Some Thoughts on Haftarat Mishpatim

We need to talk about slavery. As American society seems to be going up in flames around us, we need — we absolutely need — to open our hearts and our mouths and begin to talk about the legacy of slavery, a legacy which sometimes feels as if it will never be resolved.

Haftarat Mishpatim gives us a framework — albeit a troubling one — to start the conversation. We read that B’nai Yisrael held slaves, even Hebrew slaves. We know this because the scripture tells us the rules about how to treat Hebrew slaves. (Hint: it’s a hair’s-breadth above how to treat other slaves, and it’s still no good.) In Mishpatim we are reminded that our ancestors were obligated by divine covenant to release all Hebrew slaves after six years of servitude. Which means G-d knew this was happening and didn’t put a stop to it.

The premise of this covenant regarding Hebrew slaves is bothering me, as a Jew and as a human being. How is it that our ancestors — of all people — could not see and acknowledge the harm of slavery? Having been enslaved ourselves and having redemption from slavery as one of our foundational stories, it is the height of arrogance and inhumanity to accept slavery as a practice. We are constantly being reminded in our sacred texts to take care of the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. How is it that our sacred texts do not also teach that slavery — the depths of our people’s degradation when we were in Egypt — is wicked, unredeemable?

It’s like a reverse dayeinu: it’s bad enough that we did not condemn slavery. It’s worse that we held slaves ourselves. And it’s still worse that we enslaved our Hebrew brothers and sisters.

But did we? This bothered Rashi, too. Rashi suggested that perhaps the proof text (Exodus 21:2) meant to refer to acquiring a servant from a Hebrew, rather than one who is him- or herself a Hebrew. Or that it meant you had acquired a Hebrew servant by means of redeeming him or her or them from destitution.

Cold comfort. We are still talking calmly about the prospect of one human being claiming ownership over another. We are taught above all else to love our neighbor; holding slaves does not fit with that. Gratefully, present-day Jewish authorities have caught up and we no longer accept slavery as an acceptable institution.

Still, I hold that we need to talk about slavery.

Americans need to talk about slavery.

Perhaps you are thinking that slavery ended in the US on New Year’s Day in 1863, with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Actually the Emancipation Proclamation was incomplete, only freeing slaves in ten Confederate states. The thirteenth amendment, enacted on December 6, 1865 after more than a year working its way through both houses of Congress, provided a more thorough coverage, in that it declared slavery and involuntary servitude illegal throughout the United States, except as punishment for a crime.

It’s that loophole that bothers me, for following on the heels of the Civil War’s end, laws began to be passed that effectively separated and oppressed the newly freed slaves. African-Americans, on whose backs the country was built, were systematically discriminated against in where they could live, learn, eat, even where they could take a drink of water. Although the slaves were freed, these laws, known collectively as Jim Crow laws, kept whites and African-Americans separate. The lives of the former slaves were made hard through legislation rather than through slavery. Segregation was a subtler — barely subtler — way of keeping African-Americans socially and economically enslaved. The law picked up where the whip left off.

It took about a century to dismantle the Jim Crow laws, but the criminalization of black skin continues still. From drug laws that disproportionately target minority populations to police brutality to the school-to-prison pipeline, we are still suffering as a society from the ripple effect that began with slavery.

So we need — we still need — to talk about slavery. We need to talk about slavery in America, and I would argue that American Jews are uniquely positioned to open the conversation.

Jeremiah 34:15 describes how B’nai Yisrael at first did the right thing, releasing the Hebrew slaves. But then in pasuk 16, we read:

וַתָּשֻׁ֙בוּ֙ וַתְּחַלְּל֣וּ אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י וַתָּשִׁ֗בוּ אִ֤ישׁ אֶת־עַבְדּוֹ֙ וְאִ֣ישׁ אֶת־שִׁפְחָת֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר־שִׁלַּחְתֶּ֥ם חָפְשִׁ֖ים לְנַפְשָׁ֑ם וַתִּכְבְּשׁ֣וּ אֹתָ֔ם לִֽהְי֣וֹת לָכֶ֔ם לַעֲבָדִ֖ים וְלִשְׁפָחֽוֹת׃

But now you have turned back and have profaned my name. Each of you has brought back the men and women whom you had given their freedom, and forced them to be your slaves again.

