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Choice

Content warning: miscarriage, rape, child abuse, forced birth.  Please take care of yourself: if reading about any of those things would cause you harm, skip this poem.


1. Miscarriage

Thirteen years ago I went to sleep pregnant and woke with thick clots sticky on my thighs. Swamped with blood and despair, I pleaded please God please don't let this be a miscarriage, but my prayer was null. That pregnancy was already over. At least my body expelled the tissue without incident. I didn't go septic. And back then if I'd needed a doctor, I could have entered any public hospital, even in a red state. If it happened today I could be like the woman sent home from the hospital to wait for infection to set in. Or the one sent home to fill a bathtub with blood because the D&C she needs is now against the law. She says they'll stop trying to conceive: in the state where she lives, it's no longer safe. Grief and rage rise in me like a hurricane, like a tsunami, like the flood of blood I couldn't stop.


2. As if

as if
the agony of our bodies betraying us
weren't enough

now 
we might be blamed for feticide
we might be jailed

hemorrhaging
we might have to beg the pharmacist for drugs 
they still might say "I can't help you" 

 

3. Weep

For the one who knows a second bout with postpartum depression will be fatal.
For the one with preexisting conditions for whom pregnancy means death.

For the one shadowed with bruises, trapped in an abusive marriage.
For the rape victim now twice forced

For the pregnant child, almost certainly violated 
by someone they know, body wracked and changed.

For the one forced to carry a dead fetus to term and labor to birth it. 
For the one who just doesn't want to get pregnant.

For everyone now realizing that if they get impregnated, a cluster of cells trumps.
For everyone who's known that choice is not enough, and could be taken away.

 

4. Questions

Which is worse: being jailed for miscarriage
or forced into giving birth?
Had you considered that question before this year?

Did you previously understand
the Supreme Court could strip away bodily autonomy
as though it were a dress we no longer get to wear?

If your answer is no: are you white, affluent, cisgender,
straight, and/or temporarily able-bodied?
Do you think those adjectives will protect you now?

 

 


 

I don't live in a forced-birth state, though the GOP is already talking about banning abortion nationwide if they gain control of the Senate in November.

For now I'm thankful that I retain autonomy over my own body, and I grieve and rage for everyone for whom that is no longer true (and/or was never functionally true -- I'm aware that for many, the promise of "choice" was meaningless without access and resources.)

My practice is to grieve and rage (and write furious poems) when I need to, and then find something I can do to help people who have it worse than I do. If you have a few dollars to spare, donate to the NCJW Jewish Fund for Abortion Access. It doesn't fix what's broken, but it will help.

 


Not the First

the same poem that appears below, beside a photograph of tealight candles

 

Lately the drumbeat of lies,
the erosion of rights feel like
constant bombardment.
I know incitement of hatred
is never good for the Jews.
I also know we're not the first
generation to live like this.
When bad news batters at the windows
I remember the Jews who fled Europe
and those who couldn’t leave in time.
Aish Kodesh, rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto
who buried wisdom in a coffee can
before the Nazis shot him.
I remember Cossacks, Crusades, Rome
all the way back to exile
by the waters of Babylon...
Every Friday night I cup
my hands around twin flames.
Millennia of ancestors stand
behind me. Their hope still burns.
I mean clear-eyed awareness
of just how broken this world is
and refusal to let that be
the last word. Yes, everything’s
shattered, our mystics told us that.
They also knew beneath every shard
is a holy spark nothing can ever quench.

Originally published at Bayit.

 

That's one of the poems I wrote for Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group, to share as part of our collaborative offering for Tisha b'Av this year, which is called For the Sake of Ascent.

This year, it feels like we live in Tisha b'Av -- in the brokenness -- all the time. Between ongoing pandemic, the climate crisis, and the stripping-away of rights, there's no escaping what hurts.

This year, we wanted our Tisha b'Av offering to acknowledge the broken places, but beyond that, to offer some meaning and hope despite all of our shattered places... or maybe in them and through them. 

And this year, the holiday falls on Shabbat, so it will be observed the following day, which is actually the tenth of Av -- and the first day of the reverse Omer count, the 49-day journey toward Rosh Hashanah.

That's the hook on which our offering hangs. The lowest point of our year is also the beginning of uplift: from rock bottom, where else is there to go? We respond to what's broken with building back better.

