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Dissonance

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Herbs on my mirpesset on a cloudy summer morning.

 

Sometimes I sit outside on my mirpesset on a Shabbat morning and drink iced coffee and listen to the birds. My mirpesset is just the right size to hold a 4' x 6' sukkah in the fall. In summer, it holds two chairs, a little table, a barbecue grill. Pots of herbs -- rosemary, mint, chives, parsley, thyme. A hanging basket of brightly-colored petunias. It overlooks an expanse of green lawn, a stretch of trees (including a couple of wild apples that bloom in late May), and off to one side the road. It's quiet here. The birds have the most to say in the morning and at twilight, but someone is singing or calling out to its fellows almost all the time. I've put up a couple of strings of solar-powered lights, so at nightfall my mirpesset is ringed with little globes of gleaming light.

It's peaceful, and green, and lovely. Just as it was last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. At moments, I can almost forget that nothing is normal this year. That my son has no summer camps, because it's not safe for children to gather. That we need to mask up before leaving the house. That the pandemic is raging like wildfire now across the South and the West. That there are people screaming for the right to go mask-less because they somehow think the masks are an attempt at sinister governmental control rather than the best tool we have to combat viral transmission. That every day we learn about another instance of police brutality against Black people. That racism flourishes, and we need to stamp it out. That the world is on fire.

I'm fiercely grateful for this little oasis where I can escape the sounds of the television and the Minecrafting and my child's video playdates with friends. (I'm grateful for the tv and the Minecraft and the video playdates, too, but their constancy is wearying.) I'm grateful to be able to sit outside and listen to birdsong. And I feel guilty that I can sit outside and listen to birdsong while the world is on fire. While hospitals are filling up, prisons and meatpacking plants rage with infection, polling places are being closed and voters of color are being disenfranchised, Black people still aren't safe. I feel grateful and guilty. No, not guilty: what I feel is responsible. "In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible," Heschel wrote. Repairing the world is our responsibility.

And yet it's Shabbes. Shabbes is the day to set down the burdens of constant labor. To be a human being instead of a human doing. To live in the as-if -- as-if the world were already redeemed. As-if we had already repaired all of those broken places, disease and racism and systemic inequality. This is my tradition's deepest tool for spiritual nourishment, and in these times of pandemic I need that nourishment more than ever. So I sit with the cognitive dissonance on my mirpesset on Shabbes morning. So much is broken. And yet in this little place with my herb plants and the birdsong -- in this oasis in time, the one day each week when I don't read the Times or the Post -- I can seek for a moment to be at peace.  It's okay to seek for a moment to be at peace. 


Wholeness, justice, and peace

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A d'varling for Pride Shabbat and Shabbat Korach.

 

In this week's Torah portion, Korach, there's a rebellion. Korach stands up against Moses and demands power. He cloaks his demand in words that sound nice -- aren't all God's people holy? -- but it becomes clear that he doesn't want to democratize spiritual power, he wants to claim it for himself and his sons. So, the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

Korach insists he deserves to be in leadership, but he really wants power. He doesn't want to be a public servant, he wants to be a bigshot. Torah offers us this fantasy: what if the earth swallowed the power-hungry? Imagine what a world we could build if all of the Korachs just disappeared! We can't rely on that. But maybe it can help us envision what ethical leadership really is.

God instructs Moses to take a staff from the leader of each of the 12 tribes and put them all in the Tent of Meeting overnight. In the morning, Aaron's almond-wood walking stick has flowered and borne fruit. With that, the rebellion is truly over. Everyone can see who God has chosen to be in spiritual service to God and to the community. The question for me is: why Aaron?

Pirkei Avot 1:12 says, "Be like the students of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing it." During homeschooling earlier this year, my son and I read some Pirkei Avot together. I asked him what he thinks the difference between those two things might be. "You can love something, but not do anything to make more of it," he said. "Pursuing it means running after it, trying to make it happen."

Tradition holds that Aaron pursued shalom (peace) and shleimut (wholeness). That's why his staff was blessed to flower: because he actively pursued shalom. But what is peace, really? It can sound kind of wishy-washy. It can sound like a band-aid we put over community divisions and injustices in order to ignore them. That's a false peace, a spiritual-bypassing peace. 

