Wrestle and stretch

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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

Direct Sowing-Starting Seeds Outdoors

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.


If you're feeling afraid

If you are feeling anxious and afraid in the wake of the news that the president is going to declare Jews a "nationality," you are not alone. That move comes frighteningly close to declaring that we Jews are therefore not American. And that prospect raises very deep fears, some of them rooted in the horrors of what was done to us in the 20th century in Europe. If you're feeling those fears today, you're not alone.

"All the world is a very narrow bridge," said Reb Nachman. "The important thing is to not make oneself afraid." Let us not make ourselves afraid. Let us resist the impulse to marinate in our fear and give strength to our fear. Let us instead feel the fear, acknowledge it, name it, and then send it on its way. We are Americans. Let us work together with our fellow Americans to ensure not only our own safety but the safety of everyone who is marginalized and mistreated for being who they are.


Rosh Hashanah: Come, Whoever You Are

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In 1939, my mother, of blessed memory, emigrated to the United States on the SS President Harding. She was three years old. She and her family made it out because her father, my grandfather, had an American birth certificate. He was born in New York in 1908 to Russian parents who returned to Europe when he was a baby. He and his wife and child fled Prague in 1939. I don't need to tell you what became of those who remained behind.

Also in 1939, a ship called the MS St. Louis -- carrying 900 Jewish refugees, many of them children -- attempted to seek refuge on these shores. They were denied entry and had to turn back. Some committed suicide rather than face concentration camps or death camps.

That same year, Congress rejected a bill that would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children to be rescued from the Holocaust. The bill's opponents took an "America First" approach to immigration, arguing that America should care for "our own" rather than serving as a safe haven for outsiders. The President's own cousin testified that "20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults." US immigration policy at the time had strict quotas. A senator -- who would later become one of the nation's leading segregationists -- amended the bill so that the 20,000 refugee children would count against the quota of Germans allowed to enter the country. As he intended, that killed the bill.

Seven weeks ago, at Tisha b'Av, we heard the haunting words of Lamentations, the scroll of the Hebrew scriptures that describes the destruction of Jerusalem and our people becoming refugees in 586 BCE. We heard it interspersed with some contemporary lamentations: "We are kept in a cage. It is very crowded. There is no room to move... We have to sleep on the cold, concrete floor. The lights are on all the time... My sisters keep asking me, 'when will mommy come get us?' I don't know what to tell them."

As of now there are countless migrants and refugees in custody at our nation's southern border. (I literally couldn't find out how many.) At least 2,654 children have been separated from their parents (at last count). Migrant testimonies describe heart-rending realities: children weeping for their parents, use of the hielera (icebox) as a punishment, inedible food, lack of adequate sanitation. A pediatrician who visited the border camps decried the inhumane and unlivable conditions as "comparable to torture facilities."

This is not okay. It shouldn't be okay with anyone. And it especially shouldn't be okay with us. 

Not just because within living memory, Jews were denied entry into the United States, and were sent back to the hellish persecutions from which we were trying to flee, and suffered horrendously, and died. (Though all of that is true.) But because our nation's current immigration policies and response to refugees, especially as unfolding on our southern borders, are profoundly counter to Jewish values.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. It's a human right, guaranteed by international law -- law that was written partially in response to the Jewish experience in the Shoah. And yet, today's migrants and asylum-seekers on the southern border are treated like criminals.

Meanwhile, those seeking to enter via means other than the southern border are also being turned away in numbers that are unprecedented in recent history. The United States has drastically reduced the number of refugees we accept each year. In 1980 we took in 200,000 refugees. The average in the last decade had been 70,000 a year. Last year, the number of refugees allowed into the United States was only 30,000. And now the cap has been cut to 18,000, a shameful historic low.

It's easy to think that this doesn't impact us directly. After all, we're not refugees. But the national climate impacts everyone -- whether it's a climate of welcome, or one of closed doors. And to say "hey, our people made it out of a burning building, it's not our problem if someone else's home is on fire" is inhuman. That is the opposite of Jewish values.

