Perseverance and the portable ark

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


A prayer in a casserole dish

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I am making enchiladas for dinner. The recipe I use didn't come with me from Texas, but it could have. There's a Tex-Mex chili gravy (red enchilada sauce) made with a light roux, a ton of hot chili powder, some cumin and oregano and garlic and salt. This enchilada sauce tastes like the enchiladas I grew up eating. Every time I make it, it transports me.

This is the time of year when I would ordinarily be taking my kid back to my birthplace -- to see family, to breathe the air of where I come from, to enjoy Mexican breakfast at Panchito's and big fluffy Texas-sized pancakes at the Pioneer Flour Mill. In this pandemic year, there's no trip to Texas. The last time I was there was for mom's unveiling.

Knowing that most of Texas is suffering cold and snow and rolling power outages, making these enchiladas feels like a kind of embodied prayer. When I make challah on Fridays I sing while kneading the dough. Tonight I am praying for Texas as I simmer the chili sauce, as I dip the corn tortillas in oil, as I tuck each rolled enchilada into the baking dish.

I spoke with family there this morning, and texted with them again later in the day. Like most of Texas, they didn't have power or heat. Southern homes aren't build to keep out the cold -- they're designed to retain cool. A lot of Texans don't own warm winter clothes; why would they? Often at this time of year, it's warm enough to wear short sleeves.

I could talk about why Texas has its own power grid, or the outrage of wholly preventable tragedies, or the importance of a robust safety net and good infrastructure in all neighborhoods, or the climate crisis that inevitably feeds worsening weather patterns. Instead I'm rolling enchiladas and praying that somebody can get the power up and running again.


The lot of one year. (It's been a lot, this one year.)

Purim is almost upon us -- the last Jewish holiday that most of us celebrated in person last year, before the pandemic started keeping us apart. It's a tough anniversary. A year since we started staying apart to protect each other. It feels like forever. We celebrate Purim with costumes and masks -- masks, for sure, mean something different now than they ever did before. We celebrate topsy-turviness -- but what does it mean to do that when our whole world feels turned upside-down? 

Those were some of the questions animating the members of Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. I think you'll see them in our fifth collection of prayer and poetry and artwork, which we just released today. My main contribution (aside from convening the group!) is a poem about Esther and us, quarantine and saving lives and loss. I also wrote one of the short pieces in our seven-part "Last Purim" series, reflecting on what Purim was like "before covid," a year (or maybe a lifetime) ago. 

For me I think R. Sonja K. Pilz's poems are the most poignant and powerful this time around -- the one about her baby thinking masks are ordinary, and the litany with the refrain of "twelve months / or more." But honestly, everything in this collection moves me, and I'm grateful to be collaborating and co-creating with this exceptional group of artists, liturgists, and rabbis. You can read excerpts and download the PDF here at Builders Blog: The Lot of One Year - Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Purim 2021.


Fix

Things I cannot fix,
an incomplete list:

armed militias.
Global pandemic.

The grief of staying apart
and unbearable yearning.

Rage at insurrectionists
and anti-maskers.

Things I can fix:
lunch for my child.

This winter stew, meat
from the freezer

and dried mushrooms
plumping in hot broth.

Warm speckled rye dough
pliant beneath my hands.

 


The San Antonio Song

Weltron-2007_5The turntable had been my sister's before it became mine. In my memory it is black and white and sleek, standing on one foot like a cross between a mushroom and a flying saucer, with a smoky dark plexiglass lid that lifted up so you could put the record down on the turntable.

The stereo was dual-purpose, with an 8-track tape deck on the front side. I remember playing Barbra Streisand on 8-track, though I can't remember what else I had inherited on those big boxy cassettes.

My record collection was slightly more expansive. An album of what I grew up calling Mexican polka (though now know as norteño); an LP of Strauss waltzes; Prokofief's Peter and the Wolf (narrated, I think, by Captain Kangaroo); Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends, Bob Marley's Exodus; James Taylor's In the Pocket; and Lullaby Raft, by my childhood poetry teacher, Naomi Nye. She had inscribed the cover of the LP to me, from "Naomi and the chicken." 

