First shot

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My appointment was at 3pm at a church in North Adams. I've driven by it a million times but wasn't sure how to get in or which door would be open, so I arrived early. A masked volunteer from the local Community Coalition was standing outside on the steps with a clipboard and a bright blue uniform-type vest. On the back of her vest was a sign that said "Emotional support person" with a smiley-face.

"Rabbi Rachel!" she greeted me. "You can't go in until five minutes before your appointment." She sounded apologetic. I told her not to worry. I tucked my hands into my the pockets of my bright purple coat.  It's 26 F here today: cold enough to see our breath if we weren't all wearing masks. I was wearing two, a KN95 with a pretty cloth one over the top, because I wasn't sure how crowded it would be.

While I waited, I greeted a phalanx of men in long black coats: one of the families that runs the local funeral home.  After they went in, I heard one of the volunteers ask, "Did they get dressed up for this?" (I offered that in my experience, they're always dressed up. It's just the uniform, in the funeral business.) I thought again about how what they do, balancing logistics with pastoral care, is a form of ministry.

At 2:55 they let me in. Inside the church building someone took my temperature and sanitized my hands. I saw volunteers in bright yellow vests, and in bright blue vests, and in EMT uniforms. Everyone seemed happy. I filled out paperwork, I answered questions, I sat down at a freshly-sanitized table and rolled up one sleeve. A friendly EMT said "a little pinprick in three, two, one." I said a silent shehecheyanu.

I sat for fifteen minutes, dutifully, to make sure I didn't have a bad reaction. I imagine the arm will ache, later, like it did when I got vaccinated for typhoid and yellow fever before my first trip to Ghana. I'm startled to realize that that was more than 20 years ago. I remember that we needed to find a doctor who specialized in travel medicine. I wonder what became of the fold-out yellow card I carried in my passport then.

So now I'm halfway vaccinated against covid-19. This isn't going to change my behavior. We don't know yet whether or not the vaccines protect against asymptomatic spread. And besides, I won't begin developing immunity until two weeks after the second shot.  But it feels to me like one more reason to hope. Every person who gets vaccinated brings us one step closer. Someday we'll embrace again.

 


Not the end of the story

JoyIn this week's Torah portion, Va'era, God hears the cries of the Israelites and promises to free us from bondage. But when Moshe comes to the children of Israel to tell them that, Torah says:

וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃

They did not hear Moshe, because of kotzer ruach and hard servitude.

Rashi explains the phrase kotzer ruach by saying, "If one is in anguish his breath comes in short gasps and he cannot draw long breaths." For the Sforno, kotzer ruach means "it did not appear believable to their present state of mind, so that their heart could not assimilate such a promise."

So which one is it, a physical shortness of breath or a spiritual diminishment that keeps hope beyond our grasp? Of course, the answer is both. Body and spirit are not separable. If you've ever had a panic attack, you know the feeling of being physically unable to breathe because of an emotional or spiritual reality.

Kotzer ruach means that we were short of breath in body and soul. Our breath and our spirits were in tzuris, suffering. Literally at this point in our story we are in Mitzrayim (hear that same TzR /צר sound there?) But this isn't about geography, it's about an existential state of being so constricted that we couldn't even hear the hope that things could be better than this.

I know a lot of us are navigating heightened anxiety these days. A scant ten days ago, an armed mob refusing to accept the results of November's election broke in to the US Capitol with nylon tactical restraints and bludgeons. Many members of that mob proudly displayed neo-Nazi or white supremacist identities.

It's becoming increasingly clear that the attack on the Capitol wasn't spontaneous, but planned. The FBI is warning now about armed attacks planned in all fifty state capitols and in DC, on inauguration day if not before.

The covid-19 pandemic worsens by the day. We keep breaking records for number of sick people and number of deaths. Meanwhile the integrity of our country feels at-risk. I mean both our capacity to be one nation when some portion of that nation refuses to accept electoral defeat, and our moral and ethical uprightness.

Anybody here feeling kotzer ruach? Me too. 

And... Our Torah story comes this week to remind us that kotzer ruach is not the end of the story. Being in dire straits -- unable to breathe, unable to focus, hearts and souls unable to hope -- is not the end of the story. On the contrary, it's the first step toward liberation.

In our Torah story, our kotzer ruach causes us to cry out. That's where this week's Torah portion begins: with God saying hearing our cries and promising to help us out of narrow straits. If you have a prayer practice or a meditation practice or a primal scream practice, now is the time to cry out. (And if you don't have such a practice, now is a good time to start.)

