Teshuva: A Letter from Charlotte

Black Lives Matter Black FridayIt is a day before S’lichot. I live in a country that has done no teshuva, that avoids the consequences of four centuries of white privilege and white power.

On Tuesday, my husband, Ralf, and I left the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where we both teach.  We walked to our car wondering why a helicopter was circling overhead.

On Thursday morning, after two nights of mostly peaceful protest (yes, really), I listened to a well-known, local, liberal white journalist insist to Charlotte’s mayor on the radio that videos of the killing of Keith Scott should be released. Why? Because, he suggested, protesters would then see why Scott was shot. If there were “reasons” for the police shooting, protestors would realize they were reacting on the basis of hyped stories, and everything in Charlotte would calm down.

Convenient, isn’t it? Convenient not to face the fact that in North Carolina, as in the entire United States, the disenfranchisement and oppression of black America is a daily reality. White and privileged conservatives have made national news by their every effort to gerrymander districts, to limit and restrict black votes. White liberals have, mostly, responded by not responding to the stink of this reality, a stink sadly measured in statistics: Who is being arrested, who is being stopped, who is being killed? Black people. Here and across this nation.

White America should be surprised how little protest it has witnessed. It’s nothing. It cannot compare to the violent oppression black America knows every day.

Thursday, on campus, I heard students and faculty decry violent protest. It shouldn’t be done that way. Violence only leads to violence, they said. Even black students said this – as if they had to reassure their white colleagues that they knew that there should be well-mannered attempts to be heard by a system that has been, for centuries, deaf and dumb. Black people need to whisper, and politely, too.

It is convenient for white people to insist that black people behave themselves. Frequently this takes the form of referring to Martin Luther King as the ideal role model and depicting the Civil Rights Movement as the appropriate way for a tormented people to clearly, kindly convince white people to be nice.

But to insist that black people make sure not to act too angry, not to reach for rocks or trash cans is the privilege of the powerful. The powerful can and do use the police and the national guard and curfews and the law to make sure that black people are controlled. To make sure their movements are confined. To make sure they can’t vote. To make sure…. Shall we count the ways?

This is violence, too. It is widespread, endemic and pernicious. It is a violence inherent in the political, social and economic systems built by a white elite.

My black students tell stories of that violence. Your car breaks down and when the police approach you make sure to move very, very slowly when you get out of the car. Be careful not to drive in late night or early morning hours at all – stay inside and at home lest your actual appearance in the world be regarded as a danger. Make sure to give white people all the space they need to be anxious. Be understanding about their fears, be able to explain why they don’t need to fear who you are or what you want from them.

White America has done enough to convince itself that they’ve done enough. But what has been done is nothing, really.

There has been no teshuva. There has been no constant, clear, precise acknowledgment of this country’s past. White people have owned black people. White people have controlled black people. White people do not need for black people to explain why racism is still “a problem.” They need a teshuva that will have actual consequences, that will offer genuine reparation, that is widespread, systemic, and institutionalized.

Yesterday I sat with five students in an advanced class on the history of European antisemitism. One white student spoke about the inevitability of Martin Luther King’s name coming up in white conversations about black protest, and added, “and they killed him.”

Even during that raw, open conversation, I wondered: Were we white people in the room approaching the teshuva we are responsible for wholeheartedly embracing?

Did we even make a start?


Our Parents’ Legacies – Our Teshuva

Legacy flameThe scene is terrible, traumatic. Jacob is about to deceive his father with his mother’s help. Isaac, who can barely see, questions Jacob again and again. Is he really Esau? He doesn’t sound like Isaac’s eldest son, but he does smell like him, and his hands are hairy, as are Esau’s. Despite his doubts, Isaac eats the meal. He gives Jacob the blessing he had intended for his firstborn, beloved child.

Esau returns and discovers his loss. Bitterly, he asks whether Jacob got his name due to his naturally duplicitous nature. Ya’akov comes from a Hebrew root that means ‘heel,’ but may also describe the worst sort of sneaky behavior – coming up from behind, crushing the enemy under your heel, circumventing, overreaching. Jacob is, means, “crooked.” Esau cries out in anguish: “Father, have you no blessing for me?”