Besides: the same language being used to target refugees and asylum seekers is also used to target us. Last month, the El Paso shooter released a manifesto that said, “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” That word invasion reminded me of the manifesto released by the shooter at Chabad of Poway in April, which said that Jews are "invading" this nation, and that it was his white nationalist Christian obligation to kill us on sight. The shooter in Pittsburgh last November also accused Jews of being "invaders." 

This is the hateful language of white supremacy. White supremacists see immigrants and refugees and people of color as "invaders" taking jobs and homes and resources that are rightfully theirs... and they see Jews the same way, regardless of the color of our skin.

And all of this brings echoes of something we've heard before. Maybe you're thinking of Nazi rhetoric and propaganda that spoke of Jews as invaders and vermin infesting the Fatherland. But this is far older than the 20th century.

In Torah we find this language in Pharaoh's mouth. Pharaoh describes the children of Israel as vermin, overrunning Egypt, a danger to his land. Our ancestors had come into Egypt as starving refugees escaping famine. Maybe you remember that story. It began with Joseph being sold into slavery. Through a long and twisting series of events he wound up as Pharaoh's chief vizier, helping him prepare for a time of famine. And when the famine came, Joseph's family went down into Egypt as migrants, as refugees. But then a new Pharaoh arose who saw us as an infestation. He ordered the wholesale slaughter of our sons, and then he ordered us enslaved.

Speaking of any human being as though they were part of an infestation is antithetical to Jewish values.  Torah teaches that every human being is made in the image of the Divine, period. And speaking of migrants and refugees in this manner is even more antithetical to Jewish values. That's the dehumanizing rhetoric of Pharaoh, who said the children of Israel "swarmed" like vermin.  Pharaoh is Torah's exemplar of evil, craven power gone awry. Pharaoh is exactly what we don't want our leaders to be.

Meanwhile, the commandment most often repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Torah says this thirty-six times. Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Love the stranger. Love the stranger.

Maybe Torah says this over and over because it's a difficult commandment for human beings to follow. It can be hard to love someone who's not like us. To love people who don't look like us, or dress like us, or talk like us, or pray like us? To welcome people who are fleeing trauma and seeking safety and a better life, when we might fear there won't be enough jobs or resources here for us? Sometimes that's a tough ask.

But that's exactly what Torah demands. Torah demands the spiritual practice of loving the stranger, the Other, the one who is Not Like Us. Torah demands the spiritual practice of protecting the welfare of the widow and the orphan and the refugee. In the Biblical paradigm, those were the people who were most vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse. Maybe today those who are most powerless are the migrant, the transgender person, the person of color... and, still, the refugee. That one hasn't changed.

What our nation faces today is not new. It did not arise overnight. And the fact that I wasn't this horrified about it five years ago is in part because it's genuinely gotten worse, and in part a testament to the rose-colored glasses through which I used to see our country.

Racism and xenophobia have been part of the United States for as long as there has been a United States. Tragically, our nation has a history of mistreatment of non-white peoples. It began with violence against the Native inhabitants of this land. It continued with centuries of human chattel slavery, which literally regarded Black people as subhuman. And then there were laws restricting immigration. And rhetoric painting communities that were not white or not Christian as un-American and antithetical to American values. And all kinds of legal discrimination, including laws aimed at keeping certain kinds of people out: Chinese people, or Irish people, or Jewish people.

Discrimination has often been the law of the land. It was legal to own slaves. It was legal to turn back the MS St. Louis, sending Jewish children back to the inferno. It was legal to keep non-white immigrants out. These things were legal, but they were never right.

It's tempting to say "this isn't America." No: this is America, or part of it, anyway. But it doesn't have to be. We can make our nation better than this.

At my mother's funeral, the pianist played three songs that she had requested. One was "Taps," in honor of the bugler that she married. The other two were "Jerusalem of Gold," because she loved Israel and the promise it represented, and "America the Beautiful," in appreciation for this nation that welcomed her when she fled Europe in 1939.

