On taking action and turning inward

Last night I made the mistake of checking Twitter before bed, and saw tweets from the president and from his lawyer blaming George Soros for ostensibly paying people to protest the Kavanaugh nomination. The tweets suggested that Soros is evil and should be jailed. (I'm not going to link to them; I don't want to give them the attention.)

The claim that Soros pays protestors is ugly falsehood and it has its roots in one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards about global Jewish conspiracy. I expect that all of you who are reading this blog already know that. I don't need to preach to this choir on that front. 

But maybe you, like me, are having a panic response to news like this. Intellectually I know that I am safe, that my child is safe, that most of the people I love are safe. But like most Jews of my generation, I grew up on stories of the Holocaust. And when ugly anti-Semitic rhetoric is parroted by the president and by his lawyer, I feel a paralyzing fear in my kishkes, in my gut and in my heart.

I suspect that many of us are feeling that fear. The casual dehumanizing of Jews and Muslims and immigrants and people of color and women that we see in the news and splashed across social media is horrifying. And many Jews carry the accumulated baggage of generations of trauma, including the horrors of the Holocaust, and seeing this stuff in the news and on social media can activate that trauma in us. That's why I'm writing this post. I have four suggestions to offer for how to navigate these difficult times. If you have others, please share them in comments.

1. Take care of yourselves and each other

Take care of yourselves, friends, and take care of each other. Give yourself permission to turn away from social media when you need to, because marinating in a constant bath of outrage and anxiety can do harm. If Twitter and Facebook are raising your anxiety and stoking your fear, it's okay to stop reading them for a while. 

If you have the capacity to reach out to others to see how they're doing, do that -- doing so can help both the person who's reaching out, and the person receiving the outreach. (For more wisdom along these lines, here's an excellent piece by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on self-care tips for those angered and activated at this moment in time.)

2. Reach out to someone who can help

If you have a therapist or spiritual director, bring the anxiety and fear to them. (If you don't, now might be a good time to find one.) Don't sit with the fear alone -- it's all too easy for fear to consume us when we grapple with it alone. Tell a friend or family member. If you have no one at all to whom you can speak about what you're going through, reach out to the crisis text line.

3. Speak out, when you can - especially when you yourself are not a target

Many of us are oscillating between times when we have the capacity to speak out against injustice, and times when we are activated / hurt / grieving and need others to speak out on our behalf. That night when I was activated by antisemitism, I found comfort in tweets from people who are not Jewish and yet were willing to stand up and say clearly that antisemitism is wrong and they won't stand for it. Like these:

Seeing their tweets (and others like them) brought me to tears of gratitude that someone who is not directly harmed by this particular wave of ugliness was willing to stand with us against it. And that reminds me that I need to be an upstander and do the same when ugliness is directed toward groups of which I am not a part, whether Muslims or immigrants or people of color.

4. Take action when you can - and turn inward when you need to

Sometimes taking action to build a better world can be balm for our aching hearts. We can donate to a candidate who inspires us or to a nonprofit that does work we find redemptive, or write an op-ed, or be a good ally and upstander on social media, or take groceries to a food pantry. And sometimes we're too activated by the news cycle even to do those things, and need to focus instead on regaining equilibrium. Each of us will know best when we're up to taking action, and when we need to focus inward and heal.

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The work of repairing our badly broken nation is not a sprint, it's a marathon. Or, to borrow a metaphor from Rabbi Danya, it's a relay race -- where we take turns handing off the baton to each other, so that when any one of us is unable to keep going, the work of moving forward continues. When we have the strength to keep going, it's incumbent on us to do so... and when we need to stop and rest and heal, may we find comfort in knowing that others are carrying the flame of justice and hope forward in our stead. 

 


Our job: to uphold and increase the light

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" וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם אֶחָֽד / And there was evening, and there was morning: a first day." (Genesis 1:5)


This poetic account of the beginnings of creation -- from the first verses of Bereshit, the opening of the Torah that we read each year at this season -- is the reason why Jewish days begin at sundown. When God began to create the heavens and the earth, there was chaos. God hovered over the face of the deep like a mother bird. And then God spoke light into being, and saw its goodness, and separated it from the darkness. And Torah teaches that "there was evening, and there was morning: a first day."

On the secular calendar, each new day begins at one minute after midnight when our clocks move from PM to AM, which is technically "morning." (I suspect that most of us think of each day beginning when we wake up in the morning.) But on the Jewish calendar, a new day begins with sundown. Erev Shabbat comes before Shabbes morning. Kol Nidre comes before Yom Kippur morning. Every Jewish "day" begins with evening. As in today's Torah verses, night comes before day.

There's always something poignant for me about reading these words as autumn approaches. I love the long days of summer and everything that they represent. I brace against Seasonal Affective Disorder as the days grow shorter. And every year Torah reminds me with these verses that night is part of the natural order of things -- and that it is the precursor to day. Dark will give way to light every day. Dark will give way to light in a bigger-picture sense as the round of the seasons continues to turn.

One of my spiritual tasks right now is cultivating faith that dark will give way to light in a psycho-spiritual sense, too. But psycho-spiritually, we can't count on the planet's natural orbit to bring us from darkness to light. We need to make that turn happen ourselves. God set the planets and stars on their paths of time and season, and the earth will continue to orbit the sun and to shift on its axis no matter what we do or don't do. But the task of increasing the world's spiritual light falls to humanity.

It is easy to feel, these days, that we are living in dark times. Every day brings a new outrage. (I could list them for you. I expect each of us could make our own list.) Faced with injustices both large and small, it would be easy to despair.

