Monday, December 27, 2010

My Yiddish Interview

Eric Edelstein of twisted my arm to do an omnibus life story interview - af Yiddish! My grammar disserves my Grandma. But it was an honor to do this. We discuss Yiddish, the Kinsey Sicks, my rabbi work, my family, Israel, the Old Country and more.

Irwin Keller's Yiddish Interview from YiddishLives on Vimeo.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Kol Haneshamah - Every Living Thing

Something new and beautiful from Ner Shalom. Lorenzo Valensi's new setting of Kol Haneshamah - the final verse of the book of Psalms.

כל הנשמה תהלל יה הללויה

Kol haneshamah tehalel Yah. Haleluyah.
Let every living thing praise Yah. Hallelujah.

It's a fast recording we threw down on Garageband, and a fast video from iMovie. But rough production values aside, I think it's a thing of beauty. Enjoy.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Forgiving the Painful Past: A Queer Read of Joseph

(For Congregation Ner Shalom on Parashat Miketz)

I spoke with a reporter this week from the Press-Democrat, doing a story about the Jewish community of Sonoma County. He asked me what I thought characterized our county's Jews. Of course I'm still pretty new to Sonoma, and the Jews I know here are you. And me.

So I told him that our community of Jews is made up of people who have journeyed. We have covered great distances, geographically or personally or spiritually. We have sought new lives, enlightenment, freedom to be ourselves. We often left behind very powerful pasts. Painful pasts. Including Jewish pasts. And now we wonder how to reengage as Jews when those pasts still return to haunt us, and they still hurt.

This problem of facing the painful past is why the Biblical character of Joseph always holds such fascination for me. This week we read the middle act of a three-parashah opera, all about Joseph. And if you don't mind, I'd like to re-familiarize you with the story.

In Act I (last week's parashah - Vayeshev), young Joseph, his father's favorite, dreams of his brothers bowing down to him. He incurs his brothers' ire and on a fateful day is thrown by them into a pit, to be rescued by Midianites and sold into slavery in Egypt. There's an episode with Potiphar's wife that lands Joseph in prison, where he interprets the dreams of other inmates and makes an impression.

In Act II (this week's parashah - Miketz) Pharaoh dreams about skinny cows and fat cows and Joseph is hauled out of jail to interpret the dreams. He takes charge of the stockpiling of Egypt's provisions during seven years of plenty and is the rationer of those stores during the subsequent years of famine. He becomes powerful - Pharaoh's righthand man.

Then his past catches up with him. His brothers arrive from Canaan in search of food. They do not recognize him, and they bow down before him. Joseph does not reveal himself, but plays an elaborate game of cat and mouse. He gives them the food they ask for, but he tests them. He manipulates them into coming back to Egypt and bringing his younger brother Benjamin. The brothers fear this is at last their come-uppance, their karma return for the abduction of Joseph. Joseph understands their language of course and turns away to cry as they discuss this. They ultimately return with Benjamin. Joseph welcomes them and serves them a meal in his home, and is overcome with emotion. But still playing hide and seek, he engineers a way to keep Benjamin captive. This is the test of the brothers' mettle. Will they repeat the act of abandonment that they had perpetrated on Joseph, this time abandoning Benjamin to his fate?

Act III is next week's parashah - Vayigash. The curtain rises and Judah delivers a lengthy polemic to save Benjamin from captivity. But Joseph can no longer contain himself. He reveals his identity. "I am your brother Joseph," he says, "he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you." He has the brothers fetch Jacob his father, and he gives them fertile land to live on in the Egyptian district of Goshen.
Queer Eye?

This whole story fascinates me. Joseph's experiences of alienation, journey, and building a new life are so familiar. We all look at Torah through our own lens, of course, and here's mine. This has always struck me as a queer story. Joseph is the queerest character in Torah. I'm not saying that he's the gayest character or that he's gay at all, although he could be. But his narrative is queer. His biography is queer. He is a transgressor. An outsider. He negotiates a mix of identities. He has secrets.

The rabbis sit uncomfortably with who he is. They make special mention in Midrash of his curling his hair and painting his eyes in the Egyptian style. To an Egyptian this would be innocuous, but to the rabbis it certainly had a whiff of gender transgression to it. Maybe gender was the readiest hook upon which to hang their overall anxiety with who Joseph was.

He's also a gifted child. Gifted in ways that make him hated. He is more colorful than the others -- literalized by that coat his father gave him. He is bullied and punished for his difference.

As an adult he survives. He survives by recreating himself; using his gifts but denying his past. He rises to power by interpreting dreams. He is a bearer and sharer of insight. He becomes a polyglot -- Midrash says the angel Gabriel taught him to speak the world's 70 languages. Just as queers and other transgressives must learn the secret languages of different social settings, the varied cultural codes by which they will survive or perish.

Joseph survives. He ends up in the big city; the capital of the world -- the San Francisco or New York of its time. He takes on a new identity. A new name. A new role. He creates a life for himself, or allows a new life to unfold for him. And in all those years of being Pharaoh's vizier -- seven years of plenty and the first two years of famine -- he can't find it in himself to send word to his father that he is still alive.

How many of us have made just such decisions? A new place? New life? New name? New social language? How many of us made decisions not to look back? Why didn't Joseph look back? A Boston Globe feature this week on long-term effects of bullying describes how adults, decades later, can fill with terror if they see one of their childhood tormentors. So was Joseph too frightened to risk seeing his brothers? Or even to think about them?

But Joseph, like so many of us, doesn't have this luxury forever. Because the past comes back. The past always comes back. And when it does in the story, Joseph makes some choices.

Rudolph: Hero or Chump?
His first choice is to help his brothers. This is what my husband calls the "Rudolph moment." Since this is the season, we'll take as our haftarah the story of Rudolph, another queer character of literature who, as we know, had a very shiny nose. All of the other reindeer used to laugh. And call him names. They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games but then: one foggy Christmas eve, Santa came to say, "Rudolph! With your nose so bright, won't you . . . whatever?" This is the pivotal moment for Rudolph. He in fact chooses to save Christmas. But some of us who were also laughed at and kept out of games, might have enjoyed this story equally or more if Rudolph had said, "Excuse me? My entire life you've all taunted me and excluded me and now you're asking for my help? What kind of codependent bull is this? Sorry. It will be Christmas again next year."

But he doesn't. And like Rudolph, Joseph resists his anger. He doesn't say "no." He doesn't say, "screw you; maybe next famine." Why? Maybe because his past is complex - it includes not only the bullies, but his father and his little brother. Or because he has become more complex.

He also doesn't use that first meeting to reveal himself. The rabbis make much of this. They say he held back because the brothers were bowing down to him. The prophecy of his childhood dream had in fact come true. If he'd revealed himself at that moment, it would have been as if announcing that he'd won. It would have instilled rancor in their hearts. This is the quality of Joseph that causes him to be referred to repeatedly in Rabbinic literature as tzadik - Joseph the Righteous, the only character in Genesis to be so named.

From the moment of these first decisions -- to welcome the brothers, help them, and not act with triumph or smugness -- Joseph's conduct might be instructive for the many of us who thought we'd escaped our pasts, only to find them knocking on the door again. Using Joseph the Tzadik as a guide, Torah might offer us this checklist:

(1) Open the door. Let your past in.

(2) Let your past bow down. Give it a chance to offer you its humility.

(3) Don't gloat. Even though you've made a new and possibly better life.

(4) Sit down and have a meal with your past. Get reacquainted.

(5) Test your past. Give it a chance to turn out differently. Maybe the past is  not unchangeable. Perhaps some of it can redeem itself after all. Let it reenact with a different choice and a better outcome.

(6) Reveal to it who you are now. And remind it what it did to you then.

(7) Release it from its guilt. Forgive it. You and your past cannot stay locked in eternal pain. This is what Torah commentator Aviva Zornberg calls letting go of the "narrative of shame." Like Joseph, we can acknowledge that it is in part because we were broken that we became the much better, much stronger people we are. Our survival was not mere survival, but a flourishing too. We can afford to forgive. And, finally:

(8) Stay where you are. You'd expect a narrative of reconciliation to culminate in a "going home." But Joseph doesn't. He can't. He's become someone else. But he invites his past to come closer. To dwell in fertile land on the outskirts but within reach.

