A barukh she'amar for Shavuot morning

48144636867_a9dbbaeb3a_cThe Torah of knobby roots
protruding from sandy earth.
The Torah of watch your step
in every language at once.
The Torah of Duolingo lessons
teaching me to praise God
for Duolingo lessons.
The Torah of my heart,
a fragile paper balloon
buoyed by candlelight.
The Torah of silence, broken
by an unexpected dance beat.
The Torah of small cats.
The Torah of photographs.
The Torah of chlorophyll
singing its exuberant chorus
across these green hills.
The Torah of saying what's true.
The Torah of uneven stones
and wildflowers between them.
The Torah of tracing
this curving path, trusting
it goes where I need to go.


One drop

A-drop-in-the-ocean-david-parker

"A Drop in the Ocean" by David Parker.

I talk to friends in Israel. They tell me everyone knows someone who is connected with the hostages. About the protests outside the Prime Minister's house. How the hostages are on posters everywhere, in public art pieces everywhere, how theirs have become household names even for those who didn't know them. How every baby they see reminds them of Kfir Bibas, kidnapped at 9 months, now 17 months. Some of them tell me how it feels to send a son or daughter or sibling or grandchild off to fight Hamas, knowing that some will not come home again. After eight months, no one is the same.

I read the words of friends with loved ones in Gaza. They tell me about the destruction. Buildings collapsing, tens of thousands dead, two hospitals now the sites of mass graves. The rubble, the hunger, the fear. How even the places where people had run to seek refuge don't seem to be safe anymore. When the IDF bombs a school, many don't believe the goal was taking out some number of Hamas fighters embedded within. Why would they believe the IDF or the Israeli government? They trust neither. They believe the goal is to wipe them all out, or to cause as much damage as possible.

I wake to the news that four Israeli hostages are home, rescued by the IDF. Three of them are in their twenties, kidnapped from the Nova music festival. I'm old enough that they look like kids to me. The image of Noa Argamani reuniting with her father overwhelms me with emotion. I imagine what's going through his heart and mind, seeing his daughter alive after 245 days of fearful wondering. I imagine what's going through hers. One Israeli special forces police officer died from wounds sustained in the rescue. I imagine that person's family and their grief. Does this feel "worth it," to them?

Meanwhile, at least 125 were killed in the strike on Nuseirat that enabled the rescue. Or maybe 210 dead and 400 injured, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Or the "Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry," in the words of Ha'aretz. (Some don't believe the IDF; others don't believe the Gaza Health Ministry.) No one seems to dispute the fact that most of those killed and injured are women and children. I read descriptions of hospital hallways teeming with the wounded. I imagine what's going through the hearts and minds of those families, and the families of the dead. Who do they blame for their grief?

Sometimes it is impossibly surreal that here and there are happening at the same time. Sometimes it's hard to see the beauty of here because we're so caught up in feeling-with them there. (Which "them," which "there"? Fill in the blank for yourself.) I don't think I know anyone who cares about Israelis or Palestinians who is okay this year, much less anyone who aspires to care about both. How to rejoice for the four who've been brought home, when hundreds of other lives ended in the process and peace seems nowhere in sight? How to taste a single drop of joy intermixed with this vast salt sea of sorrow?

 

 


Exodus


Trudging on treadmills
and surrounded by vacuum, tired
of freeze-dried anything
we'll kvetch: why did you bring us
out here to die? Was the climate crisis
really so dire?

Like our ancient ancestors
craving cucumbers and melons,
the thirsty tastes
of fertile crescent,
nothing to eat but manna
every blistering day.

Maybe a captain, frayed to the end
of his connector cable
will snap: I can't anymore
with you ungrateful wretches,
go eat hydroponic lettuce
until it comes out your nose.

What liturgies will we write
remembering this green Eden?
What revelation will we receive
in ownerless wilderness
wandering across the vastness
between stars?

 

 

Why did you bring us? Ex. 14:11. Cucumbers and melons. Numbers 11:5I can't anymore. Numbers 11:11. Until it comes out your nose. Numbers 11:20. Ownerless wilderness. We receive(d) Torah in a place that is hefker, ownerless; some say, we receive when we ourselves become hefker.

