Ending

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Image by Stellalevi.

Content warning: there's a disturbing antisemitic quote in the 9th paragraph.

 

Maybe it’s because I hang out with a lot of rabbis: I can’t count the number of people this week who sent me a link to the current cover story of the Atlantic, The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending. [gift link] It’s a powerful essay. It has much to say about American Jewish history, liberal democracy, and the resurgence of anti-Jewish hate on both the left and the right. 

It raises big questions. Are our safest years over?  What if the acceptance we’ve taken for granted as American Jews has been a historical anomaly? What if liberal democracy turns out to be a historical anomaly? Is it all downhill from here? Add to these the current question of: does soaring public support for Gaza necessarily translate here to hatred of Jews?

These questions precipitated a slow-motion anxiety attack that knocked me out for most of a day. Maybe you've had this experience too: chest feeling constricted as though by an iron band, no ability to draw a deep breath, tears coming in waves like a storm system that just won’t quit. The next day the heart and body feel leaden. One's insides ache. It takes a while to “recover.”

That word is in scare quotes because I’m not sure what it means to recover from an anxiety attack when the sources of the anxiety persist. Here we are, five months in to the Hamas-Israel war that began on Shemini Atzeret. It has been longer and more terrible than I could have imagined.  I don’t think I know anyone in congregational service who isn’t struggling. 

I have congregants on every “side” of this divide, from ceasefire activists to oldschool Zionists. I feel-with all of them: the one who asks, “how can we not condemn indiscriminate killing?” and means Hamas, and the one who asks the same question and means Israel, and the one who says Judaism feels like a burden now because the world uniquely hates us again. 

Of course, the end of the golden age of being an American Jew (as Franklin Foer writes about it) isn’t “just” about Israel and Gaza. It’s a bigger picture of social trends, the liberal dream perhaps dissolving, Trumpism and more. But the fact that hating Jews has become acceptable both on the Right and on the Left is a central piece of the sense that an era has ended. 

This morning’s email from the Forward included one headline about Israeli hostages invited to the State of the Union, and another about a bar in Utah that refuses service to Zionists, because in today’s progressive understanding people who think Israel deserves to exist are often considered akin to Nazis and white supremacists. The cognitive dissonance is staggering. 

A poet-rabbi friend told me recently about a literary magazine now specifying, "No misogyny, no homophobia, no racism, no Zionism." Is this really where we are? Disavow the right of Israel to exist, or be considered as morally repugnant as homophobes and racists? I remember one of the most harrowing lines of Foer’s article: 

“Are you Jewish?” one mop-haired tween asks another, seemingly unaware of any adult presence. “No way,” the second kid replies. “I fucking hate them.” Another blurts, “Kill Israel.” A student laughingly attempts to start a chant of “KKK.”

Foer may be right: it’s possible that our best and safest years as American Jews are over. And in a certain sense, so what? In that case we’re like the vast majority of our Jewish forebears over the last few thousand years. When has it ever been easy or safe to be a Jew? The last 50 years, maybe. But 50 years isn’t even an eyeblink in the long span of history. 

I used to think that humanity had evolved beyond antisemitism, but that seems to be as false as the white liberal American dream that our nation was evolving beyond racism (a dream in which I also partook, until it came crashing down around us). That doesn’t mean we stop trying. It just means the work ahead is long, and the dream of something like redemption is still far away.

What do we do with these feelings? Well, in a few weeks, we dance with them. We make merry. We celebrate Purim – another story in which someone wanted to wipe us out across an empire. (And we wrestle with the violence at the end of the Purim story. Knowing that we’ve been hated for centuries can damage the soul, and so can revenge fantasies, if we let them.) 

Esther has something to teach us this year about the bravery it can take to openly be who we are. To be Jews, even when it isn’t easy. To name the bigotry of Jew-hatred as the cancer it has always been. There is a spiritual lesson here about wresting "light and gladness, joy and uprightness" (Esther 8:16) even from the panicky grip of despair. Even in times like these.

