Transgender Day of Remembrance: Reflection and Prayer

The first independent human act, we are told, was a crossing over of a boundary: from obedience to curiosity, from Eden to the world.  Human life has been marked by transition ever since: from childhood to adulthood, from ignorance to knowing, from solitude to community.

My community, the Jewish people, was a tribe that passed through a wilderness to become themselves. They transitioned through fire and water to become who they would be. The Hebrew word for Jew is ivri, which literally means “the one who crosses over.” Our holy book declares that we are created female and male, not one or the other but both. Sexuality is not binary, it is a spectrum, a rainbow of different expressions, all beautiful, holy, all blessed.

Transition from one state to another is a natural phenomenon for the caterpillar that becomes a butterfly, for the carob tree that changes gender, and for the day that changes into night and back into day again.

It is the experience we all share: it is said that “we are all twilight people. We can never be fully labeled or defined. We are many identities and loves, many genders and none. We are in between roles, at the intersection of histories, or between place and place. We are crisscrossed paths of memory and destination, streaks of light swirled together. We are neither day nor night. We are both, neither, and all.”

On this Transgender Day of Remembrance my prayer is for a world in which Trans people are recognized for the prophetic vision they demonstrate by the way they live their lives; they inspire all of us to envision a world in which we can see that we all  experience transition. We give thanks today for the learning we are offered by every trans life. May we gain understanding. May we reach, someday, wisdom.

אל מלא רחמים in the name of Compassion, may their souls be blessed, all those who are in our hearts on this Transgender Day of Remembrance. Today we say the names of young and old, of every race, faith, and gender experience who have died by violence. We remember those who have died because they would not hide, or did not pass, or did pass, or stood too proud.

Today we say their names: the reluctant activist, the fiery disturber of the peace, the warrior for quiet truth, the anonymous one. As many as we can name, there are thousands more whom we cannot.

All of them are holy; all of them are blessed; all of them are precious.

We mourn the senseless deaths as we give thanks for the lives, the teachings, and for the brief glow of each holy flame. We seek the strength to carry on their legacy of vision, of bravery, and of love.

We remember those who lives were ended by murderous hate, by the hand of another, or by their own, desperate, hand.

We say their names, and in their names we will root out the injustice, ignorance, and cruelty that caused their deaths and our own despair.

We say their names and declare that Creation has many holy faces, many holy genders, and many holy expressions.

Blessed are they who have allowed their divine image to shine in the world.

Blessed are we who have been illuminated and warmed by that light.

Blessed is the Source of all light and life, in which nothing is forgotten, and every living light is gathered in.

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Shabbat VaYetze: Can You See It?

Our ancestor Ya’akov, or Jacob as he is called in English, is the most fully developed, most flawed, most human character of all the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of Jewish tradition. Named, basically, for the word “heel” in Hebrew because he was born holding his twin brother Esau’s heel, he acts the part throughout his youth. Just like the serpent in Eden, Jacob goes low, undermining his brother’s connection to the family and undermining his father’s inheritance plans. His deceit causes him in turn to lose his place in the family, and at the start of this week’s parashah he is on the run, far from home and afraid for his life. Paradoxically, although he is clearly not a pious or an ethical person, it is in this moment that a divine vision is given to him: G*d pulls back the veil of normality, and Jacob sees a link between earth and heaven, and messengers (the Hebrew word often translated “angels” actually means messengers, divine or not) of G*d going back and forth.

This year we are reading the third year of the Triennial Cycle, and so we study the end of this parashah. Jacob is returning home. His time with his mother’s family has been, characteristically, ethically fraught: his father in law tricks him and he does the same in return. Still deceiving, complaining himself of being cheated, after twenty years Jacob is running away again. When he left his home, he was alone and lost; now two matriarchal camps, those of Leah and Rachel, travel with him.

Laban chases him, catches up to him, and the two confront each other: “you cheated me!” “You lied to me!” Finally, they agree to stay away from each other, and Laban goes home. Although, we note, there is no discernible improvement in Jacob’s character, he then, once again, meets messengers of G*d.