The Naomi Nye LP recently came back into my possession. I don't own a turntable, so I can't listen to it now -- but as soon as I picked it up, I remembered the crackle of the needle in the groove and the sounds of her guitar.

I must have listened to the B side on infinite repeat, because 40 years later those are the songs I remember clearly: "When You're Not Looking," "Can't Complain," "The San Antonio Song." There's a lot to be said for a house and a bed...

50915842172_43eb7ef86b_cAs an adolescent I used to get desperately homesick at summer camp. (It started the summer I was eleven, at a camp in Wisconsin that just wasn't the right fit. The kids in my cabin teased me mercilessly, and after crying myself to sleep for a few weeks, I left the camp before the eight-week session was over. I struggled with homesickness for a few years after that.)

This was one of the songs that would run through my head when I yearned the most for my home, the sound of my mother's voice, my four-poster bed with the forest-printed coverlet. I want to run back to your loving arms...

It's been more than a year now since the last time I visited San Antonio. In a normal year, I would take my kid there a few times a year to see my dad and my brothers. The last time I went, I went alone for the unveiling of my mother's headstone.

I promised my dad that I would come back soon with my son. A few weeks later, we started hearing about something called novel coronavirus. Soon we were sheltering-in-place to slow the spread. For a while I thought it would be safe to go back to Texas by summertime. Then it became clear what we were facing...

I don't want everything I write to become an elegy or a lament. This was supposed to be a light-hearted remembrance of an old record and my old record player! But all paths seem to lead to remembered loss, or to the ache of yearning for something that isn't yet possible.

To meet my father and brothers for Mexican breakfast at our favorite brunch joint in the old neighborhood. To visit my childhood home where my parents haven't lived in decades. To hug my mother who's no longer here. To hug my beloveds who are (thank God) still alive, but we can't safely touch. 


Noodles and nostalgia

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I copied the recipe off of a card I got at Zingerman's. It's for fettucine with tuna, white wine, and green peppercorns. I don't always have a bulb of fennel on hand, nor for that matter fettucine, but but oil-packed tuna and peppercorns and capers are pantry staples. I've made the dish often since the pandemic began.

I've only been to Zingerman's once. I'd been ordering from their consciously quirky catalogue for years, so visiting the place itself felt like a pilgrimage, like visiting the Moosewood Café. Though if memory serves, I didn't love eating at the Moosewood as much as I loved my adaptations of their recipes. I did love Zingerman's, though. 

I miss sitting in an airplane seat, watching the ground recede. Wandering through Zingerman's, inhaling the scents of freshly-baked bread and intense spices and little samples of cheese on toothpicks free for the tasting.  Being in a busy place surrounded by other people, breathing shared air, safely. Remember that?

As I dig into the feeling, I realize it isn't only about travel, though I'm eager for the day when I can visit family in Texas again. I miss being able to go to my local coffee shop for a latte with a congregant or a friend, cupping my hands around the mug to sip the hot milk foam. I miss browsing in bookstores.

Tonight's Shabbat dinner will happen over Zoom with my congregational community. I'm grateful for that, and for every bit of digital connectivity I can muster. I still miss the casual connectivity of exploring an unfamiliar delicatessen surrounded by friendly strangers. Will I remember to treasure that, if we ever get it back?


I will sing

2021-01-28

In this week's Torah portion, Beshalach, we read the Song at the Sea. "I will sing to God..." Our commentators note that this verse is in future tense: not "I sing," but "I will sing." Hold on to that; we'll come back to it.

The rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Piazeczyner, notes that many of our psalms are called songs. They name themselves that way, in the opening phrase. The name "songs" seems to imply praise and thanksgiving, but often these psalms contain sorrow and fear. So why don't we call them laments? Why do we call them songs, even when they express something painful?

Talmud teaches us to call them songs because that name reminds us to seek the spark of good within the pain. Phrased another way: a "song" is something that's authentic. Song doesn't just mean happy-clappy, it means expressing the heart. Sometimes what we have to express is sorrow and fear, but that expression opens us to a spark of good within whatever's unfolding.

