On Town resolutions

The editors of the Williams Record asked if I would write an OpEd about last week's Williamstown Select Board meeting, the resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza that was brought to that meeting, and the views of the community I serve on that resolution. Here's a taste of what I wrote:

...Before writing any kind of resolution that aims to speak for the whole Town, I think we need to listen to one another. One of the difficulties in doing so is that we’re often operating with different facts. Not because of disinformation, though there’s plenty of that, but because news from Al Jazeera will be different from news from Ha’aretz, which is different from your Tumblr feed. It can be painful to hear someone who views the conflict through a different lens and is getting their information from a different set of sources, but it’s valuable to learn how to hold multiple truths. 

As a Rabbi, I’m committed to the proposition that all of the Jews who live here belong in Jewish community, no matter what path forward we think is the best way to reach a just and lasting peace. This goal requires us to look for places where we can make common cause instead of focusing on the places where we can’t. It’s not always easy, but I think it’s vital...

Read the whole piece here: Creating a resolution that speaks for more of our Town.


Community Means: Terumah 5784 / 2024

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God spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts;
you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.
And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper;
blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair;
tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood;
oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense;
lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.
And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Ex. 25:1-8)

In this week’s parsha, Terumah, we bring gifts. Everyone brings something different, and everyone has something to bring. Maybe that’s what makes what we build together a mikdash, a holy place. In English, a sanctuary: a sacred space of protection and care. When we co-create safety, then God can dwell among us or within us. (And as always, if the “G-word” doesn’t work for you, substitute something that does: meaning, justice, compassion, hope.) 

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ / va’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham / “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I might dwell within (or among) them.” The Hebrew שָׁכַנְתִּ֖י / shakhanti, “that I might dwell,” shares a root with the name Shekhinah – the Presence of God with us and within us. It’s the same root as the Hebrew word שְׁכוּנָה / shekhunah, neighborhood. The Hebrew אני שוכן / ani shokhein, “I dwell,” is cousin to the Arabic أنا أسكن / ‘anaeskun, “I dwell…”

Torah spends many weeks describing the Mishkan, the portable dwelling place for God that our ancestors built in the wilderness. The story of the mishkan is always also a story about something bigger and deeper. It’s not “just” about the lavish descriptions of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, the hammered gold and copper, the linen and acacia wood. This is Torah’s sacred instruction manual on creating community. Step one: community means everybody. 

Torah reminds us that we build community together, each with our own gifts. The holy work of building community comes with some obligations. First off, we have to respect each others’ offerings and perspectives. We have to remember that together we are more than the sum of our parts. And we have to remember that the way to build a home for the Holy, for truth and justice and compassion and hope, is to all be involved in building it together.

And there’s a corollary, which is that everyone has something to give. I’m not talking about donations, though every community needs funds to keep itself going and ours is no exception. I mean the inner qualities we each bring to the table. Passion and perseverance. Kindness and steadfastness. Community-mindedness. Patience. The fire of justice and activism, and the still waters of care and calmness. The community wouldn’t be whole without all of us. 

This is an easy platitude that can be difficult to live: especially when we disagree, or when we feel afraid, or when emotions run high. This understanding of community asks us to cultivate curiosity about each others’ perspectives and hopes and dreams, and to resist stereotyping each other or writing each other off. This might sound small, but it’s hugely important. I mean, according to Torah, this is literally how we make space for God in our world. 

We make space for God – for justice, for holiness, for our highest ideals – when we all pitch in to build a community that’s broad and resilient enough to be a home for all of us. That’s our aspiration here. Our Jewish community here is for all of us. You belong here – whether you’re a fourth generation local, or you just moved here; whether you were born into Judaism or chose it yourself; whether your Jewishness focuses you inward or outward.

You belong: whether what brings you through the door is spiritual life and practice, or activism and social justice, or music, or mitzvot, or social life and connections. And you belong no matter what path you think will best bring Israel and Palestinians to a just, lasting, and safe peace. We are a tiny synagogue community. Within our fewer-than-100 members we span the gamut of opinions about Israel and Palestine. I know this because y’all have told me so.

