Making Time Holy - a d'varling for Emor

Holytime

There’s a story about three umpires discussing their trade. Maybe you’ve heard it. There are these three umpires, and they’re each bragging a little bit, showing off. They’re each claiming to be the best at what they do. The first one says, “I have a good eye, and I call it like I see it.” The second one says, “that’s nothing -- I have a good eye, and I call it like it is.” And the third one just shakes his head, and after a long pause he says, “it ain’t nothin’ ‘til I call it.”

Why am I telling you this?

מוֹעֲדֵ֣י ה' אֲשֶׁר־תִּקְרְא֥וּ אֹתָ֖ם מִקְרָאֵ֣י קֹ֑דֶשׁ׃

“These are My fixed-times, which y’all shall proclaim, declaring them holy.” (Lev. 23:2)

That’s from this week’s Torah portion, Emor. The verses that follow offer an outline of our festival year in its most ancient form. First and foremost is Shabbat. Time and again, weekday and workday consciousness gives way to Shabbat, which tradition calls “a foretaste of the world to come.” That’s the weekly rhythm, the flow and ebb, built into the fabric of creation. And it serves and supports a bigger oscillation, the annual rhythm of the festival year.

At Pesach, in the emerging spring, we celebrate liberation from narrow places. The Omer leads us to Shavuot, when we receive revelation. At Rosh Hashanah the universe begins anew -- Pesach is the anniversary of our Exodus, but Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of all creation. At Yom Kippur we answer for our souls. At Sukkot we move outside, celebrating the harvest and recognizing impermanence. And then, after a fallow time, Pesach comes around again.

Now, Torah could have just said that God declares certain times to be holy. Let it be God’s job to declare what’s holy and what isn’t, what’s a special time and what’s ordinary. I mean, God speaks the world into being, right? But instead Torah says that we proclaim holy time. We declare its holiness. We have a role to play in making our sacred times what they are. The questions for me are, how and why do we do that? And what happens in us when we do?

Torah and the rabbinic tradition are full of “how” and “why.” We declare a time to be kadosh, set-apart, by lighting candles or blessing the fruit of the vine: kiddush, which shares a root with kadosh. Or we build a sukkah, or wave a lulav. Or we set time apart by not-doing things. On Shabbat and festivals, Torah instructs us to cease our working, our rushing to make and create and do. Or we refrain from eating and drinking, as many of us do on Yom Kippur...

What interests me most is not so much the things we do or don’t do, but the internal dynamics behind the doing or not-doing. What does it feel like to consciously refrain from working? What does it feel like to kindle a candle and feel something internal shift thanks to its flickering light? What opens up in us as a result of that doing and the feeling that flows from that doing? Beyond that, what opens or changes in us when we do and feel those things together?

Because that’s another thing I notice about this verse in Torah: “These are My fixed-times, which y’all shall proclaim, declaring them holy.” Now, I’m saying “y’all” because I grew up in south Texas, and even after 27 years in the Northeast I remain convinced that the English language needs a plural form of “you,” and “y’all” is the plural form of “you” that I like best. But I’m also saying y’all because that’s what Torah’s syntax suggests. This is a communal instruction.

Notice the tension between individual and communal. The how and the why of making time holy are communally-agreed-upon, or at least communally-discussed. The internal dynamics of making time holy -- what awakens in us when we take this work on -- are personal. What happens in me when I kindle candles is not necessarily transferrable. And it shifts over time as I change and grow. Making time holy has a profound impact on who and how I become.

The sage known as the Aish Kodesh teaches that festivals have an innate quality of holiness. (Writing about Purim, he says that even if one is grieving on Purim and can’t fully inhabit the holiday’s requisite joy, the day itself will work its magic. I found that deeply meaningful this year when Purim fell during shloshim, the first month of mourning, for my mom.) He’s not alone in that viewpoint. There’s a strong view in tradition that our holidays themselves are holy.

When it comes to Yom Kippur, our sages teach, the essence of the day itself is what enables us to atone -- together with our acts of teshuvah, yes, but the day itself has a unique quality that helps us get there. And yet there’s also a sense that holiness is something we create. In Heschel’s words, we “learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.” We consecrate not space but time.

