It's strange, now, to look back at my journal from last spring. Back when the pandemic was new to this country (or at least, new to my awareness.) Back when I thought my son might be out of school for a few weeks and then we'd get back to normal. (And he thought so too.) Back when I thought that surely my nation, with all its wealth, could vanquish this virus. Back when I thought surely by the Days of Awe we'd be back together again, safely, with the virus contained.
I never imagined how unspeakably badly national leadership would botch this, or that the president would complain about having to help people who didn't vote for him, or that masks would become a symbol of party affiliation rather than a basic safety measure that can slow the virus' spread. I didn't imagine a quarter of a million deaths and then a staggering number of people planning to see each other at Thanksgiving as though nothing were happening.
But here we are. It seems ever more evident that there are two nations in uneasy coexistence. Here where I live, masks are ubiquitous. Everyone I know is staying in a small quarantine-style pod, and while some of us relaxed over the summer enough to be with others outdoors, now that the weather is cold we're hunkering down again. We limit trips to the grocery store. We don't travel. We don't touch each other. We don't see people outside our bubble.
I read in the paper, though, about the "other America." The one where people think the virus is a hoax, sometimes even while they're dying of it. The one where people think their liberties give them the right to infect others. I can't understand it. I want to say it's fundamentally anti-Jewish -- our whole religious tradition is communitarian, we have obligations to each other and to the vulnerable! -- though obviously at the rightmost fringe of Judaism some disagree with me.
It's not lost on me that we also live in two Americas when it comes to how we see our national political life. And I don't know what to do about that. Honestly, I can hardly face it. I read the ridiculous lies about the election being stolen and I just don't understand how so many believe that. Add it to the long list of things I can't wrap my head around, I guess. I'm worried about systemic damage to democracy. But right now the pandemic feels more urgent.
And yet life continues. My child will have a birthday in a few days. The new moon of Kislev rose a few days ago; Chanukah is coming. I'm trying not to write scripts about what this pandemic winter will be. We will stay home and try to stay safe. I always look toward spring with hopes of renewal. This year those hopes are heightened: hope not only for more light and new growth but also for government I can trust and for a vaccine. For now, here we are.
This week's Torah portion, Toldot, is so rich. There's great stuff here. This week we've got Rebecca conceiving twins, feeling them grapple with each other in her womb, asking God why this is her life. We get Jacob, whose name means The Heel because he grabs Esau's heel on the way out of the womb.
There's the whole thing with the birthright -- first Esau bargains away his firstborn birthright for a bowl of lentils, then Rebecca coaxes Jacob to trick Isaac into giving the firstborn blessing to him instead of to his older twin. Or how about Esau begging his father, "Don't you have a blessing for me, too?"
There are a dozen divrei Torah in what I just said! And yet I could not find the oomph to write any of them. Because our nation just hit a quarter of a million deaths from covid-19. And winter is coming, and with it, indoor life. And some people are planning to be indoors with others at Thanksgiving next week.
And some number of Americans still believe the virus is a hoax. I read this week in the Post about a nurse in South Dakota, in full PPE, tending to the dying...and the dying patients raging at her for wearing PPE around them because even as they were dying of covid they didn't believe covid was real.
"These are the generations of Isaac" -- that's how the parsha begins. Isaac is situated in his family line, son of Abraham and Sarah, husband to Rebecca, father of Esau and Jacob. And I can't stop thinking about today's generations, truncated. Parents mourning their children. Children who have lost parents.
And I do not understand the refusal to take responsibility, the refusal to act as though we are all interconnected and what I choose to do can impact others. Because we are all interconnected. And whether or not I wear a mask might be the difference between someone else's life and death.
"Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely."
Haelle's point is that in a short-term crisis, something in us rallies to pull through. Long-term anxiety and uncertainty -- about the pandemic, the future of democracy, who will live and who will die, how much worse things may get before they begin to get better -- that's something else entirely.
We can function in crisis mode for only so long, and then our "surge capacity" gets depleted. Is this sounding familiar? And when our capacity becomes depleted, sometimes we go to the well -- the well of inspiration, the well of hope, the well of faith -- and there's no water to be had. It feels like the well has run dry.
When I read that, I thought: yes. That's what I'm feeling. That's why I can't muster what it takes to write. And that's the image that brought me back to this week's Torah portion.
In this week's portion we read that Isaaac re-plumbed the wells that his father had dug. On the surface, that verse is about literally re-digging wells, which are pretty necessary in a desert climate! But on a metaphorical level, this verse reminds me how sometimes the wells of spirit and hope stop flowing.
When that happens, our job is to forgive ourselves for feeling tapped-out... and then to dig into those wells again, to open those channels so they can receive flow again. Here's what I take from this week's parsha: the spiritual work of opening channels for the flow of hope and faith isn't a one-time thing.
So if you feel lately as though your spiritual well has run dry, you're not alone. Join me in taking inspiration from Isaac, who went back to the old wells and dug away the silt and rocks so they could flow again. The wells of Torah and spiritual practice still flow, but we might need to open them up again.
Because this isn't a short-term crisis. The pandemic isn't going away anytime soon, and neither is the precariousness of our democracy or the poison in our public discourse. We can't rely on surge capacity. We need to build deeper capacity in ourselves and in the systems that support us and our communities.
So here's my prayer. May we find that those old wells of tradition and practice, when we tend them carefully and give them our attention, open up again to nourish and sustain us in every way. Starting right now, with a measure of Shabbat sweetness, Shabbat hope, and Shabbat rest. Shabbat Shalom.
This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Isaac dug his father's wells anew. This doesn't mean he just treaded old ground.
Avraham had plumbed the earth's deep wisdom. Where his pick struck soil, compassion poured.
Isaac opened up his father's pipes so kindness, long-delayed, could flow again.
In all who drank, a memory arose: water, shared in the desert, saves a life.
When Isaac's servants, digging in the wadi found a spring, the herdsmen quarreled: "This is ours."
