I don't have words.

I struggle to find words right now.

The virus has stolen life and breath from so many. Systemic racism has stolen life and breath from so many more.

What words could be equal to the murder of George Floyd? To the unthinkable horror of a police officer kneeling on a man’s neck until the life leaves him?

And we know that the pandemic disproportionately kills people of color because of the same systemic racism that causes police to arrest, and to kill, people of color in disproportionate numbers. It’s injustice heaped on injustice.

I pray for all who are protesting for justice, and I fear the wave of covid infections that might follow.

I don’t have wisdom to offer in this moment. I am grieving and angry and praying for justice and for safety.

And I’m thinking a lot about what I can do, and how I can use the white privilege that comes with my skin to work toward justice.

 


Don't miss this digital Shabbaton

June12ShabbatonFinalHavurah Shir Hadash invites all to join their very first live-streaming Shabbaton  on June 12 and 13th with Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus, celebrating spiritual connectivity in the legacy of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014), pathfinder and futurist for Jewish spirituality in the emerging digital age.

Register here! (And read on to learn more.)

This year’s Reb Zalman Memorial Scholars are Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus, next-generation visionaries and riveting teachers for the next transformations of Jewish life. With music, poetry, spirited prayer with liturgy old and new, mystic visioning, and re-mixing of ancient text, together we’ll bring forward visions for a Jewish digital future worthy of us all. It’s a spiritual future Reb Zalman began to imagine long ago – but left for future generations to bring into being. That time is unfolding before our eyes, on our screens, in our homes, and in a society changing with once unimaginable speed.  Join us for a weekend of depth and height as we surf those changes in the only true way we ever can – together.

Rabbi Markus is the nation’s only pulpit rabbi simultaneously holding a public oath of office.  In spiritual life, Markus serves as rabbi and music director for Temple Beth El (New York, NY), and seminary faculty at the Academy for Jewish Religion.  In secular life, Markus presides in New York Supreme Court as part of a parallel public service career that has spanned all branches and levels of government – from presidential campaigns to legislation to environmental affairs.  Markus has won numerous awards as an “innovator in public service” (Harvard University).

Rabbi Barenblat is one of “America’s most inspiring rabbis” (Forward 2016).  Barenblat serves as rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel (North Adams, MA); her Velveteen Rabbi blog was rated as one of the top sites on the Internet (Time Magazine 2008).  Barenblat is an accomplished poet and narrator of Jewish spiritual life: her collections include Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda 2018), Open My Lips (Ben Yehuda 2016), Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia 2013) and 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia 2011).

SHABBATON SCHEDULE

Kabbalat Shabbat & Global Convening -  Friday, June 12, 6:30pm PT

Shabbat Morning Service & Visioning - Saturday, June 13, 10:00am PT

Lunch and Learn: Mishkan Sandbox - Saturday, June 13 , 1:00pm PT

Malave Malkah: Poems of Yearning - Saturday, June 13, 8:30pm PT

#BeALight Havdalah - Saturday, June 13, 9:00pm PT

FRIDAY KEYNOTE – GETTING REAL, DIGITAL EDITION (Rabbi Barenblat)

Today we’re distant from each other physically because of covid-19. At times we may feel distant from community and from God for all kinds of reasons. The answer to that distance is emotional keruv, drawing-near: but how? How can we use the words of our prayers (both those we’ve inherited, and those we remix and create anew) to connect across distance both physical and spiritual? How can we be real with our prayer lives and with each other even when we feel (or are) alone? How can we safely let ourselves feel, even in this time of pandemic, so that we can be spiritually authentic with ourselves, each other, and our Source?

SATURDAY KEYNOTE – THE MISHKAN’S NEXT DIGITAL (R)EVOLUTION (Rabbi Markus)

Since history began, we’ve danced with the sacred in forms that evolved with us. Jewish history of a desert-wandering Mishkan settled in a place, then a Temple, then another Temple, then out to exile. Homes and learning centers became society’s sacred spaces. Eventually synagogues and clergy roles re-exerted centralizing influence. Now with covid-19 hastening society’s digital leaps, what’s next? As sacred gatherings de-center to living rooms and pixels, what will be our Mishkan? How will we build it to channel “me” and “we,” here and there, tradition and change?

