Dark is what brings out our light

Stars-1245902_1920

These are the year's darkest days, in the northern hemisphere where I live. Every day there is a little bit less light. Sundown creeps earlier, and sunrise is later. Every day there is less daylight and more darkness. This isn't metaphor; it's literal.

I've been thinking this week of Robert Frost's poem Choose Something Like A Star. (Randall Thompson wrote a gorgeous choral setting for it, which I was blessed to sing many years ago.) Specifically, the line "Since dark is what brings out your light."

A lot of us (me included) struggle with the short days of winter at this latitude. Visual darkness seems to make everything more difficult. I think of how when I am sick, I often feel worse once night falls. Or how some children struggle with fear at night.

But Robert Frost reminds me of wisdom I keep relearning from my son: dark is what brings out the stars' light. The only reason we can see the light of the stars is that the skies are dark. We see their light because the early night has fallen around us.

When the winter nights feel dark, we can look for the stars. When our emotional lives feel dark, we can look for the stars. This is a delicate balance, because I'm not recommending spiritual bypassing or pretending that our struggles aren't real.

But what is the starlight that can glimmer through the darkness and help us feel less afraid, less alone? What are the stars by which we steer our course, what constellations of love and hope and kindness can help us orient ourselves along the way?

A congregant asked me recently why bad things happen to good people. The only answer I could give was: I have no answer. All we can do is care for one another, and love one another, and be there for one another. It may not feel like much, but it is.

In the rhythm of the year, there is this season of darkness. Some of us struggle through it. But if we keep putting one foot in front of the other, we will reach the other side -- that is the promise the calendar and the seasons hold out for us, every year.

In the rhythm of our lives, there are times of darkness. All of us will struggle. All we can do is care for one another, and love one another, and be there for one another. That's the starlight gleaming in the darkness. It may not feel like much, but it is.

 


Who we reveal ourselves to be

Post-4260-0-61624700-1481802031_thumbThis week's Torah portion, Vayigash, brings a dramatic turn in the Joseph story. After a long and twisty series of events -- beginning maybe with Joseph telling the brothers to return to Egypt and bring Benjamin, Rachel's other son, with them; or beginning maybe with the famine that brought the brothers down to Egypt in search of food; or beginning maybe when the brothers sold Joseph into slavery in the first place -- Joseph can't stand to hide from his brothers any more. 

וְלֹֽא־יָכֹ֨ל יוֹסֵ֜ף לְהִתְאַפֵּ֗ק לְכֹ֤ל הַנִּצָּבִים֙ עָלָ֔יו וַיִּקְרָ֕א הוֹצִ֥יאוּ כָל־אִ֖ישׁ מֵעָלָ֑י וְלֹא־עָ֤מַד אִישׁ֙ אִתּ֔וֹ בְּהִתְוַדַּ֥ע יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶל־אֶחָֽיו׃

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.

Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, saying "I am Joseph. Is my father still well?" They're so dumbfounded they can't answer him. So he repeats himself: I am Joseph, whom you sold into slavery. And then he reassures them: don't be distressed. God sent me here ahead of you in order to save life: to save your lives, to save our father's life, to save the life and the future of our nation. He'll say it even more explicitly later: don't worry. You thought you were doing me ill, but God meant it for good.   

The Hebrew word להתודע is a reflexive verb, meaning "to make oneself known." Joseph isn't just introducing himself -- "Hi, my name is Joseph, nice to meet you." He's making himself known. He's showing them who he really is. He's revealing something core. And what does he reveal? An apparently unshakeable faith and trust. From his current vantage, even the worst events of his life can be redeemed. He can make something good out of them. God can make something good out of them.

If I were to choose from this list of character strengths to describe Joseph, top on my list would be emunah, faith and trust (in this translation, "conviction.") He's strong in gevurah, discipline and will power. He's strong in anavah, humility. (Remember his repeated insistence that it is not he who interprets dreams, but rather God, flowing through him.) He's strong in netzach, perseverance and grit. These are the qualities I see revealed in who his life story has led him to become.

Sometimes life gives us active opportunities to make ourselves known: I feel safe with a trusted friend so I let down my guard and show the tenderest parts of who I am, or I feel the situation at hand demands that I be honest so I make the choice to speak what I truly believe. And sometimes we make ourselves known in subtler ways, maybe without even realizing that we are doing so. We make ourselves known through our actions, our deeds, our words, our tone, our priorities, our choices. 

