On January 11, 2015, I received rabbinic smicha (ordination) from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Six years of academic study, spiritual formation, pulpit experience and chaplaincy service culminated in a moment of transformation unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Assuming the traditional posture, I leaned back into my teachers’ hands as they intoned ritual words that changed me forever into a rabbi. In that magic moment, I became the most recent link in a chain connecting teacher to student, generation to generation, century to century, and epoch to epoch – harnessing history while reaching toward a future we yet can scarcely imagine.
Now that I’m officially a rabbi, both legally and spiritually empowered in my religious acts, now is an ideal moment to ask perhaps impertinent if not subversive questions: Why? Why be a rabbi? Why do Jews need rabbis? Better yet: do Jews need rabbis? If Jews do need rabbis, what kind of rabbis do Jews need?
Under halacha (Jewish law), most routine Jewish matters don’t “require” rabbis. A shaliach tzibur (prayer leader) can be a layperson and still fulfill all practical, emotional and spiritual prerequisites of an effective prayer service. Young adults become bnai mitzvah automatically at the appointed age, or by rituals of Torah and prayer – neither of which requires a rabbi. A m’sader kidushin (wedding officiant) need not be a rabbi (but in most jurisdictions, civil law reserves to clergy or specified public officers all power to solemnize marriages). In these and other seemingly ubiquitous rabbinic contexts, Jewish law does not require a rabbi.
And yet, each year ALEPH and other seminaries together ordain several hundred rabbis, belying alarmist predictions after the 2013 Pew Study that synagogue life is retrenching. Maybe a more apt conclusion is that Jewish life is evolving – shifting beyond synagogues and youth programs to include community centers, schools, retreat centers, health care settings and social action contexts. As a result, rabbis are finding their way to serving in all of these environments. As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies recently observed about this trend, modernity still “values Jewish learning, and recognizes that the difference between a moribund and a dynamic institution can be having a rabbi at the helm.”
Sure. But what makes a rabbi moribund or dynamic?
A rabbi is Chief Spiritual Officer, but isn’t necessarily the most visible leader. Rather, an effective rabbi attunes hearts, minds and souls in whatever context the rabbi serves, then uses tools of Jewish culture and spirituality to nourish, inspire and deploy them for collective good. Sometimes a specific setting relies on a rabbi’s title, what Jack Bloom famously calls a “symbolic exemplar” of sacred authority. To Bloom, the rabbi as “symbolic exemplar” evokes transformation because the rabbi’s words effect change by their mere utterance. (“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”) The ideal rabbinic role, however, is neither symbolic nor titular: rather, the rabbi is a dynamic capacitor modulating the flow of individual and collective spirituality.
Understanding the rabbi as energetic capacitor shifts our question about what Jews need in rabbis. A new kind of answer emerges: Jews most need rabbis to the extent that rabbis fulfill their energetic functions. Critically, a rabbi’s title, learning and visible leadership do not alone discharge these energetic functions. After all, instinctively we know if a rabbi is dynamic or moribund, charged up or low on juice, well wired internally or short-circuiting. We know if a rabbi touches us, changes us or bores us. We know when a rabbi is inwardly real.
It follows that we must ask an even more potent and refined question: what makes for a dynamic, charged up and well-wired rabbi? In my 10 days as an ordained rabbi, I won’t pretend to corner the market on answers to this question. But as I embark on my own rabbinic journey, I offer five aspirations for my own rabbinate, reflecting the ways I believe that rabbis can best serve the deepest needs of 21st century life:
- Rabbis must model our own authentic inner lives. A rabbi who isn’t going anywhere can’t take anyone along. A rabbi stuck inside can’t move anyone. Rabbis must be seekers in our own right, boldly undertaking our own authentic spiritual journeys. In turn, rabbis must cultivate contexts in which it is safe for us to express, in appropriate settings, natural human emotions commensurate with our inner lives. Only as we ourselves recognize and spiritualize our own occasional fear, hurt, grief, doubt, anger and other foibles can we liberate others with permission to do the same.
