Monday, June 15, 2015

Pagan Day (Postcard from Greece)

On Mt. Parnassus.
There are some ideas that are best expressed in the language that gave rise to them: cognoscenti, joie de vivre, farklempt.

And once in a while, there’s a spiritual impulse that just wants to be expressed in a pagan idiom, no matter how dyed-in-the-wool a monotheist you happen to be.
And such was the progression of things for me this week, taking off for the family trip to Greece (Israel next week), reciting a tefilat haderech, the traditional travel prayer, and slowly experiencing my trusty religious touchstones falling away.
At first I didn’t see it. I’d been to Athens more than once before, so climbing the Acropolis was mostly to show this wonder to my family. And it is a wonder, somehow still managing to move and impress, despite the attention-grabbing behavior of scaffolding, cranes and thousands of tourists with selfie-sticks. Still, I was there as a tourist, not an acolyte, and my touristic needs were more than met.
But on Friday morning the feel of this ancient and densely historied place began to change. Our Athenian friend and host brought us to his hometown of Elefsina, the historical Eleusis where, as we all undoubtedly recall, Hades emerged from the Underworld to abduct the unsuspecting Persephone. Elefsina still contains the ruins of a large temple compound. Not a single pillar is standing. But the footprint is so well preserved that you can easily imagine the temple’s grandeur and the dignified movement of pilgrims and priestesses in its courtyard. It is dedicated to Demeter, goddess of the harvest and mother of Persephone. In ancient times devotees would walk from the Acropolis in Athens all the way to Eleusis with gifts of grain and cakes. Now, above the ruins, there is a tiny Orthodox church. Visitors leave offerings of loaves of bread.
Elsewhere in the compound is a rock where legend places Demeter, sitting and weeping for her lost daughter, not yet having heard of her abduction to the underworld or the whole sorry pomegranate seed business. At the mouth of a shallow cave several feet away there is the foundation of a small temple of Hades, marking the spot where the cave opened up just long enough for god of the underworld’s quick incursion into the land of the living. While Demeter sat and wept, the crops refused to grow. A shrine to Hades so close to the source of what is remembered as worldwide famine is hardly surprising. It is only we who carry the illusion that somehow there will always be enough.
Our Athenian host grew up just outside the fence of the compound. While many people complain about where their upbringings, he is the only one I know who could, with some legitimacy, claim to have grown up at the Gates of Hell. But in actuality he has great fondness for this ground that was the scene of such an archetypal story. The ruins were his playground; the gods his friends. As we left I saw that in a crack at the back of the cave someone had left a pomegranate.
We took our leave of Demeter and returned to Athens. That evening, the college boy (and best friend of our 18-year old) who is traveling with us, and who has not been out of the country before, staged a coup. Waking us all from our late afternoon jetlag-induced naps, he proposed a visit to the Poseidon temple in Sounion, south of Athens, for sunset. Bleary-eyed and heavy-limbed, we agreed. By the time we got in the mini-van we knew we’d never make it by sunset, let alone by temple closing time. But somehow, once Poseidon was invoked, we didn’t want to let him down. We drove south, and when Apollo’s fiery chariot closed in on the horizon, we scrambled down to a rocky beach and watched the turquoise water darken and the sky grow golden over it.
It was now Erev Shabbat. As I sometimes do when I’m traveling on a Friday night, I imagined the Shechinah approaching in her Shabbos bride drag. But somehow she couldn’t quite compete in that moment over Poseidon, in his native land, trident gently, incessantly, stirring the opalescent waves.
The next morning we left Athens and headed west. We had a date to keep with the oracle at Delphi, and this would be our travel day to get there. It was an easy day – we drove, settled in, hung out in the sleepy village of Aráchova. Then the college boy got a second wind. We had spent time on the drive reading through entries in the goldmine that is the 2-volume Pelican Greek Mythology by Robert Graves. In it he not only retells the myths we learned as children, but every variant version, every tangent, every increasingly horrifying detail that had been politely omitted in school. The college boy and I speculated about the strata of history reflected in the mythology: underlying migrations, conquests, advancements and terrors. We wondered about the religious life of the ancient Greeks. We commented on how well their pantheism suited the experience of life’s random brutality. Because so much of Greek mythology is about the tension between randomness and fate. You couldn’t predict what would happen. And you could predict it all. You could, if you bothered to read the texts, foresee that no matter how many babies you left to die on hillsides or swallowed whole, they would invariably come back and cause your ruination. No matter how humble a life you led, your one moment of smugness would cause some offended deity to turn you into something ironic, and you would go from being an average Joe to a smirk-worthy example for generations to come. Even as we drove in the car I found myself starting to watch my words, lest I piss off some Olympian still haunting this epic landscape, lurking behind one of the petrol stations or unfinished housing developments that Homer could not have foreseen. I didn’t actually believe they were there, but hedging my bets felt prudent.
So as I said, the college boy was again on fire. There was a cave between our lodging and Delphi that was vaguely connected to the Delphian rite – it was the weekend time-share of the oracle or something. It was also home to Pan, the half-man, half-goat demigod of revelry, mischief, licentiousness. The cave is not far, reachable by car and a short, 500m hike. Can we go? Right now?
Yes. Of course yes.
As it turned out, the short hike was not. It lasted over an hour in the heat, up a steep mountainside rising out of a valley that was itself high up on Mount Parnassus. It was a hot evening; my lungs strained against the thin air and my t-shirt filled with sweat. The only sound accompanying us were bells worn by goats in the valley below us, goats that suddenly and mysteriously appeared on and around our path, watching us, like Pan’s vanguard.
Did you know that Pan was also the god of terror? Considered the source of unidentifiable woodland noises, his name gives us the word panic. I tried not to panic at the quivering of my muscles or the angle of the climb. I veered off course more than once (you’d think the culture that invented geometry would not use isosceles triangles as direction markers); got caught in thickets of razor-sharp holly. At last I gave up and told the others to go on without me. But as always, my husband allowed me my moment and then gently urged me on.
And then we were there. The cave opened before us. We stepped in and the temperature dropped 20 degrees. We couldn’t yet see the ceiling or walls. But we could see our breath. The cave was big as an auditorium and, the college boy and I estimated, at least 60 feet tall. Small votives burned in various crevices, with roses and cherries and olives around them. Someone had made a stone circle on the dark ground. Were these things placed, were the candles lit, by Dodekatheists – modern pagans honoring the Olympian gods? Or were there others who maintained an unbroken tradition of caring for the place, dating back so many thousands of years? Like Sephardic crypto-Jews in the Americas lighting candles on Friday nights to stay true to a religion they no longer had a name for?
Pan's Cave, from the back, looking through and out.
The site was simple. There was no temple. There were no ruins. Just a dark wet cave. The college boy pointed out that it was, by definition, the most intact shrine we had or would visit. He was right. It was whole and in perfect working order.
I was nervous being there. Pan is a tricky god to like; he represents what are considered in our culture to be shadow elements in us, sexuality not the least of them. Whatever vestige of a hoofed deity existed in Judaism was already, by Torah times, a spotty memory – Azazel, a goatlike creature in the wilderness who would receive the annual offering of our sins, sent by unlikely messenger – a goat. Our folklore over the centuries went on to recast the hoofed deity as demon or imp. The Christians put the ribbon on the package by imagining Satan as Pan, all grown up.
But a part of me felt happy too. What fun to be able to reclaim one’s mischievous, irreverent, naughty nature as divinely inspired! Because in a world in which the divine is made up of uncountable gods and demigods, each with different characteristics, you can always, no matter how unusual you are, find yourself reflected somewhere in the pantheon. The pagan cosmos is refracted into infinite variety. There is male and female and fluidity between. There is warlike and peaceful. Randy and chaste. Strong, swift, studious and differently abled. If I am different from you, I can express that theologically. I can say, for example, that Apollo is my patron, with an undercurrent of Athena and Hermes, and some Pan on the side. I would visit their shrines and leave offerings.
Trying to conjure up the Pan part of me in my Jewish view of God is a taller order. And that is a built-in systemic difficulty in a one-size-fits-all view of God. In order to feel ourselves, in all our variety, as tzelem Elohim, as being in the image of God, we resort to imagining God’s many “aspects.” But the more specific we get about those aspects, the more idolatrous it feels. Maimonides denied the existence of aspects; he liked God singular, undifferentiated. Which leaves an amorphous, blobby sort of God, in which we’re all included in a kind of abstract and not-always-satisfying way.
And, I often feel, just when we’re trying to reclaim or reframe something about God in order to be personally connected, our old texts step in and mess it up. If God remained an All-Is-One singularity, one could maybe work with it with some ease. But once the One God gives a law, a hierarchy is inherently created. Some human traits are honored and others delegitimized. The places where the law speaks to you poorly or not at all because you are a woman or you are intersex or queer or disabled or intermarried – these make it hard to see yourself included in God rather than judged or dismissed by same. And so many Jews, full of Athena-like wisdom and Apollo-like talent and Pan-like mischief walk away and find their fulfillment elsewhere.
Monotheism might be our collective Jewish instinct. It might be a good one. It might offer a hope of cosmic intention that we deeply hunger for. But it also disappoints whenever we suffer. In the Greek world suffering happened because the gods were sometimes nasty pieces of work – impulsive, vindictive, unpredictable. And no one expected any better of them. But in a cosmology in which there is only one God, a God who is loving, all knowing, all powerful, but who allows the same awful stuff to happen and sometimes calls it punishment for our moral failings, there is a disconnect. This is not divinity, this is dysfunction.
So we look for our ways to work around the systemic problems of monotheism because we love our tradition, or we love God, or for some other reason we're willing to live in the mystery and the struggle. We scour our texts for ways to feel better embraced. We adopt the Shechinah as our face of God because she feels like a she and that already eases some of the tension, in a way that’s not dissimilar to many Catholics’ devotion to Mary as a more loving, compassionate portal to the godhead.
But you know? All this work to reclaim God for those of us the tradition leaves out is just that: work. Holy work, for sure. But work. And sometimes you just want a day off. And here it was: shabbos! My grandmother never, in her whole life, wrote on Shabbos. And on this one day, I decided not to do so also. I would put down my pen, and take a break from writing myself into our tradition.
So there I was, in a cave on Mt. Parnassus, smelling of moss and incense. I thought about my own panic qualities. I knew with effort, in days to come, I could find ways to describe those Jewishly. But for this moment, I allowed myself to let it sit in its native tongue.
I climbed up to one of the small Pan shrines in the back of the cave. A small votive, like a yahrzeit candle, burned there. I looked at the fruit and flower offerings left around it. I hadn’t brought an offering, not having planned on idolatry when I left the house. But being here in this sacred place, noticing my own easy affinity for this god, it felt wrong to turn and walk out ungenerously. I fished around in my backpack until I found a Ricola throat lozenge. I placed it next to the votive. I figured after a long night of reveling, it was something Pan might be able to use. And with that thought, this situational pagan once again felt very Jewish.

