One heart: reading Yitro after Colleyville

 

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In this week's Torah portion, Yitro, we receive Torah at Sinai. Tradition teaches that every Jewish soul that ever was and ever will be was present at Sinai. At Sinai we stood together as one.

This week some of you have told me that you feel more connected than usual to Jews in other places... especially the Jews of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. That their shul shares our name heightens our sense of closeness.

Last Shabbat while members and the rabbi of that CBI community were held hostage, our hearts were in our throats and our prayers flowed without ceasing. Often a crisis makes us aware of the interconnectedness we usually don't see. In a crisis, it's easy to feel how what happens to one heart tugs at another heart, bound up as we are in what Dr. King called that "inescapable network of mutuality."

What happens to you impacts me. What happens there impacts us here. That's one of the continuing lessons of the pandemic. And this week, our connectedness means that many of us share a feeling of renewed vulnerability.

But we're connected not only because of our shared vulnerability, our shared fears of antisemitism and attack. We're connected because our souls stood together at Sinai. We're connected through mitzvot. In Aramaic, Hebrew's closest sister tongue, the word for connection is tzavta, which shares a root with mitzvah. The mitzvot connect us with God and with each other.

Some of those mitzvot are listed in this week's Torah portion. Be in relationship with the Force of Liberation bringing us forth from life's narrow places. Resist the urge to worship things that are not God, like statues or status. Remember the day of Shabbat and keep it holy, because when we pause our constant making and doing we are re-ensouled.

And some of the mitzvot our tradition holds dear aren't in today's list, because our tradition is comprised of 613 commandments, not just 10. For instance, the mitzvah repeated thirty-six times in Torah, instructing us in no uncertain terms to "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The rabbi at CBI Colleyville lived out that mitzvah when he invited an unknown man in on a twenty-degree morning and made him a cup of tea to help him get warm. We all know now how that turned out. And: I still think he was right to do it. Welcoming that stranger was the Jewish thing to do.

How do we do that in a way that keeps us safe as a community? That's a big conversation, and it's one we'll be having for a while. There's no simple answer to balancing the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh (protecting or preserving life) with the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim (welcoming others in hospitality). It's another version of the core spiritual balancing act to which our tradition calls us, between gevurah and chesed -- boundaries and lovingkindness.

It's okay to feel afraid. It would be spiritually dishonest to pretend otherwise. When someone chooses to join the Jewish people, at the end of their beit din and just before immersion there's a ritualized series of questions rooted in Talmud that I ask. They're questions like: don't you know that it's sometimes hard to be Jewish? Don't you know that being Jewish comes with obligations, and yeah, it also comes with antisemitism that will now be aimed at you?

But today I want to add: don't you know that being Jewish is also joyous? Lighting Shabbat candles and letting the week's worries slough away -- telling our core story of liberation at the seder with songs and laughter -- the heart-opening and mind-expanding journey of Jewish learning -- feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and caring for the powerless -- there's so much beauty and meaning here.

All of these connect us with our cousins in Colleyville, and Squirrel Hill, and Poway, and all over the world. Antisemitism is real and it's frightening and it probably isn't ever going away. But the mitzvot, and our Jewish joy -- they can't take that away from us.

The commentator Rashi notes that when Torah describes our encampment at Sinai, it uses a singular verb to teach us that when we gathered at the base of that mountain we were like one being with one heart. We get another hint toward this a few verses later, where we read that the whole community answers יַחְדָּו֙ / yachdav, as one.

It's easy to focus on all the things that divide us: different Jewish denominations, different ways of doing Jewish, different dress codes, different relationships with mitzvot or God or spiritual practice. But at Sinai we had a shared heart. And during last weekend's crisis we felt our shared heart. May the shared heart that we felt while our cousins in Colleyville were in danger stay real for us, long after that danger is gone. And may that shared heart connect and sustain us through whatever comes.

 

This is the d'varling that R. Rachel offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services this week (cross-posted to CBI's From the Rabbi blog.)


