Friday, March 28, 2014

Tazria and Suicide: Being Fully Present

There is a story about the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who received a student in his study at home one day. They spoke of the student’s life and studies, he asked the eminent thinker some questions, all the time seeming pensive, but Buber was distracted, wanting to get back to his work. Later, he found out that the young man, sent to the front during world war I, killed himself. He had come to Buber looking for affirmation, looking for someone to be fully present. He didn’t see what needed to be seen.
Perhaps we see the signs, almost imperceptible:  slight change in behavior, a few cryptic posts on a Facebook feed. Perhaps we miss them, we miss the despair, the urge toward self-destruction. Perhaps we think it’s just a phase, or we don’t feel we know the person well enough to say something. Perhaps we don’t know what to say.
Today, two young women are gone from this community. Bev Shapiro, who was laid to rest yesterday, and Emily Spiegel, a former confirmand, both took their lives this past week. Pirkei Avot says one who destroys a life, it is as if they destroyed an entire world. Acts of depression, of despair, these two women chose to end their worlds: destroying not only their present and future selves, but sending their family and friends reeling in sorrow and grief, anger and guilt.
We cannot fully know what caused them to end their lives, and in the end, does it matter? They are gone, and their leaving—even if we didn’t know them—leaves us stunned. When the young are taken from us, we convulse, knowing intuitively that this isn’t the natural order of things. When the young take their lives, we are shaken to our cores. And we don’t know what to say, afraid that if we say the word, suicide, somehow we taint the memory of the child, or bring shame upon the family. We worry about whether she can be buried in a Jewish cemetery or be mourned. We focus on minutiae of halakha rather than discuss the real and palpable grief the friends and family—and perhaps we—are feeling.
This week we read parashat Tazria. It too describes afflictions that we’d rather hide away—skin diseases and eruptions that cause the afflicted to be sent outside the camp. We don’t want to see it, we don’t want to talk about it; we want to put it away until it is safe. Until she is pure again.
But we forget that the person afflicted is not sent out by themselves; the priest is tasked with looking after the person. And we are a nation of priests. As Martin Buber discovered, we have an obligation to be fully present, to escort the person until such time as they can be called ‘pure’ again. We must walk alongside the families and friends, acknowledge our own fears and grief. And we must speak about suicide openly, without shame or stigma. We rally together to support the person who’s body is sick, so must we rally together to bring healing to one who’s spirit is broken.
I didn’t know Bev or Emily, at least not well. But I have seen suicide, including in my own family. My cousin Moshe killed himself more than twenty years ago. Raised in Israel to loving and creative parents, it was his senior year of high school and he was preparing to join the army. He was sensitive, a fantastic chess and soccer player, and whipsmart. He had applied to join a combat unit has his older brother Amichai had, the same unit his friends applied to. His friends got in, and he did not. Ashamed that he couldn’t measure up to no one’s expectations, terrified of being separated from his friends, lonely and sad, he took his father’s gun, given only because his father had to drive across the Green Line for work, a weapon never removed from its holster, and shot himself while the family was out. It’s been over twenty years, and his parents have never recovered. None of us have. None of us will.
Two girls are dead, their lives ended too soon. Nothing will bring them back. We cannot be present for them, but we can be fully present for their families and friends, as the priests of old—and those we think might be grieving their own lives and contemplating the same choices themselves. We must. We must.
I end with prayer, Rabbi Joseph Meszler’s "Prayer at the Funeral of Someone Who Committed Suicide"
Let there be no whispering, no secrets here:
Our hearts are broken.
Bev and Emily took their own lives.
And even though it might appear
that each died by her own hand,
no one does this without great, coercing pain,
inner suffering that seems to have no end,
even though we wish
they knew that no agony is forever.
Source of Compassion, help us to cry out loud,
to hold each other gently,
to live with unanswerable questions,
normal feelings of anger and guilt,
and this gaping hole of loss.
Help us to reach out to others who are suffering,
to show them our love, to say the kind word,
and that this is not a choice we condone
or is worth imitation.
It is hard to see the divine image in the lives of those who suffer.
The sun sets and rises.
We put one foot in front of the other.
We hold our hearts in our hands.
We lift them up to You, God of eternal peace,
and to each other.
Help us live each day.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Suicides in Our Community

I know many of us are mourning the loss of Beverly Shapiro, a student at Concord High School who passed over the weekend and is being laid to rest today.  And, I know many of us are just learning about the loss of Emily Spiegel, our former student and confirmand, who also took her life this week, and are feeling that loss terribly.

