#FamiliesBelongTogether, and what we can do

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 --

Rabbi Rachel

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


When words fail

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):

 

 

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.


Yom HaShoah

Tbe-1521766167Today is Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day. As a Jew and as a rabbi I feel that I "should" have something to say, but when I look inside to discern what my heart wants to articulate, I find only tears and silence.

In this week's Torah portion, Aaron's sons are killed and Aaron himself is silent. (I wrote about that a few days ago.) I often read his silence as a kind of stunned, grief-stricken numbness.  The horror is too great: there are no words to adequately express it.

There's a resonance between that passage and how many of us relate to the Shoah. Millions of human beings rounded up like cattle, forced into hard labor, experimented-upon without anesthesia, murdered and cremated: it's unthinkable. 

The attempt to wholly eradicate the Jewish people from the face of the earth: it's unthinkable. Mass extermination also of queer people, Roma, disabled and mentally ill people: it's unthinkable. Extermination camps and gas chambers: it's unthinkable.

The mind shuts down. The heart shuts down. The spirit shuts down. Because the alternative is screaming, wailing, rending our garments, a primal and existential outcry of why and how and where were You, God, when we were led to the slaughter?

Why? The only explanation is humanity's capacity for hatred -- which persists in our day. White supremacy, hatred of Jews,  hatred of Muslims, hatred of queer / trans folks, hatred of immigrants: all are part of the same hateful dehumanization.

How? Because during a time of fear, hatred of the other became ascendant and was normalized. Which is why we have to be vigilant, and push back against fascism and xenophobia and white supremacy and hatred, wherever / whenever they appear.

Where were You, God? There are a lot of different answers to that question. My theology holds that God was with us in our suffering. God was with us in the camps and in the gas chambers. God wept with us then and God weeps with us now.

On this awful day of remembrance, may all who mourn be comforted. May the memory of the six million Jews murdered in the Shoah be for a blessing. May the memory of the eleven million (Jews and others) murdered in the Shoah be for a blessing.

And tomorrow, when this day of remembrance is behind us, may we all reconsecrate our hearts and hands to the work of building a world in which these hatreds, and the horrors to which they led, are a thing of the past, never to be repeated.

 


A teaching from Torah on grief and on joy

Coin-300x225In this week's Torah portion (at least according to the Reform lectionary), Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu bring "strange fire" before God and are consumed by divine fire. In the haftarah assigned to this week's Torah portion, from II Samuel, a man named Uzziel places his hands on the Ark of the Covenant and God becomes incensed and strikes him down on the spot. Two deeply disturbing stories of people who apparently sought to serve God, "did it wrong," and were instantly killed. 

The haftarah tells us that when Uzziel is killed, David becomes distressed and feels fear, and changes his plan for the Ark of the Covenant to come to Jerusalem. Instead he diverts it elsewhere. Only three months later does he bring the ark to the City of David with rejoicing, and music, and leaping and whirling before God. Meanwhile, in the Torah reading, Aaron's reaction to the death of his sons is existential silence. He says nothing. Maybe in the face of such a loss there's nothing one can say.

I don't have a good answer to the question of why God would behave this way. I read these passages instead as acknowledgments of a painful truth of human life: sometimes tragedy strikes and we can't understand why. These passages remind me that sometimes when we meet unexpected loss we have to withdraw, or change our plans, because the thing we thought we were going to do no longer feels plausible. And sometimes loss is a sucker punch, and words are inadequate to the reality at hand.

Yesterday was the seventh day of Pesach -- according to tradition, the anniversary of the day when our ancestors crossed the Sea into freedom. Midrash holds that when the sea split, everyone present had a direct and miraculous experience of God. The Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael (Tractate Shira, Parasha 3) teaches that in that moment, everyone encountered God, "even the merest handmaiden." Another source (Tosefta Sotah) holds that even toddlers and babies witnessed Shechinah, the divine Presence.

Yesterday we re-experienced the crossing of the Sea, when we were redeemed into freedom and encountered God wholly. We sang and danced on the shores of the Sea, celebrating redemption and transformation, filled with hope. Today's Torah portion crashes us back into reality. How can we integrate the sweetness of Pesach, the miraculousness of the Song at the Sea, with this?

