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. 


A new poem for Pesach - with more to come

Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group is working on a collaborative offering for Pesach 2024, which we hope to release on Monday April 8 / just before Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Meanwhile, here's a foretaste -- a piece I've been working on, designed to be used in lieu of (or in addition to) the seder's reading about the Four Sons / Four Children. It arises out of what's unfolding now in Gaza and Israel, and the impacts on our families and communities -- let me know if it speaks to you, and keep an eye on Builders Blog for our whole collection next week.

 

AllFour



All Four (Are One)

 

Today the Four Children are a Zionist, 
a Palestinian solidarity activist, a peacenik, and 
one who doesn’t know what to even dream.

The Zionist, what does she say? Two thousand years
we dreamed of return. “Next year in Jerusalem”
is now, and hope is the beacon we steer by.

The solidarity activist, what do they say?
We know the heart of the stranger. To be oppressors 
is unbearable. Uplift the downtrodden.

The peacenik, what does he say? We both love this land
and neither is leaving. We’re in this together.
Between the river and the sea two peoples must be free. 

And the one who doesn’t know what to even dream:
feed that one sweet haroset, a reminder that 
building a just future has always been our call.

All of us are wise. None of us is wicked.
(Even the yetzer ha-ra is holy—without it
no art would be made, no future imagined.)

We are one people, one family. Not only
because history’s flames never asked what kind
of Jew one might be, but because

the dream of collective liberation is our legacy.
We need each other in this wilderness.
Only together can we build redemption. 

R. Rachel Barenblat

 

No art would be made. Talmud shares a parable that when the “evil impulse” was imprisoned, no eggs were laid – no generativity was possible. (Yoma 69b) History’s flames never asked. See Free, Together, R. David Markus.


Here

be thankful
even when
others don't
have what
you have

you don't
ease their
suffering by
feeling ashamed
of abundance

give praise
for water
and soap
and safety
to shower

for carrots
and onions
resting easy
before slipping
into soup

for happenstance,
the roll
of dice
that landed
you here


Star

DownloadLast night my eighth grader began reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and he paused to ask if I have ever read it.

I read it for the first time in fifth grade. Probably too young, but my grandparents and mother fled Prague in 1939; I knew this history already. "It's probably the first reason I started keeping a diary," I told him.

"I just got to the part where it says everyone who was Jewish was required to wear a yellow six-pointed star."

"Did you not know that?" I asked, as gently as I could. He shook his head no. "Do you remember that at Nonni and Papa's house, there was one of those stars, in a little frame?" He shook his head no again.

I think the star they had framed came from my sister's mother-in-law, who was a survivor of the camps. My mother framed it and displayed it proudly, a reminder both of who we are and of how far Jews in America have come.

We have not come nearly as far as she thought, or as I used to think. Or maybe the world around us has backslid.

Even here in the state where I live, a Hitler-praising Massachusetts GOP candidate pledge[d] to 'exile all Jews'. (She is nowhere near me, and she lost, though she won 38 percent of the vote.)

I knew that Anne Frank's diary is part of the 8th grade curriculum. But I didn't imagine that when my son was reading it, I would be having so many pastoral conversations about feelings of unsafety.

This month the University of Chicago released a survey about campus fears after 10/7. Datapoint: one in ten Americans is "more willing to tolerate violent attacks against Jews" than they were a year ago. 

My son is home sick from school today. I sit with him as he watches a thirteen-minute movie on the history of antisemitism made by the US Holocaust Museum. My soul ties itself in knots.

Nothing in that film is new or news to me. But it lands differently now than it would have a few years ago, too. We all know that Jews in Europe thought they were safe, until they weren't. 

And then I make challah, quietly singing to welcome the angels of Shabbat as I knead the dough. We cannot erase the realities of today's antisemitism, but we can hold fast to our Jewishness.

 


Restoring the Name: Shabbat Zachor 5784 / 2024

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Most of Megillat Esther reads like a soap opera, full of banquets and beauty pageants and assassination plots and nemeses. There’s a theme of topsy-turviness. Haman is hung on the very gallows he had built for Mordechai, and instead of being slaughtered the Jews of Persia prosper, and we all live happily ever after. But there’s one part of the turn-about that we don’t typically act out in our Purim play. In chapter 9, the Jews slaughter 75,000 Persians.

The context is this: although Haman himself has been defeated, the King had issued a decree saying that on the 13th of Adar Persians were welcome to kill Jews at will. And he had no way to undo that decree, because in this story the king is comically powerless. Mordechai suggests, “Why don’t you issue a new decree giving us the right to defend ourselves?” The king does that, and the Jews do… that. Every year, I wish that this part of the story weren’t there.

I’m not alone in that. Some communities that hold full readings of the megillah race through those verses as fast as they can. Or they sing them in Eikha trope, the melancholy musical mode used at Tisha b’Av when we mourn the fallen Temples and the brokenness of creation. The folks at The Shalom Center recently released what they’re callling The Chapter Nine Project, featuring a variety of alternative revisionings of that part of the story. 

