Scallions

The scent
of this covid year:
sour scallion-water
in the kitchen window,

the tail-ends
of green onions
trying to miracle
fresh green from

tap water and sun.
When it catches
in my throat
I choke, then

remember
if my sense of smell
still works,
how lucky

I am.

 


A fog, a weight, a program running in the background

"I don't know why everything is so hard," you say to me. Everyone's hitting the wall, I point out. We're reaching one year of global pandemic. Even if we're okay, it's okay with an asterisk. Okay within global pandemic parameters. Not the same.

You protest: "but I'm fine. I'm not sick. My family isn't sick. I don't know why I'm struggling so much. I'm healthy, I have a job, I have electricity and internet, I'm as lucky as anyone can be. And yet life still feels like slogging through cold molasses."

I can't tell you how many people have said those things to me. (So if you're reading this and thinking, "Is she blogging about our conversation?" the answer is, I've had this conversation lately more times than I can count.) Almost everyone is struggling.

As longtime readers know, I've lived with grief (the end of my marriage, mourning my mother's death) and I've lived with depression. As we reach the end of the first year of COVID-19, I think a global pandemic is a little bit like both of those. 

The pandemic is a fog: we can't see the future clearly, or plan, or dream, or anticipate. The pandemic is a weight pressing us down, always there. It's a program running in the background, draining resources and slowing processor speed. 

*

Half a million people have died in our nation alone. Five hundred thousand human beings. Remember the horror of learning that 100,000 had died? Now it's 5x that. And then there's "long covid" -- people who survive, but don't get well. 

New and deadlier variants are sprouting. Asymptomatic spread means we never know whether we are carrying a deadly pathogen that might kill the next person we breathe near. That's background noise in our hearts and minds, now, always.

Last spring most of us believed that if we sheltered in place for a few weeks, we could stop the spread and that would be the end of it. And then two weeks of staying apart turned into two months turned into a year and we're still nowhere near done.

Sure, we've grown accustomed to wearing masks, social distancing, not embracing, not shaking hands, not being indoors with other human beings who aren't in our quarantine pods. But it's still impacting us in countless subconscious ways.

Purim is in a few days. Last year, Purim was the last holiday we celebrated with others before lockdown began. Traumaversaries are real. And it's February, which doesn't help anything, at least here where I am. So if you're not okay? You're not alone.

*

There is light at the end of the tunnel. We've made it through the darkest part of the winter. Warmth will come. The ability to see each other outdoors will come, and that will relieve some of our isolation, and some of the feelings of being stuck in place.

Vaccines will come. The rollout has been slower than we might have hoped, and we all know people who are trying to get appointments only to learn that supply has run out again. But vaccines exist, and they work, and they will reach everyone.

We will make it to the other side of this sea. For now, what I can offer is this: it's okay to feel the way you feel. (I mean. It's not okay. It's miserable. But it's normal and human and you are truly not alone in it, even if you feel isolated in every way.)

Be gentle with yourself, and with each other. If you can, seek out little ways to be kind to yourself. For me that means hand lotion as a treat for winter-dry skin, coffee, a bouquet of bright flowers, cooking good food. You'll know how best to take care of you.

Be gentle with yourself. If you're finding that it takes longer to get tasks done, or if you can't get them done at all. If you're forgetting things, or struggling. If you feel hopeless or low. Be gentle with yourself. I promise, life will not always be this.


Perseverance and the portable ark

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


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

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

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

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


Fix

Things I cannot fix,
an incomplete list:

armed militias.
Global pandemic.

The grief of staying apart
and unbearable yearning.

Rage at insurrectionists
and anti-maskers.

Things I can fix:
lunch for my child.

This winter stew, meat
from the freezer

and dried mushrooms
plumping in hot broth.

Warm speckled rye dough
pliant beneath my hands.

 


The San Antonio Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Noodles and nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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


I will sing

2021-01-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Image source: R. David Markus. 


Discipline

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Trees in winter.

 

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

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

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

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

 


A year out of time

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


First shot

Covid-19-vaccine-card_sq-f37b49d83468b4c581874e19cbbe31ad53712ae6-s800-c85

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Not the end of the story

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

וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anybody here feeling kotzer ruach? Me too. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 


End of December

Peas

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

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

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

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

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

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


Seeds

I curl my fingers
into the thatch
inside the hollow.

Out come seeds
little teardrops
slippery and pale.

