Prayer, pandemic, community, change

1. Completely unprepared

Nothing in my previous rabbinic life had prepared me for standing at a significant distance from a small number of congregants and family members, wearing three kinds of PPE (an N95, a fabric mask, and a face shield), doors open to the cold air, with my laptop open on the Torah table so the community could join us via Zoom and FB Live, telling those assembled in the room that they were not allowed to sing along with me and would need to pray silently in their souls and in their hearts.

We were there to call a kid to Torah as bar mitzvah. He did beautifully: not only with his Torah reading and his d'var, but also with all of the uncertainties of this surreal year. This post isn't about him. (Though if he's reading this: mazal tov, kid, you rocked it and it was a privilege to teach you.) This post is about what it's like to serve as clergy in this pandemic time, trying to serve in circumstances we aren't -- and couldn't have -- trained for. This post is about navigating pandemic and change.

 

2. Holy at Home

When my congregation was planning for this year's Days of Awe, someone asked: would I lead prayer from the shul, with a select few people to make a minyan, while everyone else davened at home? I didn't want to do it that way, for a few reasons. One is that if we're in person, no one in the room can sing, and singing is one of the primary ways I know to open the heart and activate the soul. I especially can't imagine the Days of Awe without the heart-lifting melodies and nusach unique to that holy season. 

Another is that I lead a different service in person than online. When we're in the room together, we use a bound book. When we're on Zoom, we use a set of screenshare slides that I created explicitly for this purpose, with images and embedded video. Online I want to "lean in" and take advantage of what the technology offers us, rather than doing exactly what I would do in shul (which I think would fall flat, because we're not in shul; simply duplicating what I do there would highlight what we've lost.)

Most of all I wanted to uplift the lived experience of seeking and finding holiness in our homes. That's why I titled the machzor "Holy at Home." Because that's the work of this pandemic moment: making holiness where we are. Making community where we are, despite the physical distance between us. There is holiness in a dining table or a coffee table or a television screen with the Zoom siddur on it. When we open our hearts and souls, we can create holiness, we can create community, wherever we are.

This is the work of our moment: finding holiness and community in this pandemic-sparked diaspora from our synagogues to our homes. And yet, that paradigm doesn't quite work for a celebration of b-mitzvah. At least, not if the kid is reading from a physical Torah scroll, and if we're operating under the classical halakhic paradigm that says we need ten adult Jews in person to open said scroll. If that's our frame, in order to call a kid to Torah as a new Jewish adult we need to bring people together.

 

3. The room where it happens

The last time I had led davenen in the synagogue was for a bar mitzvah back in March. (Immediately after that Shabbat, we closed our building.) Ten people were in the room, socially distanced. We used our regular siddur, and those who were joining us on Zoom or Facebook Live did their best to follow along with the Kindle version of the book. We didn't yet know then what we know now about aerosols and ventilation, so we didn't know to prop doors open, or that singing posed an unacceptable risk.

Thank God, no one got sick after the March bar mitzvah. And all of our later-spring celebrations of b-mitzvah were postponed. Some for a full year. And one until this fall. Last spring, it seemed so clear that by fall we would have vanquished this virus and would be able to gather safely again. No one imagined seven months ago that we would be watching global cases tick upwards again now, or that anti-mask rhetoric and "plandemic" lies would facilitate the virus' spread in such horrendous ways.

But as autumn approached, it became clear that this celebration of bar mitzvah would need to be mostly Zoom-based, with only a small number of people in the room... and that we would need to take precautions we didn't know to take, last time we celebrated a kid coming-of-age like this. The doors would need to be propped open. We would all need to be masked, me triply so. And I would need to begin the morning by saying something I never imagined needing to say: friends, please don't sing.

 

4. Keeping us aloft

When I'm leading davenen in a room full of people, I'm always balancing between pouring my heart into the prayers (if I can't really feel what they mean, then I can't lead others to feel it either) and trying to attune myself to who's in the room. Are they with me, are they engaged, are they moved? Do I need to pause for a word of explanation or a moment of humor? What vocal or musical choice will draw them in and lift them up? Are they smiling, are they crying, what can I read in their bodies and faces?

