Harvesting the Blessing of Inner Longings

May YHVH bless you and keep you.
May YHVH’s Presence illuminate and shine upon you.
May YHVH bestow Presence upon you and give you peace.

Numbers 6: 24-26
Parshat Naso

It is Year Two of my Covid garden, the vegetable garden my little family and I created when we went into isolation in March of 2020.

In one year, the garden has trebled in size. It features newfound knowledge and different hopes. It has embedded itself in the little territory around our ranch house, land I had filled with many flower gardens over the decades we have spent here.

Surrounded by kale and lettuce and chard, encircled by tomatoes and peppers and strawberries, my vegetable garden is also home to nasturtium, marigolds, lavender, rosemary, basil, and borage. The hedge garden features plants beloved by wasps and bees; elsewhere I have built flower gardens designed for butterflies. A birdbath and a bee house, three compost piles, and many bird and hummingbird feeders are positioned nearby.

Kale and rosemary

Marigolds, rosemary, assorted veggies…

Now what I plant, I harvest for our table. Now, what I grow connects me with the land I temporarily inhabit and the creatures I share it with. Here, this past year, I have finally found it impossible to ignore the murmuring of my soul’s longing, the Still Small Voice.

I have suppressed and snubbed that inner voice for decades. I have drowned her in tasks, in responsibilities, in an endless and boundless number of needs I must answer to.

I love my work. I love almost all its features, all its tasks, and all of its challenges. I like to create order and clarity in the worlds I inhabit. I want to contribute to intellectual and spiritual safety while making room for adventures in every one of those realms.

And: all my adult life, I have had several jobs at once. Most of the time I have found much of the work rewarding, fulfilling, important. Whether teaching, writing, or administrating for universities or seminaries, whether writing for newspapers, magazines, or foundations, whether running a small business on Etsy featuring handmade Jewish ritual wear or serving as a rabbi or a mashpiah (spiritual director), I have been, mostly, happy in my work.

Yet, I know what it is to struggle with burnout. There are too many people to care for, too many tasks on the list, too many hats to wear and change, and far too many meetings for too many jobs. The work worlds I inhabit have the power to rule my days for 12 hours at a time. Sometimes the only breaks are for the fuel that is needed to keep me going.

The fact that so many people read me as an extrovert, as someone who wants to engage 24/7, is an irony. I love solitude and quiet. I am happiest when I read and write at home, not at my university office. I can spend hours designing in my head and creating at my sewing machine. I can spend a day in any of my gardens utterly and happily on my own. Hours without needing to say a word are a gift.

I care for my students, my congregants, my colleagues. They are wonderful, growing, and exciting human beings. And yet, the older I get the more I realize that I have been told a truism I only now understand: if I can’t balance my care for them with care for myself, I won’t be able to care about anything.

And so, even on the days I cannot work in my vegetable garden, I visit it. Walking down the slope of the backyard I feel the inner voice, the Still Small Voice, the voice of shleimut, wholeness. Her call is a physical thing, asking me to pause, to pray, to soften into a place where there is oneness in all the disparate and separate colors and sounds and movements of the garden. Striped skinks with bright blue tails surprise me with quick and sudden slithery movement. Wasps and bees make house calls at white and yellow flowering peppers and bright periwinkle blue borage. The breeze rustles a low accompaniment to birds calling overhead.

Zuchini

Hungarian hot pepper

Passionflower

The voice of shleimut is as tender as the seedlings I have nurtured for weeks. She wants loving attention, concern for her well-being. She knows that the Other Voice, the voice of tasks and, often, trouble, the tzuris voice, is the louder.

To feel blessed and kept, to experience light and peace is to listen for her.

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A Seder Not a Seder but a Seder of Our Lives

It was our second Pesach seder online. So it was not really a seder.

I wanted to be able to tell the Passover story in the light of our own, though.

For indeed, we have learned what it is to live each day in Mitzrayim, in a narrow space often defined by squares on a computer screen. We have spent a year unable to see those we love, touch those we love, live our lives alongside and intertwined with those we love. We could not be full persons in a world in which we existed as head shots, living onscreen. We were perennially faced with our own images, constantly seeing ourselves react. It was difficult to be completely free to focus on others.

