The red heifer, and gentleness amidst grief

 

Parah

This week’s Torah portion, Hukat, begins with the parah adumah. The Israelites are instructed to bring a red heifer who has never borne a yoke. The priest takes it outside the camp and offers it, burning it along with hyssop, cedar wood, and something crimson. Its ashes are kept for making mei niddah hatat, “waters of lustration,” used to “purify” someone after contact with death. (More on that in a moment.) 

This is weird, and not just to us. Rashi observed that the nations of the world would taunt us about the oddity of this law, which is why it’s called a hok. Hukim are the category of mitzvot that may not make logical sense, like kashrut. We observe them as a spiritual discipline, part of accepting “the yoke of heaven,” tradition’s way of saying there’s something in the universe more mysterious than we can grasp.

I see hukim the way I see poetry that’s allusive and evocative. If I approach this like a poem or a piece of visual art, I notice how this parsha is shot through with the recurring theme of death. Immediately after the parah adumah, we read that someone who touches a dead body becomes tamei for seven days. Tum’ah is Torah’s term for the spiritual condition of having coming into contact with life or death. 

In Torah's understanding we become tamei upon encountering a dead body, menstrual blood or semen, certain forms of illness. I follow R. Rachel Adler in understanding tum’ah as a kind of spiritual-electrical charge. Someone who’s tamei is temporarily vibrating at a different frequency than everyone else. This is the spiritual state that the waters of lustration were used, in Torah times, to wash away. 

The first time I served on our hevra kadisha I understood this in a new way. It’s not that touching the bodies of our dead is somehow “unclean.” It’s more like: once I had helped to wash and dress and bless the body that had once held the soul of a human being, I felt changed. The world outside the funeral home felt weird. I felt spiritually out of phase, not quite in normal time, for a little while. 

I remember feeling that way after late-night shifts when I was a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center, too. After holding the hand of someone who was dying, or praying with someone headed into emergency surgery, nothing felt the same. As I learned much later, it's also how I felt after giving birth: I felt fragile, precarious, both heightened and dissociated, temporary and eternal all at once.

Today the parah adumah ritual is impossible. There is no high priest to make a sacrifice in the appointed place in the appropriate ways. Rambam even suggested that only one more parah adumah will ever be born, to be brought by the messiah. There are no waters of lustration anymore. Especially now that the ritual literally can’t be performed, we grow and learn through studying it rather than actually doing it. 

In place of the waters of lustration, we’ve evolved other rituals to close shiva. For instance, walking around the block and going back in through a different door: embodying both our readiness to re-enter the world, and also how mourning has made us different than whoever we were before. But the central idea that death impacts us and we need a transition to return to normalcy still rings true. 

Reading about death and tum’ah this year I can’t help thinking about Israel and Palestine. I think about the violent deaths of Israelis at the Nova music festival and the kibbutzim that were attacked on October 7. I think about the violent deaths of Palestinians in Gaza over the last 281 days. Everyone there has touched death, and no one has had the luxury of time to mourn, nor closure for their grief.

I yearn for waters of lustration that could wash away their vast grief (and ours) and soften the hearts of those who have power to create change. I wish we had a way to balm every wounded soul and body in Israel and Palestine. Healing feels impossible – as impossible as a ritual that demands a place and a role that haven’t existed in 2000 years and a sacrificial modality of prayer we no longer use.

In times like these I’m grateful that our tradition is built on hope that no matter how broken our world has been, and this year we’re all aware that it is plenty broken, a better future is possible. Even if I don’t know how we’re going to get there. The truth is, it’s not my job to know how the world is going to get there. It’s my job to care for y’all. And it's aleinu, on all of us, to do what we can to build better. 

One of my most profound memories of hospital chaplaincy is the night a kid was hit by a train. I wasn’t yet a parent, and I remember saying to my chaplaincy supervisor that I don’t know how I could have borne the parents' grief if I were. He told me that no matter what, faced with this kind of grief, all we can really give is our heart, our presence, our care. It’s the holiest gift human beings have to give.

I can’t make sense out of the magnitude of loss in Gaza and Israel. Any single person’s grief can be infinite. The grief of whole peoples…? There are no words. And that brings me back to the idea of a hok, a mitzvah we can’t explain. Accepting the “yoke of heaven” means accepting that we can't always make sense of the world. In the face of this much grief, we may not be able to make anything “okay.” 

But we can feel-with one another, and we can insist on empathy for every Israeli and every Palestinian. I know that some people think my empathy is misplaced, or that it benefits the wrong people. For me, empathy is a core spiritual discipline, and part of that discipline is extending it to everyone. Faced with inconceivable loss, our hearts and our care are all we have; they are the holiest gift we have to give.

May this Shabbat Parah bring peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved. 

 

This is the d'var Torah that I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)


The next best time: B'ha'alotkha 5784

Now

Reading B’ha’alotkha this year, what jumps out at me is Pesah Sheni. God spoke to Moses saying, the children of Israel should make the Passover offering at the appropriate time. Except there were some people who couldn’t make the offering because they had come into contact with death. So they came to Moses and said, what about us? 

Moses asked God, and the answer he received was: anyone who couldn’t observe Passover at the right time, because of an encounter with death or because they were on a long journey, can make the offering at the next full moon. (Num. 9:10-12) In other words: if we miss the appropriate time and place for Pesah, we get a second chance.

We've all regretted something we didn’t manage to do. Maybe it’s something personal: I wish I’d done more to encourage people to vote. Maybe it’s something communal: the conversations we began after last month’s initial Israel/Palestine film screening were amazing, I wish we’d started listening and learning together years ago.

Here come these verses about Pesah Sheni to remind me it’s not too late. If there’s something that will bring us closer to God (remember, that’s what a korban / an offering was, from the root that means to draw near; and if the G-word doesn’t work for you, think Justice, or Compassion, or Truth) we get another opportunity.

Granted, Torah goes on to say that if we could’ve made the Pesah offering at the right time, and for some reason we just didn’t, “our soul will be cut off from our people.” (Num. 9:13) For me that’s a descriptive statement, not a prescriptive one. If we don’t engage in mitzvot or connect with community, we’re going to wind up feeling disconnected. 

So much in modern life can make us feel disconnected. I don't think I need to list those things; I imagine each of us could make our own list. And this year, on top of that, painful divisions in Jewish community around Israel and Gaza have made many of us feel alienated and disconnected in spaces where we most yearn to feel otherwise. 

But Jewish life is predicated on the premise that community matters. And I increasingly believe that figuring out how to be in community even when our views on Palestine and Israel differ is some of the most important work we can do right now – as Jews, as Americans, as human beings. 

Recently I read an interview that Roxane Gay did with the author Lamya H, included at the end of the e-book of Lamya’s memoir Hijab Butch Blues. Lamya says:

“I was lucky enough to be part of a very intentional queer Muslim community…. Not everyone was someone I would be close friends with. But because we were building this thing that was deeply intentional, everyone showed up for everyone else. It’s where I learned a lot of organizing skills, in terms of navigating conflict and being around people whose politics are different from yours, who live in the world in ways that don’t match yours – but who you deeply, deeply connect with, and who become chosen family. Navigating all of those things taught me so much about the value of kindness.”

Roxane Gay responds, “When you engage in community with kindness, it makes it possible to navigate all kinds of terrain, both good and challenging.” I read that and I thought: this speaks to me as a member of a broad Jewish community that’s struggling with the challenge of deeply-held views on Israel and Palestine, all rooted in Jewish values, that don’t align.

This year some of us are grieving what our Israeli cousins are going through, and some of us are grieving what our Palestinian cousins are going through. We may feel that difference keenly. But I believe our hearts are big enough to hold it, alongside the common ground that we all want a better future for our beloveds in that beloved land. 

We all want a better future in this beloved land, too. When I read about the plan for a "post-Constitutional" Federal government or those who want this to be a “Christian nation” – when I think about other rights that we could lose – the stakes feel impossibly high. We need each other in Jewish community now more than ever. 

Which brings me back to this week’s parsha. The Hebrew word mitzvah / commandment is a close cognate to the Aramaic word tzavta / connection. A mitzvah is something that connects us: to God (whatever we understand that to mean), to tradition, to community, to each other, to ourselves. 

Torah’s talking about someone who missed Pesah because they were in contact with death or on a long journey. But Rashi expands that. He says, it doesn’t need to be a long journey that keeps us away from mitzvot and community. Even if we were just right outside the door, we can still seek a do-over. 

Framed in modern terms, we could say: no one’s going to police what’s kept us from the mitzvot, from community, from building a more just world. We might feel like our failure to do these things before disqualifies us from doing them now, but Torah says otherwise. Torah says, re-orient, re-align, and try again. That's the work of teshuvah, which is the work of Jewish life.

In an ideal world, Pesah happens at the full moon of Nisan and sets us on a path toward covenant. “We were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm: out of servitude and into holy service, partnering with God in building a more just world.” That’s our core story.

In an ideal world, we’re already on that journey. And if we’re not, it’s not too late to start. It's not too late to welcome the refugee and protect the vulnerable and tend to the climate crisis and uplift human dignity. Like the saying goes about planting a tree: the best time to do it would’ve been then. The next best time is now. 

 

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

 


Exodus


Trudging on treadmills
and surrounded by vacuum, tired
of freeze-dried anything
we'll kvetch: why did you bring us
out here to die? Was the climate crisis
really so dire?

Like our ancient ancestors
craving cucumbers and melons,
the thirsty tastes
of fertile crescent,
nothing to eat but manna
every blistering day.

Maybe a captain, frayed to the end
of his connector cable
will snap: I can't anymore
with you ungrateful wretches,
go eat hydroponic lettuce
until it comes out your nose.

What liturgies will we write
remembering this green Eden?
What revelation will we receive
in ownerless wilderness
wandering across the vastness
between stars?

 

 

Why did you bring us? Ex. 14:11. Cucumbers and melons. Numbers 11:5I can't anymore. Numbers 11:11. Until it comes out your nose. Numbers 11:20. Ownerless wilderness. We receive(d) Torah in a place that is hefker, ownerless; some say, we receive when we ourselves become hefker.

The idea of seeking a new home among the stars is still science fiction. But I can imagine a hypothetical generation of space refugees behaving like the Children of Israel in the wilderness, stiff-necked and grousing. Mostly I wish I could be a fly on the wall to see the liturgies they would write.

 


If: Behukotai 5784 / 2024

If-square


If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit…you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. (Lev. 26:3-5)

In the past I’ve read these opening verses in part as an environmental teaching. If we live in a way that’s aligned with the mitzvot, we’ll be laying the groundwork for a healthy planet. Last week’s parsha Behar (often read as a double portion with this week’s Behukotai) talks about the mitzvah of shmitah, letting the earth rest in every seventh year. In an era of climate crisis, we know that treating the earth in a transactional way that privileges profit over sustainability will lead to woe – like the curses listed later in this parsha.

All of that still resonates. But this year I got caught on the phrase “you shall… dwell securely in your land.” And all I can think is: halevai – would that it were so! 

The idea of dwelling securely feels almost laughable. The horrors of October 7th shattered a sense of safety and security for many of our Israeli friends and family. Violence across the West Bank and the war in Gaza have shattered any sense of safety or security for Palestinians. Torah’s promise is so far from the reality we see in the news and on social media that it draws me up short. 

There’s no practical comparison between our life here and the lives of Israelis or Palestinians – we’re not living under rocket fire or aerial bombardment. Still, I know that many of us don’t feel wholly safe and secure in this land either. The fact that our synagogue has been locked ever since the hostage crisis at CBI Colleyville is testament to that. 

