Reb Elliot’s Kippah

I made Reb Elliot’s kippah about two years before he knew it existed. I sold Reb Elliot’s kippah to a number of people who did not know they were purchasing Reb Elliot’s kippah.

In fact, the kippah belonged to Reb Elliot — at least, in my mind.

Reb Elliot’s kippah features a delicate embroidery of a snow-white hot air balloon made of dandelions. Or rather a dandelion after flowering, when its seeds can be blown into the air by the lightest puff of wind. (For the curious among my readers: the fluffy white parachute that carries the seeds is called a pappus. This is a delightful-sounding word that ought to be said aloud as often as possible. Try it. It will make you happy inside.)

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/50/Dandelion_seed_-_May_2012.jpg/256px-Dandelion_seed_-_May_2012.jpg
A pappus,

The seeds and their light, feathery-white supports are intertwined in the pattern, intersecting, and delicate. Just a few are escaping the hot air balloon. I believe an unseen breath, a tender ruach Elohim has sent them wafting into the skies and into some heavenly, unknown realm.

The hot air balloon’s basket appears to be empty, but I know it is not. That balloon is carrying secret thoughts, mystical ideas, and imaginary worlds.

Reb Elliot’s Kippah

Because mysterious worlds are inside Reb Elliot’s head, this is the kippah he should be wearing upon his head. Or so I thought to myself, every time I made it.

Many, many years ago, when I went to rabbi school at the ALEPH Ordination Program (AOP), I took courses on mysticism with Reb Elliot Ginsburg, Vaad member and head of the Kabbalah and Hasidut Department.

I read hasidut and a little Zohar. I read a lot of work about chassidut and Zohar so I could help myself understand.

I learned to read upside-down and sideways. This was because many of our sources had been scanned by Reb Elliot. But not in nice, neat rows. No, little three or five sentence Hebrew texts had clearly been cut out and placed on the page in wildly diverging directions. Reb Elliot peppered the pages with arrows and comments, often in different colors, too. Sometimes I had to turn the page sideways, even upside down to get to the Hebrew text that was assigned. At least once or twice I ended up in the wrong text.

No matter. That, too, was part of the hot air balloon.

Each week of each course with Reb Elliot meant entering a mental labyrinth of enigmatic passageways.  Sometimes the way seemed barred to me until we met in class and either a fellow student or Reb Elliot showed me the direction I should have taken and had innocently missed.

During those semesters I learned to fly into thought realms that I had believed my pragmatic, academic self would neither understand nor care much for. I learned to love moments when I felt the ruach Elohim in those texts, gently breathing me into mystery.

Reb Elliot doesn’t just teach. He dreams. Then, he flies. You don’t know where you are going until you get there. He thinks a thought and, before you realize it, the thought has started darting about the classroom — Reb Elliot has just set it free to start its own life in the minds of the students who noticed it fly by.

Reb Elliot’s kippah has been in my Etsy shop, NotMyBrothersKippah, for two years or more. It has been purchased, I believe, by lighthearted Jewish souls in the world who would, I imagine, love to know that they are wearing Reb Elliot’s kippah (and why).

Just about a week ago, I showed Reb Elliot his kippah. I was wearing it myself. Then, I asked for his address.

It is time to send him his kippah.

This blog post is, as is likely already clear, dedicated to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg.

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Asking Questions About Circumcision: Is that Allowed?

No, circumcision does not make a Jew. No, what ancient peoples called circumcision wouldn’t count as one for us. And, no, we do not have proof that circumcision was unquestioned or even highly valued by our ancestors.

History and mythology have a complicated relationship. The latter is not infrequently taken for the former and the former has pretensions about doing away with the latter.

The history of circumcision is a perfect case in point. We are told, among other things, that circumcision is a Jewish practice that dates back to 3,000 years (or, more modestly, 2,500 years). That’s a myth. First, Judaism as such did not exist until the Common Era. Second, our only evidence (and it’s not overwhelming) that circumcision was important to any ancient Israelite is in the TaNaKH, a notoriously unreliable record for reconstructing ancient history and, importantly, the work of a minority male elite. Just ask the archeologists who have repeatedly proven that ancient Israelites worshiped all sorts of deities and could only be called monotheists in a fairy tale.

Ancient circumcision, such as it was practiced, did not involve the complex surgery that is done on infant boys today. Any circumcision of, say, 200 BCE or even later did not require the same set of tools or involve the same procedures.