Our seder unfolded in unexpected ways. The lyrics to our Passover songs resonated differently. Avadim Hayinu led us to ask: how have we felt enslaved to forces beyond our control, trapped by fear of a virus we could not see but which rode roughshod across the planet? Dayenu — what could we call enoughness in a time of scarcity? Where was the Hallelujah of the moment?

During the maggid portion of our seder, I asked members of my havurah to go to a Padlet online. I set the Padlet so that everyone’s responses would be anonymous; I wanted everyone to feel free to be open, unencumbered by any expectations. Across the picture of a desert, members wrote their responses to my Passover prompts. Their answers were simultaneously heartrending and liberating.

A first question: What element of the Passover story seems most real to you after living through a plague in your own time? “The loneliness that happens when you are walking the same direction as all the other people but still separated because there is no end point,” one wrote. And though the travails in the wilderness are not part of our traditional Pesach story, another added, still, the sense that we were all wandering in the desert without any idea how long the journey would be brought the narratives of Torah home. “There is no external place to flee to,” wrote a third.

A second question: Imagine you speak to a Jew of the future for whom the pandemic is a description in a history book. What would you need to tell that future Jew? One of my havurah members wrote, “My friend, it may not look that way to you now, but you would not be here without us.”

We are a people who tells and retells our stories every single year. We revisit a shared past — however mythical — and we reinterpret that shared past in order to give meaning to our times. To imagine ourselves part of that legacy was surprising, even shocking.

And indeed: those Jews of the future depend upon us.

A third question: If you could get a letter from YHVH in your mailbox (safe to open!) what would be in it? Some wrote words of encouragement, the Holy One blessed them with the knowledge that they would get through the pandemic. “You are stronger and braver and smarter than you sometimes believe,” one wrote.

A fourth question — perhaps the most moving on the board: What is your post powerful hope right now?

And the members of my havurah answered: Could we just mask up? Could everyone please get the shot for everyone’s well-being? Could we understand that the entire globe had to work together to beat this pandemic? Could we just normalize common sense and compassion?

We took some time to look over each other’s responses, to post and share our gratitude, too. Our families were healthy. Our little havurah had come through this without illness or loss. We had a realistic hope to be together again sometime soon, to hear each other’s voices in prayer and song.

No, it was not really a seder as we have known all our lives. It could not be so.

It was a seder describing our lives. It had to be just so.

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Magic and Art, T’rumah and Truth

T’rumah became dear to me more than a decade ago. It is a parsha so rich in imagery, so filled with color that reading it feels like being bathed in a rainbow. It is tactile, too, filled with scent and substance, magical figures (the cherubim) and magical objects (menorah).

Cloth and design, wood and metal, hues, light, and fragrance — the story of the building of the Tabernacle is exuberant, creative, holy indulgence. Inside and out, filled with every kind of material, it seems the very essence of a human project of beauty and truth. The Tabernacle is art, made of every kind of art. And though I have often heard that reading this parsha is difficult, for me it has always seemed like an incantation of making, a spell and a chant that must call up beauty and delight.

T’rumah means “to elevate, raise up.” It is often translated as “offering.” In the first verses of this parsha, the use of T’rumah suggests “gift.” Indeed, the Tabernacle is a gift made of many. The hands of multiple, uncounted artists would have been required to create it.

The Tabernacle is, of course, as the sages noticed long ago, humanity’s answer to God’s own creation. Just as we learn of color and light in the divine fashioning of the world in Genesis, so we learn of the human making of color and light in the world in Exodus.

Philo writes that the materials of the Tabernacle were made of things grown from the earth. The purple color, he said, was like that of water. Blue was to resemble the sky. Scarlet would recall fire. All four elements were stitched, molded, formed into the Tabernacle and all its implements, devices, and decorations.

There may be something holy about making art. Is not the artist a truth-teller?

If truth makes us free — or at least able to understand what freedom would look like, then it must be holy. If an artist reveals truth, her art must therefore be a vehicle for freedom. Her work must be, on some level, a sacred task, for she seeks truth in her work.

Crooked Street, Serafina Ha

The week my daughter-in-law, Serafina Ha, was born, T’rumah was read aloud all over the world.  Serafina — social worker and activist — is an artist, a creator of beauty and truth.

