Written with tears


Ac6a8a5f48135ac1d719676a129e873cI belong to a small group of local Jewish clergy which meets once a week at a coffee shop to study together, and for the last year or so we've been slowly working our way through Heschel's encyclopedic masterwork Heavenly Torah. Recently we read something about the final verses of the Torah which continues to reverberate in me. 

The book of Deuteronomy ends with the death of Moses. This poses an interesting challenge for the classical tradition: if Torah was dictated verbatim by God to Moshe, then how can it contain verses about Moshe's death? How could Moses have told the story of his own death if it hadn't happened yet?

The tradition offers a variety of different answers, among them "he didn't write those last eight verses; Joshua did." But the answer I find most moving is that as Moshe heard about his own imminent passage out of this life, he wrote the final eight verses not with ink (or not only with ink) but with his tears.

Moses didn't get to cross into the Promised Land, but he did cross that threshold from this life into whatever comes next -- as everyone eventually must do. When he wrote the last verses of his story with his tears, what was he feeling? Were they tears of gratitude, or of longing? Tears of regret, or tears of joy?

Each of us, the tradition says, is to write a Torah. That's understood in a variety of ways: one should learn the scribal arts, one should fiscally support a Torah scribe, one should contribute commentary to the tapestry of tradition... and, perhaps, one should recognize consciously that one's life is a sacred text unfolding.

One of my favorite passages in this Heschel chapter holds that Moshe could have written the whole Torah with his tears, but then it would be too luminous for us to read. There are chapters in everyone's Torah of lived human experience which are written with tears -- tears of sorrow, and tears of gladness.

What would it be like to name those moments in our lives which are washed with tears not as something to be hidden away or avoided, but as luminous connections with the undercurrent of spirit which enlivens all things? What scripture might we write if we allowed ourselves access to the invisible ink of our cracked-open hearts?

 


New at The Wisdom Daily: What do you yearn for?

Logo-twd-headerMy latest essay is up at The Wisdom Daily. Writing this essay was really meaningful for me; I hope that reading it is equally so for you. Here's how it begins -- with a story from the beginning of my hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) training with ALEPH several years ago:

We sat facing each other, two women who were reasonably friendly but by no means intimate. We were enrolled in a spiritual direction training program together, and this was our first week of class. Our task in this moment was to ask each other one simple question: what do you yearn for?

My partner asked me, and I had a ready answer. I had just learned that I was pregnant, and the yearning at the top of my consciousness was to be a good mother. So that's what I said. Then she asked the question again. I refined my answer. She asked again. I went deeper. She asked again.

After ten minutes of continuing to answer this question, I was weeping. Not in sadness, but in awestruck recognition of how many yearnings I ordinarily keep buried beneath the surface -- and of how remarkable it felt to be able to articulate those yearnings and to have my answers received with gentleness and grace.

If you ask me what I want out of life, I can answer you fairly easily. If you ask me what I hope for, I can answer that too. But yearning feels deeper than either of those. Yearning feels more tender, more vulnerable. Yearning arises from the innermost chambers of my heart...

Read the whole thing: Ask yourself: what do I yearn for?


For those who are struggling this thanksgiving

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In the United States today is Thanksgiving, a day for cultivating gratitude and giving thanks. I'm a big fan of both of those things. And I also know that there are times when I haven't been able to access gratitude -- and that feeling cut-off from gratitude can be especially painful on special days like holidays. If you are in that place, or if you think you know someone who might be, don't miss this post from Rabbi David Evan Markus at the Rabbis Without Borders blog at My Jewish Learning. He begins:

Happy Thanksgiving.

Now, let’s get real: some don’t feel thankful today. We might feel like the turkeys got us down. We might feel burdened by hosting, harried by travel, lonely for having nowhere to go, bothered for having to go somewhere we don’t want to go, or pre-triggered by a secular holiday season happier in advertising than anticipation or reality. It’s well to act grateful even if we don’t feel it (a practice worth trying), or imagine Plymouth Rock as the House of God (my post last Thanksgiving), but what if we (or people we love) don’t feel “thanks” on Thanksgiving?

Turns out, we have a turkey for that, too.

Rabbi David tells the parable of the Turkey Prince, which comes to us from Reb Nachman of Breslov, and offers some deep wisdom for those who are struggling today and those who love someone who is struggling today. Worth reading -- today and every day: It's Thanksgiving, But What If One Doesn't Feel Thankful?


Then why am I?

At the very beginning of this week's Torah portion, Rebecca feels her twins struggling for dominance in her womb. Her response is an existential question: "If this is so, then why am I?" Every year when we reach this parsha, this verse leaps out at me. And every year when I apply the diamond of this verse to my own life, it reveals a different facet of my own heart and mind. (I love that about Torah study.)