For me the answer lies exactly in the gear-grinding juxtaposition. Torah reflects human life and human realities. This is human life: wondrous and fearful, painful and glorious. It would be nice to have a waiting period between joy and grief, a chance to adjust to the psycho-spiritual and emotional shift between one and the other, but we don't necessarily get that luxury. Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel both of these wholly: our shattering, and our exultation. 

Maybe those who constructed our calendar wanted to remind us that rejoicing and grief can fall of two sides of a single coin -- and that both can open us to encountering the Holy. The Kotzker rebbe points out that "there is nothing so whole as a broken heart." Sometimes we find wholeness not despite our brokenness, but in it. And when we feel broken, we can seek comfort in our tradition's ancient hope for redemption: whether we frame it in messianic language, or simply in the hope that life can be better than it is right now. 

So here's my prayer for us today, arising out of these texts. When grief and loss intrude into our times of joy and celebration, may we have the wisdom of Aaron, to know when we need to fall silent because no words can convey the shattering of our hearts. And may we also have the wisdom of King David, to know when we need to shift our plans and give ourselves time to heal... so that when we are ready we can turn our mourning into dancing, and our silence into song. Kein yehi ratzon / may it be so.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 


Prayer after the shooting

Prayer-after

I loved and grieved from the day you claimed your free will,
Knowing that you too would open into infinite love and grief,

Knowing how your hearts would bloom with gratitude and hope
With every child’s every first, and lament every child’s every last,

As I do and always will with My children’s every first and every last
In the raw and wild cosmic dance we began together in the garden.

What else could I do? You must become what you must become,
Like Me infinitely becoming, infinitely capable of love and grief,

So I clothed your shimmering lights in skins and hid in plain sight
For you to seek and find Me amidst life’s sweetness and sorrow.

How fast your lights flickered underneath: your second son’s blood
Cried out to Me from the ground, too soon returning earth to earth.

The guilty wandered the land howling, pining for peace and safety
Denied by the very violence that condemned the guilty to wander,

Setting in motion also the vicious whirlwind spinning through
Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas. Where next?

I did not mean for you to live like this or die like this – in fear and terror,
In trauma’s torrents, in shrapnel showers turning streets into killing fields.

You still can choose life: the free will your ancestors claimed for you
Remains yours even now, and still I gasp with loving pride and worry

With your every first and every last, grieving the countless innocents
Returning to Me in My own image too soon, bloodied and bagged.

But still you choose death. Aimlessly you wander the land howling,
Pining for peace and safety that senseless violence steals from you.

Choose to be My love, My strength, My intuition, My prophets, My beauty,
My healing hands – My living essence in this bloody and weary world.

Only then will this cruelest of your roulette wheels stop spinning red.
Oh, how I long with you for that day when you truly will choose life.

 

Claimed your own free will – Eve’s “defiance” in Eden claimed human agency for all her successors (Genesis 3:6-7).

Knowing … bloom – An allusion to the Tree of Knowledge and humanity’s “opening” into the knowledge of love and loss.

You must become – God describes God’s self to Moses as אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming” (Exodus 3:14). We who are made in the divine image are also called to perennially become.

Clothed your shimmering light in skins - Because the Hebrew words for “skin” (עור) and “light” (אור) both are pronounced or, Zohar teaches that Eden’s first humans were beings of light, before God made us garments of skins. Even so, our skins cover our light, which we still can see if we look carefully.

Your second son’s blood… returning earth to earth. Humanity’s first murder – Cain killing Abel (Genesis 4) – spilled Abel’s blood (דם / dam) to the earth (אדמה / adamah).

Wander - Cain, after murdering his brother, was condemned to wander the land without peace (Genesis 4:14).

Setting in motion also - From Cain comes not only the first murder but also the rhetorical question – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:8) – that continues to reverberate through the generations, and also the first “Why?” (Genesis 4:6), which teaches all future generations the possibility of teshuvah / return and repair (Radak Gen. 4:6).

Whirlwind – An allusion to the סערה (storm) from which God answered Job (Job 38:1). The storm’s circular shape resembles both a roulette wheel and a gun’s rotating cylinder that conveys bullets.

Choose life - “Choose life, if you and your progeny would live’ (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Aimlessly - The indiscriminate shooter, the nation’s inertia.

My love, My strength… – Seven emanations of the divine, corresponding to the seven lower sefirot of Kabbalistic tradition: chesed (love), gevurah (strength / boundaries), tiferet (balance), netzach (endurance / momentum), hod (beauty / gratitude), yesod (foundation / generativity), malchut (indwelling).

