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.

Genesis 22 – No Sacrifice to Platitudes

Sacrifice of Isaac by Adi Holzer 1997

Sacrifice of Isaac by Adi Holzer 1997

Topic? Genesis, Chapter 22. “Take your son…”

We sat in a classroom without windows, the students arranged in discussion mode around a U-shaped set of tables. A cousin of one of my students had been shot and killed just days earlier; the two had grown up together – quite literally – in the same household. Two other students have been struggling all semester with depression. Another has been long challenged by a set of disabilities – this semester, they seem to be worsening.

The previous week we had read a number of midrashim on the Akedah. We explored the terse, cryptic language that marks so much of the text. Abraham had already sent one son into the dangers of the wilderness as a kind of sacrifice to his wife’s fears, one student pointed out. Was Isaac (almost) a sacrifice to God’s insecurity about Abraham’s loyalty? If so, she asked, why would God need to test Abraham? Hadn’t he proven a loyal and trusting servant?

Our second day of discussion involved source analysis. Genesis 22 is the work of the E-writer, who composed his narratives sometime between 928 BCE and the Assyrian invasion that destroyed Northern Israel in 722 BCE.

Not everything in the text seemed to fit together, though.

Scholars have long noted that verses 14-18 diverge in style from the rest of the narrative; they have even been called “clumsy additions” to the text. Where so much of Genesis 22 is taut, economic, sparse, these verses are repetitive, poetic in nature.

Academics have also pointed out that verses 11-12 and 14-17 use YHVH for God; the text otherwise refers to God as Elohim (a dominant characteristic of the E-writer’s Genesis stories). They’ve observed that God’s relationship with Abraham is generally notable for being panim el panim, up close and personal. Angelic announcements from on high are not so frequent, they note. God more typically appears in patriarchal narratives as a kind of earthly messenger. It’s hard not to wonder why the text needs to say that Abraham offers the ram tachat beno (instead of his son) when that ought to be self-evident to the reader.

One scholar, Omri Boehm, has pointed out that if you remove the “angelic” verses, a coherent, narrative remains – consistent in style and dramatic development. But it does not tell a tale of an obedient, loyal Abraham. Without those verses, Abraham disobeys God. He almost sacrifices his son, but when he sees the ram, he makes a substitute. Genesis 22 was, Boehm argues, once a story of Abraham’s rejection of God’s test; later writers, who wanted an obedient Abraham, added the angelic intervention. It’s another example (like the conflicting accounts of who killed Goliath) of an intertextual polemic.

We have all sorts of evidence that the various writers of Tanakh disagreed, overrode and overwrote each other’s narratives. But asking whether angels descended on Genesis 22 at the hand of a writer who wanted a different reputation for Abraham was just a first step for our class conversation.

Here is what my students asked: What happens to all you’ve been taught if you imagine Abraham defying God? How could one possibly imagine a God who could or should be defied in any circumstance?

My students have been taught that God is never to be questioned. God knows best. God has a plan. Our job is to do as told.

But in a room where one young man is trying to understand why his cousin was murdered, where two students fight with internal chemistry and social messages that bathe them in despair, in a room where a student finds her capacity to read and write – always slow – getting slower and harder to control given the disabilities of body she must manage, God does not always seem to know best. Nor is it clear how any of that pain could or should be part of a divine plan.

Ancient writers of nearly three thousand years ago offered narratives that permit us to question God’s nature and our purpose. That is a gift.

The student whose cousin-brother was killed must be allowed to honor his anger and his grief even if it means asking where God was when the shot was fired. The students who wake to depression need acknowledgment when they feel lost and alone. My disabled student will not be comforted, I suspect, by claims that her challenges are part of God’s plan.

The “other” Genesis 22, one that features a disobedient Abraham, has granted us the right to question how God works and who we are. We are not asked to sacrifice our pain to platitudes.

Learning Wisdom in the Garden of Righteousness

IdyllOur Torah calls it Gan Eden, a pleasure garden. God creates the human being, gives his creation breath, and plants trees of knowledge and life. Seven verses later, in Genesis 2:16, the Lord God commands his creation: Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. If you do, you will die. In that moment.