The idea of seeking a new home among the stars is still science fiction. But I can imagine a hypothetical generation of space refugees behaving like the Children of Israel in the wilderness, stiff-necked and grousing. Mostly I wish I could be a fly on the wall to see the liturgies they would write.

 


If: Behukotai 5784 / 2024

If-square


If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit…you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. (Lev. 26:3-5)

In the past I’ve read these opening verses in part as an environmental teaching. If we live in a way that’s aligned with the mitzvot, we’ll be laying the groundwork for a healthy planet. Last week’s parsha Behar (often read as a double portion with this week’s Behukotai) talks about the mitzvah of shmitah, letting the earth rest in every seventh year. In an era of climate crisis, we know that treating the earth in a transactional way that privileges profit over sustainability will lead to woe – like the curses listed later in this parsha.

All of that still resonates. But this year I got caught on the phrase “you shall… dwell securely in your land.” And all I can think is: halevai – would that it were so! 

The idea of dwelling securely feels almost laughable. The horrors of October 7th shattered a sense of safety and security for many of our Israeli friends and family. Violence across the West Bank and the war in Gaza have shattered any sense of safety or security for Palestinians. Torah’s promise is so far from the reality we see in the news and on social media that it draws me up short. 

There’s no practical comparison between our life here and the lives of Israelis or Palestinians – we’re not living under rocket fire or aerial bombardment. Still, I know that many of us don’t feel wholly safe and secure in this land either. The fact that our synagogue has been locked ever since the hostage crisis at CBI Colleyville is testament to that. 

Some immediately blamed prominent Jews for the results in this week’s jury trial of the former president, and the resurgence of that antisemitic conspiracy theory makes many of us anxious. Meanwhile I know that many of us are experiencing vitriol aimed at Zionists or Israelis as a blow to our own hearts and our sense of belonging. 

There’s a difference between feeling unsafe and being unsafe, but both take a toll.

I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled…no sword shall cross your land. [Your army] shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall give chase to 100, and 100 of you shall give chase to 10,000… (Lev. 26:6-8)

I have mixed feelings about Torah’s promise of routing enemies. I understand why superior power is the dream of every oppressed people! And yet I wish Torah could have promised, “You and those whom you understand as enemies will become able to see a better path forward.” But I don’t think that perspective was viable in antiquity. 

Honestly, it doesn’t always feel viable now. Even though I share our prophets’ yearnings for the day when swords will be beaten into plowshares… and poet Yehuda Amichai’s yearning to go even further:

Don’t stop after beating the swords
into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating
and make musical instruments out of them.
Whoever wants to make war again
will have to turn them into plowshares first.

(Someone’s actually doing that, by the way – a group called Armory of Harmony.)

Images

This print features that Amichai poem in Hebrew, and is available from the artist here

These verses remind me of the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, the one that says that if we follow the mitzvot we’ll get the rains in their seasons and will receive all that we need. (The one that our siddur leaves out, because its editors found its promise too transactional.) 

I agree that a purely transactional reading fails us. If our reason for doing mitzvot is that we’ll get rewarded, that’s liable to fall apart the first time we realize that the wicked often prosper, and that terrible things can happen to good people who live an upright and mitzvah-filled life. 

But I find meaning in that part of the Sh’ma when I interpret it in a less literal way, as we did this morning. I think we can do the same here. 

The word hok, a type of mitzvah, is related to the root meaning to engrave. Hukkim are the mitzvot that are carved on us, or the ones we carve on our own hearts through repetition and through allowing ourselves to be changed. Think of how water wears away stone to form channels through which it can flow. 

The verbs telkhu and tishm’ru, “walk” and “keep,” remind us that the mitzvot are our path. As the Ahad Ha-Am said of Shabbat, “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” It’s true of all of the mitzvot: we keep them, and they keep us.That’s how we acquire betah, faith or trust. 

JPS renders betah as “dwell securely,” but this isn’t the kind of security that might come with an alarm system. It’s inner security, it’s faith. If we walk a path of keeping mitzvot and letting them keep us, that’s how we can live in trust, or have trust live in us. This may be a tall order in these days of rising antisemitism and continuing anxiety and fear for all of our beloveds in the Middle East. But I think it’s the invitation that Torah offers us. 

