Saturday, December 24, 2011

Miketz, a drash

Pharaoh dreams of seven handsome fat cows being eaten by seven ugly, skinny cows.  Pharaoh dreams of seven solid healthy ears of wheat on a single stalk, being followed by seven thin sickly ears on a stalk scorched by the east wind.  He is a hereditary monarch, and therefore not very bright, so he calls for a man of discernment and wisdom to interpret the dreams, and Joseph is remembered and summoned. 

Joseph tells Pharaoh that God had determined there were to be seven years of plenty that would be followed by seven years of famine, when, as Rashi wrote, “the plenty would be forgotten”.  Joseph, not being an idiot, follows this interpretation with a recommendation to Pharoah that he find a man of discernment and wisdom to oversee a program of gathering food during the good years so that it can be distributed during the bad years. We know our man Joseph got the job, and the rest is, well, Exodus.

Seven years of plenty and seven years of famine; seven years of good-looking and seven years of ugly;  seven years of profit and partying; and seven years of grief and shock.  We know this cycle.  Boom and bust.  And we’re busted. 

So now, some of us are oblivious and some of us are scared.  Some prosper and some barely get by.  Some get bonuses and some have been broken.  Some of us blame the greedy and some of us blame ourselves.  Some of us have been permanently beaten down and some of us have risen up.

Good times, bad times.  Good guys, bad guys.  Good and evil.  How can the good survive the evil? And, why do we read this parsha, Miketz, on Chanukah, the Festival of Light & Dedication?  

Rabbi Arthur Green, in his interpretation of the Hasidic Sefat Emet’s commentary on Miketz, writes:
 “Divinity is everywhere:  there is no other source of being.  All that exists is of God, whether revealed or in hiding.  But the power of hiding, the exile of the mind from any awareness of divine presence, can sometimes be very great.  And the evil that human beings can perpetrate in the course of hiding from God’s light can indeed be without end.”
I hate the banks.  I hate the banks so much that I can’t walk past an ATM without wanting to throw a rock at it.  I hate the banks so much, that even as I quote Arthur Green telling you that God’s light is without end, when it comes to banks and bankers, I don’t believe that for a minute.     How can God be in something that is so impersonal, so uncaring, a machine that crushes without a glance at who or what it is crushing?    It’s hard to see the people in that machine.  I know they’re there.  I know most of them must think of themselves as good people. I must try to have compassion for them, find  God’s light in them, even if they can’t see it themselves, even if they hide from that light, I should be able to see it.  But it’s hard work.  I want justice.  I want consequences.

Since the recession I have not been able to get a full time job but I lived like I was working.  I refused to forget the time of plenty.   I hid from the truth of my own financial foolishness and trouble, and I hid from the inevitable consequence of waiting to for someone else to fix up my personal mess.    I find myself desperately wanting a man of discernment, a Joseph to come and organize me through the lean times.  For a while after the recession began, I wanted to rely on Obama to get us through this experience and I squirmed or denied or felt hopeless when he did not or could not fix our economic mess.  We are on our own.   We must organize ourselves.

Why do we read Miketz on Chanukah, the Festival of Light and Dedication?   This is the time when the mighty were delivered into the hands of the weak.  Chanukah is a Festival of a light that shines on the lies and delusions, on the delusions of the fat years and the troubles of the lean ones.  It shines on the pharaohs and the starving peasants and the banks and the unemployed.  And it asks us to choose whether we will embrace or hide from God’s light. Joseph was in prison, falsely accused with no end in sight.  The Maccabees lived under the thumb of invaders and a mad capricious king.  But neither wallowed in the despair of their situation.  They did what they needed to do. 

So, are we Joseph, that discerning man who serves the powers-that-be so he can feed the hungry?  Or are we Maccabees, resisting the bad guys with direct action?
Good and evil, boom or bust, all that exists is of God.

Rabbi Shefa Gold writes:  
We can honor and protect the seeds of liberation that are in us - our compassion and open-hearted vision of the preciousness of every being. When we carry old hurts, and the bitterness that surrounds those wounds, then our every attempt to do justice is distorted by a sensation of pain.  And so the spiritual challenge is to heal those deep places of bitterness. In that healing, the Spirit of God in us is made manifest.”

