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Light in the darkness

This is the message I sent to my congregational community this morning. I wanted to share it here also, in case it speaks to any of you.

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Dear all,

I woke this morning to news of yet another antisemitic attack during Chanukah — this time a stabbing at a Chanukah celebration in Rockland County, New York. This is the eighth such incident I’ve seen in the news since Chanukah began. I expect that many of us are reading these news stories this week. And I expect that in response many of us are navigating a mixture of fear, anxiety, sorrow, and more besides.

As I was sitting with today’s news, I received a text from a member of one of the Cuban Jewish communities that we visited earlier this fall. She asked if we are all right, and said that they are concerned for our safety. In an instant, her heartfelt expression of care shifted my morning. And in assuring her that we are all right, and that though these are dark times I know that light will prevail, I reminded myself of what I know to be true.

In recent months the CBI Board has upgraded our security system so that we can be safer when we gather together in our synagogue for learning, for prayer, and for community. The best response to antisemitic attacks around the nation, and the best response to whatever arises in us because of those attacks, is precisely that — gathering together. As we move into 2020, may we continue to come together in our sorrow and in our joy.

And when we come together in 2020 for Shabbat and festivals, Hebrew school and Take & Eat, baby namings and funerals, may we bring our Christian and Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu and atheist and secular friends and neighbors along, too. Invite a friend or colleague who isn’t Jewish to services, or to seder, or to a Shabbat meal in your home. Because the better we know each other, the more we can stand together.

When we form connections across our differences, the northern Berkshire community is strengthened. Attacks like last night’s are rooted in fear of difference. The best antidote to that fear is to break down the barriers of not-knowing each other. And the best antidote to our own fears is to remind ourselves that we are not alone. That others care about us and will stand with us. That we are stronger together than we are alone.

(And — if these incidents are arousing fear and anxiety in you, please take care of yourself before you work on building bridges. “Put on your own oxygen mask first,” as airline flight attendants teach. I can recommend good therapists in the area if you are in need, and I am here if you want to talk about any of this. My hours will become more predictable once the school year begins again in a few days, but if you need me, reach out; I am here.)

At the City menorah lighting last week I said that to me the real miracle of Chanukah is the leap of faith. Someone chose to kindle the eternal lamp even though there wasn’t enough sanctified oil to last, and then somehow miraculously there was enough. The eternal light didn’t go out. It’s still burning. The light of our tradition still shines — in us. The light of hope shines in us too. In the words of Proverbs, our souls are God’s candles: it’s our job, with our actions and our mitzvot and our choices, to bring light to the world.

In the words of my friend and colleague Rabbi David Markus, “Where there is darkness, we ourselves must be the light.” These feel like dark times. We must be the light that the world needs. And when we shine, together our lights are more than the sum of their parts — like the blaze of the candles on a fully-illuminated chanukiyah, shining in our windows and across our social media feeds, proclaiming the miracle even now. Especially now.

May our chanukiyot shine brightly tonight. And may they illumine our hearts and souls so that our lives and our mitzvot and our actions in the world will shine ever-brighter.

With blessings of hope and light to all —

Rabbi Rachel

 

Originally posted at my From the Rabbi blog.


Chanukah gift

The closet in my study
holds picture frames, half-empty
boxes of stationery, old books,

pillows and blankets
for the guest bed. And tucked in
amid all of these, a small box

emblazoned Priority Mail,
addressed in your handwriting,
postmarked two years ago.

It slipped behind the quilts
and the crates of journals,
unseen and forgotten.

As I slice open the packing tape
I can scarcely breathe.
A letter you wrote to my son

for the last night of Chanukah
and some old coins -- a poem
and gelt, though I know

what in this box is truly gold.
Your words, your memory --
the oil that keeps on burning.