Tending


I tend a botanical garden.
Here jungle trees stretch
tall as I can see, dripping
with trailing lianas
that dip into still pools.

Over there, soft dark podzol,
topped with towering taiga spruce.
In between: a small field
of sunflowers lifting
bright faces to the sky.

I've started keeping bees.
I watch them dance from flower
to flower, then meander dizzy
back to their hives. Honey jars
line up like amber trophies.

In my son's Minecraft world
there is no pandemic.
No one spits at nurses
or lies about elections.
No one's father has dementia.

My son thinks I'm playing
for his sake. I build
shul after shul, and in each
I pray for a world
where evil vanishes like smoke

like the mumbling zombies
who go up in flames
every time the blocky sun rises,
gilding the open hills
and endless oceans with light.


The well


It's not that the well's run dry.
The walk feels too far. It's uphill
in the snow both ways, and
who has the strength to carry
those dangling buckets balanced
on their shoulders now? I'll stay
on this secondhand chair, wrapped
in my mother's holey shawl.
Make another cup of tea, stay quiet.
Grief sits with me by the fire.
Out the window, tiny birds track
hieroglyphics across the icy ground.

 


 

Originally this poem had a couplet about the 5.49 million COVID deaths worldwide (so far.) I removed it; it feels too direct, it belongs in an essay and not a poem. But as a Jew I'm always mindful of the number 6,000,000, and it's horrifying that we're creeping up on that number of COVID deaths. All of which is to say: if grief is your companion by the fire these days, you are not alone. 


From smallness to hope: a d'varling for Bo

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In this week's Torah portion, Bo, we are deep in the story of the plagues and traumas that unfolded as a prelude to yetziat Mitzrayim, our Exodus or going-forth from the Narrow Place.

The Hasidic master known as the Me'or Eynayim teaches that our spiritual ancestors were so overwhelmed by the hardship and servitude of Mitzrayim that they lost דעת / da'at, knowledge or awareness of God. 

Part of what was so painful about Mitzrayim, he says, is that we lost access to our spiritual practices and our traditions. Maybe we had a vague sense that those things had meant something to our ancestors, but we weren't living them. So our awareness of God atrophied like an unused muscle.

When we were in Mitzrayim, says the Me'or Eynayim, our דעת / da'at (awareness) was בגלות / in galut (exile) and בקטנות / in katnut (smallness). Our awareness of God went into exile, our awareness of God became diminished. And then he says something that really leapt out at me, reading it this year: it's as though God says to us, התקטנתי במצרים -- "I made Myself small in Mitzrayim."

As though when our lives contracted, God's own self contracted too. When we are in Mitzrayim, it is as though God shrinks. When we are in tight straits, when our hearts and souls feel constricted, when our lives feel constricted, it's as though God becomes smaller. When our awareness of God atrophies, it's as though God actually shrinks. Wow: this year, that teaching really speaks to me.

There's a website called What Day Of March 2020, and if you go there, it will tell you that today is the 680th day of March 2020. As though time stopped when the pandemic began for us, and that month of March has lasted forever. It's a joke, and it's also not a joke.

Between the Delta variant and the Omicron variant, earlier this week there were more than a million new COVID cases. We're facing our third pandemic Purim, our third pandemic Pesach. Hospitals everywhere are filling up again. We are all tired of this. And it is nowhere near over yet.

Right now the pandemic is our Mitzrayim. These are some tight straits. Maybe our hearts and souls feel constricted. Maybe we're exhausted or overwhelmed or afraid. And when we are in tight straits it's natural for our awareness of God, our sense of where we fit into the Mystery of the cosmos, our capacity to hope to become diminished. For us as for our ancestors, it's as though God becomes smaller.

That could also be a description of what it feels like to grapple with depression. Awareness of God diminishes, capacity to hope diminishes, connectedness to what sustains us diminishes, sense of Mystery diminishes -- it's as though God becomes smaller. This teaching resonates on that level, too... though this isn't just a time of personal Mitzrayim, it's a time of communal Mitzrayim.