I grew up on the Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant story of America as the goldene medina, where we can be full citizens, where we can be who we are without fear. I still cherish that dream. I cherish the dream of this nation made stronger by its diversities. I cherish the dream of the United States as a beacon to the world, a place where human rights are upheld and uplifted. I cherish the promise that Emma Lazarus evoked when she wrote, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!"

Some have said that "give me your tired, your poor" should be amended to indicate that we only want wealthy immigrants, or perhaps white immigrants. I believe that statement is profoundly counter to Jewish values, and it betrays the core of what I understand the American promise to be.

Our theme for the Days of Awe at CBI this year is "Come, come, whoever you are." Of course this is a spiritual teaching. Whoever we are, no matter what our relationship with Judaism or with God, we are welcome at CBI now and always, and the covenant of Jewish life and practice is open to us now and always. 

And of course "Come, whoever you are" is also political. Not partisan, taking one side or the other, "red" or "blue." Political means "having to do with the polis," the community. To say "come, whoever you are" is to say "the doors of our community are open because we seek to embody the Torah's imperative to love the stranger."

Our theme this year is a reminder of Torah's repeated refrain of welcome. Torah demands that we love the stranger for we were strangers in the Land of Egypt.  Torah reminds us that we know the heart of the migrant and the refugee, because that's been us, that's been the Jewish people time and again.

But we say "come, whoever you are" not only because our people's story has been one of migration and refugee status over and over for thousands of years. We welcome the stranger because that's the moral and ethical compact that Judaism asks of us.

And that means we have a moral and ethical obligation to grapple with our nation's civic life today. It's not my job to tell you which politicians are best-suited to uphold Jewish values. You should do your own research and reach your own conclusions on that. But it is my job to tell you what Jewish values are.

Jewish values tell us to love the stranger. Jewish values tell us to protect the immigrant and the refugee and all who are vulnerable. Jewish values tell us that every human being is made in the image of God and that our diversity is part of God's creation.

Jewish values call us not to separate ourselves from community, not to turn away from our nation's challenges. Talmud teaches, “When the community is suffering, one must not say, ‘I'll go into my home and eat and drink and be at peace.’” (Taanit 11a)

Jewish values call us to seek justice and pursue it. Jewish values call us to embody an existential welcome, like the patriarch Abraham, famous for his tent that was open on all sides. May our Judaism live out that promise, now and always.

 

Come, come, whoever you are

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving

Come, come, whoever you are

Ours isn't a caravan of despair.

 

It doesn't matter if you've broken your vows

A thousand times before: and yet again,

Come again, come, and yet again...

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.

 

מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים

אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב - בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב ...

 

This is my sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Being a woman in America

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"These are not great times to be a woman in America," wrote Jennifer Wright in Harper's Bazaar. "At least, not if you are a woman who believes your body is your own." (She wrote those words two years ago. Now is worse.) Most of the women I know live daily with disbelief, anger, anxiety, fear, hopelessness, numbness -- all symptoms of trauma, as it turns out.

It is painful and exhausting to be a woman in America today. Many women, of course, would say that it has always been painful and exhausting to be a woman in America. Women of color, visibly queer women, trans women, immigrant women. The fact that I thought this was a pretty safe place until a few years ago is a sign of how lucky I've been, how good I've always had it. 

It is also painful and exhausting to be a Jew in America today. This week, as it happens, I feel more anxiety about being a woman than about being Jewish. (I'm sure the next synagogue shooting will change that.) Women in America today can't help marinating in a bath of (others') misogyny and (our own) fear. I worry about what that does to our hearts and souls.

I don't often write here about politics, or out of a place of my own anger. Focusing on values and spiritual life is my lifeline. It's part of what keeps me whole. But the worse matters get, the more I fear that my silence is complicity -- and that it's spiritually damaging. I'm hoping that speaking these truths will help me, and maybe others, to work harder toward change. 

