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.


Making it new

"Make it new!" It's been over 20 years since I got my MFA, but that command still resounds. I remember learning it from Liam Rector, of blessed memory, then the director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. Liam was big and brash and often urged us to "make it new," though the thing he said most often was "Always Be Closing" -- words that took on new resonance after his suicide.

"Make it new" comes from Ezra Pound, or so I learned at the time. It turns out those words are quite a bit older, and I'm glad to know they originate with Ch'eng T'ang, since Pound turns out to be a fascist and an antisemite.  The poets to whom I most frequently turn are masters of taking the familiar and making it new. Naomi Nye, Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver: they make it look easy. 

This requires both noticing (like Moses at the burning bush) and craft. I want to do what they do. I want to weave something luminous and lasting out of the threads of daily life, like the cloak of mitzvot the Zohar says the righteous will wear in the world to come. But sometimes I sit down at my loom, as it were, and the threads break in my hands. This week is one of those times.

My father's been in the hospital with COVID. I've been bracing for a death that has miraculously not come. (The miracle is the vaccines; his doctors said so repeatedly, as though we needed convincing.) It's not clear what "recovery" will mean, but I'm not racing to Texas for a funeral. A week ago, I was sure I would be. Finally I can exhale. But I don't seem to have poems in me now about that.

I don't have poems in me now about the terrorist attack at the synagogue outside of Fort Worth, or about how it's rippling into Jewish community life. I don't have poems in me about what it feels like to sit with my community and talk about what we would do if. Someone can probably make great poems out of balancing spiritual vulnerability with a panic button, but not me, not now.

I don't have poems in me about the spike of adrenaline every time my child has a symptom, or I have a symptom, or a loved one has a symptom, after two years of pandemic. I don't have poems in me about the constant sense of living in Schrödinger's box: is that an ordinary virus or is it COVID? Should I use one of our few at-home tests to find out? If I use a test, can I trust the results? 

How can I make any of this new? This is everyone's constant companion. Maybe all I can do today is name it. It begins to seem likely that COVID-19, like antisemitism, will never go away. (As I read in Nature, "endemic" doesn't mean "over.")  Maybe we will adjust to seasons of relative safety and togetherness, and seasons of relative isolation: both as Jews, and as human beings.

Today the sky is blue. The squirrels have broken the bird feeder and climbed inside, scattering seeds for the mourning doves. Under the snow marked with animal tracks, I know that there is a garden in hibernation. I know that today's realities are not forever. The Jewish spiritual calendar, like the seasonal calendar, draws my eyes toward the horizon. Even now, I live in hope.


Dislocation

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I haven't been to Texas since the unveiling of mom's headstone. The backpack I use when traveling has been in the closet a long time. In its pockets I find paper remnants from the Cuba trip in 2019.

I also unearth my pocket Koren siddur which I had given up for lost, and a wooden coin that reads (after Simcha Bunim) on one side "for my sake was the world created" and on the other "I am dust and ashes."

Flying for the first time in almost two years was always going to be strange. Flying for the first time during a global pandemic, even more so. Thankfully no one is belligerent about wearing a mask.

To make the day even more surreal, it turns out my local airport has been redone. New parking garage, new traffic flow, new everything. Delta still flies out of the B gates; at least that hasn't changed.

On the first plane I watch Roadrunner, the Tony Bourdain film. I loved his writing, and the way he brought the world into our living rooms. I loved how much he seemed to love the wide world.

There's a sense of dislocation in the film. The dislocation of travel, especially the kind of travel he did 250 days a year. The dislocation of a world where his light shines now only in memory.

My mother was still alive when he killed himself, because I remember talking with her about it a little bit. She was shocked. He seemed to have it all, she said more than once. She admired his work too.

Of course, Tony's suicide shapes the story. Not only his absence, but how much the people who knew him best miss him. I ached to see their anger and grief at his inability to stay in the world with them.

Then again, his loved ones didn't have to see him live to lose his words and his machete-sharp wit and his prodigious memory. Maybe he thought he was doing them a kindness, making his own exit.

Still, I'll bet his daughter would've chosen to get more time with him, even if that meant that she would one day endure the heartbreak of watching his mind and his memory and his awareness disappear.

Loss of memory is the most profound dislocation I can think of. It's often old memories that linger like cigar smoke. The hardest thing is making space to grieve what's been lost -- what's being lost. 

Or maybe the hardest thing is grieving the losses without perseveration, without getting stuck in them. Feeling them, and then letting them go -- like the words and memories that recede into mist.


Wrestle and stretch

Jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel

This week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, contains the story from which our people takes its name.

Jacob is on his way to meet up with his brother Esau for the first time in years. He sends his family away: he is alone on the riverbank. There an angel wrestles with him until dawn, and blesses him with a new name, Israel -- "Godwrestler." We are the people Israel, the people who wrestle with God.

Jacob -- Israel -- walks away from that encounter with a limp. His hip has been wrenched; Rashi says it's torn from its joint. I imagine he was never quite the same after his night-time wrestle. Maybe he could feel oncoming damp weather in his aching hip, or in the sciatic nerve that Torah instructs us not to eat.

Our struggles change us. They may leave us limping.

I think we all know something about that now. The last eighteen months have been a struggle. We've wrestled with fear and anxiety, and with loneliness. We've wrestled with disbelief at outright lies about the pandemic being a hoax, or about vaccines being an instrument of government control.

Many of us are grappling with climate grief, the fear that our planet is already irrevocably changed. Or with political anxiety, wondering whether "red America" and "blue America" can really remain one nation. Or with the reality that the pandemic is now endemic and will not go away. That's a lot.

Jacob wrestled for one night and was changed.

How will we be changed by the wrestling we're doing during these pandemic years?

Earlier this fall I had a bout of sciatica, and I went to see my neighborhood bodyworker. She reminded me that when one part of the body hurts, most likely a different part of the body needs work. My lower back ached, so she worked on my hip flexors! Pain often calls us to stretch in the opposite direction.

That's a physical truth, but it landed metaphysically. When despair ties us in knots, we need to stretch into hope. Remember what we learned from Mariame Kaba at Rosh Hashanah: hope is a discipline. We have to practice it, and stretch it, and lean into it exactly when our pain pulls us the other way.

Torah tells us that Jacob's sciatic nerve was wounded in his wrestling. And Torah also references his heel; Jacob's name means heel. When I was getting treatment for my sciatica, my bodyworker picked up my heels and leaned back, pulling on them gently. "I feel like you're making me taller," I joked.

