What can we know?

I wrote this piece for school, as an attempt to synthesize the works we’d been reading in Classical Jewish Thought. Then I got sort of attached to it and decided to share it here, for the few hardy souls who are reading this blog.

אתה חונן לאדם דעת

fourth blessing of the Amidah

You, o Gd, grace us with the capacity to know.

Know what? NO. What?

What can we know? 

We live in an age when we think we can know anything, just by asking the robot inside our phone. Hey Siri, who won the Best Actor Oscar in 1984? Hey Siri, how many tablespoons in a gallon? Hey Siri, tell me the temperature in Maui today… in Kelvin? 

Hey Siri, how did the world begin? What was there before? 

Bereishit Rabbah (1:10) comes to teach us that there are things we are not allowed to know. בראשית, Rabbi Levi teaches, the world was created with sharp-edged bet, closed on all sides but one. The tangible, remember-able world is our concern, what came before is above our pay grade. We are not permitted even to peek behind the bet. It’s the boundary, the backstop that keeps us from asking too many questions. It’s the lock on Pandora’s Box. Keep your head in the game. This game.

Bar Kapara drives the point home: look around at this beautiful, miraculous world. This is all you need. Don’t borrow trouble.

What can we know?

Rabbi Akiva reached middle age and found himself with a desire to know everything. Without a shred of book learning to his name, he looked at the stone and the water, and wondered at the way they affect each other. Water wears away stone; stone redirects water. 

What can we know?

What happens when we are faced with unfathomable mystery, with bone-crushing uncertainty, when we are hollowed by the understanding that there really are things we are not allowed to know? 

Ben Zoma tried to open Pandora’s Box. With his world in fragments, he went looking for answers, pushed himself to the brink. Deep in contemplation, he was investigating מעשה בראשית, looking behind the bet, when Rabbi Yehoshua tapped his shoulder, tugged at his sleeve. No answer. A whisper in his ear. Ben Zoma returned with a start! 

What I’ve seen… you wouldn’t believe… what seems so far away is right here. The difference between life and death is a sliver, three finger’s worth. It’s all right there; the horizon is so much closer than you think.

What can we know?

Gnostics say the world is a lie and Gd is the only truth.

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־פָּנָ֑י

כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יִרְאַ֥נִי הָאָדָ֖ם וָחָֽי׃

exodus 33:20

And Gd said: you must not look upon My face – a person cannot look at Me and live.

Don’t look at Me; look at each other.

See Thy Neighbor

Blessed as I am with friends of many political persuasions and viewpoints, I have been watching as people get more and more upset in the weeks leading up to Election Day. There has always been a touch of caricature — maybe even slander — in our political system. I remember learning in eighth grade history class about that song meant to taunt Grover Cleveland, “Maw, Maw, where’s my Paw? He’s gone to the White House, ha ha ha.” 

An out-of-wedlock pregnancy resulting from sexual assault did not seem to cause Cleveland lasting political harm. Saying harsh things about candidates is just part of the process. Saying harsh things that may or may not be true seems also to be part of the process.

Yet somehow the current social media environment seems to be kicking everything up a notch. It has become impossible to find where the truth actually is. We can read about the same people or events from multiple viewpoints and wind up confused and frustrated. Can one human really be so bad as we are asked to believe? Can the other?

I suppose the success of social media partly rests on everyone being offered a news diet that flatters their preconceived ideas. At this moment, it seems we are being force-fed information that makes the candidates we dislike — and their supporters — into caricatures, into monsters. The vicious cycle escalates as we see more and more stories showing us how awful so-and-so is, and how uncivilized their supporters are. 

I must be clear. I draw the line at violence and hateful speech, at incitement and trampling the rights of others. Yet I do believe that there is room for multiple opinions and approaches, provided those are fueled by conscience and caring. I strive to see the best in people, while firmly condemning the worst.

Will tomorrow’s election bring a clear result, a return to order, a national calming? Will it bring chaos and confusion, violence and misery, militias swarming the polling places to make sure their guy comes out on top? Will it bring riots in the streets? That there are sane people who believe each of these is a genuine possibility puts a chill in my soul.

