Atonement and Action


I just ate a bowl of chicken noodle soup.

In Puerto Rico, millions of people are facing not only devastating conditions, but genocide.

Our president is an evil man. Worse than evil. Less than a man.

The rabbi’s sermon this morning stirred my soul. He spoke to our “rich and haunted” history as a people, and the need to watch for Jewish “erasure.” He also paired this with a powerful and much-needed message to our congregation, in the context of white supremacy and who is its target today: He noted that there is a big difference between bring triggered and being threatened.

As Jews in America, we are not under threat, not in the way that African-Americans are every day. Our great-grandparents came to this country to escape pogroms and worse. They came and built better lives — on land “soaked with the blood of Africans.” Of slaves. Of native people obliterated to make room for our future. These are sins for which we need to be atoning through action for the rest of our lives — whether it was “our” people or not who committed these acts. As people who have benefited in this country, we are — in the words of the rabbi — also perpetrators of oppression.

I’m so thankful for this kind of leadership and eloquence on a subject the Jewish community must grapple with and act on. And while today we prayed, while today we atoned for our inevitable shortcomings as individuals and as a community, tomorrow, he said pointedly, “we march.” It is not an either/or but a both/and; our activism is borne of both a deep identification with oppression, as well as an acute awareness that we are not, currently, an oppressed people. Nobody every pulled over a Jew, saw the name Schwartz or Rosenberg on their license, and shot them dead. It’s crass but it bears saying.

I was grateful for his strong stance. There was nothing neutral about his sermon; he acknowledged both the complexity and simplicity of our role as Jews in white supremacist culture. And later, woven seamlessly into the end of the morning service, came unflinching words about the humanitarian crisis that’s growing by the day in Puerto Rico, where millions of fellow U.S. citizens are facing life-and-death conditions.

Fasting, the rabbi pointed out, does not help us concentrate on our prayers. On the contrary, it heightens our embodied awareness that to be hungry makes it difficult to concentrate on just about anything other than the hunger. This is the texture of Yom Kippur.

There are two equally potent aspects to Jewish tradition. One is to cultivate ritual and sacred refuge, sources of prayer and peace where we can turn for solace during challenging times. Thank goodness for this, for without spaces in which we can restore our inner equilibrium, we risk burnout, self-righteousness, and a loss of connection to the source of our actions. But the other aspect of who we are as a people is also crucial: To pray with our feet, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel. To take to the proverbial and literal streets to work tirelessly for social justice — for racial justice, for an end to poverty and hunger, for environmental repair.

There were opportunities to stand on the bimah during the Torah and Haftarah readings, one for those who wished for a blessing, to shore up practices that support inner scaffolding, the second for those seeking fortification for action. An important point here is that according to this rabbi, when faced with the question of which of these branches defines our tradition, the answer is “yes.”

Isaiah’s lesson is that fasting alone is not enough, unless there is a moral and ethical foundation to the ritual behavior. {Source: My Jewish Learning}

As Jews, we hold the epigenetic memory of genocide, expulsion, and trauma. It’s what first woke me to my own Jewish identity as a teenager; dreams of being ripped apart from family, of running through the forest, of hidden identity and of being led into gas chambers haunted my dreams as a senior in high school when I dove into the beginnings of learning my own history for the first time.

Some people will always hate Jews. This is irrefutable.  But as Jews, we are also no longer victims. In fact, we have thrived in this country in ways that are disproportionate to our numbers — a source of both pride and shame. Without forgetting who we are, it’s critical that we also recognize that our whiteness is not separate from the relative prosperity and privileges we’ve come to enjoy, even as there are still plenty who will hold our success up as reason for more hatred.

After services, Mani and I came home and took a rest. I slept for three hours, dreams informed by hunger and the kind of clarity borne of sustained prayer. As the Book of Life closes and the year 5778 commences, I pray that my work in this world be driven by the desire for all people to be free. I pray for humility and inspiration that allow me to be of continued service, holding spaces for others to dive into their own histories and roles as fellow humans to each other on this beautiful, broken planet. I pray that my fellow Jews grapple with the complexity of our moral obligation, while not getting theoretical about things that are urgently tangible.

Also, I plan to ask Rabbi Weiner for a written copy of his Yom Kippur sermon, to read again, to study, and to share.

G’mar chatima tova. May you be sealed in the Book of LIfe. 

PLACES TO GIVE :: EVERY $1 COUNTS

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American Black Cross Disaster Relief Effort

A List of Trusted Organizations Offering Aid :: Help Puerto Rico

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Unidos por Puerto Rico

“Welcome Home”


Today, I’m thinking of the people who won’t hear these words.

The veterans who won’t come home to loving arms — or at all.

Those we call displaced, refugees, whose homes are quite simply no more.

Those who had to flee their homes because of war or drought or famine.

Those whose homes were destroyed, physically leveled, by storm or quake.

Those who were kicked out of their homes because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Those who ran from abuse, whose home wasn’t safe to begin with.

