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)" »


The Mitzvah: Lessons from Va'etchanan for Now

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

 

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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

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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

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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!)

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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.


One heart: reading Yitro after Colleyville

 

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In this week's Torah portion, Yitro, we receive Torah at Sinai. Tradition teaches that every Jewish soul that ever was and ever will be was present at Sinai. At Sinai we stood together as one.

This week some of you have told me that you feel more connected than usual to Jews in other places... especially the Jews of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. That their shul shares our name heightens our sense of closeness.

Last Shabbat while members and the rabbi of that CBI community were held hostage, our hearts were in our throats and our prayers flowed without ceasing. Often a crisis makes us aware of the interconnectedness we usually don't see. In a crisis, it's easy to feel how what happens to one heart tugs at another heart, bound up as we are in what Dr. King called that "inescapable network of mutuality."

What happens to you impacts me. What happens there impacts us here. That's one of the continuing lessons of the pandemic. And this week, our connectedness means that many of us share a feeling of renewed vulnerability.

But we're connected not only because of our shared vulnerability, our shared fears of antisemitism and attack. We're connected because our souls stood together at Sinai. We're connected through mitzvot. In Aramaic, Hebrew's closest sister tongue, the word for connection is tzavta, which shares a root with mitzvah. The mitzvot connect us with God and with each other.

Some of those mitzvot are listed in this week's Torah portion. Be in relationship with the Force of Liberation bringing us forth from life's narrow places. Resist the urge to worship things that are not God, like statues or status. Remember the day of Shabbat and keep it holy, because when we pause our constant making and doing we are re-ensouled.

And some of the mitzvot our tradition holds dear aren't in today's list, because our tradition is comprised of 613 commandments, not just 10. For instance, the mitzvah repeated thirty-six times in Torah, instructing us in no uncertain terms to "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The rabbi at CBI Colleyville lived out that mitzvah when he invited an unknown man in on a twenty-degree morning and made him a cup of tea to help him get warm. We all know now how that turned out. And: I still think he was right to do it. Welcoming that stranger was the Jewish thing to do.

How do we do that in a way that keeps us safe as a community? That's a big conversation, and it's one we'll be having for a while. There's no simple answer to balancing the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh (protecting or preserving life) with the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim (welcoming others in hospitality). It's another version of the core spiritual balancing act to which our tradition calls us, between gevurah and chesed -- boundaries and lovingkindness.

It's okay to feel afraid. It would be spiritually dishonest to pretend otherwise. When someone chooses to join the Jewish people, at the end of their beit din and just before immersion there's a ritualized series of questions rooted in Talmud that I ask. They're questions like: don't you know that it's sometimes hard to be Jewish? Don't you know that being Jewish comes with obligations, and yeah, it also comes with antisemitism that will now be aimed at you?

But today I want to add: don't you know that being Jewish is also joyous? Lighting Shabbat candles and letting the week's worries slough away -- telling our core story of liberation at the seder with songs and laughter -- the heart-opening and mind-expanding journey of Jewish learning -- feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and caring for the powerless -- there's so much beauty and meaning here.

All of these connect us with our cousins in Colleyville, and Squirrel Hill, and Poway, and all over the world. Antisemitism is real and it's frightening and it probably isn't ever going away. But the mitzvot, and our Jewish joy -- they can't take that away from us.

The commentator Rashi notes that when Torah describes our encampment at Sinai, it uses a singular verb to teach us that when we gathered at the base of that mountain we were like one being with one heart. We get another hint toward this a few verses later, where we read that the whole community answers יַחְדָּו֙ / yachdav, as one.

It's easy to focus on all the things that divide us: different Jewish denominations, different ways of doing Jewish, different dress codes, different relationships with mitzvot or God or spiritual practice. But at Sinai we had a shared heart. And during last weekend's crisis we felt our shared heart. May the shared heart that we felt while our cousins in Colleyville were in danger stay real for us, long after that danger is gone. And may that shared heart connect and sustain us through whatever comes.

 

This is the d'varling that R. Rachel offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services this week (cross-posted to CBI's From the Rabbi blog.)


Paying respects

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Synagogue cemetery.

Fewer people come to the cemetery service each year. When I began serving this community, ten years ago, we would have at least a dozen. We'd set up a circle of folding chair and pray the afternoon service. And then people would take pebbles and quietly walk through the cemetery, leaving stones to mark their visits to parents or grandparents or great-grandparents. Some members of my shul are fourth or fifth generation; they have ancestors to visit here. 

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Older stones.

These days only a few people come. Many of those who used to attend the cemetery service each year are now buried in that same cemetery. I like to think that I am still davening with them each year when we convene on a Sunday before Rosh Hashanah.  There was one gentleman who always used to come to the cemetery service and then quip, "Rabbi, don't forget, you're doing my funeral!" And I'd always say, "No time soon, please." 

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Mom's grave. San Antonio.

