Friday, December 21, 2012

Solstice 2012:
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

For Congregation Ner Shalom, Submitted in Absentia 
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. That’s how the song goes. And I was looking forward to this most wonderful, ecumenical evening that we share each December: the chanting and the chill air and the connection with spirited people representing a range of traditions, whether they were born into them or arrived at them later in life.

I had some things in mind that I had wanted to talk about tonight, having to do with the darkness of Solstice; the long night that is like the end of the world. Because really, when the sunlight gets so short, and shorter every day, how can you be so certain it will ever come back? That certainty is a kind of faith. Based in experience, yes. But not so very different from the faith many of us feel that the light will return when we find ourselves in metaphorical darkness. No wonder it is so important to mark this longest night, and to celebrate it with light. The Christians got it right when they assigned the birth of God-in-human-form to this week. And we get it more or less right with our festival of lights, snuggling as close to Solstice as we can given the limitations of our lunar way of doing things. It is darkness giving way to hope.

This time of year feels like an end; we’ve reflected that in our secular but still ancient calendar. And this year many people are taking literally the endy-ness of it, as we observe the expiration of the Mayan calendar. And I, not knowing when today the end of the world was scheduled to take place, was not entirely certain how much effort to put into a drash.

Still, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. America is on the move, and my mother and I, like thousands of others, find ourselves stranded at an airport instead of at shul with you. The entire US military is on holiday furlough, and they are all sitting in O’Hare Airport’s food court, eating their Manchu-Wok rations as they head home to families scattered across the country.

One such young man was sitting next to us this morning at a communal table. I use the term “man” advisedly. Had he not been in his Navy uniform, I’d have guessed him to be 16 at best. But he seemed curious about us and struck up a little small talk with my mother who, as many of you know, is a small-talk magnet in public places. He is stationed in Hawai’i. He is heading to Connecticut to his father and stepmother. New Haven. Christmas. “Do you celebrate Christmas?” he asked us.

“No, we’re Jewish,” I said. “Our winter holiday is already over. We’re just looking forward to the quiet time.”

“Ah,” he said, looking momentarily at a loss. “When I was little I didn’t care about Christmas. Just about the presents. But then I began appreciating Jesus and would say, ‘Thank you Jesus for being born.’ And now I’ve let Jesus into my life.”

“Ah,” I said, my mind already racing with how to handle where this was obviously going.

“I hope you’ll think about letting Jesus into your life,” he concluded.

“Well,” I said, not wanting to completely dash his innocent hopes for my salvation, “we’ll give it thought. Thanks.” And I began dealing cards to my mother in hopes that our game of double solitaire would neatly sew up the situation. But he continued to chat.

“So where do you live? Where are you going?” he asked.

“Well, my mother lives here in Chicago. I live in California with my husband and children, and she’s coming home with me to visit her grandchildren.” I offered this information because in my experience there’s no better response to the suggestion of letting Jesus into your life than flinging back the revelation of your same-sex marriage. Maybe the blessing of homosexuality could serve, where double solitaire couldn’t, to put an end to this moment of increasingly awkward interfaith relations.

But no such luck. Our sailor continued. “Well, I hope you’ll read some of what Jesus wrote and let him into your life.” And he looked at me eagerly, at the edge of his seat, waiting for my moment of enlightenment.

I was dealing out the next hand now, my oft-persecuted Jewish blood pumping defensively through my veins. I briefly entertained the possibility that this stranger was Elijah the prophet, showing up, as always, in disguise to test my compassion. But then I reasoned that Elijah probably wouldn’t require me to go as far as accepting Jesus as my personal savior as an act of tzedakah. So I made the decision – perhaps not the best one – to address this head on.

“So listen,” I said, “I appreciate how much finding Jesus has meant to you. I’ve read plenty of Jesus’ words myself, and I think he had some fantastic and radical things to say. But I don’t believe he is God or the son of God.” This is where I wish I had said, “I don’t believe he is the child of God any differently than we all are.” Instead I continued, figuring one’s got to learn this at some time or other, “it’s really not polite to push your religious beliefs on others.”

“Well, I’m not trying to force it on you,” he said, “I was just offering this as a suggestion.”

“We’re strangers,” I said. “You don’t know us. You don’t know if we have religion in our lives or how we find meaning. It was fine for you to offer it once, but then you have to stop. I’m happy for you, and I wish you safety and many blessings. But you have to stop now. It's not polite.” (It is perhaps the depth of feeling we have about our spiritual lives, the sensations that are so hard to articulate, and the beliefs that are completely impossible to defend rationally that make us retreat to the position of religious talk being "impolite." It's not impolite really. It's just too difficult.)

He instantly became despondent, worrying that he'd offended us, and I felt like I’d just kicked a puppy. Plus he’s in the Navy and I’d violated our strict American rules of deference and decorum toward service members. I tried to defuse his anxiety and my own prickliness by changing topics and explaining to him how to play double solitaire, all the time worrying that he would now think Jews care more about playing cards than about either salvation or the national defense.

So how do we live in a pluralistic society? Is such a thing possible? How do we make it okay for people to believe different things, and draw meaning from different sources? We shouldn’t have to just shut up, should we? Should I have just shut up? Should he? We should each be able to speak our own truth, with enthusiasm and excitement and somewhere in the middle our words should be able to meet.

But let’s say I have a special investment in how I think God talked to Moses – or Jesus or Mohammad or Joseph Smith for that matter – how do I express my enthusiasm without implying that my way is better? Or worse – if my beliefs dictate that your actions are wrong, how do I stay silent? If I really believe Jesus is the only path to salvation, how do I stand idly by while my neighbor in the food court says, “No, thank you, I’m busy playing cards.” In a worldview in which the darkness could come and swallow us up at any moment, and this time for good, how do I not offer the hand of hope to a stranger?

There is no answer for this. The dilemma holds true whether you’re a born-again Christian, or born-again Muslim, or a born-once-and-for-always Chasid. How do you tone it down when your God tells you you’re right?

And then all of us who choose the pluralistic position – that all these paths have validity, all are sacred – well, don’t we just get a little tired of being thought of as everybody's lost sheep?

How can we all delight in each other’s inspiration, like we do here on this night at Ner Shalom, without anyone having to come out on top?

As I dealt the cards, I explained to my young interlocutor how one plays multiple solitaire. “There are mixed goals,” I told him. “Yes, you want to win, you want to play more cards than anyone else. But you can only do that if everyone has a good game. It’s both competitive and collaborative, and you have to hold both of those intentions as you play. That’s what makes it sometimes confusing and that’s what makes it fun.”

Only now do I realize that the game was conveniently offering itself up in that very moment as a suggestion for how we might live together in this world, even if we have strong beliefs. Of course you must be committed to your own hand; you must have hope for your own hand; that is natural. But the game is more satisfying for you – and everyone – when you can accept the integrity of other players’ hands, and root – even just a little bit – for their success as well.

We’re ready to board now. The terminal is packed. Babies are crying. People are spilling their salads and talking on their cell phones. It is a great cacophony of voices and experiences and outlooks. This is a crowded world, so crowded, and everyone is just trying to get home.

May we all find our paths, whether they’re non-stop flights or circuitous routing from stop to stop. And may a light, of whatever shape or hue, be waiting in the window for us at journey’s end. I wish you all a beautiful Solstice, and joy in all your holidays, and a peaceful Shabbat which is, I think, the most wonderful time of the year. But I’m biased.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Parashat Toldot: Brothers, Birthrights and Blessing

For Congregation Ner Shalom and B'nai Israel Jewish Center

Hineh mah tov u-mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad.

