Friday, December 20, 2013

Holy Ground

For Congregation Ner Shalom, and dedicated to the nursing and therapy staff of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital ICU and Neurology Ward. 

I’ve begun to take off my shoes at the hospital, in Mom’s room. I’ve taken to wearing slip-ons for just this purpose. I’ve gotten comfortable here. It has been three weeks after all, and our departure for the new adventure of a skilled nursing facility is imminent. Here at Memorial, I know at least 40 nurses, doctors, therapists and respiratory techs by name. I know many more by face. I know the other most ardent bedside vigil family. We ask each other in passing about our loved ones’ progress; we answer with noncommittal mutterings about daily improvement – amejorándose cada día, gracias a Diós.
I know the long traverse from bedside to bathroom to lobby to cafeteria. I love the cafeteria food, even though it’s not really any good. I look at the beige, crusted over fettuccini with vegetables, and I think, “Oh, it’s a bad night for the vegetarians.” I think that until my eyes wander over to the tuna casserole and I realize that it’s a bad night for everybody. But the food here is cheap and made with sincerity, geared to feed hungry healers and anxious families, and I can taste that straightforward intention. Less than four bucks later, I’m back in Mom’s room, with a paper bowl of salty beans and rice and another of carrots and, fortified, I can feel the kitchen staff at my back in this great recovery campaign we’re waging.
Mom has by now ended up in a private room. Not really private, just roommate-less. The staff has been deflecting incoming patients to other rooms, because they’ve grown fond of Mom, and her smile, and her laugh, and her family and friends. They know we take up space, what with our books and our guitars and our food baskets and photos and Shabbat candles and smuggled Manischewitz.
This big, half-empty, soon-to-be-abandoned room has been imbued over this short time with a kind of holiness. You can feel the room awash in it. So many people have brought so much love into these four walls. And Mom absorbs it even when it wears her out. We have chanted and read stories and coaxed out of her real pitches and good stabs at pronouncing Gershwin lyrics with her limited inventory of 5 vowels and 3-or-so consonants.
There is a holiness in this room. The simple drama of life and death; the undeniable power of word as demonstrated by its absence; the play of kindness, of chesed, mitigating the otherwise unchecked tyranny of biology – all of this carries a force that feels epic and ancient – and holy. There is a sense of the divine in moments of peril. “No atheists in a foxhole,” they say. But I think what they mean is that you can’t stand on that precipice of life and death and not feel the mix of hope and dread that accompany danger. It may or may not be God, but perching on that threshold of such elevated awareness brings with it an undeniable swell of grandeur.
Mom’s condition indeed has an epic, ancient quality – a biblical resonance. My friends Dawn and Eitan Weiner-Kaplow pointed out to me this week that her left temporal impairment is even described in Psalm 137, the “waters of Babylon” psalm. The passage goes, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning; may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy.”
My mother has never forgotten Jerusalem nor, to my knowledge, taken any vow re same. Still, the context of the psalm – a song about grave loss – is apropos. She has, like the Israelite captives in Babylon, lost her home. She has lost use of the Temple that is her body. How can she sing her old songs in this admat nechar, this foreign soil, both the foreign soil of California and the new, still uncharted normal of her own body? First she must learn to sing again, period.
There is much to lament in her situation. But grief and hope and uncertainty are as holy as joy, and this room is palpably holy, so much so that I have begun to remove my shoes, like Moshe in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot. Moshe, escaped from Egypt and Pharaoh’s wrath, is now a shepherd in Midyan. An angel appears in or as a bush that burns but isn’t consumed. (At Hebrew school I asked the kids what that means. I asked who had a fireplace at home. Many hands went up. One small girl piped up proudly that her family has two fireplaces. I asked her, “So what happens to the wood that you burn in the fireplace?” She responded, “I don’t know. Neither of them works.”)
In the Moshe story, it’s unclear if the bush is meant to be a miracle, or just a mechanism for getting Moshe’s attention. In order to perceive the bush wasn’t turning to ash, he must have not only noticed it but stared at it for some period of time, perhaps hypnotically, perhaps meditatively, or maybe just full of scientific curiosity. In any event he slowed down, drawn into a different kind of time, that holy kind of time that can move very fast or very slow, like Alice getting big and getting small in the rabbit hole, but either way her attention getting drawn to the unusual details around her. Once Moshe slows down to this unusual shrinking and expanding pace, only then is the space around him declared to be admat kodesh, holy ground. And then, at that point, the shoes became superfluous.
I asked the students why they thought there would be a “no shoes” rule in a holy place, since it seems to be somewhat of a universal, whether the holy place is a mosque or my German grandmother’s apartment. Some students were concerned that shoes would mess up the site, leaving unsightly and disrespectful Nike prints. Someone else suggested humility – that in the presence of God we are like paupers before a great monarch; our shoelessness symbolizes that.
But there’s also something else about how our feet, so seldom permitted nakedness, feel. Our hands touch and manipulate the world all the time; they are for fiddling as much as for feeling; their sensitivity is tempered and they are not to be trusted when testing the bathwater. But our feet, so often sheathed in leather and canvas and rubber are, when unleashed, open and guileless. Our feet feel for real; they transmit sensation purely.
Which makes our feet sensational organs for perceiving holiness. Whether the ground is soft or hard, dry or moist, carpeted or tiled, when we slow our tempo, like Moshe did studying the flame, we can feel so much from our feet. We can divine energy emanating from the earth’s core, pouring up through our bodies, northward like the Nile, and overflowing like the proverbial cup of Psalm 23. From earth into body into spirit, with our feet as key synapses. This is the energetic conduit that runs from sole to soul.
I was listening to “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” on NPR the other night. It was an episode called “Religion in a Secular Age.” They played comments from callers about religion and one caller said, “Every day when my feet hit the floor I experience the divine.” By which he seemed to mean that he felt the divine from the moment he got up in the morning. But the metaphor, in which his feet closed the circuit, really struck me.
I think how my own favorite moments of the High Holy Days have come during ne’ilah, the closing of Yom Kippur, when I give up any pretense of keeping shoes on, and stand before the closing gates in my white Hanes athletic socks, trying to suck the holiness of the moment right out of the ground.
Being without shoes also allows me to climb into Mom’s hospital bed once in a while to comfort her through a bad dream or some troubled breathing. My stocking feet let me make the move from chair to bed smoothly, without it having to be a conscious decision about care management or propriety. My feet simply lead, and I follow.
We have a long road ahead. My sister and I are hunkering down. Mom is improving, and the doctors have retracted their direst speculations about the cause of her hemorrhage. If she continues this way, God willing, we will at some point step off this elevated threshold, step back from the precipice. Will our feet feel the holiness even then?
In the Torah portion, after Moshe’s shoes are off, after he and the bush have some important chitchat about slavery and freedom etc., Moshe asks the name of the holiness that surrounds him. God does not reply, “I am El Shadai, the God of the Mountain.” Nor “I am Haborei, the Creator of the World.” Not even “I am Hamakom, the World Itself.” But instead something much vaguer, at once both a brilliant circularity and an outrageous copout: Ehyeh asher ehyeh. “I am what I am.”
Which I choose to take as an invitation to notice the divine at any time in any circumstance. “I am what I am,” “I am where I am,” “I am when I am.” Holy ground is not a specified place to which one must make pilgrimage. And with all due respect to Shabbat, holy ground is not limited to one day a week. Yes, you might feel it extra on Shabbat, or in Jerusalem or Mecca or Rome or at the lighthouse at Point Reyes. You might feel it extra in times of great danger, in life-changing times. But it is also there in the ehyeh asher ehyeh experience – in the “whatever” moments.
As we move off this precipice and on to the next phase of Mom’s recovery, I am going to look for holy ground in the skilled nursing facility, in the rehab gym, in the first swallows, in the words of slowly increasing intelligibility and even in the frustration and tears when they don’t come. I look forward to Mom’s – and all of our – admat nechar, foreign soil, becoming admat kodesh, holy ground.
To do this I will try to remember to take off my shoes. Not my literal ones. But to remove whatever barriers stand between me and the holiness of this existence. Whether the barrier is leather or crepe; whether the barrier is work or worry. I will do my best to remove the barriers that sheath my soul, so that I can feel the holy ground beneath my feet. Whether that holy ground is a hospital room or a cafeteria or a  sidewalk or workplace or hiking trail. Or sitting in the car with an unexpectedly dead battery on an inconvenient day or some other stupid predicament.
After all, Moshe found holy ground on the roadside himself, chasing a lamb that got away from him. Inconvenient. Unexpected. He probably felt stupid. And even so, he ended up on holy ground. He just slowed to the flow, staring at that bizarrely intact bush defying the laws of thermodynamics. And I too will try to see through those inconvenient, unexpected, stupid moments to spy what lies beyond them. And maybe I’ll keep wearing slip-ons too, just in case.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Parashat Vayechi - Bedside Pearls

For Congregation Ner Shalom. (And for me.) 
I wondered what I would talk about tonight; what of the immense experience of this last dozen days would bubble up as the take-away for a Shabbat drash. What of the surprise and sadness of my mother’s stroke? What of our agonizingly sluggish high-speed drive to the Memorial Hospital emergency room, during which my Mom, becoming aware of how bad this might go, looked at me and said, “Shit, shit, shit.” What of the fact that the last thing she had been doing before the stroke was learning! With me and the other members of Yiddish Tish, a poem by Kadya Molodovsky, in which the poet asks God to help her give up this pained world and to invite her to His house instead; asking God to prepare a meal and a footstool; asking God to send His most beautiful angel for her so that her last gaze would be extinguished with a smile? 