We consecrate. In instructing us to set holy time apart, Torah implies that something happens when we declare holy time. Maybe something happens in us when we set holy time apart. Experientially, that feels true to me. There’s a difference between being handed something, and making it myself. There’s a difference between being told that a day is holy, and making it holy with my actions and words -- and most especially with my heart and my intention.

It matters to me that we do this with our own hands and hearts. The Judaism that sets my heart afire and tingles my toes is a participatory Judaism. It’s a Judaism that doesn’t outsource our sense of holiness. It’s a Judaism that presumes that every one of us has a role to play in building the Jewish future. A Judaism that encourages every one of us to learn enough about the tradition that we can turn our hearts and hands to building the Judaism that comes next.

In Talmud (Brachot 64a) we read, “our children will be taught of God.” And then our sages creatively read “our children” as “our builders,” recognizing that every successive generation has the responsibility and the opportunity to build the Jewish future, rooted in our own encounters with holiness. The life's work of building Judaism isn’t just for “the rabbis.” Building Judaism belongs to all of us, just as sanctifying time belongs to all of us.

There's something profoundly democratic here, in the lower-case-d sense. God gives us the flow of the festival year, but it's incomplete without our participation. Our spiritual ancestors give us a vast library of texts and traditions, but they're incomplete without our participation, too. They're the recipe, but you can't eat a cookbook. It's our energy and attention, our investment of hands and hearts, that transforms the recipe into nourishing food for the soul.

Judaism asks us to balance what we've received, and what the future asks us to build. Sometimes we build in new ways, through new spiritual technologies, new ways of learning, new texts and prayers and melodies to enliven our experience of ancient texts and festivals and practices. And sometimes we build in ancient ways, letting those ancient practices (like sanctifying time) do their work in us as we open ourselves to becoming and to change.

In the instruction to proclaim the festivals, Torah is telling us that even something as fundamental to Jewish life as holy time is a partnership between us and God. Our sacred times have power, and that power is magnified when we make the choice to declare those times to be set-apart and holy. And when we consciously set time apart, we open ourselves so that holiness can flow through us into the future that is yet to be. Shabbat shalom.

Shabbat shalom.



 

This is the d'var Torah I offered this morning at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo where I am (with Rabbi David Markus) Halpern Scholar-In-Residence this weekend. Deep thanks to the Halpern family for bringing us to western New York!

Written with gratitude to my co-founders at Bayit: Building Jewish.

 


Being a woman in America

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"These are not great times to be a woman in America," wrote Jennifer Wright in Harper's Bazaar. "At least, not if you are a woman who believes your body is your own." (She wrote those words two years ago. Now is worse.) Most of the women I know live daily with disbelief, anger, anxiety, fear, hopelessness, numbness -- all symptoms of trauma, as it turns out.

It is painful and exhausting to be a woman in America today. Many women, of course, would say that it has always been painful and exhausting to be a woman in America. Women of color, visibly queer women, trans women, immigrant women. The fact that I thought this was a pretty safe place until a few years ago is a sign of how lucky I've been, how good I've always had it. 

It is also painful and exhausting to be a Jew in America today. This week, as it happens, I feel more anxiety about being a woman than about being Jewish. (I'm sure the next synagogue shooting will change that.) Women in America today can't help marinating in a bath of (others') misogyny and (our own) fear. I worry about what that does to our hearts and souls.

I don't often write here about politics, or out of a place of my own anger. Focusing on values and spiritual life is my lifeline. It's part of what keeps me whole. But the worse matters get, the more I fear that my silence is complicity -- and that it's spiritually damaging. I'm hoping that speaking these truths will help me, and maybe others, to work harder toward change. 

In 2016 this nation elected, to the highest office in the land, a man who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. He proclaimed that when you're a star you can do anything you want. His opponent was smart, tough, experienced... and a woman. You know all of this already. We all know this. The morning after the election, many of us felt like we'd been punched.

Many of us felt, that next morning, as though there had been a referendum on our gender and we had lost. Too many people apparently feel threatened by successful women. They would rather vote for someone with no governance experience (not to mention, someone whose casual misogyny is staggering) than for a woman who has proven herself to be competent.

The Kavanaugh hearings were excruciating for many women, including me. Once again the takeaway was that men's comfort matters more than our safety. Their misbehavior is irrelevant. Women brave enough to admit being victims of sexual misconduct will be mocked, hounded, and threatened with death. Men credibly accused of such misconduct will rise to power.