If this is so, then why am I? This year the question resonates for me in an interpersonal way. There are people I love who are sick, and I am helpless to heal them. There are people I love who are in tight straits, and I am helpless to free them. There are people I love who are suffering, and I am helpless in the face of what they're going through. I want so much to make things better -- and I can't.

Rebecca's question reverberates in me. If I can't bring comfort, if I can't bring healing, if I can't make things better, then what am I doing here? Why am I even, if I can't balm the suffering of those I love? It's not an intellectual question, but a heart-question. Something is wrong and I can't fix it even though I yearn to do so with all of who I am. If I can't make it better, what am I even doing here?

Rebecca brings her question to God, and God gives her a narrative answer: there is a struggle inside her because she is carrying twins who are destined to tussle with each other. When I bring this same question to God, the answer I receive is just one word: love. Why am I? Love. What am I here for? Love. What can I extend to those in my life who are sick or suffering or grieving? Love. Only love.

I imagine that as my heart overflows for those in my life who are in tight places, so God's heart overflows for all of us.  I think there's something about the experience of yearning to make things better for a beloved which is integral to human life -- and maybe this is part of what Torah means when it says that we are made in the divine image and likeness. As God feels compassion, so do we.

And maybe that is itself an answer to Rebecca's question. That's what we're here for. To feel with others, to feel for others. To wish we could make things better for each other. Even when we can't fix, we can choose to continue to feel; we can choose to continue to love; we can choose not to turn away.

 

 

Related:

Rivka's questions, our answers, 2006

Why am I and how can I integrate?, 2013

Peace parsha: if this is so, then why am I?, 2014

 


Sitting with sorrow in the sukkah

Sukkot is called זמן שמחתנו, zman simchateinu, which means "season of our rejoicing." But what does one do if one isn't able to rejoice at this season? If sorrow, or grief, are getting in the way of the ability to rejoice? What then? My answer is this: we bring whatever we are feeling, in its fullness, into the sukkah with us. Even if it isn't joy. Spiritual practice asks us to be present to what is, whatever it is.

There are five megillot (scrolls) in Jewish tradition which are associated with particular festivals. At Purim we read Esther. At Pesach, we read Song of Songs. At Shavuot, we read Ruth. At Tisha b'Av, we read Lamentations. And at Sukkot, we read Kohelet (in English, it's called Ecclesiastes.) Think "A time to be born, and a time to die..." In every life, there is a time for gladness, and a time for sorrow.

When I am wrestling with sorrow, there is comfort for me in the knowledge that everything comes and goes. "This too shall pass" -- even the deepest of grief. הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל -- often rendered as "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" -- can also be translated "Breath, breathing; everything is fleeting as a breath." Even our sorrows are not forever -- though they may feel that way when we are in them.

Sukkot is a festival of impermanence. For a week we do our best to dwell in our little harvest houses which must have roofs through which one can see the stars. We remind ourselves that the structures we build in our lives are not forever. The challenge is finding joy not despite the temporariness, but in it. Not despite life's sorrows, but even as we allow ourselves to wholly feel those sorrows.

Enter Rabbi Jay Michaelson's essay Entering the Gate of Sadness, published in Zeek in 2007. (Speaking of which, I'm looking really forward to reading his new book, The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path, coming in a few days from Ben Yehuda Press.) Jay writes:

Sadness is not an expression of the heart to be discarded in favor of those which are better. To believe that everything happens as it must is not to be fatalistic and cowed; it is not to believe everything happens for the best; it is to understand that sadness is part of the unfolding of the God Process. Praise God with it. Even that which is not, apparently, for our best may be turned to an instrument of praise. Not by denying its painfulness, but by deeply seeing this soul, in this body, at this moment, as manifesting the unfolding of the One. The pain is real, and it is God.

For me the critical words there are "Not by denying its painfulness[.]" There is always a temptation to respond to sadness by shutting it down, or papering it over, or pretending it's not there. Maybe especially at times of year when we feel we're "supposed" to be happy -- at anniversaries or birthdays, at holidays. But spiritual practice calls us to resist the temptation to put a bandaid on what hurts.

The mitzvah of Sukkot is  לישב בסוכה / leishev ba-sukkah, to dwell -- literally, "to sit" -- in the sukkah. If your heart is breaking, then bring that into the sukkah and sit with it as best you can. Sitting in the sukkah can be a kind of embodied meditation, an opportunity to feel what comes and what goes. Torah tells us to rejoice in our festivals, but if you can't, that's okay. God is with you, wherever you are.