And what of our subsequent and continuing bedside vigil?  Or the tremendous show of support from this community, including the likes of Shari Brenner who dispensed with all her week’s plans in order to care for us and coordinate for us. Or the outpouring from Mom’s home synagogue and PFLAG communities and her large and loving family? What of any of this would float to the surface as the nugget that illuminates or is illuminated by this week’s Torah portion?
For obvious reasons I found myself drawn not to this week’s parashah, Vayigash, in which Joseph and his brothers are tearfully reunited, but instead next week’s, Vayechi, in which we see Joseph in vigil at his father’s bedside, his 147-year old father, from whom he had long been separated, but who, unforeseen, or perhaps completely foreseen by Joseph the interpreter of dreams, had ended up coming to him, and was now resettled in the green Egyptian exurb of Goshen. Joseph’s father was now nearby, literally embedded in a place where Joseph could keep company and give care.
All the obvious parallels jumped out at me. Like Joseph, I ended up far away from my birthplace; taking up a new life in what is, for all intents and purposes, another country. Like Joseph, I’ve lived with constant anxiety about a distant parent. And like Joseph, I found, beyond all reasonable expectation, that parent on my own doorstep at a moment of great need. I imagine that Joseph’s mind wandered to the question of bashertness, however that was said in Egyptian. That it was all meant to be: Pharaoh’s dreams, the rationing plan, the famine itself. So that Jacob would end up not in Hebron, near his parents’ graves, but in Egypt, on Joseph’s turf, where Joseph could rally the best healers and magicians and musicians. So that Jacob could be comfortable in his last days, in a safe and cozy bed, with his children and grandchildren in attendance.
So were we similarly fortunate. For decades I’ve lived with the anxiety: what if Mom’s life-changing event (because we will all have one, whether disease or disaster or death) happens while she’s alone in her house in Niles, Illinois? This decades-old anxiety was resolved overnight with no special effort on my part. The cards of chesed were dealt, and my mother ended up close by, in my car when it happened, and for this last fortnight just a few miles from my house. We too have been able to marshal remarkable resources for her – healers, magicians, musicians. Including my sister, who by coincidence was at a moment where she could make herself free to simply be here. What were the odds?
All of this bashertness is not necessarily destiny – I am not a strong believer in destiny. But it is blessing nonetheless. I am deeply aware of that at every moment. Every member of this community who comes into the room to read Mom a story or hold her hand or lay healing hands on her makes my own sense of blessing and gratitude well up and overflow. Yes, we would have made sure she got plenty of fine care and loving company in Chicago. But here it is happening without our having to engineer it. I have felt firmly supported, as have my sister and my husband and the rest our family. The doctors have been good, the nurses fabulous. The healers of this Ner Shalom community have helped us talk through our decision tree – the what-ifs that will make us more prepared in the coming days and weeks and months to make decisions based on what Mom would want for herself.
We have had magnificent moments in the hospital room. An Erev Shabbat in the ICU more intense and magical than any I could hope to achieve here. And then this week: moments of recovery. The first half-smile. An attempt to form a word. The squeeze of a hand. A reaction to a song or story or voice or face. A soft moaning that shifts in pitch until it matches a niggun being sung around the bedside. Each of these is a treasure. I feel like a diver discovering an oyster bed and finding pearl after pearl. Not in every oyster, not by far, but in enough to make me not give up the dive. This could have been my teaching tonight – something about the magnificent miracle of each moment. How spending Chanukah in the ICU and the neurology ward reawakens you to the miracles that are encoded in our very bodies – in our abilities to heal, or to recognize each other, or to make each other laugh. These are miracles no less significant than the Maccabbees expelling the Greeks back in the day. And all we have to do is notice.
This teaching is not new or revolutionary. Mindfulness. Easy. Just not always easy to do in our day-to-day lives. Mindfulness comes naturally at life’s biggest moments: births, deaths, grave illnesses. Moments when our usual yardsticks of success and failure drop away, when our field of vision narrows and we sidle into a more primitive relationship with the stuff of life. Where a smile or a squeeze of the hand or a clear, unimpeded breath matter and mean more than anything.
Joseph must have felt such extraordinary mindfulness at his father’s bedside. Torah tells the story as a series of events, but it hints at the heightened emotion and awareness behind the action. The events: Jacob makes Joseph swear to bury him in the family plot in Hebron. Later, in his final illness, Jacob blesses Joseph’s two sons, giving the firstborn blessing to the second-born, much as he, a second son, connived the firstborn blessing from his aged father, Isaac. Jacob offers prophecies about each of his sons’ descendants. Then he gathers his feet back into the bed and is gathered in turn by his ancestors, as the story beautifully reads.
But the emotion behind it. The text tells of Joseph prostrating himself at the bedside, but in our mind’s eye we see Joseph collapsing from grief. After all, he’d been without his father for so many years; how sad and bitter to anticipate losing him now a second time.
Torah doesn’t tell us how much time passed between Jacob’s exacting Joseph’s promise to bury him in the Old Country and his actual death. But no matter how long, we must imagine that there was enough time for Joseph to sit by his father’s bedside and tell him stories of Egypt and stroke his hand. Torah doesn’t tell us how many pearls of closeness and love Joseph and Jacob harvested together in those days or weeks or months until Jacob died so peacefully. But surely there were many. And the obvious teaching would have been: those pearls are always waiting for us; we can dive and fetch them at any time. An obvious teaching, and no less true for being obvious.
Or there might be here a teaching about making sure that nothing is left unsaid. That words of love must be uttered with frequency and sincerity, because you never know when your words might be taken away from you. If they are, you need to know that there are no “I love you’s” missing. I’m guessing that between Jacob and Joseph nothing was left unsaid, just as in our case as well. My mother was and is an insistent articulator of her love, through her words and her actions. She loves freely and extravagantly, taking people under her wing with ease. As I told a young ICU nurse, if she were awake she would ask you how you came to be a nurse and would then tell you how proud your parents must be of you. No, speaking words of love and encouragement is simply her way. And between us, nothing is unsaid, no endearments are missing. Offering this reminder, perhaps more from her than from me, would also an obvious teaching, and no less true for being obvious.
But this will not, I think, be what I ultimately offer here tonight. Yes, it was that kind of week when time slows and you notice every precious moment. But I was also misled by my heightened mindfulness; I was lulled by the strength and beauty of the support we were offered. I was being mindful; I was grateful; I was glad that I had no loose ends with my mother, no “I love you” left unsaid. I was feeling pretty on top of things from a metaphysical perspective - and from a practical perspective as well. I was reasonably in control of a difficult situation. Friends back in Chicago were checking on the house; mail was already being forwarded; doctors were being consulted; a Facebook group was channeling updates on Mom’s condition to well over 200 loved ones and admirers, like a town crier, or like the shames in the Chelm story, who would rap on everyone’s shutters to announce the coming of Shabbos, until he was too old and frail to do the walk, and so everyone in the town unhinged their shutters and brought them to the synagogue so the shames could rap on them all in one place. Facebook is nothing if it is not that. In any event, I had things under control.
In fact, I felt so in charge of things that, determined to demonstrate the self-care people encouraged me to engage in, I scheduled myself a haircut yesterday, followed by a bodywork session with Sally Churgel to take care of my lower back and left thigh, which had been in spasm for weeks, now substantially exacerbated by the stress of Mom’s stroke, not to mention the initial nights of sleeping in the La-Z-Boy in the Memorial Hospital ICU. I was proud that I was taking care of myself. Glad that Mom was safe at the hospital with my sister. The terrific nurses had their eye on her. Shoshana Fershtman was coming to give Mom reiki. Atzilah Solot would be coming later to chant. And Mac McCaffry the next day to read Mom some more Kipling. Yes, all things considered, this was going well, and I was feeling very in charge of an otherwise dire situation.
But yesterday it was explained to me that I was not in charge of it all. That you cannot be in charge of it all. It was explained to me not in words, and not by any person. It was conveyed to me by the Universe, in the form of a large dog, a Catahoula Hound, who was frustrated perhaps at not having a shared language, or aggravated at the lack of opposable thumbs that would otherwise enable it to grab its masters and shake them and complain about the miserable life they were providing it. This dog, an unfamiliar familiar, carried the message to me that we cannot count on staying in control, that we cannot count on only one thing going wrong at a time. It did so using a traditional canine non-verbal method, involving sinking its teeth into flesh, into my hamstring. My mindfulness soared for moment, as fear and pain gave way to a moment of mindful grace in which I thought, “Aha, so this is what it feels like to be bitten by a large dog.”
I did not catch this dog’s name, although Demon Spawn comes to mind. But maybe it was Angel. My thigh was swelling like Jacob’s after his famed wrestling match, so maybe this dog was an angel too, delivering to me a message: a message that it was time for me to humble the fuck up. And sure enough, instead of on Sally’s very peaceful and healing table, I found myself back at the Memorial Hospital ER where they looked at me, puzzled, still remembering my colorful arrival with Mom last week. My sister came down from Mom’s room to meet me at registration, and wondered aloud whether she ought to just fill out her own emergency admission paperwork now, just in case.
I got good care, antibiotics and Percocet. I got, unexpectedly, an afternoon of relief from the muscle spasm I’d been experiencing in that very thigh, not unlike a bee sting relieving arthritis.
And I got a lesson, a thankfully non-fatal lesson, that anything can happen. That this life unfolds in messy ways, even if we’re blessed that some of it unfolds well. That staying on top of things is not possible and really not desirable either. Staying on top of things won’t keep the pain away, or make the catastrophe un-happen.
Instead, maybe, we are condemned – or privileged – to struggle. To slog through the messes and the sadnesses and to rejoice at the simches that don’t always quite make up for the pain but which deserve all our love anyway. To learn to roll with the unexpected without regard to how you will handle it or what you will do about it. To be, as Berrine often reminds me, a human being, not a human doing. And yes, to be mindful of the pearls that you find as you move in this current. And yes, to say all your “I love you’s” well in advance of dire need, because you never know when a large dog’s denim-piercing teeth will keep you away from a bedside at a critical moment.
I learned all this from the Universe, from an Angel, whose teeth and slobber I can still feel. It could have been worse. Oh wait, it was worse, just a week before, when I arrived at the ER with my mother, who was busy losing her motion and her words. And oh wait, that could have been worse too.
We all live through hard times. And these times are ultimately bigger than our optimism or our pessimism or our managerial skills. Instead, I guess, the trick is just to be open. Enlist help. Be brave enough to be vulnerable. Be brave enough to hurt and to heal.
A lovely Kinsey Sicks fan and seminary student, Charles May, caught wind of what was going on this week and sent me this unattributed prayer-poem:
God, make me brave for life: oh, braver than this.
Let me straighten after pain, as a tree straightens after the rain,
Shining and lovely again.
God, make me brave for life; much braver than this.
As the blown grass lifts, let me rise
From sorrow with quiet eyes,
Knowing Thy way is wise.
God, make me brave, life brings
Such blinding things.
Help me to keep my sight;
Help me to see aright
That out of dark comes light.
My life is filled with blessing without measure, baruch Hashem. I am blessed that because this time is uncontrollable, unmanageable, the pearls – a smile, the squeeze of a hand, the arching of an eyebrow – are all the more precious.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Parashat Vayishlach: The Slo-Mo Kiss