Frustrated, they named that place Contention. He dug another, they fought again: Dispute.
How different are things now? Today, who drills -- and who drinks only the infrequent rains?
What new name might we choose if we could build a world where everyone gets enough water?
Source of all, flow through us like the rains. Turn the spigot of abundant blessing.
Teach us we won't die, parched and alone, but live renewed like hillsides kissed with dew.
When we can share the stuff of which we're made, what makes our earth the firmament's swirled blue,
then we will find the ample space we need to share this earth as kin with all who thirst.
(And let us say: Amen.)
"Isaac dug his father's wells anew." Genesis 26:17.
"But when Isaac's servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac's herdsmen, saying, 'The water is ours. He named that well Esek, because they contended with him." Genesis 26:19-20
"And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah." Genesis 26:21
"He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, "Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space to increase in the land." Genesis 26:22
This poem arises out of this week's Torah portion. It was written in 2013 for a now-defunct blog called Palestinian Talmud, after one of the names given to the Talmud Yerushalmi. A reader alerted me to the fact that my link to this poem was a dead link, so I'm reposting it now.
My mother and I had a complicated relationship. Over the first 43 years of my life we adored each other; we argued with each other; we delighted each other; we disappointed each other. Just now I had to look at a calendar to remind myself how old I was when Mom died: sometimes it feels like she's been gone for a long time, and sometimes it feels like she's still here.
If you've been reading this blog for any length of time at all, you know that I'm an external processor. I "write my way through the hurricane." (Thanks, Lin-Manuel.) In rabbinical school I wrote Torah poems week after week. When I miscarried, I wrote poems as I sought healing. During my son's first year of life I wrote weekly poems chronicling his changes... and mine.
How else could I possibly respond to my mother's death? I keened and grieved and wept -- and wrote. When I was in my MFA program in my early 20s, she didn't like some of my poems; they felt too revelatory. Would she find these poems too intimate to be shared? I shared early drafts here anyway, because I needed to send the words out: into the world, if not to her.
Many of you wrote to me saying that the poems spoke to you and mirrored your experiences of loss. Over the course of the eleven months between her death and her unveiling, I wrote my way through how grief was changing me, and changing in me, until I reached the far shore of that particular sea. I will never cross it in that same way again, because one's mother only dies once.
And then, after the year was over, I sat down with a trusted friend and editor and asked: are these poems worth publishing in a less ephemeral form? Beth helped me see how the poems could be improved, and what was missing from the collection, and how to make the book more than the sum of its parts. This book is far better for her editorial hand, and I am grateful.
I am fiercely proud of this book of poems. It is a tribute to Mom, and a testament to how much she shaped me (and continues to shape me). It's a reminder that relationships can continue after death, and that time's alchemy brings subtle shifts. It's personal, because our relationship was only ours... and I think it's universal, too, because we all have mothers, and we all know loss.
If you knew Liana Barenblat, I hope you'll find her here. And if you didn't know my mom, I hope you'll find in these poems echoes of your own relationships, and maybe a roadmap for the mourner's path, that complex journey of grief and love, loss and healing. I'm so thankful to Beth Adams at Phoenicia for bringing this book to press, and for her cover art, which I love.
Special pre-order price $14.50 (US) Regular price after Nov 30, $15.95
Heart-full, love-rich, rapt with intricate attention and memory, but never shirking the hard parts, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat shares a sequence of stunning poems for her late mother. Her voice is honest as a tree. This is an extremely moving book for anyone who has known grief, and feels captivated by how the conversation goes on.
–Naomi Shihab Nye, author of The Tiny Journalist and Transfer, among others
I knew Rachel’s mother. We came from the same small Texas town, ate the same mango mousse served in a fluted ring mold. Rachel captures the complexity of their relationship through similar telling descriptions and snippets of dialogue, then a miracle happens. My mother is there, too. Crossing the Sea moves past the personal as women readers identify and remember, laying these pebble poems on their own mothers’ stones.
— Nan Cuba, author of Body and Bread, winner of the PEN Southwest Award in Fiction
Rachel Barenblat’s poems open us to the heart of mourning: grappling with the loss of a parent, with whom our relationship was so close yet so complicated. She captures the tension between love and discord, the thrust and tug of distancing and reconciliation. She takes us with her on a winding path of grieving over the seasons of a year. Through that prism she refracts two lifetimes and three generations, rendering them with emotional honesty and insight. I was moved, I was brought back to my own loss, and I was brought a little closer to healing.
It's unseasonably warm for western Massachusetts in November. Day after day the high reaches 75. Given climate change, has unseasonable lost its meaning? Last month when it snowed a little I moved my short-sleeved shirts into winter storage; now I'm taking them back out again. The time has changed, we've "fallen back," night falls early. There's something deeply disconcerting about early nightfall when it's this warm. The world feels out of joint. I think of the jokes we crack: "It's March 282nd," as though time stopped moving forward in its normal patterns when the pandemic began for us. I don't know how many days it's been since March. I don't want to count them: they feel lost. So much feels lost. This week we're all on tenterhooks again. Has democracy lost its meaning? The weather app tells me we'll be back to cold weather in a few days. I resolve to go outdoors today while I still can. My fears tell me they know what's coming.
Because we combine creation's building blocks: andesite, birch, clay.
Because seeds will sprout and we transform wheat into bread worth blessing.
Because it's our job to bring light to dark places.
Because the only way this world makes sense is if we keep building.
Sometimes we turn around and everything we tended is broken. Still we repair
each shattered place, growing new flowers over the earth's wounds.
In an early week of the psalms class I'm teaching for clergy (via Bayit: Building Jewish), we read an excerpt from Psalm in the Spirit of Dragnet by Julie Marie Wade. Our conversation afterwards took us to all kinds of places, and one of the ideas it sparked in me was: what about a psalm in the spirit of Minecraft? I've been playing the game with my son since the pandemic began, and have been surprised at how satisfying I find it. For me there's something fundamentally hopeful about the game. And, of course, building is our root metaphor at Bayit. As an experiment, I read this poem aloud to my son without telling him the title, and he immediately recognized what I was doing, which makes me happy. Here's to more building.