- Rabbis must be in regular peer supervision, spiritual direction or counseling. As rabbis can wield substantial influence and bear considerable emotional and psycho-spiritual stress, rabbis must have contexts in which to refine ourselves accordingly. Clergy can become inured to or blinded by our roles – unwittingly hiding behind title, influence, power, privilege, control and social deference. The result can be blind spots, inward self-defense and spiritual bypass. Every life faces these dynamics – rabbis aren’t exempt – but rabbis especially must model ways ways to address these dynamics for two reasons. First, what we ourselves cannot do, we cannot help or encourage others to do. Second, precisely because of our roles, we are perhaps even more likely to need assistance seeing ourselves clearly. As Talmud notes (B.T. Berachot 5b), “A prisoner cannot release oneself from prison.” For that reason, for everyone but especially for rabbis, there is no need – and no wisdom in the attempt – to go it alone. Consistent peer review, spiritual direction or counseling can give clergy the reflective space and tools to keep ourselves as fitting vessels for others’ emotional and spiritual unfolding. As a corollary, it follows that rabbis mustn’t be stigmatized for seeking these confidential, supportive and therapeutic professional relationships. In many instances, these aren’t grounds for concern but rather, signs of wisdom and strength that rabbinic employers and Jewish communities should encourage.
- Rabbis must consistently feed the flames of our own learning. A stale rabbi is a stuck rabbi. Rabbis must continuously learn something new and challenge our own skills and assumptions. Ideally rabbis should combine individual study with structured chevruta learning. It’s a shame that, to date, no seminary or movement has adopted the ongoing learning standards of the Alliance for Continuing Rabbinic Education. They should.
- Rabbis must cultivate spiritual leadership beyond ourselves. Says Pirkei Avot (4:1): “Who is honorable? One who honors others.” The rabbinic role is not to monopolize spiritual or pastoral authority, but to cultivate it wisely in others. The rabbinic role is a mentoring role – to lift others up, encourage them, teach them, and then engage in personal tzimtzum (self-contraction) by gracefully making space for others to evolve into leadership appropriate to their own aspirations, gifts and skills.
- Rabbis must remember what business we’re in. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l (of blessed memory) used to say, “It’s okay for a synagogue to be a business – but be sure you know what business you’re in.” The modern rabbinate has become a profession, but like other ethical endeavors, first and foremost the rabbinate is and always must remain a calling. After all, history’s rabbis viewed their rabbinic functions as acts of service, finding earthly remuneration in secular pursuits. Hillel first was a woodchopper, Yochanan ben Zakkai was a businessman, Rav Huna was a cattle farmer, Ravs Chisda and Pappa were brewers, Maimonides was a physician, and Rashi was a vintner. Perhaps times have changed: remuneration, getting and keeping a rabbinic job, and climbing whatever ladder of influence and achievement may call to a rabbi, all can have their proper places. Remaining unchanged, however, is the ethical calling of the rabbinate – the core of the rabbinic heart and soul – that beckons the heart and soul. This is the rabbinic “business” that always must come first, at any expense.
Among my teachers’ most enduring words in ordaining me were these: “Herewith we ordain you … to clarify and pronounce truths in way that make a tikkun (repair) for the Shekhinah (indwelling presence of God). We hereby appoint you as delegates and emissaries, just as those who appointed us delegated us and sent us to be rabbis.” In essence, my teachers proclaimed that tikkun is the existential reason for a rabbinate. In the words of Isaiah 58:12, a rabbi must be a “repairer of the breach, restorer of paths to dwell in,” and conduit for spiritual flow in whatever context we serve.
That’s a path worthy of a rabbinic calling and life of service. That’s the rabbinate that Jews most need today.
On January 4, my family and I were privileged to attend the final Broadway performance of the revival of Pippin, one of Stephen Schwartz’s wonderful musicals. I had not seen it before. It’s the story of a well-educated young prince who, after university, embarks on a search for a meaningful life. He tries being a soldier and being king, and he tries living on a farm. None of it seems to work. He finally realizes that it is the mundane life on the farm with a woman he loves, and her young son, that is the meaningful life.
