The red heifer, and gentleness amidst grief

 

Parah

This week’s Torah portion, Hukat, begins with the parah adumah. The Israelites are instructed to bring a red heifer who has never borne a yoke. The priest takes it outside the camp and offers it, burning it along with hyssop, cedar wood, and something crimson. Its ashes are kept for making mei niddah hatat, “waters of lustration,” used to “purify” someone after contact with death. (More on that in a moment.) 

This is weird, and not just to us. Rashi observed that the nations of the world would taunt us about the oddity of this law, which is why it’s called a hok. Hukim are the category of mitzvot that may not make logical sense, like kashrut. We observe them as a spiritual discipline, part of accepting “the yoke of heaven,” tradition’s way of saying there’s something in the universe more mysterious than we can grasp.

I see hukim the way I see poetry that’s allusive and evocative. If I approach this like a poem or a piece of visual art, I notice how this parsha is shot through with the recurring theme of death. Immediately after the parah adumah, we read that someone who touches a dead body becomes tamei for seven days. Tum’ah is Torah’s term for the spiritual condition of having coming into contact with life or death. 

In Torah's understanding we become tamei upon encountering a dead body, menstrual blood or semen, certain forms of illness. I follow R. Rachel Adler in understanding tum’ah as a kind of spiritual-electrical charge. Someone who’s tamei is temporarily vibrating at a different frequency than everyone else. This is the spiritual state that the waters of lustration were used, in Torah times, to wash away. 

The first time I served on our hevra kadisha I understood this in a new way. It’s not that touching the bodies of our dead is somehow “unclean.” It’s more like: once I had helped to wash and dress and bless the body that had once held the soul of a human being, I felt changed. The world outside the funeral home felt weird. I felt spiritually out of phase, not quite in normal time, for a little while. 

I remember feeling that way after late-night shifts when I was a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center, too. After holding the hand of someone who was dying, or praying with someone headed into emergency surgery, nothing felt the same. As I learned much later, it's also how I felt after giving birth: I felt fragile, precarious, both heightened and dissociated, temporary and eternal all at once.

Today the parah adumah ritual is impossible. There is no high priest to make a sacrifice in the appointed place in the appropriate ways. Rambam even suggested that only one more parah adumah will ever be born, to be brought by the messiah. There are no waters of lustration anymore. Especially now that the ritual literally can’t be performed, we grow and learn through studying it rather than actually doing it. 

In place of the waters of lustration, we’ve evolved other rituals to close shiva. For instance, walking around the block and going back in through a different door: embodying both our readiness to re-enter the world, and also how mourning has made us different than whoever we were before. But the central idea that death impacts us and we need a transition to return to normalcy still rings true. 

Reading about death and tum’ah this year I can’t help thinking about Israel and Palestine. I think about the violent deaths of Israelis at the Nova music festival and the kibbutzim that were attacked on October 7. I think about the violent deaths of Palestinians in Gaza over the last 281 days. Everyone there has touched death, and no one has had the luxury of time to mourn, nor closure for their grief.

I yearn for waters of lustration that could wash away their vast grief (and ours) and soften the hearts of those who have power to create change. I wish we had a way to balm every wounded soul and body in Israel and Palestine. Healing feels impossible – as impossible as a ritual that demands a place and a role that haven’t existed in 2000 years and a sacrificial modality of prayer we no longer use.

In times like these I’m grateful that our tradition is built on hope that no matter how broken our world has been, and this year we’re all aware that it is plenty broken, a better future is possible. Even if I don’t know how we’re going to get there. The truth is, it’s not my job to know how the world is going to get there. It’s my job to care for y’all. And it's aleinu, on all of us, to do what we can to build better. 

One of my most profound memories of hospital chaplaincy is the night a kid was hit by a train. I wasn’t yet a parent, and I remember saying to my chaplaincy supervisor that I don’t know how I could have borne the parents' grief if I were. He told me that no matter what, faced with this kind of grief, all we can really give is our heart, our presence, our care. It’s the holiest gift human beings have to give.

