The red heifer, and gentleness amidst grief

 

Parah

This week’s Torah portion, Hukat, begins with the parah adumah. The Israelites are instructed to bring a red heifer who has never borne a yoke. The priest takes it outside the camp and offers it, burning it along with hyssop, cedar wood, and something crimson. Its ashes are kept for making mei niddah hatat, “waters of lustration,” used to “purify” someone after contact with death. (More on that in a moment.) 

This is weird, and not just to us. Rashi observed that the nations of the world would taunt us about the oddity of this law, which is why it’s called a hok. Hukim are the category of mitzvot that may not make logical sense, like kashrut. We observe them as a spiritual discipline, part of accepting “the yoke of heaven,” tradition’s way of saying there’s something in the universe more mysterious than we can grasp.

I see hukim the way I see poetry that’s allusive and evocative. If I approach this like a poem or a piece of visual art, I notice how this parsha is shot through with the recurring theme of death. Immediately after the parah adumah, we read that someone who touches a dead body becomes tamei for seven days. Tum’ah is Torah’s term for the spiritual condition of having coming into contact with life or death. 

In Torah's understanding we become tamei upon encountering a dead body, menstrual blood or semen, certain forms of illness. I follow R. Rachel Adler in understanding tum’ah as a kind of spiritual-electrical charge. Someone who’s tamei is temporarily vibrating at a different frequency than everyone else. This is the spiritual state that the waters of lustration were used, in Torah times, to wash away. 

The first time I served on our hevra kadisha I understood this in a new way. It’s not that touching the bodies of our dead is somehow “unclean.” It’s more like: once I had helped to wash and dress and bless the body that had once held the soul of a human being, I felt changed. The world outside the funeral home felt weird. I felt spiritually out of phase, not quite in normal time, for a little while. 

I remember feeling that way after late-night shifts when I was a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center, too. After holding the hand of someone who was dying, or praying with someone headed into emergency surgery, nothing felt the same. As I learned much later, it's also how I felt after giving birth: I felt fragile, precarious, both heightened and dissociated, temporary and eternal all at once.

Today the parah adumah ritual is impossible. There is no high priest to make a sacrifice in the appointed place in the appropriate ways. Rambam even suggested that only one more parah adumah will ever be born, to be brought by the messiah. There are no waters of lustration anymore. Especially now that the ritual literally can’t be performed, we grow and learn through studying it rather than actually doing it. 

In place of the waters of lustration, we’ve evolved other rituals to close shiva. For instance, walking around the block and going back in through a different door: embodying both our readiness to re-enter the world, and also how mourning has made us different than whoever we were before. But the central idea that death impacts us and we need a transition to return to normalcy still rings true. 

Reading about death and tum’ah this year I can’t help thinking about Israel and Palestine. I think about the violent deaths of Israelis at the Nova music festival and the kibbutzim that were attacked on October 7. I think about the violent deaths of Palestinians in Gaza over the last 281 days. Everyone there has touched death, and no one has had the luxury of time to mourn, nor closure for their grief.

I yearn for waters of lustration that could wash away their vast grief (and ours) and soften the hearts of those who have power to create change. I wish we had a way to balm every wounded soul and body in Israel and Palestine. Healing feels impossible – as impossible as a ritual that demands a place and a role that haven’t existed in 2000 years and a sacrificial modality of prayer we no longer use.

In times like these I’m grateful that our tradition is built on hope that no matter how broken our world has been, and this year we’re all aware that it is plenty broken, a better future is possible. Even if I don’t know how we’re going to get there. The truth is, it’s not my job to know how the world is going to get there. It’s my job to care for y’all. And it's aleinu, on all of us, to do what we can to build better. 

One of my most profound memories of hospital chaplaincy is the night a kid was hit by a train. I wasn’t yet a parent, and I remember saying to my chaplaincy supervisor that I don’t know how I could have borne the parents' grief if I were. He told me that no matter what, faced with this kind of grief, all we can really give is our heart, our presence, our care. It’s the holiest gift human beings have to give.

I can’t make sense out of the magnitude of loss in Gaza and Israel. Any single person’s grief can be infinite. The grief of whole peoples…? There are no words. And that brings me back to the idea of a hok, a mitzvah we can’t explain. Accepting the “yoke of heaven” means accepting that we can't always make sense of the world. In the face of this much grief, we may not be able to make anything “okay.” 

But we can feel-with one another, and we can insist on empathy for every Israeli and every Palestinian. I know that some people think my empathy is misplaced, or that it benefits the wrong people. For me, empathy is a core spiritual discipline, and part of that discipline is extending it to everyone. Faced with inconceivable loss, our hearts and our care are all we have; they are the holiest gift we have to give.

May this Shabbat Parah bring peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved. 

 

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


One drop

A-drop-in-the-ocean-david-parker

"A Drop in the Ocean" by David Parker.

I talk to friends in Israel. They tell me everyone knows someone who is connected with the hostages. About the protests outside the Prime Minister's house. How the hostages are on posters everywhere, in public art pieces everywhere, how theirs have become household names even for those who didn't know them. How every baby they see reminds them of Kfir Bibas, kidnapped at 9 months, now 17 months. Some of them tell me how it feels to send a son or daughter or sibling or grandchild off to fight Hamas, knowing that some will not come home again. After eight months, no one is the same.

I read the words of friends with loved ones in Gaza. They tell me about the destruction. Buildings collapsing, tens of thousands dead, two hospitals now the sites of mass graves. The rubble, the hunger, the fear. How even the places where people had run to seek refuge don't seem to be safe anymore. When the IDF bombs a school, many don't believe the goal was taking out some number of Hamas fighters embedded within. Why would they believe the IDF or the Israeli government? They trust neither. They believe the goal is to wipe them all out, or to cause as much damage as possible.

