Shabbos Blessing- Week 25

25 weeks. That’s a lot of weeks. While I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as being in the home stretch yet– I’m still less than a month into the semester– I’m definitely feeling the truth of being over half done with my time here.

Despite the large number of overall weeks I’ve been here, it’s only my third shabbat in Jaffa. I haven’t even been to a synagogue for services yet, although I plan to change that in a couple of hours.

I’ve tried to use today as a “reset” of sorts. Between my initial move up here, getting settled, getting sick, and getting better, I haven’t had a lot of time to exist normally. The sorts of fun-but-also-creative-and/or-productive-and/or-useful things I do when I have down time have kinda fallen off while I’ve gotten acclimated to everything. I haven’t even solidified my course schedule for the spring, but I’m at least getting closer to normal. It seemed time to get back to to-do lists.

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(These peacocks have nothing to do with To-Do Lists. But they’re pretty.) 

I like To-Do Lists. Even when I have no official work or homework, I like having a list of stuff that makes certain I don’t spend too many hours mesmerized by “Tasty” videos on Facebook (it’s happened) or sucked into news analysis of everything that’s gone wrong with the world in the last 10 minutes. To-Do Lists make sure that, at least sometimes, I do yoga or practice guitar or bake challah or write. Sometimes, rules can be good.

Sometimes, they can be awful.

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24) – “Judgements,” or, more aptly in this case, “Rules.” It’s a moment of significant shift in the Torah. After a book and a half of narrative, telling the story of a family and then the story of a people, we move to straight up legislation. While there are many significant moments ahead for the mixed multitude of Israelites, their narrative takes a back seat from which it recovers only sporadically throughout the rest of the pentateuch (that’s a fancy word for the “Five Books of Moses”).

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When I taught 4th grade Hebrew School, we focused on a different Torah portion during every class. My students ate up Genesis and loved the exodus story. They wanted to hear about the family drama and about the many miracles. They argued over who got to play which part when we acted out sections of the text.

When I taught 4th grade Hebrew school and we reached the middle of Exodus, my job got harder. It’s easy enough to engage children around stories. It’s tougher to engage them around ancient legislation. So, we would play a game called “Guess the Rule.” Groups of kiddos would pick a rule from the parsha out of a hat and create a skit to get their classmates to guess what the rule was. Then, after determining the rule, the class had to decide whether or not the rule was a good one that we should still be following today.

As you might expect (or at least hope), all of the students were behind the idea that we shouldn’t be cruel to strangers because we were strangers once too. They liked the idea that, if you see your enemy’s ox wandering around, you have to bring it back to your enemy. The class did not like the rule that if you insult your parents (yes, Sam, that might just mean yelling at them) , you can be killed. Around other rules, they were split. Should it be “an eye for an eye?” Some said yes, because it was fair. Some said no, because it was mean.

These were 4th graders, and so we didn’t get into a lot of the details– the classism and the sexism, the uncomfortable particularism-or-shall-we-say-in-this-case-xenophobia of the Israelites towards their present and future neighbors–you know, the usual. Still, I was impressed by their ability to look at something thousands of years old and, just like the rabbis who came before them, weigh in. They didn’t throw the parsha out the window. They were willing to think about it. They were willing to try to take ownership of it, good rules and bad rules and all.

This week, like every week since the election really, has been a challenging one. Every time I think Washington has to settle, it continues to grow darker. I’m amazed by the efforts I see from people all across the country and world to make this situation theirs, to combat the hatred and fear and power that seek to make America the ninth plague. And, the United States continues to be dark. Yesterday, I saw a video on Facebook with a 13-year-old boy being physically and verbally threatened by a white man, who eventually pulled and fired a gun. Thank God the boy wasn’t hurt, but the situation is unacceptable. Yesterday, Trump kicked Obama’s federal regulations protecting transgender students back to the States, where undoubtedly children will be made to feel even more unsafe in schools and in malls and in their daily lives because they don’t have a place to use the bathroom. Yesterday, the Standing Rock camp went up in snow-banked flames as the last protestors were removed to make space for the DAPL.