Circumcision seems to have become important in the second century to the rabbis, not necessarily to Jews at large. And it got that way mostly because of the emergence of Christianity (though the fact that some Greek Jews had discarded the ritual may also have played a role). Wannabee leaders get most insistent about the value of a practice when people aren’t doing it. The well-known historian Michael Stone once told me: “The thing that ancient prophets railed away against? That was ancient Israelite religion.”

The rabbis of the Mishnah (as historian Shaye Cohen and others have long noted) were concerned about the competition they were getting from early Christians. These “Pauline Christians” argued that since Genesis 15 gave us a “righteous” Abraham well before Genesis 17 insisted on Abraham’s circumcision, it was not necessary to perform the latter to become the former. The rabbis therefore extolled the virtue of circumcision at great length, and rabbinic tradition continued extolling through the centuries. So…  we do something largely because outsiders told us it wasn’t important?

All of this, and much more about circumcision can be heard on Judaism Unbound’s recent series of podcasts on the subject (#303-306). Or you can read Shaye Cohen’s Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised? Or, perhaps, Lawrence Hoffman’s Covenant of Blood.

You will discover more mythology in the history you were taught than you might imagine. Why is this important?

Because for all the much-vaunted insistence that Judaism and Jews can question everything, there are subjects that are taken off the table. Circumcision is one of them. The repercussions for real Jews and their families are not inconsequential.

There is, of course, always hazards around unnecessary surgery on an infant. Then there are dangers for real Jewish children who are exposed for being uncircumcised. Those children have been denied their Jewish identity and any place in the synagogue. They have been ostracized. They have been expelled. I once knew of a community who, when they found out that a cisgender male child had not been circumcised, tuned into a veritable mob. The child’s body was mentally stripped. Obscene poetry was sent over email.

Circumcision is a gendered practice that marks the value of infants who are male assigned at birth as most valuable to the community even while they are simultaneously subjected to an invasive surgical procedure. Are Jewish parents wrong to ask about the implications, here?

We have inherited mythologies that are taken for history, even truth. By circumcising, we keep faith with our ancestors (who might have been more than a little surprised to find us putting this much value on circumcision and wouldn’t have recognized the way we practice it, either). By circumcising we prove that we know, as parents, we can’t control everything that will happen to our child (heaven help the parents of cisgender females for not having the opportunity to learn this lesson). By circumcising, we relive the value of sacrifice (except that it’s not our own sacrifice, but that which we insisted our child must make).

History and mythology. What happens if we do away with what we think of both and do what we claim is natural to Jews and Judaism and… ask questions?

For parents opting out of circumcision who are looking for help in locating welcoming Jewish spaces, go here, to Bruchim.

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The Leviathan: On Laughter, Wildness, and Justice

There is a midrash about Tevet time, one that tells a curious story about a curious creature who shows up in Tanakh: the Leviathan.

Some scholars believe that the Leviathan’s name comes from the Hebrew root lamed-vav-hey to mean to twine, or join. Wreathed, twisted in folds, the Leviathan is a mysterious creature, like the Tahom we find in Genesis. Both tahom and the leviathan were understood in medieval times as two sides to a chaos coin, female and male respectively.

These two creatures had forerunners. Tahom’s ancestress was Tiammat, the deity whom Marduk defeated in a gory battle that ended in dividing her body to create the world and the heavens above. The leviathan is a descendent of a Ugaritic sea monster, servant to the sea god Yammu (you can find that sea god showing up in Jewish texts as Prince Yam).

Sea monsters are big in ancient Near Eastern mythology. Mostly, they are pictured in cosmic sea battles as the embodiment of turmoil, upheaval, and confusion. Their opponents, whether a god or some kind of heroic figure, represent order.

And in Tanakh? Of course, there are scenes of YHVH doing battle with the Leviathan, fighting and destroying the creature with aplomb (Isaiah 27:1; Psalm 74:14). And yet, Yhwh is described as the Leviathan’s creator, too.

In one vision, though, the Leviathan is not an enemy, but a companion to YHVH. In Psalm 104:26 the narrator tells the deity: “There go the ships,” he says, “and the Leviathan that You formed to sport with.” And the word he chooses for “sport” or “play” here should make us smile. Sachak, samech-chet-kuf, is a kind of twin to a word we know very well, tzachak, tzaddi-chet-kuf, the root that is the source of Isaac’s name. The words are related not only in sound, but in meaning: they are both associated with laughter.