As they fall
the china bowl
rings like a bell.

 

 


 

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


Quiet

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Twigs in December.

 

When the pandemic started, I stopped getting allergy shots. I didn't want to go into the allergist's office, and besides, back in March I thought (naïvely) that we would defeat the pandemic with a few months of everyone sheltering-in-place and stopping viral spread. By summer it became clear that this was going to last a while, and that my optimism about kicking covid-19 to the curb had been entirely unfounded. By late summer I realized that my worst allergy season was approaching.

Some people are allergic to tree pollens or bee stings. I'm allergic to dust and dust mites, the particulate matter that accrues in home heating systems, and the return to indoor weather is when my sinuses fill up with crud. So I started going to the allergist's again. My allergist's office is 45 minutes away, so every time I go for shots, I get a long stretch of driving time. These days I don't listen to the radio or even, often, to music: I just sit in the quiet, listening to the hum of my wheels on the pavement.

My condo can feel noisy during these pandemic Zoom school days. I overhear my son doing school. I overhear his teacher explaining math facts or asking social studies questions. I hear the other kids on the Zoom call. I hear the television when my son is done with homework and can watch his favorite YouTubers. I hear my son's Discord voice chat as he Minecrafts with friends from our separate houses, the safest form of socializing we know. There's solace in the quiet of my car.

Today I spent the drive down drafting an essay in my head. Several weeks ago an acquaintance on Facebook claimed that the Left hates America, and it's been a thorn in my consciousness ever since. I pondered writing an impassioned essay about my progressive values and how I love the promise of what America could yet become. I spoke out loud in the silence of my car about caring for the vulnerable, about clean air and affordable healthcare, about meaningful education, about hope for better.

And then I stopped myself. What good would that essay do? Most of you who know me already agree with me on all of these things. Anyone who thinks that I "hate America" isn't going to be swayed by anything I would write, no matter how fine my prose. Life is challenging enough: winter is beginning, the pandemic is cresting, against all odds there appears to be a coup attempt underway. Writing that essay would rile me up. Others' misunderstanding it would do so even further. To what end?

I thought of my spiritual director. I thought about quieting the soul, and about letting go of the need to have the last word. I thought about using what limited energy I have to stand up for those in need, rather than to pontificate. I thought about the quiet hills around me, and the sheen of ice on the pond, and the snowflakes drifting aimlessly in every direction. And instead of writing an essay in my head, I spoke to Shechinah in my front seat about my longings and my hopes and my fears. 


Prayer, pandemic, community, change

1. Completely unprepared

Nothing in my previous rabbinic life had prepared me for standing at a significant distance from a small number of congregants and family members, wearing three kinds of PPE (an N95, a fabric mask, and a face shield), doors open to the cold air, with my laptop open on the Torah table so the community could join us via Zoom and FB Live, telling those assembled in the room that they were not allowed to sing along with me and would need to pray silently in their souls and in their hearts.

We were there to call a kid to Torah as bar mitzvah. He did beautifully: not only with his Torah reading and his d'var, but also with all of the uncertainties of this surreal year. This post isn't about him. (Though if he's reading this: mazal tov, kid, you rocked it and it was a privilege to teach you.) This post is about what it's like to serve as clergy in this pandemic time, trying to serve in circumstances we aren't -- and couldn't have -- trained for. This post is about navigating pandemic and change.

 

2. Holy at Home

When my congregation was planning for this year's Days of Awe, someone asked: would I lead prayer from the shul, with a select few people to make a minyan, while everyone else davened at home? I didn't want to do it that way, for a few reasons. One is that if we're in person, no one in the room can sing, and singing is one of the primary ways I know to open the heart and activate the soul. I especially can't imagine the Days of Awe without the heart-lifting melodies and nusach unique to that holy season. 

Another is that I lead a different service in person than online. When we're in the room together, we use a bound book. When we're on Zoom, we use a set of screenshare slides that I created explicitly for this purpose, with images and embedded video. Online I want to "lean in" and take advantage of what the technology offers us, rather than doing exactly what I would do in shul (which I think would fall flat, because we're not in shul; simply duplicating what I do there would highlight what we've lost.)

Most of all I wanted to uplift the lived experience of seeking and finding holiness in our homes. That's why I titled the machzor "Holy at Home." Because that's the work of this pandemic moment: making holiness where we are. Making community where we are, despite the physical distance between us. There is holiness in a dining table or a coffee table or a television screen with the Zoom siddur on it. When we open our hearts and souls, we can create holiness, we can create community, wherever we are.

This is the work of our moment: finding holiness and community in this pandemic-sparked diaspora from our synagogues to our homes. And yet, that paradigm doesn't quite work for a celebration of b-mitzvah. At least, not if the kid is reading from a physical Torah scroll, and if we're operating under the classical halakhic paradigm that says we need ten adult Jews in person to open said scroll. If that's our frame, in order to call a kid to Torah as a new Jewish adult we need to bring people together.

 

3. The room where it happens

The last time I had led davenen in the synagogue was for a bar mitzvah back in March. (Immediately after that Shabbat, we closed our building.) Ten people were in the room, socially distanced. We used our regular siddur, and those who were joining us on Zoom or Facebook Live did their best to follow along with the Kindle version of the book. We didn't yet know then what we know now about aerosols and ventilation, so we didn't know to prop doors open, or that singing posed an unacceptable risk.

Thank God, no one got sick after the March bar mitzvah. And all of our later-spring celebrations of b-mitzvah were postponed. Some for a full year. And one until this fall. Last spring, it seemed so clear that by fall we would have vanquished this virus and would be able to gather safely again. No one imagined seven months ago that we would be watching global cases tick upwards again now, or that anti-mask rhetoric and "plandemic" lies would facilitate the virus' spread in such horrendous ways.

But as autumn approached, it became clear that this celebration of bar mitzvah would need to be mostly Zoom-based, with only a small number of people in the room... and that we would need to take precautions we didn't know to take, last time we celebrated a kid coming-of-age like this. The doors would need to be propped open. We would all need to be masked, me triply so. And I would need to begin the morning by saying something I never imagined needing to say: friends, please don't sing.

 

4. Keeping us aloft

When I'm leading davenen in a room full of people, I'm always balancing between pouring my heart into the prayers (if I can't really feel what they mean, then I can't lead others to feel it either) and trying to attune myself to who's in the room. Are they with me, are they engaged, are they moved? Do I need to pause for a word of explanation or a moment of humor? What vocal or musical choice will draw them in and lift them up? Are they smiling, are they crying, what can I read in their bodies and faces?

When I'm leading davenen online, my screenshare siddur and screenshare machzor have built-in 'face to face' slides where I pause the screenshare  -- we wave to each other, we beam at each other, we connect through our cameras in the placeless place of our hearts' togetherness. (This is a practice that R' David Markus and I developed for the Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton in June, a weekend  focused on themes of sacred space, digital presence, and what it means to come together in community online.)

Leading "hybrid" prayer -- with most of the people on Zoom, and a few in person -- turns out to be exponentially more difficult than either leading a room full of people, or leading a streaming community in prayer. I was multiply-masked, which created a feeling of distance (and made it hard for some to hear me.) I couldn't rely on in-person cues like smiles, or how enthusiastically people were singing along, because I couldn't see their smiles and I had to instruct them to refrain from singing with me.

At the autumn bar mitzvah, the family wanted me to sing, even if no one else was allowed to. I'm pretty sure I don't have COVID-19, but I wore two masks and a face shield to protect them as best I could, just in case I'm an asymptomatic carrier. But the masks meant that it was hard for people to hear me. I felt a little bit like I was wearing a space suit. And because I had to forbid the room from singing with me at all, it felt a little bit like I was performing for them, rather than praying with them.

In rabbinic school we used to joke about services where the rabbi is the airline pilot responsible for flying the plane, and those in the pews are just passengers -- or theatre-goers, sitting back and watching a show that the rabbi puts on for them. That's not how I aspire to serve. I want everyone in the room to feel empowered to participate. Keeping us all aloft is something we do together. But I don't have the skillset to help that happen in a hybrid space where those in-person can't sing. Does anyone?

 

5. Fear

And, of course, there's anxiety. Cases of COVID-19 are rising all over the country and around the world. I'm a multiple stroke survivor with asthma and hypertension; of course I'm afraid. But I'm not only afraid for myself. I'm afraid for those whom I serve. Especially for older folks and those who are immunocompromised. And what about unwittingly spreading the virus to others? Even if I'm the only one in the room singing. I want to lift my voice to God; I don't want my voice to be a weapon.

