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Revised: three poems for the shofar service

MALCHUYOT

What does it mean
to proclaim Your sovereignty?
Before the Big Bang, there was You.

We allowed habits to rule us.
Help us throw off that yoke
so our best selves may serve.

Help us surrender. 
Help us fall to our knees,
find home in Your embrace.

Help us be unashamed of yearning.
Strengthen our awe and our love
so our prayers will soar.



ZICHRONOT

God, remember us—
our good intentions
and our tender hearts.

Remember our ancestors
asking forgiveness
with the wail of the ram's horn.

Today again we open ourselves
to the calls of the shofar
crying, sleepers, awake!

Help us shed old memories
that no longer serve.
Help us remember You.



SHOFAROT

The shofar reminds us
of the ram in the thicket.
Where are we ensnared?

Its shatters complacency.
It wails with our grief,
stutters with our inadequacy.

The shofar cries out
I was whole, I was broken,
I will be whole again.

Make shofars of us, God!
Make us resonating chambers
for Your love.

 

 

These poems were first shared here in 2015. I've tightened and revised them here.


Finding you

 

I search
the four
chambers

pulsing in
black and
white

the septum
they said
might

be malformed
(but then
changed

their minds,
and even
though

one artery's
mostly blocked
there's

still, against
all odds, 
flow)

heart that
tries too
hard

and loves
too much,
can

you truly
be in
there

"as close
as my
heartbeat"

 


This poem arose during a silent amidah meditation at AJR mincha / afternoon services. Cantor Michael Kasper invited us not to try to reach out toward God, but instead to feel where God already is with/in us.


High on the Hog

MV5BY2YzYzdmYWUtY2QxZi00Y2ExLWI1OWQtMTUwZGRiMjk0ZDJjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjEwNTM2Mzc@._V1_When I first saw that Netflix had a new show called High on the Hog, I thought of all the foods I stopped eating when I started keeping kosher, and I figured the show wasn't for me. But then I saw people on Twitter giving shout-outs to my friend culinary historian Michael Twitty (author of The Cooking Gene, which I reviewed here), and I realized the show isn't about treif, it's about African American food. Or maybe more accurately, it's about how "American food" is rooted deep in African ingredients and in the ingenuity and perseverance of enslaved Africans brought to these shores. 

We begin in Benin. I've never been to Benin, though I was blessed to travel to Ghana twice when I was married. (My beloved ex had lived there after college, and worked there off and on for years.) As host Stephen Satterfield explores his first west African market with Dr. Jessica B. Harris, I remembered the sounds and scents and sensory overload of my first west African market visits, too. And I felt-with-him as he sees his family's features mirrored around him, as he encounters familiar okra and yams and rice in their original settings, as he walks on the red clay road the enslaved walked on their way to the slave ships. 

At the end of the first episode Stephen stands where his ancestors stood as they were loaded onto slave ships, and he breaks down. I have never been to any of the death camps where six million of my fellow Jews perished, but I imagine that if and when I go, I will feel something like what I witnessed here. It is heartbreaking. And the scene does not feel staged: it feels like bearing witness to something important and real.

The second episode brings us to the Carolinas, to the rice coast. I've read The Cooking Gene, so the journey of these ingredients wasn't a new concept to me. But there's something about the visuality of this medium that brings things home in a new way. To see the red rice in Benin, the whole rice and the broken rice, and then to see the red rice being prepared by Gullah chefs now: the trajectory is so clear.

The third episode introduces the enslaved cooks who shaped the American palate. Washington sent his enslaved chef Hercules back to Mt. Vernon every six months because a slave who lived more than six months in Philly was automatically freed. When he suspected that Hercules might try to seek freedom, he sent Hercules back to do hard labor in the fields again. Meanwhile, Jefferson took his enslaved chef Hemings to France, and Hemings brought fine French dining back to these shores. Eventually Hemings bought his own freedom -- by binding his brother to continued servitude. Meanwhile Jefferson fathered at least six children on Hemings' little sister Sally. There's really nothing I can say about that. 