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם לָבָ֜ן בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיְנַשֵּׁ֧ק לְבָנָ֛יו וְלִבְנוֹתָ֖יו וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֶתְהֶ֑ם וַיֵּ֛לֶךְ וַיָּ֥שָׁב לָבָ֖ן לִמְקֹמֽוֹ׃
Early in the morning, Laban kissed his sons and daughters and bade them good-by;

then Laban left on his journey homeward.

וְיַעֲקֹ֖ב הָלַ֣ךְ לְדַרְכּ֑וֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־ב֖וֹ מַלְאֲכֵ֥י אֱלֹהִֽים׃
Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him.
(Genesis 32.1-2)
Why is Jacob once again visited by divine messengers? Can we understand that this time, as well, they indicate his ability to see a connection between his own messy life and the holy inherent in the world? Our teacher Rabbenu Bahya asserts that “these are the same angels that Jacob saw at the beginning of the parashah, he already knew them!” They were at the edge of Israel, welcoming him back just where they had bid him farewell. Nakhmanides points out that Jacob is nowhere near the Biblical (or modern) boundaries of Israel at the time of this story.
Yet it seems that these are in essence the same messengers, reminding Jacob of something he had seen before and inviting him to see it again, and to understand that, all these many years later, it is still a true vision. There is holiness inherent and a link between heaven and earth always potentially discernible in our lives. Often hidden under the mess (especially hidden in the case of Jacob’s behavior), just as the mystics teach, these sparks of light nevertheless still glow.
On this Shabbat, may you deepen your ability to appreciate the vision of those around you who seem to you to be unworthy of the awareness that there is a link between heaven and earth. Perhaps it was that repeated vision that finally allowed Jacob to become Israel, a more mature version of himself who at least, at last, could limp his way toward the realization that to struggle with a messenger of the holiness in our lives is finally a struggle with ourselves to let ourselves see it, all around us.

Shabbat Hayye Sarah: Make It Holy

On this Shabbat we will do what we always do, and what Jews in all times and circumstances have done: we will carry on with that which makes our lives meaningful. We will celebrate Shabbat with family of origin and family of choice, and with friends both old, and those newly moved to be with us. We will share a meal and we will immerse ourselves in study and prayer, and in doing so together we will defy the evil we have known.
Jews don’t celebrate martyrdom; our tradition teaches that we should do all we can to live. But when we are killed because we are Jews, in the middle of practicing the rituals that give our Jewish identity meaning, our people recognizes this as kiddush HaShem, a way of making G*d’s name holy in the world. This is the way in which our people names the deaths of innocents in the Shoah and in the massacres, pogroms and inquisitions of our past: no one wants to die in this way, no one seeks it. But if it comes for us, may it be that we are strengthened in our sense of who we are and may it hold us in those last moments!
That which is holy, then, is that which is worth your death, and your life. As it has been said, if you have nothing worth dying for, you have nothing worth living for. But being able to name that for which you are willing to die is only the first step in living in a way that we call holy. We must also be able to name that for which we are living.
Our parashat hashavua (Torah reading for the week) is Hayye Sarah, “the life of Sarah.” The Torah text is summing up the life of the first Matriarch of our people. It begins with Sarah’s obituary, announcing that she lived for “seven years and twenty years and one hundred years.” The commentator Rashi suggests that the years of her life are counted this way because she was as innocent at twenty as she had been at seven, and as beautiful at one hundred as she had been at twenty. She created a holy life.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if upon our deaths it could be said of us that we were as innocent of cynicism and despair at twenty as we were at seven, and as beautiful in our being at one hundred as we were at twenty, and at seven?
In these times, we are realizing that there is no safe place, no guarantee, even as we will do all we can as a community and as families and individuals to keep ourselves safe. Anti-Semitism is real. It hasn’t disappeared any more than other forms of intolerance have. How can we maintain our innocence of cynicism and despair even now, when we are afraid for ourselves and our loved ones? How can we keep focused, despite everything, on creating the inner beauty that comes from a life lived in meaning, and with kindness?
For Jews, the Jewish response is found in tzedakah, in two meanings: first, to mark a person’s death by contributing to a cause which reflects that person’s life, and so to fulfill the Psalmist’s phrase tzedakah tatzil mimavet, tzedakah saves from death.” It does not keep us from dying, but it keeps our memory alive and active in the world. Giving tzedakah defies senseless death by declaring the meaning of a life.
The second way to understand the obligation to do tzedakah in memory of someone’s life is that now, in the face of these murders – not only the eleven in the Pittsburgh shul, but also the nine who died in the Charleston church, and the two who were killed in a Kentucky Kroger’s parking lot, and so many others whose lives were blotted out by senseless hate – we must seek to do tzedek, justice. These deaths occurred because of injustice – that of political corruption, of capitalist greed, and of selfish apathy. We must redouble our efforts to pursue justice and to do justice, in small ways and large.
We can’t do it alone. The more your practice of meaning brings you together with others in meaningful ritual moments, the stronger and more effective you, and we, will be.
Start right now by being kinder to others, and to yourself. Keep your heart open to the pain of empathy, lest we cease to empathize. Stay far from those who invite you to despair, lest you succumb. Come out of your fear and share Shabbat, and the holy moments of every day, with others.
Thus may we all come to know that life is not about simply living. Life becomes holy when we use it to build a life of purpose and of meaning. Whenever it is that you and I and all of us are dead, may others have been lifted up by the way we lived, and may they clearly see the values we meant to live by.
We are in mourning.
We will grieve our dead.
We will not give up our vision for a humanity united in peace.
Hazak hazak vnithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