 

 


Foretaste

Last week I added wheat flour.
My son had asked for challah rolls
for his lunchbox. My mother's voice
in my mind's ear tsked to think
of all that white bread. Besides,
I reasoned, shouldn't I save
the best loaves for Shabbat
so he'll want to make motzi
on Fridays the minute he's home?
The rolls were fine. More heft
than usual, and stiffer -- still
better than most of what we buy.
This week I said screw it, made
a double batch of the real deal.
Life is short. I learned today
the wife of a friend of a friend
died without warning. When it comes
to obits, the newspaper runs over.
If he gets a foretaste of Shabbes
amidst the din of the cafeteria
is that really so bad? I could use
some Shabbat when I read how
that man called his opponents vermin.
May these knots of pillowy dough
soothe the shudder that word
sends down my Jewish spine
on this brief November day.

 

 

 

[H]is opponents vermin. Learn more at Forbes. (Content warning, Hitler.)


How can I

Howcani

 

The trees are greening. The vibrant chartreuse of brand-new tender leaves is making its way across the valley and up the hills. There is nothing like this color at any other season. I love it so. 

How can I write about the glorious leaves of the burning bush outside my window when lawmakers across this country are stripping rights from trans people and banning life-saving medical care?

I feel powerless to do anything about Missouri or Montana -- or Texas, where the state Ag department now bans clothing that's "[in]consistent with biological gender." I wish I were kidding about that.

(I mean, Texas has done plenty worse. The governor issued an order classifying gender-affirming care as child abuse. The clothing guidelines are just a surreal topper to an already awful situation.)

There's so much injustice. We must not look away. The Dobbs decision and its impacts. Book bansRegulating what history teachers can teach. "Don't Say Gay" and all that flows from it. 

And now gender-affirming care bans harming trans children in a third of our country... with every indication that their proponents intend to come after trans adults next. (They're already doing so.)

How can I write about spring coming to the Berkshires when so much is so profoundly broken? It feels like fiddling while Rome burns, or admiring pretty wildflowers while ignoring forest fires. 

Then again, how can I not write about spring? To live in this beautiful world without noticing it, without being grateful, is a dereliction of my responsibility to see with open eyes and to offer praise.

I do not help my friends and beloveds suffering oppression in red states by cutting myself off from the beauty around me. I think of these lines from Bertolt Brecht, from Svendborg Poems, 1939:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

There is still beauty, in dark times. There is springtime. There is singing. There are parents who love our children fiercely and want to support them in growing into whoever they most deeply are.

And there's also the terrible shadow cast by those who want to impose their fear of difference or their narrow theology on everyone else. What gives them the right to impose their beliefs on others?

If you're standing between someone and their doctor to ban the life-saving medical care they need (whether reproductive healthcare or gender-affirming care), you're not the good guy. 

And always in the back of my mind now, there's the the awareness that they would enact these controlling policies nationally if they could. Ban reproductive healthcare. "Ban transgenderism."

So I am here to tell you that spring has come to the Berkshires. Daffodils are nodding their heads. The leaves are breathtakingly beautiful. And our world remains broken, and we have work to do. 

 

What can we actually do?


Notice


Phone, shut up about the news.
War in Ukraine, assault on trans rights,

a perp walk and its possibilities --
even the very Facebook where people

will find this poem: none of them help me.
Alert me to pay a different attention.

Listen: the red-winged blackbirds are back.
Forsythia blooms across the muddy lawn.

The angle of light has changed -- even when
the mercury drops, the sun's irrepressable.

From here the willow trees look smudged,
sunny haze hinting at leaves to come.

There will always be seasons to notice.
If all else fails, there's always the sky.


Children

Erasure

 

our children have to learn
we need libraries
we accept children

I felt so bad for that boy
taped to the cross with
duct tape

God
keep us safe from people
whose parents ban books

Amen.


 

I am new to the art of erasure poems (and am deeply inspired by Dave Bonta's erasure poems -- here's a recent one that's particularly excellent.)  But I found myself struggling for words this morning. 

Language itself becomes debased, meaning comes unmoored, when people repeatedly insist on things that are not true. This form felt right today. It's my attempt to make meaning out of gibberish. 

(The original text claims to be Sarah Huckabee's "rebuttal" from last night. If you want to read her words, you can easily find a transcript of what she had to say. I won't reprint her words here.)

While I'm here: trans rights are human rights, gender affirming care saves lives, banning books is grotesque, and God is a far vaster reality than what any single religious tradition might claim. 

Updated to add: Thank you to the reader who let me know that I've been hornswoggled -- this is not in fact the text of her rebuttal, it's satire. The fact that I couldn't tell satire from reality does say something about the world we're living in, and about the degradation of truth in an era of misinformation, and about how easy it is to get caught up in the digital outrage machine. I've been reading on Twitter about horrendous anti-trans bills in Missouri and elsewhere, and the ugly rhetoric and triumphalist theology that underpins those, and I was all too ready to take this satire as fact. I should have better media literacy than that -- I should have searched for a corroborating source before getting so angry. I apologize.

Then again, I do like the poem I came up with, so there's that. 


Sacred

 

Left: photograph by Leah Millis, part of this series.

Right: poster for today's Stand Out for Democracy.



Two years ago today an armed mob, fueled by lies of a stolen election, violated the United States Capitol. Some carried Confederate flags; others wore white supremacist insignia. The broken glass and splintered doors from their attack on the Capitol have long since been cleared away. The work of reconsecrating the sacred space of our democracy continues. 

I don’t just mean the literal Capitol building, though anyplace where public servants gather to govern with integrity is a holy place in my eyes. Democracy flourishes most wholly when each of us is accorded a full measure of human rights and dignity – in Jewish language, when we honor the innate holiness of every soul. 

Senator Raphael Warnock expressed it this way in his first speech to Congress in 2021: “Democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea: that we are all children of God and therefore we ought all to have a voice in the direction of our country and our destiny within it. Democracy honors the sacred worth of all human beings.” 

As you probably know, in addition to being a public servant Senator Warnock is a pastor, so he frames that idea in religious language. I’m a rabbi, so I do too. But the inherent worth of every human being is a pillar of democracy whether or not the God-language resonates. And let’s be clear: this is an aspiration and a value that our nation is still growing into. 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal..."

That originally meant white property-owning men. Black people were considered ⅗ of a person. White women lost autonomy, property, and rights the moment we married (which we didn't really have a choice about doing). Thankfully human wisdom continues to evolve. Today we sanctify our democracy by equally valuing people of every race, creed, gender expression, and marital status.  

We sanctify our democracy by repudiating the white Christian nationalism implicit in the Jan. 6  insurrection, and by rededicating ourselves to pluralism. White nationalists think that diversity is a weakness, but that limited and limiting worldview tarnishes the splendor of what humanity can be. Our diversity is an integral part of the America we want to call home. 

We sanctify our democracy with every act of justice – with every act of truth-telling – with every act of integrity. We sanctify our democracy when we resist falsehood and demand accountability. We sanctify our democracy when we live up to our responsibilities to one another and our responsibilities to those who are most vulnerable. 

Rep. John Lewis z”l taught that “Democracy is not a state. It’s an act.” Which is to say, an action. Democracy is something we do – and keep doing. Our nation’s highest ideals have yet to be realized, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. As we learn in Pirkei Avot, “לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה / It is not incumbent on us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from doing what we can.”

 

These are the words I shared at the Stand Out for Democracy at First Congregational Church in Williamstown on the second anniversary of the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol.


Absurd

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Sometimes it feels like we're living in an absurdist novel. "And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth." (Yep, that's Orwell.) Many today declare lies to be truth. And it's entirely possible that they're succeeding. "I can declassify documents with my mind" is literally absurd, and yet here we are.

Also absurd is the claim that "antifa" was responsible for the January 6 insurrection, when evidence makes abundantly clear that the Capitol was stormed by supporters of the former President and he knew he'd lost. What really worries me is that people who accept "The Big Lie" may be unswayable by evidence, and many of them are avowed Christian nationalists. (That's never good news for us.)

There's a tactic used by domestic abusers known as DARVO: Deny, Accuse, Reverse Victim and Offender. (The term was coined by professor Jennifer J. Freyd.) It feels like an apt description for a lot of what's happening the public sphere lately. Did it begin with the reversal of, "No, you're the puppet"? I'm not the first person to make this comparison, but I've been really struck by it lately. 

There is an abusive-bully quality to so many of today's interrelated abuses of power. There's an abusive-bully quality to the authoritarian disdain for diversity. There's an abusive-bully quality to the love of power -- after all, when you're a star, you can do anything to people who have less power than you. And when that's how you treat the disempowered, it makes sense to be afraid of losing power.

Sometimes I wonder how worried we should be that the party of election deniers really admires Viktor Orbán. Orbán proudly champions Christian nationalism. Under his rule, Hungary is no longer a democracy. Authoritarian, nativist, homophobic, wants white Christian men to rule -- how awful and regressive. I tell myself that won't happen here. But it may already be happening here.

