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October 2018

Eden Speaks

I understand now why you had to leave.
Your souls are honed, refined, the more you search
for meaning and connection. Here with me
humanity's the only thing that couldn't

grow. But did God ever stop to think
how much I'd miss your sweetness once you left?
How lonely I would feel, remembering
your laughter and your song? It's true, sometimes

you visit on Shabbat a little while.
But mostly you forget my roses' scent.
No one comes to taste my flowing spring.

Still, a drop of hope moistens my earth
and nurtures blossoms waiting to burst free
the moment when you knock upon my gates.

 


 

I'm not sure what sparked the idea of writing a poem in the voice of the Garden of Eden.

This poem draws on Zoharic images of Shechinah (the immanent / indwelling / feminine Presence of God) -- the rose garden, the flowing spring in the middle of Eden. Also on the idea that Shabbat is a "foretaste of the world to come," a taste of Eden, when we allow it to be.

One way of understanding our exile from Eden is that it is a necessary component to the birth of human consciousness -- that when we ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we became capable of growth and change. Still, I'm struck by the idea of Eden missing our presence and our touch, which had not occurred to me until I started working on this poem.


Grief and comfort

There's a feeling that sometimes comes with grief: how can the world be functioning normally when I am feeling this?

I've heard it from others many times. I've felt it myself many times, too. How can the world just keep turning, how can everyone around me just keep doing their normal things, when I am carrying this sadness in my chest? What do you mean, grocery store checkout lines and traffic and airline delays and after-school activities are all exactly as they were before? Why isn't the world around me showing some recognition of the fact that I feel as though there is a black hole of grief occupying my heart?

Maybe that grief comes from something on the national scene: the unspeakable losses of the wildfires in California, or the seemingly endless onslaught of mass shootings and the fear that no trauma will be severe enough to change our nation's policies around guns. Or maybe it comes from something closer to home: a marriage coming apart at the seams, a loved one who is sick and will not get well, a beloved whose suffering cannot be balmed. There's a sense of injustice: it's not fair. This shouldn't be.

Suffering raises questions of theodicy: how could a God Who is good and just allow suffering? These are some of the oldest religious questions we have. They're also evergreen: after the Pittsburgh shooting my eight-year-old asked me that question. Spend time with Jewish sacred texts, from the Tanakh (Hebrew scriptures) to Hasidut (18th century mystical-devotional texts) to 20th century postwar philosophy, and you'll see a variety of answers. Sometimes none of them satisfy the aching heart.

I told my son that God gives us free will, which means we can choose -- including choosing to harm. But it also means we can choose to care for each other. Of course, some of what we suffer seems simply built in to the fabric of human life, like illness. Sometimes someone falls ill and cannot be healed. And that hurts. I think it's supposed to: the hurt we feel is proportional to our love for the person who is ill. Sometimes loving someone means hurting for them and with them. Compassion: suffering-with.

I also told him that I believe that when we weep, God weeps with us. (Of course this is metaphor, but all of our language about God is metaphor. Kids have an easy fluency with metaphor that adults sometimes lose.) This is (some of) what our mystics mean when they speak of Shechinah going into exile with us, weeping for Her children. Loneliness, betrayal, injustice, sickness, suffering: all of these are exile. God accompanies us in these human griefs, and puts Her arm around us, and cries too.

When someone is sick and won't get well, or when a mass shooting cuts lives short -- there is no magic spell that will lift these griefs and injustices from the world. (One Jewish understanding of moshiach, "the messiah" or "the coming of the messianic age," is the emergence of a time when injustice and human suffering will be no more. We're not there yet.) But we can feel with each other and weep with each other -- as God, the One Who Accompanies, feels and weeps with each of us.

In the throes of grief, sometimes there is no comfort. All we can do is accompany each other. But in time, we grow new skin over the open wound. In time, we can hope to find gratitude even in our grief. As we mourn a loss, we may also feel gladness: how glad I am to have had that relationship, even if it's now over. How glad I am to have known this beloved, even if they are now gone. This happens, if it happens, in its own time -- it can't be rushed. But it is my hope for all who grieve.

That's maybe more plausible for intimate griefs: the loss of a relationship, the loss of a loved one. When it comes to public griefs like a mass shooting, our grief can (must) spur us to build a safer and more just world. But whether the grief is personal or national, it may not be linear. Give yourself the time you need to feel, and to recover -- which may happen more than once, and may not happen in the order you expect. May we all feel, and be, accompanied in our grief, and as we heal and begin again.


As Cheshvan draws toward its close

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It's the day after the midterm elections. It feels a little bit like the day after all of the fall holidays are complete. 

I always come out of the high holiday season feeling some combination of exhilarated and grateful, and exhausted and tapped-out. Many rabbis I know joke that our favorite month is Cheshvan, the empty month that follows the intense round of festivals. We need the downtime (both practical and spiritual) after the Days of Awe, which can feel high-stakes both spiritually (it's arguably the most spiritually intensive season of our year) and practically (because many of us who serve bricks-and-mortar congregations rely on this season for the donations that allow us to keep our doors open and to continue to serve.)

