Divorcing Demons: Rabbinic Prescriptions and Folk Traditions

Incantation Bowl with demonMythologies are persistent – especially when they support present-day power realities. But the historical record is clear on the Yavneh myth: the rabbis neither “democratized” Judaism nor created it. In the centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, rabbis spoke pretty exclusively to one another, as educated elites often do. What folks did both in and outside of the synagogue was certainly not determined and, in some respects, hardly affected by rabbinic conversations or prescriptions.

The rabbis came into their own as powerbrokers only in the fifth and sixth centuries. In significant measure, we can thank Christianity for that development (that’s another post).

Christianity posits a Satan and a Jesus foretold in Tanakh. We look at Mishnah and Gemara and invent a rabbinic leadership for the first five centuries of the Common Era that never was.

This doesn’t make Talmud and the corpus of rabbinic texts unimportant. Not by any means. Once ensconced in positions of power, the rabbis did have a great deal to say about how Jews would live their lives. But even in those centuries, there was a dialogue between folk practice and rabbinic law. The latter not infrequently yielded to the former – just as it does in our own time.

An ancient example: The incantation bowls of Babylonian Jewish society.

Incantation bowls were a common phenomenon in the Ancient Near East – they likely hark back to Babylonian times (think Hammurabi and the 19th century BCE) when apotropaic figurines were buried at specific locations in both private and public dwellings. In Late Antiquity, incantation bowls were routinely buried in the four corners of a given dwelling or room, sometimes cupped together as a trap to contain demonic forces.

Inscriptions written on the inside of the bowls frequently name the people tIncantation_bowl,_Nippur,_terracotta_-_Oriental_Institute_Museum,_University_of_Chicago_-_DSC07064o be protected as well as the various classes of threatening demonic characters. These were the liliths and the lilin, their male counterparts. Both engendered general misfortune and illness, and attacked adults using their powerful sexual wiles. Children were also presumed targets of these malevolent creatures.

How on earth did those poor humans rid their houses of demons? By divorcing them. Or so we read in incantation bowl inscriptions.

And again, do not appear to them, not in a dream of the night and not in sleep of the day, for I dismiss and separate you with a get of dismissal and a writ of separation and a letter of removal, according to the law of the daughters of Israel.

Another inscription:

I adjure you by the glory of your father and by the glory of your mother. Receive your gets and your divorces, gets and divorces that were sent in the curse that Joshua ben Perahia sent against you, about which Joshua ben Perahia said to you, “a get has come to you from across the sea. In it is found written, whose mother’s name is Palhan and whose father’s name is Pelahdad Lilith. Hear and go away and do not lie with her, with Komis bat Mahlapta, not in her house and not in her dwelling.”

The adjurations clearly use language that is familiar, echoing rabbinic texts. A rabbinic get includes the phrase “according to the law of Moses and Israel.” Here, one of the bowls alters that phrase to apply to the afflicted women. Now we read “according to the law of the daughters of Israel.”

The second inscription provides rabbinic authority, giving Joshua ben Perahia, a first-century B.C.E. rabbi, the credit for creating a get especially designed for demons. As in a rabbinic get, the names of both the mother and father of the being to receive it appear as part of the text.

There’s shared ritual here and shared language, though the Talmudic sources are produced by an educated elite and the incantation bowls are a folk practice (one Christians, Mandeans, and other peoples of the time share with their Jewish neighbors). Some scholars wonder why rabbinic literature doesn’t mention the gets of incantation bowls. Amulets, after all, are discussed as aids in healing in Talmudic texts. Some wonder who drew the demons and wrote the incantations. One scholar in the field has speculated that women might have had significant roles to play in creating the inscriptions, and that women’s participation in this common practice may partially account for Talmudic claims that “most women are sorceresses” (b. Sanh. 67a). Rabbis, she claims, may be pushing back against female (and magical) practices.

Rabbis probably never had the authority we imagine over the daily practices of their communities. They frequently don’t have that much authority now, either.