I do not understand how any white Americans can look at the history of human chattel slavery and not recognize the horrific sin against Black humanity that was (and still is) perpetrated by that injustice. Human beings in chains. Families torn apart. Generations of Black human beings treated like animals. I guess we mostly don't look. I think we need to look, and then we need to take responsibility for creating repair. 

My ancestors came here fleeing the Holocaust. It's easy to protest, "but we weren't slave owners!"  The same people who fear people of color "replacing" the white inhabitants of this land also see Jews as "replacing" them. (Remember the Nazis in Charlottesville: "Jews will not replace us!") White supremacy harms us too. And, I still have pale skin. Which means I get certain privilege just by virtue of the way I look, where people with dark skin encounter prejudice that to this day is often deadly. 

Some people argue that we must not teach the true history of our nation's foundational sins -- our treatment of Native Americans, our enslavement of Black people -- and how those sins continue to harm Black and Indigenous People of Color. It seems so obvious to me that we have to face our history in order to build a better future. I want us to live up to the ideals of liberty and justice for all. We're not there yet. In the words of R. Abraham Joshua Heschel z"l, "in a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible." 


High on the Hog aroused that anger in me, but the show isn't made with anger: it's made with joy. The show lets the horrors speak for themselves, and it wrests celebration from those ashes. High on the Hog shows beautiful, bold, creative Black people claiming their history and their foodways and their joy through cuisine. It honors the ingredients and foodways, and it honors their inheritors. These neshamot (souls) shine so vividly on the screen that their strength, their pride, their resilience, their creativity uplift me as a viewer. Talk about soul food.

Take Gabrielle Eitienne (episode two) who grows traditional foods (okra, collards, sweet potatoes) on the same land her family has farmed for generations. She hosts celebratory dinners uplifting the land and its produce and the people who grow it. Watching her feasts, I thought about my own people's history of poverty cuisine, like the gefilte fish I just this year learned to make. The work it takes to turn the offcuts into something beautiful. The heart it takes to create something beautiful for our loved ones, even when we're starting with almost nothing. I imagine a lot of us can resonate with that.

The final episode takes us to Texas. I never learned, in a whole year of seventh grade Texas history, that my home state didn't outlaw slavery until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The episode begins with an audio recording of an enslaved woman, recounting how when "the War" ended, old master came back from the war and he didn't tell them that they were free. That episode also opens with Juneteenth celebrations: parades, dancers in the streets, ebullient joy. Jerelle Guy talks about her apple pie, traditional for Juneteenth. "American as apple pie," right? And this is America: beautiful and bold and full of resilience. Or at least: this is a piece of America that I want to uplift. The racism is America too. That's the America I want to repair.

We meet Black barbecue pitmasters and Black cowboys, too: another piece of Texas history I never learned, though I went to the rodeo every year as a kid. (Of course, rodeo used to be segregated; that's how Black rodeos arose in the first place.) And, of course, the Texas barbecue I grew up eating has roots in enslaved foodways, too.  I love getting this renewed glimpse of the state where I grew up, and learning that these quintessential pieces of Americana were always more multiracial than I knew.

"You actually feel your ancestors on these rides," says Anthony Bruno, the trail boss for the Northeastern Texas Trail Riders Association who keep these traditions alive. "It's a spiritual journey." He could be talking about the miniseries, too.

High on the Hog is exceptionally moving, and rich, and real. I'm grateful for its existence. If you haven't seen it, go and watch. This too is Torah, and we must learn.

 

 


Look upon it, and be healed: vaccinations, Juneteenth, and the copper snake

Covid-cadeuceusIn this week's Torah portion, Chukat, the children of Israel grouse to Moses, "Why did you take us out of Egypt to die here in the desert?" And God gets angry and sends a plague of snakes, and the snakes bite the people, and people start dying.

The people return to Moses and say, "We sinned by speaking out against God; help!" Moses relays this, and God instructs him to make a copper snake and mount it on a pole. When the people see the copper snake, those who were bitten by the snakes are healed.