Today's news is full of abortion bans and draconian heartbeat laws. (Here's where such measures have been passed so far; I suspect the list will grow.) This news shows me that women's bodily integrity, our very personhood, is increasingly at-risk. Men who apparently don't understand the first thing about female biology are legislating away our right to healthcare.

They blithely criminalize miscarriage, already an emotionally excruciating experience for a woman who is trying to conceive. Meanwhile, poor women and women of color will bear the brunt of this new legislation. Those who are poorest -- disproportionately women of color -- are likeliest to be jailed for miscarriage... or to be harmed by "back-alley" abortions.

In privileging the "rights" of the fetus over the rights of the mother, these laws assert that women don't deserve bodily integrity or autonomy. It's as though in this Christian supremacist worldview, women aren't people: we're fetus incubators who shouldn't have the right to make decisions about our own bodies. I don't have adequate words for how dehumanizing that is.

These laws derive from a very particular brand of Christian theology, which in turn makes a set of very particular assumptions about when life begins (conception). But the laws are not only being made for women who share that theology. They're being made for everyone. This is Christian hegemony, and its disregard for religious pluralism is deeply frightening. 

Judaism has an entirely different view than that evangelical Christian one. By and large, mainstream Jewish legal thinking privileges the health of the mother over the fetus. Our legal tradition argues that life begins at birth, with the first breath -- not at conception. The health of the mother, not the fetus, is paramount. Abortion is permitted, even necessary sometimes. 

But lawmakers in Alabama, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio (so far) don't care about that. They don't care about the fact that not all Americans are Christian, or that they're legislating their theology onto the bodies of people who don't necessarily share it. And that scares me both as a woman and as a Jew. That feels like we're falling down the slippery slope toward Christian theocracy.

It is painful and exhausting to be a woman in America today. And I know I have it easy, comparatively speaking. I'm white, which means I'm not navigating the constant barrage of micro- and macro-aggressions that come with being a person of color. I'm not an immigrant or a refugee. I'm not transgender. I'm not in danger of having my child stripped of citizenship

I'm just a woman. Living, as most of us do these days, with anxiety and fear. Surfing the toxic waves of constant debate about whether or not I deserve healthcare or the right to make decisions about my own body. And facing the reality that for many of the white (mostly male) Christians in positions of power in this country today, the answer to those questions is no.

So what am I going to do? Tomorrow night, thank God, Shabbat arrives. I will aim to set this anguish and grief aside, and to live for one day in the "as-if" -- as if the world were already redeemed; as if people weren't trying to strip women of our rights. And then when the new week begins, I will do what I can to protect all who are vulnerable, and to work toward a better world. 

 

Related: What You Can Do To Help Women in States With Extreme Abortion Bans, at The Cut.

Image by durantelallera [source].


Looking forward to a Shabbat in Buffalo

This coming weekend, Rabbi David Markus and I will be Halpern Scholars-In-Residence at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York. I'm looking so forward to co-leading services on Friday night and Saturday morning, to sharing melodies and Torah and learning and conversations, to teaching on Shabbat afternoon and making havdalah on Saturday evening, and more!

TBZ

Here's the weekend schedule, posted online thanks to Buffalo Jewish Federation (and each event is listed here on Facebook); if you're in or around Buffalo, please join us.

For more on all of this, you can listen to us chatting with Rabbi Jonathan Freirich on the radio: Crossroads with Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus


Mother's Day

 

It's a year of firsts
and most of them hurt.

Hallmark doesn't sell a card
designed to be burned

so smoke can ascend
to reach the afterlife.

And why didn't I save
every card you ever sent me

so I could reopen them now?
I miss your handwriting.

I kick myself now
for every deleted voicemail.

When I remember earth
thudding onto the wooden box

futility claims my heart
and won't let go.

 


Holiness lessons

Holy"Y'all shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy." (Lev. 19:2)

That's the first line of this week's Torah portion, Kedoshim -- "Holy (Shall You Be)." But what does it mean to be holy as God is holy? It seems that the subsequent verses offer our answer. Treat our parents with respect and honor their needs. Keep Shabbat. When we make offerings to God -- remember, this arose at a moment when we still made physical sacrifices -- we are to eat them that day, or the next day, but not to let them linger. Wait, what? The first two things in that paragraph still resonate: honor our parents and honor Shabbat, so far so good. But what's with the need to eat sacrifices quickly?

