Giving Wisdom Its Due – For Rabbi Victor Gross

Sarah at the river

Sarah at the river

I had barely entered the rabbinic ordination program at ALEPH | Alliance for Jewish Renewal when I was asked to perform my first life cycle service.  It was a funeral.

To perform a service for someone you did not know means listening deeply to those who did. Grieving relatives tell you stories of their loved ones, of their loss. You will do your best to understand the depth of that pain while staying centered and clear. Then you will do your best to create a service that will honor the life of the human being you are to help bury.

I learned how to do those things from wise teachers.

“I’ve buried so many people,” Rabbi Victor Gross told me. “I’ve buried friends. I learned.” Then he told me what he had learned. After a funeral, he said, remember to rest and take care of yourself. Honor your renewed awareness of life’s fragility and death’s transformations.

Reb Victor knew (and knows) me well. He told me to stop and create plenty of space between the griefs and the graveyard to my office and classrooms.

“Don’t go back to work after the service,” he’d say. He would tell me to rely on my little family for comfort, to rest in the arms of the Shekhina. I knew he was right. He was offering me wisdom about tender places, the ones that mark the thresholds between life and death (and life).

I did not take his advice.

Instead, after a funeral I would walk out and away and back into my work world. I’d go back to the computer, prepare my classes at UNC Charlotte. I’d read emails from students or congregants, go back to the podium and the lecture hall.

My teacher had given me a holy instruction about the sacred nature of the work I was doing. I did that work with my whole self and then returned, almost without pause, to the expectations and demands of a profane world I believed I could not ignore.

Yesterday, I received an email from Sarah McCurry’s boyfriend, Eric. Sarah was once a student of mine, one I grew to care for very deeply. We kept in touch after she graduated.

Sarah died after nearly one year of life with colon cancer at the age of 24. Her remains were cremated. When she first spoke to me about her illness, almost exactly a year ago, she told me that she had passed by a synagogue just after receiving her diagnosis.

“I thought of you,” she said. “I want you to do my funeral.”

“If it gets to that,” I said, “I will.”

Sarah’s beloved aunt Susie also died of colon cancer just ten months before Sarah was diagnosed. Sarah wanted her ashes to be scattered where her aunt’s had been – in a little river near the mountains of North Carolina where she had played as a child.

In his email, Eric sent me pictures of Sarah walking across that little river, bringing flowers to lay there in memory of her aunt on the first anniversary of her death. He asked if I could perform the service when Sarah’s ashes were scattered there.

Sarah’s family is, as far as I know, Baptist. Sarah did not call herself a Christian, though she learned to commune with angels during her last year of life.

She tried to live the last year of her life fully conscious of each moment she was given to live. She wore bright colors. She sat a good deal in the sun. She loved rain.Sarah at the river 2

Reb Victor, I promise you: The day of Sarah’s service I will turn from that little river, drive home from the mountains, and rest. I will acknowledge my own grief and listen to my body, heart and soul. I will honor life’s fragility and death’s transformations.

I will give your wisdom its due.

You Are The New Day – In Memory of Sarah McCurry, z’l

You are the new day

I will love you more than me and more than yesterday,
If you can but prove to me you are the new day.

Send the sun in time for dawn. Let the birds all hail the morning.
Love of life will urge me say. You are the new day.

When I lay me down at night knowing we must pay.
Thoughts occur that this night might stay yesterday.

Thoughts that we as humans small could slow worlds and end it all,
lie around me where they fall before the new day

One more day when time is running out for everyone.
Like a breath I knew would come I reach for a new day.

Hope is my philosophy. Just needs days in which to be.
Love of life means hope for me — borne on a new day
John David

Sarah McCurry

Sarah McCurry

It will take less than three minutes. Please, before you read this post, listen and look: 

Twenty-two years ago, I taught You Are the New Day to my students in Taiwan. My students in Taiwan called me “Teacher.”

“Teacher,” asked Injade, “What do you think is the meaning of life?”

“Laughter,” I said, “Learning. Love.”

“Teacher’s three L’s” they called them for the rest of the year.

My students sang this song at a university awards ceremony. I think they chose this song because they loved me and I loved them.

