Rabbi Roundtable at the Forward

Rabbi-roundtable-1508161760The good folks at the the Forward have started up a new series they're calling Rabbi Roundtable. They chose 17 rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, and they're posing questions to us and sharing our answers. 

The first one of these has just gone live, and the question they chose to ask this week is, "What is the biggest threat facing the Jewish people today?" Here are our answers: Rabbi Roundtable / What's the Biggest Threat to the Jewish People? Deep thanks to the editors at the Forward for including me as a leading voice of Jewish Renewal.


On stillness after the holidays

IStock-485751996

...This is our time to rest, like bulbs cradled in the embrace of the earth. It’s time to slow our breathing, like the shavasana pose that ends many yoga classes. We’ve been pouring out our hearts: now it’s time to wait and see what flows in to replenish us. Like the trees, like the bulbs, our souls need to lie fallow....

 

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily.

Read the whole thing: Why the stillness after the wave of Jewish holidays is so important


Visions of Renewal in Connecticut

White-1One of the great joys of being an unofficial ambassador for Jewish Renewal is getting invited to share spiritual technologies that have deeply shaped my life and my rabbinate with new communities that may not yet have experienced them.

Over the weekend of November 3-5, Rabbi David Markus and I will be scholars-in-residence at Temple B'nai Chaim in Georgetown, Connecticut!

We'll be there over the weekend of parashat Vayera (the Torah portion is named after its first word, "And God appeared" or, more broadly "And God caused Abraham to see") so we've framed our introduction to Jewish Renewal through the lens of vision. 

We'll be co-leading a musical, poetic, uplifting Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday night; offering a Torah study on Shabbat morning; gathering with the community at 5pm for se'udat shlishit (the "third meal" of Shabbat, where we'll "dine" on poetry and song themed around yearning at that most poignant time of the week), havdalah, and some learning about angels in Jewish tradition. On Sunday morning we'll offer two short programs on "spirituality on the go" and on the mysticism of ordinary mitzvot.

Here's the full schedule for our weekend, and here's a Facebook event where you can indicate if you're coming. If you're in or near Connecticut and are able to join us, we'd love to see you there!


What we pray for

MaxresdefaultToday we shift from praying for dew to praying for rain, and as we made that shift, something occurred to me.

We say a special prayer for rain today on Shemini Atzeret, launching our season of asking God for rain in the daily amidah. (At Pesach, we say a special prayer for dew, launching our season of asking God instead for dew.) 

No matter where in the world we live, between Pesach and Shemini Atzeret Jews don't pray for rain. Why? Because rain is an impossibility in the Middle East during the summer, and our tradition teaches us that we don't pray for the impossible. We don't ask God for what's just plain not possible. That would make a mockery of our prayer. Since rain can't fall in Jerusalem at that season, we don't ask for it. We ask for dew, instead: a form of abundance that's actually available at that time of year.

And yet I can't help noticing that we pray for peace all year long, on Shabbat and weekdays and festivals alike. On weekdays, when we're comfortable making requests of God, we pray for wisdom, and forgiveness, and abundance, and justice. No matter what day it is, we pray for healing for our broken hearts and our fallible bodies. Every night we pray for God's presence to accompany us and to spread a sukkah of peace over us while we sleep. 

We don't pray for the impossible. Which must mean that all of those things -- peace and wisdom, forgiveness and abundance, justice and healing, God's presence with us and within us -- are possible, always. 

On this day of holy pausing, may we be blessed with the felt sense that the things for which we most fervently pray are always already within our grasp.