Praying After Pittsburgh

I am a Rabbi who is privileged to serve an intentional community which takes the form of an independent congregation. We are the only Jewish congregation on the east side of Portland Oregon. We are not only independent but young – only 15 years old – and thus tend to carefully think through our every act. While some might say we often indulge in over-thinking our issues, it seems to me that it’s hard to spend too much time musing, sharing our thoughts and commiserating regarding the growing sense of fear we share as Jewish U.S. citizens.

 

Our congregation’s median age is about 40, and many of our members are young parents. Like many welcoming and progressive congregations, we count many LGBTQI+ identified Jews, some Jews of Color, and a fair number of committed non-Jews – I like to call them “fellow travelers” – among our congregational family. Many of our members have had to fight to feel equally included in the Jewish peoplehood of U.S. society. It is a harsh irony that those who have struggled to be counted in our Jewish minyan of prayer, study and mutual support now feel unsafe in that identity. They now feel comfortable in a place of prayer – and now they are targets. Life is funny that way.

 

By far the most heartbreaking conversation I have had as Rabbi or as a Jew about the Pittsburgh massacre of Jews at prayer was the one I had recently at a gathering of the parents of our youngest children.

 

“As an adult, I feel I know what to do. I’m okay. I can understand what happened, in terms of Jewish history, and anti-Semitism, and the social chaos of this moment,” said one mother. “But as a parent, I’m lost.” Another added through tears, “I just don’t know what I have to do to keep my children safe.”

 

This is the long-dawning, terrible truth of our age: there is no safety. Certainly, we all know this theoretically; that at any moment, an accident could happen or an illness strike, G*d forbid. But this is different, because the evil from which we would shield our children is deliberate. When I’m at the gym, I’ve been thinking this week about the character of the mother in the old movie “The Terminator.” The magical thinking in which a parent might wish to indulge is exacerbated by such Hollywood movies, in which a mother of a threatened child goes about becoming strong enough to shield him – and coincidentally save the world. In the real world, mothers and children are, regularly, swept away together.

 

Waking up is difficult for us. We Jews don’t have the psychic muscles for this – we who have been able to take refuge in white privilege, and succeeded in integrating ourselves into mainstream, affluent U.S. society. We can’t cope with the level of stress our persecuted ancestors took for granted in their lives. Many of my people were already complaining of unbearable levels of stress and no sense of how to deal with it.