Shalom and shleimut don't mean the absence of war, and they don't mean that false peace, the band-aid that papers over injustice. They mean integrity, living in alignment with what's right. In Rabbi Brad Artson's words: "Shleimut, wholeness, means offering to the world the fullness of who you are at your best: your beauty as you are, your greatness as you are."

Reading those words this week, I was struck by how right they feel for Pride Shabbat. Coming out likewise means offering to the world the fullness of who one is. And as Rabbi Artson continues, shleimut also means inviting others to live out their truest selves too. When we stand in our truth and let our authentic selves shine, we give others permission to do likewise. 

Aaron pursued peace. That verb also appears in the verse, "Justice, justice shall you pursue." As my kid reminds me, pursuing means taking action. When we act for justice, we lay the groundwork for peace. Today's protestors say "No justice, no peace." I've also seen signs that say, "Know justice, know peace." When we know justice inside and out, then we'll know shleimut.

Justice means equal rights for everyone: for people of every gender expression and sexual orientation, people of every race and ethnicity. Justice means safe access to healthcare for everyone: including queer and trans people and people of color. Justice means equal treatment under the law for everyone: for queer and trans people, and for people of color, and for all of us. 

Justice means fundamental human rights and dignity for everyone, because we're all created in the image of God. These are core Jewish values. Our world doesn't quite live up to them yet. We still have a lot of work to do before everyone can safely know shleimut, the wholeness that comes from offering the world the fullness of who we are. That work is our calling as Jews.

Korach said we're all holy, but he really meant: I want more power for me and those who are like me. We can be better than that. We can build better than that. And when we do, then we won't need to fantasize anymore about the earth swallowing the power-hungry. And then structures that had seemed wooden and lifeless will flower and bear fruit. As Judy Chicago wrote in 1979:

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind

And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will

And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many

And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance

And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old

And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life's creatures

And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night, (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


A sign upon my arm

As I slide the little box of my tefillin shel yad to nestle beneath the sleeve of my guayabera shirt, I remember the old men in the weekday minyan where we went to pray after my grandmother died. Some wore bolo ties. Some had sportcoats hanging off of one arm, sleeves rolled up. And some wore guayabera shirts like these. Like my grandfather wore on that lonely morning as he began to drift, unmoored, away from us. Mississippi had just ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, finally agreeing to the abolition of slavery in the year 1995. Today pandemic jostles for headline space alongside police killings of Black people. Look how far we haven't come. My grandfather was a thoracic surgeon. He fled the Nazis in 1939. Dare I hope that he would stand up for the right of every Black human being to walk, play with toys, jog in a park, drive a car, sleep on a sofa, listen to music, drink iced tea, birdwatch, and carry Skittles, without fear of a cop or armed vigilante or garden-variety racist stealing their breath?

 

 


K'gavna - Just As...

Prism

Just as the colors of the rainbow
Unite to make one light
God far above and God deep within,
YHVH and Shechinah,
Unite in Shabbat.
Transcendence unites with Immanence,
One and One becoming One.

We join together in community
Together reflecting God's splendor.
We are the colors of the rainbow
Uniting to make one light.
The glorious holy throne
Is here where we meet
Ready for Shabbat to rest upon us.

HaMakom, this sacred Place, uplifts us
Here where electrons dance
And the interplay of Being and Nothingness
Draws our hearts together, binary code
Flickering through space
Making us present to each other
And to the radiance of Shabbat.

We crown Her from below
And She enfolds us in new supernal souls
So that our service
Be blissful and praiseful,
Joyful and radiant
As with shining faces
We approach the Bar'chu --

 


The prayer known as K'Gavna comes from the Zohar, and describes the mystical joining of transcendence (God-far-above, the Kadosh Baruch Hu) with immanence (God-deep-within, Shechinah) as Shabbat arrives. It speaks in the language of the seven "lower sefirot" (emanations or aspects of qualities of God) which are sometimes mapped to the seven colors of the rainbow. (That rainbow imagery for divinity is especially lovely now during June. Happy Pride Month everyone!)

In some siddurim K'Gavna is a prelude to the Bar'chu, the formal Call to Prayer that comes between Kabbalat Shabbat and the evening service. This variation was written for the 2020 Clear Vision Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton that R' David Markus and I co-led over the weekend over Zoom for Havurh Shir Hadash in Ashland OR. It dovetails with that Shabbaton's themes of sacred space, digital presence, and what it means to come together in community online.

