Morning after

Robb

I sat with my twelve year old on the deck, and listened as he chanted the first few lines of his Torah portion. His voice cracked once or twice. That's been happening lately. All I could think about was the parents in Uvalde whose ten year olds won't grow up to be twelve year olds with cracking voices. 

Shortly before we started Torah portion practice, I'd told him that there was another school shooting. I wanted him to hear it from me and not from a friend at school in the morning. I assured him that where we live is one of the safest places to be. He said, "I know, Mom," and changed the subject.

I believe what I said to him. The place where we live is as safe a place as any I can think of. And yet I can't promise him that an angry gunman won't break into his school, or into our synagogue, or into the supermarket where his auntie shops with his Black cousins. I can't promise safety. No one can.

And I don't want to tell him my real fear -- that in Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner's words, our country loves guns more than it loves children. That we're so incapable of reckoning with worship of the 2nd amendment that we will never be able to make this nation safe for him or for anyone. 

After 3500 mass shootings in the last decade, and 27 school shootings this year, Republicans remain opposed to gun safety measures. Anne Helen Peterson notes that this is life under minority rule. Sherrilyn Ifill notes that feelings of helplessness benefit the status quo, and we need to resist that. 

I think of the parents of those fourth graders in Uvalde, a scant 90 minutes from where I grew up. Right now some of them are sitting with the most horrific loss there is. I think of the clergy in Uvalde who need to try to provide comfort for an unbearable grief that cannot, should not, be assuaged.

When I dropped my son off at elementary school this morning, I wanted to cry. I don't really think his school will be next, but some school will. It's an article of faith for me that despair is never the answer, that a better world is always possible. But right now it's hard to see how we get there from here. 

 


Tending


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

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

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

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

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

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


New normal

Download

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leaves

51672991984_6e0601bdf7_c

On Veteran's Day my son led me on a walk. He'd gone exploring with a friend, past the hayfields behind our condo neighborhood, and found a marked ski trail that he wanted to show me. As we walked, we saw someone on a tractor in the distance -- haying one last time before the rains, maybe.

Though most of the deciduous trees here are bare now, in this sheltered curl of hillside there were still some leaves on the trees. They tinted the sunlight golden and orange and rust. Someone had made a lean-to out of sticks, though it was too small for my tall son to crawl inside.

I had to go slower than I wanted, and I sat down on fallen trees several times to breathe, but I made it there and back. On the way back to the condo, my son talked about how lucky he feels that there are woods like this walkable from each of the places where his parents live.

Today the skies are heavy. Rains come and go, as do high winds. I suspect the autumn leaves we marveled at yesterday are on the ground now, beginning their journey toward becoming mulch. Challah dough is rising, soon to be shaped into a spiraling six-pointed sun or Jewish star.

I wonder whether we will look back on these years as the end of something, or the end of many things. The end of when we could have stopped the global warming juggernaut, the end of the myth that "red" and "blue" America actually understand each other -- or even want to try.

I think about climate grief and rising authoritarianism and mistrust. I'm so ready for Shabbat, for 25 hours of setting worries aside. All I can do is trust that when I make havdalah, I'll be ready to pick up the work again. That the fallen leaves will sustain growth I can't yet know.

 


Integrity and becoming: Toldot

Download

Our Torah stories are the same every year. But as we change and grow, we find new ideas and understandings in the same old stories.

In the verses from Toldot that we just heard, Isaac is old and his eyes have grown dim. He is preparing to die, and he wants to give his firstborn son a special blessing. Esau and Jacob are twins, but Esau was born first. Isaac sends Esau off to hunt, saying, "bring me back some stew and I'll bless you."

That's when Rebecca steps in, instructing Jacob to fetch a couple of goats. She'll make a stew that he can bring to his father, and that way, he'll get his father's blessing. "But Mom," says Jacob, "Esau is hairy and I'm not. If Dad touches my arm, he'll see me as a trickster and I'll get a curse, not a blessing!" 

"If he curses you, let the curse be on me," says Rebecca. "Just do what I told you to do." So he does, and she covers him with Esau's clothes and with goat skins so he feels hairy to the touch. He takes the stew to his dad. He claims to be Esau. He gets his father's special firstborn-oriented deathbed blessing.

