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January 2020

Two great reviews of Beside Still Waters

Bsw-smallTwo fantastic reviews of Beside Still Waters were published this week.

In the Berkshire Jewish Voice, Rabbi Jack Riemer -- whose liturgical work I have often used and admired -- writes:

...Ours is a death-denying culture, in which we are taught to ignore the oncoming of death so as not to make those around us feel uncomfortable. And so it is good to have a few different versions of the Vidui here, which is the prayer that we are supposed to say before we die.

Ours is a culture that tries to repress pain and anger, and so it is good to have a prayer to say in memory of someone who has hurt us, and whom it is hard to forgive.

Ours is a society in which most of us stand before the yahrtzeit candle with no idea of what to say, and so it is good to have a meditation for this sacred moment that can help us give expression to the feelings that we have inside....

Read that whole review here.

And for the Association of Jewish Libraries, Fred Isaac writes:

...This small book is filled with wisdom, both ancient and modern. It is meant specifically for spiritual leaders, i.e., rabbis, Chevra Kadisha staff, prayer leaders, and counselors. But its readings can provide comfort for mourners at all stages of the process. It should be considered for every Jewish library...

Read that whole review here.

I'm so grateful to everyone who contributed their work to this volume, to my hevre at Bayit: Building Jewish, and to our publishing partner Ben Yehuda Press, for midwifing this book into being with me.

Buy Beside Still Waters from your favorite bookseller or directly from the publisher. Single copies cost $18. (Discounts are available for bulk orders of 10 or more at the publisher’s website.)


When we are tired

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"How are you," I ask. Often these days the answer is, "Tired." Tired of headlines about the end of democracy, or rising antisemitism, or miscarriages of justice. Tired of the million micro-aggressions of systemic misogyny or racism or xenophobia. 

Tired of wondering whether the 2020 elections will be hacked by Russia (or anyone else). Tired of wondering whether the weaponization of intentional misinformation, designed to sow discord and erode public trust, has done irreparable damage.

Tired of anxiety about the climate crisis, and how the over-focus on individual consumer choices ("did I remember a reusable grocery bag?") keeps our collective eyes off of the real prize of systemic change, sustainable change, meaningful change.

There are horrific injustices happening in so many realms. Sometimes it feels like the constancy and the omnipresence and how the injustices intersect make the fury and the outrage add up to more than the sum of their parts. Of course we are tired. 

I'm thinking a lot about how people have maintained hope in other difficult times. I'm slowly delving into Torah teachings from the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, and I've just started rereading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

We have an ethical obligation not to give up. We have to hold tight to hope that we can make the world better than this. When we can’t access that hope, we need to find someone who feels it, and let their hope shine for us too until we can feel it again.

We have an ethical obligation to help. Make a donation, canvass for a candidate, volunteer some time, bring a can of soup to the food pantry.... each of us will know what we can do. Whatever that thing is, we have to do that thing. And then another.

My best tool for preventing burnout is keeping Shabbat, giving my soul a break every week. It can feel self-indulgent, sometimes, when the world is burning. But this is my tradition's ancient practice for staying whole even in times when my soul feels tired.

It's okay to feel tired. It's okay to feel anxious and afraid. It's okay to take a break and put our oxygen masks on. And then I think we need to roll up our sleeves and keep trying to build a better world -- and looking for joy along the way as we do.

I think joy is integral, actually. Joy can coexist with sorrow, even with deep grief. Joy can be a kind of defiance. Audre Lorde called it "a form of energy for change." Joy intertwines with hope. And hope can fuel us to act. Even when we are tired.

 


Community in our hands

ShowImageMoses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone." (Exodus 18:17-18)

This week's Torah portion is named after Yitro, father-in-law to Moses. Yitro was not part of the Israelite community. Torah describes him as a "priest of Midian," an outsider. Maybe that's why he was able to take one look at what Moshe was doing and say, "Hold up, son, this isn't going to work."

Moshe was working himself to the bone, all day, every day, standing in judgment. He was the sole point of contact between the people and God: their spiritual leader, their judge, their administrator, their magistrate, everything. Yitro knew that wasn't a sustainable model. His solution was simple: share leadership.

He told Moshe to draw others into leadership and to empower them. This way the burden of caring for the community, and carrying the community, is shared. And it gives others the opportunity to step up and take some responsibility for the community, and in that way, the fabric of community is strengthened.

This is a basic leadership lesson, and it still resonates. The work of building community isn't the job only of those in leadership -- it's a job that belongs to all of us. The work of building the Jewish future isn't the job only of those in leadership -- it's work that belongs to all of us.