The Hebrew is straightforward. Despite centuries of midrashim, the text is not ambiguous. This is not Psalm 90, where a day equals a millennia for God. Nor did our ancient writer know of a “soul” the way we do. It would be mere retrojection on our parts to claim that God intended a “spiritual” rather than physical death.

This command, at least, seems straightforward stuff, complete with intensified verbal constructions: Eat, and your life is over. Right then. On that day.

Paradise, such as it was, lasts all of ten verses.

The idyll was over the moment God issued the threat. In an idyll, a paradise, no one holds your feet to the fire; no one hangs a Damocles sword above your head. The first human must have felt that something was wrong; why would the Lord God plant a tree and then refuse creation its fruit with neither explanation nor justification? God is manipulative? Or perhaps God has trust issues, and tests those Godself would like most to love.

The serpent is the only one who tells the truth. God, he explains, is a little anxious about the powers of his own creation. Adam and Eve are supposed to be mere willing workers, tending God’s garden. If they acquire divine-like knowledge, they will encroach on God’s territory.

For the other characters in this particular story, truth is at a premium. God appears to fib, Adam is not above foisting the blame on his wife, and Eve joins in on the blame game.

God sends humanity into the world with nothing but the skins on their backs, knowledge, and fear.

What have they learned in Gan Eden, in the pleasure garden? Eve learns that God will not speak directly with her. Adam learns that he can’t pass the buck. The serpent learns that telling the truth doesn’t win you brownie points. God loses face and the serpent loses his legs.

It is heartrending. Fear and mistrust are in the garden almost as soon as God creates it. Did it all begin when God planted those two, separate trees?

What if just one tree of life and wisdom had been planted there? What if humanity had been encouraged, even told: “Eat from that fruit and learn understanding and compassion. Eat from that fruit and learn that life is sacred and that protecting life is your charge.”

Why did this story win the day when our stories were written down, and, centuries later, made part of our canon?

And I came to the Garden of Righteousness, and I saw beyond those trees many large trees growing there, sweet-smelling, large, very beautiful and glorious and the tree of wisdom from which they eat and know great wisdom. And it is like the carob-tree and its fruit is like the bunches of grapes on a vine, very beautiful, and the smell of this tree spreads and penetrates afar. And, I said, ‘This tree is beautiful. How beautiful and pleasing is its appearance! And the holy angel Raphael, who was with me, answered and said to me, “This is the tree of wisdom from which your old father and your aged mother, who were before you, ate and learnt wisdom and their eyes were opened….

This version of the story comes from Book of Enoch. Our earliest versions of this book are as old as our earliest versions of the Book of Genesis – both were found in the Dead Sea Scroll library at Qumran. The Qumran texts were collected during three centuries before the Common Era, but some scholars believe that the Book of Enoch reflects traditions that are as ancient as the oldest we have in Genesis. If so, the stories to be found therein are, just as authentic as any we tell. For all we know, ancient Israelites might have preferred this version of our Genesis story. Or maybe yet a different one that got lost over time, and didn’t make it into the Qumran community library.

What do we learn from this version of our story? The setting is different: A Garden of Righteousness, not just pleasure. A place where there are many beautiful trees, but one is especially so: The tree of wisdom. Humanity eats from it and, it appears, learns.

Adam and Eve acquired wisdom in the Garden of Righteousness.

That would have been an idyll. Then, or now.

The Soul Marathon – From Rosh Chodesh Elul to Simchat Torah

marathonIt is challenging — a beautiful, spiritual marathon of sorts. Rosh Chodesh Elul to Simchat Torah — over fifty days of soul traveling punctuated by six major spiritual transitions: Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. We begin in the deepest modes of reflection and we end in an extravagant, no-hold-barred celebration.