The theme for Bayit's Tisha b'Av collaboration this year is Descent for the Sake of Ascent. This is a Hasidic idea that I deeply love. In a word, our falling down is precisely the first step of our rising up.

Anyway: I hope you'll click through to read the whole collection of poetry, liturgy, and art for this year's Tisha b'Av, available both as a PDF and as google slides: For the Sake of Ascent - Tisha b'Av 5782.


The Messenger We Need

Torah scroll with a photo of a donkey and title text superimposed

 

This week's Torah portion, Balak, contains the second talking animal in Torah! (The first one was the snake who spoke to Eve, way back at the start of Bereshit.)

In this week's installment of our story: Balak, the king of Moab, sees the children of Israel encamped on his land. We're migrants, fleeing slavery in Egypt.

refugees
Balak gets agitated, and compares us to a swarm of insects. He sends an envoy to Bil'am, a foreign prophet, asking him to come and curse us to make us go away.

The first thing Bil'am does is consult with YHVH, and God tells him not to curse us. So he says nope, sorry, can't.

Balak sends more envoys, promises him all kinds of riches, until finally Bil'am shrugs and says, okay, I guess. I'll come to you, but I can only say what God puts in my mouth to say.

When he gets to Moab, he gets up on a mountaintop and what comes out of his mouth are blessings. Balak grouses, ugh, it's not working, try cursing them from a different mountaintop. But again, what comes out are blessings. The third time, he says:

MahTovuWatermark

Illustration by Steve Silbert; available at Redbubble!

"How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel!" -- the words we sing as Mah Tovu sometimes on Shabbat morning. Balak yells at him, and he points out, "Hey, I told you I could only say what God puts in my mouth to say." And then for good measure, he offers a curse... on Balak!

It's a great story. But I want to focus on the part before he gets to Moab to do the cursing that turns into blessing.

Bil'am's on the road, riding on a donkey. And Torah tells us, a מַלְאַ֧ךְ יְהֹוָ֛ה, a "messenger of God," stands in his way as an adversary. Maybe you recognize the word mal'ach from Shalom Aleichem, the song we often sing on Friday nights to welcome the angels of Shabbat? Mal'ach, the word for messenger, also means angel.

Artists renderings of Bilam and the donkey

Apparently Bil'am doesn't see this mal'ach. The donkey does, though, and she swerves. So Bil'am whacks her with a stick. After the third time this happens, YHVH opens the donkey's mouth, and she says to Bil'am, "What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times??"

(And maybe it's because my son was in the local sixth grade production of Shrek: The Musical a few weeks ago, but I can't help hearing this in Eddie Murphey's donkey voice.)

Shrek and Donkey

Then, Torah tells us, God uncovers Bil'am's eyes and he sees the messenger of God standing in the way, and he bows down to the ground.

There was an angel standing right in front of him, and he didn't see.

*

Jewish tradition offers us a lot of different ideas about what angels are and what they do. Here are three of my favorites.

quote about an angel behind every blade of grass

Midrash teaches that even every humble blade of grass has an angel dedicated to its existence, who taps it and tells it to grow. (Bereshit Rabbah 10:6)

Talmud teaches that the unnamed people who materialize to deliver an important message in Torah are angels. Like the "men" who showed up to tell Sarah she was pregnant. Or the "man" who tells Joseph, "Oh, your brothers went that way."

Our mystical tradition also offers all kinds of ways to think about angels. Dr. Tamar Frankiel notes that, "Kabbalists have taught that while some angels are created by God, others develop from the results of human actions. Thus, the angel created by a good deed continues to exist and can return, so to speak, to affect people in a positive way."

I love the idea that everything on earth has a dedicated angel supporting it. I love the idea that we create angels with our actions. And I love the idea of the unnamed people in Torah being mal'achim -- messengers -- because it implies that anybody could be one. Maybe in our era, mal'ach is a role we play for each other.

What would it be like to approach every interaction as though the other person might be a messenger of the divine? If everyone I meet might have a message for me, does that change how I walk in the world? How about if I might unknowingly be carrying the message that someone else needs?

It's interesting that the angel in Bil'am's story is described as לְשָׂטָ֣ן ל֑וֹ / l'satan lo -- placed there "to oppose him." Apparently it's this angel's job in this moment to stand in his way. What would it be like to experience whatever's blocking us as an angel, a messenger from God? Whatever's getting in the way of the work, our stuck places, our frustration -- could those be messengers too, placed here to wake us up, to prod us to grow?