For Congregation Ner Shalom

So you know that classic cinematic moment, where you have a couple running through a meadow of tall grasses, careening toward each other, inevitably - in fact compulsorily - running in slomo, likely accompanied by the love theme from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, and ending ultimately in an embrace, a kiss, sometimes a lift and a spin.

One wonders where this idea started; was it first literary and then translated to screen? And what is the story of these two lovers anyway? If they're so in love, why are they running from opposite directions? And if it's a rendezvous, how did they happen to arrive at just the right moment to fall into each others arms so flawlessly in the most picturesque spot?

Now, I'm not certain I've ever actually seen this in film or TV1; what I've seen are the countless spoofs of it, where they come together and something goes wrong. They bounce off each other, or they miss each other, or they slam into each other and get knocked out. This trope is so cheesy it begs to be satirized. As was done in these words by one Jennifer Hart, submitted to a Washington Post bad metaphor contest: "Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 pm traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 pm at a speed of 35 mph."

Though not running through a meadow, this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, contains a kind of comparable moment. Two people who are deeply connected and long parted, heading toward each other through the open spaces, ending in a kiss. Those two people are Jacob and his twin brother Esau, separated for 20 years after Jacob's theft of birthright and blessing and subsequent flight back to the Old Country. Jacob has gotten older. He has 2 wives and 2 concubines. A dozen kids. Flocks. Wealth. And now, God has instructed him to return to his birthplace, to the land of his ancestors, in an almost exact reversal of God's first command to Abraham, to leave his birthplace and his father's house.

Jacob knows that heading toward his past involves facing his brother and the conflict he has dodged for two decades. He is nervous. He sends messages and gifts ahead - flocks and servants. He learns his brother is approaching with a regimen of 400 men and he quakes with fear. He divides his holdings into two camps, so that if Esau should attack, there is the chance that half his household might escape.

Night falls, and Jacob finds himself in a mysterious wrestling match with a stranger - a stranger or an angel, maybe the Archangel Michael, according to some midrash. Or could it be his brother? Or his own conscience (although rare is the conscience that can dislocate your hip)? Emerging from this struggle, Jacob is given a new name - Yisrael, Israel, the one who wrestles with God.

Dawn comes and Jacob, now Israel, sets forth toward his brother. He punctuates the final run up to the rendezvous, bowing to the ground seven times. They get nearer and nearer until Esau can bear it no more and breaks into a run:

וירץ עשו לקראתו ויפל על–צוארו וישקהו ויבכו
 Esau ran toward him and embraced him and fell on his neck 
and kissed him 
and they wept.

It is perhaps one of the most poignant moments in Torah. Beautiful and unexpected. But there is something else unusual about it, that you only notice if reading from Torah. The word vayishakehu - "and he kissed him" - is written with a dot drawn above each letter, as you can see here:

Photo of text from Ner Shalom's torah scroll, which originated in Sobeslav, Czech Republic.
This is exceedingly rare in Torah, which doesn't actually have any system of dots or diacritics. It is rare, and like everything else in our tradition, of uncertain meaning. Some say that at some point there had been a scribal error or the suspicion of one, and the dots are an indication to take the word with a grain of salt. Others say that the dots indicate that there is cause to look deeper, to look underneath the word.

And so our sages did just that; they looked underneath the word and they decided that Esau's kiss was insincere. That he kissed, but not with a whole heart. Other midrash goes even further. That Esau did not intend to kiss (represented by the root nashak in Hebrew) but rather to bite (represented by the similar root nashakh). And that in the instant that Esau fell on Jacob to bite him True Blood-style, Jacob's neck turned to ivory and Esau's teeth were painfully deflected, causing him, in the next word, to weep.

The distrust of Esau and his motives is captured in the words of the 1st Century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who actually did believe that Esau was sincere in the moment, but that his love was deeply out of character. Bar Yochai says, "It is halachah" - that is, tradition strong enough to be considered law - "that Esau hates Jacob."