Chag sameach


Hoshana for Right Relationship

הושע הא / Hosha na, please save!
For the sake of Acting in good faith
For the sake of Boundaries and their maintenance
For the sake of Choosing to see clearly
For the sake of Directly naming what is broken
For the sake of Ending unconscious patterns
For the sake of Finding strength to speak
For the sake of Growth and transformation
For the sake of Holding firm to principle
For the sake of Integrity in all things
For the sake of Justice in every moment
For the sake of Keeping ourselves honest
For the sake of Love and awe in equal measure
For the sake of Making real teshuvah
For the sake of Noticing when we're culpable
For the sake of Opening ourselves to becoming
For the sake of Power wielded justly
For the sake of Questioning and discernment
For the sake of Repairing what we've damaged
For the sake of Standing in our truth
For the sake of Taking responsibility
For the sake of Understanding our own choices
For the sake of Victims of abuse, believed and honored
For the sake of Walking away from toxicity
For the sake of eXamining our behavior
For the sake of Yin and yang in balance
For the sake of Zeal to do what's right, not just what's easy:
הושע הא / Hosha na, please save!

 


Today -- the seventh day of Sukkot -- is also a minor festival in its own right, called Hoshana Rabbah. On this day it's customary to recite alphabetical acrostic prayers called hoshanot

This is the hoshana that I most needed to pray this year. May its words ascend on high; may its implications sink deep into our hearts and shape our actions as we move into the new year.

For those who are interested, here is another contemporary Hoshana for Healing and Consolation by Rabbi Dr. Dalia Marx, published at the Open Siddur project in Hebrew and in English translation.

Chag sameach / a joyous festival to all.


Sukkah sky

If I could, I would invite you into my mirpesset sukkah when morning light paints the valley golden, or when twilight pinks the horizon, or when the moon is visible over the mountains to the east.

 

37298664190_e54a55d85d_z

 

It's hard for photographs to capture the feeling of being in the sukkah: the rustling of the schach and decorations overhead, the scent of the cornstalks and the etrog, the way the structure sketches a room around you, at once indoors and outdoors. 

 

37489832322_f91c922346_z

But I can show you glimpses, photos taken from the place where I usually sit. I can show you slices of the light and the changing sky over the hills and houses. There are many bigger and fancier sukkot than ours, but none with a prettier view.



37298664190_e54a55d85d_z

This year (so far) we've been blessed with warmth and fair weather over the first few days of the holiday. We've dipped in and out of the sukkah: eating there, reading there, hanging out with friends there, just relaxing there.

 

37298664190_e54a55d85d_z

 

There's a poignancy to the sukkah: it's so beautiful, and so temporary. A reminder to enjoy every moment we can, before the sukkah comes down, before the decorations are packed away for another year, before the snows fall.

 

Related: Letter from the sukkah (2014), A sukkah of sticks and string (2016)


The Book of Separation, by Tova Mirvis

BookI don't entirely know how to write about Tova Mirvis' The Book of Separation. It is beautiful, of course. It is painful. It is rich. It is hopeful. It is the intertwined story of her divorce and her leaving Orthodoxy. And it's especially poignant for me to read as my own divorce continues; I can't help reading her journey through the lens of my own.

To leave a marriage, to leave a religion, you never go just once. You have to leave again and again.

Our divorce stories are not the same (moving out on my own was my first opportunity to keep a kosher kitchen; moving out on her own was her first opportunity to eat non-kosher pizza). But I am dazzled and sometimes griefstricken by how familiar her story feels to me. You never go just once. You have to leave again and again. Yes, that's my experience too. 

Once the dishes are put in the oven -- my zucchini lined up in the pan like a fleet of green canoes -- I leave the kitchen to go check on the kids, who are playing happily. I study them as if searching for symptoms of a dreaded fever, worrying that the divorce fills their minds as persistently as it does mine, that they too cannot stop noting that this is the first Sukkot of the divorce, that during this year, everything is a first.

There were times when I had to put the book aside because reading it was too resonant with my own experience of ending a 23-year relationship and coming unmoored from every certainty I used to think I knew. There were other times when I eagerly picked it up again, unable to set it aside. Not only because it's well-written, although it is. Because it's authentic and real, and that's something I crave, especially now.