When Esau gets home, he's furious. He begs his father for a blessing, and the blessing he gets is not a very happy one. Esau starts muttering about how he's going to kill Jacob as soon as their dad dies. Rebecca tells Jacob to flee, and that's what sends him off on his big life's journey.

In previous years, reading this story, I've thought about how in the ancient world the older son was always supposed to inherit. Yet throughout Genesis, it's the younger son who gets lifted up. Maybe Torah's teaching us that status, or birth order, doesn't determine our fate.

I've thought about how Jacob, whose name means "Heel" because he emerged from the womb clutching Esau's heel, is kind of being a heel here. It feels like poetic justice when his uncle Laban tricks him into marrying the wrong sister. Maybe Torah's teaching us that the karma of our choices stays with us.

This year, all I can think is: Rebecca in this story is really not teaching the kind of moral lesson that I wish for. It looks like she wants to make sure her favorite kid gets the blessing, so she tells him to trick his father by pretending to be someone he's not? I don't feel good about that.

Earlier in the story, when pregnant, Rebecca asks God why it feels like there's warfare in her womb. God tells her that two nations struggle inside her, and that the older will serve the younger. Maybe that's why midrash teaches that she was a prophet: she knew that Jacob had a special destiny.

Maybe she was practicing what would later be called consequentialism: as long as the outcome is good, then the act that produced that outcome must be moral, right? If it gets us to "Jacob becomes the ancestor of the Jewish people," then whatever steps she took to get there must be okay?

I disagree. How we work toward our goals matters at least as much as whatever those goals are. Integrity matters. Truth matters. Facts matter. I would never instruct my child to pretend to be someone he's not, even if there were some kind of reward for that pretending.

And generally speaking, Jewish tradition takes integrity really seriously. Rambam teaches that we should never "be one thing in mouth and another in heart," that our insides should match our outsides, that deceiving another human being is like stealing their mind and we should never do it.

So why are most of our sages okay with what Rebecca did here? Most of the sages of Jewish tradition argue that this wasn't really a deception, because our mystics teach that Jacob's soul was formed first in the womb. His essence was special. They see Rebecca as helping Jacob become who he truly is.

My friend R. Mike Moskowitz compares it to someone coming out and changing their clothing style. When Jacob changes his outward appearance, with Esau's borrowed clothes and the goat skins on his arms, now his dad is finally able to experience him as he's always seen himself, as he truly is.

I like that interpretation. I agree that parents need to see our kids as they truly are! But for me, it's a stretch to read these verses that way. If we choose to do that, I think we need to be honest with ourselves that we're doing a lot of work to make Rebecca's actions okay when on the surface, they just aren't.

Maybe what Torah is teaching us here is that even our patriarchs and matriarchs were human just like us, and they made mistakes, just like us.

Because even if you want to argue that only the outcomes matter -- the choice that Rebecca makes harms Esau. And I think we can make a case that this choice harms Jacob and Isaac's relationship, too. Even if her intentions were good, Rebecca's choice has negative impacts on the entire family.

(Just wait until you see how Jacob's kids treat each other. Let's just say the unfortunate tradition of parental favoritism doesn't stop here, and the next generation is a little bit of a mess as a result. Maybe you remember a kid named Joseph, whose brothers hate him so much they sell him into slavery...)

I wish that Rebecca had been able to say to Jacob: don't worry about your brother, just go be real with your dad. Tell him you love him, and ask him for the blessing you most need. Ask him for the blessing you're going to need after he dies. Ask him for the blessing that will help you set off on life's journey.

And as for me, I bless you to be continually growing and changing, to wrestle with our traditions and with God, and to always act with integrity as you live into the wholeness of who you are. I wish that Rebecca had been able to say something like that to Jacob. But at least I can say it now to you.

 

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

 


Miracle

51654158301_7a131d8080_c

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Go - a d'varling for Lech-Lecha

Lechlecha
Lech-Lecha: art by Laya Crust.

 


At the start of this week's Torah portion, God says to Avram,

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃ 

Lech-lecha / go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Gen. 12:1)

לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ / Lech-lecha -- can you hear the same sound twice there? That could be translated as "Go, really go!" Or we could translate it as, "Go from yourself," or "Go for yourself." In this verse, God is inviting Avram into a journey. It's a journey of growing up: it's time for him to leave his father's house and become his own person. It's a journey of discovery: figuring out who he is and who he's going to become. It's a literal journey of exploring new territory, and at the same time, an internal journey of becoming.