Maybe singing the praise-psalms of Hallel will "help," in the sense of lightening your heart, and maybe not. (You might find more resonance in מן המצר קראתי יה / min ha-meitzar karati Yah -- "From the narrow straits I called to You!" -- than in the more overtly joyful verses.) Either way, bring what is with you into the sukkah. Let yourself feel whatever you feel. And remember that this, too, shall pass.

 

Related: Joy, 2009.

 


Beautiful

LogoHas anyone told you today that you are beautiful?

Not because of what you're wearing. Not because they like your jewelry or your tie, though maybe they do. But your clothes aren't the point. Not now.

Not because they want something from you and are trying to butter you up. Not because you did something for them and they're trying to thank you. Just because it's true.

No?

I'll tell you, then. You are beautiful.

There is beauty in your eyes. When you let your neshama, your soul, shine through -- it takes my breath away. There's beauty in your hands -- in everything they do, have done, will do in the world.

There is such beauty in what makes you you. I know that the world we live in doesn't always feel like a safe place to let your light shine. I know that you don't always feel beautiful. But believe me: you are.

I wish I could make your life endlessly sweet. I wish I could smooth the rough edges, gentle away the sorrow, remove suffering from your path. I can't, because those things aren't given to me to do.

But I can tell you that you are beautiful, and that you are precious, and that I cannot fathom that a loving God put you on this earth to suffer, and that I want every good thing for you. Every single one.

I can tell you these things because I have been blessed to hear them myself. And I know that if they are true for me, then they are true not only for me. And if I needed to hear them, maybe you do, too.

I know that we are all reflections of God's beauty. I don't always see that beauty in myself, but when I look at the people I love most in the world, their beauty is more than I can describe in words.

I look at the people I love, and I want their lives to be paved with kindness, with gentle encounters and generous conversations, with an endless outpouring of love, because they deserve every good thing.

I believe that God sees each of us that way. The heart-overflowing limitless endless love that I feel for the people I love most in the world -- God feels that way toward every one of us. Can you imagine?

Think of the person you love most. How beautiful they are to you, because you see them through the eyes of love. Now imagine yourself, seen through the eyes of someone who loves you that intensely.

Because some One does. Even if you feel completely alone in the world. Even if life right now is hard. You are beautiful in those eyes. And you are beautiful in mine. You are beautiful because you are you.

 

The image illustrating this post comes from the folks at you-are-beautiful.com. It's one of the two bumper stickers on my car.

 


i carry it in my heart

B9646da06dccdd354b36623ee8b98897You've probably heard the aphorism that being a parent is like having a piece of one's heart walking around outside of one's chest. Being a parent means being vulnerable to everything that can go wrong in the world. It means (or should mean) being intimately attuned to someone else's physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual wellbeing; feeling their sorrows and their joys.

This is not only true of being a parent. It is the complicated blessing of being a person who loves any other person deeply. When someone is beloved to me, and I to them, our hearts become permeable. I open myself to feeling some of what my beloveds feel. I yearn for my beloveds to be blessed with joy, and I accept that when they feel grief my own heart will ache along with theirs.

In this place and time the language of love and beloved is presumed to be romantic, having to do with two people "falling in love." But I think that if that's all the word "beloved" means to us, then we're shrinking the capacity of our language. A sibling can be beloved. A friend can be beloved. We don't just "fall" in love; if we're blessed to have relationships which deepen over time, we grow in love.

Every intimate relationship comes with the price tag of having a piece of one's heart walking around outside of one's chest, vulnerable to harm. If I give a piece of my heart to everyone who is beloved to me, then my heart is always expanding. A little piece of me travels with each of my beloveds wherever they go. An invisible thread connects my heart to theirs, always. They are never alone. Neither am I.

This is an incalculable gift. It is beyond words, and I don't say that lightly -- God knows I have plenty of words for most occasions! But emotional and spiritual intimacy beggars my language. We don't have good words for it, and the words we do have are too-easily written-off as overblown or corny. To love and to be loved -- to be beloved...! The connection is more than I know how to describe.

And sometimes the heartache is, too. I don't mean the heartache you hear about in pop songs, one lover leaving another behind. I mean the heartache of precisely the opposite: of being connected, heart to heart, feeling a loved one's happiness with them -- and also their sorrow or their grief. Have you ever felt so much love for someone that your heart threatens to burst out of your chest?

I've been thinking lately about what it means to seek to live with an open heart -- even when that also means that my heart is vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, not only my own but also the fortunes of those whom I love. How can I live that truth with integrity? How can I express my love in a way which will help to sustain my beloveds, and how can I receive their caring in return?

