Sunday, August 28, 2011

Good Night Irene, You Shabbos Queen

Reporting in from Manhattan.

The Hudson Before the Storm
There is much to be grateful for today in New York City, where I happen to be for a week-long, ultimately called-on-account-of-weather Storahtelling training. The hurricane was called Irene, a name much more suited to the sweet love object of the famous Leadbelly ballad than the personification of a deadly storm the size of California. But Irene proved more bluster than bluster as she passed through New York City last night as a "mere" tropical storm or perhaps less. The damage in Manhattan is minimal. Businesses are pumping out their cellars, but had enough warning to clear out those cellars in advance. Fallen branches share tight parking spaces with the compact cars of the West Village. Fallen awnings punctuate Chinatown. No broken glass is in evidence.

Still, Irene was significant. She ushered in a shabbat like I haven't had in years. On Friday, New Yorkers of all religions, classes and ethnicities left their jobs early to shop so they would have food in their homes to last the weekend. They bought candles and flashlight batteries, anticipating hours or days without electricity. They bought bread and fruit and wine. They envisioned a weekend without internet or cell phone service. They planned for home; they planned for cozy.

All subways closed Saturday at noon.
Friday afternoon Mayor Bloomberg announced the closure of all public transit as of noon on Saturday. And so on Saturday New York simply didn't travel. No one came into Manhattan to work; no one left Manhattan to work. All but a handful of restaurants were closed, but it was okay. People didn't need restaurants; they had thought and planned and prepared their own food, simple or fancy, in their own kitchens.

Saturday became a day of suspended time. Anticipation more than fear was in the air. And unexpected leisure. For a change, no one - really, no one - was expected to work. No one felt like they had to be attached to their cell phones for fear of missing a call from a client or colleague or boss. Everyone was excused from everything. Phone calls were for checking in on loved ones rather than for participating in commerce or scheduling carpools. Undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of people sat inside watching the Weather Channel. But many instead left their computer screens be - perhaps to make sure they remained fully charged. Or maybe, aware that they might be shut up for 24 or 48 hours in their tiny Manhattan apartments, they wanted to delay their confinement as long as possible.

New Yorkers passing the time in Washington Square on Shabbat afternoon before the storm.
And so when I took a Saturday afternoon walk I found a city filled with shabbat. Families strolling. No special place to be, or at least no place more special than this one. No one straying too far from home. No work. No expectations. Connectivity radically reduced if not eliminated altogether. Parents appreciating their children, playing with them in Washington Square fountain. Friends talking intimately. Strangers talking kindly. Neighbors double-checking that the familiar homeless of their street had found shelter, or that neighborhood shopkeepers who were keeping their stores open had places of safety to go to.

New York was being treated, we were all being treated, to shabbat as it's meant to be, doing what it is meant to do. Not shabbat as a series of prohibitions and not shabbat as a potentially problematic and all-too-often tedious synagogue ritual. It was shabbat as we need it in the 21st Century; at least as I need it. A day of being "unplugged." A day of complete release from the burden of ambition. A day of being with loved ones, checking in on loved ones. A day of noticeable quiet. A day without reliance on technology. A day of enjoying a home that has been prepared in anticipation. A day in which religion is optional but holiness is not.

Why can't I do this at home, I wondered. Does it really take such an unlikely circumstance?

On this trip to New York, I happened to learn about the very creative Sabbath Manifesto project, and ten principles they've developed to encourage us all to find quiet in our lives, using shabbat as the occasion to do so. The principles are these:
  1. Avoid technology.
  2. Connect with loved ones.
  3. Nurture your health.
  4. Get outside.
  5. Avoid commerce.
  6. Light candles.
  7. Drink wine.
  8. Eat bread.
  9. Find silence.
  10. Give back.
I did all those things. I did them because that is what we all did yesterday in New York. (Okay, I forgot the wine.)

The day was a beautiful one. It made me crave a shabbat-honoring community. Not a community that enforces prohibitions, builds eruvim or hurls stones at drivers of cars. But a community that supports each other in choosing to disconnect [at least] one day a week; a community that values having some time when one doesn't have to check emails or voicemails. Yes, unplug, baby, unplug, I thought to myself. It's so completely possible. After all, most New Yorkers weren't even aware it was shabbat. Still, we rested.*

So this is my new year's resolution for 5772. More shabbos. More shabbos. And for this overdue lesson, I have only Irene to thank. Goodnight Irene, you Shabbos Queen. I'll see you in my dreams.