The custom of visiting our ancestors at the cemetery before the new year feels old-fashioned. It comes from a time when people didn't migrate much. Today most of the members of my small shul are not fourth- or fifth-generation members. They're transplants, like me. I've been here now for almost thirty years (and have served as the rabbi here for a decade.) This is my home, and my son's home. But our beloved dead aren't here.

My mother's parents; my father's parents. San Antonio. 

My mother and my grandparents are buried in San Antonio. For great-grandparents, I'd have to cross an ocean. In 1993, we visited Prague (my grandmother's and my mother's birthplace) and we went to see my great-grandparents in the "new" Jewish cemetery from the 1800s. I remember my grandmother's satisfaction at being able to visit her parents' graves again. She told us how they used to picnic there with the ancestors on Sundays.

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My grandmother and aunt at my great-grandparents' graves. "New" Jewish cemetery, Prague, 1993.

It feels right to pay our respects to the dead before beginning the new year. To remember that one day we too will return to our Source. This afternoon I will hold a smooth pebble in my hand and I will think of my beloved dead. I'll think of them too when I make challah before the new year: round, like the year, and studded with raisins for sweetness. Their headstones are far away, but their presence is as near as memory. 

 

 


A week of building with Bayit

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Top row: T-shirts courtesy of Steve Silbert; the Bayit Board meets onsite and online; kayaking on the lake.

Bottom row: morning davening gear, and our morning davening spot.

 

When we gather at our VRBO, the first thing we do is kasher the kitchen. We do a massive grocery run at a nearby kosher market and make dinner together. We turn a pile of inspirational stickers into impromptu mad libs. On Rosh Chodesh Elul we daven outside under the spreading trees and the fields of goldenrod and corn, and we sing and laugh our way through Hallel.

We blue-sky dream about what we want Bayit to be and do next. We talk about disruption, innovation, collaboration and creativity, inspiration and design, remix and joy. We talk about Jewish life and what what people need (especially now, amidst pandemic and change). We talk about spiritual tools and technologies, ritual and learning, knowledge and practice.

We talk about problem statements, and use cases, and minimum viable products, and how to know when a new idea "works," and the cycle of trying a new thing, measuring success, revising the thing, trying again. We brainstorm lists of people outside this room whose work we want to uplift, and talk about how to do that. We sing niggunim. We add cards to Trello boards.  

We talk about audiences for our offerings / who we serve. We talk about restorative religion and DIY religion and social justice. We talk about ethics, and pluralism, and collaborative creativity and why the collaborative process matters to us, and about bridging between silos and between communities. We talk about our collective strengths and competencies and what we love.

We review our portfolio of existing and possible build projects. We review the builds that are already underway, books and classes and ethics work and liturgy-poetry-art offerings. We let some ideas go. We write down new ideas that are flowing now that we're together -- some of us onsite, some of us on Zoom -- as we talk timelines, workflows, skillsets, middot / qualities. 

We sit at the kitchen counter with coffee and we workshop poetry and liturgy, reading lines aloud and offering suggestions, tinkering and uplifting. Over dinner we toss sermon ideas around. We share High Holiday planning. We look at Bayit's mission and vision, and choose which build projects to prioritize. We dream together about collaborations, set new ideas in motion.

In between these conversations we cook meals together. We kayak on a nearby lake. We study the Me'or Eynayim. We sing with guitars by the firepit and I marvel at the miracle that we are here together again, learning and hoping and building. We are rebooting Bayit together, retooling for who we're becoming and for the different needs that the pandemic has revealed.

On Friday we daven with guitar, riffing melodies, singing in harmony, laughing, reaching out to God with supplication and joy. The birds flit from one goldenrod stalk to another. The big maples grace us with occasional raindrops. The crickets and cicadas sing with us. We close with every Psalm 27 melody we know before blowing shofar. The sound rings out over the fields.

At the end of the week we make Shabbes. We gather with guitars by the lake, we daven and harmonize, we sing and rejoice. We take a day to rest and renew -- though honestly, for me, this whole week has been restorative and renewing, even though we got so much done. To have the opportunity to build for the future with such extraordinary hevre: I am blessed beyond measure. 

 

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Bayit board, onsite and online.

 

Cross-posted to Builders Blog, with endless gratitude to the Bayit Board and to all who build with us.

 


Identifying with Chidi

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Chidi Anagonye teaching about ethics on The Good Place.

 

I was driving to the cemetery for the unveiling and dedication of a headstone when I realized why there was  such a tangled knot in my stomach. It was because of the news articles I'd been reading: about the local COVID outbreak at North Adams Commons, and medical predictions that the summer coronavirus surge will get worse before it gets better, and the news that the delta variant is more contagious than chickenpox, and reports from the COVID outbreak in (95% vaccinated) Provincetown

I want so much to be able to gather for hybrid services for the Days of Awe this year. The small synagogue I serve has developed a plan to limit capacity to 50% (e.g. 60 people) onsite, socially distanced and masked, with doors and windows propped open for airflow. We've invested in a big screen so I can use the slideshare machzor both for those onsite and those participating online. We're working on equitably insuring that each member gets to be onsite for at least one service of their choice. 

