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. 

*

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. 

*

 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. 


Not standing idly by

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Art by Steve Silbert.

... In Torah’s time we built the mishkan with our own hands, following divine instructions to create something holy. Today we build our systems of צֶדֶק / tzedek (justice) and צדקה / tzedakah (righteous giving) when we bring Torah’s ethical blueprints to life. We build a world worthy of God when we refuse to stand idly by as our fellow human beings are harmed. (Lev. 19:16

Trans and gender-non-conforming people are under threat in the United States. Political violence and eliminationism are on the rise. The anti-trans legislation risk map blares red with alarm. There are nearly 370 bills on the table targeting trans people. I’m a cisgender woman; I’m not at risk. But I owe it to those who are at risk to stand against anti-trans bigotry and harm.

In the days of the mishkan everyone brought what they had. Those who had gold, those who had acacia, those who had blue and purple and crimson yarn – they brought whatever they could. Today we each need to bring whatever we can to the table to build a mishkan of safety for trans and gender-non-conforming members of our communities, and all communities...

I was honored to write this week's Torah post for Bayit's Builders Blog. It's part of our ongoing series of essays exploring Torah through the lens of social justice and building a world worthy of the divine. Read the whole post here: A Mishkan of Safety.

(Shared with gratitude to Steve Silbert for the artwork, and to Erin Reed of Erin In The Morning for her reporting.)


(Reproductive) Justice and the dream of sky: Mishpatim 5783 / 2023

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This week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, is full of justice-related mitzvot. Like: if you dig a pit and you don't cover it, and somebody's animal falls in and dies, you’re responsible because your negligence caused its death. And: do not wrong or oppress the stranger. And:

"When parties fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning." (Ex. 21:22)

Let’s unpack this. If someone causes a miscarriage, they owe damages. Damages, not "they get sent to a city of refuge." Elsewhere Torah teaches that in order to stop the cycle of retaliatory violence, we are to establish cities of refuge, where someone who has unintentionally committed murder can go and not be subject to blood revenge. But that’s not mentioned here, only the payment of a fine. Ergo, in Torah’s view, causing a pregnancy to end is neither manslaughter nor murder.

Torah is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. So where does our tradition take this? Mishna (c. 200) teaches that in the case of a difficult labor where the pregnant person's life is at risk, do what we would now call a D&C. In the Talmud (c. 600), R. Yehuda HaNasi holds that a fetus is considered as a limb or an organ in the pregnant person's body until it draws first breath. 

Mainstream Judaism has long taught that if there is danger to the pregnant person's life, abortion is not only permitted but required. This is often rooted in teachings about a rodef, a pursuer who would cause harm. If the fetus would cause harm, we privilege the life of the pregnant person, again until first breath. R. Eliezer Waldenberg (d. 2006) argues that abortion is permitted even if the danger is "only" emotional distress or harm. 

Our religious worldview is entirely different from the one that has criminalized not only abortion, in half of this country, but now even miscarriage. According to their understanding of their religion, a zygote has the same rights as the person in whose womb it is carried. It's not my job as a rabbi to have opinions about when some Christians think "life begins." But it is my job to be clear about three things.

  1. Judaism teaches otherwise. (See this week's Torah portion.)
  2. Torah also teaches not to wrong or oppress the stranger. (Again, see this week's Torah portion.) Forcing someone to carry a pregnancy is a profound wrong.
  3. No one should be able to impose their theology on anyone else's body. 

Granted, NPR reports that more than half of Republicans nationwide believe that this should be a Christian nation. I’m not thrilled that a majority of one of our major political parties would prefer that our nation be a theocracy. But this is where we are. 

Massachusetts feels fairly safe. Our rights are protected by our state laws... unless the federal government enacts a nationwide ban on reproductive healthcare. (Which the religious right hopes to do.) But even if we feel safe here and now, Torah instructs us to concern ourselves with the needs of the widow and the orphan and the stranger -- in Torah's paradigm, the people with the least cultural capital and the least power.

In our day, that could mean asylum-seekers, refugees, people who are trans or gender-non-conforming. Black and indigenous people of color. People living in poverty. People living in prison. People living in forced-birth states, who don't have the means to take time off to travel to another state where their right to their own body is still intact. (Also the Christian right may be trying to make that illegal too.)

Right after SCOTUS gutted Roe, I saw a lot of people posting on Facebook that if anyone needed to "vacation" in Massachusetts, they would open their homes. “Come on up, stay with me, I'll drive you to... wherever you need to go ...and offer you a hot water bottle and some tea afterwards.” Come "vacation" in a free state! Wink, wink. 