This week's Torah portion, and this commentary from the Me'or Eynayim, arrive at just the right time. They're here to remind us that even when we feel like we're in galut in Mitzrayim, exiled in these tight straits, our spiritual task is to trust in yetziat Mitzrayim, to trust in the Exodus. Our work is to cultivate our capacity to feel in our bones that life will not always be like this. That's a big leap of faith.

I think it's a necessary one, if we want to get through this pandemic spiritually intact. Our work is to strengthen our da'at, our awareness of God. If the "G-word" doesn't work for you, try: our awareness of hope, of love, of genuine justice. Because when we strengthen our da'at, we strengthen our capacity not only to trust that better days will come, but also to work toward those better days together.

 

Offered with endless gratitude to my hevre at Bayit, with whom I'm studying the Me'or Eynayim.

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services this week, cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.

 


A poetry reading and conversation about grief - on Zoom - on January 9

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Love poetry? Experienced the loss of a loved one? Join a Zoom conversation (at 7:30pm ET on Sunday, January 9) with two poet-rabbis about how we used poetry to navigate the grief of a loved one.
 
The evening will feature Rabbi Pam Wax, author of Walking the Labyrinth, and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, author of Crossing the Sea, in a conversation about poetry and grief work moderated by Rabbi Nancy Flam, a pioneer in the field of Jewish healing and contemporary spirituality. Hear poems from both books, along with conversation about grief work, poetry, and prayer.
 
RSVP for Zoom link to cbinadams at gmail dot com.
 

Announcing From Narrow Places

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Co-creating new liturgy for these difficult times is one of the things that has brought me spiritual sustenance over the last eighteen months. I'm honored to have convened this extraordinary group of artists, liturgists, and poets, rabbis and laypeople alike, and I'm humbled by the knowledge that our work has uplifted hearts and souls in many places.

I hope you'll pick up a copy of this book, and I hope that what's in it will sustain you.

Now available for $18 -- From Narrow Places: liturgy, poetry and art of the pandemic era from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. Featuring work by Trisha Arlin, R. Rachel Barenblat, Joanne Fink, R. Allie Fischman, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz PhD, Steve Silbert, R. Jennifer Singer, and Devon Spier.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of CLAL, writes,

For too many, prayer is a vending machine experience and so unsurprisingly it no longer works. And then there are the poets and liturgists in this heart opening collection From Narrow Places who know prayer is a powerful way of consciously surrendering to the mystery and exquisite bittersweetness of Life. This collection of prayers will inspire and enchant you – the real job prayer is supposed to get done.

And Rabbi Vanessa Ochs, professor at University of Virginia and author of Inventing Jewish Ritual, writes,

From Narrow Places gives language and imagery to the Jewish spiritual creativity that is still holding us up through the pandemic. I pray that speedily in our days we will look back at this volume as a testimony to how Jews of one era weathered a crisis and emerged even stronger. For now, it chronicles how the richness of Jewish living, full and fluid, is holding us up in these challenging days. I will confess: each page unlocked doors to my unexamined disappointments, sorrows and even deep joys. Many tears, but good ones.


The ones who come after: Vayechi

Vayechi

This week's parsha is Vayechi, "He lived." It opens, "Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years." (Genesis 47:28) As with Chayyei Sarah ("The Life of Sarah") earlier in Genesis, this parsha named after someone's life is actually about their death, because only at the end of a life can its wholeness be measured. 

Joseph brings his sons to their grandfather's bed, and Jacob asks, "Who are they?" Maybe he doesn't recognize them. Maybe he knows they're related to him, but just can't recall their names. Joseph says, "these are my sons, whom God has given me here." I like to imagine that his voice and demeanor are gentle. It's okay that you don't remember; I can tell you who they are. 

I learned the term "benign senescent forgetfulness" from John Jerome z"l in his book On Turning Sixty-Five: Notes from the Field. As a writer and a runner he was fascinated by the effects of aging on body and mind. Benign senescent forgetfulness is the natural tendency of the human brain to start losing track of things. It's normal. As we age, some of what's in our brain just... falls out.