These words, set to one melody or other, are among the basic sound bytes of Judaism that we all got in Hebrew school; for many this is one of the few phrases that stuck with us on the long road from childhood. Hineh mah tov u-mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad. How good and how pleasant it is to sit, side by side, like brothers," says the text.

The older I get, the more I grasp why these words, which constitute the opening verse of Psalm 133, are so very catchy and compelling. When you’re young, they sound like a platitude. But as you get older, you realize that they point to the difficult problem of siblinghood. It is good and pleasant to sit together as siblings not because it is easy or natural or always fun. It is good to sit together as siblings precisely because it is not easy. The sibling relationship is complex. The pushme-pullyou of it: the inevitable jealousy and competition. But also the natural intimacy. You are tethered to each other by a common history, heritage and upbringing; by shared relatives, playthings and hated living room furniture. No one will ever know you as well or, God willing, as long as your sibling. And no one else – not even your spouse – is stuck with you in quite the same way. A married couple can divorce. We might think it’s terrible, but we know it happens and we sigh, “Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.” But when siblings break up, it somehow goes against the nature of things.

Exhibit A: Brothers
I had a chance to closely observe and appreciate the ties of siblinghood – especially the bonds of brothers – over this past week. I went with my husband and his brother, and my mother- and father-in-law, to their ancestral homeland of Vancouver, British Columbia. There we visited my father-in-law’s cousins – a band of three brothers, who are the sons of one of my father-in-law’s several uncles. They had children and grandchildren in tow, more sets of brothers among them. My father-in-law himself had two brothers who are no longer living. I watched these generations, as I would waves on the beach. Repeated incursions of brothers, some at hand in the room, some whose presence could only be felt by inference.

My father-in-law hadn’t visited the Vancouver family in some six years; my husband hadn’t in maybe twenty. And I’d never met them at all. Since my in-laws live in Israel, the route of our family visits has always traversed the Atlantic but never the 49th parallel. And because my father-in-law had made aliyah to Israel at a young age, he was more myth than fact to the younger Vancouver generations. So here we were, like visiting nobility. A great party was thrown in honor of the return of the Slozbergs from exile. Children, grandchildren, siblings, nephews, nieces, cousins – all here in abundance. And I loved it. I moved easily from family group to family group, learning names, memorizing relationships, asking for family stories. It was easy for me to experience this as hineh mah tov umah na’im, as good and pleasant. Because I didn’t know them. I knew no back-stories. I had no grudges and I was not charged with maintaining anyone else’s. In fact, it took days more to discover that there had been any.

Torah makes much of the tensions and grudges of siblinghood, perhaps because they’re universal, and because they can be read on both micro- and macro- levels: literal siblings and figurative siblings, individuals and nations. But Torah almost never treats the subject more intensely than in this week’s parashah, Toldot. This is the helping of Torah that brings us from Jacob and Esau struggling already within Rebecca’s womb, to a hungry Esau selling his birthright to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of soup, and finally to Jacob masquerading as his minutes-older brother in order to abscond with their father’s blessing.

We all know this story and our reactions to it are, I would guess, mixed. One can, and generations have, argued that Jacob was chosen by God, and in this story he does what he must in order to claim his destiny. One can argue it, but it’s hard to feel good about it. Jacob is one of our avot, one of the patriarchs. Here he steals what is understood to be our inheritance, making our own heritage hot property. It’s hard not to feel a little shame.

And as a story, it’s just plain sad to see it go this way. We know what siblings can accomplish together at their best. Think of Orville and Wilbur. George and Ira. The Brontes. Venus and Serena. Click & Clack.

But we also know how it can go so very bad. The famous fraternal feuds. Adi and Rudi Dassler, the founders of Adidas and Puma, respectively. Anne Landers and Dear Abby. AS Byatt and Margaret Drabble. Cain and Abel.

Often these breakdowns are over insignificant things; small jealousies and misunderstandings that snowball. And sometimes they’re based on very significant things. The items of controversy in this story are two: a birthright, or bechorah in Hebrew, and a blessing, or berachah.

The first of these, the bechorah, the birthright, Esau, tired and hungry, agrees to sell to Jacob rather than have to make his own dinner. The bechorah is about property rights – the larger share of land and livestock that the eldest son was entitled to inherit. The sages have questioned whether the sale of an inheritance that had not yet been received was even valid, but the story itself doesn’t questions it. It might have been poor form to sell your birthright, like refusing to go into the family business, but it wasn’t illegal. And, as for one who would squander a birthright on a bowl of lentils, you might apply the axiom, caveat venditor. Let the seller beware. No sympathy here.

But the blessing – the berachah – distinct in Hebrew from the bechorah by the mere reversal of two letters, as if they are flipsides of each other – the blessing seems another matter. This is the juicy bit. It cannot be bought and sold. It is bigger than the inheritance, and deeper too. It carries intention. It exists not in the legal realm but the spiritual one. Blessing engages our hopes and even our fears. Blessing implies something transcendent, something bigger, maybe something divine. The bechorah, the birthright, speaks to the wallet. The berachah speaks to the heart. By analogy, I’d say the institution of the civil union is an example of bechorah. But marriage is about berachah, which is why it is so desired by those who can’t have it, and defended so fiercely by some who can.

So if the bechorah here was land and livestock – conveyable property – what was the berachah? What was the blessing that was so desirable that Jacob drew it from Isaac by cunning and guile? It was this: the dew of heaven; the fat of the earth; grain; wine. Prominence over nations and precedence over brothers. This was the father’s blessing. Were they in fact Isaac’s to give? Are the words prediction or prophecy or magic to bring it about?

Esau, when he discovers the fraud, also begs for a blessing. His rapidly failing father cannot refuse, but is unable to offer a blessing to undo the one he’d given Jacob. That blessing was already uncorked and released into the world. But he nonetheless offers what he can: again the dew of heaven and the earth’s produce; plus the means to survive oppression and ultimately overcome it. This is the blessing given to Esau, that by all rights should have been given to Jacob – and inherited by us. And, given our history, it would have been a useful one.

But it was not the blessing Esau wanted. And who among us gets the blessing we want? In Deuteronomy, God says, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose blessing. Choose life.”

We are instructed to choose life, to choose blessing, but with no real guarantee about its content. It might be our lot to rule; it might be our lot to be ruled. It might be our lot to throw off the yoke of oppression. We must say yes, without knowing which it will be. But in any case, we can still be blessed, as both Jacob and Esau were, with the dew that flows down from the heavens, as the ancients believed, dew that flows just like the Kabbalists imagined blessing itself to flow, downward from source to us.

Psalm 133, hineh mah tov, “how good and pleasant it is to sit together as siblings” continues for three more verses:

Kashemen hatov al harosh yored al hazakan, z'kan Aharon sheyored al pi midotav.
K’tal Chermon sheyored al har’rey Tziyon
Ki sham tzivah Adonai et habrachah – chayim ad-ha’olam.

Like the good oil on the head,
Streaming down onto the beard of Aaron.
Like the dew of Hermon that trickles down
To the Mountains of Zion;
Where Adonai commanded this blessing: life, always.

