Friday, February 6, 2015
Monday, February 2, 2015
I've been trying to get around to writing something about my trip for a while now, and it's been difficult. There is a lot to say, and it's hard to know what's worth saying, or how to frame it. Should I just type up all my notes about the organizations we met with? Should I just write a short reflection on the trip, just the sorts of things I've been saying when people ask how it was? Write a d'var Torah that includes information and emotions from the experience? In the coming weeks, I will be presenting a lunch program at school, giving a sermon at WJC, and publishing an article for WJC's newsletter. For each of these experiences, I may speak about my trip a little differently. What follows here is more or less the submission for The Review (the synagogue newsletter). In the week's to come, I might post more about the trip as I prepare for my other presentations about it and the follow up with the fellowship.
During my January semester break, I spent a little over a week traveling through El Salvador and Nicaragua with AJWS. We met with several grassroots non-profit, non-governmental organizations that AJWS partners with in the collective global effort to promote human rights and equality everywhere. Our fellowship is particularly focused on AJWS’s “We Believe” campaign, fighting for the rights of women, girls, and LGBTI folks around the world, so all the groups we met with work in those particular demographics. We met with some amazing, empowered, inspiring people: the women of Flor de Piedra, a sex workers’ rights organization in El Salvador; COMCAVIS Trans and ANIT, trans* women’s rights groups in El Salvador and Nicaragua, respectively; FESPAD, a “strategic ally” in El Salvador (that is, not grassroots, but a large-scale non-profit organization that works as a parent to smaller groups like COMCAVIS, representing their needs to international governmental bodies); Estrellas del Gulfo Groupo Safo, a group that organizes particularly for lesbians, but works with other local LGBTI groups; and Gaviota, an organization that advocates for the rights and safety of indigenous women in the autonomous indigenous region of Nicaragua.
I didn't exactly have expectations for this international adventure to El Salvador and Nicaragua; I knew that I didn't know enough to make projections about what the countries would be like. I think what shocks me most about my experience of this travel is how much it actually did feel similar to my some of previous travel experiences. When I traveled to Lithuania in 2010, I thought that was a poor country. I knew, of course, that it wasn’t really that poor, that I still hadn’t traveled to a developing nation or to the “Global South,” but by my New York-centric American standards, the city of Vilnius is not exactly a thriving city, and it feels haunted by the ghosts of my ancestors. Travelling to El Salvador and Nicaragua, I was surprised by how luxurious it felt at some points – there was almost always wifi and plenty of food and bottled water (we were not to drink the tap water, though it seemed the local people were able to tolerate it). The people did not seem like how I pictured the people of the “developing world,” even as much as I had tried not to picture them at all. Even as the people we met with told us of their struggles, they still seemed filled with hope for a better future. They seemed relatively healthy; even those living with HIV seemed to have the access to the treatments they needed to maintain their normal lives, at least through the successes of the groups advocating for them. When Rene, our tour guide through Nicaragua, told us about how the people, particularly in Managua (the capital), talk about how things used to be, how the country used to have money, the city used to have a downtown, it was reminiscent of my feelings wandering around Vilnius, which used to have a vibrant Jewish community. This surprise taught me that no matter how much I try to deny my own projections and presuppositions about places I know I can’t presume anything about, there are still images that sneak into my mind from somewhere. Of course, this surprise also taught me the obvious, that which I didn’t think I needed to learn and the reason I tried so hard not to make those presuppositions in the first place, and that is that people are really quite similar all over. They’ll make a life with what they have, build communities with who they have, and look forward to new or renewed life with a brighter tomorrow. It’s a worthwhile reminder for everyone, but particularly for those interested in AJWS’s model of partnership. We seek to be in solidarity with the groups we meet with, to learn from them, to learn what we can do to help them achieve their own goals with their own methods. We do not want to be paternalistic or assume to know what’s best for them.