It was a clear expression of care. And, I think, of rage at the Supreme Court and at our own impotence. It was also basically useless. What are the odds that someone in a forced-birth state would ever see (or trust) a FB post from someone they didn't know? 

You’ve all heard me quote Mariame Kaba’s wisdom that “hope is a discipline.” She also reminds us not to reinvent the wheel when it comes to working toward justice. Better to channel our energy and resources toward people who are already doing the work.

So maybe instead of offering a guest room on Facebook, we can donate to the National Council of Jewish Women, who maintain a Jewish Fund for Abortion Access. Or: support the American Civil Liberties Union, which is challenging abortion restrictions in courthouses and state legislatures across the country.

Or donate to Sistersong, the Black organization that coined the term “reproductive justice:” the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” Sistersong is the largest national multi-ethnic Reproductive Justice collective.

Reproductive justice is a much broader framework than simply “the right to choose,” or even the right to choose plus access to safe reliable healthcare. It’s about everything: access to food, affordable shelter, education, ending carceral foster care, ending gun violence, and more. All of these are part of what it would really look like to rear children in a just world.

And we can take heart that the majority of Americans do agree that bodily autonomy is a core human right. In 2022, voters in Kansas overwhelmingly opposed a constitutional amendment that would have removed that state's protection of a pregnant person's fundamental right to autonomy. That took a lot of on-the-ground effort: knocking on doors, fighting misinformation, and one-on-one conversations. But that’s what works. 

In our ancestral story, after leaving Egypt we spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. There were plenty of setbacks, and some people wanted to turn back. But we made it to Sinai, to covenant and revelation. These post-Roe years may feel like wilderness, but we can't give up. We have to keep trying to build a world of greater justice. We owe that to future generations, and to those who have it worse than we do.

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Also in this week's Torah portion, there’s the verse we've been singing this evening. This is the scene where Moses and Aaron and seventy elders ascend to heaven and behold "the God of Israel -- under whose feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, like the very sky for purity." (Ex. 24:10)  And they eat and drink at a banquet with God.

From the mundane to the sublime. Here's what to do if your ox gores somebody, and here's a vision of the Holy One of Blessing across a floor of sapphire sky. This juxtaposition teaches that the loftiest moments of our spiritual lives are not separate from the earthly details of ethical living. They can't be. "Spiritual life" that doesn't ask our ethical behavior is meaningless.

In that vision our ancestors saw something like "sapphire brickwork" -- perhaps a reminder of the bricks we slaved to build under Pharaoh's oppressive regime. But now the "bricks" are the blue of the sky itself: infinite, open, free. We’ve gone from the compression of mud to brick, to the sky's wide-open expanse. What a beautiful metaphor for the journey from oppression to liberation, from rights stripped away to human dignity wholly honored. May we build that world speedily and soon.

 

I’ll close with words from poet Aurora Levin Morales:

 

V’ahavta

when you go out and when you return. In times of mourning
and in times of joy. Inscribe them on your doorposts,
embroider them on your garments, tattoo them on your shoulders,
teach them to your children, your neighbors, your enemies,
recite them in your sleep, here in the cruel shadow of empire:
Another world is possible...  

[I]magine winning.  This is your sacred task.
This is your power. Imagine
every detail of winning, the exact smell of the summer streets
in which no one has been shot, the muscles you have never
unclenched from worry, gone soft as newborn skin,
the sparkling taste of food when we know
that no one on earth is hungry, that the beggars are fed,
that the old man under the bridge and the woman
wrapping herself in thin sheets in the back seat of a car,
and the children who suck on stones,
nest under a flock of roofs that keep multiplying their shelter.
Lean with all your being towards that day
when the poor of the world shake down a rain of good fortune
out of the heavy clouds, and justice rolls down like waters...

Imagine rape is unimaginable. Imagine war is a scarcely credible rumor.
That the crimes of our age, the grotesque inhumanities of greed,

the sheer and astounding shamelessness of it, the vast fortunes
made by stealing lives, the horrible normalcy it came to have,
is unimaginable to our heirs, the generations of the free.

Don’t waver. Don’t let despair sink its sharp teeth
Into the throat with which you sing.  Escalate your dreams.
Make them burn so fiercely that you can follow them down
any dark alleyway of history and not lose your way...
Hold hands. Share water. Keep imagining.
So that we, and the children of our children’s children
may live

 

 Aurora Levins Morales

 

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

Shared with gratitude to the NCJW for their collection of reproductive justice resources, and also to my advance readers for sermon suggestions.