LUNCH AND LEARN – MISHKAN SANDBOX FOR THE GENERATIONS

Exactly how can we uplift spiritual connection when we’re physically separated, even sheltering in place? What specific best practices, individually and collectively, can co-create a vibrant Mishkan exactly where we are? Join our multi-generational panel with Rabbis Barenblat, Markus and Zaslow as together we sandbox tangible practices to enliven spiritual life for this digital moment of transformation.

MELAVE MALKAH – POEMS OF YEARNING

Before creation, there was an eit ratzon – a time of yearning.  Rabbi Barenblat will lead us into that eit ratzon through poetry and niggunim. 

#BEALIGHT HAVDALAH – PASSING THE LIGHT FORWARD

Rabbi Markus will lead a #BeALight havdalah, bridging into the new week and rededicating ourselves to building a world of connection, justice and love. 

Register here!


Pandemic Psalm 3

The enemy
could be anywhere.
The tiny spiky mace
that liquefies the lungs
and clots the vessels
in the brain --

could be
on a door handle
or a package
or a light switch
or lingering in the air.

Going to the grocery store
or the mechanic
is a walk
through the valley
of the shadow.

This flimsy scrap of fabric
over my nose and mouth
is my shield.
Hand sanitizer my chain mail.
Will soap and water protect me?

I want to feel your presence
your cool embrace
on my hot skin
your glorious light
like early dawn breaking.

I don't want
to walk through the world
afraid.

 


Part of an occasional series: Pandemic Psalm 1, Pandemic Psalm 2


Your house

But I, through Your abundant love, enter Your house... (Ps. 5:8)

 

I enter your house
before sleep,
lying among sheets
not yet tangled

in the anteroom
I wonder whether
I'll hear your voice
right away

feel the blush 
rise in my face,
the jackhammer beat
of my shy heart

down to the floor
not in abasement 
but exultation
letting you in

 


 

Last week my congregational psalm group delved into psalm 5. In verse 8, the psalmist says, "But I, through Your abundant love, enter Your house; I bow down in awe at Your holy temple." (It's a line that's familiar to many of us from liturgy.)

From that line emerged a writing prompt: what does it mean to envision entering God's house during this time of pandemic when we are all sheltering-in-place at home? What is God's house, where is God's house, how do we enter it, what does it feel like to enter it now? 

 


God, and community, in the space between

Weigel

The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance. (Numbers 2:2)

Tn this week's Torah portion, Bamidbar, we read how the twelve tribes would encamp around the mishkan (the dwelling place for God) and the ohel moed (the tent of meeting). Each tent was at an appropriate distance from every other. In normal years, I've resonated with the idea that the tents were arranged at a distance to give each household appropriate privacy.

(That comes from Talmud, which explicates "Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov," "how good are your tents, O [house of] Jacob," to say that our tents were positioned so that no household was peeking in on any other. What was "good" about our community was healthy boundaries.)

This year, of course, the idea of camping at a distance from each other evokes the physical distancing and sheltering-in-place that we've all been doing for the past few months of the covid-19 pandemic.

Sometimes distance is necessary for protection and safety. Like our tents in the wilderness positioned just so. Like the physical distance between us now, each of us in our own home, coming together in these little boxes on this video screen.

But notice this too: our spiritual ancestors set up their physically-distanced tents around the mishkan and the ohel moed, the dwelling-place for God and the tent of meeting. The place of encounter with holiness, and the place of encounter with community.

Here we are, each in her own tent. This week's Torah portion reminds us that our tents need to be oriented so that we all have access to the Divine Presence -- and so that we all remember we're part of a community.

When the Temple was distroyed by Rome almost two thousand years ago, our sages taught that we needed to replace the Beit HaMikdash -- the House of Holiness, the place where God's presence was understood to dwell -- with a mikdash me'aht, the tiny sanctuary of the Shabbes table.

When we bless bread and wine at our Shabbat table, we make that table into an altar, a place of connection with God. That feels even more true to me now, as I join this Zoom call from my Shabbes table! In this pandemic moment, our home tables become altars: places where we encounter God and constitute community even more than before.

"Let them make Me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them," God says. Or -- in my favorite translation -- "that I might dwell within them." We make a mishkan so that God can dwell within us.

That feels even more true to me now too... as our beautiful synagogue building waits patiently for the time when it will be safe for us to gather together in person again. Until then, we need to learn to find -- or make -- holiness in where we are. We need to learn to find -- or make -- community even though we're apart.