I wake to the news that four Israeli hostages are home, rescued by the IDF. Three of them are in their twenties, kidnapped from the Nova music festival. I'm old enough that they look like kids to me. The image of Noa Argamani reuniting with her father overwhelms me with emotion. I imagine what's going through his heart and mind, seeing his daughter alive after 245 days of fearful wondering. I imagine what's going through hers. One Israeli special forces police officer died from wounds sustained in the rescue. I imagine that person's family and their grief. Does this feel "worth it," to them?

Meanwhile, at least 125 were killed in the strike on Nuseirat that enabled the rescue. Or maybe 210 dead and 400 injured, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Or the "Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry," in the words of Ha'aretz. (Some don't believe the IDF; others don't believe the Gaza Health Ministry.) No one seems to dispute the fact that most of those killed and injured are women and children. I read descriptions of hospital hallways teeming with the wounded. I imagine what's going through the hearts and minds of those families, and the families of the dead. Who do they blame for their grief?

Sometimes it is impossibly surreal that here and there are happening at the same time. Sometimes it's hard to see the beauty of here because we're so caught up in feeling-with them there. (Which "them," which "there"? Fill in the blank for yourself.) I don't think I know anyone who cares about Israelis or Palestinians who is okay this year, much less anyone who aspires to care about both. How to rejoice for the four who've been brought home, when hundreds of other lives ended in the process and peace seems nowhere in sight? How to taste a single drop of joy intermixed with this vast salt sea of sorrow?

 

 


If: Behukotai 5784 / 2024

If-square


If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit…you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. (Lev. 26:3-5)

In the past I’ve read these opening verses in part as an environmental teaching. If we live in a way that’s aligned with the mitzvot, we’ll be laying the groundwork for a healthy planet. Last week’s parsha Behar (often read as a double portion with this week’s Behukotai) talks about the mitzvah of shmitah, letting the earth rest in every seventh year. In an era of climate crisis, we know that treating the earth in a transactional way that privileges profit over sustainability will lead to woe – like the curses listed later in this parsha.

All of that still resonates. But this year I got caught on the phrase “you shall… dwell securely in your land.” And all I can think is: halevai – would that it were so! 

The idea of dwelling securely feels almost laughable. The horrors of October 7th shattered a sense of safety and security for many of our Israeli friends and family. Violence across the West Bank and the war in Gaza have shattered any sense of safety or security for Palestinians. Torah’s promise is so far from the reality we see in the news and on social media that it draws me up short. 

There’s no practical comparison between our life here and the lives of Israelis or Palestinians – we’re not living under rocket fire or aerial bombardment. Still, I know that many of us don’t feel wholly safe and secure in this land either. The fact that our synagogue has been locked ever since the hostage crisis at CBI Colleyville is testament to that. 

Some immediately blamed prominent Jews for the results in this week’s jury trial of the former president, and the resurgence of that antisemitic conspiracy theory makes many of us anxious. Meanwhile I know that many of us are experiencing vitriol aimed at Zionists or Israelis as a blow to our own hearts and our sense of belonging. 

There’s a difference between feeling unsafe and being unsafe, but both take a toll.

I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled…no sword shall cross your land. [Your army] shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall give chase to 100, and 100 of you shall give chase to 10,000… (Lev. 26:6-8)

I have mixed feelings about Torah’s promise of routing enemies. I understand why superior power is the dream of every oppressed people! And yet I wish Torah could have promised, “You and those whom you understand as enemies will become able to see a better path forward.” But I don’t think that perspective was viable in antiquity. 

Honestly, it doesn’t always feel viable now. Even though I share our prophets’ yearnings for the day when swords will be beaten into plowshares… and poet Yehuda Amichai’s yearning to go even further:

Don’t stop after beating the swords
into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating
and make musical instruments out of them.
Whoever wants to make war again
will have to turn them into plowshares first.

(Someone’s actually doing that, by the way – a group called Armory of Harmony.)

Images

This print features that Amichai poem in Hebrew, and is available from the artist here

These verses remind me of the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, the one that says that if we follow the mitzvot we’ll get the rains in their seasons and will receive all that we need. (The one that our siddur leaves out, because its editors found its promise too transactional.) 

I agree that a purely transactional reading fails us. If our reason for doing mitzvot is that we’ll get rewarded, that’s liable to fall apart the first time we realize that the wicked often prosper, and that terrible things can happen to good people who live an upright and mitzvah-filled life. 

But I find meaning in that part of the Sh’ma when I interpret it in a less literal way, as we did this morning. I think we can do the same here. 

The word hok, a type of mitzvah, is related to the root meaning to engrave. Hukkim are the mitzvot that are carved on us, or the ones we carve on our own hearts through repetition and through allowing ourselves to be changed. Think of how water wears away stone to form channels through which it can flow. 

The verbs telkhu and tishm’ru, “walk” and “keep,” remind us that the mitzvot are our path. As the Ahad Ha-Am said of Shabbat, “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” It’s true of all of the mitzvot: we keep them, and they keep us.That’s how we acquire betah, faith or trust. 

JPS renders betah as “dwell securely,” but this isn’t the kind of security that might come with an alarm system. It’s inner security, it’s faith. If we walk a path of keeping mitzvot and letting them keep us, that’s how we can live in trust, or have trust live in us. This may be a tall order in these days of rising antisemitism and continuing anxiety and fear for all of our beloveds in the Middle East. But I think it’s the invitation that Torah offers us. 

Still, what can we do to reinterpret the verse about our enemies falling before us by the sword? In the daily amidah, there’s a line of prayer that asks God for a time when our enemies will have no hope. It’s become common practice in liberal Jewish circles to replace “enemies” with “enmity.” May enmity itself wither and disappear from the earth. 