Some immediately blamed prominent Jews for the results in this week’s jury trial of the former president, and the resurgence of that antisemitic conspiracy theory makes many of us anxious. Meanwhile I know that many of us are experiencing vitriol aimed at Zionists or Israelis as a blow to our own hearts and our sense of belonging. 

There’s a difference between feeling unsafe and being unsafe, but both take a toll.

I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled…no sword shall cross your land. [Your army] shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall give chase to 100, and 100 of you shall give chase to 10,000… (Lev. 26:6-8)

I have mixed feelings about Torah’s promise of routing enemies. I understand why superior power is the dream of every oppressed people! And yet I wish Torah could have promised, “You and those whom you understand as enemies will become able to see a better path forward.” But I don’t think that perspective was viable in antiquity. 

Honestly, it doesn’t always feel viable now. Even though I share our prophets’ yearnings for the day when swords will be beaten into plowshares… and poet Yehuda Amichai’s yearning to go even further:

Don’t stop after beating the swords
into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating
and make musical instruments out of them.
Whoever wants to make war again
will have to turn them into plowshares first.

(Someone’s actually doing that, by the way – a group called Armory of Harmony.)

Images

This print features that Amichai poem in Hebrew, and is available from the artist here

These verses remind me of the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, the one that says that if we follow the mitzvot we’ll get the rains in their seasons and will receive all that we need. (The one that our siddur leaves out, because its editors found its promise too transactional.) 

I agree that a purely transactional reading fails us. If our reason for doing mitzvot is that we’ll get rewarded, that’s liable to fall apart the first time we realize that the wicked often prosper, and that terrible things can happen to good people who live an upright and mitzvah-filled life. 

But I find meaning in that part of the Sh’ma when I interpret it in a less literal way, as we did this morning. I think we can do the same here. 

The word hok, a type of mitzvah, is related to the root meaning to engrave. Hukkim are the mitzvot that are carved on us, or the ones we carve on our own hearts through repetition and through allowing ourselves to be changed. Think of how water wears away stone to form channels through which it can flow. 

The verbs telkhu and tishm’ru, “walk” and “keep,” remind us that the mitzvot are our path. As the Ahad Ha-Am said of Shabbat, “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” It’s true of all of the mitzvot: we keep them, and they keep us.That’s how we acquire betah, faith or trust. 

JPS renders betah as “dwell securely,” but this isn’t the kind of security that might come with an alarm system. It’s inner security, it’s faith. If we walk a path of keeping mitzvot and letting them keep us, that’s how we can live in trust, or have trust live in us. This may be a tall order in these days of rising antisemitism and continuing anxiety and fear for all of our beloveds in the Middle East. But I think it’s the invitation that Torah offers us. 

Still, what can we do to reinterpret the verse about our enemies falling before us by the sword? In the daily amidah, there’s a line of prayer that asks God for a time when our enemies will have no hope. It’s become common practice in liberal Jewish circles to replace “enemies” with “enmity.” May enmity itself wither and disappear from the earth. 

The commentator known as the Sforno understands the verse about giving chase to our enemies as: “without even needing to fight them.” In other words: maybe someday when humanity is wholly aligned with a path of right actions and justice, warfare will just… become obsolete.  Enmity itself will disappear. 

Most of our commentators don’t make that kind of interpretive move. Then again, most of our sages lived in eras when Jews faced persecution: R. Yochanan ben Zakkai during the first Roman-Jewish war, Rashi during the Crusades, Rambam who fled from Iberia with his family, the Hasidic masters during the era of pogroms and the Holocaust. It’s a sobering reminder that even those of us living in American comfort, far from today’s sites of bloodshed, carry ancestral memory of centuries of persecution and hatred.

But we also still carry Torah’s promise. It’s up to our generation and the generations to come to build toward a world in which enmity will fall by the wayside. A world in which all can live with betah, complete trust and safety. Because here’s another thing I noticed this year: Torah promises that we will live securely in our land, and in the next verse, that God will grant shalom to the land. I like to understand that to mean: we’ll live with faith and trust and safety wherever we are, and wholeness and peace will come to everyone. 

Here’s what I hear Torah saying to us this year:

 

If you walk in the paths of the mitzvot, and
let them be carved on your heart and mind, and
allow yourself to be shaped and changed by them...
Then you’ll become aware of the rains in their season –
sustenance and hope flowing to you from beyond you.
And there will be times in your life when you can’t feel that flow,
just like there are seasons in Jerusalem when the rain doesn’t fall.
But you’ll find that whatever you have, is enough to get you through.
Then you will be filled with fundamental faith and trust wherever you are.
And there will be wholeness and peace everywhere.
And you will be able to lie down and truly rest
and enmity itself will disappear.
And I will be ever-present in your midst:
God, Who brought you out of the narrow place
so that you can live in a way that is upright,
ethical and unbowed.

 

 

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


Restoring the Name: Shabbat Zachor 5784 / 2024

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Most of Megillat Esther reads like a soap opera, full of banquets and beauty pageants and assassination plots and nemeses. There’s a theme of topsy-turviness. Haman is hung on the very gallows he had built for Mordechai, and instead of being slaughtered the Jews of Persia prosper, and we all live happily ever after. But there’s one part of the turn-about that we don’t typically act out in our Purim play. In chapter 9, the Jews slaughter 75,000 Persians.

The context is this: although Haman himself has been defeated, the King had issued a decree saying that on the 13th of Adar Persians were welcome to kill Jews at will. And he had no way to undo that decree, because in this story the king is comically powerless. Mordechai suggests, “Why don’t you issue a new decree giving us the right to defend ourselves?” The king does that, and the Jews do… that. Every year, I wish that this part of the story weren’t there.

I’m not alone in that. Some communities that hold full readings of the megillah race through those verses as fast as they can. Or they sing them in Eikha trope, the melancholy musical mode used at Tisha b’Av when we mourn the fallen Temples and the brokenness of creation. The folks at The Shalom Center recently released what they’re callling The Chapter Nine Project, featuring a variety of alternative revisionings of that part of the story. 

Megillat Esther was written during the 4th century BCE. It’s generally understood to be a work of fiction, though King Achashverosh may have been a fictionalized version of Xerxes I. The megillah is unusually full of loan-words from Akkadian and Assyrian. Even the character names might be borrowed: Mordechai and Esther could be variations on Mespotamian and Babylonian deities Marduk and Ishtar, and Haman might be a derivative of local Elamite deity Humman.

I don’t have any problem with seeing Megillat Esther as a work of fiction. A text doesn’t need to be historically verifiable in order to be sacred or meaningful. I’d venture that most of us don’t think the universe was literally created in six days, but Torah’s poetic teaching that Shabbat rest is the culmination of creation is deep spiritual wisdom. Esther contains deep spiritual wisdom too – about resilience, about leaps of faith, about what’s hidden and what’s revealed.

In a month we’ll immerse in the story of the Exodus, in which God brings us forth from the Narrow Place with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. In this scroll, in contrast, God’s name literally does not appear. Here God is nistar, hidden. (And yes, that word shares a root with the name Esther.) It’s part of what makes this story feel so modern: there’s no Voice of God here. We can only glimpse God through the miracle of ethical choices and right actions.

Daf-2So what do we glimpse in unethical choices? Jewish tradition writ large supports the right to self-defense, so I can understand the part of the story where we go after those armed against us. And Haman getting hung on his own gallows feels like a kind of literary justice. But the murder of his ten sons feels excessive, and it’s highlighted by scribal calligraphy – meant to evoke “joy over the fact that they were destroyed.” (Maharal, Or Hadash 9:10) Whoa.

Purim is a festival of joy, but this doesn’t feel joyful. (I’m also not convinced that his sons were our enemies. Neither is the Israeli comedy troupe HaYehudim Ba’im, who in one of their sketches portrayed a soldier returning from the war of defeating Haman and the Persians, and saying, “yeah, that Haman was a real piece of —--, but I want you to ask yourselves: what are his children guilty of?”) (Find that here – no English translation though.)

Our tradition also teaches discomfort at the death of an enemy. There’s a midrash that appears in many Passover haggadot describing how, when the Egyptians drowned in our pursuit, God rebuked the angels, “My children are dying and you sing praises?!” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b.) For this reason we spill drops from our second cup of wine. I’m more comfortable with that than I am with this part of the megillah, but both are part of our tradition. 

Today is a special Shabbat, one of the Shabbats with its own name: Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. Shabbat Zachor falls on the Shabbat before Purim, and on it, we read a special extra bit of Torah, Deut. 25:17-19, describing how Amalek attacked us on our way out of Egypt. Amalek attacked the back of the caravan, wiping out those who were elderly or sick or weak. Torah commands us to blot out the name of Amalek, and to never forget.

54141Haman, meanwhile, is understood as a distant descendent of the tribe of Amalek. We’ll “blot out” his name with our graggers tomorrow night. This year I’m struck by the juxtaposition of blotting out the name of our adversary – and the entirely missing Name of that One we call God in the scroll we read at this season. Could there be a spiritual connection between the presence of the massacre in chapter 9 of Esther, and the absence of God’s name in this book? 

It’s as though when we give in to violent fantasies of revenge, we render holiness invisible. Maybe God’s names, which are a stand-in for God’s presence, literally can’t coexist with this degree of gratuitous violence. “Gratuitous” being the key word here, because we know there’s plenty of violence and conquest in other parts of Tanakh. But the massacre of 75,000 Persians feels excessive, even vindictive, in a way that’s hard to bear. Maybe it’s hard for God, too.

This year that part of the story also lands differently because of the ongoing horrors of the Israel-Hamas war. Many of us are still enmeshed in grief for those who were slaughtered or kidnapped by Hamas at the very start of 5784. Hamas’ hatred of us makes Haman feel too real. And many of us are enmeshed in grief for tens of thousands of Palestinians killed or displaced or starving since then, which makes the violence at the megillah’s end also feel too real.

Maybe the vengeance chronicled in this story landed differently during 2000 years of exile than it does now. For centuries we lived precariously, couldn’t become citizens of most nations, weren’t allowed to hold certain professions. And whenever something went wrong, like the Black Death, we were blamed and massacred. Revenge fantasies turn out to be common where there is PTSD and complex grief. They can offer a sense of control when life feels shattered. 

But that control is illusory. And marinating in revenge fantasies can be spiritually unhealthy. According to psychologist Judith Herman (author of Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence), traumatized people who engage in acts of revenge don’t thereby get rid of their PTSD. Instead they seem to suffer more. According to Dr. Michelle Maidenberg, the only real answer is working through the anxiety and grief caused by the trauma in the first place.

The threat of communal annihilation is traumatic. And Jews have collectively known that threat intimately and often, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to pogroms to the Holocaust. We joke about “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat,” but it’s actually pretty dark. As one passage in the traditional Passover haggadah teaches, “in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” That’s a grim worldview. It’s not the way I want to see the world around us.

But maybe the subtext of the Megillah – the fact that God’s very name is missing – can teach us that a violent counter-response to trauma isn’t the right path. I don’t know how the whole Jewish people could go about the psychological and spiritual work of healing the trauma of being hated, of being attacked, of facing annihilation over and over. But I think that if we can do that work, it will bring us closer to making the divine presence manifest in the sacred text of all creation.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)


Not Heat, But Light: Vayak'hel 5784 / 2024

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This week’s Torah portion, Vayak’hel, begins: “וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל / Moses convened the whole community of the children of Israel…” The word I’m translating here as “convened” is vayak’hel. It’s the same root as the word kahal, community. Moses communified the community. He called the community into being by bringing the people together.