There's so much that we can't control, including birth, family of origin dynamics, how others treat us, when and whether we struggle with illness, etc. But Joseph's story is a reminder that we can choose what qualities we want to cultivate, both in years of emotional "plenty" and in years of spiritual "famine." The qualities we choose to cultivate reveal who we are. When change or conflict or challenge offers us an opportunity to make ourselves known, who do we want to reveal ourselves to be?

 

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


Comfort

In the familiar weight of the cat
who turns in a circle on my lap, then
curls to gnaw on my belt loops.

In the smoke and salt of almonds
steeped in wasabi and soy, satisfying
and sharp on my tongue.

In the weave of my winter tallit, even
when it slips off my narrow shoulders.
In knotted fringes between my knuckles.

In the words that fly from my fingers
hanging like protective sigils
over your head, around your heart.

 


In dark times...

On Chanukah we celebrate the miracle of light – which can feel challenging when we are surrounded by so much darkness, both physically (short winter days) and spiritually by the increase of hate and oppression around the world. It’s especially challenging because the light that we each bring is so often separated from one another. Our souls are isolated, so our lights are too. Chanukah teaches us how to overcome that separation by adding light to light.

We each have our own list of the various sources of darkness in our lives, and there are many. Hate crimes are on the rise, bigotry and racism have become increasingly emboldened, we face the daily grind of struggling against more and more oppressive policies at every turn. How can we be real about the darkness without being pollyanna or pretending it doesn’t hurt people, while at the same time cultivating the inner resources we need to bring light?...

 

That's the beginning of a new piece I co-wrote with my Bayit co-founder Rabbi Mike Moskowitz and with Victoria Cook of Torah Trumps Hate, with a beautiful sketchnote from Steve Silbert, published this morning in eJewish Philanthropy. It's about Chanukah, and havdalah, and our #BeALight initiative, and why in dark times it's our job to bring light.

Read the whole thing: In Dark Times, Be A Light


Dedication

31213574017_9562b1cba0_oChanukah means "dedication." As in chanukat bayit, the ritual of blessing and dedicating a new home. Or Chanukat Bayit, the experience of rededicating The House, the home for God's presence on Earth, which was how we understood the Temple in Jerusalem in the days when it stood. Chanukah reminds us of reconsecrating that holy space long ago.

Dedication was on my mind last night as I stood with a crowd of some 40 people around the median across the street from City Hall in North Adams. (A space which I have now learned is named Dr. Arthur Rosenthal Square.) That median is home to a big City Christmas tree, and I have always admired it as I drive past. (I love Christmas lights; they brighten the dark.)

But there was something different about seeing a symbol of my own tradition there too. As of this year, the City of North Adams has a chanukiyah, a menorah for Chanukah. (Technically "menorah" denotes one with three branches on either side of the shamash or helper candle, whereas "chanukiyah" denotes one with four branches on either side, eight candles for the eight days of the holiday.) The City chanukiyah stands proudly beside the City tree, proclaiming that our little city is home to Jews as well as to Christians, and celebrating both of our winter festivals of light.

Chanukah isn't a major holiday in Jewish tradition. Sure, it's a big deal for Jewish children, many of whom receive presents at this season -- though that's clearly a response to the (secular) Christian practice of making Christmas into a gift-giving extravaganza. But our "holiday season" isn't really December, it's the lunar months of Elul and Tishrei (usually September / October on the Gregorian calendar) when we prepare for the Days of Awe and then celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. And Chanukah doesn't appear anywhere in the Hebrew scriptures. It's truly a minor festival, in the grand scheme.

But because Christmas is so omnipresent and so visible in the public sphere, it's easy for Jews in the Diaspora to feel extra-invisible at this time of year. I didn't realize how moved I would be to see a visible reminder of Jewishness in the public space of downtown North Adams until I saw the City chanukiyah lit and gleaming beside the bright and gleaming tree. At this season of (re)dedication, when we dedicate our hands and hearts to the work of making the whole world a holy place for divine Presence to dwell, it meant a lot to me to take part in dedicating a new chanukiyah for the City whose inhabitants I'm blessed to serve.

I'm deeply grateful to Mayor Tom Bernard for making this happen, and to the City buildings and grounds crew who did all of the behind-the-scenes work of setting up and installing and wiring the chanukiyah so that we could gather on the first night of Chanukah and together bring a little bit more light into the world. I'm looking forward to driving through town in the coming days, and to seeing the number of lights increase. And I'm grateful for the experience of feeling seen as a religious minority in the place where I live -- and at a season when it's all too easy for Jews to feel like we're on the outside, feeling welcomed instead.

