In this week's Torah portion, Vayera, God decides to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, because "their sin is so great."
Later in the parsha we'll see an example of their sin: an angry mob demanding that Lot release the strangers whom he's protecting, so that the mob can rape them. That's one way to read the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah: their response to strangers is violent domination.
Here's another, from the prophet Ezekiel: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and needy.”
But before that happens, Abraham argues with God: what if there are fifty righteous people there? Or forty? And he bargains God down, and God agrees that if a single minyan of tzaddikim can be found, the cities will be spared.
This year we're reading these verses against the backdrop of election aftermath. We've all been on tenterhooks waiting for votes to be counted. Maybe feeling afraid of violence or afraid for our nation.
And here's Abraham saying to God: wait, even if You're despairing, count everybody. Here's what I take from that passage this year: every righteous person counts. Every righteous person makes a difference. Even if we may feel insignificant in the big picture -- every one of us who is trying to do what's right, matters.
Many translations of this dialogue between Abraham and God about Sodom and Gomorrah use the terms "guilty" and "innocent," e.g. "Far be it from You... to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike!" In that translation, Abraham is urging God to remember the people who are innocent of wrongdoing.
But I would argue that the plain meaning of the Hebrew words rasha and tzaddik is stronger than that. A rasha is someone who acts wickedly. Some say: a rasha is concerned only with themself and their own needs, rather than the needs of the community or the needs of the vulnerable. And a tzaddik isn't just "innocent." A tzaddik is someone who acts righteously -- someone who acts with tzedek, justice.
And it's not always easy. Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle. The pastor John Pavlovitz writes,
"There is a cost to compassion, a personal price tag to cultivating empathy in days when cruelty is trending... Friend, I know you’re exhausted. If you’re not exhausted right now your empathy is busted. But I also know that you aren’t alone."
For those of us who trust science, it's exhausting to know that so many of our fellow Americans think masks infringe on their civil liberties -- or think covid is a hoax. Especially in a week with days where the US kept breaking our own records for new covid-19 infections: first 100,000, then 109,000... And that's just one reason to feel exhausted. Election uncertainty is exhausting. Fears of violence are exhausting.
But in this week's parsha what I hear Abraham saying is: don't give up. We need to keep doing the right thing: it matters, it makes a difference, even if we don't know it. We need to be tzaddikim. We need to keep loving the stranger, feeding the hungry, caring for the needy and the vulnerable, pursuing justice. Wearing our masks. Protecting the marginalized. Feeling empathy for others. Counting every vote.
This is our obligation as Jews -- as citizens -- as human beings. This was our work before the election; this is our work after the election. And yeah, this is hard work. Most things worth doing are.
Maybe there weren't ten tzaddikim in Sodom, but I believe there are tzaddikim everywhere. And if we're trying to act justly in the world, our work matters -- our work counts.
May Shabbat bring balm to our bruised and anxious hearts... so that when the new week begins, we can bring renewed energy to the work of doing what's right, the work described in the Langston Hughes poem that was our haftarah reading today, the work of building a better world.
This was my d'varling from my synagogue's Shabbat services this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Everyone I know is struggling right now. And by and large, the people in my circles have jobs; we have secure housing; we do not have COVID-19. If this year were a video game, we would be sailing through it on "easy" mode. This is still hard.
We're watching the pandemic surge all over the country. Hospitals are filling up. We remember New York last spring, the refrigerated trucks that had to serve as extra morgues, doctors re-using PPE because there isn't enough to go around.
We're watching the anointing of a new Supreme Court justice who may be poised to strike down the Affordable Care Act and undo a generation's progress toward the bodily autonomy of people with uteruses. Many of us feel powerless and afraid.
We're watching the election with a mixture of hope and dread. The president insists he cannot lose unless it's rigged. I've had congregants ask me: do I think voter intimidation will turn into actual civil war? (Probably not, but the fear is exhausting.)
We're trying to help our children navigate remote or hybrid school. My kid is lucky: right now he's at school for about 2.5 hours, four days a week. The rest of the time is asynchronous work that takes him almost no time at all. He's often at loose ends.
We're trying to help our children navigate the emotional and spiritual impacts of seven months of pandemic with no end in sight. Bedtime has become fraught. Tears happen more often and more easily. "This pandemic ruins everything," mine said.
We're grieving everything we've lost. Even those of us who haven't lost friends or family to COVID-19 (yet) have much to grieve. Planned visits to loved ones, or long-awaited vacations, or just... safely sitting at a coffee shop with other human beings.
Many of us struggle to drum up and sustain hope for the future. Many of us have lost our previous sense of safety in the world. And we're the lucky ones: not sick, not unemployed, not homeless, enough food to eat, enough hand sanitizer to get by.
Why am I reciting this terrible litany? In order to say: if you're struggling, you're not alone. In order to say: hey, be gentle with yourself. These are difficult times. It's normal to be overwhelmed, and anxious, and to feel like everything is a slog right now.
I mean, guess what: everything really is a slog right now. Our brains are spinning with anxious worst-case scenarios on every level, from the personal to the communal to the global. Of course we can't focus. Of course we're not working at capacity.
I've said before that this is a great time to strengthen our spiritual practices. (And if we don't have them, this is a great time to start.) And this is a time to be compassionate with ourselves, and to replenish ourselves however we can manage to do so.
Yes, everything is really hard right now. It's not you -- it's the world we're living in. Put on your own oxygen mask: nourish yourself in whatever ways you can. With music, or books, or Netflix, or petting your cat, or cooking, or whatever you can find.
Cultivate hope. Plant its seeds deep within, and water them, and nurture them, and strengthen your ability to feel those seeds growing. It's okay if you can't feel hope all the time. Try just feeling it for a single moment. And then a moment more.
And if you can't feel hope, then hope for the capacity to feel hope again -- that works too. And when you can breathe, see what you can do to help people who have it worse off than you do. And when you can't breathe, return to your oxygen mask again.
This year I take comfort in every tradition I can manage. Anything I've done in years past that I might do in years to come -- those things become a lifeline. A reminder that there was life before this difficult, terrible, anxiety-drenched year of global pandemic and national political uncertainty, and there will be life after this year, too. The holidays come and go every year. The autumn leaves blaze bright every year, and fall, and then grow anew. These rhythms remind me that the world will not end.
One of my annual traditions comes at the end of Sukkot: preserving the etrogim from Sukkot to taste at Tu BiShvat, the new year of the trees which falls here in deep midwinter. The etrog is called pri etz hadar, "the fruit of a splendid tree" (or a goodly tree). And Pri Etz Hadar is the name of an early mystical Tu BiShvat text and seder. Bringing the taste and scent of the etrog to Tu BiShvat is a way to link this fall with the coming winter -- and to evoke the new growth that hasn't yet come, but will.
As always, I've peeled five etrogim and put them under vodka in my tall glass infuser in the back of a cupboard. Within a few days I'll forget that they're there. All year long they will steep, slowly transferring their color, flavor, and fragrance. By this time next year, the vodka will be bright as sunlight and fragrant like an etrog scratched with a thumbnail to release its scent. I'll decant the contents, add simple syrup, and bottle the end result... so I can refill my infuser and begin the whole process again.
