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.)


Open


Can't force a poem,
only invite it.
Like spring.

Keep the door propped
the circuits open
bag packed

for when
Elijah arrives, singing
better days coming.

Build a perch
for the goldfinch
from painted willow.

Even if
it's hard to believe.
Especially then.


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.)


Our Cup Undrunk

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... Understood this way, the fifth promise is transformed from a divine promise we await, to a divine promise that if we ourselves act, then the fifth promise will be fulfilled.  

That clarion call is the modern message of the fifth cup (now cups – for Elijah and Miriam): even amidst celebration we must never rest on laurels or close our eyes to all that remains undone.  We must take up our tools and build that better future.  After all, too many remain bound, hopeless, unable even to yearn for a better future.  For them, and so for all of us, the fifth cup remains undrunk.

But symbols only matter if, well, they matter.  It’s too easy to let the fifth cup’s urgent call fade along with the taste of parsley dipped in tears. How do we stay mindful when Torah’s narrative goes elsewhere and the Pesach dishes are packed away? ...

 

I had the joy and the privilege of coauthoring this week's Torah commentary for Builders Blog. This year we're blogging through the Torah cycle with an eye toward building an ethic of social justice and a world worthy of the divine. 

Read the whole post at Builders Blog: Our Cup Undrunk For Now, co-written with R. David Evan Markus.


Red

The soup my ancestors made
was not like this.

Beets withered from cold storage
haven't changed, nor

the sharp bite of cabbage,
potatoes blinded by a paring knife

but who had tomato paste
in Stolpce or in Krasnopol?

They didn't store their broth
in freezer-safe Ziplocs

or browse a dozen recipes
for just the right black bread.

And when they heard
somebody hates the Jews

they might have said, so what?
Lake sturgeon swim upstream.

Some make it home to spawn;
some spill their gleaming jewels

at the tip of a fisherman's knife.
They don't complain. The water

that they breathe is all
they've ever known.

 


 

Hot Ukrainian Borscht is the Winter's Most Restorative Soup, Cook's Illustrated, January 2023.

A Family Finds Swastikas on the Lawn as Antisemitism Surges, The Washington Post, January 2023.

 

Also, it does look like tomato paste has long been a Russian staple -- though I'm guessing it was more likely to be homemade than to be the kind of mass-produced stuff most Americans eat now.


Finding The Missing Jew anew

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I don't have a copy of the original 1979 edition, alas.

 

When I saw the words "Jews do not come from heaven" in the table of contents of The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2022 by Rodger Kamenetz, unbidden my mouth said aloud, "they come from Russia."

I love this poem. I have been quoting its opening lines since I read a previous edition of The Missing Jew when I was in grad school the first time around, getting my MFA at Bennington. Here it is:

Jews do not come from heaven
they come from Russia.
With green eyes and olive skin.
Jews do not go to heaven
they go to Baltimore.

They do not come from heaven
because heaven is always
in the back of their minds.
They don't want to think about
heaven any more
it's too much trouble.

God bless Ben Yehuda Press (full disclosure: they published my books Open My Lips and Texts to the Holy, and they are Bayit's publishing partner on Beside Still Waters and Renew Our Hearts).

They've brought this new-old creation into print as The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2022. The first section is the original 1979 collection. Rodger remixed his own work in 1992, and that's here too:

"Jews do not come from heaven..."

Jews are all people
in time
They are as plain
as day...

I thought to go back
to some Russia
of the eyes
Hazel eyes
green mixed with brown
young wheat, dark soil
streaks of sunlight
and a winter
of suffering...

I am here
in the thinnest sense
imaginable
an exile
wherever I go

Look how this poem speaks to its predecessor, like a great-grandchild answering a letter left by an ancestor. I hear melancholy Shostakovich, I feel my Russian grandfather looking over my shoulder.

And the remix of "Jews do not go to heaven" -- I will resist re-typing it here for you. I'm going to memorize that one, though. The one word he revised between 1992 and 2022 changes everything.