I'm using the term "beloved" to mean someone dear to my heart. But Beloved, with a capital B, is one of our tradition's ways of imagining God. God is the ultimate Beloved, and to God, we are all beloved. God has compassion for us, which is to say, God feels with us, because we are beloved of God. When we feel sorrow, God's heart breaks along with ours... and when we feel joy, we illuminate the heavens.

Our liturgy teaches that we are loved by an unending love -- a love transcending all space and time. A forever love. An infinite love. Sometimes I catch glimmers of how the love I feel for my beloveds is an infinitesimal fragment of that ahavat olam. Sometimes my love threatens to overflow my chest, and I think: I'm just one. If we could put together the love of all humanity, we could move mountains.

To borrow a term from Thich Nhat Hanh, when we love each other we inter-are. I become a part of you, and you become a part of me. This is one of the places where I experience God: in the connection between your heart and mine. God is in the space between us which is charged with concern and with caring and with love. And that's true whether we are physically side by side, or a thousand miles apart.

"When you love one another, then God is within you," as the Shaker hymn has it. Maybe that's why my heart feels too expansive for my chest. What human ribcage could contain that luminous Presence which is made manifest within us when we open our hearts in loving connection? As e. e. cummings wrotei carry your heart(i carry it in my heart) -- and in the link between our hearts, there is God.


In a time beyond time

 

Breath comes slow.
Behind the curtain
a gurgling: fish tank?
Medical equipment?
I don't part the veil.

Snatches of liturgy
wash over me and are gone.
My God, the soul You placed
in me is pure. Shelter
her beneath Your wings.

Now and forever.
Now is forever.
And when the soul is ready
to let go, tether trailing
like spider-silk...?

The sages say
sleep is one-sixtieth
of death. Perhaps one
who rarely wakes
can glimpse the other side.

 


"My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure..." comes from the prayer Elohai Neshama. My favorite translation contains the line "You created it, you formed it, you placed it within me, and you will take it from me in a time beyond time."

The imagery of a soul sheltered beneath the wings of Shekhinah is drawn from the prayer El Maleh Rachamim.

The teaching that sleep is 1/60th of death comes from the Talmud.


Praying for what's possible

MiShebeirach Card (front)What does it mean to cultivate hope when the doctors say "there's nothing more we can do"? Hopes for a cure have to be set aside. There will be no miracle, no Hail Mary pass, no eleventh-hour wonder. Every specialist has been seen, every possible avenue of treatment or exploration exhausted. All of the tests have been run. What does it mean to pray for healing when the body cannot be healed?

Every Shabbat morning after we read from Torah we offer a prayer called Mi Sheberach, "May the One Who Blessed..." It asks God, Who blessed our ancestors, to bless our sick loved ones with healing. Some years ago at my shul we began using an alternative text. We still ask God to bless those in need of healing of body, mind, and spirit. To be with them, comfort them, strengthen them and revive them.

But not to heal them. Because we recognize that not everyone who is ill can be healed. And as one of my congregants has taught me, asking God repeatedly for healing which we know is never coming can be painful. And it can lead to (entirely understandable) fury at God for not fulfilling the yearned-for wish. Her perspective is actually quite aligned with Jewish tradition, in a certain way. Tradition teaches us not to pray for the impossible, lest we damage our own faith in the Source of blessing.

During the dry season in the land of Israel, it never rains. So all over the world during that season, when we reach the line in our daily prayer which asks God for the nourishment we derive from water, Jews pray instead for dew. Because rain is simply not possible (in the place where our prayers originated), and we don't pray for things which are impossible, perhaps because doing so would be tantamount to "testing" God.

Jewish tradition teaches that when one hears a fire truck going by with sirens wailing, one shouldn't pray "please, God, let it not be my house burning" -- either it is, or it isn't, but the prayer won't change whatever is already real. I learned this when I first studied Mishna several years ago (see Brachot chapter 9) -- one who prays over something which has already happened is praying in vain. Sometimes a medical diagnosis can be like that. All we can change is how we respond to what is.

When a loved one cannot be healed, perhaps a time comes when we stop asking God for healing. We can ask for perspective, for strength, for loving care. We can ask God to be with our loved one and help them find blessings in each day. We can ask for comfort, for some sweetness to mitigate our loved one's suffering or grief. We can ask God to be with their caregivers, and to strengthen the work of their hands. We can ask for what is possible, and that has to be enough.


Salve

You, standing in line
at the coffee shop

or shivering at the gas pump --
what phone call do you dread

in the back of your mind
from the moment you wake up?

I don't know what grief lurks
in your dark corners

or what kind word
would settle around you

like a knitted afghan
warming your cold places,

would salve
your abraded heart.

 

 

I've been thinking a lot lately about the invisible worries and sorrows we carry with us, whether intimate or geopolitical. This poem came out of those reflections.

