Hidden treasure and what comes next

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Last year at the start of the pandemic, my hevruta partners and I studied a text from the Piaceczyner (the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto) about this week's Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora. His jumping-off point is a verse about houses contracting tzara'at -- some kind of contagion -- and the need to quarantine such a house for a period of time.

The commentator Rashi explains that there's treasure hidden in the walls of the afflicted house, and when we knock down the walls, we'll find the treasure. But the Piaceczyner is puzzled: if there's treasure, then why does Torah tell us to wait for seven days before we can knock down the walls and find the treasures hidden therein?

His first answer makes me laugh: well, we can't exactly know why Torah says what it says!

But then he says, if we look deeply we can recognize that in everything that happens to us, there's a spark of God's intention for goodness. Even if the situation we're in is a difficult one, God intends goodness for us in it somehow.

"There may be times when we can't access schooling for our children, or praying together in community, or going to the mikvah," he writes. A year ago, my first thought was: that's us, right now! Our kids are home from school. The shul building is closed. Everything is closed: to protect us from each other, from the virus we might not know we're carrying.

The Piaceczyner said there would be treasures to be found in quarantine. I couldn't yet imagine what they would be.

This year, these lines land entirely differently with me.

It's still true that we still don't have access to our former infrastructure for Jewish life. Synagogues aren't meeting in person, Hebrew school isn't meeting in person... And yet -- look at everything we've learned over the last year.

Our synagogues are open, even though our buildings are not -- because the synagogue isn't the building, it's the people and the connections among and between us, and our traditions, and our Source. We've learned how to pray together over Zoom, and how to make our home spaces into sacred spaces. We've learned how to build community and connectivity online when we can't safely be in person.

We've learned how to educate our children online. Hebrew school is happening: online. Services are happening: online. We've learned how to share funerals, b-mitzvah celebrations, shiva minyanim, even batei din (conversions) online.

We've learned to find sweetness in glimpsing each others' households -- our dogs and our cats, the children and elders who share our homes -- when we gather for learning or prayer. As a member of our Board said to me after Rosh Hashanah services, "Seeing people at their tables and on their couches and with their coffee cups made it feel like we were all in each others' homes -- I felt like I was getting to know people in a different way because I got to see them where they live." Who could have imagined that, before the pandemic?

We've learned how to embrace video, and how to enliven our davenen with art and images. This doesn't make up for the fact that we can't embrace, and we can't sing together in harmony, but it brings a different kind of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the mitzvah) to our spiritual lives.

And we've learned how digital offerings can more easily include those who are immunocompromised, or hospitalized, or disabled, or homebound. We've learned how having our digital doors open makes our synagogues more accessible than they ever were before.

The Piaceczyner insists that even when something appears to us to be a plague, God intends goodness in it. We might just need a while to find the hidden treasure in whatever's unfolding. As we prepare, in time, to return to our former Jewish infrastructure, I want to ensure that we do so in a way that doesn't lose the new treasure we've found. Here are some of the big questions my colleagues and I are asking:

  • How can we create hybrid offerings so that as some of us feel safely able to gather in person, others can be full participants digitally?
  • How can we continue to embrace the gifts of multimedia and visual art once we're back in the building again?
  • How can we welcome and include people joining us digitally, without creating a future in which no one bothers to "come to shul" because it's easier to just stay home?
  • How can we use what we've learned this year to help us become more accessible, more equitable, and more inclusive?
  • How can we use what we've learned this year to help us build and sustain community across distance, whether it's the distance between the shul and a hospital bed, or the distance between here and someplace further away?
  • How might our sense of community expand and adapt if people keep participating in services and learning and festival observances online -- if you don't have to be in Northern Berkshire to become a part of CBI?
  • And how can we honor the treasures of this pandemic learning while also honoring the very real losses of this incredibly difficult year?

We don't know the answers yet: we're figuring them out as we go. The crisis of COVID-19 offers us an opportunity to dream big and think creatively about what it means to do Jewish together now.I hope you'll grapple with these questions too, and let me know your answers.

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


Perseverance and the portable ark

 

 

"וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ / Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them." (Ex. 25:8 - in this week's Torah portion, T'rumah.)  

The word mishkan (the portable dwelling-place for God) shares a root with the word Shechinah, the divine Presence. We build sacred space so God will dwell in us. I talk about this verse every year, because I love it. But this year, what jumps out at me is its juxtaposition with what follows.

Immediately after this verse, Torah tells us to make an ark to hold the tablets of the covenant. Cover it with gold. Put rings on the sides, and poles through the rings. And keep it that way. The ark over which the divine Presence would rest needed to be ready to go at a moment's notice.

Wherever the people go, holy words and presence go with them -- which is to say, with us. As beautiful as the mishkan was (as beautiful as our beloved shul building is) God's presence doesn't live there. God's presence goes with us. Our texts and traditions go with us. Holiness goes with us.

Our ancient ancestors needed perseverance to make their way through the wilderness. I imagine that their perseverance was fueled, in part, by this verse and its assurance that God goes with us wherever we go.

After the Temple fell, our sages called the Shabbat table a mikdash me-at, a small sanctuary. I keep returning to that image during this COVID time. God's presence is with us at our Shabbes tables tonight. God's presence is with us when we bless and light candles together-apart, when we bless and break bread together-apart, when we daven together-apart.

The poles were kept in the rings of the ark to teach us that the life of the spirit goes with us wherever we go. God goes with us wherever we go. Holiness goes with us wherever we go. And like our ancient ancestors, we need perseverance to get us through.

Yesterday NASA landed a new robotic rover on Mars, named -- as you probably know -- Perseverance. Some of you may have watched on the news or online as NASA engineers got word that the rover had safely landed, and celebrated from afar.

I read in the Washington Post earlier this week that "Hitting the 4.8-mile-wide landing site targeted by NASA after a journey of 300 million miles is akin to throwing a dart from the White House and scoring a bull’s eye in Dallas." It's honestly incredible.

As is being able to see images from our neighbor planet in realtime. As is the dream that the science this little robot will do -- sampling regolith and soil, testing for microbes -- will bring us one step closer to someday landing human beings on Mars.

I hope I'm around to celebrate that day -- and to see how Judaism will evolve once it becomes interplanetary! Will Jews on Mars turn toward Earth to pray, the way we now orient toward Jerusalem? How will we navigate the fact that a Martian "day" is different from an earth day in calculating Shabbat?

