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December 2022

Opening Heart and Soul: Vaera 5783

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Early in this week's Torah portion, Va'era, God makes four promises to us: I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians; I will redeem you with an outstretched arm; I will take you to be My people and I will be your God; and I will bring you into the land of promise. (From Exodus 6:6-8)

The Four Cups we bless and drink at our Passover seders represent these promises of freedom, redemption, covenant, and that "land" of promise and becoming. "But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage." (Ex. 6:9)

The children of Israel can't hear what he's saying, because their spirits have been crushed. קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ / Kotzer ruah: spiritual shortness of breath, constriction of soul. They've been mistreated for so long they can no longer imagine anything better than Mitzrayim (Egypt) and meitzarim (tight straits).

Then come the first several plagues. Before the first plague we read, "וַיֶּחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה / v'y'hazek lev Par'o, Yet Pharaoh’s heart stiffened." And then, repeatedly, "וַיַּכְבֵּ֤ד פַּרְעֹה֙ אֶת־לִבּ֔וֹ / v'y'khabed Par'o et-libo, And Pharaoh hardened his heart." Rashi renders it as "he allowed his heart to become hardened."

Only after Pharaoh has hardened his heart six times does Torah say that "God hardened his heart." I think of this almost like karma. Pharaoh makes his choices, repeatedly, and in time he becomes what he has chosen. It's not a lightning bolt from on high; God just lets him continue the groove he's carved.

Spiritual shortness of breath; spiritual calcification of the heart. We could call those anxiety -- and indifference. Or grief -- and callousness. Or depression  -- and cruelty. Or fear -- and power. These ways of being are not something from our ancient spiritual past. They're part of the human condition.

Maybe we've felt stuck in an unbearable place, unable to imagine better, unable even to conceptualize that we deserve better than this. Maybe we've been crushed by depression and its nihilistic whisper that nothing is ever better than this anyway so it's not worth trying. I'd call those kotzer ruah.

And maybe we've hardened our hearts. Though I want to unpack that a little. It can mean turning away from suffering, ignoring our obligations to the most vulnerable. And we've all done that, and we can all do better. And... I'm also aware that hardening the heart can be a necessary defense mechanism. 

Sometimes we couldn't function if we opened our hearts to all of the suffering in our world. Sometimes we have to shield or encase the heart in a kind of spiritual armor to be safe. I think that might be where Pharaoh started. And my support for that theory is the verb that Torah uses here.

"וַיֶּחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה / v'y'hazek lev Par'o, Yet Pharaoh’s heart stiffened[.]" That verb is the same one we find in Psalm 27: חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ / Hazak v'ya'amatz libecha! "Be strong and strengthen your heart," or as we sing it during the Days of Awe, "Be strong and open your heart wide!"

Strengthening our hearts can be good and holy and necessary. And Torah also teaches us to cut away the calcified layer of armor that can build up around the heart. "[Cut away] the foreskin of your heart" (Deut. 10:16 -- here are some beautiful teachings on that.) Healthy spiritual life asks both of these.

"Be strong and open up your heart wide" -- because it takes strength to have heart, to be open-hearted. We need gevurah, power and strength and boundaries, and hesed, openhearted flowing love. In other words, we need the balance of the two -- tiferet, our high holiday theme for 5783.

Hardening our hearts is something different. If we repeatedly harden our hearts, as Pharaoh did, after a whie we're not talking about a protective shell that can be opened. A persistent pattern of choosing hardness of heart will eventually turn the heart to stone. It's up to us to feel the difference.

It strikes me that both of these ask us to open up. Open the heart -- safely, appropriately, but find ways to not be wholly closed-off. And as for our spirit, maybe it's like in Psalm 118: "From the straits I called to You; answer me with Your expansiveness!" We cry out; God opens us up.

If you're living with kotzer ruah, spiritual shortness of breath or a constricted heart, I can promise you that life will not always be this. And if you can't believe that, I'll hold it for you until you can feel it. Change will come, as certain as Tu BiShvat heralds the inner growth of a new spiritual spring.

And if you're living with a protective shell around your heart: may you find safety to open that protective covering and let emotions out and in. Be strong and open your heart wide. That's renewed tiferet. That's how we reach God's promises of freedom and covenant and promise in days to come.

 

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


Our Cup Undrunk

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... Understood this way, the fifth promise is transformed from a divine promise we await, to a divine promise that if we ourselves act, then the fifth promise will be fulfilled.  

That clarion call is the modern message of the fifth cup (now cups – for Elijah and Miriam): even amidst celebration we must never rest on laurels or close our eyes to all that remains undone.  We must take up our tools and build that better future.  After all, too many remain bound, hopeless, unable even to yearn for a better future.  For them, and so for all of us, the fifth cup remains undrunk.

But symbols only matter if, well, they matter.  It’s too easy to let the fifth cup’s urgent call fade along with the taste of parsley dipped in tears. How do we stay mindful when Torah’s narrative goes elsewhere and the Pesach dishes are packed away? ...

