Glimmer

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Not yet twilight.


We were sitting on the deck, as we often do on summer evenings. My son had brought his portable bluetooth speaker outside and was quietly listening to his favorite songs on Spotify.

The sky darkened, and I marveled at its changes, as I always do. We spotted the crescent moon. "Is it waxing or waning?" my son asked.

"Waxing," I told him. "This is the new moon of Tamuz, the month just started." I remembered the printed list of beloved things that my mother left in her files for us to include in her obituary. The moon was on that list. 

Then my kid squinted into the gloaming. "What is that?"

I stood up and looked out toward the stand of trees on the far side of the expanse of condo lawn. "What is what?"

"Those little... sparkles."

"Those are fireflies."

"Wait, really?"

A tiny spark. Another one. Flickering pinpricks of light across the lawn's expanse.

I wanted to snap a picture, but my phone's camera couldn't make them out. The naked eye could, though. Little glints of light, like flecks of gold in the evening air.

I have a vague idea that fireflies are more rare now than they used to be, a casualty of light pollution and our changing climate. I remember an antique children's book in Czech about fireflies that used to be displayed in my parents' library. I wonder which of their descendants has that book now. My mother loved fireflies, too. 

"Awesome, right?" I asked my son, and he agreed enthusiastically. We made a shechecheyanu, sanctifying the moment and our aliveness in it -- and the fireflies' aliveness, too.

There's so much that I don't know how to fix. But I am grateful for moments like these, even though I can't hold on to them.

Every moment sparkles, if I look at it right. Every moment slips free from my cupped hands and is gone.


Phone call


Your number is still in my favorites.
(So is Mom's.) This morning
I touched the screen by accident
and for an instant I dialed you.

I hung up quick as I could, before
the recorded voice could tell me
this number is no longer in service.
(As though I could forget.)

Opened my email instead, and
there in my inbox: a photo of you
and me, and my son (maybe five?)
at the zoo. To see you again

happy with your grandson...!
Maybe the tap of my iphone screen
came from the other side. It's been
three months, you're learning how

to place a call from there.
Good morning, Dad. I'm doing okay.
So good to hear your voice.
I had a heart attack just like you.

(I've been saying I wanted to be
more like you were in later life.
This wasn't what I had in mind.)
But I'm going to be fine. Last time

you were here we talked about
someday expanding my tiny mirpesset:
I did that this year. I like to think
you sit with me out there sometimes,

when you're not playing backgammon
with Phillip again, or taking Mom
to parties overflowing with champagne
where the band never stops.

 


 

If this speaks to you, you might also find resonance in Crossing the Sea, the book of poems that arose out of my first year of mourning my mom.

 


Land of Promise: Teachings from Shlach for Right Now

 

Land of Promise: Teachings from Shlach for Right Now
In this week's Torah portion, Sh'lach, Moshe sends twelve scouts to check out the Land of Promise. Ten of them return terrified. The grapes are so big they require two men and a carrying frame. The people are giants. "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." (
Numbers 13:33) Caleb and Joshua promise that the land flows with milk and honey. But the other ten are afraid. The people revolt, crying out, "If only we had died in Egypt!"

God decides that the generation who knew slavery will not enter the Land of Promise. Their spirits are too crushed by hardship. Their self-doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Old fashioned map of the United States featuring Biblical place names

The European colonists who came to this place knew Torah's stories, of course. George Washington alluded to America as a Land of Promise in 1785. (And you don't have to travel far around here to find a Canaan, or a Goshen, or a Salem – all Biblical place-names.)

For the many tribes and nations who originally inhabited this land, the arrival of Europeans was catastrophic because of foreign germs, foreign worldviews, and policies like the Indian Removal Act. (Perhaps this is a good time to mention that our beloved synagogue is built on Mohican land -- and that the Mohican people are still around!)

Europeans coming to these shores was terrible news for Native Americans. We can hold that truth alongside the truth that many of our forebears emigrated to this nation seeking dignity and equality denied to Jews elsewhere.