This is an upside of smalltown life. I imagine that in a city, people might self-select to different synagogues. But in northern Berkshire, we’re it. Which means we have to find a way to be in community even when we disagree… even about the big questions, like which tune is the right one for Adon Olam. I’m joking, but I also really mean it. Torah’s whole vision of holy community assumes that we are different, and we figure out how to be there for each other anyway.

I am committed to the proposition that we all belong in Jewish community, and that we owe it to each other to make it work. I believe our diversities are the gifts we each bring to the construction of this sacred community. And I believe that in listening to each other, with openness, humility, and care, we make space for that infinite possibility of transformation that our tradition names as God. When we hold space for our differences, we make community holy.

Torah asks us each to bring our gifts if our hearts are so moved. If your heart moves you to do the work of showing up, I’m here to listen and learn. My ask of all of us, including myself, is: come with curiosity. Assume the best of others. And keep an open heart. Bring your gifts, and appreciate what others bring. That’s how holy community is built: not once, but over and over again, in every interaction. Even when it isn’t easy. Maybe especially then. 

I am so glad to be building this community with all of you.

 

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.)


Statistics

Statistics

 




Rockets launched from XXXX into XXXX since October 7: 10,000
XXXX children killed since October 7: 10,000
Percentage of people who just wrote me off because I opened with XXXX suffering: 50
Percentage of people who just wrote me off because I mentioned XXXX suffering: 50
Residential units in XXXX destroyed or rendered uninhabitable: 65,000
XXXX who have moved back to XXXX: 2
Households in XXXX at risk of starvation: 1 in 4
Percentage of children brought to the ER at XXXX hospital now displaying PTSD: 43
Locations across XXXX where women and girls were reportedly XXXX and XXXX: 7
Witnesses who testified to that: 150
Bombs dropped by XXXX on XXXX since October 7: 45,000
Miles of distance in XXXX underground tunnel network in XXXX: 350-450
Square miles in XXXX: 141
XXXX hostages still in XXXXX captivity: 130
Citizens of XXXX displaced by XXXX and XXXX: 200,000
XXXX displaced by XXXX: 1.9 million
Number of opinions held by any two XXXX: 3
XXXX killed by XXXX since October 7: 20,000
XXXX I personally know who support XXXX: 0
XXXX I personally know: 0
Percentage chance that any two people reading this care about the same set of facts: unknown

 


 

I've been struck lately by the realization that part of the reason why we're talking past each other is that we're having entirely different conversations, fueled by entirely different facts. I don't just mean misinformation or disinformation, though God knows there's plenty of that these days. I mean disagreements where each party is working with real facts, but we're getting facts from entirely different sources. Are we reading Al-Jazeera, or Haaretz, or the Jerusalem Post? Are we reading news in English, or in Arabic, or in Hebrew? Which side's suffering is noted in the news outlet we trust, and how much distrust do we feel when presented with the other narrative? How often do we resort to whataboutism? A colleague noted to me a few days ago that people these days are always listening to see whose suffering gets mentioned first -- and if it's the "other side's" suffering, a lot of listeners will mentally check out or write off the person speaking as a supporter of "them," whoever that means. I wrote this poem thinking of Harper's Index (which still exists, it turns out, even though I haven't read the magazine in decades.) Every fact comes from what I consider to be a reputable source (except for the two lines about which readers are ignoring me depending on who they think I support more, which is speculation). I juxtaposed real data, and then blacked it out, making an erasure poem. I imagine that a lot of readers will automatically try to figure out which name or people or term has been obscured: am I making a point about the suffering of these people, or those people? The answer is yes. I'm grieving all of them. I'm grieving all of this. Including the fact that most of us can't have a conversation with someone who sees the situation differently, because we can't agree on which statistics even matter, much less recognize the infinite human suffering behind every number.


Bringing Repair: a d'var Torah for #ReproShabbat

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Every Monday afternoon at Jewish Journeys, there is a new Hebrew word or phrase of the day. We teach the word in each of our classrooms, and when we convene for Tefilah Time (an interlude of song and prayer between one class and the next) we talk about what each group learned. This past Monday our phrase of the day was tikkun olam, repairing the world. 

It’s an apt phrase to be focusing on this week. This week’s Torah portion is called  Mishpatim, which means Laws or Judgments. Torah speaks here about freeing slaves, and and about who’s responsible when somebody’s ox gores somebody else. Torah urges us (again) not to wrong the stranger. And here we also find a verse that shapes the Jewish view of abortion. 