Sitting together as brothers and sisters is not just good and pleasant: it is blessing embodied. It is like the oil of anointment flowing down, onto the priestly beard of Aaron, himself an older brother who stands in the shadow of a younger brother and a sister too. It is like dew, like shefa, the divine trickle-down, whose flow sweeps us back to the place where we are reminded that we must choose life and we must live it, with all its inequalities and sorrows and joys and possibilities.

Being together like brothers and sisters – ultimately coming together despite grudges and hurts - that is the blessing. Isn’t that the case in this story? These bought birthrights and stolen blessings seem like nothing but trouble until twenty years and five chapters later when Esau and Jacob finally fall on each other’s necks and weep. Weep for the time lost and the fears outlived and the differences not fully resolvable and the future never quite knowable. But they weep together, as brothers, and they sit together, like brothers. Hineh mah tov u-mah na’im.

Isn’t that blessing? And if Esau and Jacob can do it, then why not Isaac and Ishmael? Why not us, their descendants still caught in the shock wave of their brotherly grudge, playing it out this very week with missiles aimed at houses, each side claiming the bechorah, the rights of the firstborn, when really what each of us wants is the berachah, the chance to be blessed?

The image of Jacob and Esau, reunited even if not fully reconciled, holding each other, sitting together in the soothing light of evening – this is the blessing we must choose, that we must seek, that we must create, that we must steal if necessary. In Yiddish, to cross a border is called ganeven di grenetz. You “steal” the border. You don’t wait for passage to be offered to you. Instead you tiptoe up, you do a little dance, like a snake charmer, and you charm that border until it is yours. It is what Jacob failed to do when he clumsily drew verses of Torah from his unwitting father. And it is what Jacob and Esau succeeded in doing so very elegantly and naturally when they strode past the border of their fear and into an embrace.

So let us be, like Jacob and Esau, stealers of blessing. Let us ganeven di grenetz, let us face borders, or oceans, or parallels, or fences. Let us approach the borders and use all our charms, all our wiles, all our hearts, to draw down blessing. So that we might know the goodness, the pleasantness, the berachah, of sitting, at long last, as brothers and sisters together.

Hineh mah tov u-mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad.

May it be so.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Killing Your Darlings

It is Shabbat in New York City. I'm about to go out and scare up a shul. It's my father's yortzeit and though I could say Kaddish alone, our age-old custom is to do it in community instead. And over the years, with my travel schedule, it's given me an annual chance to wander into Jewish communities I never would've visited otherwise.

So I began googling Jewish communities near where I'm staying. And I stumbled onto the Sim Shalom Universalist Chavurah. For someone who plays as fast and loose with our tradition as I do, I am remarkably suspicious of other Jews' innovations. Are they crypto-Christians? Stealth Messianics? I guess that flavor of suspicion itself is rather Jewish, as we struggle to withstand the arrival of the next new thing, as we've survived Christianity, Islam, Sabbateanism, Franckism, the Enlightenment, Chasidism, Reform Judaism, and every other new idea that we now see as an innovation or a deviation, depending on the outcome.

One of the primary notions of the Sim Shalom folks, not unlike Mordecai Kaplan's framing of Reconstructionism, is the rejection of the idea of "chosen-ness." There are many paths to enlightenment and, using the language on Sim Shalom's website, "We reject the concept of a God that would choose a favorite child."

It was a funny statement to stumble on during this Shabbat Breishit where, among so many other things, we read the story of Kayin and Hevel - Cain and Abel. This story, in which God accepts the offering of the younger but not the older, is one of our many narratives that dwell in the anxiety about the seemingly unfair affection and attraction felt for the next new thing. We see it again and again: Isaac becomes Abraham's principal heir over Ishmael. Jacob swipes the birthright and the blessing from Esau. Rachel is the beloved over her sister Leah. Although Torah doesn't explore this dimension of it, it's worth noting that Moses himself is little brother to both Miriam and Aaron. Even King David, though not a set up as a sibling, is still posed as the young and more attractive alternative to King Saul. David is the upstart whose charmed and charming ascendancy drives the failing leader mad.

Torah over and over presents versions of this, of the younger being justified in taking what should belong to the older. Why such anxiety? Were we, as newcomers to the Promised Land, as builders of a kingdom not on empty soil but on the turf of an older resident civilization, insecure about our position? Is Torah's message that the new supplanting the old is the order of things? In Greek mythology the younger gods defeat the older gods; children supplant their parents, suggesting that change happens in a generational way. The Torah version, invoking our innate sibling rivalry, is subtler and trickier. It involves the painful conflict of ideas that are more or less contemporaneous.

In his mind-bending book Ishmael, Daniel Quinn paints the Cain-Abel conflict as an allegory representing the defeat of the old nomadic lifestyle, represented by Abel the shepherd of sheep, by the newer, settlement-based agrarian culture, represented by Cain. The murder of Abel by Cain exemplifies the agrarian revolution of about 10,000 years ago. Interestingly, in this reading of the myth, the newer idea - agrarianism - is embodied in the older sibling, and the older hunter-gatherer-herdsman lifestyle is embodied in the younger.

Of course what's always challenging and reassuring about Torah is that it doesn't lend itself to easy allegorical readings. Is Abel a new idea or an old idea? Is Abel the loss of the past or anxiety about the present and future? Or is this story not about ideas at all? Maybe it's about competition between tribes or nations. Or maybe this tale of sibling rivalry is just about sibling rivalry. After all, the murderous rage that many children feel at the arrival of the darling interloper is a deep current in many lives. It informs personalities and outlooks from cradle to grave.

I myself am a younger child. So are, when I think about it, most of my friends. How much of my general optimism comes from never having been challenged by a darling newcomer? And how much of that optimism would look to anyone else like plain old naivete?

Was Abel naive? When God accepted his offering but not Cain's, did he not see what was coming next? The outcome, though not foreseeable to the character, was utterly foreseeable to the narrative itself. Abel is named Hevel, the word that comes up over and over in Ecclesiastes, which we read last week over Sukkot before Simchat Torah boomeranged us back to the Beginning. It means breath. Vanity. Fleetingness. Impermanence. Unlike for his brother in the preceding verse, Torah gives no explanation as to how Hevel got this name. Almost as if it was less a name than an attribute. He was, in fact, impermanent. It could not have been his parents. After all, who would name their kid Temp?

Maybe Torah instead is saying something about our individual, internal struggles. We have competing needs, ideas. Sometimes the more attractive idea has to go. As the advice to writers goes, "Kill your darlings." But when you do, it is okay to mourn, and the idea that survives must be held accountable. When it asks, "Am I my brother's keeper," the answer - in the world of ideas as much as the world of action - should be a resounding "yes."

Or maybe this story of the first crime of passion is not meant to teach anything other than impermanence itself, its tone less akin to the mythology of Genesis than to the fatalism of Ecclesiastes. Maybe Kohelet, Ecclesiastes' author, uses this term - hevel - over and over in order to send us right back to this core narrative about unpredictability and impermanence. We grow, we tend, we offer up. Sometimes the world accepts our offerings. Sometimes it doesn't and we don't know why. Sometimes we are punished for our success. Sometimes we punish ourselves. It is all hevel. Yet we have no choice but to keep growing, keep tending and keep offering up.

This sentiment is beautifully captured in an unattributed poem that became a song by Maggy and Suzzy Roche:

     People are often unreasonable, illogical,
     and self-centered;
     Forgive them anyway.

     If you are kind, People may accuse you
     of selfish, ulterior motives;
     Be kind anyway.

     If you are successful, you will win some
     false friends and some true enemies;
     Succeed anyway.

     If you are honest and frank,
     people may cheat you;
     Be honest and frank anyway.

     What you spend years building, someone
     could destroy overnight;
     Build anyway.

     If you find serenity and happiness,
     they may be jealous;
     Be happy anyway.

     The good you do today,
     people will often forget tomorrow;
     Do good anyway.

     Give the world the best you have,
     and it may never be enough;
     Give the world the best you've got anyway.

     You see, in the final analysis,
     it is between you and God;
     It was never between you and them anyway.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Kohelet: All is Impermanent; There is a Time for Everything

For Congregation Ner Shalom, October 5, 2012
It isn’t easy being king. After all, one’s best efforts come to naught; they are mere vanity, like chasing the wind.

So go the words of Kohelet son of David, king in Jerusalem, writer and star of the book called Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, which serves as the companion text for the holiday of Sukkot. Our tradition says that Kohelet, the writer and supposed king, was actually King Solomon, but there’s no non-midrashic evidence of that, just as there is, in fact, no extrinsic evidence that King Solomon ever existed. But just going with our stories, King Solomon seems very unlike this Kohelet person. Solomon is kind of solid and wise and unfazed. Whereas Kohelet is at first blush more like Solomon’s father, David: impulsive, full of mood and seemingly young. His words sound like they could be spoken by some undergraduate philosophy major, perhaps wearing a black turtleneck and smoking a cigarette.

Havel havalim, Kohelet says. It is all vanity. Vanity of vanities. He is king and yet he sees that no matter what he builds, no matter what he succeeds at, it doesn’t last. The world goes on, generation upon generation. The streams flow into the oceans and the oceans never fill. The winds blow and then circle around and blow again. What was is what will be. What was done is what will be done, v’eyn kol chadash tachat hashemesh – there is nothing new under the sun.

Kohelet represents a kind of world-weariness; a jadedness expressed by the character Prior Walter in “Angels in America” when he says, “It’s something you learn after your second theme party: It’s All Been Done Before.”

Hakol havel. It is all vanity. Wow. How honest. To be a king and see your own insignificance? That’s got to hurt. The disillusionment in the field of high politics must be immense. And that disillusionment is never copped to, even though it’s not well hidden from us, the king’s subjects, either. Watching the first presidential debate, didn’t we all recognize it? The too-thin veil of principle draped carelessly over the jagged edges of desire, greed and futility? Seeing moral truths get brushed aside as the debate goes to the best jawline and biggest smirk? Watching the candidates, it’s hard to know who is more disillusioned – them or us. Do we even want to be aware of this? As Kohelet says,

Ki b’rov chochmah rav ka’as, v’yosif da’at yosif mach’ov.

The more you know, the more painful it is. Ignorance, even back then, was bliss.

But how do you escape disillusionment? With food, wine, earthly entertainments? Kohelet tried those and they didn’t work. What then? Build? Design? Gather wisdom? Kohelet, ever the life of the party, reminds us that the wise person dies even as surely as the fool.

Disillusionment is everywhere. “Why should I vote? Why should I care,” ask many young people. And many not-young people. Why should I bother to act at all?

Kohelet strikes a chord with all of us; he is not a prophet hurling God’s words at an unhearing public. He speaks for the people. Whoever he actually was, his nom de plume, Kohelet means “one of the kahal” - a member of the congregation, the voice of the community. He speaks in all our names. We all reign as kings of our own lives. And yet all or so many of our efforts to govern are futile.

But maybe bleakness is an incomplete reading of Kohelet. Maybe there’s an element of angst, but also an element of acceptance. Perhaps he is a kind of Buddhist. Our earliest Israelite Buddhist. Hevel havalim – vanity of vanities. Not a lament as much as a mantra: Kohelet’s way of saying what in Sanskrit is called anitcha. Impermanence. All is impermanent. Like a Buddhist he is aware that suffering comes from not accepting the impermanence of all things; that trying to cling to what we’re attached to is r’ut ruach – like grasping at the wind.

Is Kohelet a lesson in disattachment? Disattachment as a way of life scares me even more than disillusionment. How can I embrace disattachment when so much action is needed in this world? There are terrible people doing terrible things. There are good people doing terrible things too! How can I stand idly by when there is so much at stake?

The answer is undoubtedly that this is not an “either/or” question. Kohelet doesn’t say, “do nothing.” He – or she because really who knows? – says, “Look at the big picture also.” Everything is temporary. Our gains are temporary. So are our setbacks. Life unfolds in ways that are bigger than us and that disregard us. “So,” Kohelet seems to say, “let go of the constant need to control it all.” Instead, find the richness in your life, the richness in this very transient moment. Do not let your happiness hinge entirely upon your success in controlling your conditions.

There are cycles bigger than us and we will cycle through all of them. As Kohelet goes on to say, to everything there is a season:

A time to be born, a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted.
A time to weep, a time to laugh.
A time to mourn, a time to dance.
A time to seek, a time to lose.
A time to keep, a time to cast away.

Kohelet casts away his need to control. Kohelet makes room for the possible futility of his efforts in the human world. And he comes to this conclusion: We cannot understand God’s plan, and so all that is left to do is lismoach v’la’asot tov b’chayav. To be happy and to do good in our lives. These are not the words of someone who has given up, but the words of someone who has opened up.

My last question tonight about this odd and wonderful book is this: why on Sukkot? The other pairings seem to make sense. On Pesach, in the spring, we read of love in Song of Songs. On Shavuot, when marking our covenant with God, we read about Ruth and her covenant with Naomi. But this? Kohelet on Sukkot?

Maybe it is about the harvest. You go into the fields and you realize that neither your careful tending nor your gross negligence had so very much effect on the crop. The rain and the sun were beyond your control. We don’t always know what we will harvest in our lives. So be careful of the level of your attachment to the outcome.

Or maybe it’s this. On Sukkot we live in a structure that is, by design, impermanent. Anitcha turned architecture. We eat and sleep and pray in it. And this structure, like our lives, is blown by winds much stronger than it. It is exposed to rain and cold. We have no choice but to live with its uncertainty, even as we reinforce the ropes and the knots and the fronds lying on top.

But the sukkah also affords us a grand opportunity to peer up from our lives and see the stars. They are changing too, but so slowly as to seem unchanging. They are distant from us but not irrelevant to us. There is space – makom – that binds us to them. We are tethered to them by light years of ayin, of nothingness.

This malchut, this kingdom, is much bigger than we are. Our world is like the wind that blows in its season and comes back around to blow again; our lives are the palm fronds rustling in that wind; and all this against the glittering and ancient backdrop of stars that, for all intents and purposes, have always been and will always be there.

That is the perspective provided by Sukkot and set to words by Kohelet. All is impermanent. There is a time for everything. And it’s all been done before.

And sometimes, even if briefly, that can come as a great relief.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Yom Kippur: Getting To It

For Congregation Ner Shalom, Cotati, CA.

