All That Breathes: Language of the Unheard

These last few month with COVID-19 things have been bad, but recently we reached a new low. The tragic murder of George Floyd has brought into focus the systemic racism in our society. And his last words have been resonating for many of us:

George Floyd: Liam Payne shares 'I can't breathe' quote after his ...

COVID-19 and the protests have come together in the expression of not being able to breathe. Seen here are two of thousands of people with masks to protect them from COVID-19 expressing outrage for a government and police force that is not there to protect them:

George Floyd protests reveal racism in coronavirus and police ...

I found myself thinking about this breathe and I found myself reading Psalms found in the liturgy. There we see:

Hallelujah. Praise God in God’s sanctuary; praise God in the sky, God’s stronghold. Praise God for God’s mighty acts; praise God for God’s exceeding greatness. Praise God with blasts of the horn; praise God with harp and lyre.Praise God with timbrel and dance; praise God with lute and pipe. Praise God with resounding cymbals; praise God with loud-clashing cymbals. Let all that breathes praise the Lord. Hallelujah. (Psalms 150)

At first glance I noticed that the symphony being described as all families of instruments represented. On this Psalm Saint Augustine (354 –430 CE) commented:

The breath is employed in blowing the trumpet; the fingers are used in striking the strings of the psaltery and the harp; the whole hand is exerted in beating the timbrel; the feet move in the dance

This Psalm gives voice to every dimension of the human experience. This comes to a head in the end when it describes human beings as that that breathe. We are beyond animals because we use that breathe to praise God. This Psalm reciprocates the creation of Adam in Eden. There we read:

The Lord God formed human from the dust of the earth. God blew into their nostrils the breath of life, and human became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

Breathing is the essence of what it means to be human. The tragic snuffing out of George Floyd’s breathe reminds us that there are many in our society who have been stripped of their rights and do not have a voice in society.

We are all reminded of the holy words of Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883) who said that, “Someone else’s physical needs are my spiritual responsibility.” We are spiritually driven to secure the safety, voice, and opportunity of “all that breathes.”

We cannot dismiss the voices of those that are responding in rage to this senseless killing. We are reminded of the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr who said:

Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

We must all do what we can to amplify the voices of the unheard to make sure that we have “social justice and progress”. It is only at that time when we will live out the words of Psalms and enjoy the rich symphony of humanity in praise of God.

The Wholehearted Hurt of Revelation: Nine Inch Nails, Johnny Cash, and Rava

Recently I had a chance to teach a class for the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s S’more Learning: A Campy Pre-Shavuot Celebration. It was a great event. We have a great team. Noting the COVID-19 pall that has fallen over us this year I wanted to give some voice to the anguish and sadness that many of us are experiencing. I wanted to share with you a taste of that class.

During this time of extended social isolation I keep finding myself listening to Johnny Cash‘s 2002 cover of Michael Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nail‘s song Hurt. Enjoy this video:

 

There is a lot of emotion in this song. While it might have originally been a lament of drug addiction and depression, Cash’s rendition seems like a painful retrospective of a long life. One line that I have been mulling over is:

I hurt myself today

To see if I still feel

I focus on the pain

The only thing that’s real ( Hurt, NIN 1994)

While I hope no one wants to hurt themselves, I think many of us can relate to experience of feeling numb after weeks of sheltering in place.

I was thinking about this image when reviewing a Gemara in Shabbat that discusses what happened on Shavuot at Sinai. The Israelites receive the Torah with the words  Na’aseh V’nishmah- we said “We will do” before “We will hear”. In the Talmud our merit is our belief and conviction coming before our discernment and understanding. It is in this context that we learn a strange story about Rava. There we learn:

The Gemara relates that a heretic saw that Rava was immersed in studying halakhaand his fingers were beneath his leg and he was squeezing them, and his fingers were spurting blood. Rava did not notice that he was bleeding because he was engrossed in study. The heretic said to Rava: You impulsive nation, who accorded precedence to your mouths over your ears. You still bear your impulsiveness, as you act without thinking. You should listen first. Then, if you are capable of fulfilling the commands, accept them. And if not, do not accept them. He said to him: About us, who proceed wholeheartedly and with integrity, it is written: “The integrity of the upright will guide them” (Proverbs 11:3) ( Shabbat 88a-b)

Like the song Hurt we see Rava injuring himself. In this context the heretic seems very reasonable. Why would anyone want to hurt themselves?

