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Shelter

Most years in Elul we say
"the King is in the Field" --

God walks with us in the tall grass
to hear our yearnings.

This year, Shechinah
shelters-in-place with us.

With her, we don't need to mask
our fears or our despair.

When we stay up too late
reading the news again

or binge-watch The Good Place
desperate for redemption

she does too. As we practice
social distancing, we're not alone:

she summons angels to encourage
the scallions we re-grow

just as they cheer on the maples
releasing their helicopter seeds,

compressed packages of hope
for the eventual coming of spring.


 

“The King is in the Field” - R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi wrote that during the month leading up to the Days of Awe, “The King is in the Field.” God, whom he imagined as a transcendent King distant from us, is close to us during this special month -- walking with us to hear our inmost prayers, like a beloved friend offering a listening ear.

“Shechinah / shelters-in-place” - Shechinah is the Jewish mystics’ name for the immanent, indwelling Presence of God. The name is related to the Hebrew word for neighborhood; this is God dwelling with and within us. In this pandemic year, sheltering-in-place requires no explanation...

“Angels to encourage” - Midrash holds that there is an angel assigned to every blade of grass, constantly and lovingly encouraging the grass to grow. Many of us started regrowing scallions during the pandemic. May we be blessed with encouragement for our own growth during this holiday season.

(This is the Elul / New Year's poem that I wrote to send to family and friends this year. You can read the last seventeen years' worth of such poems here.)


"Safe"

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Five and a half months in, we're adjusting in our own ways to moving through the world (or sequestering from the world) with the constant reality of global pandemic. The masks, and the tape arrows on the grocery store floor, have become normal. The place where I live and serve has low infection rates right now, for which I am thankful. And we all know it just takes one traveler from a viral hotspot... This is where a lot of my pastoral conversations begin. 

I've written here over the years about my experience as a multiple stroke survivor. I chronicled some of the spiritual challenges of coming to terms with my mortality in my early thirties. Now in my mid-forties, I'm doing that work again. But there's something different about it now. Now we're all coming to terms with our mortality. (Or we're not. But either way, it's the elephant in the room. Or the Lion in the school classroom, as a recent essay quipped.)

One big thing that makes covid-19 different from my experience of having strokes is the contagion factor. We've all seen how the numbers spread: a few virus cases become dozens become hundreds become thousands. And because it is possible to be asymptomatic and still spread the virus to others, the contagion factor feels different. It's not just a matter of avoiding people who seem sick. That adds an existential uncertainty to the spiritual mix.

When I was hospitalized for my second stroke, my spiritual director and I started doing intensive work on coming to terms with my mortality. This year I'm learning that it's one thing to come to terms with my own eventual death. It's another thing to come to terms with the possibility that I might unwittingly cause other deaths. Any of us might. And the more we learn about "long-haul covid," the more we realize that some who 'recover' ... may not really recover. 

And that's part of what's so hard. It seems likely that pre-existing conditions (like being a stroke survivor, or asthma, or hypertension) may exacerbate the likelihood that covid will be serious. In recent months we've learned that contagion via surfaces (e.g. touching a UPS delivery before wiping it down with Lysol wipes) may be less dangerous than we thought, but aerosol transmission is more dangerous than we thought. But we're still learning. 

Recently I went to a restaurant and ate a meal outdoors. We wore masks when we weren't eating. Picnic tables were set far apart. I still felt my heart rate spike when we got there. Many of those to whom I tend are having that experience, too. I keep teaching grounding techniques I learned from friends with PTSD: grab a pebble and feel it, touch a rosemary sprig and breathe it. Be here and now, not in fear from before or fear of what might come.

Everyone has a different tolerance for risk. I know some people who are doing things more or less "like before." I know others who have yet to let their children see anyone else in person, even outdoors and masked. No one knows what path will actually keep us safe. And no one knows whether our own choices will inadvertently spread the virus to others who are more vulnerable than we ourselves might be. For me that's the hardest part.

I want to know that I won't be a vector. But there's no way to know that. (Or to know that I won't myself fall ill. Did I mention that most "long-haulers" are women my age?) So we live with the not-knowing. We live with the not-feeling-safe. Emotionally, spiritually, that low background buzz of un-safety takes its toll. Five months into the pandemic, that's the spiritual work at hand: being here and now, in the un-safety but not consumed by it.

