Your house

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

 

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

 


God, and community, in the space between

Weigel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom.

 

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

 


Pandemic Psalm 2

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

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

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


 

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

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

 


Pandemic Psalm 1

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

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

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

 


A short video message: about wandering in the wilderness

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

 

 

Hello friends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Almost normalcy

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Scallion-ends growing new shoots. 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


With both eyes open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Pandemic pantoum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


A video teaching: the treasures hidden in quarantine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking of you and sending blessings to all.

 

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


In the wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 


A part

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

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

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

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

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

 


Four weeks in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


We are exactly where the Pesach story calls us to be

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This is going to be a Passover unlike any other. I wrote a long paragraph of reasons why that is so, and then I deleted them. You are living in this world too. You don't need me to tell you any of the reasons why this year is different from any other year that any of us have ever lived through. You don't need me to tell you what's strange or scary or overwhelming or unknown, or why it feels so weird to be approaching Pesach in this moment when life feels both empty (of normalcy) and over-full (of fear).

The story of the Exodus, the story we re-tell each year during the seder, is the story of how our spiritual ancestors left Mitzrayim, "The Narrow Place." The Pesach story -- our national story as a people -- begins in tight constriction. It begins in dire straits. It begins in a time and place of profound inequality, when there was an unthinkable gap between rich (Pharaoh) and poor (the ancient Israelite slaves). It begins with plagues, darkness, sickness, death, and leaving behind everything that was familiar. 

The tradition says each of us is to see ourselves as though we ourselves had been brought out of Mitzrayim. I don't know about you, but the idea that we are living in Mitzrayim -- the Narrow Place; tight constriction; dire straits -- feels very real to me this year. If we are feeling constricted, anxious, afraid, uncertain, maybe newly-aware of some of our society's fundamental inequalities and the harm they cause to the most vulnerable... then we are exactly where the Pesach story calls us to be.

When we left that Narrow Place, we didn't know where we were going. We didn't have time to fully prepare for our journey of transformation. We didn't know where we were going or how we would get there. We left the Narrow Place anyway, because it had become clear that staying where we were -- staying with the status quo -- meant death. If we are feeling unready, unprepared, maybe thrust into a journey we don't know how to take... then we are exactly where the Pesach story calls us to be.

In Talmud (Pesachim 116a) we read that מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח - one should begin the recounting of the Exodus story with degradation, and one should end with praise. That's the spiritual journey encapsulated and recapitulated in the seder. The haggadah moves from the degradation of "we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt" to the praise songs of Hallel on the far side of the sea. The haggadah takes us from despair to redemption, from constriction to freedom, from mourning to dancing.

Right now we are at the beginning of the story of the covid-19 pandemic of 2020. We begin in "degradation" -- in this Narrow Place, in this fearful place, in this grief-stricken place. Our task is to trust that this is only where our story begins, not where it will end. Our work is to stay home, help those whom we can help, and cultivate our ability to hope. May scientists' labors toward a vaccine bear fruit, so that someday this slow-motion global tragedy will end and we will dance on the far shores of the sea.

 

If you're looking for resources for a home-based seder this year, here's a post I wrote for Builders Blog: Resources for Seder in a Time of Quarantine.

 


Crying out and compassion

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As this week began I studied a text from the Piaceczyner, aka the Aish Kodesh, aka R' Kalman Kalonymus Shapiro, the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto. He teaches that as human beings, when we feel one another's pain -- when our hearts break for each others' suffering -- when one of our fellow human beings calls out, and we listen with open heart -- we empower the angels on high. .

Calling out to each other is part of how we share each others' burdens. And the Piaceczyner cites an old Aramaic translation to connect calling with receiving. It's connective, relational. This becomes a metaphor not only for how we imagine the angels interacting with each other, but even how we imagine God interacting with us. We call out to God, and God calls out to us.

That's how this week's Torah portion begins: with God calling out to Moshe. The Piaceczyner draws on midrash to say that God is like a human being who cries out to a friend, "help me carry this burden?" The burden that God wants help in carrying is our human suffering, which God feels-with-us. Even God takes comfort, when bearing a burden, in not having to carry it alone.

When we're in relationship with each other, when we call out to each other, when we feel-with one another and seek to lessen one another's pain, that's a gift we give each other. And because we're in relationship with God, when we cry out to God and God cries out to us, we are (as it were) giving that gift to God, and God is giving it to us in turn. What an amazing idea that is.

This is a time of immense suffering in the parts of the world where the pandemic has already crested. Here where I live, we are braced for what seems to be the near-certainty of immense suffering here too. There aren't enough ventilators for those who will need them, and there isn't enough protective gear to protect the doctors and nurses who risk life in caring for the sick.

As human beings, we have the choice of feeling each others' pain, or numbing ourselves to each others' pain. We can exercise compassion -- literally feeling-with-another -- or we can turn away. There are those who shrug and say that deaths are inevitable and shouldn't halt the economy. To me, that response is barbaric and inhumane. I think the Piaceczyner would agree.