In this week's Torah portion God and Avram enter into a brit, a covenant -- a sacred agreement. God gives him a new name, Avraham, and promises that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. God promises to be in relationship with Avraham and his descendants, always. God promises that though Avraham's descendants will go down into Mitzrayim, God will lift us out of that Narrow Place. In return, Avraham gets instructions about mitzvot, commandments. Those are our part of the brit.

Toward the end of this week's Torah portion, God says to Avraham,

הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י וֶהְיֵ֥ה תָמִֽים

Walk in My ways and be tamim. (Gen. 17:1)

The word תָמִֽים / tamim can be translated as blameless, or pure, or whole, or perfect. A few verses later God gives the mitzvah of brit milah, so a lot of commentators say that that mitzvah is how we become "perfect." But Rashi (d. 1105) thinks God is saying, "walk in My ways and be wholehearted, even when life is difficult and you feel like I am testing you." And Ramban (d.1270) points out that לְפָנַ֖י / l'fanai means, "before Me." For him, the verse is God's way of saying, "follow the path that I will show you."

What does it mean to walk in God's ways, or to follow God's path? I think it means listening for that inner voice that says לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ / lech-lecha -- go forth, always keep learning and growing, life is a journey. It means choosing a life of mitzvot, and doing our best to follow that path with all our hearts. This is what it means to be a Jew: we're always learning and growing, we're always going forth into something new. The mitzvot are our roadmap, our way of walking, and they're our end of our covenant with God.

These two instructions are like bookends, and here's the other thing I notice this year. At the start of the parsha, God says "Go forth to the place that I will show you." In the beginning, God is showing us the way. God isn't a person who has a body, but it's as though God were walking in front of us. And at the end, God says הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י / hithalech l'fanai, "walk before Me" -- now we're taking the lead and God is our backup. God is letting us chart the course, and trusting us to know where and how to go.

This is what a good parent does. First, a good parent shows their child where to go and how to be. Here's the the map, these are the instructions, this is how to keep your spiritual life flowing and how to be an ethical person in the world. And then, as the child matures and becomes ready to make informed choices, it's the parent's job to step back and let their kid lead the way. Not stepping too far back -- still there to offer support or guidance -- but giving the kid an opportunity to make choices and to shine.

 

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


Now

51251529349_951663e51e_c

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Back to school

WES.FrontDoor

This morning the alarm went off at seven. I made breakfast for my sleepy kid, finished packing his lunchbox, reminded him to put things in his backpack. A few minutes after eight I drove him to school. All of this used to be our ordinary routine. Today everything about it felt surreal. It's been more than a year since our school mornings followed this pattern. 

A few things are different than they were last time he was going to all-day, every-day, in-person school. Masks, of course. The Chromebook and charger that he now carries to and from school, lent to him by the school at the remote start of this school year. Today each kid brought a large towel, because lunch will be picnic-style, seated on their towels six feet apart. 

This is the fifth paradigm shift in his fifth grade year so far. (Two weeks of remote school to begin the year; then some weeks of hybrid learning; then all-remote for a while in the winter; then back to hybrid; and now this.) Will this "stick," or will rising cases change things yet again? It's hard to trust that he'll really be in school every day. I don't believe it yet. 

It feels strange to be working from home without him in the next room. It feels strange that I can't overhear his schooling anymore. I won't know what book his teacher is using for read-aloud now, or listen to his bass lesson, or hear him grumbling about group projects. Now all I'll know about his days will be whatever little he tells me when I pick him up.

A year ago when school closed for (what we thought would be) two weeks, being with my kid all the time felt overwhelming. Now that he's back in full-time in-person school, being apart is what's overwhelming. It's like when he first went to preschool at not-quite-three and suddenly my days opened up. The condo feels like an empty nest this morning.  