* See Irena Klepfisz's poem, Mayn Mamens Shabbosim.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Ekev: Bread, Spirit and Hard Times

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, August 19, 2011]

Man does not live by bread alone.

Pop quiz time: where does this old, over-familiar chestnut come from? Anyone know?

It's from this week's parashah, called Ekev, from the Book of Deuteronomy. To recap: Moshe is making his farewell speech, which is really the whole Book of Deuteronomy anyway, and he is reminding the Children of Israel of their wanderings in the desert, their covenant with God and the obligations attendant thereto. Moshe reminds the people that God offers blessings in return for keeping mitzvot and some dire consequences for not.

And most of the rewards and punishments are repeatedly drawn in terms of food.

We are told that if we hold up our end of the bargain with God, we will have grain and wine and plenty of dairy products from happy cows. We are told that our lives in the Promised Land will be marked by abundance of wheat and barley and, as tomorrow's Bat Mitzvah pointed out to me, "just like in Sonoma County," vines and figs and pomegranates and olive oil and honey.

Even the Children of Israel's impending conquest of the Canaanite territory is described in shockingly gastronomic terms:

ואכלת את כל העמים אשר יי אלהיך נתן לך
v'achalta et-kol-ha'amim asher Adonai Eloheycha noten lach.
"You shall eat all the nations that Adonai gives you."

Some later commentators backed off this vivid and violent image by re-reading the sentence not as "you shall eat all the nations" but rather "you shall eat with all the nations," supportable in the Hebrew and reflecting a very, very different vision of a Promised Land. But still with "eating" as the central measure of our success as a people.

So why is food so potent a metaphor? Not that many haven't already theorized on this ad nauseum. But now it's my turn.

Looking within the text, we see that the Children of Israel were nomads. Pre-agricultural. Crop-free. Their diet, like the landscape, was without variety. Without softness or sweetness or abundance or certainty. It was made up of manna - heaven's crumbs. The idea that the Children of Israel could survive for 40 years on the monotony of manna was so inconceivable to later thinkers, that midrash had to attribute to the manna magical qualities. Legend therefore says that manna could taste like whatever the eater most craved. Sort of the "Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans" of the Biblical imagination. But in the p'shat, in the text itself, it wasn't every flavor. It was just crumbs.

And so undoubtedly the Israelites lived inside a certain anxiety about food. Subsistence was always in question and they were helpless to change that. In an odd way, we are, most of us, similarly helpless in the world of food. We are post-agricultural. We have access to variety, to the sweet and savory and colorful and exotic. But we've mostly lost the ability to fend for ourselves; we mostly don't have our own gardens; we mostly don't keep bees. If disaster kept food from our grocery stores long enough, what would any of us do then? (Just thought I'd ask in case you weren't feeling anxious enough.)

Food represents desire for ease but also deep fear about survival. And in this era and economy where we don't grow it, we've shifted our fear of starvation from food to that which entitles us to it: money. Which we still call bread. Or dough. Even our wages are called our salt, our salary. We fear financial loss because money, which we do not eat, has nonetheless become conflated with survival. As markets lurch and drop, so do our stomachs.
So here's where Torah steps in, with the quote we began with. One does not live on bread alone. Torah does not dispute the necessity of bread, but takes issue with it being the sole element upon which our survival hangs. The full quote is this:

ויענך וירעבך ויאכלך את המן אשר לא ידעת ולא ידעו אבתיך למען הודיעך
לא על הלחם לבד יחיה האדם כי על כל מוצא פי יי יחיה האדם
Vay'ancha vyar'ivcha vaya'achilcha et-haman asher lo yada'ta 
v'lo yad'u avoteycha lma'an hodi'acha lo al-halechem l'vad 
yich'yeh ha'adam ki al-kol-motza' fi-Adonai yich'yeh ha'adam.

"Adonai humbled you, and let you hunger, and fed you with manna, which you'd never seen and neither had your ancestors; so that Adonai might make you understand that you do not live by bread only, but you live by every word that proceeds out of Adonai's mouth."

For some, bread feeds the body and baking it feeds the spirit.*

The Israelites' hunger was a test - a terrible test, intended to teach a lesson - that survival involves two elements. The earthly and the divine; the physical and the metaphysical, bread and spirit. Survival requires both. And even when we face deprivation in this tangible, bankable, edible realm, we still can experience abundance in the realm of the spirit. Our bread may be finite, but what pours forth from Adonai's mouth is not.

And what does pour forth from Adonai's mouth, from Adonai's word? The answer, in our tradition, is: everything. Creation is God's word. Light and dark. Sea and sky. All that is green. All that breathes. All that walks on two legs and the loving communities that we bipeds have created. Wisdom, beauty, delight, compassion, courage. These are all dynamics in the song of Creation. Even when we're not certain that there is a Creator, we have no similar doubts about these qualities.

We need these to live. We need these to support us when we wander in the wilderness, with only crumbs to eat.

I've been thinking about this lately because I've been watching so many people in our community and in my circle of friends face unprecedented challenges and hardships. This is a tough time right now by anyone's standards. But in addition to that: people we all know are losing their businesses. Their jobs. Their homes. Terrible. People are losing reliance on their bodies. Terrible, terrible stuff to face.

And I've watched some people experience these challenges as if it were the utter collapse of their lives. I don't mean to minimize suffering. Suffering is all-consuming. It is in the nature of suffering to be so.

But, Torah says, you do not just live in this physical world. You have dual citizenship. You are part spirit as well. And that piece is half of what sustains you.

The hard stuff that happens is not the collapse of life. It is trouble. Just trouble. It will pass. Or it will be accommodated. Or adjusted to. There might be loss - there will be loss; we will all experience loss. The trouble might cost money. It might mean a new way of living or of being. But it is not the collapse of life, not its disintegration or its unraveling. It is not a referendum on how you live. It is not a punishment. It is trouble. Just trouble. It is not something you deserve. It is not something anyone deserves. It is trouble. Just trouble. In Yiddish we call it tzoris, and it sounds warmer, more domestic, a piece of ungainly furniture awkwardly placed in your house so that it must be walked around. Tzoris. Hard times. Trouble.

So when you count what you have, what sustains you, what arms you against the trouble, you must count more than your bread. More than your money. More than your limbs. You must count all your resources - your humor, your smarts, your compassion. Your love of music or prayer or study. Your love of that smell of fennel in West County or the deep rumble of your cat's purr. You must count your people. Friends if you have them. Loved ones. Family. Even the noodgy family. This holy community. All these things are riches no less than money. They are all in your treasury. But you have to be willing to count them. And use them. Accept help. Accept love. Impose on others when you need to. And let yourself be imposed on down the road.

Keep feeding not just your body but your spirit. And then when you come out on the other end of this trouble you will still be you. You with less money. You with a different home. You with different physical limitations. But still you.

Can we survive hardship? Yes. We can. We can endure. The quality of endurance, of netzach, is in us. We will outlive the trouble and we will turn back and sing in Stephen Foster's words:

Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door.

There's one final quotable in this week's Torah portion that I want to share. Also about food and sustenance:
ואכלת ושבעת וברכת את יי אלהיך
V'achalta v'sava'ta uverachta et Adonai Eloheycha

You shall eat and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless Adonai. What does this mean? We shall eat until we are satisfied? The verse doesn't say that. You shall eat. And you shall be satisfied. These are separate commandments, separate instructions, separate hopes. We must feed our bodies and pay our dues to this physical realm. But fulfillment, satisfaction, that is a quality of the spirit and we are reminded to strive for that as well.

We endure by having a foot in each of two realms. We endure by sustaining ourselves in both. Ozi v'zimrat Yah, we say in the Book of Exodus, vay'hi li lishua. My strength combined with the Divine music together are my salvation. And maybe that is the secret of endurance: remembering and trusting that there is more to me than this bag of bones. And that "more" is testified to in all of Creation. As our friend Sally Churgel wrote in a haiku just yesterday morning:

Trust that you are held
After all, the sun rises
each day in glory

May we have bread. And may we find satisfaction. And may the sun rise each day in glory.

And let us say, Amen.

* Bread by Zohar Kochavi; Photo by Ilan Schlossberg
If you are looking for a spot for High Holy Days this year, consider Ner Shalom in Cotati, California. Find out more by clicking here.