The commentator known as the Sforno understands the verse about giving chase to our enemies as: “without even needing to fight them.” In other words: maybe someday when humanity is wholly aligned with a path of right actions and justice, warfare will just… become obsolete.  Enmity itself will disappear. 

Most of our commentators don’t make that kind of interpretive move. Then again, most of our sages lived in eras when Jews faced persecution: R. Yochanan ben Zakkai during the first Roman-Jewish war, Rashi during the Crusades, Rambam who fled from Iberia with his family, the Hasidic masters during the era of pogroms and the Holocaust. It’s a sobering reminder that even those of us living in American comfort, far from today’s sites of bloodshed, carry ancestral memory of centuries of persecution and hatred.

But we also still carry Torah’s promise. It’s up to our generation and the generations to come to build toward a world in which enmity will fall by the wayside. A world in which all can live with betah, complete trust and safety. Because here’s another thing I noticed this year: Torah promises that we will live securely in our land, and in the next verse, that God will grant shalom to the land. I like to understand that to mean: we’ll live with faith and trust and safety wherever we are, and wholeness and peace will come to everyone. 

Here’s what I hear Torah saying to us this year:

 

If you walk in the paths of the mitzvot, and
let them be carved on your heart and mind, and
allow yourself to be shaped and changed by them...
Then you’ll become aware of the rains in their season –
sustenance and hope flowing to you from beyond you.
And there will be times in your life when you can’t feel that flow,
just like there are seasons in Jerusalem when the rain doesn’t fall.
But you’ll find that whatever you have, is enough to get you through.
Then you will be filled with fundamental faith and trust wherever you are.
And there will be wholeness and peace everywhere.
And you will be able to lie down and truly rest
and enmity itself will disappear.
And I will be ever-present in your midst:
God, Who brought you out of the narrow place
so that you can live in a way that is upright,
ethical and unbowed.

 

 

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.)


Dissonance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Place of promise

The Presence
has no address,
goes with us
everywhere:
in wholeness
and in exile.

This place
is still
a focusing lens
for our prayers,
though not
only ours.

Stories
land differently
when I can see
the topography
of spring and desert,
valley and hill.

To describe this
place of promise,
I would need
God's voice:
all possible meanings
at once.

 


 

Lately I've been trying to spend less time refreshing the news and more time working on my next poetry manuscript.  The news is grim and there's so little I can do. Despair is corrosive to the spirit. Better to work on making something -- even if that something is just words.

Of course, poetry isn't wholly a distraction from the sorrows of the world. Especially given that this week I've been working on revising a series of poems that originated last year in a trip to Israel / Palestine. (Some of these lines first found form in the blog post Fifty truths, posted last June.) 

A poem is not like an essay or an argument -- at least most of mine aren't. My poems often originate in yetzirah, the sphere of the yearning heart, rather than in briyah, the world of clarity and intellect. For me a poem is more like a painting or a collage, hopefully functioning on an associative level. 

A friend remarked recently that she's never before experienced a situation where so many people are not only utterly divided on an issue, but not even agreeing on basic facts about it. That's another thing that can feel corrosive to the spirit. Another reason that lately I turn to poetry. 

I think of poetry the way I think of midrash: no single poem is "the right answer," but the totality of poetry taken together can offer a glimmer of ultimate reality. That's maybe especially true when it comes to poems about this contested, complicated, beloved place. 


Homeless

Caridad-ramos-quote-please-understand-you-are-not-welcome-here

Bearing hatred is exhausting. So is the constant vigilance of wondering who's going to attack next, and from which side. Of course, I have the luxury of meaning that metaphorically. 

In some spaces Jews like me feel unwelcome because we insist on empathy for Palestinians. Self-hating Jew. Why don’t you care about your own people? What about October 7?

(Do you somehow imagine we haven’t been gutted with grief for the inhabitants of Kibbutz Nir Oz, Kibbutz Beeri, the massacred, the slaughtered, the raped, the kidnapped, the hostages?)

In some spaces Jews like me feel unwelcome because we insist on empathy for Israelis. I was with you until you mentioned the hostages. “We don’t want no two states, we remember ‘48!”

(Do you somehow imagine we haven’t been gutted with grief for the inhabitants of Gaza, their homes turned to rubble, entire families wiped out, hospitals in ruins, starving in plain sight?)

The grief is a tsunami and it doesn’t stop. Neither does the anticipation that every time we articulate care about anyone, someone is going to slam us for caring about the wrong side.

It is unpopular to insist on empathy. Because I won't stand for dehumanizing either Israelis or Palestinians, people tell me I am naïve, ignorant of power dynamics, complicit in atrocities. 

Yesterday Micah Sifry wrote about asking pro-Palestinian activists what they mean by liberation. “[The] end of Zionism in our region… completely, from the river to the sea,” one said. 

I have said for years that opposing Israel isn’t necessarily antisemitic. I meant opposing the actions of its government. Opposing the Occupation. Opposing policies or choices or injustices.

Opposing the existence of the state altogether is something different. But saying Israel shouldn’t exist at all suddenly seems almost normative in progressive spaces and literary spaces. 

And other spaces, too. But those are the ones that hurt, because I used to feel at home in them. Now it feels like there’s a purity test, and anyone who professes empathy for Israelis fails it.

This year’s PEN literary awards were canceled because half of the nominees withdrew themselves from consideration, accusing the organization of "false equivalences, equivocation and normalizing."

Years ago I was put on a Self Hating Israel Terrorists list (lovely acronym, no?) because I oppose the Occupation. It's not news that some on the right will slam any Jew who cares about Palestinians.

