Always remember not to forget!

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This week we mark the yahrzeit of my friend and teacher Anita Winer, z’l, who died in 2011 at the age of 92. Coincidentally, yesterday was Shabbat Zachor (the Shabbat before Purim), when we read the story of Amalek, with its seemingly contradictory instruction not to forget to blot out the memory of Amalek, an insurgent who attacked B’nai Yisrael from behind as we were leaving the land of Egypt. The passage reads in part:

“You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

and much is made of the puzzling instruction to remember to forget. Or is it forget to remember?

It’s confusing. At this season, we read two accounts (Amalek and Megillat Esther) that commingle triumph and retribution. Yes, the plans against us were foiled, but afterward we took a mighty vengeance, one that might these days be called disproportionate. We are supposed to remember these things and teach them down the generations, while we struggle simultaneously to blot out the memory of the injustices that have befallen us. In our minds, Amalek blurs with Haman, who blurs with modern-day enemies and perceived enemies. Traditionally, we are supposed to get so drunk on Purim that we can’t tell the difference between good and evil – yet we are never to forget (to remember) to forget. I don’t understand: are we paying attention, or aren’t we?

Anita, in her wonderful wisdom, would not shy away from how troubling these stories were, always pressing those of us privileged to study alongside her to look deeply into them and draw out meanings that make sense for our times. About the Amalek story, she taught me – both in words and by her actions in her long life – that after difficult experiences, rather than dwelling in the memory of things we have lost, we gain strength when we decide to move forward with what remains. 

In Adar, we are commanded to be joyful, and yet I miss my dear friend and continue to mourn her loss. My sons wisely tell me that the joy is in remembering how fortunate we were to have had her as a friend and in cherishing how much we learned from her. My sons have learned well.

Who knew?

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The nice people over at Reboot have been on my mind lately. I have known about their work for a few years and have silently applauded (one hand clapping, while the other grips the iPod) their mission of helping people slow down their lives and jump off their individual mouse-wheels. One tool in their kit is the National Day of Unplugging, the most recent of which was this past Shabbat.

On the National Day of Unplugging, people are encouraged to leave their gadgets behind and have a different kind of Shabbat – not necessarily to observe in an Orthodox manner, but to bring some intentionality to their relationship with technology. Since starting work, I have been feeling the electronic tether too much and have struggled with setting limits for myself, and for the boys.

It’s not easy. My kids love their screen time, and because they love it so much I had been scared to try unplugging for a whole Shabbat. I also, alas, love my screen time, even though I hate how it makes me feel. (“This is your brain. This is your brain after hours of screen time. Any questions?”) And although I don’t usually use the screens on Shabbat, I sometimes find them useful for occupying the kids if I want a little Shabbos schluf.

Nonetheless, I have had unplugging on my mind and decided to take the plunge. Just like they say in the stupid buzzfeed videos, what happened next shocked me.

Boys woke up Shabbat morning and came in for an epic snuggle. I mentioned to them that a lot of people are choosing this Shabbat to go without electronics for the whole Shabbat and that I was going to do it. They bought in, without hesitation.

We went downstairs and I made them French toast and pancakes. (Not enough challah left from Shabbat dinner!)

They played in the living room while I napped after breakfast, right there at the table. (I pushed my plate out of the way first, I’ll have you know.)

We had an impromptu davening at home, full of music and fun and joy. I noted happily that I have made some progress toward my goal of learning the prayers. Akiva read us the first few lines from the parsha, and even Gideon led some of the songs.

We lunched on leftovers from Shabbat dinner.

We goofed around in the afternoon. I had another nap, this one in the bed.

I made dinner.

We had havdalah.

The words “best Shabbat ever” were heard throughout the house.

Someone else

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Someone I knew from my singing days got the worst imaginable news yesterday. Her 21-year-old son was killed in a car crash, on his way back to college after a family celebration in honor of his grandfather’s hundredth birthday.

I cannot fathom such a simcha followed by such devastation. I keep trying to imagine spending my hundredth birthday planning my grandchild’s funeral. I lay awake last night imagining what it would be like to wake up in the morning having two sons and go to bed that same night having only one.

I am beyond tears. It isn’t that the mother is a close friend; we were acquaintances long ago, neither friendly nor unfriendly. It isn’t that I knew and loved the boy. The last time I saw him — the only time I saw him — he was the same age as my younger son.

It is something else entirely.

When these terrible things happen — a sudden aneurysm, a car accident, a shock of violence — we can, most of the time, live with them. Uneasily, yes, but we live with them because they happened to someone else. They are, most of the time, sad things that are not about us. We can look at the news articles and think, “Oh, how sad, that must be awful.” The sadness is theoretical, because it’s happening to someone else.

Except there is no someone else.

Every someone else is also a someone. This young man who died was a loving and enduring couple’s son. He was his surviving twin’s brother. He was his hundred-year-old grandfather’s grandson. He was — for his family, his friends, his community — not someone else. He was Michael.

How can I honor the too-short life of this someone-not-else? By living my life with the consciousness that there is no someone else. Everyone who momentarily annoys me, or misunderstands me, or ignores me would matter unutterably in his absence. It’s a cliché but you never know whom someone matters to; everyone matters to someone. My work, my service to my long-ago acquaintance, my pledge to the memory of her precious son, is to treat each person like someone, not someone else.

Zichrono l’vracha.

Torah thoughts on pluralism for Shavuot

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This week we celebrate the giving of Torah at Sinai, and it’s traditional to study Torah all night in celebration.  I’ll just make a start here and get some sleep.

The portion this week is B’Midbar, and in it we read about the various tribes of Israelites  arrayed around the Tabernacle.  Each tribe has an assigned place, with the Tabernacle in the center.  It occurs to me that if the physical representation of holiness is in the center, with all the people circled around it, each individual has equal access to the center.  Each of the tribes — each of us — has the right to call G-d his or her own, and each of us is right, individually and collectively.  Those who see the Tabernacle from the east will see it in a certain light, while those who see it from the north will see it differently.  From every vantage point, the holy center is available, and from every vantage point it looks different.

In Deuteronomy 30:14 (Nitzavim) we read that the Word, “is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”  The voice of G-d is audible to us all, and it is located in our hearts.  And when we are lined up, tuned to the right frequency, we can observe the commandments, each of us within the bounds of his or her conscience.  The commandment is not beyond reach but in our hearts.  Go and learn it.

The Bread of Affliction

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Two years ago I wrote this about cleaning for Pesach.  It should surprise you not even a bit that I am still procrastinating, still arguing, still searching.  I once heard someone say, “Some people are born knowing, while others die searching.”

The thing is, because I am all in-betweensies in my Jewish practice — because my kashrut, like my spiritual life, is a work in progress — I have dear friends who won’t eat in my home during Pesach no matter how well I clean.  I don’t blame them.  Look, not even I am confident that all the chametz will be duly removed from my home.  They are honoring the holiday the way it makes sense for them.  They don’t ask me to change, I don’t ask them to change.  (So they invite me, lucky for me!)

For me, the cleaning is a hassle, a chore, a reminder of how little I know.  Another dear friend regards the process of cleaning as transformational; as she cleans her home, she is also — purposefully, mindfully — cleaning her soul.  She is a brilliant, creative homeschooling mother of three who has organized her life’s work around her home and family.  In her, it makes perfect sense to me, this pairing of spirituality and Pesach cleaning.

For me, though, the path is elsewhere.  Matzo is also called the bread of affliction — lachma aniya.  When I eat matzo during Pesach, it calls to mind the injustice of slavery, the terror of escape, the insecurity of wandering.  It asks me to wrestle with the slaveries, physical and metaphorical, that exist today, even in my own life.  The bread of affliction reminds me that I have a role to play in diminishing the afflictions of others, and that I am responsible for freeing myself from that which enslaves me.

Ultimately, this is not Lent.  During Pesach, we are not giving up chametz.  Instead, we are embracing the bread of affliction, allying ourselves with the afflicted of this world and asking ourselves the hard questions.

Wondering and wandering

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It dawned on me yesterday that there is a narrative arc to the fall chaggim (holidays) that echoes parts of the story of the Jewish people.

At Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the beginning of the world, G-d’s creation.  (Dinosaurs notwithstanding.)  Our story starts alongside everyone else’s, and every year we celebrate the birthday of the world, the place and time that began it all.

Yom Kippur resonates with the expulsion from Eden, as we contemplate error, sin, and the eternal incompleteness of teshuvah (return).  Our atonement begins with Kol Nidrei, the acknowledgement that though we will do our best, we expect to fall short.  We acclaim our humanity while embracing the striving for improvement.

