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.

 

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Shabbat Matot-Masei: the Long, Confusing, Chaotic Road to Freedom

In this week’s double parashah we wind up the Book of BaMidbar. The word bamidbar, actually three in English, is usually translated “in the wilderness”. But the root word, dalet bet reysh, can as easily be understood as “speaking”. Our ancestors wandered across a land that was unsettled, and that they saw as chaotic and uncontrollable. We, similarly, wander in a wilderness of words. They come at us from so many directions, and so many sources: media, social media, neighbors, friends, family, community, books, and, of course, from the inside of our own heads. Uncontrollable, and often chaotic in their impact upon us.

In parashat Masei, “journeys”, the Torah recounts every stop our ancstors made on their trek from Egypt to the Land of Israel. Similarly, every community that shares a sense of common purpose may be lucky enough for its members to feel that they are going somewhere, toward some vision of a promise of an endpoint. And for every community, no doubt, the story that is told afterward makes sense of what may feel at the lived moment very much like trackless chaos. No doubt there were many days of confusion along the way, even though now the Torah simply lists each campsite, so calmly that it seems boring.

What were the Civil Rights days of the 1960s like? We look back now and see a narrative, or more than one, and it seems that people must have been so clear about their vision, so much so that one expects to actually see a path open up under their feet as they progress toward Equal Rights goals more visible now, even if not yet achieved. But what was that time really like? no doubt, there was chaos, and a sense of trackless wilderness. It is only afterward that we can see where we were, as we tell the story.

As we tell the story, we give it meaning by the way we tell it, with the perspective we gain from the struggle on the way, but only after it is over, and the dust has settled, as we can see again. Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav taught that we, each of us, is a portrait that is finished only on our last day of life; only then do we see what we have created.

We don’t know the end of the story through which we are living now. We don’t know the meaning of the Jewish story of transition from the Rabbinic Era to whatever we’re entering now in our time. We can’t know the outcome of the Civil Rights Struggle of our day, or even the election cycle only a few months from now. And we are not privy to the Omniscient Narrator perspective on the Land and State of Israel. In all these cases, the final outcome is unknown, because we are still shaping the portrait through our choices.

We can only hope and pray to be as mindful and intentional as we can, with each other’s help, and to remember that each of our acts toward the good is needed. While we are wandering in a chaos of confusing and painful social change, which for many of us is accompanied by religious alienation and economic struggle, let’s try, as it is said in the Black struggle for Civil Rights, to keep our eyes on the Prize. And as Jews put it, to take care that each step carries us closer to the vision that we call Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alah, “the Ideal Jerusalem”. Keep kindness in your mind and your heart always.

We finish this book of the Torah the way we always do: with hazak, hazak, v’nithazek, “be strong, and of good courage, and let us strengthen each other”.