But this year, Cheshvan has not offered the respite I yearn for. This year Cheshvan has included horrific antisemitic attacks, from pipe bombs and their accompanying antisemitic dogwhistles to the horrific Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. And Cheshvan has also included the tense and intense ramp-up to the midterm elections. Yesterday I saw someone observe on Twitter that it felt like the entire nation was waiting for the results of a biopsy. That feels apt to me. And as anyone who's ever anxiously waited for test results knows, that immersion in anxiety is the opposite of restorative or restful. 

Now at least the waiting for results is over. If the "patient" in question is our democracy, last night I think we learned that the prognosis isn't as bad as some of us had feared. Indeed there are many reasons to feel hope, including unprecedented voter turnout, the preservation of trans rights in my own home state, the election of many remarkable progressive women of color to Congress, and many "firsts" that are worth celebrating, like the first Muslim American women in Congress, and the first Native American women in Congress, and the first openly gay governor in the nation. 

And we also learned that we still have an awful lot of work to do before this patient can be declared healthy again. Voter disenfranchisement was rampant, perhaps most notably in Georgia. Nazi sympathizers have been re-elected to serve in our nation's government. Ugly anti-immigrant rhetoric seems to be working in some quarters, and that reality is deeply upsetting.

How do we balance our hope and our fear? How do we celebrate the very real accomplishments achieved by the tireless work of countless volunteers, while acknowledging how far we have to go before our nation is the bastion of welcome and diversity that we aspire to be? At the same time that I'm asking that national question, I'm also grappling with this jewish one: how do we celebrate the very real embrace of our non-Jewish friends and neighbors during this time of trauma, while acknowledging how far we have to go before antisemitism and white supremacy and white nationalism are a thing of the past?

I think again of the story of R' Simcha Bunim and his two slips of paper: "for my sake was the world created" and "I am but dust and ashes." The work of authentic spiritual life is learning how to hold these two truths simultaneously. Learning how to cultivate real gratitude and joy without falling prey to the danger of spiritual bypassing. Learning how to feel real grief and fear without falling prey to the danger of despair. How to feel these two opposites without blurring them into an amorphous middle that partakes neither in the grief of knowing how far we have to go nor in the joy of recognizing how far we've come.

I've seen many wise people point out that our work today is the same as our work every day: repairing the broken world. Being a light in the darkness. Working tirelessly to combat injustice and bigotry. That's our job as human beings and as Jews. It was our job before the midterm elections, and it is our job after the midterm elections. I agree with that wholeheartedly. And -- the month of Cheshvan is my annual reminder that we also need to give ourselves time to rest, and time to feel our feelings, especially in the aftermath of something that's taken up so much of our time, energy, attention, anxiety, and hope.

The work of rebuilding our nation into a place of liberty and justice for all isn't over. Yesterday was a big day, and today we may be feeling tapped-out. It's okay to take some time to decompress and to just be. And when we can muster the strength to begin again, it's our job to start working again at redeeming our broken world and our broken society. True on a national level, true on an individual spiritual level. The work of authentic spiritual life isn't over, either. It's okay to feel tapped-out right now. And when we can muster the strength to begin again, it's our job to once again take up the inner work of teshuvah.

The work isn't over. The world isn't yet redeemed. But we can pause to take stock of what we've accomplished, and we can allow ourselves space to feel both our anxieties about the path ahead and our exultation at every newly-rekindled spark of hope.  For now, it's the end of Cheshvan. It's the end of an election cycle. Here where I live most of the leaves have fallen. It's too soon to know what they will mulch and fertilize in months to come. For now, maybe it's time to embrace the feeling of going fallow, and to trust that in time with the work of our hands and hearts new growth will come.


Graffiti love-in

When I arrived at my shul on Shabbat morning, it was covered with graffiti. Not the kind of hateful graffiti that's been cropping up at synagogues around the nation in recent days: rather, signs, cards, and messages of love and support from our non-Jewish neighbors. 

I had advance notice of the "graffiti love-in." (The organizers checked with me to make sure their plan was okay.) But even so, when I arrived at shul on Shabbat morning and found what they had done, I couldn't help weeping tears of gratitude.

Here's what I wrote about it for The Forward: Our Neighbors Graffitied Our Synagogue -- With Love.

I'm enclosing some photos below.

It's easy to pay attention to the acts of horror and trauma and hatred that are sweeping our nation. But I hope you'll also pay attention to this act of spontaneous love, support and care. 

 

(You can glimpse the artists at work in this photo album at the Berkshire Eagle... and I hope you'll read my piece for the Forward, too.)

 


Building lessons from Toldot -- and amazing sketchnotes by Steve Silbert

One of the coolest things about the parshanut (Torah commentary) series we're doing at Builder's Blog (a project of Bayit: Your Jewish Home) is that our friend, colleague, and fellow builder Steve Silbert is sketchnoting each week's d'dvar Torah. Each week a different builder writes the d'var Torah, mining the parsha for teachings that can fuel and inspire us in our building work, and each week it's amazing to see how Steve opens up our words visually.

