Saturday, June 18, 2011

"Rachav, Rachav" - Prostitute, Proselyte, Prophet

For Congregation Ner Shalom - 
June 17, 2011

Rahab and the Spies by Marc Chagall
So there I was thinking about what to talk about this week. Our Torah portion is Shlach Lecha, in which the Israelites send a dozen spies into the Promised Land, 83.3% of whom come to believe that the Canaanites are too mighty for them to conquer; that they are as giants to the Israelites' grasshoppers.

Last year I talked about this whole grasshopper thing in connection with the Israeli attack on a flotilla of activists heading to Gaza. Then last Sunday I again drashed this grasshopper story for the Sonoma Pride Interfaith Service, connecting it to the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ rights.

I have gotten so much mileage out of these grasshoppers! And looking toward tonight, I couldn't bear to exploit the little critters yet again. Let them have shabbat off to do whatever grasshoppers do on shabbat, without the heavy burden of symbolism.

So I needed a fresh view. And, well, that's what haftarah is for. So I took a peek at this week's reading: Chapter 2 of the Book of Joshua.

And that's where I first saw her. Our eyes met across the ages and the pages. And I fell in love. Rachav: the prostitute, the proselyte, the prophet.

How had we never met? I'm sure I've heard or seen her name somewhere, but I'd never gotten around to reading her story. And it is a good one. Almost cinematic in its physical intrigue - men hidden on rooftops and climbing out of windows on ropes. I will tell you the whole story and at least try to draw some meaning from it.

It takes place 40 years after this week's Torah portion. The Children of Israel have wandered for four decades in the Wilderness. The slave generation, with just a couple exceptions, has died off. Moses is gone too, succeeded now by Joshua ben Nun, who talks with God with some frequency and who, like his predecessor, can also engineer a parting of the waters when necessary, albeit with the less daunting flow of the Jordan.

The Children of Israel are ready to cross over the river and take the Promised Land. Once again, spies are dispatched — only two of them this time, sent to scout out the City of Jericho. And they come first thing to the house of a zonah, a prostitute, named Rachav, and they "lodge" there, say the translations, although more literally vayishk'vu would mean that they "lay" there, which in Biblical Hebrew is not unlike saying they "got laid" there. So yes, opening scene, two Israelite guys sent on a mission, hit the big city for the first time, and their first stop is the brothel.

Meanwhile the king of Jericho is tipped off that some Israelite spies have found their way to Rachav's house. He sends messengers demanding they be turned over. But she tells them the men left the city gates before nightfall, and if the messengers are quick, they might still be able to catch up with them.

She takes the men and they go gaga. Here I don't mean gaga crazy and I don't mean Gaga the pop diva, but rather hagagah - she takes them "up to the roof." There she hides them under a pile of flax stalks, it being, apparently, flax season, and flax being a source of fibre for rope making, which is about to be relevant. There she confides to them that the men of Jericho are certain they will be Israel's next conquest. Whether she is conveying common knowledge or pillowtalk to which she is especially privy, we don't know. But, she tells them, the citizenry has heard about the Parting of the Red Sea and the people's hearts have melted with terror because, as she says:

כי יי אלהיכם הוא אלהים בשמים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת

Ki Adonai Eloheychem hu Elohim 
bashamayim mim'al v'al ha'aretz mitachat.

"Because Yah, your God, is God in heaven above and on the earth below." (Words we still sing in the Aleynu prayer.)

Rachav offers to help the scouts escape on the condition that when the invasion comes her family be spared. They agree, instructing her to keep her family in her house and to hang in the window a tikvat chut hashani - a cord of crimson thread - so their forces will know which house to spare. She then lowers a rope out her window and the spies climb down and escape... And sure enough, four chapters later, when the conquest comes and the City is laid waste, Rachav and her parents, siblings, nieces and nephews are left alive.

I think Rachav is a fascinating character. She has a pivotal role in the plot, providing crucial intelligence. And she has a literary role too, providing a tikkun - a kind of reversal of the disastrous scouting trip of the previous generation. Instead of leading the Israelites to believe that their success was untenable, she convinces them it is, in fact, inevitable.

She is also complicated. She engages in treasonous conduct seemingly without qualm, lying to her king's messengers and throwing in her lot with her people's enemy. Yet our tradition doesn't treat her as a traitor, but rather as a proselyte. Someone who acts out of love and fear of our God. our Israelite God. And that makes her, in rabbinic eyes, a hero.