Twenty-two years ago, Sarah McCurry was about the age of the little girl in the video you have just seen. Sarah was a student of mine at UNC-Charlotte. Every class she took in her Judaic Studies minor she took with me.

She came from difficult circumstances: Deep, pervasive poverty marked her childhood, for one thing. Other things formed and shaped her – but these are things I could not write about.

During her time at UNCC she grew from an awkward teenager into a young woman who combined conviction and self-assurance with a wicked sense of fun. Dry, dark humor was her forte.

Sarah called me almost exactly one year ago. I hadn’t heard from her in a while. It should have been a wonderful surprise. She called from Texas, where she had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of colon cancer. She was just 23.

Sarah died in late January.

She decided against chemotherapy and for natural healing methods. Her disease did not offer her much chance for survival – regardless of any choice she made. But she tried to live her life inside each day. She spoke to me of the healing value of rain. She walked mountains. She read books about angels. She wore a lot of green.

Green, she told me, when I saw her last, is Gabriel’s color. Gabriel was her angel.

After Sarah died, You Are the New Day ran, again and again, through my head. When I went to listen to it again, I discovered that I had, for years, been singing it wrong. I had sung the line “when I lay me down at night knowing we must pay” this way: “When I lay me down at night knowing we must pray.”

After Sarah died I sang, over and over, about lying down to pray. Sarah learned to pray – with me and with others – her last year of life.

She kept telling me what she was learning. Slow down, she’d say. Live the life you have. Stop working so hard. Look around you and know this world.

Send the sun in time for dawn. Let the birds all hail the morning. Love of life will urge me say. You are the new day.

Sarah, I will try to heed you. I will try to hear your song.

You are the new day.

Last year, Sarah gave me permission both to write about her and to use pictures of her. I checked each text with her before posting. Sarah, I hope you approve of this one.

Her Work — and Ours

DSC_2260I was at the Ohalah conference shuk, rearranging the kippot that still left on my table, and noting, as I do every year, a marked preference for all shades of blues and purples. Over 200 rabbis belong to Ohalah, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. Our annual conference brings together rabbinic pastors, cantors, rabbis, and students of all three professions for several days of davening, workshops, and programs.

A woman I did not know stopped to look at a kippah I had made from raw silks in soft shades of heather and hunter green. She was wearing exactly the same pale green as I had used in the kippah. She looked at the kippot quietly.

“Is there one calling out to you?” I asked.

There were two she liked. One was aqua, with an applique in the form of a thistle. The other was the kippah of greens. She picked up the one, then the other. She made no move to try on either one.

The rabbinic pastors, rabbis, cantors, teachers and students who stop at Not My Brother’s Kippah to look at my kippot or tallitot are looking for how they want to pray – with exuberance or quiet certainty; with joy or with deep, rich, attentiveness. The kippah each chooses is the one, I have learned, that I made for exactly that person.

The kippah with the thistle was important for my new guest. She works with an organization that has a thistle as its symbol, an organization that aids women who have been abused and enslaved.

I learned about her as she spoke. Finally, I discovered the reason for her shyness.

She was not Jewish. She was attending Ohalah as a conference presenter at one of the many sessions held on interfaith work.

That morning, our keynote speaker, Rabbi Arthur Green, had emphasized the need to respect and honor traditions of other religions. He had also warned, gently, against trying to appropriate them. Though she was attracted to the kippot on my table, she didn’t feel she had a right to wear one. DSC_2266

“You know,” I said, “This is how I feel wearing a kippah. I feel like the hand of the Holy One cups my head. I feel blessed.”

She could imagine that feeling, she said. Still, she would hate to offend anyone. She would not like for people to feel she was doing something false.

“Well,” I said, grinning, “you could always say that a rabbi made you your kippah. It would be the truth.”

To be fair: I’ve known my fair share of people who found Jewish traditions and rituals exotic and interesting, and who adopted those practices in ways that felt, at times, invasive to me. I’ve known what it is to be “observed” for the sake of learning about how Jesus might have lived. I have had to explain why the Passover celebration and its rituals cannot be turned into a reenactment of the Last Supper.

