Take a Lamb: Shabbat HaGadol 5783

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Today is Shabbat HaGadol, "The Great Shabbat," right before Pesah. It's customary on this day for rabbis to teach about getting ready for the holiday. Usually that means teaching about removing hametz, whether literally (leaven) or metaphorically (the spiritual stuff we need to shed in order to go free.) And this afternoon it's traditional to study the haggadah -- again, to ready ourselves.

Today is also the 10th of Nisan. On this day our ancestors were told to take a lamb. Bring it into the home and look after it. Four days later, slaughter it and put its blood on the doorposts. The blood on the doorposts would tell the Angel of Death to "pass over." Though the Chizkuni, 1200s, teaches that God didn't delegate that. And surely God knows who we are. Maybe the visible reminder was for us.

What if the blood on the doorposts is to remind us? What do we need to remember? What deep truths do we forget about who we are? What are the costs of freedom -- what might we have to offer up in order to be freed from our stuck places... and to help others who aren't granted full human dignity to get there with us? Those are some big questions. But let's start with a smaller one: why a lamb?

Ramban (d. 1270) says the reason for the lamb is that Aries is the star sign ascendant at this time of year, and God wanted to prove to us that when we go free, it's not because of any luck in the stars. Among other sages, he also suggests that it's possible that the Egyptians worshipped lambs. So the sacrifice of a lamb was a way for us to break any allegiance to the symbol of their "god."

Readying ourselves to go free involved making this korban / offering. And it was supposed to be something familiar, something personal, something we'd been holding on to for a while and had even been nurturing. This pre-liberation offering evolved into the offering of a paschal lamb in Temple times, still represented on the table in our seder. So what's our modern emotional-spiritual equivalent?

I read an article the other day about climate "doomers." What's the point of doing anything, when we've ruined the Earth? It's a compelling question. And yet I keep thinking about Ramban's teaching that the lamb represented idolatry. Isn't fatalism a kind of idolatry, in which we think our hopelessness is stronger than God? (As always, if the "G-word" doesn't work for you try justice or hope or love.)

Nihilism is never a good Jewish answer. Because nihilism is an abdication of responsibility, and Judaism is all about responsibility: to ourselves, to each other, to our world, to our Source. Doom and despair perpetuate kotzer ruah, that spiritual shortness of breath that our ancestors knew in Egypt. And if we're stuck in despair, we aren't owning our agency, and we're not creating change.

Here, too, our ancient spiritual story offers a roadmap. Their spirits crushed, our ancestors cried out, and that cry was the first step toward liberation. So yeah, cry out. Feel what's broken and give it voice. And remember that crying-out is the first step. When we face what's broken, when we cry out, we open up a tiny internal space. We open ourselves to the possibility that things could change.

Granted, change may not be easy. Our spiritual ancestors went from Pharaoh's frying pan into the fire of forty years of wilderness wandering. But the fact of a new path is hopeful even if the path is hard. Because nihilism and despair and paralysis say: nothing's ever going to be different. What's broken will always be broken and can never be mended, so it isn't worth even trying. But it is worth trying. 

That "climate doomer" article notes, "Nowadays, climate scientists try to emphasize that climate change isn’t a pass/fail test: Every tenth and hundredth of a degree of warming avoided matters." In other words, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What we do matters, even if it's not a complete fix. And if we scorn anything short of a complete fix, we're compounding the problem.

Here's a question I sit with: who benefits when we lose ourselves in doom or despair? I think the answer is: whoever has a vested interest, often a fiscal one, in things staying the way they are. And that results in greater harm for those who were already vulnerable -- whether we're talking about people in the path of the next tornado, or schoolchildren helpless against the next mass shooting.

R. Avi Weiss notes the order of operations: before offering the lamb, we clear out hametz. First we cast away the puffery of overinflated ego, because the paschal offering asks humility. The korban Pesah is also the first step toward the revelation of Torah at Sinai... which reminds me that we never know what holy outcomes our choices might set in motion. That's another form of humility.