(Although I haven't researched this, my instinct is to say that Shabbat should be every seventh day, local time, even if that means it's not coterminous with Shabbat on earth. But that's another conversation.)

I'm confident that when there are Jews on Mars, we'll figure out how to build Jewish there.... and that we'll find this week's Torah portion resonant when we do.

Because God's presence is with us when we shelter in place at home now. And God's presence will go with human beings to Mars someday. And the same spirit that enlivens our Shabbes tables here will enliven us there.

Holiness and hope aren't geographically limited. They go where we go. And the perseverance that got us through the wilderness is the same perseverance that will take us to the stars.

The poles stayed in the rings on the handles of the ark because God goes with us wherever we go.

As we approach one year since our awareness of the pandemic began, there's something poignant about the name of this little rover. Perseverance is the quality we need to reach that dream of human beings on Mars.

It's the quality we need to mitigate climate change and ensure safety and care for our fellow human beings -- especially in times of crisis like Texas is experiencing now. And it's the quality we need to make it to the other side of this global pandemic.

The Hebrew word for Perseverance is הַתמָדָה, which contains within it the root t/m/d, always. As in the ner tamid, the eternal light kept burning in the mishkan, the eternal light that burns now in synagogues around the world.

The ner tamid is a perennial reminder of divine Presence, and holiness, and hope burning bright. The ner tamid perseveres, as our hope perseveres, as our life of the spirit perseveres.

May we take hope and strength from the Mars rover Perseverance. May we find our own perseverance strengthened as we approach the second year of this pandemic. And may we feel the flame of hope burning bright within our hearts -- the holy sanctuaries where God's presence dwells.

 

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

 


I will sing

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In this week's Torah portion, Beshalach, we read the Song at the Sea. "I will sing to God..." Our commentators note that this verse is in future tense: not "I sing," but "I will sing." Hold on to that; we'll come back to it.

The rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Piazeczyner, notes that many of our psalms are called songs. They name themselves that way, in the opening phrase. The name "songs" seems to imply praise and thanksgiving, but often these psalms contain sorrow and fear. So why don't we call them laments? Why do we call them songs, even when they express something painful?

Talmud teaches us to call them songs because that name reminds us to seek the spark of good within the pain. Phrased another way: a "song" is something that's authentic. Song doesn't just mean happy-clappy, it means expressing the heart. Sometimes what we have to express is sorrow and fear, but that expression opens us to a spark of good within whatever's unfolding.

And... the Piazeczyner notes that it can be difficult, almost impossible, to truly sing while enduring suffering. "In order for a person to sing, their essential self -- heart and soul -- must burst into song." And sometimes, we just can't get there.

I underlined that phrase in my book because it speaks to me so deeply. It can be difficult, almost impossible, to truly sing when we're suffering. Some of us may be finding it difficult to sing in month eleven of the pandemic. Tired of staying home, fiercely missing other human beings, fearful of new and more contagious variants, grieving more than 433,000 dead so far.

Some of us may be finding it difficult to sing because we're lonely or worried about loved ones. Or because we're still shaken by the violent storming of the Capitol building earlier this month, or distressed by conspiracy-minded voices that blame recent years' wildfires on Jewish-funded space lasers. (I wish I were kidding about that.)

Sometimes, the Piazeczyner says, when the suffering is so great that our hearts feel crushed, we can't find even a spark of rejoicing. That's how he understands the kotzer ruach, constriction of spirit, described in our parsha a few weeks ago. We were so crushed by our suffering that we couldn't even hear that things were going to get better.

And yet this week our story takes us to the Sea of Reeds. We're leaving Egypt. We're singing the Song at the Sea. How did we get from "unable to even hear hope" to "crossing the Sea toward liberation"? For me, the answer is in singing our own real songs.

If we can really inhabit the song of our hearts -- even when it's a fearful song, or an anxious song, or a grieving song -- then we can be real with each other and with God. And it's in that being-real that we find the spark of hope that gets us through.

There's a debate about how the Song at the Sea was originally sung. Was it a call-and-response, in which Moshe sang each line and we sang it back? Or did we sing all together? Probably this debate arose because both of those were traditions, and somebody wanted to know which one was "right." But in typical fashion, our sages turned that debate into a deep teaching.

In Egypt, our sages teach, we sang praises as a call-and-response. We couldn't muster praise on our own, but we could repeat it. (So yes: call-and-response is correct.) When we crossed the Sea, we all sang together. Our own hearts sang out. (So yes: singing in unison is correct too!) Tradition even teaches that our song then-and-there arose from direct personal experience of God.

Sometimes all we can do is repeat someone else's words. We repeat the words of our prayers, we mirror someone else's hope. At other times our own song pours forth. Both of those are authentic spiritual life. And when we're willing to be real, we open to our own song. That's how -- even when still in Mitzrayim -- we became able to envision that things would someday get better.

That's why "I will sing to God..." is written in the future tense: it speaks to the future song that we know we will someday be able to sing.

Someday we'll be able to safely gather in person. Someday we'll be able to safely sing together in person. Right now we may still be in Narrow Straits, but let's be real with each other: that's how we open the door to hope. Someday songs of praise will sing forth from our hearts when we sing together, when we dance together, when it's safe to be together, on the far side of this Sea.

 

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

Shared with gratitude to my hevruta R. Megan Doherty for studying the Aish Kodesh with me this week.

Image source: R. David Markus. 


Not the end of the story

JoyIn this week's Torah portion, Va'era, God hears the cries of the Israelites and promises to free us from bondage. But when Moshe comes to the children of Israel to tell them that, Torah says:

וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃

They did not hear Moshe, because of kotzer ruach and hard servitude.

Rashi explains the phrase kotzer ruach by saying, "If one is in anguish his breath comes in short gasps and he cannot draw long breaths." For the Sforno, kotzer ruach means "it did not appear believable to their present state of mind, so that their heart could not assimilate such a promise."

So which one is it, a physical shortness of breath or a spiritual diminishment that keeps hope beyond our grasp? Of course, the answer is both. Body and spirit are not separable. If you've ever had a panic attack, you know the feeling of being physically unable to breathe because of an emotional or spiritual reality.