Not long ago I had a run-in with the law. Not a big deal. Not like in the movies. No drugs or bank heists or international espionage. Not even any arrests (although I have in fact been arrested for civil disobedience on more than one occasion).
I was on my way to Ner Shalom’s annual Havdalah with the Horses. I was dressed in my finest faux cowboy gear – boots, jeans, Stetson. I had my guitar in the back seat and I was practicing talking like Chuck Connors in the Rifleman. As I turned onto East Cotati I saw the CHP car sitting on the shoulder and, as I always feel when I see a police car, I thought, “I’m going to get caught.” I think that instinctively, even though I’ve usually not done anything illegal.
As soon as I rounded the corner, the patrol car began to follow me. And when I stopped at a light, it pulled up alongside and behind, to read my registration sticker – ah yes, the registration sticker that I didn’t have. And as the traffic light turned green, the squad car’s lights burst into color and its siren emitted its nauseating “please pull over” whoop.
In the parking lot where we settled in, Officer Philips told me how out of date my registration was. And I began to tell my story. I couldn’t complete the renewal because there’s a factory recall out on this model, and they can’t smog it without my going to a dealer for the recall first. But the car also needs a new engine. Which we can’t afford. So we were saving to do that and figured we’d get the recall problem fixed at the same time. And now I’d actually made an appointment at the dealer for Tuesday, and here it was Saturday, and I really had the appointment. But anyway, at least we’d paid the renewal; the car was just officially missing the smog certification.
Officer Philips radioed in. “No,” he said, “you’re actually more than a year behind in registration; you didn’t pay anything. We have to impound.” And he called for the tow truck.
Could it be? How had I never dealt with this? The car had almost imperceptibly gone from being transit to being troubled to being overdue to being in need of an unaffordable repair to being mostly a metal box parked on the grass. It happened so gradually that I’d somehow allowed myself to lose track. I’d somehow let myself pretend there was no problem.
The tow truck was on its way. But if the car got impounded, I could only get it back with a completed registration, which I couldn’t get because of the factory recall unless I brought it to a dealer which I couldn’t do on Tuesday if the car was impounded. “Yep,” said Officer Philips, “that sure is a Catch-22.”
I began taking my stuff out of the car. And I began to wonder, how could I let things like this happen? I am, as you know, overextended. But I’m not completely disorganized. I could have seen to the issue of the registration payment or the smog certification or the recall on any of the previous 400 or so days. But I didn’t. And I had no excuse.
So why hadn’t I cleaned up my mess? What is it that makes me wait until some authority catches up with me? What is it that makes me feel like I don’t have the ability to just do what I know I need to do?
Meanwhile Officer Philips kept giving me chances. He would tell the tow truck not to take the car if, say, I could prove that I did have an appointment with the dealer. (I called on my phone; they were closed for the day.) Or if I could pay the registration fee right now on line. (I had Oren at home trying to do this but now the DMV computers were down.)
For some reason, Officer Philips wanted me to succeed in straightening this out. He wanted any basis upon which he could now undo the penalty. He spent a ridiculous amount of time with me – an hour or more – patiently babysitting my predicament, as flexible as his authority allowed, despite my standing there looking for all intents and purposes like a reject from the Village People.
Now this could just be a story about me and my particular flavor of neurosis. But it made me think bigger. About why any of us chooses to put off the actions that would allow us to live more cleanly, to live more honestly.
Last week on Rosh Hashanah, we talked during Storahtelling about what makes humans different from the other species in the Garden. People named many things – awareness, falling in love, laughter. No one mentioned procrastination. (Maybe they meant to say it, but decided to wait for some later time.) But procrastination is distinctly human. I live up on Sonoma Mountain, surrounded by deer and turkeys and squirrels and hummingbirds. And while one could impose many anthropomorphic descriptions on their styles of life, you can’t accuse any of them of procrastination. They know their priorities without having to choose them. Need a new nest? You build it. Need to forage for food? Forage!
But we humans are granted, by our Creator or by nature, free will. We have the ability to choose and we celebrate that ability by making bad choices all the time, choices against our deep interest, choices we know on some level to be the wrong choices for us. At least I do.
We choose not to make peace with the people who matter to us. We choose not to forgive the people who have hurt us. We choose not to give a second chance to people about whom we once had a strong snap judgment. We choose not to apologize. (“Ah, she’s probably forgotten it by now anyway.”) We choose to be other than who we really are or who we really want to be. We choose to wait when we need to act. We choose to ignore when we need to notice. We choose paths that are easier or more enjoyable or less expensive or less of a headache or just closer at hand. It’s natural to do. It’s only human.
And this characteristic of humankind has migrated from the individual to the body politic – our collective willingness to prioritize, or to let our leaders prioritize, the immediate over the inevitable; to put economy ahead of ecology; to fail the cause of peace when war seems more popular or more profitable.
We as individuals and we as a collective are willing – repeatedly – to subordinate deep needs to superficial ones.
In part I think this happens because our lives are much more complex than that of hummingbirds and deer. Our world is so complex that it is easy to feel helpless.
Face it. We live in a world we cannot explain. Not just the natural world – that has always been mysterious and a source of fear and wonder. But we have created a human world that is beyond our comprehension. Industry and science and politics and law and technology and commerce and medicine and social interaction. None of us can grasp more than a thin slice. What we understand is so outweighed by what we don’t. I don’t know how my car works, let alone my computer. I don’t know where most of my food comes from. I don’t understand ethnic tensions in distant places, and I barely understand them down the block. I understand a portion of what the government says it does, and nothing of what it does without saying.
Of course we feel helpless. Of course we often feel hopeless. No wonder a presidential candidate can say that 47% of Americans feel like victims, and somewhere deep down we think, “Hmm, yes, maybe I do feel like a victim.”
There isn’t a way to stay in charge of all of it. So we tune it out, like white noise, like static. We have to. Call it denial, but it’s a legitimate survival skill in this era. But over time, we tune out so much that we begin to tune out our own hearts as well, our own truth. Animals have no such problem. Neither do children. Ask a kid what she wants with all her heart, and she will know the answer. But we adults live in a great cognitive disconnect between what we know about ourselves and the incongruous choices we make.
Tomorrow we read a passage from the Torah portion, Nitzavim, in which God comments on our ability to follow God’s mitzvah – which I take to be not just God’s law but our deep human wisdom. The passage says, lo niflet hi mimcha v’lo r’chokah hi. “This mitzvah is not too mysterious or too distant for you. It is not in the sky or over the sea that you have to be subject to someone else’s paraphrase of it. Rather,” says the text, karov eylecha hadavar m’od, b’ficha uvil’vavcha la’asoto. “But rather it is close to you, close within you, already in your heart and in your mouth.”
How to live is something we already know, deep down. We know who we want to be, how we want to be. Take a moment right now. Close your eyes. Who do you want to be? Forget all the reasons you can’t. What kind of person do you want to be? Imagine yourself. Now please, hang on to that vision. Not just through this drash but when you get home tonight, and tomorrow, and next week too.
Think of what you just pictured and felt. We know when our actions are at one with that vision. We know when our speech really truly reflects our hearts. And we damn well know when we’re making choices that drag us further from who we want to be.  
Just as I knew my car registration was expired.
So why is it so hard to reboot without fear of some authority figure, whether it’s a cop or whether it’s God?
Our tradition charges us with the task of teshuvah – of returning to our selves; returning to our deepest and highest yearning; remembering who we want to be and realigning our sense of self with that vision. We are assigned the task of fixing our wrongs, cleaning up our messes, putting things right, living from a place of integrity.
These are not Yom Kippur tasks. This is an ongoing assignment. But absent a crisis or a timetable, we don’t do them. So our tradition says do it in the month of Elul. But that month slips by as we watch political conventions and ready our kids to go back to school. So then on Rosh Hashanah we’re reminded that we have ten more days to put things right and return to our deepest sense of self. On your mark, get set, go!
And yet, here we are again. Yom Kippur evening. And who among us has done it? Some yes, many of us not. So Yom Kippur pressures us with its own internal deadline. An image of Heaven’s Gates swinging closed through this holiday until tomorrow night, at the end of our ne’ilah service, when they at last click shut.
Our tradition obviously knows how hard it is to get moving. Taking that first step is so difficult. It is why we have midrash around who first put their toe into the Red Sea. Those legends remind us that you don’t need the courage to part the sea. You only need the pluck to dip your toe. And that small bit of chutzpah will move the oceans.
This holds true for all our deep desires. To be more fair. To be more kind. To be more learned. To be more green. To be someone who gives. To be someone who volunteers or someone who gives tzedakah. To be a music-maker or a vegetarian. To be someone who keeps a little bit of Shabbat. To be someone who gets outdoors. To be someone who flosses! To be someone who just does more. Or to be someone who - finally - does less.
The path of teshuvah, of returning to who we deeply want to be and know ourselves to be, also begins that way. “The journey of 1000 miles starts with one step,” as Lao Tsu said. Or noch tzvei trit, “just two more steps,” as my wise great-grandmother Rose Jacobs would say, when her little daughter, my grandmother, asked, “Are we there yet?”
Last week, Yael Raff Peskin led a truly beautiful tashlich ritual at the creek in Sebastopol. This is the ritual where we toss birdseed in the water, representing our guilt, our flaws, the things that hold us back from being who we know ourselves to be.
At this particular tashlich we stood on a floating bridge, some forty or fifty people. The bridge was not only the narrow bridge Rebbe Nachman talks about when he says kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar m’od – the whole world is a narrow bridge and the key thing is not to fear. It was also a wobbling bridge. There was no easy way to just stand firm and fling our faults into the flowing water. Because try as you might to stand firm, the surface under you would certainly give way.
We all live wobbly lives, despite childhood expectations of safety and certainty. It is easy to say, “I will make things better when the wobbling stops.” “I will take care of this relationship after the work crisis is over.” “I will take time in nature after I figure out how to handle this money problem.” But the time will never be right. The ground rocks under our feet. And the key, humans, is to do it anyway. Not to be afraid, but to do it anyway. We can. And what each of us needs to do is in our hearts and on our lips already.
So the lesson of the wobbly bridge is, I guess, to do it now. The lesson of the Heavenly Gates is to do it now. The lesson of the sudden untimely deaths of friends and loved ones is to do it now. There is no moment to act but this one.
The Gerer Rebbe, one Yom Kippur, commented on Rabbi Hillel’s famous words, “If not now, when?” He said:
The present moment, which was never here before, will never be here again…. And every moment has a different [purpose]…. How can we atone for the wasted present moment? The next moment cannot atone for this moment.
We only have now. It is all we can count on. So do it today, on Yom Kippur. Do it before the gates shut. Remember who you want to be. And then choose at every possible moment to act according to that instinct.
God is waiting – or perhaps your better self, the human you most want to be, is waiting – patiently, while you run through your tales of complications and impediments and factory recalls. You are waiting, waiting for you to finally get to it.
Ben adam, mahlecha nirdam, says the Sephardic poem I chanted last week. “Human being, why do you sleep? Wake up now, and call out.”
And so human, wake up. Call out. To your deepest self. You already know what to do and what to say. For it is close to you, closer than your skin, b’ficha uvilvavcha la’asoto, in your heart and on your lips, that you may do it.
Will it be a difficult road? Could be.
Will you know the way? Torah says so.
Is it worth it? Oh, yes.
Is it far to get there? No. Noch tzvei trit. Just two more steps.