She said: that's because I am. Stress and tension and gravity all conspire to tighten our bodies, but we can lengthen. In fact, every night while we sleep we get taller as we unclench. Just as astronauts get taller when they spend time in zero-gee, away from the literal pressure of earth's gravitational pull.

When she pulled on my heels, I could feel my whole body getting longer: legs telescoping, spine lengthening. We compartmentalize -- imagining that this body part is separate from that one, or that body is separate from mind and heart and soul -- but we are integrated beings: everything is connected.

That's another physical teaching that lands metaphysically. When we tighten up spiritually, that manifests in our bodies. Stress and tension and gravity tighten us, but rest can help us loosen. Shabbat can help us loosen. Giving ourselves a break from the relentless press of news can help us loosen.

So can stretching ourselves toward hope. When the wrestle feels most overwhelming, when we feel most ground-down by everything that's broken, that's exactly when we need to stretch our capacity to hope. Our spiritual practices can help us shift, as the Psalmist wrote, from constriction to expansiveness.

Jacob named the place of the wrestle P'ni-El, the Face of God. May we too encounter divine presence in our wrestling. May our wrenched and tight places give us greater compassion for each other and for ourselves. And may we learn, in our times of constriction, to open up and stretch toward possibility.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Shared with gratitude to Emily at Embodywork. Image by Marc Chagall.


Breathless

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It's disconcerting to be short of breath during a global pandemic that can trigger respiratory infection. Granted, the shortness of breath isn't new, though it has been notably worse in the last year. At first I shrugged it off, evidence that I really ought to try again to establish an exercise practice. 

But then friends started pointing out that it's not normal to get out of breath when doing ordinary household tasks. And then there was the day when two different people, on two different phone calls, said, "You sound really out of breath. Are you okay?" (Subtext: do you think you have COVID?) 

I noted that I'm always out of breath, it's nothing to worry about. "On the contrary," they said. "If you're always short of breath, that makes me even more worried about it. Go see a doctor, please." I rolled my eyes, but I made an appointment to speak with a doctor about it. That was many months ago.

The first thing we tried was a course of steroids, which didn't do much. Next came a cardiac stress test. Predictably, jogging on a treadmill made me wheeze. Then there was a nuclear stress test that made me radioactive, which my kid thought was hilarious. (Alas, it didn't make me glow in the dark.)

Maybe the strangest experience was the hour that I spent sitting inside a small glass box, like Clark Kent crammed into a phone booth, breathing on command into a tube with a clamp over my nose. The technician was gowned, gloved, triply masked. Standard COVID precautionary protocol.

From that pulmonary function test we learned that the amount of air I can forcefully exhale in one second is around half of what it should be. There was a strange relief in learning that. It's so easy to minimize my breathlessness, or to blame it on being "out of shape," but that's not what this is.

I have learned a new phrase: "severe eosinophilic asthma." We're trying injections to improve my breathing. After my first shot, while I was waiting an hour in the doctor's office to make sure my throat didn't close up, I looked up the biologic agent. It turns out to be a form of monoclonal antibody.

I had never heard of monoclonal antibodies before the COVID-19 pandemic. Who among us had? Now, of course, we all know the term. It's fascinating to think about all of the medical terms and treatment methods, the pandemic-related language that has entered common public parlance in the last year.

During the pandemic it has sometimes felt like the whole world has been holding our breath, waiting for this to end. I realize now that that's the wrong frame. I miss the days when we thought the pandemic would end. (And of course I think of George Floyd and Eric Garner and "I can't breathe...") 

For now, these days, I often have to sit down and catch my breath in the middle of simple household tasks. I am working on extending compassion toward myself as we try new medications and interventions to see whether and how my lungs will respond. This is the day that God has made...

Sometimes when I need to center and calm myself, there's a breathing meditation I practice. I learned it many years ago on retreat. It's a simple meditation, mapping the four letter Name of God to four moments: the empty-lungs moment before breath; inhale; lungs full of air; exhale. 

י / Empty -- ה / inhale -- ו / full -- ה / exhale. And again. A letter of God's name for the pause before breathing, for the inbreath, for the pause with lungs full, for the outbreath. A reminder that God is always with me: in the moments when breathing comes easy, and in the breathless moments too. 

 


Tight

I have to be my own Jewish mother
even without a stainless soup pot.

No: I need to be
a better mother to myself --

one who wouldn't say
"put on a happy face!"

Reasons to weep
are as numerous as the stars.

Every bodyworker knows
the muscle that cries out

is the victim: something else
has tightened into immobility.

But when it's the heart
that cries out --

how can I delaminate
years of fused-together sorrows?


Finding you

 

I search
the four
chambers

pulsing in
black and
white

the septum
they said
might

be malformed
(but then
changed

their minds,
and even
though

one artery's
mostly blocked
there's

still, against
all odds, 
flow)

heart that
tries too
hard

and loves
too much,
can

you truly
be in
there

"as close
as my
heartbeat"

 


This poem arose during a silent amidah meditation at AJR mincha / afternoon services. Cantor Michael Kasper invited us not to try to reach out toward God, but instead to feel where God already is with/in us.


Pulse

Two-fingers-feeling-for-radial-pulse

This week I am reading up on cardiac catheterization. It sounds like sometimes they go in through the wrist, and sometimes at the groin. My wrists are tiny: I can't imagine that the blood vessel there is large enough to thread anything through. Then again, it's an easy place to feel my pulse. The radial artery, according to the internet. Radial makes me think of radiant. When I had the stress test with nuclear imaging, were my arteries temporarily radiant? I wonder if I could use that image in a poem. 

I wonder what became of the images of the inside of my body from when I had my strokes. Did the trans-esophageal echocardiogram yield still pictures, or only a live video feed? I remember being asked to count backwards, but I don't remember the procedure itself. I know there were brain scans; I remember seeing grainy images, with white blemishes in the places where the strokes left their damage. I probably have the images on a CD-ROM somewhere, though I no longer have a disk drive.

I often notice the pulse point at the wrist when I'm laying tefillin. I learned to map the ten wraps of the arm strap to the ten sefirot of our mystical tradition. Above the elbow, the top three windings are for chochmah, binah, da'at -- wisdom, understanding, knowledge. Then come chesed, gevurah, tiferet, netzach, hod, yesod, malchut -- lovingkindness, boundaried strength, harmony, endurance, humble gratitude, foundations, and Shechinah, the indwelling divine Presence.