I can’t make sense out of the magnitude of loss in Gaza and Israel. Any single person’s grief can be infinite. The grief of whole peoples…? There are no words. And that brings me back to the idea of a hok, a mitzvah we can’t explain. Accepting the “yoke of heaven” means accepting that we can't always make sense of the world. In the face of this much grief, we may not be able to make anything “okay.” 

But we can feel-with one another, and we can insist on empathy for every Israeli and every Palestinian. I know that some people think my empathy is misplaced, or that it benefits the wrong people. For me, empathy is a core spiritual discipline, and part of that discipline is extending it to everyone. Faced with inconceivable loss, our hearts and our care are all we have; they are the holiest gift we have to give.

May this Shabbat Parah bring peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved. 

 

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


A Week of Building With the Bayit Board

BayitCollage2-2024How to describe the particular joy of convening with fellow-builders and friends? The annual Bayit board retreat is a time for brainstorming, visioning, looking back and looking forward, adjusting course. Conversations weave and flow. We riff off of each other, ideas sparking. We go from tachlis / practical questions to deep spiritual work. It's like making jazz, and it reminds me why I love what I do.

We oscillate between board meetings (some of us joining remotely via Zoom), meetings of various working groups, and downtime. We talk about organizational structure and what will best serve us going forward. We re-examine Bayit's mission and vision. We revise our website so it better reflects us. We look at the organic evolution of our organization and our build projects and what might come next.

In quiet moments on the living room couches or on the mirpesset or up on the roof we work together on the manuscript for Judith Schmidt's Blessing from Broken. We read particularly great lines out loud to each other, marveling at how good this work is and how lucky we feel to be midwifing it into the world. We talk about how and why our organizational values support collaborative co-creation.

We daven every morning, and sometimes afternoon and evening. What a profound gift that is for me. Often we pray on the roof deck of our rented house under the tent of the big open sky. It's different every time, an impromptu interweaving of melodies and nusach: sometimes a cappella, sometimes with a nylon-stringed guitar or two, a quick familiar glide through liturgy or a slow luxurious stroll.

One morning we pray-test a new-old melody for Modah Ani, singing the first line to the tune of the Mingulay Boat Song. Another morning we pray Psalm 136 to the tune of the Banana Boat Song. On the 4th of July we interweave the Declaration of Independence into morning prayers, and sing Mi Chamocha to the Star-Spangled Banner -- and reflect on our aspirations for this place where we live.

We talk about congregational service, tools for supporting shul boards, games that could lift up spiritual meanings of Purim. Together we think through how to structure the Visual Mahzor we're publishing, and we work on a curriculum we'll be releasing soon, for a high holiday prep course on teshuvah. We make many pots of coffee. We walk to the ocean and marvel at its perpetual motion and beauty.

We hone in on why we do what we do. There are great conversations about the spiritual importance of uplifting others' voices, about games and card decks and publications, bench marks and evaluation, how we know when something "works," new ways of engaging with familiar texts, organizational structures and modalities, Agile coaching and design thought, working groups and leadership ladders.

And then we set aside our work and spend a precious Shabbat together. As always, it's both beautiful and bittersweet because it means the week will end! We dine and bless and sing and pray (and read and nap and play board games -- summer Shabbats are luxuriously long.) Now it's time to return home... and to keep creating, testing, refining, and sharing tools for a Jewish future always under construction.

 


A new book of high holiday art


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The High Holidays aka Days of Awe aka Yamim Nora'im are meant to be a pinnacle of the Jewish spiritual year. But what if the words in the mahzor (high holiday prayerbook) don't move you? Or what if you're not a synagogue-goer? Or what if you're a visual thinker, or looking for inspiration in a different way? Images speak their own language that can reach the heart in ways that text may not.

Enter Bayit's Visual Mahzor project, a volume of art inspired by the texts of the Yamim Noraim / Days of Awe. Curator Justin Sakofs solicited art that arises out of the Torah and Haftarah readings for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  We recently launched a Kickstarter to help bring the book to fruition, and as of this writing we're 65% funded. You can become a backer of the project (and learn more) here

This is the kind of work I love midwifing into the world. It's a project I never would've thought of, but as soon as Justin brought it to the table I understood how it could reach people who might not connect with the traditional texts, or who might be looking for a new way in. And it allows us to lift up the work of 30 extraordinary artists who engage in a kind of creativity I admire so much. 