Friday, May 15, 2015

B'Chukotai: What Did You Just Say?

For Congregation Ner Shalom

At last night's congregational meeting, I mentioned my drash for tonight. What I said about it was that I had nothing. The only trigger I had was that on Wednesday I'd asked Siri to plot a route to Urban Adamah in Berkeley, to which Siri replied, "I'm sorry, Irwin, I cannot find any places matching Urban Octomom."


The level of misunderstanding that we all experience at this moment of the world, enhanced by our imperfect text technologies, is staggering. Even without the devices, we live in a world where communication is by nature incomplete. I am limited to the words that exist in the language, with a few Yiddishism thrown in for color. I am limited to one word at a time. Even though I might be experiencing thoughts, feelings and physical sensations simultaneously, I can only convey them sequentially, which means I have to prioritize or omit and hope that you still manage to have the sense of my experience that I want you to have.

Written words are even more deficient. I cannot convey my tone of voice, which carries a tremendous amount of information. Many of us know the famous story about a telegram from Trotsky to Stalin, following Lenin's death, as the two are jockeying for power. Stalin proudly reads the contents of the message to his supporters: "You were right. And I was wrong. You are the true heir of Lenin and I should apologize. Signed, Leon Trotsky." Stalin's followers go wild, until an old man raises his hand. "Comrade Stalin, I point out that Trotsky, like me, is a Jew. Perhaps I can clarify his message. May I read the telegram?" The paper is handed to him, and now he reads it: "You were right? And I was wrong? You are the true heir of Lenin and I should apologize? Signed, Leon Trotsky."

Words on the page give only a piece of the picture in the best of times. And then what happens if the words seem so contrary to our lived experience that they can't possibly mean what they say on the surface?

I wondered about this problem as I read the beginning of this week's Torah portion, the last one of Leviticus, called Bechukotai. It famously opens (or famously in some circles),

Im b'chukotai telechu v'et mitzvotay tishm'ru v'asitem otam...

"If you walk amidst my laws and observe my commandments and do them, then..."

Then...well, all sorts of good stuff will follow. Rain in its season. Crops. Peace. Victory. Progeny.

And some verses later, in contrast,

V'im lo tishm'u li v'lo ta'asu et kol hamitzvot ha'eleh...

If you do not obey me and do not do all these commandments, then...

Then...well, all sorts of curses will befall you. Disease. Defeat. Humiliation. Famine. Dissatisfaction.

If you're good you get good stuff. If you're bad, gevalt. The question for me is, even at the time it was set down in Torah, was there anyone who could have believed it to be true? Every human experience tells us that terrible things happen. Rain comes or doesn't come or comes in too great a quantity.

Crops some years. No crops other years. Disease and healing and disease again. Bad things happen to people who sincerely try to follow the law. And blessings accrue to those who blithely and obvously do not.

So at the time this was written, and in all the days and millenia since, how could this not come off as false? It clearly could not be heard as a statement of the nature of things. So instead it comes off as a political harangue, designed to pressure or shame people into following a law that's all-consuming, perhaps unreasonably so.

And I have to say, with a deep sigh, that this is the kind of thing that gives Judaism a bad rep. This is the kind of thing that drove a lot of people in this room out of Hebrew school and out of shul. A theology that on the surface says, "If bad stuff happens to you it is your fault."

But I am still in love with Torah, and don't feel a need for divorce just because of some bad words between us. 

So I'm going to take the time and revisit the text a few different ways. The first is along the lines of the Stalin joke. Maybe what we're missing is the proper tone of voice in this lengthy text message. For instance, when I say to my kid, "If you don't learn how to eat properly at a dinner table, it will ruin your prospects in love and business," not that I've ever said that, am I offering a curse? Follow the laws of the table or thou shalt a pariah be! Or am I expressing my own hopes and, more eloquently, my own anxieties? I can't control my child's successes or failures in a future that's beyond me; advice, enriched with ample exaggeration about the dire consequences at stake is, sometimes, all I have to offer as a vessel for my hope and my love.

So we might read the text more kindly, more forgivingly, with that idea in mind. We might imagine that God or Moses or whoever wrote this wanted so badly for people to love this law, to live inside this delicate, complex system of commandment and succeed there, that they poured out their hopes and their fears into these inadequate words. What he or she or they meant us to hear might have been something more like, "Do it! Do it! If you follow these principles, good things will happen, I just know it! And if you don't do these things, I totally fear calamity could be at hand!"

That is indeed a kinder voice. A voice that maybe we understand better in our maturity than we did in our youth when so many of us fled the authoritarian voices of home and religion.

Or - get ready to shift gears - we might re-read this opening text of Bechukotai as a kind of environmental message. That there are laws, limits, that must be obeyed if we are to thrive on the land. And if we ignore those, then disease and drought and famine will surely follow. (As if...)

For those of us in this room, in this dry, dry state, in this ever-warming era, reading the text this way requires no leap at all. Are the laws of Torah enough to save our planet? Not clear, although the principles behind many of them would help. There are laws in Leviticus about helping each other, even helping your enemy. Laws about not just taking but leaving, so that the poor and the stranger may eat. Laws about the shmitah year, the sabbatical year, like the one we're in, the law that says that at least one seventh of the time, you've got to let things be. Nature has to heal. You also have to heal from your impulse to own the earth. There is true wisdom, deep wisdom, in these Levitical laws.