I have no interest in defending Rava, Nine In Nails, or Johnny Cash, but I do want to understand this urge to experience reality through an exploration of grief and pain. I have many thoughts here but for now I just want to offer one word alluded to in Rava’s response to the heretic- wholeheartedness.

As Brené Brown, my Vulnerability Rebbe, writes:

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

The risk of revelation is that we will be forced to confront the darkness. If we are brave enough to explore this we will be blessed to share the infinite light. One of the lessons of Shavuot is that if we can get in touch with the hurt, we can wholeheartedly experience the joy.

-For full class check the source sheet

 

Sheltering in Place: COVID-19 as a Time of Sukkot

As we start reading the book of Numbers- Bamidbar, Hebrew for “In the Wilderness”, I wonder where I am in my wandering. Like every other year I find myself pondering the Midrash where we learn, ” There are three ways to acquire Torah, with fire, with water, and with wilderness.” (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:1). The midrash could be understood to mean that we acquire Torah through passion (fire), immersion (water), and through a long trek in unknown land (the wilderness). For decades this has validated my understanding of camps and travel experiences as the best ways to acquire Torah. But with the advent of COVID-19 and many camps not being able to open up this summer, we find ourselves in a new unknown land. In this new situation we are all sheltering in place spending hours connected to our computer screens. How are we acquiring Torah in this new wilderness?

This gives me pause to think about where we are in history at this moment. For most of us who are not working on the front line of COVID- 19 we are out of harms way at home, but we are still not out of the woods. We are in the space between averting risk and still not totally free. We are reliving our time in the wilderness having left Egypt but not made it yet to the Promised Land. In spirit we are reliving the time of sukkot. About this time we read:

You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:42-43)

The the porous structure of the sukkah speaks to our vulnerable state of being during this period of time between unknown and known. The sukkah is both a time and the location for sheltering in place.

On Beacon, NY's Main Street, a sukkah turns townhall | The Times ...

But what was the original structure of the sukkot? About this we learn in the Talmud:

Rabbi Eliezer teaches that the sukkot of the desert experience were “clouds of glory,” which hovered over the Children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva disagrees saying,  “The sukkot were real booths that they built for themselves.” (Sukkah 11b)

Both Rabbis assumed that this was time of connected with God, but were the sukkot divine and virtual according to Rabbi Eliezer or real sukkot according to Rabbi Akiva? Both Rabbis celebrated sukkot in real sukkot, so what was the difference?

Our COVID-19 social distancing reality has made us aware that we actually want to connect.   When this started I doubted it possible to connect in a deep way virtually through a computer screen. Being forced to engage with each other in the cloud of the internet seemed forced and inauthentic. After having to move two in-person conferences online I can say it works. It might not be what we wanted but it is much more then we expected. In this timely and timeless moment of Sukkot we are all vulnerable and open.  The virtual can itself be real if we are open to making the connection. Torah can be acquired if we use a new pedagogue for this new wilderness. As we shelter in place we realize that we are in a time of sukkot  in which Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva are actually agreeing. The cloud based connection can be a safe alternative to make real connections.

A Different Kind of Shmitah

With the advent of COVID-19 and the shelter in place regulations we have not driven our family van. At the start I realized that we had a flat tire and eventually switched it out for a doughnut, but still the car has not moved in 9 weeks.

