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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.