What does any of this have to do with Judaism, I imagine you asking. Why are you writing about this, rabbi? Because in naming what is, there is agency. Because the only response I can bear is to double down on our values: truth (there's no such thing as alternative facts), diversity and inclusion, care for others (especially for those in need), equity and justice. Even, or especially, if everything falls apart.

 

I found the image that accompanies this post via a beautiful essay at On Being: The Absurd Courage of Choosing to Live. The image is by Olivier Otelpa, and the essay by Jennifer Michael Hecht is worth reading.


Responsibility

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Every time I see someone talking about rights lately, I find myself thinking about mitzvot (commandments), the core of Jewish life and practice. There are spiritual mitzvot and ethical mitzvot, mitzvot involving relationship between human beings and God and mitzvot involving relationship between human beings and each other. Taking on the mitzvot means accepting obligations: to each other, to the community, to God. The whole system is rooted in an ethic of obligation and responsibility.

Ruth Messenger wrote a lovely piece comparing the notion of rights with the Jewish notion of responsibilities or obligations. She observes -- correctly -- that they're not opposed to each other. There's no reason that being Jewish should be in tension with the notion of human rights. But in this moment, I am increasingly feeling that the American focus on rights and individual liberties is getting in the way of our capacity to recognize our responsibilities to each other and to our community.

I told a high school friend on Facebook recently that I can't understand resistance to gun safety measures. Wouldn't a responsible gun owner be willing to operate within greater constraints in order to ensure the safety of others, most especially our children?  In response, he told me simply that he's not willing to relinquish any of his constitutional rights, period. This sounds like I'm setting up a straw man, but this conversation really happened. Our worldviews just don't make sense to each other.

Intellectually I grasp where he's coming from, but spiritually it feels foreign to me. Part of being in community is balancing what I want with what others need. Living in community means we have obligations to each other. Living in community means giving up some individual control or benefit for the sake of the collective. For instance, most of us might not "want" to give up part of our earnings, but we pay taxes because that's how we ensure roads and schools and necessary services, right? 

I suspect I'm preaching to the choir. If you already agree with me, you're nodding. If you don't agree with me, I don't know that anything I say will change your mind. But staying silent feels like giving up. 27 school shootings so far this year, and it's only May. (Not to mention shootings everywhere else.) The ready availability of guns that liquefy tissue means that no one is safe. Not at school, not at shul or church or gurdwara, not at a nightclub, not at the grocery store. How are we living like this? 

Hillel teaches, "Don't separate yourself from the community." (Pirkei Avot 2:5) Torah tells us time and again that we're obligated to protect the vulnerable. Rambam teaches that it's our obligation to give tzedakah -- not "charity," rooted in the Latin caritas, but giving that's fueled by tzedek, justice. Even the poorest person, someone who needs tzedakah, is obligated to give -- because supporting others is fundamental to community. Obligation to others is fundamental to community. 

And yet in the wake of the Buffalo mass shooting, and the Laguna California mass shooting, and the Uvalde mass shooting, who's framing the gun safety conversation in terms of mutual obligation? I groused to a historian friend: had the Founding Fathers only been Jewish, we might have a very different social compact. To my surprise, she replied that the Founders thought about citizenship not just as a matter of rights, but also as a matter of responsibilities to one another and to the whole!

[T]he founders of this country did not believe in unlimited individual freedom.. . [They agreed that] the best form of government was one in which individuals gave up a portion of their total freedom in order to take care of the community. [Source]

I don't remember learning that in school. I wish everyone did. We give up a portion of our total freedom -- the freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want, no matter the consequences for others -- in order to live in community with other human beings.  We balance what each of us personally wants with some responsibility to the needs of others. That's part of what it means to be a member of a community -- a citizen, part of a bigger whole, responsible to that whole. 

I wish I believed that this framing would shift our nation's echo-chamber conversations about Constitutional rights. (Rights that initially belonged only to white men, though that's a different conversation.) What would our nation be if we focused less on our rights than on what we owe to each other? At minimum, we owe each other the space to live and breathe without fear of being gunned down. Why is anyone's desire to own an assault weapon more important than that?

 

 

Two poems that moved me recently:


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. 

 


Wrestle and stretch

Jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel

This week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, contains the story from which our people takes its name.