That final wrapping goes right over my pulse point.  Divine presence, pressing on that place where my life-force is palpably present. "God is as close to me as the beating of my heart." I don't remember the citation for that, though a quick google search suggests that this idea can be found across many religious traditions. What could be closer to us than the beating of our own hearts? It's an intimate, embodied metaphor, and that too makes me think of Shechinah: God with/in us, with/in creation.

I don't lay tefillin every day. My early mornings feel packed -- wake the kid, make breakfast, pack lunch, help him wedge the bass into the car, get him to school  -- and I cling to sleep too much to wake up before him to daven. Once he's on summer vacation, I hope to get back into the habit of making more time for morning prayer. Meanwhile, I think tomorrow I might lay tefillin even if all I manage is the seven-minute daven. Feel God's presence wrapped around my wrist, Shechinah holding my hand.


Garnet

Blood in test tubes resized_0

"Which arm do you prefer, hon?"

"You're the phlebotomist; I'm just... the arm," I say, shrugging. I unfold both arms on the padded arm-rests and wait for her to choose. She fastens the tourniquet around my right bicep and palpates the crook of my elbow. I look the other way.

"At least you're not as nervous as the last person I had in here," she says, kindly.

"It's nobody's favorite thing, but here we are," I agree. There's a pause while she considers the vein. 

"A little pinprick," she warns me, and I try not to flinch. 

I'm still thinking about how needles are no one's favorite thing. "I was talking with my eleven year old in the car this morning on the way to school about getting his COVID shot as soon as he turns twelve. He's not excited about it, but..."

"But it's better than getting sick," she says, her voice cheerful. "My seventeen year old just got the shot!"

"That's great. New England's doing well, I saw in the paper," I offer. Our vaccination rates are the highest in the country. 

"We've been lucky. There was the nursing home outbreak," she says, her voice lowering. The nursing home in town is a scant quarter-mile from the office where I'm getting my blood drawn. "And the soldiers' home in Holyoke. But other than that, it's been pretty good here."

"May it stay that way," I agree. 

"All done!" She smiles, pressing a wad of gauze where the needle was just withdrawn. Now I look over, and I see the test-tubes full of dark red blood. The color always surprises me. It's so vivid, so deep. 

I'm not sure what they're looking for this time, but we can't schedule the next procedure until they run whatever tests they need to run on these gleaming garnet vials.

I wonder how many mini-conversations like this she has over the course of a day. How many lives she briefly touches with her blue-gloved hands. 

When I exit the building, I inhale lilacs under the clouded sky. 


With both eyes open

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I said to my therapist recently (over FaceTime, of course; everything is mediated by screens now) that this moment in time reminds me a lot of the months right after my strokes. When I felt fine, and probably was fine, but we were investigating all kinds of horrific possibilities for what might have caused the strokes -- and might therefore cause them to recur.

I remember feeling as though I were looking at the world through stereoscopic glasses with one red lens and one blue one. (Those were a regular feature in my childhood ophthalmologist visits.) Through one eye, everything looked rosy and I was fine. Through the other eye, everything looked terrifying and maybe I would die at any moment. Red lens, blue lens. 

Ultimately the specialists concluded that the strokes were cryptogenic. (Of unknown origin.) They concluded that as long as I keep my blood pressure low, I should be okay. But there was an odd sense that my body might be lying to me. I might feel fine but have a ticking time bomb in me, some kind of disorder or brokenness or haywire tumor we hadn't yet discovered...

Over the weekend I woke to news about covid-19 causing strokes in asymptomatic people who didn't know they were sick. The more we learn about this virus, the scarier it becomes. According to that piece in the Washington Post (a media source I trust), the virus can attack almost every system in the body, even in someone asymptomatic. That shook me.

And then I thought back to the time right after my strokes. Now does feel a lot like then. The difference is that now, everyone who's paying attention to the world is navigating these anxieties. We're all living with the possibility that an invisible virus might unexpectedly destroy any organ system in our bodies. Even if we're doing all the right things. We might feel fine, and still...

There's a lot of cognitive dissonance. Between "I feel fine" and "I might be harboring a deadly virus and not know it." Between "I'm doing okay" and "the world is coming apart at the seams." (And I'm speaking as someone who has the luxury of feeling okay, having a home and a job, and enough food, electricity, internet...! I recognize how fortunate that makes me.)

The cognitive dissonance and uncertainty is exhausting. Trying to navigate ordinary life -- childcare, work responsibilities -- along with that cognitive dissonance is exhausting. But "whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work" (thank you Jason Shinder z"l), so sitting with the cognitive dissonance itself must be part of the spiritual work of this moment for me.

After I had my strokes in my early 30s, I did a lot of reading and thinking and praying and spiritual direction, trying to come to terms with the mortality they had shown me. I studied the Baal Shem Tov's writing on equanimity. I journaled endlessly. Eventually I reached the conclusion that yes, I could die at any time. But until that happens, my job is to live as best I can.

The strokes brought home my participation in our common human mortality. In truth, none of us know when our lives will end. I don't mean that to be depressing or paralyzing: on the contrary! I mean it as a reminder that the only time we have is now. The time to be the person we want to be is now. Because now is what we have. It's all anyone has. It's all anyone has ever had.

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?" wrote Mary Oliver. This, right now, is our wild and precious life. Even in quarantine or lockdown or shelter-in-place. Even in uncertainty. (Especially in uncertainty.) Life isn't on pause until a hoped-for return to normalcy comes. This is life, right here, right now. Our job is to live it as best we can.

Even with the possibility that we're already incubating the virus. Because so what if I am? What can I do about it, other than what I'm already doing: wearing a mask in public, keeping my distance to protect others in case I'm an asymptomatic carrier, and meanwhile doing what I can to care for my child, my congregation, my beloveds, in the ways that are open to me?

I've more or less made my peace with that. I have not made my peace with the possibility that someone I love could fall ill or die. It's easier for me to face the end of my story than to face the possibility of losing someone who matters to me. But that too is outside of my control. All I can do is be real with the people in my life, so important things don't go unspoken.

I've been thinking lately about how I want to be remembered, when I die, whenever that is. What acts, what words, what principles, what choices will add up to me being remembered in the ways I want to be? I hope not to die for a very long time. I trust I will emerge from the constrictions of this pandemic. And... if I don't, or if I do, how do I want to be remembered?