Usually titles are hard for me, but once the last couplet came together I knew what the poem's title would be. I like the way it hints both at balm and (via Latin) at salvation.


Good grief

Grief is a funny thing. A peculiar thing, I mean, not an entertaining one. It creeps in unexpectedly when everything seems fine, silent as Carl Sandburg's fog which "comes / on little cat feet." It does not listen to reason. It pays no attention to any list of gratitudes. When it wells up, cue the waterworks.

Grief brings fragility. As though the delicate eggshell of the heart could crack open at any moment, revealing an endless salt wellspring. Even writing about it from a distance, I want to keep it at arm's-length. I use stock phrases: "a funny thing," "cue the waterworks." I'm deflecting to keep it at bay.

Grief doesn't only come in the aftermath of loss. There's anticipatory grief, awareness that a loss is coming. And sometimes losses compound one another. The loss of health. The loss of the unthinking freedom which comes with health. The loss of an anticipated future, of what one thought would be.

Grief is, I find, not like depression. When I have experienced depression it has placed a scrim between me and the world, whereas grief leaves one exposed and open. When I can head depression off at the pass, that's a good thing, whereas trying to evade grief seems emotionally and spiritually unwise.

Also unlike depression, grief has a known cause: loss, or the expectation of loss. It's not an existential sadness without explanation. Grief has meaning. As Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz has written, grief can offer the gift of transformation when we allow ourselves to feel it fully and to be changed.

Continue reading "Good grief" »


How news and social media can hurt us

Crying_computer_userLately 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.

Continue reading "How news and social media can hurt us" »


Not everyone can carry the weight of the world

ImagesA 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.


Spiritual life in the open

Empty-Hospital-BedAt my two most recent poetry readings, during the Q-and-A session, someone has asked me what it's like to live my life so publicly and to expose my heart in my poetry as I do. The truth is, writing poems of miscarriage and healing, or poems of postpartum depression, didn't feel "brave." It just felt ordinary. I make sense of my life through writing. I always have, ever since the adolescent days when I kept a diary in a series of cloth-bound notebooks which I kept proudly on my shelf. Sharing my writing with others who might be walking a similar path has become one of the ways I minister to people around me. I have learned that when I share my experiences (whether sweet or bitter) I feel less alone. And people who read what I write often tell me that they feel less alone when they read my words, too, and that feels like an added blessing.

But I do think a lot about how my openness, particularly my poems of early motherhood, may someday impact our son. I hope and pray that when he is old enough to read Waiting to Unfold, he sees the love which was always a throughline, always present, even when I was struggling to find myself amid the waves of postpartum depression which threatened to drag me down. But I know that as the child of a poet, and the child of a rabbi, he may come to resent the ways in which my openness about my life means that his life is sometimes visible to the outside world, too. Maybe you've noticed that I rarely use his name on the blog anymore -- not because it's a secret, not because it's difficult to unearth, but because I'm becoming conscious that I don't want my life story (in which he is certainly a star!) to overshadow his narrative about himself.

I know that many of you, like me, have been avid readers of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer and Rabbi Michael Sommer's Superman Sam blog. They began the blog when one of their four children was diagnosed with leukemia. They posted there religiously about the ups and downs of his treatment; the blog is where where so many of us, me included, got to know their beautiful family and their extraordinary son Sam, may his memory be a blessing. I admire them for that -- and I admire them even more the way they've continued writing about their journey of grief in the wake of their son's death. When I read their blog now, I see them modeling for all of us how to make our way through the murky waters of grief. They are showing us, by example, how to grieve out loud and how to let other people offer care and love in response. They are living their spiritual lives in the open, and they teach me more than I can say.

Continue reading "Spiritual life in the open" »


Listening across our differences

ThumbSometimes when I look at my Twitter stream, and see the wide (and passionate) diversity of opinion which my friends express about Israel and Palestine, I despair of common ground ever being forged. If I can't imagine my friends on the one side really hearing my friends on the other side, how can it be possible that those who disagree with each other even more strongly than my friends will ever break bread together in peace?

Ethan has written a fair amount about the dangers of homophily, and about the echo chamber which arises when one is only exposed to limited opinions and perspectives. (Here's an early blog post on the subject; for more, I highly recommend his book Rewire.) I try hard to stay open, and to hear the voices of people who are different from me -- and I know that there are so many axes of difference that I'll always be working to broaden my hearing.

Am I listening to women as well as to men? Am I listening to people of color as well as to white people? Am I listening to transgender folks as well as those who are cisgender? Am I listening to people from the global South as well as people from the global North? Am I listening to people who are poor as well as people who are wealthy? (And so on, and so on.) And -- what do I do when the voices to whom I am listening are in tension with one another?