We are back now, but the fellowship is not over, and the trip was not a self-contained experience. Leading up to our international voyage, as well as throughout the week we were on the ground, we learned about the issues, We Believe, AJWS’s partners on the ground, and about transnational solidarity. In the remaining half of the fellowship, we will learn to better organize and educate our communities about the issues, and we will be participating in AJWS’s National Policy Summit in DC. One of the things I am most looking forward to is the Wellstone Activist Organizing training. In college, I fancied myself a social activist, and in the last year I’ve been yearning to get back into it. I’ve been participating in protests and marches in the city in the last couple months and I’ve been sharing information on social media, but I have felt a lack of the tools necessary to help with any planning or organizing. I know this particular movement doesn’t really need me, isn’t exactly waiting around for another white girl to feel empowered to take the mic, but I think the training will help me learn how to be a better, more useful ally and use my white privilege to speak truth to power, as well as of course the intended use of the training, and that is to help me be a better organizer around the We Believe campaign. I will know I have successfully gained the organizing tools when I have the opportunity to put them to use.
Currently, I am not really doing much organizing, and that is my challenge. In my last three years in New York and as a rabbinical student, I have not participated much in social justice work for a variety of reasons. Last spring, I remembered how important it was to me, and realized how much I had been stifling myself in just trying to keep to my designated school work and internship duties at places where social justice were not priorities. My decision to sign up for this fellowship this year was partly a fulfillment of a long-time desire to work with AJWS, but also was timed as such because of a need to re-center myself on social justice Torah. Already, through the webinars, chavruta learnings and international travel, I have gotten so much out of this, and I anticipate so much more through the Wellstone training and the policy summit. Slowly but surely, I am finding my social activist voice and allowing people to see who I am and what is important to me even when it is scary. It has been liberating and empowering, and I am immensely grateful for this fellowship for helping me in this endeavor, both in learning and experience, as well as in finding more like-minded people to surround myself with.
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
In one of my first Divrei Torah, I speculated on the timing and what seemed like poor planning of the Israelites in Parashat Bo. They leave in haste, yet they had all this warning that the time to flee would be imminent. Why didn’t they prepare better, make tastier snacks for the road? Why does our festive meal every year have to be commemorated by tasteless matzah to commemorate the haste of the exodus, when really, they should have had breads and cakes already ready to go with them when the time came. In 2012, I likened this to the time a family friend, then about thirteen years old, was the last one to be ready for a multi-family excursion to a Yankee game, and ran into the car dressed with great intention – full fan attire, including Yankees pants over her shorts, hat over perfectly brushed hair, the whole deal. But no shoes. And she will never in her life be able to live down the tale of “Two pants, no shoes,” when she spent a day walking around Yankee stadium barefoot. In 2012, I used this story and the story of the Israelites to caution a sanctuary full of kids and parents to think ahead in their day’s preparations, and be certain to have all the necessary, useful things for their sojournings.
This year, however, I have read Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s commentary on Exodus, The Particulars of Rapture and was struck by her observation on this very problem, which she calls the “ungainly haste.” In her typical fashion, dense with esoteric references, she spends considerable time on the concepts of day and night in the Exodus narrative. In some places, both in this parasha and in later references to the Exodus, it seems God led the people Israel out of Egypt by day. In other places, it says night. What is the meaning of this? And how does it relate to the ungainly haste?
Zornberg argues, with the help of traditional midrash, of course, that the Israelite slaves of Egypt were free at night. But their first act of freedom is to ignore the plea of Pharaoh to hurry up and leave so that his suffering at the hands of our God might end. Even as liberation comes at night, Exodus only comes in the day. As the tenth plague draws near, God tells the people Israel to sacrifice the paschal lamb, to put the blood on their doorposts so that God knows to pass over those homes as the Angel of Death goes through the land slaughtering the first born. Then, God tells the people to eat the roasted meat, along with the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs, and to do so in haste. Before night has even fallen, let alone before day has broken and the moment for hasty leave has arrived, God is commanding that these actions be done in haste. Matzah is not an accidental symbol of haste, a mistaken food created because the people left so quickly they did not have time to make leavened snacks for the road. Matzah is intentional, the haste is intentional. Rashi adds connotations of panic to his translation of the word “בחפזון” (haste).