Kotzer ruach means that we were short of breath in body and soul. Our breath and our spirits were in tzuris, suffering. Literally at this point in our story we are in Mitzrayim (hear that same TzR /צר sound there?) But this isn't about geography, it's about an existential state of being so constricted that we couldn't even hear the hope that things could be better than this.

I know a lot of us are navigating heightened anxiety these days. A scant ten days ago, an armed mob refusing to accept the results of November's election broke in to the US Capitol with nylon tactical restraints and bludgeons. Many members of that mob proudly displayed neo-Nazi or white supremacist identities.

It's becoming increasingly clear that the attack on the Capitol wasn't spontaneous, but planned. The FBI is warning now about armed attacks planned in all fifty state capitols and in DC, on inauguration day if not before.

The covid-19 pandemic worsens by the day. We keep breaking records for number of sick people and number of deaths. Meanwhile the integrity of our country feels at-risk. I mean both our capacity to be one nation when some portion of that nation refuses to accept electoral defeat, and our moral and ethical uprightness.

Anybody here feeling kotzer ruach? Me too. 

And... Our Torah story comes this week to remind us that kotzer ruach is not the end of the story. Being in dire straits -- unable to breathe, unable to focus, hearts and souls unable to hope -- is not the end of the story. On the contrary, it's the first step toward liberation.

In our Torah story, our kotzer ruach causes us to cry out. That's where this week's Torah portion begins: with God saying hearing our cries and promising to help us out of narrow straits. If you have a prayer practice or a meditation practice or a primal scream practice, now is the time to cry out. (And if you don't have such a practice, now is a good time to start.)

I don't actually believe that God "needs" us to cry out before God takes notice of us. I think it goes the other way. We need to cry out, because that's the first step in opening our hearts to God -- to hope -- to the possibility that things can get better.

The path toward the pandemic getting better is pretty clear. We shelter in place as best we can, we stay apart, we wear our masks, we get the vaccine. And then we probably keep wearing our masks. But in time, it will be safe to gather again outside of our household bubbles. In time, we will be able to gather in community, and sing together without risk, and embrace.

The path toward restoring the integrity of our nation is less clear to me. I think it involves accountability, and justice, and truth, because I think integrity always asks our commitment to those ideals. Regardless, we begin that journey from here, where we are, crying out with our anxious and broken hearts.

We've entered the lunar month of Shvat, known mostly for Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, which will take place at the next full moon. The full moon after that brings Purim. And the full moon after that brings Pesach, festival of our liberation. These three full moons are our stepping-stones to spring, and change, and freedom.

When I was working recently with the rabbis and poets and artists of Bayit on new liturgy for Tu BiShvat, one of my colleagues said something that moved me so much I wrote it on a post-it and stuck it to my desk. I wrote,

"Karpas dipped in tears -- like the tears that water our new growth."

Karpas is the spring green we dip in salt water during the seder. The salt water represents the tears of our enslavement, the tears of feeling stuck in kotzer ruach. For us this year those might be tears of grief at covid-19 deaths: 381,000 and counting. They might be tears of grief at how far our democracy has fallen from its ideals, or tears of fear for whatever may be coming.

Our tears can water new growth of heart and soul. Our heart's cry now is the first step toward the changes that will lead to liberation. Then we will fulfill the words of the psalmist: "Those who sow in tears will reap in joy." Kein yehi ratzon.

 

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

Illustration, by R. Allie Fischman, from Connections: Liturgy, Art, and Poetry for Tu BiShvat, Bayit, 2021. 

 


Stop and let goodness catch us

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At the start of this week's Torah portion, we read that Jacob was afraid, and his fear was constricting. He was afraid that Esau would come after him, that the mistakes he made in that relationship earlier in life would come back to harm him now. And from that place of fear he sent his family away. Torah says he was alone on the riverbank, and there, an unknown someone wrestled with him all night until dawn.

The Baal Shem Tov (d. 1760) teaches that sometimes we don't see ourselves clearly. We don't know what would actually be good for us. All we can see is our own fear, and because we're marinating in that fear, we run away. Maybe we run away from relationships, or we run away from opportunities. We run away from what would actually be good in our lives, because we're operating out of that constricted place of fear.

The Baal Shem Tov quotes Psalm 23: "Only goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life." He says: maybe that line from psalms comes to teach me that I'm trying to escape from things that are actually good for me, but I don't have the wisdom to see it. So God, when You want to give me good things -- when you want to give me blessing -- please keep pursuing me. Chase after me until You reach me.

I love this teaching. I love his point that sometimes we don't have the good sense to know what would be good in our lives, and we run away from what we actually need. And I love the image of God chasing after us with goodness. Usually I think of spiritual life as us seeking God, but he flips that on its head: maybe sometimes God is seeking us, chasing after us, trying to bring us blessing and sweetness and hope.

Maybe we're running away from a relationship that could be meaningful, but we're too afraid of having to be real with someone (or with ourselves). Maybe we're running away from a change that would be good for us, but we're too afraid of having to face what isn't working. Maybe we're running away from hope, because it's too scary to imagine letting ourselves yearn for something better than what we've got now.

In this week's Torah story, Jacob has been running away from his twin brother for most of his adult life. And he's about to have to face his brother, whom he tricked out of a birthright and a blessing, and his whole perspective is colored by his fear and his lifetime of running away. This is how his whole life has been, and he can't imagine it being anything different. He's always been Yaakov, "The Heel."

And that's when he has this encounter with the angel who blesses him with a new name, a new possibility. I've always called this the story of "Jacob wrestling with the angel," but one of my hevruta partners pointed out to me this year that the Hebrew doesn't say that. In the Hebrew, the subject and object are flipped around. Jacob didn't seek out this encounter. The angel wrestled with him.

Through the Baal Shem Tov's lens, we could say: the angel pursued him. The angel was the messenger of God chasing after him to make him grapple with his own baggage all night until morning. And after that grappling, the angel gave him a new name: Yisrael, Godwrestler. That's the name we take on as the Jewish people, the people that grapples with God, with holiness, with our sacred story... once we stop running away.

Look, running away is normal. It's human nature to get stuck in our constricted consciousness and our fears. And that's where the Besht's teaching comes in, that heartfelt request: "So God, when You want to give me good things, when You want to give me blessing, please keep pursuing me. Chase after me until You reach me." Don't give up on me, God. Chase me until You catch me and give me the sweetness I need.

