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Making it new

"Make it new!" It's been over 20 years since I got my MFA, but that command still resounds. I remember learning it from Liam Rector, of blessed memory, then the director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. Liam was big and brash and often urged us to "make it new," though the thing he said most often was "Always Be Closing" -- words that took on new resonance after his suicide.

"Make it new" comes from Ezra Pound, or so I learned at the time. It turns out those words are quite a bit older, and I'm glad to know they originate with Ch'eng T'ang, since Pound turns out to be a fascist and an antisemite.  The poets to whom I most frequently turn are masters of taking the familiar and making it new. Naomi Nye, Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver: they make it look easy. 

This requires both noticing (like Moses at the burning bush) and craft. I want to do what they do. I want to weave something luminous and lasting out of the threads of daily life, like the cloak of mitzvot the Zohar says the righteous will wear in the world to come. But sometimes I sit down at my loom, as it were, and the threads break in my hands. This week is one of those times.

My father's been in the hospital with COVID. I've been bracing for a death that has miraculously not come. (The miracle is the vaccines; his doctors said so repeatedly, as though we needed convincing.) It's not clear what "recovery" will mean, but I'm not racing to Texas for a funeral. A week ago, I was sure I would be. Finally I can exhale. But I don't seem to have poems in me now about that.

I don't have poems in me now about the terrorist attack at the synagogue outside of Fort Worth, or about how it's rippling into Jewish community life. I don't have poems in me about what it feels like to sit with my community and talk about what we would do if. Someone can probably make great poems out of balancing spiritual vulnerability with a panic button, but not me, not now.

I don't have poems in me about the spike of adrenaline every time my child has a symptom, or I have a symptom, or a loved one has a symptom, after two years of pandemic. I don't have poems in me about the constant sense of living in Schrödinger's box: is that an ordinary virus or is it COVID? Should I use one of our few at-home tests to find out? If I use a test, can I trust the results? 

How can I make any of this new? This is everyone's constant companion. Maybe all I can do today is name it. It begins to seem likely that COVID-19, like antisemitism, will never go away. (As I read in Nature, "endemic" doesn't mean "over.")  Maybe we will adjust to seasons of relative safety and togetherness, and seasons of relative isolation: both as Jews, and as human beings.

Today the sky is blue. The squirrels have broken the bird feeder and climbed inside, scattering seeds for the mourning doves. Under the snow marked with animal tracks, I know that there is a garden in hibernation. I know that today's realities are not forever. The Jewish spiritual calendar, like the seasonal calendar, draws my eyes toward the horizon. Even now, I live in hope.


One heart: reading Yitro after Colleyville

 

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In this week's Torah portion, Yitro, we receive Torah at Sinai. Tradition teaches that every Jewish soul that ever was and ever will be was present at Sinai. At Sinai we stood together as one.

This week some of you have told me that you feel more connected than usual to Jews in other places... especially the Jews of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. That their shul shares our name heightens our sense of closeness.

Last Shabbat while members and the rabbi of that CBI community were held hostage, our hearts were in our throats and our prayers flowed without ceasing. Often a crisis makes us aware of the interconnectedness we usually don't see. In a crisis, it's easy to feel how what happens to one heart tugs at another heart, bound up as we are in what Dr. King called that "inescapable network of mutuality."

What happens to you impacts me. What happens there impacts us here. That's one of the continuing lessons of the pandemic. And this week, our connectedness means that many of us share a feeling of renewed vulnerability.

But we're connected not only because of our shared vulnerability, our shared fears of antisemitism and attack. We're connected because our souls stood together at Sinai. We're connected through mitzvot. In Aramaic, Hebrew's closest sister tongue, the word for connection is tzavta, which shares a root with mitzvah. The mitzvot connect us with God and with each other.

Some of those mitzvot are listed in this week's Torah portion. Be in relationship with the Force of Liberation bringing us forth from life's narrow places. Resist the urge to worship things that are not God, like statues or status. Remember the day of Shabbat and keep it holy, because when we pause our constant making and doing we are re-ensouled.

And some of the mitzvot our tradition holds dear aren't in today's list, because our tradition is comprised of 613 commandments, not just 10. For instance, the mitzvah repeated thirty-six times in Torah, instructing us in no uncertain terms to "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The rabbi at CBI Colleyville lived out that mitzvah when he invited an unknown man in on a twenty-degree morning and made him a cup of tea to help him get warm. We all know now how that turned out. And: I still think he was right to do it. Welcoming that stranger was the Jewish thing to do.