I don't actually believe that God "needs" us to cry out before God takes notice of us. I think it goes the other way. We need to cry out, because that's the first step in opening our hearts to God -- to hope -- to the possibility that things can get better.

The path toward the pandemic getting better is pretty clear. We shelter in place as best we can, we stay apart, we wear our masks, we get the vaccine. And then we probably keep wearing our masks. But in time, it will be safe to gather again outside of our household bubbles. In time, we will be able to gather in community, and sing together without risk, and embrace.

The path toward restoring the integrity of our nation is less clear to me. I think it involves accountability, and justice, and truth, because I think integrity always asks our commitment to those ideals. Regardless, we begin that journey from here, where we are, crying out with our anxious and broken hearts.

We've entered the lunar month of Shvat, known mostly for Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, which will take place at the next full moon. The full moon after that brings Purim. And the full moon after that brings Pesach, festival of our liberation. These three full moons are our stepping-stones to spring, and change, and freedom.

When I was working recently with the rabbis and poets and artists of Bayit on new liturgy for Tu BiShvat, one of my colleagues said something that moved me so much I wrote it on a post-it and stuck it to my desk. I wrote,

"Karpas dipped in tears -- like the tears that water our new growth."

Karpas is the spring green we dip in salt water during the seder. The salt water represents the tears of our enslavement, the tears of feeling stuck in kotzer ruach. For us this year those might be tears of grief at covid-19 deaths: 381,000 and counting. They might be tears of grief at how far our democracy has fallen from its ideals, or tears of fear for whatever may be coming.

Our tears can water new growth of heart and soul. Our heart's cry now is the first step toward the changes that will lead to liberation. Then we will fulfill the words of the psalmist: "Those who sow in tears will reap in joy." Kein yehi ratzon.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Illustration, by R. Allie Fischman, from Connections: Liturgy, Art, and Poetry for Tu BiShvat, Bayit, 2021. 

 


Watching armed insurrection from afar

 

The lake has frozen.
Ice fishermen scatter,
tiny dark figures

making their way
across its flat
white expanse.

My heart pounds
gunfire
in my chest.

If the ice breaks
there is no one
to call.

 


 

I drove past a frozen lake this morning on my way to get my allergy shots. Every year I watch this lake freeze. Every year I watch the ice fishermen settle on the ice. Every year I spare a thought about the danger in what they're doing, especially when the ice is new. Right now it feels like our whole nation is on thin ice. 

 


 

If you are struggling with increased anxiety these days, you are not alone. Please reach out to a trusted clergyperson, a therapist, a friend, the national suicide prevention hotline or crisis textline. And reach out to people you know even if you're okay, because the people you know might not be. 


Count on

What I can
count on, when

democracy might be dying
at the hands of white men
 
and women waving
Confederate flags, wearing
 
Camp Auschwitz shirts,
brandishing zip ties:

the havdalah candle's
sizzle, plunged

into wine; the scent
of shankbones, simmering;

the song of Torah
where every sentence

culminates, with no
uncertainties;

the winter sun
lingering

just a little longer,
promising better days.

 


What I wrote to my community today

It is rare to know that we are living through a moment of genuine historical significance. To recognize that something unfolding around us will be chronicled in books as a turning point of some kind, though we can’t yet know where this turn will lead. But here we are. We will not soon forget the sight of an angry mob, incited by falsehoods, storming the nation’s Capitol.

When Congress re-convened last night, Senator Chuck Schumer spoke about the desecration of our temple of democracy. His use of that metaphor evoked our Chanukah story about our holy temple, first desecrated and then rededicated for sacred use. And I remembered again Chanukah’s message of light in the darkness, and the steadfast hope that can carry us through. 

I know that many of us are feeling stunned, horrified, and even frightened by what just happened in Washington DC. If that’s you, know that you are not alone. Know, also, that I am holding each member of our extended community in my prayers and in my heart, and that I am here to listen if you need an ear and to pray with you if that would bring you comfort.

When the dust clears, our task will be the same as it ever was. As Representative John Lewis z”l (of blessed memory) taught, democracy is not a state, it’s an act — an action, a choice, something we do. That teaching feels very Jewish to me. After all, Torah exhorts us to care for the vulnerable, to love the stranger, and to pursue justice: all actions, all things that we do

Democracy is an action. Love is an action. Justice is an action. Standing up for truth is an action. Building community is an action. These are our work, now as ever. This moment invites all of us to recommit ourselves to those holy tasks. And it invites us to create and strengthen our community by reaching out to each other in these uncertain and overwhelming times. 