The Zohar teaches that when a soul is about to be born, it chooses its parents. And then, the Zohar explains, we are to go through life doing teshuva, facing and resolving not only all our failings from previous lives, but even the failings we experience at the hands of our own mothers and fathers.

Truth has been withheld from Isaac before. Surely, he knew. He asked only one question on that long walk to Mount Moria: “Father, where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”

Isaac is wiser now, more inclined to question when Jacob – or is it Esau? – arrives at his bedside. Who are you? Are you really? How did you manage to return so quickly? Who am I really talking to?

Isaac was just a toddler when his elder brother was banished to the wilderness. Ishmael, like Esau, is described as an active, physically adept man – sturdy and fleet-footed. Ishmael will not be favored. Isaac will inherit.

Does Isaac see his brother in his impulsive elder son? Does Isaac feel compelled to do teshuva for his parents, who arranged Hagar’s pregnancy, who are responsible for Ishmael’s creation, who later make certain that it is their Isaac, not Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael, that inherits all that his father has?

The child of an alcoholic often grows up to be over-responsible, to assure his or her family’s safety. There will not be unpredictable rages, irresponsible behavior. The family’s safety will be protected. Teshuva for the neglect of the parent becomes a lifelong – and worthy endeavor. The child who has been abused grows up to the same insistent responsibility: There will not be a repeat; her children will be guarded, cared for. No harm will befall them.

Does Isaac, the pawn in the story of his near-sacrifice – the helpless inheritor of his father’s legacy – does this man need to redress the wrong against a brother who did not deserve his secondary status?

Isaac does not succeed. Esau pays the price. But so does Jacob. Jacob, who lies and deceives others will be deceived himself – he will be tricked into marrying the wrong sister, forced to work double time to pay the bride price for the girl he really wanted to marry. Jacob’s own sons will deceive their father when he is old, claiming that their brother Joseph died in the desert when they had themselves sold him into slavery. The job of teshuva goes on, and continues, generation after generation.

We are often blind in the face of our own complicated motivations. But Judaism also insists that the world is created anew each day for a reason. We can make up for our parents’ mistakes. We can make up for our own. Teshuva, return, is a choice.

May it be our practice.


I Will Lift You Up

Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people,
for he was above all the people; as he opened it,
all the people stood up (Nehemiah 8:5).

Note the “he,” please.  That’s how most folks imagine the ritual of hagbah, lifting the Torah.  It’s a guy thing, based on a guy story in a mostly guy text.

The first (and only) time I saw a woman perform hagbah, I wanted – immediately and badly – to lift a Torah scroll myself.  Lori, after all, was just about my size (very small).  If she could do it, I thought, so could I.

Every year, I vowed to do the weight training, strengthen my skinny arms, and lift the Torah.  Every year I’d fail to do the training, regret my lack of time and commitment, and renew the vow.

Four years passed.  By that time, I’d been diagnosed with osteopenia.  I’d been given the wake-up call: Do weight-bearing exercise, take your calcium and magnesium daily, and protect those aging bones.

During those same years, our son, Erik, had been increasingly devoting his exercise regimen to strength training.  When I bemoaned my failure to get with any program, he created one specially designed for me (and for hagbah).  I need only do four specific exercises two times a week at the gym, increase reps and/or weight as I go and, Erik promised me, I would do hagbah within two months.

I was devoted to the cause.  I reported on my progress to my twenty-one year old personal trainer.  The ten pounds I could barely move became twenty, thirty, and thirty-five after eight weeks of training.  I was pulling up forty percent of my body weight and it was the time of year when the Torah scroll was near center and relatively balanced on both posts.  I was ready to give it a try.

“Weak,” my husband Ralf pronounced, as my arms shook.

“Wobbly,” I agreed.

Hagbah, Ashkenazi style, demands that the congregation see three full columns of Torah.  The scroll has to be held high and turned so that everyone in the congregation can see it.  Drop the Torah, and everyone present is required to fast during the day for 40 days.

Hagbah is serious business.

I wrote my senior thesis for ordination on hagbah.  My teshuva, a response to a halakhic question, began with a true story:

A small community has gathered for a Shabbat service.  This morning, the rabbi looks around and notes who is in the room.  She knows everyone present – who has back problems and who is in ill health, who is mourning, and who is anticipating a life cycle event.  This morning, she sees that not a single Jewish person is present who could take on the mitzvah of hagbah.