The consequences Jeremiah predicts for doing so are fearsome: G-d promises violence, disease, and famine; and pledges to make those who break the covenant a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. The word of G-d as it came to Jeremiah is beginning to make a critique of slavery and to articulate its consequences.

As I survey the American social climate these days, it’s clear to me that the systematic oppression of non-whites is equally consequential, and that we need to dismantle the systems that oppress. Naming them openly is a good and necessary first step.

We need to talk about slavery. Let’s start today.

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Planting Seeds

With all that is going on and being talked about, Martin Luther King Day feels particularly fraught this year. As we sometimes say about the Jewish calendar, Dr. King Day is right on time this year. With the controversies surrounding intersectionality, anti-Semitism and inclusion in the most recent Women’s March, the awful display of disrespect against Native American elder and Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips, and the near-constant stream of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant invective flowing from the White House, I relished this opportunity to spend unhurried time with my sons talking about social justice on the forest level and working for justice on the tree level. (We spent the day preparing food for local shelters and food banks, a task that felt particularly necessary on a brutally cold day in the midst of a government shutdown which is depriving many workers of their livelihoods.)

It was precious and meaningful to connect with the boys on this level — something that I am embarrassed to say I don’t do nearly enough — and gratifying that both felt the import of what they were doing today and were interested in doing more of the same. As today is also a Monday — and hence a day when Torah is read — I have also been thinking about today’s passage from Parashat Yitro, particularly about the names of Moses’s two sons. They are Gershom and Eliezer. Gershom means “stranger there,” as in, “I was a stranger there,” and Eliezer means, “my G-d is my help.” Taken together, those two names create an instant commentary on why I strive to do social justice work, the two ideas combining in a statement of fortune-cookie-like brevity. Caring for strangers allows us to be G-d’s helpers.

That it is also Tu B’Shevat gives us another source of inspiration. At the close of today’s project, the organizers gathered everyone together and gave us a chance to reflect on the meaning of the endeavor. One teen participant spoke eloquently, pointing out that although we are doing this work in his honor, Dr. King has no idea that this is happening. His contribution, powerful as it was in his lifetime, has moved out well beyond the boundaries of what he could know about. My mind immediately jumped to Honi the Circlemaker, who once encountered a man planting a carob tree, which takes seventy years to bear fruit. He questioned why the man would plant a tree whose fruit he would never see, and the man replied, “I do it for my children and grandchildren, and because somebody planted the trees that I enjoy.”

May we use this day, and every day, to plant the seeds of justice and tend them lovingly, even if we doubt we will see their fruits.

Mystery and Loss

The Mourner’s Kaddish (Kaddish Yatom) has been bothering me for a while. An ancient Aramaic prayer that is traditionally said in community during certain prescribed times of mourning, it is a regular part of daily prayer. Yet this traditional prayer for the dead doesn’t mention death and barely mentions life. This oddity is often mentioned with a cluck of the, ‘Gosh isn’t that interesting?’ flavor. It’s hard to know what to make of it.

The bulk of Kaddish Yatom is in fact dedicated to praising the name of G-d, which seems like a perfectly great thing to pray, until you remember that we humans don’t know — can’t know — the name of G-d. It is both impossible and forbidden (hence the use of terms like G-d or haShem or יי). One of our most important and central prayers is the original mystery wrapped in an enigma.

When in mourning, we are called upon to say Kaddish Yatom five times a day, which means five times a day we essentially say, “I’m going to praise and glorify this thing I don’t know, this thing that nobody knows.” And that’s supposed to help. What does it even mean, to glorify something we are not permitted to know? It troubles me, because it feels like the moment of mourning a death should offer something more certain, something life-affirming or hopeful. Instead we’re commanded to say, essentially, “I have no idea, but I’m going to praise anyway.”

