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I will sing

2021-01-28

In this week's Torah portion, Beshalach, we read the Song at the Sea. "I will sing to God..." Our commentators note that this verse is in future tense: not "I sing," but "I will sing." Hold on to that; we'll come back to it.

The rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Piazeczyner, notes that many of our psalms are called songs. They name themselves that way, in the opening phrase. The name "songs" seems to imply praise and thanksgiving, but often these psalms contain sorrow and fear. So why don't we call them laments? Why do we call them songs, even when they express something painful?

Talmud teaches us to call them songs because that name reminds us to seek the spark of good within the pain. Phrased another way: a "song" is something that's authentic. Song doesn't just mean happy-clappy, it means expressing the heart. Sometimes what we have to express is sorrow and fear, but that expression opens us to a spark of good within whatever's unfolding.

And... the Piazeczyner notes that it can be difficult, almost impossible, to truly sing while enduring suffering. "In order for a person to sing, their essential self -- heart and soul -- must burst into song." And sometimes, we just can't get there.

I underlined that phrase in my book because it speaks to me so deeply. It can be difficult, almost impossible, to truly sing when we're suffering. Some of us may be finding it difficult to sing in month eleven of the pandemic. Tired of staying home, fiercely missing other human beings, fearful of new and more contagious variants, grieving more than 433,000 dead so far.

Some of us may be finding it difficult to sing because we're lonely or worried about loved ones. Or because we're still shaken by the violent storming of the Capitol building earlier this month, or distressed by conspiracy-minded voices that blame recent years' wildfires on Jewish-funded space lasers. (I wish I were kidding about that.)

Sometimes, the Piazeczyner says, when the suffering is so great that our hearts feel crushed, we can't find even a spark of rejoicing. That's how he understands the kotzer ruach, constriction of spirit, described in our parsha a few weeks ago. We were so crushed by our suffering that we couldn't even hear that things were going to get better.

And yet this week our story takes us to the Sea of Reeds. We're leaving Egypt. We're singing the Song at the Sea. How did we get from "unable to even hear hope" to "crossing the Sea toward liberation"? For me, the answer is in singing our own real songs.

If we can really inhabit the song of our hearts -- even when it's a fearful song, or an anxious song, or a grieving song -- then we can be real with each other and with God. And it's in that being-real that we find the spark of hope that gets us through.

There's a debate about how the Song at the Sea was originally sung. Was it a call-and-response, in which Moshe sang each line and we sang it back? Or did we sing all together? Probably this debate arose because both of those were traditions, and somebody wanted to know which one was "right." But in typical fashion, our sages turned that debate into a deep teaching.

In Egypt, our sages teach, we sang praises as a call-and-response. We couldn't muster praise on our own, but we could repeat it. (So yes: call-and-response is correct.) When we crossed the Sea, we all sang together. Our own hearts sang out. (So yes: singing in unison is correct too!) Tradition even teaches that our song then-and-there arose from direct personal experience of God.

Sometimes all we can do is repeat someone else's words. We repeat the words of our prayers, we mirror someone else's hope. At other times our own song pours forth. Both of those are authentic spiritual life. And when we're willing to be real, we open to our own song. That's how -- even when still in Mitzrayim -- we became able to envision that things would someday get better.

That's why "I will sing to God..." is written in the future tense: it speaks to the future song that we know we will someday be able to sing.

Someday we'll be able to safely gather in person. Someday we'll be able to safely sing together in person. Right now we may still be in Narrow Straits, but let's be real with each other: that's how we open the door to hope. Someday songs of praise will sing forth from our hearts when we sing together, when we dance together, when it's safe to be together, on the far side of this Sea.

 

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

Shared with gratitude to my hevruta R. Megan Doherty for studying the Aish Kodesh with me this week.

Image source: R. David Markus. 


Discipline

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Trees in winter.

 

I only see a few people in person. Is it still correct to call us a pod when there's no formal quarantine? Whatever we're called, we are few in number. Over the summer I saw a few others -- outdoors, because fresh air felt safer -- but since the cold returned, it's been just us. I think of people I've known who chose a monastic life. What is it like to abandon a previous life with its social whirl, and to forge new spirit in the combination of enforced isolation and enforced togetherness? Is it anything like this? 