I think we have lost the capacity to see ourselves as part of a greater whole. I think we have lost the capacity to see one another. 

The sages discuss in Berachot 9b just how much light there needs to be in order to say the morning Sh’ma, a prayer that declares the unity of Gd. Some of the rabbis say we need to be able to tell the difference between blue and white; others say, between blue and green. Then they consider maybe the standard is being able to distinguish a dog from a wolf. Others say it’s when there’s enough light that you can recognize a neighbor from a short distance.

Whatever happens tomorrow, I urge everyone to take a deep breath, stand still for a moment, and see your neighbor. If you believe that we are all created b’tzelem elohim (in the image of Gd) then you must believe that each of us has a right to an opinion, thoughtfully expressed. You must count even that neighbor, the one whose flag or lawn sign or Facebook comments raise your hackles. Even that neighbor is in the image of Gd. See them. 

You will still be able to tell a dog from a wolf. But regardless of which “we” we belong to, we must all stop assuming that they are all wolves.

We share a country. 

Faith & Doubt

We are living in an extraordinarily bewildering time. Invisible forces are swirling around us and inside us: viruses, prejudices, dark thoughts. It is impossible to tell what is true anymore. We swim in an ocean of doubt — masked from ourselves and each other, unsure of who or where or when we are.

The information diet I am fed is designed to flatter and confirm my biases. The same for you. The same for the person I disagree most with in the world. The same for the person you disagree most with. The malleability of truth has been carried past the nth degree.

We have landed squarely in the post Tower of Babel moment, bricks toppling as we shake our fists at one another.

The heart aches at all the sadness, more sadness than any one person can hold — a sadness of solitude, of knowing more than ever how truly alone each of us is, this aloneness enacted day by day in our separate houses and quiet rooms. 

How mysterious are the connections that bind us to one another and to our Gd. In a time of uncertainty and loss, where do we turn? What do we do with our doubt?

Surely our times are no less uncertain than ancient times. We know that on top of the regular challenges of being human, our people faced existential threats, violence, disease, wrenching change. How did they handle it? What were the mechanisms in place for going on when everything around them was in a dizzying turmoil?

The last nine verses of Parshat Shoftim describe a ritual called Eglah Arufah, which is performed when a dead body is discovered and the identity of the killer is unknown. It is disquieting: grotesque and eerily specific. In such a case, leaders and judges from the Sanhedrin go out from the court and measure the distance from the body to each of the nearby towns. Whichever town is measured to be closest to the body will take on the responsibility to perform the ritual. The elders from that town will take a young heifer, one which has never been worked or pulled a yoke, and bring it to a ravine that is filled with water, and which land, too, has not been worked. There they will break the neck of the heifer, and the Levitical priests — under whose jurisdiction assault falls — will wash their hands over the animal’s broken body, reciting these ritual words. “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Gd, your people Israel, whom you redeemed. Do not allow the blood-guilt of this innocent to remain among your people Israel.” 

One of my first teachers, Rabbi Eric Gurvis, used to say, “If it weren’t a problem they wouldn’t have written about it.” Though this ritual seems bizarre, especially in our age of crime scene investigation and DNA evidence and reopening of cold cases decades after the crime, it must have served a function in its society. Yet I find myself wondering: what function might learning it serve in ours?

This summer, I spent several weeks studying some of the Talmudic writings on Eglah Arufah as part of an intensive course in Talmud skills. Looking more deeply into this ritual, particularly at this time of uncertainty and dread, was challenging and creepy. An unsolved murder raised questions not only of culpability in the human realm but with respect to the land. From the time Cain murdered Abel,  there was a sense that the land itself was alive, a character in the story.  It can cry out for vengeance or vomit out a sinful people. Therefore an unwitnessed, unmourned murder can represent a threat, not only because there is a killer “out there” but because the land itself needs to hold someone responsible. Performing Eglah Arufah assigns responsibility where none can actually be ascertained, and so protects the social order. Atonement can be had on a societal level even if the individual responsible is unknown.

The Talmudic approach to the ritual is gruesome and precise, sparing no effort in the pursuit of certainty. There must be no grey areas. While the number of judges who do the measurement is not concluded in the Talmud, it must be an odd number so that there isn’t a tie vote. You must measure the distance from the body to the nearest town; it is commanded to measure accurately. If the body is decapitated – do you move the head toward the body or the body toward the head? Is the exact location of death where the body stopped moving or where the head landed?  Because the exact location bears on Met Mitzvah (the commandment of burying the dead) that information takes on a moral and religious weight. 

And what if a witness is located between the time preparations for the ritual begins, rendering the case one that is no longer an Eglah Arufah scenario?  If the calf has not yet been killed, it can go free. If it has been killed, the ritual stops there and the animal is buried. 

The specificity is endless, and reads to me all these centuries later like a container for doubt, a strategy for managing the sense of danger and anxiety that comes to the fore with an unsolved crime. The time of the Talmud, centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, seems from my vantage point to bear some similarities to our own time. The center of religious and communal life has shifted in ways both unanticipated and unwanted. And amid this is a people whose sense of precision is the best tool they have for facing the existential dread that accompanies them day by day. “If we know what to do,” they tell themselves, “we can hold on.” Ritual fills the void when uncertainty grows unbearable. The sages of the Talmud lean into this and reach into every corner where a question might lurk.

They might never know who committed the murder, but they know, to the last dagesh, what to do to counter their anxiety and doubt.

And what does that have to do with us today, as we stagger in disorientation from question to question? 

Now as then, there is prayer and ritual, even if prayer itself is changed by the inability to gather in community. True, I know of nobody who finds online prayer spiritually enriching; it is merely better than nothing. It’s a placeholder until we are able to be together again. Likewise communal ritual — from Shabbat dinner shared across the backyard to B’nei Mitzvah from home to funerals and shiva onscreen — we are in the realm of doing the best we can. Nobody thinks it’s actually working but it’s what we have. Making a blessing over anything we can find to bless sustains us by connecting us to our past and by staunchly refusing to throw the whole thing away. We have what we have. 

Ritual is like a lifeboat in a stormy sea. It won’t change the weather but it gives us something to hold onto. If ritual — like the Eglah Arufah — got our ancestors through their every upheaval, it will have to do to get us through ours. 

To Greet or Not to Greet

Filed under the “There are No Coincidences” category: in my summer review of Mishna Berachot, I read the last chapter today, Tisha b’Av 5780.

Tisha b’Av is a day dedicated to grief and lament, in commemoration of many calamities in Jewish history held to have occurred on this date in years past. The primary events it commemorates, our original grief, is the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Throughout our history, other events have been tied to the 9th of Av as well: the beginning of the First Crusade; the expulsions of Jews from France, Spain and England; the AMIA bombing in Argentina; the approval of Hitler’s Final Solution. All these events in some way reverberate with the shattering of Jewish structures and communities.

Although study is discouraged on Tisha b’Av, I told myself I could learn this chapter today, because its content — particularly its conclusion — is redolent of the sense of total, devastating annihilation that we sink into on Tisha b’Av. That conclusion quotes Psalm 119, verse 126:

עֵ֭ת לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת לַיהוָ֑ה הֵ֝פֵ֗רוּ תּוֹרָתֶֽךָ׃

“It is time to do for Gd; they have destroyed your Torah.” To which Rabbi Natan responds: “They have destroyed your Torah; it is time to do for Gd.”

One of the traditions of Tisha b’Av — in addition to mourning and fasting — is not to greet one another. I have written elsewhere about how futile this is, how much we long to connect when given the opportunity. Never could I have imagined how deep that longing for connection could become, deep enough to ravage the soul.

