I take a walk around the block early each morning, breathing in the fresh air of a new day and seeing the beauty of the roses, irises, and peonies lovingly planted and tended by my near neighbors, most of whom I have never met, yet with whom I share an intimacy through their flowers. This morning, American Memorial Day, I happened upon the scene pictured here, of a ripped American flag hanging from a tree. I do not know whether this ripped flag was intentionally hung this morning or whether it was damaged in a recent storm. What I do know is that it is a powerful symbol of our ripped America...our beautiful, ripped America, where young immigrant children are being ripped from their parents' arms when arriving at the border requesting asylum, where black and brown young people are ripped from their families and placed in prison for "crimes" for which white people are not punished, where our Mother Earth is being ripped open to support the greed of the fossil fuel economy that is bringing us to the brink of a life-threatening and irreversible warming of the planet. Today is a day for grieving for America's fallen soldiers and for America's brokenness and injustice, for breathing into and honoring the ripped places in our own hearts.
Near the beginning of the maggid (storytelling) section of the haggadah, we traditionally cover the matzah, lift our wine cups, and recite, “v’hi sh’amdah....it is this promise that has sustained our ancestors and us, for not just once did somebody try to destroy us; rather, in every generation they try to destroy us, but the Blessed Holy One saves us from them.”
Several years ago, as I was preparing to lead my family seder, I decided to stop reciting this paragraph, even though I really like the melody for chanting the Hebrew. I believe that the stories we tell about who we are influences who we become, and I found myself deeply uncomfortable with the statement that “in every generation they try to destroy us.” Is this really true? Is this necessarily true? “In every generation they try to destroy us” has the feel of a curse upon ourselves, inviting destructive forces our way, and also encourages our suspicion of others--of the unnamed “they” who will try to destroy us. During my medieval Jewish history class in rabbinical school, we learned about Salo Baron’s critique of what he refers to as the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” Baron was responding to a tendency in his day to view Jewish history as all darkness. Baron taught that “suffering is part of the destiny [of the Jews], but so is repeated joy as well as ultimate redemption.” I was leaving out the “v’hi sh’amdah” passage to protest the lachrymose view of Jewish history.
This year, I took another look at “v’hi sh’amdah” and realized that I had missed the main point of the paragraph. The essence is not the persecution of the Jews, but rather, our relationship with a benevolent God. The message is that when others rise up against us, God will save us, in each generation. God is our Saving Power, and God will not abandon us. We lift our wine cups when reciting “v’hi sh’amdah” in an act of faith and hope.
Why was I so ready to reject this passage? I have come to realize that part of my discomfort came from not wanting to consciously recognize the reality of anti-semitism in my life experience. In my mind, the message of “in every generation they try to destroy us” could not be about my generation, and reading this passage during seder was threatening to the thin veneer that allowed me to be in denial that I am part of a vulnerable group. In reality, I was continually on high alert during my childhood and teens in northern New Mexico, discerning how hidden I needed to be about my Jewishness in order to be safe. One day in the back of my high school chemistry class, while our elderly teacher was presenting a lesson, a classmate tried to convince me to become Christian. I felt unsettled, and at lunchtime confided in a close friend about this experience, only to hear her say, “I wouldn’t mind if you were Christian, either.” This was just one of many not-so-subtle messages that our culture that was not fully accepting of Jews. I recall riding home on the school bus one afternoon past a water tower upon which had been painted, “Kill the Jews.” Anti-semitism was indeed present while I was growing up in the 1980’s, even as I told myself that it wasn’t.
With the rise in overt anti-semitism this year here in the United States, I am challenged to stop denying that it is real. This is ultimately a blessing for me, for I was expending a lot of effort being in denial, and in the realm of parenting, I was unconsciously communicating my fears about being Jewish to my child rather than openly discussing it in a mindful way. I will recite “v’hi sh’amdah” this year, practicing the courage to accept the reality of anti-semitism in our times, and then to affirm my faith and hope for the future. I am grateful for the wisdom of our ancestors to craft these rituals for us. As we navigate the world today, an important message I want to communicate this year to my 11-year-old son, and other participants at our family seder, is to keep faith in the promise of redemption.
I wrote this reflection for the March 28, 2018, Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. The link is here.
