Terms of Enragement

This past week has been nothing short of catastrophic. There have been people literally dying in the streets. Black men shot by police in what should have been routine encounters; police officers targeted by snipers at what should have been a peaceful protest. The soup of emotions is thick with anguish, terror, rage, resentment, despair. Social media is inflamed with people taking sides, arguing about whose lives matter. As if there is anyone whose life doesn’t.

The great Elie Wiesel, who died last week, once spoke of the importance of avoiding neutrality, saying that we must take sides. Yet that warning does not apply here, for it presupposes that there are sides. In the overheated media climate, it’s easy to oversimplify: If you speak out against police brutality, it must mean you hate the police. If you mourn the police officers who died protecting protesters, you must be racist. These are fallacies both.

There are no sides.

It is not enough to decry the killing of one person by another. It is not enough to mourn with a family that has suffered a loss. It is not enough to denounce a flawed system that distrusts and debases people on the basis of faulty assumptions.

It is not enough.

In this week’s parsha, Korach falsely accuses Moses and Aaron of elevating themselves above the community, saying, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and G-d is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above HaShem’s assembly?” Moses calls upon the Almighty to arbitrate, and Korach and his followers are struck down dead.

The message is clear: while Korach’s words sounded plausible, they were wrong. It is easy to speak in facile slogans, the more so at the speed of tweets. Memes abound, many of them containing a grain of truth, but ultimately it is only a grain.

We need words that heal. We need leaders with the humility of Moses & Aaron, people who can work through the rhetoric and polarization and lead in a spirit of service. We need — now more than ever — leaders who can inspire and insist upon the kind of honest, vulnerable, substantive dialogue that can bind us together as a nation.

Our society may have, in the words of T.S. Eliot, pushed the moment to its crisis. To move beyond the crisis, we need to realize that we are all hurting and that the relief we want and need can only come from, “joining hands, marching together.”



E pluribus unum

It strikes me as fitting that this year the Fourth of July falls during the week when we study Sh’lach-L’cha. It doesn’t always work out this way, but it seems particularly apt to me. As we read of the scouts who lit out for the territory to scope out Eretz Yisrael and report back, of the equal expiation rituals for stranger and neighbor alike, and of the courage it took to fight for the land, I hear American echoes and whispers.

It is of particular significance to me that the scouts are one from each tribe, with several verses devoted to the names not only of the scouts but of the tribes and parents from whom they came. This description of provenance, contextualizing each individual scout by family and by tribe, is echoed in our modern-day identification of Senators and Representatives, as in Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont. (You know, just for instance.) That each scout is named individually, yet they were sent on a collective mission, is such a beautiful metaphor for a healthy society: each of us brings individual qualities and histories, yet things work when we work together. E pluribus unum.

The current American climate feels to me ever more divisive, with an undercurrent of anger in even the most mundane of tasks. Waiting in line at the grocery, parking the car, expressing an opinion on social media — all these things and more are rife with contention. Advertisers, political candidates, entertainers (and people who are all three at once!) fan the flames of this contention for their own gain and we easily comply. Sometimes it feels as though we are all pluribus and no unum.

Yet perhaps this has always been part of the American dynamic. The boychiks and I have been on the HAMILTON bandwagon for several months. (No we haven’t seen it, and yes, I’d be glad to take those tickets off your hands.) In several scenes we hear the way the characters argue and fuss, call each other names (“Sit down, John,” has come a long way since Sherman Edwards’s 1776!), their pluribus well in evidence. Their fighting is animated partly by machismo, mostly by mission. They are aflame with the ambition to do something with this new society they are founding. They fight because it matters, and ultimately they unite in their efforts and forge ahead (mostly) together. Ultimately their unum subdues their pluribus, and the world is better for it.

Our parsha gives us more to go on, with respect to appropriate conduct in forming a nation. G-d instructs Moses to tell the Israelite people how to behave when they enter the land. The rules of offerings and expiation are laid out and — twice we are told — citizens and strangers alike are subject to the same standards. In Numbers 15:15b-16 we read, “There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before G-d; the same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you.”

In a week that has given us several terrorist attacks, Elie Wiesel’s death and an ever-intensifying xenophobia from some quarters, as well as the unfolding fallout from the Brexit referendum, this quote is a necessary reminder. A civilized society has no business creating different standards for insiders and outsiders. Before G-d, the citizen and the stranger are equal. As John Laurens sings in HAMILTON, “[W]e’ll never be truly free, until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me.” It isn’t that there are no differences among us, but rather that our strength derives from working together and from holding ourselves and each other to the same high ideals.

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.