The Rabbis teach that if someone ends a life, it is as if that person has ended the whole world. Sadly, Bev & Emily ended their worlds. We cannot imagine the pain they felt in their life, nor the bottomless sorrow their families are enduring at this moment. But we can be show our support to them, as well as their friends and companions, and find comfort in each other.

We will be offering a special prayer and meditation on suicide at our Friday Shabbat Services.

If you are so moved, I invite you to join us Friday or Saturday to rise and say Kaddish for Bev, or Sunday in T’fillah. Cantor Stanton, Rabbi Grumbacher and I are available if anyone needs someone to talk to. And if you just need a quiet place, the building is open every weekday until five (later most days), and you are welcome to come to our memorial alcove or sanctuary for solace.

May Bev’s  & Emily’s memory be a blessing and may we support one another. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Parashat Shemini: Are you happy?

One of my favorite quotes from Oscar Wilde that I just discovered is that “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”

I’ve been dwelling on this quote a lot lately, especially since signing my new contract (oh, yeah. I signed a new contract. No big deal). What does it mean to get what one wants? What is it do we really want in life? What are our ambitions, and are they external—that is, what we’ve been told to want—or do they come from a deeper place, a place rooted in our identity, in who we really are?

Since I’ve gotten here nearly five years ago I’ve been asked over and over again “are you happy here?”, and I’ve always chafed at that question. Someone asked me that the other day at Brew Ha Ha and I found myself get profoundly uncomfortable. Part of it is my New England upbringing—‘happiness’ seems so ephemeral, so superficial somehow. It just feels like the wrong question, but up until recently, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. This week, studying with some colleagues, I think I figured it out. I don’t want to be asked if I’m happy—sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not. I want to be asked if I’m appreciative. Do I appreciate where I am—this community, this congregation, the people around me? Do I appreciate and value the people who strive to make this place whole?  Do I feel like I have the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives, to make connections that are meaningful? Is this place my place, and can I see it as a good place? The answer to those questions is yes. But those are different questions, questions rooted, I hope, in a deeper place of my neshamah, what that speaks to not getting what I want or not getting what I want, but being where I’m supposed to be.

Is that happiness per se? No, but it allows for moments of happiness that may be rooted more deeply than in superficial goals or aspirations, ones that don’t leave us satisfied, but feeling like Oscar Wilde’s tragic character—either unrealized, or found wanting.

This week Aaron and his sons are ordained as kohanim, and Aaron blesses the people of Israel. It is a profound and joyful moment, scarred when Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, bring alien fire forward, and are consumed themselves in fire, dying in an instant. What is the strange fire, the eish zarah? We’re never told. Some scholars suggest they were drunk, or weren’t wearing the right ritual garb. One suggests that they were arrogant. But I would suggest another possibility. That their death is a metaphor for our own pursuit of happiness, our own vain pursuit of what we’re told to want. Rather than appreciating their position and their role, the expectations of the community and the rituals they were to practice, they were blinded by ambition, blinded by haughtiness. They performed their ritual superficially, rather giving of themselves wholly and completely. They chose not to be fully present, and as a result, suffered.

So it is with us. We spend so much of our time burning strange fires within ourselves, fed by other people’s expectations: of wealth, beauty, physical prowess, how our relationships should be, our homes should look, how our jobs should be, how our families should look. We hold on to a fantasy rather than being fully present. We don’t appreciate what we have, or who we are.