The 7th of Adar is considered to be the date of Moshe's death, and it is a day for Jewish burial societies, known as the chevra kadisha, to reflect on and celebrate the important work they do in lovingly preparing bodies for burial. Jewschool.com posted a week-long series of essays by contemporary Jews about chevra kadisha. My essay is pasted below and can also be found here. To find the other essays, search "chevra kadisha" on the Jewschool.com website.
I am a member of the Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha of Philadelphia. If you would like to learn about this Chevra, contact Rabbi Linda Holtzman at email@example.com.
Taharah for My Aunt
I have been blessed to participate in chevrei kadisha in three different Jewish communities, and through the process of performing taharot, the ritual purification and preparation of a body for burial, I have learned about kindness and gentleness and experienced the deep calm that accompanies being present to the truth of our mortality.
I’d like to share about a particularly special experience I had two years ago with tahara. This was the experience of my first time performing a tahara for a family member. When I heard that my Aunt Dina died, I drove to Upstate New York where she had lived to help prepare for her funeral. Family members had not been present with Aunt Dina during her final days, and I noticed the desire within me to participate in her tahara. In our hevra kadisha in Philadelphia, family occasionally ask to participate, so I knew that this was a possibility. I contacted the organizer of the local hevra, who told me that I was welcome to participate and gave me directions for how to enter the funeral home. She then added, “I just need to ask you one thing. Are you shomer mitzvot (one who keeps the commandments)?” I had never been asked that question and it took me a moment to sort out how to respond. The organizer was an Orthodox woman who was serving as a gatekeeper for communal ritual, and my response would affect my ability to participate. I answered, “yes”, knowing that she might not share my definition of shomer mitzvot– I’m a female rabbi married to a woman who turns on lights on Shabbat; yet, on the other hand, serving the Divine Beloved through Jewish practice is core to how my life is structured. Thus, I felt that I was answering with integrity by saying “yes”. This was one of those “better not to give too many details” moments.
The three women who were members of the local hevra were warmly welcoming and grateful for my presence. They found out that I read Hebrew and assigned me the role of reading the ritual texts as the tahara progressed. Aunt Dina had behaved in cruel and manipulative ways towards close family members (not towards me), and it was profoundly healing for me to witness the love and gentleness with which these women washed my aunt’s body. One of the challenges in supporting Aunt Dina when she was alive, particularly for my father who was her little brother, is that she would turn against him when he tried to help her. In this moment, the giving and receiving was pure.
When performing a tahara, I have often noticed how the person’s face relaxes and she becomes more accepting of her death as we prepare her body. This was true with Aunt Dina. These women taught me that even a person who has been cruel deserves love and honor. We are all equal in death.
Following the washing and pouring of water, we dressed her and wrapped her in the white linen sheet and left her on the table for the funeral home staff to transfer her to her casket. I realized that I had forgotten the jewelry that we had taken off of her in the room, so I went back. I am grateful for that moment– the opportunity to lean down and give her a kiss.
Here is a poem I wrote following Aunt Dina’s death.
My father tells me about his sister
I did not know
she kept their Mama on a respirator
ignored Mama’s let me die
she scolded you failed to return for Mama’s funeral
I did not know
of his inheritance
while shouting you want to steal my money
She is dead. He is sad.
I wash and prepare her for burial
wrap her in white
lean down and kiss her, then kiss her again
I traveled to Kansas City (my first time!) to speak on a panel entitled "Common Good: Interfaith Action in Response to Violence and Injustice." The panel was sponsored by American Public Square in Kansas City, an organization that brings together non-like-minded people for civil conversation on the important issues of our day. They even have a civility bell that can be rung by audience members if the tone of the conversation veers from civility, as part of their mission is seeking to improve the tone and quality of public discourse. The bell was thankfully not needed tonight; however, I'm excited that they gifted each of us with a civility bell to bring home and add to our toolbox.
I am grateful for this invitation to further articulate my beliefs about how we will get ourselves out of the mess we are in and to learn from my colleagues, a UCC pastor from Nebraska whose PhD is in Hebrew Bible, and a young Imam originally from Philadelphia who now serves a community in Kansas City. Our conversations focused on both the inner work and outer work needed to respond to violence and injustice.
The conversation is worth watching and can be found here. The program begins at minute 23:08. I share my reflections about being present in Charlottesville and responding to hate groups, starting around 1:04:38. We discuss the role of our sacred texts in relating to current events at 44:12.