But being slammed by others on the left for caring about Israelis is new for me, and it's painful in unexpected ways. It's why Guernica withdrawing Joanna Chen's essay was such a gut-punch. 

This morning I read Yardenne Greenspan’s searing essay We Are No Longer Welcome. Much of what she writes resonates with me. Many Jews have lost a sense of safety, a sense of home.

Meanwhile 1.9 million Palestinians and 135,000 Israelis are displaced from their homes. In the face of actual homelessness, these feelings are irrelevant, of course. But I still feel them.  

Rabbi Aaron Brusso wrote about the fifth child – the one who tries to hold complexity. “She wants to love her neighbor and the stranger but neither are interested in loving her.” 

I am, in fact, the fifth of five children in my family of origin. But I feel like that fifth child spiritually, too. For those who won't curtail empathy, right now it's hard to know where to find home.






Symbols

Symbols

 

Symbols, This Year

The shankbone is for houses across Israel and Gaza
where the Angel of Death has not passed over.

Maror for the hot tearful bitter sharp pain
of hostages held underground and children imprisoned.

Haroset, for mortar: Gaza bombed to rubble. 
The egg is roasted like charred kibbutz walls. 

Everything is dipped in tears like the sea that closed 
when God rebuked, "My children die, and you sing praises?"

Matzah: cracker of liberation and affliction. (Gazans
approaching starvation know only one of these.)

There’s no place on the seder plate for ambivalence, 
survivors’ guilt, history’s persecutions telescoping into now.

In every generation trauma traps us in Mitzrayim.
Will this be the year we begin to walk free?

 

R. Rachel Barenblat

 


This prayer-poem for Pesach is part of the new collection of poetry, liturgy, and art for Pesach 2024 released earlier this week by Bayit. Click through for This Broken Matzah, available as a downloadable chapbook / PDF of liturgical poetry and art, or as google slides suitable for screenshare. 

Featuring work created in collaboration by the Liturgical Arts Working Group at Bayit, this collection includes work by Trisha Arlin, Joanne Fink, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, Steve Silbert, and R. David Zaslow, and me. 


Restoring the Name: Shabbat Zachor 5784 / 2024

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Most of Megillat Esther reads like a soap opera, full of banquets and beauty pageants and assassination plots and nemeses. There’s a theme of topsy-turviness. Haman is hung on the very gallows he had built for Mordechai, and instead of being slaughtered the Jews of Persia prosper, and we all live happily ever after. But there’s one part of the turn-about that we don’t typically act out in our Purim play. In chapter 9, the Jews slaughter 75,000 Persians.

The context is this: although Haman himself has been defeated, the King had issued a decree saying that on the 13th of Adar Persians were welcome to kill Jews at will. And he had no way to undo that decree, because in this story the king is comically powerless. Mordechai suggests, “Why don’t you issue a new decree giving us the right to defend ourselves?” The king does that, and the Jews do… that. Every year, I wish that this part of the story weren’t there.

I’m not alone in that. Some communities that hold full readings of the megillah race through those verses as fast as they can. Or they sing them in Eikha trope, the melancholy musical mode used at Tisha b’Av when we mourn the fallen Temples and the brokenness of creation. The folks at The Shalom Center recently released what they’re callling The Chapter Nine Project, featuring a variety of alternative revisionings of that part of the story. 

Megillat Esther was written during the 4th century BCE. It’s generally understood to be a work of fiction, though King Achashverosh may have been a fictionalized version of Xerxes I. The megillah is unusually full of loan-words from Akkadian and Assyrian. Even the character names might be borrowed: Mordechai and Esther could be variations on Mespotamian and Babylonian deities Marduk and Ishtar, and Haman might be a derivative of local Elamite deity Humman.

I don’t have any problem with seeing Megillat Esther as a work of fiction. A text doesn’t need to be historically verifiable in order to be sacred or meaningful. I’d venture that most of us don’t think the universe was literally created in six days, but Torah’s poetic teaching that Shabbat rest is the culmination of creation is deep spiritual wisdom. Esther contains deep spiritual wisdom too – about resilience, about leaps of faith, about what’s hidden and what’s revealed.

In a month we’ll immerse in the story of the Exodus, in which God brings us forth from the Narrow Place with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. In this scroll, in contrast, God’s name literally does not appear. Here God is nistar, hidden. (And yes, that word shares a root with the name Esther.) It’s part of what makes this story feel so modern: there’s no Voice of God here. We can only glimpse God through the miracle of ethical choices and right actions.

Daf-2So what do we glimpse in unethical choices? Jewish tradition writ large supports the right to self-defense, so I can understand the part of the story where we go after those armed against us. And Haman getting hung on his own gallows feels like a kind of literary justice. But the murder of his ten sons feels excessive, and it’s highlighted by scribal calligraphy – meant to evoke “joy over the fact that they were destroyed.” (Maharal, Or Hadash 9:10) Whoa.

Purim is a festival of joy, but this doesn’t feel joyful. (I’m also not convinced that his sons were our enemies. Neither is the Israeli comedy troupe HaYehudim Ba’im, who in one of their sketches portrayed a soldier returning from the war of defeating Haman and the Persians, and saying, “yeah, that Haman was a real piece of —--, but I want you to ask yourselves: what are his children guilty of?”) (Find that here – no English translation though.)

Our tradition also teaches discomfort at the death of an enemy. There’s a midrash that appears in many Passover haggadot describing how, when the Egyptians drowned in our pursuit, God rebuked the angels, “My children are dying and you sing praises?!” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b.) For this reason we spill drops from our second cup of wine. I’m more comfortable with that than I am with this part of the megillah, but both are part of our tradition. 