Our plan seemed reasonable earlier in the summer. I don't know if it's reasonable now. So many people around the country have refused vaccination. The delta variant is so contagious that even vaccinated adults can spread it. And because so many refuse to vaccinate or even to mask (and some governors have made it illegal for local municipalities to mandate masking to protect the vulnerable!), more variants will evolve, and the "finish line" of reaching safety keeps getting further away. My heart sinks.

And so my stomach ties itself in knots. Driving to the cemetery, I realized that I feel like Chidi Anagonye -- the ethical philosopher in The Good Place who gets anxiety stomach-aches. If unvaccinated people can spread the delta variant, is it ethical for any congregation to seek to gather for the Days of Awe? One could argue that anyone who comes to services onsite is aware of the risks and is taking those risks willingly -- but what about our extended circles, and what about our unvaccinated children? 

How responsible am I for the safety of those whom I serve? I believe we are all fundamentally responsible for and to each other; that's part of what it means to be an ethical human being in community. (Which is part of why I can't understand those who refuse to mask to protect other people.) But do those of us in positions of community leadership have additional responsibility -- to make communal decisions with the needs of the other, especially the needs of those most vulnerable, in mind?

This morning I turned to deep breaths and quietly singing words of prayer in my car, and I managed to untie the inner places that felt knotted up in anxiety. We'll make the best decisions we can. The pandemic is far from over, and I suspect we're facing another long winter. At the end of the unveiling, one of the mourners who was there pointed to a nearby grave with an obviously-new stone: a friend, who had died of COVID. As I drove away, she was placing a memorial pebble on that friend's stone. 


Embracing the giant grapes

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In this week's parsha, Shlach, the scouts go to peek at the Land of Promise. They return with a giant bunch of grapes, so big it needs to be carried by two men on a carrying frame. And most of them say: nah, there's no way we can conquer that land. The people who live there are giants. We felt like grasshoppers next to them, and we must have looked like grasshoppers in their eyes. We can't do this.

And God gets angry, and says: because y'all don't trust in Me, or maybe because y'all don't trust in yourselves, fine, let's make it a self-fulfilling prophecy: you can't do this. This whole generation is going to die here in the wilderness, except for the two people who believed in this enterprise. They'll lead the next generation into the land of promise. You don't feel up to it? Now you can't even try.

If all goes according to plan, I'm sharing these words with you from our first multi-access (a.k.a. hybrid) Shabbat service since the pandemic began some fifteen months ago. When the pandemic started, we went digital, like everyone else. It took us a while to find our feet, but we figured out how to pray together, how to celebrate and mourn together, how to learn together, how to be a community together over Zoom.

Now we're standing at the edge of another paradigm shift. Many of you have told me how much it meant to you to be able to participate in the spiritual life of our community from home -- even from afar. Congregants who long ago moved away joined us for shiva minyanim or Shabbat services. Family members in other states, even in other countries on the far side of the world, joined us for the Days of Awe and Pesach.

As we return to offering some onsite programming, like this morning's Shabbat services, we're met with a choice. We could go back to the way things were before, and stop offering an option for digital participation. Or, we can try to figure out how to chart a new path so that both the "roomies" and the "zoomies" are full participants in our community. So that those who are homebound don't lose access to what we do.

But it's not just about ensuring that if one of us is homebound or doing a stint in a rehab facility we can still watch CBI's services as though they were on tv. The real challenge is figuring out how "zoomies" can be full participants. How we can all see each other, whether onsite or online. How all of our voices can be heard, whether onsite or online. How we can all count in the minyan, whether onsite or online.

This is a tall order. It's going to require some technological infrastructure, which costs money. And it may lead to a fundamental redefining of what it means to be "in community," what it means to be "together." That's not just us, by the way: that's the whole Jewish world. None of the classes I took in rabbinical school exactly prepared me for this... except inasmuch as they taught me that Judaism has weathered changes before. 

It is tempting to be like the scouts: to say, nope, this is too hard, there's no way we can do this. One bunch of grapes is as big as a black bear, we are not up to this, we feel like grasshoppers. The fact that our forebears in Torah said exactly that tells me that it's a natural human impulse. It's normal to feel afraid, faced with an enormous new challenge we've never before imagined being able to try to face.

And -- as I was discussing with our b-mitzvah students a few days ago -- because those scouts didn't use their ometz lev, their strength of heart, the whole k'hillah suffered. Courage and community are two of the Jewish values we've been studying during this pandemic year. These values are part of their Jewish toolbox -- and ours. If we want our k'hillah to flourish, we need to cultivate our ometz lev.

It will take a while for us to find our feet in this new chapter. I imagine we'll have new and different technological challenges, and some personal and spiritual ones, too. If the tenth member of the minyan is on Zoom, will we all feel comfortable counting that person for kaddish? If someone's joining us from another time zone, will they feel weird joining our evening prayers while the sun is rising where they are?