For the bar mitzvah, we made the best choices we could. The doors were propped open and the HVAC system was turned off. The family members who were present were masked and socially distanced, and everyone else participated remotely. We printed the slides for those who were physically present, so they had the same materials in front of them as the Zoom / FB community. I think that what we did was meaningful for the bar mitzvah boy. I suspect he'll remember his pandemic bar mitzvah forever.

And I found it challenging to lead prayer under those circumstances. The emotional and spiritual split-screen experience of trying to lead prayer for a few people in the room and a lot of people remotely, with the in-person folks masked and obligated to stay silent, from behind the space-suit-helmet of a plastic shield and two masks, isn't easy. It's hard to create a meaningful experience for those in the room or at home when no one can read my lips or see my smile. And my voice quavered; I was afraid.

 

6. Next time

As I think forward to future pandemic b-mitzvah celebrations, I'm pondering bringing the Torah scroll to the b-mitzvah kid's home so they can read from it there while I, and everyone else, connect via Zoom. If I believe that telepresence is real (and I do -- or at least, I believe that it can be, if we bring our hearts and souls to it) then why would I privilege the old paradigm of gathering bodies together in a room during a global pandemic? Better to change our definition of minyan to include telepresence. 

Some will say we mustn't set that precedent. Because if telepresence is "good enough" during a pandemic, then as a community we could easily lose the habit of gathering in person at all. What's to say then that someone can't just choose to tele-daven forever, because it's more convenient than going somewhere? What does that do to the fabric of our communities? I hear that anxiety, and I honor it. And... that anxiety for the future doesn't change the steps we need to take to protect each other now

I know that when we gather a minyan from ten separate homes on Shabbes morning, I feel genuinely connected with my community even though we're not sharing a room or breathing the same air together. And I know that when I balance actual risk to people's lives against putative risk to the continuity of how our communities are accustomed to functioning, lives are more important. I believe Jewish values call us to seek to save lives, even if that means setting a paradigm shift in motion.

 

7. Building anew

If gathering ten people on Zoom from ten houses is a real minyan, then that's true whether it's "just Shabbes" or a celebration of b-mitzvah. It may not be ideal... but neither is global pandemic. I know that reading Torah from home, with immediate family / quarantine podmates in the room and everyone else on Zoom, may not be what any kid or family wants the celebration of b-mitzvah to be. And yet it may be what the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, preserving and protecting life, asks of us in this time.

I miss what some now call "the beforetimes," when we could gather together without fear of harming each other. When we could embrace or clasp hands or just be near each other without fear for ourselves, or each other, or the others with whom we are in contact. When we could lift our voices and sing in harmony. (God I miss harmony!) My soul yearns to sing in harmony with beloveds, maybe with a hug or a clasped hand. I yearn for that the way our spiritual forebears in exile yearned for Jerusalem.

And right now we're in exile from our former in-person togetherness, and we don't know how long that will last, or how exile will change the Judaism to which we yearn to return. It may be that this pandemic, or the realities of a century that may contain multiple pandemics, will change Judaism in ways we can't yet know. How do we yearn for what we used to have, and hope with all our hearts for that to be restored, while also building new structures to sustain us in what's unfolding now and new?


Here we are

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Ice crystals on a branch outside my condo.

 

It's strange, now, to look back at my journal from last spring. Back when the pandemic was new to this country (or at least, new to my awareness.) Back when I thought my son might be out of school for a few weeks and then we'd get back to normal. (And he thought so too.) Back when I thought that surely my nation, with all its wealth, could vanquish this virus. Back when I thought surely by the Days of Awe we'd be back together again, safely, with the virus contained.

I never imagined how unspeakably badly national leadership would botch this, or that the president would complain about having to help people who didn't vote for him, or that masks would become a symbol of party affiliation rather than a basic safety measure that can slow the virus' spread. I didn't imagine a quarter of a million deaths and then a staggering number of people planning to see each other at Thanksgiving as though nothing were happening. 

But here we are. It seems ever more evident that there are two nations in uneasy coexistence. Here where I live, masks are ubiquitous. Everyone I know is staying in a small quarantine-style pod, and while some of us relaxed over the summer enough to be with others outdoors, now that the weather is cold we're hunkering down again. We limit trips to the grocery store. We don't travel. We don't touch each other. We don't see people outside our bubble.

I read in the paper, though, about the "other America." The one where people think the virus is a hoax, sometimes even while they're dying of it. The one where people think their liberties give them the right to infect others. I can't understand it. I want to say it's fundamentally anti-Jewish -- our whole religious tradition is communitarian, we have obligations to each other and to the vulnerable! -- though obviously at the rightmost fringe of Judaism some disagree with me.

It's not lost on me that we also live in two Americas when it comes to how we see our national political life. And I don't know what to do about that. Honestly, I can hardly face it. I read the ridiculous lies about the election being stolen and I just don't understand how so many believe that. Add it to the long list of things I can't wrap my head around, I guess. I'm worried about systemic damage to democracy. But right now the pandemic feels more urgent.

And yet life continues. My child will have a birthday in a few days. The new moon of Kislev rose a few days ago; Chanukah is coming. I'm trying not to write scripts about what this pandemic winter will be. We will stay home and try to stay safe. I always look toward spring with hopes of renewal. This year those hopes are heightened: hope not only for more light and new growth but also for government I can trust and for a vaccine. For now, here we are.


Surge capacity and old wells

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This week's Torah portion, Toldot, is so rich. There's great stuff here. This week we've got Rebecca conceiving twins, feeling them grapple with each other in her womb, asking God why this is her life. We get Jacob, whose name means The Heel because he grabs Esau's heel on the way out of the womb.

There's the whole thing with the birthright -- first Esau bargains away his firstborn birthright for a bowl of lentils, then Rebecca coaxes Jacob to trick Isaac into giving the firstborn blessing to him instead of to his older twin. Or how about Esau begging his father, "Don't you have a blessing for me, too?"

There are a dozen divrei Torah in what I just said! And yet I could not find the oomph to write any of them. Because our nation just hit a quarter of a million deaths from covid-19. And winter is coming, and with it, indoor life. And some people are planning to be indoors with others at Thanksgiving next week.

And some number of Americans still believe the virus is a hoax. I read this week in the Post about a nurse in South Dakota, in full PPE, tending to the dying...and the dying patients raging at her for wearing PPE around them because even as they were dying of covid they didn't believe covid was real.

"These are the generations of Isaac" -- that's how the parsha begins. Isaac is situated in his family line, son of Abraham and Sarah, husband to Rebecca, father of Esau and Jacob. And I can't stop thinking about today's generations, truncated. Parents mourning their children. Children who have lost parents.

And I do not understand the refusal to take responsibility, the refusal to act as though we are all interconnected and what I choose to do can impact others. Because we are all interconnected. And whether or not I wear a mask might be the difference between someone else's life and death.

How could I write a d'var Torah in the midst of all of that? And then someone pointed me to Tara Haelle's essay on "surge depletion." Haelle writes:

"Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely."

Haelle's point is that in a short-term crisis, something in us rallies to pull through. Long-term anxiety and uncertainty -- about the pandemic, the future of democracy, who will live and who will die, how much worse things may get before they begin to get better -- that's something else entirely.

We can function in crisis mode for only so long, and then our "surge capacity" gets depleted. Is this sounding familiar? And when our capacity becomes depleted, sometimes we go to the well -- the well of inspiration, the well of hope, the well of faith -- and there's no water to be had. It feels like the well has run dry.

When I read that, I thought: yes. That's what I'm feeling. That's why I can't muster what it takes to write. And that's the image that brought me back to this week's Torah portion.

In this week's portion we read that Isaaac re-plumbed the wells that his father had dug. On the surface, that verse is about literally re-digging wells, which are pretty necessary in a desert climate! But on a metaphorical level, this verse reminds me how sometimes the wells of spirit and hope stop flowing.

When that happens, our job is to forgive ourselves for feeling tapped-out... and then to dig into those wells again, to open those channels so they can receive flow again. Here's what I take from this week's parsha: the spiritual work of opening channels for the flow of hope and faith isn't a one-time thing.

So if you feel lately as though your spiritual well has run dry, you're not alone. Join me in taking inspiration from Isaac, who went back to the old wells and dug away the silt and rocks so they could flow again. The wells of Torah and spiritual practice still flow, but we might need to open them up again.

Because this isn't a short-term crisis. The pandemic isn't going away anytime soon, and neither is the precariousness of our democracy or the poison in our public discourse. We can't rely on surge capacity. We need to build deeper capacity in ourselves and in the systems that support us and our communities.

So here's my prayer. May we find that those old wells of tradition and practice, when we tend them carefully and give them our attention, open up again to nourish and sustain us in every way. Starting right now, with a measure of Shabbat sweetness, Shabbat hope, and Shabbat rest. Shabbat Shalom.