And... the Piazeczyner notes that it can be difficult, almost impossible, to truly sing while enduring suffering. "In order for a person to sing, their essential self -- heart and soul -- must burst into song." And sometimes, we just can't get there.

I underlined that phrase in my book because it speaks to me so deeply. It can be difficult, almost impossible, to truly sing when we're suffering. Some of us may be finding it difficult to sing in month eleven of the pandemic. Tired of staying home, fiercely missing other human beings, fearful of new and more contagious variants, grieving more than 433,000 dead so far.

Some of us may be finding it difficult to sing because we're lonely or worried about loved ones. Or because we're still shaken by the violent storming of the Capitol building earlier this month, or distressed by conspiracy-minded voices that blame recent years' wildfires on Jewish-funded space lasers. (I wish I were kidding about that.)

Sometimes, the Piazeczyner says, when the suffering is so great that our hearts feel crushed, we can't find even a spark of rejoicing. That's how he understands the kotzer ruach, constriction of spirit, described in our parsha a few weeks ago. We were so crushed by our suffering that we couldn't even hear that things were going to get better.

And yet this week our story takes us to the Sea of Reeds. We're leaving Egypt. We're singing the Song at the Sea. How did we get from "unable to even hear hope" to "crossing the Sea toward liberation"? For me, the answer is in singing our own real songs.

If we can really inhabit the song of our hearts -- even when it's a fearful song, or an anxious song, or a grieving song -- then we can be real with each other and with God. And it's in that being-real that we find the spark of hope that gets us through.

There's a debate about how the Song at the Sea was originally sung. Was it a call-and-response, in which Moshe sang each line and we sang it back? Or did we sing all together? Probably this debate arose because both of those were traditions, and somebody wanted to know which one was "right." But in typical fashion, our sages turned that debate into a deep teaching.

In Egypt, our sages teach, we sang praises as a call-and-response. We couldn't muster praise on our own, but we could repeat it. (So yes: call-and-response is correct.) When we crossed the Sea, we all sang together. Our own hearts sang out. (So yes: singing in unison is correct too!) Tradition even teaches that our song then-and-there arose from direct personal experience of God.

Sometimes all we can do is repeat someone else's words. We repeat the words of our prayers, we mirror someone else's hope. At other times our own song pours forth. Both of those are authentic spiritual life. And when we're willing to be real, we open to our own song. That's how -- even when still in Mitzrayim -- we became able to envision that things would someday get better.

That's why "I will sing to God..." is written in the future tense: it speaks to the future song that we know we will someday be able to sing.

Someday we'll be able to safely gather in person. Someday we'll be able to safely sing together in person. Right now we may still be in Narrow Straits, but let's be real with each other: that's how we open the door to hope. Someday songs of praise will sing forth from our hearts when we sing together, when we dance together, when it's safe to be together, on the far side of this Sea.

 

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

Shared with gratitude to my hevruta R. Megan Doherty for studying the Aish Kodesh with me this week.

Image source: R. David Markus. 


Discipline

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Trees in winter.

 

I only see a few people in person. Is it still correct to call us a pod when there's no formal quarantine? Whatever we're called, we are few in number. Over the summer I saw a few others -- outdoors, because fresh air felt safer -- but since the cold returned, it's been just us. I think of people I've known who chose a monastic life. What is it like to abandon a previous life with its social whirl, and to forge new spirit in the combination of enforced isolation and enforced togetherness? Is it anything like this? 

Last spring the shelves of grocery stores were often bare. No toilet paper, no flour, no Clorox wipes. Fruits and vegetables were hard to find, for a while. We haven't returned to those levels of privation (yet) this winter, but there are ingredients I can't find. I think of previous generations cooking during wartime, or in the shtetl, or in the Warsaw Ghetto. (I don't want to think of subsisting on what food was available in the camps.) This isn't like that, but that's the narrative frame that comes to mind. 