I also like the text's disinclination to dance around her profession. While some of the sages try to recast her as an innkeeper, most don't. She is a woman who has, as the Marxists would say, taken charge of the means of production. And she holds obvious importance in her community;  enough so that the king's messengers don't storm her house but rather knock on her door, wait for an answer, and believe it. She is unapologetic. She is willing to make deals to protect her family's safety. And whatever position she might make her money in, she thinks on her feet.

The rabbis of the Talmud can't get enough of her; in fact, those bookish men in their musty academies seem just a little over-stimulated by her. One midrash says that Rachav was so completely alluring that a man need only say her name twice - Rachav, Rachav - and he will ejaculate. (Yes, it's right there in Talmud.) Rabbi Nachman (the Talmudic one, not the Chasidic one) objects that he said her name twice and that it didn't happen. Rabbi Yitzchak responds that the phenomenon only applies to those who had actually ever seen her face to face, which was undoubtedly politer than saying, "What are you? Gay?"

The rabbis' excuse for obsessing about Rachav is that she is a person of exceptional virtue. She is a model convert, even more sincere and heralded than Yitro or Ruth. Her acknowledgment that Adonai is God in heaven above and on earth below are her words of conversion, revealing her desire to cleave to the God of Israel, a desire present, say the sages, since she heard rumor of the Crossing of the Red Sea when she was a girl. She becomes a Jew and, according to legend, is later married to Joshua, becoming the foremother of many prophets, among them Jeremiah and Chuldah, one of the several female prophets mentioned in Tanakh.

What's more, the rabbis happily point out that in her new faith she forswears being a prostitute. They say this undoubtedly for two reason: (1) to demonstrate the redeeming nature of Adonai; and (2) to have another opportunity to say the word "prostitute." Of course, forswearing being a prostitute might not be so remarkable; according to midrash she'd been in this profession for 40 years already. And as any dancer or athlete can tell you, when you work in a physically strenuous job, you do need to have a retirement plan.

But what is Rachav's symbolic value to the story and to us? Her name, Rachav, means "wide" or "expansive." And while I don't discount the possibility of this being a sexual joke right in the text, I think there's another way of looking at it. She, Rachav, is the first person we meet in the Promised Land. The "expansiveness" suggested by her name stands in contrast to Mitzrayim - the narrow place the Hebrews escaped from. A hint that some important transformation has taken place. The Children of Israel were not the same as they'd been 40 years earlier; the world was no longer the same. Where all had seemed too narrow even for breath, the horizon had now opened up. Everything was possible.

And Rachav seems to symbolize change. Change was in the air. The Children of Israel were about to come into their own. And in Jericho, regime change was about to take place. Rachav, called a prophet in her own right, foresaw all of it and she acted. Unlike so many of us, who follow our human nature and await change with fear or with denial. She looked ahead and took action in the name of her own survival and that of her loved ones. Maybe she is a reminder that action is available to us; that the shockwave of change might be beyond our control, but how we surf that wave is not. Rachav challenges us. Are we looking ahead with earnestness? Are we taking action on behalf of our own survival? Do we have what it takes to save the planet? To save our people? To save ourselves? Have we even bothered to make our stupid earthquake survival kits?

In the story, we can't easily judge the tenor of Rachav's actions. We are told nothing about the politics of Jericho. We don't if the king was a venerable leader or an evil despot. We don't know if life was sweet or cruel. We don't know if Rachav was a proud businesswoman, or if she was enduring a hated career not of her own choosing and perhaps this was her ticket out. The sages attribute her actions to a love of Adonai, maybe a love of life that was higher and deeper than loyalty to any earthly head of state.

I think her actions were rooted not in fear but in hope. Rachav ushers in change. And as she braces for the blast of the shofarot and the now-famous a-tumbling of the walls, she hangs a tikvat chut shani in her window. A cord of scarlet thread. But, let's do one more twist of that thread. Shani, the word describing the scarlet dye, could be read in Hebrew in connection to shanah, the verb meaning "to change." And tikvah, which here means "cord," or something that is wound or twisted together, can also mean, as many of you know from the Israeli national anthem, "hope." With this multiplicity of meaning in mind, Rachav placed in her window and displayed to the winds of the future, tikvat chut hashani - the hope of a thread of change.

Change is inevitable and continuous. It connects us back to Jericho and to the Big Bang and to God's first thought long before that. And it connects us to all that is yet to be. We all bear witness to change, and we all are part of change. And so may we, like Rachav, bring to that change not trepidation but hope and determination. May our intentions and our actions move us along a thread of change that draws us inexorably from the narrow place, Mitzrayim, to the expanse: Rachav, Rachav.

And let us say, Amen.