This isn’t to say that in the fifth and sixth centuries Jewish communities hadn’t begun looking to their rabbis to respond creatively to their own needs. The get for demons could be a folk creation based on familiarity with rabbinic language. But it also could have been the work of a poor rabbinic student of the fifth century C.E. Maybe drawing and inscribing incantation bowls paid for that much-needed course on Jeremiah?

The takeaway? It’s not really about folk practice versus rabbinic prescription. Jewish practice, Jewish learning, Jewish ritual, and Jewish traditions are intertwined and created anew each and every generation – by us all.

With a Pride That is Personal

UNCC graduation 1Nature provided perfection: a clear, Carolina blue sky, temperatures comfortably hovering in the upper seventies, a slight breeze. Well-dressed people of all ages streamed purposefully out of parking lots, my husband, Ralf, and I among them.

We prepared for a ritual.

We gathered up our robes, hats, and tassels, and walked among hundreds. Today, we conferred degrees on over 4,000 students at UNC-Charlotte.

Faculty were directed to the bowels of the student activity center, where we lined up in twos, told stories of our students, and prepared for a ceremony that is always important and nearly unendurable.

As the faculty marched out into the large sports auditorium with the wretched, back-breaking seats, I fantasized about innovation, spontaneity, and the use of Real Words. I imagined casting all clichés aside. I began to pray that I would not find myself anesthetized by a series of mundane speeches.

This time, I brought a little notepad just to keep myself alert. Ralf sat to my right. A technical writing professor was on my left.

“Are you taking notes?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said with quiet determination. “I am planning to write down every single endlessly repeated phrase from every graduation ceremony that ever was.”

“This auspicious university,” began one of our speakers.

“Did she say “suspicious university?” Ralf asked.

“Distinguished faculty and graduates,” she intoned. “Education is a valuable, life-long tool. We are here to celebrate you and your accomplishments. We honor your teachers, who offered you important and proper guidance.”

The clichés came faster than I could write. The word “endeavor” had yet to appear, however.

“We appreciate your many endeavors….”

“Ha!” I muttered.

“…you’ve worked long and hard to get to this important milestone. We offer our thanks to family and friends for their love and support.”

After a series of forgettable speeches, graduates began lining up. The doctoral candidates processed to dignified silence. The M.A. students generated an occasional shout of support. Our undergraduates, with mortarboards glittering with sparkly accouterments, sayings, and a plethora of flowers and trim cheer, raised their fists, and gratefully received their due decibels. The speakers read through hundreds and hundreds of names. The dean shook each hand, a picture was taken of every face.

But they all blurred together on the large screens and the sounds of most names were drowned out. A young man sang our university anthem.

Hail University! To you we sing our praise. May Charlotte’s light dispel the night, illumine all our days. In Charlotte’s crown the brightness gem we see. Without your power our finest hour would hold no victory. So let us love your life and cherish your great name. To aid your cause and uphold your laws and your enduring fame.

Odear.

What does one long for?

Next year, stand them all up, I say, confer the degrees en masse, and then send them off to their departments where we, their teachers, will honor them with real ritual and words that are attuned to the particulars of their college careers.

And so:

  • To R, a sixty-something-year-old who grew to trust in her own fine mind: Yes, you are ready for graduate school.
  • To R, an army vet who made me leap out of my office chair because, finally, argument, evidence and structure came together so powerfully in the first paper of your fourth semester with me that I danced into the kitchen high on your achievements and went back to my computer screen to type YAYYYYYYYYYYYY across the bottom of the page.
  • To M, another vet, who I invited to learn to write with me, warning of the work ahead. Thank you for doing that work, sweating out each sentence and paragraph in draft after draft. You learned the power of words (and how to command them).

Give us the opportunity to acknowledge our students not with clichés and shouts but with their own stories offered back to them and their families. Allow us to look into their eyes as we hand them their degrees. Allow us to honor them with a pride that is personal.

The Peace of Green: In Memory Of Sarah McCurry

Sarah at the riverIt was a long drive. I watched the earth unfold, rise and fall in long, green waves. Even in such circumstances, there was a muted, familiar peace that grew as the miles went by.