Most Jews I know pick and choose from among the various chagim of the season. Few make it to each major service of the Days of Awe. The majority in my neck of the woods have never heard of Shemini Atzeret, others, at Sukkot do little more than enjoy the projects their children bring home from Religious School. Is there energy left to dance with the kind of abandon Simchat Torah deserves?

Given my own life, spent spinning between congregational obligations and those of the university, the Jewish liturgical year is nothing short of grueling during the fall months. This past year was no different. I sang the last notes and led the last prayers on Yom Kippur and went to bed early. The next day, I drove off to the university where I work to lecture for fully six hours in classrooms of various states of mustiness. The end of the day after Yom Kippur I was in bed so early I practically skipped dinner.

What were they thinking, those ancestors of ours, when they packed all these festivals together and turned these fifty-plus days into a training course for our souls?

They were thinking about beauty.

This is beautiful: The fragility that the Days of Awe induce is given a fragile space to unfold. In a sukkah, itself a tender reminder of the temporary quality of all existence, we sit with our rebirth, our new beginnings. I ask my congregants to reflect on their spiritual lulav, the fruit of their soul harvest from the High Holy Days. How will we embody our new self-awareness, transform it into a conscious practice in the months to come?

Rabbi Elazar Ben Tzadok says: It was the custom of the Jerusalemites for a person to leave his home with a lulav in hand, to go to the synagogue with his lulav in his hand, to read the Shema and to pray while holding the lulav, to place it on the ground while reading the Torah or reciting the blessings of the kohanim, to visit the sick, and to console mourners, while holding the lulav and, on entering the beit Hamidrash (for study)…

It would be so easy to simply return to how everything was – recreate and reestablish lulavthe same old habits from last year, the same old failings. But Sukkot asks us to take our spiritual lulav with us, live what we have learned, practice what our souls preached to us as the gates were closing at Neilah.

Shemini Atzeret brings the lesson home.

When, after the long festival of Sukkot, the children of Israel are ready to resume regular life, God says, ‘It is difficult for me to part with you. Tarry a while longer. Stay another day.” Hence the name Shemini ‘Atseret, for the word ‘atseret means ‘to tarry’ or ‘to hold back.’

God calls us to wait, to stay, to pause before “regular life” resumes. And the very next day we will roll our Torah scrolls back to Bereishit, and join the Holy One in a celebration of beginnings. The dance we dance deserves unmitigated joy; we are new, we are hopeful, we can love our Torah and all the challenges therein.

From reflecting on who we are as individual souls during Elul we conclude our High Holy Day season by reflecting on our collective story. We come out of ourselves, into our communal identity, and, strengthened by renewed awareness of both, reenter the world. It’s challenging, of course.

But beautiful.

Whispering… With Trees

orange treeOnce upon a time, when the earth was bare, when no grasses filled the field, water swelled and rose until, finally, it found release, a place to flow out and over the earth.

Waters of life gave life. A human was born and the breath of life came into this human. With this breath, Targum Onkelos says, humanity was granted speech: “And the Lord God created the human of the dust of the earth and breathed upon the human’s face the soul-breath of life and, [then] the human had a spirit for speaking.”

A garden grew of the water and the earth, a garden Torah calls eden, “pleasure.” In the very center the Holy One placed the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and bad.

Imagine these not as two separate trees but as one — one singular tree of life and wisdom. Our Torah is both, so Tanakh tells us. Etz hayyim hi, Torah is a tree of life to those who uphold it (Prov. 3:18). Rabbinic tradition has long identified Lady Wisdom, who describes her own presence at God’s side when the world was created (Prov. 8: 22-30) as Torah.

Wisdom is the source of life. The two are bound together.

In Genesis 2:5, we read: When no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted… Genesis Rabbah tells us that that while the first three words of the second creation story may seem to read “no shrub was in existence” we should understand the passage quite differently:

No one to converse with, siakh, in the field (Gen. 2:5). All trees converse (mesikhim), as it were, with one another. Indeed, one may add, all trees converse with mortals; all trees [were] created to provide fellowship for mortals (Gen. Rabbah 13:2).