What would it feel like to stop running? To face our own story, to grapple with the lived Torah of our own experience, to look closely at ourselves and our choices? To trust that what's chasing after us is actually goodness? That if we stop running, here on the banks of this river -- if we let ourselves be alone with who we've been -- God will catch up with us, goodness will catch up with us, and blessing will come?

 

Shared with gratitude to my hevre in the Bayit Besht Study Sandbox.

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

 


Surge capacity and old wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


Looking for Water

 


1.

Isaac dug his father's wells anew.
This doesn't mean he just treaded old ground.

Avraham had plumbed the earth's deep wisdom.
Where his pick struck soil, compassion poured.

Isaac opened up his father's pipes
so kindness, long-delayed, could flow again.

In all who drank, a memory arose:
water, shared in the desert, saves a life.


2.

When Isaac's servants, digging in the wadi
found a spring, the herdsmen quarreled: "This is ours."

Frustrated, they named that place Contention.
He dug another, they fought again: Dispute.

How different are things now? Today, who drills
-- and who drinks only the infrequent rains?

What new name might we choose if we could build
a world where everyone gets enough water?


3.

Source of all, flow through us like the rains.
Turn the spigot of abundant blessing.

Teach us we won't die, parched and alone,
but live renewed like hillsides kissed with dew.

When we can share the stuff of which we're made,
what makes our earth the firmament's swirled blue,

then we will find the ample space we need
to share this earth as kin with all who thirst.

(And let us say: Amen.)

 


SOURCES

"Isaac dug his father's wells anew." Genesis 26:17.

"But when Isaac's servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac's herdsmen, saying, 'The water is ours. He named that well Esek, because they contended with him." Genesis 26:19-20

"And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah." Genesis 26:21

"In today's world, ask: / who may drill, who only gets the infrequent rains?" See The Gap in Water Consumption between Palestinians and Israelis, B'tselem 2013.

"He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, "Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space to increase in the land." Genesis 26:22

 

This poem arises out of this week's Torah portion. It was written in 2013 for a now-defunct blog called Palestinian Talmud, after one of the names given to the Talmud Yerushalmi. A reader alerted me to the fact that my link to this poem was a dead link, so I'm reposting it now.


Every righteous person matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


Wake Up - a d'varling for Shabbat Shuvah

Shofar-in-front-of-stained-glass

כְּנֶ֙שֶׁר֙ יָעִ֣יר קִנּ֔וֹ עַל־גּוֹזָלָ֖יו יְרַחֵ֑ף יִפְרֹ֤שׂ כְּנָפָיו֙ יִקָּחֵ֔הוּ יִשָּׂאֵ֖הוּ עַל־אֶבְרָתֽוֹ׃

Like an eagle who rouses their nestlings, gliding down to their young, So did God spread God's wings and take [us], Bear [us] along on God's pinions. (Deut. 32:11)

This verse from this week's Torah portion, Ha'azinu, leapt out at me this year. The metaphor of God bearing us on eagles' wings, lifting us out of slavery to Pharaoh and out of our constricted places, is not a new one. But what struck me here was the word יעיר, to arouse or to wake up.

Rashi says this image is meant to evoke an eagle who doesn't want to scare its nestlings, so the eagle flaps its wings a few times before coming in to the nest, to wake the young ones up and ensure that they feel strong enough to receive the eagle's coming.

Later in the passage, Rashi says an eagle carries its young on its wings rather than in its claws, because the eagle reasons, "if there is an arrow, better the arrow should pierce me than pierce my young" -- the eagle protects its young, and that's the quality of love that God has for us.

I love the idea of God carrying us on vast eagles' wings, seeking to protect us and uplift us. But even more than that, this year, I'm moved by this language of awakening or arousal.

God's love for us is both protective and a little bit pushy. Torah here imagines God carrying us and keeping us safe -- and also nudging us to wake up.

Just as the shofar's call nudges us to wake up.

Just as this whole season nudges us to wake up.

The commentator known as the Or HaChayyim agrees: "Moses uses the simile of the eagle to show that just as the eagle rouses its young first, so G'd rouses the children of humanity to warn that we have to put our spiritual house in order." This is the season for doing exactly that.

Shabbat Shuvah is our wake-up call. God is the eagle hovering over the nest, flapping mighty wings to urge us to rise up with all our strength and to do what's right. God is the shepherd taking account of each of our lives as we pass beneath the staff, reading the Book of Life that we have written with our choices. God is in the shofar's call -- which sometimes sounds like triumph, and sometimes sounds like anguish -- begging us to wake up.

Not because Yom Kippur begins tomorrow night, although it does.

But because the world needs us to wake up. Our community needs us to wake up. Our souls need us to wake up.

To what do we need to wake up at this moment in our spiritual year?

To what do we need to wake up at this moment in our national life?

Much is going to be asked of us in this new year. We need to wake up. We need to strengthen our souls and strengthen our resolve to stand up for what's right.

God is here to wake us up. To rouse us from our sleep. To arouse in us the yearning to do what's right. To enflame our hearts with a passion for righteous acts and justice: on a personal scale, on a communal scale, on a national scale.

Will we be woken?

 

This is the d'varling I offered on Shabbat Shuvah (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Blessing and curse in pandemic times

Blessing-and-curseLast week my son and I were watching the fifth Harry Potter movie, Order of the Phoenix. There's a moment where two teenagers are kissing on a bench, and with a flick of her wand, Dolores Umbridge separates them by several feet.

We've seen this film several times before. But this time, six months in to the pandemic, my son joked, "Look, Mom, social distancing!" And we both laughed.

The laughter feels complicated for me as a parent. I know he's layering this pandemic experience over what he sees in movies or on tv because it helps him process needing to stay apart. It breaks my heart that he has to do that. And I'm also glad that he can find a way to make sense of what's happening, and even to joke about it, as we stay apart from loved ones in order to keep each other safe.

In this week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses says: I want these six tribes to stand on this mountain for a blessing, and those six tribes to stand on that mountain for a curse. Reading that verse this year, my mind made the move my son keeps making: "look, it's social distancing!" Okay, obviously not. But then I thought: actually, this matter of blessing and curse does feel relevant.

Torah teaches, "Cursed be he who moves his fellow countryman’s landmark." Literally, moving someone's landmark means causing them to be lost. Spiritually, this verse resonates for me as a teaching about gaslighting. One who claims that the pandemic is hype, denying the reality of more than six million cases in the United States alone, is denying reality's landmarks.