Just four days later we choose exile, building our sukkot and dwelling in them.  We embody the desert wanderings that our people endured for forty years, sharing meals in uncomfortable chairs and batting away the bugs, inviting strangers and friends alike to join us in our sukkot — we make the best of it, together.   The company makes it better than bearable, but still we are in the thrall of the elements and the mosquitoes.

The end of Sukkot braids into Simchat Torah, when we rejoice at having the Torah in our midst.  We sing and dance with the scrolls; we end our cycle of annual readings and in the same breath begin again.  All that desert wandering culminates in the gift of the Tree of Life, whose branches we hope to become.

This Sukkot the guys and I are in a new congregation, having left the familiar comfort of Reform practice and begun moving toward a more traditional practice that doesn’t quite feel like it belongs to us yet.  We  keep checking the web site of our new synagogue, making sure we know the right time to show up — and still arriving early or late according to how it’s actually done.  When, rarely, I get the chance to go to the adult service, I stand hesitantly around the edges, worried that if I sit, I’ll get called on.  Someone will realize I don’t know my stuff (yet) and point and laugh, call me a fraud, confirm what I already know, that this is not yet mine.  It’s mostly moot, since Gideon is loath to let me go anywhere without him (in shul or anywhere else) and cannot, will not stay quiet in the adult service.

I feel the wandering more acutely than ever.

I sit in my sukkah as I write this, knowing that many in my new congregation would frown upon my using the computer on chag, on my not being at shul right now.  Although I seek a more traditional lifestyle in some ways, I bring with me a Reform frame of mind, which emphasizes a personal quest for meaning and which empowers the individual to make the choices that sing G-d’s song to her.  In this moment I feel more compelled to write, to explore my soul, than to wrestle my kids into wearing decent clothes and participating respectfully.  The boys are playing in their pajamas, the sun is shining through the gauze walls of my sukkah, and I am wondering and searching.

I am searching for my own spiritual core, and for my family’s practice.  We don’t yet have our own traditions, and I don’t know where to get them.  My parents didn’t do much in the way of traditions, at least none I recognize as such.  Bill became Jewish in adulthood so he has no roots to draw water from.  We go visiting our friends or go to synagogue, and everything is lovely and strange.  Nothing yet fits.  We are  searching, we are wandering.

A reading from my old siddur, adapted from the Marge Piercy poem Maggid, describes this moment.

BLESSED IS the courage to let go of the door, the handle. Blessed is the courage to leave the place whose language you learned as early as your own.

Blessed the courage to walk out of the pain that is known into the pain that cannot be imagined, mapless, walking into the wilderness, going barefoot with a canteen into the desert. Bless us all, born wanderers, with shoes under our pillows…

And blessed are those Jews who changed tonight, those who chose the desert over bondage, who walked into the strange and became strangers, and gave birth to children who could look down on them, standing on their shoulders, for having been slaves.

Blessed are those who let go of everything but freedom, who ran, who revolted, who fought, who became other by saving themselves.

For courage, for freedom, sing and rejoice!

Tashlich

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Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we are called to go to a body of water and toss in bread crumbs, symbolically letting go of the sins and errors of the year just past.  I hadn’t had the chance to do so until this afternoon — just hours before Kol Nidrei, which marks the beginning of Yom Kippur.

I went with Gideon, while Akiva, who had made Tashlich at school earlier today, was at a friend’s house.  We walked a while along the Charles River till we found a nice spot overlooking a small dam — more of a waterslide for ducks, really.  When we arrived the sun was casting a brilliant glint over the water and in the blaze we could just make out a heron standing tall on the rocks.  I stared at it for a while, pointed it out to Gideon.

We talked a bit about mistakes we’d made in the past year that we wanted to fix.  He didn’t understand a word I said, but he was pretty excited about throwing the bread into the water.  We went to the edge and started breaking off chunks to throw in.  We tossed and tossed and tossed.  Eventually some ducks came to eat up our sins.  Hungry ducks, they don’t care about the ways we’ve hurt others or been thoughtless.  They just like the bread.  Home baked, no less.  At first it was two ducks, then several followed along.

When I next looked, the heron was gone.

I think it’s a pretty good metaphor for life.  How many times have I meant to keep my attention on the herons of life — family, friends, spiritual pursuits — only to be distracted by the ducklings of cooking dinner and filling out paperwork and getting people where they need to be on time?

I’m sure the heron is somewhere, and the next time I go to that spot maybe I’ll see it again.  I just wish I could keep my attention on it while also taking care of the ducks.