I like his teaching about humility, though this year I prefer to think of hametz (from לחמוץ, to sour or ferment) not as ego but as sourness. Everyone needs a healthy ego. Often what holds us back from liberation is the old sour stuff: old stories and flaws and resentments, old patterns of seeing ourselves or each other in the worst light... and maybe also old habits of hopelessness and despair.

So first we seek out the hametz we need to clean out of our physical houses and our metaphysical houses. Look within for the old sour stories that no longer serve, and cast them to the burning. Then we can bring the korban Pesah we need to offer up this year -- maybe the helplessness or fatalism that we've been unwittingly nurturing. We offer up the habit, the tendency, the fear that holds us back.

R. Lynn Gottlieb wrote:

"All that rises up bitter, all that rises up prideful, all that rises up in old ways no longer fruitful, all hametz unknown to me... may it find common grave with the dust of the Earth." 

This year, I add:

May our sourness be nullified. May we offer up what we need to let go. May we mark our doorposts with reminders of who we aspire to be. And in that merit, may we go forth ready for freedom.


This is the d'varling I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires on Shabbat HaGadol (cross-posted to the congregational From the Rabbi blog.)



In the car on the way to the orthodontist my son and I were talking about the future. What do we imagine the next fifty or hundred years will bring? He thinks the biggest problems facing humanity are bias (e.g. racism, homophobia and transphobia, antisemitism) and the climate crisis. And he's not sure we can fix either one. Of course, I started arguing for a hopeful outlook. Sure, we may not be able to "fix" either one, but we can make things better than they are now, and in fact I'd argue that we have to. "Sure, Mom," he said. "I mean, of course we do. But you're always more hopeful than I am."

That's normal for his generation, I know. I grew up believing in recycling plastics; he's growing up with climate crisis and coming ecological collapse. I grew up believing that antisemitism was over and homophobia was outdated. He's growing up in an era when our synagogue doors are always locked, with trans friends who know there are states where they can't safely go. I grew up with the certainty that I could make decisions about my own body. He's growing up knowing that every friend with a uterus has lost that certainty, and that rights we thought were solid and stable can be taken away.

I reassure my teen that humanity isn't destined for extinction... though I'm aware that the climate is going to get a lot worse during his lifetime, and that the devastation will likely be worst in places far from here. I reassure him that most Americans don't hate trans and gender-non-conforming folks, or queer folks, or people of color, or Muslims or Hindus or Jews. But antisemitic attacks have been steadily ramping up over the last five years; and so have attacks on queer and trans people, in Florida and Georgia and Missouri and elsewhere; and racism doesn't seem to be going anywhere either...

Can I really promise him that he and his loved ones will be safe from rising seas and worsening storms, from the next pandemic or superbug, from Christian nationalism and white supremacy, from the drumbeat of bigotry? Of course not. I suppose it's always been true. What parent has ever been able to truly promise their child that everything would be okay? Our work as human beings is to live and love and work toward repair even though (or especially because) the world is as broken as it is! But I wish I could give him the luxury of growing up with the kind of whole-hearted optimism I knew.

I've read a lot of articles lately about why kids are struggling with depression and despair. It strikes me that for many of the teens I know, the combination of climate crisis and bigotry (e.g. antisemitism, racism, transphobia) feels pervasive in the world as they know it. How can I tell my kid everything's fine when there are literally hundreds of bills around the country trying to legislate his best friend out of existence, or when a kid on his schoolbus starts praising Hitler (possibly parroting Ye)? All I can do is redirect us toward, "there's work to do to fix things, so let's do what we can, together."

Four eclipses; four worlds; four holidays; four holy perspective shifts

A Jewish Renewal perspective on the tetrad of lunar eclipses, by rabbinic student David Markus and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.

We in North America are about to experience four total lunar eclipses in a row which, incredibly, will coincide with Pesach (15 April in 2014, 4 April in 2015) and Sukkot (8 October in 2014 and 28 September in 2015). In 2014 and 2015, the full moon marking these festival times will be eclipsed at the moments of perhaps the greatest joy in the Jewish calendar – at Pesach, when we experience freedom from the Narrow Place, and at Sukkot, when we enter with thanksgiving into our fragile and impermanent harvest houses.