Rashi notes that the word snake, nachash, is related to copper, nachoshet. The Hebrew wordplay hints at the miracle here: when someone sees the figure of the snake cast in copper, they are healed from the venom. The reminder of what bit them helps them heal from the bite.

This year, as I read this story, all I can think of is a copper coronavirus. Clearly what we need is a copper sphere covered with a corona of spiky proteins, to hang on a flagpole for the whole nation to see! Okay, gazing at a copper coronavirus wouldn't actually heal anyone.

But that's kind of a metaphor for what vaccination does, isn't it? Our immune systems learn to recognize the shape of the virus. The vaccines teach our bodies to recognize that spiky little mace. And then when they encounter it, they can fight it off. Like our ancient spiritual ancestors looking at those copper snakes.

On my refrigerator, I have the front page from a December 2020 Berkshire Eagle. It shows my kid lighting the North Adams city menorah. And alongside that image, above the next column of print, there's a headline: "Vaccine Endorsed By Panel." Subheader: "Country now one step away from starting immunization."

Six months ago the first vaccine was approved for future use. Remember what a big deal that was? 

This week I read about a fourth vaccine now becoming available. Local numbers are the lowest they've been in a year. In some places, masks are optional for those who are vaccinated. About 44% of the nation is fully vaccinated, as is more than half of MA. And President Biden recently announced plans to give 500 million doses of Pfizer to other nations in need.

The pandemic isn't over. But we've come an incredibly long way since Chanukah. Modern medicine is miraculous. And because of the tireless work of immunologists and virologists and doctors and nurses and so many others, we're starting to be able to gather safely again without risking each other or ourselves.

Because vaccines teach our bodies to recognize and respond to the virus, we're safer than we were. And that too feels to me like a deeper teaching this year. What are the things we need to recognize as a community and as a society, so that together we can respond? What are the injustices and inequities we need to be willing to see, in order to repair them?

Tomorrow is Juneteenth -- the date in 1865 when enslaved African-Americans in Texas learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had freed them two and a half years prior. One step toward healing racial inequity is for those of us who are white to recognize the harms experienced by Black people and people of color, both then and now.

The copper snake in this week's parsha reminds us: we need to see the sickness in order to begin repair. If we don't recognize it, we can't fight off a literal virus. If we don't recognize it, we can't fight off the spiritual sickness of racism and prejudice, either. We have to see the problem in order to begin to build something new.

And COVID-19 has had a deadlier impact on communities of color than on mostly-white communities. Even as we celebrate the high rates of vaccination where we live, there's still work to do before we're all safe. 

So pause with me in this Shabbat moment. Take a deep breath. Recognize how lucky we are to be vaccinated, to be in a place that's getting safer. Join me in trying to open our eyes to everything we need to see within us and around us.  May we be gentle with ourselves and each other as we work toward healing: for ourselves, for our communities, for everyone.

 

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

 


Now

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In my son's final days of fifth grade, his class has been doing an ELA (English Language Arts) project writing "The Covid Chronicles." I don't know what anyone else's chronicle looks like, but my kid wrote some 5000 words in five chapters about what the last year has been for him, starting with the very first time he ever heard the word "coronavirus." 

The first thing I noticed is what isn't in his chronicle. No one in his recounting gets sick or dies. I know how lucky that makes him (and me.) His experience of the pandemic hasn't been one of illness or death. No ventilators. No hospitals. He doesn't know about the refrigerator trucks that had to serve as mobile morgues in so many places.

He wrote instead about model rockets with his dad, and glow in the dark science projects with me. About the routines of Zoom school and Chromebook lag, and the excitement of shifting to hybrid and getting to be in the school building with friends again. About computer gaming camps, some of which weren't as fun as we had hoped they would be. 

He didn't write about the books we read together, or the anime we watched, or what it was like for him last summer when we started allowing outdoor playdates (mostly in lakes and rivers!) with two friends again. I suspect all of those have receded into memory as simply normal life -- he's forgotten that those choices were pandemic-driven too.