Since we moved to North Carolina’s Piedmont in 1990, I have loved the way westward. I stop where I am enveloped, where the ridges of each and every mountain enfold and embrace me. Greens there are touched with gold, infused with blue.

As I drove up the ridge to my destination, Chimney Rock rose in the distance. Fields rolled up and away before me. In my mind’s eye I held the picture of a small creek with a plank stretching across the water. I saw a young woman walking across it, flowers in her hand: Sarah.

It was only a picture. That day, I was driving to that creek to officiate Sarah’s funeral, where her ashes would be scattered in the creek she had played in as a child. Sarah died last January, at the age of 24.

To teach is to love. Students grow and delight you; they invent and recreate. They reimagine the world with you. They give you hope.

Sarah McCurry took each and every class for her Judaic Studies minor with me. It was a surprising choice of study; she came from rural mountains of North Carolina. She was not Jewish; no one in her family was. She came from rural, white, hard-scrabble farmers. When I went to her family home, I saw first-hand the kind of poverty she knew growing up.

Sarah McCurry

Sarah McCurry

Sarah was a “wildfire,” her boyfriend Eric once told me.

In eighth grade she came home from middle school to tell her mother that she was going to apply to a local college program that would let her complete her high school degree and get an associate’s degree all at once. Her mother didn’t believe such a thing could exist (or that Sarah could manage such a thing), but her daughter brought home the paperwork, got into the program, and finished everything in three years.

Sarah was one of the hungriest students I’ve ever had – hungry for learning, for discovering, for the world. She wanted to travel, and she did. She wanted to know the world and understand it. She wanted to figure people out, the meaning of life, decipher her own soul.

That determination would make her face her fear of heights and – literally – crawl up Grandfather’s Mountain, clinging to the earth. True to form, once she arrived at the summit, she stood up and posed for a picture as if it had all been a breeze and she had never had any fear to conquer or no panic to overcome.

I sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” for her. Her nieces sung “Amazing Grace,” we recited Psalm 23, and I read “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke.

As I spoke of Sarah, the water burbling and bubbling behind me, the lacy green of trees overhead, my tears fell on my guitar, on my hands, on the paper as I read.

The loss of Sarah cannot be measured by those who knew her.

At the end of the service, I held up a plain jar. Sarah had used it to carry flowers down to the creek with her the previous summer. She had laid the flowers there in memory of her aunt Susie, who had died of colon cancer six months before Sarah was diagnosed with the same disease.

Sarah had left the jar at the creek, and though this past winter the creek had several times overflowed its banks, Sarah’s mother, Sheila, and Eric found it when they came to clean up the area for the funeral.

I brought out a small box. In it were uncut gemstones from the Blue Ridge mountains. There was pinkish rose quartz and lilac amethyst and green fluoride. Green was Sarah’s favorite color.

I went from person to person, asking them to choose a stone to drop into the jar. They would be Sarah’s sparkles – natural, as she had been. I gave the jar to Sheila and Eric.

I keep seeing the picture Eric showed me of Sarah clinging to the earth as she climbed the rocky face of Grandfather Mountain, clinging so that she would not fall.  Then I see her walking across that plank, sure she would not fall.

I pray: No more fear, no more panic, Sarah, but only peace. Peace in the green you loved.

Adding Silence to the Seder

stageI longed for silence.

I had been sitting in a high school auditorium, complete with hard seats, the inevitable dusty black curtains drawn across the stage, and the aging podium. About a hundred people were present. Most were teenagers, some teachers, some were parents.

 

From left to right: Don Greenbaum and Ernie Gross

 

We had just seen a film depicting the liberation of Dachau. Two men were going to speak after the film, men whose stories had been part of the film’s subject matter. One was Don Greenbaum. Now in his early nineties, Greenbaum was a boy of 18 when he joined the army. He was part of the invasion of the Normandy coast during D-Day. He survived the Battle of the Bulge. He was one of Dachau’s liberators on April 29, 1945, a witness to the Final Solution.