My mother was one of them. She told me endlessly how fortunate she felt to have found refuge here. America was supposed to be a nation of equality, where it would be safe to be Jewish, where we could strive to better ourselves and our communities alongside everyone else.

And yet we know that America's promise of liberty and justice for all wasn't originally "for all" -- only for straight white property-owning men. The week now ending held Juneteenth, a reminder of how long it took for the promise of freedom to reach enslaved Black people in Texas. (Arguably we’re still working on fulfilling the promise of justice.) The enslaved were brought here by force. But even our forebears who came here willingly, came in search of a promise that is not yet complete.

Right now the promise of equal rights and justice may feel further-away than many of us have known it to be. The January 6th hearings reawaken the horror of watching an angry mob storm the United States Capitol... and now we live with the added horror of knowing that a large segment of the country doesn't believe that the insurrection was real, or that it was wrong.

The same voices denying the facts of the presidential election and subsequent insurrection are also denying gender-affirming health care to trans kids. Four states have banned that care, and fifteen others are considering following suit. Twenty-six states will ban abortion now that Roe has fallen -- some have already done so. And don’t even get me started on the news out of my state of origin this week.

None of this is consonant with Jewish teaching or practice. Rabbis and laypeople in every branch of Judaism (from Reform to Orthodox) support gender-affirming care, and teach that everyone across the spectrum of gender and orientation is made in the image of God. Judaism has also long held that life begins at first breath, not at the first merging of two cells.

But the Supreme Court has struck down Roe... and is also poised to decide on whether or not to gut the federal government's ability to mitigate climate change. Given what we know about the current makeup of the Court, that outcome isn't looking good either. I empathize with the scouts who looked at the challenges ahead and felt like grasshoppers.

So right on time, here come the scouts to remind us that despair is not a good option. Giving in to despair means giving up on hope. Last Rosh Hashanah I offered a teaching from Mariame Kaba who reminds us that hope is a discipline. Hope's not a feeling, it's a practice. It asks us to work. I didn’t realize how resonant that teaching would be this year -- or how necessary.

Earlier this morning we prayed these words from Michael Walzer: 

Standing on the parted shores of history
we still believe what we were taught 
before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt;
that there is a better place, a promised land;
that the winding way to that promise 
passes through the wilderness.

That there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands, marching 
together.
This moment may feel like wilderness. And it's easy to look at the forces arrayed against the environment, against the principles of human dignity and justice, against queer people and trans people, against Black and Indigenous people and people of color, against immigrants and refugees, against anyone with a uterus, against us as Jews, and feel like those forces are giants and we are grasshoppers.

But look again closely at that verse in this week's Torah portion. "We looked like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes." We saw ourselves as tiny, puny, unable to impact the world around us -- and so we became that way. But we can choose to see ourselves differently.

We might not get all the way "there." But that doesn't absolve us from trying. My b-mitzvah students may remember that famous line from Pirkei Avot, "It is not incumbent on us to complete the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it." I think of the Land of Promise as a direction, not a destination. Like moshiachtzeit, the messianic age.

The work is standing up for those more vulnerable than we -- in Torah's language, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. Standing up for immmigrants and refugees. For trans kids at risk of losing health care, and for their parents. For everyone with a uterus in states where forced birth is becoming law. For Black neighborhoods at higher risk of flooding, and people in drought-stricken areas at higher risk of fire. For Mother Earth herself -- so fragile and full of life.

MLK quote: the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice

Rev. Martin Luther King taught that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. I think we know now that the arc of the moral universe only bends toward justice if we push it and pull it and bend it with our own hands and hearts. It can bend toward justice; it has to bend toward justice. And it's aleinu -- it's on us -- to make that real. We need to see ourselves not as grasshoppers, but as a community that stands up for those who need us most. 

 

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


Rhythm

Heart2

 

 

The sea is good medicine after a heart attack. This is how you do it, heart. Listen to this unceasing rhythm.