Roulette wheels stop spinning red – For the gaming tables of Las Vegas and the ultimate gamble: walking the streets safe and unafraid.

14 stanzas – 14 for יד, the yad (hand) of God: we now are the hand that must act.

332 words - 332 for לבש, lavash (clothed) in divine skins that cover our light.

 

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Evan Markus

(cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi and to R' David's website; feel free to reprint, with attribution.)


Joy amidst mourning

All week I've been thinking about what I might say here in shul this morning. Mere commentary on this week's Torah portion feels insufficient. How can I talk about the rituals of the nazir, one who makes promises to God -- or the ritual of the sotah, designed to banish a husband's jealousy -- or even the priestly blessing that we just read together -- when LGBTQ members of our community are grieving so deeply? And yet faced with the enormity of the tragedy at Pulse last weekend, my words fail me.

Into this moment of grief comes an expression of great joy. Just moments ago we welcomed a beautiful little girl into the covenant and into our community. What words of meaning can I offer to her two mothers now?

I can say: you belong here. In this community those of us who are straight aspire to be thoughtful and sensitive allies, so that those of us who are queer can feel safe expressing all of who we are.

I can say: tell us what you need. Tell us where we are falling down on the job of making this a safe and celebratory and welcoming home for you, and we will try to do better. I can say: your child will always have a home here, no matter how her gender expression manifests or who she loves.

And I can say: all of us here commit ourselves to building a world in which hate crimes are unimaginable. A world in which no one could feel hatred toward another human being because of that person's race or gender expression or sexual orientation or religion. Can you imagine what it would feel like to live in that world?

Can you imagine a world in which the tools of massacre no longer exist? In the words of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai: "Don't stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don't stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them back into plowshares first."

Our tradition has a name for this imagined world in which hatred has vanished like a wisp of smoke: moshiachtzeit, a world redeemed. I don't know whether we will ever get there. But I know that we can't stop trying.

And there is a very old Jewish teaching that each new baby contains all the promise of moshiachtzeit, all the promise of a world redeemed. Maybe this baby will help to bring about the healing of the world for which we so deeply yearn.

May we rise to the occasion of being her community. May we support her and her mothers. May we take action to lift them up and to keep them safe. And may we work toward a world redeemed in which all of our differences are celebrated and sanctified as reflections of the Holy One. 

And let us say, together: amen. 

 

These are the words I spoke from the bimah yesterday morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 


Mourning the massacre in Orlando

I'm home from an extraordinary three day Shavuot retreat at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, about which I hope to write more soon. For now I am struggling, as are we all, to assimilate my fury and my grief at the horrific shooting at Pulse, a queer nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which took place on the first morning of Shavuot. 

ALEPH just put out a response to the shooting -- a short statement (which I will enclose below) and a beautiful new liturgical poem written by my co-chair:

ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, expresses horror, shock and grief for the victims of Sunday’s shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. We stand with all – LGBTQA or straight, those who identify with any faith or with none at all – whose hearts break for the victims, for their loved ones, for a community’s peace shattered, for hope and safety shaken, for rights and dignity trampled, and for political rhetoric arousing religious hatred in its wake. We fervently pray to heal the injured, and we re-dedicate our hearts and hands to building a world in which the twin scourges of violence and hatred end.

In grief and solidarity, we offer this liturgical poem by Rabbi David Evan Markus for use in vigils and prayer services. May the Source of Peace bring comfort to all who mourn, and inspire all to build an ever more just world, speedily and soon.

The poem is offered for public use -- if it speaks to you, please feel free to use it aloud and to share it widely: The Pulse of Revelation, by Rabbi David Evan Markus.


The Angels of San Bernardino: prayer after a shooting

  Glenwood-angel-grieves-bw

The angels of San Bernardino
Were busy on their appointed rounds:

One hovering atop each blade of grass
Calling forth its skyward stretch,

One ready to tap the lip of each baby
About to be born into holy amnesia,

One giving directions to a lost passerby,
One restarting a paralyzed heart,

One for each shooter’s right shoulder
Desperate to redirect their savage aim,

One at the lifeless feet of each victim
As God took them with a kiss and a tear.

Help us to feel the angels now among us
Even when they seem absent or late.

