Making it Count

At this time in the Jewish year, we are counting the Omer. This liminal moment between Passover and Shavuot finds our people wandering in the desert, figuring it out, literally neither here nor there. We have gained freedom but haven’t yet discerned what it means or what to do with it. Looking only at the milestones — the escape from Egypt and the giving of Torah at Sinai — one might be tempted to overlook the journey in between, to allow for a lacuna in the narrative. Having a lacuna is not a Jewish thing, though; we question and analyze and trawl for meaning. The seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot are a long enough gap to make it hard to see the relationship between the two. And so we count.

Counting the Omer is confusing — because Jewish days start at night, and because we count two ways (days and weeks). That is to say, we express the progress of the Omer in terms of days and in terms of weeks. For example, tomorrow we will count 37 days (which are five weeks and two days). I’ve never managed to count all 49 days (which are seven weeks), but this is my best year yet. Still, I sometimes get busy and forget a day, or slip up because my damn app doesn’t remind me on Shabbat. And yes, even after 36 days, (which are five weeks and one day), I still sometimes stumble, pause, regroup. Or ask my Hebrew-speaking children for help.

Why do we count two ways? I think the double counting magnifies the point of counting. If we count in order to pay attention to process, to mark the anticipation of a new phase, counting in two ways adds a layer of context. It calls to mind the phrase I heard so much as a young mother, which I understand more and more as time passes: “The days crawl but the years fly.” A single day might seem insignificant. However, when we see the days as part of weeks, and weeks part of months, and so on, the cumulative power of the passage of time becomes staggering. Like the snowflake that turns into an avalanche, a single day can hold enormous potential. Counting the days can be a way to slow them down, if only a little, and to give each one the respect it deserves.

We read in Psalms (90:12), “Teach us to number our days, that we may earn a heart of wisdom.” The changes keep flying by — one dear friend moving away, another college friend dead this week from a sudden heart attack — but it’s not just the dramatic ones. Although my sons are frequently sweet to me, they are no longer fully in love with me; the freedom to write — because they are no longer so interested in interrupting me — also means I have hugs and kisses for them that won’t be given tonight. I think back to the days when I was at home with them full-time and get a little wistful for the boys who clung to my leg on the playground and interrupted their dinners to sit on my lap. I tried to pay attention to everything, but now I can’t quite remember which boy it was that said which funny sweet thing. What was Gideon’s first word? I don’t quite remember.

The counting, I think, teaches us to pay attention to the fragility of life, the passage of time, and the importance of important things. We must count the days. Make them count. Even this one. Especially this one.

 

Going Beyond the Mountaintop

I love Martin Luther King Day, and I hate Martin Luther King Day. I love honoring what Dr. King stood for, and at the same time, I wish we didn’t try to cram it all onto one day. The day becomes too much a metaphor and not enough a check-in. There is so much work to do before it is a check-in. We need Martin Luther King Day every day.

In an all-too-prophetic speech he gave the night before he was killed, Dr. King spoke of going to the mountaintop, evoking the memory of Moses, another great leader and visionary who did not see his vision fulfilled. As we read at the very end of the Torah, G-d allows Moses to ascend the mountain at Pisgah, from whose summit he can see the Promised Land. Like a child in a museum, Moses is permitted to look but not touch. G-d tells Moses, “I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you will not cross there.” Similarly, Dr. King perhaps got glimmers of the progress of his own cause and passion but was not ultimately able to see it come to fruition. Indeed, in many ways, its fruition is still incomplete, fifty years on.

It is a terrible sadness, a national tragedy, that Dr. King was murdered and never got to see where his work led. While much dreaming still remains ahead of us, there has been some progress that I think would please him. Here the parallel with Moses breaks down. Although it must have frustrated Moses no end to be pressing his nose against the glass, he lived a long and eventful life, dying at age 120. He had his chance, and many of his dreams were fulfilled.

My friend Anita Winer (z’l) gave a beautiful drash on G-d’s decision to let Moses go only so far and no further: it is, Anita said, the natural order of things. Each generation must move its cause along a little further, but no generation gets to see the finish line, for there is no finish line. Anita was one of the founders of Temple Shalom, and her hard work and vision established a warm, learned community grounded in Reform Judaism. She got to see many aspects of the congregation flourish, but she knew that she wouldn’t live forever (much as we all wanted her to) and that others would take over and carry the community forward in new directions. She greeted this fact with optimism and curiosity, satisfied she had played her role and was ready to allow whatever was next to unfold in its own way.

