit: Your Jewish Home and Ben Yehuda Press. This book contains poems, prayers, readings, and meditations from some 39 people -- including some of the poets, liturgists, and rabbis I most admire. (There's a list of contributors on the book's webpage.) That they entrusted us with publishing their work is humbling.
And I think this book will meet a real pastoral need, and that's a humbling responsibility, too. Beside Still Waters is something that I need as a congregational rabbi who ministers to people throughout the mourner's journey. It's something that I need as a person who will someday walk the mourner's path myself. And I think it will meet the needs of a lot of people, across and beyond the denominational spectrum, in synagogues and chavurot, hospitals and nursing homes and funeral homes.
Mourning is at once deeply personal and -- at least in Jewish tradition -- also communal. The whole custom of shiva minyanim and kaddish is designed to embed a mourner in community. (Many meaningful books have been written about how saying kaddish daily for a year changed someone's sense of self, God, and community.) Beside Still Waters is designed to help individual mourners on the mourner's path, but even more than that, it's meant to be used b'tzibbur, in community settings.
There are still several stops remaining on the journey toward publication. Based on this partial proof we've made definitive choices about fonts and typesetting style. Now the other two-thirds of the book needs to be typeset and designed. There's proofreading and copyediting work to be done, in English and in the transliteration and in the Hebrew (where sometimes nekudot, vowel dots and markings, get subtly shifted as an artifact of file transfer.)
But seeing this partial proof makes the book feel real. I can imagine sharing the "Healing of Body, Healing of Spirit" and "Before Death" sections with someone who is dying. I can imagine leading a shiva minyan with the liturgy we've collected here. I can imagine using the book for yahrzeit and yizkor and times of remembrance. I can imagine this book going out into the world and making a difference in people's lives... and that gives me the energy I need to keep the behind-the-scenes work going.
I'm endlessly grateful to our publishing partner Larry Yudelson at Ben Yehuda Press, and to my hevre at Bayit, and to everyone who contributed their work to this book. I can't wait to bring it into the world and share it with all of you.
You can pre-order Beside Still Waters on the Ben Yehuda Press website. If you're interested in a bulk order for your community, let me know -- discounts are available.
...I blinked and the judge was wishing us well in whatever may unfold next for each of us. We walked out of the courtroom, and I was so dazed that I tried to put my purse back through the security scanner even though I know they don’t search you on the way out of the building. We agreed on the precise time and location of our next kid hand-off. We got into our separate cars and drove away...
That's a glimpse of my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily: reflections on the spiritual valance of being in legal limbo, and finding holiness in life's transitions.
Read the whole thing here: Finding what lifts my spirit as I wait for my divorce to be finalized.
"Shabbat is different every week because we are different every week. Sometimes Shabbat shows up with dancing shoes, other times with a cup of cocoa and a bedtime story," writes Wilhemina Gottschalk in her introduction to The Sabbath Bee, her luminous new collection of prose poems, just released by Ben Yehuda Press. (It's part of the same Jewish Poetry Project beneath whose umbrella my Texts to the Holy was published earlier this year.)
"Some weeks Shabbat might be happy to give me a quick hug and let me return to my conversation with friends, while other nights the prospect of a mystical joining is so exhilarating that Shabbat and I sneak away together to the nearest janitor's closet."
And that's just the introduction.
I adore this book of prose poems. If you've picked up a copy of the book, you already know that, because here's the blurb I offered for the back:
"Torah, say our sages, has seventy faces. As these prose poems reveal, so too does Shabbat. Here we meet Shabbat as familiar housemate, as the child whose presence transforms a family (sometimes in ways that outsiders can’t understand), as a spreading tree, as an annoying friend who insists on being celebrated, as a child throwing water balloons, as a woman, as a man, as a bee, as the ocean… Through the lens of these deft, surprising, moving prose poems, all seventy of Shabbat’s faces shine."
I love this book because these prose poems are familiar and surprising all at once. I love it because it shows how Shabbat can be different for us every time she comes, and it offers a window into what it can feel like to welcome Shabbat week after week: with bliss and with frustration and with joy.
Shabbat in this volume is a bride, a husband, a child, a storm, a blanket, a lover, a pair of dancing shoes. In one of the most delightfully surprising prose poems in the volume, Shabbat is a person and I become a puppy in her arms.
Many of the pieces in this volume stand on their own as delicious little prose poems, but for me the real beauty of the collection is how each prose poem reflects and refracts the experience of Shabbat in conversation with the others. No one of these poems could stand in for the whole collection, because part of the point is that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
If you are a fan of prose poems (which I am, and have been ever since David Lehman introduced me to them in graduate school some 20 years ago!), and/or if you know Shabbat, or love Shabbat, or perhaps once flirted with Shabbat, this book is worth your time. Available for $9.95 at Ben Yehuda Press.
Our sages compare Shabbat to a garden. Shabbat is called both a foretaste of the world to come and a return to Eden, the primordial garden of abundance and bliss. What more perfect place to experience the sweetness of Shabbes than a garden?
This past Shabbat I joined with folks from Temple Beth-El of City Island and Shtiebl (and their spiritual leaders Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Ben Newman) for Shabbat in the Garden, a prayerful adventure to delight body, heart, mind, and soul.
We met at the front entrance to the New York Botanical Garden. After getting ourselves organized, we walked in contemplative silence -- marveling at the spectacular beauty all around us -- until we reached a shady place where it made sense to stop.
Beneath a spreading tree we sang a shehecheyanu: "Oh, Mystery • Grace unfolding • Oh, Miracle • It's You alone. / Oh, Mystery • Grace unfolding • Oh, Miracle • You bring us home!" Humming that melody we walked some more, past greenery and blooms.
Beside a tiered reflecting pool we stopped again in the shade. After the story of Reb Zalman's daughter asking "When we're awake, can we wake up even more?" we sang "Awaken, arise to the wholeness of your being!" We woke up some more.
More walking, more quiet singing. Where we stopped to stretch up to the sky and pray nishmat kol chai, "the breath of all life praises Your name!" we were accompanied by the song of a waterfall and the basso profundo of a bullfrog in the pond.
Beneath a shaded pavilion overlooking a meadow dotted with butterflies we sang the bar'chu. "As I call on the light of my soul, I come home." Reminded of the angel who encourages every blade of grass to grow, we sang holy holy holy like the angels do.
We sang Mi Chamocha, the song that Torah teaches we sang upon crossing the Sea, as we crossed the Bronx River. Our Amidah, the standing prayer, unfolded in silence overlooking the spectacular riotous blooms of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden.
On an enormous expanse of rock we listened to mystical teachings on the week's Torah portion. We rose there to sing our closing prayers. We blessed wine and challah. And then we savored a celebratory oneg and impromptu conversation about God.
And when our community time together was done, Rabbi David and I walked through the most spectacular rose garden I have ever seen. More kinds of roses than I can describe, every shape and configuration and color and scent, and all of them in bloom.
All photos courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden.