Not Knowing

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

 

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


Six million

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I've always felt the shadow presence of the six million. I grew up steeped in stories of villages, communities, lineages destroyed. My grandfather made it, but his family didn't. Six million Jewish lives ended by Nazis -- their absence was palpable. Silence where there should have been song. 

This morning the Washington Post reports that the global death toll from COVID-19 has reached that same awful number. How will the world be shaped by these six million deaths and the absences they leave behind? How can we begin to grapple with this staggering amount of global grief?

My father is slowly dying. Over the winter he survived COVID, and both of the hospitalizations that ensued. But the virus and its complications changed the amount and quality of time he has left. Surely countless others are in that same position: death hastened by COVID, even if not caused by it.

No one wants to sit with this grief. We want to celebrate things reopening. Return to restaurants! Shed those masks! Don't we want to be together? I feel it too -- the bone-deep yearning for a post-pandemic world. I am not an expert, but I'm pretty sure we are nowhere near a safe post-pandemic yet.

Many of us are anxiously watching Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the concomitant misinformation war. And the normalization of white supremacy and calls for political violence here, which tend to go hand-in-hand with antisemitism. (If your anxiety levels are skyrocketing, you are not alone.)

And yet I wonder whether the relentless headlines are keeping us from the grief work this moment asks of us. It's March again. Two years since this pandemic began turning the world upside-down. How can we sit shiva for six million? If we don't find space to grieve, how can we ever hope to heal?


From Ukraine

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One of the books I brought back from my mother's library is The Bewitched Tailor by Sholom Aleikhem. That's how his name is spelled on the cover. Inside I see his name and another phrase in Cyrillic letters. There's no date of publication, and I don't know when or how the book became my mom's possession.

In the back of the book, it says Printed in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The publishing house -- Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow -- was a state-run publisher (of course it was), founded in the 1960s. That's probably when this edition, illustrated with woodcuts by Y. Krasny, saw print. 

Shalom Aleichem was his pen name. His given name was Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich. He was born in 1859 in a small town in what is now Ukraine. After witnessing the terrible pogroms that swept across the region in 1905, including Kyiv, he emigrated to New York in 1906, and died there in 1916. 

The last place I traveled before the COVID-19 pandemic began here was to see my niece in the national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, the classic musical based in Aleichem's stories. It's set in Anatevka, a fictional village based on Aleichem's experience growing up as a Jew in shtetl Ukraine.

I remember being nervous that day. I was slightly anxious about traveling to Boston given whisperings of the virus, though we didn't yet know that COVID was airborne, so I had no fear of sitting in a crowded theater! Mostly I was nervous that my son wouldn't like the play. I so wanted him to like the play.

Fiddler on the Roof is a classic of Jewish American theater, of course. But more than that, it tells a real story about the real kinds of things that happened to real people, including my own forebears. My grandfather grew up in a shtetl in neighboring Belarus only a few years after Shalom Aleichem fled.

My kid loved the play, though he recoiled in horror when the Russians smashed up the wedding. That kind of casual, callous antisemitism was completely foreign to him then. He's a few years older now, and has learned more about a lot of things. He knows who Putin is. He knows what Nazis were, and are.

Aleichem left Ukraine after the 1905 Kyiv pogrom. Wikipedia says the perpetrators of those pogroms blamed Russia's problems on "the Jews and the socialists." Once I would have rejoiced that those kinds of views were history, and better yet, they were somewhere else's history. Lately I'm not so sure

When I picked up the book, it didn't evoke current events for me. Russia hadn't yet attacked Ukraine. I brought it home because I'm a rabbi, and a student of Jewish literature, and also it was my mom's and we are beginning to clear out their house. Now it might as well be bound in yellow and blue.

A friend noted recently how many people seem to want to claim or find a connection with Ukraine now. I don't think that's a bad thing. The real work, I guess, is figuring out how to feel that connection across the globe, not just with people in the places that were home to my literal or literary forebears. 

 

 

Worth reading:


The wilderness of not knowing: Ki Tisa 5782

In recent weeks we've been reading Torah's instructions for the mishkan, the sacred space that we build so God's presence may dwell in us. Soon we'll start reading about the actual building thereof. But in between the blueprints and the construction, in this week's Torah portion, there's another story.

"When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, 'Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses -- the man who brought us from the land of Egypt -- we do not know what has happened to him..." (Ex. 32:1)

Golden-calf_Time for the Golden Calf.

This year I'm noticing a new emotional valance. Moses went up the mountain, and they probably expected him to come right back down. But he didn't. And the path ahead began to seem uncertain. Maybe they felt like life was on pause, or felt uncertain when they would start moving again.

Instead of that nebulous uncertainty, they wanted something tangible. Don't tell us you don't know how long it will be: we want to get back to normal now. Just make something up so we can feel normal now, because the not-knowing and the waiting are psychologically and spiritually uncomfortable!

I think we know that feeling. And if that's sometimes true for us, how much more true it must have been for our spiritual ancestors emerging from slavery? Not knowing can be terrifying, especially for someone unaccustomed to freedom. They were like children: seeking easy answers, resisting growing up.

The thing is, there's holiness in the not-knowing. There's holiness in opening ourselves to the uncertainties of wilderness. It's no coincidence that our ancestors hear God's voice most clearly in the wilderness. The midbar (wilderness) is where God m'daber (speaks) -- or at least, where we hear.

Right now I'm in a different kind of midbar, a different kind of wilderness waiting. Some of you know that my father, who is eighty-seven, has been in and out of the hospital this winter with COVID and then post-COVID complications. He's now receiving hospice care. The end of his journey is beginning.

And we don't know when the end will be. The weight of that not-knowing is tremendous sometimes. There's a temptation to lurch toward certainties, to clutch at "answers" that aren't really answers. To think: what can we throw at this to yield a nice, satisfying answer that will get us back to normal?

But there is no "back to normal" when someone is dying. I can't go back to the years when he was vital and vibrant, because this is a new part of his journey now -- and mine. So I'm in the wilderness. It's not comfortable, sitting with mortality. I empathize with the Children of Israel making that calf.

And I know that this wilderness has something to teach me, if I can quiet my racing thoughts and anxious heart in order to learn. This is my own wilderness -- mine, and my family's. And... soon we will reach one million COVID deaths in the United States. There are a lot of us in this wilderness.

This week's Torah portion reminds me that it's tempting to clutch at whatever we think will make us feel better. Anything to push away this not-knowing, whether the uncertainty is personal (like my father's trajectory) or communal (like COVID). Not knowing what comes next (or when) is uncomfortable.

Today's golden calves are a bit subtler than the literal statue in Torah. Maybe we focus on denial of death, or on our outrage about the latest horrific headlines. Either way, we become like the guy in the Zen parable about the teacup: keeping our cup so artificially full that no wisdom can pour in.

This Shabbes, let's take time to be with the not-knowing. We don't know when death will come: that's not just true for my dad in hospice. We don't know when the pandemic will recede. We don't know when Moses will come back down the mountain. Let's open our hearts, and let the not-knowing in.

 

This is my d'varling from Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires. (Cross-posted to my new From the Rabbi blog at CBI's new website.)


Through

 


"You're home from the hospital," we prompt
our father, back in assisted living.
"No I'm not," he insists. "This isn't home."
I wonder which house he's remembering.
He thinks he's somewhere temporary.
In the end, does the body feel
as extraneous as the oxygen tank
he keeps forgetting he's tethered to?
But there's country music at happy hour
and he tells himself stories
that turn his nurses into old friends.
He knows he's somewhere temporary.
A mezuzah gleams on the final door.
We don't know when he'll go through.

 


Four gifts

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This week's Torah portion contains one of my favorite verses: "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among them." The Hebrew could also mean "within them." We build God a sanctuary so that God -- holiness, love, justice -- can dwell within us.

This year, I'm struck by the colors and the textures. Acacia wood covered over with hammered gold. Fine linen. Goat hair. Blue and purple and crimson, blue and purple and crimson, blue and purple and crimson. (Perhaps you've noticed those colors in this morning's slides!)

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A glimpse of this morning's slide deck.

I can almost feel the homespun cloth between my fingers, and the contrast with the fine linen. And my eyes crave the vibrancy. Picture the shining metals and acacia wood. The rich colors of blue and purple and crimson -- in modern language, they "pop."

I was talking with someone from the congregation this week who observed that it feels like we've collectively lost access to something we really need. We've lost spontaneity, or fun, or joy. Everything feels uphill, and joy feels out of reach. I hear that a lot, these days.

896,000 Americans have died from COVID so far. We lost 405,399 in World War II. We lost 58,000 in Vietnam. The number of COVID deaths thus far is so much higher, I can't begin to process it. And that's just here. Unlike any war, this virus is everywhere.

Dayenu, that would be enough! and then there's school boards banning Holocaust books, and a caravan of angry people taking over downtown Ottawa, and -- it's a lot. It's really and truly a lot. What tools can this Torah portion full of ancient blueprints give us for that?!

I found four. Here they are.

 

1. Beauty in the wilderness

At this moment in our story, our ancestors are arguably traumatized. They went from slavery and hard labor and constricted spirit, to wandering in the wilderness with no clear sense for what's next. They're probably exhausted, maybe afraid, and ready to be done.

Exhausted, maybe afraid, and ready to be done -- does that ring a bell? And that's exactly when God says: bring the gifts of your heart, everyone who is so moved. Bring wood and precious metals, bring the most vividly-colored yarn and fabric, and make beauty.

Our hearts and souls and spirits need beauty, even in the wilderness -- or maybe especially in the wilderness. It may be tempting to say that art and beauty, vibrant colors and music, sacred spaces of all kinds are a luxury. Torah teaches otherwise.


2. Sanctuary

Think about the meaning of the English word sanctuary. As in, "give me sanctuary!" To me it evokes a safe place, a sacred space, a place where no one can hurt me. A place where I can flee from all of life's troubles. Where I'm safe, and can feel hopeful, and be at peace.

Wow, I yearn for that right now. I'll bet some of you do too. A place of safety and holiness and dignity, a place where nothing and no one will do us harm, a place where we can lay down our load and be at peace and maybe even feel joy. Like a vacation, but deeper and more real.

We need that, just as our ancient ancestors did. And the only way to build it is together. To build a mishkan (from the root שכנ, as in Shechinah, divine Presence) -- to build a place where God can dwell -- requires all of us... and that safe holy place is for everyone.

 

3. Use what we've got

Like our spiritual ancestors, we can use what we have to connect with holiness wherever we are. They had acacia and gold, blue and purple and crimson yarn. Maybe right now, for us, it's a special tablecloth, or a hand-knitted sweater, or a cherished recipe: all tools for holiness.

Shabbat can be a sanctuary -- a day set-apart from the turmoil of the week. Music can be a sanctuary. For me, lately, that's meant singing along with the Encanto soundtrack! When I'm singing, I am lifted out of where I've been. A contemplative cup of tea can be a sanctuary.

Right now, between pandemic and February ice storms, we may feel stuck. But wherever we are can be a holy place, because God goes with us in all of our wanderings. That's why the Ark of the Covenant had gold rings in the side, and gold-covered poles always in the rings.

 

4. Bringing our gifts

And when COVID numbers go down and we gather onsite again, we will bring our gifts to community. That's what the name of this week's Torah portion means: t'rumah, the freewill gifts of the heart. The mishkan was built because everyone was moved to help build it.

What kind of holy community do we want to build together when the snows melt, when the voice of the red-winged blackbird is heard again in the willow tree behind our shul? And what can each of us bring? Because building community is like Stone Soup. It needs all of us.

The mishkan isn't a building, as beautiful as our building is. The mishkan is community -- the way we uplift and take care of each other, learn with each other, pray with each other, do mitzvot with each other. That's how we make a mishkan where holiness really dwells.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires. (Check out our spiffy new website!) Cross-posted to the new From the Rabbi blog there.


Making it new

"Make it new!" It's been over 20 years since I got my MFA, but that command still resounds. I remember learning it from Liam Rector, of blessed memory, then the director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. Liam was big and brash and often urged us to "make it new," though the thing he said most often was "Always Be Closing" -- words that took on new resonance after his suicide.

"Make it new" comes from Ezra Pound, or so I learned at the time. It turns out those words are quite a bit older, and I'm glad to know they originate with Ch'eng T'ang, since Pound turns out to be a fascist and an antisemite.  The poets to whom I most frequently turn are masters of taking the familiar and making it new. Naomi Nye, Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver: they make it look easy. 

This requires both noticing (like Moses at the burning bush) and craft. I want to do what they do. I want to weave something luminous and lasting out of the threads of daily life, like the cloak of mitzvot the Zohar says the righteous will wear in the world to come. But sometimes I sit down at my loom, as it were, and the threads break in my hands. This week is one of those times.

My father's been in the hospital with COVID. I've been bracing for a death that has miraculously not come. (The miracle is the vaccines; his doctors said so repeatedly, as though we needed convincing.) It's not clear what "recovery" will mean, but I'm not racing to Texas for a funeral. A week ago, I was sure I would be. Finally I can exhale. But I don't seem to have poems in me now about that.

I don't have poems in me now about the terrorist attack at the synagogue outside of Fort Worth, or about how it's rippling into Jewish community life. I don't have poems in me about what it feels like to sit with my community and talk about what we would do if. Someone can probably make great poems out of balancing spiritual vulnerability with a panic button, but not me, not now.

I don't have poems in me about the spike of adrenaline every time my child has a symptom, or I have a symptom, or a loved one has a symptom, after two years of pandemic. I don't have poems in me about the constant sense of living in Schrödinger's box: is that an ordinary virus or is it COVID? Should I use one of our few at-home tests to find out? If I use a test, can I trust the results? 

How can I make any of this new? This is everyone's constant companion. Maybe all I can do today is name it. It begins to seem likely that COVID-19, like antisemitism, will never go away. (As I read in Nature, "endemic" doesn't mean "over.")  Maybe we will adjust to seasons of relative safety and togetherness, and seasons of relative isolation: both as Jews, and as human beings.

Today the sky is blue. The squirrels have broken the bird feeder and climbed inside, scattering seeds for the mourning doves. Under the snow marked with animal tracks, I know that there is a garden in hibernation. I know that today's realities are not forever. The Jewish spiritual calendar, like the seasonal calendar, draws my eyes toward the horizon. Even now, I live in hope.


Tending


I tend a botanical garden.
Here jungle trees stretch
tall as I can see, dripping
with trailing lianas
that dip into still pools.

Over there, soft dark podzol,
topped with towering taiga spruce.
In between: a small field
of sunflowers lifting
bright faces to the sky.

I've started keeping bees.
I watch them dance from flower
to flower, then meander dizzy
back to their hives. Honey jars
line up like amber trophies.

In my son's Minecraft world
there is no pandemic.
No one spits at nurses
or lies about elections.
No one's father has dementia.

My son thinks I'm playing
for his sake. I build
shul after shul, and in each
I pray for a world
where evil vanishes like smoke

like the mumbling zombies
who go up in flames
every time the blocky sun rises,
gilding the open hills
and endless oceans with light.


The well


It's not that the well's run dry.
The walk feels too far. It's uphill
in the snow both ways, and
who has the strength to carry
those dangling buckets balanced
on their shoulders now? I'll stay
on this secondhand chair, wrapped
in my mother's holey shawl.
Make another cup of tea, stay quiet.
Grief sits with me by the fire.
Out the window, tiny birds track
hieroglyphics across the icy ground.

 


 

Originally this poem had a couplet about the 5.49 million COVID deaths worldwide (so far.) I removed it; it feels too direct, it belongs in an essay and not a poem. But as a Jew I'm always mindful of the number 6,000,000, and it's horrifying that we're creeping up on that number of COVID deaths. All of which is to say: if grief is your companion by the fire these days, you are not alone. 


From smallness to hope: a d'varling for Bo

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In this week's Torah portion, Bo, we are deep in the story of the plagues and traumas that unfolded as a prelude to yetziat Mitzrayim, our Exodus or going-forth from the Narrow Place.

The Hasidic master known as the Me'or Eynayim teaches that our spiritual ancestors were so overwhelmed by the hardship and servitude of Mitzrayim that they lost דעת / da'at, knowledge or awareness of God. 

Part of what was so painful about Mitzrayim, he says, is that we lost access to our spiritual practices and our traditions. Maybe we had a vague sense that those things had meant something to our ancestors, but we weren't living them. So our awareness of God atrophied like an unused muscle.