Gratitude to "Linda" who commented on my last drash for the nice turn of phrase around witnessing and being part of change.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Parashat Shlach Lecha - "Born this Way"

For the Sonoma Pride Interfaith Service
June 12, 2011
Note: I was one of three clergy asked to "share words" touching on the theme of Lady Gaga's "Born this Way."

Good evening. I am humbled and excited to be here. I've had the good fortune to stand on stage at many a Pride event, but it's my first time doing it neither as an activist nor as a singing drag queen, but rather as a Jew. Truthfully, I can't even remember the last time I attended a Pride event in pants. And as I'm sure many of you can understand, I'm finding it rather constricting.

    But I'm honored to be asked to "Share Words," which seems to be the gentile euphemism for "give a sermon but please keep it short." In the Jewish tradition we call these words a drash, in which you expound upon a traditional text in order to draw meaning and relevance from it. Today I'll treat two texts: one from Torah and one from Gaga.

    I'll start with Torah. This week, Jews around the world read and argue over a portion of the Book of Numbers called Shlach Lecha. In this well-known story, the Children of Israel are in the Wilderness, camped just outside the borders of the Promised Land. They send scouts to investigate. The scouts return and report that the land is flowing with milk and honey. "But," they add, "the people there are mighty. They are as giants, and stronger than we...

ונהי בעינינו כחגבים וכן היינו בעיניהם

...and we appeared as grasshoppers in our eyes and in theirs."

    The sages of old discuss this moment and how their history of enslavement colored the Children of Israel's sense of self-worth. They were unable to take their rightful place not because they were weak, but because they believed themselves to be weak. And because of this, they were doomed to wander for forty more years.

    Feel familiar? For those of you who like me are alte kackers, old timers, in the world of queer activism, this should feel very familiar. Because it also describes our pursuit of a place in this world.

    Enter, then, our second text, the Torah of Gaga. In the earliest years of the fight for our rights in this country, our approach was tentative. This was revealed in our political rhetoric, repeatedly explaining that we were "born this way." Not in a Lady Gaga "we don't care what you think" kind of way. Not topped off with a defiant Queer Nation "get over it." We said it very much in a "we do care what you think" way. "We were born this way," we said, "so it is unfair of you to treat us poorly." At the time, in its context, "born this way" was the strongest case we could make for our rights and it was our great statement of identity. And I never liked it.

    It was always a rhetoric of apology. A plea for tolerance, not a demand for anything particularly good and juicy. "We are grasshoppers," we seemed to say, "We were born as grasshoppers. It's not our fault that we're grasshoppers. So please don't step on us as you would step on, say, grasshoppers."

    Besides feeling apologetic, the "born this way" rhetoric also felt to me to be simply untrue. Too restrictive. Too static. And under-appreciative of who we are. Yes, we might have been born that way but we didn't stop there. We might have begun with our particular genes and hormones and whatever else goes into the human cocktail, but we've all kept adding and shaking and stirring. And what we've each concocted with our raw ingredients is nothing short of brilliant and brave and, to my mind, holy.

    Our births didn't define our destinies. After all, couldn't we have lived as heterosexuals? Just entre nous, couldn't we have? Couldn't we have lived in our body's biological sex? Maybe. Probably. Our forebears did. Could we have done it happily? Maybe not. But we might have chosen to make the tradeoff. We might have been willing to remain closeted or quiet or invisible in exchange for, I don't know, a prominent place in religious life or maybe a seat in Congress. I understand people do that.

    All of us who were "born this way" have made choices, from the moment we realized we were different in some way that matters. When to pass. When not to. How to survive. How to leave home. How to create home. How to find community. How to make community where there was none. How to love. How to be brave. How to be fabulous. How to be in this world. Frankly, in a certain way, how any of us here was born is perhaps the least interesting thing about us.

    I know that we Jews contributed to the culture the 6-day Creation story, which sets up the idea that things get created and then get set more or less on a kind of autopilot. In other words, things get made and it's a done deal. Things are as they were born. But this is a tediously static view of the world, and of us. And we are far from a static people.

    So I'd like to introduce you to a different Jewish view of Creation, a mystical idea that only got written down after our traditions had parted ways. According to Jewish mysticism, often known by its drag name, Kabbalah, Creation is not something that happened once at a finite point of time in the past. Instead, Creation is renewed at every single moment. God's thought pours through the universe continuously. And through this outpouring of shefa, this Divine abundance, Creation keeps Creationing; the world continues to flow like milk and honey. Everything in it continues to become.

    This Creation story I like. It moves. We all continue to become -- through our choices, our intentions and our actions. We continue to become by choosing integrity. Honesty. Insight. Compassion. Freedom. Love. Hot deviant sex. Courage. Creativity. Anger and persistence in the face of injustice.

