The next best time: B'ha'alotkha 5784

Now

Reading B’ha’alotkha this year, what jumps out at me is Pesah Sheni. God spoke to Moses saying, the children of Israel should make the Passover offering at the appropriate time. Except there were some people who couldn’t make the offering because they had come into contact with death. So they came to Moses and said, what about us? 

Moses asked God, and the answer he received was: anyone who couldn’t observe Passover at the right time, because of an encounter with death or because they were on a long journey, can make the offering at the next full moon. (Num. 9:10-12) In other words: if we miss the appropriate time and place for Pesah, we get a second chance.

We've all regretted something we didn’t manage to do. Maybe it’s something personal: I wish I’d done more to encourage people to vote. Maybe it’s something communal: the conversations we began after last month’s initial Israel/Palestine film screening were amazing, I wish we’d started listening and learning together years ago.

Here come these verses about Pesah Sheni to remind me it’s not too late. If there’s something that will bring us closer to God (remember, that’s what a korban / an offering was, from the root that means to draw near; and if the G-word doesn’t work for you, think Justice, or Compassion, or Truth) we get another opportunity.

Granted, Torah goes on to say that if we could’ve made the Pesah offering at the right time, and for some reason we just didn’t, “our soul will be cut off from our people.” (Num. 9:13) For me that’s a descriptive statement, not a prescriptive one. If we don’t engage in mitzvot or connect with community, we’re going to wind up feeling disconnected. 

So much in modern life can make us feel disconnected. I don't think I need to list those things; I imagine each of us could make our own list. And this year, on top of that, painful divisions in Jewish community around Israel and Gaza have made many of us feel alienated and disconnected in spaces where we most yearn to feel otherwise. 

But Jewish life is predicated on the premise that community matters. And I increasingly believe that figuring out how to be in community even when our views on Palestine and Israel differ is some of the most important work we can do right now – as Jews, as Americans, as human beings. 

Recently I read an interview that Roxane Gay did with the author Lamya H, included at the end of the e-book of Lamya’s memoir Hijab Butch Blues. Lamya says:

“I was lucky enough to be part of a very intentional queer Muslim community…. Not everyone was someone I would be close friends with. But because we were building this thing that was deeply intentional, everyone showed up for everyone else. It’s where I learned a lot of organizing skills, in terms of navigating conflict and being around people whose politics are different from yours, who live in the world in ways that don’t match yours – but who you deeply, deeply connect with, and who become chosen family. Navigating all of those things taught me so much about the value of kindness.”

Roxane Gay responds, “When you engage in community with kindness, it makes it possible to navigate all kinds of terrain, both good and challenging.” I read that and I thought: this speaks to me as a member of a broad Jewish community that’s struggling with the challenge of deeply-held views on Israel and Palestine, all rooted in Jewish values, that don’t align.

This year some of us are grieving what our Israeli cousins are going through, and some of us are grieving what our Palestinian cousins are going through. We may feel that difference keenly. But I believe our hearts are big enough to hold it, alongside the common ground that we all want a better future for our beloveds in that beloved land. 

We all want a better future in this beloved land, too. When I read about the plan for a "post-Constitutional" Federal government or those who want this to be a “Christian nation” – when I think about other rights that we could lose – the stakes feel impossibly high. We need each other in Jewish community now more than ever. 

Which brings me back to this week’s parsha. The Hebrew word mitzvah / commandment is a close cognate to the Aramaic word tzavta / connection. A mitzvah is something that connects us: to God (whatever we understand that to mean), to tradition, to community, to each other, to ourselves. 

Torah’s talking about someone who missed Pesah because they were in contact with death or on a long journey. But Rashi expands that. He says, it doesn’t need to be a long journey that keeps us away from mitzvot and community. Even if we were just right outside the door, we can still seek a do-over. 

Framed in modern terms, we could say: no one’s going to police what’s kept us from the mitzvot, from community, from building a more just world. We might feel like our failure to do these things before disqualifies us from doing them now, but Torah says otherwise. Torah says, re-orient, re-align, and try again. That's the work of teshuvah, which is the work of Jewish life.

In an ideal world, Pesah happens at the full moon of Nisan and sets us on a path toward covenant. “We were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm: out of servitude and into holy service, partnering with God in building a more just world.” That’s our core story.

In an ideal world, we’re already on that journey. And if we’re not, it’s not too late to start. It's not too late to welcome the refugee and protect the vulnerable and tend to the climate crisis and uplift human dignity. Like the saying goes about planting a tree: the best time to do it would’ve been then. The next best time is now. 

 

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

 


Dissonance

A colleague mentioned that they are taking time away because of the particular exhaustion and grief of trying to serve a divided community after October 7. I wonder how many of us can relate to that.

There's the pain of October 7: still reverberating in almost everyone I know, whether we're there or here, no matter what our politics. I don't even want to write about the nightmare of that day.

There's the pain of the war that has followed. I know that it's laughable to speak about that from the comfortable vantage of here. But watching what's unfolding in Israel and Gaza hurts the soul.

I don't want to write about that either. Surely none of us need more words about the horrors of what we're seeing. Even from this distance, the images lodge in our souls like emotional shrapnel.

There's the pain of how people here respond to how other people here respond to events there. There's the pain of communities here torn apart by disagreements about what's happening and why.

Generations and friends, not speaking to each other: furious, betrayed. One says: but why don't they care about Israeli hostages? One says: but why don't they care about Palestinians enduring famine?

It's like they don't even care about [Israeli] [Palestinian] suffering at all. And that becomes its own source of moral injury: how am I supposed to be in community, Rabbi, with someone who...  

I want to say: we are all grieving. Maybe that simple, terrible truth can be our common ground when nothing else feels steady. For all of us, hasn't 5784 been a year of constant, unrelenting grief? 

Amidst all of this, on Facebook a poet friend posts a graphic saying "The aim was always ethnic cleansing." I know who's being accused, and I know that by and large, the poetry community agrees.

I don't say: Whose aim? Are you talking about Bibi and Ben-Gvir, or all Israelis, or all Jews? I don't say anything. I'm not sure I have the resilience to take the emotional hit from the argument.

I do search the phrase, "the aim was always ethnic cleansing." The first hit is BreakThrough News, which has disturbing origins. I wonder whether those who share the meme would care.

There's so much cognitive dissonance. And then there's the constant question: is this metaphorical heartache / metaphysical heartache, or do I need to tuck a nitroglycerin under my tongue?


A love letter to song

2189995873_d6416d3cc7_c
Spring 1994: the Williams College Elizabethans outside of our tour bus.

Looking back at college thirty years later, the two most formative experiences and communities for me were the Williams College Feminist Seder project (about which I've written before) and the Elizabethans, the madrigal ensemble of which I was a founding member in January of 1993.

For all four of my years of college we sang together -- if memory serves, for six hours a week? We held concerts. We piled ourselves and our luggage into a school van and drove all over the Northeast (and some of the Mid-Atlantic) bringing our blend of "madrigals and sundry chansons" and geek humor.

I sang with them for a year after college, even though I'd already graduated, because I lived here in town and why not? (The same was true of the Feminist Seder, where I participated for a post-graduate year too.) Every so often we hold reunions, where we catch up and hang out but mostly we sing.

Through the Elizabethans I discovered just how much I adore harmony, and polyphony, and the shared purpose of body, heart, mind, and spirit that make music real. We start as individual beings with notes on a page. And if we do it right, we become -- and co-create -- more than the sum of our parts.

1choir

Spring 2024: the Congregation Beth Israel choir at Tu BiShvat.

A few years ago a new member joined my congregation and asked if I were interested in CBI having a choir. We've had pick-up choirs off and on over the years, and I liked the idea. But we were entering a pandemic and there was no way to sing together safely at that point, before there were vaccines.

Eventually we started singing masked and outdoors at a distance. In time we started singing indoors, starting with simple rounds. (I remember remarking, "we'll never sing Rossi, but that's ok" -- Rossi being a just-post-Renaissance Jewish composer whose work I had sung with the Elizabethans.)

Adam, our director, wrote a setting of the prayer Ahavat Olam that was right at our proximal zone of development. With his encouragement, we started stretching a bit. We learned Shabbat repertoire and High Holiday repertoire. We offered a concert one year at Yom HaShoah; another at Tu BiShvat.

Over the last six months, as the world has turned upside-down, we've continued singing together every week. We're preparing for a Shavuot concert featuring Jewish music from the last several hundred years titled "This, Too, Is Torah" -- celebrating the revelation that flows into our world as song.

