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Grandiflora

Download-1When I was a kid the tree was impossibly enormous. It was like the giant Christmas tree that rose out of the stage, dwarfing everyone, in the local ballet's performance of the Nutcracker. But mine wasn't a Christmas tree. My tree had a big smooth trunk and thick, sturdy branches. One branch protruded over the jasmine, and there was another one a bit higher and to one side. The lower one was perfect for sitting on, letting my legs dangle. The higher one was perfect for leaning on with a book. I always had a book, Laura Ingalls Wilder or EB White eventually giving way to Robert Heinlein and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Eventually I got brave enough to climb higher, onto the roof of the playhouse with its asphalt shingles. Sometimes I would read up there, instead. Once I carved my initials into the bark with my red pocket knife, alongside the initials of the kid I had a crush on. The magnolia's leaves were big and oval-shaped and glossy and they cast pockets of cool shade that kept the playhouse roof from overheating. The best time to climb my tree was late May -- right around my mother's birthday -- when the magnolia would open her great creamy blooms. Her flowers were as big as my head. The petals bruised easily. Later, when they dried up and fell off, they were like scraps of tan leather. I used to try to stitch them together with monkeygrass to make doll clothes. By then, they only had a shadow of their former fragrance, but they were still sweet. I can almost remember that fragrance, forty years later and two thousand miles away.

 


Strange

Only a fragment of the dream remains: a stranger yelling at me repeatedly, "But the science!" He meant, the pandemic is over, why aren't you over it. I don't think I was able to find the right words to respond. 

The memory resurfaces midway through my morning cup of coffee. And then it occurs to me: maybe that's why the poems aren't flowing right now: my mind is tangled in knots. Even in my sleep I'm defending my choices.

And who is "over it"? The pandemic's mental wounds are wide open, as Ed Yong wrote in The Atlantic. "If you’ve been swimming furiously for a year, you don’t expect to finally reach dry land and feel like you’re drowning."

Social interactions require constant renegotiation: are you comfortable unmasked outdoors? May I give you a hug? Am I allowed inside your home again? My son isn't old enough to vaccinate: does that change your answers? 

How was school, I asked my son yesterday. "We didn't have to wear masks at recess," he said. That must have been awesome, I offered. He scrunched up his face. "It was weird," he said. "Seeing everybody's whole faces was weird."

I know it will feel normal to him within a few days, but that doesn't change the reality that it feels weird to him now. Aren't we all in that place? The changes we've longed for might be upon us, and everything feels strange.


Going the extra mile

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When a person commits any wrong toward a fellow human being, thus breaking faith with YHVH, and that person realizes their guilt, that person must confess the wrong that he has done. They shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one whom they have wronged. (Numbers 5:6-7)

Early in this week's Torah portion, Naso, comes this injunction. The first thing that jumped out at me this year is that when a person wrongs another person, they are "breaking faith with God." What commitment did we make to God that we break when we wrong each other? 

Last weekend we stood at Sinai and received Torah anew, and Torah is full of ethical instructions about how to act justly and with compassion. That's the promise we made to God: we'll keep the mitzvot. When we harm each other, we fail to live up to that promise.

So this week Torah teaches: when we realize we've wronged someone, there are two steps we need to take. First, we admit the wrong. Then we make restitution -- and then some. If I wronged you fiscally, I need to repay the money and add an additional one-fifth. If I harmed you in some other way, I need to go the extra mile to repair the damage I've done.

This week I learned that all of the people of color on Williamstown's Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Equity committee are stepping down because they are so disheartened. [Edited to add: I misspoke. Jeff Johnson will remain, though as an ex officio member. But five people of color are stepping down.]

Some of them received threats to their lives. Others received public attacks on their character. The questions they bring to the table -- How inclusive are we? How welcoming? How safe and supportive? -- are for all of us to answer together, but a lot of us -- me included -- didn't participate or offer active support. 

And I thought: I know what it's like to be Jewish in a time of rising antisemitism. As Jews, we get exhausted naming and fighting antisemitism, especially if it feels like no one else notices or cares. When others pick up some of that load, their allyship helps us in all kinds of ways. As this recent volume attests, allyship is holy work. I saw the news about resignations from the DIRE committee, and I realized: I've fallen down on the job of being an ally to people of color in my community.