The day after we saw Pippin, David Brooks published a column discussing the modern search for meaning, and asserting that “Meaningfulness tries to replace moral systems with the emotional corona that surrounds acts of charity.” He says today’s seekers of meaning are looking only for a feeling they call meaning, and contrasts them with those who lived meaningful lives in the past, who “subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.”
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman responded last week on this blog, discussing the way Judaism’s moral system and meaningfulness go together. Rabbi Mitelman, like me, lives mostly in the religiously liberal Jewish world, and he mentions in his piece how important it is, for liberal Jews especially, for their religious practice to be meaningful to them.
I teach my congregants that, as practitioners of Reform Judaism, they are obligated to observe the ethical commandments of Jewish law, but are not obligated to follow the ceremonial or ritual commandments. However, it is incumbent on us to learn about the latter types of commandments, and take on those that we find add meaning and holiness to our lives.
The challenge of this is that some practices could potentially bring holiness and meaning to people’s lives, but do not do so the first time one tries them. It can take years of, well, practice, before a practice like meditation or communal worship feels meaningful. Some activities may feel initially awkward or difficult, and therefore may not feel meaningful immediately, like visiting the sick or paying shiva calls, or the hard work of social action (these would qualify as mandatory commandments for Reform Jews). If we are searching for meaning, it is worth our while to commit to a moral and ethical system, and to practices, that others have found meaningful, even if they don’t feel meaningful to us at first. We might seek out people who seem similar to us in temperament or spirituality, and engage with some of the practices that work for them. Then we need to trust that the meaning will eventually come.
In other words, searching for meaning in each experience may not be the most effective way to find meaning. Perhaps we need something that is discussed far less in most liberal Jewish circles than meaningfulness: faith. We need to have faith that some of the morals, ethics, and practices that have led to meaningfulness for others can do that for us too. We need to have faith that if it doesn’t feel meaningful today, it can someday, if we keep with it. Then, like Pippin, we may find that the meaning we’re searching for comes through our day-to-day work to improve the world, and through our rituals, routines, and relationships.
A few days ago, David Brooks wrote an article entitled “The Problem of Meaning.” In our society today, and especially in more liberal Jewish circles, “meaning” has become a high value. We want our prayer services to be “meaningful,” we want our social justice activities to be “meaningful,” we want our text study to be “meaningful.”
But, as Brooks notes, meaning can potentially be very self-centered. It is often less about making our world better and more about making ourselves feel better. As he says,
If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.
In other words, “feeling good” is not enough to drive our lives — and Judaism would agree. Our goal in life is not simply to feel warm and fuzzy inside, it’s to repair our world. If that’s the case, morality, not meaning, should guide us.
The challenge is that while meaning is certainly subjective, morality is also not completely objective, either. Different people place different priorities on different values. So what are we to do?
Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger, in his book Our Religious Brains: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Belief, Morality, Community and Our Relationship with God, suggests the following:
There must be a best way to construct human morality, though people may never fully agree what that way is…To guide our lives we must rely on some specific cultural synthesis. We “hop” to Judaism or Christianity…believing that in the process we can live largely moral lives. Lest we be paralyzed by uncertainty and indecision, we live as if our set of moral values captures absolute right and wrong, knowing, though, that as a human system, a cultural expression, it may at best come close to that ideal.
So even if we don’t know with certainty what “the right thing to do” would be, we still have to live by principles. And if that’s how we look at morality, that’s where meaning can come back into the equation.
Meaning, at its core, is how we make sense of the world. It allows us to figure out what our lives and our world “mean.” If we view meaning in this way, then our morality, even if it is imperfect, truly is a form of “meaningfulness.”
Yes, meaning can be fluff — or, as Brooks phrased it, “the NutraSweet of the inner life.” But it can also be the driver to a more just and more peaceful society, because it is what allows us to discover how we can best bring our gifts and talents in the service of our world.
If we are looking to better ourselves and our world, morality might be more important. But meaning might be more effective.
Girl About Town. Toxic Tale. Heroine. Flat Out Fabulous. Sweet and Sour. Stunner.
Unchanging. Gospel. Zen Rose. Love Temple. Divine Choice.
Tribalist. No Faux Pas.
Up the Amp.
Lipstick colors at the Mac Cosmetic kiosk, where I watched my daughter try forty different shades.