In the wake of the the Gaza ceasefire resolution recently proposed in Williamstown, I’ve had a lot of conversations in the last few weeks with members of the CBI community about whether we feel like one Jewish community, and whether we feel connected with the non-Jewish community around us. And do we need to agree in order to be in community? 

Maybe the children of Israel felt like one unified community at this moment in our Torah story. They’d just received the second set of tablets of the Ten Commandments; maybe their shared experience or shared values united them. Or, maybe they came to see themselves as one community through the work of literally building a spiritual home for the Holy together. 

FireBut first Moses reminds us that on six days we may work, but the seventh day is Shabbat; on it we kindle no fires. Obviously the plain meaning of the text is that on Shabbat we don’t strike a match, or build a fire, or engage in the “work” of burning things. Even the holy work of building a home for God* (*whatever that word means to each of us) pauses for Shabbes.

Reading this verse this year, what came up for me was the flame of anger and the smolder of fear. I know that many of us are carrying fear these days. Fear about rising antisemitism. Fear about whether public support for Gaza translates into hatred of Jews. Fear about what this year’s Presidential election might bring. Fear about the climate crisis and our planet.

And I know that many of us are carrying anger. Maybe we’re angry at government dysfunction that’s preventing aid from reaching people who desperately need it. Or we’re angry at the terrible realities of humanitarian crisis. Or we’re angry because we feel helpless.  All of these are fires in our minds and our hearts and our bellies, usually banked but always burning.

Shabbat is our primary spiritual oxygen mask. And in times like these, we need that oxygen mask more than ever. Can we genuinely take one day a week away from all of those flames? Six days a week those fires may be burning in us, but what if on Shabbat we could put a lid on the flames and seek solace together? That’s one of the spiritual tools that our tradition offers.

Beauty-mishkanTorah goes on to describe how everyone brought items of beauty for the building of the mishkan, the portable dwelling-place for God that we carried with us in the wilderness. Blue, purple, and crimson yarns. Silver and copper and gold. Fine linen and leather and acacia wood. Woven wool, and precious stones. The description is so detailed I can almost feel it.  

That’s another spiritual tool: our souls need beauty. There’s beauty in this building, in the warm wood and the bright copper that evoke that mishkan. There’s beauty out our windows, in our giant willow tree and the meditation labyrinth and the hills. Whether it’s via nature, or art, or music, finding beauty in the world isn’t just a luxury. I think our souls actually need it.

LightsAnd then Torah offers elaborate detail about the construction of the menorah, the golden lampstand at the front of the mishkan. The golden menorah was ornamented like a flowering tree, connecting us with the natural world. It had golden cups to hold oil, shaped like almond blossoms. The flowers had petals and calyxes, the sepals that enclose flower petals. 

This golden tree-shaped menorah had seven lights, like the seven days of the week or the seven colors of the rainbow. Some say the menorah symbolized universal enlightenment, or the six branches represent human knowledge and the seventh one in the center represents divine wisdom. Regardless, the purpose of a menorah is simple: it’s there to shed light. 

We need community. We need oxygen. We need to put out the smoldering embers of anxiety and despair. We need beauty. And we need light. People talk about conflict generating more heat than light? We need it to be the other way around. In place of the fires of our fears and our conflicts, we need the light of wisdom, the light of insight, the light of hope. 

I want to give each of us permission to put on the oxygen mask that is Shabbat. To seek out something beautiful that nourishes the spirit. To take a break from the news and the doomscrolling and the low smolder of anxiety and anger and fear. To seek sources of light. And it turns out that we can maintain these as a spiritual practice during the week, too. 

Maybe you know this already: what we feel in our hearts and souls impacts what happens in our bodies. When we marinate in fear or anger, conflict or despair, we can literally become sick. I read a powerful interview with Amy Lin recently in which she notes that acute grief sent her to the hospital with blood clots. And we know that anxiety can manifest in the body as illness.

Many of us know these truths intimately, these days. The horrors of October 7 continue to reverberate as hostages taken that day remain captive. Meanwhile now we also sit with the horrors of humanitarian crisis in Gaza. For many of us, the grief and anxiety feel like a kind of constant low-level poison to our hearts and spirits – and, increasingly, to our bodies. 

Our world is full of reasons to feel disconnected or anxious, angry or afraid. But we do not help those who are suffering by letting our grief and anger sicken us. We have to find a way to be otherwise. Torah this week comes to remind us that like our ancient spiritual ancestors we too need community, and we need a break from burning, and we need beauty, and we need light.

Shabbat shalom.


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


Community Means: Terumah 5784 / 2024

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God spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts;
you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.
And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper;
blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair;
tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood;
oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense;
lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.
And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Ex. 25:1-8)

In this week’s parsha, Terumah, we bring gifts. Everyone brings something different, and everyone has something to bring. Maybe that’s what makes what we build together a mikdash, a holy place. In English, a sanctuary: a sacred space of protection and care. When we co-create safety, then God can dwell among us or within us. (And as always, if the “G-word” doesn’t work for you, substitute something that does: meaning, justice, compassion, hope.) 

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ / va’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham / “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I might dwell within (or among) them.” The Hebrew שָׁכַנְתִּ֖י / shakhanti, “that I might dwell,” shares a root with the name Shekhinah – the Presence of God with us and within us. It’s the same root as the Hebrew word שְׁכוּנָה / shekhunah, neighborhood. The Hebrew אני שוכן / ani shokhein, “I dwell,” is cousin to the Arabic أنا أسكن / ‘anaeskun, “I dwell…”

Torah spends many weeks describing the Mishkan, the portable dwelling place for God that our ancestors built in the wilderness. The story of the mishkan is always also a story about something bigger and deeper. It’s not “just” about the lavish descriptions of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, the hammered gold and copper, the linen and acacia wood. This is Torah’s sacred instruction manual on creating community. Step one: community means everybody. 

Torah reminds us that we build community together, each with our own gifts. The holy work of building community comes with some obligations. First off, we have to respect each others’ offerings and perspectives. We have to remember that together we are more than the sum of our parts. And we have to remember that the way to build a home for the Holy, for truth and justice and compassion and hope, is to all be involved in building it together.

And there’s a corollary, which is that everyone has something to give. I’m not talking about donations, though every community needs funds to keep itself going and ours is no exception. I mean the inner qualities we each bring to the table. Passion and perseverance. Kindness and steadfastness. Community-mindedness. Patience. The fire of justice and activism, and the still waters of care and calmness. The community wouldn’t be whole without all of us. 

This is an easy platitude that can be difficult to live: especially when we disagree, or when we feel afraid, or when emotions run high. This understanding of community asks us to cultivate curiosity about each others’ perspectives and hopes and dreams, and to resist stereotyping each other or writing each other off. This might sound small, but it’s hugely important. I mean, according to Torah, this is literally how we make space for God in our world. 

We make space for God – for justice, for holiness, for our highest ideals – when we all pitch in to build a community that’s broad and resilient enough to be a home for all of us. That’s our aspiration here. Our Jewish community here is for all of us. You belong here – whether you’re a fourth generation local, or you just moved here; whether you were born into Judaism or chose it yourself; whether your Jewishness focuses you inward or outward.

You belong: whether what brings you through the door is spiritual life and practice, or activism and social justice, or music, or mitzvot, or social life and connections. And you belong no matter what path you think will best bring Israel and Palestinians to a just, lasting, and safe peace. We are a tiny synagogue community. Within our fewer-than-100 members we span the gamut of opinions about Israel and Palestine. I know this because y’all have told me so.

This is an upside of smalltown life. I imagine that in a city, people might self-select to different synagogues. But in northern Berkshire, we’re it. Which means we have to find a way to be in community even when we disagree… even about the big questions, like which tune is the right one for Adon Olam. I’m joking, but I also really mean it. Torah’s whole vision of holy community assumes that we are different, and we figure out how to be there for each other anyway.

I am committed to the proposition that we all belong in Jewish community, and that we owe it to each other to make it work. I believe our diversities are the gifts we each bring to the construction of this sacred community. And I believe that in listening to each other, with openness, humility, and care, we make space for that infinite possibility of transformation that our tradition names as God. When we hold space for our differences, we make community holy.

Torah asks us each to bring our gifts if our hearts are so moved. If your heart moves you to do the work of showing up, I’m here to listen and learn. My ask of all of us, including myself, is: come with curiosity. Assume the best of others. And keep an open heart. Bring your gifts, and appreciate what others bring. That’s how holy community is built: not once, but over and over again, in every interaction. Even when it isn’t easy. Maybe especially then. 

I am so glad to be building this community with all of you.

 

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


Bringing Repair: a d'var Torah for #ReproShabbat

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Every Monday afternoon at Jewish Journeys, there is a new Hebrew word or phrase of the day. We teach the word in each of our classrooms, and when we convene for Tefilah Time (an interlude of song and prayer between one class and the next) we talk about what each group learned. This past Monday our phrase of the day was tikkun olam, repairing the world. 

It’s an apt phrase to be focusing on this week. This week’s Torah portion is called  Mishpatim, which means Laws or Judgments. Torah speaks here about freeing slaves, and and about who’s responsible when somebody’s ox gores somebody else. Torah urges us (again) not to wrong the stranger. And here we also find a verse that shapes the Jewish view of abortion. 

In this week’s Torah portion we read (Ex. 21:22) that if two men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant person and a miscarriage ensues, the person who caused the damage is fined. Fined, not put to death. Torah does not treat the causing of a miscarriage like manslaughter or murder, which in ancient times would have demanded the death penalty. 

Later Jewish jurisprudence holds that the life of the pregnant person is paramount. Once the head has emerged and the baby draws first breath, it is considered an individual life. But a fetus begins as “mere water,” in Talmud’s terms. When there is a conflict between the needs of the fetus and the needs of the person with the womb, the person with the womb takes precedence.

(I wrote about this in greater detail and cited more textual sources last year: Reproductive Justice and the Dream of Sky.)

Since the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization SCOTUS decision, abortion has been restricted or banned in 21 states. Teen pregnancy rates are rising in Texas, which has some of the most restrictive legislation nationwide. Meanwhile, several Texans are suing the state over the trauma and danger in being forced to carry nonviable pregnancies. 

I pay particular attention to Texas because I grew up there, and because much of my family still lives there. But there are plenty of other places across the country where the same realities are playing out. Often laws that restrict or ban reproductive healthcare are written and enacted in the spirit of a particular Christian undertanding that “life begins” at conception. 

I don’t think any religion’s beliefs about when life begins should be codified in civil law. Beyond that, it’s wrong to force someone into the life-threatening process of carrying a pregnancy. (Is it surprising to hear pregnancy described that way? Here’s more from Harvard Health.) Pregnancy turns out to be really dangerous – especially for low-income folks and people of color.

It’s wrong to deny the inherent human rights and dignity of any human being. Forcing someone into pregnancy is a denial of human rights and bodily autonomy. In that sense it’s akin to our nation’s shameful history of forced sterilization. And like many injustices both historical and contemporary, it lands hardest on people who are already “on the margins.”

The burden of forced pregnancy – physical, emotional, fiscal and more – lands hardest on people who don’t have resources or power, people who may already live with illness or poverty or homelessness. I’m grateful to live in a state where the right to bodily autonomy is honored… and it pains me that so many people across the country can’t take that right for granted. 

Meanwhile, those who drove the fall of Roe want to ban abortion everywhere, and anti-choice activists are pushing lawmakers not to compromise for any reason. A national ban would mean that the autonomy we enjoy here would end. But even in the absence of a national ban, it’s intolerable that people in almost half of our country don’t have rights over their own bodies.