I'm not sure how I'll share this fragrant elixir with my community at Tu BiShvat this year. I can't imagine a reality in which we'd feel safe gathering indoors for a Tu BiShvat seder at the end of January. The pandemic won't be over by then. I suspect we'll all be sheltering-in-place at home by deep wintertime. Maybe I'll see if folks want to gather outdoors in the snow, among the dormant trees, and toast to their continued health and longevity (and our own!) at a safe social distance in the brisk fresh air.
The streets of my small New England town are full of lawn signs. Many of them say "Black Lives Matter." Many of them promote candidates for local school committee. (That race has gotten heated, since not everyone is happy with how the school committee managed decisions about pandemic schooling.) And of course there are signs for candidates in less-local races, e.g. the presidential race, though none quite so elaborate as the Biden-Harris sign made out of hay bales on a nearby farm that an arsonist torched. And doesn't that just feel like a metaphor for American civic discourse?
But I've been intrigued by the one that simply says "Enough." It's on a block with a bunch of political signs, so the first several times I saw it, I read it as a commentary on this endless election season. Enough with this administration and its gaslighting. Enough with talking heads and pundits, predictions and and polls. Enough with it already. Let's vote and be done. (Well. This year it may be more like "vote, and then spend a month or more navigating false claims of voter fraud and lawsuits over systemic voter disenfranchisement." But whatever.) Enough! Would that it were over already. We've had enough.
I suspect it's how all of us are feeling about the pandemic, too. Enough of COVID-19, and horrendous newspaper headlines, and refrigerator truck morgues, and bleak statistics, and the politicization of face masks, and lies about it being a "plandemic." Even a single death is too many; over a million is almost unimaginable. And countless more remain alive but sick. We all wish we could be done. (Of course, we're not done. So we're still masking, socially-distancing, washing our hands. But I know it wearies me; surely it wearies all of us.) Enough! Would that it were over already. We've had enough.
But the round of Jewish fall holidays drew toward their close, I realized there's another way to read it. Maybe it means: we are enough. What we have managed to do is enough. Even if we don't feel like we're doing a "good enough" job: if we're making it through this year, that's enough. We need to be gentle with ourselves. Don't fault ourselves for not learning a new language or writing the next great American novel during a massive global health crisis coinciding with enormous anxiety about the future of democracy. Whatever we're managing -- emotionally, spiritually, let it feel like enough.
Updated to add: I've just learned that the "enough" sign is intended to be a message against local police and racial equity work. I don't agree with that stance, and I will continue to creatively mis-interpret the sign when I drive past it.
I think my cat was perplexed. He has grown accustomed to me leading services from the dining room table: the laptop, my microphone, perhaps a pair of Shabbat or festival candles lit on the table beside me, lots of singing.
These days when I daven from the table, he looks up briefly from his favorite perch on the cat tree and then returns to napping. But he has never seen me dance around the room holding a big metal-bound Tanakh encrusted with gems.
I don't have a Torah scroll at home, so I danced with the big metal-bound Tanakh that used to belong to my parents. I waltzed with it; I spun around in circles with it; I danced with it in a circumnambulation of the room; I cradled it like a baby in my arms.
Seven songs, seven poems, seven hakafot. Evoking the seven days of the first week, and the seven "lower sefirot" or qualities that we share with our Creator from lovingkindness to boundaries and strength all the way to presence and Shechinah.
I thrilled to the secret heart revealed when we go from the end of Torah directly to her beginning, from loss to starting over, from lamed to bet. I opened my Tanakh to a random word and from that word I gave myself a blessing.
And then I went to bed, and I slept the sleep of the overtired rabbi and elementary school parent who could finally relax into knowing that the work of this long, challenging (and this year, pandemic-unprecedented) holy season was done.
"Mom, did you know that there are monks who spend months making really intricate sand mandalas and then when they're finished, they blow the sand away, because nothing lasts forever?"
My son says this to me on the first morning of Sukkot. I can't make this up. My d'varling for that morning, which I've just printed out, begins "Sukkot; festival of impermanence..." And here he is, telling me earnestly about sand mandalas.
"I did know that," I say. "Hey, can you think of any spiritual practices we have as Jews that are kind of similar to that?"
His eyes are a study in uncertainty.
"Where we make something beautiful and then let it come apart?"
"Wait a second," he says, and I can see the lightbulb going on. We've just spent four days building our sukkah, procuring fairy lights to illuminate it, and adorning it with all of his favorite sparkly decorations. (He even made a video about it.)
"I'll give you a hint. We build a little house and cover it with decorations. And over the course of the week the cornstalks dry out and the decorations fall down and at the end of the week we take it all down."
"Because nothing lasts forever?"
"I wish our sukkah could last forever," he says, wistfully.
"If it did, we'd probably stop noticing how beautiful it is," I point out.
Two days later, we're in the car on the way to the elementary school for the first time in twenty-seven weeks. He is in an afternoon fifth grade cohort that will go to school four afternoons a week while infection rates remain low.
I drop him off curbside. He is wearing the mask he picked for the first day of hybrid school, carrying his school-issued Chromebook and a water bottle that will stay at school and some extra hand sanitizer for good measure.
As I watch him walk away, my heart seizes. Infection numbers here are low right now. I trust that our local elementary school is taking wise precautions. I know that he is going to be fine. But it still feels wrenching to let him out of my sight.
I return home, open up Zoom, and spend my Monday rabbinic office hour in our sukkah. A few of the decorations have fallen down. The cornstalks on the roof are beginning to dry out. The "it's not easy being green" etrog poster is now on the floor.
I sit inside our little homemade sand mandala of tinsel and schach. I remind myself that this pang isn't new. It just feels sharper right now because the pandemic has so unaccustomed me to letting him go.
Sukkot: festival of impermanence, festival of joy even in vulnerability. We build sukkot to remember our ancestors' harvest traditions; to remember the flimsy sukkot in which we dwelled after leaving Egypt; to remember the cloud of glory that protected us in our wilderness wanderings. Sukkot asks us: can we feel protected by God's presence even now, even in a flimsy little house that lets in the rain and the wind?
That's always the question at Sukkot. What does it mean to feel safe and protected? What does it mean to build structures -- whether physical or spiritual -- knowing that nothing we build lasts forever?
On the physical front, this year there may be a paradoxical sense of safety in the sukkah because a sukkah is as well-ventilated as any space can be. It has to be, in order to be kosher. A sukkah can't be airtight with a solid roof. The roof needs to let moonlight and raindrops through. In these covid-19 times, this flimsy sketch of a room in the fresh air of the great outdoors is the safest place to breathe.
In part through the very fact of what a sukkah is, Sukkot asks us to grapple with impermanence. As soon as we put on the (purposely insufficient) roof, the roof starts to come apart -- the cornstalks dry up, the palm fronds or branches wither. "Emptiness upon emptiness," as we read this morning in Kohelet. Nothing that we can build lasts forever.
And Sukkot asks us to find joy in the midst of impermanence. One of this holiday's names is Zman Simchateinu, the Time of Our Rejoicing. How can we rejoice in a little temporary house where rain gets through the roof? We might as well ask: how can we rejoice in fragile human bodies that we know will someday die? And my answer is: how can we not?
Early in the pandemic, my friend Cate Denial reminded me that life doesn't go on "pause" while we're sheltering-in-place. This is the life we have. Right now it may be more constrained than we want it to be, for pandemic reasons -- but it is still life, and we need to live it, not sleepwalk through our days waiting for the pandemic to be over.