Is there a word in the world
waiting to be heard?
As if for the first time
and the only time is now?

That's from "Invisible Lines of Connection," dated 2020. Although this book was pieced from many sources -- published books, other poems from other moments -- it feels like an integrated whole. 

That integration makes me think of how the Talmud both holds and transcends the voices within. Even when the sages disagree, they are (as it were) on the same page. It's one interconnected conversation.

Here are psalms and songs from 1981-2021. Here are mourning poems, including "Lentil" which we reprinted in Beside Still Waters. It sometimes makes me gasp when I run across it again there.

This book is full of memory, and mysticism, and God speaking the world into being in Her own inimitable way, and Reb Nachman with his tears under the table pretending to be a turkey.

Fallen leaves recite kaddish. The infinite arrives on lightning feet. Every word is broken. Only the hidden can burst forth. We forgot what we were yearning for. Every one and every thing is for you.

I'm cheating: that paragraph is a pastiche of Rodger's lines. If that doesn't entice you, I don't know what would. I want to start a new commonplace book so I can copy these lines in my own hand.

 

The Missing Jew Poems 1976-2022 is available at Ben Yehuda Press or wherever books are sold.

 


The Promise of Becoming: Vayechi 5783 / 2023

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This week's Torah potion, Vayechi -- "He lived" -- is bookended with a pair of deaths. We begin with Jacob. He offers blessings and curses to his children and grandchildren. He makes Joseph promise to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah where his ancestors are buried. And then his life ends.

By the end of the Torah portion, it's Joseph's turn. He tells his family that someday, when God lifts us out of Egypt, he wants his bones to be carried out of there too. As Joseph's story ends, so does Genesis. Joseph is the last patriarch whose story we experience as part of our spiritual family tree.

When our story begins again in Exodus, a lot of time has passed. In Exodus we'll enter the story of a community rather than a family. The first time I studied the parsha this week, I thought about burying my own father. And then I expanded my view, and I noticed something that feels important.

There's a difference in the two death scenes that feels relevant to me. Jacob says "bury me with my ancestors." He didn't live in Egypt for long, and what he wants after death is to go back to where he was before, where his generations are buried. In a sense, he reaches backward. 

Joseph says, "God will take notice of you and bring you up to the Land of Promise," so take me with you when you go. Geographically, he's talking about the same place, so if this is a physical descriptor, there's no difference. But notice: Jacob references the past. Joseph invokes the future.

Joseph is saying: I know that God is going to call you into something new. My life brought me to places my ancestors couldn't have imagined, and your lives will go places I couldn't have imagined, and that's as it should be. Grow, change, mature into freedom! Just bring part of me with you when you go.

Two fundamentally different approaches. Take me back to where I was before, or what my ancestors did before, or what I've been told my ancestors did... or take me forward into change, into becoming. Becoming can be scary; it may ask a lot of us. But turning back won't get us where we need to be.

The idea of the land of promise can mean a lot of things: a physical place, a spiritual space, a future redemption. In 1630, John Cotton called America a land of promise. In 1785, so did George Washington. In the 20th century, countless immigrants (many of them Jewish) sought promise here.

There are deep tensions between that idea and the worldview of Native American nations who lived in mutual care with this land and its abundance before we got here. For me the idea of a land of promise is most resonant when it's not about geography or ownership, but about ideals and aspirations.

And this turns out to be a poignant week to be contemplating our national ideals and aspirations -- between the dysfunction on view in Congress and the anniversary of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. (Relatedly, all but two of those who have been holding Congress hostage are election deniers.)

We have a long way to go to live up to democracy's promise. The equity and inclusion inherent in the declaration that "all... are created equal." The integrity shining in the ideal of "liberty and justice for all." Yes: that's the world I want! I think of these ideals as more as a direction than a destination.

Will we ever "get there" -- to perfect democracy; to perfect justice; to a world where (in the words we often sing as our Aleinu) "everywhere will be called Eden once again"? Probably not. But our spiritual covenant as Jews -- and, I think, as Americans -- calls us to keep pushing in that direction.

