Wholeness, justice, and peace

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A d'varling for Pride Shabbat and Shabbat Korach.

 

In this week's Torah portion, Korach, there's a rebellion. Korach stands up against Moses and demands power. He cloaks his demand in words that sound nice -- aren't all God's people holy? -- but it becomes clear that he doesn't want to democratize spiritual power, he wants to claim it for himself and his sons. So, the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

Korach insists he deserves to be in leadership, but he really wants power. He doesn't want to be a public servant, he wants to be a bigshot. Torah offers us this fantasy: what if the earth swallowed the power-hungry? Imagine what a world we could build if all of the Korachs just disappeared! We can't rely on that. But maybe it can help us envision what ethical leadership really is.

God instructs Moses to take a staff from the leader of each of the 12 tribes and put them all in the Tent of Meeting overnight. In the morning, Aaron's almond-wood walking stick has flowered and borne fruit. With that, the rebellion is truly over. Everyone can see who God has chosen to be in spiritual service to God and to the community. The question for me is: why Aaron?

Pirkei Avot 1:12 says, "Be like the students of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing it." During homeschooling earlier this year, my son and I read some Pirkei Avot together. I asked him what he thinks the difference between those two things might be. "You can love something, but not do anything to make more of it," he said. "Pursuing it means running after it, trying to make it happen."

Tradition holds that Aaron pursued shalom (peace) and shleimut (wholeness). That's why his staff was blessed to flower: because he actively pursued shalom. But what is peace, really? It can sound kind of wishy-washy. It can sound like a band-aid we put over community divisions and injustices in order to ignore them. That's a false peace, a spiritual-bypassing peace. 

Shalom and shleimut don't mean the absence of war, and they don't mean that false peace, the band-aid that papers over injustice. They mean integrity, living in alignment with what's right. In Rabbi Brad Artson's words: "Shleimut, wholeness, means offering to the world the fullness of who you are at your best: your beauty as you are, your greatness as you are."

Reading those words this week, I was struck by how right they feel for Pride Shabbat. Coming out likewise means offering to the world the fullness of who one is. And as Rabbi Artson continues, shleimut also means inviting others to live out their truest selves too. When we stand in our truth and let our authentic selves shine, we give others permission to do likewise. 

Aaron pursued peace. That verb also appears in the verse, "Justice, justice shall you pursue." As my kid reminds me, pursuing means taking action. When we act for justice, we lay the groundwork for peace. Today's protestors say "No justice, no peace." I've also seen signs that say, "Know justice, know peace." When we know justice inside and out, then we'll know shleimut.

Justice means equal rights for everyone: for people of every gender expression and sexual orientation, people of every race and ethnicity. Justice means safe access to healthcare for everyone: including queer and trans people and people of color. Justice means equal treatment under the law for everyone: for queer and trans people, and for people of color, and for all of us. 

Justice means fundamental human rights and dignity for everyone, because we're all created in the image of God. These are core Jewish values. Our world doesn't quite live up to them yet. We still have a lot of work to do before everyone can safely know shleimut, the wholeness that comes from offering the world the fullness of who we are. That work is our calling as Jews.

Korach said we're all holy, but he really meant: I want more power for me and those who are like me. We can be better than that. We can build better than that. And when we do, then we won't need to fantasize anymore about the earth swallowing the power-hungry. And then structures that had seemed wooden and lifeless will flower and bear fruit. As Judy Chicago wrote in 1979:

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind

And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will

And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many

And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance

And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old

And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life's creatures

And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night, (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


In the cloud

Cloud"When the cloud lifted, they would break camp..." (Numbers 9:21)

This week's Torah portion, B'ha'a'lotkha, describes, again, how the children of Israel would stay put when the cloud of God lingered over their encampment, and when the cloud lifted they would break camp and resume their journeys. Wait, didn't we read this back in March? (Indeed we did: the end of the book of Exodus contains strikingly similar language.)

This repeated motif -- the cloud, the journey, the waiting -- gives a sense of timeless time. (A bit like what many of us have been feeling in recent months, unmoored from regular schedules.) When the cloud is here, we're fogged-in. Is it March, or is it June? Is it then, or is it now? When will we be able to start moving again? How long are we going to be waiting like this?

Am I talking about the Israelites on their journey, or about us in the midst of turmoil and pandemic?

The image of the cloud makes me think of "the cloud of unknowing." (That's the title of an anonymous work of Christian mysticism, written in the fourteenth century.) The author of the Cloud of Unknowing argues that the way to know God is to give up on trying to understand. It's in surrender to not-knowing that we meet the Infinite.

In our moment, we need to surrender to a lot of not-knowing. We don't know when the pandemic will be over. Whether we were exposed to the virus on that most recent trip to the grocery store. Whether the Black Lives Matter protests will result in the kind of sustained, systemic change that our nation so sorely needs. There's so much that we don't know.

The haftarah portion assigned to this week is also assigned to Shabbat Chanukah, probably because this week's Torah portion speaks of the golden menorah that stood in the mishkan. It's from the book of Zechariah. And here's its most famous line. In Debbie Friedman's singable translation, it's "Not by might, and not by power, but by Spirit alone shall we all live in peace!"

Not by might, and not by power. That feels like a message for our times, both on a macro scale and on a personal one. How do we reach wholeness and peace? Not by grasping for control or imagining that we're in charge. Not with military might in any of its forms. Not by pretending the pandemic away or pretending systemic racism away. Not with platitudes or false certainty.

The path to shalom and shleimut, wholeness and peace, is through spirit. And this week's Torah portion offers a road map. We get there by recognizing that all of life is spiritual life -- both the times of waiting and the times of action. Times when the cloud is low over the camp and we have to shelter-in-place, and times when the cloud lifts and we can be on the move. 

We get to wholeness and peace both by pursuing justice with all that we are, and by surrendering to everything we can't know about how we're going to get there from here. It's not an either/or: it's a both/and. If we wait until we feel fully ready we might never act at all, and, if we imagine we know all the answers we're guaranteed to be wrong. We need humility and chutzpah.

"Not by might and not by power, but by spirit." The Hebrew word for "spirit" here, ruach, can also be translated as breath. I find a message in that for our current moment too. We reach wholeness not through pursuing power, but through ensuring that everyone can breathe freely. When all of God's children can breathe, that's wholeness and peace. 

Eric Garner's last words were "I can't breathe." George Floyd's last words were "I can't breathe." Racism, like coronavirus, steals the breath. Just this morning we sang nishmat kol chai -- "Breath of Life, the breath of all that lives praises Your name." We name God as the Breath of Life. When a human breath is diminished, it's as though God were diminished. 

We don't know when the cloud will lift -- when justice will roll like thunder and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24) We don't know when the cloud will lift -- when the pandemic will end and it will be safe to return to the world again. We only know that right now, we're in the cloud. It's hard to see how we get there from here. But that doesn't exempt us from trying.

Our task is to protect ourselves and each other during these pandemic times. To end racism in all its forms. To cultivate the chutzpah of believing we can make the world a better place alongside the humility of knowing that we don't have all the answers. When the cloud lifts, we move forward. When the cloud doesn't lift, we do what we can to build justice right here where we are.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my synagogue's Zoom services this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 


A first visit to Cuba (the whole essay)

1. What do I know?

How on earth can I write, as an outsider, about the beautiful, wrenching, poignant, powerful experience of nine days on a religious mission to Cuba? The kaleidoscope of Cuba keeps turning, and every time it turns, the pieces shift and a new picture emerges. In some ways it reminds me of Ghana, or India, or Argentina. In other ways it's not quite like anyplace I've ever been.

I am here with a small delegation from Congregation Beth Israel of North Adams, and a larger delegation from Temple Beth El of City Island. I am here with Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer of the Cuba America Jewish Mission, a rabbinic school friend. (Also with Rabbi David Markus of TBE, and with Rabbi Bella Bogart, a rabbi and musician; we three are also founding builders at Bayit.)