Our task is to resist that impulse toward despair. Instead we're called to kindle and nurture light in the darkness: the light of integrity, the light of hope, the light of justice.  Because unlike the light of the sun, which will return no matter what we do, the light of justice needs our protection and our effort. The light of justice can easily be hidden, or diminished, or even extinguished. Our job is to protect it as it burns, and to ensure that its shining can reach every place that's in need of its radiance. 

And every place is so in need of that radiance. 

Today is Shabbat. Today we live in the "as if" -- as if injustice and corruption and cruelty and prejudice and despair were things of the past. And tonight at sundown when we begin a new day, it will be time to take action again, in whatever ways we can. Tonight at sundown it becomes our job again to build a world of greater justice and hope and compassion. Tonight at sundown it becomes our job again to nurture and protect justice and integrity. When the world around us is dark, it's our job to be a light. 

Later this fall, Bayit: Your Jewish Home will launch a new initiative we're calling #BeALight. We'll invite participants to make havdalah, kindling the multi-wicked candle that evokes our souls coming together in community. And we'll invite participants to emerge from Shabbat's restorative sweetness by taking a concrete step toward building a better world. Though that project hasn't officially launched, I invite us to think about what we could do tonight after havdalah to bring more light into the world. 

In this week's Torah portion everything begins again. In a sense that's a once-a-year phenomenon. But it's also a weekly phenomenon, as havdalah gives us the chance to start each week anew. It can even be a daily phenomenon: in Mary Oliver's poetic words, "Every morning the world is created..." As our liturgy teaches, every morning our souls are given back to us, clean and clear for the new day. So what will we do with our souls, with our selves, with our hearts as we begin again and again?

Tonight at sundown we'll begin again, and the work of kindling and protecting the light of justice will be in our hands. What will we do in the new week to uphold and promote and share that light?

 

This is the d'varling I offered from the bimah at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 

Image source: eagleinthestorm.


A whirlwind visit to Oberlin coming soon

Oberlin
Next week I'm heading to Oberlin College for a whirlwind one-day visit that will include a lunch with Oberlin College Hillel, an afternoon psalm-writing workshop, and a poetry reading. All three of these are taking place on Tuesday, October 9. 

If you're nearby, I hope you'll join us. The poetry reading is at 8pm on October 9 in Hallock Auditorium and dessert will be provided -- learn more and RSVP on Facebook

Deep thanks to Rabbi Megan Doherty for inviting me! I'm looking so forward to meeting everyone there and to sharing some Torah and some poetry with that community. 


Seven songs

1.

Such abundance! Sunlight streaming
golden as chicken soup, rain
that comes in its season, profusion
of produce at the farmer's market,
the way our hearts spill over
when we see someone we love, the way
Your heart flows to each of us.

 

2.

Bless boundaries. Bless the chutes
that control the flood, the walls
that protect from harm. Bless
integrity holding firm.
Bless the strength to stand tall
even in the face of storms:
to bend, and not to break.

 

3.

Balance us, God, like angels
dancing on the head of a pin.
Sing with us in harmony
and let our voices become more
than the sum of their parts.
When we match kindness with justice
the beauty takes my breath away.

 

4.

Because we wake every morning
and start again. Because in
putting one foot in front of the next
we learn and relearn how to walk
in Your ways. Because nothing
worth doing comes easy. Because
when we keep going, we aim toward You.

 

5.

No more than our place, no less
than our space: when we manage that,
we shine with the sun's own splendor.
Remind us that we are cloaked in skin
but made of light. Remind us
that through our best actions
Your glory shines, Majestic One.

 

6.

Our roots stretching deep.
Our foundations. Our generations.
Our teachers. Our drive to create.
Our students. Our readiness to open
our hands and let Torah through.
Our lives the foundries where we shape
our tradition into something new.

 

7.

Where heaven meets earth, where I
meet you, where reality meets redemption
we dance like the psalmist, exulting.
Our eyes well up with a mother's joy:
look, all of our exiled parts
ingathered beneath this leafy roof,
safe beneath the wings of Shechinah.

 


These poems were commissioned by Temple Beth-El of City Island, and were first heard aloud there last night at their Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah celebration.

Written to accompany the seven hakafot (circle dances with the Torah), they map to the seven "lower" sefirot: chesed (lovingkindness), gevurah (boundaries and strength), tiferet (balance and harmony), netzach (endurance), hod (humble splendor), yesod (roots and foundation) and malchut (Shechinah.)


First Build

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We’re all stardust, re-mixed chemical elements forged in some distant supernova.  We’re all broken shards, fallen from the primordial shattering. We’re all reflected light, glimmering with the Source of Light.  We’re all builders, making and re-making the world one brick and one breath at a time.

Whatever your metaphor for who we are and what we do, your metaphor probably grounds in the foundation of some first principle – some First Build of mind and identity.

For us at Bayit, our first principle is that we – us and you – are builders of the Jewish future.  So this year, for a whole year, we’ll mine Torah’s wisdom for lessons about building and builders.

As the Torah cycle begins anew with Parshat Bereishit, we begin as Torah begins – with the primordial building story that is the Creation at Torah’s very beginning (“a very good place to start“).  One translation opens, “When God began to create heaven and earth, the land was a jumbled mess, with darkness on the face of the deep.  And the spirit of God hovered…” (Gen. 1:1-2).  Then came light, sky, sea, land, vegetation, stars, sun and moon, fish and birds, land creatures and first humans – a primordial building of sorts.

Reading this Creation story through a builder’s lens, we needn’t be architects or contractors to find a master plan for how to build.  Here are seven foundation principles for building the Jewish future...