In this week's Torah portion, Vayera, God decides to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, because "their sin is so great."
Later in the parsha we'll see an example of their sin: an angry mob demanding that Lot release the strangers whom he's protecting, so that the mob can rape them. That's one way to read the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah: their response to strangers is violent domination.
Here's another, from the prophet Ezekiel: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and needy.”
But before that happens, Abraham argues with God: what if there are fifty righteous people there? Or forty? And he bargains God down, and God agrees that if a single minyan of tzaddikim can be found, the cities will be spared.
This year we're reading these verses against the backdrop of election aftermath. We've all been on tenterhooks waiting for votes to be counted. Maybe feeling afraid of violence or afraid for our nation.
And here's Abraham saying to God: wait, even if You're despairing, count everybody. Here's what I take from that passage this year: every righteous person counts. Every righteous person makes a difference. Even if we may feel insignificant in the big picture -- every one of us who is trying to do what's right, matters.
Many translations of this dialogue between Abraham and God about Sodom and Gomorrah use the terms "guilty" and "innocent," e.g. "Far be it from You... to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike!" In that translation, Abraham is urging God to remember the people who are innocent of wrongdoing.
But I would argue that the plain meaning of the Hebrew words rasha and tzaddik is stronger than that. A rasha is someone who acts wickedly. Some say: a rasha is concerned only with themself and their own needs, rather than the needs of the community or the needs of the vulnerable. And a tzaddik isn't just "innocent." A tzaddik is someone who acts righteously -- someone who acts with tzedek, justice.
And it's not always easy. Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle. The pastor John Pavlovitz writes,
"There is a cost to compassion, a personal price tag to cultivating empathy in days when cruelty is trending... Friend, I know you’re exhausted. If you’re not exhausted right now your empathy is busted. But I also know that you aren’t alone."
For those of us who trust science, it's exhausting to know that so many of our fellow Americans think masks infringe on their civil liberties -- or think covid is a hoax. Especially in a week with days where the US kept breaking our own records for new covid-19 infections: first 100,000, then 109,000... And that's just one reason to feel exhausted. Election uncertainty is exhausting. Fears of violence are exhausting.
But in this week's parsha what I hear Abraham saying is: don't give up. We need to keep doing the right thing: it matters, it makes a difference, even if we don't know it. We need to be tzaddikim. We need to keep loving the stranger, feeding the hungry, caring for the needy and the vulnerable, pursuing justice. Wearing our masks. Protecting the marginalized. Feeling empathy for others. Counting every vote.
This is our obligation as Jews -- as citizens -- as human beings. This was our work before the election; this is our work after the election. And yeah, this is hard work. Most things worth doing are.
Maybe there weren't ten tzaddikim in Sodom, but I believe there are tzaddikim everywhere. And if we're trying to act justly in the world, our work matters -- our work counts.
May Shabbat bring balm to our bruised and anxious hearts... so that when the new week begins, we can bring renewed energy to the work of doing what's right, the work described in the Langston Hughes poem that was our haftarah reading today, the work of building a better world.
This was my d'varling from my synagogue's Shabbat services this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Everyone I know is struggling right now. And by and large, the people in my circles have jobs; we have secure housing; we do not have COVID-19. If this year were a video game, we would be sailing through it on "easy" mode. This is still hard.
We're watching the pandemic surge all over the country. Hospitals are filling up. We remember New York last spring, the refrigerated trucks that had to serve as extra morgues, doctors re-using PPE because there isn't enough to go around.
We're watching the anointing of a new Supreme Court justice who may be poised to strike down the Affordable Care Act and undo a generation's progress toward the bodily autonomy of people with uteruses. Many of us feel powerless and afraid.
We're watching the election with a mixture of hope and dread. The president insists he cannot lose unless it's rigged. I've had congregants ask me: do I think voter intimidation will turn into actual civil war? (Probably not, but the fear is exhausting.)
We're trying to help our children navigate remote or hybrid school. My kid is lucky: right now he's at school for about 2.5 hours, four days a week. The rest of the time is asynchronous work that takes him almost no time at all. He's often at loose ends.
We're trying to help our children navigate the emotional and spiritual impacts of seven months of pandemic with no end in sight. Bedtime has become fraught. Tears happen more often and more easily. "This pandemic ruins everything," mine said.
We're grieving everything we've lost. Even those of us who haven't lost friends or family to COVID-19 (yet) have much to grieve. Planned visits to loved ones, or long-awaited vacations, or just... safely sitting at a coffee shop with other human beings.
Many of us struggle to drum up and sustain hope for the future. Many of us have lost our previous sense of safety in the world. And we're the lucky ones: not sick, not unemployed, not homeless, enough food to eat, enough hand sanitizer to get by.
Why am I reciting this terrible litany? In order to say: if you're struggling, you're not alone. In order to say: hey, be gentle with yourself. These are difficult times. It's normal to be overwhelmed, and anxious, and to feel like everything is a slog right now.
I mean, guess what: everything really is a slog right now. Our brains are spinning with anxious worst-case scenarios on every level, from the personal to the communal to the global. Of course we can't focus. Of course we're not working at capacity.
I've said before that this is a great time to strengthen our spiritual practices. (And if we don't have them, this is a great time to start.) And this is a time to be compassionate with ourselves, and to replenish ourselves however we can manage to do so.
Yes, everything is really hard right now. It's not you -- it's the world we're living in. Put on your own oxygen mask: nourish yourself in whatever ways you can. With music, or books, or Netflix, or petting your cat, or cooking, or whatever you can find.
Cultivate hope. Plant its seeds deep within, and water them, and nurture them, and strengthen your ability to feel those seeds growing. It's okay if you can't feel hope all the time. Try just feeling it for a single moment. And then a moment more.