I was at Temple Shalom this past Shabbat after a long time away and, while the community continues to blossom in new and exciting ways, someone else sat in Anita’s customary seat at the Minyan. Although it gave my heart a pang, I know Anita would be glad even of that. She never wanted to be enshrined, only to be of service.

Anita knew — and Dr. King knew — that the work must continue. The mountaintop is useful for providing us with a vision of where to go next, but it does not take the place of earning the Promised Land. This day, Martin Luther King Day, is the mountaintop, but on the other 364 days of the year (365 this year!) we must keep climbing, keep searching, keep working. As I wrote on Tisha B’Av, every day affords us an opportunity to connect with others across what could be uncomfortable divides, and to see each other as b’tzelem elohim, created in G-d’s image.

I’ve always loved this poem by Michael Walzer, which I first encountered in Mishkan Tefilah, the Reform prayer book:

Standing on the parted shores, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt; that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”

We’ve got a long way to go.

Let’s start today.

Yaffah Korinow, zichrona livracha

It was a terrible day.

Today we buried our beloved teacher Yaffah (Gail) Korinow, who died at the too-tender age of 63 after a struggle with pancreatic cancer. As the 1st grade Hebrew and Tanach teacher at JCDS, Yaffah taught both my sons to read and write Hebrew and to love Torah. But really, Yaffah taught everyone. When Akiva was in her class, Gideon had yet to enter preschool. Everything social about my day happened at JCDS, early in the morning and later in the afternoon. When I came to get Akiva from school, I was hungry for Hebrew learning, and Yaffah would teach me. At the time I still labored under the naive assumption that I could learn alongside my children and keep up. Yaffah would give me elementary Hebrew books and answer all my questions, despite having an hour-long commute ahead of her. She acted as though she had all the time in the world.

How dearly I wish she had.

During Gideon’s 1st grade year, we learned that Yaffah had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A person could be forgiven for slowing down after such a discouraging diagnosis, but Yaffah was irrepressible. She scheduled her chemotherapy appointments for Fridays (the shortest school day) and the children knew only that every other Friday, Yaffah would not be in school. The rest of the time, though, she was there, devoting herself utterly to her students with her usual energy.

I remember one morning when I came to drop Gideon off for school, we arrived uncharacteristically early and the classroom wasn’t yet open. The lights were low, and as I looked in the window, I saw Yaffah curled up on the floor in the corner. It was the first time I realized how sick she was. When the children were around, it was an entirely different picture. As soon as the classroom opened, she was lively and joyful, greeting the children and engaging with them as she always did.

Today’s funeral was long, but nobody wanted it to end. Like Yaffah’s beautiful, rich, soulful life, it felt too short. The tears were flowing before the service even began, and when the first shovelful of dirt fell, our hearts broke again. Yet it was good — essential, even — to be together. Hearing Yaffah’s sons, daughters-in-law, and friends speak of her with such love and admiration softened the blow. There was plenty of sadness and regret, but also much laughter and love. It felt good to be with others (so many others!) who knew Yaffah and loved her.

It was a terrible day. A wonderful, terrible day.

May her memory be a blessing. It already is.

On Gratitude

Elul or not, I strive to live my life in a state of gratitude. Having been extravagantly blessed, it’s generally a pretty easy state to inhabit. Yet I’ve been thinking lately that gratitude is not enough. It’s not that I’m feeling greedy for more gratitude, but rather that I am realizing that gratitude can be static, almost smug. If it is not inspiring you to share with your neighbor and to reach out in thoughtfulness to others, gratitude is not doing its job. When we say a blessing, we thank G-d for the food or the sabbath or whatnot. Yet the opportunity for gratitude is incomplete if it does not move us to share our food with the hungry or share Shabbat with our community. Gratitude at its best is a spur to move us to generosity and kindness.

May we all be blessed with what we need, the gratitude to appreciate it, and the energy to use it to heal the world.

There are no sidelines

In Jewish life, yesterday began the Three Weeks of contemplation and mourning leading up to Tisha b’Av, itself the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. Sometimes, it feels like the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar are out of harmony, but this year, the timing of the Three Weeks could not be more resonant. Indeed its resonance is sitting on my soul like a stone.