I think of that teaching often, and it feels deeply relevant to Sukkot. This little temporary house is a metaphor for human life. It's fragile. It's vulnerable. It's not forever. But as Cate taught me, this is the life we have -- and the time to cultivate joy is not in some unimaginable future when everything broken is repaired, but here and now.
Sukkot reminds me to grab joy with both hands, wherever I can find it. In my morning cup of coffee; in the scent of the etrog, sharp and stirring; in the light of the full moon. In the voices and faces of friends, even when the only safe way to see them is on Zoom. In the melodies of our prayers. In the rhythm of weekday and Shabbes.
These are quotidian joys, but they are real, and they can be sustaining. To be sure, the existence of these joys doesn't negate the difficult realities of this moment. One million dead to covid-19 around the world so far. Credible threats of election violence and voter intimidation. Fears that our democracy might be as fragile as this flimsy sukkah.
So during chag we cultivate joy, and we let that joy fuel us and strengthen us to do the rebuilding work that our world so desperately needs. Maybe this year that rebuilding work means textbanking or phonebanking to help eligible voters register to vote, or volunteering as a poll worker. Those actions help to build our democracy.
Or maybe you feel called toward something more tangible... like chopping onions for the Berkshire Food Project's grab-and-go meals, because need has tripled since the pandemic began. Helping to cook the meals that feed our hungry neighbors is a mitzvah that comes right out of Torah -- and it's an action that helps to build our community.
Sukkot invites us to cultivate joy that will sustain us in this work and more. Sukkot teaches us to seek joy in the full moon even though we're also vulnerable to the falling rain. Sukkot teaches us to seek joy even as we recognize the world's brokenness and work to fix it. Sukkot invites us to remember that this is the life we have, and our job is to live it.
This is my d'varling for Shabbat Sukkot (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Image: the CBI sukkah this year.
I gave my sermon "live" on Zoom in realtime, and also pre-recorded it to go live with this blog post around the time I was offering it. If you prefer to watch the sermon, it's above (and here on YouTube.) If you prefer to read it, the text appears below.
A few weeks ago, a congregant said to me: you know, it's weird. Sometimes, especially reading Facebook, it feels like life is normal. We're seeing everybody's first day of school pictures, even if school is "from home" this fall. There are pictures of new kids or grandkids. Life seems to be continuing. And then other times I wake up and I'm immediately swamped by fear about the future of democracy, despair about the pandemic, and anxiety about totalitarianism, and nothing feels normal anymore at all.
I was really struck by that description of the disjunction between first-day-of-school pictures and creeping anxiety about what our world might be becoming.
I think we've all been living in that disjunction. It's a normal day -- and here are the latest case numbers in the global pandemic. It's a normal day -- and the news headlines are so outrageous that I feel numb. It's a normal day -- and nothing feels normal at all... As Rafia Zakaria wrote recently, "We live constantly with the weight of these juxtapositions between the banal and the utterly devastating."
In pastoral conversations over the last six months, I've heard a lot of anxiety. About illness and covid-19 and our children and everything that's happening in our world. About the coming election, and fears of authoritarianism, and the future of democracy, and a sense that everything could be about to unravel right before our eyes, and about whether this nation is a safe place to be Jewish, and whether anywhere in the world is safe. Colleagues who are therapists tell me they're hearing all of these anxieties, too.
Several of you have asked me: if things really are that bad, then what can we do?
Here's my answer: if things are really that bad, then we take care of each other. We protect the most vulnerable among us. We stand up for those who are more at-risk than we are. And we cultivate hope for a better world, and do what we can to get closer to that ideal in our lifetime.
And what if things aren't that bad? If our democracy is actually pretty robust, and there isn't going to be a civil war, and we're not staring down the barrel of totalitarianism, and modern medicine finds an excellent vaccine for covid-19 and good government policies make it available to everyone, and together we can pursue the dream of a more perfect union with liberty and justice for all?
My answers don't actually change.
We still need to take care of each other. And protect the most vulnerable among us. And stand up for those who are more at-risk than we are. And cultivate hope, and do what we can to build a better world. That's our responsibility as Jews and as human beings, in the worst of times and in the best of times.
Over the last year, several friends and I have been studying the writings of the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, R' Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, sometimes known as the Piazeczyner.
The Piazeczyner was writing under incredibly difficult circumstances. The community he served was confined to the ghetto and their rights were being continually diminished. (Eventually, of course, they would be rounded up and taken to the camps... though he didn't know that when he was writing these weekly commentaries.) Although he wrote these divrei Torah some eighty years ago, I have found his words to be deeply relevant to the spiritual needs of this moment.
The Piazeczyner writes that when times are tough, we feel "exiled" or distant from God, and those times are precisely when we feel the most powerful longing for God. (Aish Kodesh on Shabbat Ha-Gadol, 1941.) I think we can understand this as: when times are tough we despair, and we feel frightened about the world around us, and we yearn for safety and hope.
And, he says, when we "accept the yoke of the mitzvot" -- when we accept our obligations to each other and to God -- we grow in holiness. And when we do, it's as though God's own self becomes greater and more active in the world, because in our spiritual growth we become greater and more active in the world.
He could have said, these are terrible times. The world is broken, and we are not safe, and God has abandoned us. Instead, he said: the world is broken, that very brokenness arouses our yearning for a better world, and our yearning is the first step toward making it real. He said, remember the Exodus from Egypt. Remember the story of walking into the waters of the sea. Only when the waters reached our nostrils did the seas part.
The story of crossing the sea reminds us that we have to keep going "day and night." We have to keep trying, and doing mitzvot, and building a better world. Even in times of pain and fear. Even -- he wrote this in 1940 -- when we're confined to home and "commerce is brought to a standstill and businesses are closed, God forbid." (Aish Kodesh on Beshalach, 1940.)
Torah tells us that when our spiritual ancestors wandered in the wilderness, a pillar of cloud went before us by day and a pillar of fire by night. The Piazeczyner teaches that this isn't just a literal teaching, but also a spiritual one. The fire that we need to light our way forward is here for us, if only we will open our eyes. We need to hold on to our Source of strength and hope, and that will carry us through. In the words of Psalm 27, which we read each year at this season, "Keep hope in the One. Be strong and open your heart wide, and keep hoping in the One!"
I know that for some of us the word "God" is ... complicated. Maybe we don't believe in a God Who will step in and save us. Early in the pandemic, my son overheard me studying the Piazeczyner late one night with some colleagues. We were reading a commentary on how when the Israelites cried out in the hardships of slavery, God heard our cries and saved us. And my kid came into my study and said, "Mom, if we're still the children of Israel, why isn't God saving us from covid-19? Are we just not crying out enough?"
So we talked about whether God reaches into the world and changes things for us, or whether God acts in the world through our actions, or whether we find God -- as Mister Rogers famously taught -- "in the helpers," in the doctors and nurses and scientists working to help people with covid-19. And I remember thinking: this may be the moment when his childhood theology falls away.
Even so, the psalmist's instruction to be strong, open our hearts, and keep hoping is good spiritual medicine. And so is the Piazeczyner's reminder that we have the inner resources to get through even the most difficult of times -- and that the "yoke of the mitzvot" makes us responsible for and to one another. The mitzvot ask us to "be the helpers."