Adam's Ahavat Olam has become easy. We learned a Rossi Bar'chu a while back, and we're learning a gorgeous Rossi setting of Psalm 146 right now. I love its many voices and moving lines and gorgeous harmonies. We learn Sephardic melodies and modes as well as Ashkenazi ones. Old music and new.

I love about choral singing the same thing I love about community writ large: together we are more than the sum of our parts. We are all needed, and we all work to make space for everyone's voices. Together we make something beautiful, even sometimes ineffable, that none of us could make alone.

Thirty years ago I never thought I would be fortunate enough to get to be a rabbi for a living -- to do the holy work of serving God and community as my actual job. And I certainly never thought I would be lucky enough to have something akin to the Elizabethans in the synagogue that I'm blessed to serve.

Two other founding members of the Elizabethans live in town -- a therapist, and a librarian -- and both sing in my shul choir now. That brings me extra joy, though I've come to feel connected with all of my fellow singers: the ones I've known for decades, and the ones I've met through the choir itself.

Harmony itself may be the deepest form of prayer my heart knows. Meeting every week to make harmony with others is such a gift to me. Especially during this heartbreaking year of war in Israel and Palestine, and divisions across American Jewish community, harmony matters to me more than ever.

If you are local and you sing, you are welcome. (Learn more: Music at CBI.) All are welcome to attend This, Too, Is Torah at 3pm on June 9 (just please RSVP on that webpage so we know who's coming.) And to my fellow choir members: thank you. Singing with you is one of my life's greatest joys. 

 


Not Heat, But Light: Vayak'hel 5784 / 2024

Screen Shot 2024-03-07 at 12.16.03 PM

This week’s Torah portion, Vayak’hel, begins: “וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל / Moses convened the whole community of the children of Israel…” The word I’m translating here as “convened” is vayak’hel. It’s the same root as the word kahal, community. Moses communified the community. He called the community into being by bringing the people together.

In the wake of the the Gaza ceasefire resolution recently proposed in Williamstown, I’ve had a lot of conversations in the last few weeks with members of the CBI community about whether we feel like one Jewish community, and whether we feel connected with the non-Jewish community around us. And do we need to agree in order to be in community? 

Maybe the children of Israel felt like one unified community at this moment in our Torah story. They’d just received the second set of tablets of the Ten Commandments; maybe their shared experience or shared values united them. Or, maybe they came to see themselves as one community through the work of literally building a spiritual home for the Holy together. 

FireBut first Moses reminds us that on six days we may work, but the seventh day is Shabbat; on it we kindle no fires. Obviously the plain meaning of the text is that on Shabbat we don’t strike a match, or build a fire, or engage in the “work” of burning things. Even the holy work of building a home for God* (*whatever that word means to each of us) pauses for Shabbes.

Reading this verse this year, what came up for me was the flame of anger and the smolder of fear. I know that many of us are carrying fear these days. Fear about rising antisemitism. Fear about whether public support for Gaza translates into hatred of Jews. Fear about what this year’s Presidential election might bring. Fear about the climate crisis and our planet.

And I know that many of us are carrying anger. Maybe we’re angry at government dysfunction that’s preventing aid from reaching people who desperately need it. Or we’re angry at the terrible realities of humanitarian crisis. Or we’re angry because we feel helpless.  All of these are fires in our minds and our hearts and our bellies, usually banked but always burning.

Shabbat is our primary spiritual oxygen mask. And in times like these, we need that oxygen mask more than ever. Can we genuinely take one day a week away from all of those flames? Six days a week those fires may be burning in us, but what if on Shabbat we could put a lid on the flames and seek solace together? That’s one of the spiritual tools that our tradition offers.

Beauty-mishkanTorah goes on to describe how everyone brought items of beauty for the building of the mishkan, the portable dwelling-place for God that we carried with us in the wilderness. Blue, purple, and crimson yarns. Silver and copper and gold. Fine linen and leather and acacia wood. Woven wool, and precious stones. The description is so detailed I can almost feel it.  

That’s another spiritual tool: our souls need beauty. There’s beauty in this building, in the warm wood and the bright copper that evoke that mishkan. There’s beauty out our windows, in our giant willow tree and the meditation labyrinth and the hills. Whether it’s via nature, or art, or music, finding beauty in the world isn’t just a luxury. I think our souls actually need it.

LightsAnd then Torah offers elaborate detail about the construction of the menorah, the golden lampstand at the front of the mishkan. The golden menorah was ornamented like a flowering tree, connecting us with the natural world. It had golden cups to hold oil, shaped like almond blossoms. The flowers had petals and calyxes, the sepals that enclose flower petals. 

This golden tree-shaped menorah had seven lights, like the seven days of the week or the seven colors of the rainbow. Some say the menorah symbolized universal enlightenment, or the six branches represent human knowledge and the seventh one in the center represents divine wisdom. Regardless, the purpose of a menorah is simple: it’s there to shed light. 

We need community. We need oxygen. We need to put out the smoldering embers of anxiety and despair. We need beauty. And we need light. People talk about conflict generating more heat than light? We need it to be the other way around. In place of the fires of our fears and our conflicts, we need the light of wisdom, the light of insight, the light of hope. 

I want to give each of us permission to put on the oxygen mask that is Shabbat. To seek out something beautiful that nourishes the spirit. To take a break from the news and the doomscrolling and the low smolder of anxiety and anger and fear. To seek sources of light. And it turns out that we can maintain these as a spiritual practice during the week, too. 

Maybe you know this already: what we feel in our hearts and souls impacts what happens in our bodies. When we marinate in fear or anger, conflict or despair, we can literally become sick. I read a powerful interview with Amy Lin recently in which she notes that acute grief sent her to the hospital with blood clots. And we know that anxiety can manifest in the body as illness.

Many of us know these truths intimately, these days. The horrors of October 7 continue to reverberate as hostages taken that day remain captive. Meanwhile now we also sit with the horrors of humanitarian crisis in Gaza. For many of us, the grief and anxiety feel like a kind of constant low-level poison to our hearts and spirits – and, increasingly, to our bodies. 

Our world is full of reasons to feel disconnected or anxious, angry or afraid. But we do not help those who are suffering by letting our grief and anger sicken us. We have to find a way to be otherwise. Torah this week comes to remind us that like our ancient spiritual ancestors we too need community, and we need a break from burning, and we need beauty, and we need light.

Shabbat shalom.


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


If we will it: a note on Gaza and Israel

I usually don't cross-post here to share my "From the Rabbi" columns written for the shul's monthly newsletter. This one is an exception.

 

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

As a rabbi I am here to serve everyone in our community. I aspire to be here for you in sickness and in health, in celebration and in sorrow. I have the holy opportunity to learn and to teach, to rejoice and to mourn, and to build community with each and every one of you. I take this covenant seriously, and it is one of the things I love most about the work that I am blessed to do. I will always strive to approach any differences we may have with curiosity and an open heart. And I always want to hear from you about where you are and what matters to you.

Many of you have asked what I think about what’s happening in Gaza and Israel. In a word, I am heartbroken. Every time I pray, these days, I pray with all my heart for a negotiated bilateral ceasefire, return of all hostages, and an end to enmity between Israelis and Palestinians.

Many calls for ceasefire blame Israel exclusively (ignoring the culpability of Hamas), or presume that Israel is a settler-colonialist enterprise with no validity. I don’t hold those views. I pray for a negotiated bilateral ceasefire along with an end to the occupation. I pray for a future in which Israelis and Palestinians can live in safety. I believe that the only way for one people to thrive is for both peoples to thrive.

After Hamas’ horrific incursion into Israel on October 7, I understood that a military response was necessary lest Hamas presume carte blanche to rape and murder Israelis at will. I hoped war would be brief, like the 1967 Six Day war or the 1973 Yom Kippur war (19 days). The vast humanitarian catastrophe we have witnessed in Gaza shatters my heart. So too does the continuing suffering of our Israeli cousins, displaced or grieving or afraid. So too does the fact that, because of the Netanyahu government’s choices, world opinion has pivoted so fiercely toward hatred of Jews and readiness to declare that Israel should not exist.

Until now, I have refrained from saying any of this. In our small community, people hold almost every possible view on Israel and Gaza. I understood it to be my job to keep my yearnings between me and God, in order that I might better serve everyone. I’ve come to think that my silence may not be serving anyone well. Better that I should model emotional authenticity and readiness to be in community across disagreement; that’s actually part of my job as your rabbi. I’ve also come to understand that staying silent about strongly-held beliefs feels like swallowing a little bit of poison every day.