We could regard that as an instruction pertaining to food safety. Meats, even meats cooked over fire, will go bad after a few days. Maybe this is an ancient precursor to germ theory? But I think there's more here than that. "When you make a wholeness offering to God," when you're seeking to draw-near to God because you feel that your life is whole, inhabit that feeling of wholeness... wholly. Make the offering and consume the offering. Experience your emotions completely. Inhabit your gratitude completely. Trust that the way to keep the abundance flowing is to celebrate and accept and enjoy the good you've received.

Read this way, it's a teaching about trusting that feelings of wholeness and gratitude will keep arising. It's a teaching about trusting that reasons for wholeness and gratitude will keep arising. It would be easy to want to cling to our reasons for gratitude, hoarding them, doling them out in little bits so that they will last -- like a box of chocolates eaten bit by tiny bit. But if we cling for too long, the thing we were grateful for may turn sour. The correct response to life's gifts is to celebrate them, express gratitude for them, and enjoy them -- now -- in the moment -- trusting that more will come.

Notice the interweaving of internal and external ways of cultivating holiness. Honor your parents -- which our tradition expands to include, honor your teachers, because one who teaches you Torah is like a parent, expanding your insights and showing you how to live. That's an ethical teaching about how to treat others. Honor Shabbat -- our tradition's core spiritual practice for experiencing abundance and blessing in our lives. Experience abundance and don't hoard your sense of blessedness -- trust that more good things will flow if you open your hands in gratitude. Those are internal teachings about how to carve healthy and holy grooves on our hearts so that blessing can flow in and gratitude can flow out.

Then we get a series of ethical and interpersonal instructions. When we harvest, leave the margins of the fields uncut so that those in need can glean. It is not holy to keep abundance for ourselves: holiness lies in ensuring that all who are hungry can eat and be satisfied. Don't steal or deal deceitfully with each other, or keep a laborer's wages until morning. Judge others fairly, not giving undue deference either to the poor or to the rich. Do not act vengefully. Do not engage in rechilut, gossip, or stand idly by when someone else's blood is shed.

Ordinarily I follow our sages in reading that one metaphorically. Harm to someone's reputation is considered tantamount to shedding their blood. Therefore we are commanded not to stand by when someone is being slandered, because that slander harms their integrity. But in a week that has contained yet another school shooting, the simple or surface reading of this verse leaps out at me anew. In allowing our nation's lax gun laws to stand, I fear that we are standing idly by on the blood of children who are slaughtered in schools where they should be most protected and safe. That is the opposite of holiness.

The culmination of the verses we read this morning is "Love your neighbor as yourself: I am Adonai." Love others: that is what it means to be holy as God is holy. The great sage Rabbi Akiva called this "The core principle of Torah." As though to underscore its centrality, this verse is at the literal heart of the Torah scroll -- in the middle of the middle book. This is the heart of Torah. Be holy as God is holy. The way to be holy is to love the other. Those are the words we've been singing all morning: "Here I take upon myself the mitzvah of the Creator, to love my neighbor as myself, my neighbor as myself."

These are our instructions for holiness:

1) Unclench our hands and trust that blessing will keep coming.

2) Share our abundance.

3) Be scrupulously ethical in feeding the hungry, treating workers fairly, enacting justice, and protecting the vulnerable.

4) And do all of these things not reluctantly or grudgingly but from a place of love.

Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at CBI this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Related: How to be holy: boundaries come first.


How to be holy: boundaries come first

I studied the most gorgeous text this morning from the Netivot Shalom (also known as the Slonimer, a.k.a. Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky). It's on the verse קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ / kedoshim tihiyu, "y'all shall be holy."

The Slonimer teaches: the way we do that is first through strong boundaries and ethical choices. The first step in being holy as God is holy is having good boundaries and being scrupulously ethical in our interpersonal interactions.

That's the only part of holiness that we can control. That's how far we can go through our own strength. If we do that, then God meets us there and lifts us the rest of the way toward a more complete kind of holiness, a holiness in which our every act is sanctified and we ourselves become sanctuaries for God. But that higher level of holiness isn't possible unless we first do everything we can to steer clear of boundary transgressions. 