It has been less than two years since she began recognizing her own gift. In those first months she would draw strangers and give them her portraits. She empowered disadvantaged youth with sketches she made of them, giving them the opportunity to see their strength through her yes.

Her talent was obvious, striking, powerful. We have been lucky to be able to watch the unfolding and the unleashing of both truth and beauty under her hands.

It takes work and time and great love and one leap after another into the unknown. No one gave any dimensions for the menorah, either. Art is not predictable.

Still, it is a gift, a t’rumah. As such, it is magical and it is truthful. And it can make us free.

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Musing at the Mountain: Thoughts on Yitro, and Freedom

We arrive at Sinai. We stand, each one of us, at a location that tradition refuses to name or describe. We have arrived at the “wilderness of Sinai.” We have encamped at “the mountain.” Moses climbs high, then higher, YHVH calling to him as he rises.

The Talmud says that we should understand this very scene as figurative, not literal: “Moses went up” is be read as “Moses was raised high.” And indeed, God reminds Moses that the God Godself raised up the people, lifting them up on eagle’s wings to be born out of pain and anguish, out of oppression and depression, out of slavery and bondage. Now, we may fly free; now, we may find our strength and our power.

Who does not love this verse? Who does not feel their heart lift, rising into the promise of flight and freedom? Finally, we are out of Egypt, freed from the shackles of slavery and oppression.

And yet: Innocents everywhere suffered and died—and not only among our people. The plague that took lives of the first born passed by Israelite homes; we must have walked by the ravaged fields of Egyptian farmers on our way to freedom. This story is marked by violence, devastation, and sorrow on all sides.

“I have lifted you up. I have brought you back to me,” YHVH says after unleashing one plague after another before Pharaoh—proving, without a doubt, who was boss of the world. Do I excuse the divine horrors inflicted on Egypt by insisting that any people who oppresses another people must, in the end, be held accountable? How do I reconcile the beauty of liberation with the cost? Was there no other way to achieve our freedom? Was there no other way to escape, and fly? How do I live with the death of the first born?

Every year I find myself adrift, lost in the quagmire of a narrative that insists that Pharaoh’s heart had to be hardened—by godly intervention, no less—so that the tyrant’s humiliation would be complete.

It is a challenging guidebook, this Torah of ours. To read it is to engage in a delicate and difficult balancing act, holding the pain and the joy even in a single verse.

If I strive for the best possible interpretation, I will land in places that feel safe to me. Rabbi Ishmael says that Torah was not given in the Promised Land but in a wilderness for a reason. Torah given in a no-man’s land is Torah for every man (and woman).

YHVH lifts us up, tells us we can be a goy kadosh, a holy nation. The rabbis tell us that the role we are asked to take on is conditional, however. To be a nation of priests means fulfilling the law, devoting ourselves to creating a world suffused with righteousness, holiness, and love.

It is true: I feel more comfortable with universalizing principles. I feel safe when I am told that I must earn any position I might claim.

The Hebrew in Exodus 19:5 uses an infinitive absolute together with a regularly conjugated form of the verb shinn-mem-ayin, the three letters most of us know well in their command form, in the Shema. Im shamoa tishm’u b’koli, we read: “if you can truly obey me.” Or more gently? “If you really, really listen to what I am saying…”

Rashi explains: If you will but once hearken, you will continue to hearken. The gift of flight depends, above all, on my ability to listen to the words that will rush toward me from that mountain, my ability to take them in, to believe in their mandate, to act on the obligations they impose.

The Israelites commit before they know what they are committing to. They accept the law before they even receive it. All that YHVH has said, we will do. Then, we will get it, and by the doing, too (Exodus 24:7).

Freedom cannot be won without commitment to doing our part to make it, create it, sustain it, and strengthen it. We must ask ourselves: what must we do to fly?

All the earth is mine, says YHVH. And all the earth is ours. May we hearken so that we may hearken yet more, hear yet more, understand yet more. Listen, and do. Then, we may fly.

Upon delivering a version of these musings at services this past Shabbat, I suggested that the members of my havurah write down what they felt they could do in concrete terms, make a paper airplane out of the paper they wrote on, and fly it around their homes. I flew my own down a dark hallway and into the light a couple of times this weekend.

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Is Exodus a Myth? Not Exactly….

This last Shabbat, we read Vaera, the parsha in which the first of the plagues unfolds. Nothing can convince Pharoah to let the Israelites go. Nothing can alter his understanding of who he is and the power he wields.

Pharaoh repeatedly hardens his heart. Three different words are used in the story for the action on and in Pharaoh’s heart: Pharaoh “hardens,” “strengthens,” makes his heart “heavy.” Pharaoh is stubborn, unfeeling, arrogantly inflexible.

In such a time as this, the Exodus story becomes a noisy one indeed, a narrative that sounds all the alarms. The tale we read in Torah right now tells the sordid story we are living at this moment — a story of plague and death, a story of a corrupt and grasping ruler and the people who follow him, a story of a people exhausted, worn, oppressed.

Is Exodus really a myth, after all?

After the destruction and violence we witnessed last January 6, we know that Exodus is no myth. “Camp Auschwitz” was written on the t-shirt of one of the insurrectionists; 6MWNE, which stands for “six million was not enough,” was printed on others. We, the descendants of those Israelites, have been enslaved in recent memory yet again in Nazi camps; we have lived through and died of plagues both natural and man-made. Typhus killed uncounted Jews in the camps; gas killed millions.

Torah is a mirror. Look into it, and you will see your neighbors, your brethren, your rulers. You will see all the glories and ills humanity is capable of. All that we do now, we know already in its pages. We are creating variations on themes we have before us in every parsha we read.

This year, there was a verse that emerged more powerfully than any other for me.

The Holy One has just made a slew of promises. “I will free you,” God says. “I will deliver you… I will redeem you… I will take you to be my people.” These four commitments, vows of redemption, are the source for the four cups of wine we use at our Pesach Seder. We read these promises each and every year.

But in the Torah, when Moses tells the people what the Holy One has said, the text tells us, “they would not listen (v’lo sham-u) to Moses; their spirits were crushed by cruel bondage” (6:9).

They would not listen, they did not listen — this is how v’lo sham-u is typically translated. Perhaps they could not listen.

Mikotzer ruach, the text continues. The noun, kotzer, might mean ‘short,’ and literally so. And it could also mean ‘impatience,’ or ‘despondency.’ One might translate this as so many do: The Israelites’ spirits were crushed, even stunted: made short and small.

Ruach can also evoke ‘breath.’ Perhaps it was their very breath that was cut short. The Israelites gasped for breath, and why? The text tells us. U’meyavodah kasha, because of their enslavement.

Because they had no freedom, they could have no breath. And because they could not breathe, they could not hear, either. Who among us, gasping for breath, can hear anything but our own struggle to get air into our lungs, to hear, terrified, our own rasping efforts to live?

Almost two million people on our planet have died in this past year, trying to breathe. More will die, and we, in America, will lead the world in deaths, watching as more struggle, and more die.

It was Martin Luther King’s birthday Friday. We mark a day in his honor a few days later. I often wonder how his people could hear him, how they could follow him, enslaved and cruelly used for hundreds of years, imprisoned and lynched, terrorized, redlined, denied the right to vote, denied ease and breath.

No, Exodus is no myth.

Are we, too, suffering from shortness of breath? How do we make our way out of this narrow space? Can we even imagine what it would mean, in our time, to dance our freedom from plague, from oppression, from the cruelty of corrupt and power-hungry leaders?

Despite everything, despite our knowledge and our fears, I would like to have hope. I have never believed that the Holy One will fix things for us. I do believe that God sends us all that we need to do things for ourselves. Feel divine compassion and love, and you are strengthened; you breathe more easily. And then take on the task of our time as Moses and Miriam did in theirs. We must work to free ourselves and deliver and redeem each other.

And then, perhaps, like the ancient Israelites, we will dance our joy.

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Jewish History – Unbound

American Jews mostly believe that “the” rabbis saved Judaism, that the Baal Shem Tov was a simple man of the people, and that Judas Maccabaeus led a battle against the dangers of assimilation.

None of this is true. Still,, we often rely on myths like these to define our failings as Jews.

