For Elul ~ Psalm 27

My being here is proof
Of vast conspiracies defeated
And all my varied longings come to this —
To stand, one broken, beating heart
And ask, and beg, just one more day!
A glimpse, a taste, a brush of love and glory,
Of unknown miracles performed on my behalf
Of near escapes and second chances.
To feel the solid ground beneath my feet
And raise my head in spite of everything
And sing out loud!

And still I call out, ask
Is anybody there?
Or do I cry alone?
I think sometimes I hear
A voice within that says
I’m everywhere you look for Me.
And yet I’m so afraid —
Do I deserve to be heard?
Going along by the skin of my teeth,
And the seat of my pants,
Wasting so much love.

Maybe I can learn
A different way to be
A better path, around
The sinkholes, traps, false starts
And quicksand. Make
No enemies, invite
No bitterness. Have faith
In something. Find the good.
Find God where I am.

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Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party

The Weekly Sift

Tea Partiers say you don’t understand them because you don’t understand American history. That’s probably true, but not in the way they want you to think.

Late in 2012, I came out of the Lincoln movie with two historical mysteries to solve:

  • How did the two parties switch places regarding the South, white supremacy, and civil rights? In Lincoln’s day, a radical Republican was an abolitionist, and when blacks did get the vote, they almost unanimously voted Republican. Today, the archetypal Republican is a Southern white, and blacks are almost all Democrats. How did American politics get from there to here?
  • One of the movie’s themes was how heavily the war’s continuing carnage weighed on Lincoln. (It particularly came through during Grant’s guided tour of the Richmond battlefield.) Could any cause, however lofty, justify this incredible slaughter? And yet, I realized, Lincoln was winning. What must the Confederate leaders…

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Psalm 27

My being here is proof
Of vast conspiracies defeated
And all my varied longings come to this —
To stand, a broken, beating heart
And ask, and beg, just one more day!
A glimpse, a taste, a brush of love and glory
Of unknown miracles performed on my behalf
Of near escapes and second chances.
To feel the solid ground beneath my feet
And raise my head in spite of everything
And sing out loud!

And still I call out, ask
Is anybody there?
Or do I cry alone?
I think sometimes I hear
A voice within that says
I’m everywhere you look for Me.
And yet I’m so afraid —
Do I deserve to be heard?
Going along by the skin of my teeth,
And the seat of my pants,
Wasting so much love.

Maybe I can learn
A different way to be
A better path, around
The sinkholes, traps, false starts
And quicksand. Make
No enemies, invite
No bitterness. Have faith
In something. Find the good.
Find God where I am.

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Help with Hallel?

Lovely readers, I am working on a textual meditation of sorts for a Passover seder, and I would be grateful if you could share, by comment or privately, anything that comes up for you in response to the following:

“Describe a moment — from your life, from a story you know — when after a long struggle, dignity and empowerment came to the downtrodden.”

Psalm 113

מקימי מעפר דל
מאשפת ירים אביון

God raises the poor from dust.
God elevates the noble from the trash heap.

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Vayikra, And God Called Out: An Invitation to Gender Justice

Queering Jew

The following is a d’var Torah I delivered at Hillel B’nai Torah this past Shabbat, at the invitation of Rabbi Barbara Penzner, on the occasion of International Women’s Day Shabbat. 
A note of gratitude: All of my learning about the richness of Jewish tradition’s engagement with gender and sex diversity has been guided and shaped by incredible trans and gender non-conforming friends, teachers, rabbis, rabbinical students, and activists. Some of their work is directly referenced here, but all of their teaching is reflected in what I bring to any conversation about gender justice. Much thanks for how your work has impacted me, whether you’ve known it or not, to: [soon-to-be Rabbi] Becky Silverstein, Rabbi Elliot Kukla, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, Joy Ladin, [soon-to-be Rabbi] Ari Lev Fornari, Rabbi Emily Aviva Kapor, Micah Bazant, and many many more. Thank you for bringing your Torah into into the world with wisdom, grace, and…

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Taking on the Akeidah

I had an opening, with the help and support of some holy chevrei, to take on Binding of Isaac and accompanying meditations that occupy a conspicuous space during the morning blessings. This is what came out.

My God and the God of my ancestors,
My limbs, my heart, the tips of my fingers buzz with creation.
This body is Your instrument
Ready to move
On the knife’s edge of action.