But I have also known what it is to speak to a Christian woman in spiritual direction with me about her deep attachment to the poignant image of a cross crowned by thorns. To speak to her heart, I had to speak in her language. I did not sacrifice my tribal identity. To communicate in someone else’s language is a learnable skill, but it does not make that language your native, natural one.

This minister’s work was the work of all clergy who try to bring God’s compassion into this broken world.

Mysterious things happen at the Ohalah conference every year. I didn’t tell my quiet visitor what I had noticed.

DSC_2264She tried the kippot on. In the end, she decided to buy both.

Then it was time to tell her.

At each Ohalah conference, there is a large, glass bowl filled with many slips of colored paper. On each slip is a name of someone attending the conference. Anyone can choose to take one of those slips of paper. Whoever’s name you choose is whoever you pray for during the conference.

Of over two hundred possibilities, I had chosen her name. I realized that as she was trying the kippot on, when I glanced at her name tag.

I told her; she smiled. Then I blessed the kippot, and I blessed her work, and I blessed her.

A rabbi had made kippot for a non-Jew – still a person who had needed those blessings.

May they aid her in her work. It is also mine. And ours.

Planetary Heartbeats and Rhythms of Life

Ralf playingIt was his first drum. It was a creamy yellow color, a smooth ceramic. It possessed remarkable clarity – each tak and dum sounded precisely, cleanly — at least, when my husband, Ralf, played it.

No wonder congregants shyly admitted to me that they were often mesmerized by Ralf’s drumming hands during services. They watched, listened and prayed to the rhythms he played. Each time, Ralf called the living earth into the carpeted, dry-walled sanctuary.

Dum tak-a-tak. A planetary heartbeat of sorts. A prayer of land and waves falling and rolling against the shore, of wind clapping tree limbs together.

Almost ten years ago, I held a wintertime healing service. One of my congregant’s daughters-in-law was facing a losing battle with cancer. Her children were both under five years of age. There were other griefs brought to that service. Yet we prayed, and healed – at least a little.

I do not remember how it happened. That first, beloved drum slipped off Ralf’s leg and fell to the ground. We looked at the shards, calling immediately to the children to stay away.

Ralf was not consolable.

I wanted to make it good, so I went hunting for a replacement. Within days I found a ceramic drum online with a roughened surface. The Daveed drum got fantastic reviews. Despite the uncertainties – and the expense – we ordered it.

Ralf loved it. I loved it. The congregants loved it. Ralf became far more attached to that drum than his first one.

Almost a year later, we took it to UNC Charlotte where we both teach. We were co-leading a service for the Hillel chapter. As usual, there was a lot to shlepp. Several drums, my guitars, various kinds of equipment. The lecture hall featured heavy doors we had to drag open for every trip from the parking lot.

On the way in, Ralf turned slightly as one of the doors shut. We felt the sound, rather than heard it. The door tapped against the Daveed drum. Hands shaking, we unpacked it. The bottom rim had cracked open.

It does no good to tell anyone that mistakes happen — not when the mistake that person has made feels like an irretrievable loss.

“You wouldn’t blame me like you are blaming yourself,” I said. “Things can be replaced,” I added. “Don’t worry about the money. It’s all right.”

It wasn’t. When I went online I discovered that the drum was no longer being made. I searched, I asked at drummers’ discussion boards. No more Daveed drum. Not anywhere.

Please understand: Ralf’s Daveed drum cracked on November 21, 2008.

Unbeknownst to Ralf, I went online every few months – looking for a Daveed drum somewhere, anywhere, new or used. I would find one for him. I would surprise him.

Searching became a ritual disappointment. I’d see one only to call the store and hear that their website and the pictures hadn’t been updated. That drum wasn’t being made anymore, they’d tell me. Anything else they could help me with?

Seven years of searching, seven years of intermittently recalling the sound of the door, the sadness, the look on Ralf’s face in that darkened lecture hall – it hurt. I gave up last year. I told Ralf that I had been searching and he thanked me. I told him I had stopped looking. He understood.

The first week of January, Ralf and I were working together on a set of workshops for our community. My part was to take everyone through the service structure and to demonstrate how creative, lay leadership was within everyone’s grasp. Ralf’s part was to teach a drum class.

