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.

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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.

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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.

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