As soon as we visit our first synagogue, the Sinagoga Centro Sefaradi, I am struck by the locals' fierce sense of identity, Jewish and Cuban. They tell us proudly that they have Shabbat services every weekend, and they always manage a minyan. They tell us proudly that there's no antisemitism here. I half-think it's propaganda, but people keep saying it. Is it possible that it's true?

I never once feel unsafe in my kippah. Several times people come up to us and say that they have never seen a woman wearing one before. "Soy una rabbina," I learn to say. "Yo trabajo en una sinagoga." (And sometimes -- when more explanation seems necessary -- I add, "es como una iglesia para los Judíos.") For that matter, I never once feel unsafe as an obvious American.

On our first full day we lunch with Maritza Corrales, author of Chosen Island: a History of the Jews of Cuba. One of my compatriots asks why she stays in Cuba. She begins by telling us that in 1529, a mere ten years after colonization, they were writing back to Spain to say that they needed to be ruled by an islander because the colonizers didn't understand this place.

Maritza travels the world to teach. She could live anywhere, but she chooses here. Why would she want to come to the Estados Unidos where people would call her "Latina" with scorn? She is Cubana. It's easy for us as American Jews to imagine that surely everyone would join us if they could. Maritza has just revealed to me some of my unconscious biases about Cuba and Cubans.

We visit a Jewish cemetery on the far side of the city where Maritza tells us stories about those who are buried there. I am moved by the headstones in Hebrew and Spanish, by how tangible the Jewish presence is and feels. As we are departing, a non-Jewish Cuban man who works there pours water over our hands, following Jewish tradition, so that we can wash the cemetery away.

 

2. The things we carry

Everywhere we go on the island we bring medical supplies. Our first two stops are the Centro Sefaradi and the Patronato in Havana. Their pharmacy shelves were bare, emptied since last time R' Sunny was here six months ago. They disburse medical supplies to anyone who needs, Jewish or not. There are other pharmacies (we visit one later) but their shelves are spare too.

So much that we take for granted is not available to Cubans. We've brought aspirin, vitamins, diapers, soap, prescription drugs. "Rite Aid or Walmart is like science fiction to us," says one Cuban who has traveled abroad. I lose track of how many times and in how many ways my heart breaks. And I also lose track of how many times and in how many ways my heart soars.

Even just in Havana. The chapel at the Centro Sefaradi has light fixtures from Shevet Achim in Old Havana, the first Sefaradi congregation in Cuba, founded by immigrants from Turkey and Syria. Those fixtures still shine. I mean this literally and metaphorically! At the Patronato, I'm moved by the cheery preschool classroom funded by the Cuba America Jewish Mission.

The sanctuary at the Patronato looks like every mid-20th-century synagogue I've ever seen. Like the classic cars that serve as taxis all over Havana, it's been repaired and patched and kept running ever since it was new. At home a space like that would feel staid, but it feels different here, even defiant here. It's still here; it hasn't gone away; Judaism hasn't gone away.

And yet many Jews have departed. For the United States, for Israel, for Spain, for Mexico. There are fewer than a thousand Jews left on this island. The further inland we go, the smaller the communities we meet -- but the heart and spirit we experience praying with them, eating with them, singing with them, just being with them, is enormous. Outsized. "My cup overflows."

3. Haves and have-nots

 

Our group has many conversations about the Cubans who became exiles at the time of the revolution, about those who chose to stay, about idealism and failure, about the revolution's ideals and its realities, about the kibbutz movement in Israel and whether or how there are parallels, about young people leaving in search of a better life, about what Cuban Jews need in order to flourish.

We take our meals in privately-operated restaurants called paladares. As tourists, we never encounter food shortages, though it's clear that everyone is operating with the same relatively limited set of ingredients. We know that because we are tourists, rather than locals, we are getting the best of what there is. When we make hamotzi before our meals, I am awash in gratitude.

Most Cubans earn only tens of dollars each month. A doctor, we are told, might earn $60 a month. Everyone seems to need a side hustle. The woman who works as a tour guide at the cigar factory gets cigars as part of her pay, and she can sell them on the side to people like us... when there are people like us here buying things. Of course, these days, there mostly aren't.

I've read about the "Special Period" after the Soviet Union fell, but now I'm hearing from people who lived through it. I hear about eating grass to try to fill their bellies. How everyone grew thin. How Habaneros developed scurvy while citrus rotted in the fields because there was no fuel to transport it. "I hope they don't issue us Chinese-made bicycles again," one person jokes.

The tightened embargo now, some say, will be worse. "They think if they punish us, we will bend," someone says. "They don't understand Cubans."

Later in the week we visit some stores for locals, stores that sell things in CUPs (the Cuban peso) rather than CUCs (the "convertible peso.") I am shocked at how little is on the shelves. The embargo has tightened. There is less to be had. Farmers may return to plowing with oxen; without fuel, tractors won't run. How is it that people here don't hate us for all that we have?

Being here is making me aware of what I take for granted at home. I'm also noticing kinds of abundance here that I don't encounter at home. Abundance of beauty and color: back home the trees are bare at this season, and houses often drab, but here trees and fields and paint colors are vivid and bright. And especially abundance of music. Cuba is justifiably famous for music.

The music on this island is extraordinary. I keep trying to write about it and then giving up. I could as easily write about a rainbow, or about falling in love. Anything I can say would be trite. The rhythms, the harmonies, the omnipresence of beat and song: all move me. I'm thinking a lot this week about how prosperity (or lack thereof), and music, and spiritual life interact.

And I'm thinking about the things that my little community takes for granted. I think about how much easier it seems (to me) to be a Jew where I live than it is here. And I wonder whether there's an inverse correlation between ease and attachment. Do we naturally become less attached to our traditions, our spiritual lives, and our Jewish identities when they are easy to maintain?

 

4. A heart afire

 

Some who come to Cuba only visit Havana. Havana is indeed a beautiful city. It is golden and it is crumbling and the classic cars and the Malecon (the waterfront road) are as beautiful as everyone says, as every photo reveals. But R' Sunny insisted that we need to get out into the provinces to get a more nuanced picture of Jewish Cuba and Cuba writ large. He was right.

We drive past lush green fields of banana trees and sugar cane to Cienfuegos, our first provincial stop. First we gather on the roof of an opulent former mansion, where we sip mojitos and gaze at a rainbow (appropriate during this week of parashat Noach!) Then we visit the home of the Langus family. Rebecca Langus welcomes us and (with our guide as translator) tells us her story.

She always knew she was Jewish, she tells us, but she didn't learn what that meant until 1992 when the state officially exchanged its atheism for agnosticism. When Rebecca was growing up, her Turkish grandmother insisted that they eat matzah (sent each year by the Joint Distribution Committee) at Pesach -- but she never knew why they ate it or what it signified until the 1990s.

She tells us how she taught herself everything she knows about Judaism -- gesturing to their small library of Judaic books, all donated by communities like ours -- in order to teach her children. The community in Cienfuegos now is eight families: eighteen people, three of whom are children. They meet for Shabbat services in her living room, set up with white monobloc chairs.

After her prepared remarks, she chats with the rabbis on our trip. We ask her what fuels her and where she finds her sense of hope in this work. In response, Rebecca tells us simply that everything she does, she does for love. That would have been clear even if she hadn't said a word. Her care for her community and for Jewish tradition shines out of her face, out of her being.

What does it take to persist as Jewish community in a place like this? To show up for Shabbat every other week because there are literally only eighteen of you and if a handful don't show, there's no minyan? Is there something about being in a place where religion used to be forbidden that makes people now want to claim the right and privilege of spiritual practice in community?

What does it take to profess and choose and celebrate Jewishness in a place where the economic picture is so difficult that many young people choose to emigrate to Israel, or Mexico, or Europe, or wherever else they can? We ask what would help the communities most. The answer I keep hearing: convince our government to end the embargo so Cuba can thrive again.

 

5. Tourism and syncretism

 

We are also tourists. Our primary purpose is meeting Cuban Jews and delivering medicines, but we also take a day trip to Trinidad. It was abandoned for 85 years, which is why it's one of the world's best-preserved examples of Spanish colonial architecture. On the way there, we pass a Russian nuclear plant that never worked. Some things in Cuba feel like a Kafka story.