Torah teaches, "Cursed be he who misdirects a blind person on his way." In a literal sense, this teaching seems obvious. Spiritually, I think of the claims about quack remedies for covid-19, from hydroxychloroquine to drinking bleach. Remember when emergency rooms started reporting an uptick in people who poisoned themselves by blindly following that bad advice?

Torah teaches, "Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow." In Torah's paradigm, this is a way of saying "the powerless." Torah here condemns the one who disenfranchises or harms those who are vulnerable. I don't think that one requires any translation. Literally and spiritually, it's a clear instruction for this pandemic moment. 

And then Torah says: the curses aren't our only option. If we observe the mitzvot and act in accordance with God's commandments, we will experience the opposite outcome. We'll be blessed in our homes and in our fields, our flocks and our herds, in city and country, in our comings and in our goings... if only we observe the mitzvot and do not deviate from them.

In years past I've struggled with the blessings and curses articulated in Torah. The curses seem so punitive. I don't believe in a God Who sits on high and throws punishments at us like lightning bolts from Mount Olympus! Many of you have told me over the years that that's not your theology either, and that encountering it each year in Deuteronomy is challenging. For me, too.

But this year I'm reading these verses through the lens of global pandemic. This year I don't see these as teachings about divine punishment at all. I'm reading them as teachings about our power to shape the world in which we live. I think Torah is reminding us that we bring about the blessings or the curses by dint of our choices. (And suddenly it feels like Yom Kippur.)

If we gaslight each other, if we misdirect each other, if we subvert each others' rights -- those actions themselves are curses, and they carry their own consequences with them. They harm the fabric of community. They damage trust. And in this pandemic moment, they contribute to the spread of the virus that continues to ravage our interconnected human family across the globe.

And if we do what's right -- if we persist in the discomfort of our masks and strict social distancing in order to protect each other and especially to protect the vulnerable -- those actions themselves are blessings, and they carry their own consequences with them, too. When we choose to act in those ways, we bless each other with our mutual concern and care.

May we continue to bless each other with our mutual concern and care, through this pandemic and beyond.

 

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

 


Reading Eikev through the lens of covid-19

6a00d8341c019953ef0240a4ce9b56200dI made it three verses into this week's Torah portion, Eikev, before being brought up short:

"And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully... God will ward off from you all sickness..." (Deut. 7:12, 15)

My first thought was: wow, that verse has not aged well in this coronavirus moment. As we watch illness ravage the nation like a wildfire, the promise of health and safety feels off-key. Or at least, the connection between doing mitzvot and being healthy feels off-key, because it suggests that someone who falls ill is somehow wicked, or is not following Torah's instructions for spiritual and ethical living.

And then I thought: there's another way to read these verses.

This isn't about whether or not a single individual does what's right. We all know that it's possible to lead a spiritual and ethical life, rich with mitzvot, and still fall ill. And we all know that it's possible to do all the right things in this pandemic -- washing our hands, wearing our masks, socially-distancing and staying home -- and yet still be at risk of falling ill if someone carrying the virus coughs on us.

But what if Torah is trying this week to teach us that what matters is for the collective to do what's right? For the community to pull together and together commit to following the best practices that science and authentic spiritual life can offer us... not (only) for our own sakes but also for the sake of others who may be older, or medically vulnerable, or living with preexisting conditions that put us at greater risk?

"When we obey these mitzvot and observe them carefully," that's how God protects us from sickness, acting through us in the ways we care for each other. It's not a guarantee that no one will get sick -- nothing can offer that guarantee -- but it's what's in our hands to do. As we sometimes sing on Friday nights, "Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices." Ours are God's hands, and this moment calls us to turn our hands toward keeping each other safe. 

"And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully..." The classical tradition links this back to Exodus 15, where God similarly tells us that if we follow the mitzvot and do all the right things, then God won't plague us with the unnatural illnesses that the tradition sees as divine punishment. "Ki ani YHVH rofecha," says Torah (Ex. 15:26) -- "For I am YHVH your Healer."

One way to understand that is as a lesson about the interconnectedness of all things, and how our choices have collective impact. If we don't take care of the planet's fragile environment, then the conditions will be right for newer and more terrible illnesses to arise and spread. But if we do what's right by our planet, then we protect ourselves and each other from that terrible outcome.

This too feels to me like a teaching about our responsibility to each other and to the whole of which we are a part. When we act in ways that take care of our planet, when we act in ways that take care of each other and protect each others' health, we are embodying the aspect of God that we call Healer.

It's poignant to read these verses on the runway to the Days of Awe. Usually at this season we're preparing for our community's biggest in-person gatherings of the year. This year's Days of Awe will be different. Our challenge this year is to make our homes into sacred space, and to find community connections in each others' presence over Zoom, as we protect each other by staying physically apart. 

I know that for some of us, the prospect of Zoom-based High Holidays feels like a loss. Maybe we can't imagine how it will work. Or we're tired of Zoom and wish life could go back to normal. Or we're afraid it won't feel meaningful and real the way we want it to. Those feelings of loss are real, and I honor them. (I even share them.) And... I believe that these are the mitzvot the current moment asks of us.

This moment asks us to practice the mitzvah of masking, the mitzvah of social distancing, the mitzvah of gathering over Zoom.  So that we can keep covid-19 out of our beloved community, and in so doing, can hasten the day when we will all be able to gather safely in person again, here and everywhere.

 

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

 


Wake up: change is coming

Promise

"...If a man makes a vow to God or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips..." (Numbers 30:3)

It's like clockwork: every year we reach these verses at the start of Matot-Masei precisely as my high holiday preparations kick into high gear. It's July. It's summer. I want to be in the moment, not nine weeks from now. Because you know what's exactly nine weeks from now? Rosh Hashanah.

And every year I spend all winter craving summer's long light and vibrant blooms and exquisite produce and gentle warmth. I don't want to rush ahead to the holidays or to fall or to school. And wow, that feels especially true during this pandemic year.

And yet.

And yet here comes Torah reminding me about vows and oaths and forgiveness. Whether or not I want to hit pause on time, the holidays are on their way. Whether or not I feel ready, the season of inner work is coming.

A vow: Rashi writes, "This is when one says, Behold, I take upon myself an obligation which is as sacred to me as an offering." A vow is a commitment.