Compassion literally means “feeling-with” or “suffering together.” I feel with Israelis and others who are traumatized by Hamas’ massacre and rapes of October 7, and who are agonizing over the fate of the hostages remaining in Gaza. I feel with innocent Palestinians who are suffering terribly. I feel with the people who are horrified by the scope of humanitarian disaster in Gaza, and who are agonizing over the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinian innocents. I feel with the people who say: I’ve never felt this much despair. (Some feel despair because of hatred of Israel. Some feel despair because of Palestinian suffering. I feel with both.) I feel with those who call for a ceasefire. And I feel with those for whom a one-sided call for a ceasefire, without condemnation of Hamas, activates PTSD and epigenetic trauma around antisemitism.

The Psalmist writes, “From narrow straits I call to You; answer me with Your expansiveness!” (Ps 118:5) From these narrow straits I pray for a ceasefire: negotiated, bilateral, in which both sides stop fighting and hostages are freed, in which there are no more rockets out of Gaza or bombs dropped by Israel, in which the fighting genuinely ends starting now. I pray for political and diplomatic engagement in building a new and better future for both peoples. The configuration of whatever comes next is not my area of expertise. Two states? One state? A confederation? I don’t know what will work, and it’s not my job to know.

But it is my job to speak truthfully from the heart in a way that’s informed by my Jewish values. I don’t believe that this war is achieving its stated goals of freeing the hostages, making Israel safer, or ending the ascendancy of Hamas. I see unthinkable loss and harm that will continue to reverberate between these two traumatized peoples for generations. I fear that fighting leads to more fighting, and that these vast numbers of casualties will fuel the next wave of Intifada. There has to be another way, and it has to involve an end to both terrorism and war.

I am not interested in calls from either side to wipe out the other or banish them to some mythical other home. Neither the Israeli people nor the Palestinian people is going anywhere. I deeply admire Hand in Hand (bilingual and bicultural schools that teach in Hebrew and Arabic the narratives of both peoples). I deeply admire the Parents Circle - Family Forum (bereaved Israelis and Palestinians who have chosen coexistence over hatred). I deeply admire Standing Together (a grassroots movement of Israelis and Palestinians working together toward coexistence and peace.) Organizations like these are where I place my hope for a better future.

Jewish values call us to balance ahavat Yisrael (love of our fellow Jews) with v’ahavta l’reakha kamokha (loving the other as ourselves). I grieve Gaza and Israel’s suffering to the best of my broken heart’s limited capacity. I feel with every grieving parent, every orphaned child, and every displaced human being. I recognize the infinite sacred worth of every soul, Israeli and Palestinian alike. I want a better future for both peoples. I fear that this war will not lead there.

I believe that Jewish values call us to be God’s hands in the world: freeing those who are captive, uplifting those who are downtrodden, and ensuring liberty and human dignity for all. That’s the clarion call of the Exodus story as it echoes in daily liturgy and in the Passover seder we celebrate each year. “All” means all: not just Israelis, and not just Palestinians. Everyone.

We are a long way from that reality. Right now it seems impossible. But hope is central to Jewish life and practice. We are called to embody the hope that tomorrow can be better than today – and to do what we can in service of that dream. I pray fervently for a negotiated bilateral ceasefire and release of hostages, a diplomatic resolution to all conflict, and a future in which both peoples can live in safety and security on that beloved land.

Yours in deep hope –

Rabbi Rachel


Ending

Anxiety-disorder-1024x714

Image by Stellalevi.

Content warning: there's a disturbing antisemitic quote in the 9th paragraph.

 

Maybe it’s because I hang out with a lot of rabbis: I can’t count the number of people this week who sent me a link to the current cover story of the Atlantic, The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending. [gift link] It’s a powerful essay. It has much to say about American Jewish history, liberal democracy, and the resurgence of anti-Jewish hate on both the left and the right. 

It raises big questions. Are our safest years over?  What if the acceptance we’ve taken for granted as American Jews has been a historical anomaly? What if liberal democracy turns out to be a historical anomaly? Is it all downhill from here? Add to these the current question of: does soaring public support for Gaza necessarily translate here to hatred of Jews?

These questions precipitated a slow-motion anxiety attack that knocked me out for most of a day. Maybe you've had this experience too: chest feeling constricted as though by an iron band, no ability to draw a deep breath, tears coming in waves like a storm system that just won’t quit. The next day the heart and body feel leaden. One's insides ache. It takes a while to “recover.”

That word is in scare quotes because I’m not sure what it means to recover from an anxiety attack when the sources of the anxiety persist. Here we are, five months in to the Hamas-Israel war that began on Shemini Atzeret. It has been longer and more terrible than I could have imagined.  I don’t think I know anyone in congregational service who isn’t struggling. 

I have congregants on every “side” of this divide, from ceasefire activists to oldschool Zionists. I feel-with all of them: the one who asks, “how can we not condemn indiscriminate killing?” and means Hamas, and the one who asks the same question and means Israel, and the one who says Judaism feels like a burden now because the world uniquely hates us again. 

Of course, the end of the golden age of being an American Jew (as Franklin Foer writes about it) isn’t “just” about Israel and Gaza. It’s a bigger picture of social trends, the liberal dream perhaps dissolving, Trumpism and more. But the fact that hating Jews has become acceptable both on the Right and on the Left is a central piece of the sense that an era has ended. 

This morning’s email from the Forward included one headline about Israeli hostages invited to the State of the Union, and another about a bar in Utah that refuses service to Zionists, because in today’s progressive understanding people who think Israel deserves to exist are often considered akin to Nazis and white supremacists. The cognitive dissonance is staggering. 

A poet-rabbi friend told me recently about a literary magazine now specifying, "No misogyny, no homophobia, no racism, no Zionism." Is this really where we are? Disavow the right of Israel to exist, or be considered as morally repugnant as homophobes and racists? I remember one of the most harrowing lines of Foer’s article: 

“Are you Jewish?” one mop-haired tween asks another, seemingly unaware of any adult presence. “No way,” the second kid replies. “I fucking hate them.” Another blurts, “Kill Israel.” A student laughingly attempts to start a chant of “KKK.”

Foer may be right: it’s possible that our best and safest years as American Jews are over. And in a certain sense, so what? In that case we’re like the vast majority of our Jewish forebears over the last few thousand years. When has it ever been easy or safe to be a Jew? The last 50 years, maybe. But 50 years isn’t even an eyeblink in the long span of history. 

I used to think that humanity had evolved beyond antisemitism, but that seems to be as false as the white liberal American dream that our nation was evolving beyond racism (a dream in which I also partook, until it came crashing down around us). That doesn’t mean we stop trying. It just means the work ahead is long, and the dream of something like redemption is still far away.

What do we do with these feelings? Well, in a few weeks, we dance with them. We make merry. We celebrate Purim – another story in which someone wanted to wipe us out across an empire. (And we wrestle with the violence at the end of the Purim story. Knowing that we’ve been hated for centuries can damage the soul, and so can revenge fantasies, if we let them.) 

Esther has something to teach us this year about the bravery it can take to openly be who we are. To be Jews, even when it isn’t easy. To name the bigotry of Jew-hatred as the cancer it has always been. There is a spiritual lesson here about wresting "light and gladness, joy and uprightness" (Esther 8:16) even from the panicky grip of despair. Even in times like these.

 

 


Each other

 

We
need
each other

to
make
a minyan

for
kaddish
or Torah

to wash
and dress
the dead

to drape
mirrors
with sheets

to loft
a wedding couple
in their chairs

to heave
a shovel
of dirt

to roof
a sukkah
with cornstalks

to dance
in turn
with Torah

to ask
why this night
is different

to argue
for the sake
of heaven

 

 


On Town resolutions

The editors of the Williams Record asked if I would write an OpEd about last week's Williamstown Select Board meeting, the resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza that was brought to that meeting, and the views of the community I serve on that resolution. Here's a taste of what I wrote:

...Before writing any kind of resolution that aims to speak for the whole Town, I think we need to listen to one another. One of the difficulties in doing so is that we’re often operating with different facts. Not because of disinformation, though there’s plenty of that, but because news from Al Jazeera will be different from news from Ha’aretz, which is different from your Tumblr feed. It can be painful to hear someone who views the conflict through a different lens and is getting their information from a different set of sources, but it’s valuable to learn how to hold multiple truths. 