Jewish mystics link the moon with Shekhinah, immanent and indwelling Presence of God manifest in creation. Many Hasidic teachings depict hester panim, the hiding or withdrawal of God's presence from us. In every life, we experience alternating phases of God's presence and God's (apparent) absence -- but just as the moon remains present even during its eclipse, so God's presence remains even when S/He may seem veiled in shadow.

Beyond mere veiling, a lunar eclipse invites a shift in spiritual perspective.  If we were on the moon looking at Earth during these eclipses, we would see the Earth silhouetted in the sun's fire.  Standing on the moon's surface, we would look up at the Earth and witness sunrise and sunset happening simultaneously, everywhere, along the Earth's shadowed rim.  It is the red of the Earthly sunset that we Earthlings see projected onto the moon at the time of a total lunar eclipse.

Lunar eclipses thus invite us to lift grandly above habitual ways of seeing.  Reb Zalman taught that once humanity could see the Earth as a swirled green-blue marble suspended in space, a paradigm shift occurred.  A door opened for us to see ourselves as cells in the cosmic organism of our planet, without artificial borders and boundaries that appear to divide us.  Lunar eclipses call us toward that global vantage.  Lunar eclipses project onto the moon the timeless reality that sunrise and sunset – shifts of awareness between light and dark – are unfolding at every moment.  Usually this truth of nature (and spiritual life) escapes our day-to-day awareness.  A lunar eclipse, however, visibly projects this truth onto our cosmic symbol for Shekhinah, the indwelling divine presence. A lunar eclipse thus reminds us that with God is our power, and our calling, to lift our consciousness beyond the narrowness of place and boundary. 

That lunar eclipses coincide with our biannual festivals for two consecutive years invites especially profound opportunities.  At Passover, season of our liberation, we leave behind the constrictions of slavery and limited insight.  At the Passover eclipses, we can look up and see the ultimate natural image of liminality and change projected onto the springtime full moon.  So too at Sukkot, season of our joy and gratitude, we leave behind old calcified patterns and emerge into deep truths of impermanence. At the Sukkot eclipses, we can gaze at the fall harvest moon and see the ultimate natural image of global interconnectedness reflected on the face of Shekhinah.

At these festival times, traditional liturgy includes Hallel, songs of praise drawn from the Psalms. At the time of these festival lunar eclipses, how amazing to proclaim the Psalmist's joyous words of unity and higher perspective:

רָם עַל-כָּל-גּוֹיִם ה׳ עַל הַשָּׁמַיִם כְּבוֹדוֹ
מִי כַּה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ הַמַּגְבִּיהִי לָשָׁבֶת
הַמַּשְׁפִּילִי לִרְאוֹת בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ

God is high above all nations: God's glory is above the heavens.
Who is like YHVH our God, enthroned on high,
Looking down low on heaven and earth?

-- Ps. 113:4-6

These eclipses are ultimate expressions of natural liminality reflected onto our Jewish calendar.  At Pesach we stop saying the prayer for rain and begin saying the prayer for dew; at the end of Sukkot, we switch back the other way.  These festivals are liminal moments, as are sunrise and sunset. During these eclipses we'll see liminality projected onto Shekhinah at the very moments that we ourselves are liminal, sanctifying transitions from one state of being into another. 

And with four total lunar eclipses back to back, every six months, timed perfectly to our holiday calendar and seasonal shifts, we have four chances to experience this grandeur -- one lunar eclipse for each of the four worlds of action, emotion, thought, and spirit.  One lunar eclipse for each of the four letters in the Shem HaMeforash, the unpronounceable Name we denote as YHVH.  Four festival opportunities to deepen our amazement and wonder gazing into the night sky. Four festival moments of liberation and gratitude unlike any that we have known before.

Chag sameach / Happy Holidays.

New essay in Zeek: on Tu BiShvat, parenthood, climate change

It’s fun to teach a 4-year-old about Tu B’Shvat. We’ll probably sing happy birthday to the trees in the backyard, and bless and eat a variety of tree fruits and nuts at a kiddie Tu B’Shvat seder at the synagogue. Maybe we’ll try to connect trees with taking care of the earth, the way Kai-Lan cleans up garbage in the back yard for the sake of the snails.