Still, what can we do to reinterpret the verse about our enemies falling before us by the sword? In the daily amidah, there’s a line of prayer that asks God for a time when our enemies will have no hope. It’s become common practice in liberal Jewish circles to replace “enemies” with “enmity.” May enmity itself wither and disappear from the earth. 

The commentator known as the Sforno understands the verse about giving chase to our enemies as: “without even needing to fight them.” In other words: maybe someday when humanity is wholly aligned with a path of right actions and justice, warfare will just… become obsolete.  Enmity itself will disappear. 

Most of our commentators don’t make that kind of interpretive move. Then again, most of our sages lived in eras when Jews faced persecution: R. Yochanan ben Zakkai during the first Roman-Jewish war, Rashi during the Crusades, Rambam who fled from Iberia with his family, the Hasidic masters during the era of pogroms and the Holocaust. It’s a sobering reminder that even those of us living in American comfort, far from today’s sites of bloodshed, carry ancestral memory of centuries of persecution and hatred.

But we also still carry Torah’s promise. It’s up to our generation and the generations to come to build toward a world in which enmity will fall by the wayside. A world in which all can live with betah, complete trust and safety. Because here’s another thing I noticed this year: Torah promises that we will live securely in our land, and in the next verse, that God will grant shalom to the land. I like to understand that to mean: we’ll live with faith and trust and safety wherever we are, and wholeness and peace will come to everyone. 

Here’s what I hear Torah saying to us this year:

 

If you walk in the paths of the mitzvot, and
let them be carved on your heart and mind, and
allow yourself to be shaped and changed by them...
Then you’ll become aware of the rains in their season –
sustenance and hope flowing to you from beyond you.
And there will be times in your life when you can’t feel that flow,
just like there are seasons in Jerusalem when the rain doesn’t fall.
But you’ll find that whatever you have, is enough to get you through.
Then you will be filled with fundamental faith and trust wherever you are.
And there will be wholeness and peace everywhere.
And you will be able to lie down and truly rest
and enmity itself will disappear.
And I will be ever-present in your midst:
God, Who brought you out of the narrow place
so that you can live in a way that is upright,
ethical and unbowed.

 

 

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.)


Body

Dinner table conversation
about the vast currents
that warm European waters
slowing. I imagine
great swaths of American south
so hot a fall on asphalt burns
while Britain ices over.
The second one, at least,
hasn't yet come to pass.
In the morning I daven
asher yatzar, gratitude
for this body that mostly works:
the vessels stay open,
the organs stay sealed.
I tell myself no matter what
there will be generations
to carry this prayer forward.
Though in a time
of mass extinctions
(and no one actively hates
the frogs or mice or insects
the way some people
persist in hating us)
I'm not so sure.
I don't want to imagine
a world free of Jews
but they do. Then again
we may have bigger problems.
Who will be left to pray
gratitude for the body
of our planet
if currents fail?

 


 

This poem arises out of the confluence of climate grief and rising antisemitism -- a combination I know many of us are feeling keenly. The poem is also a bit more bleak than reality, or at least, I hope it is.

The folks at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution make a solid case that the complex system of currents known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation will slow but will not fail. And although right now many of us are navigating significant fear (as R. Jeffrey Salkin writes, fear of antisemitism to our left and to our right), I truly do believe that Judaism will persist.

Still, if this poem resonates with you in any way, you're not alone. 


Dissonance

A colleague mentioned that they are taking time away because of the particular exhaustion and grief of trying to serve a divided community after October 7. I wonder how many of us can relate to that.

There's the pain of October 7: still reverberating in almost everyone I know, whether we're there or here, no matter what our politics. I don't even want to write about the nightmare of that day.

There's the pain of the war that has followed. I know that it's laughable to speak about that from the comfortable vantage of here. But watching what's unfolding in Israel and Gaza hurts the soul.

I don't want to write about that either. Surely none of us need more words about the horrors of what we're seeing. Even from this distance, the images lodge in our souls like emotional shrapnel.

There's the pain of how people here respond to how other people here respond to events there. There's the pain of communities here torn apart by disagreements about what's happening and why.

Generations and friends, not speaking to each other: furious, betrayed. One says: but why don't they care about Israeli hostages? One says: but why don't they care about Palestinians enduring famine?

It's like they don't even care about [Israeli] [Palestinian] suffering at all. And that becomes its own source of moral injury: how am I supposed to be in community, Rabbi, with someone who...  