Bored, I looked around, hoping to people watch. A middle-aged Woman About Town caught my eye, and said, “I have a Mac Gift card. Would you like to use it?”
Intrigued, I asked for more information. And heard a Toxic Tale. Just completed a Ph.D. $40,000 in debt. Received a gift card, but can’t justify expensive makeup. Since I was shopping at Mac, would I buy the card for cash?
Sure, I said – an easy way to be a Heroine.
I asked about her Ph.D. thesis, and sympathized with the long process.
“Are you an academic?” she asked. Yes, I’m a Jew teaching at a Christian seminary.
Did I know about Rabbi Shapira, a charismatic Israeli Messianic Jewish teacher? Hundreds come to hear him speak. After all, Jesus appears throughout the Old Testament, she said, referring to the Christian practice of “typology” — identifying veiled hints to Jesus in the Hebrew prophets.
Ah! She thought I was a Christian Jew.
For her, an awkward financial transaction had become a Flat Out Fabulous spiritual encounter.
And, though I am not Christian, I did not correct her, because I also liked the feeling of our encounter.
Even though, really, this was a Sweet and Sour moment. Sweet: because two spiritual seekers connected. Because she felt we reached towards the same God. Sour: because the language she chose assumed that her theology is the one we share. For her, all religions express a universally human hope for Christ’s kingdom on earth.
This was also a Stunner of a moment: because I realized that I make a similar assumption.
My theology is Kabbalistic. God is “Eyn Sof,” infinite Divine Energy, a single substance expressed in everything a person can experience: matter, emotions, and ideas. Religious ideas, too, express the one Infinite God. All religious ideas point to this One God. All religious people want only to feel God’s presence everywhere.
For me, interfaith encounters are easy to accept, as long as I can translate them into my theology.
Am I really a Girl About Town? Maybe not.
The next day, I sought help from the Journal of Inter-religious Studies (vol. 13, Feb. 2014). Nine articles list many ways interfaith dialogue can go wrong. People who know little about their own religion’s teachings can try to discuss, defend, and compare. Teachers with local religious education can misrepresent a living global tradition by presenting a single, official theology. Highly learned theologians might teach patriarchal views, ignoring the lived experience of women. Any person of good will can assume that all religions are fundamentally the same – the same as theirs, to be precise.
Yes, I’ve been guilty of them all. Limited knowledge, denominationalism, unwitting sexism, reductionism.
But now I get it. Forty shades of Mac, forty shades of religion. Don’t be a Tribalist. No Faux Pas, please.
The synchronicity is unbearable. Unchanging. Gospel. Zen Rose. Love Temple. Divine Choice. You can’t reduce these to a single colour. Even if you, personally, can only wear one.
My task is to be more like my shopping daughter. Note each colour. Put it in context. Observe carefully. Realize it takes time.
It’s time to Up the Amp on my ecumenism. Which, coincidentally, is the lipstick shade I bought.
Photo credits: Hillary Kaplan and Laura Duhan Kaplan
“Merry Christmas,” we’ve heard for weeks.
For Jews living in predominantly Christian societies, Christmas evokes responses ranging from joy to alienation. Some Jews encounter Christmas as a civic winter holiday for all, when grace and good cheer help sooth the social soul. Others experience the Christmas season as a time to tolerate excess consumerism, or feel that society’s adoption of this Christian holiday leaves Jews at the curb. Some Jews feel about Christmas much like Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “Bah humbug.”
So what’s a Jew to do? Some write music: half of the top Christmas carols were composed by Jews. Others honor “Jewish tradition” of Chinese food and a movie. Even more traditional is recourse to humor. Spoof codes of halacha (Jewish law) now explicate the tradition of Chinese and a movie; a whole Hilchot Christmas arose to guide Jewish life amidst mistletoe-laden office parties and Christmas consumerism. Naturally for Talmudic exegesis, these fake legal codes have competing versions and even more competing versions.
Healthy humor aside, occasional Jewish humbug at Christmas is no laughing matter: it’s worthy of serious reflection.