One thing we don’t have to do is stay glued to 24/7 news coverage. Please take care of yourself. I recommend sticking with trusted media sources and giving yourself permission to turn away if the news is causing harmful anxiety. What happened yesterday is horrifying… and we are safe here, and I hope and pray that our democracy will emerge from this stronger than ever.

May the coming Shabbat bring nourishment to our souls and balm to our weary hearts. May we take comfort in our connections with each other. And may we be inspired to work toward healing for our precious democracy, so that our nation may continue to grow toward the promises inherent in its founding, promises of human dignity and justice for all.


Fellow travelers

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Later this month I'll begin teaching a class at the Academy for Jewish Religion (NY). It's part of their Sacred Arts program, and will interweave text study (Tanakh, liturgy, psalms, prophets, lifecycle) with creative writing. The syllabus was due to the dean a few weeks before the beginning of the spring term, and I've been assembling my text packet: essays, poems, prayers, classical midrash, sources ranging from ancient to contemporary. And that sent me on a journey of rediscovering my own bookshelves.

A year ago I installed new bookshelves in my home office. In those days, of course, I only worked in my home office a few days a week; the other days were spent in my synagogue office doing synagogue work. Over the last ten months everything has turned upside-down, and now I work from home almost all the time. I used to keep most of my rabbinic books at shul and most of my poetry books at home. ("Most," because the two categories aren't entirely separable.) But that too has shifted.

My Aish Kodesh volumes (the rabbi of the Warsaw ghetto, whose work my Bayit colleagues and I studied last year) are piled now crosswise in front of a section of bookshelf that holds Mark Doty, John Jerome, Jane Hirschfield, Yehoshua November, and Seamus Heaney's Beowulf. There's a small shelf full of Hasidut directly above Muriel Rukeyser, Jane Keyon, and The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (now no longer "new" by a long shot -- my MFA was more than 20 years ago.)

The book I wanted to find was Diane Lockward's Eve's Red Dress. In the Torah module of my class, we'll be doing a close reading of the creation stories in Genesis and a close reading of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac). We'll read some classical midrash arising out of both. And we'll read some contemporary poetry arising out of both. "Eve's Red Dress," I thought. "It's somewhere in this room. I think the spine is red. Is the spine red?" My books are not alphabetized. Surely I could find it.

I did find it, eventually. (The spine is not, in fact, red.) I had forgotten that my copy is inscribed; we hosted Diane for a 2003 reading at Inkberry, the literary arts nonprofit that I co-founded with two friends before I started rabbinical school. Along the way I unearthed other books that have been beloved to me: Rodger Kamenetz' The Lowercase Jew. Muriel Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry. Brenda Euland's If You Want to Write. I wished I had the space and time to get to know those old friends again.

I did pull a few things off the shelf to reread, in bits and pieces, as my scattered pandemic focus will permit. (I resonated a lot with Jess Zimmerman's essay It's Okay If You Didn't Read This Year, published in Electric Literature last week.) If nothing else, there's comfort in recognizing these spines as fellow-travelers, voices who have accompanied me over the years. I don't see anyone in person outside of my quarantine pod, but encountering the many voices in these volumes helps me feel less alone.

 

 


End of December

Peas

I glance at the headlines. The pandemic is worsening, as everyone said it would do come wintertime, and yet air travel hit a record high for the winter holidays. I can't make sense of that juxtaposition. I mean, I can; I understand that people are traveling to be with each other, even though the pandemic is worsening and Dr. Fauci says the worst is yet to come. I just don't want to believe it. I don't want to think about the suffering that is coming. I close the browser tab, but the imprint of the news lingers.

I don't go into the grocery store anymore. I place orders online, and a friendly masked employee brings paper bags of food to my parked car and places them in the hatchback. Sometimes I don't get exactly what I expected. Once I ordered some white American cheese for my son and then laughed out loud when I saw the size of the box -- 72 slices is a lot, it turns out! (He ate all of it, though. We make a lot of quesadillas, these days.) Ingredient unpredictability is strange, but I'm getting used to it.

I remember shopping at Farm to Market on the Austin Highway with my mother when I was a teenager. How she would ask the man who worked in produce to help her find a really good melon, the sweetest cantaloupe or honeydew. Something about tapping the shell and listening to its sound. Or maybe it was that he knew the subtle scent of a melon that's just right. These days I trust someone else to choose my produce for me. I tell myself that this new trend has created jobs for those who fill our bags.