What vows do I make to the people in my life; to my family; to my loved ones; to my communities? What promises have I made to the community where I live and pray and celebrate and mourn? What commitments have I made to my nation, to the ideals of America, to liberty and justice for all?

What vows have I made, and am I living up to them?

Our Torah verses today distinguish between the vows made by a man, which automatically stand, and the vows made by a woman, which could be undone if her father or husband said so. Obviously that doesn't sit well with us today. Here's how I've come to understand those verses: when Torah says "woman" here, what it means is "someone who for one reason or another isn't master of their own fate."

It's as if my ten year old promised a friend something that wasn't his to promise -- "I'll have a Zoom playdate with you at 11pm!" I would need to gently tell him, kiddo, you can't have playdates at 11pm, you have to be in bed then. And if he said, "But I promised!" I would have to tell him, "That wasn't your decision to make."

I don't love the fact that in antiquity, women had as little control over their circumstance as does my child now. And, that's what it was. Today, if one partner exercised that kind of control over another, we would call that coercive and unhealthy.

Setting the gender piece aside: if a person makes a vow to God, or takes on an obligation, then we're supposed to live up to it. Sounds simple, right?

In just over ten weeks we'll stand together at Yom Kippur and take a good long look at ourselves and our souls and our choices. Are we living up to our promises? Because if not, now is the time to try to do better. Not just so we can stand before God on Yom Kippur with an easy heart... but because living up to our commitments and our values is what Judaism asks of us.

What promises have we made to each other, to our communities, to God? And are we living up to them? And if not, can we start now?

Because nine weeks from tomorrow I'll be singing the words from Mary Oliver that we always hear on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, from her poem about the goldfinches: "Believe us, it is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world."

It is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world. May the promises we make -- and the promises we keep! -- help to bring about repair, speedily and soon. Shabbat shalom.

 

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


Wholeness, justice, and peace

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A d'varling for Pride Shabbat and Shabbat Korach.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

 

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

 


In the cloud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


God, and community, in the space between

Weigel

The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance. (Numbers 2:2)

Tn this week's Torah portion, Bamidbar, we read how the twelve tribes would encamp around the mishkan (the dwelling place for God) and the ohel moed (the tent of meeting). Each tent was at an appropriate distance from every other. In normal years, I've resonated with the idea that the tents were arranged at a distance to give each household appropriate privacy.

(That comes from Talmud, which explicates "Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov," "how good are your tents, O [house of] Jacob," to say that our tents were positioned so that no household was peeking in on any other. What was "good" about our community was healthy boundaries.)

This year, of course, the idea of camping at a distance from each other evokes the physical distancing and sheltering-in-place that we've all been doing for the past few months of the covid-19 pandemic.

Sometimes distance is necessary for protection and safety. Like our tents in the wilderness positioned just so. Like the physical distance between us now, each of us in our own home, coming together in these little boxes on this video screen.

But notice this too: our spiritual ancestors set up their physically-distanced tents around the mishkan and the ohel moed, the dwelling-place for God and the tent of meeting. The place of encounter with holiness, and the place of encounter with community.

Here we are, each in her own tent. This week's Torah portion reminds us that our tents need to be oriented so that we all have access to the Divine Presence -- and so that we all remember we're part of a community.

When the Temple was distroyed by Rome almost two thousand years ago, our sages taught that we needed to replace the Beit HaMikdash -- the House of Holiness, the place where God's presence was understood to dwell -- with a mikdash me'aht, the tiny sanctuary of the Shabbes table.

When we bless bread and wine at our Shabbat table, we make that table into an altar, a place of connection with God. That feels even more true to me now, as I join this Zoom call from my Shabbes table! In this pandemic moment, our home tables become altars: places where we encounter God and constitute community even more than before.

"Let them make Me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them," God says. Or -- in my favorite translation -- "that I might dwell within them." We make a mishkan so that God can dwell within us.

That feels even more true to me now too... as our beautiful synagogue building waits patiently for the time when it will be safe for us to gather together in person again. Until then, we need to learn to find -- or make -- holiness in where we are. We need to learn to find -- or make -- community even though we're apart.

Our distance from each other protects us. And maybe more importantly, it protects those who are most vulnerable in our community: the elderly, the immunocompromised, those with preexisting conditions who are especially at-risk in this pandemic time. Pikuach nefesh, saving a life, is the paramount Jewish value. For the sake of saving a life we are instructed to do anything necessary, even to break Shabbat.

Being apart is painful and hard and it is one hundred percent the right thing to do -- and the Jewish thing to do.

So we're at a distance. So were our ancestors, as this week's Torah portion reminds us. Our task is to make sure that our tents are positioned so that there's space for God, and space for our community connections. So that God and community are the holy place in the middle. The place toward which all of our tents are oriented, toward which all of our hearts are oriented. Even, or especially, when we need to be apart.

Shabbat shalom.

 

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

 


A video teaching: the treasures hidden in quarantine

I recorded a short video teaching for my congregation, and thought I would share it here too. It begins with a check-in and then moves to a teaching from the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto for this week's parsha that feels especially meaningful to me this year. Here's a transcript if you'd rather read it than watch it.

Shavua tov, friends: a good week to you. I hope that your Shabbat was restorative. As we enter into week six of sheltering-in-place and social distancing, I wanted to check in. How are you holding up?

I miss you. All of you. It’s been a joy to see some of you via Zoom at my drop-in office hours on Mondays, at the Psalm-writing class I’ve been teaching on Fridays, at Friday morning meditation and at Shabbat services. I look forward to continuing to see you on Zoom, or hearing your voices by phone, or receiving your emails and texts, since right now those are the modalities available to us.

Here’s a funny thing that I’m starting to think maybe isn’t a coincidence. At the start of the new Jewish year, back in October, both of my hevruta partners / learning buddies -- Rabbi Megan Doherty, who’s the Jewish chaplain at Oberlin, and my colleagues on the board of Bayit: Building Jewish -- felt called to study a rabbi known as the Piazeczyner, also known as R’ Kalman Kalonymus Shapiro, also known as the Aish Kodesh, also known as the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Piazeczyner was writing from the Warsaw Ghetto. In a time of profound fear and anxiety, deprivation and illness. And yet he found ways to cultivate hope, even in those terrible times.

This week’s Torah portion is Tazria-Metzora, which offers teachings about how to handle a particular kind of sickness that was observable both in people, and in their dwellings. Both human beings, and their homes, could become “contagious” and needed to be quarantined for a time.