For adults, Tu B’Shvat offers opportunities for more meaningful reflection.

Tu B’Shvat reminds us to go outside and encounter the natural world where we are. Here in the Diaspora, Tu B’Shvat posters and food traditions remind us of the foodways of our Mediterranean ancestors, including Israel’s blooming almond trees. Where I live, Tu B’Shvat usually means bare trees rising out of snow.

Usually Tu B’Shvat falls during sugaring season in western Massachusetts. The maple sap rises when the days are above freezing and the nights are still cold. All around my region, plastic tubing sprouts like new growth, funneling sap drop by drop into collection buckets and tanks for boiling.

Well: that’s what usually happens. I don’t know how this year’s fifty-degree temperature fluctuations and arctic blasts will impact the syrup harvest. Does that kind of oscillation confuse the maple trees? How about the fifty-below-zero temperatures they’ve been registering in the heartland: how does that impact the food we grow?

That's a taste of Tu BiShvat Reflections on Parenthood, Extreme Weather, & the Human Family Tree, my latest essay for Zeek magazine. I hope you'll click through to read the whole thing.

This week's portion: Sodom and Gomorrah, Hurricane Sandy, and God

Here's the d'var Torah I offered on Friday evening at Shabbat Across the Berkshires, and in modified form on Shabbat morning at my shul. Crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog.


This week, in parashat Vayera, God decides to punish the wicked, declaring, "The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave!" And Avraham argues, "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?"

The two angels who had recently visited Avraham go to Sodom. They've hardly arrived when men swarm Lot's house and demand, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may be intimate with them."

Lot says, "I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong." So far, so good. But then he becomes abhorrent in our eyes when he offers his two daughters instead.

This is the sin of these two infamous places. The next day the towns are destroyed.

This is one way we used to understand destruction raining down from the sky, and our responsibility for that destruction. People make evil choices, and God metes out punishment. In this story, all those who suffer are wicked. Avraham cannot find even the single minyan of righteous souls whose presence would have caused God to spare the towns.

This week too, destruction has rained down from the sky. Not sulfurous fire, but torrential rains and hurricane-force winds.

Here in the Berkshires, Hurricane Sandy toppled trees, leaving thousands without power. Many of us had to keep our kids home from school, brush our teeth with bottled water, eat all the ice cream in our freezers before it spoiled. We're the lucky ones.

The damage in New York and Atlantic City beggars belief. You've probably seen the same photos I have: water flooding subway tunnels, emergency vehicles submerged by the seas, buildings washed away or destroyed by fire.

There are those who interpret storms like this as the wrath of God striking down the wicked: the gamblers of Atlantic City, the queer community in New York. This is toxic theology, and when it is aimed at those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender it is as destructive to hearts and souls as the storm is to property.

What created Hurricane Sandy? A set of systemic causes, a welter of economic and environmental choices, made over time by wealthy nations and corporations. The water along the Atlantic coast this year is 5 degrees higher than average, which increases the likelihood of "superstorms" like Sandy. And yet climate change wasn't mentioned at all in this year's presidential debates.

A storm like this one is a reminder of God's infinite and awesome power -- and also of our own role in creating a planetary system where ice is melting, currents are changing, and a summer of searing drought is followed by wind and rain we can't help but fear.

Continue reading "This week's portion: Sodom and Gomorrah, Hurricane Sandy, and God" »

Preparing for the hurricane

When one lives inland, as we do, it feels strange to be preparing for a hurricane.

Last year, when Hurricane Irene appeared, we'd already been planning a summer party for that late-August weekend. We went ahead and threw the party; why not, right? We live on a mountaintop, which should be relatively safe from flooding -- and why not have friends nearby as we rode out the storm? Ethan tarped our most vulnerable windows and screwed plywood down. We cooked huge bowls of noodles and wheatberry tabouli, foods which can be eaten safely and tastily even if there is no power. And then we fired up our outdoor wood-fired hot tub and sat outside in the glorious steaming water as the rain began to fall.