 

This week we're reading parashat Bereshit -- the first portion in the Torah -- and we're launching a new series on Builders Blog. Each week a different person will share thoughts on the weekly Torah portion, drawing out themes of building. Our first installment comes from Rabbi David Markus, and it's a gorgeous post about seven principles for builders (enriched by sketchnotes from builder Steve Silbert!) Read it here: First Build: Seven Foundation Principles for Spiritual Builders


Small scenes from a sukkah

I got a new sukkah this year.

A simple white metal frame.

Three canvas walls with windows in them. 

Cornstalks overhead, twined with autumnal garlands.

 

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In the mornings, when it is not raining, I sit here

and watch the morning light move across the valley.

Sometimes I sing the psalms of Hallel.

Sometimes I sip coffee. 

 

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During the afternoon I listen to the wind rustle the cornstalks

and the tinsel garlands overhead.

Every now and then I listen to a small plane overhead,

or a flock of geese.

 

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As afternoon gives way to evening, 

the sky goes through its rapid costume change.

If I'm paying attention at the right moment

I can see it happen.

 

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Once evening falls

the sukkah gleams

on my mirpesset,

a little house filled with light.

 


Six values for building the Jewish future

Unnamed...It’s not only “do it yourself” (DIY) Judaism, but that there’s no other Judaism except DIY.  The Jewish call is the call to do.  “All” are called to “make” Shabbat (Ex. 31:16); same for tzitzit (Num. 15:38); same for a sukkah.  To Rabbi David Ingber, “We need a Judaism with calluses on its hands and dirt under its fingers.”  Essentially, we need a Judaism with builders’ hands.

That’s our first principle: we’re all builders.  In Talmud’s words, “and all Your children will be … builders” (B.T. Berakhot 64a).  Everything we do must inspire and support the universal call to build, the experience that is the foundation of Jewish life....

That's from a new post by Rabbi David Markus at Bayit's Builders Blog. Our work is driven by the principles of radical inclusion, "backwards compatibility," listening to "non-experts," rotating leadership, designing to be "crash-flex," and keeping our feet firmly on the ground.

Read more: Keystone values for building the Jewish future.

(And thanks to builder Steve Silbert for the sketchnote!)


Dear survivors: I see you, and I believe you.

Il_340x270-1432392392_j7leThis post may be triggering for survivors of rape and sexual abuse. If that is you, please guard your boundaries carefully.

 

So many of the women I know -- my friends, my loved ones, my congregants, my colleagues -- are survivors of rape or sexual assault. It's everywhere. It's an invisible epidemic that is only now beginning to come to light. 

And right now the national news is so saturated with it that all of those women are navigating trauma all over again.

From a president who bragged about grabbing women by our private parts, to a potential Supreme Court justice now multiply accused of sexual assault, to Jian Ghomeshi's recent essay, to a long list of actors and comedians and public figures accused of sexual misconduct: our discourse is consumed by conversation about the damage that women endure.

Encountering this subject everywhere can be re-traumatizing for victims of rape and sexual assault. Making matters worse, the public sphere is full of argument about whether or not to believe women when we take the risk of telling the truth about the harm done to us. The excuses, the gas-lighting, and the victim-blaming compound the trauma and the damage. 

I simmer with constant low-grade nausea and grief and rage about this. This moment in time is so hard for my friends and loved ones, congregants and colleagues, who are survivors. This moment in time is hard for me.

One woman who is dear to me tweeted recently, "My body is on hyper alert, absorbed with past experiences, and I wonder - how many of us are just battling to stay upright right now?"

Dear survivors who are reading this: I see you and my heart goes out to you.

I believe you.

I believe you, and I see that you are hurting now. I see you struggling to get through the day, I see you unable to sleep or plagued by nightmares, I see your body clenched and on hyper alert. 

I recognize that you can't take a sick day from work just because the current news cycle is constantly triggering you. I recognize that re-activated trauma may be slowing you down, making ordinary things difficult, making every day a struggle.

I am sorry beyond words for what you endured, and for what you are enduring now as the national news cycle thrusts these subjects into your awareness again and again.

I also see that you are more than your victimhood, and I honor that, too.

Dear survivors who are reading this: please don't carry this burden alone. Post-rape PTSD is real and is deeply damaging. There are some suggestions in the article How to Cope with Rape-Related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I can offer anecdotal support for the positive benefits of several of the items on that list. I hope that you have (or will seek) a trustworthy therapist, ideally one trained in helping survivors navigate these issues. You might also seek a support group, so that you aren't alone.

(There's an excellent list of Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors and Their Loved Ones online at RAINN.)

*

I pray that something good will come out of this moment's painful focus on rape and sexual assault.

May we shift the broader culture so that the women's voices, experiences, and bodily integrity will be honored. 

May we teach our children about active consent, and may we relegate "boys will be boys" and "this is just how men behave" to the trash. Boys and men can and should be better than this.

And may all who are survivors of rape and sexual assault find healing.

 


What the labyrinth helps us see

40065048_10155360643331330_2440611845942280192_nA few weeks ago, while the Al and Frances Small Memorial Labyrinth was still under construction, my eight year old son was with me at synagogue and ran outside to explore it. He immediately wanted to walk its spiraling path. And I asked him whether he knew what made a labyrinth different from a maze.

He thought about it for a moment, and then said, "You can't get lost in it."

He's right. A maze is designed to confound and confuse. Think of the hedge mazes on elaborate European estates, or the placemat mazes that challenge you to draw a path from entry to exit without lifting your pen. A labyrinth is something else entirely.