If our purpose is to be real, to help others, to build justice and love in the world however we can -- that purpose holds, pandemic or no. That purpose holds whether I die now or in forty years. If I knew I were going to die before morning... I've explored that question before. Those answers still hold true, even if some details would need to shift for social distancing reasons.

Right now, physical distancing and mask-wearing and doing rabbi work via Zoom are how I can help others and build greater justice and love in the world. (And comforting my kid, and feeding us, and making our home as safe as I can for him.) And accepting uncertainty and sitting with the dissonance are part of how I can be real -- and maybe help others through it, too.

One of the things I'm trying to teach my kid is that it's possible to feel gratitude and grief at the same time. Gratitude that we're okay (so far); grief at everything we've lost (and the world has lost). One doesn't cancel the other. They can coexist in us, in an ever-shifting balance, all the time. Like the red lens and the blue lens. The trick is to learn to use both eyes at once.

 

 


A body that mostly works

TOS

That I have thoracic outlet syndrome is not particularly interesting. That a lot of major league pitchers have it too -- according to my brother-in-law -- is marginally more interesting, but not by much.

Here is my layperson's understanding: the cluster of muscles in and around the "thoracic collar" seize up and won't unclench. Nerves and blood vessels  constrict. Symptoms ensue.

It's mostly low level pain, unless I move in the wrong way. (Trying to put on a coat right-arm-first, for instance, and then wriggle my left arm in.) I've learned to adjust the way I move, the way I sleep, the way I wash my hair. 

I don't like the chronic pain or the inability to lift my arm. But what I really don't like is how it impacts my ability to play guitar. I don't feel like I'm a "serious" guitar player, but my guitar feels to me like an extension of my hands and arms even so. 

Thoracic outlet syndrome can cause pain, and/or weakness, and/or numbness. I'm not always able to manage barre chords these days. Sometimes I can play them; sometimes not. Sometimes I start a song and midway through realize I can't barre. 

It's a little bit funny when I stop and think about it. The pain is annoying but bearable. The limited range of motion is annoying but bearable. But if it gets in the way of my ability to make music? Whoa, hold up there, I can't live like that!

I will put up with pain, discomfort, and numbness. But if they are impinging on my ability to make music -- which is interwoven with one of the ways I most love to pray -- then that's a non-starter. Music is necessary to my soul, like breathing.

I can still lead prayer with my guitar. I'm just aware that it's more difficult than I want it to be. I have to work around the limitations imposed by my neck and shoulder and arm. I'm aware that my body isn't working quite as well as I want it to be.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being: You form the human body with wisdom, creating the body's many pathways and openings... 

My thoracic outlet syndrome has given me another point of engagement with Asher Yatzar. That's the blessing that reminds us that we can't pray if our bodies malfunction too profoundly -- if something opens that should be closed, or vice versa.

Sometimes we offer this prayer during Shabbat morning services. It appears in our siddur alongside the prayer for the soul. I call it "the prayer for having bodies that mostly work, most of the time." That usually gets a rueful laugh from someone.

Because even the healthiest among us have bodies that don't always work the way we want them to. Or if they do now, we know that if we live long enough, they won't anymore. This fragility, this imperfection, seems to be built into embodied life. 

Maybe that's why this balancing act feels built-in, too. Making music with an arm that doesn't always work; praying with a heart and mind that don't always work; balancing our broken places with our whole ones -- isn't that always what we're here to do?

Praise God in market and workplace,
With computer, with hammer and nails,

Praise him in bedroom and kitchen;
Praise him with pots and pans.

(So writes Stephen Mitchell in his rendering of Psalm 150.)  In that vein... Praise God in physical therapy and on the massage table, with resistance bands and heating pads. Praise God with the range of motion that might become possible again. 

Or in the words of Psalm 118:5, "From the narrow place I called to You; You answered me with expansiveness." May the Holy One of Blessing answer all of our constricted places, our tight and painful places, our restricted-motion places, with freedom.

 


Bodies and stones

Tefila-Closed-small

It's been a while since the last time I helped with taharah, the washing, dressing, and blessing of the body of someone who has died. Once I became single, the dynamics of finding childcare for my son on a moment's notice shifted. Also as The Rabbi, when someone dies I'm usually occupied with funeral preparations. I haven't been able to say yes to helping with taharah in a while.

In this case (and this is not usual), I'm not presiding over the funeral -- and the person who died wasn't a member of my synagogue community, either. Before she died, her family reached out to ask whether we would care for her body before the casket is taken to the place where the funeral will be. I'm glad that after considering the ask, my congregants said yes.

There is something poignant about being asked to step in and help with this mitzvah during the days immediately preceding my mother's unveiling (the dedication of her gravestone) over which I will soon preside. I remember a conversation I had at her burial: a man I did not know, telling me that he had sat with the casket overnight so that her neshamah wouldn't feel alone.

This is how the fabric of community is woven. We step up and we do these things for each other, mitzvot that cannot possibly be repaid. We tenderly pray over and wash and dress each body before burial. We sit with each casket so that the soul of the deceased does not feel fear during the tender transition out of this life. We shovel graveside earth with our own hands.

The pebble I will place on my mother's grave is smooth and grey. I carried it in my pocket as I did taharah, linking this mitzvah done for a woman I did not know with the same mitzvah that strangers performed for my mother. Tomorrow I'll fly with this pebble to Texas. Sunday I'll place it on Mom's stone, a reminder that she is remembered, a marker of my passage through.

 


Soft

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My voice teacher this summer, Rabbi Minna Bromberg, begins all of our lessons the same way. She walks me through grounding myself: feet on the floor, crown toward the sky, strong back, soft belly. The body is a connector between heaven and earth, as the singing that we do in leading prayer seeks to connect heaven and earth. Each week as she walks me through the litany I can feel myself shifting and settling into my body and into a grounded stance. And the first time she said "soft belly," I felt myself flinch. 

Of course, she's right, and I get why she says it every week. Singing is a full-body activity. I can't sing -- no one can sing -- while holding my breath or sucking in my belly to make myself as unobtrusive as possible. And yet I've absorbed decades of voices telling me that as a woman, maybe especially as a single woman, that's precisely what I'm supposed to do: take up as little space as possible. But physically I can't sing if I'm trying to shrink myself. And spiritually, I can't lead others in prayer if I'm hiding.