In 2016 this nation elected, to the highest office in the land, a man who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. He proclaimed that when you're a star you can do anything you want. His opponent was smart, tough, experienced... and a woman. You know all of this already. We all know this. The morning after the election, many of us felt like we'd been punched.

Many of us felt, that next morning, as though there had been a referendum on our gender and we had lost. Too many people apparently feel threatened by successful women. They would rather vote for someone with no governance experience (not to mention, someone whose casual misogyny is staggering) than for a woman who has proven herself to be competent.

The Kavanaugh hearings were excruciating for many women, including me. Once again the takeaway was that men's comfort matters more than our safety. Their misbehavior is irrelevant. Women brave enough to admit being victims of sexual misconduct will be mocked, hounded, and threatened with death. Men credibly accused of such misconduct will rise to power.

Today's news is full of abortion bans and draconian heartbeat laws. (Here's where such measures have been passed so far; I suspect the list will grow.) This news shows me that women's bodily integrity, our very personhood, is increasingly at-risk. Men who apparently don't understand the first thing about female biology are legislating away our right to healthcare.

They blithely criminalize miscarriage, already an emotionally excruciating experience for a woman who is trying to conceive. Meanwhile, poor women and women of color will bear the brunt of this new legislation. Those who are poorest -- disproportionately women of color -- are likeliest to be jailed for miscarriage... or to be harmed by "back-alley" abortions.

In privileging the "rights" of the fetus over the rights of the mother, these laws assert that women don't deserve bodily integrity or autonomy. It's as though in this Christian supremacist worldview, women aren't people: we're fetus incubators who shouldn't have the right to make decisions about our own bodies. I don't have adequate words for how dehumanizing that is.

These laws derive from a very particular brand of Christian theology, which in turn makes a set of very particular assumptions about when life begins (conception). But the laws are not only being made for women who share that theology. They're being made for everyone. This is Christian hegemony, and its disregard for religious pluralism is deeply frightening. 

Judaism has an entirely different view than that evangelical Christian one. By and large, mainstream Jewish legal thinking privileges the health of the mother over the fetus. Our legal tradition argues that life begins at birth, with the first breath -- not at conception. The health of the mother, not the fetus, is paramount. Abortion is permitted, even necessary sometimes. 

But lawmakers in Alabama, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio (so far) don't care about that. They don't care about the fact that not all Americans are Christian, or that they're legislating their theology onto the bodies of people who don't necessarily share it. And that scares me both as a woman and as a Jew. That feels like we're falling down the slippery slope toward Christian theocracy.

It is painful and exhausting to be a woman in America today. And I know I have it easy, comparatively speaking. I'm white, which means I'm not navigating the constant barrage of micro- and macro-aggressions that come with being a person of color. I'm not an immigrant or a refugee. I'm not transgender. I'm not in danger of having my child stripped of citizenship

I'm just a woman. Living, as most of us do these days, with anxiety and fear. Surfing the toxic waves of constant debate about whether or not I deserve healthcare or the right to make decisions about my own body. And facing the reality that for many of the white (mostly male) Christians in positions of power in this country today, the answer to those questions is no.

So what am I going to do? Tomorrow night, thank God, Shabbat arrives. I will aim to set this anguish and grief aside, and to live for one day in the "as-if" -- as if the world were already redeemed; as if people weren't trying to strip women of our rights. And then when the new week begins, I will do what I can to protect all who are vulnerable, and to work toward a better world. 

 

Related: What You Can Do To Help Women in States With Extreme Abortion Bans, at The Cut.

Image by durantelallera [source].


As Cheshvan draws toward its close

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It's the day after the midterm elections. It feels a little bit like the day after all of the fall holidays are complete. 

I always come out of the high holiday season feeling some combination of exhilarated and grateful, and exhausted and tapped-out. Many rabbis I know joke that our favorite month is Cheshvan, the empty month that follows the intense round of festivals. We need the downtime (both practical and spiritual) after the Days of Awe, which can feel high-stakes both spiritually (it's arguably the most spiritually intensive season of our year) and practically (because many of us who serve bricks-and-mortar congregations rely on this season for the donations that allow us to keep our doors open and to continue to serve.)