Megillat Esther was written during the 4th century BCE. It’s generally understood to be a work of fiction, though King Achashverosh may have been a fictionalized version of Xerxes I. The megillah is unusually full of loan-words from Akkadian and Assyrian. Even the character names might be borrowed: Mordechai and Esther could be variations on Mespotamian and Babylonian deities Marduk and Ishtar, and Haman might be a derivative of local Elamite deity Humman.

I don’t have any problem with seeing Megillat Esther as a work of fiction. A text doesn’t need to be historically verifiable in order to be sacred or meaningful. I’d venture that most of us don’t think the universe was literally created in six days, but Torah’s poetic teaching that Shabbat rest is the culmination of creation is deep spiritual wisdom. Esther contains deep spiritual wisdom too – about resilience, about leaps of faith, about what’s hidden and what’s revealed.

In a month we’ll immerse in the story of the Exodus, in which God brings us forth from the Narrow Place with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. In this scroll, in contrast, God’s name literally does not appear. Here God is nistar, hidden. (And yes, that word shares a root with the name Esther.) It’s part of what makes this story feel so modern: there’s no Voice of God here. We can only glimpse God through the miracle of ethical choices and right actions.

Daf-2So what do we glimpse in unethical choices? Jewish tradition writ large supports the right to self-defense, so I can understand the part of the story where we go after those armed against us. And Haman getting hung on his own gallows feels like a kind of literary justice. But the murder of his ten sons feels excessive, and it’s highlighted by scribal calligraphy – meant to evoke “joy over the fact that they were destroyed.” (Maharal, Or Hadash 9:10) Whoa.

Purim is a festival of joy, but this doesn’t feel joyful. (I’m also not convinced that his sons were our enemies. Neither is the Israeli comedy troupe HaYehudim Ba’im, who in one of their sketches portrayed a soldier returning from the war of defeating Haman and the Persians, and saying, “yeah, that Haman was a real piece of —--, but I want you to ask yourselves: what are his children guilty of?”) (Find that here – no English translation though.)

Our tradition also teaches discomfort at the death of an enemy. There’s a midrash that appears in many Passover haggadot describing how, when the Egyptians drowned in our pursuit, God rebuked the angels, “My children are dying and you sing praises?!” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b.) For this reason we spill drops from our second cup of wine. I’m more comfortable with that than I am with this part of the megillah, but both are part of our tradition. 

Today is a special Shabbat, one of the Shabbats with its own name: Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. Shabbat Zachor falls on the Shabbat before Purim, and on it, we read a special extra bit of Torah, Deut. 25:17-19, describing how Amalek attacked us on our way out of Egypt. Amalek attacked the back of the caravan, wiping out those who were elderly or sick or weak. Torah commands us to blot out the name of Amalek, and to never forget.

54141Haman, meanwhile, is understood as a distant descendent of the tribe of Amalek. We’ll “blot out” his name with our graggers tomorrow night. This year I’m struck by the juxtaposition of blotting out the name of our adversary – and the entirely missing Name of that One we call God in the scroll we read at this season. Could there be a spiritual connection between the presence of the massacre in chapter 9 of Esther, and the absence of God’s name in this book? 

It’s as though when we give in to violent fantasies of revenge, we render holiness invisible. Maybe God’s names, which are a stand-in for God’s presence, literally can’t coexist with this degree of gratuitous violence. “Gratuitous” being the key word here, because we know there’s plenty of violence and conquest in other parts of Tanakh. But the massacre of 75,000 Persians feels excessive, even vindictive, in a way that’s hard to bear. Maybe it’s hard for God, too.

This year that part of the story also lands differently because of the ongoing horrors of the Israel-Hamas war. Many of us are still enmeshed in grief for those who were slaughtered or kidnapped by Hamas at the very start of 5784. Hamas’ hatred of us makes Haman feel too real. And many of us are enmeshed in grief for tens of thousands of Palestinians killed or displaced or starving since then, which makes the violence at the megillah’s end also feel too real.

Maybe the vengeance chronicled in this story landed differently during 2000 years of exile than it does now. For centuries we lived precariously, couldn’t become citizens of most nations, weren’t allowed to hold certain professions. And whenever something went wrong, like the Black Death, we were blamed and massacred. Revenge fantasies turn out to be common where there is PTSD and complex grief. They can offer a sense of control when life feels shattered. 

But that control is illusory. And marinating in revenge fantasies can be spiritually unhealthy. According to psychologist Judith Herman (author of Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence), traumatized people who engage in acts of revenge don’t thereby get rid of their PTSD. Instead they seem to suffer more. According to Dr. Michelle Maidenberg, the only real answer is working through the anxiety and grief caused by the trauma in the first place.

