I had the privilege of writing about Parashat Chukat for Hebrew College’s blog this week, 70 Faces of Torah. https://hebrewcollege.edu/blog/keeping-safe-and-letting-go/
“Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me!”
I turn around. It’s pandemic springtime, and the Trader Joe’s parking lot is bustling. What does this stranger want from me?
“Do you always wear … [gesturing at my kippah]?” Aged perhaps in his mid to late 60s, friendly but not smiling, he speaks with an Israeli accent.
“I do. I mean, not while I’m sleeping, but yeah. I wear it regularly.”
“Can you tell me why?”
I have been wearing a kippah daily for over a year. In all that time, I’ve never been asked this question so bluntly. People have commented that they noticed, but never asked me to explain myself.
I stammer a moment.
And why is he asking?
Lacking any ability to size him up or assess his motivation for asking, I plunge in awkwardly. “I wear it to remind myself that there’s something much larger than me, to remind myself that this is God’s world, not mine. שְׁכִינָה לְמַעְלָה מֵרֹאשִׁי [God’s presence is above my head, BT Kiddushin 31b] you know?”
“That’s… interesting,” he says, not walking away. He clearly wants to talk.
“There was another attack on a rabbi recently. Why are you tempting fate, wearing a kippah? Are you scared,” he asks.
“I sometimes think I should be, but so far, I’m not.”
When the Chabad attacks happened, I thought about stopping, about putting it away for a while. When the Colleyville synagogue attack happened, I again considered changing my habits, but for now I’m holding steady. I don’t want to be fearful, and I don’t want to lean on the privilege to hide what makes me a potential target, when so many people can’t hide what makes them targets. I am not a Jew of convenience. This is who I am.
A few weeks back I had been in a different part of the country, in a semi-rural area, and I thought long and hard about whether to put it away for the sake of not riling up people I thought might be anti-Semitic. In the end I didn’t, and I’m glad. The locals were friendly and respectful. It taught me something about stereotyping and how it goes both ways.
“What about respect for the tradition?” When his Holocaust-survivor mother came to visit from Israel several months ago, he wanted to show her how it really is here, so he took her to a local Conservative synagogue. She was so offended by the sight of men and women sitting together, all wearing tallit and kippah, that she didn’t speak to him for a week.
“Are you offended by my wearing a kippah,” I asked him.
“No, but my mother probably would be.”
What would she think about me, a woman pursuing rabbinic ordination? Would she even have a box to put me in? I am not Jewish the way she is Jewish, his story made that clear. My kippah would be the least of her objections, or maybe the most. In her world, I am perhaps barely Jewish — a novice Hebrew speaker, who doesn’t know how to keep kosher and who routinely watches a family movie after Shabbat dinner for the sake of sh’lom bayit. She and I have gender in common, and motherhood, but what would we find to share about our respective Jewishness?
“There’s a group of women,” he said. He invoked Sarah Silverman so he could leverage my familiarity with the comedian to refer me to her sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman. He seemed surprised when I was familiar with both Silvermans. (I didn’t blow his mind by saying that one of Rabbi Silverman’s children had once babysat mine.) “It’s provocative, who do they think they are, coming to pray, disrupting the men’s prayers?”
He asked if I would come to the Kotel to pray, and I said yes. “Would you come with the disrupters?”
“Of course. I want to pray with my people.”
“But that’s what the women’s section is for!”
I started to wonder about the power of religious symbols. When I wear a kippah, what it means to me and what it means to others varies widely. Who gets to own the meaning of these symbols? Who owns that pile of golden stones, the last surviving wall of our people’s ancient place? Who gets to say who prays there?
We are family and perhaps fellow believers, but we are not having the same conversation, most of the time.
I also wonder, why am I freer to be the kind of Jewish I am, here in the US than I would be in the Jewish Homeland?
“Listen, I hate the ultra-Orthodox,” he says. “Most Israelis do. But let me tell you. If you go to Jerusalem wearing a kippah, they will stone you. Believe me. I’m not even kidding. They will stone you.”
Where does stoning fall, in the rubric of klal Yisrael, I wonder.
If most Israelis hate the ultra-Orthodox, why don’t they speak up? Why doesn’t he speak up? He warns me about them, but he wouldn’t stand up to them for my right to be Jewish the way I am Jewish?
Who’s in and who’s out?
Would he stand up against a non-Jew in my defense? Where are the places where we are the same? What’s the boundary of peoplehood, and does it shift according to who’s issuing the threats?
And what does he expect from me? Do I have a say, since I am not in Israel, facing the dangers that Israelis face on a daily basis?
The man and I have a long conversation, right there in the Trader Joe’s parking lot. Midway through, a friend I hadn’t seen in many months approaches and gives me a hug. “So good to see you!” “So good to see you, too! It’s been a long time.”
I consider saying Shehecheyanu, just to see how he would respond.
I turn back. He’s still there.
“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Samuel Beckett’s searing words from Waiting for Godot seem to sum up the national mood just now. Many of my recent conversations have been shot through with sadness and exhaustion, feelings I have felt at times myself, deeply. There is a real cognitive dissonance between the life we are trying to live and the life we are actually living. The world around us is staggeringly abnormal, but as a society, we seem to have made the collective agreement to act as if it’s pretend-normal. We meet in person, hidden behind masks. We might hug, but then we back up ארבע אמות (four cubits) to secure our perimeters. At the same time, we attempt to churn through our daily tasks trying to keep everything going, all the while haunted by a sense of dread and uncertainty. The things we expect of ourselves (productivity, energy, gratitude) don’t account for how broken many of us feel. When a nearly two-year pandemic with no end in sight is not even the only problem on people’s minds, that’s saying something.
There is a phrase in this week’s parsha that speaks beautifully to this swirl of anxiety and overwhelm and crisis – קוצר רוח. I’ll leave it untranslated for now as we think through it together. Picking up the story where we left off last week: Moshe has made his first attempt with Pharaoh, trying to follow God’s instruction and free Bnei Yisrael. It did not go as planned — at least not as Moshe had planned. Instead of agreeing to Moshe’s request, Pharaoh made life much worse for the Israelites, turning the screws to make their work even harder. To the task of making bricks, Pharaoh added a step: the Israelites now must gather their own straw, before they can make the bricks. Yet their quotas remain unchanged.
More work, harsher conditions, same rigorous expectations. Sounds about right.
So in Parshat Va’era, Moshe comes to deliver a rousing message from God, saying that help is on the way, that God is in the wings ready to make everything OK, that great things are in store once they get out of there! God promises to take the Israelites as God’s own people (לְעָם — as a man takes a woman לְאִשָׁה). Yet when Moshe relays God’s promise, his words fall on ears that are not deaf but numb – the people just can’t.
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא שָֽׁמְעוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה
מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה׃
And Moshe did speak to the children of Israel, but they didn’t hear him,
because of the קוצר רוח and the backbreaking work.
Rashi, the Medieval French Torah commentator, says this קוצר רוח is shortness of breath:
כָּל מִי שֶׁהוּא מֵצֵר, רוּחוֹ וּנְשִׁימָתוֹ קְצָרָה,
וְאֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לְהַאֲרִיךְ בִּנְשִׁימָתוֹ:
Everyone who is in distress, his spirit and his breath are short, and he cannot lengthen his breath — a person experiencing קוצר רוח just can’t catch a decent breath.
On the other hand, the 18th century Moroccan scholar, the Or haChaim, sees it as a shortness of breadth. Picking up on the other meaning of ruach, having to do with spirit, the Or haChaim argues that since the Israelites had yet to receive Torah, they were not able to hear Moshe’s message; without Torah, they were stuck in a narrow-minded place.
I am inclined to agree with him. To me, the קוצר רוח is not specifically about the breath aspect but rather about being crushed in spirit. As we saw last week, the people were in a place of severe degradation, with multiple overlapping calamities weighing on them. Seeing their children murdered, being worked to the bone, losing their connection to beloved traditions and customs… Having to gather their own straw was the least of it, but perhaps also the last straw. They were so compromised that Moshe’s hopeful message in this week’s parsha was impossible to take on board. The role of fatigue in crises of faith cannot be overestimated.
At this moment it seems hopeless, like the first half of the couplet from Godot: I can’t go on. The קוצר רוח feels insurmountable.
But here’s the second half of the couplet: I’ll go on. As is so often the case in our tradition, the seeds of redemption are planted in the soil of the harshest experiences. In Parshat Shmot, the cries of the Israelites rise up and God begins to take notice. In chapter 2, verse 25, the people have God’s full attention:
וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּדַע אֱלֹהִים׃
And God saw the Children of Israel, and God knew.
The Midrash Aggadah reads this pasuk through the language of רחמנות, referencing that great sufferer איוב (Job). What God knew was that the Israelites saw themselves as blameless, distraught like איוב — incapable of pity for their own anguish but rather אֶמְאַס חַיָּי — sick and tired of their own lives. This is קוצר רוח; a people that has become degraded and hopeless. But God won’t leave us in that state. God’s knowing is rooted in a deep empathy for Bnei Yisrael’s plight: יָדַעְתִּי אֶת־מַכְאֹבָיו — I know my people’s pain. And God keeps the wheel turning.