All week as I’ve been working on this d’var Torah, I’ve been struggling with the sense that nothing I’m saying here is new. We all know that the fall of Roe has had precipitous and terrible impacts. But it feels important to name these realities, again, and to remind ourselves that we have an opportunity and an obligation to try to help fix what has been broken.

On Monday when I was teaching my students about tikkun olam, I told them the thing I love most about this foundational Jewish idea: our tradition presumes that we have power to make things better than they are. Where the world is broken, we can bring repair… and our tradition teaches not only that we can, but that we must. This is our “job.” It’s what we’re here for. 

In the words of “A Prayer for Reproductive Freedom,” shared by the National Council of Jewish Women

May we find within ourselves the collective will 

to create a just society in which reproductive justice – 

the holy right to own the personhood of one’s own body, 

to have or not have children, 

to raise any children in safety and community – 

is foundational. 

Every time I read this prayer, these lines remind me that reproductive justice isn’t just about my body and my healthcare, though of course those are part of it. It’s also about being able to raise all children in safety and in community. Can we actually imagine a world in which all children’s needs are genuinely met? That’s what real reproductive justice would look like. 

What an amazing vision. And since our tradition teaches that learning matters because it inspires us to action, here are two short lists of actions we can take before or after Shabbat to at help protect access to reproductive healthcare for everyone. It won’t get us all the way to justice, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Shabbat shalom to all.

Action items from the NCJW:

Action items from the Religious Action Center / Women of Reform Judaism:

I wrote this d'var Torah for #ReproShabbat 2024, an initiative of the National Council of Jewish Women co-sponsored by Women of Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires.


The Habit of Extending a Hand: Bo 5784 / 2024

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This week’s Torah portion, Bo, begins: “God spoke to Moshe saying: Come to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, in order that I might display these My signs among them…” (Ex. 10:1)  What does this verse come to teach us this year? 

During the first several plagues, Torah tells us that Pharaoh hardened his heart. By this point in the story, Pharaoh has hardened his heart so many times that it just stays that way. God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” is the spiritual stuckness from Pharaoh’s own repeated choices.

Habits become self-sustaining. The grooves of habit become like a rutted road: after a while, staying in those ruts is the path of least resistance. It’s like a psychological-spiritual version of Newton’s First Law (the teaching that an object in motion tends to stay in motion). 

This early part of Exodus invites us to look closely at our habits, at the grooves we carve on heart and mind. Two weeks ago the Voice at the burning bush told Moshe to take off his shoes because he’s standing on holy ground. The word for “shoes” there can also mean “habits.” 

Some habits are great: kindness, gratitude, treating people well. They may become rote sometimes, but these are ruts I’m happy to be fixed in. And some habits are harmful, e.g. hardening our hearts to people’s needs and their suffering, or assuming the worst of people. 

Some of us might struggle more with hardening our hearts to our own needs, or assuming the worst of ourselves, not treating ourselves with the kindness we would bring to anybody else. That’s a kind of self-perpetuating Mitzrayim, a Narrow Place that we maintain for ourselves.

Some of us might struggle with feeling that the problems of the world are so vast that we might as well not even try to fix them. “The climate’s already a disaster, why even bother.” Or maybe we become paralyzed by political news. And the paralysis becomes its own rut.

A bit later in this week’s parsha, “Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land... People could not see one another, and for three days no one could move about; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” (Ex. 10:22-23

The commentator Ramban says, “this darkness was not a mere absence of sunlight… Rather, it was a thick darkness.” Maybe an emotional darkness. Despair can feel like a thick darkness. And yet Torah says that in this darkness, “the Israelites enjoyed light.” What’s that about?

In Proverbs (6:23) we read that each mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light. Maybe Torah says we had light in our dwellings because we had our connective-commandments and our wisdom tradition. And maybe we had light because we reached out to each other. 

And that reminds me of a story in Talmud about a visit to someone who is sick. R. Yochanan says to his friend R. Hiyya, “Is your suffering dear to you?” In other words: do you want to be sick? And R. Hiyya says no. So R. Yochanan reaches out, and lifts him up into healing.

And then R. Yochanan falls ill, and R. Hanina does the same for him. So the Gemara asks: why didn’t R. Yochanan heal himself? The answer is, “a prisoner cannot free himself from prison.” (Brakhot 5b) Nobody can bootstrap themself. Our work in this life is to free each other.

That’s the habit we really need to cultivate: noticing who’s in Mitzrayim, and helping them get out. We can cultivate the habit of lifting each other up. Being a light in dark times, and a helping hand to those who are bound, whether by circumstance or illness or injustice. 

Maybe this means sitting with someone who’s sick or struggling, saying, “I see you, and I’m here with you where you are.” Make a habit of little actions of kindness. We never know when a small action might be making an outsized difference in someone’s life. 

Maybe it means volunteering or donating to support a world of greater justice. Reproductive rights aren’t at risk in our state. But in a lot of states they’ve been gutted, and activists are mobilizing to try to ensure a federal abortion ban, depending on how this year’s election goes.

And that’s just one issue among many. Here’s the thing: feeling helpless or powerless is self-perpetuating. And so is claiming our agency: our capacity to do something, anything, to help someone out of life’s tight places. On a micro level, or a macro level. 

What we can do may not fix things. But settling into the habit of doing nothing definitely won’t fix anything. So… an invitation to think for a minute about something you can do in the new week to reach a hand to someone. Don’t say it out loud, just set the intention in your heart.

Holy One of Blessing:
Help us to soften our hearts.
Attune us to our habits
Especially the ones worth keeping.

Enable us to be a light for one another
And to lift one another
From loneliness and illness,
Injustice and despair.

May our Shabbat be gentle.
And tomorrow night as the week begins
Arouse our compassion and our care
And our capacity to act.

And let us say: Amen.

 

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


Choose

Sometimes Mitzrayim
is easy to spot:

the cruel boss,
the relationship

that keeps you small.
Sometimes

the tight places
disguise themselves.

Choose wilderness.
Forget cucumbers and melons:

the Voice
is always calling.

The name of the game
is becoming.

Nowhere better
than ownerless here

to tend the fire
burning on the altar

of your heart,
never to go out.


Don't Let Despair Win: Vaera 5784 / 2024

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In this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, we read:

God spoke to Moses and said to him… “I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary acts of judgment. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.” ...But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, due to קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ / kotzer ruah and cruel bondage. (Exodus 6:2, 6-9)

God promises to redeem the Israelites from Mitzrayim, the Narrow Place of oppression. But the children of Israel are so demoralized they can’t even hear the promise of better. I left the Hebrew phrase קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ untranslated a moment ago, but kotzer is usually translated as shortness or anguish, and ruah means spirit or breath. Kotzer ruah implies a soul crushed by despair, a kind of shortness of breath that’s spiritual and existential rather than physical. 

קֹּ֣צֶר / kotzer can also mean “impatient.” What would it mean to say that the Israelites’ souls were impatient? How does that fit with the idea that they were so ground-down by oppression and circumstance that they couldn’t even imagine accessing hope? How can one be impatient for something if one can’t feel any hope of the thing actually coming to pass? But maybe that’s what makes it anguish: feeling impatient, and feeling that change is impossible.

The haggadah teaches, “In every generation we must see ourselves as if we had been brought forth from Mitzrayim.” Often we understand this as the narrow places in our own lives. Lately I’ve been thinking about the collective mitzrayim of our democracy feeling precarious. The insurrection that we all witnessed is being rewritten as peaceful patriotismostensibly instigated by the FBI. Neither of those is true. But in some circles, facts themselves seem irrelevant.

I've heard so many of us say we just want to go back to normal. Pre-pandemic normal, or pre-insurrection normal, or maybe the “normal” back when we felt confident that things were getting better. It felt so good to believe that our nation, and our world, were inexorably moving toward a future of rights and dignity for all. But I’ve learned what a lot of people of color already knew: that trajectory was never inevitable. It takes ongoing work.

Rev. King taught that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” What he didn’t say, maybe because it was so obvious to him, is that it only does so when we keep bending it. Last year the Washington Post reported on a surprising amount of support for Christian nationalism. They also reported that many Americans embrace authoritarianism. If we want the arc of the moral universe to bend toward justice, we all have to start pushing in that direction. 

Many of us live, these days, with constant awareness of crisis. And not just one crisis, but what some are now calling a polycrisis. Democracy feels fragile. Antisemitism is rising (including synagogue bomb threats that make it feel personal). There’s war in Ukraine, and in Israel and Gaza. Plus there’s the climate crisis that seems like it might actually be the end of the world as we know it. It’s exhausting. It's spirit-crushing. It's kotzer ruah

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, three-quarters of Americans say that democracy itself is at risk this year. NPR says that 3 in 4 Americans believe that climate change is hurting us, and expect it to worsen. Many of us are braced against the feeling that everything is about to fall apart. We're allowed to feel what we feel, and struggling isn't shameful, it's human. And, we need to make sure kotzer ruah doesn't calcify into permanence. 

The nonpartisan organization Protect Democracy notes that authoritarianism thrives on hopelessness and despair. When we despair, benefit accrues to those who are most craven in their naked pursuit of power. I can’t guarantee that our efforts this year will preserve democracy, or mitigate the climate crisis, or end poverty and injustice… but I’m pretty sure that if we allow despair to stay our hands and hearts, nothing will get better, and a lot of things will get worse. 

Our nation has never yet lived up to its promise of liberty and justice for all. In 1963 Dr. King wrote, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy… Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.” It's 51 years later; that dream is not yet real. But Dr. King didn’t say, “I have a dream that racism and inequity will magically fix themselves.” He knew that those prejudices and the systems that uphold them must be changed, and that we ourselves must change them.

Torah speaks of liberation coming via God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm, but I don’t think that means we should just sit back and wait to be lifted. I find hints of that truth in this week’s Torah portion too. When God says, “I will take you to be My people,” what I hear is: we aren’t in this alone. God is with us in our tight straits, and God will be with us in the work of building a better world. And as always if the word “God” doesn’t work for you, try ideals like Justice, or Love, or Truth. 

Whatever name we use to connect us with our source of meaning and hope: it’s still aleinu, on us, to build a better world. And we do this not individually but as a community. Building a healthy democracy will take all of us. Building healthy institutions that can support the vulnerable, pursue justice, provide education and health care and child care and elder care for everyone, will take all of us. Building a world free of reliance on fossil fuels will take all of us. 

Kotzer ruah keeps us in the narrow straits of despair, feeling like there’s nothing we can do. Or the two candidates are equivalent, so voting doesn’t even matter. Or the planet is doomed, so why bother even trying. Kotzer ruah makes us feel like there's nothing we can do. Resist that. The voice of liberation is calling. We can seek freedom from the tight squeeze of the world’s terrible brokenness around us and within us. But in order to do that, we need to not let despair win. 

 

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


Dancing with our stories

JustLaunched

Bayit just launched our first Kickstarter to support publication of Daughters of Eve, a volume of 12 fabulous feminist essays about women of the Tanakh. The essays come with discussion questions and journaling prompts. It's a really neat project, and I'm excited to be midwifing it into print. The hope is that readers will come away not only with more knowledge about the Hebrew scriptures, but also with reflections on how these ancient female archetypes influence and reveal who we are today.

Backers can support Daughters of Eve at a variety of levels, most of which come with swag (coffee mugs, tote bags, even journals and jigsaw puzzles!). Or if you're part of a book group, consider the Book Group package that gives you books, book plates, and a Zoom conversation with the author. Or maybe you and a bunch of writer friends want to chip in together on the Storyteller package that gives you a Zoom with Sally to talk about writing, story creation, character development...

