Who Are We? Lessons from D'varim for Now

 

"אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־כּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן…"

"These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan..." (Deut. 1:1)

Banks-of-the-jordan-river-1839-munir-alawi

Photograph by Munir Alawi, 1839: the banks of the Jordan.

These are the opening words of this week's Torah portion, and the opening words of the book of D'varim, Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is the last of the Five Books. If we're starting Deuteronomy, then the Days of Awe must be just around the corner.

(They are.)

This is the moment in our ancestral story when we pause and take stock. The children of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness for forty years -- in Torah's language, a lifetime.

So we encamp by the river, and Moshe tells the story of the wilderness wandering. He's speaking to the generation born in the wilderness -- those who experienced the Exodus are now gone. When he's done retelling the story, he will cross over into whatever comes after this life. The people will cross over into the next chapter of their journey. And we will cross over into 5783, a new year full of unknowns.

For Moshe and the children of Israel, this is a moment to pause and take stock of where we've been, who we've been, and what we want to carry forward. Of course, the same is true for us every year when we reach this point in our story.

It's a little bit like the moment in Disney's cartoon Amphibia where the protagonist Anne looks at the blank page inscribed, "Who am I?"

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Asking the question of herself helps her realize that she chooses to be someone who does the right thing. As Jews, we ask ourselves that question all the time. Some of us nightly before the bedtime shema. Some of us weekly, before Shabbat. All of us annually, before the Days of Awe. Which is to say... now.

In the midst of this, here comes Moshe in this week's Torah portion, retelling the story of the scouts.

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Remember Shlach? The giant grapes? Mirror illustration by Steve Silbert.

Remember, twelve men went into the Land. They retrieved giant grapes. They said they felt like grasshoppers compared to the giants they saw there. When they came back, ten of them said "we can't do this," and only two said "sure we can." And the people believed the ten who despaired.

So God said, if the people don't have faith, they won't enter the land. This whole generation that knew slavery is going to die in the wilderness, except for Joshua and Caleb.

Moshe tells that story more or less the way we heard it the first time. But he makes one significant change. "Because of you," he says, "יהו''ה was incensed with me too, saying: You shall not enter it either."

Hold up. That's not the reason Torah gave for why Moshe won't enter the land!

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An artist's rendering of what actually kept Moshe out of the Land of Promise.

God makes that call when Moshe angrily hits a rock to make it produce water, instead of speaking to it as God instructed him. We might quibble with that decision-making. Was it really fair for God to punish Moshe that much for one moment of anger? But fair or not, that's definitely how the story went.

And now Moshe's changing it up. He's conveniently forgetting that the reason he won't live to enter the Land is because he chose violence instead of speech. It's because of his own actions and choices -- not because the people lost faith.

As our ancestral story pauses on the banks of the Jordan, we're at the edge of a new year. Because it's human nature, maybe we're tempted to do what Moshe just did: to retell the story of the last year in a way that avoids taking responsibility.

Where do we want to pretend away our own poor choices? How often do we want to say, "it's their fault," pointing a finger at someone else because that feels more comfortable than admitting that we messed up? 

It's okay to feel the impulse to do what Moshe did. It's not okay to actually follow in his footsteps here. Our spiritual tradition asks us to do better than that. 

This is the inner work of teshuvah -- repentance; return; turning our lives around. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes that there are five specific steps to repentance work:

1. Owning the harm perpetrated (ideally publicly) / 2. Do the work to become the kind of person who doesn't do harm (which requires a ton of inner work) / 3. Make restitution for harm done, in whatever way possible / 4. THEN apologize for the harm caused in whatever way that will make it as right as possible with the victim / 5. When faced with the opportunity to cause similar harm in the future, make a better choice

(I can't wait for her new book on this subject, On Repentance and Repair, due just before Rosh Hashanah.)

Unfortunately we don't get to see Moshe doing this kind of repentance work. He blames his misfortune on somebody else -- the scouts who brought back a negative report. Tradition teaches that the scouts returned with that negative report on Tisha b'Av, which begins tonight -- though it's Shabbat, so we'll observe the day on Sunday instead.

Tisha b'Av is a day of mourning. In addition to being the anniversary of the scouts' screw-up, Tisha b'Av is the date when Babylon destroyed the first Temple, the date when Rome destroyed the second Temple, the date when the first Crusade began in 1096. Also the date of many other tragedies visited on the Jewish people through our history.

Tradition also teaches that the 9th of Av is the day when moshiach will be born -- the messiah, redemption, ultimate hope, or maybe the age or era when the work of healing creation will be complete. It's as though recognizing that wow, the world is really broken can be the first step toward repair.

(It can.)

On Sunday we'll take first steps toward the repair inherent in a new year, full of new possibility. We'll begin the reverse Omer count -- 49 days until Rosh Hashanah. In the spring, after Pesach, we count seven weeks of the Omer as we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew at Sinai on Shavuot. Now, as fall approaches, we count seven weeks as we prepare ourselves to enter a new year.

