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.


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.


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.


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.


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)


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.


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.


We (white people) are not just implicated. We are responsible.

In the early 1980’s, I started worked as a teaching assistant in American history classes at a major Midwestern university. The professor for the course delivered weekly lectures; I went over reading assignments and lecture materials with the students each week in small groups.

In those days it was a rare experience to have any student of color in any of my classrooms. All the professors I worked with were white; I am white.

I used to give a speech at the outset of the semester to my white students about the importance of studying history. I spoke to the way each one of us were heirs to legacies we needed to understand. I spoke to the need for us to take responsibility for the real outcomes of those legacies in our time.

As white Americans, we inherited the legacy of racism, a racism that dispossessed Native Americans, decimated their peoples, and condemned them to the status of despised strangers in their own land. We had inherited the racism which had enslaved Africans and continued, post-Civil War, to devise systemic ways of keeping Black Americans oppressed, marginalized, and condemned to a lifetime of struggle. We were the inheritors of the racism that made immigrants subject to peonage and sex slavery.

Inevitably, a student would raise a hand to inform and correct me. “My grandparents,” said student, “came to this country as hardworking immigrants and had nothing to do with…”

  • “wars against Native Americans.”
  • “slavery.”
  • whatever else was on my list.

Students told me that what I described was part of the past, “history.” I heard the claim that “anyone can do anything they want in this country if they just work hard enough…” Or I was offered personal, anecdotal evidence. “My great grandparents experienced prejudice, too, as Irish Americans.” (Prejudice = racism, in this view.)

“It doesn’t actually matter,” I’d say. “You are white Americans. As white Americans you have inherited a legacy and a burden of white Americans did and do to people of color. As white Americans you have to know what that legacy and burden looks like and how it is plays out right now to ensure that people of color continue to suffer. That inheritance makes you responsible.”

That was 40 years ago. We did not have the words we have now in common parlance. My students then would not have known phrases like “white privilege” or “systemic oppression” or “school to prison pipeline.”

Black men were being arrested, shot, and killed by white police in the 1980’s. Black men and Black communities knew (as they know now) that the world they live in is permeated by vicious barriers to their safety, and life itself. Police brutality is not a creation of our recent past; it was part and parcel of the first formation of police forces in the 1700’s, organized by white men to capture, beat, whip, and reenslave any Black person trying to escape. Systemic racism? That is our history, and from the outset.

People of color cannot breathe in this country. The looters we ignore are white Americans who have stolen their breath. The looters we need to name are those white people who are part and parcel of a system of white privilege that permits black schoolchildren to be punished for behavior white children can display with impunity. That system which permits redlining, which permits unfair mortgage rates to be the only mortgage people of color can receive, which permits people of color being paid less when they have the same educational background and/or experience, which permits…. That list is a long one.

White looters sit in Congress, creating tax benefits for a wealthy and white upper class, traveling on taxpayer money to their homes and resorts, passing laws which protect their privileges —  these men and women have gotten away with their own kind of murder. Our current president refused to pay people who worked for him, created a sham “university” to rook people out of tens of thousands of dollars, and routinely relied on the undocumented immigrants he pillories to clean his toilets. He will loot even the right to protest peacefully, using tear gas on protestors so he can stand in front of a church for a photo op.

The students I taught forty years ago are now in their late fifties and early sixties. They run America, as white Americans do. They failed, as did all the white generations in our history, to understand the burden of the inheritance of systemic racism. They refused to take responsibility for its pernicious, murderous outcomes.

A white police officer pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck and killed him. Two others kneeled on his back and legs; a fourth stood by and watched. George Floyd died, as so many have before him, because he could not breathe.

White people are not just implicated. We are responsible.

This post is dedicated to my colleagues and students of color.


Passover and Easter in the Age of Covid 19. And, Beyond

Passover is a celebration of freedom; Easter is a celebration of new hope. Both speak to salvation. Both are marked by intricate, formal liturgies which follow specific, vital steps. Both necessitate ritual. Both require community.

What could happen in such a year as this? We were all faced, we Jews and Christians, with a surreal existence which obliterated all our usual expectations. Every colleague I had – in either realm – struggled to understand what was needed, what could be done, what could be salvaged or transformed. Where were our congregants? How could we serve them honestly?

Some recorded services. Some went awkwardly, unusually, “live” from empty sanctuaries. I led an unorthodox seder from my tiny home office; others surely joined me from their own solitary locations. We were all, I want to imagine, rethinking, reconceptualizing, reformulating every aspect of rituals and texts we had recited for years.

This year, we were (are) in mitzrayim – a narrow space. This year we were indeed surrounded by darkness, threatened by death.

This year some of our own cannot visit the ill or bury their dead.

