After the festival

after Jack Kornfield

 

After the festival, the laundry.
After the festival, exhaustion
and punch-drunk laughter.

Collapsing into the armchair
and absently petting the cat.
After the festival, silence rings.

There's so much to do -- building
and repair, a new name for God,
making all our promises real.

But not today. Today, gratitude
for the washing machine, swirling
my Yom Kippur whites clean.


Balancing Life and Death: Yom Kippur Morning, 5783


Let me take you back to a few short weeks ago, when I was sick with Covid. I was idly poking around Twitter. I was feeling lousy, couldn’t really focus on books or even TV. And then someone I don’t know well posted that she was in shock. 

twitter logo

A friend of hers, who’d had Covid a few months prior, had kept a lingering cough from the virus… and had just died of a pulmonary embolism. Out of the blue. She seemed fine, aside from the cough, for which doctors kept giving her cough syrup and sending her home. But we know that Covid is often associated with surprise blood clots. Boom: pulmonary embolism, and gone.

I responded with Jewish tradition’s usual words of comfort, on autopilot. What I couldn’t help thinking was: wow, Yom Kippur came early this year! I meant, the reminder to take stock of my life and confront mortality.

Yom Kippur is sometimes called a day of rehearsal for our death. We wear white, like our burial shrouds. Many fast from food and drink, like the dead who need nothing. We recite the vidui confessional prayer, as tradition teaches us to do on our deathbeds. And we do big cheshbon ha-nefesh work — taking an accounting of our souls. Who have I been? Where did I fall short? If I’m lucky enough to keep living, what do I need to change? If I died tomorrow, what words would I want to have said – what amends would I want to have made – in order to leave this life with a clean slate?

I don’t expect to die of a surprise pulmonary embolism. But none of us knows how much time we have, Covid or not.

Pirkei Avot (2:15) teaches us to “Make teshuvah the day before your death.” But who among us knows when the day of our death will be? Therefore Judaism calls us to make teshuvah everyday. To do the inner work of self-reflection, and the outer work of changing and making amends, all the time.

i am dust and ashes / for my sake was the world created

The cards we gave you on Rosh Hashanah read, “The world was made for me,” and “I am dust and ashes.” Holding both of those truths at once is the quality we call Tiferet, our holy “and” of heart-centered balance. (And the theme of this year's Days of Awe.)

These awesome days themselves recapitulate and balance those truths

“The world was made for me” – that’s Rosh Hashanah. Hayom harat olam, “Today is the birthday of the world!” On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the renewal of all creation.

“I am dust and ashes” – that’s today. I am dust and ashes means we are mortal. So what do we want to do with what Mary Oliver calls our “one wild and precious life”?

a heart in the middle of Texas

At the end of February, my son and I flew to Texas to say goodbye to my dad. He was eighty-seven and already pretty frail, and Covid hit him hard. By the time we flew down, we knew the end was near.

I remember at first being shocked at how much he’d changed. He floated around in time. Words weren’t always available, or they came out scrambled. He was often confused. He opened his mouth to be fed, like a baby bird.

And then I started to notice where my dad’s soul was shining through the fog. He couldn’t always come up with words, but he would look at my son and smile with a glint in his eye, and then tilt his head to the right until my son did the same, and then tilt his head the other way until my son mirrored him, and repeat until they were both laughing. It was like the physical comedy in old silent films. In those moments he couldn’t talk, but he could still tell his grandson a joke.

He had a favorite caregiver, a Black woman named Eddie. Sometimes he was lucid enough to tell me that she had reared ten children and had been through a lot. Other times he said she was his best friend and he’d known her for years. (He hadn’t.)

“This here’s my daughter,” he rasped to her one day, gesturing at me. “You know what she does?”

Eddie smiled at him fondly. “No, what?” she asked.

There was a momentary pause as he reached for words. Finally he blustered, “Well, ask her!”

He couldn’t remember what I do for a living. The word “rabbi” was missing from his brain. But he remembered that I do something that matters, something worth kvelling about.

“If I weren’t in jail, none of you would be here,” he said to me one morning. I asked him if he felt like he was in jail, and he shrugged.

At first I thought he meant the assisted living facility, but then I realized: he could have meant his failing body. His body that was giving out on him in so many ways had become his soul’s prison, and he was getting ready to go free.

waves on the shore

As they were dying, each of my parents showed something about who they most fundamentally were, deep down, when everything else is stripped away.

With Mom, it was her joie de vivre and her motto, “make hay while the sun shines.” With Dad, it was a deep care and sweetness, coupled with that confident glint in his eye. What do we hope will persist in us to the end? What qualities do we hope will shine through?

In the book of Exodus, Moshe asks Pharaoh to let his people go, and Pharaoh repeatedly hardens his heart and says no. At a certain point, the text shifts, and says that God hardens his heart. Which at first blush might seem sort of unfair: why would God do that? Our sages teach: when Pharaoh hardened his heart, over and over, he created that pathway in himself. He carved it deep with his own actions. All God had to do was let Pharaoh be who he already had chosen to be.

With every action, with every choice, we’re making internal pathways. And those paths inform who we are and how we are. If I walk an inner path of trying to cultivate balance, that path becomes well-worn and clear and easier to follow. If I walk an inner path of resentment, that too becomes self-perpetuating after a while.