In this week’s Torah portion we read (Ex. 21:22) that if two men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant person and a miscarriage ensues, the person who caused the damage is fined. Fined, not put to death. Torah does not treat the causing of a miscarriage like manslaughter or murder, which in ancient times would have demanded the death penalty. 

Later Jewish jurisprudence holds that the life of the pregnant person is paramount. Once the head has emerged and the baby draws first breath, it is considered an individual life. But a fetus begins as “mere water,” in Talmud’s terms. When there is a conflict between the needs of the fetus and the needs of the person with the womb, the person with the womb takes precedence.

(I wrote about this in greater detail and cited more textual sources last year: Reproductive Justice and the Dream of Sky.)

Since the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization SCOTUS decision, abortion has been restricted or banned in 21 states. Teen pregnancy rates are rising in Texas, which has some of the most restrictive legislation nationwide. Meanwhile, several Texans are suing the state over the trauma and danger in being forced to carry nonviable pregnancies. 

I pay particular attention to Texas because I grew up there, and because much of my family still lives there. But there are plenty of other places across the country where the same realities are playing out. Often laws that restrict or ban reproductive healthcare are written and enacted in the spirit of a particular Christian undertanding that “life begins” at conception. 

I don’t think any religion’s beliefs about when life begins should be codified in civil law. Beyond that, it’s wrong to force someone into the life-threatening process of carrying a pregnancy. (Is it surprising to hear pregnancy described that way? Here’s more from Harvard Health.) Pregnancy turns out to be really dangerous – especially for low-income folks and people of color.

It’s wrong to deny the inherent human rights and dignity of any human being. Forcing someone into pregnancy is a denial of human rights and bodily autonomy. In that sense it’s akin to our nation’s shameful history of forced sterilization. And like many injustices both historical and contemporary, it lands hardest on people who are already “on the margins.”

The burden of forced pregnancy – physical, emotional, fiscal and more – lands hardest on people who don’t have resources or power, people who may already live with illness or poverty or homelessness. I’m grateful to live in a state where the right to bodily autonomy is honored… and it pains me that so many people across the country can’t take that right for granted. 

Meanwhile, those who drove the fall of Roe want to ban abortion everywhere, and anti-choice activists are pushing lawmakers not to compromise for any reason. A national ban would mean that the autonomy we enjoy here would end. But even in the absence of a national ban, it’s intolerable that people in almost half of our country don’t have rights over their own bodies.

All week as I’ve been working on this d’var Torah, I’ve been struggling with the sense that nothing I’m saying here is new. We all know that the fall of Roe has had precipitous and terrible impacts. But it feels important to name these realities, again, and to remind ourselves that we have an opportunity and an obligation to try to help fix what has been broken.

On Monday when I was teaching my students about tikkun olam, I told them the thing I love most about this foundational Jewish idea: our tradition presumes that we have power to make things better than they are. Where the world is broken, we can bring repair… and our tradition teaches not only that we can, but that we must. This is our “job.” It’s what we’re here for. 

In the words of “A Prayer for Reproductive Freedom,” shared by the National Council of Jewish Women

May we find within ourselves the collective will 

to create a just society in which reproductive justice – 

the holy right to own the personhood of one’s own body, 

to have or not have children, 

to raise any children in safety and community – 

is foundational. 

Every time I read this prayer, these lines remind me that reproductive justice isn’t just about my body and my healthcare, though of course those are part of it. It’s also about being able to raise all children in safety and in community. Can we actually imagine a world in which all children’s needs are genuinely met? That’s what real reproductive justice would look like. 

What an amazing vision. And since our tradition teaches that learning matters because it inspires us to action, here are two short lists of actions we can take before or after Shabbat to at help protect access to reproductive healthcare for everyone. It won’t get us all the way to justice, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Shabbat shalom to all.

Action items from the NCJW:

Action items from the Religious Action Center / Women of Reform Judaism:

I wrote this d'var Torah for #ReproShabbat 2024, an initiative of the National Council of Jewish Women co-sponsored by Women of Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires.