Wishing a happy, healthy year to all who pass by this post.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Rosh Hashanah 5773: Only Human

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, Cotati, CA]
There’s a story about a group of ants that stumble upon the remains of a picnic. If we want we can make it a Rosh Hashanah picnic – with apples, honey, teyglach, honey cake. Delighted, they start dismantling it and loading it up to carry back to the colony. Each ant hoists some 100 times its own body weight in crumbs on its back and starts trudging toward home. They notice that Moishe the ant is carrying only 70 times his own weight. They say, “Hey, Moishe, what’s the matter with you, carrying only 70 times your weight?” Moishe looks up and says, “Nu, what do you want? I’m only human.” 
“I’m only human.” Our perennial apology. It is our ultimate statement of limitation – of weakness, of lack of will, of failure! I am only human.

Today is a day we are invited to take up the issue of what it means to be human. On Rosh Hashanah we say hayom harat olam: “Today is the birth of the world.” But the tradition is more specific. It’s not the anniversary of the first day of Creation, of “let there be light,” but rather of the sixth day, the day that this creature of clay, this earthling we call adam, that we call human; was created; the day when we, who are “only human” made our debut.

This idea that the world is not worth celebration until we appear in it, is not surprising. After all, the traditional Jewish view is that the world was created for us, and that is also the dominant view in our culture. It is a catchy and convenient idea that is alive and well and continues to motivate the actions of many members of our species, especially but not exclusively the ones who gravitate toward positions of power.  

But I’d venture that most of us do not feel like masters of the earth. Most of us feel not like masters at all but like subjects; subject to the age-old limitations of being human: our bodies, our circumstances, our times. 

Being “only human” is undeniably a frustrating thing. It is so limiting, this clay of ours. We are trapped inside our skins. We know the world through peepholes and each other largely through guesswork. For all of our vaunted human intelligence, it seems that the Fruit of Knowledge that we gobbled down in the garden gave us less actual knowledge than just a painful awareness of how much we don’t know.

We are clay. And DNA. And saltwater and surging chemicals. But we want so much more, we want to be so much more. We want to reach beyond our skin. Like Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We want to touch the greatness that is outside of us. We are clay with aspirations.

This paradox is captured in our Sixth Day Creation story itself. In it, God says:

Na’aseh adam b’tzalmenu kid’mutenu.
Let us make adam – the human – in our image and our likeness.

This is a paradox because adam means earth. We are the Earth-Being. God forms us of clay like a potter at the wheel, we say. Our birth is of earth. But the text also says we are made b’tzelem Elohim: in God’s image. So we are matter, somehow formed in imitation of the immaterial.

Godlike mud. 

So what is the godlike part of us? We don’t know! And that’s a terrible taunt. God tells us we’re godlike, then leaves us to work it out. How are we godlike? We can’t fly. We can’t shape-shift. We can’t live forever. We can’t tell the future or know the secrets of the past. We can’t look into each other’s hearts. We can’t do any of the cool superhero things we dream up for ourselves in comic books. No. On the contrary. Our lives are short. We are earthbound. We break, we hurt, we die, we grieve. We are only human. How sad for us, then; what a curse, to be able to imagine something better.

But isn’t our imagination a blessing as well?

I had a conversation not long ago with a childhood friend who, as an adult, suffers from bipolar disorder. It’s made her life difficult both personally and professionally. As she charged through our conversation at lightning speed, I finally interrupted to ask if it’s okay for me to jump in and pull her back to topic. She said yes, and added, “Irwin, understand that this is me on a good day. Now imagine me on a bad day, and talking to people who don’t happen to have a fond childhood memory of me.” 