It is too bad, really. Our history is far more complicated and far more interesting. What we can learn from it can be more than simply informative — it can press a reset button on our understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

I offer an example: the last myth I mentioned in the first paragraph: Hanukkah is a celebration of resistance. Judas Maccabaeus fought against oppression and assimilation and his story is a warning and an inspiration to us to maintain our Jewish practices and rituals.

I explored this myth with Judaism Unbound listeners this past week. I pointed out that while it is true that II Maccabees refers to both Hellenism and Judaism, nowhere do the references introduce these two words as competing concepts. As historian Erich Gruen notes: “The laudatory monograph on Judas Maccabaeus, II Maccabees, the one work regularly cited as the locus classicus for the battle against Hellenism, does not make the point” (my emphasis).

In I Maccabees, Greeks, as such, go entirely unmentioned. The author describes foes as the “surrounding nations.” He even uses Greek terminology, labeling the enemy as “barbarian hordes”!

Our author is engaging in a time-worn tactic of the Second Temple period: making current events like biblical ones. That’s how you add gravitas and authenticity to your story. Just as Joshua fought against the Canaanites, Moabites, and Amorites, we Jews of Second Temple must fight the “sons of Esau” and those who live in “Philistia.” The author of Esther does the same thing, tying his story to biblical history by claiming Agagite heritage for Haman and Benjaminite ancestry for Mordecai.

In actual fact, Jewish leaders of Second Temple times negotiated and parlayed with their royal overlords (sometimes playing one off against the other). Mostly, they get a good piece of what they want, too: the right to practice their customs, the right to offer sacrifices on behalf of the emperor rather than to the emperor, the right to send tithes to the Temple, and so on. Is their occasional friction? Absolutely.

Still, there is no evidence that life among the Greeks was imagined as a bitter contest between “Hellenism” and “Judaism.” Ancient Jews wrote mostly in Greek, generally spoke Greek, and likely thought in Greek. Jews gave their children Greek names, they printed Palestinian coinage with Greek images on one side and Jewish ones on the other, and they are wrote their civil documents in Greek.

Ezekiel (not the prophet, a writer of 2nd century BCE) wrote a play in which he depicted Moses in the mode of a Greek philosopher king. The author of Joseph and Asenath produced a romance in the style of Greek novels in which Joseph shows up with a crown of twelve radiant points that makes him look suspiciously like the god Helios. Aristobulus of Alexandria (2nd BCE) claimed Plato got his best ideas from Moses and the Letter of Aristeas offered a picture of seventy Jewish elders explaining philosophy to King Ptolemy.

Jews successfully negotiate their position in the Greco-Roman society. They are appropriating, not assimilating. They not only remain Jews, they proudly declare their traditions to be superior to Greek ones, even the source for Greek ideas.

We should think about why this history is retold as one of oppositions and dangers around “assimilation.” There is a polemic and a subtext here that rabbis, mostly, insist on (past and present).

Should we see this story as one about the dangers of assimilation when the time really tells us how well Jews manage living in other cultures while remaining proud and confident Jews?

I vote for the latter. It might set us up for a wholly different kind of Hanukkah celebration.

I dedicate this post to soon-to-be-rabbi Lex Rofeberg (January 2021!), co-founder of Judaism Unbound. He and his colleague, Daniel Libenson, offer a venue for exploring Jewish life, Jewish doings, and Jewish history in ways that can excite and liberate Jews anywhere in the world.

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Naked Truths: Democracy (in Inaction)

A Christian minister and friend of mine, Marcus Singleton, said recently: “We go to church to dress up, not to take off.”

What was his point? We put on our clothing and we protect ourselves against the nakedness of heart and soul that tells the real truth about who we are and what we must do. Instead, we wrap ourselves in known phrases, in liturgy we can recite by heart. We are good, we hear the word of God clearly, there are safe havens for us.

Yet: If ever we needed to take off and take away what we think we can use to protect ourselves, it is now. And we must not only do this in every faith setting we know. We must do this work as a nation. Who are we now? What have we become?

We can wrap ourselves in symbols and platitudes as Americans just as we can wrap ourselves in liturgy and scripture, but if we do not face the raw truths of our condition and name the naked realities before us – whether we are in church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or the streets of our country – there will be no clothing of any kind to protect us or the generations after us. Our democratic institutions are vulnerable and naked.