It’s the spiritual equivalent of the old saying, “If you keep making that face, you’re going to get stuck that way.” If we keep making that face, we’re going to get stuck that way. So what face do we want to make in 5783? Okay, I’ve pushed the metaphor too far. But the truth within it stands: who we say we are is irrelevant. What matters is who our actions show us to be.

Dying tends to distill us to our essence, and we don’t get to choose what that essence is – except we actually do. We don’t get to pick something that looks nice, like choosing a sweater out of a catalogue – “You know, I’d like my inner essence this year to be pink and happy in the spring, and amber-colored and contemplative in the fall.” But we do get to make choices, and our regular daily choices will inform who we are and how we respond when push comes to shove.

Teshuvah

None of us can control when we die, but we do have some control over who we are in this life. The idea of teshuvah – that we can repent, can make amends, can do the work of change – means that who we’ve been doesn’t have to be who we’ll become. Balancing who we’ve been and who we’re becoming – there’s Tiferet again.

And, there’s no magic short cut. No game hack that gets us a high score we didn’t earn. Anyone can make teshuvah – and anyone who wants to make teshuvah has to do the work. And there’s no time like the present. Indeed, some say there’s no time other than the present. Now is all we have.

What changes would we need to make in order to be remembered the way we want to be remembered?

I’m not talking about the kind of new year’s resolutions some of us make on January first – “I want to be bikini-ready by summertime!” I’m talking about how we treat each other. What character qualities we bring to the fore. How we treat “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger” – the people most at-risk and vulnerable. (Maybe today it’s the trans kid, the disabled person, and the refugee.) Whether or not we’re doing something to make the world a better place. How we treat the barista or the Stop and Shop employee – or that person we don’t like who really gets on our nerves.

Because those are the face we show to the world. No matter what our self-image might be, everyone else experiences us through our actions and choices. And those actions and choices are how we’ll be remembered, when we’re gone.

pamphlet about the soul in Judaism; a yahrzeit candle

Earlier this summer a congregant came into my office, and we chatted about one thing and another. And just as she was about to leave, she held up one of the little Life Lights pamphlets from the rack in the back of the room, and she asked me, “Does Judaism believe in a soul?”

The one-word answer is yes. Yes, Judaism teaches that we have souls, and that while our bodies are temporary, our souls endure.

“No one ever told me that when I was growing up,” she said. “Honestly it would’ve sounded goyische.” As though Christians had a monopoly on spiritual discourse. Y’know what, they’re so focused on “saving our souls,” we’ll downplay souls altogether. And in some ways the early Reform movement did that, stripping out a lot of the mystical and supernatural language because it felt outdated, “Old Country,” not rational and modern – and yeah, maybe too evocative of our proselytizing neighbors.

But Jewish liturgy is full of references to the soul. The choir this morning sang a beautiful setting of אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַֽתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא. – “My God, the soul that You have placed within me is pure!” Usually the soul is described as something that God gives to us, or guards for us overnight while we are sleeping and returns to us when we wake. Notably, our liturgy insists that our souls are fundamentally pure: no matter how we’ve screwed up, the light of the soul never dims. It just gets a little schmutzed-up by our mistakes, and teshuvah is how we clarify the soul so its light can shine.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that every Jew necessarily believes in an eternal soul or any kind of afterlife to which that soul might journey. “Two Jews, three opinions,” as the saying goes. If you’ve never heard this before, or if you don’t believe any of this, that’s okay, you still belong here. Even if you don’t believe in God, you still belong here! (Though remind me to send you R. Brent Spodek’s beautiful I (don’t) believe in God.)

As far as what happens to that soul once the body dies…? I can tell you that I have a book called Jewish Views of the Afterlife, and it’s several inches thick. Over the last 3000 years Judaism has offered many different visions of what might come after this life, ranging from blissful Torah study in the Garden of Eden, to reincarnation when a soul still has work to do or things to learn.

I find all of this endlessly fascinating. And in some ways it’s all beside the point. The question beneath her question was something like: is my beloved still here? I believe the answer is yes.

Many Jews believe that our dead remain accessible to us. Some say we can speak to them as we speak to God. Some say we can ask them for help, or to intercede with heaven on our behalf. Some say we may receive their answers in dreams, or in the world around us. Some say we may feel their presence in the wildlife that graces our path. (Rabbi Pam Wax has an extraordinary poem about that in her book Walking the Labyrinth.) And, of course, the silent Yizkor prayers we’ll say in a moment are a time when many of us go beneath our tallitot and connect with those who are gone.

“I am dust and ashes” doesn’t mean we’re trash. It means our time is fleeting. So what will we do with it? What do we hope will shine through us to the end? If we knew we were going to die tomorrow, what amends would we rush to make, and what words would we need to say… and how about doing those things today, every day, so we’re always ready to return to the Source from whence we came?

 

This is the sermon that I offered on Yom Kippur morning at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)


Toward Transformation (Or The Holy Atonement Reset Button): Kol Nidre 5783

Screen Shot 2022-09-12 at 10.08.31 AM

In the melody of Kol Nidre, I hear aching. I hear yearning. I hear the heartbroken cry of a soul who knows they’ve missed the mark. How the melody descends – and descends again – and then rises in hope!  It’s such a powerful piece of music, I suspect most of us don’t think much about the fact that it’s a setting of… a legal filing. 

