Impulse buys

In early spring it's wild ramps,
dark blades of onion-scented grass.

Then come the fairytale eggplants.
On the cusp of fall, tiny plums.

In winter I splurge on clementines
though citrus won't grow here, at least

not yet. Sometimes I treat myself
to marzipan at Christmastime, though

almond trees are struggling.
We're running out of groundwater.

How long until the memory of coffee beans
will be implausible as the days

when silvery cod were so plentiful
we walked across their backs to shore? 

 


 

 

America Is Using Up Its Groundwater Like There's No Tomorrow, New York Times

Can New England's Cod Fishing Industry Survive?, The Guardian

A Future Without Coffee?, Inter-American Development Bank

 


Take a Lamb: Shabbat HaGadol 5783

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Today is Shabbat HaGadol, "The Great Shabbat," right before Pesah. It's customary on this day for rabbis to teach about getting ready for the holiday. Usually that means teaching about removing hametz, whether literally (leaven) or metaphorically (the spiritual stuff we need to shed in order to go free.) And this afternoon it's traditional to study the haggadah -- again, to ready ourselves.

Today is also the 10th of Nisan. On this day our ancestors were told to take a lamb. Bring it into the home and look after it. Four days later, slaughter it and put its blood on the doorposts. The blood on the doorposts would tell the Angel of Death to "pass over." Though the Chizkuni, 1200s, teaches that God didn't delegate that. And surely God knows who we are. Maybe the visible reminder was for us.

What if the blood on the doorposts is to remind us? What do we need to remember? What deep truths do we forget about who we are? What are the costs of freedom -- what might we have to offer up in order to be freed from our stuck places... and to help others who aren't granted full human dignity to get there with us? Those are some big questions. But let's start with a smaller one: why a lamb?

Ramban (d. 1270) says the reason for the lamb is that Aries is the star sign ascendant at this time of year, and God wanted to prove to us that when we go free, it's not because of any luck in the stars. Among other sages, he also suggests that it's possible that the Egyptians worshipped lambs. So the sacrifice of a lamb was a way for us to break any allegiance to the symbol of their "god."

Readying ourselves to go free involved making this korban / offering. And it was supposed to be something familiar, something personal, something we'd been holding on to for a while and had even been nurturing. This pre-liberation offering evolved into the offering of a paschal lamb in Temple times, still represented on the table in our seder. So what's our modern emotional-spiritual equivalent?

I read an article the other day about climate "doomers." What's the point of doing anything, when we've ruined the Earth? It's a compelling question. And yet I keep thinking about Ramban's teaching that the lamb represented idolatry. Isn't fatalism a kind of idolatry, in which we think our hopelessness is stronger than God? (As always, if the "G-word" doesn't work for you try justice or hope or love.)

Nihilism is never a good Jewish answer. Because nihilism is an abdication of responsibility, and Judaism is all about responsibility: to ourselves, to each other, to our world, to our Source. Doom and despair perpetuate kotzer ruah, that spiritual shortness of breath that our ancestors knew in Egypt. And if we're stuck in despair, we aren't owning our agency, and we're not creating change.

Here, too, our ancient spiritual story offers a roadmap. Their spirits crushed, our ancestors cried out, and that cry was the first step toward liberation. So yeah, cry out. Feel what's broken and give it voice. And remember that crying-out is the first step. When we face what's broken, when we cry out, we open up a tiny internal space. We open ourselves to the possibility that things could change.

Granted, change may not be easy. Our spiritual ancestors went from Pharaoh's frying pan into the fire of forty years of wilderness wandering. But the fact of a new path is hopeful even if the path is hard. Because nihilism and despair and paralysis say: nothing's ever going to be different. What's broken will always be broken and can never be mended, so it isn't worth even trying. But it is worth trying. 

That "climate doomer" article notes, "Nowadays, climate scientists try to emphasize that climate change isn’t a pass/fail test: Every tenth and hundredth of a degree of warming avoided matters." In other words, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What we do matters, even if it's not a complete fix. And if we scorn anything short of a complete fix, we're compounding the problem.

Here's a question I sit with: who benefits when we lose ourselves in doom or despair? I think the answer is: whoever has a vested interest, often a fiscal one, in things staying the way they are. And that results in greater harm for those who were already vulnerable -- whether we're talking about people in the path of the next tornado, or schoolchildren helpless against the next mass shooting.

R. Avi Weiss notes the order of operations: before offering the lamb, we clear out hametz. First we cast away the puffery of overinflated ego, because the paschal offering asks humility. The korban Pesah is also the first step toward the revelation of Torah at Sinai... which reminds me that we never know what holy outcomes our choices might set in motion. That's another form of humility.