A Song For Those Coming Through the Sea: Beshalach 5783 / 2022

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The Song at the Sea is one of the oldest poems in Torah, and its beauty in the scroll is like nothing else. Some see brickwork, an echo of the labors of slavery. Some see waves rolling in and receding, a reminder of how the sea parted and then rushed back in. The waves, in turn, evoke the midrash about Nachshon ben Aminadav who bravely stepped into the waters and began walking forward. When the waves reached his lips, that’s when the waters parted. This is a story about taking a risk and making a leap of faith toward a better life. 

Every displaced person, asylum-seeker, and refugee could tell us that story. Emerging from circumstances most of us can scarcely imagine, they step into the waters. The act of fleeing home speaks of a situation so dire that staying put is no longer a viable option. In the words of poet Warsan Shire, “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well.” No one flees unless home is a Narrow Place so tight and terrible that fleeing becomes the best choice.

One of my favorite teachings about crossing the Sea comes from Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezofsky, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe. He writes that there are three levels of emunah, "faith" or "trust": the emunah of the heart, the emunah of the mind, and the emunah of the body, and the highest of these is the emunah of the body. That surprised me; I expected mind to be considered “higher.” Nope. He says when we feel emunah in our bodies, then the divine presence dwells in us, and that is when we become able to sing the Song at the Sea.

The Slonimer knows that taking a leap of faith changes us. Inertia would be easier. Giving up would be easier. Leaping into the unknown asks just enough bravery to take the first step. In the act of stepping into the sea comes transformation: the capacity to sing a new song. The Slonimer says that when we take the leap of emunah and walk into the water, Shechinah dwells in us – God’s presence is in us, in our very bones.  And that’s what enables us to sing a song of redemption, a song of hope for something better than whatever we knew before. 

Our ancient spiritual ancestors couldn’t sing the Song until they felt emunah in their bones. And they couldn’t feel emunah in their bones until they stepped into the sea. Which means they had to step into the sea before they felt ready. They had to take the plunge without knowing for sure what lay ahead and whether or not the water would part. On a smaller scale, we all have moments like that, on the cusp of change: marriage or divorce, birth or death, choosing a new beginning. There’s a moment when we have to decide to just – step into the sea, ready or not.

In 1939 my grandparents fled Hitler with my three year old mother in tow. I imagine it was the hardest thing they had ever done. When they arrived on these shores, other Jews from Eastern Europe took care of them: helped them find a place to stay, a way to learn English, the help they needed until they could get on their feet. That’s a kind of kindness that can’t be paid back, only paid forward. Even if they repaid every penny (and maybe they did), the repayment couldn’t mean as much to the givers as being welcomed had meant when my family needed it.

How do we pay it forward? To me the answer is painfully obvious: we pay it forward by welcoming the stranger. We pay it forward by meeting the needs of of the displaced person, the asylum-seeker, the refugee. Every Shabbat (or every day) we sing Mi Chamocha, our song of redemption. We need to let that song galvanize us to fuel the song of justice. The song of human dignity. The song of welcome. The song of “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.” The song of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Each year at Pesach we recount how we fled Egypt after ten terrible plagues with only what we could carry. We eat matzah: the hardtack of slavery, and the waybread of our journey to freedom. For us, that story is symbolic, a metaphor for breaking free from life’s tight places. For displaced people and asylum-seekers and refugees, the Exodus is now. We know the heart of the refugee because our ancestral story – the one we tell at seder, the ritual practiced by 70% of American Jews – is a story of becoming refugees. Our obligations to today’s refugees are clear.

When we fled the Narrow Place, a “mixed multitude” came also, to teach that freedom isn’t just for us. Dignity, justice, and safety aren’t just for us. They are the birthright of every human being. Including asylum-seekers camped at the borders of our nation, and refugees fleeing war and devastation, and parents and children fleeing gender-based violence. During the Shoah, the United States shamefully refused entry to refugees and asylum-seekers – many were then slaughtered. We owe it to their memories to do better now by people in need of safe haven.

It takes profound emunah to step into the sea not knowing if the waters will part. (Or into a rickety boat, or the back of a pickup truck, or trudging on foot…) In our ancestral story, stepping into the Sea opens us to an experience of God that begins to change us from freed slaves into the Jewish people. For 100 million displaced people in the world today, stepping into the Sea is just… reality. Jewish values call us to welcome them with sustenance, and clothing, and homes, and safety, and justice, and dignity, and hope. That’s the song that I think is worth singing.