I want to say: we are all grieving. Maybe that simple, terrible truth can be our common ground when nothing else feels steady. For all of us, hasn't 5784 been a year of constant, unrelenting grief? 

Amidst all of this, on Facebook a poet friend posts a graphic saying "The aim was always ethnic cleansing." I know who's being accused, and I know that by and large, the poetry community agrees.

I don't say: Whose aim? Are you talking about Bibi and Ben-Gvir, or all Israelis, or all Jews? I don't say anything. I'm not sure I have the resilience to take the emotional hit from the argument.

I do search the phrase, "the aim was always ethnic cleansing." The first hit is BreakThrough News, which has disturbing origins. I wonder whether those who share the meme would care.

There's so much cognitive dissonance. And then there's the constant question: is this metaphorical heartache / metaphysical heartache, or do I need to tuck a nitroglycerin under my tongue?


Translation

 

This translation algorithm
must be an angel: it does not speak

Aramaic. But is it not true
that angels can learn anything?

Say rather: Aramaic is the language
of the street, tongue of trade

and commerce, and angels can't
be bothered. But is not Hebrew

now street talk, at least
in one ineffable place? Say instead

the angels have forgotten how to hear
and the algorithms never learned

what yearnings underlie the words
we use to disguise our fragile hearts.


After a week

After a week of Covid, small victories loom large. Like standing in the shower, or staying awake for a few hours without needing a nap.

After a week of Covid I'm extra-grateful for the slow cooker I picked up for $15 at a yard sale the summer I moved into this condo. It is a life-saver when I don't feel well enough to stand over the stove. I comfort myself with slow cooker tom kha gai. Slow-cooker gumbo. Slow-cooker tinga de pollo.

After a week of Covid the trees outside my dining room window have leafed into brilliant green, so green it almost hurts my eyes.

After a week of Covid my teen and I have re-watched half a dozen animated shows about chosen families who try to make the world a better place. They are our comfort food for the soul. 

After a week of Covid the laundry is piling up but carrying it to the washing machine still feels like too big a task.

I realized I had Covid last Shabbat, after I packed my suitcase for the civil rights trip and admitted to myself that the prospect of pulling it through an airport was daunting. It's still sitting in my bedroom. After a week of Covid, I haven't unpacked it.

After a week of Covid, challah dough is rising.


Place of promise

The Presence
has no address,
goes with us
everywhere:
in wholeness
and in exile.

This place
is still
a focusing lens
for our prayers,
though not
only ours.

Stories
land differently
when I can see
the topography
of spring and desert,
valley and hill.

To describe this
place of promise,
I would need
God's voice:
all possible meanings
at once.

 


 

Lately I've been trying to spend less time refreshing the news and more time working on my next poetry manuscript.  The news is grim and there's so little I can do. Despair is corrosive to the spirit. Better to work on making something -- even if that something is just words.

Of course, poetry isn't wholly a distraction from the sorrows of the world. Especially given that this week I've been working on revising a series of poems that originated last year in a trip to Israel / Palestine. (Some of these lines first found form in the blog post Fifty truths, posted last June.) 

A poem is not like an essay or an argument -- at least most of mine aren't. My poems often originate in yetzirah, the sphere of the yearning heart, rather than in briyah, the world of clarity and intellect. For me a poem is more like a painting or a collage, hopefully functioning on an associative level. 

A friend remarked recently that she's never before experienced a situation where so many people are not only utterly divided on an issue, but not even agreeing on basic facts about it. That's another thing that can feel corrosive to the spirit. Another reason that lately I turn to poetry. 

I think of poetry the way I think of midrash: no single poem is "the right answer," but the totality of poetry taken together can offer a glimmer of ultimate reality. That's maybe especially true when it comes to poems about this contested, complicated, beloved place. 


A love letter to song

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Spring 1994: the Williams College Elizabethans outside of our tour bus.

Looking back at college thirty years later, the two most formative experiences and communities for me were the Williams College Feminist Seder project (about which I've written before) and the Elizabethans, the madrigal ensemble of which I was a founding member in January of 1993.

For all four of my years of college we sang together -- if memory serves, for six hours a week? We held concerts. We piled ourselves and our luggage into a school van and drove all over the Northeast (and some of the Mid-Atlantic) bringing our blend of "madrigals and sundry chansons" and geek humor.