I keep returning to the image of Jacob on his deathbed looking back, and Joseph on his deathbed looking forward. I think this moment calls us to emulate Joseph, and to recognize that our yearned-for future of justice and integrity may ask a spiritual expansiveness our ancestors never imagined.

Joseph knew that God would call his descendants, and their descendants, into something new he couldn't foresee. (As our story goes: from servitude to holy service, from slaves with no autonomy to whole souls in willing covenant with the Holy. Tune in next week as we begin the Exodus story.)

We can't know where our story will go -- our personal story, our family story, our national story. But we can dream of promises fulfilled, and then build toward that future. We can do everything we can to aim ourselves and our communities toward integrity and justice, human dignity and hope.

That's my prayer for us this week:

May we be like Joseph!

May our every descent be for the sake of ascending higher.

And may we embrace becoming all that we can become.

 

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

 


Sacred

 

Left: photograph by Leah Millis, part of this series.

Right: poster for today's Stand Out for Democracy.



Two years ago today an armed mob, fueled by lies of a stolen election, violated the United States Capitol. Some carried Confederate flags; others wore white supremacist insignia. The broken glass and splintered doors from their attack on the Capitol have long since been cleared away. The work of reconsecrating the sacred space of our democracy continues. 

I don’t just mean the literal Capitol building, though anyplace where public servants gather to govern with integrity is a holy place in my eyes. Democracy flourishes most wholly when each of us is accorded a full measure of human rights and dignity – in Jewish language, when we honor the innate holiness of every soul. 

Senator Raphael Warnock expressed it this way in his first speech to Congress in 2021: “Democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea: that we are all children of God and therefore we ought all to have a voice in the direction of our country and our destiny within it. Democracy honors the sacred worth of all human beings.” 

As you probably know, in addition to being a public servant Senator Warnock is a pastor, so he frames that idea in religious language. I’m a rabbi, so I do too. But the inherent worth of every human being is a pillar of democracy whether or not the God-language resonates. And let’s be clear: this is an aspiration and a value that our nation is still growing into. 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal..."

That originally meant white property-owning men. Black people were considered ⅗ of a person. White women lost autonomy, property, and rights the moment we married (which we didn't really have a choice about doing). Thankfully human wisdom continues to evolve. Today we sanctify our democracy by equally valuing people of every race, creed, gender expression, and marital status.  

We sanctify our democracy by repudiating the white Christian nationalism implicit in the Jan. 6  insurrection, and by rededicating ourselves to pluralism. White nationalists think that diversity is a weakness, but that limited and limiting worldview tarnishes the splendor of what humanity can be. Our diversity is an integral part of the America we want to call home. 

We sanctify our democracy with every act of justice – with every act of truth-telling – with every act of integrity. We sanctify our democracy when we resist falsehood and demand accountability. We sanctify our democracy when we live up to our responsibilities to one another and our responsibilities to those who are most vulnerable. 

Rep. John Lewis z”l taught that “Democracy is not a state. It’s an act.” Which is to say, an action. Democracy is something we do – and keep doing. Our nation’s highest ideals have yet to be realized, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. As we learn in Pirkei Avot, “לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה / It is not incumbent on us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from doing what we can.”

 

These are the words I shared at the Stand Out for Democracy at First Congregational Church in Williamstown on the second anniversary of the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol.


Arabic: a remedy for the winter blues

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If you've been reading this blog for long, you know that I struggle with the cold dark days at the turn of the secular year. In high summer I sometimes have to remind myself not to dread the winter that is always inevitably coming. And at this season I seek comfort in all kinds of ways, from warm-tinted lightbulbs to blankets to braises, but I still have to work hard to avoid the malaise of SAD. 

The best mood-lifter by far that I've found this winter is... being terrible at Arabic. To be clear, I've never learned Arabic, though ever since the summer I spent in Jerusalem I've aspired to someday be the kind of rabbi who speaks some Arabic. (Someday. Later. You know, when I have time.) And then I read R. David's Why This Rabbi Is Learning Arabic (And Every Rabbi Should), and I thought: ok, I'll try.