We are isolated and we are crammed together.

We are living in not-knowing.

We told the Passover story while living it. The Israelite slaves, too, did not know how to escape the death pursuing them. They had no idea how they would traverse the Reed Sea. How must it have felt to walk through a passage which could crash down and drown them at any point?

My Christian friends, accustomed to rejoicing in the story of life beyond death, remained largely isolated and alone. To celebrate hope, not just to believe in it, seemed, one told me, temporarily impossible. “Next year,” she said.

Next year, indeed. At one point I asked my congregants to sing a Passover song as if they were singing it next year. “Let’s imagine ourselves living the joy of Miriam’s dance of freedom,” I said.

Keva (structure, framework) and kavannah (intention) often know an imperfect balance in our rituals, in our celebrations, in our festivals. We all suffer from the difficulties too much keva can inflict upon our spiritual lives. Too much keva can blind your prayer, act as a muzzle on your inner voice. Stay wedded to the recitation of texts because they’ve been recited for centuries and you may find the texts drying out before you, the words turning into sound without resonance.

Kavannah needs a foundation, a place it can stand on. Our intentions this Passover, this Easter — they needed to note who we are right now, what we fear right now, what we long for right now.

Keva and kavannah danced a new dance this year for both Christians and Jews.

Passover is a celebration of freedom; Easter is a celebration of new hope. This year, Passover marked why freedom is precious. Easter marked the joy of rebirth.

Hope, however, is not to be taken for granted.

We may say “we will all get through this,” but we won’t. Next year at this time we will be remembering not merely the innocence we lost, but the lives. Our celebrations next year will know a new fragility.

May we honor that fragility. May we guard it, and keep it close. May it help us understand Passover and Easter again, anew, for the first time. May it help us understand now and in the future what we must do.

We all need liberation. We all require freedom. We must rebirth this world.


To Face Fears (and Create Miracles): On B’shallach

We are at a critical moment in our Torah. God decides his people will not go the short way to the Promised Land. The Israelites, former slaves, a frightened people running from their slaveowners, will turn back if they are forced to face the Philistines who block the short passage, God says. They are not prepared for war (Exod. 13:17).

Commentators offer other reasons for God’s decision. Ibn Ezra argued that it was important that the newly freed people understand, first, the challenges of freedom. Maimonides agreed, suggesting that hardships endured in the wilderness would function as training for the task ahead: to conquer and settle the land of Canaan God had promised them.

Certainly, hardship was coming. It was before them and behind them.

They stood at Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. What must it be so stand at the shore of a sea of water, to look over one’s shoulder and to see the dust storm of six hundred chariots manned by officers and soldiers of the greatest and most powerful empire coming in pursuit? The Israelites stood at the edge of death –death rushing toward them, death in the sea behind them.

God says to Moses: “Tell the Israelites to go forward” (Exod 14:16). Moses is to lift up his staff and hold it over the sea to split it.

A famous midrash tells us that the sea refuses to split unless the Israelites demonstrate their faith and march into the waters. The Israelites, we are told, wanted the miracle to happen before they could believe in the miracle.

Finally, so that midrash goes, Nachshon of the tribe of Judah does exactly that, stepping into the water with nothing but courage to steady his feet. Some stories claim that the water reached his nose before it finally parted.

David Ebenbach writes: “Miracles only happen when we are willing to go forward into what scares us.”

Walls of water stand between us and what we long for. There is so much to be afraid of.

We are afraid we will not be understood by someone we love. We are afraid of being hurt by someone we love. We are afraid we will fail at some important task we have set for ourselves. We are afraid we will not fill expectations.

We see our own leaders violating oaths, caring about nothing but their hold on power – even if that means putting children in a cage. We are afraid for our democracy and the values so many once believed were permanent fixtures of American life.

We look at the climate crisis unfolding in the world and we are afraid we cannot stop the tsunami that is coming, a tsunami which will melt icecaps, swallow islands, peninsulas, and cities, change seasons and, we can be sure, inflict widespread suffering. We are afraid that we are helpless.

There is, indeed, so much to fear and so many reasons to feel helpless and afraid. Miracles only happen when we are willing to go forward into what scares us.

The reconciliation and understanding we seek cannot be found in fear. We must take chances, step into the water, hope for an opening, a way forward.

The values we hold dear can only be embedded if we live them in every aspect of our own lives, if we reject bullying and aggression at each and every turn. We must take every opportunity over the next nine months to begin to do just that. We must try to birth a different America than the one we live in, one that embodies justice and generosity.

What must we live for? The possibility of miracles. They will not happen without us. Let us all step into the sea, frightened though we are. Let us part the water, walk forward together, and create the miracle of our freedom and our hope.


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