When I was fourteen, my mother signed me up for modeling lessons. I remember learning how to suck in all of my soft places to make myself as slim and taut as possible, and learning to walk as though my high heels enabled me to float above the runway. (I never enjoyed it, to mom's chagrin, and I never pursued the modeling career she temporarily had in mind.) Sometimes I still suck in my soft places without even thinking. And R' Minna reminds me, every week, that no one can sing in that posture.

Physically, no one can sing while trying to clench into smallness. And spiritually no one can sing while trying to clench into smallness. The message conveyed by that compulsive clenching is: take up less room. That's a be-quiet message, not a sing-out message! But prayer asks me to be ready to sing out with all that I am -- not just the convenient parts. I can't lead people into a place in prayer where I myself won't go. How can I give permission to be whole if I won't take that permission myself?

Last fall I received a blessing for taking up space in the world -- for feeling able to inhabit my 100 cubits of holy space, like the 100 cubits of the mishkan. That blessing has been reverberating ever since. Learning how to better use my voice in service of leading prayer is one of the ways I'm living into that blessing. And learning how to use my voice also turns out to mean learning how to love my body, including my belly, including the soft places of which I was taught (most of us are taught) to feel shame.

This is not something I expected to learn from my voice lessons. But it turns out that my soft places help me sing. It turns out that my soft places are holy. My body is the instrument through which I offer song and praise, and lead others in doing the same. And I can only do that if I'm willing to be in my body -- my whole body -- whole and holy, exactly the way God remakes me, every single day. Feet on the floor, crown toward the sky, strong back, soft belly, ready to connect, ready to lift my voice and sing.

 

With gratitude to Rabbi Minna Bromberg. 

 


Joy Ladin's The Soul of the Stranger

51oIX2gmicL._SX332_BO1 204 203 200_You know the feeling you get when you keep putting off something you want to do because you're waiting until you have time to really do it properly, and after a while you realize that letting the perfect be the enemy of the good means that you're not doing the thing at all?

For weeks now I've been meaning to review Joy Ladin's beautiful new book The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective. It is so good, y'all.

It is thoughtful and beautiful and clear. It is thought-provoking. It speaks to me on multiple levels at once. It deserves a long, thoughtful, quote-filled review that will entice y'all to go and get a copy and read it for yourself. 

And between one thing and another -- being a solo parent, serving my congregation, navigating this moment in my life when my parents are aging and far-away and my kid is here and very present -- I haven't had the spaciousness to write that long, thoughtful review. I still don't. So I'm giving up on that plan, and instead, I'm writing this.

Joy begins the book by exploring the power of binaries in the early creation stories (including, but not limited to, the gender binary.) She writes about gender and loneliness, about Genesis and transgender identities, about what it means that Torah teaches we are made in the image of God. She writes:

Torah doesn't tell us what being created in the image of God means, or explain how human beings are similar to the invisible, disembodied, time- and space-transcending Creator of the Universe. That, to me, is the point of reading God and the Torah from a transgender perspective: to better understand the kinship between humanity and the inhuman, bodiless God in whose image we are created, a God who does not fit any of the categories through which human beings define ourselves and one another.

Holy wow.

The second chapter looks at trans experience in the Torah, and here Joy does something that really moves me: she opens up what it means to have trans experiences, even for those of us who identify as cisgender. (Her exploration of the Jacob and Esau story is truly stunning, and I don't want to spoil it for you with an excerpt that won't do it justice -- take my word for it, read the book.) She writes about leaving our households of origins and about the journey of becoming, in Torah and in the lived Torah of human experience. She writes about wounds, about the nightmare of gender, about the stories we carry with us.

Joy writes in chapter three about different visions and understandings of God. She unpacks Maimonides' insistence that our words always fall short in describing God, and then makes a move that I think my teacher Reb Zalman z"l would approve: she talks about how even though "words cannot help but misrepresent God," we need words for God, and we need to be in relationship with the One Who those words attempt to describe. Of course, God is ultimately impossible to pin down or name -- as the story of the Burning Bush reminds us, God Is Becoming Who / What God Is Becoming, and so are we.

Chapter four explores life outside the binaries, the experience of being exiled "outside the camp," about the Talmud's long-ago recognition that human beings come in more varieties than the binary of M/F would imply, about messy human lives unfolding beyond binaries of all kinds and the spiritual implications of that reality for all of us who live it. She writes about Torah's concept of vows, and what it means when we make promises to ourselves, to each other, and to the Holy One about who we are.

And in the final chapter, she writes about knowing the soul of the stranger -- about what it feels like to be a "problem," and what it's like to be different -- about the existential and experiential condition of being a stranger -- and about how that condition might give us a new way to have compassion for God, a minority of One.

I wish I had the time and space to unpack each chapter for you with pull-quotes and words of praise. Each of these chapters stands up to rereading, to underlining, to sharing passages excitedly with friends. (My own copy already has dogeared pages, underlined passages, and exclamation points in the margins -- a sure sign of a book to which I will return.)

If you're interested in scripture, Jewish tradition, or spiritual life, I commend this book to you. If you're interested in gender and sexuality, I commend this book to you. It is beautiful and audacious and real. It's enriched my understanding of my tradition.  It's given me new lenses for reading Torah. It's given me new appreciation for the holy journey of becoming in which we all take part -- including, or especially, my trans and nonbinary congregants, loved ones, and friends. I am grateful.

 


My latest for The Wisdom Daily

...Our ancestors believed that only something “perfect” was fit to be given to God — whether as an offering, or as the one who facilitated the offering. Reading those words now, I’m struck by how neatly they align with the negativity we’re taught to feel about our bodies. Only someone “perfect” will be desirable, says the toxic siren song of American culture. Only someone “perfect” will be wanted, will be cherished, will be blessed with companionship on life’s journey...

That's from my latest for The Wisdom Daily. Read it here: Perfect Bodies Are Glorified Everywhere... Even In the Torah


What costumes can reveal

Purim-mask1

 

I remember the first time I saw a boy in drag and found him beautiful. It was fall of my freshman year. My first boyfriend lived in the entry next to mine, and he dressed in my clothes for a dance party thrown in Currier Ballroom by the organization that was then called the BGLU. He fit easily into my purple suede miniskirt and blue silk shirt. I made up his face the way I had learned to make up my own. And when his transformation was complete, he was gorgeous.