In Trinidad the streets are "paved" with local stones and with cobbles brought as ballast from Europe. There are men in guayaberas with instruments, playing Guantanamera beneath shady trees. There are artisans selling lace and embroidery and wooden boxes of dominos, their prices lowering as we walk past. There aren't many other tourists -- at least not that I can see.

From the luxurious rooftop paladar where we lunch I see children playing amidst red clay tiles and chicken coops. They wave at us. Dare we hope that our tourist dollars are helping them? When we get back to our stunning old Cienfuegos hotel I go for a swim in the pool in the courtyard. How can I square this gracious opulence with the deprivations that locals take for granted?

This place is extraordinary. Beautiful. Musical. Literate. And the Cuban people I meet everywhere we go clearly feel pride in who and where they are. And it's also clear that they need the help, medical and fiscal, that we're here to bring. I'm thinking about scarcity and poverty... with awareness that  those things exist in my country too. My usual orbit just allows me not to see them.

On our first full day in Cuba we visited an apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Havana where two women taught us about Santeria (also known as Regla de Ocha). Santeria is a religious tradition that intertwines Yoruba orishas (which the translator renders as "guardian angels") with Catholicism. Seventy percent of Cubans have some interaction with Santeria.

We learned about the altars, the figures depicted there, appropriate offerings for each and the relationships between them. We learned how the initiation process works. I was fascinated by how it dovetails with going to mass. Apparently the local Catholic priests recognize Santeria initiates, and don't seem to mind the religious syncretism. (Or at least, they allow it to continue.)

Some of what the women in that apartment shared with us is utterly unlike Judaism. And some of it evokes ideas from my tradition. Maybe inevitably, I'm always looking for resonance. I wonder what it was like for these women to host this group of American Jews. I worried that they might feel exposed, but they seemed delighted to be able to share their tradition with us.

After that visit, whenever I see someone wearing all white I wonder whether that person is a Santeria initiate. Many of us in this Jewish tour group wear all white on Shabbat, a custom that comes from the mystics of Tzfat who created the Kabbalat Shabbat service as we know it. Maybe the locals, seeing us in our Shabbat whites, imagine that we are Santeria initiates too.

 

6. Holy spirit

Our next stop is Sancti Spiritus, where motorbikes and bicycles share the roads with horses pulling wagons that serve as group taxis. As in Cienfuegos, our historic hotel is old Spanish-style, built around central courtyards, with old heavy wooden furniture. It feels a million light-years away from the hip mid-century-modern (as though frozen in time) décor of our Havana hotel.

On Friday night our bus takes us on a winding route out of the old part of town and to the home of the Barlia family. Like many houses here, theirs has iron gates and window coverings -- but their wrought-ironwork proudly displays stars of David. The Barlia family hosts, and leads, Kabbalat Shabbat services for Jews of this province twice a month in the courtyard of their home.

This Shabbat their daughter Elisa is becoming bat mitzvah. She lights Shabbat candles in front of a celebratory photograph of herself holding a Torah. She and her sister and R' Sunny lead us in Kabbalat Shabbat, welcoming Shabbat into our midst. Over our heads, a metal grate that looks like fish scales shows the changing colors of the sky and the early-Cheshvan crescent moon.

As in Buenos Aires ten years ago, I am struck by why it matters that Jews pray in Hebrew. Most of us in this group don't share a common language with Cubans. At best we can manage a few phrases. (A couple of us are fluent; most of us... not.) But we can pray with them, welcome Shabbat with them. We can sing ancient words with them, and in those words, our hearts connect.

The bat mitzvah continues on Shabbat morning in Santa Clara, where we convene at Beth Am, a project of the Cuba America Jewish Mission, the nonprofit behind our religious / medical mission to Cuba. Beth Am is the first (and only) new synagogue in Cuba since the Revolution. (It's in a new building, but was a preexisting community; no "new" houses of worship can be built.)

The shul is small, and beautiful, and we fill it: 20 Americans, a few of whom have been coming here for years and know the Barlia family well, and a few dozen locals here to celebrate one of their own. We daven and we sing. The four rabbis on our trip bless the bat mitzvah (with words that I wrote, translated into Spanish!) and we join the Barlia family in chanting from Torah.

After the service we feast on the rooftop of the shul, beside a wall of painted clay tiles that depict different sites across Jerusalem. Before we leave, we gather again in the sanctuary with two guitars and a ukelele and we sing and dance and rejoice. What a mechaieh, a life-giving thing, to get to join the local Jewish community in filling this little synagogue with holy spirit.

 

7. Cognitive dissonance

Once we leave shul, we shift gears and visit the Cementario Israelita, the Jewish cemetery of the central provinces. (Ordinarily one wouldn't visit a cemetery on Shabbat, but we are packing as much as we can into the time we have.) The cemetery is down a narrow dirt road, surrounded by an impoverished neighborhood of small cement-block dwellings with corrugated roofs. 

We gather inside the cemetery and hear words from David Tacher Romano, president of the Santa Clara Jewish community, translated by our guide. We take turns watering the tree planted as a sapling that came from the Negev. Here too there is a room by the gates where bodies are prepared for Jewish burial. We learn that that room was used just a few months ago, in February.

A scant few minutes later we are at a Che Guevara memorial. The plaza is vast and I can imagine it filled with crowds. I don't go into the tomb: I've had enough of death for one day. Instead I sit on a low stone wall, and watch a trio of stray dogs chase each other around the grounds, and watch the enormous Cuban flag waving overhead, and sip a tiny cup of strong dark hot coffee.

And then our bus pulls off the road and we are in another world. We're at a Cuban resort on the outskirts of Santa Clara. There are little round houses with thatched roofs (and air conditioning), and a swimming pool where Spanish disco is blaring all afternoon. Many of those present, our waiter tells us, are locals -- if they have money, Cubans can come here, and many do.

Suddenly it feels like a Caribbean resort. But we were just in a poor neighborhood. And then we were surrounded by propaganda. And now there are couples necking in the pool, and children of all hues wearing floaties, and the thump of Spanish-language pop music. Also there are free-range chickens. And just this morning we were at a bat mitzvah. My head is spinning.

By Saturday night when Shabbat ends, my brain feels thoroughly scrambled from the cognitive dissonance. The beautiful little Santa Clara shul. The bat mitzvah girl herself, who reminds me in some way of every kid I've ever taught. And then the cemetery, and its neighbors whom our guide says may be squatters. The Che Guevara memorial. This resort in the middle of it all.

"Cognitive dissonance? That's Cuba," Rabbi Sunny tells me.

 

8. Miracles in Camagüey

Our final stop is Camagüey, where we admire Spanish colonial architecture and beautiful narrow streets (which we tour via "bicitaxi.") It is our last full day in Cuba and I can feel my gears grinding. I am overstimulated, my mind racing with images and questions. I want to spend a few years studying political economy so that I can better understand what I've just begun to see.

And then we reach Tifereth Israel, the Jewish community of Camagüey. They meet in an old house: a little sanctuary, and a social hall, and a room for feasting, and an arbor in the back where pomegranates grow. From the moment we walk in, the joy is palpable. Dra. Sara Bedoya Pulin, the president, welcomes us warmly. There are 32 people in the Jewish community here.

We go around the room and introduce ourselves. And then we sing. Two of us have guitars and one has a ukelele and we all sing niggunim (wordless melodies) and songs together. "Hevenu Shalom Aleichem." "Am Yisrael Chai." Welcoming the stranger. Asserting that the Jewish people yet lives. Old familiar words, but they take on a spine-tingling resonance here.

We ask the Cubans what they sing when they are feeling grateful, and they lead us in a shehecheyanu. There is dancing. There is beaming. The little girl beside me is shy at first, and then -- when I give her a "You Are Beautiful" sticker and translate it for her ("tu eres bella"), she smiles at me and no longer seems afraid. I experience a feeling of welcome from their hearts to ours.