So what is this about? Here we have to turn for a moment to our fables surrounding the origins of the nations of the world. We of course see ourselves as B'nei Yisrael - the Children of Israel, i.e. the descendants of Jacob. We see Ishmael as the forebear of the Arab nations. Esau, or as he is renamed, Edom, is imagined to be the forebear of the Gentiles: the Greeks, the Romans and ultimately all Christians and Europeans. These gentile nations were referred to in our rabbinic tradition as Edomites, as the descendants of Esau. And so Esau and Jacob in this moment, in the rabbinic view, are not just individuals in a family drama, but avatars of the Gentile and Jewish worlds. And already in Bar Yochai's time, we see that the hatred leveled at Jews was so old and entrenched that it was beyond custom: it was like law.

In Bar Yochai's time and throughout our history, an awareness of the threat on our doorstep has been part of our people's consciousness. Our oldest prayers, our psalms, for every beautiful transcendent moment they offer, they boast an equal number of requests for God to destroy our enemies. Even our Shabbat psalm, Psalm 92, read on our holy day, and in which we early on sing l'hagid baboker chasdecha - :let us sing your kindness in the morning;" and which we cap off with tzadik katamar yifrach - "the righteous shall blossom like the date palm;" this Shabbat psalm also has a middle section, which Reb Judith Goleman and I confessed to each other this week we both treat as the great flyover; a middle section in which we say that evildoers blossom solely so that they may be utterly destroyed; that our enemies will be brought to nought. Such prayers for real-world military victory over our enemies has always been part of our tradition, which is ironic when you consider how seldom we've ever had real-world military victory. There were the Maccabbees 2200 years ago. And of course the modern State of Israel. And between them? Well, not so much. Most of our history is characterized by being subject to other people's aggression.

Last week we marked the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the "night of shattered glass," the days-long pogrom that swept through Germany and Austria, days of terror and destruction and hiding that are conveniently used to date the beginning of the Holocaust. But of course it wasn't a beginning; but a continuation. The pogroms, the persecutions, the massacres. They've existed in every generation of our people, if not in one place then in another. We have the good fortune to be living in a time and a place where there is respite; where Anti-Semitism isn't violent or overt. I asked our 12-year old if he'd experienced or witnessed Anti-Semitism in his life. Once, he answered, when playing World of Warcraft, a fantasy computer game in which real people around the world play in a virtual landscape, modeled on a kind of folkloric medieval Europe. There are certain activities in the game that can get a player labeled as a Goldfarmer or a Tradespammer. And sure enough, in a spontaneous replication of medieval European values, Ari had witnessed at least one player calling the Goldfarmers and Tradespammers "Jews." To their credit, other players responded strongly.

I'm not trying to raise an alarm about Anti-Semitism. But instead to note the context in which the rabbis voiced their suspicion about Esau and his motives. They had not had a wealth of experience in which the benevolence of the non-Jewish world was wholehearted.

But it's not just the mere identification of Esau with the gentile nations at work. The physical and characterological differences between the brothers also resonate with a certain Jewish anxiety about what we Jews are like. Esau is a hunter, an activity our grandparents might well call goyim naches, the gentile sphere of brawny activity. And Jacob? While he's not clearly a scholar, which was often the Jewish male ideal pitted against the gentile warrior archetype, he is nonetheless a mama's boy. Esau leads with physical action. Jacob cooks. And when Jacob prevails at taking the birthright and the blessing, it is not by confrontation but by cunning. The portrayal of Jacob, as seen through the cultural lens of a European patriarchy, looks like an indictment of Jacob's masculinity and of Jewish masculinity altogether. As Daniel Boyarin writes in his book, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, "The term goyim naches refers to violent physical activity, such as hunting, dueling, or wars -- all of which Jews traditionally depised, for which they in turn were despised -- and to the association of violence with male attractiveness and with sex itself..."

As Jacob approaches his brother, we see the Jewish people addressing the gentile world, aware that they are despised, that the gentile world sees their shunning of violence as a weakness, as an ugliness, as a failure of manhood.

And yet it is Esau, the hunter, surrounded by a military detail, who falls on his brother's neck and kisses him and weeps. And Bar Yochai says, despite the abiding fact of Esau's hatred of Jacob, Esau kisses him with a whole heart.

This is not the expected end. You expect a duel. My name is Esau son of Isaac. You stole my birthright. Prepare to die. 

If Esau represents the unrelenting brutality of the non-Jewish world, he does not make good on the threat. So did he transform as well? Did he  have his own wrestling match the night before? Or is this change brought about by 20 intervening years, during which his anger at being bamboozled by his brother gave way to sadness at being abandoned by him?

Or is he more complex, more subtle, than Torah's portrayal of him, and than Jewish anxieties about him? Shoshana Fershtman suggested to me that Jacob wrestled not with an angel but with a shadow, the shadow he'd been projecting onto Esau his whole life. With the shadow defeated, Esau was now able to be seen for who he really was - someone who loved and missed his brother.

And so that day, when they approach each other, when in the last moment Esau breaks into a run like the star-crossed lovers in a bad movie, as they fall into each other's arms, Torah puts dots over each letter of their kiss, slowing the reader down, demanding that we pronounce each syllable separately: va - yish - sha - ke - hu. Torah gives us the requisite slow-motion effect so that we have the chance to look into Esau's eyes and see that he isn't exactly the way we thought of him, and that his heart is truly overflowing. And we get the span of six short breaths to whisper to Jacob that yes, this might be real. And as the film frames tick past we can absorb for a moment that despite history, despite everyone's bad patterns and worst instincts, despite our low, low expectations of the other, something better, a moment of forgiveness, of understanding, is possible. We can never know about someone else's transformation, but we can wrestle with our own shadows, with our own fears, with our own projections, and clear the way to receive the open-hearted kiss. And if we can do this enough, then we can make a better world, where hearts will skip beats from eagerness, not from fear; where hiding will only be required in children's games; and where the sound of shattering glass will emanate only from under the wedding chupah.

I have now been told that this trope originated in the 1967 film "Elvira Madigan." I guess I'll have to Netflix it to see if it's the case; not that I want to. It ends with a dismal double suicide. Oh - spoiler alert. It ends with a dismal double suicide. Goyim naches. See below. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Bar Mitzvah+40, and God and Abraham Are Still At It

For Congregation Ner Shalom

There's been so much conflict in the air of late. Some personal stuff, but also big stuff -  the long political standoff of the last two weeks most notably. Maybe the big stuff feeds the personal stuff as we all get into moods of hopelessness or unyieldingness. But now there has been softening. Despite everything, the government is back to work and the debt ceiling remains unbreached. Inspectors are dismantling Syria's chemical weapons. Iran is talking about us - Americans and Jews - politely. How does that happen? How are deadlocks broken? How is brinksmanship reeled back in? Is it deadlines? Appearances? Exhaustion? Random bouts of conscience?

One wonders all these things reading this week's epic Torah portion, Parashat Vayera. In it, angels visit Abraham and Sarah; Sodom and Gomorrah are reduced to smoke and ash; Lot's unnamed wife turns famously to salt; Sarah conceives and gives birth; Hagar and Ishmael are exiled; and Isaac is nearly sacrificed on a mountaintop. Epic.

Bar Mitzvah Boy, circa November 1973
This portion also looms large for me because it was my Bar Mitzvah portion, 40 years ago this Hebrew week. Forty years is a long time, a length of time of biblical proportions. Because in Torah, 40 is the formulaic number used to mean "lots and lots." The number of days of rain the Earth endured. The number of years our people wandered in the desert, from the narrow place of enslavement to a Promised Land overflowing with milk and honey. Forty is a number of transformation - the requisite time units required to transform planet or people.

The excerpt I was assigned to read from Parashat Vayera when I was 13 was a short conversation you might remember between Abraham and God. Abraham has just received three visitors - generally thought to be angels, Midrash says they are Michael, Gabriel and Raphael - to whom he shows tremendous hospitality there in the harsh Canaanite heat. There are three angels for three tasks, since tradition says angels cannot multitask. Michael is there to prophesy the birth of Isaac. Raphael is there possibly to heal Abraham from his circumcision, which happened at the end of last week's parashah. And Gabriel's errand? To bring down the city of Sodom.

After welcoming and feasting them, Abraham sees the angels off. Once they're on their way, Abraham pauses to have a talk with God about God's ethics. Abraham, who is 99 and has seen a lot by this point, asks God what I think is The Money Question, the question that is still The Money Question, nagging at our faith right up to this moment. Abraham asks, "Will you destroy the righteous along with the wicked?" Then he gets specific. What if there are 50 innocents in the city of Sodom. Would God still destroy the place? To which God replies that no, he would save the city for the sake of those 50.