Of course, memory loss can become disabling. I wonder how Jacob handled his inability to remember his grandsons. Did he get frustrated by the mental holes where knowledge used to be? More broadly: could he take comfort in memories of his wives and children, his travels and adventures -- or did disappointments and losses take center stage as other memories slipped away?

Sometimes memory loss sparks paranoia. Because the world doesn't feel right, and words and memories aren't within reach, elders with dementia often lash out at their children or caregivers. That came to mind this year when I read Jacob's parting words for each of his sons. Some of those words are loving and kind; I like reading those. But some of his words seem belligerent, even cruel. 

In Jacob's case, given what we know of his children's lives, some of his anger may be justified. For instance, he accuses Shimon and Levi of violence. I can understand where that's coming from, because they did make violent choices. He intimates that Reuben encroached on Jacob's marriage bed with Bilhah, which may be supported in Torah - though some commentators disagree.

What jumps out at me is how common that accusation is. My grandfather z"l levied a similar accusation  near the end of his life. (Women often accuse their children or caregivers of stealing their things.) We all knew it wasn't true; it was dementia clouding his mind. But it's still painful to hear words like those, especially from someone who had previously been generous of spirit. 

This year I wonder: how did Jacob's deathbed words land with his grown children? Did they find any comfort in the knowledge that some of these words might have been rooted in dementia? And is it fair to blame the curses on dementia while holding on to the blessings that accompanied them? Because some of what Jacob says at the end of his life is gentle and tender!

He compares Judah to a mighty lion; Naftali to a beautiful deer; Joseph to a colt strengthened by God. And to his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe he offers a poignant blessing, saying, "May the angel who keeps me from harm bless the ones who come after!" (That's R. Irwin Keller's singable translation.) And then Jacob pleads, "In their name, may my name be recalled." (Genesis 48:16)

You may recall that he had two names: Ya'akov, "the Heel," and Israel, "God-wrestler." Remembering his names means remembering the whole: the shrewd young trickster, and the patriarch changed by his wrestle with God, and all of his roles and identities in between. When we look at the whole of Jacob's life in this way, I think it's easier to have empathy for how his story ends.

I do think it's okay to blame the curses on dementia while holding on to the blessings. For me, the blessings come from a true place. They come from a heart flowing with love that wants to bestow that love on the generations. The bitter words or curses come from a false place, a mind clouded by confusion. I believe that the loving words are real, and the hurtful words aren't.

And what about us, "the ones who come after?" We're called to compassionate memory. When we remember all of who he was, his "name is recalled in us." Our task is to recall the choices and adventures and accomplishments of our patriarch's lifetime. To hold with compassion the whole of his story: the beginning and middle that came before this runway toward an end.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul at Kabbalat Shabbat services (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Art by Yoram Raanan

 


Dislocation

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I haven't been to Texas since the unveiling of mom's headstone. The backpack I use when traveling has been in the closet a long time. In its pockets I find paper remnants from the Cuba trip in 2019.

I also unearth my pocket Koren siddur which I had given up for lost, and a wooden coin that reads (after Simcha Bunim) on one side "for my sake was the world created" and on the other "I am dust and ashes."

Flying for the first time in almost two years was always going to be strange. Flying for the first time during a global pandemic, even more so. Thankfully no one is belligerent about wearing a mask.

To make the day even more surreal, it turns out my local airport has been redone. New parking garage, new traffic flow, new everything. Delta still flies out of the B gates; at least that hasn't changed.

On the first plane I watch Roadrunner, the Tony Bourdain film. I loved his writing, and the way he brought the world into our living rooms. I loved how much he seemed to love the wide world.

There's a sense of dislocation in the film. The dislocation of travel, especially the kind of travel he did 250 days a year. The dislocation of a world where his light shines now only in memory.

My mother was still alive when he killed himself, because I remember talking with her about it a little bit. She was shocked. He seemed to have it all, she said more than once. She admired his work too.

Of course, Tony's suicide shapes the story. Not only his absence, but how much the people who knew him best miss him. I ached to see their anger and grief at his inability to stay in the world with them.