The video on Kickstarter features glimpses of just a few of the works of art in the collection (more can be seen in the thumbnail images above). The book will be 8" square, easily tucked into a tallit bag to bring to shul. Gaze at the art while listening to Torah and haftarah readings, or during services more generally, and see what arises. Each piece of art can enrich our relationship with these texts.

The Visual Mahzor could also be stashed in your backpack for an autumnal hike, displayed as a coffee table book to show Jewish pride, used as a conversation-starter in living rooms or coffee shops, given to someone who invites you to a break-the-fast or high holiday meal, or delved-into as a meditative focus during the high holiday season and beyond. Click through to learn how to support this project.

VM-FB


Peak

 


We've reached light's peak
but that doesn't mean
everything is downhill.

The riverbed to loss
is well-carved.
Keep your cup brimming.

Even if you can't name
the tree of white blooms
it flowers anyway.

Volunteer wildflowers
take defiant root.
Learn from them

and from this profusion
of petunias,
silent orchestra

of purple trumpets
in riotous array
singing color and light.


The next best time: B'ha'alotkha 5784

Now

Reading B’ha’alotkha this year, what jumps out at me is Pesah Sheni. God spoke to Moses saying, the children of Israel should make the Passover offering at the appropriate time. Except there were some people who couldn’t make the offering because they had come into contact with death. So they came to Moses and said, what about us? 

Moses asked God, and the answer he received was: anyone who couldn’t observe Passover at the right time, because of an encounter with death or because they were on a long journey, can make the offering at the next full moon. (Num. 9:10-12) In other words: if we miss the appropriate time and place for Pesah, we get a second chance.

We've all regretted something we didn’t manage to do. Maybe it’s something personal: I wish I’d done more to encourage people to vote. Maybe it’s something communal: the conversations we began after last month’s initial Israel/Palestine film screening were amazing, I wish we’d started listening and learning together years ago.

Here come these verses about Pesah Sheni to remind me it’s not too late. If there’s something that will bring us closer to God (remember, that’s what a korban / an offering was, from the root that means to draw near; and if the G-word doesn’t work for you, think Justice, or Compassion, or Truth) we get another opportunity.

Granted, Torah goes on to say that if we could’ve made the Pesah offering at the right time, and for some reason we just didn’t, “our soul will be cut off from our people.” (Num. 9:13) For me that’s a descriptive statement, not a prescriptive one. If we don’t engage in mitzvot or connect with community, we’re going to wind up feeling disconnected. 

So much in modern life can make us feel disconnected. I don't think I need to list those things; I imagine each of us could make our own list. And this year, on top of that, painful divisions in Jewish community around Israel and Gaza have made many of us feel alienated and disconnected in spaces where we most yearn to feel otherwise. 

But Jewish life is predicated on the premise that community matters. And I increasingly believe that figuring out how to be in community even when our views on Palestine and Israel differ is some of the most important work we can do right now – as Jews, as Americans, as human beings. 

Recently I read an interview that Roxane Gay did with the author Lamya H, included at the end of the e-book of Lamya’s memoir Hijab Butch Blues. Lamya says:

“I was lucky enough to be part of a very intentional queer Muslim community…. Not everyone was someone I would be close friends with. But because we were building this thing that was deeply intentional, everyone showed up for everyone else. It’s where I learned a lot of organizing skills, in terms of navigating conflict and being around people whose politics are different from yours, who live in the world in ways that don’t match yours – but who you deeply, deeply connect with, and who become chosen family. Navigating all of those things taught me so much about the value of kindness.”

Roxane Gay responds, “When you engage in community with kindness, it makes it possible to navigate all kinds of terrain, both good and challenging.” I read that and I thought: this speaks to me as a member of a broad Jewish community that’s struggling with the challenge of deeply-held views on Israel and Palestine, all rooted in Jewish values, that don’t align.