With this explanation of the day/night divide, and a vivid image of what the night entails, Zornberg establishes for us the “tableau of leaving, exodus,” a “tableau of release,” and a “tableau of readiness-to-leave.” In short, she paints a picture of the Israelite people biding their panicked time through the night, poised to leave at first light, quivering in darkness and their own silence as their hear the cries of anguish from the Egyptian households. They are ready to go all along, but wait in anticipation of this pre-planned panicked haste.
According to Zornberg, there are three moments in the narrative “when panic haste was central: one was at night – referred to as chipazon deMitzrayim [the haste of Egypt] – and was informed by the terrified pressure of the Egyptians on the Israelites to leave the country; while [another] was the following day – referred to as chipazon deYisrael [the haste of Israel] – the urgent flight of the Israelites by day.” The third is the “chipazon of God’s Presence.” In the narrative itself, it is visualized in the “leaping” (“bechipazon/ufasachti”- “in panic haste/I shall leap”) of the Passover story. Zornberg translates the verb pesicha (notice the connection to the noun pesach) to leap, adding a frenetic energy, a panic haste already to the movement of God, as distinct from our usual interpretation of “to pass over”. Combined with God’s own admission of “bechipazon”, we have a very strong illustration of God’s own wait and hurry narrative.
Zornberg says the effect of all these strands of the intentional panic haste narrative is to “postpone, till after the Splitting of the Sea, any sense of complete freedom.” I would argue a slightly more nuanced rephrasing. Although it does delay the sense of complete freedom until after the deaths of the Egyptians, I don’t see it as the holding back of freedom, as I read her commentary as suggesting. I read more of a sense of stages of freedom. A people oppressed for generations, they find themselves freed from one master, paradoxically, as Zornberg points out, only at the commandment of a new master. This new master has told them to remain until morning, so that even as the old master urges them out of his land, they timidly test the waters of their new affiliation to God rather than Pharaoh by staying put. One act of liberation against their old, cruel enslaver. As morning breaks, they burst forth, gather the spoils of Egypt and march out of the land of their oppression. A second act of liberation from their wretched lives as slaves. After the Israelites have safely made it across the sea, the waters rush in on the Egyptians, washing away any concern that the Israelites might face repercussions for their acts of defiance to Pharaoh or for their “borrowing” of the jewels and precious metals of Egypt. A final act of liberation. At which point, of course, the people are fully free to start whining about wanting to go back to Egypt and fear that God will be an even more hateful master than Pharaoh was.
“And when your children ask, What do you mean by this rite? You shall say, It is the Passover sacrifice to God, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:26). The commemoration of the Passover is to remember the paschal lamb that offered protection from the Angel of Death. But the Passover as a whole is also a reminder about the stages of freedom and our responsibility to uphold them. Rather than the narrative of the seemingly unnecessary panic-haste being a cautionary tale against poor planning, as I once drashed, I would now posit that it is a story about the forced patience we must endure when fighting for justice in our unjust world. When the African slaves were freed in the United States, it took another hundred years to desegregate and at least pretend to do away with Jim Crow. Fifty years after that, we are still fighting for equality for all races. It is an unacceptably slow process that comes in stages. When the time comes that the nation, government, society as a whole is ready for change, those who are interested in fighting for it charge forward, with a panic haste, despite having been ready for this change all along. When the strong hand of forces unseen come down, they are forced to pause, hold back, tip toe slowly toward the next step, until another flash point flares up so that they can charge forward again. It’s really a bad system, but apparently one that humanity has been working with for thousands of years. The purpose of retelling our own people’s liberation stories year after year is to remind ourselves of the importance of our freedom. What the cost is for liberation. And how we must help others achieve theirs.
Monday, December 8, 2014
Olam hesed yibaneh, yai dai … (Song by Rabbi Menachem Creditor: May the world be built on kindness).
SURVIVOR: Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is consumed with grief, my soul and my body.