The other man was Ernie Gross, who was deported at the age of 15 to Auschwitz, where his parents and younger siblings died. He spent a year at various labor camps, became ill, and was sent to Dachau to die. On the day he was marched toward the gas chambers, the Americans liberated Dachau and saved his life.

The film was devastating.

Afterwards, there was a short intermission before the two men spoke. Refreshments were also served.

I sat in the school lobby wondering, as I always do, how it is that anyone can speak, much less reach for a cookie and soda after witnessing the kinds of scenes we’d just such films depict. But the question is stale and unhelpful. One might as well ask how any of us go about our lives given the trauma and horror occurring in our world in any given moment.

Still, it seemed to me that we could have taken a moment for silence. We could have asked those present to sit or stand quietly for just a few moments. We so rarely offer ourselves the silence we need.

When the two elderly men made their way to the stage, I wanted to stand. I wanted us all to stand, in silent recognition of the story they carry, the narrative they tell.

Don Greenbaum began by noting their age and acknowledging that they would not be able to tell their stories for very much longer.

Ernie Gross told us that when he first tried to speak about the Shoah, he was barely able to get the words out. So, he added, he learned that he would have to use humor now and again to get through everything.

Astonishingly, with delicacy and care, he did exactly that, interspersing a tale from his early childhood or his later adult life to make the years he spent in Auschwitz tellable. After he spoke, he gave students dollar coins for answering single questions. When a young man answered the first question correctly and came up to get a coin, Ernie said: “You can’t spend it; it’s for a memory.”

Don told the students that he was talking about what had happened for as long as he could so that they would tell the story after him.

Every survivor I’ve known wants to make “never again” a reality. They believe that explaining what they know must make it so. It seems so rational: If humanity only heard the cries these survivors are muffling inside, we would cease our crimes.

They are not wrong. It is just that humanity is hard of hearing. To listen to those cries, you would need to be silent.

Tomorrow night we will sit at our seder tables and we will recount a tale of slavery and human oppression. It is not the tale of the Shoah. But it is a tale of truth. We will celebrate our freedom and we will eat well. We will enjoy the company of friends and families and know security and safety denied our ancestors, denied our people, denied human beings each day.

Perhaps we could listen to our story and be silent for a little while. Silence, too, could be part of our seder.

To Ernie and Don: Thank you for speaking.

May we listen, and acquire some knowledge that does your courage justice.  May we honor it in deed in the year to come.  May our Pesach be a lesson in the freedom that is due to the earth itself and all who live upon her.

Torah on the Misuse of Power (and NC House Bill 2)

MirrorDinah. The Levite’s concubine. Tamar, the princess. They, and the other characters who populate their stories, are our mirror images.

Every one of them became pawns. Two of them were, without any question, the victims of violent sexual assault. Each figured in narratives focused on men securing male privilege and male power.

There are some who may argue that Dinah, whose story is told in Genesis 34, may have consented to a liaison with Shechem, the prince of the nearby city. But no one can argue with Jacob’s silent acquiescence in the machinations of his sons, who insist that Shechem can only marry Dinah if he and the men of his city are circumcised. Jacob’s sons wait until the townsmen are weak and in pain, march through the city and kill every last one of them. Their women, children, and property become Israel’s chattel.

In Judges 19, we read about the Levite’s concubine, who runs away from her husband is eventually reattached to his household. We don’t know how she feels. She does not utter a word in the story and her fate is decided by her husband and father. Her death, too, is her husband’s decision; when an angry mob rushes the home where he is staying he hands her to them to save himself and his host. The next morning, after she has been gang raped, the Levite finds her lying at the door, her fingers on the threshold. Later, he dismembers her body and calls the Israelites to war. Nearly the entire Benjamite tribe is destroyed and another 600 women will be abducted.

King David’s daughter, Tamar will desperately try to convince her half-brother Amnon not to rape her (2 Sam. 13). She will fail. When the searing account of the assault ends and Tamar tries to save her future by convincing him not to cast her out, Amnon will tell his servant to send “this” out of his room.

This past week, my students and I worked through these stories. We discussed common elements: In each, the narrative either gives the woman involved no voice at all, or she is told to remain silent by men when she speaks.