Whoa, that resonates in a whole new way this year.

The scholar Rashi, who lived around the year 1000, says this teaching is really about treasure hidden in the walls of the houses of the Emorites, whom our ancient ancestors conquered when we moved into the promised land. The houses would be marked as having tzara’at, and then they would be demolished, and we would find treasure in them.

The Piazeczyner asks: if the point is that there’s treasure in the walls, why wait seven days? Why not just knock them down? His answer is this: because the waiting helps us cultivate faith that good things will come.

Even in a difficult time, he writes -- “when there is no school for our children, no synagogue in which to pray in community with a minyan, no mikvah (ritual bath)” -- even in a time like that (a time like this!), we need to trust that God can help us turn even the most difficult of circumstances into blessings. We never know, when something difficult is happening, what blessing we might be able to find in it later when we look back on it.

So as we stay quarantined, sheltering in place, socially distancing to protect the vulnerable from the spread of this awful disease: may we follow the advice of the Piazeczyner, and try to cultivate trust that there may be treasure in these difficult days.

Maybe it’s the treasure of knowing that we are protecting each other from illness. Maybe it’s the treasure of coming to recognize what really matters to us -- even if what really matters to us is something that right now we can’t have.

May we live to emerge from this narrow place, and may we connect in person again: speedily and soon, with God’s help.

Thinking of you and sending blessings to all.

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog. With special thanks to R' David Markus for learning this with me on Shabbes. For those who want the original teaching, it's the Aish Kodesh on M'tzora 1940 / 5700.


In the wilderness

A d'varling for the end of week five of covid-19 sheltering-in-place.

As we leave Pesach behind we set out into the wilderness, trusting that somehow we're moving toward Sinai, toward revelation, toward connection. The spiritual practice of counting the Omer is tradition's way of helping us link Pesach with Shavuot, liberation with revelation, the constriction we're leaving behind with the expansiveness and covenant we're heading toward.

This year it may be hard to focus on that count because we are doing another kind of counting: how many days we've been quarantined / sheltering-in-place / socially distancing / staying home. How many days and weeks it's been since life felt "normal." And how many weeks it might be before we can return to seeing each other again, being with each other again.

The first thing I want to do is give all of us blanket rabbinic permission to "mess up" the Omer count. It's okay if we forget. It's okay if we miss a day. It's okay if we can't focus on the kabbalistic meanings of the seven qualities we're called to cultivate. A lot of our brainspace is dedicated right now to the news, the pandemic, what we're going to eat, who's sick and who's well.

That's normal. And it's okay. And... that's exactly the wilderness in which we're wandering this year -- as a people, as a nation, as a planet. Which means we're right where our core ancestral story says we should be. In the wilderness. Not totally sure where we're going or how we're going to get there or what losses we'll incur along the way. Maybe uncertain. Almost certainly afraid.

The Hebrew word bamidbar, "in the wilderness," shares a root with the verb l'daber, "to speak." The wilderness can be a place of fear, a place of not-knowing, a place that feels dangerous. And that's exactly the place where we hear God's voice. The place where holiness speaks to us. The revelation at Sinai takes place in a place that no one owns, in the wilderness, in not-knowing.

As I watch the pandemic play out at hospitals around the world, I've been thinking a lot about the time I spent as a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center almost 15 years ago. I remember that hospitals are profoundly holy places -- not despite our fear and not-knowing, but precisely because of it. When our hearts are cracked open, they also open to connection.

It's like Jacob said when he woke from the dream of the ladder with angels moving up and down: "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!" God is always in the place where we are, when we are there fully. A crisis like this one can focus us. It can make us really present, which may be uncomfortable. And it can open us to God's presence, which may be uncomfortable, too.

The whole world is wandering in the wilderness of this pandemic. We don't know how we'll get to the other side, or how long it will take, or what losses we'll incur along the way. We're not alone in this. We may be alone in our homes, but we're not existentially alone. We're all in this together. The spread of the virus reminds us that we're more connected than we ever knew.

Last Shabbat, in the Torah reading for the Shabbat during Pesach, we heard God say to Moses, "I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden." That verse is bringing me comfort this week: the idea that God is here with us in the wilderness. God is walking with us. God is keeping us company. And our souls are keeping each other company, too, even when we are alone.

May we feel each others' presence in this time of separation. May we feel God's presence in this time of separation. May we hear the voice of holiness speaking to us in this wilderness. May we open ourselves to the voice of love, the voice of justice, the voice of hope. And may we build a world of greater justice and love -- for everyone -- when we make it to the other side.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services via zoom for my synagogue this week (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 

 


Crying out and compassion

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As this week began I studied a text from the Piaceczyner, aka the Aish Kodesh, aka R' Kalman Kalonymus Shapiro, the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto. He teaches that as human beings, when we feel one another's pain -- when our hearts break for each others' suffering -- when one of our fellow human beings calls out, and we listen with open heart -- we empower the angels on high. .

Calling out to each other is part of how we share each others' burdens. And the Piaceczyner cites an old Aramaic translation to connect calling with receiving. It's connective, relational. This becomes a metaphor not only for how we imagine the angels interacting with each other, but even how we imagine God interacting with us. We call out to God, and God calls out to us.

That's how this week's Torah portion begins: with God calling out to Moshe. The Piaceczyner draws on midrash to say that God is like a human being who cries out to a friend, "help me carry this burden?" The burden that God wants help in carrying is our human suffering, which God feels-with-us. Even God takes comfort, when bearing a burden, in not having to carry it alone.

When we're in relationship with each other, when we call out to each other, when we feel-with one another and seek to lessen one another's pain, that's a gift we give each other. And because we're in relationship with God, when we cry out to God and God cries out to us, we are (as it were) giving that gift to God, and God is giving it to us in turn. What an amazing idea that is.

This is a time of immense suffering in the parts of the world where the pandemic has already crested. Here where I live, we are braced for what seems to be the near-certainty of immense suffering here too. There aren't enough ventilators for those who will need them, and there isn't enough protective gear to protect the doctors and nurses who risk life in caring for the sick.

As human beings, we have the choice of feeling each others' pain, or numbing ourselves to each others' pain. We can exercise compassion -- literally feeling-with-another -- or we can turn away. There are those who shrug and say that deaths are inevitable and shouldn't halt the economy. To me, that response is barbaric and inhumane. I think the Piaceczyner would agree.