I especially love the cover design for this title. To me it suggests that all of us who study Torah are engaged in a circle dance throughout the generations. All the way back to our Biblical forebears, and all the way forward to the endless generations who will come after us: we're all learning and becoming and dancing together. If feminist essays on Biblical women and the Torah study journey of self-discovery sound like your jam, I hope you'll join me in supporting Daughters of Eve

Donate to the Kickstarter here.


Lost and Found: Miketz 5784 / 2023

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Screen Shot 2023-12-13 at 10.40.21 AMPreviously, on As Joseph’s World Turns… Joseph’s brothers threw him in a pit! They sold him into slavery and told their father that a beast killed him! He was falsely accused and thrown in prison! He interpreted dreams for two of Pharaoh’s servants! This week he interprets dreams for Pharaoh himself, whereupon he’s promoted to Pharaoh’s right-hand man, in charge of all the granaries of Egypt. And now there’s a famine, and his brothers come seeking food...

They don’t recognize him. Joseph seems to be testing them to see if they’ve changed. He accuses them of being spies, holds Shimon prisoner, and sends the others to bring him Benjamin. They return home with grain and they tell their father what transpired. Then Jacob says, “It is always me that you bereave: Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you would take away Benjamin. These things always happen to me!” (Gen. 42:34)

I empathize. First he lost his most beloved wife, and then he lost his most beloved son (or at least, he has every reason to think he did). I can scarcely imagine that kind of loss. And… it’s still striking to me that he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that these losses impacted the whole family. Even if the other brothers didn’t like Joseph, his death would have impacted them. What kind of father has Jacob been able to be for them all these years?

I’m also struck that he seems to be focusing on what he’s lost, and not on what he still has: the brothers who are still there, taking care of him, providing for his needs. Let’s juxtapose that with a different verse from earlier in this week’s parsha. Pharaoh has just had Joseph released from prison and said to him, “I hear you can interpret dreams.” Joseph’s response is, “בִּלְעָדָ֑י אֱלֹהִ֕ים יַעֲנֶ֖ה אֶת־שְׁל֥וֹם פַּרְעֹֽה /  Not I! God will see to the peace of Pharaoh.” (Gen. 41:16)

He’s saying: ”it’s not about me. God is working through me. If I’m a clear channel, something will come through me, maybe an understanding of your dream that will bring you to some kind of shleimut, wholeness. But I’m just a conduit, I’m not in charge. Wisdom comes not from me, but through me. Peace comes not from me, but through me. It’s not about me at all.” Notice how Jacob’s response is a kind of closing-down, while Joseph’s is a kind of opening-up.

Jacob’s losses of a spouse and a child have shrunk his worldview down to his suffering. He can’t imagine a positive outcome; he just assumes the worst. Joseph’s experienced losses too: his home, his family, his freedom. (Tradition teaches he was in prison for 12 years, forgotten and alone.) But where Jacob seems to me to be shut-down, internally adrift, Joseph seems to emerge from the crucible of his losses with humility and increased capacity to care for others. 

Torah isn’t just about “them” back “then.” It’s also always about us here and now. We all have this Jacob within us: that wounded place that experiences everything as another blow landing on an emotional bruise that never heals. Maybe it’s personal: there was a loss or a betrayal that taught us to expect more of the same. Maybe it’s epigenetic: our ancestors went through it, and we’re still feeling it. Maybe it’s collective: the Jewish people has been through so much.

And we all have this Joseph within us: the capacity to recognize that there’s a source of meaning outside of us and that a life of meaning asks us to help those in need. Every life contains brokenness, and those broken places can make us angular and sharp. Or, we can become softened, like seaglass. Our losses can sensitize us to the needs of others. We can conclude that we’re God’s hands in the world, helping whoever we can however we can. 

Screen Shot 2023-12-13 at 10.40.27 AMIt’s easy lately to do what I see Jacob doing here – to say, “These things always happen to us.” We know our terrible history of persevering through persecution and pogroms. With antisemitism rising, with our fears activated by Hamas and by those who support Hamas, it's easy to feel that the whole world is against us. We may feel we can’t trust anyone to stand up for the Jewish people. It is easy to become like Jacob, mired in our own suffering. 

We can choose to be more like Joseph. To let our losses shape us without consuming us. To recognize that even though we may feel existentially alone in this world as Jews right now, that’s not necessarily true. The other day I treated myself to lunch out with a book. A stranger, seeing my kippah, wished me happy Chanukah. I didn’t know until later that she had also quietly paid for my meal. An act of anti- antisemitism. We’re not as alone as we may feel. 

In this moment of Jacob’s life all he can see is his losses, so all he expects is more loss. I say to my inner Jacob: I get why you feel that way. I honor these hurts. And: this is not all that life is. In this moment of Joseph’s life, he’s gained valuable perspective. He’s experienced what it’s like to feel that God is with him. I believe that God is always with us, but often we’re not awake to that reality. At this point in his story, Joseph is awake to that, and I think it changes him.

As always, if the “G-word” doesn’t work for you, substitute a word that does: Justice, Love, Truth, Meaning, Hope. All of these ask us to act. These are our calling as Jews and as human beings. Our job is to fix what we can and help who we can. Even if we’re not in charge of the granaries of all Egypt, even when we feel helpless in the face of the world’s vast suffering, there is always something we can do for someone in need.

These last few months have been hard. There’s so much to grieve – I don’t need to list it for you, you’re living it too. Many of us are in a pit. Torah says the pit into which Joseph was thrown was a place with no water: no Torah or sustenance or hope. But we can help each other climb out… and we can help each other remember not only what we’ve lost, but also what we’ve found: that our low times can fuel either our despair, or our capacity for kindness and care.

 

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


Encounters: Vayishlach 5784 / 2023

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There are two big spiritual encounters in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach. When the parsha begins Jacob is alone and afraid. He grapples with an angel all night. From that, he gets a new name, Yisrael, one who wrestles with God. (Gen. 32:29) (This is the origin of one of the names our people carries to this day: Yisrael, aka Godwrestlers.) Jacob calls the place where that happened Pni-El, “Face of God,” because of his encounter there with the Holy. (Gen 32:31

The other encounter is with Jacob’s twin brother Esav, whom he has not seen since they parted on lousy terms many years ago. Remember, Jacob (whose given name can be understood as “the Heel”) tricked their father into giving him the firstborn blessing meant for Esav. Then Jacob fled to escape his furious brother. But now, Esav falls on his neck and kisses him. And Jacob marvels aloud to Esav, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God!” (Gen. 33:10)

I love this. The stranger with whom he wrestled all night is a face of God. And his twin brother whom he had feared to meet again as an enemy… is also a face of God. It seems that Torah this week wants us to be thinking about seeing the face of God. Not only in those whom we instinctively like or trust, but also in those with whom we might grapple or struggle. Even those with whom we might be braced for enmity and violence – they too are faces of the One.

Unfortunately, that’s not usually where our sages take this. Esav gets associated with Rome – and knocking Edom (his descendants) becomes a coded way to bemoan the atrocities of Rome. Or: take that moment when he falls on Jacob’s neck. Our scribal tradition places dots over the word “he kissed him,” which Rashi (d. 1105) reads as a sign of Esav’s ambivalence. Midrash suggests Esav was going to bite him, like a vampire, until Jacob’s neck turned to marble!

The Sforno (d. 1549) wrote, “we live among the descendants of Esau: people who are arrogant, consider themselves invincible.” Medieval rabbis often regarded Christian Europe (where it was not great to be a Jew) as the spiritual descendants of Esav. The political realities of each era got read back into Torah. And the rabbis projected their anxiety about Jewish safety, and the trustworthiness of those whom they saw as fundamentally unlike us, onto Esav.

Our sages lived in times of antisemitism and persecution. They read Torah through what was happening around them. Unfortunately, we also live in a time of rising antisemitism, and it’s easy to retroject today’s news headlines into the Torah. Some connect Edom, Esav’s descendants, with the Palestinians. So does the Jacob-Esav encounter have wisdom for us about current events? It could. But the insight it offers is spiritual, not geopolitical, and it’s about… us. 

Torah doesn’t tell us whether Esav genuinely felt love for his brother at their reunion, or whether Esav secretly wanted to bite him in the neck. Torah also doesn’t tell us whether Jacob really saw the face of God in his brother, or whether he was lying through his teeth because that’s what he thought would keep him safe. We get to choose which interpretation we favor. Here’s why I think it’s spiritually valuable to choose to see both brothers positively, especially now.

Genesis is full of brothers fighting. Cain and Abel. Isaac and Ishmael. Jacob and Esav. Joseph and the rest of his brothers. All of those stories are, in a certain way, zero-sum. One brother lives, the other dies. One brother gets lifted up, the other gets kicked out. One brother ges the firstborn blessing, the other gets a curse. One gets a special coat – and then his angry brothers throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery. It’s a whole family tree of favoritism and fighting.

When we choose to see Jacob and Esav’s encounter as genuine, we’re saying: sibling rivalry isn’t the only option. We’re embracing hope for better. We’re affirming that we want to be on a trajectory toward mutual trust, seeing each other generously, creatively visioning a shared future that’s better than our past. We can’t change Torah, but we can change the story of now. Past doesn’t have to be prologue. We can write a different ending.

I read a d’var Torah this week by Rabbi Hannah Jensen called Jacob, Esau, and Jewish-Arab Partnership. She connects how we view Jacob and Esav with an ongoing pattern of “polarization and sides-taking in the name of protecting ourselves and our ‘people.’” I think of my friend and teacher R. Brad Hirschfield’s book You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right. We don’t have to live in a world of us-vs-them. We can make a different choice.

Letting go of us-vs-them might feel implausible, or unsafe, especially now. I get it. And, today is Shabbes. On this day when we live into the as-if, as-if the work of healing the world were complete, I invite us to broaden our imagination. Imagine a world where it’s not about which group “wins” – but rather a future that’s collaborative and cooperative, where the way to succeed is to lift others up. If we can imagine it, it doesn’t have to be a dream.

Jensen cites Sally Abed, co-founder of Standing Together, saying that the best way for us in America to support the Israeli people is to support the Palestinian people. I think she’s saying: it’s a false binary. One will flourish best when the other flourishes too. This doesn’t have to be motivated by altruism; it’s also enlightened self-interest. Spiritually, it’s good to seek the benefit of all. And practically, extremism loses power when everyone can thrive.

I find hope in organizations like Standing Together and Hand in Hand and Roots who teach coexistence instead of mistrust. I’ve started asking myself: whatever I’m about to do, or say, or argue, will it help people there who are trying to build coexistence? Or is it going to fuel the polarization, the zero-sum sense that only one people can “win”? Jacob and Esav didn’t figure out how to live side by side. But I still have hope that their spiritual descendants can.



This is the d'var Torah that I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires. (Cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)


From Chaos to Light: Bereshit 5784 / 2023

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Torah begins, “When God began creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ / tohu va-vohu” – chaos and unformed, scrambled and unpredictable. (Gen. 1-2) In the beginning, there was chaos. Tohu va-vohu was the original state of the universe. It's a law of thermodynamics: entropy is always already with us. Chaos pre-existed creation.

Surely chaos preceded the formation of the modern State of Israel. In the years before 1948 our world experienced profound upheaval and destruction. The hope encoded in the modern state of Israel was planted in spiritual soil laced with the shrapnel of our broken hearts after the deaths of the six million. Could we have imagined, in 1948, the particular grief of right now?