As a Rabbi, I’m committed to the proposition that all of the Jews who live here belong in Jewish community, no matter what path forward we think is the best way to reach a just and lasting peace. This goal requires us to look for places where we can make common cause instead of focusing on the places where we can’t. It’s not always easy, but I think it’s vital...

Read the whole piece here: Creating a resolution that speaks for more of our Town.


Community Means: Terumah 5784 / 2024

Screen Shot 2024-02-14 at 2.14.39 PM

 

God spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts;
you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.
And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper;
blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair;
tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood;
oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense;
lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.
And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Ex. 25:1-8)

In this week’s parsha, Terumah, we bring gifts. Everyone brings something different, and everyone has something to bring. Maybe that’s what makes what we build together a mikdash, a holy place. In English, a sanctuary: a sacred space of protection and care. When we co-create safety, then God can dwell among us or within us. (And as always, if the “G-word” doesn’t work for you, substitute something that does: meaning, justice, compassion, hope.) 

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ / va’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham / “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I might dwell within (or among) them.” The Hebrew שָׁכַנְתִּ֖י / shakhanti, “that I might dwell,” shares a root with the name Shekhinah – the Presence of God with us and within us. It’s the same root as the Hebrew word שְׁכוּנָה / shekhunah, neighborhood. The Hebrew אני שוכן / ani shokhein, “I dwell,” is cousin to the Arabic أنا أسكن / ‘anaeskun, “I dwell…”

Torah spends many weeks describing the Mishkan, the portable dwelling place for God that our ancestors built in the wilderness. The story of the mishkan is always also a story about something bigger and deeper. It’s not “just” about the lavish descriptions of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, the hammered gold and copper, the linen and acacia wood. This is Torah’s sacred instruction manual on creating community. Step one: community means everybody. 

Torah reminds us that we build community together, each with our own gifts. The holy work of building community comes with some obligations. First off, we have to respect each others’ offerings and perspectives. We have to remember that together we are more than the sum of our parts. And we have to remember that the way to build a home for the Holy, for truth and justice and compassion and hope, is to all be involved in building it together.

And there’s a corollary, which is that everyone has something to give. I’m not talking about donations, though every community needs funds to keep itself going and ours is no exception. I mean the inner qualities we each bring to the table. Passion and perseverance. Kindness and steadfastness. Community-mindedness. Patience. The fire of justice and activism, and the still waters of care and calmness. The community wouldn’t be whole without all of us. 

This is an easy platitude that can be difficult to live: especially when we disagree, or when we feel afraid, or when emotions run high. This understanding of community asks us to cultivate curiosity about each others’ perspectives and hopes and dreams, and to resist stereotyping each other or writing each other off. This might sound small, but it’s hugely important. I mean, according to Torah, this is literally how we make space for God in our world. 

We make space for God – for justice, for holiness, for our highest ideals – when we all pitch in to build a community that’s broad and resilient enough to be a home for all of us. That’s our aspiration here. Our Jewish community here is for all of us. You belong here – whether you’re a fourth generation local, or you just moved here; whether you were born into Judaism or chose it yourself; whether your Jewishness focuses you inward or outward.

You belong: whether what brings you through the door is spiritual life and practice, or activism and social justice, or music, or mitzvot, or social life and connections. And you belong no matter what path you think will best bring Israel and Palestinians to a just, lasting, and safe peace. We are a tiny synagogue community. Within our fewer-than-100 members we span the gamut of opinions about Israel and Palestine. I know this because y’all have told me so.

This is an upside of smalltown life. I imagine that in a city, people might self-select to different synagogues. But in northern Berkshire, we’re it. Which means we have to find a way to be in community even when we disagree… even about the big questions, like which tune is the right one for Adon Olam. I’m joking, but I also really mean it. Torah’s whole vision of holy community assumes that we are different, and we figure out how to be there for each other anyway.

I am committed to the proposition that we all belong in Jewish community, and that we owe it to each other to make it work. I believe our diversities are the gifts we each bring to the construction of this sacred community. And I believe that in listening to each other, with openness, humility, and care, we make space for that infinite possibility of transformation that our tradition names as God. When we hold space for our differences, we make community holy.

Torah asks us each to bring our gifts if our hearts are so moved. If your heart moves you to do the work of showing up, I’m here to listen and learn. My ask of all of us, including myself, is: come with curiosity. Assume the best of others. And keep an open heart. Bring your gifts, and appreciate what others bring. That’s how holy community is built: not once, but over and over again, in every interaction. Even when it isn’t easy. Maybe especially then. 

I am so glad to be building this community with all of you.

 

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


A Song For Those Coming Through the Sea: Beshalach 5783 / 2022

Screen Shot 2023-02-02 at 4.53.15 PM

The Song at the Sea is one of the oldest poems in Torah, and its beauty in the scroll is like nothing else. Some see brickwork, an echo of the labors of slavery. Some see waves rolling in and receding, a reminder of how the sea parted and then rushed back in. The waves, in turn, evoke the midrash about Nachshon ben Aminadav who bravely stepped into the waters and began walking forward. When the waves reached his lips, that’s when the waters parted. This is a story about taking a risk and making a leap of faith toward a better life. 

Every displaced person, asylum-seeker, and refugee could tell us that story. Emerging from circumstances most of us can scarcely imagine, they step into the waters. The act of fleeing home speaks of a situation so dire that staying put is no longer a viable option. In the words of poet Warsan Shire, “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well.” No one flees unless home is a Narrow Place so tight and terrible that fleeing becomes the best choice.

One of my favorite teachings about crossing the Sea comes from Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezofsky, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe. He writes that there are three levels of emunah, "faith" or "trust": the emunah of the heart, the emunah of the mind, and the emunah of the body, and the highest of these is the emunah of the body. That surprised me; I expected mind to be considered “higher.” Nope. He says when we feel emunah in our bodies, then the divine presence dwells in us, and that is when we become able to sing the Song at the Sea.

The Slonimer knows that taking a leap of faith changes us. Inertia would be easier. Giving up would be easier. Leaping into the unknown asks just enough bravery to take the first step. In the act of stepping into the sea comes transformation: the capacity to sing a new song. The Slonimer says that when we take the leap of emunah and walk into the water, Shechinah dwells in us – God’s presence is in us, in our very bones.  And that’s what enables us to sing a song of redemption, a song of hope for something better than whatever we knew before. 

Our ancient spiritual ancestors couldn’t sing the Song until they felt emunah in their bones. And they couldn’t feel emunah in their bones until they stepped into the sea. Which means they had to step into the sea before they felt ready. They had to take the plunge without knowing for sure what lay ahead and whether or not the water would part. On a smaller scale, we all have moments like that, on the cusp of change: marriage or divorce, birth or death, choosing a new beginning. There’s a moment when we have to decide to just – step into the sea, ready or not.

In 1939 my grandparents fled Hitler with my three year old mother in tow. I imagine it was the hardest thing they had ever done. When they arrived on these shores, other Jews from Eastern Europe took care of them: helped them find a place to stay, a way to learn English, the help they needed until they could get on their feet. That’s a kind of kindness that can’t be paid back, only paid forward. Even if they repaid every penny (and maybe they did), the repayment couldn’t mean as much to the givers as being welcomed had meant when my family needed it.

How do we pay it forward? To me the answer is painfully obvious: we pay it forward by welcoming the stranger. We pay it forward by meeting the needs of of the displaced person, the asylum-seeker, the refugee. Every Shabbat (or every day) we sing Mi Chamocha, our song of redemption. We need to let that song galvanize us to fuel the song of justice. The song of human dignity. The song of welcome. The song of “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.” The song of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Each year at Pesach we recount how we fled Egypt after ten terrible plagues with only what we could carry. We eat matzah: the hardtack of slavery, and the waybread of our journey to freedom. For us, that story is symbolic, a metaphor for breaking free from life’s tight places. For displaced people and asylum-seekers and refugees, the Exodus is now. We know the heart of the refugee because our ancestral story – the one we tell at seder, the ritual practiced by 70% of American Jews – is a story of becoming refugees. Our obligations to today’s refugees are clear.

When we fled the Narrow Place, a “mixed multitude” came also, to teach that freedom isn’t just for us. Dignity, justice, and safety aren’t just for us. They are the birthright of every human being. Including asylum-seekers camped at the borders of our nation, and refugees fleeing war and devastation, and parents and children fleeing gender-based violence. During the Shoah, the United States shamefully refused entry to refugees and asylum-seekers – many were then slaughtered. We owe it to their memories to do better now by people in need of safe haven.