I sang with them for a year after college, even though I'd already graduated, because I lived here in town and why not? (The same was true of the Feminist Seder, where I participated for a post-graduate year too.) Every so often we hold reunions, where we catch up and hang out but mostly we sing.

Through the Elizabethans I discovered just how much I adore harmony, and polyphony, and the shared purpose of body, heart, mind, and spirit that make music real. We start as individual beings with notes on a page. And if we do it right, we become -- and co-create -- more than the sum of our parts.

1choir

Spring 2024: the Congregation Beth Israel choir at Tu BiShvat.

A few years ago a new member joined my congregation and asked if I were interested in CBI having a choir. We've had pick-up choirs off and on over the years, and I liked the idea. But we were entering a pandemic and there was no way to sing together safely at that point, before there were vaccines.

Eventually we started singing masked and outdoors at a distance. In time we started singing indoors, starting with simple rounds. (I remember remarking, "we'll never sing Rossi, but that's ok" -- Rossi being a just-post-Renaissance Jewish composer whose work I had sung with the Elizabethans.)

Adam, our director, wrote a setting of the prayer Ahavat Olam that was right at our proximal zone of development. With his encouragement, we started stretching a bit. We learned Shabbat repertoire and High Holiday repertoire. We offered a concert one year at Yom HaShoah; another at Tu BiShvat.

Over the last six months, as the world has turned upside-down, we've continued singing together every week. We're preparing for a Shavuot concert featuring Jewish music from the last several hundred years titled "This, Too, Is Torah" -- celebrating the revelation that flows into our world as song.

Adam's Ahavat Olam has become easy. We learned a Rossi Bar'chu a while back, and we're learning a gorgeous Rossi setting of Psalm 146 right now. I love its many voices and moving lines and gorgeous harmonies. We learn Sephardic melodies and modes as well as Ashkenazi ones. Old music and new.

I love about choral singing the same thing I love about community writ large: together we are more than the sum of our parts. We are all needed, and we all work to make space for everyone's voices. Together we make something beautiful, even sometimes ineffable, that none of us could make alone.

Thirty years ago I never thought I would be fortunate enough to get to be a rabbi for a living -- to do the holy work of serving God and community as my actual job. And I certainly never thought I would be lucky enough to have something akin to the Elizabethans in the synagogue that I'm blessed to serve.

Two other founding members of the Elizabethans live in town -- a therapist, and a librarian -- and both sing in my shul choir now. That brings me extra joy, though I've come to feel connected with all of my fellow singers: the ones I've known for decades, and the ones I've met through the choir itself.

Harmony itself may be the deepest form of prayer my heart knows. Meeting every week to make harmony with others is such a gift to me. Especially during this heartbreaking year of war in Israel and Palestine, and divisions across American Jewish community, harmony matters to me more than ever.

If you are local and you sing, you are welcome. (Learn more: Music at CBI.) All are welcome to attend This, Too, Is Torah at 3pm on June 9 (just please RSVP on that webpage so we know who's coming.) And to my fellow choir members: thank you. Singing with you is one of my life's greatest joys. 

 


Attributes for Now

Attributes for Now 1


The Torah reading for this weekend is a special one that we read on the Shabbat during Pesach: Moshe asks to see God’s face. God says, “no one can see My face and live,” but makes a counter-offer: you stand in this cleft of rock and I will pass by, and you can see My afterimage. That’s what happens, and out of this story comes the passage we call the Thirteen Attributes, which we sing on Yom Kippur. In our singable English version, it goes:

Attributes for Now 2

But some of you have maybe heard me mention that the version we sing on Yom Kippur is truncated from the original passage, which reads as follows:

 

Attributes for Now 3

Oof. Punishing children for the sins of the parents and grandparents, all the way out to four generations? I’m guessing some of us feel a little bit squeamish about that. That’s not how I want to imagine God!  Here’s how I understand the verse, though. For me it’s not about God throwing lightning bolts of punishment at future generations. I see it instead as a description of how trauma works. When there is trauma, it ripples down through the generations.