My God and the God of my ancestors calls out,
Avraham, Avraham
Which one am I?
Do I put forth my hand?
Do I not?

Ribbono shel olam,
If I step beck, will I tip the balance of mercy?
If I move, will I doom us all?
And if the angel calls, will I hear?

Ribon kol haOlamim,
This body, my breath, my vanities
I empty them before You
All that is left is hineini

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Psalm 147 — For Skeptics


Loose takes on the themes and images presented in each line of the original text…


What does “Praise Yah!” mean? Think of a time – I know you’ve had one – maybe singing the one song you know. Was it at a campfire, or that time you went to shul? Many bodies, one voice, the sense of “I” expanding and diluting.


You may not be convinced of this, but I assure you, something was put together that day – notes and chords and buzzing bones. A fleshy antenna for something cosmic.


Like far-flung comets drawn to an inner orbit, set alight, their icy hearts afire, jagged crusts smoothing and exhaling.


You may not believe me, but consider this, that sitting in your pew or on your log, you were plugging in to something grand – a universe of stars, each one, like you, known by name and story.


Try to picture the Mind behind it all. You can’t of course, but in the stretching of that inner eye, you may catch a glimpse of curious sparks, a luminous vibration, something … else.


This may not yet make sense at all, but you’ll know it when it happens. New strength will well inside you. You’ll glimpse the moral order of a falling leaf, a sprouting lilly.


Don’t be afraid the next time someone offers you a drum, or a tamborine perhaps. Don’t know the words? Just a la la is enough to join, to merge, for just a moment.


To connect with a great mystery, that powerful alignment that fills a violent universe with utterly improbable oases.


Sun and clouds and rain and food that – can you believe it? – just pops out of the ground.


Plugging in to all of this is not easy, but it is simple – even for you. Perfectionist, overachiever, analyzing everything. You’ll get it all back later.


You don’t have to let go for long. Just a moment, really. And with any luck – if you prefer to think of it as luck – you’ll come out the other side a little soothed, lightened.


There’s a reason you’re so strong, you see, but not in the ways you think you are.


There’s a reason you keep going, and if you really want to put your finger on it, just keep singing.


One by one, you’ll see and hear and taste and smell and touch uncounted blessings. Dozens. Hundreds. Dripping, flowing, flooding.


There will be other moments, I should warn you, when you’ll tremble. You’ll feel small, not in control.


A brittle leaf afloat in stormy winds across a vast estate of continents.


One speck, a temporary form, a molecule of flotsam tossed by vast and ancient cycles.


Creation and destruction, great breaths in, breaths out.


That fellow Jacob – the one from last chapter – dropped his guard and suddenly understood. And his eyes were opened to unseen worlds.


But we want, of course, to take it step by step. When you’re ready – or better yet, just before you’re ready – take up the drum, join in on the next line. Sway and dance and sing with us, yourself, with all existence. And then – this is my hope for you – “Praise  Yah!” will feel as if it makes a little bit of sense.

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Psalm 126

This Psalm is straightforwardly post-exilic (for which see Sefer haWiki) but switches in its narrative perspective between before and after the return from Babylon, between gratitude and longing for return, helped by the profoundly non-linear mechanics of verbal tense and aspect in biblical Hebrew. The Psalmist chooses words associated with joy (s’hoq, rinah) that are — I think deliberately — tinged with other, more complicated emotions. Here’s what came out. 

שִׁיר, הַמַּעֲלוֹת

They used to sing a song
On the steps of the Temple
The very place wiped out,
Put back together
Stone by stone.

בְּשׁוּב יְהוָה, אֶת-שִׁיבַת צִיּוֹן–    הָיִינוּ, כְּחֹלְמִים

Exile or return.
Which one is the dream?
We left something behind
But no one remembers what or where.

אָז יִמָּלֵא שְׂחוֹק, פִּינוּ–    וּלְשׁוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה

Our mouths are filled with laughter
And a taste of mockery
Our tongues with cries of joy
Tinged by knowing,
Somehow we are still in exile.

אָז, יֹאמְרוּ בַגּוֹיִם–    הִגְדִּיל יְהוָה, לַעֲשׂוֹת עִם-אֵלֶּה
הִגְדִּיל יְהוָה, לַעֲשׂוֹת עִמָּנוּ–    הָיִינוּ שְׂמֵחִים

The miracle that people said could never happen
We were as surprised as everyone else
Happy and unprepared.