The birth of Jesus is for many Christians the purest form of divine grace: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). While in Christendom Jesus’ birth evokes “grace and truth,” to some Jews the idea is foreign (God becomes incarnate), alienating (recalling history’s proselytism and forced conversion), and threatening (recalling condemnation as “Christ killers”). On the other hand, many modern Christians embrace Christmas only with the loving and angelic hope of “Peace on earth, good will toward all” (Luke 2:14).
Grace, truth, peace and good will – what could be bad? What’s more, these Christmas values are no less Jewish. Atop Mount Sinai, Moses heard God speak Thirteen Attributes of divinity, firstly that God is rachum v’chanun (merciful and gracious) (Ex. 34:6). Shalom v’rei’ut (peace and good will) are traditional blessings for newly wedded Jewish couples. The Amidah liturgy of Sim Shalom evokes all of these values: “Grant peace everywhere, goodness and blessing, grace, loving kindness and mercy to us and all Israel, Your people. Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of Your countenance. For by Your light You have given us a Torah of life, loving kindness, righteousness and blessing, mercy and life and peace.”
Grace, truth, peace and good will – Christmas values, and also Jewish values. So if core values of Christmas beckon the Jewish heart, why kvetch over Christmas? If a Jew feels left out of the Christmas party, then what’s a Jew to do?
Modernity’s leading apostle of inter-religious understanding, Raimon Panikkar, teaches that religions are reality maps whose symbolic stories, while particular to individual faith traditions, embed spiritual functions that are transcendent. When we identify a spiritual function common to different religions, we can better navigate another religion’s reality map using the spiritual compass of our own. In Panikkar’s thinking, the function of divine grace on the Jewish reality map is much the same one that inspires Christmas for Christians, even if its dogmatic setting and language are different. Thus, even if some Jews don’t resonate with the Christmas narrative of God made flesh, Jews can intuit the spiritual function of grace – using how Jewish tradition embeds grace – and in that way journey authentically with Christians celebrating Christmas. Jews and Christians can use this same approach to intuit how purification and renewal serve similar spiritual functions on the Christian reality maps of Good Friday and Easter as they do on the Jewish reality maps of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Traditions and holidays are not interchangeable – a Jew is a Jew, and a Christian is a Christian – but spiritual functions of these traditions are mutually intelligible. That’s no accident: transcendence is the aim of all religion and spirituality. In Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s words, “Religion is not reality, but only a pointer to the infinite … Don’t confuse the pointer for the point.”
Today’s pointer happens to be Christmas – but the point is grace, truth, peace and good will for all.
So to Christian readers, may grace and peace enfold you as you gather with loved ones for traditional Christmas celebrations. And to Jewish readers, may grace and peace enfold you as you gather with loved ones for traditional Chinese and a movie.
Christmas trees are for sale on every corner, it seems, bringing the scent of the woods to the streets of Brooklyn. Christmas lights adorn streets and houses, and carols play in all the stores. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” has earwormed into my head. I’m remembering last year, when my Harry Potter-loving family attended a seasonal event, the Harry Potter Yule Ball. The Yule Ball is an all-ages rock ‘n’ roll show that comes out of a movement of fans of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The crowd was mostly people in their 20s and 30s, a few of us in our 40s or older, and some kids like mine—young teens and tweens. We didn’t go because it was Christmas-y, but because it was Harry Potter-y.
A number of years ago, some fans formed a band called Harry and the Potters, and this began a genre that is called Wizard Rock, or Wrock. It now includes quite a large number of bands, some of which performed at the ball. Their music is what I would call midrash on Harry Potter. It takes the perspective of characters in the books, exploring their thoughts and lives. One example is singer Lauren Fairweather, who writes songs like “Maybe,” which is from the perspective of character Severus Snape.
There was fan-created merchandise at the Yule Ball, and information about the Harry Potter Alliance, a social justice organization that has brought together Harry Potter fans (and, later, Hunger Games fans too) to work for equality, human rights, and literacy.
It was my first experience with Harry Potter fandom and the midrash it has generated. Among the millions of fans of J.K. Rowling’s work, there are a subset for whom the Harry Potter saga has deep resonance. They were the ones performing, and the ones who were there that night. My family had gone on a whim, but there were others for whom the evening was meaningful in a profound way.