I remember when we first got a couple of fabric masks last spring, thinking we might need to wear them for a week or two. Now dozens of them hang on the coat hooks in our hallway. My son is partial to the dark blue and teal ones made by a swimsuit company, and to an adjustable one adorned with colorful doughnuts with sprinkles on top.

I'm still getting accustomed to being able to go into some places without a mask, now that I'm vaccinated and not everyone requires them anymore. But I still tend to carry one in my purse, in case someone asks me to put it on. Every interaction now involves some negotiation: are we vaccinated? Are we comfortable taking masks off? 

This feels like a liminal time. Things are shifting, but I don't feel like I know exactly what they're shifting to. I wonder how my kid and I will remember this transition. What will this summer's new normal be? 


Three

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Chodesh tov: happy new month!

One of my friends said that to me last night, and I groaned. "Wait, what? It's Tamuz already?!"

I've had a few things on my mind. Preparing my shul community to shift from all-digital to hybrid / multi-access. Supporting my kid through the final days of his fifth grade year, a school year unlike any other. It makes sense that I lost track of time.

But it's a new lunar month. Once again, I bump into the disjunction between the secular calendar and our sacred one. On the secular calendar, summer is just beginning: jump in the pool! fire up the grill! Jewishly, later this month we'll be mourning.

And once again I grapple with the tension between now and coming. I struggle every year with winter's cold and darkness. I count the days until they start lengthening again. I crave summer's greenery, the profusion of produce, the long golden light.

That season is finally beginning... and my professional life calls me to think about three months from now, when summer will be waning, when we'll gather (onsite? online? hybrid? plan for all three and see what happens?) for the Jewish New Year again. 

It's new moon. It's the start of Tamuz. Four weeks until Av. Then four weeks until Elul. Then four weeks until Rosh Hashanah. It's twelve weeks until the Jewish new year, friends. I don't want to think about it either! I want to revel in the nowat last.

Our sacred calendar is always tugging us forward. In deepest midwinter we celebrate Tu BiShvat and yearn toward the Purim and Pesach that will be our stepping-stones into spring. And now it's barely summer, and our calendar points toward fall.

In my line of work, that means thinking about services and sermons -- and, this year, questions of masks and pandemic and building capacity and airflow. But for all of us, clergy and laypeople alike, this moment points our hearts toward the horizon.

It's not time for the Elul work, the teshuvah work, the facing-our-missteps work, quite yet -- but we can see it from here. What do you need the next few months to hold so you can feel ready to do the work of returning again and beginning anew?


Pulse

Two-fingers-feeling-for-radial-pulse

This week I am reading up on cardiac catheterization. It sounds like sometimes they go in through the wrist, and sometimes at the groin. My wrists are tiny: I can't imagine that the blood vessel there is large enough to thread anything through. Then again, it's an easy place to feel my pulse. The radial artery, according to the internet. Radial makes me think of radiant. When I had the stress test with nuclear imaging, were my arteries temporarily radiant? I wonder if I could use that image in a poem. 

I wonder what became of the images of the inside of my body from when I had my strokes. Did the trans-esophageal echocardiogram yield still pictures, or only a live video feed? I remember being asked to count backwards, but I don't remember the procedure itself. I know there were brain scans; I remember seeing grainy images, with white blemishes in the places where the strokes left their damage. I probably have the images on a CD-ROM somewhere, though I no longer have a disk drive.

I often notice the pulse point at the wrist when I'm laying tefillin. I learned to map the ten wraps of the arm strap to the ten sefirot of our mystical tradition. Above the elbow, the top three windings are for chochmah, binah, da'at -- wisdom, understanding, knowledge. Then come chesed, gevurah, tiferet, netzach, hod, yesod, malchut -- lovingkindness, boundaried strength, harmony, endurance, humble gratitude, foundations, and Shechinah, the indwelling divine Presence.