A year out of time

3721829997_55e08aa11d_c

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sparkle

50691243058_95c2089deb_c

This difficult December we need all the beauty and whimsy we can find. I pull the box of Chanukah things out from under my bed. Its corners bear tufts of cat fur from where the cat has been using it to scratch his back all year long. Inside are two chanukiyot made of clay. One is contemporary and blue, and the other shaped like Noah's Ark -- a gift to my son when he was born. I spread a length of tinfoil down the center of the dining table to hold them, and I add the giant wooden chanukiyah that my brother made when I became bat mitzvah. Around all of these I scatter dreidels: wooden, plastic, made of LEGO. Silver and blue tinsel drapes like bunting from the curtain rods, and shiny metallic papel picado banners adorn the living room wall, like the ones I used to see all over San Antonio at Fiesta, though these are blue and silver and they read Happy Chanukah and חג שמח. I will relish the candles' light when the time comes. The dreidels and chocolate coins all over the dining table, the sparkling garland decking our halls, make me twitch a little. They make this small condo feel cluttered and busy. I remind myself that someday my child will have outgrown the desire to spangle our home with tinsel, and I will feel wistful when this chaos is gone.


Psalm in the spirit of Minecraft

Because we combine
creation's building blocks:
andesite, birch, clay.

Because seeds will sprout
and we transform wheat
into bread worth blessing.

Because it's our job
to bring light
to dark places.

Because the only way
this world makes sense
is if we keep building.

Sometimes we turn around
and everything we tended
is broken. Still we repair

each shattered place,
growing new flowers
over the earth's wounds.

 


In an early week of the psalms class I'm teaching for clergy (via Bayit: Building Jewish), we read an excerpt from Psalm in the Spirit of Dragnet by Julie Marie Wade. Our conversation afterwards took us to all kinds of places, and one of the ideas it sparked in me was: what about a psalm in the spirit of Minecraft? I've been playing the game with my son since the pandemic began, and have been surprised at how satisfying I find it. For me there's something fundamentally hopeful about the game. And, of course, building is our root metaphor at Bayit. As an experiment, I read this poem aloud to my son without telling him the title, and he immediately recognized what I was doing, which makes me happy. Here's to more building. 


Lessons in letting go

 

 

"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 nod.

"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. 


The new normal

49677057671_c4b8f7985a_c

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."


Tisha b'Av, and parenting, and responsibility, and change

Featured-10

"I'll be at synagogue for Tisha b'Av," I tell my son. What's that, he asks. "It's when we remember that we used to have a Temple in Jerusalem, but it was destroyed. So we built it again, and it was destroyed again. It's a time for thinking about all the things that hurt -- in our history and in the world now." That doesn't sound like a holiday, says my son. That sounds sad.

And then he asks, why can't we just have holidays for the happy things? "Lots of our holidays are joyful," I point out. "Most of our holidays are joyful! This is the one where we let ourselves feel the things that hurt." His response makes me clutch at my heart: he says, simply, but I don't want to feel sad. "You're a kid, you don't have to," I assure him.

It's age-appropriate that he doesn't want to feel sad. (Especially now, a scant few months after his first grandparent's death. We're both still navigating that.) It's age-appropriate for him not to want to engage with the world's brokenness, how bad things happen to good people, the fall of the Temples, any of it. Right now he needs a sense of safety, not a broken heart.

It's easy to knock "pediatric" theology -- childlike theology that doesn't (yet) engage with theodicy and suffering. If we never grow beyond that, our spiritual selves and our relationship with tradition will be stunted.  We might choose to throw away relationship with God and tradition altogether because the simple version we got as kids doesn't speak to life's challenges.

And yet... for a kid, simple and sweet theology is appropriate. I'm grateful that my kid has the luxury of not living with tough questions of theodicy and suffering on a daily basis. I keep thinking about the children whose testimonies make up this prayer. I wish every child had the luxuries my child enjoys. I wish the suffering in Lamentations didn't still look so familiar.

Of course, there are adults who never outgrow reluctance to feel sadness or difficult emotions. I empathize: celebrations are plenty more fun than funerals. But when we want religion to be a source of happiness and light, but don't want to feel loss or sadness or culpability, our spiritual lives get out of whack. That's spiritual bypassing. Tisha b'Av is the opposite of that.

Tisha b'Av calls us into uncomfortable relationship with loss and sadness and culpability. Loss is hard-baked into the human experience: we can embrace it or we can ignore it, but we can't avoid it. But the sense of culpability -- taking responsibility for our role in the brokenness; facing our complicity in the patterns that lead to brokenness -- that one's up to us.

And to me that's the most fascinating thing about Tisha b'Av: how the tradition makes the spiritual move of saying: yeah, it's our fault. Tradition says this is the anniversary of the date when the scouts brought back a false report, a fearful report, dooming their entire generation to wander in the wilderness. Because we didn't trust, our homeless wandering continued.