When I'm leading davenen online, my screenshare siddur and screenshare machzor have built-in 'face to face' slides where I pause the screenshare  -- we wave to each other, we beam at each other, we connect through our cameras in the placeless place of our hearts' togetherness. (This is a practice that R' David Markus and I developed for the Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton in June, a weekend  focused on themes of sacred space, digital presence, and what it means to come together in community online.)

Leading "hybrid" prayer -- with most of the people on Zoom, and a few in person -- turns out to be exponentially more difficult than either leading a room full of people, or leading a streaming community in prayer. I was multiply-masked, which created a feeling of distance (and made it hard for some to hear me.) I couldn't rely on in-person cues like smiles, or how enthusiastically people were singing along, because I couldn't see their smiles and I had to instruct them to refrain from singing with me.

At the autumn bar mitzvah, the family wanted me to sing, even if no one else was allowed to. I'm pretty sure I don't have COVID-19, but I wore two masks and a face shield to protect them as best I could, just in case I'm an asymptomatic carrier. But the masks meant that it was hard for people to hear me. I felt a little bit like I was wearing a space suit. And because I had to forbid the room from singing with me at all, it felt a little bit like I was performing for them, rather than praying with them.

In rabbinic school we used to joke about services where the rabbi is the airline pilot responsible for flying the plane, and those in the pews are just passengers -- or theatre-goers, sitting back and watching a show that the rabbi puts on for them. That's not how I aspire to serve. I want everyone in the room to feel empowered to participate. Keeping us all aloft is something we do together. But I don't have the skillset to help that happen in a hybrid space where those in-person can't sing. Does anyone?

 

5. Fear

And, of course, there's anxiety. Cases of COVID-19 are rising all over the country and around the world. I'm a multiple stroke survivor with asthma and hypertension; of course I'm afraid. But I'm not only afraid for myself. I'm afraid for those whom I serve. Especially for older folks and those who are immunocompromised. And what about unwittingly spreading the virus to others? Even if I'm the only one in the room singing. I want to lift my voice to God; I don't want my voice to be a weapon.

For the bar mitzvah, we made the best choices we could. The doors were propped open and the HVAC system was turned off. The family members who were present were masked and socially distanced, and everyone else participated remotely. We printed the slides for those who were physically present, so they had the same materials in front of them as the Zoom / FB community. I think that what we did was meaningful for the bar mitzvah boy. I suspect he'll remember his pandemic bar mitzvah forever.

And I found it challenging to lead prayer under those circumstances. The emotional and spiritual split-screen experience of trying to lead prayer for a few people in the room and a lot of people remotely, with the in-person folks masked and obligated to stay silent, from behind the space-suit-helmet of a plastic shield and two masks, isn't easy. It's hard to create a meaningful experience for those in the room or at home when no one can read my lips or see my smile. And my voice quavered; I was afraid.

 

6. Next time

As I think forward to future pandemic b-mitzvah celebrations, I'm pondering bringing the Torah scroll to the b-mitzvah kid's home so they can read from it there while I, and everyone else, connect via Zoom. If I believe that telepresence is real (and I do -- or at least, I believe that it can be, if we bring our hearts and souls to it) then why would I privilege the old paradigm of gathering bodies together in a room during a global pandemic? Better to change our definition of minyan to include telepresence. 

Some will say we mustn't set that precedent. Because if telepresence is "good enough" during a pandemic, then as a community we could easily lose the habit of gathering in person at all. What's to say then that someone can't just choose to tele-daven forever, because it's more convenient than going somewhere? What does that do to the fabric of our communities? I hear that anxiety, and I honor it. And... that anxiety for the future doesn't change the steps we need to take to protect each other now

I know that when we gather a minyan from ten separate homes on Shabbes morning, I feel genuinely connected with my community even though we're not sharing a room or breathing the same air together. And I know that when I balance actual risk to people's lives against putative risk to the continuity of how our communities are accustomed to functioning, lives are more important. I believe Jewish values call us to seek to save lives, even if that means setting a paradigm shift in motion.

 

7. Building anew

If gathering ten people on Zoom from ten houses is a real minyan, then that's true whether it's "just Shabbes" or a celebration of b-mitzvah. It may not be ideal... but neither is global pandemic. I know that reading Torah from home, with immediate family / quarantine podmates in the room and everyone else on Zoom, may not be what any kid or family wants the celebration of b-mitzvah to be. And yet it may be what the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, preserving and protecting life, asks of us in this time.

