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September 2020

Cheshvan moon

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I don't know anything about the artist who created this print. I found it in the San José Artisans' Market in Havana, in the last moments before our bus left the city and took us into the provinces. The art market is enormous, a warehouse filled with stalls where artists sell everything from oil paintings to handmade hammocks. I browsed its aisles, wandering, and this print caught my eye. The price was low, maybe twenty CUC$. What leapt out at me was the bright crescent moon over the close city rooftops.

The previous night we'd walked the streets of Old Havana under a new moon. Because of the embargo, tourists were few and far between. We stopped in at La Bodeguita del Medio, sipped rum, savored incredible music. We wandered the streets, our group breaking into smaller clusters as we found places for dinner. After dinner my foursome wound up on the rooftop of the Hotel Raquel, where a porter showed us mezuzahs and a cupola adorned with Biblical frescoes and spoke wistfully about cruise ships. 

The crescent moon above us was the marker of a new month. Cheshvan: the month with no holidays except for Shabbat. The month when we return to the rhythms of "regular life" after the long stretch of spiritual work from Tisha b'Av to Simchat Torah. Today is Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan again. The pandemic isolates us now. I'm traveling in my mind: remembering walking with friends on the old cobblestone streets, marveling at the new moon over the city rooftops as music drifted through the air.


And everything in between

A rabbinic friend of mine just had a baby, so I am sending her a copy of Waiting to Unfold, the volume of poems I wrote during my son's first year of life, published in 2013 by Phoenicia Publishing. I had a few quiet minutes before an appointment, so after I inscribed the book to my friend, I started reading it, and I read the whole thing. 

Reading it felt like opening a time capsule: inhabiting a reality that is no longer mine, a strange world I had almost forgotten. Pregnancy and nursing and colic and postpartum depression and emerging into hope again... I'm not sure how clearly I would remember any of those things, if I hadn't written these poems while they were happening. 

It's not just that the poems open a window to then. They temporarily cloak me in then, like a shimmering holographic overlay. Rereading them, I feel grief and joy and most of all compassion and tenderness. For myself, back then. For everyone who's experiencing those realities now. For all of us, fragile and breakable and strong.

It makes me wonder what it will be like in ten years to reread Crossing the Sea, forthcoming from Phoenicia. Those poems were written as I walked the mourner's path between my mother's death and her unveiling. It wasn't written as systematically as Waiting to Unfold, but both volumes chronicle a kind of metamorphosis.

I think -- I hope -- that both volumes inhabit that sweet spot between my particular experiences (of new motherhood, of grief) and a kind of universality. Every parent of a newborn has some of the experiences I wrote about in Waiting to Unfold. Every person walks the mourner's path someday, for someone, because human life comes with loss.

It feels right to turn to poetry to distill and find meaning in birth and death. I mean those words as a merism: not only the beginning and endpoint of every human life but also everything that comes between. I wanted to quote Anne Sexton, "There is holiness in all." Though what she actually wrote was "there is joy in all."

So I'm thinking today about what kind of joy really is in all things, even the painful ones. For me that kind of joy is integral to authentic spiritual life. There's joy in being real, with myself and with others and with my Source, even when the path I'm walking takes me into the shadows. Writing is part of how I find my way back to life.


Stitching Sukkot to the first step toward spring

 

Last year's harvest; this year's beginning.

 

This year I take comfort in every tradition I can manage. Anything I've done in years past that I might do in years to come -- those things become a lifeline. A reminder that there was life before this difficult, terrible, anxiety-drenched year of global pandemic and national political uncertainty, and there will be life after this year, too. The holidays come and go every year. The autumn leaves blaze bright every year, and fall, and then grow anew. These rhythms remind me that the world will not end.

One of my annual traditions comes at the end of Sukkot: preserving the etrogim from Sukkot to taste at Tu BiShvat, the new year of the trees which falls here in deep midwinter. The etrog is called pri etz hadar, "the fruit of a splendid tree" (or a goodly tree). And Pri Etz Hadar is the name of an early mystical Tu BiShvat text and seder. Bringing the taste and scent of the etrog to Tu BiShvat is a way to link this fall with the coming winter -- and to evoke the new growth that hasn't yet come, but will.

As always, I've peeled five etrogim and put them under vodka in my tall glass infuser in the back of a cupboard. Within a few days I'll forget that they're there. All year long they will steep, slowly transferring their color, flavor, and fragrance. By this time next year, the vodka will be bright as sunlight and fragrant like an etrog scratched with a thumbnail to release its scent. I'll decant the contents, add simple syrup, and bottle the end result... so I can refill my infuser and begin the whole process again.