It’s the winter solstice,
The earth tilts away from the light,
The east wind scorches.
So we must lean forward
And light candles
So we can see whatever there is to see.
And the days will grow longer
When the earth tilts toward the sun.

Shabbat Shalom.  Happy Chanukah.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lean Forward

The earth tilts away from the light
So we must lean forward
And light candles.

After a year of change
that is both welcome and unwelcome,
And a year of rising up and sinking down,
of community and solitude,
of creation and bureaucracy:
I’m tired.

All very interesting
And really, a little too interesting.  

May you be blessed with light in the darkness, warmth in the cold, glitter in the snow and a joyful winter solstice.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Verb Is A Noun: A Psalm

(inspired by Arthur Green, SEEK MY FACE)

God is a gerund, a verb ending in 'ing', 
a verb that has become a noun.
Always doing, always being.  
And Being.
Never starting, never ending.  
But real and solid, 
a thing made of action.

Selah:  Pause and think.
I want always to be in the image of that Noun, 
A believer and doer and caretaker,
As my true self
In prayer and social action and conscious living,
I want to be in full connection with that Verb, 
Believing and doing and caring, 
In the truth, whether I call it God or not,
And regardless of the payoff.   
I want that Gerund, the noun that is a verb.

Selah: Lift up and exalt.
I construct descriptions and meanings
Or attach myself to rituals and history.
My weakness becomes my strength
My solitude becomes community.
This helps me get through my life
And I am comforted.
The universe is vast and incomprehensible.
I need to find joy in my lack of understanding.
I yearn for God’s goodness to pass over me,
Making the intangible, tangible.
Imagining the unimaginable.
God is a gerund: a verb and a noun.

Selah:  Stop and listen.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

We Dance Around The Shul

Our Torah is old.
The blue velvet cover
And the silver plate that hangs over the velvet
Are both covered in names
Of donors long gone,
And their honored loved ones, gone even longer.
These names mean nothing to us:
We ignore them
On Shabbat
When we dance around the shul.

On Selichot we put aside the old velvet
And dressed our Torah in fresh white covers,  
only a year old,
Donated by a beloved member,
She died this year, four days before Rosh HaShanah.
Tonight it’s Simkhat Torah.
So we now take off Amina’s white cover
And put on the old one,
Blue, embroidered with strangers' names. 
Then we will dance around the shul.

We will think of Amina every year at this time 
From now on 
Until none of us are around,
Until there is no one who remembers her, 
Or us.
Then others will carry this scroll with the white cover
Donated by a Jew they never knew,
While they dance around the shul.

We give thanks for the ancient traditions, 
Telling the story even when we can’t, 
Keeping our loved ones’ memories 

And giving us Torah from the beginning, every year.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

God’s Back: A Drash for Sukkot

Exod 33:12-34:26

This is one of those holiday Shabbats when a special Torah portion is read.  In ancient times, Succot was THE holiday, of all the festivals this was the most important one.  And if that is so, then one must wonder why, out of the entire chumash, this passage was chosen.  It’s from Exodus, after Moses has come down from his first visit to Sinai, and he’s seen the golden calf, broken the first set of tablets, and then had to deal with a furious God and talk God out of killing everyone. 

So when this portion starts, God and Moses are having relationship troubles.  I’m not exaggerating, that’s just exactly how it reads.  So, God and Moses are in one to one conversation and Moses is saying to God, 'look you’ve set up all these difficult conditions for what I have to do, you set this gigantic task for the people, and then you tell me how fabulous I am, but you won’t show yourself to me, to the people, to the outsiders we have to pass amongst so they’ll know we’re special.   Sure we talk, and that’s great, but what are you?  Where's the intimacy?  What is your essence? I haven’t seen you.  I don’t feel like you’re fully sharing yourself with me.'  

So God realizes he’s taken Moses for granted, and suddenly he gets very understanding, he loves Moses, maybe he has been a little withholding, so he promises to be a presence at the Mishkan and when they go out in public, he’ll make himself known amongst foreigners.  Which is great, but Moses wants the personal God, not just the public God. 