When I read about people who refuse to wear masks or maintain social distancing, I think: would you have turned on your lights during the Blitz? It's not a kind thought, but I struggle to feel kindness toward those whose actions put others at risk. Much about this pandemic year feels like a discipline: staying apart, staying masked, staying alone, cooking with what I can get. The hardest discipline is maintaining a healthy balance between facing reality, and not perseverating about the reality we face.

The hardest discipline is cultivating hope. This week on the Jewish calendar we mark the New Year of the Trees. Symbolically, spiritually, the sap of the coming spring and summer is beginning to rise. The potential for flower and fruit lies coiled in every seed. The days will lengthen. The vaccine will become available to everyone. The branches that are now bare will carry a profusion of fruit. Can I hold the experience of January's bitter cold alongside the certainty that in its time spring will come? 

 


Interview at On Sophia Street

Banner-4-largerI met Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan when I was in rabbinical school, where she was one of my professors. These days I am honored to call her a colleague and friend. She recently visited my shul (via Zoom, of course) to share about her latest book, The Infinity Inside, a beautiful collection of essays and spiritual practices. 

She's also a blogger, and has been sharing her words at On Sophia Street for ten years. In celebration of her tenth blogiversary, she recently interviewed me for her blog (and will be interviewing two other spiritual bloggers -- subscribe to her blog to read those interviews too!) We talked about poetry, liturgy, spiritual practice, grief work, Crossing the Sea, and more. Here's a taste of our conversation:

Laura: You’re a life-long writer and a long-time blogger. Can you tell us a little bit about why you write? Do you see it as a spiritual practice?

Rachel: Writing is my most enduring spiritual practice. I’ve been writing my way through the world for as long as I can remember. Sometimes writing is a gratitude practice, a way of articulating to myself the things in my life for which I can honestly say modah ani, “I am thankful.” Sometimes writing offers a lens onto a tangled knot of thinking and feeling. Sometimes I look back at what I wrote and that gives me perspective on what’s constant and what changes.

EM Forster is reported to have said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” I love that. Writing, like prayer, is how I come to know myself... 

Read the whole interview here: Rachel Barenblat: poetry, liturgy, spiritual practice


A year out of time

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Out for "frozen hot chocolate" with my dad, the year we lived in New York city.

 

The year I was in fifth grade was the year my parents and I lived in New York city. One of my brothers stayed in our San Antonio house while we were gone. We spent that year in a sleek modern apartment on the 37th floor of an Upper East Side apartment building, with an elevator and a doorman. Everything was different from the life I'd known in Texas.

I remember the diffuse light that filtered through our paper windowshades at night. I remember attending a city school, endlessly running up and down flights of stairs.  I remember a candy shop where my father would buy me white-and-milk-chocolate mushrooms with caramel-filled stems and toffee-brickle caps. 

I remember making maps, endlessly taping together my mother's typing paper and drawing grids to mimic Manhattan, marking every restaurant I had visited, every theater, my school, the hospital where my dad went into traction when he threw out his back.  The literal maps bespoke a metaphorical truth: I was trying to make sense of where I was.

My child's fifth grade year is not like any other that came before. (I hope it won't be like any that comes after, either.) His school supplies live in a plastic box that he carts from place to place. His teacher and classmates are on Zoom. He gave a google slides presentation to his library class last week with headphones on at our dining table.

There's one kid in our quarantine pod. Otherwise his social life is digital, like his schooling. He plays Minecraft with two groups of friends (and with his parents.) He voice-chats with school friends on one device while gaming on another. I know how lucky we are to have the devices. It still isn't easy. Nothing about this year is easy.

When he looks back on this year, I hope he'll remember teaching me how to Minecraft, kvelling when I learned how not to be a "total n00b." I hope he'll remember fresh challah and singing Shabbat blessings, learning to ride a horse, and creating vast imaginary realms with his friends even though they are physically staying apart.

I wonder whether this year will feel to him, later, like a year out of time... the way my fifth grade year came to feel once we moved back to Texas, leaving the glamour of the big-city apartment to return to our old limestone house in the suburbs with the giant magnolia tree in the front yard and playmates across the street and one house down. 