For some of us the painful past that comes knocking is a Jewish past. If that's true for you, and you're here tonight anyway, then it means this. You've already opened the door. You've let that past bow down and offer some humility. You've resisted gloating. You've sat down and had a meal with it. And now, here, at Ner Shalom with our hippie ways and our new songs and our surprising and touching and insightful community, you're testing it to see if it can turn out differently. We're all testing to see if it can turn out differently. I'm guessing for many of us it already has.

In the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, it is Joseph the Tzaddik who is associated with the sefirah called Yesod. This is the locus of fertility. Because Joseph brought his past to a green land even in a time of famine and triggered a burgeoning. By allowing the past to redeem itself and become once again part of his life, Joseph paved the way for the generations to come. He planted the seeds of growth and liberation and revelation.

So may we welcome, test and forgive our pasts, inviting them into our fertile outskirts, planting the seeds for so much blossoming still ahead.

And let us say Amen.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Idealist * Muddler * Angel

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, December 2010.]

This time of year I sometimes find myself in a muddle. I said yes to so many things in the fall, rushing in, full of enthusiasm, eager to do and to be! And now here I am slogging through the heap I've made for myself, lost and dispirited.

This week in Parashat Vayeshev, we observe another mismatch of eagerness and follow-through. Joseph, the dreamer, is a boy. He is the object of his father's affection and his brothers' hatred. Jacob calls him to send him on an errand - the infamous errand that we all know will result in his abduction and eventual rise to power in Egypt. He responds to his father's call by saying hineni -- "here I am" -- the same words Abraham spoke when called by God and by Isaac his son. Hineni suggests complete willingness; eager receptivity to what will come next.

Jacob sends him to check on his brothers and the flocks. But he gets lost. Suddenly the story's point of view shifts and we see him blundering through the fields, through the eyes of an ish - a "man" or "person". This stranger asks Joseph mah t'vakesh -- "what are you seeking?" Or "what would you ask of me?" Joseph tells him he's looking for his brothers, and the ish tells him where they went.

This is an odd side story in Torah. The plot doesn't require Joseph to go astray. But there's something here that adds both suspense and a sense of destiny. But for running into the stranger, the day would have unfolded differently, and so might our history. Rashi and other commentators suggest that the ish is actually the angel Gabriel, sent specifically to steer Joseph toward his appointed future. A part of me likes to imagine the ish instead as somehow being the future Joseph, come back to direct his wide-eyed childhood self with compassion, perhaps intoning a barely audible "it gets better" blessing as he remands Joseph to the brutality and bullying of his brothers.

Or maybe the ish is not a being but a particular kind of insight that each of us possesses. The loving but unruffled part of our hearts that can step aside from our attachments to both the eagerness and the frustration and can instead take the long view. This is the part of me that I always forget exists, so trapped am I inside, alternately, the idealist and the slogger. So in Joseph's honor, I'm going to look in my heart and find my ish, my guide standing in the field, and invite him/her/it for a cup of tea. And when it asks me, mah t'vakesh -- "what are you seeking? what do you ask of me?" -- I wonder what I will say. What would you?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Unravelling Regret

[Erev Yom Kippur Sermon, 5771-2010]

I regret to inform you that tonight we will be discussing regret. Regrets, grudges, and other artifacts that burden us, that impede passage through the corridors of our lives. We will also talk about death and forgiveness and knitting.

So I want to tell you about my Uncle Marvin. He was my only uncle, although I had plenty of great-uncles growing up and, baruch Hashem, have one still. But Uncle Marv was my only "real" plain-old uncle. He and I became especially close over the last decade, after my aunt had died and so had my father, who was my uncle's younger brother. Suddenly alone in the suburbs of Chicago, Uncle Marv moved to Las Vegas to be closer to his son and daughter-in-law. Meanwhile, my touring calendar began to include Las Vegas, and I ended up having many more opportunities to be alone with him than I'd ever had.

Despite his advanced age, he remained active, kinda crotchety and the source of an unflagging stream of jokes. He continued to come up with ideas and inventions. He worked in a grocery store right until he became sick with what was to be his final illness.

When I found out he had been hospitalized, I flew down. I spent two days sitting in his hospital room with him. In his thin and weakened state, he was nearly the spitting image of my father at the end of his life, which gave our time together an unearthly air.

Our first day together was all sweetness. He made jokes. We sang together - the standards: Gershwin, Irving Berlin. I was grateful to be there and he was happy I was there also. I sat and knitted at his bedside, a scarf intended for my sister. It kept my hands busy, and the click-clack of the needles filled the silent stretches with a note of purpose.

The second day was different. He was even weaker, and the joy seemed drained from the room. He still talked, but they were all stories of grudges and regrets: complaints about how his in-laws treated him. Disappointments about his marriage, about his career, about the move out west he should have done, about the businesses he should have started, about the many ways his life could have been better if people hadn't refused to believe in him.

I listened to this outpouring of ancient bitterness. My body tensed up, and as I knitted I felt my stitches getting smaller and tighter and harder to work with.

At some point I tried to change the tenor of the day by asking him to tell me a happy story. He told me briefly about his honeymoon. The birth of his children. Then he was flooded full-on with a childhood memory that clearly animated him. He'd been trying to sell enough newspaper subscriptions to win his first bike and he was one subscription short and finally Aunt Lucy bought a subscription she didn't need, despite the hard yoke of the Depression, so that he should get it, and the bicycle finally arrived, and he assembled it, and a neighbor sent him on his first errand to pick up something at the hardware store on Foster Avenue and when he came out of the hardware store his new bike was gone.

That was the happy story.

In a somewhat naïve, rabbinical student, do-gooder kind of way, I thought about the bedtime shema. We have a tradition, many of you know about it, that one should not die without forgiving and being forgiven. And since we never know when we will die, we recite a short vidui, a short confessional, each night along with our recitation of the shema. It goes, in part, like this:

Ribbono shel Olam! Master of the Universe.
I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or upset me, or who has done me any harm; who has harmed my physical body, my possessions, my honor — anything pertaining to me; whether accidentally or intentionally, by speech or by deed, in this incarnation or any other; any human being. May no one be punished on my account.

My uncle, always easily identifiable as Jewish, sometimes picked on for it, always proud of it, was not an observant man. I don't know if he ever said the shema outside of a synagogue. Or inside one for that matter. So instead of offering an explicitly religious practice, I simply asked him, "Do you think it might be time to let go of these grudges, Uncle Marv? Maybe you can forgive these people. Maybe they were only doing their best."

His response, though startling, had the honesty of someone without much time left. "No," he replied, "never."

Jewish tradition has, as you imagine, something to say about this. We are encouraged to forgive. And more. The 16th Century Spanish Rabbi Moshe Cordovero wrote that you are to emulate God in your forgiveness - that is, after you forgive, you must hold that person closer, dearer than you did before the offense occurred. Maybe that is in fact what we do in our most successful relationships. Forgiveness giving way to intimacy. But, as a general pracitce, this really sounds like an impossibly tall order. Think of all old bosses and coworkers you'd still have to be close to.

Somewhere in the course of all of this, and I can't tell you whether it was on the sweet day or the bitter one, I made a serious error in my knitting. I missed a row and reversed the pattern. That is to say, the front side of the scarf became the back, and vice versa. So that the ragged, unfinished elements would be visible no matter how you wore the thing.

I flew home with my mess of scarf, saddened not only at my uncle's impending death, but at the fact that he seemed so burdened, so narrowed, so bitter, and that that would be the emotional and spiritual flavor of his death.

Being in a narrow place, and being released from it, is one of the great narrative tropes of our tradition. Certainly, our great collective story of liberation, the Exodus from Mitzrayim, is that story. Mitzrayim, interpretable in Hebrew as "the narrow places" gave way to a vast wilderness, a midbar, free of landmarks, a big sky country where God's voice could speak to us, midbar meaning not only "wilderness" in Hebrew but also "the place of speech."

Release from the narrow place is not just our collective story but also a reflection of our internal struggles and our desire for expansiveness. In Psalm 118, we famously say:

מן המצר קראתי יה ענני במרחב יה
From the metzar, from the narrow place, I called Yah.
I was answered in Yah's great expanse.