Under this kind of reading, the predicted calamities are not punishments, but the consequences of shortsightedness. Of living without reflection; of ignoring our deep, collective earth wisdom.

Okay, one last re-read of the text that relates to an oddity in the opening language. Why would God say, Im bechukotai telechu v'et mitzvotay tishm'ru..." If you walk amidst my laws and observe my commandments then blah blah blah...?" Wouldn't it be enough simply to say, "If you observe my commandments?" What is the difference between "laws" - chukot - and "commandments" - mitzvot? And what is this about "walking" anyway?

While we translate the word chok or chukah as "law", it is not just any law of Torah. Laws in Torah are of three sorts. There are mishpatim, the kinds of law that serve an obvious purpose. When we are instructed not to cheat or hate or told to leave fruit and grain for the poor or to pay our workers on time, all of which are commanded in Leviticus, we can understand the benefit of the law, the reason behind it. They are the kind of ground rules we would naturally want to set for our communities.

Then there are mitzvot, things that are commanded by God that we might not have come up with, but once they're commanded, we can see the sense in them.

In contrast to these, chukim or chukot are laws that are in no way self-explanatory. Decrees that we are expected to follow simply because they were commanded, without understanding why. Our dietary laws are an example. We might chatter nowadays about the health reasons for not eating pork. But Torah offers no such justification. It offers no reason at all. We are expected, or were in history expected, to to follow chukot without knowing why. Maybe out of faith. Maybe, like kashrut often, simply because it's what we do.

So maybe chukot represent something beyond law. They represent the inexplicable. The stuff, the demands, thrown at us by God or by this Creation, that don't have any satisfying rhyme or reason. We might understand the mechanics of disease or poverty or loneliness; of earthquake or drought or depression. But even if they are understandable, they do not feel reasonable, they do not feel fair. As a bumper sticker might say, chok happens.

And if chukot represent the unpreventable, inexplicable stuff we're handed, then the challenge is really in how we respond. Torah says im bechukotai telechu... if you walk amidst my chukot.

Meaning, maybe, that there will be rain and abundance and peace if you remember to walk. In all the hardship we have to field and even the irrational good luck that we sometimes have, the important thing is to walk. Not to get stuck. Not to grind to a standstill. Keep moving. Stay limber. Don't let the burdens pin you to the earth; don't let hardship shackle your feet. We all know that tightrope walkers keep their balance by continuing forward.

So if we keep moving, spiritually I mean, not allowing trouble to immobilize us, then we still have a fighting chance of experiencing some sense of abundance, of fullness, of ripeness, of peace, even in the midst of all the crap.

One last word about this walking bit. A few verses later, at the end of all the promises of blessing, God tantalizingly says: v'hit'halachti b'toch'chem - "then I will walk around among you," or, maybe, "I will walk within you."

Our walking amidst the chukot is met by God's walking amidst us. Our spiritual nimbleness arouses a divine nimbleness. So that we dance together, Fred and Ginger in lockstep.

And maybe that is exactly how we remain nimble in those toughest of moments. We imagine God, we imagine the Shechinah, at our side, bopping along next to us on the road, maybe even dipping us on the dance floor.

This is not an article of faith. It seems to me we don't need exactly to believe it. We just need to imagine it. Not in lieu of trying to change our situations; of enlisting help as we need it; of doing the hard work. But this adds another dimension to our grit; it adds a supernal dance and good company. It adds the possibility of new direction or renewed momentum. It provides not a substitute for but an enrichment of our sometimes painful earthly experience.

So maybe this piece of Torah is about our soul journey. Or maybe it's about preserving this planet. Or maybe it's about Torah's hopes and fears for us. But I do know that when Torah says to me something that makes as much sense as "urban octomom," I must work under the presumption that somehow I heard it wrong.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Eyes of a Goat

Drash on Parashat Acharei Mot

It was two weeks ago, just before my weekly online Leviticus class, that this mouse and I found ourselves staring each other down. I had caught it in a trap under our kitchen sink. I use a live trap because, living in the woods, it feels unfair to kill mice for the crime of my having invaded their territory. But my commitment to fair play, I confess, does not extend to giving them the run of my kitchen.

So I put the mouse, trap and all, on the passenger seat of my car; threw my kid in the back. It craned its neck to look at me out of the trap's little skylight. I dropped the kid at school and drove another few miles to a park with a lagoon and grass but fewer trees and less cover than I'd remembered. I might have found a better place, but I was pressed for time.

I released the mouse. It jumped out, took a few steps, turned around and continued to look at me, as if wondering what I wanted to do next. Our eyes met, and there was a strange, unexpected rapport between us. A rapport facilitated by the fact that it was not human. I was not required to think of anything witty to say. I was not obligated to be "on" as I would have to be with a congregant. I was not having to be a parent or a partner or anything at all. I was, in that a moment, a creature. We were two creatures, checking each other out. I towered over it, yet we were on equal footing.

I can't help but wonder if the High Priest felt something similar, making confession to a goat, as the ancient Yom Kippur ritual, described in this week's portion, required. Laying hands on it and looking in its eyes, in a posture not unlike a vulcan mind meld, complete with Cohanic live-long-and-prosper hand position. To the goat, with its knowing eyes and uncanny human face -- but still clearly not a human -- the priest could, really, say anything. There would be no impediment to the truth. And if he is going to place on this animal all the sins of Israel, including his own, he needs to be honest. Exhaustive. No hedging. No whitewashing. No pride. Would such honesty ever be possible with another human being, where relationships and roles inevitably intrude?

But with a goat, the priest can speak truth. He can let go of vanity. He can list the mistakes, the missteps, the spiteful acts, the terrible crimes of the people. He can confess that as many as he is reciting there are many more he doesn't even know about. And he can say things he couldn't say to another Israelite. Like, "I hate my job." Or "the manifestation of the Divine on the doorstep is a parlor trick" or anything else too weighty, dangerous or heretical to say elsewhere. This goat won't be talking.

But then, after this unimpeded flow of confession, the priest's job was to send this now-burdened innocent into the wilderness. What is up with this? You'd think that the magic of this expurgation would come in the form of laying sins on the goat and then, frankly, doing away with it.

But another goat already did bite the dust as part of this Yom Kippur ritual. One randomly selected to have the great honor or bad luck of becoming a chataat or sin offering. You would think that the slaughter of that animal would have had the desired effect of lifting the people's collective burden of sin.

But no. That first goat, scholars would explain, wasn't meant to lift the people's sin at all. But to clear the air of the Holy of Holies, to cleanse the metaphysical landscape. Goat Number One is medicine for God, not for us.

But Goat Number Two absorbs our myriad sins. It is the perfect choice of animal for this task. As any of us who lives in the country knows, goats can digest anything, no matter how sharp the thorns, no matter how poisonous the leaves.

And so, burdened by our misdeeds, this goat is sent out to Azazel - a place in a rocky wilderness. Most of the sages say it's a mountain. Ramban reminds us that Azazel might not be a place but a being - Samael, Israel's accuser. Perhaps Azazel is a vestige of an earlier religion. Azazel, the demon or horned god - the image of whom continues to haunt our folklore and pop culture to this day. Or maybe the place name could be read as ez azal, the place where the goat is gone. Or maybe oz azal, the place where strength runs out, because truthfully, the burden of sin takes so much muscle to carry.

But here's the odd part about the ritual, a predicament. All this trouble to rid us of our sins. But somewhere out there, our sins are still wandering around, eating scrub. Our misdeeds have been moved out of the precinct, but not out of existence.

But maybe that's not a predicament. Maybe that's the point.

We can't undo what we've done. Our transgressions have affected others and us. We may atone for our sins; we may seek with whole hearts to heal the harms we've inflicted. But there's no going back to zero, either for the world or for us.

You see, I am who I am not only because of the things I'm proud of. I am who I am because of the things I'm ashamed of too. The things I wouldn't be able to bring myself to tell a friend or lover or even a therapist. Things I could probably only confide to a goat.