When the kids come to the table, we sing "Shalom Aleichem" -- the song that has started every Shabbat dinner I've ever attended, my whole family gathered round -- but with only our four voices, the prayer feels slight and vulnerable. // Here is the freedom and, alongside it, the price to be paid: loneliness.

Reading this book, I often found myself thinking of Leah Lax's beautiful and heartbreaking memoir UncoveredUncovered is about living a closeted life in the Hasidic world -- and eventually leaving Hasidism and, in her own words, finally coming home. Both of these are stories of painful growth and self-discovery and ultimately coming home into a self that the author tried for years to pretend that she didn't need to authentically be. 

"Life," I continue on, wanting to impart this not just to Josh but to my younger self, "is about exploring and grappling and growing. You're allowed to change, even when it's painful. You're allowed to decide who you want to be."

On some level this is a story about claiming one's own truth, even when it flies in the face of what was "supposed" to be. It's a book about choosing to live honestly, instead of staying within the safety of pretending that everything is working when it's not. And that's enough of a universal theme that I suspect this book will resonate not only for those who have left a religious community, and not only for those who have ended a marriage, but for anyone doing the difficult spiritual work of growth and change.

Nothing can change, my mantra of so many years. Nothing can change. All this time, I saw it as a prison, a curse, but I hadn't realized that it was also a crutch, an excuse, a prayer. Change felt as alarming as anything I might have done -- so afraid of falling, so afraid of finding myself severed from all that was secure. All this time, I'd preferred to stay unhappy rather than to take a chance on what was unknown.

Change is scary and hard. Being severed from what was once familiar is scary and hard. I recognize myself in these words. Maybe some of you do, too. It's natural to be ambivalent about change: to resist it, to resent it, to crave it, to fear it. And yet I am increasingly certain that facing change is the work of midlife. (I think Father Richard Rohr might agree.) Reading Mirvis' words, I re-experience my own tumultuous journey from resisting change, to fearing change, to embracing change even when it comes with grief.

Now, without either ring, my finger looked naked. All that remained were the indentations the bands had carved into my skin.

I know that feeling. I still reflexively reach with my thumb to confirm that my rings are still there, even though I know they are not. I wore them for almost eighteen years. They shaped me, the marriage shaped me, indelibly. It's like when I wear tefillin. They leave a winding spiral on my arm, an inscription on my body that fades in the physical realm but sometimes lingers emotionally and spiritually. The promises I have made -- to the people in my life; to the tradition with which I wrestle and dance -- shape me. So do the promises I once made that I can no longer keep. 

When we learned about [the Exodus] in school, the desert Jews were depicted as a foolish, ungrateful lot -- how could they bemoan such a painful past? Back then, I had yet to understand that leave-takings are slow and painful and carry their own losses, that you can miss even what you needed to leave.

I come away from this book awestruck by Mirvis' courage. I'm awed by the courage it took to leave an all-encompassing religious system that no longer fit, the courage it took to leave a marriage that no longer fit, the courage it took to write this dazzlingly authentic and honest memoir. I'm grateful that this book exists, and I recommend it highly. The Book of Separation gives me hope that even when change is difficult and painful, it can be redemptive, even holy. Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so, for Mirvis, and for me, and for all of us. 

 

Related:


How to thrive in this broken world

We live in a world of trauma and tragedy and outrage and constant micro-aggressions. In recent weeks we've seen hurricanes bring unthinkable devastation. The massacre in Las Vegas is heartbreaking. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports a rise in misogyny both overt and systemic over the last nine months. Many of us live in fear of violence against women. There's been a documented rise in antisemitism over that same time period. (David Duke just blamed the Las Vegas killings on Jews.) The United States just voted against a UN resolution that would have condemned the use of the death penalty for being gay. (I could go on.)  How can we not only live but thrive in this world? I don't have a single simple answer. But here are seven suggestions.