I don't know how to end this post. I can't wrap it up and tie a neat bow on it. Living in the not-knowing: in some way that's all we've ever been able to do. But the not-knowing feels heightened, this year. It's Elul: the month that leads us to the Days of Awe. Time to look long and hard at our actions and our choices. Our liturgy's litany of "Who will live and who will die" takes on a heart-clenching resonance in this pandemic year. 


Reading Eikev through the lens of covid-19

6a00d8341c019953ef0240a4ce9b56200dI made it three verses into this week's Torah portion, Eikev, before being brought up short:

"And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully... God will ward off from you all sickness..." (Deut. 7:12, 15)

My first thought was: wow, that verse has not aged well in this coronavirus moment. As we watch illness ravage the nation like a wildfire, the promise of health and safety feels off-key. Or at least, the connection between doing mitzvot and being healthy feels off-key, because it suggests that someone who falls ill is somehow wicked, or is not following Torah's instructions for spiritual and ethical living.

And then I thought: there's another way to read these verses.

This isn't about whether or not a single individual does what's right. We all know that it's possible to lead a spiritual and ethical life, rich with mitzvot, and still fall ill. And we all know that it's possible to do all the right things in this pandemic -- washing our hands, wearing our masks, socially-distancing and staying home -- and yet still be at risk of falling ill if someone carrying the virus coughs on us.

But what if Torah is trying this week to teach us that what matters is for the collective to do what's right? For the community to pull together and together commit to following the best practices that science and authentic spiritual life can offer us... not (only) for our own sakes but also for the sake of others who may be older, or medically vulnerable, or living with preexisting conditions that put us at greater risk?

"When we obey these mitzvot and observe them carefully," that's how God protects us from sickness, acting through us in the ways we care for each other. It's not a guarantee that no one will get sick -- nothing can offer that guarantee -- but it's what's in our hands to do. As we sometimes sing on Friday nights, "Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices." Ours are God's hands, and this moment calls us to turn our hands toward keeping each other safe. 

"And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully..." The classical tradition links this back to Exodus 15, where God similarly tells us that if we follow the mitzvot and do all the right things, then God won't plague us with the unnatural illnesses that the tradition sees as divine punishment. "Ki ani YHVH rofecha," says Torah (Ex. 15:26) -- "For I am YHVH your Healer."

One way to understand that is as a lesson about the interconnectedness of all things, and how our choices have collective impact. If we don't take care of the planet's fragile environment, then the conditions will be right for newer and more terrible illnesses to arise and spread. But if we do what's right by our planet, then we protect ourselves and each other from that terrible outcome.

This too feels to me like a teaching about our responsibility to each other and to the whole of which we are a part. When we act in ways that take care of our planet, when we act in ways that take care of each other and protect each others' health, we are embodying the aspect of God that we call Healer.

It's poignant to read these verses on the runway to the Days of Awe. Usually at this season we're preparing for our community's biggest in-person gatherings of the year. This year's Days of Awe will be different. Our challenge this year is to make our homes into sacred space, and to find community connections in each others' presence over Zoom, as we protect each other by staying physically apart. 

I know that for some of us, the prospect of Zoom-based High Holidays feels like a loss. Maybe we can't imagine how it will work. Or we're tired of Zoom and wish life could go back to normal. Or we're afraid it won't feel meaningful and real the way we want it to. Those feelings of loss are real, and I honor them. (I even share them.) And... I believe that these are the mitzvot the current moment asks of us.

This moment asks us to practice the mitzvah of masking, the mitzvah of social distancing, the mitzvah of gathering over Zoom.  So that we can keep covid-19 out of our beloved community, and in so doing, can hasten the day when we will all be able to gather safely in person again, here and everywhere.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning Zoom services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Comfort

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I spent my Shabbat Nachamu making dilly beans. 

Dilly beans are pickled green beans. And they are not a food of my childhood. I didn't grow up eating home-canned vegetables. My parents were not people who gardened -- I suspect they were grateful not to need to preserve their own food. But my dad has always loved pickles. I remember joining him in devouring pickled green tomatoes from the big Batampte jar, cut into quarters on plain white plates. And with him I enjoyed sour dill pickles, and half sour dill pickles, as one might find at a New York City Jewish deli. And spicy pickled okra as an hors d'oeuvre (I think it's a Texas thing).