And those missteps, those regrets, those jealousies and angers are not all inherently evil things. They are the flipsides of my deepest longing. My longing for love or for safety or for belonging. Deep longing that, in these cases, went wrong. Or were left incomplete.

There is too much of me in my sins for my sins merely to be eradicated. I need them out there somewhere. In exile, for sure, but alive.

And so there is the goat, alive, sated with our sins, wandering the terrain.

Who doesn't feel some tenderness for it? We all root for an exile. Torah knows this. That is why when Hagar and Ishmael are exiled, we get to follow them through a similarly treacherous landscape. We see their despair and their rescue. And later we see the Children of Israel turned out from their land. We hear their lament, and then we get to witness their return, mouths full of song.

When I feel compassion for the goat, I feel it for myself too. For the parts of me in exile: the longing that I secretly do want to have return, the choices I want to revisit and maybe, this time, do something better with.

So nu? The mouse. There we were in the park, staring. It began to glance around for its next step. Upon this mouse I suddenly released a surprising flurry of emotion. My desire to be a fair person, to live harmoniously with nature; my crazy desire to pick it up and keep it as a pet. My guilt at sending it to an unknown end when it is blameless, for reasons that are, really, no more than human vanity. And somewhere there was a shameful childlike desire just to toy with it and see what would happen. All of this, the noble and the ugly, burst out of me in silent confession.

The mouse just then caught sight of a hole in a tree trunk 20 feet away. It turned tail and scampered, dove in, and was lost to view. I got in my car and drove home to put on a good face in order to get on line and greet my classmates. By then, and certainly by now, the mouse could have been picked off by cat or dog or redtail hawk. But I hope not. It carries too much of me.

_______
This drash was written as an exercise for my class, "Learning to Love Leviticus," taught by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. Some of the ideas about the exile of longing were developed with Ellen Atzilah Solot for a Storahtelling performance at Congregation Ner Shalom on a previous Yom Kippur.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

All of it: Gevurah

I was honored to offer the invocation for the Sonoma County Yom Hashoah Commemoration on April 19:

Good afternoon. Shalom aleykhem.
We meet here today, as we do every year, to remember, to reflect. To honor those we’ve lost and those we are blessed to have among us. To crack open our hearts to all who were subjected to the ordeal of the Shoah and all who have lived in its wake, trying to repair the irreparable.
This year we have been asked to give special attention to the quality of gevurah, the strength, the heroism, of our people and others who shared their fate. We will honor resistance, whether large or small, whether organized or impulsive. We will honor the non-Jews who could, perhaps, have tiptoed through, but instead risked their lives to help. All of these acts: gevurah.
But in Judaim the concept of gevurah is even broader than those descriptions. We use the word to mean strength, but it is not always an obvious kind of strength. In our mystical tradition, certain qualities are associated with particular biblical figures. And you might expect gevurah to be represented by Moses or Joshua or Deborah or even Judah Maccabee. But no. The poster child for gevurah is Isaac. Isaac, whose big moment in Torah is not the tumbling of walls or the parting of waters. It is being bound to a rock while someone more powerful raises a hand to kill him.
This story from Torah is etched into our psyches. But it is short on detail. We don’t know if Isaac struggled. If he bargained. If he strained against the fetters or quietly tried to untie them. We don’t know if Isaac prayed or planned or just made peace. Or if he simply didn’t know what to do. Still, our tradition chooses him to represent this quality that we call gevurah.
And he is a good choice for it. Because sometimes your heroism lies in strength of arms. And sometimes your hands are tied. Sometimes your endurance, your presence, is all you have to offer.
As a people we call ourselves Israel – Jacob. But in the Shoah we were, so often,  Isaac. Our hands were tied. We were bound, staring up at the knife or closing our eyes against it. Our world of options shrank to tiny choices, all of which had unspeakably grave consequences. Turn left or right. Leave by yourself now or with loved ones next week. Step to the front of the line, or hang back. Speak up for another, or play it safe today in the hope of making a difference tomorrow. ­In an impossible situation, every choice, every action, including just holding tight: gevurah.
At Chanukah time we sing Mi y’mallel g’vurot Yisrael. Who can count the g’vurot, the heroic deeds of our people? If we look deeply to the impossible world of the Shoah, a world of action and restraint and endurance, then our people’s acts of gevurah would number millions upon millions upon millions.
So today let us honor our acts and our limitations. Our strength and our fragility. Let us honor those who rebelled and those who resisted. Those who hid and those who hid them. Those who escaped and those who could not. Let us honor those whose strength was in the fight. And those whose strength was in enduring. And those whose strength was taken from them. All of them. All of it. Gevurah.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Fire, and the Prairie

Parashat Shemini
For Congregation Ner Shalom, April 17, 2015


I was back on the prairie last week, visiting Chicago with the older of our family's two, who is considering going to school there. It was an extravagant couple days at the University of Chicago. Model classes offered to young people and their parents, including linguistics, economics and even one on the work of JRR Tolkien. There were talks by deans, provosts, trustees and even David Axelrod who now, seemingly, has his own department at the University called, um, the Department of Axelrod or something. I hadn't been an undergrad at the University. But I did study there as a graduate student in linguistics and then in the law school. I spent seven years in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. And then bang, there I was last week, in the middle of all of it again.

I was in pig heaven, which is a phrase I don't particularly understand, and which I'm reluctant to use on this week in which Torah first lays out our ancient dietary laws: no pigs, no camels or rabbits; locusts are fine in a pinch.

So instead let's just say I was filled with relentless, overflowing nostalgia. I knew it was a bad idea to communicate the fullness of this to the 18-year old who, in the face of such parental enthusiasm, could end up choosing the other school for no better reason than that. So I strolled the quads with my best-mustered poker face, trying to only intermittently point out where I used to sit with friends over coffee or where I used to study into the night or where we staged our protests.

It was an odd trip in some ways. My first time in Chicago not having a childhood home to stay in, it now being rented - legendary basement and all - to a set of young cousins. So I was feeling a certain displacement, a new uprootedness in my ancestral city, and maybe that's why I dug so fiercely into my connection with the university and its neighborhood. Just to try to feel at home. I strolled past former apartments. Wandered stealthily into the linguistics department office. Noticed the continuity of culture that certain coffeeshops maintained, even though no one working at or sipping tea in them was even born when they were my hangouts. I saw the Hyde Park Herald on the news rack, a neighborhood paper dating back to 1882, and thought fondly about our own Shira Hadditt, who was once its editor.

To top it off, the University's library had a special exhibit up about University of Chicago's queer history. It was startling and stimulating to see faces, names, stories from my old days. To be reunited, through plexiglass, with artifacts that I myself had donated to Chicago's LGBTQ archive years ago, including a cloth banner that I had considered - but decided against - ironing before donating, thinking who's ever going to see it, and there it was, in the display, wrinkled. And my gay pride quickly dissolved into a deep domestic shame.

The 18-year old was seemingly excited about this exhibit, maybe even proud, or I hope so, although overall I had a strong sense that if I began another sentence with "back in my day," this young, self-professed pacifist would have no choice but to slug me.

But this was my world! How could I not want to gift it all to him?

But such desires are of no use, really. It can't be done. This is the inevitable truth about launching a young person into the world. You're going along, thinking you'll get a chance to teach your kid everything you know or at least everything you wish you'd known at that age; you intend to fill them with self-confidence and hope; you expect to transmit some deep values and some street smarts. But when they're little there's so much reading and counting and shoe-tying that who has time and then they turn 13 and stop listening to anything you say anyway and you missed your chance to teach them cooking skills or gin rummy or a second language or whatever while they were still impressionable and then they turn 17 and now they're people and they start listening to you again but by now there's hardly any time left before they leave the nest and don't look back. And that's when you realize you never taught them how to balance a checkbook and you're uncertain if they can actually read an analog clock. And you fill with shock at your own failure. You certainly transmitted a lot to them, but you're just not quite sure what it was you transmitted. And what if you missed that one detail that could spell the difference between swimming and sinking, between contentment and disappointment, between safety and danger?