Our distance from each other protects us. And maybe more importantly, it protects those who are most vulnerable in our community: the elderly, the immunocompromised, those with preexisting conditions who are especially at-risk in this pandemic time. Pikuach nefesh, saving a life, is the paramount Jewish value. For the sake of saving a life we are instructed to do anything necessary, even to break Shabbat.

Being apart is painful and hard and it is one hundred percent the right thing to do -- and the Jewish thing to do.

So we're at a distance. So were our ancestors, as this week's Torah portion reminds us. Our task is to make sure that our tents are positioned so that there's space for God, and space for our community connections. So that God and community are the holy place in the middle. The place toward which all of our tents are oriented, toward which all of our hearts are oriented. Even, or especially, when we need to be apart.

Shabbat shalom.

 

This is the d'varling that I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services over Zoom this week. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Words set to music: what joy

One of the most extraordinary things in the world, for me as a writer who is also a singer, is hearing my own words set to music. The music transforms and uplifts the words, and the end result is a work of art that is rooted in but also different from the one I put out into the world. It is humbling and amazing and awe-inspiring for me. 

I've been blessed to have that experience a few times. In 2010, composer Michael Veloso (who is a dear friend) set two of my motherhood poems from Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013) to music -- Letters to Little Bean (listen here at SoundCloud.)

In 2014, Michael Scherperel set four poems from 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011) to music in a series called "שבעים / Shiv'eem" ("Seventy") (listen here at SoundCloud.)

And this week I heard my words set to music once more: conductor and composer Sarah Riskind (a longtime friend and fellow alumna of the Williams College Elizabethans) set my "Psalm of the Sky" (which appears in Open My Lips, Ben Yehuda 2016) to music (embedded below, or if the embed doesn't work, you can listen here at SoundCloud.)

 

It's particularly poignant to hear this setting of these words now. During this time of pandemic, I resonate with the words of this "psalm of uncertainty" in a new way. And because singing together in person is not currently possible (and may be contraindicated even when we are able to gather again, at least until there is a vaccine), and singing in harmony on Zoom is not possible (because sounds waves clash and collide), hearing voices in harmony is especially moving to me in this moment.

I'm grateful to Sarah for this beautiful setting of my poem, and I hope it speaks to you, too.


Pandemic Psalm 2

Newspapers overflow with empty words
     from men who value money more than lives
while bodies stack up faster than we can bury
    and doctors and nurses reuse protective gear
and each solitary death, lungs filling with water
     in a negative pressure room, is a world destroyed.

I wish I believed that God hurls lightning bolts
     like Zeus on his mountain striking evil down.
I want to smash what keeps us in thrall
     to petty kings who feel no empathy
who set their children one against another
     fighting for supplies in a zero-sum game.

My child asks why God doesn't answer our prayers.
     Grief stoppers my throat. What can I say?


 

This is the second poem in an occasional series. (The first is Pandemic Psalm 1.) I'm teaching three different classes right now on psalms (reading them, praying them, engaging with them devotionally, writing our own) and as a result the psalms are very much with me in this moment. 

These poems are not translations or renderings of the classical psalms -- they are the outpouring of my own heart. That said, this second psalm in my pandemic psalms series takes some inspiration from psalm 2 which speaks of people "murmur[ing] vain things" (in Robert Alter's translation), and of earthly kings, and uses the language of smashing or shattering. That language feels apt in this time when the world's brokenness is so palpable and so painfully clear.

 


Pandemic Psalm 1

Happy is the one
who sifts the detritus of the crisper
and from a third of a cabbage, a wilted carrot
and half a cup of sourdough discard
assembles okonomiyaki,
who grows new scallions from the stumps of the old
and sings to angels while kneading challah.

This one will find a thimble of chili crisp
at the back of the refrigerator,
a bag of dried beans when shelves are bare.
Her spice cabinet blooms at all seasons
with bright sumac and turmeric
and the striated crescents of cumin seeds.

If she can feed a hungry heart
she will always be content.

 


A short video message: about wandering in the wilderness

I recorded this short video for my community to share with them before Shabbat. I'm sharing it here as well, in case it speaks to any of you. And if you'd prefer to read it, rather than viewing it, the text appears below.

 

 

Hello friends.

As Shabbat approaches, we're finishing week eight of shelter-in-place and social distancing.