I was struck by that, picturing the people who look at her without pity. I thought of the people who challenge or anger me. The ones I look at without pity. And, for the first time, it hit me: there are people who have loving childhood memories of them. What if I were one of them? How would my view of them be different?

Let’s all find out right now. Think of someone who bugs you, or who challenges you in some way. Conjure up the thought of that person, and give me a nod when you see them in your mind. Now imagine the child that they once were. Imagine how loved they were or, perhaps, how loved they wanted to be. Go ahead. I dare you to do it right now, even if you feel resistance – especially if you feel resistance. Think of that person and, for a moment, fondly hold in your arms the child they were. 

Did you feel something? For a moment were you open to believing in their best intentions? That they might be doing their best in the limited clay that they’ve been given? That even now, though they rub you the wrong way, they're trying their best? With this friendlier eye, can you imagine what motivates them? The desire to learn, to love, to be loved, to create, to connect, to be noticed, to be appreciated. How much more alike do you feel now? Does some of the wall you’ve erected against them wear away? Do you see that like you they’re only human?

Mazeltov. You have used your imagination and you have chosen to do so with chesed, with compassion. You have engaged in an act of empathy. No, it is not the same as God’s putative ability to look deep into each person’s heart. But it is godlike. And it is only human.

In difficult political times like these, I wonder sometimes where my empathy has gone. I look at people whose views I oppose and who oppose mine. I make sweeping judgments about them. I’m not incapable of empathy toward them. I just choose not to exercise any. After all, I’m only human.

But how bad would it be if I did? For instance, let’s take some big opponent of same-sex marriage. If I could set aside my hurt at seeing the bumper stickers on their car, couldn’t I pretty easily imagine the emotions that underlie their position? How difficult is it really to appreciate their very human fear of change, the fear of a world moving faster than one can cope, loyalty to tradition, a fear of letting go of what you know. Easy to imagine, because I feel those things too. And if they were inclined to try, how difficult would it be for them to perceive my very human hunger to belong, to have what others have, my desire not to be left behind, my hope not to have to beg for it.

I may not change anyone’s mind by engaging in random acts of empathy. I am not so naïve. But by doing so I will have kept myself from the temptation of dehumanizing others. Yes, they might dehumanize me. I know it. I don’t like it. But I don’t have to do it back. 

Jesus (yes, Jesus) said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” Our tradition doesn’t explicitly require loving our enemies. But tucked away in Torah is the idea that having empathy for them is important. In Exodus we read that if you see the donkey of someone who hates you collapsed under its burden, and your instinct is to just let them all go to hell, you are instructed nonetheless to help that person get their donkey on its feet. The human-ness of the situation binds you to each other.

Similarly in our very familiar Psalm 23, we read: ta’aroch l’fanay shulchan neged tzor’ray. You, God, set a table for me across from my enemies. This image is not that of a bargaining table, a table of war. A shulchan aruch is a table set for a meal. This is a vision about being able to sit down and break bread with the people we disagree with. Because deeper than our infuriating opinions and frustrating quirks is our very human hunger. When we break bread together, we connect as humans. We are experiencing empathy. My experience on this earth is like yours. You hunger, I hunger. You want, I want. We are both only human.

And maybe that’s a piece of this puzzle. Our human experience is not a barrier to empathy; but a condition precedent to it. Our being human is our only available source of it. Our humanness allows us to break through and reach beyond these human shells. Being human is not a wall, but a bridge. We are earthbound, but our earth-born compassion gives us flight. Body and spirit are not opposites. The spirit is instead the name we give to our human need and human ability to stretch.

The truth is, I believe, that if there is something divine in us, it is solid-state; it is inextricably woven into our humanity. When God acts, it is through us. Or looking at it from a different viewpoint when we act in the best possible ways, the most compassionate ways, we are God. We are tzelem Elohim – not just the image of God but the spitting image of God; not just the image of God, but our imagining of God. 

We who are only human have the ability to act with greatness. So great that we might be confused with angels. On the sixth day Creation story, after we’re referred to as adam, humankind is then referred to as ish, a term that in Torah is intermittently used to mean “angel.” It is this word for human that the sages use when they say uvamakom she’eyn anashim, hishtadel lihyot ish – “in a place where there are no people, try to be a person.” Not a human, as in “I’m only human.” But a person, as in a good person, a compassionate person. A mentsch. A person with the bearing of an angel. 

There is a story of a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov who dreamed of meeting the prophet Elijah. He begged his master to help him do this. So the Ba’al Shem Tov instructed him that on Rosh Hashanah he should go to a particular house in a particular village, with a satchel full of food and a satchel full of children’s clothes, and knock on the door, and there he would meet Elijah. This Chasid’s family was loath to see him go, but for the chance to meet the prophet Elijah it was not too great a sacrifice. 

So the Chasid want to this house, and as he stood outside he heard the voices of children crying. He knocked, and when the door opened he saw hungry looking children in threadbare clothes. He asked if he might stay with them over the holiday. The children’s mother said, “but we have no food to feed you a holiday meal with.” He replied, “It’s alright, I’ve brought plenty of food – enough for all of us. And clothes for the children too.” He stayed with the family for the duration of the holiday, never sleeping a wink for fear of missing his promised encounter with Elijah the Prophet. But he saw no one.

He returned to the Ba’al Shem Tov and complained that he did not see the prophet. “You didn’t see Elijah the Prophet?” Asked the master. “No, I didn’t.” “And you did everything I told you to?” “Yes I did.” 

“Then go back before Yom Kippur and do the same thing again, with a satchel of food and a satchel of clothes. But this time go a little earlier and stand at the door for a while listening.” This the Chasid did. And once again he heard the children crying. “Mama, we haven’t eaten all day.” And he heard their mother’s voice say, “Children, don’t you remember before Rosh Hashanah? I said ‘Have faith. God will send Elijah the prophet to provide for us.’ And wasn’t I right? Didn’t Elijah come with a satchel of food and a satchel of clothes? And didn’t he stay with us for two days? And now I promise you that Elijah will come again and help us.”

And then the Chasid understood, and he knocked on the door.

When we act with compassion, with generosity; when we set out to relieve suffering, then we are acting b’tzelem Elohim – in our most godlike way. Then we only humans may be confused with prophets or angels. 

We have remarkable gifts, either breathed into our spirits or coded into our cells. We have this terribly limiting, painful human life: short and frequently visited by grief and suffering. But it gives birth to such remarkable compassion, when we let it. It gives birth to empathy, toward friend and enemy alike, when we are brave enough to feel it. It gives birth to such generosity, when we don’t hold ourselves back. 

Maybe as we recite High Holy Day prayers, when we reach out to God in sorrow and regret and hope, we should not be imagining God at all, but should see ourselves calling out to our own potential greatness. Not political or military greatness, but each our own greatness of spirit, greatness of compassion, greatness of imagination. The best we want from ourselves. We can carry so many times our body’s weight! Perhaps we are the right destination for our prayers, and God is kind enough to stand in as  metaphor.

So on this birthday of the world, let us celebrate our humanity and all the potential for greatness that it represents. Let us celebrate our persistent desire to reach beyond our clay. Let us celebrate the fact that being only human is far from a limitation.

“Ben Adam,” says a Sephardic poem for the High Holy Days, “Human being, wake up. Break out of the shell of your humanness. Call out. Reach out. Ask for compassion. Act with generosity.”