This year some of us are grieving what our Israeli cousins are going through, and some of us are grieving what our Palestinian cousins are going through. We may feel that difference keenly. But I believe our hearts are big enough to hold it, alongside the common ground that we all want a better future for our beloveds in that beloved land. 

We all want a better future in this beloved land, too. When I read about the plan for a "post-Constitutional" Federal government or those who want this to be a “Christian nation” – when I think about other rights that we could lose – the stakes feel impossibly high. We need each other in Jewish community now more than ever. 

Which brings me back to this week’s parsha. The Hebrew word mitzvah / commandment is a close cognate to the Aramaic word tzavta / connection. A mitzvah is something that connects us: to God (whatever we understand that to mean), to tradition, to community, to each other, to ourselves. 

Torah’s talking about someone who missed Pesah because they were in contact with death or on a long journey. But Rashi expands that. He says, it doesn’t need to be a long journey that keeps us away from mitzvot and community. Even if we were just right outside the door, we can still seek a do-over. 

Framed in modern terms, we could say: no one’s going to police what’s kept us from the mitzvot, from community, from building a more just world. We might feel like our failure to do these things before disqualifies us from doing them now, but Torah says otherwise. Torah says, re-orient, re-align, and try again. That's the work of teshuvah, which is the work of Jewish life.

In an ideal world, Pesah happens at the full moon of Nisan and sets us on a path toward covenant. “We were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm: out of servitude and into holy service, partnering with God in building a more just world.” That’s our core story.

In an ideal world, we’re already on that journey. And if we’re not, it’s not too late to start. It's not too late to welcome the refugee and protect the vulnerable and tend to the climate crisis and uplift human dignity. Like the saying goes about planting a tree: the best time to do it would’ve been then. The next best time is now. 

 

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

 


Recommending these blues

9780593448786I just finished Hijab Butch Blues by the pseudonymous Lamya H, and it's honestly dazzling. Hijab Butch Blues is a queer coming-of-age memoir interwoven with global immigrant story interwoven with verses from the Qur'an and rich, meditative midrash thereupon.

The word midrash is the language of my tradition. I don't know whether to call these passages contemporary queer tafsir? Whatever one calls it, the way Lamya's writing gives voice to Qur'anic figures' interior lives -- and the way those lives illuminate theirs -- moves me deeply.

Here is an excerpt from the book. (It's not one of the midrashic passages, but it's powerful.) There's also an excerpt, and an audio sample, at Penguin Random House. 

It's probably thirty years since I read Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues.  Our language around gender has evolved a lot since then, though I remember how the book and its author blew my mind when I heard Feinberg speak at my alma mater back then.

Lamya H's title is a respectful tip of the hat to their literary ancestor... though honestly I don't think it matters whether or not you know Feinberg's work. The stories Lamya H tells are stunning, searing, poignant, both funny and heartbreaking. They stand on their own.

In their holy wrestle with their traditions and texts and cultures, I recognize something akin to my own feminist journey of coming home into a mature relationship with my own texts and traditions and roots. I know it's a fallacy to imagine that I know the author, after reading their words, but I feel like I do; or at least I feel like I could. If you read memoir, if you are interested in queer Muslim voices of color, if you thrill to contemporary retellings that get deep inside Scriptural stories, I commend this book to you.

I'm keenly aware this year that some pro-Palestinian voices don't want readers who weep for Israelis as well as for Palestinians. I don't know where Lamya H falls on that. That said, at the end of the e-book there's an interview with Roxane Gay where Lamya speaks about being in community. They talk about connecting with people whose politics are different from theirs, and about kindness. I hope that they might be glad that their work speaks to me. I know I'm glad to encounter their voice in the world.


A barukh she'amar for Shavuot morning

48144636867_a9dbbaeb3a_cThe Torah of knobby roots
protruding from sandy earth.
The Torah of watch your step
in every language at once.
The Torah of Duolingo lessons
teaching me to praise God
for Duolingo lessons.
The Torah of my heart,
a fragile paper balloon
buoyed by candlelight.
The Torah of silence, broken
by an unexpected dance beat.
The Torah of small cats.
The Torah of photographs.
The Torah of chlorophyll
singing its exuberant chorus
across these green hills.
The Torah of saying what's true.
The Torah of uneven stones
and wildflowers between them.
The Torah of tracing
this curving path, trusting
it goes where I need to go.