Flowing in, pouring out. Pushing and pulling. Kissing the shore, then dancing away.

 

 

Like Shabbes

followed by week

followed by Shabbes

followed by week

forever and ever.

 

 

Slipper shells and pebbles of quartz and granite tumble against the shore.

Then pull away. Then return.

 

 

A distant seawall marks the horizon.

The tug and release pulls at my ankles, shifting the ground beneath my feet.

Months from now there will still be grains of sand in my car.

 

 


Lake

Bend low, dipping
until my fingers
skim the warm water
near the surface.

This syllable
means death in Hebrew
but let's prolong
hope's steady drip.

A tor rises
from the hillside:
aspiring only
to keep existing.

Listen to the trill
of cricket opera
as my little boat
glides on.

Not certain, but maybe
something trails behind,
a string dragging
lines across the lake.

And you, hovering
over the face
of the waters
like a mother bird.

 


The list of medications I am now taking is long, and their names can sound like a foreign language. Scanning my meds, I remembered a poetry technique from my time at Bennington -- "translating" words into English (seeking out homophones, more or less), and then using that somewhat random assemblage of words to spark a poem. This poem arose out of my list of meds in that way.


Heart

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When I woke with chest tightness and pain and numbness down both arms, at first I thought I had slept funny and one arm had fallen asleep. But then I realized it was both arms, which didn't make sense. And also my chest felt really tight, as though compressed with a strong, thick, solid rubber band.

These are sensations I've come to know well over the last 18 months. Carrying in the groceries, or schlepping the laundry -- almost any exertion can bring this on. It always goes away within a few minutes if I sit and breathe. But it had never happened before during the night, while I was at rest.

I picked up my phone and googled "heart attack symptoms." Shortness of breath, chest tightness, numbness or discomfort in the arms: those have been my regular companions for a while now. Breaking a sweat for no reason: find me anyone peri-menopausal who doesn't experience that sometimes?

I thought about calling an ambulance. I imagined having to wake up my twelve year old, the ride to the hospital, the hours of tests, the likelihood that the doctors would say, "It's just anxiety," or "Nothing clinical here." Maybe it's nothing, I thought. I wanted it to be nothing. I went back to sleep.

In the morning, on urging from friends, I reluctantly called my doctor, who instructed me to go to the ED. There they diagnosed an NSTEMI: non-ST-elevation myocardial infarction. Eventually an ambulance took me to Baystate: riding backwards, strapped to a gurney, watching the green hills go by.

I arrived at the Davis Heart and Vascular Center late on Friday. Procedures like cardiac catheterization don't happen on weekends. Enter electrode stickers, an Intellivue MX40 wearable monitor, a heparin drip via IV. Every two hours a phlebotomist arrived to draw more blood, charting troponin levels. 

In the subsequent days, sometimes I could maintain equanimity. I could reach my gratitude practices, maintain perspective, feel how lucky I am that we caught this quickly. Other times I couldn't help leaking tears, swallowing around a painful lump in my throat: feeling shaken, vulnerable, afraid.

I discovered that when they draw blood, I make the same pained sounds my mother made. Also, when there are IV ports on my hands, they remind me of her hands once she fell ill. That's not how she would want to be remembered. She'd be pleased that people complimented my manicure, though. 

A fabulous nurse told me amazing stories about his ancestors buried in the North Adams cemetery. An ultrasound tech asked me what I do for a living as she slathered me with conductive gel. When I told her, she asked if I could explain to her what Jews believe about the apocalypse and the End Times. 

As a pastoral caregiver I know that both laughter and tears are normal in a hospital. (Not just in a hospital; always! But emotions are heightened at times like these.) Sometimes I could lift up and let the current carry me. Sometimes I sank to the bottom and crashed into the riverbed rocks. 

On erev Shavuot I joined, via Zoom, the festival service I had planned to co-lead. I sang Hallel very quietly. I may never forget singing לֹא הַמֵּתִים יְהַלְלוּ־יָהּ וְלֹ֗א כּל־יֹרְדֵי דוּמָה ("The dead do not praise You, nor all those who go down into silence," Ps. 115:16) attached to a heparin drip and cardiac monitors.