And then the rabbis walk into the sanctuary. Their aron kodesh (holy ark, the cabinet in which Torahs are stored) is painted with letters of the alef-bet flying upward. Evoking the mystical teaching that the world is made out of holy speech, and the Hasidic story about the humble person who recites the alef-bet and the letters fly up to heaven where God assembles them into prayer.

It is dazzlingly beautiful to me. We walk up to look at the ark, and I feel a spiritual energy that I can't quite describe or explain. On the amud, the Torah reading table, is a prayerbook open to the words we were just singing in the other room: Am Yisrael Chai. The people of Israel live. This Godwrestling people yet lives. What a miracle it is that we are here and alive. What a miracle.

We have brought pharmacy supplies, and they have prepared a feast for us. Someone made the long drive to the ocean to get us fresh red snapper. And there is yuca, and rice, and papaya, and pineapple, and cucumbers, and avocado. We sit at a long table, and those of us who barely share a language communicate in smiles and broken phrases and pressing our hands to our hearts.

Down at the other end of the table, Rabbi David who is fluent in Spanish is asking a young man what makes him stay here. His answer: sure, he could go anywhere in the world. But he would lose his connection with his family. And the closeness of the Cuban family and community is precious. It is worth more than the money he could earn if he were to decide to leave.

 

9. Coming home

 

What can I bring home to my own Jewish community from Cuba?

I want to bring home an awareness of how lucky I am to live as I do -- and how that good fortune makes me responsible to do what I can to lift up those who are in need. I know it won't be long before I settle back into "regular life," and the incredible abundance of my life will cease to be a shock to the system. I hope I will be able to wake myself into remembering again.

I want to bring home an awareness of what I don't have -- what I've seen here among the Cuban Jewish community that is more precious than my pleasant first-world standard of living. The connection to family. The connection to place. The preciousness of connection with Jewish tradition and spiritual life -- especially in a place where one can't take Jewishness for granted.

I want to bring home (and share with my community) a sense that we are truly part of clal Yisrael, the broader Jewish community. This community of tradition and spiritual life connects us across time and space. Talmud teaches (Shavuot 39a) that all of Israel is responsible for one another. We are family with the Jews of Cuba. We are responsible for them and to them

Of course I don't just feel responsible for or to my fellow Jews. I also feel an obligation to help human beings everywhere who are in need. That tension between particularism and universalism is woven throughout Jewish tradition. The obligation to care for "our own" and the obligation of tikkun olam, repairing the whole world's brokenness, both are core Jewish obligations. 

What responsibility do I have to people in other nations whose lives are shaped by the policies my government enacts? For that matter, what responsibility do I have to people in my own nation whose lives are shaped by the policies my government enacts? As someone who lives in relative comfort, what responsibility do I have to those who don't? I'm bringing home these questions.

And experiencing Jewish Cuba has shown me Judaism's beauty in new ways, and I want to bring that home too. I've loved seeing how Judaism in Cuba brings light to people's eyes and joy to people's hearts. I've loved difference and common ground. I've loved seeing my familiar tradition -- words, ideas, practices -- translated into a different idiom, literally and metaphorically. 

And especially in the provinces, I've been moved to encounter tiny communities that celebrate their Jewishness week after week with joy. My small Massachusetts town is different from Cuba in almost every way. But we can be inspired by our cousins in Cuba and the Jewishness they keep (and that keeps them) vibrant and spiritually alive. Their existence enlivens our Judaism too.

I hope to someday return to Jewish Cuba, and to bring more members of my community to Cuba with me next time. So that they too can have their hearts and their sense of Jewishness expanded by this complicated, intense, heartbreaking, beautiful place -- and by the Cuban people, whose generosity of spirit humbles me, and whose light continues to shine.

 

If you're interested, you can also see more of my Cuba photos on Flickr.

Any errors in this essay are my own. Offered with infinite gratitude to the Cuba America Jewish Mission, Congregation Beth Israel of North Adams, Temple Beth El of City Island, and most of all, the Jews of Cuba who shared with us their stories, their communities, and their hearts.


A first visit to Cuba 7: Cognitive dissonance

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part seven.

 

7. Cognitive dissonance

 

Once we leave shul, we shift gears and visit the Cementario Israelita, the Jewish cemetery of the central provinces. (Ordinarily one wouldn't visit a cemetery on Shabbat, but we are packing as much as we can into the time we have.) The cemetery is down a narrow dirt road, surrounded by an impoverished neighborhood of small cement-block dwellings with corrugated roofs. 

We gather inside the cemetery and hear words from David Tacher Romano, president of the Santa Clara Jewish community, translated by our guide. We take turns watering the tree planted as a sapling that came from the Negev. Here too there is a room by the gates where bodies are prepared for Jewish burial. We learn that that room was used just a few months ago, in February.

A scant few minutes later we are at a Che Guevara memorial. The plaza is vast and I can imagine it filled with crowds. I don't go into the tomb: I've had enough of death for one day. Instead I sit on a low stone wall, and watch a trio of stray dogs chase each other around the grounds, and watch the enormous Cuban flag waving overhead, and sip a tiny cup of strong dark hot coffee.

And then our bus pulls off the road and we are in another world. We're at a Cuban resort on the outskirts of Santa Clara. There are little round houses with thatched roofs (and air conditioning), and a swimming pool where Spanish disco is blaring all afternoon. Many of those present, our waiter tells us, are locals -- if they have money, Cubans can come here, and many do.

Suddenly it feels like a Caribbean resort. But we were just in a poor neighborhood. And then we were surrounded by propaganda. And now there are couples necking in the pool, and children of all hues wearing floaties, and the thump of Spanish-language pop music. Also there are free-range chickens. And just this morning we were at a bat mitzvah. My head is spinning.

By Saturday night when Shabbat ends, my brain feels thoroughly scrambled from the cognitive dissonance. The beautiful little Santa Clara shul. The bat mitzvah girl herself, who reminds me in some way of every kid I've ever taught. And then the cemetery, and its neighbors whom our guide says may be squatters. The Che Guevara memorial. This resort in the middle of it all.

"Cognitive dissonance? That's Cuba," Rabbi Sunny tells me.

 

Stay tuned for part eight of this essay, coming tomorrow.


A first visit to Cuba 6: Holy spirit

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part six.

 

6. Holy spirit

Our next stop is Sancti Spiritus, where motorbikes and bicycles share the roads with horses pulling wagons that serve as group taxis. As in Cienfuegos, our historic hotel is old Spanish-style, built around central courtyards, with old heavy wooden furniture. It feels a million light-years away from the hip mid-century-modern (as though frozen in time) décor of our Havana hotel.

On Friday night our bus takes us on a winding route out of the old part of town and to the home of the Barlia family. Like many houses here, theirs has iron gates and window coverings -- but their wrought-ironwork proudly displays stars of David. The Barlia family hosts, and leads, Kabbalat Shabbat services for Jews of this province twice a month in the courtyard of their home.

This Shabbat their daughter Elisa is becoming bat mitzvah. She lights Shabbat candles in front of a celebratory photograph of herself holding a Torah. She and her sister and R' Sunny lead us in Kabbalat Shabbat, welcoming Shabbat into our midst. Over our heads, a metal grate that looks like fish scales shows the changing colors of the sky and the early-Cheshvan crescent moon.

As in Buenos Aires ten years ago, I am struck by why it matters that Jews pray in Hebrew. Most of us in this group don't share a common language with Cubans. At best we can manage a few phrases. (A couple of us are fluent; most of us... not.) But we can pray with them, welcome Shabbat with them. We can sing ancient words with them, and in those words, our hearts connect.

The bat mitzvah continues on Shabbat morning in Santa Clara, where we convene at Beth Am, a project of the Cuba America Jewish Mission, the nonprofit behind our religious / medical mission to Cuba. Beth Am is the first (and only) new synagogue in Cuba since the Revolution. (It's in a new building, but was a preexisting community; no "new" houses of worship can be built.)

The shul is small, and beautiful, and we fill it: 20 Americans, a few of whom have been coming here for years and know the Barlia family well, and a few dozen locals here to celebrate one of their own. We daven and we sing. The four rabbis on our trip bless the bat mitzvah (with words that I wrote, translated into Spanish!) and we join the Barlia family in chanting from Torah.