But this year, Cheshvan has not offered the respite I yearn for. This year Cheshvan has included horrific antisemitic attacks, from pipe bombs and their accompanying antisemitic dogwhistles to the horrific Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. And Cheshvan has also included the tense and intense ramp-up to the midterm elections. Yesterday I saw someone observe on Twitter that it felt like the entire nation was waiting for the results of a biopsy. That feels apt to me. And as anyone who's ever anxiously waited for test results knows, that immersion in anxiety is the opposite of restorative or restful. 

Now at least the waiting for results is over. If the "patient" in question is our democracy, last night I think we learned that the prognosis isn't as bad as some of us had feared. Indeed there are many reasons to feel hope, including unprecedented voter turnout, the preservation of trans rights in my own home state, the election of many remarkable progressive women of color to Congress, and many "firsts" that are worth celebrating, like the first Muslim American women in Congress, and the first Native American women in Congress, and the first openly gay governor in the nation. 

And we also learned that we still have an awful lot of work to do before this patient can be declared healthy again. Voter disenfranchisement was rampant, perhaps most notably in Georgia. Nazi sympathizers have been re-elected to serve in our nation's government. Ugly anti-immigrant rhetoric seems to be working in some quarters, and that reality is deeply upsetting.

How do we balance our hope and our fear? How do we celebrate the very real accomplishments achieved by the tireless work of countless volunteers, while acknowledging how far we have to go before our nation is the bastion of welcome and diversity that we aspire to be? At the same time that I'm asking that national question, I'm also grappling with this jewish one: how do we celebrate the very real embrace of our non-Jewish friends and neighbors during this time of trauma, while acknowledging how far we have to go before antisemitism and white supremacy and white nationalism are a thing of the past?

I think again of the story of R' Simcha Bunim and his two slips of paper: "for my sake was the world created" and "I am but dust and ashes." The work of authentic spiritual life is learning how to hold these two truths simultaneously. Learning how to cultivate real gratitude and joy without falling prey to the danger of spiritual bypassing. Learning how to feel real grief and fear without falling prey to the danger of despair. How to feel these two opposites without blurring them into an amorphous middle that partakes neither in the grief of knowing how far we have to go nor in the joy of recognizing how far we've come.

I've seen many wise people point out that our work today is the same as our work every day: repairing the broken world. Being a light in the darkness. Working tirelessly to combat injustice and bigotry. That's our job as human beings and as Jews. It was our job before the midterm elections, and it is our job after the midterm elections. I agree with that wholeheartedly. And -- the month of Cheshvan is my annual reminder that we also need to give ourselves time to rest, and time to feel our feelings, especially in the aftermath of something that's taken up so much of our time, energy, attention, anxiety, and hope.

The work of rebuilding our nation into a place of liberty and justice for all isn't over. Yesterday was a big day, and today we may be feeling tapped-out. It's okay to take some time to decompress and to just be. And when we can muster the strength to begin again, it's our job to start working again at redeeming our broken world and our broken society. True on a national level, true on an individual spiritual level. The work of authentic spiritual life isn't over, either. It's okay to feel tapped-out right now. And when we can muster the strength to begin again, it's our job to once again take up the inner work of teshuvah.

The work isn't over. The world isn't yet redeemed. But we can pause to take stock of what we've accomplished, and we can allow ourselves space to feel both our anxieties about the path ahead and our exultation at every newly-rekindled spark of hope.  For now, it's the end of Cheshvan. It's the end of an election cycle. Here where I live most of the leaves have fallen. It's too soon to know what they will mulch and fertilize in months to come. For now, maybe it's time to embrace the feeling of going fallow, and to trust that in time with the work of our hands and hearts new growth will come.