As my friend and study partner Rabbi David Markus teaches, love is an action, not just a feeling. This is why the mitzvot commit us to taking care of each other: because love reaches its fullest potential when we not only feel, but also act.
Memory too is an action. The traditional silent Yizkor memorial prayer includes an explicit invitation to act. It says that we will give tzedakah in the memory of those who have died: tzedakah, not "charity" but a kind of giving that is rooted in tzedek, justice.(The version of the prayer we will say this morning pledges to "live justly and lovingly" in their memory.) That's the Jewish way to remember: giving, and justice, and action.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg z"l died on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah. During these Ten Days of Teshuvah many of you have shared with me your grief at her passing, and your heightened fear of rights being eroded now that she's gone. I feel those things too.
Justice Ginsburg will be remembered for standing up for the rights of women, from the right to have a credit card in my own name to the right to control my own body. She'll be remembered for dissenting against stripping federal protections from voters of color. She'll be remembered for asserting the full humanity of people with disabilities. What kind of giving, justice, and action might we undertake in her memory?
In the days since her death, I keep returning to these words that she offered to law students:
If you are going to be a lawyer and just practice your profession, you have a skill—very much like a plumber. But if you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself, something to repair tears in your community, something that makes life a little better for people less fortunate than you.
That's our Jewish obligation and our human calling: to do something that makes life better for people less fortunate than we. That obligation feels more important than ever before.
So many of the prayers we recite today are written in the plural: not "I," but "we." Torah also frames our obligations to each other in the plural. No matter what comes, we have responsibilities to each other.
Whether or not the world is spiraling out of control, our work of repairing the world, caring for the vulnerable, and pursuing justice doesn't change. And maybe in fulfilling our obligations to each other, we can become for each other the pillar of fire that the Piaceczyner evoked: a beacon shining in the darkness, lighting each others' path.
This is my Yom Kippur morning sermon (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
I mentioned a while back that I wrote an extra high holiday sermon. I wrote this for Kol Nidre, and then I decided I wanted instead to offer gleanings from our trip to Cuba at Kol Nidre -- there's plenty in the service itself on these themes. So I'm sharing this now, before Shabbat Shuvah, instead.
"Oops, we did it again." That's our liturgy. Communal, not individual. At Kol Nidre we'll stand before God far above or God deep within or the God we're not sure we "believe in," and admit that collectively, we have not lived up to who we meant to be.
And right away, with ahavat olam / unending love, God will forgive us. Immediately after Kol Nidre, I will sing: vayomer YHVH, salachti kidvarecha! "And God says, I have forgiven you, as I said I would." What do we do with that?
We can't let ourselves off the hook while we keep doing the harmful things we've been doing, or enabling or ignoring the harmful things taking place around us. Maimonides compares that to taking a dead lizard into a mikvah: it defeats the whole purpose. And if we do that in the name of our religious tradition -- "see, Judaism says everyone's forgiven, it doesn't matter what we do!" -- that's spiritual bypassing: using the veneer of spirituality to cover over actions that are wrong. That's not what we're here for.
But if we hold on to every place where we missed the mark, then we're stuck. And self-flagellation is not the Jewish way. Yeah, I know, in a few days we're going to spend 25 hours in fasting and prayer and contemplation, but the point isn't to beat ourselves up, it's to open ourselves up. Our task on Yom Kippur is to wrestle with the radical idea that God has already forgiven our screw-ups -- and we need to love ourselves enough to forgive our screw-ups, too. Because there is work to do, and we can't do that work if we're still stuck on the old year's failures.
Letting ourselves off the hook doesn't mean forgetting what we did wrong. It means embracing the radical hope that we can choose differently. It means seeing ourselves through God's loving eyes, eyes that see the best in us and know that we can change.
Our behaviors and feelings, and the patterns that we unconsciously live out over and over again, come from somewhere. They're the products of causes: I feel this because I did that. (Or maybe: I feel this because long ago someone else did that.) Our actions and choices and feelings and patterns have momentum. And that momentum plays a large role in shaping our world.
The coronavirus pandemic is happening because of choices and momentum. Some were unwitting choices, the actions of asymptomatic carriers who had no idea they were spreading a virus around the world. Some were conscious choices, the actions of people who thought the virus was hype. Many were systemic choices: hospitals in poor communities and communities of color tend to be under-resourced. Poor people and people of color are likelier to be in service industries, or meatpacking factories, or prisons, where viral spread is worst. The pandemic "is what it is" because of a vast swirl of choices and behaviors and patterns that take on their own momentum.
The climate crisis is happening because of choices and momentum. Some were unwitting choices, like the enormous bright blue gas-guzzling Buick my parents bought in 1975. Some were conscious choices, the actions of people who thought they weren't really impacting the whole. Many were systemic choices: giant corporations acting with impunity, a government uninterested in conservation choosing to gut existing environmental protections. The climate crisis "is what it is" because of a vast swirl of choices and behaviors and patterns that take on their own momentum.
Antisemitism happens because of choices and momentum. Today QAnon peddles the ancient antisemitic hatreds in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fake document purporting to "prove" that Jews intend to take over the world. The first open QAnon supporter will likely be elected to Congress in November. Antisemitism and conspiracy theories flourish in our world because of a vast swirl of choices and behaviors and patterns that take on their own momentum.
But momentum can be changed. Kol Nidre, and Yom Kippur, are fundamentally about the truth that we can change our patterns. The past does not need to be prologue.
Once a large ship is moving through the ocean, its own momentum helps to carry it forward -- and yet with effort even the largest of ships can be turned. The course of a nation can be turned. The course of our world can be turned. The first step is our own turning: in Hebrew, teshuvah. Teshuvah offers us the radical turn of recognizing that we can choose differently.
Maimonides asked, how do we know if someone has truly made teshuvah? His answer is: when the person is faced with the opportunity to sin in the same way as before, and this time they make a different choice. This is evergreen: Maimonides wrote it around 1180! But it has never felt so impactful to me as it does now. The stakes have never been higher.
We are living through the worst global pandemic in living memory. Spread, in part, through a deadly combination of the close quarters of poverty, systemic injustice that keeps people working even when sick, and the interconnectedness of our globe. The climate crisis plays a part too: rising seas and searing droughts drive poverty, which in turn drives migration... and drives the desperation that leads people to work in unsafe conditions.
That same interconnectedness could be our greatest strength, if we could harness it to bring change -- along with clean running water, and soap, and access to health care, and humane labor policies.
So which one is it going to be in 5781?
God forgives us because God's loving eyes see us not only as we are but as we can become. God can see us already living-out our highest selves, our most ethical choices, the actions that will create patterns of goodness and justice, uplift and hope. We need to see ourselves into being better -- and then make that vision real. We need teshuvah: that internal turn that enables us to turn the ship.
This year especially, I think teshuvah calls us to take the risk of cultivating hope. I know that hope can be painful. When we open our hearts to hope, we have to face the brokenness of the world we've got now. As my friend Rabbi Mike Moskowitz often says, "This world is super broken."
This world is super broken. And building a better one is our job, as Jews and as human beings.
Our actions and choices and patterns shape our world. Will we do the work to change our choices, to reverse our momentum, to build a better world in the year to come?