After the service we feast on the rooftop of the shul, beside a wall of painted clay tiles that depict different sites across Jerusalem. Before we leave, we gather again in the sanctuary with two guitars and a ukelele and we sing and dance and rejoice. What a mechaieh, a life-giving thing, to get to join the local Jewish community in filling this little synagogue with holy spirit.

 

Stay tuned for part seven of this essay, coming tomorrow.


A first visit to Cuba 5: Tourism and syncretism

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part five.

 

5. Tourism and syncretism

We are also tourists. Our primary purpose is meeting Cuban Jews and delivering medicines, but we also take a day trip to Trinidad. It was abandoned for 85 years, which is why it's one of the world's best-preserved examples of Spanish colonial architecture. On the way there, we pass a Russian nuclear plant that never worked. Some things in Cuba feel like a Kafka story.

In Trinidad the streets are "paved" with local stones and with cobbles brought as ballast from Europe. There are men in guayaberas with instruments, playing Guantanamera beneath shady trees. There are artisans selling lace and embroidery and wooden boxes of dominos, their prices lowering as we walk past. There aren't many other tourists -- at least not that I can see.

From the luxurious rooftop paladar where we lunch I see children playing amidst red clay tiles and chicken coops. They wave at us. Dare we hope that our tourist dollars are helping them? When we get back to our stunning old Cienfuegos hotel I go for a swim in the pool in the courtyard. How can I square this gracious opulence with the deprivations that locals take for granted?

This place is extraordinary. Beautiful. Musical. Literate. And the Cuban people I meet everywhere we go clearly feel pride in who and where they are. And it's also clear that they need the help, medical and fiscal, that we're here to bring. I'm thinking about scarcity and poverty... with awareness that  those things exist in my country too. My usual orbit just allows me not to see them.

On our first full day in Cuba we visited an apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Havana where two women taught us about Santeria (also known as Regla de Ocha). Santeria is a religious tradition that intertwines Yoruba orishas (which the translator renders as "guardian angels") with Catholicism. Seventy percent of Cubans have some interaction with Santeria.

We learned about the altars, the figures depicted there, appropriate offerings for each and the relationships between them. We learned how the initiation process works. I was fascinated by how it dovetails with going to mass. Apparently the local Catholic priests recognize Santeria initiates, and don't seem to mind the religious syncretism. (Or at least, they allow it to continue.)

Some of what the women in that apartment shared with us is utterly unlike Judaism. And some of it evokes ideas from my tradition. Maybe inevitably, I'm always looking for resonance. I wonder what it was like for these women to host this group of American Jews. I worried that they might feel exposed, but they seemed delighted to be able to share their tradition with us.

After that visit, whenever I see someone wearing all white I wonder whether that person is a Santeria initiate. Many of us in this Jewish tour group wear all-white on Shabbat, a custom that comes from the mystics of Tzfat who created the Kabbalat Shabbat service as we know it. Maybe the locals, seeing us in our Shabbat whites, imagine that we are Santeria initiates too.

Stay tuned for part six of this essay, coming tomorrow.


A first visit to Cuba 4: A heart afire

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part four.

 

4. A heart afire

Some who come to Cuba only visit Havana. Havana is indeed a beautiful city. It is golden and it is crumbling and the classic cars and the Malecon (the waterfront road) are as beautiful as everyone says, as every photo reveals. But R' Sunny insisted that we need to get out into the provinces to get a more nuanced picture of Jewish Cuba and Cuba writ large. He was right.

We drive past lush green fields of banana trees and sugar cane to Cienfuegos, our first provincial stop. First we gather on the roof of an opulent former mansion, where we sip mojitos and gaze at a rainbow (appropriate during this week of parashat Noach!) Then we visit the home of the Langus family. Rebecca Langus welcomes us and (with our guide as translator) tells us her story.

She always knew she was Jewish, she tells us, but she didn't learn what that meant until 1992 when the state officially exchanged its atheism for agnosticism. When Rebecca was growing up, her Turkish grandmother insisted that they eat matzah (sent each year by the Joint Distribution Committee) at Pesach -- but she never knew why they ate it or what it signified until the 1990s.

She tells us how she taught herself everything she knows about Judaism -- gesturing to their small library of Judaic books, all donated by communities like ours -- in order to teach her children. The community in Cienfuegos now is eight families: eighteen people, three of whom are children. They meet for Shabbat services in her living room, set up with white monobloc chairs.

After her prepared remarks, she chats with the rabbis on our trip. We ask her what fuels her and where she finds her sense of hope in this work. In response, Rebecca tells us simply that everything she does, she does for love. That would have been clear even if she hadn't said a word. Her care for her community and for Jewish tradition shines out of her face, out of her being.

What does it take to persist as Jewish community in a place like this? To show up for Shabbat every other week because there are literally only eighteen of you and if a handful don't show, there's no minyan? Is there something about being in a place where religion used to be forbidden that makes people now want to claim the right and privilege of spiritual practice in community?

What does it take to profess and choose and celebrate Jewishness in a place where the economic picture is so difficult that many young people choose to emigrate to Israel, or Mexico, or Europe, or wherever else they can? We ask what would help the communities most. The answer I keep hearing: convince our government to end the embargo so Cuba can thrive again.

 

Stay tuned for part five of this essay, coming tomorrow.


A first visit to Cuba 3: Haves and have-nots

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part three.

3. Haves and have-nots

Our group has many conversations about the Cubans who became exiles at the time of the revolution, about those who chose to stay, about idealism and failure, about the revolution's ideals and its realities, about the kibbutz movement in Israel and whether or how there are parallels, about young people leaving in search of a better life, about what Cuban Jews need in order to flourish.

We take our meals in privately-operated restaurants called paladares. As tourists, we never encounter food shortages, though it's clear that everyone is operating with the same relatively limited set of ingredients. We know that because we are tourists, rather than locals, we are getting the best of what there is. When we make hamotzi before our meals, I am awash in gratitude.

Most Cubans earn only tens of dollars each month. A doctor, we are told, might earn $60 a month. Everyone seems to need a side hustle. The woman who works as a tour guide at the cigar factory gets cigars as part of her pay, and she can sell them on the side to people like us... when there are people like us here buying things. Of course, these days, there mostly aren't.

I've read about the "Special Period" after the Soviet Union fell, but now I'm hearing from people who lived through it. I hear about eating grass to try to fill their bellies. How everyone grew thin. How Habaneros developed scurvy while citrus rotted in the fields because there was no fuel to transport it. "I hope they don't issue us Chinese-made bicycles again," one person jokes.

The tightened embargo now, some say, will be worse. "They think if they punish us, we will bend," someone says. "They don't understand Cubans."

Later in the week we visit some stores for locals, stores that sell things in CUPs (the Cuban peso) rather than CUCs (the "convertible peso.") I am shocked at how little is on the shelves. The embargo has tightened. There is less to be had. Farmers may return to plowing with oxen; without fuel, tractors won't run. How is it that people here don't hate us for all that we have?

Being here is making me aware of what I take for granted at home. I'm also noticing kinds of abundance here that I don't encounter at home. Abundance of beauty and color: back home the trees are bare at this season, and houses often drab, but here trees and fields and paint colors are vivid and bright. And especially abundance of music. Cuba is justifiably famous for music.

The music on this island is extraordinary. I keep trying to write about it and then giving up. I could as easily write about a rainbow, or about falling in love. Anything I can say would be trite. The rhythms, the harmonies, the omnipresence of beat and song: all move me. I'm thinking a lot this week about how prosperity (or lack thereof), and music, and spiritual life interact.

And I'm thinking about the things that my little community takes for granted. I think about how much easier it seems (to me) to be a Jew where I live than it is here. And I wonder whether there's an inverse correlation between ease and attachment. Do we naturally become less attached to our traditions, our spiritual lives, and our Jewish identities when they are easy to maintain?

 

Stay tuned for part four of this essay, coming tomorrow.


A first visit to Cuba 2: The things we carry

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part two.