The Slonimer cites a Noam Elimelech teaching that yir'ah (awe) is the vessel and ahavah (love) is the light that streams through it. And we know from our mystics that when there is light without a strong container to hold it, we wind up with broken vessels. When there is unbounded love without good boundaries -- when there is chesed without gevurah, or when chesed is overprivileged above gevurah -- we wind up with broken vessels. We wind up with unsafe communities.

Holiness comes through living with rigorous integrity and being scrupulous about ethics. We receive the gift of being lifted to that higher level of holiness when we respect the boundaries that can safely channel our love.

 

 

With gratitude to Rabbi Megan Doherty, my Slonimer hevruta.

Related: The need for justice to balance love, 2017


After the death

"God spoke to Moses after the death..."

Those are the first words of this week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot. God speaks to Moses after the death of Aaron's two sons, and gives instructions on how to be safe, and how to draw near to God's presence, and how to atone when we miss the mark, and how to foster an ethical and upright community.

Acharei mot: after the death. I am speaking with you today after a death, too. All week long I've been struggling for words. After the second shooting spree carried out by a white nationalist at a synagogue on Shabbes. After multiple arsons at Black churches, and an Easter massacre in Sri Lanka, and a massacre at a mosque in New Zealand. After death after death after death.

What can I say to you at this moment when white nationalism and white supremacy are terrifyingly on the rise, tacitly approved by a president who chillingly called the Nazis who marched in Charlottesville "very fine people"? At this moment when the family of Lori Kaye z"l are still in the week of shiva, their loved one's burial still fresh and their grief still raw?

Torah gives us instructions for safety within the ancient sacrificial system, but there are no instructions for safety today in a synagogue or mosque or church or gurdwara. There are no instructions for ensuring safety today if you are a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Sikh, or a person of color, or an immigrant, or a refugee living in the shadow of white supremacy.

And I am no Moses, and I do not have a direct line to God. But here is what I think God would say, if God were in the business of speaking to us directly in language that we can hear and clearly understand. I think God would say: you're all in this together.

I read part of the Poway shooter's manifesto. (I'm not naming him, because I don't want to give him the satisfaction of fame. He is Amalek; may his name be blotted out.) The hatred made me sick to my stomach. The unreasonableness of the hatred made me sick to my stomach. The belief, counter to any reason or fact, that Jews are evil and engaged in conspiracy and that it was his white nationalist Christian obligation to kill us on sight, made me sick to my stomach.

It doesn't make any sense to me. Because hatred doesn't make any sense to me.

Let’s be clear, that hatred is directed at us. This is a frightening time to be a Jew. And... let’s also be clear that it’s not only directed at us. The horror of what is aimed at us, as Jews in this world today, is also aimed at Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus and people of color and immigrants and queer people and refugees. It is hatred of diversity, hatred of difference, and it harms us all.

In this case, the damaged soul who opened fire at Chabad of Poway had also attempted to set fire to a mosque. That one human being had literally tried to go after two different religious communities. But it's not just about him. It's the whole system of white supremacy. It is a twisted, tangled, interconnected web of hatred for all of us who are not Christian-white-supremacists.

Antisemitism is not separate from islamophobia, is not separate from homophobia and transphobia, is not separate from hatred of immigrants, is not separate from hatred of brown people, is not separate from hatred of refugees...

We are all in this together.

And the best response I can offer to this latest atrocity is: we need to keep on living. We need to keep on being Jewish -- visibly Jewish, publicly Jewish, Jewish when we lie down and when we rise up, Jewish when we are at home and when we are walking on our way! Because if we hide who we are, or shrink who we are, then we’re letting them win -- we’re letting people who are driven by hatred and intolerance deny us a source of meaning and connection and joy and love.

And we need to keep on living, together. In relationship with each other. In solidarity with each other. Celebrating and uplifting each other. Standing up to protect each other. We need to build and strengthen our relationships with all peoples who are fearful and targeted by white nationalism and white supremacy: people of every faith, people of every skin color, people of every ethnicity, people from every country, people of every gender and sexual orientation.

If we turn inward and focus only on our own safety, or if we imagine that our safety lies in ensuring that someone else is more marginalized than we are, we’re helping those who would harm us. If we let them drive a wedge between us, we are doing some of their work for them.

But if we make common cause with others who are marginalized, we can stand together against those who would annihilate us. And we will prevail, because we’re not letting them pit Jews and Muslims against each other, or people with different skin tones, or people of different ethnicities, or people from different nations. We win when we understand that our diversity is our strength.