Many of you have described to me a sense of being unmoored in time. Normal life stopped in March. Kids don't go to school anymore. One day blurs into the next. Has it been two weeks since this started, or two years? It feels like both.

I keep thinking about the Torah story we're reading right now -- about our spiritual ancestors wandering in the wilderness. They might have thought when they left Egypt that their journey would be quick. It wasn't.

Even in my worst moments I know this pandemic won't last 40 years! But it might feel that way sometimes. And a journey always seems longer when we don't know how long it will take.

This year I empathize with our ancestors in a way I never did before. Everything about this is hard. Maybe especially wondering whether these hardships are worth it, and not knowing how long this will last.

In our Torah story, our ancestors displayed almost every emotion there is. Sometimes they railed against God and against their leaders. Sometimes they were accepting. Sometimes they were grateful for manna. Sometimes they complained because they didn't have meat. We too may be emotionally all over the map. That's normal.

And I'll bet our ancestors felt unmoored in time, just like we do. The only marker of time they had was the double portion of manna that fell on Friday, enough to sustain them on Shabbat.

Here's how I'm trying to tether myself in time. I try to bookend each day with a moment of mindfulness -- to wake with modah ani, the morning prayer for gratitude, and go to sleep with the bedtime shema. Counting the Omer helps, when I remember to do it.

Baking challah on Fridays helps. Friday morning meditation, now in the CBI zoom room instead of the CBI sanctuary, helps. Shabbat services, ditto. I try to take Shabbat as a day away from the news -- to give my soul time to heal, and to make Shabbat different from other days.

I try to notice as spring green return to the trees, as the moon waxes and wanes. These remind me that the cycles of the natural world continue.

And I'm trying to stop speculating about how long the journey will be. We can't know. But like our ancestors, we're not alone. Even if we can't be together "in person," we can be together on Zoom or Facetime or over the phone. We can be together in spirit.

Tonight as the sun goes down, I'll kindle two little lights. As sundown sweeps across the globe, I imagine a wave of tiny lights appearing in response. In my home and your home. All around the world. Whether or not we have candles, we can kindle that light in hearts.

May that light shine brightly and bring us comfort for the journey ahead -- however long the journey may be. Shabbat shalom.

 


Almost normalcy

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Scallion-ends growing new shoots. 

 

Some days feel almost normal. Especially Sundays when I'm doing laundry, or planning what to cook, or sitting on my mirpesset watching the sky.

Those are all things I routinely did before the pandemic. Baking challah on Fridays is another. Lighting Shabbat candles. Reading with my kid at bedtime.

Anything that connects me with old rhythms of time can bring comfort. It can remind me that life unfolded before the pandemic, and will unfold again after.

Some days feel painful all the way through. I wake up grieving for the world, I struggle with the news of deaths and protests, I wrestle with despair.

And some days I feel mostly okay. Sunshine, and the chartreuse of new spring leaves, lift my spirits and my heart. So do the voices of friends from afar.

Of course, even when I'm feeling sanguine, I'm aware of the pandemic. There are terrible losses everywhere. I can't forget that thousands are dying.

The news that by June 1, the government expects the daily death rate to rise to 3,000... it's so terrible I can't hold on to it. My mind shies away.

When I can be in the moment -- breathing in "right here," out "right now," as Lorianne taught me so many years ago -- I feel more present, and more okay.

When I get caught up in thinking about the future (the likelihood of more waves of infection, the countless awful lonely deaths to come) I falter.

When I think of all the things my son is losing this year, I grieve. I tell myself that he'll be okay, that he's resilient, that he is learning good tools.

Time becomes fluid. The two months (so far) of sheltering in place and social distancing feel simultaneously shorter and longer than they measurably are.

And of course this is a journey of unknown duration. It's easier if we know when a thing will end. There is absolutely no knowing when this will end.

And yet life goes on. I make coffee. I cook meals. My son does math problems, plays Minecraft, re-reads a favorite book. It's like normalcy... almost.

I know how fortunate we are to have something like normalcy. I try not to think about how precarious that is. How easily these comforts could fall away.

 


After the deaths, holiness.

Tombstones-graves-cemeteries

This week we're reading Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. Acharei mot means after the deaths. After the deaths of Aaron's two sons, we read, vayidom Aharon: and Aaron was silent. That's resonating with me in a new way this year.