My students offered observations: Dinah’s brothers gain a city’s worth of women, children, livestock and goods. The Levite, who threw his concubine to a raging and murderous mob, lies about his own part in the horror and will never have to answer for his crimes. The war he starts will make his own crimes negligible, forgotten by his fellow Israelites. Tamar’s full-brother Absalom will eventually, after two years, arrange for Amnon’s death, but Absalom’s revenge could be a cover for his ambition: Amnon was, before he died, the first-born son, and heir to David’s throne.

They noticed this, too: In no way do these stories valorize the exercise of male authority and prerogative in these stories. Dinah’s brothers act cruelly. The Levite’s Concubine fills us with horror; the war he unleashes proves what happens when a society has gone amok. The men who circle around Tamar – not Amnon, nor Absalom, nor her father David – all enact and accept her ruin.

These are lessons about what happens when male power is exercised to hide male weakness. These are stories that show us the consequences when women are abused. They are, in every regard, pertinent to our times – obviously, women in this world are not safe from any of the kinds of assaults these biblical narratives describe. Gender neutral toilets

But there’s this, too: Just as in biblical stories, today’s privileged continue to marginalize and silence those whose very bodies they make into vehicles for their exercise of power.

In North Carolina, our state legislature, one dominated by a privileged white majority, has just made it so much more likely that transgender individuals will be subject to abuse and attack. LGBT individuals have been stripped of legal protections. House Bill 2, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act is an act of violence that has been based on a comprehensive effort to silence transgender persons and criminalize them.

Those who supported the bill have been tarring transgender women as potential rapists. Facts don’t matter (they mostly don’t this election year). There is not a single case in the nation to substantiate all the talk about the dangers women and girls face if we don’t control where transgender women use a toilet. Nevertheless, the smearing, searing calumny is voiced.

What does bible tell us? Privileged individuals in our country frequently claim bible as their inspiration. But our texts condemn the manipulation and misuse of the weak in service of the powerful and strong. We do not walk away from Dinah, the Levite’s concubine, or Tamar believing that those heartbreaking narratives are meant to tell us how life should be lived, but how life should not be lived.

Torah holds a mirror to each generation. To look is to know: We must change.

Leviticus (and Voting on the Right )

Voting stickerLast Tuesday, I decided to do my civic duty right after lunch. I stepped into a church I attend regularly – at least, for a Jew. I’ve attended this church for friends’ weddings and for funerals; I also typically give several presentations there each year.

I know the people working the booths, since they happen to be neighbors of mine. It’s a pretty casual affair. There is never a line, which is sad, and always chit-chat about family life and suchlike, which is nice.

I was given my number, which was quite high, considering. I was Voter Number 272. I happily acquired my ballot, went to the cubby, set down my bag, and prepared to be a good citizen.

My choices for president included Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich.I stared at the ballot. I hadn’t had much sleep the night before, so it took me a moment. Then another. By the time the third moment arrived to tap me on the wrist, I had figured it out. Despite asking me my party affiliation (I confess: lifelong Democrat), my neighbors had handed me the opposition’s ballot.

In fact, I had been offered the opportunity to commit voter fraud – perhaps the very first actual case of voter fraud we would have seen in these United States this century. I could make history, right then and there at All Saints Episcopal, just yards away from the sanctuary I had taught in three weekends running the month before. “Voter Fraud Rife in the Tarheel State: Rabbi Arrested.”

Leviticus came to mind. Just a couple of days earlier I had spent an hour making the case for the beauty of the Torat Kohanim with congregants in my Torah study. Each year, as we leave Exodus behind and head into the spring, I wax eloquent over the sheer loveliness of biblical law. “Here we go,” someone is thinking, “she’s going to tell us about the ethical mandates behind whole chapters on corpses, skin diseases, and genital discharges. Again.”

But none of these things were on my mind. Ritual was.