Tradition says the Temples, destroyed on this date, fell because of our transgressions -- the first one because of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, and the second one because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred, which teaches us that senseless hatred is equivalent to idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b.) That's a hell of a teaching.

As R' Alan Lew notes, in his Tisha b'Av chapter in This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared, any historian can tell you that we couldn't have stopped the juggernaut of the Roman Empire, or for that matter Babylon before it. But the tradition says: that historical truth is irrelevant. What matters here is the spiritual truth that calls us to take responsibility.

In a way it's a victim fantasy. We want to believe that what happened to us must have been our fault, because if it were, then we can act differently next time and protect ourselves from the trauma recurring. But in another way it gives us agency. It reminds us that we can always choose to behave differently, to make teshuvah, to be better people than we were before.

And even if teshuvah doesn't protect us from sorrow and loss, the inner transformation might be its own reward. Because on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av, tradition says, the messiah will be born. We find hope even in our darkest places -- especially in our darkest places. As an adult I find profound comfort in that teaching. It's like the hope at the bottom of Pandora's Box.

The thing is, in order to get to that hope -- in order to get to the uplift of Tisha b'Av afternoon -- we have to be willing to go into the loss and grief and sense of communal responsibility that comes before. Where are our Jewish communities falling into senseless hatred, failing to be welcoming and inclusive?  Where are our national / secular communities doing the same?

Tisha b'Av is the hinge that turns us toward the Days of Awe. It's 7 weeks until Rosh Hashanah. We have 7 weeks to take a good look at our selves and souls, our (in)actions and choices. That inner work won't protect us from trauma and loss, personally or nationally. But it might change who we are and how we respond. And isn't that what spiritual life is for?


Experiencing shiva from the inside

Faces-of-mom

For years, presiding over funerals and shiva minyanim, I have thought: someday this will be me. I suspect that every rabbi with living parents has had those thoughts. Someday this will be me burying my parent. Someday I will be the one at the center of this emotional and spiritual whirlwind. Someday I will say kaddish for my parent.

I didn't know how different it would feel to say the words of mourner's kaddish for the first time as a mourner for my mom, standing at the lip of the hole in the earth into which we had just shoveled dirt atop her casket. I didn't know how different the words would feel, or how I would cling to them like a lifeline of meaning.

I didn't know how it would feel to stand at the bimah of Temple Beth El to offer a eulogy, looking out at a room full of people who'd known her. I didn't know that she would request the singing of Taps to close her memorial service, in honor of the summer camp bugler with whom she fell in love at fourteen, who is now a widower.

I didn't know how it would feel to sit shiva in the home that was hers, without her in it anymore, surrounded by family and by their friends. I didn't know how it would feel to return home and finish shiva here. To sit in my condo with mirrors covered and door open. To tell stories about her, and show photographs, when friends come sit with me.

I didn't know how it would feel to reread the letters she wrote me at camp when I was twelve, which I'd saved in one of my dad's cigar boxes. To reread years' worth of emails, most of them banal but significant now because they came from her. To discover that recordings of her playing piano make me weep as though the world were ending.

I keep remembering that I can't email her daily photographs of her youngest grandson anymore. What does it mean to document my life now for my own sake, and not for the sake of sharing it from afar with her? I will never hear her play the piano again. For how long will the sound of piano keys played expertly and with heart bring me to tears?

Shiva is a foreign country for which I don't have a reliable map. And next time I visit it will be different. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting the hang of it. Other times I am bewildered, fragile, red-eyed from crying. Just as I'm getting accustomed to sitting with these memories, it will be time to exit this stage of mourning and move to what's next.

Sometimes I think: it will be good to return to normal life when shiva is done. Other times I can't imagine how I will re-enter the world of working life, and the news, and life's million assorted obligations, when my skin feels so thin and my heart feels so bruised and so exposed and so tender. Time distorts: was that a week or an hour?

I've learned this week (again) that I can feel bereft and grateful at the same time. I've learned that my sense of fragility, of what death means, of what loss means, has shifted. I've learned that ordinary acts, like putting my child to bed and singing his usual bedtime lullabies, feel both the same and not-at-all the same as they did before.