Yesterday, I was prepared to put up the next “blessing” from the list I have from you wonderful folks. But yesterday, one of my facebook friends, a woman I went to college with, posted this incredible letter from Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I read it and let myself cry. I’ll be honest in saying that I don’t know the exact context for this letter. Perhaps I should have researched it before posting, but these words were exactly what I needed to see at a moment when I needed something to buoy me. Perhaps they will also be what you need.

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My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.

I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.

We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

 Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.

 The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

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Shabbat shalom. I look forward to 15 more weeks on this great ship, this ark, with all of you.

 

 

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Moses (and Pictures) in the Cloud

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה עֲלֵ֥ה אֵלַ֛י הָהָ֖רָה וֶהְיֵה־שָׁ֑ם וְאֶתְּנָ֨ה לְךָ֜ אֶת־לֻחֹ֣ת הָאֶ֗בֶן וְהַתּוֹרָה֙ וְהַמִּצְוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר כָּתַ֖בְתִּי לְהוֹרֹתָֽם׃ וַיָּ֣קָם מֹשֶׁ֔ה וִיהוֹשֻׁ֖עַ מְשָׁרְת֑וֹ וַיַּ֥עַל מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֶל־הַ֥ר הָאֱלֹהִֽים׃ וְאֶל־הַזְּקֵנִ֤ים אָמַר֙ שְׁבוּ־לָ֣נוּ בָזֶ֔ה עַ֥ד אֲשֶׁר־נָשׁ֖וּב אֲלֵיכֶ֑ם וְהִנֵּ֨ה אַהֲרֹ֤ן וְחוּר֙ עִמָּכֶ֔ם מִי־בַ֥עַל דְּבָרִ֖ים יִגַּ֥שׁ אֲלֵהֶֽם וַיַּ֥עַל מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֶל־הָהָ֑ר וַיְכַ֥ס הֶעָנָ֖ן אֶת־הָהָֽר׃ וַיִּשְׁכֹּ֤ן כְּבוֹד־יְהוָה֙ עַל־הַ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַיְכַסֵּ֥הוּ הֶעָנָ֖ן שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בַּיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֖י מִתּ֥וֹךְ הֶעָנָֽן  וּמַרְאֵה֙ כְּב֣וֹד יְהוָ֔ה כְּאֵ֥שׁ אֹכֶ֖לֶת בְּרֹ֣אשׁ הָהָ֑ר לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ וַיָּבֹ֥א מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּת֥וֹךְ הֶעָנָ֖ן וַיַּ֣עַל אֶל־הָהָ֑ר וַיְהִ֤י מֹשֶׁה֙ בָּהָ֔ר אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם וְאַרְבָּעִ֖ים לָֽיְלָה׃

Adonai said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them.” So Moses and his attendant Joshua arose, and Moses ascended the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us until we return to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; let anyone who has a legal matter approach them.” When Moses had ascended the mountain, the cloud covered the mountain. The Presence of Adonai abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. Now the Presence of Adonai appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:12-18

This is, shall we say, a rough time for Moses. He’s already got Israelites mad at him for taking them out of Egypt (the devil they knew) and into the wilderness (the devil they didn’t). He’s already gotten unsolicited, if, well, useful advice from his father-in-law. He’s already had to throw blood at his people (which, I imagine, can’t be the most enjoyable experience for either party). And, although he doesn’t know it yet, when he comes back down from the mountain he’s going to have a rather large livestock problem.

But, still, Moses is generally an obedient guy, if a little uncertain of himself, so of course when God says, “Come on up here,” Moses goes.  Forty days and forty nights of listening to all manner of rules. At least, unlike Noah, Moses had no worry of being eaten by a lion during that time.