After the deaths that covid-19 has wrought in our county, our nation, our world -- after reading the accounts of ICU nurses and ER doctors in New York -- after facing the inconceivable suffering in this moment -- I understand Aaron's silence anew.

Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes nothing we can say makes anything better, and our words of hope for the future ring hollow or feel like bypassing. All we can do is sit with our grief, or sit with our fellow human beings in their grief.

Our double Torah portion this week takes its name from the two parshiyot that make it up, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Acharei mot: after the death. Kedoshim: God tells Moses to tell us, Kedoshim tihiyu: y'all shall be holy, for I your God am holy.

This year, the name of the double portion reads to me like a sentence, or maybe like a promise. Acharei mot, kedoshim. After the deaths, y'all can be holy. Because deaths are always part of reality, and we have a choice in how we respond to them.

When it comes to the horrors of covid-19, we can respond with nihilism: deciding that suffering is inevitable, so we might as well do whatever we want. People are going to die no matter what, so it's every person for themselves, right?

Or we can respond with care and compassion: taking care of our fellow human beings in the ways we are able. I think you can guess which one of those two options I think is ethical and correct. But don't take my word for it. Take the Torah's word.

Our Torah portion gives us specifics: Care for our elders. Keep Shabbat. When we harvest the earth's abundance, leave some for the poor. Care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in our midst. Don't keep a laborer's wages until morning.

Here's another way to put that:

Preserve the life and safety of our elders, and make their needs a priority. Give them the resources they need to stay healthy. Wear masks and shelter in place to protect their immune systems from being ravaged by covid19.

Remember that human lives are more important than productivity. That means life matters more than the economy. If someone doesn't have enough to live on in this pandemic moment, we can help them. If someone has died, we can't bring them back.

Make sure everyone has enough to eat: that means give to our local food pantries, if we can, and it also means ensure the safety of those who work in the fields and the meat packing plants. Don't force them to work in unsanitary and unsafe conditions.

Care for all who are vulnerable to abuse. Torah speaks often in the language of "the widow, the orphan, and the stranger who lives among you." Today that might be immigrants, refugees, people of color, queer and trans people. Those most at-risk.

Don't exploit those who labor for others. Protect and uplift them and give them the resources they need to be safe and healthy and fed. In a nutshell, protect and uplift life. That's what it means for the members of a community to be kedoshim. 

Kedoshim is a plural word.  As a community, it's our job to respond to death with compassion. As a community, it's our job to respond to death by taking care of the vulnerable. As a community, it's our job to live out Jewish values -- to be holy.

Acharei mot: kedoshim. After these deaths, in response to these deaths, in response to the world's suffering today, it's our calling to be a holy community. To respond by caring for those in need and making choices that uplift life.

Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so.

 

This is the d'varling I shared at Shabbat morning services via Zoom this week. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


With both eyes open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Pandemic pantoum

The good news is, my son and I aren't sick.
He's ten. He learned to sew to make a mask.
I bargain, "only keep my loved ones safe --"
A can of Clorox wipes: better than gold.

He's ten. He learned to sew to make a mask.
I look for lettuce, but the shelves are bare.
A can of Clorox wipes: better than gold.
What day is it now? I've lost track of time.

I look for lettuce, but the shelves are bare.
Forget oil futures: invest in TP.
What day is it now? I've lost track of time.
I think I'm on Zoom meetings in my dreams.

Forget oil futures: invest in TP.
Sometimes at night my kid is scared, can't sleep.
I think I'm on Zoom meetings in my dreams.
Count to twenty while I scrub each hand.

Sometimes at night my kid is scared, can't sleep
and loss piles up on loss like banks of snow.
Count to twenty while I scrub each hand.
Some days we laugh. This is the life we have.

Loss piles up on loss. The banks of snow...?
When I wasn't looking, spring arrived.
Some days we laugh. This is the life we have.
Outside, bright daffodils lift up their heads.

When I wasn't looking, spring arrived.
The good news is, my son and I aren't sick.
Outside, bright daffodils lift up their heads.
I bargain: "only keep my loved ones safe --"

 


Calling all clergy: come write psalms with me!