FACILLITOR: Be gracious to survivors, who have been consumed with grief, who strive to cleanse their souls and reclaim their bodies.
SURVIVOR: I am the scorn of all my enemies and exceedingly of my neighbors, and a dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
FACILLITOR: They are taught entitlement to your body and here you walk among them demanding autonomy.
SURVIVOR: I am forgotten out of mind like one who is dead; I am like a broken vessel.
SURVIVOR: I am forgotten out of mind like one who is dead; I am like a broken vessel.
FACILLITOR: To remember you would be to take responsibility for their creeds and deeds that have led to your trauma, so they choose to forget.
SURVIVOR: For I have heard the slander of many; fear was on every side; while they took counsel together against me, they schemed to take away my life.
FACILLITOR: But in spite of their slander, you have been brave. In spite of their counsel, you live on.
Group: Let God’s face shine upon you. Let you not feel ashamed; let the wicked be ashamed. Be of good courage, and let your heart be strong.
Olam hesed yibaneh, yai dai …
FACILLITOR: When Tamar was raped by Amnon, she tore her clothing and bore signs of grief out into the streets, wailing, even as her brother Absalom told her to keep quiet. We come together now to support you in your own decision to be as vocal or quiet about your experience as you choose, even as you, too, perform this k’riah to mark your grief with us. 
Survivor tears pillowcase (it may be the very same one on which her head lay as she was assaulted, or it may be symbolic, and old one dug out of the closet or a brand new one bought just for this occasion) and recites:
Rend your garments and not your heart, for God is gracious and compassionate, and full of kindness.
קִרְעוּ בִּגְדֵיכֶם וְאַל לְבַבְכֶם, כִּי-יי חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד
Group: Wherever you go, we are there with you; whatever your need, we are beside you.
Olam hesed yibaneh, yai dai …
Friday, December 5, 2014
In Parashat Vayetze, Jacob has his dream of the angels, and at the conclusion of the dream, God blesses him, saying, “I am with you and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that about which I have spoken to you.” When Jacobwakes up, he famously says, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not.” He then goes on less famously to restate, confirm, God’s promise back, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and garment to wear, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God, and this stone which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house.” Time passes, Jacob lives and works in Laban’s home, marries two wives and takes two concubines, amasses great fortune, and leaves Laban’s home. Then we come to Parashat Vayishlach, when everything hits the fan. In the span of this one Parasha, Jacob and Esau are reunited, accompanied by much fear and fanfare around Esau’s intentions, Jacob wrestles with the angel, receives a new blessing and a new name and a new injury, his daughter is violated, his sons commit genocide, his favorite wife dies and is buried in haste by the roadside rather than carried to his family’s gravesite, and his oldest son has an affair with one of his concubines. Things are not going so well in the clan of Israel.
In her commentary on Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, modern midrashist Avivah Zornberg brings a midrash that “insists that the root of all Jacob’s vicissitudes [misfortunes] on his return to the Holy Land is the problem of delay, that dangerous space of unawareness that separates the vow from its fulfillment.” God creates this chaos in Jacob’s life to draw his attention to the fact that he has been on the road, exposed to these dangers for too long. But Jacob just doesn’t get it. Once cunning and sneaky, the Jacob of Parashat Vayishlach is passive and seems a little dense. Finally, God gives up on the subtleties of symbolism and directly says to Jacob, “Arise, go to Beth El.” Essentially God is saying, “It’s time to pay the piper: I have been with you, gave you prosperity and peace, and you have not returned to Beth El to establish My home there, you have not returned to the land of your father, you have not completed the cycle of your fathers to establish the My people in the Holy Land.”
