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.

Accepting the Yoke

This morning I resumed my customary-not-customary prayer life with my community at Hebrew College. It was surreal, staring at my friends on a skittering screen, microphone on mute, reciting the words we say day by day, but with feelings I’ve never had before. So much about this territory is strange and unsettling: the noisy quiet of studying while the children are knocking around in the kitchen, the ghost-town feeling of my neighborhood as I’m out walking and see people from a scrupulously maintained distance, the empty grocery shelves, the feeling of having so much time, and none at all. There are moments that feel almost impossibly heavy and moments when I feel like I could blow away with the wind, like chaff.

And yet with all the swirl around me, I have experienced such intense feelings of connection and community. People I don’t know are banding together to support one another in myriad creative ways. People I do know have gone out of their way to say kind things to me, to encourage me that I’m on my right path even as the road hits a twist. 

Every morning, the liturgy invites us anew to imitate the angels by taking on על מלכות שמים (the yoke of Gd’s sovereignty). At Hebrew College we have a custom of looking around at one another at that moment and making eye contact. It is one of the most meaningful parts of my tefillah, and returning to those people today — even quivering on a screen — for that moment felt like coming home, even though I was home. 

And it struck me that the image of a yoke is perfect for this. A yoke holds us apart as it holds us together, mandating space and unity at once. Caring for one another during this crisis demands that we cultivate emotional closeness while maintaining physical space. Indeed we maintain that physical space as a way of caring for each other. The yoke joins us together. And as we are bound together, shoulder to shoulder, this yoke — the yoke of Gd’s sovereignty — also binds us vertically. It reminds us that while we are working side by side, Gd is holding us, too.

Areyvut |ערבות

Wonderful Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, the President of Hebrew College, has noted that the term social distancing fails to capture the quality of caring and kindness that is motivating it, in this age of coronavirus. In light of the changing environment, I have been in contemplation of the phrase כל ישראל ערבין זה לזה — All Gd-strugglers are responsible, one to another (Ritva on Rosh Hashanah 29a).

The letters ערב in this form refer to responsibility, and indeed the Gemara includes a baraita taught by Ahava, son of Rabbi Zeira, saying that in most cases, one can say a blessing on another’s behalf. The commentary from the Ritva (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli) specifies that this is so, because we are responsible to one another. If I can take action to preserve your holiness, it’s a blessing for the both of us.

As we navigate the pandemic-tinged landscape, we are called upon to think not just about our own risk but about the risk we might pose to others, some of whose vulnerabilities we may not be able to detect. Thus we enact our responsibility, our ערבות, by thinking of how our actions might affect others’ well-being. 

The letters ערב can also carry a meaning of mixing. In a time when many are feeling insecure and unsettled, we seek to connect with others for support around our shared experience. We want to be held in community, to mix our hearts and thoughts with others’. We want to feel less alone. Yet we are obligated by the responsibility that we hold for one another — to maintain, at least physically, a caring distance. Our desire to mix is held in check. We feel mixed up. 

Vocalize it another way and add just one letter and you have ערוב, the makeshift border that some traditional communities reinforce each week before Shabbat, to make their space a shared space. The ערוב delineates where we are, together, making a neighborhood a home both ritually and emotionally. It is built and tended by human hands for the purpose of binding communities together. 

Vocalized yet another way, ערב means evening, or to bring on evening. Each night we say a beautiful prayer praising Gd’s skill for creating time just so, for keeping the holy clock wound just right, so that the moon and the stars make their appearance when they are needed, and stay the right length of time. The night sky becomes a blanket to hold us in the dark hours. 

In this darkening hour, I pray there may also be an even-ing. May those who are upset speak in an even tone, and those who are ill return to an even keel. May we strike an even balance between panicking and being cavalier. May we all see that even the poor and even the sick and even the lonely and even the frightened are within our ערוב and must be cared for with all our hearts.

Dear Senator Warren

Dear Senator Warren,

As a constituent and an admirer, I write to thank you for your courage. Thank you for showing me a different way to be. I am a woman in my 50s, newly undertaking rabbinical study after nearly a decade of flirting with the idea. 

I grew up in a normal, happy family with amazing parents, and yet I was surrounded by a stealth misogyny whose depths I am only now beginning to recognize. I promise you that nobody in my family carried the intention of misogyny; we literally didn’t know that the standards we were reinforcing were shot through with patriarchy, with disgust for female accomplishment.

Indeed, I was socialized all my life to perform incompetence, to keep my intelligence under wraps, to keep my voice quiet and well-modulated. I heard over and over — you’re too loud, too smart, too emotional, too much. From an early age I was often the smartest person in the room, but I learned first to cover it and then to doubt it. I learned that smart girls were not attractive and that being pleasant and cute was valued more highly than being clever and capable. I learned that it was better to please others than to speak my mind or reveal my heart. 

Despite my attempts to soften my so-called edges, I often felt the social cost of female intelligence and capacity. I was ostracized for taking school and music seriously and for not having (or feigning) interest in sports (with one crowd) or substance use (with another). Every accomplishment came with both admiration and a warning. Great job! But you’re so intense. Why don’t you make some friends, get a hobby, chill out? Yet the price of making friends was diminishing my own intelligence in order to make people comfortable. It seemed I would need to choose between mind-numbing chit-chat and soul-crushing isolation.

Decades of this internalized self-hatred can poke holes in your heart. Sure, there were pep talks from well-meaning friends and teachers. But the loudest message I received was that people would be much more comfortable with me if I were almost successful rather than successful. 

Senator Warren, your candidacy has been a revelation and an inspiration. With every pinky promise, every brilliant debate performance, every geeky homegrown video, every rock-solid plan, you showed me a model of female competence and intelligence that didn’t shy from saying what needed to be said. 

I don’t anticipate you need a rabbi very often, but after June 2025, if you ever do need a rabbi, I’m your gal. 

Thank you for being your very self.

Kindness and shalom,
Naomi Gurt Lind