So, are you happy? Do you have what you want? Or is those the wrong questions? I think they are. Are we appreciative? Are our lives, imperfect and immeasurable, filled with blessings? Do we have opportunities to live out those blessings? I hope the answer is yes. The Dalai Llama once said: There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow, so today is the right day to love, believe, do and mostly live. Teach us, O God, to see every day you give us as a chance to appreciate who we are, to embrace our place and our community, to live fully in it and our own lives, and to free ourselves of the strange fire of want. Amen

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Standing Up for What's Right: Purim and Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath

In case you hadn't heard, Purim is around the corner.

Ah Purim. Costumes, bawdiness, drinking (lots of drinking), and violence.

Yes, as I shared with members of the Siegel JCC staff yesterday, the story of Purim is, as much as anything else, a story of violence. Murder and palace intrigue. Attempted genocide by Haman and his followers. Executions and vengeance. Ethnic cleansing by the Jews in 'defense' against the unrescinded order.

It's an aspect of the story that we tend to skim over. We want to get to the costume parade, the silly jokes, see how the rabbi is dressed up this time, and get to the carnival. We don't want to talk about violence with our kids.

But the violence is there. It's there to stand as a warning. For we know that God is absent from the text of the book of Esther. Indeed, they do a play on words with Esther's name--God's face is hidden (hester) from the sight of Israel. And in the absence of God, in the absence of holiness, all hell breaks loose.

It's a reminder that bringing an end to violence is all our responsibility. We all have an obligation, a sacred obligation, to see that the kind of violence present in the book of Esther doesn't come to pass. We may not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor. And too much blood is being spilled.

That's why this Shabbat, in addition to our celebration of Purim, we'll be observing Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath. On Saturday, we will be offering prayers and meditations recognizing the damage gun violence does to our community, and be hearing from two of our teens who spoke to our senators and congressmen about the issue of gun violence at last week's L'taken weekend.

In addition, I'm joining with my colleagues--Jewish and Christian--in the so-called "Old Ninth Ward" in Wilmington to form a "Rapid Response Team" whenever violence takes place in our part of the city. The purpose? To provide an interfaith presence of peace, to be a support to the family and neighborhood, to shine a light on the darkness that overwhelms our city to the point that we are truly numb to the violence that takes place in our community. As a congregation, when we renovated 300 W. Lea Blvd, we made a choice to stay in the city. To me, that means we must remain of the city as well, and provide support for the community around us.

Sometime in the weeks ahead I'll be sharing what else we can do, including direct service and advocacy efforts, to bring peace to our city. For now, around the frivolity and rejoicing and happiness of Purim, I invite you to join me, to join us this Shabbat morning and remember our commitments as well.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Vayikra, Snow Days and Being Called

Another week, another snow day. I was reading one of my favorite journalists, Dahlia Lithwick, who wrote a fabulous ode to the chaos of our times called “Goodnight Snow Days”, based on Goodnight Moon.

In the great green room There was a telephone That came with the news, that school was closed Again.And a red balloon, over my head, that said: “Good night job.”Yes, that’s your mommy, jumping over the moon Trying again to entertain you because the cow said there’s been too much screen time And mommy can’t do one more experiment with vinegar.See that quiet old lady whispering, “Hush”?Five months ago she was young and beautifulAnd you called her “Mommy.”Good night nobody. Good night mush.Good night to the old lady whispering, "I just need five minutes, OK?"Good night stars. Good night air.Good night snow days, everywhere.

Ah, the snow day. That’s how I got to begin this week. Again.

Snow days often remind me of how stressful I find parenting. And boy, do I find it stressful. Even when I’m enjoying the moment, I’m worrying about the next thing.

I was talking about this with some fellow parents, and I stopped myself. Here’s a couple that has three children. Their oldest has health issues, and has since birth. And they take it all in stride. And for a while I thought it was because they simply had better intestinal fortitude than me. But they talked about how they really work at it, and then the mom said something that blew me away. She said, there’s a reason her son, her eldest, came into their lives. She honestly felt that she was meant to parent this child, and this child was meant to be parented by her.