Now I am home, learning about MINOCA (myocardial infarction with non-obstructive coronary arteries), and preparing to seek out diagnosticians who might be able to weave my strokes 15 years ago, my shortness of breath, and this heart attack into a coherent narrative with a clear action plan.

After my strokes, I saw specialist after specialist in Boston. Eventually I leaned into not-knowing, into taking Mystery as a spiritual teacher. But now that I've added a heart attack to the mix, I'm hoping anew for a grand unifying theory. For now, I remain in the not-knowing, with gratitude to be alive.

 

Related:

 

 


Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Two poems that moved me recently:


Magazine

 


The pages of my magazines
are smudged with sriracha
and spattered with schmaltz.

They fall open naturally
to roasted eggplant crosshatched
and crowned with tahini,

bright cubes of cantaloupe
punchy with ancho chile
and speckled with queso fresco.

But magazine can also mean
a chamber for holding cartridges
to feed automatically

into a gun, which reminds me
of the article I don't need
to re-read -- the one where

a radiologist describes
the slim silver line sketched
by an ordinary bullet,

versus the way
one fired from an AR-15
ripples waves of flesh

like a cigarette boat
traveling through
a narrow canal

turning any part of us
into smashed overripe melon,
nothing left to repair.

 


 

Roasted Eggplant With Caramelized Tahini, Milk Street

Chili Lime Melon Salad, Milk Street

What I Saw Treating the Victims from Parkland Should Change the Debate on Guns, Heather Sher, The Atlantic


Holy work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Morning after

Robb

I sat with my twelve year old on the deck, and listened as he chanted the first few lines of his Torah portion. His voice cracked once or twice. That's been happening lately. All I could think about was the parents in Uvalde whose ten year olds won't grow up to be twelve year olds with cracking voices. 

Shortly before we started Torah portion practice, I'd told him that there was another school shooting. I wanted him to hear it from me and not from a friend at school in the morning. I assured him that where we live is one of the safest places to be. He said, "I know, Mom," and changed the subject.

I believe what I said to him. The place where we live is as safe a place as any I can think of. And yet I can't promise him that an angry gunman won't break into his school, or into our synagogue, or into the supermarket where his auntie shops with his Black cousins. I can't promise safety. No one can.

And I don't want to tell him my real fear -- that in Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner's words, our country loves guns more than it loves children. That we're so incapable of reckoning with worship of the 2nd amendment that we will never be able to make this nation safe for him or for anyone. 

After 3500 mass shootings in the last decade, and 27 school shootings this year, Republicans remain opposed to gun safety measures. Anne Helen Peterson notes that this is life under minority rule. Sherrilyn Ifill notes that feelings of helplessness benefit the status quo, and we need to resist that. 

I think of the parents of those fourth graders in Uvalde, a scant 90 minutes from where I grew up. Right now some of them are sitting with the most horrific loss there is. I think of the clergy in Uvalde who need to try to provide comfort for an unbearable grief that cannot, should not, be assuaged.

When I dropped my son off at elementary school this morning, I wanted to cry. I don't really think his school will be next, but some school will. It's an article of faith for me that despair is never the answer, that a better world is always possible. But right now it's hard to see how we get there from here. 

 


Light

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I'll always be from Texas, but I've lived in western Massachusetts for almost thirty years now. This has become home, this constellation of towns where these old soft hills cup the sky in a gentle embrace.

I left Texas at seventeen. I've lived here almost twice as long as I ever lived there. And yet some inchoate sense of time and light and season was set there. And those are different here. It draws me up short.

Every year I know I need to brace myself against winter's long nights, maybe because the days were never that brief where I grew up. I have to remind myself how to seek the beauty in short winter days.

And every year I swoon at summer evenings, how the late light gilds the green hills and pinks the sky at the western horizon. I text friends: It's almost 9pm and it's not even dark yet, what is this magic?!