Listening can be a powerful and active thing. I learned this during my year as a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center. The greatest gift a chaplain can offer isn't "the perfect prayer" or "the right teaching," but real and whole presence. When I sit by someone's bedside, and open myself to hearing who they are and where they are, I manifest the listening and loving ear of God.

It's a lot easier to do that when I'm sitting by a hospital bedside than when I'm comfortably ensconced behind my desk encountering someone else's version of the news. And yet the opportunity to respond with openness and compassion is as real on Facebook and Twitter as it is when I'm ministering to someone who is suffering. Beyond that, while we don't all have the holy opportunity to engage in formal pastoral care, we all have countless opportunities to listen every day.

Ethan makes the case that homophily -- listening only to people like ourselves; that phenomenon referenced in the saying "birds of a feather flock together" -- can make us ill-informed about the world. Being a rabbi, I'm inclined to frame that same truth in religious terms. I think we have a religious obligation to broaden our sphere of understanding. Every person in the world is made in the divine image. No matter where they're from, or where they fall on the political spectrum, or where we might agree or disagree.

When we listen to people who are different from us (and different from each other), we can open connections between one experience and another, one understanding of the world and another. We encounter different facets of the infinite diversity of creation. The shema, which we recite every day, calls us to this work of listening. Listen up, y'all, it exhorts us. We are in relationship with the Source of All Being! And that Source is One. It's our job to listen to the unity which thrums behind our diversity.

There's a Talmudic story which teaches that the difference between God and Caesar is that Caesar puts his image on every coin and they are all alike -- whereas God puts God's image on every human, and we are all different as different can be. (For a beautiful drash on this, I commend to you Rabbi Arthur Waskow's God & Caesar: the Image on the Coin.) This is, as my programming friends would say, a feature and not a bug. It's not a flaw or an accident -- it's part of what makes creation so incredible.

And because we are so different in so many ways across this wide world (and even across narrow subsections of our world!), sometimes we disagree. I struggle with that sometimes. Like many clergy, I'm a born peacemaker, and I've had to learn to resist the temptation to put a "band-aid" over disagreements in a facile attempt to bring healing.

It is not always easy to hold a posture of openness to differing perspectives and views. Sometimes it feels like my own heart has become the container where opposing voices are duking it out. (Those are generally times to step away from the computer and ground myself in cooking, or reading a book to our child, or in poetry and prayer.)

But I think that cultivating that posture of spiritual openness -- developing the habit of keeping one's heart and mind open to other perspectives, even when (especially when) those other perspectives challenge us -- is some of the most important inner work we can do. And if there come moments when I look at our heartfelt differences of opinion and I feel despair, then I have an opportunity to pray that I might soon be returned to the ability to look at our differences and see opportunity for connection again.


Related:

Image: from a print by Jackie Olenick.


Be kind

5b628aa5790b9c0a1cb9a1bb68101832A while back, one of my friends posted something on Facebook which resonated with me -- a quote which suggested that we never know when someone is facing something difficult or painful, or carrying some hidden grief, and so the most important thing is to be kind.

When I did a google search, trying to find the quotation in question, I found "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle," sometimes attributed to Plato, sometimes Philo, and other times to John Watson -- not the Arthur Conan Doyle character, but the reverend. (For more on this: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle - quoteinvestigator.com.)

I've seen a variation on this idea raised in response to various online imbroglios. If someone doesn't reply to your comment right away, don't assume that they're ignoring you; if someone posts something distressing, try to give them the benefit of the doubt; you never know what's going on in their life behind the privacy of the computer screen.

But even in person, I think it holds true. We never really know all of what's arising in someone's head and heart, or what anxiety or sadness they may be carrying. A fear, a difficult diagnosis, distance from a loved one, regret... we hold a lot of things in our hearts, and many of them are not easy to sit with.

In such a situation as this -- and this is the situation in which we all live, whether or not it's particularly acute at any given moment -- what could be more important than being kind?

One of the commentors on that quoteinvestigator post noted that this is very like a teaching from Mahayana Buddhism. To wit: suffering is pervasive; we compound our suffering by forgetting that we are interconnected; the way out is to recognize our interconnectedness and to treat everyone with kindness.

In my religious tradition we say that chesed, lovingkindness, is one of the fundamental characteristics of God -- and as we are made in the divine image and likeness, lovingkindness is an essential human quality, too. "On three things the world rests," says one of our aphorisms: "on Torah, and on avodah (service / prayer), and on gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness)." Without acts of lovingkindness, the world would not endure.

It's not always easy to respond to the world from a place of chesed. I am reminded of this daily in a hundred tiny ways. Our child dawdles getting dressed and I risk being late to meet someone. Someone sends an email which agitates me and makes me angry. I hear something on the news which raises my ire. I don't always manage to respond in the way I might wish.