Last spring the shelves of grocery stores were often bare. No toilet paper, no flour, no Clorox wipes. Fruits and vegetables were hard to find, for a while. We haven't returned to those levels of privation (yet) this winter, but there are ingredients I can't find. I think of previous generations cooking during wartime, or in the shtetl, or in the Warsaw Ghetto. (I don't want to think of subsisting on what food was available in the camps.) This isn't like that, but that's the narrative frame that comes to mind. 

When I read about people who refuse to wear masks or maintain social distancing, I think: would you have turned on your lights during the Blitz? It's not a kind thought, but I struggle to feel kindness toward those whose actions put others at risk. Much about this pandemic year feels like a discipline: staying apart, staying masked, staying alone, cooking with what I can get. The hardest discipline is maintaining a healthy balance between facing reality, and not perseverating about the reality we face.

The hardest discipline is cultivating hope. This week on the Jewish calendar we mark the New Year of the Trees. Symbolically, spiritually, the sap of the coming spring and summer is beginning to rise. The potential for flower and fruit lies coiled in every seed. The days will lengthen. The vaccine will become available to everyone. The branches that are now bare will carry a profusion of fruit. Can I hold the experience of January's bitter cold alongside the certainty that in its time spring will come? 

 


Interview at On Sophia Street

Banner-4-largerI met Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan when I was in rabbinical school, where she was one of my professors. These days I am honored to call her a colleague and friend. She recently visited my shul (via Zoom, of course) to share about her latest book, The Infinity Inside, a beautiful collection of essays and spiritual practices. 

She's also a blogger, and has been sharing her words at On Sophia Street for ten years. In celebration of her tenth blogiversary, she recently interviewed me for her blog (and will be interviewing two other spiritual bloggers -- subscribe to her blog to read those interviews too!) We talked about poetry, liturgy, spiritual practice, grief work, Crossing the Sea, and more. Here's a taste of our conversation:

Laura: You’re a life-long writer and a long-time blogger. Can you tell us a little bit about why you write? Do you see it as a spiritual practice?

Rachel: Writing is my most enduring spiritual practice. I’ve been writing my way through the world for as long as I can remember. Sometimes writing is a gratitude practice, a way of articulating to myself the things in my life for which I can honestly say modah ani, “I am thankful.” Sometimes writing offers a lens onto a tangled knot of thinking and feeling. Sometimes I look back at what I wrote and that gives me perspective on what’s constant and what changes.

EM Forster is reported to have said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” I love that. Writing, like prayer, is how I come to know myself... 

Read the whole interview here: Rachel Barenblat: poetry, liturgy, spiritual practice


A year out of time

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Out for "frozen hot chocolate" with my dad, the year we lived in New York city.

 

The year I was in fifth grade was the year my parents and I lived in New York city. One of my brothers stayed in our San Antonio house while we were gone. We spent that year in a sleek modern apartment on the 37th floor of an Upper East Side apartment building, with an elevator and a doorman. Everything was different from the life I'd known in Texas.

I remember the diffuse light that filtered through our paper windowshades at night. I remember attending a city school, endlessly running up and down flights of stairs.  I remember a candy shop where my father would buy me white-and-milk-chocolate mushrooms with caramel-filled stems and toffee-brickle caps. 

I remember making maps, endlessly taping together my mother's typing paper and drawing grids to mimic Manhattan, marking every restaurant I had visited, every theater, my school, the hospital where my dad went into traction when he threw out his back.  The literal maps bespoke a metaphorical truth: I was trying to make sense of where I was.

My child's fifth grade year is not like any other that came before. (I hope it won't be like any that comes after, either.) His school supplies live in a plastic box that he carts from place to place. His teacher and classmates are on Zoom. He gave a google slides presentation to his library class last week with headphones on at our dining table.

There's one kid in our quarantine pod. Otherwise his social life is digital, like his schooling. He plays Minecraft with two groups of friends (and with his parents.) He voice-chats with school friends on one device while gaming on another. I know how lucky we are to have the devices. It still isn't easy. Nothing about this year is easy.

When he looks back on this year, I hope he'll remember teaching me how to Minecraft, kvelling when I learned how not to be a "total n00b." I hope he'll remember fresh challah and singing Shabbat blessings, learning to ride a horse, and creating vast imaginary realms with his friends even though they are physically staying apart.