One drop

A-drop-in-the-ocean-david-parker

"A Drop in the Ocean" by David Parker.

I talk to friends in Israel. They tell me everyone knows someone who is connected with the hostages. About the protests outside the Prime Minister's house. How the hostages are on posters everywhere, in public art pieces everywhere, how theirs have become household names even for those who didn't know them. How every baby they see reminds them of Kfir Bibas, kidnapped at 9 months, now 17 months. Some of them tell me how it feels to send a son or daughter or sibling or grandchild off to fight Hamas, knowing that some will not come home again. After eight months, no one is the same.

I read the words of friends with loved ones in Gaza. They tell me about the destruction. Buildings collapsing, tens of thousands dead, two hospitals now the sites of mass graves. The rubble, the hunger, the fear. How even the places where people had run to seek refuge don't seem to be safe anymore. When the IDF bombs a school, many don't believe the goal was taking out some number of Hamas fighters embedded within. Why would they believe the IDF or the Israeli government? They trust neither. They believe the goal is to wipe them all out, or to cause as much damage as possible.

I wake to the news that four Israeli hostages are home, rescued by the IDF. Three of them are in their twenties, kidnapped from the Nova music festival. I'm old enough that they look like kids to me. The image of Noa Argamani reuniting with her father overwhelms me with emotion. I imagine what's going through his heart and mind, seeing his daughter alive after 245 days of fearful wondering. I imagine what's going through hers. One Israeli special forces police officer died from wounds sustained in the rescue. I imagine that person's family and their grief. Does this feel "worth it," to them?

Meanwhile, at least 125 were killed in the strike on Nuseirat that enabled the rescue. Or maybe 210 dead and 400 injured, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Or the "Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry," in the words of Ha'aretz. (Some don't believe the IDF; others don't believe the Gaza Health Ministry.) No one seems to dispute the fact that most of those killed and injured are women and children. I read descriptions of hospital hallways teeming with the wounded. I imagine what's going through the hearts and minds of those families, and the families of the dead. Who do they blame for their grief?

Sometimes it is impossibly surreal that here and there are happening at the same time. Sometimes it's hard to see the beauty of here because we're so caught up in feeling-with them there. (Which "them," which "there"? Fill in the blank for yourself.) I don't think I know anyone who cares about Israelis or Palestinians who is okay this year, much less anyone who aspires to care about both. How to rejoice for the four who've been brought home, when hundreds of other lives ended in the process and peace seems nowhere in sight? How to taste a single drop of joy intermixed with this vast salt sea of sorrow?

 

 


Exodus


Trudging on treadmills
and surrounded by vacuum, tired
of freeze-dried anything
we'll kvetch: why did you bring us
out here to die? Was the climate crisis
really so dire?

Like our ancient ancestors
craving cucumbers and melons,
the thirsty tastes
of fertile crescent,
nothing to eat but manna
every blistering day.

Maybe a captain, frayed to the end
of his connector cable
will snap: I can't anymore
with you ungrateful wretches,
go eat hydroponic lettuce
until it comes out your nose.

What liturgies will we write
remembering this green Eden?
What revelation will we receive
in ownerless wilderness
wandering across the vastness
between stars?

 

 

Why did you bring us? Ex. 14:11. Cucumbers and melons. Numbers 11:5I can't anymore. Numbers 11:11. Until it comes out your nose. Numbers 11:20. Ownerless wilderness. We receive(d) Torah in a place that is hefker, ownerless; some say, we receive when we ourselves become hefker.

The idea of seeking a new home among the stars is still science fiction. But I can imagine a hypothetical generation of space refugees behaving like the Children of Israel in the wilderness, stiff-necked and grousing. Mostly I wish I could be a fly on the wall to see the liturgies they would write.