In a labyrinth, there's only one path. It goes all the way in, and then you turn the other way and it goes all the way back out. The purpose of a labyrinth isn't to see whether you can figure out where you're going, because there's only one footpath. The purpose of a labyrinth is to attune you to where you're going, and how you're going, and how the path twists and turns.

As some of you have seen, we have a beautiful new meditation labyrinth outside our sanctuary. It was designed by Lars Howlett, a professional labyrinth designer -- yes, that's an actual profession -- who came to CBI and walked our land and selected a shape that is suited to our grounds. Deepest thanks to Bill Riley for transferring the design to the ground, to Valerie Ross and Josh Goodell of New England Lawn and Garden Care for stonework and installation, and to Cheryl Small for her generosity.

Our labyrinth has seven circuits, which is a traditional shape for Jewish labyrinths. Seven is a meaningful number in Judaism: the seven days of creation. There are seven colors in the rainbow. There are seven qualities that we and God share, which we meditate on and cultivate during the seven weeks of the Counting of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot -- and some of us do this during the seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah, too. In a Jewish wedding, the partners make seven circuits around each other, and we hear seven blessings. At a Jewish funeral, the pallbearers pause seven times en route to the grave.

Some look at our labyrinth and see the Tree of Life, another one of our tradition's great metaphors for divinity: we enter at the roots and walk all the way into the crown. Some look at our labyrinth and see the crenellations of the human brain. All of this informed the design of our labyrinth.

A labyrinth serves to remind us to pay attention to the journey, not the destination. If I wanted to reach the center of the labyrinth quickly I could walk across, from one stepping-stone to the next, directly inward. Four or five big steps and I'd be there. But that defeats the purpose. It's not about how quickly I can get there. It's about the feeling of my feet on the pavement, and how the view changes as I move along the path. It's about how sometimes it feels like my goal is tantalizingly close, and then the path swerves and I'm heading in an entirely different direction from what I expected. It's about surrendering to the journey.

I have to pay attention to where my feet go on the path, and that serves to mostly keep me in the moment, in this place, in this here-and-now. And even if I can see the journey's end when I begin it -- even if I lift up my eyes and see the switchbacks and turns that await me before I reach the center -- I don't know how it will feel to walk the path until I actually do it. And I don't know how walking it this time might feel different from walking it that time.

A meditation labyrinth is an embodied metaphor for spiritual life -- for all of life, because all of life is spiritual whether or not we call it so. Here are four things that our labyrinth keeps teaching me:

1) How we get there is as important as where we are going.

2) Every journey has unexpected twists and turns. We may think we're headed in one direction -- a job, a marriage, a happily-ever-after -- and then it turns out we're headed somewhere entirely different.

This is true not only on an individual level, but a collective one.  Of course, on a national level the metaphor breaks down, because we aren't locked in to a single labyrinthine path. But the emotional experience of being an American these last few years has felt a little bit like walking the labyrinth -- wait, you mean we're going this way? -- and it demands some of the same patience as walking the labyrinth. There are no short-cuts to the center. The only way to get where we need to go is to keep on walking.

3) The labyrinth reminds us that we can't hold still. Everything passes. Sometimes this is grief-inducing: I'm so happy right now, and I never want that to go away, but I know that it will. And sometimes it's a profound relief: I'm in the narrow straits of despair right now, but I know I won't be here forever. But if we work at it, we can learn to draw comfort from the fact that everything changes.

4) What we see depends on where we are. In a physical sense, this means that our view changes depending on how much of the labyrinth we've walked: we're gazing at the mountains, no, at the gazebo, no, at the wetland, no, at the shul. In a metaphysical sense it's equally true.

Yom Kippur is like a labyrinth. You can't get lost in it: there's only one path through. It began last night and it will end tonight. Over the first half of the day we're moving ever deeper in, and over the second half of the day we're moving slowly back out again.

It's the same path every year. We start with Kol Nidre. We end with that final tekiah gedolah. In between we reach the same touchstones, the same stories and Torah readings and prayers.

And every time we walk it, we are different. We bring the sum total of our life experiences to Yom Kippur, and every year we have grown and changed since the year before.

If you think about Yom Kippur in terms of where it "gets you," it may not seem like much of a destination. It's not a cruise or an adventure, a birth or a wedding or a promotion. But if you think of Yom Kippur as an opportunity to see yourself more clearly, then it's an entirely different kind of journey.

After our closing song we'll break until 3pm when we'll gather for contemplative practice, followed at 4-ish by mincha and a talk from Hazzan Randall, followed at 6:30 by Ne'ilah, our closing service. I hope that some of you will choose to stick around, or to return early, or to take advantage of the break before or after mincha -- so that you can walk the steps of our beautiful new labyrinth, and see what unfolds in you on this holiest of days and most beautiful of places. May the rest of your Yom Kippur be meaningful and sweet.

 

This year my shul's theme for the Days of Awe is Vision. My sermons reflect and refract that theme in different ways. This isn't one of my three formal sermons, but it touches on the theme even so.

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


What death helps us see: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

DeathThis is not my beautiful sermon. (Do you know that Talking Heads song? "You may ask yourself, how did I get here? ... You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife." Well: this is the time of year for asking ourselves, how did I get here? And this is not my beautiful sermon.)

I wrote a beautiful sermon for Yom Kippur morning. I started it weeks ago. It's clean, and clear, and polished. It's about the lenses we wear, the habits and perspectives and narratives that shape our view of the world. It's about how this is the time of year for recognizing our lenses and cleaning them, and how that's the work of teshuvah. It fit perfectly with this year's theme of Vision. I spent hours tinkering with it, reading it out loud, refining every phrase.

And then last week I threw it away. Because it doesn't feel urgent. And if there is anything that I can say with certainty, it is that this is a day for paying attention to what's urgent.