No magic, of course. Just life at latitude 42.7, as opposed to 29.4. Remember those circles around the globe? I grew up near the Tropic of Cancer. I live now near the midpoint between equator and pole.

I was born on the spring equinox (more or less). It seems appropriate, somehow, that I have settled more or less at another midpoint. And oh, how I love these brightest months of the solar year here.

How good it is to sit outside and listen to twilight birdsong as Shabbat gives way to a new week, and to gaze with wonder at the sky -- always changing, always perfect, and at this time of year, full of light.

 

Related: Evening sky, 2018.

 


Don't Stop

Remember the timeline
made of soft colored felt?
Foot after foot of black:
the Big Bang, eventually stars. 

A band of yellow (planets form.)
Green for teeming plants.
Orange for the dinosaurs'
165,000,000 year reign.

At the end a tiny red line:
Neanderthals, Mesopotamia,
Toltecs, Industrial Revolution,
today's headlines. In that line

humans lift each other up
and tear each other down.
The dance has always been
two steps forward, one step back.

The arc of the universe doesn't
bend toward anything
unless we push and pull,
coax and cajole. Don't stop.

 

At the Judson Montessori school in San Antonio, where I went for preschool and first grade, there was a timeline of the universe made out of felt. I remember it like I remember lunchtimes listening to Ravel's "Bolero." The felt strip was maybe 4" wide, and many feet long, longer than I could count.

Mostly what I remember about the timeline now is the long stretch of black felt that signified the early history of the universe, and the tiny red line all the way at the right end that signified human history. (Kind of like this Kurtzgesagt video, but low-tech and tangible. It was the late 1970s, after all.)

That timeline has been coming back to me recently. How vast is the history of the universe. How tiny our human fraction of time. How much beauty, and how much horror, we've packed into the thin sliver of time when human beings have been alive on this earth. How much work we still have to do.


Not Knowing

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The only thing I know:
we are not "there" yet,
and I'm not sure where "there" is
or how we will feel
or with what we will serve.

It's scary not having a map
to safety. Scarier still
that some claim the plague
never happened, or the deaths
aren't important...

These years are wilderness
and sometimes I struggle to hear
the still small voice
calling me forth
from my armchair, calling me

into humble not-knowing
and into the splendor
of not making myself afraid.
This work isn't new, and
we won't complete it: that’s ok.

Yes, there were leeks
in the beforetimes. I miss
them too. But then I remember
not everyone got to eat
even then. We can do better.

It's all right to feel fear
as long as we put one foot
in front of the other.
There is no path to Sinai
other than this.




With what we will serve - see Exodus 10:26. The still small voice - see I Kings 19:12Not making myself afraid - After Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, והעיקר לא להתפחד כלל / the important thing is not to make oneself afraid. Humble…splendor - Two ways of translating הוד, the quality our mystics associate with this week. We won’t complete it - see Pirkei Avot 2:16. There were leeks - see Numbers 11:5.

 

Originally published as part of Step by Step: Omer 5782, the collaborative offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group for this year's Omer journey. Find that collection here:  Step by Step: Omer 5782 at Bayit.


Hineni / Here I Am

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Here I am
ready and willing
to hear your voice

in the golden fire
that tips the willow trees
with spring sunlight --

to breathe your fragrance
on my fingers
kissed by rosemary --

to feel you with me
night and day
with every heartbeat.

You are becoming.
I want to become
worthy to walk with you.

I'm taking off my shoes,
exposed feet vulnerable
on shifting sand.

My heart is bare too:
ready to hear
and be changed.

 


 

Here I am -  הנני / Hineni is Moses' response to God at the burning bush (Exodus 3:4).

Ready and willing - As in the blessing before counting the Omer, "Here I am, ready and willing..."

You are becoming. - The Name that God gives to Moses at the bush is אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I am becoming what I am becoming." (Exodus 3:14)

I'm taking off my shoes - See Exodus 3:5. (See also Remove the habits...)