This week I'm reading recipes for black eyed peas. I grew up in the South; we always ate black-eyed peas on New Year's Day, for good luck. Michael Twitty writes beautifully about that custom. I like the idea that they symbolize the eye of God, always watching over us. Black-eyed peas and greens: I learned them as a kind of kitchen magic, a symbol of prosperity, calling abundance into the coming year. We always ate tamales on New Year's Day, too. I don't have the capacity to make those. 

I daydream briefly about making redred (Ghanaian black-eyed pea stew) with kelewele (fried plantains) on New Year's Day, though I'm not sure I trust the produce shopper to choose suitably overripe plantains for frying up gingery and sweet. Evidently that's the place where my mother's produce section pickiness shines through in me. Pick me a head of lettuce, sure. Choose a cucumber or a box of strawberries or a bunch of broccolini, no big deal. But when it comes to plantains, I'm dubious.

I will stay home and fill my kitchen with whatever spices' fragrance I can, this New Year's Day which will darken into the first Shabbat of 2021. It is going to be a long, solitary, quiet winter. Quiet is good: hospitals are not quiet, ventilators are not quiet. Boredom and loneliness are better than the alternative. I will curl up with a bowl of black eyed peas in my little nest on New Year's Day, and dream about how good it will be when, vaccinated, we can embrace in the gentle breeze of longed-for spring.


On the far shore

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I heard that President Obama's memoir had to be printed in Germany because there is a paper shortage in the United States. The paper shortage is because we've been using so much cardboard to make so many more shipping boxes since the pandemic obligated us to stay home. I don't know if any of that is true, though it seems plausible. A parable about unintended consequences. I thought of it often in the days after Crossing the Sea launched, because I didn't yet have a copy in my hands.

Then I started getting photos from friends and family who had pre-ordered the book from Amazon or from the publisher. I was starting to wonder whether my copies were uniquely held up somewhere when the box landed on my doorstep. It's a cliché to say that my heart rate quickened as I cut the packing tape and lifted the first copies out of the wrapping, but it's also true. I'd seen the manuscript in PDF form many times, but there's something fundamentally different about a paper book.

The poems have a realness now that they exist in the tangible world. The collection is no longer the proverbial tree falling with no one to hear it.  The journey it chronicles feels so far away now -- evidence that "doing the grief work" actually does work, I guess. I remember what it was like in those early days and weeks, but I remember it at a remove. Through a glass darkly. Like rereading my poems from my son's infancy. I know that was me, but I can't inhabit that space anymore. 

A few of Mom's friends have written to say that they see her in this book, and a few people who are grieving now have written to say that their own journey feels mirrored here. There's no higher praise. I hope that Mom would be honored by the existence of this book. (I hope that, "wherever" she is, she approves.) And I hope other mourners will find comfort and consolation here. That's why I write. It's always why I write: not for solipsism's sake, but to shine a light for others in the darkness.

 

Available at Phoenicia, on Amazon, or wherever books are sold. 

 


Seeds

I curl my fingers
into the thatch
inside the hollow.

Out come seeds
little teardrops
slippery and pale.

As they fall
the china bowl
rings like a bell.

 

 


 

These shortest days of the year are always a struggle for me. Like my mother before me, I count the days until the light will begin to increase. I practice finding sustenance in small things: in zesting an orange for cranberry bread, in cooking a new recipe, in turning squash seeds into a roasted snack instead of throwing them away as I would once have done. This pandemic winter, those coping mechanisms feel even more critical. There's so much I can't repair in this terrible and beautiful world. Sometimes it feels almost inappropriate to seek pleasure when there is so much suffering. In those moments I remind myself that I would honor no one by ignoring the little blessings I can find even in these times. May balm come to all who suffer, and may life's tiny sweetnesses help us through.


Windows

Once I compared daily prayer
to a chat window open with God
all the time. That was before.
Now the chat windows where I text,
the Zoom windows where we meet,
are as fervent as prayer:

the only way we can be together
anymore. The digital windows open
between my home (my heart) and yours --
they're what link us, together apart
like lovers with hands pressed
to far sides of thick glass.

