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 Re’eh: What Happens When You Look

Parashat Re’eh is named for our ability to see and understand:  רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה – “see, I place before you today blessing and curse.” (Deut. 11.26). Blessing, we are told, follows the choice to comply (literally, “listen”); curse, if we do not.

It seems so very simple and direct an expectation: look, and understand; hear, and follow. But if we have never before beheld the vision we are must see, how do we know what to look for? if we have not yet heard the melody, how do we know what to listen for? In short, what does a new way, a better choice, a healed world, look, and sound, like?

Over the past year our religious community has been seeking a way forward in response to the racial violence which, more and more, we sense all around us. We know ourselves as Jews to carry on the learned compulsion toward acting for justice – and these days echo with the divine command to act very clearly. But how are we to act? What are we listening for, and what are we looking for?

After much searching and questioning, some of us gathered for a first effort to articulate our feelings and seek a coherent way forward on Tisha B’Av. On a hot August night we considered the terrible situation of these, our days, our own sadness and confusion, and what we might gain in strength and focus from our Jewish tradition and its teachings. We decided we would meet again this past Thursday evening, last night, to discuss an article on Jewish identity and the struggle for racial justice.

Then, yesterday, we were notified of a vigil to be held at the same time as our scheduled meeting; a vigil to stand in solidarity with a family mourning their murdered boy, only nineteen and killed by white supremacists on August 10. 

It was an interesting moment. Do we sit and study about it, or do we go and see, and hear? We weren’t sure what we might be getting into.

But when we remember that Jewish tradition teaches, ““Great is study when it leads to action” (BT Kiddushin 40b), it was clear that this was a moment in which we were being invited to make a choice: to seek to see, to try to hear. And it was fine. The gathering was large; the family was grateful; the learning was immense.

We will reschedule the discussion, because we need to have it. But last night we learned that sometimes, in order to see and hear, we first have to stop talking with our mouths, and instead act with our hands, our feet, and our hearts. We looked; we saw. We learned.

This Shabbat coincides with the beginning of the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the Days of Awe now only thirty days away. I invite you to use some part of this time, some few moments here and there, to join me in doing some reading about our struggle to understand how to work for racial justice as Jews. It will be our focus during some part of the High Holy Days, as we consider what we are being asked to see and understand, to hear and follow, as in these words from a High Holy Day haftarah:

ה  הֲכָזֶה, יִהְיֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ–יוֹם עַנּוֹת אָדָם, נַפְשׁוֹ; הֲלָכֹף כְּאַגְמֹן רֹאשׁוֹ, וְשַׂק וָאֵפֶר יַצִּיעַ–הֲלָזֶה תִּקְרָא-צוֹם, וְיוֹם רָצוֹן לַיהוָה.

Is this a worthwhile fast? afflicting the soul,bowing the head like a weeping willow, spreading sackcloth and ashes under oneself? Is this truly an acceptable day to HaShem?

ו  הֲלוֹא זֶה, צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ–פַּתֵּחַ חַרְצֻבּוֹת רֶשַׁע, הַתֵּר אֲגֻדּוֹת מוֹטָה; וְשַׁלַּח רְצוּצִים חָפְשִׁים, וְכָל-מוֹטָה תְּנַתֵּקוּ.

Is not this a worthwhile fast: to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you yourself break every yoke?

ז  הֲלוֹא פָרֹס לָרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ, וַעֲנִיִּים מְרוּדִים תָּבִיא בָיִת:  כִּי-תִרְאֶה עָרֹם וְכִסִּיתוֹ, וּמִבְּשָׂרְךָ לֹא תִתְעַלָּם.

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the poor that are cast out into shelter? when you see the naked, that you give cover, and that you do not try to hide from your reality?

ח  אָז יִבָּקַע כַּשַּׁחַר אוֹרֶךָ, וַאֲרֻכָתְךָ מְהֵרָה תִצְמָח; וְהָלַךְ לְפָנֶיךָ צִדְקֶךָ, כְּבוֹד יְהוָה יַאַסְפֶךָ.

Then your light will shine forth as the morning, and you will find healing; you will walk in the path of justice, and the beauty of HaShem will gather you up. (Isaiah 58.5-8)