 


If: Behukotai 5784 / 2024

If-square


If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit…you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. (Lev. 26:3-5)

In the past I’ve read these opening verses in part as an environmental teaching. If we live in a way that’s aligned with the mitzvot, we’ll be laying the groundwork for a healthy planet. Last week’s parsha Behar (often read as a double portion with this week’s Behukotai) talks about the mitzvah of shmitah, letting the earth rest in every seventh year. In an era of climate crisis, we know that treating the earth in a transactional way that privileges profit over sustainability will lead to woe – like the curses listed later in this parsha.

All of that still resonates. But this year I got caught on the phrase “you shall… dwell securely in your land.” And all I can think is: halevai – would that it were so! 

The idea of dwelling securely feels almost laughable. The horrors of October 7th shattered a sense of safety and security for many of our Israeli friends and family. Violence across the West Bank and the war in Gaza have shattered any sense of safety or security for Palestinians. Torah’s promise is so far from the reality we see in the news and on social media that it draws me up short. 

There’s no practical comparison between our life here and the lives of Israelis or Palestinians – we’re not living under rocket fire or aerial bombardment. Still, I know that many of us don’t feel wholly safe and secure in this land either. The fact that our synagogue has been locked ever since the hostage crisis at CBI Colleyville is testament to that. 

Some immediately blamed prominent Jews for the results in this week’s jury trial of the former president, and the resurgence of that antisemitic conspiracy theory makes many of us anxious. Meanwhile I know that many of us are experiencing vitriol aimed at Zionists or Israelis as a blow to our own hearts and our sense of belonging. 

There’s a difference between feeling unsafe and being unsafe, but both take a toll.

I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled…no sword shall cross your land. [Your army] shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall give chase to 100, and 100 of you shall give chase to 10,000… (Lev. 26:6-8)

I have mixed feelings about Torah’s promise of routing enemies. I understand why superior power is the dream of every oppressed people! And yet I wish Torah could have promised, “You and those whom you understand as enemies will become able to see a better path forward.” But I don’t think that perspective was viable in antiquity. 

Honestly, it doesn’t always feel viable now. Even though I share our prophets’ yearnings for the day when swords will be beaten into plowshares… and poet Yehuda Amichai’s yearning to go even further:

Don’t stop after beating the swords
into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating
and make musical instruments out of them.
Whoever wants to make war again
will have to turn them into plowshares first.

(Someone’s actually doing that, by the way – a group called Armory of Harmony.)

Images

This print features that Amichai poem in Hebrew, and is available from the artist here

These verses remind me of the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, the one that says that if we follow the mitzvot we’ll get the rains in their seasons and will receive all that we need. (The one that our siddur leaves out, because its editors found its promise too transactional.) 

I agree that a purely transactional reading fails us. If our reason for doing mitzvot is that we’ll get rewarded, that’s liable to fall apart the first time we realize that the wicked often prosper, and that terrible things can happen to good people who live an upright and mitzvah-filled life. 

But I find meaning in that part of the Sh’ma when I interpret it in a less literal way, as we did this morning. I think we can do the same here. 

The word hok, a type of mitzvah, is related to the root meaning to engrave. Hukkim are the mitzvot that are carved on us, or the ones we carve on our own hearts through repetition and through allowing ourselves to be changed. Think of how water wears away stone to form channels through which it can flow. 

The verbs telkhu and tishm’ru, “walk” and “keep,” remind us that the mitzvot are our path. As the Ahad Ha-Am said of Shabbat, “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” It’s true of all of the mitzvot: we keep them, and they keep us.That’s how we acquire betah, faith or trust. 

JPS renders betah as “dwell securely,” but this isn’t the kind of security that might come with an alarm system. It’s inner security, it’s faith. If we walk a path of keeping mitzvot and letting them keep us, that’s how we can live in trust, or have trust live in us. This may be a tall order in these days of rising antisemitism and continuing anxiety and fear for all of our beloveds in the Middle East. But I think it’s the invitation that Torah offers us. 