Today is a special Shabbat, one of the Shabbats with its own name: Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. Shabbat Zachor falls on the Shabbat before Purim, and on it, we read a special extra bit of Torah, Deut. 25:17-19, describing how Amalek attacked us on our way out of Egypt. Amalek attacked the back of the caravan, wiping out those who were elderly or sick or weak. Torah commands us to blot out the name of Amalek, and to never forget.

54141Haman, meanwhile, is understood as a distant descendent of the tribe of Amalek. We’ll “blot out” his name with our graggers tomorrow night. This year I’m struck by the juxtaposition of blotting out the name of our adversary – and the entirely missing Name of that One we call God in the scroll we read at this season. Could there be a spiritual connection between the presence of the massacre in chapter 9 of Esther, and the absence of God’s name in this book? 

It’s as though when we give in to violent fantasies of revenge, we render holiness invisible. Maybe God’s names, which are a stand-in for God’s presence, literally can’t coexist with this degree of gratuitous violence. “Gratuitous” being the key word here, because we know there’s plenty of violence and conquest in other parts of Tanakh. But the massacre of 75,000 Persians feels excessive, even vindictive, in a way that’s hard to bear. Maybe it’s hard for God, too.

This year that part of the story also lands differently because of the ongoing horrors of the Israel-Hamas war. Many of us are still enmeshed in grief for those who were slaughtered or kidnapped by Hamas at the very start of 5784. Hamas’ hatred of us makes Haman feel too real. And many of us are enmeshed in grief for tens of thousands of Palestinians killed or displaced or starving since then, which makes the violence at the megillah’s end also feel too real.

Maybe the vengeance chronicled in this story landed differently during 2000 years of exile than it does now. For centuries we lived precariously, couldn’t become citizens of most nations, weren’t allowed to hold certain professions. And whenever something went wrong, like the Black Death, we were blamed and massacred. Revenge fantasies turn out to be common where there is PTSD and complex grief. They can offer a sense of control when life feels shattered. 

But that control is illusory. And marinating in revenge fantasies can be spiritually unhealthy. According to psychologist Judith Herman (author of Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence), traumatized people who engage in acts of revenge don’t thereby get rid of their PTSD. Instead they seem to suffer more. According to Dr. Michelle Maidenberg, the only real answer is working through the anxiety and grief caused by the trauma in the first place.

The threat of communal annihilation is traumatic. And Jews have collectively known that threat intimately and often, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to pogroms to the Holocaust. We joke about “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat,” but it’s actually pretty dark. As one passage in the traditional Passover haggadah teaches, “in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” That’s a grim worldview. It’s not the way I want to see the world around us.

But maybe the subtext of the Megillah – the fact that God’s very name is missing – can teach us that a violent counter-response to trauma isn’t the right path. I don’t know how the whole Jewish people could go about the psychological and spiritual work of healing the trauma of being hated, of being attacked, of facing annihilation over and over. But I think that if we can do that work, it will bring us closer to making the divine presence manifest in the sacred text of all creation.

 

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


(Do we know) How to heal

"We are facing a watershed moment where healing from trauma is a generational call. How will we answer it? Will we reproduce old patterns of divide-and-conquer, especially in the face of rising tides of mental health crises and climate change? Or will we re-member and reenvision our interdependence and flow toward collective transformation? The answers, and new questions, are up to us."

-- Jen Soriano, Nervous: Essays on Heritage and Healing


A friend recommended Soriano's book to me as I began to grapple with the trauma I carry as the daughter of someone who fled the Holocaust. The book is excellent; I recommend it highly. (I'm not finished with it yet, but it's already given me valuable new lenses for understanding not only my own history and its implications, but also the histories of many whom I serve.) This quote jumped out at me this morning -- as we all continue to marinate in what's happening in Gaza and in Israel and in us.

My mother the refugee would have rejected the word trauma. She was lucky, she would have said. Lucky to have escaped Hitler, lucky to have made it here, lucky to live in a country that welcomed Jews (and to witness the birth of Israel) and so are her children, period. And her story still isn't mine to tell -- even though she's been gone for five years. Enough to say simply that she would have rejected this frame altogether. I rejected it for a while, too. I kept saying, "but this is normal."

Of course I used to lie in bed and list what I would take with me if the Nazis returned and we needed to flee. Of course my diary was inspired by Anne Frank's, so someday when somebody tried to wipe out the Jews again, maybe my diary would be a testament to how we tried to persist, just like hers is. Of course when I peel a potato and throw the skin away, I think of family in the concentration camps who would have done anything for a potato peel to add nutrition to the watery soup that was all they had.

(Dear anyone who is about to tell me there are innocents in Gaza who would do anything for a potato peel -- I know. That's heavy on my heart too. It is my very next thought, after remembering my ancestors. And... the readiness to make my words about what I carry in my own body into an opportunity to yell at me about Gaza is part of why this moment is so hard.) Why am I writing about this? Because I know others are struggling with it too. I can't fix it, but I can say: you're not alone. 

We're not alone in those constantly-running trains of thought. Most of us who grew up in the shadow of that horror have them. And not all of us would call it traumatic. (Mom certainly didn't.) And yet -- "I lost another friend over Israel and Gaza," someone said to me recently. "I guess I know who I can't ask to hide me, if it comes to that, again." I felt my heart clench as anxiety tried to surge. The internal monologue says, When people hate Jews, it's not safe. Look how much people hate us right now.

A personal essay about coexistence and war, written by an Israeli translator, was retracted this week by literary journal Guernica. Its author translates Arabic poetry into Hebrew and into English. Before the war began she drove Palestinians in Gaza to hospitals in Israel. She seems like the kind of person I would like to know. And yet the hatred and loathing and vitriol directed at her are staggering in their stridency. Like most American progressive Jews, I feel unmoored by the recognition of this loathing.