    We might have been born grasshoppers, or we might think we were. But we have become giants. We have wandered for decades in a wilderness of sodomy laws and marriage inequality and Will & Grace reruns and the God-hates-fagmongers of Westboro Baptist. We have had blessings and we have had reversals. We have had our Harry Hays and our Harvey Milks and our Phyllis and Dels. We've had our Radical Faeries and Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and Queer Nations and ACTUPs — and yes, our Lady Gagas. We have lost Matthew Shepherds at the hands of Amalek. We have lost hundreds of thousands of our dearest ones to plague. We continue to witness intersex children surgically "corrected" in the name of gender normativity and our transgender youth suffer the mistreatment of psychoanalysis. We continue to experience both hope and hardship. But we are making a Promised Land of this wilderness. We have become giants and we will have this land flow with milk and honey.

    Were we born this way? No. We have grown and survived and flourished to become this way. Or, maybe, taking the mystical view, in which God's shefa, God's divine abundance, flows through and renews this reality at every turn, then we might say, "Yes, we are born this way. Not years ago, but right at this very moment. And we will continue to be born, to become more ourselves, in all our fierceness and fearlessness and fabulousness. We will more and more be the giants we have already dared to become.

    And let us say: amen.

A Gaga-based Kabbalistic Formula. Chant, rinse, repeat.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Shechinah and the Holiness of Longing

Some Mysticism for the Seventh Week of the Omer
For Congregation Ner Shalom, June 3, 2011

This is the 7th week of the Omer, which is the in-between time, the wilderness that stretches from Egypt to Sinai, from Pesach to Shavuot. Our mystical forebears counted each week of the Omer by reference to one of the seven lower sefirot of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the Tree of Life being sort of the assembly line of Creation with God's slightest thought at the input end and the world that we know at the output. (The Tree of Life is not as linear or sequential as that of course; it is in constant operation, with all the spiritual elements of existence being added in at every moment.)

So this 7th week of the Omer references the sefirah called Malchut. This is the final sefirah, and it means "the kingdom." It is this kingdom: the world that we live in, the reality that we perceive with our eyes and ears. Not just a place or a time, but an entire reality.

But in the same way that Malchut represents a finite, observable universe housed within a great infinity, so Malchut also reflects a certain schism in the nature of the Divine. On the one hand we have the vast, infinite God, as unknowable as His name is unutterable. We refer to this God as Hakadosh Baruch Hu - Holy One Praised be He - or Eyn Sof - the Infinite - or YHWH or sometimes just plain God.

And on the other hand, we have the Shechinah. The divine takeaway.

Our idea of the Shechinah is grounded textually in our biblical story of building the mishkan - the tabernacle - in the wilderness. "Build it," God says, "so that I may dwell among them," meaning among us. V'shachanti: "I will dwell." And from this idea and this Hebrew root we get shechinah - God's dwelling. Not the place, but the phenomenon. God's hanging out among us - around us and in us. Over the centuries, as our mystical imagination grew, the Shechinah came to be personified as a feminine aspect of God: a divine mother, a Sabbath bride, our advocate before God, a friend.

And the rest is history. Or mythology. Or mysticism. In our 21st Century mysticism, the Shechinah is the part of God that we experience first hand - in the world, in our hearts. When we mutter a "Please God" under our breath, it is the Shechinah we're pleading to. When danger is averted and we instinctively say, "Oh, thank God," it is the Shechinah we're thanking. When we walk through the woods pouring out our sorrows as the disciples of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav were instructed to do, it is the Shechinah's shoulder we're crying on. When our grandmothers would sigh and say Gotenyu it was the Shechinah's comfort they were seeking. And when our hearts leap up and doors fly open to welcome shabbat, it is the Shechinah's face we are looking for.

So this 7th week of the Omer would be the time for us to especially celebrate the Shechinah and notice her presence in all things. I started trying to do that a bit this week. And for me, it's sometimes easy, because, b"H, there are many blessings in my life. I live somewhere beautiful, under trees. This week I heard rain on my roof and saw a fox at my door. There were some magnificent rainclouds bathed in golden sunset. I noticed my family around me, whom I love and who are almost never completely annoying. So amidst all that beauty and blessing it can be easy - too easy really - to think, "Ah, the Shechinah."

Because beauty and love are not our sole experience of the world. They might not even be our dominant experience of the world. We all cycle through times of sadness, grief, loneliness, defeat, struggle. Our golden times are fleeting. Our bodies begin to fail just as we become wise enough to know how best to use them. Our relationships end. Our desire for love or health or achievement remains unrequited, or differently requited. If the Shechinah really embodies our experience, then we must be able to recognize her in the hard stuff. Because there's just so much hard stuff, and if we are created in God's image, God must be there.