The way she talked reminded me of how I talk about why I do what I do—that sense of being called. I was meant to do this, created to do this, just as she was meant to do what she does. Because she was, because I am called.

Truth is, we’re all called. That’s how this week’s portion, the first portion of Leviticus, begins. Vayikra, God called. God calls us. Why? To create holiness. To be partners in the Divine act of Creation. To make a more ordered, more perfect, more just and loving world. God calls, and we must answer the call. But interestingly, the word itself is defective. The aleph on the end of the word vayikra is written small, almost as if it’s a child who ran out of room. Why is it smaller?
Some argue that it’s a sign of Moses’ humility. What hubris to say that God calls us! That it is somehow purposeful, rather than accidental. So he writes the aleph smaller, as a reminder of our place in the grand scheme of things. But I think there’s something else going on.

Vayikra, God calls. God calls us every time we look at another human being who needs us. Not someone else, not some generic idea of support or encouragement, but US. God calls us when we see injustice, and there is much injustice. God calls us when our heart tells us to react with fear rather than love, but we know—we KNOW—it’s the wrong reaction. God calls us when the question is hard, and the answer harder. God calls us. 

But we know our answer is imperfect. God calls us and we respond…and our response is lacking, wanting, insufficient. We let people down—heck, we let ourselves down. We work tirelessly, endlessly at our task and never seem to get anywhere. We get frustrated with others who don’t respond the way we think they should, the way we want them to. Where’s the gratitude? Where’s the change in lifestyle and behavior when we call people’s attention to their issues? God calls and we respond, and our response too often is poor. At the very least, it requires work. Nothing is effortless. When I studied the Irish poet Yeats, I found that each whimsical, lyrical poem was first written in prose, hammered out word by word, verse by verse. There was very little whimsy or lyric left to chance. So it is with us. Whether it’s sustaining the poor, or helping people find meaning in their lives, advocating for Israel, or an end to gun violence, or full equality for all, or keeping our children from growing up to be sociopaths (or for the love of God to stop singing the Everything is Awesome song twenty thousand times in a row), it doesn’t just happen. God may speak and the world comes to be, but we need to devote energy, attention, intention—the kavannah of ourselves.

That’s why the aleph in vayikra is diminished. God calls, and we try our best, but we never quite get it right, do we? And yet, God calls. On purpose. With intent. There is no accident, no incidental nature to why we are here. God calls and we must still answer the call to the best of our abilities. It’s up to us to make that aleph full-sized. But only, only if we answer the call. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Parashat Pekudei: Like a Tent

So last  Friday I got an email forwarded to me about an event happening at the University of Delaware.
UD Students for Justice in Palestine is teaming up with the Delaware African Students Association (DASA) & Amnesty International at UD to host UD's first ever "Israeli Apartheid Week."
Yay! Doesn’t that just sound like fun?

I forwarded it to Seth Katzen at Federation, called up Rebecca Kirzner at J-Street to get her insight as to a good response, and shook my head. But I’ve found myself thinking more and more about this.
It isn’t my first encounter with BDS. I’ve had conversations with Presbyterian ministers and helped support an anti-BDS Jewish group at my alma-mater, Oberlin College. I won’t go into all the problems with the whole “Israel Apartheid” thing (though those problems are legion) but I’ll tell you the part that bothers me the most. It’s not the latent anti-semitism, or that it doesn’t actually help promote a 2-state solution, or that it does a disservice to those who fought against actual apartheid. It’s that the BDS movement silences dissent. It is an extreme position that is meant—according to their supporters—to force Israel to the negotiating table. But really, all it does is harden positions, coarsen dialogue, and force people to make all-or-nothing stands. Either your pro-Israel or against Israel, David Mamet or Noam Chomsky, AIPAC or PLO. There is no room for nuance, no room to talk through the issues in a real or meaningful way, no way to say ‘I’m a Zionist, but I think X, or Y, or Z.” It creates a black-or-white conversation. Worse, it creates a monoculture.
Do you know what a monoculture is? It’s exactly as it sounds—one size fits all. Usually the term is used for agriculture or industry. For example, we grow wheat by planting seeds that have no-long term support. Farmers plant huge fields of one crop of wheat, ply it with pesticides, fertilizers and the like, harvest it up, leaving nothing left, resulting in topsoil washing away, and then repeat the process every year. As Wilson Miner wrote in The Manual:   this kind of agriculture is short term efficiency maximized for rapid, unbounded growth. It works, but it is, by its nature, unsustainable.