That I found him equally attractive when he presented as a femme man, and when he presented as a butch woman, was revelatory for me. (Those phrases sound binaristic now, but that was the language we used then.) That was my first step toward recognizing that the qualities that draw me -- intelligence, kindness, musicality, integrity -- aren't gender-specific. My boyfriend dressed in a costume that hid his everyday identity, and seeing him in that guise taught me something about myself.

Purim, which begins tomorrow night, is a holiday of masks and costumes. Everywhere around the Jewish world, people will wear costumes and veils, masks and disguises. Some of our costumes will be silly, or funny. Some will be random. Some will enable us to show sides of ourselves we don't usually get to display. Regardless: the act of putting on a costume invites us to think about the masks we wear every day, and in turn about what it would feel like to set those masks aside.

We all wear masks in daily life. Maybe we hide our vulnerability. Maybe we hide our yearnings. Here in this environment most of us don't feel the need to hide our intelligence -- intellect is valued here -- but we may feel the need to hide our hearts. We may hide a love interest we fear is unrequited, or compassion we don't feel safe expressing aloud. We may hide our strength. We may hide emotions that we learned, in childhood, it wasn't safe for us to manifest or express: fear, or anger, or joy.

The hero of the Purim story is Esther, whose name shares a root with נסתר / nistar, hidden. When Esther enters the palace of Achashverosh, on Mordechai's advice she hides her Jewishness. It's a lie of omission. She just... doesn't mention that part of who she is. Until, of course, the time comes when the only way she can save her community is to come out as a Jew and hope that Achashverosh's attachment to her will extend far enough to save her people too. Esther's willingness to stop hiding saves the day.

There's another figure in the megillah of Esther who's hidden, and that's God. God doesn't appear in this book at all -- at least not overtly. God's name is never mentioned. But our mystics tell us that God isn't absent; only נסתר, hidden. In our lives, too, divine presence may be hidden. But if we search for divinity, we can experience God everywhere: not just in the spaces that look holy, like Shabbat services, but also in spaces that might appear secular or profane, like costume parties or  a drag ball.

God's hiddenness, coming out, and drag balls: this d'varling may not be in everyone's comfort zone. (Maybe it's the drag that's uncomfortable for you; maybe it's the God-language.) I want to sit with that -- not flinch from it, not hide it, but embrace it. Because to say that God can be נסתר (hidden) is to say that we find God where we least expect to... including in and through our own spiritual discomfort. 

What are the things you habitually feel the need to hide? What would it feel like to have the safety to be your whole self -- not hiding, not silenced, not compartmentalized, but bringing all of who you are to every moment of your life? What would it feel like to recognize that you are a reflection of the Holy One of Blessing, made in the image and the likeness of God, not despite the things you usually tend to hide but precisely and absolutely in all of who you are?

The Esther story reminds us that there's a time for hiding, and a time for revealing. May we continually keep learning more deeply who we are and who we're becoming: when we choose to conceal ourselves, and when we choose to try on different faces, and when we choose to reveal our splendor and our light. May we be safe -- physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually -- when we veil and when we unveil, this Purim and always. 

 

This is the d'varling I offered tonight at the end of Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Williams College Jewish Association. 


Prayers for the morning, part 3: Body

CoverThis is the third post in a series of short meditations on morning prayers. (See Part 1: Gratitude and Part 2: Soul.)

 

I always say that my favorite prayer is modah ani, the blessing for gratitude. And it is. But the asher yatzar, the blessing for the body, is a close second:


בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה, וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים, חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים, גָלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ שֶאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵים וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶיךָ: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר, וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשׂוֹת:

(Transliteration)

Blessed are You, Adonai our God
Who forms the human body with wisdom
And creates within it a miraculous combination
Of organs and arteries, tissues and sinews.
It is known before Your throne of glory
That if one of these were to be open where it should be closed
Or closed where it should be open
We would not be able to stand before you and offer praises.
Blessed are You, Adonai, creator of embodied miracles!

"Organs and arteries, tissues and sinews" is a creative translation which I think I first encountered in Reb Jeff's homegrown siddur; the Hebrew literally says "ducts and tubes," hinting at flutes, meaning something like "openings and closings" -- e.g. the organs and veins and ducts in our bodies.

Some people call this "the bathroom blessing," because these are the words traditionally recited after (washing the hands after the act of) elimination. I love the fact that we have a blessing which reminds us not to take the regular functioning of our bodies for granted. (It also appears in daily liturgy.)

When I had my strokes back in 2006, my relationship with this blessing shifted radically. It's one thing to say, in the abstract, that in order for me to be present before God and pray I need a body which will keep me alive in order to do so. But the strokes brought that reality home in a new way.

"It is known...that if one of these were to be...closed where it should be open" -- if, for instance, a blood clot found its way again to my brain -- I might not be able to be here in relationship with God. I might not "be here" anymore at all. I try to remember that my body is a miracle, every single day.

Rabba Emily Aviva Kapor has written a beautiful variation on Asher Yatzar which takes into account how the classical prayer can be problematic, in its unconscious ableism and in how it can erase the experience of trans* folks who struggle with the assertion that God made their bodies "with wisdom."

Whether I daven the traditional text or Rabba Emily Aviva's variation, this prayer feels incredibly important to me. Maybe because it's easy for me as a woman to knock my body, and this prayer reminds me instead to thank God for the miracle of this body which allows me to exist in the world.

And my mashpi'ah reminds me that this prayer teaches also that we need to be aware of openings and closings on other levels. In emotional life there can be blocks which need clearing. In intellectual life. In spiritual life. Channels need to be open in all four worlds of body, heart, mind, and spirit.

What in your life is closed which you yearn to open, or opened which you wish you could safely close? Does this blessing speak to you and to your sense of your lived experience in your body? What are the sine quibus non, the things or conditions without which you could not be present and offer praise?

 

Related:

Sanctifying the body, 2005

Morning blessings for body and soul, 2007

On bathrooms, blessings, and a learning experience, 2012

Daily love song to my body, 2013

Every body is a reflection of God, 2013

Gratitude for my body, 2015

 

Image: the cover of this children's book.