Then again, his loved ones didn't have to see him live to lose his words and his machete-sharp wit and his prodigious memory. Maybe he thought he was doing them a kindness, making his own exit.

Still, I'll bet his daughter would've chosen to get more time with him, even if that meant that she would one day endure the heartbreak of watching his mind and his memory and his awareness disappear.

Loss of memory is the most profound dislocation I can think of. It's often old memories that linger like cigar smoke. The hardest thing is making space to grieve what's been lost -- what's being lost. 

Or maybe the hardest thing is grieving the losses without perseveration, without getting stuck in them. Feeling them, and then letting them go -- like the words and memories that recede into mist.


Destination

This time in the black Suburban
leading the hearse

and the parade of blinking cars
I remember the drive

to the cemetery in San Antonio
the day we buried Mom.

I don't think I'd ever been
on those roads before, or

if I had, they were different
from this new vantage.

So many switchbacks and turns
past small houses, yards dotted

with pecan and crepe myrtle trees
though nothing was blooming.

After today's burial
my friend the undertaker

asks about the meditation labyrinth
behind the synagogue.

It's a contemplative practice,
I explain. It's not a maze

where it's easy to get lost.
There's only one path.

Take your time, notice
where your footsteps land.

We don't know how or when,
but we all know the destination.

 

 

If this poem speaks to you, you might enjoy Crossing the Sea, published by Phoenicia. It's my collection that moves through the first year of mourning my mom. 

I should also mention Walking the Labyrinth by my friend and colleague R. Pamela Wax, a new collection of beautiful poems of grief and transformation.


Abundance and dreams, resilience and hope: Miketz and Chanukah

Banner (1)Pharaoh's dreams (artist unknown); an oil-lamp chanukiyah.


This week we continue the Joseph story. In this installment, Pharaoh has two disturbing dreams. In one dream, seven happy fat cows emerge from the Nile, followed by seven emaciated cows who eat the fat ones. In the other, the same thing happens with ripe ears of corn and shrunken ones.

No one in his court can interpret the dreams. And then the cupbearer pipes up: I was in your prison a while back, and there was a Hebrew prisoner who interpreted dreams! So Pharaoh sends for Joseph, who says, the dreams mean that seven good years are coming, followed by seven years of famine.

Joseph tells Pharaoh to set someone wise in charge of his storehouses, someone who can save during the years of plenty so there will be food to eat in the lean times. Pharaoh promptly promotes him, saying, "Could we ever possibly find another man like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?"

(Or in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, "Hey yo, I'm gonna need a right-hand man.")

Pharaoh's dreams are about guarding our resources. When there is abundance, set some aside and save it for when there won't be. And this isn't just about individual households saving what they can; Joseph sets aside grain for the whole nation, so the government can make sure everyone makes it through. 

Every year, we read this at Chanukah. As my b-mitzvah students learned this week, there are different stories we can tell about Chanukah. One is the story of oppression and war in the books of Maccabees -- which were not canonized into the Hebrew Bible, though they are part of some Christian Bibles.

Another is the story of the sanctified oil that lasted for eight days. That narrative comes to us from Talmud, and it's the one our tradition chose to enshrine. That Chanukah story is a story about hope, and enough-ness, and the leap into faith when we don't feel like we have enough fuel to keep hope burning.

Sometimes we feel like we don't have enough. Maybe we feel that we ourselves aren't enough. Maybe life feels overwhelming, and in the words of the poet William Stafford, "The darkness around us is deep." The Chanukah story asks us to kindle light exactly then. That's when we need hope most.

This week Torah says: don't use everything up -- resources are finite! Save some of what you have so you can help everyone make it through the lean times! Meanwhile the Chanukah story says: kindle the eternal light, even if you're going to run out of oil! So which one is right? They both are.

The Torah teaching is about things we can touch: protecting our natural resources, not eating all the grain, making sure we can feed people when there's famine. The Chanukah teaching is metaphysical: it's not about oil, but about hope. It's about kindling hope in our hearts, and keeping hope burning.