I miss what some now call "the beforetimes," when we could gather together without fear of harming each other. When we could embrace or clasp hands or just be near each other without fear for ourselves, or each other, or the others with whom we are in contact. When we could lift our voices and sing in harmony. (God I miss harmony!) My soul yearns to sing in harmony with beloveds, maybe with a hug or a clasped hand. I yearn for that the way our spiritual forebears in exile yearned for Jerusalem.

And right now we're in exile from our former in-person togetherness, and we don't know how long that will last, or how exile will change the Judaism to which we yearn to return. It may be that this pandemic, or the realities of a century that may contain multiple pandemics, will change Judaism in ways we can't yet know. How do we yearn for what we used to have, and hope with all our hearts for that to be restored, while also building new structures to sustain us in what's unfolding now and new?


Prayers, poems, and artwork for Chanukah

It's not like the Temple, sullied
by improper use and then washed clean
and restored to former glory.
This house is tarnished by familiarity.
Month after pandemic month I've circled
from bed to table to sofa to bed again.
I no longer see the mezuzah
on every door frame. Tonight
with one tiny candle I light another.
I want their little flames to galvanize
my hands to consecrate each room...

That's the beginning of a poem called "Rededication," which I wrote in collaboration with the other rabbis, writers, liturgists, and artists who are part of Bayit's liturgical arts working group

You can read all of "Rededication" on page 11 of our new collection for this difficult pandemic Chanukah. (I also have another prayer-poem in that collection, about candles in windows and Zoom...)

The collection is called Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah. I think it's a really beautiful collection, and I really hope you'll click through and download the PDF.

Here you'll find new liturgy for this pandemic Chanukah, evocative poetry, and stirring artwork, intended for use by individuals and communities across and beyond the denominational spectrum.

My collaborators and fellow builders on this project are Trisha Arlin, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, R. Jennifer Singer, Devon Spier, and Steve Silbert.

Find it here on Builders Blog: Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah. (You can also find it, along with our other liturgical offerings, at Bayit's Liturgical Arts for Our Times page.)


A letter to the other side

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Dear Mom: I wear you draped around my shoulders almost every day now. The first thing I claimed from your closet was a cashmere shawl. It is a light color, somewhere between brown and grey, like a northern squirrel in wintertime. It is soft as baby hair. Your clothes were so spectacular, and your shoes, but none of them would fit me. But this wrap is one-size-fits-all. 

It's been a strange autumn, but November's cold and damp have finally settled in. Your shawl lives folded on the back of my chair, and every morning I wrap it around myself like a tallit. Its wings warm me and protect me. Sometimes when I put it on I say "hi, Mom." Sometimes when I walk past the photograph of us in my bedroom, I greet you there too. 

Soon I will hold Crossing the Sea in my hands. What would you make of it? I hope it would make you glad. To know that I am still thinking of you (will always be thinking of you). I imagine sending you a copy, there on the other side. Maybe the reference to mango mousse would make you smile, or the cheery tulips on Park Avenue, or the pale green purse (once yours) that I carry now every spring.

I carry you now. You've become so light on my shoulders I scarcely feel you there. Maybe that's because your soul has ascended. Maybe that's because my grief has ascended, transmuted, turned mostly into memory. But I feel the warmth of the shawl I took from your closet. I wear it every day. And if I listen closely enough, I can still hear the piano notes reverberating from the last time I heard you play. 


Here we are

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Ice crystals on a branch outside my condo.

 

It's strange, now, to look back at my journal from last spring. Back when the pandemic was new to this country (or at least, new to my awareness.) Back when I thought my son might be out of school for a few weeks and then we'd get back to normal. (And he thought so too.) Back when I thought that surely my nation, with all its wealth, could vanquish this virus. Back when I thought surely by the Days of Awe we'd be back together again, safely, with the virus contained.

I never imagined how unspeakably badly national leadership would botch this, or that the president would complain about having to help people who didn't vote for him, or that masks would become a symbol of party affiliation rather than a basic safety measure that can slow the virus' spread. I didn't imagine a quarter of a million deaths and then a staggering number of people planning to see each other at Thanksgiving as though nothing were happening. 