 


Gratitude for my body

I sat down this morning wanting to do some writing, and when I let my mind clear, what emerged was this subject. Even as I was writing this post, I had the sneaking feeling I had written something similar before -- but I intentionally didn't seek out that older post until I had finished drafting this one. It turns out that I've written almost this exact post before -- two years ago in deep midwinter, just like now. Apparently this is stuff I think about a lot, maybe especially at this time of year.

 

13058I don't manage to say 100 blessings every day. Actually, I'm not certain of that; it's not as though I'm keeping score, making a note on my phone every time I remember to bless. There may in fact be days when I organically offer a hundred moments of gratitude to God. But I suspect that most days my count is lower than that. Still, one blessing I offer every day is the asher yatzar. Here's how it goes:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being; You formed the human body with wisdom, and placed within it many openings and closings. It is known before Your throne of glory that if one of these were to be opened where it should be closed, or closed where it should be opened, we would not be able to stand before You and offer praise. Blessed are You, Adonai, healer of all flesh and worker of miracles!

I first became conscious of this blessing as a practice because it was printed on laminated posters which hung just outside the bathrooms at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York. The words were there as a reminder to us that in Jewish tradition, even the act of elimination can be sanctified with words of blessing. I'm pretty certain that when I first encountered it I was charmed by the fact that we have blessings for pretty much everything. But I know it didn't really hit home for me then.

The blessing made a whole new kind of sense to me once I landed in the hospital with that second stroke. It is known that if one of these were to be closed where it should be opened... if a blood clot, for instance, should travel to the brain and block the flow of blood where it is needed... I would be unable to stand before You, indeed. My own brushes with illness have brought this truth home for me in a new way. And although I am (thank God) healthy and hearty now, the blessing's truth remains.

The truth is, having a body which more or less works most of the time is a flat-out miracle. Most of us don't tend to think of it that way, because it's incredibly difficult to live in the world while also feeling genuine wonder at every single miracle which occurs. My heart is beating: that's amazing! Hey, it's still beating: amazing! My kidneys are filtering my blood without my conscious control: amazing! No one can live with that awareness all the time. But our lack of awareness doesn't negate the miracle.

When I became pregnant I started experiencing the blessing in yet another way. Because I was a stroke survivor, and pregnancy increases the risk of stroke, I needed to inject myself with blood thinner every day. I am one of those people who shies away from needles even at the safe distance of seeing them on tv, so I was anxious about having to begin every day with an injection. So I developed the practice of reciting the asher yatzar while administering the blood thinner each morning.

Pregnancy also offered me new opportunities to marvel at the things my body does without my conscious intervention. Not only does my heart continue to beat, not only do my organs continue to do all of the things they're meant to do, but somehow my body knew how to grow a human being. I certainly wasn't driving that bus. My body knew what it was doing without me needing to be in charge. My body knew how to grow and change in ways I couldn't possibly have imagined.

And then our son was born, and the injections ended, and my relationship with my body went through a rollercoaster of changes: wonder that I had grown a human being from component cells, amazement that my body could produce the nourishment he needed, and then exhaustion and postpartum depression which deadened me to the wonder of my body (and of anything else.) I think there was a period of time when I wasn't saying many blessings for anything at all, my body included.

These days I silently recite the blessing every morning while I'm doing the incredibly mundane task of moisturizing my skin. This is a kind of routine wintertime maintenance for me. Between the cold dry air outside and the heated air indoors my skin gets dry and itchy at this time of year. It's a minor affliction, and it can be averted with a little bit of lotion. I try to use the moisturizing time to cultivate gratitude for my body. And as soon as I reach for the lotion, the blessing pops into my head.

Along with the words comes a melody. I sing them silently to myself using the trope, the melody-system, for Song of Songs. In rabbinic school I learned to use that melody for the sheva brachot, the seven blessings at the heart of every Jewish wedding. (I think that's a beautiful tradition. It makes sense that we would sing wedding blessings using the melody-system designed for Tanakh's great love-text.) So if it's a melody I associate with wedding blessings, why am I humming it to myself?

Because one of those seven blessings begins with the same words as the asher yatzar blessing -- "Blessed are You Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who creates the human being..." The wedding blessing goes on from there in a different direction, but because I have sung those words so frequently to this melody, the melody and the words have become intertwined. So when I am reciting the asher yatzar blessing to myself in the morning, that's the melody which arises.

I love praying the asher yatzar blessing to this melody because it makes the prayer feel like a love song both to my body, flawed and imperfect as it is, and to the One Who creates me anew in every moment. Singing a love song to my body isn't always easy. I know I'm not alone in looking in the mirror and seeing everything I like least about this physical form. But this blessing reminds me to look beyond those things to the miracle which underlies them. My heart is beating: that's amazing!

I can't live in constant awareness of these miracles. But if saying the blessing every day offers me an opportunity to glimpse the wonder again for a moment, that feels like enough.

 

Related:

Sanctifying the body, 2005

Morning blessings for body and soul, 2007

Every body is a reflection of God, 2013

A daily love song to my body, 2013

 


Poems of miscarriage and healing

After reading Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin's poignant and courageous essay Can We Please Tone Down Mother's Day This Year?, about facing Mother's Day after repeated miscarriage, I wanted to post here to offer a reminder of a small resource which is free to share: my chapbook Through, poems of miscarriage and healing, published in 2009.

Through is available for free as a digital download, or printed at cost (under $5) if you want a paper copy for yourself or for a loved one.

Here's what others have said about the collection:

"This can't have been an easy experience to write anything about at all, let alone to distill into ten brief, searing, and luminous poems. As with Rachel's earlier chaplainbook, these are accessible poems with several different layers of meaning, so I think almost anyone who's ever gone through a miscarriage will get something out of it. Which is not to say the audience should end there: miscarriage is a subject every bit as relevant and revealing of the human condition as warfare, for example. So why doesn't it get more attention from writers and artists?" -- Dave Bonta, at Via Negativa

"The Velveteen Rabbi, Rachel Barenblat, has written a collection of poems about miscarriage -- based on her own -- and offers Through to any reader who wants or needs them. As Dave Bonta points out, miscarriage is not a widely discussed topic, certainly not by men too often, but not even by women. Find comfort and companionship in shared grief and experience. For yourself, or someone you know." -- Deb Scott, at ReadWritePoem

Miscarriage, and sorrow around infertility and attempts to conceive, are among the silent scourges we usually endure alone. But I believe there can be some small comfort in sharing our stories and in knowing that others have walked -- continue to walk -- these difficult paths.