But it's a goal worth aiming for. Because we all suffer, and we all carry wounds both old and recent, and we all yearn to be met with kindness.


Poems of miscarriage and healing

After reading Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin's poignant and courageous essay Can We Please Tone Down Mother's Day This Year?, about facing Mother's Day after repeated miscarriage, I wanted to post here to offer a reminder of a small resource which is free to share: my chapbook Through, poems of miscarriage and healing, published in 2009.

Through is available for free as a digital download, or printed at cost (under $5) if you want a paper copy for yourself or for a loved one.

Here's what others have said about the collection:

"This can't have been an easy experience to write anything about at all, let alone to distill into ten brief, searing, and luminous poems. As with Rachel's earlier chaplainbook, these are accessible poems with several different layers of meaning, so I think almost anyone who's ever gone through a miscarriage will get something out of it. Which is not to say the audience should end there: miscarriage is a subject every bit as relevant and revealing of the human condition as warfare, for example. So why doesn't it get more attention from writers and artists?" -- Dave Bonta, at Via Negativa

"The Velveteen Rabbi, Rachel Barenblat, has written a collection of poems about miscarriage -- based on her own -- and offers Through to any reader who wants or needs them. As Dave Bonta points out, miscarriage is not a widely discussed topic, certainly not by men too often, but not even by women. Find comfort and companionship in shared grief and experience. For yourself, or someone you know." -- Deb Scott, at ReadWritePoem

Miscarriage, and sorrow around infertility and attempts to conceive, are among the silent scourges we usually endure alone. But I believe there can be some small comfort in sharing our stories and in knowing that others have walked -- continue to walk -- these difficult paths.

You can read excerpts from the collection, and/or click through to the free download or the at-cost printed edition, at the original post announcing the chapbook's publication: Miscarriage poems: "Through."

May comfort come to all who mourn.


On taharah before cremation

Bmc pic for webLongtime readers may recall that I have been blessed for many years to serve on my community's chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society). We are the group of community members who, before burial, lovingly wash, dress, pray over, and care for the body of each person in our community who dies. Recently I've been pondering a question which is increasingly pressing in my corner of the Jewish community: in the case of someone who chooses cremation, may the work of the chevra kadisha still be performed?

The simplest traditional answer, of course, is "no." Most halakhists will argue that in the traditional paradigm, Judaism forbids cremation. Therefore, taharah (the washing / dressing / blessing of the body) is not performed when someone chooses cremation, because by choosing cremation that person has implicitly opted out of Jewish tradition. There are dissenting voices arguing that it is not so simple -- Rabbi Gershon Winkler, e.g., writes "It is not so absolutely black and white clear that cremation is forbidden by Jewish law" -- but by and large, most traditional sources regard cremation as forbidden, and in many communities after a cremation the mourners are denied the traditional practices of mourning such as shiva and kaddish.

However, an increasing number of Americans today choose cremation, and Jewish Americans are part of that trend. (See More Jews Opt for Cremation, The Forward.) I have complicated feelings about that choice, because I am attached to the "old ways" of Jewish burial, from the biodegradable wooden aron and linen garments (worn by rich and poor alike) to all of the tactile and embodied experiences of casket and shovel and soil. But what I am most attached to is the gentle care of the chevra kadisha. Is there an argument for retaining that gentle care even in cases of cremation?

My Reform community entered into a discernment process last year around the question of burying "cremains" in our cemetery. I shared excerpts from numerous rabbinic responsa (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) as our religious practices and cemetery committees discussed this issue. In the end, my community's decision accords with what seems to be mainstream Reform thinking -- that we strongly encourage traditional burial, but we grant our members the right to make their own informed choices even on this matter. (For two very different Reform perspectives on the issue, see Debatable: Is Cremation An Acceptable Practice for Reform Jews? Reform Judaism magazine.) In our cemetery, there is now a separate section where such remains may be interred.

At the OHALAH conference last month, my colleague Rabbi Efraim Eisen offered a précis of his teshuvah (rabbinic responsum) on the burial of cremains. (See my post Real world halakhic issues in a time of paradigm shift.) He noted that the Babylonian Talmud sees cremation as a denial of the belief in resurrection of the dead, and as such, a denial of the dignity of the body and of God Who created the body. I know that many liberal Jews today do not believe in resurrection, and I wonder: how does that change our relationship with this Talmudic teaching? For instance: for someone who resonates with Jewish teachings about reincarnation, rather than the (generally older) Jewish teachings about resurrection, does that change the sense of what cremation means?