We Sanctify

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You who fill and surround creation, Who adorned the heavens in time before time

with the sparkling net of galaxies like gems in the sky’s expanse – 

You don't need us to make Your name great

throughout the world. It's all we can do

to hold this scant fractal 

encoded in our limbs, 

our temporary breath. 

 

We praise anyway,

through our generations –

not because You need to hear it

but because something in us shifts

whether we whisper this reminder or shout it to the skies: 

You are upwelling, indwelling, holy: the song that sings in us.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהו''ה, הָאֵל הַקָּדושׁ .Blessed are You, Holy One, God Who is holy

 


Sparkling net of galaxies. This image is an artist’s rendering of a supercluster of galaxies, from the Smithsonian magazine. Fractal / encoded in our limbs. The four-letter Name of God can be understood to map to the human body: yud is the head, heh is the arms, vav is the spine, heh is the legs. [O]ur temporary breath. R. Arthur Waskow teaches that we speak the Name every time we breathe.

 

Originally published in Holy / Kedusha, Bayit, Jan. 2024.

*

This liturgical poem is one of my contributions to the latest collaborative offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group: Holy / Kedusha. Click through to Builders Blog to see the whole thing. As always, the offering is available both as a downloadable PDF and as slides suitable for screenshare.

Also as always, what we co-created is more than the sum of its parts. Both of the pieces I drafted were inspired by something that someone else wrote or said, and I wouldn't have written either one were it not for this collaboration. This work is one of the most nourishing things I do, and I am grateful.


Old hope

My parents collected haggadot for Pesach, many of which are now in my library. There is a slim, tattered haggadah from Prague, printed in Hebrew and Czech. A note tucked inside dates it to 1898.

(My mother wasn't sure, in the end, whether it had been a gift from her aunt -- born, like my mother, in Prague -- or something Mom found in a bookstore on one of her visits once the Iron Curtain fell.)

There is one bound in metal with full-color illustrations. There is one that's full of Chagall prints and illustrations alongside the Hebrew text. And there's this one, which just found its way to me:

 

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The cover just says "Haggadah for Pesach."

When I first opened it, I didn't see anything out of the ordinary. It's bilingual, Hebrew and English. The texts sketch the story of the Exodus in the traditional way, with quotes and snippets of narrative.

The graphic design is neat. The interior flyleaf has a stylized print of swirls and flowers, cups of wine and bunches of grapes. Vines and flowers and grapes twine around the words on every page.

And then I turned to a page that contained a photograph, and that's when I figured out what makes this haggadah different from all other haggadot. (You had to know I was going to go there.)

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The caption reads, in Hebrew and English, "And the children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased," a line from Exodus that appears on the facing page as part of the story of the Exodus.

Something about this photo (the hairstyle on the woman in the center?) reminded me of photos of my parents in the late 40s and early 50s -- and also of photos of those I grew up calling halutzim.

I flipped to the first page, and found an explanation. Here it is in English. (You can find the Hebrew version here on Flickr.) The haggadah turns out to be from 1954, the year my parents married.

The very fact that for the past seven hundred years, Jewish illuminators and printers have been able to illustrate the Haggada in terms of their own times and surroundings attests to its timelessness and its message for every age. In keeping with this tradition, this new edition of the Passover Haggada has been prepared, illustrated and printed in the State of Israel, in an era which has seen the New Exodus, the Ingathering of Exiles and the rebirth of the Jewish State. And it is only fitting that the eternal truth of this ancient and stirring narrative should be reaffirmed in terms of living pictures of our own land and the people of our own time.

What an artifact. Oh, those capital letters on the New Exodus and the Ingathering of Exiles! It feels soaked in hope, the way baklava or teiglach are soaked in honey or knafeh soaked in rose water.

Like many in their generation (they were young children when the Holocaust began), my parents believed completely in the dream of Israel -- as they believed completely in the dream of America.  

In written instructions for her funeral, my mother asked for "America the Beautiful" and "Jerusalem of Gold:" for the nation that took her in, and the Jewish state she felt privileged to have lived to see.

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Mid-century graphic design... and photo.

This haggadah makes me wistful for the optimism my parents felt both about Israel and about the U.S. -- even as I know that the stories they held dear aren't the whole story about either place. 

It's a complicated knot of feelings: missing my parents deeply, and remembering where we disagreed, and feeling grateful that they aren't here to see some of what's unfolding today both here and there. 