When Donald Trump was inaugurated, I told family members that I was pretty sure that if he relieved himself on the Oval Office rug, leading Republicans would rush in to ask “May I clean that up for you, Sir?” I was engaging in dark, ironic humor. So I thought.

My friends, we have seen exactly this occur for years. Donald Trump has effectively done just that all over our democracy and every institution that upholds it. The Republican Party leadership has rushed in to clean away the evidence and pretend that there are no stains. They have regularly engaged in selling out America’s democracy, and they are doing just that right now.

Breaking News: The president of Acirema just lost his bid for reelection by millions of votes. He is refusing to admit defeat. He has publicly lied about the voting process, claiming corruption and fraud though there is no evidence of either. He is filing lawsuits to throw out ballots and pressuring his party leaders for support. He is refusing to engage in a peaceful transfer of power and his party leaders are, so far, supporting him.

This is no banana republic. Acirema is America, backwards. This is us, right now.

There is a real effort to subvert the rule of law going on. There is an attempt to hold on to power despite the will of the people. The leadership of one party in this country has acceded and agreed to support the destruction of the country they claim to serve.

Republican leaders are putting on all sorts of fancy clothing. The president has a “right” to file frivolous lawsuits. He has to have his “say.” He has to “ask questions.”

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick will offer up to up to $1 million to “incentivize, encourage and reward” people for reports of voter fraud even though members of his own party dominated election results up and down the ballot, winning and winning big. That’s how important supporting a would-be dictator is to Mr. Patrick. What Trump has excreted on our country is being spread about by Republican leaders.

There are not just stains to contend with. Acid is being thrown at our democracy, on our country. I want to know where my fellow Americans are — Republican, Democrat, Independent, et al. What are you dressing in, today?

Last Monday and Tuesday marked Kristallnacht, a nation-wide pogrom the Nazis unleased on Jewish communities. Some 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland were destroyed. Thousands upon thousands of Jewish businesses were attacked or destroyed. The Nazis arrested and imprisoned 30,000 Jewish men in concentration camps.

Maybe we should remember what happens in dictatorships. Because there are people in this country leading this country who sure don’t seem to mind if we look like one. As a historian, I can say this: Looking like one leads to becoming one.

You thought your clothing protected your body? You thought our institutions would protect your rights? History demonstrates that states give rights and states can take them away.

You, and the country you love, stand naked. If we do not recognize how vulnerable we are right now, and if we fail to do the work of protecting the democratic institutions of these United States of America, what comes may be no United States of America at all.

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Seeing in the Dark

My childhood was mostly spent in the dark. People said things each day, each hour, that featured a disconcerting disassociation with truth. There was so much gaslighting it is a wonder we all didn’t go up in flames.

To live in confusion, surrounded by lies and fabrication, evil deeds and coverups, is to live in the dark. There is only one way out: to name what hides in the black, to describe it in all its awful detail, to insist on dragging it into the light so that it may be seen for what it is. A dark world is given its power by fear and by silence.

I have spent my adult life as a teacher and writer naming what I see in the dark: every historical field I worked and wrote about — from the enslavement of indigenous peoples in the silver mines of Potosí to the merciless marketing of the Shoah in literature, film, and even memorial sites — was another effort to reveal that which can destroy life, honor, and memory.

I came to biblical studies late in my life. The texts we call sacred mean the world to me — they are rich and real. And they are as limited and flawed as we are. We may not imagine ourselves safe from their deficits, for they constrict and even harm us. To name those deficits is as important as naming what can inspire us. We may laud the transformative words of psalms attributed to King David; we may not avoid passages describing his unmitigated, wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants of Canaan. “When David attacked a region, he would leave no man or woman alive; he would take flocks, herds, asses, camels, and clothing” (1 Sam. 27:9).

Recently, I joked with my ALEPH seminary students that the book I am currently writing — Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities — is not a book I imagine many of my Jewish Renewal colleagues wanting to read. That book will not offer wise advice or well-crafted and stirring interpretations of beautiful and, yes, inspiring texts. This book is about the dark, and about naming things and making things visible that hide there.