Today, I’m thinking about how those two words, “welcome home,” sound at first so sweet and good. Whether at the end of a long day, a short outing, or years away, to be welcomed home is something that should be received and appreciated.

It is not a given.

It’s nice to think about home being the breath, the body, the heart. Home as belonging with oneself, or with God if that’s your thing (it is for me, in ways unbound by dogma or dharma or religion at all).

But it’s also not the same, at least for me, as the physical structures of home and the people we share them with. The markers of home that shape and sooth us — the scents, the seasons, the flora and fauna, the birds and songs, the vibe, the color of the dirt, the lilt of language. These can be carried with but not replaced.

I’m thinking about those whose hills and valleys, whose mountains and lakes, whose rivers and cities, have been ravaged, whose borders have been moved and moved and moved, rewritten, blurred, and buried.

I’m thinking of those who were born in transit. What is their home? Their mother’s breast? Their sister’s little hand?

Those for whom home is forever lost. Lost because of danger or destruction or both. Lost because of greed and crossfire and hatred. Lost because of erasure.

My heart breaks today for the millions who have lost their homes.

May I keep them close, as I move through my own.

The Art of Prayer

1-miranjani-trackI was in the woods the other day — Monday morning — after getting my teeth cleaned. I’ve been on high alert since November 8. An American flag on someone’s front porch sends my mind to the question, “Whose America? Whose flag?”

The hygienist is a woman I see every six months who is always infinitely attentive and kind. Again, my mind fixated on the fact that Donald Trump is our President Elect, and I wondered who she voted for. Was there a chance she was one of the 58% of white woman who voted for him? I didn’t ask.

The dentist came to do a quick exam. I thought about his last name, four syllables that would fall foreign on many English-speaker’s ears, and wondered if he or his children had ever been harassed or worse.

I left the office with no cavities, an appointment scheduled for May, and my little paper bag of goodies — new toothbrush, whitening paste, a miniature roll of floss. Instead of driving back up Main Street to go home and get to work, I drove east to the Amethyst Conservation Area to walk a bit on the Robert Frost trail. The high that morning had been only in the 20s, but by 9:30 the air was already warming and I left my coat in the car.

On the trail, I just walked. I exchanged easy smiles with other walkers, stooped down to give a dog a pat on the head. I also found myself reflexively sizing people up as they approached. “She looks nice,” I’d think to myself, based on something arbitrary like the colors in her hat or the pants she wore or the lines in her face. Sometimes, these are the only cues we have.

If nothing else, this election has heightened something that any marginalized person has known for a long, long time — people might seem “nice,” might in fact be perfectly pleasant and lovely, but until you get to know someone or see them in some context other than, say, their work uniform, or walking the dog, it’s unknown whether they stand with and for you. Trust becomes complicated.

I had gone into woods not to meditate on such troubling and complicated questions, but to meditate, period. To try to find a pocket of quiet in my own hurting and vigilant heart. I walked and tried to bring my awareness back to my breath and the ground beneath my feet and the way my own breath was visible on the air. How good it felt to hit an incline and push myself forward through space! A relief to get a bit winded, to have physical exertion overtake a busy and over-tired mind.

I tried to pray. I even told God, “I don’t know how to pray right now.” And then the message echoed back to me, “Then that is your prayer.” I know better than to think God only listens if I get it right.

The only other clear thing I heard was this: Walk. Hold an acorn in your hand. Do small things. Love the people in front of you.

Evening Prayer

evening-prayerPlease let me never lose my humanity.
Please let me never lose my empathy.
Please let me never lose my open mind.
Please let me never lose my patched-up heart.
Please let me never lose my priorities.
Please let me never lose my patience.
Please let me never lose my perspective.
Please let me never lose my compassion.
Please let me never lose my integrity.
Please let me never lose my humor.
Please let me never lose my creativity.
Please let me never lose my humanity.

And when I do, please let it be brief
and please bring them back one by one
as the ocean brings stones and sea glass
to our searching hands
and empty pockets.

The Art of Drawing a Treasure Map

Treasure-Map

Go easy on yourself tonight.

Whatever you’re feeling — feel it fully.

Whatever you’re loving, savor it.

Whatever you’re praying for, if you pray, pray hard.

In whatever ways these fit together, it’s your mosaic, no one else’s.

Think of one person in the world who has your back.
Say their name out loud. Find a way to say thank you.

Picture one person for whom you’d throw yourself on the tracks.
Let them know, in what ever way you can and want to.

Ask yourself what would have things be easy.

Decide what’s worth fighting for and fight with focus.

Gift yourself something you’ve always wanted but didn’t think you deserved. Whisper it. Buy it. Ask for it. Write it down.

Pick a confidante (this could be your cat).

Make something happen.

Let go of the thing you can’t make happen that was never yours to make in the first place.

Let go, let go, let go. Let go again.

Then hold tight to the treasures you keep on purpose.

Draw a picture of the treasures.

Draw a treasure map leading to the you you are when you no longer worry what other people think.