The Piaceczyner was writing from the Warsaw Ghetto. The Jewish community to which he ministered there was in profound crisis, and things were about to get much worse. His response to that was: compassion. We must feel-with each other, cry out to each other and to God, carry each other's burdens... as God cries out to us, carries our burdens with us, feels with us. 

When we cry out and also receive the cries of others, we strengthen our compassion. I learned a different text from the Piaceczyner recently about faith. Faith is the soul's way of knowing and seeing. Faith is like the heart, beating even if we're not conscious of it -- and we also need to exercise it. I think the same is true of compassion: we need to choose to use it, often.

Cry out! Because if we numb ourselves to grief, we also numb ourselves to joy. Because crying-out is relational, and in the connection between crier and listener there is holiness. And open your heart to the cries of others who are suffering or afraid. Because hearing each other in this time is how we exercise compassion, like the One in Whose image all are made.

 

With gratitude to R' Megan Doherty, and to my hevre at Bayit: Building Jewish, with whom I studied this text this week.

The primary text I'm drawing on here is the Aish Kodesh on Vayikra 5700 / 1940. The second text, the one about faith, is his writing on Parshat Ha-Chodesh 5702/ 1942. Deep thanks to R' David Markus for learning that text with me.


The new normal

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My synagogue, set up for precisely a minyan, with social distancing.

 

Yesterday was my forty-fifth birthday. I began it doing a few of the things I love most: leading others in prayer and song, and welcoming a new adult into the Jewish community. That's been the plan for March 21 for more than a year now. Of course, it didn't quite happen the way we had been envisioning it.

That was the last service that will be held in our sanctuary for some time. Attendance in person was limited to a minyan, who had to sit six feet apart. When we called up grandparents for an aliyah, we carried an iPad up to the amud (Torah reading table) because grandparents were attending digitally

From now on, our Shabbat morning services will be offered via zoom. We'll daven together from places that are apart. I don't know what we'll do about upcoming celebrations of b-mitzvah. There are so many things that I don't know, and can't know -- none of us can. Welcome to rabbi-ing in a time of pandemic.

I'm slowly settling in to the rhythm of this new normal. Much of last week was dedicated to figuring out what it will look like to homeschool my kid. He's out of school for three weeks (as of now), but I'm bracing for schools to be closed until next fall, as is already the case in several other states.

We set up our school space at the dining room table, and I worked on synagogue things -- reaching out to congregants, researching whether our chevra kadisha can safely do taharah during a pandemic -- during the quiet moments while my kid was doing social studies or reading a book or solving math problems.

At night I shifted gears between comforting my kid (not surprisingly, he's been wrestling with "difficult thoughts" and anxiety -- who among us isn't?) and offering pastoral care via all the distance modalities I know. I anticipate a lot more of both of those in the weeks (and probably months) to come.

I wrote to my synagogue community Friday that even though we are apart in physical space, we are together in heart and spirit. And we are only at the beginning of the journey through the valley of covid-19. We will all need to learn ways to feel, and to strengthen, those connections of heart and spirit.

I don't know how to end this post. My literary training suggests that this post needs to go somewhere, but I don't know where anything is going right now. I trust that we will eventually make it to the far side of this pandemic -- we who survive. I hope that I am among the survivors; I hope that you are too. 

But I don't know what after will look like, or whether this will be only the first pandemic of many in this strange new world, or how my parenting (everyone's parenting) will have to shift in response to pandemic and a possible new Great Depression, or how my Judaism (everyone's Judaism) will have to shift too.

I did my best to have a Shabbes. I'm doing all the things I know how (in isolation) to connect my heart and spirit with others, with my traditions, with my Source. (I even baked myself a birthday cake.) I know that the new week will ask a lot. In Robert Frost's words, "there's no way out but through."


Like a fiddler on the roof

This is the message I sent to my synagogue community today. I thought it might speak to some of y'all too. Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

Not long ago I was preparing to take my son to see the national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, in which my niece Noa Luz Barenblat plays Chava. My son asked me, “what does the title of the play mean?” I told him here’s how I understand it: Life is precarious, but we still need music. We still need art and beauty and melody. We still need our traditions and what connects us with each other and our generations and our Source. Even when we feel that life is as precarious as a fiddler balanced on a rooftop. Maybe especially then.

The fiddler on the roof in Anatevka represents the miracle of the human spirit: singing out sometimes in pain and sometimes in joy, making music and marking holy time, even when life feels precarious. I find a deep teaching about spiritual resilience there — especially now.

For many of us, the covid-19 pandemic is awakening a sense of precariousness. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring. Of course, that’s always true, pandemic or not… but most of us don’t live with constant awareness of the fragility of our lives and the lives of those whom we love. How can we best navigate this time?

I have two answers: take care of ourselves, and take care of each other. And I think we can learn something about how to do that from the Jews of Anatevka.