I spoke last year about how Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal for our death. I spoke about the instruction to make teshuvah, to turn our lives around, the day before we die. Of course, none of us knows when we will die: so we need to make teshuvah every day.

There are all kinds of spiritual practices for that. Before sleep each night we can go back over the events of the day, and discern where we could have done better, and cultivate gratitude for the day's gifts, and make a conscious effort to let go of the day's grudges and missteps. I try to do those things, most nights. And precisely because I try to do those things every day, they don't feel especially urgent, either. They're part of my routine soul-maintenance, the spiritual equivalent of brushing my teeth.

If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what sermon would you want to hear from me today? Okay, in fairness, if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, you might not be in synagogue today. But humor me. Imagine that somehow, against all odds, you received a message from the Universe that tomorrow you were going to die. What would you want to spend today thinking about, and feeling, and doing? If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what might you suddenly see?

If I knew I were going to die tomorrow, I would want to spend today telling everyone that I love exactly how much I love them. I would lavish my child with all the love I could manage. I would hug my friends. I would call my parents and my siblings. I would write endless love letters to people who matter to me, and I would tell them in no uncertain terms that they are beautiful, extraordinary, luminous human beings and that I am grateful for them to the ends of the earth and beyond.

That tells me that once I remove my ordinary lenses and look at the world as though this moment could be my last, one of the things that matters to me is my capacity to love.

Continue reading "What death helps us see: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning" »


The awe of being seen: a sermon for Kol Nidre

SeenIt was four in the morning on Shavuot in the year 5770, also known as 2010. I was on retreat at Isabella Freedman, a Jewish retreat center in northern Connecticut. My son was seven months old.

My deepest regret, going on that retreat, was that I knew I wouldn't be able to hear Reb Zalman (z"l) teach. He was slated to teach at four in the morning, the last slot before dawn. And I had spent the last nine months not sleeping. There was no way I was staying up that late (or waking up that early), even to hear Reb Zalman.

But it turned out that my son didn't like the portacrib at the retreat center, and he woke up every hour all night long. By four, I had given up. I put him in the stroller. I rolled him over to the building where Reb Zalman was teaching. I draped a tallit over the stroller to make it dark in his little cave. And I rolled him in slow circles around the back of the room. While he slept, I listened to the teacher of my teachers as he taught until dawn.

Once, said Reb Zalman, there was a Sufi master who had twenty disciples. Each of his disciples wanted to succeed him as leader of their lineage. So one day he gave them each a live bird in a small cage. He told them to go someplace where no one could see them, and there to kill their bird, and then to return to him when their work was complete.

Some time later, nineteen of them came back with dead birds. The twentieth came back with a live bird still in its cage.

"Why didn't you kill your bird?" asked the Sufi master.

"I tried to do as you asked," said the student. "But no matter where I went, I couldn't find a place where no One could see me."

Of course, that was the student who deserved to lead the community: the one who knew that God is always present, and always sees us.

That, said Reb Zalman, is the meaning of יראה/ yirah, "awe" or "fear of God." Yirah means knowing that God is our רואה / roeh, the One Who sees us. It means knowing that we are always seen.

Continue reading "The awe of being seen: a sermon for Kol Nidre " »


When (not) to forgive

Do-not-symbol "Rabbi, is it ever okay not to forgive?"

That question comes my way every year around this season. (I've written about this before.) I find that it is asked most often by women, who may face (as women, and as Jews) a double whammy of cultural messages instructing us to be forgiving even at our own expense. But people across the gender spectrum struggle with this question. 

Many of us know the teaching from Rambam (in his Hilchot Teshuvah, "Laws of Repentance / Return") that when someone has wronged another person, the one who committed the wrong must make teshuvah and seek forgiveness, and the one who was wronged is obligated to forgive. "Obligated" is a strong word. Is it ever okay, Jewishly, not to forgive?

Short answer: yes. Yes, Jewishly speaking, there are times when it is ok not to extend forgiveness.  Longer answer: when the person who wronged you has not made teshuvah (more in a minute abut what that means, and what is implied therein) not only are you not obligated to forgive them, but one could even make the case that granting forgiveness in that circumstance is forbidden. Because if you were to forgive under that circumstance, without their teshuvah, your forgiveness would give cover to the unethical behavior not only of harming you in the first place, but also of choosing not to make teshuvah.

A reminder: teshuvah, which is often translated as "repentance," comes from the root that means turning or turning-around. Teshuvah is the work of turning oneself around, turning oneself in the right direction again, turning over a new leaf, re/turning to God and to the state of righteousness to which we are all expected to aspire. When we miss the mark in our relationship with God, we can make teshuvah and repair the broken relationship. When we miss the mark in our relationships with each other, we can make teshuvah and (maybe) repair the broken relationship. Repair may not be up to us. But our own teshuvah work is.

Here's Rabbi David J. Blumenthal, in his essay Is Forgiveness Necessary?

If the offender has done teshuvah, and is sincere in his or her repentance, the offended person should offer mechilah; that is, the offended person should forgo the debt of the offender, relinquish his or her claim against the offender. This is not a reconciliation of heart or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender no longer owes me anything for whatever it was that he or she did. Mechilah is like a pardon granted to a criminal by the modern state. The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven.

The tradition, however, is quite clear that the offended person is not obliged to offer mechilah if the offender is not sincere in his or her repentance and has not taken concrete steps to correct the wrong done...