The white nationalists want a narrow world where everyone who is not them is slaughtered, or subjugated, or erased. We can resist by building a world that is precisely not that. We can resist by joyously being who we are, and by embracing humanity's glorious spectrum of differences, and by standing up in common cause to protect others. That’s what I believe God asks of us.

Because we are all in this together. And together, we are stronger than any community could ever be alone.

Shabbat shalom.

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at my shul, cross-posted to my congregational From the Rabbi blog.


Five days of a gift

 

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This week I'm at a Benedictine retreat center in Schuyler, Nebraska, teaching at the Nebraska Five Day Academy for Spiritual Formation. Being here has been an extraordinary gift.

Getting to share facets of my beloved religious tradition with ardent spiritual seekers is a gift.

Getting to bear witness to their spiritual formation and their openness to growth and change is a gift.

Getting to learn from my fellow faculty (this time, Father John Mefrige, a Greek Orthodox priest of Syrian-Canadian descent) is a gift. Learning about Orthodox tradition, spirituality, and practice -- from icons, to chant, to prayer -- has been a gift.

Getting to pray three times a day in community is a gift. Getting to end and begin my days with prayer, getting to pause in the afternoon for prayer, is a gift. 

Relaxing into the hands of skilled musical worship facilitators is a gift. 

Getting to sit with my swirl of feelings about being a visitor in someone else's prayer space, prayer language, and modality of prayer is also a gift. Sometimes Christian prayer language is comfortable and familiar. Sometimes it's foreign. Sometimes it feels appropriative or pushes my buttons. Sometimes it lifts up my own prayer. Sometimes I struggle. All of those are a gift.

Getting to walk the labyrinth here, amidst greening spring grass and surrounded by the gently rolling terrain of eastern Nebraska, is a gift.

Teaching about service of the heart is a gift. Sharing prayer and poetry, psalms and music, grief and rejoicing, brokenness and wholeness is a gift.

Answering people's questions about Judaism and Jewish spiritual practice is a gift. The genuine appreciation for, and curiosity about, my tradition is a gift. Getting to share a prayer service in my language, my idiom, and my modalities is a gift.

Periods of silence and contemplation are a gift. Each hour of class is followed by an hour of silent time for contemplation, integration, and going deep, and that's a gift.

The participants' willingness to go deep is a gift.

Walking to the edge of the retreat center's landscaped grounds and standing at the edge of bare cornfields waiting to grow, under the vastness of the sky, feeling the powerful winds rolling down across the plains, is a gift.

Lifting my voice in harmony with others is a gift.

Getting to meet each night with the leadership team, and to partner with them in creating the container within which this retreat has unfolded, is a gift.

I'm so grateful to the leadership team at Great Plains Spiritual Formation, and to Upper Room Ministries, for giving me this opportunity to share and to teach -- and to drink from this well of togetherness, learning, silence, and song.


Communities of safety and repair - at Builders Blog

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Acharei Mot (“After the Death” — e.g. the deaths of Aaron’s two older sons, which took place a few parshiot ago) is full of instructions from our ancient sacrificial past. This parasha is one part OSHA safety manual, one part instructions for community cohesion and forgiveness practices, and one part ethical guidebook for avoiding power differential transgressions. And while instructions for correctly dashing blood on an altar are no longer useful to us as modern Jews, the need for strong systems (to ensure safety, offer pathways for healthy reconciliation, and maintain high ethical standards especially where there is power imbalance) seems to be eternal.

Among the laws covered in Acharei Mot are proper dress in the holiest of places (behind the curtain in the mishkan); which animals to offer up as we seek to draw near to God, and how to sprinkle their blood; and the origins of the “scapegoat,” a story many of us also hear each year on Yom Kippur. We also find, sandwiched between injunctions not to behave like other regional tribes in the Ancient Near East, a string of instructions about power differential transgressions. What leaps out at me from these instructions is their (very contemporary) insistence on the importance of systems for creating and promoting safety, justice, and ethical behavior.

So what does Acharei Mot offer us in terms of best practices for our communities today? ...

That's the beginning of my latest post for Builders Blog, a project of Bayit: Building Jewish, with sketchnotes by Steve Silbert. Read the whole thing: Communities of Safety and Repair.


I don't mind

Today someone asked how I am
and I said fine and meant it.