I’ve been paying a lot of attention recently to how trauma flows through our lineage. In recent historical memory the biggest example is the Holocaust. For earlier generations maybe it was the Expulsion from Spain, or Portugal, or England… or Jerusalem, all the way back in the year 70… or Jerusalem, all the way back in 586 BCE when the first Temple fell. We carry layers of ancestral memory of persecution and tragedy, with the most recent ones on top. 

The last six months in Israel and Palestine have activated a lot of inherited trauma. I know from conversations this week that many of us are activated by watching Free Palestine protests unfold on American campuses. Some of us may be remembering the Kent State massacre in 1970, feeling horrified at the sight of police officers facing off with students. Some of us may feel horrified by some of the pro-Hamas and anti-Israel slogans we may have seen in the news. 

Anybody just feel a spike of adrenaline? My friend and college R. Jay Michaelson wrote a great piece this week about the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is the thing that allowed our ancestors to run from a sabre-toothed tiger. It’s also the chemical released in our brains and bodies when we read a horrific news story, watch an upsetting video, or confront anything that feels like danger. Today’s 24/7 news cycle can keep us awash in cortisol, if we let it. 

I propose that we shouldn’t let it. It’s not spiritually healthy, and it’s not physically healthy, either. It’s the antithesis of Shabbat, which is one of the reasons I think Shabbat is so important and can be so sustaining. And it doesn’t actually help us, nor does it help anyone who is suffering in Israel or Gaza or anywhere. Instead, I invite us to go deeper into these words from this week’s Torah portion, because I think they hold a teaching that we need right now.

Torah here names God as compassion and tenderness, and patience, forbearance, kindness, awareness. What if we could bring those qualities to bear on what we’re seeing on college campuses – could we respond from a more productive and meaningful place? How about bringing those qualities to bear on the experience of reading and discussing the news? How about bringing them to bear on how we treat each other, and ourselves?

Made in the divine image, we can embody everything in this passage. Including the lines from Torah that we cut from our liturgy, the ones about blaming people for the sins of their ancestors. But the Israelis and Palestinians I admire most are the ones who turn away from that impulse, and I want to follow their lead. I want to strengthen kindness and awareness. And when we feel the impulse to lean into the litany of blame, we can turn toward our compassion instead.  

Attributes for Now 4


Speaking of qualities that we and God share, we’re in the first week of counting the Omer, the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. We’ll count in just a moment. The quality our mystics assigned to the day we’ve just begun is
netzah, endurance, within the week of hesed, lovingkindness. Today is a day for cultivating not only our lovingkindness, but our capacity to make that quality last. 

May this day of netzah she’b’hesed strengthen us in bringing enduring kindness to ourselves, to each other, and to the world. 

 Shabbat shalom. 

 

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

The beautiful Omer calendar that appears here is courtesy of Aharon Varady at the Open Siddur Project; find it here. (I found the labyrinth image there too.)

 


Homeless

Caridad-ramos-quote-please-understand-you-are-not-welcome-here

Bearing hatred is exhausting. So is the constant vigilance of wondering who's going to attack next, and from which side. Of course, I have the luxury of meaning that metaphorically. 

In some spaces Jews like me feel unwelcome because we insist on empathy for Palestinians. Self-hating Jew. Why don’t you care about your own people? What about October 7?

(Do you somehow imagine we haven’t been gutted with grief for the inhabitants of Kibbutz Nir Oz, Kibbutz Beeri, the massacred, the slaughtered, the raped, the kidnapped, the hostages?)

In some spaces Jews like me feel unwelcome because we insist on empathy for Israelis. I was with you until you mentioned the hostages. “We don’t want no two states, we remember ‘48!”

(Do you somehow imagine we haven’t been gutted with grief for the inhabitants of Gaza, their homes turned to rubble, entire families wiped out, hospitals in ruins, starving in plain sight?)

The grief is a tsunami and it doesn’t stop. Neither does the anticipation that every time we articulate care about anyone, someone is going to slam us for caring about the wrong side.

It is unpopular to insist on empathy. Because I won't stand for dehumanizing either Israelis or Palestinians, people tell me I am naïve, ignorant of power dynamics, complicit in atrocities. 

Yesterday Micah Sifry wrote about asking pro-Palestinian activists what they mean by liberation. “[The] end of Zionism in our region… completely, from the river to the sea,” one said. 