 

 

This poem was written in preparation for Shavuot. Here are a few others:


In a Society: Teachings from Kedoshim for Right Now

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My son and I often say, "We live in a society." For us it's shorthand, a reminder about community. We need to be mindful of people's needs, because we live in a society. If a kid is being bullied, stand up for them, because we live in a society. If a neighbor needs help carrying in the groceries, offer to help, because we live in a society. We have obligations to each other, because we live in a society.

Enter this week's Torah portion, Kedoshim. קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ / Kedoshim tihiyu: "y'all shall be holy, for I your God am holy!" The imperative is in the plural. Y'all be holy now! This isn't about individual righteous behavior. Because -- say it with me now -- we live in a society. So what does it mean to be kedoshim, to be holy as a community? Here are some of Torah's answers in this week's parsha:

Don't glean to the edges of your fields... leave [harvest] for the poor and the stranger. (Lev. 19:10) 
Don't withhold a worker's wages until morning. (Lev. 19:13) 
Don't place a stumbling block before the blind. (Lev. 19:14) 
Don't render an unfair decision; judge justly. (Lev. 19:15) 
Don't stand idly by upon the blood of your fellow. (Lev. 19:16)

These verses are so important that we hear them twice a year: in our cycle of regular Torah readings, and again on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. On that holiest day of the year, Torah reminds us: a righteous society is one that centers the needs of the vulnerable. In a righteous society, we take pains to ensure justice. And we must not stand idly by when others are harmed.

Earlier this week the news broke that the Supreme Court is likely to strike down Roe v. Wade. This isn't a surprise, but it still feels shocking to recognize that the right to bodily autonomy can be taken away. Here in Massachusetts that right is protected, but there are 26 states where that right will disappear as soon as Roe falls. In half of this country, half of the people will lose a right.

Jewish tradition not only permits but even mandates abortion when the pregnant person's life is at risk. Until a fetus is born and draws breath, the life of the pregnant person is paramount. This is a mainstream understanding of Jewish law, expressed by rabbis ranging from Reform to Conservative to Orthodox. What SCOTUS seems poised to do violates our religious freedom.

What SCOTUS is poised to do will cause unimaginable harm. It is horrific to think of being forced to bear a child. In many states, abortion will become illegal even in cases of (God forbid) rape or incest. These are ugly words. It pains me to say them. But this is real, and we need to face it, because people are going to suffer. I don't know how best to help them. But we need to try.

Talmud teaches kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. Phrased more universally, we are all responsible for one other. Living in a society means there are things we owe to each other. As Jews, we especially have an obligation to those who are most vulnerable. Torah tells us repeatedly to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger: those most at risk. 

As the National Council of Jewish Women reminds us:

We know that limiting reproductive health access has disastrous consequences. Those who lack access to reproductive health care — disproportionately those struggling financially; Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities; young people; rural communities; immigrants; people living with disabilities; and LGBTQ individuals — are more likely to live in poverty and to remain in abusive relationships. And unsafe abortions are a leading cause of death worldwide; high rates of unsafe abortions are directly associated with laws restricting access to critical health care. [Source: Rabbis for Repro.]

I am not a legal scholar by any stretch, but reputable voices have argued that if the Supreme Court nullifies the fundamental right to privacy that underpins Roe v. Wade, other decisions that hinge on that right may also be at risk. I keep coming back to words from the writer Roxane Gay: "Any civil right contingent upon political whims is not actually a civil right." 

I've spoken with many of you this week who are profoundly shaken by what's unfolding. I hear and I honor your grief and anxiety, anger and fear. We may be poised to lose many of the last century's advances. It's important to give ourselves space to feel what we're feeling. And then we need to channel our feelings into action, to help those who will be most at-risk in days to come.

The work of justice is long. If the Supreme Court takes away rights that we now enjoy, then we will work toward a world in which those rights are restored. As we read in Pirkei Avot (which I've been studying with our b-mitzvah students), "It is not incumbent on us to finish the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it." As Torah teaches, do not stand idly by.