A haggadah is a ritual object, not a history book, though this one feels steeped in history. And that history feels sharp with heartbreak, as it has every day since Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah. 

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Had Gadya - a parable in song about all the nations who've tried to destroy us.

In Hebrew the name מִצְרָיִם / Mitzrayim is both a place (Egypt) , and a state of being. The root connotes narrowness or constriction. It's the same root as in the word tzuris, suffering or sorrow.

All of the people, and peoples, who love that land are in a Narrow Place now. I keep returning to lines from Psalm 118: "From constriction we cry out to You; God, answer us with Your expansiveness!"  

Imagine a future where all the peoples of that place can flourish side by side in mutual safety and human dignity. Where is the Moshe, the Musa, who could lead the way to that Land of Promise? 


Status Update

Dear Most of the Internet:
this is not the Superbowl
or the World Cup, so
wash the face paint off
your social media accounts.
Sit down with one of "them"
face to face, knees touching,
and listen to their losses.
Then do it again, open heart
becoming bruised like a peach.
This is called compassion:
feeling-with, the center
of feeling we call the heart
constantly vulnerable.
I don't want to hear anything
from people who mourn
only one set of children.
Likewise if your answer is
"get rid of all of them,"
go to the back of the line
and think about your choices.
Is your status update helping?
If not, go wash the dishes.
Or send a condolence note
to someone in your community
who just lost a parent. Or
practice on Duolingo
and get one word closer
to understanding
someone different from you.


The Habit of Extending a Hand: Bo 5784 / 2024

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This week’s Torah portion, Bo, begins: “God spoke to Moshe saying: Come to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, in order that I might display these My signs among them…” (Ex. 10:1)  What does this verse come to teach us this year? 

During the first several plagues, Torah tells us that Pharaoh hardened his heart. By this point in the story, Pharaoh has hardened his heart so many times that it just stays that way. God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” is the spiritual stuckness from Pharaoh’s own repeated choices.

Habits become self-sustaining. The grooves of habit become like a rutted road: after a while, staying in those ruts is the path of least resistance. It’s like a psychological-spiritual version of Newton’s First Law (the teaching that an object in motion tends to stay in motion). 

This early part of Exodus invites us to look closely at our habits, at the grooves we carve on heart and mind. Two weeks ago the Voice at the burning bush told Moshe to take off his shoes because he’s standing on holy ground. The word for “shoes” there can also mean “habits.” 

Some habits are great: kindness, gratitude, treating people well. They may become rote sometimes, but these are ruts I’m happy to be fixed in. And some habits are harmful, e.g. hardening our hearts to people’s needs and their suffering, or assuming the worst of people. 

Some of us might struggle more with hardening our hearts to our own needs, or assuming the worst of ourselves, not treating ourselves with the kindness we would bring to anybody else. That’s a kind of self-perpetuating Mitzrayim, a Narrow Place that we maintain for ourselves.

Some of us might struggle with feeling that the problems of the world are so vast that we might as well not even try to fix them. “The climate’s already a disaster, why even bother.” Or maybe we become paralyzed by political news. And the paralysis becomes its own rut.

A bit later in this week’s parsha, “Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land... People could not see one another, and for three days no one could move about; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” (Ex. 10:22-23

The commentator Ramban says, “this darkness was not a mere absence of sunlight… Rather, it was a thick darkness.” Maybe an emotional darkness. Despair can feel like a thick darkness. And yet Torah says that in this darkness, “the Israelites enjoyed light.” What’s that about?

In Proverbs (6:23) we read that each mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light. Maybe Torah says we had light in our dwellings because we had our connective-commandments and our wisdom tradition. And maybe we had light because we reached out to each other. 

And that reminds me of a story in Talmud about a visit to someone who is sick. R. Yochanan says to his friend R. Hiyya, “Is your suffering dear to you?” In other words: do you want to be sick? And R. Hiyya says no. So R. Yochanan reaches out, and lifts him up into healing.

And then R. Yochanan falls ill, and R. Hanina does the same for him. So the Gemara asks: why didn’t R. Yochanan heal himself? The answer is, “a prisoner cannot free himself from prison.” (Brakhot 5b) Nobody can bootstrap themself. Our work in this life is to free each other.