First shot

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My appointment was at 3pm at a church in North Adams. I've driven by it a million times but wasn't sure how to get in or which door would be open, so I arrived early. A masked volunteer from the local Community Coalition was standing outside on the steps with a clipboard and a bright blue uniform-type vest. On the back of her vest was a sign that said "Emotional support person" with a smiley-face.

"Rabbi Rachel!" she greeted me. "You can't go in until five minutes before your appointment." She sounded apologetic. I told her not to worry. I tucked my hands into my the pockets of my bright purple coat.  It's 26 F here today: cold enough to see our breath if we weren't all wearing masks. I was wearing two, a KN95 with a pretty cloth one over the top, because I wasn't sure how crowded it would be.

While I waited, I greeted a phalanx of men in long black coats: one of the families that runs the local funeral home.  After they went in, I heard one of the volunteers ask, "Did they get dressed up for this?" (I offered that in my experience, they're always dressed up. It's just the uniform, in the funeral business.) I thought again about how what they do, balancing logistics with pastoral care, is a form of ministry.

At 2:55 they let me in. Inside the church building someone took my temperature and sanitized my hands. I saw volunteers in bright yellow vests, and in bright blue vests, and in EMT uniforms. Everyone seemed happy. I filled out paperwork, I answered questions, I sat down at a freshly-sanitized table and rolled up one sleeve. A friendly EMT said "a little pinprick in three, two, one." I said a silent shehecheyanu.

I sat for fifteen minutes, dutifully, to make sure I didn't have a bad reaction. I imagine the arm will ache, later, like it did when I got vaccinated for typhoid and yellow fever before my first trip to Ghana. I'm startled to realize that that was more than 20 years ago. I remember that we needed to find a doctor who specialized in travel medicine. I wonder what became of the fold-out yellow card I carried in my passport then.

So now I'm halfway vaccinated against covid-19. This isn't going to change my behavior. We don't know yet whether or not the vaccines protect against asymptomatic spread. And besides, I won't begin developing immunity until two weeks after the second shot.  But it feels to me like one more reason to hope. Every person who gets vaccinated brings us one step closer. Someday we'll embrace again.

 


Not the end of the story

JoyIn this week's Torah portion, Va'era, God hears the cries of the Israelites and promises to free us from bondage. But when Moshe comes to the children of Israel to tell them that, Torah says:

וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃

They did not hear Moshe, because of kotzer ruach and hard servitude.

Rashi explains the phrase kotzer ruach by saying, "If one is in anguish his breath comes in short gasps and he cannot draw long breaths." For the Sforno, kotzer ruach means "it did not appear believable to their present state of mind, so that their heart could not assimilate such a promise."

So which one is it, a physical shortness of breath or a spiritual diminishment that keeps hope beyond our grasp? Of course, the answer is both. Body and spirit are not separable. If you've ever had a panic attack, you know the feeling of being physically unable to breathe because of an emotional or spiritual reality.

Kotzer ruach means that we were short of breath in body and soul. Our breath and our spirits were in tzuris, suffering. Literally at this point in our story we are in Mitzrayim (hear that same TzR /צר sound there?) But this isn't about geography, it's about an existential state of being so constricted that we couldn't even hear the hope that things could be better than this.

I know a lot of us are navigating heightened anxiety these days. A scant ten days ago, an armed mob refusing to accept the results of November's election broke in to the US Capitol with nylon tactical restraints and bludgeons. Many members of that mob proudly displayed neo-Nazi or white supremacist identities.

It's becoming increasingly clear that the attack on the Capitol wasn't spontaneous, but planned. The FBI is warning now about armed attacks planned in all fifty state capitols and in DC, on inauguration day if not before.

The covid-19 pandemic worsens by the day. We keep breaking records for number of sick people and number of deaths. Meanwhile the integrity of our country feels at-risk. I mean both our capacity to be one nation when some portion of that nation refuses to accept electoral defeat, and our moral and ethical uprightness.

Anybody here feeling kotzer ruach? Me too. 

And... Our Torah story comes this week to remind us that kotzer ruach is not the end of the story. Being in dire straits -- unable to breathe, unable to focus, hearts and souls unable to hope -- is not the end of the story. On the contrary, it's the first step toward liberation.