The road back from such desperation is long and brutal. The plagues and their associated trauma are just beginning in this parsha. The agonies of slavery are layered over with a deep sense of uncertainty about whether and when freedom will come, and what it will cost. The Israelites will not breathe deeply for some time — as they witness bizarre and horrible things all around them. Meanwhile Moshe struggles with Pharaoh, with God, and with himself, poised between, “I can’t go on,” and, “I’ll go on.”
Luckily we know the story; we know how it ends (and doesn’t). We know that God will redeem Bnei Yisrael, and that redemption will be harder than anyone imagined. We know that it will be agonizingly incomplete, not just for Moshe but for us. We will move forward, fall back, see signs of hope and see our hopes dashed. We will be boxed in, locked down, worried and aching with loss. We will have moments when we again are gathering our own straw. We will have moments where we, too, can’t breathe, moments when our spirits are crushed. And yet we will have moments of triumph even so. Eventually things will be different. Not perfect, not necessarily even better. But a space will open up, where we can begin to hear and see and know…and breathe. And God will meet us there.
“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Say it with me.
“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Shana tova! Thank you for the pleasure of bringing in the new year with you, and for the honor of offering a few words of Torah today. As I scanned both the landscape and my inner stirrings for what to speak about today, I was struck by just how many threads there are to pull. I could address any number of pressing global issues: the ongoing public health crisis and its economic, mental health, and social aftershocks; the growing outcry for racial and economic justice; the catastrophic weather that practically screams in our ears that climate change is looming closer than any of us feels ready to reckon with; and a society in which the values of freedom and individualism are in mortal conflict with the communal commitment of caring for one another. The world feels like too much to take in, and yet the need to pay attention and take action is more urgent than ever.
I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted. Don’t misunderstand me; I am happy with my life and I deeply recognize my many blessings. Yet I often find myself wanting to pull the covers over my head because there is just so much turmoil — calamity everywhere I look.
And then the question comes to me, over and over: What do we do when we feel overwhelmed and caught in the middle, when the forces swirling around us start to feel like drowning? When is it a moment for reflection, and when is it a moment for action?
Which is it now?
Of course it is now — and always — both. Our texts for this season point us in both directions, toward introspection and discernment and toward the never ending work of tikkun olam.
Both reflection and action constitute a kind of presence to the Divine — whether it is presence to the still, small voice that guides us on our way, or presence with the righteous work that still, small voice calls us to.
I have been reflecting a lot on both types of presence lately. In this historical moment we are more acutely aware than ever of presence and absence. The great blessing of being in the same space as other people is something whose importance many among us hadn’t fully realized until it became a scarce commodity. All those months of missing people or of seeing them only behind a mask or onscreen lent an air of unreality, of watered-down-ness to our relationships. This past year and a half, I think we have come to realize how much our sense of the presence of others is rooted in seeing their faces. In Hebrew, the word פָּנִים neatly encompasses this idea: its definitions include both face and presence. In the inflected form ָלְפָנֶיך heard so often throughout our liturgy, it means, “before you” — literally in your presence and in front of your face.
Psalm 27, which many of us recite daily from the beginning of Elul through the end of Sukkot, offers a rich meditation on the idea of connecting face and presence. Verse 8 reads:
לְךָ אָמַר לִבִּי בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי — אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ יְהֹוָה אֲבַקֵּשׁ׃
This is a puzzling verse, one which opens up a theological question. A traditional approach to the Biblical Hebrew yields the translation, On Your behalf, my heart says to me, “Seek My face!” and I do seek Your face, o God. The psalmist’s heart advocates on the part of God, imploring for the speaker to seek out the presence of God. The Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra likens the heart to God’s שליח, God’s representative. He sees the heart as a Divine internal compass calling the Psalmist into stillness and searching. However, a more contemporary interpretation of this verse, taking into account modern Hebrew usage, switches the roles around — My heart says to You, “Seek my face!” O God, I seek Your face. In this reading, the Psalmist is asking for God to recognize him, and pledging to do the same. This reciprocal recognition, which posits both God and the Psalmist as seekers, changes the theology, casting the still, small voice as… more of a duet. The next verse continues: אַל־תַּסְתֵּר פָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּי Do not hide your face from me. The stakes are high, located in the fear of not connecting, of all of this searching being met with nothing. Yet the psalmist persists. The last verse reads:
קַוֵּה אֶל־יְהֹוָה חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהֹוָה׃
Hope toward Adonai! Keep your heart strong and courageous, and hope toward Adonai! Regardless of who is doing the seeking, the psalm invites us into quiet reflection and hope, even amidst turmoil, asking us to search for the presence of God and wait.