Emily Stern, one of the students in my class, later wrote to me: “It is this very love of looking at the hard stuff, of bringing ourselves to a text that does not even appear to include us, to shun us even, and NOT sweeping the ugly or complicated things under the rug, that is one true nature of love—  ‘I love you too much to ignore this and not try to work through it. To bring myself truly to this honestly,’ to not be too tired to do this work, or to do it despite being tired…”

Emily wrote that such work was an act of praise, a praise of God.

I had thought, all these years, that I was drawn to study what terrified me because I believed that I could master fear that way. Emily recast my life’s work for me: Was naming things in the dark, the things that threatened life, my way to learn what I needed to do to protect life? And was that learning an act of praise and thanks to God for helping me have the will to do that work?

We are living in a dark world. In some parts of our country the skies are orange and gray and our people cannot breathe. In others, storms are coming at accelerated speed. Our planet burns and bakes and boils and we continue, each day, to witness those in power lying so obviously, so provably that the lies are not so much shocking as surreal. The destruction of life, of honor, of memory is in the click-baiting headlines that frighten us as they draw us in.

How can we praise God? By naming what we see in the dark.

May we enter this New Year with courage and strength. May we find conviction and clarity to insist on naming what we must reject and calling forth that which we need to create life, to live love.

You put a new song into my mouth:
Praise to You, our God.
(from Psalm 40, translation Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi)

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On Blessing and Curse: A Prayer of Repentance From One Who Went Astray

O Lord, You have set before me blessing and curse: blessing if I obey the commandments and curse if I do not (Deut. 12:26). You have warned me sternly not to go after other gods. You have reminded me that all that is birthed first on this earth is yours, whether animal or vegetable.

And lo, O Lord, this summer I have gone after other gods, most particularly the god of pride. I have failed to sacrifice the first fruits and I have earned the curses that have arrived at my door.

For in the springtime, I ventured on a new path of blessing. I tilled the earth and I established a garden with my little family. In hope and joy we planted; the sweat of our brows watered our seedlings. Much grew apace, Holy One, for we had an unusually wet and cool spring for North Carolina, at which time it is far more typical for the sun to blaze and parch the world, destroying all that is green, yea, unto the last blade of grass.

Our lettuce and spinach grew in the spring rains. And the kale, O Lord, was so prolific that we knew not a single day without it filling our salad bowls. When spring plants were done with us, we planted tomatoes and cucumbers, squash and zucchini, and, with great joy, the jalapeno peppers and baby eggplant.

My husband, Holy One, helped me tear down our fence and rebuild it so that we could double the space in our garden. And we were proud, very proud indeed of our very first vegetable garden.

We were, O Lord, so proud that we posted pictures of our produce on the very field of false gods. Yes, I speak of Facebook, which otherwise we both pretty much ignore, for we do not wish to be used and abused by those who lie and cheat and lie again in a world where there is no law.

O Lord, I tried many new recipes with our Malabar spinach, which, like the kale, pleased our digestive tracts. The first tomatoes began to sprout and we reaped large and impressive cucumbers that solicited silly jokes even, yea, from two aged people such as we have become. And I continued to speak of our garden to all who would listen, boring my friends and family with tales of the perfect jalapeno peppers and the deep purple of the baby eggplants I dipped in oil and spices and roasted to perfection.

But I failed, Holy One of Blessing. I failed in my folly and my pride. I am sure that You were fed up when the first yellow squash was harvested, for I took it into our kitchen and chopped it up and cooked it that night in a curry with Berber spice. The very next day, O Lord, I walked proudly down to the garden and found my beautiful squash plant collapsed, lying flat on the earth from which it had been birthed.

I blamed voles until I discovered holes in the cucumbers, O Lord.

In great distress, I googled and read of nasty boring beasts which lay their eggs on cucumber and squash and their relative, the zucchini, only to give birth to death and destruction. I continued anointing my plants with Neem, O Lord, but it was no use. I cut off the offending dead parts, but healthy leaves collapsed the next day. I smote the bugs and laid out Tupperware with bright yellow rags and water to divert them from the pretty yellow flowers unto which the pesty things laid their disgusting, jelly-like eggs. There was no hope, O Lord: every small, beautiful vegetable upon my zucchini and squash plants was bored through in a matter of days, yea, even hours.

