Reading Eikev through the lens of covid-19

6a00d8341c019953ef0240a4ce9b56200dI made it three verses into this week's Torah portion, Eikev, before being brought up short:

"And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully... God will ward off from you all sickness..." (Deut. 7:12, 15)

My first thought was: wow, that verse has not aged well in this coronavirus moment. As we watch illness ravage the nation like a wildfire, the promise of health and safety feels off-key. Or at least, the connection between doing mitzvot and being healthy feels off-key, because it suggests that someone who falls ill is somehow wicked, or is not following Torah's instructions for spiritual and ethical living.

And then I thought: there's another way to read these verses.

This isn't about whether or not a single individual does what's right. We all know that it's possible to lead a spiritual and ethical life, rich with mitzvot, and still fall ill. And we all know that it's possible to do all the right things in this pandemic -- washing our hands, wearing our masks, socially-distancing and staying home -- and yet still be at risk of falling ill if someone carrying the virus coughs on us.

But what if Torah is trying this week to teach us that what matters is for the collective to do what's right? For the community to pull together and together commit to following the best practices that science and authentic spiritual life can offer us... not (only) for our own sakes but also for the sake of others who may be older, or medically vulnerable, or living with preexisting conditions that put us at greater risk?

"When we obey these mitzvot and observe them carefully," that's how God protects us from sickness, acting through us in the ways we care for each other. It's not a guarantee that no one will get sick -- nothing can offer that guarantee -- but it's what's in our hands to do. As we sometimes sing on Friday nights, "Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices." Ours are God's hands, and this moment calls us to turn our hands toward keeping each other safe. 

"And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully..." The classical tradition links this back to Exodus 15, where God similarly tells us that if we follow the mitzvot and do all the right things, then God won't plague us with the unnatural illnesses that the tradition sees as divine punishment. "Ki ani YHVH rofecha," says Torah (Ex. 15:26) -- "For I am YHVH your Healer."

One way to understand that is as a lesson about the interconnectedness of all things, and how our choices have collective impact. If we don't take care of the planet's fragile environment, then the conditions will be right for newer and more terrible illnesses to arise and spread. But if we do what's right by our planet, then we protect ourselves and each other from that terrible outcome.

This too feels to me like a teaching about our responsibility to each other and to the whole of which we are a part. When we act in ways that take care of our planet, when we act in ways that take care of each other and protect each others' health, we are embodying the aspect of God that we call Healer.

It's poignant to read these verses on the runway to the Days of Awe. Usually at this season we're preparing for our community's biggest in-person gatherings of the year. This year's Days of Awe will be different. Our challenge this year is to make our homes into sacred space, and to find community connections in each others' presence over Zoom, as we protect each other by staying physically apart. 

I know that for some of us, the prospect of Zoom-based High Holidays feels like a loss. Maybe we can't imagine how it will work. Or we're tired of Zoom and wish life could go back to normal. Or we're afraid it won't feel meaningful and real the way we want it to. Those feelings of loss are real, and I honor them. (I even share them.) And... I believe that these are the mitzvot the current moment asks of us.

This moment asks us to practice the mitzvah of masking, the mitzvah of social distancing, the mitzvah of gathering over Zoom.  So that we can keep covid-19 out of our beloved community, and in so doing, can hasten the day when we will all be able to gather safely in person again, here and everywhere.

 

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

 


Comfort

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I spent my Shabbat Nachamu making dilly beans. 

Dilly beans are pickled green beans. And they are not a food of my childhood. I didn't grow up eating home-canned vegetables. My parents were not people who gardened -- I suspect they were grateful not to need to preserve their own food. But my dad has always loved pickles. I remember joining him in devouring pickled green tomatoes from the big Batampte jar, cut into quarters on plain white plates. And with him I enjoyed sour dill pickles, and half sour dill pickles, as one might find at a New York City Jewish deli. And spicy pickled okra as an hors d'oeuvre (I think it's a Texas thing).

When I became a member at Caretaker Farm in 1995, I started learning how to put away food for winter.  During the years of my marriage, we put up jars of sugarfree strawberry jam; we pickled green beans and brussels sprouts. When we had a kid, our capacity to do those things diminished, and we stopped canning and preserving for a while. And when I moved out of my old house and my married life, I didn't take the canning kettle or rack for jars. My condo kitchen is tiny, and I couldn't imagine pickling here. Besides, I hadn't made time to preserve food since my kid was born.

Fast-forward to this terrible pandemic year. In the early spring when we were on lockdown, there were unprecedented grocery shortages. I know it's a sign of my privilege that I had never before lived in a world in which I might go to the store and not be certain what I would find. Would they have pasta for my son this week? What vegetables would there be? How about proteins -- chicken thighs, or fish, or even dried beans? All of those ran short in the spring. (Not to mention bread flour and yeast, both necessities for the soft challah I make every Friday to bless and eat at Shabbat.)

It put me in mind of my trip to Cuba last fall.  I remember marveling at the food we ate in Cuba (which was excellent), knowing that food shortages afflicted the island even then. (My heart breaks knowing what kinds of shortages my Cuban Jewish cousins are experiencing now.) I couldn't have imagined then that a global pandemic would weaken the just-in-time global supply lines on which American grocery store abundance depends. These days the grocery stores mostly have most things most of the time, though some items are still hard to find. But when fall comes, who knows...

Here we are in high summer -- my favorite season of the year, all lush and green. And I can't help bracing for the winter, knowing the likelihood that the pandemic will surge again when flu season arrives and when we're all confined to poorly-ventilated indoor spaces. I'm always a bit fearful of the oncoming winter. Seasonal Affective Disorder hits me every year, even when I do all the right things. This year I am extra-afraid, because I imagine that winter will mean not only long dark nights and bitter cold but also lockdown again, and shortages again, and rising death rates again, and loneliness. 