But if we bring hope and courage to bear, I'm confident that we can navigate a path through. This may not be exactly the Land of Promise we expected, but I believe it has gifts for us. And who knows: maybe when humanity has spread to the stars, Jewish space explorers will look back on the pandemic of 2020 as the moment when our sense of sacred place and time began to evolve into what it needed to become.

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services this weekend (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Toward re-entry

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This morning I moved the box of graggers back to the storage room. They've been out of place since Purim of 2020, the last in-person program we held at my synagogue before the pandemic began. I remember our Board chair wearing blue food prep gloves behind the dessert table. I remember bottles of hand sanitizer, not yet in short supply. I remember chatting with one of my Board members whose family lives in Hong Kong. I couldn't imagine sheltering-in-place like that. I didn't think it would happen here. Within a week, the pandemic was happening here. (In truth, it already was, at Purim -- I just didn't know.)

That was fifteen months ago. Tomorrow we'll hold our first hybrid (a.k.a. "multi-access") Shabbat service. We'll be outdoors, because everyone agrees that being outdoors is safer than being indoors. (Also, we are in a spectacularly beautiful place; we should take advantage of that.) We'll meet under the great spreading willow tree beside our patio, overlooking the meditation labyrinth and our beautiful new pollinator garden in three wooden beds shaped like cells in a honeycomb. I'll have my laptop, and I'll begin a new learning curve: how to fully integrate "zoomies" as well as "roomies," participants both onsite and online. 

My office at the shul looks and feels like a room that hasn't been used in a while. Books have piled up on the available surfaces: I need to put them where they belong. The dried fronds of last year's myrtle branches have dropped their tear-shaped leaves on my desk, no longer fragrant. And there was this box of graggers, left over from two Purims ago, that nobody ever bothered to put away. I put them away. I'm filing papers, shelving books. Also reminding myself of the flow of services when we're using our books instead of the editable and visually-oriented slide deck I've grown accustomed to using since the pandemic began. 

None of us know exactly how the "new normal" is going to look and feel. I know that transitions are often emotionally charged in ways we might not expect. When we gather on Saturday morning, will it feel like the last fifteen months never happened? I don't think so -- our practices and processes have been changed; we ourselves have been changed -- but reality might surprise me. I know that I will take comfort from our vast spreading willow tree, its deep roots and broad branches. Maybe the cardinals and phoebes and red-winged blackbirds will sing with us, when we join our voices together again for the first time in so very long.


Going the extra mile

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When a person commits any wrong toward a fellow human being, thus breaking faith with YHVH, and that person realizes their guilt, that person must confess the wrong that he has done. They shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one whom they have wronged. (Numbers 5:6-7)

Early in this week's Torah portion, Naso, comes this injunction. The first thing that jumped out at me this year is that when a person wrongs another person, they are "breaking faith with God." What commitment did we make to God that we break when we wrong each other? 

Last weekend we stood at Sinai and received Torah anew, and Torah is full of ethical instructions about how to act justly and with compassion. That's the promise we made to God: we'll keep the mitzvot. When we harm each other, we fail to live up to that promise.

So this week Torah teaches: when we realize we've wronged someone, there are two steps we need to take. First, we admit the wrong. Then we make restitution -- and then some. If I wronged you fiscally, I need to repay the money and add an additional one-fifth. If I harmed you in some other way, I need to go the extra mile to repair the damage I've done.

This week I learned that all of the people of color on Williamstown's Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Equity committee are stepping down because they are so disheartened. [Edited to add: I misspoke. Jeff Johnson will remain, though as an ex officio member. But five people of color are stepping down.]

Some of them received threats to their lives. Others received public attacks on their character. The questions they bring to the table -- How inclusive are we? How welcoming? How safe and supportive? -- are for all of us to answer together, but a lot of us -- me included -- didn't participate or offer active support. 

And I thought: I know what it's like to be Jewish in a time of rising antisemitism. As Jews, we get exhausted naming and fighting antisemitism, especially if it feels like no one else notices or cares. When others pick up some of that load, their allyship helps us in all kinds of ways. As this recent volume attests, allyship is holy work. I saw the news about resignations from the DIRE committee, and I realized: I've fallen down on the job of being an ally to people of color in my community.

I didn't mean to cause harm. I just... wasn't paying attention. I hadn't really thought much about how serving on that committee could be traumatic for people of color, because they're always teaching the town's white community what we don't know about racial injustice. And we don't always want to hear it. Sometimes we might be actively resistant to hearing about experiences of racism in our town. And sometimes we're passively resistant, and we just don't pay attention. 

That kind of tuning out is a luxury I have as a person with white skin. It's like the way a lot of Christians don't notice antisemitism because it's not directed at them. But when we treat racial justice as something we can choose either to notice or to ignore, that itself inscribes some harm. My inaction and inattention are part of the problem. I need to make this right, and this week's Torah portion reminds me that really repairing damage requires me to go the extra mile.