Chanukah candles go in the window
to shine light into the world
to proclaim the miracle even
in dark times. We've all seen
the old photo, chanukiyah burning
small and defiant in the foreground

and on a building across the street
the swastika's hideous slash. I put
my lights each night in my window:
tiny candles visible to anyone
driving through the condo complex.
It's not brave like the rabbi in Kiel

in 1932, though more people hate us
today than I used to imagine. Still
these little lights declare
that hatred will not destroy us.
Let's be real: no one walks past
my window in the smalltown night

so I post a photo too on Facebook
scattering holy sparks
through every browser window
proclaiming the miracle
that we're still here, that
the light of our fierce hope still shines.

 

[Originally published in Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah, published by Bayit: Building Jewish. Click through to read excerpts and download the whole collection.]


Quiet

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Twigs in December.

 

When the pandemic started, I stopped getting allergy shots. I didn't want to go into the allergist's office, and besides, back in March I thought (naïvely) that we would defeat the pandemic with a few months of everyone sheltering-in-place and stopping viral spread. By summer it became clear that this was going to last a while, and that my optimism about kicking covid-19 to the curb had been entirely unfounded. By late summer I realized that my worst allergy season was approaching.

Some people are allergic to tree pollens or bee stings. I'm allergic to dust and dust mites, the particulate matter that accrues in home heating systems, and the return to indoor weather is when my sinuses fill up with crud. So I started going to the allergist's again. My allergist's office is 45 minutes away, so every time I go for shots, I get a long stretch of driving time. These days I don't listen to the radio or even, often, to music: I just sit in the quiet, listening to the hum of my wheels on the pavement.

My condo can feel noisy during these pandemic Zoom school days. I overhear my son doing school. I overhear his teacher explaining math facts or asking social studies questions. I hear the other kids on the Zoom call. I hear the television when my son is done with homework and can watch his favorite YouTubers. I hear my son's Discord voice chat as he Minecrafts with friends from our separate houses, the safest form of socializing we know. There's solace in the quiet of my car.

Today I spent the drive down drafting an essay in my head. Several weeks ago an acquaintance on Facebook claimed that the Left hates America, and it's been a thorn in my consciousness ever since. I pondered writing an impassioned essay about my progressive values and how I love the promise of what America could yet become. I spoke out loud in the silence of my car about caring for the vulnerable, about clean air and affordable healthcare, about meaningful education, about hope for better.

And then I stopped myself. What good would that essay do? Most of you who know me already agree with me on all of these things. Anyone who thinks that I "hate America" isn't going to be swayed by anything I would write, no matter how fine my prose. Life is challenging enough: winter is beginning, the pandemic is cresting, against all odds there appears to be a coup attempt underway. Writing that essay would rile me up. Others' misunderstanding it would do so even further. To what end?

I thought of my spiritual director. I thought about quieting the soul, and about letting go of the need to have the last word. I thought about using what limited energy I have to stand up for those in need, rather than to pontificate. I thought about the quiet hills around me, and the sheen of ice on the pond, and the snowflakes drifting aimlessly in every direction. And instead of writing an essay in my head, I spoke to Shechinah in my front seat about my longings and my hopes and my fears. 


Sparkle

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This difficult December we need all the beauty and whimsy we can find. I pull the box of Chanukah things out from under my bed. Its corners bear tufts of cat fur from where the cat has been using it to scratch his back all year long. Inside are two chanukiyot made of clay. One is contemporary and blue, and the other shaped like Noah's Ark -- a gift to my son when he was born. I spread a length of tinfoil down the center of the dining table to hold them, and I add the giant wooden chanukiyah that my brother made when I became bat mitzvah. Around all of these I scatter dreidels: wooden, plastic, made of LEGO. Silver and blue tinsel drapes like bunting from the curtain rods, and shiny metallic papel picado banners adorn the living room wall, like the ones I used to see all over San Antonio at Fiesta, though these are blue and silver and they read Happy Chanukah and חג שמח. I will relish the candles' light when the time comes. The dreidels and chocolate coins all over the dining table, the sparkling garland decking our halls, make me twitch a little. They make this small condo feel cluttered and busy. I remind myself that someday my child will have outgrown the desire to spangle our home with tinsel, and I will feel wistful when this chaos is gone.


Stop and let goodness catch us

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At the start of this week's Torah portion, we read that Jacob was afraid, and his fear was constricting. He was afraid that Esau would come after him, that the mistakes he made in that relationship earlier in life would come back to harm him now. And from that place of fear he sent his family away. Torah says he was alone on the riverbank, and there, an unknown someone wrestled with him all night until dawn.

The Baal Shem Tov (d. 1760) teaches that sometimes we don't see ourselves clearly. We don't know what would actually be good for us. All we can see is our own fear, and because we're marinating in that fear, we run away. Maybe we run away from relationships, or we run away from opportunities. We run away from what would actually be good in our lives, because we're operating out of that constricted place of fear.

