Our hope is not yet lost

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I arrived half an hour early and traffic was already being directed to the outer outer parking lot. 

When I approached the building, I had to show ID. When I entered, my bag was searched while I passed through a metal detector.

It wasn’t international travel that necessitated these precautions, it was attendance at the memorial service for Naftali Fraenkel (z’l), Gilad Sha’ar (z’l), and Eyal Yifrach (z’l), the three Israeli teenagers who were murdered a few weeks ago.

The boys – our boys, as they came to be known – died not with guns in their hands but making their way home from yeshiva. 

Truth to tell, I was a little wary of going to this service. I had the queasy feeling that it might turn into a political rally, and I didn’t feel ready to do more than grieve. I have been carrying this event around in my heart – as I watch my younger son grow and dance and laugh and sing and dress up as Dumbledore, as I watch the mailbox for a letter from my elder son at sleepaway camp – and have not been able to process the tangle of emotions it evokes in me. 

And there was, in fact, more speechifying than I would have planned, were I the queen of the world. Yet the point of the speechifying ultimately was demonstrated by the security precautions surrounding the event. It’s not the usual thing for a memorial service to have a metal detector phase. While the saying goes that there is safety in numbers, it is not always true. I had the unfortunate flash this afternoon when I learned doors were opening for the service an hour early: a wide swath of the Boston Jewish community will be in attendance; it would be a tempting target.

Although I wanted the event to be personal, I now realize it could not have avoided being political. What happened to the three boys was political. It was not a random act. And every day – including the day of their funerals – Hamas (which in Hebrew means destruction) fires rockets into the state of Israel. Every day.

There was not – there is not – safety in numbers, but there is solace in numbers. When people join together in solidarity, when we grieve together, when we pledge to stand tall against slander and murder, there is hard-earned solace.

And when we sang Hatikva at the end of the night, with the poignant words, “lihiyot am chofshi b’artzeinu,” I dared to hope that we might one day be a free nation in our land, and be able to attend memorials for old men and not have to stride through metal detectors to do so.

Passing/Strangers

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Assimilation has been on my mind lately. Both Purim and Passover deal in this question. Each story has as its central figure a Jew who passed between worlds, sometimes emphasizing Jewishness, sometimes hiding it. In the Purim story, Esther passed in a non-Jewish world until the situation demanded her to reveal the truth about herself. Similarly, Moses, having been adopted by the Egyptian princess but raised Jewish by his own mother/nurse, grew up as Egyptian but knew he was a Jew. He stayed in this in-between space until he could no longer: when he saw the cruelty inflicted on his people by his almost-people, he lashed out, killed an Egyptian, and fled. It was nothing less than the voice of the Holy One that compelled Moses to return to Egypt and free his people.

I find it interesting that both these stories deal with the in-between space of being Jewish in a non-Jewish world. I find myself often to be in this in-between space, frequently questioning whether I will ever feel wholly Jewish, even given how much I have changed about my life in these past years in order to more fully align myself with my Jewishness.

By virtue of having a pluralistic community around me, I have learned that there are many ways to be Jewish. The whole notion of Jewish identity is itself multi-faceted. In my own community, we have a dizzying variety of observance and belief, all of it informed by a desire to live a life of kindness and usefulness.

I look constantly for ways to have Judaism be at the center of what I do, rather than an ancillary aspect of my being that I squeeze in. It turns out to be a moving target. By virtue of working at a synagogue, I find myself torn between observing holidays and facilitating others’ observances. Being in a family comprising a variety of needs and temperaments, I cannot always (or even often) prioritize my own spiritual needs. Living in 21st century America, I constantly negotiate among a variety of identities: mother, wife, friend, professional, singer, Jew – and more.

I think there is beauty and richness in this tension of being in between, and sometimes it arises in unexpected places. I spent the first part of Passover in Mississippi with my family. Then we came home Wednesday evening, in time for Bill and me to return to work Thursday. By coincidence, I was invited to sub in at my old church job for Holy Thursday. I worked all day, picked up the kids from their respective play dates, came home to make a spinach matzo pie, and then went to Cantor a Mass. Of course.

The Vicar of this parish is a lovely guy, a real mensch. As he is a member of the interfaith clergy association that meets at my new place of employment, I am guaranteed of seeing him once a month, which I love. He is unfailingly kind and cheerful, and brings a refreshing humility to every encounter. I was deeply touched when he began Thursday’s Mass by saying to the congregation how pleased he was to welcome me back for Holy Thursday, a service which locates itself at an intersection between our two traditions. From the pulpit, he wished me a happy Passover and said how honored the parish was to have “an older sister in the faith” lead the music that night. I didn’t feel at home, but I did feel like a welcome guest.

I think of these questions of identity and fitting in – when to be this, when to be that – as a modern problem. But even my ill-educated glance at the ancient texts shows that Esther and Moses encountered it as well. As one of my Rabbi friends frequently says, “If it weren’t a problem, they wouldn’t have written about it.” We read in the Haggadah, “My father was a wandering Aramean.”

And so are we all.

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.