Screen Shot 2022-09-12 at 10.08.39 AM

In that legal filing, we ask to be released from “all the vows, promises, and oaths we make with God, the things we say only to regret them, the things we promise and forget, the resolutions we fail to keep.” We make this request in front of a beit din, a rabbinic court – symbolized by the rabbi or cantor flanked with two Torah scrolls. But really we’re making this request in front of the ultimate Judge. The Kadosh Baruch Hu – the Holy Blessed One. God on high. 

This is not usually my go-to image of God. I like to imagine Shechinah, the immanent, reachable, intimate aspect of God, sitting in my car in bluejeans and listening to me pour out my heart as I drive. I like to connect with God as Creator, as Beloved, as Source of Life. But Kol Nidre invites me into a different kind of dialogue with the sacred. It invites me to open myself to the metaphor of God as source of Justice.

Tonight I imagine God in judicial robes. I can’t quite imagine God’s face – the image flickers between every face of every human being who has ever been or ever will be – but I imagine an expression at once serious and kind. Both gentle and solemn. Ready to give us the benefit of the doubt, and also able to see right through us to the things we don’t want to admit.

Continue reading "Toward Transformation (Or The Holy Atonement Reset Button): Kol Nidre 5783" »


Tools for Tough Times: Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5783

Screen Shot 2022-09-09 at 9.45.13 AM

 

Last month, the Academy of American Poets shared a Poem of the Day by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza called “The Sunset and the Purple-Flowered Tree.” Here’s how it begins:

I talk to a screen who assures me everything is fine.
I am not broken. I am not depressed. I am simply
in touch with the material conditions of my life. It is
the end of the world, and it’s fine...

The poem reminded me of so many of our conversations over the last year. We are not broken. We are simply in touch with the material conditions of our lives.

Screen Shot 2022-09-09 at 9.45.27 AM

Long Covid continues to mystify doctors. Apparently polio is back.  Election denial corrodes our civic life. There are heartbreaking stories out of states where reproductive health care is now banned. And don’t forget school shootings, 29 of them so far this year. And Putin trying to take over Ukraine. And this year has brought a rise in laws designed to abridge the rights of LGBTQIA+ folks, and antisemitism, too.

And then there’s the climate crisis. Floods like the one in Kentucky – or in Pakistan, or in Chad. Wildfires (when I wrote this, there were 624 wildfires burning in eighteen states, plus many more around the world.) Extreme heat melting airport runways

As my friend Rabbi Mike Moskowitz sometimes says, “the world is super broken.” I know that many of us are struggling. Some are languishing, living with “a sense of stagnation and emptiness.” (per Adam Grant in the New York Times.) And for some of us, languishing can slip into hopelessness.

Our liturgy proclaims: hayom harat olam: today the world is born!

Okay, but how do we celebrate the world’s birthday when things feel so hard?

This is not the first time the Jewish community has lived through collective crisis.  The question I’ve been asking is: what spiritual tools did our forebears use to get through hard times? What did Judaism’s toolbox offer them, and what can it offer us?

Continue reading "Tools for Tough Times: Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5783" »


Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783: The Sacred "And" (co-written with R. David Markus)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Screen Shot 2022-09-22 at 12.44.24 PM

The author of these words, Charles Dickens, was a virulent antisemite, and his opening words from A Tale of Two Cities in 1859 England might well describe us on this Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783.  

Each year we call Rosh Hashanah a new start, and this Rosh Hashanah falls on troubled times.  Science is taming the pandemic, and gun violence is raging.  Global living standards are the best ever, and Mississippi’s entire capital city just went days without drinking water while one third of Pakistan was under water.  The world is more peaceful than at any time since Charles Dickens, and the Ukraine war threatens global stability. 

Screen Shot 2022-09-22 at 12.44.31 PM

Genuine commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion are blossoming, and antisemitism is resurging.  The U.S. just made historic investments in clean energy, and climate disasters are mounting.  Democracy’s guardrails held, and they are at risk.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Both are true.  And the both-ness of our “best of times” and “worst of times,” the emotional and cognitive load of it all, has been a rollercoaster.  We’ve felt afraid, courageous, overloaded, numb, sickened, healed, inspired, disgusted, hopeful, helpless, angry, overjoyed and just plain tired – sometimes in rapid succession, sometimes all in the same day.

Continue reading "Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783: The Sacred "And" (co-written with R. David Markus)" »


Three days in

Image_20220915_133516_259

1. Thursday

"The second line is really faint," I said. "Maybe I'm imagining it."

"I can see it," said one friend to whom I texted the image.

"It's like a pregnancy test," said another. "You can't be 'a little bit' Covid-positive."

"Take another home test," they suggested. I took another one, a different brand. This one too had the faintest of faint positive lines, if I squinted at it just right. 

My kid had been diagnosed with Covid a few days prior. His symptoms were dramatic and immediate. I wore my best KN95 masks indoors, turned the air filter up to high, opened windows... but I knew there was a risk I might come down with it too. I went to the testing center and they swabbed my nose. When the call came, I was already resigned to what I didn't want to be true.