This week I'm "on," and I wrote about Rivka and parashat Toldot -- and I absolutely adore what Steve did with my words. Here's a glimpse of what I wrote -- this is one of the pieces of the essay that I like best, and it's part of what inspired Steve's sketchnoting this week:

 

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Rivka’s Questions, And Our Own: Building Lessons From Toldot

Part of a yearlong series about building and builders inspired by the Torah cycle.

...This week’s Torah portion is called Toldot, “Generations.” All of us who seek to build the Jewish future do so on the foundations laid by previous generations. It’s on us to honor the foundations they placed, even as we open ourselves like Rivka to surprises — and embrace new interpretations, spiritual technologies, and ideas that our forebears couldn’t have imagined...

...We may no longer drink from the literal wells of our ancestors, but their spiritual wells still flow — especially when we delve into them ourselves to ensure that they’re still open. All who seek to build Jewish life can draw new sustenance from old sources, laying pipe to bring reach hearts and souls that are thirsty for meaning. We can deepen our ancestors’ wells, drawing up vision and hope, new interpretations and new practices, for each other and for generations to come....

Read the whole thing here: Rivka's Questions, And Our Own: Building Lessons From Toldot. (And if you aren't already following Builder's Blog, you can use the "Follow Blog By Email" link in the right-hand sidebar to sign up -- and I hope you will.)

 


Living our Jewish values, all the days of our lives

Sarah's lifetime -- the span of Sarah's life -- came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.

That's the first line of this week's Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah, which means The Life of Sarah, or perhaps The Lives of Sarah. It's a poignant name for the Torah portion, because the portion begins not with Sarah's life but with her death. This week we read how Avraham purchased a burial place for his wife, and buried her.

There is no way to read those lines today without thinking of the eleven who were killed during Shabbat morning services last week at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The days of their lives were cut short by hatred and by the ready availability of guns. They were killed in a house of prayer because they were Jews.

We are not the only community to be targeted in these ways. I think immediately of the massacre in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Church in 2015, and the massacre in the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012. 

And we are not the only community that now feels afraid. The fear we feel now as Jews in America is connected with the fear felt by our Muslim neighbors, and our queer and transgender neighbors, and our immigrant neighbors, and our neighbors who are people of color. The cancer of bigotry and white nationalism that has infected our nation damages all of us.

And at the same time, this shooting is scary in specific ways for us as Jews. We carry the trauma of the Holocaust. We carry the trauma of centuries of dispossession. Our fear is linked with the fear that so many others feel -- and it is also our own, unique to the story of our people.

And yet here we are in synagogue. Here we are, coming together in song and prayer, searching for meaning, striving for the taste of the World to Come that Shabbat offers us each week. Here we are in Jewish community. Because no amount of hatred or vitriol will make us stop being Jews. No amount of hatred or vitriol will make us stop singing and praying, learning and studying, standing up for the immigrant and the refugee, loving the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

If I have to die for those values, I will die for them. But far more important to me is my willingness to live for those values, and for those values to live in me. The best way I can honor the lives of the eleven who were killed last Shabbat is by living my Jewish values with all my heart and with all my might all the days of my life. And that means speaking up for the disempowered, and welcoming the refugee, and "walking my talk." Halakha, the term usually translated as "Jewish law," can also be translated as "our way of walking." To be a Jew is to aim to walk a path of righteousness. 

"Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm," says the Song of Songs (8:6), "for love is strong as death." Granted, love can't make death disappear. No matter how much the Pittsburgh shooting victims were and are loved, we can't bring them back to life. But love persists beyond death. Even when someone has died, we can continue to love them -- our love persists as long as we draw breath. And Jewish tradition teaches that when we die, our souls return to their Source, to the wellspring of hope and love that we feebly name as God. We come from Love, and when we die we return to Love.

And while we live, it is our job to love. It is our job to love one another -- in Auden's words, "We must love one another or die." How do we love one another? One answer comes from Cornel West, "Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public." Because I love, I demand justice not only for myself but for all. Because I love, I will work toward liberty and justice for all. Because I love, I will work toward a world where we have banished hatred and bigotry, slander and cruelty, xenophobia and white nationalism, racism and prejudice. We may not get there in my lifetime, but we have to keep trying.

That's the best response I can offer to the tragedy of the Tree of Life shooting last Shabbat. We honor their memories by being who we are, being Jews walking a Jewish path, all the days of our lives. And we honor their memories by working tirelessly -- once Shabbes is over -- toward building a world redeemed.

Let us seal God's presence into our hearts so that we are not afraid. Let us seal God's presence into our arms, to strengthen us for the work of bringing justice to this battered world. Let us take comfort in our togetherness. And tonight when we make havdalah, let us rededicate ourselves to being a light in the darkness and building a world of greater justice and love.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)