*

Kindness. Be kind to yourself in whatever ways you can. Notice your internalized voices of critique -- maybe you knock yourself for not having the spaciousness to pay enough attention to the brokenness of the world, or maybe you knock yourself for not being able to make enough of a difference. Those voices can be helpful, up to a point. But they can also harm. Tell your internal critic to take a break, and be kind to yourself. Maybe that means taking a few extra minutes to put on lotion and be grateful to and for your body. Maybe it means a cup of tea, or a walk in the fresh air. Maybe it means clean sheets on your bed and the laundry folded, or a bouquet of flowers on the table. Do the little things you can to be good to yourself, to replenish yourself.

Boundaries. Maintain good boundaries. Maybe that means being attentive to your social media use, or your consumption of news. Maybe it means taking one day a week away from news altogether. (I suggest Shabbat, for reasons that are probably obvious.) If there are people in your life who deplete you, try to find ways to minimize contact with them. If the twenty-four hour news cycle is wearing you down, take a break from it. If the omnipresence of misogyny and antisemitism fill you with despair (as they do me), find a way to turn away from them and focus elsewhere for a while. This may feel like a luxury, but it's actually a survival tool. Maintain good boundaries around your body, your heart, your mind, and your spirit. This will help you stay intact.

Balance. Seek balance in your life. Maybe this means work / life balance. Maybe this means balance between engaging with the broken world, and seeking respite from the brokenness. Maybe it means balance between reading the news, and reading a novel. Maybe it means balance between focusing outward (on the world, on the work that needs to be done) and focusing inward (on your own heart and soul.) It can be tempting to throw yourself wholly into engaging with the broken world -- there is so much that needs to be repaired! There are protests to attend, letters to the editor to write, worthy candidates to support, hungry people to feed, systemic injustice to unravel. But if you throw all of yourself into that work all of the time, burnout is inevitable.

Endurance. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. The great struggles for justice, civil rights, safety in all four worlds (physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual), human progress -- these are long and their work will not be complete in any of our lifetimes. Find a rhythm that is sustainable and that sustains you. That rhythm might be six days of work, one day of Shabbat. It might be setting aside time each week for justice work -- or setting aside time each week for not doing justice work. The work of healing our broken world is enormous. It needs all of us, but it can't be accomplished single-handedly by any one of us. And if we don't engage in that work with an eye toward sustainability, the likelihood that we will hurt ourselves in so doing is high.

BeautySeek beauty in what your eyes look upon: notice the beauty in the faces of other living beings, in a forest or a tree or a houseplant, in the sky. Seek beauty in what your ears listen to: notice the beauty in music, in a beloved voice, in rhythm, in poetry. Seek beauty in what you breathe in: the scent of spices at havdalah, or autumn leaves rustling underfoot, or a sprig of rosemary, or a bowl of soup. Seek beauty in what you touch with your skin: notice the warmth of your clothes, the weave of your sheets, the fur of a pet. Seek beauty in what you consume: whether media, or music, or food, or drink. Seek beauty, and cultivate gratitude for beauty. This may feel frivolous when the world is so broken, but it is not: it is life-affirming and can be life-saving.

Connectivity. Connect with the place where you are. Connect with your communities, whether geographic or far-flung. Connect with your roots and your ancestry. Connect with your heritage. Connect with your creativity, and bring new words or work or ideas into the world. Connect with your friends, the people who put a smile on your face. Connect online. Connect with people you love. Connect with causes that matter to you. Connect with places and things and ideas and individuals that make you feel hopeful and strong. The more rooted we can be in our connections with place and time and each other, the stronger we are, and the more able we become to withstand the damaging winds of hatred and bigotry and tragedy with our hearts intact.

Presence. There is an immanent, indwelling presence that enlivens all things. That presence has many names. In my tradition alone we name it as Shechina, the Divine Feminine, Malchut, God between us and within us and among us. You may have other names, other metaphors. Whatever words you use, welcome that presence into your life. Maybe that means making regular time for meditation or contemplative practice. Maybe it means regular liturgical prayer -- or spontaneous prayer, whenever you feel called to speak to the divine. Maybe it means spiritual direction, discerning the presence of God in your life. Maybe it means talking with Shechina in the front seat of your car. Open yourself to presence and let yourself be sustained thereby. 