Voting is a ritual with all sorts of important constituent parts. Here, in North Carolina, we’ve recently (and unnecessarily) added a few. Before I voted this March, a woman at the door formally informed me to please take out my photo ID before stepping forward to the table where I would have to recite my name, my address, and my party affiliation. Then I was reminded that phones must be turned off, ballots must be brought to the altar, and there, one must make sure to mark small ovals properly. The closing ritual includes feeding the completed ballot into a machine which consumes the results with a pleasing, whirring noise offered to the gods of democracy, after which one receives a sticker.

Ritual, I am fond of telling my congregants, is how Leviticus embeds values. The well-being offering of Leviticus was to demonstrate joy and gratitude and marked the fulfillment of vows. Priests might bring purification offerings to expiate any of the errors they might have committed, errors that could harm the people they served. Reparation offerings provided a way to get right with community, humanity, and God, Godself. Expressing thankfulness, making sure to be attentive to potential error, figuring out a way to repair the hurt or damage one’s actions can cause – these are values worth embedding in ritual.

As I stood at the voting booth, I thought of Nadav and Avihu. Obviously, I told myself, casting the Republican ballot would have been offering up some pretty strange fire. Sure, I could run Philo through my mind – Philo, who asserted in the first century C.E. that Aaron’s sons had acted out of piety, out of a heartfelt wish to be closer to God. In not voting for certain people and voting for others, I could be acting for the good of the Republican Party. I could be acting for the good of North Carolina. I could be acting for the good of America – of all the world, in fact. I could have voted against the Golden Bull, which is everywhere this year.  Golden calf

Instead, I went back to the table and explained that I had been given the wrong ballot. Utter consternation ensued, apologies were given thrice over, and I went back to my voting altar. I fed in my ballot, got my sticker, and went home.

“Leviticus,” according to one of my commentaries, “is a difficult book for a modern person to read with reverence and appreciation… The modern temper tends to discount prescribed ritual in favor of spontaneous religious expression.” But, the writer maintained, this book teaches us that at critical times we need to know that we are “doing it right.”

Amen.

Halakha as a Petaled Flower – Lessons from Rabbi Daniel Siegel

Hand crafting Jewish ritual wear is one of the ways I pray. This week, I am sewing angel tallitot.

When I designed my angel tallitot, I meant to solve specific problems faced by guitar-playing rabbis and cantors; rectangular tallitot often go askew or get caught in guitar straps. And I wanted to see if I could create a tallit with wings.

One night, after a deep conversation with Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel about All Things Jewish, I saw the tallit I would create. Those who know Rabbi Hanna Tiferet will understand why the tallit appeared to me in the form of angels’ wings.

tie-dyed tallit front small

I spent some months designing a pattern. But while I drew, cut, and drew again, it was mostly Rabbi Daniel Siegel who kept coming to mind.

When I first started rabbinic studies with ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a decade ago, I arrived with enormous enthusiasm, a pleasant singing voice, and modest guitar-playing skills. As someone who had grown up in fairly secular surroundings, I had little knowledge of Jewish ritual. I had next to no experience with liturgy. I knew, as my grandmother would say, “from absolutely nothing” when it came to halakhah, Jewish law.

So when a classmate told me that the tallit I had made back then for my guitar-playing self was not “halakhic,” I felt worse than awful. I felt humiliated by my own ignorance.

My first course with Reb Daniel was at an ALEPH Kallah. I knew from absolutely nothing then. Reb Daniel, on the other hand, was so steeped in all things Jewish that when he sang a niggun in his gravelly voice I felt I was listening to generations – centuries really – of Jewish longing for the Holy One of Blessing.

Reb Daniel never seemed to care about our ignorance and never tried to measure it. He simply wanted to offer us – with both heart and mind – the beauty of Jewish tradition, learning, and text. He wove Chassidic tradition and halakhic intention together with such tender care that the room would shine.

I went to Reb Daniel, who told me to get the tallit and meet him outside. When I returned, he was holding a number of books. He examined the tallit, which had been made with two shawls sewn together. He noted where I’d placed the tzitzit. He began reading, translating and explaining from his various volumes. We went over the issue of corners the student had addressed. Was there, in fact, a limit on the number of corners a tallit could have or was the only question I needed to be concerned with around making sure the tzitzit were placed on the corners farther from one another?