Jacob is on his way to meet up with his brother Esau for the first time in years. He sends his family away: he is alone on the riverbank. There an angel wrestles with him until dawn, and blesses him with a new name, Israel -- "Godwrestler." We are the people Israel, the people who wrestle with God.

Jacob -- Israel -- walks away from that encounter with a limp. His hip has been wrenched; Rashi says it's torn from its joint. I imagine he was never quite the same after his night-time wrestle. Maybe he could feel oncoming damp weather in his aching hip, or in the sciatic nerve that Torah instructs us not to eat.

Our struggles change us. They may leave us limping.

I think we all know something about that now. The last eighteen months have been a struggle. We've wrestled with fear and anxiety, and with loneliness. We've wrestled with disbelief at outright lies about the pandemic being a hoax, or about vaccines being an instrument of government control.

Many of us are grappling with climate grief, the fear that our planet is already irrevocably changed. Or with political anxiety, wondering whether "red America" and "blue America" can really remain one nation. Or with the reality that the pandemic is now endemic and will not go away. That's a lot.

Jacob wrestled for one night and was changed.

How will we be changed by the wrestling we're doing during these pandemic years?

Earlier this fall I had a bout of sciatica, and I went to see my neighborhood bodyworker. She reminded me that when one part of the body hurts, most likely a different part of the body needs work. My lower back ached, so she worked on my hip flexors! Pain often calls us to stretch in the opposite direction.

That's a physical truth, but it landed metaphysically. When despair ties us in knots, we need to stretch into hope. Remember what we learned from Mariame Kaba at Rosh Hashanah: hope is a discipline. We have to practice it, and stretch it, and lean into it exactly when our pain pulls us the other way.

Torah tells us that Jacob's sciatic nerve was wounded in his wrestling. And Torah also references his heel; Jacob's name means heel. When I was getting treatment for my sciatica, my bodyworker picked up my heels and leaned back, pulling on them gently. "I feel like you're making me taller," I joked.

She said: that's because I am. Stress and tension and gravity all conspire to tighten our bodies, but we can lengthen. In fact, every night while we sleep we get taller as we unclench. Just as astronauts get taller when they spend time in zero-gee, away from the literal pressure of earth's gravitational pull.

When she pulled on my heels, I could feel my whole body getting longer: legs telescoping, spine lengthening. We compartmentalize -- imagining that this body part is separate from that one, or that body is separate from mind and heart and soul -- but we are integrated beings: everything is connected.

That's another physical teaching that lands metaphysically. When we tighten up spiritually, that manifests in our bodies. Stress and tension and gravity tighten us, but rest can help us loosen. Shabbat can help us loosen. Giving ourselves a break from the relentless press of news can help us loosen.

So can stretching ourselves toward hope. When the wrestle feels most overwhelming, when we feel most ground-down by everything that's broken, that's exactly when we need to stretch our capacity to hope. Our spiritual practices can help us shift, as the Psalmist wrote, from constriction to expansiveness.

Jacob named the place of the wrestle P'ni-El, the Face of God. May we too encounter divine presence in our wrestling. May our wrenched and tight places give us greater compassion for each other and for ourselves. And may we learn, in our times of constriction, to open up and stretch toward possibility.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Shared with gratitude to Emily at Embodywork. Image by Marc Chagall.


From chaos: a d'varling for Shabbat Bereshit

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This week we begin again.

In the beginning, or in a beginning, or as God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth, everything was תוהו ובוהו / tohu va-vohu / chaos and void, and the breath of God hovered like a mother bird over the face of the waters. And God said יהי אור / y'hi or / let there be light, and there was light...

Over the summer, my friend and colleague Rabbi Mike Moskowitz pointed out something I had never noticed about this verse. Before creation, there was already תוהו ובוהו / chaos. The first act of creation,  יהי אור / let there be light is an act of gevurah, differentiating between light and darkness, between one thing and another. But before the beginning, before that act of distinction, chaos already was.

Here we are beginning again. Beginning a new year. Beginning a new Torah reading cycle. And I'm feeling a certain resonance with chaos right now. Maybe you are too.

There's a certain scrambled feeling that comes with making it through the holiday season. We've just gone from Elul to Rosh Hashanah to the Ten Days of Teshuvah to Yom Kippur to Sukkot to Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah and whoosh, where did the last six weeks go, what day is it, who am I again? That one happens every year, but that doesn't make it any less real. 