There is one man in the room who would certainly do so, if she asked.  He is married to a Jewish woman and has raised both his children Jewishly.  He has lived Jewishly for two decades.  He attends services regularly, prays alongside his Jewish friends and family, and supports the small congregation wholeheartedly.  He happens to be one of the most morally upstanding members of the congregation, and the rabbi has long appreciated his ethical sensibilities and calm nature.

Can that man perform the mitzvah of hagbah?

It’s a long teshuva, I admit.  I wandered through plenty of ancient history and lots of rabbinic writing.  In the end, my answer was that halakha permitted the non-Jew to raise the Torah.

The fellow in the story has long since joined the tribe officially.  He is one of our regulars where hagbah is concerned, and his way of lifting the scroll is extraordinarily beautiful.  He turns with confidence, the scroll held securely and firmly overhead.

Before services last night, I approached him as he and his wife were setting up for oneg.

“Steve,” I said, “I need help with hagbah.”

He gestured to his clothing.  “I didn’t really dress for it,” he said.

“Well actually,” I said, “I need you to be right there when I do it so if I lose the Torah you can catch it!  But it’s a secret,” I said quickly.  “I want to surprise everyone.”

Steve grinned.  “You’re going to do it?” he asked.

“If I feel I can, I will try,” I said.

Before hagbah, I told my congregation about the way I teach this portion of the service to our bar- and bat-mitzvah students.  I let them know that the one prayer they can sing with a leetle more speed at their service is the one we sing when the Torah is raised (v’zot).  “Be kind to the person doing hagbah,” I say, “and don’t chant too slowly.”

I asked my congregation to be bar- and bat-mitzvah students that night.  “Stand,” I said, “when the Torah is raised and feel free to sing that prayer at a nice pace.”

I saw a long-standing member whisper to our temple administrator.  Both women knew about my goal.  I could practically hear the question: “Is she going to try it?”

I gripped the posts.  I told myself that my earlier attempt that same afternoon was mere rehearsal.  This was for real.  I needed to brace myself and be tough.  “I will lift you up,” I thought to myself.

I wanted everyone to see that a woman could be strong enough for hagbah.  The Torah is the repository of gorgeous and frightening stories, loving and harsh law, enigmatic and revelatory narratives.  When we lift the Torah, we honor and recognize that we humans are those self-same things – beautiful and scary, tender and cruel.  We are carriers of secrets and capable of bringing light.   Our Torah is our mirror, and to look into it is to look into ourselves.

Black fire on white fire, so the Talmud says.  And all colors in between, I think.

“I will lift you up,” I thought.

To see another woman performing hagbah, check out the video on the page below:



Until the Heart Breaks

When I was a child I sang in the synagogue choir,
I sang until my voice broke. I sang
first voice and second voice. I’ll sing
Until my heart breaks, first heart and second heart.
A psalm.
Yehuda Amichai

What do we long for?  For connection.  For safety.  For love.

Why do we sing? Because we hope. 

Tonight, Yom Kippur begins, and with it, a day when we sing from the midst of our broken hearts.

We have accrued dross and weight that is unbearable – how can we throw off the miseries we experienced – much less committed this past year?  How can we forgive ourselves, feel we have the right and the chance to try again, to start again, to believe again?  Teshuva, return — we pray for it.

From the depths we must call out, from the knowledge and the full recognition of our failings.  There must be a way to waken, to see the world clearly.  We belong to this world.

More importantly, the world belongs to us.  We are responsible.

When has night given way to morning?  The rabbis say:  When you look into the face of the person who is beside you and you can see that this person is your brother or your sister, then the night has ended.

When you have learned that everyone is particular and yet connected to the source of life itself, to the earth we live on, to the people who share it with us, the morning has begun.

May I sing the song of my people with commitment and joy.  First voice.

May I sing the song of humanity with hope. Second voice.

May I sing all things divine, for they are everywhere around me, in the faces of those who walk beside me, in the souls of those I do not know, in the footprints of the creatures who hide in the trees. 

I’ll sing until my heart breaks.


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