Not only because "many hands make light work," though that is true. But because when we step up and take responsibility for building healthy community, the whole community gets stronger... and those who have stepped into holy service don't burn out, because others are willing to tend to the needs of the whole.

After this advice from Yitro, God tells Moses that the children of Israel are to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Ex. 19:6) It's the same theme: holiness isn't just for priests (or rabbis) or public servants. All of us are supposed to strive to be holy. The whole community is instructed to be holy.

And then after that, the whole community hears the revelation at Sinai. Not just Moshe; not just the judges; not just the men; everyone. All of us are a "nation of priests and a holy people," and all of us received Torah at Sinai. Torah is our collective birthright, as the community is our collective responsibility.

What will we do this Shabbat to open our hearts to revelation?

And what will we do in the new week to take responsibility for co-creating, and caring for, the holy community we're called to be?

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services this week. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Image: Darius Gilmont.


A reason to celebrate

Chanel-red-boucle-44-skirt-suit-size-10-m-0-1-960-960There was a photo on your desk. A group of your friends, maybe twenty or more, all wearing pink and red: dresses and suits, tailored and chic, high heels and handbags to match. You were right there in the front row, with your platinum hair and bright lipstick, beaming. Someone in your circle used to hold a Valentine's Day ladies' luncheon, and that's how everyone dressed for it. I think I remember that the party favors one year were iced cookies with a photograph of the last year's group printed onto the icing. Or am I mixing up the Valentine's Day luncheon with some other festivity? You and your friends celebrated everything you could find. Not just birthdays and anniversaries and Jewish holidays, but Valentines Day, St. Patrick's Day, Fiesta, Susan B. Anthony's birthday... Once, before I was born, you and Dad held a campaign party celebrating an imaginary candidate. You made up the most ridiculous name you could think of. You printed elaborately designed invitations, and hung red, white, and blue bunting everywhere. There was always an excuse for a party, and I used to roll my eyes at that. It seemed over-the-top, even frivolous. I'm sorry about that now, Mom. Now that you're gone, I understand your parties in a new way. No matter what we do, life will hand us sorrow. It's life-affirming to choose to seek joy and togetherness in the face of that truth.  I don't own a red Chanel suit, and I'm not attending a ladies' lunch on February 14. But I'm wearing a string of your garnet beads, and my dress today is burgundy -- a cousin to red, if you squint. And on this day of red and pink paper doilies, and flower arrangements, and boxes of chocolate, I am remembering you.


A body that mostly works

TOS

That I have thoracic outlet syndrome is not particularly interesting. That a lot of major league pitchers have it too -- according to my brother-in-law -- is marginally more interesting, but not by much.

Here is my layperson's understanding: the cluster of muscles in and around the "thoracic collar" seize up and won't unclench. Nerves and blood vessels  constrict. Symptoms ensue.

It's mostly low level pain, unless I move in the wrong way. (Trying to put on a coat right-arm-first, for instance, and then wriggle my left arm in.) I've learned to adjust the way I move, the way I sleep, the way I wash my hair. 

I don't like the chronic pain or the inability to lift my arm. But what I really don't like is how it impacts my ability to play guitar. I don't feel like I'm a "serious" guitar player, but my guitar feels to me like an extension of my hands and arms even so. 

Thoracic outlet syndrome can cause pain, and/or weakness, and/or numbness. I'm not always able to manage barre chords these days. Sometimes I can play them; sometimes not. Sometimes I start a song and midway through realize I can't barre. 

It's a little bit funny when I stop and think about it. The pain is annoying but bearable. The limited range of motion is annoying but bearable. But if it gets in the way of my ability to make music? Whoa, hold up there, I can't live like that!

I will put up with pain, discomfort, and numbness. But if they are impinging on my ability to make music -- which is interwoven with one of the ways I most love to pray -- then that's a non-starter. Music is necessary to my soul, like breathing.

I can still lead prayer with my guitar. I'm just aware that it's more difficult than I want it to be. I have to work around the limitations imposed by my neck and shoulder and arm. I'm aware that my body isn't working quite as well as I want it to be.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being: You form the human body with wisdom, creating the body's many pathways and openings... 

My thoracic outlet syndrome has given me another point of engagement with Asher Yatzar. That's the blessing that reminds us that we can't pray if our bodies malfunction too profoundly -- if something opens that should be closed, or vice versa.

Sometimes we offer this prayer during Shabbat morning services. It appears in our siddur alongside the prayer for the soul. I call it "the prayer for having bodies that mostly work, most of the time." That usually gets a rueful laugh from someone.