There's also a unique scrambled feeling arising for many of us this year in particular. There was the pandemic, obviously, and then last spring as vaccines became available we thought we were coming out on the other side. Now, for reasons I don't need to belabor, it's increasingly clear that we're once again in the thick of it and it is absolutely not over yet. There was the election, and then there was January 6, and then maybe we thought we were coming out on the other side. Now, for reasons I don't need to belabor, it's increasingly clear that we're still in the thick of it and it is absolutely not over yet.

תוהו ובוהו: a mess, empty and upside-down, "in a chaotic state." Does that feel to you like it describes the reality of the last year? Yeah, me too. And we're not alone. My colleague Rabbi Michael Latz, in Minneapolis, calls this last year "immense tohu va-vohu." Not just chaos, but immense chaos. Sounds about right.

How do we begin again from this place?

I think this morning's Torah verses offer a blueprint. Yes, everything is chaos. So what does God do? God draws a boundary. And God speaks light into being.

New beginnings take gevurah. They always have, ever since The Beginning.

What boundary do we need to draw between the chaos that threatens to overwhelm us, and the new beginning that we're called to create? What boundary do we need to draw between ourselves and the relentless bad news and drumbeat of news coverage? (Here's a thought: how can keeping Shabbat help us draw that boundary?) What boundary do we need to draw around behaviors -- our own behaviors that maybe don't serve us well going forward, or the behaviors that we as individuals and as a community deem unacceptable?

Without a boundary, without gevurah, everything is s תוהו ובוהו / chaos.

And then what light can we speak into being? Every morning we bless God Who speaks the world into being. Our sages point out that we who are made in the Divine image and likeness can also speak worlds into being. Okay, I can't say "let there be coffee" and cause the coffee to manifest in my hand like Janet from The Good Place. But our words shape realities. Our words impact other people. Our words impact our own internal landscape, too. We can choose to use our words to bring light and uplift and hope, or to perpetuate chaos and falsehood and despair.

This week we begin again. The world begins again. Our story begins again. May we begin the new year the way God begins creation: with gevurah, and with words chosen to bring light into dark places and uplift to counter despair. As my friend and colleague R. Mark Asher Goodman writes,

God made meaning out of the chaos -- something beautiful and wonderful -- and we who are created in the image of God can do the same.

Kein yehi ratzon, may it be so.

 

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


Beginning

Beginning
created God
heavens and
earth.

Void
and unformed
topsy-turvy
darkness.

That's
us, too:
starting over
uncertain

will
our roads
be rebuilt,
repaired

public
health and
child care
funded

or
will compromise
falter, founder
splinter

like
the chaos
that preceded
creation

when
with beginnings
God created
us?

 



What endures

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The view from inside my sukkah.

Sitting in my sukkah this year, I've been thinking a lot about what endures. That might seem counterintuitive: after all, a sukkah is the opposite of that. It's temporary structure. Its roof is made from organic matter, casting some shade but also letting in the raindrops and the light of the full harvest moon. A sukkah begins falling apart almost as soon as it is built. And yet...

And yet the sukkah will be rebuilt, next year. And the year after. The practice is perennial. When I sit in my sukkah on my mirpesset, drinking coffee and lifting my etrog to my face to inhale its scent, I remember every year I have ever sat in a sukkah. I think of generations before me who built sukkot. I imagine the generations after me who will do the same.

I like to imagine our descendants figuring out how to observe Sukkot in the stars someday, in the science-fiction future where we emigrate to other planets. What would it be like to build a sukkah on the decks of a starship? To build a sukkah on another planet? How will our relationship to our ancient stories and practices shift in those imagined future generations?  

Closer to home, and far more sobering, is the question of how Judaism will adapt to our changing planet as the climate crisis intensifies. How will our practices shift as our planet warms? Sukkot reminds us of the impermanence of our structures, metaphysically and spiritually, but how could I say that to those who have lost their homes to wildfire and hurricane? 

One morning in the sukkah this year our conversation veered into American politics.  I used to believe that the structures of democracy would protect us from demagogues. I thought it was generally accepted that government's function is to serve everyone, to protect the vulnerable, to ensure and uphold human rights and dignity. That structure feels fragile now.