I dedicate this post to the community of Parkland, FL, reeling from the trauma of the death of 14 students and 3 staff in a high school mass shooting. This is yet another wake-up call that it is time to find the courage and wisdom to stop further gun violence in this country. It is time to seek out ways to offer mentorship and support to young people who are feeling alienated and frustrated. It is time for guns to be taken out of the hands of those who do not know how to use them responsibly. May we, the American people, choose life and love.
On my recent visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, I was moved to tears by one of the readings displayed in the darkened memorial room to those who were transported to America on slave ships from Africa. I learned that the chained slaves would sing songs of lamentation upon their departure and that the captain of one of the ships threatened a woman with flogging “because the mournfulness of her song was too painful for his feelings.” (William Corbett, 1806) In threatening a flogging for singing, this captain was essentially communicating to this woman, “You’re breaking my heart, you’re showing me your humanity, and I can’t allow you to touch my heart this way. Please stop singing, for if my heart opens, I’ll be propelled into turmoil and I may not be able to follow through with the mission for which I was hired. Leave me be.”
This slave ship captain hardened his heart. Like Pharaoh, he hardened his heart and did not let the people go. He placed his self-interest first, constricting his spirit so that he had the capacity to participate in the enslavement of other human beings. Like Pharaoh, we human beings each have the capacity to focus on protecting our self-interest, even at the expense of others, even at the expense of our own souls. We Americans are a country filled with hardened hearts and an obscured ability to see slavery in our midst.
Whereas the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery was passed by Congress in 1865, slavery continues in the United States—shapeshifted into different forms, but still slavery. One of the nefarious forms of slavery today, which is mostly hidden from public view, is mass incarceration. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with African Americans disproportionately imprisoned and working for pennies an hour. Last year, our minyan in Philadelphia brought Jondhi Harrell, director of The Center for Returning Citizens, to speak about his vision for ending mass incarceration. The room was uncharacteristically quiet and still as we listened to Harrell speak of his prison experience. Prisoners worked long hours and started out making 11 cents an hour, then 22 cents, then 33 cents...it was a big deal if someone got to the level of earning more than a dollar an hour. This was the continuation of slavery in America, funded by our tax dollars, and we had not even been aware.
In this week’s parashah, VaEra, the Divine declares a readiness to free the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and the slow and painful process of redemption begins. Why, after 400 years of slavery, was God finally ready now? The answer is found in Exodus 6:5 (a reprise of Exodus 2:23-25). God says, “I have now heard (shamati) the groaning of the Israelites whom Egypt is enslaving and I have remembered my covenant.” In other words, God’s heart is softened by hearing the laments of the enslaved.
We, too, can soften our hearts by stepping outside of our comfort zones and listening for the stories and laments of people affected by incarceration. It’s important to remember, when listening to those who are suffering, that the greatest gift we bring them is our loving presence. We do not need to know how to fix the problem; rather, by truly hearing and seeing another person, we bring more love and connection into the world, and then together, when the way is clear, we can work towards redemption.
A few years ago, an African American woman in my neighborhood heard about my work on incarceration and reached out to discuss the barriers to staying connected with family members who are incarcerated. It was heartbreaking to learn about how difficult and expensive it is for a parent to continue in their parenting role when a teen or young adult child is incarcerated. Young people from Philadelphia are often placed in prisons hours away. It was only towards the end of our time together that she was ready to quietly share that her son is in prison, and that not many people know because of her concern for his reputation when he gets out. She and her immediate family were suffering the financial drain, fear, stress, and long-term loss of her son alone. I realized at that moment that an important piece of our work in addressing mass incarceration is finding ways to support family members, recognizing that they may not readily make themselves known.
I dream of a day when the ship captain not only listens but laments with the slave woman, when the prison guard laments with the prisoner, when the business owner laments with the grossly underpaid laborer, when policy makers and judges lament with the African American families separated by incarceration, when we each soften our hearts and when white and black people groan together. This is beginning to happen here in America. I believe that God is listening to, and waiting for, our cries.
Today is my grandmother Pauline's 21th yahrzeit. She died on the 3rd day of Chanukkah in 1996, when I was 24 years old. She was the only grandparent I knew well, as the other three had died by the time I was 4. I was living in Boston at the time and suffering from depression, which was in many ways connected to not having a clear sense of purpose. Pauline's death brought me back to myself.