So much has happened in the last year that it may feel like a lifetime. 

Who have we been, over the lifetime of the last year? When were we hopeful, and when did we despair? What do we feel proud of, and what do we wish we could pretend never happened (or wish we could blame on someone else)? What's the inner work we need to do, in order to do the outer relational and healing work that others can see?

Rosh Hashanah begins seven weeks from Sunday night. Who have we been this year, and who will we choose to become?

D3F0R6ll

 

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


Since

since the election
since Nazis marched
in Charlottesville
since the pandemic started
and we ran out of PPE
and that guy suggested drinking bleach

since facts became debatable
(like how viruses work
and whether science is real)
since Kentucky flooded
since the tarmac at Heathrow
melted from extreme heat

since monkeypox
and sly insinuations
since Don't Say Gay
and teachers hiding who they are
and students hiding under desks
since I lost track of school shootings

since that time they said
"it doesn't matter
if we lose, we'll just
claim victory" and then did
since smashed windows in the Capitol
since Confederate flags

since democracy buckled
since I realized
democracy had been buckling
for a long time
since misinformation
since SCOTUS erased rights

since fear-mongering
about "groomers"
about "critical race theory"
since the latest flyer
blaming everything on
hook-nosed yarmulke-wearers

since I realized
how much they hate us
since it became unsafe
to be 
since I realized
it's never been safe

 


I've been poking at this poem for a while. There's a sense that life's just been a lot lately. I'm noticing it in conversations, in pastoral interactions, everywhere I go. So many things are broken. "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work," in the words of my poetry mentor Jason Shinder z"l, so that feeling became the impetus for the poem. 

Tisha b'Av is in a few days. Seems like an apt time to be sitting with what's broken. 

I think a lot about how catastrophe is not a new story for us as Jews. The Jewish people has endured difficult times before, and our tradition gives us tools for navigating times like these with integrity and perhaps even grace. This year I think we're all living in this brokenness, which is why this year I'll be using Tisha b'Av to harness hope. (Join us on Zoom if you are so inclined.)


Choice

Content warning: miscarriage, rape, child abuse, forced birth.  Please take care of yourself: if reading about any of those things would cause you harm, skip this poem.


1. Miscarriage

Thirteen years ago I went to sleep pregnant and woke with thick clots sticky on my thighs. Swamped with blood and despair, I pleaded please God please don't let this be a miscarriage, but my prayer was null. That pregnancy was already over. At least my body expelled the tissue without incident. I didn't go septic. And back then if I'd needed a doctor, I could have entered any public hospital, even in a red state. If it happened today I could be like the woman sent home from the hospital to wait for infection to set in. Or the one sent home to fill a bathtub with blood because the D&C she needs is now against the law. She says they'll stop trying to conceive: in the state where she lives, it's no longer safe. Grief and rage rise in me like a hurricane, like a tsunami, like the flood of blood I couldn't stop.


2. As if

as if
the agony of our bodies betraying us
weren't enough

now 
we might be blamed for feticide
we might be jailed

hemorrhaging
we might have to beg the pharmacist for drugs 
they still might say "I can't help you" 

 

3. Weep

For the one who knows a second bout with postpartum depression will be fatal.
For the one with preexisting conditions for whom pregnancy means death.

For the one shadowed with bruises, trapped in an abusive marriage.
For the rape victim now twice forced

For the pregnant child, almost certainly violated 
by someone they know, body wracked and changed.

For the one forced to carry a dead fetus to term and labor to birth it. 
For the one who just doesn't want to get pregnant.

For everyone now realizing that if they get impregnated, a cluster of cells trumps.
For everyone who's known that choice is not enough, and could be taken away.

 

4. Questions

Which is worse: being jailed for miscarriage
or forced into giving birth?
Had you considered that question before this year?

Did you previously understand
the Supreme Court could strip away bodily autonomy
as though it were a dress we no longer get to wear?

If your answer is no: are you white, affluent, cisgender,
straight, and/or temporarily able-bodied?
Do you think those adjectives will protect you now?

 

 


 

I don't live in a forced-birth state, though the GOP is already talking about banning abortion nationwide if they gain control of the Senate in November.

For now I'm thankful that I retain autonomy over my own body, and I grieve and rage for everyone for whom that is no longer true (and/or was never functionally true -- I'm aware that for many, the promise of "choice" was meaningless without access and resources.)

My practice is to grieve and rage (and write furious poems) when I need to, and then find something I can do to help people who have it worse than I do. If you have a few dollars to spare, donate to the NCJW Jewish Fund for Abortion Access. It doesn't fix what's broken, but it will help.