The principle that mechilah ought to be granted only if deserved is the great Jewish "No" to easy forgiveness. It is core to the Jewish view of forgiveness, just as desisting from sin is core to the Jewish view of repentance. Without good grounds, the offended person should not forgo the indebtedness of the sinner; otherwise, the sinner may never truly repent and evil will be perpetuated. And, conversely, if there are good grounds to waive the debt or relinquish the claim, the offended person is morally bound to do so. This is the great Jewish "Yes" to the possibility of repentance for every sinner.

If the person who wronged you has done teshuvah and is sincere in their repentance, then tradition asks you to forgive. But that's a big 'if.' How can you tell if the person's teshuvah is sincere? My own answer relies on a combination of factors. For starters, the person who wronged you has to actually apologize (and I mean a real apology.) Ideally that apology should feel sincere to you. But the person's subsequent actions are of greater importance. Saying sorry isn't enough: they also have to take concrete steps to correct the wrong, and they have to show with their actions and their choices that they have changed. 

One rubric says that we can tell if teshuvah is genuine when the person making teshuvah has the opportunity to commit the same misdeed as before, but this time makes a different choice. (That's Rambam again.) Imagine that I harmed you physically by driving over your foot. I would need to not only apologize to you for hurting you, and do what I could to correct the wrong (giving you an aspirin, or perhaps a pair of steel-toed boots?), but also, the next time I was driving my car near where your foot was resting, I'd need to notice your foot, make a conscious choice not to drive over it, and then follow through with that choice. 

But if my apology to you felt insincere -- "Whatever, you're overreacting but I'm sorry you're upset" -- you would be under no obligation to forgive me for the harm. And if I didn't do what I could to make up for having driven over your foot, ditto. And if I didn't take steps to ensure that I never drive over your foot again, ditto all the more. (It's a ridiculous example, I realize. I use it because it lets me illustrate the principle I want to communicate, without getting into the kinds of hypotheticals that might evoke or re-activate the interpersonal traumas that bring people to me with these questions about forgiveness in the first place.)

If someone has harmed you -- whether in body, heart, mind, or spirit -- and they come to you seeking forgiveness, you're allowed to take the time you need to discern 1) whether their apology is genuine, and 2) whether they have done all that they could to remedy the damage, and 3) whether they have done the internal work of becoming a person who would no longer harm you in that same way given the opportunity to do so again. If the answer to any of those questions is no -- and kal v'chomer (all the more so) if they don't apologize in the first place -- then you are not obligated to forgive them for harming you.

Emotionally and spiritually, pay attention to what your heart and soul are saying. If your heart and soul resist the idea of forgiving someone, discern whether that resistance is a case of holding on to an old resentment that you'd be better off releasing -- or whether it's a case of healthy self-protection. If offering forgiveness would serve you, then I support that. But Jewish tradition does not require us to re-inscribe the harm done to us by forgiving our abusers. And as Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg notes in her excellent twitter thread on this, the person who needs to repent can do so whether or not the person they harmed forgives.

And on that note... here's a Prayer for those not ready for forgive by my friend and colleague Rabbi Jill Zimmerman.

G'mar chatimah tovah: may we all be sealed for goodness in the year to come.

 


Revising the poem: a d'varling for Shabbat Shuvah

Poemוְעַתָּ֗ה כִּתְב֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את וְלַמְּדָ֥הּ אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שִׂימָ֣הּ בְּפִיהֶ֑ם

Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths... (Deut. 31:19)

וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַֽיְלַמְּדָ֖הּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

That day, Moses wrote down this poem and taught it to the Israelites. (Deut. 31:22)

 

These are two verses from this week's Torah portion, Vayeilech.

The classical commentators have various theories on what it means that Moshe wrote down "this poem." Does that mean that on that day, Moshe wrote down the entire Torah? Does it mean that he wrote down some specific fragment of Torah, from this verse to that verse, but not the whole thing? I admire their commitment to detail. But what strikes me is the fact that Moshe uses the word poem in the first place.

To be sure, there are portions of Torah that are clearly poetry. Some of them are even written on the scroll in unusual ways -- like the Song at the Sea, a very ancient poem that is written in an interlaced pattern that evokes brickwork, or perhaps the waves of the sea. But over the course of this week's Torah portion, Moshe refers to what he's saying sometimes as a Torah, which we could translate as a Teaching; and sometimes as a שירה / shirah, which is the Hebrew word for poem.

Moshe seems to be saying that the entire Torah is, in some way, a poem.

When I was a chaplaincy student, during my first year of rabbinical school, I learned to think of hospital room visits as opportunities to encounter the "living document" of a human soul, the Torah of our lived human experience. Each life is a Torah, and delving in to the meanings we find in our lives is a kind of Torah study.

Of course, our tradition mirrors that metaphor in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which describes the Book of Memory opening. That Book "reads from itself and the signature of every human being is in it." We write the Book of Memory with our every choice, our every action, our every word.

Moshe says the Torah is a poem. And my chaplaincy supervisor taught that each human life is a Torah, a book that we write with our actions and our choices, worthy of study. From these two teachings, I come to the inescapable conclusion that each human life is, therefore, a poem.

Here's a thing I know about poetry: it benefits from revision.

We live in linear time, which means we can't revise the actions and choices we made yesterday -- we can't go back in time and edit out the things we now regret having said or done, or left unsaid or undone. But we can revise ourselves. We can revise our habits and our hearts. Indeed: that's precisely what the work of teshuvah is about.

If there were ever a time to look at the poem of our lives and figure out where we need to revise and reshape, now is that time. It's Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return. I want to offer an alternative name for this Shabbes, in keeping with our Vision theme for the Days of Awe this year: the Shabbat of Revision. Re-Vision: seeing ourselves anew. Revising ourselves into a new form. That's the work of teshuvah, and it is always open to us.