This week we have re-learned some things about chaos and broken hearts. I have no words for the horror of what we’ve witnessed from afar… and I know this pales in comparison with what our beloveds there are going through. I think of when Aaron’s sons die unexpectedly and Torah says simply that he is silent (Lev. 10:3). Sometimes our sorrow is beyond all words.

There is unspeakable sorrow also in this week’s Torah portion. In Bereshit we read about Cain and Abel, the first siblings, born to Adam and Chava. One brother brings produce to God, the other brings animals, and God looks with favor on only one of their offerings. We might wonder why God's favor seems here to be zero-sum, but Torah doesn't answer that question.

Torah just tells us that the face of Cain, the farmer, has fallen. And God says, "Why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift." (Genesis 4:7) But Cain doesn't do right. He slays his brother in the field, and when God asks about Abel, Cain retorts, "Am I my brother's keeper?" And God replies, “your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” (Gen 4:10)

I keep thinking about the grief Adam and Chava must have felt – and the grief God must have felt, too. Torah seems aware from the very beginning that human beings are capable of unthinkable harm. Indeed, there's midrash that says at least some of the angels tried to talk God out of creating humanity, arguing that humans would be violent and terrible.

Truth and Peace say: don’t do it, God, humanity’s going to trample the values we stand for. Justice and Compassion say: no, God, create humanity, they’ll act with mercy and justice! Of course, we know that God creates humanity, because here we are. Our mystics say that’s because God yearns for relationship with us. God yearns for us to live up to who we can be.

Chaos is at the very beginning of the cosmic story, and bloodshed is at the beginning of the human one. In this sense Torah feels very realistic. It’s a funny word to use for a seven-day creation story that midrash populates with angels! But Torah has no illusions about who and what human beings are. This is what we have to work with. Torah begins with chaos.

And then: יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר  / Yehi or, says God: "let there be light," and there is light. And God sees that the light is good. (Gen. 1:3-4) Torah isn't talking about sunlight. We know this because God creates light before creating the heavenly bodies that illumine our sky. This light is something else. This is what our mystics call the primordial light, the light of creation itself. 

The primordial light shines in the darkness not of space but of spirit. And when God declares it good, God is saying that there is capacity for good in this world. God is saying that we can choose to create, not just to destroy. Our Shabbat candles shine with the glow of that primordial light. Shabbat comes each week to remind us that tohu va-vohu is only the beginning.

Shabbat is supposed to be a holy time out of our ordinary existence. But I am here tonight to say to you: if we need to grieve, then Shabbat can hold our grief. If we need to pour out our hearts at the pain and horror of it all, then we can. God can take it. And I promise that even if we feel our hearts are shattered altogether, I know that in time healing will come.

Cain asks God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" We learned at Kol Nidre that kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh -- all of Israel is responsible for one another. We're mixed up in one another. We're part of one another. It's why when others are harmed, we feel the hurt. And I wouldn't want to be any other way. Even if that means worrying and crying and grieving from afar.

And I'm also here tonight to say to you: this week's Torah portion comes to remind us that we have agency. Chaos isn’t the end. On the contrary, it seems to be a necessary precursor to beginning. Even when darkness and chaos feel like all we have, this is where creation itself begins. Existential darkness gives way to light. It’s why a Jewish day begins with evening.

For R. Isaac Luria the story of creation begins with breaking. When God first began to create, he teaches, the vessels meant to hold God’s light shattered. Creation as we know it is full of shards, and also holy sparks. That was the original meaning of tikkun olam: lifting the broken shards to find the sparks of holiness, and lifting those sparks back up to their Source.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about these words from the Kotzker rebbe, as taught by Rabbi Alana Suskin: “The Torah says, ‘In the beginning, God created…’ God only created the beginning, and left the rest to humankind.” It’s up to us to figure out how to get from this beginning to something better. I believe that most people, in Israel and in Gaza, want better than this.

A friend recently mailed me a book by Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes, and I opened it one morning this week over breakfast. Immediately I had to pick up a pen to draw exclamation points in the margins. The sentence that drew me in was, “Hope and grief can coexist, and if we wish to transform the world, we must learn to hold both simultaneously.” 

I don't have answers to the vast tragedies and traumas we've witnessed this week from afar. But the voices that resonate most for me this week are the ones saying: these two peoples can live in peace. Nobody's children should be killed. Out of this terrible mourning, we pray for a better path forward. A better world is possible. 

May we remember that we are all each others’ keepers. May we extend ourselves with care to all who are suffering across that beloved land. Out of this chaos, may we find our way to creating light. In the words of the National Council of Jewish Women, this week we’ve seen the worst in humanity; may we respond by cultivating the best in humanity. And let us say – amen.

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Wondering how to help?

 

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


Connect: Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5784 / 2023

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“So what are you going to talk about, Rabbi, with the world as it is?”

Screen Shot 2023-08-15 at 12.32.46 PMWe all know the world is on fire. Climate catastrophes continue. Our democracy feels fragile in ways I don’t need to describe – you’re living them too. In many parts of this country, rights are under attack: my right to decide whether or not to carry a pregnancy, or the rights of people like my friend Rabbi Daniel Bogard in Missouri to pursue appropriate medical care for his trans son. 

This is our world, and the road to repair will be long. The climate crisis isn’t going anywhere, and I don’t think a quick fix will do it for democracy or human rights, either. The emotional and spiritual impact of living with all of this can be heavy. 

Over the winter, I picked up a new coping mechanism: learning Arabic on Duolingo with a rabbi friend. Any time I caught myself doomscrolling, I’d open Duo and practice Arabic instead. His resolve to learn had come from a recent trip to Israel and the West Bank. My resolve to learn was because I hoped to travel there.

Screen Shot 2023-08-30 at 10.07.49 AMLearning a new language is an adult is humbling. After about nine months, I can say, or slowly read, things like قهوة سيث طيب/ kahwa Seth tayyib, “Seth’s coffee is good!” or هذا مطبخ واسع الحمد لله / hadhe matbakh wesia alhamdulillah, "this is a spacious kitchen, thanks be to God!" Basically I’m a pre-schooler. 

I have a long way to go before I can engage in meaningful dialogue. Still, learning Arabic connects me outward, instead of stewing inside about all the things I can’t fix. And every word I learn brings me one step closer to being able to connect across what can sometimes feel like a vast chasm.

Screen Shot 2023-08-15 at 12.37.23 PMIn early summer a few of us from this community went to Israel with members of two New York city shuls. At the end of our first full day, our dinner was in the home of Doris Hiffawi in an Arab neighborhood of Yafo. She introduced herself as Christian Arab Palestinian Israeli. 

Doris is Israeli: she’s a citizen of the state of Israel. She's Arab and Palestinian: her lineage is Arab, her first language is Palestinian Arabic, her family has lived in Jaffa for over 100 years. And she's Christian, which is the majority religious tradition here, but very much a minority one there.

Screen Shot 2023-08-15 at 12.37.31 PMDoris welcomed us into her elegant home with music and dancing. She and her mother had cooked us a spectacular meal of maqluba and shakshuka. She told us about being a minority within a minority several times over – an Arab citizen of Israel, and a Christian in a majority-Jewish state and in a majority-Muslim Arab world. She talked about choosing empowerment as a woman in what we might think of as a fairly patriarchal culture. She runs a small business welcoming strangers – Jewish Israelis and tourists like us –  into her home for coffee or a meal and conversations.

And as we were departing, I managed to haltingly tell her, in Arabic, that الاكل جيد جدا شكرا جزيلا el-ekil jayyid jiden shukran jazilan -  the food was very good, thank you very much. 

Doris Haifawi speaks excellent English. Her Hebrew is gorgeous and fluent, unlike mine. I'll never forget the way she beamed and clasped both of my hands and called me habibti when I thanked her in my slow and clunky Arabic. She had extended herself to us by opening her home and her story. When I made an effort to speak her language, I was extending myself to her, and I could feel the change between us. 

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This morning's Torah reading is – to use a rabbinic term of art – a doozy. Sarah conceives a son whom she names Yitzhak, "Laughter." Maybe you remember that Sarah had been barren, so she gave Avraham her handmaiden Hagar, "The Stranger," and with Hagar he fathered Yishma'el, "God Listens." 

Now Sarah sees Yishma'el מצחק / m'tzahek, playing with Yitzhak. It's not clear what that means. Rashi says he was doing something inappropriate, maybe engaging in idol worship. Ibn Ezra says he was just playing around, like kids do. The word m'tzahek shares a root with the name Yitzhak: was Ishmael pretending to be his brother? Part of Torah's richness is that it can support all of these interpretations and more.

Hagar_and_Ishmael_by_George_HitchcockBut there's not much ambiguity in Sarah's response. She says,“Send away that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share the inheritance of my son.” Even the language feels dehumanizing. 

It’s possible that Sarah lashed out at Hagar because of her own trauma. Twice, when she and Abraham were traveling, he lied about her identity and pretended she was his sister. He was afraid that if people knew she was his wife, they would kill him and claim her.  Sarah even wound up in Pharaoh's harem at one point, though Torah is silent about how that impacted her. 

I can say this: we know now that when we don't work through trauma, we often unconsciously perpetrate it on others. Maybe those who wrote down the ancient stories in Torah knew that on some level too, even if they couldn’t yet articulate how putting a woman at risk of sexual assault could be traumatic. 

In Islamic tradition, the expulsion of Hagar is seen as a necessary beginning to the story of Islam, foreordained by all-knowing God. In Jewish tradition, many commentators have wrestled with what appears to be Sarah’s deeply unethical act. 

Torah is a powerful mirror for the self. Maybe we resist this piece of Sarah's story because we know how easy it is to "other" someone, to see them as unworthy of our time or care. "I don't want to share what I have with somebody like that. Let them fend for themselves somewhere else.” 

And maybe that's why Torah tells us, over and over, וַאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃, "You must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Deut. 10:19) Torah is saying: our history must spur our empathy.  

According to Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b), Torah gives us this mitzvah 36 times. Love the stranger. Do not wrong or oppress the stranger. Care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. In R. Danya Ruttenberg’s words:

Everyone who has resources must ensure that those who are most marginalized are able to access some of those resources… [These] aren’t Divine Suggestions, they’re commandments.” 

And they are so core that for at least two thousand years, they have been first among the critical mitzvot that we enjoin upon someone who joins the Jewish people. (Yevamot 47a)  

Reading again about how Sarah othered Hagar – literally pushed her out of the tent and into the wilderness – I am here to say: we can be better than that. We can commit ourselves to not treating the stranger that way, to not othering anyone. 

And I also need to acknowledge that power matters, and that our various identities impact how safe we are (or aren’t) with people unlike ourselves. 

Screen Shot 2023-08-15 at 12.41.20 PMA thought exercise: imagine you’re a white man walking down a street at night. Notice what anxiety you do or don’t feel. Now imagine you’re a white woman. Maybe in your imagination you feel a bit less safe. When I was a teenager my mom taught me how to hold my car keys like a spiky weapon in my fist in case a man came after me. 

Now imagine you’re a woman of color. Probably feeling even less safe, because in addition to sexual violence, you’re also worrying about racial violence. Now imagine  you’re a queer woman of color: all of the above, plus homophobia. Imagine that you’re transgender or gender non-conforming, and the danger rises even more. We can see how risk increases as identity becomes more marginalized.  This too is an exercise in empathy: remembering that when I feel safe, someone else might not. 

Torah obligates us to love the stranger / the “other” and to help those in need. And sometimes the people who see us as “other” are actually dangerous to us. Our job is to discern when to reach out beyond our comfort zone, and when to withdraw in self-protection. For instance, I would not feel safe extending care toward someone who thinks Hitler had the right idea. Granted, I’m not sure how someone with those views changes, if not through genuinely meeting people like us. But our safety matters. 