Another place we see sachak is in Proverbs 8:30, when Lady Wisdom announces that she herself was there at the start of all creation, together with YHVH. He rejoiced in her, she says; she was his delight; she laughed before him.

God, apparently needs laughter and wildness together. The Leviathan is just that, a creature that twines and turns, that folds and unites.

A midrash:

God created in the sea big fish and little fish. The size of the biggest fish was one hundred parsangs, two hundred, three hundred, even four hundred. If it was not for God’s merciful tikkun, the big ones would have eaten the smaller ones. What tikkun did God make? God created the Leviathan. On every first of Tevet, Leviathan would rear his head and make himself great and snort in the water and stir it up, and the fear of him would fall on all the fishes in the sea. If this were not so, the small could not stand before the great.

The Leviathan roars and snorts to make sure that the large fish will back off, so that they won’t eat too many smaller fish—without this roar, all the fish in the ocean would consume one another. The Leviathan offers us a wild force of nature that acts to balance the forces of nature.

So where could we go with this creature, a creature that seems to represent uncertainty and confusion, a creature of chaos who brings order into the teeming seas, a creature who makes God laugh?

We are all dealing with a world of chaos, a world in which big fish eat little fish, a world in which justice seems elusive and a compassionate order a dream.

At the darkest time of the year, do we need the roar of the Leviathan to stir us up, to remember that we, too, must do battle for righteousness, for justice, for a world of compassion? And in order to keep ourselves sane, to make sure we do not despair, should we, must we remember to give space for play and for laughter?

Is Purim not around the corner?

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Vayeishev: When Men Bond (and Others Pay the Price)

Vayeishev is a parsha that details the violence of brothers against a sibling they reject. Their rejection is sexually fraught as are their actions, from stripping Joseph naked to selling them* into slavery. Joseph’s body was never Joseph’s. It belonged to Jacob’s sons. Jacob’s sons owned Joseph, and they sold Joseph. Others were given the power to repeat their crimes.

In the midst of the Joseph story is a chapter that is not about Joseph at all, but about Judah. Genesis 38 tells a story of Judah and the men he hangs out with, the men he sires, and the men he orders around.

Here, too, there is rejection and sexual violence. Here, too, male characters plan together and bond over sexual experience and violent behaviors.

In my recently published book Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities, I make the case that shared sexual experience is a pivotal part of male homosocial relationships in the Hebrew Bible. Male characters may not be having sex with each other, but sex with women creates bonding opportunities, ways to maintain alliances and to establish status and rank.

When Judah leaves his brothers behind, he turns to Hirah, the Adullamite (Genesis 38:1). Immediately, in the verse following, Judah sights the wife he wants — notably, right in Hirah’s locale. He takes her (yes, that is  biblical texts articulates marriage) and sires three sons in quick succession. As his sons grow up, it becomes clear that Hirah and Judah have remained close friends. It is Hirah who, after the death of Judah’s wife, is part of his decision to end his mourning. They decide to enjoy themselves together. Judah is single and ready to mingle.

They travel together to a sheepshearing, a pastoral festival. As I write in Malignant Fraternities:  “It is a time to have fun, break boundaries, play tricks, an even plot murder. During a sheepshearing, Jacob surreptitiously escapes from Laban (Genesis 31); David acquires a new wife—Abigail—from a foolish husband who is inclined to heavy drinking (1 Samuel 25); Tamar disguises herself to induce her father-in-law to have sex with her and impregnate her (Genesis 38); and Absalom deceptively invites Amnon, his half-brother and heir to the throne, to festivities where his death will be arranged (2 Samuel 13).”

We forget that Hirah and Judah were traveling together when we read Genesis 38. We forget that Hirah was around or nearby when Judah crassly bargains for the use of Tamar’s body. He certainly knows the results of the negotiations, for Judah sends Hirah to redeem his pledges to Tamar. And it is Hirah who does everything he can to make sure that what has happened between Judah and Tamar remains secret (and that involves some complex and fancy dancing on his part that is revealed in the Hebrew nomenclature he uses for Tamar).

Two men shared interactions that had to do with sexual gratification. One had the actual gratification. Perhaps the other experienced it vicariously. But both were part and parcel of the negotiation and the attempt at controlling the consequences. It is an ancient version of the news we were subject to when we discovered how Donald Trump sent Michael Cohen to negotiate the silence of the women he slept with.