 

Photo by Gillian Jones for the Berkshire Eagle.


Vayeshev: letting our light shine

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 10.21.46 AMAt the start of this week's parsha, Vayeshev, Joseph tells his brothers about his dreams. In one dream, their sheaves of wheat bow down to his. In another, the stars and the sun and moon (maybe a representation of the siblings and the parents) bow down to him. In both dreams, Joseph's light is shining brightly.

His brothers respond by casting him into a pit and selling him into slavery.

Sit with that for a minute. Does it sound over-the-top? Sure. But I'll bet every one of us here has had an experience of feeling attacked, or cut-down, or cast away, because we were letting our light shine too brightly for someone else's comfort.

Reading this parsha this year, I'm struck by the contrast between the brightness of Joseph's internal light, and the dark pit into which his brothers throw him. Joseph's brothers resent his light. They want to remove him from their family system because they resist and resent his light.

I don't like to think in terms of people manifesting darkness or light -- it's so binary. I want to say that we can or should seek out the spark of goodness even in people who seem to be evil. And yet we all know that darkness is real, and that it can cause harm.

It is the nature of darkness to resist and resent light -- to blame light for shining. But we have to let our light shine.

The Hasidic rabbi known as the Slonimer, writing on this week's parsha, cites a midrash that says that Jacob is fire and Joseph is flame. And fire and flame are what can burn away the forces of negativity and darkness.

He goes on to say that we each need to kindle our own inner flame. He says we do that with Torah study, and with service (service of God, service of our fellow human beings), and with holiness. Because if we keep our inner fires burning, we can counter our own yetzer ha-ra, our own evil inclination... and we can counter the forces of darkness outside of us, too.

When we enflame ourselves with Torah -- when our hearts are on fire with love of God and love of justice and love of truth -- then our fires will burn brightly no matter who wants to quench our flame. And then even if others respond to our light with negativity, as Joseph's brothers did, we'll have the inner resources to make goodness (or find goodness) even in the times when life feels dark or constricted.

It's our job to keep our inner fires burning and to shine as brightly as we can. That's what Jewish life and practice ask of us. That's what authentic spiritual life asks of us. That's what this season asks of us.

On Sunday night we'll kindle the first candle of Chanukah. We begin that festival with one tiny light in the darkness that surrounds us. But Chanukah comes to remind us that from one light will grow another, and another, and another. And when we let our light shine, we make it safe for others to let their light shine, too.

As the days grow darker, may we enflame our hearts with love of all that is good and holy, ethical and right. And may we be strengthened in our readiness to let our light shine.

 

This is the d'varling that I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Ottoman rule

Sharkey-croppedWhat sparks the writing of a book? Probably no two authors have the same answer to that question, but here's the answer I heard from Dr. Heather J. Sharkey earlier this week. Her latest book arose, she tells us, in part because she was teaching within a combined Arabic and Hebrew track. (Wow, do I wish I could have done that kind of learning as an undergrad!)

Unsurprisingly, many of her students in that dual-language track came from Jewish or Muslim backgrounds. She set out to teach a class, geared in part toward those students, on the history of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East -- which led to her latest book, which was assigned reading for my cohort of LEAP fellows.

Dr. Sharkey cited The Emergence of Modern Turkey -- Bernard Lewis, 1961 -- as one of her formative scholarly influences. She came away from her first reading of it (at nineteen) with the sense that equality between Christians, Jews, and Muslims was truly achieved in the Ottoman empire during the Tanzimat period in the 1800s. Rereading it more recently, she came to recognize that she had misread it. "He didn't say that equality happened; he said that there were proclamations of equality."

What did those proclamations of equality actually do? On what terms could and did non-Muslims actually live in an Islamic state? Her book attempts to answer those questions in a way that will work for all of her students -- Muslims, Christians, Jews, Arab-Americans, etc. "We have to be able to sit in a room and disagree even when we're coming from different positions," she noted. "I didn't want anyone, reading the book, to feel an us-versus-them or to feel that insults were being hurled."

We spent some time with The Pact of Umar -- exploring what it says, exploring how it was or wasn't enacted. On the upside, the pact indicates that Christians and Jews could continue practicing their religions; on the downside, the pact stipulates restrictions of various kinds. Part of what I found interesting is that the pact is both more liberating, and more restrictive, than I expected.  (And that may be the primary takeaway from LEAP this week: everything is more complicated than binaries allow.)