I like his teaching about humility, though this year I prefer to think of hametz (from לחמוץ, to sour or ferment) not as ego but as sourness. Everyone needs a healthy ego. Often what holds us back from liberation is the old sour stuff: old stories and flaws and resentments, old patterns of seeing ourselves or each other in the worst light... and maybe also old habits of hopelessness and despair.

So first we seek out the hametz we need to clean out of our physical houses and our metaphysical houses. Look within for the old sour stories that no longer serve, and cast them to the burning. Then we can bring the korban Pesah we need to offer up this year -- maybe the helplessness or fatalism that we've been unwittingly nurturing. We offer up the habit, the tendency, the fear that holds us back.

R. Lynn Gottlieb wrote:

"All that rises up bitter, all that rises up prideful, all that rises up in old ways no longer fruitful, all hametz unknown to me... may it find common grave with the dust of the Earth." 

This year, I add:

May our sourness be nullified. May we offer up what we need to let go. May we mark our doorposts with reminders of who we aspire to be. And in that merit, may we go forth ready for freedom.

 

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


Notice


Phone, shut up about the news.
War in Ukraine, assault on trans rights,

a perp walk and its possibilities --
even the very Facebook where people

will find this poem: none of them help me.
Alert me to pay a different attention.

Listen: the red-winged blackbirds are back.
Forsythia blooms across the muddy lawn.

The angle of light has changed -- even when
the mercury drops, the sun's irrepressable.

From here the willow trees look smudged,
sunny haze hinting at leaves to come.

There will always be seasons to notice.
If all else fails, there's always the sky.


Future

Images

In the car on the way to the orthodontist my son and I were talking about the future. What do we imagine the next fifty or hundred years will bring? He thinks the biggest problems facing humanity are bias (e.g. racism, homophobia and transphobia, antisemitism) and the climate crisis. And he's not sure we can fix either one. Of course, I started arguing for a hopeful outlook. Sure, we may not be able to "fix" either one, but we can make things better than they are now, and in fact I'd argue that we have to. "Sure, Mom," he said. "I mean, of course we do. But you're always more hopeful than I am."

That's normal for his generation, I know. I grew up believing in recycling plastics; he's growing up with climate crisis and coming ecological collapse. I grew up believing that antisemitism was over and homophobia was outdated. He's growing up in an era when our synagogue doors are always locked, with trans friends who know there are states where they can't safely go. I grew up with the certainty that I could make decisions about my own body. He's growing up knowing that every friend with a uterus has lost that certainty, and that rights we thought were solid and stable can be taken away.

I reassure my teen that humanity isn't destined for extinction... though I'm aware that the climate is going to get a lot worse during his lifetime, and that the devastation will likely be worst in places far from here. I reassure him that most Americans don't hate trans and gender-non-conforming folks, or queer folks, or people of color, or Muslims or Hindus or Jews. But antisemitic attacks have been steadily ramping up over the last five years; and so have attacks on queer and trans people, in Florida and Georgia and Missouri and elsewhere; and racism doesn't seem to be going anywhere either...

Can I really promise him that he and his loved ones will be safe from rising seas and worsening storms, from the next pandemic or superbug, from Christian nationalism and white supremacy, from the drumbeat of bigotry? Of course not. I suppose it's always been true. What parent has ever been able to truly promise their child that everything would be okay? Our work as human beings is to live and love and work toward repair even though (or especially because) the world is as broken as it is! But I wish I could give him the luxury of growing up with the kind of whole-hearted optimism I knew.

I've read a lot of articles lately about why kids are struggling with depression and despair. It strikes me that for many of the teens I know, the combination of climate crisis and bigotry (e.g. antisemitism, racism, transphobia) feels pervasive in the world as they know it. How can I tell my kid everything's fine when there are literally hundreds of bills around the country trying to legislate his best friend out of existence, or when a kid on his schoolbus starts praising Hitler (possibly parroting Ye)? All I can do is redirect us toward, "there's work to do to fix things, so let's do what we can, together."


Recycling (first published in The Light Travels)

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The midrash says when the invaders left
they carried off the golden lamp as loot.
The absence of the lampstand was an ache –
without its light, reserves of hope ran low.
We had to improvise with what we had:
the iron spears our enemies had dropped.

We made our Ner Tamid that year with trash,
repurposing the implements of war
for bringing sacred light. How about now?
The planet is our Temple – and it burns.
We can’t just close our eyes. We’re all
indicted by the plastics in the seas.

We need to learn to sanctify what's here:
weave rags to rugs, old tires into shoes,
upcycle guns to instruments of song.
The miracle is not that God steps in –
it’s that we use these remnants to rebuild:
dedicate them and their sparks to God.

 

The midrash says. See Pesikta Rabbati 2:1. Ner Tamid. The “eternal light” that burns in every synagogue now, evoking the menorah lit in the Temple. The plastics in the sea. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one example of vast accumulation of microplastics in our oceans. Old tires into shoes. This is done all over the world, and is beginning to happen in the United States. Upcycle guns. See Pedro Reyes Creates 6,700 Beautiful Instruments from Mexican Drug War Guns.  We use these remnants. Innovators have turned plastic waste into bricks. Rededicate. The name Chanukah means dedication. [S]parks to God. From the mystical teaching that creation is filled with holy sparks that it’s our job to uplift.

 

This is my contribution to this year's Hanukkah offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. Click through for our whole collaborative offering of new poetry, liturgy, and art: The Light Travels.


A new essay in a new parshanut series!

...So does Lech-Lecha mean “go into yourself,” or “go forth from where you are”? Of course the answer is: it’s both.

Because of our calendar, we always read these lines with the Days of Awe reverberating in our souls. And that seems just right to me. The spiritual work of the high holidays takes us on a journey of introspection – that’s “go into yourself.” Now, as the new Torah cycle gets underway, that introspection fuels “go forth from where you are,” a journey of building a better world...

To build an ethic of social justice into our lives and our Judaism, we need to find balance’s sweet spot. We need to journey inward enough to see where we’ve fallen short and what work we need to do. And we need to journey outward enough to take the next action, however small, in lifting each other up – pursuing justice – mitigating climate crisis – helping someone in need...

That's an excerpt from my latest blog post for Bayit: Building Jewish. We've started an ongoing parshanut series that explores Torah through an ethic of social justice and building a world worthy of the Divine, and this is my first offering, written for this week's Torah portion, Lech-Lecha. I hope you'll read the whole thing: Journeying Inside and Out.

 


Don't Be Like Noah

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Here's the thing I can't get past this year. God tells Noah that the human experiment has failed. Humanity has become corrupt and lawless. So God instructs Noah to build an ark and use it to rescue his own family and all the animals of the earth. And after some description of what the ark is supposed to look like, Torah tells us, "Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did."

Why would I have a problem with Noah doing exactly what God told him to do? Imagine a great environmental crisis is coming, and all living beings on Earth are going to perish. So you build a spaceship and you take a genetic seedbank and your own family and you set off into space. But what about all of the other human beings? (And for that matter, the other beings on Earth, too?)

Later in our ancestral story we'll meet Avraham. And God tells Avraham that God plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. (We'll talk another week about their fundamental sin, which seems to have been a combination of selfishness, violence, and rape.) Hearing this, Avraham argues with God. He bargains: what if I can find you 50 good people? 45? 35? Even 10!

Avraham pleads with God to find a way to spare a couple of towns. In contrast, Noah learns that God is going to wipe out literally every other human being, animal, and plant on the surface of the earth, and he doesn't say a thing. And maybe this is why our sages argue about what Torah means when it says that Noah was a righteous man in his generation. Personally I like Rashi's second theory:

בדורותיו IN HIS GENERATIONS — Some of our Rabbis explain it (this word) to his credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance (cf. Sanhedrin 108a).

This may be one reason why we don't consider Noah to be the first Jew, though Noah heard directly from God and followed God's instructions to a T. To be a Jew is to question, to argue, to push back when something is unethical. To be a Jew is to be Yisrael, a Godwrestler -- one who wrestles with the Holy, with our texts and traditions, with what's right and what's wrong: not a silent follower.

To be clear, I don't believe that the climate crisis is a punishment for human wickedness the way Torah says that the Flood was. The climate crisis is the natural consequence of generations of collective human choices made by the industrialized world. We broke it, and we're going to have to fix it. But I do believe that the story of Noach has something to teach us today, to wit: don't be like Noah.

Noah protected his own family. I have empathy for that. It's natural to want to save our own loved ones. But that should be the start of our work, not the whole of it. And I believe that Judaism asks of us much more than that. Torah calls us to pursue justice, literally to chase it or run after it. And in the words of my friend R. Mike Moskowitz, justice can't be for "just us".

R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev teaches that that because Noah was so bad at tochecha -- rebuke, as in telling one's fellow human beings that they are acting unethically -- Noah's soul was reincarnated into Moses... who spent most of his life wandering in the wilderness with the children of Israel, grousing at them for being stiff-necked and stubborn, rebuking them every time they made a poor choice!

I love the idea that our souls return to this world as many times as they need, to learn the things they most need to learn. Have you ever heard someone say, "What did I do in my last life to deserve this?" It's a kind of pop culture version of karma. Jewish tradition frames repeated lifetimes not as punishments (e.g. "I screwed up last time so now I gotta do it again") but as opportunities for growth.