Here's a recording of my sermon if you'd rather watch it than read it. (It's here on YouTube.) Or, read below...
Not quite two thousand years ago, the Roman army sacked the second Temple.
That's a tough place to begin my words to you on erev Rosh Hashanah! But in a way, it's where tonight's story begins.
The Temple was the center of our universe. It was our axis mundi, the holy connection point between this world and God.
And then it was destroyed.
Judaism could have ended when the second Temple fell. The Temple was the site of our daily offerings to God. Our whole religious system was built around it! We could have given up hope. That could have been the end of the Jewish people and the Jewish story.
Thank God, it wasn't. That destruction sparked a paradigm shift in how we "do Jewish." Jewish life become portable, something we could take with us into every corner of the globe. The center of Jewish life became the synagogue, which aspires to be a beit knesset (house of community gathering), beit midrash (house of study), and beit tefilah (house of prayer) all in one.
And, some would say: the center of Jewish life became the Shabbes table. Tradition teaches that the table where we celebrate Shabbat each week is a mikdash me'aht, a tiny sanctuary. The home table replaces the altar of old; the twin loaves of challah replace the doubled Shabbat offerings on that altar; and holy space becomes... wherever we make it.
Never has that seemed so true to me as it does right now... or as necessary.
Six months ago when we began sheltering-in-place to stop the spread of covid-19, we hoped that a few months of disciplined quarantine would quell the pandemic and that we would be back together again in person by Rosh Hashanah. Instead here we still are: making Rosh Hashanah in our homes, keeping each other safe by staying physically apart.
Our synagogue is still a house of gathering, a house of study, and a house of prayer... and right now all three of those houses are our own houses. Our challenge is learning how to create sacred space here at home where we are. Learning how to create community together when we can't embrace or sing in harmony. Learning how to find holiness in our everyday spaces, and how to feel community connections even when we're apart.
It turns out that Judaism has some spiritual technologies designed for exactly these purposes. The Shabbes table is one of them -- a white tablecloth, maybe some flowers, the Shabbes candles burning to remind us of the first light of Creation and the light of revelation at Sinai. These are tools for making sacred space.
Another is tzitzit, wearing fringes on the corner of our garments to remind us of the mitzvot -- that's a tool for mindfulness, and for community connection. Our community's tradition of making bracelets each year serves the same purpose. For several years now we've printed silicone bracelets for the Days of Awe. This year's bracelets read:
Love ♥ Ahavat Olam ♥ Rebirth ♥ Courage ♥ Resilience ♥ Teshuvah ♥
There are two transliterated Hebrew words or phrases. One is teshuvah -- repentance, return, turning ourselves in the right direction again. That's the fundamental move of this season, and that word has been on our bracelets every year we've gotten them printed. The other is ahavat olam, a phrase from daily liturgy. It means unending love, or forever love, or eternal love. Our tradition tells us that God loves us with ahavat olam.
For some of us "the G-word" is a stumbling block. Which God, what God, what do we mean by God -- God far above, God deep within, Parent, Sovereign, Creator, Beloved? And for some of us "the L-word" might be equally challenging. The word love gets so overused it becomes almost meaningless.
"Wait 'til you hear this song, you're going to love it!"
Fiddler on the Roof: "Do you love me?" ("Do I what?!")
My son would tell you that he loves Minecraft and plain vanilla soft-serve. That's not the same thing I mean when I tell him that I love him.
When I say I love my child, I'm talking about something profound and soul-expanding. If "I love ice cream" is a five on the love scale, maybe "I love my child" is 500... and ahavat olam is infinity. And I think in this pandemic year, we need connection with that sense of infinite ahavat olam more than ever before.
That's why love -- ahavat olam -- is our theme for this year's Days of Awe. And our four cups tonight at our Rosh Hashanah seder represent different facets of love.
The first cup was for creative love. One of my favorite teachings holds that God created the universe of love, because God yearned to be in relationship with us.
Our second cup was for courageous love. Love asks us to risk disappointing each other. To risk speaking difficult truths. To act with courage and integrity, even when we feel as though we're in the wilderness.
Our third cup just now was for resilient love. In this season of teshuvah, love asks of us the resilience to honestly turn our lives around.
And before Mourner's Kaddish we'll bless a cup of tears, evoking love that remembers.
Tonight we're celebrating Rosh Hashanah while sheltering-in-place. We're making our home spaces holy, and learning how to feel connected as a community from all the various places where we are. These are actions that we take to protect each other, to prevent viral spread, to care for those who are medically vulnerable and immunocompromised. They're actions we take out of love.
Our bracelets this year also say rebirth: because tradition says that today the world is reborn, because this season is our chance to begin again. They say resilience, because the new year calls us to resilience; because the pandemic calls us to resilience; because authentic spiritual life calls us to resilience. And they say courage, because starting over takes courage. And living during a pandemic takes courage. And as Brene Brown reminds us, "courage" has its roots in the French word coeur: heart. Courage takes heart. Which brings us back once again to love.
May these Days of Awe strengthen our resilience and our courage and our heart. May they help us find holiness at home, here in all the physical places where we are. And may we emerge from this sacred season more able to give and receive love in all the ways that our world most needs.
This was my brief d'varling from tonight's Erev Rosh Hashanah Seder (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Before Tisha b'Av, I gathered a group of liturgists to collaborate on a project that became Megillat Covid, Lamentations for this time of covid-19.
In recent weeks we've gathered again -- in slightly different configuration -- to build something new for this pandemic season: a set of prayer-poems for Sukkot and Simchat Torah, which we've titled Ushpizin. That's the Aramaic word for guests, usually used to refer to the practice of inviting ancestral / supernal guests like Abraham and Sarah into our Sukkah... though this year, what does it mean to invite Biblical guests when many of us don't feel safe inviting in-person guests? That's the question that gave rise to the project.
The prayers / poems that we wrote arose out of that question and more. What does it mean to find safety in a sketch of a dwelling in this pandemic year? With what, or whom, are we "sitting" when we sit in our sukkot this year? What about those of us who can't build this year at all? And what can our Simchat Torah be if we are sheltering-in-place, or if our shul buildings are closed, or if we are not gathering in person with others?
For Megillat Covid, we each wrote a piece and then I collected them. This time our creative process was different. Four of us collectively wrote nine pieces, and then we met to workshop them and revise them together, in hopes of creating not just nine individual prayers but a whole that would be more than the sum of its parts. And then we wrote the tenth prayer-poem together as a collaboration... and Steve Silbert offered a couple of sketchnotes, too.
Every year I write an extra high holiday sermon. Not on purpose! It just happens. Every year, it seems, I write my three sermons... and then realize that one of them is predictable, or trite, or doesn't say anything new, or doesn't speak to the unique needs of this moment. I could publish a book of the sermons I never gave. (I won't. But I'm amused that I could.)
In that sense, preparing for the Days of Awe this year has been just like every other year. I make an outline for every service, trying to balance Hebrew with English, song with spoken-word, familiar with new. I thrill to cherished ancient melodies. I practice singing, and I jot musical motifs on Post-it notes so I don't lose track of which melodic mode we're in. Just like always.
And who am I kidding: preparing for the holidays this year has been unlike any other, ever. I translated my machzor into a slide deck, adding images and artwork and embedded video, adding new readings and prayers for this pandemic moment. I made it much longer! and then I cut, ruthlessly, because services need to be a manageable length for Zoom, and they need to flow.