That final wrapping goes right over my pulse point.  Divine presence, pressing on that place where my life-force is palpably present. "God is as close to me as the beating of my heart." I don't remember the citation for that, though a quick google search suggests that this idea can be found across many religious traditions. What could be closer to us than the beating of our own hearts? It's an intimate, embodied metaphor, and that too makes me think of Shechinah: God with/in us, with/in creation.

I don't lay tefillin every day. My early mornings feel packed -- wake the kid, make breakfast, pack lunch, help him wedge the bass into the car, get him to school  -- and I cling to sleep too much to wake up before him to daven. Once he's on summer vacation, I hope to get back into the habit of making more time for morning prayer. Meanwhile, I think tomorrow I might lay tefillin even if all I manage is the seven-minute daven. Feel God's presence wrapped around my wrist, Shechinah holding my hand.


Embracing the giant grapes

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In this week's parsha, Shlach, the scouts go to peek at the Land of Promise. They return with a giant bunch of grapes, so big it needs to be carried by two men on a carrying frame. And most of them say: nah, there's no way we can conquer that land. The people who live there are giants. We felt like grasshoppers next to them, and we must have looked like grasshoppers in their eyes. We can't do this.

And God gets angry, and says: because y'all don't trust in Me, or maybe because y'all don't trust in yourselves, fine, let's make it a self-fulfilling prophecy: you can't do this. This whole generation is going to die here in the wilderness, except for the two people who believed in this enterprise. They'll lead the next generation into the land of promise. You don't feel up to it? Now you can't even try.

If all goes according to plan, I'm sharing these words with you from our first multi-access (a.k.a. hybrid) Shabbat service since the pandemic began some fifteen months ago. When the pandemic started, we went digital, like everyone else. It took us a while to find our feet, but we figured out how to pray together, how to celebrate and mourn together, how to learn together, how to be a community together over Zoom.

Now we're standing at the edge of another paradigm shift. Many of you have told me how much it meant to you to be able to participate in the spiritual life of our community from home -- even from afar. Congregants who long ago moved away joined us for shiva minyanim or Shabbat services. Family members in other states, even in other countries on the far side of the world, joined us for the Days of Awe and Pesach.

As we return to offering some onsite programming, like this morning's Shabbat services, we're met with a choice. We could go back to the way things were before, and stop offering an option for digital participation. Or, we can try to figure out how to chart a new path so that both the "roomies" and the "zoomies" are full participants in our community. So that those who are homebound don't lose access to what we do.

But it's not just about ensuring that if one of us is homebound or doing a stint in a rehab facility we can still watch CBI's services as though they were on tv. The real challenge is figuring out how "zoomies" can be full participants. How we can all see each other, whether onsite or online. How all of our voices can be heard, whether onsite or online. How we can all count in the minyan, whether onsite or online.

This is a tall order. It's going to require some technological infrastructure, which costs money. And it may lead to a fundamental redefining of what it means to be "in community," what it means to be "together." That's not just us, by the way: that's the whole Jewish world. None of the classes I took in rabbinical school exactly prepared me for this... except inasmuch as they taught me that Judaism has weathered changes before. 

It is tempting to be like the scouts: to say, nope, this is too hard, there's no way we can do this. One bunch of grapes is as big as a black bear, we are not up to this, we feel like grasshoppers. The fact that our forebears in Torah said exactly that tells me that it's a natural human impulse. It's normal to feel afraid, faced with an enormous new challenge we've never before imagined being able to try to face.

And -- as I was discussing with our b-mitzvah students a few days ago -- because those scouts didn't use their ometz lev, their strength of heart, the whole k'hillah suffered. Courage and community are two of the Jewish values we've been studying during this pandemic year. These values are part of their Jewish toolbox -- and ours. If we want our k'hillah to flourish, we need to cultivate our ometz lev.

It will take a while for us to find our feet in this new chapter. I imagine we'll have new and different technological challenges, and some personal and spiritual ones, too. If the tenth member of the minyan is on Zoom, will we all feel comfortable counting that person for kaddish? If someone's joining us from another time zone, will they feel weird joining our evening prayers while the sun is rising where they are?