That’s the habit we really need to cultivate: noticing who’s in Mitzrayim, and helping them get out. We can cultivate the habit of lifting each other up. Being a light in dark times, and a helping hand to those who are bound, whether by circumstance or illness or injustice. 

Maybe this means sitting with someone who’s sick or struggling, saying, “I see you, and I’m here with you where you are.” Make a habit of little actions of kindness. We never know when a small action might be making an outsized difference in someone’s life. 

Maybe it means volunteering or donating to support a world of greater justice. Reproductive rights aren’t at risk in our state. But in a lot of states they’ve been gutted, and activists are mobilizing to try to ensure a federal abortion ban, depending on how this year’s election goes.

And that’s just one issue among many. Here’s the thing: feeling helpless or powerless is self-perpetuating. And so is claiming our agency: our capacity to do something, anything, to help someone out of life’s tight places. On a micro level, or a macro level. 

What we can do may not fix things. But settling into the habit of doing nothing definitely won’t fix anything. So… an invitation to think for a minute about something you can do in the new week to reach a hand to someone. Don’t say it out loud, just set the intention in your heart.

Holy One of Blessing:
Help us to soften our hearts.
Attune us to our habits
Especially the ones worth keeping.

Enable us to be a light for one another
And to lift one another
From loneliness and illness,
Injustice and despair.

May our Shabbat be gentle.
And tomorrow night as the week begins
Arouse our compassion and our care
And our capacity to act.

And let us say: Amen.

 

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.)


Choose

Sometimes Mitzrayim
is easy to spot:

the cruel boss,
the relationship

that keeps you small.
Sometimes

the tight places
disguise themselves.

Choose wilderness.
Forget cucumbers and melons:

the Voice
is always calling.

The name of the game
is becoming.

Nowhere better
than ownerless here

to tend the fire
burning on the altar

of your heart,
never to go out.


Don't Let Despair Win: Vaera 5784 / 2024

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In this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, we read:

God spoke to Moses and said to him… “I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary acts of judgment. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.” ...But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, due to קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ / kotzer ruah and cruel bondage. (Exodus 6:2, 6-9)

God promises to redeem the Israelites from Mitzrayim, the Narrow Place of oppression. But the children of Israel are so demoralized they can’t even hear the promise of better. I left the Hebrew phrase קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ untranslated a moment ago, but kotzer is usually translated as shortness or anguish, and ruah means spirit or breath. Kotzer ruah implies a soul crushed by despair, a kind of shortness of breath that’s spiritual and existential rather than physical. 

קֹּ֣צֶר / kotzer can also mean “impatient.” What would it mean to say that the Israelites’ souls were impatient? How does that fit with the idea that they were so ground-down by oppression and circumstance that they couldn’t even imagine accessing hope? How can one be impatient for something if one can’t feel any hope of the thing actually coming to pass? But maybe that’s what makes it anguish: feeling impatient, and feeling that change is impossible.

The haggadah teaches, “In every generation we must see ourselves as if we had been brought forth from Mitzrayim.” Often we understand this as the narrow places in our own lives. Lately I’ve been thinking about the collective mitzrayim of our democracy feeling precarious. The insurrection that we all witnessed is being rewritten as peaceful patriotismostensibly instigated by the FBI. Neither of those is true. But in some circles, facts themselves seem irrelevant.

I've heard so many of us say we just want to go back to normal. Pre-pandemic normal, or pre-insurrection normal, or maybe the “normal” back when we felt confident that things were getting better. It felt so good to believe that our nation, and our world, were inexorably moving toward a future of rights and dignity for all. But I’ve learned what a lot of people of color already knew: that trajectory was never inevitable. It takes ongoing work.

Rev. King taught that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” What he didn’t say, maybe because it was so obvious to him, is that it only does so when we keep bending it. Last year the Washington Post reported on a surprising amount of support for Christian nationalism. They also reported that many Americans embrace authoritarianism. If we want the arc of the moral universe to bend toward justice, we all have to start pushing in that direction. 