But here we are. It seems ever more evident that there are two nations in uneasy coexistence. Here where I live, masks are ubiquitous. Everyone I know is staying in a small quarantine-style pod, and while some of us relaxed over the summer enough to be with others outdoors, now that the weather is cold we're hunkering down again. We limit trips to the grocery store. We don't travel. We don't touch each other. We don't see people outside our bubble.

I read in the paper, though, about the "other America." The one where people think the virus is a hoax, sometimes even while they're dying of it. The one where people think their liberties give them the right to infect others. I can't understand it. I want to say it's fundamentally anti-Jewish -- our whole religious tradition is communitarian, we have obligations to each other and to the vulnerable! -- though obviously at the rightmost fringe of Judaism some disagree with me.

It's not lost on me that we also live in two Americas when it comes to how we see our national political life. And I don't know what to do about that. Honestly, I can hardly face it. I read the ridiculous lies about the election being stolen and I just don't understand how so many believe that. Add it to the long list of things I can't wrap my head around, I guess. I'm worried about systemic damage to democracy. But right now the pandemic feels more urgent.

And yet life continues. My child will have a birthday in a few days. The new moon of Kislev rose a few days ago; Chanukah is coming. I'm trying not to write scripts about what this pandemic winter will be. We will stay home and try to stay safe. I always look toward spring with hopes of renewal. This year those hopes are heightened: hope not only for more light and new growth but also for government I can trust and for a vaccine. For now, here we are.


Surge capacity and old wells

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This week's Torah portion, Toldot, is so rich. There's great stuff here. This week we've got Rebecca conceiving twins, feeling them grapple with each other in her womb, asking God why this is her life. We get Jacob, whose name means The Heel because he grabs Esau's heel on the way out of the womb.

There's the whole thing with the birthright -- first Esau bargains away his firstborn birthright for a bowl of lentils, then Rebecca coaxes Jacob to trick Isaac into giving the firstborn blessing to him instead of to his older twin. Or how about Esau begging his father, "Don't you have a blessing for me, too?"

There are a dozen divrei Torah in what I just said! And yet I could not find the oomph to write any of them. Because our nation just hit a quarter of a million deaths from covid-19. And winter is coming, and with it, indoor life. And some people are planning to be indoors with others at Thanksgiving next week.

And some number of Americans still believe the virus is a hoax. I read this week in the Post about a nurse in South Dakota, in full PPE, tending to the dying...and the dying patients raging at her for wearing PPE around them because even as they were dying of covid they didn't believe covid was real.

"These are the generations of Isaac" -- that's how the parsha begins. Isaac is situated in his family line, son of Abraham and Sarah, husband to Rebecca, father of Esau and Jacob. And I can't stop thinking about today's generations, truncated. Parents mourning their children. Children who have lost parents.

And I do not understand the refusal to take responsibility, the refusal to act as though we are all interconnected and what I choose to do can impact others. Because we are all interconnected. And whether or not I wear a mask might be the difference between someone else's life and death.

How could I write a d'var Torah in the midst of all of that? And then someone pointed me to Tara Haelle's essay on "surge depletion." Haelle writes:

"Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely."

Haelle's point is that in a short-term crisis, something in us rallies to pull through. Long-term anxiety and uncertainty -- about the pandemic, the future of democracy, who will live and who will die, how much worse things may get before they begin to get better -- that's something else entirely.

We can function in crisis mode for only so long, and then our "surge capacity" gets depleted. Is this sounding familiar? And when our capacity becomes depleted, sometimes we go to the well -- the well of inspiration, the well of hope, the well of faith -- and there's no water to be had. It feels like the well has run dry.

When I read that, I thought: yes. That's what I'm feeling. That's why I can't muster what it takes to write. And that's the image that brought me back to this week's Torah portion.

In this week's portion we read that Isaaac re-plumbed the wells that his father had dug. On the surface, that verse is about literally re-digging wells, which are pretty necessary in a desert climate! But on a metaphorical level, this verse reminds me how sometimes the wells of spirit and hope stop flowing.

When that happens, our job is to forgive ourselves for feeling tapped-out... and then to dig into those wells again, to open those channels so they can receive flow again. Here's what I take from this week's parsha: the spiritual work of opening channels for the flow of hope and faith isn't a one-time thing.