When I was studying Berachot this morning, a connection between the last mishna and Tisha b’Av came into focus for me. Midway through that last mishna we read decrees about greeting one another, and four examples are brought to demonstrate:

וְהִנֵּה־בֹ֗עַז בָּ֚א מִבֵּ֣ית לֶ֔חֶם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לַקּוֹצְרִ֖ים יְהוָ֣ה עִמָּכֶ֑ם וַיֹּ֥אמְרוּ ל֖וֹ יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָֽה׃

“And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem and greeted the gleaners this way: May Gd be with you. And they said to him: May Gd bless you.” (Ruth 2:4)

יְהוָ֥ה עִמְּךָ֖ גִּבּ֥וֹר הֶחָֽיִל

“May Gd be with you, valiant hero.” (Judges 6:12)

וְאַל־תָּ֝ב֗וּז כִּֽי־זָקְנָ֥ה אִמֶּֽךָ

“And do not despise your aging mother.”

The first two examples demonstrate greetings of blessing and respect, greetings with Gd at the center. They say, it seems to me, that when you encounter another person, keep Gd with you as you do, and regard them as if they, too, were with Gd. Whether encountering someone working the fields or someone striving for heroism — a tender or a seeker, the decree is to see the image of Gd in them. In this way do blessings come.

The third example tells us to learn from previous generations, to be careful not to forsake their wisdom. This is not to say that everything about previous generations was drenched in virtue, but rather that those who made our very beings possible should not too easily be discarded. We have a culture to uphold and build upon, it was given to us as a gift; showing contempt to those who created it is tantamount to parricide.

And the fourth example?

“It is time to do for Gd; they have destroyed your Torah.”

When we cannot even greet one another with civility, when we “cancel” others rather than try to address their errors — even egregious ones — in kindness and common purpose, I worry that we create for ourselves a trap we cannot escape. Even as we navigate a world that is being pulled and pressed by forces darker than many of us can remember witnessing in our lifetimes, there is a common humanity among us, and that will ultimately be what saves us. How can I be so sure? Because that common humanity is created in Gd’s complicated image.

Tradition teaches us that the Second Temple was destroyed on account of סנאת חנם, baseless hatred. Not greeting on Tisha b’Av makes agonizingly physical one aspect of the destruction: the annihilation of courtesy, relationship, connection; the inability or unwillingness to meet one another on common ground, under the umbrella of Gd.

After the fast ends tonight, let us redouble our attention on keeping Gd with us as we cross paths with others. It is time to do for Gd.

Exile

This week we study a double Torah portion, Mattot-Mas’ei, dealing with, among other things, the cities of refuge that were mandated in biblical times to protect those who had unintentionally killed someone (Numbers 35:9-15). Because it was common practice in that era to avenge killing with more killing, these cities were a necessity. A person guilty of manslaughter, who killed without premeditation and without enmity, was in mortal danger because of the prevalence of revenge killing, even though he was regarded as innocent in the eyes of the law.

Being exiled in a city of refuge would keep him alive.

But what kind of life? I imagine the guilt of having killed another, the devastation of having to leave home and family, the isolation of being in a strange place.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brought to light an interesting interpretation from the Talmud regarding cities of refuge, citing a teaching from Makkot 10a. In it, the sages say that if a student needs to seek refuge in such a sanctuary city, his teacher should go with him.

When I read that, my heart opened. The pandemic has made exiles of us all, and I keenly feel — sometimes on a daily basis — a longing for my teachers, for the classroom, for the casual hallway conversations that contain a jolt of depth, for the quick questions that open a deep well of wisdom.

My generous Talmud teacher has been meeting with a group of us on zoom this summer. We’ve been learning Sanhedrin 68a, the story of the death of Rabbi Eliezar after years spent in isolation from his students because of excommunication. As I pore over the text in my bedroom-now-office, I think about Rabbi Eliezar’s lost years, the years away from Rabbi Akiva and his other students. Toward the end of his life, the students come to visit Rabbi Eliezar one last time and he cries out that his arms are like scrolls of Torah that were rolled up. His anguish at having nobody to share his wisdom with is palpable.

The text goes on to talk about a time much earlier, when Rabbi Eliezar and his student Rabbi Akiva were walking together past a field and the younger man asked the elder to teach him something about the planting of cucumbers. Rabbi Eliezar said one word and the entire field was filled with ripe cucumbers. So it is with teacher and student: one word from a skilled teacher can make a student flourish to the point of transformation. Not having regular, in-person opportunities to learn feels heavy and sad.