2. The things we carry

Everywhere we go on the island we bring medical supplies. Our first two stops are the Centro Sefaradi and the Patronato in Havana. Their pharmacy shelves were bare, emptied since last time R' Sunny was here six months ago. They disburse medical supplies to anyone who needs, Jewish or not. There are other pharmacies (we visit one later) but their shelves are spare too.

So much that we take for granted is not available to Cubans. We've brought aspirin, vitamins, diapers, soap, prescription drugs. "Rite Aid or Walmart is like science fiction to us," says one Cuban who has traveled abroad. I lose track of how many times and in how many ways my heart breaks. And I also lose track of how many times and in how many ways my heart soars.

Even just in Havana. The chapel at the Centro Sefaradi has light fixtures from Shevet Achim in Old Havana, the first Sefaradi congregation in Cuba, founded by immigrants from Turkey and Syria. Those fixtures still shine. I mean this literally and metaphorically! At the Patronato, I'm moved by the cheery preschool classroom funded by the Cuba America Jewish Mission.

The sanctuary at the Patronato looks like every mid-20th-century synagogue I've ever seen. Like the classic cars that serve as taxis all over Havana, it's been repaired and patched and kept running ever since it was new. At home a space like that would feel staid, but it feels different here, even defiant here. It's still here; it hasn't gone away; Judaism hasn't gone away.

And yet many Jews have departed. For the United States, for Israel, for Spain, for Mexico. There are fewer than a thousand Jews left on this island. The further inland we go, the smaller the communities we meet -- but the heart and spirit we experience praying with them, eating with them, singing with them, just being with them, is enormous. Outsized. "My cup overflows."

 

Stay tuned for part three of this essay, coming tomorrow.


A first visit to Cuba 1: What do I know?

This essay will be posted in nine parts. This is the first part; I'll share the others in coming days. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting.

 

1. What do I know?

How on earth can I write, as an outsider, about the beautiful, wrenching, poignant, powerful experience of nine days on a religious mission to Cuba? The kaleidoscope of Cuba keeps turning, and every time it turns, the pieces shift and a new picture emerges. In some ways it reminds me of Ghana, or India, or Argentina. In other ways it's not quite like anyplace I've ever been.

I am here with a small delegation from Congregation Beth Israel of North Adams, and a larger delegation from Temple Beth El of City Island. I am here with Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer of the Cuba America Jewish Mission, a rabbinic school friend. (Also with Rabbi David Markus of TBE, and with Rabbi Bella Bogart, a rabbi and musician; we three are also founding builders at Bayit.)

As soon as we visit our first synagogue, the Sinagoga Centro Sefaradi, I am struck by the locals' fierce sense of identity, Jewish and Cuban. They tell us proudly that they have Shabbat services every weekend, and they always manage a minyan. They tell us proudly that there's no antisemitism here. I half-think it's propaganda, but people keep saying it. Is it possible that it's true?

I never once feel unsafe in my kippah. Several times people come up to us and say that they have never seen a woman wearing one before. "Soy una rabbina," I learn to say. "Yo trabajo en una sinagoga." (And sometimes -- when more explanation seems necessary -- I add, "es como una iglesia para los Judíos.") For that matter, I never once feel unsafe as an obvious American.

On our first full day we lunch with Maritza Corrales, author of Chosen Island: a History of the Jews of Cuba. One of my compatriots asks why she stays in Cuba. She begins by telling us that in 1529, a mere ten years after colonization, they were writing back to Spain to say that they needed to be ruled by an islander because the colonizers didn't understand this place.

Maritza travels the world to teach. She could live anywhere, but she chooses here. Why would she want to come to the Estados Unidos where people would call her "Latina" with scorn? She is Cubana. It's easy for us as American Jews to imagine that surely everyone would join us if they could. Maritza has just revealed to me some of my unconscious biases about Cuba and Cubans.

We visit a Jewish cemetery on the far side of the city where Maritza tells us stories about those who are buried there. I am moved by the headstones in Hebrew and Spanish, by how tangible the Jewish presence is and feels. As we are departing, a non-Jewish Cuban man who works there pours water over our hands, following Jewish tradition, so that we can wash the cemetery away.

 

 

Stay tuned for part two of this essay, coming tomorrow.


Plant a tree: on action, and compassion, and bringing repair

Plant-a-tree

Reading this week's Torah portion, Eikev, the verses that leapt out at me were Deuteronomy 8:3-4:

"God subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that God decrees. The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years."

Reading these verses, I thought two things:

One -- what an extraordinary teaching about trust. Moshe is reminding the children of Israel that during their forty years' wandering in the wilderness, God gave them everything they needed. God gave them something entirely unprecedented and new, this foodstuff called manna. And God kept their clothes from going threadbare, and kept their feet nimble and comfortable. This is a teaching about trusting that if we are open, the universe will give us what we need.

And two -- holy wow, I wish we had access to that right now.

This has been an extraordinarily difficult week to pay attention to the news. There's talk of detaining refugee and migrant children indefinitely. The Amazon rainforest, the "lungs of the earth," is literally on fire -- and not because of an accident, but because people are intentionally clear-cutting forest and burning the stumps to make room for more profitable cattle-grazing land, even though without that rainforest our planet may not survive.

God, we could really use some manna. And we could really use a miraculous rainstorm to put out the Amazon's fires. And we could really use a boost in humanity's capacity for compassion. Our compassion and our readiness to act need to not wear out, the way our spiritual ancestors' shoes didn't wear out. On the contrary, we need for our compassion and our readiness to act to be strengthened, because the needs of the world are so great, and it looks like they're only going to get greater.

I poured out my heart to God asking for those things, and here's the answer that came to me:

Manna isn't on offer these days. And God doesn't send floods to save us from our own avarice. That's not how God works in the world. God works in the world through us. As we sang earlier tonight, "Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices." 

We have tools at our disposal to help us cultivate and strengthen our compassion, our love for the other, our willingness to extend ourselves to the migrant and the refugee, our readiness to care for the holy temple we call planet Earth. Prayer and meditation and tzedakah and teshuvah are spiritual practices designed for exactly that purpose. Prayer and meditation and tzedakah and teshuvah are spiritual technologies designed to refine our souls and boost our readiness to do what's right.

Prayer and meditation and tzedakah and teshuvah can help us respond ethically to the current administration's attacks on the Flores settlement that protects the rights of refugee children. And to the burning of the rainforests and the greed that fuels those choices. And to every need there is. These are our tradition's core spiritual technologies: are we using them?

In just over five weeks, we'll come together for Rosh Hashanah and we'll hear the majestic words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. (I've written about that prayer before.) We'll remind ourselves that we never know, in the year to come, who will die by fire and who by water. And we will affirm that tefilah, and teshuvah, and tzedakah, avert the severity of the divine decree.

Tefilah: prayer, meditation, spiritual practice writ large. Teshuvah: repentance, atonement, turning ourselves around. And tzedakah: righteous giving, giving to the other in a way motivated not by "charity" but by our core sense of justice. That's how we mitigate whatever comes our way. That's how we take care of each other. That's how we take care of our world.

Prayer and repentance and tzedakah can't necessarily change what is. (Though sometimes they can. And if you have a few dollars to spare, donate to a worthy cause at havdalah, and #bealight to make the world a better place.) But tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah can change what we do about what is. We can "believe in God" or we can choose not to believe, but either way, Jewish tradition demands that we do what's right. Jewish tradition demands that we act. Prayer and teshuvah can strengthen us to act.

We're entering into Shabbes-time: the one day each week when we get to set the cares of the world aside. Let our worries and our griefs run off our shoulders. And when the new week begins, it'll be on us to do what we can to build a better world. Even if we know we can't do enough. The only unacceptable choice is despair and inaction.

In the rabbinic text known as Avot de Rabbi Natan (page 31b), we read,

If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, 'Come quickly, the messiah is here!', first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the messiah.