I will always remember the way Reb Daniel walked me through each of the rabbinic texts. I never felt small or ignorant. I felt, simply, like a beloved and respected student.

I have never, ever forgotten the way I experienced my first real encounter with halakhah and the halakhic process. I learned from Reb Daniel how humane and life-giving Jewish law can be; I learned how to recognize its thoughtful purpose.

But most of all, I learned how to teach those who are anxious and frightened because they think they aren’t Jewish enough, don’t know enough. Reb Daniel taught me: Open Judaism up like a petaled flower and your students will be glad to take in the beauty of their inheritance.

So now, Reb Daniel, ten years later, I thank you for doing just that. Yours has been beautiful learning I won’t forget.

P.S. Happy birthday!

Ki Tissa – Freedom Written in Stone

Cracked stoneI was at a local church. It was the third program in a series spanning three weeks. We were exploring texts in which a variety of biblical voices had questioned — even argued with — God.

The first two programs had been heavily text based. The third opened with some time for exploring personal experience before considering the text.

I asked everyone in the circle to settle themselves, breathe slowly for a few minutes, with their bodies resting and relaxed. When they were ready, I gave them their task.

“Think back to a time of irretrievable loss,” I said. “Honor whatever feelings emerge and name them for yourself.”

The room was quiet, at first. Then I heard crying. “When you are ready,” I said, “you can open your eyes. If this is comfortable for you, please turn to someone nearby and share what came up — you don’t need to tell the story, though you may do so, if you like. But please, if you can, tell your companion what you were feeling.”

I set time constraints and made sure everyone had a turn. Then, some spoke to the group.

One man had described how he’d felt as his wife was dying. Bewildered. Guilty for not doing more. Others spoke about despair. Some admitted to anger. One woman said she had never understood why God hadn’t given her the time to speak to her mother, to heal old wounds before death made healing impossible.

After a welter of emotions had been articulated, I handed out the first two chapters of Lamentations. “What emotions do you see described here?” I asked.

They had plenty to offer: Confusion. Guilt. Despair. Anger.

One woman raised her hand. Everything is in God’s hand, she said. Everything. Another participant agreed. God was just trying to teach us; the death of our loved ones was God’s way to help us learn something we needed to understand. Others were not so sure. One woman suggested that God may hope we learn from painful losses, but she didn’t think God planned them for that purpose.

“Maybe God’s plan,” I suggested, “is just for us to act godly.”

This Shabbat we read Ki Tissa, in which Moses persuades YHVH not to destroy the people, but rather to give them the gift of the law. We read that God inscribed the two tablets on both sides, and does so Godself.

Incised, inscribed: charut we read. But the rabbis ask us to read on two levels; they say, read cheirut, freedom. Freedom, our rabbis tell us, is to be found in the obligations we have chosen. The law is an invitation to learn how to act godly. God’s plan is for us to do everything we can to do exactly that.

We fail, of course. We have not eradicated human slavery or meaningless violence. We have neither ended hunger nor protected our fragile planet. Since the time Torah was composed, humanity has managed, in many respects, to make it easier to destroy.

The rabbis also describe what happens when Moses sees his people seemingly abandoning their future, their promises, their hopes of becoming a holy people and a nation of priests. The letters God had inscribed flew off the tablets. The tablets became mere stones. As such, they were too much for Moses to carry. They fell from his arms.

Laws incised upon stone, laws that detailed how freedom was to be found were easy to carry, however hard they were to carry out. Stone without law was inarticulate, heavy, impossible to bear. Rather like Pharaoh’s heart.

I do not think the Source of all Blessing decrees pain in the service of some master plan. I refuse to try and make sense of the meaningless violence human beings commit or the unpredictable and inexplicable anguish of disease and catastrophe.

I do believe — wholeheartedly — that we have been offered vital, liberating obligations: The obligation to respect and honor each other and the earth we live upon, the obligation to act, as best we can, each and every day, in a way that elevates ourselves and others to the highest possible standard.

May our law be our freedom.

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeuVBc76jas 

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.