A week ago I wrote about my hopes for Israel and Gaza. Predictably, what I said made some people angry. I am too hawkish for some, too dovish for others. I keep thinking about a quote from a recent article by Rabbi Jay Michaelson (about what Glazer said at the Oscars): "Admittedly, to many standing in solidarity with Palestine, this can all seem rather milquetoast. // On the other hand, to many in AIPAC and the pro-Israel community, it can seem like a betrayal of the Jewish people."  Yep.

If you only take one thing away from this post let it be this: the tears, the nausea, the death-grip of anxiety, the feeling that nothing and nowhere is safe -- these are trauma reactions. And anecdotally, most of us are living with them. Which means it's no small wonder that my whole town has been metaphorically ablaze with feelings of rancor and betrayal over proposed ceasefire resolutions. We're all inflamed like damaged nerves in the body of our community, and pain is spiking everywhere.

Which takes me back to Jen Soriano's book. Soriano writes beautifully about the effects of therapy and somatic work on her trauma and chronic pain. What's the equivalent of that work for a whole people? We keep lashing out: how could any Jew want a ceasefire when [insert reason]? How could any Jew not want a ceasefire when [insert reason]? Our ancestors fled genocide, how can you say that? I want to ask: how often are our responses shaped by unconscious trauma, and what can we do to heal?

 

Addendum: I was literally finishing this post draft when I got the latest from Jay Michaelson: Israel/Palestine and the Politics of Trauma. Well: as my mother would've said, "great minds run in the same direction." Anyway, go read Jay's post, it's excellent.


Waves

How to be universally loathed: insist on not hating.
Cling to driftwood in the ocean of despair.
God is here, too.

The word dehumanization does not belong in poetry.
Some think we're holding the gun,
others think we're in the crosshairs.

The waves bring our words back.
We're using the same sounds
but they mean something different in different mouths.

 

 

 


If we will it: a note on Gaza and Israel

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

 

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours in deep hope –

Rabbi Rachel


Ending

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Image by Stellalevi.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


On Town resolutions

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

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

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

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


Community Means: Terumah 5784 / 2024

Screen Shot 2024-02-14 at 2.14.39 PM

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


Statistics

Statistics

 




Rockets launched from XXXX into XXXX since October 7: 10,000
XXXX children killed since October 7: 10,000
Percentage of people who just wrote me off because I opened with XXXX suffering: 50
Percentage of people who just wrote me off because I mentioned XXXX suffering: 50
Residential units in XXXX destroyed or rendered uninhabitable: 65,000
XXXX who have moved back to XXXX: 2
Households in XXXX at risk of starvation: 1 in 4
Percentage of children brought to the ER at XXXX hospital now displaying PTSD: 43
Locations across XXXX where women and girls were reportedly XXXX and XXXX: 7
Witnesses who testified to that: 150
Bombs dropped by XXXX on XXXX since October 7: 45,000
Miles of distance in XXXX underground tunnel network in XXXX: 350-450
Square miles in XXXX: 141
XXXX hostages still in XXXXX captivity: 130
Citizens of XXXX displaced by XXXX and XXXX: 200,000
XXXX displaced by XXXX: 1.9 million
Number of opinions held by any two XXXX: 3
XXXX killed by XXXX since October 7: 20,000
XXXX I personally know who support XXXX: 0
XXXX I personally know: 0
Percentage chance that any two people reading this care about the same set of facts: unknown

 


 

I've been struck lately by the realization that part of the reason why we're talking past each other is that we're having entirely different conversations, fueled by entirely different facts. I don't just mean misinformation or disinformation, though God knows there's plenty of that these days. I mean disagreements where each party is working with real facts, but we're getting facts from entirely different sources. Are we reading Al-Jazeera, or Haaretz, or the Jerusalem Post? Are we reading news in English, or in Arabic, or in Hebrew? Which side's suffering is noted in the news outlet we trust, and how much distrust do we feel when presented with the other narrative? How often do we resort to whataboutism? A colleague noted to me a few days ago that people these days are always listening to see whose suffering gets mentioned first -- and if it's the "other side's" suffering, a lot of listeners will mentally check out or write off the person speaking as a supporter of "them," whoever that means. I wrote this poem thinking of Harper's Index (which still exists, it turns out, even though I haven't read the magazine in decades.) Every fact comes from what I consider to be a reputable source (except for the two lines about which readers are ignoring me depending on who they think I support more, which is speculation). I juxtaposed real data, and then blacked it out, making an erasure poem. I imagine that a lot of readers will automatically try to figure out which name or people or term has been obscured: am I making a point about the suffering of these people, or those people? The answer is yes. I'm grieving all of them. I'm grieving all of this. Including the fact that most of us can't have a conversation with someone who sees the situation differently, because we can't agree on which statistics even matter, much less recognize the infinite human suffering behind every number.


Old hope

My parents collected haggadot for Pesach, many of which are now in my library. There is a slim, tattered haggadah from Prague, printed in Hebrew and Czech. A note tucked inside dates it to 1898.

(My mother wasn't sure, in the end, whether it had been a gift from her aunt -- born, like my mother, in Prague -- or something Mom found in a bookstore on one of her visits once the Iron Curtain fell.)

There is one bound in metal with full-color illustrations. There is one that's full of Chagall prints and illustrations alongside the Hebrew text. And there's this one, which just found its way to me:

 

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The cover just says "Haggadah for Pesach."

When I first opened it, I didn't see anything out of the ordinary. It's bilingual, Hebrew and English. The texts sketch the story of the Exodus in the traditional way, with quotes and snippets of narrative.