 


Not the First

the same poem that appears below, beside a photograph of tealight candles

 

Lately the drumbeat of lies,
the erosion of rights feel like
constant bombardment.
I know incitement of hatred
is never good for the Jews.
I also know we're not the first
generation to live like this.
When bad news batters at the windows
I remember the Jews who fled Europe
and those who couldn’t leave in time.
Aish Kodesh, rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto
who buried wisdom in a coffee can
before the Nazis shot him.
I remember Cossacks, Crusades, Rome
all the way back to exile
by the waters of Babylon...
Every Friday night I cup
my hands around twin flames.
Millennia of ancestors stand
behind me. Their hope still burns.
I mean clear-eyed awareness
of just how broken this world is
and refusal to let that be
the last word. Yes, everything’s
shattered, our mystics told us that.
They also knew beneath every shard
is a holy spark nothing can ever quench.

Originally published at Bayit.

 

That's one of the poems I wrote for Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group, to share as part of our collaborative offering for Tisha b'Av this year, which is called For the Sake of Ascent.

This year, it feels like we live in Tisha b'Av -- in the brokenness -- all the time. Between ongoing pandemic, the climate crisis, and the stripping-away of rights, there's no escaping what hurts.

This year, we wanted our Tisha b'Av offering to acknowledge the broken places, but beyond that, to offer some meaning and hope despite all of our shattered places... or maybe in them and through them. 

And this year, the holiday falls on Shabbat, so it will be observed the following day, which is actually the tenth of Av -- and the first day of the reverse Omer count, the 49-day journey toward Rosh Hashanah.

That's the hook on which our offering hangs. The lowest point of our year is also the beginning of uplift: from rock bottom, where else is there to go? We respond to what's broken with building back better.

The theme for Bayit's Tisha b'Av collaboration this year is Descent for the Sake of Ascent. This is a Hasidic idea that I deeply love. In a word, our falling down is precisely the first step of our rising up.

Anyway: I hope you'll click through to read the whole collection of poetry, liturgy, and art for this year's Tisha b'Av, available both as a PDF and as google slides: For the Sake of Ascent - Tisha b'Av 5782.


The Messenger We Need

Torah scroll with a photo of a donkey and title text superimposed

 

This week's Torah portion, Balak, contains the second talking animal in Torah! (The first one was the snake who spoke to Eve, way back at the start of Bereshit.)

In this week's installment of our story: Balak, the king of Moab, sees the children of Israel encamped on his land. We're migrants, fleeing slavery in Egypt.

refugees
Balak gets agitated, and compares us to a swarm of insects. He sends an envoy to Bil'am, a foreign prophet, asking him to come and curse us to make us go away.

The first thing Bil'am does is consult with YHVH, and God tells him not to curse us. So he says nope, sorry, can't.

Balak sends more envoys, promises him all kinds of riches, until finally Bil'am shrugs and says, okay, I guess. I'll come to you, but I can only say what God puts in my mouth to say.

When he gets to Moab, he gets up on a mountaintop and what comes out of his mouth are blessings. Balak grouses, ugh, it's not working, try cursing them from a different mountaintop. But again, what comes out are blessings. The third time, he says:

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Illustration by Steve Silbert; available at Redbubble!

"How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel!" -- the words we sing as Mah Tovu sometimes on Shabbat morning. Balak yells at him, and he points out, "Hey, I told you I could only say what God puts in my mouth to say." And then for good measure, he offers a curse... on Balak!

It's a great story. But I want to focus on the part before he gets to Moab to do the cursing that turns into blessing.

Bil'am's on the road, riding on a donkey. And Torah tells us, a מַלְאַ֧ךְ יְהֹוָ֛ה, a "messenger of God," stands in his way as an adversary. Maybe you recognize the word mal'ach from Shalom Aleichem, the song we often sing on Friday nights to welcome the angels of Shabbat? Mal'ach, the word for messenger, also means angel.

Artists renderings of Bilam and the donkey

Apparently Bil'am doesn't see this mal'ach. The donkey does, though, and she swerves. So Bil'am whacks her with a stick. After the third time this happens, YHVH opens the donkey's mouth, and she says to Bil'am, "What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times??"

(And maybe it's because my son was in the local sixth grade production of Shrek: The Musical a few weeks ago, but I can't help hearing this in Eddie Murphey's donkey voice.)

Shrek and Donkey

Then, Torah tells us, God uncovers Bil'am's eyes and he sees the messenger of God standing in the way, and he bows down to the ground.

There was an angel standing right in front of him, and he didn't see.

*

Jewish tradition offers us a lot of different ideas about what angels are and what they do. Here are three of my favorites.

quote about an angel behind every blade of grass

Midrash teaches that even every humble blade of grass has an angel dedicated to its existence, who taps it and tells it to grow. (Bereshit Rabbah 10:6)

Talmud teaches that the unnamed people who materialize to deliver an important message in Torah are angels. Like the "men" who showed up to tell Sarah she was pregnant. Or the "man" who tells Joseph, "Oh, your brothers went that way."