Earth and water and air and trees and food are finite, and we need to steward them carefully and share them equitably -- that's a big one, we're working on that. But hope provides its own fuel. And like love, it doesn't diminish when we share it. Being a Jew -- for me -- means living up to both of these truths.

We need to be wise with our resources, and help people who live at sea level, and nations that don't yet have enough vaccines. That's never been more true than it is now. And we need to keep hope kindled in our hearts, even when the world seems hopeless, especially when the world seems hopeless. 

The Hasidic master Reb Nachman (b. 1772) struggled with depression. And yet he taught that despair is a sin. Because despair means the complete absence of hope. And that means we've given up on each other, and on ourselves, and on God. And if we've given up, we won't work to repair what's broken.

That's another thing it means to me to be a Jew: tikkun olam, repairing our broken world. We are God's hands in the world. It's aleinu, it's on us, to build a world of greater justice and love and hope -- and not to give up. 

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat Chanukah (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Hanukkah with Padma

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When I began watching the Hanukkah episode in the new season of Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation, I teared up. The episode opens with the Chanukah blessings sung by Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman of Russ and Daughters as they light and bless at their own festive table. I said, aloud, "I'm not sure I've ever really seen that on TV." It moved me more than I expected.

The episode acknowledges that historically Chanukah was not a major holiday, at least in mainstream Judaism. (R. Abby Stein noted recently on Twitter that in Hasidic circles, Chanukah has long been a major source of spiritual wisdom.) Its relative minor standing made it ripe for reinvention by new immigrants, which Padma explores -- as always -- through the lens of cuisine. 

At Russ & Daughters we learn how a lot of classic Ashkenazi dishes -- chopped liver, herring, schmaltz -- were originally the off-cuts, the things that people with means didn't want. (Yes, even caviar, which used to be Russian peasant food.) The Pickle Guys remind us that the tradition of pickling was a way to preserve produce through long cold winters. This was not prosperity cuisine.

The same message comes through with the folks from Gefilteria teaching Padma to make stuffed cabbage rolls (I'm saving that recipe to try this winter.) And with Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, who notes that brisket was a cheap cut that required long braising. At her Chanukah table, her classic brisket gets turned into brisket tacos. What a glorious moment of remix! 

Interwoven with the food narratives Padma visits the Tenement museum with Annie Polland, and she sits with the rabbi at Central Synagogue, who talks about the Chanukah story. ("I like this rabbi," my son said -- props to you, R. Ari Lorge.) I was struck by his point about the building itself: grand and visible, because here in this country it's safe to be who we are, to let our light shine.

I was especially moved by Ruth Zimbler, a woman of 93 who came over in 1939 -- the same year my own mother emigrated here, fleeing the Nazis. (My mother was three when they fled here; Ruth was eleven.) Ruth talked about America as a beacon of hope for immigrants much as my mom always did. Her horror at this country's recent anti-immigrant policies is powerful.

I've seen Padma speak with immigrants from so many cultures. She values their foodways as she uplifts the core idea that our diversities make us stronger and make us more the multicultural nation we aspire to become. I hadn't realized how much I needed to see her approach the Ashkenazi Jewish food of my own ancestry with the openness and respect she brings to everything else.

 

Related:

 


Complicated thanks

 

 

Like many first-generation Americans, my mother loved Thanksgiving. She emigrated in 1939 with her parents, fleeing the Nazis as they invaded Prague. She believed 100 percent in the dream of the Statue of Liberty as a beacon of freedom and welcome to the world's "tired and poor" escaping to these shores. And she loved gathering with family and friends for Thanksgiving -- so quintessentially American.

There was always turkey and dressing, of course -- often cornbread dressing. Homemade cranberry relish. I think there was usually a yellow Jell-o salad that featured canned pineapple, Red Delicious apple, and maybe celery? I know there was always her mango mousse, made with jarred mango and cream cheese and Jell-o, decanted in a bright shining ring. Sweet potato casserole. Texas pecan pie.

I don't miss the Jell-o salads, but I miss Mom's festive table. 