I didn't mean to cause harm. I just... wasn't paying attention. I hadn't really thought much about how serving on that committee could be traumatic for people of color, because they're always teaching the town's white community what we don't know about racial injustice. And we don't always want to hear it. Sometimes we might be actively resistant to hearing about experiences of racism in our town. And sometimes we're passively resistant, and we just don't pay attention. 

That kind of tuning out is a luxury I have as a person with white skin. It's like the way a lot of Christians don't notice antisemitism because it's not directed at them. But when we treat racial justice as something we can choose either to notice or to ignore, that itself inscribes some harm. My inaction and inattention are part of the problem. I need to make this right, and this week's Torah portion reminds me that really repairing damage requires me to go the extra mile.

I'm still figuring out what that means for me in practical terms. Paying more attention to town government. Using my voice as a clergyperson to speak up for those who are marginalized or have experienced injustice, especially people of color. Writing more letters to the selectboard, maybe. Educating myself (an essential component of the work of allyship.) Uplifting the voices and the needs of people of color in my town. (If you have suggestions, I welcome them.)

Though the DIRE resignations are heavy on my mind and heart this week, this isn't just a Williamstown problem. This is work we all need to do, in all of the communities where we live. 

Later in this week's Torah portion, God instructs Moses to tell Aaron to offer certain words to the people. This is the origin of the words I say to my child every Friday night as Shabbat begins, the words I say to every b-mitzvah kid who stands on our bimah:

May God bless you and keep you!
May God’s presence shine before you and be gracious to you!
May God’s presence always be before you, and bring you peace.

The path our tradition offers us toward blessing and radiance and grace and peace is following the mitzvot. And that includes acting ethically, and protecting the vulnerable, and repairing what's broken. It includes recognizing and confessing our missteps, and making restitution and then some.

So here's my blessing for us this morning:

May we be strengthened in the holy work of allyship.
When we fall short, may we do what we can to bring repair.
When we can do that, we'll feel God's presence before us and within us and around us and between us. And then every place will be a holy place.

And let us say: amen.

 

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

An added note: I'm speaking here about allyship to people of color because I know who my shul crowd is. And, I cherish the voices and presence of Jews of color too, and don't want to give the impression that Jews are only ever allies in this work! I chose the allyship frame because of who was in the room.


Bereaved

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Things that shouldn't exist
in the same world: the scent
of lilacs in bloom and the stench
of the "skunk water" I read about
on Facebook this morning.

I sit on my mirpesset, surrounded
by green: trees in leaf, willows
trailing graceful fringes, pots
of oregano, rosemary, mint.
So tranquil I could forget

global pandemic still rages,
India's cremation sites burning
around the clock. I could forget
bombs, rockets, mortar shells,
bereaved parents and orphaned children.

Once I start the list, it's hard
to stop. Uighurs in internment camps,
migrant children stripped
from their parents... more griefs
than grains of sand beside the sea.

Bereaved: from Old English bereafian,
to take away by violence. Mostly used
these last few centuries "in reference
to life, hope, loved ones,
and other immaterial possessions."

Immaterial, and essential.
I want to look away.
I can't look away.
If I forget you, humanity,
let my words unlearn how to flow.

 

 


Skunk water. See this FB post from Leah Solomon, chief education officer of Encounter

Mirpesset. Hebrew for balcony. See ba-shanah ha-ba'ah.

India's cremation sites. See 'Death is the only truth:' Watching India's Funeral Pyres Burn (NYT).

Uighurs in internment camps. See Their goal is to destroy everyone (BBC). Please heed the disturbing content warning at the top of the article.

Migrant children / stripped from their parentsSee Migrants separated from their children will be allowed in the US (NYT).

[I]n reference to life... See bereave (v).

If I forget you... See Psalm 137.


Heartbreak

I try to make challah every Friday. While I knead the dough, I sing Shalom Aleichem to welcome the angels of Shabbat who will soon be here, and I pray the deepest prayers of my heart.

This morning as I knead, I can barely sing for weeping.