The Baal Shem Tov quotes Psalm 23: "Only goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life." He says: maybe that line from psalms comes to teach me that I'm trying to escape from things that are actually good for me, but I don't have the wisdom to see it. So God, when You want to give me good things -- when you want to give me blessing -- please keep pursuing me. Chase after me until You reach me.

I love this teaching. I love his point that sometimes we don't have the good sense to know what would be good in our lives, and we run away from what we actually need. And I love the image of God chasing after us with goodness. Usually I think of spiritual life as us seeking God, but he flips that on its head: maybe sometimes God is seeking us, chasing after us, trying to bring us blessing and sweetness and hope.

Maybe we're running away from a relationship that could be meaningful, but we're too afraid of having to be real with someone (or with ourselves). Maybe we're running away from a change that would be good for us, but we're too afraid of having to face what isn't working. Maybe we're running away from hope, because it's too scary to imagine letting ourselves yearn for something better than what we've got now.

In this week's Torah story, Jacob has been running away from his twin brother for most of his adult life. And he's about to have to face his brother, whom he tricked out of a birthright and a blessing, and his whole perspective is colored by his fear and his lifetime of running away. This is how his whole life has been, and he can't imagine it being anything different. He's always been Yaakov, "The Heel."

And that's when he has this encounter with the angel who blesses him with a new name, a new possibility. I've always called this the story of "Jacob wrestling with the angel," but one of my hevruta partners pointed out to me this year that the Hebrew doesn't say that. In the Hebrew, the subject and object are flipped around. Jacob didn't seek out this encounter. The angel wrestled with him.

Through the Baal Shem Tov's lens, we could say: the angel pursued him. The angel was the messenger of God chasing after him to make him grapple with his own baggage all night until morning. And after that grappling, the angel gave him a new name: Yisrael, Godwrestler. That's the name we take on as the Jewish people, the people that grapples with God, with holiness, with our sacred story... once we stop running away.

Look, running away is normal. It's human nature to get stuck in our constricted consciousness and our fears. And that's where the Besht's teaching comes in, that heartfelt request: "So God, when You want to give me good things, when You want to give me blessing, please keep pursuing me. Chase after me until You reach me." Don't give up on me, God. Chase me until You catch me and give me the sweetness I need.

What would it feel like to stop running? To face our own story, to grapple with the lived Torah of our own experience, to look closely at ourselves and our choices? To trust that what's chasing after us is actually goodness? That if we stop running, here on the banks of this river -- if we let ourselves be alone with who we've been -- God will catch up with us, goodness will catch up with us, and blessing will come?

 

Shared with gratitude to my hevre in the Bayit Besht Study Sandbox.

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat services this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Prayer, pandemic, community, change

1. Completely unprepared

Nothing in my previous rabbinic life had prepared me for standing at a significant distance from a small number of congregants and family members, wearing three kinds of PPE (an N95, a fabric mask, and a face shield), doors open to the cold air, with my laptop open on the Torah table so the community could join us via Zoom and FB Live, telling those assembled in the room that they were not allowed to sing along with me and would need to pray silently in their souls and in their hearts.

We were there to call a kid to Torah as bar mitzvah. He did beautifully: not only with his Torah reading and his d'var, but also with all of the uncertainties of this surreal year. This post isn't about him. (Though if he's reading this: mazal tov, kid, you rocked it and it was a privilege to teach you.) This post is about what it's like to serve as clergy in this pandemic time, trying to serve in circumstances we aren't -- and couldn't have -- trained for. This post is about navigating pandemic and change.

 

2. Holy at Home

When my congregation was planning for this year's Days of Awe, someone asked: would I lead prayer from the shul, with a select few people to make a minyan, while everyone else davened at home? I didn't want to do it that way, for a few reasons. One is that if we're in person, no one in the room can sing, and singing is one of the primary ways I know to open the heart and activate the soul. I especially can't imagine the Days of Awe without the heart-lifting melodies and nusach unique to that holy season. 

Another is that I lead a different service in person than online. When we're in the room together, we use a bound book. When we're on Zoom, we use a set of screenshare slides that I created explicitly for this purpose, with images and embedded video. Online I want to "lean in" and take advantage of what the technology offers us, rather than doing exactly what I would do in shul (which I think would fall flat, because we're not in shul; simply duplicating what I do there would highlight what we've lost.)