So if you feel lately as though your spiritual well has run dry, you're not alone. Join me in taking inspiration from Isaac, who went back to the old wells and dug away the silt and rocks so they could flow again. The wells of Torah and spiritual practice still flow, but we might need to open them up again.

Because this isn't a short-term crisis. The pandemic isn't going away anytime soon, and neither is the precariousness of our democracy or the poison in our public discourse. We can't rely on surge capacity. We need to build deeper capacity in ourselves and in the systems that support us and our communities.

So here's my prayer. May we find that those old wells of tradition and practice, when we tend them carefully and give them our attention, open up again to nourish and sustain us in every way. Starting right now, with a measure of Shabbat sweetness, Shabbat hope, and Shabbat rest. Shabbat Shalom.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Looking for Water

 


1.

Isaac dug his father's wells anew.
This doesn't mean he just treaded old ground.

Avraham had plumbed the earth's deep wisdom.
Where his pick struck soil, compassion poured.

Isaac opened up his father's pipes
so kindness, long-delayed, could flow again.

In all who drank, a memory arose:
water, shared in the desert, saves a life.


2.

When Isaac's servants, digging in the wadi
found a spring, the herdsmen quarreled: "This is ours."

Frustrated, they named that place Contention.
He dug another, they fought again: Dispute.

How different are things now? Today, who drills
-- and who drinks only the infrequent rains?

What new name might we choose if we could build
a world where everyone gets enough water?


3.

Source of all, flow through us like the rains.
Turn the spigot of abundant blessing.

Teach us we won't die, parched and alone,
but live renewed like hillsides kissed with dew.

When we can share the stuff of which we're made,
what makes our earth the firmament's swirled blue,

then we will find the ample space we need
to share this earth as kin with all who thirst.

(And let us say: Amen.)

 


SOURCES

"Isaac dug his father's wells anew." Genesis 26:17.

"But when Isaac's servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac's herdsmen, saying, 'The water is ours. He named that well Esek, because they contended with him." Genesis 26:19-20

"And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah." Genesis 26:21

"In today's world, ask: / who may drill, who only gets the infrequent rains?" See The Gap in Water Consumption between Palestinians and Israelis, B'tselem 2013.

"He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, "Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space to increase in the land." Genesis 26:22

 

This poem arises out of this week's Torah portion. It was written in 2013 for a now-defunct blog called Palestinian Talmud, after one of the names given to the Talmud Yerushalmi. A reader alerted me to the fact that my link to this poem was a dead link, so I'm reposting it now.


Crossing the Sea

My mother and I had a complicated relationship. Over the first 43 years of my life we adored each other; we argued with each other; we delighted each other; we disappointed each other. Just now I had to look at a calendar to remind myself how old I was when Mom died: sometimes it feels like she's been gone for a long time, and sometimes it feels like she's still here. 

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time at all, you know that I'm an external processor. I "write my way through the hurricane." (Thanks, Lin-Manuel.) In rabbinical school I wrote Torah poems week after week. When I miscarried, I wrote poems as I sought healing. During my son's first year of life I wrote weekly poems chronicling his changes... and mine.

How else could I possibly respond to my mother's death? I keened and grieved and wept -- and wrote. When I was in my MFA program in my early 20s, she didn't like some of my poems; they felt too revelatory. Would she find these poems too intimate to be shared? I shared early drafts here anyway, because I needed to send the words out: into the world, if not to her.

Many of you wrote to me saying that the poems spoke to you and mirrored your experiences of loss. Over the course of the eleven months between her death and her unveiling, I wrote my way through how grief was changing me, and changing in me, until I reached the far shore of that particular sea. I will never cross it in that same way again, because one's mother only dies once.

And then, after the year was over, I sat down with a trusted friend and editor and asked: are these poems worth publishing in a less ephemeral form? Beth helped me see how the poems could be improved, and what was missing from the collection, and how to make the book more than the sum of its parts. This book is far better for her editorial hand, and I am grateful.

I am fiercely proud of this book of poems. It is a tribute to Mom, and a testament to how much she shaped me (and continues to shape me). It's a reminder that relationships can continue after death, and that time's alchemy brings subtle shifts. It's personal, because our relationship was only ours... and I think it's universal, too, because we all have mothers, and we all know loss.