What are the qualities we need to strengthen, the patterns we need to shed -- and how can we each use that spiritual curriculum in service of helping each other? Noah could have argued with God, or urged his fellow human beings to make better choices, or helped other people build boats too -- but he built a boat for his own family and the menagerie, and kept to himself. I believe we can do better.

In this era of climate crisis and misinformation, we have to do better. The mitzvah most oft-repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Torah tells us to feed the hungry, to pay fair wages, to meet the needs of the disempowered. So no, building a boat (or a spaceship) just for us isn't sufficient. Our task is to care about each other -- to care for each other. 

And in so doing, together we can build a better world.

 

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

Shared with extra gratitude to the Bayit Board of Directors for Torah study this week.


Tools for Tough Times: Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5783

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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)" »


Since

since the election
since Nazis marched
in Charlottesville
since the pandemic started
and we ran out of PPE
and that guy suggested drinking bleach

since facts became debatable
(like how viruses work
and whether science is real)
since Kentucky flooded
since the tarmac at Heathrow
melted from extreme heat

since monkeypox
and sly insinuations
since Don't Say Gay
and teachers hiding who they are
and students hiding under desks
since I lost track of school shootings

since that time they said
"it doesn't matter
if we lose, we'll just
claim victory" and then did
since smashed windows in the Capitol
since Confederate flags

since democracy buckled
since I realized
democracy had been buckling
for a long time
since misinformation
since SCOTUS erased rights

since fear-mongering
about "groomers"
about "critical race theory"
since the latest flyer
blaming everything on
hook-nosed yarmulke-wearers

since I realized
how much they hate us
since it became unsafe
to be 
since I realized
it's never been safe

 


I've been poking at this poem for a while. There's a sense that life's just been a lot lately. I'm noticing it in conversations, in pastoral interactions, everywhere I go. So many things are broken. "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work," in the words of my poetry mentor Jason Shinder z"l, so that feeling became the impetus for the poem. 

Tisha b'Av is in a few days. Seems like an apt time to be sitting with what's broken. 

I think a lot about how catastrophe is not a new story for us as Jews. The Jewish people has endured difficult times before, and our tradition gives us tools for navigating times like these with integrity and perhaps even grace. This year I think we're all living in this brokenness, which is why this year I'll be using Tisha b'Av to harness hope. (Join us on Zoom if you are so inclined.)


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.


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.


Land of Promise: Teachings from Shlach for Right Now

 

Land of Promise: Teachings from Shlach for Right Now
In this week's Torah portion, Sh'lach, Moshe sends twelve scouts to check out the Land of Promise. Ten of them return terrified. The grapes are so big they require two men and a carrying frame. The people are giants. "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." (
Numbers 13:33) Caleb and Joshua promise that the land flows with milk and honey. But the other ten are afraid. The people revolt, crying out, "If only we had died in Egypt!"

God decides that the generation who knew slavery will not enter the Land of Promise. Their spirits are too crushed by hardship. Their self-doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Old fashioned map of the United States featuring Biblical place names

The European colonists who came to this place knew Torah's stories, of course. George Washington alluded to America as a Land of Promise in 1785. (And you don't have to travel far around here to find a Canaan, or a Goshen, or a Salem – all Biblical place-names.)

For the many tribes and nations who originally inhabited this land, the arrival of Europeans was catastrophic because of foreign germs, foreign worldviews, and policies like the Indian Removal Act. (Perhaps this is a good time to mention that our beloved synagogue is built on Mohican land -- and that the Mohican people are still around!)

Europeans coming to these shores was terrible news for Native Americans. We can hold that truth alongside the truth that many of our forebears emigrated to this nation seeking dignity and equality denied to Jews elsewhere.

My mother was one of them. She told me endlessly how fortunate she felt to have found refuge here. America was supposed to be a nation of equality, where it would be safe to be Jewish, where we could strive to better ourselves and our communities alongside everyone else.

And yet we know that America's promise of liberty and justice for all wasn't originally "for all" -- only for straight white property-owning men. The week now ending held Juneteenth, a reminder of how long it took for the promise of freedom to reach enslaved Black people in Texas. (Arguably we’re still working on fulfilling the promise of justice.) The enslaved were brought here by force. But even our forebears who came here willingly, came in search of a promise that is not yet complete.

Right now the promise of equal rights and justice may feel further-away than many of us have known it to be. The January 6th hearings reawaken the horror of watching an angry mob storm the United States Capitol... and now we live with the added horror of knowing that a large segment of the country doesn't believe that the insurrection was real, or that it was wrong.

The same voices denying the facts of the presidential election and subsequent insurrection are also denying gender-affirming health care to trans kids. Four states have banned that care, and fifteen others are considering following suit. Twenty-six states will ban abortion now that Roe has fallen -- some have already done so. And don’t even get me started on the news out of my state of origin this week.