Poor Uncle Marv, I thought in that moment, stuck in the narrow place.

Back in my own home, I looked at the scarf. I couldn't continue with it. The error was too significant. And, looking at the tight stitches I could only think of my uncle's discontents, inscribed right into the wool. It would not be a fitting gift for anyone. I pulled out the needles and began to unravel it row by row. As I did this, I breathed deep and imagined his grudges being released into the wilderness, being offered up into the expanse. At last I was left with a ball of yarn, and lungs filled with good air.

My sister called. It was now her turn to be in Las Vegas at the bedside. I'd forewarned her that he was very bitter. She called to say that she didn't know what I'd seen, but that he was now peaceful and loving, with no sign of bitterness. A couple days later I called him on his cell phone. I didn't expect him to answer but he did. I'd heard he was barely talking at all anymore. But he took the lead. He reminded me of two daytrips he and I had made from Las Vegas - one to Red Rock Canyon, one to Mt. Charleston. Memories of our being in the midbar, in the vast places where God speaks. I told him that from my window at that very moment I could see the Pacific Ocean, entirely wrapped in fog. He said he'd like to see the ocean, and that maybe that could be our next trip together.

My uncle had somehow ended up in merchav Yah. He was in the great expansive place. How did this happen? I have no way of knowing. The pagan in me likes the thought that in unraveling the scarf I released his grudges for him. But in truth, all I know is that in unraveling the scarf I released them for me.

Did he revisit the idea of forgiving, as is done in the bedtime Shema? I couldn't know. But maybe, in the absence of formal words of release, crying out from the narrow place was enough. Maybe his telling me all those things was, in essence, his crying "Yah" from the narrow place. Whether by "Yah" we mean "God" or we mean the keening of a primal pain. Or an exhale of the hard stuff into the ether. Maybe his defiant statement of "no, never" was in fact his call from the narrow place. No. Never. Yah.
And after that, mysteriously, he seemed to have breathed in expansiveness, and with it visions of canyon and mountain and ocean.

Maybe, in fact, calling out is enough. Even without kavanah, without an explicit intent to unburden ourselves of our grudges, our bodies and our spirits eventually know what they must do, despite ourselves. After all, the narrow place is magnetic. We know this. It is cozy and familiar and we do not always give it up easily. But, as the sages said,

יותר משהעגל רוצה לינוק הפרה רוצה להיניק

More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to nurse. In other words, God wants to give us kindness even more than we desire it for ourselves. Or in this case, this Universe wants us to be filled with expansiveness, even more than we want to give up the narrow place. Even when we say we don't want to give up the narrow place at all.

I'll never know exactly what happened for Uncle Marv. I do know, though, what happened for me. I became more convinced that I must always seek out and embrace expansiveness, the merchav Yah. I do not want first to amass 80 years of grudges, or 70, or 50, or 10. I will do my bedtime Shema regularly or irregularly. At bedtime, or when I remember. I will use those exact words or others. Or I will use no words at all, but simply call out Yah from my narrow place. I will say Yah, yeah, yo, You, or simply breathe the hard stuff out. Yah.

Let us do that together. Now. Not on our deathbeds, but now. Let us find the people we're still, year after year, unwilling to forgive. The stories that still pain us so very long after they stopped being fact and became stories. Let us gather those things into our lungs and our throats and let us breathe them out of these narrow places together: Yah. Yah. Yah.

And take a deep breath of merchav Yah - of holy expansiveness.

And let us say: Amen.

And by the way, when the day comes at last that you can't find me, I'll be on the beach with my uncle.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Attuning to Love

Drash for Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5771

I've been a bit blocked of late. Writer's block for sure. But maybe more. I turn 50 in three days and it's brought up a bit more gunk than I thought it would. More limitations. My body not working the way I want. And, of course, these are just plain hard times to begin with: the economy; the wars; the planet; the new generation of book-burners amassing their piles of Korans. So much to feel angry and helpless about. So I've been feeling blocked, and have come to feel angry and helpless about that too. Even writing a drash for tonight was killer. Last year and the year before they flowed. But not this one.

All year I'd collected thoughts, feelings, phrases. Then when it came time to write, I threw these all at the paper and none of it would stick. Or it stuck, but failed to make a pattern. I turned on myself in a fury. "Aha, beginners' luck has worn off, and now we see the truth," I said to myself, rather cruelly. "You've finally run out of things to say," I said to myself, rather disingenuously. "Everyone will see you're no rabbi," I said, while another part of my mind feebly responded, "Well, they do know that already..."

I decided to spend a day thinking and writing in the woods. It worked great last year. But this year, I sat anxiously under the indifferent redwoods, waiting for inspiration. The last straw came when I looked up out of the anonymity of nature to see a familiar face smiling and saying, "Oh Reb Irwin, I can't wait to hear your sermons this year!"

The rout was complete. I was ruined, my efforts worthless. I felt wrung out - not by my hard work (and I was working hard), but by the exhausting ordeal of self-judgment. Hineh yom hadin - as we say on these holidays: Behold the Day of Judgment.

After all, isn't that what these holidays are about? Judgment? The judgment language is everywhere in the liturgy. We are asked to look inside and take stock, in a process called cheshbon hanefesh - the accounting of the soul. It's hard and it doesn't always feel good. In fact, I had one friend tell me that she wouldn't be attending Yom Kippur at her synagogue this year because she's tired of being asked to feel bad.

Of course self-judgment makes us feel especially bad, because we're really so good at it. Maybe the concept of divine judgment is terrifying because it's another layer on top of the what we've done to ourselves. I know my failures; God knows not only those, but also the ones I'm still in denial about. Who could stand up to that kind of God-like scrutiny?

We've complained about this angst for as long as we've been a people. In Psalm 130, which we recited the other night at Selichot, we ask:

אם–עונות תשמר–יה אדני מי יעמד

"If you keep track of all our transgressions, Adonai, who can stand?" In other words, how can any of us hope to withstand God's judgment?

A more modern text raises the same question. This very Jewish text is a joke my friend Esther Schor told me this summer. It goes like this:

Moses has died and ascends to heaven. God welcomes him. "Moses, are you hungry," asks God. "I could eat," replies Moses. God picks up a can of tuna, opens it, dumps it on a plate, sticks a leaf of iceberg lettuce next to it and puts it in front of Moses. Not wanting to be impolite, Moses nibbles at it, all the while looking down over his shoulder, where he can see clear down to hell. There the people are feasting. Tables full of food like at a Bar Mitzvah. Finally Moses works up the nerve and says, "God, I don't want to seem ungrateful, but I can't help but notice that the people in hell are eating much better." "Listen, Moses," replies God, "for two I don't cook."

Both the Psalm and the joke correctly point out that saintliness is not in our nature; if there were a heaven and hell, and divine judgment determined the outcome, heaven would be empty. And if self-judgment determined the outcome, I don't imagine heaven would be any more populous.

And no wonder. We live lives that are complex. Our efforts to be our best selves are hampered by our need to make money and take care of our families and get out the door to work and a million other things. Moral questions are often gray. And sometimes we do know what's right but we just don't have time, for many good reasons, to do it. And what do we mean anyway by "our best selves?" Are we really split into bad and better selves? Isn't this "best selves" metaphor another "good me/bad me" dichotomy that's just another setup for failure?

That's why I'm going  on strike this year. I protest. I have gone through a sincere cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual inventory, during each of the last 40 or so high holy day seasons. Every year I explore my shortcomings. I try to make my peace with the world. Sometimes I even pray. And the next year the shortcomings look suspiciously similar to the ones the year before. Like going back over and over to look in the fridge. Same stuff inside. But older. And a little more pungent. So while this annual season of introspection can feel cathartic in the moment, I'm skeptical about how much it results in actual change.

So yes. I'm on strike. I say this: if cheshbon hanefesh is a true accounting, then the balance sheet must contain not only liabilities but assets too. I want to spend a little time looking at that side of the ledger. This year I want to make it my project to look for the good. In others, yes. But also in myself. Because I think just underneath or on the flipside of everything we feel bad about, there is something good, something worthy of love, something waiting for a little respect.