The Jews of Anatevka were materially poor, but they were rich in community and traditions. We too have community — even when circumstances obligate us to connect via phone or zoom instead of in person. We too have traditions — even when circumstances obligate us to celebrate those traditions in slightly different ways for a while. Music and prayer can still uplift us, even if we’re feeling anxious and uncertain — or maybe especially then.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes that now is a great time to double down on our spiritual practices… and if we don’t think we have any, now is a good time to develop some! Whether that means prayer, meditation, yoga, making art, listening to music: we should lean into whatever sustains our hearts and souls in this time. Because we’re going to need every ounce of strength and compassion and rootedness we’ve got in order to take care of each other.

One of the ways we’re taking care of each other is by pulling back from physical contact. The temporary closing of colleges and theatres and houses of worship is a step that’s being taken in order to protect the whole of our interconnected community. The hope is that these closures will slow the spread of the virus so that our hospital can keep up with the pace of infection. What higher aspiration could a community seek than to care for each other in these ways?

And, there are other ways that we can take care of each other, even at a distance. Even when we have to close down services for a while, we can gather via zoom. And we can call and email and text and Facetime and Skype and zoom with each other. It’s not the same as being together in person as a community — and, it’s still real human connection that can uplift our hearts.

Please do check up on each other. Reach out in all the modalities that the modern world offers. Take care of each other… and take care of you, too.

May our connections with each other, and with our traditions, and with our Source, sustain us through the pandemic and beyond.


The tiniest spark of joy

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We read in the Tikkunei Zohar that Purim is like Yom Kippur. This is hinted-at in the way that on Yom Kippur, one must fast and do teshuvah (repentance / return) not only if one feels like it, but whether or not one wants to do it. This is an enduring decree from the Holy One of Blessing. Rejoicing on Purim is similar. One is obligated to rejoice on Purim, not only if one is happy in oneself, or is in a situation where it's easy to feel joy. On the contrary: even if one is in a low place and completely broken-hearted, body and spirit laid low, it's still an obligation to seek out whatever tiny spark of joy is possible, and welcome that spark into the heart.

On both of these holy days, there's a flow from on high to us here below. Just as Yom Kippur itself atones for us, even if our teshuvah feels inadequate (according to Talmud in tractate Yoma), just so on Purim. Even if a person isn't feeling joyful the way one's supposed to, and therefore one's service of God doesn't feel whole, even in that case the salvation and joy of Purim will flow -- and that potential is open to us even now.

-- The Piazeczyner aka The Aish Kodesh aka R' Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, Purim 1940

 

Last year, Purim happened a scant few weeks after my mother's death. I was shellshocked. I was in a fog. I scarcely remember the holiday at all. But I remember taking comfort in a text that R' David Markus taught me over the phone. The text said that Purim itself would do its work in me and on me, as Yom Kippur does, and that even if I couldn't access real joy, there would still be a flow from on high that would come through me to those whom I serve.

This year I sat down twice to study this short text from the Aish Kodesh, once with my Bayit hevre, and once with my other hevruta R' Megan Doherty. And only today, on Purim itself, did I realize why this text resonates with me so deeply and why it feels so familiar: this is the teaching R' David shared with me last year when I was in the pit of grief. And, in fact, it turns out this is a teaching I had shared with him a few years prior and had forgotten!

What jumps out at me in this text this year is the idea that we are obligated to welcome into our hearts whatever tiny spark of joy we can find. This isn't spiritual bypassing. This isn't "put on a happy face." This is the spiritual practice of opening our hearts even in difficult circumstances, so that some measure of blessing can flow in. The Aish Kodesh was writing from the Warsaw Ghetto; he knew something about difficult circumstances.

 

God would like us to be joyful
Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor.
How much more can we be joyful
When there's really something
To be joyful for?

-- To Life, To Life, L'Chayim / Fiddler on the Roof

 

I thought of this teaching a few days ago when I was blessed to see the national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof. "God would like us to be joyful / even when our hearts lie panting on the floor" -- Tevye might have been citing the Piazeczyner! Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor, Purim invites us to open our broken hearts to a spark of joy. Even when our circumstances (individual or collective) are dark, our tradition invites us to open to joy.

And when there is within reach "something to be joyful for," in Fiddler's words -- maybe a birth, or a wedding, a friendship, a sign of hope, a Shabbes -- we've got to seize that joy with both hands. Because joy is part of what fuels us. Because without joy, we can't go on. And the world needs us to go on, because there's a lot of work we need to do to bring justice and hope and ethics and opportunity and peace to everyone everywhere, and that's what we're here for.

So if today we're in the narrow straits of a personal grief, a loss or an illness or a sorrow... or if we're in the narrow straits of communal anxiety about the election, or the economy, or the pandemic that is sweeping the globe... we shouldn't kick ourselves for not being able to fulfill the mitzvah of rejoicing. Instead, let's open our hearts the tiniest crack, and let the tiniest spark of joy and hope come in -- and trust that the day itself will do the rest.