When I got the call that she had died (she died suddenly-- had a heart attack after winning a game of bridge), I knew what I needed to do. I bought a plane ticket to Florida, where she had been living with Arthur, my step-grandfather. I helped Arthur make the arrangements with the funeral home to transport her body to New York, conducted a memorial service for her friends in Florida, found a rabbi who taught me how to conduct a burial, and flew with Arthur up to New York, where we met the rest of the family and buried my grandmother. Pauline, a first generation American, had strongly discouraged me from becoming a rabbi. It was "too Jewish" from her perspective, the perspective of one whose life project was learning to integrate into American life. Yet, my grandmother's friends all said to me, "that was such a beautiful service! You should be a rabbi."
In her life, she was not ready to bless my path to the rabbinate, yet in her death, she was. I found the courage to navigate my way out of the depression and two years later, moved to Philadelphia to study at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Today, on her yahrzeit, I am preparing to conduct a memorial service for a friend's uncle, and I am grateful to be a rabbi and grateful for the blessing of knowing my work in the world, to create sacred space and to serve God with joy.
I recently wrote a blog post, "Serve the Beloved with Joy", for Mental Health Safe Space, a peer support Jewish community for those struggling with mental illness, which you can read here.
Happy Hanukkah! Shabbat Shalom!
This past Shabbat marked the 32nd anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah. I had the opportunity to lead services at P’nai Or Philadelphia, the dynamic Jewish Renewal community founded by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and his students and colleagues in the 1980’s and now led by Rabbi Marcia Prager. I love P’nai Or because it is a community to which I am invited to bring my full, authentic self: she who dances, she who yearns, she who sings, she who cries, she who loves, she who shines forth light. Here is the teaching I offered for this past week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, based on the maftir (the final few verses of the Torah portion), Deuteronomy 25:17-19.
P’nai Or offered a workshop last year about the art of sofrut, writing and repairing Torah scrolls. Each letter of a Torah scroll (there are 304,805!) is lovingly and precisely handwritten on parchment by a sofer (scribe), and the sofer performs many rituals in preparation for this act of sacred writing. One of the rituals that my friend and colleague, Rabbi Kevin Hale, shared in his workshop particularly intrigued me. He shared that each day, before beginning to write in a Torah scroll, he writes the word עמלק (Amalek) on a scrap of parchment and then crosses it out. Amalek represents ultimate evil, the one who attacked the Israelites from behind, attacking the most vulnerable of the community at a time when they were tired and weary, having just left Egypt. In Deuteronomy 25:19, we read: “you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.” The sofer literally blots out the name עמלק on a regular basis as part of preparing for his sacred task.
Kevin shared that his teacher, Eric Ray z’‘l, had pointed out that the gematria (a mystical system of finding connection between words in the Hebrew Bible, based on assigning numerical values to the letters) for עמלק (Amalek) and ספק (safek) is equivalent. ספק (safek) means “doubt”, and Kevin explained that the ritual of crossing out עמלק (Amalek) is a way to acknowledge and release self-doubt. He enters his scribal work, an awesome task, having consciously let go of the questioning: “am I worthy of this task? Will this be good enough?”
I went home from the workshop and began writing and blotting out (well, crossing out) עמלק as I began to write in my journal. I also wrote and crossed out עמלק on a small piece of off-white fabric (pictured above) that I pin to my main backpack. Just like my colleague the sofer, I am called to do sacred work. My sacred work is in the realm of teaching, leading prayer and ritual, guiding organizations, writing, bringing communities together, parenting, cooking, caring for my home and body. In all these realms, self-doubt can be paralyzing to me. “Am I worthy to perform this task? Will I perform it well enough” are questions that often arise for me and hold me back. I also carry a dread that my presence or actions might make things worse.
I have come to appreciate that a powerful enemy dwells within. My inner עמלק (Amalek) keeps me from bringing forth the best of my gifts. It attacks me most when I’m tired. It attacks the vulnerable part of me that yearns to take creative risks, to try new things, to explore, and it says, ”You can’t do that!“ It tells me: ”that’s not good enough to share with your colleagues and community“. It distracts me from engaging in the work that I feel called to do.