In our Torah story, our kotzer ruach causes us to cry out. That's where this week's Torah portion begins: with God saying hearing our cries and promising to help us out of narrow straits. If you have a prayer practice or a meditation practice or a primal scream practice, now is the time to cry out. (And if you don't have such a practice, now is a good time to start.)

I don't actually believe that God "needs" us to cry out before God takes notice of us. I think it goes the other way. We need to cry out, because that's the first step in opening our hearts to God -- to hope -- to the possibility that things can get better.

The path toward the pandemic getting better is pretty clear. We shelter in place as best we can, we stay apart, we wear our masks, we get the vaccine. And then we probably keep wearing our masks. But in time, it will be safe to gather again outside of our household bubbles. In time, we will be able to gather in community, and sing together without risk, and embrace.

The path toward restoring the integrity of our nation is less clear to me. I think it involves accountability, and justice, and truth, because I think integrity always asks our commitment to those ideals. Regardless, we begin that journey from here, where we are, crying out with our anxious and broken hearts.

We've entered the lunar month of Shvat, known mostly for Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, which will take place at the next full moon. The full moon after that brings Purim. And the full moon after that brings Pesach, festival of our liberation. These three full moons are our stepping-stones to spring, and change, and freedom.

When I was working recently with the rabbis and poets and artists of Bayit on new liturgy for Tu BiShvat, one of my colleagues said something that moved me so much I wrote it on a post-it and stuck it to my desk. I wrote,

"Karpas dipped in tears -- like the tears that water our new growth."

Karpas is the spring green we dip in salt water during the seder. The salt water represents the tears of our enslavement, the tears of feeling stuck in kotzer ruach. For us this year those might be tears of grief at covid-19 deaths: 381,000 and counting. They might be tears of grief at how far our democracy has fallen from its ideals, or tears of fear for whatever may be coming.

Our tears can water new growth of heart and soul. Our heart's cry now is the first step toward the changes that will lead to liberation. Then we will fulfill the words of the psalmist: "Those who sow in tears will reap in joy." Kein yehi ratzon.

 

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

Illustration, by R. Allie Fischman, from Connections: Liturgy, Art, and Poetry for Tu BiShvat, Bayit, 2021. 

 


Watching armed insurrection from afar

 

The lake has frozen.
Ice fishermen scatter,
tiny dark figures

making their way
across its flat
white expanse.

My heart pounds
gunfire
in my chest.

If the ice breaks
there is no one
to call.

 


 

I drove past a frozen lake this morning on my way to get my allergy shots. Every year I watch this lake freeze. Every year I watch the ice fishermen settle on the ice. Every year I spare a thought about the danger in what they're doing, especially when the ice is new. Right now it feels like our whole nation is on thin ice. 

 


 

If you are struggling with increased anxiety these days, you are not alone. Please reach out to a trusted clergyperson, a therapist, a friend, the national suicide prevention hotline or crisis textline. And reach out to people you know even if you're okay, because the people you know might not be. 


Count on

What I can
count on, when

democracy might be dying
at the hands of white men
 
and women waving
Confederate flags, wearing
 
Camp Auschwitz shirts,
brandishing zip ties:

the havdalah candle's
sizzle, plunged

into wine; the scent
of shankbones, simmering;

the song of Torah
where every sentence

culminates, with no
uncertainties;

the winter sun
lingering

just a little longer,
promising better days.

 


What I wrote to my community today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fellow travelers

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Later this month I'll begin teaching a class at the Academy for Jewish Religion (NY). It's part of their Sacred Arts program, and will interweave text study (Tanakh, liturgy, psalms, prophets, lifecycle) with creative writing. The syllabus was due to the dean a few weeks before the beginning of the spring term, and I've been assembling my text packet: essays, poems, prayers, classical midrash, sources ranging from ancient to contemporary. And that sent me on a journey of rediscovering my own bookshelves.