This whole existence has caused a forced Shmitah of sorts. As we read in this week’s Torah portion, Behar Bechukotai:

God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for God. For Six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyards and you may gather your crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. ( Leviticus 25:1-4)

On one hand I have never worked this hard in my life, on the other hand this unique 9 week period has been a prolonged period of “complete rest”. Our car’s idle state represents our staying in one place. This has been a blessing of a prolonged family Shabbat.

On our Torah portion Rashi asks the oft quoted question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” Why is this Mitzvah getting top billing at Sinai? Was not the whole Torah given at Sinai?  What is so special about a “complete rest”?

While on Passover we were slaves, by the time we reach Shavuot we ascended to the level to receive the Torah at Har Sinai. When we were slaves were bound by our masters to work in their land and not move. While we were traveling around in the desert as refugees it was hard to forget that we were a band of lowly liberated slaves. It is Gods world and we were just drifting through it.  Eventually we will be in the Land of Israel and again sedentary working our own land. Even if we are unsettled at this moment, the laws of Shmitah are here by Har Sinai to remind us of our humble beginnings as slaves and to point us to a wonderful autonomous future. In many ways this flat tire is doing a similar thing. It reminds me that even if everything is crazy now, I am safe, with the people I love, and there is a future when everything will settle down.

FOMO and the Question of Pesach Sheni

On the first anniversary of Passover — one year after the Exodus from Egypt  — the people were instructed to offer the Paschal Lamb sacrifice as they did in Egypt. This  plan did not work out for everyone. Since some of the people were doing the holy work of dealing with the dead they had come into contact with human corpses, were ritually impure, and could not participate in this rite. As we read:

Appearing that same day before Moshe and Aaron, those men said to them, “Unclean  by reason of a corpse, why must we be denied from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?” (Numbers 9:6-7)

Moshe asked them to wait while he asked God for the answer for their query. God’s response is Pesach Sheni. This Friday is the day when those that were left out of the communal experience of Passover are invited back for a do-over. 

We jump from their question right to God’s answer: these Israelites were allowed to offer the Paschal Lamb sacrifice a month later. What the story doesn’t explore, however, are what motivated them to approach Moshe and Aaron with their question in the first place. What were their emotions while waiting for an answer? Surely, it must have been painful for them to be denied this central communal experience. These Israelites were “essential workers” who were caring for their community. They were being excluded and clearly yearned to be part of the group.  It could be argued that this was the original case of FOMO  (fear of missing out).

Experiencing 'Data Fomo'? - Appsee - Medium

The theme of “yearning” has always been poignant to me, and seems to take on particular resonance this year. Many of our children feel this sense of yearning right now after hearing that their camp will not or might not run this summer. And even though we know that someday this pandemic will pass and we can return, it doesn’t mitigate the sense of loss we are experiencing in this moment.

When my father passed away, I read many books on grief and loss. One quote that has stuck with me comes from Martin Prechtel’s The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise. He writes: 

Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.

Before we run ahead to meet the demands of the day — and we will —  let’s reflect on this praise for what our children miss. Our campers and staff members who will be stuck at home feel homeless without camp. 

In a poem about Israel, Yehuda HaLevi, the 12th Century Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher, wrote, “ My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west”. Similarly our teens who were going to go to Israel- long for a homeland thousand of miles away where they have never been. They are  yearning to be part of Jewish Life.  This crisis has been unsettling, but the tribute being paid to the places we call home is a foundation upon which to build. We will figure out  our do-over to reconvene as a community, but today on the answer of Pesach Sheni let’s honor the question. Let’s honor our children’s yearning. 

-cross-posted at FJC Blog

Deference for the Old: A New Look at Biomimicry

In Aharei Mot -Kedoshim, this week’s Torah portion, we learn the practice of honoring the elderly. There we read:

You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. (Vayikra 19:32)

It is interesting to think about standing as means of expression of honor. But what does it mean “to show deference to the old” beyond standing? And what does it have to do with fearing God?

On one level I have been thinking about this amidst COVID-19 differently. During this crisis our elderly are really at risk and many are locked away from society. How are we showing them respect? In many ways we are not standing but rather sitting at home to show them deference. Social distancing is making sure that we are avoiding the proximity in which we would need to stand for them at all. Are we doing enough to reach out to them during this period?