Working to end bigotry and othering is collective work. We’re in it together, and that togetherness is key. It’s ok to say, “this one is too personal, I need an ally to step up for me.” I don’t feel safe extending myself toward a neo-Nazi, but someone who’s not Jewish could do that work. Meanwhile, I’m a cisgender white woman, so I can stand up for my trans beloveds and for people of color. 

Connection across difference, allyship, the pursuit of justice, empathy: these are lifelong practices. 

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 A few weeks ago, the following question came my way: 

"Where do we find hope and renewal when everything looks awful? You probably don't have an answer, but I would really like for a spiritual leader to talk about how to deal with the world right now without falling into despair."

We find hope in taking action. We find hope in connecting beyond ourselves. We find hope in helping the stranger, and in standing up for each other. We find hope in resisting doomscrolling and doing something

This doesn’t feel like “enough” when the world is as broken as it is. But compared with doing nothing, it’s everything. 

In the words of Vanessa Zoltan, a Jewish atheist chaplain whose parents survived the Shoah:

[T]]his is the lived truth of probably half the globe, right? That at any moment you might have to leave. And so you keep your eye out for who could help you... But also at any moment, someone else might be the person who needs to leave or needs help. So keep your eye out as to who you can help.

Screen Shot 2023-08-15 at 12.41.38 PMHere's one way to connect: my family is part of the Haiti Host Team, working to resettle a Haitian refugee family locally. Yousemane and Josnel came here in July via the Welcome U.S. project. Our work is coordinated by Bridget Spann at First Congregational Church in Williamstown, and I’d love for members of our community to take part. “Welcoming the stranger” doesn’t get more literal than that.

Or: reach out to be trained on the security protocols here so you can be a door greeter at services, helping our community stay safe even as we literally welcome people in.  Or maybe in the new year you’ll feel called to join up with our friends in the New Hope United Methodist community to re-start our participation in Take and Eat, the weekend Meals-on-Wheels program that Ed Oshinsky brought to us years ago, which we didn’t have the volunteer power to continue once the pandemic began.

When we help others we galvanize our sense of agency, which matters because feeling powerless leads directly to despair. And: doing this actually makes us feel better. So says Dr. Carolyn Schwartz, a professor at UMass Medical School. She arranged regular peer-support phone calls for people with multiple sclerosis... and found that those who offered support were helped more than those who received the support. 

It turns out that the best way to be spiritually nourished and to feel hope is to extend oneself to someone else. Helping others is a way of helping ourselves; we're not actually as separate as we think. 

So much is broken: the climate, public trust, the national body politic, our capacity as a nation to even agree on a shared set of facts.  Pretending it’s not broken doesn’t serve us. But we can reach into our tradition for the spiritual tools that do serve us, and I think this is one of them. 

The Hebrew word mitzvah is related to the Aramaic tzavta, to connect or join. A mitzvah is literally something that connects us: to each other, to our traditions, to our Source.

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The imperative to love the stranger and to lift up those who are marginalized are among our most core mitzvot. They’re central to who we are as Jews. They’re also at the literal heart of Torah. Torah has a chiastic structure: what’s most important is in the middle. And this verse is in the middle of the middle book, Torah’s deep heart.

On Yom Kippur afternoon we’ll hear instructions to provide for those in need and to act justly, leading up to the verse at Torah’s heart: “Love your neighbor / your other as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) And how do we show that love? By feeding the hungry and acting justly. It all comes down to loving the stranger and helping those in need and doing what’s right.

This is the life-giving spring in the desert of our wandering. And it’s up to us whether we let it become choked with sand, or whether we help “justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” (Amos 5:24)


These are the words I offered at First Day Rosh Hashanah services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the congregational From the Rabbi blog.)



If We Build: D'varim 5783

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This is the d'varling I offered at Bayit's Scholar-In-Residence weekend at the Jacksonville Jewish Center.

It’s Shabbat Hazon, the “Shabbat of Vision.” This Shabbat gets its name from tomorrow morning’s Haftarah, in which Isaiah describes a vision of calamities that will befall Jerusalem and the Jewish people. Sure enough, we’re approaching the end of the Three Weeks leading to Tisha b’Av. If this is the Shabbat of Vision, it’s easy to see what’s coming: the fall of the Temple. 

Not all Jews deeply feel Tisha b'Av, or mourn the destruction of the Temple, but the fall of the Temple remains  the quintessential Jewish tragedy of loss and exile. And yet that hurban – that destruction – enabled the birth of rabbinic Judaism. Our forebears wrote the Mishnah precisely to preserve memory of what had been and to start rethinking what had been.They took the foundations of the Judaism that had come before, and began to build something new. 

Later, in the conversations that became Gemara, the scaffolding of construction rose higher and stretched more broadly. And then others built on those foundations. Today we inhabit a Judaism of so deliciously many rooms! Jewish life and practice now take some forms that our ancestors couldn’t have imagined. But all are built on the foundations we inherited from our forebears. They built the Judaism that their moment needed, and so too do we. 

The destruction of the Temple is foundational for the Jewish people not only because it sent us into Diaspora all over the world. It’s foundational because it laid down the principle on which Judaism as we know it continues to unfold: we all need to be builders. The Jewish future is always under construction. That’s the founding principle of Bayit. 

In Talmud we read:

Wise students increase shalom in the world, as it is said: “And all your children shall be taught of God, and great shall be the shalom of your children” (Isaiah 54:13). Don’t read it as “your children,” [banayikh], but “your builders” [bonayikh]. (Brakhot 64a)

It’s our job to increase shalom in the world: not just “peace,” but shleimut – wholeness, completeness. No one is a spectator to this holy calling. All of us are called to take up our tools and keep building Judaism. That’s one of our core values at Bayit, and as we say in Texas where I grew up, “Y’all means all.” All ages, all gender expressions and sexual orientations, all races and ethnicities, all branches of Judaism, clergy and laypeople, rationalists and mystics.

At Bayit we create and curate meaningful tools for building the Jewish future. Like our forebears, we remix tradition with innovation, what’s been with what’s next. Some of our “builds” are new books, or new prayers, or new practices. Some are games – you’ll get a taste of that tomorrow at Shabbat lunch.  All of our “builds” seek to engage in new ways or deeper ways, with a first-hand sense of participation and investment in the experience.

How we build is as important as what we build. Building the Jewish future is an iterative process. We try something new. Measure whether it worked. (What does it mean for a prayer or a ritual or a game to “work,” anyway?) We get feedback. We tweak and improve. And then we try again. You could call this design thinking, or research and development. I call it fun.

Does it feel weird to be thinking about fun on the cusp of Tisha b’Av? Maybe a better word is nourishing. Even when what we’re building is new liturgy or updated ritual for Tisha b’Av – like collaboratively writing the text we called Megillat Covid during the early months of the pandemic, or setting an Amanda Gorman poem to Eikha trope – there’s shleimut in doing it.

There’s shleimut in part because we’re building together. In our Liturgical Arts Working Group (a creative collaborative of writers, artists, and liturgists) we’ve got Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews, clergy and laypeople, spanning the continent. Together we’re more than the sum of our parts, and together we can build in ways that none of us could’ve done alone. 

The Judaism of the future needs all of us, in all that we are and all that we can become. That’s one of my favorite ways to understand the teaching from Torah that we’re made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). Each of our souls is a facet of that ineffable Whole we name as God, which means the only way for the image of God to be complete is for all of us to build together.

And a Judaism of shleimut asks us to be authentic. In spiritual life and ethical life, the things we do and the way we do them, we need to bring our whole selves to the table. The work of building Judaism requires us to be real with each other, with our traditions, and with our Source. Otherwise what we’re building would rest on flimsy foundations.

The Judaism of the future won’t look exactly like the Judaism of today, any more than what we do looks exactly like the Judaism of 800 or 2,000 years ago. With all due respect to the great Rabbi Moses Shreiber of Pressburg, the Hatam Sofer (d. 1839) who claimed in a streak of preservationism that anything new in Judaism is automatically forbidden, change has always been built into Judaism. When the Temple fell, we took broken pieces of tradition as we’d known it and we built something beautiful and new. Even the Temples were a re-framing of what had come before, a traveling Mishkan in the desert, which replaced the stone altars of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

Rabbi Isaac Luria (d.1572) taught that when God began to create, God’s infinite light streamed into creation. The “vessels” that were meant to hold that light were too fragile, and they shattered. The world as we know it is full of the broken shards of those original vessels, concealing sparks of creation’s original light. Our job as Jews – and I would say, our job as human beings – is to repair the world’s broken pieces and uplift those holy sparks. That was the original meaning of tikkun olam: literally, taking up our tools and repairing our broken world.

It’s Shabbat Hazon. When we look around, we can see plenty of brokenness. 

But brokenness isn’t the end of the story. The very fact of Judaism itself proves that, to the contrary, it’s only the beginning.  It’s an invitation to create something new, and a spiritual mandate to do so together. On our spiritual calendar, Tisha b’Av next week begins the seven-week runway to Rosh Hashanah and the infinite potential inherent in every new year. The Judaism of tomorrow will be what we make it, and especially on this Shabbat of Vision, I can’t wait to see what we’ll build together next. 

To remix Theodore Herzl (the “father” of modern political Zionism) with the 1989 Kevin Costner classic Field of Dreams, if we build it, it is no dream.

 

Cross-posted to Builders Blog

 


Taking Turns Holding Hope: Shlach 5783

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This week’s parsha, Shlach, holds the story of the scouts. God tells Moses to send scouts to explore the land of promise, one from each tribe. Twelve are chosen. When they reach the land, they find grapes so big that they require two men and a carrying-frame. Upon returning, ten of the scouts say: there are giants there. We felt like grasshoppers. We can’t do this.. 

Joshua and Caleb argue otherwise. They plead, “don’t be afraid!” (Num. 14:9) But the ten who’ve lost faith carry the day. And their loss of faith is contagious. “If only we had died in Egypt!” the people shout. “Or if only we might die in this wilderness!” The children of Israel don’t have hope that anything will ever become better than they’ve known it to be so far. 

And God says, “fine, you know what: if you don’t trust in Me even after everything you’ve just seen, the Exodus, the signs and wonders, you can stay here in the desert for forty more years. When this generation is gone, then I’ll lead the children of Israel into the land of promise. But you are clearly too scarred by the traumas you’ve endured. You don’t get to make it there.”

This year I’m feeling empathy for the minyan of ten who didn’t think they could do it, the ones who said, “I don’t have it in me, and I can’t believe that I ever will. This is too big. I’ve spent my whole life slaving to meet Pharaoh’s demands, or to try to feed my family in traumatic circumstances. All I can see ahead is more grind, and I’ve lost heart for the struggle.”

I suspect we’ve all felt that way. I don’t have it in me, and I can’t believe that I ever will. All I can see ahead is more grind, and I’ve lost heart. Loss can put us in that place. Or depression. Or grief, or overwhelm, or illness, or disappointment – you don’t need me to count the ways. The scouts get a bad rap for losing faith, but I suspect we can all relate to them.

There’s nothing wrong with fear or doubt. “Spirituality” that pretends we never have those feelings is at best incomplete. I don’t think any life is entirely devoid of those – not if we’re paying attention and being real. The place where the scouts got themselves into trouble, I think, was giving in to despair. As Reb Nachman of Breslov teaches, “it is forbidden to despair.” 