How do we do that in a way that keeps us safe as a community? That's a big conversation, and it's one we'll be having for a while. There's no simple answer to balancing the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh (protecting or preserving life) with the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim (welcoming others in hospitality). It's another version of the core spiritual balancing act to which our tradition calls us, between gevurah and chesed -- boundaries and lovingkindness.

It's okay to feel afraid. It would be spiritually dishonest to pretend otherwise. When someone chooses to join the Jewish people, at the end of their beit din and just before immersion there's a ritualized series of questions rooted in Talmud that I ask. They're questions like: don't you know that it's sometimes hard to be Jewish? Don't you know that being Jewish comes with obligations, and yeah, it also comes with antisemitism that will now be aimed at you?

But today I want to add: don't you know that being Jewish is also joyous? Lighting Shabbat candles and letting the week's worries slough away -- telling our core story of liberation at the seder with songs and laughter -- the heart-opening and mind-expanding journey of Jewish learning -- feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and caring for the powerless -- there's so much beauty and meaning here.

All of these connect us with our cousins in Colleyville, and Squirrel Hill, and Poway, and all over the world. Antisemitism is real and it's frightening and it probably isn't ever going away. But the mitzvot, and our Jewish joy -- they can't take that away from us.

The commentator Rashi notes that when Torah describes our encampment at Sinai, it uses a singular verb to teach us that when we gathered at the base of that mountain we were like one being with one heart. We get another hint toward this a few verses later, where we read that the whole community answers יַחְדָּו֙ / yachdav, as one.

It's easy to focus on all the things that divide us: different Jewish denominations, different ways of doing Jewish, different dress codes, different relationships with mitzvot or God or spiritual practice. But at Sinai we had a shared heart. And during last weekend's crisis we felt our shared heart. May the shared heart that we felt while our cousins in Colleyville were in danger stay real for us, long after that danger is gone. And may that shared heart connect and sustain us through whatever comes.

 

This is the d'varling that R. Rachel offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services this week (cross-posted to CBI's From the Rabbi blog.)


Tending


I tend a botanical garden.
Here jungle trees stretch
tall as I can see, dripping
with trailing lianas
that dip into still pools.

Over there, soft dark podzol,
topped with towering taiga spruce.
In between: a small field
of sunflowers lifting
bright faces to the sky.

I've started keeping bees.
I watch them dance from flower
to flower, then meander dizzy
back to their hives. Honey jars
line up like amber trophies.

In my son's Minecraft world
there is no pandemic.
No one spits at nurses
or lies about elections.
No one's father has dementia.

My son thinks I'm playing
for his sake. I build
shul after shul, and in each
I pray for a world
where evil vanishes like smoke

like the mumbling zombies
who go up in flames
every time the blocky sun rises,
gilding the open hills
and endless oceans with light.


The well


It's not that the well's run dry.
The walk feels too far. It's uphill
in the snow both ways, and
who has the strength to carry
those dangling buckets balanced
on their shoulders now? I'll stay
on this secondhand chair, wrapped
in my mother's holey shawl.
Make another cup of tea, stay quiet.
Grief sits with me by the fire.
Out the window, tiny birds track
hieroglyphics across the icy ground.

 


 

Originally this poem had a couplet about the 5.49 million COVID deaths worldwide (so far.) I removed it; it feels too direct, it belongs in an essay and not a poem. But as a Jew I'm always mindful of the number 6,000,000, and it's horrifying that we're creeping up on that number of COVID deaths. All of which is to say: if grief is your companion by the fire these days, you are not alone. 


From smallness to hope: a d'varling for Bo

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In this week's Torah portion, Bo, we are deep in the story of the plagues and traumas that unfolded as a prelude to yetziat Mitzrayim, our Exodus or going-forth from the Narrow Place.

The Hasidic master known as the Me'or Eynayim teaches that our spiritual ancestors were so overwhelmed by the hardship and servitude of Mitzrayim that they lost דעת / da'at, knowledge or awareness of God. 

Part of what was so painful about Mitzrayim, he says, is that we lost access to our spiritual practices and our traditions. Maybe we had a vague sense that those things had meant something to our ancestors, but we weren't living them. So our awareness of God atrophied like an unused muscle.

When we were in Mitzrayim, says the Me'or Eynayim, our דעת / da'at (awareness) was בגלות / in galut (exile) and בקטנות / in katnut (smallness). Our awareness of God went into exile, our awareness of God became diminished. And then he says something that really leapt out at me, reading it this year: it's as though God says to us, התקטנתי במצרים -- "I made Myself small in Mitzrayim."