(The verb l'satan means to oppose, and yes, this is the origin of the idea of an angel who stands in opposition, which in Christian tradition became a figure named Satan. But that's another story.)

*

I feel a pang of recognition, reading about Bil'am. He was so preoccupied with his journey that his eyes were closed to the messenger of God standing right in front of him. Haven't we all been there?

Two artists renderings of Jacob's ladder

It makes me think of another figure in Torah who encounters an angel. His name was Jacob. Maybe you remember: he tricks his father into giving him the blessing reserved for the firstborn, and then he runs away from his slightly older twin, Esau. He has a dream about a ladder and some angels. When he wakes, he gasps, "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!"

Spiritual life is a neverending journey. We notice the presence of the holy; we get distracted; we notice again. Waking up and recognizing that God is in this place, or that the person in front of me might tell me something that could change my life, or that the animal beside me notices something that I don't -- none of that is one-and-done.

And we might not need the same message all the time. Maybe today I need an angel to remind me that there are good reasons to have hope. And tomorrow I might need someone to remind me to take action to make the world a better place.

Or maybe it's my job today to bring both of those messages to you.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Titanic

Unfortunately I did not manage
to solve gun violence today.
Instead I soaked a cup of beans
-- big plump ayocote negros --
and simmered them with a mirepoix
of shallot and celery, peppercorn
and bay. Tonight I'll peel and fry
the blackest plantain, dusting
ginger and red pepper flakes
over its sweet insides.
Probably more people were shot
today, somewhere, many of them
with weapons that do damage
no surgeon can repair. Also
the Supreme Court keeps
stripping rights away, and
people say that's only the start.
Did you know there's a megadrought
in the southwest, the worst
it's been in twelve hundred years?
Armageddon isn't included
in my theology, though
that doesn't preclude collapse
of climate, or government, or
everything I hold dear. Still
I offered a prayer for gratitude
when I got out of bed, cooked
black beans, prepared for Shabbes.
I may be rearranging deck chairs
or conducting the string quartet
on the Titanic, but the thing is
this life is the only boat we have.
There might as well be beauty
and a meal, a prayer and a song.


 

with weapons that do damage / no surgeon can repair - See What I Saw Treating the Victims from Parkland Should Change the Debate on Guns, Heather Sher, The Atlantic

the Supreme Court keeps / stripping rights away - See What Rights Could Be Next?, Politico; The End of Roe Could Be Just the Beginning, GQ

Did you know there's a megadrought - See Megadrought In the Southwest Is Now The Worst In At Least 1200 Years, Study Confirms, State of the Planet. 


Glimmer

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Not yet twilight.


We were sitting on the deck, as we often do on summer evenings. My son had brought his portable bluetooth speaker outside and was quietly listening to his favorite songs on Spotify.

The sky darkened, and I marveled at its changes, as I always do. We spotted the crescent moon. "Is it waxing or waning?" my son asked.

"Waxing," I told him. "This is the new moon of Tamuz, the month just started." I remembered the printed list of beloved things that my mother left in her files for us to include in her obituary. The moon was on that list. 

Then my kid squinted into the gloaming. "What is that?"

I stood up and looked out toward the stand of trees on the far side of the expanse of condo lawn. "What is what?"

"Those little... sparkles."

"Those are fireflies."

"Wait, really?"

A tiny spark. Another one. Flickering pinpricks of light across the lawn's expanse.

I wanted to snap a picture, but my phone's camera couldn't make them out. The naked eye could, though. Little glints of light, like flecks of gold in the evening air.

I have a vague idea that fireflies are more rare now than they used to be, a casualty of light pollution and our changing climate. I remember an antique children's book in Czech about fireflies that used to be displayed in my parents' library. I wonder which of their descendants has that book now. My mother loved fireflies, too. 

"Awesome, right?" I asked my son, and he agreed enthusiastically. We made a shechecheyanu, sanctifying the moment and our aliveness in it -- and the fireflies' aliveness, too.

There's so much that I don't know how to fix. But I am grateful for moments like these, even though I can't hold on to them.

Every moment sparkles, if I look at it right. Every moment slips free from my cupped hands and is gone.