Most of all I wanted to uplift the lived experience of seeking and finding holiness in our homes. That's why I titled the machzor "Holy at Home." Because that's the work of this pandemic moment: making holiness where we are. Making community where we are, despite the physical distance between us. There is holiness in a dining table or a coffee table or a television screen with the Zoom siddur on it. When we open our hearts and souls, we can create holiness, we can create community, wherever we are.

This is the work of our moment: finding holiness and community in this pandemic-sparked diaspora from our synagogues to our homes. And yet, that paradigm doesn't quite work for a celebration of b-mitzvah. At least, not if the kid is reading from a physical Torah scroll, and if we're operating under the classical halakhic paradigm that says we need ten adult Jews in person to open said scroll. If that's our frame, in order to call a kid to Torah as a new Jewish adult we need to bring people together.

 

3. The room where it happens

The last time I had led davenen in the synagogue was for a bar mitzvah back in March. (Immediately after that Shabbat, we closed our building.) Ten people were in the room, socially distanced. We used our regular siddur, and those who were joining us on Zoom or Facebook Live did their best to follow along with the Kindle version of the book. We didn't yet know then what we know now about aerosols and ventilation, so we didn't know to prop doors open, or that singing posed an unacceptable risk.

Thank God, no one got sick after the March bar mitzvah. And all of our later-spring celebrations of b-mitzvah were postponed. Some for a full year. And one until this fall. Last spring, it seemed so clear that by fall we would have vanquished this virus and would be able to gather safely again. No one imagined seven months ago that we would be watching global cases tick upwards again now, or that anti-mask rhetoric and "plandemic" lies would facilitate the virus' spread in such horrendous ways.

But as autumn approached, it became clear that this celebration of bar mitzvah would need to be mostly Zoom-based, with only a small number of people in the room... and that we would need to take precautions we didn't know to take, last time we celebrated a kid coming-of-age like this. The doors would need to be propped open. We would all need to be masked, me triply so. And I would need to begin the morning by saying something I never imagined needing to say: friends, please don't sing.

 

4. Keeping us aloft

When I'm leading davenen in a room full of people, I'm always balancing between pouring my heart into the prayers (if I can't really feel what they mean, then I can't lead others to feel it either) and trying to attune myself to who's in the room. Are they with me, are they engaged, are they moved? Do I need to pause for a word of explanation or a moment of humor? What vocal or musical choice will draw them in and lift them up? Are they smiling, are they crying, what can I read in their bodies and faces?

When I'm leading davenen online, my screenshare siddur and screenshare machzor have built-in 'face to face' slides where I pause the screenshare  -- we wave to each other, we beam at each other, we connect through our cameras in the placeless place of our hearts' togetherness. (This is a practice that R' David Markus and I developed for the Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton in June, a weekend  focused on themes of sacred space, digital presence, and what it means to come together in community online.)

Leading "hybrid" prayer -- with most of the people on Zoom, and a few in person -- turns out to be exponentially more difficult than either leading a room full of people, or leading a streaming community in prayer. I was multiply-masked, which created a feeling of distance (and made it hard for some to hear me.) I couldn't rely on in-person cues like smiles, or how enthusiastically people were singing along, because I couldn't see their smiles and I had to instruct them to refrain from singing with me.

At the autumn bar mitzvah, the family wanted me to sing, even if no one else was allowed to. I'm pretty sure I don't have COVID-19, but I wore two masks and a face shield to protect them as best I could, just in case I'm an asymptomatic carrier. But the masks meant that it was hard for people to hear me. I felt a little bit like I was wearing a space suit. And because I had to forbid the room from singing with me at all, it felt a little bit like I was performing for them, rather than praying with them.

In rabbinic school we used to joke about services where the rabbi is the airline pilot responsible for flying the plane, and those in the pews are just passengers -- or theatre-goers, sitting back and watching a show that the rabbi puts on for them. That's not how I aspire to serve. I want everyone in the room to feel empowered to participate. Keeping us all aloft is something we do together. But I don't have the skillset to help that happen in a hybrid space where those in-person can't sing. Does anyone?

 

5. Fear

And, of course, there's anxiety. Cases of COVID-19 are rising all over the country and around the world. I'm a multiple stroke survivor with asthma and hypertension; of course I'm afraid. But I'm not only afraid for myself. I'm afraid for those whom I serve. Especially for older folks and those who are immunocompromised. And what about unwittingly spreading the virus to others? Even if I'm the only one in the room singing. I want to lift my voice to God; I don't want my voice to be a weapon.

