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Broken world, broken heart

Sometimes reading the news makes my heart twist and my stomach sink. I don't know what to say about the horrific shooting in a Sikh gurdwara yesterday (CNN: Gunman, six others dead at Wisconsin Sikh temple). Not to mention the dreadful response of Westboro Baptist Church to the terrorist attack -- not surprising, but still depressing. This is not the America of our dreams.

I don't know what to say about the reality that as ugly anti-immigrant sentiment becomes more pervasive, Africans are routinely harrassed in Israel today. (YNet news: African diplomats in Israel: We're afraid to walk down streets.) Nor the reports of more than 50 instances last month of settlers attacking Palestinians. (Ha'aretz: Lambs to the settlers' slaughter, screaming and unheard). This is not the Israel of our dreams.

I don't know what to say about the situation in Syria. Rabbi Brant Rosen's essay Syrians Pay the Price in a Sick Proxy War is sobering. So is Marc Lynch's Preparing for Assad's Exit. I don't know enough about Syria to know whether, or how, things will get better. And these are just the posts at the top of my aggregator. Just today the Lebanon Daily Star reported a massacre which killed forty. I have no connection to Syria, but the news is pretty uniformly heartrending.

Everything I've just mentioned is huge, important, awful. Here's something tiny and grotesque: I learned this week that I've been named, along with thousands of my friends and colleagues, on a list of supposed self-hating Israel threateners. (I'm not going to link to it. Here's the Wikipedia entry about it intead.) On the one hand it's laughable. And on the other hand it's upsetting, and the fact that people chose to spend their time compiling this list makes me sad.

(The people who maintain the list are Kahanists; they're too far-out for even self-identified far-right Jews. But still. How is this a good use of anyone's heart, soul, or time?)

When I look at all of the hatred in our world today, I don't know how to find enough balm for our broken hearts. I want to hold all of this in my prayers, everyone who is suffering, everyone who has been hurt, everyone who is so damaged that they can only manage to hate and hurt others, but sometimes it's so heavy it crushes my prayers; I can't lift it up.

All I can do is close the laptop, say a prayer, and spend time with my son. What response can there be to hatred, other than teaching our children not to hate in return?

Ten years in Jewish Renewal

The main house at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, NY.

(my journal, August 5, 2002)

Seeing so many people in kippot startles me.

[at my first dinner] Sat with [name redacted], who talked about the power of laying tefillin, which makes me want to try it...

In August of 2002 I went for the first time to Elat Chayyim, the Jewish Renewal retreat center which was then located in Accord, New York. (It has since become the Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, but my first visit was many years before that change happened.) That week-long retreat was my first taste of Jewish Renewal outside of books. A first big step on what I didn't yet know was my life's path.

I remember that feeling of startlement at seeing so many people wearing kippot. I wondered, at the time, what my reaction said about me; in hindsight, I think what it said was that I was completely unaccustomed to being around ardent Jews who were comfortable being visible in their Jewishness! (And I remind myself, whenever I bring my family into ALEPH contexts, that my family now is likely to be as startled by the sight as I was then...)

On the Jewish calendar, that first retreat included the first day of Elul. That's when I learned the melody for psalm 27, Achat Sha'alti, which I still pray and sing and teach today. This year, we're about two weeks short of that Jewish anniversary. But on the Gregorian calendar, that first retreat began ten years ago today. The anniversary gives me a good excuse to remember that first retreat, and to reflect on these ten years I've been blessed to spend in Jewish Renewal community.

Continue reading "Ten years in Jewish Renewal" »

We find God when we bring comfort: a d'var Torah for Shabbat Nachamu

Here's the d'var Torah I offered this morning at my shul.


נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם -- Nachamu, nachamu ami, yomer eloheichem.

"Comfort, comfort My people, says your God."

Today is Shabbat Nachamu, named after the first word of today's haftarah portion, Isaiah 40:1-26. Nachamu is in the plural; it means "y'all offer comfort." Or, in the locution you might recognize from Handel, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people."

Last weekend brought Tisha b'Av, when we immerse deep in the realities of human suffering and the brokenness of our world. The fall of the first Temple, and our people becoming refugees in Babylon. The fall of the second Temple, which must have been even more heartbreaking than the first. And a dozen other tragedies and traumas throughout our history.

For some of us, Tisha b'Av is a time to remember the suffering of the Jewish people. For others, it offers a more generalized occasion for mourning: the starvation and cruelty and rape described in Lamentations sounds like every war in history, from the Rwandan genocide to what's happening now in Syria. For still others, Tisha b'Av is a time to mourn the suffering of our planet, which burns and suffers poisons when humanity chooses progress over sustainability.

Today we take a deep breath and let go of all of that sorrow. Today is Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat when we are instructed to bring comfort.