A couple of verses after the one about not standing idly by, we reach the verse we've been singing all morning: וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ / "Love your fellow human being as yourself."  Rabbi Akiva called this vderse clal gadol, "a great principle," or possibly "The great principle" of Torah. It's at the heart of Torah -- metaphorically, per Akiva, and also pretty much literally in the very middle.

Cornel West wrote, "Justice is what love looks like in public." The way we love our fellow human beings is by working toward justice. God, give us the strength to stand up for those who are most at risk. Give us the strength to not stand idly by. Give us the strength to build a world of greater justice for everyone, because that is how we live out the commandment to love.

And let us say: amen.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires, cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog on the synagogue website and to Builders Blog at Bayit.


Not In My Torah

I was studying Torah with colleagues on Monday night (May 2) when the news broke that SCOTUS is likely to strike down Roe v. Wade. The sweep of fear and grief across the room was palpable.

In a sense, this isn’t a surprise. We’ve known for a while that this is what the Christian right wants.

It’s still gutting.

On a personal level: I have a uterus. There are 26 states where abortion will become immediately illegal if Roe is struck down. If I lived in one of them, I would instantly lose the right to control my own body.

Because of my preexisting conditions, a pregnancy would likely kill me. If, God forbid, I were raped, I would be forced to carry that pregnancy to term. I have skin in this game.

But in the big picture, this isn’t about me. It’s about countless millions who will suffer when the right to reproductive health care is denied. It’s about human dignity and bodily autonomy and the fundamental betrayal of having our basic human rights taken away...

That's the beginning of a piece I wrote this morning, after hearing the news last night about where SCOTUS seems poised to go. You can read the whole thing at Religion News Service, and I hope that you will: The Christian Right's Abortion Policy Isn't In My Torah


Shine

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Scent-memory.

The instant I uncap the bottle, I'm in my twenties again. We used to spend weekends driving around rural New York and Vermont, looking for secondhand furniture at antique stores and junk shops. Even the most weathered, beat-up pieces gleamed again after light sanding and some Murphy's oil soap.

Just in time for the first Rosh Hashanah of married life in our new home, we found a pair of antique wooden church pews. Each featured four folding seats, joined into a bench. It meant that whoever sat on the same side of the table had to work together to push their seats out from the table... 

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Like this, but with four seats instead of three.

My life has a different shape now. It's almost six years since I moved into this condo. A hand-me-down outdoor table just came my way, and I showed it to my beloved ex when he was here to pick up our son. "You'll want to sand that," he offered. "Use a 220. That way your rag won't catch when you oil it."

Do I have any sandpaper? Of course not. But the local hardware store has plenty, so I picked some up, and a bottle of oil soap. I should have expected the sense-memories that came flooding back. Listening to Car Talk as we drive up Route 22. The scent of oil soap after we bring something home...

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Old wood, sanded smooth. 

As I sanded and soaped my secondhand outdoor table, I watched robins flit across the grass, pecking between the season's first little yellow flowers. Leaves are coming in. I'm eager for summer, for late long light and sitting at this table watching the changing sky. It feels good to look forward to things. 

And it feels good to recognize that these days, remembering my marriage makes me smile. Not unlike how remembering mom (a"h) now makes me smile, though right after her death I mostly felt grief. The sharp edges of loss have been sanded away by time, and now a softer kind of memory can shine.


Key

Challot

I'd never before made a shlissel challah -- a challah shaped like a key. 

Some Ashkenazi Jews have a custom of baking shlissel challah for the Shabbat that comes after Pesach. It's a segulah, an almost magical folk practice: a kind of embodied prayer for parnassah (prosperity).

But why a key? Some teach that God holds the key to our good fortune, so we bake key-shaped challah as a way of asking God for what we need. One of our four new years opportunities is in Nissan --  an auspicious time to ask.

Others cover their shlissel challah in sesame seeds representing the manna that fell to sustain our ancient ancestors during the wilderness wandering after the Exodus. That, too, hints at prosperity.