I sometimes wonder if Abraham was surprised at this response. After all, living in this world means seeing good people swallowed up as often as the wicked, if not more often. I picture Abraham realizing he was onto something, and trying to maintain his best poker face while deciding whether to push further. He does. What about 45? Could five people short of 50 really make that much of a difference? What about 40? 30? 20? And then finally, what about a minyan of ten decent people? "Yes," says God. "I would save the city for the sake of the ten."

And that's the end of the conversation. God turns his attention to Sodom; Abraham stays put.

I remember as a 13-year old, being thrilled at this portion. I loved Abraham's chutzpah and his flowery diplomacy in this passage, flattering even as he presses. I loved the idea that with enough initiative you could persuade or pester or somehow prevail on God to change course. You could stand up against injustice, even if the unjust institution was Divinity itself. At that age I'd already been exposed to the Civil Rights Movement and I had a natural attraction to feminism. So speaking truth to power, as they say, while it scared me, seemed the noblest thing one could aspire to do. (And not to compare, but while Abraham spent several minutes advocating on behalf of Sodomites, I have done it for nearly four decades. Just saying.)

Anyway, as a kid I loved that Abraham dared. But there was another part of me that was disappointed, perhaps even a little ashamed of Abraham. Because why, I kept wondering, did he stop at ten? Couldn't he have pushed God to five? What was the downside? And why not one? If there was even just one good person in Sodom, should that person have been destroyed along with everyone else?

Then the older me, the one closer to this side of the 40 years goes even further: why not zero? Why are we only counting the righteous people? What if there were only wicked people in Sodom? Weren't they still deserving of life? Weren't they also God's children? And why is God destroying cities anyway?

We don't know exactly what the crime of the people of Sodom was; for all we know their wickedness might in fact have been far-ranging and multi-faceted and infinitely creative. We do know that the townspeople wanted Lot to hand over his guests so that they could "know" them, meaning sexually. And while that stands in contrast to Abraham's lavish welcome of those same guests, it is a little disingenuous to say that the big crime of Sodom was inhospitality, as has at times been suggested, probably to draw more distance from the accusation that the capital crime of the Sodomites was homosexuality. Torah seems to be pretty clearly pointing to a sexual crime here, most undoubtedly a violent one. But still, do they deserve death in return? And if they don't, then how much the moreso if the crime was mere inhospitality?

But even if the crime was violent and sexual and unthinkable, is there no redemption for them? Could they not have repented and changed like the Ninevites in the Jonah story, whose crimes are unspecified but also presumably serious to the point of being a capital offense? Couldn't God have helped them want to change? Yes, yes, the Prime Directive - no messing with humanity's Free Will. But would sending an angel to smite the people with a quick wave of remorse be that much worse than sending an angel to bury them in brimstone?

And what about Lot, Abraham's nephew? To his credit, he doesn't turn his guests over to the mob. But how does he play his Big Hero Moment? He offers his daughters instead. Not himself. His daughters. And for this we are supposed to understand him to be a righteous person, worthy of being saved? In my imagination, it was that moment, not her later equivocation, that turned Lot's wife to salt.

No, the moral knots of this story get more tangled the more you try to untie them. Because eventually we need to turn back and look again at that strange conversation between God and Abraham that was the centerpiece of my Bar Mitzvah.

What the hell is going on in that conversation? What kind of theological mess is it? Is God that pliable? Do we want God to be a pushover? Maybe. Or maybe we'd prefer a God that doesn't entertain lobbyists.

On the other hand, looking closely at the passage, is God actually bending at all? Abraham does seem to win an important rhetorical victory. But Sodom still goes up in smoke. How exactly does anything end up different? Isn't the all-knowing God fully aware of exactly how many righteous people are in the city? But he lets Abraham prattle on about honor and fairness and justice anyway. Is God just patronizing Abraham? Agreeing to terms that he knows will not bind him. Couldn't God have said at the outset, "Listen Abe, I know where you're going with this. Save your breath. These people are toast. Gornisht helfen."
In the words of Aretha Franklin, "who's zooming who?"

My study partner in Boston believes that the idea that there is persuasion going on here is wrong. God and Abraham were not bargaining. Abraham fully expected the destruction of Sodom. But as our patriarch, as the one building a relationship with a previously unannounced deity, he wanted to know as much as he could about how this new god operates. So Abraham's questions are not about getting God to change his position. They are to flesh out God's ethical framework.

This makes sense to me too. If God is going to destroy an entire people, Abraham might want to know a bit more about how God makes the decision to do so. After all, the Great Flood was just ten generations earlier - recent enough to be not just legend but an inherited and visceral terror. Noah himself, according to the math of Torah, was still alive in Abraham's time, and the sight of this survivor, enduring so many extra years of unshakable nightmares, could not have been a pretty one. So yes, Abraham might have wanted to know the exact point of no return, where life sentence tips over into death sentence, not for the sake of the people of Sodom at all, but for his own people and those who would come after him. So that they - so that we - could know and steer clear and survive.

But maybe the youthful assessment that God is pliable is not completely wrong either. Maybe things aren't entirely as they seem. In the portion, right before Abraham turns and addresses God, we have the rare privilege of eavesdropping on a divine thought bubble. God says,
Shall I hide from Abraham this thing which I will do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through him? For I know he will command his children after him to keep my ways.
God has a qualm. Seemingly not a qualm about the blow he will deliver in Sodom, but an uncertainty about the effect of that act on others in whom he is invested. God is uncertain whether honesty is the best policy or whether he should just keep working in mysterious ways. Somehow Abraham, I think, correctly perceives God's hesitation. God here is not only invisible, but transparent also. And Abraham generously launches the discussion without God ever having to decide whether to tell him or not.

There is something I like about this moment of God's uncertainty. Even if God is being an unyielding force of cause and effect - Sodom does X, the predestined response is Y - still, it seems God worries whether all of this was such a good idea.

I like the greater complexity, the subtlety. That the power you rail against is perhaps not monolithic. If that is the case with God, how much more so the authority we experience in our earthly lives. We might portray institutions that oppress us as inflexible, we might paint them as evil. But earthly institutions are made up of real people with hopes and dreams and fears and relationships. And that should be a hopeful thing. Because individuals can change, and their institutions inevitably change with them. Forty years ago I would not have foreseen same-sex marriage, or thirty years ago or twenty. But people do change, in part because of the kind of intimate conversation we see in Vayera, in which someone dares to challenge a loved one's moral stance. The Abraham-like advocate has a role, and that Abraham-like advocate is each one of us.

So maybe the world is not as unyielding as it looks. If God is present in our actions, as the Kotzker Rebbe suggested when he said that God is present wherever you let God in; if our combined actions are God, as Mordecai Kaplan suggests in his Reconstructionist rethinking of Judaism, then of course God is a God who puzzles. Because we do. We drey about what path to take. Sometimes we can't influence the outcome; sometimes we can; sometimes our influence will only be felt 3 or 4 or 40 outcomes from now.

So I think there are a couple possible truths here. We are the heirs of Abraham. Arguing with God is our legacy, as it was for the very same Kotzker Rebbe who, when seeing the violence enacted upon the Jews around him, demanded that God be bound by God's own laws. Quiet obedience has never been our strong suit. And the other truth is that we are also made b'tzelem Elohim, in God's image. We each sometimes wield authority, individually or in community; we do so sometimes like veritable forces of nature. But we have the ability to slow down, to question, to wonder and, most important, to listen. There is nothing that we do that is unstoppable, that is unbendable, that is irremediable. No government standoff - or any other kind - is permanent.

Forty years I've lived with this story. Journeyed with it. Only to discover that in the end I'm transformed and not transformed, coming to rest not far from where I started: still proud of the Abraham in all of us, daring to speak some truth; and still believing that the world, despite everything, can change.

Thanks to Reb Eli Herb, who first suggested that God and Abraham were not sparring at all. And of course to Rabbi Mark Shapiro, who assigned me the portion, and who is always present somewhere in all of these drashot.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Six Degrees of Inspiration (An Introduction to Shoftim)

(I was asked to introduce Parashat Shoftim at the San Francisco launch party for the new Reboot book, Unscrolled: 54 Artists and Writers Wrestle with the Torah. I was charged with setting the stage for David Katznelson, author of the entry for Parashat Shoftim. David wrote about Otha Turner, a fife-and-drum blues performer from Mississippi, who has been an inspiration to David and who is, to David’s mind, a modern-day prophet. I was allotted one minute.)