On another level I have been thinking about this commandment in light of the positive environmental impact of COVID-19. this got me thinking about the inspiring work of Janine Benyus biomimicry, which is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. Benyus has a message for inventors: When solving a design problem, look to nature first. There you’ll find inspired designs for making things waterproof, aerodynamic, solar-powered and more. In this compelling TED talk she reveals dozens of new products that take their cue from nature with spectacular results. Please take the time to watch:

In this talk she says:

In so many ways I hear her message as an invitation to “show deference to the old” in a different way. 

Benyus created a website that organizes all biological information by design and engineering function to meet our current needs. Check it out at AskNature.org . Perhaps if we gave deference to the ancient geniuses in the natural world all around us we might learn a way out of this intractable COVID-19 epidemic. Maybe having a deep appreciation of the richness of the millions of years of wisdom in the natural world would help us connect with a deep awe if not fear of God.

Yosef and Yom HaAtzamut: On Chesed and Interdepence

This is a very busy time of year. A two months ago we celebrated Purim, a month later Pesach, last week we had Yom HaShoah, today we commemorated Yom HaZikaron, tonight we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, and then in few weeks we will celebrate Shavuot. Between the slavery and genocide of our ancestors Yom HaShoah, Purim, and Pesach represent the nadir of our history. And the reception of the Torah centuries ago and founding of the modern state of Israel are the zenith of our existence. I wanted to pause for a moment in preparation for Yom HaAtzmaut to reflect on this modern experience during our current crisis.

Before I get to that I need to confess some sadness that I have been carrying for that last few weeks while in COVID-19 social isolation. Over the last 20 years when I can I volunteer in the local chevra kadisha. Preparing a body for burial is a Chesed Shel Emet –  “Charity of True Loving Kindness”. This is an activity in which the recipient of the Chesed by design cannot repay the debt. The dead person is completely dependent on the Chesed of others. We have had to suspend our activity during this plague due to the risk to the volunteers.

When I think about the obligation to take care of a  corpse I think about Yosef at the end of his life. There we read:

So Yosef made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up atzmotai- my bones from here.” (Genesis 50:25)

Yosef was not asking for a random act of chesed. Despite having been sold by his brothers into slavery, when they showed up in Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan, Yosef helped them without stipulation or retribution. Yosef is the model of Chesed to his brothers. And in the end he was not asking for anything in return, but to return his bones back to his ancestral home.

In this context Yosef’s bones unlock a profound understanding of Yom HaAtzmaut. Atzmaut – independence shares the same root with atzem-bone. On Yom HaZikaron we commemorate the sacrifices, like those of Yosef, made for our nation. This day we celebrate our brother’s long awaited return home. This day we celebrate repaying one Chesed with another. Yosef’s long aspiration to have his atzmot bones returned home are echoed in the Hatikvah. There we read:

Our hope is not yet lost,
The two-thousand-year-old hope,
To be a free nation in our land.

As much as Yom HaAtzaut is the acme of being Jewish in our expression of independence from nations who have put us in slavery or wanted to kill us, it is also an expression of our interdependence between brethren over thousands of years of hope.

As for now I stand in awe of our doctors and nurses who are doing real Chesed by working on the front line of COVID-19. Here is a picture from the Boston Globe of my brother who is doctor at BMC who is also a proud member of his chevrah Kadisha in Boston.

Boston Medical Center patient Candace Samayoa waved goodbye to nurses as she was being released from the hospital. Samayoa had been admitted to BMC two weeks earlier after testing positive for COVID-19.

I am sad that in social isolation I cannot do a Chesed shel Emet. I feel independent and cut off. More then in years past I yearn to be interdependent and connected with my family, local community, and nation. Have a great great Yom HaAtzmaut. Stay safe and connected.

-Inspired by Yishama’s Bar Mitzvah speech


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