Perhaps this is the special appeal of the idea of the Shechinah. The breaking of the godhead in two reflects our own experience of brokenness, of separation, of isolation. Separation seems to be the special characteristic of this realm of malchut. In our mystical creation story, God starts out as everything. All is one, all is same. But then God makes way for Creation to happen. God scootches over in an act called tzimtzum. And in this holy scootching, multiplicity is invented. There becomes a
here and a there; a now and a then; a me and a you, an us and a God. The infinite invents the finite, and suddenly we have individuality and plurality and relationship and change and longing.

Malchut, the world of separation, is also necessarily the world of longing. In it we observe the gravitational pull between bodies. We experience in us and around us the desire to live. The desire to stay alive in order to connect the past with the future. The desire to love. To be loved. To hang on tight to our loved ones. To aspire. To achieve. To learn. To build. To race. To reach, which like the trees of the forest, we do without even thinking about it, down into the earth  and up into the light. While the physical universal of this world is change, the spiritual universal of this world is longing.

Now any Buddhist can tell you that longing, craving, clinging - these bring suffering. The Buddhist responds by trying to reduce suffering by letting go of attachments, and reaching beyond desire. Our way, however, is a bit different. The Kabbalist tells us to seek the holy in the suffering by cultivating an awareness that our longing itself is rooted in God. All this longing is the foreseeable consequence of God's little scootch.

Midrash tells us that when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the Shechinah came into exile with us, and that she longs alongside us. So if God is the source of our longing, the Shechinah is our companion in it. According to the early Chasid, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, even our longing for God is itself an echo, a reflex, of the Shechinah's longing to be reunited with God.

It is said that when the Temple in Jerusalem was standing, the Shechinah would enter the Holy of Holies on erev shabbat and the Holy One, Hakadosh Baruch Hu, would enter as well, and they would be reunited in marital bliss. The Temple is gone, but through our observance of shabbat, we continue to engineer this yichud, this conjugal visit between God and the Shechinah, although I couldn't say for certain who is the prisoner and who the visitor. But while Kabbalists imagine this reunion as a day-long bliss-filled sexual liaison, I can't quite. How could the fact of separation, the pain of separation, not come with them into the bedchamber? I imagine God and the Shechinah, instead, sitting in the Holy of Holies, maybe at a card table dealing out a game of gin. "So," one of them asks the other, "how's this separation thing working for you?" And it turns out they both hate it. But they know that longing is key to the world they birthed and now they are trapped by their Creation. It is too late or maybe just too early to go back to the great undifferentiated Infinite.

Judy Holliday, Shechinah-like, plays gin in Born Yesterday.
So we are stuck in this world of longing. And here in this 7th week of the Omer, how do we rejoice in the Shechinah, how do we celebrate the divine in all things, when so much of our experience of this world is suffering? How do we find the holiness even where we can't find the happiness?

Here is my suggestion. Begin the way you naturally might if I were to say, "Seek the divine in the world around you." Draw your focus somewhere. The beautiful tree. The gorgeous light.  The sound of the rain or of music. But instead of jumping right to the place of trying to see the magic of the divine in that thing, draw your attention instead to your own emotion around it. Find your longing. What is its nature? Ask yourself, what am I longing for? Am I longing for everything to be this beautiful? Am I longing for things to stay this way? Am I longing to return to something I once had? Am I simply longing for the exquisite feeling I get smelling pine needles in the rain?

Then, rather than looking at the thing, look at your longing instead. Recognize it as something naturally occurring in this universe; honor it as something born of God.

Or think of someone you love or whose presence you miss. Then shift your focus to your longing or your desire and find the godliness in it.

Or think of some healing you want. And instead of visualizing the healing, visualize your desire for it and see the holiness in that desire.

For this moment it doesn't matter if your desire is fulfilled or not. Longing itself is the exhale of this life; it is sweet even when there is bitterness too.

So this week, during these remaining days of the in-between, to appreciate the Shechinah, don't look at the world but at the longing the world invokes in you. It is that longing that makes you most  human. And it is that longing that makes you divine.

This world, this life, deserves our longing, even if grief or suffering might follow in its wake. As the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet said,

You must grieve for this now
—you have to feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
if you're going to say "I lived" ...

May we feel all that this life invites us feel.

May we witness our own longing and see the holiness that is in it.

And may we notice the Shechinah at our side, longing with us, holy.

And let us say: Amen.