At the Unscrolled launch, surrounded by the unrolled scroll.

Now we careen toward the end of the Torah scroll, where Moshe will breathe his last breath. In that moment, Torah tells us there would never again arise in Israel a prophet like Moshe, who spoke to God face to face.

Torah also tells us God spoke to Moshe mouth to mouth. Not mouth to ear, as you might expect. But rather God’s non-corporeal, metaphysical mouth pressed to Moshe’s waiting lips, in a great Hollywood kiss of prophecy.

But post-Moshe, what are we left with? Prophecy now comes in a flash, in visions and dreams.

Talmud says our dreams are 1/60 part prophecy. One sixtieth: a tiny but not insignificant bit. After all, one-sixtieth part treyf spoils the whole pot of soup. One sixtieth is small but mighty.

In an hour of our dreaming, there is a full minute of prophecy. In the 360 degrees in which we envision our lives, there are six degrees of inspiration.

But how do we know which six degrees?

Shoftim tells us right here: if a prophet speaks words of prophecy and the words come true then it is true prophecy but if a prophet speaks words of prophecy and the words don’t come true then it was never prophecy to begin with. Kind of circular, but also kind of wise. We may have a gut feeling, but time will tell. Time will tell.

And who can be a prophet? It does not need to be a monarch or a celestial being or a Messiah or an extra-terrestrial. But instead Shoftim says it will be someone mikerev acheyhem – someone of the people, of the community. Someone kamocha – like you. Yes, you. Really. You.

Meaning, I think, that prophecy will come to us, if it does, each in our own language and our own medium.

So the scholar might receive her prophecy as a flash of insight; and the preacher as a sudden, inspiring rhetorical flourish. The painter in the studied but still impulsive brush stroke. The storyteller in an improvised and heartbreaking twist of plot. And the blues singer in the poetry of the lament and the discipline of the fife and drum.

And how will we ready ourselves to be prophets? We will live the full 360 degrees of our lives. And dream the hours of our dreams. We will do our best work, each of us in our own language and our own medium. We will keep our ears open – or maybe our lips. And then time will tell. Time will tell.

A 140-character reduction of this introduction was also tweeted as part of a Reboot project to crowd-source Torah thought, portion by portion. Check it out and join the conversation using hashtag #Torahin140.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Yom Kippur 5774: Three Longings

For Congregation Ner Shalom

The Chasidim who, like me, love to toy with words, re-sorting letters to see what new can be found, have an interesting teaching about this day, Yom Kippur, which is called in Hebrew, Yom Hakippurim. They mess with the vowels just a little and point out that the name of this holy day could be read as yom k'purim. A day like Purim.

Of course on the surface, that seems ridiculous. These holidays are nothing like each other. On Purim we celebrate with indulgence. It is an ecstatic and intemperate holiday of costumes and merriment. So very unlike this solemn day of fasting and introspection. And yet the Chasidic masters are insistent that we notice that these two moments are linked. To my mind, the strongest bond between Purim and Yom Kippur has to do with hiding and revealing. Each holiday involves an unmasking of sorts.

At Purim we wear disguises, in deference to Queen Esther herself who, disguised as a gentile queen, is forced by circumstance to muster her inner resources and lower the mask, own up to who she is, and take responsibility for her fate and that of her people.

And here we are on this Yom K'purim, this Purim-like day, struggling to muster our inner resources and lower our own masks, to reveal to ourselves, and each other, and the Universe, and God perhaps, who we really are. What's in our hearts. What we're made of. And what we long for.

This does in fact take some unmasking. Because so many of our longings are invisible even to us, even though they inform so much of our lives. Our longings sit below the surface, like rules of grammar that indiscernibly conjugate our verbs and line up our words before issuing them from our mouths. The grammar of longing informs our values and arranges our choices. Our longing is the deep structure of our lives. And much of that longing plays its part without our even noticing it.

But tonight I'd like us to notice. I'd like us to take up three longings that I think we as a community struggle with and that we, as individuals, have often sent into exile as being, somehow, wrong or undesirable. Three longings which, I believe, deserve our attention and some honor and maybe even some forgiveness. These three longings I will refer to, for short, as House, Home and Whom.


We'll start with House, by which I mean the House of Israel. Being a Jew. The longing to be a Jew, to be a good Jew. 

Now I know that I was the one standing here two years ago reclaiming and praising the Bad Jew. But my point then is still my point now even though this time I'm using "good Jew" language around it. The idea is this: that wanting to be a good Jew is not something to be ashamed of. It can inform what you do in this world. It does not have to mean coming to shul every week, although you are certainly invited to do so (and you already have a name tag). It doesn't mean being orthodox or looking that way, although tzitzis on radical Jews and tefillin on women is always a bit of a subversive turn-on.

But what I'm suggesting is this. We all openly aspire to be good people; but maybe that's not quite enough. Wanting to be a good person is easy; it's a popular want. But owning the Jewish part of that is harder. The Jewish part that says "repair the world" or "feed the hungry" or "stop gossiping" or "have compassion" or "learn learn learn." That is what we've abandoned, the understanding that those ideas, clearly of universal application, originate - for us at least - in our own Yiddishkeit, in our own Jewyness.

Yes, those values drive us in beautifully universal ways. But it is always of note to me that the leaders of every modern Utopian movement, the visioners of anything designed to make the world better -- whether it's environmentalists or communists or feminists or unionists or Esperantists or even, I would suggest, early Hollywood folks dreaming up a world better than the one we live in -- every social exercise intended to make a better world has been seeded and populated by Jews. And then, almost simultaneously, the Jewishness has gotten erased right out of it. Erased, in large part, by Jews. As if being associated with Jewishness delegitimizes. That is what centuries of Anti-Semitism has done to us. We are driven to accomplish and to better and to be ashamed of where that spark came from.

So I ask, like I did two years ago when talking about Bad Jews, that we bring the Jew back into our jewbilation and rejewvenation and jewrisprudence and all the jewcy things we do. That we let our longing to be good Jews guide us in the world and we call it what it is. That we go ahead and fight for peace. For justice. For the Earth. That we strive and struggle and heal and learn at every turn. Not just because this is what humans should do, but because this is what being a Jew requires of us. That we let our beautiful universal values and accomplishments retain something of our fine specificity, of the flavor and temperature of the Jewish tables we grew up at. 


The second longing that I suspect many of us have abandoned is the longing for Home. And by Home I mean homeland, I mean Israel. This is a tricky subject, as you know by how you are tensing up right now.

But this land is the long longing of our people. Since the Babylonian conquest 2600 years ago, the sense of being in exile, displaced, deported, has been part of our psychological makeup and our spiritual essence and our cultural production. We sing Psalms about  our longing. Im eshkachech Yerushalayim, tishkach yemini. "If I forget thee Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning." Centuries of poets have poured out their yearning. Libi b'mizrach va'anochi b'sof ma'arav; eych et'amah et asher ochal. "My heart is in the East and I in the uttermost West; how shall I find savor in food?" We conclude every year's seder saying, l'shanah haba'ah birushalayim. "Next year in Jerusalem." And then we hurry to explain, to apologize, that by Jerusalem we mean something metaphysical.

But Jerusalem is a place. Physical. In a physical country that we are for better or for worse deeply connected to. Now those of us of a certain age grew up at a time when the dream of Zionism -- of a present-day, non-Messianic, non-mystical return to the land -- when the dream of Zionism was still unmarred; when Zionism embodied huge and important values - the safety of our people, the end of exile, a halt to our long persecution, a brighter future than we'd had since the Golden Age of Spain, and our first crack at Jewish autonomy in millenia. Those of us of a certain age grew up with a powerful, deep, incessant longing for Israel, for Modern Israel, not the mythical place. An Israel of blooming deserts and Nobel Prizes and medical advances and folk dances. We longed to go, to live, to visit, to breathe it in. To see a new era and to be its emissaries.

But the problem now, of course, is that 65 years of history have intervened. Real life, on-the-ground, difficult history. Because we planted our dream in a land that was and wasn't ours. And our hope, over time, has given rise, and given way, to such suffering and such bitterness. We have learned things that were hidden from us as youngsters. We have learned about things done that should not have been done. The present-day leaders of the State have, in the name of survival, abandoned our great vision of a land of harmony and renewal. Those Jews who remain the staunchest supporters of the State of Israel have been forced to abandon the dream of peaceful co-existence and religious pluralism. Forced to go along with ghetto walls enclosing our supposed enemies; and forced to turn a blind eye to the Orthodox male stranglehold on religious life in Israel, including who is and is not allowed to pray at our holiest sites or to be called a Jew anywhere in the land still, tenaciously, called holy. So much longing abandoned in order not to abandon the State.