We were blessed. We came through that storm unscathed. We didn't even lose power. But others in our neck of the woods were not so fortunate. The Spruces trailer park in Williamstown, home to most of that town's elderly who are living on fixed incomes, flooded and some 200 people became homeless. Roads and bridges washed out. Just north of us, in Vermont, there was tremendous devastation.

Now everyone in New England is battening down the hatches in preparation for Hurricane Sandy. The forecasts are fairly alarming. Here at our house we've secured a tarp over the top of our ger, flattened our folding deck chairs, moved outdoor lanterns inside. I've cooked all the perishables I can, trying to make foods which will be relatively safe to eat at room temperature if we lose power, which I assume we probably will -- high winds plus trees which still retain some fall foliage means power lines will definitely come down. I've poured several pitchers of water, because losing power means losing our well pump. I've made two pots of coffee. I'm trying to do laundry while there's still power to do laundry with.

My shul has canceled Hebrew school for today (all of the public schools in our area have closed, and Drew's preschool will close at noon) and I've put out a message encouraging members to prepare for the storm and to check in with each other, especially with those who are older, living alone, and/or especially vulnerable.

I'm caught between the inclination to refresh weather.gov and wunderground.com incessantly (while I still have internet and power) and the awareness that keeping an eye on the storm's movement doesn't actually help me or anyone I might be worried about who lives in its path. I think we're all a little bit manic today, a little bit on-edge, knowing that something potentially terrible is coming and powerless to stop it or to truly predict what the future holds.

My colleague Rabbi Arthur Segal reminded me yesterday (on a Jewish Renewal email list to which I belong) that early in the mishna -- tractate Brakhot, Blessings -- we learn that when we witness a strong storm, we should pray "Blessed are You, our God, Ruler of the Universe, whose power fills the world." And for mild storms, we say: "Blessed are You, our God, who made all of creation." He continues:

And the sages in the Gemara of Talmud Yerushalmi go further and say that haShem would take a strong wind and lessen its force as it passes through mountains and hills, because God made wind, His breath, to make life, not take life.

(He offers more meditation on these themes in a post on his blog.)

I've always loved the fact that our tradition instructs us to offer blessings even at moments of difficulty and fear. It would be easy to respond to the might of a hurricane with curses, but the sages of the mishna argued otherwise. Strong winds and driving rain can be a reminder that there is a power in the world greater than we. Hurricanes are awesome in the original sense of the word -- awe-some, awe-ful, awe-inspiring; reminders of the awe we experience when we contemplate the infinity of the God Who creates them.

Of course, a storm like this one may draw forth other responses beyond blessing. My friend and colleague Rabbi Arthur Waskow has noted tha:

This is a storm unlike any we've seen before because the earth is doing things it has never done before. The water along the Atlantic coast is 5 degrees hotter than usual, super-charging Sandy's rainfall, and drawing the strength of the storm further north. Already too-high tides will be pushed dangerously higher by this storm.

Despite these rapid changes, our politicians have dropped climate from their agenda. So, in addition to preparing to stay safe, let's prepare to connect the dots between this storm and the over-burning of fossil fuels. We need to put climate change back front and center in the public conversation.

I appreciate his reminder that the ferocity of the weather conditions we are learning to take for granted has a great deal to do with the choices we have made about how to live on this earth. The sages of our tradition instruct us to offer blessings even when faced with a mighty storm -- but I doubt they could have pictured a future paradigm in which we understand ourselves to be co-creators of our planet's climate conditions, as many of us now do. A storm like this one is a reminder of God's infinite and awe-some power -- and also of our own role in creating a planetary system where ice is melting, currents are changing, and a summer of searing drought is followed by wind and rain we can't help but fear.

May we all be safe. May we all be dry and comfortable. May no one lose power; or, when we do, may we have enough to eat, a roof which keeps us dry, the companionship of family and friends. May no one else die because of this storm. And when we reach the other side, may we all take whatever steps we can to mend what is broken and to help those in need.