The poem of your life is in your hands. How will you revise yourself this year?

 

Teshuvah

God and I collaborate
on revising the poem of Rachel.

I decide what needs polishing,
what to preserve and what to lose;

God reads my draft with pursed lips.
If I really mean it, God

sings a new song, one strong
as stone and serene as silk.

I want this year’s poem
to be joyful. I want this year’s poem

to be measured like flour,
to burn like sweet dry maple.

I want every reader
to come away more certain

that transformation is possible. 
I’d like holiness

to fill my words
and my empty spaces.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

who will be a haiku and who
a sonnet, who needs meter

and who free verse, who an epic
and who a single syllable.

If I only get one sound
may it be yes, may I be One.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) The poem was written in 2004 and can be found here, along with my other new years' poems.

 


A Vision of Better: now in video

A few folks asked whether there is a video or audio recording of my sermon from Rosh Hashanah morning

Here's video (and audio) -- taken from the synagogue's Facebook Live stream, so the quality isn't fantastic, but I'm happy to share.

 

 

(If you can't see the embedded video, you can go directly to it here.)

May our journey through these Ten Days of Teshuvah clarify our vision and strengthen us to do our work in the world.


A vision of better: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning 5779

Better

There's a meme going around the internet -- maybe you've seen it -- that says, "if you want to know what you would have done during the Civil Rights movement, you're doing it now." 

I'm too young to remember Black people being harrassed and beaten for sitting at a lunch counter, or the Freedom Riders risking their lives by riding interstate buses into the segregated south. 

But in the last few months we've seen migrant children ripped from their parents and imprisoned in cages, and some of their parents have been deported with no apparent plan for reuniting the families thus destroyed. There's a referendum on our ballot in Massachusetts this November that would strip rights from transgender people. There's mounting fear that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. We've seen attacks on the freedom of the press, widespread attempts at voter suppression, and actual Nazis running for Congress.

If I want to know what I would have done during the Civil Rights movement, I'm doing it now. So what am I doing now? Too often the answer is "nothing" -- I'm overwhelmed by the barrage of bad news. Many of you have told me you feel the same way, paralyzed by what feel like assaults on liberty, justice, and even hope.  So much is broken: it's overwhelming.

So much is broken. It's overwhelming. There's no denying that.

But one of the dangers of overwhelm is that we become inured to what we see. It becomes the status quo. Police violence against people of color, business as usual. Islamophobia and antisemitism, business as usual. Discrimination against trans and queer people, refugee children torn from their parents, xenophobic rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of government: business as usual. It's so easy to shrug and say, that's the new normal. And it's easy to turn away, because who wants to look with clear eyes at a world so filled with injustice?

Many of you have heard me quote the poet Jason Shinder z"l, with whom I worked at Bennington when I was getting my MFA. He used to say, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." If the overwhelm of today's news cycle is getting in the way of the spiritual work we need to do, then it becomes the doorway into that spiritual work.

Because the real question is, what are we going to do about it? How does this season of the Jewish year invite us to work with this overwhelm?

Continue reading "A vision of better: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning 5779" »


Sweet

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In the produce section
late peaches bump hips
with early apples

all of them blushing.
Summer and fall kiss
and then part, but

one of these days
summer's going to decide
it's time to let fall

spread its robe...
Where the seasons meet
the new year crowns.

Crisp apple slices bathe
in honey, liquid gold
like Torah's highest song.

May we all merit
this unabashed sweetness
replete and satisfied.

 


 

[L]et fall spread its robe... See Ruth 3:9

Crisp apple slices bathe / in honey... A traditional food for the new year among many Ashkenazi Jews.

Torah's highest song... During the Days of Awe, the Torah is chanted with a special cantillation. The melody lilts and lifts, bringing heart and soul with it.

 

L'shanah tovah u'm'tukah -- here's to a good and sweet year.


Op-ed in the Berkshire Eagle: on protecting transgender rights and dignity

Postcardside1smallforwebThanks to the Berkshire Eagle for publishing my op-ed: Protect transgender rights and dignity.

For those who can't get to the digital edition, I'm reprinting the op-ed here on my blog.

 

NORTH ADAMS — On Election Day this November, voters in Massachusetts will encounter a referendum on our state law that protects transgender people from discrimination and harassment in public places. A "yes" vote on Question 3 would uphold current law, which means transgender people would maintain the rights and dignity to which they are now legally entitled. A "no" vote on 3 would repeal current law, leaving transgender people vulnerable to discrimination in public places such as restaurants, stores, and hospitals.

As a rabbi, I'm horrified at the prospect of a repeal. I'm voting "yes" on 3 because I have transgender congregants, friends, and loved ones. Because repeal — denying transgender people's rights and dignity — would be counter to the religious values I hold dear. And because repeal would set precedent for the rest of the country, and would embolden bigotry in many forms.

Jewish tradition teaches that we are all made in the divine image. Judaism doesn't understand God to have a physical form (nor, for that matter, a singular gender; we speak of the Divine in terms that are masculine, feminine, and gender-neutral). We can glimpse the "divine image" through humanity's diversity of shapes and sizes, races, sexual orientations, and gender expressions. And because we're all made in the divine image, Judaism teaches that human rights and dignity are everyone's birthright.

My tradition also teaches that one reason why we trace human ancestry back to a single first person is so that no one should be able to say "my ancestors were better than yours" (or, its corollary, "I'm better than you"— or "I deserve to be served in this restaurant while you do not.") My religious values call me to proclaim the inherent rights and dignity of trans people.