Help us draw strength from their presence
Even when we feel most alone and unsure.

Help us be Your messengers for each other,
Your holy agents of justice, healing and hope.

 

Rabbi David Evan Markus and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Co-chairs, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal

 

Busy on their appointed roundsTradition imagines that each angel is created for a single mission or purpose (Gen. Rabbah 50:2).  Hovering atop each blade of grass –“Not even a blade of grass is without an angel that taps it and says, ‘Grow'” (Gen. Rabbah 10:6). Tap the lip – From the Talmudic legend that all babies learn the wisdom of holiness in the womb, but before birth an angel touches the lip and they are born forgetting what they learned (Talmud, Niddah 30b).  One giving directions to a lost passerby – When Joseph was lost looking for his brothers, the angel Gavriel redirected Joseph and changed the course of history (Rashi Gen. 37:15).  Lifeless feet of each victim – An angel attends the feet at the moment of death (Deut. Rabbah 11:11). God took them with a kiss – No less than for Moses himself (Talmud, Bava Batra 17a).

 

This liturgical poem, co-written by ALEPH's co-chairs, originally appeared at Kol ALEPH.


More gun violence; more racism; more grief

Once again, horrific violence. A white gunman named Dylann Roof entered a Black church in Charleston, SC, and killed nine, including a pastor who was also a state senator. (New York Times: Charleston Church Shooting Leaves 9 DeadNew Yorker, Murders in Charleston by Jelani Cobb.)

According to witnesses who survived, the gunman asked for the pastor, sat next to him during Bible study, and then shot him, saying "I have to do it; you rape our women and you're taking over our country." The church in question is one of the oldest Black churches in the United States.

When I think about the racism and the hatred which underpinned this act of terrorism, I am beyond words.  I react like a child: this shouldn't be possible. But it is all too possible for people to be steeped in hatred and fear of those who look different from them, and for that hatred to lead to murder.

Tomorrow is Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. There is a horrible confluence in that remembrance and this latest act of hatred against Black people. And that the shooting took place in a church, a house of worship and peace, just makes it more awful still.

The victims and their loved ones are in my prayers. You can send your support and prayers with the members of Mother Emmanuel church here, and if you would like to send a donation to the church and/or the families of the victims, here's the church's website.

A a white woman witnessing this horror from afar, I feel called to teshuvah, to soul-searching. What can I do to change the reality in which this kind of hate crime is possible?  I want my nation to be better than this. I want humanity to be better than this.

May the Source of Comfort bring peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved.

 

Worth reading:

  • "Where did this man, who killed parishioners in their church during Bible study, learn to hate black people so much?" -- Anthea Butler, in the Washington Post
  • "There is something particularly heartbreaking about a death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship." -- President Barack Obama, remarks
  • "A hated people need safe spaces, but often find they are scarce. Racism aims to crowd out those sanctuaries; even children changing into church choir robes in Alabama have been blown out of this world by dynamite. That is racism’s purpose, its raison d’etre, and it has done its job well." -- Jamil Smith, in the New Republic
  • And here are words from one of my rabbinic colleagues: "What we need is a passionate and healing response to our national pain and fragility, one that unabashedly calls out the racist undertones of media reporting, which, it seems, differentiates by label between white, black and brown criminals and victims." -- Rabbi Menachem Creditor, in the Huffington Post

 


From trauma to healing: Shemini

Here's the d'var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday morning.

 

Every year I struggle with the story of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who brought forth "strange fire" and who were immediately consumed by a fire which came from God. On its surface, this is a story in which deviation from the established way of approaching the divine results in death.

This story does not sit well with me. But our sages taught us that entering into Torah can be an experience of entering into pardes. The word means "orchard" (and is the origin of the English word "paradise") but is also an acronym for four layers or levels of entering into the text. Let's go deeper, from pshat (surface meaning) to remez (what's alluded-to or hinted-at.)

When I look at the story's allusions, I see a story about the power our ancestors ascribed to the sacred. God is so powerful that an unmediated encounter has the capacity to be dangerous, to fry out our circuits, as it were.  It is as though God were a power plant, and Nadav and Avihu plugged in a device which wasn't correctly calibrated. The power tore right through them and burned them up.