While he was creating handouts, Ralf started searching for pictures on how to hold a darbouka correctly. During the process, he ended up on a website for African drums. I knew the website myself. I had visited it in my own previous searches. It showed a Daveed drum, as it had when I had called, a couple years earlier.  Still there — at least in a picture.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” I said. “They’ll tell you they don’t make them anymore and all that jazz. They will apologize for not updating the website.”

He called anyway.

The woman he spoke to was surprised to hear him ask about a Daveed drum. She knew them and no, they weren’t being made anymore. But then she paused.

“This is so odd,” she said.

Her supplier of African drums had recently mentioned that he had a few darboukas he could bring with him at their next visit – would she be interested? One of them had been a Daveed drum. The day she placed it on the shelf four customers came in, played it, and left saying they would think about it.

Ralf’s call came in just minutes after the fourth customer had left.

From the kitchen, I could hear that Ralf laughing.  I realized that there was a real Daveed drum at the store. I picked up the spare phone and began blurting out the whole, terrible story.

“You have no idea!” I said. “We can’t thank you enough,” I added.

We have been waiting for this drum to arrive for a few weeks now. We have followed its progress across half these United States. This morning, we saw that it had arrived in Concord, where we live.

For weeks I have imagined how Ralf will look, how those first moments will feel, how the first sounds will sound. I hear him playing now.

Tak tak dum tak-a-tak.

A planet’s heartbeat. Prayers called forth from the earth itself.

Christian, Jew? Definitions in the Face of Death

Ana_Bondzic_Do_not_crossSomeone I’ve never met needs a rabbi. That someone wants the rabbi right away.

The caller ID says it all: the phone call is coming from the local hospital or hospice. The issues, the questions, the fears – they are pressing. Whatever I’ve planned will be set aside for someone I do not know but whose life I will suddenly, mysteriously, share.

This week’s call was about a sixty-two-year-old patient with an obviously Christian first name. His surname is one of the top five most common last names in Norway and Denmark.

But Jews come, after all, in all sorts of forms. The patient was, according to the chaplain, Jewish. He was insistent, she said. He needed to see a rabbi.

I drove to the hospital, found the room, and knocked at the open door. Then, I introduced myself.

“I am Jewish,” he said. He also told me that he believed that Jesus Christ was his Lord and his savior. Jesus had come to earth to give him the certainty of eternal life.

I asked him to tell me more about his Jewishness. He referred to an ancestor of three generations earlier. She was Jewish, therefore he was. He had read that. And he had always felt Jewish, he said.

Then he asked me a question: “What does it feel like to be Jewish?”

I smiled wryly. “Well, that’s an interesting question,” I said. “During which century? In which country? Is denomination a factor?” I could tell him what it felt like for me to be Jewish, I said, but it would be both overconfident and ignorant to try and speak for the entire tribe. Not to mention impossible.

He took that in good spirits and turned our conversation to what Judaism had to say about life after death. “I know I would be buried the same day in a plain box,” he said. “But then what?”

I explained that there were different ideas to be found in Judaism about the afterlife and summarized three or four. He listened carefully. Then I asked him to tell me what he believed.

“I know I have eternal life,” he said, “but sometimes I feel anxious.”

“Can you tell me more about that?” I asked.

His surgery had been postponed because of various complicating factors; he didn’t know when it would be done. Sometimes thinking about the surgery made him angry. He didn’t like not knowing. “It’s the human side that makes me anxious,” he said. “The spiritual side knows it doesn’t matter if I die tomorrow or later.”

I asked him to tell me what happened when he felt anxious. He described his heart racing, his hands shaking. We spoke about fear.

“Suppose Jesus was here in the room,” I said. “What do you think he would say to you when you are feeling afraid?”

As we talked, I found myself relying on his cues; when he needed Christian imagery, that’s what we both evoked. When he spoke about an experience wrestling with God in a wilderness, he brought up his Jewishness and I answered from that space.

I needed to honor the person this man believes he is; it was not a time for definitions or boundaries. In such moments, we must simply speak to the individual before us. In such a time, we may simply speak to God.

As I did, praying throughout our conversation that I would stay with the words of the moment, the feelings and thoughts of the person before me. That, in the end, is always the task – no matter who I am encountering.

Death hovered in the hospital room. I do not know if he will visit for real.

“I hope I didn’t waste your time,” he said.

“I hope I didn’t waste yours,” I answered, smiling again.

Who is a Christian? Who is a Jew? For this kind of work, it doesn’t much matter. Who is before me? That does.

Hanukkah Waddya Know at TOO

latkesWe’d lit the candles, eaten a sumptuous meal including latkes, chicken (for the birdievores among us), a spicy bean stew, shepherd’s pie, crisply cooked green beans, and the usual assortment of desserts. We’d sung Ma’oz Tzur, S’vivon, and other Hanukkah songs. A variety of congregants delivered jokes, stories, poetry, puns, and song during dinner. Afterwards, we all collaborated on a cool craft project whose final outcome will be seen at the next Shabbat service, I am told.

Finally, during digestion, a game of “Hanukkah Waddya’ Know.”

I gave each table a minyan of questions. They were to work as a group.

“Accuracy counts,” I said, “but feel free to be creative. The winning table receives a free trade dark chocolate bar to share with each other.”

(Everyone in our community is fully aware that I believe that milk chocolate is an Abomination to the LORD.)

I wandered about listening and observing as everyone got to work. But I didn’t get too close. Otherwise people feel they have to check in with rabbinic authority, and I prefer the etz chayyim hi model, where they do their level best to find out just how much they know and how much fun they can have on their own. Jewish practice should feel like blowing soap bubbles: Start the breath flowing and all sorts of magic will sparkle before your eyes – and heart.Hanukkiahs

One table repeatedly burst into collective laughter, another remained steadfastly serious, and yet another featured individuals experiencing excited “yes” moments evidenced by jumping up and down in their seats. (This is not an easy thing to manage.) After about fifteen minutes, we gathered up the answers, a representative of each table read their answers, and the entire group was asked to declare the winning table.

The steadfastly serious table repeatedly demonstrated comprehensive knowledge of the holiday by answering all questions directly and correctly. Yes, Hanukkah means “dedication.” No, Hanukkah is not mentioned in Torah. Yes, it is the shammash candle that is used to light the others.

You get the idea.

The table of boisterous laughter proved they had a command of the material. They added definitions for “Hanukkah,” indicating that one might associate education, rest, and even grace with the term, depending on how you parse its letters.

When asked to name a popular Hanukkah song, they invented one, using the melody of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” Their version: “All about the nes, ‘bout the nes, no oy…’ll.” (Nes is Hebrew for “miracle.”)

One member of the seriously-minded table immediately accused this group of being nes-sayers. But the song deserved what it got: Much in the way of appreciative applause by the under-fifty crowd. Some over-fifties seem not to have gotten the joke.

The table with excited “yes” moments were, we all decided, the clear winners of the dark chocolate bar. Here are some of their answers to our quiz questions:

  • What does “Hanukkah” mean? “A weightwatcher’s setback.”
  • What is the right way to light a Hanukkiah? “With fire!”
  • Name something good to deep fry on Hanukkah… “Donald Trump.”
  • How many times is Hanukkah mentioned in Torah? “The same number of times as gay marriage.”
  • What is the significance of the number eight? “It is the number of ways to spell C/hannuk(k)a/h.”
  • How should one publicize the miracle of Hanukkah? (Drumroll, please.) “With a Goodyear Blintz.”

This prompted our percussionist to break out in song: “Someday my blintz will come….”

We may be one of the smallest communities out there in the Southeast. But I would wager we are among the cutest.

At the end of the evening, we exchanged our white-elephant presents and took a few moments for a group blessing. But really, we had already blessed one another – with good will and with humor, with joy and with laughter.

May you all experience the same: Hag sameach, and may your last night of Hanukkah be filled with joy and light and all good things.

The Abominable Snowblimp of the South

Live inflatableWe went round the bend and drove down our little street. There it was: Easily 20 feet tall, grinning menacingly. Strange, smaller figures clung to it or looked on. It was a scene out of some Disneyland ride gone utterly, awfully mad

Our new neighbors had set out their holiday decorations.