I wonder whether this year will feel to him, later, like a year out of time... the way my fifth grade year came to feel once we moved back to Texas, leaving the glamour of the big-city apartment to return to our old limestone house in the suburbs with the giant magnolia tree in the front yard and playmates across the street and one house down. 


First shot

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My appointment was at 3pm at a church in North Adams. I've driven by it a million times but wasn't sure how to get in or which door would be open, so I arrived early. A masked volunteer from the local Community Coalition was standing outside on the steps with a clipboard and a bright blue uniform-type vest. On the back of her vest was a sign that said "Emotional support person" with a smiley-face.

"Rabbi Rachel!" she greeted me. "You can't go in until five minutes before your appointment." She sounded apologetic. I told her not to worry. I tucked my hands into my the pockets of my bright purple coat.  It's 26 F here today: cold enough to see our breath if we weren't all wearing masks. I was wearing two, a KN95 with a pretty cloth one over the top, because I wasn't sure how crowded it would be.

While I waited, I greeted a phalanx of men in long black coats: one of the families that runs the local funeral home.  After they went in, I heard one of the volunteers ask, "Did they get dressed up for this?" (I offered that in my experience, they're always dressed up. It's just the uniform, in the funeral business.) I thought again about how what they do, balancing logistics with pastoral care, is a form of ministry.

At 2:55 they let me in. Inside the church building someone took my temperature and sanitized my hands. I saw volunteers in bright yellow vests, and in bright blue vests, and in EMT uniforms. Everyone seemed happy. I filled out paperwork, I answered questions, I sat down at a freshly-sanitized table and rolled up one sleeve. A friendly EMT said "a little pinprick in three, two, one." I said a silent shehecheyanu.

I sat for fifteen minutes, dutifully, to make sure I didn't have a bad reaction. I imagine the arm will ache, later, like it did when I got vaccinated for typhoid and yellow fever before my first trip to Ghana. I'm startled to realize that that was more than 20 years ago. I remember that we needed to find a doctor who specialized in travel medicine. I wonder what became of the fold-out yellow card I carried in my passport then.

So now I'm halfway vaccinated against covid-19. This isn't going to change my behavior. We don't know yet whether or not the vaccines protect against asymptomatic spread. And besides, I won't begin developing immunity until two weeks after the second shot.  But it feels to me like one more reason to hope. Every person who gets vaccinated brings us one step closer. Someday we'll embrace again.

 


Not the end of the story

JoyIn this week's Torah portion, Va'era, God hears the cries of the Israelites and promises to free us from bondage. But when Moshe comes to the children of Israel to tell them that, Torah says:

וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃

They did not hear Moshe, because of kotzer ruach and hard servitude.

Rashi explains the phrase kotzer ruach by saying, "If one is in anguish his breath comes in short gasps and he cannot draw long breaths." For the Sforno, kotzer ruach means "it did not appear believable to their present state of mind, so that their heart could not assimilate such a promise."

So which one is it, a physical shortness of breath or a spiritual diminishment that keeps hope beyond our grasp? Of course, the answer is both. Body and spirit are not separable. If you've ever had a panic attack, you know the feeling of being physically unable to breathe because of an emotional or spiritual reality.

Kotzer ruach means that we were short of breath in body and soul. Our breath and our spirits were in tzuris, suffering. Literally at this point in our story we are in Mitzrayim (hear that same TzR /צר sound there?) But this isn't about geography, it's about an existential state of being so constricted that we couldn't even hear the hope that things could be better than this.

I know a lot of us are navigating heightened anxiety these days. A scant ten days ago, an armed mob refusing to accept the results of November's election broke in to the US Capitol with nylon tactical restraints and bludgeons. Many members of that mob proudly displayed neo-Nazi or white supremacist identities.

It's becoming increasingly clear that the attack on the Capitol wasn't spontaneous, but planned. The FBI is warning now about armed attacks planned in all fifty state capitols and in DC, on inauguration day if not before.

The covid-19 pandemic worsens by the day. We keep breaking records for number of sick people and number of deaths. Meanwhile the integrity of our country feels at-risk. I mean both our capacity to be one nation when some portion of that nation refuses to accept electoral defeat, and our moral and ethical uprightness.