This morning I went to Caretaker with my son to get this week's vegetables. As I bent to the green bean rows and lifted each plant to scan for beans, I breathed the scent of clean dirt and greenery through my soft fabric mask. Remembering the indigenous wisdom in Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass (which I've read several times) I pressed my palms to the earth and murmured a thank-you to the soil, the plants, the careful loving farmers, and the whole web of life that makes it possible for me to pluck these vibrant, beautiful beans from their runners and bring them home.

Many Jews wouldn't pick on Shabbat, because on this day we avoid the 39 melachot, the labors involved in the building of the Mishkan, God's dwelling place so long ago. I follow a teaching from Reb Zalman z"l that holds that if gardening is one's day job, then one shouldn't do it on Shabbat. But if gardening feeds one's soul, then perhaps it is precisely the thing to do on this holiest of days. (I've written about this teaching before.) I know no holier ground than Caretaker Farm. It is a place of learning, and sustenance, and community. I am always grateful that it is a place I get to call home.

In the end I picked five perfect pint jars full, with their ends saved for some recipe this week, maybe the Valencian paella I like to make with chicken thighs and white beans and green beans and smoked paprika (thanks, Milk Street). I rigged an approximation of a canning setup, rings at the bottom of my soup pot to hold the jars above the bottom. I peeled garlic, and tore dill, and measured mustard seeds and red pepper flakes. I packed the jars with beans and seasonings and hot brine and I simmered them for five minutes, mopping up hot water when it splashed all over the stove.

Then I listened for the tiny satisfying pop! of each lid sealing as the jars cool down. (So far four out of the five jars have sealed. I'm waiting for the fifth, which still makes a clicking sound when I press on the lid. If it doesn't seal, I'll declare that jar refrigerator pickles instead.) It's not a big harvest. I couldn't have managed a big harvest in my little kitchen anyway. But it's five jars of vibrant summer green. A little bit of bounty, saved against the winter that is coming. A little bit of beauty, saved against the winter that is coming. That's balm for my worried heart, and solace for my grateful soul.

And that brings me back to Shabbat Nachamu. That's the name given to this Shabbat, the first Shabbat after Tisha b'Av. It's the first of seven Shabbatot of Consolation as we count the 49 days between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. It's named after the first word of the haftarah read on this day: "Comfort!" Bring comfort, give comfort, offer comfort -- that's God's command. There are griefs that cannot be comforted. But in this moment, I take comfort in the bounty of this place. And I take comfort in knowing that whatever this winter may hold, I will be ready as I can be.

 


Megillat Covid at Builders Blog

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One of the things we do at Bayit is share curated resources and spiritual tools for "building Jewish." Our latest is Megillat Covid -- a collection of five offerings for Tisha b'Av, written in and for this time of pandemic.

Megillat Covid comprises five readings / prayers / variations on Eicha (Lamentations). One was written by me, one by Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz who is the editor of the CCAR Press, one by liturgist and poet devon spier, one by liturgist and poet Trisha Arlin, and one by my fellow Bayit co-founder Rabbi Evan Krame. Each looks at Lamentations and at the pandemic through its own unique lens, and I am honestly humbled and moved to be able to curate such a meaningful resource in this moment. 

Here's an excerpt from each of our five pieces; you can click through to Builders Blog to read each of our poems in full.

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Crying Out by R’ Rachel Barenblat draws on images from the pandemic and asks the question: who will we be when the pandemic is gone? Here is a brief excerpt (you can read the whole piece in the PDF file at Builders Blog):

Lonely sits the city once great with people —
her subways now empty, her classrooms closed.
Refrigerator trucks await the bodies of the dead
wrapped in sheets of plastic and stacked like logs.
Mourners keep a painful distance, unable to embrace…

Along the Lines of Lamentations by R’ Sonja K. Pilz is similar to a cento (a poem that repurposes lines from another poem), as it consists primarily of quotations from Eicha, re-contextualized by their juxtaposition and by this pandemic season. Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF at Builders Blog):

We were laid waste (2:5).
We were stripped liked a garden;
Ended have Shabbat and festivals (2:6).
Our gates have sunk into the ground (2:9).
Elders sit silently;
Women bow their heads to the ground (2:10).
My eyes are spent;
My being melts away (2:11)….

Jeremiahs without a jeremiad by devon spier offers fragmented lines evoking our fragmented hearts in this time of pandemic. About her contribution, devon writes:

To be used to cultivate an embodied COVID megillah reading that honours the fall of Jerusalem and the ebb and flow of our bodies in the months of the Coronavirus and related social distancing. 

To honour that for those of us with pre-existing conditions (our own frail, flimsy, fabulous humanness, our addictions, chronic health issues, years of unfelt griefs suddenly flung to the surface…each of these), we can wrap our whole selves in the scroll of this weeping day. And we can arrive, just as we are.

I would frame this as a kavannah as lines of ketuvim (lines of poetical post-exilic writings) the speaker can read before beginning chanting to set an intention. Or, the lines of this work could also be read throughout the chanting, as the verses I cite appear throughout the first chapter of Eicha. 

‘V’ha-ikar…” and the essence: Pause for the moments you feel the most human. Feel. And insert the words of this piece exactly where you are. From the lines of this intention and a gentle remembrance on this solemn day where we still face ourselves, our ancestors, our communities and each other, in and beyond, always, with hope: “Jerusalem is me is you.”

Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF at Builders Blog):

lamentations
for those with pages
of unwritten loss
lamenting
Jerusalem
and everything else
they never had
but Are
somehow
we are…

Alas by Trisha Arlin evokes the full journey of Eicha, from weeping for the city in distress to remembrance and the promise of change. Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF at Builders Blog):

…Eating, Sleeping, Walking
Alone
TV, Facebook, Prayer
Alone
Coughing, Crying, Dying
Alone

Alas, loneliness!
I am so frightened.
I weep and who will hear me?…

Remember by Rabbi Evan Krame evokes the end of Lamentations, beseeching God to remember us and to let us return. Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF below):

God! Remember what we had? Consider and see our situation!
Our future went to strangers, our houses no refuge.
We are like orphans, without a leader, our mothers worry like widows…

Read the whole thing here: Megillat Covid at Builders Blog.


Who's to blame?

Depositphotos_5078728_original-300x336"These are the words that Moshe addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan..." (Deuteronomy 1:1)

The book of Deuteronomy is in large part a retelling of everything that happened during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. It's Moshe's farewell speech. Before they cross the river into the Land of Promise, he reminds them where they've been and what they've done.

And notably, in Moshe's retelling, everything becomes the Israelites' fault. Even God's decision that Moshe will not enter the Land of Promise. Remember that the first time we read that story, God said that because Moshe struck the rock instead of speaking to it gently, he would not enter the Land. God didn't say anything about blaming it on the children of Israel -- but that's how Moshe retells it.

Now, we could have a whole conversation about what the striking-the-rock thing means, and whether it's fair, and how we understand it. But what really jumps out at me this year is how, in the retelling, Moshe blames his situation on the Israelites for being quarrelsome and for having insufficient faith in God. He places all the blame on someone else.

This Shabbat -- the one right before Tisha b'Av, our communal day of mourning -- is called Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat of Vision. It invites us to turn our vision inward. To notice how we retell the stories of our lives, and where we elide responsibility. It's a very human thing to do. It's normal. Even Moshe does it, in this week's parsha. And... it's a pattern we need to break.

Where do we fall into the trap of blaming others? Do we look at our body politic and blame those who voted for the "other side," or those who didn't vote at all? Or closer to home: where our family systems might have some dysfunction, do we blame it on the other members of the family without looking at how our own actions contribute to recurring patterns? 

That's normal. It's human. And I believe that authentic spiritual life asks us to do better. It asks us to take responsibility.

Rabbi Alan Lew z"l teaches that the journey of teshuvah -- of repentance and return -- begins with the low point of Tisha b'Av. Then the updraft of this spiritual work carries us through the Days of Awe and into who we'll be in the year to come. He teaches that every year the seasonal calendar calls us to face our unconscious patterns and the recurring issue in our lives.

On Tisha b'Av we remember the fall of the Temples. Rabbi Lew points out that in a historical sense, the Temples fell because of massive military might -- first Babylon, then Rome. But our spiritual tradition ignores that.

Our spiritual tradition teaches that the first Temple fell because of idolatry, sexual immorality (which I understand as unethical boundary-crossing), and bloodshed, and the second Temple fell because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. These teachings ask us to take responsibility for our part in what happens to us. It asks us to take responsibility for what happens to our community.

I have a lot of empathy for Moses. He's been leading the children of Israel through the wilderness for forty years, and they've often been ungrateful and quarrelsome and afraid. I have empathy... and I wonder what would have happened if he'd retold their story in a way that recognized the community's struggles and took responsibility for his part in their imperfect situation. If instead of saying, "I don't take responsibility at all," he'd emphasized that we're all responsible for how our community functions, how might Torah's story have been different?

And what happens if we tell our story that way? If we tell the story of our community -- our shul, our county, our nation, our world -- with the assumption that we all take responsibility? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z"l taught that "one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."

May this Shabbat Hazon move us to see our responsibility for each other, and with that vision, to build a better world.

This is the d'varling I offered at Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat services this Friday night. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Approaching Tisha b'Av in a year that feels like Tisha b'Av all the time

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Tisha b'Av, Jewish tradition's communal day of mourning, is coming soon.

It usually feels disjunctive to take Tisha b'Av's deep dive into grief and exile in the midst of the summer, the season I love most in the year. Many years it takes some intention and some spiritual work to connect with loss and destruction at this time of year. But this year is different. This whole pandemic year feels to me like Tisha b'Av.

On Tisha b'Av we mourn brokenness on a spiritual level: tradition says this is the date when Moses shattered the first set of tablets of covenant, enraged by the people's worship of the golden calf. We mourn brokenness on a historical level: on this date the first Temple was destroyed by Babylon, and the second Temple was destroyed by Rome, and the Crusades began, and the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto, and other tragedies besides. And we mourn brokenness in our own day: including, this year, the profound suffering caused by coronavirus... refracted through human prejudices that have enabled over 145,000 deaths in our nation alone, most of them people of color, and 618,000 deaths around the world.

That's so far, as of this writing. Those numbers will continue to grow.

I wrote to my synagogue community this year that "the fall of the Temples may feel like ancient history -- but with our beloved building closed, we may feel a new resonance with our ancestors who could no longer gather together in prayer. The hatreds that led to our many historical traumas may feel like ancient history -- but prejudice, including antisemitism and racism, still festers. There is so much to mourn. And tradition regards this day of mourning as the springboard into the spiritual uplift of the journey through the Days of Awe. We have to feel what's broken in order to rise up from it..."

This year we'll observe Tisha b'Av at my shul in two ways. On the eve of Tisha b'Av we'll gather -- socially-distanced and masked -- at the labyrinth outside of the closed synagogue building. In silent meditation we'll walk the labyrinth, slowly, allowing ourselves to feel the grief that comes with our building being closed and our community being scattered to our separate homes for safety's sake. Because the pandemic renders singing in person unsafe, we'll hear a recording of Eicha (Lamentations) as we walk in silence. The psalmist asked how he could sing God's song in a strange land, but in this pandemic moment we can't sing together at all. It's another loss in a year of so many losses, and it's one that hits me personally in a painful way.

And late in the day on Tisha b'Av, we'll gather over Zoom for a conversation about racial justice. Tradition says that moshiach -- the messiah, or the transformative energy of hope -- will enter the world on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av. On the year's darkest day, the seeds of hope for change begin to sprout. We'll connect with that energy by coming together on Zoom to discuss a pair of NPR interviews from On Being with Krista Tippett (one with Resmaa Menakem, one with Resmaa Menakem and Robin DiAngelo) that folks can listen to in advance. And we'll talk about the work of teshuvah (repentance / repair) and the spiritual work that dismantling racism calls us to do. 

I'm finding it difficult to face Tisha b'Av this year, in part because every time I read the newspaper feels like Tisha b'Av. There's mourning and grief and loss everywhere I look. Hospitals over-filled. Not enough respirators or PPE. The covid-19 pandemic spreading like wildfire. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and so many more. Increased awareness (among white people like me) of racism and how horrific and insidious it is. The realities that the pandemic disproportionately kills people of color and that police disproportionately kill people of color and that our world is set up to disproportionately kill people of color and that in my own unconscious racism I have been content to ignore those things.

What I take from the teaching that moshiach is born late in the day on Tisha b'Av is that in our time of greatest grief we can (we must) find seeds of transformation. We have to find the seeds of something better in this awful year, and we need to water them and uplift them and bring them to fruition. In that second On Being episode I linked above, Krista Tippett cites John Lewis z"l (may his memory be a blessing) and his idea that we need to work with what is, even as we hold in our hearts the dream of the "as-if," the world repaired, the world we want to be working toward. We have to work with what is, to be with what is, to learn about what is, and be working with toward a world repaired. A world redeemed. A world no longer broken as it is now.

It's almost unimaginable. But we have to imagine it. We have to work toward it. And the first step is resisting the impulse to turn away, resisting the impulse toward spiritual bypassing, and letting ourselves feel everything that hurts. It's Av: our time to mourn...and then our time to begin to rebuild.

 

Image: Destruction of the Temple by Francisco Hayez, overlaid with a mass covid-19 gravesite.


Wake up: change is coming

Promise

"...If a man makes a vow to God or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips..." (Numbers 30:3)

It's like clockwork: every year we reach these verses at the start of Matot-Masei precisely as my high holiday preparations kick into high gear. It's July. It's summer. I want to be in the moment, not nine weeks from now. Because you know what's exactly nine weeks from now? Rosh Hashanah.

And every year I spend all winter craving summer's long light and vibrant blooms and exquisite produce and gentle warmth. I don't want to rush ahead to the holidays or to fall or to school. And wow, that feels especially true during this pandemic year.

And yet.

And yet here comes Torah reminding me about vows and oaths and forgiveness. Whether or not I want to hit pause on time, the holidays are on their way. Whether or not I feel ready, the season of inner work is coming.

A vow: Rashi writes, "This is when one says, Behold, I take upon myself an obligation which is as sacred to me as an offering." A vow is a commitment.

What vows do I make to the people in my life; to my family; to my loved ones; to my communities? What promises have I made to the community where I live and pray and celebrate and mourn? What commitments have I made to my nation, to the ideals of America, to liberty and justice for all?

What vows have I made, and am I living up to them?

Our Torah verses today distinguish between the vows made by a man, which automatically stand, and the vows made by a woman, which could be undone if her father or husband said so. Obviously that doesn't sit well with us today. Here's how I've come to understand those verses: when Torah says "woman" here, what it means is "someone who for one reason or another isn't master of their own fate."

It's as if my ten year old promised a friend something that wasn't his to promise -- "I'll have a Zoom playdate with you at 11pm!" I would need to gently tell him, kiddo, you can't have playdates at 11pm, you have to be in bed then. And if he said, "But I promised!" I would have to tell him, "That wasn't your decision to make."

I don't love the fact that in antiquity, women had as little control over their circumstance as does my child now. And, that's what it was. Today, if one partner exercised that kind of control over another, we would call that coercive and unhealthy.

Setting the gender piece aside: if a person makes a vow to God, or takes on an obligation, then we're supposed to live up to it. Sounds simple, right?

In just over ten weeks we'll stand together at Yom Kippur and take a good long look at ourselves and our souls and our choices. Are we living up to our promises? Because if not, now is the time to try to do better. Not just so we can stand before God on Yom Kippur with an easy heart... but because living up to our commitments and our values is what Judaism asks of us.

What promises have we made to each other, to our communities, to God? And are we living up to them? And if not, can we start now?

Because nine weeks from tomorrow I'll be singing the words from Mary Oliver that we always hear on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, from her poem about the goldfinches: "Believe us, it is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world."

It is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world. May the promises we make -- and the promises we keep! -- help to bring about repair, speedily and soon. Shabbat shalom.

 

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


Announcing Holy At Home


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I posted a few days ago about the project I've been working on -- Holy at Home, a set of editable slide decks that adapt my machzor into materials designed for screen-sharing / Zoom high holiday services. 

I've been working feverishly on the project because I wanted to get the slide decks into the world in time for other shlichei tzibbur (prayer leaders) to download them and spend the summer tinkering with the for your own services too. And... today they're available!

Read all about Holy at Home -- including what kinds of things are in the slide decks, and how to preview them, and how to donate in order to receive the editable files -- here at the Bayit website.

These slide decks are in beta; this is version 1.1. We're already receiving feedback and requests for things that aren't yet here, and we are taking that feedback to heart and will release updates / expansion packs in weeks to come. So if the slides work for you as they are, mah tov -- and if not, tell us what you would need us to add in order for them to work for you; we want this to meet your needs as well as our own.


Coming soon: Holy at Home

My synagogue decided some weeks ago that for reasons of health and safety, our Days of Awe this year will be streamed / Zoom-based, rather than in person. Ever since then, I've known that I would need to adapt Days of Awe, the machzor / high holiday prayerbook that we use at my shul and that I shared for public adaptation & use some years ago, into a set of slide decks designed for screenshare over Zoom.

I've been leading Zoom davenen since the pandemic began, and over those months I've changed what I do and how I do it. I've learned a lot about what works for me and for my community -- best practices, how best to share materials, and more. I knew that my work this summer would be taking what I've learned there, and applying it to preparations for a High Holiday season like no other we've known.

I know I'm not alone in needing slides like this. So I talked to my hevre at Bayit: Building Jewish, about sharing an editable set of machzor slide decks in return for a (tax-deductible) donation to Bayit. Our mission is to create, curate, and share meaningful tools for "building Jewish." In this pandemic time, when we're all confined to home, a set of machzor slide decks definitely feels like it fits that bill.

(Also, people often ask how they can support the work that for years I've put out into the world for free. Thank God, I have a job and I don't need to ask for your donations for my own support. Instead, I'd rather have folks donate in support of Bayit, the nonprofit that I co-founded. Your support will help us bring more relevant, meaningful, "pray-tested" tools and ideas and practices into the world.)

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This is the first slide in the first slide deck...

Enter Holy at Home, a set of six slide decks: 1) erev Rosh Hashanah (interweaving ma'ariv / the evening service with the Sefardic custom of a seder for Rosh Hashanah), 2) Rosh Hashanah morning, 3) Kol Nidre, 4) Yom Kippur morning with Yizkor, 5) Yom Kippur afternoon (avodah and mincha), and 6) Ne'ilah. All are editable, so each community can customize in ways that will meet their needs.

Much of what’s in these six slide decks comes from Days of Awe. If you've been using Days of Awe, you'll recognize a lot of what's here -- Hebrew and English, readings and prayers, tradition and creative riffs on tradition, poetry and artwork, translations and transliterations. That said, the original material from Days of Awe has also been adapted and improved for these slide decks in a variety of ways:

  1. We’ve made many typo fixes;
  2. Every word of Hebrew is now transliterated and translated (more on that below);
  3. There are full-color images adorning most slides, because that's possible via slides in a way it was not possible in print;
  4. I’ve steered away from prayer variations or settings that are rounds, or that work primarily because of harmony (given that it's not possible to sing simultaneously over Zoom);
  5. And there are also a lot of new things added to these slide decks -- new prayers, new poems, new illustrations, new approaches to haftarah -- that aren’t in the book. 

When Bayit released our volume for the mourner's path, Beside Still Waterswe committed to the promise that there will be full translations and transliterations in everything Bayit puts out. Unlike Beside Still Waters, which took a few years to bring to fruition, these slides were created by me during a global pandemic and I can't promise that I caught every extra space or typo... but I did my level best.

The slide decks streamline what’s in Days of Awe in many ways. The printed volume is rich with additional poems and readings, on the theory that someone who isn't engaged by prayer services might find meaning in thumbing through the pages and running across poems or meditations that speak to them. That doesn't work for a slideshare, where everyone sees the same screen at the same time.

In other ways, the slides remain expansive, offering multiple choices to those who lead prayer. For some prayers, there are multiple options -- e.g. three versions of Ahavat Olam, two variations on the Amidah, three versions of Aleinu. The idea is that once someone donates to receive a download link for the slide decks, they can copy the slide decks, choose which option they want to use, and delete the other slides. 

If this interests you or would be useful to you in your High Holiday preparations, let me know? We're proofreading the slides now, and our hope is to release them sometime next week so that everyone (else) who is (also) planning their Days of Awe now can get the slides, begin imagining how to work with them, begin adapting them as necessary, etc. For now... back to proofreading!


Dissonance

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Herbs on my mirpesset on a cloudy summer morning.

 

Sometimes I sit outside on my mirpesset on a Shabbat morning and drink iced coffee and listen to the birds. My mirpesset is just the right size to hold a 4' x 6' sukkah in the fall. In summer, it holds two chairs, a little table, a barbecue grill. Pots of herbs -- rosemary, mint, chives, parsley, thyme. A hanging basket of brightly-colored petunias. It overlooks an expanse of green lawn, a stretch of trees (including a couple of wild apples that bloom in late May), and off to one side the road. It's quiet here. The birds have the most to say in the morning and at twilight, but someone is singing or calling out to its fellows almost all the time. I've put up a couple of strings of solar-powered lights, so at nightfall my mirpesset is ringed with little globes of gleaming light.

It's peaceful, and green, and lovely. Just as it was last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. At moments, I can almost forget that nothing is normal this year. That my son has no summer camps, because it's not safe for children to gather. That we need to mask up before leaving the house. That the pandemic is raging like wildfire now across the South and the West. That there are people screaming for the right to go mask-less because they somehow think the masks are an attempt at sinister governmental control rather than the best tool we have to combat viral transmission. That every day we learn about another instance of police brutality against Black people. That racism flourishes, and we need to stamp it out. That the world is on fire.

I'm fiercely grateful for this little oasis where I can escape the sounds of the television and the Minecrafting and my child's video playdates with friends. (I'm grateful for the tv and the Minecraft and the video playdates, too, but their constancy is wearying.) I'm grateful to be able to sit outside and listen to birdsong. And I feel guilty that I can sit outside and listen to birdsong while the world is on fire. While hospitals are filling up, prisons and meatpacking plants rage with infection, polling places are being closed and voters of color are being disenfranchised, Black people still aren't safe. I feel grateful and guilty. No, not guilty: what I feel is responsible. "In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible," Heschel wrote. Repairing the world is our responsibility.

And yet it's Shabbes. Shabbes is the day to set down the burdens of constant labor. To be a human being instead of a human doing. To live in the as-if -- as-if the world were already redeemed. As-if we had already repaired all of those broken places, disease and racism and systemic inequality. This is my tradition's deepest tool for spiritual nourishment, and in these times of pandemic I need that nourishment more than ever. So I sit with the cognitive dissonance on my mirpesset on Shabbes morning. So much is broken. And yet in this little place with my herb plants and the birdsong -- in this oasis in time, the one day each week when I don't read the Times or the Post -- I can seek for a moment to be at peace.  It's okay to seek for a moment to be at peace. 


Wholeness, justice, and peace

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A d'varling for Pride Shabbat and Shabbat Korach.

 

In this week's Torah portion, Korach, there's a rebellion. Korach stands up against Moses and demands power. He cloaks his demand in words that sound nice -- aren't all God's people holy? -- but it becomes clear that he doesn't want to democratize spiritual power, he wants to claim it for himself and his sons. So, the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

Korach insists he deserves to be in leadership, but he really wants power. He doesn't want to be a public servant, he wants to be a bigshot. Torah offers us this fantasy: what if the earth swallowed the power-hungry? Imagine what a world we could build if all of the Korachs just disappeared! We can't rely on that. But maybe it can help us envision what ethical leadership really is.

God instructs Moses to take a staff from the leader of each of the 12 tribes and put them all in the Tent of Meeting overnight. In the morning, Aaron's almond-wood walking stick has flowered and borne fruit. With that, the rebellion is truly over. Everyone can see who God has chosen to be in spiritual service to God and to the community. The question for me is: why Aaron?

Pirkei Avot 1:12 says, "Be like the students of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing it." During homeschooling earlier this year, my son and I read some Pirkei Avot together. I asked him what he thinks the difference between those two things might be. "You can love something, but not do anything to make more of it," he said. "Pursuing it means running after it, trying to make it happen."

Tradition holds that Aaron pursued shalom (peace) and shleimut (wholeness). That's why his staff was blessed to flower: because he actively pursued shalom. But what is peace, really? It can sound kind of wishy-washy. It can sound like a band-aid we put over community divisions and injustices in order to ignore them. That's a false peace, a spiritual-bypassing peace. 

Shalom and shleimut don't mean the absence of war, and they don't mean that false peace, the band-aid that papers over injustice. They mean integrity, living in alignment with what's right. In Rabbi Brad Artson's words: "Shleimut, wholeness, means offering to the world the fullness of who you are at your best: your beauty as you are, your greatness as you are."

Reading those words this week, I was struck by how right they feel for Pride Shabbat. Coming out likewise means offering to the world the fullness of who one is. And as Rabbi Artson continues, shleimut also means inviting others to live out their truest selves too. When we stand in our truth and let our authentic selves shine, we give others permission to do likewise. 

Aaron pursued peace. That verb also appears in the verse, "Justice, justice shall you pursue." As my kid reminds me, pursuing means taking action. When we act for justice, we lay the groundwork for peace. Today's protestors say "No justice, no peace." I've also seen signs that say, "Know justice, know peace." When we know justice inside and out, then we'll know shleimut.

Justice means equal rights for everyone: for people of every gender expression and sexual orientation, people of every race and ethnicity. Justice means safe access to healthcare for everyone: including queer and trans people and people of color. Justice means equal treatment under the law for everyone: for queer and trans people, and for people of color, and for all of us. 

Justice means fundamental human rights and dignity for everyone, because we're all created in the image of God. These are core Jewish values. Our world doesn't quite live up to them yet. We still have a lot of work to do before everyone can safely know shleimut, the wholeness that comes from offering the world the fullness of who we are. That work is our calling as Jews.

Korach said we're all holy, but he really meant: I want more power for me and those who are like me. We can be better than that. We can build better than that. And when we do, then we won't need to fantasize anymore about the earth swallowing the power-hungry. And then structures that had seemed wooden and lifeless will flower and bear fruit. As Judy Chicago wrote in 1979:

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind

And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will

And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many

And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance

And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old

And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life's creatures

And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night, (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


A sign upon my arm

As I slide the little box of my tefillin shel yad to nestle beneath the sleeve of my guayabera shirt, I remember the old men in the weekday minyan where we went to pray after my grandmother died. Some wore bolo ties. Some had sportcoats hanging off of one arm, sleeves rolled up. And some wore guayabera shirts like these. Like my grandfather wore on that lonely morning as he began to drift, unmoored, away from us. Mississippi had just ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, finally agreeing to the abolition of slavery in the year 1995. Today pandemic jostles for headline space alongside police killings of Black people. Look how far we haven't come. My grandfather was a thoracic surgeon. He fled the Nazis in 1939. Dare I hope that he would stand up for the right of every Black human being to walk, play with toys, jog in a park, drive a car, sleep on a sofa, listen to music, drink iced tea, birdwatch, and carry Skittles, without fear of a cop or armed vigilante or garden-variety racist stealing their breath?

 

 


K'gavna - Just As...

Prism

Just as the colors of the rainbow
Unite to make one light
God far above and God deep within,
YHVH and Shechinah,
Unite in Shabbat.
Transcendence unites with Immanence,
One and One becoming One.

We join together in community
Together reflecting God's splendor.
We are the colors of the rainbow
Uniting to make one light.
The glorious holy throne
Is here where we meet
Ready for Shabbat to rest upon us.

HaMakom, this sacred Place, uplifts us
Here where electrons dance
And the interplay of Being and Nothingness
Draws our hearts together, binary code
Flickering through space
Making us present to each other
And to the radiance of Shabbat.