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In these first six weeks of the pandemic, I've been teaching a psalm-writing workshop for my shul and a friend's shul together, and a member of my community who's a rabbi has been taking the class. After the first week, she commented to me that the class feels like spiritual self-care, and that she hadn't realized how much she needed to read and write psalms, to connect with emotions and spirit in these incredibly difficult times. Then another rabbinic colleague called me from across the country and said, "I love that you're teaching a psalms class for your congregation. Would you teach something like that for rabbis?" 

Announcing: online learning at Bayit: Building Jewish! This will be our first class offering. It's designed for clergy. (Never fear, over time we're planning to balance learning for clergy with learning aimed at a broader audience. Also, I'm about to teach a version of a psalms class for My Jewish Learning which will not be for clergy, and I'll share info about that here soon too.) Here's a description of Bayit's first online offering:

The psalms give voice to a range of human emotions, from despair to exultation. In this class for clergy, we’ll study psalms (both classical / Biblical, and contemporary poems that function in similar ways) and then open our creative channels to write our own. Both the reading and the writing will enliven our relationship with text, tradition, ourselves, and our Source, and will give us tools for building a more robust relationship with the psalms and with our own creativity.

In each session, we’ll study select psalms and poems together, delve into writing exercises, and enter into a safe space for creativity as we write. We’ll share work (in dyads or as a whole group) and offer feedback. Throughout, we’ll seek to attune ourselves to the inner dynamics of heart and spirit, exploring how our continuing spiritual formation is being impacted by our spiritual service during this time of pandemic.

The class will meet over Zoom for five sessions of 90 minutes apiece. We will focus each week on a different facet of the psalms and our inner lives: gratitude, awareness, teshuvah, grief / anxiety, and wholeness.

Tuition: $180

Dates: Fridays May 15 and 22, June 5, 12, and 19; 3pm ET / 12pm PT

This class  for clergy will be limited to 12 participants. Once the first session fills, registrants will have the option of pre-registering for the next iteration of the class, which will take place after the first five-week session is complete.

Read all about it and sign up on Bayit's Online Learning page. All are welcome, with two caveats: 1) only the first 12 to sign up will get in to the first iteration of the class (though I will gladly teach it again if there's interest), and 2) if you're going to be studying the psalms with me at the Richmond Academy for Spiritual Formation in December, you might want to wait and do this learning with me in person, since what I'll be offering in this Zoom class will overlap a lot with the psalms work I do with the Academy. I look forward to learning with y'all!


A video teaching: the treasures hidden in quarantine

I recorded a short video teaching for my congregation, and thought I would share it here too. It begins with a check-in and then moves to a teaching from the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto for this week's parsha that feels especially meaningful to me this year. Here's a transcript if you'd rather read it than watch it.

Shavua tov, friends: a good week to you. I hope that your Shabbat was restorative. As we enter into week six of sheltering-in-place and social distancing, I wanted to check in. How are you holding up?

I miss you. All of you. It’s been a joy to see some of you via Zoom at my drop-in office hours on Mondays, at the Psalm-writing class I’ve been teaching on Fridays, at Friday morning meditation and at Shabbat services. I look forward to continuing to see you on Zoom, or hearing your voices by phone, or receiving your emails and texts, since right now those are the modalities available to us.

Here’s a funny thing that I’m starting to think maybe isn’t a coincidence. At the start of the new Jewish year, back in October, both of my hevruta partners / learning buddies -- Rabbi Megan Doherty, who’s the Jewish chaplain at Oberlin, and my colleagues on the board of Bayit: Building Jewish -- felt called to study a rabbi known as the Piazeczyner, also known as R’ Kalman Kalonymus Shapiro, also known as the Aish Kodesh, also known as the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Piazeczyner was writing from the Warsaw Ghetto. In a time of profound fear and anxiety, deprivation and illness. And yet he found ways to cultivate hope, even in those terrible times.

This week’s Torah portion is Tazria-Metzora, which offers teachings about how to handle a particular kind of sickness that was observable both in people, and in their dwellings. Both human beings, and their homes, could become “contagious” and needed to be quarantined for a time.

Whoa, that resonates in a whole new way this year.

The scholar Rashi, who lived around the year 1000, says this teaching is really about treasure hidden in the walls of the houses of the Emorites, whom our ancient ancestors conquered when we moved into the promised land. The houses would be marked as having tzara’at, and then they would be demolished, and we would find treasure in them.