The story ends with an apparent redemptive moment for Tamar, when Judah cedes her right to make sure that he performed the levirate. But Tamar’s body, like Joseph’s, was never her own.

She was taken by Judah to be a wife for his first son, Er. When that son died, she was given to Judah’s second son, Onan. He, in turn, did his best to protect his own share of the inheritance, “spilling his seed.” This happens not once, but repeatedly.

When Onan dies, Judah refuses to free Tamar, casting her as a man-killer and exiling her to her father’s house. In the end, Tamar makes sure Judah himself performs the levirate by selling her body to him. He orders her burned alive when he learns she is pregnant. She escapes his sentence, bears twin sons, and disappears from the narrative, her body having served its purpose: to ensure Judah’s lineage.

Male characters plan, plot, and bond over the sexual use, misuse, and abuse of others in this story.

It is an old story. And sadly, a familiar one.

  • The use of the plural pronoun is deliberate; Joseph’s gender identity does not fall on one side or the other of a simple binary.
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The Singer of the Single Song: In Honor and Memory of Chazzan Richard Kaplan

Chazzan Richard Kaplan sang with a tenderness that, once heard, remained unforgettable. Chazzan Richard Kaplan sang with an exuberance that, once heard, remained unforgettable. Chazzan Richard Kaplan sang with his soul so open to giving and receiving that he was, simply, unforgettable.

We were blessed with a chazzan who we could trust with our own souls because he was honest, gentle, and true to the bone.

http://www.kaplanmusic.com/

I did not know Chazzan Richard well. And I knew him well enough to be grateful for the rest of my own life.

We met at my first Kallah; my son, Erik, was hired as teenage staff to work with children and was permitted to take one single course. He chose Chazzan Richard’s.

I experienced a healthy jealousy each day as Erik reported on each class. All the usual words — inspired, excited, motivated — none of these could describe what my boy radiated that week. He was experiencing, I think, a kind of mikveh in music. He could not go from that learning unchanged — no one could.

Erik was the only teenager in the group, a reason, I expect, for Richard to notice him. He kept the connection live well after the course was over, answering follow-up questions, sending Erik sheet music.

Or maybe it was that Richard noticed all his students, noted their longings and their hopes. He seemed, inevitably, to find a way to lift their every note to the heavens. When the class gave a public recital, one song was filled with humor and joy, another with yearning, a third performed with such wholehearted love for the Holy One. We smiled, laughed and cried our ways home.

At the next Kallah, I introduced Richard to my husband, Ralf. I mentioned that Ralf played the darbouka for our services. To my astonishment, Richard asked him to play with him that night at a public performance. He had never heard Ralf play, he could not have known anything about his training, his experience, his technique.

Still: Ralf was his only accompanist that night, playing darbouka and tar. The performance was extraordinary even for those who knew Richard’s work. No one there could ever forget the niggunim, that night’s delicate Hayoshevet Baganim. I watched Ralf touching the def as if to connect every tap directly to the heart of the man who sang next to him.

It was unearthly. They played as if every note was foretold, bound to one another.

After the performance, I had to ask. “Richard, how did you know?” He looked at Ralf, gave a little shrug and a shy smile and said: “I knew.”

Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg has said of his friend Chazzan Richard: “yours was a planetary Judaism…” Indeed Richard traveled the globe in his music, in his performance, in his own settings. There is no way to encompass or describe his knowledge, his clarity, or his understanding of the myriad rivulets of Jewish musical desire.

Elliot also wrote: “you showed us that the wild aggadic claim of our ancestors just might be true: that had the Torah not been given, the world could have been conducted according to Song of Songs. For you, like the Maggid, knew what Shir ha-Shirim meant:  A single Song that kindles many Songs — on high and down here below. You knew from that Song, and much more.”

Since I heard of Richard Kaplan’s death I have been unable to stop noticing the light around me. The light of the sun streaming through the five-fingered gumball tree leaves outside my office window. The light of the cerulean sky still glowing over the all the fragile dwellings of the world. The light of the moon in the morning sky, waning, but still brilliantly white and glowing.

Chazzan Richard Kaplan illuminated this world.

In honor and memory of Chazzan Richard Neil Kaplan, z”l. Every note sounds in gratitude.