In recent months, so many of us have felt newly under siege: for me, it has been as a woman, a Jewish leader, a lesbian, a protector of a livable planet, an anti-racism advocate, a mother. I have many practices for keeping the despair and fear at bay, but it still creeps in. I get attacked from inside, which affects my ability to care for myself and loved ones.
As I have shared on this blog, I heeded the call to rabbis to travel to Charlottesville to support the local community during the violent weekend in mid-August. Being there was scary. We didn’t know how much violence was going to erupt. Yet being there, being a witness to a modern-day form of Amalek, was also powerfully life-giving. Experiencing visible anti-Semitism and witnessing the rage of the white nationalists as well as the rage of those who had come to protest them, has propelled me to a new level of spiritual leadership. It is time to stop being afraid to lead. I have important work to do. This is not a time for self-doubt, for allowing the inner Amalek to attack. A time for humility, yes, for exercising wise discernment and caution, yes, but for letting self doubt and fear hold me back from doing my part in healing our world, no!
One of the speakers at the 1000 Minister March in DC this past Monday spoke about the role of people of faith: “It’s not about speaking truth to power. We, as people of faith, are power. And we speak truth.” It’s time for us to stretch outside our comfort zone and speak our truth. The future of life on Earth is in the balance.
May we remember each day to blot out Amalek. May we work together to protect one another, particularly those most vulnerable, from the attacks of those who manifest Amalek energy, threatening and carrying out acts of hate and destruction. May we open the channels so that our inner light and love shine forth. In the name of the Holy, Mysterious, Beloved, Great One, to whom we call in many Names, may it be so.
Here is a zine that I created last night, inspired by the book of Jonah and by the Biblical practice of wearing sackcloth in a time of grave danger. A few years ago, I took a class at the National Havurah Institute during which we created a zine, and I learned about having the courage to share a first draft, as the editing process sometimes loses the initial raw power. Here is my little book--first draft. Enjoy!
If you would like to start the practice of wearing a piece of sackcloth, one place to find it is at a cafe that roasts its own beans. Please share images and reflections on wearing sackcloth.
And on another note, happy 54th anniversary to my parents, Morris and Susan. I appreciate your generosity, courage, and commitment to learning and growing throughout the life journey.
I spent this past Shabbat in Charlottesville with a small group of rabbis as part of a delegation from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. The rabbis and other spiritual leaders who went to Charlottesville fulfilled many roles, some on the front lines of the protests, some as witnesses, and some as protectors and nurturers. There is much for us to learn from being present.
I felt called to play a support role. One aspect was to be present with the local Jewish community, The synagogue is very close to the park where much of the action was happening, and we could see small groups of neo-nazis walking by after our morning service on Saturday. After services, congregants arranged for the Torahs, the precious holy scrolls upon which the five books of Moses are handwritten in Hebrew, to be stored safely outside the synagogue before locking up the building. A member of the congregation said, “a building can be rebuilt. The Torahs are irreplaceable." Among the treasured Torahs put away for safekeeping was one rescued during the Holocaust.
After services, my local host and I were attempting to walk over to a café where many of the visiting clergy were gathered; however, the timing was such that we could not cross the street and rather witnessed a parade of various groups of white supremacists, primarily younger men, marching down the street after their rally had been declared unlawful. I saw medics leading journalists who had been pepper-sprayed to the medic tent at the church that had been set up as a safe space. I saw groups of counter-protestors marching down the perpendicular street to face the white supremacists, and I even saw an older white woman in a tie-dyed shirt with the word "love" printed on it, standing right in the middle of the street they were marching through. I left the area when mace was set off in the midst of the protesters, I’m not sure by whom.
We then went to the safe church, where those who had come in the name of justice, kindness, and love could rest and get care as needed. Over the course of the afternoon, there were times when the church went on lock-down because there was concern about violence in the immediate area. There were also times when the clergy was asked to come outside and hold the space, for fear of who might be coming up the street.
We have a tradition to chant a passage from the prophets each week at synagogue (the haftarah). This past week's haftarah includes the following verse (Isaiah 50:11): “All of you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires and of the torches you have set ablaze. This is what you shall receive from My hand: you will lie down in torment.” The prayer that flowed through me sitting in synagogue in the center of Charlottesville on Shabbat morning is that the flames of hate burning in these young men take the natural course of a fire, which is to burn themselves out. Fires can cause damage while they are burning, and our work is twofold: to protect those vulnerable to flames and to not further feed the flames.