The Piaceczyner was writing from the Warsaw Ghetto. The Jewish community to which he ministered there was in profound crisis, and things were about to get much worse. His response to that was: compassion. We must feel-with each other, cry out to each other and to God, carry each other's burdens... as God cries out to us, carries our burdens with us, feels with us. 

When we cry out and also receive the cries of others, we strengthen our compassion. I learned a different text from the Piaceczyner recently about faith. Faith is the soul's way of knowing and seeing. Faith is like the heart, beating even if we're not conscious of it -- and we also need to exercise it. I think the same is true of compassion: we need to choose to use it, often.

Cry out! Because if we numb ourselves to grief, we also numb ourselves to joy. Because crying-out is relational, and in the connection between crier and listener there is holiness. And open your heart to the cries of others who are suffering or afraid. Because hearing each other in this time is how we exercise compassion, like the One in Whose image all are made.

 

With gratitude to R' Megan Doherty, and to my hevre at Bayit: Building Jewish, with whom I studied this text this week.

The primary text I'm drawing on here is the Aish Kodesh on Vayikra 5700 / 1940. The second text, the one about faith, is his writing on Parshat Ha-Chodesh 5702/ 1942. Deep thanks to R' David Markus for learning that text with me.


Engraved on our hearts

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One artist's rendering of the stones for Aaron's shoulders, engraved with the names of the 12 tribes.

 

In this week's Torah portion we read about the instructions for making special garments for Aaron, brother of Moses: the first High Priest. We read about blue, purple, and crimson thread; about exquisitely decorated vestments; and about Aaron being declared "Holy to God." What leapt out at me this year are the two precious stones engraved with the names of all the tribes of Israel. (Ex. 28:9-12) Aaron carried the names of the whole community on his shoulders, or at least, the names of the twelve tribes that together represented the whole community. Because to serve the community means to serve the whole community.

Today we welcome a beautiful little girl into our community. And I can't wait to find out who she'll grow up to be. Maybe she'll want to put on costumes and star in our Purim play. Maybe she'll sing the Four Questions at the community seder. Maybe she'll make friends in our Hebrew school. And yet she isn't just joining this little rural shul, this smalltown community. Because we're part of something much bigger. We're connected with Jews around the world, on every continent. And we're connected with our spiritual ancestors stretching back thousands of years, and hopefully stretching forward at least as long.

To serve the community means to serve the whole community -- and to join the community means to join the whole community. I point this out over and over to those who join the Jewish people as adults: they're not just joining this shul, they're joining the entire Jewish people! They're joining Jews of every denomination, Jews of every race and skin color, Jews of every sexual orientation and gender expression. Rationalists and mystics, theists and atheists. Jews who express their Jewishness in so many different ways: through prayer, or poetry, or study, or feeding the hungry, or working for justice, or so much more. 

There hasn't been a High Priest in thousands of years. But as I sat with this Torah portion this week, here's what came to me: what if all of us together could make the choice to engrave the names of the whole community -- not on our shoulders, but on our hearts? Those names now include the name of the newest member of our community, to whom we are now responsible. It takes a village to raise a kid, and our shul is now part of her village. May we engrave her name, and each others' names, on our hearts. And in that way, may all of us together be "holy to God," as Aaron was, so very long ago. Shabbat shalom.

 

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


Whose heart so moves

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Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.... And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Ex. 25:2, 8)

I recently gathered a bunch of paperwork to bring to the person who helps me with my taxes. Maybe you're doing something similar as spring approaches. Here's the thing about taxes: they are not optional. They are not "gifts" that we give to the government out of the goodness of our hearts. And we don't only have to give them if we happen to feel moved to do so.

We may or may not feel moved by the need for roads and hospitals and schools. I mean, I think we should feel moved by those things! But regardless of whether or not our hearts resonate with the need for working traffic lights and decent pavement and safe places to educate kids, we pay taxes to support those things, because that's how our society works.

But when it came to the building of the mishkan, the dwelling place for God, it wasn't a matter of taxation. It wasn't a matter of "dues." It was a free-will offering from everyone whose heart was so moved. And a few verses later, God says "Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." Or, in my preferred translation, "that I may dwell within them."

I see a connection between the freewill nature of the offerings, and the indwelling presence of God within and among us. If a place is built out of dry obligation, or God forbid with coercion, then it's not a place where holiness can dwell. The way we make a place where God can dwell is by opening our hearts. Not by asking "what have you done for me lately," but by giving.

Later at the end of the book of Exodus we'll learn that so many people brought contributions that Moshe had to tell them to stop. But we're not there yet. This week, we're at the point in the story where God tells Moshe to tell the children of Israel to bring gifts. And they bring all different kinds of gifts. Materials for building, for weaving, for metalworking...

One of my favorite ways to read Torah is as an inner road map to becoming the people we're called to be. I believe that these verses aren't just about "them back then" but also about us now. Which raises the question: what are the gifts we can bring? What skills, what talents, what passions can we bring to the building of this community so that holiness will dwell within us?

Sometimes our presence is a gift -- when we show up to pray, to learn, to experience holidays, to celebrate and mourn. Sometimes our skills are a gift -- whether needlework or baking, carpentry or grant-writing. Sometimes our time is a gift.  And of course sometimes our money is a gift. "Ein kemach, ein Torah," the Talmud teaches: without food, there is no Torah.

What matters isn't how much we give, or in what form. What matters is that we feel moved to give in the first place. Because the more of ourselves we give, the more we receive in return. The more of ourselves we give, the more connected we feel with whatever we're giving to. And lack of connectedness is one of the most profound sorrows afflicting the world today.

Robert Putnam wrote about it twenty years ago in his groundbreaking book Bowling Alone. He described how Americans have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, even from the structures that sustain our democracy. The best antidote to disconnection is to show up and connect. And giving connects us. Especially when we give of ourselves. 

Torah has different names for different kinds of offerings. The word that gives this week's Torah portion its name is terumah, sometimes translated as a "lifted-apart" offering, or an "uplifting" offering. As Torah describes, those whose hearts lifted up in generosity brought what they could. Or maybe: those who brought what they could, found that their hearts were lifted up.

So that's my prayer for us today. May our hearts move us to give. May our giving connect us. And may our souls be uplifted on giving's spiritual updraft. 

 

 

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