In recent years, as I've started following more Native voices on Twitter, I've become increasingly aware that for their communities the arrival of white Europeans on these shores was catastrophic. Smallpox blankets, land theft, forced relocation, boarding schools that forbade the transmission of Native languages -- the shameful list goes on. This holiday looks different against that background. 

The Washington Post had an article about that recently: This tribe helped the Pilgrims survive for their first Thanksgiving. They still regret it 400 years later. I read it when they first ran it, and it's been lingering on my mind and in my heart. (There are some excellent links below to pieces by Native Americans about this holiday and these issues -- I recommend all of them.)

I don't think my mom would have been especially interested in talking about any of that. Her immigrant experience caused her to see this nation and its history through rose-colored glasses. (That's why she instructed us to sing "America The Beautiful" at her funeral. Well, that, and "Jerusalem of Gold," but that's another story.) I don't think she would have been able to hear these Native narratives. 

Many of my rabbinic forebears wrote prayers framing the American custom of the Thanksgiving feast in Jewish language of miracle and gratitude. Here's one from Reb Zalman z"l. Here's one from 1940 by Rabbi Joseph Lookstein. Here's a 2018 Haggadah for Thanksgiving.  I love the idea of foregrounding gratitude (there's a reason modah ani is my favorite prayer!) but none of these feel right to me.

These prayers are lofty and beautiful, rooted in Jewish ideals and traditions. And these prayers elide, or ignore, the Native experience of dispossession. Many of them draw on the happy tale of Puritan-Wampanoag hospitality, but that story is a fiction. The truth is a lot messier. I feel like as white folks we need a little bit of Yom Kippur liturgy instead: forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement

Our tradition is clear that for sins against other human beings, we need to seek their forgiveness before we seek God's. What does it mean for us as Jews -- many of whose ancestors came here fleeing trauma somewhere else -- to accept some responsibility for how we (many of us*) benefit from being white and of European descent, here where white European colonists displaced and harmed indigenous peoples?

And (how) can that impulse share space with a yearning for Thanksgiving, maybe especially this year? I love an autumnal feast, especially now that I live where turkeys and cranberries naturally thrive. And this year I'm keenly aware that because my sister and I are both vaccinated against COVID-19, I will get to celebrate Thanksgiving with a beloved family member, which last year was impossible.

So this year I'm sitting with that disjunction. The history of colonialism is awful. The harm that white people have done to Native Americans since Europeans (and others) began settling on these shores is almost inconceivable. The Thanksgiving story as I learned it in childhood ignores that harm. And the joy I feel at the prospect of being able to safely feast on turkey with a family member is still real.

 

 

If you want to read more:

 

*Obviously not all Jews are white or of European descent. It's not my intention to minimize the existence of Jews of color, Sephardi Jews, or Mizrahi Jews. Rather to say: for those of us whose families (like mine) came here from Europe, what responsibility do we have to recognize the privilege that our appearance and our backgrounds afford us, and what do we owe to Native folks? 


Wrestle and stretch

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This week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, contains the story from which our people takes its name.

Jacob is on his way to meet up with his brother Esau for the first time in years. He sends his family away: he is alone on the riverbank. There an angel wrestles with him until dawn, and blesses him with a new name, Israel -- "Godwrestler." We are the people Israel, the people who wrestle with God.

Jacob -- Israel -- walks away from that encounter with a limp. His hip has been wrenched; Rashi says it's torn from its joint. I imagine he was never quite the same after his night-time wrestle. Maybe he could feel oncoming damp weather in his aching hip, or in the sciatic nerve that Torah instructs us not to eat.

Our struggles change us. They may leave us limping.

I think we all know something about that now. The last eighteen months have been a struggle. We've wrestled with fear and anxiety, and with loneliness. We've wrestled with disbelief at outright lies about the pandemic being a hoax, or about vaccines being an instrument of government control.

Many of us are grappling with climate grief, the fear that our planet is already irrevocably changed. Or with political anxiety, wondering whether "red America" and "blue America" can really remain one nation. Or with the reality that the pandemic is now endemic and will not go away. That's a lot.