I will now model this, using several of my real-life shortcomings.

I feel hopeless and unhappy about the overflowing pile of undone stuff on my desk. The inbox of emails awaiting response like pets pawing at the door to be fed. The boundaries I didn't set. My difficulty saying "no." The way my family suffers for my overcommittedness.

Days of Attunement X-Ray Glasses
Some other year, I'd brood over those things, feel terrible and resolve to try harder. But this year I would like to see deeper. If only I had a pair of Days of Attunement X-Ray Glasses, I take a second look. Wait! I do have a pair! Let's see what we see.

Aha. So behind the overcommittedness there's my desire to be everything for everyone. And also there's my deep love of saying, "yes." Those aren't bad things. They get me in trouble, but they're lovely things, and they deserved to be noticed. Hey.

Let's try another one. My impatience. My seemingly ever-shortening fuse. With my Days of Attunement X-Ray glasses what do I see? Some nasty perfectionism maybe; behind that some insecurity. Behind that I see my need to prove something, to prove what I can do all by myself, and behind that - let me readjust the glasses - ah yes, the desire to be loved. Now I get it. And wait, there's something else. Oh, this one is surprising, for a rabbi-slash-singing-drag-queen. Deep down, there's part of me that's an introvert, who just wants to be able to be alone and doesn't know how to ask for that. Wanting to be loved. Needing solitude. I can honor and appreciate those parts of me, even though the way I've acted on them has obviously gotten me into hot water.

So I'm not trying to wiggle my way out of responsibility; I'm not - despite appearances - looking at myself through rose-colored glasses. I'm not letting myself off the hook for my actions or their consequences. If there is teshuvah to do in the world, I have to do it. But looking lovingly at their source, the simple, human, even beautiful source: that is new and surprising and, I think, good.

So what are these X-Ray Glasses? Here's your mnemonic. You can remember because they form a chet. They are the divine and, thankully, human attribute of chesed. Of love. Of kindness. What a nice change, looking at all I'm ashamed of through a lens of genuine love and kindness.

You don't have to do it this instant, although you're welcome to. But I'd like to invite you this year, when you're beating your chest and rattling off your list of transgressions, to find one that's really present for you, to pause with it and to look deeper behind it using your own built-in Chesed Lenses. What we all might discover is that there are parts of us that are real and are praiseworthy and are in need of attention, and which need to be taken into consideration when we act in this world. Maybe that little bit of good stuff that's in need of attention will help us change more than any great heap of self-condemnation.

The great Chasidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, commanded his followers to judge with kindness. He taught:

דע כי צריך לדון את כל אדם לכף הזכות

"Know," he said, that you must judge every person on the meritorious side of the scale, on the generous side...

ואפילו מי שהוא רשע גמור, צריך לחפש  ולמצוא בו איזה מעט טוב

and even someone who seems completely wicked to you, you must look for and find eyzeh m'at tov - some small bit of good, and by recognizing the small bit that's good, you invite the person to return in teshuvah. For Rebbe Nachman, looking for the good wasn't enough. Finding it was obligatory. In other words, he never doubted - nor should we - that it's there.

But what I propose is that m'at tov - that nugget of goodness - is not sitting alongside our faults. It is part of them. It breathes through them. And the m'at tov is also what makes us care about how we're doing in our lives to begin with.

Rebbe Nachman believed this m'at tov to be utterly transformative. His prooftext (they always use prooftexts) is in Psalm 37:

ועד מעט ואין רשע והתובוננת על–מקומו ואיננו

"Just a little bit and there will be no wicked one; you will look at his place and he will not be there." The traditional reading is that in just a little bit - i.e. very soon - the wicked will be wiped off the face of the earth. But the Rebbe's ingenious reading is utterly different. Find the little bit of good in someone and the next time you look, you will not see a wicked person at all. Just a little bit and there will be no wicked one; you will look at his place and he will not be there. Is this advice any less true when looking at ourselves?

And so may we, on the brink of the new year, during the hard and pressured times that we all experience, do this for each other and for ourselves. When we look inside, let us not stop with the faults. Let us mine deeper for the praiseworthy piece that set it all in motion. The m'at tov - the bit of good that flows even through our failures. And by acknowledging that praiseworthy piece, that m'at tov, may we send it on a better course to its happy fulfillment. May that be our method of change. So that when we look back to the place where we saw, and scolded, our wicked selves, our wicked selves will no longer be there.

I wish all of you a good year, a better year, a year of compassion, a year of attunement to the good in others and in ourselves.

Rosh Hashanah Welcome: Through the Wall

Chag sameach. Gut yontiff. Welcome.

I want to congratulate you for showing up tonight, for whatever reason you did: because this is your lifelong custom or because it's a new engagement; because it moves you; because you're curious; or because you love someone who wanted to be here. These are all fine reasons. So mazeltov.

I know for many of us the transition into synagogue ritual can be difficult. There are many things about our tradition that are hard to buy into. I recently had the opportunity to pray in a community that was politically progressive but ritually conservative. They used an Orthodox prayerbook, and it was my first time using one in a long time. The entire service was in Hebrew. I know for many of you that would prove an obstacle. My problem was different. I understood all the Hebrew. And the content of what I was reading proved to be the great obstacle. So many things I couldn't buy into: severely gendered imagery, God-as-king, angry-God, judging God. I began to see the words, the Hebrew typeface we call block print, as actual bricks, walling me off and keeping me out. I felt myself fuming. I felt tears welling up.

But as I stared at this wall, my mind wandered to the Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. Next door neighbors, lovers from feuding families. A chink in the wall was how they saw and heard each other, and how they carried on their love affair. The image suddenly allowed me to imagine a chink in the wall of liturgy, to see the space between our inherited words. Through this opening I saw, smiling at me, I don't know what: maybe our tradition, maybe the cosmos, maybe God. But something in the experience smiled back at me like a lover. I chuckled at the secret of our love affair, and felt my tense body relax. As I did, the opening grew and became a great gate and swung open for me at last. Pitchu li sha'arei tzedek as we will sing repeatedly over this holiday. "Open for me, ye gates."

So I invite you to find your own gate this holiday. The one that opens for you, to whatever mystery lies behind it. If your gate is music, may it open for you. If your gate is tradition, may it open for you. If your gate involves ignoring all the words and reflecting quietly or walking outside under the stars, may it open for you. If your gate involves God, may it open for you. If your gate involves replacing the word God with Universe, Being, Existence, Non-existence or Mystery every time it comes up in the book or issues from my mouth, may that gate open for you as well.

I ask your forgiveness in advance if this service turns out not to be exactly what you had wanted. But, as the sages famously said, "You can't always get what you want. No, you can't always get what you want. No, you can't always get what you want."

But if you try to find your own gate, you might just find you get what you need.

It is Rosh Hashanh. A time for turning - turning the calendar, turning a page, maybe turning over a new leaf, turning around, turning back. I am glad we are here together at this moment of turning, looking behind, looking ahead, looking inside.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Ki Tetzei - Consolation for the Desolate

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, August 20, 2010.]

I've begun to feel a little desolate of late. First there was the usual stuff. Too much to do. So many responsibilities. So many people to answer to. And money worries. And anxiety about High Holy Days that need to come to life and soar but are still imprisoned in spreadsheets and notebook paper. Then came the unusual stuff. The end of my 40s looming days away. Loved ones experiencing illness or accident, ultimately harmless to the body but unnerving to the spirit. And then the news of three deaths among my friends, two in the last week. Not close friends. More friends of friends. Better than Facebook friends. Not people I would have called up for dinner or a movie. But people who, had I bumped into them on the street, would have merited a good, long chat.

Like all queers of my age, I lost countless friends back in the 80s and early 90s. The best minds of my generation, as Ginsberg might have said. But then the reprieve set in and lulled some of us into a blessed and well-deserved forgetfulness. And now, it seems, is the time for waking up. Because I've now reached the age where the normal bell curve is beginning - the first of my peers dying at disappointing but not quite tragic ages, victims of long Latin names that translate loosely to "natural causes."

