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