It takes profound emunah to step into the sea not knowing if the waters will part. (Or into a rickety boat, or the back of a pickup truck, or trudging on foot…) In our ancestral story, stepping into the Sea opens us to an experience of God that begins to change us from freed slaves into the Jewish people. For 100 million displaced people in the world today, stepping into the Sea is just… reality. Jewish values call us to welcome them with sustenance, and clothing, and homes, and safety, and justice, and dignity, and hope. That’s the song that I think is worth singing.

 

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.)


When the darkness around us is deep...

A reporter from The Berkshire Eagle reached out to me recently to ask what I'm speaking / preaching about during this holiday season. I wrote back that the framing of the question is a little bit off for me, since for me as a Jew "the holidays" doesn't mean December, it means the Days of Awe, which happened a few months ago.

I figured that would be the end of it. The article is about what local clergy are saying at Christmastime, I don't give a Christmas sermon, end of story. To my surprise, she read two of my high holiday sermons (Tools for Tough Times and Balancing Life and Death) and then emailed me with more questions. And my words close out the article!

On my Rosh Hashanah teaching:

This year it felt more important than ever to speak honestly about what's broken in the world, not in a way that compounds despair but in a way that brings light to dark places and hope to tough times...

For the second year in a row, at Rosh Hashanah I referenced Mariame Kaba's teaching that hope is a discipline. It's not a feeling, it's not optimism, it's a practice. We create hope when our actions aim toward a little bit more justice and a little bit more love. Facing what's broken doesn't mean we despair. It means we roll up our sleeves and do what we can to build a better world...

On what I'm thinking about now, during thi week of solstice and Chanukah:

...The light of our souls persists, even when — as William Stafford put it — 'the darkness around us is deep.' And we never know how our own light might help others in their times of darkness.

Read the whole article here: Berkshires religious leaders share a holiday message of hope, and a reminder that if your faith feels tired, look toward the light.


Chanukah light in a small town


The small town where I live has had a rocky few years. A police officer sued the town alleging racism. That revealed the poster of Hitler in another officer's locker. Then came allegations of misconduct. The town formed a Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Equity committee -- and then five out of six people of color on that committee resigned. There were threatening emails. Town Facebook groups exploded.

Last year, town clergy together hosted a series of interfaith Listening Circles. We talked about faith and race and feeling welcome (or not) and what we want our town to be. The Hitler poster and police misconduct impacted some of us. Accusations of racism impacted some of us. Racism impacted some of us. What might it look like to pursue both justice and reconciliation? What would that ask of us?

What does it mean to feel that we "belong" here, if we moved here from somewhere else -- or if we didn't? How can we collectively avoid the zero-sum notion that if our town becomes more welcoming to newcomers and minorities, it necessarily becomes less welcoming to the people who grew up here? While we're at it, who defines what is and isn't "welcoming"? What do we owe to each other?

I learned in those conversations that some Jews feel simultaneously invisible and unwelcome here. It's a double-edged sword: not sure people know we're here, and also not sure we'd be welcome if people did know we're here. The experience of being a religious minority isn't new. But it takes on a different valance in a time of rising antisemitism, and these last few years have surely been that.

Against all of these backdrops, members of the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce reached out. They'd been urged to expand the diversity of celebrations encompassed in the Town's December holiday activities. Would a Town menorah be meaningful? Conversations ensued. Fundraising ensued. Fast-forward to where we are now: last night my son and I helped to dedicate the new Town menorah.

The Town menorah stands on the lawn of the big downtown Inn, visible all the way up Spring Street. (If you're imagining a town like Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls, you're not far off.)  We live in a society shaped by Christian practices and assumptions. Christmas is in the music, the advertisements, the red and green everything. For some of us, simply seeing a Jewish tradition in public is a balm.

Representation matters -- just ask any kid who finally sees a character like them in a book or on TV and feels a wash of inchoate relief at that sense of validation. Having a big visible symbol of Chanukah can evoke a similar feeling. For me the Town menorah is a lovely expression of diversity and pluralism. (I'd love to see more cultures and traditions uplifted. Next year, a Town iftar, perhaps?)

I've never felt invisible or unwelcome here as a Jew... but knowing that some of those whom I serve have felt that way, I hope the Town menorah lighting did a little bit to dispel that. "I never thought I'd see this happen in Williamstown," one congregant marveled to me after we blessed and kindled lights and sang songs.  "I didn't think it would make such a difference, after living here all these years."

 

See also: North Berkshire Lights Menorahs to Mark Festival of Lights.

 


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)" »


The Mitzvah: Lessons from Va'etchanan for Now

Screen Shot 2022-08-12 at 10.41.16 PM

In this week's Torah portion, Va'etchanan, Moshe continues to recount the major events of the last 40 years. The Torah is approaching its end. Moshe's life is approaching its end. This Jewish year is approaching its end. And before all of those things happen, Moshe gets his swansong -- he gets to give one very long speech on the banks of the Jordan. That's what's happening at this moment in our Torah reading cycle. This week, among other things, Moshe retells the giving of the Ten Commandments.

The giving of the Torah is framed as a covenant, a two-way agreement. Moshe reiterates that that covenant isn't between our ancestors and God -- it's an eternal covenant between God and us, we who are living. The Ten Commandments begin, אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְהֹוָ֣''ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ, "I am YHVH your God."  They start with a reminder that God is our God -- and wow, there's a question for the ages: what does it mean to say "my God"? How is my relationship with God my own? How is your relationship with God uniquely yours?

The whole verse is, "I am YHVH your God Who brought you out of constriction, out of the house of bondage." (Deut. 5:6) The first commandment, Jewishly speaking, isn't commanding us per se -- it's reminding us. God is our God -- mine, and yours, and yours, and yours. "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Leah, God of Rachel," as the amidah prayer says. Each of us has a relationship with the Holy. And each of us is brought out of constriction into freedom.

Maybe "the G-word" doesn't speak to you. The Hebrew name YHVH seems to be a unique version of the verb to be, simultaneously implying Was and Is and Will Be, or we might say Being itself -- or, better, Becoming. What does it mean to be in relationship with the force behind becoming, to find holiness in the reality of transformation and change? What does it mean to be in relationship with justice and with lovingkindness -- two of the qualities our tradition says are manifest both in God and in us? 

The teacher of my teachers, Reb Zalman z"l, used to quote R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev -- "The God you don't believe in, I might not believe in, either." Reb Zalman would've wanted to shift the conversation away from theology -- what we do or don't believe about God -- and instead toward when and how we experience something beyond ourselves. When and how do we experience justice or love or holiness or change? And do we let that experience shape our actions in the world? 

In Deuteronomy 6:1, we read:

וְזֹ֣את הַמִּצְוָ֗ה הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֑ם

"This is the Instruction -- the chukim and mishpatim -- that your God YHVH has commanded [me] to impart to you..."

Chukim means engraved-commandments. Like the mitzvah of brit milah, which is literally inscribed on some of our bodies. Or the mitzvah of kashrut, Jewish dietary practice. Chukim are mitzvot that operate on levels beyond the rational. And mishpatim means justice-commandments, interpersonal and ethical mitzvot. In context here, this is a big lead-up to whatever Moshe is about to say next. Drumroll please! Whatever Moshe is about to say is core to our tradition, even more than the so-called Big Ten.

The Instruction -- the Mitzvah in question -- is a passage of Torah we call the Sh'ma and V'ahavta. It's part of daily prayer. We recite it when we lie down and when we rise up; we teach it to our generations; we speak about this mitzvah when we are at home, and when we're out in the world. This passage tells us to listen up; to love God with all we've got; to keep reciting these words, learning them and teaching them wherever we are. And, again: whether or not we "believe in God," these words still have power. 

I looked to see what some of our meforshim, the classical commentators, said about these words. Rashi (who lived around the year 1100) says that the commandment to "love God" means to do the mitzvot out of a sense of love, rather than out of a sense of fear, e.g. fear of punishment. One who does mitzvot out of love is considered to be at a higher spiritual level than someone who only does mitzvot because they're afraid of what might happen if they don't. It's better to be motivated by love than by fear. 

Ibn Ezra says: in antiquity the word lev, heart, also meant mind. For him, the way we love God with all our heart is by always learning, always going deeper into our texts and traditions. And arguably the more Torah we learn, the more mitzvot we'll feel called to do. That's the opinion of the commentator known as the Sforno. He says these verses come to help us recognize that when we love God, we'll take joy in doing mitzvot, because there's nothing better than doing what brings joy to our Beloved.