So it was with that mood of underlying malaise that I approached this week's Torah morsel, Ki Tetzei. A compendium of laws, many concerning marital conduct, a couple about our stewardship of nature. It was not speaking to me. For every sweet and problematic mitzvah about protecting a mother bird when taking her eggs from the nest, there were ten problematic ones lacking sweetness and I, well, I was in no mood.

I was looking, it seems, for some comfort and it was not there. But, my eyes wandered across the page of chumash to the haftarah portion that keeps Ki Tetzei company. It is from the book of Isaiah, and it opens:

רני עקרה
Roni 'akarah. Sing out, O Barren one.

A hymn of comfort, or supposed comfort, to the City of Jerusalem, after it's been laid waste and its inhabitants killed or marched off to Babylonian captivity.

Isaiah, or someone writing in Isaiah's name, elects to describe the aftermath of this public horror using one of the most popular and painful metaphors of biblical literature - "barrenness."

A popular metaphor because it works. It is an image of ultimate pain, a pain some in our community, some in this room, have experienced firsthand. And even those of us who have not experienced it connect instantly with the ringing pain of wanting and not having children, or with the psychic howl of having children and losing them. We may not actually know what that's like, but the terror of it is great enough to stand in for actual empathy. How much more effective a metaphor in the Biblical world, where self-actualization comes only through progeny, and where the payout of the whole deal with God is that we should be numerous as the stars in the heavens and the sands by the sea?

But it is a painful metaphor, too, because it misleads. The childless in the Bible, unlike in real life, never remain that way. They despair, but are then promised (and in fact get) children. Over and over. Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah. Childlessness in Torah is not a real-life condition but a narrative ploy that sets the stage for some miracle birth -- an unlikely child who goes on to overcome obstacles (such as getting born in the first place) and perform heroic deeds. But in real life, we don't experience that kind of reversal. And the Bible stories nearly taunt us with their heartless happy endings.

So the metaphor works for everyone except, maybe, those who have actually had that experience. It is always tricky when your very personal, very human life becomes someone else's great metaphor. What is left for you then? My very personal relationship with my partner has come to symbolize a threat to families I don't even know, and its validity voted on by the public in pretty much those terms. Or my loved ones who are intersexed, whose naturally atypical bodies become fodder for theories of gender fluidity, but who would simply prefer not to be gawked at or operated on by doctors. Sometimes we'd rather our lives not be symbolic of anything for anyone. Can't a cigar sometimes just be a cigar? Leave me my unique personhood. Don't use my body, my love, my life, my losses, even in your prettiest poetry or your cleverest theory.

So here in Isaiah, the akarah, the barren woman, is once again, alas, a literary trope, not only representing a certain kind of communal pain, but making way once again for a prophecy of reversal. "Roni akarah. Sing out, barren one, burst into song, for your children will be numerous." A standard prophecy that, in fact, proves true. The Jewish people do survive the exile and return from captivity and grow and spread across the world, even unto Cotati, California.

So it's a fine prophecy. But as words of comfort go, "sing out for your children will be numerous" totally sucks. Why tell anyone experiencing grief that things will turn around for them? It may be true, but we don't know it at the time and it can't be promised. They are empty words, far more soothing to the speaker than the recipient.

But, then, just when a seeker of comfort is ready to give up on him, Isaiah delivers what might be some of the best words of comfort our tradition has to offer. A beautiful bit of consolation and advice, more measured and remarkably real, something that works as a great metaphor and as personal consolation. It goes like this:

הרחיבי מקום אהלך ויריעות משכנותיך יטו אל תחשכי
האריכי מיתריך ויתדתיך חזקי

Broaden the place of your tent and stretch out the curtains of your dwellings, stint not.
Lengthen your cords and strengthen your pegs.

Some of you know the opening phrase, harchivi m'kom oholech, "broaden the place of your tent," as a Shefa Gold chant. Isaiah here is ostensibly readying Jerusalem for the future return of the exiles and the promise of new generations. Expand your tent, because you'll need the room.

But this advice, these words of consolation, work as well without a promise of literal reversal. How do we experience loss, especially profound loss or communal loss and not become smaller, narrower, more closed down? Isn't that ultimately the challenge of our grief? How do we not wither from it?

Isaiah says don't shrink. Expand. Spread your tent to catch the wind. Don't tighten your tent cords -- lengthen them! Almost an instruction for hang-gliding. But the advice here is not "catch the wind and fly." It is not "time to move on." Because the last element of this advice is to strengthen the tent pegs. "I know you feel uprooted, like a wanderer in a tent. But dig in. Root deeper. Hold fast." Or as Bette Davis might say, "Fasten your seatbelt. It's going to be a bumpy night."

Hold fast and expand. That's the way to survive. Not the only way. But the best way. Become bigger. Hold the full magnitude of your loss and make room for something else too.

Let your personal tragedies expand your heart rather than narrow it. Let our communal tragedies expand our hearts rather than narrow them. This is not easy, it might not be natural. Expanding makes you more vulnerable. But it gives you air to breathe. It lets new problems feel small.

I cannot help but feel that those whose grief at the tragedy of 9/11 moves them to deny people of conscience the opportunity to pray and do the work of their hearts freely have been shrunk by their terrible experience. That we failed as a nation to expand the place of our tents.

Isaiah's words of comfort do work for me. An invitation not to shut down, or not to shut down forever. I take comfort and try to expand with my losses. I have now reached an age where, if I live long enough, my peers will disappear with increasing frequency. My challenge is to make space to hold that truth. To hold these people in my heart. And to keep my tent large enough and loose enough and rooted enough to contain all the joy and all the pain that is still to come.

Harchivi m'kom oholech. Expand the place of your tent.

And let us say: Amen.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Waiting for the Carob to Bloom

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, Summer 2010.]

There's a Talmudic parable about the carob tree. According to the rabbis (who were clearly not botanists), it takes seventy years for a carob to flower. When asked then why he was planting a carob tree when he'd never live to see its fruit, the farmer in the story says that he enjoys the fruit of a carob tree planted for him by his grandfather; similarly he is planting a carob for his grandchildren.

Planting a carob is not one of those highly touted "random acts of kindness." It's rather a deferred one - a blessing that will blossom only later, with no benefit accruing to yourself.

So what are the carob trees that were planted for us? The ocean voyages of long-gone grandparents looking for a better life, if not for themselves, then for those who would come after? The love of learning implanted in our psyches 70 generations back? The desire for community felt by Jews of central Sonoma County twenty-five years ago, many of whom are no longer part of this congregation or this county but whose imprints we still feel? Or the clubhouse built by the dedicated women of the Cotati Ladies' Improvement Club, none of whom we knew and none of whom could have foreseen that this home built to house their vision of a better world would someday nourish this holy community?

And what are the carob trees that we are planting now for our future generations? When we make decisions for our children, are we remembering to think of the future adults they will be and what they will pass on to their children? When we make decisions for our synagogue and our community, are they just about this year's programs and improvements, or are we also setting the stage for future waves that we might never know? When we think about our relationship with the Earth, do we keep in mind our posterity (if not our biological grandchildren, then our spiritual heirs, once or twice removed)?

I always try to notice the carob trees that feed me and shade me. The seeds planted in my youth by parents, teachers, great- grandparents and my groovy lakefront aunties. Some of those seeds have, thanks to this community, had a chance at last to bear some fruit, chewy and unripe though it still might be. I'm grateful for those who planted the seeds without knowing the outcome. And I will try to follow in their footsteps, planting my carob, sowing seeds without certainty, but with certain hope.

And as we begin to move toward the High Holy Day season I leave you to ask yourself: "what are the seeds I am planting?"

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Parashat Chukat: Talking to the Rock

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, June 18, 2010]

We’ll start with a quick confession. I talk to trees. I talk to plants. Every day on my way up and down the mountain I certainly greet the cows with a “ladies.” I talk to the cats, but that’s not considered odd. I talk to the goats next door but no one sees me. I might talk to the clouds from time to time, or to a particularly breathtaking landscape. Any object of wonder that takes me by surprise gets a “well, hello there.”

This week we read Parashat Chukat, in which Moses and Aaron are instructed to speak to a rock, and they fail.