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Elul – The Return of Longing and Longing for Return

Our son was born on Rosh Hodesh Elul. I did not know that, when he was born. I did not live, then, in a world that included Jewish months, Jewish seasons, Jewish time. The holidays I had grown up with were the ones one might expect from a family that only sporadically lit Friday night candles: The High Holy Days, Hanukkah, Passover.

My adult life has been a long journey of return. I expect the remainder of my life will not differ.

The rabbis say that Moses ascended Sinai for the last time on the night of Rosh Hodesh Elul. He went to recover the covenant, to make it anew after the first tablets were destroyed by doubt. Hope seemed broken beyond repair. And yet, Moses ascended. This time, the Holy One told Moses to carve the tablets. This time, the covenant would be carved and inscribed by both human and divine energies.

Moses learned that the covenant would have to be a joint project. The Israelites stayed below, reflecting on the burdens they had schlepped into their new lives. How could they let go of things they no longer needed to carry?

Elul was then – and is now – a month for reflection.

This year, on Rosh Hodesh Elul, the day our son would turn thirty, my husband, Ralf, spent eight hours in an emergency room. By phone (I wasn’t allowed inside the hospital) we went step by step through ugly possibilities. Had he suffered a stroke? A heart attack? Why that sudden loss of vision? Why the awful and debilitating flush of burning over his entire body? Why the nausea, why the dizziness? He joked despite his own fear; I walked through our little ranch house numb to everything around me.

In the end, none of the direst possibilities were fulfilled. We returned to a calmer present, and to Elul.

The name of the month of Elul has exactly the same numeric value as the word binah, wisdom. We reflect on the stuff of the past year, on the pain and trouble we have carried, the misguided decisions and the hasty actions we could wish away. It is a time to reflect on hopes and dreams yet unrealized. It is time to acknowledge our longing to draw near to God.

Elul is also an acronym for a well-known phrase from Song of Songs: Ani l’dodi v’dodi li: I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. During Elul, we hear the call of our Beloved in the shofar that is sounded each day. That primal sound awakens us, reminds us.

For what? To discover our own wisdom. To reflect on who we are now and who we long to become.

Our covenant is rewritten and reinscribed every year. During the month of Elul, we partner with God in the renewal. As this year ends, we define what we long for in the next.

I have never felt the need to rush into the loving embrace of the Holy One quite as I have experienced it this year. I was called to come home, to acknowledge my own longings, to embrace a New Year that would be filled with all that my soul is starved for in this broken world. I want clarity and truth. I want the knowledge of what is right and the doing of what is right. I want to nourish the earth I stand on and the creatures I share it with – that has become an imperative. The list of my longings is long.

There are days left in Elul. Days left to complete my list of longings, and return.

May this month birth our homecoming.
 

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Fixing the Text (or Not)

I can’t. I won’t. I will not fix texts anymore.

It is what we are taught to do, of course. We meet up with a terrible text, a dark one. Then we hunt for some word, some strategy to redeem the text, to uplift, to provide light. We look to our rabbinic royalty, famous rabbis from centuries past and times present. The right quote, the right insight. A tale complete with the sweetest of textual crumbs will lead to a wholly different conclusion.

Relief. We have fixed the text.

Each year we go through this cycle. Each year we read one painful and difficult text after another. At the end of July, we read Balak. An animal, so kindly serving and protecting her master, is beaten again and again (Numbers 22: 23-27). Should we not name the bitter abuse humanity exercises on non-human animals — then and now?

Last week, we read Phinehas. YHVH’s priest is praised for turning back divine wrath. How has he achieved such an awesome task? By driving a spear through the bellies of an Israelite man and a Midianite woman. Such relationships displease the deity.

The plague is checked, and Phinehas is richly rewarded with divine praise, commitment, and gratitude. How does one get the deity to calm down and stop slaying his people? Pick up a weapon and kill those that piss him off yourself.

This next Shabbat we will read about the war of vengeance YHVH commands against the Midianites. When the Israelite troops return from battle, Moses discovers that they failed to slaughter all the Midianite women and children. He orders them to do the deed. They may spare virgins. Only virgins (Numbers 31: 15-17).

Women taken prisoner by Israelites are owned by the soldiers who have captured them. Such a woman has one month before her body is permitted to her captor for his use — that way, he can be certain that any resulting child is his own (Deuteronomy 21: 10-14).