If you're holding a sapling and you hear that everything is healed, the traumas of the world as we've known it are over, there's no more war or bloodshed or hurt -- plant the sapling before you celebrate. And I think this also means: if you're holding a sapling and you hear that everything is destroyed, that the world is burning and cannot be redeemed -- plant the sapling before you mourn. No matter what, plant the sapling. Plant the seeds of hope. Engage in an act of compassion. That's what it is to be a Jew.

Shabbat shalom.

 

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

 


A new prayer for Tisha b'Av

I've curated a new prayer for Tisha b'Av that interweaves quotes from Lamentations with quotes from migrants and refugees on the United States' southern border today. In reading the prayer aloud, we put the words of refugees -- parents separated from their children; children separated from their parents; human beings suffering in atrocious conditions -- into our own mouths. May hearing ourselves speak these words galvanize us to action.

Here's a taste:

They told me, ‘you don’t have any rights here,
and you don’t have any rights to stay with your son.’

I died at that moment. They ripped my heart out of me.
For me, it would have been better if I had dropped dead.

For me, the world ended at that point.
How can a mother not have the right to be with her son?...

The prayer is online (and also available as a downloadable PDF) at Bayit's Builders Blog, and you can find it here: Lamentations (Then and Now).


Water from the living well

Test-your-well

Water from a well.

 

I sat down to write about the episode in this week's Torah portion, Chukat, where Miriam dies and the people have no water. And I kept thinking about the people who've been arrested for the supposed "crime" of giving water to save the lives of migrants and refugees at our nation's southern border -- and the camps along that border where human beings are held in horrific conditions. The world is so very broken. In the face of that, pretty words about Torah and water seem... insignificant.

Many of you have said to me lately that it's hard to sleep, it's hard to breathe, that you feel assaulted on all sides by the constant furor of the 24/7 news cycle and the constant drumbeats of the atrocities being committed seemingly everywhere we look. Me, too. So I struggled to find words to share with you today. It felt almost inappropriate, like a sign of a profound and terrible kind of privilege, to focus on Torah while the world is burning down, while our nation is in disarray, while people are being harmed.

And then I sat down with my Bayit hevre (as I do every week) to study commentaries on this week's Torah portion. This year we're studying the commentary of the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet. We agreed when we founded that organization that we wanted to meet regularly not only for work and for board meetings, but also for Torah study lishma, for its own sake. Learning for the sake of the sweetness of learning, strengthening our connections with Torah and with each other.

In one of the commentaries we read this week from the Sfat Emet, I found a teaching that gave me a different way to look at Shabbat and Torah study and why we need them even (or especially) when the world is broken. The Sfat Emet references the well that tradition says followed Miriam in the wilderness, providing water for the children of Israel. Talmud (Pesachim 54a) says it was one of the ten things created on the eve of the first Shabbat of creation, held in reserve until it was needed.

After mentioning Miriam's well, the Sfat Emet quotes Proverbs 5:15: "Drink water from your cistern, and flowing water from your well." There are two ways to get water: from a cistern, and from a well. A cistern holds "gathered waters" -- it's a tank, a water tower, a bucket on a roof. But eventually, a cistern will run dry. A well, on the other hand, is "joined directly to the source of an ever-flowing spring." A well is a symbol of intimate connection, in its root, to a source that will never run out.

This, says the Sfat Emet, is the difference between weekday and Shabbat. On weekdays we drink from a cistern. We measure out some of our saved water, and it renews us -- in the ways that it is able. But we know that the water in a cistern will eventually turn brackish and run dry. We know that our resources are limited. We always know, in the back of our minds, that there might not be enough. But on Shabbat, "the inner wellsprings are opened." On Shabbat, we get to drink from the well, from the source.

He's no longer talking just about the difference between water from a jug and water from a working faucet. He's talking about the difference between measuring out a little bit of our limited spiritual resources each day, and basking in the complete spiritual plenitude that Shabbat offers. Weekdays are a time of limited resources: we all know how that feels. There's so much that's broken. There isn't enough of me to go around. Shabbat is qualitatively different. Shabbat herself is the ever-flowing spring.

"Wellspring" and "Source" are two of our tradition's names for God. On Shabbat, we can open our hearts and souls to the flow that comes from the living well, from the living waters of Torah, from the living waters of divinity itself. That's how we renew ourselves for the week to come. That's how we refill our cisterns so we'll have water to drink, strength to go on, sustenance for the work at hand. In the Sfat Emet's metaphor, Shabbat is the one day of the week when water flows directly from God, for us.

Yes, immersing in words of Torah can seem a luxury when the world is on fire. Immersing in Shabbat practices can seem a luxury when the world is on fire. I get that. I feel it too. And... I think the Sfat Emet would say that when the world is on fire, we need our sources of replenishment even more. Each week we get to shift between the cistern and the living well -- if we chose to. Or we could just stick with the cistern, live in weekday consciousness 365 days a year... but I'm pretty sure we'll run dry.

Today the inner wellsprings are opened: will we cease from working and doing and worrying and checking Twitter and watching the world burn in order to drink from them? I know it can feel almost irresponsible to do so. But I believe it's irresponsible not to. We need this day of spiritual respite to refill our cisterns -- so that when we make havdalah tonight, we can choose to #bealight and begin the new week with a conscious act toward building a world of greater justice, righteousness, and love.

So today as Shabbat continues, take a break. Study some Torah. Sing a song. Dip in a swimming pool. Take a Shabbes schluff, a holy Shabbat nap. Live in the "as-if," as-if the world were already redeemed, as-if all of the suffering that consumes us were lifted. Refill your cistern in every way you know how. Because when havdalah comes, the world will still be in desperate need of repair, and we'll need to be strong and replenished and renewed and refreshed in order to face the challenges of that repair.

Shabbat shalom.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog). Offered with gratitude to my Bayit study group.


In dark times...

On Chanukah we celebrate the miracle of light – which can feel challenging when we are surrounded by so much darkness, both physically (short winter days) and spiritually by the increase of hate and oppression around the world. It’s especially challenging because the light that we each bring is so often separated from one another. Our souls are isolated, so our lights are too. Chanukah teaches us how to overcome that separation by adding light to light.

We each have our own list of the various sources of darkness in our lives, and there are many. Hate crimes are on the rise, bigotry and racism have become increasingly emboldened, we face the daily grind of struggling against more and more oppressive policies at every turn. How can we be real about the darkness without being pollyanna or pretending it doesn’t hurt people, while at the same time cultivating the inner resources we need to bring light?...

 

That's the beginning of a new piece I co-wrote with my Bayit co-founder Rabbi Mike Moskowitz and with Victoria Cook of Torah Trumps Hate, with a beautiful sketchnote from Steve Silbert, published this morning in eJewish Philanthropy. It's about Chanukah, and havdalah, and our #BeALight initiative, and why in dark times it's our job to bring light.

Read the whole thing: In Dark Times, Be A Light


Bricolage

32102382268_8605a8377a_zSometimes online conversation spaces feel like an overcrowded room. A vast arena, people jostling to be heard. The floor of the New York Stock Exchange, complete with yelling. A stockyard full of lowing cattle, hooves pounding the ground beneath into a churning mass of mud. 

The proliferation of words stoppers my tongue. I don't want to argue about whether it's good to find common cause with those with whom we also sometimes disagree. I don't want to bluster my opponents into submission. The arguments don't feel to me like they're for the sake of heaven.

I dream of silence and niggun. I dream of the long fade after a Tibetan singing bowl is gently struck. I dream of dismantling old texts and gluing them back together. I dream of erasure poems, working in white fire. I dream of blanketing the constant stream of argument with a duvet of snow. 

Sometimes things need to break before they can be repaired. Are we broken enough to begin our own repairing? Wake me when it's time to take up tools and start building. Wake me when it's time to stitch pieces together, to add gold dust to glue and make our cracked and broken places gleam. 