If you knew Liana Barenblat, I hope you'll find her here. And if you didn't know my mom, I hope you'll find in these poems echoes of your own relationships, and maybe a roadmap for the mourner's path, that complex journey of grief and love, loss and healing. I'm so thankful to Beth Adams at Phoenicia for bringing this book to press, and for her cover art, which I love.

Introducing...

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Crossing the Sea - Phoenicia Publishing 2020

Special pre-order price $14.50 (US)
Regular price after Nov 30, $15.95

 

Heart-full, love-rich, rapt with intricate attention and memory, but never shirking the hard parts, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat shares a sequence of stunning poems  for her late mother. Her voice is honest as a tree.  This is an extremely moving book for anyone who has known grief,  and feels captivated by how the conversation goes on. 

–Naomi Shihab Nye, author of The Tiny Journalist and Transfer, among others

I knew Rachel’s mother. We came from the same small Texas town, ate the same mango mousse served in a fluted ring mold. Rachel captures the complexity of their relationship through similar telling descriptions and snippets of dialogue, then a miracle happens. My mother is there, too. Crossing the Sea moves past the personal as women readers identify and remember, laying these pebble poems on their own mothers’ stones.

— Nan Cuba, author of Body and Bread, winner of the PEN Southwest Award in Fiction

Rachel Barenblat’s poems open us to the heart of mourning: grappling with the loss of a parent, with whom our relationship was so close yet so complicated. She captures the tension between love and discord, the thrust and tug of distancing and reconciliation. She takes us with her on a winding path of grieving over the seasons of a year. Through that prism she refracts two lifetimes and three generations, rendering them with emotional honesty and insight. I was moved, I was brought back to my own loss, and I was brought a little closer to healing.

— Mark Nazimova, Jewish liturgist, New York City

Pre-order Crossing the Sea for $14.50 US now.

 


Out of joint

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It's unseasonably warm for western Massachusetts in November. Day after day the high reaches 75. Given climate change, has unseasonable lost its meaning? Last month when it snowed a little I moved my short-sleeved shirts into winter storage; now I'm taking them back out again. The time has changed, we've "fallen back," night falls early. There's something deeply disconcerting about early nightfall when it's this warm. The world feels out of joint. I think of the jokes we crack: "It's March 282nd," as though time stopped moving forward in its normal patterns when the pandemic began for us. I don't know how many days it's been since March. I don't want to count them: they feel lost. So much feels lost. This week we're all on tenterhooks again. Has democracy lost its meaning? The weather app tells me we'll be back to cold weather in a few days. I resolve to go outdoors today while I still can. My fears tell me they know what's coming. 


Psalm in the spirit of Minecraft

Because we combine
creation's building blocks:
andesite, birch, clay.

Because seeds will sprout
and we transform wheat
into bread worth blessing.

Because it's our job
to bring light
to dark places.

Because the only way
this world makes sense
is if we keep building.

Sometimes we turn around
and everything we tended
is broken. Still we repair

each shattered place,
growing new flowers
over the earth's wounds.

 


In an early week of the psalms class I'm teaching for clergy (via Bayit: Building Jewish), we read an excerpt from Psalm in the Spirit of Dragnet by Julie Marie Wade. Our conversation afterwards took us to all kinds of places, and one of the ideas it sparked in me was: what about a psalm in the spirit of Minecraft? I've been playing the game with my son since the pandemic began, and have been surprised at how satisfying I find it. For me there's something fundamentally hopeful about the game. And, of course, building is our root metaphor at Bayit. As an experiment, I read this poem aloud to my son without telling him the title, and he immediately recognized what I was doing, which makes me happy. Here's to more building. 


Every righteous person matters

07970ff6829340efa7b45d202c6909a6In this week's Torah portion, Vayera, God decides to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, because "their sin is so great."

Later in the parsha we'll see an example of their sin: an angry mob demanding that Lot release the strangers whom he's protecting, so that the mob can rape them. That's one way to read the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah: their response to strangers is violent domination.  

Here's another, from the prophet Ezekiel: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and needy.” 

But before that happens, Abraham argues with God: what if there are fifty righteous people there? Or forty? And he bargains God down, and God agrees that if a single minyan of tzaddikim can be found, the cities will be spared.