How we do this work of facing the flames of hate is worthy of much discussion within and between our communities at this critical time in our world’s history. We must resist the forces that work to separate us. We must limit our consumption of news that is designed to get us worked up without giving us direction, and rather find channels to become knowledgeable and engaged as we work to protect our country. A good place to start are two books that were written since Trump came into the presidency: On Tyranny by Tim Snyder and No is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need by Naomi Klein.
My role in Charlottesville was to be a witness, a nurturer, and a keeper of the spiritual center. I pray for each of us to find our voice and our special role in these times of transformation.
I shared these words at a candlelight vigil in the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia Sunday night. We ended with a chant from Psalm 23, shavti b’veit adonai, which literally means, “May I dwell in the house of God.” I understand this to mean, “may I know the deep abiding truth of our interconnectedness.” The chant is composed by my teacher, Rabbi Shefa Gold, and includes the English interpretation, “I place myself in your care.” To hear the chant, go to Shefa’s website: Trusting: Shavti b’veit Adonai.
Annie McCormick of ABC news in Philadelphia created a wonderful story about the vigils last night:
I have been fasting today for the 17th of Tammuz, the day when Jerusalem's walls were breached during the 2nd Temple period. Fasting has helped me become more aware. When I picked up my smartphone to read an essay about the violent crackdown on non-violent protests in Hamburg at the G20, I decided to read with the intention of getting out of my head and and allowing myself to feel the pain and the outrage. Reading in this way helped me to stay present and kept me from swirling into despair. What this meant in my parenting role is that my son experienced his Mom in that moment as sad rather than as disconnected and fearful. For this I am deeply grateful.
As parents, so much of what we teach our children is on a subtle, energetic level, and cultivating energy of connection and courage is one of the most important, yet mostly unacknowledged, ways we can nurture our children. How do we cultivate nourishing energy when there is so much disturbing news, both on a local and global level, that it feels like we could drown in our sorrow and burn with our rage?
Here's a powerful practice from Joanna Macy, one of the great teachers of our times, for learning to open our hearts to the pain of the world as we connect into the living, breathing web of life. I am including a link both to Joanna's guiding the meditation on video and also to her written text.
I shared this practice today at our weekly Tuesday morning meditation group at Germantown Jewish Centre. Those in Philadelphia are welcome to join us from 9:00-9:40AM each Tuesday in the library for meditation.
July 10 marks the beginning of the three week mourning period leading up to Tisha B'Av. The Three Weeks, or bein hametzarim (in the narrow places) is a tender time for getting in touch with our feelings around anticipating the destruction of the Temple.
The ancient rabbis understood the importance of honoring our pain for the world. In our contemporary culture, it is often difficult to slow down and experience our pain, even as we witness so much brokenness all around us. Yet it is the process of honoring our pain which opens us to clarity, compassion, and courage.
Join me in embracing these three weeks as a time to honor our grief through creativity, in service of strengthening our capacity to love and care for our world and one another. I invite you to join me in keeping a grief journal or exploring grief through another creative medium, such as poetry, chant, collage, drawing, painting, or dance. Devote time, even if just a few minutes, each day to creatively explore the following questions:
1. What news stories arouse my sadness and outrage?
2. What am I most fearful about? When I let myself consider the worst case scenario, what arises?
3. What does the Temple represent for me at this time? What is at stake to be lost with the destruction of the Temple? What values and institutions do I hold dear whose walls have been breached?
4. In reading the haftarah of admonition for the week (there are three haftarot of admonition, from Jeremiah and Isaiah, starting with this coming Shabbat), what phrases speak to me? (These can serve as writing prompts or inspiration for creative expression)
Please share your reflections and creative offerings in the comments section, as we support one another in journeying through the Three Weeks.
May we be blessed with the courage to honor our grief.
min hametzar karati yah, anani bamerchav yah
From narrow places I call out to Yah who answers me with Divine spaciousness (Psalm 118:5)
My teacher, Rabbi Shefa Gold, refers to extended family visits as “advanced spiritual practice.” Passover is coming this week, and many of us are blessed by this opportunity to practice our patience, our trust, and our connection to the infinite flow of Love. This is truly a blessing-- to have family who will come visit or whom we will visit; yet, it sometimes does not feel like a blessing. Anticipating family time can awaken old fears and constrictions and stuck places, can bring us back to the narrow places, the metzarim, that we’ve been hard at work leaving behind.