For the bar mitzvah, we made the best choices we could. The doors were propped open and the HVAC system was turned off. The family members who were present were masked and socially distanced, and everyone else participated remotely. We printed the slides for those who were physically present, so they had the same materials in front of them as the Zoom / FB community. I think that what we did was meaningful for the bar mitzvah boy. I suspect he'll remember his pandemic bar mitzvah forever.

And I found it challenging to lead prayer under those circumstances. The emotional and spiritual split-screen experience of trying to lead prayer for a few people in the room and a lot of people remotely, with the in-person folks masked and obligated to stay silent, from behind the space-suit-helmet of a plastic shield and two masks, isn't easy. It's hard to create a meaningful experience for those in the room or at home when no one can read my lips or see my smile. And my voice quavered; I was afraid.

 

6. Next time

As I think forward to future pandemic b-mitzvah celebrations, I'm pondering bringing the Torah scroll to the b-mitzvah kid's home so they can read from it there while I, and everyone else, connect via Zoom. If I believe that telepresence is real (and I do -- or at least, I believe that it can be, if we bring our hearts and souls to it) then why would I privilege the old paradigm of gathering bodies together in a room during a global pandemic? Better to change our definition of minyan to include telepresence. 

Some will say we mustn't set that precedent. Because if telepresence is "good enough" during a pandemic, then as a community we could easily lose the habit of gathering in person at all. What's to say then that someone can't just choose to tele-daven forever, because it's more convenient than going somewhere? What does that do to the fabric of our communities? I hear that anxiety, and I honor it. And... that anxiety for the future doesn't change the steps we need to take to protect each other now

I know that when we gather a minyan from ten separate homes on Shabbes morning, I feel genuinely connected with my community even though we're not sharing a room or breathing the same air together. And I know that when I balance actual risk to people's lives against putative risk to the continuity of how our communities are accustomed to functioning, lives are more important. I believe Jewish values call us to seek to save lives, even if that means setting a paradigm shift in motion.

 

7. Building anew

If gathering ten people on Zoom from ten houses is a real minyan, then that's true whether it's "just Shabbes" or a celebration of b-mitzvah. It may not be ideal... but neither is global pandemic. I know that reading Torah from home, with immediate family / quarantine podmates in the room and everyone else on Zoom, may not be what any kid or family wants the celebration of b-mitzvah to be. And yet it may be what the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, preserving and protecting life, asks of us in this time.

I miss what some now call "the beforetimes," when we could gather together without fear of harming each other. When we could embrace or clasp hands or just be near each other without fear for ourselves, or each other, or the others with whom we are in contact. When we could lift our voices and sing in harmony. (God I miss harmony!) My soul yearns to sing in harmony with beloveds, maybe with a hug or a clasped hand. I yearn for that the way our spiritual forebears in exile yearned for Jerusalem.

And right now we're in exile from our former in-person togetherness, and we don't know how long that will last, or how exile will change the Judaism to which we yearn to return. It may be that this pandemic, or the realities of a century that may contain multiple pandemics, will change Judaism in ways we can't yet know. How do we yearn for what we used to have, and hope with all our hearts for that to be restored, while also building new structures to sustain us in what's unfolding now and new?


Prayers, poems, and artwork for Chanukah

It's not like the Temple, sullied
by improper use and then washed clean
and restored to former glory.
This house is tarnished by familiarity.
Month after pandemic month I've circled
from bed to table to sofa to bed again.
I no longer see the mezuzah
on every door frame. Tonight
with one tiny candle I light another.
I want their little flames to galvanize
my hands to consecrate each room...

That's the beginning of a poem called "Rededication," which I wrote in collaboration with the other rabbis, writers, liturgists, and artists who are part of Bayit's liturgical arts working group

You can read all of "Rededication" on page 11 of our new collection for this difficult pandemic Chanukah. (I also have another prayer-poem in that collection, about candles in windows and Zoom...)

The collection is called Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah. I think it's a really beautiful collection, and I really hope you'll click through and download the PDF.

Here you'll find new liturgy for this pandemic Chanukah, evocative poetry, and stirring artwork, intended for use by individuals and communities across and beyond the denominational spectrum.

My collaborators and fellow builders on this project are Trisha Arlin, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, R. Jennifer Singer, Devon Spier, and Steve Silbert.

Find it here on Builders Blog: Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah. (You can also find it, along with our other liturgical offerings, at Bayit's Liturgical Arts for Our Times page.)