Anybody here feeling kotzer ruach? Me too. 

And... Our Torah story comes this week to remind us that kotzer ruach is not the end of the story. Being in dire straits -- unable to breathe, unable to focus, hearts and souls unable to hope -- is not the end of the story. On the contrary, it's the first step toward liberation.

In our Torah story, our kotzer ruach causes us to cry out. That's where this week's Torah portion begins: with God saying hearing our cries and promising to help us out of narrow straits. If you have a prayer practice or a meditation practice or a primal scream practice, now is the time to cry out. (And if you don't have such a practice, now is a good time to start.)

I don't actually believe that God "needs" us to cry out before God takes notice of us. I think it goes the other way. We need to cry out, because that's the first step in opening our hearts to God -- to hope -- to the possibility that things can get better.

The path toward the pandemic getting better is pretty clear. We shelter in place as best we can, we stay apart, we wear our masks, we get the vaccine. And then we probably keep wearing our masks. But in time, it will be safe to gather again outside of our household bubbles. In time, we will be able to gather in community, and sing together without risk, and embrace.

The path toward restoring the integrity of our nation is less clear to me. I think it involves accountability, and justice, and truth, because I think integrity always asks our commitment to those ideals. Regardless, we begin that journey from here, where we are, crying out with our anxious and broken hearts.

We've entered the lunar month of Shvat, known mostly for Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, which will take place at the next full moon. The full moon after that brings Purim. And the full moon after that brings Pesach, festival of our liberation. These three full moons are our stepping-stones to spring, and change, and freedom.

When I was working recently with the rabbis and poets and artists of Bayit on new liturgy for Tu BiShvat, one of my colleagues said something that moved me so much I wrote it on a post-it and stuck it to my desk. I wrote,

"Karpas dipped in tears -- like the tears that water our new growth."

Karpas is the spring green we dip in salt water during the seder. The salt water represents the tears of our enslavement, the tears of feeling stuck in kotzer ruach. For us this year those might be tears of grief at covid-19 deaths: 381,000 and counting. They might be tears of grief at how far our democracy has fallen from its ideals, or tears of fear for whatever may be coming.

Our tears can water new growth of heart and soul. Our heart's cry now is the first step toward the changes that will lead to liberation. Then we will fulfill the words of the psalmist: "Those who sow in tears will reap in joy." Kein yehi ratzon.

 

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

Illustration, by R. Allie Fischman, from Connections: Liturgy, Art, and Poetry for Tu BiShvat, Bayit, 2021. 

 


Watching armed insurrection from afar

 

The lake has frozen.
Ice fishermen scatter,
tiny dark figures

making their way
across its flat
white expanse.

My heart pounds
gunfire
in my chest.

If the ice breaks
there is no one
to call.

 


 

I drove past a frozen lake this morning on my way to get my allergy shots. Every year I watch this lake freeze. Every year I watch the ice fishermen settle on the ice. Every year I spare a thought about the danger in what they're doing, especially when the ice is new. Right now it feels like our whole nation is on thin ice. 

 


 

If you are struggling with increased anxiety these days, you are not alone. Please reach out to a trusted clergyperson, a therapist, a friend, the national suicide prevention hotline or crisis textline. And reach out to people you know even if you're okay, because the people you know might not be. 


Count on

What I can
count on, when

democracy might be dying
at the hands of white men
 
and women waving
Confederate flags, wearing
 
Camp Auschwitz shirts,
brandishing zip ties:

the havdalah candle's
sizzle, plunged

into wine; the scent
of shankbones, simmering;

the song of Torah
where every sentence

culminates, with no
uncertainties;

the winter sun
lingering

just a little longer,
promising better days.

 


What I wrote to my community today

It is rare to know that we are living through a moment of genuine historical significance. To recognize that something unfolding around us will be chronicled in books as a turning point of some kind, though we can’t yet know where this turn will lead. But here we are. We will not soon forget the sight of an angry mob, incited by falsehoods, storming the nation’s Capitol.