 

I had the joy and the privilege of coauthoring this week's Torah commentary for Builders Blog. This year we're blogging through the Torah cycle with an eye toward building an ethic of social justice and a world worthy of the divine. 

Read the whole post at Builders Blog: Our Cup Undrunk For Now, co-written with R. David Evan Markus.


Red

The soup my ancestors made
was not like this.

Beets withered from cold storage
haven't changed, nor

the sharp bite of cabbage,
potatoes blinded by a paring knife

but who had tomato paste
in Stolpce or in Krasnopol?

They didn't store their broth
in freezer-safe Ziplocs

or browse a dozen recipes
for just the right black bread.

And when they heard
somebody hates the Jews

they might have said, so what?
Lake sturgeon swim upstream.

Some make it home to spawn;
some spill their gleaming jewels

at the tip of a fisherman's knife.
They don't complain. The water

that they breathe is all
they've ever known.

 


 

Hot Ukrainian Borscht is the Winter's Most Restorative Soup, Cook's Illustrated, January 2023.

A Family Finds Swastikas on the Lawn as Antisemitism Surges, The Washington Post, January 2023.

 

Also, it does look like tomato paste has long been a Russian staple -- though I'm guessing it was more likely to be homemade than to be the kind of mass-produced stuff most Americans eat now.


Finding The Missing Jew anew

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I don't have a copy of the original 1979 edition, alas.

 

When I saw the words "Jews do not come from heaven" in the table of contents of The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2022 by Rodger Kamenetz, unbidden my mouth said aloud, "they come from Russia."

I love this poem. I have been quoting its opening lines since I read a previous edition of The Missing Jew when I was in grad school the first time around, getting my MFA at Bennington. Here it is:

Jews do not come from heaven
they come from Russia.
With green eyes and olive skin.
Jews do not go to heaven
they go to Baltimore.

They do not come from heaven
because heaven is always
in the back of their minds.
They don't want to think about
heaven any more
it's too much trouble.

God bless Ben Yehuda Press (full disclosure: they published my books Open My Lips and Texts to the Holy, and they are Bayit's publishing partner on Beside Still Waters and Renew Our Hearts).

They've brought this new-old creation into print as The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2022. The first section is the original 1979 collection. Rodger remixed his own work in 1992, and that's here too:

"Jews do not come from heaven..."

Jews are all people
in time
They are as plain
as day...

I thought to go back
to some Russia
of the eyes
Hazel eyes
green mixed with brown
young wheat, dark soil
streaks of sunlight
and a winter
of suffering...

I am here
in the thinnest sense
imaginable
an exile
wherever I go

Look how this poem speaks to its predecessor, like a great-grandchild answering a letter left by an ancestor. I hear melancholy Shostakovich, I feel my Russian grandfather looking over my shoulder.

And the remix of "Jews do not go to heaven" -- I will resist re-typing it here for you. I'm going to memorize that one, though. The one word he revised between 1992 and 2022 changes everything.

Is there a word in the world
waiting to be heard?
As if for the first time
and the only time is now?

That's from "Invisible Lines of Connection," dated 2020. Although this book was pieced from many sources -- published books, other poems from other moments -- it feels like an integrated whole. 

That integration makes me think of how the Talmud both holds and transcends the voices within. Even when the sages disagree, they are (as it were) on the same page. It's one interconnected conversation.

Here are psalms and songs from 1981-2021. Here are mourning poems, including "Lentil" which we reprinted in Beside Still Waters. It sometimes makes me gasp when I run across it again there.

This book is full of memory, and mysticism, and God speaking the world into being in Her own inimitable way, and Reb Nachman with his tears under the table pretending to be a turkey.

Fallen leaves recite kaddish. The infinite arrives on lightning feet. Every word is broken. Only the hidden can burst forth. We forgot what we were yearning for. Every one and every thing is for you.

I'm cheating: that paragraph is a pastiche of Rodger's lines. If that doesn't entice you, I don't know what would. I want to start a new commonplace book so I can copy these lines in my own hand.

 

The Missing Jew Poems 1976-2022 is available at Ben Yehuda Press or wherever books are sold.

 


The Promise of Becoming: Vayechi 5783 / 2023

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This week's Torah potion, Vayechi -- "He lived" -- is bookended with a pair of deaths. We begin with Jacob. He offers blessings and curses to his children and grandchildren. He makes Joseph promise to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah where his ancestors are buried. And then his life ends.

By the end of the Torah portion, it's Joseph's turn. He tells his family that someday, when God lifts us out of Egypt, he wants his bones to be carried out of there too. As Joseph's story ends, so does Genesis. Joseph is the last patriarch whose story we experience as part of our spiritual family tree.

When our story begins again in Exodus, a lot of time has passed. In Exodus we'll enter the story of a community rather than a family. The first time I studied the parsha this week, I thought about burying my own father. And then I expanded my view, and I noticed something that feels important.

There's a difference in the two death scenes that feels relevant to me. Jacob says "bury me with my ancestors." He didn't live in Egypt for long, and what he wants after death is to go back to where he was before, where his generations are buried. In a sense, he reaches backward. 