Our Haftarah for today, on the other hand, demands that we act. This fiery speech from the prophet Isaiah is full of action words, exhortations, imperatives — Build up a highway! Clear the path! Remove the obstacles! You can practically see Isaiah shaking his fists, trying to get his people to pay attention. Isaiah derides the people who fast in body only, while remaining spiritually unmoved. Such empty ritual strips the fast of its meaning and import. Rather, Isaiah says: “This is the fast I desire: to open the bonds of wickedness, shake off the yoke, let the oppressed go free! Share your bread with the hungry, take the poor into your home, clothe the naked! Do not turn away from your flesh and blood!” He goes on to promise that if our fasting and introspection inspire us to do those things, then the presence of God will be with us.
אָז יִבָּקַע כַּשַּׁחַר אוֹרֶךָ וַאֲרֻכָתְךָ מְהֵרָה תִצְמָח
וְהָלַךְ לְפָנֶיךָ צִדְקֶךָ כְּבוֹד יְהֹוָה יַאַסְפֶךָ
Then your light will burst forth like the dawn, and you will immediately return to flourishing. And your righteousness will walk before you, the presence of God will gather you in.
Where Psalm 27 calls for reflection, Isaiah urges us to press that reflection into service, to take up our sacred task of tikkun olam. The values of stillness and action are not in conflict but rather in dialogue. Our alternate Torah reading for today, from Deuteronomy chapter 29, says:
הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ
וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד־עוֹלָם לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת
The hidden things are for God, but the revealed things are for us and for our children, to enact all of these teachings into eternity. So, yes, the quiet matters are between us and God — discerning, reflecting, finding our way. But once we’ve found that way, we must stand tall and translate thoughts into deeds.
The activist Sandra Steingraber wrote, “We are all musicians in a great human orchestra, and it is now time to play the Save the World Symphony. You are not required to play a solo, but you are required to know what instrument you hold and play it as well as you can. You are required to find your place in the score. What we love we must protect. That’s what love means. From the right to know and the duty to inquire flows the obligation to act.”
Steingraber’s words are a summons to righteousness, an echo of the principle from Pirkei Avot that we are not required to complete the work but neither are we free to desist from it. Each of us has a role to play, no matter how humble and incomplete. We need simply to find our place, to do something.
My blessing for you this Yom Kippur is for deep, soul-filling reflection that nourishes you toward action, in whatever direction you are called.
Gmar chatima tova!
I’m teaching another course this fall through Hebrew College’s Open Circles Jewish Learning, and I’d love for you to join the group! We will meet on Sunday evenings in November and early December, from 7:30-9pm on zoom. Tuition is $135 for the series, and generous scholarship support is available.
Course details are below.
A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven: Ecclesiastes
This course begins with the passage in Ecclesiastes (3:1-8) that inspired the famous Pete Seeger song, “Turn, turn, turn,” and moves on to consider the emotional, spiritual, and psychological problems and resonances in the Book of Ecclesiastes as a whole. We will study that famous passage and others, slowly and deliberately, in multiple English translations, and relate what we find in the sacred text to our own lives. This is a course for deep thinkers, seekers of meaning, and people who like to consider profound questions from multiple angles. Studying Ecclesiastes offers us the strength and wisdom that comes with taking “the long view” of human affairs. Join us for meaningful study, reflection, and conversation!
Click here to register.
Oops, I forgot to share this essay on Dvarim when I wrote it for the Hebrew College 70 Faces of Torah blog a few weeks ago. Sadly it is dated in more than one sense, as the pandemic picks up speed yet again. The writing’s not bad, though. Read it with a sense of nostalgia or melancholy, perhaps.
This week I had the honor of being a guest blogger on Hebrew College’s 70 Faces of Torah blog. Click here for a sideways look at Parshat Balak.
This week* I had the honor of being a guest blogger on Hebrew College’s 70 Faces of Torah blog. Click here to see my piece on Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.
*originally published April 21, 2021.
This week* I had the honor of being a guest blogger on Hebrew College’s 70 Faces of Torah blog. Click here to see my piece on Tetzaveh.
*originally published February 24, 2021