You can read excerpts from the collection, and/or click through to the free download or the at-cost printed edition, at the original post announcing the chapbook's publication: Miscarriage poems: "Through."

May comfort come to all who mourn.


The December Project

Some of you may have read the recent essay by Sara Davidson in the Huffington Post titled Passover Asks: Are You Ready to Go? Here's an excerpt from near the beginning of the piece:

When I arrived that morning at his home in Boulder, CO, the rabbi's wife, Eve, was in the kitchen, preparing for Passover by removing "hametz" -- anything containing flour that's risen -- from every drawer, shelf and counter. I walked down to the basement, where Reb Zalman stood up from his computer desk and greeted me with a hug.

"What does Passover feel like in the December years?" I asked, as we settled in chairs facing each other.

"That's such a good question. Give me a moment to go inside." He closed his eyes, waiting to sense what would arise. "When we come to the end of the seder, we open the door for Elijah the prophet. I ask everyone to be silent and think, 'What question would I like to ask the messenger of God?'" He said people reflect on that, sitting quietly while the door is open, and after it's closed, he asks if they'd like to share what they heard.

"Then we come to the place in the ceremony where Elijah asks, 'Are you ready to go?'"

"Go where?" I said.

"Go forth from the seder into the world. But for me it's also, 'Are you ready to go?'"

Readiness is an essential quality in the story of the Exodus: readiness to leave, to head into the unknown, to trust. Readiness is part of celebrating seder. And readiness is required if one wants to face the end of life gracefully, whenever that end may come.

December_projectThis is a story which also appears in Sara Davidson's new book The December Project, subtitled "An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life's Greatest Mystery." The book chronicles two years' worth of regular conversations between Sara and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, "Reb Zalman," about navigating the December of one's life, doing spiritual end-of-life work, and approaching death with open eyes, clear heart, and untroubled mind.

The resulting book is somewhere between memoir (stories of Reb Zalman's childhood, upbringing, adventures, and spiritual life) and the kind of conversation one might have over coffee with a dear friend after many years of connection, when you can go straight to the stuff that matters.

For we who are students of Reb Zalman, or students of his students, much of this material will be familiar. Many of us will have heard him tell these stories, often more than once! But that doesn't make them any less a pleasure to read, and being able to imagine his presence, his humor, and his singing voice just adds to the experience of diving into the book. And for those who haven't been blessed with a personal relationship with this rebbe, the book offers some of those gifts in printed form.

Reb Zalman's been working with these ideas for years. Some of the practices at the end of this book are similar to the exercises in his From Aging to Sage-ing, a book which I also recommend. But this book takes a different tack. And Sara Davidson, this book's author, offers an interesting path in. She is open about both her doubts and her hopes. Over the course of the book, she takes us on her journey -- not only into these conversations, but also into her mother's illness and death, and into her own anxieties about the end of life and what comes after. She strikes a keen balance between sharing enough of herself that she is a real presence in the book, and withdrawing enough of herself that we can feel that we too are sitting in intimate conversation with Reb Zalman, gleaning some of what he's harvested over nearly ninety years of life.

In one scene which has stayed with me, Sara has appeared for their regular appointment and Reb Zalman is clearly unwell, struggling with a variety of physical ailments which are dragging him down. They talk about his need to disengage even from beloved students in order to marshall his energy for his own survival. And then he tells her about how he used to maintain an open-door policy on Shabbat, where people were welcome to come and pray and sing and learn; now he spends Shabbat only with his wife. Here's how Sara describes it:

Before Friday night arrives, he writes his love-letter and slips it under her plate. On Saturday at dusk, they sit outside if the weather is mild and sing Shabbos melodies until it's totally dark. "It's so wonderful," he said, and I watched his body soften and his breathing become more relaxed. It was as if the words, like the smell of chickens roasting on Fridays at camp, had a Pavlovian effect, taking him to a Shabbos state of mind.

In telling the story of how he has come to adapt Shabbat practices for his late eighties, he models for us what it would be like to thoughtfully choose what to relinquish as we age.

Reb Zalman's sweetness, his sense of humor, and his deep hunger for God all come through in this book -- as do his idiosyncracies and some of the challenges which have resulted. Here are stories about Chabad, about meeting Howard Thurman and coming to deep ecumenism, about experiencing Christian and Buddhist mentors, even about experimenting with LSD as a path to God. He's also honest about his failings and his mistakes -- not in a self-congratulatory way, but thoughtfully. I was particularly moved by his frank and gentle words about his first marriage and its dissolution, and by the chapter where he asks to undergo taharah -- the washing / blessing / dressing of one's body after death -- in order to prepare himself for that experience when it comes.

5362606310_35a01cbb56_nOn a purely personal note, I got a particular frisson of joy while reading the chapter "You Can Take Me Now," in which Sara describes two different ALEPH ordination ceremonies. She describes Hazzan Shoshanna Brown singing a niggun which had been a favorite of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, as a prelude to asking Reb Zalman to offer a teaching. Sara writes:

With high color in his face, Reb Zalman took the mike and faced the audience. He explained that the Rebbe used to sing that melody to prepare himself and his students for a transmission. "Want to hear my transmission?" he asked. Turning to the ordinees on stage, he threw out his arm. "You are my transmission."

That was at my ordination, and it is a moment I will never forget. (Photo source.)

Must one be in one's "December years" to get something out of this book? Not in the least. As a student in the ALEPH hashpa'ah / spiritual direction program, I spent a semester studying and engaging in the work Reb Zalman calls 'sage-ing' -- preparing, mindfully and consciously, for the transition out of this life. Many of you know that I am not yet forty. Then again, I'm also a multiple stroke survivor, so I'd already begun to approach some of these big questions.

I remember talking with my spiritual director about what it was like to begin doing this sage-ing work at a young age. She told me that she had done the same, and that doing this work had enriched her in innumerable ways. After all, our tradition prescribes making teshuvah on the eve of our death, and since we never know when that will be, the sages teach us to make teshuvah -- to do this inner work of discernment, forgiveness, and letting go -- every night before we sleep. (I've written about this before -- see my post The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur -- and of every night.) 

Death is perhaps the greatest mystery there is. In this book, Sara Davidson and Reb Zalman have given us a beautiful example of how to live with that awareness joyfully, and how to approach it not as something to be abhorred, but as a holy transition -- the end of this deployment, to use Reb Zalman's language, and the beginning of something new.