This has been our problem with regards to Israel for years. We have only one way of talking about Israel—pro or con, because extremists on both ends push this kind of monoculture. There is no nuance, no way to talk about different layers of support for Israel. And while it gets dramatic short term results, it’s turning people off in the long-run.

And this is true throughout the organized Jewish world. Much like other aspects of American culture, many of our institutions are built for rapid, explosive short-term growth, but not for long-term engagement. We struggle to create lasting, sustainable relationships. Look at Birthright Israel as an example. Great short term experience, but Taglit and its partners have struggled for years to figure out what the follow-through looks like. Synagogues have done a better job, but too frequently we measure success in terms of growth. I can’t tell you how often I talk to colleagues and they ask me “so, how big is yours.” With all the unintended double entendres that can arise from that kind of question. But, as Miner points out: There are more ways to scale than growth. There are more ways to deepen our impact than just reaching more people.

This week, in parashat Pekudei the Tabernacle is completed, and we are told that everyone participated in the making of the Mishkan. Every person gave something, and on top of that everyone gave as their heart so moved them. The Torah spends pages and pages describing the different details of the Mishkan, and all the materials that went into its making—precious stones, precious metals, different kinds of skins and thread. And yet, with all the utensils, furniture, and fabric, the center of it was empty, save the presence of God. While it could be to show off how splendid it was, or preserve a cultural memory of the Tabernacle for future generations, I think it serves another purpose. Everyone could go to the Tent and see themselves in it. This Tent, sitting in the center of the community, made by EVERYONE, also gave everyone the space to be a part of it. It’s meant for everyone—not the most pious, not merely the leadership or the priests. Contrast that with the Ziggurats and Temples of old, which were off-limits to the hoi polloi. This was open to all.
And that’s how Judaism is, at its best. We’re not supposed to be a monoculture. We’re supposed to be many threads coming together to weave one fabric. We’re not supposed to be stalks of wheat that are harvested, leaving no roots behind. As the preschool kids sing at the JCC, we’re supposed to be trees, rooted firmly, our branches stretching up to the heavens. Our relationships with Israel are diverse, but we’re supposed to have a relationship, and not be scared off by crazies with love it or leave it ideologies. Judaism has never been interested in short-term growth at the cost of long-term health. There has always been a diversity of voices competing for attention. Good, that’s how it should be, but no one voice should ever be so loud as to shout the others down. Even in the Talmud, if a scholar’s minority position lost—that is, it wasn’t put into practice—he was still allowed to teach it. Because root systems only grow stronger, and tapestries only share their beauty, when there is diversity to it. And Tents are only wonderful when there are those to fill it.

There is a new study guide for the Presbyterian Church on Israel. Andrew Jacobs from Hanover Presbyterian and I are going to study it together and have a nuanced, rich and sometimes conflicted conversation. I’m sure sometimes even a heated conversation. But it will be a conversation, not an attempt to silence one another. And we’ll all have many more conversations, each one a thread making the tapestry of this community. And let them come together like a tent to wrap us up, because we know we are in God’s presence when we see the diversity in ourselves and give voice to that diversity, when we plant roots.

Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Hear each other’s voices; call that profit. See the different strands. Prophesy such returns. Then, O God, may we make a sanctuary for You to dwell among us. Amen.