2. Friday

If one is a congregational rabbi, ten days before Rosh Hashanah is not a great time to come down with Covid. (No time is ideal, but this might be the worst time of year to be sick in this line of work.) A flurry of emails set Plan B and Plan C into motion in case they are needed. Plan A is still that I will co-lead services... and I have no way of knowing whether I'll be up to doing so.

"It's Schrödinger's Rosh Hashanah," I quipped to a friend. Either I'll be up to it, or I won't. Either I'll be recovered, or I won't. Maybe I'll be onsite for Rosh Hashanah, recovered. Maybe I'll be online, still symptomatic. Maybe I'll be in bed. There's no way to know. Dear God: I know that Mystery is a truth of the universe, but did You have to bring that home to me so palpably right now?

Because of my history of strokes and heart attack, my doctor got me in for an infusion of monoclonal antibodies. The infusion center reminded me of my mother. (Back in the early days of her mycobacterial lung infection, they tried treating it with infusions, and I went with her a few times.) A room full of recliner chairs. A television -- on, inevitably. At least it was playing food tv.

To my surprise, there was no IV. Instead a nurse pushed one syringe of the stuff into an IV port on my hand and flushed it with saline. Then they observed me for an hour, taking my vitals every fifteen minutes. I read more of Michael Twitty's new book Koshersoul, which is tremendous, as I expected it to be. Then they sent me home with instructions to rest and hydrate.

3. Saturday

So far my experience of Covid is like a really nasty flu. Unpleasant, but not unlike illnesses I've had before. I know what fever and chills are, and body aches. I know how to get electrolytes into me, and microwave soup, and wrap up in a blanket. To nap when my body asks for sleep. To watch comforting, familiar television that isn't taxing to my tired brain. We all know this drill.

The difference with this one is that sometimes it lingers. And we won't know whether that's my path until it either is, or isn't. Multiple studies have shown that women are more likely than men to develop Long Covid. Some say that resting a lot, during the initial illness phase, helps to forestall it. Clearly rest is important once one has it, if one gets it. I don't want to get it.

I learned this summer that heart attacks often manifest differently in women than in men. Women are 5x more likely than men to have MINOCA, but some (male) doctors have been dismissive of my experience. How many (male) doctors dismiss Long Covid, too, because it impacts women more than it does men? I could rant about medical sexism, if I had the energy. (I don't.)

And, most likely I will be fine. It's a good opportunity to meditate on fragility and mortality. It's also no fun. I'm deeply grateful for vaccines, and boosters, and monoclonal antibodies: none of these was available when the pandemic started. And... I know that not everyone can get the antibodies. Not everyone can take days off from work to rest and heal. I know how lucky I am.

 


Old photos

WitteYour grandson found photos of you on eBay this morning. They're archival newspaper photos -- from the San Antonio Express-News, or maybe from the San Antonio Light which hasn't existed in decades. It's disconcerting to think of a stranger buying these black-and-white 8 x 10s. Because they have a yen for pictures that give off that 1980 vibe? Because they like the jut of your nose, the spark in your eye? They're "vintage originals." No one knows they're part of my family history. Someone could pick these up for their visual appeal, the way I used to browse for hand-tinted postcards of the Mohawk Trail. When we were cleaning out your house, we recycled all of the yellowed newspaper clippings -- none of us wanted more clutter. You might say, "Who cares, they're just old photos!" But I can't resist these old photographs of you, cropping up in my browser this morning like you're waving hello from olam ha-ba


D'varling for Ki Tetze: Who Do We Choose to Be?

Screen Shot 2022-09-10 at 9.34.27 AM

If you look up at the sky this weekend, you might notice that the moon is becoming full. This weekend brings the middle of Elul – the final month of the old year; the month that leads us to the Days of Awe. During this month, our mystics say, “The King is in the Field.” 

Screen Shot 2022-09-10 at 9.34.35 AM

Here’s the metaphor: imagine that God is a King who lives in a vast and distant palace. Unreachable! So far away! Probably guarded by armies of angels! We’d never get an audience with such a sovereign. But this month, the King is in the field. God leaves that palace and walks with us in the meadow. During Elul, God is right here with us, so close we could almost reach out and touch. “The King is in the field” means that God is completely accessible to us. If we open our hearts, we might feel God’s presence, ready to hear whatever we need to say.

Of course, I believe that God is always accessible to us – that we can pray whenever and wherever and however we need to, and we will be heard, even if we don’t get an answer. But I love the idea that during this last month of the old year, God is extra available. We might even say, “Whoa: God is in this place!” Because every place can be a place of holiness, and justice, and love, a place where we connect with something beyond ourselves. Except we’re human and we keep forgetting. And then we remember again. 

Screen Shot 2022-09-07 at 3.17.03 PM

Elul is when many of us start thinking about teshuvah again. Teshuvah literally means either “answer,” or “turning around.” Often it’s translated as repentance or return. Teshuvah can be a year-round practice: noticing our actions and our patterns, checking whether we messed up and need to make amends, doing inner work so we won’t make the same mistakes again. We can do that all the time. Regardless, that work intensifies now, as the holidays approach.

If teshuvah is an answer, what’s the question? I think the question is very simple: who do we choose to be?

Screen Shot 2022-09-07 at 3.17.11 PM

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become.” He lived in the 5th century BCE, around the same time that the Torah was written down in its final form.