The Piazeczyner asks: if the point is that there’s treasure in the walls, why wait seven days? Why not just knock them down? His answer is this: because the waiting helps us cultivate faith that good things will come.

Even in a difficult time, he writes -- “when there is no school for our children, no synagogue in which to pray in community with a minyan, no mikvah (ritual bath)” -- even in a time like that (a time like this!), we need to trust that God can help us turn even the most difficult of circumstances into blessings. We never know, when something difficult is happening, what blessing we might be able to find in it later when we look back on it.

So as we stay quarantined, sheltering in place, socially distancing to protect the vulnerable from the spread of this awful disease: may we follow the advice of the Piazeczyner, and try to cultivate trust that there may be treasure in these difficult days.

Maybe it’s the treasure of knowing that we are protecting each other from illness. Maybe it’s the treasure of coming to recognize what really matters to us -- even if what really matters to us is something that right now we can’t have.

May we live to emerge from this narrow place, and may we connect in person again: speedily and soon, with God’s help.

Thinking of you and sending blessings to all.

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog. With special thanks to R' David Markus for learning this with me on Shabbes. For those who want the original teaching, it's the Aish Kodesh on M'tzora 1940 / 5700.


In the wilderness

A d'varling for the end of week five of covid-19 sheltering-in-place.

As we leave Pesach behind we set out into the wilderness, trusting that somehow we're moving toward Sinai, toward revelation, toward connection. The spiritual practice of counting the Omer is tradition's way of helping us link Pesach with Shavuot, liberation with revelation, the constriction we're leaving behind with the expansiveness and covenant we're heading toward.

This year it may be hard to focus on that count because we are doing another kind of counting: how many days we've been quarantined / sheltering-in-place / socially distancing / staying home. How many days and weeks it's been since life felt "normal." And how many weeks it might be before we can return to seeing each other again, being with each other again.

The first thing I want to do is give all of us blanket rabbinic permission to "mess up" the Omer count. It's okay if we forget. It's okay if we miss a day. It's okay if we can't focus on the kabbalistic meanings of the seven qualities we're called to cultivate. A lot of our brainspace is dedicated right now to the news, the pandemic, what we're going to eat, who's sick and who's well.

That's normal. And it's okay. And... that's exactly the wilderness in which we're wandering this year -- as a people, as a nation, as a planet. Which means we're right where our core ancestral story says we should be. In the wilderness. Not totally sure where we're going or how we're going to get there or what losses we'll incur along the way. Maybe uncertain. Almost certainly afraid.

The Hebrew word bamidbar, "in the wilderness," shares a root with the verb l'daber, "to speak." The wilderness can be a place of fear, a place of not-knowing, a place that feels dangerous. And that's exactly the place where we hear God's voice. The place where holiness speaks to us. The revelation at Sinai takes place in a place that no one owns, in the wilderness, in not-knowing.

As I watch the pandemic play out at hospitals around the world, I've been thinking a lot about the time I spent as a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center almost 15 years ago. I remember that hospitals are profoundly holy places -- not despite our fear and not-knowing, but precisely because of it. When our hearts are cracked open, they also open to connection.

It's like Jacob said when he woke from the dream of the ladder with angels moving up and down: "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!" God is always in the place where we are, when we are there fully. A crisis like this one can focus us. It can make us really present, which may be uncomfortable. And it can open us to God's presence, which may be uncomfortable, too.

The whole world is wandering in the wilderness of this pandemic. We don't know how we'll get to the other side, or how long it will take, or what losses we'll incur along the way. We're not alone in this. We may be alone in our homes, but we're not existentially alone. We're all in this together. The spread of the virus reminds us that we're more connected than we ever knew.

Last Shabbat, in the Torah reading for the Shabbat during Pesach, we heard God say to Moses, "I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden." That verse is bringing me comfort this week: the idea that God is here with us in the wilderness. God is walking with us. God is keeping us company. And our souls are keeping each other company, too, even when we are alone.

May we feel each others' presence in this time of separation. May we feel God's presence in this time of separation. May we hear the voice of holiness speaking to us in this wilderness. May we open ourselves to the voice of love, the voice of justice, the voice of hope. And may we build a world of greater justice and love -- for everyone -- when we make it to the other side.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services via zoom for my synagogue this week (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 

 


For me

At the start of the dream
I float down the Guadalupe
but the current goes backwards.
I emerge into a house
from 1985, and inside

there you are: hair pulled back
into a casual ponytail,
white terrycloth coverup
as though you've just come
from a tennis game or a swim.