Ben adam mah lecha nirdam? Kum k'ra b’tachanunim.
Sh’foch sichah, d’rosh s’lichah me’adon ha’adonim.
Lecha hatz’dakah v’lanu boshet hapanim.

We are clay. And we are just below angels. In this New Year, let us fly like angels on wings of compassion, compassion towards our loved ones, towards the people who challenge us, towards the ones who hurt us, even as best we can, toward the ones who hate us. 

Let us awake and ask for compassion and practice compassion. For on the sixth day, the human, the mentsch, the clay imitating God, was created.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Weight of the World is Love (Queer Love Chant)

This is a three-part chant I wrote over a decade ago for a ritual designed by my friend Scott Himmelsbach. It was for an event called "Love, Valor & Compassion" and I was tasked with creating some music for the "love" section. It was a queer event, so I culled from Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. Their text snippets bring to mind, respectively, the earthiness, the juiciness and the heavenliness of love. I've sinced used this periodically to replace the "Ahavat Olam" or "Ahavah Rabah" in Jewish ritual. And the other night I tried it for the first time at a (non-queer) partnership ritual (see video).

I offer this in case you wish to try it in your community or your work. (Start with Ginsberg and hold it till it's steady. Add Langston Hughes. Once those are stable, reach for Whitman! Lather, rinse, repeat.) If you do this, let me know how it flies!

And thanks to Johanna Adorjan for surreptitiously capturing this bit of video that gives a sense of how it sounds:

Friday, August 31, 2012

Ki Tetze:
Confessions of a Cross-Dressing Rabbi*

Whoa! Put me out of business, Torah, why don’t you?
This thought always crosses my mind as we collide with this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze. It’s one of those Torah speedbumps. You’re cruising along through the portion, enjoying good, sound, compassionate dictates about helping your neighbor and caring for life and then, bang:
Lo yihyeh chli gever al ishah v’lo yilbash gever simlat ishah.
No male article shall be on a woman, nor shall a man wear a woman’s garment.
And the reason for this prohibition?
Ki to’avat Adonai Eloheycha kol oseh eleh.
Whoever does this is abhorrent to Adonai, your God.
(Which is not even a reason, frankly. It’s like saying, “It’s so bad we don’t even need to give you a reason!”)
I’m sure some people have been waiting a long time for me to take up the issue of this prohibition since, by my own estimate, I spend upwards of 80 nights a year soundly planted inside a skirt and heels, as Winnie of the Kinsey Sicks.
When I was younger I naïvely imagined that by the time I had reached middle age, this prohibition would be academic. The distinction between men’s garb and women’s would have shrunk to a mere matter of size and fit. That as women claimed a place of power in the culture, the age-old cultural imperative for women to dress for men, to gussy themselves up in prescribed ways that we unquestioningly consider appealing and always consider sexual, would have fallen away.
But this is clearly not the case. Our secretary of state, indisputably the most powerful woman in this country, is still asked by reporters what designer she’s wearing and is criticized for appearing in public without applying paint to her face. George Schultz and Henry Kissinger, I’m sure, were never treated in this way. And the fact that this very thought brings a chuckle is a good clue that there’s a real problem here.
The pressure on women to look a certain deeply conventional but deeply unnatural way is astounding. Anyone who has taken a walk through the girls’ department of Target can see that we continue to train our daughters, with great gusto, that the price of being on this planet is their showing their skin: legs, shoulders, arms, midriffs. Our awkwardly adolescing sons are allowed to make themselves invisible in baggy pants and hoodies. Our daughters, though, are told that no matter how awkward or self-conscious their young age makes them, they are not permitted invisibility. They must put themselves on display for judgment by the male-driven culture. They can opt for baggy pants and hoodies, but I’d wager that most girls who do, feel like they’ve already failed in the marketplace of the flesh to which we subject them.
Winnie & cohorts. Photo: C. Stanley.
When I dress as Winnie on stage, I like to feel like I am pointing a finger at these inequities; demonstrating the artificiality of what we call femininity. Winnie, in her gawkiness, with skirt and heels and high-piled hair, with her secretly non-conforming body, is no more comfortable or natural in her getup than many or most women for whom dressing this way is the inescapable key to worth and self-worth.
We say we’ve reached a kind of gender equality in this country, which may be true in the law books but is not remotely the case on the ground. The fact that a man in a dress is either laughed at, stared at, or gushingly admired in the international press for his bravery (if he’s straight and European and doing it in solidarity with his 5-year old dress-wearing son) is a clear signal that men and women are not equal. If they were, why would it matter what he wears? Why would it be considered campy if he’s gay or brave if he’s not? Does anyone consider the bravery of a woman who is forced every single day to live with her physical appearance being the first and primary axis on which she is judged? And who, in response, lives a life in clothes that are too binding or too revealing for her own comfort? Who, for the sake of social acceptance, consents to wear shoes that make it impossible for her ever to flee an attacker?
That’s not to say women don’t succeed in this country far beyond any time in history. Of course things have changed! But women have to reckon with how they are seen in ways that men never do. They may choose on any given day or week or year whether to put on the dress and the makeup or just the jeans and the face that Nature gave them. But nonetheless, they must choose, and unlike for men, the choice is never a neutral one.
In Torah times, the notion of gender equality would have been an alien one. There were all sorts of codified social inequities. There was slavery, and indentured servitude. Women were property of fathers and husbands; they had no legal standing; except in rare cases they could not own land. In a system that relies on such distinctions in status, it becomes extremely important to know who is who. Status blur upsets the system. In a similar way to how mixed-race marriage was outlawed in the American south. If there are people whose natural role and purpose is to be oppressed, you must be able to confidently identify who they are.
The deep preoccupation people feel when they encounter someone and are uncertain how to read their gender is very revealing about how central - unnecessarily central, stupidly central - gender is to our culture. It seems someone’s gender is the most important thing we can know about them. When a baby is born, their sex is the first thing we ask, before we even ask about their health. We don’t know how to begin thinking about a baby without a proper pronoun, and an appropriate set of colors, toys and aspirations to go with it. (Even if the aspiration is that the baby should defy the limitations placed on their gender.)
There are people working hard to think about what it might be like to live in a society not so deeply marked by gender dualism. What it might be like for every binary opposition we dream up (hard/soft; loud/quiet; tough/compassionate) not to be painted onto gender. What it might be like for gender not to be revealed in pronouns. What it might be like really not to know the gender of people you hear about or hire or even meet. But people thinking or talking aloud about such questions remain on the fringe, because really thinking through and past gender conventions continues to be one of the most transgressive, outrageous things one can do.
In a world of extreme gender inequality, Torah, in this verse, in this prohibition, seems to be concerned with truth in advertising.
I, personally, would rather see other kinds of truth in advertising. I think plutocrats masquerading as populists are a much bigger problem this year. Haters of women dressing themselves as protectors of children. Racists garbed in ideas of meritocracy. Haters of the poor pretending to be proponents of economic tough love. That, my friends, is cross-dressing. And that is abhorrent.
If deep down, Torah is trying to say, “show your true colors,” then it is time for all of us to do just that. Whatever our true colors are; whatever our true colors tell us to wear. We owe this broken world that much. We owe our broken ideas of gender that much. We owe it to our mothers who weren’t allowed to just be. And even to our fathers who were never allowed the dress. We owe them that much. So let us show our true colors. To do anything less is abhorrent.
* Note: Irwin Keller readily admits to being a drag queen but vehemently denies being a rabbi.