I have said for years that opposing Israel isn’t necessarily antisemitic. I meant opposing the actions of its government. Opposing the Occupation. Opposing policies or choices or injustices.

Opposing the existence of the state altogether is something different. But saying Israel shouldn’t exist at all suddenly seems almost normative in progressive spaces and literary spaces. 

And other spaces, too. But those are the ones that hurt, because I used to feel at home in them. Now it feels like there’s a purity test, and anyone who professes empathy for Israelis fails it.

This year’s PEN literary awards were canceled because half of the nominees withdrew themselves from consideration, accusing the organization of "false equivalences, equivocation and normalizing."

Years ago I was put on a Self Hating Israel Terrorists list (lovely acronym, no?) because I oppose the Occupation. It's not news that some on the right will slam any Jew who cares about Palestinians.

But being slammed by others on the left for caring about Israelis is new for me, and it's painful in unexpected ways. It's why Guernica withdrawing Joanna Chen's essay was such a gut-punch. 

This morning I read Yardenne Greenspan’s searing essay We Are No Longer Welcome. Much of what she writes resonates with me. Many Jews have lost a sense of safety, a sense of home.

Meanwhile 1.9 million Palestinians and 135,000 Israelis are displaced from their homes. In the face of actual homelessness, these feelings are irrelevant, of course. But I still feel them.  

Rabbi Aaron Brusso wrote about the fifth child – the one who tries to hold complexity. “She wants to love her neighbor and the stranger but neither are interested in loving her.” 

I am, in fact, the fifth of five children in my family of origin. But I feel like that fifth child spiritually, too. For those who won't curtail empathy, right now it's hard to know where to find home.






Getting Ready: Pre-Pesach 5784

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EclipsephasesOn Monday a group gathered at CBI for the eclipse. When we were down to a thin golden crescent of sun, the light became bronzed and strange. The spring peepers were loudly singing their twilight song, the one we hear at seder when we open the door to recite, “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt…” When the sun began to grow, the peepers all stopped singing in the same instant, as if hushed by a celestial conductor.

The morning after the eclipse was Rosh Hodesh Nisan, the start of a new lunar month -- just two weeks until Pesach. Rosh Hodesh Nisan is one of the four times in the year the Talmud calls a new year, and it may be the oldest one. It makes a certain kind of sense to begin a new year in the spring, harnessing the spiritual energy of blooms and leaves along with the spiritual energy of the Exodus, the core story that makes us who we are.

CalendarwheelThe fact that it’s now Nisan also means we’re at the midpoint of the Jewish year, halfway through 5774. Three weeks into this Jewish year, when we were just about to finish the Jewish holiday marathon, came October 7. The war and ensuing humanitarian disaster have compounded our heartbreak several times over. Time has felt out of joint. But here we are. It’s time to get ready for Pesach, which means it’s time for both outward and inward spring cleaning.

The outward cleaning is pretty straightforward. Tradition teaches us to rid our kitchens (for a week) of חמץ / hametz, that which is leavened or can become so: wheat, oats, barley, rye, and spelt. Hametz is related to חָמוּץ / sour: hametz is something that could become fermented. (Think sourdough starter.) Spiritually, hametz is often understood as the puffery of ego and self-importance, or old stories that no longer serve, or stale habits we need to release.

Searching for and discarding inner hametz is the mid-year course correction work. We ask ourselves: where did I intend to go, this year? (Not geographically, but spiritually.) Who did I intend to be? What adjustments do I need to make to get back on track?

This year, the question that keeps coming up is: how do we prepare for Pesach after everything we’ve witnessed and felt over the last six months? Our collective hearts are broken. It’s different from the individual grief of a personal loss. I’ve been thinking about how we are not the first generation to celebrate Pesach during a difficult time. The story of moving from Mitzrayim to freedom was a beacon and a comfort for our ancestors. It can be that for us, too.

Pesach is a communal story of a people – Torah says an erev rav, a mixed multitude – emerging into freedom. This year I’m extra-aware that we’re a mixed multitude. The joke is, "two Jews, three opinions," but when it comes to Israel and Palestine the Jewish community is literally all over the map. Jews are at the forefront of fighting in Gaza, and at the forefront of calls for a ceasefire.

370982_origCan we discard as hametz our stereotypes of each other? If we could do that, what new conversations might we have about what it means to be a Jew in relationship with that beloved land and its inhabitants? Can we step into those waters and trust that we won’t drown?