 

We are only now beginning to be able to understand the concrete reality of what it means to live in a world in which our children are not safe, just as mothers of black and brown babies and LGBTQI+ mothers and indigenous mothers – and fathers – have known for a long, weary, soul-destroying time. What we need to learn from them is this: There is no safe space for any of us right now. Safety cannot be carved out of the terror of our days. New Zealand has closed its doors and Canada looks at us askance; we can’t buy a pied-a-terre in some other saner place. There is no way to hold ourselves apart from the coming cataclysm, and be safe while all others suffer around us. As Anne Frank presciently wrote, I can hear the approaching thunder, which will destroy us too.

 

I don’t use my phone on Shabbat. On that morning, the news about the massacre at the Tree of Life congregation was shared with me five minutes before I was to begin to lead my own congregation in prayer. We were calling a young girl up to the Torah for the first time, as a bat mitzvah. I determined not to announce what had happened, lest her family’s joy be overshadowed by the horror just outside the door. We who knew sang with more fervor than usual, I think, and more joy – joy is also a form of defiance. And I thought to myself, there are worse ways to go than leading prayer, in the midst of something meaningful on which I’ve built my life. Better, even, perhaps, than the random accident or illness, in some way.

 

We opened our doors the next evening to welcome about two hundred people who sought solace with us in vigil. We lit candles and we hugged each other, and the we went back out into the uncertainty of our lives. What my people and I are realizing is that in the end, our lives are not made meaningful by living them in safety but with intention. It’s an old High Holy Days trope but now with renewed intensity: who by fire? who by water? the old prayer doesn’t ask whether or not we are going to die, but only that we consider how.

 

My people and I stand at a place where two paths diverge. Many of us will opt for the more guarded, more armed, and more anxious effort to keep ourselves safe. But in the end, it’s not really about safety. It’s all about what you are doing when death finds you. I will do my best to help my people find the way to lead with integrity, not with fear, for however many days we have. In this way, I believe, the memory of each of us can be a blessing.

 

As I say to my people: hazak hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other, and we will be all right, no matter what comes.

 

Shabbat Bereshit: Starting Over Again

Happy 5779! Every year at this time, our Jewish tradition invites us to consider the possibility of starting over in our lives; that it is possible, and more, that there is much Jewish wisdom to support one who seeks to return, to renew, to restart. On this Shabbat when we begin again with the beginning, by studying parashat Bereshit, we are invited to see how central learning is to spiritual growth and personal development.
There is a way in which each one of us exists in a sense of consciousness that makes us the center of our universe; thus the 18th century Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav taught: “Assert at all times: the world was created for my sake.” And therefore, “do your share to add some improvement, to supply something that is missing, and to leave this world better than when you first came into it.” (Kitzur Likkutei Mohoran, Bereshit)
This work is not only the social justice work that we Jews are so comfortable citing when we talk about repairing the world. That is the work “out there” and it is imperative; but we ourselves are not separate from the world, and the work we need to do is also “in here,” in our own families, in our work and social circles, in our spiritual community.
How are we to “do our share” in this overwhelming world? Although we move through the world inescapably alone inside our heads and hearts, facing our own singular responsibility for how we live and touch life, yet we who participate in meaningful community walk alongside others, and come to realize that in our struggles we are not alone. We can choose to face the work of our lives (both out there and in here) with others, and together to puzzle out the true and intimate meaning of the mitzvot that can help us to structure and understand life. Jews do this through shared study of Torah, both in that book itself and in the larger sense that includes Talmud, Midrash, Ethics, Mysticism, and more.
It’s endlessly illuminating when you catch on to the interpretive depth of Jewish teaching: for example, you know the mitzvah “you shall not murder,” but do you know that it is interpreted into interpersonal relationships in such a way that to embarrass a convert to Judaism by recalling their non-Jewish past is declared murder in Jewish law? “The blood comes to the face when one is humiliated, and then drains, and this is called shedding blood.” explains the Talmud. Another example: the Torah commands “do not place a stumbling block before the blind,” which is interpreted to include misleading someone who does not understand a situation. Caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware,” has no place in Jewish business ethics.
On This Shabbat when we start over again and begin reading Bereshit, the account of the Creation of the World, all over again, consider how your own world might be renewed through your own small acts to improve it, to supply something that is missing, to make it better for having been there. In these days of political upheaval and social unrest, it’s the micro-kindnesses that are most needed in the world at which each one of us is the center. Working on those together in our small intentional community, we can be a place of light in the encroaching darkness.
The Hebrew letters I’ve added above stand for the words b’siyata d’shmaya, an Aramaic phrase meaning “with the help of heaven” or “G*d willing.” I added them (it’s an old tradition to do so on documents) because I suddenly felt keenly that my weekly salutation is hopeful, and not necessarily an established truth. On this Shabbat of beginning again, I very much hope that in this coming year you will find communal Jewish study to be a support and a consolation in your life. Everyone is welcome at the Torah (life) study table; everyone has something to learn, and something to contribute to the learning.