At the end of the night, the final song Harry and the Potters performed was “The Weapon (We Have is Love).” To my surprise, the fans standing around the stage put their arms around one another as they swayed and sang passionately along.
I suddenly felt that I was witnessing the birth of a religion. It had familiar elements: a sacred scripture, interpretation of that scripture, a social action component. Its adherents are emotionally involved with it and feel a sense of community with each other. There are differences from most of the established religions, too: There’s no deity to try to figure out, and no history of oppressing others or being oppressed in the name of the religion.
The theology is very basic—at least at this point. The primary motivator is love: Harry’s mother’s love that saved him from Voldemort as a baby; Snape’s love for Harry’s mother; Harry’s love for Sirius Black and his friends, which ultimately allows him to triumph over Voldemort. Fans take the idea of this fierce, life-saving and life-altering love and apply it to their version of what many Jews would call tikkun olam, repairing the world.
I imagine that 500 years from now a deity might have developed, as well as separate denominations of Potterism—Snapians and Harrians, most likely. After all, it seems that that’s what religions do: they form, and after maybe 100 years, they split into different groups because there are different ideas of how to do it right. I don’t think that even a religion based on “the weapon that we have is love” would be different. And that’s okay. I would hope that the Harrians and Snapians would recognize one another’s Potterism as authentic, even if it’s not their preferred way of practicing their religion.
Probably I’m just making this up, and this fan movement won’t develop into a religion. I expect that many of the Harry Potter fans would be angry that I would even say that it could. But that was my feeling in that moment at the end of the Yule Ball, and it was beautiful to see the inspiration, the love and joy, the simplicity, and to imagine that the beginning of my religion, Judaism, was that way too.
I am a person particularly affected by sunlight, aware of a shift in my body and mood that coincides with the shift back to Standard Time in late fall. Introspective in the darker season, I engage in my inward stretch more than in than my outward reach. I seem to sit on ideas in winter and hatch them in spring.
Walking home in the dark last evening, I found myself thinking rather vaguely about projects I am gestating, enjoying this amorphous moment in my own creative process, experiencing my internal rhythm as synchronistic with our sacred calendar. We’re a week and more into Kislev, our darkest month. The proportion of darkness to light will continue to rise until the winter solstice, which will occur during Hanukkah. Then the tide will turn and our daylight hours will begin to increase again.
The name of our month shares a Hebrew root with a biblical word for trust – “kislah.” I like to think that during Kislev we are invited to trust that just as our babies develop in our dark and fertile wombs, so, too, our thoughts and innovations incubate in our generative interior selves. We are not privy to what is germinating in us but we trust it will emerge whole and healthy. Our dark month can prompt us to cultivate patience with the maturation of a formative spark as it goes underground and roots in the rich dark of the subconscious where we seek solutions in privacy even from ourselves.
Our “kislah” is trust in the miraculous way we continuously nourish ideas we cannot yet articulate, until our ideas and strategies are ready to reveal themselves as shaped products of our ingenuity. That’s when they come to light.
In this particular moment of Ferguson’s grand jury decision, terror during the prayer at Har Nof, ISIS slaughter of innocents, and the vandalizing of the Max Rayne Hand in Hand school, I’ve been feeling the tug of hopelessness. Darkness of a sinister sort is brewing in our world and I am unable to imagine how I can make a difference. I think I would fall to despair if I did not trust that somewhere beneath my surface good and divinely inspired ideas for tikkun olam are constantly brewing.
Living these darkening weeks aware that I associate darkness with the fertile unknown that holds potential for all possibilities helps me remember the merit of equanimity; innovations take time to coalesce and emerge. Living Kislev as if it was a pregnancy is helping me to trust that I am gestating answers perpetually nourished by the stream of divine light indwelling within me, and to trust that light is, miraculously, always growing in my darkness.
Thanksgiving beckons loved ones together to count blessings and honor journeys toward freedom and plenty. Whether our ancestors traveled to these shores from afar or already resided here, our forebears began new lives somewhere else. They placed foundation stones in new worlds, and their dreams for the future fueled them up and down new ladders of social and economic mobility.