It's engrossing. It feels like it's working a different part of my brain -- learning new characters, trying to train my ear to distinguish new-to-me sounds. Maybe best of all is that I am an absolute beginner. I know nothing, so every little bit of learning is progress. Remembering the initial, medial, or final forms of any letter feels like victory. And maybe that's part of what lifts my spirits.

I'm using Duolingo. And before anyone objects: yes, I know all the reasons why that isn't ideal. I should take a real class. I should find Arabic speakers with whom to practice. I can't do those right now, for all kinds of reasons. What I can do is keep a tab open on my computer, and instead of doomscrolling, work on parsing a new-to-me alphabet. (It's also great instead of doomscrolling on my phone.)

I can practice sounding out syllables while my kid's brushing his teeth. Remind myself of letter-shapes over morning coffee. Short digital bursts are not pedagogical best practice -- and yet I am learning, bit by bit. I do know that there are a dozen different forms of Arabic and what I'm haltingly learning is Modern Standard Arabic, which may or may not be helpful. But that's not a reason not to learn.

So far I can mostly parse sentences like "Sam is a good translator," or "Judy has cold fish," or "Tamer has a new house." None of this would be especially useful if I were in an Arabic-speaking place right now. (Well, maybe the words for chicken and fish?) In a funny way, that relieves the pressure. I'm really learning lishma -- for its own sake, for the pleasure of learning, not for the sake of any task.

Spiritually I think it's good for me to be a beginner at something. It gives me renewed empathy for my students who struggle to parse Hebrew texts that have become comfortable and familiar to me... and it's a good reminder to practice beginner's mind in other spheres of my life, too. It's good for me to allow myself to be terrible at something -- to practice something that I am not remotely good at yet.

Those things would be true if I were learning any language with unfamiliar orthography. But the fact that it's Arabic also matters. I want to learn Arabic in part because of Israeli/Palestinian traumas, histories, and realities. I want to learn Arabic because trying to learn someone else's language is a way of extending myself to others. I hope it's a way of showing that I see (and seek) common ground.

Also, Arabic really does have things in common with Hebrew. I get a little jolt of joy every time I encounter another cognate. And doesn't that feel like a metaphor for Judaism and Islam -- different and sharing some key underpinnings? Of course, it's also a false linguistic / cultural binary -- Arabic has a long history in Judaism too. (Just ask Saadia Gaon, Rabbeinu Bachya, or Rambam.)

How much will this help me next time I travel to a place where Arabic is spoken? Who knows. (Last night I slowly sounded out the unfamiliar word on a container of زحورات -- it turns out to be the name of this floral herbal tisane.) Still, with every lesson the language becomes ever-so-slightly less opaque. The learning is definitely good for me. And every day I can pick up a tiny bit more than I did before.

 

Worth reading: Why Israel’s Jews Do Not Know Arabic, by Yuval Evri

 


When the darkness around us is deep...

A reporter from The Berkshire Eagle reached out to me recently to ask what I'm speaking / preaching about during this holiday season. I wrote back that the framing of the question is a little bit off for me, since for me as a Jew "the holidays" doesn't mean December, it means the Days of Awe, which happened a few months ago.

I figured that would be the end of it. The article is about what local clergy are saying at Christmastime, I don't give a Christmas sermon, end of story. To my surprise, she read two of my high holiday sermons (Tools for Tough Times and Balancing Life and Death) and then emailed me with more questions. And my words close out the article!

On my Rosh Hashanah teaching:

This year it felt more important than ever to speak honestly about what's broken in the world, not in a way that compounds despair but in a way that brings light to dark places and hope to tough times...

For the second year in a row, at Rosh Hashanah I referenced Mariame Kaba's teaching that hope is a discipline. It's not a feeling, it's not optimism, it's a practice. We create hope when our actions aim toward a little bit more justice and a little bit more love. Facing what's broken doesn't mean we despair. It means we roll up our sleeves and do what we can to build a better world...