So Moses asks to know God’s ways, Moses wants to truly know God.  So God, who is usually very angry, vengeful and jealous and who has just killed a whole lot of idol-worshipping Hebrews, does a 180 and suggest that he show Moses his goodness, yes his goodness, and he will pass God’s goodness in front of Moses and show God's grace and compassion.  But, Moses can’t look at God’s face, and the full truth of what God is, because all that awesomeness would kill him, so God shows Moses God’s back, which I take as a metaphor for the most tangible part of the most intangible infinite, God’s back is the part of the unimaginable that we can imagine.

Then God sends Moses back up the mountain and Moses fetches the tablets and there’s a bunch of laws and the usual obligations and the covenant between the Hebrews and this God. Etcetera.

So why this portion on Sukkot, on the holiday that is supposed to be the happy follow up to all that breast beating and atonement from Yom Kippur?  On Sukkot, the big ole festival of joy?

I think Moses is saying, you want us to worship you and obey you and make a covenant with you, but for the regular people, you’re too abstract.  They’re tired, they’ve been struggling and walking and they’re still worried about where they came from and where they’re going, and, says Moses, ‘I get to talk to you all the time and even I feel like I’m not seeing the real God, so how do you think the people feel?  You want faith and worship? It’s hard to worship an abstract idea.  The people need something they can grasp, no wonder they built an idol!’

And we read this portion now, after Yom Kippur, because we’re tired, we’ve been struggling with hard truths, maybe even with some shame and heartbreak, and maybe we’ve come out the other end but maybe we have some lingering doubts and worries.  And damn, High Holyday services are long.   The rabbi and the cantor know what’s going on, and some of us have some knowledge, but for many of us it’s a mystery, even a tedious mystery.  Wouldn’t it have been much more pleasant to have a nice shiny golden calf to talk to instead of all these prayers to a supernatural being that many of us don’t even believe in?

Now, as many of you may know, for the last few years I have been writing prayers and kavannot, intentions, which are, for me, among other things, one-sided conversations with a supernatural being I don’t believe in.  So, a while back I had an interesting exchange with Rabbi Lippmann.  I had written a prayer for an occasion, the motzi for Lisa and Molly’s Ordination Shabbat, and it had a lot of blessings for God in the chatima, the concluding line, of each verse and I was having a hard time coming up with a way to talk about God without using pronouns, because I didn’t want to be talking to God like I thought I God was a being with a body who deserved a pronoun like you, or him or her, or he or she or even it, so I was writing lines like 

Bless Adonai Echad, that which unites us that we may be one.

instead of 

Bless Adonai Echad, who unites us that we may be one.  

The rabbi read an early draft of the motzi and commented that she missed the pronouns.  Who was I praying to? I dunno, I said, but not a who.  I guess I'm praying to an idea, a concept of unity and connection and one-ness, maybe.  I have such a hard time praying to a being.  The rabbi said she had a hard time praying to a concept. 

She had a point, and I have been struggling with that.   I write prayer.  With who or what am I in holy conversation? It’s hard.  I mean, doesn’t it just make you want to go out and build a Golden Calf?

My current solution to this dilemma is to pray to God’s back, to what’s there when I’m not looking directly at whatever God is.  I can only see what God does, God is the verb to be, god is a gerund, a verb ending in 'ing', always doing and being, never starting, never done.  

Bless Adonai Echad, uniting us that we may be one.

Speaking of gerunds, I’m watching what’s going on with Occupy Wall Street, I think everyone who observed Kol Nidre in Zuccotti Park, is praying, in their own way, to God’s back.  They are in the middle of gerund, believing and acting and caring, finding their true selves in conscious living and social action, in tefillah and tzedukah and teshuva, in full connection with that Verb, To Be, whether they call it God or not, regardless of the outcome.   They yearn for the goodness to pass over them, they want it to be tangible and they believe it can be, and I think they’re seeing it, I think they’re imagining the unimaginable. From their lips to God’s ears.

Again, why do we read this during Sukkot? 

I’m not sure, but maybe when you sit in the sukkah, and you look around at the walls that maybe you built yourself, maybe you can imagine that they are there to remind you of the need for humans to construct descriptions and meaning, golden calves, to help them make it through their lives, which is okay I think. 