Our mystical tradition also offers all kinds of ways to think about angels. Dr. Tamar Frankiel notes that, "Kabbalists have taught that while some angels are created by God, others develop from the results of human actions. Thus, the angel created by a good deed continues to exist and can return, so to speak, to affect people in a positive way."

I love the idea that everything on earth has a dedicated angel supporting it. I love the idea that we create angels with our actions. And I love the idea of the unnamed people in Torah being mal'achim -- messengers -- because it implies that anybody could be one. Maybe in our era, mal'ach is a role we play for each other.

What would it be like to approach every interaction as though the other person might be a messenger of the divine? If everyone I meet might have a message for me, does that change how I walk in the world? How about if I might unknowingly be carrying the message that someone else needs?

It's interesting that the angel in Bil'am's story is described as לְשָׂטָ֣ן ל֑וֹ / l'satan lo -- placed there "to oppose him." Apparently it's this angel's job in this moment to stand in his way. What would it be like to experience whatever's blocking us as an angel, a messenger from God? Whatever's getting in the way of the work, our stuck places, our frustration -- could those be messengers too, placed here to wake us up, to prod us to grow?

(The verb l'satan means to oppose, and yes, this is the origin of the idea of an angel who stands in opposition, which in Christian tradition became a figure named Satan. But that's another story.)

*

I feel a pang of recognition, reading about Bil'am. He was so preoccupied with his journey that his eyes were closed to the messenger of God standing right in front of him. Haven't we all been there?

Two artists renderings of Jacob's ladder

It makes me think of another figure in Torah who encounters an angel. His name was Jacob. Maybe you remember: he tricks his father into giving him the blessing reserved for the firstborn, and then he runs away from his slightly older twin, Esau. He has a dream about a ladder and some angels. When he wakes, he gasps, "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!"

Spiritual life is a neverending journey. We notice the presence of the holy; we get distracted; we notice again. Waking up and recognizing that God is in this place, or that the person in front of me might tell me something that could change my life, or that the animal beside me notices something that I don't -- none of that is one-and-done.

And we might not need the same message all the time. Maybe today I need an angel to remind me that there are good reasons to have hope. And tomorrow I might need someone to remind me to take action to make the world a better place.

Or maybe it's my job today to bring both of those messages to you.

 

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


Titanic

Unfortunately I did not manage
to solve gun violence today.
Instead I soaked a cup of beans
-- big plump ayocote negros --
and simmered them with a mirepoix
of shallot and celery, peppercorn
and bay. Tonight I'll peel and fry
the blackest plantain, dusting
ginger and red pepper flakes
over its sweet insides.
Probably more people were shot
today, somewhere, many of them
with weapons that do damage
no surgeon can repair. Also
the Supreme Court keeps
stripping rights away, and
people say that's only the start.
Did you know there's a megadrought
in the southwest, the worst
it's been in twelve hundred years?
Armageddon isn't included
in my theology, though
that doesn't preclude collapse
of climate, or government, or
everything I hold dear. Still
I offered a prayer for gratitude
when I got out of bed, cooked
black beans, prepared for Shabbes.
I may be rearranging deck chairs
or conducting the string quartet
on the Titanic, but the thing is
this life is the only boat we have.
There might as well be beauty
and a meal, a prayer and a song.


 

with weapons that do damage / no surgeon can repair - See What I Saw Treating the Victims from Parkland Should Change the Debate on Guns, Heather Sher, The Atlantic

the Supreme Court keeps / stripping rights away - See What Rights Could Be Next?, Politico; The End of Roe Could Be Just the Beginning, GQ

Did you know there's a megadrought - See Megadrought In the Southwest Is Now The Worst In At Least 1200 Years, Study Confirms, State of the Planet. 


Glimmer

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Not yet twilight.


We were sitting on the deck, as we often do on summer evenings. My son had brought his portable bluetooth speaker outside and was quietly listening to his favorite songs on Spotify.

The sky darkened, and I marveled at its changes, as I always do. We spotted the crescent moon. "Is it waxing or waning?" my son asked.

"Waxing," I told him. "This is the new moon of Tamuz, the month just started." I remembered the printed list of beloved things that my mother left in her files for us to include in her obituary. The moon was on that list. 

Then my kid squinted into the gloaming. "What is that?"

I stood up and looked out toward the stand of trees on the far side of the expanse of condo lawn. "What is what?"

"Those little... sparkles."

"Those are fireflies."

"Wait, really?"

A tiny spark. Another one. Flickering pinpricks of light across the lawn's expanse.

I wanted to snap a picture, but my phone's camera couldn't make them out. The naked eye could, though. Little glints of light, like flecks of gold in the evening air.

I have a vague idea that fireflies are more rare now than they used to be, a casualty of light pollution and our changing climate. I remember an antique children's book in Czech about fireflies that used to be displayed in my parents' library. I wonder which of their descendants has that book now. My mother loved fireflies, too. 