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My first job when I began rabbinical school was teaching fourth grade religious school at a Reform Synagogue in the Philadelphia suburbs. I had a really great time. I love working with kids, and I feel pretty comfy in the classroom. This synagogue was especially nice because the fourth grade curriculum was pretty loose. Basically, I needed to teach the kiddos about the Torah.

There are lots of ways to do that. My thinking was, well, these guys are gonna learn all the big stories in other places, if they don’t know them already. They’ll get a pretty decent idea of Genesis and the first half of Exodus– before the narrative turns largely toward legal stuff for a stretch. They’ll probably pick up bits and pieces of other spots in Torah. But, there’s a lot that they aren’t likely to run across in the course of their Reform upbringings. So, I decided to teach every parsha and have the kids make their own Torahs class by class.

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It wasn’t always easy. Getting them excited about narrative was naturally much easier than getting them excited about lineage and law. But, for every parsha, I picked out at least a couple of tidbits that I could teach and that the kids could then own. I told them the stories, I had them act them out, I had them play “choose your own adventure” with bits of text, I had them engage in art projects and writing projects and dialogue. When (age-appropriate) sections got tricky, I let them argue. When they asked me why things were as they were, I pushed them to think through it and tell me. I wanted them to feel that the entire Torah was theirs, not just the top 10 stories that they were likely to encounter again and again throughout their childhoods.

Which brings me to the cloud. When we reached parshat mishpatim (the one I quoted from above), I told the kids that Moses went into the cloud to talk to God.

This was 2013. The “cloud” meant something that it hadn’t for millennia prior.

“Wait, into the cloud?” one of my kiddos gasped in disbelief. See, this is why I love fourth grade. It’s the magic age. They’re just old enough to have very real, deep conversations while still being young enough to feel like they’re truly kids and to want to believe in magic. Or, in this case, in “Moses and the Amazing Technicolor E-Storage.”

I laughed so hard and explained that Moses was in, according to the Torah, a literal cloud. Not where pictures go.

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Griping Israelites ala fourth grader

Which brings me to pictures in the cloud. I’ve taken hundreds since getting here. Some, obviously, I’ve put up on this blog. Some I’ve thrown on instagram (you’ll see the latest of those if you scroll to the bottom of the page). But, most are just chilling, so I figured it was time to put together an album for those who’d like to see more. These are mostly just shots I’ve taken while out and about in Jerusalem and offer a decent sense of some of what I’ve been experiencing in day-to-day life. It’s a facebook album, but the link above should give you access even if you don’t have a facebook account or if we aren’t facebook friends. Enjoy.

 

I lift my eyes to the hills

“Yes, I grew up here,” the man replied, nodding vehemently in response to the question, gesturing towards a far-off, fenced-in settlement in the south Hebron Hills.

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He had been standing with our group, and, until he started to speak, I hadn’t known that he wasn’t a part of it. Our morning had been spent mostly on the bus. This was our first stop, on a hilltop where we could note the invisible green line in one direction and dotted Israeli settlements and Palestinian villages in the other. I knew a few of the group participants but not the majority, so his face didn’t stick out. But this man wasn’t a rabbinical student or one of our Israeli facilitators. This man was a resident of an unauthorized Israeli outpost that could not possibly seem unauthorized to him.

“What he’s been telling you,” he said, referring to our Israeli guide, who had been explaining differing law enforcement practices for Israeli and Palestinian communities. “It’s not true. I’m afraid for my life, afraid to go out. We have to live behind fences to stay safe. They throw stones. I have friends who have died. Stones are not a joke.”

The man’s eyes spoke worry and concern for his future on the land he knew as his own. He was in his mid-20s at least. He had parents and sisters, friends. He grew up there. He knew no other life. How could home be unauthorized?

We thanked him for sharing his story and got back onto the bus.