These thoughts and regrets must have been swimming through the High Priest Aharon's mind in this week's Torah portion, Shemini. It is a portion that contains a harrowing tale of Aharon in his first day on the job, finally beginning the priestly work after so many chapters of instructions. He stands in the presence of God in the Tabernacle doing the difficult, gory, unpleasant, earthy and unearthly work of the sacrifices. Allowing the people, through this crazy alchemy, to have a vision of God's glory on the doorstep of the Tent of Meeting and to then witness a fire coming forth from God, consuming the offerings.

Aharon finishes this work for which he has been lengthily prepared. And then, without warning, his eldest children, Nadav and Avihu, try it a different way. They offer something like incense, dropping it on the fire, and something goes terribly wrong. A flame issues from God and consumes them as it had just consumed the ox and the ram. In the moment of shock that follows this, Moshe, Aharon's brother, utters something enigmatic and moralistic and, in one of Torah's most poignant moments, Aharon stands there, mute.*1*

The sages, like most readers of Torah, hate this episode. They struggle long and hard to imagine what these two young people did that was so wrong. Why their deaths were justified. Was it the choice of incense? Was it something wrong with the fire pan? Maybe just that they didn't have God's express permission? Or maybe that they were drunk? Or maybe, as Nachmanides offers, they approached the altar with a youthful infatuation with God's power, God's gevurah, and a youthful indifference to God's kindness, God's chesed. They valued God's might and they were met with God's might. And thus the lesson for us is that whatever you choose to value above all else in the world needs to be something you're willing to risk getting back square in the jaw.

But mostly these explanations fail to satisfy us or to console Aharon. And with this episode, the ritual life of our people launches with the unanticipated sacrifice of the firstborn. An unsettling echo of Egypt.

While this plot is unhappy-making, it is not unlike a million anxiety dreams I've had, in which I am responsible for some harm to my kids, or am unable to save them from danger. Perhaps this story is meant to be like a dream, tapping into all of our fears of loss; our anxieties about the future; our feeling that if we had done better, the future would have come out differently.

In this dream, each of us is Aharon. Each of us serves a kind of priestly function. We are the priests, the Cohanim, of our own lives, orchestrating our offerings and our atonements and our petitions and trying to move our lives from sludgy states to holiness whenever possible.

And like Aharon, we are not just priests. We are parents too, some literally and all metaphorically. We all have a posterity. We have all been trying to convey to the future what we know and what we desire. To transmit what we've learned and how we've managed our journeys and how we've tended our own sacred fires. And we fear that despite our detailed instructions, the future will act in unpredictable ways, ways that could bring disaster.

Besides being Aharon, each of us is also Nadav and Avihu, his sons. Each of us has an imperfect knowledge of what came before us. Each of us longs to tend our own fire in our own way. To choose incense instead of blood or vice versa. None of us can worship at exactly the same altar as our parents or teachers or rabbis or leaders. To do so would be soul-killing. And in fact, we are told two verses later in Torah that Nadav and Avihu's cousins pulled them out of the holy chamber by their tunics, which Rashi takes to mean that their bodies were not physically consumed. The damage was to their souls.

The dream of this parashah is a dream of change. The risk it poses. And also its inevitability. There is no doubt that the future will undermine our best hopes. And it will heal some of our worst mistakes. In equal or unequal measure.

All we can do is do the best we can do. Tend our fires. And hope that when flame bursts forth from the Divine, it is not flame that consumes but flame that blazes a trail. So that the next generation can tend a fire that is different and maybe better.

At some point last week, I gave up hoping the 18-year old would worship at the altar of my Chicago days. I stopped telling my Hyde Park stories. My sentimentality and his youth made a truce. Instead we decided to do something together that neither of us had ever done, something to fuel both our flames.

We drove ten blocks south to the old Oak Woods Cemetery. We looked at its burial mound of Confederate prisoners upon which someone had scornfully (I presume) placed an empty bottle of Southern Comfort. And then we looked for graves of trailblazers who rest there. Ida B. Wells, the radical turn-of-the-century African-American journalist; Jesse Owens, the African-American runner whose prowess shamed Hitler at the 1936 Olympics; and Hyde Park's own Harold Washington*2*, Chicago's first black and first progressive mayor, whose ethos made possible gay rights in that city, and whose election so rocked the world that while I was on a 1983 visit to Eastern Bloc Czechoslovakia, the mere mention that I came from Chicago, which would have once produced an Al Capone pantomime, now elicited the amused observation, Ah, Chicago. Negri Burgermeister.

These three, Ida, Jesse and Harold, like Aharon's sons, offered something new and in response they drew fire. More fire than anyone deserves. But to our lasting good fortune, they weren't consumed.

And let that be our prayer for our children and their children and for our students and our cultural heirs. Let them bring the new ideas to make the world better, to fulfill a vision of justice and glory that we can't even yet imagine. Let them draw fire if that's what it takes, but use that fire to blaze paths for those who follow. And in the process, may they bring us one generation closer to Olam Haba, to a world perfected.


*1*For a beautiful review of rabbinic interpretation of Aharon's silence, see Rabbi David Kasher's current post on his blog, ParshaNut.

*2*For a good exploration of Harold Washington and his impact, see Gary Rivlin's biography, Fire on the Prairie.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Spirograph, Leviticus, and the Cycles of our Lives

For Congregation Ner Shalom, Parashat Vayikra

New moon, new year, equinox, eclipse, junk in a basement. 
The possibilities are endless.

Today is a day when all the cycles collide. It's evening, the denouement of another day on this planet. It's Shabbos, the settling out of another week of struggle and effort. It's a new Hebrew month, the launch of a new lunar cycle. It's the 1st of Nisan, which is one of our people's four new years. (This one is declared in Torah, in the book of Exodus, but historically it relates not to Egypt but to the Babylonian calendar that we adopted in exile, which is why tonight is also Nowruz - the Persian new year.) Meanwhile this particular new moon, thin as a pencil line, traces the underside of a supermoon that is brushing close to us, closer than it has in months. Today was the equinox and the beginning of spring. And to top it off, overnight was a solar eclipse, dazzling the Scandinavians while we were sound asleep. It's like there's a big celestial party going on. All these cycles - 24 hours, 7 days, 28 days, 1 year, 14 months - all of them intersecting and overlapping like the whirling designs we used to make with our Spirograph sets when we were kids.

Do you remember Spirograph? I had a set. So did my sister. Over the last month, they resurfaced in the cycle of chaos and order that over the last year has characterized my mother's basement in Niles, Illinois. As you know from previous drashot, this basement is a magical treasure chest, a never-ending cornucopia of objects from every era of our family's history in this country. From immigration through junk peddling, political scandals, business ventures, cousins clubs and deaths; the basement is littered with diplomas, ketubos, NRA badges, meeting minutes, sheet music and an awesome collection of childhood games. Lynn and I looked at our Spirograph sets side by side. Hers had all the pieces, each one carefully put back in its proper slot after its last use some time in the 1970s. Mine was a mess, many of the translucent plastic disks cracked or chipped; none of them in the right place; the little pins that held pieces and paper to the cardboard backing were all over the place, threatening to prick whoever would reach into the dusty box heedlessly.

My sister decided to keep hers, and it took its place in her takeaway stack, perched atop Candyland and Mystery Date. I let mine go. It's hard for me to let anything go. But I decided to make a clean breast of it. A fresh start. I couldn't see myself at this point in my life sitting and drawing crazy psychedelic spirals anyway, and a half-ruined childhood game seemed a waste of my otherwise prodigious powers of sentimentality.

So I took a fresh start on that one, even while other items cycled back into my "reconsider" pile. See, the thing about cycles is that they're always giving fresh starts and second chances. What I mean is this: we all know that today is just a continuation of time. It is not qualitatively or empirically different from yesterday, other than the fact that it is later; the world is older. But today can feel like a completely different thing. What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours. A new month, a new year, all of these arbitrary markers signal possibility. Rebirth. Reset. Reboot.

Of course, sometimes the desired reboot doesn't happen. We get stuck in a rut, a needle in the groove of an old LP. Whether it's a habit or a grudge or an Israeli election, we don't know how to think, do or try something differently. How to clear the way for a new chance. Sometimes we need something extra, something a little more juiced up, to break the inertia. But what?