Continue reading "On taharah before cremation" »


Finding meaning

BIG-DIPPERAt OHALAH, I learn about The December Project, a collaboration between author Sara Davidson and Reb Zalman in which they speak honestly and candidly about aging, death and dying, and the afterlife. I promptly pre-order a copy.

Upon my return home, a woman seeks me out with burning questions about Jewish beliefs around death and dying, burial practices, the afterlife. We have a long conversation in my office and agree to meet again.

Within days of that meeting, a man seeks me out to talk about illness, end-of-life issues, creating programs to help adult children speak (and listen) clearly to the wishes of their aging parents. We, too, agree to meet again.

The human mind seeks to make meaning. Give us a handful of stars in the night sky, and our brains sketch them into the shape of a constellation. Give me three disconnected encounters with questions of aging, dying, and what comes after, and my mind wants to turn them into a pattern.

Does it "mean something" that this theme keeps cropping up in my January?

Maybe this is just a reminder that this is a need which people have, these are conversations which people both fear and crave. Maybe it's just a happy coincidence that I learned about a new resource to share, just before I met someone with whom I wanted to share it. These are disconnected events; they have nothing to do with each other.

And maybe the people who brought these questions into my life this month are messengers whose presence is meant to awaken and attune me to these questions. That's what angels are, in the early parts of Torah: messengers sent by God. They look like ordinary people, but they bring awareness of something that someone needs to know or learn.

Both of those can be true at the same time. Anyone I meet can be a messenger if I'm open to finding a deeper message in our encounter. What looks like happenstance to you might look like a holy encounter to me (or: what I experience as happenstance on one day might feel to me like a holy encounter on another day.) Neither of those interpretations has to trump the other.

The stars of the Big Dipper take on a shape because we see the shape in them. So do moments in a life. Connections and coincidences flare brightly because we notice them and draw lines to connect them.

What meaning will I make from the shape which is coalescing here?

 

 


More reflections on Boston

I posted a response to the Boston Marathon bombing to my congregational blog today. That post contains excerpts from two prayers which I've found particularly meaningful this week. It also contains links to a variety of resources on grief. Whether or not you're a member of my congregation, please feel free to click through to that post if you think it might be helpful to you: A message from Reb Rachel after the Boston Marathon bombing.

Meanwhile, I'll share a few other things with which I've resonated this week. The first essay to which I want to link makes a kind of meta-point: not about the Boston Marathon, but about the ways in which television news (about this event, and in general) feeds our anxiety. Beth at The Cassandra Pages writes about encountering television news in a doctor's waiting room, and then returning home to the news of Monday's bombing. And she continues:

[The omnipresence of tv news] seems to me an ominous symbol of something that has gone very wrong in most western societies: our inability to be with ourselves, to cope with the essential human condition of solitude, especially in situations that cause our anxiety to rise. It concerns me that, in our secular, post-liberal-arts, technological, perpetually-connected society, so little effort goes into teaching children how to be alone, showing them the richness and solace of time spent with nature, with the arts and handcrafts, with books and music, with oneself walking in a city or sitting on a bench: eyes open, ears open, mind and heart awake to the dance of life flowing around us.

I'm with Beth, here. I find that the incessant clamor of the constant news cycle isn't conducive to my mental, emotional, or spiritual health. I'm happier getting my news in more contained doses: from NPR, the BBC, the Times, and -- these days -- my Twitter stream (even though I recognize the dangers of homophily inherent in that last one.) But regardless of where and how you get your news, I think Beth has a point that constant newsmedia-watching can leave us unable to cope with solitude and with uncertainty. Both as a poet and as a rabbi, I experience that as a real loss. Her post is here: A Plea Against Anxiety.

Next, I want to share two posts about the experience of being at the marathon as a spectator and what two women took away from that. The first comes from author Carrie Jones, and is called Boston Marathon. Here's a quote from near the end of that post:

And so many people helped others, making tourniquets out of yarn, carrying the injured, soothing the shocked, giving away their clothes to keep runners warm. And so many people have hearts of goodness. We can't forget that. Not ever. Not today. Not in Boston. Not ever. Because that is exactly what the Boston Marathon is about: It's about not giving up, not giving in to pain. It's about that celebration of surviving and enduring against all odds, against everything. It's about humanity. No bomber can take that away. Not ever.

And finally I'll leave you with Sarah Courchesne's My Lucky Day: the view from mile 22. She writes:

I know how you all feel, watching it all. I understand the shock, the disbelief, the anger and the demands to know why. But from where I stood, my whole day was suffused with the pure good of humanity. And that’s not unique to Boston, or to America... What I saw was the good. And I see it still. It’s all I see.

I've read both of those posts a few times through, and the message of hope I find at the end of each one is sustaining to me.