Maybe I'm growing accustomed.
Maybe all those years of bracing

for your death paid off.
Maybe it's just the sunshine.

It's easier to be honest now
than it was when you were alive.

I don't have to worry
that I'm disappointing you.

And if I believe you hear me
then you're listening no matter what.

I know this ease won't last.
I'll see someone who looks

like you, or a mother
and daughter with heads close...

I can't even think about
the first Rosh Hashanah,

all the occasions to come.
But right this minute

with the trees leafing out
and birds chattering excitedly

I know you're dead
but I don't mind.

 


Field trip

You walked through my dream last night
as a crowd of family crossed a hotel lobby.
Your blonde hair blown-dry and styled,

full face of makeup, earrings gleaming.
"You look great," I said, and you beamed
as though you knew the secret: you're not

in this world anymore. Was it a field trip
to visit the living? I greeted your parents,
gone thirty years. And then I was alone.

I seized my phone to call a friend to tell
the tale. "Next time, ask her for a bracha,"
he suggested. Waking, I thought: what would

you say? In life you would have laughed, or
said you don't know how to give a blessing
but maybe in the afterlife you're less afraid.

Or maybe you'd repeat exactly what you said
in life: make hay while the sun shines. This
life is too short. Choose to find it sweet.


Stars

In your filing cabinet you left
notes for your obituary:

you played the doxology
on accordion

you earned
your junior lifesaving certificate

you wished you'd learned
to tapdance, or written a book.

You included for us a list
of loves: dad, of course

travel, a good party,
Judaism and your children

your nutritionist guru,
the Big Dipper, the moon.

On Nathan J. Pritikin
we part ways. I'm likelier

to emulate Samin Nosrat
scattering kosher salt

by the handful (sorry
Mom) but I love

that you loved the moon
enough to mention her, and

the other stars you steered by
still show me the way to shore.

 


Counting, listening, becoming - a d'varling for Acharei Mot and the Omer

OmerchartA few weeks ago I was talking about the Omer journey with my Journey Into Judaism class. Counting the Omer, you may remember, is this practice we do during the 7 weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. Each week is linked with a different quality -- lovingkindness, boundaries and strength, harmony and balance, endurance, humble splendor, roots and generations, and the ineffable quality we call Shechinah: presence, in the sense of Divine Presence.

Each week, and each day within each week, is mapped to one of these qualities. This seven-week journey of counting gives us the opportunity to reflect on these qualities as they manifest in us. We get to ask ourselves: how do I express chesed, lovingkindness? How do I receive lovingkindness? What kind of repair do I need to do in my capacity to give or receive love?

And how do I express gevurah, boundaries and strength? Do I need stronger boundaries between myself and toxic people or institutions in my life? Or do I need more permeable boundaries so that my relationships have better give-and-take? What kind of repair work do I need to do in my boundaries and my strength? And so on.

In my class that day, someone noted that this sounds an awful lot like the inner work of teshuvah -- returning again, turning ourselves around, the work of discernment and repair in our relationship with self and God and others -- that we do in the weeks leading up to the Days of Awe. And I said: yes indeed! During the Omer, we're doing our inner work in order to prepare ourselves to be ready to receive Torah anew at Sinai on Shavuot. During the weeks leading up to the Days of Awe, we're doing our inner work in order to prepare ourselves to be ready to enter into a new year and to stand before God on Yom Kippur.

The two journeys are parallel. And this week's Torah portion offers a couple of connections between this journey in the spring and that journey in the fall. (This week, following Reform practice, we're reading from the first half of Acharei Mot.)

One piece of today's Torah portion tells the story of the scapegoat ritual, which is also read in many synagogues on Yom Kippur. Torah tells us to take two goats, draw lots and offer one goat up to God, and then symbolically confer the sins of the community onto the other goat and then send it into the wilderness. It was a way of cleansing the community of its missteps and misdeeds so they could have a clean slate and begin again.

And if that weren't enough of a link between this season and the fall holidays, then the Torah actually mentions Yom Kippur:

וְהָיְתָ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם לְחֻקַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַ֠שְּׁבִיעִי בֶּֽעָשׂ֨וֹר לַחֹ֜דֶשׁ תְּעַנּ֣וּ אֶת־נַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶ֗ם וְכָל־מְלָאכָה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ הָֽאֶזְרָ֔ח וְהַגֵּ֖ר הַגָּ֥ר בְּתוֹכְכֶֽם׃

And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.