He said we become what we choose, what we think, and what we do. My teacher Reb Zalman z”l did say “the mind is like tofu: it takes on the flavor of whatever you marinate it in.” Our thoughts definitely can impact us. Then again, Judaism doesn’t generally treat thoughts as sins. We’re much more concerned with choices and actions – and their impacts. 

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, is full of mitzvot – commandments. Some of them cry out to be reinterpreted, like the instructions for how to “marry” a captive in wartime. Others still ring clear. Here are four that jumped out at me this week:

  • Don’t abuse someone who works for you. (Deut. 24:14)
  • Don’t subvert the rights of the stranger or the orphan. (Deut. 24:17)
  • Leave the gleanings of the fields for the poor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan -- in other words, those at most risk of harm. (Deut. 24:19)
  • Always remember the story of our enslavement and then our liberation – and let that ancestral memory fuel how we treat others. (Deut. 24:22)

What would it look like to live up to these mitzvot? Not abusing our workers. Not subverting or abusing the rights of the vulnerable. Feeding the hungry. Remembering that the Jewish people has known hardship before, and therefore it’s on us to help those who are now in tight straits. Honestly, it sounds like a recipe for a pretty great society, if we can pull it off!

Who do we choose to be? I hope we will choose to be people who do teshuvah: noticing our actions and our patterns, checking whether we messed up and need to make amends, doing inner work so we won’t make the same mistakes again… and then, from that place of inner transformation, doing what we can to bring repair.

Shabbat shalom.

 

This is the d'varling I gave at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)


Abandon

 

כִּֽי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי וַֽיהֹוָ֣''ה יַאַסְפֵֽנִי׃

"Though my father and mother abandon me, God will take me in.” (Psalm 27:10)



It’s the start of Elul 
and these words
stick in my throat.

They’d grown so tired.
I told them it was okay,
they could go. But right now

it isn’t okay. They won’t
ever sit at my table again.
Their voices are silent.

All the high holidays
I haven’t lived yet
stretch ahead of me

without parents,
just still photos
behind the lit candle.

It’s a scant six months
since we buried him
on his side of the bed. 

Having no parents
is so much more (or less)
than having only one.




A week with the Bayit board

Beaver

I load my car with my guitar, my computer, tallit and tefillin, giant note pads and brightly-colored markers, a pair of shofarot, and drive north -- for a while. This year's gathering spot for our annual Bayit board retreat is a lakeside cottage by Lac-St.-Pierre, in western Quebec's "cottage country."

We brainstorm. We bring in a few board members via Zoom, though spotty rural internet means sometimes we use speakerphone instead. We sit around with guitars and an occasional ukelele. We enjoy the water, the cricket-song, the calls of ducks (who seem to me to quack ouai, Quebec-style.) 

We talk about where the last year has taken us -- books and liturgical arts and a blog and slides for sharing and spiritual games -- and brainstorm what we want to build in the year to come. What tools and systems do people need? What ideas can we incubate, playtest (or praytest), refine, share? 

52307307060_83e0f5fcac_c

We daven by the lake: sometimes with our feet in the clear water, sometimes in boats, sometimes in the lake joined by darting fish and intrepid ducks. We sing Adon Olam to the tune of "O, Canada." We roast kosher marshmallows over a crackling fire and watch the sparks soar. We laugh a lot. 

We talk about Bayit's mission and vision. About books. Ethics. Essays. Liturgy. Art. Music. Games. We talk about the power of convening across difference, and what can flow from that. We study Rav Kook on teshuvah. We talk about Jewish spiritual technologies for getting through difficult times.

We walk down to the dock at night, and lie on our backs, and marvel at more stars than most people ever get to see. We can see the Milky Way stretching out ahead of us. It is spectacular. I think it could entice people who don't normally think about God to think about Mystery and meaning.

52309146090_0c5b52495c_c

We spend an afternoon with human rights activist Michelle Douglas, who ended "the Purge" of LGBTQ+ people in the Canadian army, talking about justice and reparations and repair. We sit with Michelle and a diverse group of local Jewish leaders to talk about justice and the spiritual work of allyship.

We teach each other new melodies. Sometimes the red squirrels chitter along with us or the loons trill in response.  We sit on a deck surrounded by cedar and pine forest, and plan Kabbalat Shabbat services for Capital Pride. We talk about building an ethic of social justice, and writers who help us get there.

After board meetings and vision sessions, after roundtable community conversations, after plans and action items, we segue into Shabbes. Harmony and prayer, leisurely learning and music, a "foretaste of the world to come" -- not least because it caps such a sweet a week of preparing to build anew.

 

 

Cross-posted to Builders Blog

 


The Mitzvah: Lessons from Va'etchanan for Now

Screen Shot 2022-08-12 at 10.41.16 PM

In this week's Torah portion, Va'etchanan, Moshe continues to recount the major events of the last 40 years. The Torah is approaching its end. Moshe's life is approaching its end. This Jewish year is approaching its end. And before all of those things happen, Moshe gets his swansong -- he gets to give one very long speech on the banks of the Jordan. That's what's happening at this moment in our Torah reading cycle. This week, among other things, Moshe retells the giving of the Ten Commandments.

The giving of the Torah is framed as a covenant, a two-way agreement. Moshe reiterates that that covenant isn't between our ancestors and God -- it's an eternal covenant between God and us, we who are living. The Ten Commandments begin, אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְהֹוָ֣''ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ, "I am YHVH your God."  They start with a reminder that God is our God -- and wow, there's a question for the ages: what does it mean to say "my God"? How is my relationship with God my own? How is your relationship with God uniquely yours?