שׁוּבָה יְהוָה, אֶת שְׁבִיתֵנוּ כַּאֲפִיקִים בַּנֶּגֶב
הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה–    בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ

Mysterious Being,
Return our return.
Restore our restoration.
Bring us back to wherever we started
And we’ll be strong
Like stream beds in the desert
Etched and hard but ready for the flow.
Waters of weeping, saturating
Sprouting cries of joy
Fresh, green.

הָלוֹךְ יֵלֵךְ, וּבָכֹה– נֹשֵׂא מֶשֶׁךְ-הַזָּרַע
בֹּא-יָבֹא בְרִנָּה– נֹשֵׂא, אֲלֻמֹּתָיו

I was the one who trudged along
Sowing my trail of tears
And now I think I’m ready
For the golden sheaths they watered.

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The Tower. A Midrash on Parashat Noah

I wrote this story four years ago, and it’s one I consistently love. Hope you also enjoy. 

We thought we were special.

Back when we were in Shinar, we could all understand each other, and everyone got along. But there were stories from before of big cities as different from each other as night and day. Cities that fought each other year after year.

We had to be special because that never happened to us. There weren’t any settlements besides ours. The whole world was new.

After a few years, people began pushing out to the horizon. Soon they were arguing about how to divide the land and the water, even what to call the fruit on the trees.

We got scared, and the elders met for what seemed like weeks on end. Then one day, they had big news. They told us we would build a city, with paved streets and marketplaces and houses for everyone.

And in the middle of it all, we would build a tower with its top in the heavens, so high that people in even the farthest settlements would never forget where they belonged.

We wept with relief. We tore the straw out of our donkeys’ mouths to bring it to the brickyards. We dug up clay from the riverbed with our bare hands.

It sounds strange now, but I remember those days as some of the best ever. We sang songs and told jokes as we worked day and night, packing clay and carrying bricks into the heart of our new city. We ate like horses, and our bread had never tasted so good.

The elders appointed overseers for us. They were family, and they ate and worked alongside us.

One of them was a cousin from my mother’s side. I remember the day I passed him on a freshly laid street. We had laughed together the day before, but on this day, he was hunched over, his eyes on the ground as he walked.

“Good morning, cousin,” I called out to him. He raised his head, his face twisted up with worry, and grunted in reply.

The elders had grown impatient. The work was not going quickly enough, they said. Every day, there were new outposts beyond the horizon, permanent villages even, with strange names no one had ever heard of.

We’d work harder, we told them. We’d build the tower even higher.

Then one day I saw my neighbor’s father-in-law. He was very old, but he worked with us the whole time, raking hay at the brickyard and pouring water for us. I was so thirsty that day, but when the old man went to hand my cup to me, he dropped it.

I got angry. I cursed him and called him names. I knew before the last word left my mouth that I’d gone too far. I could have told him I was sorry, but I didn’t. I turned away and went to find more water.

I think that was the day people stopped smiling. We worked, we went to sleep, we woke up sore and exhausted. And still the word came from the elders. Faster. Bigger. Higher.

Soon the tower was so high that it took the bricklayers almost an hour to climb to the top.

I remember when the first of them died. He was just tired and lost his footing. That’s what we heard from the people who saw it happen.

I was standing next to my cousin when the man’s body hit the ground. We didn’t know what the sound was at first, but within minutes, we did. My cousin asked if the man had been his son, his brother, his father-in-law. When it turned out to be none of those people, my cousin looked up at the tower again, then down at the ground. Then he told everyone to get back to work.

I hated the tower that day. I hated it more the larger it got. Even the elders and overseers hated it, even as they started beating people who wouldn’t work, or couldn’t work, or did something that set everyone back. Another one of us died, then another, then another.

One day, I dropped an armload of bricks and an overseer started hitting me. Didn’t I know how precious those bricks were to the city? That’s what he yelled as he beat me.

My cousin watched the whole time and said nothing, but when the overseer was done with me, he helped me get to my feet, and then he said this: It will all be worth it in the end. No one will forget our oneness, he told me.

But by this point, no one even talked about the other settlements any more. No one had left the city in months except to dig for clay.

People who couldn’t work started disappearing or showing up dead on the streets. When the ovens ran out of wood, anything that could be burned was thrown in. Our grain, the beams of our houses, even the bodies of the dead.  When the valley gave up its last handful of clay, people were made to march over the mountain to the next valley. Many never came back.