Now this is often a trial and a challenge for me. Where I grew up, Christmas lights were magical. Their many colors lit up the snow, making it look like some fairy had casually dropped gemstones across a white, rolling carpet. There were very few figures or scenes. Just lights, and pretty trees in the windows.

Here in the south, you may see sights you would never want to imagine. Santa Clause frequently shows up at the side of a cradle; biblical figures are placed on the other side. Gingerbread figures stand in a row nearby. Animal figures climb out of sleighs, following a pneumatic Santa on the lawn.

I should explain that I was once forced to endure the Disneyland ride “It’s a Small World.” It was a traumatic experience from which I have never fully recovered. For one thing, grinning dolls are scary. There is no comfort in them. For another, the ride broke down and we had to sit in one place for nearly half an hour while the dolls sang that dreadful, tinny song over and over again. You know that song. We all know that song because if we have heard it even once, it will creep into our brain and never, ever go away. Even playing “Jingle Bells” over and over again will not drive it out. That one, too, lives in our brain.

I began to worry: Could I go out late at night in the dark to bring the garbage bin to the street? Would I be gobbled up by the Abominable Snowblimp from the Land of Bad Taste? Would my end involve being smothered by the Cheery Penguins, or would I just be found in the emergency room of the nearby hospital, singing “Silver and Gold”?

It does not help that the things these figures intend to evoke – wintry delights and snowy activities – are almost never to be found where I live. If there were some snow on the ground, or snow to hope for this year, or snow that might make a furtive appearance sometime in the next decade or two, it might help. But in North Carolina’s Piedmont, our portion during the winter months includes plenty of rain and mud, but not snow.

Most of the first quarter century of my life was spent in the upper Midwest, where it might begin to snow around Halloween. You could be sure it would snow until March. One year, it snowed on my birthday in early May.

Here, the ground turns into a mucky brown in December, the weather is merely gray and gloomy, and no person – elderly or otherwise – should try navigating our roofs for any reason – even a religious one. The slimy, killing combination of rain and disintegrating leaves up there has to be dangerous for all beings – even imaginary ones.

I tried to imagine all the weeks leading up to the New Year haunted by the monster balloon just three doors down. What if it walked down the street and gobbled up our little house like the Stay-Puft Man in Ghostbusters? What do such beings eat? Do balloon beings live on other forms of plastic? I imagined it rooting through the bin of empty pots from the rhododendrons, the camellias, and the gardenias I had planted that same week, when our December temperatures rose to the sixties.

We had been such a restrained neighborhood, marked by many white and colored lights, and a little ceramic deer here or there. Grinning Inflatables of over twenty feet just weren’t our style. Until now.

The next morning, Ralf and I got ready to drive to UNC Charlotte, where we both teach. I dreaded – even in daylight – the sight of that monstrous Snowthing. Still, I looked to make sure it was still there, so I could convince myself that I would be brave when we returned that night, knowing what was coming in the dark.

This is what I saw.

Dead inflatables



I swear. I didn’t do it.

Artifacts, Data, and Academe: Learning How to Be (Real)

AARThey streamed through the corridors, carrying their tote bags – thousands upon thousands of venerable scholars, aspiring academics, graduate students. Skywalks and lounges and restaurants in each of the three Atlanta hotels – the Hyatt, the Marriott, and the Hilton—were packed. The conference book was over 500 pages long, listing hundreds of panels and discussions and receptions for award-winning authors.

SBLI was there to deliver a paper as a member of a four-person panel exploring ritual items in Jewish practice. I chose panels to attend during my free hours and happily imagined going home with accrued knowledge of some sort or another.

I like evidence and data.

I teach in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC-Charlotte. Each semester, I engage in helping my students understand that honest, academic text study requires that they drop their theologies outside the classroom door. We must encounter texts on their own terms, I explain. That means understanding their context, their history, and the culture(s) which produced them. That means learning about how to construct our arguments and conclusions on the basis of verifiable data.

We are limited. We know very little of the priest who offered sacrifices in Dan before the Assyrian conquest of 722 BCE; we have no evidence that Abraham or Moses were actual, historical persons.