The rabbis translate siakh not as “shrub” or “bush,” though that seems natural enough given the context. Instead they read its homonym, also formed from the three-letter root sinn-yod-chet. Multiple possible meanings present themselves, including “to ponder, to reflect,” “to concern oneself with,” “to meditate with thanks and praise,” “to talk, discourse,” or even “to whisper.”

In Genesis Rabbah, humanity wakes up, breathing into a world that will include whispering, speaking trees. In another rabbinic vision, the tree of life is a canopy for knowledge. Life is the source of wisdom. The two are bound together

In the Garden of Eden, in every one of its recesses, there are eighty myriad species of trees, the least of which is more beautiful than all varieties of spice trees. Sixty myriads of ministering angels sing sweetly in each recess of the Garden. The tree of life is in the center, and its foliage spreads over the entire Garden of Eden. The tree has five hundred thousand kinds of fruit, each differing in taste; the appearance of one fruit is not like the appearance of another, and the fragrance of one not like the fragrance of another. Clouds of glory hover above the tree, and from the four points of the compass [breezes] blow at it, so that its fragrance is wafted from world’s end to world’s end. Under the tree sit disciples of the wise, explaining the Torah. Each of them has two canopies, one studded with stars and the other with the sun and moon. Between each pair of canopies there is a curtain of clouds of glory. Beyond each canopy there is Eden, in which are three hundred and ten worlds. (Yalkhut, Bereishit)

Our story may have divided one ancient story of one tree into two. Humanity has relied on binary categories to organize the world, sets of opposites and oppositions. Male and female. Black and white. Heavenly and earthly. Material and transcendent. Spiritual and religious. Them and us.

But we all know that such oppositions confuse rather than clarify. We all know that there is no such thing as race and that we are all related. We all know that we can’t place people on the opposite sides of any category and call it quits. We all inhabit and travel on a spectrum where our culture, our color, our gender, our age, our education, our everything may shift with time or inclination.

This world – and humanity itself — is made for fluidity, not for rigidity.

Imagine we had created our stories with wholeness, rather than separateness and separation. Imagine we had created all our stories and all our human histories by the light and guiding image of one tree to converse with, a tree of wisdom and life.

Then, go outside into the created world. Whisper.

From Regret to Joy – A Yom Kippur Journey

Flame_Apophysis_Fractal_FlameAlmost exactly fifteen years ago, my father-in-law, Willy, took a decided turn for the worse. Willy’s wife, Evelyn, had nursed him for over five years, hardly leaving their apartment except for necessary errands.

That fall, my husband, Ralf, was getting ready to leave for Germany to guest lecture at the university in Ludwigsburg. Just two weeks before Ralf was to leave the United States, Willy was hospitalized. Because of his father’s illness he planned to go to Hagen, first, where his parents lived.

Ten days before Ralf’s departure, Evelyn, called to let us know that Willy had become unresponsive. He did not recognize anyone, even his own wife. He could not talk. Still, Evelyn told us, he might come out of his present state.

We knew Ralf would be leaving soon. We assumed we had time.

Evelyn called five days later. Ralf wasn’t home; he was at UNC Charlotte, teaching. Willy had just hours, she told me, not days to live.

“It’s too late,” she told me.

I began making calls.

First, to a travel agent, to get Ralf on a flight that night. Then, Ralf’s colleagues, who would need to take over his final classes at UNCC. Then, finally, when I knew he had finished teaching, I called Ralf at his office.

“Ralf,” I said. “Willy is dying. Come home right away, honey,” I added. “You have a flight out of Charlotte tonight at 7 p.m.”

“I’ll never make it,” he said.

“Yes, you will,” I said. “Everything is taken care of. It’s all arranged. Colleagues will teach for you next week. I’ve started packing your suitcase. Come home.”

By the time Ralf was home, all he had to gather up were any academic materials he needed to teach in Germany.

“I can’t focus,” he said. His hands were shaking.