Jacob wrestled for one night and was changed.

How will we be changed by the wrestling we're doing during these pandemic years?

Earlier this fall I had a bout of sciatica, and I went to see my neighborhood bodyworker. She reminded me that when one part of the body hurts, most likely a different part of the body needs work. My lower back ached, so she worked on my hip flexors! Pain often calls us to stretch in the opposite direction.

That's a physical truth, but it landed metaphysically. When despair ties us in knots, we need to stretch into hope. Remember what we learned from Mariame Kaba at Rosh Hashanah: hope is a discipline. We have to practice it, and stretch it, and lean into it exactly when our pain pulls us the other way.

Torah tells us that Jacob's sciatic nerve was wounded in his wrestling. And Torah also references his heel; Jacob's name means heel. When I was getting treatment for my sciatica, my bodyworker picked up my heels and leaned back, pulling on them gently. "I feel like you're making me taller," I joked.

She said: that's because I am. Stress and tension and gravity all conspire to tighten our bodies, but we can lengthen. In fact, every night while we sleep we get taller as we unclench. Just as astronauts get taller when they spend time in zero-gee, away from the literal pressure of earth's gravitational pull.

When she pulled on my heels, I could feel my whole body getting longer: legs telescoping, spine lengthening. We compartmentalize -- imagining that this body part is separate from that one, or that body is separate from mind and heart and soul -- but we are integrated beings: everything is connected.

That's another physical teaching that lands metaphysically. When we tighten up spiritually, that manifests in our bodies. Stress and tension and gravity tighten us, but rest can help us loosen. Shabbat can help us loosen. Giving ourselves a break from the relentless press of news can help us loosen.

So can stretching ourselves toward hope. When the wrestle feels most overwhelming, when we feel most ground-down by everything that's broken, that's exactly when we need to stretch our capacity to hope. Our spiritual practices can help us shift, as the Psalmist wrote, from constriction to expansiveness.

Jacob named the place of the wrestle P'ni-El, the Face of God. May we too encounter divine presence in our wrestling. May our wrenched and tight places give us greater compassion for each other and for ourselves. And may we learn, in our times of constriction, to open up and stretch toward possibility.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Shared with gratitude to Emily at Embodywork. Image by Marc Chagall.


New normal

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The call comes in late evening. It's someone from the school, calling to tell me that there's a positive COVID test in my kid's pooled testing cohort. I can feel an internal shift, a cloak of calm clicking into place. "Okay, what does this mean for us," I ask, and my voice does not shake even a bit.

It means I should bring him in early tomorrow morning and he'll go directly to the school gym where everyone in his pool will receive a rapid test so they can discern who among them has tested positive. No, I can't go in with him. Yes, someone will be there at 7:45 to let the kids in for their tests.

When I hang up the phone, I'm aware that I'm vibrating at a different frequency than before. It's akin to the way that news of a congregational death shifts my internal gears. Everything that was on my to-do list for tomorrow has been back-burnered. This is more important right now.

I remind my kid that he's had his first shot, which makes him safer than before. I remind him that most kids who get COVID experience something like a cold or a light flu. (I do not mention any of the awful news or social media stories about instances where that is not the case.) He changes the subject.

"It's still scary," he says as I tuck him into bed. "There's no fighting, but it's kind of like a war. There are so many people dying." My kid is incredibly lucky. His life has been as gentle as possible during these first 20 months. Even so, he and his generation will be shaped by this in ways I can't know.

The morning of his test dawns clear and bright, blue skies and unseasonable warmth. He does not test positive. He stays in school, has a normal day, runs around outside at recess, rides his bicycle to Aubuchon at 3:05 and delights in petting the hardware store cat. This is the new normal.

Last year I was grateful that we'd made it all the way to Thanksgiving before hybrid school reverted to all-Zoom. This year I'm grateful that we've made it so close to Thanksgiving before our first experience with this kind of fire drill. And, of course, grateful that he tested negative -- at least this time.