It's interesting to consider the extent to which ideas emanating from the French Revolution about citizenship and egalitarianism impacted how citizens of the Ottoman Empire thought about themselves and each other. Dr. Sharkey also noted the increase of  Christian missionary work in the Ottoman Empire during that period, which caused a deterioration of Christian-Muslim relations. And she noted that rich Jews and poor Jews experienced very different things under Ottoman rule. 

To me the most interesting part of her talk was when she reprised her remarks from the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, asking, "if Balfour had not happened and Israel had not arisen, how well could Jews have expected to live in Islamic states, judging from what came before?" She made the argument that it wasn't inevitable, in that moment, that Jews would necessarily need a state of our own. She reminded us that a hundred years prior, in 1817, there had been real hope of equality and reform.

In 1817 there was legitimate hope that the Ottoman Empire as an Islamic state could have revised its structure to truly accommodate Jews and other non-Muslims. But it never achieved the ideals of social parity that it tried to implement in the 1850s, and then the Empire came to its end. Today we have a map of Middle Eastern states that continue to identify as Islamist, and there doesn't seem to be room in those states at this time for rethinking how Muslims and non-Muslims coexist.

The best place where there is an opportunity to rethink Muslim / non-Muslim relations, she argued, is outside of that region -- e.g. someplace like the United States, where there is no official state religion, where we (aspire to) live alongside each other as equal citizens and to form friendships and partnerships as equals. Unsurprisingly, I find that vision incredibly compelling.  I don't think the United States entirely lives up to that ideal yet, but I'm hopeful that together we can aim in that direction.

 

This week was the first gathering of this year's LEAP Fellows at the Katz Center at the University of Pennsylvania; I offer this with gratitude to the Katz Foundation for making me a Katz Family Fellow.. This is the second in a pair of posts processing some of our learning. Thoughts / comments welcome.

 


Arab Jews, and complicating our binaries

Hebrew-Arabic

We've all heard the term "Judeo-Christian." (And many of us have objected to it strenuously on the grounds that it erases important distinctions between Judaism and Christianity, and that when our traditions are conflated, often Judaism is appropriated to bolster Christian values that aren't our own.) But "Judeo-Islamic" isn't in the same kind of common parlance.

According to Bernard Lewis (in his book Jews of Islam), the term "Judeo-Islamic" was never adopted either by Jews or by Muslims in Islamic lands, because neither side saw their relationship in that light. But the Jews who lived in Muslim lands manifested a distinct strand of Jewish tradition, and Jews who come from Muslim or Arabic places complicate our mental binaries between Arab and Jew.

That's part of what I took from Dr. Yuval Evri's presentation to this year's LEAP fellows (of whom I am one) at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at Penn. Each year, leading scholars of Judaic studies gather at the Katz Center to engage in research on Jewish civilization past and present... and each year, Clal invites a diverse group of rabbis to join those scholars and to (ideally) translate what we learn from them into "accessible, meaningful, and usable wisdom." 

This year, the fellowship focuses on the study of Jewish life in Muslim contexts. Our first speaker at our first session was Dr. Yuval Evri, who began by noting that Jews and Muslims have coexisted -- sometimes under Muslim majority rule, sometimes as parallel minorities  -- for centuries. He invited us to think beyond easy and simplistic narratives, both the pretty story of interfaith utopia and the ugly story of inevitable persecution, as we engage with the ideas and realities of Jews in Arab lands.

(You can glimpse his work here: Katz Center Fellow Yuval Evri on Arab Jewish Thought.)

In Ashkenazic / European-centered Jewish historiography, he pointed out, Sephardi / Mizrahi / Arab Jews are mostly ignored. When they are mentioned, it's as passive actors or bystanders. There's a problematic Eurocentrism in that lens. The underlying assumption of that approach is that Jewish modernization began in Europe, and from there spread to other parts of the Jewish world. But that's not fair or correct. It's more accurate to say that there are multiple modernities, not just the one.

Dr. Evri repeatedly used the term "Arab-Jewish."  I love the way that phrase elides, or even erases, a binarism that many of us in the European / Ashkenazic diaspora take for granted. The Ashkenazic (some would say "Ashkenormative") perspective presumes a tension between Arab and Jew, but Dr. Evri's work is a reminder that that's a false binary. And it's been a false binary for a long time. One can't study Rambam (Maimonides) properly, he noted, without knowing Arabic!