He was at the airport that night with half an hour to spare. I calculated the flight time to Frankfurt, the train trip to Hagen, the taxi drive home, the trip to the hospital. What were the chances that Ralf could make it to Willy’s bedside before he died?

I don’t know what role chance played. I do know that when Willy saw his son, his eyes cleared; his face came alive. It was the first time he had responded to anything or anyone for many days.

Later, Ralf joked with his father and told him, “This will teach you to stop smoking.” Willy managed to lift an eyebrow and breathe something like a laugh.

He died that night.

Ralf came home a few weeks later, after taking care of the funeral, the paperwork, and his mother. He had to drive twelve hours each weekend to and from Ludwigsburg where he was teaching and Hagen. He did all this with pneumonia in both lungs. There was no time for his own grief.

He was quiet and calm when he returned. When I asked him how he was feeling, he would say that he was all right. It wasn’t, after all, as if we hadn’t expected it.

Two years later, I walked into our kitchen to find my husband leaning over the counter, his hands covering his face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I can’t explain it,” he said, looking up. His face was drawn. “It’s ridiculous. So long afterwards.”

Then Ralf told me. The night Willy died Evelyn wanted to leave the hospital. Ralf wanted to stay. It was very late; she had practically lived in that room for days. Ralf was torn between his exhausted mother’s exhaustion and the look in his father’s eyes.

“I can’t forget his eyes,” Ralf told me. “Pleading.”

For two years, Ralf had punished himself for leaving his father, following his mother out the door, and driving her home.

We arrive at Yom Kippur filled with regrets. If we had only had more time. If we had only said these words, not those. If only….

Give us a few moments to reflect on the past year, and we will recall the priorities we ignored, the hopes we did not honor, the needs we repressed. Yes, we failed to do all that we longed to do.

How might we honor the regrets of the last year? They came straight from our hearts, which are now sore and wounded. How do we free ourselves from the weight of “might have” and “should have”?

Our regrets come from our longings.

Let us discern our heart’s longings. May we know compassion – from ourselves and from others, and from the Holy One of all Blessing, who, our Torah tells us, once promised us blessing simply for appearing at the Tabernacle to ask for it.

You let me sing, you lifted me up, you gave my soul a beam to travel on. You folded your distance back into my heart. You drew the tears back to my eyes. You hid me in the mountain of your word. You gave the injury a tongue to heal itself. You covered my head with my teacher’s care, you bound my arm with my grandfather’s strength. O beloved speaking, O comfort whispering in the terror, unspeakable explanation of the smoke and cruelty, undo the self-conspiracy, let me dare the boldness of joy. (Leonard Cohen, Psalm 19)

May we turn from regret to joy: Joy in the offer of forgiveness and understanding. Joy in the opportunities ahead to live a life of love and hope and kindness.

May we know the boldness of joy.

Breathe, and Act: Save Syrian Lives

In the morning you shall say, “If it were only evening!” and in the evening you shall say, “If it were only morning!” – because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see (Deut. 28: 67)

Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi died 500 meters from the Greek shoreline. His five-year-old brother, Ghalib, died with him, as did his mother, Rehan.

Seven and a half million Syrian children, inside and outside Syria, are in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Two million are living as refugees. These days, Syria is one of the most dangerous places in the world if you happen to be a child. Syrian children

If you saw the pictures of refugees packed into a train in Hungary, desperate and hungry and without a modicum of food or water, or the images of Syrians lying packed side-by-side on the floors of Hungarian prison cells and, if you happen to be Jewish (or just plain human) – you might be finding it a little hard to breathe.

All the images we are seeing now, images we have been seeing for some time, are pictures that are familiar, terrifying.

Some have known that terror.

Alyth Synogogue was founded in London during the 1930s. Many of the first congregants were refugees themselves, fleeing Nazi Germany.

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith is the synagogue’s rabbi. Recently, he published an article in The Guardian entitled: ”In the spirit of the Kindertransport we want to extend a warm welcome to Syria’s refugees.”

The Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) program of 1938 and 1939 saved about 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi gas chambers.