Much like Jacob’s obligation to fulfill his end of his covenant with God, to return to Beth El to establish it as a holy site and to return to Canaan to establish it as the holy homeland of his people, as Jews, we also have an obligation to fulfill our end of our covenant with God, to uphold commandments andlive up to our creation in the Divine image. While some commandments are unadvisable to follow for various reasons, I have to argue that the commandments to pursue justice, to love your neighbor as yourself, and to not stand idly by the blood of your neighbors, and other such justice-focused mitzvot are not commandments we are allowed to do away with in the modern age. They are still applicable, in every era and in every place. How can we live up to our Divine image, how can we choose life, how can we honor God’s creations, if we ignore those that need our help, if we turn our backs on justice, if we hold onto hatred and violence? We must be careful not to delay to fulfill these obligations.
Why does Jacob delay? He does not appear to be actively ignoring the signs from God, or disavowing the promise. Zornberg says, “This is a passive, not active, denial. But, effectively, repression is the gravest form of refusal … since it will not engage with –avow or disavow – the vow.” Zornberg discusses at length Jacob’s attachment with “lastness.” When he meets with Esau, he carefully arranges his family in order of importance, with the most beloved being last, which Zornberg equates with Jacob’s emergence from the womb last, holding onto the heel of his brother. I have never before associated with Jacob. He starts off sneaky and deceitful, he is absurdly silent in the narrative around his daughter’s violation and his sons’ committing of genocide, and generally I do not find him to be a particularly sympathetic character. However, here, in Zornberg’s explanation of his “lastness” I read myself. Much like Jacob here, I tend to be one who will “wait… bide [my] time… plan [my] strategies from the rear.” I often do not speak out until I am certain of the facts and players, until I feel sure of my own voice and am ready for the responses I might have to face. Sometimes, this can be an asset, a sign of wisdom. Sometimes, this is also a foolish insensitivity, and can cause me, Jacob, and those like us, to “miss the boat,” so to speak. Jacob feels the need to plan ahead, to be certain of his moves and motives. Not just with Esau; this is what keeps him from returning to Beth El and to his father. He expresses concern about the fulfillment of his father’s blessings, that he is not yet a master over his brother. Despite the fact that he has amassed great wealth and fortune, he is unsure about how he’ll know that it is time to complete his journeying and return home to settle in as the leader of the people Israel. As a result of this unsureness, he brings upon himself and his family tragedy and chaos. He must seek equilibrium, as must we all, between patience and thoughtful planning, and passion and decisive action.
This is the human condition, to be eternally struggling for this balance, “pressed by God’s hand.” We can plan, be cunning and patient with our pursuit of justice. But we must also be passionate, and careful to not delay too long, or else it may be too late. Only in this equilibrium can we find stability, true wholeness and freedom.
Friday, November 28, 2014
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone:
They paved paradise and put in a parking lot.”
“Jacob left Beer-Sheva and set out for Paran” (Genesis 28:10). Unlike his grandfather Abraham, Jacob does not just “go”, he “leaves.” At the end of Parashat Toledot, both his parents tell him to “rise and go”, with a meaning of “flee”. But the beginning of Parashat Vayetzei does not say, “So he went/goes” or “He fled.” It says: “He left.” He left behind his tangible absence among his remaining family members, and he left behind the struggle and the pain that he caused. Rashi questions the use of this word, and answers it with what Avivah Zornberg calls a “classic midrashic response.” He says, “This tells us that the ‘leaving’ of a righteous person from a place makes an imprint [Zornberg’s emphasis]. As long as the righteous person is in the city, he is its glory and light and majesty. When he leaves, its glory, light and majesty are evacuated.” Zornberg, in her commentary The Beginning of Desire, “The imprint, the full awareness of the indispensable person, is known only after he has removed himself from his place.”
Last week, the Academy of Jewish Religion held its annual retreat, this year on the topic of “Torah and Terra: Jewish stewardship of the environment.” We spoke a lot about climate change and unstoppable destruction we’ve already put forth into the atmosphere. Climate change science has been discussed for at least 20 years, but only now is the mainstream starting to care. Only now are we starting to realize that we have already passed the point of no return. We can still make changes, make a difference, save the Earth, but the carbon we’ve already emitted is enough to cause irreparable damage. The globe is already warming, the ice caps already melting, the waters already rising. We are losing shorelines. Without drastic changes on a governmental and international level, life as we know it could be over by 2100 (not to say the world will end, but that life will be unimaginably altered to adjust to the new face of Earth). This is the lifetime of the generation being born now. People who are already alive will see the devastation we have created for them. Even with drastic changes, we could find large swaths of land under water and innumerable species extinct by 2100. But we, as a human race/species, don’t seem to be making moves to make those drastic changes in time. We won’t know what we’ve lost til it’s gone.