None of this is consonant with Jewish teaching or practice. Rabbis and laypeople in every branch of Judaism (from Reform to Orthodox) support gender-affirming care, and teach that everyone across the spectrum of gender and orientation is made in the image of God. Judaism has also long held that life begins at first breath, not at the first merging of two cells.

But the Supreme Court has struck down Roe... and is also poised to decide on whether or not to gut the federal government's ability to mitigate climate change. Given what we know about the current makeup of the Court, that outcome isn't looking good either. I empathize with the scouts who looked at the challenges ahead and felt like grasshoppers.

So right on time, here come the scouts to remind us that despair is not a good option. Giving in to despair means giving up on hope. Last Rosh Hashanah I offered a teaching from Mariame Kaba who reminds us that hope is a discipline. Hope's not a feeling, it's a practice. It asks us to work. I didn’t realize how resonant that teaching would be this year -- or how necessary.

Earlier this morning we prayed these words from Michael Walzer: 

Standing on the parted shores of history
we still believe what we were taught 
before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt;
that there is a better place, a promised land;
that the winding way to that promise 
passes through the wilderness.

That there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands, marching 
together.
This moment may feel like wilderness. And it's easy to look at the forces arrayed against the environment, against the principles of human dignity and justice, against queer people and trans people, against Black and Indigenous people and people of color, against immigrants and refugees, against anyone with a uterus, against us as Jews, and feel like those forces are giants and we are grasshoppers.

But look again closely at that verse in this week's Torah portion. "We looked like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes." We saw ourselves as tiny, puny, unable to impact the world around us -- and so we became that way. But we can choose to see ourselves differently.

We might not get all the way "there." But that doesn't absolve us from trying. My b-mitzvah students may remember that famous line from Pirkei Avot, "It is not incumbent on us to complete the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it." I think of the Land of Promise as a direction, not a destination. Like moshiachtzeit, the messianic age.

The work is standing up for those more vulnerable than we -- in Torah's language, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. Standing up for immmigrants and refugees. For trans kids at risk of losing health care, and for their parents. For everyone with a uterus in states where forced birth is becoming law. For Black neighborhoods at higher risk of flooding, and people in drought-stricken areas at higher risk of fire. For Mother Earth herself -- so fragile and full of life.

MLK quote: the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice

Rev. Martin Luther King taught that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. I think we know now that the arc of the moral universe only bends toward justice if we push it and pull it and bend it with our own hands and hearts. It can bend toward justice; it has to bend toward justice. And it's aleinu -- it's on us -- to make that real. We need to see ourselves not as grasshoppers, but as a community that stands up for those who need us most. 

 

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


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.


Abundance and dreams, resilience and hope: Miketz and Chanukah

Banner (1)Pharaoh's dreams (artist unknown); an oil-lamp chanukiyah.


This week we continue the Joseph story. In this installment, Pharaoh has two disturbing dreams. In one dream, seven happy fat cows emerge from the Nile, followed by seven emaciated cows who eat the fat ones. In the other, the same thing happens with ripe ears of corn and shrunken ones.

No one in his court can interpret the dreams. And then the cupbearer pipes up: I was in your prison a while back, and there was a Hebrew prisoner who interpreted dreams! So Pharaoh sends for Joseph, who says, the dreams mean that seven good years are coming, followed by seven years of famine.

Joseph tells Pharaoh to set someone wise in charge of his storehouses, someone who can save during the years of plenty so there will be food to eat in the lean times. Pharaoh promptly promotes him, saying, "Could we ever possibly find another man like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?"

(Or in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, "Hey yo, I'm gonna need a right-hand man.")

Pharaoh's dreams are about guarding our resources. When there is abundance, set some aside and save it for when there won't be. And this isn't just about individual households saving what they can; Joseph sets aside grain for the whole nation, so the government can make sure everyone makes it through. 

Every year, we read this at Chanukah. As my b-mitzvah students learned this week, there are different stories we can tell about Chanukah. One is the story of oppression and war in the books of Maccabees -- which were not canonized into the Hebrew Bible, though they are part of some Christian Bibles.

Another is the story of the sanctified oil that lasted for eight days. That narrative comes to us from Talmud, and it's the one our tradition chose to enshrine. That Chanukah story is a story about hope, and enough-ness, and the leap into faith when we don't feel like we have enough fuel to keep hope burning.

Sometimes we feel like we don't have enough. Maybe we feel that we ourselves aren't enough. Maybe life feels overwhelming, and in the words of the poet William Stafford, "The darkness around us is deep." The Chanukah story asks us to kindle light exactly then. That's when we need hope most.