Many of us live, these days, with constant awareness of crisis. And not just one crisis, but what some are now calling a polycrisis. Democracy feels fragile. Antisemitism is rising (including synagogue bomb threats that make it feel personal). There’s war in Ukraine, and in Israel and Gaza. Plus there’s the climate crisis that seems like it might actually be the end of the world as we know it. It’s exhausting. It's spirit-crushing. It's kotzer ruah

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, three-quarters of Americans say that democracy itself is at risk this year. NPR says that 3 in 4 Americans believe that climate change is hurting us, and expect it to worsen. Many of us are braced against the feeling that everything is about to fall apart. We're allowed to feel what we feel, and struggling isn't shameful, it's human. And, we need to make sure kotzer ruah doesn't calcify into permanence. 

The nonpartisan organization Protect Democracy notes that authoritarianism thrives on hopelessness and despair. When we despair, benefit accrues to those who are most craven in their naked pursuit of power. I can’t guarantee that our efforts this year will preserve democracy, or mitigate the climate crisis, or end poverty and injustice… but I’m pretty sure that if we allow despair to stay our hands and hearts, nothing will get better, and a lot of things will get worse. 

Our nation has never yet lived up to its promise of liberty and justice for all. In 1963 Dr. King wrote, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy… Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.” It's 51 years later; that dream is not yet real. But Dr. King didn’t say, “I have a dream that racism and inequity will magically fix themselves.” He knew that those prejudices and the systems that uphold them must be changed, and that we ourselves must change them.

Torah speaks of liberation coming via God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm, but I don’t think that means we should just sit back and wait to be lifted. I find hints of that truth in this week’s Torah portion too. When God says, “I will take you to be My people,” what I hear is: we aren’t in this alone. God is with us in our tight straits, and God will be with us in the work of building a better world. And as always if the word “God” doesn’t work for you, try ideals like Justice, or Love, or Truth. 

Whatever name we use to connect us with our source of meaning and hope: it’s still aleinu, on us, to build a better world. And we do this not individually but as a community. Building a healthy democracy will take all of us. Building healthy institutions that can support the vulnerable, pursue justice, provide education and health care and child care and elder care for everyone, will take all of us. Building a world free of reliance on fossil fuels will take all of us. 

Kotzer ruah keeps us in the narrow straits of despair, feeling like there’s nothing we can do. Or the two candidates are equivalent, so voting doesn’t even matter. Or the planet is doomed, so why bother even trying. Kotzer ruah makes us feel like there's nothing we can do. Resist that. The voice of liberation is calling. We can seek freedom from the tight squeeze of the world’s terrible brokenness around us and within us. But in order to do that, we need to not let despair win. 

 

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


Poem written in my parked car outside the synagogue waiting for the bomb squad to sweep the building again

My first thought:
every single time
you craven cowards
hit us with
false bomb threats
I will become
more visibly Jewish

though on reflection
what more could
I even do?
I mean c’mon
I already wear
a knit kippah
and hamsa earrings.

Anyone in town
who doesn’t know
what I am
isn’t paying attention.
And more importantly
you don’t get
to influence me.

I let my
freak flag fly
and I won't
lower my Jewishness
to half-mast.
If I listed
everything I love

about the Torah
the 613 mitzvot
our holy prayers
our holy days
our holy languages
we'd be here
all night long.

Four thousand years
won’t end now.
We’re still here.
We won’t stop.
You can't quench
this eternal light.
It always shines.

 


Open

open up
peel back your ribs
expose what's inside
see the child
crying

feel
start with pity
or compassion, then
become responsible
if you can bear it

if he is like you
if (you think)
he is not like you
this is how
the journey begins

rescue
the crying child
in front of you
and then do
it again

and again
open hope's door
the only way I know
to aim
toward freedom

 

 

וַתִּפְתַּח֙ וַתִּרְאֵ֣הוּ אֶת־הַיֶּ֔לֶד וְהִנֵּה־נַ֖עַר בֹּכֶ֑ה וַתַּחְמֹ֣ל עָלָ֔יו וַתֹּ֕אמֶר מִיַּלְדֵ֥י הָֽעִבְרִ֖ים זֶֽה׃
When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” (Exodus 6:2)
 
 
פָּתַח vb. open; Arabic فَتَحَ; see פֵּ֫תַח opening, unfolding; see פֶ֣תַח תִּקְוָה doorway of hope
 
חָמַל vb. spare, pity, have compassion on; Arabic حَمَلَ bear, become responsible
 
 

In parallel

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"Other people don't know what it's like," someone said to me the other day. "Walking around with constant awareness of it all. Glued to my screen. I close my office door so I can cry. And most people here don't even know. The only people who seem to get it are people who have family there too."