The whole verse is, "I am YHVH your God Who brought you out of constriction, out of the house of bondage." (Deut. 5:6) The first commandment, Jewishly speaking, isn't commanding us per se -- it's reminding us. God is our God -- mine, and yours, and yours, and yours. "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Leah, God of Rachel," as the amidah prayer says. Each of us has a relationship with the Holy. And each of us is brought out of constriction into freedom.

Maybe "the G-word" doesn't speak to you. The Hebrew name YHVH seems to be a unique version of the verb to be, simultaneously implying Was and Is and Will Be, or we might say Being itself -- or, better, Becoming. What does it mean to be in relationship with the force behind becoming, to find holiness in the reality of transformation and change? What does it mean to be in relationship with justice and with lovingkindness -- two of the qualities our tradition says are manifest both in God and in us? 

The teacher of my teachers, Reb Zalman z"l, used to quote R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev -- "The God you don't believe in, I might not believe in, either." Reb Zalman would've wanted to shift the conversation away from theology -- what we do or don't believe about God -- and instead toward when and how we experience something beyond ourselves. When and how do we experience justice or love or holiness or change? And do we let that experience shape our actions in the world? 

In Deuteronomy 6:1, we read:

וְזֹ֣את הַמִּצְוָ֗ה הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֑ם

"This is the Instruction -- the chukim and mishpatim -- that your God YHVH has commanded [me] to impart to you..."

Chukim means engraved-commandments. Like the mitzvah of brit milah, which is literally inscribed on some of our bodies. Or the mitzvah of kashrut, Jewish dietary practice. Chukim are mitzvot that operate on levels beyond the rational. And mishpatim means justice-commandments, interpersonal and ethical mitzvot. In context here, this is a big lead-up to whatever Moshe is about to say next. Drumroll please! Whatever Moshe is about to say is core to our tradition, even more than the so-called Big Ten.

The Instruction -- the Mitzvah in question -- is a passage of Torah we call the Sh'ma and V'ahavta. It's part of daily prayer. We recite it when we lie down and when we rise up; we teach it to our generations; we speak about this mitzvah when we are at home, and when we're out in the world. This passage tells us to listen up; to love God with all we've got; to keep reciting these words, learning them and teaching them wherever we are. And, again: whether or not we "believe in God," these words still have power. 

I looked to see what some of our meforshim, the classical commentators, said about these words. Rashi (who lived around the year 1100) says that the commandment to "love God" means to do the mitzvot out of a sense of love, rather than out of a sense of fear, e.g. fear of punishment. One who does mitzvot out of love is considered to be at a higher spiritual level than someone who only does mitzvot because they're afraid of what might happen if they don't. It's better to be motivated by love than by fear. 

Ibn Ezra says: in antiquity the word lev, heart, also meant mind. For him, the way we love God with all our heart is by always learning, always going deeper into our texts and traditions. And arguably the more Torah we learn, the more mitzvot we'll feel called to do. That's the opinion of the commentator known as the Sforno. He says these verses come to help us recognize that when we love God, we'll take joy in doing mitzvot, because there's nothing better than doing what brings joy to our Beloved.

Okay: so maybe loving God means doing mitzvot out of love instead of fear. And maybe loving God is something we express through learning. And maybe it's about finding joy in doing what's right, because  when we do what's right, we bring joy to our Creator. This year, what jumps out at me is the placement of these verses in our seasonal cycle. Rosh Hashanah begins six weeks from tomorrow. Tomorrow in our Reverse Omer journey we'll begin the week of Yesod, which means Foundations or Generations.

What could be more foundational to Judaism than the sh'ma and v'ahavta? We affirm the unity that underpins the universe. Twice a day we remind ourselves to love God, to put these words on our hearts and teach them to our generations and affix them to our doorposts. We use these words to mark our transitions in space (a mezuzah reminds us to pause and notice the sacred when we come and go.) And we use these words to mark our transitions in time: evening and morning, lying down and rising up.

Six weeks before Rosh Hashanah, we reach these verses in our cycle of Torah readings. It's almost if the Torah herself is whispering to us: hey, y'all, the holidays are coming. And maybe we've let our spiritual practices slide, lately. Maybe because it's summer and we're distracted. Or because the world is a Lot, between the news headlines and the climate crisis and monkeypox and whatever else, and we're distracted. Or because we have too much to do and we're distracted. Or we're... just distracted.

This week's Torah portion reminds us:

Stop and breathe.

Listen, and remember the Oneness beneath all things.

Stop to pray the v'ahavta. Cultivate the intention and the ability to love.

Stop to kiss the mezuzah. Be mindful in comings and goings.

Stop to focus on the mitzvot that shape our lives at home and when we're out in the world. The logical mitzvot, and the ones that transcend logic. The spiritual mitzvot and the ethical mitzvot. The ones between us and our Source, and the ones between us and each other.

Take these words, and place them on our hearts. Let them inform the actions of our hands. Let them be a headlamp between our eyes to illuminate our path.

Do these spiritual practices, and teach them to those who come after us, because they are tools to help us through whatever comes.