But if we bring hope and courage to bear, I'm confident that we can navigate a path through. This may not be exactly the Land of Promise we expected, but I believe it has gifts for us. And who knows: maybe when humanity has spread to the stars, Jewish space explorers will look back on the pandemic of 2020 as the moment when our sense of sacred place and time began to evolve into what it needed to become.

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


Toward re-entry

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This morning I moved the box of graggers back to the storage room. They've been out of place since Purim of 2020, the last in-person program we held at my synagogue before the pandemic began. I remember our Board chair wearing blue food prep gloves behind the dessert table. I remember bottles of hand sanitizer, not yet in short supply. I remember chatting with one of my Board members whose family lives in Hong Kong. I couldn't imagine sheltering-in-place like that. I didn't think it would happen here. Within a week, the pandemic was happening here. (In truth, it already was, at Purim -- I just didn't know.)

That was fifteen months ago. Tomorrow we'll hold our first hybrid (a.k.a. "multi-access") Shabbat service. We'll be outdoors, because everyone agrees that being outdoors is safer than being indoors. (Also, we are in a spectacularly beautiful place; we should take advantage of that.) We'll meet under the great spreading willow tree beside our patio, overlooking the meditation labyrinth and our beautiful new pollinator garden in three wooden beds shaped like cells in a honeycomb. I'll have my laptop, and I'll begin a new learning curve: how to fully integrate "zoomies" as well as "roomies," participants both onsite and online. 

My office at the shul looks and feels like a room that hasn't been used in a while. Books have piled up on the available surfaces: I need to put them where they belong. The dried fronds of last year's myrtle branches have dropped their tear-shaped leaves on my desk, no longer fragrant. And there was this box of graggers, left over from two Purims ago, that nobody ever bothered to put away. I put them away. I'm filing papers, shelving books. Also reminding myself of the flow of services when we're using our books instead of the editable and visually-oriented slide deck I've grown accustomed to using since the pandemic began. 

None of us know exactly how the "new normal" is going to look and feel. I know that transitions are often emotionally charged in ways we might not expect. When we gather on Saturday morning, will it feel like the last fifteen months never happened? I don't think so -- our practices and processes have been changed; we ourselves have been changed -- but reality might surprise me. I know that I will take comfort from our vast spreading willow tree, its deep roots and broad branches. Maybe the cardinals and phoebes and red-winged blackbirds will sing with us, when we join our voices together again for the first time in so very long.


Garnet

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"Which arm do you prefer, hon?"

"You're the phlebotomist; I'm just... the arm," I say, shrugging. I unfold both arms on the padded arm-rests and wait for her to choose. She fastens the tourniquet around my right bicep and palpates the crook of my elbow. I look the other way.

"At least you're not as nervous as the last person I had in here," she says, kindly.

"It's nobody's favorite thing, but here we are," I agree. There's a pause while she considers the vein. 

"A little pinprick," she warns me, and I try not to flinch. 

I'm still thinking about how needles are no one's favorite thing. "I was talking with my eleven year old in the car this morning on the way to school about getting his COVID shot as soon as he turns twelve. He's not excited about it, but..."

"But it's better than getting sick," she says, her voice cheerful. "My seventeen year old just got the shot!"

"That's great. New England's doing well, I saw in the paper," I offer. Our vaccination rates are the highest in the country. 

"We've been lucky. There was the nursing home outbreak," she says, her voice lowering. The nursing home in town is a scant quarter-mile from the office where I'm getting my blood drawn. "And the soldiers' home in Holyoke. But other than that, it's been pretty good here."

"May it stay that way," I agree. 

"All done!" She smiles, pressing a wad of gauze where the needle was just withdrawn. Now I look over, and I see the test-tubes full of dark red blood. The color always surprises me. It's so vivid, so deep. 

I'm not sure what they're looking for this time, but we can't schedule the next procedure until they run whatever tests they need to run on these gleaming garnet vials.

I wonder how many mini-conversations like this she has over the course of a day. How many lives she briefly touches with her blue-gloved hands. 

When I exit the building, I inhale lilacs under the clouded sky.