I'm trying to help my kid get ready for school. He's growing like mint, like a sunflower. There is a stack of new notebooks and pencils on his desk. There's also a school-issued Chromebook. The year will begin with two weeks of remote learning before we enter a "hybrid model" phase. The juxtaposition of normal and unprecedented is itself becoming our new normal.
My kitchen counter is heaped with beautiful lush heirloom tomatoes from the CSA where I've been a member since 1995. I eat them sliced, on toast with cream cheese; cubed, with peaches, topped with burratini and a splash of balsamic vinegar; plain, like impossibly juicy apples. Any minute now their season will end, and I will miss this late-summer abundance fiercely.
There's a gentle melancholy to this season for me, every year. The changing light; the first branches turning red and gold; the knowledge that the season will turn and there's nothing I can do to stop it... I sit on my mirpesset, arms and legs bared to the warm breeze, listening to late-summer cricketsong. I know their song isn't forever. That, at least, really is just like always.
Last week my son and I were watching the fifth Harry Potter movie, Order of the Phoenix. There's a moment where two teenagers are kissing on a bench, and with a flick of her wand, Dolores Umbridge separates them by several feet.
We've seen this film several times before. But this time, six months in to the pandemic, my son joked, "Look, Mom, social distancing!" And we both laughed.
The laughter feels complicated for me as a parent. I know he's layering this pandemic experience over what he sees in movies or on tv because it helps him process needing to stay apart. It breaks my heart that he has to do that. And I'm also glad that he can find a way to make sense of what's happening, and even to joke about it, as we stay apart from loved ones in order to keep each other safe.
In this week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses says: I want these six tribes to stand on this mountain for a blessing, and those six tribes to stand on that mountain for a curse. Reading that verse this year, my mind made the move my son keeps making: "look, it's social distancing!" Okay, obviously not. But then I thought: actually, this matter of blessing and curse does feel relevant.
Torah teaches, "Cursed be he who moves his fellow countryman’s landmark." Literally, moving someone's landmark means causing them to be lost. Spiritually, this verse resonates for me as a teaching about gaslighting. One who claims that the pandemic is hype, denying the reality of more than six million cases in the United States alone, is denying reality's landmarks.
Torah teaches, "Cursed be he who misdirects a blind person on his way." In a literal sense, this teaching seems obvious. Spiritually, I think of the claims about quack remedies for covid-19, from hydroxychloroquine to drinking bleach. Remember when emergency rooms started reporting an uptick in people who poisoned themselves by blindly following that bad advice?
Torah teaches, "Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow." In Torah's paradigm, this is a way of saying "the powerless." Torah here condemns the one who disenfranchises or harms those who are vulnerable. I don't think that one requires any translation. Literally and spiritually, it's a clear instruction for this pandemic moment.
And then Torah says: the curses aren't our only option. If we observe the mitzvot and act in accordance with God's commandments, we will experience the opposite outcome. We'll be blessed in our homes and in our fields, our flocks and our herds, in city and country, in our comings and in our goings... if only we observe the mitzvot and do not deviate from them.
In years past I've struggled with the blessings and curses articulated in Torah. The curses seem so punitive. I don't believe in a God Who sits on high and throws punishments at us like lightning bolts from Mount Olympus! Many of you have told me over the years that that's not your theology either, and that encountering it each year in Deuteronomy is challenging. For me, too.
But this year I'm reading these verses through the lens of global pandemic. This year I don't see these as teachings about divine punishment at all. I'm reading them as teachings about our power to shape the world in which we live. I think Torah is reminding us that we bring about the blessings or the curses by dint of our choices. (And suddenly it feels like Yom Kippur.)
If we gaslight each other, if we misdirect each other, if we subvert each others' rights -- those actions themselves are curses, and they carry their own consequences with them. They harm the fabric of community. They damage trust. And in this pandemic moment, they contribute to the spread of the virus that continues to ravage our interconnected human family across the globe.
And if we do what's right -- if we persist in the discomfort of our masks and strict social distancing in order to protect each other and especially to protect the vulnerable -- those actions themselves are blessings, and they carry their own consequences with them, too. When we choose to act in those ways, we bless each other with our mutual concern and care.
May we continue to bless each other with our mutual concern and care, through this pandemic and beyond.
This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Most years in Elul we say "the King is in the Field" --
God walks with us in the tall grass to hear our yearnings.
This year, Shechinah shelters-in-place with us.
With her, we don't need to mask our fears or our despair.
When we stay up too late reading the news again
or binge-watch The Good Place desperate for redemption
she does too. As we practice social distancing, we're not alone:
she summons angels to encourage the scallions we re-grow
just as they cheer on the maples releasing their helicopter seeds,
compressed packages of hope for the eventual coming of spring.
“The King is in the Field” - R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi wrote that during the month leading up to the Days of Awe, “The King is in the Field.” God, whom he imagined as a transcendent King distant from us, is close to us during this special month -- walking with us to hear our inmost prayers, like a beloved friend offering a listening ear.
“Shechinah / shelters-in-place” - Shechinah is the Jewish mystics’ name for the immanent, indwelling Presence of God. The name is related to the Hebrew word for neighborhood; this is God dwelling with and within us. In this pandemic year, sheltering-in-place requires no explanation...
“Angels to encourage” - Midrash holds that there is an angel assigned to every blade of grass, constantly and lovingly encouraging the grass to grow. Many of us started regrowing scallions during the pandemic. May we be blessed with encouragement for our own growth during this holiday season.
(This is the Elul / New Year's poem that I wrote to send to family and friends this year. You can read the last seventeen years' worth of such poems here.)
Five and a half months in, we're adjusting in our own ways to moving through the world (or sequestering from the world) with the constant reality of global pandemic. The masks, and the tape arrows on the grocery store floor, have become normal. The place where I live and serve has low infection rates right now, for which I am thankful. And we all know it just takes one traveler from a viral hotspot... This is where a lot of my pastoral conversations begin.
I've written here over the years about my experience as a multiple stroke survivor. I chronicled some of the spiritual challenges of coming to terms with my mortality in my early thirties. Now in my mid-forties, I'm doing that work again. But there's something different about it now. Now we're all coming to terms with our mortality. (Or we're not. But either way, it's the elephant in the room. Or the Lion in the school classroom, as a recent essay quipped.)
One big thing that makes covid-19 different from my experience of having strokes is the contagion factor. We've all seen how the numbers spread: a few virus cases become dozens become hundreds become thousands. And because it is possible to be asymptomatic and still spread the virus to others, the contagion factor feels different. It's not just a matter of avoiding people who seem sick. That adds an existential uncertainty to the spiritual mix.
When I was hospitalized for my second stroke, my spiritual director and I started doing intensive work on coming to terms with my mortality. This year I'm learning that it's one thing to come to terms with my own eventual death. It's another thing to come to terms with the possibility that I might unwittingly cause other deaths. Any of us might. And the more we learn about "long-haul covid," the more we realize that some who 'recover' ... may not really recover.
And that's part of what's so hard. It seems likely that pre-existing conditions (like being a stroke survivor, or asthma, or hypertension) may exacerbate the likelihood that covid will be serious. In recent months we've learned that contagion via surfaces (e.g. touching a UPS delivery before wiping it down with Lysol wipes) may be less dangerous than we thought, but aerosol transmission is more dangerous than we thought. But we're still learning.