"Awesome, right?" I asked my son, and he agreed enthusiastically. We made a shechecheyanu, sanctifying the moment and our aliveness in it -- and the fireflies' aliveness, too.

There's so much that I don't know how to fix. But I am grateful for moments like these, even though I can't hold on to them.

Every moment sparkles, if I look at it right. Every moment slips free from my cupped hands and is gone.


Phone call


Your number is still in my favorites.
(So is Mom's.) This morning
I touched the screen by accident
and for an instant I dialed you.

I hung up quick as I could, before
the recorded voice could tell me
this number is no longer in service.
(As though I could forget.)

Opened my email instead, and
there in my inbox: a photo of you
and me, and my son (maybe five?)
at the zoo. To see you again

happy with your grandson...!
Maybe the tap of my iphone screen
came from the other side. It's been
three months, you're learning how

to place a call from there.
Good morning, Dad. I'm doing okay.
So good to hear your voice.
I had a heart attack just like you.

(I've been saying I wanted to be
more like you were in later life.
This wasn't what I had in mind.)
But I'm going to be fine. Last time

you were here we talked about
someday expanding my tiny mirpesset:
I did that this year. I like to think
you sit with me out there sometimes,

when you're not playing backgammon
with Phillip again, or taking Mom
to parties overflowing with champagne
where the band never stops.

 


 

If this speaks to you, you might also find resonance in Crossing the Sea, the book of poems that arose out of my first year of mourning my mom.

 


Land of Promise: Teachings from Shlach for Right Now

 

Land of Promise: Teachings from Shlach for Right Now
In this week's Torah portion, Sh'lach, Moshe sends twelve scouts to check out the Land of Promise. Ten of them return terrified. The grapes are so big they require two men and a carrying frame. The people are giants. "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." (
Numbers 13:33) Caleb and Joshua promise that the land flows with milk and honey. But the other ten are afraid. The people revolt, crying out, "If only we had died in Egypt!"

God decides that the generation who knew slavery will not enter the Land of Promise. Their spirits are too crushed by hardship. Their self-doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Old fashioned map of the United States featuring Biblical place names

The European colonists who came to this place knew Torah's stories, of course. George Washington alluded to America as a Land of Promise in 1785. (And you don't have to travel far around here to find a Canaan, or a Goshen, or a Salem – all Biblical place-names.)

For the many tribes and nations who originally inhabited this land, the arrival of Europeans was catastrophic because of foreign germs, foreign worldviews, and policies like the Indian Removal Act. (Perhaps this is a good time to mention that our beloved synagogue is built on Mohican land -- and that the Mohican people are still around!)

Europeans coming to these shores was terrible news for Native Americans. We can hold that truth alongside the truth that many of our forebears emigrated to this nation seeking dignity and equality denied to Jews elsewhere.

My mother was one of them. She told me endlessly how fortunate she felt to have found refuge here. America was supposed to be a nation of equality, where it would be safe to be Jewish, where we could strive to better ourselves and our communities alongside everyone else.

And yet we know that America's promise of liberty and justice for all wasn't originally "for all" -- only for straight white property-owning men. The week now ending held Juneteenth, a reminder of how long it took for the promise of freedom to reach enslaved Black people in Texas. (Arguably we’re still working on fulfilling the promise of justice.) The enslaved were brought here by force. But even our forebears who came here willingly, came in search of a promise that is not yet complete.

Right now the promise of equal rights and justice may feel further-away than many of us have known it to be. The January 6th hearings reawaken the horror of watching an angry mob storm the United States Capitol... and now we live with the added horror of knowing that a large segment of the country doesn't believe that the insurrection was real, or that it was wrong.

The same voices denying the facts of the presidential election and subsequent insurrection are also denying gender-affirming health care to trans kids. Four states have banned that care, and fifteen others are considering following suit. Twenty-six states will ban abortion now that Roe has fallen -- some have already done so. And don’t even get me started on the news out of my state of origin this week.

None of this is consonant with Jewish teaching or practice. Rabbis and laypeople in every branch of Judaism (from Reform to Orthodox) support gender-affirming care, and teach that everyone across the spectrum of gender and orientation is made in the image of God. Judaism has also long held that life begins at first breath, not at the first merging of two cells.

But the Supreme Court has struck down Roe... and is also poised to decide on whether or not to gut the federal government's ability to mitigate climate change. Given what we know about the current makeup of the Court, that outcome isn't looking good either. I empathize with the scouts who looked at the challenges ahead and felt like grasshoppers.

So right on time, here come the scouts to remind us that despair is not a good option. Giving in to despair means giving up on hope. Last Rosh Hashanah I offered a teaching from Mariame Kaba who reminds us that hope is a discipline. Hope's not a feeling, it's a practice. It asks us to work. I didn’t realize how resonant that teaching would be this year -- or how necessary.