I've learned that I can still talk to her, though I haven't heard an answer. When I speak aloud with God (talking with Shechinah in blue jeans in the front seat of my car) I can speak now with Mom, too -- hoping, imagining, that part of her is still with me, freed now from all of life's constrictions of body and spirit, freed from all misunderstanding.

Because we did misunderstand each other, sometimes. This week I've been learning how to begin letting that go. During my mother's last week of life, I thanked her for my life and told her how glad I am that I got to be her daughter. I will always be glad that I got to be -- that I get to be, that I will always get to be -- my mother's daughter.

 


A mother and a mystic -- during school vacation

I am reading the second essay in Cynthia Bourgeault's The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice. She is talking about the difference between the nondual, in Eastern thinking, and the unitive in Christian thinking.

I am thinking about Jewish parallels to the Christian theology of mystical union to which she alludes. Remembering Reb Zalman z"l saying that we can relate intellectually to the transcendent, but the heart needs a God with Whom the heart can be in relationship. I'm thinking about my own spiritual life and how frequently my awareness of holiness is in yetzirah, the realm of the heart.

"Mom! Mom! Mom!" My nine-year-old wants my attention. He is building a LEGO set and wants to show me something cool about how it works.

As I set down the book and try to listen whole-heartedly to his explanation of this LEGO Minecraft set and how the lever works to raise and lower the Iron Golem, my mind offers me the core question of spiritual direction as I have learned to practice it: where is God in this?

My answer, of course, arises in synchronicity with the passage I was just reading about the unitive and the relational. God is in relationship -- or can be, anyway. The challenge of the divorced-parent mystic during winter vacation is precisely finding God "in this" -- in baking and decorating cookies, in reading Harry Potter aloud. The work is finding the God-presence, the holiness, in the laundry and the LEGOs -- or more specifically, in the relationship with my kid that lies behind the laundry and the LEGOs.

It's not the "union with the divine beloved" that Bourgeault describes. (And it's surely not the transcendence of the binary between lover and beloved, between us and God, to which she alludes -- I can't even see there from here.) But I resonate with her suggestion that there can be a "rewriting of the 'operating system'" that can allow one to see "from oneness." That has to be one of the deep purposes of spiritual practice, to rewrite the operating system of the mind and heart.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's Nurture the Wow makes the point that our received spiritual traditions were largely codified and written down by men who had wives whose job it was to care for the children and the household. They didn't have the experience of trying to enter into a theological text while also listening with one ear to a cartoon, or putting the book down to admire creations built out of plastic bricks. 

But I feel like my work right now is embracing that tension, bringing the theology into the parenting and vice versa, glimpsing the unitive from this place of relationship. Torah instructs me to love God "with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my being." Surely one of the ways I fulfill the mitzvah of loving God is through being in relationship with reflections of the Infinite right here.

 


Morning conversation, two days later

"But why did he do it?" my son asks me this morning in the car on the way to school. "It couldn't be just because he hates Jewish people."

"Some people hate anything that's different from them," I say, carefully, feeling my way into the words. "It may be that he hates us just because we're not like him."

"That's bad," my son observes.

"It is," I say, nodding. "But the shooter did say something, before he went into the synagogue with his gun, about being angry that Jews are welcoming refugees into our country."

Then I realize I'm not sure my son knows what that word means. "A refugee is someone who comes here fleeing war or danger, someone who comes to our country looking for a safe place to live. The shooter thought that welcoming refugees was a bad thing that Jewish people do. But we think it's a good thing, it's something to be proud of about who we are."

"That's why we give tzedakah," says my son, his voice more certain now.

"It is," I agree.

 


Fresh air

N31766772985_1412396_6955In 1877, The Fresh Air Fund, an independent not-for-profit organization, was created with one simple mission – to allow children living in low-income communities to enjoy free summer experiences in the country. [Source]

Back when the Fresh Air Fund was started, tuberculosis was a serious danger, and fresh air was understood to be restorative. We have other ways of treating TB now, but the Fresh Air Fund is still sending low-income city kids to the country. Their mission -- "getting children out of the city and into fresh air where they [can] play freely and not worry about the grinding pressures of hunger, crime, and poverty – remains unchanged." [Source]

Some months ago, the local Fresh Air Fund representative contacted me to see if I would share a flyer with the synagogue community. The place where I live is part of their Friendly Towns Program, and I have congregants who have hosted Fresh Air Fund kids in years past. Of course I agreed to share their materials with my shul community. And I thought, "Wow: wouldn't it be great for my kid if we served as a host family?" 