What if we made a point of that, over these next six weeks? What if we made a point of stretching our spiritual muscles twice a day, every day for the next month and a half? How might that change our experience of Rosh Hashanah, and our experience of the new year that will follow? Spiritual practice doesn't change the cards we're dealt or the world we live in, but it can shift how we experience things. An invitation to give that a try. And in six weeks, you can tell me what kind of difference it makes. 

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog on our new website.) 


Womb


At the bend of the river
there's a pond we don't call
the womb of the world, though we could --
this patch of deep water reflecting
tall purple loosestrife.
The pond is a womb, the world
is a womb. Emerge glorious
and dripping, emerge like Chava
radiant and new. Then listen
to cricketsong's rise and fall --
the One Who speaks us into being
the One Who enwombs all creation
is murmuring blessing over
and over, telling us who we are.

 


Who Are We? Lessons from D'varim for Now

 

"אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־כּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן…"

"These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan..." (Deut. 1:1)

Banks-of-the-jordan-river-1839-munir-alawi

Photograph by Munir Alawi, 1839: the banks of the Jordan.

These are the opening words of this week's Torah portion, and the opening words of the book of D'varim, Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is the last of the Five Books. If we're starting Deuteronomy, then the Days of Awe must be just around the corner.

(They are.)

This is the moment in our ancestral story when we pause and take stock. The children of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness for forty years -- in Torah's language, a lifetime.

So we encamp by the river, and Moshe tells the story of the wilderness wandering. He's speaking to the generation born in the wilderness -- those who experienced the Exodus are now gone. When he's done retelling the story, he will cross over into whatever comes after this life. The people will cross over into the next chapter of their journey. And we will cross over into 5783, a new year full of unknowns.

For Moshe and the children of Israel, this is a moment to pause and take stock of where we've been, who we've been, and what we want to carry forward. Of course, the same is true for us every year when we reach this point in our story.

It's a little bit like the moment in Disney's cartoon Amphibia where the protagonist Anne looks at the blank page inscribed, "Who am I?"

Tumblr_354f61b851495ba01af557588fabf656_782d02f0_1280

Asking the question of herself helps her realize that she chooses to be someone who does the right thing. As Jews, we ask ourselves that question all the time. Some of us nightly before the bedtime shema. Some of us weekly, before Shabbat. All of us annually, before the Days of Awe. Which is to say... now.

In the midst of this, here comes Moshe in this week's Torah portion, retelling the story of the scouts.

Screen Shot 2022-08-04 at 8.06.23 PM

 

Remember Shlach? The giant grapes? Mirror illustration by Steve Silbert.

Remember, twelve men went into the Land. They retrieved giant grapes. They said they felt like grasshoppers compared to the giants they saw there. When they came back, ten of them said "we can't do this," and only two said "sure we can." And the people believed the ten who despaired.

So God said, if the people don't have faith, they won't enter the land. This whole generation that knew slavery is going to die in the wilderness, except for Joshua and Caleb.

Moshe tells that story more or less the way we heard it the first time. But he makes one significant change. "Because of you," he says, "יהו''ה was incensed with me too, saying: You shall not enter it either."

Hold up. That's not the reason Torah gave for why Moshe won't enter the land!

DQli11309745

An artist's rendering of what actually kept Moshe out of the Land of Promise.

God makes that call when Moshe angrily hits a rock to make it produce water, instead of speaking to it as God instructed him. We might quibble with that decision-making. Was it really fair for God to punish Moshe that much for one moment of anger? But fair or not, that's definitely how the story went.

And now Moshe's changing it up. He's conveniently forgetting that the reason he won't live to enter the Land is because he chose violence instead of speech. It's because of his own actions and choices -- not because the people lost faith.

As our ancestral story pauses on the banks of the Jordan, we're at the edge of a new year. Because it's human nature, maybe we're tempted to do what Moshe just did: to retell the story of the last year in a way that avoids taking responsibility.

Where do we want to pretend away our own poor choices? How often do we want to say, "it's their fault," pointing a finger at someone else because that feels more comfortable than admitting that we messed up? 

It's okay to feel the impulse to do what Moshe did. It's not okay to actually follow in his footsteps here. Our spiritual tradition asks us to do better than that. 

This is the inner work of teshuvah -- repentance; return; turning our lives around. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes that there are five specific steps to repentance work:

1. Owning the harm perpetrated (ideally publicly) / 2. Do the work to become the kind of person who doesn't do harm (which requires a ton of inner work) / 3. Make restitution for harm done, in whatever way possible / 4. THEN apologize for the harm caused in whatever way that will make it as right as possible with the victim / 5. When faced with the opportunity to cause similar harm in the future, make a better choice

(I can't wait for her new book on this subject, On Repentance and Repair, due just before Rosh Hashanah.)

Unfortunately we don't get to see Moshe doing this kind of repentance work. He blames his misfortune on somebody else -- the scouts who brought back a negative report. Tradition teaches that the scouts returned with that negative report on Tisha b'Av, which begins tonight -- though it's Shabbat, so we'll observe the day on Sunday instead.

Tisha b'Av is a day of mourning. In addition to being the anniversary of the scouts' screw-up, Tisha b'Av is the date when Babylon destroyed the first Temple, the date when Rome destroyed the second Temple, the date when the first Crusade began in 1096. Also the date of many other tragedies visited on the Jewish people through our history.