I'm not sure how I'll share this fragrant elixir with my community at Tu BiShvat this year. I can't imagine a reality in which we'd feel safe gathering indoors for a Tu BiShvat seder at the end of January. The pandemic won't be over by then. I suspect we'll all be sheltering-in-place at home by deep wintertime. Maybe I'll see if folks want to gather outdoors in the snow, among the dormant trees, and toast to their continued health and longevity (and our own!) at a safe social distance in the brisk fresh air. 


Enough

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The streets of my small New England town are full of lawn signs. Many of them say "Black Lives Matter." Many of them promote candidates for local school committee. (That race has gotten heated, since not everyone is happy with how the school committee managed decisions about pandemic schooling.)  And of course there are signs for candidates in less-local races, e.g. the presidential race, though none quite so elaborate as the Biden-Harris sign made out of hay bales on a nearby farm that an arsonist torched. And doesn't that just feel like a metaphor for American civic discourse?

But I've been intrigued by the one that simply says "Enough." It's on a block with a bunch of political signs, so the first several times I saw it, I read it as a commentary on this endless election season. Enough with this administration and its gaslighting. Enough with talking heads and pundits, predictions and and polls. Enough with it already. Let's vote and be done. (Well. This year it may be more like "vote, and then spend a month or more navigating false claims of voter fraud and lawsuits over systemic voter disenfranchisement." But whatever.) Enough! Would that it were over already. We've had enough.

I suspect it's how all of us are feeling about the pandemic, too. Enough of COVID-19, and horrendous newspaper headlines, and refrigerator truck morgues, and bleak statistics, and the politicization of face masks, and lies about it being a "plandemic." Even a single death is too many; over a million is almost unimaginable. And countless more remain alive but sick. We all wish we could be done. (Of course, we're not done. So we're still masking, socially-distancing, washing our hands. But I know it wearies me; surely it wearies all of us.) Enough! Would that it were over already. We've had enough. 

But the round of Jewish fall holidays drew toward their close, I realized there's another way to read it. Maybe it means: we are enough. What we have managed to do is enough. Even if we don't feel like we're doing a "good enough" job: if we're making it through this year, that's enough. We need to be gentle with ourselves. Don't fault ourselves for not learning a new language or writing the next great American novel during a massive global health crisis coinciding with enormous anxiety about the future of democracy. Whatever we're managing -- emotionally, spiritually, let it feel like enough. 

 

Updated to add: I've  just learned that the "enough" sign is intended to be a message against local police and racial equity work. I don't agree with that stance, and I will continue to creatively mis-interpret the sign when I drive past it.


A Simchat Torah like no other

50450618043_9f353fd5c5_cI think my cat was perplexed. He has grown accustomed to me leading services from the dining room table: the laptop, my microphone, perhaps a pair of Shabbat or festival candles lit on the table beside me, lots of singing.

These days when I daven from the table, he looks up briefly from his favorite perch on the cat tree and then returns to napping. But he has never seen me dance around the room holding a big metal-bound Tanakh encrusted with gems. 

I don't have a Torah scroll at home, so I danced with the big metal-bound Tanakh that used to belong to my parents. I waltzed with it; I spun around in circles with it; I danced with it in a circumnambulation of the room; I cradled it like a baby in my arms. 

Seven songs, seven poems, seven hakafot. Evoking the seven days of the first week, and the seven "lower sefirot" or qualities that we share with our Creator from lovingkindness to boundaries and strength all the way to presence and Shechinah.

I thrilled to the secret heart revealed when we go from the end of Torah directly to her beginning, from loss to starting over, from lamed to bet. I opened my Tanakh to a random word and from that word I gave myself a blessing.

And then I went to bed, and I slept the sleep of the overtired rabbi and elementary school parent who could finally relax into knowing that the work of this long, challenging (and this year, pandemic-unprecedented) holy season was done.


Lessons in letting go

 

 

"Mom, did you know that there are monks who spend months making really intricate sand mandalas and then when they're finished, they blow the sand away, because nothing lasts forever?"

My son says this to me on the first morning of Sukkot. I can't make this up. My d'varling for that morning, which I've just printed out, begins "Sukkot; festival of impermanence..." And here he is, telling me earnestly about sand mandalas.

"I did know that," I say. "Hey, can you think of any spiritual practices we have as Jews that are kind of similar to that?"

His eyes are a study in uncertainty.

"Where we make something beautiful and then let it come apart?"

"Wait a second," he says, and I can see the lightbulb going on. We've just spent four days building our sukkah, procuring fairy lights to illuminate it, and adorning it with all of his favorite sparkly decorations. (He even made a video about it.)

"I'll give you a hint. We build a little house and cover it with decorations. And over the course of the week the cornstalks dry out and the decorations fall down and at the end of the week we take it all down."

"Because nothing lasts forever?"

I nod.

"I wish our sukkah could last forever," he says, wistfully.