Those children are now elderly. Some went with Rabbi Goldsmith to a meeting at Parliament – together with young Syrian refugees.

One million Jewish children died in the Shoah. There was little to nothing done by the Allies to save them.

But these men and women, among the very few who were saved, are convinced that Great Britain can act on behalf of Syrian families, and help rescue Syrian children.

Here, in America, there are Jewish institutions trying to open our doors to Syrian refugees. One of them is HIAS (once the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society), the oldest voluntary resettlement program in the world. Some of our grandparents were the beneficiaries of the work of HIAS did around the turn of the twentieth century.

On September 4, NPR’s Robert Siegel interviewed HIAS President and CEO Mark J. Hetfield on All Things Considered. “We have 200,000 dead in Syria,” Hetfield said. “We have people fleeing not once, but twice from the conflict.”

But the United States and many countries in Europe, Hetfield added, are assuming a “business as usual” approach to the crisis.

The United States, he pointed out, managed to take in 200,000 human beings during the 1980 Indochina boat crisis with absolutely no infrastructure in place. So far, we’ve offered safety to some 1,800 Syrians.

We might as well be offering Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who openly insists that his country does not want Muslims in his country, a warm handshake and a pat on the back.

If we go on like this, we can certainly expect to see the bodies of more children washed up on Europe’s shorelines.

Or we could do this instead: We could look for each and every opportunity to act and to give.

This High Holy Day season, every dollar we offer HIAS will be matched. We can sign petitions. We can insist that our representatives open the doors to Syrian refugees. We can ask presidential candidates where they stand and we can insist on specific and detailed responses.

This morning, during Torah study at Temple Or Olam, we remarked on the way in which Parshat Ki Tavo depicted the kind of horrors we were seeing in the media. In the text, they are a threat; for Syrians, those horrors are real.

We know what happens in an indifferent world to those no one wants to save.

None of us believe that what we are seeing in this refugee crisis is God’s work. But since God created both weal and woe, humanity has been given the chance to choose: We can make either into reality.

We can act. We can save lives. In the memory of Aylan, Ghalib, and Rehan Kurdi, let us do exactly that.

Our Stories, Their Stories. Again and Again.

ruth and arthurs crownWe could see the soft, sad ending – the announcement of Moses’ death from where we stood. Across the room, inscribed in strong, black strokes against the white parchment, was a moment of joy and triumph – the Song of the Sea. Stories stretched out before us, reminding us of those we carried, connecting us with tales of another, ancient time.

Our Sefer Torah was almost wholly unrolled on a long line of tables set diagonally across the sanctuary.

I had brought blue, medically approved plastic gloves – the kind that would not shed any powders on our beloved scroll. I had sponges, given to me by the scribe we’d worked with since our inception, Sofer Neil Yerman. I had handouts that described unusually large or small letters we might find as we worked.

We were ready to clean our scroll, to prepare the parchment — and ourselves – for High Holy Days. We sang Shehechiyanu. I blessed our labor, demonstrated how to use the sponges, and we began.

As we brushed down the gorgeous, shining columns, the scroll brightened visibly. Our own stories came back.

“This is where your daughter read from the scroll,” I told two parents, pointing at the first columns in B’midbar.

As I brushed over the Song at the Sea, I looked at the crowns dancing across the scroll. When we received and dedicated our scroll, Neil had led us in decorating the passage.

Three crowns stood above the first two words of the Song. The first was drawn by Ruth Kingberg, together with Neil, just months before she died. At the time she could barely stand, but when we told her we would bring the scroll to her home, she dressed herself beautifully.

Ruth was, for a decade, the matriarch of our community. I have her ceramic child’s teapot and creamer in my china cabinet. They were the only toys Ruth could smuggle out of Germany when she escaped the Shoah on one of the last Children’s Transports (Kindertransport) to England.

Next to her crown, her husband’s. Arthur, too, survived the Shoah by getting out of Germany just in time. His path to America was a hard one, beginning in China, then ending up, during the war, as a slave laborer in the jungles of the Philippines. At ninety-one, he still has the leech marks on his legs.