"The current reality, in the streets of a land our tradition deems holy, necessitates a spiritual crisis. A spiritual crisis requires more than prayer. It requires heartbreak, which demands reflection, which then demands action."

So write the many rabbinic students, from many different seminaries, who co-authored this letter.

Someday they will be my colleagues. Today they are my teachers.


Wordless

If my mother were alive, she'd be asking me why I haven't written anything this week about Israel and Gaza and the West Bank. (Well, in fairness: she'd be asking why I haven't written about Israel. She didn't care about Gaza or the West Bank.) We had this conversation often, when she was alive and was well enough to get cranky with me about what I did or didn't write. 

I'm struggling to find words this week. Would my words actually make things better for anyone? Would they bring light, or only more heat? Would they open anyone's heart, or just deepen entrenchment? What purpose would my words serve? Instead I've been seeking out the voices of Israelis and Palestinians. Their words matter right now in a way that mine does not.

I read words from Leah Solomon about her heartbreak and desperation. I read words from Ismail (a young man writing under a pseudonym to protect himself) about feeling trapped between a quick death and a slow one. I read words from Lama M. Abarqoub about bereaved parents. I read words from Sarah Tuttle-Singer about blockades and parenthood and children. 

My heart breaks for all who have worked there toward justice and peace and coexistence.  The actions (and inactions) of governments and extremists are pushing justice and peace and coexistence further and further out of the realm of possibility. And I know the same emboldening of rightwing supremacists that scares me in the States is happening there too. 

So I pray this prayer by Rabbi Jordan Braunig, and this prayer of mothers for life and peace by R. Tamar Elad-Appelbaum and Sheikha Ibtisam Maḥameed (transl. by R. Amichai Lau-Lavie), and The smoke has not cleared by Hila Ratzabi. I pray poems by Yehuda Amichai and Mahmoud Darwish, Rachel Tzvia Back and Carolina Ebeid. I pray, and their words become my own.

 

 


Hefker / ownerless

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This gorgeous illumination is by Joanne Fink; the poem is mine. 

As always, I'm humbled and honored to have midwifed this collection of new poetry, liturgy, and visual art into being -- and I know that my own poem is stronger for the collaborative workshopping, so I'm grateful for that too. 

You can read excerpts from everyone's beautiful work and download the collection here: Together, Becoming - Shavuot 2021 from Bayit.


Refill

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Herbs in the rain.

 

What replenishes you? 

The term "self-care" has come to feel almost meaningless: it's so ubiquitous, and so often misused. (A quick google search for the term yields returns like "How To Make Shopping A Healthy Self-Care Practice." Hello, capitalism.) But we all need to replenish our inner reserves. That's true even when there isn't a global pandemic. 

Taking Shabbat off from working -- and from the to-do lists, the news headlines, workday consciousness -- replenishes me. My son and I were watching Adam Ruins Everything recently, and in the episode about work, Adam proposes that we have "labor unions and the Jewish people" to thank for the fact of Saturdays off. Indeed we do.

As the weather warms, signs of spring replenish me. The chives in the window-box on my mirpesset winter over each year, and they are one of the first things to green up when spring arrives. I just added a little sage plant and a little rosemary plant to that box. Their scent grounds and delights me, and they're delicious, too.

On a good day, turning ingredients into food replenishes me. (And on days when that doesn't sound appealing, that's a sign to me that I really need to refill my well.) This weekend that meant turning a handful of aging clementines into a gluten-free and dairy-free citrus and almond cake, and turning a lamb shoulder into shawarma. 

Getting a mani-pedi was one of my mom's favorite forms of -- I'm not sure she would have called it self-care, but it was a way of treating herself to something special. I remember doing that together with her throughout my childhood and adolescence, and on trips home, until she was too sick to go to the beauty shop anymore.

Some of my deepest forms of replenishment have been in scarce supply over the last long while. Hugging people I love. Singing in harmony with someone else who's right there in the room, the way our voices become more than the sum of their parts. Losing myself in live music performed in the moment. Traveling to visit an ocean.

I wonder how long it will be before live music and hugs and pedicures and harmony become part of our regular lives again.