Still, what can we do to reinterpret the verse about our enemies falling before us by the sword? In the daily amidah, there’s a line of prayer that asks God for a time when our enemies will have no hope. It’s become common practice in liberal Jewish circles to replace “enemies” with “enmity.” May enmity itself wither and disappear from the earth. 

The commentator known as the Sforno understands the verse about giving chase to our enemies as: “without even needing to fight them.” In other words: maybe someday when humanity is wholly aligned with a path of right actions and justice, warfare will just… become obsolete.  Enmity itself will disappear. 

Most of our commentators don’t make that kind of interpretive move. Then again, most of our sages lived in eras when Jews faced persecution: R. Yochanan ben Zakkai during the first Roman-Jewish war, Rashi during the Crusades, Rambam who fled from Iberia with his family, the Hasidic masters during the era of pogroms and the Holocaust. It’s a sobering reminder that even those of us living in American comfort, far from today’s sites of bloodshed, carry ancestral memory of centuries of persecution and hatred.

But we also still carry Torah’s promise. It’s up to our generation and the generations to come to build toward a world in which enmity will fall by the wayside. A world in which all can live with betah, complete trust and safety. Because here’s another thing I noticed this year: Torah promises that we will live securely in our land, and in the next verse, that God will grant shalom to the land. I like to understand that to mean: we’ll live with faith and trust and safety wherever we are, and wholeness and peace will come to everyone. 

Here’s what I hear Torah saying to us this year:

 

If you walk in the paths of the mitzvot, and
let them be carved on your heart and mind, and
allow yourself to be shaped and changed by them...
Then you’ll become aware of the rains in their season –
sustenance and hope flowing to you from beyond you.
And there will be times in your life when you can’t feel that flow,
just like there are seasons in Jerusalem when the rain doesn’t fall.
But you’ll find that whatever you have, is enough to get you through.
Then you will be filled with fundamental faith and trust wherever you are.
And there will be wholeness and peace everywhere.
And you will be able to lie down and truly rest
and enmity itself will disappear.
And I will be ever-present in your midst:
God, Who brought you out of the narrow place
so that you can live in a way that is upright,
ethical and unbowed.

 

 

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


Body

Dinner table conversation
about the vast currents
that warm European waters
slowing. I imagine
great swaths of American south
so hot a fall on asphalt burns
while Britain ices over.
The second one, at least,
hasn't yet come to pass.
In the morning I daven
asher yatzar, gratitude
for this body that mostly works:
the vessels stay open,
the organs stay sealed.
I tell myself no matter what
there will be generations
to carry this prayer forward.
Though in a time
of mass extinctions
(and no one actively hates
the frogs or mice or insects
the way some people
persist in hating us)
I'm not so sure.
I don't want to imagine
a world free of Jews
but they do. Then again
we may have bigger problems.
Who will be left to pray
gratitude for the body
of our planet
if currents fail?

 


 

This poem arises out of the confluence of climate grief and rising antisemitism -- a combination I know many of us are feeling keenly. The poem is also a bit more bleak than reality, or at least, I hope it is.

The folks at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution make a solid case that the complex system of currents known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation will slow but will not fail. And although right now many of us are navigating significant fear (as R. Jeffrey Salkin writes, fear of antisemitism to our left and to our right), I truly do believe that Judaism will persist.

Still, if this poem resonates with you in any way, you're not alone. 


Dissonance

A colleague mentioned that they are taking time away because of the particular exhaustion and grief of trying to serve a divided community after October 7. I wonder how many of us can relate to that.

There's the pain of October 7: still reverberating in almost everyone I know, whether we're there or here, no matter what our politics. I don't even want to write about the nightmare of that day.

There's the pain of the war that has followed. I know that it's laughable to speak about that from the comfortable vantage of here. But watching what's unfolding in Israel and Gaza hurts the soul.

I don't want to write about that either. Surely none of us need more words about the horrors of what we're seeing. Even from this distance, the images lodge in our souls like emotional shrapnel.

There's the pain of how people here respond to how other people here respond to events there. There's the pain of communities here torn apart by disagreements about what's happening and why.