 


On silence, and speaking out, and bringing a better world

This morning with my Hasidut hevruta, R' Megan Doherty, I read a beautiful teaching from the Aish Kodesh (R' Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rabbi of Piaseczno, Poland -- later the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto.) Joseph's dream, in this week's parsha, depicts his brothers' sheaves bowing down to his in the field. But the Aish Kodesh reads it through a different lens. He draws on a Hebrew pun between "sheaf" and "muteness," and he explores what it means to be silenced. This speaks right to my heart. 

Think about the difference between holding one's silence, and being silenced by an external force. There's a huge difference between holding silence for whatever reason(s), and having one's spirit be so broken by external circumstance that one cannot even begin to speak. Our job, in times of struggle, is to wait until our anger passes. And then we can say to ourselves: okay, I feel silenced by this circumstance, but I can still communicate. Even someone who has no (literal) voice can still communicate.

When the suffering of a whole community is such that everyone feels crushed and broken (in today's language, we might say traumatized or suffering from trauma), that's when we reach the circumstance alluded to in Joseph's dream of the sheaves. All of our sheaves are "bowing down," all of our souls feel silenced. But if one person can find the capacity to speak, then everyone else's silencing is lessened. If one person can find the inner strength to speak, everyone else can be strengthened thereby.

Righteous people want to seek serenity or tranquility in this world (notes Rashi) -- that's natural; of course we want and need to seek our own sense of peace. (Without some degree of peace and equanimity, we can't persist in times of sorrow or suffering.) But seeking inner peace isn't enough. God urges us not just to rest in the satisfaction of trusting that everything will be fine in the future somehow. Instead, we need to work to arouse heavenly mercy. We need to cry out to God to bring a better world.

That's what I took from the Aish Kodesh this week. And maybe, because we're not living in the Warsaw Ghetto like he was -- we have power to act in the world in ways that he didn't have -- we need to do something more external than pleading with God for a better world. We need to turn our hands to bringing "heavenly mercy" into the world. We need to act to create a world of safety, a world where no one is ground down by injustice or prejudice or unethical behavior, a world where no one is silenced.

Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so, speedily and soon, amen.

 


Dear Mom (as Chanukah approaches)

Mom, you're on my mind as the the shortest day approaches. A few years ago you commented to me that it was almost the solstice and that you couldn't wait for the day when the balance would shift and we'd be moving into longer days. I was surprised and moved to hear you say that. It's something I never realized we had in common: a visceral dread of the darkest days of each year, a feeling of inchoate relief when we could tell ourselves that the sun is slowly returning. Probably we both carry some version of seasonal affective disorder in our bones, though you would never have claimed that label. You never wanted to call yourself sad in any way. You didn't even want to call yourself sick, even when the disease that claimed you had fully settled in.

Mom, you're on my mind as Chanukah approaches. A kaleidoscope of memories: the giant plexiglass dreidel you one year asked me to decorate, and the cornucopia of gifts that spilled forth from it. The year I wanted to light the Chanukah candles myself for the first time but got scared by the match, and dropped it, and left a burnt spot on the dining room carpet. Singing Maoz Tzur beside the flickering candles.  Fast-forward: the year your father died during Chanukah, while I was in college. I had an a cappella concert that night, and the harmonies of "In Dulci Jubilo" brought me to tears. Fast-forward: the year my son was three and we first lit Chanukah candles together over Skype. Your visible sense of wonder at sharing that with him from afar. 

It's so strange to me now: for all those years when I could have spoken to you any time I wanted, I so often didn't feel the need. And now that you're gone, the fact of your absence is a constant presence in my life. The fact that I can't tell you things -- or I can, but you can't answer. Maybe I'll be blessed with a dream. But it's not the same as the immediacy of being able to pick up a phone and tell you a story and hear your response. Every day when I go to send a photo of my son to his grandparents, my fingers want to type your email address first, even though you've been dead for nine months. We hadn't celebrated Chanukah together in ages. But the fact that you're not in this world anymore makes the approach of Chanukah feel different, this year. 

What would you say if you could hear me? You'd tell me not to be maudlin. You'd point out that you're not suffering anymore. You'd remind me to enjoy what I have. You'd urge me to make hay while the sun shines, and to light candles against the season's darkness. To pour a glass of something tasty, and toast whatever sources of joy I can find. To set a pretty table at Chanukah, and gather friends for celebration. To enjoy my child's glee at opening gifts, winning at dreidel, unwrapping (and eating) chocolate gelt coin by coin. Mom, in your honor and in your memory I'm going to bring out the giant wooden chanukiyah that my brother made years ago. Its big bold tapers will blaze, just like they did in your house, and every night we will welcome more light. 


New essay in Transformative Works and Cultures

I'm delighted to have a short piece in the latest issue of Transformative Works and Cultures. This issue (Vol. 31) is dedicated to the subject of fan fiction and ancient scribal cultures, and I'm looking forward to reading my way through it.

My piece is called Gender, voice, and canon. It explores classical, medieval, and late 20th-century feminist midrash as well as late 2oth-century Western media fandom. Here's the abstract:

The Jewish tradition of midrash (exegetical/interpretive fiction) parallels the fannish tradition of creating fan works in more ways than one. In the twentieth century, both contexts saw the rise of women's voices, shifting or commenting on androcentric canon—and in both contexts today, that gender binarism is giving way to a more complicated and multifaceted tapestry of priorities and voices.

And here's the article in html format for those who are so inclined. Deep thanks to the TWC editors for including my work!

 


Bread and balm

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The first thing I do when I wake up on Friday mornings is feed the cat. The second is mix bread flour, yeast, and water. Meanwhile I make my son's breakfast and pack his lunch. By the time I've done those things, it's time to add eggs and oil and sugar and salt, and then more flour, and then I turn it out and run hot water into the bowl while I knead the dough.

I sing "Shalom Aleichem" quietly while I knead, every single time. Usually I sing a melody that's in major. It helps me remember that I'm preparing myself to welcome the angels of Shabbat, not just baking for the sake of tasty treats. And by the time I've sung it through at a pace that suits my hands, the dough is glossy and kneaded, ready to rest in the warm bowl and begin its first rise. 

When I take the loaves out of the oven (usually on my lunch break), the house smells rich and sweet -- the scent of Shabbat on her way. At dinnertime when we make motzi and tear into them, the loaves are fragrant and soft and delicious. In the summer, we often make motzi before nightfall. In the winter, sundown is early, and we might not eat until it's well and truly dark out. 

Over the last year of baking challah almost every week, the recipe has engraved itself in me. I know it by heart. I made challah with this recipe in Texas last February, on the Shabbat that turned out to be the last one before my mother died. I made challah with this recipe in the Catskills in August, when my Bayit hevre and I gathered for our board retreat / learning week.

Some weeks, like this one, the world feels sharp and painful. The news is difficult to bear. Missing my mom is a sharp ache. Injustice of many kinds is rampant. Fear and grief seem to be life's constant companions. In a week like this, the practice of making challah is a balm to my heart. It says: even with everything that's broken, Shabbes will come with her shelter of peace.

 

Image: one of this week's loaves of challah, beneath my mother's challah cover. Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.


If you're feeling afraid

If you are feeling anxious and afraid in the wake of the news that the president is going to declare Jews a "nationality," you are not alone. That move comes frighteningly close to declaring that we Jews are therefore not American. And that prospect raises very deep fears, some of them rooted in the horrors of what was done to us in the 20th century in Europe. If you're feeling those fears today, you're not alone.

"All the world is a very narrow bridge," said Reb Nachman. "The important thing is to not make oneself afraid." Let us not make ourselves afraid. Let us resist the impulse to marinate in our fear and give strength to our fear. Let us instead feel the fear, acknowledge it, name it, and then send it on its way. We are Americans. Let us work together with our fellow Americans to ensure not only our own safety but the safety of everyone who is marginalized and mistreated for being who they are.


In this place

You're sick, but
still offering opinions
on which cut of trousers

best suits me. You promise
a pair of new boots, stylish
as yours, before you go.

Then you're dead, and
I roam your closet
(Narnia-sized, infinite)

with empty hands. But look:
on a countertop, the boots
you promised, in my size.

I wake laughing.
You're nine months buried
and still giving to me.

 


Vayetzei: the earth in our hands

Earth-in-our-hands5Jacob left Beersheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And Adonai was standing beside him and He said, “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. (Genesis 28:10-13)

These are the opening verses of this week's parsha, Vayetzei. Jacob dreams of a stairway rooted in the earth and reaching the very heavens, with angels going up and down. And when he wakes, he exclaims, "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!" What an amazing story of spiritual awakening. And this isn't just something that happened to "him" back "then" -- it also happens to us now. We fall spiritually asleep, and then something wakes us into wonder.

This has long been one of my favorite stories in Torah. This year, though, I'm reading it through new eyes -- thanks to our speaker on Wednesday night.

Rabbi Ellen Bernstein is the founder of Shomrei Adamah ("Keepers of the Earth"), the very first Jewish environmental organization, which came into being 30 years ago. She came to CBI to speak about her new haggadah, The Promise of the Land,  which offers an earth-centered and environmentally-focused path through the Passover seder.

And one of the first things she said blew my mind. The Hebrew word aretz -- land, earth, ground -- appears 2000 times in the Hebrew scriptures. Often, when we think of "land" in Torah and Jewish tradition, we think of one specific land -- Israel. But what happens if we broaden our sense of aretz to mean all land -- every land -- in other words, the whole earth?

Torah has clear instructions for how we're supposed to treat the land. Torah tells us to care for the land in specific ways, and to behave ethically in specific ways, lest the land spit us out. Seen through the lens of a specific piece of land, those teachings are instructions about how to care for that land, and how to treat each other in that land, lest we become a stateless people again.

But if we read those verses as a teaching about not just that land, but all land -- the whole earth on which we live, the planet that is not only "my land" or "your land" but everyone's land -- and in fact is truly God's land, lent to us only as long as we can care for it responsibly...? Then Torah feels unspeakably prescient. We need to do right by the earth, or the earth will spit us out. 

Treat the land with respect. Don't pillage the land. Give back to the land, let the land rest, don't suck all the resources out of the land. Treat the land properly. Treat each other properly and ethically. Don't poison and pollute our community life or our home. Because if we do, the land will spit us out -- the earth will become uninhabitable. Is this sounding familiar?

Granted, Torah doesn't say the planet will warm beyond repair, the ice caps will melt, the seas will rise, the farming systems will fail. Torah doesn't speak in scientific terms. Torah uses the language of ethics and morality, the language of poem and story. Torah just says, "do what's right, or the earth will spit you out." But any newspaper today can give us the horrifying details.

In this week's parsha, Jacob dreams of a ladder rooted in the earth ascending all the way to the heavens, with angels going up and down. And in Jacob's dream, God is right there with him. God says: the ground on which you are lying is yours to care for.  Or as Rabbi Bernstein teaches, this entire earth is yours to care for, you and your generations. This planet is in your hands.

Later in his story, Jacob, "the Heel," will gain the new name Yisrael. We are his spiritual descendants, the children of Israel. Like our ancestor, we're spiritually asleep a lot of the time. This week's parsha invites us to wake into wonder. To see the holiness of this place. To recognize that "we've got the whole earth / in our hands" and that it's our job to protect it and give back to it.

In early 2020, we'll be forming the CBI Green Team: a group of congregants, clergy, and staff committed to mitigating the effects of climate change and making climate justice and preservation of the earth core values of our community. The earth is in our hands. Let's wake up to God's presence in every holy place, and together take care of this earth, our irreplaceable home.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at CBI on Shabbat, offered with gratitude to Rabbi Ellen Bernstein for her teaching and her wisdom. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)