This year we're reading these verses against the backdrop of election aftermath. We've all been on tenterhooks waiting for votes to be counted. Maybe feeling afraid of violence or afraid for our nation.

And here's Abraham saying to God: wait, even if You're despairing, count everybody. Here's what I take from that passage this year: every righteous person counts. Every righteous person makes a difference. Even if we may feel insignificant in the big picture -- every one of us who is trying to do what's right, matters.

Many translations of this dialogue between Abraham and God about Sodom and Gomorrah use the terms "guilty" and "innocent," e.g. "Far be it from You... to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike!" In that translation, Abraham is urging God to remember the people who are innocent of wrongdoing. 

But I would argue that the plain meaning of the Hebrew words rasha and tzaddik is stronger than that. A rasha is someone who acts wickedly. Some say: a rasha is concerned only with themself and their own needs, rather than the needs of the community or the needs of the vulnerable. And a tzaddik isn't just "innocent." A tzaddik is someone who acts righteously -- someone who acts with tzedek, justice.

And what is righteous behavior? Judaism has a lot of answers to that -- we have 613 instructions, for starters! But here's a shorter list. Righteousness means loving the stranger -- feeding the hungry -- caring for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, in other words the powerless and vulnerable -- seeking justice with all that we are. That's our work. That is always our work.

And it's not always easy. Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle. The pastor John Pavlovitz writes,

"There is a cost to compassion, a personal price tag to cultivating empathy in days when cruelty is trending... Friend, I know you’re exhausted. If you’re not exhausted right now your empathy is busted. But I also know that you aren’t alone."

For those of us who trust science, it's exhausting to know that so many of our fellow Americans think masks infringe on their civil liberties -- or think covid is a hoax. Especially in a week with days where the US kept breaking our own records for new covid-19 infections: first 100,000, then 109,000...  And that's just one reason to feel exhausted. Election uncertainty is exhausting. Fears of violence are exhausting.

But in this week's parsha what I hear Abraham saying is: don't give up. We need to keep doing the right thing: it matters, it makes a difference, even if we don't know it. We need to be tzaddikim. We need to keep loving the stranger, feeding the hungry, caring for the needy and the vulnerable, pursuing justice. Wearing our masks. Protecting the marginalized. Feeling empathy for others. Counting every vote.

This is our obligation as Jews -- as citizens -- as human beings. This was our work before the election; this is our work after the election. And yeah, this is hard work. Most things worth doing are.

Maybe there weren't ten tzaddikim in Sodom, but I believe there are tzaddikim everywhere. And if we're trying to act justly in the world, our work matters -- our work counts.

May Shabbat bring balm to our bruised and anxious hearts... so that when the new week begins, we can bring renewed energy to the work of doing what's right, the work described in the Langston Hughes poem that was our haftarah reading today, the work of building a better world. 

 

This was my d'varling from my synagogue's Shabbat services this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


The day after

Beethoven's 7th,
all day, on repeat.
Because I need to know
there is meaning
in how we circle back
to this lament in minor mode.
I want to trust
the swell of grief
will give way to hope.

 


 

If you don't know the second movement of Beethoven's 7th symphony, you can hear it here.


Prayer for Our Country

 

O God and God of our ancestors

receive our prayer for this land that we love.

Pour out Your blessing on this nation and its government.

 

Give those who serve our country

appreciation for the Torah's principles of justice and peace.

Help them to see Your face in every constituent.

 

Cultivate in them, and in us,

awareness that we are all one family

obligated to care for each other with compassion.

 

Banish hatred from our hearts

and from the hearts of our elected officials.

Help us to make this country a light unto the nations.

 

May it be Your will

our God and God of our generations

that this nation be a blessing to all who dwell on earth.

 

Help us to enact the words of Your prophet:

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.

Neither shall they learn war anymore."  And let us say: Amen.

 

 

I wrote this for the Days of Awe machzor several years ago. I'm re-sharing it again today, in hope.


Soup

I always forget how dried beans swell.
They start as tiny stones in my hand

but after an overnight salt water soak
they fill my red bowl to overflowing.

This week I revise them into posole --
it's meant to include hominy, but

in these pandemic times we all learn
to make do. I curl my tongue around

ancho and pasilla, remembering the music
of your lushly-swirled double ll's.

Raisiny peppers soften and come apart.
I want to blend into a chord like that.