Many religions have regarded the sacred as dangerous. Intellectually I can place this story in that context. But when I place myself in Aaron's shoes -- and even more when I place myself in the shoes of his wife Elisheva -- I am horrified. So too was Aaron. Torah tells us: וידם אהרן –– "And Aaron was silent." The word used for "silent" connotes not only lack of speech, but a kind of existential silence.

Sometimes in the face of tragedy there are no words. Aaron's silence hints at his grief: this is an explanation on the level of drash, telling an interpretive story around the scaffolding of the text. Torah doesn't tell us that he felt sorrow, but we can read that between the lines; it is in the white fire around the black fire of the words, in the human context we bring to the bare outlines of the story on the page.

Later in this week's portion we read that if a small dead animal, a mouse or a lizard, falls into an earthen pot, that pot becomes tamei -- which is usually translated as "ritually impure," though I understand it as meaning "electrified." We vibrate at a different frequency for a while as a result of contact with blood or with the body of a creature which has died, contact with tangible life or death.

The way to make the pot pure again is to break it and glue its pieces back together. Here's what I take away from that: contact with death can change us, but through our brokenness we can find a new kind of wholeness. In fact, in order to stay tahor, to stay pure, we need to break sometimes and then be repaired. Everybody breaks. This is the path to wholeness: not despite breaking, but through it.

The death of a child is an almost unthinkable horror. I pray that the trauma in each of our lives will be less than that. But there is no life without some sorrow. Maybe the answer is to try not to fight the brokenness, but to allow it to happen, and to cultivate trust that when we are put back together again we will be able to access the purity of heart and soul which our liturgy teaches belongs to each of us.

I don't mean to suggest that our breaking is "good," or that tragedy and trauma are "worth it" because we grow thereby. I couldn't say that to Aaron and Elisheva, and I can't say it to you. But I do think that breaking and healing are quintessential human experiences -- and I pray that for every shattering, there can be tikkun, there can be healing. For me, that is the sod (the secret meaning) of the juxtaposition of these two texts: one shows us trauma, and another shows us a path toward repair.

Our tradition holds that a person who has made mistakes and then made teshuvah -- has repented and re/turned themselves in the right direction again -- is closer to God than one who has never sinned. Maybe a person who has experienced some brokenness and then been mended is more whole than one who has never been broken. This is the journey of being human. We grieve, and then we heal.

In the Japanese art of kintsugi, "golden joinery," pottery is broken and then glued back together with powdered gold. The seams aren't disguised; they're magnified, made to sparkle. The beauty is found not despite the patched places, but in them.What would it feel like to stop trying to hide our brokenness, and instead to illuminate our beauty -- not despite our scars, but in them; not despite our sorrows, but through them; not despite our seams, but celebrating our own patchwork hearts?

 

 

 


Mishpatim: the angry ox and the Chapel Hill shooting

Here's the brief d'var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Raging-bull-attacking-charging-woodcut-illustration-angry-facing-front-snorting-done-retro-style-32193042In this week's Torah portion we receive a wealth of ethical commandments.

For instance: When an ox gores someone to death, kill the ox, but don't punish its owner. But, if the ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner knows that but fails to guard it, and it gores someone to death -- then punish its owner, because the person who had responsibility failed to act.

I've read this verse many times before. But this year I couldn't help reading it through the lens of the news story I've been following this week.

A few days ago in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a man entered the apartment of two neighbors and shot the couple and the woman's younger sister in the head, execution-style. He later turned himself in and claimed that he killed them over a parking dispute.

The three young people who were murdered were Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, aged 23, 21, and 19. Deah and Yusor were newlyweds, married in December. They were dentistry students who donated their dental expertise to the local homeless community, taught kids about dental hygiene at the local library in their spare time, and raised money and dental supplies to take to Turkey so they could help Syrian regufees. Razan was a college kid, a student of architecture and environmental design. All three of them were pillars of their community. Deah, Yusor, and Razan were Muslim.

This act would be atrocious no matter who the victims were. But it is extra-heartbreaking to me because they were so young, and so idealistic, and so full of life.

The man who killed them was a known anti-theist -- not merely an atheist, but someone who loathed religion. He had posted nasty anti-Muslim language on Facebook. He had harassed these victims before. The young married woman had told her father, "He hates us because of who we are."

What he did was beastly. And when I read the verses about the ox who gores someone to death, I think of this man who killed three innocent souls for reasons I cannot begin to fathom.