The threat of communal annihilation is traumatic. And Jews have collectively known that threat intimately and often, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to pogroms to the Holocaust. We joke about “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat,” but it’s actually pretty dark. As one passage in the traditional Passover haggadah teaches, “in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” That’s a grim worldview. It’s not the way I want to see the world around us.

But maybe the subtext of the Megillah – the fact that God’s very name is missing – can teach us that a violent counter-response to trauma isn’t the right path. I don’t know how the whole Jewish people could go about the psychological and spiritual work of healing the trauma of being hated, of being attacked, of facing annihilation over and over. But I think that if we can do that work, it will bring us closer to making the divine presence manifest in the sacred text of all creation.

 

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


(Do we know) How to heal

"We are facing a watershed moment where healing from trauma is a generational call. How will we answer it? Will we reproduce old patterns of divide-and-conquer, especially in the face of rising tides of mental health crises and climate change? Or will we re-member and reenvision our interdependence and flow toward collective transformation? The answers, and new questions, are up to us."

-- Jen Soriano, Nervous: Essays on Heritage and Healing


A friend recommended Soriano's book to me as I began to grapple with the trauma I carry as the daughter of someone who fled the Holocaust. The book is excellent; I recommend it highly. (I'm not finished with it yet, but it's already given me valuable new lenses for understanding not only my own history and its implications, but also the histories of many whom I serve.) This quote jumped out at me this morning -- as we all continue to marinate in what's happening in Gaza and in Israel and in us.

My mother the refugee would have rejected the word trauma. She was lucky, she would have said. Lucky to have escaped Hitler, lucky to have made it here, lucky to live in a country that welcomed Jews (and to witness the birth of Israel) and so are her children, period. And her story still isn't mine to tell -- even though she's been gone for five years. Enough to say simply that she would have rejected this frame altogether. I rejected it for a while, too. I kept saying, "but this is normal."

Of course I used to lie in bed and list what I would take with me if the Nazis returned and we needed to flee. Of course my diary was inspired by Anne Frank's, so someday when somebody tried to wipe out the Jews again, maybe my diary would be a testament to how we tried to persist, just like hers is. Of course when I peel a potato and throw the skin away, I think of family in the concentration camps who would have done anything for a potato peel to add nutrition to the watery soup that was all they had.

(Dear anyone who is about to tell me there are innocents in Gaza who would do anything for a potato peel -- I know. That's heavy on my heart too. It is my very next thought, after remembering my ancestors. And... the readiness to make my words about what I carry in my own body into an opportunity to yell at me about Gaza is part of why this moment is so hard.) Why am I writing about this? Because I know others are struggling with it too. I can't fix it, but I can say: you're not alone. 

We're not alone in those constantly-running trains of thought. Most of us who grew up in the shadow of that horror have them. And not all of us would call it traumatic. (Mom certainly didn't.) And yet -- "I lost another friend over Israel and Gaza," someone said to me recently. "I guess I know who I can't ask to hide me, if it comes to that, again." I felt my heart clench as anxiety tried to surge. The internal monologue says, When people hate Jews, it's not safe. Look how much people hate us right now.

A personal essay about coexistence and war, written by an Israeli translator, was retracted this week by literary journal Guernica. Its author translates Arabic poetry into Hebrew and into English. Before the war began she drove Palestinians in Gaza to hospitals in Israel. She seems like the kind of person I would like to know. And yet the hatred and loathing and vitriol directed at her are staggering in their stridency. Like most American progressive Jews, I feel unmoored by the recognition of this loathing.

A week ago I wrote about my hopes for Israel and Gaza. Predictably, what I said made some people angry. I am too hawkish for some, too dovish for others. I keep thinking about a quote from a recent article by Rabbi Jay Michaelson (about what Glazer said at the Oscars): "Admittedly, to many standing in solidarity with Palestine, this can all seem rather milquetoast. // On the other hand, to many in AIPAC and the pro-Israel community, it can seem like a betrayal of the Jewish people."  Yep.

If you only take one thing away from this post let it be this: the tears, the nausea, the death-grip of anxiety, the feeling that nothing and nowhere is safe -- these are trauma reactions. And anecdotally, most of us are living with them. Which means it's no small wonder that my whole town has been metaphorically ablaze with feelings of rancor and betrayal over proposed ceasefire resolutions. We're all inflamed like damaged nerves in the body of our community, and pain is spiking everywhere.

Which takes me back to Jen Soriano's book. Soriano writes beautifully about the effects of therapy and somatic work on her trauma and chronic pain. What's the equivalent of that work for a whole people? We keep lashing out: how could any Jew want a ceasefire when [insert reason]? How could any Jew not want a ceasefire when [insert reason]? Our ancestors fled genocide, how can you say that? I want to ask: how often are our responses shaped by unconscious trauma, and what can we do to heal?

 

Addendum: I was literally finishing this post draft when I got the latest from Jay Michaelson: Israel/Palestine and the Politics of Trauma. Well: as my mother would've said, "great minds run in the same direction." Anyway, go read Jay's post, it's excellent.