Recently I went to a restaurant and ate a meal outdoors. We wore masks when we weren't eating. Picnic tables were set far apart. I still felt my heart rate spike when we got there. Many of those to whom I tend are having that experience, too. I keep teaching grounding techniques I learned from friends with PTSD: grab a pebble and feel it, touch a rosemary sprig and breathe it. Be here and now, not in fear from before or fear of what might come.
Everyone has a different tolerance for risk. I know some people who are doing things more or less "like before." I know others who have yet to let their children see anyone else in person, even outdoors and masked. No one knows what path will actually keep us safe. And no one knows whether our own choices will inadvertently spread the virus to others who are more vulnerable than we ourselves might be. For me that's the hardest part.
I want to know that I won't be a vector. But there's no way to know that. (Or to know that I won't myself fall ill. Did I mention that most "long-haulers" are women my age?) So we live with the not-knowing. We live with the not-feeling-safe. Emotionally, spiritually, that low background buzz of un-safety takes its toll. Five months into the pandemic, that's the spiritual work at hand: being here and now, in the un-safety but not consumed by it.
I don't know how to end this post. I can't wrap it up and tie a neat bow on it. Living in the not-knowing: in some way that's all we've ever been able to do. But the not-knowing feels heightened, this year. It's Elul: the month that leads us to the Days of Awe. Time to look long and hard at our actions and our choices. Our liturgy's litany of "Who will live and who will die" takes on a heart-clenching resonance in this pandemic year.
"And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully... God will ward off from you all sickness..." (Deut. 7:12, 15)
My first thought was: wow, that verse has not aged well in this coronavirus moment. As we watch illness ravage the nation like a wildfire, the promise of health and safety feels off-key. Or at least, the connection between doing mitzvot and being healthy feels off-key, because it suggests that someone who falls ill is somehow wicked, or is not following Torah's instructions for spiritual and ethical living.
And then I thought: there's another way to read these verses.
This isn't about whether or not a single individual does what's right. We all know that it's possible to lead a spiritual and ethical life, rich with mitzvot, and still fall ill. And we all know that it's possible to do all the right things in this pandemic -- washing our hands, wearing our masks, socially-distancing and staying home -- and yet still be at risk of falling ill if someone carrying the virus coughs on us.
But what if Torah is trying this week to teach us that what matters is for the collective to do what's right? For the community to pull together and together commit to following the best practices that science and authentic spiritual life can offer us... not (only) for our own sakes but also for the sake of others who may be older, or medically vulnerable, or living with preexisting conditions that put us at greater risk?
"When we obey these mitzvot and observe them carefully," that's how God protects us from sickness, acting through us in the ways we care for each other. It's not a guarantee that no one will get sick -- nothing can offer that guarantee -- but it's what's in our hands to do. As we sometimes sing on Friday nights, "Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices." Ours are God's hands, and this moment calls us to turn our hands toward keeping each other safe.
"And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully..." The classical tradition links this back to Exodus 15, where God similarly tells us that if we follow the mitzvot and do all the right things, then God won't plague us with the unnatural illnesses that the tradition sees as divine punishment. "Ki ani YHVH rofecha," says Torah (Ex. 15:26) -- "For I am YHVH your Healer."
One way to understand that is as a lesson about the interconnectedness of all things, and how our choices have collective impact. If we don't take care of the planet's fragile environment, then the conditions will be right for newer and more terrible illnesses to arise and spread. But if we do what's right by our planet, then we protect ourselves and each other from that terrible outcome.
This too feels to me like a teaching about our responsibility to each other and to the whole of which we are a part. When we act in ways that take care of our planet, when we act in ways that take care of each other and protect each others' health, we are embodying the aspect of God that we call Healer.
It's poignant to read these verses on the runway to the Days of Awe. Usually at this season we're preparing for our community's biggest in-person gatherings of the year. This year's Days of Awe will be different. Our challenge this year is to make our homes into sacred space, and to find community connections in each others' presence over Zoom, as we protect each other by staying physically apart.
I know that for some of us, the prospect of Zoom-based High Holidays feels like a loss. Maybe we can't imagine how it will work. Or we're tired of Zoom and wish life could go back to normal. Or we're afraid it won't feel meaningful and real the way we want it to. Those feelings of loss are real, and I honor them. (I even share them.) And... I believe that these are the mitzvot the current moment asks of us.
This moment asks us to practice the mitzvah of masking, the mitzvah of social distancing, the mitzvah of gathering over Zoom. So that we can keep covid-19 out of our beloved community, and in so doing, can hasten the day when we will all be able to gather safely in person again, here and everywhere.
This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning Zoom services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Dilly beans are pickled green beans. And they are not a food of my childhood. I didn't grow up eating home-canned vegetables. My parents were not people who gardened -- I suspect they were grateful not to need to preserve their own food. But my dad has always loved pickles. I remember joining him in devouring pickled green tomatoes from the big Batampte jar, cut into quarters on plain white plates. And with him I enjoyed sour dill pickles, and half sour dill pickles, as one might find at a New York City Jewish deli. And spicy pickled okra as an hors d'oeuvre (I think it's a Texas thing).
When I became a member at Caretaker Farm in 1995, I started learning how to put away food for winter. During the years of my marriage, we put up jars of sugarfree strawberry jam; we pickled green beans and brussels sprouts. When we had a kid, our capacity to do those things diminished, and we stopped canning and preserving for a while. And when I moved out of my old house and my married life, I didn't take the canning kettle or rack for jars. My condo kitchen is tiny, and I couldn't imagine pickling here. Besides, I hadn't made time to preserve food since my kid was born.
Fast-forward to this terrible pandemic year. In the early spring when we were on lockdown, there were unprecedented grocery shortages. I know it's a sign of my privilege that I had never before lived in a world in which I might go to the store and not be certain what I would find. Would they have pasta for my son this week? What vegetables would there be? How about proteins -- chicken thighs, or fish, or even dried beans? All of those ran short in the spring. (Not to mention bread flour and yeast, both necessities for the soft challah I make every Friday to bless and eat at Shabbat.)
It put me in mind of my trip to Cuba last fall. I remember marveling at the food we ate in Cuba (which was excellent), knowing that food shortages afflicted the island even then. (My heart breaks knowing what kinds of shortages my Cuban Jewish cousins are experiencing now.) I couldn't have imagined then that a global pandemic would weaken the just-in-time global supply lines on which American grocery store abundance depends. These days the grocery stores mostly have most things most of the time, though some items are still hard to find. But when fall comes, who knows...
Here we are in high summer -- my favorite season of the year, all lush and green. And I can't help bracing for the winter, knowing the likelihood that the pandemic will surge again when flu season arrives and when we're all confined to poorly-ventilated indoor spaces. I'm always a bit fearful of the oncoming winter. Seasonal Affective Disorder hits me every year, even when I do all the right things. This year I am extra-afraid, because I imagine that winter will mean not only long dark nights and bitter cold but also lockdown again, and shortages again, and rising death rates again, and loneliness.