A third crown was mine.  It joins Ruth’s and Arthur’s together.

One of our younger members, an artist in his own right, found the extra-large vav in Leviticus 11:42, in the middle of the Torah. That vav is found in the middle of the Hebrew worcleaning the Torah 1d for “belly” (gachon).

The belly of Torah, the center of our being, the core of our Selves. Here, the letter that says “and,” the letter that links all behind it and all before it together.

Just as our stories do.

I looked to either side. To my left, the story continued on through Vayikra, B’midbar, D’varim. To my left, Sh’mot and B’reishit. Stories in every column. Stories of past simchas, stories of Jewish lives lived together in our time, in past, ancient times of long ago.

The scroll binds them all together. It tell us all our stories. Again and again.

Silence, and the Wor(l)ds That Emerge

View of JordanIn just weeks, the scroll will be rolled to the last column. We will turn the last page in the Chumash. The cycle will end and this year, too, will die.

Moses ascends Pisgah and looks into the future. I have let you see the land, YHVH tells his prophet. But, YHVH adds: v’shama lo ta’avor – you shall not cross over there. Consider: These are God’s last words to Moses.

Should we be silent? Moses is.

The text offers us nothing; not a word attends to the state of Moses’ soul. We read only this, in the very next verse: “So Moses, the servant of YHVH, died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of YHVH” (Deut. 34:5).

From a broken heart?

Torah tells us no more. But we search the white spaces in between the spare, fiery letters. From the silence, come the words — a plethora, in fact. In our legends, in our midrashim, in our imaginations: Moses argues, insists, even begs. He is eloquent.

He quotes Torah against her Creator. Look, Moses says, I suffered through all of Israel’s woes until the Israelites finally came to believe in you, until they finally understood all your precepts and teachings. I worked and took care of them. I taught them Your law. And then, Moses adds, wasn’t it You who said: “You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets” (Deut.24:15).

Do as You tell us to do, Moses says. Pay me for my labor. Else You have become a fraud. God does not relent.

More words, more eloquence. Master of the Universe, Moses says in legend, at least let me enter the promised land as a mere beast of the field, a bird of the sky. I’ll eat grass, drink water as any creature of yours, but, please: A living one.

Our legends find words in silent places, silent spaces.

Moses beseeches the world to entreat the Holy One for mercy. We, too, would like to beseech God on Moses’ behalf. We, too, do not want this end. But neither heaven nor earth, nor mountains, nor sea can alter the decree.

Archangels Gabriel and Michael are sent to take Moses’ soul, but they cannot bear the idea. They resist. Only Samael goes; he had been waiting for the opportunity all along. Moses fights off Samael, but the battle is exhausting. After that final struggle, Moses understands. He must cede the future to others.

Now, Moses can only beg that he will not die at the hands of the angel of death.
These are the right words. The Holy One promises: Moses will be attended by God, Godself.

Then the Holy One said to Moses, “Moses, close your eyes,” and he closed his eyes. “Put your arms over your breast,” and he put his arms over his breast. “Bring your legs together” and he brought his legs together. Then the Holy One summoned Moses’ soul, saying, “My daughter, I had fixed the time of your sojourn in the body of Moses at a hundred and twenty years. Now your time has to come to depart. Depart. Delay not.”
She replied, “Master of the universe, I know that You are God of all spirits and Lord of all souls. You created me and placed me in the body of Moses one hundred and twenty years ago. Is there a body in the world more pure than the body of Moses? I love him, and I do not wish to depart from him.” The Holy One exclaimed, “Depart, and I will take you up to the highest heaven of heavens, and will set you under the throne of glory, next to the cherubim and seraphim.”
In that instant, the Holy One kissed Moses, and took his soul with that kiss.

There is peace, a transformation, a different world awaiting the soul of the prophet. This year is dying. It, too, will be silent at the end. We long for a new beginning.

May we will be silent, so that we may find wor(l)ds.

Let us cross over. Let us live. Transformed.