Guest post: Allyship As Spiritual Practice

This guest post is from Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, my fellow co-founder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home, and his CBST colleague Rabbi Yael Rapport. It features some of the amazing Torah of allyship that R' Mike was teaching when he visited North Adams and Williamstown last month. I'm delighted to be able to share it here, especially on Transgender Day of Remembrance as I recommit myself to being a good ally to my trans friends, loved ones, and congregants. - Rachel


 

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Recently, nearly 70% of Massachusetts voted YES on ballot initiative 3, protecting the rights of transfolks against discrimination. This tremendous display of support was brought about by the tireless efforts of transfolks, activists, advocates, and allies. Now that this clear action item has been achieved, we must again ask ourselves: now what? How can we continue to strengthen our sense of communal responsibility, advanced through our quest for inclusivity and human dignity? We witnessed what a powerful result was achieved through the spiritual exercise of networking our resources or "allying up." This is a responsibility that Judaism demands as continual practice, independent of the stakes, high or low.

Our Jewish tradition has embedded within it a deep notion of what it means to be an ally, although the language is not commonly known. Judaism’s perspective provides a new framework for this ancient concept. The word "ally" comes from the Latin alligare, bind together. In rabbinic Hebrew, the best term is chaver / חבר, a word whose most common translation is “friend”. How might our understanding of what it means to be an ally evolve if seen through this interpretive lens?

We find in the Talmud that the word “chaver” has additionally expanded meanings: things connected to the earth are called “mechuver l’karka” and an author is a “m’chaver.” What is the linguistic connection between these three forms of the same word? Our rabbis teach that the word “chaver,” at its core, means to attach, whether it is to share the burden with another person, to connect two physical objects, or to manifest thoughts to words and paper.

The mishnah teaches us “k’neh l’cha chaver/acquire for yourself a friend”. Perhaps we should understand this directive as a charge to attach ourselves to those who could use support from isolation and marginalization. This is for our benefit; we shouldn’t live uninvested in the struggle of another.

It’s often hard to stand up for what we believe in, especially when the dominant culture acts in opposition. The Hebrew letter “ו”, grammatically known as the vav hachebor, the vav that attaches, literally models standing up, as the most vertical letter in the Hebrew alphabet. It’s shape also embodies a hook and is found in the construction of the Tabernacle - the “vavei hamishkan”, the hooks that would connect the curtains to the pillars. In Hebrew grammar it serves the same connective purpose, as the conjunction “and.”

In the mystical tradition, the Genesis narrative speaks to the creative power of Hebrew letters. The Hebrew alphabet itself is said to be the building material for creation. Exploring applications of the letter vav provides enduring modalities for connectivity and allyship illustrated by the function of the vav in scriptural sources. By examining the ways in which the vav is used to connect, in Hebrew grammar, the insights of the Torah can provide new outlooks on how best to parallel our own actions in allyship.

Continue reading "Guest post: Allyship As Spiritual Practice" »


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.


Graffiti love-in

When I arrived at my shul on Shabbat morning, it was covered with graffiti. Not the kind of hateful graffiti that's been cropping up at synagogues around the nation in recent days: rather, signs, cards, and messages of love and support from our non-Jewish neighbors. 

I had advance notice of the "graffiti love-in." (The organizers checked with me to make sure their plan was okay.) But even so, when I arrived at shul on Shabbat morning and found what they had done, I couldn't help weeping tears of gratitude.

Here's what I wrote about it for The Forward: Our Neighbors Graffitied Our Synagogue -- With Love.

I'm enclosing some photos below.

It's easy to pay attention to the acts of horror and trauma and hatred that are sweeping our nation. But I hope you'll also pay attention to this act of spontaneous love, support and care. 

 

(You can glimpse the artists at work in this photo album at the Berkshire Eagle... and I hope you'll read my piece for the Forward, too.)

 


Morning conversation, two days later

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

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

"That's bad," my son observes.

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

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

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

"It is," I agree.

 


From hope to horror and back again

On Friday, I stood with friends and children, townspeople and college students, on the town green. We were holding up signs that said things like "Trans people matter" and "trans rights are human rights." Some of our signs were painted in rainbows, others in the colors of the transgender flag. Every car that drove by honked and waved and gave us thumbs-up signs of solidarity.

Among the hundred or so participants I saw some who I know to be transgender and some who I know to be cisgender, some who were young and some who were older, some who I know to be religious people like me and some who were probably non-religious. I saw rainbow hats and facepaint. I saw togetherness. I saw hope in our affirmation that even if the current administration succeeds in changing the legal definition of how gender works, we will stand up for our transgender friends and family and congregants and community members, and we will support them and help them thrive in all the ways that we can. 

On Shabbat morning, I emerged from synagogue to the news of a horrific shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. The shooter screamed "all Jews must die" before opening fire.

It's hard to overstate the cognitive dissonance between the feelings of hope and togetherness that carried me into Shabbat, and the feelings evoked by news of this latest act of murderous hatred carried out against my fellow Jews in a house of prayer. 

I was talking with my therapist recently about the collective trauma of the Holocaust and the ways I'm noticing it now not only in those whom I serve but also in myself. As a kid, I used to lie in bed and make plans for what I would grab in my suitcase if "they" came after us again and we had to flee for our safety. (Usually my answer was "my loveys, my diary, and my cat.") I don't think I grew up in a particularly Holocaust-focused household; I was just an ordinary Jewish kid in the 20th century. But of course I grew up with knowledge that anti-Jewish hatred exists and is deadly and might someday endanger my family and me.

To be clear: I don't think my family and I are in danger. I routinely wear a kippah around town, and have never been met with anything other than warmth or occasionally well-intentioned curiosity. I feel safe, and I think the rest of my family is safe, too. Unless someone who hates Jews and has a gun walks into their synagogue and opens fire, though I'm pretty sure their big-city synagogues in Texas have armed guards outside them already for precisely this reason. (And I hate the fact that many synagogues across the nation feel the need for armed guards for this reason, but in this moment, I understand why they do.)

I know that many people are in far more danger than I am right now. Queer and trans people are in more danger. Muslims and people of color are in more danger. Immigrants and refugees are in more danger. The children who have been imprisoned in cages in south Texas are in a kind of danger I can barely bring myself to comprehend. I'm white, and I live in a town that feels safe -- as safe as anywhere can, these days. A town where a hundred people gathered together on a Friday afternoon to chant and cheer and embrace our transgender community members and promise them that we will stand by them in their time of need. 

And I'm still a Jew whose mother and grandparents barely escaped Europe before everyone else in the family was sent to the death camps. Acts of violence against Jews awaken ancestral collective trauma in me, as they do in many of those whom I serve. We can't help wondering whether this is the beginning of another Holocaust, another slide into fascism and national xenophobia. The Holocaust claimed eleven million lives: six million Jews, and five million who were queer or Roma or otherwise "undesirable." Will it happen again? Is it happening again even now? Many Jews wake and sleep and live with this fear.

What can we do but continue to work toward a world of greater justice and righteousness? What can we do but reach out to comfort those who mourn -- and then continue existing, and davening, and singing, and hoping, and building toward the better world our tradition teaches us is possible? What can we do but continue learning and praying, naming our babies and celebrating our adolescents' coming of age, marking lifecycles and festivals with music and hope and tears and even, when we can manage it, joy? We have to persist. We have to keep hoping in, and building toward, a world that is better than this one.

And we have to keep standing up for others who are in even more marginalized positions than are we. We have to be upstanders who help those in need. Those of us with white skin, like me, need to use the privilege of that skin to stand up for people of color who feel attacked and afraid. Those of us who are cis-gender, like me -- whose sense of self fits with the gender label we were given at birth -- need to use that privilege to stand up for transgender people who feel attacked and afraid. We who have safe places to live need to stand up for refugees who are fleeing in desperate search of safety. We need to stand up for each other.

I don't want to be writing about hatred and xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric, or pipe bombs, or a shooter walking into a synagogue and opening fire. But this is the world we're living in, and I can't ignore that. All I can offer is this: as Jews, we need to keep being who we are, and we need to stand in solidarity with others who are also frightened and at risk. We need to build a world where this kind of hatred is a thing of the past. Right now it's hard to believe that such a world will ever be possible, but we have to keep building toward it. Because the alternative is accepting that what's happening now is okay, and that's unbearable.

 

In case it's helpful, here's what I sent to my synagogue community.