I'm still figuring out what that means for me in practical terms. Paying more attention to town government. Using my voice as a clergyperson to speak up for those who are marginalized or have experienced injustice, especially people of color. Writing more letters to the selectboard, maybe. Educating myself (an essential component of the work of allyship.) Uplifting the voices and the needs of people of color in my town. (If you have suggestions, I welcome them.)

Though the DIRE resignations are heavy on my mind and heart this week, this isn't just a Williamstown problem. This is work we all need to do, in all of the communities where we live. 

Later in this week's Torah portion, God instructs Moses to tell Aaron to offer certain words to the people. This is the origin of the words I say to my child every Friday night as Shabbat begins, the words I say to every b-mitzvah kid who stands on our bimah:

May God bless you and keep you!
May God’s presence shine before you and be gracious to you!
May God’s presence always be before you, and bring you peace.

The path our tradition offers us toward blessing and radiance and grace and peace is following the mitzvot. And that includes acting ethically, and protecting the vulnerable, and repairing what's broken. It includes recognizing and confessing our missteps, and making restitution and then some.

So here's my blessing for us this morning:

May we be strengthened in the holy work of allyship.
When we fall short, may we do what we can to bring repair.
When we can do that, we'll feel God's presence before us and within us and around us and between us. And then every place will be a holy place.

And let us say: amen.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning services this week (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

An added note: I'm speaking here about allyship to people of color because I know who my shul crowd is. And, I cherish the voices and presence of Jews of color too, and don't want to give the impression that Jews are only ever allies in this work! I chose the allyship frame because of who was in the room.


Perseverance and the portable ark

 

 

"וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ / Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them." (Ex. 25:8 - in this week's Torah portion, T'rumah.)  

The word mishkan (the portable dwelling-place for God) shares a root with the word Shechinah, the divine Presence. We build sacred space so God will dwell in us. I talk about this verse every year, because I love it. But this year, what jumps out at me is its juxtaposition with what follows.

Immediately after this verse, Torah tells us to make an ark to hold the tablets of the covenant. Cover it with gold. Put rings on the sides, and poles through the rings. And keep it that way. The ark over which the divine Presence would rest needed to be ready to go at a moment's notice.

Wherever the people go, holy words and presence go with them -- which is to say, with us. As beautiful as the mishkan was (as beautiful as our beloved shul building is) God's presence doesn't live there. God's presence goes with us. Our texts and traditions go with us. Holiness goes with us.

Our ancient ancestors needed perseverance to make their way through the wilderness. I imagine that their perseverance was fueled, in part, by this verse and its assurance that God goes with us wherever we go.

After the Temple fell, our sages called the Shabbat table a mikdash me-at, a small sanctuary. I keep returning to that image during this COVID time. God's presence is with us at our Shabbes tables tonight. God's presence is with us when we bless and light candles together-apart, when we bless and break bread together-apart, when we daven together-apart.

The poles were kept in the rings of the ark to teach us that the life of the spirit goes with us wherever we go. God goes with us wherever we go. Holiness goes with us wherever we go. And like our ancient ancestors, we need perseverance to get us through.

Yesterday NASA landed a new robotic rover on Mars, named -- as you probably know -- Perseverance. Some of you may have watched on the news or online as NASA engineers got word that the rover had safely landed, and celebrated from afar.

I read in the Washington Post earlier this week that "Hitting the 4.8-mile-wide landing site targeted by NASA after a journey of 300 million miles is akin to throwing a dart from the White House and scoring a bull’s eye in Dallas." It's honestly incredible.

As is being able to see images from our neighbor planet in realtime. As is the dream that the science this little robot will do -- sampling regolith and soil, testing for microbes -- will bring us one step closer to someday landing human beings on Mars.

I hope I'm around to celebrate that day -- and to see how Judaism will evolve once it becomes interplanetary! Will Jews on Mars turn toward Earth to pray, the way we now orient toward Jerusalem? How will we navigate the fact that a Martian "day" is different from an earth day in calculating Shabbat?

(Although I haven't researched this, my instinct is to say that Shabbat should be every seventh day, local time, even if that means it's not coterminous with Shabbat on earth. But that's another conversation.)

I'm confident that when there are Jews on Mars, we'll figure out how to build Jewish there.... and that we'll find this week's Torah portion resonant when we do.

Because God's presence is with us when we shelter in place at home now. And God's presence will go with human beings to Mars someday. And the same spirit that enlivens our Shabbes tables here will enliven us there.

Holiness and hope aren't geographically limited. They go where we go. And the perseverance that got us through the wilderness is the same perseverance that will take us to the stars.

The poles stayed in the rings on the handles of the ark because God goes with us wherever we go.

As we approach one year since our awareness of the pandemic began, there's something poignant about the name of this little rover. Perseverance is the quality we need to reach that dream of human beings on Mars.

It's the quality we need to mitigate climate change and ensure safety and care for our fellow human beings -- especially in times of crisis like Texas is experiencing now. And it's the quality we need to make it to the other side of this global pandemic.