But that’s not the first thing to happen in the parashah. We start instead by learning about the ritual of the red heifer – a rite of purification after contact with a dead body.

From there we go on to experience a most painful death. Miriam dies in the wilderness. This is now near the end of the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert. She was no longer a young woman. But her death stings and her absence is immediately felt. In the very next verse the people are thirsty. Quenching thirst was, as you recall, Miriam’s special talent. As Rabbi Shefa Gold says in her Torah Journeys book, “Miriam had a way with water.” There was a magical well that would follow her like a familiar and open at her command or at her request. The mouth of this mysterious well was created on the eve of the seventh day of creation for the sole purpose of slaking the thirst of the Israelites many generations or maybe eons later, or so goes the midrash. Whether there was a magic well, or whether she had a sharp divining skill, or whether Miriam satisfied a kind of spiritual thirst that the people mistook for physical, we don’t know. But when she dies, the people are immediately parched.

The people, in their desperate thirst, rise up against Moses and Aaron, once again asking why they were taken out of Egypt to die in a barren wilderness, the same complaint that has dogged Moses’ footsteps since the Red Sea closed behind them, barring the way to second thoughts. Moses and Aaron go to the tent of meeting and fall on their faces. God makes Gods presence known and tells them to go speak to a stone – an enormous, fixed boulder, a cliff, in full view of the people – and it would give them water.

Moses takes his staff and assembles the people. “Listen up, you rebels,” came Moses’ challenge, “shall we draw water out of the rock for you?” And he strikes the stone, not once, but twice, until water gushes forth, a mighty flow capable of sating all the people.

The next thing that happens surprises us. God is angered at Moses and Aaron. Lo-he’emantem bi l’haqdisheni l’eyney B’nei Yisrael. “You did not believe in Me,” God says, “enough to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Israelites.” You did not believe in Me. God announces a punishment: Moses and Aaron will not lead the people to the Promised Land but will, like the rest of their generation, die in the wilderness.

What was the source of God’s anger? Wasn’t the end result what God wanted – that the people should drink? Rashi says it is because of Moses’ words to the people. Ramban says it is because he struck the stone.

The Chasidic master, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, says that those two views are not different views at all, since Moses’ speech to the people led inexorably to Moses’ striking the rock. According to Reb Levi Yitzchak, the world was created for the People of Israel. And when the People of Israel become mindful of their connection to the divine, become re-aware that their life force comes from the holy throne, then nature will provide for them of its own accord.

The idea that Creation came into being for our benefit is a central belief in the Chasidic world. Of course we see the world differently. Not created for the People of Israel. Not created for People at all. Still, we are the centers of our own existence, and we insist on living. So we struggle to find a balance between hubris and humility; between asserting our right to survive on the planet and the caution to mind our place. (We are reminded of the insight of the Chasidic rabbi Simcha Bunam, who said everyone should have a piece of paper in his right pocket saying, “For my sake the world was created” and a piece of paper in his left pocket saying, “I am but dust and ashes.”)

Levi Yitzchak describes two kinds of leadership in his analysis of the punishment God places on Moses and Aaron. Someone who is worthy of leadership will appeal to people’s highest selves. Such a leader will remind those she leads of their loftiness of spirit and the source of their lives in the divine. Her leadership will raise the people’s sights and the level of their actions. It will, in turn, inspire Creation itself to do what it was meant to do – to provide for us – of its own accord.

But when one leads with words of harshness or with shaming, one’s intended followers are not inspired, nor is Creation. The subjects of such a leader must be coerced. And so must nature itself.

For this reason, once Moses spoke harshly and shamingly to the people, his striking of the stone was inevitable, because the stone would not be moved to give. But God didn’t tell Moses to speak to the people or to strike the stone. God told Moses to speak to the stone. Had Moses said to it, "for this you were created, to give water to a parched people in a time of need, a holy people whose source is the same as yours," the stone would have gushed water in a great fountain. But Moses bypassed this opportunity, and the stone gave only because it was coerced.

And so perhaps God’s anger was not that Moshe had disobeyed an order, but because the whole event was meant to be theatre – a demonstration to the people that everything comes from God’s power. That speaking and listening to all of Creation will result in your receiving what you need. (As the other kind of stones, the rolling kind, might have said: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you talk to the rock, you’re gonna find you’ll get what you need.”)

But Moses messed up the theatre. He instead taught that nature may be compelled, bent to our will. And that remains how our culture views the world around us. If you strike the rock hard enough or drill it deep enough, something will gush forth, even if it’s not what or when or how you wanted it.

So perhaps there is a lesson here about who we are in the world and how we might relate to Creation around us. But I think there is something else here also, something hinted at by the fact that the story immediately follows the description of the purification ritual after a death. There is something here about grief and about the return to the flow of life.

The Children of Israel in the story were thirsty not only from the dryness of the desert, but from the loss of their prophet Miriam and all she had come to mean to them. And Moses and Aaron, burdened with leadership, are also in a state of deep grief that may have undermined their natural leadership instincts and destabilized their sense of their place in Creation. Doesn’t grief do that?

Deeply afflicted, having lost in Miriam a prophet, a counselor and a sister, Moses and Aaron were quick to anger. They acted out. I understand this. I remember once, eight months after my father’s death, bursting into anger uncontrollably over some trifle, or maybe not a trifle, I can’t even remember what it was. Anger until I was crying. My grief had destabilized me.

Or maybe it wasn’t exactly blind anger that Moses and Aaron were driven to. Maybe they felt powerless in the wake of Miriam’s loss. Their words: “Listen, rebels, shall we draw water from the rock?” is ambiguous. The word “rebels” is spelled in Biblical Hebrew identically to the name “Miriam.” By re-voweling it, the sentence could just as easily mean, “Listen, are we Miriam that we can draw water from the rock?” They feel their inability. They feel it so deeply that they don’t even recognize that God’s instruction, “talk to the rock” might specifically be a revelation of Miriam's method for drawing water!*

Either way, they are obviously hobbled by grief. So shouldn’t we – shouldn’t God – cut Moses and Aaron some slack?

Maybe not, if the point of the whole exercise was to teach something about responding to grief and loss. After all, God could have had already had the tap running when the Children of Israel arrived. The unnoticed miracle of pre-running water! But instead, the scene is set so that some sort of demonstration has to happen. But instead of a demonstration about water, it is a lesson about grief.

Because grief is a rock. And grief is a deep thirst.

When we grieve, we are dry as stone, heavy, immobile. Maybe God’s intended lesson here was that you can’t overcome grief by hacking at it, by coercing it, by overpowering it. All we can do is talk to it. Hello grief, I know you come from the same holy source as life itself. You are the flipside of my joys. When I look at you, my grief, I see myself. I see who I have become, who I wanted to be, and maybe who I may yet become.

You talk to grief. And then you wait, in a slow plodding of time that feels truly geological. Until the water begins to trickle – when even a trickle had been inconceivable – and then flow and then gush. Your grief was created for you. To hold your sadness and your longing, to mirror your love, and ultimately to become a source of holiness, a source of sweetness to rival even the salt of your tears.

May we all learn to speak to the stone. To speak to nature around us. And speak to our own natures. May we trust that speech. So that all of Creation – every rock, tree, creature and every one of us – may spout forth with holiness.

* I am indebted to Ari Kamiti for this breathtaking and compassionate insight.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Shlach Lecha: On Grasshoppers, Giants & Flotillas

[Drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, June 4, 2010.]

I was in Boston early this week for a Bar Mitzvah – the son of my oldest, dearest friend. It was a Monday morning event (which can happen in communities where Torah is read also on weekdays).

I was somewhat of an honored guest it seemed, so they asked me to participate in the service. Being nothing like shy, I of course said yes, offering to sing or improvise something – the kind of thing I would normally do here in our community. But the night before the Bar Mitzvah, my friends told me that they’d slated me in the program to read the Prayer for the State of Israel. It was already in print.