When we broke into small groups to discuss texts, my small group looked at Nissim Malul's "Our Status in the Country, or the Question of Learning Arabic," which offered a fascinating window into how one intellectual regarded the need to learn and teach Arabic to Jewish children in Ottoman Palestine in 1913, and how he regarded Arabic as a way to connect with his "brothers" in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. What a different paradigm for Jewish-Arab interaction that would have been.

There was a slide in Dr. Evri's presentation (that he didn't actually get to read when we were in session -- time was too short) that I want to excerpt for y'all, because it's such a beautiful encapsulation of the tensions his session was exploring. (This is one of the upsides of participating remotely: I had his slide deck, which meant I was able to see even the slides he didn't get to!) This is from his "Conversation with American Jew Sami Shalom Chetrit," and here's the part that really reached me:

Excuse me for prying, but I just have to ask you, are you Jewish or Arab?
I'm an Arab Jew.
You're funny.
No, I'm quite serious.
Arab Jew? I've never heard of that.
It's simple: Just the way you say you're an American Jew. Here, try to say "European Jews."
European Jews.
Now, say "Arab Jews."
You can't compare, European Jews is something else.
How come?
Because "Jew" just doesn't go with "Arab," it just doesn't go. It doesn't even sound right.
Depends on your ear.

The first speaker argues that it doesn't make sense to say "Arab Jew" because Arabs want to kill us; the second speaker retorts that the phrase "European Jew" is equally complicated because of European history of trying to kill us! I love how this piece skewers the fallacy that Arabs or Europeans maintain a single attitude toward Jews -- and the fallacy that "Jew" is any more (or less) incompatible with "Arab" than with "European." (Also the dig at American Jews not knowing that Arab Jews exist.)

Dr. Evri made the point that for Arab Jews, both historically and today, the divisions we're accustomed to presuming -- Zionist vs. anti-Zionist, Arab vs. Jew, East vs. West -- don't necessarily apply. In one sense this is kind of Jewish diversity 101 (of course Arab Jews exist, and of course these binaries are limited!) At the same time, his talk gave me an opportunity to ponder: given the existence of Arab Jews (historical and current) who shatter that binary, why are we still working with that binary at all?

 

This week was the first gathering of this year's LEAP Fellows at the Katz Center at the University of Pennsylvania; I offer this with gratitude to the Katz Foundation for making me a Katz Family Fellow. This is the first in a pair of posts processing some of our learning. Thoughts / comments welcome.

 


Enough, just as we are

EnoughMany of us struggle at this time of year. In the northern hemisphere the days are growing shorter and darker. Even one who doesn't have an official diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder can feel the effects of the season. There's also the dominant culture and its pressure to consume (Black Friday! Cyber Monday! Sales that try to convince us we desperately need things we didn't even know we wanted!)  -- and the dominant culture's pressure to conform to a particular secularist-Christian vision of December, in which we're expected to perform merriness as we overspend to show our love for each other. 

Holiday times are challenging. They offer annual benchmarks: what was life like at Thanksgiving last year? Is it getting better or has it gotten worse? Does my life feel the way I want it to? Are my relationships working the way I want them to? It's easy to give in to the temptation to compare one's life with what one sees on Facebook -- forgetting that for many people, Facebook is a place to show a carefully-curated slideshow of only the best parts of one's life. It's so easy to compare one's own life (with the frustrations, dissatisfactions, and griefs we know intimately and well) with what we imagine everyone else's life to be.

Thank God: here comes Chanukah. Granted, for my nine-year-old Chanukah has a lot to do with LEGOs and board games. For him Chanukah means presents -- and spinning a dreidel, eating chocolate coins, and playing the dreidel song on the piano. But as he grows up, I hope he'll also learn that Chanukah is also about the miracle of enoughness. It's about discovering that what we have -- that what we are -- is enough. It's about light in the darkness, and taking action to make our sacred places holy again... and now that the Temple is no more, it's our job to make the entire world into a holy place filled with the presence of God.

Chanukah is about the leap of faith that says we have the inner spiritual resources to brighten even the darkest moments. Chanukah is about starting with one tiny flame, and cultivating that light so that over time it can grow. Chanukah is about pirsumei nes, publicizing the miracle -- letting our light shine, letting our hope shine, without shame or embarrassment or fear. Chanukah is about affirming that there is a source of light and hope even in the darkest times, and that we too can be a source of light and hope for each other. Chanukah is about (re)discovering that we are enough, exactly as we are.


Bricolage

32102382268_8605a8377a_zSometimes online conversation spaces feel like an overcrowded room. A vast arena, people jostling to be heard. The floor of the New York Stock Exchange, complete with yelling. A stockyard full of lowing cattle, hooves pounding the ground beneath into a churning mass of mud. 