The graphic design is neat. The interior flyleaf has a stylized print of swirls and flowers, cups of wine and bunches of grapes. Vines and flowers and grapes twine around the words on every page.

And then I turned to a page that contained a photograph, and that's when I figured out what makes this haggadah different from all other haggadot. (You had to know I was going to go there.)

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The caption reads, in Hebrew and English, "And the children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased," a line from Exodus that appears on the facing page as part of the story of the Exodus.

Something about this photo (the hairstyle on the woman in the center?) reminded me of photos of my parents in the late 40s and early 50s -- and also of photos of those I grew up calling halutzim.

I flipped to the first page, and found an explanation. Here it is in English. (You can find the Hebrew version here on Flickr.) The haggadah turns out to be from 1954, the year my parents married.

The very fact that for the past seven hundred years, Jewish illuminators and printers have been able to illustrate the Haggada in terms of their own times and surroundings attests to its timelessness and its message for every age. In keeping with this tradition, this new edition of the Passover Haggada has been prepared, illustrated and printed in the State of Israel, in an era which has seen the New Exodus, the Ingathering of Exiles and the rebirth of the Jewish State. And it is only fitting that the eternal truth of this ancient and stirring narrative should be reaffirmed in terms of living pictures of our own land and the people of our own time.

What an artifact. Oh, those capital letters on the New Exodus and the Ingathering of Exiles! It feels soaked in hope, the way baklava or teiglach are soaked in honey or knafeh soaked in rose water.

Like many in their generation (they were young children when the Holocaust began), my parents believed completely in the dream of Israel -- as they believed completely in the dream of America.  

In written instructions for her funeral, my mother asked for "America the Beautiful" and "Jerusalem of Gold:" for the nation that took her in, and the Jewish state she felt privileged to have lived to see.

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Mid-century graphic design... and photo.

This haggadah makes me wistful for the optimism my parents felt both about Israel and about the U.S. -- even as I know that the stories they held dear aren't the whole story about either place. 

It's a complicated knot of feelings: missing my parents deeply, and remembering where we disagreed, and feeling grateful that they aren't here to see some of what's unfolding today both here and there. 

A haggadah is a ritual object, not a history book, though this one feels steeped in history. And that history feels sharp with heartbreak, as it has every day since Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah. 

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Had Gadya - a parable in song about all the nations who've tried to destroy us.

In Hebrew the name מִצְרָיִם / Mitzrayim is both a place (Egypt) , and a state of being. The root connotes narrowness or constriction. It's the same root as in the word tzuris, suffering or sorrow.

All of the people, and peoples, who love that land are in a Narrow Place now. I keep returning to lines from Psalm 118: "From constriction we cry out to You; God, answer us with Your expansiveness!"  

Imagine a future where all the peoples of that place can flourish side by side in mutual safety and human dignity. Where is the Moshe, the Musa, who could lead the way to that Land of Promise? 


Status Update

Dear Most of the Internet:
this is not the Superbowl
or the World Cup, so
wash the face paint off
your social media accounts.
Sit down with one of "them"
face to face, knees touching,
and listen to their losses.
Then do it again, open heart
becoming bruised like a peach.
This is called compassion:
feeling-with, the center
of feeling we call the heart
constantly vulnerable.
I don't want to hear anything
from people who mourn
only one set of children.
Likewise if your answer is
"get rid of all of them,"
go to the back of the line
and think about your choices.
Is your status update helping?
If not, go wash the dishes.
Or send a condolence note
to someone in your community
who just lost a parent. Or
practice on Duolingo
and get one word closer
to understanding
someone different from you.


In parallel

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"Other people don't know what it's like," someone said to me the other day. "Walking around with constant awareness of it all. Glued to my screen. I close my office door so I can cry. And most people here don't even know. The only people who seem to get it are people who have family there too."

I've had that conversation so many times. Most often, with Jews. I'm a rabbi, I serve a Jewish community, there's no surprise there. But I've had this conversation also with people who have beloveds in Gaza or the West Bank. Two diaspora communities carrying grief in parallel. 

Sorrow is not zero-sum. "Their" trauma doesn't cancel out "ours." There is more than enough to go around. It can be simultaneously true that Jews around the world are grieving and that Palestinians and Arabs around the world are grieving, all of us broken-hearted at once.

And there's a sense that others don't "get" why we're cloaked in grief. "The world doesn't care about our suffering or our deaths" is a refrain keenly-felt both by Jews and, as Abdelrahman ElGendy notes in today's Washington Post, by Arabs. Has grief become our most common ground?

A small cause for hope came to me from Aziz Abu Sarah in a message about Meet the Peace-Makers, a series of digital events featuring "women leaders in Israel and Palestine, building the peace movement from the ground up." It takes so much vision and courage to be a peace-builder in a time of war. 

My Arabic study has slowed to a trickle. I am scattered, forgetful, unable to hold new information. Most days I just review, trying not to lose what I've learned. I do not like running. I like reading and writing also. My friend is behind the house. A tiny way of holding fast to my values.

In the words of poet Naomi Shihab Nye, "It's late but everything comes next."

 


Feel

It's all right to feel distracted.
There's a war going on. Well, two.
Also an insurgency somewhere, plus
the uneasy sense that there must be
more conflict in places you can't name.
It's okay that one of these hurts
more than the others do. No one

can feel equally every worldly grief.
Maybe you know someone who is fighting
or someone who was killed. You're
a degree or two of separation from
the horrors of the front lines. Or
there are no front lines, horrors
are everywhere. You're allowed to feel

whatever you feel, including of course
sad, despairing, furious, alone
panic-stricken, unable to breathe, 
unable to sleep or maybe to wake up,
knowing how many will never wake again.
Groceries still need to be bought,
laundry washed, assignments completed.