Upon reading Parsha R’eih, I began to suspect that my immediate consumption of our first yellow squash was too much for You, O Lord. For by that time I had long since consumed the first fruits of nearly every plant in our garden. And so the pests came and the curse arrived. I suspect, too, that you may have had something to do with the bizarre and torrential daily rains that have never before been seen during late summer months, at least not during my three decades in this state. For they have forced my shiny green tomatoes to stretch their skins and crack before they could possibly turn the coveted rich red of those to be found supermarkets. Even a few of the cherry tomatoes have suffered the bursting disease.

Had I only sacrificed my first fruits to you, O Lord, had I only thanked you in kind for the gift of my garden, had I but paid attention, too, to learning about pest control before planting, perhaps the plagues of beast and storm would not have ravaged my garden.

O Lord, I vow that in the next growing season I will sacrifice the first fruit of every plant, from eggplant to tomato and pepper to, I pray, zucchini. For you have set before me blessing and curse and you have reminded me that my pride is a dangerous thing indeed.

And you will get an extra helping of kale, I promise.

I dedicate this post to my son, Erik Henning Thiede, who was born the first of Elul in a year when the reading was R’eih. And I thank him and his wife, Serafina Ha, for helping us create our first vegetable garden ever.

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Which Temple Should I Mourn? Reflections on Tisha B’Av, 5780

I knew Tisha B’Av first as a date that stood for repeated griefs for European Jews. I taught it as such in my courses on the history of anti-Judaism and antisemitism. Jews were expelled from England and from Spain on that date, the Warsaw Ghetto was liquidated… the list I offered my students was painful and exhausting.

I was factually aware that Tisha B’Av was sourced in far more ancient pain – the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 CE. In later years, reading, studying, and teaching the Book of Lamentations became a way to understand the desperation of a people trapped and doomed. God’s absence and silence in this text is shattering, no matter how often you read it.

The destruction of the Second Temple is often depicted as a fundamental crisis for Jews of the first century. Surely, the Temple was a symbol of power and might for Jews already long since living in diaspora. It was a memory of a long-lost sovereignty and power. It was imposing for those who saw it.

But by the time of the Second Temple’s destruction, Jews were living all over the known world and had been doing so for many, many centuries. There were a dozen functioning synagogues in Rome. There were Jews in Africa, Asia Minor, living their communal lives without sacrifice and temple services. Was the destruction of the Second Temple a massive dislocation of Jewish life, a cataclysm for (say) the Jews of Ostia, Italy or Priene, Turkey? We have no evidence that it was. In fact, of all the literature produced by Jews in the time of the Second Temple available to us, almost none of it actually refers to the Temple itself. Jews had other things on their minds.

Every year, as I step into this day of mourning, I ask myself: What am I really mourning? Is there a land, a space, a place more holy than any other on this earth? Is there any structure humans have built that I should value more than any other – even in memory?

What grief needs to be recognized, understood? What am I mourning?

It is the earth itself that cries out to me now. In the maelstrom of a pandemic, understandably worried about our human survival, we seem to have forgotten that we have unleashed disease and death on her, on Gaia.

The teshuva the last chapter of Lamentations begs for? This is a teshuva Gaia cries out for in every day of melting polar ice caps and deforestation and collapsing insect populations. We are burning our planet.

Every day I go to my gardens. I check my compost piles. I watch for the tomatoes growing on the vines, the peppers, the eggplants. I turn the earth and I touch it, I tend and I harvest and we eat what we have grown as often as we can. I look to see if the hummingbirds and bees and butterflies and birds have the right blossoms, the right colors, the right sense of home. Can I sustain them through what I plant, what I farm?

My mashpiah (spiritual director) recently suggested that I ask, each day: Mi bara eyleh? Who made this? Doing so, I bring the Holy One into my home and I thank her. And then I ask for forgiveness and recognition: I am mourning, I tell her, for what we are destroying – Your home, Your Temple.

On this Tisha B’Av, may we think of the Temple that truly needs saving and rebuilding. It is the Temple we stand upon. It is God’s own Temple, this earth.

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