I just returned home from the funeral for a 21-year-old young man.

I think we all need to sit still with that sentence for a while.

I did not know the deceased, but we shared a community. He leaves behind a grieving, shocked family: parents, three sisters, three of his four grandparents. His grandfather — his grandfather — chanted El Malei Rachamim.

We probably need to sit with that one as well.

This bright, sweet, loyal young man died of an accidental opioid overdose. He decided last Saturday night to take a couple of pills. As his mother said, “He thought he could just try it once, without consequences.” The devastation and trauma that will follow in the wake of that risk can barely be contained. The questions of what life might have been like had he not made that foolish, understandable decision will haunt his family forever.

Soon these kind, conscientious parents will bury their child and begin saying Kaddish Yatom like they’ve never said it before. What will this mysterious prayer, this recitation of question marks, bring them?

The answer lies in the rule that a mourner cannot recite Kaddish Yatom without a minyan, a group of (at minimum) ten people with whom to pray. Every time these bereaved parents say Kaddish for their son, they will be surrounded by people who are there to hold them up when they can no longer stand.

I hope and pray this is enough.

Zichrono livracha, may his memory be a blessing. And may families never know this kind of sorrow again.

Praying for Myself

As part of my midlife crisis exploration of Jewish learning, I have been pushing myself to attend weekday tefillah at least three times a week. I have begun this task from a place of almost painful ignorance. My children are more fluent in the prayer than I am (and take it for granted, as children do), but I am determined to better myself. Not for nothing is my first child named Akiva. I am discovering day by day – sometimes minute by minute – the ferocity and love that are required for lifelong learning.

Most days I go to the davening at Hebrew College, for convenience, variety, and familiarization with the Rabbinical School community. The tefillah there is a laboratory for the students to try things, which means I get to taste a lot of different flavors.

One flavor this week was thoroughly unique for me, and I find that I am still churning, much later. When I entered the room, the chairs were pushed back, leaving a large space at the center of the room for standing prayer. There were a few chairs around the edges of the room, but we were clearly meant to stand throughout, to the best of each person’s capacity. The davening had just begun by the time I arrived, so after I took a siddur off the shelf, I found a spot and tried to get centered, tried to feel OK.

The experiment was that everyone would simply use the time for personal tefillah. All around me were people wrapped in tefillin, in tallit, in their own prayer. Sometimes mumbling. Sometimes singing. Flipping pages.

And me? As a latecomer and one with the barest novice-level familiarity with the liturgy, I found myself feeling alienated and discouraged at first. Lost, actually. I had a siddur in my hand but I didn’t know where to start. Would people hear me? Would people be able to notice I was wandering from Hebrew to translation to looking out the window at the incredibly beautiful trees? Would the flipping of my pages somehow give me away as the impostor I still am?

I wanted desperately for someone to show me what page I should be on.

But also — I realized how much Rabbi Harold Kushner’s teaching that, “Jews don’t pray for, Jews pray with,” means to me. While I was surrounded by people I like, I felt in no way connected to them. Each person in that room, though we share so much, was turned inward and upward for that hour. Each person prayed at his/her/their own pace and volume. I felt so alone. I wanted to pray with.

It was the perfect prayer experience for the smartphone age: everybody absorbed in a private experience, regardless of communal surrounding.

I forced my mind to think about prayer, about using this time in service of the Holy. What would it mean to be fully in charge of my relationship to the Divine? Aren’t I already? Why aren’t I already?

And what if my service to the Divine finds its fullest expression in relationship and in community? Perhaps I am missing the Divine in that theology. If, at any given moment, it’s all about the people in the room, am I truly engaging with G-d?

I opened up the siddur and found this.

Yehuda HaLevi from Sim Shalom

Is this the companionship I seek?

To be continued…

Tree of Life

The sea of words in response to yesterday’s barbaric shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh hardly needs my contribution. As if the letter bombs and the grocery store murders weren’t appalling enough, this attack was the rotten cherry on top of a dreadful and violent week. We are heartbroken, we are reeling, we are searching for meaning and wondering where all this will end up.