I've had that conversation so many times. Most often, with Jews. I'm a rabbi, I serve a Jewish community, there's no surprise there. But I've had this conversation also with people who have beloveds in Gaza or the West Bank. Two diaspora communities carrying grief in parallel. 

Sorrow is not zero-sum. "Their" trauma doesn't cancel out "ours." There is more than enough to go around. It can be simultaneously true that Jews around the world are grieving and that Palestinians and Arabs around the world are grieving, all of us broken-hearted at once.

And there's a sense that others don't "get" why we're cloaked in grief. "The world doesn't care about our suffering or our deaths" is a refrain keenly-felt both by Jews and, as Abdelrahman ElGendy notes in today's Washington Post, by Arabs. Has grief become our most common ground?

A small cause for hope came to me from Aziz Abu Sarah in a message about Meet the Peace-Makers, a series of digital events featuring "women leaders in Israel and Palestine, building the peace movement from the ground up." It takes so much vision and courage to be a peace-builder in a time of war. 

My Arabic study has slowed to a trickle. I am scattered, forgetful, unable to hold new information. Most days I just review, trying not to lose what I've learned. I do not like running. I like reading and writing also. My friend is behind the house. A tiny way of holding fast to my values.

In the words of poet Naomi Shihab Nye, "It's late but everything comes next."

 


Dancing with our stories

JustLaunched

Bayit just launched our first Kickstarter to support publication of Daughters of Eve, a volume of 12 fabulous feminist essays about women of the Tanakh. The essays come with discussion questions and journaling prompts. It's a really neat project, and I'm excited to be midwifing it into print. The hope is that readers will come away not only with more knowledge about the Hebrew scriptures, but also with reflections on how these ancient female archetypes influence and reveal who we are today.

Backers can support Daughters of Eve at a variety of levels, most of which come with swag (coffee mugs, tote bags, even journals and jigsaw puzzles!). Or if you're part of a book group, consider the Book Group package that gives you books, book plates, and a Zoom conversation with the author. Or maybe you and a bunch of writer friends want to chip in together on the Storyteller package that gives you a Zoom with Sally to talk about writing, story creation, character development...

I especially love the cover design for this title. To me it suggests that all of us who study Torah are engaged in a circle dance throughout the generations. All the way back to our Biblical forebears, and all the way forward to the endless generations who will come after us: we're all learning and becoming and dancing together. If feminist essays on Biblical women and the Torah study journey of self-discovery sound like your jam, I hope you'll join me in supporting Daughters of Eve

Donate to the Kickstarter here.


The shortest day

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7:15am, more or less. On the way home.

On the last day before winter vacation, the school orchestras gather early and serenade their classmates in the lobby as everyone else is arriving at school. So we loaded my son's double bass into the car early this morning and I drove him to school, still in my pajamas and bathrobe. The early drive meant I was out of the house to see the sky pinking and growing lighter over the hills.

"We live in a beautiful place," I said, and my son agreed.

"This is what I get to see every morning on the school bus," he pointed out. "We live in one of the most beautiful places on earth."

I can think of more spectacular landscapes... but I didn't disagree. I'm glad he can see the beauty in where we are. And as he reminds me often, he doesn't struggle with winter darkness the way that I do. Maybe it's because I'm a transplant to this latitude, even if I've lived here far longer than I lived there. Or maybe it's because I'm older and better acquainted with sorrow. I hope it's the first one.

I've been counting down the days over the last few weeks, eager to make it over this threshold. What I think of as "real winter" lies ahead -- the coldest months, the snow and ice, the dangerous roads. But the days will start getting brighter, bit by bit. This is the nadir of the solar year. This is as far as we go in this direction. Like touching a far wall and turning around to begin the long slow return. 

My refrigerator's top shelf is full of leftovers, but I feel compelled to cook something new for dinner. As though I need to keep the hearth fire burning on this longest night. There's a Michael Twitty recipe for collard greens with coconut milk and peanuts and red pepper that is calling to me -- vibrant, bold flavors that I associate with luxuriant warmth. We made it. The days get lighter from here.