*

May our abraded places be balmed, and our hearts be strengthened.

 

 

(These seven suggestions map to the set of seven qualities that the Jewish mystical tradition says we share with the divine -- the seven "lower sefirot" -- about which I have written here many times before.)


Prayer after the shooting

Prayer-after

I loved and grieved from the day you claimed your free will,
Knowing that you too would open into infinite love and grief,

Knowing how your hearts would bloom with gratitude and hope
With every child’s every first, and lament every child’s every last,

As I do and always will with My children’s every first and every last
In the raw and wild cosmic dance we began together in the garden.

What else could I do? You must become what you must become,
Like Me infinitely becoming, infinitely capable of love and grief,

So I clothed your shimmering lights in skins and hid in plain sight
For you to seek and find Me amidst life’s sweetness and sorrow.

How fast your lights flickered underneath: your second son’s blood
Cried out to Me from the ground, too soon returning earth to earth.

The guilty wandered the land howling, pining for peace and safety
Denied by the very violence that condemned the guilty to wander,

Setting in motion also the vicious whirlwind spinning through
Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas. Where next?

I did not mean for you to live like this or die like this – in fear and terror,
In trauma’s torrents, in shrapnel showers turning streets into killing fields.

You still can choose life: the free will your ancestors claimed for you
Remains yours even now, and still I gasp with loving pride and worry

With your every first and every last, grieving the countless innocents
Returning to Me in My own image too soon, bloodied and bagged.

But still you choose death. Aimlessly you wander the land howling,
Pining for peace and safety that senseless violence steals from you.

Choose to be My love, My strength, My intuition, My prophets, My beauty,
My healing hands – My living essence in this bloody and weary world.

Only then will this cruelest of your roulette wheels stop spinning red.
Oh, how I long with you for that day when you truly will choose life.

 

Claimed your own free will – Eve’s “defiance” in Eden claimed human agency for all her successors (Genesis 3:6-7).

Knowing … bloom – An allusion to the Tree of Knowledge and humanity’s “opening” into the knowledge of love and loss.

You must become – God describes God’s self to Moses as אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming” (Exodus 3:14). We who are made in the divine image are also called to perennially become.

Clothed your shimmering light in skins - Because the Hebrew words for “skin” (עור) and “light” (אור) both are pronounced or, Zohar teaches that Eden’s first humans were beings of light, before God made us garments of skins. Even so, our skins cover our light, which we still can see if we look carefully.

Your second son’s blood… returning earth to earth. Humanity’s first murder – Cain killing Abel (Genesis 4) – spilled Abel’s blood (דם / dam) to the earth (אדמה / adamah).

Wander - Cain, after murdering his brother, was condemned to wander the land without peace (Genesis 4:14).

Setting in motion also - From Cain comes not only the first murder but also the rhetorical question – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:8) – that continues to reverberate through the generations, and also the first “Why?” (Genesis 4:6), which teaches all future generations the possibility of teshuvah / return and repair (Radak Gen. 4:6).

Whirlwind – An allusion to the סערה (storm) from which God answered Job (Job 38:1). The storm’s circular shape resembles both a roulette wheel and a gun’s rotating cylinder that conveys bullets.

Choose life - “Choose life, if you and your progeny would live’ (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Aimlessly - The indiscriminate shooter, the nation’s inertia.

My love, My strength… – Seven emanations of the divine, corresponding to the seven lower sefirot of Kabbalistic tradition: chesed (love), gevurah (strength / boundaries), tiferet (balance), netzach (endurance / momentum), hod (beauty / gratitude), yesod (foundation / generativity), malchut (indwelling).

Roulette wheels stop spinning red – For the gaming tables of Las Vegas and the ultimate gamble: walking the streets safe and unafraid.