When I became a member at Caretaker Farm in 1995, I started learning how to put away food for winter.  During the years of my marriage, we put up jars of sugarfree strawberry jam; we pickled green beans and brussels sprouts. When we had a kid, our capacity to do those things diminished, and we stopped canning and preserving for a while. And when I moved out of my old house and my married life, I didn't take the canning kettle or rack for jars. My condo kitchen is tiny, and I couldn't imagine pickling here. Besides, I hadn't made time to preserve food since my kid was born.

Fast-forward to this terrible pandemic year. In the early spring when we were on lockdown, there were unprecedented grocery shortages. I know it's a sign of my privilege that I had never before lived in a world in which I might go to the store and not be certain what I would find. Would they have pasta for my son this week? What vegetables would there be? How about proteins -- chicken thighs, or fish, or even dried beans? All of those ran short in the spring. (Not to mention bread flour and yeast, both necessities for the soft challah I make every Friday to bless and eat at Shabbat.)

It put me in mind of my trip to Cuba last fall.  I remember marveling at the food we ate in Cuba (which was excellent), knowing that food shortages afflicted the island even then. (My heart breaks knowing what kinds of shortages my Cuban Jewish cousins are experiencing now.) I couldn't have imagined then that a global pandemic would weaken the just-in-time global supply lines on which American grocery store abundance depends. These days the grocery stores mostly have most things most of the time, though some items are still hard to find. But when fall comes, who knows...

Here we are in high summer -- my favorite season of the year, all lush and green. And I can't help bracing for the winter, knowing the likelihood that the pandemic will surge again when flu season arrives and when we're all confined to poorly-ventilated indoor spaces. I'm always a bit fearful of the oncoming winter. Seasonal Affective Disorder hits me every year, even when I do all the right things. This year I am extra-afraid, because I imagine that winter will mean not only long dark nights and bitter cold but also lockdown again, and shortages again, and rising death rates again, and loneliness. 

This morning I went to Caretaker with my son to get this week's vegetables. As I bent to the green bean rows and lifted each plant to scan for beans, I breathed the scent of clean dirt and greenery through my soft fabric mask. Remembering the indigenous wisdom in Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass (which I've read several times) I pressed my palms to the earth and murmured a thank-you to the soil, the plants, the careful loving farmers, and the whole web of life that makes it possible for me to pluck these vibrant, beautiful beans from their runners and bring them home.

Many Jews wouldn't pick on Shabbat, because on this day we avoid the 39 melachot, the labors involved in the building of the Mishkan, God's dwelling place so long ago. I follow a teaching from Reb Zalman z"l that holds that if gardening is one's day job, then one shouldn't do it on Shabbat. But if gardening feeds one's soul, then perhaps it is precisely the thing to do on this holiest of days. (I've written about this teaching before.) I know no holier ground than Caretaker Farm. It is a place of learning, and sustenance, and community. I am always grateful that it is a place I get to call home.

In the end I picked five perfect pint jars full, with their ends saved for some recipe this week, maybe the Valencian paella I like to make with chicken thighs and white beans and green beans and smoked paprika (thanks, Milk Street). I rigged an approximation of a canning setup, rings at the bottom of my soup pot to hold the jars above the bottom. I peeled garlic, and tore dill, and measured mustard seeds and red pepper flakes. I packed the jars with beans and seasonings and hot brine and I simmered them for five minutes, mopping up hot water when it splashed all over the stove.

Then I listened for the tiny satisfying pop! of each lid sealing as the jars cool down. (So far four out of the five jars have sealed. I'm waiting for the fifth, which still makes a clicking sound when I press on the lid. If it doesn't seal, I'll declare that jar refrigerator pickles instead.) It's not a big harvest. I couldn't have managed a big harvest in my little kitchen anyway. But it's five jars of vibrant summer green. A little bit of bounty, saved against the winter that is coming. A little bit of beauty, saved against the winter that is coming. That's balm for my worried heart, and solace for my grateful soul.

And that brings me back to Shabbat Nachamu. That's the name given to this Shabbat, the first Shabbat after Tisha b'Av. It's the first of seven Shabbatot of Consolation as we count the 49 days between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. It's named after the first word of the haftarah read on this day: "Comfort!" Bring comfort, give comfort, offer comfort -- that's God's command. There are griefs that cannot be comforted. But in this moment, I take comfort in the bounty of this place. And I take comfort in knowing that whatever this winter may hold, I will be ready as I can be.