Zornberg, with the help of Rashi and the midrashists, continue in a more hopeful vein: the void that Jacob creates is within him as well, and is necessary in order for him to cleave to his mate. In order to find and attach himself fully to his wife, Jacob must separate himself from his family, from his place of origin, from “previous identities and fixities.” Perhaps we, too, can find something new to cleave to in the absence of life as we know it. Maybe we need to be faced with the paving of paradise before we can fully embrace the trees and the birds and the bees. Maybe only after we’re left with the void of our current coastlines will we be able to better develop – with clean building, recycled and recyclable resources, and carbon-free energy – more of our currently uninhabited land. Maybe being forced to move inward and shift boundaries will force us to make peace with our neighbors and create global cooperation in the name of saving what’s left of our planet. More than just hope and speculate, let us work toward any of these options, work toward cleaner energy and ways of development, urge our policy makers and fuel providers to listen to our rising need for drastic change, and work toward peace with those who may be very close neighbors competing for fewer resources in the not too distant future.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
My d'var Torah from Monday night's ma'ariv at the AJR retreat on Torah and Terra. I was told that my delivery was brilliant, so I apologize that those simply reading it may be missing out on key moments of understanding.
We all come to this retreat with varying levels of knowledge and observance. Some of us may be learned environmental scientists, or dedicated Jewish-Environmentalist activists, and others may be completely new to the concept of conservation or Biblical laws that dictate we care for nature. But we wouldn't be having the retreat on the topic of Torah and Terra if we generally consider ourselves to be a community of experts on the topic. Personally, I consider myself an environmentalist, and I’m going to guess many of you are in a similar camp. I recycle, I turn off lights when I leave a room, I use reusable canvas shopping bags, I participated in the People’s Climate March. However, I still enjoy a nice bubble bath or a long hot shower, I use all kinds of electronics and do not own anything solar-powered, I don’t grow my own food or even know where most of it comes from half the time, and I have not helped to organize, promote, or otherwise contribute in any meaningful way to environmentalist activism. But I still get to tell people I’m an environmentalist, because I believe that environmentalism is good, right?
“The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are Esau’s hands.” In this week’s parasha, Isaac asks in many ways for identification of the son who brings him his meal and awaits the blessing. The last of which is the declaration, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are Esau’s hands, and he discerned him not… so he blessed him.” The commentary Matnot Kehuna says that the voice of Jacob is “one of indirection and cunning.” Jacob’s very name is derived from the root meaning “crooked”, “indirect”. Jacob speaks knowing that his deeds are duplicitous, that who his voice reveals him to be and what his hands reveal him to be is not the same person.
Sometimes, we speak with our true voices, while the actions of our hands reflect untrue representations of ourselves. It may be that in our heart of hearts, we all want to be true environmentalists. We speak as the person we see ourselves as, an idealized version of our ethics. But we act out in the way that is convenient. We masquerade ourselves to impersonate those we see around us, knowing full well that it’s not right, because it is the easiest way to get what we want, what we think we deserve. It would be really hard work to be so mindful of our carbon footprint that we actually make a difference on a global scale! Ain’t nobody got time for that! Meanwhile, we see those around us validating this. Like Rebecca scheming for Jacob in the kitchen, we’ve got governments heaping a solitary option for fuel on us, and shielding from our view the devastation it causes. We can hope things turn out alright for us, like they do for Jacob. That speaking as one person and acting out as another will not cause us any real harm. But the science would disagree. Rather, let us find a way to pull off the goatskins and unify our hands with our voices, and act in accordance with our words.