 

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


Opening Heart and Soul: Vaera 5783

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Early in this week's Torah portion, Va'era, God makes four promises to us: I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians; I will redeem you with an outstretched arm; I will take you to be My people and I will be your God; and I will bring you into the land of promise. (From Exodus 6:6-8)

The Four Cups we bless and drink at our Passover seders represent these promises of freedom, redemption, covenant, and that "land" of promise and becoming. "But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage." (Ex. 6:9)

The children of Israel can't hear what he's saying, because their spirits have been crushed. קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ / Kotzer ruah: spiritual shortness of breath, constriction of soul. They've been mistreated for so long they can no longer imagine anything better than Mitzrayim (Egypt) and meitzarim (tight straits).

Then come the first several plagues. Before the first plague we read, "וַיֶּחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה / v'y'hazek lev Par'o, Yet Pharaoh’s heart stiffened." And then, repeatedly, "וַיַּכְבֵּ֤ד פַּרְעֹה֙ אֶת־לִבּ֔וֹ / v'y'khabed Par'o et-libo, And Pharaoh hardened his heart." Rashi renders it as "he allowed his heart to become hardened."

Only after Pharaoh has hardened his heart six times does Torah say that "God hardened his heart." I think of this almost like karma. Pharaoh makes his choices, repeatedly, and in time he becomes what he has chosen. It's not a lightning bolt from on high; God just lets him continue the groove he's carved.

Spiritual shortness of breath; spiritual calcification of the heart. We could call those anxiety -- and indifference. Or grief -- and callousness. Or depression  -- and cruelty. Or fear -- and power. These ways of being are not something from our ancient spiritual past. They're part of the human condition.

Maybe we've felt stuck in an unbearable place, unable to imagine better, unable even to conceptualize that we deserve better than this. Maybe we've been crushed by depression and its nihilistic whisper that nothing is ever better than this anyway so it's not worth trying. I'd call those kotzer ruah.

And maybe we've hardened our hearts. Though I want to unpack that a little. It can mean turning away from suffering, ignoring our obligations to the most vulnerable. And we've all done that, and we can all do better. And... I'm also aware that hardening the heart can be a necessary defense mechanism. 

Sometimes we couldn't function if we opened our hearts to all of the suffering in our world. Sometimes we have to shield or encase the heart in a kind of spiritual armor to be safe. I think that might be where Pharaoh started. And my support for that theory is the verb that Torah uses here.

"וַיֶּחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה / v'y'hazek lev Par'o, Yet Pharaoh’s heart stiffened[.]" That verb is the same one we find in Psalm 27: חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ / Hazak v'ya'amatz libecha! "Be strong and strengthen your heart," or as we sing it during the Days of Awe, "Be strong and open your heart wide!"

Strengthening our hearts can be good and holy and necessary. And Torah also teaches us to cut away the calcified layer of armor that can build up around the heart. "[Cut away] the foreskin of your heart" (Deut. 10:16 -- here are some beautiful teachings on that.) Healthy spiritual life asks both of these.

"Be strong and open up your heart wide" -- because it takes strength to have heart, to be open-hearted. We need gevurah, power and strength and boundaries, and hesed, openhearted flowing love. In other words, we need the balance of the two -- tiferet, our high holiday theme for 5783.

Hardening our hearts is something different. If we repeatedly harden our hearts, as Pharaoh did, after a whie we're not talking about a protective shell that can be opened. A persistent pattern of choosing hardness of heart will eventually turn the heart to stone. It's up to us to feel the difference.

It strikes me that both of these ask us to open up. Open the heart -- safely, appropriately, but find ways to not be wholly closed-off. And as for our spirit, maybe it's like in Psalm 118: "From the straits I called to You; answer me with Your expansiveness!" We cry out; God opens us up.

If you're living with kotzer ruah, spiritual shortness of breath or a constricted heart, I can promise you that life will not always be this. And if you can't believe that, I'll hold it for you until you can feel it. Change will come, as certain as Tu BiShvat heralds the inner growth of a new spiritual spring.

And if you're living with a protective shell around your heart: may you find safety to open that protective covering and let emotions out and in. Be strong and open your heart wide. That's renewed tiferet. That's how we reach God's promises of freedom and covenant and promise in days to come.

 

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