And then I wonder: who is responsible for the behavior of the ox? In the Torah, the answer is clear: its owner, if that owner had any suspicion that the ox would behave in such a way.

Continue reading "Mishpatim: the angry ox and the Chapel Hill shooting" »


On the Chapel Hill shootings

150211-barakat-yusor-razan-jsw-852a_448d1550491c2a68cc4cb35492ea7cd2

The most heartfelt -- and heartbreaking -- piece I've read about the Chapel Hill shootings is this one: My best friend was killed and I don't know why. I commend it to you, along with this NPR piece -- 'We're All One,' Chapel Hill Shooting Victim Said in StoryCorps Talk:

"Growing up in America has been such a blessing," Yusor Abu-Salha said in a conversation with a former teacher that was recorded by the StoryCorps project last summer...

"There's so many different people from so many different places and backgrounds and religions — but here we're all one, one culture."

What a terrible shame it is that we are only getting to know these luminous young people on the national stage because they were shot in the forehead, execution-style, in Deah and Yusor's own home.

For my response to the killings of 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad, and 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, click through to The Wisdom Daily:

My first response to this news is grief. I imagine myself in the position of the parents of the victims, and my heart aches. I can only imagine what their families are going through. (Yusor and Razan were sisters - grief compounded.) Their deaths are atrocious. That would be true no matter who they were. But somehow, their murder is all the more horrifying because the victims were young, and idealistic, and by all accounts were trying to make the world a better place...

...[H]ad the shooter been Muslim, surely the headlines would have been emblazoned with "terrorism." But because the shooter was White and the victims were Muslim, this story gets reported as a "fatal shooting" or a "possible hate crime." Those covering the crime use softer words, as though they could make the reality any less terrible, and as though they could remove our own sense of guilt for living in a society where Islamophobia may lead to senseless violence...

Read the whole thing here: Shock in Chapel Hill - Should We Call It Terrorism?

I'm grateful to the editors of The Wisdom Daily for including me among their roster of contributors, and hope you'll click through and read. (Also, if you're on Twitter, consider following them - @WisdomDailyNews.)


There has to be another way

Today's news out of Jerusalem rends my heart.

The mere fact of being alive being means that each of us will experience suffering: sickness, pain, grief. These come with being human. Being human means we experience love and joy and connection, and it means we also experience sorrow and loss. Sometimes I struggle mightily against that truth, but deep down I recognize that it's part of the way the world works. Human lives contain enough pain just by virtue of being human lives. Why do we add to that pain with hatred and killing?

I woke this morning to news of killings in a Jerusalem synagogue. My social internet this morning is full of images of bloodsoaked prayerbooks, tallitot, and tefillin -- unspeakably horrifying for those of us who pray with these same garments, these beloved words. The images evoke the Jewish community's worst fears and most deeply-entrenched memories of trauma. We can't help imagining our own morning prayer shattered, our own loved ones attacked in these ways.

My social internet is also full of people responding to this tragedy in the ways that we always do,1 which heightens my grief with a sense that our conversations are futile. We're not getting at what really matters: when are human beings going to stop killing each other? What kind of spiritual and emotional evolutionary leap would it take, and how many more parents and children and spouses and siblings are going to have their lives shattered by trauma before we get there?

Slaughtering people at prayer is one of the most despicable acts I can think of. That's true whether the slaughter is committed by a Jew against Palestinians, or a Palestinian against Jews. And now I read that Netanyahu has vowed to "respond with a heavy hand," and that Hamas praises the attack (though Abbas has condemned it), and my heart cries out for God's sake, stop! Where can the spiral of violence and retribution take us but more violence and retribution? There has to be another way.

We need a larger framework of conflict transformation. We need to find a way to lift ourselves up, out of the positions we already hold and the things we've already tried. We need to seek to see the situation from a God's-eye view in order to create a path toward a different future. The Sfat Emet teaches that from where God sits (as it were) there are no binaries, no us/them, just goodness and oneness and love. As human beings we all have to find a way to see each other through God's eyes.

The worse things get, the harder it becomes to imagine anything other than continuing hatred and bloodshed. We have to imagine something other than continuing hatred and bloodshed. Please, God. Help us write a different ending to this story. And bring Your comfort and peace to those who mourn.