Of course, given appropriate division between church (or synagogue) and state, I shouldn't expect any state to legislate based on my religious values. But the secular values we share as Americans also demand a "yes" vote on Question 3. All should be entitled to equal treatment under the law, regardless of gender identity. And all should have the right to be safe from discrimination and harassment in public places: no matter whether we are cisgender or transgender, no matter what our gender expression, no matter what pronouns we prefer.

This matters especially for transgender youth, including those who identify as nonbinary. I want to be able to truthfully tell transgender kids that we see them, and we value them, and we uplift and uphold them in all that they are. I want to be able to promise transgender kids that they will continue to be treated with dignity in coffee shops and movie theaters and doctors' offices, and that they can be who they are in the public sphere without fear. I want to be able to assure transgender kids that we who are old enough to vote will not strip away the protections to which current law entitles them.

I'm thankful to live in a state where people of all gender identities are protected from discrimination. Let's keep it that way. Join me in voting "yes" on 3 in November, and uphold human dignity for all.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams. She is a founding builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home. 


Building the Jewish future together

 

Unnamed-1It’s an audacious idea – that a Jewish future needs to be built, or that we (or anyone) can claim the inner wisdom, the know-how, the tools, the chutzpah and even the right to do the building.

But if you’re reading this post, you’re part of that team – a growing circle of builders taking the Jewish future into your own hands.  Because let’s face it: the Jewish future is in your hands.

This call to build isn’t a risk-averse negative – like shrill sirens wailing alarmist warnings of the “ever-disappearing Jew” – but rather a welcoming and realistic positive.  The Jewish future will be exactly what people make it – nothing more and nothing less – so why not focus on the realities of building and builders?

That’s exactly what we aim to do.  Welcome to Bayit: Your Jewish Home.

That's from the first post on Bayit's new blog, Builders Blog, written by my fellow founding builder R' David Markus. Read the whole thing: You're Building the Jewish Future -- Yes, You. (Illustration by builder Steve Silbert.)


What we choose to serve

Whodoweservesmall3Late in this week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, there's a set of blessings and curses. Torah promises us that if we follow the mitzvot and walk in God's ways we will be blessed with abundance, and if we turn away we will experience curses. And then Torah says:

Because you would not serve Adonai your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything, you shall have to serve -- in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything -- the enemies whom Adonai will let loose against you. (Deuteronomy 28:47-48.)

Some of us may struggle with the notion of a vengeful God Who would repay us for breaking faith in these ways. (That's certainly not my God-concept.) But what happens if we read the verse not prescriptively but descriptively? In other words: this isn't about what God will "do to us" if we turn away from the mitzvot. This is about the natural consequences of choosing to turn away from a path of holiness.

Does the idea of serving make us uncomfortable? Maybe we want to say, I'm nobody's servant -- I live for my own self! But in Torah's frame, that's an impossibility. Once we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm: not so that we could be self-sufficient and serve our own needs, but so that we could enter into covenant with God and serve the Holy One.

Everyone serves something. That's a fact of human life. The question is what we will choose to serve, and how.

In Torah's understanding, either we can dedicate our lives to serving the Holy One of Blessing -- through the practice of mitzvot both ritual and ethical; through feeding the hungry and protecting the vulnerable; through cultivating gratitude for life's abundance; through working to rebuild and repair the world; through the work of teshuvah, turning ourselves around -- or we can turn our backs on all of that.

And if we turn our backs on all of that, says Torah, we will find ourselves serving a master who is cruel and uncaring. Maybe that master will be overwork. Maybe that master will be a political system that mistreats the immigrant and the refugee. Maybe that master will be whatever we use to numb ourselves to the brokenness around and within us.

But there really isn't any other choice. We can't choose not to serve. We can't choose to be completely self-sufficient and not bound in relationship -- that's not how the world works. In Torah's stark framing, either we can serve God or we can serve something else, and the inevitable fruits of serving something else will be disconnection and lack and facing down a slew of internal enemies.

This is not to say that if we are facing internal enemies like anxiety and depression, it's a sign that we've turned away from the mitzvot or turned away from God. Many of us are plagued by those internal adversaries, and I thank God for the abundance of tools at our disposal for helping us deal with them, from therapy to spiritual direction to all of the practices that can help us maintain an even keel.

Being servants of the Divine doesn't mean we'll be spared those challenges. But  Torah says that if we turn away from the obligation to serve, we'll meet with what feels like enmity. If we turn away from the obligation to serve, we'll experience lack -- maybe because our needs won't be met, and maybe because we won't have cultivated the mindset that would enable us to feel grateful for what we have.

Choosing to serve God means choosing to be in relationship. It means choosing love, and choosing hope, and choosing ethical actions, and choosing spiritual practice, and choosing to work toward repairing both the broken world and our broken hearts. Choosing to serve God means choosing to be attentive both to the needs of others and to our own neshamot, our own souls. 

As you walked into this sanctuary this morning you may or may not have noticed the words emblazoned over the doors: עבדו עת–ה׳ בשמחה / ivdu et Hashem b'simcha, "Serve God with joy." Over our ark is the other half of the verse from Psalm 100, באו לפניו ברננה / bo'u l'fanav birnanah, "come into the Presence with gladness."

The question I invite us to sit with this morning is this: what does it mean to serve the One with joy? Is the verse urging us to serve God and to do so joyously -- or to cultivate joy and make that a form of holy servive? And what would it feel like to come into the Presence with gladness: to feel in our hearts and know in our minds that we are surrounded and suffused with holy Presence, and to be glad?

What would it look like, what would it feel like, to do our teshuvah work from that place?

Shabbat shalom.

 

This is the d'varling that I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)