The proliferation of words stoppers my tongue. I don't want to argue about whether it's good to find common cause with those with whom we also sometimes disagree. I don't want to bluster my opponents into submission. The arguments don't feel to me like they're for the sake of heaven.

I dream of silence and niggun. I dream of the long fade after a Tibetan singing bowl is gently struck. I dream of dismantling old texts and gluing them back together. I dream of erasure poems, working in white fire. I dream of blanketing the constant stream of argument with a duvet of snow. 

Sometimes things need to break before they can be repaired. Are we broken enough to begin our own repairing? Wake me when it's time to take up tools and start building. Wake me when it's time to stitch pieces together, to add gold dust to glue and make our cracked and broken places gleam. 


Guest post: Allyship As Spiritual Practice

This guest post is from Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, my fellow co-founder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home, and his CBST colleague Rabbi Yael Rapport. It features some of the amazing Torah of allyship that R' Mike was teaching when he visited North Adams and Williamstown last month. I'm delighted to be able to share it here, especially on Transgender Day of Remembrance as I recommit myself to being a good ally to my trans friends, loved ones, and congregants. - Rachel


 

TeachingTolerance_TT53_Anatomy of an Ally_1800px

Recently, nearly 70% of Massachusetts voted YES on ballot initiative 3, protecting the rights of transfolks against discrimination. This tremendous display of support was brought about by the tireless efforts of transfolks, activists, advocates, and allies. Now that this clear action item has been achieved, we must again ask ourselves: now what? How can we continue to strengthen our sense of communal responsibility, advanced through our quest for inclusivity and human dignity? We witnessed what a powerful result was achieved through the spiritual exercise of networking our resources or "allying up." This is a responsibility that Judaism demands as continual practice, independent of the stakes, high or low.

Our Jewish tradition has embedded within it a deep notion of what it means to be an ally, although the language is not commonly known. Judaism’s perspective provides a new framework for this ancient concept. The word "ally" comes from the Latin alligare, bind together. In rabbinic Hebrew, the best term is chaver / חבר, a word whose most common translation is “friend”. How might our understanding of what it means to be an ally evolve if seen through this interpretive lens?

We find in the Talmud that the word “chaver” has additionally expanded meanings: things connected to the earth are called “mechuver l’karka” and an author is a “m’chaver.” What is the linguistic connection between these three forms of the same word? Our rabbis teach that the word “chaver,” at its core, means to attach, whether it is to share the burden with another person, to connect two physical objects, or to manifest thoughts to words and paper.

The mishnah teaches us “k’neh l’cha chaver/acquire for yourself a friend”. Perhaps we should understand this directive as a charge to attach ourselves to those who could use support from isolation and marginalization. This is for our benefit; we shouldn’t live uninvested in the struggle of another.

It’s often hard to stand up for what we believe in, especially when the dominant culture acts in opposition. The Hebrew letter “ו”, grammatically known as the vav hachebor, the vav that attaches, literally models standing up, as the most vertical letter in the Hebrew alphabet. It’s shape also embodies a hook and is found in the construction of the Tabernacle - the “vavei hamishkan”, the hooks that would connect the curtains to the pillars. In Hebrew grammar it serves the same connective purpose, as the conjunction “and.”

In the mystical tradition, the Genesis narrative speaks to the creative power of Hebrew letters. The Hebrew alphabet itself is said to be the building material for creation. Exploring applications of the letter vav provides enduring modalities for connectivity and allyship illustrated by the function of the vav in scriptural sources. By examining the ways in which the vav is used to connect, in Hebrew grammar, the insights of the Torah can provide new outlooks on how best to parallel our own actions in allyship.

Continue reading "Guest post: Allyship As Spiritual Practice" »


Eden Speaks

I understand now why you had to leave.
Your souls are honed, refined, the more you search
for meaning and connection. Here with me
humanity's the only thing that couldn't

grow. But did God ever stop to think
how much I'd miss your sweetness once you left?
How lonely I would feel, remembering
your laughter and your song? It's true, sometimes

you visit on Shabbat a little while.
But mostly you forget my roses' scent.
No one comes to taste my flowing spring.

Still, a drop of hope moistens my earth
and nurtures blossoms waiting to burst free
the moment when you knock upon my gates.

 


 

I'm not sure what sparked the idea of writing a poem in the voice of the Garden of Eden.

This poem draws on Zoharic images of Shechinah (the immanent / indwelling / feminine Presence of God) -- the rose garden, the flowing spring in the middle of Eden. Also on the idea that Shabbat is a "foretaste of the world to come," a taste of Eden, when we allow it to be.

One way of understanding our exile from Eden is that it is a necessary component to the birth of human consciousness -- that when we ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we became capable of growth and change. Still, I'm struck by the idea of Eden missing our presence and our touch, which had not occurred to me until I started working on this poem.


Grief and comfort

There's a feeling that sometimes comes with grief: how can the world be functioning normally when I am feeling this?

I've heard it from others many times. I've felt it myself many times, too. How can the world just keep turning, how can everyone around me just keep doing their normal things, when I am carrying this sadness in my chest? What do you mean, grocery store checkout lines and traffic and airline delays and after-school activities are all exactly as they were before? Why isn't the world around me showing some recognition of the fact that I feel as though there is a black hole of grief occupying my heart?

Maybe that grief comes from something on the national scene: the unspeakable losses of the wildfires in California, or the seemingly endless onslaught of mass shootings and the fear that no trauma will be severe enough to change our nation's policies around guns. Or maybe it comes from something closer to home: a marriage coming apart at the seams, a loved one who is sick and will not get well, a beloved whose suffering cannot be balmed. There's a sense of injustice: it's not fair. This shouldn't be.

Suffering raises questions of theodicy: how could a God Who is good and just allow suffering? These are some of the oldest religious questions we have. They're also evergreen: after the Pittsburgh shooting my eight-year-old asked me that question. Spend time with Jewish sacred texts, from the Tanakh (Hebrew scriptures) to Hasidut (18th century mystical-devotional texts) to 20th century postwar philosophy, and you'll see a variety of answers. Sometimes none of them satisfy the aching heart.

I told my son that God gives us free will, which means we can choose -- including choosing to harm. But it also means we can choose to care for each other. Of course, some of what we suffer seems simply built in to the fabric of human life, like illness. Sometimes someone falls ill and cannot be healed. And that hurts. I think it's supposed to: the hurt we feel is proportional to our love for the person who is ill. Sometimes loving someone means hurting for them and with them. Compassion: suffering-with.

I also told him that I believe that when we weep, God weeps with us. (Of course this is metaphor, but all of our language about God is metaphor. Kids have an easy fluency with metaphor that adults sometimes lose.) This is (some of) what our mystics mean when they speak of Shechinah going into exile with us, weeping for Her children. Loneliness, betrayal, injustice, sickness, suffering: all of these are exile. God accompanies us in these human griefs, and puts Her arm around us, and cries too.

When someone is sick and won't get well, or when a mass shooting cuts lives short -- there is no magic spell that will lift these griefs and injustices from the world. (One Jewish understanding of moshiach, "the messiah" or "the coming of the messianic age," is the emergence of a time when injustice and human suffering will be no more. We're not there yet.) But we can feel with each other and weep with each other -- as God, the One Who Accompanies, feels and weeps with each of us.

In the throes of grief, sometimes there is no comfort. All we can do is accompany each other. But in time, we grow new skin over the open wound. In time, we can hope to find gratitude even in our grief. As we mourn a loss, we may also feel gladness: how glad I am to have had that relationship, even if it's now over. How glad I am to have known this beloved, even if they are now gone. This happens, if it happens, in its own time -- it can't be rushed. But it is my hope for all who grieve.

That's maybe more plausible for intimate griefs: the loss of a relationship, the loss of a loved one. When it comes to public griefs like a mass shooting, our grief can (must) spur us to build a safer and more just world. But whether the grief is personal or national, it may not be linear. Give yourself the time you need to feel, and to recover -- which may happen more than once, and may not happen in the order you expect. May we all feel, and be, accompanied in our grief, and as we heal and begin again.


As Cheshvan draws toward its close

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It's the day after the midterm elections. It feels a little bit like the day after all of the fall holidays are complete. 

I always come out of the high holiday season feeling some combination of exhilarated and grateful, and exhausted and tapped-out. Many rabbis I know joke that our favorite month is Cheshvan, the empty month that follows the intense round of festivals. We need the downtime (both practical and spiritual) after the Days of Awe, which can feel high-stakes both spiritually (it's arguably the most spiritually intensive season of our year) and practically (because many of us who serve bricks-and-mortar congregations rely on this season for the donations that allow us to keep our doors open and to continue to serve.)

But this year, Cheshvan has not offered the respite I yearn for. This year Cheshvan has included horrific antisemitic attacks, from pipe bombs and their accompanying antisemitic dogwhistles to the horrific Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. And Cheshvan has also included the tense and intense ramp-up to the midterm elections. Yesterday I saw someone observe on Twitter that it felt like the entire nation was waiting for the results of a biopsy. That feels apt to me. And as anyone who's ever anxiously waited for test results knows, that immersion in anxiety is the opposite of restorative or restful. 

Now at least the waiting for results is over. If the "patient" in question is our democracy, last night I think we learned that the prognosis isn't as bad as some of us had feared. Indeed there are many reasons to feel hope, including unprecedented voter turnout, the preservation of trans rights in my own home state, the election of many remarkable progressive women of color to Congress, and many "firsts" that are worth celebrating, like the first Muslim American women in Congress, and the first Native American women in Congress, and the first openly gay governor in the nation. 

And we also learned that we still have an awful lot of work to do before this patient can be declared healthy again. Voter disenfranchisement was rampant, perhaps most notably in Georgia. Nazi sympathizers have been re-elected to serve in our nation's government. Ugly anti-immigrant rhetoric seems to be working in some quarters, and that reality is deeply upsetting.

How do we balance our hope and our fear? How do we celebrate the very real accomplishments achieved by the tireless work of countless volunteers, while acknowledging how far we have to go before our nation is the bastion of welcome and diversity that we aspire to be? At the same time that I'm asking that national question, I'm also grappling with this jewish one: how do we celebrate the very real embrace of our non-Jewish friends and neighbors during this time of trauma, while acknowledging how far we have to go before antisemitism and white supremacy and white nationalism are a thing of the past?

I think again of the story of R' Simcha Bunim and his two slips of paper: "for my sake was the world created" and "I am but dust and ashes." The work of authentic spiritual life is learning how to hold these two truths simultaneously. Learning how to cultivate real gratitude and joy without falling prey to the danger of spiritual bypassing. Learning how to feel real grief and fear without falling prey to the danger of despair. How to feel these two opposites without blurring them into an amorphous middle that partakes neither in the grief of knowing how far we have to go nor in the joy of recognizing how far we've come.

I've seen many wise people point out that our work today is the same as our work every day: repairing the broken world. Being a light in the darkness. Working tirelessly to combat injustice and bigotry. That's our job as human beings and as Jews. It was our job before the midterm elections, and it is our job after the midterm elections. I agree with that wholeheartedly. And -- the month of Cheshvan is my annual reminder that we also need to give ourselves time to rest, and time to feel our feelings, especially in the aftermath of something that's taken up so much of our time, energy, attention, anxiety, and hope.

The work of rebuilding our nation into a place of liberty and justice for all isn't over. Yesterday was a big day, and today we may be feeling tapped-out. It's okay to take some time to decompress and to just be. And when we can muster the strength to begin again, it's our job to start working again at redeeming our broken world and our broken society. True on a national level, true on an individual spiritual level. The work of authentic spiritual life isn't over, either. It's okay to feel tapped-out right now. And when we can muster the strength to begin again, it's our job to once again take up the inner work of teshuvah.

The work isn't over. The world isn't yet redeemed. But we can pause to take stock of what we've accomplished, and we can allow ourselves space to feel both our anxieties about the path ahead and our exultation at every newly-rekindled spark of hope.  For now, it's the end of Cheshvan. It's the end of an election cycle. Here where I live most of the leaves have fallen. It's too soon to know what they will mulch and fertilize in months to come. For now, maybe it's time to embrace the feeling of going fallow, and to trust that in time with the work of our hands and hearts new growth will come.


Graffiti love-in

When I arrived at my shul on Shabbat morning, it was covered with graffiti. Not the kind of hateful graffiti that's been cropping up at synagogues around the nation in recent days: rather, signs, cards, and messages of love and support from our non-Jewish neighbors. 

I had advance notice of the "graffiti love-in." (The organizers checked with me to make sure their plan was okay.) But even so, when I arrived at shul on Shabbat morning and found what they had done, I couldn't help weeping tears of gratitude.

Here's what I wrote about it for The Forward: Our Neighbors Graffitied Our Synagogue -- With Love.

I'm enclosing some photos below.

It's easy to pay attention to the acts of horror and trauma and hatred that are sweeping our nation. But I hope you'll also pay attention to this act of spontaneous love, support and care. 

 

(You can glimpse the artists at work in this photo album at the Berkshire Eagle... and I hope you'll read my piece for the Forward, too.)