Okay: so maybe loving God means doing mitzvot out of love instead of fear. And maybe loving God is something we express through learning. And maybe it's about finding joy in doing what's right, because  when we do what's right, we bring joy to our Creator. This year, what jumps out at me is the placement of these verses in our seasonal cycle. Rosh Hashanah begins six weeks from tomorrow. Tomorrow in our Reverse Omer journey we'll begin the week of Yesod, which means Foundations or Generations.

What could be more foundational to Judaism than the sh'ma and v'ahavta? We affirm the unity that underpins the universe. Twice a day we remind ourselves to love God, to put these words on our hearts and teach them to our generations and affix them to our doorposts. We use these words to mark our transitions in space (a mezuzah reminds us to pause and notice the sacred when we come and go.) And we use these words to mark our transitions in time: evening and morning, lying down and rising up.

Six weeks before Rosh Hashanah, we reach these verses in our cycle of Torah readings. It's almost if the Torah herself is whispering to us: hey, y'all, the holidays are coming. And maybe we've let our spiritual practices slide, lately. Maybe because it's summer and we're distracted. Or because the world is a Lot, between the news headlines and the climate crisis and monkeypox and whatever else, and we're distracted. Or because we have too much to do and we're distracted. Or we're... just distracted.

This week's Torah portion reminds us:

Stop and breathe.

Listen, and remember the Oneness beneath all things.

Stop to pray the v'ahavta. Cultivate the intention and the ability to love.

Stop to kiss the mezuzah. Be mindful in comings and goings.

Stop to focus on the mitzvot that shape our lives at home and when we're out in the world. The logical mitzvot, and the ones that transcend logic. The spiritual mitzvot and the ethical mitzvot. The ones between us and our Source, and the ones between us and each other.

Take these words, and place them on our hearts. Let them inform the actions of our hands. Let them be a headlamp between our eyes to illuminate our path.

Do these spiritual practices, and teach them to those who come after us, because they are tools to help us through whatever comes.

What if we made a point of that, over these next six weeks? What if we made a point of stretching our spiritual muscles twice a day, every day for the next month and a half? How might that change our experience of Rosh Hashanah, and our experience of the new year that will follow? Spiritual practice doesn't change the cards we're dealt or the world we live in, but it can shift how we experience things. An invitation to give that a try. And in six weeks, you can tell me what kind of difference it makes. 

 

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 on our new website.) 


Responsibility

Download

Every time I see someone talking about rights lately, I find myself thinking about mitzvot (commandments), the core of Jewish life and practice. There are spiritual mitzvot and ethical mitzvot, mitzvot involving relationship between human beings and God and mitzvot involving relationship between human beings and each other. Taking on the mitzvot means accepting obligations: to each other, to the community, to God. The whole system is rooted in an ethic of obligation and responsibility.

Ruth Messenger wrote a lovely piece comparing the notion of rights with the Jewish notion of responsibilities or obligations. She observes -- correctly -- that they're not opposed to each other. There's no reason that being Jewish should be in tension with the notion of human rights. But in this moment, I am increasingly feeling that the American focus on rights and individual liberties is getting in the way of our capacity to recognize our responsibilities to each other and to our community.

I told a high school friend on Facebook recently that I can't understand resistance to gun safety measures. Wouldn't a responsible gun owner be willing to operate within greater constraints in order to ensure the safety of others, most especially our children?  In response, he told me simply that he's not willing to relinquish any of his constitutional rights, period. This sounds like I'm setting up a straw man, but this conversation really happened. Our worldviews just don't make sense to each other.

Intellectually I grasp where he's coming from, but spiritually it feels foreign to me. Part of being in community is balancing what I want with what others need. Living in community means we have obligations to each other. Living in community means giving up some individual control or benefit for the sake of the collective. For instance, most of us might not "want" to give up part of our earnings, but we pay taxes because that's how we ensure roads and schools and necessary services, right? 

I suspect I'm preaching to the choir. If you already agree with me, you're nodding. If you don't agree with me, I don't know that anything I say will change your mind. But staying silent feels like giving up. 27 school shootings so far this year, and it's only May. (Not to mention shootings everywhere else.) The ready availability of guns that liquefy tissue means that no one is safe. Not at school, not at shul or church or gurdwara, not at a nightclub, not at the grocery store. How are we living like this? 

Hillel teaches, "Don't separate yourself from the community." (Pirkei Avot 2:5) Torah tells us time and again that we're obligated to protect the vulnerable. Rambam teaches that it's our obligation to give tzedakah -- not "charity," rooted in the Latin caritas, but giving that's fueled by tzedek, justice. Even the poorest person, someone who needs tzedakah, is obligated to give -- because supporting others is fundamental to community. Obligation to others is fundamental to community. 

And yet in the wake of the Buffalo mass shooting, and the Laguna California mass shooting, and the Uvalde mass shooting, who's framing the gun safety conversation in terms of mutual obligation? I groused to a historian friend: had the Founding Fathers only been Jewish, we might have a very different social compact. To my surprise, she replied that the Founders thought about citizenship not just as a matter of rights, but also as a matter of responsibilities to one another and to the whole!

[T]he founders of this country did not believe in unlimited individual freedom.. . [They agreed that] the best form of government was one in which individuals gave up a portion of their total freedom in order to take care of the community. [Source]

I don't remember learning that in school. I wish everyone did. We give up a portion of our total freedom -- the freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want, no matter the consequences for others -- in order to live in community with other human beings.  We balance what each of us personally wants with some responsibility to the needs of others. That's part of what it means to be a member of a community -- a citizen, part of a bigger whole, responsible to that whole. 

I wish I believed that this framing would shift our nation's echo-chamber conversations about Constitutional rights. (Rights that initially belonged only to white men, though that's a different conversation.) What would our nation be if we focused less on our rights than on what we owe to each other? At minimum, we owe each other the space to live and breathe without fear of being gunned down. Why is anyone's desire to own an assault weapon more important than that?

 

 

Two poems that moved me recently:


Holy work

Download

When I got the summons for jury duty, I grumbled a bit. Who doesn't? I groused, and assumed that as usual this would be one boring morning out of my life. I'd watch a video about jury service, sit in a courtroom for a while, not get impaneled, and hopefully by lunchtime I'd be out and heading home.

I knew how to get out of it. I could tell what answers to give to their questions so they'd release me. As I sat in the courtroom that morning, listening to the judge, I realized I couldn't do that -- not without compromising my integrity. So I answered truthfully, knowing I was likely to be tapped to serve.

This spring I've been studying Pirkei Avot with my b-mitzvah students, and it's sparked endless conversations about Jewish values. "Give others the benefit of the doubt" (Pirkei Avot 1:4) -- what does that mean in practice? "Don't separate yourself from the community (2:4) -- how do we live that?

I did not expect that being impaneled for a jury would feel like being called up to do taharah, the holy work of the hevra kadisha: preparing the body of someone who has died for burial. But the instant I stepped into the jury room, I felt electrified, as though vibrating at a different frequency than usual. 

Of course the hevra kadisha doesn't ask me to consider justice, nor to deliberate toward an outcome. And jury duty doesn't involve the kinds of hands-on work the hevra kadisha does. But spiritually they feel similar to me. Both feel like sacred responsibilities. Both ask presence of heart and mind.

Both rely on volunteers stepping up to serve, to be present for each other because that's what it means to be part of a community. As a citizen, I have both the right and the responsibility of serving on a jury when called. That's more or less how I feel about my work on the hevra kadisha, too.

Not everyone can say yes to either of these forms of service. That makes it all the more important that those of us who can, do. Both of these ask me to step outside of my comfort zone, to backburner my own needs and desires so that I can serve. This is "walking my talk" as an American and as a Jew.

*

It's not easy to sit with genuine not-knowing. To practice shedding preconceptions about anyone or anything, to be present with heart and mind, to grapple with difficult situations, to presume innocence and take part in the work of justice. But what could be a more holy responsibility than this?

This holy work came with some heartbreak, and reminders of how much is broken in our world. Sometimes my head spun with details. Sometimes I came home and cried. And then I did my best to wake up the next morning and return to the courthouse with an open mind, ready to listen.

I wore my kippah in the courtroom. In Yiddish, it's called a yarmulke; that name derives from yirah malka, awe of the King. It reminds me of God's presence, and calls me to be ethical. I aspire to that all the time, but it felt extra-important as I tried to follow Micah's call to do justice and walk humbly.