And then, maybe, as you sit in the sukkah within these tangible walls, you look up and you can see through to the stars and you can’t help but be reminded how vast and incomprehensible this universe is.  And maybe here you can be joyful, you can understand what all the atonement was about and experience the joy of forgiveness and new beginnings. 

So maybe, when you sit in the sukkah, contemplating God’s back within the walls of the tangible and under the stars of the unimaginable, you will let God be a gerund, that verb ending in ING, never started, never over, always now. 

And may God’s goodness pass over you.

Hag Sameach, Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pick A Ritual

I used to refuse to bend my knee
and bow
during the Morning Blessings.
Baruch Atah Etcetera
Thank you for Etecetera….
Who was I bowing to?
A male king?
That’s not God.
Screw that.
But then I thought
What if I bowed anyway?
What would that feel like?
So I tried it for a month.

It was ridiculous, boring.
It was humbling, profound.

I stopped bowing.
And I missed it.

So now on Shabbat morning,
When I thank a being I don’t believe in 
For gifts I don’t usually have,
I bow.

I bow to history and my community,
I bow to everyone who has ever been forced to bow.
I bow to my fears and my need for something bigger than me.
I bow because my ancestors bowed.   
I bow because everyone in the room is bowing.
I bow because I am not the center of the universe. 
I bow because I do feel God's presence, somehow.

So, a suggestion:

Pick a ritual.
One that is done in your community.
One that you don’t usually do.
One that you almost never do. 

Just one.
Then do it.

Do it without a reason. Do it for a month or two.
See if it takes on meaning for you,
See if it creates sacred space.
See if it creates sacred time.

Learn about this ritual.

Do you know its traditional reason?
Do you know it's communal value?
Do you find a personal resonance?
Can you create your own meaning?

Keep doing the ritual for a month or two.
Then stop.

Do you miss it?

Did it matter? 

Pick another ritual...

Friday, September 23, 2011

Kesher V'Gesher, A Prayer for Rosh HaShanah

We cross a scary, narrow bridge,
It has an awesome span.
From Tisha B'Av to Simchat Torah and back again.

It’s not a simple stroll across this bridge,
Revealing truth with each step.
How do we get across intact?

Tread gingerly, alone,
Exposed before our friends and family and yes, the Infinite.
But most of all, to ourselves.

We know what we have done. We do.

So what helps us across that bridge?

Our music, the poetry, the liturgy;
The wise words, the sharing, the rhythm of the rituals and conversations with God.

Our gathering, these clergy and prayer leaders, this community,
Social justice and acts of loving kindness,

Our self-awareness, honesty, regret, humility, atonement,
Our forgiveness, grief, redemption and joy,

The same stuff every year but shockingly different each time.
This is Kesher, our connection to truth and hope.
This is Gesher, our bridge across these Days of Awe.

Kesher v'Gesher
Connect. Cross the bridge.
From Tisha B’Av to Simkhat Torah:

From Regret to Celebration
From Celebration to Teshuva
From Teshuva to Sweetness
From Sweetness to Atonement
From Atonement to Awe
From Awe to Abundance
From Abundance to Torah

Blessed One-ness, Breath of Everything, we are not alone on this journey.
Walk with us as we cross each bridge to a new year and yet another beginning.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My Day That Day

It’s about 8:45 AM. Brooklyn, 15th St. stop on the F train. I buy tokens (or was it a Metro Card by then) at the booth, and the clerk says a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I don’t know why, both he and I assume it is an accident, a small plane. I ask, should I get on the subway? Sure he says, the F train doesn’t go under the World Trade Center, no problem.

So I get on the subway and after only two stops, at Fourth Avenue & Ninth Street,the train goes above ground. I’m wearing ear buds and listening to music, I notice people coming in to my car look disturbed, so I take out the ear buds and listen. What are they saying, a second plane? The doors close, the train moves and the conductor announces, “The World Trade Center has been attacked by two airplanes, if you want to see it look to your left.” The train veers right, we look out the windows to the left and there are the towers, just across the East River, each tower has what looks like, from this distance, a giant black window. Then we can see, there’s smoke.