And if you can't feel hope, then hope for the capacity to feel hope again -- that works too. And when you can breathe, see what you can do to help people who have it worse off than you do. And when you can't breathe, return to your oxygen mask again.
I don't know anything about the artist who created this print. I found it in the San José Artisans' Market in Havana, in the last moments before our bus left the city and took us into the provinces. The art market is enormous, a warehouse filled with stalls where artists sell everything from oil paintings to handmade hammocks. I browsed its aisles, wandering, and this print caught my eye. The price was low, maybe twenty CUC$. What leapt out at me was the bright crescent moon over the close city rooftops.
The previous night we'd walked the streets of Old Havana under a new moon. Because of the embargo, tourists were few and far between. We stopped in at La Bodeguita del Medio, sipped rum, savored incredible music. We wandered the streets, our group breaking into smaller clusters as we found places for dinner. After dinner my foursome wound up on the rooftop of the Hotel Raquel, where a porter showed us mezuzahs and a cupola adorned with Biblical frescoes and spoke wistfully about cruise ships.
The crescent moon above us was the marker of a new month. Cheshvan: the month with no holidays except for Shabbat. The month when we return to the rhythms of "regular life" after the long stretch of spiritual work from Tisha b'Av to Simchat Torah. Today is Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan again. The pandemic isolates us now. I'm traveling in my mind: remembering walking with friends on the old cobblestone streets, marveling at the new moon over the city rooftops as music drifted through the air.
A rabbinic friend of mine just had a baby, so I am sending her a copy of Waiting to Unfold, the volume of poems I wrote during my son's first year of life, published in 2013 by Phoenicia Publishing. I had a few quiet minutes before an appointment, so after I inscribed the book to my friend, I started reading it, and I read the whole thing.
Reading it felt like opening a time capsule: inhabiting a reality that is no longer mine, a strange world I had almost forgotten. Pregnancy and nursing and colic and postpartum depression and emerging into hope again... I'm not sure how clearly I would remember any of those things, if I hadn't written these poems while they were happening.
It's not just that the poems open a window to then. They temporarily cloak me in then, like a shimmering holographic overlay. Rereading them, I feel grief and joy and most of all compassion and tenderness. For myself, back then. For everyone who's experiencing those realities now. For all of us, fragile and breakable and strong.
It makes me wonder what it will be like in ten years to reread Crossing the Sea, forthcoming from Phoenicia. Those poems were written as I walked the mourner's path between my mother's death and her unveiling. It wasn't written as systematically as Waiting toUnfold, but both volumes chronicle a kind of metamorphosis.
I think -- I hope -- that both volumes inhabit that sweet spot between my particular experiences (of new motherhood, of grief) and a kind of universality. Every parent of a newborn has some of the experiences I wrote about in Waiting to Unfold. Every person walks the mourner's path someday, for someone, because human life comes with loss.
It feels right to turn to poetry to distill and find meaning in birth and death. I mean those words as a merism: not only the beginning and endpoint of every human life but also everything that comes between. I wanted to quote Anne Sexton, "There is holiness in all." Though what she actually wrote was "there is joy in all."
So I'm thinking today about what kind of joy really is in all things, even the painful ones. For me that kind of joy is integral to authentic spiritual life. There's joy in being real, with myself and with others and with my Source, even when the path I'm walking takes me into the shadows. Writing is part of how I find my way back to life.
This year I take comfort in every tradition I can manage. Anything I've done in years past that I might do in years to come -- those things become a lifeline. A reminder that there was life before this difficult, terrible, anxiety-drenched year of global pandemic and national political uncertainty, and there will be life after this year, too. The holidays come and go every year. The autumn leaves blaze bright every year, and fall, and then grow anew. These rhythms remind me that the world will not end.
One of my annual traditions comes at the end of Sukkot: preserving the etrogim from Sukkot to taste at Tu BiShvat, the new year of the trees which falls here in deep midwinter. The etrog is called pri etz hadar, "the fruit of a splendid tree" (or a goodly tree). And Pri Etz Hadar is the name of an early mystical Tu BiShvat text and seder. Bringing the taste and scent of the etrog to Tu BiShvat is a way to link this fall with the coming winter -- and to evoke the new growth that hasn't yet come, but will.
As always, I've peeled five etrogim and put them under vodka in my tall glass infuser in the back of a cupboard. Within a few days I'll forget that they're there. All year long they will steep, slowly transferring their color, flavor, and fragrance. By this time next year, the vodka will be bright as sunlight and fragrant like an etrog scratched with a thumbnail to release its scent. I'll decant the contents, add simple syrup, and bottle the end result... so I can refill my infuser and begin the whole process again.
I'm not sure how I'll share this fragrant elixir with my community at Tu BiShvat this year. I can't imagine a reality in which we'd feel safe gathering indoors for a Tu BiShvat seder at the end of January. The pandemic won't be over by then. I suspect we'll all be sheltering-in-place at home by deep wintertime. Maybe I'll see if folks want to gather outdoors in the snow, among the dormant trees, and toast to their continued health and longevity (and our own!) at a safe social distance in the brisk fresh air.
The streets of my small New England town are full of lawn signs. Many of them say "Black Lives Matter." Many of them promote candidates for local school committee. (That race has gotten heated, since not everyone is happy with how the school committee managed decisions about pandemic schooling.) And of course there are signs for candidates in less-local races, e.g. the presidential race, though none quite so elaborate as the Biden-Harris sign made out of hay bales on a nearby farm that an arsonist torched. And doesn't that just feel like a metaphor for American civic discourse?
But I've been intrigued by the one that simply says "Enough." It's on a block with a bunch of political signs, so the first several times I saw it, I read it as a commentary on this endless election season. Enough with this administration and its gaslighting. Enough with talking heads and pundits, predictions and and polls. Enough with it already. Let's vote and be done. (Well. This year it may be more like "vote, and then spend a month or more navigating false claims of voter fraud and lawsuits over systemic voter disenfranchisement." But whatever.) Enough! Would that it were over already. We've had enough.
I suspect it's how all of us are feeling about the pandemic, too. Enough of COVID-19, and horrendous newspaper headlines, and refrigerator truck morgues, and bleak statistics, and the politicization of face masks, and lies about it being a "plandemic." Even a single death is too many; over a million is almost unimaginable. And countless more remain alive but sick. We all wish we could be done. (Of course, we're not done. So we're still masking, socially-distancing, washing our hands. But I know it wearies me; surely it wearies all of us.) Enough! Would that it were over already. We've had enough.
But the round of Jewish fall holidays drew toward their close, I realized there's another way to read it. Maybe it means: we are enough. What we have managed to do is enough. Even if we don't feel like we're doing a "good enough" job: if we're making it through this year, that's enough. We need to be gentle with ourselves. Don't fault ourselves for not learning a new language or writing the next great American novel during a massive global health crisis coinciding with enormous anxiety about the future of democracy. Whatever we're managing -- emotionally, spiritually, let it feel like enough.
Updated to add: I've just learned that the "enough" sign is intended to be a message against local police and racial equity work. I don't agree with that stance, and I will continue to creatively mis-interpret the sign when I drive past it.
I think my cat was perplexed. He has grown accustomed to me leading services from the dining room table: the laptop, my microphone, perhaps a pair of Shabbat or festival candles lit on the table beside me, lots of singing.
These days when I daven from the table, he looks up briefly from his favorite perch on the cat tree and then returns to napping. But he has never seen me dance around the room holding a big metal-bound Tanakh encrusted with gems.
I don't have a Torah scroll at home, so I danced with the big metal-bound Tanakh that used to belong to my parents. I waltzed with it; I spun around in circles with it; I danced with it in a circumnambulation of the room; I cradled it like a baby in my arms.
Seven songs, seven poems, seven hakafot. Evoking the seven days of the first week, and the seven "lower sefirot" or qualities that we share with our Creator from lovingkindness to boundaries and strength all the way to presence and Shechinah.
I thrilled to the secret heart revealed when we go from the end of Torah directly to her beginning, from loss to starting over, from lamed to bet. I opened my Tanakh to a random word and from that word I gave myself a blessing.
And then I went to bed, and I slept the sleep of the overtired rabbi and elementary school parent who could finally relax into knowing that the work of this long, challenging (and this year, pandemic-unprecedented) holy season was done.
"Mom, did you know that there are monks who spend months making really intricate sand mandalas and then when they're finished, they blow the sand away, because nothing lasts forever?"
My son says this to me on the first morning of Sukkot. I can't make this up. My d'varling for that morning, which I've just printed out, begins "Sukkot; festival of impermanence..." And here he is, telling me earnestly about sand mandalas.
"I did know that," I say. "Hey, can you think of any spiritual practices we have as Jews that are kind of similar to that?"
His eyes are a study in uncertainty.
"Where we make something beautiful and then let it come apart?"
"Wait a second," he says, and I can see the lightbulb going on. We've just spent four days building our sukkah, procuring fairy lights to illuminate it, and adorning it with all of his favorite sparkly decorations. (He even made a video about it.)
"I'll give you a hint. We build a little house and cover it with decorations. And over the course of the week the cornstalks dry out and the decorations fall down and at the end of the week we take it all down."
"Because nothing lasts forever?"
"I wish our sukkah could last forever," he says, wistfully.
"If it did, we'd probably stop noticing how beautiful it is," I point out.
Two days later, we're in the car on the way to the elementary school for the first time in twenty-seven weeks. He is in an afternoon fifth grade cohort that will go to school four afternoons a week while infection rates remain low.
I drop him off curbside. He is wearing the mask he picked for the first day of hybrid school, carrying his school-issued Chromebook and a water bottle that will stay at school and some extra hand sanitizer for good measure.
As I watch him walk away, my heart seizes. Infection numbers here are low right now. I trust that our local elementary school is taking wise precautions. I know that he is going to be fine. But it still feels wrenching to let him out of my sight.
I return home, open up Zoom, and spend my Monday rabbinic office hour in our sukkah. A few of the decorations have fallen down. The cornstalks on the roof are beginning to dry out. The "it's not easy being green" etrog poster is now on the floor.
I sit inside our little homemade sand mandala of tinsel and schach. I remind myself that this pang isn't new. It just feels sharper right now because the pandemic has so unaccustomed me to letting him go.
Sukkot: festival of impermanence, festival of joy even in vulnerability. We build sukkot to remember our ancestors' harvest traditions; to remember the flimsy sukkot in which we dwelled after leaving Egypt; to remember the cloud of glory that protected us in our wilderness wanderings. Sukkot asks us: can we feel protected by God's presence even now, even in a flimsy little house that lets in the rain and the wind?
That's always the question at Sukkot. What does it mean to feel safe and protected? What does it mean to build structures -- whether physical or spiritual -- knowing that nothing we build lasts forever?
On the physical front, this year there may be a paradoxical sense of safety in the sukkah because a sukkah is as well-ventilated as any space can be. It has to be, in order to be kosher. A sukkah can't be airtight with a solid roof. The roof needs to let moonlight and raindrops through. In these covid-19 times, this flimsy sketch of a room in the fresh air of the great outdoors is the safest place to breathe.
In part through the very fact of what a sukkah is, Sukkot asks us to grapple with impermanence. As soon as we put on the (purposely insufficient) roof, the roof starts to come apart -- the cornstalks dry up, the palm fronds or branches wither. "Emptiness upon emptiness," as we read this morning in Kohelet. Nothing that we can build lasts forever.
And Sukkot asks us to find joy in the midst of impermanence. One of this holiday's names is Zman Simchateinu, the Time of Our Rejoicing. How can we rejoice in a little temporary house where rain gets through the roof? We might as well ask: how can we rejoice in fragile human bodies that we know will someday die? And my answer is: how can we not?
Early in the pandemic, my friend Cate Denial reminded me that life doesn't go on "pause" while we're sheltering-in-place. This is the life we have. Right now it may be more constrained than we want it to be, for pandemic reasons -- but it is still life, and we need to live it, not sleepwalk through our days waiting for the pandemic to be over.
I think of that teaching often, and it feels deeply relevant to Sukkot. This little temporary house is a metaphor for human life. It's fragile. It's vulnerable. It's not forever. But as Cate taught me, this is the life we have -- and the time to cultivate joy is not in some unimaginable future when everything broken is repaired, but here and now.
Sukkot reminds me to grab joy with both hands, wherever I can find it. In my morning cup of coffee; in the scent of the etrog, sharp and stirring; in the light of the full moon. In the voices and faces of friends, even when the only safe way to see them is on Zoom. In the melodies of our prayers. In the rhythm of weekday and Shabbes.
These are quotidian joys, but they are real, and they can be sustaining. To be sure, the existence of these joys doesn't negate the difficult realities of this moment. One million dead to covid-19 around the world so far. Credible threats of election violence and voter intimidation. Fears that our democracy might be as fragile as this flimsy sukkah.
So during chag we cultivate joy, and we let that joy fuel us and strengthen us to do the rebuilding work that our world so desperately needs. Maybe this year that rebuilding work means textbanking or phonebanking to help eligible voters register to vote, or volunteering as a poll worker. Those actions help to build our democracy.
Or maybe you feel called toward something more tangible... like chopping onions for the Berkshire Food Project's grab-and-go meals, because need has tripled since the pandemic began. Helping to cook the meals that feed our hungry neighbors is a mitzvah that comes right out of Torah -- and it's an action that helps to build our community.
Sukkot invites us to cultivate joy that will sustain us in this work and more. Sukkot teaches us to seek joy in the full moon even though we're also vulnerable to the falling rain. Sukkot teaches us to seek joy even as we recognize the world's brokenness and work to fix it. Sukkot invites us to remember that this is the life we have, and our job is to live it.
This is my d'varling for Shabbat Sukkot (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Image: the CBI sukkah this year.
I gave my sermon "live" on Zoom in realtime, and also pre-recorded it to go live with this blog post around the time I was offering it. If you prefer to watch the sermon, it's above (and here on YouTube.) If you prefer to read it, the text appears below.
A few weeks ago, a congregant said to me: you know, it's weird. Sometimes, especially reading Facebook, it feels like life is normal. We're seeing everybody's first day of school pictures, even if school is "from home" this fall. There are pictures of new kids or grandkids. Life seems to be continuing. And then other times I wake up and I'm immediately swamped by fear about the future of democracy, despair about the pandemic, and anxiety about totalitarianism, and nothing feels normal anymore at all.
I was really struck by that description of the disjunction between first-day-of-school pictures and creeping anxiety about what our world might be becoming.
I think we've all been living in that disjunction. It's a normal day -- and here are the latest case numbers in the global pandemic. It's a normal day -- and the news headlines are so outrageous that I feel numb. It's a normal day -- and nothing feels normal at all... As Rafia Zakaria wrote recently, "We live constantly with the weight of these juxtapositions between the banal and the utterly devastating."
In pastoral conversations over the last six months, I've heard a lot of anxiety. About illness and covid-19 and our children and everything that's happening in our world. About the coming election, and fears of authoritarianism, and the future of democracy, and a sense that everything could be about to unravel right before our eyes, and about whether this nation is a safe place to be Jewish, and whether anywhere in the world is safe. Colleagues who are therapists tell me they're hearing all of these anxieties, too.
Several of you have asked me: if things really are that bad, then what can we do?
Here's my answer: if things are really that bad, then we take care of each other. We protect the most vulnerable among us. We stand up for those who are more at-risk than we are. And we cultivate hope for a better world, and do what we can to get closer to that ideal in our lifetime.
And what if things aren't that bad? If our democracy is actually pretty robust, and there isn't going to be a civil war, and we're not staring down the barrel of totalitarianism, and modern medicine finds an excellent vaccine for covid-19 and good government policies make it available to everyone, and together we can pursue the dream of a more perfect union with liberty and justice for all?
My answers don't actually change.
We still need to take care of each other. And protect the most vulnerable among us. And stand up for those who are more at-risk than we are. And cultivate hope, and do what we can to build a better world. That's our responsibility as Jews and as human beings, in the worst of times and in the best of times.
Over the last year, several friends and I have been studying the writings of the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, R' Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, sometimes known as the Piazeczyner.
The Piazeczyner was writing under incredibly difficult circumstances. The community he served was confined to the ghetto and their rights were being continually diminished. (Eventually, of course, they would be rounded up and taken to the camps... though he didn't know that when he was writing these weekly commentaries.) Although he wrote these divrei Torah some eighty years ago, I have found his words to be deeply relevant to the spiritual needs of this moment.
The Piazeczyner writes that when times are tough, we feel "exiled" or distant from God, and those times are precisely when we feel the most powerful longing for God. (Aish Kodesh on Shabbat Ha-Gadol, 1941.) I think we can understand this as: when times are tough we despair, and we feel frightened about the world around us, and we yearn for safety and hope.
And, he says, when we "accept the yoke of the mitzvot" -- when we accept our obligations to each other and to God -- we grow in holiness. And when we do, it's as though God's own self becomes greater and more active in the world, because in our spiritual growth we become greater and more active in the world.
He could have said, these are terrible times. The world is broken, and we are not safe, and God has abandoned us. Instead, he said: the world is broken, that very brokenness arouses our yearning for a better world, and our yearning is the first step toward making it real. He said, remember the Exodus from Egypt. Remember the story of walking into the waters of the sea. Only when the waters reached our nostrils did the seas part.
The story of crossing the sea reminds us that we have to keep going "day and night." We have to keep trying, and doing mitzvot, and building a better world. Even in times of pain and fear. Even -- he wrote this in 1940 -- when we're confined to home and "commerce is brought to a standstill and businesses are closed, God forbid." (Aish Kodesh on Beshalach, 1940.)
Torah tells us that when our spiritual ancestors wandered in the wilderness, a pillar of cloud went before us by day and a pillar of fire by night. The Piazeczyner teaches that this isn't just a literal teaching, but also a spiritual one. The fire that we need to light our way forward is here for us, if only we will open our eyes. We need to hold on to our Source of strength and hope, and that will carry us through. In the words of Psalm 27, which we read each year at this season, "Keep hope in the One. Be strong and open your heart wide, and keep hoping in the One!"
I know that for some of us the word "God" is ... complicated. Maybe we don't believe in a God Who will step in and save us. Early in the pandemic, my son overheard me studying the Piazeczyner late one night with some colleagues. We were reading a commentary on how when the Israelites cried out in the hardships of slavery, God heard our cries and saved us. And my kid came into my study and said, "Mom, if we're still the children of Israel, why isn't God saving us from covid-19? Are we just not crying out enough?"
So we talked about whether God reaches into the world and changes things for us, or whether God acts in the world through our actions, or whether we find God -- as Mister Rogers famously taught -- "in the helpers," in the doctors and nurses and scientists working to help people with covid-19. And I remember thinking: this may be the moment when his childhood theology falls away.
Even so, the psalmist's instruction to be strong, open our hearts, and keep hoping is good spiritual medicine. And so is the Piazeczyner's reminder that we have the inner resources to get through even the most difficult of times -- and that the "yoke of the mitzvot" makes us responsible for and to one another. The mitzvot ask us to "be the helpers."
As my friend and study partner Rabbi David Markus teaches, love is an action, not just a feeling. This is why the mitzvot commit us to taking care of each other: because love reaches its fullest potential when we not only feel, but also act.
Memory too is an action. The traditional silent Yizkor memorial prayer includes an explicit invitation to act. It says that we will give tzedakah in the memory of those who have died: tzedakah, not "charity" but a kind of giving that is rooted in tzedek, justice.(The version of the prayer we will say this morning pledges to "live justly and lovingly" in their memory.) That's the Jewish way to remember: giving, and justice, and action.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg z"l died on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah. During these Ten Days of Teshuvah many of you have shared with me your grief at her passing, and your heightened fear of rights being eroded now that she's gone. I feel those things too.
Justice Ginsburg will be remembered for standing up for the rights of women, from the right to have a credit card in my own name to the right to control my own body. She'll be remembered for dissenting against stripping federal protections from voters of color. She'll be remembered for asserting the full humanity of people with disabilities. What kind of giving, justice, and action might we undertake in her memory?
In the days since her death, I keep returning to these words that she offered to law students:
If you are going to be a lawyer and just practice your profession, you have a skill—very much like a plumber. But if you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself, something to repair tears in your community, something that makes life a little better for people less fortunate than you.
That's our Jewish obligation and our human calling: to do something that makes life better for people less fortunate than we. That obligation feels more important than ever before.
So many of the prayers we recite today are written in the plural: not "I," but "we." Torah also frames our obligations to each other in the plural. No matter what comes, we have responsibilities to each other.
Whether or not the world is spiraling out of control, our work of repairing the world, caring for the vulnerable, and pursuing justice doesn't change. And maybe in fulfilling our obligations to each other, we can become for each other the pillar of fire that the Piaceczyner evoked: a beacon shining in the darkness, lighting each others' path.
This is my Yom Kippur morning sermon (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
I gave my sermon "live" on Zoom in realtime, and also pre-recorded it to go live with this blog post around the time I was offering it. If you prefer to watch the sermon, it's above (and here on YouTube.) If you prefer to read it, the text appears below.
When I gave the sermon tonight I began by noting that every year I seem to write at least one extra high holiday sermon -- a sermon that I write and then don't give for some reason. This year that extra sermon was Oops, We Did It Again: on choices, momentum, and change. I wrote it, and then I realized: y'all don't need me to tell you about the pandemic or the climate crisis or antisemitism. You know those things already. That won't take us anywhere new or open our hearts tonight. So I wrote and offered this sermon at Kol Nidre, instead. (And if you want to read the other sermon, now you can -- it's linked above.)
The first things I saw on the tarmac at José Martí international airport were palm trees and military vehicles. That's when my friend Rabbi Sunny, the head of Cuba America Jewish Mission, reminded us not to photograph soldiers -- in fact, not to photograph anything at all until we had cleared the airport, just to be on the safe side. Right, I thought. I'm in a Communist country. Note to self, don't photograph the army.
Last November, with Temple Beth-El of City Island in the Bronx and with Cuba American Jewish Mission, some CBI members and I spent ten days traveling around Jewish Cuba, from Havana to small cities and towns across the countryside.
Everywhere we went, we brought bags of medical supplies: everything from aspirin, vitamins, and prescription medications to anti-fungal cream and tubes of toothpaste. The synagogues there run pharmacies, and they make these pharmacy supplies available to anyone in need, whether or not they are Jewish. When we arrived, there had not been a mission like ours in six months, and their pharmacy shelves were close to bare.
Havana is incredibly beautiful. The sea crashes up against the wall on the Malecon, the main thoroughfare. One day we saw people clustered at that wall, throwing roses into the sea in remembrance of Camilo Cienfuegos, who died in a plane crash over the sea after the revolution. The sunlight was golden on stately buildings with sometimes cracking plaster and peeling paint. There was extraordinary music, everywhere. Young musicians there learn music on the state's dime; they play in bands and on rooftops and in the streets. It's facile to say that when one lives with hardship, the gifts of music and of spiritual life are more palpable. But I kept having that thought anyway.
As we moved deeper into the countryside, we started to encounter people who would come up to us with a hand out. They weren't asking for money. They were asking for soap or shampoo. Everyone in Cuba is guaranteed health care, which is pretty extraordinary. But once we left the city for the provinces, a lot of people didn't have soap. "Rite Aid or Walmart is like a fantasy to us," said one person who had traveled abroad and had seen American big-box stores and pharmacies.
I've thought of that often since the pandemic began. And when Stop and Shop in North Adams started running out of things, early-ish in the pandemic -- you remember: for a while there, we couldn't buy flour, or dried beans, or toilet paper -- I thought of the mostly-empty shelves in the Cuban stores we visited.
In the spring when here in the US we faced simultaneous food shortages and produce rotting in the fields, I remembered stories of Cubans going hungry after the Soviet Union fell. They told us about eating grass to try to fill their bellies while citrus fruits rotted in the fields because there was no gasoline to transport them. And I thought of how our Cuban cousins must be doing now, as the combination of pandemic and trade embargo keeps their shelves even emptier, and keeps their Jewish cousins from abroad away, with our tzedakah and our care and our desperately-needed duffel bags of aspirin and soap.
And yet when I think of the Cuban Jews we met last fall, what I remember is not what they didn't have, but what they did: their warmth and their kindness, their connectedness and their pride. I remember the music, everywhere. I remember their beautiful synagogue sanctuaries: the Patronato in Havana, which seemed plucked right out of the 1960s just like the classic cars that serve as taxis, and the beautiful little painted synagogue in Santa Clara where we celebrated the coming-of-age of a Cuban bat mitzvah -- rebuilt with tzedakah from the Cuba America Jewish Mission and travelers like us.
Most of all, I remember their love. One day we visited Rebecca Langus in the provincial city of Cienfuegos. The entire Jewish community there is eighteen people. They meet for services in her living room, on white monobloc plastic chairs that otherwise sit stacked on her tiny mirpesset next to her laundry line. She teaches the Hebrew school, which is currently three children, using books donated by Jewish visitors from abroad, like us. She works tirelessly to keep her community alive. After her prepared remarks, the four rabbis on the trip chatted with her. We asked her how she does it, and what gives her hope.
"Everything I do, I do for love," she said simply. That could not have been more clear: her love for her community, for our shared traditions, for Jewishness itself, shone from her like light.
She told us that when they meet for Shabbat, they always have a minyan. I thought: there are only fifteen Jewish adults in this city of 150,000. Two-thirds of the Jews in town need to show up if anyone is going to say kaddish. And... they do. And if there is a fuel shortage, which often there is, they catch a ride on a donkey-pulled cart, or they walk. Because of love: for our traditions, for community, for each other.
Love brought the Jews of Cuba together to celebrate a bat mitzvah while we were there. Many walked miles, some for days, because new US sanctions had contributed to another fuel shortage. Our tour bus was able to secure fuel, but most locals weren't. So they walked. Because it was worth it to them to be there for each other.
I felt that same extraordinary sense of community love on our final stop in Cuba, the Spanish colonial city of Camagüey. That community meets in a rented house, where they have a beautiful tiny sanctuary with a hand-painted ark, and a little social hall where we gathered to learn from them and to share songs together. There are 32 people in the Jewish community there. We sang "Am Yisrael chai" -- the people of Israel yet lives! -- which took on a new poignancy there, where for so long the state forbade the practice of any religion at all.
That visit to Camagüey was our last day of the trip, and after a meal with the community there, I listened as my friend and colleague Rabbi David -- who is fluent in Spanish -- asked a young man why he has chosen to stay in Cuba. His answer: sure, he could go anywhere. But the closeness of the Cuban family and community is precious. It is worth more than whatever money he could earn if he were to decide to leave.
Ten days does not make me an expert on the Jews of Cuba. (I suspect that ten years would be insufficient.) But our trip still resonates in me. The Jews I met in Cuba inspired me with how proud they are to be Cuban and to be Jewish. They inspired me in how they show up for each other. Even in a place where for so long it was illegal to practice any religion at all. They inspired me with their love for our traditions, their love for community, their love of country, their love for each other.
The Jews of Cuba live with profound hardship. That was true a year ago; it is even more true now. And yet... when the pandemic began to rage in the US, they reached out to me via Facebook to make sure that we were okay. Because their love and care flows so naturally, even toward we who have so much.
Tonight they too are hearing the words of Kol Nidre, words that release us from the vows we won't be able to live up to. But I don't want to be let off the hook for my promise to keep our connections alive across borders and differences.Communist or capitalist, Cuban or American, rich or poor, we are part of one Jewish family.
Because of the pandemic, it will probably be a long time before we can gather together again in person in physical space. And... the pandemic also highlights how deeply interconnected we are, even when we're apart. Covid-19 spread around the world because the whole world is interconnected: what happens there has an impact here. What happens to me has an impact on you. This is a deep spiritual truth. It's also a practical one.
And covid-19 is also teaching us other forms of connectedness. Over these pandemic Days of Awe, we've davened with members of our community who live in other places... and with far-flung friends and family who maybe never felt connected with our little shul before. What if we keep all of these connections vibrant and alive in 5781? Imagine the strength and hope and courage we could share with each other through the pandemic winter that is coming. We can be there for each other as our Cuban cousins are there for each other -- and we don't have to walk miles to do it: our connectedness is as close as the click of a computer key.
For that matter, we can be there for our Cuban cousins, too. Rabbi Sunny tells me that right now it's almost impossible to send tzedakah to Cuba. As of this week, a wire transfer sent in July via Panama and Israel has yet to materialize, and a package of much-needed medicines has been missing for sixty days. But we can support the Cuba America Jewish Mission so that when it becomes possible to directly bring help to Cuba again, there are tzedakah dollars to bring.
Talmud teaches that all of Israel is responsible for one another. Our Cuban Jewish cousins live that truth -- not because it's in Talmud, but just because of who and how they are. This Yom Kippur, may we find uplift in the knowledge that under unbelievably difficult circumstances they are praying these words with us too. May we go the extra mile to be there for each other in community, as do our Cuban cousins. And may we find uplift in the knowledge that we share one tradition; that we share one heart; that love connects us all.
This is my Kol Nidre sermon (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)