A year ago I installed new bookshelves in my home office. In those days, of course, I only worked in my home office a few days a week; the other days were spent in my synagogue office doing synagogue work. Over the last ten months everything has turned upside-down, and now I work from home almost all the time. I used to keep most of my rabbinic books at shul and most of my poetry books at home. ("Most," because the two categories aren't entirely separable.) But that too has shifted.

My Aish Kodesh volumes (the rabbi of the Warsaw ghetto, whose work my Bayit colleagues and I studied last year) are piled now crosswise in front of a section of bookshelf that holds Mark Doty, John Jerome, Jane Hirschfield, Yehoshua November, and Seamus Heaney's Beowulf. There's a small shelf full of Hasidut directly above Muriel Rukeyser, Jane Keyon, and The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (now no longer "new" by a long shot -- my MFA was more than 20 years ago.)

The book I wanted to find was Diane Lockward's Eve's Red Dress. In the Torah module of my class, we'll be doing a close reading of the creation stories in Genesis and a close reading of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac). We'll read some classical midrash arising out of both. And we'll read some contemporary poetry arising out of both. "Eve's Red Dress," I thought. "It's somewhere in this room. I think the spine is red. Is the spine red?" My books are not alphabetized. Surely I could find it.

I did find it, eventually. (The spine is not, in fact, red.) I had forgotten that my copy is inscribed; we hosted Diane for a 2003 reading at Inkberry, the literary arts nonprofit that I co-founded with two friends before I started rabbinical school. Along the way I unearthed other books that have been beloved to me: Rodger Kamenetz' The Lowercase Jew. Muriel Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry. Brenda Euland's If You Want to Write. I wished I had the space and time to get to know those old friends again.

I did pull a few things off the shelf to reread, in bits and pieces, as my scattered pandemic focus will permit. (I resonated a lot with Jess Zimmerman's essay It's Okay If You Didn't Read This Year, published in Electric Literature last week.) If nothing else, there's comfort in recognizing these spines as fellow-travelers, voices who have accompanied me over the years. I don't see anyone in person outside of my quarantine pod, but encountering the many voices in these volumes helps me feel less alone.

 

 


End of December

Peas

I glance at the headlines. The pandemic is worsening, as everyone said it would do come wintertime, and yet air travel hit a record high for the winter holidays. I can't make sense of that juxtaposition. I mean, I can; I understand that people are traveling to be with each other, even though the pandemic is worsening and Dr. Fauci says the worst is yet to come. I just don't want to believe it. I don't want to think about the suffering that is coming. I close the browser tab, but the imprint of the news lingers.

I don't go into the grocery store anymore. I place orders online, and a friendly masked employee brings paper bags of food to my parked car and places them in the hatchback. Sometimes I don't get exactly what I expected. Once I ordered some white American cheese for my son and then laughed out loud when I saw the size of the box -- 72 slices is a lot, it turns out! (He ate all of it, though. We make a lot of quesadillas, these days.) Ingredient unpredictability is strange, but I'm getting used to it.

I remember shopping at Farm to Market on the Austin Highway with my mother when I was a teenager. How she would ask the man who worked in produce to help her find a really good melon, the sweetest cantaloupe or honeydew. Something about tapping the shell and listening to its sound. Or maybe it was that he knew the subtle scent of a melon that's just right. These days I trust someone else to choose my produce for me. I tell myself that this new trend has created jobs for those who fill our bags.

This week I'm reading recipes for black eyed peas. I grew up in the South; we always ate black-eyed peas on New Year's Day, for good luck. Michael Twitty writes beautifully about that custom. I like the idea that they symbolize the eye of God, always watching over us. Black-eyed peas and greens: I learned them as a kind of kitchen magic, a symbol of prosperity, calling abundance into the coming year. We always ate tamales on New Year's Day, too. I don't have the capacity to make those. 

I daydream briefly about making redred (Ghanaian black-eyed pea stew) with kelewele (fried plantains) on New Year's Day, though I'm not sure I trust the produce shopper to choose suitably overripe plantains for frying up gingery and sweet. Evidently that's the place where my mother's produce section pickiness shines through in me. Pick me a head of lettuce, sure. Choose a cucumber or a box of strawberries or a bunch of broccolini, no big deal. But when it comes to plantains, I'm dubious.