The Hebrew word for Perseverance is הַתמָדָה, which contains within it the root t/m/d, always. As in the ner tamid, the eternal light kept burning in the mishkan, the eternal light that burns now in synagogues around the world.

The ner tamid is a perennial reminder of divine Presence, and holiness, and hope burning bright. The ner tamid perseveres, as our hope perseveres, as our life of the spirit perseveres.

May we take hope and strength from the Mars rover Perseverance. May we find our own perseverance strengthened as we approach the second year of this pandemic. And may we feel the flame of hope burning bright within our hearts -- the holy sanctuaries where God's presence dwells.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat services this evening (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


What I wrote to my community today

It is rare to know that we are living through a moment of genuine historical significance. To recognize that something unfolding around us will be chronicled in books as a turning point of some kind, though we can’t yet know where this turn will lead. But here we are. We will not soon forget the sight of an angry mob, incited by falsehoods, storming the nation’s Capitol.

When Congress re-convened last night, Senator Chuck Schumer spoke about the desecration of our temple of democracy. His use of that metaphor evoked our Chanukah story about our holy temple, first desecrated and then rededicated for sacred use. And I remembered again Chanukah’s message of light in the darkness, and the steadfast hope that can carry us through. 

I know that many of us are feeling stunned, horrified, and even frightened by what just happened in Washington DC. If that’s you, know that you are not alone. Know, also, that I am holding each member of our extended community in my prayers and in my heart, and that I am here to listen if you need an ear and to pray with you if that would bring you comfort.

When the dust clears, our task will be the same as it ever was. As Representative John Lewis z”l (of blessed memory) taught, democracy is not a state, it’s an act — an action, a choice, something we do. That teaching feels very Jewish to me. After all, Torah exhorts us to care for the vulnerable, to love the stranger, and to pursue justice: all actions, all things that we do

Democracy is an action. Love is an action. Justice is an action. Standing up for truth is an action. Building community is an action. These are our work, now as ever. This moment invites all of us to recommit ourselves to those holy tasks. And it invites us to create and strengthen our community by reaching out to each other in these uncertain and overwhelming times. 

One thing we don’t have to do is stay glued to 24/7 news coverage. Please take care of yourself. I recommend sticking with trusted media sources and giving yourself permission to turn away if the news is causing harmful anxiety. What happened yesterday is horrifying… and we are safe here, and I hope and pray that our democracy will emerge from this stronger than ever.

May the coming Shabbat bring nourishment to our souls and balm to our weary hearts. May we take comfort in our connections with each other. And may we be inspired to work toward healing for our precious democracy, so that our nation may continue to grow toward the promises inherent in its founding, promises of human dignity and justice for all.


Prayer, pandemic, community, change

1. Completely unprepared

Nothing in my previous rabbinic life had prepared me for standing at a significant distance from a small number of congregants and family members, wearing three kinds of PPE (an N95, a fabric mask, and a face shield), doors open to the cold air, with my laptop open on the Torah table so the community could join us via Zoom and FB Live, telling those assembled in the room that they were not allowed to sing along with me and would need to pray silently in their souls and in their hearts.

We were there to call a kid to Torah as bar mitzvah. He did beautifully: not only with his Torah reading and his d'var, but also with all of the uncertainties of this surreal year. This post isn't about him. (Though if he's reading this: mazal tov, kid, you rocked it and it was a privilege to teach you.) This post is about what it's like to serve as clergy in this pandemic time, trying to serve in circumstances we aren't -- and couldn't have -- trained for. This post is about navigating pandemic and change.

 

2. Holy at Home

When my congregation was planning for this year's Days of Awe, someone asked: would I lead prayer from the shul, with a select few people to make a minyan, while everyone else davened at home? I didn't want to do it that way, for a few reasons. One is that if we're in person, no one in the room can sing, and singing is one of the primary ways I know to open the heart and activate the soul. I especially can't imagine the Days of Awe without the heart-lifting melodies and nusach unique to that holy season. 

Another is that I lead a different service in person than online. When we're in the room together, we use a bound book. When we're on Zoom, we use a set of screenshare slides that I created explicitly for this purpose, with images and embedded video. Online I want to "lean in" and take advantage of what the technology offers us, rather than doing exactly what I would do in shul (which I think would fall flat, because we're not in shul; simply duplicating what I do there would highlight what we've lost.)

Most of all I wanted to uplift the lived experience of seeking and finding holiness in our homes. That's why I titled the machzor "Holy at Home." Because that's the work of this pandemic moment: making holiness where we are. Making community where we are, despite the physical distance between us. There is holiness in a dining table or a coffee table or a television screen with the Zoom siddur on it. When we open our hearts and souls, we can create holiness, we can create community, wherever we are.

This is the work of our moment: finding holiness and community in this pandemic-sparked diaspora from our synagogues to our homes. And yet, that paradigm doesn't quite work for a celebration of b-mitzvah. At least, not if the kid is reading from a physical Torah scroll, and if we're operating under the classical halakhic paradigm that says we need ten adult Jews in person to open said scroll. If that's our frame, in order to call a kid to Torah as a new Jewish adult we need to bring people together.