Joseph says, "God will take notice of you and bring you up to the Land of Promise," so take me with you when you go. Geographically, he's talking about the same place, so if this is a physical descriptor, there's no difference. But notice: Jacob references the past. Joseph invokes the future.

Joseph is saying: I know that God is going to call you into something new. My life brought me to places my ancestors couldn't have imagined, and your lives will go places I couldn't have imagined, and that's as it should be. Grow, change, mature into freedom! Just bring part of me with you when you go.

Two fundamentally different approaches. Take me back to where I was before, or what my ancestors did before, or what I've been told my ancestors did... or take me forward into change, into becoming. Becoming can be scary; it may ask a lot of us. But turning back won't get us where we need to be.

The idea of the land of promise can mean a lot of things: a physical place, a spiritual space, a future redemption. In 1630, John Cotton called America a land of promise. In 1785, so did George Washington. In the 20th century, countless immigrants (many of them Jewish) sought promise here.

There are deep tensions between that idea and the worldview of Native American nations who lived in mutual care with this land and its abundance before we got here. For me the idea of a land of promise is most resonant when it's not about geography or ownership, but about ideals and aspirations.

And this turns out to be a poignant week to be contemplating our national ideals and aspirations -- between the dysfunction on view in Congress and the anniversary of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. (Relatedly, all but two of those who have been holding Congress hostage are election deniers.)

We have a long way to go to live up to democracy's promise. The equity and inclusion inherent in the declaration that "all... are created equal." The integrity shining in the ideal of "liberty and justice for all." Yes: that's the world I want! I think of these ideals as more as a direction than a destination.

Will we ever "get there" -- to perfect democracy; to perfect justice; to a world where (in the words we often sing as our Aleinu) "everywhere will be called Eden once again"? Probably not. But our spiritual covenant as Jews -- and, I think, as Americans -- calls us to keep pushing in that direction.

I keep returning to the image of Jacob on his deathbed looking back, and Joseph on his deathbed looking forward. I think this moment calls us to emulate Joseph, and to recognize that our yearned-for future of justice and integrity may ask a spiritual expansiveness our ancestors never imagined.

Joseph knew that God would call his descendants, and their descendants, into something new he couldn't foresee. (As our story goes: from servitude to holy service, from slaves with no autonomy to whole souls in willing covenant with the Holy. Tune in next week as we begin the Exodus story.)

We can't know where our story will go -- our personal story, our family story, our national story. But we can dream of promises fulfilled, and then build toward that future. We can do everything we can to aim ourselves and our communities toward integrity and justice, human dignity and hope.

That's my prayer for us this week:

May we be like Joseph!

May our every descent be for the sake of ascending higher.

And may we embrace becoming all that we can become.

 

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

 


Sacred

 

Left: photograph by Leah Millis, part of this series.

Right: poster for today's Stand Out for Democracy.



Two years ago today an armed mob, fueled by lies of a stolen election, violated the United States Capitol. Some carried Confederate flags; others wore white supremacist insignia. The broken glass and splintered doors from their attack on the Capitol have long since been cleared away. The work of reconsecrating the sacred space of our democracy continues. 

I don’t just mean the literal Capitol building, though anyplace where public servants gather to govern with integrity is a holy place in my eyes. Democracy flourishes most wholly when each of us is accorded a full measure of human rights and dignity – in Jewish language, when we honor the innate holiness of every soul. 

Senator Raphael Warnock expressed it this way in his first speech to Congress in 2021: “Democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea: that we are all children of God and therefore we ought all to have a voice in the direction of our country and our destiny within it. Democracy honors the sacred worth of all human beings.” 

As you probably know, in addition to being a public servant Senator Warnock is a pastor, so he frames that idea in religious language. I’m a rabbi, so I do too. But the inherent worth of every human being is a pillar of democracy whether or not the God-language resonates. And let’s be clear: this is an aspiration and a value that our nation is still growing into. 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal..."

That originally meant white property-owning men. Black people were considered ⅗ of a person. White women lost autonomy, property, and rights the moment we married (which we didn't really have a choice about doing). Thankfully human wisdom continues to evolve. Today we sanctify our democracy by equally valuing people of every race, creed, gender expression, and marital status.  

We sanctify our democracy by repudiating the white Christian nationalism implicit in the Jan. 6  insurrection, and by rededicating ourselves to pluralism. White nationalists think that diversity is a weakness, but that limited and limiting worldview tarnishes the splendor of what humanity can be. Our diversity is an integral part of the America we want to call home. 

We sanctify our democracy with every act of justice – with every act of truth-telling – with every act of integrity. We sanctify our democracy when we resist falsehood and demand accountability. We sanctify our democracy when we live up to our responsibilities to one another and our responsibilities to those who are most vulnerable. 

Rep. John Lewis z”l taught that “Democracy is not a state. It’s an act.” Which is to say, an action. Democracy is something we do – and keep doing. Our nation’s highest ideals have yet to be realized, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. As we learn in Pirkei Avot, “לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה / It is not incumbent on us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from doing what we can.”

 

These are the words I shared at the Stand Out for Democracy at First Congregational Church in Williamstown on the second anniversary of the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol.