Wrestle and stretch

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This week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, contains the story from which our people takes its name.

Jacob is on his way to meet up with his brother Esau for the first time in years. He sends his family away: he is alone on the riverbank. There an angel wrestles with him until dawn, and blesses him with a new name, Israel -- "Godwrestler." We are the people Israel, the people who wrestle with God.

Jacob -- Israel -- walks away from that encounter with a limp. His hip has been wrenched; Rashi says it's torn from its joint. I imagine he was never quite the same after his night-time wrestle. Maybe he could feel oncoming damp weather in his aching hip, or in the sciatic nerve that Torah instructs us not to eat.

Our struggles change us. They may leave us limping.

I think we all know something about that now. The last eighteen months have been a struggle. We've wrestled with fear and anxiety, and with loneliness. We've wrestled with disbelief at outright lies about the pandemic being a hoax, or about vaccines being an instrument of government control.

Many of us are grappling with climate grief, the fear that our planet is already irrevocably changed. Or with political anxiety, wondering whether "red America" and "blue America" can really remain one nation. Or with the reality that the pandemic is now endemic and will not go away. That's a lot.

Jacob wrestled for one night and was changed.

How will we be changed by the wrestling we're doing during these pandemic years?

Earlier this fall I had a bout of sciatica, and I went to see my neighborhood bodyworker. She reminded me that when one part of the body hurts, most likely a different part of the body needs work. My lower back ached, so she worked on my hip flexors! Pain often calls us to stretch in the opposite direction.

That's a physical truth, but it landed metaphysically. When despair ties us in knots, we need to stretch into hope. Remember what we learned from Mariame Kaba at Rosh Hashanah: hope is a discipline. We have to practice it, and stretch it, and lean into it exactly when our pain pulls us the other way.

Torah tells us that Jacob's sciatic nerve was wounded in his wrestling. And Torah also references his heel; Jacob's name means heel. When I was getting treatment for my sciatica, my bodyworker picked up my heels and leaned back, pulling on them gently. "I feel like you're making me taller," I joked.

She said: that's because I am. Stress and tension and gravity all conspire to tighten our bodies, but we can lengthen. In fact, every night while we sleep we get taller as we unclench. Just as astronauts get taller when they spend time in zero-gee, away from the literal pressure of earth's gravitational pull.

When she pulled on my heels, I could feel my whole body getting longer: legs telescoping, spine lengthening. We compartmentalize -- imagining that this body part is separate from that one, or that body is separate from mind and heart and soul -- but we are integrated beings: everything is connected.

That's another physical teaching that lands metaphysically. When we tighten up spiritually, that manifests in our bodies. Stress and tension and gravity tighten us, but rest can help us loosen. Shabbat can help us loosen. Giving ourselves a break from the relentless press of news can help us loosen.

So can stretching ourselves toward hope. When the wrestle feels most overwhelming, when we feel most ground-down by everything that's broken, that's exactly when we need to stretch our capacity to hope. Our spiritual practices can help us shift, as the Psalmist wrote, from constriction to expansiveness.

Jacob named the place of the wrestle P'ni-El, the Face of God. May we too encounter divine presence in our wrestling. May our wrenched and tight places give us greater compassion for each other and for ourselves. And may we learn, in our times of constriction, to open up and stretch toward possibility.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Shared with gratitude to Emily at Embodywork. Image by Marc Chagall.


New normal

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The call comes in late evening. It's someone from the school, calling to tell me that there's a positive COVID test in my kid's pooled testing cohort. I can feel an internal shift, a cloak of calm clicking into place. "Okay, what does this mean for us," I ask, and my voice does not shake even a bit.

It means I should bring him in early tomorrow morning and he'll go directly to the school gym where everyone in his pool will receive a rapid test so they can discern who among them has tested positive. No, I can't go in with him. Yes, someone will be there at 7:45 to let the kids in for their tests.

When I hang up the phone, I'm aware that I'm vibrating at a different frequency than before. It's akin to the way that news of a congregational death shifts my internal gears. Everything that was on my to-do list for tomorrow has been back-burnered. This is more important right now.

I remind my kid that he's had his first shot, which makes him safer than before. I remind him that most kids who get COVID experience something like a cold or a light flu. (I do not mention any of the awful news or social media stories about instances where that is not the case.) He changes the subject.

"It's still scary," he says as I tuck him into bed. "There's no fighting, but it's kind of like a war. There are so many people dying." My kid is incredibly lucky. His life has been as gentle as possible during these first 20 months. Even so, he and his generation will be shaped by this in ways I can't know.

The morning of his test dawns clear and bright, blue skies and unseasonable warmth. He does not test positive. He stays in school, has a normal day, runs around outside at recess, rides his bicycle to Aubuchon at 3:05 and delights in petting the hardware store cat. This is the new normal.

Last year I was grateful that we'd made it all the way to Thanksgiving before hybrid school reverted to all-Zoom. This year I'm grateful that we've made it so close to Thanksgiving before our first experience with this kind of fire drill. And, of course, grateful that he tested negative -- at least this time.


Breathless

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It's disconcerting to be short of breath during a global pandemic that can trigger respiratory infection. Granted, the shortness of breath isn't new, though it has been notably worse in the last year. At first I shrugged it off, evidence that I really ought to try again to establish an exercise practice. 

But then friends started pointing out that it's not normal to get out of breath when doing ordinary household tasks. And then there was the day when two different people, on two different phone calls, said, "You sound really out of breath. Are you okay?" (Subtext: do you think you have COVID?) 

I noted that I'm always out of breath, it's nothing to worry about. "On the contrary," they said. "If you're always short of breath, that makes me even more worried about it. Go see a doctor, please." I rolled my eyes, but I made an appointment to speak with a doctor about it. That was many months ago.

The first thing we tried was a course of steroids, which didn't do much. Next came a cardiac stress test. Predictably, jogging on a treadmill made me wheeze. Then there was a nuclear stress test that made me radioactive, which my kid thought was hilarious. (Alas, it didn't make me glow in the dark.)

Maybe the strangest experience was the hour that I spent sitting inside a small glass box, like Clark Kent crammed into a phone booth, breathing on command into a tube with a clamp over my nose. The technician was gowned, gloved, triply masked. Standard COVID precautionary protocol.

From that pulmonary function test we learned that the amount of air I can forcefully exhale in one second is around half of what it should be. There was a strange relief in learning that. It's so easy to minimize my breathlessness, or to blame it on being "out of shape," but that's not what this is.

I have learned a new phrase: "severe eosinophilic asthma." We're trying injections to improve my breathing. After my first shot, while I was waiting an hour in the doctor's office to make sure my throat didn't close up, I looked up the biologic agent. It turns out to be a form of monoclonal antibody.

I had never heard of monoclonal antibodies before the COVID-19 pandemic. Who among us had? Now, of course, we all know the term. It's fascinating to think about all of the medical terms and treatment methods, the pandemic-related language that has entered common public parlance in the last year.

During the pandemic it has sometimes felt like the whole world has been holding our breath, waiting for this to end. I realize now that that's the wrong frame. I miss the days when we thought the pandemic would end. (And of course I think of George Floyd and Eric Garner and "I can't breathe...") 

For now, these days, I often have to sit down and catch my breath in the middle of simple household tasks. I am working on extending compassion toward myself as we try new medications and interventions to see whether and how my lungs will respond. This is the day that God has made...

Sometimes when I need to center and calm myself, there's a breathing meditation I practice. I learned it many years ago on retreat. It's a simple meditation, mapping the four letter Name of God to four moments: the empty-lungs moment before breath; inhale; lungs full of air; exhale. 

י / Empty -- ה / inhale -- ו / full -- ה / exhale. And again. A letter of God's name for the pause before breathing, for the inbreath, for the pause with lungs full, for the outbreath. A reminder that God is always with me: in the moments when breathing comes easy, and in the breathless moments too. 

 


Miracle

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My refrigerator is covered with memorabilia. Mostly it holds art made by my son. There are a few school pictures held up with magnets, and a picture of the two of us from a few years ago, and some cherished postcards. But pride of place goes to a front page from The Berkshire Eagle from last December.

For the last few years, my son has had the honor of kindling the first lights on the North Adams city menorah. The first year I think he pulled little chains attached to the bulbs. In year two, the city electricians changed the mechanism; now I think it's a matter of screwing in each bulb a bit.

He loves lighting the lights of Chanukah alongside the big light-covered tree, and being on the front page of the local paper is exciting too. In years past, I've clipped out just the Chanukah story to put on the fridge. But last year I saved the whole page, because of the story that appears alongside.

"Vaccine endorsed by panel." It was such enormous news, last winter. Against all odds, medical science was prevailing against a previously unknown virus. A quarter of a million people had died in the US by then, but help was on the way. As soon as the vaccine was approved, we would be safer again.

Sometimes I miss that moment. I couldn't have imagined then how disinformation would be weaponized -- lies about microchips, or the government tracking us. I couldn't have imagined how many people would insist on their "freedom" to continue spreading a mutating pathogen.

Last Chanukah, the news of the first vaccine was light in the darkness. Today brings another miracle: my child will receive his first dose of vaccine. Cases are low where we live, and masks are required at his school; in general I think he's safe. But oh, the relief of knowing that he will be safer!

And the relief of knowing that his vaccination makes others safer. "It's just me-versus-us thinking," he said to me this morning. "If I'm just thinking about me: I don't like getting shots, so I wouldn't want to get the vaccine! But I have to think about us, like, the whole community. We live in a society."

"I wish everyone understood that," I replied, dropping him off at school. When I think about how many people resist masks and vaccines, I despair. When I think about my child getting his shot, all I can say is shehecheyanu v'kiyimanu v'higianu lazman hazeh: how lucky we are to be alive right now.


Tight

I have to be my own Jewish mother
even without a stainless soup pot.

No: I need to be
a better mother to myself --

one who wouldn't say
"put on a happy face!"

Reasons to weep
are as numerous as the stars.

Every bodyworker knows
the muscle that cries out

is the victim: something else
has tightened into immobility.

But when it's the heart
that cries out --

how can I delaminate
years of fused-together sorrows?


From chaos: a d'varling for Shabbat Bereshit

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This week we begin again.

In the beginning, or in a beginning, or as God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth, everything was תוהו ובוהו / tohu va-vohu / chaos and void, and the breath of God hovered like a mother bird over the face of the waters. And God said יהי אור / y'hi or / let there be light, and there was light...

Over the summer, my friend and colleague Rabbi Mike Moskowitz pointed out something I had never noticed about this verse. Before creation, there was already תוהו ובוהו / chaos. The first act of creation,  יהי אור / let there be light is an act of gevurah, differentiating between light and darkness, between one thing and another. But before the beginning, before that act of distinction, chaos already was.

Here we are beginning again. Beginning a new year. Beginning a new Torah reading cycle. And I'm feeling a certain resonance with chaos right now. Maybe you are too.

There's a certain scrambled feeling that comes with making it through the holiday season. We've just gone from Elul to Rosh Hashanah to the Ten Days of Teshuvah to Yom Kippur to Sukkot to Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah and whoosh, where did the last six weeks go, what day is it, who am I again? That one happens every year, but that doesn't make it any less real. 

There's also a unique scrambled feeling arising for many of us this year in particular. There was the pandemic, obviously, and then last spring as vaccines became available we thought we were coming out on the other side. Now, for reasons I don't need to belabor, it's increasingly clear that we're once again in the thick of it and it is absolutely not over yet. There was the election, and then there was January 6, and then maybe we thought we were coming out on the other side. Now, for reasons I don't need to belabor, it's increasingly clear that we're still in the thick of it and it is absolutely not over yet.

תוהו ובוהו: a mess, empty and upside-down, "in a chaotic state." Does that feel to you like it describes the reality of the last year? Yeah, me too. And we're not alone. My colleague Rabbi Michael Latz, in Minneapolis, calls this last year "immense tohu va-vohu." Not just chaos, but immense chaos. Sounds about right.

How do we begin again from this place?

I think this morning's Torah verses offer a blueprint. Yes, everything is chaos. So what does God do? God draws a boundary. And God speaks light into being.

New beginnings take gevurah. They always have, ever since The Beginning.

What boundary do we need to draw between the chaos that threatens to overwhelm us, and the new beginning that we're called to create? What boundary do we need to draw between ourselves and the relentless bad news and drumbeat of news coverage? (Here's a thought: how can keeping Shabbat help us draw that boundary?) What boundary do we need to draw around behaviors -- our own behaviors that maybe don't serve us well going forward, or the behaviors that we as individuals and as a community deem unacceptable?

Without a boundary, without gevurah, everything is s תוהו ובוהו / chaos.

And then what light can we speak into being? Every morning we bless God Who speaks the world into being. Our sages point out that we who are made in the Divine image and likeness can also speak worlds into being. Okay, I can't say "let there be coffee" and cause the coffee to manifest in my hand like Janet from The Good Place. But our words shape realities. Our words impact other people. Our words impact our own internal landscape, too. We can choose to use our words to bring light and uplift and hope, or to perpetuate chaos and falsehood and despair.

This week we begin again. The world begins again. Our story begins again. May we begin the new year the way God begins creation: with gevurah, and with words chosen to bring light into dark places and uplift to counter despair. As my friend and colleague R. Mark Asher Goodman writes,

God made meaning out of the chaos -- something beautiful and wonderful -- and we who are created in the image of God can do the same.

Kein yehi ratzon, may it be so.

 

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


The Strength to Go Gentle: Kol Nidre 5782

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Did you know that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantining for possible exposure to the Bubonic plague? Possibly also Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. I assume all of us wrote at least one great masterwork of literature during the last year. No? 

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Surely at least we started baking with sourdough during the pandemic, creating spectacular loaves and sharing them on Instagram. Or maybe we reorganized our entire storage system, or finished all the home improvement projects we hadn't had time to complete before, or learned a new language on Duolingo.

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The idea that we were "supposed" to do something great and meaningful during quarantine has become a meme, a running joke. As though that were the way to "win" at lockdown and isolation amid global pandemic. We laugh, but the laughter is uneasy. On some level, maybe we wonder: if I didn't spend this first 18 months of pandemic doing something I can brag about, am I doing it wrong? 

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Kol nidrei: all the vows and promises and oaths that we fail to live up to...

Maybe we promised ourselves that 5781 would be the year we would finally start working out, or the year we would actually open those cookbooks, or the year we would learn to bake sourdough or write a screenplay... especially since many of us were sheltering-in-place or working from home, so obviously we had all that spare time, right? And instead it turned out that 5781 was a year that we spent trying to keep ourselves and each other afloat. It was a year that we spent watching millions die, and grieving, maybe grappling with survivor's guilt. And it was a year that we spent watching some people politicize mask-wearing and vaccination, even questioning whether or not the virus is real.

In some ways, the jokes about sourdough and King Lear feel like gaslighting. They ask us to pretend away the inconceivable awfulness of what we've witnessed in the last year. ICUs filling with COVID patients again and again. Crematoria in India working overtime. Vaccine shortages in Asia and Africa, paired with vaccine refusers in our own country. And the climate crisis. And the assault on democracy. Our grief and our fear and our compassion have been in overdrive for so long: many are exhausted, or numb, or overwhelmed. And yet somehow we're supposed to imagine that we're supposed to ignore our heartbreak and fear and be productive, and if we failed at that, we've missed the mark? As though we needed another reason to feel lousy about ourselves tonight!

But feeling lousy about ourselves misses the point of today altogether. Yes, the liturgy of Yom Kippur reminds us that we missed the mark. Even if we'd spent every minute of the last year trying to pursue justice and act with compassion, human beings make mistakes. But the point isn't self-flagellation, it's promising in community (and as a community) that we will try to do better. 

My image of God is not the angry teacher who can't wait to give us demerits for all of our flaws. Yes, we'll spend these 25 hours searching our souls to find the inner work we need to do to be better. But that's because our tradition gives us this holy season for introspection, calling us to become -- not because God is poised to whack us with a ruler. On the contrary. As we heard right after Kol Nidre, "vayomer YHVH, salachti kidvarecha!" And God says: I forgive you, as I said I would!  We use the spiritual tools of prayer and contemplation and song to open our hearts so we can feel that forgiveness and be ready to try again. 

This year, I also imagine God saying: hey, be gentle with yourselves. One of my friends said to me, at the start of the long cold pandemic winter, that she was grading herself on a curve this year. Some days she felt able to be productive. Other days, it was all she could do to get through the day. And on those days, she gave herself permission to be as she was. What she called grading on a curve, I think of as being gentle with ourselves.

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In times of intense grief, clergy and therapists both say to lower the pressure we put on ourselves. I learned this anew when my mother died and grief fogged my vision. When we're living with sorrow or uncertainty or trauma (or all of the above), just making it through the day can take all we've got. Over the last 18 months of pandemic, we've all been in that place, sometimes. 

Every year at this season we take a good hard look at our failings, and it's easy to get stuck there -- maybe especially this year. Maybe we didn't take care of ourselves, or we ate and drank too much. Maybe we gave in to despair and doomscrolling, or we turned a blind eye to the world's suffering... 

Jewish tradition calls us to look clearly at where we missed the mark, and it also calls us not to cling to our perceived shortcomings. God is always ready to forgive. That means that God also forgives us for not baking Instagram-worthy sourdough or writing a novel or becoming fluent in Hebrew during this second pandemic year. 

Tonight asks us to hold two competing truths in balance. One: Jewish values demand that we constantly work toward justice and healing for this broken world. And two: when we really make teshuvah (when we turn ourselves around, when we do our inner work), God forgives all of our failings. We need to be able to forgive ourselves.

That doesn't mean there are no standards and anything goes. Gevurah -- our theme for this year -- asks us to maintain accountability for ourselves and for others. There are behaviors that are simply not okay. Torah is clear that lying, or cheating, or turning a blind eye to the suffering of others is flat wrong. Tomorrow afternoon's Torah reading will remind us that God asks us to feed the hungry and care for the powerless, to pursue justice without bias, to love our fellow human beings. That Torah reading also reminds us to offer tochecha, corrective words, if we see our fellow human beings acting unethically -- because if we let unethical behavior stand, we become complicit. 

And it is also a spiritual truth that sometimes it's all we can do to get out of bed in the morning. When we're living with uncertainty or trauma or grief, even the simplest tasks can be monumental. Sometimes we can't offer tochecha or work toward justice because just completing life's requisite tasks takes all we've got. And that's okay.

Gevurah also can mean healthy boundaries. Sometimes the boundary we need to draw is one that says: I'm doing the best I can, and this is all I can do, and for now it's going to have to be enough.

This is part of why we live in community. At any given time, some of us are struggling just to make it through the day. In these times of pandemic and climate crisis, that may be even more true than it used to be. We need to help each other through and remind each other that putting on one's own oxygen mask first is not only okay, it's necessary. And at any given time, some of us are doing well enough to make things better for someone else. That's when it's our job to be angels for each other, as I said on Rosh Hashanah.

So let's go gentle into this Kol Nidre night. Let's promise to help each other through the challenges of 5782. Let's refrain from comparing ourselves to other people, even if their sourdough loaves look magazine-worthy. And let's show up with open hearts and commit ourselves to trying to be better, because that's what we're here for. 

God can forgive us for barely holding it together -- even for not being "productive" during the pandemic. Can we forgive ourselves?

 

This is my sermon for Kol Nidre this year (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


When we see each other - a d'varling for Shabbat Shuvah

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Ordinarily on Shabbat Shuvah I would talk about teshuvah, return -- turning our lives around, returning to our Source and to our highest selves. This is, after all, the work of the season. But I think that in this second pandemic year, there's no shortage of time for introspection -- a lot of us have been too alone, or turning too inward.  So instead I want to talk today about what connects us with each other, and what it might mean to return to each other and to community.

Over the summer I had the opportunity to co-teach a pioneering rabbinic school class on doing Jewish digitally, with my friend and frequent collaborator Rabbi David Markus. We covered a lot of ground, ranging from the nature of prayer and ritual, to wise use of visuality, to creating spiritual and tangible "runways" into the digital ritual experience. And in one of our sessions, we opened with some classical texts about what makes a minyan. 

Rambam wrote in the 1170s that "[c]ommunal prayer always is heard [by God]. … Thus, one must join oneself with the community, and never pray alone whenever one is able to pray with the community." (Mishneh Torah, Prayer 8:1.) This is part of Judaism's fundamental communitarianism. Can one talk to God alone? Of course! But it's not good to separate oneself from community. The community needs us to show up, because in coming together to make a minyan, we also come together to make community. 

Alongside that, we studied a text from the Shulhan Arukh, written in 1563 by Joseph Karo:

All 10 must be in one place, and the prayer-leader with them...One standing behind the synagogue, and in-between them is a window – even if it is several stories high … – and [whose] face is visible to them from there, joins them to make 10.  If a few of them are inside and a few are outside, and the prayer-leader is in the doorway, the prayer-leader connects them [into one minyan]. (O.C. 55:13-15)

The simplest way to make a minyan is ten people in one place, including the prayer-leader. That seems pretty clear. But then he goes on to say: if one person is outside the room, but can be seen from inside, that person can be included. And if some are in one space and some are in another, they can all be included. So long as the prayer leader can see them, that being-seen connects them into one community, even if they can't all see each other. 

As soon as I read that, I thought: welcome to Zoom / hybrid / digital services, y'all. 

Joseph Karo could not have imagined Zoom services or the hybrid services we've been holding all summer, with some participating onsite and others participating online. But he was already wrestling with this question that's live for us now: how do we create sacred community when we're not all in the same physical place? 

For Karo, community arises when we can see each other. If I lead a service and it's broadcast on television, the people watching it might or might not have a meaningful experience -- but they can't be counted in a minyan together, because there's no two-way connectivity. I can't see them, and they can't see each other. I think he's right, which is why I've made a practice of including periodic "face to face" slides where we stop the screenshare and meet each others' eyes.

I think he's on to something in a deeper spiritual sense, too. What makes us a community is not whether or not we can convene to pray in the same room at the same time... because if that were the case, then anyone who doesn't show up to pray ceases to be part of the community! and if that were the case, then our community would have evaporated when the pandemic hit and we, along with so many others, started sheltering in place at home. 

We become community when we see each other. I would go further: we become community not just when we glance at each others' faces, but when we try to see each other fully. When we see what matters to each other. When we see what enlivens each other. When we see not only each others' faces but each others' hearts. 

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It turns out that when we see each other, something in us changes. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire their electrical pulses both when we do a thing, and when we see someone else do that same thing. This was first observed in monkeys in an Italian lab some thirty years ago: electrodes in their brains showed neurons firing when they handled food, and when they saw someone else handle food -- even when they merely heard the sounds of food being handled outside of their line of sight. Some researchers think that mirror neurons explain why we can have strong emotional reaction to characters on TV or in movies: because when we see them, we feel-with-them.

Being together on Zoom is not the same as being together onsite. We can't sing in harmony on Zoom, or hug each other, or have that feeling of being together in a room. But when we see each other, our mirror neurons still work their magic.

For Joseph Karo, one of the roles of the shaliach tzibbur (the prayer leader) is to see all the souls in the room -- and in seeing them, to constitute them into community. This is not a rabbinic job per se. Any adult Jew who learns the liturgy can lead the community in prayer. And any one of us who makes an effort to really see the other souls in the room can create some of the cohesion that makes us a community. 

As you've heard me say several times this year, our theme for this year's Days of Awe is gevurah, which means strength and power. It means boundaries. It evokes resilience and courage, too. It takes gevurah to really see each other, to be mindful of where I end and where you begin, to honor our differences without diminishing what connects us. It takes gevurah to connect with each other in these pandemic times when we may feel overwhelmed or despairing, or we may find the technologies of Zoom opaque. It takes gevurah to create community. 

An invitation: to see each other deeply.

To awaken our mirror neurons as we see each other.

To create community together by seeing each other where we are, as we are, in all that we are.

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


The Strength to Discern: Rosh Hashanah morning 2, 5782

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On Sunday evening I offered a tiny pearl of introduction to this year's high holiday theme of gevurah. Yesterday morning we talked about the strength it takes to help each other find hope.

Today our exploration of gevurah comes via the Torah reading for this morning. 

Our mystics taught that God's infinity is revealed in creation through a series of sefirot, divine qualities or emanations. These are the channels through which God's infinite energy flows into the world, and we associate each one with a quality that we and God share. Like chesed, lovingkindness -- last year's high holiday theme. And gevurah, boundaries and strength and power and discernment -- this year's theme.

When our mystics look at the figures in Torah, they associate different characters in Torah with each of the sefirot. Abraham is associated with chesed, lovingkindness. His tent was open on all sides, he rushed to prepare a feast for visitors, he represents flowing love.  And his son Isaac is associated with gevurah.

One of the reasons why Isaac is associated with this spiritual quality is surely the story we just heard, the "binding of Isaac." How do we see Isaac's strength in this story? Arguably, what we see is him holding still and letting himself be bound. Maybe he feels powerless, or overwhelmed, or out of control: we don't know, because Torah doesn't tell us! But to me, his gevurah has a kind of stoic, silent perseverance to it. He holds still and trusts that he will make it through somehow.

Abraham showed tremendous gevurah earlier in Torah. In midrash, we learn that his father was a builder of idols, and young Avram smashed them. It's a great story: Terach comes home, all of the idols in his shop are smashed save one, and the biggest one has a stick in its hand. And he yells, what did you do?! and Avram says, "oh, it wasn't me, dad, the big one did it." And his father says, "You know they're just stone. They can't move!" and Avram retorts, "so why do you worship them, then?" It took gevurah to stand up to his dad.

Or earlier in Genesis, when God disclosed intentions to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Remember, Avraham pushed back: what if there are fifty righteous there, what if there are forty, all the way down to ten. But when it comes to Sarah casting-out Ishmael in yesterday's Torah reading, Avraham doesn't do much. He tells God he doesn't like it, but he doesn't challenge it. And in today's story, God makes an outrageous request and Avraham just... does it. As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg notes, he's a hero when it comes to the outside world, but with his own sons, he falls far short of offering the protection they need.

One of my favorite ways of reading Torah is to place ourselves in the shoes of everyone in the story. Through the lens of Torah we can see ourselves refracted in new ways. And in empathizing with everyone in Torah's story, we strengthen our capacity to stand in the shoes of another. 

How does it feel to empathize with each figure in today's story, to feel-into where they are?

Maybe Isaac's kind of gevurah resonates for us, eighteen months into this pandemic. The pandemic has highlighted so many ways we aren't in control. We don't have the power to make COVID-19 go away, and we don't have the power to require other people to do what's right. But we can use our strength to accept our circumstances and make the best of the hand we're dealt.

Isaac must have also felt fear. His father had the knife raised for the strike before the angel intervened. We too feel fear in these pandemic times. What might it mean to follow in Isaac's footsteps and do what life's situation asks of us, even when we feel afraid?

I don't especially want to empathize with today's portrait of Avraham. But like Avraham who followed instructions in today's story, we too hear voices -- day and night, over the internet and cable news and social media -- telling us what to do and why. We may be more like Avraham than we want to realize. 

Today's Torah reading begins with the words, "After these things, God tested Avraham." in English we call this the "Binding of Isaac," but Torah calls this a test. I've always felt that Avraham failed the test: he should have pushed back. He didn't exercise the discernment to recognize that God's instruction here was wrong. Discernment is part of gevurah, too. 

Gevurah asks us to discern when the voices we're listening to are giving us good advice and when they're not. Sometimes the voices we hear are self-serving or toxic. Some voices today declare that the masks we wear to protect against airborne infection are "muzzles" that take away our freedom. Other voices proclaim that as human beings in a society we have a responsibility to take care of each other. What voices will we heed in 5782? 

Recently, as I was studying this story again, my son asked me what I was learning. His Hebrew name is after my maternal grandfather, Isaac -- in Hebrew, Yitzchak, the name of the son whom Avraham almost sacrificed. I realized he didn't really know this story yet. So I told it to him, in outline, curious to know how it would land with him.

(And yes, he gave me permission to tell this story to you today.)

His first reaction was: God -- He, or She, or They -- probably isn't giving us the full story here. "God is giving us pieces and parts to figure out for ourselves, but God might overestimate or underestimate us." And then he said, "Loyalty to God is a good thing, but Abraham could have found a loophole. We have choices. We need to feel in our jellies when we're treating people wrong or making a wrong choice." 

I said, "You mean, we need to learn to use our discernment?" Yes, he said. That's a good word for it. 

We need to use our discernment to know when the voices we're following are aligned with our highest values -- and when they're not. Discernment is another way of saying, gevurah. 

It's also noteworthy who's not in this story. Sarah appears nowhere in this part of the narrative. The next thing we read, after this story, is that Sarah died at 127. From that juxtaposition  one midrash imagines her hearing the news from afar, perhaps in a garbled form indicating that her husband actually sacrificed their son, and dying on the spot.

After the way we saw Sarah behave yesterday -- banishing Hagar and Ishmael into the desert -- I don't especially want to empathize with Sarah, either! But when I place myself in her shoes, I can feel her grief and horror at the news of her child's death. (Of course, that news turns out to be wrong. Fake news, as it were. But she still grieves -- and dies.)

It takes gevurah to place ourselves in someone else's situation. It takes gevurah to rein in our own reactivity so we can empathize with someone's heartbreak even if their past behaviors made us angry. Empathy might seem like an expression of chesed, lovingkindness -- but I think it requires our gevurah.

Maybe this feels a little bit uncomfortable. Maybe we don't want to empathize with people who we perceive made bad choices. That's a very human response. To our ancestors, it was also an angelic one! 

We see this in a midrash on part of the Exodus story. When we crossed the sea, Talmud says, the angels rejoiced when the waves crashed in and washed away the Egyptians. This is Pharaoh and his army we're talking about. They had caused unimaginable suffering. And God says, "the works of My hands are dying, and you want to sing praises?!" Like -- what's the matter with you; develop some empathy, would you?! For this reason we pour out drops of juice or wine, symbol of joy, from our second cup at seder. We diminish our joy because someone else suffered in our journey to liberation. 

Not wanting to empathize with someone we don't like or don't agree with is a very human reaction... and that midrash comes to teach us that Jewish values ask us to rise above that reaction. 

Gevurah is how we balance between feeling our righteous anger, and reining in our anger so that we don't lose empathy. Gevurah is in how we exercise judgment, especially when it comes to which voices we will heed and amplify. Gevurah is in the strength to be still and trust sometimes, and the strength to take bold action sometimes, and the discernment to know which times are which. 

And gevurah is what allows us to be alert for possibilities of hope that we hadn't previously considered -- like the ram that appears at the last second in today's Torah reading, the source of hope that was waiting just outside our vision's frame.

 

This is my d'varling from the second morning of Rosh Hashanah (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


The Strength to Help Each Other Hope: Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5782

 

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(Note: the first part of this sermon is adapted from an article that JTA asked me to write. Then it goes off into new territory -- expanding and completing the ideas I articulated for JTA.)

 

All summer long, I struggled to find the words for this sermon. 

The enormity of what's broken in the world feels paralyzing. Unprecedented heat and wildfires, a flaming oil spill turning the Gulf of Mexico into an inferno, and extreme flooding across Europe and China and Louisiana and New York: "Who by fire, who by water" lands differently this year. Dayenu, that could be enough -- and there's more.

The past eighteen months were hard even for those of us who have it easy (a job, a place to live, no illness). For many the isolation was crushing, or numbing. For many without stable income or a roof overhead, the pandemic has been unimaginably worse. So too for frontline workers and those who jobs are "essential" and often unseen.

When vaccines became available, my heart soared on wings of hope. I felt certain we would be together safely at Rosh Hashanah this year. But I hadn't reckoned with the power of social media influencers lying about the putative risks of the vaccine, or lying about the virus. The New York Times reported recently that disinformation is now a booming business. As a result, countless thousands are now refusing vaccination, claiming "personal freedom" at the expense of the collective good. 

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I keep thinking of the parable of the guy in the boat drilling a hole under his own seat. He doesn't seem to notice that his personal freedom is going to drown everyone else. As a parable, it's tart and a little bit funny. In real life, it's horrifying. Dayenu: that too could be enough to spark despair. And wait, there's more.

Several governors have made it illegal for municipalities to require masks. To many, masks have become a symbol of government control. To me, a mask is literally the least we can do to protect the immunocompromised (and children.) Refusing to wear a mask during this pandemic is like leaving your lights on during the London Blitz.

Between the anti-maskers, and the anti-vaxxers, and the new Delta variant, cases are rising again. We're facing another long winter of mounting death counts -- and it didn't have to be this way.

Between what we're doing to our planet (disproportionately harming those who are most vulnerable), and the impact of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers on public health (ditto), and the persistence of the Big Lie that the presidential election was "stolen," it's hard not to despair. How could I write sermons from this place? I'm pretty sure no one comes to High Holiday services to hear their rabbi say she's given up.

I poured out my heart about this to my hevruta partner, who reminded me that in Torah even God despaired of humanity sometimes. When God despaired of us, it was our ancestors' job to push back and remind God of reasons to hope for humanity's future. This is part of why we live (and learn!) in community: to help each other find hope when our hearts despair.

Our Torah readings for today and tomorrow cue up that inner journey. We just read about the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael, a tale of how jealousy almost caused a child's death in the desert. Tomorrow, the stakes may feel even higher with the binding of Isaac. And yet these same Torah stories also remind us of hope in tough times. An angel opens Hagar's eyes to a flowing spring, and she and her son are saved. An angel opens Abraham's eyes to the ram caught in the thicket, and Isaac's life is spared.

The Days of Awe open the door to new beginnings, even when (or especially when) we can't see our own way back to hope for change. Our job is to be be those Biblical angels for each other: helping each other reach the hope a that we can't find alone. 

Our Torah stories for Rosh Hashanah are stories of courage and strength. Hagar needed courage and strength when she set out into the wilderness with her son and a single skin of water on her back. Isaac needed courage and strength when he lay down on his father's altar on the mountaintop. In Hebrew, one word for this kind of courage and strength is gevurah: our theme for this year's Days of Awe.

We've seen a lot of gevurah in this difficult year. In the firefighters battling horrific blazes across the Pacific Northwest and California and Turkey and Greece -- in the doctors and nurses working in every covid ICU -- in the police officers who defended the US Capitol from an angry mob. Those are extraordinary forms of strength and courage. 

I want to name and uplift a different kind of gevurah. I mostly didn't watch the Olympics this year. (That's not the courageous part.) I just couldn't get excited about the pageantry or the competition this time around. But Simone Biles caught my attention even so.

Simone

Everyone seems to agree that she's one of the most extraordinary gymnasts of all time. I can't do a cartwheel to save my life, so I think all gymnasts are pretty amazing, but I can see that she's more amazing even than most of her peers. And right before the individual all-around gymnastics competition, she withdrew from competition in order to focus on her mental health. 

It takes courage to say I'm not okay right now, and I need to do some inner work so I can get where I need to be. A lot of us are not okay right now. Global pandemic, an almost unthinkable amount of death, the climate crisis, the rise in misinformation, the deep divisions in our body politic -- the world is not okay right now.

Simone Biles said she "got the twisties," a condition in which an athlete loses their spatial awareness and can't tell up from down. Given the kind of literal acrobatics involved in Olympic gymnastics routines, losing her spatial awareness could be deadly. But reading about it, I realized it's an apt description of how a lot of us are feeling emotionally and spiritually. We've lost access to some of the certainties that oriented us. It's hard to trust in things that used to seem stable. I think we all "have the twisties" a little bit this year. 

I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that none of us can do the gymnastics routines that Simone Biles can do. But all of us can follow the courageous example she set. And she didn't make that decision in a vacuum. She said she was inspired by Naomi Osaka, the pro tennis player who withdrew from the French Open in order to tend to her mental health. Using our Torah metaphor, Naomi Osaka was Simone Biles' "angel" -- the messenger whose words and actions helped Simone admit that she wasn't okay and begin to work toward healing. 

Because here's the thing: we're not in this alone. Even if we feel fundamentally alone sometimes, we have each other. This is why we live (and learn) in community: so we can help each other find the flowing spring that will sustain us in the wilderness, or the ram whose presence will save the day, caught in a thicket just beyond where we ourselves can see. We live in community so we can inspire each other to hope and to build. We live in community so we can strengthen each other.

Hope

The activist Mariame Kaba offers some deep wisdom about hope. "Hope doesn't preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger," she says. "Hope is not optimism. Hope is a discipline." She goes on to say:

Hope is a discipline and... we have to practice it every single day. Because in the world which we live in, it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness, that everything is all bad all the time, that there is nothing going to change ever, that people are evil and bad at the bottom. It feels sometimes that it’s being proven in various, different ways, so I get that, so I really get that. I understand why people feel that way. I just choose differently. I choose to think a different way and I choose to act in a different way.

When she says hope is a discipline, what I hear is that it's a practice -- like a yoga practice or a spiritual practice. And the more we practice it, the stronger we become. She names this as a choice: we can choose to let despair overwhelm us, or we can choose to strengthen our hope. This, too, is gevurah. 

5781 was not an easy year. I don't know what 5782 will bring, but I'm pretty sure the challenges of the old year will follow us into the new one. What can we do for each other to give each other courage, to help each other hope? Jewish tradition teaches that even those who receive tzedakah are also obligated to give it. In other words: even if I'm in need of assistance myself, I'm obligated to give what I can to someone else in need. I love this because it breaks down the binary between giver and receiver. And it works as a teaching about intangibles, too. Even if I need emotional support, I can still offer support to others. 

Helping others is part of Jewish spiritual practice. Focusing on "ugh, who's going to help me through this" sometimes is normal, but it's also self-centered, and it can lead to feeling more alone. Focusing instead on "how can I help someone else" lightens our hearts. Helping others is good for the soul.  If you prefer, here's a social science framing: studies show that when we help others, we feel more energetic, stronger, and more hopeful!  And that's true whether we're doing organized volunteer work, or "just" offering a listening ear over the phone or Zoom. 

Helping each other cultivate hope does not change the realities of pandemic or injustice or fires and floods. But it can help us be resilient in the face of those realities. It can help us make meaning in the face of those realities. This is our work: to use our gevurah to support and uplift and strengthen each other, so that together we can resist despair and keep working toward a better world. 

 

This is my sermon from the first morning of Rosh Hashanah (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


A Year of Strength: erev Rosh Hashanah 5782

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Each year I choose a theme for the Days of Awe at CBI. Some months ago I chose the theme of gevurah, which means strength, power, heroism, courage, boundaries, determination. People were getting vaccinated. The weather was warming up and we were about to begin offering safe outdoor / hybrid services at CBI. I could already imagine writing my high holiday sermons this year about the strength it took for us to stay apart last year to keep each other safe, and the heroism of medical professionals in every COVID ICU around the world, and how our determination had brought us safely through this pandemic. 

"Man plans, and God laughs," the saying goes. Though this year it feels more apt to me to say "humanity plans, and God weeps." I imagine God has been weeping a lot over the last fifteen months. Whatever we hoped for a year ago, I think it's safe to say that we haven't made it there yet, and the path from here to there feels fraught and uncertain. 

And our theme for the year couldn't be more apt. Wow do we need gevurah this year. 

We need strength: the strength to keep going when the path ahead feels uncertain, when we don't know the right thing to do, when we don't know how to keep each other safe. We need the strength to help each other find hope, especially when the world feels dark. We need the strength to discern what's right, and which voices we should be heeding. We need the strength to forgive ourselves and each other, especially in these difficult pandemic times -- especially because we've moved from "this difficult pandemic year" to something longer and of more uncertain duration. We need the strength to see the world differently than we have before, so that we can live into that vision, making the world better than it was before. (Stay tuned; that's a sneak preview of sermons to come!)  

Gevurah helps us be courageous: it helps us strengthen our hearts and keep our resolve firm even when we're frustrated that this pandemic is becoming endemic.

Gevurah helps us have good boundaries. Gevurah reminds us that we never know what difficulty another person is facing, so our sacred task is always ladun l'chaf z'chut, to give one another the benefit of the doubt and see one another through generous eyes -- even as we strive to hold ourselves and each other to the highest ethical standards. 

Gevurah gives us strength to speak up for what's ethical and just, and the courage to protect the most vulnerable among us. Gevurah helps us be giborim, heroes, for and with each other as we lift each other up and keep each other safe. 

And gevurah is a necessary part of teshuvah: repentance, return, re-alignment, turning ourselves around to live out our best and highest purpose in the year now beginning. 

May the spiritual journey of this High Holiday season open our hearts, deepen our resolve, and give us the gevurah we need to make 5782 a year of holiness and strength, a year of community and connectedness, a year of justice and joy. 

 

This is the very brief d'varling I offered at our erev Rosh Hashanah Zoom seder. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Stay tuned for actual sermons in days to come.


Heavy

It's funny to feel nostalgic for last year. Last year, when we were all locking down, when the Days of Awe had to be all-Zoom for everyone -- how could I possibly miss that? I think what I miss is the sense of certainty. We knew how to keep each other safe: stay home, stay apart, shelter in place. This year nothing seems so clear.

My community is vaccinated -- though not those under twelve. New England is doing better than other parts of the country when it comes to the Delta variant -- though there's been an uptick lately, and schools are starting. I have vaccinated congregants who got breakthrough infections; one is getting monoclonal antibodies today.

I read about ICUs filling up again, about people dying in terrible ways, about health care workers grieving and stretched beyond the end of their ropes. I read about people trying to treat COVID with horse dewormer, and I surf the waves of my own anger at misinformation. I read about governors forbidding masks in schools, and I go numb.

I think the real reason I feel a yearning for last year is that last year, I didn't yet know how long the pandemic would go on -- nor how persistent anti-mask sentiment, paired with the Delta variant, would spark another wave of hospitalizations and deaths. So much heartbreak. And that's without the wildfires and floods and hurricanes...

In recent weeks my small synagogue has adapted our high holiday plan. We surveyed our community and asked folks to rank the services they want most to attend onsite. Everyone who wanted to be onsite will get to attend at least one of their top choice services that way; they'll join other services online. Many are choosing to be all-online again.

We've set up 45 chairs in a space that usually holds 120, separated into pods spaced six feet apart. Everyone onsite will be masked. Doors and windows will be open for fresh air. And I'll offer as robust and participatory a Zoom option as I can, pausing the screenshare regularly so the people onsite can see the people on Zoom and vice versa.

This is my tenth year in congregational service. I'm used to spending my summers working on the Days of Awe; that's just the rhythm of this work! But the pandemic makes everything harder. We need traditions and community connections more than ever, even as pandemic realities call us to reinvent both our traditions and how our communities connect.

I know that our high holiday plan is thoughtful and considered. And I know that we need to be ready to pivot to all-digital if caseloads worsen. Our tradition teaches that kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh: "all Israel is responsible, one for another." It's a heavy responsibility. This summer, it weighs on every rabbi and synagogue board I know.

 


Anew

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Here’s the thing: the year begins anew
even in the worst of times. The leaves
will turn and fall and then they’ll grow again.
And sometimes we’re afraid, and we can’t know
what choice to make to keep anyone safe.
Uncertainty’s a bear. All we can do
is seek out sweetness everywhere we may
and work to fix what brokenness we find.
The good news is we’re not in this alone.
We’ll help each other hope when light seems dim
and lift the sparks that darker days reveal.
We’ll love each other fiercely: in the end
there is no greater work that we can do.
We who survive will help each other heal.

 

This is the poem I sent to friends and family as an Elul message / new year's card this year. (It's also part of an ad hoc series, along with this sonnet.) You can find all of my new year's poems here.


Sonnet for our second COVID Rosh Hashanah

I don't want to reckon with my choices:
feels like that's all we've done for 18 months
(should I mask, is this safe, what if
we meet outside and never breathe together?)
I don't want to query who will live
and who will die, who by wildfire and who
by flooded subway, who intubated and alone
and who will have enough while others lack.
I just want all of us to thrive: our hearts
at ease, our hopes in reach at last.
Come close to me, God. Comfort me with apples.
Remind me the world is born again each year --
even if I'm not ready, even if this year
I'm not sure I know the words to pray.

 

 

Reckon with my choices. The lunar month of Elul, which begins in a few days, launches the season of teshuvah, repentance and return; the inner work of this time is looking at who we are and who we've been, where we've missed the mark, how we can repair what's broken in our relationships with each other, the world, and our Source. Who will live / and who will die, who by fire and who by water... The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which we recite on Rosh Hashanah, asks this question. (Here's a post I wrote about it a while back if you want to know more.) Wildfires and flooded subways come from recent news. Come close to me, God. Tradition holds that during the month of Elul, "the King is in the Field" -- the transcendent sovereign aspect of God, usually distant from us, is with us / near us / accessible to us.  Comfort me with apples. From Song of Songs 2:5. Apples dipped in honey are also a traditional food for Rosh Hashanah -- "sweet foods for a sweet year." The world is born again. One of the prayers of Rosh Hashanah reminds us that hayom harat olam, "today the world is born." On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the ongoing renewal of creation.


Identifying with Chidi

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Chidi Anagonye teaching about ethics on The Good Place.

 

I was driving to the cemetery for the unveiling and dedication of a headstone when I realized why there was  such a tangled knot in my stomach. It was because of the news articles I'd been reading: about the local COVID outbreak at North Adams Commons, and medical predictions that the summer coronavirus surge will get worse before it gets better, and the news that the delta variant is more contagious than chickenpox, and reports from the COVID outbreak in (95% vaccinated) Provincetown

I want so much to be able to gather for hybrid services for the Days of Awe this year. The small synagogue I serve has developed a plan to limit capacity to 50% (e.g. 60 people) onsite, socially distanced and masked, with doors and windows propped open for airflow. We've invested in a big screen so I can use the slideshare machzor both for those onsite and those participating online. We're working on equitably insuring that each member gets to be onsite for at least one service of their choice. 

Our plan seemed reasonable earlier in the summer. I don't know if it's reasonable now. So many people around the country have refused vaccination. The delta variant is so contagious that even vaccinated adults can spread it. And because so many refuse to vaccinate or even to mask (and some governors have made it illegal for local municipalities to mandate masking to protect the vulnerable!), more variants will evolve, and the "finish line" of reaching safety keeps getting further away. My heart sinks.

And so my stomach ties itself in knots. Driving to the cemetery, I realized that I feel like Chidi Anagonye -- the ethical philosopher in The Good Place who gets anxiety stomach-aches. If unvaccinated people can spread the delta variant, is it ethical for any congregation to seek to gather for the Days of Awe? One could argue that anyone who comes to services onsite is aware of the risks and is taking those risks willingly -- but what about our extended circles, and what about our unvaccinated children? 

How responsible am I for the safety of those whom I serve? I believe we are all fundamentally responsible for and to each other; that's part of what it means to be an ethical human being in community. (Which is part of why I can't understand those who refuse to mask to protect other people.) But do those of us in positions of community leadership have additional responsibility -- to make communal decisions with the needs of the other, especially the needs of those most vulnerable, in mind?

This morning I turned to deep breaths and quietly singing words of prayer in my car, and I managed to untie the inner places that felt knotted up in anxiety. We'll make the best decisions we can. The pandemic is far from over, and I suspect we're facing another long winter. At the end of the unveiling, one of the mourners who was there pointed to a nearby grave with an obviously-new stone: a friend, who had died of COVID. As I drove away, she was placing a memorial pebble on that friend's stone. 


Sustainable

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The first part of the drive was on familiar roads, the same roads I take daily to get my kid to camp over the border in Vermont. What was different was that this time, I kept going. East Mountain Farm is only a few minutes from my house, but it's further down Henderson road than I had driven before. Not surprisingly, it is beautiful: contented brown and white cows resting in the shade, rolling hills and pasture, a series of red barns. I was there to pick up chicken to put in my freezer, and eggs to eat.

Two springs ago, when the pandemic was new and our grocery supply chains got fouled, there were anxious months of going to the grocery store not knowing what I might find on the shelves. I know how lucky I am that I never experienced that until my mid-forties. Even so, the unpredictable absence of staples like flour and dried beans and toilet paper was deeply unsettling. Chicken, too, was hard to find for a while there -- because of COVID outbreaks in the places where poultry is processed. 

I know how lucky I am that I live near farms. I've been a member of Caretaker Farm (the local CSA) for almost thirty years, which means I get an abundance of beautiful local produce. I know how lucky I am to be able to afford that, too -- and now to be able to afford sustainably-farmed meat. I feel good about supporting a local farmer in his desire to honor the land and its animals. I feel good knowing that these chickens lived well. I feel good knowing that I will have plenty to eat next winter.

I know that my support of this local farmer doesn't do a thing to repair the harms caused by big agribusiness. I've read about the harms that factory farms perpetrate on animals and on their ecosystems. Then again, there's something wrong with the whole idea that our individual purchasing choices or habits (to recycle this soda can, or not to recycle; my personal grocery budget) will make or break the planet. We need large-scale change, corporate change, systemic change. And how likely does that seem?

I pull my mind back from that rabbit hole. Thinking too much about agribusiness and corporate greed and political gridlock will lead me to despair, and despair does not help anyone -- not those whom I serve, not me, not the world. I return to a mantra from an old REM song: not everyone can carry the weight of the world. It is not my job to carry the weight of the world. It is my job to do the best I can with what I've got, and right now the best I can do is to support a local farmer and his flock. 

 


How To

How to hold fear for so long
my shoulders learn a new shape.
How to watch numbers climb
higher, and then higher.
How to hold funerals
and kindergarten
over Zoom.

How to read subtle signals
via eyes alone.
How to re-grow scallions in water
because there might not be
more to buy.
How to feel our connections
though we’re apart.

How to sit
with unimaginable losses
even if they aren’t
our own, even if they are.
How to hold each other
when we can’t touch.
How to weep.

How to feel
everything that’s broken
—from mobile morgues
to the lies that fueled
shattered Capitol windows—
then ask the grief and fury
to drain away.

How to nurture
hope’s tiny tendrils
unfurling into flower
with every vaccination.
How to trust each other
take down our veils
and blink in unfamiliar sun.

 


This new poem for Tisha b'Av first appeared in Tisha b'Av 5781: Our Mourning Year, a new collection of poetry, liturgy, and artwork for our communal day of mourning, published by Bayit: Building Jewish. If you click on that link, you'll see excerpts from all of the poems and glimpses of one of the illustrations, and you can access either a PDF of the full collection or a google slide deck suitable for sharing online. I'm grateful to the poets, liturgists, rabbis, and artists who collaborate with me at Bayit and I'm humbled to be part of this offering. 


Look upon it, and be healed: vaccinations, Juneteenth, and the copper snake

Covid-cadeuceusIn this week's Torah portion, Chukat, the children of Israel grouse to Moses, "Why did you take us out of Egypt to die here in the desert?" And God gets angry and sends a plague of snakes, and the snakes bite the people, and people start dying.

The people return to Moses and say, "We sinned by speaking out against God; help!" Moses relays this, and God instructs him to make a copper snake and mount it on a pole. When the people see the copper snake, those who were bitten by the snakes are healed.

Rashi notes that the word snake, nachash, is related to copper, nachoshet. The Hebrew wordplay hints at the miracle here: when someone sees the figure of the snake cast in copper, they are healed from the venom. The reminder of what bit them helps them heal from the bite.

This year, as I read this story, all I can think of is a copper coronavirus. Clearly what we need is a copper sphere covered with a corona of spiky proteins, to hang on a flagpole for the whole nation to see! Okay, gazing at a copper coronavirus wouldn't actually heal anyone.

But that's kind of a metaphor for what vaccination does, isn't it? Our immune systems learn to recognize the shape of the virus. The vaccines teach our bodies to recognize that spiky little mace. And then when they encounter it, they can fight it off. Like our ancient spiritual ancestors looking at those copper snakes.

On my refrigerator, I have the front page from a December 2020 Berkshire Eagle. It shows my kid lighting the North Adams city menorah. And alongside that image, above the next column of print, there's a headline: "Vaccine Endorsed By Panel." Subheader: "Country now one step away from starting immunization."

Six months ago the first vaccine was approved for future use. Remember what a big deal that was? 

This week I read about a fourth vaccine now becoming available. Local numbers are the lowest they've been in a year. In some places, masks are optional for those who are vaccinated. About 44% of the nation is fully vaccinated, as is more than half of MA. And President Biden recently announced plans to give 500 million doses of Pfizer to other nations in need.

The pandemic isn't over. But we've come an incredibly long way since Chanukah. Modern medicine is miraculous. And because of the tireless work of immunologists and virologists and doctors and nurses and so many others, we're starting to be able to gather safely again without risking each other or ourselves.

Because vaccines teach our bodies to recognize and respond to the virus, we're safer than we were. And that too feels to me like a deeper teaching this year. What are the things we need to recognize as a community and as a society, so that together we can respond? What are the injustices and inequities we need to be willing to see, in order to repair them?

Tomorrow is Juneteenth -- the date in 1865 when enslaved African-Americans in Texas learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had freed them two and a half years prior. One step toward healing racial inequity is for those of us who are white to recognize the harms experienced by Black people and people of color, both then and now.

The copper snake in this week's parsha reminds us: we need to see the sickness in order to begin repair. If we don't recognize it, we can't fight off a literal virus. If we don't recognize it, we can't fight off the spiritual sickness of racism and prejudice, either. We have to see the problem in order to begin to build something new.

And COVID-19 has had a deadlier impact on communities of color than on mostly-white communities. Even as we celebrate the high rates of vaccination where we live, there's still work to do before we're all safe. 

So pause with me in this Shabbat moment. Take a deep breath. Recognize how lucky we are to be vaccinated, to be in a place that's getting safer. Join me in trying to open our eyes to everything we need to see within us and around us.  May we be gentle with ourselves and each other as we work toward healing: for ourselves, for our communities, for everyone.

 

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

 


Now

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In my son's final days of fifth grade, his class has been doing an ELA (English Language Arts) project writing "The Covid Chronicles." I don't know what anyone else's chronicle looks like, but my kid wrote some 5000 words in five chapters about what the last year has been for him, starting with the very first time he ever heard the word "coronavirus." 

The first thing I noticed is what isn't in his chronicle. No one in his recounting gets sick or dies. I know how lucky that makes him (and me.) His experience of the pandemic hasn't been one of illness or death. No ventilators. No hospitals. He doesn't know about the refrigerator trucks that had to serve as mobile morgues in so many places.

He wrote instead about model rockets with his dad, and glow in the dark science projects with me. About the routines of Zoom school and Chromebook lag, and the excitement of shifting to hybrid and getting to be in the school building with friends again. About computer gaming camps, some of which weren't as fun as we had hoped they would be. 

He didn't write about the books we read together, or the anime we watched, or what it was like for him last summer when we started allowing outdoor playdates (mostly in lakes and rivers!) with two friends again. I suspect all of those have receded into memory as simply normal life -- he's forgotten that those choices were pandemic-driven too.

I remember when we first got a couple of fabric masks last spring, thinking we might need to wear them for a week or two. Now dozens of them hang on the coat hooks in our hallway. My son is partial to the dark blue and teal ones made by a swimsuit company, and to an adjustable one adorned with colorful doughnuts with sprinkles on top.

I'm still getting accustomed to being able to go into some places without a mask, now that I'm vaccinated and not everyone requires them anymore. But I still tend to carry one in my purse, in case someone asks me to put it on. Every interaction now involves some negotiation: are we vaccinated? Are we comfortable taking masks off? 

This feels like a liminal time. Things are shifting, but I don't feel like I know exactly what they're shifting to. I wonder how my kid and I will remember this transition. What will this summer's new normal be? 


Three

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Chodesh tov: happy new month!

One of my friends said that to me last night, and I groaned. "Wait, what? It's Tamuz already?!"

I've had a few things on my mind. Preparing my shul community to shift from all-digital to hybrid / multi-access. Supporting my kid through the final days of his fifth grade year, a school year unlike any other. It makes sense that I lost track of time.

But it's a new lunar month. Once again, I bump into the disjunction between the secular calendar and our sacred one. On the secular calendar, summer is just beginning: jump in the pool! fire up the grill! Jewishly, later this month we'll be mourning.

And once again I grapple with the tension between now and coming. I struggle every year with winter's cold and darkness. I count the days until they start lengthening again. I crave summer's greenery, the profusion of produce, the long golden light.

That season is finally beginning... and my professional life calls me to think about three months from now, when summer will be waning, when we'll gather (onsite? online? hybrid? plan for all three and see what happens?) for the Jewish New Year again. 

It's new moon. It's the start of Tamuz. Four weeks until Av. Then four weeks until Elul. Then four weeks until Rosh Hashanah. It's twelve weeks until the Jewish new year, friends. I don't want to think about it either! I want to revel in the nowat last.

Our sacred calendar is always tugging us forward. In deepest midwinter we celebrate Tu BiShvat and yearn toward the Purim and Pesach that will be our stepping-stones into spring. And now it's barely summer, and our calendar points toward fall.

In my line of work, that means thinking about services and sermons -- and, this year, questions of masks and pandemic and building capacity and airflow. But for all of us, clergy and laypeople alike, this moment points our hearts toward the horizon.

It's not time for the Elul work, the teshuvah work, the facing-our-missteps work, quite yet -- but we can see it from here. What do you need the next few months to hold so you can feel ready to do the work of returning again and beginning anew?