Earlier this morning we prayed these words from Michael Walzer: 

Standing on the parted shores of history
we still believe what we were taught 
before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt;
that there is a better place, a promised land;
that the winding way to that promise 
passes through the wilderness.

That there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands, marching 
together.
This moment may feel like wilderness. And it's easy to look at the forces arrayed against the environment, against the principles of human dignity and justice, against queer people and trans people, against Black and Indigenous people and people of color, against immigrants and refugees, against anyone with a uterus, against us as Jews, and feel like those forces are giants and we are grasshoppers.

But look again closely at that verse in this week's Torah portion. "We looked like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes." We saw ourselves as tiny, puny, unable to impact the world around us -- and so we became that way. But we can choose to see ourselves differently.

We might not get all the way "there." But that doesn't absolve us from trying. My b-mitzvah students may remember that famous line from Pirkei Avot, "It is not incumbent on us to complete the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it." I think of the Land of Promise as a direction, not a destination. Like moshiachtzeit, the messianic age.

The work is standing up for those more vulnerable than we -- in Torah's language, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. Standing up for immmigrants and refugees. For trans kids at risk of losing health care, and for their parents. For everyone with a uterus in states where forced birth is becoming law. For Black neighborhoods at higher risk of flooding, and people in drought-stricken areas at higher risk of fire. For Mother Earth herself -- so fragile and full of life.

MLK quote: the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice

Rev. Martin Luther King taught that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. I think we know now that the arc of the moral universe only bends toward justice if we push it and pull it and bend it with our own hands and hearts. It can bend toward justice; it has to bend toward justice. And it's aleinu -- it's on us -- to make that real. We need to see ourselves not as grasshoppers, but as a community that stands up for those who need us most. 

 

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


Rhythm

Heart2

 

 

The sea is good medicine after a heart attack. This is how you do it, heart. Listen to this unceasing rhythm.

Flowing in, pouring out. Pushing and pulling. Kissing the shore, then dancing away.

 

 

Like Shabbes

followed by week

followed by Shabbes

followed by week

forever and ever.

 

 

Slipper shells and pebbles of quartz and granite tumble against the shore.

Then pull away. Then return.

 

 

A distant seawall marks the horizon.

The tug and release pulls at my ankles, shifting the ground beneath my feet.

Months from now there will still be grains of sand in my car.

 

 


Lake

Bend low, dipping
until my fingers
skim the warm water
near the surface.

This syllable
means death in Hebrew
but let's prolong
hope's steady drip.

A tor rises
from the hillside:
aspiring only
to keep existing.

Listen to the trill
of cricket opera
as my little boat
glides on.

Not certain, but maybe
something trails behind,
a string dragging
lines across the lake.

And you, hovering
over the face
of the waters
like a mother bird.

 


The list of medications I am now taking is long, and their names can sound like a foreign language. Scanning my meds, I remembered a poetry technique from my time at Bennington -- "translating" words into English (seeking out homophones, more or less), and then using that somewhat random assemblage of words to spark a poem. This poem arose out of my list of meds in that way.


Heart

Heart-banner



When I woke with chest tightness and pain and numbness down both arms, at first I thought I had slept funny and one arm had fallen asleep. But then I realized it was both arms, which didn't make sense. And also my chest felt really tight, as though compressed with a strong, thick, solid rubber band.

These are sensations I've come to know well over the last 18 months. Carrying in the groceries, or schlepping the laundry -- almost any exertion can bring this on. It always goes away within a few minutes if I sit and breathe. But it had never happened before during the night, while I was at rest.

I picked up my phone and googled "heart attack symptoms." Shortness of breath, chest tightness, numbness or discomfort in the arms: those have been my regular companions for a while now. Breaking a sweat for no reason: find me anyone peri-menopausal who doesn't experience that sometimes?

I thought about calling an ambulance. I imagined having to wake up my twelve year old, the ride to the hospital, the hours of tests, the likelihood that the doctors would say, "It's just anxiety," or "Nothing clinical here." Maybe it's nothing, I thought. I wanted it to be nothing. I went back to sleep.

In the morning, on urging from friends, I reluctantly called my doctor, who instructed me to go to the ED. There they diagnosed an NSTEMI: non-ST-elevation myocardial infarction. Eventually an ambulance took me to Baystate: riding backwards, strapped to a gurney, watching the green hills go by.

I arrived at the Davis Heart and Vascular Center late on Friday. Procedures like cardiac catheterization don't happen on weekends. Enter electrode stickers, an Intellivue MX40 wearable monitor, a heparin drip via IV. Every two hours a phlebotomist arrived to draw more blood, charting troponin levels. 

In the subsequent days, sometimes I could maintain equanimity. I could reach my gratitude practices, maintain perspective, feel how lucky I am that we caught this quickly. Other times I couldn't help leaking tears, swallowing around a painful lump in my throat: feeling shaken, vulnerable, afraid.