We accept a measure of humility: What can we really say for certain about these texts, about the mindsets of those who told and retold and revised the stories we encounter?

It is hard work. My students discover that monotheism is not a feature of most biblical texts and that God’s omniscience and omnipotence is highly overrated by modern readers. They find out that neither Jesus nor the devil can be found in Hebrew Bible.

Week in, week out, they practice thinking in academic terms: They are being asked to understand God as just one of many characters in a diverse library. The study will be unnerving, upsetting for many of the young people in my classrooms.

But there is a secret bonus.  My students will discover that the texts we are to explore invite profound encounters with the purpose and the meaning of human life.

When we consider the story of Saul, students will rightfully wonder if that hapless king deserved to be chosen, then rejected, by the God he had tried to please. My students will read Lamentations and recognize it as a text that could be written in their own time. The Israelite inhabitants of Jerusalem in 585 BCE are the Yazidi of Sinjar in our time, after all: human beings forced to endure terror and violence, seemingly abandoned by God.

When I was at the AAR/SBL conference, I attended a panel reviewing Michael Fishbane’s new commentary of The Song of Songs. One of my library bookshelves is almost wholly inhabited by Fishbane’s work, including, among others, his Sacred Attunement, Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking, The Kiss of God, The Garments of Torah, and the magisterial Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel.

Towards the end of the discussion, Michael Fishbane told us a story. He was talking to a famous Israeli archeologist – a colleague and teacher. The archeologist told him: “You and I, we do the same thing.” Fishbane, he said, dug in texts the way he himself dug into the earth – looking for artifacts, for evidence.

Then Michael Fishbane informed us: After decades of contributions to the field, this is no longer his work. This is: exploring historical theology of past ages and doing so as a pathway to constructing theology now.

“We must ask,” he asked, “‘what is the goal?’ Can we read for the sake of the humanities? What is the goal of teaching texts?”

Academics are taught to dig for more evidence, for artifacts left behind by peoples. With objective data, we make sense of the past, of peoples who left them behind.

But to read for the sake of the humanities, and for the sake of being human, we must study in order to learn how to be.

We should acknowledge our preconceptions. But then, knowing ourselves, we may encounter and experience the intersection of divine and human – in the data before us, in the artifacts we discover, in the words of the past.

Our Parents’ Legacies – Our Teshuva

Legacy flameThe scene is terrible, traumatic. Jacob is about to deceive his father with his mother’s help. Isaac, who can barely see, questions Jacob again and again. Is he really Esau? He doesn’t sound like Isaac’s eldest son, but he does smell like him, and his hands are hairy, as are Esau’s. Despite his doubts, Isaac eats the meal. He gives Jacob the blessing he had intended for his firstborn, beloved child.

Esau returns and discovers his loss. Bitterly, he asks whether Jacob got his name due to his naturally duplicitous nature. Ya’akov comes from a Hebrew root that means ‘heel,’ but may also describe the worst sort of sneaky behavior – coming up from behind, crushing the enemy under your heel, circumventing, overreaching. Jacob is, means, “crooked.” Esau cries out in anguish: “Father, have you no blessing for me?”

The Zohar teaches that when a soul is about to be born, it chooses its parents. And then, the Zohar explains, we are to go through life doing teshuva, facing and resolving not only all our failings from previous lives, but even the failings we experience at the hands of our own mothers and fathers.

Truth has been withheld from Isaac before. Surely, he knew. He asked only one question on that long walk to Mount Moria: “Father, where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”

Isaac is wiser now, more inclined to question when Jacob – or is it Esau? – arrives at his bedside. Who are you? Are you really? How did you manage to return so quickly? Who am I really talking to?

Isaac was just a toddler when his elder brother was banished to the wilderness. Ishmael, like Esau, is described as an active, physically adept man – sturdy and fleet-footed. Ishmael will not be favored. Isaac will inherit.

Does Isaac see his brother in his impulsive elder son? Does Isaac feel compelled to do teshuva for his parents, who arranged Hagar’s pregnancy, who are responsible for Ishmael’s creation, who later make certain that it is their Isaac, not Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael, that inherits all that his father has?