On Tisha b’Av, we fast throughout the day to commemorate the destruction by fire of the First and Second Temples. As black churches burn in the southern US — following a barbaric shotgun attack on another such church — the echo is clear. The hatred and fear that caused Jewish sacred spaces to be destroyed in ancient days is, sadly, still with us and now being directed at African-Americans.

I have always thought that there are strong parallels between Jewish and black experiences: the history of slavery, the strong cultural emphasis on education and artistic expression, the faith in G-d during troubled times.

Our tradition teaches us not to stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds (Leviticus 19:16). I’ve been struggling with how to live this out with respect to the black community. In the days immediately following the Charleston attack, I remembered how meaningful it was for my community several years ago to feel the solidarity of an interfaith gathering in the wake of anti-semitic vandalism. So it was an easy — if uncomfortable — decision to attend services at an African Methodist Episcopal church here in Boston that same weekend. Likewise, I was grateful for the opportunity to attend an interfaith vigil on the steps of City Hall in Newton in remembrance of the Charleston murder victims.

Someone asked me why I went, and what I hoped to accomplish. I have grown to place a high value on showing up. It’s not that my individual presence at either event mattered much, but being part of a larger group standing together in support made a statement. If each of us takes the commitment of showing up seriously, there will eventually be more of “us” than there are of “them.” And maybe — someday — there will be no “them,” because we’ll all of us realize there is no need of a “them.” Our humanity can bring us together, and being together can show us our humanity.

I’m glad to have been at those two events, but they were merely a start. There is much more we can show up for: rebuilding the churches in the south, guarding churches in the north, reaching out to leaders in the black community and asking them what they need. Most importantly, we must open up conversations with each other, bridge the gaps that allow fear and other-ness to fester. Although big conversations are needed in order to address the inequalities that continue to undermine our society, small ones are needed too. We must smile at babies and say hello to old men, sit down next to someone on the bus whose life we don’t see in the mirror and notice that they breathe the same air we do. We are all — every single one of us — created b’tzelem elohim, and we must allow that basic principle to be the ground we walk on. There are no sidelines, and this work awaits all of us.

Hinei ma tov

I woke up last Thursday with music and peace on my mind. Zamir was scheduled to sing at the Massachusetts State House in a joint appearance with the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, a multi-national, multi-faith, multi-lingual ensemble of teenagers from East and West Jerusalem who meet regularly to make music and make peace.

As I was packing my gig bag and getting ready to leave the house, I heard on the radio about the Charleston shootings, an act of barbarism that left me weak and teary. The idea that someone could be welcomed into a house of worship then murder members of the congregation hit me hard and continues to hurt my soul. It’s not unprecedented: it happened just months ago at Har Nof, when five Jews were killed while in prayer at their synagogue. This sort of attack violates basic decency and humanity, seemingly beyond repair; that it would happen twice in half a year makes me shudder.

My mood when I arrived at the State House, harried and rushed, was raw; but there is no greater mood elevator than music. Singing with my friends in that glorious place would have been enough — dayeinu! Seeing a fellow Zamirnik, a new mother, mouthing the words of Birkat Kohanim to her newborn son in the audience would have been enough — dayeinu! But then the JYC took the stage, and something magical, beyond even music, happened.

These kids sang a song they had composed together over the course of several months. The song was about what it was like to be them, and because the them in question is a variegated group, a mixed multitude, in one of the most contentious regions in the world, the song had a lot to say. Micah Hendler, the JYC’s founder and conductor, didn’t shy away from saying how difficult it was to work on the song together. What they were able to accomplish provided just the sort of hope I so desperately needed that day. The music was a rich stew of pop rhythms, Arabic chants, Hebrew folk sounds, and more; and the way the kids sang it, with full hearts and obvious, hard-won bonds, touched me deeply. When they ended the song holding hands, the place got misty, and it was clear that something profound was occurring.

After the applause died down, it was time for the two ensembles to sing together. One of the songs we did together was Akanamandla, the South African freedom song. The Zulu lyric had been supplemented with Arabic and Hebrew, saying, “We have the power, we have the spirit.” The message was clear: if South Africa can overcome its bloody history of apartheid and focus instead on making peace, so can other regions.

And on that day, it was painfully clear to me that the Middle East was not the only region in need of such healing. Our own country is struggling under the weight of a history it refuses as yet to face in a meaningful way, a struggle which grows more urgent with each tragic loss. But being together, singing together is a good first step.