Frankly I can’t deal with the big questions at the moment. I just have a few fragments of thoughts that are poking at me.

  • I’ve been thinking about the specificity of those who died, the people who showed up on time for shul. Karen Reiss Medwed* wrote about how every community has its on-time folks, the ones who arrive early and make sure the challah is where it’s supposed to be, greet guests, hand out siddurim and kippot. These are the behind-the-scenes people, the wonderful volunteers who care enough about showing up for others that they arrive early and stay late. Whatever is needed, they figure out a way to get the job done. In many ways they are the pillars of the community. And when the pillars are no longer with us, we must all stand a little taller to hold the community up. Every time we tuck the scrolls back into the Ark, we recite these words: It [the Torah] is a Tree of Life for those who hold it with strength, and all who support it are happy. I don’t know that we can find happiness just now in holding up the folks at Tree of Life, and by extension all who are hurting, but I do know we must do so.
  • I spent some time today on Boston Common, attending the Vigil in memory of those lost in the Tree of Life shooting. I’m not a natural at these big gatherings. I get claustrophobic, so I like to keep moving. This means I get to see who is there and observe how people are responding. It was moving to see people who were clearly of different religious traditions showing up for us. I hope and pray that we do the same for them, for as long as it takes, until we no longer need to make vigil after vigil for completely avoidable losses. May that day come speedily.
  • The vigil took place just feet away from “Lest We Forget,” Luigi Toscano’s installation of Holocaust portraits on the Common. Nothing more needs to be said about that. Just sit in silence with it for a minute.
  • After the programmed part of the vigil ended, a moment of spontaneous singing erupted, like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It started with a small group of people singing, arms around each other and swaying in that Jewish way we can all picture. I didn’t recognize the song but I wanted to be in that moment. The circle quickly opened and grew, as more and more people were drawn in to participate. What started with a fistful of people ended up with probably close to 200. We just kept stepping back and opening our arms. We’ve been hearing a lot about how the shooter was upset about the congregation’s commitment to HIAS and to welcoming and assisting immigrants (as no doubt, many of them had been welcomed and assisted themselves). And we’d just been reading in yesterday’s Torah portion about Abraham’s model of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests). The metaphor was alive and powerful. And then we sang Rebbe Nachman’s words about the world being a very narrow bridge and the essential thing being to have no fear at all. Bracing and beautiful.

I still have fear.

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in | between

For the first time in over a decade, we did not build our sukkah this year. Our sukkah parts are heavy and need to be put together by someone with height and strength. (I’ll pause while you snicker about my lack of both.) Most years, Bill has a day off work sometime between Yom Kippur and Sukkot and is able to do this. He doesn’t love it but he does it. This year, though, he had some extra work days at the store and you know the rest. Boys are uninterested in doing the work, so here we are.

In an O. Henry twist, for the first time in ages I have the luxury of time during Sukkot and no sukkah to sit in. My days are looser than they have been in a good long time, and while I have several projects that take up my attention, they are flexible to the time available and could totally be done while sitting in my sukkah in the golden autumn sunlight.

And yet in this time of in-between-ness, I scarcely need a reminder of impermanence. Where once I thought I would happily live out my remaining working days serving and building the community at Ohabei Shalom, that my work there would satisfy me indefinitely, those assumptions have crumbled, like the walls of an impermanent house. I am confident there will be another home for me, but what a rich and complicated gift to be in between at Sukkot.

You don’t get to go someplace new without leaving. At the moment I am far from the shore.

There is so much leaving and wandering in our tradition. Abraham leaves his father’s house and gives up his tradition in pursuit of what he knows to be true. Moses brings the people out of Egypt and forty years of wandering ensue. And the Torah ends with the end of the wandering. Or does it? The text actually gives us a cliffhanger: Moses cannot enter, leadership is transferred to Joshua, and then what? The topic returns to Moses. There is no mention of the people actually crossing over into the holy land. We are always becoming, always searching, always wrestling.

I am nowhere. I am now here.

Hineini. What’s next?