On what I'm thinking about now, during thi week of solstice and Chanukah:

...The light of our souls persists, even when — as William Stafford put it — 'the darkness around us is deep.' And we never know how our own light might help others in their times of darkness.

Read the whole article here: Berkshires religious leaders share a holiday message of hope, and a reminder that if your faith feels tired, look toward the light.


Chanukah light in a small town


The small town where I live has had a rocky few years. A police officer sued the town alleging racism. That revealed the poster of Hitler in another officer's locker. Then came allegations of misconduct. The town formed a Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Equity committee -- and then five out of six people of color on that committee resigned. There were threatening emails. Town Facebook groups exploded.

Last year, town clergy together hosted a series of interfaith Listening Circles. We talked about faith and race and feeling welcome (or not) and what we want our town to be. The Hitler poster and police misconduct impacted some of us. Accusations of racism impacted some of us. Racism impacted some of us. What might it look like to pursue both justice and reconciliation? What would that ask of us?

What does it mean to feel that we "belong" here, if we moved here from somewhere else -- or if we didn't? How can we collectively avoid the zero-sum notion that if our town becomes more welcoming to newcomers and minorities, it necessarily becomes less welcoming to the people who grew up here? While we're at it, who defines what is and isn't "welcoming"? What do we owe to each other?

I learned in those conversations that some Jews feel simultaneously invisible and unwelcome here. It's a double-edged sword: not sure people know we're here, and also not sure we'd be welcome if people did know we're here. The experience of being a religious minority isn't new. But it takes on a different valance in a time of rising antisemitism, and these last few years have surely been that.

Against all of these backdrops, members of the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce reached out. They'd been urged to expand the diversity of celebrations encompassed in the Town's December holiday activities. Would a Town menorah be meaningful? Conversations ensued. Fundraising ensued. Fast-forward to where we are now: last night my son and I helped to dedicate the new Town menorah.

The Town menorah stands on the lawn of the big downtown Inn, visible all the way up Spring Street. (If you're imagining a town like Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls, you're not far off.)  We live in a society shaped by Christian practices and assumptions. Christmas is in the music, the advertisements, the red and green everything. For some of us, simply seeing a Jewish tradition in public is a balm.

Representation matters -- just ask any kid who finally sees a character like them in a book or on TV and feels a wash of inchoate relief at that sense of validation. Having a big visible symbol of Chanukah can evoke a similar feeling. For me the Town menorah is a lovely expression of diversity and pluralism. (I'd love to see more cultures and traditions uplifted. Next year, a Town iftar, perhaps?)

I've never felt invisible or unwelcome here as a Jew... but knowing that some of those whom I serve have felt that way, I hope the Town menorah lighting did a little bit to dispel that. "I never thought I'd see this happen in Williamstown," one congregant marveled to me after we blessed and kindled lights and sang songs.  "I didn't think it would make such a difference, after living here all these years."

 

See also: North Berkshire Lights Menorahs to Mark Festival of Lights.

 


At the bottom of the well (Vayeshev 5783 / 2022)

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Vayeshev is an amazing Torah portion. Joseph and his brothers, dreams, jealousy, the descent into Egypt and rise into Pharaoh's service, plus the story of Judah and Tamar! And yet when I first turned to the wellspring of Torah to see what calls to me this year, my dipper came up empty. I felt like I had nothing new to say. I felt tapped-out: a well that’s run dry.

I said to a few people: wow, I'm kinda tapped-out this week. Help me out here: if you were going to shul this week, what would you want your rabbi to talk about? And a surprising number of people said: talk about exactly that. A lot of us are feeling empty, tapped-out, struggling. We're heading into our third Covid winter, and to a lot of people it feels like we've given up.

There's cognitive dissonance between, "We just have to live with it," and yet anyone who's had Covid has "increased risk of stroke, blood clots, heart failure and heart attacks." (Source: Johns Hopkins.) Meanwhile there’s a tridemic. And medicine shortages. And the drumbeat of the next presidential election. And let's not forget the climate crisis or global geopolitics.