Shabbat hol hamo’ed Sukkot: Why Bother?

The Festival of Sukkot is seven days long, no, wait, eight; literally, the Jewish folk tradition is that G*d didn’t want to part from us after seven days of joy together, and so asked us to wait one more day before going home. That last day is called Shemini Atzeret, literally, “stop here for an eighth [day].”
It’s a sweet parable, and entirely ridiculous; G*d is everywhere, how could we “go home” from G*d? G*d is home. But the sense of sharing a special closeness at this time of year is something we can recognize. Rosh HaShanah brings together people who don’t see each other, perhaps, all year long except for this gathering, and we welcome the moment. Yom Kippur, for all its discomforts, is rather like a slumber party, with our congregational family and dear friends  hanging out all day long together. And Sukkot brings us the sukkah raisings we do together, the special gatherings for prayers of gratitude and remembering, and the visiting of each other’s sukkot. Finally, everyone starts to move to “go home,” and G*d says, as it were, “stay one more day.”
It rather reminds one of an old joke which I heard in Israel (the ethnic groups are playfully interchangeable): Brits are the people who leave without saying goodbye, and Jews are the people who say goodbye without leaving.
This year, though, I don’t want to leave the closeness. The world feels hostile out there beyond the albeit soft and permeable Sukkah roof and walls, and I am grateful for the sense, however fragile, of a barrier between me and the painful upheaval in our larger world.
One can feel the attraction of the cloistered life at a time like this. To turn away, to go and meditate for six months with no news and no social media, to drop out of society as we know it, rather than to participate in the next demonstration, send the next letter, make the next effort that needs making.
Why bother? Isn’t it all over too soon anyway? What does it matter?
On Sukkot we are bidden by our tradition to consider the harvest of our lives’ effort, and to offer the first fruits of it to G*d. I suggest that in our own day, a relevant way to understand this is that we are lucky enough to be part of a people that at least once a year considers not whether or not to be involved in the world, but rather feels ourselves called upon to choose what participation we might define as our gift of thanks, to the world and it Source, for the gift of life.
Why bother, then? One reason you may have heard, which is very Jewish at heart, is this: “I act, although I may not be able to change the world, so that the world does not change me.” The mitzvah of pursuing social justice is expressed not only in whether we “win” some big “battle,” but at least as significantly in so many micro-kindnesses, if you will – noticing who needs a smile or a kind word is as significant as clothing the naked, supporting the sick, feeding the hungry, and keeping faith with those who have died, as our siddur (prayerbook) puts it.
And after all, there is no Jewish word for “cloistered.” Even the nazarite was not sequestered from society; during the designated time of self-defined difference from their usual way of being in the world, s/he was still expected to fulfill her/his/their role as a Jew in the world, participating in the struggle for justice in the world, and in the creation of a better world.
Why bother? because here in the little world we each call our life, we can never know all that we mean to each other. On this Shabbat of Sukkot, may you understand what acts of your life fill your hands, for it is this that defines the harvest of your life.
Shabbat shalom and mo’adim l’simkha!
Why Bother?
Because right now, there is                  someone
out there with
a wound                                     in the exact shape
                                                           of your words.
Sean Thomas Dougherty
from The Second O of Sorrow