The train pulls into Smith and Ninth, still above ground. We are all in such shock, no one, not one of us, thinks to get off the train. We don’t understand what we’re going towards. I have a doctor’s appointment, I had a long wait for, I can’t cancel. So I stay on the train. I start talking to the young woman sitting next to me, slowly she and I realize what two airplanes means, that it was deliberate. But neither of us can fully take in what this means, that we should get off this train while the trains are still running back in the direction of home. The train goes underground and for some reason this feels like I have committed to the journey, so I stay on.

The train goes in fits and stops, it takes almost twice as long as it should to get to 34th Street (my doctor is at 31st and Second Ave.). My seatmate gets off, too, and for some reason it’s finally there, on the escalator going up, that we realize that we made a mistake, that we should have gotten off the train and that we might now be in danger. We wish each other luck. I wish I had gotten her name.

Once I get up to the street, I finally hear exactly what has happened. I look around me, and I realize I am standing near Macy’s and the Empire State Building and Penn Station, all potential targets. So I start running, and run all the way to the doctor’s office. Of course, she’s not there. She’s been called to the emergency room, to await the mass casualties that never were.

Thinking the subway will still be running, but afraid to go back to mid-town, I decide to walk to the 23rd Street stop of the F train. This is not logical but this is what I decide. I walk to Sixth Avenue and then start walking downtown. At every restaurant or bar that is open at this early hour, people are gathered to watch TV, and many are people huddled around cars to listen to the radio. I stop now and again to hear the latest, but mostly I forge on. I have to go home, I have to get back to Brooklyn. The black smoke from the towers, which by then have collapsed, is directly in front of me, in perfect perspective, coming to a point and this point, the horizon, has blown up.

I try to call various people, my sister and friends, but the cell phones aren’t working. People pass me walking in the opposite direction. Many of them are covered in white dust. They look exhausted, but determined. They want to get home, too. I know where they’re coming from but I keep asking them, “Where are you coming from?” Everyone answers me, but they don’t stop walking. “The World Trade Center.”

Finally I get to 23rd Street stop and find out that the trains have stopped. Someone says, you should walk home, everyone is walking on the Brooklyn Bridge. But I’m tired. I don’t think I can make it all the way from 23rd to Park Slope. I think, maybe I’ll just sit here until the trains go on, then I remember I know someone who lives on 13th Street and Sixth. I have the presence of mind to get some cash from an ATM and I walk to Missy’s place. Thank God, she’s home and invites me up and I sit in her room and watch TV and for the first time I see the shots of the plane hitting the tower. Missy still has a landline so I’m able to call people.

Missy and I go out. We want to buy food in case the supplies dry up, and she needs cash. By the time we get to the ATMs they’re out of money, so I lend her $80 (which she never pays back). We walk over to St. Vincent’s to give blood but by then they’ve got all they need so they turn us away. We go back to her house and I stay there until they announce on the news that the trains that don’t go under the WTC are running again. I thank Missy and go and get on the F to go home. The trains are packed but no one is talking or even looking at each other. Many people on the train are covered in dust, they are given seats. There are more than a few women who don’t have shoes, I don't understand it then, but now I think they must have been wearing heels and kicked them off so they could run from the cloud.

I get home about 3 PM, I've only been gone about six hours but it feels like six days. I go up on the roof and find some of my neighbors from the building there. There’s some paper from the World Trade Center on the roof but most of that fell in other parts of Brooklyn. There used to be a great view of the towers from the roof but now there’s just the plume of smoke. One of my neighborhs works in Tower One but had the day off. He is distraught.

I get a call on my landline. Members of my shul are getting together with another congregation, to do what I don’t know, but I go. We all sit together and some people get up to say things. Some of the things they say are stupid, using this as an opportunity for political rants. No one has the energy to tell them to shut up. Still, it’s nice to be with my community now.

Later that week, I will be with them again, and all of Park Slope, as we walk down Seventh Avenue on candlelight vigil to the two firehouses in our neighborhood. They both lost guys and we're very sad. Some of the fire trucks are parked along the route, men sitting in the trucks, as if to escort or witness us. Almost all of us touch the trucks as we pass in the quiet parade. Some go up to the firemen, survivors of that day. “Thank you, thank you” or "We're so sorry for your loss" is all most of us can say, and they accept our words and some of them let us touch or shake their hands.