One possible answer comes from this week's Torah portion. This week boasts another new beginning, this one in our cycle of Torah reading, which stretches from Genesis to Deuteronomy and from Simchat Torah to Simchat Torah. This week we orbit back into the Book of Leviticus, our great and ancient ritual manual. It details a system of offerings that themselves mark time and mark cycles of human experience. Our failings, our leaders' failings, our brushes with death and illness, our communal festivals, our personal joys - all of these end up marked in Leviticus as part of a cycle, marked with ritual offerings. We move from tamei to tahor - from states that are pervaded by everydayness to states that feel radiant with holiness. And back again. In English we call the states described in Leviticus "purity" and "impurity", which is unfortunate. Because they don't refer to physical states of contamination, but to a range of emotional states, spiritual states. Think of the way you feel after you break a promise. Or the way you feel after experiencing a loss. These are psychological states that Leviticus addresses, by prescribing the kind of repair you can do in your world to release it, or the kind of offering you can give to God in order to make a shift and experience, even if briefly, a new start.

In our culture, we don't recognize these fluctuating states in any open, community-supported way. Our emotional ups and downs belong to each of us individually. We hold them privately, even secretly. We are told they are aberrations from what we should be; they are disorders, rather than the emotional landscape of living. We do therapy and we are sold medication. We hide our messy states and pretend we're fine. And we move forward as if we weren't ever in a state of spiritual disarray, when actually we probably are most of the time.

The system in Leviticus, though it seems archaic and, in the case of animal sacrifice, barbaric, was far more accepting of the emotional topography of life than we are. It was assumed that you experienced the full range of life's gifts and sadnesses, fulfillments and foibles. And that you could mark those those by an interaction with the divine that would allow you to transition from one state to another; to let go of one part of the cycle and move forward into another.

In the Levitical code, there's always a new beginning available for you whenever you need it. And the prescription for that new beginning is usually an offering.

So I wonder what we can offer up to help us move from state to state, or to be mindful when we do?

When Lynn and I work in the Chicago basement, it doesn't clearly feel like a cycle, but more often like one, unending difficult state. A jumble of reverence and frustration and ambition and despair. We look at all the holy relics with which my mother was entrusted and ultimately burdened. We sit inside of it and wish it had a cyclical quality. After all, even Sisyphus has his "up" moments. Where are ours?

But then, unforeseen, came some change, through a ritual of offering. We had already been giving furniture and housewares to cousins and friends right and left. But one morning last week I opened a dry cleaner's paper garment bag to discover my father's army uniforms - two dress uniforms and one set of fatigues. They were clean and pressed. His overseas hats folded flat and pinned to the lapels. They had been in this garment bag since, I assume, 1946. They were in pristine condition and their discovery led to a quandary. What do we do with these? They suddenly were symbolic of our father. Not just his service in the army, but the gentle meticulousness that was so part of who he was. How could they be thrown out? We were stuck in a humbling and hobbling reverence for him and needed ritual to move from that state to a different one.

It was my sister's partner who saved the day. Sue said, "Call a theater." And we did. Lynn called Steppenwolf, Chicago's premiere theater, the one that produced Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, John Mahoney, Laurie Metcalf - performers whom my mother referred to never as "actors" but rather as "Chicago actors," as if that signified something obvious about their skill and their talent and their loyalty to the city of her birth. Over the past 20 years my mother frequently ushered at Steppenwolf. She would call us after a performance and tell us the storyline, mixing into it tangents about the other ushers and the very nice house managers, all of whose stories were as interesting to her as the plot of the play. Steppenwolf said they'd be happy to take the uniforms. Lynn inquired further. Would they take our grandmothers' and great aunts' fur-collared 1940s and 1950s coats? Yes, they said. And we collected them all up and we lay them on the back seat of the car like sleeping children, and we drove into the city. Laurel, the wardrobe mistress, accepted these with the gentleness and regard that one would hope was shown by the Levites as they accepted the offerings of the Israelites on the steps of the Temple. She examined them to see if they were in fact without blemish. She complimented them. She remarked to us about their uncanny state of preservation. As we left the uniforms and the coats on the costume shop cutting table, the altar of alterations, we felt a burden lifted. This was not like giving coffeepots to cousins. This was an offering, in a near-Biblical sense. We were offering up these objects of love to the greater universe. To the gods of creativity and catharsis. So that someone on stage one day in a diminutively sized seargent's uniform might make an audience member cry or laugh and rethink something in their life and be released from some state that they were trapped in so that they too could have a fresh start.

These clothes, held in suspended animation for seven decades, had now reëntered the cycle of things; they were recycled, upcycled. And we moved from our stone-heavy state to one of elation. Even knowing that the next day we might once again feel buried under the weight of our earthly responsibility. For today, it was new beginnings all around.

So new beginnings. From an outsider's view, every day on this earth just looks like a continuation of the previous day's developments. As Ecclesiastes would say, eyn chadash tachat hashemesh, there is nothing new under the sun. But from the inside, from inside our cycles, new beginnings are possible all the time. A new year, a new month, a new day, a new chance. Just offer up what you need to offer up - your regret, your love, your gratitude, your hope. Let the regret burn away. Let the gratitude feed the gods. And then you can descend the Temple steps, into your new beginning, the place where possibility lives.


I am grateful to Suzanne Shanbaum who, when I was at a loss, said, "Write about new beginnings." And to Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, who teaches the class I'm taking called, "Learning to Love Leviticus." Thanks to her and my classmates, I am.

Note: This drash is powered by Congregation Ner Shalom. If they ever speak to you enough to be so moved, you are always invited to make a contribution to Ner Shalom by clicking here. (Please notate it with Itzik's Well so I know.]

Friday, March 6, 2015

My, You Look Divine!

Esther in the king's chamber. By Elisabetta Sirani


For Congregation Ner Shalom

May I just say? You are all looking divine.

And appearances matter on this particular week in our Jewish reckoning of time and symbol. This was the week of Purim. A story of danger and rescue, managed in large part by the Jewish queen of Persia, Esther, whom Talmud identifies as one of the four most beautiful women ever to have lived [BT Megilah 15a]. She was graced with a kind of beauty that was hard if not impossible to resist, and she ultimately used it not for her own advancement but to save the lives of her people.

In fact, placing herself right in the king's view was, at least to some commentators, a critical element of the strategy to save the Jews. When the edict for the Jews' destruction is issued, Mordecai reaches out to Esther, the palace insider, with the dire request that she should:

לבוא אל–המלך להתחנן–לו ולבקש מלפניו על–עמה

She should come to the king to make supplication to him and to petition before him for her people. [Esther 4:8]

So the Chasidic master, Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, also known as the Berditchever, asks the question, "Why does it say 'before him?' Couldn't the text have simply said, "to petition for her people?" Why "to petition before him for her people?"

The answer might have been so that he would clearly see her beauty and his heart would warm. But the Berditchever sees the phenomenon in mystical terms. He says that when Esther enters the king's chamber, the Shechinah would enter with her. And it would then be important for her - for either Esther or the Shechinah - to be planted right smack in front of the king, so that the light of the Shechinah could melt his resistance.

So maybe we need to back up to make sure we're all on the same page or the same column of the same megillah. The Shechinah is what? It is, in Jewish mystical thought, the Divine that dwells among us. The concept is rooted in the Torah portion of a couple weeks ago where God says, "Build me a mikdash, a holy place, v'shachanti b'tocham - and I will dwell among them." [Exodus 25:8] Shachanti - I will dwell - is the same root as shechinah - the dwelling, the residing, the abiding. Before this moment in Torah, God is a character, a personage, a personality like gods of other mythologies might be seen. God speaks to select individuals. God frightens the bejeezus out of the Egyptians and out of the Israelites too. But there isn't yet a sense of God as a presence, which might in fact be the best translation of Shechinah. God's Presence, among us.

The Shechinah (as Shechinah lore evolved) came to be understood as the aspect of God that stays close to us as a people. The Shechinah comes with us into exile. And, in fact, the Book of Esther is one of the very few books of Tanakh that takes place entirely in exile. So in a sense, the Jews of Shushan would have had an intimacy with the Shechinah, even while they might have had a more skeptical relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the great God of the Cosmos, the fiery God of Sinai. God is never mentioned even once in the Book of Esther, as if salvation came davka without God's help. Whereas the presence of the Shechinah might be inferred in the story, the way it is inferred in our lives.

Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, the Berditchever, is confident that the Shechinah accompanies Esther into  the king's throne room, when she goes in to invite him to her apartments, to resolve with a banquet the terrible trouble that was birthed at a banquet.

Why is the Berditchever convinced the Shechinah will enter with her? Because of her clothes. He points to the language of her entrance:

ויהי ביום השלישי ותלבש אסתר מלכות

On the third day, Esther dressed in malkhut. Esther dressed in "royalty". [Esther 5:1]

What could that possibly mean? It's commonly translated as "Esther dressed in royal robes." Meaning robes of purple and crimson. But the Berditchever points then to Talmud's interpretation:

שלבשתה רוח הקדש

What she wore was the holy spirit. [BT Megillah 15a] The sages of the Talmud, who couldn't bear God's absence in the text, interpreted God right back in. And in the process they were, remarkably, presaging the idea the kabbalists would later call Shechinah. For the kabbalists, the word malkhut, "kingdom", did not just have a geographic or political meaning, but was the name of the last and earthiest of the Ten Sefirot, the nodes of divinity that each pour out a different element into the cauldron of Creation. Malkhut means "kingdom" in the sense of this being the realm under God's rule. Malkhut is Creation as we know it. Everything we have ever experienced exists in the realm of malkhut. We can intuit the other nine sefirot. But malkhut we live in. And in the kabbalistic view, malkhut is home to Shechinah. No, more: malkhut is the Shechinah. So for a kabbalist, whenever you see the word malkhut, you may dare to replace it with the word Shechinah. In which case, the megillah verse reads, "On the third day, Esther dressed in Shechinah." This is why the Rebbe was certain that when Esther entered the chamber, the Shechinah would be with her. She swept into the room, garbed in Shechinah.*1*

Maybe Esther is not unique. Maybe we all sweep into the room garbed in Shechinah whenever we are going to act in a way that brings us toward our purpose. Whether that purpose is justice or healing or tending nature or teaching or witnessing or even raising morale. Maybe there's a connection between getting close to our purpose *2* and getting close to the Shechinah. Mordecai himself suggests this when he says to Esther,

ומי יודע אם–לעת כזאת הגעת למלכות

"Who knows? Maybe it was for just such a time as this that you came to the malkhut." That you came to the kingdom. Or to sovereignty. Or to the palace. Or to this world. Or maybe it was for just such a time as this that you came to the Shechinah, or to the Shechinah's attention. [Esther 4:14]

So maybe it is Ruach Hakodesh, that holy spirit, the Shechinah, that each of us wears whenever we are acting in ways that are close to our purpose. Sometimes we can even feel it surrounding us, clothing us, when we perform those brave acts or those mundane acts that just feel right. Like we're wearing a shechinah robe, or a shechinah muumuu, or an off-the-shoulder shechinah toga.

But then sometimes the sensation of divine comes not from outside, wrapped around us, but from inside. In this week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa, God identifies an artist named Betzalel who will captain the team building the mikdash, the holy place whose construction God requested a couple weeks ago. God says,

ואמלא אתו רוח אלהים בחכמה ובתבונה ובדעת ובכל–מלאכה

"I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding and knowledge and every skill." [Exodus 31:2]*3* The idea of the divine spirit infusing Betzalel stands in contrast, perhaps, to a conception of divinity as discrete and separate that is exhibited elsewhere in this very portion. When the Children of Israel give Moshe up for lost and demand a new god, Aharon has them remove their gold earrings. They pass them forward. He melts them down, and fashions a Golden Calf for their worship. [Exodus 32:2-4] Here the god is fashioned from the garb. When Moshe comes down from the mountain and sees this, he goes into a rage. He burns the golden calf, grinds it to powder, mixes it with water and makes the people drink it. [Exodus 32:20] This could just be some kind of punishment or trial, much like the bitter waters adulteresses are subjected to drinking in the Book of Numbers. Or it could be obedience training, like sticking a dog's snout in its own pee. Or maybe it's some symbolic messaging on Moshe's part that divinity is within you, digested, integrated, in all your cells. It is not something worn as an adornment, and removed at will.

So then, is divinity in you, as in Betzalel's case, or around you, as in Esther's? Who's wearing whom?

Maybe we wear each other. We wear Shechinah in our Esther-like moments. When we speak truth to power. When we live our purpose.

And maybe God is wearing us as well. God experiences God's self through malkhut, through our vantage point, in a serious and playful game of dress up. We are God's garb. Not just our bodies, although those are certainly the fabric that holds the garment together. But our thoughts, our loves, our longings, our losses, our musical tastes, our moments of vanity, our quirks - all these are beads on God's necklace, embroidery on God's tunic. God tries on each of us, not for a moment in a fitting room, but for our whole lives.

At the Oscars a couple weeks ago, the faux regal red carpet ritual was played out again, like every year. As is the longstanding custom, the men were asked about their careers, the women about their dresses. And the recurring question was not "What are you wearing," but "Who are you wearing?" When I think of God wearing this world as garb, I like to imagine God on the red carpet; the reporter from E Network shoving the microphone toward the divine mouth. "And so God, who are you wearing tonight?"

"Well," God replies with feigned modesty, "tonight I'm wearing Esther. And Mordecai. And Haman. And Angelina Jolie. Oh, and Myra. And Lorenzo. And Shira. And everyone else here. And everyone watching. And you.

"Oh", God continues, "might I add? You all look . . . divine."


________________________

*1* I was very happy to stumble upon this teaching of the Berditchever last week. A couple days later I found that my teacher, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, had just blogged expansively and exquisitely about this very point. You can read her piece by clicking here.

*2* I am grateful to Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen for making me think more deeply about purpose, and what engaging it feels like in the body and the spirit.

*3* In explicating the Ruach Elohim, or "spirit of God," this text fascinatingly identifies two (or three)  qualities that would later be considered higher kabbalistic sefirot: chochmah, binah and their synthesis, da'at. What would a kabbalist make of this in contrast to the use of malkhut in Esther? If the spirit is in you, is it from a higher source in the Tree of Life stepladder? And if you are garbed in it, then it is malkhut, or Shechinah, representing a more bottom-up, grassroots  kind of divinity?


Fine print: These drashot are made possible by my work at Congregation Ner Shalom. If they ever speak to you enough to be so moved, you are always invited to make a contribution to Ner Shalom by clicking here. (Please notate it with Itzik's Well so I know.]

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Ghost of Shtetl Future

For Congregation Ner Shalom ~ Feb. 6, 2015


I took some walks over the last week or two; not here in green Sonoma County, but walks through my family's ancestral shtetl. Well, one of them. A place called Krynki in Polish; the Jews called it Krinek. It is next to the Belarus border, not far from Bialystok, in what was once Grodno Gubernya. I walked there on a Sunday afternoon, then the next day at bed, and a few more times this week. It was a beautiful sunny day in Krinek each time I visited. In fact, it was the same beautiful sunny day each time I visited.

You might not even have noticed me missing, because technically I wasn't. I first visited Krinek eight years ago with my mother and sister, and strolled it on 2 consecutive March days, one similarly sunny and one full of dark, regretful rain. But this time I wasn't there in the flesh. My visit was virtual and I was a kind of cyberghost.

I have always felt drawn to the places of our collective Jewish past, including my family's specific past, and of late I've found myself using high-tech means to maintain my arguably masochistic connection to those places. My iPhone clock tells me the time in Warsaw and the weather app lets me know when it's snowing in Vilna. And sometimes when I want to check in visually, I do so from the sky, using satellite images on Google Earth.

And that's what I'd intended to do last week: a little look-down, look-over, of Krinek. And in that process, I saw for the first time that Google Streetview was now available for Poland.