14 stanzas – 14 for יד, the yad (hand) of God: we now are the hand that must act.

332 words - 332 for לבש, lavash (clothed) in divine skins that cover our light.

 

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Evan Markus

(cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi and to R' David's website; feel free to reprint, with attribution.)


Who by fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

 
YKA couple of weeks ago, on a Shabbat morning before services, a congregant said to me, "Rabbi, Houston is flooded. There's a hurricane heading for Florida, and more are already forming. The Pacific Northwest is literally on fire. There are earthquakes in Mexico. Is there a God in control of everything, and is God angry with us?"

I said to her: no, I do not believe that God causes disaster because God is angry with us. And as far as whether or not God is in control of everything, that's a bigger question, and my answer depends on what you mean by "God" and what you mean by "control." 

And she said, "But doesn't Jewish tradition say that's exactly how it works?" Well: yes -- and no. "Jewish tradition" says a lot of things that don't necessarily agree with one another! But it is true that one of the strands in our tradition holds that God is in control and decides what will be. The Unetaneh Tokef  prayer we recite at the High Holidays says exactly that. (It's a very old prayer, by the way: written between 330 and 638 C.E.) "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live, and who will die; who by fire, and who by water..." That's a theology that can be hard to swallow.

Now, I'm a poet, so I read the whole prayer as metaphor. I think it tells us something about one of the faces that we as human beings have needed to imagine God to have. We need to imagine God as the shepherd who lovingly takes note of each one of us, who sees us and accepts us as we are. And we need to make sense of the fact that our world contains fire and flood, so we imagine God deciding who will live and who will die. But I don't want to stop there. If we keep reading, in that prayer, we reach the refrain:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹֽעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

"But teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah, soften the harshness of the decree."

Teshuvah is a word we use a lot at this time of year. Some translate it as "repentance." I prefer "return." It comes from the root meaning "to turn," and that's the quintessential move of this season: we turn inward, we turn ourselves around. We look at who we've been, and we take steps to be better. We let go of old habits and patterns and stories that no longer serve, and we orient ourselves in a better direction.

Tefilah means prayer. You know, that thing we're doing here together this morning. But the Hebrew word tefilah is also richer than that simple translation would suggest. להתפלל / l'hitpallel means "to discern oneself." That's what prayer is supposed to be: a practice of discerning who we are, and refining the inner qualities that enable us to build a better world. 

And tzedakah means righteous giving. At its simplest, it means "charity." But tzedakah comes from a Hebrew root connoting justice. Tzedakah means making justice in the world. And sometimes we pursue justice through charitable giving, and sometimes we pursue justice through feeding the hungry with our own hands, and sometimes we pursue justice through electing public servants who will enact laws that we believe will make the world a safer and fairer place.

Teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah. Turning ourselves in the right direction, and doing the internal work of discerning who we are and who we need to be, and pursuing justice: this prayer teaches that these three things sweeten, or soften, the harshness of the divine decree. Whether or not we believe in a God Who decrees what will be, teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah are our tradition's tools for fixing what's broken in our world.

Continue reading "Who by fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning" »


A rehearsal for the day of our death: a sermon for Kol Nidre

KNBefore he died, Reb Zalman -- the teacher of my teachers -- made an unusual request. He knew that once he died, the chevra kadisha would perform the rituals of taharah: they would wash his body, and bless his body, and dress his body in white linen shrouds in preparation for burial. He wanted to experience that while he was alive, so that his neshamah, his soul, would be prepared for what was coming.

So he asked them to perform the rituals as though he were dead, and he closed his eyes and let himself be tended-to and prayed-over and cared-for in that unique way.

Can you imagine what that would be like? To lie still, as though your soul had already departed your body, and submit without flinching and without fear to your community's tender care? Can you imagine wanting that kind of "dress rehearsal" for your own death?