I discovered that when they draw blood, I make the same pained sounds my mother made. Also, when there are IV ports on my hands, they remind me of her hands once she fell ill. That's not how she would want to be remembered. She'd be pleased that people complimented my manicure, though. 

A fabulous nurse told me amazing stories about his ancestors buried in the North Adams cemetery. An ultrasound tech asked me what I do for a living as she slathered me with conductive gel. When I told her, she asked if I could explain to her what Jews believe about the apocalypse and the End Times. 

As a pastoral caregiver I know that both laughter and tears are normal in a hospital. (Not just in a hospital; always! But emotions are heightened at times like these.) Sometimes I could lift up and let the current carry me. Sometimes I sank to the bottom and crashed into the riverbed rocks. 

On erev Shavuot I joined, via Zoom, the festival service I had planned to co-lead. I sang Hallel very quietly. I may never forget singing לֹא הַמֵּתִים יְהַלְלוּ־יָהּ וְלֹ֗א כּל־יֹרְדֵי דוּמָה ("The dead do not praise You, nor all those who go down into silence," Ps. 115:16) attached to a heparin drip and cardiac monitors.

Now I am home, learning about MINOCA (myocardial infarction with non-obstructive coronary arteries), and preparing to seek out diagnosticians who might be able to weave my strokes 15 years ago, my shortness of breath, and this heart attack into a coherent narrative with a clear action plan.

After my strokes, I saw specialist after specialist in Boston. Eventually I leaned into not-knowing, into taking Mystery as a spiritual teacher. But now that I've added a heart attack to the mix, I'm hoping anew for a grand unifying theory. For now, I remain in the not-knowing, with gratitude to be alive.

 

Related:

 

 


Responsibility

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Every time I see someone talking about rights lately, I find myself thinking about mitzvot (commandments), the core of Jewish life and practice. There are spiritual mitzvot and ethical mitzvot, mitzvot involving relationship between human beings and God and mitzvot involving relationship between human beings and each other. Taking on the mitzvot means accepting obligations: to each other, to the community, to God. The whole system is rooted in an ethic of obligation and responsibility.

Ruth Messenger wrote a lovely piece comparing the notion of rights with the Jewish notion of responsibilities or obligations. She observes -- correctly -- that they're not opposed to each other. There's no reason that being Jewish should be in tension with the notion of human rights. But in this moment, I am increasingly feeling that the American focus on rights and individual liberties is getting in the way of our capacity to recognize our responsibilities to each other and to our community.

I told a high school friend on Facebook recently that I can't understand resistance to gun safety measures. Wouldn't a responsible gun owner be willing to operate within greater constraints in order to ensure the safety of others, most especially our children?  In response, he told me simply that he's not willing to relinquish any of his constitutional rights, period. This sounds like I'm setting up a straw man, but this conversation really happened. Our worldviews just don't make sense to each other.

Intellectually I grasp where he's coming from, but spiritually it feels foreign to me. Part of being in community is balancing what I want with what others need. Living in community means we have obligations to each other. Living in community means giving up some individual control or benefit for the sake of the collective. For instance, most of us might not "want" to give up part of our earnings, but we pay taxes because that's how we ensure roads and schools and necessary services, right? 

I suspect I'm preaching to the choir. If you already agree with me, you're nodding. If you don't agree with me, I don't know that anything I say will change your mind. But staying silent feels like giving up. 27 school shootings so far this year, and it's only May. (Not to mention shootings everywhere else.) The ready availability of guns that liquefy tissue means that no one is safe. Not at school, not at shul or church or gurdwara, not at a nightclub, not at the grocery store. How are we living like this? 

Hillel teaches, "Don't separate yourself from the community." (Pirkei Avot 2:5) Torah tells us time and again that we're obligated to protect the vulnerable. Rambam teaches that it's our obligation to give tzedakah -- not "charity," rooted in the Latin caritas, but giving that's fueled by tzedek, justice. Even the poorest person, someone who needs tzedakah, is obligated to give -- because supporting others is fundamental to community. Obligation to others is fundamental to community. 

And yet in the wake of the Buffalo mass shooting, and the Laguna California mass shooting, and the Uvalde mass shooting, who's framing the gun safety conversation in terms of mutual obligation? I groused to a historian friend: had the Founding Fathers only been Jewish, we might have a very different social compact. To my surprise, she replied that the Founders thought about citizenship not just as a matter of rights, but also as a matter of responsibilities to one another and to the whole!

[T]he founders of this country did not believe in unlimited individual freedom.. . [They agreed that] the best form of government was one in which individuals gave up a portion of their total freedom in order to take care of the community. [Source]

I don't remember learning that in school. I wish everyone did. We give up a portion of our total freedom -- the freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want, no matter the consequences for others -- in order to live in community with other human beings.  We balance what each of us personally wants with some responsibility to the needs of others. That's part of what it means to be a member of a community -- a citizen, part of a bigger whole, responsible to that whole. 