"If it did, we'd probably stop noticing how beautiful it is," I point out.

Two days later, we're in the car on the way to the elementary school for the first time in twenty-seven weeks. He is in an afternoon fifth grade cohort that will go to school four afternoons a week while infection rates remain low.

I drop him off curbside. He is wearing the mask he picked for the first day of hybrid school, carrying his school-issued Chromebook and a water bottle that will stay at school and some extra hand sanitizer for good measure. 

As I watch him walk away, my heart seizes. Infection numbers here are low right now. I trust that our local elementary school is taking wise precautions. I know that he is going to be fine. But it still feels wrenching to let him out of my sight. 

I return home, open up Zoom, and spend my Monday rabbinic office hour in our sukkah. A few of the decorations have fallen down. The cornstalks on the roof are beginning to dry out. The "it's not easy being green" etrog poster is now on the floor.

I sit inside our little homemade sand mandala of tinsel and schach. I remind myself that this pang isn't new. It just feels sharper right now because the pandemic has so unaccustomed me to letting him go. 


Joy to fuel our building - a d'varling for Sukkot

120273370_10157146351156330_7794076764586254170_nSukkot: festival of impermanence, festival of joy even in vulnerability. We build sukkot to remember our ancestors' harvest traditions; to remember the flimsy sukkot in which we dwelled after leaving Egypt; to remember the cloud of glory that protected us in our wilderness wanderings. Sukkot asks us: can we feel protected by God's presence even now, even in a flimsy little house that lets in the rain and the wind?

That's always the question at Sukkot. What does it mean to feel safe and protected? What does it mean to build structures -- whether physical or spiritual -- knowing that nothing we build lasts forever?

On the physical front, this year there may be a paradoxical sense of safety in the sukkah because a sukkah is as well-ventilated as any space can be. It has to be, in order to be kosher. A sukkah can't be airtight with a solid roof. The roof needs to let moonlight and raindrops through. In these covid-19 times, this flimsy sketch of a room in the fresh air of the great outdoors is the safest place to breathe.

In part through the very fact of what a sukkah is, Sukkot asks us to grapple with impermanence. As soon as we put on the (purposely insufficient) roof, the roof starts to come apart -- the cornstalks dry up, the palm fronds or branches wither. "Emptiness upon emptiness," as we read this morning in Kohelet. Nothing that we can build lasts forever.

And Sukkot asks us to find joy in the midst of impermanence. One of this holiday's names is Zman Simchateinu, the Time of Our Rejoicing. How can we rejoice in a little temporary house where rain gets through the roof? We might as well ask: how can we rejoice in fragile human bodies that we know will someday die? And my answer is: how can we not?

Early in the pandemic, my friend Cate Denial reminded me that life doesn't go on "pause" while we're sheltering-in-place. This is the life we have. Right now it may be more constrained than we want it to be, for pandemic reasons -- but it is still life, and we need to live it, not sleepwalk through our days waiting for the pandemic to be over.

I think of that teaching often, and it feels deeply relevant to Sukkot. This little temporary house is a metaphor for human life. It's fragile. It's vulnerable. It's not forever. But as Cate taught me, this is the life we have -- and the time to cultivate joy is not in some unimaginable future when everything broken is repaired, but here and now.

Sukkot reminds me to grab joy with both hands, wherever I can find it. In my morning cup of coffee; in the scent of the etrog, sharp and stirring; in the light of the full moon. In the voices and faces of friends, even when the only safe way to see them is on Zoom. In the melodies of our prayers. In the rhythm of weekday and Shabbes.

These are quotidian joys, but they are real, and they can be sustaining. To be sure, the existence of these joys doesn't negate the difficult realities of this moment. One million dead to covid-19 around the world so far. Credible threats of election violence and voter intimidation. Fears that our democracy might be as fragile as this flimsy sukkah.

So during chag we cultivate joy, and we let that joy fuel us and strengthen us to do the rebuilding work that our world so desperately needs. Maybe this year that rebuilding work means textbanking or phonebanking to help eligible voters register to vote, or volunteering as a poll worker. Those actions help to build our democracy.

Or maybe you feel called toward something more tangible... like chopping onions for the Berkshire Food Project's grab-and-go meals, because need has tripled since the pandemic began. Helping to cook the meals that feed our hungry neighbors is a mitzvah that comes right out of Torah -- and it's an action that helps to build our community.

Sukkot invites us to cultivate joy that will sustain us in this work and more. Sukkot teaches us to seek joy in the full moon even though we're also vulnerable to the falling rain. Sukkot teaches us to seek joy even as we recognize the world's brokenness and work to fix it. Sukkot invites us to remember that this is the life we have, and our job is to live it.

 

This is my d'varling for Shabbat Sukkot (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Image: the CBI sukkah this year.