You've made dinner. I tell you
about my divorce, but
don't mention the pandemic:
why intrude on your afterlife
with something so terrible?

I wake to more headlines
(the world is dust and ashes) but
for a moment I almost felt
that loss isn't forever, that
the world was created for me.


 

A story tells of Rabbi Simcha Bunim who held two slips of paper in his pockets at all time, to remind him to balance two fundamental truths. In one pocket the paper said "I am dust and ashes," and in the other pocket the paper said "the world was created for me."

On the last day of Pesach we recite Yizkor / memorial prayers. Last year's Pesach Yizkor was the first time I said those prayers since Mom died. She had been gone for only a couple of months and the loss was raw. This year I am grateful for how the passage of time has smoothed over those rough places.

May comfort come to all who mourn.


A part

Furled tufts of red pop
at the tip of every maple branch
bright against a clouded sky.

I know there's blue
stretching above that white ceiling
even when I can't see it,

I know beyond our thin atmosphere
we're cradled in the vastness of space.
Even when I feel stuck in my skin

in the seclusion of social distancing
cloaked in mask and gloves
unable to touch

the maple and I are breathing together
(you and I are breathing together)
even when I feel apart.

 


Four weeks in

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The tree outside my front door, on a blue-sky day earlier this week.

It's been four weeks since life stopped feeling normal. On good-weather days, I leave the house to take walks with my kid. Every so often I leave the house to replenish groceries (wearing a cloth mask and gloves). Otherwise we're home. We see friends via Zoom, which is better than nothing but still frustratingly intangible, especially for my kid. This new normal is not normal.

My kid is grappling with big questions. The other night he asked me why, if God heard the cries of the children of Israel in Mitzrayim and freed us from slavery (e.g. the Exodus), why isn't God freeing us from the pandemic? That sparked a big conversation about what it might mean if God doesn't reach into the world to "fix" things, even if we really want God to.

We talked about how we can find God's presence in the helpers, in the people working toward a vaccine, in acts of kindness. We talked about the idea that God accompanies us and feels our fears with us. And I thought: this is a heck of a way for him to begin to move beyond the little-kid theology that imagines that God will fix everything if we just ask hard enough.

I read the news every day and my heart aches. So many deaths, so much suffering -- it's almost more than I can process. And then I set the news aside and I teach an online class for my synagogue, or I sit with my kid to work on a social studies worksheet, and I am grateful both for my work and for the ways in which homeschooling requires me to focus on what's in front of me.

And even in the midst of this unthinkable tragedy and trauma, there are moments of connection. I led a shiva minyan on Zoom the other day for a friend who had lost a family member (not to covid19.) The screen filled up with friends and family, people from all parts of her life, people of many religious traditions, people in many time zones -- including one in Australia.

And I thought: before the pandemic, most of us wouldn't have held a Zoom shiva minyan so that friends in far-flung places could take part. I still wish we could have gathered in person to comfort this mourner. I hold tight to the faith that someday we will be able to gather in person again, and hug each other. I ache for that. And... I'm grateful for what connection is possible.

Lately I've been gazing at the big tree in front of my condo. Its twigs have sprouted little red tufts. Soon they will unfurl into leaves. I take comfort in that. Spring will come and we don't have to do anything to make it come, or to make its beauty exist. We don't know how long the pandemic will last, or when we will be able to touch each other again, but the seasons remain.

 


New questions

New questions

 

For those who can't read images, or who want to copy-and-paste- a transcription:

How is this night the same as other Passovers in the past or in the imagined future?

What does it mean to experience an Exodus from the Narrow Place when our lives may feel more constricted (by illness, quarantine, economic hardship, or grief) than ever before?

How can the rituals of seder connect us across the chasm between what we're experiencing now and what was "normal" before?

We can't physically invite all who are hungry to come and eat. (Then again, we probably didn't do that last year before the pandemic either.) How can we reimagine that call in this time? What will we do to nourish those in need this year?

Hiding the afikoman reminds us that spiritual life means searching. For what are we searching this year? What hope or healing do we yearn for... and what will we do, during the coming wilderness wandering, to bring our yearnings to pass?

 

Cross-posted from Builders Blog, a project of Bayit: Building Jewish.