We’ll still need to look for the next step — and take it together — but I suspect it will be quite a lot like the first step. The more we see each other, b’tzelem elohim, the better I like our chances.

A Blaze of Light in Every Word

Aside from the obligatory blintzes, two Shavuot traditions I treasure are studying Torah late into the night and hearing Megillat Ruth. I was fortunate enough to partake in both this year, and from them arose two thoughts that I’ve since been reflecting on. Since we often envision Torah as coming on two tablets at Sinai, and since Torah is considered to be an ongoing revelation and exploration, herewith my dosage of two tablets.

Tablet 1

For my late-night Torah, I typically go to a fabulous community-wide event in Brookline, which is co-sponsored by a wide array of congregations and other learning organizations. There are concurrent study sessions from 9pm till 4:30am on a dizzying variety of topics, punctuated at intervals by dinner, dessert, and a veritable Jordan River of coffee.

I’ve never managed to make it all night, but last night I stayed my longest yet — till nearly 1am. One memorable session I attended was entitled, “The Secret Chord that Pleased the Lord: Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah,” in which we sang the famous song, then dissected it in chevruta groups. We jumped off by talking about some of the threads that run through the song: love, loss, searching, bitterness, and indescribable sweetness. To me, the strongest thread — almost too obvious to mention — is the word itself: Hallelujah.

Translated literally, it means, “Praise G-d.” This being Leonard Cohen, though, praising G-d is not a simple matter. The lyric offers a smudged look at biblical figures, from Saul to David, to Batsheva, to Samson. We see them here as humans, as human as the rest of us: Saul the baffled king, David grappling with his faith and his longings. There is muted love and aching loss; nothing in this praise is triumphal or unencumbered. And when Cohen obliquely addresses his own relationship with G-d — “You say I took the name in vain / I don’t even know the name” — it’s with a sense of “whatever” capped by yet another Hallelujah.

In a commentary on the song, Cohen wrote: “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled, but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by Hallelujah.”

Legend has it that Cohen wrote eighty verses to this song. Whether they all follow a single narrative trail or whether they are tiles in a larger mosaic, each one culminates in a hard-won Hallelujah. Wherever we are, whatever we’ve been through, there is always praise. Praise is the ground upon which we walk, a ground which sometimes threatens to bury us but which ultimately holds us up. We may not know the name, we may not dare to understand the nature of G-d. Our praise doesn’t have to be fancy, for as Cohen teaches us, there is a blaze of light in every word, the holy and the broken Hallelujah.

Tablet 2

Like my children, I have the same name in English and in Hebrew. People often ask me the significance of my name, and in answering I have always focused on the literal meaning: sweet and pleasant. In fact, I’ve always been a little snide about it, as though there is no power in my Hebrew name, it’s just a namby-pamby sweetness and light kind of thing.

This morning’s reading of the Book of Ruth brought me a new perspective. Naomi, a major character in the story, starts with everything: a husband and two sons. And she loses everything: a husband and two sons. Everything she thought was true about her world came to nothing.

And that’s when she began to find out what she was made of.

After her losses, she journeyed back to her homeland with her loyal daughter-in-law Ruth. There she resourcefully found a way, despite her diminished status as a widow, to make a living and align herself and Ruth with her late husband’s relative, Boaz. And through Ruth’s marriage to Boaz, came the lineage of King David.

What looked like the end of the line — literally — turned out to be a corner for Naomi. And although she seemed to lose faith in the middle there, asking to be called Marah (bitter) instead of Naomi, she ultimately kept her name, persevered, and lived to see the son of Boaz and Ruth, who himself would become the grandfather of the great King David.

This ancient history echoes a bit of ancient history of my own. Thank G-d my losses have not been as great as the biblical Naomi’s. Nonetheless, some years ago my family seemed to be under a dark cloud — illness, financial loss, and isolation embittered our days, and for a time it seemed as though we would never recover.

And then, gradually, and thanks both to loving companions and relentless striving, we did. The experience was arduous and deeply rewarding, teaching us along the way what is most important to us, and giving us the opportunity to experience true community and selflessness. It also inspired us to be more resourceful than we’d ever needed to be. I would not have chosen for those hard times to come to us — nobody would — but I am glad for all the learning and growth they afforded us.

I hadn’t seen the parallels between the original Naomi and myself until this morning when I received that bit of Torah on Shavuot.

There is a blaze of light in every word, and today I saw a glimpse of the one that belongs to me.