On a related note, here's my d'var from the weekend: Being Real, Digital Edition. And here's R' David's d'var from the weekend: The Mishkan's Next Digital (R)Evolution.


In the cloud

Cloud"When the cloud lifted, they would break camp..." (Numbers 9:21)

This week's Torah portion, B'ha'a'lotkha, describes, again, how the children of Israel would stay put when the cloud of God lingered over their encampment, and when the cloud lifted they would break camp and resume their journeys. Wait, didn't we read this back in March? (Indeed we did: the end of the book of Exodus contains strikingly similar language.)

This repeated motif -- the cloud, the journey, the waiting -- gives a sense of timeless time. (A bit like what many of us have been feeling in recent months, unmoored from regular schedules.) When the cloud is here, we're fogged-in. Is it March, or is it June? Is it then, or is it now? When will we be able to start moving again? How long are we going to be waiting like this?

Am I talking about the Israelites on their journey, or about us in the midst of turmoil and pandemic?

The image of the cloud makes me think of "the cloud of unknowing." (That's the title of an anonymous work of Christian mysticism, written in the fourteenth century.) The author of the Cloud of Unknowing argues that the way to know God is to give up on trying to understand. It's in surrender to not-knowing that we meet the Infinite.

In our moment, we need to surrender to a lot of not-knowing. We don't know when the pandemic will be over. Whether we were exposed to the virus on that most recent trip to the grocery store. Whether the Black Lives Matter protests will result in the kind of sustained, systemic change that our nation so sorely needs. There's so much that we don't know.

The haftarah portion assigned to this week is also assigned to Shabbat Chanukah, probably because this week's Torah portion speaks of the golden menorah that stood in the mishkan. It's from the book of Zechariah. And here's its most famous line. In Debbie Friedman's singable translation, it's "Not by might, and not by power, but by Spirit alone shall we all live in peace!"

Not by might, and not by power. That feels like a message for our times, both on a macro scale and on a personal one. How do we reach wholeness and peace? Not by grasping for control or imagining that we're in charge. Not with military might in any of its forms. Not by pretending the pandemic away or pretending systemic racism away. Not with platitudes or false certainty.

The path to shalom and shleimut, wholeness and peace, is through spirit. And this week's Torah portion offers a road map. We get there by recognizing that all of life is spiritual life -- both the times of waiting and the times of action. Times when the cloud is low over the camp and we have to shelter-in-place, and times when the cloud lifts and we can be on the move. 

We get to wholeness and peace both by pursuing justice with all that we are, and by surrendering to everything we can't know about how we're going to get there from here. It's not an either/or: it's a both/and. If we wait until we feel fully ready we might never act at all, and, if we imagine we know all the answers we're guaranteed to be wrong. We need humility and chutzpah.

"Not by might and not by power, but by spirit." The Hebrew word for "spirit" here, ruach, can also be translated as breath. I find a message in that for our current moment too. We reach wholeness not through pursuing power, but through ensuring that everyone can breathe freely. When all of God's children can breathe, that's wholeness and peace. 

Eric Garner's last words were "I can't breathe." George Floyd's last words were "I can't breathe." Racism, like coronavirus, steals the breath. Just this morning we sang nishmat kol chai -- "Breath of Life, the breath of all that lives praises Your name." We name God as the Breath of Life. When a human breath is diminished, it's as though God were diminished. 

We don't know when the cloud will lift -- when justice will roll like thunder and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24) We don't know when the cloud will lift -- when the pandemic will end and it will be safe to return to the world again. We only know that right now, we're in the cloud. It's hard to see how we get there from here. But that doesn't exempt us from trying.

Our task is to protect ourselves and each other during these pandemic times. To end racism in all its forms. To cultivate the chutzpah of believing we can make the world a better place alongside the humility of knowing that we don't have all the answers. When the cloud lifts, we move forward. When the cloud doesn't lift, we do what we can to build justice right here where we are.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my synagogue's Zoom services this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 


Being Real: Digital Edition

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Once there was a toy rabbit who yearned to become Real. He loved his Boy, and he was loved by his Boy. And when his Boy fell ill, the toy rabbit was his constant companion.