This week Torah says: don't use everything up -- resources are finite! Save some of what you have so you can help everyone make it through the lean times! Meanwhile the Chanukah story says: kindle the eternal light, even if you're going to run out of oil! So which one is right? They both are.

The Torah teaching is about things we can touch: protecting our natural resources, not eating all the grain, making sure we can feed people when there's famine. The Chanukah teaching is metaphysical: it's not about oil, but about hope. It's about kindling hope in our hearts, and keeping hope burning.

Earth and water and air and trees and food are finite, and we need to steward them carefully and share them equitably -- that's a big one, we're working on that. But hope provides its own fuel. And like love, it doesn't diminish when we share it. Being a Jew -- for me -- means living up to both of these truths.

We need to be wise with our resources, and help people who live at sea level, and nations that don't yet have enough vaccines. That's never been more true than it is now. And we need to keep hope kindled in our hearts, even when the world seems hopeless, especially when the world seems hopeless. 

The Hasidic master Reb Nachman (b. 1772) struggled with depression. And yet he taught that despair is a sin. Because despair means the complete absence of hope. And that means we've given up on each other, and on ourselves, and on God. And if we've given up, we won't work to repair what's broken.

That's another thing it means to me to be a Jew: tikkun olam, repairing our broken world. We are God's hands in the world. It's aleinu, it's on us, to build a world of greater justice and love and hope -- and not to give up. 

 

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


Leaves

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On Veteran's Day my son led me on a walk. He'd gone exploring with a friend, past the hayfields behind our condo neighborhood, and found a marked ski trail that he wanted to show me. As we walked, we saw someone on a tractor in the distance -- haying one last time before the rains, maybe.

Though most of the deciduous trees here are bare now, in this sheltered curl of hillside there were still some leaves on the trees. They tinted the sunlight golden and orange and rust. Someone had made a lean-to out of sticks, though it was too small for my tall son to crawl inside.

I had to go slower than I wanted, and I sat down on fallen trees several times to breathe, but I made it there and back. On the way back to the condo, my son talked about how lucky he feels that there are woods like this walkable from each of the places where his parents live.

Today the skies are heavy. Rains come and go, as do high winds. I suspect the autumn leaves we marveled at yesterday are on the ground now, beginning their journey toward becoming mulch. Challah dough is rising, soon to be shaped into a spiraling six-pointed sun or Jewish star.

I wonder whether we will look back on these years as the end of something, or the end of many things. The end of when we could have stopped the global warming juggernaut, the end of the myth that "red" and "blue" America actually understand each other -- or even want to try.

I think about climate grief and rising authoritarianism and mistrust. I'm so ready for Shabbat, for 25 hours of setting worries aside. All I can do is trust that when I make havdalah, I'll be ready to pick up the work again. That the fallen leaves will sustain growth I can't yet know.

 


The Strength to Help Each Other Hope: Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5782

 

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(Note: the first part of this sermon is adapted from an article that JTA asked me to write. Then it goes off into new territory -- expanding and completing the ideas I articulated for JTA.)

 

All summer long, I struggled to find the words for this sermon. 

The enormity of what's broken in the world feels paralyzing. Unprecedented heat and wildfires, a flaming oil spill turning the Gulf of Mexico into an inferno, and extreme flooding across Europe and China and Louisiana and New York: "Who by fire, who by water" lands differently this year. Dayenu, that could be enough -- and there's more.

The past eighteen months were hard even for those of us who have it easy (a job, a place to live, no illness). For many the isolation was crushing, or numbing. For many without stable income or a roof overhead, the pandemic has been unimaginably worse. So too for frontline workers and those who jobs are "essential" and often unseen.

When vaccines became available, my heart soared on wings of hope. I felt certain we would be together safely at Rosh Hashanah this year. But I hadn't reckoned with the power of social media influencers lying about the putative risks of the vaccine, or lying about the virus. The New York Times reported recently that disinformation is now a booming business. As a result, countless thousands are now refusing vaccination, claiming "personal freedom" at the expense of the collective good. 

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I keep thinking of the parable of the guy in the boat drilling a hole under his own seat. He doesn't seem to notice that his personal freedom is going to drown everyone else. As a parable, it's tart and a little bit funny. In real life, it's horrifying. Dayenu: that too could be enough to spark despair. And wait, there's more.

Several governors have made it illegal for municipalities to require masks. To many, masks have become a symbol of government control. To me, a mask is literally the least we can do to protect the immunocompromised (and children.) Refusing to wear a mask during this pandemic is like leaving your lights on during the London Blitz.

Between the anti-maskers, and the anti-vaxxers, and the new Delta variant, cases are rising again. We're facing another long winter of mounting death counts -- and it didn't have to be this way.