 

Mourner's Kaddish

I pray to You God,
that the power residing in Your Great Name
be increased and made sacred
in this world which God created freely
in order to preside in it,
and grow its freeing power
and bring about the messianic era.
May this happen during our lifetime
and during the lifetime of all of us
living now, the house of Israel.
May this happen soon, without delay
and by saying AMEN we express our agreement and hope, AMEN.

Continue reading "There has to be another way" »


A prayer in remembrance


by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb


May the memories of our boys
killed in senseless hatred
be for a blessing.

May their spirits be lifted up
and comforted in the close embrace
of God's motherly presence.

May our precious children be safe from harm.
May all the children be our children.
May we protect all parents from mourning.

May our hearts and the hearts of our people
be healed quickly in our day
from the wounds of the past and present.

May every grieving parent find comfort.
May we live to see the day
when no parent has to grieve.




We'll read this prayer at my congregation on Shabbat morning before mourner's kaddish. If it speaks to you, you are welcome to share it with your community, though please take care to keep authors' names attached. May the families of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Sha'ar, Eyal Yifrah, and Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir be comforted.

 

Edited to add: this post has also been shared at Kol ALEPH, the blog of ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Edited to add: Rabbi Lila Veissid has graciously translated this prayer into Hebrew; you can read it here.


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.


Daily April poem: words taken from a news article

REMEMBRANCE


The narrow bridge of mourning
spans generations.

Overnight every dream shows
destruction. Ashes and bones.

Remembrance wells up.
Not only at the cemetery

but when planting, or
listening to the radio.

The moment of silence
lasts forever.



Today's NaPoWriMo prompt invites us to write poems using words borrowed from a newspaper article.

On the Jewish calendar today is Yom HaShoah. Most of the words in this poem came from The History of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Ha'aretz.

May the Source of Peace bring peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved.

Napo2014button1


Returning to Hebron - on a Dual Narrative Tour

13492442823_43af1b707f_nOne of the things I knew I wanted to do, upon returning to Israel for the first time in many years, was to go with Eliyahu McLean to Hebron on his Hebron Dual Narrative Tour. I had heard about the trip from a rabbi friend, who wrote to me:

Eliyahu's trip to Hebron is amazing and wonderful and done in tandem with a Palestinian guide. I cannot recommend the experience highly enough... on Eliyahu's trip, one spends 1/2 the day speaking with Jewish settlers, and 1/2 the day speaking with Palestinians. One experiences what is happening on the ground there. It is painful, complex, and not rhetorical or polemical.  It is not either/or to go with Eliyahu, but both/and in every sense of the word.

Not either/or, but both/and: that sounds right up my alley. Eliyahu was the first person ordained by Reb Zalman as a Rodef Shalom, a seeker of peace. (Learn more about his work at Jerusalem PeaceMakers which he co-founded along with the late sheikh Abdul Aziz-Bukhari, may his memory be a blessing. And here's an interview with Eliyahu at JustVision. While I'm at it -- let me mention that Eliyahu and my friend Reuven collaborated on transcribing the story of Reb Zalman Among the Sufis of Hebron, which I have cherished for years.)

13538370743_c172463a27_nI had visited Hebron once, in 2008, but not on this kind of dual-narrative trip. I was eager to see what I would learn. So last Wednesday morning I woke up early at the Ecce Homo convent and made my way through the Old City, out the Damascus Gate, and all the way down Street of the Prophets to meet up with the group. We were a mixed group of internationals: from Iceland, Denmark, Germany, Canada, the United States, and more. As far as I could tell, I was the only Jew on the tour.

(Long post ahead -- more than 4000 words, and many images, too. I hope you'll read the whole thing, despite its length.)

One of the first things that Eliyahu said to us was, "Remember that this trip is about dual narratives. You may feel at times that they are dueling narratives!" The first half of the day was spent with Eliyahu as our guide in the Jewish area of Hebron, which is called H2. H2 consists of about 20% of Hebron, geographically speaking; about 30,000-40,000 Palestinians live there. He reminded us that Hebron is one of Judaism's four holy cities, was the first capital from which King David reigned, and is considered in Jewish tradition to be second only to Jerusalem. 

Eliyahu speaks to our group; two Palestinian women at the edge of Shuhada / King David street.

He pointed out that both sides in this conflict tend to paint themselves as the victims. For instance: the Palestinian narrative holds that the closure of Shuhada street (which Jews call King David street) is a form of apartheid. That street had been a primary market thoroughfare before it was closed by the IDF. Now it is a ghost town of shuttered shops (and Palestinians are forbidden from walking on most of it), which the Palestinian narrative sees as a land grab and an exercise of power and control. The Israeli narrative says that King David street was closed because of suicide bombings and other attacks on Jews, and points out that Palestinians have access to 97% of the city while Jews are confined to a mere 3%, so clearly it's the Jews, not the Palestinians, who are the victims. (That's one example of incompatible narratives; over the course of the day we encountered many others.)

Continue reading "Returning to Hebron - on a Dual Narrative Tour" »


God is in the tragedy too

On the evening of the Boston marathon bombing, I wrote a post called God is in the helpers, in which I cited the Reverend Kate Braestrup's articulation that God is not in the disaster: rather, we find God in our response to disaster. God, I wrote, is not in the trauma, but in the helping hands.

One of my dear friends and teachers, Rabbi Daniel Siegel, replied to me privately to say that while he agrees with me that it is better to look for God in the helpers than in a tragedy, he's hesitant to follow me into the idea that God cannot be found in the tragedy itself. His gentle note spurred me to approach this again, now that some time has passed and I can begin to relate to the tragedy in a different way.

Where is God in that?

Human life is marked with sorrow. One natural response to sorrow and tragedy is to demand: where is God in this? As a rabbi, I have been blessed (and painfully challenged) with that question. I remember ministering many years ago to a woman who had suffered a grievous trauma, who turned to me and spat, "Where the F*&! is God in that, huh?" And all I could say, in that moment, was: I hear you. And I honor your pain.

When I am wearing my pastoral care kippah, I can say: we find God not in the trauma, but in the ways we care for each other. God is not in the shooting or the bombing, but in the hands which cradle and nurse the victims back to health -- and the hands and hearts which cradle and care for those who grieve.

I resist the notion that God is the mighty string-puller and that we are His marionettes -- that God is "up there" choosing when a child is killed, or when a tsunami drowns thousands, or when some damaged and broken person plants bombs at the finish line of a marathon. God does not "do that to us." I do not accept the image of God as traumatizer or batterer, the Big Man in the sky who abuses humanity at His own whim. For me, God is most fundamentally found in the love and compassion we show toward each other, not in the tragedies which we encounter.

And yet God is in the fire; in the hurricane or earthquake; even in the gunman or the shrapnel or the bomb. Depending, of course, on what we think we mean by saying "God is in..." anything.

Continue reading "God is in the tragedy too" »


A Prayer After the Boston Marathon Bombing

PRAYER AFTER THE BOMBING


Plant your feet firmly on the ground, your head
held high as though by a string.

Listen to the red-winged blackbirds, the spring frogs.
There is an aquifer in your heart: send a dipper down.

What have you drawn forth? Send it
out of this room like waves of song.

Float it around the Hairpin Turn, along
the old Mohawk Trail. Direct it toward the rising sun.

Our hearts are in the east though we are in the west.
Blanket the wounded city with melody.

Sing to the runners with aching hamstrings
to the bewildered families who lined the marathon route

to the children who are trying to make sense
to the adults who are trying to make sense

to the EMTs and policemen who ran
not away from the suffering, but into the fire

sing to the grieving families, here and everywhere.
Inhale again, reach into your well:

is there light even for the twisted soul of the bomber?
Now sing to yourself, sluice your own wounds.

We are loved by an unending love.
Listen to the birds again, and remember.

 


 

I wrote this a few days after the Boston Marathon bombing. It arose out of a meditation service which I led at my synagogue. The doors to our sanctuary were open, so we had the sounds of the nearby wetland in our ears, and I invited the meditators to join me in cultivating compassion and sending it toward Boston.

The line "My heart is in the east and I am in the west" is borrowed from the medieval Spanish poet Judah haLevi; it comes from his poem My Heart is In the East.

Alternating stanzas of the poem are italicized to facilitate reading the poem as a responsive reading. Please feel free to use this however is meaningful to you, and to share it with others.

(Edited to add: in as my About page indicates, work on this blog is licensed under a Creative Commons license which grants permission to share and remix my work as long as you maintain attribution, don't make a profit, and share your remixed work in the same fashion.)

To those for whom it is meaningful, I wish a Shabbat shalom, a Shabbat of peace and healing.

(Also posted at Kol ALEPH.)



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.