 


Be gentle with you, and cultivate hope

Direct Sowing-Starting Seeds Outdoors

Everyone I know is struggling right now. And by and large, the people in my circles have jobs; we have secure housing; we do not have COVID-19. If this year were a video game, we would be sailing through it on "easy" mode. This is still hard.

We're watching the pandemic surge all over the country. Hospitals are filling up. We remember New York last spring, the refrigerated trucks that had to serve as extra morgues, doctors re-using PPE because there isn't enough to go around.

We're watching the anointing of a new Supreme Court justice who may be poised to strike down the Affordable Care Act and undo a generation's progress toward the bodily autonomy of people with uteruses. Many of us feel powerless and afraid.

We're watching the election with a mixture of hope and dread. The president insists he cannot lose unless it's rigged. I've had congregants ask me: do I think voter intimidation will turn into actual civil war? (Probably not, but the fear is exhausting.)

We're trying to help our children navigate remote or hybrid school. My kid is lucky: right now he's at school for about 2.5 hours, four days a week. The rest of the time is asynchronous work that takes him almost no time at all. He's often at loose ends.

We're trying to help our children navigate the emotional and spiritual impacts of seven months of pandemic with no end in sight. Bedtime has become fraught. Tears happen more often and more easily. "This pandemic ruins everything," mine said.

We're grieving everything we've lost. Even those of us who haven't lost friends or family to COVID-19 (yet) have much to grieve.  Planned visits to loved ones, or long-awaited vacations, or just... safely sitting at a coffee shop with other human beings. 

Many of us struggle to drum up and sustain hope for the future. Many of us have lost our previous sense of safety in the world. And we're the lucky ones: not sick, not unemployed, not homeless, enough food to eat, enough hand sanitizer to get by.

Why am I reciting this terrible litany? In order to say: if you're struggling, you're not alone. In order to say: hey, be gentle with yourself. These are difficult times. It's normal to be overwhelmed, and anxious, and to feel like everything is a slog right now.

I mean, guess what: everything really is a slog right now. Our brains are spinning with anxious worst-case scenarios on every level, from the personal to the communal to the global. Of course we can't focus. Of course we're not working at capacity. 

I've said before that this is a great time to strengthen our spiritual practices. (And if we don't have them, this is a great time to start.) And this is a time to be compassionate with ourselves, and to replenish ourselves however we can manage to do so.

Yes, everything is really hard right now. It's not you -- it's the world we're living in. Put on your own oxygen mask: nourish yourself in whatever ways you can. With music, or books, or Netflix, or petting your cat, or cooking, or whatever you can find.

Cultivate hope. Plant its seeds deep within, and water them, and nurture them, and strengthen your ability to feel those seeds growing. It's okay if you can't feel hope all the time. Try just feeling it for a single moment. And then a moment more. 

And if you can't feel hope, then hope for the capacity to feel hope again -- that works too. And when you can breathe, see what you can do to help people who have it worse off than you do. And when you can't breathe, return to your oxygen mask again.

 


Cheshvan moon

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I don't know anything about the artist who created this print. I found it in the San José Artisans' Market in Havana, in the last moments before our bus left the city and took us into the provinces. The art market is enormous, a warehouse filled with stalls where artists sell everything from oil paintings to handmade hammocks. I browsed its aisles, wandering, and this print caught my eye. The price was low, maybe twenty CUC$. What leapt out at me was the bright crescent moon over the close city rooftops.

The previous night we'd walked the streets of Old Havana under a new moon. Because of the embargo, tourists were few and far between. We stopped in at La Bodeguita del Medio, sipped rum, savored incredible music. We wandered the streets, our group breaking into smaller clusters as we found places for dinner. After dinner my foursome wound up on the rooftop of the Hotel Raquel, where a porter showed us mezuzahs and a cupola adorned with Biblical frescoes and spoke wistfully about cruise ships. 

The crescent moon above us was the marker of a new month. Cheshvan: the month with no holidays except for Shabbat. The month when we return to the rhythms of "regular life" after the long stretch of spiritual work from Tisha b'Av to Simchat Torah. Today is Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan again. The pandemic isolates us now. I'm traveling in my mind: remembering walking with friends on the old cobblestone streets, marveling at the new moon over the city rooftops as music drifted through the air.