It’s forbidden because despair means giving up on God’s capacity to lift us out of life’s narrow places. If the “G-word” doesn’t work for you, try: despair is giving up on the possibility of change, the possibility of hope, the possibility of anything ever being better than this. It’s noteworthy that Reb Nachman was depressive. Was he giving the advice he himself most needed to hear? 

Enter Caleb and Joshua: the scouts who say, “wait, we can do this.” Sometimes we need to hear that the future can be more than whatever limitations are currently constraining our hearts. When we’re in the narrow place of not being able to see a way out, we need someone to remind us that change is possible and that the future can be sweeter than we can currently see.

These roles – the person who despairs; the person who offers hope for better – aren’t innate. We take turns. Sometimes I'm the one with the reminder that life can be better than we fear, and sometimes I’m the one who needs to be reminded. All of us are the weary souls too demoralized to imagine better, and all of us are the dreamers who can see a better world.

When we despair we need someone to walk with us, to feel with us, and to remind us that when we feel most stuck, change can be waiting in the wings – even (or especially) if we can’t see it. I think about how Isaac might have felt during the akedah: bound, immobile, his father’s knife raised over him – not yet knowing there was a ram waiting just outside the frame.

To be clear: the loved one who is ill may not be cured. The grief that comes with loss can’t be short-circuited. Sometimes what’s broken can’t be repaired. But change is always possible, even if that change is “only” internal. Honestly, internal change can be… everything. Maybe not what is, but how we feel about what is. How we experience what is, and how we respond.

The scouts represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Our mystics associate the tribes with different qualities, weaknesses, and strengths. The cleric, the judge, the scholar, the sufferer: each tribe is linked with a different archetype or journey. In today’s world, I don’t think these energies define us. I suspect we each resonate with different core qualities at different times. 

The tribe of Judah, Caleb’s ancestor, is associated with leadership and with gratitude (hoda’ah). And Joshua descends from Ephraim, who is associated with transformation and with thriving even in tight places. These same qualities can fuel us when we accompany each other into tough times, and when we hold on to hope for those who can’t feel it right now themselves. 

I’ve come to see God’s threat of a lifetime in the wilderness not as prescriptive but as descriptive. It’s not that our lack of faith is punished by a lifetime of suffering. Rather: when we’re mired in despair, that’s what our lived experience becomes. Our work is to transform the prospect of a lifetime of wilderness wandering into a sacred journey of becoming. 

And we can’t do that alone. We all have moments of feeling like grasshoppers faced with giants; we need each other. When we’re in this together the fact of the wilderness is the same, but the internal dynamics and lived experience can be different. And when we hold hope for each other, we keep open the door to possibility, and the promise of blessing, and change. 

 

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


Touching Eternity: Emor 5783 / 2023

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This week's Torah portion, Emor, gives us a roadmap for the spiritual flow of the Jewish year. First is Shabbes. "On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest." (Lev 23:3) Then comes Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Then the seven weeks of the Omer, the corridor of time we're in right now. Then Shavuot on the 50th day, festival of first fruits.

Then Rosh Hashanah, a day of shofar blasts. Of Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement. Torah says, "וְעִנִּיתֶ֖ם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם " -- usually translated as "you shall practice self-denial," though I prefer to read it as, "You shall answer your soul." Four days later, Torah says, it's time for Sukkot. Build a sukkah and live in it. Gather lulav and etrog. Rejoice before God for seven days, and the 8th day is a festival day too.

It's an outline of the Jewish spiritual year. Every seventh day, we're supposed to rest. Shabbat is first and foremost: the basic unit of Jewish time is six days of regular week and a seventh day of Shabbat. And then we move from liberation to revelation to gratitude. From spring harvest (Pesach) to summer harvest (Shavuot) to the Days of Awe and the fall harvest (Sukkot.) That's the cycle of our year.

There are a few holidays that aren't here. Tu BiShvat, the new year of the trees. Purim, festival of masks and merriment. Tisha b'Av, when the Temples fell. Chanukah. All of these are post-Biblical. They're from the last couple thousand years, more or less. That makes them positively modern, by Jewish standards! Listed here are the oldest fixed points in the Jewish year, from antiquity to now.

This week's Torah portion reminds me that our holidays aren't wholly separate or discrete. The festivals are connected like pearls on a string. One leads to the next. Notice how the Omer draws a through-line connecting liberation at Pesach with revelation at Shavuot, or how Rosh Hashanah (shofar as spiritual alarm clock) sets up Yom Kippur (answering the call of our souls) which leads to Sukkot.

The festivals connect us with the earth: Passover and Shavuot and Sukkot are all harvest festivals, because in the Mediterranean climate where our tradition originated those are all times of year when things are growing. They connect us with the heavens, too: Pesach and Shavuot fall at full moon, Rosh Hashanah falls at new moon, and of course each week is half of the moon's waxing or waning.

They connect us with community. In antiquity, the Shalosh Regalim / Three Pilgrimage Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) were times of coming-together as a community. Today the Days of Awe and Passover tend to be our big times of convocation. But whether it's three times a year, or twice a year, or every week, these holy times are meant to be celebrated in community, as a community.

And they connect us with our obligation to take care of each other. This week's Torah portion reminds us again that when we harvest, we must set aside grain for "the poor and the stranger," for those who are marginalized. (Lev. 23:22) At Passover we remind ourselves "let all who are hungry, come and eat." At Sukkot, in our rain-prone sukkahs, we rekindle awareness of homelessness and housing insecurity.

The earth, and the stars, and community, and taking care of each other: these are among the most enduring things there are. Empires come and go, and all of these are still here. An individual life has its ups and downs, and all of these are still here. Our festivals connect us with eternity. And I like to hope that even thousands of years from now, maybe orbiting some distant star, they always will.

So notice where we are in the year. Where are we coming from? Where are we going? Take heart in how the Jewish year connects us across both time and space -- with our ancestors and our descendants, and with our fellow Jews everywhere. We're part of something enduring. And may all of this galvanize us in taking care of each other, and of our world, and of our own spiritual lives: now and always.

 

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


To Be In Community: Vayakhel-Pekudei 5783 / 2023

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This week's Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, brings us to the end of Exodus. The first part, Vayakhel, begins:

וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל - And Moshe yak’hel / convened the whole edah / congregation of the children of Israel... (Ex. 35:1)

The word yak'hel shares a root with the word kahal, community: it’s almost saying that Moshe “communified” them. Meanwhile, edah (translated here as congregation) can also mean witness. To me this implies that bearing witness to each other and to each others' needs is part of what makes a community, or maybe what turns a congregation into a community.  The second part of our double Torah portion, Pekudei, begins:

אֵ֣לֶּה פְקוּדֵ֤י הַמִּשְׁכָּן֙ מִשְׁכַּ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֔ת - These were the p’kudei / accountings of the Mishkan of witnessing... (Ex. 38:21)

Pakad can mean to take note of or to record, and what follows is a record of what went into the mishkan and the ark: the gold, purple, and crimson yarns, acacia wood and fine linen. It’s a list of the freewill offerings from everyone whose heart was moved. But this isn’t just about the physical structure; it’s also about building community. Being in community asks us to really see each others’ needs, and in response, to give freely of our stuff and our skill.

Mishkan is a word we're going to be hearing a lot of, for a while. It's often translated as "tabernacle;" it’s the portable sanctuary our ancestors built to carry in the desert. Mishkan shares a root with shekhunah (neighbohood) and Shekhinah (the Presence of God dwelling within and among us.) “Let them make Me a sacred place so that I may dwell within them.” (Exodus 25:8) The word for dwell shares a root with mishkan and Shekhinah too.

Here it's called a Mishkan of Edut, a holy place of witnessing. There’s that theme of bearing witness again. Torah is telling us that if we want to constitute community, each of us has to bring whatever we've got. And I think Torah's reiterating that a core function of a community is to bear witness: to see each other, and take action to help each other. Once we see someone’s need, we have to take it seriously and try to meet it in whatever ways we can.

I'm grateful to the architects of our synagogue building who ensured that people in wheelchairs -- and people with strollers -- aren't barred from entry or from coming onto the bimah. Most of us who live long enough will need mobility aids eventually, so being all on one level helps everyone… but to me what matters is that we try  to meet each others’ needs whether or not we will ever share them. That’s what it means to be in community.

We make sure there’s gluten-free food, and a non-alcoholic beverage option, at kiddush and at seder. We use our sound system in the building, and enable closed captioning in Zoom services. We ensure that there are changing tables in all the bathrooms. These are all ways that we try to take care of each other. Even if some of us don’t experience those needs, we do our best for those who do. That’s what it means to be in community.

In Jewish legal thinking, there’s a concept called kal v’homer. (In Latin this is called a fortiori, going from the weaker case to the stronger one.) For instance, in Torah Moshe says to God, “my own people won’t listen to me; how much less likely it is that Pharaoh would listen?!” If it’s our responsibility to meet each others’ relatively minor needs, how much more so is it our responsibility to meet each others’ needs in matters of survival and human dignity?

Across the US, trans and gender-non-conforming people are under threat. Political violence and eliminationism are on the rise. (By eliminationism, I mean the belief that a group of people should be eradicated.) There are nearly 370 bills on the table targeting trans people. Thank God, not in Massachusetts – but if proponents of those bills rise to national power they could harm trans folks here, just as they could erase our right to reproductive healthcare. 

Those who seek to take away rights tend not to stop after taking rights or self-determination away from a single group. In the early 1900s, American eugenicists began sterilizing disabled women. By the end of that century, eugenics movements in this country had sterilized 70,000 immigrants, Black and Indigenous people, poor white people, people with disabilities, and survivors of rape and sexual assault. Our eugenics policies even inspired Hitler's. 

Meanwhile, transphobia has become a recruiting tool for today's neo-Nazis. Where there is willingness to dehumanize any group of people, there is increased readiness to dehumanize others too. Look at Victor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary: proudly "illiberal" and Christian nationalist. He's also anti-LGBTQ+, anti-immigrant, opposed to the "mixing" of races. Or, closer to home: white supremacist Nick Fuentes recently proclaimed that Judaism has "got to go."

As Dr. King taught, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. This is a practical truth, because injustice tends to metastasize. It’s also a spiritual truth. We’re all connected. Either we all have the right to life, self-determination, and human dignity, or none of us do. If there’s a movement to take rights away from any of us, it impacts all of us. If there’s a movement to “wipe out” any of us, it impacts all of us. This too is what it means to be in community.

Every time I’m reminded that some people want to “eliminate” other groups of people, my heart breaks again. And yet my spirit is lifted by genuine allyship: when non-Jews resist antisemitism, when people without a uterus stand up for bodily autonomy, when cisgender people protect the dignity and rights of trans people. (I wrote earlier this week that it’s our job to build a mishkan of safety.) Standing up for each other is part of what it means to be in community.

At the end of our doubled Torah portion we get the verse we’ve been singing tonight: 

For the cloud of God was on the mishkan by day, and fire was there by night 

In the eyes of all the house of Israel, in all of their journeyings. (Exodus 40:38)

The mishkan becomes a kind of beacon. Atop it and within it there’s a cloud of divine glory during the day, and a blazing fire by night. That’s where the book of Exodus ends.

Even without that pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, our community can be a beacon, too. When we meet each others’ needs, when we engage in learning and prayer and justice together, we invite Shekhinah in. We create a community where the divine presence dwells within us and among us. Then the light of our mitzvot serves as our pillar of fire, our ner tamid / eternal lamp, shining our way out of the wilderness and toward the Promised Land. 

 

This is the d'varling that I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires. (Cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.) 

Shared with gratitude to my Bayit hevruta partners who talked with me about community and witnessing, to brainstorming partners on Jwitter, and to the historian friends in my pocket.