Sometimes I wonder, if I am not in relationship with my teachers, am I even a student?

Praying Without

I have been estranged from prayer since the pandemic began, the more so as school wound down for the semester. As much as I love prayer in real life, I kinda hate it in zoom life. Thus far, my shul here has not offered Shabbat broadcasts. These days on Shabbat, I tune into my hometown shul so I can see my parents, or to my favorite shul in New York. In either case, it’s hard not to feel more like a spectator than a worshipper. I’ve said it many times before: Rabbi Harold Kushner’s teaching that Jews don’t pray for, Jews pray with matters to me a great deal. How can I worship when I feel so alone in it? What does it mean to pray without?

Yet it’s dawned on me recently that as an aspiring spiritual leader, I need to take more ownership of my prayer life and sit more deeply and patiently with the question. I can’t continue to rely on the community around me to carry me along in prayer; this time is a hard but good opportunity to learn to carry myself in prayer. I need not only to develop more facility with the prayers but to develop more ballast for accessing the Divine when I am not riding the wave of soulful communal prayer. 

For right now, my focus is simply trying to get back some of the sense of connection I normally derive through prayer, learning to do it on my own. I resolved to spend some time every morning with the prayer book and let things unfold. This morning as I began, a grey cloud formed inside me.

I have cried more tears in these past weeks than I have in a very long time. The son of my college roommate, his only child and treasured beyond words, ended his life two weeks ago. He laid down in the woods he loved and went to sleep forever. There is no way to express the heartbreak.

Tachanun came early today. 

Long before I got to the moment of personal supplication I was (again) in tears at the soul-crushing effects of this loss. My friend and his wife will never — can never — be the same.

Last Shabbat we ended the book of Leviticus. Had we been in the synagogue and able to read from the scrolls, we would have closed the Torah reading with the words, חזק חזק ונתחזק (chazak chazak v’nitchazek). “Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.” And this week we start reading the book of Numbers, which begins with a Gd-ordained census. Thinking about this tender young man who died, I feel in my core that the census is incomplete. Somebody is missing.

This is a loss that cannot be unlost, and my friend and his spouse are reeling, searching for a way to feel whole again as their center of gravity dissolves. I wish I had answers, some wisdom that could make this OK, but it cannot be OK. This sweet, brilliant, hilarious young man will not be counted in the census, but his life counts. He gave his parents twenty years of joy, he had friends and teachers and church-mates. He played the cello. Somebody is missing. 

I spoke with his bereaved dad last week. It had been a long while — we’d been in touch only sporadically after college — and he was shocked and bemused that I’m studying to become a rabbi. He isn’t religious, and said he doesn’t understand what Gd could be, or where Gd could be in all this struggle and sadness. I said it’s OK to have those questions; for me Gd is whatever it is that makes you feel less alone in this world. And we cried all over again. 

This prayer journey of mine: if I can just feel less alone, and develop the strength to help others feel less alone, that will be something. Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another. 

May we never know such sorrow again.

A Meditation on Time & Space

I hear and say it all the time these days: the world is so different now, nothing is the same, it all feels so unreal, so surreal, so theoretical. Time and space are collapsing. 

Gertrude Stein’s phrase, “There is no there there,” was originally her description of her experience revisiting the site of her family home as an adult and finding it had been torn down. It has come to mean much more over the years: everything from a half-horse town to a person who seems more substantive than they are. At this point it feels universal, like it describes everything. 

These days, there is no there anywhere. 

I imagine this might feel like a whiff of what it was like after the Temple was destroyed. Our center of our communal and religious life is barely available to us; it is virtually unrecognizable. Torah scrolls across the world sit lonely in their Arks, fallow, unread, longed for. Shabbat is virtual or solitary. Community interaction is flattened and packed into boxes on the screen. Weddings are postponed or pared down to the bone. Families mourn in isolation. 

Rabbi Harold Kushner’s teaching, “Jews don’t pray for, Jews pray with,” is one I return to often; it is a touchstone of my religious life. I am deeply moved by the very experience of sitting in synagogue in a community at prayer. I love the sound of voices going in and out or raising up together in song. I love the swaying. I love wrapping myself — and on rare, blessed occasions, my children — in a tallit. I love the feeling of being in a group of people united in hope and longing. Even if we are all hoping or longing for different things, each navigating our own idiosyncrasies of desire and need, we do it together and that, to me, feels holy. The vertical and the lateral entwine, filling the expanse. 

