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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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.

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