I will stay home and fill my kitchen with whatever spices' fragrance I can, this New Year's Day which will darken into the first Shabbat of 2021. It is going to be a long, solitary, quiet winter. Quiet is good: hospitals are not quiet, ventilators are not quiet. Boredom and loneliness are better than the alternative. I will curl up with a bowl of black eyed peas in my little nest on New Year's Day, and dream about how good it will be when, vaccinated, we can embrace in the gentle breeze of longed-for spring.


On the far shore

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I heard that President Obama's memoir had to be printed in Germany because there is a paper shortage in the United States. The paper shortage is because we've been using so much cardboard to make so many more shipping boxes since the pandemic obligated us to stay home. I don't know if any of that is true, though it seems plausible. A parable about unintended consequences. I thought of it often in the days after Crossing the Sea launched, because I didn't yet have a copy in my hands.

Then I started getting photos from friends and family who had pre-ordered the book from Amazon or from the publisher. I was starting to wonder whether my copies were uniquely held up somewhere when the box landed on my doorstep. It's a cliché to say that my heart rate quickened as I cut the packing tape and lifted the first copies out of the wrapping, but it's also true. I'd seen the manuscript in PDF form many times, but there's something fundamentally different about a paper book.

The poems have a realness now that they exist in the tangible world. The collection is no longer the proverbial tree falling with no one to hear it.  The journey it chronicles feels so far away now -- evidence that "doing the grief work" actually does work, I guess. I remember what it was like in those early days and weeks, but I remember it at a remove. Through a glass darkly. Like rereading my poems from my son's infancy. I know that was me, but I can't inhabit that space anymore. 

A few of Mom's friends have written to say that they see her in this book, and a few people who are grieving now have written to say that their own journey feels mirrored here. There's no higher praise. I hope that Mom would be honored by the existence of this book. (I hope that, "wherever" she is, she approves.) And I hope other mourners will find comfort and consolation here. That's why I write. It's always why I write: not for solipsism's sake, but to shine a light for others in the darkness.

 

Available at Phoenicia, on Amazon, or wherever books are sold. 

 


Seeds

I curl my fingers
into the thatch
inside the hollow.

Out come seeds
little teardrops
slippery and pale.

As they fall
the china bowl
rings like a bell.

 

 


 

These shortest days of the year are always a struggle for me. Like my mother before me, I count the days until the light will begin to increase. I practice finding sustenance in small things: in zesting an orange for cranberry bread, in cooking a new recipe, in turning squash seeds into a roasted snack instead of throwing them away as I would once have done. This pandemic winter, those coping mechanisms feel even more critical. There's so much I can't repair in this terrible and beautiful world. Sometimes it feels almost inappropriate to seek pleasure when there is so much suffering. In those moments I remind myself that I would honor no one by ignoring the little blessings I can find even in these times. May balm come to all who suffer, and may life's tiny sweetnesses help us through.


Windows

Once I compared daily prayer
to a chat window open with God
all the time. That was before.
Now the chat windows where I text,
the Zoom windows where we meet,
are as fervent as prayer:

the only way we can be together
anymore. The digital windows open
between my home (my heart) and yours --
they're what link us, together apart
like lovers with hands pressed
to far sides of thick glass.

Chanukah candles go in the window
to shine light into the world
to proclaim the miracle even
in dark times. We've all seen
the old photo, chanukiyah burning
small and defiant in the foreground

and on a building across the street
the swastika's hideous slash. I put
my lights each night in my window:
tiny candles visible to anyone
driving through the condo complex.
It's not brave like the rabbi in Kiel

in 1932, though more people hate us
today than I used to imagine. Still
these little lights declare
that hatred will not destroy us.
Let's be real: no one walks past
my window in the smalltown night

so I post a photo too on Facebook
scattering holy sparks
through every browser window
proclaiming the miracle
that we're still here, that
the light of our fierce hope still shines.

 

[Originally published in Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah, published by Bayit: Building Jewish. Click through to read excerpts and download the whole collection.]