The American experiment is only a few centuries old -- an eyeblink in the span of human history. It may prove to be temporary. Some argue that it's already over, that our constitutional crisis is already here and democracy as we have known it is already falling to gerrymandering, insurrection, cult of personality, and the terrible persistence of the Big Lie.

I think of the later stories in Ursula K. Le Guin's Orsinian tales, where her fictional European country has become an Eastern Bloc nation. In those stories the government can't be trusted. Privations are the norm. And yet people continue to live and love, even when multiple families share a single apartment, even under surveillance. Isn't that what human beings do?

And that brings me back to the sukkah. Jews have built sukkot in all kinds of circumstances, in all kinds of places, under all kinds of regimes. (We celebrated Sukkot during World War I. We celebrated Sukkot in the Warsaw Ghetto...) Each individual sukkah is temporary and fragile, but the practice endures. The mitzvot, both spiritual and ethical, endure. And so do we.

Last year my Yom Kippur sermon was about our obligation to take care of each other. Whether or not the world is falling down around our ears, our task is to protect the vulnerable, to give aid to those in need, to help each other hope, to build a better world. To feed the hungry. To find housing for the homeless. To raise the next generation to be ethical and kind...

Love endures. Hope endures, even though we have to help each other cultivate it. Our obligations to each other endure -- some even say, from one lifetime to the next. Our spiritual practices endure, no matter what the future holds. And right now, the leaves on the roof of my sukkah are rustling, and I know that Sukkot will come again: the cycles of time endure. 


What I wrote to my community today

It is rare to know that we are living through a moment of genuine historical significance. To recognize that something unfolding around us will be chronicled in books as a turning point of some kind, though we can’t yet know where this turn will lead. But here we are. We will not soon forget the sight of an angry mob, incited by falsehoods, storming the nation’s Capitol.

When Congress re-convened last night, Senator Chuck Schumer spoke about the desecration of our temple of democracy. His use of that metaphor evoked our Chanukah story about our holy temple, first desecrated and then rededicated for sacred use. And I remembered again Chanukah’s message of light in the darkness, and the steadfast hope that can carry us through. 

I know that many of us are feeling stunned, horrified, and even frightened by what just happened in Washington DC. If that’s you, know that you are not alone. Know, also, that I am holding each member of our extended community in my prayers and in my heart, and that I am here to listen if you need an ear and to pray with you if that would bring you comfort.

When the dust clears, our task will be the same as it ever was. As Representative John Lewis z”l (of blessed memory) taught, democracy is not a state, it’s an act — an action, a choice, something we do. That teaching feels very Jewish to me. After all, Torah exhorts us to care for the vulnerable, to love the stranger, and to pursue justice: all actions, all things that we do

Democracy is an action. Love is an action. Justice is an action. Standing up for truth is an action. Building community is an action. These are our work, now as ever. This moment invites all of us to recommit ourselves to those holy tasks. And it invites us to create and strengthen our community by reaching out to each other in these uncertain and overwhelming times. 

One thing we don’t have to do is stay glued to 24/7 news coverage. Please take care of yourself. I recommend sticking with trusted media sources and giving yourself permission to turn away if the news is causing harmful anxiety. What happened yesterday is horrifying… and we are safe here, and I hope and pray that our democracy will emerge from this stronger than ever.

May the coming Shabbat bring nourishment to our souls and balm to our weary hearts. May we take comfort in our connections with each other. And may we be inspired to work toward healing for our precious democracy, so that our nation may continue to grow toward the promises inherent in its founding, promises of human dignity and justice for all.


Quiet

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Twigs in December.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Surge capacity and old wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


Every righteous person matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


Prayer for Our Country

 

O God and God of our ancestors

receive our prayer for this land that we love.

Pour out Your blessing on this nation and its government.

 

Give those who serve our country

appreciation for the Torah's principles of justice and peace.

Help them to see Your face in every constituent.

 

Cultivate in them, and in us,

awareness that we are all one family

obligated to care for each other with compassion.

 

Banish hatred from our hearts

and from the hearts of our elected officials.

Help us to make this country a light unto the nations.

 

May it be Your will

our God and God of our generations

that this nation be a blessing to all who dwell on earth.

 

Help us to enact the words of Your prophet:

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.

Neither shall they learn war anymore."  And let us say: Amen.

 

 

I wrote this for the Days of Awe machzor several years ago. I'm re-sharing it again today, in hope.


Be gentle with you, and cultivate hope

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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.

 


Enough

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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.