You may stop stock-still at the sink
washing produce, seized suddenly
by awareness of everyone without water
or food to wash in it. Remember
grief is sticky, like tape attaching
to itself and refusing to pull free
so every sorrow re-opens every other.

I want to say: kindle one candle
and breathe with its light! Inside you
the tempests will settle. But this
may not be true. I can't promise when
the grief will end. Bring light anyway:
our souls are God's candles, even when
we're not sure we still know how to shine.


Encounters: Vayishlach 5784 / 2023

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There are two big spiritual encounters in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach. When the parsha begins Jacob is alone and afraid. He grapples with an angel all night. From that, he gets a new name, Yisrael, one who wrestles with God. (Gen. 32:29) (This is the origin of one of the names our people carries to this day: Yisrael, aka Godwrestlers.) Jacob calls the place where that happened Pni-El, “Face of God,” because of his encounter there with the Holy. (Gen 32:31

The other encounter is with Jacob’s twin brother Esav, whom he has not seen since they parted on lousy terms many years ago. Remember, Jacob (whose given name can be understood as “the Heel”) tricked their father into giving him the firstborn blessing meant for Esav. Then Jacob fled to escape his furious brother. But now, Esav falls on his neck and kisses him. And Jacob marvels aloud to Esav, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God!” (Gen. 33:10)

I love this. The stranger with whom he wrestled all night is a face of God. And his twin brother whom he had feared to meet again as an enemy… is also a face of God. It seems that Torah this week wants us to be thinking about seeing the face of God. Not only in those whom we instinctively like or trust, but also in those with whom we might grapple or struggle. Even those with whom we might be braced for enmity and violence – they too are faces of the One.

Unfortunately, that’s not usually where our sages take this. Esav gets associated with Rome – and knocking Edom (his descendants) becomes a coded way to bemoan the atrocities of Rome. Or: take that moment when he falls on Jacob’s neck. Our scribal tradition places dots over the word “he kissed him,” which Rashi (d. 1105) reads as a sign of Esav’s ambivalence. Midrash suggests Esav was going to bite him, like a vampire, until Jacob’s neck turned to marble!

The Sforno (d. 1549) wrote, “we live among the descendants of Esau: people who are arrogant, consider themselves invincible.” Medieval rabbis often regarded Christian Europe (where it was not great to be a Jew) as the spiritual descendants of Esav. The political realities of each era got read back into Torah. And the rabbis projected their anxiety about Jewish safety, and the trustworthiness of those whom they saw as fundamentally unlike us, onto Esav.

Our sages lived in times of antisemitism and persecution. They read Torah through what was happening around them. Unfortunately, we also live in a time of rising antisemitism, and it’s easy to retroject today’s news headlines into the Torah. Some connect Edom, Esav’s descendants, with the Palestinians. So does the Jacob-Esav encounter have wisdom for us about current events? It could. But the insight it offers is spiritual, not geopolitical, and it’s about… us. 

Torah doesn’t tell us whether Esav genuinely felt love for his brother at their reunion, or whether Esav secretly wanted to bite him in the neck. Torah also doesn’t tell us whether Jacob really saw the face of God in his brother, or whether he was lying through his teeth because that’s what he thought would keep him safe. We get to choose which interpretation we favor. Here’s why I think it’s spiritually valuable to choose to see both brothers positively, especially now.

Genesis is full of brothers fighting. Cain and Abel. Isaac and Ishmael. Jacob and Esav. Joseph and the rest of his brothers. All of those stories are, in a certain way, zero-sum. One brother lives, the other dies. One brother gets lifted up, the other gets kicked out. One brother ges the firstborn blessing, the other gets a curse. One gets a special coat – and then his angry brothers throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery. It’s a whole family tree of favoritism and fighting.

When we choose to see Jacob and Esav’s encounter as genuine, we’re saying: sibling rivalry isn’t the only option. We’re embracing hope for better. We’re affirming that we want to be on a trajectory toward mutual trust, seeing each other generously, creatively visioning a shared future that’s better than our past. We can’t change Torah, but we can change the story of now. Past doesn’t have to be prologue. We can write a different ending.

I read a d’var Torah this week by Rabbi Hannah Jensen called Jacob, Esau, and Jewish-Arab Partnership. She connects how we view Jacob and Esav with an ongoing pattern of “polarization and sides-taking in the name of protecting ourselves and our ‘people.’” I think of my friend and teacher R. Brad Hirschfield’s book You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right. We don’t have to live in a world of us-vs-them. We can make a different choice.

Letting go of us-vs-them might feel implausible, or unsafe, especially now. I get it. And, today is Shabbes. On this day when we live into the as-if, as-if the work of healing the world were complete, I invite us to broaden our imagination. Imagine a world where it’s not about which group “wins” – but rather a future that’s collaborative and cooperative, where the way to succeed is to lift others up. If we can imagine it, it doesn’t have to be a dream.

Jensen cites Sally Abed, co-founder of Standing Together, saying that the best way for us in America to support the Israeli people is to support the Palestinian people. I think she’s saying: it’s a false binary. One will flourish best when the other flourishes too. This doesn’t have to be motivated by altruism; it’s also enlightened self-interest. Spiritually, it’s good to seek the benefit of all. And practically, extremism loses power when everyone can thrive.

I find hope in organizations like Standing Together and Hand in Hand and Roots who teach coexistence instead of mistrust. I’ve started asking myself: whatever I’m about to do, or say, or argue, will it help people there who are trying to build coexistence? Or is it going to fuel the polarization, the zero-sum sense that only one people can “win”? Jacob and Esav didn’t figure out how to live side by side. But I still have hope that their spiritual descendants can.



This is the d'var Torah that I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires. (Cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)