Between what we're doing to our planet (disproportionately harming those who are most vulnerable), and the impact of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers on public health (ditto), and the persistence of the Big Lie that the presidential election was "stolen," it's hard not to despair. How could I write sermons from this place? I'm pretty sure no one comes to High Holiday services to hear their rabbi say she's given up.

I poured out my heart about this to my hevruta partner, who reminded me that in Torah even God despaired of humanity sometimes. When God despaired of us, it was our ancestors' job to push back and remind God of reasons to hope for humanity's future. This is part of why we live (and learn!) in community: to help each other find hope when our hearts despair.

Our Torah readings for today and tomorrow cue up that inner journey. We just read about the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael, a tale of how jealousy almost caused a child's death in the desert. Tomorrow, the stakes may feel even higher with the binding of Isaac. And yet these same Torah stories also remind us of hope in tough times. An angel opens Hagar's eyes to a flowing spring, and she and her son are saved. An angel opens Abraham's eyes to the ram caught in the thicket, and Isaac's life is spared.

The Days of Awe open the door to new beginnings, even when (or especially when) we can't see our own way back to hope for change. Our job is to be be those Biblical angels for each other: helping each other reach the hope a that we can't find alone. 

Our Torah stories for Rosh Hashanah are stories of courage and strength. Hagar needed courage and strength when she set out into the wilderness with her son and a single skin of water on her back. Isaac needed courage and strength when he lay down on his father's altar on the mountaintop. In Hebrew, one word for this kind of courage and strength is gevurah: our theme for this year's Days of Awe.

We've seen a lot of gevurah in this difficult year. In the firefighters battling horrific blazes across the Pacific Northwest and California and Turkey and Greece -- in the doctors and nurses working in every covid ICU -- in the police officers who defended the US Capitol from an angry mob. Those are extraordinary forms of strength and courage. 

I want to name and uplift a different kind of gevurah. I mostly didn't watch the Olympics this year. (That's not the courageous part.) I just couldn't get excited about the pageantry or the competition this time around. But Simone Biles caught my attention even so.

Simone

Everyone seems to agree that she's one of the most extraordinary gymnasts of all time. I can't do a cartwheel to save my life, so I think all gymnasts are pretty amazing, but I can see that she's more amazing even than most of her peers. And right before the individual all-around gymnastics competition, she withdrew from competition in order to focus on her mental health. 

It takes courage to say I'm not okay right now, and I need to do some inner work so I can get where I need to be. A lot of us are not okay right now. Global pandemic, an almost unthinkable amount of death, the climate crisis, the rise in misinformation, the deep divisions in our body politic -- the world is not okay right now.

Simone Biles said she "got the twisties," a condition in which an athlete loses their spatial awareness and can't tell up from down. Given the kind of literal acrobatics involved in Olympic gymnastics routines, losing her spatial awareness could be deadly. But reading about it, I realized it's an apt description of how a lot of us are feeling emotionally and spiritually. We've lost access to some of the certainties that oriented us. It's hard to trust in things that used to seem stable. I think we all "have the twisties" a little bit this year. 

I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that none of us can do the gymnastics routines that Simone Biles can do. But all of us can follow the courageous example she set. And she didn't make that decision in a vacuum. She said she was inspired by Naomi Osaka, the pro tennis player who withdrew from the French Open in order to tend to her mental health. Using our Torah metaphor, Naomi Osaka was Simone Biles' "angel" -- the messenger whose words and actions helped Simone admit that she wasn't okay and begin to work toward healing. 

Because here's the thing: we're not in this alone. Even if we feel fundamentally alone sometimes, we have each other. This is why we live (and learn) in community: so we can help each other find the flowing spring that will sustain us in the wilderness, or the ram whose presence will save the day, caught in a thicket just beyond where we ourselves can see. We live in community so we can inspire each other to hope and to build. We live in community so we can strengthen each other.

Hope

The activist Mariame Kaba offers some deep wisdom about hope. "Hope doesn't preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger," she says. "Hope is not optimism. Hope is a discipline." She goes on to say:

Hope is a discipline and... we have to practice it every single day. Because in the world which we live in, it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness, that everything is all bad all the time, that there is nothing going to change ever, that people are evil and bad at the bottom. It feels sometimes that it’s being proven in various, different ways, so I get that, so I really get that. I understand why people feel that way. I just choose differently. I choose to think a different way and I choose to act in a different way.

When she says hope is a discipline, what I hear is that it's a practice -- like a yoga practice or a spiritual practice. And the more we practice it, the stronger we become. She names this as a choice: we can choose to let despair overwhelm us, or we can choose to strengthen our hope. This, too, is gevurah. 