Tradition also teaches that the 9th of Av is the day when moshiach will be born -- the messiah, redemption, ultimate hope, or maybe the age or era when the work of healing creation will be complete. It's as though recognizing that wow, the world is really broken can be the first step toward repair.

(It can.)

On Sunday we'll take first steps toward the repair inherent in a new year, full of new possibility. We'll begin the reverse Omer count -- 49 days until Rosh Hashanah. In the spring, after Pesach, we count seven weeks of the Omer as we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew at Sinai on Shavuot. Now, as fall approaches, we count seven weeks as we prepare ourselves to enter a new year.

So much has happened in the last year that it may feel like a lifetime. 

Who have we been, over the lifetime of the last year? When were we hopeful, and when did we despair? What do we feel proud of, and what do we wish we could pretend never happened (or wish we could blame on someone else)? What's the inner work we need to do, in order to do the outer relational and healing work that others can see?

Rosh Hashanah begins seven weeks from Sunday night. Who have we been this year, and who will we choose to become?

D3F0R6ll

 

This is the d'varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog at the new CBI website.) 


Since

since the election
since Nazis marched
in Charlottesville
since the pandemic started
and we ran out of PPE
and that guy suggested drinking bleach

since facts became debatable
(like how viruses work
and whether science is real)
since Kentucky flooded
since the tarmac at Heathrow
melted from extreme heat

since monkeypox
and sly insinuations
since Don't Say Gay
and teachers hiding who they are
and students hiding under desks
since I lost track of school shootings

since that time they said
"it doesn't matter
if we lose, we'll just
claim victory" and then did
since smashed windows in the Capitol
since Confederate flags

since democracy buckled
since I realized
democracy had been buckling
for a long time
since misinformation
since SCOTUS erased rights

since fear-mongering
about "groomers"
about "critical race theory"
since the latest flyer
blaming everything on
hook-nosed yarmulke-wearers

since I realized
how much they hate us
since it became unsafe
to be 
since I realized
it's never been safe

 


I've been poking at this poem for a while. There's a sense that life's just been a lot lately. I'm noticing it in conversations, in pastoral interactions, everywhere I go. So many things are broken. "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work," in the words of my poetry mentor Jason Shinder z"l, so that feeling became the impetus for the poem. 

Tisha b'Av is in a few days. Seems like an apt time to be sitting with what's broken. 

I think a lot about how catastrophe is not a new story for us as Jews. The Jewish people has endured difficult times before, and our tradition gives us tools for navigating times like these with integrity and perhaps even grace. This year I think we're all living in this brokenness, which is why this year I'll be using Tisha b'Av to harness hope. (Join us on Zoom if you are so inclined.)


Choice

Content warning: miscarriage, rape, child abuse, forced birth.  Please take care of yourself: if reading about any of those things would cause you harm, skip this poem.


1. Miscarriage

Thirteen years ago I went to sleep pregnant and woke with thick clots sticky on my thighs. Swamped with blood and despair, I pleaded please God please don't let this be a miscarriage, but my prayer was null. That pregnancy was already over. At least my body expelled the tissue without incident. I didn't go septic. And back then if I'd needed a doctor, I could have entered any public hospital, even in a red state. If it happened today I could be like the woman sent home from the hospital to wait for infection to set in. Or the one sent home to fill a bathtub with blood because the D&C she needs is now against the law. She says they'll stop trying to conceive: in the state where she lives, it's no longer safe. Grief and rage rise in me like a hurricane, like a tsunami, like the flood of blood I couldn't stop.


2. As if

as if
the agony of our bodies betraying us
weren't enough

now 
we might be blamed for feticide
we might be jailed

hemorrhaging
we might have to beg the pharmacist for drugs 
they still might say "I can't help you" 

 

3. Weep

For the one who knows a second bout with postpartum depression will be fatal.
For the one with preexisting conditions for whom pregnancy means death.

For the one shadowed with bruises, trapped in an abusive marriage.
For the rape victim now twice forced

For the pregnant child, almost certainly violated 
by someone they know, body wracked and changed.

For the one forced to carry a dead fetus to term and labor to birth it. 
For the one who just doesn't want to get pregnant.

For everyone now realizing that if they get impregnated, a cluster of cells trumps.
For everyone who's known that choice is not enough, and could be taken away.

 

4. Questions

Which is worse: being jailed for miscarriage
or forced into giving birth?
Had you considered that question before this year?

Did you previously understand
the Supreme Court could strip away bodily autonomy
as though it were a dress we no longer get to wear?

If your answer is no: are you white, affluent, cisgender,
straight, and/or temporarily able-bodied?
Do you think those adjectives will protect you now?

 

 


 

I don't live in a forced-birth state, though the GOP is already talking about banning abortion nationwide if they gain control of the Senate in November.

For now I'm thankful that I retain autonomy over my own body, and I grieve and rage for everyone for whom that is no longer true (and/or was never functionally true -- I'm aware that for many, the promise of "choice" was meaningless without access and resources.)

My practice is to grieve and rage (and write furious poems) when I need to, and then find something I can do to help people who have it worse than I do. If you have a few dollars to spare, donate to the NCJW Jewish Fund for Abortion Access. It doesn't fix what's broken, but it will help.