When Congress re-convened last night, Senator Chuck Schumer spoke about the desecration of our temple of democracy. His use of that metaphor evoked our Chanukah story about our holy temple, first desecrated and then rededicated for sacred use. And I remembered again Chanukah’s message of light in the darkness, and the steadfast hope that can carry us through. 

I know that many of us are feeling stunned, horrified, and even frightened by what just happened in Washington DC. If that’s you, know that you are not alone. Know, also, that I am holding each member of our extended community in my prayers and in my heart, and that I am here to listen if you need an ear and to pray with you if that would bring you comfort.

When the dust clears, our task will be the same as it ever was. As Representative John Lewis z”l (of blessed memory) taught, democracy is not a state, it’s an act — an action, a choice, something we do. That teaching feels very Jewish to me. After all, Torah exhorts us to care for the vulnerable, to love the stranger, and to pursue justice: all actions, all things that we do

Democracy is an action. Love is an action. Justice is an action. Standing up for truth is an action. Building community is an action. These are our work, now as ever. This moment invites all of us to recommit ourselves to those holy tasks. And it invites us to create and strengthen our community by reaching out to each other in these uncertain and overwhelming times. 

One thing we don’t have to do is stay glued to 24/7 news coverage. Please take care of yourself. I recommend sticking with trusted media sources and giving yourself permission to turn away if the news is causing harmful anxiety. What happened yesterday is horrifying… and we are safe here, and I hope and pray that our democracy will emerge from this stronger than ever.

May the coming Shabbat bring nourishment to our souls and balm to our weary hearts. May we take comfort in our connections with each other. And may we be inspired to work toward healing for our precious democracy, so that our nation may continue to grow toward the promises inherent in its founding, promises of human dignity and justice for all.


Fellow travelers

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Later this month I'll begin teaching a class at the Academy for Jewish Religion (NY). It's part of their Sacred Arts program, and will interweave text study (Tanakh, liturgy, psalms, prophets, lifecycle) with creative writing. The syllabus was due to the dean a few weeks before the beginning of the spring term, and I've been assembling my text packet: essays, poems, prayers, classical midrash, sources ranging from ancient to contemporary. And that sent me on a journey of rediscovering my own bookshelves.

A year ago I installed new bookshelves in my home office. In those days, of course, I only worked in my home office a few days a week; the other days were spent in my synagogue office doing synagogue work. Over the last ten months everything has turned upside-down, and now I work from home almost all the time. I used to keep most of my rabbinic books at shul and most of my poetry books at home. ("Most," because the two categories aren't entirely separable.) But that too has shifted.

My Aish Kodesh volumes (the rabbi of the Warsaw ghetto, whose work my Bayit colleagues and I studied last year) are piled now crosswise in front of a section of bookshelf that holds Mark Doty, John Jerome, Jane Hirschfield, Yehoshua November, and Seamus Heaney's Beowulf. There's a small shelf full of Hasidut directly above Muriel Rukeyser, Jane Keyon, and The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (now no longer "new" by a long shot -- my MFA was more than 20 years ago.)

The book I wanted to find was Diane Lockward's Eve's Red Dress. In the Torah module of my class, we'll be doing a close reading of the creation stories in Genesis and a close reading of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac). We'll read some classical midrash arising out of both. And we'll read some contemporary poetry arising out of both. "Eve's Red Dress," I thought. "It's somewhere in this room. I think the spine is red. Is the spine red?" My books are not alphabetized. Surely I could find it.

I did find it, eventually. (The spine is not, in fact, red.) I had forgotten that my copy is inscribed; we hosted Diane for a 2003 reading at Inkberry, the literary arts nonprofit that I co-founded with two friends before I started rabbinical school. Along the way I unearthed other books that have been beloved to me: Rodger Kamenetz' The Lowercase Jew. Muriel Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry. Brenda Euland's If You Want to Write. I wished I had the space and time to get to know those old friends again.

I did pull a few things off the shelf to reread, in bits and pieces, as my scattered pandemic focus will permit. (I resonated a lot with Jess Zimmerman's essay It's Okay If You Didn't Read This Year, published in Electric Literature last week.) If nothing else, there's comfort in recognizing these spines as fellow-travelers, voices who have accompanied me over the years. I don't see anyone in person outside of my quarantine pod, but encountering the many voices in these volumes helps me feel less alone.