« August 2022 | Main

Tools for Tough Times: Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5783

Screen Shot 2022-09-09 at 9.45.13 AM

 

Last month, the Academy of American Poets shared a Poem of the Day by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza called “The Sunset and the Purple-Flowered Tree.” Here’s how it begins:

I talk to a screen who assures me everything is fine.
I am not broken. I am not depressed. I am simply
in touch with the material conditions of my life. It is
the end of the world, and it’s fine...

The poem reminded me of so many of our conversations over the last year. We are not broken. We are simply in touch with the material conditions of our lives.

Screen Shot 2022-09-09 at 9.45.27 AM

Long Covid continues to mystify doctors. Apparently polio is back.  Election denial corrodes our civic life. There are heartbreaking stories out of states where reproductive health care is now banned. And don’t forget school shootings, 29 of them so far this year. And Putin trying to take over Ukraine. And this year has brought a rise in laws designed to abridge the rights of LGBTQIA+ folks, and antisemitism, too.

And then there’s the climate crisis. Floods like the one in Kentucky – or in Pakistan, or in Chad. Wildfires (when I wrote this, there were 624 wildfires burning in eighteen states, plus many more around the world.) Extreme heat melting airport runways

As my friend Rabbi Mike Moskowitz sometimes says, “the world is super broken.” I know that many of us are struggling. Some are languishing, living with “a sense of stagnation and emptiness.” (per Adam Grant in the New York Times.) And for some of us, languishing can slip into hopelessness.

Our liturgy proclaims: hayom harat olam: today the world is born!

Okay, but how do we celebrate the world’s birthday when things feel so hard?

This is not the first time the Jewish community has lived through collective crisis.  The question I’ve been asking is: what spiritual tools did our forebears use to get through hard times? What did Judaism’s toolbox offer them, and what can it offer us?

Continue reading "Tools for Tough Times: Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5783" »


Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783: The Sacred "And" (co-written with R. David Markus)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Screen Shot 2022-09-22 at 12.44.24 PM

The author of these words, Charles Dickens, was a virulent antisemite, and his opening words from A Tale of Two Cities in 1859 England might well describe us on this Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783.  

Each year we call Rosh Hashanah a new start, and this Rosh Hashanah falls on troubled times.  Science is taming the pandemic, and gun violence is raging.  Global living standards are the best ever, and Mississippi’s entire capital city just went days without drinking water while one third of Pakistan was under water.  The world is more peaceful than at any time since Charles Dickens, and the Ukraine war threatens global stability. 

Screen Shot 2022-09-22 at 12.44.31 PM

Genuine commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion are blossoming, and antisemitism is resurging.  The U.S. just made historic investments in clean energy, and climate disasters are mounting.  Democracy’s guardrails held, and they are at risk.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Both are true.  And the both-ness of our “best of times” and “worst of times,” the emotional and cognitive load of it all, has been a rollercoaster.  We’ve felt afraid, courageous, overloaded, numb, sickened, healed, inspired, disgusted, hopeful, helpless, angry, overjoyed and just plain tired – sometimes in rapid succession, sometimes all in the same day.

Continue reading "Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783: The Sacred "And" (co-written with R. David Markus)" »


Three days in

Image_20220915_133516_259

1. Thursday

"The second line is really faint," I said. "Maybe I'm imagining it."

"I can see it," said one friend to whom I texted the image.

"It's like a pregnancy test," said another. "You can't be 'a little bit' Covid-positive."

"Take another home test," they suggested. I took another one, a different brand. This one too had the faintest of faint positive lines, if I squinted at it just right. 

My kid had been diagnosed with Covid a few days prior. His symptoms were dramatic and immediate. I wore my best KN95 masks indoors, turned the air filter up to high, opened windows... but I knew there was a risk I might come down with it too. I went to the testing center and they swabbed my nose. When the call came, I was already resigned to what I didn't want to be true.

2. Friday

If one is a congregational rabbi, ten days before Rosh Hashanah is not a great time to come down with Covid. (No time is ideal, but this might be the worst time of year to be sick in this line of work.) A flurry of emails set Plan B and Plan C into motion in case they are needed. Plan A is still that I will co-lead services... and I have no way of knowing whether I'll be up to doing so.

"It's Schrödinger's Rosh Hashanah," I quipped to a friend. Either I'll be up to it, or I won't. Either I'll be recovered, or I won't. Maybe I'll be onsite for Rosh Hashanah, recovered. Maybe I'll be online, still symptomatic. Maybe I'll be in bed. There's no way to know. Dear God: I know that Mystery is a truth of the universe, but did You have to bring that home to me so palpably right now?

Because of my history of strokes and heart attack, my doctor got me in for an infusion of monoclonal antibodies. The infusion center reminded me of my mother. (Back in the early days of her mycobacterial lung infection, they tried treating it with infusions, and I went with her a few times.) A room full of recliner chairs. A television -- on, inevitably. At least it was playing food tv.

To my surprise, there was no IV. Instead a nurse pushed one syringe of the stuff into an IV port on my hand and flushed it with saline. Then they observed me for an hour, taking my vitals every fifteen minutes. I read more of Michael Twitty's new book Koshersoul, which is tremendous, as I expected it to be. Then they sent me home with instructions to rest and hydrate.

3. Saturday

So far my experience of Covid is like a really nasty flu. Unpleasant, but not unlike illnesses I've had before. I know what fever and chills are, and body aches. I know how to get electrolytes into me, and microwave soup, and wrap up in a blanket. To nap when my body asks for sleep. To watch comforting, familiar television that isn't taxing to my tired brain. We all know this drill.