I ran the idea by my kid, and he agreed enthusiastically to the idea of hosting. My ex and his partner and I filled out the paperwork, underwent the requisite background check, and waited. Finally we learned that we'd been matched with a boy a year younger than ours. And this week we are a Fresh Air Fund host family, in our two households, introducing a city kid to life in northern Berkshire (and southern Vermont, where he is joining my son at day camp for the week.)

When I ran the idea by my kid all those months ago, I think he was mostly excited about the prospect of having a playmate. We talked about how it's a mitzvah (a commandment, a core part of Jewish life and practice) to be generous and hospitable, and to share what we have with those who have less, but I'm not sure how much that really penetrated his consciousness. 

I don't think my son realizes how fortunate we are. He has not one but two homes: his father's house and mine. He has summer camp opportunities, and a condo pool, and pretty much all the LEGOs a kid could want, and great expanses of back yard and woods to run around in. I want him to learn that it's our job to share our abundance. One way we try to do that is that half of his allowance each week goes to tzedakah. Another way we're trying to do that is inviting someone who doesn't have all of those opportunities to share for a week in the bounty we enjoy.

And... while I know I just said we're sharing our abundance, we also can't position ourselves as the generous hosts who "have" and are sharing with those who "have not." These boys both have things to teach each other and to learn from each other. In a way, this is a cultural exchange program both for the city kid who comes here, and for the country kid who hosts him. 

As our first Fresh Air Fund week unfolds, I think both boys are learning a lot. Our visitor speaks Chinese on the phone home with his parents, while my son's vocabulary is sprinkled with Hebrew words. My son marvels that his new buddy walks to school and to the grocery store and takes the subway all the time -- those are city norms that are unfamiliar to my small-town kid. Meanwhile, his new friend had never swum in a pond or a stream before, and finds it strange that we have to drive to get anywhere other than our mailbox and the condo pool. 

Welcoming an unfamiliar kid into the household is a learning experience for all of us. It's an opportunity for my son to learn how to be a gracious host, which is an important mitzvah though not always an easy one. Sharing one's stuff with another kid is hard, especially when that other kid is a stranger, especially when you may not easily be able to find common ground. I'm learning how to moderate the two boys' needs, taking into account the fact that one of them is a visitor far from home and the other is my own kid whose wants and needs I know well.

I'm grateful that we're doing this -- and I'm grateful not despite the challenges, but in part precisely because of them. I think my son is growing a lot this week, and I suspect that as I grapple with the challenges of parenting (or serving in loco parentis for) two very different kids, I'm growing too. And I'm happy that we're able to give this city kid a week's worth of country adventures: frog ponds and campfires, swim dates and streams, evening popsicles on our mirpesset under the wide open small-town sky. 

 

Deep gratitude to Camp Sarsaparilla in Pownal, VT, which offers scholarships each week for Fresh Air Fund kids. 


A blessing for blowing the candle out

41enBytTguL._SY355_I love sitting with my son on the mirpesset in the evenings. He doesn't have a ton of patience for just sitting and watching the sky change colors, but I can usually entice him out for at least a little while.

Last night we sat on the mirpesset and I lit the citronella candle on his request. When it came time to go inside for his bath, he wanted to blow it out, but then he paused.

"We should say a blessing," he suggested. 

Generally speaking we make blessings when we light candles, not when we extinguish them, but I didn't say that. (I don't ever want to quash his spiritual impulses.) I said, "Okay, go for it."

"Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam," he began ("Blessed are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of creation" -- the opening words to many Jewish blessings), and then paused. "Wait. I don't know the rest of the words."

"You get to use your own words," I told him.

He thought for a moment.

"Thank You God for the light of the candle. When I blow it out, may Your strength flow through me," he intoned.

"Beautiful," I murmured.

And then he blew out the candle. (Which took a few tries; they're designed to be resistant to breezes!) When the flame went out, a plume of smoke rose and curled and danced up and around, revealing hidden currents. "Look, Mom," he said, "there's God's strength, flowing through the air!" 

Talk about sanctifying the ordinary.

Thank You, God, for the privilege of nurturing this extraordinary soul.