Fade to White

I skipped first grade and spent second grade in New York for my dad’s sabbatical year. Finally, in third grade, I was able to have a birthday party with my school friends. I grew up in a small town and while my experience in the public schools of that town was decidedly mixed, one aspect of it was a great blessing. I had friends of many races and cultures, and in the way of children, I didn’t even notice it as anything special. In early May in my third grade year, I excitedly invited about 20 kids to my house for the Sunday closest to my birthday. I couldn’t wait to play bean bag toss and fake horseshoes and run around my suburban Michigan backyard in my new party dress with my friends.

Then the day came, and all the white kids showed up. None of the Black ones did. I was sad and surprised but my parents weren’t. They didn’t explain it to me; they might not have had the words. It took me decades to understand that as much as my Black friends liked me, they might not have felt safe coming to my house on a Sunday afternoon. Their parents might not have felt safe bringing them to my neighborhood. All the cake and ice cream would have to be weighed against being around all those white people.

As I grew up, my world got whiter and whiter. The last time I had meaningful, everyday friendships with Black people was in graduate school at Michigan. And if I’m being truthful, it’s quite possible that those folks didn’t think of me as a friend as much as I thought of them that way. I probably exhausted them. But I loved them fiercely, as I love all my friends.

There’s real sadness for me about the narrowing of my world. A workshop I attended this week at school, part of a three-day seminar at Hebrew College on Racial Justice, brought up the question of why so many white people’s worlds have gotten whiter and whiter. What are the factors at play, factors that were previewed long ago on an impossibly sunny Sunday in May? 

I was touched by the invitation from activist Tamara Fish, who led that workshop, to rekindle the relationships we used to have when our worlds were more colorful. I’m connected with many of my friends — from childhood through graduate school — on social media. Occasionally we talk or message back and forth. What might it look like to deepen those relationships and to cultivate more such connections? My approach to the rabbinate — as to life — is relational. Why not here too? What might it feel like, post-pandemic, to invite people to my Shabbat table whom I don’t know well, people who aren’t just like me but in whom I’m genuinely interested? And how do I do that without it being A Project To Diversify My World?

How do I move beyond being just another well-intentioned white lady, with all the fragility that implies?

We learn B’shallach this week, the dramatic escape of the Israelites and the crossing at the Sea of Reeds. And I keep thinking about the (not quite) parallel slavery narratives. The miracle for the Israelites was making it through the Sea of Reeds on dry land, leaving the Egyptian oppressors to drown in their own violence and rapacity. When — when — will the miracle come for Black Americans, and what will happen to their oppressors? Which side are you on? Which side am I? 

When the sea opens up for Black liberation, will I cross again, alongside a beloved community I have helped to nurture, or will I drown in my own sins?

My childhood friend, the brilliant soprano Anita Johnson, recorded this moving video in response to the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris. Her song perfectly captures what I know is in my grasp. 

Let there be peace on earth.

Let it begin with me too, Anita.

Finding our Way

One week ago today, far-right extremists brought mayhem and bloodshed to the halls of Congress. Some of my fellow Americans, human beings created b’tzelem elohim, had become convinced — contrary to any available facts or evidence — that the election results were fraudulent. They decided, egged on by the losing candidate, to take matters into their own hands. Footsoldiers for a dangerous grifter, they traveled to DC with guns and dreams and righteous indignation. 

What unfolded that day got America’s attention in a way that previous outrages had not. Even as the then-candidate normalized making racist generalizations, assaulting women without compunction and ridiculing people with disabilities, he still got elected. Even as the now-president cozied up with hate groups, doubled down on the ugly racism that has always been an inherent part of American culture, mangled the US response to the coronavirus pandemic, and made a mockery of the office he held and the decorum it demands, a lot of folks didn’t see — perhaps, refused to see — the damage he was doing.

Something seemed to click last week, and many of the people and institutions that had stood by as our very democracy seemed to be decompensating before our eyes finally drew the line and began to abandon their support of him.

And I wondered, why did it take so long to see?

One insight comes in the psychodrama that is the Book of Sh’mot (Exodus). In this week’s parsha, Va’era, Gd begins to bring the plagues upon Egypt in order to secure the Israelites’ freedom. Even before the official plagues began, there was writing on the wall, an indication of the signs and wonders to come:

וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וַיַּעַשׂוּ כֵן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת־מַטֵּהוּ לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה וְלִפְנֵי עֲבָדָיו וַיְהִי לְתַנִּין׃

And Moshe & Aharon came to Pharaoh and did just as Gd had commanded. Aharon cast down his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. (Exodus 7:10)

This warning shot serves only to get Pharaoh interested. He strengthens his resolve and waits to see what comes next. And after blood and frogs and lice, after beasts and disease — even when he seems to be coming around, each time Pharaoh hardens his position. 

A few chapters in, Gd instructs Moshe to tell Pharaoh:

כִּי בַּפַּעַם הַזֹּאת אֲנִי שֹׁלֵחַ אֶת־כָּל־מַגֵּפֹתַי אֶל־לִבְּךָ וּבַעֲבָדֶיךָ וּבְעַמֶּךָ בַּעֲבוּר תֵּדַע כִּי אֵין כָּמֹנִי בְּכָל־הָאָרֶץ׃

This time, I am sending all my plagues — unto your very self, and unto your slaves, and unto your people, so that you will know that there is none like Me in all the land.

Interestingly, this is the first use of the word מַגֵּפָה (plague) in the entire Torah. In other words, the plagues aren’t even called plagues until the seventh one. It can take a while to see what’s happening. 

It feels to me that something similar is happening with current events: not that I am comparing the current president to Gd, as the one sending the plagues. (Quite the contrary!) Rather I am saying that it’s taken things getting this bad — sedition-bad — for the president’s allies to realize how bad it was getting. Today, the House of Representatives voted to impeach the president a second time, with ten Republican lawmakers joining the vote to impeach. Institutions with which the president has done business are severing their ties with him. Social media sites are no longer permitting him to use their platforms to serve his incitements. It seems as though the person who once bragged he could get away with shooting someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight is finally facing some consequences for his treacherous actions.

But just as the seventh plague was not the last one, there is much that remains to do. The flames of white supremacy and extremism have been fanned into an open conflagration, and not just by our soon-to-be-ex-president. We have work to do as a nation to face the truth of our racist past and present. 

For the Israelites, liberation turns out to be a long and agonizing process, replete with reversals and stubbornness and loss. It takes seemingly forever for Pharaoh to realize the game is up, and in the end he only realizes it at terrible cost to everyone. 

Let us pray — and work — to find another way for ourselves.

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?