I wish I believed that this framing would shift our nation's echo-chamber conversations about Constitutional rights. (Rights that initially belonged only to white men, though that's a different conversation.) What would our nation be if we focused less on our rights than on what we owe to each other? At minimum, we owe each other the space to live and breathe without fear of being gunned down. Why is anyone's desire to own an assault weapon more important than that?

 

 

Two poems that moved me recently:


Magazine

 


The pages of my magazines
are smudged with sriracha
and spattered with schmaltz.

They fall open naturally
to roasted eggplant crosshatched
and crowned with tahini,

bright cubes of cantaloupe
punchy with ancho chile
and speckled with queso fresco.

But magazine can also mean
a chamber for holding cartridges
to feed automatically

into a gun, which reminds me
of the article I don't need
to re-read -- the one where

a radiologist describes
the slim silver line sketched
by an ordinary bullet,

versus the way
one fired from an AR-15
ripples waves of flesh

like a cigarette boat
traveling through
a narrow canal

turning any part of us
into smashed overripe melon,
nothing left to repair.

 


 

Roasted Eggplant With Caramelized Tahini, Milk Street

Chili Lime Melon Salad, Milk Street

What I Saw Treating the Victims from Parkland Should Change the Debate on Guns, Heather Sher, The Atlantic


Holy work

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When I got the summons for jury duty, I grumbled a bit. Who doesn't? I groused, and assumed that as usual this would be one boring morning out of my life. I'd watch a video about jury service, sit in a courtroom for a while, not get impaneled, and hopefully by lunchtime I'd be out and heading home.

I knew how to get out of it. I could tell what answers to give to their questions so they'd release me. As I sat in the courtroom that morning, listening to the judge, I realized I couldn't do that -- not without compromising my integrity. So I answered truthfully, knowing I was likely to be tapped to serve.

This spring I've been studying Pirkei Avot with my b-mitzvah students, and it's sparked endless conversations about Jewish values. "Give others the benefit of the doubt" (Pirkei Avot 1:4) -- what does that mean in practice? "Don't separate yourself from the community (2:4) -- how do we live that?

I did not expect that being impaneled for a jury would feel like being called up to do taharah, the holy work of the hevra kadisha: preparing the body of someone who has died for burial. But the instant I stepped into the jury room, I felt electrified, as though vibrating at a different frequency than usual. 

Of course the hevra kadisha doesn't ask me to consider justice, nor to deliberate toward an outcome. And jury duty doesn't involve the kinds of hands-on work the hevra kadisha does. But spiritually they feel similar to me. Both feel like sacred responsibilities. Both ask presence of heart and mind.

Both rely on volunteers stepping up to serve, to be present for each other because that's what it means to be part of a community. As a citizen, I have both the right and the responsibility of serving on a jury when called. That's more or less how I feel about my work on the hevra kadisha, too.

Not everyone can say yes to either of these forms of service. That makes it all the more important that those of us who can, do. Both of these ask me to step outside of my comfort zone, to backburner my own needs and desires so that I can serve. This is "walking my talk" as an American and as a Jew.

*

It's not easy to sit with genuine not-knowing. To practice shedding preconceptions about anyone or anything, to be present with heart and mind, to grapple with difficult situations, to presume innocence and take part in the work of justice. But what could be a more holy responsibility than this?

This holy work came with some heartbreak, and reminders of how much is broken in our world. Sometimes my head spun with details. Sometimes I came home and cried. And then I did my best to wake up the next morning and return to the courthouse with an open mind, ready to listen.

I wore my kippah in the courtroom. In Yiddish, it's called a yarmulke; that name derives from yirah malka, awe of the King. It reminds me of God's presence, and calls me to be ethical. I aspire to that all the time, but it felt extra-important as I tried to follow Micah's call to do justice and walk humbly.

I often felt inadequate to the task, because who could be "adequate" to making decisions about guilt or innocence that will deeply impact people's lives? The feeling of inadequacy is uncomfortable, but I think it's important. If I thought I had the answers, that would be hubris -- which would be a problem.

Jury service asks us to do our best to root out any preconceptions or prejudice, and to approach everything we hear with an open mind. That's a pretty good spiritual practice for anytime, honestly. So is holding deep empathy while also upholding accountability. Like balancing chesed and gevurah.

My jury service came during the Omer count, when we focus on seven inner qualities. My first week was the week of hod, humble splendor, which feels pretty on-the-nose: humility was certainly core to this experience. My second week was the week of yesod, foundations... including ethical ones.

This case raised a lot of big ethical questions. I struggled with them mightily. I know that our system isn't perfect, and I also know that the jury did the best we could to listen with open minds, to be conscious of our own biases, and to serve with integrity. I think that's the best that anyone can do.