I often felt inadequate to the task, because who could be "adequate" to making decisions about guilt or innocence that will deeply impact people's lives? The feeling of inadequacy is uncomfortable, but I think it's important. If I thought I had the answers, that would be hubris -- which would be a problem.

Jury service asks us to do our best to root out any preconceptions or prejudice, and to approach everything we hear with an open mind. That's a pretty good spiritual practice for anytime, honestly. So is holding deep empathy while also upholding accountability. Like balancing chesed and gevurah.

My jury service came during the Omer count, when we focus on seven inner qualities. My first week was the week of hod, humble splendor, which feels pretty on-the-nose: humility was certainly core to this experience. My second week was the week of yesod, foundations... including ethical ones.

This case raised a lot of big ethical questions. I struggled with them mightily. I know that our system isn't perfect, and I also know that the jury did the best we could to listen with open minds, to be conscious of our own biases, and to serve with integrity. I think that's the best that anyone can do. 

 

 


After (the) Death - Yizkor

Screen Shot 2022-04-23 at 11.08.11 AM

We're in a slightly strange position today, spiritually speaking. We are a Reform congregation, and in the Reform world, Pesach is a seven-day festival -- as it is in Israel for Jews of all denominations. Today is no longer Pesach; it's "just" Shabbat, like any other Shabbat.

And yet we're saying the Yizkor memorial prayers today, which is a thing we do at the end of Pesach. We could have held a special service for the seventh day of Pesach and recited Yizkor yesterday, but most of us don't have the practice of taking off work for 7th day chag.

So here we are, preparing for Yizkor even though it isn't Pesach for us. This year, maybe because I am myself a mourner, I noticed something about the confluence of Yizkor and the Torah portion we read today, the first part of Acharei Mot, "After the Death."

The death in question is that of Aaron's two sons, who died after bringing "strange fire" before God. At the moment of their death, Torah tells us, Aaron was silent. Sometimes, loss can steal our ability even to speak. We have no words, because in that moment there are no words to have.

After the death of Aaron's sons, God tells Moses to tell Aaron not to come "at will" into the Holy of Holies, because God's presence there is so powerful that Aaron might die. Instead, Torah outlines a set of practices: here are the garments to wear, the offerings to bring, in order to be safe.

In Torah's paradigm, direct unmediated experience of God is dangerous. (That's why when Moshe asks to see God's glory, God covers him in the cleft of a rock face and passes by, and Moshe only gets to witness the divine Afterimage.) The rituals of sacrifice made contact with God safe.

Grief and loss can overwhelm us, even blow out our regular spiritual circuits. And they're meant to. This is what it means to be human: to love, and to lose. Our tradition's mourning rituals provide structure, telling us when to stay home and when to emerge, and when to give ourselves space to remember.

Reciting the Yizkor prayers four times a year gives a predictable rhythm to the ebb and flow of mourning. The prayers are the same, whether at Yom Kippur or Shemini Atzeret or Pesach or Shavuot, but the way we feel saying them might change over the course of the year -- or from year to year.

A loss that's brand-new can be raw and overwhelming, can steal our words and our breath. A loss that's decades old might feel familiar, more like a broken bone long-ago healed than like a stab wound. Yizkor carries us through from new sharp loss to old familiar recollection.

That shift might take years, and there's no way to rush it. Grief takes the time it takes, and we feel what we feel, and eventually the sharp edges become gentler. Saying Yizkor four times a year is our spiritual technology for plugging in to our losses in community in a way that's safe.

Suddenly it feels exactly right to me that this year's end-of-Pesach Yizkor coincides with reading this first part of Acharei Mot. Like Aaron, we are faced with the question of how to make meaning after loss... and how to feel everything we need to feel while also functioning in the world.

Aaron relied on ritual to safely enter behind the curtain into the place where God's presence was most palpable. And we rely on ritual in our practice of Yizkor, the words we pray as we remember our dead. This too is a kind of going-behind-the-curtain into direct personal encounter.

Even if you don't typically wear a tallit for prayer, I invite you to pick one up as we begin Yizkor. Wrap yourself in it; maybe it feels like an embrace. And when we enter into silence, go behind the curtain of your tallit and take some time to connect with memory and with those whom you've lost.

May our prayers and our song and our silence be a safe container for whatever each of us needs to feel. May this ancient practice hold us up and help us through. And may we emerge from today's encounter with loss and memory feeling present and whole, and sanctified, and not alone.

 

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


Tazria and What Community Is For

 

Screen Shot 2022-03-31 at 1.32.40 PM

 

This week's Torah portion, Tazria, speaks in detail about a condition called tzara'at.

Many translations render tzara'at as leprosy, though that's clearly not what this is. Some other year I'll teach about the different ways our tradition has understood tzara'at, e.g. as a spiritual sickness, or a metaphor for slander, or a punishment for racism. This year I want to talk about something else.

Torah teaches this week that a person with tzara'at is considered tamei. So is someone who's given birth, or who's been in contact with a dead body. A lot of translations use the language of "unclean" and "clean" for the Hebrew terms tamei and tahor, though I really don't like that translation.

Rabbi Rachel Adler teaches that tum'ah (the state of being tamei) implies being charged-up with a kind of spiritual electricity. Something about contact with blood or birth or death makes us vibrate spiritually at a different frequency for a while. (I have written about this before.)

This isn't about uncleanness, and it isn't a value judgment. All of us are tahor sometimes and tamei sometimes, and being postpartum or in contact with death really is a different spiritual space. Okay. But what does this have to do with tzara'at, whatever it is, and what is this text calling us to do?

When the priest determined that someone had tzara'at, that person would be quarantined from the community for seven days. Then there was another examination. If the affliction was still there, the person was instructed to call out, "Tamei, tamei!" as they went about their business.

Reading this, I've often felt sorry for the m'tzora (the person with tzara'at). It isn't bad enough that they have this condition; now they have to proclaim their situation everywhere they go?! But this year a friend pointed me toward a passage in Talmud that completely changes how I feel about this verse:

As it is taught in a baraita: It is derived from the verse: “And he will cry: Tamei, tamei” (Leviticus 13:45), that a person with tzara'at must publicize the fact that he is tamei. He must announce his pain to the masses, and the masses will pray for mercy on his behalf. And likewise, one to whom any unfortunate matter happens must announce it to the masses, and then the masses will pray for mercy on his behalf. (B.T. Chullin 78a)

The reason for calling out "Tamei, tamei!" is not to shame the person who's afflicted. After all, as R. Adler notes, everyone is tahor sometimes and tamei sometimes. Talmud means to teach that when we are afflicted, we need to make that known to the community so the community can pray for us.

This leads to the question of what prayer is for. Do we pray in order to effect an outcome, or do we pray in order to sensitize ourselves to the needs of those around us? Both of these are legitimate Jewish theologies of prayer, though for me, the second one is the one that really resonates.

When I pray for someone's healing, I know that my prayer may not change their medical condition. But the act of extending my heart to God on their behalf can change me. And from that changed place, I am more aware of their needs, and that's what impels me to take action to help them.

Maybe that means checking in to see how they are. Or paying them a visit. Or providing a meal. Or wearing a mask because they're immunocompromised. Or avoiding perfume because scents give them migraines. Or sending a note. Or even just asking if they're okay, and really listening in response.

These aren't the rabbi's job. (Though I do try to do these things!) These are the responsibility of the community.  This is why we we list aloud each week those for whom we pray for healing -- so that the community will know that so-and-so is sick and in need of our prayers, our support, and our care.

The same is true of someone who's grieving, or who's lost a job, or who's grappling with depression or mental illness, or -- you name it. After all, Talmud tells us that when we are experiencing "any unfortunate matter," we should communicate that to our community so the community can step up.

Jewishly speaking, that's the purpose of community: to feed the hungry and comfort the mourner. To pray for each others' well-being, and then take actions that uplift those prayers and make them real. The purpose of community is to take care of whoever's in need. I really love that.

Returning to Torah's teaching that someone with tzara'at is tamei: yeah, our afflictions -- whether illness or another kind of suffering -- can make us feel disconnected, different from everyone else. But when we can admit that we're in that place, that's when others can reach in and be with us where we are.

This year I'm also noticing an aural connection between the words m'tzora (a person with tzara'at) and Mitzrayim (Egypt, the Narrow Place, constriction and tsuris) In two weeks we'll celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, Y'tziat Mitzrayim -- going forth from the constriction of suffering into expansive hope.