I've got news for you: today is that dress rehearsal. Welcome to the rehearsal for your death. Does that sound strange? It's a traditional way of thinking about Yom Kippur. To be clear, it's not about already being dead, or being deadened. (If your heart feels deadened today, then we're "doing it wrong.") Today is a rehearsal for feeling, with your whole heart, what it is like to know that you are dying.

Because of course, we are all dying.

Continue reading "A rehearsal for the day of our death: a sermon for Kol Nidre" »


After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

RHOne Saturday last month I was sitting by the pool after services, watching my son and his friends swim, when my cellphone started to buzz with messages from friends. I picked it up, and I watched in horror as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville.

Angry white men with flaming torches had stormed the university campus on Friday night. On Shabbat they marched through the city, some of them carrying swastika flags and giving Nazi salutes. They shouted the old Nazi slogan "blood and soil." They shouted, "white lives matter."

Of course I knew that hatred of Jews existed. But I've never encountered it in my daily life. I thought of Jew-hatred, along with Nazism, as a largely defeated ideology of the past. On the day of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville I recoiled in horror. This hatred of us is real, and I was completely unprepared. And it's not just hatred of us: it's hatred of everyone who doesn't fit the white supremacist mold.

Nazis and white supremacists must be stopped. And the fact that some people draw a false moral equivalency between the Nazis and the counter-protestors also horrifies me. But on this day of remembrance and introspection, I want Charlottesville to spur us to do some inner work... and the first step in that work is acknowledging that we weren't the only ones triggered, or targeted, by Unite the Right.

The Nazi chants and swastika flags in Charlottesville were badly triggering for many of the Jews I know. And the mob of angry white men with burning torches was badly triggering for many African Americans. Their communities carry the memory of of Ku Klux Klan attacks and lynchings, just as our communities carry the memory of pogroms and the Shoah.

While many of my white friends were as shocked as I was by this display of bigotry, none of my non-white friends were remotely surprised. Sad and angry, yes. Surprised, not at all.

In recent months, when I've had cause to say, "this isn't the America I thought I lived in," my non-white friends have said, "...this is the America we've always known." And they've pointed out that the fact that I'm surprised by this kind of ugliness shows that I've never had to walk a mile in their shoes.

Continue reading "After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah" »


Benediction on making the culinary combination

For food dipped
    in honey, say
        "your love leaves

my fingers fragrant."
    Don't rush to wash.
        Let sweetness linger.

For savory dishes
    with stone fruits
        say "may the year

balance my sweet
    with your salt."
        Let your mouth water.

For nubbled citrus
    steeped in vodka,
        recite the verse

"as a deer thirsts."
    Close your eyes.
        Savor every drop.

 


 

I ran across a machzor (high holiday prayerbook) from 1931 recently. The first thing in the table of contents is "Benediction on making the culinary combination." The thing itself is pretty prosaic -- it's just a prayer for the practice of eruv tavshilin. (Click on the link to learn more about that.) But it sparked my poetic imagination. 

[A]s a deer thirsts. See Psalm 42, verse 2

[N]ubbled citrus / steeped in vodka. See Etrogcello.

 

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate!


When granting forgiveness is not mandatory

Every year, as the Jewish holidays approach, someone seeks me out because they’re struggling with forgiveness. Maybe this person is the adult child of a narcissist who was a cruel and self-centered parent. Maybe this person feels betrayed by an authority figure, a mentor or teacher who let them down. There are many variations. What they have in common is, they don’t feel able to forgive someone who hurt them, and they’re worried about what their inability to forgive says about them.

What does Judaism teach about the obligation to forgive, and why is this coming up for everyone now?...

That's the beginning of my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily. Read the whole thing here: When granting forgiveness is not mandatory during the high holidays.


The stranger in our midst: Ki Tavo and Dreamers

635965444098234916-381174497_CYyDgmBUoAA12IkAt the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read instructions for when we have entered the land of promise. When we enter that land, we are to recount where we came from, remember our hardships in life's narrow places, and then enjoy the bounty of our harvest, together with the Levite and the stranger who lives in our midst. Then Torah instructs us to set aside a tenth of the yield of the land and share it with the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.