In pandemic time, it feels unsettling to think of praying with. Just when I need it most, my prayer life has shriveled to almost nothing. When I pray with others on a screen, I unwittingly become a spectator. My longing is mine alone and has no place to go. When I pray alone, the isolation is unbearable.

My world is at once tiny and unfathomable. The predictable physical space is accompanied by an inner space of such uncertainty and churn that it is sometimes hard to remember who I am or why I am here.

The Hebrew word עולם (olam) carries meanings of both time and space. It means world, and it means forever. It is all over the sacred texts, in phrases that conjure a beginningless, endless expanse: 

וחסד יי מעולם ועד עולם
And Gd’s love is from forever to forever (Psalm 103)

אתה הוא עד שלא נברא העולם
It was you who existed before the world’s creation (liturgy)

I have always been fascinated by the time/space one-two punch in עולם: in my imagination, the ancient Hebrews perceived a relationship between time and space that we moderns have a harder time accessing. They knew, I tell myself, that the things that are eternal are beyond easy categories. The sense we nowadays have, of time and space being two different things, is a construct. A wise friend once said to me, “Time is a dream.”

All the more so now. The days run together; the weeks fly; the months disappear, bringing May before we remember even to change the calendar page to April. It’s rushing by and going impossibly slowly all at the same (yeah) time. It feels like endless expanse, and like we’re all running out of time.

The book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) teaches that the wise and the foolish, the kind and the wicked, the joyful and the morose all come in time to the same end. The entirety of human experience is laid out in a book-length menu; we will at some point end up dining on each item. There is no implication that good behavior carries a reward, nor that bad behavior will be punished. We are told that a person’s ability to enjoy the pleasures at hand is a gift from Gd. 

ביום טובה היה בטוב וביום רעה ראה
In good days, dwell in the good; and in bad days, reflect. (Kohelet 7:14)

In this time period that feels both stretched and contracted, both eternal and ephemeral, time seems to fill every corner of the expanse and yet seems impossibly, terrifyingly short.

The present moment is all we have; let us meet it with all the joy we can muster.

We are alive, and that is blessing enough.

Pesach Torah in the Time of Corona

Were we able to gather, we would have heard this morning in synagogue about the instructions for observing Passover and about the events we commemorate when we do. The Passover Torah reading for the first day includes Exodus 12:22, which recounts how Moses spread the word to the Israelites in advance of the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn in every Egyptian household. Moses tells the Israelites that after they have marked their doorposts so the Angel of Death will not include them in that horrible plague, they are to stay inside and not come out until morning. In the middle of the night, Gd struck the first born of every Egyptian family, from the palace of Pharaoh to the deepest dungeon. 

וַתְּהִ֛י צְעָקָ֥ה גְדֹלָ֖ה בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם כִּֽי־אֵ֣ין בַּ֔יִת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽין־שָׁ֖ם מֵֽת

By morning, “there arose a great cry, for there was no house where there was not someone dead.” The wail that rose up was a sound whose pain and power we can only imagine.

Yet here we are in 2020, staying in our houses except for the most essential of purposes, with a creeping dread that by the end of this plague, there will be no house unaffected. We, most of us, do not expect to escape this without someone we know dying. Some of us tragically have already crossed that aching threshold. The wail of the Egyptians is a sound that will unfold over time with us too. Flattening the curve only prolongs the wail.

These days are hard. Like the ancient Israelites, we are walled in and waiting for the danger to pass, hoping and praying that we will have posted enough of a sign on our doorposts to be spared.

Yet even in these hard days, we strive, when we can, to look for good. Maybe we are able to spend more unhurried time with loved ones than usual, or maybe we are able to take more walks or sit on the porch in lovely weather. We may feel a sense of solidarity with our neighbors that in times past would have eluded us. We may be reconnecting with old friends because we now all have so much time. We may feel a deepened sense of purpose through serving others in what ways we can. It’s no paradise but some of the moments are OK. For me, the overriding feeling is often one of in-between-ness. 