That's a lot. It's really, truly a lot. And there's also all the ordinary stuff that can make life difficult sometimes: injustice, illness, mortality. If your well feels empty, you are not alone. So what do we do with that? I read the parsha again, and this time I noticed when Joseph's brothers "took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it." (Gen. 37:24)

What does that evoke for you? I get a flurry of images: I’m at the bottom of a stone tower set deep into the earth. The light of the sky is far away. I can’t climb out. Rashi says there are scorpions. Torah doesn’t tell us anything about Joseph’s internal state at the bottom of the pit. But we do know something about the experience he has later, when he’s thrown in prison.

When Joseph is imprisoned, Torah tells us, God is “with Joseph.” (Gen. 39:20-21) We don’t know what changed in him or how it changed, but it seems that now he can feel God’s presence. And while in prison he interprets dreams for his fellow prisoners. He helps the people around him. That's one of our tools for tough times: helping others however we can.

When I’ve felt depressed, it’s hard to believe there’s a way out. But when someone I love is at the bottom of that well, I assure them that life won't always be this, and I mean it. I can reach emunah, trust or faith, for others when I can't feel it for me. And I think that’s part of the human condition. As Talmud teaches, "A prisoner cannot free themself from prison." 

My friend and hevruta Rabbi David points out that Torah uses the term בֵּ֣ית הַסֹּ֔הַר / beit ha-sohar, while Gemara says בֵּית הָאֲסוּרִים / beit ha-asurim. Sohar means round, like a round dungeon. Ramban says it implies a place of very little light. In other words, Joseph’s symbolically back in the empty well where he began, but now he feels God with him.

Talmud’s term asur means forbidden, prohibited, no way, no you can’t. Beit ha-asurim is the House of Can’t. It’s that helpless, maybe despairing, sense of being stuck. The Gemara is clear that we can’t free ourselves from the House of Can’t. Someone – or some One – has to free us. And maybe it’s both at once: God deploys us to help each other break free.

As for Joseph, so for us – even if we can’t feel God’s presence. (And as always I mean whatever “the G-word” evokes for us: justice or love, integrity or hope.) Our job is to help each other trust that, in Torah’s language, God is with us even here. That holiness and justice and hope are with us, even if we can’t feel them. That our cup won’t always feel empty.

If you're not feeling stuck or disheartened or at the bottom of the well, you have an opportunity to reach out to someone who is. And if you are at the bottom of that well, trust me when I promise you that life won't always be this. We can hold on to that for you until you can feel it again.

We can’t free ourselves from the House of Can’t. It’s right there in the name. But we can be liberators for each other, and I’d argue that we have to be. Even (or especially) now, approaching the year’s darkest day, here at the bottom of December’s dry well. 

 

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.)


Recycling (first published in The Light Travels)

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The midrash says when the invaders left
they carried off the golden lamp as loot.
The absence of the lampstand was an ache –
without its light, reserves of hope ran low.
We had to improvise with what we had:
the iron spears our enemies had dropped.

We made our Ner Tamid that year with trash,
repurposing the implements of war
for bringing sacred light. How about now?
The planet is our Temple – and it burns.
We can’t just close our eyes. We’re all
indicted by the plastics in the seas.

We need to learn to sanctify what's here:
weave rags to rugs, old tires into shoes,
upcycle guns to instruments of song.
The miracle is not that God steps in –
it’s that we use these remnants to rebuild:
dedicate them and their sparks to God.

 

The midrash says. See Pesikta Rabbati 2:1. Ner Tamid. The “eternal light” that burns in every synagogue now, evoking the menorah lit in the Temple. The plastics in the sea. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one example of vast accumulation of microplastics in our oceans. Old tires into shoes. This is done all over the world, and is beginning to happen in the United States. Upcycle guns. See Pedro Reyes Creates 6,700 Beautiful Instruments from Mexican Drug War Guns.  We use these remnants. Innovators have turned plastic waste into bricks. Rededicate. The name Chanukah means dedication. [S]parks to God. From the mystical teaching that creation is filled with holy sparks that it’s our job to uplift.