Perhaps Plymouth Rock doesn’t mark their exact landing spot, but the Pilgrims who reached the Massachusetts coast in 1620 still personify Thanksgiving’s legacy of dream and journey. Much the same legacy of dream and journey also descends to us from the Bible’s Jacob, whose story of foundation stone and ladder anchor this week’s Torah portion (Vayetzei). The synergies between the two – between the Pilgrims and Jacob, between Plymouth Rock and Jacob’s rock – invite us to reflect on how dreams, journeys, foundations and gratitude shape us on this Thanksgiving day.
No doubt the Pilgrims identified with Jacob’s story. Jacob left his home, journeyed to a new place and stopped there for the night. His story continues (Gen. 28:12-19):
Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were ascending and descending on it. God was beside him and said, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and your offspring.…’ Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it!’ Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than Beth El (House of God), the gateway to heaven.’ Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head, set it up as a pillar and poured oil on it.
Like Jacob, the Pilgrims journeyed to a new world and landed when and where nature brought them. They believed that God brought them to that place and gifted them land where others resided. They imagined this land to be holy, a gateway to a new heaven. In this new land, they would climb a new ladder of freedom and opportunity. For their children, the Pilgrims even created a Jacob’s Ladder toy to honor a Biblical reference that undoubtedly resonated with their own narrative.
The marker stone that moderns call Plymouth Rock, like the marker stone Jacob raised in tribute to his ladder dream, is not only symbolic but also theurgic – evoking God, memory and meaning. The stone pillow under Jacob’s head became a stone pillar of prayer and foundation stone for what Jacob called “Beth El” – House of God. The place we call the Mayflower’s landing site in Plymouth became “Plymouth Rock” and the foundation stone for a whole new civilization – what John Winthrop would call in 1630 a “City Upon a Hill” to shine as a beacon of hope and light for all humanity.
Fast forward to modern-day America. Today’s dreams and markers perhaps are less heady than the days of Pilgrim’s Progress and Jacob’s first Beth El. Even so, it it too much to hope that anywhere we lay our heads or lay a stone marker can be Beth El – a House of God? Is it too much to hope that everywhere can be a landing place for dreams and ascents, no less than for Jacob and the Pilgrims? Is it too much to hope that our own cities can become beacons of hope and light as much as Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill”?
Thanksgiving celebrates and ignites these hopes – and also reminds us that hope isn’t enough. As families gather for Thanksgiving, many millions live amidst poverty, hunger, war and disease. As long as freedom and prosperity are blessings only for some, the shared dream of Jacob and the Pilgrims will remain unfulfilled. As long as want and fear continue by our own hands, both our civic foundation and our spiritual foundation – the proverbial rock of Beth El – will remain shaky beneath our feet.
Only when we roll up our sleeves and make universal the blessings we honor on Thanksgiving will the true meaning of Plymouth Rock and Jacob’s Rock become fully real for us. Only then will Beth El – the House of God – truly be uplifted as a “house … for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
We have all seen some great Vaudeville or movie clip of someone being caught unaware, getting acquainted with a 2 x 4 delivered straight to the noggin.
And as amusing as those scenes can be (my favorite may be with Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain). I think they hit our funny bones because (I am pretty sure) we have all been bonked in the head or the backside a number of times—and often when we aren’t really paying attention, either. Maybe because we are taking ourselves, and our lives, too seriously.
And this was a 2 x 4 week for me. A dear, old friend died. He had been a close colleague of my father, and Bill and his wife populate the landscape of my earliest memories. She always chipper, and he a marvelous mix of wisdom and belly laughs, a serious countenance and kind, gentle heart. They have always been what I call 2-o’clock-in-the-morning friends. The ones you can call any day or in the middle of the night, walk directly to the front door, and find them on the front step. The ones with whom you just pick up a conversation like it was yesterday—even if it had been months since you spoke.
So what is the 2 x 4? Simply that not only will he not be here, I cannot be there for him. And I wish I had done more. I think this is something many of us experience, whether or not we can even articulate what more we would like to have done. I’m not sure that the details matter, really, since we cannot go back in time. It would be easy for us to chastise ourselves about not making one more phone call, or one more visit. But I fear that response has the potential to keep us focused on ourselves and cast a shadow on our memories and even the relationship.