Screen Shot 2020-04-09 at 4.12.23 PMParting of the Sea of Reeds. Image credit: amboo who?

Just as the Torah reading today tells of a moment of suspense and dread, so too today’s Haftarah tells of a time of transition. As Joshua assumes the mantle of leadership following the death of Moses, Gd calls him to prepare the new generation of Israelites by having them circumcised. There was no circumcision during the years of wandering, and an entire generation needed to be re-introduced to this aspect of the covenant. 

וַיֵּשְׁב֥וּ תַחְתָּ֛ם בַּֽמַּחֲנֶ֖ה עַ֥ד חֲיוֹתָֽם

And [afterward,] they remained where they were, in the camp, until they recovered. (Joshua 5:8) 

As I contemplate these readings, I wonder about the ways in which we too are recovering from the feeling of having something essential taken away from us. School and work are on hold, and with them our livelihoods and the shape of our days. Worship is utterly changed, social lives are in upheaval. Our towns are like ghost towns. The isolation can be profound and unsettling. 

Yet as much as we miss our freedom of movement and — for many of us — a sense of basic safety and predictability regarding our health, there is also a spaciousness about this period. Remaining where we are, we recover from rushing about to meet too many competing obligations, recover from gliding past people and things that deserve our time and attention.

Open doorimage from torange_biz free photobankAnd then on seder night, the moment comes when we leave our close rooms and open the door wide for Eliyahu haNavi (Elijah the Prophet) to come in. Practicing the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests), we step out onto our porches and usher in the one who is designated to tell us when it’s time for Moshiach to arrive. Eliyahu is said to attend every bris, and is evoked every week as Shabbat ends. He embodies the very notion of hope for better things to come. He doesn’t say when the change will come or what’s required of us, not in language that we can understand, but opening our door to Elijah is an act of optimism, of looking forward to something better. And then we start counting our way toward the revelation of Torah, toward Shavuot.

So tonight, whether you do a full seder or a creative riff on a seder or even just have the merest breath of a seder consisting of last night’s leftovers and a half-formed thought of the exodus, I encourage you to mindfully take on at least that part of welcoming Elijah. Get up from your table and open the door, to remind yourself that our people has endured many challenges and threats, and we will endure this one as well. There is always room at our table for hope.

Lean on Me

It was a regular Tuesday, and students were gathering in the black box theatre on the north campus of University of Michigan for choir rehearsal. Struck by some mysterious impulse, the choir’s accompanist, a pianist of extravagant talent and personality, sat down at the keyboard as we were filing in and started playing that recognizable chord progression. She played that slow ONE (hitch) one-two-three-FOUR (hitch) four-three-two-ONE (hitch), familiar as a beloved friend you hadn’t seen in a while, and we one by one began to sing. Kids from far away and down the street, kids from hard families and hard neighborhoods and Jills from the Hills.

Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow…

It’s happened to me a few times in my life that spontaneous group singing has settled into a magical groove that feels like it will never end. We young college friends just sang and sang, kept it going — part song, part pledge. Bill Withers’s lyric spoke to us, right in our sweetest spot.

You just call on me, brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on… 

If that moment had lasted forever, I would not have been sorry.

It didn’t.

But maybe it did. Here we are now, in this moment. As pandemic envelops us all, far away and down the street, we need help from each other more than ever. I see it around my neighborhood and around the world: people sewing and delivering masks, people dropping off groceries and checking on isolated neighbors, friendships rekindling, people slowing down, somehow seeing one another more clearly from a distance.

If there is a load you have to bear that you can’t carry
I’m right up the road
I’ll share your load

Bill Withers died today at the age of 81, but this song continues to inspire. I have friends — true paragons of mitzvot, whose every action is in service to the greater good — who have taken to singing “Lean on Me” with their neighbors each night, everyone on their own porch. They live this lyric and teach me every day about kindness and service.

Lean on me when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on

May these words be true in all the works of our hands and hearts.