Meanwhile those of us who see ourselves on the Left, who articulate our criticisms of Israeli policy, we who are quick to see Israel's flaws, have also lost touch with something, and that is our deep love and longing for this place. A longing and a love that are still in our bones. A love that we have sent into exile out of disappointment or sadness or shame, but which, if reclaimed, would give us greater, not less, legitimacy when we say, "No, no, Israel. Not that way, this way."

What Jews on both sides of the debate have given up, it seems to me, is a longing for an Israel that is as great and holy and just as we can imagine it. And it is up to us to bring that longing back and let it inform our words and actions. We owe it to our people's past and to our people's future. 


The third and last longing I'd like to call in tonight is what I will call Whom. And what I mean by that is the longing for whom? For God.

Because I think this longing is in us, in each of us. Not belief, not faith, but longing. It is deeply rooted in our human experience. It is a longing that grows out of the disconnectedness of our psyches and the fenced in nature of our bodies. Our spirits, or the parts of ourselves we identify as spirit, tell us that we are capable of full and deep and complete connectedness. Perhaps it's a sense memory of the womb. Or else it's just imagination. But we long for a connectedness greater, deeper, more intimate and perfect than anything a lover or parent or friend could give us. We long for God to take that place. God, as confidante, as personal coach, as yedid nefesh -- the companion of the soul, always always present with us. I'm not certain any of us ever longs for a Creator God, or an angry God or a law-giving or justice-doling God. But this personal, immanent presence, this Shechinah, is something we yearn for, even while we might rationally deny any such emotion.

Or perhaps our longing isn't for that intimate embrace but for transcendence. To be able to experience something beyond the walls of our human existence. Beyond the limitations of our bodies and intellects. We do seek out such moments of transcendence in our lives, mystical moments, by walking in the woods or on the beach or hearing Beethoven performed or seeing some powerful piece of theatre. Or by dropping acid or marching in a protest or sometimes even by going to shul. We feel that transcendence in a flash; or sometimes it is like a deep glow inside, what Rabbi Art Green might call the n'kudat p'nimiyut, the internality of the God experience. Not a reaching out or up to touch the Divine, but a reaching and recognizing deep within.

Or maybe it's not connection or transcendence but life itself that we long for, the denial of which our finite physical bodies cannot comprehend or accept. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, said, "God may not in any way resemble or correspond to the idea we form of him [sic], but he is present in the very will-to-live, the reality of which we experience in every fiber of our being."

I think it is fair to give in to this longing, even without having any certainty about believing. I think it is fair to long, even while living in the not-knowing. More than fair. Because it is a fire burning within us. And it can inspire us to new paths, great actions, deep love, readier compassion. It can cause us to return on Yom Kippur to who we want to be, and how we want to be accountable.

But how do we notice and consciously stay in touch with that longing? We can't count on transcendent moments. Rebbe Elimelech of Lizensk characterized that flash of transcendence, of opening up, of revelation as God's free sample. Like the Sample Shack at Trader Joe. You get one piece of deliciousness for free. And after that you have to pay for it. Rebbe Elimelech instructs that our payment, our slow recapturing of the goodies, comes through practice: prayer and mitzvot and, above all, d'vekut.

What is d'vekut? There is no appealing English word for it. It means something like "clinging" or "attaching," both words carrying rather unattractive connotations of the relationships we had in our twenties. But d'vekut suggests attaching oneself to the idea or possibility of God in all things. Not just when in prayer or meditation or study or moments of ecstacy. But in the day to day. Holding a mindfulness of the godliness, the divine, the qi that runs through all things, even things we barely notice or consider insignificant. Expanding our consciousness until we can perceive the divine in the glorious and in the painful and in the mundane.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav described d'vekut as imagining oneself in the presence of the Shechinah. For Rebbe Nachman, this practice was a way to accustom oneself to being in the World to Come. And Rebbe Meshullam Feibush of Zabrizha said that the way to always notice the divine in the world is simply always to be aware of one's longing for God.

The truth is that we don't know. When I have moments of feeling God's presence, I can't tell you if I'm perceiving or projecting. I can't tell you if I'm looking outward or inward or if that makes a difference. I sometimes wish I had the certainty that some believers express, although I suspect that none of us is truly without doubt. If God is there, then God makes it difficult. Playing hide and seek with us all the time. And getting characterized by religion so severely and narrowly that it is almost always easier to say "no" to the idea than to say "yes."

But still, I'm okay with not knowing. I'm okay with spelling God with a question mark in the middle. I'm okay with God creating the universe, or God being a synonym for the universe. I'm okay with God being nothing like we've ever conceived and this cosmos being really good glamour-drag. I'm even okay with God being the ayin, the great emptiness. I don't know. And in this not-knowing, I will stay attuned to my longing; I will continue to look for God in the hidden places and let that affect how I see you and me and the dog and the tree and the rock and the sky and the microbe. And the joy and the loss.

As Medieval poet Yehudah HaLevi wrote, Yah ana emtza'acha, m'komcha na'alah v'ne'elam. Adonai, where shall I find Thee? Hid is Thy lofty place. V'ana lo emtz'acha, k'vodcha malei olam. And where shall I not find Thee? Whose glory fills all space.

Our universe, our reality, is like the Book of Esther; it is a place where God is never mentioned by name, and can only be found by inference. It is a place where God, if there is a God, is masked.

But this is Yom K'Purim. It is a day is like Purim. Where masks are lowered and the hidden is revealed. So on this Purim-like day, let us recommit to the longings that we've kept masked. Longings for House, Home and Whom. Let us strive, openly, to be better Jews as well as better people. Let us feel, without shame, our love for the land and let that guide us toward fashioning a fairer, kinder Israel that is truly a light to the nations. And let us revel in our longing for God, living it everywhere, locating it in our hearts and in the world, so that, whether God's mask ever gets lowered or not, we at least may be drawn to give our best to this creation and to each other and to our selves.

And let us say, Amen.

I wish a shanah tovah, a happy, healthy year to all my loved ones.
I am grateful to my study partner, Reb Eli Herb, for some lovely insights that made their way into this drash.


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Rosh Hashanah 5774: Burning and Longing

For Congregation Ner Shalom.

Gut yontiff.

Welcome again to this new year, to this new beginning. The birthday of the world as we know it.

I'm appreciating the world and its possibilities in a new way this week, having gotten back two days ago from Burning Man, which I attended for my first time, despite my advanced age and a social milieu which would seem to suggest that I'd have gone years ago already.

Photo: Oren Slozberg
Burning Man, if you don't know, is a vast week-long encampment in the Nevada desert, in which people come together from around the world to try out a different way of living. It's a celebration and it's a circus. People make art, splendid and colossal and ephemeral, to be disassembled or burned by week's end. They navigate a tent city with no roads or curbs indicating where you can and cannot go. Bicycles and foot are the transit of choice, unless you catch a ride on a vehicle refurbished to look like an octopus or an airplane or a merry-go-round.

The place feels like another world, this year one populated by 67,000 people, all longing for something different: to be creative, to live simply, to engage generously without the pressures and inequalities of money (which is not allowed to be used in the city), to experience freedom - artistic freedom, body freedom, sexual freedom. By day, Burning Man, in the narrow Nevada desert palette, looked like a refugee camp. And the people living in those beautiful tents - mah tovu ohaleycha - constituted a sort of tribe of refugees from a more complicated and more constricting existence. They had left their narrow places, like our own ancestors leaving Egypt, to become a desert people, and to experience a great expansiveness there.

There are even the rudiments of new religion in this gathering, as the annual rituals become more fixed, particularly the burning of "The Man" - the eponymous effigy that presides over the encampment until he goes up in smoke; and the burning of the Temple, a structure in which people leave notes of farewell to deceased loved ones, or to relationships gone bad, or to elements in their lives they need to let go of. These burdens are purged, kind of like we do at tashlich, when the Temple is set alight on the final night and all those intentions are offered up in fire rather than water, before tens of thousands of silent witnesses.