On embracing the globe

The president has been ranting about globalists. I did some research into why the "globalist" label is considered anti-semitic, and what it means to be a globalist, anyway. And then I wrote an essay for the Forward, and here's a taste:

 

...The connection between globalists and Jews is, in part, the old anti-Semitic smear that Jews are not truly loyal citizens of any nation. Hitler described Jews as “international elements” that “conduct their business everywhere,” thus harming and undermining good people who are “bound to their soil, to the Fatherland.” Use of globalist as a negative term can be a dog whistle for the far right: those who recognize its roots in Hitler’s philosophy recognize that it’s an encoded way of denigrating Jews.

Some people speak interchangeably of globalism and cosmopolitanism. I absolutely identify as a cosmopolitan — someone who aspires to be a citizen of the wide world, with an awareness that in an interconnected community, we have ethical obligations even to people who live differently than we do... So does that mean I’m a globalist, too?...

 

(Spoiler: yes. Yes, I am, and proudly so -- and I believe that Judaism demands no less, and I wouldn't want to be otherwise.)

Read more in the Forward: Yes, Ranting Against Globalism Is Anti-Semitic.


On taking action and turning inward

Last night I made the mistake of checking Twitter before bed, and saw tweets from the president and from his lawyer blaming George Soros for ostensibly paying people to protest the Kavanaugh nomination. The tweets suggested that Soros is evil and should be jailed. (I'm not going to link to them; I don't want to give them the attention.)

The claim that Soros pays protestors is ugly falsehood and it has its roots in one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards about global Jewish conspiracy. I expect that all of you who are reading this blog already know that. I don't need to preach to this choir on that front. 

But maybe you, like me, are having a panic response to news like this. Intellectually I know that I am safe, that my child is safe, that most of the people I love are safe. But like most Jews of my generation, I grew up on stories of the Holocaust. And when ugly anti-Semitic rhetoric is parroted by the president and by his lawyer, I feel a paralyzing fear in my kishkes, in my gut and in my heart.

I suspect that many of us are feeling that fear. The casual dehumanizing of Jews and Muslims and immigrants and people of color and women that we see in the news and splashed across social media is horrifying. And many Jews carry the accumulated baggage of generations of trauma, including the horrors of the Holocaust, and seeing this stuff in the news and on social media can activate that trauma in us. That's why I'm writing this post. I have four suggestions to offer for how to navigate these difficult times. If you have others, please share them in comments.

1. Take care of yourselves and each other

Take care of yourselves, friends, and take care of each other. Give yourself permission to turn away from social media when you need to, because marinating in a constant bath of outrage and anxiety can do harm. If Twitter and Facebook are raising your anxiety and stoking your fear, it's okay to stop reading them for a while. 

If you have the capacity to reach out to others to see how they're doing, do that -- doing so can help both the person who's reaching out, and the person receiving the outreach. (For more wisdom along these lines, here's an excellent piece by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on self-care tips for those angered and activated at this moment in time.)

2. Reach out to someone who can help

If you have a therapist or spiritual director, bring the anxiety and fear to them. (If you don't, now might be a good time to find one.) Don't sit with the fear alone -- it's all too easy for fear to consume us when we grapple with it alone. Tell a friend or family member. If you have no one at all to whom you can speak about what you're going through, reach out to the crisis text line.

3. Speak out, when you can - especially when you yourself are not a target

Many of us are oscillating between times when we have the capacity to speak out against injustice, and times when we are activated / hurt / grieving and need others to speak out on our behalf. That night when I was activated by antisemitism, I found comfort in tweets from people who are not Jewish and yet were willing to stand up and say clearly that antisemitism is wrong and they won't stand for it. Like these:

Seeing their tweets (and others like them) brought me to tears of gratitude that someone who is not directly harmed by this particular wave of ugliness was willing to stand with us against it. And that reminds me that I need to be an upstander and do the same when ugliness is directed toward groups of which I am not a part, whether Muslims or immigrants or people of color.