Belief & Sacrifice

Worshippers in many synagogues today read Akeidat Yitzchak (The Binding of Isaac). I have been puzzling over why this particular story is connected to Rosh Hashanah. It is so hard to read! I can’t imagine there is a parent anywhere who reads this passage and thinks, “Cool, I get it.” There could be no more painful commitment than the one that Abraham makes, to follow G-d’s instruction to sacrifice his beloved son. What, at this point, could he have had to prove? This is the Abraham who according to the midrash in Genesis Rabbah (38:13) smashed the idols in his father’s shop in order to help others understand the singularity and non-physicality of G-d, the Abraham who circumcised himself at age 99 (Genesis 17:24). This is not a man whose faith and commitment invite questioning.

Yet G-d asks the impossible of Abraham, to sacrifice his son, and he is prepared to deliver. The text rubs it in for Abraham: “Please take your son, your favored one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah,” (Genesis 22:2) as if to make sure Abraham feels the full weight of what he is being asked to do.

Somehow Abraham is willing to take on this terrible task. And as Isaac starts to ask questions, Abraham keeps saying, essentially, it’s not ours to question. Let go and let G-d. Let’s go.

And the two walk on together, as one.

I keep asking myself what it would be like to have that kind of faith, to go forth with conviction that even the most incomprehensible, painful challenge is somehow going to turn out right, even useful. My brilliant teacher, Rabbi Marcia Prager, taught me that this story is a parable about walking in faith when the instructions are unclear.

In the end, Abraham and Isaac are saved, sort of. Just in the nick of time, an angel stays Abraham’s hand. Abraham sees a ram caught in the thicket. He releases Isaac and they offer up the ram instead. Afterward, G-d gives Abraham a blessing, that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. His willingness to give up his son was enough to buy him a nation of descendants.

All’s well, right?

But notice! Abraham doesn’t go home. He stays instead in Beersheva. Perhaps he can’t face his wife. Perhaps he can’t face himself. Isaac disappears from the narrative for a while and for the remainder of his life struggles with trust. They are saved but they are changed. Although Abraham didn’t sacrifice his precious son, there was still a sacrifice that day.

I’ve been thinking about faith and sacrifice ever since the Colin Kaepernick ad dropped last week, the one whose tag line is: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
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I fully support Kaepernick’s right to protest and his method of doing so. With thoughtfulness and heart, he has brought our attention to some of the ways racism is still ruining our culture, more than 150 years after slavery ended in the US. (Slavery, I have come to realize, was not the disease, but a gruesome, near-fatal symptom.) His practice of kneeling for the national anthem before NFL games has sparked the national conversation about race that former President Bill Clinton aspired to all those years ago. It’s a conversation that’s not easy, but most worthwhile conversations are not. The level of anger that has been leveled at Kaepernick is shocking, a clear indication of barely veiled racism, and thus an indication of how necessary his work is in this moment.

Some people have taken issue with the protest, claiming that it denigrates both the American flag and US veterans. Respectfully, I disagree. Kaepernick’s protest has nothing to do with the flag, nor with the armed forces. It is a peaceful commentary on a problem in American society. Using his status as a public figure, Kaepernick has used non-violence to draw people’s attention to the horrific violence that is sometimes visited on unarmed black citizens at the hands of law enforcement. Despite suffering enormous professional and personal consequences, Kaepernick has stayed true to his principles, including that of non-violence.

Faith can make us do amazing things. It can inspire us to foolish greatness and it can spur us to great foolishness. The same zeal that moves people to make soup for the homeless and fight for immigrants’ rights also makes people fly airplanes into buildings. The confluence of Rosh Hashanah and that terrible anniversary should remind us that a deeply-held conviction is a double-edged sword. It’s great to be faithful, to be willing to go the distance. But Abraham learned that day that when you focus only on the sacrifice, you risk becoming blind to other choices, and when violence starts to look like a good solution, it’s wise to stay your hand and think twice. As Rabbi Sharon Brous said, paraphrasing Rabbi David Ellenson: always look for the ram in the thicket. The violent answer cannot be the final answer.