Or maybe we do this because counting the Omer is a journey through 49 spiritual "gates" and each gate has a key. The shlissel challah represents the key to unlock the next step in the journey toward Torah.

Or because Pesach is meant to instill awe, and the Gemara compares awe to a key, saying: anyone who learns Torah but has no awe of heaven is like a treasurer who doesn't have the key to the door of the bank. 

The practice of baking a key-shaped challah turns out to have origins in early Hasidism. Hasidism is the world of ecstatic-devotional practice that began with the Baal Shem Tov, born in Poland in 1698.

One of his students, R. Pinchas Shapiro of Kovitz (b. 1726), taught that during Pesach and shortly thereafter, the gates of heaven are open. This challah focuses our prayers on (re)opening those gates.

R. Avraham Yehoshua Heshel, the Apter Rav (b. 1748), sees this as a mystical prayer to open the "gates of livelihood," as they were opened for our ancient ancestors when the manna stopped falling. 

Or maybe it's connected to Song of Songs, which many read during the week of Pesach. Verse 5:2 pleads, "Open for me, my sister." Does this key open a doorway to God -- or into one's deepest room of the heart?

Some press an actual key into the challah and bake it into the bread. I recently brought home a ring full of old keys from my mother's desk, and I briefly considered embedding one in the loaf. (But I didn't.)

I did my best to shape my usual challah dough into a key shape. I always sing Shalom Aleichem while kneading. While shaping, today I sang p'tach libi b'Toratecha -- "open my heart to Your Torah."

And as it began to rise, I sang along with Nava Tehilia's setting of Libi Er.  Ani y'shenah v'libi er: kol dodi dofek! "I sleep, but my heart wakes: the voice of my beloved knocks."  Or, in my own words (in Texts to the Holy):

Your voice knocks.
Like a magnolia
I open.

 

 

Sources for some of the above teachings can be found here and here.

Image: from a google image search. 


Interpretation

Forgetting where the car is parked
means something important left undone.

The structure deflated like punched dough
means vulnerability and self-blame.

The taxi that makes stop after stop for hours
is the same as the airport with no signs:

what made you think you had any control
over where you're going or when you arrive?

The suitcase that won't hold everything
means the same as the one left behind.

The empty hot tub at the top of the house
is ambiguous, but skylights mean hope.

 


 

None of these statements accord with any school of dream (or poem) interpretation I know. I'm also not sure how I feel about placing any single interpretation on a dream or poem. But both are worth holding up to the kaleidoscope, turning them to see what we learn from how the shapes (re)align.


Fine Dining

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The Italian place I remember
had dark walls, and candles
in cut-glass red votive bowls.
I thought the owner was Polish.

He and my dad were buddies,
talked business, smoked cigars.
I wore black-patent Mary Janes,
drank Shirley Temples, feasted

on baskets of crusty bolillos:
French bread reimagined
into perfect torpedoes
by Mexican hands.

That's where Dad taught me
how to relish soft-shell crab,
and the names of big wine bottles
like Jeroboam and Methuselah.

All I knew about Methuselah
was that he lived a long time,
maybe forever. I thought
Dad would too.

 


 

The restaurant that inspired this poem was the original Paesano's. Here's a reflection on the place written at its 50th anniversary, and here's an oral history from Joe Cosniak. I went to junior high and high school with the daughter of co-owner and chef Nick Pacelli, of blessed memory. 

The photograph above came from Vintage San Antonio - A Photo History (FB). Meanwhile, bolillos are a Mexican roll which some trace to the period of French colonization in Mexico. I baked some today. Mine aren't as beautiful as the ones from Paesano's, but they're still pretty good.

Obviously my household of origin didn't keep kosher. I don't eat soft-shell crab anymore, but I remember loving them when I was a kid. Shrimp Paesano, too. Maybe it's just as well: let them be a memory, along with Dad's cigar smoke and the way he laughed with his friends.