This morning I went to Caretaker with my son to get this week's vegetables. As I bent to the green bean rows and lifted each plant to scan for beans, I breathed the scent of clean dirt and greenery through my soft fabric mask. Remembering the indigenous wisdom in Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass(which I've read several times) I pressed my palms to the earth and murmured a thank-you to the soil, the plants, the careful loving farmers, and the whole web of life that makes it possible for me to pluck these vibrant, beautiful beans from their runners and bring them home.
Many Jews wouldn't pick on Shabbat, because on this day we avoid the 39 melachot, the labors involved in the building of the Mishkan, God's dwelling place so long ago. I follow a teaching from Reb Zalman z"l that holds that if gardening is one's day job, then one shouldn't do it on Shabbat. But if gardening feeds one's soul, then perhaps it is precisely the thing to do on this holiest of days. (I've written about this teaching before.) I know no holier ground than Caretaker Farm. It is a place of learning, and sustenance, and community. I am always grateful that it is a place I get to call home.
In the end I picked five perfect pint jars full, with their ends saved for some recipe this week, maybe the Valencian paella I like to make with chicken thighs and white beans and green beans and smoked paprika (thanks, Milk Street). I rigged an approximation of a canning setup, rings at the bottom of my soup pot to hold the jars above the bottom. I peeled garlic, and tore dill, and measured mustard seeds and red pepper flakes. I packed the jars with beans and seasonings and hot brine and I simmered them for five minutes, mopping up hot water when it splashed all over the stove.
Then I listened for the tiny satisfying pop! of each lid sealing as the jars cool down. (So far four out of the five jars have sealed. I'm waiting for the fifth, which still makes a clicking sound when I press on the lid. If it doesn't seal, I'll declare that jar refrigerator pickles instead.) It's not a big harvest. I couldn't have managed a big harvest in my little kitchen anyway. But it's five jars of vibrant summer green. A little bit of bounty, saved against the winter that is coming. A little bit of beauty, saved against the winter that is coming. That's balm for my worried heart, and solace for my grateful soul.
And that brings me back to Shabbat Nachamu. That's the name given to this Shabbat, the first Shabbat after Tisha b'Av. It's the first of seven Shabbatot of Consolation as we count the 49 days between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. It's named after the first word of the haftarah read on this day: "Comfort!" Bring comfort, give comfort, offer comfort -- that's God's command. There are griefs that cannot be comforted. But in this moment, I take comfort in the bounty of this place. And I take comfort in knowing that whatever this winter may hold, I will be ready as I can be.
Tisha b'Av, Jewish tradition's communal day of mourning, is coming soon.
It usually feels disjunctive to take Tisha b'Av's deep dive into grief and exile in the midst of the summer, the season I love most in the year. Many years it takes some intention and some spiritual work to connect with loss and destruction at this time of year. But this year is different. This whole pandemic year feels to me like Tisha b'Av.
On Tisha b'Av we mourn brokenness on a spiritual level: tradition says this is the date when Moses shattered the first set of tablets of covenant, enraged by the people's worship of the golden calf. We mourn brokenness on a historical level: on this date the first Temple was destroyed by Babylon, and the second Temple was destroyed by Rome, and the Crusades began, and the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto, and other tragedies besides. And we mourn brokenness in our own day: including, this year, the profound suffering caused by coronavirus... refracted through human prejudices that have enabled over 145,000 deaths in our nation alone, most of them people of color, and 618,000 deaths around the world.
That's so far, as of this writing. Those numbers will continue to grow.
I wrote to my synagogue community this year that "the fall of the Temples may feel like ancient history -- but with our beloved building closed, we may feel a new resonance with our ancestors who could no longer gather together in prayer. The hatreds that led to our many historical traumas may feel like ancient history -- but prejudice, including antisemitism and racism, still festers. There is so much to mourn. And tradition regards this day of mourning as the springboard into the spiritual uplift of the journey through the Days of Awe. We have to feel what's broken in order to rise up from it..."
This year we'll observe Tisha b'Av at my shul in two ways. On the eve of Tisha b'Av we'll gather -- socially-distanced and masked -- at the labyrinth outside of the closed synagogue building. In silent meditation we'll walk the labyrinth, slowly, allowing ourselves to feel the grief that comes with our building being closed and our community being scattered to our separate homes for safety's sake. Because the pandemic renders singing in person unsafe, we'll hear a recording of Eicha (Lamentations) as we walk in silence. The psalmist asked how he could sing God's song in a strange land, but in this pandemic moment we can't sing together at all. It's another loss in a year of so many losses, and it's one that hits me personally in a painful way.
And late in the day on Tisha b'Av, we'll gather over Zoom for a conversation about racial justice. Tradition says that moshiach -- the messiah, or the transformative energy of hope -- will enter the world on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av. On the year's darkest day, the seeds of hope for change begin to sprout. We'll connect with that energy by coming together on Zoom to discuss a pair of NPR interviews from On Being with Krista Tippett (one with Resmaa Menakem, one with Resmaa Menakem and Robin DiAngelo) that folks can listen to in advance. And we'll talk about the work of teshuvah (repentance / repair) and the spiritual work that dismantling racism calls us to do.
I'm finding it difficult to face Tisha b'Av this year, in part because every time I read the newspaper feels like Tisha b'Av. There's mourning and grief and loss everywhere I look. Hospitals over-filled. Not enough respirators or PPE. The covid-19 pandemic spreading like wildfire. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and so many more. Increased awareness (among white people like me) of racism and how horrific and insidious it is. The realities that the pandemic disproportionately kills people of color and that police disproportionately kill people of color and that our world is set up to disproportionately kill people of color and that in my own unconscious racism I have been content to ignore those things.
What I take from the teaching that moshiach is born late in the day on Tisha b'Av is that in our time of greatest grief we can (we must) find seeds of transformation. We have to find the seeds of something better in this awful year, and we need to water them and uplift them and bring them to fruition. In that second On Being episode I linked above, Krista Tippett cites John Lewis z"l (may his memory be a blessing) and his idea that we need to work with what is, even as we hold in our hearts the dream of the "as-if," the world repaired, the world we want to be working toward. We have to work with what is, to be with what is, to learn about what is, and be working with toward a world repaired. A world redeemed. A world no longer broken as it is now.
It's almost unimaginable. But we have to imagine it. We have to work toward it. And the first step is resisting the impulse to turn away, resisting the impulse toward spiritual bypassing, and letting ourselves feel everything that hurts. It's Av: our time to mourn...and then our time to begin to rebuild.
Image: Destruction of the Temple by Francisco Hayez, overlaid with a mass covid-19 gravesite.
I posted a few days ago about the project I've been working on -- Holy at Home, a set of editable slide decks that adapt my machzor into materials designed for screen-sharing / Zoom high holiday services.
I've been working feverishly on the project because I wanted to get the slide decks into the world in time for other shlichei tzibbur (prayer leaders) to download them and spend the summer tinkering with the for your own services too. And... today they're available!
Read all about Holy at Home -- including what kinds of things are in the slide decks, and how to preview them, and how to donate in order to receive the editable files -- here at the Bayit website.
These slide decks are in beta; this is version 1.1. We're already receiving feedback and requests for things that aren't yet here, and we are taking that feedback to heart and will release updates / expansion packs in weeks to come. So if the slides work for you as they are, mah tov -- and if not, tell us what you would need us to add in order for them to work for you; we want this to meet your needs as well as our own.