 

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

 


Out of joint

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It's unseasonably warm for western Massachusetts in November. Day after day the high reaches 75. Given climate change, has unseasonable lost its meaning? Last month when it snowed a little I moved my short-sleeved shirts into winter storage; now I'm taking them back out again. The time has changed, we've "fallen back," night falls early. There's something deeply disconcerting about early nightfall when it's this warm. The world feels out of joint. I think of the jokes we crack: "It's March 282nd," as though time stopped moving forward in its normal patterns when the pandemic began for us. I don't know how many days it's been since March. I don't want to count them: they feel lost. So much feels lost. This week we're all on tenterhooks again. Has democracy lost its meaning? The weather app tells me we'll be back to cold weather in a few days. I resolve to go outdoors today while I still can. My fears tell me they know what's coming. 


Every righteous person matters

07970ff6829340efa7b45d202c6909a6In this week's Torah portion, Vayera, God decides to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, because "their sin is so great."

Later in the parsha we'll see an example of their sin: an angry mob demanding that Lot release the strangers whom he's protecting, so that the mob can rape them. That's one way to read the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah: their response to strangers is violent domination.  

Here's another, from the prophet Ezekiel: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and needy.” 

But before that happens, Abraham argues with God: what if there are fifty righteous people there? Or forty? And he bargains God down, and God agrees that if a single minyan of tzaddikim can be found, the cities will be spared.

This year we're reading these verses against the backdrop of election aftermath. We've all been on tenterhooks waiting for votes to be counted. Maybe feeling afraid of violence or afraid for our nation.

And here's Abraham saying to God: wait, even if You're despairing, count everybody. Here's what I take from that passage this year: every righteous person counts. Every righteous person makes a difference. Even if we may feel insignificant in the big picture -- every one of us who is trying to do what's right, matters.

Many translations of this dialogue between Abraham and God about Sodom and Gomorrah use the terms "guilty" and "innocent," e.g. "Far be it from You... to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike!" In that translation, Abraham is urging God to remember the people who are innocent of wrongdoing. 

But I would argue that the plain meaning of the Hebrew words rasha and tzaddik is stronger than that. A rasha is someone who acts wickedly. Some say: a rasha is concerned only with themself and their own needs, rather than the needs of the community or the needs of the vulnerable. And a tzaddik isn't just "innocent." A tzaddik is someone who acts righteously -- someone who acts with tzedek, justice.

And what is righteous behavior? Judaism has a lot of answers to that -- we have 613 instructions, for starters! But here's a shorter list. Righteousness means loving the stranger -- feeding the hungry -- caring for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, in other words the powerless and vulnerable -- seeking justice with all that we are. That's our work. That is always our work.

And it's not always easy. Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle. The pastor John Pavlovitz writes,

"There is a cost to compassion, a personal price tag to cultivating empathy in days when cruelty is trending... Friend, I know you’re exhausted. If you’re not exhausted right now your empathy is busted. But I also know that you aren’t alone."

For those of us who trust science, it's exhausting to know that so many of our fellow Americans think masks infringe on their civil liberties -- or think covid is a hoax. Especially in a week with days where the US kept breaking our own records for new covid-19 infections: first 100,000, then 109,000...  And that's just one reason to feel exhausted. Election uncertainty is exhausting. Fears of violence are exhausting.

But in this week's parsha what I hear Abraham saying is: don't give up. We need to keep doing the right thing: it matters, it makes a difference, even if we don't know it. We need to be tzaddikim. We need to keep loving the stranger, feeding the hungry, caring for the needy and the vulnerable, pursuing justice. Wearing our masks. Protecting the marginalized. Feeling empathy for others. Counting every vote.

This is our obligation as Jews -- as citizens -- as human beings. This was our work before the election; this is our work after the election. And yeah, this is hard work. Most things worth doing are.

Maybe there weren't ten tzaddikim in Sodom, but I believe there are tzaddikim everywhere. And if we're trying to act justly in the world, our work matters -- our work counts.

May Shabbat bring balm to our bruised and anxious hearts... so that when the new week begins, we can bring renewed energy to the work of doing what's right, the work described in the Langston Hughes poem that was our haftarah reading today, the work of building a better world. 

 

This was my d'varling from my synagogue's Shabbat services this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)