Pesach is also a personal story. As Torah teaches (Ex. 13:8), “You shall tell your child on that day, this is because of what God did for me when God brought me out of Egypt.” This isn’t an either/or. Pesach is a communal story of rebirth and peoplehood, and an opportunity to feel ourselves lifted free from constriction. 

Inner preparation for Pesach means letting go of what’s keeping us stuck, and affirming our agency to act. We may not be able to change world events. We may not be able to change a diagnosis, or a loss. But we can change how we respond. We can change ourselves.

I return often to the teaching I received from Jason Shinder z”l: “Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work.” (And he got it from Sophie Cabot Black.) He was talking about revising poetry, but it’s true about revising the poem of the self, too. What’s getting in our way? What old stories are holding us back? Our answers point to the hametz we need to discard this year. And sometimes it’s the same hametz we thought we tossed last year or the year before, because the journey of the spirit isn’t linear.

Post_black525Now is the time for letting go of what no longer serves. We could do that anytime. But habits and patterns tend to be self-sustaining, and human beings mostly don’t change on our own. Which is maybe why our tradition gives us opportunities each year, in early fall and in early spring, to tackle this inner work singly and together. We’re each doing our own inner work of seeking and discarding hametz, but we find renewed strength in all doing it at the same time.

On the day of the eclipse, the peepers’ song made me feel a foretaste of the spiritual urgency of seder. And then hearing them stop, as though God had hit a mute button, left me awestruck. I don’t know how they fall silent all at once. Maybe something in them is naturally aligned and connected – like the way a vast flock of birds can take off at once, or a school of hundreds of fish swims in perfect parallel.

I wouldn’t want us to all be in lockstep. Like our ancient ancestors, we’re a mixed multitude, and I believe there’s both strength and wisdom in our diversity. And yet – as our choir could tell you – there is beauty and meaning in lifting our voices together. This is my favorite metaphor for community. We’re not all the same. If we were, there would be no harmony. But we’re aligned, and working together to make something greater than the sum of its parts.

May our inner and outer preparations for Pesach help our souls become more aligned – not the same, but part of a greater whole – so that when seder comes, we’re all as ready as we can be to move out of Mitzrayim together.

 

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


Symbols

Symbols

 

Symbols, This Year

The shankbone is for houses across Israel and Gaza
where the Angel of Death has not passed over.

Maror for the hot tearful bitter sharp pain
of hostages held underground and children imprisoned.

Haroset, for mortar: Gaza bombed to rubble. 
The egg is roasted like charred kibbutz walls. 

Everything is dipped in tears like the sea that closed 
when God rebuked, "My children die, and you sing praises?"

Matzah: cracker of liberation and affliction. (Gazans
approaching starvation know only one of these.)

There’s no place on the seder plate for ambivalence, 
survivors’ guilt, history’s persecutions telescoping into now.

In every generation trauma traps us in Mitzrayim.
Will this be the year we begin to walk free?

 

R. Rachel Barenblat

 


This prayer-poem for Pesach is part of the new collection of poetry, liturgy, and art for Pesach 2024 released earlier this week by Bayit. Click through for This Broken Matzah, available as a downloadable chapbook / PDF of liturgical poetry and art, or as google slides suitable for screenshare. 

Featuring work created in collaboration by the Liturgical Arts Working Group at Bayit, this collection includes work by Trisha Arlin, Joanne Fink, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, Steve Silbert, and R. David Zaslow, and me. 


New poetry, liturgy, and art for Pesach

How do we celebrate Pesach in a year like this one? Everything about the seder lands differently after the last six months. This offering emerges out of grief and hope. No two pieces are coming from exactly the same place. There are so many emotions — even within a single heart, much less around any given seder table.

On behalf of my co-creators at Bayit, I hope these prayers, poems, and works of art will help you make this Pesach what you need it to be.

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Click through for This Broken Matzah, available as a downloadable chapbook / PDF of liturgical poetry and art, or as google slides suitable for screenshare. 

Featuring work created in collaboration by the Liturgical Arts Working Group at Bayit, this collection includes work by Trisha Arlin, Joanne Fink, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, Steve Silbert, and R. David Zaslow -- and of course also me.