 

3. The room where it happens

The last time I had led davenen in the synagogue was for a bar mitzvah back in March. (Immediately after that Shabbat, we closed our building.) Ten people were in the room, socially distanced. We used our regular siddur, and those who were joining us on Zoom or Facebook Live did their best to follow along with the Kindle version of the book. We didn't yet know then what we know now about aerosols and ventilation, so we didn't know to prop doors open, or that singing posed an unacceptable risk.

Thank God, no one got sick after the March bar mitzvah. And all of our later-spring celebrations of b-mitzvah were postponed. Some for a full year. And one until this fall. Last spring, it seemed so clear that by fall we would have vanquished this virus and would be able to gather safely again. No one imagined seven months ago that we would be watching global cases tick upwards again now, or that anti-mask rhetoric and "plandemic" lies would facilitate the virus' spread in such horrendous ways.

But as autumn approached, it became clear that this celebration of bar mitzvah would need to be mostly Zoom-based, with only a small number of people in the room... and that we would need to take precautions we didn't know to take, last time we celebrated a kid coming-of-age like this. The doors would need to be propped open. We would all need to be masked, me triply so. And I would need to begin the morning by saying something I never imagined needing to say: friends, please don't sing.

 

4. Keeping us aloft

When I'm leading davenen in a room full of people, I'm always balancing between pouring my heart into the prayers (if I can't really feel what they mean, then I can't lead others to feel it either) and trying to attune myself to who's in the room. Are they with me, are they engaged, are they moved? Do I need to pause for a word of explanation or a moment of humor? What vocal or musical choice will draw them in and lift them up? Are they smiling, are they crying, what can I read in their bodies and faces?

When I'm leading davenen online, my screenshare siddur and screenshare machzor have built-in 'face to face' slides where I pause the screenshare  -- we wave to each other, we beam at each other, we connect through our cameras in the placeless place of our hearts' togetherness. (This is a practice that R' David Markus and I developed for the Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton in June, a weekend  focused on themes of sacred space, digital presence, and what it means to come together in community online.)

Leading "hybrid" prayer -- with most of the people on Zoom, and a few in person -- turns out to be exponentially more difficult than either leading a room full of people, or leading a streaming community in prayer. I was multiply-masked, which created a feeling of distance (and made it hard for some to hear me.) I couldn't rely on in-person cues like smiles, or how enthusiastically people were singing along, because I couldn't see their smiles and I had to instruct them to refrain from singing with me.

At the autumn bar mitzvah, the family wanted me to sing, even if no one else was allowed to. I'm pretty sure I don't have COVID-19, but I wore two masks and a face shield to protect them as best I could, just in case I'm an asymptomatic carrier. But the masks meant that it was hard for people to hear me. I felt a little bit like I was wearing a space suit. And because I had to forbid the room from singing with me at all, it felt a little bit like I was performing for them, rather than praying with them.

In rabbinic school we used to joke about services where the rabbi is the airline pilot responsible for flying the plane, and those in the pews are just passengers -- or theatre-goers, sitting back and watching a show that the rabbi puts on for them. That's not how I aspire to serve. I want everyone in the room to feel empowered to participate. Keeping us all aloft is something we do together. But I don't have the skillset to help that happen in a hybrid space where those in-person can't sing. Does anyone?

 

5. Fear

And, of course, there's anxiety. Cases of COVID-19 are rising all over the country and around the world. I'm a multiple stroke survivor with asthma and hypertension; of course I'm afraid. But I'm not only afraid for myself. I'm afraid for those whom I serve. Especially for older folks and those who are immunocompromised. And what about unwittingly spreading the virus to others? Even if I'm the only one in the room singing. I want to lift my voice to God; I don't want my voice to be a weapon.

For the bar mitzvah, we made the best choices we could. The doors were propped open and the HVAC system was turned off. The family members who were present were masked and socially distanced, and everyone else participated remotely. We printed the slides for those who were physically present, so they had the same materials in front of them as the Zoom / FB community. I think that what we did was meaningful for the bar mitzvah boy. I suspect he'll remember his pandemic bar mitzvah forever.

And I found it challenging to lead prayer under those circumstances. The emotional and spiritual split-screen experience of trying to lead prayer for a few people in the room and a lot of people remotely, with the in-person folks masked and obligated to stay silent, from behind the space-suit-helmet of a plastic shield and two masks, isn't easy. It's hard to create a meaningful experience for those in the room or at home when no one can read my lips or see my smile. And my voice quavered; I was afraid.

 

6. Next time

As I think forward to future pandemic b-mitzvah celebrations, I'm pondering bringing the Torah scroll to the b-mitzvah kid's home so they can read from it there while I, and everyone else, connect via Zoom. If I believe that telepresence is real (and I do -- or at least, I believe that it can be, if we bring our hearts and souls to it) then why would I privilege the old paradigm of gathering bodies together in a room during a global pandemic? Better to change our definition of minyan to include telepresence. 