4. Take action when you can - and turn inward when you need to

Sometimes taking action to build a better world can be balm for our aching hearts. We can donate to a candidate who inspires us or to a nonprofit that does work we find redemptive, or write an op-ed, or be a good ally and upstander on social media, or take groceries to a food pantry. And sometimes we're too activated by the news cycle even to do those things, and need to focus instead on regaining equilibrium. Each of us will know best when we're up to taking action, and when we need to focus inward and heal.

*

The work of repairing our badly broken nation is not a sprint, it's a marathon. Or, to borrow a metaphor from Rabbi Danya, it's a relay race -- where we take turns handing off the baton to each other, so that when any one of us is unable to keep going, the work of moving forward continues. When we have the strength to keep going, it's incumbent on us to do so... and when we need to stop and rest and heal, may we find comfort in knowing that others are carrying the flame of justice and hope forward in our stead. 

 


A vision of better: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning 5779

Better

There's a meme going around the internet -- maybe you've seen it -- that says, "if you want to know what you would have done during the Civil Rights movement, you're doing it now." 

I'm too young to remember Black people being harrassed and beaten for sitting at a lunch counter, or the Freedom Riders risking their lives by riding interstate buses into the segregated south. 

But in the last few months we've seen migrant children ripped from their parents and imprisoned in cages, and some of their parents have been deported with no apparent plan for reuniting the families thus destroyed. There's a referendum on our ballot in Massachusetts this November that would strip rights from transgender people. There's mounting fear that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. We've seen attacks on the freedom of the press, widespread attempts at voter suppression, and actual Nazis running for Congress.

If I want to know what I would have done during the Civil Rights movement, I'm doing it now. So what am I doing now? Too often the answer is "nothing" -- I'm overwhelmed by the barrage of bad news. Many of you have told me you feel the same way, paralyzed by what feel like assaults on liberty, justice, and even hope.  So much is broken: it's overwhelming.

So much is broken. It's overwhelming. There's no denying that.

But one of the dangers of overwhelm is that we become inured to what we see. It becomes the status quo. Police violence against people of color, business as usual. Islamophobia and antisemitism, business as usual. Discrimination against trans and queer people, refugee children torn from their parents, xenophobic rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of government: business as usual. It's so easy to shrug and say, that's the new normal. And it's easy to turn away, because who wants to look with clear eyes at a world so filled with injustice?

Many of you have heard me quote the poet Jason Shinder z"l, with whom I worked at Bennington when I was getting my MFA. He used to say, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." If the overwhelm of today's news cycle is getting in the way of the spiritual work we need to do, then it becomes the doorway into that spiritual work.

Because the real question is, what are we going to do about it? How does this season of the Jewish year invite us to work with this overwhelm?

Continue reading "A vision of better: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning 5779" »


Cultivating hope

That's a tweet from Representative John Lewis. (If somehow you don't know his story, I recommend the graphic novel trilogy March, which he co-wrote with Andrew Aydin and is illustrated by Nate Powell -- it brings the Civil Rights struggle to life.)

Many of us are reeling this week at the Supreme Court's upholding of Trump's horrendous and unethical #MuslimBan, followed by the news that Justice Kennedy is retiring. I'm hearing a lot of grief and fear and despair. (I too am feeling those things.)

I have two suggestions to offer. 

The first is: take care of yourself. There is no merit badge for enduring anxiety and panic. If you have a spiritual practice, strengthen it. If you don't have one, consider taking one up. The work at hand is immense, and our overwhelm helps no one. 

The second is: once your head is above water, find something you can do. If you have funds, donate. If you have time, volunteer. Register people to vote. Make phone calls to voters who might make a difference. And above all, do not lose hope.

I know that may sound naïve. But hope is not a luxury: it's a necessity. Without hope, life loses its brightness and despair settles in. Hope is quintessential to Jewish spiritual life, and I suspect that's true not just in my own tradition but across the board.