There are seven Shabbatot between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. These are called, in our tradition, the Seven Weeks of Consolation. Having delved into the depths of human trauma and suffering on Tisha b'Av, now we are called to draw on what we learned there in order to propel us in teshuvah, repentance, re/turn, turning-toward-God.

As Rabbi Alan Lew writes, spiritual practice doesn't remove what hurts in the world. It doesn't take away our suffering, whether personal or national, chronic illness or the fall of the Twin Towers or death which comes too soon. But spiritual practice can allow us to see what happens more clearly, and to respond to it with compassion and with love.

One of my role models in this is a Unitarian minister named Kate Braestrup. Kate is author of a number of terrific books, including Here If You Need Me, in which she tells the story of how her husband Drew, a Maine State Trooper, was killed in a car accident, leaving Kate widowed with four young children. Here is a quote from that book, which I have returned to many times.

My children asked me, "Why did Dad die?"

I told them, "It was an accident. There are small accidents, like knocking over your milk at the dinner table. And there are large accidents, like the one your Dad was in. No one meant it to happen. It just happened. And his body was too badly damaged in the accident for his soul to stay in it any more, and so he died.

God does not spill milk. God did not bash the truck into your father's car. Nowhere in scripture does it say, 'God is car accident,' or 'God is death.' God is justice and kindess, mercy, and always - always - love. So if you want to know where God is in this or in anything, look for love."

Where do we find God when there is tragedy? For Reverend Braestrup, God is in the loving hands which prepare a casserole and deliver it to your door when something unimaginable has happened; God is in the loving arms which hold you as you weep.

Let me expand on that a little bit.

God is in the friend who offers to hold a newborn so its exhausted mother can take a shower and get some sleep. God is in those who gather for shiva so the mourner can say kaddish in the presence of a minyan. God is in the friend who makes a pasta salad and brings it to the home of a woman whose husband has slipped a disc and can't get out of bed. God is in the parent who rocks a croupy child in a steamy bathroom in the middle of the night. We find God in our acts of love for one another.

When you listen to someone pour out their worries, you are God's ears, listening. When you place a hand on someone's shoulderblade, or offer an embrace, you are God's hands, soothing. When you make meatloaf for Take and Eat, your hands are God's hands, providing sustenance. And when you offer comfort, you are God's presence, comforting.

This is how I understand נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם -- Nachamu, nachamu ami, yomer eloheichem. "Y'all comfort -- really comfort -- My people, says Your God." It's our job to comfort one another. And when we do, we bring God's presence into the world and into our lives.

A Prayer for Syria

Shekhinah, in Whose womb creation is nurtured:
when your children are slaughtered you weep.
Bring peace beneath Your fierce embrace
to Syria. Let a new image of the world be born
in which American Jews pray for Syrians, who pray
for Israelis, who pray for Palestinians, who pray
even for American Jews. Fill the hearts
of the insurgents with Your compassion
so that when the regime comes to its end
no one seeks the harsh justice of retaliation.
And for us: strengthen our resolve not to turn away.
We bless You, Source of Mercy. Bring wholeness
to this broken creation. And let us say: Amen.



The idea that poetry can create a "new image of the world" comes from Syrian poet Ali Ahmed Said, who writes under the pen name Adonis.

If this prayer speaks to you, feel free to share it widely. I ask only that you keep my name and URL attached so that people know where it came from.


Edited to add: I've shared a revision of this prayer, as of September 2013.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Among twenty finished projects
The only moving thing
Was the sermon I need to write.

I was of three minds,
Like a desk
On which there are three sermons.

The sermon whirled in the summer sun
like my son's paper pinwheel.

God and the Torah
are one.
God and the Torah and a sermon
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
Preaching about Syria
Or preaching about the election.
The sermon unfolding
Or just after.

I searched the willow
Outside the sanctuary window.
The shadow of the sermon
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the sermon
Solemn and full of joy.

O congregants,
Why do you imagine lunch?
Do you not see how the sermon
Is a golden banquet
For your souls to feast on?

I know noble prayers
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the sermon is involved
In what I know.

When the sermon flew out of sight,
It reached the edge
Of the highest heavens.

At the sight of sermons
Gleaming with insight
Even the sages of the Talmud
Would cry out sharply.

She rode through Williamstown
In a blue Toyota.
Once, a fear pierced her
In that she mistook
A Calvino pastiche idea
For a sermon.

The river is moving.
The sermon must be flying.

It was Rosh Hashanah all summer.
We were making teshuvah
And we were going to make teshuvah.
The sermon sat
Just out of reach.


With thanks to Wallace Stevens, upon whose poem 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird this is based. The idea that God and the Torah are One comes from the Zohar. Teshuvah is the Hebrew word usually translated as repentance; I like to translate it as return or as turning-toward-God.