I ask myself every day if I could have done something to stop it all. But by the time we woke up to what the tower had become, none of us wanted to admit how empty it all was. How foolish we’d been all along.

Everyone knows what eventually happened.

I was on my way up the tower. An overseer was scolding a woman who had fallen down. She was so thin. We all were. Her hands and knees were bleeding, she was crying, and all the overseer could do was scream at her.

And then, in an instant, I couldn’t understand any of his words. It was as if he’d swallowed his own tongue. All I could do was stare at him, and then he started screaming at me instead.

I can’t understand what you’re saying, I kept telling him.

He got angrier. He starting beating me. I pleaded with him to stop. Please, stop, I cried.

The poor woman’s voice came from behind him, but she was talking gibberish too.  The overseer stopped hitting me. He was breathing hard, a crazed look in his eyes as he just stared at us.

And then others came down the path. Dozens, then hundreds, all crying out, all speaking gibberish.

We went crazy. We ran through the city, grabbing anyone we could, pleading with them, “Do you understand me? Can you understand what I’m saying?”

No one could. People were crying, tearing their hair out. We scattered into the countryside in search of someone, anyone who could understand us. I walked for two days straight and found no one. By then, there were so few of us that I never saw anyone else from the city.

Somehow I found my way here.

I was so sick with hunger and grief that I don’t remember how or when I got here.  All I remember is waking up in the home of strangers.

I wept when they gave me food and water. I wept when they bathed me. I wept because it had been so long since anyone had been kind to me.

When I was strong enough, they took me outside and pointed off into the distance.

There, on the horizon, was the tower.

“Babel,” they said.

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“Though Broken Inside, I Am Grateful”

A Reading for the Days of Awe

A few years ago, I started corresponding with a man named Maurice, who for several years has been incarcerated at different federal facilities, most recently in Massachusetts. Maurice is in his early fifties, grew up in a Jewish family, knew he was gay at an early age, and assumed, as many did in his generation, that the Jewish world had no place for him. So he left, drifted, and eventually got into trouble. Several years into his sentence, he came across one of our rabbis’ teachings on GLBT inclusion and reached out to our community.

As a minimum-security inmate, Maurice has privileges that others don’t, including opportunities for community service. Maurice wrote to me earlier this year about the day, April 15th, that he found himself wearing orange prison garb and handing out bottles of water to runners completing the Boston Marathon.

Maurice wrote that he was close to the first explosion but was uninjured. He made sure the people immediately around him were okay and together they ran, not knowing if they were running away from danger or towards new danger. They just ran. Then the second bomb exploded, and again, Maurice and the people around him were not among the many injured.

He shared very powerful reflections on the event and gave me permission, and the privilege, to offer them here:

“Though broken inside, I am grateful. I have no frame of reference in which to place such evil. The only way I can deal with the emotions is acceptance. In the face of inexplicable acts, we are confronted with the possibility that rhyme and reason may not be on G-d’s agenda, yet there is peace in the words of Job, which remind us how little reason avails us when we try to understand the unexplainable. Job answered his wife, “Shall we receive good at the hands of G-d and not receive the bad?” Surrender moves us towards a wholeness and connectedness in which all things, good and evil, are divine, all part of the sacred gifts of life from our loving Creator.”

“I weep, I pray, I gasp for breath at times. Yet I know that all suffering belongs to some higher dispensation of mercy and justice and that G-d, the power that creates and sustains all things, including our very lives, doesn’t owe us reasons. It is the very dwelling in the wilderness of mystery that, moved by love and faith, we venture all to enter the sacred, to cross the threshold of the invisible and draw closer to G-d.”

“We do not have a say in all that befalls us, but we do have a say in our response. I do not know what my response should be. I am broken and sad, yet very grateful. My heart aches for those who died, those who grieve for them, for those injured and for all who are crying along with me. There is a connectivity in sorrow, and to open our hearts and our arms to those in pain enlarges not only the moment but it enlarges us, to the extent we are not dwelling just in the moment but within the whole of life.”

“In closing, I want you to know I love you; you matter to me. I am grateful for you. I urge you to take a minute today to give someone a hug, a kind word, a loving affirmation. May we all transform our world with love.” 

If any of my readers would like to send words back to Maurice, he would love that. Just leave them in the comments, and I will include them in my next letter!