The reality is that we cannot leave a narrow place behind. We must move through it and transform it, and reconnection with family shines a light on where we need to work. This is a gift. Rather than being fearful of feeling bad or regressing to childhood behaviors, let’s be thankful that the possibility for opening has arisen, for we must know where the narrow places are in order to be inspired to call out for Divine help, and it is through this process of reaching out that powerful openings happen and the narrow place becomes a wide expanse. The constriction opens, more love flows, and we truly rejoice in being with family. ken yehi ratzon. may it be so!
Note: Shefa has a wonderful chant for min hametzar which can be heard here.
Seventy years ago today, on August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on the small city of Hiroshima in Japan. The bomb killed over 100,000 people, and due to the long-term effects of radiation poisoning, ultimately, many more. Seventy years ago today, the United States of America dropped an atomic bomb. As Jews around the world debate the merits of the nuclear deal with Iran, we must pause today, in deep humility. Our country, the United States, introduced nuclear weapons to the world. Our country, the United States, is the only country (and please God, may it stay that way) to have used a nuclear weapon on a civilian population, not once, but twice.
My personal identity is deeply connected to these first bombs. Like Little Boy and Fat Man (the names of the bombs dropped on Japan), I was raised in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a small town high in the Rocky Mountains of Northern New Mexico with fresh air and blue, open skies. My parents did not move to Los Alamos until 1969, and I was not born until 1972, yet the legacy (or shall I say, ghost?) of the first atomic bombs was a dark, yet mostly unspoken presence in my life. Nuclear weapons were the town industry, and as such, denial about the horrors and ethical implications was part of the fabric of daily life. My recollection is that sometime in the 1980’s or 90’s, the winning entry for an international peace garden was designed to be placed in the town of Los Alamos, and the Los Alamos County Council voted to not allow such a peace memorial to be placed in town. I imagine that they did not want the town to become a pilgrimage site for mourners and activists. Was it security considerations for the laboratory? Or fear of the feelings and instability that would arise from facing the devastation that came from the “baby” of the town?
I was awarded the Oppenheimer Memorial Award when I graduated from Los Alamos High School 25 years ago. This award, honoring the memory of the first director of the laboratory, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was given to a student showing great promise in math and science. I went on to study chemistry and physics as an undergraduate at Harvard, yet my heart was not drawn to scientific discovery. Rather, my heart was drawn to seek holiness, justice and spiritual community, to seek the truths that come from deep listening (I ended up becoming a rabbi).
The early 90’s were a confusing time for me. The Cold War was ending, which seemed to be a good thing, and yet many people I knew from Los Alamos were losing their jobs. I had learned in Los Alamos that the lives of a million American soldiers were saved with the dropping of the bombs, yet in my History of Science course, I came to understand that this was likely not the complete story: the new field of social science was developing during World War II and reports had come back from social scientists studying Japan in 1945 that morale was very low. According to my professor, these reports were suppressed and not taken into account in the decision to drop the bombs. I also learned in that course about the stripping of Oppenheimer’s security clearance during the McCarthy era, likely due to his lack of enthusiasm for the H-bomb project, a project which increased the destructive power of nuclear weapons.
From what I can understand of the nuclear deal with Iran, my intuition is to support the deal, which would allow desperately-needed funds to flow into Iran to enable greater economic prosperity. I honor the fear that arises for Israel in contemplating a nuclear Iran, and I honor the uncertainty about what will unfold in the coming years. It is also important to name that the United States has a large nuclear arsenal, and Israel also likely has a nuclear arsenal of its own. As we all know from our years as children on the playground, “We’ve got some and you can’t have any!” is, by its very nature, an unstable situation. I pray for sanity for humanity. We all have big challenges ahead of us as the temperatures rise; may we learn as a world community to make choices towards our mutual preservation. In one of the central prayers of the Jewish morning service, we recite, “ahava raba ahavtanu”, “with a great love does the Holy One love us.” May we each feel that love and learn to love open our hearts to one another. That is the beginning of our hope.