That's the first dozen verses of this week's parsha: remember our hardships, be grateful that with God's help we have made it out of slavery and into freedom, and share what we have with the needy -- especially those who have nothing of their own (the Levites), the immigrant or migrant or refugee, and those who have no one to take care of them and keep them safe.

Our Torah was written a very long time ago. Sometimes it reflects sensibilities that are deeply alien. Sometimes we have to grapple with it, or turn it in a new direction, in order to find meaning in it. But for me, this year, these verses sound a clarion call that's all the more striking for how ancient we know them to be.

No one in this congregation, to the best of my knowledge, is Native American. That means that all of us are descended from people who came to this land in search of something better than what we had known before. The first Jews came to North Adams in 1867 from Eastern Europe and Russia. My own ancestors came to this country more recently than that, from Poland and from Russia and from the Czech Republic -- which was called Czechoslovakia when my mother was born there.

My ancestors, like your ancestors, came to the United States hoping that it would be the "goldene medina," the land of prosperity and promise. My ancestors, like your ancestors, came to this land in hopes that it was a nation that held to be self-evident the truth that all human beings are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

My ancestors, like your ancestors, had to struggle with a governmental system that sometimes held Jews in low esteem. There were quotas. There was red tape. There was economic anxiety, and when there is economic anxiety, people turn on the Other: on those who don't speak or look or dress like them. You don't need me to tell you how many Jews perished in the Shoah because they couldn't get permission to enter this country where they would have been safe.

Today, this Shabbat, is the culmination of a week during which the President chose to end protection for "Dreamers" -- the children of undocumented immigrants who came to this country, often at great risk to themselves, out of those same hopes that brought my own mother and grandparents here. The "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" program had given them safety, security, refuge, and belonging. Some 800,000 young Americans are now living in mortal terror of deportation to so-called "home countries" that are not their home.

When you enter the land of promise, says Torah, the first thing you need to do is stop and remember where you came from. Torah cites the story of how our ancestors fell on hard times and descended into the land of Egypt and there were enslaved. (Each of us can tell our own family story of hard times that led someone to make the perilous journey to the United States. There were pogroms in the village. There was antisemitism in the town square. There were Nazis marching. We remember where our people came from, and how fortunate we are to be where we are now.)

And then, says Torah, you take your abundance and you share it. Share it with the stranger who lives among you: the immigrant, the refugee, the powerless. Share it with the Levite, who has no land of their own to farm and no crops to harvest. Share it with the person who has no protector to keep them safe from the cruelty of predators. Then, and only then, can you go to God and say, I've kept Your commandments, please give me blessing.

All of us are migrants to this land of promise. And if we have the safety of citizenship, we owe it to the Dreamers to fight for their safety and their inclusion and their continued right to live in this nation they already call home. We owe it to the Dreamers to protect them from the cruelty of a predatory government that would strip them of their status and send them packing. Then, and only then, can we go to God and say that we're honoring the mitzvot and we seek blessing.

Sometimes Torah is ambiguous. And sometimes Torah offers teachings that appear to be in conflict with modern sensibilities. But on this issue, Torah's teachings feel timeless and timely and unspeakably important. Today is Shabbat: a day to live as if the world were already perfected and suffering were already a thing of the past. But tomorrow when we re-enter the work week, I hope you'll remember Torah's call to action. We live in a land of promise. It's incumbent on us to remember how fortunate we are to be here, and to share our good fortune with others in need.

 

See also: HIAS Slams Trump Administration's Decision on DACA, Urges Congress to Protect Dreamers (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), US Jewish Groups Blast Trump's Decision to Scrap 'Dreamers' Program as Cruel, Unnecessary (Ha'Aretz) How You Can Help (Mashable)

Also, from the Reform movement: Take Action to Protect DREAMers.

 

(This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul this morning, and is cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)