Tazria reminds us that when we've got tsuris, it's our job to let the community know so the community can pray for us -- and act in ways that make those prayers real. That's how we get to Y'tziat Mitzrayim: by taking care of each other. No one needs to be alone in suffering. No one crosses the sea alone.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning services at CBI of the Berkshires (cross-posted to my new From the Rabbi blog.)

The image at the top of this page combines a photograph by Len Radin with a parsha poster by Hillel Smith, available on his website.


The history of the bagel and the antisemitism of now

Download

On Shabbat I was reading up on the history of the bagel, and I ran across this: 

In that era it was quite common in Poland for Jews to be prohibited from baking bread. This stemmed from the commonly held belief that Jews, viewed as enemies of the Church, should be denied any bread at all...

The shift started to take place in the late 13th century [with] the breakthrough code that came from the Polish Prince Boleslaw the Pious in 1264 that said, "Jews may freely buy and sell and touch bread like Christians."

(Source: The Secret History of Bagels in The Atlantic. Bagels: A Surprising Jewish History at Aish is also good.) I'm always a little bit horrified to discover yet another way in which the Christian world has mistreated Jews. Even when I think I have a handle on antisemitism, there's always more. 

My first reaction to this cropping up in the bagel article was disbelieving laughter: seriously, not allowed to buy, sell, or touch bread at a bakery? I'm not surprised that we weren't allowed to bake commercially. I know we were banned from most trades in Europe. But not even allowed to pick up a roll?

The laughter is a defense mechanism, of course. Behind it are rage and tears. I'm reading about the history of the bagel as Putin gaslights his nation and the world, making the absurd claim that he's destroying Ukraine in order to rid it of Nazis when this could not be further from the truth.

I'm reading about the history of the bagel as I also swim through Twitter threads where (some) Christians are refusing to understand how trash-talking the Pharisees harms Jews. (Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg / @TheRaDR has written beautifully about this -- see this excellent thread.)

I'm reading about the history of the bagel as I struggle to adjust to new security protocols at my small-town synagogue. Bulletproof glass, panic buttons, trainings on how to identify threats and how to stanch bleeding, just in case we become the next Colleyville or Poway or Squirrel Hill.)

It's safer now to be Jewish than at most points in our history. We're less likely to be killed for being who we are. (Less likely doesn't mean impossible, but our odds are better.) Still, I suspect a lot of people who aren't Jewish don't understand the weight of collective trauma from centuries of this.

"Not allowed to bake commercially or touch bread" is laughable, minor compared with pogroms and blood libel and Eastertide massacres and all the rest. (See, e.g., Hundreds of Jews Massacred in Prague on Easter, 1389; Lisbon Easter Slaughter, 1506, Kishinev pogrom, 1903.) But it's all of a piece.

And that's why sometimes little examples of antisemitism in our daily lives can tip us over the edge into a kind of post-traumatic stress response. Because other people's hatred of Jews, historical and present, is in the air we breathe. It shouldn't be, but it is, and it unconsciously weighs us down.

For years I resisted creating an "antisemitism" category on this blog. I wanted to focus my attention on what's beautiful and meaningful and rich about my traditions, on Jewish joy and spiritual practice and resilience, not on those who hate us. But ignoring antisemitism feels irresponsible to me now. 

How do I walk and work and pray in this world, knowing that this ancient irrational hatred -- visible throughout our history in ways both big and small -- persists and might touch my son, or the Jews-by-choice whom I welcome into our covenant, or any of us? With the quiet defiance of making bagels.

I'm being flip, and I'm also telling the truth. I make these pumpernickel bagels. (Which I've made before.) And I bake challah most Fridays. And make gefilte fish at Pesach. And keep Shabbat. And sing and pray, and build a sukkah each year, and teach my son to be proud of our ways.

The only way I know to respond to "Jews will not replace us," to antisemitic caricatures in books and video games, to all of this, is by doubling down on Jewish spiritual practices and values -- continuing to be who we are. So this morning I made motzi over my own bagels, and I savored every bite. 

 


Four gifts

Screen Shot 2022-02-04 at 1.05.19 PM


This week's Torah portion contains one of my favorite verses: "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among them." The Hebrew could also mean "within them." We build God a sanctuary so that God -- holiness, love, justice -- can dwell within us.

This year, I'm struck by the colors and the textures. Acacia wood covered over with hammered gold. Fine linen. Goat hair. Blue and purple and crimson, blue and purple and crimson, blue and purple and crimson. (Perhaps you've noticed those colors in this morning's slides!)

Bluepurplecrimson

A glimpse of this morning's slide deck.

I can almost feel the homespun cloth between my fingers, and the contrast with the fine linen. And my eyes crave the vibrancy. Picture the shining metals and acacia wood. The rich colors of blue and purple and crimson -- in modern language, they "pop."

I was talking with someone from the congregation this week who observed that it feels like we've collectively lost access to something we really need. We've lost spontaneity, or fun, or joy. Everything feels uphill, and joy feels out of reach. I hear that a lot, these days.

896,000 Americans have died from COVID so far. We lost 405,399 in World War II. We lost 58,000 in Vietnam. The number of COVID deaths thus far is so much higher, I can't begin to process it. And that's just here. Unlike any war, this virus is everywhere.

Dayenu, that would be enough! and then there's school boards banning Holocaust books, and a caravan of angry people taking over downtown Ottawa, and -- it's a lot. It's really and truly a lot. What tools can this Torah portion full of ancient blueprints give us for that?!

I found four. Here they are.

 

1. Beauty in the wilderness

At this moment in our story, our ancestors are arguably traumatized. They went from slavery and hard labor and constricted spirit, to wandering in the wilderness with no clear sense for what's next. They're probably exhausted, maybe afraid, and ready to be done.

Exhausted, maybe afraid, and ready to be done -- does that ring a bell? And that's exactly when God says: bring the gifts of your heart, everyone who is so moved. Bring wood and precious metals, bring the most vividly-colored yarn and fabric, and make beauty.

Our hearts and souls and spirits need beauty, even in the wilderness -- or maybe especially in the wilderness. It may be tempting to say that art and beauty, vibrant colors and music, sacred spaces of all kinds are a luxury. Torah teaches otherwise.


2. Sanctuary

Think about the meaning of the English word sanctuary. As in, "give me sanctuary!" To me it evokes a safe place, a sacred space, a place where no one can hurt me. A place where I can flee from all of life's troubles. Where I'm safe, and can feel hopeful, and be at peace.

Wow, I yearn for that right now. I'll bet some of you do too. A place of safety and holiness and dignity, a place where nothing and no one will do us harm, a place where we can lay down our load and be at peace and maybe even feel joy. Like a vacation, but deeper and more real.

We need that, just as our ancient ancestors did. And the only way to build it is together. To build a mishkan (from the root שכנ, as in Shechinah, divine Presence) -- to build a place where God can dwell -- requires all of us... and that safe holy place is for everyone.

 

3. Use what we've got

Like our spiritual ancestors, we can use what we have to connect with holiness wherever we are. They had acacia and gold, blue and purple and crimson yarn. Maybe right now, for us, it's a special tablecloth, or a hand-knitted sweater, or a cherished recipe: all tools for holiness.

Shabbat can be a sanctuary -- a day set-apart from the turmoil of the week. Music can be a sanctuary. For me, lately, that's meant singing along with the Encanto soundtrack! When I'm singing, I am lifted out of where I've been. A contemplative cup of tea can be a sanctuary.

Right now, between pandemic and February ice storms, we may feel stuck. But wherever we are can be a holy place, because God goes with us in all of our wanderings. That's why the Ark of the Covenant had gold rings in the side, and gold-covered poles always in the rings.

 

4. Bringing our gifts

And when COVID numbers go down and we gather onsite again, we will bring our gifts to community. That's what the name of this week's Torah portion means: t'rumah, the freewill gifts of the heart. The mishkan was built because everyone was moved to help build it.

What kind of holy community do we want to build together when the snows melt, when the voice of the red-winged blackbird is heard again in the willow tree behind our shul? And what can each of us bring? Because building community is like Stone Soup. It needs all of us.

The mishkan isn't a building, as beautiful as our building is. The mishkan is community -- the way we uplift and take care of each other, learn with each other, pray with each other, do mitzvot with each other. That's how we make a mishkan where holiness really dwells.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires. (Check out our spiffy new website!) Cross-posted to the new From the Rabbi blog there.