We crown Her from below
And She enfolds us in new supernal souls
So that our service
Be blissful and praiseful,
Joyful and radiant
As with shining faces
We approach the Bar'chu --

 


The prayer known as K'Gavna comes from the Zohar, and describes the mystical joining of transcendence (God-far-above, the Kadosh Baruch Hu) with immanence (God-deep-within, Shechinah) as Shabbat arrives. It speaks in the language of the seven "lower sefirot" (emanations or aspects of qualities of God) which are sometimes mapped to the seven colors of the rainbow. (That rainbow imagery for divinity is especially lovely now during June. Happy Pride Month everyone!)

In some siddurim K'Gavna is a prelude to the Bar'chu, the formal Call to Prayer that comes between Kabbalat Shabbat and the evening service. This variation was written for the 2020 Clear Vision Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton that R' David Markus and I co-led over the weekend over Zoom for Havurh Shir Hadash in Ashland OR. It dovetails with that Shabbaton's themes of sacred space, digital presence, and what it means to come together in community online.

On a related note, here's my d'var from the weekend: Being Real, Digital Edition. And here's R' David's d'var from the weekend: The Mishkan's Next Digital (R)Evolution.


In the cloud

Cloud"When the cloud lifted, they would break camp..." (Numbers 9:21)

This week's Torah portion, B'ha'a'lotkha, describes, again, how the children of Israel would stay put when the cloud of God lingered over their encampment, and when the cloud lifted they would break camp and resume their journeys. Wait, didn't we read this back in March? (Indeed we did: the end of the book of Exodus contains strikingly similar language.)

This repeated motif -- the cloud, the journey, the waiting -- gives a sense of timeless time. (A bit like what many of us have been feeling in recent months, unmoored from regular schedules.) When the cloud is here, we're fogged-in. Is it March, or is it June? Is it then, or is it now? When will we be able to start moving again? How long are we going to be waiting like this?

Am I talking about the Israelites on their journey, or about us in the midst of turmoil and pandemic?

The image of the cloud makes me think of "the cloud of unknowing." (That's the title of an anonymous work of Christian mysticism, written in the fourteenth century.) The author of the Cloud of Unknowing argues that the way to know God is to give up on trying to understand. It's in surrender to not-knowing that we meet the Infinite.

In our moment, we need to surrender to a lot of not-knowing. We don't know when the pandemic will be over. Whether we were exposed to the virus on that most recent trip to the grocery store. Whether the Black Lives Matter protests will result in the kind of sustained, systemic change that our nation so sorely needs. There's so much that we don't know.

The haftarah portion assigned to this week is also assigned to Shabbat Chanukah, probably because this week's Torah portion speaks of the golden menorah that stood in the mishkan. It's from the book of Zechariah. And here's its most famous line. In Debbie Friedman's singable translation, it's "Not by might, and not by power, but by Spirit alone shall we all live in peace!"

Not by might, and not by power. That feels like a message for our times, both on a macro scale and on a personal one. How do we reach wholeness and peace? Not by grasping for control or imagining that we're in charge. Not with military might in any of its forms. Not by pretending the pandemic away or pretending systemic racism away. Not with platitudes or false certainty.

The path to shalom and shleimut, wholeness and peace, is through spirit. And this week's Torah portion offers a road map. We get there by recognizing that all of life is spiritual life -- both the times of waiting and the times of action. Times when the cloud is low over the camp and we have to shelter-in-place, and times when the cloud lifts and we can be on the move. 

We get to wholeness and peace both by pursuing justice with all that we are, and by surrendering to everything we can't know about how we're going to get there from here. It's not an either/or: it's a both/and. If we wait until we feel fully ready we might never act at all, and, if we imagine we know all the answers we're guaranteed to be wrong. We need humility and chutzpah.

"Not by might and not by power, but by spirit." The Hebrew word for "spirit" here, ruach, can also be translated as breath. I find a message in that for our current moment too. We reach wholeness not through pursuing power, but through ensuring that everyone can breathe freely. When all of God's children can breathe, that's wholeness and peace. 

Eric Garner's last words were "I can't breathe." George Floyd's last words were "I can't breathe." Racism, like coronavirus, steals the breath. Just this morning we sang nishmat kol chai -- "Breath of Life, the breath of all that lives praises Your name." We name God as the Breath of Life. When a human breath is diminished, it's as though God were diminished. 

We don't know when the cloud will lift -- when justice will roll like thunder and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24) We don't know when the cloud will lift -- when the pandemic will end and it will be safe to return to the world again. We only know that right now, we're in the cloud. It's hard to see how we get there from here. But that doesn't exempt us from trying.

Our task is to protect ourselves and each other during these pandemic times. To end racism in all its forms. To cultivate the chutzpah of believing we can make the world a better place alongside the humility of knowing that we don't have all the answers. When the cloud lifts, we move forward. When the cloud doesn't lift, we do what we can to build justice right here where we are.

 

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


Being Real: Digital Edition

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Once there was a toy rabbit who yearned to become Real. He loved his Boy, and he was loved by his Boy. And when his Boy fell ill, the toy rabbit was his constant companion.

When the Boy recovered, the doctors said the rabbit was contaminated and needed to be burned. In that darkest night, as the rabbit waited, he wept a tear. And from his tear a flower grew, and from within the flower came the Shechinah. She told him that as he had become real to the Boy who loved him, now he would be real to everyone.

Okay, in the original telling it wasn't Shechinah, it was a fairy. Close enough.

So in this sacred text -- which, as you probably know, is a children's book by Margery Williams called The Velveteen Rabbit, from which my blog takes its name -- the way one becomes Real is through loving and being loved... and through the actions fueled by that love, especially accompanying someone into the darkness of illness and loss. That sounds about right to me.

Becoming Real requires empathy. How can we safely feel empathy in these times of pandemic when there are so many reasons to despair? And how do we accompany each other, as the rabbit accompanied his Boy, when we are physically separated or quarantined?

That last question is the easiest for me to answer: we accompany each other however we can. Write a letter, send an email or text, make a phone call, meet over video... If nothing else, hold the other person in your heart and stretch out your soul to connect with theirs.

During this pandemic we're learning how to be in community even when we are physically alone. On the second night of Pesach, I sat alone with a Zoom screen in front of me -- and R' David and I co-led a seder for our communities, and it felt real. It wasn't "as-if" -- it was really seder. I imagine many of you had similar experiences.

I remember being a child, getting a long-distance phone call from my parents, and feeling amazed that they could be so far away and I could still hear their voices. There was a bit of a lag, as our voices traveled beneath the ocean, but that didn't matter.

Remember the miracle of long-distance phone calls? Or the first time you ever saw a loved one's face over video? Or: imagine reading an email and feeling that a loved one is with you. Or reading a blog post that makes you feel understood. Or texting with a friend, carrying their words and their presence on your smartphone throughout the day.

Our vernacular separates between the internet and "RL," real life. But connections forged or sustained online are real, just as our davenen together tonight is real.

An emotional and spiritual connection -- with another; with community; with our Source -- can be real no matter what tools we're using to create or sustain it. The bigger challenge is being real in the first place. The Velveteen Rabbit reminds us that being real requires openness and empathy enough to companion each other in tight places.

Sometimes it's hard to be real when someone is suffering. It's hard to sit with someone in their sorrow. The word compassion means "feeling-with" or "suffering-with." Being real asks us to feel-with each other.

Sometimes our own struggles prevent us from being real. When my son was born I suffered from postpartum depression, but I told my doctor I was fine, because I was ashamed and I didn't want him to really see me. That fear kept me from being real.

Sometimes it's hard to be real with God. Because I get trapped in katnut, in my small human mind. Or because the words of inherited liturgy feel empty. Sometimes prayer can feel like a long-distance call where I'm not sure anyone's picking up on the other end.

But authentic spiritual life asks us to be real. Our prayers aren't just words on a page, they're pointers to lived emotional experience. To really pray the words of Ahavat Olam, or to remix them anew, I have to feel unending love streaming into creation.

And, I also have to be careful about how I channel unending love. Authentic spiritual life asks me to open my heart -- to my yearnings, to the needs of others, to my Source -- and it also asks me to maintain boundaries. In the language of our mystical tradition, it asks me to balance the overflowing love we call chesed with the healthy limits we call gevurah.

Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel-with each other even during pandemic, even during this time of rising awareness of how systemic racism harms Black and Indigenous People of Color, even in times of personal grief. If we refuse to feel with each other, then we break that nourishing human interconnection that is our obligation and our birthright.

We need to feel, without spiritual bypassing, while maintaining a container strong enough to hold safely. This inner structural integrity can help us build systems and structures of integrity in this world that so needs repair. And that includes our Jewish communities, too: we need to be real in order to build a Jewish spiritual future worthy of the name.

And we need to be real for the sake of our own souls. I've learned that the flow of creativity requires me to be real: with myself, with God, with you. The posts and poems and prayers that seem to resonate most are ones written from that place. I think they speak to people deeply precisely because they're real. It's my responsibility to cultivate sufficient gevurah to write about what's real in a way that's safe for me and for my readers.

In seeking to strike that balance, there's risk -- and there's also reward. As we read in Mishlei, "As water reflects face to face, so the heart reflects person to person." (Proverbs 27:19) When I'm willing to be real, others are real in return. You meet my honesty with yours, my heart with yours, my words with yours, my prayers with yours.

Reb Zalman z"l used to say that we all have our own unique login to the Cosmic Mainframe. "To log on to God," he said in 2004, "we need only awareness, because God is there all the time, making your heart beat." That login is open to us even in quarantine. We just have to be willing to be real at the table, the meditation cushion, the Zoom screen.

And our connections with each other and with community are still open to us even in quarantine. Online life, online davenen, online friendship: these aren't "virtual reality." They're as real as we allow ourselves to be.

 

Offered as a keynote teaching at the 2020 Clear Vision Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton organized by Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon. My Friday night d'var was designed to dovetail with the Shabbat morning d'var given by R' David Markus, The Mishkan's Next Digital (R)Evolution, and our paired talks in turn fueled the Mishkan Sandbox Lunch-and-Learn with our host R' David Zaslow.  (Cross-posted to Bayit's Builders Blog.)

 


Vigil

101302854_10222099677938914_743372806447693824_nSmall bamboo stakes with tiny flags on them were placed six feet apart, all along the north side of route two, from First Congregational Church to Thompson Memorial Chapel.

We gathered with our signs, each person or household to a flag. Most of the signs were homemade, made on posterboard or on cardboard recycled from boxes.

"Black Lives Matter."

"Stop systemic racism."

"Covid + racism = mourning in America."

"Lord have mercy."

"Seeking justice."

"Black lives matter."

"We stand with you.”

The church bells tolled. When they were done, a bagpiper stood on the steps of First Congregational and played somber songs.

As cars drove by, from one side or the other, we turned so our signs would face them, like sunflowers moving with the sun.

Most cars honked in support as they drove by. A few big rigs drove by and honked as they passed us. One bicyclist pedaled slowly by, reading each sign in turn.

A light rain fell. We stood in quiet solidarity with the victims of SARS-CoV-2 and the victims of systemic racism around our nation. When the clock tower rang for 5:30, we quietly went home with our grief.