When the Boy recovered, the doctors said the rabbit was contaminated and needed to be burned. In that darkest night, as the rabbit waited, he wept a tear. And from his tear a flower grew, and from within the flower came the Shechinah. She told him that as he had become real to the Boy who loved him, now he would be real to everyone.

Okay, in the original telling it wasn't Shechinah, it was a fairy. Close enough.

So in this sacred text -- which, as you probably know, is a children's book by Margery Williams called The Velveteen Rabbit, from which my blog takes its name -- the way one becomes Real is through loving and being loved... and through the actions fueled by that love, especially accompanying someone into the darkness of illness and loss. That sounds about right to me.

Becoming Real requires empathy. How can we safely feel empathy in these times of pandemic when there are so many reasons to despair? And how do we accompany each other, as the rabbit accompanied his Boy, when we are physically separated or quarantined?

That last question is the easiest for me to answer: we accompany each other however we can. Write a letter, send an email or text, make a phone call, meet over video... If nothing else, hold the other person in your heart and stretch out your soul to connect with theirs.

During this pandemic we're learning how to be in community even when we are physically alone. On the second night of Pesach, I sat alone with a Zoom screen in front of me -- and R' David and I co-led a seder for our communities, and it felt real. It wasn't "as-if" -- it was really seder. I imagine many of you had similar experiences.

I remember being a child, getting a long-distance phone call from my parents, and feeling amazed that they could be so far away and I could still hear their voices. There was a bit of a lag, as our voices traveled beneath the ocean, but that didn't matter.

Remember the miracle of long-distance phone calls? Or the first time you ever saw a loved one's face over video? Or: imagine reading an email and feeling that a loved one is with you. Or reading a blog post that makes you feel understood. Or texting with a friend, carrying their words and their presence on your smartphone throughout the day.

Our vernacular separates between the internet and "RL," real life. But connections forged or sustained online are real, just as our davenen together tonight is real.

An emotional and spiritual connection -- with another; with community; with our Source -- can be real no matter what tools we're using to create or sustain it. The bigger challenge is being real in the first place. The Velveteen Rabbit reminds us that being real requires openness and empathy enough to companion each other in tight places.

Sometimes it's hard to be real when someone is suffering. It's hard to sit with someone in their sorrow. The word compassion means "feeling-with" or "suffering-with." Being real asks us to feel-with each other.

Sometimes our own struggles prevent us from being real. When my son was born I suffered from postpartum depression, but I told my doctor I was fine, because I was ashamed and I didn't want him to really see me. That fear kept me from being real.

Sometimes it's hard to be real with God. Because I get trapped in katnut, in my small human mind. Or because the words of inherited liturgy feel empty. Sometimes prayer can feel like a long-distance call where I'm not sure anyone's picking up on the other end.

But authentic spiritual life asks us to be real. Our prayers aren't just words on a page, they're pointers to lived emotional experience. To really pray the words of Ahavat Olam, or to remix them anew, I have to feel unending love streaming into creation.

And, I also have to be careful about how I channel unending love. Authentic spiritual life asks me to open my heart -- to my yearnings, to the needs of others, to my Source -- and it also asks me to maintain boundaries. In the language of our mystical tradition, it asks me to balance the overflowing love we call chesed with the healthy limits we call gevurah.

Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel-with each other even during pandemic, even during this time of rising awareness of how systemic racism harms Black and Indigenous People of Color, even in times of personal grief. If we refuse to feel with each other, then we break that nourishing human interconnection that is our obligation and our birthright.

We need to feel, without spiritual bypassing, while maintaining a container strong enough to hold safely. This inner structural integrity can help us build systems and structures of integrity in this world that so needs repair. And that includes our Jewish communities, too: we need to be real in order to build a Jewish spiritual future worthy of the name.

And we need to be real for the sake of our own souls. I've learned that the flow of creativity requires me to be real: with myself, with God, with you. The posts and poems and prayers that seem to resonate most are ones written from that place. I think they speak to people deeply precisely because they're real. It's my responsibility to cultivate sufficient gevurah to write about what's real in a way that's safe for me and for my readers.

In seeking to strike that balance, there's risk -- and there's also reward. As we read in Mishlei, "As water reflects face to face, so the heart reflects person to person." (Proverbs 27:19) When I'm willing to be real, others are real in return. You meet my honesty with yours, my heart with yours, my words with yours, my prayers with yours.