Down the road in Susya, life was split. On one side, an Israeli settlement, this one authorized, rose up with houses, paved roads, a yeshiva. On the other side, there were tents. Not cute camping tents. The sort of tent that you set up when it’s your only living option, because in return for the army not demolishing your tents, you’ve agreed not to apply for building permits.

A car with yellow plates– an Israeli car– drove up as we were getting off of the bus. Two young men rolled down the windows and called out jovially: “ברוכים הבאים לסוסיא! Welcome to Susya! מה נשמע? How are you?” They drove on to the settlement. We walked towards the tents.

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Children were the first to notice. A few small boys and one very small girl came running towards us with calls of “hello.” We walked along the dirt paths and were ushered into a crumbling cement-walled structure with a canvas roof, where a man named Nasser Nawaja (you can read his NYT op-ed from last summer here) told us his story. While he spoke in Hebrew, and our guide translated, the children stuck their heads in through windows and the open door. One particularly rambunctious boy clambered up the side of the building and stuck his head in between the top of the concrete wall and the roof, grinning broadly.

Later that afternoon, as we planted olive trees donated by Tru’ah, that same boy ran around with a pick ax, wanting to dig every hole himself. He was 10 years old– just big enough to be at the top of the kids’ pack without being so big as to be at the bottom of the adult pile. He was at his height of confidence, his handshake close to a high five, his eyes bright with knowledge and void of fear. It was easy to imagine this child one day hefting a stone to defend the land he knew as his own. I feared for him.

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We sat in the sun in hevruta–study pairs–looking at the week’s Torah portion of Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8). The Torah is nearly over. After 40 years of wandering the desert, after the turning over of a generation, the Israelites are about to “come to the land that Adonai [their] God has given [them] as an inheritance, that [they] will possess it and settle in it” (Deuteronomy 26:1).  The land flowing with milk and honey. The land that the Israelites would come to know as their own. The land that established native peoples, whom the Torah instructs the Israelites to dispossess, knew as their own.

I read the holy words of our holy book and looked out at a 10-year-old Palestinian boy riding a donkey over the dusty ground. I read the holy words of our holy book and looked across the road to homes where Jews were doubtless busying themselves preparing for shabbat.

We got back onto the bus.

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I found a pair for last week’s donkey! Git on the ark, you two!

“I have a question for you,” our guide said as we wound our way back towards the main road. “What can we do to help this conversation in America? Why don’t people talk about it?”

How can people talk about it? I’m afraid to write even this much, even though I’m writing only about what I experienced, even though I’m not assigning blame, even though I’m not saying what I think should or should not happen. Anything regarding this tiny slice of so-sacred land is steeped in emotion and history and, too often, blood. As a future rabbi, a person who wants to be able to serve Jews wherever they might fall on the religious/political spectrum of belief about this place, any form of writing about this land is terrifying. And yet, these stories deserve to be told, and so I will tell them.

We came to a quick stop when army vehicles blocked the road. An Israeli soldier in tactical gear, an M-16 slung across his chest, stepped up to the door of the bus. Our guide’s perfect native Hebrew accent got him answers. There had been a stabbing in a nearby settlement. The assumption was that a Palestinian had stabbed an Israeli settler, but the soldier didn’t tell us that much. He looked too warm in his uniform, tired, ready to do anything other than stand in the middle of this road. Where were we headed, he wanted to know. ירושלים– Jerusalem–our guide told him. He nodded and stepped away. A moment later, other soldiers waved our bus, with its yellow plates, on through the block.

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In Jerusalem, I celebrated a vibrant, soulful shabbat service at Nava Tehila and then headed home, overhearing other shuls at prayer and shabbos tables in full swing. There was a magic to it, to the Jewish community in all its variety marking, through open doors and windows, the holiness of the moment. I felt safe as I walked the streets, fearing neither stones nor soldiers. I pray that, soon and in my lifetime, such peacefulness will be possible for all who know this land as their own.