As though when our lives contracted, God's own self contracted too. When we are in Mitzrayim, it is as though God shrinks. When we are in tight straits, when our hearts and souls feel constricted, when our lives feel constricted, it's as though God becomes smaller. When our awareness of God atrophies, it's as though God actually shrinks. Wow: this year, that teaching really speaks to me.

There's a website called What Day Of March 2020, and if you go there, it will tell you that today is the 680th day of March 2020. As though time stopped when the pandemic began for us, and that month of March has lasted forever. It's a joke, and it's also not a joke.

Between the Delta variant and the Omicron variant, earlier this week there were more than a million new COVID cases. We're facing our third pandemic Purim, our third pandemic Pesach. Hospitals everywhere are filling up again. We are all tired of this. And it is nowhere near over yet.

Right now the pandemic is our Mitzrayim. These are some tight straits. Maybe our hearts and souls feel constricted. Maybe we're exhausted or overwhelmed or afraid. And when we are in tight straits it's natural for our awareness of God, our sense of where we fit into the Mystery of the cosmos, our capacity to hope to become diminished. For us as for our ancestors, it's as though God becomes smaller.

That could also be a description of what it feels like to grapple with depression. Awareness of God diminishes, capacity to hope diminishes, connectedness to what sustains us diminishes, sense of Mystery diminishes -- it's as though God becomes smaller. This teaching resonates on that level, too... though this isn't just a time of personal Mitzrayim, it's a time of communal Mitzrayim.

This week's Torah portion, and this commentary from the Me'or Eynayim, arrive at just the right time. They're here to remind us that even when we feel like we're in galut in Mitzrayim, exiled in these tight straits, our spiritual task is to trust in yetziat Mitzrayim, to trust in the Exodus. Our work is to cultivate our capacity to feel in our bones that life will not always be like this. That's a big leap of faith.

I think it's a necessary one, if we want to get through this pandemic spiritually intact. Our work is to strengthen our da'at, our awareness of God. If the "G-word" doesn't work for you, try: our awareness of hope, of love, of genuine justice. Because when we strengthen our da'at, we strengthen our capacity not only to trust that better days will come, but also to work toward those better days together.

 

Offered with endless gratitude to my hevre at Bayit, with whom I'm studying the Me'or Eynayim.

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

 


A poetry reading and conversation about grief - on Zoom - on January 9

PamAndMe
Love poetry? Experienced the loss of a loved one? Join a Zoom conversation (at 7:30pm ET on Sunday, January 9) with two poet-rabbis about how we used poetry to navigate the grief of a loved one.
 
The evening will feature Rabbi Pam Wax, author of Walking the Labyrinth, and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, author of Crossing the Sea, in a conversation about poetry and grief work moderated by Rabbi Nancy Flam, a pioneer in the field of Jewish healing and contemporary spirituality. Hear poems from both books, along with conversation about grief work, poetry, and prayer.
 
RSVP for Zoom link to cbinadams at gmail dot com.
 

Announcing From Narrow Places

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Co-creating new liturgy for these difficult times is one of the things that has brought me spiritual sustenance over the last eighteen months. I'm honored to have convened this extraordinary group of artists, liturgists, and poets, rabbis and laypeople alike, and I'm humbled by the knowledge that our work has uplifted hearts and souls in many places.

I hope you'll pick up a copy of this book, and I hope that what's in it will sustain you.

Now available for $18 -- From Narrow Places: liturgy, poetry and art of the pandemic era from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. Featuring work by Trisha Arlin, R. Rachel Barenblat, Joanne Fink, R. Allie Fischman, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz PhD, Steve Silbert, R. Jennifer Singer, and Devon Spier.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of CLAL, writes,

For too many, prayer is a vending machine experience and so unsurprisingly it no longer works. And then there are the poets and liturgists in this heart opening collection From Narrow Places who know prayer is a powerful way of consciously surrendering to the mystery and exquisite bittersweetness of Life. This collection of prayers will inspire and enchant you – the real job prayer is supposed to get done.

And Rabbi Vanessa Ochs, professor at University of Virginia and author of Inventing Jewish Ritual, writes,

From Narrow Places gives language and imagery to the Jewish spiritual creativity that is still holding us up through the pandemic. I pray that speedily in our days we will look back at this volume as a testimony to how Jews of one era weathered a crisis and emerged even stronger. For now, it chronicles how the richness of Jewish living, full and fluid, is holding us up in these challenging days. I will confess: each page unlocked doors to my unexamined disappointments, sorrows and even deep joys. Many tears, but good ones.