My experience at Burning Man, like all human experiences, was not without its blemishes. But still, on the whole, it had a flavor of Olam Haba, of the world to come, as was pointed out by the rabbi leading Kabbalat Shabbat services over at the Jewish camp at Burning Man. And in fact the whole week was more shabbos than I've had on any Saturday in memory. And the burning of the effigy of The Man - this year perched on a wooden space ship and done up to recall the robot Klaatu in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" - the burning of The Man, preceded by fire dancers and accompanied by fireworks was declared by my family to be: Best. Havdalah. Ever.

So I tell you all of this not as a "what I did over my summer vacation" report-back. I tell you because I am captivated by the idea that people came to this event full of longing for a new kind of living and a new kind of belonging. And what I noticed - and what particularly startled me - was the lack of impediment between the longing and the fruition. 

Because it's not that way back in this world, which we choose to call the real one. We yearn but the bridge between longing and living is sometimes narrow, or rickety, or sometimes already burned, but without the glorious ceremony.

Certainly each of us desires things. Good things, legitimate things. We want. A nice home. Or a partner. Work. Money. Health. Ease. Time. But these desires ride atop a carrier wave of deeper longing, that we don't always give voice to with the same specificity. I desire work, but what I long for is to be of use, or to belong. I desire money, but I what I long for is to be safe and feel safe. I desire a partner or a sweetheart or that hot guy I saw on the bus. But what I long for is to be held, what I long for is love, what I long for is not to feel so alone. I desire health, but what I long for is to keep living, to live and live and live the way this eternal-feeling soul of mine insists it can do. I desire justice or a better world or children or to leave some kind of a moral legacy. But what I long for is to feel that my time here has had meaning.

Maybe it would be easier for us if we didn't long. The Buddhists say that our longing is the source of our suffering, that disattachment is the path to spiritual happiness. I get that, and I think it can work. But it's obviously not a Jewish path. For better or for worse, ours is officially and full-on a path of longing, even if suffering is the price tag. In our tradition we long for return from exile. We long for the reemergence of an Edenic past. We long for peace. We long for Torah. We long for God. This longing, much of which I'll discuss more on Yom Kippur, is part of us. For better or for worse.

At Burning Man a friend was explaining to Ari, our 12-year old, how the structures that were being burned were designed with that end in mind. Besides being beautiful, certain faults were built in so that as they burned that would look glorious, their parts bursting into flame in the right order, the structure collapsing inward rather than outward. I was caught by this idea of vulnerability being designed right into the architecture. Because that is what longing is for us. It is our architecture, as individuals and as a people. And it is also a vulnerability. Longing impels us to move forward in this world. It is the only thing that does. Our yetzer - our deep impulse to do, to achieve, to live, to love, to experience another day. It is the machinery by which we travel. And it is a built-in weakness too, as we try consciously or unconsciously to fulfill our longing, sometimes in specific and surfacy ways, and we re-learn again and again the frustration at not being able to make our dreams come true.

So enough with the Burners and the Buddhists. What about the Jews? What does Torah say about this, about our longing? If, in Judaism, you want to think about longing, you are required to turn to Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs, our ancient book of erotic poetry that Rabbi Akiva rescued from the discard heap 2000 years ago and elevated to a status above all the other books of Torah, calling it our Holy of Holies. Because, in his view - and in the view of every Jew since - in describing physical desire it gives voice to our ongoing love affair with God. Its words are some of the most memorable in our tradition. Ani l'dodi v'dodi li. "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." Yishakeni min'shikot pihu ki tovim dodeycha miyayin. "Oh that he might kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is sweeter than wine."

But a friend recently pointed out to me something about this book that I'd never noticed.  That at no point in Song of Songs is this love actually consummated. It is a book about anticipation, about longing, about looking forward. The lovers don't actually ever touch, despite their heightened awareness of each other.

Kol dodi hineh zeh ba m'daleg al heharim m'kapetz al hag'vaot.
My lover's voice comes to me skipping over the mountains
And jumping over the hills.

They see each other in their dreams.
Ani y'shenah v'libi er; kol dodi dofek pitchi li achoti.
I am asleep, but my heart is wide awake;
My lover's voice knocks, saying open up for me, sister.

The lovers describe each other's beauty; they anticipate a rendezvous; they go to the garden to meet. But we never see the meeting. The most contact we witness is a glance:

Hineh zeh omed achar kotleynu
Mashgiach min hachalonot matzitz min hacharakim.
Look! It is my beloved, standing behind the walls,
Observing from the window, peering out from the curtains.

That image! A lovesick youth, watching for the beloved to appear at the window, the way so many of us in our youth could, embarrassingly, be found pacing outside a dormitory or lurking at a cafe waiting for the object of our desire to walk by.

That is the closest the lovers actually come to each other in Shir Hashirim. A glance. Our great text of longing in Judaism celebrates not the fruition but the anticipation. It glorifies the suspense and honors the not-knowing.

And what a lesson this is for us. That we consider judging ourselves by the quality and flavor of our deeper longing, and not by whether or how our longings come true. We seem to be instructed to find the juice in the longing itself.

And in suggesting this, Torah is wise. Because we so often do not get what we want. And being created full of desire for stuff or people or a life you mostly you can't have is otherwise rather a cruel trick of nature. No, you can't always get what you want. Life unfolds in unpredictable ways. The physical world places limitations on what we can do and achieve. The culture places limitations on who we might meet and how we might interact and what futures we might concoct together. And other people's actions limit us too, because they also have longings that they're trying to work out in their own imperfect ways. But, suggests Torah, holiness is not in achieving the thing, it is not in having the most toys at the end of the game. Instead holiness is in the near Godlike longing inherent in each of us, even if the expression of it is flawed.

Now Torah is not, I think, saying don't want - don't want the house, don't want the job, don't want the lover, although the commandment of al tachmod, "do not covet," does sound a cautionary note about watching where your longing ends up. No, Torah is not saying don't want. But perhaps Torah is decoupling longing from acquiring. And by doing so it is suggesting that "not getting" is not the same as "failing." And for that matter, getting is not the same as succeeding and having is not the same as deserving.

But we are only human. We spend so much of our time and energy judging ourselves and others by these surfacey things; we become frustrated and unkind when we sense that we're not getting something that we desire, whether it's love or respect or safety or just the feeling that we belong. We judge ourselves as unworthy when love does not manifest in the way we'd imagined. Or, we make questionable decisions. Fueled by our longing for connection, say, we end up trying to make it happen with the wrong person, under infelicitous circumstances, in the last 10 minutes before the bar closes. Or we stay in a bad relationship because our longing for love is stronger than our longing for wholeness or our sense of already being loved. And over and over, we behave in ways we later regret because we have acted out of longings that we pretend, that we convince ourselves, we don't even have.

But not today. Not on this new year. Tik'u bachodesh shofar bakeseh l'yom chagenu. "Blast the shofar," says Torah, "on this day where there moon is hidden." In other words, for me, this is the moment, the annual moment, to break the silence and wake up to the longing that we have obscured, that longing that each of us has concealed from ourselves.

Teshuvah is what is required of us. Not atonement for sin. But a Returning to the deeper parts of ourselves. To dig through all this shmutz that comes from the misdirection of our longing or the frustration of some of its supposed goodies. And to honor instead the longing itself. Our yearning for love and closeness and safety and life; to feel the depth and loftiness and wonder of our eternal and insatiable yearning. And to forgive ourselves for so often getting it messed up in the translation. Letting go, as the Buddhists would certainly have us do, of some of the superficial cravings and attachments, and to look instead at what our deepest longings are and to honor what they say about us.

Take a moment right now, and look inside. Find something you've done that you're not proud of. And then go down one story to find the longing that was underneath that act. Notice the beauty of that longing, and go ahead and forgive yourself for the stupid thing that sprang out of it. And then think, if we were to give these longings some fresh oxygen, and relieve them of the burden of our judgments, who among us knows where they might go? How they might fly? Where any of us might find ourselves? What, inside of us, or in each other, or in this glorious Creation, might be speaking to our longing at this very moment, saying, "Come, come to the garden." What voice that we didn't hear until the shofar of this great and new day made us shut up and listen.

Longing is certainly a vulnerability in our architecture; it can weaken the joints of our lives and it so often proves flammable. But it is the noble stuff we are made of. And, unencumbered by judgments of success and failure, of should and shouldn't, of better and worse, who knows where that longing might bring us, and what beautiful, if temporary, art we might still make out of these lives we have been given.

Shanah tovah.

I am grateful for the insights of Rabbi Eli Cohen, Sasha O'Malley, my family, and the people of Burning Man.