I took a deep breath and thanked them for the honor. Now if I were being asked to create a prayer for the State of Israel, this would have been an easy request. Israel is always in my prayers. But I was being asked to read the words in the Conservative siddur, which step slightly beyond a plea for safety, survival and peace:

Chazek et y’dey m’giney eretz kodshenu
va’ateret nitzachon t’atrem…

“Strengthen the hands of the defenders of our Holy Land and crown them in victory.” Of course, I could understand nitzachon, “victory,” in metaphoric terms, but the prayer doesn't seem to. Victory here is an unqualified absolute, giving the prayer an undeniable military flavor that does not easily roll off my tongue. Nonetheless, this was my assignment in a ritual not of my making.

Monday morning I woke up to dress for the Bar Mitzvah and learned that during the night Israeli soldiers had boarded a ship headed for Gaza, in international waters. A peace convoy, some would say. A provocation, others would say. Predictably, it had all gone terribly, terribly wrong, leaving nine civilian activists known dead and Israel once again as the focus of the world’s scrutiny.

I tried to collect myself. I was filled with sadness and anger and a feeling of betrayal. How can the Israel that I love – and I do love it even when I am outraged by its actions – let this happen? My anger is understandable to most of you in this room; we are generally progressives in this community, and often critical of Israeli policy. But the internet war had already begun. YouTube videos of uninterpretable scenes were being posted, and emails started arriving in my inbox telling me to wait for all the evidence to be in (which was reasonable) and urging me to defend Israel against those who would slander it – and that “slanderer” part felt, as it always does at such moments, aimed at me.

I tore myself from the news and, heavy hearted, went to the Bar Mitzvah. I sat down in shul and listened to my friend’s son’s fluent chanting of this week’s parashah, Shlach Lecha.

In Shlach Lecha the Israelites are preparing for the conquest of what will become the Land of Israel. God tells Moshe to send margalim – “scouts” - one from each tribe, up into the land to determine if its inhabitants are strong or weak, good or bad, if the cities are open or fortified, if the soil is rich or poor.

The margalim return, famously reporting that the land is flowing with milk and honey. Two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, are confident about their military prospects. Caleb, says, “Let us go up and gain possession of the land, for surely we can overcome it.” But the other scouts dissent. “We cannot attack, for the people are stronger than we. The country devours its settlers. The people are giants – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so must we have looked to them.”

These words spread through the camp and the Israelites lose their nerve. They beg to be brought back to Egypt. God is angered and punishes the people by declaring that the older generation would die in the wilderness. Of all the people assembled, only Caleb and Joshua, with their great confidence in the strength of Israel would be allowed to enter the land.

I sat and listened to the parashah, thinking how we, all these years later, have possession of that very same real estate. So which are we now, I wondered, grasshoppers or giants?

It seemed to me that as possessors and not the dispossessed, it would be easy to cast us in the role of giants. Certainly much of the world paints Israel that way. But I’m beginning to think that after two thousand years of relentless conditioning, however we might be perceived by others, we still don’t know how not to be grasshoppers.

To a grasshopper, every encounter with the greater world involves the risk of being crushed underfoot. And hasn’t this been the Jewish experience over the last two and a half millennia? The risk of annihilation at every turn? We tell our tales of exile and pogroms and close escapes and failed escapes. We pray for peace; we pray to God to confound the counsels of those who would do us harm.

But nothing in our tradition has taught us how to hold power. How to be giants. Instead, we’re left to be giants who think like grasshoppers, or grasshoppers who have grown to gigantic proportions. And it is that constant, deep fear of being crushed underfoot that has informed and, arguably, poisoned so much of our policy in Israel.

I should footnote here that I say “our policy,” not “their policy.” I think it’s important both to say and to let ourselves actually feel the “we.” It is important that even when we oppose Israeli governmental policy – especially when we oppose Israeli governmental policy – we reaffirm our connection as Jews. It is what makes our voice of opposition powerful and meaningful; it is also how we support Israelis who are working for peace. Our inclusion is what we were promised by the Zionist dream when we were young. We were promised that this would be a joint venture. We should not now cede that promise only to those who agree with Israeli military actions. In other words, more than I want to disown Netanyahu, I want Netanyahu to be stuck with the likes of us.

I also need to offer the obvious but very real disclaimers. I do not live in Israel, although I have in the past and many of my loved ones do now. I’ve never had to fear suicide bombers on a daily basis and I’ve not experienced the relief of knowing that a wall currently stands between me and that particular danger. I’ve never had to dodge the bullets; nor have I been required to fire them. I am not a politician or an expert. I cannot speak from the depth of Israeli experience. But that doesn’t mean I have nothing to say.

I also don’t know what happened on that ship. Time will (or won’t) tell who did what to whom first. But I do know that it was a no-win situation, as long as we were in a position where a humanitarian action against us was necessary. Yes, the flotilla was at least as much or more a public relations mission as it was an aid mission, as some people hasten to point out. But so what? Sit-ins at lunch counters in the 1960s south were public relations stunts also. That is how public opinion is swayed, it is how one appeals to the hearts and consciences of the world.

Using deadly force against a public relations mission is the sign, to me, of government by grasshopper. To Israel this flotilla looked like another shoe about to crush us. Everything looks like a shoe about to crush us. Give a grasshopper a gun, and what will it do? It will shoot. If not today, then tomorrow.

A giant, on the other hand, well, giants are perhaps underestimated. A giant who understands and trusts its own power can afford a far greater range of responses to seeming threats. The use of force would only be one possible response among many.

In an Op Ed column on Tuesday, Israeli author and peace activist Amos Oz wrote, “[D]uring Israel’s early years, prime ministers like David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol knew very well that force has its limits and were careful to use it only as a last resort. But ever since the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel has been fixated on military force. To a man with a big hammer, says the proverb, every problem looks like a nail.”

Defenders of Israel’s actions this week point to the rise of Hamas in Gaza. This is true and I do not suggest that Hamas is not a danger. But we are also smart enough to know that those whom you besiege do not become your friends. When you starve a people you cultivate a population with nothing to lose. On the other hand, in a prosperous, flourishing Palestine, how sexy would Hamas actually be?

Defenders of Israel’s actions also point to the fact that Gaza has two borders – one with Israel and one with Egypt. And Egypt was not opening its border either. In other words, it is unfair to hold Israel to a higher standard than other nations. Perhaps that’s right. The world does not have the right to hold Israel to a higher standard. But we do. Jews do. We are not accountable for Egypt. But for Israel we are. Again, it’s part of the agreement.

So I seem to be mostly talking about our right, as Jews, as people who want Israel to survive, to dissent. Because that no longer feels obvious. But I’d intended to talk about grasshoppers.

And so, young grasshoppers, courage is required. Not the courage to use force. But the courage not to. The courage to dream up other paths and to actually risk taking them. The courage to engage in peacemaking – real, non-grudging peacemaking – and earn back the world’s trust. The courage to help our neighbors and former enemies prosper. Maybe we can’t put down the guns entirely at this moment. But surely we can move our fingers off the triggers, even if just a little.

It will take more courage not to use force than it does to use it. It will take greatness. And I still believe we are capable of greatness; of the greatness of giants. We are already giants in military might. Let us soon be giants in wisdom and compassion and vision and patience.

You may wonder what I did about reciting the prayer for the State of Israel on Monday. I thought of some language I could add, like I might naturally do here at Ner Shalom. I was asked to deliver it in Hebrew so I thought, well, who will notice? I got up on the bimah and began the prayer. But this was a community where everyone prays in Hebrew. With my first word they joined me and recited with me, every word. I was walked down the path of this text, accompanied on all sides, with no chance for a detour. Which is exactly how it should have been at that moment.

But now I’d like to return the Prayer for the State of Israel, not how it was written in that siddur but how I wish it were written.

Avinu Shebashamayim,
Rock and Redeemer of the People Israel; 
Bless the State of Israel. 
Enrich it with Your love;
spread over it the shelter of Your peace. 
Guide its leaders and advisors
with Your light and Your truth. 
Help them with Your good counsel. 
Strengthen our hearts and hands,
so that we may not be devoured by the land; 
so that we may not be devoured by fear. 
Crown us with courage
so that we may be giants of wisdom and compassion. 
Bless us with vision, so that through us
and all who are touched by your spirit, 
there may be lasting peace and joy in the land
and throughout the world. 
And let us say: Amen.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Behar-Bechukotai: Of Oil Spills and Old Covenants

[Drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, May 7, 2010.]