When I think of all that this fine man has meant to me, I cannot bear to taint my memories with negative thoughts. I would far prefer to stand solid, take the 2 x 4 full on the forehead – and awaken to the wisdom he shared with me.
And the wisdom? It was simple. Live, and strive, and take things seriously, and always look for the blessings and the humor in things. To do, and be, and share, and love with all the generosity we have, which is boundless. To do what our souls most need us to do even in the midst of challenges. And to laugh. And laugh again. In other words: to live well.
Along with my congregational duties, I serve as a hospice chaplain. In both of those roles, as you well know or can imagine, I am at all times close to death and dying. And to be very honest, I have yet to accompany anyone to her last breath who says she wishes she judged herself more harshly, or lived more sparely, or loved less.
So here is another 2 x 4: without exception, those who live well, with awareness of their blessings and the idea that they could be blessings to others, die well, as Bill did. They pass without regrets. I am grateful that their souls warmed and strengthened mine, and I feel that when I share my soul with others, the neshamot (souls) of all whom I have accompanied go with me into the world, transferred to others through my heart and hands. And I am reminded of the teachings of our tradition: we never know the effect we will have on others, now or in generations to come. Which is another wake-up call in itself.
How amazing it is to stand in any one moment knowing we are carrying the wisdom and love of those whom we have loved, and who have loved us. And how strange it is that so easily forget! Perhaps by keeping this in mind we can go back in time, and bring the best of our loved ones forward, forging a new relationship with them and the world, and get down to the very serious wonder of living in love and joy.
Now go ahead and click on the Donald O’Connor link above.
You know you want to : ]
Two Israelis were stabbed last week, Israeli military and police response has continued, and leaders within Fatah have begun talking about a third intifada. There’s no rational response to the heartbreak and fear the Jewish people are feeling right now toward circumstances that threaten our connection to a place we call home. Indeed, we are a people who has historically been forced, in a state of fear, to flee from land to land, deprived of the luxury to think of any place as home.
Today in the US, not only the Jewish friends I have, but also most people I am in contact with, no longer move from place to place out of fear, but propelled by promises of prosperity, or perhaps by the force of history. Whether I am in Israel, or in the US, I feel the pain of being uprooted again, and again. Of not being indigenous to any of the lands I’ve lived on, nor knowing any longer what “home” means. Having just moved to a new city, I am grieving the people and places I will forget as I depart for a new place and meet new people.
This week, in Parashat Toldot, we read that Isaac is thriving, despite losing contact with his father after Abraham attempts to sacrifice him on a mountain. The Torah says, “Isaac sowed in [the] land and reaped a hundredfold the same year” (Gen 26:12). But one day, as Isaac tries to get water for his household, he finds that “the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham” have been stopped up with earth. Then king Abimelech tells him to go away (26:15-16). This, according to commentator Nehama Leibowitz, is “the first expulsion” of the Jewish people, foreshadowing millennia of exile, persecution and wandering. Our feelings of uprootedness start here.
Powerfully, however, Isaac does not flee. Instead, he settles there and “dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham.” A midrash sees Isaac’s act of uncovering the wells as representative of yishuv ha’olam, settling more deeply into his world. Not only does he redig these wells, but “he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Gen 26:18). In his act of naming, Isaac places himself in relationship with his estranged father, and the history of his family in that particular land.
According to psychological research, “The more children [know] about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Despite all our displacement, this research tells us that in order to thrive, we need to reclaim our sense of belonging – wherever we are. Can we, like Isaac, begin to uncover the wells of our ancestors? How do we settle more deeply into the feeling that we belong, whether we consider ourselves to be living in a promised land, diaspora, or exile?
As we drink the water from these wells, the stories of our ancestors give us perspective on our daily experience. Learning these stories, we become more resilient. For me the water is the book of midrash my great-great grandfather wrote, the journal my great-aunt kept, and the family tree my mother has been assembling. As I open the covers of these wells, I prepare to nourish my roots, and ground myself more deeply in the soil of this moment of my life.