If we are not reminded of soldiers in our own time stealing girls and women for their sexual use, we are not paying attention to the world we live in. Would you call such women “captive brides”? That’s what the Israelite’s female prisoner is often named.

These women, like those of Tanakh, have been raped.

Animal abuse, ethnic and sexualized violence, sanctified rape — these are what we so often feel we must explain away.  

It is painful work to sit with the full implications of difficult texts; we naturally long for ways to soften the blow. And yet, naming the shadow and the dark empowers us – it brings light. We rabbis must sit with our thoughts and feelings. We must consider deeply and honestly how our grief and anger — and the grief and anger of our congregants — can and should inform us.

Otherwise, we silence not just ourselves but those everywhere around us who suffer from the kind of violence described in such texts. That is no fix.

My book on similarly dark questions, Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities, has just been published by Routledge Press. Abstracts can be found here. May we provide safe space for naming and confronting sexual and ethnic violence wherever we find it to bring the healing we seek.

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Lament in the Season of Lament

A father carries his youngest child, an infant daughter. Her elder sister walks just steps behind him, her hair caught up in a ponytail. My dad, me, and my older sister, Suzie.

It is a season of private loss for me, one inescapably colored by the season of my people’s lament. This weekend marks the start of the three weeks of mourning that lead up to Tisha B’Av, a date which records repeated planned assaults on Jews. The destruction of the First Temple and the destruction of the Second Temple, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto — all these happened on Tisha B’Av. I could add to that short and devastating list. Those who wanted to hurt us sometimes purposefully chose that day to harm us again.

We remember Tisha B’Av, our past, in order to build our future. We remember so that we can know ourselves.

During this season, my father died. My beloved mother-in-law, Evelyn Thiede, died a few years later in a shocking mishap on the surgery table — just days after my dad’s yahrzeit. Ruth Kingberg, once matriarch of my spiritual community, died in a different year, but also during the same week.

Mourning them, inevitably, calls up my greatest loss — the death of my elder sister, Suzie. Suzie died from breast cancer that had metastasized to liver, brain and lung. She died at 42 — the mother of five children. Her youngest was just three.

Suzie at 13, me at 8.

I was sewing, this past week, listening to Chicago’s Saturday in the Park. I grew up knowing Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, and the beaches that border them. The picture of my dad holding me, with Suzie walking alongside shows Lake Michigan in the near distance; we were at my grandparent’s apartment and my dad was taking me and my sister down to the beach.

Hearing the song, I was suddenly living my childhood. My dad was playing drums while the music played. “Listen to that brass section!” he’d call out. My dad was fully alive in the moment he picked up his drumsticks.

For weeks Suzie had been appearing every time I looked in the mirror.

A month ago I decided to stop coloring my hair. As I watched a thin white line emerge on my head I remembered how my sister, back in the 1980’s, stopped coloring hers. She was in her early thirties at the time. We had both seen our first gray hairs appear in young adulthood. Our mother handed us the dye that would hide them. In those days, going gray early was kept secret — no one found out your actual hair color until you were a grandparent.

I kept seeing Suzie lying on her hospital bed just days before she died. Her hair was just growing in from the waves and waves of chemo she’d been subject to. It was sparkly silver and sat short and close to her beautiful skull. I imagined it long and thick — a crazy, silvery, curly cascade that would be the right replacement for the mane of red-brown hair she’d never tried to tame in our youth.

I looked in the mirror at my own hair and wanted, badly, to have her back. We could be white and silver together, sisters grown old in each other’s company. In my mind, I told her: “Had you lived, maybe I would have had the courage to do this thing so much earlier, to become myself.”

Suzie in her early-thirties; me in my late twenties.

Had she lived, I would have seen that silvery, sparkly hair grow out, be all curly and wild again, rest on her shoulders, get loose from her braids.

My dad and my sister walk to the beach, with me in my dad’s arms. My own hair in that picture is that of an infant, but it was, even then, as blue-black as my father’s. When I was a child, people stopped my parents on the street to tell them how amazing my hair was. I remember the embarrassment and the pleasure — my hair was my only beauty, I thought then.

During my lifetime, I will have had my dad’s hair and, in a way, my sister’s. I will travel a path my sister never had the chance to complete herself.  Remembering them, do I become more myself?

Lament opens up grief and loss and sorrow. And truth, too. So we learn, all of us, who we are.

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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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