The child of an alcoholic often grows up to be over-responsible, to assure his or her family’s safety. There will not be unpredictable rages, irresponsible behavior. The family’s safety will be protected. Teshuva for the neglect of the parent becomes a lifelong – and worthy endeavor. The child who has been abused grows up to the same insistent responsibility: There will not be a repeat; her children will be guarded, cared for. No harm will befall them.

Does Isaac, the pawn in the story of his near-sacrifice – the helpless inheritor of his father’s legacy – does this man need to redress the wrong against a brother who did not deserve his secondary status?

Isaac does not succeed. Esau pays the price. But so does Jacob. Jacob, who lies and deceives others will be deceived himself – he will be tricked into marrying the wrong sister, forced to work double time to pay the bride price for the girl he really wanted to marry. Jacob’s own sons will deceive their father when he is old, claiming that their brother Joseph died in the desert when they had themselves sold him into slavery. The job of teshuva goes on, and continues, generation after generation.

We are often blind in the face of our own complicated motivations. But Judaism also insists that the world is created anew each day for a reason. We can make up for our parents’ mistakes. We can make up for our own. Teshuva, return, is a choice.

May it be our practice.

A Letter to Mizzou

MizzouEvery semester I spend at least one class session on a wide range of introductions. I introduce course goals, the syllabus and all its accompanying rules, assigned texts, and, of course, assessment tools. There will be so many exams or papers or quizzes, I explain. So much percentage will be awarded here or there.

Then I tell a story. About Debbie.

It was my very first semester. I was a teaching assistant for a large lecture course. I met with the students each week, went over their assignments, graded their quizzes and essay exams, ran study sessions, and the like. The professor lectured; I did the grunt work.

The campus was dominated by white students, though some foreign nationals attended various graduate programs. One hundred and twenty four of my students that fall were Caucasian. One was black: Debbie.

Debbie was an extroverted, verbal student. In the first few classes, she distinguished herself with perceptive commentary and a bubbly enthusiasm.

Within the first two weeks, I gave a first quiz – a short answer question. I wanted to assess writing skills right off the bat.

Debbie failed that quiz.

But she was so clearly able to verbalize, so obviously enthusiastic. I wrote up my comments, noted that it was clear from class discussion that she was doing well, and asked her to come see me so we could talk.

In those days, there was no established writing lab or center for students like Debbie; I would have to help her learn to write, if she would let me. Only three years older than Debbie, I was barely 21 at the time. I was also enormously idealistic, and certain I could help. I was also white, obviously from a middle class background, and in a position of power.

But Debbie did come to see me. Over the semester, she willingly wrote me an essay each and every week for no credit at all. She was learning how to write, and I was learning how to teach.

Inwardly, I thought every session about the courage it must have taken her to be at that college at all. She was the first member of her family to attend university, she told me. Her family was hardly middle class or well-educated.

She could have avoided me; she could have decided not to try and trust my good intentions. She would have had every reason to do so given the heritage bequeathed to us both.

Each and every week as I looked up to the students entering the lecture hall – a stream of European descendants, a wave of white faces – I’d think about Debbie taking a seat among the privileged. She was a member of a people still oppressed, still unfree.

She worked hard all semester. By the middle of the semester she was getting a C or two on her work for the class. By the final essay exam, she was able to write a full-fledged, well-organized essay. Each sentence was complete, clear, and articulate. I was so excited I was jotting down little more than exclamation points as I read and the word “yes” every few lines. With more exclamation points.

Debbie’s final grade averaged out to a C. But she had ended up proving that she was an A student. I gave her an A in the course.

So many of my students enter UNC Charlotte, where I teach now, unprepared and unready for the demands I will make on them. Like Debbie, they come from difficult backgrounds. This semester, I have a student working third shift – often her hours are longer than the official shift, and she has to work from 11 p.m. until 8 or 9 a.m. the next morning. She sleeps a few hours, then starts preparing for class, and then attends class. Like Debbie, she is a first-generation college student. Also, like Debbie, she is African American.

Debbie must be in her early fifties now. In my mind, Debbie’s story and her struggles should be a relic of my past and hers. It’s not.

More than three decades ago, Debbie was the single black student among 124 students at the University of Missouri-Columbia.