Raymond Williams wrote, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.” (I learned that from a talk called Applied Hope, in 2016.) Here's a thread I read on Twitter this morning that gave me a bit of hope to cling to:

I take heart from that reminder. The Supreme Court's rulings should be expressions of real justice, but there have been times in our history before when SCOTUS has ruled unjustly. With hard work and persistence we can move toward justice anyway.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg tweeted recently "This is a relay, not a marathon." If you can carry the baton forward, then do so. If you can't, then take a break: have a Shabbes, turn off the news, spend time with a friend, whatever replenishes your well.

And then tag in and pick up a baton again when you can. The work of repairing the world is infinite; it will always be there for you to return to. When you feel depleted, pause and recharge so that you can rejoin the relay strengthened and full of holy fire.

Above all, do whatever you can to maintain hope in the better world you want to see. Dream it, so that you can work toward it. We may not see a nation (a world!) of compassion and justice in our lifetime, but we need to do everything we can to build it.


#FamiliesBelongTogether, and what we can do

This is the note I wrote to send to my synagogue community this week. I'm sharing it here in case it also speaks to those who are not part of my local community but are part of my broader online community.

Many of you who have spoken with me this week have described your despair at current policy of stripping children from parents in order to deter immigration. You've spoken to me about your shock and heartbreak, about the emotional and spiritual impact of that news recording of children crying out for parents they may never see again, about the known traumatic impacts of separating young children from their caregivers.

Recent public discourse has included the suggestion that immigrants are "infesting" our country -- language which should deeply trouble us as Jews: it's the language the Nazi party used to justify what we now know as the Holocaust, and it's also the language Pharaoh used in Torah to describe our spiritual ancestors before setting the enslavement of the Israelites in motion. I know that many of you are troubled by this language too.

Like many of you, I am descended from immigrants who came here seeking asylum from state-sponsored persecution, which gives me an extra sense of connection with today's refugees. Like many of you, I have been gutted to imagine what those children are going through -- and to imagine the anguish their parents now face. Like many of you, I have felt sometimes paralyzed by the enormity of the injustice currently on display.

I am writing to you today to urge you not to give in to that paralysis or to its psycho-spiritual sibling despair. The need is too great. The work of creating a more just world is work in which all of us are obligated as human beings and as Jews. The call to "love the stranger, for [we] were strangers in the land of Egypt" is repeated in Torah no fewer than 36 times. Separating parents from children is the very opposite of showing love.

The ADL recently sent Jeff Sessions a letter, co-signed by 26 American Jewish organizations, arguing that taking children away from parents is unconscionable and that as Jews we understand the plight of immigrants fleeing danger and seeking asylum. On this, every branch of Judaism -- the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Reconstructing Judaism movement, and the Orthodox movement --- is in agreement. 

Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization that works toward creating a more just world, has established a petition declaring a state of moral emergency.  As of this writing, more than 14,000 people have signed it. Here's a secular petition as well. Signing a petition doesn't "do" much, but it can break the personal sense of powerlessness. Reaching out to elected officials is another small act that can begin to create change.

There is a custom of giving tzedakah before Shabbat in order to prime the pump for blessing to flow into the world over Shabbes and in the week to come. My tzedakah donation this week will go to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing immigrant families and refugees (including children) with affordable legal assistance.

Another possible place to direct your tzedakah this week is the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, which advocates for the safety and well-being of unaccompanied kids arriving in the United States. The organization recently announced a project specifically dedicated to helping children separated from their parents at the border. You can learn more about the program's efforts and how to donate here.

I believe that as human beings and as Jews we are called to speak and work and act against injustice wherever it arises. Separating parents from children is injustice. Please do what you can to encourage our government to end this inhumane policy now.

And please take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually as you work to better the world. For some of us that means taking a Shabbat respite from the news, or entering into spiritual practice to replenish our hearts and souls for the work to come. Creating a more just world is fundamental to who we are as Jews -- and it's work that calls us also to self-care, so that we can be here to keep doing the work in all the tomorrows to come.

Blessings to all --

Rabbi Rachel

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.