Reb Zalman z"l used to say that we all have our own unique login to the Cosmic Mainframe. "To log on to God," he said in 2004, "we need only awareness, because God is there all the time, making your heart beat." That login is open to us even in quarantine. We just have to be willing to be real at the table, the meditation cushion, the Zoom screen.

And our connections with each other and with community are still open to us even in quarantine. Online life, online davenen, online friendship: these aren't "virtual reality." They're as real as we allow ourselves to be.

 

Offered as a keynote teaching at the 2020 Clear Vision Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton organized by Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon. My Friday night d'var was designed to dovetail with the Shabbat morning d'var given by R' David Markus, The Mishkan's Next Digital (R)Evolution, and our paired talks in turn fueled the Mishkan Sandbox Lunch-and-Learn with our host R' David Zaslow.  (Cross-posted to Bayit's Builders Blog.)

 


Vigil

101302854_10222099677938914_743372806447693824_nSmall bamboo stakes with tiny flags on them were placed six feet apart, all along the north side of route two, from First Congregational Church to Thompson Memorial Chapel.

We gathered with our signs, each person or household to a flag. Most of the signs were homemade, made on posterboard or on cardboard recycled from boxes.

"Black Lives Matter."

"Stop systemic racism."

"Covid + racism = mourning in America."

"Lord have mercy."

"Seeking justice."

"Black lives matter."

"We stand with you.”

The church bells tolled. When they were done, a bagpiper stood on the steps of First Congregational and played somber songs.

As cars drove by, from one side or the other, we turned so our signs would face them, like sunflowers moving with the sun.

Most cars honked in support as they drove by. A few big rigs drove by and honked as they passed us. One bicyclist pedaled slowly by, reading each sign in turn.

A light rain fell. We stood in quiet solidarity with the victims of SARS-CoV-2 and the victims of systemic racism around our nation. When the clock tower rang for 5:30, we quietly went home with our grief.

 


Lament, grief, rage - and change

LamentI wrote the following for my congregation. I share it here in case it's helpful to you too.

 

Today has been declared a National Day of Mourning and Lament. And oh, there is so much to mourn. 

Right now we're living both with the unthinkable tragedy of the global pandemic and with the reality of of racism and violence toward people of color.

More than 100,000 human beings have died from covid-19 in our nation alone, and many more worldwide. And we know that the pandemic disproportionately impacts poor communities and people of color. The systemic racism that is part of American life makes the pandemic worse for communities of color than it is for communities that are white.

Last week George Floyd z"l (may his memory be a blessing) became the latest in a long line of Black people killed by police. Perhaps you have seen video of the officer kneeling on his neck as he gasped, "I can't breathe." It's an act of horrific violence. In response, waves of brokenhearted and furious protest have raged nationwide.

Many of you have asked me what to do with feelings of lament, grief, and rage about all of these things.

My first answer is that we need to feel them, as painful as they are. And my second answer is that our lamentations, our grief, and our righteous anger must transform our actions. Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel the full spectrum of human emotions, from the highest joys to the lowest griefs. And Jewish life and practice invite us to use those emotions, both the bitter and the sweet, to fuel our pursuit of a better world.

In our spiritual calendar, the summer season includes a period of communal mourning called the Three Weeks. That season of mourning reaches its low point with Tisha b'Av, the darkest day of the Jewish year. And Tisha b'Av, in turn, is our springboard into the season of teshuvah, introspection and change that leads us to the Days of Awe.

Right now it feels like our whole nation is living in the Three Weeks. (Maybe the whole world.) Our hearts may feel shattered by the enormity of the pandemic and the tremendous suffering it has caused -- and also by the enormity of systemic racism, which has tarnished the soul of our beloved country since the days of human chattel slavery.

The brokenness is everywhere. It's so vast that words of hope and comfort feel inapt and almost inappropriate. How can I say that everything will be all right when right now nothing seems "all right" at all?

But I can say this: it's our job to repair what is broken. In our society, in our civic life, as Americans and as Jews it is our job to care for those who mourn and to work for a world of justice for all. I welcome your suggestions on how we can do that as individuals and as a community.

May we emerge from this pandemic season of communal grief with strengthened resolve to build a world of greater justice and love. 

As always, I'm here if you need to talk, and I'm holding all of you in my heart.

Rabbi Rachel

 

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