5781 was not an easy year. I don't know what 5782 will bring, but I'm pretty sure the challenges of the old year will follow us into the new one. What can we do for each other to give each other courage, to help each other hope? Jewish tradition teaches that even those who receive tzedakah are also obligated to give it. In other words: even if I'm in need of assistance myself, I'm obligated to give what I can to someone else in need. I love this because it breaks down the binary between giver and receiver. And it works as a teaching about intangibles, too. Even if I need emotional support, I can still offer support to others. 

Helping others is part of Jewish spiritual practice. Focusing on "ugh, who's going to help me through this" sometimes is normal, but it's also self-centered, and it can lead to feeling more alone. Focusing instead on "how can I help someone else" lightens our hearts. Helping others is good for the soul.  If you prefer, here's a social science framing: studies show that when we help others, we feel more energetic, stronger, and more hopeful!  And that's true whether we're doing organized volunteer work, or "just" offering a listening ear over the phone or Zoom. 

Helping each other cultivate hope does not change the realities of pandemic or injustice or fires and floods. But it can help us be resilient in the face of those realities. It can help us make meaning in the face of those realities. This is our work: to use our gevurah to support and uplift and strengthen each other, so that together we can resist despair and keep working toward a better world. 

 

This is my sermon from the first morning of Rosh Hashanah (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Sustainable

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The first part of the drive was on familiar roads, the same roads I take daily to get my kid to camp over the border in Vermont. What was different was that this time, I kept going. East Mountain Farm is only a few minutes from my house, but it's further down Henderson road than I had driven before. Not surprisingly, it is beautiful: contented brown and white cows resting in the shade, rolling hills and pasture, a series of red barns. I was there to pick up chicken to put in my freezer, and eggs to eat.

Two springs ago, when the pandemic was new and our grocery supply chains got fouled, there were anxious months of going to the grocery store not knowing what I might find on the shelves. I know how lucky I am that I never experienced that until my mid-forties. Even so, the unpredictable absence of staples like flour and dried beans and toilet paper was deeply unsettling. Chicken, too, was hard to find for a while there -- because of COVID outbreaks in the places where poultry is processed. 

I know how lucky I am that I live near farms. I've been a member of Caretaker Farm (the local CSA) for almost thirty years, which means I get an abundance of beautiful local produce. I know how lucky I am to be able to afford that, too -- and now to be able to afford sustainably-farmed meat. I feel good about supporting a local farmer in his desire to honor the land and its animals. I feel good knowing that these chickens lived well. I feel good knowing that I will have plenty to eat next winter.

I know that my support of this local farmer doesn't do a thing to repair the harms caused by big agribusiness. I've read about the harms that factory farms perpetrate on animals and on their ecosystems. Then again, there's something wrong with the whole idea that our individual purchasing choices or habits (to recycle this soda can, or not to recycle; my personal grocery budget) will make or break the planet. We need large-scale change, corporate change, systemic change. And how likely does that seem?

I pull my mind back from that rabbit hole. Thinking too much about agribusiness and corporate greed and political gridlock will lead me to despair, and despair does not help anyone -- not those whom I serve, not me, not the world. I return to a mantra from an old REM song: not everyone can carry the weight of the world. It is not my job to carry the weight of the world. It is my job to do the best I can with what I've got, and right now the best I can do is to support a local farmer and his flock. 

 


A prayer in a casserole dish

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I am making enchiladas for dinner. The recipe I use didn't come with me from Texas, but it could have. There's a Tex-Mex chili gravy (red enchilada sauce) made with a light roux, a ton of hot chili powder, some cumin and oregano and garlic and salt. This enchilada sauce tastes like the enchiladas I grew up eating. Every time I make it, it transports me.

This is the time of year when I would ordinarily be taking my kid back to my birthplace -- to see family, to breathe the air of where I come from, to enjoy Mexican breakfast at Panchito's and big fluffy Texas-sized pancakes at the Pioneer Flour Mill. In this pandemic year, there's no trip to Texas. The last time I was there was for mom's unveiling.

Knowing that most of Texas is suffering cold and snow and rolling power outages, making these enchiladas feels like a kind of embodied prayer. When I make challah on Fridays I sing while kneading the dough. Tonight I am praying for Texas as I simmer the chili sauce, as I dip the corn tortillas in oil, as I tuck each rolled enchilada into the baking dish.

I spoke with family there this morning, and texted with them again later in the day. Like most of Texas, they didn't have power or heat. Southern homes aren't build to keep out the cold -- they're designed to retain cool. A lot of Texans don't own warm winter clothes; why would they? Often at this time of year, it's warm enough to wear short sleeves.

I could talk about why Texas has its own power grid, or the outrage of wholly preventable tragedies, or the importance of a robust safety net and good infrastructure in all neighborhoods, or the climate crisis that inevitably feeds worsening weather patterns. Instead I'm rolling enchiladas and praying that somebody can get the power up and running again.