Because even the healthiest among us have bodies that don't always work the way we want them to. Or if they do now, we know that if we live long enough, they won't anymore. This fragility, this imperfection, seems to be built into embodied life. 

Maybe that's why this balancing act feels built-in, too. Making music with an arm that doesn't always work; praying with a heart and mind that don't always work; balancing our broken places with our whole ones -- isn't that always what we're here to do?

Praise God in market and workplace,
With computer, with hammer and nails,

Praise him in bedroom and kitchen;
Praise him with pots and pans.

(So writes Stephen Mitchell in his rendering of Psalm 150.)  In that vein... Praise God in physical therapy and on the massage table, with resistance bands and heating pads. Praise God with the range of motion that might become possible again. 

Or in the words of Psalm 118:5, "From the narrow place I called to You; You answered me with expansiveness." May the Holy One of Blessing answer all of our constricted places, our tight and painful places, our restricted-motion places, with freedom.

 


Innovating, learning, recharging

Innovation retreat 2020

Within moments of arrival we're talking about how fulfilling it is to learn from each other across the denominations. R' Evan Krame (The Jewish Studio, Bayit) has designed an icebreaker wherein we withdraw slips of paper from an envelope, each containing a quote, and relate the quotes we've drawn to our hopes for our time together. One of the quotes I draw reminds me of the importance of collaboration, and how we can build the Jewish future together better than any of us could build alone.

We study design thinking and innovation with Steve Silbert (Bayit). We talk about the needs we're trying to meet in the community contexts where we serve (and how do we even know what the needs are?) We talk about buy-in and safety, how to measure whether innovative solutions are working, iterative change (come up with a solution, try it, measure what worked, refine it, try again), rightsizing our questions. We dream follow-up conversations, workshopping ideas, adapting, trying again.

R' Jeff Fox (Yeshivat Maharat) teaches us mussar (character refinement) and halakha. We learn that our job as human beings is to feel-with others, and to help others carry their burdens. We learn a teaching of R' Simcha Zissel about tension between imagination (flowing freely) and mind (operating within limits). How does the dialectic between flow and limitation drive innovation? How do we operate from the stance that fundamentally what it means to be a Jew is to ease the suffering of others?

R' Mike Moskowitz (Bayit, CBST) brings texts about the tension between individual and community. We learn about when it's okay to delegate someone else to perform a mitzvah, and when we should be wholly present to bring our unique light. We talk about doing mitzvot because we genuinely love the One Who asks us to do so. We leave that session with the framing question "What can I do that no one else can do?" -- a way to prioritize our limited time and energy as we try to repair this broken world.

There are so many conversations. We talk about congregational dynamics, about who we serve, about projections and transference, liturgy and melody, best practices in teaching and b-mitzvah education, our work's challenges and joys. Even aside from the formal learning we're here to do, the immersion in conversations with wise colleagues is impossibly nourishing. I keep thinking of the Mandelstam quote I drew at the start, about how we can build together what we couldn't build alone.

We span all the denominations of Judaism, so early on in the retreat we negotiate how to daven together. Davening in a community like this -- where we all care about the words, and we're all dedicating our lives to serving the Holy and serving the community that serves the Holy -- is the best medicine there is for my heart. Especially when the davening involves harmony and song, which it always does. There is nothing better, for me. It feeds a part of my soul that is not fed in any other way.

Monday morning we read from Torah. At each aliyah, there is a glorious cacophony of words -- some of us using the traditional words, some of us using a more inclusive variation, some of us using the Reconstructing variation; masculine names for God and feminine names for God; all woven into one tapestry of melody and heart. When we sing the words for returning the scroll to the ark, "renew our hearts as of old," my heart cracks open. It's ineffable, it's like water after a long thirst, it's grace.

The change agency panel features R' Debbie Bravo (Makom NY), R' Jeff, and R' Mike. R' Mike talks about trans inclusivity in Orthodoxy and about answering people instead of questions. R' Jeff talks about ordaining women in Orthodoxy, change agency and design thinking, and navigating opposition. R' Debbie talks about values, community, and how to walk our talk on welcoming. We talk about the loneliness of being a change agent, and about where we find practical and spiritual support.

Shoshanna Schechter (Charles E. Smith) teaches about understanding Gen Z (b. 1997-2012) before we teach them, about navigating Jewish learning and screen time, about kids' resistance to prayer across all the denominations and how we work with that. We talk about how increasing anxiety among teens impacts our b-mitzvah teaching, and how we teach Jewish values (especially to kids who may be allergic to that term.) That leads us into a conversation about innovation in b-mitzvah prep.

We spend some time sandboxing #MenschUp values education for b-mitzvah learning. We use design thinking and its built-in iterative processes to begin brainstorming how we might co-create learning tools that would help kids meet some of the challenges they face today. What can we do with the "periodic table" of Jewish character traits to teach kids of all gender expressions? What would it look like to build tools for this work in a consciously trans-denominational way?

Over the course of the gathering we experience deep text study and davening and singing. We experience innovation learning, text learning, best-practices learning. We partake in late-night game play and laughter.  We grapple with how to innovate wisely and well, and how to meet real needs in the real world. After two days together I'm leaving with a re-filled rabbinic tool box -- and maybe even more importantly, a re-filled sense of connection to this calling, and gratitude for the opportunity to serve.

 

Shared with deep gratitude to this year's innovation retreat planning team, on which I served alongside R' Debbie Bravo, R' Jonathan Freirich, R' Evan Krame, R' David Markus, and R' Alana Suskin. Related: last year's innovation retreat report.


To Know God

Hardened-Heart-300x275This week's Torah portion (Bo) begins like this:

God said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your children and your children's children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them, in order that you may know that I am God." (Exodus 10:1)

I like the interpretation that Pharaoh hardened his own heart first, which means God just helped him along -- the spiritual equivalent of, "if you keep making that face, you'll get stuck that way." I can understand that as a spiritual teaching about how the choices we make about compassion (or lack thereof) shape who we are and who we become.

But this idea that God "made a mockery of the Egyptians" so that we would know God -- it's troubling, to say the least. It seems to treat the Egyptians as meaningless pawns in our journey of spiritual awakening. How can we redeem this verse?

Talking this over with one of my hevruta partners this week, here's where I arrived. Yes, Torah and the classical commentators show a distressing lack of concern for the Egyptian people who will suffer under Pharaoh's hardened heart. I can't magic that away. I can temper it by saying that this is a natural way for a traumatized people to react to abuse of power, and surely the children of Israel are traumatized at this point in their story.

And, I don't want to operate from a place of trauma. I reject the idea that the suffering of the Egyptians was fine because hey, it got us to a place of knowing God. And, I'm moved by the fact that Torah says that the whole point of this story is for us to know God.

We could even say: the whole point of our being alive is to know God. Maybe the G-word doesn't work for you. In that case, substitute something that does. The point of our being alive is to know love, or compassion, or justice, or meaning, or truth. The whole reason we're here is to connect with something greater than ourselves -- to "know God."

Maybe this means: to have deep spiritual encounters, to live in such a way that our hearts are open to the sacred. Maybe it means to know each other more deeply, because each of us is made in the divine image. Maybe it means to know creation more deeply, because when we delve into the natural world, we can (in the words of poet and pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr.) "put out [our] hand and touch the face of God." Maybe we seek God through Torah study, or prayer, or environmentalism, or pursuing justice. One way or another, our purpose in this life is to connect with the sacred.

And that leads me to the spiritual practice I find in this week's parsha: approaching everything with that lens. It's the first lens in my spiritual direction toolkit: "Where is God in this?" If someone in a position of power has hardened their heart and they're making choices that harm me, how can I harness that experience to open myself to God? How can I choose to center justice and love and hope, even when others are acting unethically -- or especially then?

I love this as a spiritual practice. And... it's really important that it's a practice I'm choosing, not one that's imposed from outside. It's one thing for me to say that I want to respond to a hardened heart by opening to holy connection. It's another thing to say that anyone else has to respond to injustice in the same way. "Your boss mistreated you -- great, what an opportunity for you to know God more deeply!" Um... no. If I were to say that to someone who'd been mistreated, that would be rabbinic malpractice.

Here's the choice I think we each have: when we encounter injustice -- when someone hardens their heart and acts wrongly -- will we harden ours in return, or will we choose to soften and to make space for the ineffable? I'm not talking about softening to an abuser. I'm talking about making the choice to keep our hearts open to God even in the face of injustice and suffering.

Torah says the whole drama of the plagues and the Exodus happened so we would know God. This year, that says to me: whatever's unfolding in our lives -- on a personal scale, on a communal scale, on a national scale -- can be an opportunity to soften our hearts and to more deeply know God... if we choose to use it that way.

Finding God in whatever's unfolding won't erase injustice, but it can give us resilience in the face of injustice. It won't erase suffering, but it can give us hope in the face of suffering. And maybe that resilience and that hope will give us the capacity to create justice: for ourselves, and for everyone.

 

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