Generations and friends, not speaking to each other: furious, betrayed. One says: but why don't they care about Israeli hostages? One says: but why don't they care about Palestinians enduring famine?

It's like they don't even care about [Israeli] [Palestinian] suffering at all. And that becomes its own source of moral injury: how am I supposed to be in community, Rabbi, with someone who...  

I want to say: we are all grieving. Maybe that simple, terrible truth can be our common ground when nothing else feels steady. For all of us, hasn't 5784 been a year of constant, unrelenting grief? 

Amidst all of this, on Facebook a poet friend posts a graphic saying "The aim was always ethnic cleansing." I know who's being accused, and I know that by and large, the poetry community agrees.

I don't say: Whose aim? Are you talking about Bibi and Ben-Gvir, or all Israelis, or all Jews? I don't say anything. I'm not sure I have the resilience to take the emotional hit from the argument.

I do search the phrase, "the aim was always ethnic cleansing." The first hit is BreakThrough News, which has disturbing origins. I wonder whether those who share the meme would care.

There's so much cognitive dissonance. And then there's the constant question: is this metaphorical heartache / metaphysical heartache, or do I need to tuck a nitroglycerin under my tongue?


Translation

 

This translation algorithm
must be an angel: it does not speak

Aramaic. But is it not true
that angels can learn anything?

Say rather: Aramaic is the language
of the street, tongue of trade

and commerce, and angels can't
be bothered. But is not Hebrew

now street talk, at least
in one ineffable place? Say instead

the angels have forgotten how to hear
and the algorithms never learned

what yearnings underlie the words
we use to disguise our fragile hearts.


After a week

After a week of Covid, small victories loom large. Like standing in the shower, or staying awake for a few hours without needing a nap.

After a week of Covid I'm extra-grateful for the slow cooker I picked up for $15 at a yard sale the summer I moved into this condo. It is a life-saver when I don't feel well enough to stand over the stove. I comfort myself with slow cooker tom kha gai. Slow-cooker gumbo. Slow-cooker tinga de pollo.

After a week of Covid the trees outside my dining room window have leafed into brilliant green, so green it almost hurts my eyes.

After a week of Covid my teen and I have re-watched half a dozen animated shows about chosen families who try to make the world a better place. They are our comfort food for the soul. 

After a week of Covid the laundry is piling up but carrying it to the washing machine still feels like too big a task.

I realized I had Covid last Shabbat, after I packed my suitcase for the civil rights trip and admitted to myself that the prospect of pulling it through an airport was daunting. It's still sitting in my bedroom. After a week of Covid, I haven't unpacked it.

After a week of Covid, challah dough is rising.


Place of promise

The Presence
has no address,
goes with us
everywhere:
in wholeness
and in exile.

This place
is still
a focusing lens
for our prayers,
though not
only ours.

Stories
land differently
when I can see
the topography
of spring and desert,
valley and hill.

To describe this
place of promise,
I would need
God's voice:
all possible meanings
at once.

 


 

Lately I've been trying to spend less time refreshing the news and more time working on my next poetry manuscript.  The news is grim and there's so little I can do. Despair is corrosive to the spirit. Better to work on making something -- even if that something is just words.

Of course, poetry isn't wholly a distraction from the sorrows of the world. Especially given that this week I've been working on revising a series of poems that originated last year in a trip to Israel / Palestine. (Some of these lines first found form in the blog post Fifty truths, posted last June.) 

A poem is not like an essay or an argument -- at least most of mine aren't. My poems often originate in yetzirah, the sphere of the yearning heart, rather than in briyah, the world of clarity and intellect. For me a poem is more like a painting or a collage, hopefully functioning on an associative level. 

A friend remarked recently that she's never before experienced a situation where so many people are not only utterly divided on an issue, but not even agreeing on basic facts about it. That's another thing that can feel corrosive to the spirit. Another reason that lately I turn to poetry. 

I think of poetry the way I think of midrash: no single poem is "the right answer," but the totality of poetry taken together can offer a glimmer of ultimate reality. That's maybe especially true when it comes to poems about this contested, complicated, beloved place.