כִּֽי־בַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֛ה יְכַפֵּ֥ר עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם לְטַהֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ חַטֹּ֣אתֵיכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה תִּטְהָֽרוּ׃

For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the LORD.

Sefaria translates it as, on the tenth day of the seventh month which is Tishri, we practice self-denial (many translations say "afflict our souls"), and abstain from work, and atonement is made for us. But my friend and hevruta Rabbi David Markus notes that a different reading can be offered here: t'anu et nafshoteichem can be read either as "afflict your souls," or as "answer with your souls." (The only difference in the two words is in the vowels, which are not written in the Torah scroll.)

How different that verse feels to me when it's an instruction not to afflict our souls, but to answer for them -- to take a reckoning of who we are and who we want to be; to seek to reconnect ourselves with what matters most; to cultivate and strengthen our good qualities and seek to shed our bad ones, so that we can live out the fullest expression of who we're meant to be in the world! (Rabbi David has written a beautiful d'var Torah exploring this teaching for AJR; it's now online here.)

Answering for our souls is the work of Yom Kippur. And it's the work of the Omer count too. Each day is an invitation to pause and notice where we are in time, and an invitation to pause and notice who we are and how we are and what spiritual muscles we need to strengthen.

Because taking a good hard look at my relationship with love and boundaries and my own strength and my sense of balance and my perseverance and my humility and my willingness to shine and my willingness to really be present -- that is not a onetime task. And taking a good hard look at my habits and my practices and my excuses and the places where I let myself off the hook but shouldn't -- and the places where I don't let myself off the hook but should! -- that's not a onetime task either.

This is the work of spiritual life. Discerning who we aspire to be. Answering for our souls, answering to our souls. And then living out our intentions of becoming the people we're called to become. I think our tradition gives us these two seven-week windows during the year to focus on this stuff because our ancestors were human too. They knew that inner work isn't one-and-done.

Some of us just went seven days without leaven. And that can feel like an affliction of our souls, or at least an affliction of our bodies! But it doesn't have to be an affliction, it can be an opportunity. To realign our relationship with food. To realign our relationship with sustenance. To think about the metaphysical hametz of old stories and old hurts that we need to shed in order to be free.

Counting the Omer could feel like an obligation, just one more item to cross off the to-do list every day (or another place to fall short when we inevitably forget.) But it doesn't have to be. It can be an opportunity.

What would happen if we made space during these seven weeks of the Omer to listen to our souls? I mean -- sit still, sit in silence, or sit in prayer, or walk the labyrinth, go running, do yoga, shut off the distractions and the devices -- whatever it takes to help us listen to that still small voice, the spark of divinity within?

What spiritual muscles do we need to strengthen in order to do that listening -- and what spiritual muscles might our souls ask us to strengthen so that we can receive Torah anew at Sinai this Shavuot as the best versions of ourselves that we can become? 

 

Deep thanks to R' David Markus for his teaching on תְּעַנּ֣וּ אֶת־נַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶ֗ם. This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning, cross-posted to CBI's From the Rabbi blog.

 


Dishes

Your Pesachdik dishes lived
in cartons on a high shelf,
strictly for the Dallas cousins.

When you hosted seder
the "help" covered the kitchen
with foil, brought the boxes down.

Yours were plain white.
Some of mine are red,
gleaming like polished apples.

Others are hand-me-downs
in melon and aqua and blue,
a gift from another mother.

Does it comfort you to know
mothers reached out as I joined
this motherless daughter club?

Back to the dishes: I know
you never kept the Pesach.
Did you wonder

why I've reclaimed
traditions you and Dad
were glad to discard —

did you shake your head
at this pendulum swing
of generations? Still

you'd like my table this week,
bright as your nail polish,
vivid as a Fiesta parade.

 


Crossing the Sea

As you
lay dying
you gasped
"help me."
How terrifying
to let
your lungs
stop breathing
to trust
that you
would continue
even after
your body
had ceased.
To step
into waves
that crested
so high
and know
the waters
would part.
To feel
deep in
weary bones
that from
narrow straits
expansiveness beckoned,
that redemption
was waiting
on the
far shore.

 


Today is the seventh day of Pesach, the day on which tradition says we crossed the sea into freedom.