Some will say we mustn't set that precedent. Because if telepresence is "good enough" during a pandemic, then as a community we could easily lose the habit of gathering in person at all. What's to say then that someone can't just choose to tele-daven forever, because it's more convenient than going somewhere? What does that do to the fabric of our communities? I hear that anxiety, and I honor it. And... that anxiety for the future doesn't change the steps we need to take to protect each other now

I know that when we gather a minyan from ten separate homes on Shabbes morning, I feel genuinely connected with my community even though we're not sharing a room or breathing the same air together. And I know that when I balance actual risk to people's lives against putative risk to the continuity of how our communities are accustomed to functioning, lives are more important. I believe Jewish values call us to seek to save lives, even if that means setting a paradigm shift in motion.

 

7. Building anew

If gathering ten people on Zoom from ten houses is a real minyan, then that's true whether it's "just Shabbes" or a celebration of b-mitzvah. It may not be ideal... but neither is global pandemic. I know that reading Torah from home, with immediate family / quarantine podmates in the room and everyone else on Zoom, may not be what any kid or family wants the celebration of b-mitzvah to be. And yet it may be what the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, preserving and protecting life, asks of us in this time.

I miss what some now call "the beforetimes," when we could gather together without fear of harming each other. When we could embrace or clasp hands or just be near each other without fear for ourselves, or each other, or the others with whom we are in contact. When we could lift our voices and sing in harmony. (God I miss harmony!) My soul yearns to sing in harmony with beloveds, maybe with a hug or a clasped hand. I yearn for that the way our spiritual forebears in exile yearned for Jerusalem.

And right now we're in exile from our former in-person togetherness, and we don't know how long that will last, or how exile will change the Judaism to which we yearn to return. It may be that this pandemic, or the realities of a century that may contain multiple pandemics, will change Judaism in ways we can't yet know. How do we yearn for what we used to have, and hope with all our hearts for that to be restored, while also building new structures to sustain us in what's unfolding now and new?


Here we are

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Ice crystals on a branch outside my condo.

 

It's strange, now, to look back at my journal from last spring. Back when the pandemic was new to this country (or at least, new to my awareness.) Back when I thought my son might be out of school for a few weeks and then we'd get back to normal. (And he thought so too.) Back when I thought that surely my nation, with all its wealth, could vanquish this virus. Back when I thought surely by the Days of Awe we'd be back together again, safely, with the virus contained.

I never imagined how unspeakably badly national leadership would botch this, or that the president would complain about having to help people who didn't vote for him, or that masks would become a symbol of party affiliation rather than a basic safety measure that can slow the virus' spread. I didn't imagine a quarter of a million deaths and then a staggering number of people planning to see each other at Thanksgiving as though nothing were happening. 

But here we are. It seems ever more evident that there are two nations in uneasy coexistence. Here where I live, masks are ubiquitous. Everyone I know is staying in a small quarantine-style pod, and while some of us relaxed over the summer enough to be with others outdoors, now that the weather is cold we're hunkering down again. We limit trips to the grocery store. We don't travel. We don't touch each other. We don't see people outside our bubble.

I read in the paper, though, about the "other America." The one where people think the virus is a hoax, sometimes even while they're dying of it. The one where people think their liberties give them the right to infect others. I can't understand it. I want to say it's fundamentally anti-Jewish -- our whole religious tradition is communitarian, we have obligations to each other and to the vulnerable! -- though obviously at the rightmost fringe of Judaism some disagree with me.

It's not lost on me that we also live in two Americas when it comes to how we see our national political life. And I don't know what to do about that. Honestly, I can hardly face it. I read the ridiculous lies about the election being stolen and I just don't understand how so many believe that. Add it to the long list of things I can't wrap my head around, I guess. I'm worried about systemic damage to democracy. But right now the pandemic feels more urgent.

And yet life continues. My child will have a birthday in a few days. The new moon of Kislev rose a few days ago; Chanukah is coming. I'm trying not to write scripts about what this pandemic winter will be. We will stay home and try to stay safe. I always look toward spring with hopes of renewal. This year those hopes are heightened: hope not only for more light and new growth but also for government I can trust and for a vaccine. For now, here we are.


Prayer for Our Country

 

O God and God of our ancestors

receive our prayer for this land that we love.

Pour out Your blessing on this nation and its government.

 

Give those who serve our country

appreciation for the Torah's principles of justice and peace.

Help them to see Your face in every constituent.

 

Cultivate in them, and in us,

awareness that we are all one family

obligated to care for each other with compassion.

 

Banish hatred from our hearts

and from the hearts of our elected officials.

Help us to make this country a light unto the nations.

 

May it be Your will

our God and God of our generations

that this nation be a blessing to all who dwell on earth.

 

Help us to enact the words of Your prophet:

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.

Neither shall they learn war anymore."  And let us say: Amen.

 

 

I wrote this for the Days of Awe machzor several years ago. I'm re-sharing it again today, in hope.