If you don't know about Streetview, the idea is this. Drivers, hired by Google, roam every street in the world that they can get access to, with a 360-degree multi-directional camera thingy that works with sensors and a rolling shutter. This is mounted on a tower on the roof of the car. As they drive, imagery is taken in from all directions - forward, backward, sides, up and down, the camera's gaze waving like a lulav. Then the massive Google brain stitches these shots together to create, arguably, the world's largest photo - a navigable photo that includes every street, every highway, every publicly accessible house in the world.

And while most people use this function in mundane ways, like seeing what the restaurant looks like that they're trying to find, and maybe the more adventurous among us explore the streets of Rome or Rio, I choose the shtetl.

I can't say why this connection to the Old Country is so important to me. Most American Jews don't remember where the last stop across the ocean was. They might know the country or region even but not the town. Two generations ago, the town continued to be an important marker of identity, even in America. Our grandparents belonged to fraternal organizations, landsmanshaftn, organized to help others from their own shtetl. My great-grandparents were lynchpins in Chicago's Krinker Fareyn, the group for immigrants from Krinek, and my great-grandfather headed the Chevra Kadisha, or burial society. The members of the Fareyn bought and walled off a section of Chicago's monumental Waldheim Cemetery. My great-grandparents are buried there, flanked by Krinker luminaries, such as they are, including Studs Terkel's parents on one side of them, and the Shure Brothers, founders of the pro audio equipment company, on the other.

The generation of Jews who could freely talk about their Eastern European towns and villages is gone. But I like to be an aberration in my generation. Sometimes it's meaningless. Mentioning Krinek has never gotten me a discount or even a smile at Shure Audio, and Lord knows I've tried. But once in a while I do meet someone like me. At Oliver's one day I was sampling coffee from the Bella Rosa people. Ari was with me and there were sugar cubes on the sampling table and Ari joked I should put a cube between my teeth, like my great-grandfather did. I was pleased he'd remembered my story, but I said that he did that not with coffee but with a glezl tey - a glass of tea. David, the owner of Bella Rosa looked up and said, "He was Russian?" I said, "Well, between Bialystok and Grodno." And to my delight, he said, "My family comes from a shtetl between Bialystok and Grodno too." It wasn't the same one, but nearby, and suddenly we were neighbors. Landsman. And now I drink Bella Rosa when I can, because isn't that the job of landsman, to help each other get a leg up in this golden land of opportunity?

So back to my walks. Over these last couple weeks I've gone back to Krinek, with the help of Google Streetview. I move around in the village, navigating using the keys of my laptop. Forward, right, stop. Turn around. Look at the houses in all directions. I can transport myself any direction at will, as long as I don't try to go where the Google car couldn't reach. And so I feel like a ghost, bound by the kind of arbitrary rules that bind ghosts in every legend and every horror film. I can go toward the houses but I can't go in. I can float down a street but not a footpath or a blind alley. I can't go in the water. I am invisible. I am stuck in the same day all the time. My sight is impaired: there are places that are distorted, pixelated; houses sometimes bend or bulge on the periphery.

Ruins of the Slonimer Yeshivah
But being a ghost here seems fitting. This was a town that in its heyday had a population of 4000; 80% of them were Jews. There were synagogues, a mikveh, a Slonimer yeshivah. It was a town of labor unrest, where striking tannery workers managed to win a more humane workday of a mere twelve hours. There were reprisals by the Russian Army against the town's Jews for leading those strikes, beginning around 1902, prompting masses of Krinkers to leave for North and South America — my ancestors among them.

There are no more Jews in Krinek. Not a single one, as far as anyone knows. In 1941 they were corralled into a long, narrow ghetto running along the river from the town center to Gabarska Street, where the Jewish tanneries stood. And a year later the Jews were gone altogether and Krynki became a ghost town.

The path of the Krynki Ghetto.
How does one live in a ghost town? I don't know. The 800 Poles who remained somehow managed it. They spent the Communist Era and beyond slowly occupying the empty space. It took 65 years for the population count to return to 4000, 65 years of pushing back the ghost town, street by street, house by house.

And my mind gets stuck on what this process looked like. I can't help but think that for every one of those houses, there was a moment when someone pried a mezuzah off a doorpost. Maybe they did it grieving, maybe they did it gloating. But it was a thing, a real thing, a real and symbolic thing that happened, for each of those houses.

Roaming the streets of Krynki, invisible, propelled not by legs on pavement but by fingers on a keyboard thousands of miles away, I look at those houses, at the unevenness of the paint on the doorposts revealing where mezuzot had once, and for generations, been affixed. The town still feels empty. And though I call it a ghost town, I am the only ghost there. The Bashevis Singer-style phantoms you would expect decamped half a century ago, boarding ships to who knows where.

Still, my own odd, ghostly presence allows me to see somehow between the pixels and perceive the celestial beings that have not quite given up on this broken place.

This very week, we read a haftarah from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah has a terrifying vision of God's throne. Above it hover seraphim, fiery beings. Each one has six wings - two hiding its face, two around its legs and the middle two keep it aloft. The seraphim famously cry to each other kadosh kadosh kadosh Adonai tz'vaot; holy holy holy is the Lord of Hosts. And at that cry, Isaiah says,

וינעו אמות הספים מקול הקורא
the doorposts shook from the crier's voice...

And sure enough, it was the doorposts in Krynki where I too saw the celestial beings. Visible only to ghosts like me, there were three at every doorpost of every house. Their upper wings enfolded their heads like turbans. Their lower wings wrapped their bodies like a gabardine. Their middle wings did not beat but instead draped over their shoulders like a tallit, feathers dangling like fringe. They looked like Jews, they looked like my grandparents, but on second thought they didn't look human at all. They looked like all people and all creatures. They were of all genders, each of them, and their eyes were aflame. They were seraphim - fiery angels, determined to burn off the pain, the trauma, of the past.

Standing in their threesomes, they faced the indentation in the paint, the spot where the mezuzah once hung, where the violence of the crowbar took place. I could see the creatures clearly, even while the house itself blurred and the street buckled from too many camera angles. I could see them standing steady, facing the mezuzah, rising up and down on their toes saying kadosh kadosh kadosh, although I couldn't tell if it was in fact aloud that they said it.

He sees the Google car, but he can't see me.
They went about their work with singular focus, undistracted by cars or kids on bicycles. They were unfazed by people coming and going out of those very doors. Unlike in Isaiah's vision, the doorposts did not shake at the sound of their voices. Still, if you looked with a different kind of eye, you could perceive that the angels' words were exciting the atoms, animating the molecules. A kind of light, not quite light as we know it, was pooling on the doorpost in the shape of a mezuzah. It was clear that through the angels' steady labor, the house would be restored and the Jews of the house would come to be recreated too, in some spectral way, in their Shabbos finery, with their songs and cigarettes and political arguments and sentimental poems. Parents kissing their children, making kugel, making kiddush, bentshing likht. All of this, re-forged in light.

I do not know to what end the angels' project was undertaken. It seemed to be a tikkun, a healing. If so, was it for the sake of the Jews who were lost? Or for the Polish children living, unaware, in the house? Or for God's own sake, God, whose hands are voluntarily tied and kept from tampering with history, but who wishes forgiveness anyway?

Or maybe the seraphim are teaching us a lesson: that there is healing for all our broken places. Slow healing. Maybe the first step is envisioning those places, both inside and out, as healed, as holy. Imagining them glowing, wondrous. And then our task is to do the work that will, as philosopher Jean Houston has said, "make the wonderful probable."

So perhaps I speculated about this for a moment, but in my ghostly condition I could not have asked, and the seraphim would not have answered. Still, whatever its cosmic purpose, I was suddenly able to see what the angels were aiming at. They were crafting an angle, a facet, of Olam Haba, the World to Come. And there it now was, flickering before me. A glowing Shabbos shtetl, a hubbub of light under a starry Chagall sky. This vision of brokenness healed and life reignited filled my mind and coursed through my veins like fiery brandy. I breathed in the familiar Polish air, catching a hint of pine trees and candlewax and challos baking. It was now Shabbos in the village. The sounds of khasidishe niggunim drifted out of one nearby window; revolutionary anthems out of another. I closed my eyes, a whisper of kadosh kadosh kadosh emerging from my lips as I sighed and closed my laptop.