When we were in Mitzrayim, says the Me'or Eynayim, our דעת / da'at (awareness) was בגלות / in galut (exile) and בקטנות / in katnut (smallness). Our awareness of God went into exile, our awareness of God became diminished. And then he says something that really leapt out at me, reading it this year: it's as though God says to us, התקטנתי במצרים -- "I made Myself small in Mitzrayim."

As though when our lives contracted, God's own self contracted too. When we are in Mitzrayim, it is as though God shrinks. When we are in tight straits, when our hearts and souls feel constricted, when our lives feel constricted, it's as though God becomes smaller. When our awareness of God atrophies, it's as though God actually shrinks. Wow: this year, that teaching really speaks to me.

There's a website called What Day Of March 2020, and if you go there, it will tell you that today is the 680th day of March 2020. As though time stopped when the pandemic began for us, and that month of March has lasted forever. It's a joke, and it's also not a joke.

Between the Delta variant and the Omicron variant, earlier this week there were more than a million new COVID cases. We're facing our third pandemic Purim, our third pandemic Pesach. Hospitals everywhere are filling up again. We are all tired of this. And it is nowhere near over yet.

Right now the pandemic is our Mitzrayim. These are some tight straits. Maybe our hearts and souls feel constricted. Maybe we're exhausted or overwhelmed or afraid. And when we are in tight straits it's natural for our awareness of God, our sense of where we fit into the Mystery of the cosmos, our capacity to hope to become diminished. For us as for our ancestors, it's as though God becomes smaller.

That could also be a description of what it feels like to grapple with depression. Awareness of God diminishes, capacity to hope diminishes, connectedness to what sustains us diminishes, sense of Mystery diminishes -- it's as though God becomes smaller. This teaching resonates on that level, too... though this isn't just a time of personal Mitzrayim, it's a time of communal Mitzrayim.

This week's Torah portion, and this commentary from the Me'or Eynayim, arrive at just the right time. They're here to remind us that even when we feel like we're in galut in Mitzrayim, exiled in these tight straits, our spiritual task is to trust in yetziat Mitzrayim, to trust in the Exodus. Our work is to cultivate our capacity to feel in our bones that life will not always be like this. That's a big leap of faith.

I think it's a necessary one, if we want to get through this pandemic spiritually intact. Our work is to strengthen our da'at, our awareness of God. If the "G-word" doesn't work for you, try: our awareness of hope, of love, of genuine justice. Because when we strengthen our da'at, we strengthen our capacity not only to trust that better days will come, but also to work toward those better days together.

 

Offered with endless gratitude to my hevre at Bayit, with whom I'm studying the Me'or Eynayim.

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services this week, cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.

 


Announcing From Narrow Places

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Co-creating new liturgy for these difficult times is one of the things that has brought me spiritual sustenance over the last eighteen months. I'm honored to have convened this extraordinary group of artists, liturgists, and poets, rabbis and laypeople alike, and I'm humbled by the knowledge that our work has uplifted hearts and souls in many places.

I hope you'll pick up a copy of this book, and I hope that what's in it will sustain you.

Now available for $18 -- From Narrow Places: liturgy, poetry and art of the pandemic era from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. Featuring work by Trisha Arlin, R. Rachel Barenblat, Joanne Fink, R. Allie Fischman, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz PhD, Steve Silbert, R. Jennifer Singer, and Devon Spier.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of CLAL, writes,

For too many, prayer is a vending machine experience and so unsurprisingly it no longer works. And then there are the poets and liturgists in this heart opening collection From Narrow Places who know prayer is a powerful way of consciously surrendering to the mystery and exquisite bittersweetness of Life. This collection of prayers will inspire and enchant you – the real job prayer is supposed to get done.

And Rabbi Vanessa Ochs, professor at University of Virginia and author of Inventing Jewish Ritual, writes,

From Narrow Places gives language and imagery to the Jewish spiritual creativity that is still holding us up through the pandemic. I pray that speedily in our days we will look back at this volume as a testimony to how Jews of one era weathered a crisis and emerged even stronger. For now, it chronicles how the richness of Jewish living, full and fluid, is holding us up in these challenging days. I will confess: each page unlocked doors to my unexamined disappointments, sorrows and even deep joys. Many tears, but good ones.


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.

Be-gentle-with-yourself

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.)