The difference with this one is that sometimes it lingers. And we won't know whether that's my path until it either is, or isn't. Multiple studies have shown that women are more likely than men to develop Long Covid. Some say that resting a lot, during the initial illness phase, helps to forestall it. Clearly rest is important once one has it, if one gets it. I don't want to get it.

I learned this summer that heart attacks often manifest differently in women than in men. Women are 5x more likely than men to have MINOCA, but some (male) doctors have been dismissive of my experience. How many (male) doctors dismiss Long Covid, too, because it impacts women more than it does men? I could rant about medical sexism, if I had the energy. (I don't.)

And, most likely I will be fine. It's a good opportunity to meditate on fragility and mortality. It's also no fun. I'm deeply grateful for vaccines, and boosters, and monoclonal antibodies: none of these was available when the pandemic started. And... I know that not everyone can get the antibodies. Not everyone can take days off from work to rest and heal. I know how lucky I am.

 


Old photos

WitteYour grandson found photos of you on eBay this morning. They're archival newspaper photos -- from the San Antonio Express-News, or maybe from the San Antonio Light which hasn't existed in decades. It's disconcerting to think of a stranger buying these black-and-white 8 x 10s. Because they have a yen for pictures that give off that 1980 vibe? Because they like the jut of your nose, the spark in your eye? They're "vintage originals." No one knows they're part of my family history. Someone could pick these up for their visual appeal, the way I used to browse for hand-tinted postcards of the Mohawk Trail. When we were cleaning out your house, we recycled all of the yellowed newspaper clippings -- none of us wanted more clutter. You might say, "Who cares, they're just old photos!" But I can't resist these old photographs of you, cropping up in my browser this morning like you're waving hello from olam ha-ba


D'varling for Ki Tetze: Who Do We Choose to Be?

Screen Shot 2022-09-10 at 9.34.27 AM

If you look up at the sky this weekend, you might notice that the moon is becoming full. This weekend brings the middle of Elul – the final month of the old year; the month that leads us to the Days of Awe. During this month, our mystics say, “The King is in the Field.” 

Screen Shot 2022-09-10 at 9.34.35 AM

Here’s the metaphor: imagine that God is a King who lives in a vast and distant palace. Unreachable! So far away! Probably guarded by armies of angels! We’d never get an audience with such a sovereign. But this month, the King is in the field. God leaves that palace and walks with us in the meadow. During Elul, God is right here with us, so close we could almost reach out and touch. “The King is in the field” means that God is completely accessible to us. If we open our hearts, we might feel God’s presence, ready to hear whatever we need to say.

Of course, I believe that God is always accessible to us – that we can pray whenever and wherever and however we need to, and we will be heard, even if we don’t get an answer. But I love the idea that during this last month of the old year, God is extra available. We might even say, “Whoa: God is in this place!” Because every place can be a place of holiness, and justice, and love, a place where we connect with something beyond ourselves. Except we’re human and we keep forgetting. And then we remember again. 

Screen Shot 2022-09-07 at 3.17.03 PM

Elul is when many of us start thinking about teshuvah again. Teshuvah literally means either “answer,” or “turning around.” Often it’s translated as repentance or return. Teshuvah can be a year-round practice: noticing our actions and our patterns, checking whether we messed up and need to make amends, doing inner work so we won’t make the same mistakes again. We can do that all the time. Regardless, that work intensifies now, as the holidays approach.

If teshuvah is an answer, what’s the question? I think the question is very simple: who do we choose to be?

Screen Shot 2022-09-07 at 3.17.11 PM

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become.” He lived in the 5th century BCE, around the same time that the Torah was written down in its final form.

He said we become what we choose, what we think, and what we do. My teacher Reb Zalman z”l did say “the mind is like tofu: it takes on the flavor of whatever you marinate it in.” Our thoughts definitely can impact us. Then again, Judaism doesn’t generally treat thoughts as sins. We’re much more concerned with choices and actions – and their impacts. 

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, is full of mitzvot – commandments. Some of them cry out to be reinterpreted, like the instructions for how to “marry” a captive in wartime. Others still ring clear. Here are four that jumped out at me this week:

  • Don’t abuse someone who works for you. (Deut. 24:14)
  • Don’t subvert the rights of the stranger or the orphan. (Deut. 24:17)
  • Leave the gleanings of the fields for the poor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan -- in other words, those at most risk of harm. (Deut. 24:19)
  • Always remember the story of our enslavement and then our liberation – and let that ancestral memory fuel how we treat others. (Deut. 24:22)

What would it look like to live up to these mitzvot? Not abusing our workers. Not subverting or abusing the rights of the vulnerable. Feeding the hungry. Remembering that the Jewish people has known hardship before, and therefore it’s on us to help those who are now in tight straits. Honestly, it sounds like a recipe for a pretty great society, if we can pull it off!

Who do we choose to be? I hope we will choose to be people who do teshuvah: noticing our actions and our patterns, checking whether we messed up and need to make amends, doing inner work so we won’t make the same mistakes again… and then, from that place of inner transformation, doing what we can to bring repair.

Shabbat shalom.

 

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


Abandon

 

כִּֽי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי וַֽיהֹוָ֣''ה יַאַסְפֵֽנִי׃

"Though my father and mother abandon me, God will take me in.” (Psalm 27:10)



It’s the start of Elul 
and these words
stick in my throat.

They’d grown so tired.
I told them it was okay,
they could go. But right now

it isn’t okay. They won’t
ever sit at my table again.
Their voices are silent.

All the high holidays
I haven’t lived yet
stretch ahead of me

without parents,
just still photos
behind the lit candle.

It’s a scant six months
since we buried him
on his side of the bed. 

Having no parents
is so much more (or less)
than having only one.