 

This is my contribution to this year's Hanukkah offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. Click through for our whole collaborative offering of new poetry, liturgy, and art: The Light Travels.


From Dust to Stars (Vayishlach 5783 / 2022)

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וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃

Jacob was left alone, and a figure wrestled with him until break of dawn...

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃

Said he, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed."

In this week's installment of our story, parashat Vayishlach brings us the night-time wrestle between Jacob and the figure tradition names as an angel. This is the encounter from which we get our name as a people. The verse explains the name ישראל / Yisrael as shorthand for the phrase שרית עם–אלהים / sarita im-Elohim: striven or persisted ("wrestled") with God.  

He comes out of that wrestle with a new name and a limp. Life’s challenges (and sometimes injustices) leave most of us with a limp, spiritually speaking. Our task is to persevere. To say to our struggles or losses or grief, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” And then to live into the new name, the new chapter of who we can become, granted to us by our struggle with what’s been hard.

So what is this new name about? What (else) does it imply?

One of my favorite tools in the rabbinic toolbox is the use of anagrams and wordplay. Spiritual life can also be playful! So here's some holy wordplay I learned this week from the Kedushat Levi. The name Yisrael contains the letters of ישר‎ / yashar / "upright," e.g. moral and ethical.  The letters in Yisrael can also make ראש‎ לי/ Li rosh / "head" and "to Me," in other words, a mind turned toward God.

The name Ya'akov contains the word עקב‎ / ekev / "heel." Name changes in Torah are always spiritually significant, and this is a prime example of that. The name change from Ya'akov to Yisrael symbolizes a profound internal change, a kind of spiritual ascent.  His name used to mean "heel," and now it implies God-consciousness. He's shifting from feet in earthly dust to the highest heavens beyond the stars.

Maybe you've heard that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't? It turns out Kedushat Levi is in that first category. He says:

Some people are able to maintain awareness of God while doing mitzvot or studying Torah, but not while engaged in business. These people are on a spiritual level that we can call Ya'akov. Others maintain awareness of God all the time, no matter what they're doing. That heightened / constant awareness of God is represented by the name Yisrael. Remember, Li rosh: mind focused on God.

Last week we heard my son teach about Jacob's dream of the ladder, and how he woke with awe but then forgot it. How Jacob lost sight of the "wow" -- how we all lose sight of the wow, all the time. As a people, we take our name not from Jacob, whose name means more or less "the heel," but from Yisrael who lived in awe and could maintain consciousness of God while doing ordinary things.

So what does it mean to maintain consciousness of God while we're out in the world? (And what if we don't "believe" in "God"?) Try this on: living in a way that embodies the name Yisrael means constant consciousness of love and justice, integrity and truth, mercy and judgment -- because "God" is shorthand for all of these. Yisrael means having all of these at the forefront of our minds.

Not just when we're "doing Jewish," but all the time, wherever we are. Justice, love, truth, integrity, a healthy balance of mercy and judgment are always front-and-center. That's what it means to be Yisrael, to be a Godwrestler. Does that change how we treat the grocery store check-out person, the homeless person, the person who gets under our skin? Does it change how we treat each other?

Levi Yitzchak teaches that with the name change from Ya'akov to Yisra'el we shift from ekev to rosh, from heel to head, from the dust of the earth to awareness of the highest heavens and presence of God. Here's a thing our forebears didn't know: we are stardust. Really And so is almost everything. The elements that comprise us began in ancient, distant stars. The dust of the earth is also the heavens.

It shatters Kedushat Levi's 18th-century binarism. Across all of our binaries -- me vs. you, us vs. them, earth vs. heavens, dust vs. stars -- there is a deeper truth. All we need is a perspective shift. When we act with integrity and awareness, we live up to our name Yisrael -- and when we feel mired in the mud or stuck in Ya'akov's wrestle, we can remember that there is also holiness in the dust beneath our feet.

 

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

Shared with gratitude to the Bayit board for learning together.