This Shabbat, it seems, is meant to be a Shabbat all about the Earth. We have a confluence of several factors that make me say that. First we have a double Torah portion this week - Behar and Bechukotai, both having to do with our responsibilities toward the Earth. The second item is that Sunday is Mother's Day, and don't we always say the Earth is our mother? And the third, well, I'll tell you about the third item later.
First, the Torah portions. These are the last two of the book of Leviticus. Behar lays out the rules of the shmitah year, the seventh year in which the fields must be left fallow. The text says:
The land must be given a rest period, a sabbath to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths - shabbat shabbaton - for the land.
The land deserves a rest. This is remarkable. In the same way that we are granted the holiness of Shabbat every seventh day, the Earth is entitled to take its own sweet Shabbat every seventh year.
While modern commentators have made hay, as it were, of the view that leaving fields fallow is simply sound agricultural practice, nowhere does Torah say that this is the reason for the shmitah year. Instead, it is simply shabbat for the land. It is for the land's sake, not for ours. It is a year in which we may not exert mastery over it. And we, as a by-product, are forced to live a different kind of life. Less ambitious, slower perhaps, a year of some uncertainty, a year without extravagance. A pre-agricultural year, like in the days of Eden. A year where Earth is our companion, not our servant. A year in which we are reminded that the earth deserves -- well, the Earth simply deserves.
It's appealing to me that this portion falls on the eve of Mother's Day. Just a nice little modern coincidence, since we so enjoy articulating the metaphor of Earth as Mother. "Earth as mother" is, of course, an old metaphor, both widespread and apt. Gaia gave birth to us and we owe her the honor we owe our mothers.
Kabed it avicha v'et imecha -- "honor your father and your mother," says the Ten Commandments. "Love your Mother," says the bumper sticker.
But I wonder sometimes if the mother-child metaphor is problematic also. We are, after all, not a species that does so well with the mother-honoring business. Maybe if we were another kind of creature - say, the Pando tree of Utah - 47,000 aspen stems flourishing in seeming independence above ground, but growing from one root stock as one enormous and continuous organism.  But no. Instead we belong to a species where children are born of their mothers, are nurtured by them, but then, if we're successful, are compelled to individuate. Differentiating from our parents is our genetic and cultural imperative. In fact we spend much of our adolescence pushing mom away, and sometimes spend the rest of our lives going around and around that internal conflict. No wonder Torah has to command us to honor our parents. If it came naturally, who'd need a commandment?
Maybe this flawed mother-child metaphor in fact describes our relationship with the Earth accurately. She gave us life and yet we feel compelled to push her away. We differentiate. Like eye-rolling teenagers, we don't see the Earth as our mother, but merely as our address.
All of this bubbles up for me this week as we witness the devastation that has been unleashed on the Gulf Coast and take stock of the newest batch of creatures and habitats that we've handed over to oblivion. How could this happen? Certainly not for lack of knowledge of the risks of offshore drilling or any of the other aggressive environment-changing activities carried on in our name.
Perhaps the answer is connected with the third element of our confluence of factors this weekend. This coming Monday, the 27th of Iyar, is the date Torah gives for when Noah and his family and all the animals were finally able to leave the ark. And on that day, God made a brit - a covenant that never again would God destroy all life because of the evil acts of humans. And the rainbow appears as God's signature on the dotted line.
But despite God's promise, aren't we moving toward destruction?Aren't we slowly (or not so slowly) creating a desolation in which, using the language of Bechukotai, the second of this week's twin portions, the skies will be like iron and the land like brass? How can this be happening?
There is a clue, I think, in midrash surrounding the Noah story. Something about human nature. I was visiting a cousin this week who asked me a kind of fun-fact Bible question. He asked me why the people didn't believe Noah when he told them that it would rain until they were destroyed by flood. (After all, according to our sages, Noah took 120 years to build the ark, giving the people around him plenty of time to repent. But they scoffed at him.) My cousin answered the question, saying it was because they had never seen rain, since rain isn't mentioned in Torah before this point. And so they had no reason to believe a cockamamie story about water falling from the sky. This is a revealing insight. We don't believe in danger that we haven't personally experienced.  
We don't even need such an extreme reading of the Noah story to answer to my cousin's riddle. Perhaps they in fact knew rain as well as any of us does; they'd seen it all their lives. But they'd never seen rain kill. And so, once again, they had no reason to believe a dire warning that lay outside of their experience. And when the great rain started, it was undoubtedly just a drizzle.
Like the old chestnut about boiling the frog. If the water heats up slowly enough, the popular wisdom (although perhaps not the science) goes, the frog doesn't react to the change of temperature and doesn't act to save itself. And so with offshore drilling. So with climate change. We know a tremendous amount, both collectively and individually, about the changes taking place in the environment and the dangers they pose. But we, as a culture, don't react. It is gradual - too gradual to kick our adrenaline into gear. If it hasn't killed us yet, why suppose it will? When will we feel instinctively that we must act? And by that time, will we already be poached frog?
My teacher Rabbi David Seidenberg pointed out this week that although God promised not to destroy all life, God never said that we couldn't.
Our willingness to let life on Earth unravel is a function of disbelief; a function of the nearly imperceptible pace of climate change; a function of the brevity of our own lives; a function of our ardent and adolescent differentiation from Earth our Mother; and a function of our stubborn, lurking and unfounded belief that there is, somewhere out there, a God who will step in, father-like, and save us from ourselves.
I'm aware that I'm preaching to the choir. But maybe not, because if there is a choir, I'm not in it. I know all these things. I read newspapers. I care. But I don't really do. I have only been affected intellectually. Global warming has not touched my experience. If the price of Gulf of Mexico oysters goes up this year, I can tell you with certainty I will not notice. In the meantime, I have chosen to live in a location where there is no option of public transportation or bicycle transit. I've eliminated many of my own best ways to reduce my carbon footprint. So how do I change? Is there a Jewish understanding we can use to help us step up?
Perhaps there is something in our understanding of God and how God acts in this world. Here, in what the Kabbalists would call Malchut - the kingdom, the majesty, the physical reality in which we live and the only world we can ever really know, God acts, if God acts at all, through us. In Reconstructionist lingo we talk about locating God in our shared impulse to do justice. When we act out of our best impulses, there is God.
But we neglect to mention the flipside. What of our combined worst impulses? Greed, apathy, willing ignorance, closing our eyes to injustice. Alas, God is there too. Not the God who comforts and provides, but the angry God of Bechukotai  - the one promising environmental desolation in exchange for our misdeeds. Or the angry God of the Noah story, willing to let human faults justify the destruction of all life.
This is a terrifying thought to me. That we, through our actions, bring about that angry, biblical God, that one that as modern Jews we try so hard to distance ourselves from. It's hard to accept the amount of destructive power we actually wield. To misquote Walt Kelly in his Pogo comic strip written for Earth Day 39 years ago, "We have met the vengeful God, and He is us."
But owning our godliness in this respect also gives me hope. If by our actions we are God - for good and for ill - then we are the ones bound by the brit, bound by the covenant of the rainbow made after the flood. We signed onto an oath, not as the human parties, but as God's proxy. And so there is no loophole for us. No way to say "not me, not us." We have made a covenant with all life: "every living soul - the birds, the cattle and every beast of the earth." And so we are oath-bound to protect the air and the water, to protest exploitation of limited resources, to sing out for sustainability, to rethink, to remediate, to live more simply.
We do not have a choice. We are oath-bound, covenant-bound to do this. We do not do it [merely] out of mother love, honor, or self-interest. We do it out of deep, uncompromising obligation.
And so whenever we have a decision to make that has an impact on this Earth, in our lives or our work or our community institutions, whenever we are deciding whether to speak out on an environmental issue or not, let us stop, take a deep breath, and say the traditional blessing that is recited upon seeing a rainbow:
ברוך אתה יי זוכר הברית
Baruch Atah Yah, zocher habrit.
Blessed are You, Yah, who remembers the Covenant.
And blessed may We be, that we may remember the Covenant.
And blessed will all Existence be when the Covenant is kept.

ברוך אתה יי זוכר הברית
Baruch Atah Yah, zocher habrit.